When I woke up, all I could think of was the name Robert Brown. It had been threaded throughout a long dream mostly unrelated to Robert Brown.1
I was at a performance of a long play.2 During a break I ate with two handsome men my age who looked and sounded interesting. Did they notice me?
I went to the cash register and found it in the dark underground. I overheard the cashier berating someone.
Somehow my aunt had a large student loan that she hadn’t needed, and I was to pay it on her behalf. Before I could tell the cashier my business, she started belittling my aunt and accusing her of fraud and theft (maybe I had already told her my business since she knew what it was?) When she took a break, I told her who I am. She didn’t react, but she stopped ranting.
I kept thinking I had left my dishes in boxes on the back steps, but I didn’t recommend this for others because of animals. Mine would be safe for unknown reasons. I went outside for dishes and saw that the steps led to the lake, which lapped at the bottom, and overlooked a great city on the other side. I marveled as I realized I lived in this place and could go down these steps any time, although now they were icy, wet, and treacherous. I went back up them carefully, afraid to step into the lake water and feeling like what I’d seen was an illusion, a mirage.
All the while “Robert Brown” kept running through my head.
1 Robert Brown, born under the far more interesting name Robin Adair MacKenzie Brown, played “Lazarus” on the Star Trek episode, “The Alternative Factor.” Famously, he was a last-minute choice after John Barrymore, Jr., failed to appear.
2 This may come from my attendance a few years ago at All Our Tragic, an adaptation of all the Greek tragedies into one 12-hour play. Hypocrites’ effort won six Jeff Awards.
The adventure began with an email from Openlands about “Paddle the Lake Michigan Water Trail” events in the far north suburbs (Ray Bradbury country). JB and I had gone to one of these a couple of years ago in Jackson Park. Wilderness Inquiry owns the canoes, and they bring paddling to people who wouldn’t have much opportunity, like city kids and the disabled (which I am when it comes to getting into and out of a canoe). They had a life preserver large enough for me (impressive!) and were patient with my difficulties.
We paddled around the lagoon, seeing a great blue heron take off from shore at canoe level. It’s a different world from a canoe, where you’re less of an outsider/intruder and more one with the water—even if you can’t swim. You’re almost like a bird yourself, maybe a loon bobbing on the water.
The Jackson Park paddle was cut a little short by choppiness coming into the lagoon from Lake Michigan, but we were out for a while, probably at least 45 minutes, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the kids (and maybe an adult or two) were paddled out. We’re not hardy voyageurs, after all.
On Sunday it took about 30 to 40 minutes longer than it should have to get to Illinois Beach State Park thanks to a 4th of July parade in Waukegan that had closed down an extensive stretch of Rte. 137, which is the only practical way into the park. By then of course I had to find a restroom.
After those preliminaries, a conservation office pointed us toward Openlands’ tent by the lake, but we discovered we should have followed the “free canoe rides” sign pointing mysteriously inland, as it turned out the lake was too choppy for beginner paddling. We hightailed it west across the parking lot and down a service road and found the canoes at a pond by the campground.
We were just in time for the last paddle of the day. Wilderness Inquiry’s largest life jacket still fits me. Yippee! Enough people arrived after us to fill a canoe. I even managed to get in without too much struggle, thanks to the setup. So far, so good.
Just as we were scootching around to balance weight side to side and settling in, it started to rain, slowly at first, but soon with bigger drops coming down faster. That’s okay, they told us. We can go out in the rain as long as there’s not lightning. They asked if anyone wanted out. To all our credit, no one moved (not that I could!) or spoke up. Soon the cloud either moved on or emptied out because the brief downpour ended as abruptly as it had begun.
This pond, which I had not known about, is big enough to paddle but not too big for beginners or small children. We went around it perhaps three times, giving us a chance to practice turning and stopping (JB and I are pretty good at this by now). As we started out, a fish leaped out of the water and fell back before I could get a good look. Our trip leader told us the pond is full of bass. It was also surrounded by male red-winged blackbirds on slightly better behavior than they’d shown earlier in the spring. I mentioned that in Chicago frustrated residents have been known to call the police on the territorial birds. I don’t think there’s such a thing as “wing cuffs.”
Meanwhile, I was keeping an eye on the darkening western sky, even as the east remained bright. We returned to shore, and I got out with some extra time and a helping shoulder to lean on. (I feel pressured because anyone forward of me has to wait for me, although they were patient, too.) We chatted with one of the Wilderness Inquiry guys, who is hoping to go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, then finally left.
As we walked down the service road, we stopped to take a few photos of the flowers and a monarch who was landing selectively on a couple of butterfly weed plants. I still watched the “gathering gloom” and suddenly decided an expedited march to the car might be warranted just as thunder boomed. Moments later the temperature plummeted dramatically from the low to mid 90s. We made it just as the skies opened up with a thicker, more sustained downpour accented by sporadic thunder and lightning. We joined a lot of beachgoers in fleeing the park. What perfect timing all around, despite the late start, the parade detour, the pit stop, and the mini-hike to the pond.
We rewarded ourselves with coffee and a brownie at It’s All Good, but the restaurant we wanted to go to had no power. Plan B was a family Mexican restaurant and so home. My kind of day.
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J. and I headed to the Calumet area, specifically Deadstick Pond near Lake Calumet. There’s no public access I can see, and a fence separates the area around Lake Calumet from the frontage road parallel to I-94, Doty Avenue. Collected against the fence is trash—tons of trash. I envision hordes of high school students and adult volunteers spending a few hours a few weekends cleaning up the accumulated trash along the fences at Lake Calumet and Deadstick Pond. The area seems so little traveled that no one may notice, but it’d be a small step toward restoring a semblance of beauty to the area—as long as it isn’t trashed again.
The Calumet area, for many years the center of Chicago’s steel industry, carries an eerie air of a transition zone. Stony Island, a broad, heavily traveled avenue through Hyde Park, South Shore, and other communities, turns into a two-lane, potholed, unmaintained road flanked by tall grasses, nascent parks like Big Marsh, landfills, and the occasional industrial-style building and parking lot. There’s not a house to be seen, nor any sign of a neighborhood.
Eventually, the avenue that further north boasts restaurants, stores, churches, hospitals, and other urban fixtures dwindles down to a cracked, littered pavement that ends abruptly short of a curve of the Calumet River. Traveling down Stony Island can feel like a ride on a time machine toward a future apocalypse, when industry’s mark is visible but faded, and nature is slowly creeping back through the piles of plastic bags and bottles. It’s like the end and beginning of the world.
As J. carefully navigated the potholes, a few cars and trucks sped past at speed—in a hurry to get to who knows where. We stopped on the roadside at Deadstick Pond and peered through the vegetation and fence for a peek at some ducks bobbing along among gray snags. There may have been swans, or plastic bags masquerading as swans.
Next we found Hegewisch Marsh, where he parked by the rail bridge and we wandered down a rough road parallel to the tracks. Many ducks floated on the open water while their passerine counterparts flitted about the bare trees. Along the way I found a lot of scat, most loaded with fur. The open areas connected by the river, rail lines, streets and bridges, along with wildlife-rich marshes, must be coyote havens. I hoped one was following us with its amber eyes as we tread on its territory.
Rail bridge near Hegewisch Marsh
We stopped at Flatfoot Lake in Beaubien Woods, also off I-94, which roars over the otherwise serene setting.
Flatfoot Lake with I-94 beyond the tree line
Flatfoot Lake pier
On a satellite map, Lake Calumet, the largest lake within Chicago, looks artificial. I couldn’t guess its original contours. It’s surrounded by nearly empty, decaying streets, the occasional vast building, the ceaseless noise of a busy interstate, and other trappings of modern dreams. There are other dreams, though. The Lake Calumet Vision Committee has a dream for the Calumet region that includes biking, jogging, paddling, and sailing, along with a trail connecting the Pullman National Monument to the young Big Marsh Park—potentially 500 acres of new habitat. It’s going to take time, and it can’t happen fast enough for me.
Now if we could only do something about the roar of I-94.
Let’s talk about the relic that’s helped to bring us countless words of wisdom—in more than 144 characters at a time. Yes, today’s relic is the typewriter.
I still have the typewriter that got me through the final years of high school, then college—a Royal Sabre portable, complete with manual (it’s around somewhere, although the key to the typewriter case likely has gone missing). When I moved in 2003, I started to put it outdoors for the neighborhood scavengers, but couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. It was one of the most expensive gifts from my reluctant parents.
Why the Royal Sabre? I don’t remember where we bought it. We would have looked at discount stores like K-mart or perhaps Ames, where I’d picked out my Huffy Superstar 10-speed bicycle. We’d have looked at quality and price. My thrifty dad, who’d turned 16 in 1929, didn’t believe in throwing away good money on poor quality (or generic store brands, unless they’d proven themselves). Because of the store’s nature, there wouldn’t have been much of a selection. I don’t recall the price, but I’d guess about $80 to $90. (Incidentally, this is the price I remember for the Huffy Superstar.)
As a portable typewriter, the Royal Sabre was noisy. The keys striking the platen solidly made quite a racket, especially when a poor, erratic like me was in front of the keyboard. My bad habit of typing during the wee hours began in high school, when Mr. Verrault’s papers were due Monday morning. I’m embarrassed now to admit that, in a single-wide, 55-foot-long trailer, on Sunday nights/Monday mornings I was at it until after midnight. Forty years later I can’t tell you how late, but later than suited my early-to-bed, early-to-rise parents. Oddly, I don’t recall much criticism from them for keeping them up. (Of course, my dad could have slept through the Apocalypse.) If he were convinced something was necessary for my education and future independence, my dad would go along as best he could. Of course the procrastination wasn’t necessary—hence my guilty conscience 40 years later!
At college, I found many of my fellow students were more affluent and had electric models, which I considered decadent (I’d told my mother the same thing about electric can openers). I learned I had a fixed number of computer hours per quarter, but playing the text-based Adventure seemed easier than learning to write/type without a program. Although I had a vague idea about computers from Star Trek (for example, oddly computers sound like Nurse Chapel), in practice they were a new and mysterious beast to me.
Then, as now, typing was the last step in the writing process. At 3 a.m., I was writing the paper longhand in pencil on notebook paper in the dorm lounge. At 6 a.m., I was typing the pages slowly on the faithful Royal Sabre. At 9 a.m., I was finishing proofing and marking errors or retyping if needed. At 9:55 I was running madly up several flights of faux-Gothic stairs (or waiting impatiently for an elevator) to meet a 10 a.m. deadline. By then I would have had some wild hallucinations from fatigue and panic. The Royal Sabre would go back into its hard plastic case, and I would go to bed, too tired and wound up to sleep.
One of my college professors—I don’t recall which—sternly forbade the use of erasable typewriter paper. The finish made it easy to erase mistakes, but it was friendly to neither pen nor pencil. He was so adamant that he would threaten to knock your grade down or refuse the paper if you dared to defy his prohibition. For someone like me—with portable typewriter, subpar typing skills, no correction key, and no budget for different kinds of paper, this seemed excessive.
At some point my dad’s sister Marietta acquired a word processor, and several years after college so did I—a Smith-Corona. It had some built-in storage and some kind of external storage. When I first got it, I spent a happy afternoon playing with the different setups and type wheels, and practicing my typing speed. Suddenly it was dark, and I realized hours had passed while I was blissfully unaware. I used the Smith-Corona for resumés (for all the good that did me) and some correspondence. I’m not sure how I used it, just that it mostly supplanted the Royal Sabre. I don’t think I used it much because it was large and heavy, and I was lazy about getting it out and setting it up. It was also hard to write and edit on the three-line(?) screen.
When it was in semi-regular use, the Royal Sabre never needed repair that I recall. Help was hand nearby, however, if required. A-Active (named to appear at or near the top of telephone directory listings—another relic) Business Machines operated in Hyde Park, first on 57th Street, then at 1633 East 55th, where I remember passing it. I never went in, but the ancient Underwood(?) in the window would catch my eye. The last ad I could find in the Hyde Park Herald for A-Active is dated July 6, 1994—which was probably about the time I brought home my first computer, a Macintosh Classic II borrowed from work.
The Classic was followed by a series of Apple laptops, and the Smith-Corona word processor faded from favor as I was sucked into eWorld and America Online. When I moved in 2003, I debated with myself over keeping the Smith Corona. Unlike the Royal Sabre, it ended up in the alley, its fate to be forever unknown to me.
In a previous, early work life, sometimes I used a typewriter, likely an IBM Selectric model. When the proofing business was slow, I might help with filling out forms. If I remember right, one or two typewriters had been dedicated to and set up for this task. I don’t recall details (probably to preserve my emotional health), but I’m sure it was a lot of fun to line up everything and hit the magic correction key when the mind or finger slipped as they often did, or start over if things went way south—as they often did. I’m sure I saw the correction key as a technological marvel. I’m pretty sure computerization and automation of forms became big business as soon as introduced.
Every now and then (more then than now), I play with Hanxwriter, a typewrite simulator for Apple devices inspired by actor Tom Hanks. If you want to spend more money, you can “buy” typewriters from the “Signature Collection,” like Hanx Prime Select, Hanx 707 (the closest to the Royal Sabre’s shower stall green), Hanx Golden Touch, Hanx Del Sol, Hanx Electrix, or Hanx Matterhorn. Despite the “now and then” above, I finally bought all. Hanxwriter can save documents as PDFs only, not text—so, like typewritten pages, Hanxwriter pages are not easily edited. There’s something amusing about that.
The Royal Sabre weighs more than even heavy laptops, and from the start I thought the handle on the case was too flimsy for the weight. It’s stood the test of time, however, and as far as I know the typewriter would still work with a fresh ribbon. Surprisingly, ribbons are available for many typewriters, including the Royal Sabre. I tell myself that someday I’m going to get one and try out my computer-improved typing skills, although I doubt they’re better on a machine where you have to depress each key with an impressive force—hence the beauty of those “decadent” IBM Selectrics. Someday.
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I don’t see signs about wildlife very often, although this one at Windigo, Isle Royale National Park, warns unsuspecting visitors about the island’s less famous, thieving canine. What do the red foxes of Isle Royale do with the car keys and hiking boots they purloin?
This sign, at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve near Morton Arboretum, exhorts you not to panic if Wild Fido follows you. He’s simply giving you an escort through his domain. If this task makes him snappish, simply throw clumps of dirt at the ground by his feet. I’m having visions of Monty Python and “Confuse-A-Cat.”
Other signs warn you about smaller wildlife, especially the kind that hops aboard. This one, at Michigan’s Grand Mère State Park, tells what to wear to help stave off the dreaded tick. By the time you’re at the park, however, you may not have clothing alternatives handy. The tick shown is terrifyingly big, but the ticks that can share Lyme disease with you may be little larger than a pinhead.
Pro tip: At Shawnee National Forest, which is tick heaven, I thought wearing a hat would keep them off my head at least. Not so. After a delightful morning at Pomona Natural Bridge, I felt movement in my hair and found a couple strutting under my hat on top of my scalp. This is one of those times when baldness would be an advantage.
Located at a town park near Grand Mère, this sign is not so much a warning as a caution. If you aren’t careful and you spread the emerald ash borer, this will happen to your ash trees. I can attest to the lethal behavior of the well-named emerald ash borer—both tall, mature trees in front of The Flamingo, plus the mature tree that shaded my bedroom at 55th and Dorchester, succumbed to these little green scourges.
At Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, we’re told it’s too late to keep out another horror, the dreaded zebra mussel. You can be a hero, however, by cleaning your boat and equipment properly so you don’t transplant them to a body of water where they haven’t taken hold. The use of “infest” is a great touch. It reinforces the nearby “No swimming” sign nicely. Swimming in infested waters just doesn’t appeal to me, even if I could swim.
If you’re about my age, you recall that “only you can prevent forest fires (that aren’t caused by lightning strikes, volcanoes, and other natural hazards). Many parks post the current risk of wildfire danger based on conditions like drought and wind. At Lyman Run State Park in the Pennsylvania Wilds, Smokey the Bear can’t seem to make up his mind.
This version of Smokey opted for words instead of visuals, which makes his message less ambiguous (no broken pointer). No doubt that snow on the ground helps to keep risk low.
Taking shape on Stony Island Avenue in the remnant heart of Chicago’s steel industry, Big Marsh Park features a bike park (built on slag too expensive to remove), natural areas, and occasional bald eagle sightings. An enticing hill nearby forms a lovely backdrop for a walk at Big Marsh, which is still in its infancy. When you get closer, however, and read the signs, you learn it’s a steaming, seething landfill that’s being “remediated.” There’s no happily running up and down this slope. How I miss the Industrial Revolution.
It’s not every day you’re warned about lurking unexploded bombs, but for me this was no ordinary day. It was my first visit to Old Fort Niagara in nearly 40 years, which coincided with Memorial Day weekend. Most of the time, the fort is manned by soldiers in 1700s military fashions, but in honor of the holiday other conflicts were represented. I kept my distance from the bomb. Just in case.
This is one of the odder warning signs I’ve seen. I left the chef alone—after all, he works with sharp objects.
Slow down. Chicago is under a budget crunch, but do they send out a lone fireman like this? A lone fireman without a steering wheel? Or arms?
Here’s a warning sign you can ignore. It’s outside Riley’s Railhouse, a train car bed and breakfast in Chesterton, Indiana, that’s a treasure trove of signs.
From the exterior of the car I slept in:
At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s West Beach, it looks like the National Park Service is testing which sign or message is most effective at keeping visitors off the dunes. This one shows bare tootsies with the universal “No” slash, helpfully pointing out the dunes are ours.
A less friendly, sterner, more wordy one admonishes you to “KEEP OFF THE DUNES” and appeals to your desire to “Please help protect and preserve our fragile dune systems!”
At the beach, this slash through a barely visible hiker shuns wordiness (or words) for directness and simplicity without justification or explanation.
It’s sandwiched between even more minimalistic signs with a slash, planted where the dunes start ascending. Don’t. Just don’t.
Years ago when a landfill near my cousin’s house became a Superfund site (just what you want in your backyard), it was surrounded by an electrified fence complete with warning signs. Noticing there were no insulators, I dared to touch it. In this case, however, I’m certain the area behind the fence is dangerous, and this is as far as I got.
Normal weathering or resentment over the weapons message?
Waterfall Glen, a DuPage County Forest Preserve, forms a ring around Argonne National Laboratory, “born out of the University of Chicago’s work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.” Naturally, the immediate area around the lab is secured. While I was baffled by this sign about “lock installation” and “any unauthorized lock,” it was the 10 or so locks on the chain that got my attention. Why do people need to add locks to that chain? Why do they need authorization? From whom do they get authorization? Why are unauthorized locks removed? What does it all mean?
Remember when lead was thought to be safe? I don’t, either. This sign is on an old pump at the remnants of an old general store in the western part of Shawnee National Forest.
Warning: If you leave expensive stuff lying around, even at an exclusive university, it will walk off. You can bank on it.