Tuesday, May 29, 2007

No Country for Flimsy Canvas Pirate Shoes

(With a nod to Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers)

It's been quite a month or so for Rachel and Chase: First, they got married...

and then they bought a house and five acres of land.

(No, that's not their house, it's their neighbor's... but the land in the foreground is theirs.)

I'm not going to post any pictures of the house yet because, although it's a cute, kind of sprawling and ranchy place, it currently bears all the exterior and interior marks of renovation. I want to show it at its best, so you'll have to wait a few months until our next visit. Mark my words, though: It will be a fine, fine place when it is all shined up. Magpie-worthy!

So, you say... what's with the flimsy shoe reference? And well you may ask. It's a warning not to wear flimsy canvas slip-ons (even ones embellished with rhinestone-encrusted jolly roger accents) to pick your way through the scrub of the Chihuahuan Desert. I can offer that warning because, you see, I made that mistake.

When Jeff and I went with Rachel to get our first glimpse of the house, she led us out through this gate onto the the less civilized portion of their property:

I picked my way through the brush, following her lead, but I hadn't gotten ten feet outside the gate when my right foot erupted in the jangling pain of what seemed like a hundred tiny electric shocks. Actually, it felt like a mild stinging nettle attack, and for a moment I thought, "Are there nettles here? Why, I haven't been stung by nettles since the second time I was in England." Then I looked down. There, on the top of my foot ('cause y'know, I wasn't wearing any socks...) were thirty or more tiny red ants, just biting away. It makes me shudder just to think of it, even now. And the stinging was no longer mild. It was really starting to hurt. I brushed and slapped them away and bravely went on... for a few more steps.

That was when I got what I though was a rock in my shoe. But I couldn't shake it loose. And I sure was not going to take the shoe off in the middle of ant central (even though I was now watching the ground for signs of the nasty buggers). Eventually, I decided that these shoes were not the shoes to wear while trekking ANY part of the land outside the gate, and I made my way back to the carport, near the house. There, I discovered that there was no rock in my shoe. No...there was a little thorn or sticker or really nasty burr--but with very hard, very sharp spikes--embedded in the sole of my flimsy canvas pirate shoe and poking through right to my instep. Ouch! (Okay, pardner, go ahead: call me a tenderfoot. I dare you.) Rachel and Chase said they were from some kind of invasive species... they were all around. The dogs kept stepping on them and prising them out of their feet with their teeth after they had hopped around on three legs for a while.

Despite all these dangers to those who don't dress their feet properly, the spread is spacious and beautiful in a stark kind of way. There are birds everywhere, singing and warbling like nobody's business. There are even owls nearby--I heard them hooting several times. I'm sure there are all kinds of wildlife (other than those damned ants). And, since it had been raining fairly frequently (we experienced some amazing storms wild with lightning that lit up the desert and set the mountains between Marfa and Alpine into sharp relief in the dark desert night), the place was blooming with wildflowers... including this lovely prickly pear by their fence:

By the way, I paid for my flimsy footwear with a swollen foot that lasted through the night. At least it was only swollen--it didn't continue to jangle in pain.

Next up, the promised discussion of the magic of Marfa, some great eats, and the barn dance. Stay tuned!

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Our Return to Marfa

Last weekend, we went to Marfa to visit Rachel and her new husband Chase.

This is our second visit (you can read about the first back in the July 2006 archives), and we were even more charmed by the place this time than last.

Thanks to a friendly commenter on the first set of Marfa entries, way back when, we flew a nonstop into El Paso and drove from there. That route was infinitely preferable than the Midland/Odessa via Dallas route that we took the first time. Chicagoans thinking of visiting Marfa, take note. The drive is not any shorter, but you'll have mountains to look at the whole way.

A side question here: Who the heck gets the parking places less than half a mile away from the airport transit station in O'Hare's economy parking lot E? We have driven into that lot early, late, and in-between, and we always end up parked way the hell on the outskirts. Just wondering what the secret is...

Anyway, back to Marfa.

We stayed at the Hotel Paisano again.

This time our room was a bit larger than before, but it didn't have the lovely balcony. It was also on the other side of the building, with a view of a tin roof and the dome of the Presidio County Courthouse. The statue of (I'm guessing) Justice that graces the top of the dome watched over our room day and night. Apparently, Justice used to be holding the customary scales, but ages ago some cowboy shot them out of her hands. That's the legend I read on-line, at least.

Here's a photo of the main drag, looking north. It offers perspective on the placement of said statue:

And here is a photo of the main drag, looking in the other direction:

Chase manages the brand new coffeehouse about two blocks south of here. The coffeehouse used to be part of Marfa Book Company, a top-notch bookstore in the heart of this tiny west Texas town. Chase used to work at the coffee bar in the bookstore, until the owners decided to concentrate on books only (well, and on the cool, clean gallery space near the rear of the building). But, what to do with the relatively new and definitely costly espresso makers purchased to equip said coffee bar only a few years ago? Why, partition the building to make a separate coffeehouse and wine bar, and hire Chase to manage it. Voila! Several problems solved. The coffeehouse (which doesn't yet have a formal name) opened the day before we arrived, and it appears to be an instant hit. I think you will agree that it looks quite sophisticated and cosmopolitan:

That is Chase behind the bar, serving Jeff some coffee. And I'm not saying this because of family loyalty: the coffee here is good. Excellent, in fact. If you find yourself in Marfa, be sure to get some. The coffeehouse is between the bookstore and the Marfa Public Radio office.

The space is very inviting, offering options to sit and converse, to read quietly, or to get some work done--an option Rachel availed herself of:

Marfa continues to enchant and amaze us--in the next installment, I'll discuss how several locals described the place to me as "magical," and why I am inclined to believe them. Stay tuned for that, for a discussion of Rachel and Chase's newly bought property, for an account of a couple of amazing thunderstorms (you were wondering, no doubt, about how cloudy Marfa appears in these pictures), and for pictures of the barn dance.

First, though, here is a picture of some local flora--some sotol:

Word has it that sotol is the source of a mildly hallucinogenic liquor...not that I can vouch for that. At least, not yet. Maybe next visit!

Labels: , , ,

Friday, May 11, 2007

Life on the Lake

This afternoon after work, I decided to forego the Nordic Track and take a walk along the lake. It was a very windy evening, and the lakeshore looked more like the ocean, with breakers rolling in from far out in the water. I walked south today... a change from my usual running route that takes me north around the curve on Sheridan and along the Evanston lakefront. No, today I ambled south along Eastlake Terrace, cutting through an alley to Fargo to look at one of my favorite courtyard buildings in all of Chicago. I was surprised to see that it is still an apartment building, since so many of the really lovely apartment buildings in Rogers Park have been converted to condos in the last five years or so.

Anyway, on the way back home, I decided to sit on the "seawall" at Juneway Beach (the nearest beach to us and the northernmost beach in Chicago) and watch the waves roll in for a while. There, on the beach itself, were a man and his golden retriever playing fetch in the water. Well, the dog was in the water. The man had some kind of a device by which he could send a tennis ball wa-a-a-y out into the water, and the retriever would swim out to it, bobbing on the incoming swells and breakers and swimming diligently and single-mindedly to reach the ball, take it in his mouth, and practically body surf his way back to the shore. Time and again, he would emerge from the cold lake water, shake himself off, come up the beach to his master, drop the ball, and then make his way back into the water before his master could even fit the ball into the contraption and launch it into the lake. Finally, it was the master, not the dog, who tired of the game. He gave a signal, and the dog bounded back up off the beach and onto the grass, where the two played more catch. They were still doing so when I left the park and headed around the corner and home.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Dozen Ducklings!

And this story, as far as I know, has a happy ending!

All the while the goose in our courtyard at work was incubating her eggs, there was another, better hidden mom doing the same about a hundred feet away, camouflaged from above by the nearly bare branches of the tree under which she built her nest. This mom was a duck, and she laid twelve eggs. Although she waited patiently and watched all the strutting and guarding the gander provided his mate, the duck had no drake hanging around to protect her. She just sat there, almost unnoticed. Until, a few days after the geese took their leave of the area, every single one of her eggs hatched out. And they all appeared to be hale and hearty, even though they were itsy-bitsy balls of down.

They put on quite a show, promenading around the periphery of the courtyard, right under everyone's windows. Unlike the goslings and their parents, who kept their distance from their audience, the ducklings were as fascinated by the people watching them as those observers were of the ducklings. The little tykes clustered near the glass doors that lead out to the courtyard, checking out the cluster of humans on the other side of the glass.

By the time these guys hatched out, the fountain in the courtyard was filled and flowing. Alas! the wall around it was too high for the teensy guys to breach! So Briana and Tom from the Science department gathered some stray parts from the activity kits and built them a colorful, duckling-friendly swimming pool, complete with access ramp.

Through all of this, mom watched calmly and attentively.

The ducklings were so tiny that we thought for certain that they would stick around a little longer than the geese did, but sure enough--two days after they hatched, as many of us were having lunch in the company cafeteria, someone called out, "There are the ducks!"

And many of us rose from our lunches and watched as the duck hurried along in front of her dozen ducklings, leading them off to the shelter of a nearby streambank. They were moving so fast that their little feet and legs were practically invisible--like something out of a cartoon.

Our local waterfoul nursery is empty now for the season. Maybe next year we'll get as good a show!

(Photos, again, courtesy of Susan Gavin)

Labels: , ,

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Short and Probably Not Very Happy Life of Hoppy the Gosling

Let me start, dear reader, with a warning. If you are tender hearted and quick to tears, you may want to skip this entry, for it is just plain heart-breaking. So heart-breaking, in fact, that Jeff suggested I write it in Dickensian prose, the better to inspire Little Nellian paroxysms of grief in my audience. Instead of "Hoppy," I could refer to our subject as "Isaiah Hopwood Gooseworthy, better known as 'Hoppy,' a gosling with a heart of gold." But it's been a long time since I have read any Dickens, and I just don't have the chops to send up the master or the heart to tell poor Hoppy's story as a parody. So instead, I'll give it to you straight. Just be sure you have a hankie ready.

The grounds at our workplace, also known as the "campus," feature a sheltered, sunken courtyard with trees, some shrubs, some benches, and a little fountain (although the fountain runs from late spring to early fall only). It has about equal amounts of pavers and patches of vine-like ground cover, from which the trees and shrubs spring. Early every spring, a pair of Canadian geese build a nest in one of these patches of ground cover. The goose sits on the nest while the gander stands guard. He's very consciencious... no one would dare get near the goose and her eggs. For the last few years, whatever eggs were viable hatched out over a late April weekend, and the goose, gander, and goslings had waddled up the courtyard stairs and made their way to the nearby stream by the time we all returned to work on Monday.

This year, it was different.

This year, out of the eight eggs the goose laid, four of them hatched out--three one evening about mid-week, and one the next morning. The goslings were precious.

Now, as we watched them from the windows that overlooked the courtyard, we could see that the three older goslings were strong and energetic, waddling along behind their mother as the gander gazed on proudly. And then, there was Hoppy. Hoppy was wobbly. Hoppy would try to hurry along to keep up with his siblings, trip over his little webbed feet, and go beak over tailfeathers. Sometimes he would keel over even when he was just standing there. He was so much smaller than the others, though. "He's just a day younger than they are," we reasoned amongst ourselves. "He'll catch up."

And sure enough, the next day he seemed to be a lot stronger. He wasn't listing as much, if at all. And he was able to waddle quite a ways without accidentally somersaulting, although he still seemed pretty unsteady on feet that appeared to be, well, pigeon-toed. Still, we rejoiced that he was not as impaired as he seemed to be the day before.

Later that afternoon, the goose family tried to make its exit from the courtyard. Mom and Dad led the three strong siblings up the steps and waited patiently as Hoppy tried with all his might to follow. But even his best efforts, assisted by desperate flapping of his useless little wings, were met with failure.

The family hopped off the wall next to the steps, back into the courtyard. This, in itself, was an amazing thing to watch because, although goose and gander had no trouble gliding down the five/six feet or so, the teeny goslings--once they got up the nerve--just plummeted to the pavers, all of them tumbling and rolling when they hit the ground. They all shook their feathers off and soldiered on though. And Hoppy joined them.

Later in the day, they tried again. With the same results.

That evening, there was a goose altercation in the courtyard with two interloper geese menacing the little family. Wings flapped. Heads were thrust forward aggressively, beaks jutting. There was honking aplenty. Mom and Dad defended their brood, but perhaps the invaders did more damage overnight. For, in the morning, the goose parents were still in a stand-off with the other two geese, but Hoppy was definitely the worse for wear. Or attack. Or maybe just sheer exhaustion. He lay on the concrete with his little wobbly legs sticking straight out, honking hoarsely for his parents' attention. But by this time, they just ignored him. They managed to fend off the other geese, and as soon as the coast was clear, they made a beeline for the steps. Leaving poor Hoppy lying there, alone, honking feebly.

Two of our sweet, kind-hearted Social Studies editors tried to rescue him. They went to check on Hoppy and found him (we are just assuming he's a him, by the way) desperately weak but still alive--barely. They called around to bird rescue organizations until they found one that would take him in. The woman they talked to told them how to handle him, and they picked him up, sheltered him, and placed him in one of their cars until the woman could get there. Alas, when she arrived, Hoppy was dead.

I think deep inside we all knew when we saw him stumbling around the courtyard, the obvious runt and physically compromised to boot, that he would not make it. Upon closer examination, he had something wrong with his legs AND one of his eyes. He may well have been half-blind from birth, or maybe he was attacked by the bad geese. In the end, his parents could not stick around and put the rest of their brood in danger. Still, we all wish he had been able to make it up those stairs and escape. He managed to capture all our hearts.

Rest in Peace, Isaiah Hopwood Gooseworthy.

(Photos courtesy of Susan Gavin, who mourns Hoppy along with the rest of us.)

Labels: , ,