Come Out to Play

I’m a massive fan of Meadowbrook Park, a prairie preserve maintained tirelessly by the Urbana Park District. Its sculpture installations are eternally absorbing. [The header photo was taken there about 5 years ago, at the park’s south end.] I gardened at Meadowbrook’s organic garden plots in the early 2000s. I’ve walked and skated and even run its trails hundreds of times – basically, it’s where I go when it’s time to get outside someplace that isn’t the backyard. So. As it is not often sunny and sixty degrees in December (and, for the record, it shouldn’t be), I thought perhaps it’d be a great day to go see some dogs and walk the trails and survey the now-beige prairie from my favorite vantage points.

I decided instead, at the last minute, to walk my neighborhood – to see it and to be seen in it – because it feels a bit lonely.

[The neighborhood has changed with the change in season, like it does. People have moved away and others have arrived. There have been conflicts, some unresolved. A new email list has sown some seeds of WTF, but one of the Facebook groups is still politely active. People (including us) seem too busy to gather often; over-the-fence chats have waned with the daylight. Our neighbor’s son, an engaging and persistent 5 year-old given to patrolling our street in this Halloween’s police officer costume, sometimes tickets the adults he sees.]

Anyway – I saw some things.

Leaf art on Anderson.
Lara and Phil’s fence.
Roger Ebert grew up in my neighborhood.
This lady was EXTREMELY friendly.

[NOT PICTURED: Hundred of squirrels, an awesome front door, and actual boughs of holly]

What I didn’t see: human beings. There were a few people out wrangling leaves into bags (Leaves into bags! In DECEMBER!), but only one even looked up as I passed. A young woman who has been doing epic work on her house was toiling away on its exterior, so I told her how inspiring it’s been to watch her progress. She smiled and said, “Well, thank you!” A young man walked down the next street, conversing earnestly with someone about his impending return to Eugene – Oregon, I assume. A couple blocks over, I asked a gentleman sitting on his front porch if it was OK if I cut through a small bit of his yard to get to the alley. He laughed and said, “Of course.” Then, as I started trekking through, “Thanks for asking!” As I rolled back onto my street, I saw my neighbors, The Bryans, and encouraged their dogs into bad behavior as we chatted about the unsettled feeling one has when one is putting up holiday lights in shirtsleeves.

That was it, though. No other people. Was everyone out at Meadowbrook? Shopping? Inside, watching sports? Where are we these days? Suddenly my neighbor 5 year-old’s desire to ticket the people he sees made all the sense. It’s genius! It’s about visibility and accountability and it makes me think we are just not either of those things enough.

I’m putting myself on a twice-weekly posting schedule. We’ll see how it goes.

Do the Other Things

I can’t tell you how awesome it’s been to have a young astrophysicist in the house for the last few weeks. Not only that, but a young astrophysicist who’s willing to entertain the thought, read the book, see the movie, have the conversation, explain the concept, accept the hug, and make the pancakes.

Not to mention the young political scientist/photographer, who can parse the Constitution, by amendment, on demand, give context to every film, take photos of everything that leave one wondering how the…, give incredibly thoughtful gifts, and eat all the leftovers.

Films we have watched since mid-December:

The Right Stuff
Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars: A New Hope
Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi
Rogue One (twice)
Hidden Figures
Apollo 13
Snowden
Finding Vivian Maier
Operation: Avalanche

The Hobbit (fan edit)
Fellowship of the Ring*
The Two Towers*
Return of the King*

*in one sitting, 1/1/2017


The weather has been good in fits and starts, and when it’s good, I walk. Longtime readers know that I’m a huge fan of the local prairie preserve. Let me tell you something about that place: It is still magical, so magical. But the surrounding land is being developed within an inch of the park’s life, and the construction and resulting buildings have become a bit of a distraction for me – it’s really not that big of a park, you know? My feeling this way about the only quiet, natural, prairie-of-some-size within easy distance from my domicile leads me to wonder if it’s time to start thinking of other places to spend my time. But when I run across the sculpture there, a subtle part of the landscape yet so alien and apart from it, it forces me to review my perspective. I always walk around my favorites, because NEW ANGLES, Y’ALL.

This might be my favorite, because when you approach it from most directions, you don’t see the heart. Here it is, just for you.

 

There is our life when we’re around others, outside our primary four walls (AKA “home”), and then there is time alone, at home. Who are you when you’re at home? What do you believe? What do you do? Do you sing into a hairbrush? Do you get into comfy clothes the second you get home? Sit as though on a throne playing with dolls, like [SPOILER ALERT] Jenna Coleman’s Queen Victoria does on the day of her coronation? Watch TV? Think unpopular thoughts? Cook things and eat them? Or bring them to the neighbors? Pet the cats? Check for Facebook likes? Secretly play U2? Work?

Lately I see 909 as a retreat, an oasis, a fortress, a small-but-mighty enclave, vibrant and private, unassuming and welcoming, a destination. Home. It’s been home for 12 years… what’s different about 2017?

Stirring

JULY

 

Regal feline

 

Home to roost

 

Together v 1.0

 

AUGUST

 

Dumpling gang

 

‘Twas the night before college

 

SEPTEMBER

 

Championship match

 

Poster Children at Pygmalion

 

OCTOBER

 

Midterm

 

Kanken stash at Fjallraven, St. Paul

 

NOVEMBER

 

Meadowbrook

 

Studio space at Same Street Textiles & Scrap Yard

 

Fireplace upgrade at 909

 

DECEMBER

 

Love is all around

 

Together v 2.0

 

My sentiments exactly (photo source unknown)

 

Currently: Knitting a rectangle and patiently waiting for this year to come to a close. I’ve got a list of possessions and behaviors to jettison, and others to reclaim.  I’m also wondering, as we hurtle into a new calendar year: What does complacency mean to you? Is it something to be aspired toward? Or challenged?

 

LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs, Saved Aggressively):

Wondering how Perry Possum would respond to such overtures

How huge is your mammoth? Mine is enormous. And loud

Buying this shirt, brb

Carrie Fisher’s unofficial doctoring made the ESB script better. Way better

Discovering Donella Meadows

Wish I’d thought of this name

Always reading the comments at Archdruid Report

Granola Shotgun providing inspiration for the coming year(s)

I keep coming back to Nance Klehm

My friend Lisa writes AMAZING stuff

The sun rises and sets on Urbana, IL

Late Summer Blahs

History, via the last dozen years’ worth of journals, demonstrates that I typically don’t do well the last week of July and the first ten days of August; my current theory is that my lizard brain is already sensing that we’re losing light, not gaining it. Also? The mosquitoes have been ridiculous this summer. They love me – REALLY LOVE ME – and I find myself avoiding the garden, which thanks to Jim is far more free of weeds than in years past. Still. This grumpiness about the outdoors is a very unsatisfying and unsettling feeling for me.

Yesterday’s weather was spectacular, however – sunny and warm and lacking the oppressive humidity that was literally hanging around earlier in the week. After work, I went to Meadowbrook Park to walk, commune with nature, get over myself, and catch up on the Dear Handmade Life podcast. It was a lovely way to spend 90 minutes, and I didn’t run into a single person I knew, which was OK by me.

Here are a few things I did see.

I saw an artist atop a ladder, working in the sunshine. Sorry about the backlighting.

IMG_2408

 

I saw/smelled so much bee balm. I wanted to hug it.

 

And later, in downtown Champaign, I saw the moon rise above its friend, the lamppost.

IMG_2415

My goal for the next ten days is to find more of these bits and pieces out in the world and to hold them close. I plan to listen to Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue whenever the mood strikes. I plan to let my daughter chauffeur me around town so she can get her license this fall. I plan to note the exact time each night when the cicadas give way to the crickets and katydids. And I plan to sleep with the windows open whenever I can.

Roads Less Traveled

A couple of nights ago, I dropped Lilly off at her friend’s house and decided to take some back roads to get home. The settling sun was providing some epic light, it wasn’t too cold, and I had some time to kill. It was a luscious pre-dusk-January-Saturday feeling.

IMG_0609

Geese and other birds seem to move around this time of year in this part of Illinois (perhaps they’re confused by our weather? I know I am), so when I saw the kite in the photo above from a distance as I drove along, I wanted to get a closer look at the “birds” that were moving in such excellent concert with each other. I navigated the patchwork of rural roads to get closer to them so I could get some decent snaps. In so doing, I flashed back to my days of running the farmers’ market here – I’d go out to visit farmers on their land, trying to make sense of county roads and state roads and wondering if the GPS was KIDDING ME by bringing me to some isolated dirt road a hundred miles from home. Anyway, as I got closer and the “birds” didn’t move forward, it became obvious I was not looking at birds at all, but an enormous (and unattended) kite. I stopped the car in front of the house to get a photo. A very large and very fuzzy collie watched me intently from the driveway; I stayed on my side of the road, while the sun gilded everything generously with the last rays of the day. I admired the house to which the kite belonged, a cute little mid-century modern-ish affair just out of the frame above. And, to my delight, I watched many hundreds of very confused geese flying north in huge Vs high above my head. It was a perfect moment, one of many I’ve spent on back roads in Illinois watching thunderstorms on the horizon, comets in the heavens, and now birds and kites on the breeze.

LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs Saved Aggressively):

GenX/Millennials vacationing with their Boomer parents (sorry for the generalizations)

One of my internet favorites, Melody Kramer

NYT: Write your way to happiness

I’m coconut oil-curious

Last week’s episode of MidAmerican Gardener

Medium is one of my favorite places to stumble upon thought-provoking writing

My friend Jessica did this fascinating interview with Bjork, and…

It’s Not Just Bjork: Women Are Tired of Not Getting Credit for Their Own Music

The Heritage Radio Network has some AWESOME podcasts, including Grace Bonney‘s “After the Jump”

The Goat Must Be Fed (digital journalism)

This piece on the cause of addiction is powerful (as are some of the comments)

So many blog entries this month. I’d say I don’t recognize myself, what with all this blogging, but… it’d be a lie.

Up My Alleys

Back in the summer of 2007, which seems forever ago, I was fond of walking the alleys in east Urbana, which is also where I’ve lived, with my family, for almost 10 years.

alley_chicory

These aren’t the streetscaped alleys of downtown Urbana, the ones that have been paved and named and placemade with wrought iron archways and signage. Some are used traditionally – for deliveries to businesses. Others are blocked to vehicular traffic entirely and are used instead as seating areas, dining areas, etc. The alley between the Courier Café and Pizza M/Flying Machine Coffee boasts a huge mural painted by a local artist. Some walls have been tagged, others graffiti’d with stencil art. Basically, they’re public spaces providing shortcuts, a place to take a smoke break, and general respite in a small downtown area.

The alleys of east Urbana are un- or under-paved – they’re quaint, mostly-forgotten leftovers from the last century. Some are still used as thruways for cars. Others are choked with weeds and come to complete, unannounced dead ends. Back in 2007, the alleys in east Urbana were awesome for a slightly nosy person like me – here was this fascinating array of brief avenues letting me see what was behind the houses and small apartment buildings! Yeah, yards and gardens and garages, obviously, but I could also check out, up close, the kept spaces, the bits of earth between the alley and the garage that were planted with flowers like hollyhocks and sunflowers, trees providing shade and a natural archway, the occasional chicken coop. I took lots of photos.

alley_chickens

Over the long weekend, I went back to the alleys for the first time in 7 years. I started off a few blocks from my house and ran into a gentleman mowing the part of the alley that was directly behind his house, a cute little bungalow with a well-kept backyard. He shut off his mower and we started to chat. He wasted no time in telling me that the neighborhood (for him, his neighborhood comprised a couple blocks) was “going down” and had been for over two decades. He talked about a couple of drug houses that had been busted recently and remained vacant, how neighbors weren’t keeping up their properties, that people didn’t want to live in east Urbana anymore. I asked him where people were going, if they were moving. No, he said, people who had lived for decades in the neighborhood were passing away and the homes were then bought and rented out by landlords. He told me that people making what he considered a “good income” were choosing to buy homes elsewhere. I was curious as to how he defined a good income, so I asked. His answer: Household income of 50K a year. This was interesting to me, as buying a home in many other neighborhoods in Urbana would likely require a household income of at least twice that, not to mention that east Urbana, in my circle, is seen as a desirable place to live – affordable, diverse, and neighborly. He went on to tell me that people in the neighborhood have chickens, which he didn’t understand. “If you want to live in the country, live in the country,” he said. Ah, then. I told him I had to be on my way, shook his hand, and thanked him for his time. His mower roared to life behind me as I headed down the alley.

I was a bit deflated after this encounter, and what I saw in the alleys as I walked through several neighborhoods seemed to prove Alley Mowing Guy correct. Many of the gardens that had existed 7 years ago were gone. Several fruit trees had been cut down. There were no grapevines lining back chain link fences. Few flowers had been planted on purpose, though there were still perennials like daylilies and prairie sunflowers along some fences. There were no chicken coops. A dead, bloated animal lay in the middle of one alley, buzzing with flies. There were many more tall privacy fences and more mean (well, mean-sounding) dogs. Some fences were broken, and there was a fair amount of trash and abandoned furniture, though this could easily be attributed to the fact it was the first day of the month at the beginning of the school year in a Big Ten university town.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some good finds – alley raspberries were still around, there was still one apple tree, and a beautiful line of alliums were flowering and attracting dozens of pollinators. Squash and tomatoes had found their way outside fences. There was still plenty of beauty and food to look at and to discover.

berries

 

squash

Yes, the change that had taken place over the 7 years since my last visit was noticeable and unsettling and took up a lot of my brain space as I walked. I wondered about the vacant, uncared-for homes I saw. I wondered if the City ever talked about paving and/or gently placemaking the alleys as a way to encourage residents to explore the history of east Urbana. I thought about the reduced number of gardens I’ve noticed in town over the last few years, and I wondered why that might be,  and then I thought about the Great Recession, which came along a year after I stopped walking the alleys. I thought about the increase in the sheer amount of stuff we seem to have acquired since 2007. And I thought about the advent of smart phones – the iPhone was introduced in June 2007 – and how that has changed, quite literally, EVERYTHING, including our concept of leisure time.

And then I thought about people proudly buying or renting their first homes in east Urbana – like we did in 2005 – and wondered how they feel about their neighborhood. Do they think it’s in decline? Are they there to reclaim it? Are they moving in for the long haul or is it a quick stop on the Upward Mobility Trail?

I’m seeing a renaissance, myself. Maybe someday Alley Mowing Guy will see it, too.

Prairie Lyfe

snowscape

Gulf Coast beachscape/prairie snowscape/beautiful either way

It was a lovely day in Central Illinois today, a bright and breezy 40+ degrees, and perfect for a walk at Meadowbrook Park, the prairie preserve just south of town where I go all year long (weather permitting) to get some exercise, clear my head, gawp at other people’s vegetable gardens, look for deer, birdwatch, look at art and just generally find some balance. The prairie is an amazing place, wholly itself but able to assume a disguise from time to time, as it did today. I listened to the new Damien Jurado record as I walked, and you can too, whether you’re walking a prairie or a beach or downtown or wherever.

Last night, I went to Prairie Fruits Farm to screen Course Work: Dinner Season at Prairie Fruits Farm, the short film I co-produced for Illinois Public Media, with about 30 other people. I love going to the farm for any reason at all, even no reason; I pull into the drive and look up at the windmill and park my car, and, if it’s at night, I look for the moon. If I arrive during the day I look for the farm’s dog, Blue. As it happened, I opened the car door and looked for the moon and Blue did his best to jump in with me. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

wes harvesting
I never thought I’d make something suitable for television. (I never thought I’d make something unsuitable for television, either). It was incredibly difficult and super-fun and I learned a lot about what I need help with and what I’m good at and also about working with another person creatively. I learned that I need to be direct with interviewees and ask what I want to ask so I get what I need (a good prescription for life in general, not just work), I learned to be flexible, and I learned how to write and voice narration. As soon as it was in the can, I said to my creative partner, Tim, I’d like another shot at that, because I knew I could have done better.

Until last night, though, I’d never seen the film all at once, nor had I seen what I had seen with other people. The film was being screened in the farm’s barn, site of breakfasts in early spring and the farm’s dinners in inclement weather. Wes, Leslie (the owners), and Alisa (the chef and my good friend) had snacks and cider ready for everyone, people brought their own booze, and as the socializing wound down a little, we got everyone to have a seat. They waited. I stood. The film began. The audience laughed at the right times and were quiet and watching/listening during the other times and the farm looked as beautiful as I remembered it and I saw the piece through their eyes, as opposed to through my own often hyper-critical eyes, by myself, in my office, watching on the computer and stopping and rewinding and stopping and rewinding.

The film is viewable here. Tell me what you think, if you’re so inclined. This version has pledge breaks for our station in it – these include me and Wes and Leslie, so if you want some awkward with your pretty farm scenes, don’t skip ’em.

The radio series returns February 6, and we’re working up a plan for 6-8 Backyard Industry videos to spread out throughout the year. I’m reading Provence, 1970 to get in the mood. I’m not sure it’s working, but the writing is captivating – people were so bitchy and hilarious. I think I would have loved hanging out with Paul and Julia Child, though. I love how she started her major career ascent in her late forties. It gives me hope.