High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Grand Day Out

And we didn't forget the crackers. This being the last day of my week off before teaching summer I, M played hooky and we had a one-day vacation in the Windy City.

A while ago, possibly when the Amazingly Diabolical A was here for opera-cherry-popping purposes, mdiscovered a place called Kitsch-N up in Roscoe Village, famed for its brunch. Most notable on the menu was the Green Eggs & Ham, Sam. Having broken our vow to get to sleep early, we nonetheless rose at 9:15 and only missed our goal of leaving the house by 10 by about 15 minutes.

Although questionable in its degree of kitschyness---recall, I grew up in a house with a dress-up Infant of Prague under glass; it's possible that I'm jaded---the menu did not disappoint. I had the Green Eggs and Ham (eggs scrambled with spinach pesto and ham) and M had the "ultimate hangover breakfast." Both were tasty in the extreme. And don't laugh, but the toast rocked. I don't know what the hell was in it, but that was, excuse me, a damned fine piece of whole wheat toast.

We then made our way over to the Lincoln Park Zoo for our first visit since several new constructions, including the new African Ape House, had opened. We'd planned the trip for some time, but the awkward timing gave it the appearance of a "Last Chance to See" jaunt. The Zoo has been in the news recently, challenging that "no such thing as bad publicity" chestnut. In February, they lost a gorilla (the first born there) to old age. Two weeks ago, they lost another to kidney failure following an illness of as-yet-unknown origins. This week, three of their four Francois langurs (an Asian leaf-eating monkey) have died after being swapped into a new exhibit. All of this is bad news enough if they hadn't recently gotten the reputation of elephant killers. It's a sad and alarming series of events, and it needs sorting out as soon as possible, but I still would've liked to slash the Faux News Crew's tires.

We hit the Brach Primate house (old and unremodeled) first out of convenience. Our adopted Emperor Tamarin had been replaced with a Geoffrey's Marmoset group. They're cute, but lack wacky moustaches, which are a key selling point of callithricids. One of the male Howlers had some Barry White action going on and was undeterred in their sweet lovin' by the presence of white-faced sakis in his habitat. He and the female kissed and petted at one another for some time before darting behind a large trunk for the deed itself (I infer the doing of teh sex, as his mighty erection [ah the zoo, the happiest family place on Earth] was missing when he emerged from the shadows). The Howler/Saki duo is a new pairing, at least to me. Given that there were other Howlers in the Reptile and Small Mammal House, I can only assume that there was some aggression among the males or other reasons to split the group.

The Drills next door were being "enriched" by the ingestion of paper bags. Not paper bags that had anything in them. Just delicious, fiberiffic paper bags. The large male sat back and showed us his penis, too, while he chowed down a large bag. The female, looking a bit miffed at his display, found a shred of bag soaking in the water and gulped it with a a "that'll learn 'im!" attitude. The Titi and Goeldi's monkeys weren't up to much that was exciting, so we contented ourselves with tittering about Titis. Or maybe that was just me. Oh, yes, that was just me. M was making Goa'uld jokes. Possibly I hit him for that.

I was surprised to see the gibbons in the next habitat over. I somehow had misunderstood the news on the langurs and hadn't realized that they had been given sole ownership of the indoor-outdoor habitat that the gibbons used to occupy, and the gibbons had been moved into an indoor-only habitat. Not sure what motivated that decision. As usual, the two black-coated males were easily spotted. Caruso, the father, was sitting atop the highest point checking out the crowd. Just below him, balancing between a trunk and vine was Kien Nahn, Caruso and Burma's 4-year-old son, sans right forearm.

I was so shocked, I thought I'd seen wrong. Sadly, it seems not, though. His right arm appears to have been amputated at the elbow. The hair on the arm is sparse and short, as though it had been recently shaved, but there's no visible wound and, obviously, he's out with the rest of the family group, so it must be pretty thoroughly healed. I hadn't heard a single peep about this, and I can find no mention of it in news stories (yet, if that last langur goes, LPZ will be turning out its pockets). He seems to be doing quite well, winging his way around with only one arm, but I have no idea what happened, and there was no one around to ask.

Burma, the female seemed to be a bit bored with the new baby, who is just 5 months old. She kept on the move near the top and toward the back of the habitat, and the baby kept looking a bit grumpy about having to relatch every time she moved. The empty langur habitat simply said the animals were off exhibit, but there were numerous remarks about how they were "all dead."

On to the new African Ape House and comparatively happy thoughts. It's a splendid building and an asthetic improvement over the cramped, dark, bilevel concrete monstrosity that came before it (which, as bad as it was from a visitor perspective, was quite a good ape habitat, particularly in comparison to Brookfield's "I don't care WHAT these animals need or want, is it PRETTY? I don't want any animals distracting from my inexplicable fiberglass Close Encounters Mound!" approach). The new building has high ceilings and ample strolling room between the three habitats. Immediately to the left there are bronze hand-print plaques at kiddo height. When little Brighteneigh Clayton puts her grubby little mitt on top of a primate's, its current and historical ranges light up on a map on the wall and its vocalization sounds.

There's another interactive exhibit adjacent to the first habitat that breaks the apes' days down into parcels and the kids can compare what they're doing at any given time of day with what the apes are doing. It's a nice juxtaposition, because it gives them something to do within sight of the indoor and outdoor portions of one of the habitats that connects the observation to the text-based facts. The connection of humans with their primate brethren is a theme in most of the posted materials. All of the text regarding the natural climate and ecology of the apes African home is put in the context of Chicago. I even heard a pretty small fry accidentally doing math in his head when he declared that 158 inches of rain per year in Rwanda is, like, FIVE TIMES the 33 inches of rain we get here!

The wall of LCD monitors talking about current research with the apes is also a great people-moving strategy. There's no need for irritated queueing up behind the lard ass that won't move (uh, that'd be move) out from in front of the particularly winsome chimp. We fled inside the building when the heavens opened, and there were lots of bodies of all ages, but it never felt crowded.

Two of the habitats themselves are built on the same basic plan as the concrete monstrosities, but on a large scale, making full use of the new square footage they have. Each is L-shaped with half a hexagon protruding into the long wall. The chimps love to sit on the roof of this or in one of the slings of vines mounted on either side of it. In one of the habitats, the female gorillas seemed to like to get up that high, which is unusual even for young adults. The middle of the space is a maze of vines and poles that multiples the amount of space available by taking advantage of the height of the habitat. The short arm of the L is a glass wall with sliding panels allowing access to the outdoor portion. We didn't spend much time around the outdoor portions (see above re: heavens opening), but gone are the moats that make seeing anything impossible.

The third habitat is the centerpiece of the new building with a more complicated series of platforms and, of course, the "termite mound." Surprisingly, the second troop of gorillas was housed in this one today, and two of the females were happy enough to play the shill for the mound. Because building inspectors frown on keeping termites in public spaces, the tunnels of the mound are filled with things that the apes consider to be a treat. I'm not sure what it was today, but frequently ketchup and mustard fit the bill. One female was fishing busily with a long stick stripped of its leaves. A second female was happy enough to follow in her wake, probing with fingers, lips, and tongue to get whatever had rubbed off the stick just inside the openings (there is just no way to JRH-proof that, so I'm leaving it).

This group also had two highly entertaining youngsters, one about 17 months, the other only 8. The littler of the two started the show off by inching down a diagonal vine she clutched in her hands and feet. She was going for a controlled slide, but seemed to lose it briefly, juttering down a few feet at a rapid clip. Normally the only danger would be to her pongid pride, but she was headed straight for the side of her father's massive head. She pulled it out at the last second though and very casually started going hand-over-hand backwards and most pointedly away from the grumpiness field. At this point, her old half-sibling got in on the action by taking an overexuberant fireman's slide down a pole, right on to her head. The two of them seemed to take great pleasure in wrestling one another to the ground and then climbing clumsily over the head of the other.

Meanwhile in chimpland, there was some neurotic attachment to a couple of burlap bags that a poor little guy couldn't make behave. We watched him struggle with them for and with piles of dirt and hay for a good 15 minutes. He'd carve out a butt-sized divot, climb on in and try to get the bags to cover most of him. When they wouldn't, he'd do a sort of autistic version of a lotus hamstring stretch (dude, breath into the stretch, never bounce), ultimately ending with him shoving away the hay and dirt in disgust.

These wacky chimps, unlike the putative bonobos in San Diego, seem to have gotten the memo that they're rainforest animals. They were uncowed by the intermittent wet stuff from on high, moving freely between the indoor and outdoor portions. The frankly chubby adult male seemed to lurk by the partition, wanting to keep an eye on one female in particluar, but unwilling to venture outside to do it. M seems to have forgotten the little performance this very individual (if I'm not mistaken, which I might be, they've done quite the Great Ape shuffle in the last couple of years) gave us two years ago or so, when he masturbated vigorously, not one foot from a very interested toddler and a very oblivious parent, then strode purposefully to the top of the habitat and scored himself some lack of tail. As he faced southward and rocked vigorously back and forth, m asked what he was doing. Almost immediately, the female in question (and in estrus) trotted in and plopped herself right in front of him for a brief, but hopefully mutually satisfying, bit of rumpy pumpy.

We did the rest of the zoo, but the primates are the best, of course. Seriously, the African Safari, also new, is an equally stunning improvement over the rest of the buildings. Clever layout, excellent, readable, attractive text, and good comparisons to Chicago for context. The only downside to the new places is how shabby they make the unrefurbished places appear. It's time for a really comprehensive upgrade.

We closed the zoo without so much as looking at any tacky merchandise and headed into the heart of rush hour traffic downtown to see Unleashed at River East. We were too late for the 5:15 showing, so we stopped to buy tickets for the 6:45. On our way up, a rather disheveled man approached us and asked if we'd like to see an adult screening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the morrow. Johnny now instead of Johnny in July? Yes, please! Tragically, we would later discover that waiting to make reservations over the web was a mistake, as they were all booked by the time we got home.

With about 45 minutes to kill, we headed to Navy Pier because M "Had never been there" (in reality, this was a feeble excuse to hide the fact that he has recently become addicted to Chicago Style hot dogs and had read that there was a particular place there to seek out). He achieved his cosmic dog. I had some restorative caffeine and a caprese salad, and we headed back to River East.

We've been seeing previews for Unleashed for so long that I had a feeling it was festering in the pit to which action films that are not all that good are banished before someone grudgingly releases them. I also had heard some vaguely negative buzz, but we like Jet Li well enough to risk it. I'm glad we did. Is it a deep emotional story of our times? No. Is it a stunningly unique, never before told tale? Not so much. But it's good. Bob Hoskins is good. Morgan Freeman is good. Jet Li is excellent (I mean, seriously, he is the cutest guy who could kill me with one of his split ends I know). Good martial arts, and enough genuine emotion in a thoroughly unplausible scenario to make it worthwhile. Ebert's review is a good and just one. He gives it three stars and actually seems to have watched this one, something I've come to doubt is true of most of the things he reviews lately.