unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

When Dreams Take Flight III

Monarch butterfly

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31191972@N04 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

After a butterfly egg hatches, its life as a caterpillar lasts about two weeks.  And, man, do they eat!  As I mentioned yesterday, I pretty much defoliated our milkweed plants, so I had to go scavenging for more leaves–in alleys, along railroad tracks, or in the yards of friends.  I would clip leaves, put them in baggies and refrigerate them til needed.

And here’s the surprise:  those caterpillars really poop.  And as they get bigger, so does their poop!  Every morning and evening, I would carefully shake the droppings out of each individual cup.  I had to do it twice a day just for the sake of good housekeeping (or cup-keeping).

But things got even more intense because I kept finding new eggs on the all-but-defoliated milkweed plants out back.  Probably another ten or so.  So I added them to the nursery.  This meant I had about 50 butterflies-in-process, all at various stages of development.  I felt like the Mickey Mouse character in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  These things just kept coming at me.   I was spending about an hour a day taking care of them…and even more time thinking about them!

Thankfully, after a couple of weeks the first batch went into chrysalis mode, then the others.  I took a breather.  There was nothing to do but wait for another two weeks until the tell-tale shaking of the chrysalis signaled a butterfly was about to emerge.  And emerge they did.  Sometimes one a day, sometimes several.  It was thrilling to see it happen–especially after all that work.  Even this part, though, was not without stress.  At one point, we were going away for the weekend so we had to have friends babysit the  chrysalises that were due to come out (otherwise they would have been trapped in the now upside-down cup.)

The payoff, of course, was taking a new butterfly outside, gently coaxing it on to a flower where it would sit for some time before finally taking off–invariably headed south.  It was really very moving to see something very fragile you’d helped bring to life make its way in the world, part of a cycle that transcends time and borders.

But the Summer of My Good Intentions turned out to be one of the most stressful summers of my life.  Helping Mother Nature is a huge responsibility.  When the last butterfly flew from our little city garden, I felt a mixture of elation, satisfaction, and relief.  I don’t know if I’ll ever try it again.  If I do, though, I would only raise a handful.  Well, maybe just a dozen.  Okay, maybe a couple of dozen…

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When Dreams Take Flight II

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cletuslee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday I wrote about Dan Gingrich, the CSO french horn player who raises butterflies as a hobby; he’s raised and released probably thousands of them over the years.  He’s a family friend and his love of playing butterfly midwife (can a man be a midwife?) inspired me to do the same.

So two summers ago, I started collecting butterfly eggs from  the milkweed plants in our backyard and before long, I had a full nursery going.  The nursery first consisted of about eight plastic cups to hold the eggs until they hatched.  Also in the cups were milkweed leaves for the tiny caterpillars to eat once they hatched.  So far, so good.

But every time I looked in the backyard, there seemed to be more and more butterfly eggs attached to the milkweed plants.  I didn’t think it was fair to save some eggs and not others, so I adopted a “no-egg-left-behind” strategy.  As a result, I soon wound up with about 40 eggs–which is fine when they’re just eggs.  But guess what?  The eggs hatch!

Soon I had a legion of tiny caterpillars for whom I had assumed responsibility.  And it was astonishing how fast they grew…and how much they ate.   Fortunately, their food of choice is milkweed leaves, so I would simply go to the backyard and harvest some leaves and put them in the cups with the caterpillars.  But their appetites were remarkable and before long I had pretty much defoliated the handful of milkweed plants in my backyard.

And once they got bigger, I had to separate the individual caterpillars because each one was going through so many leaves they each needed their own cup.  So now I had 40 cups on the kitchen counter.  But then another issue came up–they tended to climb out of their cups and wander on the counter.  My solution was simply to put another cup on top of the first so the cups were meeting mouth-to-mouth.  Now I had 80 cups on the counter.

But there was another by-product of all this that my paternal instincts hadn’t anticipated.  It exacerbated an increasingly messy and complicated set-up.  Details tomorrow, along with the surprising conclusion to my Summer of Good Intentions.

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When Dreams Take Flight

Photograph of a butterfly in a field

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebaird / CC BY 2.0

Last night on the show, we re-ran one of my favorite pieces:  a story about Dan Gingrich, a Chicago Symphony horn player, whose hobby and passion is raising monarch butterflies.  Over the years, he has raised and released thousands of them.

He starts out by gently collecting eggs from the many milkweed plants he has in his yard.  He then takes the eggs indoors and meticulously sees them through their progression from tiny caterpillar to large caterpillar to chrysalis to winged  beauty.  It takes a lot of care, feeding, and attentiveness.

Before he releases them, he tags each butterfly with a tiny patch issued by a butterfly organization.  That organization has spotters in Mexico, where the monarchs winter.  Dan let out a whoop when he got a phone call one year informing him that one of his monarchs had made it all the way to Mexico.

As it happens, Dan and his wife are family friends and I was captivated by his hobby.  It just seemed like the coolest thing.  Two summers ago, I decided I would have a go at it.  I had visions of all these delicate creatures leaving my Chicago backyard and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, one of these fragile jewels would successfully make an epic journey.  So I went to my backyard and sure enough, there they were on some milkweed plants:  monarch eggs, lots of them.  What happened after I brought them into the house?  Tomorrow I tell the tale.

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To the Lady in the Toyota Who Yelled at Me

Thank you.  Yes, thank you.  It happened on south Michigan Avenue last week.  A stalled bus in front of me was blocking a lane of traffic and I momentarily lost track of the lane I was supposed to stay in.  So when I turned into an entrance for underground parking, I inadvertently cut someone off who was in the correct lane.  She made eye contact with me, shook her finger at me in admonishment, and yelled something.  I deserved it.

She may have taken action to avoid a collision and I am grateful.  As drivers, that’s one of the reasons we’re supposed to stay alert, right?  In case the other guy does something stupid?   This time I was that other guy.  Next time, it might be the lady in the late model Toyota and someone else’s alertness will prevent an accident.  At some point or another, each of us is “the other guy” and the vigilance of others keeps us safe.  That’s a pretty fair deal.

It reminds me of the time I almost got hit by a cab when I carelessly crossed a street in front of 630 North McClurg Court when I worked for WBBM TV.  The cabbie rolled down her window and I was expecting her to unleash a torrent of expletives.  But instead she yelled,  “Be careful.  Your life matters!”  I was speechless.  And very grateful.

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Left Behind on a Left Turn

I just had a one-week “staycation” in Chicago in which I ran a lot of errands and did a lot of driving.  And there’s one traffic trend that seems to be getting worse:  drivers who make a left turn in such a way that they are the only ones who make it through the green light.

Driving Etiquette 101 dictates that you should pull far enough into the intersection so that at least the car behind you can also make the left turn on the same green light.

This week I found myself behind several drivers who would barely pull into the intersection, turn their wheels leftward from that position–as opposed to closer to the center of the intersection–and then be the only one able to turn during the traffic sequence.  Not good.

Granted, none of us should be in such a hurry that sitting through another traffic light sequence should be a big deal, but it’s a courtesy to those of us who are right behind you.  Practice the buddy system–it’s no fun being left behind!

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I’m Taking a Week Off

photo of child and adult fishing

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/asam/ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

So my blog should be back on Monday, May 17th.  Hope to see you then!  Phil

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A Message About Messages

Photo of cellphone text message inbox

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozboi-nz/ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All of us get phone messages, whether at home or at work.  Here’s a big thank-you to everyone who identifies him or herself, leaves the phone number and then repeats both pieces of information.  I am constantly surprised by how many people in the business of communicating (and really, who isn’t?) don’t follow this helpful template:

  1. Identify yourself and give your number.
  2. Leave a brief message.
  3. Repeat who you are and repeat the number.

If you ignore step 3, the recipient often has to go through the irritating step of having to listen to the entire message again to get a key piece of information–especially your complete phone number.  And that can turn into resentment toward the caller.  But worse, it’s common for a phone message  to break up at a key point — especially during the phone number.  Not only is that particularly annoying from the recipient’s perspective, it’s also self-defeating from the caller’s.

So save others and yourself some grief; repeat yourself.  So save others and yourself some grief; repeat yourself.

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“Next Stop, Argyle…”

Photo of new lighted map inside CTA train car

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zolk/ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I just received a wildly flattering question from a reader.

“Sorry to get off topic, Phil, but I have a question that I can’t find an answer to anywhere in Chicago:  Are you the voice that announces stops and other announcements on CTA buses and the L?  It’s a really strong resemblance.”

Dear Reader, thank you for thinking that the CTA voice might be mine.  It isn’t, but it’s a voice I really like.  Frankly a resemblance had never occurred to me.  I seem to remember an article about the person who actually makes those recordings and if memory serves, he’s from Milwaukee.

But here’s an offer to the CTA:  if you ever want to replace that out-of-town voice with the voice of someone from Chicago itself, I would consider it an honor and a civic pleasure to do it for you.  And to help you address your budget shortfall, I would do it pro bono.  Besides, the L rumbles very close to my house so it would be excellent symmetry if my voice were rumbling inside the L.  Call me!

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A Tree Grows in Ravenswood

Replacement Serviceberry Tree

Replacement Serviceberry Tree

A few weeks back, I asked for reader feedback on the status of a tree I had planted last fall.  I posted a picture showing just how lifeless it looked.  But in spite of its dry and brittle appearance, I didn’t want to declare it really and truly dead prematurely, so I gave it a reprieve of several weeks, hoping for a miraculous recovery.  But no miracle came to pass.

So this morning the old tree went out and a new one went in.  You can see what it looks like.  It’s another serviceberry.  Serviceberries are supposed to be nearly indestructible, but the nice folks at the garden center say that about 3% of all fall plantings don’t survive the winters.  Mine happened to be one of them.

The old tree was planted in October, so maybe it didn’t have enough time to brace itself for a Chicago winter.  The new one will have plenty of time to get itself established and will get plenty of TLC.  And since it was planted on Cinco de Mayo, let me say, “Que viva el arbol!” Long live the tree!

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An Epic Choice II

Food processor making pesto

(source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rabi/ - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Yesterday I wrote about a dilemma I faced at a small restaurant: whether to sit next to people who were talking so loudly I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with my dinner companion or to sit a few feet from an aggravated open-mouth chewer who was in my line of sight and who would wreck my appetite if I looked.

I compared it to Odysseus’ dilemma of having to navigate close to either Scylla, the multi-headed, sailor-eating monster, or Charybdis, the giant mouth in the sea that could swallow ships in its whirlpool. Odysseus decided to sail to close to Scylla figuring that maybe he could escape with the loss of a few men instead of sailing close to Charybdis and risk losing the entire ship.

My call? Obviously I couldn’t control loud talkers or an open-mouth masticator–all I could control was myself. I couldn’t shut off my ears, but I could avert my gaze–even if the gaping maw I didn’t want to see was within arm’s length. So I turned away from the human food processor and averted my eyes. Yes, I could still hear the chewing and smacking, but I focused on what my dinner companion was saying and that did the trick. And–miracle of miracles–just as our food arrived, Mr. Cuisinart and his companion got their check and left. (Not before he let out an audible, good-bye burp, of course, but he was gone nonetheless.) Odysseus should have been so lucky.

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