Rock Cut State Park on Mother’s Day Eve Day

Most Illinoisans drive to Wisconsin for lakes and woods but Rock Cut State Park just north of Rockford provides a fine experience of both without even leaving the Prairie State.

My family – from both sides of the state line – celebrated an early Mother’s Day at the park today with a picnic, hiking, games, an unauthorized swim, and lots of nature sightings including a pair of loons, bald eagles, and a very large frog.

Both the lake and the surrounding woods and prairie are large enough to give a good sense of getting away without having to go very far. I highly recommend this park.

A Closer Look at La Catrina

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My coworker Alfredo stands with a few of the many Catrinas he created this year for a Day of the Dead exhibit earlier this month.

Alfredo is a coworker of mine who appears to be an unassuming maintenance man but also happens to be an extraordinarily talented artist.

In early November he put together an exhibit of Catrina figures that he had created. La Catrina is the elegantly-dressed skeleton-figure that we associate with Mexican Day of the Dead artwork. She is basically a made-up skeleton combined with the frilly dress and accessories of 18th-century colonial aristocracy. She is a legendary figure in Mexican culture.

As the Spanish version of Catherine, “Catrina” somehow became a derisive shorthand term for the upper-class ladies of colonial Mexico. The name was applied to this figure of death to poke fun at the emptiness of wealth and all its expressions. La Catrina reflects the realization that death is the great equalizer; she’s the ultimate you-can’t-take-it-with-you statement.

On November 4 my coworker Alfredo  put his Catrina creations on display and invited the community to visit. He kindly agreed to let me take photos, which I present here.


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Busse Woods: A Natural Oasis in Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs

Between an enormous airport and shopping center – O’Hare International and Woodfield Mall, respectively – sits an equally enormous oasis of green and blue in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

Ned Brown Preserve, known as Busse Woods or Busse Lake to locals, is a several-thousand acre forest preserve with woods, meadows, lakes, streams, even a herd of elk. Several types of water craft are available for rental as are picnic shelters for large groups.

Although hundreds of people visit the preserve on even a slow day and the place is surrounded by the airport, mall, and several major expressways, it is so large that it does offer the feeling of getting away from it all.

I visited the lake with my kayak one evening this week and was surprised again at how much wildlife can be seen. The preserve is worth a visit – but expect a crowd if you go at peak times on weekend afternoons.

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Ned Brown Preserve includes several thousand acres of land, a 486-acre lake, and an abundance of wetlands.

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An egret wades the weedy shallows in search of fish.

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A lightning-fast thrust of the bill and a fish is caught.

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One of the largest frogs I’ve ever seen in the wild watched me warily.

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A Great Blue Heron pauses from fishing while I pass…

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… then decides to get away from me and my kayak.

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Boats, canoes, and kayaks are available for rent – if you can get past the egret.

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In the evening the egrets head to the trees for a night’s roost.

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A beaver resented the proximity of my kayak…

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… gave the water a whack with the tail…

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… and dove to safety.

A June Fortnight in India (Part 2): Kerala

In Part 1 of this story of my two-week trip to India last month, my wife, youngest son, and I visited my wife’s home city of Pune, celebrating her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. After a week there, we traveled south to see her parents’ home states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

After the anniversary celebrations in Pune we flew to Kochi for our week in the south of India beginning with a too-short two-night stay in the verdant hills of the state of Kerala. In learning about India, it took me a few years to grasp the reality that neighboring states in that country could have such distinct cultures, histories, languages, and personalities. But traveling to Kerala – and later Tamil Nadu – certainly helped bring that point home.

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With abundant water, warmth, and palm trees, Kerala has an unmistakable tropical feel.

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With its long coastline, Kerala is known for seafood and it was there I had this fried fish and fish curry that were part of the most delectable non-homemade meal of the trip. Superb!

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Several of my Malayali friends and family make the tastiest tea so I was not surprised when I found the slightly sweet, frothy tea in Kerala to be exquisite.

The primary language of Kerala is Malayalam and a person who speaks it is a Malayali. I’ve often heard other Indians poke fun of Malayalis – and Malayalis make fun of themselves, for that matter – for certain stereotypical qualities that may include (or so I’ve gathered) a kind of exaggerated self-awareness and a strong pride in their history, religion, homes, appearance, etc. I’m not sure if this is mockery or envy. To be honest, they are not the worst qualities in the world and they actually describe almost anyone, anywhere who takes pride in themselves and their people. Kerala did strike me as a very clean place and the people there definitely were proud enough of appearances to keep lovely homes, churches, villages, and cities – a wonderful place for tourists to visit.

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My second morning in Kerala, I took this photo from a high bridge outside Punalur, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and I could simultaneously hear singing from prayer at a Hindu temple in one direction and chanting from a Muslim mosque in another.

In the west we hear much about religious conflict in India and, tragically, it is a part of their history. But on the ground, in daily life, Indians tend to live with a great tolerance of religious differences and historically have mixed and combined practices across traditions. In Kerala, where they trace their Christian roots back to the first century and the missionary visit of Thomas the Apostle, the Christian presence is very proudly visible, more so than elsewhere in the country. After landing in Kochi and driving north it seemed every kilometer or so that we spotted a large, spectacular, white church on a hill or among the trees. Small shrines to Mary or to other saints are positioned at busy intersections, often right next to a Hindu shrine or down the street from a mosque.

On that first day in Kerala we visited our friend, Fr. Matthew, who directs a remarkable Catholic retreat center in Muringoor, a half-hour north of Kochi. This center is massive, like a city itself, hosting weekly retreats in seven different languages, providing jobs and housing for low-income people, and caring for older adults, AIDS patients, persons with mental disabilities, and much more. They have hundreds of acres of land to support this undertaking, including a farm with 200 head of dairy cows! (As a Wisconsinite, a native of America’s Dairyland, I naturally insisted on a complete tour of the facilities.)

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In the Malayalam section of the center, there’s no question that Christ is at the heart of all that is done here.

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The grounds of the retreat center are so extensive they are divided into language groups for the participants and staff.

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I asked a shirtless gentleman who was splitting coconuts if I could take his picture. He was so pleased he put on his shirt and proudly posed with me next to the metal wedge that he uses to split 1,000 coconuts a day!

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The supervisor of the farm was very proud to show us around his operation that includes 200 dairy cows.

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An outdoor Way of the Cross is a small part of the massive retreat center at Muringoor.

On day two we headed for my mother-in-law’s ancestral town, Koothrappally. This is a picturesque village presided over by a lovely white church – St. Mary’s – on a hill at one end and the family’s historic home at the other. Everyone in this town seemed to be related to my wife’s mom. We visited relatives currently living in the family’s house, walked down “Main Street,” and stopped by St. Mary’s where my mother-in-law worshiped and went to school as a child. We even visited the church cemetery where almost every name brought back memories and strong family connections.

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We climbed the front stairs at St. Mary’s church in Koothrapally, Kerala.

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This is a newer house, but my wife’s grandmother’s home occupied this location for decades in their ancestral town of Koothrapally.

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My mother-in-law caught up on family news in the home that stands on the site of her grandmother’s former home.

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We walked down Koothrapally’s main street and, as was the case everywhere in India, the locals unabashedly stared at the foreigner from America.

Later that day we drove farther south in Kerala to Punalur, the small city that my wife’s grandmother moved to when she got married. Here we stayed with an aunt and uncle whom I already knew (their daughter – my wife’s cousin – lives in Chicago) and spent time with many other aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Punalur is where my wife spent school holidays as a child. Though she is very young(!), my wife recalls a much more rustic experience at her grandmother’s house back in the day. She has warm memories of living without running water or electricity and spending long full days and evenings with her mom’s eleven siblings, their spouses and children, and many other relatives. The time was spent exploring outdoors, cooking over a wood fire, eating, praying, reading, and everyone entertaining themselves and one another with stories and songs.

My mother-in-law was born the eldest of twelve children and she and her siblings remain very close to this day. Somehow they all seem to have the same loving, affectionate, positive personalities that my mother-in-law is blessed with. Seeing almost all of them together and experiencing this all at one time made for an amazing and memorable 24 hours in Punalur! Some family members drove for hours to see us. Some didn’t arrive until 10:00 at night. No one cared, of course, as the entire focus was on seeing loved ones and catching up on one anothers’ lives.

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The morning sun on the home of my wife’s aunt and uncle – with a rubber tree plantation on three sides and a tapioca field on the other.

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Close up of a rubber tree with the receptacle that collects the latex used to make rubber.

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A canal outside of Punalur, Kerala.

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As a child my wife visited her grandmother’s place every school holiday and was the apple of her aunts’ eyes. They still dote on her with gifts of plantains and homemade jewelry.

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One of the highlights of Kerala was my wife’s cousin’s young son who had energy to burn and personality to match – even at the crack of dawn!

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This elegant railroad bridge over the Kallada River in Punalur holds a sad but special place in the memory of my mother-in-law’s family. Her youngest brother died here at the age of 16, attempting to save the life of another person drowning in the flooded river.

Most people who visit Kerala go to the famous backwaters and the houseboats and other tourist destinations – things we will have to save for next time. We used this trip to visit family and see the places that are so special to my wife and her mom. We did get a taste of the beauty of this state though with its endless green hills and breathtaking vistas. I look forward to going back some day as more of a tourist.

In Part 3 we travel to Tamil Nadu, my father-in-law’s home state.