Saturday, September 26, 2009

May I recommend...

Check your own Public Television station for the schedule so you don't miss a minute!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes

That deaden suffering, And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

  • Emily Dickinson

Today, after 21 very good and happy years followed by a few very difficult weeks of decline, my love, my heart, Winston, was finally given the liberty to die. We grieve, we grieve. 

My deepest thanks to Dr. Charron Bryant, who carefully eased Winston's final minutes and gave us comfort the best he could.  

Rest in peace my old beloved friend.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


The Booth School's Harper Center viewed from the southwest; my office is among those atop
the large horizontal limestone elements in the foreground, with the atrium tower rising behind.

The interior of the atrium viewed from the third floor mezzanine.

A casualty-to-be-collected on the mezzanine roof viewed from the inside.

It’s bird migration season again, this time from northern summer nesting regions southward to warmer wintering grounds with good food supplies. The glass tower of the otherwise brilliantly designed Harper Center, Hyde Park home and global headquarters of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, has been from the beginning a wall of treachery to migrating and resident bird life. The floor on which I work has a mezzanine lidded with a glass ceiling collaring the atrium’s tall tower. This is where the birds, flying full speed into what to all appearances is air and sky, smack down when they bounce off the glass. Some are merely stunned, and squat on top of the nearly horizontal glass, trembling, panting, and blinking until they catch their breath and fly away. But most hit with fatal force; from below, passersby see their colorful, stiff bodies, impossibly skinny legs in the air. Some, like the pair of monk parakeets that died there last week, are big and impossible to miss; at a glance, the hummingbirds, exquisitely tiny, could be beetles.

The Booth School has been doing whatever is reasonably possible to remediate the carnage. The window-walls have retractable blinds that are lowered to cut reflections in the day and the illusion of transparency when the interior is lit at night, thus much better creating the look of a solid surface. When the blinds are down, the collision rate drops. But there are still a few casualties, spring, fall, and in between.

Mary Hennen with a handful of
frozen birds at the Harper Center's freezer.

To make the best of the situation, the bodies are collected, bagged, dated, and frozen for study by the Field Museum of Natural History, a scientifically very active place behind the exhibits. My friend, Bird Collections Assistant Mary Hennen, retrieved a several months-worth of birds a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what the Harper Center tower sampled:

Tennessee Warbler (3)
American Redstart ( 2)
Magnolia Warbler (2)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (2)
Willow/Alder Flycatcher (1)
Chimney Swift (1)
House Sparrow (1)
Starling (1)
Indigo Bunting (1)

The Harper Center is by no means the only structure in Chicago that provides birds for study. The problem is severe enough in our forest of skyscrapers that the City itself has provided an explanatory Web site with suggestions for remediation, and the well-organized volunteer Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (CBCM) valiantly aim to increase the survival chances of the injured.

The Field Museum uses these specimens in several ways, including to learn what species and which sexes are traveling through the Chicago area at what times; how weather affects migration and the number of “kills” (certain wind directions make some storms significantly more deadly than others), and body fat and condition at different time-points throughout the years.

One of the great surprises for me has been the vast variety of birds we have around us unnoticed. In the city we all know there are robins, sparrows, and, in the Colorful Department, cardinals. I would bet most people never appreciated the animated indigo buntings and bright yellow-and-black magnolia warblers when they were in the air and trees around them.

A magnolia warbler

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Left to right
My father, Thomas Sebeok and cousins Leslie (Laci) P. and Marta (Marti) Boehm (undated, but
estimated at about 1928)

I have written a bit before about my mother and her side of the family and their interesting lives and my funny paternal grandfather but today is about my father’s first cousin, Marta.

Of all my living relations, the person I am closest to and love the best is another of my father’s first cousins, Leslie P. I call him by his nickname, Laci (pronounced LOT-sie). He’ll be 85 in November, and now that he knows I’m interested, he’s sharing his memories with me. Laci is a Holocaust survivor, but many relatives were not.

Today he called to tell me about Marta Spiegel, known affectionately as Marti. She was my father’s mother’s sister Aranka’s daughter. Laci is the son of another of my father’s mother’s sisters, Margit. Of Marta, Laci has written, “She was very beautiful and a great girl, my best friend.” Of her death, still today he says, “[it] hurts me a lot.”

Marta was born in Budapest sometime around 1920, and grew up to marry Miklos (Miki) Boehm. This is their wedding picture. Was she not happily beautiful indeed?

Laci has written, “Shortly after [her daughter] Veronica [mine is a name that appears often in my father’s tree] was born, her husband Miki was called up to Forced Labor service and his unit was one of those sent to Russia with the Hungarian army, where he died of typhus."

Today Laci expanded on Marta’s short biography. He says that after her first husband died, “Marti remained a young widow for a few years…” but she had a boyfriend, a nice guy whom she determined nonetheless to break up with for reasons Laci no longer remembers; in 2009, he recalls only that she asked him to deliver the message to the boyfriend.

Not long afterward, Laci says, Marti “decided to get married to her old friend Pista Reisinger. They went to Ujpest [a suburb of Budapest] to get married.”

Today he told me the most painful part of the story for him, that “her deportation could have been avoided.”

As he remembers it, unbeknownst to anyone, the Jewish citizens of Ujpest were at the top of the Nazi’s hit list, and the very day Marta and Pista married they were sent to camp to await deportation. Marta managed to convince the commander that she could get blankets and other supplies for the deportees. Though the commanders knew perfectly well the deportees would not need such amenities much longer, the Nazis (both German and Hungarian) were delighted to take her up on the offer as they themselves were interested in merchandise and supplies for their own purposes, as Marta well knew. She and Pista were escorted to Budapest by a member of the Hungarian police force. She led them to Laci’s father’s office. Laci’s father was in charge of 2,000 Jewish laborers whom he was allowed to shelter (in the old Jewish school) for performing the work of sorting, cleaning, restoring, and distributing clothing, shoes, and other supplies to keep themselves fit to perform forced labor. The best, of course, was culled for the Nazis themselves.

When Pista and Marta arrived, Laci’s father said to them, “I’m in a meeting. I’ll be with you shortly.” Nobody knows how long the delay really was, but by the time Laci’s father returned to the reception room, they were gone.

Laci says, “and they were put into a deportation train [in Ujpest]. She died in Auschwitz soon afterward and we know no details.”

Laci does not blame his father. What could his father have done? Easily bribed the police escort. But as it unfolded, painful guilt and sorrow prevail 65 years later.

Marta and Miklos’s daughter Anka (Veronica) Boehm, only 10 or 12 years old at the time, by some miracle was smuggled out of Hungary with other cousins’ children, and eventually emigrated to America. She also died young, of cancer.

Anka Boehm, daughter of Marta Spiegel Boehm and Miklos Boehm
Undated portrait

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Did you really say this?

Nick Bryant this morning on BBC America, regarding the Sydney Opera House:
"...a building that defies consensus, and not everyone agrees..."