Thursday, December 18, 2008

Early Winter Snow

It’s frustrating that I always feel at my most poetic on my walk home in the evenings (from the Wilson stop, no less). Strands of words fill my head, just right for describing the worlds around and within me, but I cannot get to a pen and paper (or computer) quickly enough to get them down. When I try to fit the pieces back together at home, they become all mismatched and stubborn.

It snowed two days ago. That crisp, white, fluffy kind that reminds you of your childhood: building snowmen in the yard, making snow angels, and sledding. When I was walking home with the snow falling all around me on Tuesday, I felt inspired, and the words were there. Since then, I’ve been trying to capture the mixture of giddiness and contentment I felt as I tromped through the snow that night, but the words that captured the moment so perfectly then have escaped me once again.

Odd, how something like snow can put all your pieces back together—even the ones you thought you’d forgotten. Maybe it’s not snow for some people. Maybe for normal people it’s a gorgeous, sunny-warm day. But for me it was snow this time. I knew I was on top of the world when I felt this inconsolable urge to do torjetes in the snow, because I associate very little unhappiness with ballet. I wish I had done them (though the combination of frozen muscles, lack of practice, and slick sidewalks may not have ended so gracefully.) So, there I was, smiling and stomping through the snow like a six-year-old, wanting to break out into dance, and thinking up these perfect strands of words in my head. My two greatest passions in this whole wide world had rushed into me at the sight and feel of snow.

And, yes, I know that many people hate snow. And it’s no fun when you have to drive in it (I am sorry for those of you who were stuck on the highways for six hours that night.) But I am relishing the first time in years that I don’t have to drive in it—all I have to do is play in it!

After two years in Knoxville, it sure feels good to be back in the Midwest where we get more than an inch of snowfall and most of us know how to drive in it. And, even better than being in the general Midwest, it’s amazing to be in Chicago at wintertime. Because when you’re downtown walking past the Macy’s window displays, or snaking through the Krist Kindl Markt, or rushing along beneath the strings of lights adorning Michigan Avenue, with snow falling on your head, it really feels like Christmas.

Before you get the idea that I’m a complete idealist, let me assure you that I don’t love the gray slush that follows the pristine snowfall. Today I sloshed to and from work looking at the gray mush piled up like dirty mashed potatoes along the sidewalk. It turns my stomach a little, and reveals the city’s pollutants in an unavoidable way. I realize that by February, the slush and ice and cold may be more than I can bear. But for now, I’m going to savor it just a little bit longer…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Obama Rally (overdue)

I never had the opportunity to document the Chicago Obama rally. It's long overdue, but the moment still resonates throughout the city and the nation. I think I've been afraid to write about it because I don't know how my words could do it justice. Let me start by apologizing for the inadequacy of words, and by saying that it was, perhaps, the most important political event I will attend in my lifetime.

Despite my excitement about Obama and this election, when November 4 arrived, I was not convinced that I should attend the rally. All day at work, I changed my mind by the hour. One moment I was going to go and be an active part of the most historical election in U.S. history. The next moment I was imagining gun shots and bombs. A mixture of 9/11, MLK and JFK images whipped up fear in my mind. I really was worried (and I wasn't alone), and vacillated all day. When I left work, I wasn't going to go, and convinced my friends it was the sensible decision. An hour after that, I was putting my persuasion skills to the test, urging the same friends to ignore what I'd said earlier, that we HAD to go, that this was history and we were HERE. In Chicago!

Finally, after a scrumptious dinner, eyes glued to CNN as the early voting results rolled in, the four of us found ourselves on the El, headed downtown. On the train, the excitement and optimism were palpable. Everyone texted back and forth with friends, capturing election updates, sharing information with new-found friends all around them. We were on the train when I found out that Obama took Ohio. I was elated. It made up for the depression I'd felt when my home state had re-elected Bush; when I'd felt that my vote for John Kerry hadn't counted; when I was embarrassed to admit that I was an Ohioan. This night, I was proud of my state, and of my country. I have always been grateful to live in the United States, but I have not often felt proud of my country. It was a new experience. And I savored it.

Emptying out of the train, we headed up to the packed streets, where that same anticipation we'd felt on the El was now emanating from thousands of people. On every corner, vendors were selling overpriced Obama wares (I bought a pink T-shirt proclaiming, "Obama President 2008" after haggling with the seller), and Dunkin Donuts provided us all with free donuts. It felt like some kind of carnival, only there weren't many kids. Just excitement everywhere.

When we finally poured into the grassy area of Grant Park (the part not reserved for ticket-holders [those lucky dogs!]), we all vied for spots close to the jumbotrons. But people weren't aggressive. Again, a sense of solidarity swept through the crowd. It was a shock to all of us when, shortly after staking out our spots, Obama was declared the winner. It happened so fast! We all remembered 2004, when we'd gone to bed uncertain who'd won the election. Waiting and waiting for official counts. This time it just happened. Smoothly. As if there had never been a doubt that Obama would become our next president.

The crowd erupted and immediately I knew that I had no concerns for my safety. I have never seen so many people crammed into such a small space be so happy and so unabashedly display their elation. I felt it like electricity through my whole body. I felt like a Christmas tree.

We were all relatively respectful during McCain's speech, considering the circumstances, but could not wait to hear from Obama. If his win seemed swift, the anticipation of his speech seemed to last for eons. It seemed as though we heard words spilling from all these mouths that didn't matter, and we only wanted to hear one man speak. And when he finally did, all of us struggled to keep it together--I couldn't restrain my tears, and as I looked around, I saw moisture spilling from so many eager eyes. One man weaved through the crowd just sobbing, reaching out to people around him, unable to contain his emotion. We all understood that what was happening was a momentous change for our country. Obama fed our starved spirits with hope for our future and the future of our children. It sounds cliche, but he was a beacon of hope, shining light out on every one of us. This is not an exaggeration. The tears, smiles, emotion, and widespread good will radiating from every square inch of the park proved it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Gaining My Bearings

Chicago is very well laid-out, but I get lost constantly. Actually, I’m starting to get better about finding my way, and have far fewer instances of driving (or walking) around fruitlessly searching for a road I’ve missed despite my best efforts to follow the directions provided by friends, mapquest, or people on the street. I have the worst sense of direction, a characteristic that has caused me great embarrassment. I sometimes wonder if directional sense is directly related to self-confidence. When I’m somewhere different, or if I have someone in my car that makes me nervous, I feel somewhat defenseless, and very unsure of myself. And then I get lost. But when I first arrived here, I even got lost going back to places I’d already been to. It worsened after my break-up at the end of September. During the past two weeks, however, despite being very ill with strep throat part of that time, I noticed my thoughts decreasingly focused on that old relationship, and my confidence increasing. I’ve only gotten turned around twice since then. I even drove myself to my new doctor’s office with a 102 degree temperature, feeling like crap, into busy downtown and back home again without a hitch. This may sound like a small feat, but it was a pretty big deal to me.

Let me also add that when I drove into Chicago for my interview in August, it was the worst traffic I’d ever driven in in my life. It was a Sunday evening, and I got caught in Cubs traffic, mixed with people driving to the beach, and, in my neighborhood, going to one of the many theatres for Sunday evening shows. On I-90, on the way in, traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and I had to learn, immediately, how to be aggressive in switching lanes. I was tense and nervous and, go figure, I got lost. To be fair, Yahoo! Maps gave me the wrong directions (again) and after I’d missed my exit, I got off at Wacker, recognizing the street name from my brief glances at the Chicago map online. I managed to maneuver us to Lake Shore Drive (which was insane with traffic) and then, my mom called the hotel to get directions and they gave us the wrong directions, because they thought we were heading north, when we were headed south. When I saw that we were about to merge back onto I-90 (and pay more tolls!!) I swerved over and got off at the last exit, spitting out a few expletives in the process. Finally, the hotel gave us the proper directions, and I got back on Lake Shore going north and we made our way to the hotel.

Once we were there, we didn’t want to leave. I felt as though my pores were emanating stress. But, we had to go check out some apartments I’d found on Craigslist, because I didn’t want to have to come back to Chicago just to do that if I got the job. So, after calling my now roommate for directions, we ended up back on Lake Shore drive, and got completely trapped in Cubs traffic. It took us about 45 minutes to get to where I now live (it should have taken about 20.) Anyway, to make a long story short, I have never again seen traffic in the city as bad as I experienced that day. But it made me extremely nervous about driving in Chicago at all, and I’m still getting over it. I fully expected Chicago traffic to be that way all the time; thank God it’s not.

The diagonal streets do not help me out when I miss a street and try to turn around by making three right turns. I want to make a box to get back to the street I was on and go back the way I came, but then a diagonal street pops up and suddenly I’m on some street I’ve never heard of. And there are some places where three streets intersect all at once (like Halstead, Lincoln and Fullerton) where you don’t know what the hell to do because the street signs are impossible to read and you have four possible ways to turn (if you don’t want to go straight.) So, it’s not entirely my fault that I get lost, and sometimes end up on a completely different street than the one I thought I was on. I really need to invest in a compass. I understand north, south, east and west better in this city than I ever had in my life. As long as I know which way I’m headed, I can usually figure out how to get where I’m going. But I don’t have an innate sense of where the lake is (my east reference, of course), so I sometimes don’t know which direction I’m going. And I always forget which way the street numbers are supposed to go if you’re traveling west.

Luckily, I generally only drive on the weekends. I rely on public transportation the great majority of the time. I do get confused, however, when I get off at a new stop and have to head, say, west on a street. I often don’t know if right is west, or left.

It’s embarrassing to get lost, especially when you’re trying to fit in. But I, at least, should give myself a break. After all, I’ve only been living here for two months. I’m still feeling out the situation, like baby roots just creeping out into the soil, looking for the best route to water. I am still uncertain about my future in this city, my place here, and which people I should get close to. I have times when I feel lost—literally and figuratively. But those moments force me to search, until I find my way back home. And I learn something each time. So, I may get lost a dozen more times in the next couple of months, but eventually I’ll have gotten lost so many times I’ll know my way around the whole city! And then, maybe, I’ll have my bearings.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Museum of Contemporary Art

Today, I was determined not to come home from work and plop in front of the television and waste my evening. I decided that weekdays don’t always need to feel like work days, so I treated myself to the Museum of Contemporary Art (it’s free on Tuesdays!). I literally sloshed there in the rain, periodically piecing my poor, battered umbrella back together as I went. I probably shouldn’t have risked the damp weather, considering I just spent the weekend in bed, trying to get well from a sore throat of some undefined nature, but I needed to break my routine. I’ve found that I’ve already carved a rut for myself, and I haven’t been exploring Chicago in all the ways I originally intended, and I don’t want to leave here someday, saying I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that. And I figure that the only way to cure loneliness (and a bit of a broken heart) is to get out and get comfortable with me again. So, the MCA was at the top of my to-do list.

Contemporary art and I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship. Some of it will never be art to me (i.e., Duchamp’s famous “Fountain,” which I frowned at in the Tate Modern), and I feel like the descriptive placards alongside some of these exhibits are nothing but profound-sounding b.s. Let me qualify that I do not feel this way about all modern art, and actually enjoyed most of what I saw at the MCA. In fact, I found myself wishing there were more.

Two artists really stood out to me, today. Both altered my mood considerably, and caused me to react, visibly. Kara Walker’s large cut-outs looked like a playful series of silhouettes from far away. They almost looked as though they could be painted on a child’s bedroom walls. But then I looked closer, and few of the scenes remained playful or light-hearted. Most took on a deeply sexual, violent and disturbing nature. At first I blushed, then I felt angry. Walker brings to light (through her use of darkness) the perversions of the worst Antebellum stereotypes, sometimes in what I hope is gross exaggeration. I found myself alternately concerned, shocked, and angered as I paced the room. I felt very uncomfortable looking at those scenes--and I think that good art should be able to do that to you.

The second exhibit that stuck with me was Williaim Kentridge’s (charcoal?) drawings, which he converts into a short film. Almost animated, but not exactly. I was near tears watching it (okay, yes, I’ve been a tad more emotional lately than usual), with the unexpected violence, and the integration of the telephone, typewriter, etc. with the bod(ies) and the wounds. I really can’t quite describe it. You should go see it. And sit through the whole film. I read the description afterward, which I think was best because I had initial, guttural reactions without even knowing the specific subject matter. Now, I need to go back and watch it again, knowing to what it refers (to take it in more cerebrally.)

It was good to be there digesting the artwork alone. I like going to museums with friends, as long as they aren’t art snobs, but generally like to wander about at my own pace, lingering at the works that most resonate with me (which invariably aren’t the ones that resonate with my companions.) Alone, I feel freer to react without censoring myself. It was nice just to be there. To hate what I hated (an exhibit called “Plywood”) and love what I loved (the above-mentioned, and some drawings from the 70s whose artist’s name I already forgot) and not necessarily have a good explanation for why. Looking at art helps me get closer to grasping myself, which is always a good thing when you’re new and alone in a big city and trying to figure it all out.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cubs Postseason Rally

If I were a good reporter, I’d have written about this event directly after it happened. I am not, however, a reporter (though I wouldn’t mind having that job someday), as my blatant opinions here attest, and I’ve shied away from describing the event because I felt like such an impostor being there—at the Cubs postseason rally. Last Tuesday, Daley Square was bursting with Chicago pride (the Cubs kind, not the Sox kind) as Jessica, Chris, and I milled around on our lunch break. We arrived early, but it wasn’t long before the place was overflowing with blue. I was wearing blue, too—a lucky coincidence.

As I watched all the cheering fans around me, I hoped they wouldn’t sense my unavoidable naivety. I felt as if I wore my secret on my forehead like a scarlet letter—I know nothing about baseball. I’ve been to one game in my entire life, a sad showing this past summer by the minor-league Tennessee Smokies (a Cubs affiliate, ironically); they couldn’t even seem to get a man on base, let alone score any runs. I was bored stiff, and my (now ex-) boyfriend treated my disinterest as a personal slight against the Smokies, against Tennessee, and against him. I tried to appear amused, but it wasn’t working. His friends, far more supportive, assured me that I needed to see a real team play. They told me that the major leagues are a completely different experience, and that if I really wanted to enjoy a game, I should go see the Cubs. I believed them then and believe them now. Unfortunately, as badly as I wanted to go see the Cubs after I moved here, I was completely broke upon my arrival to Chicago this fall.

So, instead, I stood there in Daley square, feeling my baseball ignorance more strongly upon me than ever before, but somehow it didn’t completely matter. I became swept up in the excitement (believe you me, I am now twice as excited to see the Cubs, and even more anxious for next season when I will hopefully have the funds to go.) I loved it that businessmen and women had hung Win posters from their office windows facing the square. I loved that parents decked their kids out in head-to-toe Cubs gear. And I loved seeing Jim Belushi (“According to Jim” is one of my favorite TV shows, though I’m not sure why) and Ernie Banks (I remember him from years ago when my brother and I collected baseball cards.)

At the Cubs postseason rally, I learned a little more about Chicago politics. Everyone cheered for Mayor Daley (although there are certain events occurring in Uptown, as well as a few moments from Chicago’s past that I think may be cause for concern among some residents), and booed at Illinois Governor Blagojevich (I don’t know why—I’ve got some research to do.) All of the speeches were pure fluff and no substance, but that’s what the occasion called for. Every speaker said exactly the words they knew would excite the Cubs-loving crowd, lauding Chicago, praising the team, and flattering the fans (except, of course, when Governor Blagojevich made the mistake of bringing up the White Sox.) It was during this rally that I began to understand what it means to have pride in a sports team (and I have not had a very good grasp on this in the past) and why you don’t wear White Sox gear in my neighborhood.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hardwood floors and steam radiators

Let’s face this fact right now—I’m excited by the little things. Easily amused, as they say. But I’m not ashamed. It’s nice to have those times in your life when everything is new, and you don’t even need to attempt to see things from a different angle because everything is different to your still-adjusting eyes. I seem to recall that one of the joys of childhood was the sense of freshness. Things that had become ordinary to the adults around me weren’t completely grasped by me. So, I’d ask unending strings of questions to try and wriggle things into my swiftly developing consciousness. It can sometimes feel unnerving not to know our surroundings, to be unfamiliar as adults, yet it can also take us back to that sense of reveling in the small things that made youth so precious.

The point I’m after is that I live in a building built in approximately 1918 (my roommates couldn’t tell me exactly, but that was their estimate) and I'm excited about it. It’s certainly the oldest building I could ever call my residence. The hardwood floors creak under my feet as I walk through the apartment and, being as I am in love with old movies from the forties and fifties, I try to imagine the women and men whose footsteps shared my path. From the outside, the place looks like it could have popped right out of a black and white movie (let’s face it, before moving here my vision of Chicago essentially depended on its onscreen portrayal.) The building has kitsch and character, which is something I always wanted my home to have (I was insanely jealous of my friend Kim’s amazing old studio in Minneapolis when I lived in my boring white box of an apartment in Knoxville.) And while this particular residence is only temporary, it feels good and fitting for me to be here. (I’m currently trying to find out more specifics about my building and Uptown architecture. Here are some excellent sources I’ve found so far: Chicago Reader and Uptown Chicago History

I love this building and I’m excited about steam radiators (yeah, I’m such a dork), but I wish they’d turn on the boiler already! The weather turned cold in Chicago almost the moment the calendar said “Autumn begins.” It was suddenly forty degrees at 5:30 AM and I could barely peel my warm, nestled body from the blankets shielding me from the cold. There sits my radiator in the corner, cold and still and essentially useless. I’m looking at it right now, curled up in bed with my computer, nursing a sore throat and willing my sinuses to stop pulsating behind my cheeks. And I definitely could use a bit of steam heat right now. (I heard a rumor that it’s a city ordinance to have the boilers turned on by October 1st. Apparently, our association missed the memo.)

I’m trying to prepare myself for the frigid Chicago cold from which a mere two months separates me. I’m not sure how I’m going to hold up, considering that I’m already freezing and it’s only October. My mom has always called me a freeze cat, because I’m constantly cold, and having spent two years in Knoxville where their definition of winter is a handful of forty-degree days and half an inch of snow, I feel rather defenseless. But if the millions of other people who live here can handle it, I’m sure I will manage. And it’s all worth it to know I will be here at Christmastime.

You can count on multiple, sappy, detailed blogs come Christmastime. I love Christmas more than anyone I’ve ever met, and cannot picture a more perfect place to anticipate the holidays than Chicago, Illinois. I can hardly wait to walk by Macy’s window displays twice a day, every weekday going to and from work… Wow, it’s October and here I am thinking about Christmas. This is what fall does to me—it brings cooler weather and my mind immediately fast-forwards to December. But I really missed the Christmas spirit in Knoxville. Not only was I much further away from my Midwestern family (and they are more a part of my idea of Christmas than anything else), but also there was no snow in sight, I couldn’t afford a full-sized Christmas tree on my grad student budget, and people just generally didn’t seem to get too terribly into the spirit of the season. So, being back in the Midwest for Christmas, especially being in Chicago, gives me real contentment and anticipation.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Soggy Bus Rides

I wrote this a of couple weeks ago, when Hurricane Ike effects washed down the city, but I wanted to post it (and just for the record, today is a gorgeous Saturday):

After work today, I squeezed from the wet streets into the express bus that would carry me from downtown to home. Soggy bodies circulated in and out, and rain slipped in through the creases in the ceiling above the aisle. I suppressed a devilish smirk as the people filtered in and out and renegade raindrops splashed atop their heads. I’d watch their reactions to the dirty droplets, the recognition that they were inside but it was still raining, and their futile attempts to dodge the drops in the crowded aisles. It wasn’t so much that I was suppressing laughter at their misfortune (small misfortune, indeed), but that I found amusement in the fact that the dripping ceiling was new to each person as they filed by. I suppose I could have warned them—not that it would do much good, considering the number of people crammed into the aisle—but instead I just watched very different people react in exactly the same ways. As soon as a drop hit a hairline, an arm, an exposed toe, they’d look up, surprised, sometimes annoyed. I had done the same thing myself, when I first felt the damp discomfort of the dripping roof. I might sound sappy when I say this, but it’s moments like these, in a city of strangers, when I am reminded how alike we all are.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Being new to the city, new to the "real world," new to my job, and my roommates, and subletting, I have no shortage of topics to write about. My days and nights revolve around, and within, this magnificent city. It makes me feel like a child, all this newness. I'm re-acclaimating myself to my surroundings, exploring the ways I fit, or if the city even has a niche for me. Of course, Chicago seems all-encompassing, as if she had outstretched arms into which all of us tiny people run, looking for comfort, but she's a bit stiff. She's a frigid mother. Her arms are always open, but she won't protect you--that you'll have to do for yourself.

Within these far-reaching arms there sits a cluster of buildings where activity is particularly concentrated, a place I love to be--downtown. I work in a famous, lanky building that I bounce toward every morning, listening to my iPod. Each morning, I hop into an elevator, and let it lift me up into the clouds with ear-popping swiftness. As we climb the stories, I fight away those sneaky fears that try to creep into my mind of the possibility of elevator malfunctions and a swift-plummet death (and, oh yes, I have those fears.) I'm always relieved when the elevator spits me out onto my floor, where I do one last yawn to open my ears against the altitude, and then patter along to my desk.

The view in the morning is breathtaking. The beauty of the lake's untamed nature juxtaposed against the hard precision of man-made skyscrapers always gives me a thrill. I can see the Sears Tower from the window by my desk (facing southwest), and enjoy the sun flooding into and over the magnificent architecture of the city. On foggy mornings I giggle at the thought of working in a cloud.

Once I've savored the morning, I get right into work. I work hard, and usually for nine hours straight, and it feels good. I accomplish so much, I forget about my worries, and I feel more authentically Chicagoan. I idealize this place as a city of hard workers, career-minded and solid. Though I know that's a gross generalization, and untrue, it's what I want for myself, and what I strive for. After all, the city won't take care of me--I have to pave my own way.