Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Happy Ending, 2009

Last night after work, I headed out into the snow toward the Art Institute. I was only headed to the gift shop to check out their post-Christmas deals (their ornaments and calendars are half off!), but the journey was more exciting than the destination. It was a nice scene as the street lights on Michigan Ave. set the swirling snowflakes aglow around the pedestrians. I didn’t even mind the tourists blocking the sidewalks, because they all seemed to be enjoying themselves so much. And I love to see everyone bundled up in their own personal concoction of winter gear, faces ruddy with the Chicago wind, laughing, teasing, staring at maps… Cozy in my winter boots and wool coat, I moseyed around the Loop for another half an hour or so after dropping into the museum, drinking in Chicago, at night, with glistening snowflakes. And all I could think was that there’s no place else on Earth where I’d rather ring in the New Year.

In the spirit of the season, many thanks to those of you who faithfully continue to read my blog, even when I get too sappy, or fail in an attempt to be funny, or simply don’t have time to post often enough. I hope each of you has had a wonderful 2009 and that 2010 brings you joy and peace.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Snow and all, it felt so nice to return to Chicago today. The holiday with the family at home in Ohio was a much-needed and appreciated break from the daily grind, filled with family parties and good cheer. Even though I felt sad leaving town today, when I closed in on my street in Chicago, I felt the same familiar rush that I get every time I return. There’s no denying it—this city has a profound effect on me.

The rooftops look gorgeous from my window, slanting slopes of white dotted by brick red chimneys. It feels almost Dickensian. If I could ignore the skyscrapers sandwiching the shorter buildings like overbearing older siblings, I might be able to forget time and space, and believe I were living in another century—just for a second. There’s even a church spire visible from my window, which adds just the right touch to the wintry scene. Plus, I can see my patch of lake, to the east, although, in the dusk, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish the water from the sky.

It’s a good thing I’m still in my “return-to-Chicago euphoria,” though, because my visit to the grocery store was almost enough to knock me from my Dickensian dream right back down to reality’s cold pavement. If there’s any one thing I dislike about the city (aside from parking, which we all know is the bane of my existence), it’s grocery shopping. When I lived in Knoxville, going to the grocery store was my favorite errand. I’d go on Sunday mornings, when traffic was light and everyone was in Church, and I’d have the spacious Kroger aisles practically to myself. I could mosey through at a slow pace, grabbing what I needed and anything else that caught my eye. Prices were cheap, the selection was great, and I rarely walked out P.O.ed. I can’t say the same for my weekly (okay, almost daily) trips to Jewel.

For those unfamiliar with shopping at the local Jewel, I will attempt to paint the picture. First, the store itself is small and compact. Like many places in Chicago, it’s about space effectiveness, and fitting as much into a small area as possible, without feeling utterly crowded. But, unlike the city itself, there is nothing that could be done about the local grocery store to detract from the fact that it is utterly crowded. Every hour of every day, in fact, though it’s admittedly worse at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday. The grocery store feeds my entire neighborhood. We’re talking hundreds upon hundreds of people. It’s conveniently located (I presume this is why they can jack the prices up exorbitantly). Therefore—and here’s the kicker—no one drives to the grocery store. What does this mean? It means that people, like myself, are in and out of there multiple times per week, rather than just once, because we can only carry home so many groceries at a time (unless we buy one of those little carts from Walgreens, but I’m not eighty, yet, so I refuse to).

In Chicago, we do not go to the grocery store for a leisurely stroll up and down the aisles. We go with a list of exactly what we want, and know exactly where to find it, and we rush in and rush out as quickly as possible, dodging the hundred or so other shoppers in the store to wait in a long line for self check out, where we roll our eyes if someone stops up the line because they don’t know how to type in their produce code. Yes, I’m guilty of this same impatience. But, I confess that I still don’t know exactly where to find everything that I need, because I sometimes get so frustrated trying to find it amid all the people that I give up and grab a few things and rush out of there as quickly as possible. And let me assure you: Midwesterners are generally nice, but they are not nice in the grocery store. It’s every man for himself in that place. If you don’t watch out, you will get run down by someone’s cart (although, when this happens, there are usually profuse Midwestern apologies, because something like that is enough to penetrate our grocery store funk).

And people do not pay attention (I was not exaggerating about the collisions). Never before have I seen a place filled with so many people with tunnel vision (okay, actually Walmart is a thousand times worse, and I have to admit that between the two I'd rather be at my local Jewel). Sometimes you have to wait in line just to pick up some chicken breasts because the person in front of you is checking the price on every single package before they decide which one they want. Once in awhile I am that person, and sometimes—gasp—I do it on purpose. Sometimes I get so tired of being rushed and pushed around at the grocery store, that I will stand there for three whole minutes selecting the brand of goat cheese I want and I just don’t give a damn whether or not someone’s waiting for me to finish. Now, I admit, this is extremely rare behavior for me, and only happens if I’m having an incredibly bad day. But, honestly, the local grocery store brings out the worst in me, too.

Anyway, today as I was hauling my eight bags of groceries back to my apartment in the snow without gloves because I forgot to put them on before grabbing my bags, I thought to myself sarcastically, “This is what you’re so excited to come back to the city for?” But as I inched away from the Jewel, that grocery store funk started to peel away and I patted myself on the back for being self-sufficient. Then I got home, put my groceries away, plopped down on my bed with my laptop and a yogurt in tow, and decided that the view outside my window is almost Dickensian.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Clef Notes Winter Issue

I'm pretty happy to see one of my articles for Clef Notes in their online preview. Still anxious for the Othello review and my dance picks to appear, but you can read about this year's Chicago Humanities Festival for now. I'm not sure how long these samples will remain posted on the site, as they've changed them a few times already, but you can currently view "Stirring Up Laughter" here.

Please check out the other articles, as well, and don't forget that these kinds of performances and events are happening in Chicago all the time. Get out there and investigate Chicago's arts scene!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Brimming Stage

Tonight I reviewed the Joffrey’s Nutcracker, and it was fantastic. That’s about all I will say about it. If you want to know more from my perspective, you’ll have to find some way to get your hands on Clef Notes Concert Journal for the Arts spring issue (yes, that’s correct, the spring issue). I’d like to get my hands on the winter issue, so if you have a copy (or know someone who does) and wouldn’t mind parting with it, I’d love to have a print copy of my articles.

Anyway, I just enjoyed myself immensely at the ballet tonight, and I’m pretty sure Kat enjoyed herself, too (I love that they give me an extra press pass). The seats were amazing, about five rows back from the orchestra pit, and the stage was so huge. For a ballet like the Nutcracker there’s so much activity going on across every inch of it that you can’t possibly capture everything that’s going on at once! Adding to the excitement was the fact that I’m starting to know the company dancers immediately when they enter the stage. I have my favorites (don’t we all?) and not so favorites, and it’s almost to the point where all I need to see is their dancing (not even their faces) to know who they are. I enjoy finding new favorites, and picking out the ones I love from the corps pieces (not that they’re often in the corps). It adds that much more entertainment to my evening.

Anyway, I really just want to plug the Chicago arts scene. I feel like the city is so often tied to its mediocre sports teams, that sometimes people overlook its wealth of actually stellar cultural offerings. We may not be as expansive as New York City, but we’ve got a heavy concentration of artistic venues. I mean, there are so many jazz, blues, orchestra, etc. options, not to mention the local band scene, if you’re into that. The Joffrey’s offerings are self-explanatory, and there are other dance companies worth seeing, too, although their names are not as widely-known. I can't even begin to count the number of local theatre and improv troupes. Plus, we've got a range of film festivals, and the museums include your favorite staples (like the impressionist gallery at the Art Institute) as well as enticing exhibits rolling in and out of the countless city museums. There’s always something new to capture, or something old, as the case may be. Which reminds me that, beyond the world of the Joffrey Ballet, I need to get back into those scenes, myself. I know that if I let the cold temperatures become an excuse, I could lose three months of culture, which sounds much riskier than a little teeth-chattering.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

El Racing

It’s rather infrequently that I travel up to north Chicago these days. So, today, as the Red and Brown lines rushed me northward toward Ravenswood to meet Liz for coffee, and I watched the John Hancock grow increasingly diminutive, it actually felt like an extremely long journey. The path I had traced every day coming to and from work when I lived in Uptown is actually becoming unfamiliar to me now, since my life is pretty concentrated in downtown Chicago.

On my way home after coffee, after I had made my transfer from the Brown to Red line at Belmont, I was reminded of how much fun that El ride can be (forgive me for being so easily amused). Because today we got to race. At Fullerton, both the southbound Brown line and Red line trains took off at once. The Brown line was off to an early start, and for a second I thought we would lose. But it wasn’t long before the Red line smoked ‘em, as it zipped past the Brown line train, which was forced to make a stop. I love when the trains are timed just right like that, because it reminds me of riding on the Gemini roller coaster at Cedar Point, where the red and blue cars would take off together, and you’d race each other until the end of the ride (blue almost always won).

My favorite part of the simultaneous takeoff from Belmont, though, is that split-second of adrenaline when it seems as though the trains might crash into each other as they converge to run side-by-side. It always makes my breath catch in my throat for the briefest moment but then I relax when, surely enough, the trains start riding safely on their parallel courses. It’s not quite as exciting as riding a roller coaster, but it amuses me. Plus, you get to peer into the train next to you as you ride alongside each other. It would be more fun if you could taunt one another like everyone does on the Gemini, but, well, there’s urban transportation and then there’s Cedar Point.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


We had flurries today! It’s so much easier to be excited about snow when it stalls until December to get here. At work, my desk doesn’t face the window, but one of my supervisor’s does, and I could hardly concentrate while she prepped me for our conference call, because I was so distracted by the snowflakes drifting about just beyond her desk. Granted, they were sparse, yet, I couldn’t help but stare out the window at each tiny little spec of white as it drifted down from the clouds not too far above us.

By the time I went outside, sadly, the flakes were gone. Sigh. I can’t wait for those wintry nights, when you’re walking home after a long day at work, and the snow just wafts down around you, landing in soft piles of white. If you read my posts from last winter, you know how snow inspires me. Yes, I absolutely despise digging my car out of the snow, and I am no fan of driving in it (especially in Kentucky—woooaaa, scary--thank goodness I'm not doing that one again anytime soon!). But, God, it’s beautiful. I’ve always been of the mind that if it’s going to be cold, it had better be snowing.

Part of me is also hoping for some sub-zero Thursdays, too. (You just read that and cursed me, I know.) But only so that I can trek over to the Art Institute on their free night and have the place practically all to myself again, like I did last winter. It was unforgettable to walk into a gallery and find the room filled with nothing but me and fifty masterpieces. Seriously.

There’s just no denying it—there’s something magical about winter. Well, there’s magic when you’re looking at it from December’s eyes, anyway. Oh, Chicago Winters. I’ve only seen one of you and we had a very heated (er, frigid) love-hate relationship. Let’s see if I can sustain my adoration for you beyond December, before the appeal of Spring sweeps me off my feet.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Midwestern Thanksgiving

This is the best season of the year, rivaling even summertime in the city. While I’d been anticipating Thanksgiving for a couple of weeks, it all started, full-swing, on Wednesday morning.

That morning I actually got a seat on the train on the way to work. Commuter numbers were already dwindling in anticipation of the holiday. Everywhere I looked, someone was dragging a suitcase (not that this is unusual—people are constantly rolling suitcases around this city). As I headed through the Pedway, I didn’t experience the usual crush of suburbians that typically descend upon the train station, which meant that I didn’t have to weave through them precariously. The Tribune salesman was in his usual spot, his booming voice reminding me (as it does every day) that I could purchase one for just 50 cents. I just smiled watching the unusually slow pace of the people around me, and felt the light mood of the anticipation of the holiday break.

After a shortened work day, it took about an hour to get out of the city, even at 2 p.m. After that, though, the only slowed traffic was at the Ohio turnpike entry booths, where they still seem to be figuring out how to work their I-Pass (or EZ-Pass) system (I’m just glad that they finally got on board).

Thursday morning was portioned between the kitchen and the treadmill (okay, the kitchen actually got much more of my time). I decided not to be lazy and opt for deviled eggs (even though those are always a favorite) and tried a feta cheese pastry concoction I’d found on the Internet, after a long search for a good appetizer. Lucky for me, Kroger was completely dead on Thanksgiving morning (God, I love Kroger. I wish Chicago would get some), so I whizzed in and out with my four cartons of feta and stalks of green onion. After about an hour and a half in the kitchen, ta-da! I had managed to pull together my new favorite appetizer.

Thanksgiving is really inching up there, nearly beating out Christmas, as my favorite holiday. The two most important elements are there—family and food. In a typical year, there are rarely times besides Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my birthday, when I get to see all of my family in one place, at the same time, with the added bonus of all the amazing food. This year didn’t disappoint: gigantic turkey, dressing, cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potato casserole, mom’s spinach dish, creamed spinach, green beans, grandma’s rice pudding, rolls, feta cheese pastries, apple pie, cherry pie, pumpkin pie, and carrot cake. I definitely helped myself to two pieces of pumpkin pie (my favorite!).

Anyway, everyone was in good spirits. My cousins and nephew spent half the time chasing each other around with plastic guns and swords, while my little niece toddled after them, unsuccessfully trying to join in. My uncles and brother talked about cars, cameras, and computers. My mom and I spent considerable time keeping an eye on my niece, who likes to climb on everything (too bad we didn't burn off quite as many calories as she did!). I'd say that, all in all, it was probably your typical Midwestern Thanksgiving. And I'm thankful for that.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Nutcracker: Dreams, Realizations, Reality

F.Y.I., this post isn't exactly "Chicagoing," but when you move to the city, part of the experience is what happens when you visit home...

Tonight, my mom and I went to see the Ballet Theatre of Toledo’s Nutcracker. It was cute, the humor was interwoven quite well, and it was good for such a young company of dancers, but mostly it flooded me with memories. Admittedly, it wasn’t the Toledo Ballet version I grew up watching, and in which I once danced. But, since Nigel and Anne Marie broke off from Toledo Ballet and started their own company, it’s still infused with some similarities, including one of the guest artists whom I remember from my girlhood. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but tear up watching, knowing that dance will never again play quite the same role in my life that it did for the fourteen years that I avidly studied it. So much of tonight’s performance just took me back to the moments when dancing was all I wanted to do forever. When you’re young, it’s easy to believe things like that—before repeated kneecap injuries and a fractured toe. I’m not bitter about it, because I likely would have opted for a more practical path, regardless of injuries, and I'm really happy with the direction my life has taken. I suppose, however, there will always be a slight twinge of nostalgia there.

It was really bizarre to see the way some of the dancers have aged (including one of the guest artists). I haven’t seen them in years, and tonight it was a blast from the past for which I just wasn’t entirely prepared. It’s been fifteen years since I performed in the Toledo Ballet’s Nutcracker, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen a Toledo production of it since then. So, yea, fifteen years makes a noticeable difference—especially in the dance world. It’s so funny how people remain preserved in your memory with the youth, vigor, and admiration they commanded when you knew them. And when you see them years later you take a step back and say, “Yes. They’ve aged, too.” It’s just that I remember staring, starry-eyed, at Anne Marie practicing pirouettes for her role as the Snow Queen, during a rehearsal when I was just a girl, sitting under the barre, cross-legged in my pink tights. And I remember how Gail would practically bend her body in half, arching backward during the Arabian dance. She was one of the most beautiful, sinewy things you’d ever seen. I didn’t see her tonight, but watching the Arabian dance, I was struck at how it paled in comparison. The thing is, as you get older, you realize that your heroes aren’t immortal.

Anyway, it’s funny to see a production like this and notice how drastically my perspective has changed. When I performed in the Nutcracker, I was blown away by the high school girls, who performed roles like Snowflakes, and Sweets, and Russian Dancers. I aspired to be them. By the time I reached their age, I pretty much was them, though I didn’t really think of it that way. Now, I look at them and just think, “My God, they’re so young, and there was a day when I wanted to be them.” It makes me laugh a little, but I know there are still little girls admiring them. Plus, I myself am still blown away by the talent of some of them.

Anyway, it was a little trip down memory lane, and it brought back some happy memories that I had long forgotten. Plus, it was a nice kick-off to the holiday season. I’m looking forward to watching the Nutcracker from a completely different angle in a couple of weeks, when I’m back in Chicago reviewing the Joffery’s production. As much as I’m looking forward to watching the professionals take the stage (I can’t wait to see the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de duex and snow scene Joffrey-style), I do hope they include some children in their version, too (and I expect they will). There’s something really huge to be said for featuring children in a ballet like this one. I wouldn’t want any young dancer to be denied the chance to have the memory of dancing in a full-length production of the Nutcracker. It is a children’s story, after all.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I love the sound of all eight elevators in our elevator bank whooshing up and down just past 5 p.m. on a weeknight. The speed of the cars zipping up and down mimics the urgency of the passengers heading out of the office. I imagine how it would look if you could see through the walls and watch all 48 double-decker elevators sliding past one another like some kind of amusement park ride. Honestly, the thrill of working in one of Chicago’s tallest buildings doesn’t fade. And even my more jaded co-workers have to admit how much they love looking out of the windows in our corner conference rooms. Either the lake, or the city, or both (depending which conference room you’re in), just sprawl out below your gaze. On beautiful days, those views can be very distracting.

The elevators were whooshing vigorously when I left the office today. It had been a long week, full of long hours and being sick. I felt relieved to step outside, breathe in the fresh evening air, and find the blanket of darkness that descends upon the city so early these days. While I was sad to say goodbye to Daylight Savings Time, I have been happy to walk out of the office and find the dark skies overhead. Because dark skies mean glittering city lights, and downtown Chicago might just be at her most beautiful in the night.

Even though I felt crummy, it was even nice to walk from my apartment to the John Hancock building tonight. (The weather is still quite warm for November, which makes for perfect evening walks.) Can you believe that there are apartments in the Hancock? And that they are actually affordable? Apparently so, because I just spent the evening there with a bunch of the old intern crew to celebrate Suzie’s 20 or so hours in town before she heads back to Seattle.

Now, I know that I work pretty high in the sky, but living on the 57th floor of the John Hancock is a little higher than I would want to reside. Trey (it was his apartment) told us that when it’s stormy, the wind gets so loud that you can’t even carry on a conversation in the apartment. The view’s great, but the constant creaking from the wind is a little unnerving. And you have to ride up two sets of elevators just to get home. I can just see me at the end of the work week, grumpy, feeling exhausted, battling tourists the whole way home, then having to take two elevators just to get to my apartment. Then losing sleep if it’s a stormy night? Ugh! But…it might just be worth it for the satisfaction of sharing my residence with both the Signature Room and the Cheesecake Factory.

Anyway, the thought of moving into that place is daunting enough for me to never consider moving there (not to mention zero parking). But it’s undoubtedly a great place for hosting parties.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


We are getting so lucky with our pockets of springtime. Both today and yesterday were magnificent, with highs near seventy degrees, and full sunshine. I had every intention of going down to Macy’s yesterday for the noon lighting of their big Christmas tree, until the sunshine bursting in from the slats in my blinds woke me in the morning, and immediately convinced me that my day would best be spent outside. How can I possibly think about the holidays when it feels like May (honestly, I have no idea how they ever get into the Christmas spirit in Florida or Southern California)? So, after puttering lazily about the apartment for a couple of hours, I went out and spent some time with on of my favorite ladies—Lake Michigan.

It really felt like summer again, as I threw on a T-shirt and ran out the door. I just ran and ran and drank in the sunshine. Many people, and their dogs, were out enjoying the weather. Maybe I’m just missing Henry (our family collie-mix), but I saw more dogs this weekend than I have in ages. Adorable, big, fluffy dogs. Some swimming in the lake, some trying to jump in the lake with their owners in tow, some running up and down the beach. Dalmatians, golden retrievers, black labs, sheepdogs. They were having so much fun, I couldn’t help but smile (and wish I had Henry with me).

Anyway, up past Fullerton, I took a break to sit and stare at the lake. It had been well over a month since I’d last gone down to the shore and just drank in the beauty of the lake and the city and let myself be. Lake Michigan was calm and smooth. Only the occasional wave runner marred her surface, but I enjoyed the way the sun created rainbows of lake spraying out from behind them. I believe I sat there for over half an hour, which is a pretty long time for me to just sit, without talking, without reading, without surfing the net, without working on something.

Being by the lake is such a contrast to the busy city life that it’s sometimes hard to believe that both exist within the bounds of Chicago. Tomorrow morning I will be lost in the crush of people siphoning into the El on their morning commutes. I will squeeze into some pocket of space between bodies just wide enough for me to stand in until I get to my stop. I will have no choice but to breathe in the smell of the lotion, cologne, or body odor of the person next to me, and to become uncomfortably warm in my layers of clothing.

But while I’m on the train I’ll think about how, just yesterday, I was running in a tank top by the lake, lungs expanding with fresh air, and soaking up sunshine. Nothing but water and open space to my east. When I was out there, I never once looked at a clock or a cell phone or even bothered wondering what time it was. I feel like my batteries were recharging. So tomorrow, when I’m back in the hubbub and probably wishing it were still Sunday, I’ll nevertheless be pretty fresh-faced and ready to tackle the week (at least, I hope so!).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ambivalent Anticipation

All day at work I vacillated about listening to Christmas music. I’m pretty excited to start the holiday season, but Halloween isn’t even here yet. I put my indecision in my facebook status and received a mix of responses, most of which supported my holiday excitement and suggested that I start listening. Ultimately, I decided to have some patience and wait until November. After all, I’m not ready for snow yet, so I’m clearly not ready for Christmas.

But the holiday excitement is definitely starting! On my way home from the gym tonight, I noticed that the Macy’s windows are covered, which means they are starting to prepare the Christmas window displays. This would usually make me quite excited, but I was definitely disappointed in last year’s displays. I read later that I wasn’t the only one. Apparently, Amy Meadows, who directed the window decorations 25 years, was fired amid cost cuts in early 2008. That, of course, was before I moved to Chicago, and I had never seen the displays before last November. So, I was anticipating these amazing holiday windows, and was disappointed by the weird, alien rock band creatures in the windows. Even more disappointing was the disjointed, poorly written story accompanying them. Many people just chalked it up to the general, continuing let-down of Macy’s taking over Marshall Fields.

Anyway, I am hoping for better displays this year, though Macy’s apparently continues to lead the drooping retail sector, so their budget certainly hasn’t increased. But hopefully whomever they hire will come up with something a little more appealing than what they did last year. I certainly hope they keep the music. It was so fun to ascend the steps from the El after Thanksgiving last year and hear the Christmas music playing. I remember being in a cranky mood that Monday morning, but when I saw the sparkling trumpets and heard the holiday music, I couldn’t help but smile. Of course, I’d trade music for decent displays.

For now, I really am loving this perfect fall weather we’re having, and I’m not ready to usher in winter just yet. It’s been in the fifties everyday, and, though often rainy, I’ve been enjoying it. I don’t want to lose sight of autumn in my anticipation of the holidays. After all, the leaves have only just begun to fall.

Friday, October 23, 2009


The luster wears off, which is unfortunate, but inevitable. You can walk through downtown Chicago, twice a day, everyday, and not see it. Preoccupied with your own thoughts you can auto-pilot from work to home and back again. Some of us are further trapped in our own heads than others. Some of us are trapped in memories, which is unfortunate, too.

But if we didn’t adjust, conform, fall into these habits, it wouldn’t be so magnificent when something breaks the norm (not that all change is magnificent—some change is simply heartbreaking). For instance, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, a rare pocket of sunshine interrupted the gloomy gray days we’ve been having. I was lucky to have a late morning doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, located about a 15-minute walk from the office. As I trekked up Michigan Ave., the sunshine felt glorious. That giddy sensation of springtime, when those first beautiful days penetrate the winter gloom, started to stir inside me. I remember thinking that I probably wouldn’t feel like this again until April.

The city was enchanting, engulfed in sunlight. My love for Chicago was again ignited, watching the light fall like a blanket, illuminating the tops of buildings. My daily routine, like the clouds, was broken, and it was a welcome change.

Plus, there’s something so satisfying in seeing all the cameras. Watching the tourists on Michigan Ave. with their cameras angled upward, outward, forward, backward, at the city all around them—they remind me how blessed I am to be living here, in a city coveted by so many. I didn’t want to go back to work. I wanted to mosey about with the tourists, pose for pictures by the river, drift in and out of shops, weave in and out of the sparse, non-rush-hour traffic.

It occurs to me that I haven’t taken a day off since I started working in May. And since then I’ve taken on a variety of freelance writing projects in my spare time. During the summer I didn’t feel it so much. But when the sunshine fades away into the shady cool of autumn, you start to feel the weight. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Maybe it’s the sheer lack of sun. Maybe it’s the heavy layers of clothing.

I don’t really feel like I need a vacation, and routine is okay with me—in fact, I’m pretty sure I prefer it. But I’ve been feeling uninspired, lately. That, I’m not okay with. Blogging gives me a great deal of pleasure, but I refuse write a new blog post purely because I’m getting behind with it. I’ve forced posts in the past, and when I go back and read them, they are always the least satisfying, and most poorly crafted vignettes. But I am wondering where all of my inspiration has gone. There’s not much I can do, however. You can force it about as well as you can force the sun to come out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dance through a Different Lens

It was thrilling for me to walk into Auditorium Theatre last night, not as just a spectator, but as press. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that I get as excited about these baby steps as I do, but, shoot, it felt pretty amazing to walk up to the media table and accept my free ticket to the opening night of the Joffrey Ballet’s Othello, and receive my press kit. This is the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do--write arts reviews. The magazine for which I’m reviewing the production may not have the largest circulation figures, but if I can combine my two greatest loves—dance and writing—I feel more than lucky. Getting to view the ballet at no cost, getting published, and getting paid a little to write the review? That's a pretty successful venture in my eyes.

I walked into the gorgeous theatre (Auditorium Theatre doesn’t get old for me), got situated, and looked around. I’d gotten dressed up, as I always do for the ballet. Looking around, it occurred to me that I’d done so entirely for myself, since it's probably a rarity to meet a man who’s both single and straight going to see the ballet. Needless to say, I soon tired of people-watching and opened my folder. I was not expecting the 15 pages of press materials they gave me, but I quickly realized that out of all those pages, there were only about four sentences that would be relevant to my review.

It wasn’t long before I was surrounded by writers, which was a comforting experience. I sat next to an older woman who writes a weekly column for a paper in South Chicago. She started telling me how her best friend used to dance for Balanchine, which is more than just a little impressive (and this friend danced with Nureyev and Margot Fonteyne). Too bad her friend wasn’t with her. The woman herself, however, has interviewed dancers and choreographers including Ruth Page, so I was kind of impressed by her, too. She expounded on the history of the Joffrey for me, telling me about the modern years (which, in her opinion, were the “dark years"), the advent of live orchestra music at Joffrey performances, and the general evolution of the Joffrey Chicago. She certainly made me feel as though my knowledge were limited.

But then I asked her if she used to be a dancer. She chuckled, said she’d taken about a month of classes, then gave up when she found out how difficult it was. She took one look at me and asked me if I was a dancer. I told her that I used to be, and she flattered me by saying that I look like one (this is one compliment I will never tire of hearing). I shared a little bit about my dance background and told her that I still take adult classes at the Joffrey, as often as I can. Then it appeared that maybe she was a little impressed by me.

Anyway, it was amusing to me that, during the ballet, I discovered I can write legibly and in straight lines without looking at my notebook. I filled up several pages with notes, in the darkened house, unable to see any of it, and not wanting to take my eyes off the dancing. I was happy to find that I could read it all afterward. Some of the writers around me took no notes, but, as in the classroom, I can’t imagine being without them.

Anyway, the ballet was beautiful, and I think you should go see it. But if you want to know the details, you’ll have just have to read my review. :) Which I haven’t written, yet, and probably should be writing right now. But I’m not feeling the pressure of the deadline yet and I’m clearly behind on the blog.

Monday, October 12, 2009

“Sometimes I been sittin on trains…”

I like to start my week off listening to music that is completely inappropriate for a Monday morning. So, you’ll find me sitting at my desk with my headphones in, looking very serious and intent. Honestly, I am very serious and intent, but I’m also having a party inside. Because Justin Timberlake or Usher or Outkast is blasting in my ears. While I am rarely plagued by a true “case of the Mondays,” I know that I will prevent that beginning-of-the-week office blues entirely if I set the right soundtrack. (Especially when my week starts at 5:30 a.m. with a frantic call from my intern telling me she can't access her computer. Which, surprisingly, didn't phase me at all.)

Of course, music just makes everything better. I can feel my confidence level shoot up about three notches when I’m listening to something bad ass on my iPod, walking to work. Plus, when it’s raining outside, I can listen to something like, “Mr. Blue Sky.” Running is the pits without music—I don’t make it half as far without it. And I have to be honest, sometimes I just really appreciate the option to block out the rest of the world.

I got to thinking about music this morning because there are certain songs that always make me think of Chicago, particularly of riding on the El. Most of them are the songs I added to my iPod last fall, when I’d first moved here, and the idea of commuting to work while wearing earphones was an entirely new concept to someone who was used to driving herself anyplace she wanted to go. I thank Kim for introducing me to most of the music I associate with Chicago (despite the fact that he lives in D.C.). My favorite is still “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. The beat of that song just makes me feel awesome. Anyway, I love how music does that—it wraps itself up with certain times or places or people. Needless to say, I’m still not listening to Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin because that music became wrapped up with a certain person. Pretty fabulous music to have to ban from the play list, but you know, these things take time.

Anyway, today I was listening to Justin Timberlake at work. It was great. Sometimes I just want to get up and dance. Like, seriously, just stand up in the middle of work and dance. At 10 a.m. On a Monday. It’s almost as absurd as the urge to stand up in church and yell a curse word (something I always thought would be singularly outrageous). Both thoughts crack me up. I love to imagine doing something completely incongruous with my surroundings. I’d never do it. But if someone else did, I would get quite a kick out of it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rambles to Muncie and Back

I’ve jumped into procrastination mode, full force. Now that I have a number of writing deadlines again, I’m reminded of school, and the key to my success there was to build up the pressure until I had to get the assignments done. Of course, I no longer have the luxury of sleeping in if I stay up half the night writing, since I have a very real day job, so my procrastination methods have to change a little. Anyhow, the more writing gigs I get, the more I want to blog in an effort to resist. Ironically, though, I’m putting off writing by writing. I can’t help myself.

Last weekend I headed out of the Chi for an Honors College reunion dinner at Ball State. You know what I continue to discover as I bump into people with whom I haven’t spoken in awhile, or am just meeting? I never tire of telling people that I live in Chicago. Some people cringe and suggest that life in the city is just too crowded and crazy. Others fondly recall the days when they lived in the city. Some others ask you what part of town you live in and compare notes, since they live here, too. Still others seem wide-eyed and impressed. I enjoy the mix of reactions.

Muncie was a nice stop-off for the weekend, but it definitely felt like a shell. I honestly felt like a hermit crab trying to crawl back into a home I’d outgrown years before. It feels empty to go back to college knowing that your social circle no longer exists in that space. The reunion dinner produced only one other alum from my class, so I was a bit disappointed. (I had envisioned all this catching up and picture-taking, and then drinks at the Heorot after dinner. Instead, I went back to my hotel room, read awhile, and proceeded to sleep for ten hours.)

Anyway, driving around Muncie, past Thai Smile, Szechuan Garden, Lafollette, the Village, I remembered so many great times, with friends and even with exes. But these places are just places now. I have taken all of the important people with me. My favorite professors visit when they come to Chicago, which is fairly frequently. My best friends in the world are available whenever I need them.

So, really, I was pretty happy to return to Chicago on Sunday. In fact, I practically rushed out of Funcie after a jarringly awkward run-in with an ex I never expected to see again, ever (see, this is why it’s probably best not to return to campus after graduation). I’ll admit that I stopped at the grocery store to stock up on cheaper, non-Illinois-taxed goods before I hit the highway. Afterward, as I merged with the interstate, I felt certain that Muncie had served its purpose in my life. While I'll always have a special place for BSU in my heart, the version that exists in my memory is much more meaningful than the reality of the campus today. I’ll only go back to visit again if I get to bring my old social circle with me.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Establishing Friendships in the Stopover

Not long ago, I wrote a post about how exciting it is to live in such a travel hub as Chicago, where people I know are frequently in and out, either for a weekend, or a longer vacation, or simply passing through. I have had a nice rotation of visitors since I first moved here last September.

With this realization, however, I have learned that “passing through” doesn’t just apply to visitors, and this is a bit less thrilling. Friendships are on a regular rotation here, as people are constantly moving in and moving out. I think this is partly a result of my age. People in their twenties don’t seem to stay in one place for too long, especially twenty-year-olds in this generation (as opposed to twenty-somethings two decades ago, for instance). My generation is restless and, dare I say it, fickle. Most of us don’t know exactly what it is we want to do with our lives, and spend only a couple of years at a company before moving on to something fresh, a different slant of light. This leaves individuals like myself, who like to put down roots, in a bit of a friendship predicament.

I’m starting to face the music—circles of friends in Chicago are ephemeral. Re-establishing your social circle seems to be a regular part of city life. It’s logical. City life is always moving, always in flux. Change is inevitable, and that’s good. But for people who are slow and cautious when developing a friendship beyond acquaintanceship, it sometimes feels like I’ve just gotten close to you and you’re leaving for good.

I’ve been re-establishing my Chicago social circle since I moved back to the city in May. When my internship ended in March, most of my Chicago friends (fellow interns) moved away. Several returned home for a rent-free job search, with a return to Chicago in mind, but they haven’t returned. Some moved away for jobs or school—Denver, Seattle, Boston. Only a few of my friends from the intern crowd are still here in the city, and they’re much younger, and tend to have a slightly different set of interests, than myself.

There will always be a friend or two or three who are in it for the long haul. Although, sometimes even those friends surprise you with the sudden announcement, “I’m looking for a subletter! I landed this fabulous job in [insert city name here].” But at least I feel like I have one or two people in the city who were here when I got here and are unlikely to leave soon.

So, here I am re-establishing most of my social circle. It’s slow-moving, even in a place with three million people. Perhaps, the difficulty is because of the numbers of people. It’s funny how I can talk to some, like the girl who cuts my hair, who say they love how many people are in the city because you’re always making new friends. Then there are others (the majority, in my experience), who lament how difficult it is to make friends outside of work, because it seems like everyone has their own thing going on (or maybe they know Chicago is only temporary, so they aren’t making the investment). At any rate, my friends in big cities all over the country have had similar experiences, so I know it’s not unique to me. And even if making solid friendships occurs at a sluggish pace, the fact is that it does occur; I’m starting to feel much better about the state of my social life. I will likely always have to settle for my best friends living far away from me, but I love that there’s always the possibility of meeting somebod(ies) right here in Chicago who may reach the level of friendship I share with my friends from college. At least the constant flux of friends heading in and out means that I can add to the list of places I can visit to enjoy the company of old Chicago pals.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Soup for You

Last week, I wrote a post about some of my experiences with the homeless in Chicago (and Indiana), primarily sharing observations, and a lot of ambivalence. I recognized that I am uncomfortable with the idea of people living on the streets—shouldn’t this be disconcerting to all of us?—but I also realized that I am wary of giving out money I have when I don’t know how it’s going to be spent. I resolved that if I don’t feel comfortable handing over cash, then I should simply contribute in other ways. So, it was ironic that, two days after I wrote the first draft of that blog post, my boss sent out an email asking for some of the team to serve dinner at a Catholic center that provides meals to the homeless each week. I had no qualms about responding immediately to her email.

Tonight at the kitchen, we all did our small share in feeding 100+ hungry people, and aside from satisfied stomachs, the thing that dominated the dinner hall was happiness. And happiness, even if it comes and goes, is undeniably contagious when present.

Before the dinner, I had honestly forgotten what it feels like to be in a room filled with that many smiling, happy, grateful people. I smiled so much tonight that my jaw hurt, and on the walk home, I smiled at every person I passed on the sidewalk, which is something I hardly ever do. (Ear-to-ear smiles, not the half-assed “oh, hey” kind of pasted-on smile that I usually offer to strangers.) It’s actually been a very long time since I felt as happy as I did tonight.

There was a lot of mutual appreciation at the center tonight. It was such a pleasure for me to be there, rather than at home, alone, curled up with my computer on the couch (something I enjoy after work, but a bit of a bad, sad habit). It is always nice to speak to people who are genuinely happy to have you around, and I tried to make sure that each of those people knew that I was just as grateful to have them there, too. The attendees thanked us all repeatedly, and I thanked them right back. Aside from air of urgency surrounding the food tables, everyone was just relaxed, exchanging healthy banter, jokes, and food. No one seemed sad or angry during that hour and a half. All those people in one room and everyone in a good mood? It seems impossible even under the most favorable circumstances, but from what I could see that was definitely the spirit tonight. There was a lot of sustenance in the room.

Monday, September 21, 2009


The air conditioning unit was gone from the window when I arrived home today after work, and I was so happy to see it go. Now, not only do I have the full panoramic view out my window, unobstructed, but also have more sunlight, and will no longer be kept awake at night by the loud clanking of condensation dripping from the above unit onto mine. I lost countless hours of sleep from that piercing echo, resounding like bee bees, rather than water drops, against the metal. And it would always start around 11 pm, when the outside air became cool enough to leave beads of moisture on the hot units, then would subside, it seemed, until approximately 4:30 am, when it would return, full force. On most nights/mornings, even earplugs couldn't block it out.

The weather has been gorgeous, rendering the A/C unit redundant for a few weeks now, anyhow. Of course, I only used the thing twice all summer, so for me it was always superfluous, more of a nuisance than anything else. But, I just knew that if I got rid of it, we’d finally get that sweltering summer heat, and I'd be kicking myself for having it removed. (Perhaps the fact that I kept my window unit all summer is to blame for the surprisingly cool summer that disappointed most of us.) Oh, well. The summer has now faded into perfectly crisp, autumn weather. I never thought I could fall in love with temperatures below 79 degrees (I’ve always been a fan of heat), but the upper 60s are perfect.

Even though I adore fall and am anticipating the brilliance of the trees as autumn stains their leaves orange and red, I can't help myself: my thoughts are already inching ahead toward Christma—okay, okay, I won’t even bring it up. I promise, I will keep myself in check and try not to impose the wintry season on you by discussing the gift-shopping and family celebrations and baked goods and lights and—okay, okay, I promise. That’s enough. For now, I am going to revel in apple cider, fresh corn, pumpkin scones (thank you, Starbucks), cool night breezes, jacket weather, fiery-colored trees, and, when traveling beyond the city, the smell of fall bonfires (one of the best scents on earth, along with Scotch tape, new books, and Old Spice).

You know, sometimes living in a location like San Diego, or Phoenix, or even Atlanta can sound appealing. But, honestly, I can’t imagine settling down someplace without four distinct seasons, and missing out on the transformation from one to the next, each and every year. It feels so exciting every time, knowing that you're in the middle of a transition. Renewal, rebirth and the phases of life feel so palpable here. So, I’ll take Chicago's sub-zero winter wind chills, thank you, if it means that I get to experience the anticipation of a brand new season four times per year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Considering Chicago’s Homeless Population

Two days ago, I was coming into my apartment complex through the alley, and I saw the garbage man locking up the trash cans. My initial thought was something along the lines of, “Seriously?” I know that that’s part of his job, but really, all I could think was that the transients I often see reaching into trash cans on the El platform were completely locked out. I mean, is it really necessary to lock up people's trash? But then again, I know the city has to be concerned about people sleeping in the dumpsters, let alone rummaging though, and I have to admit that being greeted by throngs of transients every day when I try to enter my apartment building is a little disconcerting. I understand the safety issues. Yet, there’s something absurdly inhumane about locking a dumpster closed.

The first time I ever visited Chicago, I was not prepared for the number of homeless on the streets (a lot of tourists are like this—I see the mixed reactions on their faces all the time on Michigan Ave., and watch them hand over loose change on the train). No one warned me about this before I came to the city that winter, and it broke my heart to see people standing out in the frigid February begging for money. Yet, I was simultaneously uncertain how to react. It's difficult to hand over money to someone you know nothing about, whether good or bad.

The day I moved to Chicago I had a scary experience with an irate homeless man. My roommates had taken me along with them to a free concert in Millennium Park, followed by a drink with their friends in Lakeview. On our walk back toward Uptown, I was verbally attacked by this man, who bee-lined for me, and screamed choice words to tell me that he was gong to kill me. My male roommate jumped between us and told him to back off, at which point the crazed-eyed man spat on my roommate’s shoes and continued his swift pace in another direction. I’d never been verbally attacked by a stranger before, and I’d never had my life deliberately threatened. My roommates assured me that they had never seen anything like that before, despite years of living in Chicago. I chocked it up to a fluke, and went on with my day. I did, however, purchase pepper spray the next day, and became rather wary of my surroundings and strangers in general.

I’m never sure how to feel about transients, and, specifically, what I can or should do about their situation. The economy sucks. And even when it doesn’t, there are honest people out of work and home. But at the same time, that man who came toward me screaming expletives at my face was clearly out of his mind, and if, in fact, he was high or drunk, I do not feel that I should contribute to that habit. Because I do not know who I'm dealing with when I bump into someone on the street, I am very wary of how to respond.

I know that people wind up on the streets for wide and varied reasons. What I don't know is what to do about it. If I give someone a dollar, he will probably still be homeless tomorrow, but maybe he will eat. Or maybe he will feed an addiction. I know some people who say, "Who cares what the person does with the money? That's their prerogative." I don't really agree with that philosophy. I don't want to help someone destroy him or herself.

If you live in Chicago, you see homeless men and women everyday. On the El; on the streets; outside your local Walgreens; on the intersections as you’re walking to work; sleeping in the underpasses. Do you give them money? Or do you just keep walking? This is a dilemma I face nearly every day, when I encounter someone who asks me for change.

Please read my follow-up post: Soup for You.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gimpsing the Sublime

Tonight was glorious: the wind blowing hard, the lake tempestuous, the rush of autumn upon the city. Goethe Street became a wind tunnel as gales swirled between buildings as I ran toward the lake shore. A storm appeared to be brewing, despite the cloudless sky. As the wind unfastened strands of my hair and aroused goose bumps on my skin, I felt so filled with energy that my face burst into an inexplicable grin.

As I approached the beach, it became clear that the autumn wind was energizing the lake, too. I watched the waves repeatedly splash up into white foam and then roll away again as I ran north. Viewing the intensity of the lake and the strength of the wind exhilarated me the way storms do, making me feel small, yet powerful at the same time. Tonight, with my lungs full of fresh, night air, I felt weightless.

When I finally turned southward to head home, I was enraptured by the city lights. They dotted the skyline as though Chicago were a Christmas tree. The Ferris wheel at Navy Pier boasted its patterned, flashy lights, the Drake hotel proudly displayed its name across the night sky, and even the headlights smoothly flowing down Lake Shore Drive emitted a strangely-organic beauty.

It is during moments like this when I feel as though Chicago just wraps me up; she stops being a pitiless city with cold angles, and stern architecture and reminds me that nature courses through her, too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Celtic, Er, Um, Mexican, Or Yeah, Celtic Fest

Joy and I let the sound of bagpipes guide us toward Grant Park on Saturday: we were headed to Celtic Fest. As we approached Michigan Ave., we realized that a parade was taking place and expected to see bagpipers, men in kilts and Irish dancing. At first, all I noticed were brightly colored costumes and blaring music. It took me a few seconds to realize that there was nothing Celtic about the parade and that, actually, I was watching Mexican dancers and listening to Spanish lyrics. Right next to Celtic Fest was the Mexican Independence Day Parade! Joy and I looked at each other, wondering briefly if we were in the wrong place, but we could still hear the bagpipes in the distance. So, we delayed our foray into fiddles and kilts and spent a little while observing the parade.

The parade itself was a bit lackluster at times, with long patches of space between each performance/group/display, but it was dotted by periods of excitement. Amidst the less exciting groups, you’d have a dance troupe who really knew what they were doing, or men in costume on horses, or the Chicago Car Club. This last one was pretty hilarious. These guys rolled down the street in their huge old cars all decked out with crazy hydraulics. They’d make their cars dance by raising and lowering the frame, bouncing the front end up in the air, or doing wheelies in the road. The kids inside some of the cars were having a blast. Joy and I couldn’t stop laughing at the seemingly possessed cars. As the last one rolled by us, we left the parade still chuckling, and strolled into Celtic Fest.

Leave it to the Midwest to genericize its festivals. I mean, you can name a festival anything you want, but ultimately, the core components—local food, beer, and hokey marketing schemes—never change. The same booths selling tickets for food and drinks that had dotted Taste of Chicago reappeared for Celt Fest. Similar vendors like Rainbow Cone were there, too. I guess if you go to more than one Grant Park festival, you have to accept that some things are always going to be the same.

What we didn’t find at Taste of Chicago, however, were kilts. Lots and lots of kilts. As we walked into Grant Park, we started counting them. Of course, we only made it to three before I spotted a huge group and said, “Oh, man. I give up counting!” I have the sneaking suspicion that these men wait in great anticipation of occasions like these, when it’s perfectly acceptable for them to spend a whole day in a skirt (I know, I know, it’s not a “skirt”). I enjoy the role reversal. I personally find it quite sexist that only women are supposed to wear skirts. So, more power to you if you rock out your kilt. I’m a little disappointed that we missed the men in kilts leg competition later in the day. Hokey, maybe, but undoubtedly hilarious.

After meandering through the park, and then listening to Cu Roi for about half an hour (they’re very talented—check them out!), we headed back toward the dance tent to watch the Irish dancers, which I was anticipating more than anything. Going into it, I half expected some rag-tag group of young dancers hiding behind fancy costumes, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the dancers were, in fact, very talented. As a matter fact, this dance studio (Dennehy Irish Dancers) produced the 2009 World Champion, Michael Putnam, and he performed on Saturday.

After they worked out some technical difficulties with his music, he took the stage under the makeshift tent set up for the event. As the music began, a woman behind us remarked, “The music seems kinda slow. But maybe it’ll pick up.” The funny part is that, yes, the music was a little slow, but there wasn’t anything sluggish about Putnam’s footwork. He pretty much quadrupled the beat with his footwork. I may not be an Irish stepper, but I am a classically trained dancer, and he just blew me away. I guess that’s why he’s the World Champion. Move over, Michael Flatley—there’s a new Michael in town!

Once we’d seen the dancers, we felt we’d seen the best that Celtic Fest had to offer (I know I was satisfied!), so we headed back toward Michigan Ave. As we walked toward the El, we spotted a stray kilt-wearing man. I remarked to Joy about his bravery, taking the kilt beyond the boundaries of the festival, as I heard a woman giggle at him. Joy noted that within the festival bounds, you’re safe, you fit in, you’re all set. But take the outfit beyond the safe space, and you take a risk.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thank You, Craigslist, the Modern Newspaper

In the opening pages of Devil in the White City, Larson’s narrator describes Chicago as both a liberating and precarious opportunity for women in the late 19th century. (This resonates with me on a variety of levels, but I’ll save you the literary and feminist theory.) I was struck by the following warning for ladies that Larson quotes from the March 30, 1890 Chicago Tribune: “[N]o thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will telegraph her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity…” The reason this struck me is because you’ll find exactly the same thing on Craigslist today, and, I bet, unsuspecting women still respond.

I recall trolling through the employment pages of Craigslist Chicago throughout summer 2008, and for much of spring 2009, reading very similar postings, playing themselves off as legitimate employment ads: I would read them aloud to my friends for a laugh. Under the office/admin category, men would post ads for young women who were “good-looking” to fill a personal assistant position, and part of the application requirements stated, “Must include photograph.” Now, we all know there are certain areas of Craigslist where you’d expect to find something like this, but I guess I was surprised to find them masquerading as something legitimate. I just feel badly for any young woman who unsuspectingly applied and interviewed for one of those positions.

When I first started using Craigslist, I was fairly naïve, myself. The site is pretty much useless if you don’t have a sizeable population that’s actually going to use it. So, I didn’t really know much about it before I started using the site to find jobs in Chicago. Yet, if it weren’t for Craigslist, I most likely would not be where I am now. I did not come across the posting for my 6-month internship on any other sites; in fact, the line of business was a bit different from anything I’d ever really contemplated. But I found it on Craigslist, applied, and ta-da, I was moving to Chicago to work for a big corporation. But not before finding roommates--through Craigslist, of course. I met my future roommates when I came to interview, and I was comfortable with them and their home (so comfortable that I didn’t meet with any of my other Craigslist possibilities), and had no problem moving in two weeks later. In fact, I never had a problem with my Craigslist roommates at all.

When my internship was ending in the spring, and I started job hunting again, Craigslist had been thoroughly infiltrated with scammers (I hadn’t noticed it being as much the summer before). Well aware of the hardships faced by so many Americans during the recession, many posts would prey on desperate job-seekers, directing them to other sites to try and gather personal information, or tricking them into scam jobs (like my friend Jess who handed out The Printed Blog for hours one evening and then went to pick up her paycheck and they made up an excuse not to pay her.) I finally learned not to include any personal information on my resume, other than an email address for contact, unless I could find a legitimate company website through which to apply, or the company responded to me and, in some legitimate way, identified themselves. There are a lot of honest people on Craigslist, but, as in reality, there are plenty of ill-intentioned souls lurking there, too.

I like living in a place where people actually use the site, even if you do have to be cautious about how you use it. I actually owe Craigslist quite a bit, and I feel like it’s an integral part of city life, particularly for those who live on a budget, because the site is loaded with deals. If I’m looking for used furniture, or freebies, or even a date, I can go there. That last part was a joke; I do, however, know some women who have met guys through Craigslist, but that, to me, is scarier than interviewing for one of those sleazy ads for a leggy young chick.

I read in the news recently that Craigslist encompasses the simplicity for which newspapers strive but can’t achieve, and that the secret to that simplicity—and the site’s success—is that its creators didn’t care about making a profit (here’s an article from Boing Boing that will insert you into that discussion.) I feel like Craigslist really does encapsulate the simplicity of early newspapers. You’ve got your classifieds, your job postings, your personals, your humor/advice/opinions (Missed Connections, Rants and Raves), your apartment-hunting. All you’re missing is news. And what makes Craigslist better than a newspaper is the fact that there’s a search box in every category: minimum energy, maximum reward. And as much as I don’t want to see print newspapers go extinct, I won’t be giving up Craigslist anytime soon.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Starry Skies, Pine Needles, and Chicago, My Stinky Love

(An appropriate title for a rambling post.)

Spending last weekend in Toledo, the little city felt oddly defamiliarized for me, for the first time in my life. As a writer, I challenge myself to defamiliarize the familiar on a regular basis, but you don’t expect the place where you grew up to ever really feel that way. When I went home, I was reminded that the recession is still on. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in an economic bubble in Chicago. I know that many jobs have died in Chicago, that the city is hugely in debt, and that people living here have seen hard times, too. But the rate of decline feels much slower here than in so many areas of the country, and the rate of recovery seems quicker here as well. Toledo isn’t a back-water town. It’s a small city, but it’s blue-collar, and a lot of those jobs are gone. It’s only a matter of the ripple effect from there. Many shops in my parents’ part of town sit empty. Toledoans have talked for years about the depressing facades of empty buildings filling the downtown after all the fortune 500 companies that once propped up the city moved out for cheaper lodgings in the suburbs and other Midwestern towns. But, as if tentacles had reached out from downtown Toledo, the little places on the edges of town are emptying out, too, and most of those businesses aren’t fortunate enough to relocate.

Hotels along Reynolds have been abandoned, leaving only their dated 70s construction and bland window treatments behind (yes, the curtains are still hanging in the windows). Restaurateurs have moved out of their buildings, with no new tenants to take over their abandoned kitchens. Some areas of the city look on the verge of ghost town.

Riding around Toledo, I was struck by how low everything was, and I don’t just mean depressed economically (don’t get me wrong, the city isn’t dying—I refuse to believe that—though certain limbs are faring worse than others), but physically low to the ground. I have become acclimated to high-rises and skyscrapers, and that was the single most conspicuous detail I noted about my hometown that I had never considered before. So many one- or two-story buildings! I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but some parts of the city started to feel like a toy town.

I enjoy visiting Toledo. In addition to spending time with my family, it’s a nice break to take a leisurely drive through streets that feel practically empty; I don't feel rushed there. And it’s nice to walk down quiet neighborhood roads where stars can be seen at night, and you can hear crickets and falling acorns.

And, honestly, my nose appreciates the break. I mean, I have to admit that one of the first things I recognize when I’m back on the streets of Chicago is the foul smell. It’s that waft of sewage that drifts up from the manholes in the streets, or the sweet perfume of fresh urine, or that odd, stale McDonald’s scent that drapes certain intersections downtown. I’m reading Devil in the White City right now (fantastic!) and when I was reading about the dead cats and the sewage and the muddy streets I thought of that Swift poem, “A Description of a City Shower,” and felt like 19th-century Chicago and 18th-century London weren’t all that different. But then, today, when I was walking downtown and my nose was assaulted by a urine-and-moldy-Big-Mac odor, I thought, “Well, we may not be wading through shit, but you can never get away from the smell of it in a city with so many people, whether its 1889 or 2009.” Anyway, that’s the long way of saying that I appreciate the scent of pine needles and fresh grass in my parents’ neighborhood.

But after a short while away, the rumble of the city starts to call me back. The activity, the people, the events, the architecture—they all contribute to the overall seduction of Chicago. Chicago, you are a stinky city, and you’ve got lots of crime and homelessness and corrupt politics and frigid winters, but somehow I just keep coming home to you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lessons Learned while Driving, or Not Driving, as the Case May Be

Labor Day weekend did not begin as planned, which threw a wrench into subsequent weekend events, and left me both exhausted and drained when I returned to Chicago on Monday. It’s a wonder I even planned to leave the city at all this weekend, considering that jazz fest was happening. Family, however, is even more important to me than live jazz; plus, I felt an urgency to get out of town for a few days. After work on Friday, I rushed home, packed up my car with all my laundry and a few other things, put my key in the ignition and my car into drive and tried—-to—-go. But my car decided not to move. Stubborn and bull-headed, I managed to drive it to the other side of the road, but all the while I felt as though it were dragging something terribly heavy. Had my car been booted and I didn’t even realize it? You can't actually drag a boot, right?

With my car’s rear hanging precariously in the way of taxi drivers (I couldn’t get it any closer to the curb), I stepped out and took a look. Around the car, under the car. Nothing there. Then I noticed a chalky-looking streak marking the path from where my back left tire had been on the other side of the road, to where it now sat. Oh man, I’d drug at least one of my back tires clear across the road. I cringed at the thought of a bald spot. What in the world was going on here?

After a few seconds of staring at the tire with "WTF?" stamped on my forehead, I assumed, correctly, that somehow the emergency brake had gone on, even though I never use it. I climbed back into my car and messed around with it, putting it on, and taking it off until—-wa-la!—-it let go. "Home free!" I thought. But then it occurred to me that if the emergency brake had gone on all of its own accord before, it might do it again. So I played with the brake a little more to make sure it was really, truly unstuck. It wasn’t. It got stuck again and this time, no amount of pulling the lever was going to release it. So, I dialed AAA for a tow, and called my mom to tell her I didn’t know when I’d be able to get home.

I immediately scrambled to unload everything I'd just loaded into my car before the tow truck arrived, since I had no idea how long my car might sit in a shop. When Alfonso arrived (that was the name of my tow truck driver), he was convinced that my brakes were simply frozen because I don’t drive my car enough, so he attempted to roll the car back and forth to unstick them. All this served to do, however, (as I was later dismayed to find out), was bend my brake drum and cylinder (which I may already have done trying to drive my car across the road). Soon he was towing my front-wheel-drive car from the back (since the back tires wouldn’t move), with the seat belt firmly holding the steering wheel in place.

On the way to the mechanic, Alfonso gave me a tutorial in Chicago’s grid system. He made me draw a plus-sign on the back of his AAA pad and mark off State and Madison, then he had me mark some other major streets (like North Ave.) and told me the corresponding block numbers of each. Now, I’ve had people tell me about the grid system before, but no one has ever actually showed me and all I ever really wanted was an explanation of the diagonal streets, and I got that, too.

All the while, Alfonso (can you tell I enjoy his name?) told me that he’d have me out of town by 8 pm. That was getting pretty late, since that wouldn’t put me into T-town until 1 am EST, but I just wanted to get my car fixed. In hindsight, it probably would have been better if I’d just gone home Saturday, but I just needed to get out of Chicago. Sometimes, you just do.

A few hours later, and several hundred dollars lighter, my car was fixed. I'd had a mini-heart attack at the price, but was happy that I could drive my car safely, and that I hadn’t been going 80 on the highway when my emergency brake decided to kick in, unexpectedly. And while Saturday may not have gone according to plan, and I may have been in the most wretched mood of my entire life that day (a result of sleep deprivation, accruing stress and, possibly, Friday's full moon), the last weekend of summer, as with the season as a whole, was not a total bust. After all, I got to see a lot of people I love. I did, however, wind up driving west on the toll road on Monday still feeling the shadow of Saturday and wishing I'd had a few more days of vacation to shake it off.

Thank God long drives tend to be therapeutic for me. I have to admit that by the time I rolled into the city, the familiar skyline sent electricity through me, giving me goosebumps (as beautiful things often do), and lifting my spirits. I remembered that one year before, on Labor Day, I'd timidly driven into town, terrified of the traffic and the distinct possibility of getting lost. My car loaded with belongings, I'd carefully made my way to the home of the roommates I'd met through Craigslist and prepared to start an internship I'd landed two weeks before. This Labor Day, I could see the contrast of my two selves as clearly as day and night. I am still as thrilled by the city as I was the first time I drove in from the Skyway, but I am far less intimidated. I felt such a rush as I merged into city traffic on Monday, turning up my music, aggressively weaving in and out of traffic, and cruising along the familiar highway until I was soon parked on the street below my apartment. There is no denying that I am not the same girl I was when I first came to the city, and that thought makes me smile again as I write this.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

“You Say Good-bye…”

A lazy Sunday was welcome after a weekend exhaustingly full of some of Chicago’s best food and entertainment (it had started with tapas at Ba-ba-ree-ba on Friday night, and then never ceased!). So, Wendy and I relaxed during a casual brunch at Tavern on Rush, filling up on coffee and eggs (or stuffed French toast, in Wendy’s case) and afterward shuffled back to my place and napped before heading to the beach for a leisurely afternoon of reading and sunshine.

I was disappointed that when we reached Oak Street beach we found it completely blocked off and littered with white tents (I didn’t even bother to find out what event was going on), and trucks lining half the waterfront from Oak Street to North Ave. The lake didn’t seem too happy about the intrusion either. I have never seen the waters of Lake Michigan so high before. She caught walkers off guard as she swelled and exploded over the concrete edges barely confining her. Her waves puddled around the tires of the dirty trucks along the shore. We watched an unsuspecting photographer become completely engulfed in a wave, trying to protect his camera as he jumped away two seconds too late. The lake was being quirky, unpredictable. If anything, I’d say that Lake Michigan was being a bit sassy.

Wendy and I were enthralled, and I was feeling dramatic like the body of water dancing before us. My emotions felt like the swelling of the lake, spilling out of their confinements. Shivering a bit in my sweatshirt, I had to accept the end of the summer, and the conclusion of Wendy’s visit. Her trip had been a much-needed pick-me-up, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to face the closing of one chapter, and the opening of another. Wendy and I sat there together, entranced by the lake, Wendy providing sound words of advice, me grappling with months’ worth of emotion. Endings are always difficult, and change is scary, especially when you feel as though you are facing it alone. And later, after I saw Wendy off at Union Station, I cried on the way to the El. My best friend was leaving town, and the summer was over.

Saying good-bye to the summer meant saying good-bye to KT, which I did, for the last time, the very last night of August. Monday night found the two of us on the lake shore. That night, the lake was calm, pitch-black. I gazed out past the body of water, allowing the moment to wash over me, feeling every word, every sentence sink into my core, my heart wrapping around the closure I’d been awaiting. While little pieces of me still cling to the past, to what was, to a relationship that began the summer full of happiness, I have accepted the end result and am happy to leave it behind with the warm summer nights. I finally feel fortified to face the fall and welcome the changing of seasons.

“…I Say Hello."

Improvisations and Inconspicuous Nooks

While last Saturday was largely controlled by the wind—as in, we just went wherever it took us—we did purchase tickets to Second City that morning. We had vacillated a bit between the Green Mill and Second City. Since Second City was something totally different from the kinds of things Wendy and I usually do together (jazz and cocktails being an old pastime of ours), and because it’s such an authentically Chicago experience (not that the Green Mill isn’t), we opted for improv.

Neither of us had been before (yes, it, too, was on the laundry list of things to do), and we didn’t quite know what to expect, since we were going to one of the amateur shows. We actually enjoyed ourselves very much. We walked several blocks to Old Town, then after riding a couple sets of escalators and walking up a few stairs, we were at Donny’s Skybox.

As you wait for the show to start, they play this funky mix of music, where you think one of your favorite songs is going to play, but they tease you with only a few measures before fading into another favorite song that you think they’re going to play in its entirety, but they just keep mixing on you. It was actually kind of annoying. Anyway, as soon as the actors arrived on stage they asked a few people in the audience what their names were, where they were from and what they did for a living, and then worked it into the performance in various ways. Except they didn’t use mine. I suppose I’m too boring for them. They couldn’t even think of anything funny to say about what I do for a living. I should have told them I’m a biographer (someday, someday…). That would have been far more interesting than what I actually told them. But I’d rather be ignored than ripped to shreds, so at least there was no risk of the latter.

While some of the “skits” fell flat, taking weird twists that just weren’t that funny, most of it was really quite amusing. The only truly disappointing part of Second City was that it lasted under an hour. It was over before ten o’clock, and then Wendy and I weren’t sure quite what to do with ourselves (it was too early to go out). We strolled through Old Town, and were contemplating Cold Stone, when we stumbled upon the Fudge Pot just before it closed. Haha, I don’t know whether this was a lucky or unlucky find—the chocolate is delicious! Plus, the guy behind the counter told me that I have the name of a movie star when he took my credit card, so that didn’t hurt. I laughed at him, and shared some of the rude nicknames my last name has inspired throughout the years. Soon, we headed back to my place to look up a good cocktail lounge on Yelp, determined not to wind up on Division Street.

Well, after a little research, we changed into our heels and were soon at an inconspicuous nook close to home—the Zebra Lounge. It has a great atmosphere, with dark lighting accented with strings of pink lights adorning the walls, and excellent Lemon Drop martinis. It’s a small place that most people don’t know about, so you don’t have to worry about the craziness of the bars on Division. Unfortunately, the piano bars around my neighborhood seem to be lacking an essential element—the piano. Both the Zebra Lounge and at Jilly’s (I don’t recommend the latter to anyone under 40) claim to be piano bars, but they only have electric keyboards. While the singer at Jilly’s is actually quite good, I was completely nonplussed by the one at Zebra Lounge. He had a range of about three notes, and he, like the music at Second City, couldn’t seem to complete on song before fading into another. He marred some favorites like “Benny and the Jets,” and “Smile,” but it was quite loud for such a small place, so his singing became somewhat lost in the conversations. It was a nice place to sip cocktails for an hour, but it emptied out before midnight, and I was a little aghast at the bill. But I would definitely go back for a martini with friends.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

All the Excitement of Vacation, All the Comforts of Home

Some people who’ve lived in Chicago their whole lives laugh at me for being so enamored with the city. But I don’t care. What’s the point of living in a place that you hate?

One of the things I love most about Chicago is that I can travel to another Chicago neighborhood, spend a day there and feel like I’m in another world. But then, when I’m exhausted and my feet hurt, I can hop on the El and step off one block from my apartment, come home, and crash in my own bed. It’s all the excitement of vacation with all the comforts of home.

That’s how I felt when Wendy and I spent half the day in Chinatown on Saturday. Once again, Chinatown was one of those zillion things I’d been meaning to get around to doing, but hadn’t managed to peel myself out of the doldrums of break-up residue long enough to do. It’s conveniently located right off the red line, and you can see the characteristic square archway from the platform. My appetite was outrageous on Saturday, perhaps because I was finally starting to get over my August head cold, and I knew that we were headed in the right direction to quell my hunger (mmmm, Chinese food…).

My advice to you if you’re headed to Chinatown—tread lightly, but don’t carry a big purse. The first, and by far the best, shop we walked into in Chinatown was chock full of breakables, with itty-bitty aisles. No, I didn’t bust anything, but my purse threatened to knock every rosewood Buddha and porcelain elephant off of its shelf. It wasn’t long before I felt quite closterphobic in the shop, and was ready to bolt out the door. We took our time moseying in and out of a number of other shops on Wentworth. Wendy introduced me to the wonderful world of lychees, and we got all sticky eating them on the way to dinner. We found a restaurant (take your pick!), and sat down to some hot tea, crab Rangoon, orange chicken, and assorted dim sum. I stuffed myself and I’m not in the least bit ashamed of it. It was thoroughly delicious.

Even though I wasn’t sure there was any room left in my stomach, we decided to head over to the lone, rather out-of-place Vietnamese restaurant for some Vietnamese coffee. I just remembered how delicious it was when Kim took me for pho and coffee in Minneapolis; I completely forgot that the coffee had dripped from the press pot for the whole meal. So, grabbing a cup of hot milk coffee turned into a nearly hour-long affair. Growing impatient, we started a coffee drip race, which I was bound to lose before it even began. Wendy’s coffee was ready ages before mine stopped dripping. But all that coffee and condensed milk tasted fabulously worth the wait.

After a set of very bad-teethed, unworldly men sat down next to us and made a spectacle of themselves, I promptly paid our check and we were off to purchase a few things before grabbing the El back northward. Wendy did an impressive job of haggling down the cost of my merchandise, and we both left feeling pretty darn happy about the items we'd purchased. We were also quite happy to hop off the El so close to my place, and veg out in front of Sex and the City before heading out for the night.

Spontaneous Saturday

Saturday was a day of stupendous spontaneity (okay, okay, I couldn’t resist the alliteration). But seriously, I can be a little anal when it comes to planning, so it was a welcome break from the norm to only have a vague sense of the day when Wendy and I set out, and to let the city and a whim take us where they might.

It was a gorgeous morning. A light autumn-esque chill was in the air, which made for the perfect relief to a very sunny day. I decided we’d walk to the bank (about ten blocks away), rather than taking the El, and Wendy was perfectly agreeable to the suggestion. We stopped in Starbucks on the way for a caffeine jolt as we headed southward. There’s a beautiful park on Dearborn (sorry, I don’t remember exactly where it was located). We strolled through, admiring a fountain set in the midst of a circular garden. I felt the familiar twinge of sadness noting the homeless asleep in the grass (some on the sidewalk). We left them to their slumber and kept walking.

Farther south we found ourselves in River North, near my old workplace. We stopped for pictures on the gorilla bench outside Rainforest Café, and then paused briefly so that Wendy could take the half a second it takes to observe the Rock N Roll McDonald’s. About a block from the bank, Wendy pointed out one of many signs for Navy Pier. She had never been there, and I’d never been there when it wasn’t freezing cold (I’d been twice before, the first during my first trip to Chicago ever, in February 2002—brrr!). So, that decided it. We directed our course eastward, and from then on the day was filled with two best friends sharing a laundry list of fun things I’d been wanting to do in Chicago, but had either forgotten about, or just never gotten around to doing.

Headed east on Illinois, we approached a used book shop and the Jazz Record Mart that I’d seen a number of times (usually on the way to the movie theatre), and in which I’d always wanted to get lost. We had no schedule (that felt amazing!), and were both eager to stop inside. We agreed that we could have spent hours in the bookstore, but restrained ourselves, deciding that Navy Pier trumped used books that day. We stopped inside the jazz shop next door, where endless shelves of CDs, vinyl, and books greeted us. I love jazz, and Wendy knows it even better than I do, but that store made both of us feel quite limited in our knowledge. It was a plethora of jazz greats big and small. We agreed that our friend Kim would have loved it. I toyed with the idea of buying some Miles or Madeline Peyroux, but again restrained myself. I can go back and buy them later if I change my mind.

Many blocks later, we immersed ourselves in the dense crowds of tourists enjoying Navy Pier. Giddy like kids, we headed toward the ferris wheel for views of the lake and the city. We felt like we were at Cedar Point, except without the rides and the lines (which leaves the lake, the food, the excitement, and the kiddy rides). After getting our picture taken beneath the wheel and boarding our car, we regressed a few years, trying to get our ferris wheel car rocking back and forth (we were not very successful), snapping a ton of pictures, and standing up in the car partly in spite of the posted signs telling us not to (okay, I did this, not Wendy). The views of the city and the lake were lovely. When we stepped off, we purchased our over-priced ferris wheel pictures, and stopped at McDonald’s for—you guessed it—happy meals.

If that weren’t enough excitement for the day, our day was only just beginning. We next headed to Chinatown, where lots of shopping and better food awaited us.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Road Maps and Reclamation

Chicago seemed incredibly vast to me when I first moved here one year ago Labor Day. Everywhere and everything in the city was new and I didn’t realize how conveniently concentrated so many restaurants, stores and entertainment venues were, and that neighborhoods really weren’t as far apart as they were in my head. I mean, if you took a look at a single square mile in Chicago, you’d be amazed at the wealth of resources therein, and how many neighborhoods would fall within the bounds.

The whole time I lived in Uptown, I felt somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Even after I moved farther south, however, it took awhile for Chicago to shrink in size for me, and I have only recently gained a more realistic perspective on this city.

In June, I moved to downtown Chicago, because it’s something I’d wanted my whole life. But then I didn’t really take the time to immerse myself in the reality of my dream coming true, to sink my teeth into it, to savor it, to make it mine. I allowed my devotion to someone else to overshadow the fact that I was reaching goals I’d set for myself many years ago. Even after I stopped spending so many hours in the suburbs with my now ex-boyfriend, I managed to cloister myself up in my apartment, preferring to grieve over the relationship in solitude. Sure, I still did things in the city—I’ve always be fairly adept at doing things on my own and my blogs reflect the continued enjoyment I was deriving from Chicago—but a certain degree of confidence was lacking, my view was restricted, and I still wasn’t living the city to its fullest. I had allowed myself to feel, and become, defeated. The way I felt was incongruous with the person that I know myself to be and it didn’t fit with the place in which I was living; to use a hackneyed metaphor, I felt like a fish out of water.

When I finally started to explore, I learned that so many of the places to which my ex would drive us are practically right around the corner from me. Zanies is a casual four or five blocks away, as is the Cold Stone Creamery across the street where we’d all gone for ice cream before a show a few months ago. I mean, Old Town is, literally, right around the corner, and I adore its charm and character! I don’t know how I could have left it sit there unexplored when I lived so close by. Lincoln Park is also a hop, skip and a jump away. I had a vague understanding that all these things weren’t really that far away, I just didn’t realize how incredibly close they actually were. This is partly due to the fact that God did not endow me with directional sense, but undoubtedly it had a bit more to do with the fact that I just kind of let my ex do all the driving, and I was along for the ride (a pretty wonderful ride, really, but in retrospect I should have asserted myself a bit more).

I don’t know why the healing process is taking so long, or why it has taken me so long to start reclaiming Chicago since the break-up, but I do believe that something started this past weekend. I have a long way to go, but the wheels of change are in motion, and I feel a sense of the confidence I’d lost rekindling inside me. Sometimes you can get lost in another person and lose sight of the world around you. You can forfeit pieces of yourself not because someone else asks you to, but because you just get so wrapped up (even when you’ve convinced yourself that you’ll never be one of those people). You can let friends slip away so that when it’s all over, you find yourself alone and heartbroken, in a big city that suddenly feels remarkably empty. I mean, we all know I have a terrible sense of direction, but this time, I allowed myself to get almost irreconcilably lost.

Luckily, however, there are people in life who will toss you a road map when everything around you starts to look unfamiliar. Having Wendy here this past weekend, combined with my mom’s visit the weekend before, was the boost I needed to pull my invented view of Chicago out of my head and wrangle its intimidating size and emptiness down to the inviting sense of reality for which I’d moved to the Windy City in the first place. It’s so very true that we get by with a little help from our friends.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fresh Water Feats And Salt Water Eats

Adequately explaining the Chicago Architecture Society’s architecture river cruise is a bit of a challenge. Since I know my words won't do it justice, I'll spare you the sweeping descriptions. What I do want to say is that just about everyone who lives in Chicago recommends this tour, and many of them have taken it multiple times (and have enjoyed it every time). The tours are led by volunteer docents who really know their Chicago buildings. Each structure has its own tale, and you really start to notice the juxtaposition of modern against classical, the contrasts of triangles against squares, the effect of exposed parking garages, etc., etc., etc. I craned my neck over and over taking a zillion pictures, which I won’t post here because those don’t adequately describe the experience either. It's really interesting, beautiful and amazing. (Such bland adjectives.)

Just make sure you’re dressed appropriately and prepare for all kinds of weather. We all knew it was chilly when we started out—hence my decision to wear jeans and a sweater—but during the course of the tour the sun retreated and pretty soon the city was draped in clouds, and the cool lake breezes became down-right chilling (not a good thing for someone coming down with a head cold). I enjoyed the first three quarters of the tour, but by the last twenty minutes or so, I really couldn’t wait to get off that boat. Which is a shame because it was such a great tour. I could have gone below, but seriously, I didn’t want to miss something! Afterward, mom and I practically raced to the El (it’s always warm down there), but I loved how, even in our hurry, mom was pointing out the lines of the buildings along the way. She loved that architecture tour, and that was really important to me.

We thawed out while waiting for the red line, and were soon headed to an early dinner at Half Shell, a restaurant to which I’d been waiting to take my mom since the first time I’d eaten there. Okay, I’m not going to give you another restaurant review—well, not exactly—but this place seriously has the best crab legs in town (and I’m not the only one who knows it—be prepared to wait, or go for early dinner). The first time I went there, I devoured my whole plate of crab legs (that’s a BIG crab and a half) and knew that the other crab-lover in my life—mom—would appreciate this place as much as I did. It’s not much for ambiance. In fact, the whole thing is set up in the basement of what appears to be an old house (the tip off—a bathtub in the women’s restroom). The service isn’t great, either. But there’s a full bar and, well, the crab legs make up for all of it. I’m not going to sit here and say that you’re going to achieve that Zen experience you might feel when you’re eating crab legs in Maine or Boston, but when you live in the Midwest, Half Shell is pretty damn near the best you will find. (I hear the clams and oysters are great, too, but you really couldn’t pay me to eat those, no matter how delicious they’re purported to be.)

Half Shell is the perfect place to make a mess of yourself while you’re mastering the art of crab shell-cracking. Both times I’ve eaten at Half Shell I’ve left a messy table of butter spillings, crab shells, and bits of meat strewn across the table, and walked out the door picking bits of dinner off of me. No, I’m really not a pig. Crab is messy. And it’s well worth it!

They definitely have a sense of humor at Half Shell. When you’ve finished consuming every last bit of crab meat you can free from its exoskeleton, you find a plate of carbs buried underneath. French fries and three slices of bread (okay, and a slice of tomato and a pickle, too) await you when you’ve finished your crab legs. Of course, nobody ever eats those soggy things after the scrumptiousness that is the crab legs (okay, shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but I totally eat the fries). Even if you don’t eat that part, though, don’t leave your sucker behind. Yes, they bury a lollipop underneath, too, and somehow it’s the perfect dessert after a plate of crab legs.