Friday, July 31, 2009

City Escapes and the Art of Time Suspension

Summer evening. Rain dripping outside—this is my favorite time to write. There’s something about the fresh air, the smell of rain, and the setting sun that just feels inspired. Some evenings, I hear strains of a saxophone outside my window. I imagine the player is in an apartment complex nearby, although he’s probably on one of the streets below. My windows are always open—I hate to surrender the fresh air to re-circulated A/C—so, when I’m here and he’s playing, his notes waft right up on the night air, seep into my soul and take me away someplace peaceful.

Right now, the rain is pattering on my window unit, and echoing off the sidewalk below as it falls. Part of me wants to go outside and just stand in it. To feel it soak into my clothes and drip down my back. A few nights ago, at the end of a hard, angry run, it started raining unexpectedly. I was thirsty, tired, and sweaty. The cold droplets on my steaming skin created the most glorious sensation. I felt incredibly alive.

I’ve been running nearly every day for the past few weeks now, channeling all of my emotion into the force of my feet shoving against the cement with every step. Remarkably, my bum knee and my hateful back haven’t forced me to quit yet. There’s a running culture here into which I feel as though I’ve inducted myself. If you run at the same time everyday (which is rare for me), you’ll actually start to recognize faces along the lake. I love to watch the people on the path. You can spot the distance runners with their sinewy frames and calm expressions; the red-faced dabblers who look on the verge of collapse as their run diminishes to a snail's pace; the newbies who don’t understand the traffic patterns and are nearly run down by the bicyclists. I'm pretty much a red-faced dabbler myself, though my stamina is much improved lately.

In addition to the footpath along the lake, the Joffrey has also been a haven for me this summer. I’m not sure why it took me so long to show up at the studio with ballet shoes in hand, but when I finally decided to face my fears of inferiority and go to class, I felt like I was coming home. Sure, the days of Firebird are long gone, but the passion still dwells inside me. And it’s always a surprise what passion and determination can make the body do. Frankly, not much has changed since my hard-core dancing days. When the music begins I still become one with the barre. I still feel its unwavering support like I’ve felt every barre I’ve ever touched in my entire dancing life. I still feel like I am tapping into something that lies deep within me, even if my legs need some retraining and my turnout’s a little rusty.

One of my favorite parts about the Joffrey is that you can look down at the city streets from the barre. It feels like being on top of the world, dancing above the city traffic, dirty sidewalks, and busy world below. In the studio it’s like time suspended in air. The city can do what it wants; it doesn’t matter, because you’re dancing and everything else stops existing. The stress and emotion of life just dissolve into the strains of Chopin or Tchaikovsky. They melt off your skin as the music takes over. There is nothing in the world quite like it...

Here I am in my apartment, drifting back from my reverie, rain still washing down the city streets. The saxophonist is still M.I.A., but I’ve got Miles playing in the background. My eyelids begin to grow heavy. I’m pretty sure that tonight I will have no trouble sleeping.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sunflowers and Vitamin D

A vase full of Frisbee-sized sunflowers stares at me from my dresser. Every time I look up from my computer screen their yellow petals make me smile. If Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail is right and daisies are the “friendliest flower,” then I’m certain that sunflowers are the cheeriest. Dozens of other people at today’s farmer’s market seemed to think so, too, as we were all moseying about with these audacious yellow flowers exploding from our grips. The thing is, the sunflowers were worth every penny that I paid for them (which wasn’t much, actually), because they made me smile every time I returned to my apartment today. And that means an awful lot right now.

Sunflowers encapsulate summer, and today was one of the most beautiful summer days Chicago's seen thus far in our disappointingly cool and wet season. It was a perfect day for being outdoors and it seemed as though everyone was relishing it. I finally made it to the free summer workouts offered at Millennium Park this morning. It was delicious to feel the sun on my muscles and to stare up at the clear blue sky from the comfort my Pilates mat in the grass.

After an hour of reminding my abs what crunches feel like and challenging my flexibility, I found myself forced into the crowd of overzealous, visiting Reds and Cubs fans infiltrating the El. I couldn’t help but feel impatient as they stopped up the turnstiles while trying to figure out how to use their newly-purchased CTA cards and then held up the train as they all tried to cram into the last five cars. I felt relief when I emerged from the subway at Clark and Division, and saw the farmer’s market spread out before me. The last time I'd made it to the market, it was raining quite steadily, and the vendors were protecting their wares from the wind as the handful of browsers dodged puddles and tried to make purchases quickly. Today, it was packed and the pace was leisurely. Imagine shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic, dotted with giant yellow flowers (I’m not exaggerating the prevalence of the sunflowers). I tend to get a little claustrophobic in crowds, but I enjoyed the fact that so many people were taking advantage of the morning.

Afterward, I paused at the apartment to shower and have a slice of the watermelon I’d just purchased, then headed for the beach. I’m not going to lie—I really relish going to the beach, and I usually go alone. For me it’s not so much about getting a tan (although that's part of it), but about contemplation and writing time (I’ve gotten in the habit of throwing a notebook into my beach bag). Sometimes I don’t get inspired at all. Sometimes I do. Today, not so much: just a few fruitless scribbles. For awhile, I just listened to music and watched the clouds interweave like silky strands of cigarette smoke across the sky. As I laid there, I started to feel rejuvenated. All that Vitamin D just sunk right down into me. And judging by all the people I saw out, I wasn’t the only one who really needed a Saturday like today. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for lots more of these before the season’s over.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I'm Not a Tourist! Oh, Wait...

Yesterday, I was reading Chicago Magazine and was struck by the the very last article in the issue. In it, Jeff Ruby tries to figure out if he “qualifies” as a Chicagoan. A transplant to the city, he’s lived here for twelve years now, and still can’t find a conclusive answer to the question, “Am I a Chicagoan?” Recently, I’ve spent some time trying to determine how I feel about Chicago tourists, and whether or not I’m still essentially just a tourist myself.

Last night, Liz and I went shopping in my neighborhood, which happens to be a posh, touristy kind of area (believe me, I do not live in a posh, fancy kind of place, but a modest apartment complex which happens to be in an area where, I believe, most everyone makes infinitely more money than I do). After browsing through our favorite shops, Liz and I decided to stop someplace nice for a cocktail.

Now, Liz couldn’t remember the name of the place she wanted us to go to, but she remembered what it looked like and she had recently read that they had the best cocktails in the city. So, we were sort of wandering about looking a bit uncertain when two middle-aged men called out to us and asked us what it was we were trying to find. I noticed, immediately, that they assumed we were tourists by the way they spoke down to us from their voices of “true” Chicago wisdom. Almost as immediately, I became insulted and defensive. First off, I don’t feel as though I looked like a tourist (okay, aside from the whole walking about aimlessly part) and second of all, I don’t want to look like a tourist. I mean, here they were trying to give us directions to places in my own neighborhood. Of course, the thing that really irked me about this was that I knew I had no right to be exasperated, because, I’m ashamed to say, I don’t actually know my own neighborhood that well, yet. Maybe I am little more than a tourist. I’ve only lived in Chicago for about nine months total, and I’ve spent a mere two months in this neighborhood (and only about one if you subtract all the time I was spending in Oak Park). Really, the frustration that these men were eliciting from me was a result of my increasing awareness of my own ignorance about the place where I live!

As they continued to spout off about how touristy this area is, how if we were looking for drinks we were headed in the wrong direction, and how the next batch of bars was several blocks away (and we’re tourists so, of course, we must have been looking for a street full of bars), and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I felt increasingly annoyed. When they finally stop talking and headed back in the opposite direction, I experienced this fleeting, sinking feeling that, to many Chicagoans, I'm really not any different than one of those ridiculous Segway tour group members that ride so absurdly through my neighborhood.

But, then I got to thinking about it. And one of the best things about Chicago is that no one ever completely stops being a tourist (okay, unless maybe you’ve actually lived here your entire life, which is a small minority of the city’s population). Everyone I know puts on their tourist shoes, whips out their cameras, and gladly partakes in all the touristy activities the very second anyone from out of town shows up. After all, when else do you have the excuse to take pictures of your reflection in the Bean, ride around on a tour boat looking at architecture, or spend all day shopping on Michigan Ave.? Granted, no one needs an excuse to do these things, but when you live here, often times you avoid the “touristy” things and try to find the best local spots, where you won’t have to deal with crowds of gawking people (and where you'll save some cash).

Like Jeff Ruby, I am a transplant and therefore may never be a “true” Chicagoan. But, as his article points out, that all depends on perspective. It seems that no two people have the same definition of what it takes to be a Chicagoan. And, well, when it comes down to it, yes, I want to fit in, but no, I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. Like most people here, I love this city. I love that when I walk down the sidewalks I am likely to hear people speaking in any language. I love that people on the street are always talking about Chicago, even as they stand within it. I love that I could partake in a different activity every day for, quite possibly, months if I wanted. I’ll stop there because, well, now I'm just starting to gush. So, you can call me a tourist if you want. Chicago is still consistently new to me. But you know what? I hope that never changes—and I plan on sticking around for a long time.

Monday, July 20, 2009


I’m lying on the sand, atop a beach towel that’s not quite long enough for my tall frame (they never are), staring at the John Hancock building. And, for the first time in a week and a half, I only feel a twinge of sadness. Numbness would be the accurate term for what I feel at this moment. I’m still wondering if I’ll ever get an eight-hour night of sleep again, but I'm slightly comforted by the fact that my waning appetite has helped me lose nearly ten pounds.

It’s about 6 p.m. There are only a couple of hours of sunlight remaining. I’m at the beach alone, but that’s okay. This gives me time to get comfortable with being alone again. No one bothers me, aside from the occasional ogling eye. And really that’s all I want right now, in this moment—-to be left alone. I am taking time to reevaluate. The world. My life. My outlook.

I have been foolish enough to be a romantic; an idealist. I realize that anyone who’s read my blogs could have pinpointed that in a heartbeat. But I have always envisioned myself as a realist. Practical. Not to be taken by flights of fancy. After all, I always disparaged the Transcendentalists because I felt they were too often idealistic. But I learned the hard way that I was lying to myself. Deep down, I've been what is sometimes referred to as a "silly heart."

The sun is retreating and the shadows of high rises stretch up the backs of my legs. I feel their coolness, juxtaposed against the heat of my upper body, still basking in the sun. I take it in. I just want to feel that contrast, to feel my aliveness. But I wish that the sunshine wouldn’t fade so fast.

As the sun recedes, I move closer to the lake, prolonging the rays of sunshine until the shadows overtake me. I lie there until, inevitably, the light fades behind the buildings and I am left lying in shadow, with goose bumps erupting like waves across my skin. I am reluctant to leave, to let go. Of the daylight, of love, of someone with whom I'd gotten used to sharing my life. I feel the tears spilling out from behind my sunglasses, and I wonder that there’s any liquid left in my body after all these days of crying.

But even as I retreat from numbness back to sadness, I allow myself to become distracted by the gulls as they patter about, leaving webbed prints in the sand. I find myself grinning at their movements. I think to myself that they are both cute and funny-looking. But then I realize that they wouldn't look so cute if they shat on your head. And the thought of one of those birds pooping on someone’s head is so hilarious to me, that I start laughing. And as I'm lying there making myself laugh, I suddenly realize that idealists (yes, I am one) need not fear sunsets and shadows—-they’ve got plenty of sunshine within.