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.

Tea for Two

Despite the fact that I started to feel pretty miserable on Friday afternoon—wouldn’t you know it, I came down with a nasty summer cold just as my mom arrived in Chicago—I was determined to show her a good time in the city. Granted, we found ourselves eating at a restaurant near my apartment and then crashing early on Friday evening instead of checking out the Art Institute's new Modern Wing, and Sunday didn’t wind up including a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo or a walk on the beach, but I managed a pretty jam-packed day on Saturday, so all was not lost.

After a Saturday morning filled with shopping on State Street, we headed to a cute little restaurant I’ve always wanted to try—Russian Tea Time. Now, I have passed this place dozens of times, but for some reason (perhaps the cold meds) could not remember the street on which it was located. I knew it was somewhere near Grant Park/the Art Institute, and that it sat on the south side of an east-west street between Wabash and Michigan. I just figured we’d see it if we walked a few blocks. Well, we walked a few blocks. We did not see it. My mom, who is highly familiar with my terrible sense of direction, started suggesting that we just go grab a sandwich someplace else. But when I get something in my head, I’m determined to do it, come hell or high water. So, I swallowed my pride and started asking people. The clerk at CVS: “Never heard of it.” A clerk at Seven Eleven: “No [raising an eyebrow at me]. I have no idea where that is. And no, we don’t have a phone book.” The bell-hop at a nameless hotel: “I've been asked this before. I don't know exactly, but you have to go north. It’s on Michigan Avenue, toward Randolph.” I knew that was wrong the second he said it. It’s not on Michigan—this I knew—but since I clearly wasn’t finding it on my own, I’d decided to roll with it for a block or two. Of course, that was to no avail. Mom was being a good sport, but I could tell she was ready to sit down; however, like I said, I was determined. So we kept going south until, finally, I peered around the corner at Michigan and Adams, and there it was! Imagine that--it was in exactly the place where I'd seen it before.

We went in and sat down for a leisurely lunch before our architecture tour on the river. With lively Russian music playing in the background, we were seated at a lovely table with white linens and fresh bread. It was a perfect day for tea—chilly, not at all like mid-August—so we each ordered the Jasmine tea. It was delicious and soothing to my scratchy, under-the-weather throat. For lunch, my mom opted for stuffed mushroom caps, while I tried something new—-pumpkin vareniky. Just as the tea was exquisite, my taste buds were entirely satisfied with the vareniky. Similar to a pierogi, the dumplings were stuffed with pumpkin and onion and sprinkled with cinnamon. They were served with sour cream, and I was in heaven. I recommend this dish to anyone who loves all things pumpkin (which is definitely me).

Then, when I thought we were through, my mom nudged me in the direction of dessert (I try to resist, I really do!). We decided to split the Napolean torte and wow. That’s all I can say. Layers of thick pastry and rich cream drizzled with raspberry sauce. Decadence. I have no vested interest in Russian Tea Time, and I am telling you anyway—-go there! I’m sure you’ll leave feeling as completely satisfied as we did when we stepped out the door.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"There's no Macy's on State Street."

After a great deal of anticipation, my mom arrived in Chicago last Thursday afternoon for a much-needed vacation. We knew I’d still be working when she arrived, so we discussed her game plan ahead of time. She’d arrive at Union Station, and then grab a cab from there to Macy’s on State Street (why, oh why is there no convenient public transportation from Union Station to where I live??). Macy’s has often been a meeting point for us, as it’s fairly close to my work, she loves the voluminous, multi-floored shopping experience, and it’s an easy landmark (or, so we thought).

When I finished work, I called her and excitedly told her I was a couple of blocks away. We had agreed to meet at the Starbucks on Randolph and Wabash, but when I called, she told me the saleswoman told her there was no longer a Starbucks at Macy’s but that she was at a generic coffee shop on the first floor. This was immediately fishy. So, I arrived at Macy’s on State, and after checking three different Starbucks in the store and not finding mom, I called her again. “Mom, I’m at Starbucks on the bottom floor, but I don’t see you. There’s a Starbucks on practically every floor of this store. What if we meet at the Lush counter?” Mom, excitedly: "Oh, perfect! I know where that is!" Okay, so we decided to meet at Lush. After waiting for ten minutes, trying to dodge the over-zealous, socially-awkward salesman, and trying to fight the nausea of bath bomb and shower gel olfactory overload, she called me. “I’m at Lush,” she said. “So am I,” I replied. Then, I was sure: “Which Macy’s are you at??” Mom: “I don’t know. I told the taxi driver Macy’s on State. The big Macy’s. And he told me there wasn’t one and so I’m at Macy’s.” Me: “Are you at Water Tower Place??” Mom: “Yes.”

Now, we had had the discussion the evening before that she did NOT want to be at the Macy’s on Michigan Ave., but the one on State Street. She told the cab driver exactly what I told her to tell him. And, instead of bringing her to the Macy’s everybody knows, he firmly informed her that there wasn’t a Macy’s on State Street (yes, he actually said this), and drove her to the one farthest away so that he could make a few extra bucks. I was really angry. When I finally made my way up to Water Tower Place, she proceeded to tell me that she had had to lug her own heavy luggage in and out of the trunk of the taxi cab as well. I was livid. My mom has a lot of back trouble. Yes, she should have spoken up. But come on, you see a short little woman lugging a big suitcase from Union Station, you stop to pick her up, and all you can bother to do is pop the trunk for her? And then you tell her there’s no Macy’s on State Street? She got took in every sense of the phrase. Of course, she didn’t realize what had happened until later, but if she’d given me the name of the taxi company, the number of the cab and the name of the driver, you can bet I would be including all that information here, as well as calling someone to tell them off.

So, my advice to you if you’re traveling to Chicago—know exactly where you’re headed beforehand, and don’t let a taxi driver convince you that you’re wrong. I’ve taken cabs a half dozen times in the city, and almost every time the driver had no idea to what location I was referring. Of course, now I wonder if they just pretend they don’t know where they’re going so they can conveniently “get lost” and charge you, the unsuspecting patron, three times what it should actually cost to get from point A to point B.

Luckily, she and I were so happy to see each other that we let the whole situation roll off, and headed to the John Hancock for some Cheesecake Factory avocado egg rolls and some cookies n cream cheesecake. You’re right. It’s not a unique Chicago restaurant in any sense of the word. But we don’t have one back home, and it’s been a tradition every time she comes to town that we eat there. I was glad to fill up on conversation and cheesecake. But I have to admit, I was still a little P.O.ed at the anonymous cab driver who took my mom for a ride.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Please don’t tell me that summer is almost over. You can say it, but I won’t listen. I’ll stick my fingers in my ears and loudly hum some Manfred Mann (kudos, if you get that reference). Okay, maybe I’ll be a tad more mature about about it than all that, but all this talk of summer’s ending and school's starting is starting to seep in, so I would appreciate it if everyone would just indulge me and pretend that summer is still going to continue for a few more months. I mean, technically, since going back to school is no longer part of my seasonal schedule, summer doesn’t really end for me yet. Most likely, the sunshine and warm temperatures will last until the end of September (maybe longer). But Chicago’s summertime events are all ending. The free concerts, outdoor movies, exercise classes at the park, etc. You name it, they’re all winding down. So, even if I can ignore the fact that a lot of my friends are kicking off the new school year (as teachers or as continuing grad students) and my young cousins are hopping back on yellow buses with book bags chock full of new school supplies, I can’t ignore the fact that Chicago says summer is ending, too.

It’s not that I don’t like fall. In fact, autumn is my favorite season. It’s a season of new beginnings (so many years of school have transferred my sense of new beginnings from spring to fall). The trees are beautiful, the temperatures are just right, fall fashions are my favorite of the year… But I guess I just feel like I got cheated this summer. While most of my reluctance to accept fall stems from the fact that events in my personal life made for a rather depressing summer, I think that a lot of people can empathize with a sense of being cheated out of much of summertime because the weather was so disappointing for the first half of the season (not to mention we had a ridiculously late spring, following a looong and frigid winter). I feel a desperate urge to cling to every ounce of sunshine we’ll get before the gloomy winter weather sets in. I mean, at least we have Christmastime, but each day of autumn will inch us closer to the doldrums of January, February, and March. (It made me cringe just to write those two sentences--sorry to bring up winter.) I feel myself facing that old familiar struggle with time. Where part of me wants to hold it back, while another part of me wants to race it forward, but inevitably I have no control whatsoever since I will never exist anyplace but the present, and the present will always belong to the progression of time.

So, I’m just going to hang out and try to squeeze every ounce of summer I can out of the final weeks of the season. I’m going to remember that autumn is inevitable, that it really is my favorite season, and that time heals all, so its advancement will only do me well. And finally, I’m going to do what I always do—investigate, gather information, and plan. After all, Chicago doesn’t stop providing a wealth of events and activities just because Labor Day hits. Every season holds something in which to find joy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chicago Air & Water Show: The Part They Didn't Tell You

Probably because we picked the wrong three hours to be there, or maybe because we chose the wrong beach to watch from, or maybe because the crowds and the hard cement under my sit-bones got old really fast, but the Chicago Air & Water Show was disappointing.

I suppose I should have known it was little more than a tourist trap from the beginning, and I definitely should’ve gotten a clue when I went for a run yesterday after work. The lake path was lined with trash bins, attracting swarms of those tiny little flies that collect like clouds in front of your face (not so fun when you’re running and you have to keep your mouth closed the entire time). Port-a-potties and white tents marred the lake view, and crowds of people who were diverted around sections of closed-off sidewalks frustrated every runner and biker on the path. Every indicator was there. Yet, I was only further convinced that this show was really something to see.

So, this morning, instead of sleeping late, I woke up at a decent time to meet a couple of friends on the beach. North Ave. beach was jam-packed with visitors, from the very inch the beach and lake meet, up to and onto the sidewalk. We decided to avoid North Ave. and relocate closer to Oak Street where we could sit down. Apparently by doing this, we missed the water show, and sat impatiently for three hours waiting for something interesting to happen in the sky.

What we viewed was a random plane here and there, flying out across the lake. We saw a few parasailers shooting off fireworks after they launched from various airplanes, and some small planes doing some daring interweaving (this was the best part), but that was it. And the thing was, I couldn’t find a concrete schedule of events anywhere prior to and at the show (which you know they do purposely). I went up to an information desk set up under one of those white tent awnings and asked about a program schedule. The person sitting there told me he had absolutely no information, and directed me to a flier (which I had already received) explaining how to set up text messages that would alert me to the schedule. Seeing as this was my only option, I did it. After two welcome texts, I got a new text message every few minutes telling me which plane (singular) was about to fly over North Ave. beach. I realized quite quickly that these alerts were going to put me over my text limit (I may be one of the only people left who does not have unlimited texting), and promptly canceled.

Everything I read about the show prior to today directed me to show up early in order to get a spot. I showed up early, found the beach already packed, and then stayed for three hours waiting to see something exciting. A little after 1 pm, hungry, impatient and, in my case, highly disappointed, we decided to leave and go get food someplace where we wouldn’t have to pay ten bucks for a hot dog. After lunch, I headed back to my apartment because I needed to write some articles (still procrastinating, as you can see), and then the good stuff started!

I found out quickly that the only part worth going for is the last 30 minutes, which I have just spent watching from my apartment window. I have seen more planes in the past half hour than I saw in the entire three hours Jake, Dave and I sat roasting in the sun, on hard concrete. This last 30 minutes was exactly what I was hoping for when I showed up outside Castaways at 10 am. I’m not going to lie—I’m a bit disappointed that I saw all the cool stuff from my apartment window. But it’s actually pretty exciting to be sitting at home, to hear the growing rumble of the planes, to look out your window, eyes darting from one inch of the sky to the next, waiting for the planes to appear, until, all of a sudden, they zip into your line of vision from nowhere, across the apartments adjacent to you, and out toward the lake. I noticed all the knowledgeable people out on their rooftops and balconies watching the show. No crazy crowds, sweaty bodies crammed together, and hard cement underfoot. I understand why people told me I was crazy when I said I was going to watch it from North Ave. beach, but I'd wanted to get the full experience. Turns out that we didn’t even wind up on North Ave., and that I didn't get the full experience whatsoever. But, the good news is that they do the whole show again tomorrow. So, tomorrow, at 3:30 pm, I am going to stake out a spot on my rooftop deck and watch all the good stuff all over again. :)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When I'm Part of Your Travel Itinerary... makes my day. I feel like I’ve said this before (or maybe I wrote it in one of the many posts that never actually make it to the blog), but one of my most favorite things about living in Chicago is that there’s never too long a period of time that passes before someone I know and love is traveling to or through the area. This makes me one very happy camper, because my family and friends mean the world to me and, let's face it, at times this city of three million+ faces can be a lonely place. A good share of my visitors have been former professors, whom I hold near and dear to my heart. I love that most of them are relatively close by in Indiana, and the others travel here for conferences or hiring extravaganzas like MLA. I live in a hub of travel activity, and for all the people I get to see and will get to see, I am grateful.

So, what recent visit has inspired this spontaneous overflow of emotion (recalled in tranquility, of course)? Pat (my undergrad thesis director/good friend) and his wife Cindy are in town this week, and I hadn’t seen them since graduation (where do the years go?). We met for lunch at Tavern at the Park yesterday, on what was the most gorgeous day we’ve had in August. No rain, no stifling heat and humidity, just full sun and a cool lake breeze.

Anyway, the three of us had lunch outside under giant umbrellas, the breeze not even threatening to wreak havoc on our napkins or loose crumbs. While the food was disappointingly lackluster in my opinion (the chicken on my salad was dry, and the discs of fried goat cheese strangely bland), the comfy conversation between like-minded, good-natured people fed my appetite. There’s something so great about old friends with whom you can pick up where you left off like no time has really passed despite the years you've got to fill each other in on. Of course, an hour or so is hardly enough chance to adequately catch up on the lives of people you haven’t seen in such a long time, but it was an hour of great satisfaction. After reluctant good-byes, they headed off to the Art Institute, and I headed back to an afternoon of meetings at work.

Luckily, my string of visitors for August is just beginning, though, and I love planning all kinds of excursions and great Chicago food for my visitors, so the fun is just beginning. Since I’m going to have an excuse to do all kinds of touristy stuff, I’m sure there will be plenty of blog posts at the beginning of September about all the new things I will have experienced in this fabulous city (that is, if I have time to blog—believe it or not, I’m actually starting to get paid to write things now, so the time I have for blogging is going to have to slim down a little). Let me just say, I’m all filled up with excitement about the remainder of August. This month may actually make up for the heartbreak that was July.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Burnham Pavillions: Impressions from a Casual Observer

When art installations are temporary (and isn’t this nearly always the case with contemporary art?), I like to try to see them while they're around. If you're into art at all, I’d recommend viewing the Burnham Pavilions in Millennium Park before they’re disassembled and disappear at the end of October.

Last Wednesday, I finished work and had a few hours to kill before I headed over to the Joffrey, so I decided to grab a smoothie and head to the park. A friend of mine had mentioned to me that the Zaha Hadid pavilion had just opened and since it is part of the Burnham series designed to mark the Centennial Celebration of the Plan of Chicago, I was eager to check it out. I’m glad I approached it from the south side. In my opinion, the best view of the structure is standing at the southern entrance, facing northwest, where the widest mouth of the pavilion awaits your entrance. I heard one viewer characterize the pavilion as a conch shell, and, although not a conch, I don't think “shell” is too far off the mark.

The official description of the pavilion materials are “aluminum…dressed in a tensile fabric.” Whether or not “tensile fabric” means canvass is unclear, but as you approach the art piece, that familiar tent smell overtakes you. Stepping inside, you feel a sense of being indoors and outdoors at once. Long slats covered in a clear material (canvas again?) allow the sun to penetrate the structure, and you can peer out to see clouds and building tops. Small blue lights accent the ridges created by the incorporation of the slats. Combined with the fanned-out views of sky, they create a pleasing aesthetic effect.

As I wandered about with my point-and-shoot camera (yes, I’m a total amateur), trying to find the best angles for photographs, I couldn’t help but notice the dirty hand and footprints along the insides of the pavilion. Why white?, I wondered. Probably because white had a nice, reflective effect with the sun shining through the structure, and I’m sure it makes an ideal backdrop for the colorful lights that illuminate the pavilion at night. It's just such a shame that the structure had been open only one day and it was already looking dingy.

When I headed out of the Zaha Hadid, toward the UNStudio pavilion, I stopped to get a picture from the north side of the white canvas structure. The shell suddenly became a spaceship, looking somewhat similar to the one used in Flight of the Navigator. I decided that I preferred the inside.

Heading toward the UNStudio Pavilion, and dodging heavy concentrations of tourists along the way, I immediately noticed two kids climbing on the art piece. As I grew closer, I saw large, exposed patches of gray, where the paint had rubbed off, and a prominent sign asking that no one climb on the structure. I felt a sinking feeling not unlike the one I felt when I saw the footprints inside the "shell." And I was amazed at how long it took the kids’ parents to come up and tell them not to climb on the art work. But I did like the fact that, like the Zaha Hadid, the UNStudio welcomes you to walk through it. It’s interactive in that sense. I decided that, although the exposed gray patches and dirty footprints changed the face of the artwork, people had been taking part in the art by doing more than just staring at it. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I’m some kind of art snob, or that I even have a solid grasp of art history. I just like to look at beautiful things and notice interesting angles and effects. If you want to know what the artists were trying to do with these pavilions, visit the Burnham Pavilions page, or pick up one of the programs at the information booths in the park. Both pavilions relate to the city of Chicago: one uses lines to mimic the diagonal streets of Chicago (the Zaha Hadid); the other, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, reaches out to accentuate the Chicago skyline (yes, I read the program).

I think I walked around taking pictures and observing for about half an hour. I felt very uplifted after examining them, and jotting down a few notes. So, even though I probably won’t remember the details I read about the artists or how long it took to install the pavilions and may even forget some of the artists’ intent, I will remember the smells and the view, and how it felt to walk through each one, and how I felt afterward. And those details are important to me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Random Acts of Ridiculousness

One of the best things about living in Chicago is the randomness. I love that you never know what you’re going to see, and, honestly, you start to not be surprised by things. Last week, I was headed home from work and saw two guys carrying a banged up black leather Lazy-Boy up Michigan Ave. They were on the verge of dropping it—they were quite skinny and red-faced, and the crowds of people weren’t making their lives easier. It was just bizarre, because, really, who carries an old Lazy-Boy up Michigan Ave. at rush hour? But then, two days later, when I saw two completely different men carrying a pair of mattresses up Michigan Ave., I just wasn’t that surprised.

Tonight, on the way home from the MoCA, Vinny and I passed a woman with a stroller. I was looking into it so I saw the pug before it barked. But Vinny was distracted by all the stuff he was carrying, so it was completely hilarious to see his reaction when what he thought was a baby in a stroller started barking at us. Seriously, who takes their dog for a walk by pushing it in a stroller? (People in this town are crazy about their dogs, by the way.) There are lots of random acts of ridiculousness happening all around the city all the time. Usually they’re just funny, although occasionally something will be just plain offensive (seriously, people, wearing pants is called decency).

But then there are patterns, too, and they’re just as fun to recognize. I wrote a blog awhile back about the dripping rain falling from a leaky bus roof, and my amusement that every single person who was dripped on reacted in exactly the same manner. Tonight, something like that happened again. Vinny and I went to listen to free jazz at the MoCA (a little disappointing—the music is great, but if you’re sitting on the grass, you can’t see anything—hence, “free”). On our way out, we were distracted by all kinds of colorful exhibits and started putzing around. Right now, there’s this fabulous tunnel with intricate walls like prisms, reflecting a rainbow of colors from one end to the other. And you get to walk through it. But if you go back through from the other direction, there’s no color—it’s just black. I noticed this, said, “Oh, there’s no color from this side!” and kept walking, but Vinny went to investigate. Soon, he declared his amazement that it was colorless on one side and colorful on the other, and the security guard started laughing. Vinny started laughing, too, and said to me, “He must see people do that same thing all day long.” And undoubtedly, he must. So, maybe every person doesn’t react exactly the same way (after all, I didn't even pause to investigate before heading toward the next shiny object), but both of us, and other onlookers, expressed our amazement that the color was gone when you walked back through. We all create these expectations and habits, and when something interrupts them (like raindrops indoors, or tricky artwork) we're always surprised. And, unless you’re just a stick-in-the-mud, it is funny to watch people from all walks of life respond in exactly the same way to a particular stimulus. If I’d been the security guard, I’d have cracked up, too. It kind of made my day.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hauling My Groceries up onto My Soapbox

This morning at the neighborhood Jewel, I found myself sandwiched between a long line of people behind me, and a wall of incompetence in front. While the cashier spent ten minutes working with the customer ahead of me trying to get her grocery card to work, I zoned out to clips of John Stewart on the TV. It actually took me a few minutes before I realized what I was doing: I was watching television in the grocery store checkout line. I looked around. Sure enough, there were TVs in all the checkout lines. (I never noticed it before because I’m one of those impatient types who relies on self-checkout.)

Then I got to thinking about what it says about us as a society, that we need televisions at the checkout counter. It used to be enough just to pick up a magazine and flip through it while you waited, but not anymore. Now we need to have news and entertainment fed to us with little to no effort on our parts, if we have to wait more than two seconds in a line.

They installed televisions at some of the El stops, too. I remember when they first put them in at the Clark/Lake stop in May. I was waiting for the green line after work and I noticed the new flat screen TV sets, still partially-wrapped in protective plastic. The first thing that flashed into my head was the billions of dollars the CTA is in debt. They’d raised our travel fees a few months earlier. And here I thought that rate hike was helping to keep people employed, and to perform maintenance on trains and buses!

In these days of PDAs and iPhones, I guess I just find it incredible that television sets are popping up all over the place. It’s such overkill and overload. Do we really need to have information and entertainment (not to mention marketing) spoon-fed to us every second we’re not working? Goodness knows, I’m on my computer all the time, at work and at home (and if I had an iPhone it would be half of the rest of the time, too), so I’m not excusing myself. But I don’t think it’s healthy that I feel the constant need to be connected to technology this way. And I think that having time just to be, to think, and to observe the real, physical world around me is invaluable. If you put a TV in front of my face, I'll probably watch it. And maybe I'll learn something new, but I'm pretty sure the people getting the most benefit out of this are the ones advertising their products in the endless strings of commercials.

You know, I’m grateful that Chicago is still a reading city. On the El, you’ll see a good number of people glued to a book the entire commute to work. Part of me actually misses the 25-minute El ride I used to have from Uptown, because the couple of stops I've got now only provide enough time to just get engrossed and then you’re stepping off again. Reading is relaxing, and it’s an escape. I just hope that we’re not going to become so obsessed with technology and fast facts that this reading culture dies (and by "reading," I mean something beyond an 8th grade reading level, which, by the way, is the target reading level for ecommerce sites). And I don't care if that makes me old-fashioned.