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6.30.2009

A Celebrity in Our Midst...

Last night, Dad was on TV, discussing the local implications of the Madoff scandal, and I couldn't be more proud. Check him out:

6.28.2009

The Joy of Visitors - Part Two

On Sunday, we got an earlier start to our day, hoping to avoid the morning brunch crowds, but our efforts were to no avail. We still had to wait almost a half hour at Yolk, but at least Joy greatly enjoyed her eggs Benedict, and Nicole was entertained by her choice of green eggs and ham (made with pesto). When our appetites were sated, we headed over to the Art Institute to check out the new Modern Wing, where I was able to get everyone in for free on our family membership, thereby skirting the controversial increased admission rate.

Joy and I in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute.

Like just about everything else in life, I wasn't sure that the Modern Wing lived up to all the hype. Given the size of the structure from the outside, I was expecting the gallery space to be much larger, but much of the interior space was dedicated to the spacious, light-filled atrium, which the Art Institute will be renting out for tony private events. The first floor contained a small gallery for special exhibits, currently featuring recent paintings by Cy Twombly, and a dedicated Modern Wing gift shop, featuring the sort of design gifts that have always been the hallmark of the MoMA and Museum of Contemporary Art stores.

The second floor housed the largest exhibition space, with separate galleries for art from 1945-1960, art from 1960-present, and architecture and design. Not surprisingly, I found the works from 1945-1960 to be the most accessible, consisting of works by Jackson Pollack, Yves Klein, and Willem De Kooning, many of which were on display before the move to the new wing. Mark Rothko was also represented in that gallery, and of course, I still failed to sense the emotions supposedly evoked by his juxtaposition of colors. I can't help but think of the song "Nothing" from A Chorus Line -- no matter how hard I try to feel something from his paintings, there is often nothing, although the one at the Art Institute makes me slightly nauseous, because it is so orange. The only time I have ever cried in front of a Rothko was at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and it was solely because my eyes started to water from not blinking enough when I was staring at it.

Joy was particularly enamored of the architecture and design section, considering she is going back to school for industrial design. There were some pretty fabulous pieces of furniture in there that I wouldn't mind having in my apartment, if I had unlimited resources. The highlight though, was an interactive exhibit demonstrating motion sensing technology, in which your motions manipulated the movements of a spiderweb digitally projected onto the wall. It was very cool, and very popular.

I did enjoy some of the pieces in the 1960-present section, which I think was perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the move to the Modern Wing. Although many of the pieces were uncannily similar to the collections displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, I still enjoyed seeing works that had not previously been displayed at the Art Institute, such as an entire room dedicated to Gerhard Richter, who produced a series of texturally fascinating paintings during the late 1980s, and a brilliantly staged Jeff Koons sculpture of a woman surprised in the bath which was housed next to a window to accentuate the themes of voyeurism running through the work.


The second floor contained a whole room dedicated to Gerhard Richter, whose abstract works I particularly admire (above). Also newly on display on the third floor was this fantastic Le Corbusier (below).


The third floor hadthe smallest amount of exhibition space, but contained probably the most popular works in the entire wing: European art from 1900-1950. There can be found the Picassos, the Dalis, the Magrittes, and sculptures by Brancusi and Joseph Cornell. My initial impression was that there was not much more space dedicated to these works than there was before the renovation, but there was a greater balance of artists than previously, and there were a number of new works, such as an astounding collection of works by Cornell, donated entirely by one donor, and completely absent from the museum's previous incarnation.

I was particularly impressed, and delighted, to discover for the first time the works of Matta, a Chilean painter whose pieces I greatly enjoyed. As many museums as I have been to, and as many art history classes I have taken, I found it so refreshing to have my eyes opened to something that I hadn't seen before. All in all, that singular experience made the whole excursion worthwhile, and would have been worth the $18 price of admission alone. What more can you really hope for from an art museum, but to expand your knowlege and appreciation of art?

Matta, The Earth Is a Man, 1942.

I also can't express enough how great it was to have an opportunity to go to the Modern Wing with Joy, who is an artist herself, and has much the same background in art history that I do. Although I enjoy visiting the Art Institute with all manner of people, and sharing my love of art and my tidbits of knowlege about the famous artworks with pretty much anyone who is willing to go, it was really satisfying to get to have a high-level discussion about the theory and practice of art with someone just as passionate (if not more) as myself. It was the perfect inaugural visit to the Modern Wing.

When we had seen all there was to be seen in that part of the museum, we met up with Nicole (whom we had long-since bored to death), and headed over to the Park Grill for some light refreshments. The weather was cooperative on every front (not too hot, not rainy, not too windy), so I even allowed myself to be persuaded to sit outside on the patio to do some people watching.

We then headed home for some R&R, and some research on routes for Joy and Nicole to take to the Vic Theater, where Sonic Youth was playing that night. My visitors also took advantage of some cable television viewing, before we headed back out for yet more food - this time deep dish pizza at Giordano's. I was glad that they let me choose the pizza; I have never understood all the hype surrounding Lou Malnati's. I think they must have the best marketing department of all the Chicago pizza heavyweights, because they are on every Food Network, Travel Channel, you-name-it special on Chicago that gets made, and their crust is terrible. When you're eating deep-dish, the crust is important, and it should be bready and buttery, not dense and hard. I just don't understand how they have won such legions of fans. There's no accounting for taste.

After eating, Joy and Nicole headed off for the concert, and I closed out the weekend on a quiet note. I was glad to have them up for a visit; it's always nice to reconnect with old friends, and every time I get together with one of my friends from college, it sparks my hope that we can overcome all of the distance that separates us to stay in touch. Call me naive, but I firmly believe it can be done, with enough determination.

6.27.2009

The Joy of Visitors - Part One

On the agenda for the weekend was a visit from Joy, my sophomore year roommate from college, and her friend Nicole, who were in town for a Sonic Youth concert. Joy came into town on Friday night via the much-lauded Megabus, but her experience was less than stellar: her bus had a flat tire, so instead of arriving at 10:30 in the evening, she arrived at nearly 1:30 in the morning after spending three hours along the side of the road somewhere between St. Louis and Springfield. It was decidedly not a good time.

To make things right, I took her to Taste of Chicago on Saturday, employing all the tricks I have acquired in my years of Taste attendance to make it the most pleasant experience possible:
  • I pre-purchased tickets at Dominick's before Taste of Chicago started, when they cost $6 per strip of 12 tickets, instead of $8. That way, you basically get four strips of tickets for the price of three strips purchased at the festival itself.
  • Using a map of the festival grounds, we made a game plan the night before, so that we could pace our eating to include all of our must-try items.
  • We packed a Taste "care-package" consisting of bottled water, a roll of paper towels, a plastic knife to cut food for sharing, a Tide-pen, and hand sanitizer.
  • We entered the festival on Balbo, the least crowded entrance, and got there shortly after it opened at 11:00, to try to dodge some of the crowds.
  • I dispensed preemptive stomach medicine, to head off any discomfort at the pass.
It was a good day to go to Taste of Chicago -- not too hot, not too crowded, and most importantly, during the wettest year on record in Chicago, not rainy. I was glad that I got to go this year, but the actual food I sampled was somewhat of a mixed bag. The beignets from Lagniappe were pretty wretched; they had been fried in the same fryer with the stand's catfish, and tasty unpleasantly thereof. My wildcard pick for the year was the pork-filled banana dumplings from Sabor Latino, but the one I received was entirely overcooked, and contained no discernible meat filling. The miniature steak gordita from Los Dos Laredos was incredibly cute, but somewhat bland. It could have benefited from the presence of onion, and some cheese. I suppose you get what you pay for when you stick to the cheaper tasting portions, when you're trying to stretch your tickets.

The first photo taken with my new Nikon S630: pierogis from Kasia's Deli.

On the positive end of the spectrum were the always dependable potato pierogis from Kasia's deli (I am, and always shall be a devotee of the dumpling arts), the chocolate-covered frozen banana from Aunt Diana's, and of course, my favorite all-time Taste item -- the pickle on a stick from Vienna Beef Hot Dogs. Some of my greatest childhood memories of going to Taste of Chicago with my parents center on what seemed at the time to be an enormous pickle on a skewer, practically the size of my forearm. Pickle juice would be running all down my arm and all over my face, and I could barely finish one on my own. I don't know if the pickles have gotten smaller, or I've just grown up, but even though they aren't as huge as I remember them, the flavor was pure childhood nostalgia.

I am normally terrible at the self-pic thing, but this one isn't too bad: Joy and I in front of Buckingham Fountain, during the Taste of Chicago.

Even though we still had a sizable number of food tickets remaining, all the fried food so early in our day had made us uncomfortably full, so we headed back to the condo to sleep it all off, and enjoy some air conditioning instead of toughing out the hottest part of the day. When we had finally regained some appetite, we headed out for a light supper at Cafecito, but discovered that it closes early on weekends. Instead, we ended up at my other favorite neighborhood haunt, Tamarind, for sushi and appetizers.

After dinner, Joy was in the mood for a walk, so we took the bus up to North Michigan Avenue for a bit of window shopping and wishful thinking, before the ubiquitous rain started up again, and we waited an unprecedented amount of time (for Michigan Avenue, epicenter of Chicago bus-bunching), to catch a ride home.

On the way, we heard from Nicole, whose flight had arrived early at Midway, in an attempt to dodge the incoming severe weather, so we detoured to the train station to meet her. Sadly, the evening ended on another negative note for Joy, who misplaced her cell phone after making a final call to link up with Nicole. We may never know if she dropped it and somebody picked it up, hoping to score some free long-distance calls, or it fell out of her pocket and off the platform, but it was nowhere to be found. Luckily, we managed to meet up with Nicole before the phone went AWOL, so other than the inconvenience of reporting her phone stolen and losing all her contacts, the trip was not adversely affected in the short run. Nevertheless, we would have to wait another day to try to salvage her vacation.

6.24.2009

Updates...

Just in case anyone was wondering, I think I weathered the mono crisis unscathed. My sore throat is gone, and I am relatively convinced that my current tiredness is more a result of my hot apartment keeping me awake at night, than illness. And on that front, things are looking up as well. The repairmen installed the pump in the air conditioner today, and the unit has been keeping things at a comfortable temperature all evening. So, hopefully the next few weeks will be smooth sailing... knock on wood...

6.23.2009

It's Getting Hot in Here...

Ladies and gentlemen, summer has arrived in Chicago. While most would probably hail this turn of events as a positive development for the city, I for one, am not a fan, especially when the start of summer is heralded by severe storms, a tornado drill at work, and a power outage in the suburbs on the very same weekend that I was going home. Also add to the mix the failure of my week-old air conditioner, and I think it's safe to say that I'm already counting the days until fall. If it weren't for the joint confluence of Audrey's bridal shower, and Father's Day, I could have remained downtown, where I would have at least had a fan, internet, and television, but alas, it was not meant to be.

The bridal shower fell on Saturday, with nearly all of our high school crew in attendance. Like so many parties of that era, Nikki (also the maid of honor), threw the party at her parents' home. The buffet featured Audrey's favorite foods - pot roast, pizza bagels, and latkes. Bucking tradition, the bride opted to forgo the traditional shower games in favor of a "roast," which I found to be a clever touch. Overall, the party was pleasant enough, but I couldn't shake my normal sense of discomfort with the fact that people my own age are getting married. I can still recall being six years old, and Audrey and I used to sit on her bedroom floor and fight over who got to be Wedding Day Midge, swearing that some day we'd be each other's maids of honor. Obviously, people's relationships change over time. Nevertheless, to me, marriage still feels very much the same -- like a hypothetical event for the very distant future. That doesn't mean it's not right for other people, I just have a difficult time wrapping my head around it.

From left: Stephanie, Nikki, Me, Lindsey, Audrey, Sarah, Claudia, Ashley, and some random chick who got in our picture of high school friends.

After 28 hours, the electricity finally came back in the wee hours of Sunday morning, so I was able to commemorate Father's Day with one of Dad's favorite meals: Lentils a la Brasserie du Theater. In keeping with my assertion that Dad is a complex guy, he also has favorite foods that are almost exclusively complicated to make. The traditional family anise cookies he holds dear require hand-shaping and glazing. The swiss chard he loves so much requires tedious washing and chopping. And the lentils, which were inspired by a meal that we had in Versailles, outside of Paris, require three pots cooking simultaneously on the stove, and a substantial amount of prep work.

Dad and I at the Palace of Versailles, 2007.

The dish consists of imported Puy lentils, incorporated into a mixture of very finely chopped carrot, celery, and shallot fried in bacon fat, in a warm bacon/red wine vinegar vinegrette, garnished with two poached eggs and lardons of bacon. Is it delicious? Yes. Is it worth all the effort? Only to make Dad happy, and to bring back memories from our journey across the north of France, in search of the history of the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. The trip was great, and the food was fantastic, but it takes a certain amount of dedication to replicate the experience at home.

Later in the afternoon, we went as a family to see Up in 3D. It was a good choice for Father's Day, given the themes it touched upon, but, as Pixar films are apt to do, it packed an emotional wallop. I was crying my eyes out in the first ten minutes or so, and I kept tearing up throughout the remainder. Overall, I thought it was pretty great, and I appreciated that the use of 3D was fairly subtle in most of the movie. Instead of packing the films with 3D sight gags, the technology was used to enhance the field of depth in aerial scenes and so forth. Plus, there were two awesome Star Wars references near the end, which put a perfect capstone on the experience for me. I doubt there's anyone left who hasn't seen Up by now, but I highly recommend it.

However, the positive note that Up had placed on my weekend was diminished by returning to the condo to find that the air conditioner wasn't working. It had been malfunctioning on Friday evening, just as the temperature was amping upwards, but Dad thought he had fixed it by restarting the unit, and it seemed to be fine when we left for the suburbs on Saturday morning. By Sunday night, however, it was a sweltering 78 degrees inside, and I've been doing battle with the damn thing ever since. The repairmen came today, and decided that the pitch of the unit was incorrect to promote proper draining (which apparently also explains my recent indoor humidity woes), and their attempts to repair it were unsuccessful. They are supposed to return tomorrow to install a pump to remove the excess water from the unit. Until then, I can only hope that they resolve this problem before the weekend, because I have company coming. More on that later...

6.21.2009

Happy Father's Day...

Today I want to take a moment to wish everyone a Happy Father’s Day, although I believe the only father reading my blog is my own.

Growing up, I considered myself somewhat of a Daddy’s girl. Dad was busy being a provider for most of my childhood, working very hard to make a life for me and my mom. Mom had to be the disciplinarian, while Dad got to swoop in at the end of a long day and be the good guy.


However, as I have gotten older, my relationship with my dad has gotten much richer and deeper. I have come to realize that my dad is a very complex man – he is always surprising me with new facets to his personality, and as I have gotten older and more mature, I have become better at recognizing and appreciating all of his different sides.

For instance, Dad is a man who takes a curmudgeonly stance on approximately 98% of popular culture, but finds childlike joy in any number of unexpected things, like comic book movies. Dad has his work persona, which he has cultivated to be commanding and somewhat intimidating. Yet he is the same man who writes me a poem every year for my birthday. Here is a sample from this year’s offering:

It's your birthday, number 24
I remember that night, pacing the floor
Waiting for Mom to recover her feeling
And all the while, my mind was reeling.
I wondered that night, how it would turn out.
Facing the burden, I was full of doubt.
I must confess, things have gone well;
The story is fabulously good to tell!

Although he often says that he liked me better before I learned to talk back, I suspect he secretly enjoys sparring with me, now that we’re on a more even intellectual footing. I may give him a lot of crap, but it always comes from a place of love. Even if I sometimes hide it beneath a veneer of argumentativeness, I love my father very much, and I consider myself very fortunate to have him in my life. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

6.19.2009

I am the law, and the law is not much...

Yesterday, the Red Eye, the free daily newspaper from the publishers of the Chicago Tribune and my loyal lunchtime companion, ran an article on Chicago's indecipherable municipal code, and what its obscure laws and regulations can mean for your summer. For example, it is legal to barbecue on your balcony, but not if your balcony is made of wood and your building is a certain number of years old. It is illegal to bring alcohol to many Chicago festivals held in parks administered by the Chicago Park District, but acceptable to "brown bag it" if you are on a picnic in said parks. If you are under the age of 12, you can ride a bike on city sidewalks, but not within the "central business district," whose boundaries are far more expansive than I would traditionally define the Loop. If there is a way to make the law more confusing, it's been done.

As a sidebar, the article featured a smattering of other city ordinances, many of which are common sense but seldom observed. There is a law prohibiting urination and defecation on and and all public and private property, excepting temporary structures erected to serve as toilets (such as port-a-potties). Frankly, I think if the city actually tried to enforce that law, the jails would be full of homeless people and sports fans alike.

The local press is fond of covering obscure and ridiculous laws. Several months ago, while researching past aldermen for work, I ran across a treasure trove of old Tribune articles covering the yearly pursuits of a group of city legislators who would dredge up inane and outdated laws to overturn. They did this primarily to get their names in the paper, but also to draw attention to the need for a review and reconsideration of the city's monumental municipal code. While these anachronistic laws provide their share of laughs, I think they provide an interesting window not only into the time they were written, but also into the times in which they stricken from the books:
  • In the 1970s, the City Council saw fit to strike down a law making it illegal to drive cattle through tunnels. Certainly, such concerns seemed ridiculous in the world of highways and mass transit, but in a world where Chicago was best known for its Stockyards, and hundreds of thousands of animals met their demise within the city limits, it would have been completely rational to write a law that kept them from blocking traffic in the underground streets downtown.
  • Also during the 70s, the City Council struck down a law making it illegal to dispose of garbage and kitchen waste in outdoor privies. Now, I'm not sure what difference it would have made (surely, the privies would have smelled equally bad no matter what you put into them), but I'm sure they had their reasons.
  • It remains illegal for people under the age of 18 to hang off the back of streetcars - a law enacted in the 1930s. I think that's perfectly reasonable - just think of the bodily harm that could befall a child who lost their grip and fell into busy city traffic! Never mind the fact that Chicago hasn't had streetcars since 1947, when the newly-formed Chicago Transit Authority took them over and shut them down.
  • Until 2001, it was illegal to wear a hood in public. No word on when that law was enacted, but given the widespread popularity of hoodies as a fashion statement, and Chicago's arctic weather patterns, I'd say it's a good thing we've gotten the all-clear from the city.
  • In 1986, in the Cold War fervor of the Regan era, Chicago's City Council voted to make the city a "nuclear free" zone, where it would be illegal to produce, store, or test nuclear weapons. I'm pretty sure there were never any nuclear test sites in Chicago, but it was a nice symbolic gesture to ban them in perpetuity. In the post 9/11 era, the law was rewritten to read that, "no person shall knowingly... design, produce, launch, maintain, or store nuclear weapons, or components of nuclear weapons." It's good to know, that should we ever, god-forbid, have a nuclear terrorist here, whatever is left of city government will be able to hit them with a fine and some potential jail time. What a relief!
In a way, I suppose my penchant for these anachronistic laws is based on the same curiosity that draws me to ghost signs. Both are obscure clues to the life of the past which persist in the present. Few people care enough to remove them, so instead, they languish in obscurity for those who are intrepid enough to search them out.

6.17.2009

Running on Empty...

In case you haven't noticed, I've been busy lately. I haven't had a free day on a weekend since mid-May, and the way my schedule looks now, I won't have another one until mid-July. Generally, I would consider that a good thing -- I'm out taking advantage of what the city has to offer, I'm spending time with friends, and I have plenty of fodder to write about here.

Last weekend, for instance, I had dinner with Dad's cousins Jeff and Candy, who were in from out of town, and I spent two days at the Old Town Art Festival; I went on Saturday with Lauren, and was so impressed with the quality of the show that I dragged Mom back for a rather expensive outing on Sunday. I picked up two great prints, and Mom got a highly detailed little bronze sculpture now gracing my mantelpiece, and a piece of fiber art that is just the right size for the little niche next to the doorway.

Images of the sculpture Mom picked up this weekend.

It's been a long time since I was so impressed with a local art show. Most of the shows in the suburbs that I once frequented have been taken over by Amy Amdur, a woman who came up with the idea of creating an art festival production company, so that local art fair organizers could outsource to her at a savings. Unfortunately, she puts the same artists in nearly all of her shows, and she and I do not have similar taste. See one of her shows a year, and there's no need to see another one. The Old Town Art Festival, however, has remained independent for all of its sixty years of existence, and that is most definitely in its favor.

However, even though I enjoy getting out and exploring the city, my body doesn't know how to cope with all this running around. I started feeling run down over the weekend, with the slightest of sore throats. It really didn't hurt unless I was swallowing, and I could tell that my tonsils must have been swollen because it was also more difficult to swallow. I was much more tired than normal (and I'm normally pretty tired, as an evening person who is forced to work a job with a normal schedule), and despite getting more sleep than normal on Monday and Tuesday nights, I was still so exhausted on Wednesday that I took a sick day. I spent most of the day sleeping, and didn't really suspect there was anything wrong with me besides a virus, so I ignored my parents' suggestions that I go see the doctor.

Late in the afternoon, on a whim, I decided to take a look at my throat in the mirror to see what was going on in there. Lo and behold, it was a fearsome sight indeed. I'll spare you the details, but I knew it wasn't normal, so I decided I ought to have it checked out after all. I made a journey to the nearest urgent care center (Which, if you ask me, is a total racket: there was a $100 co-pay just to see the doctor and get a rapid strep test, and they didn't warn me how much it was going to cost until I'd already seen the doctor. If something is going to cost $100, they should tell you before you incur the charges; I bet some people would walk away upon hearing that.), where they ascertained that I didn't have strep throat. Having had strep more times than I can remember growing up, I really didn't think that was what was wrong with me, as my throat didn't hurt in remotely the same way. Instead, the doctor suggested that I might have mono. In fact, I believe her exact words were, "Say ahh. Yeah, that looks like it could be mono."

For the time being, it could still be a virus. The doctor did not want to do a blood test, because she thought I was too early in the course of experiencing symptoms to have produced enough antibodies for an accurate test. Instead, I'm supposed to wait a week and go back for the test if I'm not feeling any better. So keep your collective fingers crossed that I'm feeling better by next week, because I really don't want to have mono. There's just too much on my agenda for 2009 to spend the next several months battling with debilitating exhaustion. Not to mention, I don't think a chronicle of "I'm tired, I slept all day, I'm going back to bed," would be much of a good read...

6.11.2009

A Transmission On The Midnight Radio...

Tonight, after weeks of trying to make it happen, Lisa and I finally made it out to see the American Theater Company's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We were the beneficiaries of not one, but two extensions of its run, and I shudder to think that we almost let ourselves miss it. 

Unlike A Chorus Line, which did not live up to the high expectations that I had built up in my mind, this tiny production of Hedwig more than exceeded my wildest hopes. I was fully prepared to hate this version, given that the movie is my all-time favorite film, and the songs have come to mean so much to me across the span of my late adolescence. 

For those of you who aren't familiar, (and I'm guessing, based on who leaves comments here, that most of you aren't) Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of a "slip of a girly boy" in Communist East Berlin who undergoes an unsuccessful gender reassignment surgery in order to escape to freedom in the West, only to find that the American dream is just that -- a fantasy. Along the way, she searches for her soul mate, only to discover that she doesn't need her other half to be complete after all. You're probably thinking, "How can Haley possibly relate to some crazy story about a Eastern European drag queen?" but it's really so much more than that. 

In my interpretation, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is primarily a story about discovering your place in the world, and coming to terms with your own identity. I think those are powerful and universal themes, regardless of who is expressing them. Plus, Lisa and I discovered the film together during high school, which is a trying time in the formation of anyone's sense of self. There was a song to cater to any emotional tribulation that might arise. The character of Hedwig, and her journey to self-acceptance, are so intrinsically bound up in my relationship with Lisa, that I almost can't imagine our friendship without Hedwig

To me, John Cameron Mitchell, who first created the character, originated the role in the off-Broadway musical, and reprised the role for the film version, is the consummate Hedwig. I really didn't expect that anyone else could even begin to compare, but somehow, Nick Garrison, who played Hedwig in this version, was more than up to the task. He really sounded just like John Cameron Mitchell. And his performance was brutally intense. You could clearly read every emotion in his eyes. With such a minimalist production, its success completely depended on the strength of Hedwig, and Garrison delivered, without a doubt. 

Although I was none to keen on being spit on in one of Hedwig's more punk-inspired moments, I was at least glad to be in the third row, and thereby avoid the Chinese food and fake blood that she threw at the people in the front row. Truly, my only regret is that we didn't make it out to see it at the beginning of its run, so I could have seen it twice. It was that good. 

6.07.2009

Haley Goes to Washington - Day Three

In other instance of poor travel planning, Abel booked his flight on Sunday for 6:00 am, so for my last day in D.C., it was going to be just me and Katie. The original plan was to go visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum with Katie's friend Melanie, in order to see the current exhibit on art of the New Deal era. However, something came up for Melanie, and she had to cancel, and Katie was coming down with a cold, from which she had been suffering the night before, so I opted to let her stay home and get some rest. With no one else to worry about, I decided to spend my morning at Arlington National Cemetery.

I have always had a slightly macabre interest in cemeteries, over which I bonded with Katherine and Scott when we were in college. Having never seen Arlington (arguably the most important cemetery in the country) was slowly eating away at me, so I decided to rectify the situation.

When I arrived, I had the option of taking a $7.50 guided tour via trolley, or trying to make my way on foot. Because my time was limited, and the guided tour was supposed to take a minimum of 40 minutes of driving time, not including stops at important grave sites and monuments, I decided it was in my best interest to hoof it.

The graves stretch on as far as the eye can see in every direction. It is truly humbling to think of all the people who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

On first impression, there was not much to distinguish Arlington from Camp Butler National Cemetery in Springfield, where Paw-Paw is buried, other than sheer scale. However, the further you went into the grounds, the more variety of monuments there were. Generals and other high-ranking officials generally had larger, grander headstones. And of course, there were the memorials to various VIPs, such as President Kennedy.


The eternal flame marking the final resting place of JFK and Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis.

In fact, I think it was my interest in John F. Kennedy that initially sparked my interest to visit Arlington, back when I did a school project on him in seventh grade. At the time, I had selected him as my president of choice because he died in office, and I wouldn't have to do as much work as students who had two-term presidents, and a full post-presidency life to research. Despite my less-than-honorable intentions in choosing him, I was soon intrigued by his oratory, his glamorous image, his liberal social policies, and his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, that project introduced me to a whole era of American history that we had never studied in school up to that point, and which would take a permanent hold on my imagination. To this day, Kennedy is my second favorite American president, after FDR.

Adjacent to Kennedy's memorial was a plaza dedicated to his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. My dad is particularly fond of historical "what if?" scenarios, and one has to wonder what America would look like today if Bobby hadn't been assassinated, and had become president instead of Richard Nixon. Would we have greater faith in our institutions of government today, if there had been no Watergate scandal? If the Vietnam War hadn't been prolonged another seven years? The world will never know, but I think everyone can agree that the death of RFK was a tragedy, not just for his family, but for all Americans.

Bobby Kennedy's memorial plaza is not quite as impressive as his brother's, but he was just as capable of delivering memorable speeches. His loss was truly a blow to our nation.

After paying homage to the Kennedys, I pressed onward to find the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I followed the signs, trekking up and downhill for a seemingly great distance in the noon heat. I could practically feel myself getting a sunburn -- it was such a pity that we got such a crappy, overcast day when we were out doing the lion's share of our sightseeing the day before!

On the way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I came across this memorial to the NASA crew lost in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Fellow tourists were swarming the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and at that point, I was running short on time before I had to be back at Katie's apartment to meet her for lunch, so I took a hurried tour of the monument. It is profoundly sad to ponder the fact that someone's family is out there who never got closure over what happened to their loved one, but whoever is buried there gets the constant vigil of one of his brothers in arms, as well as the respect and tribute of the millions of visitors to his grave site. His identity may be known "but to God," but his sacrifice will always be remembered and appreciated.

Upon finishing there, I had to hustle back to the cemetery's dedicated Metro station, where I was seriously delayed by track maintenance. By the time I made it back, there was only time for the briefest of meals, so Katie and I stopped at the Corner Bakery next to the Courthouse Metro station, where we got to enjoy a little girl-talk, before hustling back to her apartment, where her incredibly generous friend Melanie was already waiting for us to give me a ride back to Dulles. Seriously, I can't proper articulate how thankful I was to have a ride to the airport!

I was approximately three hours early for the flight, but when air travel is concerned, I consider it far better to be early than late! Dulles is so enormous, I had to take a shuttle and walk a very long distance to get to my gate, even for a domestic flight. In keeping with my travel-related luck for this trip, my flight was delayed twice due to bad weather in Colorado, where the flight had originated for the day. It was no matter -- I had my book to keep me entertained. The flight itself was rather turbulent due to bad weather, but with the blissfully short wait at the baggage claim, and the equally brief journey home on the Orange Line, I was soon back to my stifling apartment (a comedy of errors had occurred in the effort to replace our air conditioning the week before, and we were still without one when I returned.) Still, it was good to be back.

All in all, I'm very glad I was able to make the trip. It was great to see Katie, of whom I am totally in awe. If I were in her shoes, I can't imagine that I would have made the same progress that she has. Her journey is going to be long, but I have every confidence, given her level of determination, that she will emerge triumphant. It was also good to have a chance to see Abel. So far, we're on pace to see each other every six months or so, which is more than I can say about any of my other Japan-based friends. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to fully come to terms with being so far away from my pals, but that only makes it all the more special when I eventually do get to see them. To paraphrase Abel, the chance to hang out with my friends was the main focus of the whole adventure, all the rest of the trip was just gravy.


6.06.2009

Haley Goes to Washington - Day Two

On our only full day in D.C., we made a relatively late start to the day, grabbing breakfast at a cost-effective little cafe near the hotel and across from the Arlington County District Court, and frequented by a sizable number of policemen from the police station housed therein. It wasn't particularly memorable, as far as breakfasts go, and we were soon on the way to visit the Washington Monument, which Abel had spotted from his taxi the night before, and therefore wanted to see in person. We didn't actually go up in the Monument, as I had done that on my first trip to D.C. over a decade ago, and experienced what I believe was my first panic attack, induced by acrophobia.

Still, we enjoyed taking a gander at the imposing structure, and Katie regaled us with a story about how the Washington Monument came to be two different colors. Evidently, Congress did not appropriate sufficient funds, and the project ran out of money when the monument was a mere third of its proposed height. It struggled forward for a number of years, was further delayed by the outbreak of the Civil War, and was not completed until the 1880s, when the original stone was no longer available.

How trite is this picture? I couldn't resist though.

From the Washington Monument, we progressed to one of my requested tourist destinations, the new National World War II Memorial, which was conveniently located nearby. Completed in 2004, the Memorial is the newest addition to the Mall, and its construction was not without controversy. With war veterans passing on at an ever increasing rate in the 1990s, Congress was eager to facilitate construction on a memorial for the war. After all, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had been completed a mere six years following the end of that conflict. Therefore, Congress removed many of the approval process requirements for the project, leading many architectural critics to malign its vainglorious and trite iconography.

The view from the Washington Monument towards the Lincoln Memorial, with the World War II Memorial. The construction of the World War II Memorial was also controversial because it obscured the previous, uninterrupted vista.

The monument consists of 56 columns, bearing the names of the 48 states, two territories, and six U.S. protectorates who were involved in the war effort. Two towers represent the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, and each has a fountain inscribed with the names of each theater's main battles. All things considered, I did think the architecture was a little reminiscent of the grandiose structures favored by fascist dictators, but I consider that more appropriate to the time period than some sort of abstract contemporary design. Not to make generalizations about the so-called "Greatest Generation," but I sense they would probably appreciate having a memorial designed in a traditional style to which they can easily relate. Besides, cheesy as the Memorial was, I still found myself overwhelmed with emotion as I thought about how many lives were affected by the war. What more can you hope for from any memorial?

My favorite part of the World War II Memorial was the bronze frieze lining the entrance, which depicts the ways in which different Americans served during the war, both on the battlefield, and on the home front. This one could have been Paw-Paw, who was a mechanic with the Flying Tigers in China.

The memorial is inscribed with many quotes about the war, but this one was my favorite.

Abel and I in front of the Pacific section of the memorial. We both have grandfathers who fought in that theater.

These 4,048 stars represent America's sacrifice during the war. Each star stands for 100 American lives that were lost.

Because the World War II Memorial rests in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Abel decided he wanted to to see it up close as well, so we slogged along the edge of the Reflecting Pool. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until we were quickly overcome by the aroma of stagnant water and goose feces, which turned the ground into a veritable mine field. The experience was less than pleasant, to say the least.

I don't really have much to say about the Lincoln Memorial, since I've seen it before, and I'm rather Lincoln-ed out at the moment, because we are currently in the "Year of Lincoln" at work. We've revamped our "Lincoln Treasures" exhibit, brought in a full slate of Lincoln speakers, and are preparing to open our feature exhibit, "Lincoln Transformed" later this summer. Suffice it to say, Lincoln has lost his luster in my eyes.

Tripod photo time! Abel, Katie, and I in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Soon, however, it was time to move on to my second requested visit of the day, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Also relatively new, the FDR Memorial was completed in 1997. Its style is a marked departure from the other presidential memorials in Washington, as it is far more personal and down-to earth. Somehow, I think the originator of the "Fireside Chats" would have approved. Instead of a single imposing structure, the memorial consists of a series of rooms adorned with statues, symbolic water elements, and quotations representing different eras from FDR's four terms in office.


This statue represents Americans waiting in bread lines during the Great Depression.

FDR is pretty much the reason why I am a liberal today. This quote exemplifies why he is my favorite president.

The main sculpture of FDR includes his beloved dog Fala, and is the only presidential monument in Washington to include a pet. Elsewhere in the memorial is a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, the only statue of a First Lady included in a presidential memorial.

Katie and I with FDR's famous Four Freedoms.

All in all, I rather liked the FDR Memorial. I enjoyed its modern sensibility, and all the open, green spaces made for a nice place to pause and contemplate all the tremendous changes in our country that Roosevelt oversaw. I thought the use of water was quite clever as well: a single large waterfall represented the crash of the stock market, a series of organized cascades represented the construction of dams and hydroelectric power under the Tennessee Valley Authority, a chaotic collection of haphazard waterfalls and rapids represented the calamity of World War II, and a series of small waterfalls falling into a single basin represented global collaboration in the post-war era. And, I loved all the quotes. Roosevelt has my vote for most eloquent American president of the past 150 years, and it makes me happy that Obama is trying to bring eloquence back in our day in age.

When we'd finished at the FDR Memorial, Katie's energy was starting to fade, and everyone was craving lunch, so we made a valiant effort to find a taxi, when instead, we spotted the Jefferson Memorial nearby. Since none of the three of us had seen it before, we decided to make a quick visit, figuring that it would be a popular enough site to be able to find a cab there.


Katie and Abel at the Jefferson Memorial.

Jefferson, with the immortal words he penned for the Declaration of Independence.

I particularly liked this more obscure quote from Jefferson. These words should serve as a reminder that in no way whatsoever was our country founded to be a Christian nation, but rather, one of religious tolerance and a firm separation of church and state.

I've only recently begun to appreciate Jefferson among the Founding Fathers. I'd always felt a certain affinity for John Adams, the devoted patriot who never gained the acclaim and admiration of our nation, yet who was just as important to the creation of our country as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Yet, a few months ago, I stumbled upon a quote from Thomas Jefferson on the topic of religion, and it really stuck with me. I really appreciate his views on the necessity of separating religion from governance, and I think it's a lesson that many contemporary politicians could do well to take to heart.

At the monument, we decided that burgers sounded good for lunch, and given our president's prediliction for burger runs, we decided to try out Ray's Hell Burger, site of Obama's first burger outing. As predicted, we were able to secure a cab from the Jefferson Memorial in short order, but unfortunately, 411 could not locate a listing for the restaurant to give the driver the address. Abel's Japanese iPhone was operating less-than-favorably outside of its home country, so I ended up calling Mom and asking her to Google it for us. As it turned out, the restaurant was only a couple blocks from our hotel, and we had no idea.

Obama's visit had conferred an incredible amount of noteriety on the hole-in-the-wall joint, which didn't even have a sign. The only way to locate it, short of its alleged street address, was the huge line of people snaking out the door and down the block. We may have been starving, but we were also intrepid, and we waited it out for about 45 minutes.


Ray's Hell Burger -- if it's good enough for Obama, it's good enough for me. Who am I to argue with the leader of the free world?

As it turns out, a number of local and national publications have conferred "Best Burger in D.C" status upon the venue, and the menu boasted a variety of high-brow toppings. Foie gras, four year cave aged cheddar cheese, imported brie, and roasted bone marrow were all on offer, but I opted for the more conventional toppings of American cheese and bacon. The meat, ground in-house from the scraps leftover at the restaurant's sister institution, Ray's The Steaks, was loosely hand-packed and very juicy. The only thing lacking, in my opinion, was some sort of seasoning on the beef -- it was bewilderingly bland in spite of being perfectly cooked. Perhaps some salt would have been in order? Nevertheless, I was glad to say that I had eaten where Obama ate, and I felt a little closer to his spirit having been there.

After lunch, Katie was still tired, and deservedly so, after all the exertions of the day, so we decided to retire to the hotel, where Katie could enjoy some television. Abel and I had no excuse, but soon, all three of us were enjoying an afternoon nap. Our lunch had been so filling that we felt little motivation to seek out dinner, and we passed the time with a television airing of Independence Day and chatter until we realized that it was far too late to go out for food. 

Instead, we ended up using Abel's computer to locate Piola, an upscale pizza place that was willing to deliver to the hotel, and soon, a sausage pizza and a classic pizza margarhita were on the way. The pizzas were cooked in a wood-burning oven, and were perfectly acceptable, although my heart still belongs to Chicago deep-dish. After eating, we finished up our movie and walked Katie back to her apartment, thereby bringing our big day to a rather anticlimactic end, which was just fine by me.

6.05.2009

Haley Goes to Washington - Day One

For the first time in my nine months at the museum, I tapped into my reserve of vacation days to take a weekend trip to Washington D.C. to visit my friend Katie, who is back to work but still on the mend after her attack. As an added bonus, it worked out that Abel was going to be in the country on a visit from Japan, and he was able to tag along. Given how far flung our college group has become, the chance to get three of us in one place would be a veritable reunion!

An unfortunate planning snafu led to Abel booking his flight on a different airline, into a different airport than we had discussed, and I was stuck flying into Dulles all on my own. ( word to the wise, never fly into Dulles unless you are going to rent a car, or you have a friend in Washington who has a car and a generous spirit.) Faced with the unpleasant prospect of a $70 taxi ride, I opted to take the bus to the nearest Metro station, and then take the Metro to the hotel. All told, including the 45 minutes I had to wait for the bus, it took two and a half hours to get from the airport to the hotel. No fun at all, but at least it only cost about five dollars.

I will say for the D.C. Metro system, that it is by far the cleanest public transportation I've seen in the United States. It didn't smell like pee, and the train cars are actually clean enough to be carpeted. The latter could have something to do with the fact that food and beverages are prohibited on the trains. The stations are a little unnerving, however. I can't quite put my finger on it, but their enormous size in combination with low lighting levels and the exaggerated coffered ceilings is vaguely unsettling to me.

Anyway, since the weather in D.C. was rainy and rather unpleasant, I scrapped my plan to attempt some solo sightseeing while I was waiting for Katie to get off work, and for Abel's flight to arrive. Instead, I took a nap to try to relieve some of the accumulated stress of my travels, so that I would be in a proper mood to hang out wiht my friends when the time came.

Katie wanted to make a home-cooked meal of manicotti to celebrate our voyage to Washington, and after she picked me up from the hotel (which I had advantageously selected for its location, which was a scant two blocks from her abode), I assisted her in the preparation of her specialty. Just as we got dinner in the oven, Abel arrived at long last, and we were joined by Katie's local friend, Melanie, shortly thereafter.

Although I generally don't care much for manicotti, owing to my dislike of ricotta cheese, Katie's version was a pleasant surprise. Kudos to her for getting me to be more open-minded! The four of us sat around Katie's apartment for a bit, but it was getting late for Katie, who is still recovering after all, so Abel and I took our leave, and stayed up a while later catching up at the hotel, until we ultimately retired ourselves.

6.04.2009

Ghost Signs...

Again this week I found myself struggling for something to write about. As it turns out, the endless cycle of work, eat, sleep, and repeat doesn't provide much in the way of interesting blog fodder. That was, until I crossed the street on my way home from work, and glanced up at the same building I pass two times a day, when all of a sudden, my heart fluttered with excitement. I had spotted this for the first time:

This, my friends, is a ghost sign -- an advertisement painted on the side of a building long ago, and allowed to fall into neglect. Ghost signs have long captured my imagination, ever since I was a child and I wondered about an old, fading painting of a baby advertising for Gerber on the side of a building in Carrollton. However, I didn't know the proper terminology for them until just this evening, when I was trying to find information about one of the companies from one of the signs posted below. In my quest, I ran across a website created by a graduate student in historic preservation at the Art Institute of Chicago, who was apparently so fascinated by Chicago's ghost sign scene that she decided to make them the subject of her thesis. Simultaneously, I was excited to find someone who shared my passion, but also sad to learn that what I thought was a quirky little hobby of mine apparently has an entire community behind it. I wasn't as unique as I thought.

Still, I consider myself fortunate to live in an area that is rich in ghost signs. In fact, the building across the street from me has several interesting ones:



I think what draws me to these images that many people would consider eye sores is the living connection they provide to the past. I mean, right across the street from where I go about my 21st century life are the remnants of an advertisement for women's corsets, which started to fall out of favor in the 1920's. This advertisement is probably at least 80 years old, and yet it perseveres.

There is also a certain sport to the thrill of the hunting down ghost signs. You have to be vigilant. As my episode near work demonstrates, you can walk past a faded, peeling sign every day, and never notice it. I spotted this one, likely dating back to the gentrification of Printer's Row in the mid-1970's, just the other day when my bus was unexpectedly re-routed.

For me, the ghost signs speak to the continuity of life in the city. When I look at a ghost sign, I am looking at same thing one of my ancestors looked at. It's a bit like looking at historic photos of the city, in that you can try to capture what the city looked like before you were ever a part of it, and imagine what it was like to live then. Certainly, much changes in the city from year to year, and even more so from decade to decade, but the ghost signs are there to reassure us that our mundane lives might be remembered.

Our individual lifestyles may change (as evidenced by the sign above, for a now defunct chain of tiki restaurants, popular in the 1950's and 60's), but the spaces where our existence plays out remain the same. We make our mark on the city, and then fade into obscurity, but the city continues on.

Sadly though, the ghost signs are a disappearing breed, at least in the Loop, and in gentrifying neighborhoods. I once spotted numerous gems, but when I went to start taking pictures for this post, I discovered that many of them have been covered up with black paint to make homes for new ads. One endearingly chipping sign advertised for an AM radio station that had long gone the way of the dodo now has a Starbucks advertisement in its place. What's more, the Starbucks sign is a separate banner, tethered to the side of the building for easy removal. Generations from now, it will no longer be there to reflect our values and interests to those who will inhabit the city after we are long gone.

Therefore, I urge all of you to go on the lookout for ghost signs in your own backyard. What do they say about the people who created them? What do they tell us about the people who have allowed them to persist so long? What sort of physical relics are we leaving for future generations?

6.01.2009

Happy Birthday to Mom...

Mom already got a post about how much she means to me for Mother's Day, so she doesn't get another one so soon. Nevertheless, I just wanted to take a moment to wish her a Happy Birthday!