Friday, March 10, 2017

View of a Skyline: Dateline Chicago

It was an interesting view of Chicago's skyline from the southwest jury room vantage point. The Sears, now Willis, though no one calls it that, tower rises up in the foreground. For many years it held the distinction of being the world's tallest building. Then, in Malaysia, another building was constructed. An ornamental spire placed atop it gave it the world's tallest building title. We took solace in the Sears tower having the highest inhabitable floor and if you took the t.v. antennas on it's roof into account it was still the tallest. Chicago is proud, we do not give up easily. Witness the Cubs. It took over 100 years of their fans sticking by them before they were awarded with a World Series win in extra innings in the final game. Apparently we are also fond of suspense.

Tallest building or not Chicago's architecture is impressive. The bright red CNA building, the crosshatched facade of the John Hancock tower and more recently the undulating balconies of the Wave, notable not only for it unique silhouette but also because it was designed by a woman. One often finds here the steeples of a turn of the 20th century church rising above a low lying surrounding neighborhood. Late 19th century and jazz age office buildings line the narrow streets of the financial district. Many of their lobbies retain the ornate trappings of a time, prior to a stripped down, form follows function aesthetic, when a designers eye was allowed to imagine and create extravagant spaces of exceptional design and detail.

After 30 years of familiarity Chicago still retains the ability to surprise me. As with an old friend about which you discover something new, something previously unknown, it makes me love it even more deeply than I already do.

You Have Been Summoned..........

Jury duty, one of the most predictably unpredictable parts of U.S. citizenship. I have been more fortunate than some, every time I have been summoned I have worked for a company that paid me for the time. I was chosen for a jury once. We were told we would be deliberating on the amount of damages to be paid. In the jury room we introduced ourselves to one another. There seemed to be a consensus that, when the time came, I would be the top candidate for jury foreman. Despite my lilliputian stature I suppose, at least that day, I possessed a commanding presence. The judge had warned one of the people involved in the case that if they appeared late one more time the case would be dropped. They were late, we were released and I found myself with the majority of the afternoon free to do with as I pleased.

It was Valentine's  day. January and February had been unseasonably mild. I boarded the bus and headed downtown where I would connect to a bus headed southwest to the courthouse. The ride along Michigan Avenue during rush hour reminded me of what I missed working in the suburbs the last 4 years. Namely, people, everywhere, all shapes, ages and sizes. Often in the suburbs I am the only person on the street. There I dodge cars, their inhabitants seemingly amazed that I am walking and therefore in their way. I transfer and head west. A line of beautiful, classic, art deco buildings line the Chicago river as it splits north and south. Further out venerable warehouses have been converted to apartments. As I traveled still further out industrial areas mixed with neighborhoods of turn of the 20th century row houses. steps leading up to their front doors. The streets seem spare, less lush and tree shaded than those in my lakefront home turf. The courthouse comes into view. It is unmistakable a courthouse. A mash up of Greek and Roman influences. Columns rise up the facade, the space under some windows decorated with bas reliefs of swags and flower baskets. The cornerstone reads 1927. Next to it sits a nondescript late midcentury building. This is where the trials are held and the jurors check in.

In an attempt to keep our country safe I encounter chaos. Too many people, too few employees, metal detectors and x ray machines. The frazzled civil servants shout instructions above the din. I set off the metal detector and am patted down, including my ass, the first time that portion of my anatomy has been checked in an official government manner, even by the most through TSA employee while entering an airport terminal. Directional signs are non existent but I somehow manage to find my way to the third floor and a somewhat less chaotic check in line.

The jury holding room is a space of dropped ceilings with fluorescent lighting, bare walls and tattered furniture. Although the jury cattle pen is only on the third floor it does afford, over the parking lot across the street, through ample windows I was grateful for, a splendid view of Chicago's elegant yet muscular skyline.

I begin to read the collection of science fiction short stories I plucked from my bookshelves before I left home. I read, wrote, texted and generally whiled away my time. By early afternoon we were told that they had overbooked jurors for that day and we were free to go. I walked out into the bright afternoon sunshine and got on the bus knowing that I was free of this civic obligation, at least for the next 12 months.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Life As a Snowflake - Part Two

When a lot of snowflakes come together they can create a blizzard

The day after the inauguration the Women's March was planned. Begun by a single woman utilizing social media a worldwide protest movement was formed. As I headed to work that morning the El platform was crowded with people. Some wearing pink, some carrying signs, one entire family with children, came through the turnstiles and headed to the trains that would carry them south to Grant Park, where the Chicago march was to begin. Already the march route had to be changed to accommodate the growing number of expected participants. The original estimate of 22,000 people had swelled to 55,000. I sent a text to my cousin, knowing she was on her way, to tell her that all the signs I was seeing were pointing to a large turnout.

By the time the rally and march was scheduled to begin the crowd had grown to 150,000 to 200,000 people, making an organized march unsafe and impossible. The rally went on as scheduled. A multitude of causes were represented, women's reproductive rights, equality for women, LGBT people and persons of color and different faiths. There were signs regarding access to health care and wealth inequality. Individual voices had formed a choir. There were marches and rallies not only across the country but around the world, Berlin, London, Prague and Peru. A photo showed a bridge across the Seine in Paris swarming with humanity. For the first time since the election I felt hopeful. I felt as if we, the people, might still be capable of forming the perfect union envisioned by our founding fathers.

Later that evening comments on social media, as well as main stream media, that means you CNN, attempted to belittle and trivialize the event. Perhaps concerned that something had happened that was larger than them, that something had happened that they would not be able to spin or control. They said it was unfocused and leaderless. Nothing more than a gathering of privileged white liberals. Yet photos showed people of color, gay, straight, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, all banding together, side by side.

A photo of my cousin's tween daughter was shared on Facebook marching past Chicago's Bean. She is of Mayan descent, adopted at 6 months old by her out, proud, lesbian moms. They are, like I, an out, proud, gay man, Americans. A representation of the melting pot, that badge that we have for so many generations worn with honor. My fathers forebears part of the "tempest tossed" welcomed to this country upon their arrival.

Perhaps it was just one day, or perhaps it was the beginning of something larger. However it ends it was, for that moment in time, a blizzard of snowflakes. A massive, peaceful gathering of humanity demanding to be treated as human.

Life As a Snowflake - Part One

You are free to call me a snowflake. Snowflakes are beautiful and each is different than the other.

The Cubs were in the midst of the World Series as we boarded the bus on our way to Soldier Field. For the 2nd time in 2 years we had been gifted with seats to a Bears game. The energy in the city was electric. Even those who were not Cubs fans were, at that moment, Cubs fans. As we walked past the Field Museum the giant dinosaur sculpture outside wore an equally gigantic Cubs jersey.

That night was a travel day for the Cubs so only one game mattered in Chicago, the match up between the Bears, suffering through a beleaguered season, and the Minnesota Vikings. We planned an early arrival so we could take a self guided tour of the stadium. We traveled down to the seats close to the field where the "other half" sits, our seats were in the mezzanine (I'm not complaining they are awesome seats) and surveyed the growing crowd. As it was Halloween a number of the fans were in costume. Rainbow Brite strolled by. Two young men, who were featured on the jumbo tron as they took their seats, were dressed in sherbert colored Willie Wonka outfits. There were a number of horned hats, a homage to the opposing team playing that night. Even a few in all out Viking regalia.

As the game progressed it appeared that, however implausible given the level of play that season, the Bears might win, Again, it being Halloween, the people that run onto the field waving flags during breaks in the action were also in costume. Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Thor apparently had no evil villains to fight that evening as they were on the field in front of us, waving flags. In a nod to the Cubs a person dressed as the Cubs mascot dashed across the field waving a World Series banner, a blue W on a solid white field. The Bears did win that evening and we left the stadium happy, having had a wonderful night.

Two nights later, at a little after midnight, the Cubs won the World Series, for the first time in over one hundred years. Like many of our neighbors in our cluster of lakefront high rises we were out on our balcony yelling, banging spoons against pots and ringing bells to celebrate. The sound of bottle rockets going off in the surrounding area could be heard.

A week later I watched as election returns began to come in. In dismay and disbelief I watched as state after state went to Donald Trump, some by the slimest of margins. Due to the antiquated nature of  the Electoral College he had become President despite receiving almost 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most qualified person to ever run for the office.

Although he has no popular mandate he has filled his cabinet and staff with picks as equally unqualified, inexperienced and frankly, dangerous as he. A Secretary of Labor that does not belief in a minimum wage and is attempting to automate many of the tasks in his business now performed by people. Machines, he says, do not cause trouble, they don't ask to be treated as human beings. A
Secretary of Education that does not belief in, and has never sent her children to, public schools. She prefers a voucher system. These could be used for "for profit" and Christian schools, destroying the barrier between church and state. It would allow my tax dollars to be used to line someones pockets and in some cases in religious education teach students that my lifestyle has no validity and is "immoral". A Secretary of State with close ties to, in fact lauded by, a nation that meddled in our election.

I felt, during those days, that barring a serious health issue or horrible accident, I would still be living at the end of this presidential term. I felt, during those days, that the nation I would see would not be the same as the one I grew up in. I felt, during those days, that the U.S. might be viewed by some as a rogue country. I felt, during those days that the nation could be left in tatters. I only hoped, during those days, that we had enough needles, thread and will to repair it.

Friday, October 21, 2016

I've Looked at Clouds (With Apologies to Joni Mitchell)

The Midwest sky is a place of constant movement. Perhaps due to the flatness of the prairie, steamrolled by glaciers eons ago, we see more of it than those that inhabit more undulating terrain. There is rarely a cloudless day. Almost always wisps of white drift overhead. The heat of a brutal summer sun about to be eased by a cool breeze from the north is foreshadowed by the floating markers which will shade the earth giving relief from the heat.

Sometime the clouds can be menacing. Dark cylinders roll up into an even darker plane above them. I have watched as storms moving over the lake create spouts. Cones of lake water swirl up and meet  the powerful darkness which permeates the sky.

 At sunset from our kitchen window the clouds add depth and color. The rays of the late afternoon sun break through them creating shafts of light which move cross the vista of an eclectic collection of modern and vintage highrises, church steeples and tree shaded streets lined with venerable four square homes. As the sun dips closer to the horizon the clouds light up in colors of red, yellow, orange and pink, sometimes brilliant, sometimes subtle.

Some, looking at vacation photos, for instance, remark on a clear, blue, cloudless sky. I prefer the random nature of clouds. Sometimes I enjoy being surprised.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Minneapolis 2016 - Pancakes, Malteds, Dinkytown and The Way Home

My final morning on this trip my nephew had a dentist appointment so I offered to watch the grandniece. We made pancakes, she mixing the batter, I cooking them in the skillet, a deal we had hammered out the evening before. Upon my nephew's return I took in the sun in the back yard playing a game of shirtless fetch with the dog until my nephew had gained enough feeling in his mouth for us to head to lunch.

Despite a wind strong enough to blow my baseball cap off my head, causing me to run half a block after it, we decided to eat on the rooftop deck of a diner in a neighborhood next to the University of Minnesota. The area is called, I swear this is true, Dinkytown. The menu consisted primarily of delicious, artery clogging, deep fried foods and malts.I could not remember the last time I had experienced that taste treat as I sipped and spooned my way through the creamy concoction. The area is like many adjacent to major campuses. A mixture of shops, many specializing in U of M specific merchandise, restaurants and bars. A drive through the campus afforded me views of the historic buildings encompassing an array of architectural styles which make up this section of the university. Across the tracks of the light rail system which serves the city the Frank Gehry designed University Art Museum sits next to the Mississippi River. It was interesting to see the relatively modest size of the waterway this close to it's headwaters. I am more accustomed to the "mile wide" dimensions nearer to Chicago.

In the late afternoon I bid farewell to my nephew and grandniece at the airport. I do not know how but I was afforded TSA prescreened status and attempted to not feel smug and over important as I strode past the long lines into the much shorter prescreened queue. Through the airplane window during the flight I watched as the green fields, forests and lakes of Minnesota morphed into the urban street grid and towers of the metropolis I call home.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Minnesota 2016 - Fort Snelling

First let me state that I am a pacifist. I feel, and have stated many times over my life, that after over 5000 years of civilization we should have come up with a better way to settle our differences than blowing one another to bits. That being said, the idea suggested by my nephew of visiting Fort Snelling appealed to me. When I think back on our visit to Puerto Rico the 16th century El Morro stands out as a high point.

Fort Snelling stands at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. At one time it was the furthest outpost of the U.S. military. After the war of 1812 a chain of forts were constructed to repel any further Canadian incursions. The fort was founded in 1819. John Emerson brought his slave Dred Scott with him during a stint at Fort Snelling leading to an early and important ruling regarding slavery in the U.S. During the Dakota War of 1862 women, children and elders of the tribe were captured and kept there leading to the deaths of many of them. It was decommissioned in 1946 and fell into disrepair before it's designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1960. The walled portion of the fort has been rebuilt and restored to it former appearance.

The sun was bright and the weather warm during our visit. A stark contrast to the cool and rainy conditions of the previous couple of days. The focus at the fort that weekend was World War I. Staff in period costumes stationed throughout the fort provided information about the era. The subjects ranged from weaponry to Morse Code to the women's suffrage movement. My nephew and I played chauvinists stating that we still questioned the wisdom of the decision to give women the vote. Our joke did not go over well with the niece in law. My grandniece was fascinated by Morse Code. After tapping out several random letters on a vintage telegraph machine the staff member told her she had just spelled "I,m going to clean my room."  That joke did not go over well with my grandniece.

One room held a display about the history of conscientious objectors during World War I. Although I was aware of the Navajo language being used as code during World War II I had no idea that this idea was preceded by members of the Choctaw tribe using their native tongue as code during the last days of World War I. The men were sworn to secrecy about the operation, only being allowed to speak of it in their old age. My own family history came alive when a staff member spoke of German immigrants coming to the U.S. before and after the war. My own ancestor was part of that migration. According to the family lore he reversed his first and last names in order to downplay his then unpopular German heritage, although I have always felt that his presumed accent would have given him away. I and I think my nephew, who was standing next to me, felt a connection to our past during that moment.

We concluded our visit by taking in the view from the top of the fort's roundhouse. From the vantage point of the 200 year old structure the modern skyline of Minneapolis appeared in the distance over the treetops.