Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Importance of First Impressions

It is sometimes said that a person's opinion of someone is formed within the first few seconds after meeting them. Although that opinion may change as the acquaintance deepens those first moments can be crucial. This same adage can be applied to places as well as people.

I enjoy visiting museums, both at home and when I travel. They are places of interest and intellectual and emotional enrichment for me. I appreciate not only the collections housed within the institutions but also the skill and artistry of the curators in their presentations of them. Lighting, placement of the objects or artwork and use of space can all greatly enhance the visitors experience. But it is that critical first impression that can often set the mood for what is to follow.

The stately, almost imposing facade of New York City's Metropolitan Museum speaks volumes of what lies within. As one ascends the steps a feeling of almost religious reverence can be experienced. The grandeur of the building sets the mood for the grandeur of the priceless riches inside.

In my own beloved Chicago the Art Institute has for years wrapped the visitor in a warm, midwestern embrace from the moment you set eyes on it. Lions bearing a blue green patina of age and the elements, occasionally adorned with Chicago Bears helmets, Cubs regalia or evergreen holiday wreaths, sit on either side of the wide staircase that ascends from Michigan Avenue. Passing through two sets of glass doors brings you into the classically designed entry hall. A grand staircase leads up to the second floor galleries. The space imparts an immediate sense of history. A sense that this building, with it impressive holdings, is a place of stature and importance. The welcoming staff provides the warmth and friendliness that is one of the hallmarks of my hometown.

Several years ago a new wing was added to the museum, as the enormity of it's collection had outgrow it's original home. The wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is accessed by an entrance around the corner from the museum's grand Michigan Avenue entrance. Instead of going up a flight of stairs, one goes down a short flight. Beyond this building's glass doors is a large, spare, sunlit space, a fitting introduction to the modern works the wing was built to house. A floating staircase off to one side, which adds to the airy feeling of the space, leads to the galleries. Louvered ceilings provide natural light inside the galleries. Windows afford exquisite views of the park across the street with it's Frank Gehry designed bandshell. The Gehry structure quickly became one of the city's defining symbols.

Chicago's neighbor to the north sports a museum entry that is almost sculptural in nature. Over a glass walled atrium huge movable wings fan out from the buildings rooftop. It gives one the feeling that you are entering a work of art, setting the stage for the experience which awaits you within it's walls.

In Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology a case can be made that the building's design competes with the artifacts in it's collection. In the central courtyard water flows from the top of a stone column to the courtyard floor. Reflecting pools hold aquatic life, small fish and turtles, delighting the children that visit.

In Merida, Mexico the former home of the Museum of Anthropology and History contained a touch of irony. Many of the exhibits relate to the history and customs of the Mayan people, indigenous to the region. The exhibits were housed in the former Governor's Mansion, which could be seen by some as a symbol of the domination, suppression and eventual destruction of the very culture celebrated by the museum.

A failure, in my view, are the I.M. Pei designed glass pyramids in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris. The attempt to juxtapose the old and new was, for me, odd and jarring. A repository for some of the greatest art in the world deserves an entrance that reflects and respects the grandeur of that art.

There is no standard blueprint for the designs of museums nor should there be. The museum on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, with it's concrete ramps and open galleries, broke all rules when it was first opened to the public yet is a hugely successful example of a modern, non traditional setting for art and exhibitions. However a sensitivity to the collections should be evident. There should be a respect for and a relationship between collections and the places in which they are housed. In that way the design of the buildings and the art they hold can both be celebrated and enjoyed by the visitor.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Churchbells Chiming on a Sunday Morn"

When one lives in a city one hears noise. Traffic, televisions blaring through open windows, the revving of motorcycles ridden by men who you sometimes feel are covering up "inadequacies" with the sound of their engines. There are the voices of people, arguing, debating, laughing, sharing their day with one another. Occasionally there are gunshots, occasionally there are sirens, occasionally there are the musical tones of songbirds. Along shorelines there is the sound of water as it meets the land and the squawk of seagulls. And there are churchbells.

I once lived in a neighborhood of Chicago where the bells of the numerous churches in the area rang on Sunday mornings. Although, at the time, I, and many of my friends, were out till the wee hours of Saturday night, we all agreed that we enjoyed the peal of the bells as we lay in bed.

Staying in an apartment in Dayton one weekend, the bells from the church across the street, as I awoke, announced the start of Sunday services. I've heard them ring out over the streets of St. Louis as I waited for a bus one rainy Sunday morning. There is something about the sound of church bells that is soul filling. A sound full, comforting and soothing.

As children, pulling the rope to ring the church bell was a special treat. Sometimes it would take the efforts of more that one of us. At the base of the Tetons my partner rang the outdoor bell of a tiny historic church on a quiet weekday afternoon.. The sound and moment was special and private, shared only by us and the grand, snowcapped mountains in the distance.

Sometimes church bells allow me to ascertain the time without looking at my watch, or my phone. Every 15 minutes an increasingly longer series of chimes until the bells peal out their full chorus followed by rings counting out the hour as it turns. They sound out from the gothic belfry of
the St. Ida's as I walk down Broadway in Chicago. Venerable bells tolled the early afternoon hour as I walked across the grounds of an 18th century mission outside of San Antonio. I hear them in the distance as I lay on the beach where they mingle with the gentle sound of small lake waves breaking on the shore.

In Florence the bells of the Doumo sounded at intermittent, seemingly random intervals. They rang at dusk as we sat on the roof deck of our hotel on my partner's 50th birthday sending a swarm of bats out from the belfry into the early evening sky, repeating an ancient ritual performed countless times in countless places over the centuries.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Texas 2013

This was my second visit to Texas. In my first I explored areas in around Houston, as well as Galveston. This time I was able to explore a wider area of this immense state, incidentally the state in which I was born and spent the first 5 years of my life.

In my friends, both the ones I had prior to the trip and the new ones I made while there, I experienced grace and sweetness. In strangers I found a friendliness that somehow seemed only skin deep. It was an attitude that felt deeply guarded. In the Midwest people wear their hearts on the sleeves. In Texas, at least in my experience, they wear them inside, only displaying them when they desire.

For an area that is so hot I found that many buildings are kept almost freakishly cold. I had assumed that the people there would be accustomed to warmth. They seem, however to be in a state of denial of it. A recent documentary I saw mentioned that the rapid growth of sunbelt cities would not have been possible with air conditioning. The people of Texas seem to have taken this and run with it. The spread out nature of these cities, making long commutes the norm and public transit virtually impossible, strains the energy supply and poisons the enviorment. Again, this is in contrast to my home town of Chicago and it's enviormentally friendly mindset. The green nature of my city is evident in the amount of wildlife, raccoons, possums, hares and even the occasional small fox,  that exist in my city's parks.

I experienced a dry humor. As we left one small town the billboard outside a church bore the message "He who dies with the most toys is still dead!" I discovered great beauty in the hill country, still largely natural and pristine. Multihued birds flit through indigenous trees designed by nature to endure the sometimes harsh climate of the region. Meadows filled with wildflowers cover the rolling terrain. I've been told that in spring, when the bluebonnets are in bloom filling the fields with their color, is a sight one would find difficult to forget.

I found history, particularly in the areas in and around San Antonio. As I stood in a building 250 years old I pondered the lives of the people, with their own individual histories, that have passed through these walls and stood where I had. I pondered my own life and my own personal history , adding it to those who came before me.

San Antonio 2013 - A City of Contrasts

San Antonio is a city of contrasts. Venerable buildings stand next to modern ones. Poor people, some appear to be desperately so, walk along side well heeled tourists and businessmen. Both extremes seem to be invisible to the other. The cool tree shaded oasis of the riverwalk contrasts with the sun baked streets above it. A block boasting a magnificent theatre marquee and beautifully restored late 19th and early 20th century office buildings and hotels,  is followed by a homeless man, his tattered possessions lying around him, sitting in a park in the intense Texas heat.

In the King Williams historic district tidy Victorian cottages sit next to grand Italianate mansions. Across the street resides a pre war bungalow, it's porch sagging and paint peeling. Loving, respectful restoration abuts neglect and decay. A forms a juxtaposition of eras, architectural styles and uneven wealth. On the porch of one well kept 19th century cottage a young, skinny, shirtless punk, complete with mohawk and tattoos stands playing an acid green electric guitar, his large golden lab sitting faithfully beside him. One mansion is on sale for $1.5 million, a bungalow nearby is listed at $220,000.

Located near the center of the city are the Spanish Governors home and the cities main Cathedral, both dating from the 18th century. The Cathedral is the oldest "Cathedral Sanctuary" in the U.S. This specificity seemed odd, however I could find no explanation for the seemingly overly precise nature of the description. In the simple, spare interior of the cathedral faith takes precedent over ostentatious ornamentation. It allows worshipers to concentrate on the their spiritual health and relationship with God undistracted by the trappings of the structure itself. It is a reverent space designed for quiet contemplation. The Spanish governors home, closed the day I visited, is a small, unpretentious one story hacienda. There is a 19th century brick courthouse in the same area. I failed to notice, until it was pointed out by my partner as I was showing him pictures of the trip, the phallic nature of it's torpedo shaped turret.

Outside of the city 6 missions were constructed in the 18th century. We visited two of these. The first was a fortified compound. Around a large grassy area, where workshops once stood, are rows of cells where the indigenous people who built the Cathedral were housed. The imposing main building, like many of the buildings in the region, is constructed of native limestone. The outside was originally c plastered and then painted to appear as if it was covered in tile. A small section of the painted plaster surface remains allowing one to imagine what it would have looked like. The temperature had soared to 100 degrees yet in the simple interior the air was comfortable due to the thick, solid walls. Ornately carved statues frame the Cathedral doors. Brick buttresses support the brick walls of the large granary. A series of arches juts off the main Cathedral, the remains of the convent housing the priests and nuns. Reconstruction was begun in the mid 19th century then abandoned leaving a half ruined reminder of what once stood there. The ancient bells of the cathedral rang out the early afternoon hour as we explored the grounds. Nuns, their habits fluttering walked past us reminding visitors that, although ancient and historical, these buildings are still functioning houses of worship.

The second mission, a mere 4 miles distant from the first, lacks the defensive walls and outbuildings of the other. It sits at the far end of a grass field. In one corner of the field is a small pit in the ground, once the quarry where much of the stone for the construction of the missions was gathered. This mission complex is the most well preserved of the 6 in the area. The remnants of the paint in the rooms and chapels hint at what once was. A blue sun decorates the center of the ceiling in one small room. In a chapel off to the side of the main Cathedral sanctuary the faded remains of a frescoed crucifix hover above an elaborately carved baptistery.

The beauty and age of the missions stands in contrast to the industrial and in some cases, poor and squalid neighborhoods that surround them  As the city grew to encompass the missions which once sat outside of it, it created another contrast in a city full of them.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

San Antonio 2013 - Remember the Alamo Over Dinner on the Riverwalk

When visiting San Antonio one's first instinct is to visit the Alamo. We followed our instincts and made our way to the world famous historical site. It is a fairly small structure, once part of a larger fortified compound. During the battle which bears it's name the settlers and townspeople took refuge there as it was the most secure building in the area. The iconic Americans James Bowie and Davey Crockett met their ends during the battle, as did all the defenders. Many think of it as a church. Although originally constructed for religious purposes it was later utilized as a fortress.

Today it is treated as a shrine to those who fought and died there. Photographs of the inside and the use of cell phones are not permitted. Men are instructed to remove their hats before entering. The ones who died during the siege and battle are revered as heroes, so much so that their remains are interred at the entrance to the city's 18th century cathedral.

I found this reverence to be a somewhat offensive and unsettling. One of the main causes for the Texas revolution were disagreements over slavery. The Texans wanted to break away from Mexico due to the Mexican government's resistance to the institution where one man owns and forces labor from another. These so called heroes were fighting for the right to have slavery as an integral part of their society. Eventually they were able to secede from Mexico and form their own republic, slavery included.

After strolling thorough the gardens behind the Alamo we took the cities Riverwalk. Begun in the 1930's it's present level of fame came during San Antonio's centennial celebration in the 1960's. Lush landscaping and waterfeatures mix with the shops and restaurants found there. Walkways wind along the edge of the shallow river, bridges cross over it and water taxis carrying tourists travel down it. It being Sunday night the sidewalk was packed with people.

We found it ironic that, in a state that went to war to secede from Mexico, Mariachi bands are featured in several of the restaurants. I have always found Mariachi bands slightly comical. In my experience they tend to be comprised of portly men shoved into skintight clothes, reminiscent of a late era Elvis.

We had dinner and engaged in people watching. There were a plethora of options to view. An extremely handsome and hunky dad with trendy long sideburns strode by our table several times. There was the massive, deeply tanned, shaved head bodybuilder in a tight gray tee shirt and another prematurely gray haired biker looking dad, his tank top revealing his muscled, tattooed arms. I suppose there were some women there as well......

We stopped on our way back to the car to once again view the Alamo, beautifully lit at night, and enjoyed the LED illuminated carriages as they moved through the historic streets.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Central Texas 2013 - On the Road Again

I have heard it said that due to the interstate highway system in the U.S. it is possible to drive coast to coast without ever really seeing anything. Nowhere is this more evident then on the drive from the Texas hill country to San Antonio. For 2 plus hours we pass through board flat scrub land crisscrossed by bone dry creek and river beds. Some riverbeds, during dry seasons, are stony affairs.  They pay homage to the power of the water that flows through them during the wetter times of the year. These alleged creeks, each named, appear as shallow, grass fill trenches. I have been assured, by those who should know, that these, in some cases almost imperceptible indentations in the surrounding countryside do indeed carry small amounts of water at some points during the year.

Billboards along the way announce the existence of historic towns. These, however, are so far off the main road that even in this flat landscape neither a church steeple or the dome atop a courthouse of a county seat can be seen as you travel past them. I compare this to travel by train where the stations are often important structures in even the smallest of towns. As you go through the centers of the places along your way you sense a connection, however fleeting, with those who live there. I recall the brick ruins as we departed from Rome and seeing the bell tower and dome of the Doumo as well as the fortification wall surrounding Florence while enroute to Venice. In the U.S. there is the beaux arts beauty of the train station in Joliet, Illinois or the panoramic view of the Arch, skyline and river as you pass high over the Mississippi entering St. Louis. You are treated to a view of Albany, New York across the river and flower dappled hills as you near the Catskills in summer.

Upon leaving the hill country I spent a few minutes figuring out how to program the GPS in our rental car. My ability to harness new technology is improving as I get older, even though these posts at still initially written in longhand on paper. Her calm, soothing, reassuring voice successfully guides us to San Antonio and our hotel as the silhouette of the tall hemisphere park tower, built for the fair which celebrated the city's centennial, comes into view.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Texas 2013 - The Hill Country

We were delayed leaving Houston due to late rising, rental car problems and organizational issues while attempting to pack the car. The delay increased when a phone call informed us we had left behind the camp stove as well as the corkscrew, both essentials of any weekend camping trip. We returned to the house, retrieved the missing items and were once again on our way.

A system of freeways resembling a plate of spaghetti spirals around and also carries one out of Houston. Once clear of the subdivisions and strip malls one finds themselves in a flat landscape which appears to be barren of any life form other than cows. Small pockets of civilization occasionally appear offering up gas and fast food to the traveler before they once again set out upon the highway.

It is when you turn off the main highway that the beauty of the Texas hill country becomes apparent. On either side of the road tangles of woodlands are interspersed with fields of brilliant wildflowers. Gates announce the location of ranches, their commodious houses half hidden behind stands of tall, old trees. Cresting the top of one of the gentle rolling hills affords one a panoramic view of forest, meadows and hot, clear, brilliant blue, sunlit Texas sky. Bright red cardinals, turquoise blue jays, huge black hawks with formidable wingspans and white cranes fly and roost in this pastoral landscape. Bird calls echo through air so clean it feels as if their songs could carry for miles.
On that weekend rain showers tempered the usual heat. As they passed they left remnants of gray and white in the topaz blue sky.

We went into the nearby town of Navasoda for supplies. A sign at the city limits informs you that the population stands at 7049. A question passes through my mind. Is there a designated person whose responsibility it is to run to the edge of town, paint over and amend the sign if there is a birth or death? 9 months after the local high school's prom do they change the sign on a daily basis or just wait until all the new arrivals can be added at once? The buildings along the small main street are solid stone structures. The town mandated that new construction be fireproof after a blaze destroyed a portion of the town center in the mid 19th century. A small section of the hamlet contains the grand Victorian homes of the well to do. Their large wrap around porches and lacy frills once again speak to the southern influence on this area of Texas.

It is unfortunate, as I have stated in previous posts, that a local Walmart has taken over the commerce of this town as will as many others like it across the U.S. In it's wake it has left a trail of dusty "antique" shops and empty store fronts along their venerable main streets. It has destroyed some businesses that had perhaps been held in the hands of the same family for generations. Although through the efforts of those engaged in historic preservation we have the buildings, the spirits of these towns has been damaged irreparably.

We returned to the country road. The hill country is quiet and serene, a world away from the frenetic, noise filled city world I am accustomed to.


Houston 2013 - Dinner With Friends

On a cruise a couple of years back I met another gentleman from Houston. This cruise, as a footnote, was when I began writing what would eventually become this blog. A blank book, given to me the previous Christmas, was thrown into my suitcase on a whim at the last minute and I found myself recounting the trip during quiet moments as the ship sailed through the Caribbean. I contacted him to let him know I would becoming to town. He invited me to dinner during my stay.

Outside of Facebook he and I had not chatted for a while. Responding to my initial emails he mentioned that he had met someone he was anxious to introduce me to. I was happy for him. He is a dear, sweet and caring man and deserves to have someone special in his life. He mentioned that a friend of theirs, a fairly recent transplant to Chicago, would be joining us. My host drove me to their home in the Montrose area, know as Houston's main gay district. They drove me back afterwards.

Throughout my life I have always felt a sense of trepidation prior to meeting a partner of a person I care for. What if the partner is revealed to be a complete ass? There is the fear that I could find myself holding a tight smile on my face while thoughts swirl around in the back of my head such as "Oh my God! This guy is unbearable! What could he possibly see in him!" Before I met the partner of my dear friend in Phoenix this fear gripped me. There the fear was exacerbated as  I would be staying with them for several days. This was only dinner, whatever happened I would be able to soldier through it. Fortunately, in both these cases this concern was unwarranted.

Although I do not see this man often, or enough, he appeared happier, almost elated and more content than I have ever known him to be. It is obvious that there is a deep love and respect between them. His partner is charming with a delightfully playful side. Their friend, as I discovered a long term ex roommate of the partner, was attractive and equally charming with the same underlying playful manner. Wine, excellent food and conversation flowed.

They were in the process of moving in together. They are striving to create a home that is "Theirs". A fusion of their styles, personalities and possessions.  Having done this myself I know that this is not an easy task but with determination, patience and the love I sense in them for each other I am sure they will succeed. They will create a nest, a shared and cherished space.

During a quiet conversation on one of the balconies of the townhouse I related to him part of my experience meeting someone later in life. I was 40 when I moved in with my partner. The big experiences and the small everyday occurrences are equally important. The returns home after a hard days work, the quiet dinners together or just sitting and watching a favorite T.V. show are all moments to be savored and held dear. I wish them both many years of these. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Houston 2013 - 150 Years of History in a Day

One of my requests on this trip was to tour the downtown area of Houston as I had not seen it on my previous visit. Much is sometimes made, when people write of this sprawling metropolis, about it's total lack of zoning laws. Venerable structures are razed to make way for towering highrises completely out of scale and without respect to their surroundings. Out of town, former farm and pasture land disappear under faceless subdivisions and strip malls. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that a historic section of the city, abutting the bayou that winds it's way near downtown, has been rehabilitated.

Storefronts, office buildings and hotels, some dating back to the mid 19th century, grace the area. A small restaurant, originally a bakery built in 1860, is one of the oldest buildings in the city still on it's original site. It sits across from the Market Square, the center of the early city, used in those days as an open air produce market. Today it is a lovely area of flower beds, sculptures and fountains, one a memorial to the victims of 9/11. Misters spray diners at an outdoor eating area in  an effort to keep the Texas heat at bay.

The old courthouse, a solid, domed, stone symbol of the law is located a few blocks away. The new civil courthouse is designed to reference and pay homage to it's older sibling. The area's architectural styles range from Beaux Arts to Victorian to Art Deco. Old hotels have been rehabbed and office buildings have been reclaimed for residential uses. Bars, nightclubs and restaurants fill the street level floors of many of the buildings. A bike path runs alongside the bayou which was used to bring goods from the gulf during the 18th century, giving rise to the city.

As you move away from the Historic District you encounter the more modern portion of downtown. Yet, every so often, an older building can be seen sandwiched between two glass walled highrises, appearing to resist the cities determination to completely relinquish it's history in this part of town.

There are also neighborhood historical districts. We drove through two of them, Westmoreland and Audubon. Old trees shade streets of late 19th and early 20th century homes which range from cozy, quaint bungalows to grand, sometimes imposing mansions. The southern influences on Houston are evidenced by occasional rows of shotgun houses, a staple of cities such as New Orleans. We drove past the impressive home of Houston's mayor, an out lesbian. In a state as conservative as Texas it is interesting to note that Houston is the largest city in the country where an openly gay woman holds it's highest elective office.

Though homes and buildings possessing character and charm are still being torn down in Houston, sacrificed to make way for newer structures without these attributes, it is heartening to know that in some areas these traits are still respected and preserved.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Houston 2013 - The Mystery of the Gray Pickup

As I landed and picked my way through the labyrinth that is Houston International Airport I found myself thinking that it resembled the somewhat twisted logic of the president for which it is named. I fondly recalled Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president, instructing him not patronize her in their famous exchange during the historic 1984 vice presidential debate. I collected my bag and went to the arrival pickup area.

After a short wait I phoned my hosts. Asking if their pick up truck was what I should be expecting I was assured that it was. Upon further inquiry regarding what color the truck was I was told that it was gray. I surveyed the cars in the area which were waiting for arriving passengers. There were no less than 4 gray pick up trucks. Knowing that theirs did not have a gun rack I was able to narrow the possible number of gray pick ups to 2. After a second phone call I was informed that I had misread my arrival time placing it a half hour behind my actual one. After 20 minutes or so, and the passing of a number of other gray pick up trucks, some sporting gun racks, some not, I was after all in Texas, the proper one arrived.

We drove away from the airport and onto the highway. The passing landscape was a mixture of horses grazing in fields, industrial parks and gentle, slow flowing bayous, their banks festooned with midsummer wildflowers.

Houston, like many sunbelt cities, is low and spreads out for miles. Over dinner at a local Mexican restaurant we discussed how, due to the sprawling nature of such cities, devising a public mass transit system is a challenging, if not impossible, task. There is a light rail system downtown, built during a failed bid to host a summer Olympics and a bus system, but service is infrequent and requires hours to get from one location to another. Add to this the blazing Texas heat and it appears from the people seen at the bus stops, that public transit is primarily used by only the most desperate and poor citizens. One option might be a light rail system reaching to the corners of the city with shorter feeder bus routes but this would be costly. Gas lobbyists are a powerful bunch. As long as money, as opposed to common sense, decides public policy reliable and efficient mass transit in the private auto addicted U.S. will remain a pipe dream. When fossil fuel becomes more difficult to obtain, when the price of gas climbs so high that it becomes a luxury item, perhaps we will be spurred to action. Till then I fear public monies will be spent building an increasing number of roads leading us to places we can already get to.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Houston - The Second Time Around

This was my second trip to Houston. Since my last visit my friend and host had experienced major health problems eventually necessitating a liver transplant. Although his energy level is uneven he was well on the mend, eagerly anticipating my visit.

I have a friend from my Caribbean cruise who also lives in Houston. Several weeks ago he was in Chicago for a period too brief to allow me to meet up with him. Since I last saw him he has found a new man in his life, something of which he is richly deserving. I was to have dinner with them during my time in Texas along with the person they stayed with in my hometown. It is a recurring theme, my meeting fellow Chicagoans when I travel.

I have attempted to keep myself from feeling too culpable for my friends health issues, even though they began during my last visit. He assured me that all his organs would be in good working order this time.

So, early on a Wednesday morning I left my apartment on Chicago's far north side enroute to O'hare airport. A white, just past full, moon hung in a blue sunlit sky. As I transferred from one bus to the next I passed by a building undergoing renovations. The businesses operating there have had to create temporary signage for their establishments.  "Dynasty Insurance" has resorted to a small paper sign in their window. It is somewhat unfortunate that a corner of the sign has folded over and now reads "Nasty Insurance". Heading west I am once again reminded of the architectural and visual riches of my hometown. The intricate spires of gothic revival churches loom over streets lined with vintage two flats and bungalows, their yards bright with summer flowers. Towering venerable trees provide shade. The Chicago river, it's banks lush with foliage, flows through a verdant city park. A forest preserve, surrounded by the city, speaks to the "green" nature of Chicago, sometimes called "The City in a Garden".

As the plane takes off the view transitions from the silhouette of a metropolis with it's formidable highrises to small houses set among a patchwork of fields, the rich prairie soil ideal for growing many different crops. Wednesday, due to  my waking up at an absurdly early hour, I plan to settle in and relax. Thursday I had requested to see the downtown highrise district, missed on my previous visit, followed by my dinner with my cruise friend that evening. The weekend would be spent at a camp in the Texas hill country. 3 of us would be making that trip, myself, my host and a friend of his who at one time kept a weekend trailer home at the campground. Sunday night would be spent in San Antonio, touring the city the following day before driving back to Houston and returning to Chicago on Tuesday.

Although I had packed a pair of jeans in the gym bag serving as my suitcase, they were a purely precautionary measure. Having to don a suit and tie every workday I was determined to wear shorts and shirts without sleeves during my entire stay. The only exception to this was the v neck gray tee shirt I brought for Thursday evening. When someone is being gracious and generous enough to have you to dinner completely bare arms could be seen by some as disrespectful.