Sunday, December 28, 2014

Costa Rica - Final Checklist

Prior to leaving I had 3 mental checklists. What I wanted to see, what I wished to see and, the final category, wouldn't it be cool if I saw.

Toucans in the wild - Wanted to see

The first sighting we missed as we were already ensconced in seats on a shuttle which was taking us from the rain forest to our regular tour bus. Mildly disappointed but undaunted we were cheered later by seeing a group of the big billed birds on a roadside tree. Then, on our final rainforest tram a lovely bird with a jet black body and yellow beak perched in a tree, among several other of his kind, standing stock still on the branch as if posing for a National Geographic wildlife photo. We got a great shot!

Scarlett Macaws - Wanted to see

On a couple of occasions we spotted these magnificent birds from a distance appearing as silhouettes in the sky. On our final day one was spotted close to the bus. It banked spreading it's wings displaying the stripes of color which ran along them. Finding the group in the tree several minutes later was the icing on a scarlet cake.

Crocodiles - Wanted to see

This was almost a sure thing as scores of the reptiles reside along the banks of one of the rivers we cruised on. We saw at least a score of them.

Monkeys - Wanted to see

Hit the mother lode on this one, seeing all four species that are found in Costa Rica, albeit two for only seconds. The troupe of howling monkeys foraging over our heads on the river cruise and white face monkeys hanging like oversized Christmas ornaments from the trees in the national park are visual memories that will be with me for the rest of my life.

Volcanos - Wished to see

With only a 30% chance of seeing the crater of volcano Poa and the peak of Arenal due to Costa Rica's cloud cover I kept my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. Luck was on my side. The crater of Poa was visible on the day of our visit for only a brief period of time which happened to coincide with our visit. The view of Arenal was crystal clear all three days we were in sight of it. Our guide mentioned that she had never hosted a tour before that was able to see the peak all three days.

Water Walking Lizards - Wouldn't it be cool if I saw

I cheered and applauded as the reptile sped across the top of the water to seek safety from us on the shore.

The Unexpected

Rosette Spoonbills, a heron like bird I had not heard of prior to my visit. A most colorful and unselfconsciously elegant creature. A stork wading in the water foraging for food with it's long bill. The tiny bats, pit vipers and and brightly colored poison frogs of the rain forest. The sound of frogs at night at our resort at the foot of Arenal. The songbirds at that resort with their brilliantly hued plumage. Sticking my big toe into Costa Rica's neighbor Nicaragua. Parrots flying in pairs overhead. Tiger herons with their feathers arranged in alternating stripes down their bodies. The cat like raccoons and the iguanas picking up the colors of the world around them. The otherworldly huge cricket on the wall of our jungle side hotel.

Thank you Costa Rica!

Costa Rica - Our Divine Guide and Merry Band

I have often, while traveling, been lucky. Hence the name of this blog. This occasion was no different. Part of the charm of this tour was due to the other people we shared this adventure with. At the farewell dinner we said goodbye to several that had, over the course of the tour, become friends. As we spoke with other members of the tour group it was clear that we all felt we had been a part of something special. For 9 days a group of people of different backgrounds came together as a community. We were kind and considerate of one another. We shared life stories, laughed, joked and experienced together a unique and beautiful place. Wildlife sightings were treated with almost childlike enthusiasm. Natural wonders were greeted with shared awe.

Our guide was the catalyst. She was young, charming, intelligent and energetic. Her national pride was evident. She was radiant as she shared with us her extensive knowledge and her deep love for her country and what makes it unique and special. Exuberant and gleeful, she was sweet, her enthusiasm infectious, down to her farewell hug to each of us as we boarded the shuttle for the airport. She was truly one of a kind and we owe a debt to her for bringing this group together and making this trip a truly magic moment in time.

Costa Rica - Going Home

Normally when one returns from a trip it involves a relatively mundane series of events. There is the ride to the airport, in this case an hotel shuttle, then the increasing rigors of checking in for and boarding a flight. You take your seat, the plane takes off and you go home, plain and simple.

This trip had something else in store for us. Our last breakfast we were seated outside at a table for two next to the pool. News had been circulating during the last few days regarding a large volcano eruption near the capital of San Jose. The ash had traveled in the opposite direction of the airport so, fortunately,  flights were not affected. Unfortunately several towns and farms in the path of the ash were. We were told as we got on the shuttle that there was a possibility we would be able to see the still smoking volcano on our ride to the airport. We were also informed that a number of earthquakes had occurred, not unusual with a volcanic eruption, the largest measuring in at over 5 points.

We started on our way. At a stop light we found ourselves next to a white building capped by a golden statue. Someone said it was a Mormon Temple. I never even knew there was such a thing as Costa Rican Mormons. Continuing the volcano came into view. Not knowing, one might have assumed it's peak was simply obscured by dark clouds. To us the black smoke around the mountaintop told a far more destructive tale. We, along with three others from our tour group, were on the same flight to Fort Lauderdale. We checked in and moved through security. I had just put my shoes back on and stood up when the terminal began to tremble. This was accompanied by a light rumbling sound. I am from San Francisco. I know what an earthquake feels like, although it was my first where I could actually hear it. It took the others in our little group a few moments to realize what had happened.

Little else of note transpired. My passport at customs wouldn't scan electronically so I had to have a face to face with a security officer just like back in the olden days;. Our connecting flight was delayed over 2 hours which got us home at well after, know, stuff like that.

Goodbye Costa Rica, you have left me with rich memories worthy of your name. It was my pleasure to meet you.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Costa Rica - A Waterfall of Tranquility

Our last activity was a tram up a densely forested mountainside. By this point a sense of camaraderie had developed among many of the members of the tour group. We glided gently up the mountain. A waterfall flowed below us catching in pools before continuing it's downward plunge. The tram started at the lowest point in the forest canopy moving through the mid point before reaching the forests highest level and making it's turnaround. As we descended the view was expansive. The untouched wildness of the forest around us, 80% of it had never seen human hands, covered the mountains. In the distance we were gifted with one last look at the Pacific Ocean. Closer up we were given a view of a group of toucans playing in a tree. As we returned to the bottom we shared the wonderful sense of tranquility and serenity the forest's natural beauty had bestowed on us.

One last surprise awaited me. Driving to our hotel a group of spider monkeys cavorted in a short tree. There are 4 kinds of monkeys found in Costa Rica. Although I saw 2 of the species for only an instant this still made me 4 for 4!

The rain began again. The water poured down the mountains filling the gutters on the side of the road. Even when a small mudslide briefly slowed us down it did not dampen the spirits of our group.
We showered and dressed in the best we had with us for the farewell dinner that evening. We toasted one another and traded memories, addresses and e mails. We all knew we had been part of something very special.

Costa Rica - Scarlet Macaws - Another Item Off My Checklist

We were enroute to our last activity of the tour, another tram ride through a rain forest. Traveling down the road our guide, blessed with good eyes, yelled "Scarlet macaw!" Although we had seen    them as silhouettes in the distance several times we had not seen one up close. The brilliant red bird flew by the bus window then spread it's wings and banked to the right displaying the spectacular colors of the stripes that ran across them. A second macaw was spotted. The bus driver pulled into a scenic overlook and turned the bus around in an attempt to follow their flight path. There was another scenic overlook a short distance away. As luck would have it not one, not two, but an entire group of the birds were in a tree there, tussling and playing, their bright red bodies and striped wings creating a kaleidoscope among the leaves.

Costa Rica - Manuel Antonio National Park

The storm past during the night and the morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast we began our exploration of Manuel Antonio National Park. Although small it is touted as one of the most bio diverse areas in the world. We soon broke away from the main group and struck out on a side trail by ourselves. Within a few minutes we had our first of several wildlife encounters we experienced that day. High in a palm sat a white faced monkey. He scampered around the fronds before disappearing into the dense forest. Several moments later, sitting in the v formed by two tree branches was an animal with a reddish brown back. It was the rarely seen squirrel monkey. It looked down at us for an instant before swirling around the tree's trunk and also disappearing into the brush.

We continued up the steep hillside. Thankfully steps had been built which made the hike a relatively easy one. We crossed a small river. Continuing up we came upon a landing which afforded us a breathtaking view of the turquoise ocean below. Waves broke around small rock islands before lapping upon the shore. Roosting herons appeared as white spots scattered up the mountainsides. We heard the call of birds and the distinct bark of howling monkeys. We experienced a silence filled with the noises of nature. Climbing further we reached the end of the trail with another spectacular ocean view.

As we started to descend we heard a rustling in the trees above. Looking up we saw another white faced monkey. Then another appeared leaping from branch to branch with the grace of a trapeze artist. One by one the rest of the troop came into view leaping and swinging through the trees.

We joined the rest of our group on the beach. A brown iguana sat motionless on a tree trunk, it's color exactly matching it's chosen perch. On the beach was another, it's neck bright blue. Iguanas are camelions, it had picked up the color of the ocean. We spotted a raccoon, leaner, more catlike than the North American variety, it was feasting on scores of hermit crabs scuttling across the beach sand.

We began our trek back to the hotel to change into fresh shirts, the ones we were wearing soaked  through from the humidity and our exertions, and meet the bus for our last adventure. We took a new, less heavily traveled boardwalk trail. It began to rain. We quickly donned our ponchos. In the brush another raccoon, with two babies in tow, ran across the forest floor seeking shelter from the downpour. It was a brief rain, over by the time we had gone downstairs to board the bus.

There was one final encounter with wildlife as we left our jungle view room. A cricket like insect, the size of a man's hand, clung to the wall of the hotel. While exotic, it was also slightly creepy.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Costa Rica - Thunder and Lightening, Very, Very Frightening

As I've mentioned the roads in Costa Rica tend towards tiny 2 lane affairs devoid of any artificial lighting. The traffic jam that day had delayed us and the night was beginning to creep in. Adding to the problem of the lack of light was a spectacular yet grim and vicious thunderstorm breaking out around us. Flashes of lightening followed by loud claps of thunder were accompanied by a heavy pelting rain. We were gladdened by two things, we were within the dry confines of the bus and our driver had proved himself by this point more than competent.We moved through the storm once again amazed by nature but this time in a somewhat different way than we had been amazed by nature earlier in the day. The scene outside was indecipherable. Occasionally lights from the homes and businesses of the towns scattered along the way would reveal people walking through the storm trying in vain to keep dry under umbrellas. Occasionally a flash of lightening would illuminate, for an instant, our surroundings.

Our driver wound cautiously along the winding roads through the storm and eventually we reached the town which serves the visitors to Manuel Antonio National Park. We were met by hotel staff who handed us large golf umbrellas as we got off the bus to keep us in a semi arid state till we reached the covered reception area. After our luggage, remarkably dry, was delivered to our room we moved downstairs, once again umbrellas in hand, to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. After our treacherous travel that night the hour long, open bar happy hour was welcomed by all.

Costa Rica - Big Brown Native Fauna

Returning to the bus we crossed a bridge and looked down at the mud brown crocodiles lying on the muddy brown bank of the river below. Our next stop would be a boat cruise which would get us up close and personal with the ancient species.

Arriving at a primitive dock we boarded the shallow keeled tour boat and set off. Our first encounter was with a massive male, his long white teeth visible poking out of the sides of his closed snout. A female, one eye damaged in a fight with another croc, swam in the water nearby. Our boat pilot took us to within a few feet of the reptile. Mangrove swallows accompanied us the entire way, skimming over the water and flying around and about our boat as we drifted along. White herons stood like sentinels along the shore. Groups of cormorants roosted in the trees. A stork with stately legs foraged for food with it's long beak in the shallow water along the muddy bank. A large blue heron stood surveying the scene. A smaller, brighter blue heron joined it briefly before going off it's own way. In the distance a rosette spoonbill waded in the water. Pink, like the flamingo it's coloring a result of the pigment of the small water creatures in it's diet, the bird sports along it's side a bright coral stripe. It uses it's long spoonlike bill, hence it's name, to catch it's tiny prey. Later this incredible bird came closer to us affording us a better look. Lovely and graceful, it appeared both noble and self assured of it's breathtaking beauty.

Our boat captain spotted something on a log. Piloting us closer to it we saw a small brown lizard sitting on a dead plantain tree floating in the river. Our captain approached it attempting to startle it. Our ever exuberant tour guide started yelling "Go baby, go baby go!" The lizard sprung up and sped away, walking across the top of the water to the shore. We all burst into applause at the show the reptile had provided for us.

At one point a dozen crocodiles appeared. Varying in size and age they swam in the murky water or lazed along the shore. The crocodiles are able to survive in both the brackish water of the river and the salt water of the nearby Pacific. Some use the ocean's salt water as a place to recover from injuries when the animals fight. Although seeming almost invincible in adulthood, some live to a great age, few reach that stage as the eggs and hatchlings make for easy prey.

As we returned a tiger striped heron stood on the top of the boarding platform as if welcoming us back. Once again amazed by nature we were set on our way to the music of marimba players performing in the, by this point, ubiquitous open air gift shop.

Costa Rica - A Traffic Jam, Then Lunch

It would be impossible to overstate how narrow the roads can be in Costa Rica. Two lanes, thick foliage or lush farmland on either side. No easements as we are accustomed to in the United States on even the most rural of roads. Although it can make for some spectacularly scenic drives, if something goes wrong....well....things can get ugly fast.

We are traveling through the cattle ranches, farms and small towns of the Pacific Coast. We pass a monument to marimba players, a statute of 3 boys playing the percussive instruments. Later we are treated to marimba music over the buses sound system from our tour guides I phone. A few miles outside of a restroom and ice creme pit stop the traffic along the country road slows, then stops. There is a line of cars and trucks ahead of us, a growing line of cars and trucks behind., Word comes that there is an accident ahead. We are stuck, glass half full, at least the bus was in an area that was tree shaded so we didn't roast inside it's metal shell. We sit and wait, and wait. There is nowhere to go. Although there is an alternate route to our destination 5 miles behind us there is no way to turn the long bus around on the small, narrow road. Kindles appear, I pull out these blog notes and write, people take out cell phones or try to nap, after all, at this point there is no passing scenery to view.

Eventually traffic begins to crawl forward. Although an accident we're told caused the initial back up, a stalled truck exacerbated the already exasperating situation. Traffic regains it's normal pace and soon we are at our lunch spot for the day. We file out of the bus glad to finally be released from it's confines.

We have lunch that day in a beautiful open air pavilion surrounded by meadows and mountains draped in Costa Rica's rich mantle of vivid, varied shades of green.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Costa Rica - The Tale of the Beach Town and the Suitcase

We had over packed for the trip. Or, more accurately, my husband had over packed for the trip. Upon our departure we were informed by the desk agent that our main suitcase was 8 pounds over the limit allowed by the airline. Although the agent said she would overlook it she made it clear that we could not expect to be so lucky on our return trip. So this meant it would be necessary for us to pick up an unexpected memento of our Costa Rican adventure, a new suitcase. At the beginning of the tour we asked our guide where the best place would be to find one. She suggested the small beachfront town of Tamarindo near our Pacific resort. She also let us know about a shuttle operated by the hotel which would, for a small fee, take us to and pick us up from the town. There was a free day with no activities scheduled, other than a open bar happy hour, which we would be loathe to miss, So the plan seemed perfect....seemed perfect.

We, along with several others from the tour, got on the shuttle and ventured into the nearby hamlet. It was a typical beach town, although it did seem to contain more that the typical amount of smoking paraphernalia for sale in the various shops there. There were a number of kids who looked as if they might have an occasional need for such wares, which could explain the plethora of items vended. There were also a number of surf shops, surfboards and surf bums, which could explain the plethora of items. There were also what seemed to be a number of ex hippie expats, which might also help explain the plethora.

We soon discovered that the words "suitcase" and "luggage" seem to have no direct Spanish translation. We then discovered that, once we made them understand what we were looking for, noone seemed to know where we could find such a thing. We were beginning to get desperate. Each shop owners suggestion led to another dead luggage end. Passing by a surf rental store we heard a young blonde girl speaking in a vernacular that was unmistakeably American. Asking her if she was from the States she replied "Yes, from Chicago". We said "So are we!" She then said "O.K., actually I'm from Rockford." Rockford is a small, somewhat provincial, speck of a city in Illinois. It is not Chicago. We explained our problem. She had no idea where we could find a suitcase but she might, using the neighborhood merchants communication online site, be able to come up with a duffel bag. At this point we were ready to settle. She said to come back in 15 minutes and she would tell us what she was able to come up with.

We decided to kill time in the local souvenir shops. Entering the first one I looked down and saw a large size roller board suitcase. Hot pink with flowers, bigger than what we needed, but in my glass half full manner, I thought "At least we'll be able to spot it on the baggage carousel." I called my husband over. The shop owner, with some but not total command of English, understood our problem. Laying the suitcase on it's side he unzipped it to reveal a medium size suitcase inside. Unzipping that he revealed the perfect size carry on bag we needed, only downside was it was covered in a motif of hot pink flowers. My husband informed me "You're rolling that thing through the airport". He took over and got across to the shop owner that we would prefer something that size but less festive. He ran upstairs and returned with a dark blue version, slightly more expensive than the pink flowery one but we didn't care to argue. There was only one other issue at hand. Would the suitcase adhere to the stringent size standards of the airline. This is when we discovered that the term "tape measure", like suitcase and luggage, seems to have no Spanish equivalent,.My husband then remembered that a one dollar bill is 6 inches long. I found myself on the floor of the shop laying a U.S. greenback end over end measuring the dimensions of our purchase. As we left the store the shop owner pulled two painted wooden key chains from a bowl and gave them to us as a thank you.

Our hard won treasure in hand we shopped for more asetheticly interesting mementos and walked along a driftwood strewn beach. We took the picture of another couple on the tour posing in front of a full sized tree, lying on it's side in the sand, heavily weathered from exposure to the salt and sea. Judging from the number of surfboards and surfers this beach was a place of great waves. We found it to be a spot of great  natural beauty as we walked along it listening to the pounding surf.

Costa Rica - Native Customs

I always try to remember that when I travel I am essentially, whether invited or not, a guest in someone else's home. I always make an attempt to respect the customs and traditions of my host. For instance, in Mexico City I wore long pants despite the mild climate. Mexican men, for the most part, do not wear shorts. When entering a church I make sure my arms are not bare. Tank tops or sleeveless shirts are covered by a shirt with sleeves I carry with me on such occasions and I try to maintain a quiet and reverent tone of voice and manner when in sacred structures. I sample local foods and learn to say at least hello, goodbye and thank you in the local tongue.

In Costa Rica however there was on custom I could not bring myself to adhere to. Apparently the standard of Central American plumbing is not quite as high as that of plumbing in the U.S. With this in mind Costa Ricans, along with a number of other Central American cultures, discard their used "toilet tissue" not in the toilet but in a bucket which sits alongside it. Each time it was necessary for me to use a public facility I would look at the bucket and a single thought would go through my head. "I should respect their culture....I should.....but I just can't...." Then I would flush.

Costa Rica - We're Going to be on the Bus for How Many Hours?

We were heading from the center of the country to the Pacific coast. From the windows of the bus we got a closer look at the vegetation which crawls up the side of the volcano. We climbed winding mountain roads looking down at Arenal Lake. Formed by a dam built for hydroelectric power the cross atop the submerged town of Old Arenal can occasionally be seen rising above the water. The residents were given homes and jobs in a new town built by the government to replace the old one. Brooks and rivers tumbled through thick green growth over rocks worn smooth by their ancient dance with the water. Wind turbines rotated on the top of a hill while cows grazed on the slope below.

Lunch that day was at a restaurant known for it's population of White Tail Deer. The deer, the national mammal of Costa Rica, is endangered in that country. Most of the people on the bus agreed that they were free to take some of ours.

As we drew near to the coast the landscape changed from a uniform dark to more varied shades of green. The growth, still thick became noticeably less dense and more multi-layered. As we passed through small towns their relaxed, languid nature is manifested by the sight of a man in a car pulled off to the side of the road, napping, all the doors open to let in the breeze.Three young teens stood by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride. A group of chickens and a single goose clucked and squawked around a sagging weathered wood porch.

The main activity that day was an educational tour of a protected nesting site for the critically endangered Leatherback Turtle. It was our first sight of and our first walk along the Pacific. I must say that the turtles have picked a beautiful spot to lay their eggs. Green hills tumble into the sea on either side of a sandy stretch of oceanside beach. The sound of waves tumbling in and cooling breezes coming off the sea added to the tranquility of the site. In recent years the turtles have moved from this beach after decades of poaching. Remarkably intelligent and intuitive animals, they have moved to areas with smaller human populations and less risk to their offspring. Outside the visitors center enterprising young boys, for two dollars, hacked off the tops of coconuts giving me my first taste of the mildly sweet water inside.

As we neared the resort where we would be spending the next 2 nights the foliage became sparser. Now thick forests mix with green meadows dotted with large trees. We sat on the beach on plush chaise lounges that evening and watched the red sun set over the horizon of the Pacific. The clouds glowed pink above the blue water and white foam of the wave caps. After dinner we walked through the hotel grounds among spotlit palms while birds circled in the night sky over our heads.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Costa Rica - What a Way to Finish a Day

On our return we stopped at hot springs. The well manicured and landscaped pools are spread over several levels and offer a range of temperatures. The water, naturally heated by the nearby volcano, provided a relaxing and soothing finish to the day. A rejuvenated group returned to the hotel for our final night in our floral paradise.

Early in the morning I heard my husband leave the room through the sliding glass doors leading out to the terrace. I got up and followed him outside to check and see if there was anything wrong. I found him on the lawn looking up. I followed his gaze. The stars above us shone brilliantly in a crystal clear sky. We lingered barefoot on the dewy grass staring at the heavens.

As we laid in bed the next morning, prior to our departure, watching through the glass doors as dozens of birds flew and swooped over the lawn in front of our bungalow, I once again realized what a lucky traveler I sometimes am!

Costa Rica - A River Cruise and Illegal Entry

We were off to a wildlife viewing cruise. Along the way we stopped to see a large number of outsized iguanas sunning themselves in the brush by a roadside restaurant and gift shop. As the story goes the man who owned the business discovered an iguana one day rustling through the garbage. The next day there were two, later and entire iguana clan. A car of tourists, seeing the lizards stopped to take photos. A light bulb went off over the proprietors head and the cultivation of the reptiles turned into a thematic profit producing concern.

We continued on our way to a tiny, sleepy town and walked the few short blocks to the dock where the wildlife cruises depart from. We were told the river was high which would cut into the number of birds, mammals and reptiles that we might have seen on one of the better days. My husband and I opted to sit out in the open air on the bow of the boat instead of under the canvas awning covered area housing the rest of our group. Even though viewing was less than optimal we were treated to egrets, cormorants and brightly colored songbirds. Colonies of bats created black lines as they slept in neat rows up the trunks of trees. Vivid green water walking lizards with crests on their heads and backs sat on branches hanging over the river's edge.

Our hot young boat captain with the powerful looking, deeply tanned arms and pierced eyebrow piloted us further downriver towards Nicaragua. We were told to bring the photo copies of our passports with us on the cruise that day as a safety precaution as we would be coming quite close to the border of Costa Rica's sometime disagreeable neighbor.

All during the cruise we had heard the distinctive call of howling monkeys. Our guide had learned to imitate the monkey's bark and used it to try to lure them into the open. Suddenly, in a tree along the shore we got our "money shot". A mother howling monkey carrying her tiny baby appeared. One by one the other members of the troop appeared among the branches. We pulled directly under the tree. Our guide once again made the sound of the animal's call. The alpha male answered him. Our troop of humans gaped, pointed fingers and shot picture after picture as the small primates moved through the foliage searching for food.

Eventually we left the monkey show and continued towards Nicaragua. Our guide, using sign language, signaled the pilot of a boat ferrying day trippers from the neighboring country to Costa Rica asking if he had seen any monkey troops further downstream. He shook his head no and shrugged his shoulders. A fence of barbed wire and branches running through a field came into view. A sign on the river's bank announced the border of the Nicaraguan Nature Preserve. The boat crept by the sign until we were two feet inside the country. Our guide asked "Ever been in a country illegally before"? He explained that a checkpoint was another mile downriver. This stretch was a sort of "no man's land" where citizens of both countries could move freely.

We cruised back upstream returning to the dock. Lunch included fried cassava which resembled french fries in look, taste and texture. At the restaurant an artisan that works in wood reclaimed from fallen trees had set up shop. We purchased a letter opener, one of several collections we own, carved from red wood from trees that are found only in Costa Rica. I love indigenous momentos!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Costa Rica - Hotel Arenal Manoa

As we neared the town of Fortuna we were given welcome news. The peak of the volcano, which has  only a 30% chance of being seen due to cloud cover on any given day, was unobscured. It loomed majestically over the surrounding landscape. Small roads led us to our home for the next 2 nights. Hotel Arenal Manoa is a collection of semi detached bungalows set among beautifully landscaped grounds. Scores of birds flitted across the lawns adding thier brilliant colors to the hues of the multitute of flowers and tropical plants. The massive volcanic mountain kept an ever prevelant presense over the resort. Each room contained a small terrace with a view of the geological wonder. As we neared the walkway to our room two small black birds, their breasts bright red, flew out of the bushes as if welcoming us to this lovely spot.

Each commodius bathroom contained a skylight with a planter beneath, which, in our case, showcased two large philadendrons. The dining room was an open air pavilion allowing the sounds of the surrounding forest, birdcalls, frogs, the occasional bark of howling monkeys and the gentle gurgle of the small river which runs along one side of the resort, flow through.

The next morning the view of the volcano was crystal clear. Steam escaped from it's peak. Perfectly centered in the open side of the pavillion we watched it as we ate breakfast knowing that this was, almost assuredly, a once in a lifetime experience.

As we returned to the room a pair of parrots flew overhead. Two tiny blue birds landed on a bush, one finding a small springy branch where he bounced happily up and down before the pair flew off.

Costa Rica - It's Called a Rain Forest For a Reason Dummy

Due to a large breast cancer walk Sunday morning we were to miss our San Jose city tour and headed directly to the day's main activity, a gondola ride through a primary rainforest. Modest homes, some gothic in nature reminiscent of New Orleans trademark shotgun houses lined the back streets we took out of the city. As we moved further out the landscape became more industrial.  Auto workshops and dealerships became prevalent, razor wire ubiquitous. Further still we passed a hillside tangle of shacks pieced together by the poorest and most desperate of the nation's citizens from salvaged scraps of corrugated sheet metal. The scene outside the bus window changed to farms utilizing the rich soil and the heavy precipitation, mixed with almost impossibly lush natural vegetation. Huge fern fronds protruded from walls of green punctuated by bright splashes of tropical flowers. The rich green flowed down mountainsides into deep valleys. The tallest of the trees soared above the mountains crests. Going through the only tunnel in Costa Rica we enter Braulio Carrillo National Park. We cross a bridge over the "Muddy River". Named for it's dark brown color it is actually a rich stew of minerals gathered from the nearby volcanoes.

We entered the private reserve where the gondolas that would take us through the rain forest are located. As we near the loading platforms it begins to rain, and rain, and rain, after all it's called a rain forest for a reason. Despite the sodden conditions the ride is extraordinary. The forest contains layer upon layer of growth. Vines climb up the towering trees. Aerial plants send roots to the green forest floor beneath. Orchids and bromeliads fill the branches. We, and everything we had with us got soaked despite our rain pouches purchased specifically for this trip. Our camera is ruined. Thankfully my husband had the foresight to buy insurance when he purchased it. Our phones would suffice for the remainder of the trip.

Back on the ground we slogged along a trail in the unrelenting rain. We saw tiny pit vipers curled in the underbrush. Diminutive bats napped under broad leaves they chew in a particular way to form a protective tent as shelter against the soggy elements. A poison frog the size of a dime displayed it bright red body with what seemed like a self assured sense of pride. A pair of parrots flew overhead announcing their presence with their loud call. Our guide is remarkably knowledgeable, almost childlike in his joy of the interlocking intricacies of nature. You could tell he was one who loved his work.

A group of very wet people boarded the bus for the ride to our next hotel. Enroute our guide announces that we are ahead of schedule and will have 30 minutes in the town of Fortuna located near the foot of Arenal, Costa Rica's iconic volcano. My husband and I realize, as we roamed through the shops that surrounded the main square, that our rooms at the hotel are probably not ready so the guide had to come up with a way to kill time. It is a most pleasant act of murder. We purchased Christmas ornaments that will serve as seasonal mementos each year of our adventure.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Costa Rica - Fractured Translations

On several occasions I found unintentional humor in the Spanish to English translations on the signs in Costa Rica. Two of my favorites were by the pool at our first hotel.

Number one instructed us to not "introduce" glass items to the pool area. Glass item, meet pool area, pool area, meet glass item. Be kind, she just got out of a bad relationship and is very fragile.

Number two, "no swimming in clothes allowed". Nowhere in the pretour guidebook did it mention that this was a nudist resort. Believe me, I would have noticed if it had. Maybe we wouldn't have brought so much stuff with us.

Costa Rica - A Cloud Forest, A Lagoon & Then Coffee

In the same area as the volcano there is a trail which leads back to a secluded lagoon. The trail wove through a dense tropical cloud forest. Along the way the sun's rays cut through the thick foliage resembling gauze curtains. The trail was quite steep and coupled with the high elevation our breathing became heavy. My husband described it as "football breath". Orchids and bromeliads clung to the trees.

The path was somewhat crowded that day. Not only several people from our tour but a loud group of young adults speaking a mixture of English and Spanish shared the trail with us. Our efforts were rewarded by the sight of the beautiful lagoon surrounded buy the thick forest laid out below us. Birds could be heard but not seen. An occasional butterfly flitted by as we hiked along.

Returning to the bus we continued on to that day's lunch. The restaurant clung to a ridge, it's open air dining room sporting an expansive view of what seemed to be half the country. It was accessed by a drive requiring a tight turn off the main road. Our bus drivers expertise was evidenced by his managing to make the turn without striking the handsome, hunky, tattooed, barechested boy standing along the edge of the drive texting. Roosters crowed and more butterflies fluttered from bush to bush in the garden below us.

Our last stop of the day was a miniature coffee plantation. We were first given an adequate amount of time to sample several coffees before deciding which of the tasty brews to purchase. This was followed by a wildly humorous description of the process of coffee production from seedling to cup. Two men, one of whom redefined the term silly, provided us with more information than I ever thought existed about my morning beverage of choice.

Enroute to the plantation we met with a fierce storm. Lightening flashed in the afternoon sky followed by the boom of thunder. The deluge made all of us grateful that we were in the dry confines of the bus. Water spewed from drainspouts and poured down the gutters of the streets. It was the first of many storms we were to encounter on this trip. Costa Rica receives over 100, in some areas 200, inches of rain a year. Excellent for coffee growing, inconvenient for tourists. A large tree was blown over by the storm necessitating a snaking crawl through small side streets by our rather large bus.   

The first of several early morning luggage pickup and departure times meant my repacking us prior to dinner. I was a model of efficiency making a detailed list of what I had packed where. The only challenge was remembering where I had packed the list. We dined as soon as the restaurant opened then retired to our room falling asleep to the sounds of college football, dreaming of our 5:30 wake up call the next morning.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Costa Rica - Our First Volcano

We set out in our tour bus for Poas volcano. Along the way, traveling through lush tropical foliage, our guide treated us to a multitude of facts and figures about Costa Rica. A country of 5 million people, 65% of them live in a single valley in and around the nation's capitol. They are a very eco- conscious nation. Everything possible is recycled, even cattle waste, which is converted into an energy source. The volcano formed mountain ranges are protected zones to help keep the air and water of the entire country as pure as possible. Residents that leave portions of their property in it's natural state are compensated by the government for doing so.

A special, unexpected moment was provided by a man driving his oxcart along the road we were using. The hand painted, one of a kind, painted wood yoke around the beasts necks was a beautiful example of the nations folk art.

At an elevation of close to 9000 feet there is only a 30% chance of the volcano's crater being visible due to constant fog and could cover. An eruption 2 weeks before had closed the volcano to visitors all together. It had reopened only 2 days prior to our arrival.

The day was clear, the sky a beautiful blue. Our guide instructed us that if the current conditions held when we arrived at the site we should get to the crater's edge as quickly as possible to take advantage of the rare chance to see into the volcano. We raced the short distance from the parking lot to the crater. The crater was presented to us in stunning clarity. The jagged rock walls surrounding the pool of gray magma were a kaleidoscope of colors created by the chemicals emitted by the volcano. It reminded me of the sights I had experienced in Yellowstone. A column of steam arose from the seemingly impossibly hot pool. A gentleman next to me told me that the clouds had cleared just 10 minutes before we had arrived. Along one wall of the pool a section of rock looked as if it had been stained a bright red. He explained to me that that was not the color of the rock, rather it was superheated by the hot liquid it helped contained and glowed red hot.The sight lasted no more than 20 minutes before clouds moved in once again obscuring this marvel of nature.

We left the crater felling incredibly fortunate to have experienced the seldom seen sight. Somedays I am a Lucky Traveler indeed! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Costa Rica - A Few Words on Voyuerism and Getting Busted

Due to the early hour of our flight a short, slight snooze became a necessity by late afternoon that first day. My husband bursts into the room mid nap to announce that there is a formal affair taking place at the hotel that evening. He had just had to, through gestures, inform a young girl wearing, as he put it, "A green sequined mermaid dress" that her tag was hanging out. We shortly discovered that we had a perfect bird's eye view of the guests arriving for what we later learned, through piecing together information from several different sources, was a college graduation celebration ball. It became a large part of our evenings entertainment. We pointed an giggled, making snarky comments about the formally attired celebrants.

What we failed to take into account was that the lights in our hotel room left us plainly visible to the people below. This fact was brought home to us when three cute latino boys, dressed in suits and ties, looked up at us, smiled and gave us a thumbs up.

Costa Rica - Our First Look

The wide arcing descent of the plane treats us to an expansive view of the countryside below. Mud brown rivers rafted through a lush landscape of forest green. In the distance the faint outline of the shore of the ocean can be seen. There were small patches of farms, their fields forming orderly lines which contrast with the disorder of the natural vegetation.

Small towns gave way to more developed areas as we get closer to the capitol of San Jose. The plane nears the ground and neighborhoods of tin roof houses appear which seemed to surround the airport. There were green mountains nearby, others farther off.

An uneventful trip through immigration was followed by an equally uneventful trip through customs. Then we entered the pandemonium outside the airport. A mob of taxi drivers shouted and jostled for fares. Whistles blow, scores of people carry signs bearing the names of arriving passengers. It reminded me of the train boarding sequence in "Murder on the Orient Express". We somehow managed through the mayhem to locate the Caravan representative who directed us to  holding area to await the arrival of the rest of our group. We than sat, cooling our heels in the heat as singly and in groups our fellows of the next several days assembled. A roar arose from the taxi drivers as two, apparently spurious types, were led away by the police. The sky grew increasingly overcast, as it did every afternoon thereafter, cooling things down considerably.

The bus which was to take us to the hotel pulled up and we were driven through an area which might be most kindly referred to as industrial, to the hotel where we would be spending our first two nights. The portion of the city we could see from the windows of the hotel seemed dominated by nondescript poured concrete highrises. The one structure of note is a solid yet somehow playful and whimsical stadium. It's design seemed to be influenced by the work of Frank Ghery, architect of Los Angeles Symphony Hall and Chicago's Millennium Park bandshell. We later learn that it was a gift to the city from China. With this in mind my Christmas wish this year is to get on China's gift list.

Costa Rica or Bust - 3 a.m. Chicago Time

I was headed away from my home in a cab at 3 a.m.  Being in a cab at that hour wasn't new to me. I had been in a taxi at 3 a.m. scores of times over the course of my life. However, these trips were generally heading to my home, or someone elses, not headed away from it. It just didn't seem right somehow.

Costa Rica, my husband had been pestering me about it for some years. I would play on the Internet, poking, around, looking at this and that, yet never really focus. I would read Smithsonian magazine and peruse the ads in the back, yet never really focus. Then our tax returns came in, our financial situation, by our standards, was fairly stable and one day we decided "Let's just do this damn thing before the price goes up". So tours were booked, flight plans made and we were headed to the airport to catch a 5:15 flight to Fort Lauderdale then on to a connecting flight which would take us on to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dollars and Scents

It seems these days that if we are told someone is a star and they are put on stage with enough back up dancers to make a Broadway producer green with envy people accept the performer as a star. This appears to hold true even if the performer in question is nearly or completely talentless. Put on stage alone this absence would be obvious, but, distract the audience with glitz, glam and occasionally pyrotechnics and this talent deficiency disappears.

The performer than uses the cynical, media created fame to launch a clothing line, promote make up, sell cars or other commodities and, for some, market their own "signature" fragrance, soon available at a department store, Walgreen's or CVS near you. I  think back to Joni Mitchell, with just her, her remarkable songwriting skills, her voice and her guitar. Janis Joplin, the ravaged, soulful voice backed up by a revolving door of stoned musicians. The Beatles or The Who, English lads with instruments they actually played. To be fair Keith Moon did not play the drums so much as beat the crap out of them on a routine basis. The thought of them, as well as any number of other rock musicians of the past, indulging in the crass commercialism practiced today is virtually unimaginable. Although their style sense may have been copied by seemingly countless fans they were not promoted by the musicians themselves. They were too busy making music, experimenting with sound, being true creative artists.

Not that they were completely unconcerned about money. The producers of the Woodstock festival tell a story of how 2 of Saturday night's headline bands were not going to play unless paid with a certified check. It was clear at that time to the band's managers that the festival promoters had no cash to pay the performers. They managed to get the check,  using a helicopter to ferry their banker to the bank as the roads were completely blocked by the cars of festival goers and the bands performed. Eventually the legendary festival did make a profit due to the income from album sales and the release of the landmark movie, but times were apparently tight that August weekend in New York.

But let us return our attention back to the musical money whores of today. So far as scents go we probably have Liz Taylor and her "White Diamonds" perfume to blame, although I am perhaps willing to give her a pass since she was, after all, Elizabeth Taylor. Today celebrity scents seem ubiquitous. A coworker told me that on a recent trip to North Carolina he walked into a chain drug store and found himself confronted with an entire wall of celebrity scents. Beyonce has a scent, Cher has a scent, Miley Cyrus has a scent. This last one puzzles me. What would a Miley Cyrus scent be? Perhaps a mixture of the subtle aromas of hay seed and a yeast infection? Justin Bieber has a scent. Does it smell like pot? Would I spend money to douse myself in a smell I spent a large part of my teenage years attempting to cover up?

There are still performers of substance. Paloma Faith, Pixie Lott or 2 Cellos come to mind. Several years ago I fell in love with the elegant, slightly world weary album made by Elton John and Leon Russell. Excepting of course Mr. John and Mr. Russell, if their names ever became big enough to market a scent would they? Or would they, like musicians of the past, be content with enriching our lives with quality music, while we, smelling like ourselves, relax and enjoy.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Making My Way

I have known over the years a number of gay men who came to understand and accept their sexuality latter in life than I. Many have children, sometimes, in the  case of men my age, grandchildren. I sometimes wonder what my own life would have been like had I not experienced the discovery of my sexual orientation in my late teens. Certainly some of the choices I made would have been different. Some of these decisions, many of which would be considered risky, if not foolhardy, by less adventuresome individuals than I were influenced by the knowledge that I was responsible for no one but my self. The decision to move to Chicago without out a job or contacts here, the decision to open my own business, perhaps even the decision to eshew a college education might have never been made had I not been traveling a road on my own.

College, at the time during which I would have gone, was unaffordable for me, student loans being nonexistent at the time. Although later I had jobs that had college class tuition reimbursement plans I saw no point in them. They, during that time, would have done nothing to advance me personally or professionally. I was free to pursue the existence of a club kid, a bare sustenance, freewheeling lifestyle, because there was just me. Having no wife, no children, no responsibilities other that keeping the rent paid and lights on allowed me to spend my early adult years playful and financially carefree.

I almost certainly would never have pulled up stakes and moved to Chicago to take a stab at a career in the theatre if I had had the responsibility of a family. My plans did not bear fruit, I knew that was a possibility at the time, but, again, because my responsibilities began and ended with myself I could make a decision some might consider ill thought out. I, however, had I not taken the chance, would have experienced regret, a nagging question of  "what if I", something I have always vowed to avoid.

I might have never embarked on the path of business owner. Run on a shoestring, undercapitalized, the venture left me deep in debt and near bankruptcy. Again, I refused to accept "what if I". I took the chance because I had responsibility for no one but myself.

People have sometimes asked, "Didn't you want children?" As far back as I can remember I never considered it. Some people, including gay men and women, desire the traditional home and family. I have a home. It is modest in size and 9 floors above the street. I have a family, my partner and our family of friends, relations and in laws. I have had, off and on, children in my life. Nieces, nephews and the children of friends. My life has been rich, satisfying and full of adventure. Certainly nontraditional, not right for everyone, but right for me.

Sometimes I do ponder "what if I" had chosen a more traditional path. It is the only time I ask myself that question.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Trivial Pursuits - A Short History of Men's Swim Wear

Summer, although lackluster this year, was upon me and I found myself frequenting the beach hanging out with the friends I have acquired there over the years. There is, in Chicago,a gay beach. Even though not officially designated as such, gay men are the predominant species there. Over the years we have managed to maintain our hold on this stretch of land. One way we have accomplished this is our choice of swim and sun wear. Bikinis and speedos abound. Sometimes even a thong or g string are on display. Sometimes these are sported by men with the appropriate physical attributes to suit this brief attire, sometimes not. I recall on the gay cruise on which I embarked and which sparked the formation of my blog, one particular man. He had to paraphrase Sondheim "A pauch and a pouch and a pension". He seemed to be always on the deck by the pool clad in a speedo style suit, his ample belly hanging over it's drawstring waist stretching it to it's maximum capacity. I found myself on that trip thinking that, although I admired his moxie, I did not particularly wish to see his moxie.

The men whose company I keep at the beach tend to be of my vintage. Some a bit older, some a bit younger. More that one has a past which includes children. It is always interesting to me to encounter men like these as I have been aware and open with my sexuality since the age of 17. We have discussed life experience, politics and theatre. We share thoughts and exchange ideas. I like to thing that at times we resemble a somewhat sandy Algonquin Round Table. One of the subjects we have discussed, presumably because the inspiration lies splayed about on the sand around us, is the evolution of men's "bathing attire."

In the early years of the 20th century tans were considered unfashionable bordering on vulgar. They suggested that one worked outdoors, a most ungenteel aspiration. Beach photos from that era show the women in long skirts, long sleeve blouses and hats designed to preserve their almost vampire like complexions. Men, when they were so bold as to don the swim suits of the day, clad themselves in modified tank suits. Although some of the racier styles bared the arms and shoulders, others had short sleeves and pants that came almost, if not below, the knees. In many of these photos this look is complemented by a boater as men were obliged, whenever practical, to wear a hat when out of doors; which was courteously removed when coming inside. As time passed the legs became shorter and bared arms became the norm. By the 30's as swimming developed into more of a sport, the chest was also bared and the brief style of bathing suit was born which allowed greater freedom of movement. These early suits were made of wool which was not only uncomfortably hot and itchy but also sagged and became heavy when wet.

As science evolved rubber was incorporated with other fabrics which not only made the suits more comfortable but also allowed a more tight fitting and sleeker silhouette. Nylon spurred development of lighter weight suits. The basic box cut style remained as a main stay of men's swim wear for several decades.

The 70's issued in the age of the speedo. Thanks to the miracle of spandex, tight, brief, form fitting swim suits could be spied on nearly every beach and around every pool in America. Short shorts and skimpy, sometimes even see through mesh, shirts were also in fashion as men appeared to revel in revealing the ultra thin physiques in vogue during that decade.

In the 80's, as more muscular bodies came into fashion, swim wear remained, thankfully, on the small side. One even encountered the occasional "Greek" or "Rio back" bikini. Street and club wear of the time clung to the new gym built bodies revealing every hard earned ripple and bulge. In one James Bond movie of the period the ubertall, uberblond villain sported, on his uberdefined swimmer's body, the tiniest of bright blue bikinis. This style continued into the 90's.

Then, for a reason I've never understood, a new male modesty began to take over. The bikini and boxcut gave way to the board short, long, almost to the knee and almost completely useless for swimming. Even the speedos, which made the Summer Olympics such a tantalizing feast of eye candy, were replaced with body covering "shark suits", which, although, giving the swimmer greater speed, made the observation of the swimmer lose much of it's allure. We were left with only the long rise, small, snug suits worn by divers and water polo players. The legs of wrestling singlets were lenghtened, against the objections of the wrestlers themselves who said the shorter legs were better suited to their sport.

This modesty has become enforced in certain situations. A friend of ours was informed at a water park that his suit was inappropriate. They made wear board shorts they kept on hand for scantily clad miscreants such as he. The women, meanwhile, slid down the water slides in the skimpiest suits imaginable. Men still daring to were speedos are called a variety of unflattering names.

By contrast, as men's beachwear has begun to cover more and more over the last 2 decades, the posing suits worn by competitive bodybuilders have grown smaller and smaller. Some are almost at the male stripper g string level. I have heard that in some European competitions, Europeans have always been less body phobic that Americans, posing suits have been done away with altogether, putting  all of the gym built "assets" of the participants on full display.

Perhaps someday the pendulum will swing back and the heterosexual American male will once again move towards more revealing, and frankly, for swimming, more practical trunks. Then again, with the burgeoning obesity crisis in the U.S., some things might best be left as they are.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rene Magritte Exhibit - The Aftemath

I left the exhibition my mind reeling with surrealism. I stopped in to pay a visit to Edward Hopper's "The Nighthawks", one of my favorite works in the Art Institutes's collection. I paused, allowing myself to be drawn into it's ambiguity. It does not tell a story so much as lets the viewer's imagination create it's own. Who are these people, captured in the harsh glare of the diner's lights? They seem almost to inhabit a world within a world, a place apart from the dark, deserted street outside. The only life depicted revolves around that counter.. Each of the characters has a back story, a life outside of this snapshot of time, yet we can only guess at what those are.

I gazed out a window at the sculpture court a floor below. My mind went back to my annual summer lunches there with my dear, late friend Kathryn. My theatre buddy, my occasional financial savior, as close a kindred spirit as one could ever be lucky enough to find. I remember our adventures together, our wide ranging conversations, sometimes serious, sometimes silly. I recall, after a wine spiced lunch, how she loudly proclaimed in a gallery filled with medieval crucifixes, "There's a penis in this picture", which, indeed the subliminally was. We began to survey the other works, seeing penises in several of the religious paintings displayed. I remember her undeserved end, violent and untimely. I hope her soul has found the rest and peace it deserves.

Leaving the museum I phone my friend in Phoenix, knowing he would most likely answer. I explained that I needed to reconnect with reality after the surreal exhibition. We talk for a bit. He is an excellent and dependable touchstone, solid, witty and intelligent. I could not hope for more in a partner for my friend of two decades. They have both become to me like brothers.

Even on this cool, cloudy day tourist throng Chicago's Millennium Park. They marvel at the flowing lines of the Frank Gehry designed bandshell and cluster around the reflective sculpture "Cloudgate", affectionately known as "The Bean". I head back to my neighborhood enjoying the opportunities my life in Chicago affords me. They are a privilege earned by living in the city I call home.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Rene Magritte Exhibit - The Main Event

My first stop, prior to the main attraction, were the galleries showcasing works on paper. The pieces in these galleries are rotated on a regular basis due to the fragile nature of the art. Most of the works are part of the Art Institutes's vast collection. Sometimes the exhibits can illuminate the work of familiar artists. For instance a quick sketch in pencil or charcoal of a landscape or figure, the artist may have used these as studies for later, more well known works. Sometimes they appear as exercises with the artist exploring and fine tuning line or shading, ground work of the craft of art, much like the scales performed by musicians and singers.

On display were a collection of Mexican prints. Tranquil scenes of village life were mixed with pieces containing political themes, some with violent overtones. They brought to mind my visit to the Diego Rivera murals in the city hall of Mexico City. Like those they represented the mixture of  the history and anger of the Mexican people turning to pride in the act of  freeing themselves from colonialism and establishing their socialist republic.

I moved on to the Magritte exhibit. He was an artist whom I was aware of, having seen several examples of his work over the years, yet not terribly familiar with. The exhibit focused on his work between the years of 1926 to 1938. Magritte's aim was to depict, through his art, the world of dreams. The galleries were dimly lit which accentuated the dreamlike images presented.

I soon came across a piece, "The Morning of Light", I have previously seen at the Menil Collection in Houston. It is an example of how a perception of a piece can be altered by it's setting. Standing alone I saw it as merely an example of surrealism; surrounded by other works by this unique artist it's dreamlike quality became apparent. The dream imagery continued as I moved through the exhibit. Legs replace heads, trees grow upside down, disembodied limbs grasped one another almost as if they were dancing. In one painting, an artist, a self portrait of Magritte, appears to be painting his nude life model, creating her arm with his brush and pallet. The life model is a portrait of his wife. In one slightly disturbing painting, not helped at all by it's title, "Rape", a woman's nude torso forms a face.

Characters with cartoon bubbles coming out of their mouths reminded me of the later work of Lichtenstein and the superimposed words in the silent German expressionistic film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". In one work cartoon bubbles come out of a shotgun barrel containing the French words for sword (sabre) and horse (cheval). One piece features a seated portrait of a man, his head and torso depicted as a birdcage. In a group of collages figures are cut from pieces of sheet music. A nude portrait of a woman portrays the subject as part flesh, part wood.

There is wit exhibited in some works. A realistic depiction of a pipe has the words "This is not a pipe" painted, in French, underneath it. Magritte explained, "You cannot smoke it, therefore it is not a pipe." in "Clairvoyance" Magritte, in another self portrait, appears to be drawing a bird from life yet the model on the table is an egg.

The expert vision of the curators is shown not only in the dimly lit galleries but also in the area devoted to prints and illustrations. There the works are displayed, inexplicably,  in cases that resemble packing crates. They allude to the misplaced, mangled realism realized by the artist.

Two works in particular reveal a tender nature to Magritte's creative mind. In one sleigh bells float in a cloudy sky. In another a nude bust, trombone and chair, all painted a gauzy white, float above a landscape. Both are meant to evoke memories of the childhood pastime of lying on one's back creating in our imaginations scenes and familiar forms from the clouds that pass by overhead.

The exhibition closes with a well know work from the Art Institutes's collection titled "Time Transfixed" in which a steam engine appears to be emerging from a fireplace. As in many artworks   x-rays revealed that the canvas for this painting was reused by Magritte. A different, earlier work lies underneath it.

As I mentioned I was aware of, but not familiar with, the work of Magritte. This, truly once in a lifetime opportunity to experience this much of his work at one time gave me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for, this unique and unconventional artist.


A Rene Magritte Exhibit - Getting There

At least our winter weather had been consistent, bitter cold occasionally interrupted by massive amounts of snow. Our summer, by contrast, seemed to have trouble making a decision. Mid eighties, upper eighties, pouring rain, upper sixties. So, I found myself with a day off which featured gray skies and cool temperatures. A new exhibit on the work of Rene Magritte had opened at the Art Institute. Even though it was running through a portion of the fall I decided that day would be a good a day as any to pay it a visit. After all, weather being what it was, it's not like I was going to the beach.

On public transportation you are treated to bits and pieces of a multitude of stories. The hearse and cars with their orange funeral banners lined up in front of the Greek Orthodox church. The cute boy with the trendy long sideburns in a suit and tie, the collar of his shirt a little too large. Where was he going so dressed up on a Tuesday in mid morning? There was the overburdened young man in the baseball cap moving down the sidewalk, groceries in each hand, backpack on his back, his baseball jersey with it's long sleeves pushed up stretched tight across his strong chest. Joggers and bikers along the lakefront trails, showing more fortitude than I, braving the elements on that exceptionally cool and overcast summer day.

Sets of stadium chairs painted by various artists, this summer's public art exhibit, a tradition begun with a display of decorated fiberglass cows almost a decade ago, line Michigan Avenue. One of the drawbridges that cross the Chicago river is up to allow construction of another portion of the riverwalk, a years long project being completed in a seemingly endless number of stages. Stepping off the bus I was enveloped by the noise of the city. Cars, trucks and jackhammers, the hum of a thousand conversations. In a restaurant a waiter with a patch of white in one of his dark eyebrows takes as order. I walk towards my destination sharing the sidewalk with office workers and tourists on this unseasonably cool, cloudy day.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Smell This Dear...Has This Theatre Gone Bad?

Several years ago during the Tony awards Steve Martin did a bit about how to behave when going backstage to see a friend after they have appeared in a production that stinks worse than a combination of wet cat and old cheese. Despite my love for theatre and the theatre going experience the medium is capable of creating some pieces which are, to be kind, unredeemable.

This hard lesson was learned in my teens during a jaw dropingly horrible production of Shakespeare's "Richard the Third" presented by the Tony winning, highly respected American Conservatory Theatre based in San Francisco. Richard's hump was so enormous it resembled a scale model of Mt. Everest and the costumes, heavily reliant on studded black leather, appeared to have been inspired by the notorious nocturnal activities of the play's director the aptly named William Ball. In the final moments of the play our S & M fetish clad Richard runs to the front of the stage and recites the famous lines "A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse." Behind him appears the plays "good guy" clad in nothing but a pair of white tights, one leg bent, his powerful rippling arms curled before him in imitation of a horse reared up on it's hind legs. Inappropriate but understandable laughter filled the theatre. Later the assumption around town was that the strikingly handsome large muscleboy in the white tights, new to the acting company, was the latest addition to the director's offstage stable of studly stallions.

There are a number of other examples. After sitting through the theatrical abomination of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Blvd." I managed to stammer out, as my partner and friend gushed about it, "The set was nice."

I am not above leaving at intermission if I feel that my time is being wasted. "The Graduate" lost my interest after the infamous full frontal nudity sequence, which was dimly lit and occurs quite early, not to mention gratuitously, in the play. So to, did I leave and catch a bus home after the overlong tedious first act of the Goodman Theatres production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean". By intermission it had run a full hour and 45 minutes. Unashamed, I threw in the towel, feeling I had given it the "old college try".

There is one particular playwright however who so far in my experience almost guarantees a grueling night in the theatre. Regina Taylor is an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre. Having success early in her carrear as an actress, garnering a Golden Globe award and two Emmy nominations, she decided to turn her attention to playwriting. To date I have seen, at least in part, 3 of her works. First off, were she not a black woman, her plays would seem almost offensively racist, filled as they are with black stereotypes. If this is a case of Ms. Taylor writing what she knows perhaps she needs to step out of her comfort zone. The one piece I have seen in it's entirety, "Crowns", kept me in my seat only because of the gospel music infused through it. There was also no intermission, therefore no opportunity to make an inconspicuous escape. It, like Chinese food, was o.k. while it lasted but left little behind afterward. Then there were the series of 3 interconnected one acts. All three used the same set which was so well executed that the audience members were commenting on it before the house lights dimmed as there was no curtain and the set was in full view. After the first of the one acts I was unimpressed but not yet defeated. After the second I got on the train and headed home. First, you need to have 3 hours worth of things to say to expect an audience to stick with you for 3 hours. Second, she had, somewhat miraculously, managed to make the themes of rape and incest tedious and boring.

Next season one of the Goodman's productions is written and directed by Ms. Taylor. Generally speaking the words "written and directed by" are harbingers of doom, unless the names that follow are the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks or in the case of the film "Nine to Five" the late Colin Higgins. Still, ever the eternal optimist, and since I have already paid for the ticket, I shall attend and see how far I get.

Yet it was during my first experience with this playwright when life took on comic overtones almost worthy of the stage. My seat, for reasons that escape now, had been moved closer to the stage for this performance. Often this is a good thing, on this occasion, not so much. The play was a retelling of Chekhov's "The Seagull", set inexplicably among the people of the Gullah culture on the islands off of North Carolina. It was, to be kind, completely unredeemable. The rambling script and poor acting were mixed with a lame, uninspired set and costumes that made each member of the cast look as if they had gained 10 pounds between the final fitting and the opening performance. To fix the play one would have had to wipe the slate clean, then burn the slate to ash.

There is a scene in the original movie version of "The Producers" which scans the audience as they watch the musical number "Springtime for Hitler". Their faces reflect a mixture of shock, disbelief and disgust. As I looked down the row of seats next to me I beheld expressions on the faces of my fellow theatregoers which greatly resembled those of the theatregoers in the movie. One fellow had fallen asleep, I considered him fortunate.

By intermission I decided I had suffered enough and rose from my seat to leave the theatre. As I was about to exit the lobby I turned around. It looked as if someone had yelled "Fire!" People were stampeding towards the doors. Outside a block long line of cabs stood waiting. I imagined the call that had gone out. "Bomb at the Goodman. Please report to Dearborn Street at once to assist in the evacuation."

One of Chicago's major newspapers listed the play as "recommended". This led me to assume one of two things. Either the critic did not wish to be viewed as a misogynistic racist for giving a negative review to a play written by a black woman, or they had not actually seen the play they were paid to review.

Some time later while chatting with a customer at the jewelry counter where I worked at the time the subject of the play came up. When I asked her "So you saw it?" She replied, "I saw part of it." 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Right or Wrong

A city in Colorado, in recognition of Gay Pride Month, replaced the POW flag outside one of it's civic buildings with a rainbow flag. Veteran's groups were up in arms proclaiming that the removal of the POW flag violated their "rights". To quell the disturbance the POW flag was moved to another civic building where it was flown, for the month of June, directly beneath the U.S. flag. I have heard religious groups state that the legalization of same sex marriage violates their "rights" as Christians. Some speak of the "rights" of illegal immigrants. The notion that those who have broken the law to immigrate have legal rights to stay is akin to the nonsense voiced by the King, Queen and others in "Alice in Wonderland".

There are rights granted to citizens in the U.S. constitution. Among these the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", excepting, of course, the slaves owned by the founding fathers, but that is a story for another day. We are granted the "right to bear arms". What many seem to forget is that this right was given "in order to maintain a militia". Citizen militias are no longer necessary. It is time for the granting of the right to bear arms to be revisited. This "right" results in handgun deaths in the U.S. numbering in the tens of thousands. In other countries the number is counted in the dozens.

There are scores of laws and amendments granting and defining various rights. Many of these would be unnecessary if we were to focus on one simple, yet apparently hard to master concept, respect. Laws determining the right to a minimum wage would not be needed if corporations and business owners respected the work and dignity of their employees. Some complain of gays desiring "special rights". We merely ask for equal rights. We respect your right to marry who you please and not to have your home or employment threatened by an integral element of your nature. Our request is that those who oppose this for us do the same. As with the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 60's if discrimination was not initially written or implied in the law an amendment to the law banning it would not be necessary.

With immigration the culture, civil procedure and laws of the country one wishes to move to needs to be respected. Those who break the laws fail to respect those that went through the proper channels to immigrate. While pride in ones native culture can be celebrated one also needs to respect the culture in which they have chosen to live. Were I to make the choice to move outside the U.S. I would learn the common language and not behave in a manner that would offend the place and people where I would chose to settle. I would treat my host with respect.

We will not agree, that is outside the basics of human nature. However we can respect one another. I do not request that you agree with or understand my views, opinions or lifestyle, that too goes against the sometimes headstrong nature of the human being. I do ask that my views, if they differ from yours, and do not cause harm to others, be respected, as I, if your views do not cause harm to others, will respect yours. Your "rights" do not include denying others that which you possess. We share the earth. On occasion, as some move forward within the boundaries of their self  involved bubble, they  seem to forget that.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Curse of Civic Duty

In my mail was the only thing I dread more than my post Christmas credit card bill, a jury summons. It was for a period of time when I would be visiting friends in Texas. I called and got a 3 month delay. When the new summons came it was for a courthouse whose location would require me to travel 2 plus hours EACH WAY!!!The other problem was that the courthouse is located in a dangerous, crime ridden area. It was also not outside the realm of possibility that I would be the only person of, well, shall we say Western European ancestry for miles in any direction. I called and got a change of venue. That was why, on an overcast Wednesday, when I would normally be attired in my black suit, dress shirt and tie, I was comfortably dressed in jeans, G star tennis shoes, a Christmas gift from my partner after I had to throw out an over worn favorite pair of foot gear and a fleece jacket picked up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Although the bus line from the train to the courthouse has a stop by my workplace, so I travel it regularly, I had never taken it past that stop. I was therefore going to head into what, for me, was virgin territory. It was  a nightmare of a public transit trip which proved Murphy's Law and took much longer than it should have. I passed by a bit of forest preserve I never knew existed and the headquarters of PEAPOD, the online grocery delivery service, finally arriving at the Skokie Courthouse, which, incidentally, should go down in architectural annals as one of the most non descript buildings in world history. Inside further blandness assaults the senses,, beige walls, beige floors and mud colored upholstered chairs which were surprisingly and thankfully comfortable. I would be spending a long amount of time in them that day.

A court employee, whose announcements sounded disturbingly like those of a flight attendant, welcomes us and introduces a video instructing us as to what we should expect during our jury service. A judge, whose delivery was so wooden I feared he would go up in flames any moment, is joined by a semi celebrity local newscaster to explain why the hell we are there and the procedures of a trial. We were then informed by the court employee/flight attendant that these is only one jury trial scheduled for that day. If we are not picked we will be dismissed. We sat, a morning talk show droned, I read.

One of the unpleasant parts of jury duty is the tedium. If I were to be released early I could return home, cook, clean, perhaps visit the gym, I could do SOMETHING! If I am picked to sit on the jury, although depending on the case that could become a multi day process, I would still be doing SOMETHING! We sat, a morning talk show droned, we waited. Except for the T.V. the place was not unlike the D.M.V.

In the one jury trial the defendant pleaded guilty, this state someone can ask for a jury trial even if one has not been scheduled for their case. We were told to amuse ourselves for an hour and a half then return. I pulled out my sandwich and snacks thinking that perhaps between them, writing, reading and my phone I could stay diverted for that length of time.

 As I walked down the hall past the doors of the courtrooms with their long glass windows my mind pondered what personal dramas were being enacted behind each one. Child custody cases, workers comp issues, perpetrators and victims of minor crimes confronting one another, maybe one neighbor suing another over their level of unneighborlylessness.The law, the search for a pat, written solution to the ills of the human race. Many of these ills are part of human nature. They cannot be tethered by the written word. They must be experienced, dealt with, learned from and moved past. Only one law should be necessary, look out for and be concerned for one another, essentially the Golden Rule of the Bible. But people and society seem more complicated than that. Our brains and emotions seem to crave the clutter of detail.

A father and daughter team of lawyers entered the lunchroom discussing various cases, loudly. I would have loved to seek solace in the forest preserve across the street but I could see no trail head and a busy road, sans stoplights, created a barrier between it and me. A song from the 80's stated "nobody walks in L.A.". The same could be said about the Chicago suburbs.

I walked back through the bland, beige interior. Couldn't they at least hang a painting or two? Create a high school mural competition. Allow the taggers of our subway system access to ply their craft? Anything would help!

After our break we returned to the waiting room. I had bought a book in January in anticipation of this day, "A Single Man" by Christopher Isherwood. An early openly gay author he wrote "The Berlin Stories" which was adapted for the stage into "I Am A Camera" which was the basis for the musical "Cabaret". The relative quiet of the room was a good venue for poring through Isherwood's dense, imagery filled prose.

Finally we were told that all cases on the docket that day had been settled and we were free to go. It was my good fortune to find a bus idling, waiting to depart as I left the building. Settling into my seat I reflected on the day. It wasn't a total waste, I got a good read in.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Celebration of Celebrity

I work for a large, well known department store chain. To generate traffic when promoting a  product stores will, on occasion, host personal appearances of the designers or celebrities associated with them. These are known in the business by the abbreviation P.A.s.

So it happened that on a Wednesday morning people lined up to spend a few seconds of their lives and if very fortunate have a picture taken with one of the male dancers from the disturbingly popular program "Dancing With the Stars". Two women drive from St Louis, a 5 hour trip each way, and stayed overnight in a hotel, to ensure they would be one of the first in line for this experience. They arrived 2 hours prior to the scheduled start time of the appearance waiting with great anticipation as a queue formed behind them. The crowd was overwhelmingly female as the man is supposed to possess a certain sex appeal, which, as an aside, is completely lost on me. He had attached his name to a line of men's jewelry which I'm fairly certain he had little or no involvement in the designing of. He was clearly attempting to garner as much cash as he could before being condemned to trading on his former fame by opening a chain of ballroom dancing schools. One can imagine him in late middle age, still orange from a fresh spray tan, shirt unbuttoned to reveal a shaved, somewhat sagging chest, twirling suburban housewives about a linoleum floor in a strip mall storefront.

Slowly the dancers "people" filed in. These included handlers, including one exceptionally thin, elderly man in a black suit, moccasins and no socks, whose duties I never could quite pinpoint, as well as sound techs and managers. I found myself thinking the president of the United States travels with a smaller entourage. Local new reporters and cameramen appeared, determined to get a few words from our visitor and obtain a decent piece of video of this historic, news worthy event.

A squeal arose from the horde of women as the man of the hour appeared. Unshaven, his hair uncombed, it looked as if he had rolled out of bed and donned whatever clothing was lying around his hotel room floor that morning. This lack of attention to grooming did not dampen the adoration of the, at this point, terrifying, hormonally charged crowd of women.

The line began to move forward. The jewelry that he was there to promote displayed in a case beside him received scant, if any, attention. Our "star" proceeded to sign autographs, pose for pictures and hold and kiss the babies handed to him like a politician vying for votes. I am not exaggerating, people were actually handing their offspring to him. What did they expect him to do....bless them? Occasionally he would twirl or dip a member of the assembled masses. This caused the women, who at this point I was becoming acutely embarrassed for, to scream like teenagers. With almost superhuman will power I kept myself from approaching the line and screaming "Don't you people have lives!"

As the time drew near for our pseudo-celebrity to depart there was still a line of people waiting to bask in his aura. He suggested that as he left he would hug each of the people still in line. It was at this point that I believe several of the women wet themselves.

As the disheveled gentleman and his entourage departed in what, according to eye witness reports, was a limo of almost obscene proportions, the crowd began to disburse. Obviously, none of them purchased a thing making me wonder why my employer had even sponsored such an event. As I watched them scatter a single thought came into my head, "It could have been worse. His last name could have been Kardashian."


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Things I Feel Strongly About - Income Inequality

It's been estimated that, had it kept pace with inflation since it's inception, the minimum wage in the U.S. would be $16 per hour. It has not.There are several ironies regarding this. If employees were paid this rate companies profits would not have suffered. Factoring in inflation, the costs of raw materials and labor would have remained stable. The percentage of profit companies earned would not have been diminished. Also, our battered economy would be in better shape. If lower income people made a wage that would afford them a decent standard of living they would feel freer to both spend and save. A below standard wage keeps these people in a state of grinding poverty. Every penny is spent just to maintain a roof over their head and food on the table. In many cases not even these necessities can be covered.

Vast amounts of cash in this country, controlled and owned by the wealthiest corporations and individuals, sit on the sidelines. These dollars do not circulate, they lay dormant. It is akin to a farmer storing year after year of seed in his barn while his fields lie barren. There is a line from the musical "Hello Dolly", "Money is like manure, it must be spread around encouraging young things to grow."

Perhaps taxing the wealthy is one option. The increased revenue could be used for public works projects putting people to work building bridges and roads. We would be able to develop and revitalize mass transit, which is sorely lacking in the U.S., cutting down on our use of fossil fuels. We would have the ability to research renewable and enviormentally friendly sources of power.

The far right often states that 50% of taxes are already paid by the top 20% of earners. These top earners control 85% of this country's wealth. This means that they are actually underpaying their fair share.

Some are concerned about the solvency of our Social Security system. Pensions are quickly disappearing. Without Social Security many seniors would have to work until they are physically unable to do so. First our retirement age should be raised. Age 65 is no longer what it was when the program was started. Second, the cap on earnings taxed should not be raised but eliminated entirely. Why should people, even those at poverty level, have to pay 6 3/4% of their income into a program while the wealthy, in many cases, pay 1% or even less. If the cap were eliminated and the rate lowered for all to 4 1/2% there would actually be more money coming into the program than there is at present. Another irony is that those high earners, who are more able to put away funds for their old age, get more out of the Social Security system than those that earn less, even though they pay a smaller percentage of their income into it.

In the founding papers of our country are words ensuring that all citizens have a right to "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." My request to government officials sworn to uphold those words and ideals.....GET CRACKIN! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ode to Spring 2014

There is a special shade of green that appears in spring. Lighter, seeming somehow fresher than it's darker summer hue. It is as if it lives in that moment when you first wake up in the morning and shake off the fuzziness of sleep. Perhaps this moment happens with your first sip of coffee or as the prickle of the spray from the shower touches your skin. Even as the first leaves to appear darken, preparing to do their service providing welcome shade from the hot summer days to come, this special green prevails on the new growth as the plants stretch their limbs after their long winter dormancy.

I associate summer with spotted orange lilies and Queen Anne's lace, the beige of beach sand and the blues, grays and greens of water. Spring colors are brighter. The varied and brilliant hues of tulips, butter yellow daffodils, the blossom laden branches of fruit bearing trees and the fresh color of new leaves. Their visit is not long lasting only a few short weeks. As we watch them transition we look forward to their appearance next year, signaling the end of the dark, cold days of winter and foretelling the long sunlit days of summer.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Afternoon Delight - Part Two - Macy's Annual Flower Show

I walked past the 19th century facades and jewelry showroom windows that line Wabash Avenue. Chicago's iconic El trains rumbled by on the tracks overhead. The small green heads of tulips peaked above the earth in the beds which edge the sidewalks hinting at the colorful blooms to come.

Entering the State Street Macy's is a history lesson in small victories. Marshall Field's was a name virtually synonymous with Chicago. When Macy's bought Marshall Field it was requested that, due to it's long association with the city, the Marshall Field name be, at least in part, retained. One suggestion was that for the Chicago area they could call it Marshall Field by Macy's. Macy's was unyielding. Their attitude was, we bought the store, it will be called Macy's, end of discussion. This caused bad blood among old line Chicagoans, some of which persists to this day.

The State Street store building is landmarked. It's exterior cannot be altered in any way. Hence, the bronze plaques on each corner bearing the name Marshall Field and Company remain unmolested.  The massive clocks, made famous by Norman Rockwell in an often reproduced Saturday Evening Post cover still keep passersby appraised of the time of day as they have for decades. Inside, the elevator doors retain the molded metal image of sheaves of hay, a Marshall Field trademark. Likewise the Walnut Room, the in store restaurant where during the holidays as many as 4 generations of one family can be seen at the same table sharing a meal, a cherished Christmas season tradition for some, remains unchanged in appearance. The towering Christmas tree in it's center has however become less interesting than it's predecessor's were during the Field's days.

So too has the annual Spring Flower Show changed. In years past, during Marshall Field's tenure, the tops of the fixtures on the first floor were filled with fresh flowers. The scent as one entered was wonderful and heady, demanding that the shopper deeply breath in their strong perfume. Today the show is confined to an exhibition space on the uppermost floor. This years theme was "The Secret Garden", a vague description which allowed designers a great deal of leeway when it came to the displays. A maypole was set among topiaries shaped as animals and chessmen. A floral portrait of Salvador Dali resting on a base created from shards of pottery dishes, with a pair of blue manikin legs upturned, feet in the air, left me scratching my head. So too did the upright piano surrounded by blooms. The centerpiece of the exhibition, though lovely and impressive, made even less sense. A tall white manikin wearing a gown fashioned from dried leaves spray painted bright red kept watch over the various displays. The gown's bustle and train were created using a number of various type of dried flowers, also painted red. It was a beautiful piece of workmanship which seemed, however, to have little to do with a "Secret Garden". I left the exhibition seriously underwhelmed.

As I left the store I gazed up at the venerable Tiffany designed mosaic dome which graces the interior of the landmark building. One of Chicago's hidden civic treasures it reassured me that, no matter who owns what, some things remain the same.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Afternoon Delight - Part one - The Art Institute

I had just worked a long, grueling stretch of days. With a day off and being caught up with chores and errands I decided I had earned some "me time". The Art Institute had just installed three new exhibits. Two I was interested in, the third not so much. Also the historic Macy's, nee Marshall Field, store on State Street, just a few blocks from the museum, was hosting it's annual spring flower show. I donned a new sweater I had not had the opportunity to wear yet. I had bought it on impulse. It had been marked down repeatedly and a special, generous employee discount had been added making it remarkably affordable. I made a present of one to my partner as well, albeit in a different color. It was the perfect weight for the cool, early spring day.

The late morning bus traffic seemed exceptionally heavy. One of the few remaining seats was a bench running sideways to the one which runs along the rear of the bus. The back bench is raised slightly above the level of the other seats to accommodate the buses engine, an integral part of the vehicle. On this day it was populated by a line of exceptionally tall people exacerbating my somewhat Lilliputian dimensions as I perched on my seat near them. We whizzed by lakefront parkland. My mind wandered as I thought of the bike rides I hoped to enjoy there in the coming months as the weather warmed. Our country's economic woes were evidenced by the number of large empty storefronts along Chicago's renown Michigan Avenue. Once hailed as one of the nations premier shopping destinations it's high end stores are now clogged with tourists from surrounding states visiting every one of the venues yet ultimately purchasing nothing.

I got off the bus and peered across the street at my "safe zone", my Xanadu, the classical facade of the Chicago Art Institute, one of the world's greatest repositories of art, historic furnishings and historical and artistic artifacts. I have spent many hours over the course of my life in Chicago exploring the corridors , galleries and hidden corners of this artistic treasure trove. I have my favorite spots which I visit and revisit, each time I seem to regain a portion of my soul, each time I experience something different and new.

I did not have a great interest in seeing the current exhibition, a retrospect of the contemporary, abstract artist Christopher Wool. As I moved through the galleries looking at the large scale paintings I found his work, like that of a number of his contemporaries, callus and cynical. Many pieces were black and white, some mere squiggles of paint on a bare white background resembling a building side tagged by vandals. Some graffiti does rise to the level of art, this did not. One canvas had the word FOOL  stenciled on it. The curators called it a melancholy self portrait. It seemed to me to be a comment on those who would spend grotesque amounts of money on these works. Many of the paintings are untitled. Perhaps Mr. Wool was laughing too hard as he attempted to pull his name over our eyes to come up with one.

Next on my agenda was a visit to a Renoir, a permanent piece of the museum's massive collection of Impressionist artworks. During a recent conservation project they discovered, upon removing the frame, remnants of bright red pigment that had been completely shielded from light. Further research revealed that the background of the portrait had been much more vivid than the muted shade which appears today. Apparently Renoir had used a pigment that was unstable and faded easily, not uncommon with red tones. A digital recreation of the portrait as it looked when it was new reveals a crisper image of the subject compared to the works present day state. The back of the painting is visible providing a rare view of the work's history. During previous conservation work in 1939 the canvas was mounted on a hardboard panel. After this work the original stretcher was reused but, somehow, reinstalled upside down. There is a paper label on the back identifying the work and artist. The canvas merchant's stamp is also visible on the stretcher. One can imagine Renoir visiting the merchant, selecting the right size canvas for the work. X ray images reveal the changes Renoir made as his work on the painting progressed.

This exhibit shares a gallery with 2 Degas', including one of my favorites by the artist "The Milliner's Shop", also in the museums permanent collection. The character of the figure in the painting has always been questioned. She appears to be holing pins in her mouth, suggesting that she is a shopgirl, yet the richness of her costume, her kid gloves and fur color, seem to belie this humble profession.   X rays reveal that originally the figure was unmistakably a customer before Degas gave her the more ambiguous nature seen in the finished work.

Across from the Oriental collection is a warren of galleries which are devoted to works on paper. These are rotated due to the fragile nature of the artworks displayed. Sometimes the exhibitions are from the Institutes's permanent collection, some are borrowed, some are still in private hands but promised to the museum. A collector recently donated hundreds of works on paper, one of the largest bequests in the Institutes's history. A portion of these new acquisitions were on view. The collection of works was astonishing. The exhibition opened with a water color by Mondrian of the Amsterdam skyline. It is always interesting to see his more realistic work which preceded the abstract geometric style he adopted later and is primarily known for. There are drawings by Picasso and Matisse. A chalk portrait by Modigliani features his trademark representation of the sitter with an elongated face. Further on one encounters a whimsical Tischbein watercolor depicting 3 beavers building a dam entitled "Three Beavers Building A Dam".

The unclothed human form is in abundance in this exhibition. There is a Romney illustration of a scene from the first act of "Twelfth Night". It indicates, judging from the well muscled forms of the nude men depicted, that gym rats and protein supplements existed as far back as the work's date of 1776. One wall consists of nudes by Klimt, Renoir and Degas. There is a spellbinding male nude by Cezanne which depicts the innocent beauty of youth in a strangely sad, haunting manner.

Landscapes by John Constable and Gainsborough share one wall. Gainsborough's work, a humble pencil sketch, shows the remarkable attention to detail evidenced in his more well known portraits. The viewer can imagine the water rippling and the leaves of the trees rustling in the breeze.

Chalk haystacks by Monet add to the appreciation of the Haystack series housed in the Institutes's Impressionist galleries.

I left the museum enroute to Macy's where I hoped to "stop and smell the roses".