Monday, October 12, 2015

Bike Rides, Lighthouses, Temples and More

Just prior to the autumn equinox sun and warmth clung to the last few days of summer. We headed north. The day was quiet. It was Monday and children were in school, adults at work. The northbound lakefront path was lightly traveled. We rode through Evanston's Lakeshore Historic District, past blocks of large, venerable homes that suggest lives of wealth and priviledge. Coming to the Northwestern campus we were met with the sight of scores of students rushing to their 10 o'clock class across the park like campus with it's imposing gothic architecture. I thought about the generation that seperates their life from mine, reflecting on what they might encounter as time moves forward. 

We stop at Gross Point Lighthouse, a white finger pointing skyward surrounded by lawns and beds of late season flowers. Small waves created a soul soothing sound as they lapped against the shore.

We continue north to the Bahai Temple in Wilmette. It is contemporary beauty inspired by ages old tradition, it's landmark dome an intricate network of shapes and images. Surrounded by gardens, fountains and reflecting pools it's setting is calming and spiritual. As we near it a deer nonchalantly crosses the street ahead of us followed by a speckled fawn, playfully bounding after it as if aware of the few warm days of summer left before the cool, color filled autumn months and then the cold of winter sets in.

We moved onward to a nearby park. We admire the outdoor theatre there and revel in the mix of lake, clear, sunny sky and late summer green. Spying a tiny harbor which created a picturesque tableau of sailboat masts and trees with the temple's dome rising above we stop to take a photo.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Window to a World

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving. It is referred to as "Black Friday" in the retail trade. Traditionally it is the day stores have covered their annual expenses for the year and begin to show a profit putting them "in the black". I was up at an absurd hour to get to work and open a store at an even more absurd hour. As I looked out of my kitchen window, coffee mug in hand, I realized that mine were among only a small handful lights shining in the numerous windows in the cityscape before me.

Windows, to those inside they let light in and allow them to see out. To those outside they can allow us to see in. The artist Edward Hopper used windows extensively in his work. The patrons of  the cafe in "Nighthawks" are viewed through a window. A cash register and display risers can be seen through the windows of one of the shops in the background. In another of his works the scene he is conveying is shown through a window. You are on the inside looking out.

In Amsterdam we caught views of the residents through the windows of centuries old canal houses. The interior rooms of many of these venerable structures seemed to have been "vanilla boxed", clean white walls replacing the ornate, verging on fussy, decoration of restored rooms such as those shown in the city's Loon Museum. All we saw seemed to contain an abundance of books. Some contained a collection hung on the austere walls. I recall the mass of antlers displayed in one otherwise spare room. In Rome one sees painted wood beams inside ancient buildings. The windows of St. Mark's Square in Venice showcase massive crystal chandeliers. My husband caught on camera a tender, almost intimate moment. A father and son stood in their window watching the canal traffic pass by.

Along Chicago's Astor Street, home to some of the city's wealthiest residents, curtains are not drawn over the expansive windows of the late 19th century row homes allowing you to view the luxurious, antique filled rooms of the urban elite.  During the Christmas holidays trees festooned with lights and dripping ornaments become points of pride shared with one's neighbors in homes both massive and modest. In my neighbor hood a grand piano dominates the window of one apartment. I imagine the love of music which resides there. 

We once resided in a high rise which provided us with a cornucopia of private lives conducted in the high rise across the narrow street. I remain amused at the lack of modesty of the ample woman tidying up her dining room after a Seder dinner clad only in her bra and half slip. There was the beefy man, towel wrapped around his waist, drying his hair over his window sill radiator. On another occasion he restlessly paced back and forth while waiting for a date. There was the gay couple whose leopard print furniture was always covered with sheets to safeguard it from the fading effects of the sun. I began to suspect that the ornaments were hot glued to their artificial Christmas tree as they appeared to be placed in exactly the same spots year after year.

It was brought to my attention that as we can see these people they could also see us. A friend remarked that two friends he had in the building across the street referred to our aged pet as "the cat that doesn't move. She had a favorite spot where the sun streamed in the window creating a circle of warmth where she would lay for hours. 

In Costa Rica we were caught looking out at guests arriving for a party at the hotel we were staying in. Three handsome young teenagers, dressed in their best, looked up from the plaza in front of the room where the party was being held, saw us in the window and gave us a thumbs up. We probably should have remembered to turn off the lights in our room.



Saturday, September 5, 2015

Degrees of Seperation - Patty Hearst

It was one of the great crimes of it's day, the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. She was taken from her apartment in the middle of the night half naked, although that detail was quickly hushed up due to her father's influence over the media of that time. Her abductors were a ragtag, misfit group of militant activists who had dubbed themselves the "Symbionese Liberation Army". Their ransom demand was that millions of dollars of food be distributed to the poor. This turned into a fiasco when a near riot broke out during the first attempt of distributing of a portion of the demanded amount.

Eventually Patty became a victim of  "Stockholm Syndrome" where a captive becomes attached to her captives and, in this case, sympathetic to their goals and ideologies. She had an affair with one member of the militant group during her time with them. Judging from photos he was kind of hot and, taking into account  her distressed psychological state I was not unsympathetic to her goals and ideology. Her full immersion into the group reached a zenith when we witnessed famous images of her, captured by security cameras, in military style beret, holding a machine gun during a bank robbery. I recall a Halloween party several years later when a friend of mine went as Ms. Hearst using the grainy surveillance photos, and later posed images of the heiress, as her inspiration.

As the back stories of the group were discovered one incident in particular stuck close to home. One member, Nancy Ling Perry, thwarted a burglary of her rented residence in my high school home town of Concord, California. As she kept the would be thief from ever entering the home it's interior was not a crime scene and the police, when they arrived, had no legal right to enter or search the house. Ms. Perry denied them entrance, perhaps, it was suggested later, because there may have been literature and arms stored there in anticipation of the group's later misdeeds. There was a news photo taken of Ms. Perry at the time standing in the front yard of the suburban ranch style home, her arms crossed, the expression on her face a mixture of defiance and anger. 

The majority of the SLA members perished in an inferno during a violent confrontation with law enforcement. Three members survived and went into hiding. Ms. Hearst and a married couple, both university professors, Bill and Emily Harris. The Harrises were taken into custody decades later, recognized by neighbors after being profiled on "America's Most Wanted". Patty was captured several months after the inferno. Police found her in a San Francisco apartment with militant activist Wendy Yoshimura. Convicted of armed robbery, her 7 year prison sentence was commuted by President Carter and she was released after serving 3 years. Eventually she was granted a full pardon by President Clinton. She appeared in several John Waters movies including "Serial Mom" where she is beaten to death with a pay phone by Kathleen Turner for wearing white shoes after Labor Day. Ms. Turner's character in this film took the rules of fashion quite seriously.

In my late teens I dated, briefly, a man living in Berkeley, California. True to Berkeley fashion he eked out a living as a psychic reader and trainer. One evening he and several of his housemates were discussing whether or not their names were on file with the FBI, a badge of honor among certain social groups in those times. The principal reason they felt that they might be "on file" was that Wendy Yoshimura had visited them in the house they shared, apparently more than once.

A few years ago I read an article on the offspring of several artists and celebrities regarding their career choices. Among those profiled was the daughter of Patty Hearst. There is more than a passing resemblance between mother and daughter. Remarking to a 20 something how much Ms. Heart's daughter looked like her mother the 20 something remarked, "I don't know who Patty Hearst is". It was one of those moments that made me feel really, really old.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Minnesota 2015

Minnesota, it was virgin territory for me. But, through travel via trains, planes and automobiles, and for one memorable afternoon, the back of a motorcycle, I feel I have now made it's acquaintance. I was able to experience both the urban oasis of the twin cities and the relative wilderness of the north.

I am a city dweller. I like to have my cultural arenas as well as my physical necessities a short walk, train or bus ride away. Densely populated urban areas, correctly planned and managed, are enviormentally efficient places. I, by living in a city, use less land and travel shorter distances resulting in a smaller impact on the enviorment. This density allows us to turn more land over to a natural state. Much of Minnesota is left to this state. I enjoyed the discovery of an area with wilderness vast enough to allow nature to be left to itself.

On the flip side I enjoyed, just as much, the opportunity to experience the art, culture and laid back, friendly vibe of Minneapolis. I felt welcomed. It, through a combination of design and chance, has managed to maintain much of it's history. Too many American cities have destroyed the old and replaced it with faceless new. Minneapolis processes an eclectic charm that spoke to me. Since my return I've said more than once that, if they had to evacuate Chicago and I had to make a new home elsewhere, Minneapolis would be a top contender.

Thank you to my wonderful family, my travel buddy and the state of Minnesota. I had a lovely and memorable time!

Minnesota 2015 - Train Through the Wilderness

As we left the small resort where we had our final dinner we paused a moment to read the historical marker adjacent to the winter ATV trail across the dirt road. The marker suggests that the trail follows the track of a train that traveled through this almost complete wilderness built to serve the logging companies that operated there. Apparently the ride on that train was rough, not for the faint of heart. The sign further noted that when the trains got to their destination they were "splattered" with the remains of the animals they had struck along the way. That was the exact term used, "splattered". As I returned to the car I thought that perhaps the U.S. government department in charge of historical markers should invest in a thesaurus.

Minnesota 2015 - Country Roads and Wildlife

In the upper portion of Minnesota 2 lane paved roads sometimes seem a luxury. The road as well as the driveway leading to the cabin are packed dirt and gravel. Deep, dense wilderness graces each side. In some spots the sun shining through overhanging trees dapple the bare ground of the tiny road with light. Sometimes we traveled through tunnels of green, the dense foliage obscuring the sky. In some areas the trees looked as if they had been trimmed, a 30 foot tall hedge looming over us as we drove, with the car top down, along roads that had no names or numbers.

The paved roads roll up and down, veering off into crazy, unexpected turns like a roller coaster. They follow the terrain. They do not, like some cross country thoroughfares, blast through a mountain or hill to remain straight and unwavering, they commune with them, caressing their curves and changes in elevation.

The wilderness hides the wildlife. Save for the one that jumped across the road some distance in front of us while driving down a forest encrusted stretch my travel buddy remarked on the lack of deer. He has feeders at the edge of the woods that surround the cabin. He fills them with table scraps and corn. Moments after he said this, a deer, as if waiting for us, stood in the yard in front of the cabin as we approached. Startled, it bounded into the tangle of trees. Later we watched from the windows as a doe, accompanied by two speckled fawns, emerged from the brush to feast on the food we had left for them. I saw my last one on my final morning checking the feeder before returning to the protection of the trees and undergrowth.

The chipmunks were almost fearless. They scampered around the deck and along the railing. They dashed around our feet picking up the peanuts we tossed to them, shoving them in their cheeks before scurrying off to stash them in their burrows, insurance against winter's long onslaught.

Red breasted hummingbirds visited their feeder. Other tiny birds picked at the sunflower seeds, the ones the greedy chipmunks had not already made off with, in the tin plates nailed to the deck railing. A family of ducks grazed in the deep grass on the slope that leads down to the lakes edge and the call of a loon was heard in the quiet air in this place where man's footstep is gentle and unobtrusive.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - Lake Series #4

It is late afternoon. The wind is still. The lake lies flat and quiet serenely reflecting all that surrounds it. We watch the clouds in the blue sky, a shade of blue one dreams of, floating by overhead on it's surface. A family of ducks swim by. The ripples that trail them causes the image to waver for a moment. As the water stills the sharp focus of the reflected images returns. Trees on the opposite shore are joined, trunk to trunk, with liquid twins. Soon the wind will rise up again and the lake mirrors spell, lake those in a children's fairy tale, will be broken. But for now we sit quietly, enjoying the sensation of two world's contained in one.

Minnesota 2015 - Lake series #3

Gingerly we step from the deck and board the small boat. This lake is like a four leaf clover, a quartet of similar round areas connected by shallow liquid passageways. It's blue hue is a little darker near the shore, lighter near the center. Looking into the shallow water as we pass through it we see fish swim by. They are too small for the fishermen to worry themselves with, they will be next years catch. The tall white trunks of the birch trees stand out in the dense green of the shore. A loon calls, a bird flies by, tiny brilliant orange and turquoise dragonflies skim the water. They bounce off the boat changing the direction of their travel.

We do not speak much. We have no desire to shatter nature's silence.

Minnesota 2015 - Lake Series #2

A sunny Sunday morning. A couple in a small fishing boat quietly row on the lake while a family of ducks. our occasional companions in this green oasis of nature, come ashore searching for food. The hen stands on a lakeside rock keeping a mother's watchful eye on her brood. The sky is a cloudless blue, the wooded shore deep green. I hear the call of loons and the soft murmur of voices from the cabins down the shore. Sound travels here, the air at once thin yet also rich, clean and pure. Wind flutters the leaves of trees. The ducks swim off forming a single line through the patch of waterlilies in the shallow water along the lake's edge. One moves a little way off before rejoining it's parents and siblings, testing it's eventual independence. A hummingbird, it's breast brilliant red visits the feeder on the deck while another loon calls, flapping it's wings as it rears up and skims along the surface of the lake then dives to feed on the bounty of the lakebed.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - Lake Series #1

It's the sort of quiet you can only find in a remote location, away from the voice of cities and people. There is sound but no noise. A Chicago style window, ironic considering I am in Minnesota, looks out over a deck railing, a lake and the wooded expanse of the lake's opposite shore. Tiny birds hop along the railing picking through the sunflower seeds in the tin plates nailed to it. The ones that the chipmunks had not polished off the night before. Chipmunk leftovers, the birds don't seem to mind. 

At a quick glance the sky and the lake are the same shade of soft gray. The scene might be seen to be painted by nature in a limited palate of two colors, gray and green. But as my gaze lingers I see seemingly infinite variations of these two hues. Light pierces the sky making the gray at the treetops paler than that of the expanse above it. The green is a subtle mixture of new growth and old. A shrub filled sandbar juts out, darker growth permeates the far shore. A small bit of morning fog, appearing like a cloud of dust, rises above one section of the shoreline. The woods are a blend of shadow and light, some of it's deepest recesses almost black. 

Even the small birds are gray, black and white. I am treated to a quick shot of brown as a chipmunk darts along the deck rail. A loon calls and the tiny birds sing. I sat, a camp blanket over my legs, coffee at my side, looking out the window and experiencing this place where cell phones do not work. We have no bars, we have traded them for this beauty.

MInnesota 2015 - Headwaters of the Mississippi

The Mississippi River, it's name conjures up images of a broad waterway, lazily making it's easy way down the center of the North American continent before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at the fabled city of New Orleans. I had seen it's end on a trip to New Orleans a number of years ago. The middle part of it's journey I have viewed from several different vantage points, St. Louis, Eagle point in Dubuque, and, closer to home, Starved Rock State Park. On this trip, far north in Minnesota, I had the opportunity to see it's headwaters. To visit the spot where the legendary liquid behemoth begins.

Water trickles over a line of rocks along the shore of one of Minnesota's ubiquitous lakes. There is one mile of water for every 15 miles of dry land in the state. The water forms a small ankle deep pool before flowing, between banks of tangled grass, towards it's destination a continent away.

It is not a place conducive to contemplation. The hordes of people present make quiet thought difficult. It is actually, from a scenic point of view, rather underwhelming. It is the idea of what this small, shallow, unassuming stream becomes that it the magic of the place.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - Bemidji and Paul Bunyan

Bemidji, Minnesota is a county seat. It, like several others I saw during this trip, has it's small, or in this case, looming civic treasures. There is what remains of the courthouse. Unfortunately the original historic structure has been marred by modern additions. There are several charming older homes, a modest Carnegie Mellon library and, what, as we were informed by the elderly man in the visitor's center, is the biggest roadside attraction in the state, a massive statue of the folktale hero Paul Bunyan and his blue bull Babe.

It is a photo op, pure and simple. You pose by the giant statues, get your picture taken, perhaps grab a bite to eat and continue on your way. A nicely built man, I could tell he was not a local due to the flatness of his stomach, offered to take me and my travel buddy's photo together. He was from Minneapolis and traveling the state capturing photos of local color for a Minnesota themed cookbook.

Lunch that day was at an establishment that advertised itself as a "pub". As we scanned the menu on the sidewalk someone passing by recommended it as a good place to eat. We stepped inside. An assortment of characters lined the bar. There was a group of redneck looking men, drunk, loud and wearing identical black tee shirts from a rock band tour, a trio of vastly overweight men waiting for their wives to return from shopping at the lakefront art fair taking place that afternoon, a crew cut man, who might have been considered attractive until alcohol grabbed hold of him leaving behind sagging skin and a loose, jiggling spare tire around his midsection. Apparently the woman he was with overlooked these shortcomings as she grabbed his ass upon his return from a restroom visit. 

There was a small stage, the place occasionally features live entertainment. A corrugated sheet metal and garage sale cast offs decorating scheme completed the redneck atmosphere. We ate, attempting to act as butch and heterosexual as possible, then hightailed it out the door.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - The Judy Garland Museum

When I was making plans for this trip my travel buddy mentioned that the Judy Garland Museum was located a short, by Minnesota standards, distance away. Many of my friends suggested, and I personally felt, that as a gay man it was my obligation to pay it a visit. More than one referred to it as "Gay Mecca".

Judy spent the first 4 years of her life in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Her parents were part owners and operators of The New Grand Theatre, a vaudeville house in the small city. They lived in a modest home, which has been moved to the museum's site, a shopping mall stands on it's original lot, from 1919 to 1926. The home was originally built by a steamboat captain in 1892.

One of the first of, as we were soon to become aware, many impressive artifacts on display is an original script from the MGM and Judy Garland classic "The Wizard of Oz". Understandably the lions share, pun intended, of the museum is dedicated to this movie. There is case after case of trademark kitsch. Dolls, games, cookie jars and toys, all tied to the film. There were wall pockets, bric a brac and key chains each referencing the iconic movie. It all appears to be on loan from the same person. This got me to thinking, "How much Wizard of Oz crap does this woman own? This is one sick obsession! This woman needs professional help!" 

There was one piece that spoke to me in a special way. A plastic showboat with backdrops based on scenes from the movie. We had a similar toy growing up. A theatre stage with changeable sets, backdrops and set pieces made from cardboard allowing us to create our own unique imaginary landscapes. Another unusual piece was a replica of Professor Marvel's wagon reimagined as a rolling magazine rack.

After this almost exhaustive display we got to the good stuff! As I turned a corner I saw, set on a turntable like those used a car shows, the carriage in which Dorothy and her posse ride upon their arrival in the Emerald City. The "Horse of a different color" sequence. I almost wet my pants. My travel buddy looking at the information placard on the wall said to me "Read this!" The carriage was owned by a "prop jobber" who would rent props and set pieces to the studios. Bette Davis also rode in it in "Jezebel". During a renovation in 1990 a small plaque was found affixed to the carriage stating that it started life as a gift from several supporters to Abraham Lincoln. A group of benefactors got together to purchase it and give it to the museum. It is, to me, the definition of a national treasure. The thought of the doomed president riding in it as well as the childhood memory of seeing it each year during the annual telecast of "Wizard of Oz" was deeply moving, almost haunting. One of those completely unexpected surprises that life occasionally hands us.

In this section there is also a test dress for Judy's "Oz" costume and one of the spears, made of wood, carried by the Wicked Witches guards.

The house is accessed through another room in the museum. A T.V. plays a continuous loop of people talking about Judy as well as tape of her performing at different points in her life. A collection of Judy Garland paper dolls and dresses is also shown here. The house would be just, well, a period house were it not for it's connection to the show biz legend, although one can imagine Judy and her sisters rehearsing their act, as they sometimes did, on the staircase landing.

Returning to the museum one is treated to a viewing of an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Garland, her boots from "The Harvey Girls" and leopard print hat and muff belonging to the star. There is the hat she wears while singing the "Peanuts", number from "A Star is Born" contracts and a mike from her television show, a costume sketch from her final film "I Could Go On Singing" and the gold record for "Over the Rainbow" commemorating 1,000,000 copies sold.

Sadly a pair of the Ruby Slippers, one of only 4 known, loaned to the museum each summer, were stolen 10 years ago. There is a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. A documentary short has been made about the robbery titled, aptly, "Who Stole the Ruby Slippers". The base of the display case sits in the gift shop of the museum patiently waiting their return.

Minnesota 2015 - Hibbing and Points West

Hibbing is the childhood home, from the age of 6 on, of Bob Dylan. He moved to Minneapolis to attend college in 1959. His legacy is memorialized by Bob Dylan Drive, which seemed to run for only 2 blocks. It is also home to one of several regional airports in the upper part of Minnesota. A new building, which, from it's stage of construction I witnessed, looked as if would, when finished, be quite nice, stands next to the present airport, which resembles, and very well could be, a Quonset hut.

As we flew over Minnesota during our descent and I gazed out the plane window taking in the tableau of field and forests beneath me one word came to mind......green. Green, green, green, green. I tried to come up with an alternative but found it extremely difficult to do so.

My travel buddy picked me up and we drove to Hibbing's historic town center. A lovely courthouse graces one block. Nearby the town "main drag" appeared vibrant. Nearly every storefront was occupied, unlike the decay sometimes found in county seats fading from local poverty, disuse and disinterest. We lunched at a sports bar/restaurant then briefly took in the street fair taking place that day. We stopped at a local antique shop then drove off over 2 lane roads lined with verdant wilderness the likes of which I would become increasingly familiar with over the next few days.

We turned onto a narrow, packed dirt road. The convertible top was down giving us a beautiful perspective of the trees that towered over us on each side. We turned onto the packed dirt driveway leading up to my travel buddy's cabin. Prior to leaving Chicago I had joked that, from the photos I had seen, the cabin looked like the setting of a slasher movie where a group of weekending teenagers with raging hormones are picked off one by one by a hockey mask wearing maniac. I need to keep a vigilant eye out for anyone sporting sporting equipment and wielding a chainsaw. In truth it is a comfortable, commodious space of pine paneled walls and cabinets, a stunning lake view and the homey air of a placed owned, lived in and cherished by members of the same family for over 40 years. A small, steep stairway leads off a large deck to a dock where a 12 foot aluminum fishing boat is housed.

The quiet is remarkable, almost unnerving to one like myself accustomed to the unending din of city life. Waterlilies, an unexpected delight, occasionally grace the shallows which abut the shorelines of the thousands of lakes the state is noted for. We relax, drink scotch, whiskey and Drambuie served from bottles last used so long ago we had to wash the dust off of them first and have dinner, listening to the sound of the approaching thunderstorms. I anticipate a peaceful sleep that night accompanied by the soft patter of rain on the roof above me. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - Checkpoint Shuffle

Arriving at the airport for the short hop to Hibbing, Minnesota I am informed that the plane will be delayed 22 minutes. I, after my previous airline misadventure on this trip , was willing to settle for the plane leaving sometime within the next 24 hours.

The security checkpoint, from a distance, looked daunting. As I was approaching the line a man, wearing the vivid yellow nylon vest of someone that would know about airport stuff, came up to the last few people in the winding line instructing them to follow him. I figure, what the hell, my flight is late, I am early and join the pack. He leads us down an escalator to an airport tram entrance. He informs us that he is taking us to the little known security checkpoint 10. After following him onto the tram and up an escalator I see the man at the head of the pack begin to pump his fist in the air. As we get to the top we discovered that the dozen or so of us have a checkpoint all to ourselves. Shoes off, pockets emptied, body scanned, patted down, shoes back on, now to find concourse B. 

Down an escalator, down a moving walkway, restroom pit stop, down another moving walkway, down an escalator following signs telling me I was heading towards concourse B. On a tram, up an escalator, at this point I was beginning to wonder if I am still in Minnesota. Perhaps I am the latest victim of some horrible concourse B hoax.

Eventually I do find my gate. The plane that was supposed to be late has been switched for one already at the airport so at the gate we are informed that the flight may take off on time after all, we are just waiting for the crew. I was still processing my arduous trip to the gate. Information overload, I was becoming dizzy. Text message, travel buddy leaving for the airport to pick me up. Text message from husband, "Are you at the airport yet?" Please let me on the plane so I can have an hours peace! First officer arrives, rest of crew MIA. Plane that was supposed to leave late, then on time, will now leave even later than before. At this point I've almost gone mad! Gate agent, bless her heart, is trying to keep us up to date. At this point she should get hazard pay. Plane now delayed a further 10 minutes. Plane late, plane on time, plane late again, plane later. My head is beginning to swim, my vision is beginning to blur. Flight attendant arrives, only one, it is a tiny plane. Now just waiting for the captain, the one who actually flies the plane. Still, we're were seeing progress. Good thing I had a good, substantial breakfast that morning. I found myself becoming spiritual, "The plane will leave when the plane will leave. It is in the hands of God." They ask, half joking, I hoped, if there was a volunteer willing to fly the plane. We were still waiting for the captain. As we are boarding the captain appears. I might get to Hibbing after all.

As I said as I got on a train 4 days earlier "What's life without a little adventure.?"

Minnesota 2015 - St. Paul Cathedral

I had two requests during the time I was to be in Minneapolis. One was a visit to the Institute of Art, check, the second seeing the cathedral in St. Paul, highly regarded for it's exterior and interior beauty. Heading towards St. Paul we pass a restaurant we have driven by several times prior called "Rusty Taco". My nephew insists the food is quite good and the name is derived from the establishments humble beginnings as a food truck. Their good reputation notwithstanding I felt they may have wanted to consult with marketing experts. I, given their present name, would hesitate to dine there.

The cathedral sits on a bluff overlooking St. Paul's downtown. It's placement as well as it's massive size would make it visible to much of the city, a constant symbol of the dominance of the church over the lives of the people of St. Paul during the early part of the 20th century. Or, taking a different viewpoint, if you are a city named after a saint it makes sense that your cathedral should be impressive, in this case verging on imposing.

I have visited many houses of worship in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe. Many are places of astounding man made splendor created and decorated by some of the greatest artists in history. Yet, as I admire the beauty of these, to some people, sacred places, I find myself questioning the magnificence of them. What if the money and energy put into a church had instead been put into the work of the church? While awed I remember finding the Vatican, with it's extreme display of material wealth, offensive. The bible tells us Jesus was committed to serving the poor. He set an example by living a simple life eschewing the trappings of other religious figures of the time. I fear that over the course of 2000 years many religious leaders have, through their pursuit and acquisition of money and power, turned their backs on the teachings they profess to follow.

The cathedral, built in 1915, is an interesting mixture of a classic style with distinct Arts and Crafts influences. A wrought iron chandelier would seem equally in place in it's present surroundings as it would in a prairie style structure. Molding is at one time simple and stripped down, in the early 20th century style, yet opulent. The most visually impressive feature, to my eye, are the leaded glass windows, again showing the influence of an Arts and Crafts sensibility. In the Shrines of the Nations folds in the cloth of the costumes worn by the biblical figures are delineated by a plethora of colors held within the confines of lead outlines. In some of the glass panels shades mix, changing from one hue to another within a single pane. Silver pieces with gild overlay, gifts to the church from wealthy parishioners, decorate the altar. Here again I think of what could have been done for people with the money spent on these lavish offerings. Downstairs in the visitors center a stunning 16th century carved wood lintel is displayed, rather oddly as my nephew noted, over the door leading to the elevator.

Leaving the cathedral my nephew directed us through streets lined with the grand turn of the century homes of St. Paul's gentry. The structures were beautiful, massive verging on intimidating. It was wonderful to see such a sizable intact area from that era. Too often in American cities we have been neglectful in preserving, protecting and respecting our architectural history.

We placate the grandniece with a trip to an ice creme shop which I am told is well known in the area. As I do last minute packing the next morning she begins to reclaim her room. Sitting on the top bunk, swinging her legs, she tells me about a dream she had the night before. "I dreamed that you didn't have to leave, that you lived in the house next door." She elicits a promise from me to take care of the heart necklace she had gifted to me on my first day with her. "It will remind you of me", she states. I, in turn, promise to send her a photo of it, hanging with my other necklaces, when I get home. I cherish her sweet, tight hug as she, my sister in law and niece drop me off at the airport. 

Minnesota 2015 - Minnehaha Falls

It was at my nephews suggestion that we pay a visit to Minnehaha Falls and park, a  short distance from downtown Minneapolis. It's a natural water feature, although augmented through the years by water being pumped in for aesthetic reasons. Due to concerns regarding enviormental damage, including the spread of invasive species, the decision was made to shut down the pumps leaving the flow of the river and falls up to the whims of nature.

The falls are large, broad and powerful. A single rush of water plunging over a sharp limestone precipice into the stream below. The stream ripples over rocks and under fallen tree branches which span it from bank to bank. It's gentle sound as I stood on one of the bridges which crossed it imparted a soul refreshing sense of peace and contentment. It splits around a tiny island, one side forming a shallow pool where children wade and play in the cool water. On the far side of the diminutive isle it reforms itself again into a single ribbon and continues on it's path. We hiked along it's banks enjoying natures mix of water, air and the sunny sky of the summer morning.

Returning to the car my grandniece shouts "Adventures Commence!", apparently a catch phrase of hers, as she buckles herself into her booster seat. I make the decision not to disappoint her by pointing out that they already have.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - Minneapolis Skyways

The final leg of my motorcycle tour was a quick ride through the downtown financial and business center of Minneapolis. Several large corporations, among them Target, U.S. Bancorp and General Mills are headquartered there. Many buildings are connected by overhead skywalks, allowing people to move from one place to place without having to brave the frigid conditions of a Midwestern winter. The manner in which they are used was brought home the next day when my nephew planned a trip to pick up groceries while my grandniece was in her swimming class by utilizing them. The streets seem broad and plazas in front of many buildings give the area an open feel as opposed to the claustrophobia inducing downtowns of other cities. I noticed throughout all my travels that day the large areas of open space In the city. Neighborhoods form a ring around downtown making it easily accessible. I also noticed in the neighborhoods a certain entrepreneurial spirit. Small shops, restaurants and service businesses occupy storefronts along the commercial strips. Many of these are housed in the surprisingly large number of historic buildings intact in this vibrant, charming and friendly city. 

Minnesota 2015 - Minneapolis Institute of Art

My nephew and I pulled up in front of the Museum's front entrance and I performed the ritual of the helmet. As we climbed the steps I noticed a sign in front of the doors which read "The Minneapolis Institute of Art bans guns on these premises". Minnesota, for all it's live and let live vibe, has gun laws that are well, liberal. Guns anywhere, anytime, we'll shoot you if you disagree. To be fair, in a state with vast amounts of wilderness housing God only knows how many varieties of flesh loving carnivores, these laws, or the lack thereof, do, in a sense, make sense. 

The museum opens with a collection of ancient classical statues which echo the building's classical fa├žade. In the center is a sculpture of an athletic youth symbolizing the artist's concept of ideal physical perfection and beauty, except for the genitals which appear to have been hacked off, possibly in a spasm of religious zealotry. There are similar works from the same classical era in the Vatican's collection bearing the same alteration.

The rest of our family band had used another entrance. Going to meet up with them allowed me to gat a look at a large Calder mobile perfectly displayed in a stairwell. We decided to begin our visit on the museum's 3rd floor, home to it's European and American collections. 

We came upon a gallery which holds a collection of pieces showcasing the American Arts and Crafts movement. A plate glass window forms one wall of the area giving the museum visitor a spectacular view of the Minneapolis skyline. An informational plaque shows an outline of the skyline with information on the architects and dates of construction of the more notable buildings visible through the window. The collection of Arts and Crafts pieces includes architectural fragments, period furnishings and architect models of important structures emblematic of this style. I felt entitled to bragging rights as the Chicago area is mentioned more than once here.

The galleries are small allowing the visitor to focus on the art in each one instead of being overwhelmed by it. A trio of Russells, an almost trademark O'Keeffe, I recognized it as her work from across the room, and Remington sculptures are shown together in a gallery devoted to art of the American west. A Rembrant, my nephew claims it as his favorite piece in the institution, is found in an area featuring Dutch works. Other Rembrant's, his etchings, in a small exhibition of prints and etchings, show how he changed his work over time. The work may be of the same scene but a town's skyline is made more distinct and moved from the left hand side of the setting to the right. In another, Jesus, in an early example, is an almost ghostly figure. In the later version he is a blood and sinew human being. The crowd beneath the platform on which he stands has been eliminated, changed to a symbolic depiction of the pit of Hell.

There is Thomas Hart Benton's powerful piece "The Slave Market". His unyielding, almost angry brushstrokes and colors show the cruelty and horror of humans forced into labor and bondage.

The impressionist gallery is filled with a soul soothing mix of Van Goghs, Monets, Gauguins and a lovely view of St. Mark's Square in Venice by Renoir. In one room two artists I would never put together in my mind, Matisse and German Expressionist Max Beckman, are juxtaposed, each providing a surprising complement to the other.

The final stop is a special exhibition focusing on art rock, in particular the music group Devo and the punk art of Mark Mothersbaugh. It proves that art can both soothe and assault the senses. Art does not need to be conventionally beautiful, art needs to awaken emotions. To make us ask questions that we may never have known existed. To make us think or feel in ways different than we have thought or felt before. 

Minnesota 2015 - Tales of Lunch and Tattoos

Lunch that day was at the outside area of a restaurant in a hipster and, judging from the 2 large rainbow flags I saw, gay friendly neighborhood. One of the flags was hanging in the window of a Walgreen's. I was slightly befuddled by the notion of  gay friendly Walgreen's but decided thinking about it too much would make my head hurt, and I already had the rigors of taking off and putting on the motorcycle helmet to contend with.

Our bearded, bespectacled, tattooed waiter took our order. Wine, beer and hard cider were involved. He carded my niece. In all fairness I in his place would have carded my niece. He carded my nephew. That act seemed to emanate from an excess of caution. When he got to me I noted that although asking for my I.D. would be exceptionally flattering, it was probably unnecessary. He replied, "You look honest", at least he didn't say old, and brought me my wine. He continued in a manner that seemed to swing between friendly and flirty. Perhaps had family members not have been present I would have been better able to ascertain which of these two behaviors he was exhibiting.

As I left to visit the restroom I saw the bartender, young, heavily inked, the cashier, also young, also heavily inked, I began to wonder if there was a place on the job application for that restaurant where one noted the number of their tattoos. 

I commented on the handsome silver ring worn by the waiter. Jewelry is my business, I notice such things. He told us how he came about owning it. Friendly, flirty, I still couldn't sort it out.

We finish lunch and my nephew and I return to his bike. I go through what I begin to refer to as "the ritual of the helmet" and we are off to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

Minnesota 2015 - Weissman Sculpture Garden - Part #2 - The Garden Party

Arriving at the gardens I discovered a beautiful park like setting with sculptures by artists of varying degrees of fame. It's centerpiece is Claes Oldenburg's Spoonbridge and Cherry". I had seen photos of the sculpture, a typically whimsical Oldenburg work of an over sized cherry resting in the bowl of an equally over sized spoon. That it was a fountain was news to me! A mist sprays from the top of the cherry and water pours down it's sides which flows down the spoon and is captured in the shallow pool where the sculpture resides. Another whimsical piece is a clapper less bell which swings back and forth through the use of a magnetic motor titled "For Whom". A rendering of a giant fish graces one room of the conservatory on the grounds. There are two works by Henry Moore featuring the trademark muscular look and feel of the artist. Several of the pieces are interactive allowing children to climb around them and in one case swing on a platform suspended from the work of art, suggesting to even the youngest of children that art can be enjoyable and fun. What a concept!

We returned to the bike and my nephew and I donned our helmets. Bear with me and allow me to digress for a moment to describe what, on paper, sounds like a fairly easy, if not downright mundane, act. I revolves around the actions required to put on the motorcycle helmet. My nephew has a half bowl helmet, popular with bikers in movies from the 50's and early 60's' as well as The motorcycle riding troops in World War 2. The spare helmet is the sort of thing worn by extreme riders and astronauts. First my glasses needed to come off. Then, I squeeze my head through an opening the size of a nostril and push the helmet around until it is properly aligned with my head. I return the glasses to my face and fasten the straps under my chin, occasionally having to dig them out from within the helmet where they have become lodged during steps one, two and three. Taking it off is an even more arduous task. First my glasses come off. I then wiggle the helmet until my head emerges from the nostril sized hole. I swear I almost heard a pop like that of a champagne bottle being opened every time my head was freed from it's fiberglass confines. My glasses are returned and I check my ear to ensure that my earring is still in place, also to ensure that it has not ripped the lower part of my ear in half during the preceding steps.

I am not complaining, I was having the time of my life.

Minnesota 2015 - Weissman Sculpture Garden - Part #1 - The Ride

Stop number one of that day was to be the Weissman Sculpture Garden adjacent to the Walker Art Center. It's wonderful collection and beautiful surroundings would be considered a civic treasure by any metropolis fortunate enough to house it. It is free to the public and provides children with an opportunity to experience important 20th century artists at an early age without the sometimes intimidating nature of a museum visit.

As we headed across the backyard to the garage I called "shotgun" to be better able to see the city as we traveled around it that day. My nephew was taking his motorcycle as there wouldn't be room for all of us in the car. When I mentioned, offhand and half joking, that the back of the bike would the best way to experience the sights he said "You're welcome to it". My eyes went wide, my knees went weak, he handed me the extra helmet and we were off.

Yes motorcycles can be dangerous. Yes you can be severely injured if there were to be an accident.....blah, blah, blah........

Yes I didn't care a wit as I rode on the back of that bike on that sunny summer afternoon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Minnesota 2015 - My Family Tree

After catching up briefly with my brother and sister in law I curled up in the bottom bunk of my grandniece's bed, she was sleeping in her parent's room for the duration of my visit, and slept, hard. I sometimes suffer with problems sleeping but after the rigors of this particular trip I was not plagued by them that night.

I woke up at my customary early hour the next morning, my inner alarm clock making it impossible to sleep any later. I sat in the kitchen with my spiral bound notebook on the table in front of me. It was obvious that I was the only one of the houseful of people to be up and around. I heard a door open and close. A young girl appeared, her eyes wide, her hair wild and unruly from sleep.

"Hi!", she said.

"Hi!" I replied.

"I'm surprised I haven't met you before" she said in a very adult, matter of fact way.

I asked her if she knew where the coffee was kept. She helped me locate it and as it brewed took me on a house tour pointing out those things most of interest to one as young as she. The tour was short and familiar. She showed me the living room where I had caught up with my family the night before. She showed me the kitchen where we had just made the coffee. She showed me her room, where I had slept and the dining room, where we had just met minutes before. Her parent's room was being used by her sleeping parents, the basement by my sleeping brother, sister in law and niece. I did not see those. 

My grandniece and I chatted. She informed me that she was not 6 or 7 but 6 and three quarters and that I was pronouncing her name incorrectly, but that was okay because most people did.

Slowly the other members of my family stumbled in in various levels of uncaffinated disarray. As they slowly came to we made plans for the day.

Minnesota 2015 - My Unexpected Train Trip

Truth be told I enjoy train travel. I had, in fact, considered taking the train for this trip but felt it would arrive too late and it would inconvenience my nephew too much to ask him to pick me up at that late hour. Alas, the best laid plans.......

The train pulled out from Chicago's venerable Union Station. Soon we were passing through the sprawling suburbs and exburbs that surround the city. Stands of trees sprinkled with the colors of summer wildflowers occasionally shielded us from the view of the faceless, identical tract homes. There was a feeling of isolation. Neighbors, who occasionally seem to not understand the true meaning of the word, sometimes have unwritten laws. This land is mine, this land is yours, these boundries shall not be violated.

We experienced the sensation of immense speed as we passed a train going the opposite direction. It's tanker and freight cars appeared as a blur outside our window. 

The scene shifted to Midwestern green. Tree trunks sunk deep in the knee high prarie grass. A farmhouse and barn, painted bright blue, appeared like blossoms in the surrounding fields of corn. Silos resembled sentinals, standing tall as if keeping watch over the cropland.

Small towns passed by. Church steeples reminded me of the importance of religion and the Sunday gatherings in the early days of this area. They and the water towers, emblazoned with the town's name, the tallest structures in the hamlets, loom over the historic buildings in the town's center.

We came to the Wisconsin Dells. The river has cut deep into the limestone banks revealing layers of the earth's ancient history. Tacky tourism runs amok on the shore of this natural beauty.  

Then nature is given it's moment. It revealed, towering around us, limestone rock formations dotted with pines. It proudly displayed wind carved cliffs along a broad river filled with small, densely wooded islands. The light yellow of the sun, slung low in the sky at that hour, gave the underside of the leaves a golden glow.

As darkness fell we passed through the historic town of Red Wing, famous for shoes and it's collectable pottery, our last stop prior to St. Paul. Minnesota's history again is impressed upon me as I rush through the beautiful central hall of St. Paul's train station. Constructed in the early 1910's, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. I cannot help but admire it's beauty even in my exhausted state.

I am met by my niece, nephew and nephew's wife. His wife greets me with "Welcome to St. Paul, the city that always sleeps."

Minnesota 2015 - Virgin Territory

Minnesota was virgin territory for me. A state I had never set foot in. But my nephew and his wife and daughter, neither of whom I had ever met outside of Facebook, lives in Minneapolis. My nephew and I had reconnected face to face during a trip to the Art Institute and lunch when he had been in Chicago for a conference the previous winter. His sister, my niece, who I met only once when she was 10, was staying with them for a portion of the summer. She is a young woman now studying to become a teacher. My brother and his wife visit them each summer and this year scheduled their trip to coincide with mine. Also a friend, often referred to the these posts as my "travel buddy", had recently inherited a cabin in the northern part of the state. The time for a trip seemed destined by the stars.

Minnesota 2015 - A Midsummer Morning's Nightmare

It began as I emerged from the bathroom after my shower. The house was plunged into darkness as a pitch black cloud passed overhead. The morning news was full of thunderstorm warnings and canceled flights. I flipped open the laptop and checked my flight status, the flight was reported as leaving on time. I left for the airport. Waiting at the gate, 15 minutes before we were to take off, the announcement came over the loud speakers that the flight had been canceled. Going down the line of poor, hapless, stranded souls like myself a woman had the thankless task of informing us that the next possible flight out, if there were still seats available, was evening of the following day. I got the info for a refund for the canceled flight and, ever resourceful, pulled out my phone. A quick check of Amtrak's schedule showed a single seat left for a train set to depart in about 4 hours. Booking the seat from my phone proved problematic. I phoned my nephew, who I was going to visit and was to pick me up at the airport. I gave him the necessary information as he tapped out the data on his home computer securing me that last remaining seat. This left him several hours to ascertain the location of the train station in St. Paul. I boarded Chicago's blue line and headed downtown. Some would be travelers looked sad, some angry and some stunned. The man behind me in line was going to rent a car and drive to Rochester, MN., I almost asked him for a ride.

Of course as I walked the block to the classical facade of Union Station and entered through the heavy wood and glass doors the skies were a brilliant blue and the temperature a delightful mild 70ish degrees. I, as instructed, waited for my train in the slightly faded glory of Union Station's Grand Hall. The bearded, bonneted Mennonites, the uniformed Boy Scouts and their suburban dad troop leaders, not to mention the cute, mildly drunk man with the dark tan, playful eyes, graying goatee, sleeveless shirt and cowboy hat offering free hugs to passersby, added color seldom witnessed among the more white bread fare usually found at airports. His hug, by the way was sweet and welcome after the trials of that morning.

Sitting on the wooden bench, my vacation packed gym duffel beside me I figured, "Hey, what's life without a little adventure?"

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Oh What a Lovely Bus Ride

I, when I have the luxury of time, will sometimes take a slightly longer route to work. The most expedient bus barrels down typical suburban streets lined with midcentury mass produced homes, each sporting an identical floor plan.. But there is an alternative route that winds, almost meanders, through Chicago's neighbor to the north, Evanston. This city's diversity can be almost shocking. Wealth in some areas, near poverty in others. The home of Northwestern University, there are historical zones of great beauty. Some of these streets I enjoy on my ride to or from work. Shaded by massive, venerable trees, homes, large, historical, stand on oversized lots. Yards range from tidy, manicured lawns to flower filled flights of fancy. A customer related to me that her gay brother in law, in his southern drawl, remarked "I guess you can tell that homo's live here" while surveying the colorful yard in front of their home. I pass the Northwestern University campus. Victorian homes, now used as administrative offices, grace one side of the street, the hulking, gothic architecture of the university rises on the other.

 Upon his first look a friend quipped "I guess ivy covered walls never truly go out of style".

Historic Preservation and Presidential Libraries

As the nation begins to close the chapter on Obama's presidency there is an increasing amount of chatter regarding the location of his presidential library. I will, for the moment, put aside the discussion on the egotism involved in most of these institutions. Certainly there are items, memorabilia, correspondence, photos, film and video footage worthy of archival and preservation and there should, of course, be suitable housing for these. Presently however the main focus for the site of Obama's library is on an open green area of Chicago parkland. I would propose something different.

Chicago retains a reputation as one of the most important repositories of architecture in the United States. The wealth of historic buildings spanning the latter part of the 19th century through the 20th century is astounding. Unfortunately many of the structures are in danger of being lost due to lack of interest, financial constraints and neglect. Instead of taking parkland to build something new wouldn't it be a greater gift to the city Obama calls home to utilize one of these endangered sites? History would be housed in a historic setting. Many of the buildings are in areas struggling to achieve a stronger economic footing. With the library being located in one of these the gains to the surrounding area could be impressive. Support businesses, perhaps also housed in reinvented structures, would give the area an economic boost. Buildings having little historic value or too blighted to be rehabilitated could be razed to create parkland near the library giving even more to these neighborhoods.

Chicago needs to treasure what it has been able to retain. Having traveled to other less preservationist minded American cities I personally treasure what we have here. I suggest that we reuse/recycle instead of taking open space if the library is to be located here. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Life in the 50s

I am 57. I say it's not getting to me. I was thinking the words "I am 57" for a while before my birthday in October just to become accustomed to the sound of it. Yet there are issues. I realize more then a few people I know or work with are half my age, some well less than half. My mental Rolodex (for those under a certain age look up the word "Rolodex") keeps getting loaded with more and more cards. It occasionally takes me longer than it used to to flip through them to locate a particular name, phrase or title. On surveys I now check the box "55 and over", there is no longer and end date, I find this a little disturbing. I don't think I look 57, many people have commented as such. I find this comforting. I work out regularly, eat fairly decently and try to get an adequate amount of sleep. I am not nor have I ever been an angel or a monk. I still indulge in vices, just in more moderation than I once did. Some of this moderation I mark up to ennui. I began to realize that there are only so many variations to some themes.

I was fortunate to experience my youth during a special time. In my early 20s AIDS was unknown, the dance floors of gay clubs and bars were packed, boisterous and bawdy and drug use did not carry the stigma that it does today. Drug use, and yes, in some cases abuse, among my social set was routine. San Francisco contained a plethora of rambling victorian flats. The split parlors, fainting rooms and service porches allowed for large and ever changing households full of club kids like myself. We had no worries about student loans, we had none, they were not available during those years. We had jobs, some reputable, some menial, we went to during the day. We had clubs we frequented at night. The future seemed far off and, we figured, would somehow figure itself out. We rode a wave of youthful exuberance, energy and naivete.

AIDS began to do some of the scene in. Scores, than hundreds, then thousands died leaving a new generation without mentors or a sense of history. The rise of the internet dealt a virtual death blow. One could hook up online. There was no longer a need to "go out". In my youth feeding a sexual hunger may have been, for some,  the impetus to leave one's home but doing so, gathering in one place, fed a social hunger as well. We met sexual partners but we also laughed, we danced, we enjoyed the company of others. Some we knew, some we did not. It didn't matter, we were all one with a single goal, having fun.

Today the future for young people is uncertain and for some, at times, unforgiving. It can be difficult to find employment even with the degree one has paid thousands of dollars for. The joyful and carefree scene of my youth has disappeared. It will not return, young people feel a need to be more serious now. I do not miss my old life. I have developed, through years of searching and experimenting, a new one. I have the memories and stories of those times that will be with me so long as my mental faculties will allow me to retain them.

I am 57. The age does not concern me. I have had adventures. I have lived fully. I regret nothing. I have lived for 57 years. I look forward eagerly to more.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Coming Home

At the beginning of this trip I was weary. Winter weary and as I was saying before I left, retail weary. Our Christmas season, due in part to my profession, was busy. A treasured friend had been in the process of moving to Chicago. I have been attempting to assist him in getting settled. I welcome his return to my day to day life. Our February was record breaking in it's level of cold and snow requiring extensive preparations for even the most limited of outdoor excursions. I had been fighting a resilient cold for three weeks. I was weary. I was ready, in fact in dire need of, a break from work, a break from the cold and a break from my everyday responsibilities. Still, the responsibilities, work, my home, my family and friends, provide my life with structure. They keep it from becoming a formless mass.

Speaking to my husband briefly before boarding the plane he told me that it had been temperate enough for him to open the balcony door that morning, albeit only for a short time. Looking ahead at the weather it appeared that winter may have loosened it's icy grasp. This also help at work as people would begin to venture out from their winter seclusion. Now that my friend is in town permanently I would be able to enjoy showing him the sights and sounds of the city I adopted 30 years ago and love more each day.

I got the break I needed but I felt an equal need to return to the normal rhythm of my life. To return to the familiar. To return home.

Phoenix 2015 - Old Tucson and The Forest For Free

There is a restaurant in Tucson my friends have eaten at in the past. They entered the address into their car's GPS system and we began to follow the instructions of the voice which emanates from the device, something I find slightly unsettling and eerie.  It led us out of the parking lot and to a road heading away from the museum grounds. We soon found ourselves surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty. Saguaros, in some spots standing as close together as the trees in a pine forest, swept up the hills on a blanket of green sage grasses and yellow wildflowers. The red rock formations associated with this area of the country jutted up from the hillsides, capping their summits, their hue providing a brilliant contrast to the bright blue sky above. We pulled into a scenic overlook to gaze at this spectacular sight. My friends commented that it was just like going to the national forest we had eschewed, sans the $10 per car charge collected by the park service. From the overlook we could see the road ahead. As it neared a pass in the mountains it narrowed as it winded it's way to the top. Going through the pass we began our descent into Tucson. The hills were dotted with beautiful, and presumably pricey, homes. Set a good distance from one another they would offer the inhabitants sweeping views of the desert during the day as well as the twinkling lights of the city below at night.

Unlike the sprawl that almost defines Phoenix, Tucson seemed compact and manageable. A college town, even on a Sunday afternoon buses were evident. Proof of  true public transit as opposed to a commuter transportation system found in many other cities. After lunch we took a brief drive through a historic section of the city. Early 20th century homes lined the streets. On a few corners stood the imposing yet graceful mansions of the wealthy early inhabitants of the city. Above the rooftops the venerable dome of the courthouse could be seen.

As we left Tucson we stopped briefly at one of the ubiquitous convenience store/gas station complexes that punctuate the American highway system. On a siding sat an idle freight train, it's boxcar's sides spray painted with bold graffiti tags reminiscent of the 1980's. As the train later ran along it's tracks parallel to the highway it lent a certain hip hop urban sensibility to the surrounding desert landscape.

Phoenix 2015 - The Sonora Desert Museum

We left Phoenix bound for the Sonora Desert Museum located outside of Tucson. Yellow, orange and pale rose flowers, as well as small subdivisions, punctuated the vast expanse of desert on each side of the road. On the horizon silhouettes of mountains, their twisted shapes created by almost unimaginable ages of wind and rain began to appear. The farms that came into view along the road were evidence of man's ability to tame the hot, arid surroundings. As we continued on the mountain silhouettes began to take on definition. I was told they were more verdant than usual due to the recent rains. In the Arizona desert, it seems, green appears quickly, then, just as rapidly, returns to dusty brown accentuated by the other worldly shapes and hues of the ancient stone monoliths and mountainsides.

The museum is part zoo. Desert animals are in glass walled enclosures or outdoors behind wire mesh. A puma paced back and forth, seemingly annoyed by the people lining up to see it. Ocelots and bobcats groomed each other on ledges. A small fox napped in the sun.

Although there are some areas planted to illustrate different types of flora, much like a botanical garden, most of the outdoor park, although manicured, is natural, indigenous growth. The museum blends with the desert, it's location offering beautiful vistas of it's the surroundings.

There is a man made cavern with exhibits focused on life underground. Glass cases contain spiders. Bats hung from the ceiling in one section. In one alcove a recreation of stalagmites and stalactites has been constructed. In one area is a gem collection displaying the minerals and stones that have been mined from the Arizona earth. As I sell jewelry I am extremely familiar with many of the colorful geodes shown. Still, it is wonderful to me to retain the ability to be surprised, to learn or see something I have not before known or experienced. The opal is my birthstone. In one place in the gem room a polished opal sits as a counterpoint to an example of it's raw self. From within a chunk of chalky white rock the brilliant interplay of colors, the trademark of the semi precious stone, peeks out. Azurite, I have two rings featuring this lapis blue like stone, is also on display. I learned that as this stone nears the earths surface it becomes unstable. In one example malachite's green pigment covered with it's black swirls is growing over the underlying azurite. This accounts for the bits of green in the blue stones in my rings.

In another indoor section are the reptiles, creatures almost synonymous with the desert. I have an overwhelming fear of snakes but since these were behind glass my phobia was kept under control allowing me to observe them. Some bear the dull, dusty tones of their surrounding arid landscape allowing them to hide from both predators and prey. Some, like the coral snake, are brightly colored, a warning to predators of their highly toxic venom. One, although relatively harmless, resembles the deadly coral snake, tricking predators into leaving it alone. Amazing creatures they crush or poison their prey, their elastic jaws and bodies allowing them to swallow and digest animals larger than themselves, a process that can sometimes take several days. Occasionally a bulge will appear in their slender bodies, evidence of the fate of some unwary bird or small mammal. My friends have told me of hearing the tell tell warning clatter of a rattlesnakes tail while walking the dog in their neighborhood. To me this makes living in the desert seem strangely exotic, in Chicago the most I ever see is a squirrel.

It was early afternoon. Hot and hungry we decide to skip hiking the Saguaro National Forest and head into Tuscon for lunch.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - The Phoenix Symphony

One of my friends was ushering the performance of the symphony that evening, a recent volunteer activity he has taken up which he enjoys. The payoff is seeing the performances he works at. I have to admit a tinge of envy regarding the Diane Krall concert he would experience later this year. As the houselights dimmed a young, rather adorable viola player came onstage to give us a welcoming speech providing us with information on what we would be hearing that evening. After the viola player took his seat the first violin player entered. He is huge, tall, and it appears under his tails, broad as well. My friend whispered as he came onstage "Here comes the tall guy". I referred to him as Lurch., He apparently has been playing first violin since my friends first moved to Phoenix a number of years ago. Then the conductor, also extremely tall yet thin, entered. As the performance progressed I had to admit to being unimpressed with him. He appeared to my eye competent yet uninspired.

The first piece was by a Mexican composer neither I nor my friend was familiar with. I enjoyed the slightly atonal piece. Both of us mentioned afterward that we definitely discerned a Mexican influence. The next piece by 20th century composer Samuel Barber was a cello concerto even more atonal that the first piece. Using an instrument that we were told during the introduction was 300 years old the remarkable guest musician, using a combination of techniques including plucking, strumming as well as working with the traditional bow, created sounds with the venerable, virtually irreplaceable treasure that left me slackjawed. He received a well deserved standing ovation at the end of his performance. The age of the cello gifted it with a rich warm sound which could only have been born slowly over time. As I listened to it's tones I pondered the almost countless number of people that have heard it played over it's long life. The previous evening the musician had performed an encore. Since this apparently sent the entire orchestra into overtime, so, despite our thunderous applause, on this night the encore was eschewed.

The second half of the program was a Shubert piece. The romantic composers work provided a sharp contrast to the modern sounds of the first half.

We enjoyed a late supper at a bar and restaurant nearby. Once a men's clothing store it has been imaginatively repurposed. It references it's original life by it's retention of it's street showcase windows as well as the names of the brands it formerly carried still being emblazoned on it's walls. Convenient to several entertainment venues it is often quite busy when there is more than one event taking place in the area on a given evening. This night it seemed to be attracting a young, hipster crowd. A portion of the population of my Chicago neighborhood has a similar, although perhaps slightly less well heeled, aesthetic. In my day we shopped in thrift stores, today's fashion is culled from H&M. The existence of these crowds suggest that while times and fashions change, youthful innocence and exuberance does not.

As we neared the house Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Jo" played on the radio. I hadn't heard the wonderfully ambiguous song in a long time. It was a welcome epilogue to a lovely evening.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Scotch Before the Symphony

My friends have season tickets to the Phoenix symphony, and the opera and the ballet and the, well anyway. My visits have previously coincided with dates when they have these tickets. So on Saturday night we prepared to go to the symphony by showering, dressing, I in symphony appropriate clothing I had packed for that evening, and sampling my friends finest scotch and whiskey.Several years ago my friend had begun to take an interest in brown liquors. I am not ashamed to recognize and admit that his pallet is quite a bit more refined and sophisticated than mine. First up was an 18 year old rich smoky brew purchased with an unexpected Holiday bonus. Even my trailer park tastebuds could sense it's excellence. Next was a whisky touted by a liquor aficionado's magazine as the years best. This sample proved the review accurate, however you must take into account my extreme lack of experience and knowledge in this area. My friend noted that once a whiskey is touted as "the best" it becomes next to impossible to obtain. He had resorted to asking a friend in Canada to get it for him since it was a Canadian product and more widely available there. He had me taste them freshly poured, then after breathing a few minutes and then with a teaspoon of water to experience the different flavors each modification produced.

We, to quote the rock classic "comfortably numb",  headed out.

Phoenix 2015 - Think Like a Dog

Saturday, being in retail the word means little to me. At one time it was the day one wanted to work as good sales were almost guaranteed, but those days, alas, are behind us. To me, in my world, it is generally just another day. To much of the rest of the world, however, it is the beginning of those 2 days of freedom from the responsibilities of a job that having the responsibilities of a job allows them to earn. Chores are accomplished, hobbies are indulged in, small out of town trips are planed. And so I found myself on a Saturday mid morning out in the bright desert sun chatting with my friend as he walks their dog.

As we stroll through the neighborhood streets I recalled an authority on dog training on a talk show discussing, appropriately, how to train a dog. His advise was that the owner think like one. This dog, on a retractable leash, is ahead of us, my friend second, I am lagging further behind enjoying the March warmth, as well as the varieties of plants and birds I rarely get to experience. Earlier that morning I watched as a line of quail, their distinctive head feathers bobbing, walked in a line along the garden wall looking as if they were participating in a parade. The dog sniffs plants and rocks, on occasion the curb or sidewalk. I attempt to think like a dog. It is to no avail. I cannot, for the life of me, ascertain what it is that intrigues her. She seems to inhabit a world of perpetual surprise. At home our cat appears to plot her moves, each of her activities and actions requiring extensive amounts of planning. By contrast the dog seems to live in the moment.

Arriving at a small park she is allowed off her leash. She takes off running in large circles at a breakneck pace. She lopes over to us, as if saying "Look what I can do"  then takes off again. She exhibits a carefree, childlike glee. As we get to the house she is allowed off her leash again. Eschewing the more direct route to the house along the small arroyo like tumble of rocks in the front yard she opts for a more indirect, civilized route. She trots up the driveway then up the path from the driveway the leads to the front door.

I try to think like a dog. I achieve little success.

Phoenix 2015 - Rest and Relaxation

I have difficulty with the term "relaxation". At home there is always something I need "to do", tasks to accomplish, projects to finish. When traveling someplace new there is always something to see, somewhere to go or someplace to experience.

Although my friends and I always find something I haven't done before, a new museum, a new area of the city or a day trip away from it, a substantial portion of these visits are whiled away accomplishing nothing. There are dinners with their neighbors or trips to the gym, allowing me the opportunity to sample Diamondback eye candy, But there are also afternoons in a chaise, soaking up the desert sun, the dog occasionally coming out to keep me company.

Even the sounds are tranquil. I live in a densely populated urban area. I have become accustomed to the noise of traffic, trains, sirens and drunken revelers speaking louder than necessary as they stumble down the alley behind our building on random weekend nights. In my friends backyard there is the soft sound of a breeze bringing the wind chimes, with their gentle metallic tingle, to life. On occasion a bird will fly over, calling to others, conveying messages to their fellows we cannot decipher. You may hear a plane or a car but their noise too is soft, compared with the din of my home.

I love the noise of the city. I thrive on the pace. But every once in a while I enjoy rediscovering the recuperative power of doing nothing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - When 68 Degrees Feels Like 80

Chicago winters can be harsh. The same thing can be said about a Phoenix summer. Yet there, spring, for a thick blooded Midwesterner like myself, becomes a view days of warm, sunny paradise. I enjoy the sleeveless, shorts clad eye candy of the local gyms. Unlike home at this time of year it isn't necessary to bury the well toned bodies in down jackets heading outdoors after a workout.

The thermometer says 68 but, to my sun starved body, it feels like 80. Under a layer of sunscreen, wearing only a swimsuit I enjoy relaxing on a chaise in the backyard. It is what many would refer to as a "speedo". Some claim to find them distasteful. I don't concern myself with their sensibilities. My upper thighs enjoy the warmth at least as much as my torso and calves. I often marvel and have occasionally written about the trend towards almost extreme modesty among the men, particularly the younger ones, of today. Men call other men douches, gay and worse for wearing skimpy yet still decent swimsuits. Women follow suit, saying they find them ugly, "I don't want to see that", while donning string bikinis or lining up at male strip clubs to view men gyrating in far less.

As for me I relish a few days in my small swimsuit soaking up the desert sun before returning to the cool spring of the Midwest.

Phoenix 2015 - Phoenix Art Museum - Warhol and Such

I had not planned my visit around the Phoenix Art Museum's exhibition of portraits by the pop art icon Andy Warhol, it was an example of artistic serendipity. The images are familiar, famous people rendered in garish colors via silkscreens created from photographs. But, by having the opportunity to get close to the works the depth of the pieces becomes apparent. Some are layered, silkscreens on top of silkscreens creating, because of the imprecise nature of the process, works containing multiple outlines of the same image. Some are embellished with ink or acrylic over the silkscreened image, some silkscreens rendered on linen canvasses heavily layered in paint. Pencil and ink sketches created during his youth are included allowing me to witness the onset of his artistic point of view, including his early obsession with celebrity and celebrities. On several occasions he vowed to quit his art and concentrate on filmmaking, yet always returned to it in the end. His life cut short at the age of 58, one wonders what he might think of today's ubiquitous "famous for being famous" culture.

We moved through the rest of the museum. The collection includes a Diego Rivera work so indicative of the artists style that it is recognizable as his from across the gallery. There are other works including a Hans Hoffman and the vivid colors and harsh lines of a Thomas Hart Benton. On one hall hangs an almost poignant, uncharacteristically small Rothko showing the deeply emotional expressionist using an uncharacteristically bright pallet. Glass walled overlooks provide views of the institutions sculpture gardens and the urban landscape surrounding the museum.

As with the Magritte exhibition I saw in Chicago last year seeing this many works by a single artist massed together gave me a more complete overview of the man, his art and his vision.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Phoenix Art Museum - The Di Vinci Code

At the Phoenix Art Museum, an institution I had not visited before,  I had looked forward to an exhibition of Warhol Portraits. A welcome and unexpected surprise was the rare exhibition of the Codex Leicester, 18 pages of text written in the minute, precise hand of Leonardo Di Vinci. Most of the writing involved his observations of the various properties of water. On some pages he drew diagrams in the margins illustrating his thoughts. The manuscript is written in 16th century Italian and backwards so it can only be deciphered by viewing it in a mirror. It is suspected that a reason for this was that Di Vinci was left handed. Training himself to write in reverse kept his sleeve and hand from dragging through wet ink. This is a problem with which I can relate as my fingers, when writing, sometimes take on a blue or black hue myself being similarly left handed. I have to admit I feel some degree of pride in sharing this trait with the extraordinary Di Vinci.

I found it was not the viewing of the codex itself that thrilled me as much as the realization that I was given the privilege to experience a connection, seeing his writing, with this man. I have had the good fortune to see a portion of the handful (approximately 20) of the artworks attributed to him. When seeing those I appreciated the image and technique. Here I appreciated the mind. I have read that aside from his powerful and curious mind and brilliant artistic eye he also possessed astounding physical strength. He was a human aberration of the most valuable kind.

The exhibition was fleshed out with other artworks which contain water as a central theme. These included two oil paintings by Courbet, as well as two by Monet. One of the Monets is extremely lovely depicting a flower covered arched trellis reflected in the pond it stands next to. There were also a series of photos of Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful geyser by the great nature photographer Ansel Adams. These brought back memories of watching the eruption of the geyser from the snow covered ground on my trip to the amazing geological wonderland.

I learned from the exhibition that, the telescope not being invented until 100 years after his lifetime, Di Vinci thought that the moon was covered with water, the patterns we saw from earth the result of wind driven waves. Proof that even the greatest of minds can make a mistake now and then. After all, nobody's perfect!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Random Thoughts on Art and Screwing With Your Inner Time Clock

Although a flight may sound as if it leaves at a reasonable hour by the time one factors in making oneself presentable enough to leave the house, getting to the airport and surviving the increasing rigors of actually getting on the plane, in some instances one may find oneself rising several hours before the sun in order to get to the airplane on time. Even with a mid afternoon nap, necessitated by my no longer being capable of coherent speech, I still found myself in bed absurdly early. This meant, of course, that I was awake, at least for a vacation, absurdly early. One friend was at work, the other running early morning errands, so I found myself watching the Arizona sun rays as they journeyed across the back yard. It was just me, their dog, coffee and my spiral bound notebook. Were I home at this same hour and going to work I would be shaving, showering and donning a suit and tie as opposed to sitting at the kitchen island in sleep shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt drinking coffee and writing.

Our plan on this day was to visit the Phoenix Art Museum. An exhibition of Warhol portraits was opening which I had looked forward to during this visit. The Chicago Art Institute, voted the number one museum in the world by tripadvisor, contains an almost embarrassment of riches and world treasures in it's holdings. But travel always offers me a broader experience. I think back on viewing the Gainsborough's in St. Louis, which I credit with creating my appreciation for his almost miraculous technique. There were also the masterpieces, both ancient and modern, at Houston's Menil Galleries. I have been allowed to come within inches of Diego Riviera's monumental mural in Mexico City's city hall. On trips to Europe I have had the good fortune to marvel at Michelangelo's David. In Amsterdam I have had my soul renewed by the strokes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. I have wandered through the Louve, where we purchased a plaster cherubs head ornament, carefully unwrapped and hung each Christmas reminding of us that day.

For me art has always been able to touch a place deep inside me. Art is, at least for me, both viewed and felt.

Phoenix 2015 - Planned Activities

My friends and I had mentioned, on previous trips, visiting the Phoenix Art Museum. There was a special exhibition of Andy Warhol portraits during the time I would be there. It seemed a prime opportunity for the long discussed museum trip. A day trip was also planned to the Saguaro National Forest. The multiarmed, ancient cacti generally grow far apart, battling one another for the scant water resources of the desert. In this one spot they crowd together. We planned to visit the Sonora Desert Museum in that area as well. There was the Phoenix Symphony Saturday night as well as dinner with their neighbors one evening. It was to be a busy time.

Then there was the sun and warmth. I always enjoy the sensation of the desert sun kissing my Midwestern winter white flesh. Returning home with a touch of color accentuated by a crisply pressed white dress shirt always makes Chicago heads turn, the faces that stare bearing a look which is part contempt, part envy. On one trip to Mexico I became quite sunsick due to a lack of suitable shelter during a day cruise. The bronze patina I bore on my return almost made the night spent on a Mexican hotel bathroom floor, head frequently hanging over the toilet, worth it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Surviving the Rigors of Travel

It was that time of year when the world couldn't quite make up it's mind. The temperature had transitioned to a more consistently tolerable level and the sun sat too high in the sky for it to be full on winter, yet drifts of snow remained, reminders of late season storms. Icicles, nature's crystal chandeliers, trailed down from roofs and balconies . They were late winters thaw frozen in a moment of time. Still, it was too early to be spring. The years green grass, let alone flowers, had yet to appear And only the most hardy souls dared to go out in anything less than a heavy coat.

On this particular morning large wet snowflakes fell reminding us that winter was not done with us yet. I was in a CTA station waiting for the bus that would take me to the airport. Like almost every year around that time I was enroute to visit my friends in Phoenix. A woman, at least clean and dressed for the cold, with a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee in her hand, moved in and out of the station smoking a cigarette while pointing her finger and arguing with an invisible, imaginary adversary. It was 4:45 in the morning. Who did I expect to be out that early? Noel Coward once wrote "Mad men and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun", apparently mad women and Americans go out at 4:45 in the morning when it is snowing. A young black man walked past me dressed in the public transit uniform of a navy blue bomber jacket and well fitting cargo pants. It is a look reminiscent of a member of a SWAT team, which I feel some guilt and embarrassment in finding oddly sexy. I recall watching the closing ceremonies of the winter Olympics, being held that year in Canada, on a previous visit to Phoenix. As they paraded across the field in their high boots, their Sam Browne harnesses smartly buckled over snug red jackets I remarked "I can't help it, I think Mountie uniforms are hot." One of my hosts declared "Oh God yes!" Sometimes it's nice to know you're not alone in this sort of thing.

People got on the bus wearing a thin layer of the snow falling outside. Arriving at the airport I encountered, as always, lines on top of lines. We check in, a line, we passed through security, a line we boarded the plane, a line. I passed the line time people watching. In particular the well built man in the stocking cap and tight tee shirt. One could easily imagine him pacing in a cage. An MMA fighter, barechested and barefoot, wearing satin shorts. He was, as one of my Phoenix host has said on occasion, hot in a serial killer sort of way. In reality he was probably a youth minister.

Our Frontier airplane sported an image of a white snowshoe bunny on it's tail. Ironic considering we were headed to the desert. An hour past our original departure time we were in the air. Chicago, the city that works.....eventually.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Lack of Imagination

A friend recently sent me a photo of the great actress Dame Judi Densch as Sally Bowles in a 1967 London production of  "Cabaret". Although she looks much the same as now in physical appearance it is a tad difficult to imagine the stately lady of stage and screen that she is today portraying the saucy sexpot.

In younger days Arnold Schwarzenegger was fond of donning tight fitting polo shirts. Unfortunately, although his style sense has not changed, his body has. Several years ago I saw news footage of him running up a few steps to a podium wearing one of the form fitting shirts. The effect, to quote Jack Lemmon in "Some Like it Hot" looked like "jello on springs", not in a good way. Looking at him today it would be difficult, were it not for movies and photos, to imagine his once award winning physique.

So it was, while quietly standing behind my jewelry counter some years back, that a tiny lady entered the store. I judged her to be perhaps 70, if not a bit older. As I rang her transaction I invited her to add her name to our mailing list. She mused a moment then decided on one of the two names she went by. "That's the name I used when I played nightclubs and cruise ships", she informed me. As we continued to talk she said she had been in the original companies of two Broadway shows. "I was in the chorus of "The Sound of Music" and had one line in "Gypsy." In "Gypsy" she played Electra, one of a trio of strippers encountered by Gypsy Rose Lee. In a delightful song, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick", they attempt to teach Miss Lee the ropes of their profession. She told me her single line  "You're much younger that I was when I started stripping", she delivered in a Marilyn Monroe coo, eliciting a laugh from the audience each time.

Ethel Merman, the show's star, apparently was not as amused as the audiences. Having none of it she cornered the stage manager and instructed him to "Tell Electra to cut it out!" God forbid that the audience should be entertained by a one line bit player.

As she left the store my mind's eye began to imagine her scantily clad on the Broadway boards. I shuddered a bit. It was at that point that I determined, my immense natural curiosity notwithstanding, that some things are best left unimagined.