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.