Friday, December 31, 2010

Folk Hero

There's someone I'd like you to meet.

This is my friend and coworker Dan. He's a gifted architect who used to work with Alabama's acclaimed Rural Studio. He lives right here in the neighborhood, and you might see him singing at an open mike or biking back and forth to work, or the Y, or one of his favorite corner stores to pick up a jar of peanut butter.

About a year ago he got plunked down into my occasionally punishing workplace as a kind of birthday present. Not because we're so incredibly tight (we're not) or because I think I'll still know him in 10 years (I don't), but because he's the kind of guy who will quietly and without telling a soul step in to design and build 22 beds for a new men's interim-housing shelter.

And because two days after his beloved grandfather died on Christmas morning, he was rifling through his closet and was struck by the simple beauty of a vintage wooden coathanger, and decided to turn it into something more beautiful, which he turned into something even more beautiful:

We're about to turn to a new calendar page, and I resolve this year to be more like Dan. If I can also, every once in a while, applaud him after playing a song at a bar, or offer him some tea, or answer one of his tender requests for advice, well, that's no bad thing either.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Everyday Use

The worst part of insomnia is that terrible, middle-of-the-night feeling that you're the only person awake in the world. There is nothing lonelier. This has been far more pronounced, for me, in small towns, where it seems like everyone responds to the calm by closing their blinds and shutting down, far more successfully than I, for the night.

Urban living has offered the salve that something seems to be happening all the time: Businesses open, trains running, even people grocery shopping or taking a jog. It's comforting to know that life doesn't assume a single collective rhythm, but instead has a pulse, even in the wee hours.

I guess my preferred version of the world is one where things are in motion when you need them.

So it's been something of a thrill for me to watch our local daycare center finally open its doors. You may remember this building (actually a set of three connected buildings) having several failed attempts at productivity: A pathetic excuse for a shish-kabob restaurant called "Skewers," the more passable Super Pollo taqueria, a mortgage company, a random clerical office. But mostly, just empty, idle space, waiting for its best iteration.

I'd like to think it's found its way with the daycare center. Sure, I was sad to see the state-of-the-art hooded range disappear, thinking, if we just have a little patience, a perfect little eatery or bakery will make its home there. But you can't argue with the local economy, which says that services, not goods, make sense for certain corridors.

These photos are from two days after Christmas. It's just after 6am and pitch-black outside, but the bright lights are on and daycare workers scurry inside for their early arrivals, readying the rooms for infants, toddlers, and older children. I can only imagine those kids looking forward to their drop-off, so they can play in that cheerful space and take instruction from the sweet bilingual staff on how to make snowflakes for the windows.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Our next-door neighbors had to put down their beloved 15-year old gentle giant last week. It was a painful loss, especially this time of year.

We'd known Cosmo 10 of those 15 years, and he'd proven himself an exceptional neighbor. He was a reticent dog, but from time to time he'd leap up and rest his paws on the fence between our yards so we could give him a stroke on the muzzle.

John helped build a ramp when he got too infirm to walk down the steps, and we'd watch him periodically out the back window, clicking his paws down that slope like typewriter keys. We'd seen him dodge death a handful of times, including a prediction from his vet he wouldn't live to see the 4th of July . . . 2008.

We paid a visit to our neighbors yesterday, just to give them a squeeze and drop off a bottle of wine and some small gifts for their daughters. I supposed the house would feel empty and stark. But there was fullness there. Life. The tree they'd cut in rural Illinois was fragrant, dripping with handmade ornaments. The girls were almost giddy getting ready for a cookie baking party with friends. There was only one slip into sadness, when Mike came across Cosmo's collar in a pile of scarves. We all spilled over a little.

We invite these creatures into our lives knowing full well we're likely to outlive them. We befriend them and keep them safe and fed. They see us happy, devastated, naked, alive. In what turns out to be the best-case scenario, we decide their very last day, last meal, last moment on the planet. We're with them when they slip away. Aside from what we give to our very own children, there may be no more profound act of love.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Charity begins at home, or very nearby

Tis the season of charitable giving, and ordinarily the Boy Scouts wouldn't rise to the top of the list. I've got issues, I tell you. Not just about their stance against gay Scouts and leaders, which is deplorable. It's also the uniforms, the discipline, and that clear segregation between boys and girls. It reminds me of movements I find unsettling, and well, there are just so many other good causes in the world.

But when a sweet neighbor boy in his uniform comes asking for nonperishable food, and when I realize that food will feed hungry people potentially very close to home, and when I remember the Scouts arguably saved the life of another neighbor kid -- now all grown up -- whose parents died in unspeakable tragedy when he was young, and when we're shyly left this thank-you note along with two decorated cupcakes for our efforts, well, it's not hard to make that compromise.

Life might be easier with more absolutes, but it would certainly be less interesting.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jump Into the Shaker

What do I want for Christmas, you ask?

Anything new.

New necklace. New socks. New haircut. New job. New way of dealing with my winter skin. New place to try for dinner. New toothpaste. New gloves that keep my fingers from going numb. New living-room rug. New ice cream flavors. Unpilled sweaters. A day between Sunday and Monday. A 14th way of looking at a blackbird. New exercise regimen. New route to work. New lipstick color -- one that doesn't make me look like I'm on my way to a Cabaret tryout.

Hey, brand new bar popping up around the corner. Welcome to the neighborhood. What'll I have? Just pour me something -- anything -- I haven't tried before.

This is unlike me.

I think I need a realignment.

This nearby demo site fills me not with sadness, but with a weird sense of promise. No, I don't miss you, crummy old Mexican restaurant with your day-glo margaritas and forever-chirping smoke detector. (Please, for the love of god, change the batteries!) To whit, I haven't mourned your passing for a second.

I heard that a new fire station might be planned for the lot. New fire stations in Chicago actually seem to have some architectural zip. So bring it on, I say. It's fire season, after all. I like the idea of the city's finest being not far away with their trucks and hoses.

Of course we'll have a very different conversation if it ends up an Auto Zone.

But I'll take the beautiful dream of a little something new next to Vinos y Liquores. And ok, Second-hand Santa, I realize I've just spit in your eye. But don't fret. I'm bound to rekindle my love for flannel pajamas, clodhopper shoes, the same old dishes and sheets and lamps and curtains I've been looking at for years, and even this lame but reliable hairstyle. One successful visit to the thrift-store, one happy rediscovery of something in the back of the closet, and this yen for shiny veneers will be behind me.

But for now, I'd love to know the blue-book value for this old routine, because a trade-in sounds mighty enticing.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Here's the very curious rabbit hole I fell down Thanksgiving weekend.

Past-land. Traveled to Columbus, Ohio, the city where I grew up but have few real connections anymore. Not to visit my own family -- who have since moved away -- but to reconnect with John's family (obviously now also my family), who adopted the city long after he'd left the nest. So I visited my one-time home, no longer my home, John's family's home, though not his home, so a kind of home/not-home/not-home/home, away from home.

Future-land. Driving back to Chicago through Benton County, Indiana, a landscape now dotted with hundreds of wind turbines visible from the highway that spin hypnotically in the breeze. Larger than life, and as John described them: bizarre and wonderful cartwheels.

Present-land. Stopping at the coffee shop because we were completely out of beans at home. Picking up a bag of dark roast, along with two baguettes from the new French bakery. Forsaking the ride home to walk seven blocks in unseasonable warmth. Passing a kid
pogo-sticking like a champ up and down the sidewalk in front of his house. Resurfacing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Early merry tidings (on two wheels . . . without a seat)

Ordinarily I don't cotton to premature Christmas decorations, but I gotta say: This one puts me in a holiday mood. It also sits well with my form-meets-function tendencies (yes, that's a plastic candy cane serving as the handlebars). The ride probably isn't too comfortable, but I do know the bike gets ridden. Sometimes it's there, locked against the fence; sometimes it's nowhere to be found.

I've never seen the owner but I've burned with curiosity. The other residents of this building drive all manner of power vehicles -- vans and SUVs, and in one case a sparkling new Cadillac with gleaming, expensive rims, which pulls into its parking space with graphic
hip-hop booming from the speakers. That guy doesn't want to be ignored.

But the owner of the little blue cruiser? Unassuming. Nearly invisible. With charming attention to detail. And probably very strong legs.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Big News!

So . . . you wanna buy a house?

This sign greeted me this morning as the sun came up. It's positioned squarely in front of our next-door neighbor's house. The same neighbor whose mother owns the property but lives in California. The same neighbor whose pending divorce looked to convert the house into a rental. Absentee landlord, revolving door of tenants. Not a winning formula for a stable block.

In ways that quietly shame me, I've longed for something to happen with this house for years. You know that house on the block that's always overgrown with dandelions, always in need of a paint job? That's this house. Complicating matters is the tenants themselves, who had a quality that trumps all those annoyances: A steadfast respect for their neighbors. They were good people, and you couldn't have really asked for better than that. It certainly made it a whole lot easier not to stew all those times John had to mow their lawn, or I had to shovel their walk. Because these particular neighbors always had our backs. And that's worth more than the rest of it combined.

But now I'll admit. I'm fantasizing. Who might buy the place? More to the point, could *we* buy the place? What would it take to fix it up? How might it look with some perennials? The possibilites could drive a girl to distraction.

Regardless, it looks like some changes are afoot, mighty close to home. It's almost the holidays, and I like not knowing what's exactly in the box.

And all of this is to say, if you know someone in the market for a
fixer-upper, who wants to capitalize on the most buyer-friendly real estate market in decades, and will receive as part of the bargain some pretty top-drawer next-door neighbors, please send them my way. There's a nice welcome gift in it for them, and we've been known to loan a spare egg or cup of sugar by request.

Monday, November 15, 2010

For those keeping track

You may have noticed a motif these last few posts. Green tomatoes here, ripening in a box. A melon there, hanging on for dear life. You haven't even seen my work in progress: A paean to my last batch of baba ganouj, made from my last tiny eggplant of the year. You'll probably never see that post, in fact, as I ate the evidence before I could snap a photo. You may sense I'm struggling to let go of garden season, to which I say, you read me like a book.

All that confessed, I promised a few posts ago to keep you up to date on the late melon that sprang forth, unexpectedly, one morning in October -- from a plant that had sprung forth, unexpectedly, from the vermicompost we'd combined with our soil back in early June.

I was trying to give this petite amor every fighting chance, but I eventually had to acknowledge: The nights were getting colder, the leaves were getting crisper, and growth seemed to have stopped at the size of a baseball (shown above, beside a set of keys for perspective). So this past Saturday, I reluctantly harvested. My heart broke to pieces as I plucked her from her viny stem, then pulled that stem from the roots and popped it into a yard-waste bag.

And now for the moment of truth:

There, in all their O'Keefish glory, are the inner chambers of our final melon of the season. Ripe! Ok, the seeds outpace the fruit by probably 3 to 1, but there's dessert in there somewhere: a theory I intend to test this afternoon at lunch.

Farewell, garden season of 2010. You exceeded, you nourished, and through it all, you surprised. Hard to ask more of a garden than that.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can't quit you, tomatoes

After last week's midterm-election 'shellacking' (Obama may not be perfect, but he's done some great things, not least of which is introducing gorgeous verbs back into the national vocabulary), I find myself retreating into the comforts of home. One of those is certainly home cooking, but also a waste-not want-not mentality that seems fitting for the winter chill ahead.

Like me, you may find yourself with an abundance of late-harvest tomatoes, fooled by the prolonged summer into ushering themselves into the world, only to encounter near freezing temps while they're still too young to ripen.

Don't despair.

My mother gave me a trick a few years ago, and I'm happy to say it works like a charm. Some of you are intrepid enough to make fried green tomatoes or green tomato jam, but my overextended life makes such magic nearly impossible. I need something simple, quick, and foolproof, and the following seems to be the ticket. So join me in faking out your tomatoes this year. They're not as good as picked right off the vine, but when it's February and you're eating a caprese sandwich straight (ok, nearly straight) from your garden, you won't be as wistful as you may think:

Step 1. Wrap each tomato individually in newspaper and place gently in a cardboard box.

Step 2. When the box is full, fold the top flaps in securely and place it in a dark spot of your basement.

Step 3. Check once a month or so for ripeness (my last attempt took over 3 months and just as I was about to give up, lo and behold, I had splendid red fruit in January).

It's a mystery to me why something that craves heat and light will also respond to its opposite. I know shamefully little about the vegetables I grow, so if you know why this works, I'd welcome the science lesson. For now, though, I'm excited to think about watching the transformation of these sweet heirlooms well into the bitter months of winter. It should make the legislative gridlock a little easier to swallow.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Art Party

I went to a rally to restore sanity this past Saturday. My own sanity, that is.

This was actually a work event: A celebration of area murals, some restored, some new, all of them in places you might not expect -- on the side of concrete buildings, in doorways of affordable-housing complexes, across from an Auto Zone, under a viaduct. Even the event site was unlikely: the parking lot of a building that houses the mentally and physically disabled.
We had a dozen interactive art exhibits, including my shaker-making workshop. I brought all the stored jars and containers in our house; some dry beans, lentils, and rice; a box of ribbons, buttons, glue, and notions, then showed folks how to put it all together to make their own musical instruments. We eventually paraded down North Avenue, and adults and kids shook those rattles while a drum group played along and a couple of guys with Moroccan horns kept things interesting.

I wore a costume.

Now . . . I'm going to say something I never would have said, wouldn't have even whispered, as recently as two years ago. But there was something pretty liberating about being part of a work event that wasn't overtly ideological.

If you know anything about my job, you know that I spend a minimum of eight hours a day, every day, shoulder-deep in the throes of politics. I don't work for the government, but I work in a community (and am accountable to that community) that's in a political fight for its life. Its response to this fight has been a strident rise in nationalism. There are many who find themselves in a constant state of confrontation, and to give that up is to give up the ghost altogether. At times this response is downright inspirational, and I'm proud to work in a community that is unafraid to raise its voice and demand fairness, equity, and endurance.

At other times -- and in recognizing that I (or what I represent, or how some might interpret what I represent) am often the target of these confrontations -- it gets exhausting, depleting, and sometimes, for me, deeply deeply sad.

I don't want to wrestle these demons here. I've wrestled them internally for the last couple of years, and let me just say there's no easy answer to the questions.

I'll just say that it was refreshing, as a change of pace, to see black, brown, and white kids together -- making shakers, painting on canvas, assembling costumes from prop boxes, making god's eyes, sampling fresh-fruit smoothies and 'ants on a log,' then taking those healthy recipes home with them -- and not having to think or talk explicitly about what it means to have those black, brown, and white kids together, making art that might or might not be reflective of their heritage, and what this all means for their identity or the identity of the community as a whole.

For a few hours of a sunny Saturday morning, groups came together from every background and simply made art. They sang, they danced, they drew, they paraded. Together. No, of course it's not as simple as that -- the personal is the political, and there's no pure space outside of ideology. I believe those things fully in both my heart and mind, but let me tell you it's a heck of a lot easier to be a graduate student talking about those issues than a working person living under their weight, and within their inscription, 52 weeks a year.

Because in the end, simultaneous with those truths, there's also this kid, and this shaker she just made, and the light, thin air around her that filled up her lungs, and mine too.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Doing a lot with a little

When many of your surroundings look like this, it's nice to see someone go the extra mile.

There's a little strip near us -- full of potential once the economy catches up with itself -- zoned commercial on the bottom, residential on the top. Only thing is, there's not a whole lot of commercial development of any stretch these days, at least not in our neck of the woods. Just ask the guys who stopped me yesterday while I walked to the mailbox. "Hey, is there anyplace to grab a cup of coffee and kill some time around here?"

Umm . . . head scratching, mind going blank, then directing them to the troubled Mexican restaurant down the street, which I'm not even sure is open anymore. Sorry, gents. I'm hopeless.

So my hat goes off to a handful of our neighbors, transforming their retail display space into at least a little something. In one case it's a law office under renovation. The owners put black curtains in the windows and oil paintings in front, creating a nifty exhibit for a local visual artist. You probably can't see her landscapes very well, but these are all scenes from the neighborhood, making this window gallery something of a comment on itself.

In another case, well, I don't know what that is. But trust me it's better than the previous exhibit: 'Exposed nails and cobwebs: A Retrospective.'
None of these displays are going to win any awards. And believe me, a Chamber of Commerce is a long way away. But it's a little something to look at while walking the dog. And when the daycare center finally opens in the former Super Pollo space, that stretch will be filled with color and noise and laughter and breathless running around: The stuff of any thriving corridor, bad economy be damned.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Melon Watch

You may recall my giddiness earlier this summer, when the zucchini I thought would never bloom turned out to be rogue cantaloupe and butternut squash, sprung forth from the compost we'd added to our soil. For what it's worth, the zucchini never grew, but we ended up with two tasty cantaloupe -- harvested long ago -- and three chubby butternut squash, one of which is helping me fight a cold as we speak in the form of a fragrant soup.

We've had a nice, prolonged summer in Chicago, tricking our tomatoes into continued yields. Still, it's time to start thinking about putting the garden to bed.

But wait, not so fast! As I harvested a large bowl of cherry tomatoes yesterday, I nearly tripped over the little guy above, making a surprise appearance.

If his earlier bretheren are any indication, cantaloupe takes a loooong time to ripen. But the quickness of this cameo may hint at some rare will to live. Maybe he'll mature rapidly, racing the frost we're sure to see by the end of October.

I'll keep you posted on his development, of course, but in the meantime, I ask for your collective good will -- rooting for daily growth visible to the naked eye, for a breakneck transformation from fragile green skin to mottled brown husk. If this cantaloupe makes it, I promise to share.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On mourning an object I didn't know I loved

I'm a bicycle widow. Last weekend I buried (in the back of the basement) the 21-speed silver hybrid I've had since just 2006. I remarried quickly -- too quickly, perhaps, for what's thought proper in civilized company. This was an arranged marriage, after learning the pain in my left shoulder wasn't a muscle knot at all, but a permanent "cervical disc group protrusion at C6 and C7."

I hate you, C6 and C7.

My newly betrothed -- mandated by my physical therapist -- is a pearly green 8-speed comfort model. Pretty as it may be, it's not the same, not by a long shot. And my reaction to the loss of the old bike? I think I'm actually grieving.

The first bicycle I owned as an adult was a snazzy turquoise number my parents gifted me for my 30th birthday, after I'd met a dreamy guy (whom I'd later marry) -- a former bike messenger and impassioned cycling enthusiast. I doted on that bike. I feminized her. I gave her a nickname (my "velocipede"), tore off all her branded decals, and decorated her frame with silk flowers. She was a tool, sure, but she was mostly an accessory.

When it came time to trade her in ten years later, I never looked back. I didn't mourn. I was excited to meet her new owner, a lanky Frenchwoman who looked far more quirky and exotic riding her than I could ever hope to. I breathlessly collected the credit toward my new bike: A workhorse (see above), the same bike I would ride through my early 40s, that would carry me through 50+-mile days in Maine a couple summers back, and that I moved into storage last week, because riding it exacerbates my symptoms and could aggravate my injury.

That second bike? Eh. It never aesthetically pleased me. It was no kind of showstopper. I never much thought about it to be honest. It ran seamlessly and needed little maintenance. I went through a stretch of flat tires last year, but that I blamed on all the broken glass on our lousy Chicago roads. Never on the bike. In truth, I sort of took that bike for granted. But isn't that, in a way, the best kind of bicycle to have? One that rarely crosses your mind? One that becomes such an extension of your body that riding it is second nature, maybe nature itself?

Day 1 on the new bike, Bike #3 for those keeping track, nearly broke me. I had trouble getting started from a stop position. Once I got rolling, I couldn't pick up any steam. I've never been a particularly fast rider but could generally hold my own. On the new bike, though, people on rickety three-speeds blew by me. Parents carrying their children in kid seats, a blur in front of me as I trundled along, trying to find the right gear with this damn internal gear shifter.

A friend of mine, far more wracked with injury than I am (but nothing that affects his riding; he's a demon on wheels) caught up with me on his way home from work.

"So that's the new bike? What do you think?"

"I feel like I'm riding a Rascal."

I didn't tell him I'd just been crying a little.

But a funny thing happened on Day 2 and 3. Day 2 I learned to get a running start, and hopping on was far less teetering than my inaugural ride. My pain and numbing were even subsiding a little. On Day 3, I actually started enjoying the pace and the upright posture, noticing things I wouldn't have otherwise with my body angled forward and my eyes on the prize: beating that yellow and getting through the light.

Then a bike-shop bad-ass told me a generous story. He's swapped out all his old road bikes for upright models. The reason? "It's the city," he said. "I want my head up and my eyes forward. Otherwise I get reckless. Mistakes get made."

It was the nicest thing a tough guy has ever done for me.

So I guess in a way I'm coming around, a little. Change is tough, and sometimes I want to shout from the rooftops: "I'm too young to be this old!" But of course these changes are part of the roadmap. You live, you experience, you age, you remember. You take what comes, and you make adjustments. And if you're smart and marginally graceful about it, you stay alert to the spoils of that bargain.

I may never ride as fast or as far as I could six months ago. But slow and steady, I continue to ride.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ho Hum

(during and

Dear Neighborhood,

The thrill is gone. Please find ways to delight me again.

- Your melancholy former fan

In fairness, it's not the neighborhood's fault. It's the same old burg it's always been. Sure, a heap more gentrification to the east, but some pleasant hold-steady closer to home. I guess it's hard not to compare it to where I've just been -- history, topography, majestic vistas, human kindness, street dogs and chickens roaming free.

We even came back to some little gifts from the City. Permit signs in the windows of derelict buildings. The new playlot, finally and gloriously installed at the local P.S. And what ho? The crumbling sidewalk adjacent to us, finally repaired after eight long years of griping about it. (Shall we say it together? 'Election year.' Whatever the reason, I'll take it).

It's been tough to be moved by any of it, though. Maybe it's the news we got: Two great sets of neighbors, moving away in quick succession. Or maybe the fact that my body's falling apart -- a grumpy knee, and now a disc-group herniation in my neck (a permanent condition that requires morning stretches, no heavy lifting, and the unplanned purchase of a pricey new bike). Maybe it's the casually discarded chicken bone that got lodged in Inez's throat this morning, causing gagging/choking/expelling that I thought might be the end of her. Maybe it's the end of harvest season, saying good-bye to our bounty of eggplant and tomatoes. Or some recent frustrations at work? -- Frictions I thought had long ago subsided seeming to rear their ugly heads again.

I guess I could point to a host of causes, but we all know these things are matters of perception. Right now, that repaired sidewalk seems like a dull gray slab of unforgiving concrete. But I remain committed, dear neighborhood, to watching it morph into some kind of tabula rasa, all the more amazing for having not a single flaw -- not a single carved name or set of pigeon prints (in our neighborhood?!) -- in its surface.

Of course it'll be the same old sidewalk. But when my view of it changes, I'm home.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

High places

As vacations go, this one was pretty revelatory. You can't help but see the world differently when you wake up to mountains every morning. Their faces change a thousand times over between sunrise and twilight, so your eyes do as well. As does your breathing, and mine came more easily those two weeks I spent in Peru.

Ok, that's a lie. At least partly. Something else those mountains bring is a quicker heart, shallower breaths, when you're actually up inside them -- navigating a two-foot wide path with steeper drops than you've seen from planes, only a rare barricade to fix you to the ground. I didn't just look at the mountains on this trip. I trekked my way through them. I'm a pedestrian by choice most of the time, but these were very different walks for me, and every day brought a new set of anxieties. Higher altitudes, narrower paths, steeper drops.
Oh my.

One thing I learned is that fear is an unpleasant place for me. Some people get exhilarated by standing on the edges of things. John's one of them. Not me. Not even a little bit. But I walked seven miles of the Inca Trail (by some accounts, the toughest seven miles of the trek) along the edge of the Andes mountains. I got up the next morning and took a white-knuckled bus-ride up and up and up, to look with amazement over Macchu Pichu at daybreak, then climb its rocky staircases, stand on its high terraces, and meander my way through masonry that's withstood hundreds of years of winds, mudslides, earthquakes, El Nino, snows, Spanish conquest, abandonment, excavation, and more recently tourism -- all a mile and a half up from sea level without a single drop of mortar to hold it together.

We didn't stop there. We trekked to the top of a mountain waterfall, stepping out of the way when a group of three enormous, untended bulls needed to pass in the opposite direction. We spent a day hiking the surviving structures of Pisac, and another -- this one so windy it tore pieces of the tile roof from our guesthouse -- at Ollantaytambo, a set of ruins designed in the shape of a llama, which you can see if you climb up the mountain across the way, which we naturally did, resulting in deep intakes of breath and not looking down (something I'd mastered by that point).

We took rides in cabs that passed on the wrong side of the road and invented lanes between lanes. We flew in a 60-seater through the Andes, which shook and tossed that little plane just enough for me to start thinking how lucky I was to have had this experience, just in case it was my last.

And of course, we rested. In the tiny town of Huaran, in what we both agreed was the most pristine and beautiful place we've ever stayed -- one that allowed enough time for profound reflection. Holy Pachacuti! I did that. Me -- a person who can barely breathe when the el train turns a corner too quickly, who can't live in the country because a frog or toad might cross my path.

Peruvians have no fear of heights. They grow up around those mountains. They walk them, farm them, and build their houses on their steep inclines. They tend their animals there, and their animals learn to run across those paths like they're a thousand feet wide. Peruvians, despite abject poverty for many and unforgiving weather for most -- lengthy stretches without rain, and then lengthy stretches with rain alone -- are also some of the kindest, most generous-of-heart people I've ever met. I have to believe it's got something to feeling so tiny in the world, compared to everything else around you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Peru: Early impressions

In some ways Peru has one of those other-side-of-the-world effects: Far, far from home, at least in a psychic sense . . . though it's closer than other countries I've visited, like Russia, which felt like something lodged in my memory even before I got there.

It's strange not to be able to drink the water. Or eat a salad. Or scale a short flight of stairs without feeling out of breath from the altitude. It's strange to look out the window and see not tall buildings, but mountains, the very things that surely inspired Chicago's skyscrapers, yet seem almost primordial compared to all that glass, steel, and limestone.

But these very challenges are the things that give this place its sense of place, which for me, is the singular litmus test for a corner of the world worth visiting.

Parades spring up like dandelions here. We followed one down the cobbled streets in front of Cusco's Plaza de Armas this morning -- women in ornate skirts and tiny bowler hats that rested impossibly on top of their heads, men in flashy yellow costumes with epaulets and sequins, still others inexplicably in gorilla suits, and a full brass marching band bringing up the rear. They nearly collided with a second parade that prompted us to shift in the opposite direction. This one was a protest march with dozens of children, parents, and teachers chanting in Spanish about the right to an education without violence. Amazing.

Fireworks and roosters wake us up every morning at 5. That and the sound of barking street dogs. They rove in packs, looking for discarded food and making us fantasize about ditching the contents of our luggage to tote a couple home, cure them of their worms, and give them the homes they surely deserve -- the same homes they'd hate for the forced confinement and order.

And of course there are the ruins. The pre-Columbian, mortar-free masonry that's endured for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. We've visited Lima's 4th-century Huaca Pucllana, with its vertical "bookshelf" brickwork, and Cusco's stunning Saqsaywaman (pronounced "sexy woman") at the highest point of what's purported to be the highest city of the world. Machu Picchu still remains a few days away. It'd be stupid for me to try to say something about these sites that hasn't been said before. Just trust me: Everything you've heard is true.

We've experienced the kindness of strangers on this trip. The wobble of mild altitude sickness, the vibrant color of uninhibited cities, the incessant solicitations of street vendors (who gently and kindly take no for an answer), the bumps and tugs of flying over the Andes, the pride of a Spanish word well-used, the fear of traffic with a different set of rules, the awe of other people's religion, the tummy trouble of an altered diet, and the tart pleasures of a Pisco sour.

We've also looked with surprise on the higher grade of American tourist this country seems to attract. Kind and reverent people. People with respect and curiosity. People who speak in a quiet voice. John said it best when he playfully cursed Peru for taking the best of us away from home, where we could collectively be doing some good.

As for us, we continue to amble along, eyes and ears wide open, awaiting the next adventure. This might take the form of a trek along the Inca Trail, or it might be as simple as understanding an overheard phrase in Spanish, or having my stomach steeled for alpaca. Regardless, it's an awfully nice way to celebrate ten years together. Happy anniversary, love. Thanks for seeing the world with me.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Unluckiest Restaurant in the World

My heart goes out to this earnest spot. My palate too: Their food is unequivocally lovely. A few years ago the owners bought and refurbished their brick building in the middle of a crummy block. Lots of empty storefronts, little foot traffic, frequent gang skirmishes in the area.

The foodie community embraced this little-restaurant-that-could (the photo above is from those early halcyon days). They hailed the fresh seafood and inventive moles. They honored them with awards and put them on the map. But it was a rocky map at best.

"Meet for dinner? Over there?"

Sure, we neighborhood folks embraced the place, but it couldn't sustain itself as a destination for visitors, and the prices were a little too high for this working-class area to keep them afloat. Last fall, the fate we'd both dreaded and expected came to pass: The owners locked the doors, turned their sign to Closed, and concentrated on their other spot in a north-side neighborhood with far more passersby, and a heap more purchasing power.

Then, surprising news. The place was reopening with a new concept. Inexpensive gourmet tacos with a slew of homemade salsas for customizing. I had the best bowl of pozole of my life there once, and it seemed like all was right in River City.

We did what we could to talk the place up. We got a few friends there, but in fairly short order, the quality declined, the salsas ran out, they pozole was 86'd, and paper was over the windows again.

Three days later, a favorable review ran in the Sun Times. Foodies sought the place out again, only to find it shuttered. Really?!

Just as we made our peace with them being gone for good, a shocking announcement: The place was reopening yet again, going back to their roots with bright, earthy moles and plates large and small. Oh, did I mention their reopening date was two short weeks after the grand opening of the new record store across the street? That weekend featured nonstop live music and hundreds of visitors to the area, many of whom were probably looking for something to eat. The taquerias got their business. The opportunity got missed.

Now, with a rehabbed menu and brave face, they manage to turtle along with maybe four or five tables on a good night. Almost everything I've ordered there has been delicious, though my last visit started having those markings of a restaurant in decline. My tamale was dry, and I'd brought a friend along with me, only to have her notice a rat scurry along the outdoor seating area. This is the city and these things can happen, but why do they always seem to happen to this place?

You have to wonder. Is this one of those right time, wrong place scenarios? A splendid concept with poor execution? Maybe a restaurant on autopilot, with nobody driving the train?

Or maybe it's like that really nice guy we all know: The one who seems like such a great catch but is always unlucky in love. The one we'd love to set up our little sister with, if our little sister were still single. But our little sister isn't single. She's already got a great guy. So we try to entice our single friends, but they're a little cannier than we are. Where we see heart, they see awkwardness. Where we see potential, they see unfinished business. Where we see fragility, they see impotence.

The best this place can probably hope for, I fear, is a few more months in remission. I block out what I imagine their staff meetings to be: Heavy sighs, staff reductions, hanging on for dear life -- maybe even saving up newspaper for the windows. I try to hope for the best, but I fear I should grab my huitlacoche while I can.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Street Envy

Welcome to the Albany Home Zone. This block, maybe half a mile away, has transformed itself with curb extensions to calm traffic and expand play areas. The home-zone concept, which originated in the UK, appeals to the wonderfully vagabond sensibility of this block, which says streets should be for people first -- not cars.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, when this neighborhood was considered too dangerous to market, a group of socially-conscious friends -- many of them from the cycling community -- started buying property on the block. Those with multi-units drew kindred spirits, until what they'd created was a community within the community.

It was with that critical mass that the block was able to lobby funds for the home zone. I envy them that. I think of how difficult it's been to tackle similar problems on my own block. Even neighbors' petitions for something as simple as speed bumps have run into, well, speed bumps, from car lovers and Libertarians alike.

I've often wondered what we could accomplish with a group of friends together in a finite geography: My own dreams have veered more toward the driftless region of Wisconsin, or maybe metropolitan Detroit. It's easy enough to imagine: A happy enclave of like-minded people, creating a sense of home out of a shared will and vision.

And then I take the fantasy a little further: The potlucks and the barbecues. The coparenting and built-in dogsitting. The reading groups and swapped garden harvests. The knitting groups. The organized bike rides. The spontaneous conversations in the street. The ringing doorbells and telephones. Going gray together. Taking a morning jog and bumping into someone who might ask to join you. The concord and communion. And likely for me, and the challenge to carve out a moment alone.

As I try to catch my breath, I realize: I don't belong in an enclave.

I guess I like choosing between a quick wave and a longer conversation. I like the mirage of anonymity. I might gladly trade Libertarianism (and litterbugs) for speed bumps, but not for consensus, because even though others may stay sharp and curious regardless, I get lazy without something to bristle against.

I like our Sox fan neighbors, our churchgoing neighbors, our foul-mouthed neighbors, our opera-singing neighbors, even our hard-partying and persnickity neighbors. I don't see much potential for sustained collective involvement in projects together. But we sure throw a mean block party. And we managed to create a splendid corner garden, which I have to admit is prettier than speedbumps.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Everyone needs a hobby

You never know what you're going to stumble across on your way to the local taqueria. These scenes grace the window of what I believe is a loan office on our busiest commercial corridor -- a strip designed more for cars than pedestrians. Then again, if not for taking bustling streets on foot now and then, you'd never come across the lost art of storefront taxidermy, which apparently entices some to take out a loan.

Because I appreciate the handiwork, I'm going to put my fingers in my ears and assume no creatures were harmed in "Raccoon Digs For Toy Surprise," "Squirrel Calls it Maize," or "Lounging Otter with . . . Test Tubes?"

Regardless, I have no room to judge when I'm on my way to a lunch of tacos al pastor.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Look at something pretty, play in the dirt

We've been waiting years to see some improvement at our local elementary school. It's a beautiful old building named for James Monroe, which makes you think it might have a little more, I don't know, ambition. But for the last few years, the building and its grounds have stagnated. Indifferent principals and lacking resources have made for a lifeless site where there should be energy and vision. It's no wonder the kids sullenly walk into school and often stir up trouble when they leave.

Enter my friend Dawn Marie. She runs a local nonprofit arts agency for neighborhood kids. They teach everything from dance to painting to circus performance to spoken-word poetry. In partnership with a new, enthusiastic principal at the school, she was able to put together a program that would actually get the kids involved in transforming the vista of their school.

First step: A school garden. They built planting boxes out of recycled materials and are now seeing the fruits of their labor come to life. Tomatoes, corn, "the hottest pepper in the world" -- a garden that reflects the cultural heritage of the students. Our new neighbors, Conor and Tim, live across the street from the school and are raising backyard chickens. I was able to connect them to these efforts, and they've already arranged one visit by the kids to learn about chickens, eggs, and the importance of letting animals roam free.

Next step: A mural. I wish I'd taken a Before picture of this cement wall so you could see how desolate it made the playground (really a giant asphalt lot with some broken-down plastic equipment) feel. But refurbished, it's a focal point of the grounds.

Oh, about those grounds: A soft-surface playlot is in progress. They've already started drilling into the concrete to make room for construction. And in the grave left behind by the old playground equipment? An expanded garden!

I'm sympathetic to the hardships most Chicago Public Schools principals are facing. Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 program ties a school's survival to the students' performance on standardized tests. Many principals and teachers feel all they have time to do is teach to the test. It's a deplorable way to run public education.

This makes it all the more exciting to see a school -- set in its ways, and grateful for mere survival -- reinvigorated this way. I have to believe, if we're stuck with Renaissance 2010, that these students will fare better on tests because of the new vigor in the school. The improvements remind the kids that they should be defined by more than a gray slab of concrete or Scantron form.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

If birds could talk . . .

A friend walking his dog last week was surprised to stumble on this scene:

Yes, that's a chicken sitting on the sidewalk next to a metal trashcan. The poor girl barely stirred and appeared to be injured. My friend had no luck reaching Animal Control, so he came home and started sending out alerts: First to our mutual friend Noah, an urban gardening enthusiast who keeps a flock of backyard chickens. Concerned, but unavailable.

Second to me, so I sent a note to two newcomers to our block, who also keep a coop. They reached out to the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts, a Google group well equipped to help with the situation. I was feeling a bit better, so I refocused on my work, assuming our feathered friend would be in good hands soon enough.

Later that afternoon, a second SOS from my friend. The chicken was still in the exact same spot, as was a police officer on his phone, trying to call the proper authorities, and an older Latina woman who claimed the chicken was sitting on a bed of pennies -- a bad omen, she said, and it was best not to touch her since she must be carrying a hex.

Ah, Santeria season. The time of year we often see signs of animal sacrifice throughout the neighborhood -- one of our neighbors once found a dead goat in the dumpster behind his house -- and I have to assume that our chicken may have been a lucky escapee from an impending ritual.

I learned later that she was eventually picked up by a decidedly nonsuperstitious bird rescue organization, who would assess her condition and nurse her back to health.

What a curious time and place we live in, I realized. The collision of dogwalker, police officer, religious observer, and wayward fowl. The idea that you might come across such a creature on a morning walk through the city, and that same city might provide various conduits to resolve this dilemma, as if the world was anticipating it all along.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Our Lady of the Jungle Gym

Now this is a sign from above I can squarely get behind.

Yesterday, as I walked past this venerable corner church, two adorable kids with posterboards shouted, "Car Wash! Tacos! Car Wash! Tacos!"

"Are you raising money for the playlot?" I asked them.

"No, we're raising money for our church. We think it might close."

Even an athiest like myself took the news right to the breadbasket. This church is the closest thing we have to a community center. Their parishioners can still choose Mass in Spanish, and the priest rides a bicycle. I've voted there, met with my local police officers there, eaten arroz con gandules and potato salad with my neighbors there.

The paradox wasn't lost on me that the same lot they used for the
car wash is the one that promises a green playlot by fall. Their best source of fundraising may be given over to a sorely needed amenity on the block. May the church survive and the O. Henry story play on.

Friday, July 30, 2010

And now back to our regularly scheduled program . . .

If you read this blog with any frequency, you know I took a break from neighborhood stuff to reflect on a recent trip to Russia. Much has happened in the meantime, and I'm feeling all Rip Van Winkly trying to catch up. It's tough to know where to start.

Here's as good a place as any. One of our most impassioned community activists set off a firestorm recently with this article.

His point was to interrogate our latest neighborhood festival, an arts fair that traverses a two-mile stretch of our main retail corridor, using existing businesses, vacant storefronts, and outdoor spaces to display visual art, music, dance, gardening projects, and various forms of spontanous expression and culture jamming.

Cool, right? Maybe too cool. At least that was the point of this particular activist, who felt the festival strip was being tidily and intentionally divided in half: White hipsters on the more developed end, ethnic others on the more modest end. He called it "artPartheid," and he called it out.

I actually have a lot of respect for this activist. For years he's opened his home to display his own artwork, long before the mods and rockers landed in the neighborhood, serving as a trailblazer for the arts in this community. He's taught art to low-income children in the area. He's always been a spokesperson for diversity, integration, and loving one's neighbor.

He also was on the planning committee for the inaugural version of this festival, which took place last year, turning a tiny art-in-the-park concept into a vast and winding experiment in public intervention.

Then, a fallout between the activist and one of his very good friends, who was the other festival organizer. Then, a literal explosion of gentrification on the east end of the neighborhood despite a crushing recession. Then, the festival being handed over to a marketing company instead of the independent minds who'd hatched the concept in the first place. You can see why the guy would have a beef.

But I found myself wondering, was this the right beef?

I spent a lot of time last weekend walking those two miles of festival. On the grittier north side, I saw Latino art, hip-hop bands, a community mural, and DJ sets. On the glitzier south side, I saw Latino art (including several pieces by the activist himself), hip-hop bands, a community mural, and DJ sets.

Oh, the grittier north side also had the hipster craft market, two full days of ballet performance, an outsider-art exhibit curated by a wealthy eccentric, an independent film festival, a mural created by a group of invite-only street artists, and a much higher density of gallery spaces. The glitzier south side had long stretches of no art space at all, plus a community mural where anyone -- and I mean anyone -- could pick up a paintbrush and add to the pallette.

I will admit: The glitzier south-side music stage had an abundance of indy rock bands, while the northern stage was mostly jazz, soul, and bomba. But both sets of audiences were mixed, and the low turnout at each stage hardly privileged one setting over the other. The third stage in the center was a combination of influences, and the only one that charged admission.

Feeling confused? I guess that's the point.

There's a lot to dispute in our neighborhood these days. Gentrification is coming in like a wave, and rather than creating interventions to help keep development balanced and eclectic, policy is being used as an instrument to boost its homogeneity. Public schools are suffering. People need jobs. Kids are still shooting each other.

I guess in the midst of all this, making an argument about coded spaces at an arts festival, particularly when the codes seem jumbled from the outset, strikes me as stirring the wrong pot. Don't get me wrong: If his observations rang true, and the division between the powerful and powerless held up, I would've have seen this fest as the slippery slope. But in interesting ways, it actually bristled against where the neighborhood seems to be going. It brought value to what the market has devalued (like long-empty storefronts and wasted fields and parking lots). It seemed to integrate where the neighborhood wants to separate.

I have to give credit to this activist for starting the conversation, though. It's a dialogue we sorely need to be having if we don't want to become the next Wicker Park. I appreciate that people are paying attention.

All that said, my favorite festival installation wasn't planned by the outside marketing company and wasn't in any brochure. It was a makeshift swing someone hung from a tall steel railroad platform. Children and adults of every stripe stumbled upon it and took a go, laughing and swinging as the elevated train roared by overhead.

It was a good reminder to us all: In a world where time is charging forward, there's still room for simple, poignant, and decidedly human interventions, so long as we create them.