Monday, December 30, 2013

Chicago: Week 3

I stayed home with Chester so Larry could go to the Museum of Science and Industry on Monday. I hung out and did  blissfully little, with the exception of a workout at the gym. Larry had a great time at the museum, especially touring the U-505, a German submarine from WWII captured by an American ship. When he last visited the museum in 1979, while stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base, the submarine was outside.  It is now inside the museum with it's own wing and exhibit. He also enjoyed the bicycle exhibit which is more extensive then his last visit.

Submarine and torpedo! 

The next day was Christmas Eve. We went to the gym, did a quick shopping trip to get the last of our Christmas gifts, came home and had lunch. After lunch, we were pretty much ready to have Santa come so we could open gifts, so we took turns stuffing stockings and then exchanged gifts. Larry had a beautiful holiday bouquet delivered for me:

We ate a simple meal and then played his new word game, In a Pickle. It's was nice to get the anticipation and fuss of Christmas presents out of the way. I don't know what Larry's favorite present was, but today, while I was working on a project for my job, he was busying himself with his balloon animal kit:

Weather patterns changed! We weren't expecting snow, but it snowed Christmas Eve and we woke up to a light dusting of snow over everything Christmas morning:

First thing Christmas Day, Larry and I went to my church. The service was at 8:30 AM and promised a carol singalong afterwards. I've been lapsed in my church attendance, and Larry's never been to an Orthodox service, so I was excited to bring him, as I've been feeling a renewed faithfulness in God. He thought, since he grew up Catholic, that it wouldn't be too different, but boy, was he wrong. An Orthodox Church service is like a living organism, with everyone standing, no pews except on the sides for disabled and elderly, children crawling around and parents fetching them, people arriving late moving about to venerate and kiss the icons. It's almost impossible to grow bored in an Christian Orthodox Church--which is good as the Liturgy lasts at least an hour and a half. My friend Scott Cairns calls it, "full-body worship." It was lovely to spend Christmas morning in true celebration of Christ's birth and the hope that brings to me.

In the afternoon, we went to see the amazing film, "Saving Mr. Banks." This film is moving and delightful and not at all as light as we expected from the trailers. The performances and storytelling were spectacular. Hollywood at its best. I'm a huge fan of the film version of Mary Poppins, Larry not so much, but we both were wonderfully surprised. The theater was packed but a couple offered to scoot over to make room for us.

I made a pork tenderloin for dinner and we cuddled up on the couch to watch my new gift of the DVD of "Love Actually." It was a lovely day.

All the Christmas got to me, though, and I spent a good portion of the next three days napping. However, I roused myself to go see Timeline Theatre's "The Normal Heart" at Stage 773. I'd seen the play back in college. It's about the early days of AIDS and the play holds a special place in my heart. The actors really took us back to that time and became the people they were portraying, the set was amazing, with these screens that showed videos and newspaper clips from the time period during set changes. The whole back wall was the most giant book case stuffed with books I'd ever seen. It's something to cry with a whole audience together. Here's the trailer of the play:

And here's me using a night at the theater as a rare excuse on this trip to dress up:

Friday was another rest day for me, with the exception of a visit to the gym, an evening watching old episodes of "Freaks and Geeks" and the movie, featuring the Freaks and Geeks actors, "This is the End."

Another quiet day on Saturday, we played Bananagrams and In a Pickle in the evening, having accidentally missed the music we'd planned to see (the concert was on Friday night not Saturday).

And now it's Sunday night, late. I spent nearly the entire day finishing a project for work. Phew! That was a big task. I wrote 2000 words of analysis of evidence of my teaching effectiveness all today. I also had to do the most crummy thing I can think of, pore over my student evaluations over the last five years. It's no wonder I needed so many naps before completing today's work, the final portion of the teaching review portfolio.

All that done, I blared the Pandora Americana station, cooked up some dinner, and then Larry took me to the Facets Theater to see the small independent film, "Stranger Things," about a young woman who befriends a homeless man. There were only four of us in the audience. About ten minutes into the film, it turned out the DVD wasn't working properly, so the man running it moved us to a smaller theater. Even with the interruption, this film was a quietly beautiful, performance-driven film. It was nice for a break from the noise of Oscar hopefuls. It's available streaming!

As we drove home, the snowfall started in earnest.

And here I am, saying hello to our readers again. Thank you for following our journey.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Week 15: More Chicago

We went to our awesome new gym starting Thursday. This is XSport Fitness, with locations all over the city. It's a low-end chain gym, but so much nicer than any gym I've belonged to before. They give you towels, there's a steam room, sauna, jacuzzi, rock-climbing walls, plenty of pairs of weights the size I need them (7.5-15 pounds---I usually have to wander around the gym searching for and failing to find the pair of ten pound weights), stone-lined showers, plenty of aerobic machines, classes, and a really friendly atmosphere--like the rest of Chicago. We started to incorporate a gym routine into most of our days, helping each other off the couch. It's never easy to start a practice again after a long lapse. For me, it had been almost a year since I had a regular gym workout routine. It feels good and I'm sleeping more soundly at nights.

On Saturday, we went to a play at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Street. The Den has several performance spaces, so when you walk in the lobby, there's different places to check in for tickets and a bar for patrons who are milling about. We went to see Marin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," which is an amazing, dark comedy. Even though the actors gave it their all, and seemed quite skilled, it lacked some direction--the comic timing was off, so the play and humor lagged, and they chose not to use Irish accents, which I think is pretty necessary for McDonagh's work. 

Sunday, it snowed in billowing clusters again, and we decided we needed a new Christmas tree, as our first one was losing all its needles. We bought a giant balsam tree, carefully chosen from a corner tree lot, helped by a slightly stoned and physically disabled young man who knew his trees. Neither one of us had ever had such a big tree, and though we'd been cranky about taking down all the ornaments off the former tree, a tree that had needles that pricked like, well, needles, we were really happy with the results of the new tree. I have a tradition of folding paper origami cranes and putting them on the tree, so I taught Larry how to do that. (Last year, our housemate was in charge of tree decorating and that was our first Christmas together.) 

We finally made a plan, scheduling out the things we must see in Chicago. It's so tempting just to rest, go to the gym, and watch movies at home. (Larry's introduced me to "Freaks and Geeks" and we're working our way through all the episodes on Netflix.) However, there's so much to see and do here! On Wednesday night, we ventured out on the "L", walking down to the California stop for the Blue Line (about a 20 minute walk), riding it downtown to the Clark/Lake stop and walking over to the Siskel Theater to see the first ever Saudia Arabian film, the delightful "Wadja." It was a sweet film and really interesting to have the introduction to such a foreign culture. 

Thursday night, we headed back to the Den, to see  The Senachai Theatre Company's production of "The Seafarer," another contemporary Irish play by an Irish theatre company: The acting was brilliant, the accents were spot on, the comic timing perfect. The play didn't seem as funny to us at it seemed to be to the rest of the audience, but that was maybe because we don't find stupid-acting drunk people that funny. Still, it was a play about redemption, and in the end, I was moved and gladdened by the play about brothers and friends-as-family. 

Friday, I went to a fancy spa to get a mani-pedi, a real luxury that got me in the holiday spirit: 

After going to the gym, we decided to have a night at home, but Saturday we were up and at 'em to head back downtown on the "L" to see Tuba Christmas, a national event where tuba players gather and play Christmas carols at different locations across the country. We went to the Parker House Hilton's Grand Ballroom, arriving about 10 minutes late to the concert/singalong. There were at least 600 seats, packed, and probably 400 or more people spilling out on the edges and in the hallways to listen to the 200 tuba players. I was moved when we started the singalong part of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." I always seem to cry when singing Christmas carols, maybe because my dad used to lead us and a whole caroling party around the neighborhood every year and he's no longer alive. It lasted about an hour. 

We then walked down downtown's state street in the rain, popping into various shops and the downtown branch of the public library, which is an awesome building. Larry spotted the building from a distance and we followed the street to solve the mystery of what could be housed in such a beautiful building. Larry especially loves libraries. All around the walls inside, there are quotes by great writers: 

Saturday night, we went to see "American Hustle" at a packed theater down the street from us. The acting was great, but we both felt the film has been over-hyped. We both loved Russel's "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" far more than this film, and I know it won't get the awards it deserves, but "The Dallas Buyers Club" for acting, story,and filmmaking is my favorite American film this year. 

Sunday, I finally made my way back to church, finding the Orthodox Church of America near downtown. Larry dropped me off and did some shopping while I listened to a beautiful liturgy in a beautiful church. The Priest, Father John Baker, gave a lovely sermon about the majesty of humanness, and I got a real jolt of the Advent season. Much-needed. Their website has great introductory information about Orthodoxy for those who wonder. It's under "For Inquirers":

Now, the Sunday afternoon football games are on, I'm writing this blog after cooking up our lunch, and trying to get in the mood to hit a yoga class at the gym later. . . 

It was supposed to snow today, but the snow has melted in the rain, and it doesn't look good for snow for the next 10 days, so we might not get the white Christmas we hoped for. However, we are still so grateful to be in Chicago, for the spirit of friendliness, inclusion, and helpfulness we have encountered, the great public transportation, the cozy colorful house we get to watch over and live in for the month, and the little sweet dog who we've quickly bonded with.

Thanks for reading! We hope you and your families have a beautiful Christmas!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Week 14: Chicago beginnings. . .

We'd spent two days in Chicago on our way through the mid-west. At that time, my friends invited us to house sit for them while they took their honeymoon in India. They have a sweet long-haired Dachshund, Chester, and a lovely home in the Avondale neighborhood in north Chicago. Avondale is a working-class neighborhood, really down to earth, with plenty of Mexican groceries and Mexican-American immigrants. We love it.

Street where we're staying after first snowfall
My friend, Kendra, who we're housesitting for, works at 826 Chicago (, the Chicago branch of San Francisco's 826 Valencia, a program that tutors youth in writing and offers writing workshops and creates writing projects in classrooms. We arrived Monday night and on Tuesday night there was a reading of a new book of long-form journalism, written by local high school students at 826CHI. It was held in the Den Theater, above 826 and it was a sweet night, hearing about this project and the work that had gone into it over 26 weeks that tutors came in to work with students in English classrooms. I expected the house to be packed with proud parents, but I don't think any parents were there, even though Kendra told me they sent handwritten invites to each of the parents of the students who were published in the book. They had a beautiful reception in the 826CHI office and classroom afterwards, and I had the readers sign the book for me. Kendra showed us where she shared the tiniest space with the other three full-time employees at 826CHI. The walls for the office are bookcases and there's no ceiling. All afternoon, a mass of young people are just outside the alcove being tutored. This is special work Kendra does--and it doesn't surprise me. Kendra's a talented artist who has always been passionate about empowering youth through creative endeavors.

Super colorful house where we are staying

The next day, we took Kendra to the airport, where she met her husband, Kapil, who had taken a taxi from work. Both Kendra and Kapil were working up until the time they had to go to the airport for their one month stay in India, where Kapil's family is from. We said goodbye and then headed back to what we gladly would be settling into as home for the next month.
Our Chicago home for a month: Thanks Kendra and Kapil! 

We rested a lot, unpacked our overpacked truck (we didn't know where we'd end up or what we would need as we originally thought we'd be gone a year), went grocery shopping, and planned out some things we wanted to do over the next month.

I had some work to get done on a project for my teaching job--a teaching portfolio. We decided we didn't want to eat our way through Chicago. I know, a strange city not to eat through, but our waistlines and our health were feeling the lack of prudence when it came to food on this trip, so we have given up flour and sugar and are eating simple healthy meals at home.

Thursday, I happened to see that an old friend, someone I'd read poetry with in Berkeley maybe ten years ago and who is now a well-established poet, Carmen Gimenez Smith, was giving a reading at the Poetry Foundation downtown. I heard four amazing Latino/Latina poets read from their work and it was amazing to have been at two literary events having been in town four days.

We then settled into a couple more days of rest and routine--I got started on my teaching portfolio, wrapped and packaged Christmas presents that I'd collected on my travels, wrote Christmas cards, etc.

On Sunday, it snowed! We decided that was the perfect time to buy a Christmas tree, so we went to Home Depot and picked out a tree. They had so many more varieties of trees here than I've seen in California.

Bringing home the tree

Did I mention snow! Boots and hats. No high heels and stockings, no need to do my hair. Everybody has hat hair! Hooray!

We unpacked Kendra and Kapil's Christmas ornaments and decorated the Christmas tree with Christmas music. It was a joyful night, ending with a magical nighttime dog walk for Chester.

Evening walk with Chester
The most exciting day was on Monday when we went to Costco to have our tires rotated. I know that sounds boring and tedious to you, but it's the small errands and routine things we have missed the most. While we waited, we sat at a Starbucks in a grocery store reading. (We're both reading Stephen King's 11/22/63, but I'm also reading Gulliver's Travels with a global reading group, so I was in the land of the giants and Larry was time traveling with Stephen King.)

We picked up some groceries at Costco and the grocery store and came home and cooked lunch. Oh, perfect day.

The beautiful kitchen where we get to cook
The rest of our time has been spent reading, watching movies, me working on the teaching portfolio, and us sitting in coffee shops. We've found people in Chicago to be so pleasant and thoughtful. I don't hear a lot of honking horns and people actually pull over when ambulances rush by. Larry took Chester to a couple of dog parks, including a dog beach, but mostly, we've been giving him neighborhood walks a few times a day. However, we do have plans to see more of the town.

Last night, we traveled to Uptown to hear Gypsy Jazz music at the historic Green Mill, an old speakeasy. With a cover charge of $6, we were dazzled by amazing musicians who play there every Wednesday, Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan. With guitarist, violinist, upright bass player, drummer, and cimbalom player (which I'd never seen before; it's a stringed instrument that's hit with padded hammers--it sounded like a vibraphone). The place was packed at 11 PM on a Wednesday night, but folding chairs were brought out for the overflow. The crowd was a mixture of 20-something beautiful folk and middle-aged people, including several hefty men who looked like they were members of the Chicago mob.

We didn't stay too late because we had appointments with personal trainers at our gym-for-a-month in the morning, which I'm really looking forward to. It's the little routines I've been missing.

And each of you.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Week 13: Michigan for Thanksgiving

We landed back at Larry's sister's house in Clarkston, Michigan on Monday night and spent a relaxing week there resting and eating and visiting with family. Larry's sister loves to cook and spoiled us throughout the week. I enjoyed getting to know her better and to meet and chat with her son, Colt. We were excited to get some snow on Thanksgiving. It put us in the holiday spirit. We also enjoyed hanging out with the family dog, Belle.

My grandmother and uncle live in Detroit, so we spent the day with my grandmother on Friday and then picked my uncle up for dinner. Both my grandmother and uncle have many challenges, so it was good to get them out and to be able to treat them to a nice dinner.

My grandmother
Though there was much about Detroit I would've liked to have seen, we didn't know it well enough to really go exploring, as random wandering of Detroit seemed unsafe. We also really needed the rest and relaxation. I can't tell you how great it was to have just a normal day with Larry--on Saturday, he dropped me off so I could get a mani-pedi and then we ran errands after I was done. I just miss the normal things--like going to Costco and through the carwash. I told Larry I thought the carwash was very romantic. I'm really craving normal time.

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Davison, Michigan and checked into a Best Western. I slept off the week during the afternoon, and then Larry roused me to take me to the town where he went to high school, Yale, Michigan. I saw the houses where he lived, the Catholic Church where he was an altar boy, the school--now very changed and bigger, and the graves of his parents. Yale is beautiful, very rural and agricultural.

Around 5 PM, we went to the house of one of his old friends, Kathy, who Larry hasn't seen since the early 80s. They caught up a little and then we met another couple of friends, Joe and Joyce, at the Yale Hotel, which Larry remembered as a rowdy drinking bar, but which was quiet on this Sunday night after Thanksgiving. We had a simple dinner while Larry and his friends caught up on each other's lives and talked about old friends and what they are up to now. So many people have stayed in Yale or the surrounding areas. I was really glad to see this part of the country and to see many of the places Larry talks about when he speaks about his high school days. We drove the country roads back to the motel.

The next day, we pulled off the road in Flint--and saw many buildings probably abandoned for a couple of decades.

We ultimately decided to stop for lunch in Lansing. Though downtown Lansing was clean and pretty, with just a few closed storefronts, it still seemed pretty dead for a Monday lunchtime.

Then, I slept while Larry took us to the place we have the privilege of rooting for a month: Chicago.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Week 12, Part 2: Vermont & Niagara Falls

I've always wanted to visit Vermont, but we only had time to visit the Southern portion. We simply ran out of time. But also, I've been growing weary and felt less motivated to sightsee. I'd been ready, since our last visit to New York City, to hunker down and find a sense of rest and routine. Still, I knew I was lucky for this chance to see the country and didn't want to forego the plans. Vermont, even without the fall colors or snow, was postcard-beautiful. As was New Hampshire, the state we drove through on our way to Vermont. We stopped for lunch at a lovely little college town in New Hampshire--Keene--and ate, surprisingly, some of the best Mexican food I've ever had for lunch. It had a vital bustling Main Street, marked with another pointy-steepled church. The weather was starting to turn cold and even crossing the street to the car, we felt underdressed for what was the beginning of winter.

View from Joshua's Retreat

We arrived in Vermont after dark, at this lovely Airbnb apartment called Joshua's Retreat. Joshua's Retreat is part of a historic farmhouse in Shaftsbury, just up the road from Robert Frost's Stone House and Museum. Our host, Kevin, had the wood stove going for us when we got there, and I thought, "I may just sit in this living room for the next two days and write." Then I thought, how and when can I return here for a writing retreat. Woodstove, fully stocked kitchen, warm cozy bed--I was ready to take up residency.
East Dorset, VT

East Dorset, VT

But I did leave the house to see the country side the next day--we drove North to Manchester and then to Dorset and East Dorset. Manchester is kind of like Napa without the wineries, lots of shops and outlet stores and I wondered what everyone there did for a living. We spend a lot of time wandering a general store in Dorset that had been around since the 1800s and had some foodstuffs, hardware, tourist items, warm clothes, and various other items you never knew you needed--like my new ladybug ski cap and mittens set.

We were happy to eat supper in--a rare treat on the road (we had a vegetable feast)--and to read in big chairs by the wood stove until bedtime. The next day, we took a swing down by the Robert Frost house, which was closed for the winter and under renovation, but is pictured here:

Robert Frost House and Museum
Then we went back to East Dorset for a bit of a tour of the historic buildings and such.

Then, we drove through the country side of Vermont and through small towns in New York state, having lunch in Cambridge, a tiny town where my friend Genevieve grew up. It was easy enough to get to from where we were in Vermont and I was somewhat curious.

We slowly made our way to East Syracuse, where we stayed at a lovely hotel that included full kitchens as well as full dinners and breakfasts. The next day, after lunch in Syracuse at a place our friend Melinda, who grew up in Syracuse, recommended, we were on the road for Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Larry lived on the American side of Niagara Falls when he was a toddler and had been fairly recently. I hadn't been since I went one summer with my grandparents who drove me there from the Detroit area while I spent part of a summer with them. I remembered it being a magical visit and had left with all kinds of romantic ideas about coming back for my honeymoon, which strikes me as hilarious, since I was just twelve at the time. But I asked Larry if we could spend a couple days there so I could revisit whatever magic had entered my heart when I was there before.

Niagara Falls are magical and awesome. We went and saw them lit up at night. Their enormity quieted my mind. Like most big tourist areas we've been to, there was a long strip of ridiculous tourist things -- like Ripley's Believe it or Not and Dinosaur Miniature Golf. The Skywheel--a giant ferris wheel--marked the skyline.

Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Niagara Falls 
The next day, we bought an inexpensive package deal that included a really silly video and experience called "Niagara's Fury" that tried (and failed) to explain and have you experience the making of the falls throughout history. But the other two stops on the package made it well worth the 20 bucks each we spent. We went behind the falls and saw the water streaming through these open windows cut into the rock. Then sort of just stood on a landing from a side view, looking at the falls from below and the side of them.

Then we took the city bus to the Butterfly Conservatory where there's over 2000 butterflies, 40 varieties total, fluttering around, sometimes landing on sightseers. It was nice and toasty warm in the tropical environment, a nice change from the morning where there was a light dusting of snow. As awesome and quiet-inducing as the falls are, the butterfly enclosure was similarly inspiring.

The trip to Niagara Falls definitely made me aware that there's something larger than me designing this world. I felt small and held at the same time, which I guess is what I must've felt when I was twelve--like in the turmoil of my upbringing and the awkwardness of puberty, I was going to be alright because someone was making beautiful things in the world.

This was the last of our sightseeing for awhile. We'd head to Buffalo to pick up one of Larry's sister's and take her to Michigan, where we'd spend Thanksgiving week with another of his sisters and her family. After this week, we'll go to Chicago and house and dog sit for a month. We hope to get an intimate look of that city while we're there, and also lean into some routine and rhythm.

We wish all of you who have been following our journey a lovely Thanksgiving. Thanks for being along for the ride.