Friday, October 3, 2014

Pining for the Moon: Urban Girl Goes Camping

To the understandable surprise of those who know me, we now camp. Not fancy hook-up camper camping, or glamping* by our city-owned Lake Michigan beach, but real butts-in-the-wilderness camping. Or, butts-on-the-queen-blowup-mattress. In an eight-person tent. With the car ready to go into the nearest town for a beer.

For most of my 40-plus years I have been a roof-and-floor vacationer. My parents always stayed at a Holiday Inn or state park when we traveled, and a few years of on-the-company views from high Hyatt floors only reinforced my need to have my towels changed when I saw new sights. 

But one can change. Anti-anxiety drugs help. So does the realization that one night away from running water will not end in a parched and ugly death by dawn. Also? Lodging is expensive! My husband and I like to putter around the Midwest, poking into antique stores and parking at taverns and walking or biking on trails that were once interurban train lines. But at an average of $100 per eve, staying in a hotel or motel room makes tooling around really taxing.

This spring, a combination of factors lead us to purchase a tent. I think it can be best summed up this way: if we bring our own sleeping quarters, we can go pretty much anywhere, and have space to ourselves.

Space. Yes. So we bought at eight-person tent. Now, I think the tent maker believes the munchkins from Wizard of Oz represent your typical person, so I am suspicious of that claim. But certainly four adults could sleep in our tent. But they won't, because I need space. I also need air, so the "roof" of our tent is almost completely removable.

A ridiculously huge tent for two people.
This year, we stuck close to home for the most part, staying at Apple River Canyon near Galena and Rock Cut State Park near Rockford. We were also able to take part in a big family reunion at my husband's family cottage near Traverse City, Michigan, without having to worry about who was sleeping where when. We slept near the beach in a room of our own.

We are car campers, in keeping with my proscribed camping tenets: no backpacks, no propane, no s'mores. We look for camp spots that let us drive into them, travel lightly, and either use the firepit for cooking or go into the nearest town. We do not, however, need electricity or showers, and I have learned to let go and pee in the woods at 2 AM.

There is a campsite etiquette. Looky, someone left us a wiener-frying stick!
Having contended with hotel/motel HVAC that wreaked havoc on our sinuses, it is nice to have only the weather to worry about. I have learned a few lessons. Put the rain flap on the tent if there is more than a 20 percent chance of rain; for nights below 50 degrees, only synthetic fabric will do. And even a dry but humid night will render your fire just a smoky heap. This is why God made the small-town tavern.

Camping Selfie, or I am so cold.
As I get older, I am amazed at my ability to just sit and stare. I prefer to do this outside, and take deep breaths and inhale the world, especially if the wind is blowing and I can take in the trees and the plants and all the other natural things floating and sinking and rotting away to renew us all. To lay in the tent with the "roof" off and watch the clouds go by has become one of my main gateways to happiness. Another one is to watch my husband fold up the tent carefully when we are done, wiping the dirt off but not obsessing about getting every speck of mud. Outside is messy, we say.

So far, we prefer sites that are very wooded, so that the trees make little rooms out of each campsite, and so far, our favorite is Apple River Canyon. About three hours from Chicago, it's a great overnight spot. The nearest town, Stockton, has everything you need for a comfy night, but once you head north to the state park, expect to be off the grid. Galena, a 19th century mining town turned weekend destination for strolling scented-candle purchasers, is about 30 minutes away. I kid about Galena -- it is a beautiful town set on the unglaciated hills of far northwest Illinois, home to U.S. Grant (who won the Civil War) and many cute restaurants.

Camping tip 1-100: be near a town with restaurants.
Our plans for next year include pushing farther north into our second-favorite state, Wisconsin. Also, I need a sleeping bag.

*Thanks to my writer-pal Pamela for this blog post about "glamping." My husband has accused me of this because the sheets and blankets I put on the blow-up mattress match.

Monday, September 29, 2014

He'd Like to Come and Meet Us, But He Thinks He'd Blow Our Minds

David Bowie Is...all over Chicago right now.
A friend asked me if the "David Bowie Is..." exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art would be good for both Bowie newbies and long-time fans. I said I suspected both would find it fascinating, and now having actually seen it, I think I was correct. Either way, if you have ever been curious about this artist, I would go.

The exhibit, on display until January 4, 2015, represents the first time that an eclectic array of multi-media objects have been brought together to tell the story of Bowie's almost 50-year career. Unlike other musicians, Bowie is a natural for a contemporary art museum because he has not only been a singer but a painter, actor, producer, fashion innovator, and video artist, as well as witness to post-World War II history.

After establishing Bowie's place as a child of an England still dazed that it survived Hitler, the exhibit continues along a loose chronology that also pulls in the various influences that Bowie has used to build his career.

I was mainly excited about the trove of costumes and outfits that the exhibit brought, and I was largely, with one glaringly painful exception, satisfied. Many attendees will be dazzled by the crazy colors and cuts of the Ziggy Stardust-era costumes, and these are fun. You are at once amazed at their outlandishness and almost startled to realized that many of them are made of materials that normal humans wear. Unlike what you might think when you see them in videos, these threads were not distributed by aliens -- just made extraordinary by the talented people Bowie has met over his lifetime.

But the one costume I was most eager to see was a curatorial disappointment. I was looking forward to being able to study the layers and fabrics of the galactic clown suit Bowie wore in the video for "Ashes to Ashes." This 1980 song reprises the character of Major Tom from his 1969 novelty "Space Oddity." Designed by one of his best collaborators, Natasha Korniloff, I was almost desperate to see how its light slivery-blue petals and mesh looked in real light.

Alas, there was little light, real or not, on the costume in the exhibit. Stuck in a corner and poorly lit, I was so upset that I stood in front of the thing for a few minutes, wondering if, like some other areas of the exhibit, the lighting would change or something. No. My husband got a quick earful from me, then cleverly distracted me by pointing at a more recent coat that Bowie had worn in a 1997 video, the cut and pattern of which was more evident in person.

Still, some of the outfits held delightful surprises. My husband and I both noticed a detail on a jumpsuit from one of my favorite Bowie videos -- a detail it had taken me 30 years to see. One of the iconic outifts from this exhibit -- seen all over the press materials -- was a 1997 Union Jack coat by Alexander McQueen. Bowie returned to McQueen often in the 1990s for elaborate coats, making the designer's recent suicide that much more tragic.

Beyond the clothes, I was not sure that there was much more I could learn from the exhibit. I hate if this comes off as snobby, but I have been consuming Bowiestuff for so long (and my husband has been a genius at finding bootlegged audio and video on the Internet) that I was not sure there were any more revelations for me. There were -- perhaps revelations is not the right word, so let's try re-appreciations.

Like this: mime was one of Bowie's early influences, but because I grew up with Shields and Yarnell and Saturday Night Live, whenever I see Bowie doing mime I usually crack up and make stupid jokes. I had to get over that at the exhibit and watch a 15-minute long early performance, where Bowie is a man who finds a mask, and that mask helps him become someone else on stage -- with tragic results.

Not only did I finally become amazed at how good he was at mime, but I also saw in the piece themes and moves that he would return to over and over in his career. A short retrospective of some of his film and stage performancess revealed just how important his mime training was. I will never make fun of mime again (unless prompted by Crow or Tom Servo).

This is a big exhibit, with many things to look at, and many media used to explain its subject. Until now, I have not had much to talk to other Bowie fans about other than music and videos. It would be great to hear from you if you attend -- what stood out to you, what made no sense, what was exciting?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Movies: A List

"Everyone's come home to take stock of their lives. I say, leave your livestock alone."*

So, feeling the need for some stock-taking, I'll list here my 20 favorite movies. I could give you the date, director, etc., but you know how the Google works (and if you want to view any of them, hit your library first.)

Included here are expected classics, some child-of-the-80s gimmes, some shorts, some films that are really considered art, and one music video. If I have mentioned the movie before, there is a link to the post.

1. La Strada
2. The Blues Brothers
3. Menilmontant
4. 8 1/2
5. Working Girl
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
7. Moonstruck
8. All About My Mother
9. The Lives of Others
10. Ricky and Rocky
11. Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley

This one you get here because it comes in and out of print. It may even be gone by now.

12. Month Python and the Holy Grail
13. Holiday Affair
14. Man With a Movie Camera
15. The Empire Strikes Back
16. Boogie Nights
17. Grosse Point Blank
18. Ashes to Ashes (music video)
19. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (aka The Romanian abortion movie)
20. Disney's Cinderella

*This quote is from one of the movies listed here. Guesses?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Inertia or Prudence? On Blooming Where You're Planted

No filter -- just shot through a scrapbook
 protector that can't ever be removed. 
I had a hard time transitioning from elementary school to junior high. I left the neighborhood school where I had grown significantly for seven years for a building that looked to me like a prison (in fact, they kept the kids out of the school building in the morning with a large metal gate). I had to change classes and figure out how to deal with different teachers' personalities, and I had to integrate with kids from four other schools.

It was hard to leave this place.
But I'm fine now.
Similarly, it was difficult to leave my childhood home when my parents divorced and sold it. I had lived there for almost twenty years at that point and the house had been the base I set myself into every night and the backdrop for almost everything significant that had happened to me.

So perhaps it's not surprising that I have stayed in my childhood hometown and have now lived in the same house for almost twenty years. And while I complain about my town, it is undeniably a safe and pretty place to be.

What does surprise people is how badly I want to move, specifically to Chicago. Part of it is a desire to be closer to work, but my commute is actually considered fairly standard.  Part of it is a desire to have lived somewhere other than Downers Grove, Illinois.  Part of it is to have access to things I don't have here--better public transit, more restaurant choices, the ability to take advantage of what the city has to offer without sitting in traffic for an hour.

But are these reasons enough to uproot my life? Whenever I have this conversation with myself, the answer comes down firmly on "no." And still I want to go.

A change of scenery.
Last month, my husband and I tried Acting Without Overthinking. We saw a few apartments in our target neighborhood, and even thought we had one. There were many questions to be answered if we got it (cute vintage apartments seem to lack accommodations for two litter boxes). However, we were outmaneuvered by others playing Act Lightning-Fast if You See A Nice Place and lost the apartment of our recent dreams.

So now I am back on dangerous ground. It's finally summer -- Downers Grove's best look. My local mechanic just did the usual thorough and fair-priced job on my aging car. And I just paid my taxes, which have been going down in recent years (because my little area has not yet recovered from the housing crisis -- another reason to wait around here a bit more).

So I wait for the Apartment Fairy to flit on over and whisper in my ear that someone's daughter's friend has just been transfered and needs to sublet her lovely place just minutes from a Metra station and the Blue Line. Meanwhile, I guess I will remember when big change scared me, rather than excited me. And I will sit in traffic on the Eisenhower.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Shiver in My Bones Thinking About the Weather

We will not have a garden this year. And it doesn't even make me sad to say this. I am, for the time being, at least, relieved.

Since we live in a condo, we have no ground of our own, but we do rent a garden plot in our community garden. Every year we get 20 feet by 30 feet of dirt to grow what we want, which is usually tomatoes, peppers, onions, and squash along with some flowers (Cosmos have been recent favorites).

This can happen to you.
For the past ten years, I have looked forward to getting the garden started, and to the July or August twilights when I could stand among the growing things and take in how earth and summer smell -- like dirt and wind and the sharpness of tomato leaves and the natural rot of compost and whatever the trees surrounding the plots are offgassing. The plots sit between houses, a church, a road, and a park, so while I am inhaling I hear a background buzz of kids' voices, lawn equipment, and cars going by at 40 MPH. Around 6 PM. church bells ring, and once in a while a plane climbs from Midway Airport. And I feel that the garden is just a normal part of the world, and that the world can accommodate everything just given the space and time.

When I remember this, I forget other things. Like that we work, and that there are some days when I am sitting at work during the only nice sunny day in a week, sitting while I could be feeding the plants or tying up rogue tomato branches or detail-weeding around each plant. Or, conversely, doing errands on a rainy Saturday that was supposed to be a gardening day. Or waiting for the soil, which is very heavily shot with clay, to dry out so that the gasping mud does not take my shoe with it when I try to water.

Yes it was. Note the snow in the background.
Even if the only book about farming you've ever read was by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you know that it's hard. The Ingalls actually had some agricultural troubles of Biblical proportions, but mostly, they battled weather. Same as it every was -- the weather is what is halting my gardening ambitions for now.

Every year, I conveniently forget the stress that my plot caused me. Since we started gardening, it has gone from a what-the-hell-let's-try-it hobby to a member of our family that is with us for the summer. But every year this visitor is getting worse and worse at telling us when she will be arriving and what mood she will be in when she gets here.

So let's talk about the winter of 2013-2014. Actually, let's let 2013 off the hook. She was snowy, but should not be blamed for her successor's supremely bad temper.

Let's throw a few dates out there. First, January 2, the day of a huge snowfall that kept most businesses and schools closed for an extra day after the holiday. But snow -- we can handle that. Let's move on to January 13, when the temperature at noon was -14 degrees. I thankfully have blotted out that morning's commute but for some reason clearly remember the afternoon drive home. I prayed that both my car and  body did not shatter into a million pieces. I saw a woozy aura around the expressway, and felt like I was driving into a gray monster's eye. Possibly, I was hallucinating, but I came home and I said I would never again leave the house if it was below 10 below (notice I am eliding over the wind chill.)

Today is May 16, and there have been about seven nice days since January. Today, in some parts of the Chicago area, it was snowing this morning.

Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest,
who is clearly more interested in posing
than in securing me a fruitful garden.
Nice dress, though!
If it was like this every year, perhaps I could adjust my gardening accordingly. But two years ago, we had a freaky hot spring that brought us a streak of 80-degree days in March. Then July rains that wiped out a lot of our neighbors' plants. Sometimes the heat lasts into October, which is great because peppers need it hot for a long time, and they do very well with long summers. Sometimes you can feel the chill on Labor Day weekend, and you know to pack it in.

Laura Ingalls Wilder taught me that farming is fraught with risk because the weather is fickle. But the Ingalls had to farm, raise livestock, and secure their home against the weather. We do not. Sadly, we would be better off if we could return somewhat to the days of raising even a small portion of our own food. We all have questions about where our food comes from, and the simplest solution is to be your own farmer. The one thing I envy about the Ingalls is that they not only could but had to build our lives around the weather. We refuse to do so anymore, trying to bend the weather to us. But Mother Nature, I fear, is no gymnast.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Drive to Succeed

Not an easy commute on this day.
But it's fun to say "jackknifed semi."
For most of my career, my ride to work has been short. This is what you get when you live in a major metro area with a variety of industries -- you can usually find a job close to home. My former job was 5 to 15 minutes from home (I will explain the 15 minutes momentarily).

On most days, my brain had barely registered the new day and sent electrical pulses to all my extremities before I was in my workplace parking lot. I had time for about one NPR story or two songs. When it was cold and snowy, I spent more time cleaning off my car than I did driving it and the heat would just be reaching out of the vents before I had to shut off the car and cross the parking lot.

Unless, of course, there was a train. I live in a town that is well-serviced by a commuter rail line that shares tracks with a freight line. My last job was, shall we say, on the wrong side of the tracks and I often had to wait for a people train and a things train before I could get to work. Most frustrating: watching a full coal train go one way and and empty coal train going the other way. On those days, I truly believed we had not evolved much beyond the early industrial age.

Still, I had a short commute. Now, I have a longer one. Google Maps puts my current commute at 25 miles and 35 minutes. But due to a confluence of expressways that jam up as easily as an old bathtub drain, my morning drive is usually about 45 minutes.

There was a time when I would have dreaded this kind of drive. Perhaps it's the anxiety meds (SSRIs FTW!) but I generally enjoy my commute. Here are some reasons:

1) I mostly take expressways. Stoplights make me grumpy, so I purposely take the route with the fewest of them. Yes, I pay tolls. But you do this for a better driving experience, right (Chicago-area residents can pause to laugh now)?

2) Between broadcast radio and my phone, I can listen to anything I want. NPR (except when they do stories on college rape statistics or Mongolian goat farmers losing their land to global warming), liberal talk radio, Steve Dahl podcasts, Vampire Weekend.

3) I find that I am developing special relationships with the hundreds of billboards that line my main route. Giordano's Pizza used to have some ads featuring the Bulls' Derrick Rose's darling smile. There was a pop-eyed bro who illustrated an ad to get your basement seepage problem fixed: "Basement leaking got you freaking?" I was really bummed when that went away. There are a few that I hate. I have to avert my eyes from the bladder control fix ad that scolds "Diapers are for babies, not for ladies" and features actual panties blowing in the wind.

4) I get to drive by O'Hare Airport twice each day. Sometimes the planes come in so low that you believe their bottoms are scraping your car roof. Once in awhile, the airline is unfamiliar so you have to guess where it's from. And some of the cargo planes are freaking huge. It's way more fun to watch planes than to fly on them.

5) I love my job, so the ride is not even an issue. I love where I work, who I work with, and what I do. In fact, I think this is the best job I have ever had. Strange that I had to drive to get there. Sometimes, you need to reach just a little farther.

A sweet day at work. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Department of TARDIS Studies?

I have been trying to understand theoretical particle physics for decades. This started when my mother took a job at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the late 1980s. But I still find the subject hard to get my head around. I'm really bothered by the a huge gap between what the scientists are trying to know and what people want to know.

At Fermilab, I know that they are wading in the deep, dark waters surrounding our fundamental existence to get at the very essence of matter and, in the long term, unify many theories with one Grand Explanation. But I think science needs to learn to work more at the here-and-now level and worry less about some point in the future when It Will All Make Sense. Junk science (anti-global warming propaganda, conflicting and impossible food news, politicians who don't know women from ducks) is filling this gap, which is extremely troubling.

So I think there should be a new subset of scientists devoted to a Unified Theory that would be helpful, would get people's attention, would matter to many, and would generate revenue: map the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who and find any and all possible connections. (I am up for other major sci-fi franchises to be added, but not graphic novels. Sorry).

Never would I have believed that the goofy movie that debuted when I was seven would still be captivating people today. I mostly liked it because it was space, and Princess Leia was a sassy brunette with real responsibilities. I had the toys, watched the sequels, then grew up. But growing up is no longer an impediment to being a Star Wars freak.

I consider myself a bit of an early adopter when it comes to Doctor Who. In the late 1970s, PBS aired the Tom Baker series, and so, as a pre-teen, I became certain that a dalek lurked around every blind corner. Then I grew up, and laughed at the silly special effects, but still admired how those stories stayed with me. (The Ark in Space is low on actual cheese and high on concept). Those stories stayed with many other people, as well, and The Doctor was resuscitated in 2005. I wasn't interested, really, until recently, when the chatterings of friends whose opinions I value told me to re-investigate the reboot. I did, and liked many aspects of it, and found other aspects maddening. It turns out am exactly the right audience for the show's spin-off, Torchwood, so that's where I am spending my binge-time now.

As for Star Trek: never been a fan, but you probably are.

I am convinced that one day, hundreds of years from now, Star Wars will be a religion. Star Trek may spawn a political system, and perhaps the Doctor Who chronicles will be used as a theory of workplace dynamics and psychology. That's how important these story lines are to people -- many of us have found that they have worked their way into our daily lives. It's more than buying a TARDIS pencil holder or having Mark Hamill sign your still originally packaged Kenner lightsabre at ComicConExtravaRama. It's wondering how Rose Tyler would react to something, or really understanding why Han Solo replied, "I know."

Would it be silly to spend science time on sci-fi? Two answers: 1) Physicists are studying dark matter, or stuff that exists but cannot be seen around all the stuff that is visible. Doesn't that sound like sci-fi? and 2) Science and religion have always been traveling companions, but religion, some believe, is fading as a source of inspiration or explanation for people. Other stories and ways of thought are becoming central to our lives and maybe deserve more respect and attention.

One more thing: theories of sci-fi have posited that the seemingly outrageous thinking involved in creating alien races and whole other galaxies actually help human people reason through our earth-bound problems. Big, crazy thinking has a place. What scientists can learn from those who have created our beloved fantasy franchises is how to tell stories that allow us to conceptualize larger questions. We can keep things in their separate good/evil-colored bowls, or we can learn that our heroes are related to our enemies.

We can try to get our minds around time as an equation:

or we can have fictional characters 
       who we often love more than real humans 

inspire us to think about our place in the universe.