In praise of the mini-vacation: A weekend jaunt to the Windy City
Over the years I have come to especially enjoy short trips to visit friends and family. These brief sojourns often turn out to be pauses that refresh, wonderful little mini-vacations. Such was the case over the weekend with a quick trip to Chicago.
On Friday, however, it appeared that this particular visit might never get off the ground. An unhappy worker allegedly set fire to the Air Traffic Control Center near O’Hare Airport, crippling the nation’s passenger aviation system. After my flight was cancelled, I was able to grab the last seat on the only JetBlue flight going from Boston to Chicago that day, arriving late at night.
By Saturday morning I was at my friends Don and Sharon’s condo in downtown Chicago, enjoying breakfast with them, their youngest son Thomas (a newly minted Eagle Scout — congrats Thomas!), and long-time friends Kathy and Rachelle. Don, Kathy, Rachelle, and I went to college together, including a memorable semester abroad in England, and Sharon has patiently endured our reminiscences for decades.
Properly fortified, we explored the downtown area, starting with a terrific boat tour on the Chicago River, replete with a very knowledgeable docent who shared stories about the city’s remarkable architecture.
The tour featured lots of memorable vistas. Chicago has long been famous for its architectural history and variety, and over the past few decades its skyline has become truly spectacular.
After more sightseeing, some shopping, and a lot of healthy walking, we finished our day with a fine dinner at a downtown restaurant.
Sunday started with a short walk around Chicago’s Millennium Park, including a pitstop at the very cool bean sculpture.
Our socializing concluded with a visit to a favorite childhood destination, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. I was delighted to see that its famous model train display — my absolute favorite exhibit as a kid — had undergone a thorough upgrade.
And speaking of trains, here’s the real deal, the famous Pioneer Zephyr, which during the 1930s epitomized modern train travel.
The history geek in me loved checking out the U-505, a German submarine captured by the Americans during the Second World War. There’s an exciting story behind its capture, which you can read about here. The WWII theme of our visit also included a very well done OmniMax film about D-Day.
A side benefit of our museum visit was that I missed the Chicago Bears blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers at nearly Soldier Field. However, later that afternoon, a lot of Bears fans, dressed in their team jerseys, milled about the streets, looking understandably morose.
For dinner, I met up with my brother Jeff, who lives in nearby Glen Ellyn, Illinois, for a deep dish pizza at Medici’s, a popular eatery in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Jeff also happens to be a wizard at computers, and he gave me some good advice on how to upgrade my Internet security practices. The pizza was pretty excellent too.
In addition to greatly enjoying the company of my friends and brother, what struck me was the way in which Chicago has become a world-class city, in its very own big and brawny sort of way. When I spent a summer there working for a large law firm in 1984 (here’s the story of that time!), Chicago seemed old and tired. Today, although the city certainly faces its share of challenges, its downtown feels vibrant and alive.
Among American cities, Frank Sinatra performed signature anthems about only two of them, New York and Chicago. Here’s his “Chicago,” as no one else can sing it:
Throwback Thursday: Aloha to an old warhorse
Two weeks ago I wrote that my old television set had seen its best days and that I was awaiting a replacement. I’m all set now, with a new flatscreen unit and a technologically upgraded cable package. As I made the transition, I decided it was time to say goodbye to my 22-year-old VCR machine. Here it is, pictured above, unplugged and soon to be disposed of, after many years of steady service.
Despite my enjoyment of movies, I was a latecomer to VCRs. Living in New York, I was happy to see old films in the city’s several revival movie theaters, and I was living on a tight budget to boot. But as VCRs became commonplace and more affordable, I finally took the plunge. In the summer of 1992, I went to an electronics store, pretty much arbitrarily picked out a VCR (my usual quick-hit approach to shopping), and set it up in my Brooklyn apartment.
I wouldn’t want to estimate how many hours I spent watching movies using my VCR that summer, as the answer would be highly suggestive of addictive behavior. Suffice it to say, however, that I was a loyal supporter of video stores near work and home. As I wrote last year in a lament over the closing of Blockbuster video stores, it was such a treat to survey the shelves of these stores in search of old favorites and new discoveries.
Given how many movies have played on that machine, it’s something of a miracle that it lasted so long. Over the past decade, of course, I’d morphed over to DVDs, but on the few occasions when only a VCR version of a movie or show was available, I could pop in the cassette and watch it.
I tend to be resistant to jumping to new technologies right away, so these days I find myself preferring DVDs to streaming video. My Netflix subscription still includes the discs, and I continue to get a short spark of little-kid-like happiness when a red envelope shows up in my mailbox. Alas, my luck with DVD players has not been as good, and it looks like I’ll be buying a new one soon. Perhaps I’ll upgrade to a high-def model. They seem to have dropped in price in recent years, and now I have a TV set that justifies the purchase.
Singing the Great American Songbook
As my first year of teaching in Boston was coming to a close during the late spring of 1995, I wanted to do something that was less cerebral and distinctly non-legal. It had been a grueling academic year that started with a move to Boston, followed by a heavy load of new courses. After immersing myself in law school casebooks, I wanted to have some fun.
I picked up a catalog from a local adult education center and spied a listing for a class titled “Beginning Voice.” I had always enjoyed singing, and based on the course listing, I assumed it would be a sort of group chorus experience. So I signed up.
On a Tuesday night in May, I showed up for the first class, and I was in for a surprise. Jane, our conservatory-trained instructor, explained the course format: Each week, every student will perform a song of their choice to piano accompaniment — solo — and then be coached in front of the group. Uh, lady, you must be high, I thought to myself. I thought this was like group chorus. For those of us new to the class (a good number were repeat takers), Jane pointed to a pile of music books and said we could pick out a song for that evening.
I nervously rifled through one of the books and found an old Cole Porter classic, “I Get a Kick Out of You” (featured in the show Anything Goes), and figured it was worth a try. Eventually it was my turn to sing, so I got up and went to front of the room. Bruce, our accompanist, started to play, and I managed to
channel Frank Sinatra finish the song. I got some polite applause, Jane gave me a few coaching tips, and I sat down, extremely relieved.
Despite my initial surprise over the class format, I returned for the remaining seven sessions. In fact, I’ve never stopped going! I have registered for just about every session of this class since then. That’s 19 years. My repertoire has revolved around the Great American Songbook, singing old standards made famous by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and other prominent composers and lyricists during the first half of the last century.
Although I’ve reached a point where I’m a pretty decent singer, I don’t have huge ambitions beyond this class. Over the summer I took a workshop in musical theatre, and I’ve done some open mic nights and would like to do more. And there’s always the occasional karaoke gathering.
However, for me it’s about the satisfaction of singing great old songs. I’ve joked that this singing class has saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs, but there’s actually a large dose of truth in it. Singing is about being in the moment, of having a safe and enjoyable haven from the ups and downs of the day or the week. I’ve made some dear friends in the process. It’s good for my soul, and a lot of fun to boot.
Sliders (the real thing)
In bars across the country during late afternoons and early evenings, folks are soaking up their Happy Hour drinks with appetizer-sized burgers advertised as “sliders.” Given how the term has taken on a more general meaning, they may have no idea that it traces back to a specific brand of hamburgers sold by White Castle restaurants.
The White Castle hamburger is a little square burger with a steamed bun, tiny bits of chopped onion, and a thin beef patty with holes in it to make for faster cooking. White Castles sold at their restaurants include a small dill pickle slice; the frozen ones do not.
White Castles cannot be found everywhere; in fact, I wish they would open one here in Boston! According to Wikipedia, the company has opened some 420 restaurants, concentrated in the Midwest, South, and the New York metro area. They also are sold frozen, six to a box, in various grocery and convenience stores. I bought the box pictured above at the Walgreen’s in downtown Boston.
Though it may seem like pure gluttony to consume the entire box for one meal, in reality it’s not that much. A box of six burgers comes out to less than 600 calories, in fact. Add something to drink and you’re good to go!
And speaking of go, that’s sort of how White Castle burgers got tagged as “sliders,” in that eating a bag full of the little guys with chopped onions and all had, well, predictable combustible effects, especially if onion rings and fries were added to the mix. I recall reading something years back, reporting that the White Castle company once vehemently resisted the slider designation. Obviously they’ve relented and embraced it.
When the TV goes dark (Somehow, I’ve managed)
For the past ten days, I’ve been without a functioning television set. This is not exactly the stuff of deprivation or sacrifice, but it is a tad inconvenient, especially now that the pro and college football seasons are in full swing. Fortunately, help is on the way. The other day, I went to an electronics store and ordered a new TV — a fairly basic and surprisingly affordable widescreen model — which should be delivered and set up by the end of the week.
The TV I ordered represents my first purchase of a brand new model since buying a $99 cheapo set some 20 years ago! Every other TV has been a discard or a used one, including the 15-year-old kaput model that will be carted away soon.
Many moons ago, I didn’t even have a TV. During law school, I went without. I listened to the radio a lot, and I really enjoyed talk radio programs at a time when that genre was more conversational and fun, rather than a stream of political soapboxes. On occasion I’d go to the TV room in the law school dorm to watch a favorite program or two, or maybe one of my friends would have us over to watch something, but that was about it.
Right after law school, I was working as a Legal Aid lawyer and was barely scraping by, so I didn’t have a TV until some benevolent friends gave me an old portable black-and-white set that had been gathering dust. It may seem hard to imagine that I was quite happy with the social and entertainment options in my life at the time without cable or a VCR (these were the pre-DVD and streaming days, folks), but it really was so.
You know what I’ve rediscovered during this brief time? Listening to football games on the radio can be fun, at least when your team wins. On Saturday I was pulling for Navy to beat Temple and for Notre Dame to beat Michigan. Good results there. But my beloved Chicago Bears took it on the chin against Buffalo, and the Patriots fell apart against Miami.
The weekend reminded me of when I was a kid, listening to games on the radio during a time when lots fewer games were televised.
Of course, this time around I also have the Internet, which I periodically accessed on Sunday to follow the fortunes of my two fantasy football teams. (Two wins there, baby!)
So…radio and the Internet. Old meets new.
Practically speaking, listening to games on the radio made it easier to get some work and chores done. I’m not glued to my TV set when it’s working, but even so I realize how easy it is to dump hours into gazing at the screen. I’ll keep that in mind once my new TV arrives and everything is up and running.
Throwback Thursday (a day late): Moving to Boston 20 years ago
Twenty years ago, I packed my bags and boxes in Brooklyn and moved to Boston to begin a new job as a law professor. It was a big move for me. Not only was I embarking on the next major step of an academic career, but also I was leaving a beloved city that was my first chosen home.
I don’t love Boston the way I love New York City. Yes, Boston is “thinky,” manageable (as larger cities go), and contemplative, all qualities I appreciate and now truly embrace. However, it also can be thuggish, uptight, and lacking a sort of joie de vivre in its civic culture and social DNA. (On the latter point, my starting evidence is musical: The Gershwins and Cole Porter never wrote songs about it, and Sinatra never sang about it!)
But amidst this mixed bag, I have grown a lot here, become much wiser (umm, it takes some of us a while…), found great meaning in the work I do, and made lifelong friendships. And on the musical side, I’ve even discovered singing, a topic I’ll write about at greater length sometime soon!
Through ups and downs, Boston has taught me the differences between “happy” in a sort of superficial way vs. meaning in a deeper sense. These are no small blessings, and I accept them with gratitude.