Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hello, Old Blog

It's been a while since I've written here. I thought this might be a good time to start writing again. It's a promise I make to myself a few times a year, to write more for my own enjoyment. And like the White Sox after the All-Star break, it's a promise too often broken.

We normally spend New Year's Eve in another city - last year it was DC, Toronto the year before that. This year, having traveled quite a bit (San Francisco, Prague and Budapest, and Seattle), we stayed in Chicago for the turn of the decade. We're trying to save money, that's part of it. But we're also planning on traveling more in the coming year, as well. Los Angeles is coming in a few weeks. And I'm zipping around the cities of the Great Lakes for work, now. It made sense to keep it close this year. And while the Skylark isn't a regular hang out for me, it's an enjoyable place to spend a few hours, putting away some drinks and just generally hanging around. All around, it was a quiet New Year's.

I've long thought that how you spend your New Year's Eve is somehow indicative of how the coming year will be. There's always been some sort of metaphor in that for me - sitting in a Canadian dive bar with friendly strangers, making the best of a house party in the Capitol City with people don't know or really like. And in some way that's said something about the state of mind I was in at the time, which in turn informed how the coming year played out. This year, we stayed on the South side, with some friends. It's looking like keeping it close to home is how this year really will happen. So, I'll do my best to keep you updated, and hope that this isn't the only post on City of Progress this year.

Photo by alonzoD.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

An October Sort of City

"Chicago is an October sort of city, even in spring." - Nelson Algren

Being away from Chicago during the winter has its advantages. It's not bitter cold and windy, and there isn't 12"-16" of snow in the ground, for sure. At the same time, the national perception of Our Fair City is that winter is so unbearably cold that living here is incomprehensible. As a long time proponent of the long view, (as well as a native Great Lakes Midwesterner), I know that this is not the case.

I landed at Midway on Friday, after being stranded at Dulles for several hours while a serious storm front dropped a snow bomb on the upper half of the nation. When you're driving north through the far South Side at 8P in the middle of December thinking "damn it's good to be back", you've been gone for far too long. Anyway, in spite of Daley's attempts to make us surround City Hall with pitchforks and torches by not plowing the streets, in spite of the horribly cold wind blowing off the lake, in spite of the questionable insulation on the windows of our cheap Bridgeport apartment, I've come to enjoy the really cold weather. (Watch and see what I'm saying in March when I've had enough of this nonsense.)

Although the perception that Chicago is filled with stoic types, who will put on a heavy coat and pull on a pair of boots in January to go about their business, the truth is that we all tell ourselves it'll all be better soon, that Spring is right around the corner, that winter only lasts three or four short months, and once the dial hits 50, we'll all be back out there again.

On those bitter cold days, the ones that happen between Early December and late April, when the weather forecast lines up single digits across the board and the sun brings light but not heat, I don't tell myself those lies. I tuck my head down, stuff my hands in my pockets, and walk faster, hoping that I don't have to wait too long for the bus.

Nonetheless, coming home, taking off the cold and wet boots, and settling down in a warm living room leaves me with a strange sense of satisfaction. There's something in this city that makes the people that live and work here tough. Like late season-baseball in Chicago, even when things look bleak and cold and dark, we just dig in and think about the sunrise that is surely around the corner.

Photo by TheeErin

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

On a Journey

I keep seeing this commercial on TV:

Every time I see this ad, I think back five years, when I first came back to Chicago. Moving to a new city can be tricky; it takes a while to put down roots, to meet people, to feel established. For those first two years, when I was still broke, rootless and didn't have many friends, I would wonder sometimes why I didn't just cash out, pack it up and hit the road.

I've learned over the years that I'm the kind of person that needs to be part of some sort of community to feel connected, grounded and productive. Although the overarching use of this commercial is to sell Louis Vuitton bags, I'm not sure there's a traveler in this ad in the conventional sense. I'm not convinced that the people in this ad are are out of their elements, so much as just journeying through life.

What is it that we remember from our journeys? I'm sure I saw the Statue of Liberty in New York; I remember best the French-Soul Food Vegan dinner with the guy we stayed with. I know I went to Alcatraz in San Fransisco; I remember best getting drunk in a series of dive bars, or visiting the Lusty Lady and talking about the labor movement with the girl in the private peep show. I know we went to Chapultepec Park in Mexico City; I remember best sitting on the steps of a Catholic church at the top of a hill, listening to Indians pray and drinking coffee with Vero.

I'll not be traveling with Louis Vuitton any time soon (not my style). But as I get ready to fly back to Chicago for the holidays, I'm left wondering about the journey that I'm on. Not just the life journey, but also the immediate journey, here in DC. Have I really come face to face with myself? Have I made this trip, or has this trip made something of me?

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Four Months of Solitude?

Not everyone can be settled in one city, or stay in one place for longer than a few years. Some of the people that I've met through work here, especially members of the active-duty military, have mentioned to me that they move around so much that they actually look forward to it. "I get nervous when I'm in a place more than a year and a half. I start looking for my next deployment," said an Air Force pilot I know. For me, I'd much rather live in one place and be a part of a stable community. I've lived in different places, and moved around a little bit, and while it's an exciting, interesting experience, ultimately it leaves me feeling unsatisfied and looking for relationships that are more profound.

I've been here for one week now, and I'm starting to get used to being in the District. I'm even trying to recreate some of the stability that I have back in Chicago: work friendships, regular places for services (groceries, haircuts, cigarettes). The people that know and see you everyday, who, by the very fact that you drop in to buy a cup of coffee most mornings, or you say hi to them at the bus stop when you're on time, or you drop by their desk once in a while to talk shop at work, know and care for you in a broader communal sense.

Call it the "unintentional community", a situation that looks like all the other lives you see in popular culture, except without the luxury of excising the rough edges that people can brush away in the intentional community. And, after only a week in the Capital City, I'm finding communities here nicely. Work is pleasant, and I've made friends with some of the people there, both among my peers an among some of the management. And, speaking of rough edges, I've been able to work around some of the more awkward and standoffish people in my office, by simply being professional and confident with them while making friends around them. (That's a little trick a learned a while back, and I've yet to not have it work!)

As for the social side of DC, well, I've found Yelp to be especially useful. I don't really like the notion of the online community. I have my own real-time community that I fit into and don't need to send out emails and write reviews as part of some "social networking" scheme to be a part of something. But. Knowing that there's a website written by lots of locals makes it really easy to find a decent coffee shop in a part of town you want to go check out, or a bar with outdoor seating. And, in spite of the East Coast reputation for being cool and detached, I've found it really easy to meet people to hang around with in most of the places I've gone to. That may have something to do with the fact that must of the professional class in this city is from somewhere else, but I think ultimately people are, deep down, genuinely interested in meeting others.

I don't really have a conclusion for this post, other than it's a lovely day in the District, and I've got a three-day weekend ahead of me. I suspect that I'll be meeting lots more Washingtonians soon.

Photo by NCinDC

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Debate Night in America and the Brand of the District

Tonight was Debate Night in America, CNN's attempt to make the presidential political process as appealing as Monday Night Football. And as much as I love the idea of fathers and sons sitting around watching the debates like they watch the Bears, I also have some reservations about commodifying American Democracy. For all of its faults, the notion that some 300 million heterogeneous people have a referendum every four years on the state of the republic is a pretty remarkable thing, even when it goes horribly, cynically awry.

But as I was watching one of George W. Bush's former speech writers analyze tonight's debate (sharply dressed like most of the career climbers I see walking around DuPont Circle before and after work most weekdays), I got to thinking about one of the differences I've noticed between DC and Chicago. It took me lots of visits to many other cities in North America before I discovered that you can't go downtown to find out what's going on in a city. (I think you can only get away with this in Chicago and New York.) The District is, by far, much smaller than Chicago, both in size and population. Population particularly is a significant difference between DC and Chicago; with only about a half million residents within the District compared to Chicago's nearly three million, you can feel the difference just walking around. According to the Lonely Planet that I checked out from the library, DC's population doubles every workday when professionals that work for, in and around the government come in from Maryland and Virginia.

As I was watching these two speechwriters from the Bush and Clinton administrations try to convince Jim Lehrer that their guy had won the debate, I got to thinking about the symbolism of campaigns, and of the modern political process. While the right-wing, especially the neoconservative movement, is on the retreat this election cycle, they're still using the old political short-hand for patriotism and identity politics of the past. And it occurred to me that the District itself is marked by symbolism much in the way that modern politics is marked by symbolism. DuPont Circle, Admas Morgan, The New U, Anacostia, Bethesda, Arlington, Crystal City, Franconia, Alexandria. Each of these places (along with the phrase The District) is short hand for what it says about you and your lifestyle. White, professional and government. Poor, black and violent. Middle class, on the GS and suburban. Military or intelligence.

As I was watching these former speechwriters argue over who could best the other with symbolism, I couldn't help but think about who I see walking around in front of my apartment when I go out to smoke. And while those symbols are different from the ones I see walk around my neighborhood in Chicago, I wonder if stereotypes here are really any different from stereotypes back in the City of Big Shoulders.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

You Won't Find Homeland Security Like This in Chicago

Walking down Pennsylvania Ave is pretty anticlimactic. DC is pretty anticlimactic. You look out the window of the jet as you land at National, and you see the capital, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial on the Potomac's Tidal Basin. You walk through the airport and catch a cab, which drives you to a quiet apartment in the Old City of the District. It all really feels very much like you're some hotshot diplomat coming to town to cut a deal. It's a neat feeling, and you expect to have that feeling all the way through.

So when I went to go check out the White House over the weekend, I was hit with the reality of one of our national monuments, something that at least most Americans think of as their own, is very much real. The White House, up close and sans zoom lens and dramatic lighting is pretty impressive. But it isn't ABC Nightly News impressive.

The White House is an impressive building, but it's still very much real. Aside from the random protesters parked in front of the presidential mansion, the gawking tourists and the uniformed Secret Service police, there's also a sizable contingent of service workers. Gardeners, custodial staff and building engineers walk the grounds, doing mundane daily maintenance tasks. And you get the sense that it's an incredibly secure building. Except. Except that you can see behind the curtain, so to speak. As we walked around the building, there were gates that police officers were walking through, building staff moved freely. And on the East side of the grounds, we came across a gate that was closed with a simple lock, held in place with a bike lock cable. Walking around DC, I see lots and lots of buildings with wrought iron bars on the windows. And in Chicago, I usually see buildings with wrought iron gates around them. The lock sets are surrounded with high-gauge steel mesh, so you can't just reach through the bars and open the lock. But here's the White House, locked up with cable, like a bicycle in some small town.

In Chicago, that bike would be gone in less than an hour.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

And we're back!

At least for a while. City of Progress has had a busy summer, and an exciting fall is off to a great start. I moved from Liquor Park to Bridgeport - mainly due to the negligence of my landlord. Long story short: $675 a month is a great deal on an apartment as long as nothing breaks.

In the meantime, I've put most of my stuff into storage and am living out of laundry baskets and a duffel bag at my girlfriend's place on the Southside.

In other news, I'm not in school this year! Huzzah! This has given me such a glorious sense of freedom and relaxation, I can't even begin to describe it. Also, I'm traveling to Washington, DC for four months for work, so I'm hoping that I'll be able to document some of the experiences I have living in another American urban city.

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