Monday, December 30, 2013

If think Christmas is a zoo where YOU live...

RUN! SNOW ZOMBIE!
Merry Belated Christmas! It’s our first Noël in Chicago, and given the temperatures I would have happily spent the entire holiday hiding under a blanket pretending to acclimatize to the ice desert without.

However, this Christmas brought visitors in the form of my elder sister and her brood, which meant that Amynah commenced a two-month neurotic obsession with turkey recipes (and boy, did that ever pay off).

It also meant that we felt duty-bound to show them the best that Chicago had to offer. As usual with the first few guests that we’ve hosted in our various cities, these visits are as much an opportunity for us to learn about our new homes as it is to play tour guide.

Fortunately, our guests interests coincided nicely with my existing knowledge of Chicago: the Lego store downtown and the Shedd Acquarium worked well for the eight-year old, the local cafés pleased the 12-year-old, and the 92-year-old ice cream parlour at which the Beatles once ate worked for my older sister.

New to us all was the Lincoln Zoo Christmas Lights. The Lincoln Zoo is a fantastic Chicago institution – it is both free and within biking distance, so I’ve spent many hours there with one mini-Reynolds or another in the summer. In the winter the animals presumably summer in Florida or something and the trees are taken over by billions of Christmas lights.

We lucked out in a number of ways – the weather the day we ventured out was a full 17 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today, and our numbers precluded taking the car, meaning I avoided the mayhem of trying to park at what proved to be the most popular and crowded event in the city that day.  I can’t imagine what the cold-weather animals that remain make of the whole experience, but the people are fascinated – the night we were there, Chicagoans were shuffling around the place gazing up like a horde of stargazing zombies with no conception of personal space.




Best of all, the experience broke me out of my incipient cabin fever, meaning I got to take pictures of Christmas lights, instead of coming up with bizarre at-home art projects…. ahem.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Santa rides the blue line

Last night Sana and I ventured out into the frigid Chicago night, wading through a fresh load of 5 inches of snow that had settled onto the previous 5 inches. We were making our way to the local L-Train stop, to see one of the Windy City’s more elusive seasonal charms.
Once we made it to the station, I brushed off the detritus of the twenty or so snowballs Sana had mashed onto my bum, and we settled onto the platform to wait. On the platform with us were a number of other families with small children, and a smaller number of increasingly confused commuters.

And then it appeared: The Holiday Train. It was out in Christmas lights from stem to stern, windows plastered with festive decorations and crewed by green and red clad elves, but the highlight was, without a doubt, Santa.

Every year, Santa visits Chicago and rides every single one of Chicago’s many El Train lines in an OPEN CAR, waving at passers-by and talking to lucky kids at each station. Yesterday was his visit to the Blue Line.

We caught him on his way to O’Hare Airport. My initial idea was to ride for one or two stations and then hop on a regular train to get Sana in bed at a reasonable time. However, once we were aboard, it was too much fun to leave.

Sana rides the rails with her Mom every day, so the changes inside the train were more striking for her than for me – even the seat covers were holiday themed, and the grab-bars were all decked out like candy canes. Santa’s helpers were giving out candy canes, and the florescent interior lights were all red and green. The transit ads were replaced by cheesy Christmas themed jokes (“How do you brush snow off a Christmas tree? With a pine comb!”).

Soon after we got on, a large family group at the other end of the car started singing “Feliz Navidad” – most of the car joined in. A few stops later, and the whole car joined in singing Happy Birthday to someone called Lisa.




Sana and rode the whole way to the airport, at which point we were able to get out and Sana could talk to Santa (who had somehow managed to avoid freezing solid in his open car traveling at 45 mph in sub-zero temperatures). Sana was appropriately star-struck. We promised him cookies for Christmas Eve.

From what I understand, much of the decorations and a great number of the staff volunteer their time for the project, and the train delivers food to various charities around the city. Nothing is being sold, and the signs for the private sponsors are discreet. The whole thing really seems to have been done just for the joy of the season. As it happens, riding the Holiday Train was to be the first time Sana had encountered a real-live Santa – and I rather appreciate that it occurred in that context rather than, say, as part of a sales pitch for photo packages in a mall concourse.

Monday, November 04, 2013

To the last trick or treater of the night

To the last Trick or Treater of the Night,

When our door buzzed, at 8PM, I was not surprised – I was even somewhat relieved: we had only a few candy bars left, and I was happy to be rid of them. My daughters were already in the bath – far less tired than I, the one who had ran the darkened street chasing a ghost through crowds of monsters and miniature, Iron Men, all with a fairy princess on my back, whipping me with her ladybug scepter.
But I plodded to the door, the phantom and fairy in their bath chattering at their mother. I open the door, candies in hand… but the “Happy Hallowe’en” died on my lips. For that, I apologize.

You were young, if one defines “young” as “born sometime during the Reagan administration.” You opened you candy-sack with a facsimile of an embarrassed smile. It is not clear if yourself were in costume: you were wearing nice loafers, slacks, and a conservative looking wool coat, above the collar of which peaked what looked to be an amateurish neck tattoo. Last Trick or Treater of the Night, were you a neck-tattoo guy dressed as a banker? Or a banker dressed as a neck tattoo guy?

No matter, on the sidewalk below was a baby carriage, in which I assume – but am not sure – was a baby, who I will do you the credit of assuming – but again do not know – was in some kind of costume other than “sleeping baby wrapped in blankets.”

Please understand, Last Trick or Treater of the Night, back in the mists of time, I too was a new father, so eager that my child should enjoy all of her “firsts” that I was heedless of whether or not she understood or would even remember why there was suddenly a tree in the house, or a flaming cake in front of her.

But lets be honest: your child does not have teeth. Unless you were planning on using your blender to make a Snickers-slurry and spoon-feeding it to him/her, there is no way you were “trick or treating” on his or her behalf. Again: as far as I could tell, your child was not even awake, so it’s not like they were experiencing the wonder of the wandering grotesqueries around her.

In any case, I do not mind that you are probably old enough to remember an age in which Dave Grohl was a drummer and Billy Ray Cyrus only needed to be ashamed of his own career. I do not mind that you may well have tucked a Cabbage Patch Kid (which you are also old enough to remember) into a baby carriage in order to score candies from the neighbours.

But next time, bro, say “Trick or Treat,” ok? It was the least you could do.

Sincerely,

Your neighbour.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Al Capone and me

As part of a project to get me out of the house, keep my writing muscles in shape while waiting for the government shutdown to end and my green card to be processed, and to better acquaint myself with my corner of Chicago, I've offered my services to Logansquarist, a hyper-local website covering all matters between the North Branch of the Chicago River and Pulaski, Diversey Boulevard and... uh, whatever the southern border of Logan Square is. The old railway line maybe?

Anyway, it's a history column, which presents some difficulties in that I know nothing of Chicago's history other than 1) mobsters and 2) fire.

My first piece resulted from Googling "Al Capone" and "Logan Square." It came out well, I think. If not, it's worth checking out for the photographer they sent out after me, who appears to know what she's doing behind the lens much better than I do with responsibility for a column about a neighbourhood whose physical boundaries are still a mystery to me.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Hello? Anyone here? (Taps microphone)

This seemed apt for a 6AM stroll.
Boy, I am lousy at keeping the cobwebs out of this place. I'm not going to write much now, either: I woke up at 5:30 this morning in order to do an interview with a gentleman who had neglected to turn on his phone. On the plus side, I thereby gained the chance to say goodbye to Amynah, as she has abandoned me with the girls for the next four days in order to visit her new nieces in Calgary.

I have a number of things I could write about (anyone want to learn about some urban legends about Guelph ON? I have a doozy), but have lacked the motivation to do so for some reason. One thing I am doing is researching some of the history of my corner of Chicago, the fruits of which should be online soon-ish (Al Capone!)

Another thing I am (sporadically) doing is getting up in the early AM to write, read, and wander my local streets with a camera. Not being an early riser by nature, this has happened exactly twice in the past two months, but I'm hoping to make it a more regular thing.
Our building has a small garden out back.

There's a community garden one block away, growing food for the preschool across the street.

Not a new photo to my Faceboook friends, I think the building (which exists outside of this puddle) is a home for Hispanic seniors.

Sometimes you can see the original brickwork peeking out from the potholes in Chicago's alleys. Sometimes, they never covered them up.

There is a lot of large-scale graffiti in this neighborhood: this wall marks the edge of the parking lot of the "Mega Mall" a giant permanent flea market. Among its reputed vendors are those that sell, among other things, dead batteries and used underwear. I have thus far resisted the temptation to investigate.



Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Still writing, sort of

An article I wrote while still living in France has been published in The Beaver Canada's History's August/September issue, which I understand to be on newsstands now (also available on whatever i-Things you might be reading on these days). The short form is that Canada ends up  "invading" El Salvador in support of a fascist dictator. It does not go well for his people.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Inara: a bewildered tribute on the occasion of her second birthday


Yesterday was Inara’s second birthday, an event I’d been dreading for weeks. Inara only just started part-time in a local pre-school, and we’re not connected with any particular social group that we could manufacture a party for her. For someone who has created an entire month-long even around his birthday (Mark Reynolds Awareness Month) this was heartbreaking. I know that at two years old, she won’t remember any party we throw for her, but surely she deserves some kind of celebration, right?

I should, at this point, explain something about Inara’s personality: I cannot explain Inara’s personality. She is inscrutable, possessed of a stone-faced stare that would unnerve a Marine and a smile of such warmth and brilliance that she will reveal it only to her closest family. I can almost never guess what world she is visiting at any of the frequent moments that she faces the middle-distance, gaze turned inward, murmuring indecipherable half-words of her own device, unaware of my increasingly elaborate attempts to draw her attention to her dinner, or the need for her to wear shoes, or to check in with Ground Control.

She is, in other words, much like I was at the same age.

So it was hard to believe she was serious when, a week ago, we started asking what she might like for her birthday.

“Do you want a cake for your birthday?”

“No. No birthday.”

“How about a picnic?”

“No birthday!”

“But what about birthday presents?”

“No birthday! No!”

Initially I excused her recalcitrance as the result of a bad mood. But the same questions the next day yielded the same answers. And the following day. My only conclusion was that she didn’t know what a birthday was.

Saturday morning, I came into her room and started singing Happy Birthday… instant temper tantrum. I stopped, she immediately calmed down ,fixed me with a glare, and shouted “No!”
Every subsequent mention of “Happy birthday,” every phone call from a grandparent or Aunt, led to the same reaction: “No! No birthday!” She refused to even look at her presents until Sana told her that one of them was a Cookie Monster.

I wanted to test if it was the general concept birthdays she objected to, or hers alone, so I told her that my birthday was coming in about two months. Could we sing happy birthday to me? It turns out yes – she happily launched right into the song. But when I said “Now let’s sing it for Inara!” she slammed her spoon on the table and yelled “No!” Her objections, whatever they might have been, were specific to her.

I still don’t know what her problem is, though maybe she recognizes her 730th day on the planet as the threshold past which she’ll need to give up her bottle, learn to use a toilet, and start putting into her retirement plan. I cannot be certain: the girl is and likely long will be a mystery to me.

I know one thing. “Inara Appreciation Day” will happen next year. There will be no singing.



Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Egrets, I saw a few.


I'm not even sure she's looking through the right end.

Sana is at the age where she’s asking questions about the world around her. Some of them are even driven by genuine curiosity, as opposed to fuelling her apparently incessant need to Talk All Of The Time.

In an effort to help her understand the world, I am trying to break things down into categories for her: that thing flitting across the sidewalk was not a “birdy” but a specific kind of birdy – a robin maybe, or a pigeon.

The problem is that, once she realized that different looking birds have different names, she wanted to know what they all were. Which would be great, except that I only know maybe half a dozen kinds of birds. One of those is an ostrich, and I have dearly held hopes that I will someday be able to bust out that knowledge on the streets of Chicago.

In any case, Sana's curiosity almost immediately exceeded my extremely limited store of ornithological knowledge. So, I dutifully dug out my binoculars, downloaded the Audubon society’s app onto my phone, and drove the family out to the Moraine Hills State Park, about an hour’s drive out of town.

The park was entirely misnamed, as Moraine Hills is probably ninety percent moraine marsh and swamp. Which was fine – the girls were happy to tromp through the woods either way, and I did my best to point out the local bird-life to Sana while desperately trying to figure out which of the thousands of possibilities provided by my phone that it could be.


As it was, I recognized some ducks and a robin on my own. The black bird with the red patches on its wings turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a Red-Winged Blackbird. There were some cranes, an egret, a cardinal and a few goldfinches. There was also an undistinguished brown thing with wings that I cannot identify and thus must conclude was a space alien.

Sana, of course, lost interest after failing to figure out how the binoculars were supposed to work (her method: hold binoculars to her eyes, point them to the ground, complain loudly that she could see no birdies).

After walking two slow miles in the woods, the girls were tuckered out, so I pressed on the remaining two miles to retrieve the car. When I came back, Amynah, Sana, and Inara were clustered around a fisherman, who was holding a live catfish that he’d just caught. Inara was particularly entranced, touching it, patting it, and looking in wonder at its brother - bloody and gutted - in the man’s cooler. She seemed delighted to learn that both were destined to be the man’s dinner that night. (“Yeah! EAT THEM!”)

So, even if Sana seemed more interested in adding to her stick collection, and Inara in fish viscera, the trip wasn’t a total loss: I think I might like birdwatching. I’m so glad I have my kids around to inspire new interests.




"Muddy-winged brown thingy"

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Take me out to the ball park. Don't need a game.

Spoiler alert.

Of all the professional sports about which I do not care, baseball is the one about which I care the least. On the other hand, I’ve gone to more baseball games than I have for any other professional sport.

On my last one, I went to see the Cubs play the Padres in Wrigley Field with my Dad. My Dad, to my surprise, actually likes baseball (also to my surprise, he played in high school). We had excellent seats – ten rows back from third base.
Despite my misgivings, I had an excellent time: can’t really tell you what happened on the field with any detail, but the ambiance was amazing. Somehow, in a relatively small and old park like Wrigley Field, the million-dollar business of baseball feels like an picnic held by your local library’s ladies auxiliary.
Inside of Wrigley.

We were greeted at our seats by Pat, a retired teacher who showed us to our seats and carried on an entertaining feud with the beer and peanut vendors. The field was groomed by what looked to be volunteers from a local high school. The singer of the National Anthem wasn’t any sort of celebrity (unlike in Los Angeles or New York) but a talented local.

The other fans in our section were regulars, and knew Pat and her fellow ushers, and were quite happy to carry conversations with their neighbors and - despite looking like stockbrokers with a hairdresser on standby - delighted to do their part to sing "Take me out to the ballgame" in the seventh inning. All in all, it felt like being at a village fair, except we were all there to watch millionaires scratch their crotches spit, and occasionally chase after a ball.
Sneaky sneaky boy.

Aside from the people watching, I entertained myself by trying to take action shots during the brief seconds when there was anything resembling action. I still don’t much like baseball, but apparently I quite like going to baseball games.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Not to be a shill or anything

But "Chicago Fire" (the TV show) used our apartment a few weeks ago for an episode that airs tonight. Judging by the ambulance without and fake blood within, I don't think they were filming a tea party.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Route 66 V: The under-written conclusion!


I’m just about ready to wrap up this whole Route 66 thing, not because I’m running out of stories, but because as we progressed further north, and I became more and more anxious about getting to Chicago in time to pick up my house keys, we ventured outside of the car less and less.

The first major exception was in Catoosa, Oklahoma. This is the home of one of the most famous of Route 66’s landmarks, the Catoosa Whale. Essentially, the whale was a homemade waterpark built by a man named Hugh Davis, as an anniversary gift for his wife Zelta. The whale served as a slide and diving platform for the surrounding pond.

Am I the only one that find this creepy?
On its own, this would be a charming story, but what made it fascinating, for me, was the guidebook’s deadpan description of how this community waterhole had previously been used by the Davis’s – Zelta specifically – as an alligator farm. Why would one farm alligators? How does one keep alligators alive in Oklahoma for most of the year? How does any parent let their children swim in a pond owned by a known alligator enthusiast? I do not know, and cannot guess at the answers.



Our second major stop was a late lunch in Baxter Springs, a town situated on a small segment of Route 66 that cuts across the southeast corner of Kansas. There, we were fed and entertained by one of the two Sue’s who are the proprietor’s and presumable eponyms of “Angels on the Route.” A restaurant and gift shop located in a small and – judging by the “To Rent” signs on the storefronts – shrinking town, “Angels on the Route” represented a real gamble on Sue’s part: she renovated a wonderful century-old pharmacy, returning it to it’s wood-beamed, brick-walled, high-ceilinged glory, and filling it with a kind of service (“Your coffee’s ready! Get it yourself, because I’m making your sandwiches”) that made you feel instantly at home.

Sue also took the trouble to direct us to the local sights – the Rainbow Bridge, whose architectural significance I should probably be able to relate but can’t – and the tow truck that was the inspiration for Mater in the movie “Cars.” Apparently, there was a local gentleman named Dean in the area who could turn his feet backwards (we saw pictures) and was the reason Mater tended to run away in reverse – we didn’t get a chance to meet him, unfortunately.

Looking back over these posts, I realize that I’ve failed to capture, at all, what it is like to travel with four old friends in a small car for five straight days. We talked a lot of crap, of course, but also absurdist role-playing games  (ours devised a town in which the copper miners, copper smelters and copper thieves can created a self-sustaining, entirely enclosed economy). We only got lost once (not when I was at the wheel) and almost crashed once (when I was). We listened to a lot of each other’s music and drank a lot of local beers. We discovered that Tim has some weird ideas about Wisconsin. But most of all, we sang:
video



Friday, April 19, 2013

Route 66 IV: Ghost dogs


I have to put a disclaimer here: I am writing this post on my last bloggable adventure while in the midst of another one: I am currently twenty-two stories above downtown Chicago because the makers of “Chicago Fire” are currently re-painting and re-furnishing my apartment in order to film some sort of televisual mayhem there for upcoming broadcast.

I therefore have none of the aides memoire that I normally have on hand to render my adventures with the accuracy and vividness to which I pretend to myself that you, my loyal readers, have become accustomed.

In any case – after enjoying the hospitality of a very understanding friend in Albuquerque, my increasingly hirsute and malodorous friends piled once more into the Civic and we continued our journey East.

Our major stop for the day was a ghost town called Glenrio, which straddles the New Mexico/Texas state line. The town’s fortunes (and geography) shifted according to the transportation means of the day – the Ozarks Trail, the railway, and finally Route 66 – all of which finally ran through town. The construction of the Interstate drained all of the traffic away from its motels and gas stations.

The old Route 66 at this point is not paved (if it ever was) and is now essentially a utility road for the local farmers. In February, it was a dusty line cutting through desolate fields, a playground for tumbleweeds.

Needless to say, within five minutes of pulling onto the road, the car’s low-fuel light came on, because one should run out of gas when one is visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, when no-one knows where you are.

The "album cover" shot.
We stopped at a ghost-motel at the outskirts of the ghost motel, the only inhabitant of which was, on the evidence, a ghost-dog that was furiously barking at us but which we never actually laid eyes on. Mind you, it did sound like it was some distance away, but I blame that veil separating us from the Other Side distorting the sound. Or the dog was at the farmhouse further back on the road.

 As fascinating and evocative a ghost towns are in the imagination, in reality they’re frightening largely because they are minefields of broken glass, ragged bits of rusted metal, and floorboards of uncertain solidity screening basements hosting wildlife of unknown temperament.

Jon goes over the top.
Readers might scoff at my timidity, but the Route 66 guidebook we were relying on had specifically referenced the feral dogs that were the sole remaining inhabitants of Glenrio. Of the many souvenirs I hoped to pick up on this journey, rabies was not among them (neither was tetanus, which means I probably shouldn’t have cut myself scaling the barbed wire fence the feral dogs had erected to protect their ghost-motel).




NEXT! A combination alligator pond/children’s swimming hole!

Addendum: I am leaving out the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, my temper tantrum and the ensuing arm-wrestling match, the best burgers we had on the route, and all of Texas. I only have so much space.



Thursday, April 18, 2013

Route 66 III: DEATH FROM ABOVE! TRY OUR SNACK BAR!

This is the most photographed site on Route 66. It's an abandoned gas station near Flagstaff, of no particular historic or architectural significance, but it does have its own exit just off the main highway. Broken dreams, everyone!

Trivia question: Does anyone know how Flagstaff Arizona got its name?

A: Trick question. It was named after a flagpole. I can only imagine what local highlights the town fathers rejected before settling on that one.

“Gentleman, this town needs a name, and I feel it should be a testament to the spirit and enterprise of the people that settled this beautiful place. What’s the first thing we built here?”

“Well sir, I reckon it was the pig fence. After that, I think there was the privy? Then, a whole caravan of us pitched in to get the saloon and brothel up pretty quick. And then there was the vomiting-shed out back of the saloon. Then there was the jail… and I guess the flagpole we put in front of the jail. Does that count?”

“Sigh.”




Despite the mundane name (and misspelled plaque commemorating the original flagpole) Flagstaff was a beautiful town, the kind of place you could imagine ne’er do wells and triggermen washing up in before heading out into the surrounding hills. It’s been cleaned up quite a bit since then, boasting a gourmet café and fancy bagel shop that hosted us for breakfast. The walls of the latter – Biff’s Bagels – had become a veritable shrine to the town’s deceased canines, with photos of furry faces and handwritten eulogies to  missed canines lining the walls from floor to ceiling.

Our primary goal for the day was not far from Flagstaff: a local attraction called Meteor Crater. I will not leave any of you in suspense as to the nature of that attraction: a mile-wide hole in the ground left by a chunk of malevolent space-iron 50,000 years ago.

I don’t want to sell Meteor Crater short: it was spectacular, the accompanying interpretation center entertaining and educational and the tale of its original owner’s twenty year subterranean quest to mine a hunk of metal that had, in fact, evaporated on impact, blackly comic.

When I die, however, that is not what I will remember about Meteor Crater.

Anyone who’s traveled a North American highway has probably seen those roadside notices to tune in to a designated AM radio station for information of weather conditions, or traffic, or local attractions. Meteor Crater has one of those, and on a whim we decided to tune in, and am I ever glad we did.

The station was a repeating loop of a gravel-voiced man, clearly doing some pro bono work from his normal job doing colour commentary at Monster Truck rallies.

“METEOR CRATER! A MYSTERY 50,000 YEARS IN THE MAKING! EXPERIENCE THE IMPACT OF A TWENTY THOUSAND TON METEOR EXPLODES IN THE ARIZONA DESERT!!!”

Geez buddy, couldn't you at least say "Spoiler Alert" first?

He carried on like that for a while (“BE SURE TO STOP AT BETTY’S DINER IN WINSLOW!!! SEE THE GIRL ON THE FLATBED FORD!!! ENJOY THE NEW SUBWAY RESTAURANT IN THE INTERPRETATION CENTER!!! METEOR CRATER!!!”). Suddenly,  the loop cut to what I presume was a scientist of some sort, clearly recorded in the 1970s. He was not introduced, which was probably for the best, given what we heard.

His reedy-voiced lecture began… “There has been increasing interest from the public and the scientific community in…”

“METEOR CRATER!!! EXPERIENCE THE IMPACT!!!” cut in Monster Truck Man, possibly thinking to himself “SHUT UP NERD!!!”

Of course Tim, Travis and I spent the rest of the day TALKING LIKE THIS and interrupting each other’s sentences with sudden interjections of METEOR CRATER!!! It never got old.

Next: We visit a ghost town and nearly get METEOR CRATER!!!




Petrified Forest National Park. This is a rock that looks like a log, which
is cool in theory, but looks very much like a log in practice.

Painted Desert, NM.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Route 66: Dam the drink

Hoover Dam. Hard to get a shot that properly
conveys the magnitude of the thing.



I hesitate to skip over the Las Vegas detour we indulged in on our Route 66 trip because I’m afraid no one will believe the reason why: nothing happened. We had an excellent steak dinner, and wandered through a few casinos, but none of really gambled and I, personally, was too worn out from the drive to stay out very late, despite all my worst intentions.

So, a bit of a bust, debauchery-wise. On the other hand, it was conveniently close to the Hoover Dam, AKA the Holy of Holies for the engineer in our complement, at which we duly paused on our way out of Nevada.

We rejoined the Mother Road in Arizona, and headed off the Interstate roughly in a place called Kingman. Our trajectory into the desert was immediately diverted into the Kingman International Airport Industrial Park by a sign that promised a local distillery. Our eyes dancing the prospect of grizzled cowboys peddling washtub firewater and snake-venom whiskies.

Grand Canyon Caverns. There was also a sign for Harley
Davidson parking, "All others will be burned."
Pushing through the door of the Desert Diamond Distillery, we entered the sales room and tasting bar, in which promisingly amber bottles glinted through the miasma of fermentation and high-proof alcohol. The décor was, as you would expect, burnished wood and tarnished metal. Even the brochure that I just discovered I kept from the visit played into our preconceptions… “Come on in and set a spell. Take a gander around our Still, you might get lucky and see it steamin’…”

On taking up the invitation and bellying up to the bar we were surprised, and more than a little disappointed to learn that the twin tipples of the Triple D were… vodka and rum. Never having developed a taste for rum, and being somewhat afraid of vodka, we were not inclined to shell out for full bottles, but we indulged in a few sips of several of their varieties, and bought a gift pack of mini bottles for later consumption.

I ducked into the bathroom before hitting the road, only to find my traveling companions missing on my return to the showroom. They had somehow finangled a tour with… a man who I think might have owned the distillery, though maybe he just worked there, or just happened to have been passing by and decided to pull a fast one on some tourists.

Any casual Dorothy and Toto who only visited the showroom would only have seen down-homey old-timey plain-speakin’ Old Westness. Behind the curtain, however, was the Wizard as he truly was: a computer controlled, twenty-foot tall still of gleaming , stainless steel, precision-cut to exacting German standards.

The man giving the tour (who had a very East Coast accent, for a man selling Gold Miner Rum) was rightfully proud of his machine – it was, he boasted, the first of its kind in North America, and the Triple-D offered seminars to other small distillers around the country on its use. With a couple of punches of a button, it could produce any kind of hard liquor of any grade you could want: “Even whiskey” he said, as if gagging on the word.  

The discombobulation I experienced between the cowboy esthetic and the futuristic production carried throughout the rest of the tour. You rather expect that when someone goes to the trouble of setting up a distillery at great cost and difficulty that they have some love or affinity for making spirits. Yet our guide seemed keener on the swamp coolers that they used to keep their barrels from drying out than he did in the nuances of his product: “You know, I just read a book on this, and these barrels can add tens of thousands of different chemical compounds that affect the flavour,” he told us, adding in a wondering tone. “Can you imagine? Tens of thousands!” He only just read up on this?
And no, he never explained what a swamp cooler was, let alone why each bottle bore the words “hand crafted” when the whole process was controlled by the algorithms pumping through the digital heart of the Alco-Matic 3000.

Next: Meteor crater! Meteor Crater! Meteor Crater!!!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Route 66, Post Number 1


Ok, I am finally getting around to writing about my trip to Chicago. I am going to split it up over a few different posts, of whatever length I feel like, at whatever rate I choose. I get roughly 20 uninterrupted minutes a day to write these days, if I am lucky. Bear with me.

 It has now been a month and a half since I left Los Angeles, and I have yet to offer the city the valediction I produced for Strasbourg (of course, given that I spread that particular farewell over the better part of three months or near-daily posting, you can hardly blame me). I don’t think anyone who knows me would be surprised to learn that I failed to fall in love with Los Angeles, even as it gave me a couple of daughters, a host of new friends and the means to fulfill one or two boyhood dreams. On the other hand, everyone I knew who lived there assured me that they came to love the city – it just took them five or six years. Los Angeles does not give her favours away easily, and I had only three years to charm her.

If I never got to know Los Angeles the right way, then I could at least leave it the right way. Given that Chicago was my final destination, the right way could only be via Route 66, asphalt muse of troubadors of Americana and Dust Bowl nostalgists for decades.

The reason people go the other way: Beach volleyball the morning we left, ice skating the evening we arrived. 
My companions on the road were to be the same trio that stood idly by my side as I recklessly married Amynah lo those many years ago (thus putting me on a path that lead to me moving from Los Angeles to Chicago in the first place). Like the Avengers, each heeded my call and left the comforts of their hearth and home, abandoning uncomprehending children and understanding wives to assemble in Los Angeles (making me Nick Fury, I guess?). We gave ourselves one week in February to drive 2,451miles (3,945 kilometers), from the mellow warmth of So-Cal into the late-winter charms of the Windy City.
We began our journey Sunday morning at the traditional “end” of Route 66, the Santa Monica Pier, scene of a million cinematic first dates, breakups, criminal escapes, gun fights, and dance parties. We gazed idly over the Pacific, noted the Santa Monica police SUV with a surfboard mounted on its roof (in case some enterprising thief tried to steal someone’s good vibes or something?).
We shoved off set course for the east: through Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywoods West- and Regular, through Silver Lake and into the belly of downtown, up to Pasadena, and then through the sprawl of the northeastern suburbs – Acadia, Monrovia, Temple City et al. At some point we joined the Interstate, hopping on and off where the old 66 re-asserted itself (it was at this point of the day that we put on “Call Me Maybe” for the first of what would prove to be many times. There is video. I will post it, pending permission).

It was on one of these stretches that we encountered Elmer Long and his “Bottle Tree Ranch.” It’s hard for words to describe what Elmer created out in the middle of the Mojave, but I’ll try: a shaded oasis of iron and glass, welded trees displaying a glittering foliage of bottles and cast-off power-line fuses, each topped with pawn-shop oddities and antiques salvages from junk yards and the surrounding desert over the course of decades.
Elmer graciously talked to the four of us for twenty or so minutes, telling us about how, as a child, he and his father would go searching for treasure in the desert. Over the years he piled up an enormous trove of glass, metal, old guns, typewriters and California Highway Patrol motorcycle helmets. One day, the inspiration struck to turn it into an art installation, and so the Ranch was born. There were easily a few hundred “trees” up already – some bearing bottles more than a century old -  and Elmer said he had thousands more to put up. It would have been easy to have spent hours there, and Elmer certainly seemed amenable to chatting, but the road was calling.

 To be continued....

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Read someone else's blog!

I am, today, featured on the excellent "The Dusty Bookcase,"reviewing The Sixth of December. The Dusty Bookcase is the project of Brian Busby, which he has dedicated to the forgotten and obscure of Canadian literature. It's always worth a read, despite his questionable taste in guest contributors.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Repeat after me: It is a big city.



Our neighbourhood, after a snowfall.  
On arrival in Chicago after a soon-to-be-blogged about week on Route 66 with three of my best friends, we checked into a short-term rental apartment, while waiting for Amynah and the girls (and all our worldly possessions) to catch up to us. The owner showed us all the fixtures, and then gave us some advice as to where among the hundreds of excellent options to eat and dine in the local neighbourhood we should choose to satiate our beer-lust. Mindful of Chicago’s reputation for gun violence, he assured us that the immediate area was safe, but to be cautious.

“You, know, it’s big city.”

Shortly after we moved in, there was a fairly large snowfall. At near 11 PM at night, there was a buzz on our door. A large man stood outside with a shovel, asking if he could shovel our steps and sidewalk for a few bucks. We informed him that we were new in the neighbourhood, at which point he welcomed us and said it was a good place to live.

“But you gotta be careful – you know, it’s a big city.”

Last week, I was walking down our street with the girls. Directly across the road from our place, I was accosted by a group of people sitting on their stoop. While Sana and Inara marveled at their dog, they too welcomed me to the area, promised me further details over a future beer, and assured me that it was 
a wonderful place to live.
On the El-Train. Sana already has the thousand-yard stare of a regular commuter.

“But you know – it is a big city.”

We’ve enrolled Sana in a pre-school, not far from where Amynah works*, so the two of them ride the El-Train together three times aweek, leaving Inara and I to fend for ourselves. Friday was the warmest day we’ve had since moving here, so we went for a walk – saying hi to other parents wandering around with their kids, picking up some fresh-baked bread at the local boulangerie, searching for shoots of tulips in the neighbors gardens, stopping in for coffee at the local hipster café.
Right there, in front of the red brick building (picture is from Jan.)
Imagine this place full of families. Now imagine gunshots.

Late in the afternoon, I took her to the local park. It was packed with kids chasing each other and yelling, parents tending to boo-boos or chatting with one another. Suddenly, there was a loud crack. I looked over to the nearby apartments, where I saw one young man holding his side and another running away. Throughout the park, parents grabbed their children and hustled them to the further exits – “Why do we have to go?” “It’s…uhhh… time to have dinner, baby. Now, let’s GO.” Grim fear and bewilderment on everyone’s faces.

Inara was screaming as I pulled her off the slide and hustled her back home. It did not console her when I said, as the sirens grew louder in the distance, “Well, you know, it is a big city.”

Now, gun violence in my immediate proximity aside, I want to assure my readers (both of you!) that so far, I love this city. The people are friendly in an open, genuine and engaged way that I have never experienced before (such that neighbours will invite you out for beer before learning your name). There are more excellent cafés and affordable-yet-deliciousdining options than there are people. I’m not sure how that works, mathematically, but it does. It’s an interesting lookingcity, with a street life that never seems to stop. Public transit is extensive,clean, and used by people who refuse to make a big deal out of surrendering their seats to toddlers. It’s going to make a good home for us, and I suspect I’ll be doing a lot of blogging about it – assuming that I don’t get shot. But first: my Route 66 Adventure!

* Two weeks ago, Amynah’s building was locked down because of a shooting at a grocery store near campus. So, Yay Chicago!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Windy City update



In case anyone checks this blog in order to learn about my life or whereabouts, I live in Chicago now. In the weeks to come, I hope to write a bit about the means by which I got here (hint - look at the photo) and my impressions of the city. Until then, unpacking awaits.