Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Proposition, and DIY Pollock

A few days ago we went and saw The Proposition written by Nick Cave (gloomy Australian rock musician). The film was surprisingly well done, which is not exactly the same as enjoyable. No one with an objection to violence (including graphic brutality and murder, as well as someone's head getting blown off onscreen) should probably see this movie. But that said, the violence was not gratuitous. I mean, it was a story about murderous outlaws, and showing their activities in unflinching detail was important as a kind of indictment. If it had all been sanitized Hollywood-style violence then it would have been too easy to sympathize with them. As it was, there was a weird moral ambivalence about the whole thing, not because everyone was totally bad but because most characters were partly bad and partly redeemed by their nobler qualities.

The basic plot was, an Australian lawman of the 1880s captures the younger two brothers of an outlaw family. The youngest is a helpless innocent, the oldest a notorious criminal and the true target of the lawman's ire. The lawman places before the middle brother a proposition: track down and kill his older brother and he and his younger brother will go free; otherwise his younger brother will hang. Then he releases the middle brother and drags the other off in chains.

Though there are some complications, the story-line mostly stays with the stark decision placed before the middle brother, Charlie. The sound-track is very good and haunting, as are the landscape shots: they are sometimes long, but never boring or draggy because the overall tension level in the movie is so high, and also because the landscape is imbued with a sense of danger. The whole things was stunning, and impressive, but I wouldn't see it again. Most heartfelt conclusion: thank god I don't live in the Australias outback in the 1880s.

And now for something completely different. I found a website for DIY Pollock, linked to on someone's blog, and spent probably an hour playing with it. I totally recommend it (if you're confused, move your mouse around on the blank screen and you'll get the point). Below is one of my productions, which I am calling Riding Double, though something like Untitled 2 is more of a Jackson Pollocky title:

Is this website a medium, like a new kind of brush/paint/canvas? Or is the interface itself the art, in which case I am wrong to say that the above painting is "mine" or was made by me?

I don't know, but it sure was entertaining.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mere Anarchy, and the Sears Tower

I just want to begin this post by mentioning that although we thought our recycling situation was exceptionally dire (i.e., there is no way for us to recycle anything, including paper, wine bottles, soda cans, whatever!), it is actually averagely dire. That is to say that although there are laws requiring Chicago to recycle a certain percentage of its garbage and provide the possibility of recycling to at least some residents, these laws are not enforced. The pathetic system they do have in place--known as the blue bag system, where people are supposed to put recyclables in special blue bags and then chuck them into the dumpster with everything else--is a miserable failure because a) no one does it (I wouldn't even know how to get a blue bag) and b) even when people do put stuff in the blue bags, sanitation workers have next to no incentive to wade through the garbage and fish them out. After all, there's no penalty for not doing it. Nor is there a penalty for failing to recycle or for failing to provide recycling (e.g., to employees or tenants). Says the spokesman of the company that is supposed to be running the recycling program, "We want people to recycle and are willing to work with them so that they end up doing it.... We don't believe that beating them up with tickets is the way to accomplish this" (Chicago Reader, July 21). But wait. Actually, beating them up with tickets is the way to accomplish this.

Another unenforced law we have discovered: a smoking ban in bars and restaurants is actually on the books, but is completely ignored. It works in NYC, why not here? Now Chicago is considering banning foie gras, and the serving of trans fats in restaurants. But why bother thinking up new laws when they can't even enforce the laws they have? Mere anarchy.

Despite the deplorable state of the law in this town, we made time on Sunday to go to one of its popular tourist attractions, the Sears Tower. I guess I never realized how tall it is: 1729 feet to the top of the Western antenna. From 1970 to 1998 (or so--the figure is debated) it was the tallest building in the world. Another interesting thing about it is that it is constructed from 9 tubes arranged in a cube shape, and some of the tubes are higher and lower than others. Very interesting. Sad to say, we were in the tower so we did not actually get a good picture of it. But there is one here.

It was a real tourist "thing," which is to say long lines with lots of non-Chicagoans. The rather high price ($12 for adults) pretty much guarantees that it wouldn't be something you'd do more than once, unless you had relatives visiting from out of town or something. But it was fun to do it once, despite being herded from one elevator to another, forced to watch a movie ("they should reduce the price and skip the movie," I joked, although in fact the movie was sort of interesting), and finally deposited on the observation deck (104th floor?) with hordes of others. It didn't matter, though, as it was really cool. Looking down on skyscrapers!

I would also like to point out that we got a good shot of Colin's future place of employment, the UIC campus. From so high in the air, it is really clear why its old name is "Chicago Circle." The tall ugly building is the one Colin works in (on the 14th floor, about halfway up). There's no getting around the fact that it is ugly, but on the upside, it is lavishly air-conditioned and has a comfortable, sprawling coffee-shop/study area on the second floor. So actually, I have been spending a lot of time there recently, and in the nearby Daley Library.

Anyway, here are some other photos:

Us in the elevator on the way down. I don't know, for some reason I just thought it would be a cool shot:

Three more of my beloved squished pennies added to my collection. My particular favorite is the cow, a reference to the O'Leary cow who allegedly started the great Chicago fire of 1871 by kicking over a lantern in the barn. Actually, the cow was probably a figment of anti-Irish imagination, not a true culprit. Besides, the real damage was done when the fire hit the tar factory, ammunition dump, and the gasworks!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Reading Fiend, and Chinatown

For some reason, I have been reading obsessively for about the past 24 hours. It started with a very difficult day yesterday--another trip to the University of Chicago, this one by car. It should have been easy because, combining trips, we took Colin's books to UIC first, and then went on down to UofC, and he did all the driving, the generous soul. But somehow, there were any number of complications, from parking to logistics to just random minutiae. I did come back with the article I had gone there for, but I will not be taking the car down there again! I will follow the new advice of my old high-school friend Robin and take the Metra. I have not taken it before because it is a separate system from the L and the buses (which both take the same payment card), and incompatible systems really bug me. But apparently it is the best way to get down there. So if and when I have to go a third time, I'll be trying that. Small improvements.

One thing I did during blank spots in the long and frustrating day was read a book Colin had gotten out of the library, a book of essays by W.H. Auden called The Dyer's Hand. It was actually due to my suggestion that he had gotten the book out, and this only because I had had to read a small excerpt of it in college (and subsequently forgot everything about it except one small passage and the fact that it was by Auden). I had mentioned it to Colin because it (the bit I remembered) seemed an intriguing pedagogical strategy. Colin somehow managed to track down the passage I meant, and find the book. I quote the passage below:

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:
1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.
2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.
3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.
4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.
5) Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.
— W. H. Auden

I have always liked the idea of this, and wish I could have gone to that school! Parts of it sound like a traditional Chinese education. In any case, the above passage comes from a long and miscellaneous essay entitled "The Poet and the City," which has a lot of neat stuff in it, more than I can get into here. In addition, I read another even more miscellaneous essay called "Hic et Ille." Auden had a cranky and idiosyncratic but generally very interesting perspective on things.

Anyway, after the universities ordeal, I just sat at my computer looking at the newspaper online. For some reason I got started reading archived Dear Abby columns and kept on for about two hours. Colin went out exploring the bar scene because he was restless instead of weary. He came back reporting that most places were unspectacular. Also, he brought me some great mini-cupcakes. We shared a late-night batch of ramen and then turned in. Don't ask me why I because so fascinated with Dear Abby all of a sudden. I guess it just seemed a window into the weirder aspects of ordinary lives. And there are some strange ones out there. What strikes me as especially interesting, though, is the standards according to which Abby offers her advince. All kinds of taken-for-granted standards, of health and illness, of manners and propriety, of loyalties, appropriate behavior within various relationships (parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings, friends, inlaws, pets and pet-owners). Sometimes readers quibble about the advice, and it shows the give in the standards. But Abby is the institution that she is because much of the advice seems to ring true!

Today, I spent the greater part of my reading time finishing Single and Single, the last LeCarre novel we own that I hadn't read. It's a really good one! And to add to my pleasure upon finishing it, Colin pointed out a book that one of his professors had recommended to him, called Unprincipled Virtue, which uses Single and Single as its opening example. So I went straight on to read the first section of that book. I can't say much about Single and Single that won't spoil the story, so suffice it to say it's one of my favorite LeCarres yet. However, regarding Unprincipled Virtue, I will mention that it promises to be a fascinating exploration of the phenomenon in which we suddenly do a virtuous thing without ever intending to or even thinking about it--as if acting independently of our deliberative "selves." Rather an important topic, I would say, and many of the things he said (not to mention the great scene in Single and Single to which the book refers) really ring true.

In addition to these, I read large portions of the Book of Genesis owing to a bit of breakfast-table conversation about the giants who walked the earth. What interested me particularly in reading it, though, was the odd bits of evidence that in various ways God was feeling a bit threatened. If I could go back to being a sophomoric undergrad writing a paper for some class like "The Bible as Literature," I would choose for a title and subject, "God's Insecurities."

Finally, near the end of the day, we went to the corner Caribou and I got around to reading the article I'd copied at the UofC yesterday. Fortunately, it was useful as promised. I made some very efficient notes, which included a to-do list of research progress I can make based on the article.

I would say more about all this, and about our brief exploratory trip to Chicago's Chinatown, but it's after midnight and I half-asleep at my keyboard. In brief, Chinatown was a little depressing, being so full of tourist junk and so empty of bookstores. I coveted tiny turtles very intensely, but didn't buy one as no doubt they are illegally captured, and anyone who cares about turtles shouldn't even consider it! But I really wanted one. Also, we bought a big packet of incense, about a year's supply even for people who really like incense. And we had a nice Vietnamese noodle lunch that was delicious but gave us both headaches due to the amount of MSG!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Training Storms, and Chinese Law

Last night we made a second attempt to move back into our bedroom, but the heat drove us back out to the living-room AC by 1 AM. Even then I had a hard time getting to sleep because it took so long for me and the room to cool down again. I lay in a half-doze with my eyes closed and my back toward the window. The blinds were down and closed. And even so, I saw the lightning flash. Was that lightning? I wondered with my eyes still closed. Then a loud clap of thunder startled Colin awake so he half sat up. "Don't worry, it was just lightning," I said. "I saw it with my eyes closed."

It rained hard all morning. The weather report warned of training storms. This turns out not to mean storms to keep you in practice for anything, but rather a reasonably unusual weather phenomenon in which clouds behave like a train. According to internet wisdom (always potentially doubtful, but in this case it seems reasonable): "Usually bands of rain stretch north and south and travel eastwards. In a training effect the rain bands travel north or south so you would get the whole length of the rain band instead of a small part of it." The total rainfall added up to more than an inch, according to Weatherbug. Colin ventured out to the Caribou Coffeeshop a few blocks away (Intelligentsia is cooler, but Caribou is so darned close) to get some work done but I stayed home and made a lot of progress on my dissertation chapter.

It's funny how I've felt like I've been spending ages muddling around, reading this and reading that, all without any of my research adding up to writeable results. Then all of sudden, it starts to come together. I still have to read some more stuff (it looks like maybe another trip to U of C tomorrow--this time in the car!) but I now have twelve pages of what looks like chapter 2, Western Han reception history of Sima Qian's Shiji.

Today I worked on the melancholy story of Sima Qian's grandson, the son of his daughter, and probably one of the earliest readers of the Shiji. For a time he had a high position at court but was later deprived of his titles due to infighting. As a commoner he proceeded to make a lot of money and live a life of pleasure and dissipation. He was very talented, and a brilliant writer, and when a friend reproached him for his lifestyle he wrote in response a bitingly sarcastic letter that has been preserved and remains today as evidence of what a difficult and clever person he must have been. But when his enemies at court accused of him of causing a solar eclipse by his arrogance, the emperor had his case investigated, at which point the later came to light. The emperor read it and found it abhorrent. The fellow was executed by being cut in half at the waist. Maybe his arrogance caused the eclipse after all. (Note that since the emperor was astrologically identified with the sun, a solar eclipse was considered a serious disaster/warning sign.)

And for an example of Chinese law today, how about this article? Bullying a blind lawyer and defending its right to force sterilization and late-term abortions upon unwilling would-be mothers--way to go Chinese legal system. Looking great in the eyes of the world.

I fear this may be bad news for those of my future FB colleagues who are putting such high hopes in China's progress toward, and generally positive attitude about, rule of law....

Thankfully, I am just a peruser of ancient tomes and don't have to get depressed about things like this. Instead, it's something to be viewed in the context of the great unfolding pattern of history. Maybe it will develop into a turning point, or maybe it will be just a flash in the pan. But it's good to see that for once the issue is a really worthwhile one, touching on the real heart of the problem. Well, probably I shouldn't say more in the public forum, but, this is just to opine that it's a story worth following.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Heat Wave

This is the Chicago heat you read about in the papers, where people are found dead in their apartments. Every time we go out to the street, Colin and I consider the possibility that we might burst into flames. It doesn't help that we have both just finished reading Roadside Picnic, and thinking about the Zone--with its altered laws of physics and sudden mysterious hazards--further defamiliarizes the broiling cityscape. I swear, when we're in the apartment, we huddle up around the air-conditioner just as if it were winter and we were huddling around a not particularly blazing fire. We've even taken to sleeping in the living room in order to be closer to it. This effectively reduces our apartment to a studio. I guess it's good to know that we could live in a studio together if we had to, albeit somewhat crankily.

We have tried various other things to stay cool and save our electric bill. On Sunday, we decided to spend all day in coffee-shops. There are quite a few around here, after all. That worked all right in the morning, but by afternoon everyone else had the same idea too. The coolest ones were too crowded for us to sit in, and the one we finally did end up in, a Caribou on Broadway, had air-conditioning not much more effective than ours. It didn't help that we had to sit by the window, with the glass heating up so our legs felt like greenhouse plants, and a whoosh of hot air coming in every time someone upened the door.

The next day, Monday, we decided to go in to the UIC campus. Colin's building is efficiently air-conditioned, and there's a good coffee-shop on the second-floor. The problem was getting there. We sweltered waiting for the bus. Even drinking ice-water (which we have been drinking copiously, not from any abstract desire to stay hydrated but because it lowers the core temperature a bit!) hardly had an effect. When the bus came it was squealing and screaming. Fan belts do not respond well to heat, it seems, and the bus was making such awful noises we could hardly hear ourselves think.

I did get some good work done at UIC, but Colin realized there were some missing notes he absolutely needed and without which he could do nothing. So after he did all his various errands, we headed reluctantly home to look for them. I could have stayed there, I suppose, but I'm still a bit hazy on the local geography, and by then it was lunchtime anyway.

We waited for the return bus on an overpass with an overhanging tree which provided at least a bit of shade. I set my backpack down gratefully (my work supplies are incredibly heavy) and squatted down beside it. If I'd thought sticking my tongue out and panting would have helped, I'd've done that too. Finally we spotted the bus down the street. I hoisted up my backpack...and out from under it scampered an enormous rat!! It dashed over my foot, veered perilously through the heavy highway traffic, made it to a small green space on the other side, and disappeared. Needless to say, I let out a mighty shriek when it ran over my foot like that. "What?" Colin said, "What, what?" Fortunately it took some time for the rat to negotiate the traffic, so I was able to point it out to Colin despite my inarticulate state. After that he agreed that I deserved to have shrieked!

The rat definitely hadn't been there when I set down my backpack. As near as we can tell, it must have crawled up from the side of the overpass and considered my backpack to be a tempting bit of shade. Importunate creature. And what a shock! So that's how you know it's crazy hot. Even the rats are acting crazy.

Our plan for the afternoon was to check out the closest beach. We're only a few minutes walk from the lake, but there is no swimming where we are, only some big rocks and a concrete step-structure. The closest place to actually swim, Montrose Beach, is a little over a mile to the north. Ordinarily we might try to walk but Colin's foot is still bothering him, and besides, it was so awfully hot. So we took a lumbering squealing bus up to the closest cross-street. It was still a pretty darn long walk from there, I have to say. But it did include a nice view of the skyline over the sailboat harbor.

Once we got there, it was crawling with people, but also kind of a sad and rundown place. Technically there was a sort of room to change in, and technically there were showers, but I've seen better facilities in third-world countries. Oh well. We dropped our bag trustingly in the sand (no lockers) and hit the water. The place was well-life-guarded, and the life-guards were deeply intent on herding all the people into as small as possible an area. This was rather comical, since--at least within the area we were allowed in--the water never got deeper than our waists. Never mind. It was glorious to be surrounded by cold water. Though we both thought it odd that it was not salty. We splashed around and played as best we could in such shallow, crowded water, and most important managed to get deeply cooled off. We also managed to get so tired that on the walk back our bodies felt big and clumsy, bludgeoning and stumbling through the hot, thick air.

The whole thing would have been a lot more practical on bikes, because there's a lovely bike-path along the lake. But as yet we only have one bike between us, so the swimming thing can not be the sort of daily outing it might be under other circumstances. Of course we could drive... but how to find a parking spot when we get back? The perennial concern. We really need to be selling this car.

In any case, we survived the worst of the heat wave in this manner. Today, Weatherbug claims, it is a mere 75 degrees, and humidity only 76%. It still feels awfully hot and humid, and I'm still cuddled up to the air-conditioner, but at least the air-conditioner is making some headway on cooling down the room.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Faculty Barbeque in Oak Park

A heat wave was predicted for the weekend. I even got a "severe weather" warning on Weatherbug. It wasn't to peak until Sunday/Monday, but by Saturday we were already roasting. We divided our time between an air-conditioned coffee-shop sitting in front of the air-conditioner in our apartment. Colin made fresh salsa. I made black and blueberry pie. And we sat around being really nervous and snappish.

Happily, we had been offered a ride to DH's house in Oak Park, which is a western suburb. The car-ride was great, whooshing down Lakeshore Drive with someone else at the wheel. The couple giving us a ride recommended the architectural boat tour, also pointing out various famous buildings (by people I confess I haven't heard of). Chicagoans certainly are proud of their architecture. Actually, I can see how people can get into it. I'm just not, quite yet.

Oak Park looked exactly like a suburb in Eugene, though with different trees. A nice one of course. College Hill without the hill, perhaps. Not pretentiously nice, but pleasant and well kept up. It was a far-cry from grad student barbeques at Butler, where all the food gets snapped up almost as soon as it comes off the grill or out of the tupperware. Things were practically plated, on serving dishes, labeled, totally delicious.

It was technically a going-away party for AR and LD, a couple who is leaving the department just as Colin is arriving. They are a married couple with young twin boys--not the only married couple with fraternal twin boys there either. Vegan philosopher NH and his wife JGH also have fraternal twin boys, nearly the same age. The mother of a third set of twins recently moved away, and a grad student (so says the secretary) may be due to produce another set. Something about the UIC philosophy building!? Hmm! Actually my dept. also has three sets of twins. Maybe it's something about academia. You have to have the kids in such a mad rush that nature appreciates it and gives 'em to you all at once.

As I mentioned, Colin and I had been pretty nervous but everyone was clearly going out of their way to be friendly and welcoming. People had heard about me, knew I was going to China, strove valiantly to overcome any silent lapses in conversation. I won't say anything much in detail, but I must say that bits of department politics showed through here and there, like shark-fins in the otherwise calm water. But the politics seem to be fairly superficial and limited to only a few spirited souls. The rest seem busy with kids or conferences or home-ownership. Not an especially laid-back crowd, but entertaining.

I never know how I'm doing on such occasions, but Colin assured me I was doing fine. He did fine too. For both of us it is strange being the very youngest people in the crowd (except for the twinses and various other offsprings!). NH appreciated the fact that my pie was vegan and he had two slices, which pleased us lots. It only got half eaten, but then the dessert population was nearly equal to the guest population, so nothing got all eaten. And I have been enjoying pie for breakfast!

Don't know really what else to say except that it was less stressful than we had feared, or rather, both stressful and fun at the same time. Felt like kids pretending to be grownups.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

University of Chicago, or The Hidden Fortress

I woke up on Friday, July 14 (Bastille Day) and decided that there was no help for it: I absolutely had to have about 10 pages from Michael Loewe's Biographical dictionary of the Qin, former Han and Xin periods (221 BC - AD 24). My dissertation could not move forward even one inch unless I had it! There was no getting this book through UIC, for though three libraries in the inter-library (I-Share) system had it, it was non-circulating. But of course the University of Chicago had it, and I had been meaning to get down there and look around. Princeton has an agreement with them (and various other libraries) as part of a deal called the Research Library Group, with interchangeable library privileges, which is to say I am allowed in to the University of Chicago library. But first, I had to get there.

We live on the north side of Chicago, and getting down to the Loop (downtown area) is already a bit of a project--maybe a half-hour bus-ride. U of C is about as far south of the Loop as the Loop is south of us. To make matters worse, though, it is almost impossible to get to with public transportation. Of course, I could have driven my car (which we haven't yet gotten around to selling, despite various parking hassles). But I wrongly assumed that driving all the way through the big city would be scarier than taking public transportation.

The smart way to do this probably would have been to call up one of Colin's colleagues, who are all very good about giving us helpful practical advice, and ask them how to get there. But the CTA (transit website) yielded what looked like a pretty simple route, which involved riding the redline (our L line) straight down, then getting on a bus that practically went through the campus. But wow, that redline stop was sketchy. It was where the redline goes down through the middle of the freeway (Dan Ryan) now under construction. The L stop was under construction too, with an under construction skybridge over part of the freeway. Also, there were police-men with dogs there. I guess it was better that they were there than not, but still creepy. After going over the exceedingly disturbing skybridge, I had my usual sense of direction muddle trying to figure out which way was east and which way was west and finally asked one of the disaffected people at the busstop. West. I needed to go east. It's hard to describe why the Garfield stop was so disturbing. I mean, there were a few actual businesses, actually open, and plenty of cars and people. Maybe it's because all the other white people who had gotten off the train with me looked extremely nervous and displeased. The only other white people were the policemen with the dogs.

Anyway, got across the street to the eastbound bus. Now up to this point, I had been very impressed with the Chicago bus-system, but the 55 Garfield bus demonstrated that not all buses are created equal. This one was badly in need of new belts. And, if you can believe it, it was leaking! I mean, where I was sitting, water was dripping on me. At least, I hope it was water. And the bus went through some neighborhoods a lot worse than the redline stop, where all the businesses were barred and out of business. What do people do when at noon on a Friday not even the Chicken Shack is open!? It seemed a quandry all right. The bus went through a park and a few more questionable streets--then all of a sudden we were in Princeton. Or might as well have been. Mansions and pretty gothic buildings. Nicely kept streets and landscaping. Welcome to the University of Chicago, a weird hidden forest in the midst of miles of ghetto. No wonder so much weird thinking comes from there. How can you think straight when you're practically under seige?

A few of the nice buildings had holes on them, or graffiti, or broken windows. Police cars were slowly cruising up and down the street. And then there were kiddies with backpacks, looking like they should still be in high school. Wow, thank goodness I didn't end up going to school there. What a bizarre atmosphere. Though I could see that if you actually lived there you might think of things differently. You would see campus as the center of things, the downtown as somewhere you went on an excursion to occasionally, and the northside as hardly existing at all.

Well I've got to say that I like my north side very much, thank you. Although things in the library went smoothly enough, after a bit of casting about. The reference room is small and seems less friendly than ours, but maybe that's just because I don't have any friends there! I got what I needed anyway, and even got back unscathed, taking the 55 bus to the green line instead, which was nearer east and did not involve going all the way out to the nasty freeway place. Still, it was a tense little journey and gave me a headache. Never had to risk life and limb for a library book before! It made me miss Princeton and resolve to go down there as infrequently as possible.

I found out later that there is a seemingly more complicated way involving an express bus from the Loop (express meaning "does not stop in the ghetto") which meets up with the 55 Garfield at a somewhat more palatable place. Or I could always zip down the famous Lakeshore Drive in my car. But when I got back up here I would have to find a place to park it, which is the main deterrent of us taking the car out, ever. We have to sell this car. Probably I will use the money to buy a new computer. Mine hates these 90 degree days and is heating up so much it practically burns my hands. So enough for tonight. Stay tuned for the next episode: Faculty Barbeque in Oak Park!

Some Brown Shoe Adventures

After going to see Wolfgang Tillmans, Colin and I both wanted to take pictures of everything. Of course, this caused us to discover that taking really cool pictures of mundane things is not as easy as it looks. However, the camera at least got some extra use. Independently, we decided that my shoes made a good picture. So this inaugurates a subplot of my blog, the brown shoe adventures.

Brown shoes on the rug:

Brown shoes go to Lake Michigan:

Sure it's silly, but it got me thinking about the world from their point of view. Hotter, dustier, bigger? More to come...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tillmans and Fog

My floor plan project is temporarily stalled due to the continuing non-completion of our unpacking. I am getting ready to just make the photographs despite our state of partial chaos, but... not quite. Still, I thought it might be nice to give an update on the ups and downs of urban living, as well as our doings today.

One great point is living one block away from a grocery store. The one nearest us is Jewel-Osco, which is about like Albertsons. In fact, some research Colin did last night revealed that it actually IS Albertsons, or at least is own by them. So there you go! And when I suddenly realize that I don't have the right kind of fake meat, I can send Colin out to the store with a minimum of guilt. And we are shopping every few days rather than doing a big trip once a week, which means we get to eat much fresher food.

Related downside: no recycling! It's an outrage. We know that some places in Chicago do have recycling, but not ours. In fact, we have not been able to locate a recycling dumpster anywhere near us. This makes our garbage fill up really fast, and also makes us feel guilty. Bottles? Cans? That's not garbage! (But the Jewel-Osco doesn't even seem to take returns.) We both grew up in the recycling age, and it feels weird to go back to more wasteful times. We felt especially bad when we were throwing away about twenty pounds of cardboard every day, while unpacking! Now we're getting used to it I guess, but it still feels sad.

On the other hand, some things that used to end up in the dumpster now have a better place to go: namely, items we are still fond of but have decided to let go. You know, shoes that don't quite fit, shirts that aren't too flattering, little toys, superfluous kitchen items.... All these are shamelessly donated to a little second hand shop two blocks away. It is called Brown Elephant, and the proceeds go to the Howard Brown Medical Center (which is involved with gay health issues) for the purposes of helping uninsured patients. Seems like a good cause, especially in a neighborhood with such a considerable and visible gay population! Admittedly, there has been a little volume-in (black sandals, ice trays that make arrow-shaped and plus-shaped ice-cubes, and one metal tray where we are keeping out knives), but the volume-out ration is definitely good.

a>More on city living later. On to the activities of the day. We have both been trying to get some work done, so we spent the morning picking away at dissertation work. Sigh. That two page per day goal can be pretty elusive at times. Since we also worked all day yesterday, we had decided we would take this afternoon off and go see the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Colin had had a prior fondness for Tillmans, and I agreed that at his best he's really good. He doesn't go so much for flashy subjects. He goes for bringing out the best in very casual and ordinary subjects. That is, if by ordinary you understand "stuff you see everyday" (genitalia included) rather than stuff that usually shows up in museums. So there's an odd and kind of appealing combination of the obscene and the mundane. There's a lot of stuff that's not obscene either, and the stuff that is is so casual.

Overall the result is sometimes amazingly good, and a lot of the time odd, and occasionally a bit boring. The installation style was amusing ("If one thing matters, everything matters"--Tillmans), giving the impression of him just throwing the bulk of his portfolio up on the walls of the museum. No captions. Very few frames. Wins my award for best museum picture-hanging technique: huge prints clipped with white binder clips and hung from little nails. Also small prints stuck on the wall with scotch tape. The unstructuredness made it fun if a little tiring. Quite worthwhile. Also made me think of my bro. Also made me want to take pictures of everything. Missed a great shot of an incredibly colorful garbage truck with two incredibly colorful garbage collectors riding on the tail-gate, just as we were coming out of the museum. The museum is out here as well as in there. A fun afternoon.

All day it was overcast and clammy, but as we were eating dinner a deep fog came down. All the tall buildings were misted out at about the tenth floor. We went for a walk down to the lake and it was almost completely erased by the fog. Only a few feet of water off the edge of the steps. Sailboats with their sails bound up tight and their fog lights on glided by much closer than usual, trying to get back to harbor without getting lost I am guessing. Fireflies (and mosquitoes) were out in droves. The practice trapeze of the lakeside trapeze school was all lit up with bright lights, but no one was trapezing just then.

Also, on the walk back we say a whole horde of raccoons eating peanuts under some trees. One raccoon is nothing much to remark on--a little fierce up close, I suppose--but 10-15 raccoons have an incredibly "Don't mess with me" air. All the same, I really wanted to go over and investigate. It was just getting dark, and their little masked eyes were shiny and threatening, and cool. Colin dissuaded me by pointing out that a raccoon bite has got to be a sure route to a series of rabies shots!

But what an interesting day.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Our Little Apartment

When we arrived in Chicago, we didn't have all that much to do. The movers had not yet brought all our stuff, so we were in our little apartment with just the contents of our Toyota Tercel. We spent most of the Monday resting from the trip and the short but stressful drive into Chicago. Camping pads are not all that comfortable to rest on, but it was better than being folded up in a tiny car! On Tuesday, the Fourth, we did some work. Also, I made a rough floor plan of our little apartment, using a ruler (our tape measure was packed somewhere) and some graph paper. Each square represents (approximately) a square foot. Amusingly, we didn't realize that the place was shaped like a tetris piece until I finished my drawing! I attach below a photograph of the drawing because I do not have a scanner here.

Coming soon: where will we put the furniture and all those books!?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mortal Prey and Indiana Beaches

For a day on which we woke up in a nasty motel in Dunkirk and covered 450 miles and three states in an un-air-conditioned car, it was a pretty darn good day. We got out of Dunkirk as fast as possible and drove about an hour to "PA line" i.e., the border of the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. New York, of course, is huge. But you always forget how huge PA is too. Anyway, we had breakfast in that little corner of PA at a restaurant called Cracker Barrel. Ha ha, what a place. How to describe it… fakish old west-ish general store geared toward both fussy grandmothers and long-distance truckers together with a no-nonsense huge portions diner. The place was packed. Apparently Sunday brunch at Cracker Barrel is a tradition thereabouts, and there we were in the middle of it. We decided we could wait twenty minutes for a table, though, and browsed the general store.

It was then that we stuck gold. All along we had been stopping at travel plazas, looking not only for penny squishers but also for someplace (anyplace) that sold audio books. That would be just the thing to make the long hot drive go faster, right? But can you believe it, not a single one of the big travel plazas on the long long NY thruway had place selling audio books. They had the same fast food places, coffee places, ice-cream places, and little convenience stores (also gas stations and bathrooms). Understandable (I guess) that none of these would sell something as fancy as audio books. But there were also stores in almost all of the travel plazas dedicated to "travel accessories", which were apparently limited to sunglasses and CD cases. There were also big racks of DVDs for sale. But you can't watch a DVD while you are driving. If you can sell a DVD, you can sell an audio book--can't you? Apparently not.

To make a long story short, the Cracker Barrel did have audio books--even a discount section. After long negotiation, we settled on Mortal Prey, which brilliant work of literature you can read about here. The Cracker Barrel actually runs a sort of lending library of audio books. You buy one for $30 and return it for $27. Then you can buy another one for $30 again. Eventually, though, they get discontinued for one reason or another. Then they end up on the discount shelf. That's where we got Mortal Prey, half off.

Then we had an enormous, delicious breakfast ("do you want the grits with that?") and hit the road. It turned out Mortal Prey ended up on the discount shelf because it was missing disk 1. Well, disk 1 is a much smaller loss than disk 5, right? We started in on disk 2, and had no problem following the story because any information of substance is repeated five or six times. And the beginning of the story was easy to deduce, since it was a fairly straightforward revenge plot! But interesting enough to keep us listening straight through to Indiana, with a short break for lunch in Ohio. (By the way, it is really hard to find vegetarian food in Ohio. Even Applebees doesn't have any.)

We ended up in Chesterton, about 45 minutes outside of Chicago. We could of course have made it to Chicago, but it was Sunday (7/2) and we couldn't pick up our lease or keys until Monday morning. So we had called ahead and made a reservation in Chesterton, Indiana. Of course, when we finally did get to the hotel (it was an Econolodge), they were unable to find our reservation for a king bed non-smoking at the rate of $64 + tax. It was the clerk's first day to be fair. Also the wireless was broken. He offered us two double beds for $75, but we weren't interested and went to the Super8 across the road. No wireless there either, but at least we managed a queen bed for $65. Also, we discovered that Chesterton is the home of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Yep, sand dunes on Lake Michigan. We drove down there just before sunset (it was only about five minutes away), paid the exorbitant out-of-state park fee ($10--come to think of it, about what we saved by changing motels), and wandered about on a nice, sandy, life-guarded, dune-ridged beach. A beach in Indiana. Of course the water wasn't salty, and in the distance we could see the smokestacks of Gary. But it felt pretty nice after all that driving (and sniper-murdering on the audio book) to stretch our toes and watch the sunset.

Don't Travel on "Fourth of July" Weekend

It was a long hot drive from Opus 40 to Buffalo, but we managed it somehow. The only problem was, there was no room in any hotel anywhere in Buffalo. We were outraged. It was only the first of July, after all! But it was a Saturday night, and maybe some sports thing was going on there? Puny little fireworks were going up in various shopping mall parking lots. And none of the hotels had any vacancies. What was even funnier was that none of them had NO VACANCY signs either--presumably because the event of having no vacancies was such a rare one. Everything from Microtel to Holiday Inn, from Ramada to the Tally-ho-tel…totally booked, but we had to park and walk in each time to find that out. Actually we got clever after a while and realized that a car pulling out of a parking lot at 10 PM probably meant a disappointed fellow hotel-seeker.

For some reason, the whole thing really made me miss my bro, who until a month ago was living in Buffalo. Probably this was for selfish reasons--after all, if he were still living there we could have stayed with him!!--but that in itself would have been really great. Sad as it sounds, I don't believe I've seen him for almost a year. We just keep missing each other during vacations.

Anyway, we got grimly back on the freeway and started driving away from Buffalo, gnashing our teeth and feeling really sleepy, grubby, and tired. Eventually some Podunk town 45 minutes or so outside Buffalo, though still all booked up, had a sign for some hotel in some even more Podunk town where we went since we were getting pretty desperate. It was an awful room--a smoking room with 2 double beds. The bathroom lights didn't work. The AC was glacial. Of course there was no wireless, free or otherwise. We wouldn't have wanted a free breakfast even if they had been offering it. We kind of wavered between being infuriated and being grateful, and then fell asleep.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that even if the Fourth of July is not until the middle of next week, don't think it's safe to travel on the weekend. Or at least call ahead first!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On to Opus 40

From Princeton we drove north toward New York City, and then turned slightly east. Our destination was Saugerties (pronounced SOUR-deez by especially hickish residents, otherwise SOG-er-deez), a small town in upstate New York, near Woodstock, whose main distinction is Opus 40, an amazing environmental sculpture created by Harvey Fite. We didn't make it there the first night, though, because after the hectic day Colin's foot was too sore to drive and I was too sleepy to drive all that long either.

We stayed in a Super8 at the confluence of I-87 and I-84, technically in a town called Newburgh. Don't think sleazy, though--this was a $90 Super8, and crowded too. It was our first inkling of the mistake we had made in trying to drive halfway across the country on Fourth of July weekend. However at this point at least there was room at the inn. We settled very gratefully with ice for Colin's foot and cold water from the tap. The water up there in the Catskill Mountains was delicious. That may be where bottled water comes from.

Next morning we spent two hours going three exits due to traffic. It should really only have been about half an hour to Saugerties, but fortunately our plans were fairly flexible. We listened to what scraps of radio we could pick up and talked about the traffic jams. I remembered Dad talking about the line where traffic jams and un-jams, how it travels toward you at 35 mph. I have always found that fact so fascinating that I think of it every time I am in traffic. In fact, as I told Colin, I used to be really interested in complex systems like traffic jams and FedEx routing (also, now, Netflix) and originally considered trying to do an applied math major or something like that in college and become some sort of systems analyst. One of those alternate lives!

Colin's musings were a bit more practical. He pointed out that although in theory the maximum number of cars that could pass any given point on the freeway would be a densely packed continuous line, in practice a densely packed continuous line is a recipe for trouble in the real world (though it wouldn't be if the cars were fixed on a cable and kept at a constant speed without being allowed to change lanes or exit--go car-ferries!). If you correct this theory by making it less dense--leaving enough of a cushion between cars that speed and lane changes don't interfere with anyone else on the road--everyone gets by faster. We think. Anyway, it was an interesting musing (I'm not sure if I'm representing it right) and he said he may even use it as an example for his idealization work. After all, traffic is someone everyone can relate to!

The unjamming line reached us without giving us much clue about why we'd been stuck in the first place. The best we can figure is that it was a particularly short exit and entrance ramp for a travel plaza (big commercial rest area) that had been poorly planned and was being heavily used. Coupled with Fourth of July weekend traffic. (Inkling number 2.)

We reached Saugerties around noon and headed up to Opus 40, which is in the middle of nowhere. For official information and some more professional pictures, go here []. We got there around noon.

Briefly, the story about Opus 40 is this: the sculptor Harvey Fite bought a bluestone quarry for the purpose of making pedestals for his sculptures. He was going to make a big sculpture garden all around the area, but the pedestals outgrew his sculptures. It's really true--we saw a few of his sculptures and they're just not all that interesting. But the alien geometry of Opus 40 has a real fascination to it. Harvey Fite decided it was going to take 40 years to complete, (hence the name--not the same convention as for composers) but only worked on it for 37. Mowing the lawn one day he fell into the sculpture and died. He was over seventy, but still a sad thing. And a strange thing, karmically speaking. Nonetheless, Opus 40 is not noticeably unfinished. It is made all out of different sizes and shapes of stone, cut out all with traditional hand-tools and stuck together using keystones to hold the shapes--no mortar. At the middle is a huge obelisk. The rest is terraces, steps, ramps, ravines, and ponds.

As Colin pointed out, when you are walking through it there are very few dead ends. It's like thinking in spirals--you may not get very far but you get somewhere. And there was a wonderfully quiet feeling in the air. It made us walk slowly and talk softly. It's hard to know what else to say about it. It wasn't all that set up for tourists (no penny squisher, though I can totally see what it ought to look like if they got one), a rather sparse giftshop, a workshed converted into a "Quarryman's Museum" (whence the above tools).

Far below in a pond, there was the head of a green frog, the exact same green as the pond algae. I saw its head, but I doubted that it was a frog because it sat so still. Then Colin threw a rock down near it and it made one really lazy lollop and came to rest about six inches away from where it had been, still with its head sticking out. A frog all right, but a mighty self-confident and fearless one!

It's hard to know exactly what else to say about the place, except for that it could probably last a really long time. Apparently, plants are its main enemies. The inevitable freezing and melting of upstate New York winters cause no difficulty because the stones are fitted rather than mortared together: they have room to expand and contract. What would archaeologists of the future say about the place, we wondered. Would they be able to tell it was a product of the twentieth century, or would they be defeated by the self-conscious archaism (e.g., the fact of his using only traditional tools when more modern ones were probably available, at least eventually)?

Anyway, here are some more photos.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


I will pass over a week or so of hectic activity associated with the move and come down to Friday (6/30) at 5 PM when the packers had packed and the movers had moved, leaving us with an empty apartment that looked amazingly big and dirty. It didn't take very long to clean. Some hungry philosophers came by and received the perishables. The non-perishables had been packed (except the garlic, which the packers rejected). Colin did the kitchen because he could stay fairly still with his sore foot. I did the other rooms, a quick sweep and mop plus the window sills, an abbreviated version of my usual weekly bathroom cleaning. After all, I'd scrub on my hands and knees for my fellow but not for Princeton!

We had sequestered all the things we were taking with us in our car: four days worth of clothes, sheets, two pillows, a plate and two bowls, two sets of silverware, spatula and stirring spoon, two travel mugs, a pot, a pan, electric kettle, olive oil and lemons, Flake (a British chocolate treat that Colin had brought me from Oxford), box of important papers, air conditioner, our stuffed backpacks containing computers and work stuff, toiletries, origami sculpture in progress, last minute items like the garlic, two more tomatoes from our garden, and one scarlet runner bean pod. All this was packed into three wooden wine boxes that we thought might come in useful on the other end. After cleaning, it became necessary to repack everything because we had agreed early on that we were also going to bring our plants. Colin wavered on this idea--admittedly, it was ridiculous--but I attacked the problem with energy while Colin rested on the porch with our last bottle of beer.

By the time we pulled out at 7 PM the total population of our tiny two-door Toyota Tercel (not the hatchback type ALAS!) was: the above-listed items, one utterly enormous sprawling tomato plant named Mr. Stripey (picture your average tomato plant and double it in a pot to match--Mr. Stripey, why did you have to grow so much??), one also enormous aloe plant named Just Look at Yourself, one small pot of mint (I sneaked him in; Colin hates mint), one plant named Weird Plant (a member of the grape family that dies disconcertingly every winter only to sprout back out of his weird bulbous trunk--now in full growth), and two jade plant starts (we abandoned big jade plant, a sad loss). Also two humans--one big enough that both front seats had to be able to be pushed all the way back, two big boxes of car tools (in case of roadside breakdown), the car manual, two crutches, and a fifty states road atlas. Wooohooo!

I am very sorry we did not take a photo of this prodigious packing achievement, but I hope you can imagine it. We turned in our keys and rattled out of Princeton, homeless!

And we are homeless, homeless
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake
[Paul Simon, Graceland]