Friday, June 29, 2012

Eat Fresh

It's been nearly 20 years since Jenni and I started being more deliberate about the foods we wanted to eat. I can still remember holding a package of Tyson chicken breasts in our kitchen in Peoria sixteen years ago and asking Jenni, "Where do you think this chicken came from?" That conversation led us down the road to being the vegetarians/vegans we are today. Jenni and I are hardly trendsetters. A lot of people across America are thinking about what they eat and why, something people around the world never stopped doing.

One of the coolest things I've seen in my little town is our restaurant, Caffe Italia, which has its own garden right next to the restaurant. I love Caffe Italia. Although they don't offer nearly the number of vegetarian selections I'd like, their food is great and at least for the most part, I know where it comes from.

Fort Scaur Sandys Parish Bermuda

Fort Scaur and Park Sandys Parish Bermuda

Sunday, June 24, 2012

101 Places Not to See Before You Die

It's the middle of summer here in the hot and humid Midwest and we've had to postpone our August trip to Denmark and Sweden. Though I'm disappointed that instead of wandering the streets of Copenhagen and picking my way along the Swedish coastline I get to have surgery and lay in bed for 4 weeks; I can at least comfort myself that I've seen many of the 1000 Places to See Before you Die and missed almost all 101 Places Not to See Before you Die. (I, too made the mistake of visiting the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA.) As I'm still alive and kicking at this writing I still have time to see some truly great and truly awful things on this incredible planet of ours.
I picked up Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and Catherine Price's response, the slightly less lugubrious and satirical 101 Places Not to See Before You Die at our local library after listening to an interview Rick Steves did with Patricia Schultz. Obviously, they're pretty different books; one organizes the world into regions and countries, and like Rick Steves' guidebooks, recommends the best, most unique places to see in each location; the other is an often hilarious send-up of places you would not want to see or be, for instance you would NOT want to see Pamplona from the perspective of the bulls running the streets during the annual Running of the Bulls #14, or be on an Overnight Train in China on the First Day of Your First Period #7.

I enjoyed reading both of the books, one to satisfy my bookish sense of curiosity and the other, my boundless sense of the ridiculous. Reading 1,000 Places to See Before You Die reminded me that I need to put a lot more cash in my travel account. I may never get around to staying in a Yurt in Mongolia and Jenni's already told me I will visit India without her, but I'm confident that I'll make it to Tuscany at some point. Thanks to Catherine Price, I know I can cross visiting A Giant Room Filled with Human Crap off my list #23.

I usually have little bad to say about my trips or the places I've been. Enjoying travel as I do, I generally have a sanguine attitude about whatever might happen. However, as I was thinking about places 'not to see' I have at least five I wouldn't recommend. Feel free to send me yours.

5) San Jose, CA. I hate to pick on San Jose again. But while driving the Pacific Coast Highway  from San Diego to San Francisco, Jenni and I arrived exhausted in San Jose, CA. It had been a great road trip to that point and something I would recommend to everybody. We had a terrible time finding anything to eat and anything to do in San Jose. As I mentioned above we visited the Winchester Mystery House. I found it a huge waste of time and money, a very large, empty and claustrophobic experience. I called it the anti- Hearst Castle. Maybe I just needed some sleep, maybe I wasn't there long enough, or maybe I needed a million dollar Internet start-up under my belt. Regardless, San Jose has been on my list for some time.

4) Manchester, England. Fortunately I'm far enough away that no Man U fans can get to me as I write this.  After driving up from the south during one of our trips to England, I found myself stuck for the night in suburban Manchester to await an early flight back to Chicago. I didn't find Manchester an easy place to drive, so after a few hours out and about we called it a day. The roads were congested and our hotel was nearly impossible to find. When we did get to the hotel, we sat down in the bar and realized our hotel was hosting a wedding party that evening. It turned into an all night fest of drunken Mancunians banging on the walls, knocking on our door and celebrating/fighting loudly beneath our window. We didn't get much sleep and embarked for the airport early the next morning. Spending several hours in the Manchester airport, which I hadn't enjoyed arriving in, also tops my list of places not to see again. Short of Wrigley Field's toilets and the gents at New York, New York, I've never been anywhere that smells so strongly of urine, and like any public toilet, not a place you want to linger.

3) Las Vegas, NV. Also on Catherine Price's list #84, I dislike the Strip in Las Vegas. I know Vegas is America's naughty playground, Sin City, the 'What Happens in...' place to be, where you can gamble all night, visit over the top shows, and rave along with Deadmau5 at the Wynn. But though I've visited for conferences, March Madness and bachelor parties, I hate being stuck in a casino on the Strip for any length of time, and more than that, wandering down the Strip in the evening. It could just be my way of looking at the world, but spending days with the background tinkle of slot machines, the endless miles you're forced to walk inside the massive casinos and shops, or simply watching the hookers work the floors, it all conspires to make me feel cynical and depressed. Sorry Vegas, I know I'll see you again soon, but I'm not looking forward to it.

2) Phoenix, AZ. There was little I enjoyed about my time in Phoenix, brief though it was. On our way down through the smog I actually felt our plane heat up. When they popped open the door it felt like a soda can opening up. As with Las Vegas, I have friends who have defected from the Midwest's hot, humid summers and wet, frigid winters for the consistently asthma friendly Western lands of Phoenix and Tuscon. Phoenix and it's suburbs were the brownest places I've ever been and like Dallas gave me the feeling I was in a city that shouldn't be there. Many of the places we drove through were rundown and trashy like the neighborhood we lived in back in Chicago, but without trees or grass. After spending a couple of sweaty days there considering a job, I was happy to drive up to the greener and far cooler cities of Flagstaff and Sedona for the remainder of the trip.

1) Central Illinois in winter. I can't let my home-state off the hook, can I? I have lived in Illinois for 41 years. The company I work for transfers employees in and out of Bloomington regularly. It's also a hub for consultants and external contractors from around the world. I have yet to see a newbie not struggle with the capricious Illinois weather, especially after Halloween. Even one of my Lithuanian coworkers seemed a bit down one year, and this was a guy who had no problem defending Stalin. The temperature on Halloween, itself might drop 20 or 30 degrees from an Indian summer-like day to a sudden deep winter-like night and then flip flop again and again for the next month. Winter arrives in November and remains a presence until mid-March. It can sometimes linger into May. It isn't so much the length of winter that's a drag in Illinois; it's the gray sky hanging over you, the sudden, feet deep snow, punctuated by the inexplicable warm day that's followed by an ice storm. We can, at times get a lot of snow, about every 4 years, but there's not much you can do with it in a land that's so flat but plow it and go to work. You need mountains, or at least hills, to really enjoy snow. And in years without snow it's just a long season of browns, still very wet and usually, very windy. There isn't much to do but watch football and basketball, and wait it out. I have some good winter memories, but those are because this is my home and my family is here. It's unlikely you'll ever see a travel brochure with the line, "Come see Iowa, Illinois and Indiana in January! Come for the ice, stay for the slush!" But if I wrote 101 Places Not to See Before You Die, 'Central Illinois in winter' would be my number 1.  

On a side note, 'Central Illinois in summer' tops Jenni's must miss places.

Brad and a centurion at Caesar's Palace

Sunday, June 10, 2012

City Museum, St. Louis, MO

The entrance to City Museum and MonstroCity.
When I was six years old my parents took me to Chicago to audition for a movie. I'm not sure why; I doubt I exhibited any particular acting ability. I did not get the part.  And my brief dalliance with showbiz ended as quickly as it had begun. 

For me, the high point of the trip was visiting Chicago's Field Museum. Though I remember little about my time with the casting agent, I clearly remember seeing the museum from the car and walking inside for the first time. All the way to Chicago I had been promised dinosaurs if I behaved myself at the audition. And though the dinosaurs didn't come to life like they later would in Night at the Museum, I absolutely loved it,  asking my parents when we were going back as soon as we left.

I've visited a lot of museums since then. From the tiny Dickson Mounds behind my childhood home, to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I briefly worked, to British Museum in London, where an inquisitive Londoner heard my Chicago accent and asked me if I was a gangster like Al Capone (I said I was). But I would have to say one of my favorites has to be City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Harry and Jack climbing in MonstroCity
Built inside the former International Shoe Company and constructed with reclaimed and re-purposed industrial materials City Museum is one of the most creative uses of space I've ever seen. Jenni and I took our boys for a visit on a very hot and steamy Memorial Day Weekend to celebrate the end of another school year. 

Designed by local artist Bob Cassilly and a team of artists City Museum feels like art in action, like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids turned their junkyard into an attraction and started selling tickets. Opened in 1997 the museum has been added to every year since, thrilling up to 600,00 visitors per year. Everywhere we turned there was something unexpected; tunnels to climb through, multistory slides, ramps to run up and down, and outside, with MonstroCity, the largest jungle gym I've ever climbed.

While we stared at the giant whale on the first floor listening to water rushing from somewhere (the "Puking Pig"), a blue-shirted guide came over and explained the museum to us. He pointed out the details in the hand sculpted caves before us, directed our attention to the enormous mosaic floor we were standing on, and reassured us that we would not lose our wrist banded children in the multitude of tunnels above, below and around us. We did not feel reassured. "You can even come back tonight, when we have the lights turned out. We're open til midnight."

With that, our boys climbed a refrigeration coil up into the ceiling and promptly disappeared. And though I didn't see any other middle aged parents doing this, I quickly followed them. I was later offered an encouraging "Way to go, Old Guy." from a smarty pants 30 feet beneath me as I climbed to the top of the dome on the roof. 

I'm not a fan of small confined spaces, certainly not dark ones, nor can I remember enjoying climbing on rebar welded high above a picnic area, but as we worked our way around the museum again and again, we became acclimated with the layout of the museum and its charms inside and out. By noon we were old pros.

Looking up inside the Enchanted Caves
Brad and his mortal coil.
Our favorite section was probably the Enchanted Caves, dark and cool in the morning, filled with ominous music from a Wurlitzer pipe organ. (Later in the day it filled with teenagers looking for a remote place to do what teenagers like to do.) Jenni and I climbed up the meandering metal stairs and watched the boys climb in and out of holes and slide down chutes that once sent shoes to the loading dock.    
On the outside of the building, MonstroCity, constructed of rebar and pieces of cranes, featuring airplane cockpits, a fire engine and a stone tower was probably a close second. The boys and I climbed and scurried through one rebar tunnel after another, our sweat sticking to us in the mid-morning haze and probably dripping onto the furious dodgeball players in the ball pit below. We tried to find different ways to get to various slides and high points until sliding back down to the snack bar for more water. While climbing I finally encountered a couple of brave adults climbing on the ever warming metal bars, which made me feel good, some reckless tweens, who scared me, and one seemingly lost three year old that concerned me till I found his dad.
Though it hadn't been part of the plan, we paid the additional 5 bucks to visit the roof. And I'm glad we did. The roof area, 'Atop the City' was great fun. It featured a school bus dangling over the edge of the building, which the boys jumped in and looked out of, a Splash pond, a small working Ferris wheel and rope swing in the middle of a metal dome. More slides and more rebar to climb. We spent about an hour on the roof, Harry swinging from the rope at the center of the dome, the boys and I climbing to the top of the dome through a cage built into the wall and ceiling and riding on the Ferris Wheel.

Thankfully we did more exploring inside after that, visiting the Skateless park on the third floor where the boys ran up and down the skateboard ramps and walked around Beatnik Bob's and its assortment of midway oddities. I was able to talk the boys out of riding the toddler size train as well as out of visiting Toddler Town itself. We walked past Circus Harmony which features circus performers plying their trade, but save one juggler there wasn't much going on. The vintage clothing store, the Baleout, on the fourth floor just reminded the boys of their grandparent's house, so we didn't have so much as an espresso from the hipsters hanging out there. I expect the boys have about 15 years before vintage will take on any allure for them. I pounded out a few boogie-woogie riffs on the ancient and supposedly haunted baby grand piano near the stairs, which was fun. The boys have about 5 years until that becomes embarrassing to them.

We broke for lunch at a local restaurant and returned to do it all over again later in the afternoon, finding new nooks and cranies to explore until Jenni and I finally had to put a weary foot down and drag the boys back to the hotel for some rest. We did not return for the lights out version of the museum.

I'd have liked to visit some of the more static exhibits but I'll have to save that for another time. On the way home I was treated to, "When are we going back to the museum." So, I'm sure we'll all be back to do it all again.

Brad feeling big headed.