Goose Island

On Sunday, I was running an errand in the Goose Island neighborhood. It’s a section of the city that was named after a small (maybe one square mile) patch of land that formed where two branches of the Chicago River met.

It probably got its name because it was a resting spot for migrating geese managing their seasonal trek. Now, the term refers to the original plot, accessible by bridge, and surrounding area, which is now a very hip, industrial area. It’s home to the Wrigley Gum’s research facility and a variety of businesses operating from restored lofts.

After I emerged from my shopping mission and headed toward my car, I caught sight of a band of geese at the corner of the parking lot.

On a small rectangle of grass, only feet away from the heavy traffic of Division Street, I saw two or three grown-up, long necked geese with iconic hunter green heads and maybe eight brownish goslings, adorable in their awkwardness.

It seemed that they didn’t belong in this scene; so close to delivery trucks and train tracks and discount store parking lots, only a couple miles from a great city’s business district.

Then I thought, Oh yes. They were here first (or, at least, their great, great, great grandparents were). After all, this is GOOSE ISLAND.

I watched them for a few minutes. I marveled at how at home they seemed to feel in this spot between stop signs and dandelions. They weren’t bothered by traffic. I looked on as they scoured the grass for discarded pieces of bread or potato chips, hoping to feast on what people threw away.

The simple beauty of this affected me on different levels.

It’s always great to see a slice of nature up close. Successfully hunting up things to eat, the geese were just being geese.

It was even more delightful to me that this bit of nature could be seen in an unnatural surrounding. It’s heartening to think that birds can find what they need on a small lawn near a busy street.

But I had to laugh at my own joke, my pronouncement. I considered that the sight shouldn’t surprise me being that I was in Goose Island.

It fit.

There’s a certain type of beauty when things FIT.

Mathematicians call proofs elegant when the logic seems to work. Crime detectives seem to think of perfect crimes only when they have figured out perfect solutions. Engineers may get effusive over gears that mesh or seals that are truly impenetrable.

I suppose, as a writer, I shouldn’t being surprised when a word or phrase really sums up the essence of something. It’s something to strive for. When a phrase is both truthful and ironic — it makes me happy.

So the family of geese was hanging out in what could be thought of as an ISLAND of grass, surrounding on all sides by concrete sidewalks and a blacktopped boulevard and parking lot. In GOOSE ISLAND.

To see beauty in things, even in words, simply because they FIT, is no small thing.


Summertime Pleasure: Some Assembly Required

Oooo Hooo – I got a tax refund this year. Not large enough to affect my retirement savings strategy, but big enough to underwrite some type of indulgence.

I decided to buy a gas grill for my back deck. I looked at different models online for ideas and asked friends, who are committed grillers, to weigh in on features and brands to check out.

I was tickled by the thought: a summertime of pleasure and a smoke-free kitchen. I also ‘fessed up to the personal attraction of warm weather dinners featuring a lime wedge topped gin and tonic and red meat.

I realized there was a nostalgic component to this yearning.

When I grew up, dinners usually consisted of some type of steak, a block of iceberg lettuce, and some flavor packet enhanced Birds Eye frozen vegetable medley. (That’s what Birds Eye called mixed vegetables.)

But Sunday dinners during the summer often saw my father drag our Weber charcoal kettle to a corner of our back yard that our family beagle hadn’t turned into his toilet. He used too much lighter fluid, but I looked forward to these meals.

Wearing Bermuda shorts and a Ban-Lon shirt (a synthetic knit which I think was invented to maximize the odor created by sweat), Buddha-bellied with surprisingly skinny legs, he seemed so happy wielding his barbecue tools; extra long spatula, two tined fork and tongs.

I visited the nearest Home Depot on Monday of last week and checked out the model that had been recommended to me. (Because it would be set up on a wooden deck instead of a cement patio, it had to be a gas grill).

But I couldn’t bring the grill home myself. Even if I contracted HD for delivery, they would only bring the box to the street level, front entrance of my building. I couldn’t navigate the huge box up the winding back stairs myself. I couldn’t imagine suffering through the assembly instructions solo.

Ah, a girl (of any age) needs a guy sometimes – to help lug the heavy things upstairs and to rotate the assembly diagram until the orientation pictured matches the way you’ve sprawled out the parts.

I fought the idea, but I asked my ex. I don’t want to depend on his help, and I don’t want him to feel taken advantage of.

But I asked and he agreed. We overcame the issue of the Spirit 210 box not fitting into my car (we took it apart in the Home Deport Parking lot and put the components and hardware in my backseat and trunk), a rubber washer cover rolling off the deck, and even the fact that the project took 30% longer than anticipated.

Nothing went extremely wrong, but not everything was easy. There were several moments when we could have started being less than kind to each other. But no blood was shed. No voices were raised.

By 4:00 in the afternoon, the grill was assembled and situated on the southeast corner of my second floor back deck. I heated up a frozen flatbread to snack on while he figured out how to use my limited set of screwdrivers to tighten all the screws and bolts that were provided. We listened to the ballgame on the radio.

The finished product delighted me. I was very appreciative of John’s help with the heavy lifting and assembly, and even for the short tutorial on turning on and off the gas.

I was also oddly happy with myself. It’s so easy when a relationship doesn’t turn out the way you expect or hope it would, to be disappointed, to rush to blame. But I figure that once you love someone, you love him – even if you can’t live together happily ever after.

When I decided to move out, it was important to me that we continued to be civil. I wanted both of us to feel okay about asking each other for help, or to feel free about swapping recommendations on new restaurants in the neighborhood.

We lead very separate lives, but I think both of us continue hold each other in regard.

Being able to grill a blue cheese burger only steps away from your dining table is great. Having a long-term perspective on relationships is no small thing.


Remembering the Words

fado-singer-in-coimbraOne of my priorities for my trip to Portugal was to hear Fado as often as possible.

Popularized in the early 20th century, in Lisbon, Fado songs can be about anything but are usually composed in minor keys and capture a feeling of longing.

There are contemporary Fado singers, fadistas, and songs can be performed with accompaniment or not. Remarkably, even rock star, slickly produced performers take the tradition seriously. There’s a sort of universality and timelessness about a man or woman capturing their yearnings in a song.

On my first night in Lisbon, walking around the Alfama, a man, who was promoting a restaurant and club, approached us. After listening to his pitch, Midwestern skeptics that we were, we excused ourselves and walked on.

Not having a better idea where to go, we came back and let him lead us to a small restaurant and club down a narrow street just off the main drag.

They had a limited menu, although very good cod (the specialty of the region), and they served food and drink in between short sets. Four different fadistas visited the club during the evening, sang a selection of songs, accompanied by two house guitarists, then went to other supper clubs where, I assume, they did the same.

We went to another supper club two days later, in the Chiado district, where the food and music were higher quality – at a much higher cost.

A couple days later, we were in Coimbra, where I had been forewarned that Fado was different than it was in Lisbon. Following their local tradition, where Fado was sung by male university students to the women they wanted to woo, only men sang.

After catching touristy shows at Casa de Fado and Fado ao Centro, at a local diner where we lunched on piglet and potato chips, we were directed to visit Bar Diligencia (which roughly translates to stagecoach).

No cover charge. Cheap drinks. No one shows up until 10:00. Ah, the real deal!

The singer, a bearded young man, who looked like he could have been a college student anywhere in the world, sat on a chair and alternated between two different guitars. There were only about eight people in the bar. The manager spoke good English and was very welcoming.

The Fadista sang a few traditional tunes. In between which, he asked members of his audience where they were from. Although our shoes probably gave our origin away, he seemed happy when we said Chicago, the U.S.

In his second set, he asked the audience if we knew Pink Floyd. Well, of course. I was surprised by the question. What did Pink Floyd have to do with Fado? I expected that he was preparing us for an audience participation bit in the song, but I didn’t know what song he was preparing us for.

Then he tore into the most beautiful acoustic version of Wish You Were Here that I had ever heard. Then it dawned on me.

What could capture the spirit of Fado more? What song could top this one for expressing pure longing? WISH YOU WERE HERE……

I considered my own longings. It seems that I’ve spent most of my life trying to find my voice; to find an audience and be heard. I’ve looked for opportunities to make my feelings known through writing.

But many times I’ve had problems speaking up within relationships. Or, when given the opportunity to make a point in a discussion, I couldn’t get the words out. I was afraid of saying things wrong or of not being understood.

And here I was – at Bar Diligencia – in a tavern, in Coimbra, Portugal, and I knew what was coming. Although I would never see anyone else in the audience again, I knew that the singer would lead everyone up to a certain point in the lyrics and go silent expecting everyone who knew Pink Floyd would take over.

For a few moments, I worried if I’d remember the words, but when the performer stopped singing and played guitar for everyone else to fill in the words, I belted out the phrase.

Like two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl – year after year.

Wow, I felt like a fadista. Suddenly, I was unafraid of my longing being heard. In fact, it was celebrated. It was shared.

Remembering the words to a song (and giving those words voice) is no small thing.

Beneath the Windshield

windshieldI just came home from a whirlwind excursion.

I drove to Madison, Wisconsin for a family event. I left Friday afternoon and drove back Saturday afternoon.

It’s about 150 miles one-way. It can be driven in 2 ½ hours if you don’t encounter construction or traffic, but, as that’s pretty unlikely, it usually takes closer to three hours.

Ah, I considered having a good stretch of time behind the wheel, behind the windshield. Just the word itself makes you feel protected in your moving bubble. Like an Arthurian knight, all will be well behind your windshield.

I rarely take on an uninterrupted stretch of highway driving these days.

I helped a friend move to a new home in Arkansas some years ago (I drove 12 hours straight through). For four consecutive summers, I drove to a retreat in upstate New York, and I went on a couple fabulous Canadian driving vacations. One took me through the Canadian Rockies and the other through the Laurentian range.

The longest road trip I took was when I helped another friend move from Chicago to Sonoma, California. She hired professional movers for hauling furniture. Our main mission was to bring her German Shepard, Jack, and her husband’s BMW out there.

Jack was full of anxiety and shed hair like crazy as he curled up in a sort of hammock we arranged in the back seat. We drove for four days — through the flat lands of Nebraska, following the tumbling tumbleweed of Wyoming and silently praying to ourselves that the wind tunnel created to make a path through the Sierra Nevada didn’t suck us into some unknown vortex.

I have learned from past road trips that it’s good to bring some music. Being from a generation where that didn’t mean cueing up a mixed playlist from my smart phone, I had set aside a few CDs…But I forgot them.

Playing music and watching the world from my driver’s seat can provide a lot of pleasure. It’s represents quality ALONE TIME. I feel in control. Safe. Constantly entertained by the changing scenery all around me.

But I didn’t have my planned music with me. I decided to make friends with my car radio — just beneath my window to the world.

I was able to get a favorite FM station from Chicago until I caught sight of the Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois. At over 5 million square feet, I reflected how workers there might be extra careful not to leave their cellphone or lunch in their cars, not having the time to go to the parking lot and retrieve them.

At this point, I pushed my index finger against the radio’s SEARCH button. I came up with a rock station (WXRX), which I listened to until static replaced the recognizable guitar riffs.

Between Belvidere and Madison (where there are plenty of music choices catering to state university students), I caught signals for Country (WXXQ) out of Freeport and Classic Rock from Sauk City, Wisconsin (WIBA). I even got signals from a Hip-Hop station out of Genoa, Illinois (WYRB). Who knew?

I was tickled by how my SEARCH button would lead me to music I wouldn’t know to look for. (I quickly moved on when I locked in to a religious station’s signal, and there are plenty of them across this country.)

I got a strange idea in my head. What if everyone was equipped with a sort of SEARCH button? I contemplated how wonderful it would be, when not consciously directed to something, if you could press a button and pick up compatible signals (people or jobs or activities) to engage with until you were aware of a passion to move towards.

I hadn’t reached Janesville yet, and I was laughing out loud, delighted by my own thoughts.

I looked through my windshield. I thought about the trucks and SUVs that had passed me miles ago that I was passing now. I noticed that the block of clouds that had been hanging over the highway had moved on. I smiled at how signs for different gas brands were built extra high so from a distance drivers could see them and plot out which exit they should take.

Recognizing that life itself and my imagination can provide an endless stream of ideas sparked a sort of contentment.

Believing in your own capacity to never get bored is no small thing.