Pride And Joy...

With the renewal of my contract at work, I now find myself in the position of facing another round of performance evaluations. When it looked like I was going to lose my job at the end of the upcoming week, I thought I would be able to avoid this nerve-wracking process, but into every life, a little rain must fall. Since my supervisor identified greater interaction with other departments and participation in museum events as a goal for me in this year, I decided I ought to up my involvement post-haste. I had previously served on the Peer Recognition Committee at the end of 2009 at my boss's behest, but I thought I ought to leave him with a fresher example in his mind before he sat down to judge me. Hence, when I received an email looking for volunteers to represent CHM at Chicago's Gay Pride Parade, I signed right up.

After all, I had always wanted to go to the Pride Parade, but had never worked up the motivation to go stand in the mid-summer heat to do so. Also, my friend Irene had also signed up, so it would be a fun thing for the two of us to do together, outside of the office. The Museum was seeking to increase its profile in the LGBT community in advance of an exhibit we're opening next year on the history of homosexuality in Chicago, and to spread the word about our history-themed pub crawls, one of our best-selling events. They had rented the same trolley used in the pub crawls for us to ride, and the prospect of being able to sit through the parade seemed far more palatable than standing all day in the hot sun.

Actually being in the parade was a far different experience than watching it, however. I missed out on all the fabulous drag queens riding the various floats, and the outrageous costumes being sported by all manner of men, women, and those who still haven't made up their minds. Instead, I got to watch the crowd, and the groups that were near us in the parade's staging area. It probably wasn't ultimately as fun as watching from the sidelines, but it was still exciting to feed off the crowd's energy while throwing confetti and waving a flag. I also got some fairly decent pictures during the day, so without further ado, here is a photographic journey through the Pride Parade:

Irene and I, waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for the parade to start. Seriously, it was almost an hour late! I think I was a little under-dressed for the occasion, but I didn't have any rainbow apparel...

Next to us in the staging area was a troop of line-dancing gay cowboys, practicing their routines before the parade kicked off.

These cute twinks were eager to show off their balloon costumes for photographers. The Pride Parade attracts all manner of exhibitionists, and these two were actually wearing more clothing than most.

At the intersection of Belmont and Halstead, the epicenter of Boystown, the crowds extended as far as the eye could see.

The spectators like to get in the spirit of things with festive costumes of their own. I think this group of women dressed in the colors of the rainbow were my favorite.

Other people like to get more, um, creative with their apparel. Let's just say I saw more genitals and nipples than I ever expected to see in one day...

When it was all said and done, we were sweaty, windblown, and covered in glitter and confetti, but it was definitely not an experience to be missed. Plus, even though I came home and took a shower immediately, I trust I'll be reliving the memories with every spangle I'll no doubt be finding on myself for the foreseeable future.


All In Good Taste...

In an ordinary year, summertime in Chicago means many things -- a plethora of fireworks, all manner of free events to attend in the city's parks, and more street festivals than you can shake a stick at. However, due to budget cuts, we've lost our annual 3rd of July fireworks display and Venetian Night (the second-largest fireworks presentation in the city accompanied by a boat parade along the lakefront) and the weekly free movies in Grant Park were cut as well. All three things were on my Summer 2010 to-do list before they were scrapped. So I had to be content with the one Chicago summer tradition that survived the budget crisis -- the Taste of Chicago.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Taste. In fact, I went last year with Joy when she came for a visit, and this year I made plans to go with Zac. I was slightly wary about how the afternoon would go, as he doesn't share my enthusiasm for adventuresome eating, but thankfully the Taste offers something to appeal to every palate. I needn't have worried at all -- we had a great time, just like we always do together.

Zac and I in front of Buckingham Fountain at the Taste.

Ever the diligent planner, I went into the Taste of Chicago having constructed a thorough game plan for everything I was going to eat, organized by the route I anticipated we would take. On this years menu were the obligatory pierogis from Kasia's Deli, which have never let me down, in addition to a "Taste portion" or sample, of the Ukrainian version of pierogis, varenyky, from Shokolad Pastry and Cafe. Overall, I found them to be a disappointment compared to my usual potato-filled dumpling selection. The varenyky I sampled contained both potato and cheese, which would ordinarily not be a problem except this cheese was of the sweet variety usually found in dessert pierogi. I found it to be an odd, not entirely savory pairing with the potato. I was more fond of the mini-churros I sampled from The Churro Factory, a new Pilsen spot recently opened by a popular street vendor from Chicago's Maxwell Street Market. They might not have anything on the sheer perfection available at Xoco, but they were still delightfully crisp on the outside while maintaining a soft, steaming interior. A half of a Polish sausage from Polka Sausage and Deli, and a sample size order of gyoza (Japanese dumplings) from Tamarind, one of my local favorites, rounded out my food for the day.

Nothing truly stuck out as great, but nothing stuck out as horrible either, unlike last year. Most notably, I managed to stick to an appropriate amount of food this year, and left the festival without feeling overstuffed or descending in a food coma. In spite of getting mildly sunburned, it was a perfect way to pass an afternoon with my sweetheart on a hot Chicago afternoon in summer.



Unlike most of my peers on the North Shore, my mother never sent me to sleep-away camp for the summer. She viewed it as an excuse for lazy parenting, a way to get rid of your children for the summer so you wouldn't have to deal with them while they weren't in school (which is not to say that camp isn't an enriching experience, and that many children enjoy it.) Instead, she would enroll me in classes every summer, to learn a new skill, or hone the ones I already had. Usually, it was some sort of art class -- drawing, ceramics, jewelry-making, glass-beadmaking, computer graphics -- but occasionally, a more practical skill like sewing would be thrown into the mix. One year, when I was around eight or nine, one of the classes was cooking.

I had never really helped out in the kitchen before, but the class taught important fundamentals like how to measure properly, and basic kitchen safety. Most of the food we prepared in that class was terrible -- one meatloaf recipe stands out in my mind as being particularly foul -- but the class yielded one recipe that has been a keeper in our family ever since: snickerdoodles. Dad loved the chewy, cinnamony treats, and would frequently request them for special occasions. In fact, the batch of which I write today was prepared over the weekend in honor of Father's Day. They're also a favorite of my friend Abel, who was one of the first recipients of the recipe, and who continues to bake them for himself and his friends in Japan. Over the years, they've emerged as what I would consider my signature cookie recipe, even if they're not necessarily my favorites to eat myself.

Ironically, the recipe which has come to be my specialty is also the one that kept me away from the oven for years. On the day in that cooking class when we baked them, I went to take the cookie sheet out of the oven, and did so with one hand. Having the arm strength of a young child, I inevitably lost my grip on it, causing me to scorch my arm on the oven rack above it. I still have the scar from the resulting burn, and for years, I refused to go anywhere near an oven. I would help prepare things that went in the oven, such as mixing cookie dough or cake batter, and I'd even place things on the sheet or in a pan, but I refused to physically put anything in the oven, or remove it. It wasn't until I went to college and I no longer had any choice that I started baking on my own, and once I got over my fear of being burned, I started truly baking in earnest and haven't stopped since.

makes approximately 3 dozen

2 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 c. brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. white sugar
1 c. salted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract

3 Tbs. white sugar
1 Tbs. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 300.
1. In small bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon for topping; set aside.
2. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix well with a wire whisk.
3. In mixer, blend brown and white sugar.
4. Add butter to mixer and mix until it forms a grainy paste.
5. Add eggs and vanilla extract. Mix until light and fluffy.
6. Add the flour mixture and blend at low speed until combined. Don't over mix!
7. Refrigerate dough 1-3 hours.
8. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and roll in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place on ungreased cookie sheet, 2 inches apart.
9. Bake 18-20 minutes, then immediately transfer to cooling racks.


Peaches And Cream...

Do you ever wonder how we came to have so many ridiculous "holidays?" Today, for instance, I discovered earlier, is National Peaches and Cream Day. Who decides these things? Besides anal-retentive foodies, who even follows these arcane food holidays, or commemorates their passing? What is the point of having them at all? Their silliness notwithstanding, it turns out that the observance of National Peaches and Cream Day just so happens to coincide with my preparation of a batch of peach frozen yogurt. Now, yogurt isn't exactly cream, but it's still a dairy product, so I'm going to count it anyway.

Today also happens to be the summer solstice, which, aside from being the longest day of the year, is also the official first day of summer. With stone fruit finally making its appearance at the grocery store, and temperatures steadily creeping into the 90s, there can be no doubt that the season is already in full swing. Hence, I decided to pull out my ice cream maker for the first time this summer, and take advantage of the bounty of the season. After discovering a love for the flavor combination of peach and yogurt last year, I became determined to expand its presence in my frozen dessert repertoire. An abortive attempt at peach frozen yogurt late last summer in my old, hand-crank ice cream machine was a major part of the impetus behind my purchase of a modern, electric model.

Now that peaches are back in season, I was free to try again, however, the results were still less than stellar. I tried to reduce the caloric impact of my dessert by substituting 2% Fage Greek yogurt for the regular, full-fat version. Big mistake. Reducing the fat content significantly diminished the creaminess of the finished product. Although it still tastes like a bowl full of sweet, delicious sunshine, the frozen yogurt's texture is decidedly lacking. In the future, I think I'll just stick to my favorite peach and yogurt ice pops -- their texture doesn't matter as much, and they dirty far fewer dishes to prepare...


Happy Father's Day...

When I was younger, and I would go to my dad for advice or help with homework, he would joke about charging my tab. You see, a lot of people pay a sizable amount of money for my dad's wisdom; as a lawyer, dispensing legal advice is what he does all day long. But, as I've become older, I've come to recognize that some of his personal words of wisdom are quite valuable as well. So, on the occasion of Father's Day, I thought I would share with you a few of the lessons and advice that my dad has given me over the years, much of which I am constantly struggling to apply to my daily life.
  • "Have some fun!" -- These were the last words Dad uttered to me when he dropped me off at college (or so he says, I was too anxious to remember that particular moment with any clarity.) Whenever the sturm and drang of high school would bring me down, Dad would tell me to wait until college; those four years would be the best of my life. I never believed him; instead, I worried about meeting new people, making new friends, and succeeding in my classes. But he was correct -- college did turn out to be some of the best years of my life so far (although I hate to think that my best years are already behind me), and more importantly, I had fun. As I've gotten older, I've become far less pessimistic. I still struggle with worrying all the time, about something, but I generally believe that life is about having a good time, not being miserable. Life is short, and we have to grab and hold on to all the joy that we can.
  • "Try asserting yourself for once!" -- Of all the things that Dad has tried to teach me, this one is perhaps the most difficult for me. Dad is a man who knows what he wants, and he makes sure he gets it, whether it's going toe to toe with a civil servant, or making a slew of changes to a dish he's ordering at a restaurant. While I sometimes find these practices a little obnoxious, the lesson is still there. You have to fight for what you want, and not let people walk all over you. I'll probably be working on this one for the rest of my adult life, but I've been listening, Dad.
  • "You have to figure out what you love to do, and do it. Otherwise you'll end up living a life of quiet desperation." -- Dad gives this piece of career advice to anyone who approaches him about the subject, and truly, he couldn't be more right. Think about it: we spend at least half of our waking lives at work. If life is about being happy, and not merely existing, then you have to do what you love. My problem is that I'm still in the process of figuring out just what that is, but I'll get there eventually.
After all these years, I'd shudder to think what my "tab" would be, if Dad had been billing me for all his advice. That's the advantage to having him as a father -- I get to be the beneficiary of his wisdom for free! So thanks Dad, for all the lessons you've taught me. Actually applying them to my life will keep me busy for years to come, but it's certainly a worthy enterprise. Happy Father's Day!


Un Sabor Puertorriqueño...

I am a huge proponent of observing birthdays. I'm not sure if it's the excuse to plan and execute a celebration of some nature (goodness knows, I love to plan a party), or that I just like to make the people I love feel special, but I hate to let a friend's birthday go by unrecognized. Occasionally, this drives my friends crazy; I recognize the fact that some people don't like to make a big fuss out of getting older, but that doesn't mean I have to accept it. This year, when I found out that Natasha would turn be turning 30 and starting a new decade of life, I immediately began pestering her about her birthday plans. Thankfully, Natasha likes to plan parties as much as I do -- in fact, one of our favorite bonding activities is to plan hypothetical theme-parties, even if they never actually materialize. However, with only two weeks remaining until her job is terminated, she didn't feel that a huge soiree was appropriate. Instead, I suggested she have a low-key dinner with friends, just to ensure that the day wouldn't pass without being commemorated in some way. This was how we ended up taking an epically long, crowded bus ride to Humboldt Park, Chicago's Puerto Rican enclave, on the day of the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Festival.

Natasha's restaurant selection was Sabor Latino, the only Puerto Rican restaurant in Chicago that Natasha's Puerto Rican family deems worthy of their business. I was excited, not only to recognize the passing of Natasha's 30th birthday, but also to try Puerto Rican cuisine for the first time. However, when my mother pointed out that she'd seen on the news that Natasha's birthday celebration would coincide with the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, my excitement was considerably dampened. After all, Humboldt Park does not have a stellar reputation in terms of safety. In fact, it consistently ranks among Chicago's more dangerous neighborhoods, although it experiences less gun violence than infamous areas such as Austin, Englewood, and Lawndale. Add a bunch of drunken festival-goers to the mix, and the potential for danger seemed heightened in my mind. It was too late to cancel her birthday plans and reschedule, so Natasha decided to press forward, but I quietly resolved to be out of Humboldt Park before nightfall.*

Getting to the restaurant turned out to be an adventure unto itself. Thankfully, we boarded the bus at the beginning of its route, and were able to get seats, because within two stops, the bus was completely packed with people headed home from the beach and people heading to the Puerto Rican Day Festival. It was one of the more crowded buses I've ever ridden, and considering the fact that I commute through the heart of Chicago's tourist district on a daily basis, that's saying something. Notably, a fight broke out between two women on the bus, resulting in a major delay as the driver was forced to intercede and evict one of the ladies from the vehicle.

As we neared Humboldt Park, we began to spot an increasing number of vehicles with Puerto Rican flags -- flags attached to windows, hanging from trunks, draped across hoods, attached to roofs, and being waved by scantily-attired girls hanging out of car windows. If the color green and the shamrock are the symbols of Chicago's Irish pride, then the Puerto Rican flag is clearly the most potent icon of theirs. My favorite example consisted of a vehicle with no fewer than twelve flags, three attached to each window. There were Puerto Rican flags, American flags, Cubs flags, Chicago flags, Illinois flags, and unidentifiable flags that Natasha hypothesized represented some Puerto Rican provinces. It was impressive. Unfortunately, since we were on the bus, we didn't get any photos of the hoopla.

After nearly an hour on the bus, excaerbaled by typically Chicagoan idiocyncratic street closures and police road blocks related to the festival, we finally made it to the restaurant. Overall, I would say I had a positive first encounter with Puerto Rican food. My entree of roasted pork and yellow rice with beans was rather delicious: the meat was succulent and the rice was surprisingly good, considering the fact that I generally ignore any rice that accompanies my food at Latin restaurants. Natasha ordered a large selection of appetizers for the table, all of them fried. I thought I didn't have a problem with consuming lots of heavy, fried food, but this meal tested even my limits. I found myself eating the sad little pile of salad on my plate just to distract myself from all the grease I had consumed. Granted, it was tasty grease, but I still felt a little gross and a lot guilty afterwards.

Still, if you can't induldge at a birthday fête, when can you? I was glad to be on hand to celebrate with Natasha on her special day, even if it was somewhat of an adventure to do so. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Happy Birthday Natasha!

*As it turns out, my paranoia was not unjustified. Despite the massive police presence, there were still 3 shootings in Humboldt Park on the day we were there.

Sex And The City 2...

I confess, I tend to be somewhat of a culture snob. I will often avoid something solely because it is extremely popular. I refuse to read the Harry Potter books or see the films; I skipped The Lord of the Rings films as well (although that has more to do with my dislike of fantasy as a genre in general); and I want absolutely nothing to do with the Twilight franchise. For years, I dodged Sex and the City as well: watching it and enjoying it felt like some sort of feminine cliche. Still, when the first film came out in 2008, I practically had to attend. All my girlfriends were going, and I felt like I would be missing out on important bonding time if I demurred. So I went, and having seen exactly none of the original series, had very little understanding of what was happening onscreen. Still, the film was enjoyable, and I wanted to comprehend more about these women. To make a long story short, I ended up watching the entire series in reruns on TBS and WGN. Several times. You see, I was unemployed, and the reruns ran in a two episode block every night after The Colbert Report on TBS, followed by a third episode on WGN. I was up anyway, so it gradually became my bedtime routine.

Despite my initial disdain for the show's female archetypes, I quickly realized that their experiences spoke to me. I too was single, and living in a big city. As I started delving into the dating pool more seriously, I discovered that the show had been more accurate about contemporary relationships than I would have expected. Although I don't think any woman is truly a Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, or Samantha (our real personalities aren't nearly so clearly delineated), they reflect the hopes, fears, and aspirations of a broad range of women. The show was definitely better than I had given it credit for.

By the time Sex and the City 2 was released last month, I had become a full-fledged SATC fan. In spite of all the negative press and poor reviews surrounding the film, I was determined to see it. As soon as our schedules allowed, I headed out with Lauren to do just that.

Although the reviews were perhaps a smidgen too harsh, they were, unfortunately, largely correct. Sex and the City 2 is like the cotton candy of the cinematic world. There are lots of pretty costumes and shoes to look at, hairstyles to covet, and men to ogle, but in the film's entire two hour and fifteen minute run time, very little seems to happen. Whereas the first film saw Carrie dumped at the altar, only to eventually reunite with Mr. Big, Miranda coping with infidelity and a separation, Charlotte becoming pregnant after struggling for years with infertility, and Samantha leaving her one long-term relationship to focus on herself, in the new film, the women face relatively minor woes. In fact, much of the girls' existential angst is somewhat tone-deaf, given the times. Charlotte has a full-time nanny and yet she's still stressed over the demands of motherhood (poor thing!) and Miranda is saddled with a boss who doesn't respect her (at least she has a job!). Carrie is feeling bored in her marriage, but the worst thing that happens is a lone kiss shared with an old flame, which Mr. Big seems to handle a little too well. I truly felt like there was little to learn from these women's stories this time around. Instead, I felt more like I had watched gay men play with real-life Barbies for nearly three hours, dressing them up and sending them on an ostentatious trip to the Middle East in a vain effort to highlight the liberation of American women.

Overall, I felt that the filmmakers had misread the mood of their audience. They had sought to follow the Depression-era tactic of producing glamorous escapist fare. However, today's audience is craving greater authenticity and relatability in their films. I would probably still go see a Sex and the City 3 if it ever got made, just to get caught up with the lives of the characters I've come to love, but I would prefer to pretend that the current film never happened...


So Shines A Good Deed...

I don't know if I'm just becoming more positive as I get older, but I have come to believe that life is full of small joys. Even on a day that is overwhelmingly crappy or just tediously mundane, something will happen that will bring a smile to your face, even for a fleeting second. These are the moments you must seek out and cling to.

For me, one of these small joys is the ability to help confused tourists. Lord knows, summer brings plenty of these hapless souls to my fair city, and they're not difficult to spot. Whether they're standing on a street corner with an enormous fold-out map, squinting at the CTA layout printed above the door to the El car, or just musing loudly about where they think they're headed, I can detect them from a mile away. In the past I've helped a woman and her daughter who intended to disembark their train several miles past the American Girl Store they were hoping to visit, a family trying to go to the Shedd Aquarium by taking a bus in the wrong direction, and just today, I saved another family from a vacation disaster. This particular family was trying to head to Midway Airport via the Red Line. They thought they'd just get off at the end of the line (which isn't exactly in the greatest of neighborhoods) and wing it from there. I gently informed them that it was in their best interest to switch lines to the Orange Line, which proceeds directly to the airport. Since they were getting off at my stop, I then shepherded them through their connection process and made sure they got on the correct train. Crisis averted.

It may be a little nosy of me to inject myself into these peoples' affairs, but I sort of consider it my duty to help tourists have the best experience possible in Chicago. New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude to outsiders, so I like to do my part to make sure that visitors have positive interactions with the locals here. Maybe it's my latent Midwestern hospitality, or maybe it's just my love for the city that causes me to want to show it off to its best advantage, but either way, I can rest easy tonight knowing I've at least done one good deed for the day...


Jupiter In Aries...

I've never put much stock in astrology. I peruse my weekly horoscope in the paper with a sense of mild curiosity, but I never actually expect it to come true. Recently, my horoscope has been predicting that with the entrance of Jupiter into Aries (my astrological sign), I am due to experience a huge spate of good fortune. Even though I just finished a relatively pleasant week and weekend, I wasn't prepared to call anything that transpired particularly lucky. Today, however, my horoscope came true in a big way: at my weekly meeting with my boss, he informed me that the museum would be able to keep me on board until the end of 2010, a full six months longer than originally anticipated!

In these hard economic times, I cannot express what a relief it is to have another six months of guaranteed employment. Six more months of income and health insurance! If that isn't good luck, I don't know what is. Maybe I need to start taking those horoscopes more seriously...


Cross-Town Rivalry...

Lauren once told me a story about the day she and her husband moved to Chicago. They had arrived at the airport and caught a taxi into the city. Their chatty cabbie was curious -- would the new transplants become Cubs fans or follow the White Sox? When they informed him where they would be living, the driver told them that their fate was sealed: they were destined to be Cubs fans.

This tale is illustrative of the pervasiveness of the North Side/South Side rivalry in Chicago culture. Although I lean slightly to the side of the Cubs, having been reared in the northern suburbs, I'm generally happy to see any Chicago team doing well. This sort of fair weather fandom is not looked upon with much kindness in my fair city, but it does relieve some of the angst that more rabid fans experience during the annual Cross-Town Classic, when the Cubs face the White Sox for bragging rights. In this unique situation, I can truly say that I'm happy no matter who wins, because a victory for Chicago is guaranteed.

I find it inexplicably amusing that the game is listed as Chicago vs. Cubs. Who decided that the Sox get to be "Chicago?"

Out of the three game series held at Wrigley this weekend, I snapped up Dad's tickets for Sunday, and invited along Mireya, the most hardcore Cubs fan I know, her brother, who matches her enthusiasm, and Zac, so that I'd have somebody to converse with while Mireya and her brother were absorbed in the game.

I contemplated wearing a neutral color, so as to not take sides in this Chicago-style civil war, but I figured Mireya might never speak to me again if I failed to support her beloved team.

Mostly, Zac and I were mind-numbingly bored during game, as the play stretched on without any scoring until the 7th inning. Mireya, her brother, and the fans around us seemed inexplicably excited as we sat and praised the game for at least moving along at a brisk clip. Finally, the 9th inning rolled around and after a series of anguished cries, Mireya finally explained that the Cubs had been pitching a no-hitter until the top of the 9th. Apparently, this was a big deal, and very exciting. The term, "pitchers' duel" was thrown around liberally. This too was evidently a good thing. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm no baseball fan; I was bored out of my mind. Give me a bunch of home runs over a low-scoring game any day.

The tension of the no-hitter drummed up plenty of acrimony among the spectators, and one Sox fan was thrown out of the stadium for throwing something onto the field. Still, there was one thing that both sets of fans could agree on -- the momentous achievement of the Chicago Blackhawks in winning the Stanley Cup. Not only were a large percentage of the fans clad in the Hawk's signature red, the Blackhawks were actually on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch. We missed the former because we arrived at the stadium a few minutes late (although still early enough to get the free rally towels that they were distributing, which ended up proving useful for wiping off the water that had accumulated on the seats after an entire week of rain), but we did get to witness the harmony of both North Siders and South Siders coming together to support a team from the West Side during the 7th inning stretch.

The Hawks were even nice enough to bring along their trophy for the fans. It's tiny, but it's there, in the center of this photo.

Perhaps some of the Blackhawks' good fortune rubbed off on the Cubs, because they won the day, after losing the first two games in the series. This fact was not lost on Mireya, who pointed out that I have a perfect record of my own: the Cubs have won every home game that I have attended since I started going to games a couple years ago. I, however, was mostly just glad to have someone to share in my pain over the unleashing of that epic earworm, "Go, Cubs, Go!" following the Cubs' win. Zac and I discovered something else that we have in common tonight besides a general disinterest in the sport of baseball -- he can't stand the Cubs' victory anthem either. At least now I won't be the only one suffering through a week of having it stuck in my head. It's true what they say; misery loves company...


Baby, You Can Drive My Car...

Whenever I talk to someone who doesn't live in a city, it is inevitable that the topic of transportation arises. Without fail, my conversation partner will be shocked that I subsist without a car. Not only do I survive without one, I rather enjoy the fact that I never have to drive. It's probably un-American of me to say so, but I've never particularly enjoyed driving. The independence that it grants is a perk, to be sure, and its cargo-towing capacity certainly makes it easier to embark upon shopping sprees and large grocery runs, but driving just makes me nervous. Even if you drive safely and flawlessly, there is no controlling the actions of other motorists. The CTA may be full of unique, often "colorful" characters, but it is a relief to hand over the burden of responsibility for my commuting needs.

Still, I fully recognize the need to own a vehicle when living in the suburbs. Public transportation is virtually non-existent, and residential neighborhoods are often distantly removed from places of business and commerce. Hence, when Lauren began to contemplate purchasing a car in advance of her impending move to suburbia, I was hardly surprised. However, she was expressing concern about getting behind the wheel once more after several years of car-free city life, so I offered to let her get some practice behind the wheel of my car, which resides in the suburbs with my parents.

Today, we dutifully trekked northward to pick up the car, and made a day of it in the suburbs. We had a tasty lunch with my parents, and I took Lauren to the same office park where my parents originally taught me how to drive some nine years ago. The office park, that uniquely suburban institution, is perfect for driving practice, as they are generally surrounded by acres of parking lots that are abandoned come the weekend. We tooled around there for a bit, but driving came back quickly to Lauren, and she was soon ready to hit the streets. I selected the most interesting drive on the North Shore that I could think of -- south down Sheridan Road to the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette.

Hard to believe we're still in Illinois, isn't it?

The Bahá'í House of Worship is, in my opinion, the architectural highlight of the North Shore. There might be Frank Lloyd Wright homes and other impressive manses, but nothing can hold a candle to this unique structure. Bahá'ís like to point out that their faith is the second most geographically widespread religion after Christianity, but their numbers are relatively small -- they claim only approximately 5-6 million adherents worldwide. As a result, they have adopted the practice of constructing only one temple per continent, and because an early pocket of their followers resided in turn-of-the-century Chicago, construction began on the North American Bahá'í House of Worship in 1912. It features breathtaking Art Nouveau architecture, with a lacey exterior surface that incorporates symbolism from all major world religions.

Lauren and I at the Bahá'í House of Worship.

After surveying the temple, and watching a brief informational video on the Bahá'í faith, I directed Lauren back to Highland Park and through a brief tour of my old stomping grounds, including a pit stop at my absolute favorite ice cream shop, Sweet Pea's. Ultimately, Lauren was genuinely happy to get behind the wheel again, and ended the day with her confidence in her driving skills fully restored. It turned out to be a fun day trip, which just goes to show the power of great company in transforming a mundane task like driving practice into a delightful day of local tourism.


She & Him...

Even with all the budget cuts that the current recession has forced upon the City of Chicago, the summer has still brought about a plethora of free events and programs to benefit both tourists and cash-strapped locals alike. One of these offerings is the free concert series at Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion, the famous stainless-steel bandshell designed by noted architect, Frank Gehry. The series draws from a wide-range of musical styles, focusing largely on symphonic music, but also including opera, world music, and a solitary "indie" music act each year. It is the last of these that I try to attend on an annual basis. In 2007, it was the Decemberists, of whom I had exactly one album on my iPod before attending the concert and becoming a bigger fan. In 2008, it was my favorite musician, Andrew Bird, and it became the first time I had the opportunity to see him live. Last year, I missed the indie-themed concert, but attended a performance by the stars of the Lyric Opera with Lauren. To keep up my annual rate of attendance, I headed out this evening to catch a show by She & Him, the indie-folk collaboration between hipster darling Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.

Prior to this evening, I had never once listened to She & Him. My exposure to Ms. Deschanel was limited to my enjoyment of 500 Days of Summer, but I was looking forward to giving her musical production a chance. I quickly ascertained, however, that Zooey might be better off sticking to her day job. Her voice was thin, and limited in range. She & Him's songs were light-hearted and generally appropriate for a gentle summer evening, but nothing about them particularly stood out. Basically, they provided an innocuous soundtrack to the card game going down between Lauren, myself, and Lauren's friends. It was a pleasant enough way to pass an evening outdoors, but She & Him failed to win me as a fan.

Actually, the only songs they performed that I can even remember were their covers of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and "I Put a Spell on You." The former was memorable largely for the crowd's reaction -- it seemed to be a fan favorite, and it got people on their feet and dancing. The latter stood out as Deschanel's best vocal performance of the night, which was particularly sad, considering the song was their encore. Much as I might adore her sense of personal style, I just couldn't get into her performance. If I were going to support her as an artist, I'd run out and buy a copy of 500 Days of Summer before I ever drop a cent on a She & Him album. I was glad I went to the concert for the ability to say I went to a concert at Millennium Park this year, but I predict that a couple years from now, I'll scarcely be able to remember who it was I saw in 2010.


Get Him To The Greek...

In a typical year, I like to see an average of one movie a month. I feel like that keeps me current with popular culture, and it usually positions me well come Oscar season, considering the movies to which I am usually drawn. However, it is only the first weekend of June, and I found myself hitting the theater for my eleventh movie of 2010. I think that the single greatest contributing factor in this doubling of my theater attendance has been my entree into the world of dating; after all, the "dinner and a movie" formula is more or less the cornerstone of the contemporary dating scene. Furthermore, the need to consider the tastes and opinions of a romantic partner has led me to see a wider range of films (comedies, by and large), that I would have otherwise overlooked during my single days of movie watching. Most recently, it was Date Night, and this weekend, it was Get Him To The Greek.

Although I have studiously avoided every film in the Judd Apatow oeuvre since I was forced to watch Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy while trapped in a van during a school trip in South Dakota, I did actually want to see Get Him To The Greek, largely do to my appreciation of Russell Brand. I wouldn't go so far as to say I find him attractive, but ever since I caught his stand-up special, Russell Brand in New York early last year, I have been intrigued by his wicked sense of humor. I'm not sure he'll ever be as big in the United States as he his in his native United Kingdom, although his recent engagement to singer Katy Perry has certainly helped increase his notoriety on this side of the pond.

Hence, I even went so far as to suggest Get Him To The Greek as a movie choice, knowing that Zac enjoys comedies more than I do. And even though it's not my favorite genre, I still found much diversion in Get Him To The Greek. In fact, I might even go so far as to call it riotously funny. Brand, as ever, was sharp and edgy, although there were moments where his character called for a level of restraint that I felt under-utilized his natural frenetic energy. I also enjoyed the performance of Elisabeth Moss (aka Peggy Olson from one of my favorite shows, Mad Men), who added a touch of believable levity to the zaniness surrounding her character. Sean "Diddy" Combs (Is that what he's going by these days? Who can keep track? I'm deferring to Wikipedia here) didn't have to stretch far to portray an aggressive, slightly unhinged music executive, but he actually got some of the more choice lines in the film, such as a text message that read, "Where the fuck are you? I'm going to kill you! :)" Jonah Hill, who portrayed the main character, delievered one of the more lackluster performances in the fim, in my opinion, but then again, I've never been much of a fan of his work.

As one might expect, Get Him To The Greek was spectacularly raunchy. That's not generally my favorite type of humor, but perhaps the movie caught me in just the right mood, because this time, it worked for me. From the overt innuendos of the various musicians' fake songs and music videos to the over-the-top groupie sex scenes, I could scarcely stop laughing. If you're seeking some comic relief and adult humor this summer, I think you could do much worse than Get Him To The Greek, to be sure.


Pennies From Heaven...

Blogging, and the sharing of your thoughts, obsessions, and quirky hobbies with an audience of one's friends, is occasionally accompanied by unforeseen consequences. For instance, after posting on my love of pressed pennies a couple months ago, these tiny scraps of tortured metal have provided a whole new level of connection between me and my friends. You see, people have started bringing me elongated pennies that they have made on their travels, or just around town when they saw a machine and thought of me. I didn't write my post with the intention of soliciting gifts, but rather, to share something eccentric about myself. Still, the additions to my collection have certainly been a unexpected perk, and it makes me happy to know that I've spread the joy of pressing pennies to my extended circle of friends.

After returning from a recent trip to visit her family in Florida, my friend Natasha informed me that she had brought be a little something from her travels. I certainly hadn't expected any sort of souvenir, but when she produced a Ziploc baggie of pressed pennies from her backpack, I was beyond delighted. As it turned out, she and her family made a game of who could spot the penny presses at Disney World, and taking turns making the pennies. It wasn't until the end of the day that a park employee informed them that they could have obtained a penny machine map at the information desk, but I think that would have spoiled their fun. Thanks for thinking of me during your vacation, Natasha!

Although Natasha brought me a small bounty consisting of fourteen pennies, I thought I would just share a representative sample.

Actually, my interest in pressed pennies has even netted me a new friend, Brandon, who is also an elongated coin enthusiast, although he is a far more serious collector than I am. I knew him tangentially, as he also works at the museum, but when one of our coworkers pointed out our mutual interest after reading my blog, we got to know each other better. Now Brandon brings me copies of the pennies he presses on his weekend jaunts in search of all the machines in the Chicagoland area. Even though we are on totally different levels, it's still great to have someone with whom to share my hobby, and expand my collection at the same time. Thanks Brandon!


Democracy In Action...

It is only fitting that over the course of a weekend dedicated to a patriotic holiday like Memorial Day, true American values have won out in my dress poll. After all, what could be more American than our collective national obsession with breasts? By a narrow margin, Day 7 proved to be the most popular look, demonstrating once again the power of cleavage. It would be interesting to have a gender-based breakdown of the votes...

Am I wrong? Did people select Day 7 for a different reason? If so, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.


Happy Birthday To Mom...

My parents are notoriously hard to shop for; they have everything they need, and they're capable of buying anything they want for themselves. As a result, I've more or less given up on buying them presents for special occasions. Instead, I rely on one of my skills to do something they either cannot or will not do for themselves -- bake. Today, to celebrate Mom's birthday, I baked a batch of her favorite cookies, just the way she likes them.

These chocolate brownie cookies are the kind of thing I'd almost be embarrassed to admit to making in the presence of foodie elitists. The recipe comes from a Baker's chocolate promotion -- Baker's, those waxy squares of "baking chocolate" that have rapidly fallen out of favor with the baking cognoscenti. If you think about it, it makes sense: why would you cook with an ingredient that you wouldn't deign to eat on its own? Nowadays, I use mainly Ghirardelli chocolate for baking, but I keep a couple boxes of Baker's hidden in the back of the cabinet, just for this recipe. As much as I might be shamed to admit it, these cookies are insanely good. They are incredibly rich, and they truly taste just like brownies that were baked free-form on a cookie sheet instead of poured into a pan. I prefer them with the walnuts that the recipe calls for, but it's Mom's birthday, so the birthday girl gets what the birthday girl likes -- pecans. Even if you don't have a special reason to indulge, I still suggest you slum it a little bit and bake a batch. Nobody has to know what's in them unless you tell them, and trust me, these cookies are so delicious that the ingredients will be the last thing on anyone's mind.

Yes, I am fully aware of what this picture looks like. Given our family's fondness for poop humor, they're somewhat of an appropriate gift. Happy Birthday Mom!

One-Bowl Chocolate Brownie Cookies
adapted from a Baker's Chocolate advertisement

6 squares Baker's semisweet baking chocolate, chopped
4 squares Baker's unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
1 tsp baking powder
6 tbsp butter or margarine, cut into medium dice
2 cups chopped walnuts (or pecans)
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 325.
1. Microwave chocolate and butter in a large bowl on high, 1 1/2 - 2 minutes or until chocolate is almost melted, stirring every 30 seconds. Stir until chocolate is completely melted and smooth.
2. Stir sugar into chocolate until blended. Mix in eggs and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir in nuts.
3. Drop by rounded spoonfuls 1 1/2 inches apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake 12 minutes or until set. Do not overbake!
5. Cool 5 minutes, then remove from cookie sheet. Cool completely on wire racks.