Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Late, sorry!

Late, I know, I know... There was... stuff. Yeah. Stuff. Not much happened today apart from research, anyway - so, you know, you didn't miss much.

Upcoming trips, based on more research:

Union Stock Yards
Pullman town
U.S. Steel South Works/South Chicago

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exploring

After yesterday's enthusiasm for history, I decided to go exploring today, with my trusty Minolta SLR. I'm still not entirely sure how I came across it, but I discovered that the Hyde Park area used to be home to a Nike missile installation from about 1955 to the early seventies. These installations ringed major cities during the Cold War, in case the Russians decided to get uppity and launch bombers, or missiles of their own, our way.

The Chicago lakefront had two of these installations, C-40 and C-41. C-40 was located in Burnham Park, but C-41's radar towers and missile magazines were right in my backyard. The radar towers, i.e. the locating equipment, were situated out at Promontory Point. In pictures from the era, this looks really impressive. University students are playing Frisbee on what is recognizably the Point's central field, with the fieldhouse barely visible, and in the background are looming white flying saucers on sticks. I know the Point well and have clambered all over it, and as far as I can tell, little to nothing remains of this installation.

I had never, however, seen the area which used to host the launch sites and missiles themselves. After a lot of research - frantic tabbed browsing and Google Earth scrutiny - I sussed out exactly where the site was. As it turns out, it was on the shore of my lovely Jackson Park Lagoon, right across from the Wooded Island of World's Columbian Exposition fame. Now, this worked out surprisingly well, as there were a couple other items of interest that I had wanted to investigate out that way, so I grabbed the only roll of film I had and set out with my camera slung over my shoulder.

After meeting Jim for a quick lunch at the Florian, I took a walk east, and ducked south around the back of the Museum of Science and Industry. This building used to be the Palace of Fine Arts during the Expo, and was made permanent thereafter. It originally housed the Field Museum, which later moved to its downtown campus. Walking the back side of the museum really immerses you in the history of the location, as it's largely unchanged from what one would have seen in 1893. The boat landing still exists, although populated by a gaggle of geese today. The view toward the south, across North Lagoon and its bridge to the Wooded Isle, hasn't changed either. It isn't difficult to picture this spot surrounded by towering, bright-white Beaux-Arts buildings.

Past the MSI, after a little finagling at the water's edge while trying to find a way off the boat landing, I hit the path that would take me south to the military site. Along this path is a bridge over a small inlet. Not only did this bridge provide me with some nice views of the Lagoon and the Osaka Garden on the Wooded Island, it also happens to be the bridge on which the Blues Brothers confronted the Illinois Nazis. Now there's a valuable piece of history.

Anyway... past the bridge, I found the marked path through the Bobolink Meadow, the Parks District name for the area I was seeking. Perfect. The trail made for a pretty walk, and I ducked off to visit the water's edge several times. As I got towards the southern end of the meadow, I was keeping a closer lookout for signs of civilization. I wasn't expecting much, and not much is exactly what I got. The Parks District has been complaining to the Army Corps of Engineers for a while now that the underground magazines and fuel tanks are causing ecological problems in the lagoon - meaning the Army has done a bang-up job of making sure things look nice and neat up there. Most of the really cool stuff is belowground, and very few signs of a military installation remain. I did, however, locate the pipes that JPAC authorities complained were leaking into the lagoon - sandard corrugated metal, nothing special, but the knowledge that they connected to underground concrete magazines makes them much cooler. A wet shoe and a leaf down my pants later, I had taken a few good snaps, reloaded the camera, and was on my way again.

I followed the path along the shore a bit further, and came to a fairly well-beaten path heading toward the water. Following it, I came across one of the sampling wells that my research had mentioned. Three of them were drilled by the Corps, in the interest of monitoring the water in the magazines. I had managed to stumble across the cover of one of them. This was probably the high point of my expedition.

Other finds included - upon traipsing inland over untracked land - a drainage grate in the middle of a field, old chain-link and barbed wire fencing, and patches of bare concrete. Now, as I said before, these don't really qualify as anything impressive, but to my little archaeologist's heart, they might as well have been Tutankhamun's treasure. I was pleased to find anything at all, mostly because it meant that my researching skills had served me well, and I was looking in the right places. That, and the pure fact that I was looking at history.

On my way home, I made a pilgrimage through the Wooded Island, one of my favorite spots in all Chicago, and stopped off near the north end. In the western half of the lagoon is a funny-shaped tripartite island. I learned recently that this island is actually the replica of the Santa Maria, constructed for the World's Fair and sailed into the lagoon at the opening ceremony, where it was left even after the Fair's end. In the 1930's it burned and sank, and was left to rot, forming the island that is there now. You have no idea how exciting I found this piece of information, dear Reader, so I was compelled to at least take a look.

After my World's Exposition pilgrimage - one that must be completed at least once a quarter, usually just because I get the itch - I plunked myself down at Istria with Of Mice and Men until I got cold, where I actually received a phone call from Jim to make sure I hadn't fallen in a concrete hole and broken my neck. The faith that my public has in my coordination is astounding.

I'll post pictures when I have them, which should be soon. I have five rolls to develop, and need to go to Walgreens anyway for more film. Stock Yards excursion should be coming up this week!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Halloween and the Union Stock Yards

Periodically, I develop an intense interest in the area around me, and have to pursue a particular chunk of its history until I know every last little detail. For example, I have always loved Chicago's role in American history. But when I first read Devil in the White City, I was compelled to do close research on the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the H. H. Holmes killings, as well as traipse down to Jackson Park and the Midway and examine the remains of history myself. I guess these tendencies are pretty indicative of my archaeological leanings, but it's an incredibly visceral feeling. I have to see these forgotten scraps of history - particularly because they are forgotten, and thus nobody bothers to clean them up. Olmstead's landscaping and his precious Wooded Island still exist. Big Mary still stands. The Japanese garden is as beautiful as ever. And this remains true, it seems, because these are the corners of history that nobody sweeps out or puts on a pedestal. They are just slowly forgotten, and take on new purposes, or buildings spring up around them as they are abandoned. They are not sanitized and encased in glass like the Coliseum, the Great Pyramids, or any number of museum exhibits. These are the vestigial biology of local history: neither malignant nor actively preserved; simply fading slowly away.

Today, that itch hit me again. I had gotten fidgety with the imminent arrival of Halloween, and was looking up Chicago ghost stories - there are always good horror stories in a big old city like this one. South Side history is some of the best Chicago history to be had. This was the gritty part of town. Here, the immigrants lived and worked. Here, the smell of the slaughterhouses permeated daily life. In perusing a list of creepy locales, I hit upon a reference to Bubbly Creek, the southern arm of the Chicago river, which reaches as far south as 38th street. It bubbles to this day, because it was the closest waterway for much of the Union Stock Yards throughout their lengthy history on Chicago's south side. Blood and offal from the slaughterhouses were dumped into the creek, and decompositional gases are still forming, despite efforts to detoxify the creek. Few, if any, fish live there, and the majority of creek denizens are bloodworms.

Now that's a horror story if I've ever heard one. This prompted further investigation into the history of the Union Stock Yards. I even dredged up old maps of the area, read about the fire that took place there, and looked at pictures of the still-standing limestone entry arch - designed, I might add, by my beloved John Root of 1893 Expo fame. The area has largely been taken over by industrial warehouses now, which are a reasonable modern equivalent to stock yards. It's fascinating to see how things carry over like that. And the surrounding neighborhood that housed immigrant workers in the stock yards is still called Back of the Yards, and was the home of one of the first "neighborhood associations," to foster a sense of community. It's still an amazingly diverse neighborhood, and overlaps a bit with Pilsen, currently a Mexican community (but, in case you couldn't guess, started out German). This is precisely why I study Lower Egyptian Predynastic civilization. It's the subtleties of history, the things that get overlooked in favor of grandeur and glory, the gritty, functional, gory side of the past that I really find interesting. This week I'm going to trudge up to Pershing to see the arch, and maybe wander around the old Stock Yard neighborhood with a camera. I'll post pictures when I have them.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Give Us This Day

Sorry for the hiatus there, folks, I was in Indiana for a chunk of the weekend, and thus was away from my dear little Ping, the lovely Sony Vaio with which I communicate to y'all. The time in Indiana was lovely - idyllic, even. I had beers with Jim and his buddies at the Shoreline Brewery. I watched comedy shows while lounging on the couch and eating Chinese food straight out of the carton. I operated the winch to back a car sans brakes off of a trailer. I got to ride the motorcycle. Again.

Made for a pretty good weekend. :-)

Anyway, this evening, I decided it was time to attempt breadmaking. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I think I goofed it up a bit, but it tastes okay - especially with butter. I just chose a very simple white bread, but the recipe called for 2lb of flour and only 2 cups of milk. I had trouble incorporating the flour, and I didn't even manage all of it. The fact that the dough was so stiff made kneading hellatious... I kneaded for half an hour, and still didn't quite get the "smooth and elastic" that they always tell you to look for. So the bread is a bit dense, but the apartment now smells of yeast and other warm breadly smells, and I have fresh tasty bread that I can toast and eat for breakfast tomorrow morning. I can't really complain.

I think, as I finally managed to pick up confectioner's sugar and extra cocoa, that I will make Texas sheet cake for our showing of Heroes tomorrow night. Thus far, I have had a history of feeding the folks that come over to watch it with us, and I'd like to continue it. I think that what it boils down to is that I like making people comfortable. So for anyone that ever needs a good home-cooked meal: c'mon over!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Things I Have Learned About Writing

So many people I don't remember the names: Write. Write and write and write and write and write, and it doesn't matter if it's crap, just do it.

Wes Anderson: Your creation is what you want it to be. It doesn't matter if it's not self-consistent or doesn't make sense; you want it to look a certain way for a reason. Keep card catalogs in a computerized library. Who cares?

Virginia Woolf: Who needs plot? Write whatever you want. I wrote about a dying moth, for God's sake.

Dr. Tricia McFarlane (D-Mac): Make it visceral. Make it uncomfortable. Make it squishy and gross and awkward and shocking and real. Also, when talking about it, make faces and do voices.

Ken Kesey: You're only putting me on this list because you're reading me right now. That said, make no sense! Make the crazy similes and metaphors that occur to you. I took acid to help me, but I guess that's not strictly necessary. Now stop dodging and start writing.

Poem

This one was written on a train returning from Indiana to Chicago. I have very few criticisms of it myself; there are a few lines that I will probably edit further, but as it stands, it's pretty solid. Please, by all means, feel free to comment - I like suggestions.

One night in Chicago a hot city wind blew
And whispered a word to a woman that I knew
In Chicago

Bare feet on bare floorboards
In silence she walked
Towards the call on the air,
Down cold stairs, out her door to

Dark Chicago
Is filled now
With the crinkle of leaves
And the falling of seeds
But still empty

The streets in Chicago were rolling beneath her
And out of the haze, a station to meet her
In Chicago

The tracks stretched away in
Uncountable rows
Thin stitches hemming the lake
Through the trees, she could see her

Gray Chicago
Is woven
With the whistle of trains
And the echo of rain
But still empty

The path from Chicago was splintered and rocky,
The steel curving eastward was glimmering wetly
From Chicago

Rough stacks towered stoic
Beyond shifting boughs
Megaliths belching steam
To the sky, in sweaty

Indiana
Is ruptured
With the chapels of industry
And the racket of nature
But still empty

The sound of the train bell rang out in her haven
And faded as it pulled away from the station
The refuge

Bare feet on wet pavement
In silence she walked
Through the humid night air
Up rough stairs, crossed the porch to

You
Are sleeping
Curled into your dreams
But this dream is mine
And not empty

Art

"Here's something unpleasant: All art comes from demons. Not real demons, in most cases, but demons of angst and horrible memories and sexual frustration. You get beat up in school because, while the cool kids are putting bruises on each other on the football field, you were sitting on the steps writing your science-fiction stories. That fear and tension that winds itself around your soul like steel wire as you try nervously to sneak out of the locker room before the big kids give you a Wedgie and a Tittie-Twister and a Dirty Sanchez, all that builds up into adulthood. Art is how you let it out.
...
Angst drives it. Now, if the artist is lucky, that angst goes away. If the audience is lucky, it doesn't. The art dies with the angst, you see. By middle age the artist finds himself watching his old films and trying to make ones that sort of look the same, or trying to make films his children can watch. It gets bland."

Deep words, from humor site Cracked.com. This was unexpected food for thought. Cracked is one of those sites that creates (admittedly really damn funny) top 10 lists, among other things. They make the front page of Digg pretty frequently. This particular quote came from the article "The 10 Best Sci-Fi Films Never Made," and refers to George Lucas' well-known decline. These paragraphs caught me off guard; I was bored and killing time between classes, and out of one of the more mindless things I was perusing jumps a deep(ish) analysis of art. Granted, this idea has been explored before, and tends to be one of the tropes we fall back on when talking about artists. But the contrast in the second paragraph is really what struck me.

So many artists used their struggles to temper themselves and their abilities. Conflict drives creativity, that much is clear - it fills you with something too big for yourself that you have to spill out somehow. But is this in the artist's interest? At first blush, it looks like the community profits from the pain of its most isolated individuals. By witnessing the struggle of others, we feel validated. Art is, to use a cliche, a mirror. In it we see elements of ourselves, things that we have in common with the artist - or at least that we think we do. We don't feel isolated anymore. Parts of us that we may not even have known were there are brought to light, brought into the fold, merged with human experience. But do acceptance and success for the artist remove the source of the art?

Yes and no. Conflict and pain always exist in life: "Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something," to quote a famous man in black. And while there may be nothing new under the sun, art is like language: an infinite number of combinations from a finite set of elements. We keep reaching outside ourselves and our experiences, retooling, retelling, tilting that mirror at a different angle to show the dusty back of what we thought was a tired concept. So I think the above quote has its merits - if you pigeonhole yourself, like George Lucas did, and try to create from the same conflicts beyond the point where they are visceral and painful for you, you will come up empty. But reaching further and writing about the conflicts that you actually need to resolve or release somehow - therein lies art.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Glorious Return

Word.

I have returned from the depths of anxiety- and stress-riddled existence to blog to you, my loyal (and imaginary, at this point) readership once again. Seeing as I am now on academic leave, I will have a lot more time to blog, so I'm hoping to actually turn it into something worthwhile, and to have a post up every day. Ideally it will not just be "HEY LOOK THIS IS WHAT I DID TODAY". I hope to actually post meaningful and interesting stuff.

In that vein...

One of my biggest goals with regards to my free time is to get better at cooking. Now, I don't just mean making tastier food, although that is part of it. I mean getting into the habit of piecing meals together well; making healthy, filling, satisfying food that's paired nicely. Creating meals as a unit, instead of just a bunch of different foods on a plate. Since obtaining my own kitchen, I have developed a passion for food, and a deep appreciation for its role in culture and community. If I'm feeling particularly homesick, I can comfort myself with good Texan food. I can provide a cozy and inviting environment for guests with a plate of cookies and some tea. Food seems to me to be one of the most visceral cultural markers. The right food makes us feel at home, whereas even if it's only the slightest bit off, we notice, and that sense of comfort is lost.

Apart from this, I love feeding people. It's something concrete that I can do to make others' lives better, and it's very simple. Food needs a sense of community to it. That's probably the Southerner in me, always trying to make sure folks have eaten, but I hate cooking for myself. I want a kitchen full of people, helping, singing, making noise, and enjoying whatever it is I'm making.

Because of this, I will be having a massive dinner party in a little while, largely for the purpose of introducing my friends to the joys of Texan food. There will be chili, tamales, and pecan pie. It will be AWESOME. I think fall gives me energy, because I definitely would not pursue something like this at any other time of year. I love the smell of autumn in the air, and the crispness. It seems to have finally gotten cold for good, and so I made cider this evening, a la home - I love the bobbing orange with the cloves stuck in it. I took my time putting the cloves in - a good twenty minutes. The sharp smell of the cloves and the sweet burst of orange scent every time they pierce the rind is definitive of autumn, Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie, and family for me. My index finger still hurts from shoving those damned things into the peel, though. The orange, plus the addition of some mulling spices, made for a warm, rich, sharp cider that doesn't have any of the sticky sweetness of the original mass-produced apple juice (which I had to use; I didn't have a choice, so don't judge me!).

Now, I sit here with a nice hot mug of the stuff, singing to the Beatles and watching my roommate sew herself an incredibly cool-looking red winter coat with a polka-dot lining. Sweet. I'm out - hopefully tomorrow's post will be more coherent, and less distracted by Beatlemania.