Lost in the corn maze of life

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This weekend (otherwise known as “A Very Fall Weekend in America”, ©Catherine) we stayed at AJ’s parents’ house up in Hartland, Wisconsin and enjoyed various activities of impeccable Americana including a high school Homecoming football game, apple picking at an orchard and navigating a giant corn maze.

OK, admittedly, we only dropped in on the Homecoming game for a few minutes on Friday night because it was cold, we were hungry, and AJ wasn’t showing enough school spirit to overcome these factors. But we did spend a lot longer in the corn maze the next day – nearly an hour and a half, in fact – trying to solve various puzzles and collect all of the stamps. (If you thought the point of a maze was just to find your way in and out again, think again.) It is true we didn’t reach 100% completion, but I thought it was a good effort.

I also enjoyed taking photos on my new phone… an extravagant purchase, but coming after a two and a half year gap from my last phone, which is not bad going. Just think of it as an investment in high-quality blog content.

Intensely watching the Homecoming game (for 0.7 seconds)
Intensely watching the Homecoming game (for 0.7 seconds)
Apples, picked
Apples, picked
In a corn maze
In a corn maze
Still in a corn maze
Still in a corn maze
Driving
Driving

Many thanks to AJ’s parents for hosting us, for making many delicious pizzas in their wood-fired pizza oven on Saturday night (supplemented by a healthy amount of wine) and for letting me drive their lawnmower around the garden after I was impressed by their fancy motorised lawnmower. Apparently this is how AJ and his brothers learnt to drive, but I’m not planning on going any further.

Aside from this trip, I spent most of the rest of the last fortnight recreating a childhood pattern: coming home from work and settling down on the sofa as quickly as possible in order to read as much of JK Rowling’s new novel as I could before bed. It’s excellent, and I really hope there isn’t such a long wait for the next instalment in the series. Talking of JK Rowling childhoods: it was very exciting to be sat next to a 7 year old at dinner recently who had read all of the Harry Potter books (or had them read to her, same difference), rated them higher than the films, and was emotionally attuned enough to be deeply sympathetic to Snape. It was very heartening.

Randi and I also celebrated Amanda’s actual birthday at La Scarola, had an underground photoshoot at the Division Blue Line station (more on this in a later post, once we have photos!) and I met Jason’s new dog on a freezing patio. (It was one of those days where you kid yourself into thinking that shorts and a t-shirt will be fine all day, and then by the evening shorts and a t-shirt are definitely no longer OK, and you end up making awkward conversation with the woman running a high-end art gallery with a special exhibition on Frank Sinatra just to get out of the wind. “Are you a fan of Frank Sinatra?” “Erm, no… I mean, I’m not not a fan of Frank Sinatra…”)

I’m afraid it has not been a big month so far for going out and doing interesting, photogenic, blog-worthy things. I have been hatching plans, yes, but they are not ready yet, so in the meantime I feel almost guilty for displacing the nice Yellowstone & Grand Teton post down from its prime position into the slow oblivion of the archives. Oh well, so it goes.

A notable exception to this sad trend was Amanda’s boat-based birthday party on Saturday night. I spent most of my time perched at the front of said boat with Randi and our neighbours Joe and Julie – eating Ruffles, searching the horizon for Randi’s ghostly circus tents and wondering whether the captain was speeding up just to try and knock us off. Also, I finally understand what a lock is. (It’s a lift for boats! What a world.)

Flatboat!
Flatboat!

Otherwise I have been catching up with interesting people, like Zak (who took me to a mysterious cocktail bar), Karol (who has officiated more weddings than seems proper) and Zoe (a British friend-of-a-friend who was visiting Chicago and dropped by with wine and book recommendations). Last Friday night we had delicious tacos at Francisco and Carolina’s house with Robert, Julie, Poncho and – most importantly – Bernie, who is delightful despite his penchant for stealing phones.

About to see The Wife
About to see The Wife

And the weekend before last, while Randi and Amanda were off gallivanting in the cornfields of Ohio, I was delighted to meet some Young People In College at Catherine and AJ’s who answered some of my questions about what Young People do these days on the internet. (Certainly blogging is not one of those things, sigh.)

I do really want to recommend that you all go and see The Wife. Why? Well, admittedly the original reason was because my cousin Alix is in it, and you can’t really pass up the opportunity to go and see your cousin pretend to be Glenn Close’s daughter in a Hollywood film. But the three of us – Randi, Amanda and I – really enjoyed the whole thing! Go see!

Yesterday was the epitome of American civic afternoons. We were in the Portage Park area to visit our friends Erik and Ashley during their local neighbourhood block party. It’s a slightly more suburban feel than where we live, but still very convenient to get to – just ride the Blue Line up north and then take a short bus. All of the cars had been cleared from the street, and many people were sitting out in their front gardens. Wholesome activities had been organised for the children: musical chairs, a bike race, a two-storey water slide. Every so often someone would come to sell raffle tickets. Most people waved hello as they walked by.

We were under a tent, shaded from the sun, drinking lemonade and beer. And then the state representative comes by, introducing himself as the sponsor of the free snow cones. He recognises Erik from the school board. He is trying to promote his bill to turn Chicago’s school board into an elected body, and I argue for a bit about the virtues of endless elections, and try to persuade him to recast the Illinois state constitution in the parliamentary mould, and then we all agree about taxes for a while. I think he was with us for about 45 minutes.

It was a very lovely afternoon.

Deftly juggling my flip flops at Loyola Beach
Deftly juggling my flip flops at Loyola Beach

It hasn’t exactly been ‘quiet’ for the last few weeks, but it has been busy at work, and I am very aware that I’m about to disappear for two weeks for our upcoming (and incredibly exciting!) summer holiday. In mid-July I was actually back in Palo Alto for a few days for a large work gathering. It was much more organised than my usual visits, with fancier accommodation, and so having gone out of my way to pack my swimming trunks when I saw that the hotel had a pool I felt obliged to wake up early one morning for a quick swim.

On my (late and delayed) flight over there, my plans for sleeping or reading about Soviet computer networks (as you do) were foiled by the obnoxious headphone-wearing human to my left and his misunderstanding of the volume scale as a virility test. So I kept on the Soviet theme by watching The Death of Stalin a little more loudly than I wanted to. It was a bit odd. I mean, I did enjoy it, but not in the same way that I can really enjoy The Thick Of It which is able to propel itself into full-scale farce without having to slow down for any actual murder or torture.

A better option than a plane for engaged film watching is the Music Box Theatre. They even have a guy playing the organ as you arrive! Here I exchanged Katie’s generous birthday gift card for tickets to Three Identical Strangers, which is an excellent documentary about identical triplets who discover each others’ existence as young men. It’s a rosy human interest story… until it’s not, and becomes much more sinister. Check it out.

In the last few weeks I also saw Incredibles 2 with Amanda (at an equally incredible $5 movie night) and Terminator 2 with Toggolyn. Newsflash: Terminator 2 is better than the original film, mostly because it has more plot strands and I guess partially due to the liquid robot things, although at the same time John Connor is perhaps the most annoying screen child ever created and is exactly the type of hideous creature who would grow up to sit on a plane and leak sound from his headphones.

Recently we also splurged on giant sundaes at Margie’s Candies with Arielle and Amanda, spent a nice afternoon at Loyola Beach (hence the photo of me and my flip flops) and Devon Street (the Little India and Little Pakistan of Chicago, which I had long wanted to visit) and played a bunch of games with Joe and Julie and others as they prepared to head off for GenCon. For the record, our schedule was Sushi Go Party, High Society, Codenames and Quiplash. I thought I was doing well at High Society before realising I had forgotten one of the most important rules.

And finally, today we took advantage of another sunny Sunday to have a post-brunch stroll around Humboldt Park with Carolina and Poncho. Unless I’m misremembering, this is only the second time I’ve been to Humboldt Park proper, and the first time was during winter. It’s so beautiful, and almost Heath-like!

Admiring Humboldt Park
Admiring Humboldt Park
Poncho was too tired to carry on
Poncho was too tired to carry on

P.S. After being inspired by Julie, I have taken up Spanish on Duolingo and am slowly resurrecting my memories of conjugations and basic vocabulary. I’m writing this here so that everyone has licence to bug me as to whether I’ve completed my daily Spanish exercises or not. Gracias.

The World Cup! For a long time I didn’t care about football at all, and then in 2010 I decided I was going to care about football once every four years, and here we are in 2018 with an unusual number of England games to watch and esprit de corps and so on.

This country certainly doesn’t stop for the World Cup… indeed, it’s markedly less visible this time around compared to when I arrived in 2014 and the US team was doing unexpectedly well. But Randi and I have seen quite a few matches with a variety of people, including with Lauri (escapee from the suburbs!) in her swanky high-rise apartment, England vs. Sweden last weekend when Randi’s family friends Elana and Steve sportingly agreed to come over for a 9am kick-off, and this morning’s anti-climactic third-place consolation match at Karol’s birthday brunch-and-football gathering.

And yes, I am basically inclined to like international competitions. Most of us have these national identities, so we might as well put them to better use than trade wars/actual wars. It’s fun to learn about the fates of the Chilean and Argentinian teams with Francisco and Gonzalo over burgers at Au Cheval. (Side note: holy hell, those burgers are great. I had forgotten this lesson from last time.) It’s enjoyable to sit at the people-with-visas table at Robert’s 4th July party (America!) and have an immediate reference point  for conversation which is not all about visas. It’s… well, it’s an experience when our seventy-something French landlord lets himself into our flat and starts yelling jaunty French propaganda at me when I’m trying to concentrate on a work call.

The point is: the World Cup has been great, there are much worse choices than football to be your national sport, and despite England’s exit I am looking forward to the final tomorrow. I presume my landlord is too.

One of many World Cup gam.... ur, matches

One of many World Cup gam…. ur, matches

Obviously I haven’t been playing any football myself (Years Of My Life Where PE Lessons Were Compulsory: 2000-2004) but I have been enjoying the type of game which you can sit down at a table to play. For example, with Chloe and Aaron we played Catan again (after far too long!) and Chrononauts, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek card game where you rewrite the historical timeline for nefarious ends. Kicking the nerd level up a gear, with Jason and Carrie we played Gloomhaven, which is all the rage, although it is essentially D&D for people without the time or energy to play D&D.

Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven

I have also seen a bunch of good things recently:

  • Our flat has very much been enjoying The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. (Sometimes we have been enjoying it with homemade ice cream, which is a great accompaniment.)
  • On Wednesday night we made up for England’s semi-final defeat with a cheeky Nando’s and a movie, Ocean’s 8, with Ellen and Lou. Ocean’s 8 is a super fun comedy heist film, which has (per Wikipedia) a “routine storyline” because it’s a comedy heist film for goodness sake. Spoiler alert: they successfully steal things. The film also has an entirely female lead cast, and it is striking how much you notice that, as opposed to an entirely male cast which (for these characters) would not stand out. Recommended.
  • Who should I blame for never having taken me to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera before? Isn’t this something my parents should have done? Or do I have only myself to blame, given that Sideshow Bob’s performance in The Simpsons has made it obvious for years that this was something to look into. Anyway, thanks to Catherine and AJ (mostly Catherine), this 29-year drought was ended on Friday night with The Pirates of Penzance. It’s so good! And so silly! +1 to the Victorians.
  • Funny/pathetic story: a few weeks ago I decided it was high time to see a play at the Steppenwolf. So I bought tickets for a grisly two-hander about the legendary bloodshed behind the building of the Taj Mahal. And then about 30 minutes later I realised that I really didn’t want to see a grisly play, and successfully weaselled my way past their “no refunds or exchanges” policy to swap my tickets for a different play on the same day. The alternative on offer turned out to be The Roommate, an ungrisly two-hander about the “comical mismatch” between a “Midwestern nice” woman from Iowa and her new roommate from the Bronx. I’m quoting this intentionally vague description because I would probably not have paid for these Steppenwolf tickets other than through this accidental chain of events. Hooray for serendipity! The performances were amazing, the story took a sharp, unexpected turn which really paid off, and I can now tick the Steppenwolf off my Chicago bucket list with a feeling of satisfaction and no grisliness.

On the subject of Chicago bucket lists: I had already done the Ferris Wheel (sorry, ‘Centennial Wheel’) at the unfairly-maligned Navy Pier, but I was more than happy to do it again with Randi, Arielle and their cousins visiting from Philadelphia. Technically it was a new wheel anyway, which seemed much fancier than my memory of the old one.

On the subject of grisliness: I’m really good at killing flies now. I mean, really good. Our flat had a night of trauma, and as a consequence I can now stalk my fly-prey with the sleek hunting prowess of a big cat.

Android lawn statues

Android lawn statues

I spent most of last week working from Palo Alto and was joined by Robert and Shelby who also flew in from Chicago. While nobody could begrudge a quiet night in at the Comfort Inn Motel, it was definitely more fun to go out and spend my evenings in Antonio’s Nut House with these guys instead. After they left I also took the opportunity one evening to walk to Mountain View and poke around Google’s headquarters, which I had never seen before. It reminded me very much of the campus at UC Santa Cruz: all young people milling about in shorts and brightly coloured bikes against a background of hills, nature reserves and an epic showdown between grey and black squirrels.

Why bother to wander around what is – at the end of the day – a collection of office buildings? It’s the same reason you’d visit the imperial palace in Vienna or Wall Street in New York: it’s a centre of power, whether it’s dressed up with the grandeur of royalty, the crassness of banking or the chillaxed stylings of Silicon Valley. It’s a single spot which sucks in wealth, talent and knowledge from all over the globe. And I’m torn, because I do like the aesthetic. I’d also rather be in t-shirts than suits, rather see a smiling Android statue than a soldier. But it’s still a superpower, and deserves a careful eye.

Intriguingly, there’s a small row of small non-Google houses right in the middle of the Googleplex which look very out of place. I googled them (obviously) and here is their story. It includes the phrase “a handful of eclectic renters”.

The Impossible Burger in more ways than one

The Impossible Burger in more ways than one

After finishing at the Android lawn statues I left the complex, crossed back over the motorway and sat down to ponder all this at In-N-Out Burger (“now paying a $16/hour wage!”). Even though Californian law seems to require calorie counts to be printed in blindingly white lights, I held fast and supplemented my pondering with a double-double burger, animal style fries and a chocolate milkshake. Take that, land of salads.

But what if you want your giant burgers a little more… vegan? Enter Christa, who was in town this weekend, and the Impossible Burger at Kuma’s! After filling up on Friday night we had an equally enjoyable Saturday walking it off around Lincoln Park, the lakefront, Pride events in Boystown, a secluded lily pond and Wrigley Field. And of course, for the full Chicago experience we finished the day with Improv Shakespeare (Death By Chocolate). It was so great to have Christa swing by, instantly form a deep and lasting bond with both apartment cats, and experience the city in its truly summery mode.

Christa and Randi at the secret lily pool

Christa and Randi at the secret lily pool

And finally:

  • In keeping with my tradition of PIXAR on planes, I finally saw Coco and enjoyed it very much. Please note that 100% of my knowledge about the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ holiday now comes from this film, so I hope it was at least somewhat accurate.
  • I shared my ride home on Thursday night with two other passengers, one of whom worked for American Airlines as a flight attendant. I think ‘flight attendant’ is one of those inherently interesting jobs which just invites questions about the behind-the-scenes world of planes, and I learnt many interesting snippets.
  • The pool in Pulaski Park has reopened, and at 33°C today was a great day for it 🙂

Our local pool

Our local pool