Monday, June 14, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pilsen, a museum peeve, and the hustlin' abuela

Took the red line and a bus into Pilsen today, a predominantly Mexican-American Lower West Side neighborhood that's been gentrifying/getting more expensive/getting nicer depending on who you talk to.  No Starbucks...yet.  Of course McDonald's is there.  But McD's is even working in Guatanamo Bay these days, so that's not surprising.

Why the trek?  I think I know a bit about Chicago until I look at a map.  Then I realize I've yet to explore 90% of its neighborhoods.  Been to both ballparks, stayed in Humboldt Park with my brother a few times, been around Logan Square, been to the young professional North Side neighborhoods and to some South Side schools here and there.  But don't really know the places.

When you cross over the railyards and into Pilsen, you're not in Ferris Bueller's Chicago anymore.  Most stores are SomeKindOf-erias.  Buying a CD is not a problem.  Buying a CD in English can be. Colorful murals coat what would otherwise be drab brick walls.  Even on a rainy day, 18th street is bustling.

I stopped at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Harrison Park, an impressive museum that not only houses some first class artwork, but does a lot of education and community outreach as well.  And it's free.  From a crash course in Mexican history to a current exhibition on the troubling femicide in Juarez, you're going to learn something.  Come ready to defend NAFTA--write-ups aren't shy about politics.

Two things I don't really understand from the museum, the first from all museums in general, the second particular to NMMA...and just unnecessary:

1.  Bowls.  The bowl hasn't really changed much in the last 2,000 years--especially the brown, ceramic bowl.  The bowl is still round.  You can still pour liquid or crush something in it.  A gangly, slightly stoned adolescent can still make one in art class with little to no effort.  I'm just not impressed by bowls.  I'd say the only innovation made in the field of bowl design in the last couple centuries came recently through the introduction of the straw.  Don't get me started on spoons...

2.  Putting a Piece of Yourself in Your Painting.  Mario Castillo, an artist featured prominently in the permanent collection at the NMMA, mixes semen with acryllic in some of his paintings.  At first I pronounced it "seven" in my head, thinking it some artistic material  I'd never heard of...but no, Mr. Castillo likes to have a "piece of himself" in the painting (what's wrong with saliva?).  For those keeping score at home...yes, the man's epic mural spanned an entire wall.  And yes, I imagine the Lower West Side ran out of Jergens during its completion. If you'd like to own a Castillo, exercise caution purchasing something from the "other media" category.

After the museum I grabbed lunch at Gloria's Tacos on 18th St.  Gloria was like the abuela I never had in her quaintly decorated taqueria with a wooden dining table for her and friends to chat the day away.  And she made a mean torta de pollo.  But a $1.50 for a can of Coke?  Que lastima...grandma knows how to hustle.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why Nothing Cannot Happen

I've been lucky enough to do a fair amount of traveling.  So when casual conversation among friends this spring circled around summer plans, I thought I'd handle it just fine.  But when the list of "Where are you working this summer?" started to resemble "50 Places Everyone Should Visit at Least Once", I admit, I started to get  a little jealous.  Peru.  Ghana.  Nepal.  India.  The Bahamas.  The Maldives.   The Maldives? I have three friends working in the Maldives this summer.  I don't even know three people who have been to Russia.  But South Africa was the kicker.  How could I have neglected to find a job in Johannesburg for Africa's first World Cup?  What a glaring omission of common sense.  Tragic, really.

Then the blogs started popping up.  Exotic photographs, quirky interactions with locals, promises of new adventures and discovery.  I was instantly reminded of what I love about travel--you open yourself up to the world again, "everyday life" is anything but ordinary, and the place you came from looks different even if nothing has changed.

Few authors relay this experience more insightfully, or more humorously, than Mark Twain.  I remember the first Twain book I read--one of the first non-sports books I ever read.  I judged the book completely by its cover, a rough red hardcover with gold-rimmed pages.  It was the fanciest book on the shelf, and I felt like a genius for carrying around something so ornate it ought to have been stored in a glass case on a pulpit.  Twain would have hated it.

But I loved it.  And I started paying a lot more attention to Mark Twain's other works, particularly the travelogues, which have as much fun describing those embarking on the voyage as the places they visit.  Twain was a constant observer, living by his own words, "Apparently, nothing cannot happen."

So here I am in Chicago for the summer.  It's the Midwest.  Flat.  Less than exotic, unless you count the hockey sticks hanging off people's porches in support of the Blackhawks right now.  Yeah, there will be plenty to talk about--because nothing cannot happen.