Thursday, August 21, 2014

Part 22: “Once More Unto the Breach,” or How to Survive Your 25th High School Reunion

Sunday, August 2, 2014

Part 22:
Once More Unto the Breach,” or How to Survive Your 25th High School Reunion

"Why haven't you written any more Texpatriate essays?" asked Bonnie, an old friend from Duncanville whom I'd known since kindergarten.

Quite surprised, I responded, "I wasn't aware you'd read any of those pieces...frankly, I wasn’t aware anyone had."

In truth I hadn’t written anything since my youngest daughter was about a year old, shortly after Friday Night Lights concluded in 2011 and I went into a deep TV funk. (Only Walking Dead revived my enthusiasm for entertainment, but I’ve lost my weekly lifeline to Texas.)

Since my last essay Rahm replaced Daley at City Hall; I sold my dumpy condo at — or at least near — the bottom of the housing market and moved into a gorgeous but expensive high rise farther north; I changed jobs; and more generally I'm three years older and grayer. Quite a lot grayer. All in all, life is much better three years later, not that I had really changed…but do we ever really change? Indeed, that is the question.

Flying back from Big D en route to O’Hare, looking down on southern Missouri and reflecting on my 25th reunion celebration the night before, I begin to sink into a deep melancholy reminiscent of my teens. Last night I joined a few dozen former classmates from Duncanville High School. Class of 1989 to be precise.

Twenty-five years ago the world was smaller. Much smaller. And perhaps less complex. However, I'm not sure it felt that way at the time. I’m quite certain it felt the opposite, but fortunately I’ve forgotten much about this period in my life — though not nearly as much as I would like, perhaps.

At 43, my high school friends and I seem to have settled in to our chosen paths with a certain peace or resignation that comes with age. We are all a little softer, a little slower, and hopefully a little wiser. Overall the reunion was an almost subdued affair, though I did manage to skip the Friday night drunkfest and the Saturday afternoon pool party (thank God and Sam Houston!).

Compared with high school on a Saturday night, there were far fewer fights (i.e. perhaps because reunion wasn’t held at the McDonald’s parking lot), less cliquish behavior, bigger guts, less hair, much less hairspray, and roughly the same amount of alcohol consumed—though the quality of the booze was much better, albeit more expensive.

As enjoyable as it was to see old friends, the event was accentuated by the absence of several others. In particular, I missed Marcus, Todd, Billy, Andrea, Gary, Jerry, Bronwyn, and many others. Indeed, the absence of many old friends was palpable — and as much as I enjoyed reuniting with those present it reminded me how much I miss those who were not. Spending precious time with Brad, Carla and Bonnie and several other dear friends who knew me when I was a five-year-old blonde, illiterate, obnoxious little Texan made the trip worthwhile. But it also brought on a surge of old memories and emotions.

As one of only a handful of Duncanville classmates I know living abroad as a Texpatriate, even the concept of a high school reunion stirs long-dormant emotions in dark recesses of my memory that generate many more memories and thoughts that lie too deep for verbal expression. Along with the routine high school bullshit and antics — drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with Todd, Billy, Brad and Jerry behind the baseball field, in the McDonald’s parking lot, and on top of myriad water towers throughout Duncanville; skipping class in Case’s yellow convertible to ride around Joe Pool Lake; going to silly high school dances in the east campus cafeteria with Todd’s older sister (Amy) and raging to the latest Depech Mode tunes; and listening to hours and hours of classic 1980s rock and roll (mostly Rush, Van Halen, U2, and Pink Floyd, but also the occasional punk band like Violent Femmes, the Cult or Jane’s Additction) — I vaguely remember going to class and studying for exams. However, I also vividly recall the complex, ugly social politics we engaged in—including the occasional cruel act and nonsensical behavior in which we all participated.

Moreover, I was reminded of the deep sadness I experienced beginning freshman year when my parents separated and eventually divorced. My yin and yang of high school always balanced the exuberance and joy I experienced with close friends coupled with the immense pain and melancholy I suffered at home — a pain that I rarely shared with friends at the time but have since dissected like the various specimens we encountered in Mr. Kennemer’s infamous Biology 2 class.

In her insightful and fascinating article in New York magazine (January 2013) entitled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School,” Jennifer Senior explains that we never really grow out of our high school personas. Our teenage self persists into adulthood and is inexorably shaped by the social dynamics we encounter during adolescence, only with less acne, less hair and a much nicer car. According to Senior, “Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences.”

She continues to explain:
“It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect — undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject… “During times when your identity is in transition,” says [development psychologist Laurence] Steinberg, ‘it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.’

At the same time, the prefrontal cortex has not yet finished developing in adolescents. It’s still adding myelin, the fatty white substance that speeds up and improves neural connections, and until those connections are consolidated — which most researchers now believe is sometime in our mid-­twenties—the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain (known collectively as the limbic system) have a more significant influence. This explains why adolescents are such notoriously poor models of self-­regulation, and why they’re so much more dramatic — “more Kirk than Spock,” in the words of B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. In adolescence, the brain is also buzzing with more dopamine activity than at any other time in the human life cycle, so everything an adolescent does—everything an adolescent feels — is just a little bit more intense. “And you never get back to that intensity,” says Casey. (The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has a slightly different way of saying this: “Puberty,” he writes, “is everyone’s first experience of a sentient madness.”)”

No wonder I was a complete and utter freak in high school who still remembers every 1980s song lyric from Q102 by memory.

Being a Texpatriate who physically moved away from the homeland, these adolescent memories are perhaps even more robust and important. Not only is this period “stickier” in my brain, I am perpetually trying to hold on to my Texanness even as my 21 years away from the Lone Star state are dangerously close to eclipsing my 22 years in the homeland. My private insecurities are amplified by my fear of losing my identity as a Texan. Indeed, when I’m traveling and someone asks me where I’m from, I routinely say I’m from Texas but live in Chicago. Anyone else I know in Chi-Town or any other city — regardless of where they grew up (i.e. other than Texas and possibly NYC) — would immediately say they are from Chicago. Not us Texans…at least not this Texpat.

Kurt Vonnegut argued that high school “is closer to the core of America experience than anything else I can think of.” Ultimately, the lessons we learned at this period prepare us for life, for better or worse. Considering my education included a full year of Texas history (albeit in 7th grade) coupled with two decades of Dallas Cowboys games and innumerable meals consisting of chicken fried steak, Tex-Mex, barbeque beef brisket and Frito Pie, it’s no surprise that the lessons I learned taught me to be a Texan regardless where I hang my (cowboy) hat.

With respect to the reunion, it was fun and I’m glad I flew home to attend. Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that Facebook has essentially nullified any reason to stage or participate in future reunions. Not only do I know what my high school classmates are up to, I know what they ate for dinner last night.

As the plane begins to descend toward O’Hare, I’m excited to see my family and return to my life as a Texpat in Chicago. Of course, I’m listening to Joshua Tree on my iPhone and reminiscing about lazy drives down Wheatland Road toward my old Duncanville home with U2 blaring on the radio.


Fortunately, some memories will never die…

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Part 21: Friday Night Lights...Grow Dim

Part 21: Friday Night Lights...Grow Dim

July 2011

Since last Friday night I've been in a funk. Actually I'd call it more than a funkI'm downright depressed. Over the past five years I've had the opportunity to visit Texas (i.e. the homeland) each Friday night, at least vicariously, thanks to the producers of Friday Night Lightsarguably the best program on TV. (Yes, my Chicago brethren, it was indeed better than Mad Men.) However, last Friday evening this remarkable program concluded with a breathtaking, if somewhat understated, series finale.

Like a teenager anxiously anticipating the latest Twilight or Harry Potter movies, I waited patiently over many months to learn the fates of (coach) Eric and (high school counselor) Tami Taylor, the shows protagonists, as well as many other unforgettable characters from fictional Dillon, Texas. Now that it's over I am left with an emptiness that I cannot seem to fill regardless of the countless programs available on more than 500 cable TV channels.

Neither my ever-growing stack of books on my nightstand nor my massive Netflix queue can fill this void. The only possible palliative my feeble mind can conjure is to purchase all five seasons of Friday Night Lights on DVD. In truth, however, now that it's over a second viewing wouldn't be the same either. I already know what happens; I've already experienced the emotions and enjoyed the ride. A roller coaster is never really quite as good on the second trip once you know all its twists and turns.

Friday Night Lights (FNL) was based on journalist Buzz Bissinger's best selling non-fiction book and the subsequent film of the same name, directed by the author's second cousin, Peter Berg. Bissinger's engaging narrative offers an authenticand often quite harshsociological portrait of Odessa's Permian High School football team and the obsessive, myopic, parochialand acutely racistculture that surrounded it. More than two decades later, Bissinger's book is regarded as a classic. Football is secondary to the oppressive culture that surrounds and obsesses over it. Still, in spite of all the bigotry, misdirected priorities and cultural ugliness depicted by Bissinger, readers will find themselves rooting for the team and its diverse cast of characters.

Berg transformed his film version for television and created a rich, fictional adaptation with characters rooted in the Texas archetypes from Bissinger's book. He smoothed over most of the rough edges, especially the ugly racism from the book, without sacrificing any authenticity. In spite of their occasional ugliness and misplaced priorities, Berg's charactersfrom coaches and players to boosters and school officialsare always authentic and multidimensional. For instance, consider "the booster," Buddy Garrity. Unlike so many one-dimensional villains from movies and TV shows of the this genre, Garrity, a prototypical obsessive high school football booster and former player (nee, former state championship football player) is tenderly portrayed as a complex, real character. Always overbearing and often misdirectedand frequently manipulativeGarrity turns out to be a warm-hearted guy who occasionally does the right thing against all odds.

What I miss most, however, is the authenticity of FNL—especially with respect to its depiction of Texas and Texans. Filmed on location in Austin, FNL had the true look, feel and sounds of home. Moreover, like real life in Texas, the small, intimate dramas of suburban life are punctuated with scenes from epic battles on the football field. Indeed, football is the cultural glue that binds Texans to their communities and to one another, whether it's Friday night at the local high school (go Duncanville Panthers), Saturday afternoon at the nearby college campus (go SMU Mustangs), or Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. (Of note: Houston has a third rate NFL expansion team, but like most things from Houston I prefer to ignore its existence.)

Sounds from the football field create the soundtrack to our lives as Texansat least from August through January. The clashing of helmets and shoulder pads and the banging of drums coupled with the flare of trumpets and trombones emanating from the marching band in the corner combine with cheers and chants and the roar of the crowd to create a dissonant, staccato symphony that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever attended a game, whether at Darrel K. Royal Stadium in Austin or Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, not to mention the thousands of high school stadiums from the Piney Woods of East Texas to the Llano Estacado out west. This may sound odd, if not downright silly to Yankees and other non-Texans, but most Lone Star natives will likely understand and agree with my sentiments. For this homesick Texpatriate in Chicago, FNL helped fill that silence each Friday night.

"Turn Out The Lights, The Party's Over"

Now that FNL has concluded its run on TV I have to look for something to replace my sixty minute psychic sojourn to West Texas football stadiums each week. With the Longhorn Networka new cable channel devoted to all things UTabout to launch plus the return of J.R. and Bobby Ewing of TV's Dallas on TNT next year, I will have plenty of Lone Star replacements for Friday Night Lights. Yet, somehow I already know that nothing will be quite as good.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Part 20: Yankee Fever

Part Twenty: Yankee Fever

I'm on my third glass of wine, or is it my fourth? There's a full moon, so I feel justified celebrating this milestone with another glass of California's best export, especially from my current vantage point. I'm not in Chicago or Dallasor California, for that matterbut in a tiny village on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the height of blue-blood Yankee culture.

The Boston Bruins, the local favorites, are hoping to win the Stanley Cup tonight for the first time since those weird years between the '60s and '70s know as the "Nixon era," but as a native Texan my true interest in hockey is only slightly greater than European soccer or the Strongest Man in the World competitions on ESPN. That is to say, I'll passively watch it if it's on TV, but I won't bother to seek out a sports bar and watch the game as if my very life depended on it as I would a college football or Dallas Cowboys game. (NB: I left Dallas before the Stars moved there, and as a Chicago resident I only follow the Blackhawks when they're winning. I know, I'm a fair-weather fan. So be it. After all, what kind of sport has only three periods?)

Ever since I arrived in Boston three days ago I've had a nagging headache, which is likely caused by allergies to the local flora, and it won't go away. Of course, the three (or four?) glasses of Pinot Gris won't likely help my cause much. Perhaps I'm allergic to the slower pace of life on the Cape. Or perhaps I'm having trouble clearing my head after a hectic day, which took me through a layover at New York's dreaded LaGuardia airport, arguably the grittiest, unfriendliest, most annoying airport in America. (Miami's airport is a close second, followed by O'Hare.) I'm definitely allergic to NYC and especially to its hellish airport, and after a bit more deliberation I concludewith absolutely no scientific basis to support my conclusionthat my lingering headache is due to my two hour sojourn at LaGuardia.

Anyway, I'm out here on the Cape trying to embrace the New England lifestyle. After gorging on a sublime lobster roll and throwing back a pint of locally brewed IPA for dinner at the Chatham Squire, an authentic pub replete with nautical theme and shabby chic old money clientele that feels almost too stereotypically Cape Cod to be real, I'm watching the moonrise on the still waters of Buzzard's Bay. The moon seems larger than usual, and its affect on the tides can be heard as waves begin lapping the shore before me. The evening breeze brings a slight chill to the air and the hypnotic sights and sounds on this cool June evening are as poetic as a passage by Thoreau. We're definitely not in Dallas anymore, Toto.

Still, my headache persists.


Does my Texanism Trump my Americanism?

As a Texan I have complicated feelings about New England. I love the foodespecially fresh seafoodand I'm drawn to the rich history, not to mention the gorgeous landscape, of this region. Yet, when I think of the revolutionary period and our nation's struggle for independence my mind goes in two directions. On one hand, I think of founders and revolutionaries like Adams, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton in 18th century Boston and Philadelphia fighting for independence and crafting a new constitution. And on the other hand, my thoughts drift to names like Bowie, Crockett, Austin and Houston, am I reminded that Texas celebrates an independence day as well (on March 2, for those who care). Okay. I realize the two events hardly compare in the grand scale of history, and one almost certainly wouldn't be possible without the other. Still, I'm an unapologetic 7th generation Texan full of Lone Star pride. Too full, my wife and (Chicago) friends would (rightly) argue.

So this leads to the following question: am I more Texan than American? Put another way: does my Texanism trump my Americanism?

After all, Texas did start as a Republic, and unlike the other 49 states, we entered the Union by treaty. Moreover, we fly the Lone Star flag parallel to the stars and stripes at the Capitol in Austin rather than subordinate to it. And just for kicks, our constitution allows Texas to break into five separate states should we be so inclined. (Think about it: that's ten senators with oversized personalities, each with a Texas-centric perspective and a pair of Lucchese's)

Unfortunately, just thinking like this makes me sound like Rick Perry or some cooky Texas secessionist with too much gun rack and too little grey matter. Still, it's an interesting question, at least to me, and my response is somewhat reminiscent to that of the Marine's when asked about his code, i.e. his hierarchy of loyalties: "unit, core, God, country." My personal hierarchy is, in order: Texan, American, Elvis Presley fan. (Elvis, you ask? One man's "Semper Fi" is another man's "Suspicious Minds.")

In Chicago, many of my friends would claim to be American first, then Irish or Polish, followed by Chicagoan. Notre Dame alumni are the exceptions to the rule: they start and stop with the golden dome. Judging by the number of Red Sox Nation bumper stickers I witnessed on the Cape Highway from Boston, it would appear folks in this neck of the woods are Red Sox fans first, Americans second.

New England culture is so exotic to me that when I'm here I often feel as though I'm in another countryan ironic emotion considering I'm just a few miles from Plymouth Rock and no more than an hour from Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution. Yet, foreign though it may feel, it's actually quite comfortable, except for this nagging headache, of course.

Then there's the question of sports. New England is decidedly more appealing than many regions of the U.S. with respect to its sports teams, though I'm no fan of the Pats, Celtics, Red Sox, or Boston College, not to mention the Bruins. Still, these New England franchises are vastly more palatable than so many other sports programs around the country, including every team from the Sunshine State.

The accents of folks here are frankly no stranger than those of my Lone Star brethren, though Bostonians speak much more rapidly. It's not quite as openly friendly here as New Englanders don't like to emote as freely as we Texans. Still, I think I could spend some time on the Cape and feel quite contented. I could definitely stay and enjoy a few more oysters, chowder and lobster rolls.


It's Wicked Hard Being a Texpatriate

The longer I'm away from Texasfrom homethe more comfortable I become living in strange and foreign lands. Could I live in New England? Sure...just as easily as Chicago. With time and experience I continue to become ever more adaptable to life outside the Lone Star Nation.

Except Florida and a few spots in the deep south and Midwest, I could probably live just about anywhere in the U.S. Yet, this nagging itch to return home will likely always be with me, even if I never act upon it. Likely, I will continue to sublimate my desires to live in Texas into more rambling observations in this clearly self-absorbed blog.

In the meantime, I think I'll pour another drink and try to get past this persistent headache while I gaze out at the calm waters of the Cape...



Thursday, April 21, 2011

Part 19: Fandango

Part 19: Fandango


Late last Saturday night—or early Sunday morning, depending on your orientation as a night owl or a morning person (I'm neither, just a fatigued dad of two)—somewhere past 2:00 AM, I sat on my faded olive green couch feeding Cate, my beautiful nine-month-old daughter who continues to resist our entreaties to sleep through the night. Of course, at nine months her ability to understand English—much less English spoken with a Texas accent through garbled, monosyllabic grunts at 2:00 AM—is still quite limited. To avoid falling asleep I flipped the tube on and searched cable TV for something better than infomercials about shoes that make your butt slim and juicers so good they can hasten the second coming of Christ. Somewhere around channel 516 I clicked through a familiar image: the opening scene of Fandango, a movie filmed in West Texas in the early 1980s by UT law student-cum-filmmaker Kevin Reynolds.

Sometime around 2:30, after she had finished her bottle and fallen sound asleep in my arms like a precious little lump of clay, I gently laid Cate back in her crib and ambled back through the darkness toward the flickering lights of the TV in the den and continued watching Fandango, an occasionally sophomoric but always entertaining—and surprisingly poignant—coming of age/road trip movie I fell in love with during my teens but which I more fully appreciate now as an adult in spite of its numerous flaws and silliness.

The film follows the adventures of The Groovers, a group of five University of Texas seniors on graduation night in 1967 (including a then unknown Kevin Costner playing Gardner Barnes, the lead protagonist, and a pre-Breakfast Club Judd Nelson who plays Phillip, a nerdy ROTC enthusiast eager to fight in Vietnam), who drive west from Austin on a pilgrimage to dig up DOM, a bottle of Dom Pérignon buried on a hill overlooking the Rio Grande somewhere between Presidio and Lajitas, Texas. In addition to Phillip, at least two more Groovers—including Costner’s easy-going character—are bound for Vietnam, and their road trip to dig up DOM is a final attempt to enjoy "the privilege of youth" before heading off to war. (The movie's title, Fandango, means "a lively Spanish dance," or, alternatively, "a foolish act.")

Along their journey toward DOM the Groovers visit historic Marfa, Texas where they engage in some hijinks with a couple of local high school girls before sleeping beneath the decaying ruins of a large house that was once the film set for Giant. The crux of the film features a hilarious scene in which the tightly-wound Phillip (Nelson) honors a dare by his fellow Groovers to go sky-diving in a remote Texas parachuting school run by a pot-smoking Vietnam vet-turned-hippie named Truman Sparks. Of course, the first parachute doesn’t work since it’s packed with Truman’s dirty laundry, and the scene turns both comical and tense. The efforts to encourage Phillip to open his backup parachute are hilarious, and for most folks who’ve seen the movie I imagine this is the scene the likely remember most. (In fact, a black and white version of the parachute scene was originally a 30-minute student film before director Reynolds was encouraged to expand it into a feature-length film by Steven Spielberg, who produced the movie.)

However, the real star of the film is not Kevin Costner or Judd Nelson, but the beautiful, hot, desolate West Texas landscape. In one scene, regarding this harsh, barren environment, Nelson's character Phillip—a New Jersey native—remarks: “Texas is really ugly, you know? I mean, what could anyone possibly like about this state?” In response, Costner delivers a classic line (which also happens to be one of my favorite all-time quotes about Texas), “It's wild, Phillip. Always has been, and always will be—just like us.” Texas is indeed “wild.” Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but few would argue with the notion that the Lone Star landscape—not to mention its culture—is anything but wild.

As I gazed outside my window I was struck by the rather stark juxtaposition between the landscapes of desolate West Texas and dense, suburban Chicago. In spite of being spring—Palm Sunday, in fact—the weather had turned cold again and a gentle snow fell on the rooftops and against the window. It was quiet and I was alone with my thoughts watching this coming of age film from my youth. Complicated, unresolved emotions from childhood came flooding back. Memories of divorce and its attendant gut-wrenching pain and loneliness were coupled with images of high school antics that should have landed me in jail or at least detention.

The film's stark, beautiful images of the desolate West Texas landscape reminded me of vivid scenes from numerous college road trips and myriad personal fandangos from my early 20s, and I began to experience an overwhelming desire to be in wild, wide-open spaces like the arid desert near Big Bend depicted in the film. These images of West Texas coupled with a haunting, lyrical soundtrack by Pat Metheny in the film’s final act, which involves an enchanting, dream-like wedding scene, produced a melancholy I haven’t experienced in years as I reflected on my life as a teen in 1985 coping with my parents' divorce compounded by the messiness of high school.

I distinctly remembered the anticipation of adulthood with all its attendant fears and excitement, wondering who I’d be and what I’d be doing in my 20s and 30s, and what life would look like as a father at middle age in my 40s. Also, I thought intensely about the Texas of my youth. My memory of Texas from this seminal period in my life coupled with the mythical image of the Lone Star State formed by literature, film and fable is fused in my mind creating a fanciful image of home that never really existed. My personal history and emotions are so distinctly tied to my perceptions of Texas circa 1985 that it’s frankly quite difficult for me to have a clear image of this unique place—especially while watching TV in the middle of the night in a second-floor apartment in Chicago with snow falling during the height of spring.

Twenty-Six Year On

In my mind's eye I'm still about 25, about the time I was first fully independent, employed and self-actualized. Of course, the mirror always betrays this image, especially my graying temples. Similarly, my image of Texas is also from a younger period in my life, somewhere around the mid-1980s, when I was an immature teenager in suburban Dallas. It would seem my image of Texas is, in fact, stunted by my premature departure at the age of 22.

Having never lived in Texas as a fully independent, post-collegiate adult, it is fair to say I have a rather immature, incomplete half-image of the Lone Star State. Movies like Fandango along with seminal albums from my youth like Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky is Crying and iconic books such as All the Pretty Horses, The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove seem to inform my memory from this period more than any real knowledge about my home state of Texas. Not that I don't know many specific, concrete facts about Texas—after all, I dutifully took 7th grade Texas history (albeit taught by my rather dim basketball coach) like everyone else back home. It's just that I now realized my perspective is flawed and my vision of the past and of my home is refracted through the awkward, disjointed prism of youth and immaturity.

After the credits rolled up the screen and the soundtrack faded I walked softly back to my warm bed and fell asleep next to my beautiful wife. Fanciful images of Texas crept into my dreams and danced in my head, and for the next couple hours I was back home, or at least home as I want to remember it.

And one thing is for certain: soon it will be time for another fandango, only this time I will enjoy the adventure as a fortysomething wide-eyed adult in the company of my beautiful girls.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Part 18: Windy City Publicans


Part 18: Windy City Publicans


“He was a wise man who invented beer.” – Plato

Luckily we got seats at the bar, which is extremely rare on a Saturday night. Typically at most crowded Chicago pubs I have to fight my way through two to three layers of inebriated, twentysomething Big Ten grads to reach the bar in order call out my order to a surly, burly bartender. Of course, with two young kids at home it's quite rare for us to find ourselves at a pub—much less out past 9:00 PM—in the first place. Tonight, however, my wife and I could belly up to the bar like regulars and imbibe a few exotic beers.

After perusing the extensive list of ales, lagers, stouts, pale ales, IPAs, and porters at Hop Leaf, a wildly popular Andersonville pub that boasts Chicago's best beer menu, I settle on a Stone IPA, brewed in Escondido, California. The folks at beeradvocate.com rate it an A, and after my first heavenly sip I concur: Stone IPA is heaven in a pint glass.

My next selection is a Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. Did I mention Fat Tire is my favorite beer? As a grad student at Colorado State University in "Fort Fun" during the mid-1990s, I fell in love with the amber, malty goodness made with Rocky Mountain waters, Willamette hops and Belgian inspiration. Until just a few short years ago I had to bootleg Fat Tire on road trips from Colorado to Chicago to enjoy it in the Middle West. While I secretly enjoyed the Smokey and The Bandit adventure, albeit without the vintage '70s era Trans Am, I hated to ration my limited Fat Tire stash in between road trips. Now I can purchase it at the local grocery store, thank God and Sam Houston.

The first sip was heavenly, as always. The frothy, hoppy aroma took me back to my mid-20s, a carefree time when the majority of my life still lay before me. The second sip was just as good...and at that sublime moment I gazed at my beautiful wife, considered my good fortune in life, and I felt complete and utter contentment.

Good beer can do that to you—make you feel like a master of the freakin' universe. Heaven in a pint glass, indeed!

“Another round, please, barman.”


“Mmmm...beer.” – Homer Simpson

When juxtaposed with many of my Chicago brethren, I am not a serious pintman. While I can certainly imbibe my fair share of ales, porters, IPAs, stouts and lagers, I am a lightweight drinker compared to my fellow Midwesterners. I know a few serious Chicago pintmen with hollow legs who can drink half a dozen pints or more without effect. Of course, in this frigid climate it's unsurprising that folks like to kick back a few as beer, wine, and myriad spirits help to palliate sour moods during the long, cold Midwestern winters. Insobriety is rather popular during Chicago winters.

As a result, few places are as familiar to native Chicagoans as the neighborhood tavern. Indeed, the local public house, or pub, is a fixture in almost every Windy City neighborhood. Natives will no doubt have strong opinions regarding which local pubs are the best and most authentic, so I will leave it to the resident experts to cross swords over which pub is Chicagoland's best. Instead, I will highlight a few of my favorites regardless of their authenticity or Chicagoness. (To be fair, as a Texas native I'm not qualified to determine a pub's Chicagoness.)

As the father of two young kids and a resident of Evanston, a suburb immediately north of the city, my current tastes are rather narrow, consisting almost exclusively of pubs within two miles of my condo, i.e. stumbling distance. (For the past several years, Evanston’s Firehouse Grill and Tommy Nevin’s are—without question—the pubs of choice for this 40-year-old Texpat.)

My favorite Chicago pubs exist in the past. Okay, so technically these joints are all still around, but they are not the same pubs I frequented in my mid- to late-20s and early-30s. Or, more accurately, I'm now 40 and the clientele at these establishments are still in their 20s—and my tastes have decidedly changed. So, as I mentioned, my favorite Windy City watering holes are from my mid-20s when I first moved to Lincoln Park, circa 1997, and they include—in order—Old Town Ale House, Ravens, and Carol's Pub.


“Bright Lights, Big City/Gone to My Baby's Head” -- Jimmy Reed

As a newcomer to Chicago in my mid-20s, I took the obvious path (i.e. the path more traveled by) and moved to Lincoln Park (LP) as so many unoriginal post-college yuppies had done before me. While lacking in originality, at least I had the wisdom and good fortune, not to mention the luck of geography (thank God and Sam Houston), to avoid attending Big Ten and SEC schools.

In 1997 I moved into a grungy, loud first-floor apartment adjacent to the ridiculously noisy L tracks on Sheffield immediately north of Wrightwood in the heart of LP with my friend Charlie, a fellow SMU grad who grew up in southern Illinois. Having moved to Chicago a year before me—departing Boulder and it's many strange and decadent delights for the bright lights of the big city—Charlie spent many productive nights reconnoitering the pubs throughout Chicagoland one pint at a time. It was tough work but someone had to do it.

When I arrived, Charlie had identified three classic dives that quickly became our neighborhood public houses. Our favorite, Old Town Ale House at the corner of North Ave and Wells St, was not really in our neighborhood per se, but it was close enough from which to stumble home that we counted it as such anyway. Besides the cheap beer—Old Style pints for two bucks—we immediately fell in love with its Theater of Magic pinball machine, which sits among the bar's odd library consisting of dog-eared science fiction and romance pulp resting comfortably on the shelves alongside abstruse volumes of literary criticism. Plus, the pub was frequented by a motley group of locals with such wide-ranging variance in age and socioeconomic background as to make any demographer smile. Absent were hoards of LP Trixies driving BMWs and listening to Coldplay (or whoever was popular on pop radio back in 1997). Adding to its unique character, the Old Town Ale House's walls are cluttered with crude portraits of local patrons past and present, from the lengthy roster of Windy City intelligentsia such as Mike Royko, Nelson Algren and Roger Ebert to famed Second City cast members Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Chris Farley, along with several locals depicted in varying degrees of undress.

Most nights at the Old Town Ale House—after the locals have lined up along the long, gnarled wooden bar, the juke box is humming with Motown classics, and the pinball machine is pinging and jerking—one may experience that familiar, intangible feeling of collective goodwill and friendly conversation that the Irish call "craic." Craic is impossible to measure yet unmistakable to anyone who has experienced it. Chicago pubs are overflowing with good craic, and Old Town Ale House is among the most saturated and authentic.

Our second favorite pub was a basement bar on Clark Street, south of Fullerton, near the former Tower Records store in the heart of LP. One summer Friday afternoon Charlie and I ditched work early and walked from downtown north to LP and found our way to Ravens. The juke box was playing Neil Young' haunting "Harvest Moon" and Fred, the perpetually inebriated bartender, was cooking up a crawfish boil replete with corn on the cob and free-flowing kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). Craic was definitely free flowing at Ravens that afternoon.

Several pitchers of PBR later, Charlie and I achieved that rare, blissful drunken equilibrium that is difficult to master and nearly impossible to sustain. Ravens had some rare quality that allowed us to imbibe beer after beer without effect, and on its outdoor patio we could enjoy the cool summer breeze as we watched Trixies, meatheads, drunks, gang-bangers, hipsters, yuppies, hippies, goths, slicksters, squares, north-siders, south-siders, west-siders, and the ubiquitous—and obvious—pub-crawling suburbanites meander by on their way to the myriad pubs and taverns that catered to each of their unique proclivities and tastes. In short, the patio at Ravens was a veritable people-watching bonanza.

The drunken bartender, an African American man in his mid-40s whose name I remember as Fred (though I can’t confirm that due to my own excessive consumption of PBR), always rode his green cruiser bike to Ravens. On several occasions I distinctly remember Fred precariously balancing a case of beer or box of food on the handlebars as he awkwardly maneuvered the bike in between speeding taxis and annoyed pedestrians along Clark Street sidewalks.

A few miles north, along Clark Street, I discovered my third favorite Chicago bar: Carol's Pub. It would likely have been my favorite pub but for the location, which was rather far from my LP apartment.

My first visit to Carol’s, in Uptown (on Clark north or Wilson), was a bit like coming home to Texas. Carol’s was a pub worth visiting with great regularity.

Charlie and I took the northbound Red Line to Uptown, which compared to LP is not a trendy, hip part of town. Parked in front of the entrance were half a dozen Harley Davidsons. The burly bouncer donning a blonde flat top and fat cigar checking IDs was clearly the owner of one of these loud, two-wheel monstrosities judging by the all-leather biker uniform.

Once inside, I was serenaded by a fabulous five-piece, all-female band playing Kris Kristofferson covers. "For the Good Times" was followed by "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and a groovy, rockabilly version of "Me and Bobby McGee." The long bar near the entrance was staffed by salty, hardened 50-something female bartenders who looked old for their age due to hard living and too much time spent at Carol's—and who reluctantly served up cheap beer (Budweiser, a.k.a. Liquid America) and Fritos to yuppies like Charlie and me who clearly looked like fish out of water at Chicago's last remaining honky-tonk.

When I asked the bartender what type of music they played there most nights, she explained, without a hint of irony, "we have both kinds...country and western."Over the next few hours, Charlie and I enjoyed good music, cheap beer and good craic.

Carol's was a surprisingly cool spot far from the bright lights and hip bars of LP or Old Town. Indeed, Carol's turned out to be a unique pub for displaced, homesick Texans and southerners looking for authentic sounds from Dixie.

Carol's still has resonance, though I haven't been back in three or four years. Trixies and yuppies eventually discovered Carol's sometime during the last decade and decided it was cool to slum it at the local honky tonk before hitting the Viagra Triangle (the Rush Division bars nestled among Gold Coast mansions). Nevertheless, any Chicago pub with a jukebox dedicated entirely to country music, heavy with tracks by Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff, and Kristofferson is and will always be a favorite of Texpats like me.


"For the Good Times" -- Kris Kristofferson

I don't frequent these classic pubs much now that I'm a 40 year-old father of two. But every so often—when my old friend Charlie is back in Chi-town, or on a special occasion (like my 40th birthday)—I stop by the Old Town Ale House or Carol's Pub and I am reminded of that unique, hazy period in my mid-20s when I first moved to the City of Big Shoulders and first experienced the craic at the local public houses.

I can still hear the Kristofferson cover band in my head as I kick back in my Evanston condo and pop open another bottle of Fat Tire...

"For the good times."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Part 17: Sorry April, But February is Actually the Cruelest Month

Part 17: Sorry April, But February is Actually the Cruelest Month...At Least in Chicago


Mid-February, 2011

Just two weeks after 26 inches of snow accumulated along the streets and sidewalks of wintry Chicago—jamming roadways and stranding nearly 1,500 cars along Lake Shore Drive—the sun shone, the mercury rose, the snow melted and the weather Gods smiled on the Windy City. For a few glorious, warm days we experienced spring in the middle of February.

When temps exceeded 60 degrees my fellow Chicagoans discarded their bulky, down-filled coats; heavy, salt-covered snow boots; Burberry cashmere scarves; fleece-lined gloves; and all the other accoutrements of winter and stripped down to shirtsleeves and jeans. A few brave souls even donned shorts and t-shirts and went for a jog along the winding lakefront path that runs alongside Lake Shore Drive, the highway that just a few days before was littered with abandoned cars. No doubt a bikini (or two) was seen somewhere along the beaches of Lake Michigan as my overly optimistic fellow Chicagoans worked hard to enjoy the brief, rare moment of warmth during an otherwise brutal winter stretch. Let's face it: after subzero temperatures, 65 degrees feels a lot like summer.


Chicago Summer

Indeed, my friend Erin actually calls this strange warming phenomenon, which seems to happen at least once each February, "Chicago Summer" (in Winter). I call it a painful, cruel reminder that winter in the City of Big Shoulders is far from over. Even though Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow this year, revealing that spring will come early, I'm a cynic: it's a long, long time until spring hits Chicago. P-Phil (i.e. his hip hop name) is a notorious liar and a fraud. Never trust anyone with a hairy backside and no opposable thumbs.

Don't get me wrong: I like the warmth, however brief. Indeed, I crave it! My car doors stopped freezing shut overnight, the sidewalks are finally free of snow and ice, and I don't have to get dressed twice just to leave home: once to put on pants, shirt and shoes, etc. and then a second time to add the ridiculously complicated and voluminous outerwear for below-zero weather accompanied by ice and snow.

This winter we've had some pretty lousy weather, necessitating lots of winter gear. Hell, we even had thundersnow during the Blizzard of 2011. (By the way, Thundersnow is my recommendation for a minor league hockey team in search of a mascot.) In a word, this winter has been dreary.

Each February the weather Gods give us a glimpse of summer just to remind us that the payoff for a brutal, frigid winter is a glorious, warm summer replete with ample time spent at Wrigley Field and along Lake Michigan's many Trixie-filled beaches. Without the cruel, annual reminder each winter that temps do indeed rise above freezing—eventually—I'm quite certain the population of Chicago would be half of it's current size, and possibly less. Obviously those born and raised in Chicago and the surrounding middle west don't know anything different, but frankly I'm surprised anyone, including—if not especially—myself, would actually choose to move to this climate. But we do for myriad reasons. I suppose for most Midwesterners living in Chicago is still better than staying in Lincoln or Columbus or Iowa City—college towns with equally lousy weather—after college. At least the job opportunities in Chicago are more numerous and don't necessarily consist of delivering pizzas, pouring draft beers or stirring up crystal meth in the bathtub.

Just to rub it in the fine folks at Leo Burnett and Draft FCB—and other Chicago advertising behemoths—work hard to remind us just how cold it is here by illustrating how warm it is down South. The advertisements adorning the walls of the Union Pacific Metra Station (i.e. Ogilvie Station) in the Loop each winter are dominated by colorful images of Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, and myriad warm-weather destinations. Images of sun-tanned couples holding hands while lounging along the beaches of the Riviera Maya (i.e. ads that are strangely reminiscent of recent commercials for Cialis—I guess the mercury isn't the only thing rising) are quite amusing when juxtaposed by the hundreds of commuters passing by each morning in goose down coats, earmuffs, snow boots and Gore-Tex everything.


Head West Young Man...and Head South Old (Midwestern) Man!

Tribes tend to move in packs and Chicagoans are no different: they have decided to congregate in Florida each winter. At this time of year, older, affluent Chicagoans are more likely to be found in Naples, Marco Island, Longboat Key, Bonita Bay, Sanibel Island, and many other tony communities along Florida's gulf coast than in Chicago’s North Shore or Gold Coast. For some reason, Chicagoans seem to prefer gulf waters and sunsets while New Yorkers and New Englanders tend to assemble along Florida's Atlantic coast. As a result, these Gulf Coast communities have created a miniature, warm-weather version of Chicago replete with Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza coupled with thick Midwestern accents and cheesy Chicago Bears golf shirts. They—and, more importantly their Yankee credit cards—are welcomed with open arms down south.

Unlike my Midwestern neighbors, I have no desire to visit Florida each winter—or really any time, for that matter. As a Texan, trips to Florida are a relatively foreign concept other than the obligatory once-a-childhood family sojourn to Disney. Did I mention my feelings about Florida—that gator-infested, humid, theme-park riddled swamp? A brief rant: the typical Floridian was born during the Hoover administration and the majority of the population regards Dick Clark as a contemporary, if not a youngster. And beach-goers in Naples and Marco Island are just as likely to bring colostomy bags as they are sunscreen. In a word, Florida sucks. Okay, so maybe I'm a bit harsh on the sunshine state and the octogenarians who choose to live there.

Nevertheless, I will admit that after enduring ten Chicago winters I finally understand the desire to visit a warm climate to break up the cold, grey monotony of a long Chicago winter. Fellow Chicagoans, you may keep Florida and I'll take the American Southwest. Give me the big sky grandeur and arid beauty of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California versus the humid, bland culture of South Florida. Of course, I'll admit I'm biased as a result of my Texas upbringing.

Rather than fly south during winter, my fellow Texans annually make their way north to escape the brutal summer heat in July and August. However, more often than not—unlike Chicagoans in Florida—we Texans are utterly unwanted and disdained in the Rocky Mountain West. Texans are typically regarded as interlopers with annoying George W. Bush-like accents wearing cowboy boots and hats, spending lavishly, and overrunning ski resorts along Interstate 70. Rocky Mountain retailers, tourism boards, and hoteliers love Texas money but most locals despise Texans. More specifically, they hate Texas wealth, attitudes, accents, politics, influence, and especially their boasting and self-confidence (a.k.a arrogance). Moreover, we are overly loud and aggressively friendly, which annoys the introverted, isolationist mountain folk in the Rockies. And in general, we Texans ski poorly, which likely is our most infuriating trait to most locals.


A Few Days On...Some Final Thoughts

Now...several weeks later, following the brief, cruel warm respite from winter's bone-chilling cold, the temperature is firmly back down in the low 20s and we have returned to normalcy. Just yesterday several ice blocks fell hundreds of feet from the Tower Formerly Known As Sears (i.e. Willis Tower, a.k.a. The Big Willie) and crushed a Chevy's rear window, and I am strangely comforted by the fact that the cold, blistering Chicago winter weather that we Chicagoans know and love to hate—indeed, upon which we depend for our very sanity—never really left us...it only took a brief winter's nap.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Part 16.5: SBXLV Recap


Part 16.5: SBXLV Recap

February 6, 2011

Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Super Bowl XLV: Packers 31, Steelers 25


As this posting is mostly an excuse to post photos (see below) from my North Texas Super Bowl sojourn, I will limit my typical narrative, much to the applause to those few devoted readers who choose to spend time perusing my scattered ramblings. Instead, I have but a few recollections and observations to share…

  • I arrived at O'Hare on Friday, February 4 and the place was chock full of Super Bowl-bound Midwesterners anxious about getting to Big D after enduring the Blizzard of 2011.
  • As expected, there were lots of Packers & Steelers swag, but the airport had a decidedly Packers-heavy flavor as the stink of cheeseheads was thick.
  • Rev. Jessie Jackson was on my American Airlines flight to DFW along with two muscular handlers and two young boys, presumably his grandkids. Jessie got to board early and he sat in first class while his entourage, including grandsons, sat scattered throughout coach with the rest of us...I guess Jessie reserves all the VIP perks for himself. (NB: he watched the game from Jerry Jones's box along with President George W. Bush...now that's a political odd couple.)
  • On the plane I sat next to a heavy-set grandmother in her late-50s from Green Bay wearing Packers earrings and matching sweatshirt who sounded like a character from the movie Fargo: "Oh, yah, I love those Packers, ya know. Bart Starr was my hero as a little girl, and that Aaron Rodgers is another fine young man just like him...oh yah, you know it."
  • That afternoon, upon my arrival, I was welcomed to Big D by cold weather and icy roads on Highway 360; and I narrowly avoided a black Ford F150 spinning out of control near the I20 interchange on my way to Duncanville.
  • By Saturday morning the football gods smiled on Big D as the sun came out, the mercury rose, and the ice and snow dissipated.
  • Super Bowl Sunday was perfect Texas weather: mid-50s and sunny. Thank God and Sam Houston!
  • From my view at Parking Lot A, across a narrow creek that meanders around The Ballpark at Arlington, Cowboys Stadium arose from the prairie like a shining cathedral under the bright February sun.
  • After snaking through the lengthy security line replete with magnetometers and frisky security guards, my brother, sister-in-law and I meandered through the crowd of investment bankers and corporate marketing executives stroking clients who in turn stroked scantily clad hired escorts.
  • Super Bowl attendees are decidedly wealthier than your typical Packers or Steelers fans as evidenced by the fashion, spending habits and obvious penchant for plastic surgery. It was an interesting crowd to say the least.
  • After inhaling a delicious green chiliburger and three or four MGDs, each of which cost at least ten dollars, we officially entered JerryWorld and found our seats on the 30-yard line behind the Packers bench.
  • The game did not disappoint, especially since the Packers won. No need to recap the game as any and all readers no doubt saw it along with most of America.
  • Halftime was impressive, especially a three story image of Fergie in HD on the massive jumbotron, a.k.a. the JerryTron.
  • Seeing Roger Staubach, my boyhood hero, bring the Lombardi Trophy to the victory stand gave me chills.
  • Walking to the car after the game I remember thinking I had just experienced something special, something unique, and I said a quiet prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be a part of the inaugural Super Bowl in North Texas.
  • For good measure we stopped at Whataburger on the way home and each of us enjoyed a number one combo...mmmm Whataburger.

Epilogue

During the third quarter, as I watched the game alongside my brother—cheering on the Packers from ridiculously good seats on the 30 yard line—I gazed at the spectacle before me and suddenly realized I was part of something bigger than a mere football game. More than 103,000 fans in Cowboys Stadium along with hundreds of millions of people worldwide—the largest television audience in history—were watching the game along with me, and at that moment in time I was part of the world community celebrating sport as religion. Indeed, Super Bowl XLV was much more than a football game: it was a cultural event on the grandest scale.

In our modern secular age, which no longer is dominated by the intense and meaningful ancient world of Homer's Greeks or the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante's medieval Christian world, sport has become a folk religion for contemporary Western society. As a non-practicing agnostic with decidedly Episcopalian/Presbyterian leanings, I'm not sure I buy the notion that "God is dead,"as Nietzsche argued, but I'm quite certain football is very much alive—especially in Texas. And football is surely more than just a game, as philosopher professors Hubert Dreyfus (UC Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Harvard) explain: "Sports may be the place in contemporary life where Americans find sacred community most easily...There is no essential difference, really, in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, the Angels, the Saints, the Friars, or the Demon Deacons. (All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age)"

Some will no doubt find this intensely secular perspective difficult to swallow if not downright sacrilegious, especially among the uber-religious in Texas, but I find it a somewhat compelling argument. Just think about it: regardless whether one prays to Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, or Elvis, everyone can join together on Sunday to cheer for the Dallas Cowboys (and against the Redskins, naturally).

Of course, to satisfy my complex and often ambiguous religious, spiritual and geographic leanings, I would have been much more spiritually satisfied if Dallas was playing instead of Green Bay. Nevertheless, at least we’re in the Cowboys’ cathedral in the homeland on the biggest day in sports. Or, to put it more succinctly, in the immortal words of singer-songwriter Alan Jackson, "God bless Texas." (Especially on this day when the football gods are all watching the big game in Big D…and just for good measure, may God bless the Dallas Cowboys, too.)