Highwire Act Over Chicago River

IMG_3976On Sunday November 2, 2014, Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope between these two high rise buildings and over the Chicago River.

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You cannot see the wires. They are there, because I was there. I saw the crowds gather. I heard fellow guests in the Club Quarters elevator discuss watching it–pros and cons. What if he falls?

I sat at the outdoor cafe at my hotel and ate a pizza while waiting for him to walk. Finally it was just too cold and it was not clear when it was going to happen. So I went up to the 38th floor where hotel staff said there was a window. Management made a maid stay there and shoo guests away. I got another view but not a good photo. Still no Wallenda.

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I went to my funny triangular shaped room on the 34th floor. Unfortunately it looked out a different direction. So I watched it on the Discovery Channel. http://www.skyscraperlive.com/ I liked hearing Nik’s commentary. He walked across then returned and walked the same direction again only blindfolded. Whew. Glad he made it.

Every time I go to Chicago there is something fun and cool happening–the Taste, a stunt like Nik Wallenda’s, the cross town rivalry game between White Sox and Cubs. This is one of the reasons I love Chicago.

5 Inspirations from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Museum

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio museum in Oak Park, Illinois

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio museum in Oak Park, Illinois

I have long wanted to go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park (just outside Chicago on the green line). I thought I had to rent a car to get there. The beauty of Google Maps (click train option) and I made plans to visit at last.

Getting there on the green line actually was a little more complicated because I was trying to get on in Bridgeport instead of downtown. I had made a 2:00 p.m. tour reservation and after a bus ride to Roosevelt station it still was not clear when the train was departing. I pulled the “quick release” and called Lyft. The driver Caroline lives in Oak Park so I not only got there in plenty of time, I learned a lot about this first suburb of Chicago (all for $23).

Frank Lloyd Wright was just starting his career as an architect and getting married when he bought a piece of land on the edge of town and built his family home. At that time his home looked out on the prairie and he was able to draw inspiration from nature for his work. I thought about the interesting things I observed in his home and found these 5 inspirations.

Frank Lloyd Wright's first home was built on the edge of the prarie.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home was built on the edge of the prarie.

1.  Marry wisely if you plan to use your home as a place of experimentation.

The family home evolved over the 20 years they lived there. They raised 6 children in this home. FLW worked out many of his ideas in his own remodeling projects. Lucky for him he seems to have chosen his wife well as she let him design not just the architecture but the furnishings as well.

2. If you are going to be a prick-ly person, then you better be a genius or super talent.

Stories abound of FLW’s very particular vision and his disregard for others feelings in his pursuit of this vision. Our docent did not sugar coat why he got fired–he was designing homes behind his bosses’ backs. Moonlighting is frowned upon when you are keeping business to yourself and not sharing the fees with the partners. In college I had the honor of going to a conference at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin. Wingspread is a prairie home (mansion) that FLW designed for the Johnson&Johnson family. They told stories of him returning to visit and staying up all night rearranging the furniture and generally being an eccentric and demanding house guest.

3. It is fun to be creative and design special things for your own living space.

FLW designed many decorative elements of his home (such as the skylight in the photo below). He must have enjoyed it.

4. You have to be willing to stand out and risk ridicule if you are an original thinker.

Frank Lloyd Wright made a huge impact on American architecture because he was willing to take risks.

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After the tour I walked about 4 blocks to main street Oak Park through a beautiful neighborhood contemporary to his home. The docent said we would be able to see several of his homes on our walk. He was absolutely correct and they were easy to spot. The homes of the period, when he was developing his unique vision, were Victorian. Stately yes, but not very interesting.

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Compare this to the lines of one of his early designs. This is a clunkier version than the clean modern lines he eventually made popular, but already it is a big departure and a risky choice for both the homeowners and FLW.

5.  If you are going to think outside the box, it helps to be short.

The piano that he inset in the wall to save space in the interior of the “playroom” is suspended and hangs out over the staircase. This is fine if you are 5’9″ or shorter.

#DoTheHaka: New Zealand Kiwis in Chicago

When the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team descending on Chitown for a test match with the USA Eagles a large number of Kiwis living abroad in the USA and Canada gathered. Walking around the Chicago Loop, an adventurer could hear many men and women speaking with the softer, prettier antipodean accent.

Maori meeting house at Field Museum

Maori meeting house at Field Museum

This was a historic occasion as the All Blacks had not played in the USA since 1980. It became an opportunity for All Blacks sponsor AIG to introduce Americans to some traditions in rugby and New Zealand culture. The most obvious is the haka. This is the war cry and dance that the Maori developed to intimidate their opponents. In modern New Zealand it is a living part of the culture. My favorite haka performance is the one my son and his fellow People to People travellers did for us in the Sacramento Airport upon returning from New Zealand in 2003. AIG’s #DoTheHaka video shows you how to perform Ka Mate.

The All Blacks first performed the haka as part of the pre-match rituals in 1905. While other teams do a haka before the match (youth teams, Polynesian teams) it is most strongly identified with the All Blacks. Read here for a history of Ka Mate on the All Blacks website.

Haka exhibit at Field Museum

Haka exhibit at Field Museum

Why does the haka strike fear into opponents? Could it be the sheer size of the All Blacks players? Other teams are also made up of big guys. More likely it is the intensity of the performance and the impact of the entire team doing it in unison. This is a group of guys who are bonded and demonstrating how they are going to play as a unit on the field. I am thinking that if you are the USA Eagles on November 1 at 2:50 p.m. you are thinking “Oh crap. I am in for it now.”

The Field Museum, Chicago’s natural history museum, put together a special exhibit to celebrate the haka and New Zealand culture. The Field Museum is right next to Soldier Field so I swung in there and used my rugby ticket for a discount. ($13 admission) The ticket sales person pointed upstairs and said it was by the Marai. I trooped off and spent a while wondering through the labyrinth of the Pacific exhibit until I found the Maori meeting house.

The first time I visited the Field Museum I found their aged exhibits charming and retro. On this visit, especially with a new exhibit done in much the same style, I found it underwhelming. Wondering why they did not reach out to Auckland Museum for assistance. In fact, in my mind I was comparing this exhibit to one the Auckland Museum might do and finding the whole presentation lacking in spirit and content.

The haka in modern culture is a fun, living thing that includes flash mob hakas, school hakas, and so much more. The best way to appreciate the haka is to see it live. I dare you not to get chills.

The next best thing is to see the All Blacks haka from the game on November 1.

Heavenly Gospel Brunch at Polo Café

Polo Cafe in Bridgeport Chicago neighborhood

Polo Cafe in Bridgeport Chicago neighborhood on S Morgan Street

How does a café located so far out of the Loop earn the #1 TripAdvisor ranking among Chicago restaurants? This was the question popping in my head like corn during the $16.45 cab ride to Bridgeport, a Chicago neighborhood near the White Sox ballpark.

The cab driver asked me if I was sure this was the place. I could see the sign across the street, although the Polo Café was a few minutes from open. I paid the fare and snapped a few photos and then put my camera away. The neighborhood was sketch. I could not decide if it was gritty and a long way from coming back, or gritty and up-and-coming.

The owner of the Polo Café is a one-man redevelopment district. I admire neighborhood entrepreneurs who have a café and catering company in what used to be a candy company. Next door the old Eagle Theater is now an event venue. And upstairs is a bed and breakfast.

The neighborhood has banners that indicate that it is an art district. Seems more hope than reality so far.Chalk art in Polo Cafe

The restaurant is smallish. Two round top tables in the window, maybe a dozen booths inside with a long table for bigger groups. In the corner was the electric piano where a middle age white guy with a soulful voice led the gospel hymns for the Gospel Brunch.

I sat next to the window and faced the fascinating chalk art depicting the political history of the neighborhood and of Chicago. This is where the Daley family began their political careers.

The service was great—my water and coffee cup were never less than half full. The waiter eventually warmed to me after a bad start over the pie on the menu not being available. He thought I was busting his chops. I was truly disappointed not to be able to try the pie. I did try the house specialty, the brioche French toast. Wow. It was amazing, although very sweet with fruit cocktail and whip cream topping. The bacon was also very good—cooked to crisp perfection.

I hung out for quite awhile reading my book and enjoying the hymns. I am not sure why but I got a break on my bill. Coffee was on the house. With some good directions from my waiter I finally took a last sip of water and set off to walk off the brioche.

Brioche French toast with side of bacon at Polo Cafe

Brioche French toast with side of bacon at Polo Cafe

It was about a mile on 35th Street to the green line train. I only made one stop at the specialty pet food shop. The one person working there greeted me from the sidewalk (where she just finished a smoke break) and helped me select some treats for Lulu, Cooper and Chaplin. All the while she told me that Bridgeport was indeed gentrifying and that it was a good thing. She loaded me down with samples and I winced only slightly when I realized I was going to need to schlepp these all over Chicago and get them home.

On the way to the Polo Café my female cab driver asked if I was meeting someone at the restaurant. I explained I was traveling alone. She then expressed her amazement that I would travel alone. Her judgment was wrapped in a thin veil of compliment. I had already been thinking that my whole weekend would have been much more fun with a friend. I found myself explaining to the driver that I am not going to wait until I have a partner to do things; however, I felt sad and more trepidation about how far this restaurant was from the hotel.

Then the good times and eats at brunch and then dog treat shopping reminded me why I travel—solo or otherwise. I love the experience and the people I meet.

What is a Sport Fan to Do?

Chicago welcomes Rugby fansI could do a respectable rant about how corporations have corrupted sports so a family can no longer afford to go baseball game. Or complain bitterly how I had to pay $180 for a $60 seat on StubHub to go to a rugby game.

The really sad part to me is that in Soldiers Field yesterday there were so many empty seats. Sure it was technically “sold out”. With so many tickets purchased by speculators hoping to make money on their tickets there were rugby fans who did not get to see the game because it is absurd to pay so much to watch a game.

You can make the argument that this is the “free market”. I have the feeling the game is rigged. I got on the website to buy tickets just as the tickets went on sale and the only tickets I could get were on StubHub.

So my question is “What is a sports fan to do?” Participate in the rigged, f**ked up system or what? Is there a secret code like in video games that is a work around? I do not want to become a grumpy old man about sports. So help me out here if you have a good idea.

Epic Day of Rugby in Chicago

The spotlight is for the television crew who is filming Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk tomorrow at 6 p.m.

The spotlight is for the television crew who is filming Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk tomorrow at 6 p.m.

I am staying in the spire of Club Quarters on the river and so there are only about 3 rooms on the floor. (The rooms are shaped funny too.) This morning I walked out at the exact same time as my neighbors and they were also on their way to the rugby game. It was the first of many fun, short conversations with other fans.

I walked a half block to the Corner Bakery and ordered breakfast. I start walking towards an open table when I realize I am walking by Richie McCaw.  Only my mind processed it as “Oh my gosh, that is RICHIE MCCAW!!! I am walking past RICHIE MCCAW!!!” He is the captain of the All Blacks most games and he is one of the best players in the world. Oh, he is also gorgeous. I was so excited I was shaking and if you asked me my name right then I would have been stumped.

I barely had my coat, scarf and gloves off when Richie McCaw walks past me as he exits the restaurant. No one seems to even notice him. Maybe they are all giving him his space. I smile at him with a big stupid grin and cannot even muster a “hi”.  I had to say something to someone so I walked over to the people who were sitting just across from them. They had New Zealand Rugby shirts on, so I blurted, “Can you believe it? That was Richie McCaw!”

The man says “I thought it was him,” and his wife turns to him and says, “Why didn’t you say something?!”

It is hard to eat breakfast after seeing one of your heroes. I texted lots of people to share. I figured today is going to be a great rugby day.

And it was.

All Blacks fan grimaces at Rookie Eagle (USA mascot)

All Blacks fan grimaces at Rookie Eagle (USA mascot)

The long walk to Soldier Field was in the company of many rugby fans. I stopped at the Chicago Bean to take photos and the Art Institute and the Field Museum for the haka exhibit. (Future posts). It is a long way round Soldiers Field. Ultimately I found the Fan Zone party. Met some more great rugby fans and saw lots of craziness.

The weather today was better than yesterday when it was snowing. It was still cold walking to the stadium. When I got to my seat the sun was beaming down and suddenly I had to strip off my coat, scarf and gloves. I actually got a sunburn!

I made sure I got to my seat in plenty of time to see the All Blacks do the haka. First the national anthems were performed. The USA anthem was tough to hear over the fireworks and people cheering. Then more cheering for the USA when photos of the flag appeared on the various screens. Finally the moment I have been anticipating for months: the ABs get in formation for the haka. And then the big doofuses behind me start chanting “USA, USA”. I did not have a hard time finding my voice in this moment. I turned around and said, “Stop being disrespectful” They actually stopped. Then they said, “It’s not disrespectful. USA, USA” and the guys on my right said, “Yes, it is!” really forcefully. And they stopped. Unfortunately, the haka was almost over.

National Anthems in Soldiers Field

National Anthems in Soldiers Field

There were a few more USA chants but soon the ABs shut them up with their play. I just do not think most of the American fans had any idea what the best in the world rugby looks like. And this was the All Blacks’ B team.

My tweets tell the story. After the third AB try in less than 20 minutes I stopped reporting the score. The final score was 74 to 6 New Zealand.

People around me found the USA’s performance really unsettling. They said goofy things like “New Zealand is so good in rugby because it is the only sport they play.” The guy next to me was really upset by the lopsided score, “This will set rugby back in the US for years.” I asked him why and he did not answer my question.

If US fans want to know what it takes to be number one in the world, they only had to stick around after the game ended. The “A” group of players who sat out the game began a work out on the field that was impressive.

A rugby club captures the moment film

A rugby club captures the moment on film

Walking back to the hotel was crowded and many of the rugby clubs were still enjoying their big day out. And a lot less beer is available in Chicago tonight.

Storyline Conference in Chicagoland

Don Miller hosts the Storylines Conference, a "pay-as-much-as-you-can-afford" event.

Don Miller hosts the Storylines Conference, a “pay-as-much-as-you-can-afford” event.

I love Chicago, so when the Storyline Conference and the NZ All Blacks vs US Eagles rugby game landed on the same weekend, I jumped onto Southwest Airlines and bought my tickets. They are quite disparate events. One the one hand the conference is a Christian gathering presenting coaching, leadership and writing inspiration in the premier American megachurch. Then there is international test rugby–a thuggish game played by gentleman (?).

Chicagoland is sooo much bigger than I ever imagined. In my previous visits I have flown into Midway Airport and taken the train to downtown. I have contained my experiences to inside the Loop with a few exceptions (Cubs game, White Sox game, Wheaton College visit with Sarah). I never rented a car in Chicago before.

Since the Storylines Conference is at the gargantuan church, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, I decided to rent a car for my first 2 days. It was an hour from Midway Airport by car even in midday. As a daughter of the West, I do not like toll roads on principle. I especially do not like rental car clerks who do not explain if I have an electronic pass in the car or the etiquette of toll roads. (Come to think of it, she also did not offer a map and there was not one on the counter?!) After scrambling to find 60 cents in coins for the first toll I was thankful the second toll was manned and I could hand over dollar bills and get change. Eventually I arrived, picked up my nametag and slipped into the auditorium for the general session.

Author and speaker Shauna Niequest is the emcee for this edition of Storyline Conference. She is delightful. There was one break out session before the end of the day. I dropped in on Don Miller’s presentation on StoryBrand–a process for using story to define your company’s brand. We wrapped up with a special event–Asleep at Last played a short set of beautiful songs, and Don read from his to-be-released-book (Feb 3), Scary Close. Beforehand we ate deep dish pizza and shared stories from our workshops. Lots of writers are here and it is fun to share blog sites and experiences. I still had a long drive to my downtown hotel so I passed on the Christian rock concert.

Asleep at LastThis is the last conference for a while–they are not hosting a conference in 2015. So this one is jam-packed with a film festival, concert, and writers conference on Saturday. I will make the most of day 2 before I return the car and take the train back to downtown and shift to full time rugby fan.