Archives for category: Travel

This is the place
There is no place
Quite like this place
Anywhere near this place
So this must be the place

Those words are written in large black lettering above the front entrance of the Nickel Diner. It’s where I had breakfast this morning, my third visit. I ate a breakfast and a dinner here the last time my number came up for the foreign services tour of duty in Los Angeles. I can find no fault with the sign’s reasoning or the conclusion. Breakfast consisted of a bacon-crusted, maple-glazed homemade doughnut and hot black coffee. After my first full night of uninterrupted sleep and no unwelcome monsters lurking for me in the Dark Woods of Email that doughnut was a welcome — and delicious — respite.

I’m back in Los Angeles for another week. I won’t go into a lot of whinging about how the work part of the trip is going other than to say that the workload has significantly cut into my exploration time. At least so far.

Last night was relaxing despite the sports outcome. I broke out of the office at a reasonable hour and made my way to Big Wangs at Grand and 8th to watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Down 4-1 entering the third period, the Blackhawks mounted a valiant surge to pull within one goal with four minutes left. A Flyer empty-netter in the final 30 seconds sealed the deal for Philadelphia. The series is now tied at two each. I was the only Blackhawks fan in the bar. The Lakers won the first game of the NBA finals Thursday and I haven’t gotten the impression that most Angelenos have much interest in this year’s Stanley Cup. I walked in wearing my Brent Seabrook sweater and asked where they were going to show the game. The staff — some sporting Flyers t-shirts — were quite accommodating and turned on two 60″ HDTVs for the pregame. By the time the puck dropped I was surrounded by eight 60″ HDTVs and two giant HD projection screens all playing the game. Aside from the aforementioned Flyer-friendly staff, there were about a dozen Flyers fans watching the game, too. I struck up a congenial conversation with their ringleader. He turned out to be a comedian from south Jersey who’d moved to LA about six years ago after another five-year stint in Las Vegas. It’s true. You can look it up.

Wednesday night I resorted to old school measures to follow the game. Well, high-tech old school. I was stuck at work at the Times with no access to a TV (let alone a TV with Versus). So I streamed the trusty WGN-AM radio broadcast to my computer and listened that way. But despite my throwback to old time hockey appreciation, the Blackhawks fell to the Flyers in overtime: 4-3.

But to close on an upbeat note, Whirl informed me that one of my photographs of the 2009 Dragon Boat Races in Ping Tom Park was finally published in the guide in this week’s edition of Time Out Chicago. I even got paid real folding money for it. Given the number of photography and movie shoots I’ve been seeing on the streets of Los Angeles at night this week that little bit of success has got me thinking. Maybe it’s not too late to be a star!

Sake WallThe word I was looking for last night was omakase. I walked into the sushi bar and tried to express my desire to have the chef pick what he thought I might like and I failed. I don’t know if it was language, or nerves or something else. In the end I ended up ordering à la carte. And while I was not disappointed, I felt like I had missed something essential in my sushi experience. This is not to say that last night’s dinner was poor by any stretch. I just really wanted to try something new. I flubbed it for not knowing how to ask for what I wanted. I wanted omakase.

Tonight I corrected that mistake. After conferring with my child bride back home on the previous evening’s adventure in eating, she suggested that I find another restaurant and try again. So I gave myself a mulligan. Tonight I chose Sushi-Gen just a couple blocks away from my hotel in Little Tokyo. The experience was unforgettable.

I joke that I’m an adventurous eater: I will try anything. Once. — The key is that last word once. If I’ve tried something and not liked it, I make no promises to retry it. But I do like to try new things. I’ve discovered all kinds of fascinating foods through this attitude, sushi among them. Often when I try new sushi it is on the recommendation of someone with whom I’m eating. Or I’m part of a big party and I can pick and choose from a huge variety of offerings. In the first case, I have a relationship with the other person. He knows me at least a little bit and has some idea of what I might like or dislike. In the second case, there is so much food that has been ordered that I’m making the decisions for myself in much the same way I would have had I just ordered from the menu. Eating omakase is a different experience. Eating omakase alone in a city a couple thousand miles from home is even moreso. — Or at least it was for me.

It was just the chef and me. He would prepare something, serve it and wait for a reaction. I would give some sort of response — often an expression of disbelief at just how good the last item was. And then he would go on to something even more surprising. It was an ongoing dialogue about food, even though we didn’t speak very much to one another. I was far too busy eating to be bothered with the niceties of smalltalk. His food was absolutely delicious.

As we progressed through the evening, we started talking a bit more about other things. He asked where I was from and what I was doing in Los Angeles. I told him about my work at The Times and that led to the inevitable discussions about corporate solvency and the demise of the newspaper. I learned that he had been a sushi chef for thirty years. He introduced me to the owner. We talked about my sushi experience in Chicago and he gracefully contrasted the traditional preparations made at Sushi-Gen to the types of dishes found elsewhere. I attempted to compliment him on the elegance of what he had put together and described it as “simple”. He shook his head and corrected me with a single word: traditional. I finally understood.

For those of you who are interested in such things here is a list my chef prepared for me: Muzuku with Nagaimo (Cold Seaweed Soup with Mountain Yam), Toro (Fatty Tuna), Buri Toro (Yellowtail Belly), Kanpachi (Amberjack), Uni (Sea Urchin), Aji (Horse Mackerel), Ama Ebi (Sweet Shrimp with Head), Tai (Red Snapper), Ohyo (Pacific Halibut), Maguro (Bluefin Tuna), Hamachi (Yellowtail), Spicy Tuna Roll.

Omakase. Entrust.

A Rose for LilyI’m four days into my week-long foreign exchange program to Lalaland. Work has sent me to Los Angeles to learn the facilities of The Times and assist with operational support here. While the primary focus of the trip has been work, I have had some opportunities to explore, and that’s always something I enjoy doing. I have been to LA once before in my life. When I was in fifth grade my family took a week long road trip from Colorado out to California for Spring Break. We visited Universal Studios, Disneyland, and Sea World. I was ten; my sister was nine.

So, almost thirty years later I’m wandering around Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles and trying to understand the signs I see in the Japanese mall. I was looking for a particular sushi bar. I got distracted by something shiny. In this case it was a video game arcade completely outfitted with Japanese games — most of which I’d never heard of before. The arcade was from another time and place, sandwiched between a Japanese version of GNC called “SUPER HEALTH” and “Max Karaoke”.

If you’re curious, I did finally find Sushi Go 55 — the place I was looking for — bellied up to the bar and enjoyed some of the best sushi I have ever had. This little shop, tucked away and out of sight rivaled any sushi I have had from Chicago, to San Francisco to Vancouver. This place was delicious. Small, quiet, unpretentious. Just great fish, perfectly prepared.

And it was not the first delicious place I have discovered since being here. A few other notable meals include:

Nickel Diner: I ran across this place while exploring the historic downtown area of Los Angeles. A number of warehouses, commercial spaces and office buildings being converted to upscale lofts in the past five years or so in an attempt to revitalize this historic area of the city. The process has met with mixed success. The bottom falling out of the real estate market has made things challenging and a number of these loft conversions are now being sold at auction. But scattered in and among this developing (or redeveloping) area are a number of galleries, bookstores, bars, clubs and restraunts. I went in for dinner two nights ago and went back for breakfast today.

Spitz: Another chance discovery, this one on Thursday night. Spitz serves Turkish Döner kebabs — an old favorite of mine, first discovered as a cheap, delicious meal perfect for penniless students, during my time in Berlin. This happening joint was a nice tribute to what I remembered.

Fisherman’s Outlet: My coworkers took me here for lunch on Friday. That was probably not our most carefully thought-out ideas, given that it was a Friday during lent and Fisherman’s Outlet draws a large Catholic audience. The place was hopping! Giant plates of fresh fried fish, french fries, crab cakes and all sorts of other things that ooze “I’m not healthy for you, but I’m damned delicious.”

The Edison 1My last recommendation is not someplace where I’ve gone to eat — although they do serve food. The Edison strikes me as a cocktail lounge. The main attraction of The Edison to me is the ambiance. The Edison retains many of the architectural and mechanical artifacts from its history as Los Angeles’ first private power plant. The place is dark; the primary visible lighting are these intense fixtures of large incandescent filament bulbs. Combine that with remixed period music and the pervasive projection of artistically colorized, obscure black and white films and you have a post-modern art deco wonder world.

Yesterday I met up with one of my friends, Vern, whom I have not seen since the summer after we graduated high school. He’s been living in Los Angeles for the past fourteen years and took me around some of the sites of the city I hadn’t been able to reach on foot — and then out to Redondo Beach where he lives. We had some lunch and beer and took in a couple of the NCAA basketball games before he brought me back downtown. We caught up with what each other has been doing, although I admit it is difficult to summarize twenty years of life into an afternoon. I take my hat off to all the storytellers working in this town. And speaking of storytellers, on the way back Vern drove me through Bel Air, Beverley Hills and down the Sunset Strip, where I got to a chance to see a little bit of place wihere the magic happens.

I’ve been fortunate that the Times downtown office is only two blocks away from the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry. I’ve wanted to see the Hall since learning of it, and I’ve gotten a chance to tour the outside of it and take some photographs. Last night was particularly interesting, as a very light fog and a bright gibbous moon combined to give me an intriguing secondary element with which to to work.

While I was walking around I came across a professional photo shoot out on one of the quiet downtown streets. They had — what looked like to me — an ambitious set up: a huge carbon graphite arm hooked under the car they were shooting served as the mount for a medium-format camera. There were lights and gels and a water truck to spray the asphalt for that proper glow. To take the shots they used long exposures while the primary technician slowly pulled the car down the street. With the camera physically attached to the car and a long exposure they were able to provide a controlled sense of motion blur behind the car and generate a compelling sense of movement. The raw photographs were dumped immediately to an editor’s workstation for retouching. I chatted with one of the grips assisting with the process for a few minutes. He was a film student and this was his first professional shoot as well.

I’m here for another three days before heading back to Chicago on Wednesday. We’ll see how these last few episodes unfold.

Chihuly 6Five years have gone by since my brain injury. Five years. I’m more than a little amazed it has been that long. I mean, I know it has been that long, and I know I’ve been talking about it for the entire time. This journal is proof of that, if nothing else. The earliest entries chronicle the first few weeks and months after my emergence from the coma. I’ve tended to return to thinking about that injury around its anniversary. I don’t think that’s terribly unusual. I take stock of where I am today and try and compare to how I was feeling five years ago. And then there are the flights of fancy where I imagine some alternate timeline in which the injury never took place. I try to draw comparisons and form conclusions across that divide. As you might imagine, it doesn’t work out very well. My time traveling skills are fairly restricted. Fortunately that restriction keeps me more-or-less safe from paradox.

Ani at Bejing Noodle No. 9For the past five years my friends and I have traveled to Las Vegas on the anniversary of my injury. We drink. We gamble. We eat too much. We stay up too late. Generally we leave our responsibilities at home and enjoy the moment. This year was no different in that respect. We did have a smaller group out of Chicago than in years past: T., Smokes, Stingo, Sabz, Bitsy, Whirl and I were joined by some special guests. Frank and Shane joined us from the City of Angels. Whirl’s cousin, Ani, was coincidentally in Las Vegas organizing a conference at the Mirage for her company. And Bitsy’s friend, Jeanine, who lives in Las Vegas, came down to the Strip to hang out with us for at least some of the time.

As for gambling, I scratched that itch with some healthy doses of pai gow poker, craps and limit hold ’em. The highlight of my gambling this trip was the five hour session at the Bellagio playing low stakes pai gow. The fact that at the end of the marathon I walked away from the table up nearly double what I wagered is just gravy. What made this such a fun experience were our two dealers, Reza and Jeff. Whirl, Smokes, T., Sabz and I commandeered a five seat pai gow bonus table. Normally pai gow poker seats six. This version we found at the Bellagio featured a community dragon hand played the house way, limiting the number of actual players to five maximum. Anyone playing could decide to bet on the communal dragon hand as well. This differs from how the dragon hand is offered and played normally. In a more typical version of pai gow the dragon hand is only offered when there is an empty seat at the table and the dragon hand is played with a rotating right of first refusal. The dealer offers the hand sequentially around the table. If you want to play it, you match your original bet and set the second hand any way you desire within the restrictions of the game. At our table, with a maximum of five players the dragon hand was always available. You just had to bet. And everyone that bet, was betting on the same hand against the house. It was a nice twist.

Veer Towers and TramI enjoy pai gow because it is such a social game. It plays slowly with a lot of pushes where neither the player nor the dealer win the hand. And players can help each other with strategy and advise on how to play. The actions of one player have no effect on the actions of other players. (This is true of many table games, but there are far too many perceptions and superstitions surrounding games like blackjack to act otherwise.) In pai gow you cannot “steal someone else’s ace”, for example. Whether this actually changes the probabilities or not is irrelevant. Perception and superstition are king and queen in gambling.

So. The five of us belly up to the table at the Bellagio and proceed to play and play and play. The afternoon starts slow, and we strike up a congenial conversation with our dealers. Over the course of the next five hours they would teach us strategies to pai gow, how to play banker and let us in on some of their collected stories in Las Vegas. Reza has been a dealer with MGM Mirage for twenty-two years. He’s dealt at the Golden Nugget, the Mirage and the Bellagio among others. Each time Steve Wynn would open a new casino, Reza would move to the new flagship. He amazed us with his ability to read seven card hands displayed for mere fractions of a second. MGM Mirage often deployed him to deal with high maintenance players. He would deal for 40 minute stretches and then take a 20 minute break. His relief was a phlegmatic dealer named Jeff. Jeff was the dealer who instructed Whirl and Smokes on the rewards and pitfalls of playing banker in pai gow and offered particular advice on just when to split pairs.

The two of them had plenty of stories of their experiences working as dealers at the Bellagio and elsewhere. They were always discreet, never compromising the identities of their customers or relating events that were particularly incriminating. Two of the most memorable stories concerned the particular characteristics of high rollers. One story detailed how the Bellagio appeased a particular baccarat player. The unnamed high roller could not suffer the clicking noise emitted when cards were pulled from the shoe. The Bellagio staff constructed a special shoe that did not click, and keeps it in storage just for this player. Another story was from some years ago at an unnamed casino when the largest chips on the floor were valued at $20000. A high roller was playing blackjack at $120000 a hand and had animatedly (and inadvertently) spilled the tray belonging to one of the cocktail waitresses. Drinks go everywhere. It’s a mess. The player brusquely asked the waitress what her mortgage was. She responded with the monthly payment value and was rejoined with: “No. That’s not what I asked. How much is your mortgage.” She thought for a moment and then told him it was $93000. The player immediately grabbed a stack of five of these $20000 chips and tips the waitress. This caused an uproar in the casino. The casino demanded that all markers be paid before tips were paid out. The casino refused to cash the waitress’ chips. The amount of money this player had dropped at the casino over the years was astronomical and eventually the casino saw reason and reached a passable resolution. The waitress ended up having to pay taxes on the tip, but she kept the money. The casino kept the player.

The recurring theme with these stories was that Las Vegas holds a magnifying glass to the the personalities that come there. People do not fundamentally change when they visit; instead the become that much more of who they are already. Kind people grow kinder; meanness becomes moreso. I appreciate this observation more and more as I think on it.

I coached Sabz and T. at craps, one of my other favorite games. Craps is the polar opposite of pai gow. Fast-paced, hectic action. Highly volatile, craps runs on streaks. I’m still not sure what that says about me that I count the slow-paced leisurely game of pai gow and the frenetic chaos of craps as two of my favorites.

Flamingo Flamingo FlamingoThe third game I played for any significant length of time was Texas Hold ’em poker. I played in one tournament, and spent the rest of my time playing cash games. This year I avoided no-limit hold ’em and opted for the limit tables as a change of pace. I did well. Not “big money” well, but well enough that I could pay for dinner and a show with my winnings. A couple of notable moments came while playing at the Flamingo. Smokes and Whirl were playing on the table next to me. Smokes has a singular laugh. For those of us who know him, it’s a beacon. We can always find him anywhere in the casino. It cuts through the noise of the slot machines, the cheers of the craps tables and the clatter of the roulette wheel. My poker table noticed it as well. I explained to them that it belonged to my friend and when Smokes came over to talk to me later, I introduced him to his fan club. Smokes has a way of making friends wherever he goes. That’s one of the things I love about him.

The other poker story reminded me that there’s always someone playing an angle, even among the low-rollers like me. I’d been playing limit hold ’em for a few hours, mostly unsuccessfully. My head was still above water, but I wasn’t making much headway and was starting to consider going and doing something else. Getting schooled on the improper use of the term “set” for what is accurately described as “trips” hadn’t helped my self-esteem and likely had gotten my thoughts of departure started. A woman sat down and flashed her platinum players club card to the dealer. He read her name and keyed her into the table. As the dealer handed the players club card back, he asked if she was Vietnamese. She said she was and asked the dealer how he knew. He stated her last name, pronouncing it correctly: Nguyen. The player feigned shock. Shock at two things: one, the dealer had pronounced her name correctly; and two, that he had drawn the conclusion that it was a Vietnamese name. At this point our dealer, Rock, pointed out that Scotty Nguyen is one of the best-known professional poker players currently active: a five-time WSOP bracelet winner, including the 1998 main event. Scott Nguyen is also from Vietnam. While Ms. Ngyuen sat there shuffling stacks of 8-10 chips simultaneously in each hand and claiming complete ignorance, I quietly packed up and headed for places east. Of course she’d never heard of Scotty Nguyen. That’s just absurd. — Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Chicken and WafflesIn years past our group has consisted of a number of friends who enjoy buffets. We’ve been to several of the top buffets in Las Vegas. But after a while, I have to admit that all buffets start to blend together and none of them leave me particularly satisfied. This year the vocal buffet-goers were unable to join us, and we set out on a new direction with food. Whirl enjoys breakfast and did some research on some of the best breakfasts in Las Vegas. She found it. One of the most incredible breakfast experiences I’ve ever had was the chicken and waffles at Hash House a Go-Go at Imperial Palace. Sage fried chicken stacked with bacon waffles, hot maple caramel reduction and crowned with fried leeks. Truly a breakfast of champions.

The Crystals Grand StaircaseOne of my other fascinations with Las Vegas — besides food and gambling — is how it continues to reinvent itself architecturally. In December 2009, several key elements of the huge CityCenter development officially opened. We were able to visit the Aria casino and the Crystals entertainment and retail complex. I attempted to photograph some of this development from various perspectives. I’m uncertain of my success. The project is immense, the largest privately funded construction project in the United States, costing over $11B. While touring the spaces and dodging a Porsche 997 GT3 and a Ferarri F430, I happened into the Dale Chihuly Gallery at Aria. Whirl reminded me several times this trip about how much I appreciate Dale Chihuly’s art. He is one of my favorite artists. He had pieces at the Museum of Science and Industry a few years ago as part of “The Glass Experience”. The 1997 documentary Inspirations takes a in-depth look at his particular creative process.

Like our experience at the Bellagio, the gallery was empty. I had the place to myself, having arrived just a couple hours before closing. I made the faux pas of asking the curator of the gallery, “Do you mind if I shoot?” “Shoot?” he repeated back to me skeptically, throwing a glance to the glass sculpture that surrounded us. “Yeah. Shoot,” I start, then pause and turn crimson. “With my camera,” I attempt to explain hastily, punctuating with very nervous laughter. Earlier in the evening, I’d been asked to move along by security in The Crystals while trying to shoot the Grand Staircase. The gallery curator was much more congenial and finally let me off the hook with a well-intended caution to consider a less alarming verb when talking about photography around glass. I couldn’t help but remember Sean Connery’s line in Hunting for Red October: “Most things in here do not react well to bullets.”

I stayed in the Chihuly gallery until closing. I spoke at length with the curators about the pieces — all of which are also for sale, if you’re interested. We also talked about “Fiori di Como” the 2000-piece installation that forms the ceiling of the Bellagio lobby. I learned that the glass weighs over 40000 pounds, with an additional 10000 pounds of steel armature to support it. It continues to amaze me how Las Vegas can make this sort of fantastic artwork available to be experienced. The next day I had a similar experience as I spent a few minutes talking to Jennifer, the curator of the Richard MacDonald gallery at the Bellagio. MacDonald’s sculpture is inspired by the human form and the broad range of human emotion. MacDonald had been commissioned by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté to create several pieces inspired by the circus. I did not have my camera with me at the time, however some of the exhibit is available online.

As a cap to the trip, Whirl and I took in the Cirque du Soleil show Mystère at Treasure Island. I have seen several shows over the past years and this one was quite impressive. We both had a great time taking in some breathtaking performances.

So now I head back to the real world, refreshed, relaxed and inspired. After five years of hard-fought reflection, I suspect that’s exactly as it should be.

Rainforest Butterfly 2Vacation this fall consisted of a trip to northern California. Many of Whirl‘s family members live in the area. We stayed in Oakland with Whirl‘s cousin, Ani. Nancy and Ray drove from southwestern Colorado to spend the week, staying with Nancy‘s sister Cynthia in Berkeley. Aside from getting together with family — something that does not happen as often as it once did for either Whirl or me — the trip’s other objective was the retrieval of Whirl’s possessions left behind when she moved to Chicago almost fifteen years ago. When Whirl moved to Chicago she packed up everything she could into a few big suitcases and we boarded a plane. Everything else ended up in a storage shed outside Santa Rosa. Where it waited, patiently, for us to return someday and move it with us. This was the mid-90s. Now it’s almost 2010, and we still haven’t retrieved it.

So, with the storage facility prices growing regularly, the service level declining by equal measure, and the value of the items in the shed potentially diminishing due to pest infestation, flooding, theft or any number of other variables we decided to finally clean out the storage shed, rid ourselves of a regular bill and finally bring those things of value back to Chicago. It is our home after all.

Ani and StephanieOpening the shed was something like opening a time capsule. Books, collectibles, clothes from the 80s — including a whole wardrobe of bridesmaid dresses Whirl wore for nearly a dozen weddings throughout the late 80s and early 90s. In short order, Nancy, Ray, Whirl, Cynthia and I separated items we wished to keep from those we could do without. The former we packed up and shipped to Chicago. The latter we threw in the back of Ani’s pickup truck and drove to the Santa Rosa Goodwill.

The trip included a lot of games, laughter and visits. Besides the trip to Santa Rosa, we headed across the rickety Bay Bridge into San Francisco for the day to visit the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences.

We took a couple cameras to document the opening of the storage shed, and I got some portraits of the family and our trip into San Francisco.

In the end we shipped sixteen fifty-pound boxes back to Chicago, almost entirely full of books — including some rare first editions — and thousands of comic books. The post office worker was bemusedly surprised when we showed up with the shipment. The packages will take up to two weeks to make it across the country, but after fifteen years, another two weeks isn’t really significant. Making our house more of a home is.

Illinois Canyon 8This past weekend Whirl and I celebrated our eleventh anniversary at Starved Rock State Park outside Utica, Illinois. I have been to Starved Rock several times but I had not been back to the park since college and I don’t recall ever spending the night there. We stayed in the historic lodge (a lodge that is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary) and spent much of our time on the park trails exploring. We took the opportunity to haul a bunch of our photography gear with us and I am quite pleased with the results of having done so. (Even if my back is a little annoyed with me for asking it to lug that stuff up and down the canyons).

We had mostly great weather — comfortable temperatures and lots of sun — for most of our stay. Saturday afternoon was rainy and we stayed indoors after a leisurely morning exploration of Illinois Canyon at the far east end of the park. The rest of the time we tromped around the trails unencumbered by computers or cell phones or other people. It was a great opportunity for us to just spend time with each other doing something we both enjoy. And doing it together.

The Lodge was bustling with activity. At least three weddings, and two major family reunions happened while we were there. One of the women working the front desk remarked that they were booked solid through the end of September and had been steadily busy most of the summer.

American White Pelican Pod

As far as wildlife, we were far too late to see the famous Bald Eagles that winter above the Lock and Dam on the Illinois River. But we did see plenty of other animals. Dozens of Great Blue Herons, scores of Double-crested Cormorants, rough-winged swallows, chipping sparrows, wild turkeys, an Egret, deer (complete with a spotted yearling fawn), blue birds, Indigo Buntings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and what we’re pretty sure was a muskrat swimming along the riverbank. Perhaps the most surprising sighting for me were these huge pods of American White Pelicans traveling west down the Illinois River. On Sunday we perched on Eagle Overlook above the Lock and Dam and watched as pod after pod flew by in formation. Most of the groupings were ten to twenty birds in size, with the largest grouping number well over fifty birds. Over the course of a couple hours we must have seen two hundred pelicans flying west along the river. Spiders, dragonflies and damselflies were out in force feeding on mosquitoes. The spiders provided particularly intriguing opportunities for macro photography.

If you’ve never been to Starved Rock State Park, I highly recommend visiting. It is a wonderful little oasis in the middle of the state.

The Apotheosis of WashingtonThis past week work sent me on a trip to Washington DC. I went to assist with the relocation of the news bureau and to there and to perform some network changes on Capitol Hill. I have not been back to Washington DC since I was a very small child. When I say very small, I mean two years old. My parents have pictures and stories of me visiting the various sights around the city. But my memories are much fuzzier. I think I remember it raining once. Maybe I was just crying. Who knows.

Anyway, so I flew into Dulles on Sunday night and met up with Jim at Union Station Monday morning. I went early to take a few pictures. I wasn’t sure how much time, if any, I was going to have to do anything remotely touristy, so I just packed a little camera for some snapshots. I must say Washington DC’s Union Station trumps Chicago’s Union Station by quite a margin. It’s an impressive piece of architecture and serves as a hub for by Amtrak, MARC and VRE commuter railroads, and the Washington Metro transit system. Chicago’s own architect Daniel Burnham designed the station in the Beaux-Arts style. It opened in 1908.

From there we hiked over to Capitol Hill and obtained visitor credentials for me. I gained access to the Senate Press Gallery workspace and telecommunications attic above. While we waited for the Senate IT personnel to arrive and escort us up to our equipment, Jim gave me a quick tour of the Capitol. Jim showed me the rotunda, Statuary Hall and the Old Supreme Court Chambers before we met up with the Senate technician. Our equipment is mounted in the attic above the press galleries. To get there we had to walk up a very narrow brick spiral staircase past the “Wall of Shame”. The righthand wall of the staircase is littered with grafitti of names and dates. In my quick trip by the oldest dates I saw were from 1936. Jim informed me later that the wall is named the way it is as you do not want to get caught writing on it: so of course lots of people try.

Union Station Colonnade We spent the rest of the day working on the logistics of the office move. Tuesday and Wednesday were much the same, moving back and forth between the old and the new offices and working out details. I had some specific technical things I needed to accomplish to get the network up and running in the new space. That went well and then I assisted Jim with the myriad little details that go into moving an office of this size and complexity. Long, hot days, with not much in the way of sightseeing breaks. We did take a few minutes to go up onto the roof of the old bureau and look out over the city Tuesday afternoon.

Washington has height restrictions on the buildings. There are no skyscrapers. Nothing can obstruct the view of the Capitol. The result is that there aren’t any buildings much over 10 stories. That gives the city a distinctive feel. A park can effectively wipe out the feeling that you’re in the middle of a city as the trees block the view of all the buildings. Nothing rises above them.

I had some delicious crabcakes — the signature DC dish. I drank a beer at the Post Pub across the street from the Washington Post. And I came to the conclusion that no one is actually from Washington DC. Everyone there is actually from somewhere else, often another continent.

All in all, it was a good trip. Hot and humid, couple of thunderstorms, lots of work. I got to see several of the people I worked with last summer during the political conventions and I got a brief glimpse of the nation’s capitol after thirty-plus years of being away.

Flamingo Entrance 3Four years have passed since the events that catalyzed my resolve to keep this blog. Not that I have been particularly prolific or profound with what I write here, but the simple task of writing down anything that comes to mind has been a useful project to me. I’ve employed this blog for a few notable projects: to chronicle my recovery from the brain injury, to catalog what I’m reading, and most recently to remark on the work and experiences involved with the 2008 political conventions. Sometimes I talk about travels and entertainment. I fear that mostly I just stumble from thought to thought to shiny thing before asking myself: isn’t that what life often is? So here is my post about Pink Las Vegas. Last week Whirl and I traveled to Las Vegas with several friends to mark the anniversary of my brain injury. The annual Las Vegas trip has transformed into a ritual for us. A woman Whirl and I met described the annual celebration as “a second birthday” after we explained why we were in town. In a lot of ways that is exactly right. It marks a second chance at life — my life’s mulligan.

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John McCain Sound Check 3Tonight is the big finale for the GOP. The events tonight surround the official nomination and acceptance of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, John McCain and Sarah Palin. It’s a packed house. I can’t help but feel tonight is somewhat anticlimactic after yesterday. The tone of this past week seems to have been set on Friday with the announcement of Sarah Palin– briefly derailed by Hurricane Gustav– and then right back onto Palin. Who is she? What’s up with her daughter? Is she going to come out swinging when she speaks?

Some of those questions were answered last night and the response around the bureau today seems to be mostly of the opinion that she did well. Our journalists put together these headline stories: Chicago Tribune, “Palin fires up faithful, comes out swinging”. Los Angeles Times, “Defiant Palin comes out swinging”.

John McCain came out onto the stage early this afternoon to go through a lighting and sound check. I got the heads up from a colleague and quickly grabbed my camera to see what kind of picture I could get– if any. As I walked into the hall, my heart sunk a little bit, looking at the sea of cameramen and photographers clustered around the new stage catwalk constructed especially for McCain’s speech tonight. So I climbed up onto the center camera platform.

Nuccio DiNuzzo 2Nuccio DiNuzzo was up there in our position working out how he was going to shoot the speech tonight. He had all of his cameras and lenses with him: three bodies and about 7 different lenses. I meandered up with my Canon 40D and 24-70mm lens. Way too short to shoot anything directly. Just wide shots of context. DiNuzzo asked if I wanted to use his 400mm. I blinked and then jumped at the chance. DiNuzzo shoots Canon gear and the lenses are interchangeable among all the bodies in the EOS line. So I pulled off my lens and snapped the body onto this huge lens. The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS weighs almost twelve pounds and is monstrous. For about 10 minutes, McCain came out and took in the shape of the hall.

McCain and Lieberman 2Joe Lieberman joined him at one point and McCain took some notes from a number of handlers. I snapped away for most of it. Toward the end of the sound check, DiNuzzo asked for his lens back and I went back to my shorter portrait lens. I got a couple pictures of the photographers around the new stage and one of DiNuzzo hard at work at his craft.

I thought it was very cool to get to play with that lens. For a moment I got to be a real photojournalist. If only in my mind.

So this is it! This is the last day of the two conventions. I have one more day of work tomorrow– tear down and packing up. That should go pretty quickly and easily. It will be the last major responsibility I have for this project.

I’m looking forward to going home. It has been a long, strange, fascinating trip.

Mitt RomneyI’ve decided to call tonight On the Waterfront Night at the Republican National Convention. While Governor Palin was the highlighted speaker of the evening, the hours leading up to her address were filled with speeches from several men who had campaigned for the 2008 Republican nomination. And lost. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani all took the stage to talk about the campaign, the candidates, money, terrorism, Barack Obama, and most of all change. When I saw these three names in order on the night’s speakers’ schedule I immediately added a fourth: Marlon Brando. In my head I imagined each one of these politicians doing their version of Brando’s Academy Award-winning speech:

You don’t understand! I could have had class, I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.

I snagged a credential to get me into the hall for Romney and Huckabee’s speeches. I crouched behind our journalists in the daily press writing press stands to the left of the stage and looked out over the crowd of delegates. The atmosphere inside the hall during these speeches was powerful. The speakers were playing to a partisan crowd, to be sure. And the messages sent were intentionally crafted to be incendiary– firing up the base of the political party. That I did not mind; that effect is a function of these conventions. And I did not particularly mind the difference of political opinions being expressed when compared to my own. There were two particular elements I did mind: the appeal to fear and the the broad disparity between what was said to motivate and the subsequent policies enacted once in power. Mitt Romney’s attacks on liberal government were crystalline examples of the latter. Rudy Guiliani’s incessant waving of the bloody shirt the epitome of the former.

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