March 2006


Graeter's Ice Cream

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Smooth, which gives me a perfect excuse to prove to Tom Montag that on a recent trip to Columbus, OH to see my parents, Gary and I stopped to experience the smooth, creamy delight that is Graeter’s Ice Cream. (That’s Gary’s scoop of Peanut Butter Chip on the left and my scoop of Buckeye Blitz on the right. As you can see, the stuff is so irresistible, I had to stop Gary from eating his to get a photo. And for those of you not from Ohio, the buckeyes in “Buckeye Blitz” aren’t the nut, which is toxic, but the candy, which is tasty.)

Graeter's Ice Cream

Graeter’s has been a cultural and culinary icon in central Ohio since 1870…and I’d never been there. When Tom learned I was born and raised in Columbus, OH–when Tom learned my parents still live on the east side of Columbus, not far from Graeter’s Bexley store–he was amazed that I’d never tasted his favorite ice cream. When I go home to see my parents, I typically don’t have much opportunity to check out the various things to do in Columbus: typically, I spend time at home with my family. But just as having someone visit from out-of-town gives you an excuse to see the tourist attractions in your own backyard, going to Columbus with Gary gave me an excuse to visit my parents only briefly before heading to Bexley for ice cream, to German Village to go book-browsing, and to the Short North for a daytime gallery-hop.

Tom was right about Graeter’s Ice Cream: it’s incredible. (If you want mouth-watering visual proof of how ice cream should be made in tasty two-gallon batches, check out the delectable images of how Graeter’s ice cream is made, clicking the “Next” link at the bottom of each page.) Between you and me, I thought Tom was exaggerating a bit when he said his family buys gallons of the stuff to take back to Wisconsin whenever they visit Ohio…but you can see for yourself from the window sign in the above photo that Graeter’s offers dry-ice travel packs (as well as an online ice cream store) so out-of-towners can indulge in their favorite tasty treat. Isn’t it funny to think that folks from all around scream for Graeter’s ice cream, and I was born and raised just down the street and never tasted it?

It just goes to show that it’s never too late to try something smooth.

Snowdrops

Today I’m home sick with an unidentified variation of the Tired Achies, so I’m cheating with today’s blogpost. I took this photo last year, but you wouldn’t know that unless you remembered the post in which this photo originally appeared. Yesterday here in Keene, I saw Snowdrops blooming in the exact same place as last year, and on Tuesday, one of my teaching colleagues mentioned that the yellow crocuses were blooming in his neighborhood. Since I haven’t yet photographed either phenomenon this year, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with recycled images. Somehow, seeing the same old flowers year after year never seems to grow tiresome, at least not in the almost-spring when we Granite Staters are starved for nearly any sort of greenery we can get.

What better way to conclude this current series of SynchroBlog posts than with a handful of images from the first night Gary and I arrived in Chicago?

After arriving in the Windy City around rush hour, finding our hotel, and getting settled in, it was time to go exploring. After dinner and an initial sightseeing jaunt down Michigan Avenue, we were off to find the Cloud Gate sculpture (aka The Bean) in Millenium Park, snapping photos of odd sights and interesting buildings along the way.

Taking digi-photos by night is always a challenge. The lack of bright light inevitably causes digital images to blur, but that never stops me from snapping photo after photo anyway, taking each in the naive hope that this time an image might turn out. The best way to take decent night-time shots is to use a tripod…but although Gary has been known to use my head to steady his camera, I’m stubborn (or lazy) enough to keep on snapping without anything other than my unstable arms to steady my digicam.

Sometimes, though, you get a night-time city shot that almost works, the cumulative effect of streetlights, headlights, and lit buildings creating enough ambient brightness for your just-for-the-heck-of-it shots. There’s a certain magic about walking a city after dark, especially if it’s your first time exploring there: every corner holds a new surprise, and the novelty of exploring by night gives the experience an additional dash of excitement and allure. Snapping a decent photo of a nocturnal stroll is the icing on the cake.

I’ve written before about the magic of walking here in Keene on a warm and foggy night. Compared to Chicago, Keene is a lonely backwater, the smallest of small towns…so is it any wonder that I walked the night-time streets of Chicago with the amazement of a country mouse transported for a time to a magical city, like Dorothy walking gape-jawed into the Land of Oz?

Whereas small towns are all about the ordinary, big cities are sites of the spectacular. The allure of Chicago or New York is the promise of superlatives: here are the tallest buildings, the most eye-popping architecture, the most cutting-edge fashions. Big cities aren’t content to be good or better: big cities strive to be the best, bustling with the electric energy of competition and ever-accelerating progress. Although I’m not sure if I have it in me to live in a fast-paced city like Chicago (my years-ago days in a Boston basement feeling more awkwardly backward than cutting-edge progressive), I always enjoy the brief, intoxicating thrill of visiting such a place, satisfying my occasional craving for the spectacular in sudden, massive doses.

How interesting, then, to encounter that first night in Millenium Park a sight that weds the ordinary with the spectacular: Crown Fountain with its pair of video-projecting glass towers depicting the larger-than-life faces of Chicago citizens. Designed by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, the Crown Fountain is attention-grabbing by day and absolutely stunning by night, gleaming with light, personality, and expression. When I first glimpsed Crown Fountain, I thought the faces illuminating it were still photos, so imagine my surprise when the fountain blinked and then smiled.

Every city, large or small, has a personality, and so do buildings, the work of human hands. Although Crown Fountain wasn’t spurting water from the mouths of its video-projected faces (the gargoyle-inspired streams having been turned off for the winter), I’m glad the Crown never closes its eyes on the city of Chicago, standing watch in all weathers. Every city deserves at least one guardian spirit to inhabit it, and Millenium Park has two pairs of ever-watching eyes to indwell the place with character. A city is the sum total of its citizens, so there’s no better kind of public art than one which immortalizes the faces of its own: ordinary individuals looming larger-than-life.

In the summertime, children sport in Crown Fountain’s gargoyle-spouts…and on March evenings, slightly more mature folks play hacky sack in the glow of its paired faces. A city is the sum total of its citizens, so there’s nothing more tragic than a downtown that empties after dark like a body without a soul. Public artworks such as the Crown Fountain, Cloud Gate, and Millenium Park itself encourage people to be out and about, inhabiting downtown Chicago with the energy and enthusiasm that makes it a great American city. Bustling with tourists and locals alike, Millenium Park was awake and alive even on a chilly March night that threatened rain. You can’t fabricate that sort of spirit; you simply have to build artfully alluring playgrounds and then hope that people arrive to fill them.

Given the colorful faces and glowing facades of downtown Chicago after dark, is it any wonder that I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the Windy City, anticipating the new faces that trip will bring?


    This is the seventh (and final) post in a series of SynchroBlog entries Gary and I have written about our recent trip to Chicago. For Gary’s account of Chicago after dark, click here. For our previous Chicago SynchroBlogs, see posts one, two, three, four, five, and six. Enjoy!

After my recent trips to the Dead Zoo in Dublin and the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, it should come as no surprise that Gary and I visited the Field Museum of Natural History during our recent trip to Chicago. As much as my Arts and Humanities side loves art museums, my Inner Science Geek demands equal satisfaction, so it’s both natural and inevitable that Gary and I paid homage to all things scientific the day after we’d visited the Art Institute.

Before our adventure at the Field Museum could begin, however, Gary and I had to get there. After having mastered the basics of subway navigation on the way to see Blue Man Group on Sunday night, on Monday morning we went via subway to the appropriate stop…and then discovered that the free trolley mentioned in our tourbook doesn’t run in March. Walking the half mile from subway to museum wouldn’t normally have been a daunting prospect…but last Monday we discovered how the Windy City got her name, snapping a couple of hurried outdoor shots before allowing the wind to bustle us inside the museum proper.

Even on a windy day, the parklike plaza outside the Field Museum affords an impressive panoramic vista of the Chicago skyline (click on image for an enlarged version):

One of the Field Museum’s most famous exhibits is Sue, the world’s largest and most complete T. rex skeleton. Although Sue has a girl’s name, the creature’s gender is unknown: Sue is named for Sue Hendrickson, the person who discovered the skeleton…but referring to “Sue” as a she just comes naturally, like talking about a beloved car or boat. And Sue is beloved: not only do museum visitors flock to see and have their pictures taken next to her, Sue has her own website, a specialized museum shop, and a traveling exhibit featuring a full-size cast of her form. Everyone who visits the Field Museum, it seems, is just wild about Sue.

Truth be told, however, Sue is just one of many impressive exhibits at the Field Museum, and I’m not even sure she was my favorite one (just don’t let Sue overhear me saying that!) When Gary and I blew in from the cold, we were so distracted by the entrance hall’s impressive tableau of mounted elephants, we walked right past Sue without realizing who she was. Dinosaur bones fill one’s imagination with thoughts of how the earth looked long ago…and the sight of elephants makes me marvel at the fact that these huge, seemingly anachronistic creatures are still around: giants who manage to survive in a world that seems too small for them.

Gary and I took lots of pictures of Sue from various angles…but I think we took more pictures of these elephants, deciding after-the-fact who would blog which of our nearly identical shots. Whereas no one else in the Garden Restaurant was photographing their food, everyone with a digicam or photo-enabled cell phone was snapping pictures of Sue and the elephants beside her: if you’re planning to visit the Field Museum, you can start deciding now whether you want your picture taken by a dinosaur or by the elephants, then you can get in queue to get snapped next to some of the most photogenic faces in town.

I didn’t see anyone posing to have their pictures taken by the Field Museum’s pair of boobies: when it comes to comparing bones and boobies, apparently bones are more popularly photogenic. There seems to be something about enormous mounted creatures that brings out the little kid in many of us: although Gary and I can blame our blogs for the number of pictures we snapped of Sue and the elephants, we weren’t the only museum-goers (nor the only adults) who were snapping photo after photo from various angles. After all, you don’t see T. rex bones or stuffed elephants everyday, and it takes just the right angle (or an expansive panoramic shot) to see both at the same time. (Click on image for an enlarged version.)

    This is the sixth in a series of SynchroBlog posts Gary and I are writing about our recent trip to Chicago. For Gary’s photo-rich account of our trip to see Sue, click here. Click back tomorrow for our final SynchroBlog post about Chicago after dark.

If you’ve ever wondered how many cameras it takes to chronicle a meetup of bloggers, the picture above offers a partial answer: at least one per blogger, and then some. When Gary, Armand, and I met for lunch at the Art Institute’s Garden Restaurant in Chicago last weekend, we each pulled out our digicams to chronicle the event…and I pulled out my pencam to snap an image of our at-the-ready cameras.

If you are a normal (i.e. non-blogging) person, it probably seems absurd to chronicle every moment of one’s social life so obsessively. When our waiter at the Garden Restaurant, for example, brought our dishes to the table, all three of us reached for our cameras…and both our waiter and the folks at neighboring tables looked a bit bemused by our behavior. Why is it necessary to photograph one’s food by way of proof that three blog-buds met for lunch? Why is it necessary to immortalize an admittedly impressive dessert cart in digipixels? Has blogging so shortened our attention spans that we can no longer remember that which we haven’t photographed, written, and blogged about?

Whatever the reason why we three bloggers acted so strangely, the fact remains that we all acted similarly: we all reached for our cameras, we all aimed for our food and that impressive dessert cart, and not one of us looked quizzically at the others. Whatever the appeal of meeting other bloggers, I think this quiet understanding is one of the biggest attractions: where normal folks will look at you oddly for doing your bloggish thing, other bloggers will simply understand.

Although I can’t speak for Gary, Armand, or other photo-obsessive bloggers, I think one of the reasons I feel an almost compulsive need to photograph the things if not the faces involved in a bloggers’ meetup is a desire to prove that these Virtual Strangers actually exist. When I first met Fred First, for instance, casual acquaintances I’d met at a dinner party the night before were shocked and alarmed that I’d agree to meet some guy I’d encountered on the Internet. “What if he’s an axe-murderer?” they’d asked, and I countered with a nonsensical reply: “But I’ve seen pictures of his dog!” In my mind, Fred First wasn’t a Virtual Stranger: he was someone I’d gotten to know over time even if I’d never “really” met him. So when I have met blog-buds in the flesh, my compulsive itch to photograph the tangible things of said meetup has something to do with proving (to myself if no one else) that these seemingly imaginary online friends do indeed exist, our connection actually transpiring somewhere outside my own head.

In our mad shutter-snapping over lunch–and in our mutual portrait-shoot in the Art Institute’s sculpture gallery–Gary, Armand, and I probably looked like a zany cross between camera-happy tourists and crazed paparazzi stalking the latest celebrity. Ultimately, though, I’m not concerned what curious onlookers thought about our antics; instead, I’m glad to have connected an actual in-the-flesh person with the online persona I’ve grown to know over several years’ of blog-reading and email correspondence. Reading a favorite blog (especially one devoted to your favorite notebook obsession), you gradually feel like you know the person behind the pixels, so it’s something of a relief to verify that connection in real time.

Plus, it felt somehow right to ask Armand to pose for his very own fifteen minutes of fame given all the time he spends working behind the scenes keeping Moleskinerie running. Even photographers deserve a chance every now and then to put down their camera (if not their camera bag) in order to strike a pose of their own. So even if we took more photos than any sane person should, at the end of the day it was worth any wasted pixels to capture a single shot that reminds me of the face behind the blog.

    For more pictures of our mini bloggers’ meetup, see the bottom of this Moleskinerie post as well as Gary’s version of our photo-obsessive lunch. Tomorrow, Gary and I will share pictures of a very windy trip to Chicago’s Field Museum: stay tuned!

If I didn’t value veracity, I could spin you a tale about how Gary and I took a day from our Chicago getaway to get really away, flying from the modern-day Midwest to jolly old England and back. And I guess in a metaphorical sense, we did take a quick trip last Sunday, traveling in our imagination to places long ago and far away without physically leaving the Windy City.

Last Sunday, Gary and I visited Chicago’s Art Institute, where we visited the historically accurate Thorne miniature rooms. If I didn’t value veracity, I could try to fake you into thinking that the picture above is of an actual life-size room…but instead, it’s a photo I snapped through a glass window no larger than a cafeteria tray, the room inside being small enough to fit into a suitcase.

After having visited the Glass Flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, it was interesting to admire finely detailed artistry of a slightly different sort. Like Harvard’s Glass Flowers, the Art Institute’s collection of miniature rooms was funded by a patron with a vision. The 68 miniature rooms on display at the Art Institute were funded by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, who oversaw their construction between 1932 and 1940. Whereas the Glass Flowers left me amazed that miniscule plant details could be replicated in glass, the Thorne Room miniatures, built to a scale of one inch to one foot, impressed me with their fidelity to minute detail, with miniature tables being topped with tiny teapots, miniature sewing stands containing tiny stitched samplers, and miniature musical instruments being strung with tiny strings.

To give you a sense of the scale of the Thorne miniatures, here’s an angled shot where you can see Gary reflected in the glass case containing one of the replica rooms. The desk in this image is no more than three inches tall, the glass case containing it no wider than a foot. Photographing the Thorne miniatures was particularly challenging given the room’s low-light conditions: to create a realistic ambience, each of these miniscule rooms is lit by indirect light streaming through tiny windows and doors to create an illusion of natural light.

I’ve always loved miniatures and the imaginary worlds they capture. Examining a detailed dollhouse or model train set, I like to imagine myself as an even tinier person walking undetected through hidden rooms and corridors: it’s no accident, I think, that Gary and I this weekend watched the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with its fanciful tale of a secret world entered through a magical cabinet. When I was a child, I collected model horses: unable to have a horse or even dog of my own, I liked to imagine that lifeless figurines could, if I wished hard enough, come to life in some magical realm where only I had access.

In one sense, museums are a kind of secret world for grownups. Instead of encountering a fairy land through a magical wardrobe, grownups enter the doors and scale the staircases of museums in search of another world: here, you can imagine yourself in an ancient Greek courtyard; there, you can envision yourself in an impressive Japanese Buddha hall. Looking at art is better than walking in someone else’s shoes: looking at art is like taking on someone else’s eyes. How magical it is to see the world as Picasso or Rembrandt or Dali did!

Visiting museums in a city like Chicago feels like an inner exploration: after seeing the sights outside, venturing into a museum you seek the sights within. In my mind, viewing art is only partially a matter of looking what’s outside you, hanging there on the wall or standing alone in space; in my mind, the truest part of viewing art is the imaginary part, the secret world your spirit enters through a painting’s frame like a door. As such, I guess I see museums as cathedrals and art as icon: through the contemplative art of looking, museum-goers are transported from the mundane world of Chicago on a March day to some imaginary, Narnia-like world where miniature rooms are filled with living creatures and artists’ eyes live forever. In a word, museums are magical places where ideas are made tangible as things and the tangible stuff of stone, pigment, and canvas are spun into the stuff of dreams.

Considering the magic contained in the Art Institute, it’s no wonder they need not one but two lions to guard its entrance. Perhaps some imaginative eye would see this bronze beauty as being Aslan himself: perhaps after hours, long after museum-goers have gone home, these giant lions come to life, pacing the halls where lofty Ideas find miniature, hidden worlds that are just their size.

    This is the fourth in Gary’s and my series of SynchroBlog Chicago posts. For Gary’s post on the Art Institute, click here. Tomorrow, we’ll blog the details of our luncheon meetup with Armand of Moleskinerie acclaim: stay tuned!

One of the sights I looked forward to seeing when Gary and I visited Chicago last weekend was Millenium Parkďż˝s so-called Bean: Anish Kapoor‘s large reflective sculpture formally known as the Cloud Gate. Given Chicagoďż˝s picturesque skyline, itďż˝s a shutterbugďż˝s dream to encounter a large shiny surface that affords an eminently photographable fish-eye view of both buildings and passersby alike.

The Bean�s popularity among professional and amateur photographers is evident by the number of Cloud Gate images that appear on Uncommon Photographers, a Chicago-based blog specializing in photos of photographers. Like every other camera-wielding tourist who encounters the Bean, Gary and I were unable to resist its allure, snapping shot after shot of light and image glinting off its polished curves.

When current renovations on the bean-shaped Cloud Gate are complete, people will be able to walk underneath its curved inner surface, an opportunity for even more shutter-snapping moments. For now, though, the sculpture�s underbelly and lateral edges are skirted with plexiglass, chainlink, and obscuring tarps while workers smooth seams on its underside. Even with these non-photogenic accoutrements, though, on its ends the Bean looks like a giant balanced egg: a huge chrome oval laid by some exotic alien.

A night-time egg-end view of the Bean was my first impression of its shiny spectacle: on our first walk downtown upon arrival last weekend, Gary and I went in search of the Bean, not knowing exactly where in Millenium Park we�d find it but figuring we�d know it when we saw it. When seen at night and on the other side of a concrete barrier, the Bean startles you at first sight: even if you�re looking for the smooth curves of a large reflective surface, the gigantic glowing eggy-ness of the Bean at night seems other-worldly, like nothing on earth you�ve ever seen.

Both amateur and professional photographers are almost magically drawn to photographing the Bean…and therein lies some controversy. Due to copyright concerns, the Chicago Park District initially prohibited professional photographers from taking pictures of the Cloud Gate, arguing that profits from Bean-based images belong to its designer.

Interestingly, this photo-ban defined “professional photographers” as anyone who uses a tripod, and photographers of all stripes responded by posting over 1,300 images of the copyrighted sculpture. When Gary and I visited Millenium Park, there was a heavy Security presence both on foot and Segway scooters…but we weren’t asked to cease and desist with our shutter-snapping since I hadn’t brought a tripod and Gary used my head to steady his camera. (This arms-length self-portrait shows Gary using me as a human tripod, and you can see in Gary’s post a photo snapped from the top of my head while I shot that initial night-time shot above.) Given the number of photo-snapping tourists visiting the Bean last weekend–including one tripod-wielding photographer–it seems authorities have given up their attempt to deny the seemingly universal and irresistible urge to photograph the Chicago skyline as reflected in the Cloud Gate’s shiny contours.

The downtown skyline as reflected in the Bean is cool by night…

…and even cooler by day.

Even viewed through a chainlink fence and obstructed by renovation equipment, Millenium Park’s Bean and the views afforded by it are pretty magical.

    This is the third in Gary’s and my series of SynchroBlog posts on our long weekend in Chicago. For Gary’s perspective on the Cloud Gate sculpture, click here. Tomorrow, we’ll share our day-long exploration of the Art Institute: stay tuned!

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