Wednesday, July 27, 2011


We've now made it to Chicago, and more importantly to the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's play Chinglish, for which Louise's son Brian is an understudy, and to a mini-family reunion with Brian, his wife Ardith, our grandson Cedro, and Jeff's daughter Becky who arranged a pre-planned trip to Chicago to coordinate with our arrival.

To get here we followed the Illinois River 50 miles east, upstream, from Starved Rock State Park, then north 40 miles up the Fox River, much of that on the Fox River Trail seen here, then east again on rail trails to the suburb of Hinsdale and our motel home for a six-day visit.  On one of the side trails in the Fox River valley we encountered our first ever bicycle suspension bridge deep in the woods outside Aurora IL.

Getting back to the Illinois, the I&M (Illinois and Michigan) Canal was completed in 1848, more than two decades after the Erie Canal in New York State inaugurated a flurry of canal-building across the Midwest.  Just as the Erie Canal was built along the banks of the Mohawk and the C&O Canal alongside the Potomac, the I&M follows the Illinois, sometimes a block's distance away, sometimes a half-mile, before heading northeasterly to connect up with the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.  Most of the canal bed is now dry, but a few sections are still filled with water, though without canal boat traffic the algae has sort of taken over.  In this picture the canal is passing on an aquaduct over a stream, and the falling water you see is a sort of overflow valve, controlled by a dam gate at the end of the footbridge.

Of course at first no one could foresee the rise of railroads and what they would do to canal profitability, although it didn't take a lot of imagination by 1848 to see that they would eventually criss-cross even Illinois, which was still considered to be rather at the edge of civilization at that time.  The canal did succeed for a time in bringing a lot of midwestern trade to Chicago, and when railroads saw what a large and central location Chicago had become thanks to the canal, they headed there too.  Which of course eventually killed off the canal.  It lives on today as a well-maintained trail with occasional traces of its archaeological past, such as the locks pictured below, or the Seneca Grain Elevator that once loaded its products onto canal boats.

We chose to stay in the 'burbs for several reasons, chief among them the desire to avoid biking in Chicago traffic.  A series of bike trails got us within 20 miles of downtown, but shortly after we turned off from the last trail, it ends.  Needless to say, it's less than ideal biking from that point on down narrow and/or congested Chicago streets.  We found a wonderful motel that's part of a mini-chain, Clubhouse Inn & Suites.  For a very affordable price we got a comfortable room, an outstanding breakfast each morning, and a courtesy van to take us to or from the Metra commuter train station. 

We did six round-trips to Chicago and only had to walk the mile and a quarter between the motel and the train station three times, once on the weekend and twice when we came back after 8 pm when the van stops running.  The train line is perhaps BNSF's busiest line west from Chicago, and we saw Amtrak's Southwest Chief and California Zephyr whiz by on the middle trak, probably at their maximum speed of 79 mph, and a few 100+ long freight trains doing maybe 50.  The Metra commuter train is a so-called push-pull operation, with the locomotive always on the west end of the train so it stays outside the platform area when it arrives at Union Station -- that's an outbound train in the photo above.  One morning we sat in the first car and had an interesting and rare look straight forward through the blue-green safety glass on our 40-minute ride in.  As you can see, it's a busy line, and all those tracks get used, heavily!

We timed our visit to arrive midway through the run of Chinglish.  Brian was involved in a "workshop" production of the play in New York City, i.e. a performance of the work when it was still a work in progress, done with minimal staging and no costuming.  When the prestigious Goodman Theatre decided to mount the world premiere, Brian auditioned and won the challenging task of being understudy for three of the four male actors, one who plays an Australian who has lived in China 19 years and speaks fluent Mandarin, the others various Chinese characters.  About 40% of the script, and about 75% of the lines Brian had to master, are spoken in Mandarin and projected above the heads of the actors.  Brian still had pages of the lines he had to memorize taped to the kitchen cabinets in the apartment the theater provided (click on the photo to enlarge it, if you know how to read Mandarin).

The play is about the owner of a Cleveland sign company who shows up in a city in SW China to try and get a contract for signs in a new cultural center about to be built.  Much of the humor of the play involves "Chinglish," i.e. mangled translations.  For example, the businessman introduces himself as the head of a "small family-run business," which gets translated into Chinese for the Minister of Trade.  As he sits listening to the interpreter, we see in the supratitles what she actually translates that to: "His company is small and insignificant."

But the play is not just about funny translations, it's also about the virtual impossibility of translating centuries of meanings buried inside our language, or of truly understanding another culture.  Even when the words were correctly translated, meanings were lost.  The play also had a carefully constructed plot with breathtaking twists and turns that were not only unanticipated and therefore fun, but also often remarkably insightful as Hwang played with the cultural assumptions of both his Chinese, American and Aussie characters.

The day after the play opened and received rave reviews from both Chicago and national drama critics, the producers announced that the play will move to Broadway this fall.  It's still too early to know whether or in what capactity Brian might continue to work on the play, but we're keeping our fingers crossed.

Jeff's daughter Becky arrived a day after us, and met Ardy and Cedro in front of the Goodman and got a backstage tour of the theater from Brian, including a look behind (and above!) the set and a preview of part of the set from the audience side.  We also got a bit of walking in despite temperatures around 90 each day and what felt like near-saturation humidity.

Becky also introduced us to a tradition she has kept up through all her visits to Chicago, a drink at the top of the John Hancock building, 76 floors up and 2 flights above the main observation floor.  Once the tallest building in Chicago, it's long been #2 to the Sears Tower (now renamed the Willis Tower), and it looks like another building to the south might have edged the Hancock into the #3 spot.  But the view is just as good as ever.

Needless to say, we also spent a lot of time enjoying 11-month-old Cedro.  And there were a few memorable meals along the way, including a great stir fry whipped up by Brian and a trip to Chinatown (what else, when in town to see Chinglish?) and what may have been our best dim sum ever.  Alas, it was so good that the food kept getting grabbed before we could get a decent photo of the cornucopia of delicacies.

On our last day in Chicago, and after Becky was already back in Austin TX, we were joined by the other understudies for -- what else -- a Chinese dinner at a small place near the theater.  It was so good that Cedro started us doing a wave, although we're sorry to say that Norm was a little slow on the concept.

With our interest in art, we of course spent a whole day at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world's great art museums with great and famous painting after great and famous painting.

Besides Grant Wood's American Gothic from 1930 and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks done 12 years later, you might also recognize Vincent Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles done in 1889 shortly before his death -- actually the second of three versions of this scene that he painted -- and Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, completed in 1884.  The detail shot shows his "pointilist" style of using tiny dots of color, revolutionary in his day.

Another painting you may recognize but perhaps not by the name of the painting or the painter is Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 masterpiece Paris Street: Rainy Day.  And then there's an 1875 Renoir, Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise, that looks familiar, but only pehaps because it is so evocative of the Luncheon of the Boating Party done 5 years later and now hanging as the star attraction at the Phillips Gallery in Washington DC.

Another painting that astonished us as we looked at it from a distance and then up close was Camille Pissarro's Haying Time, which he painted in 1892.  When you look closely at the stalks of hay, you have to wonder how he had the genius to see all that color in that field!

We'll close our art tour with a few of Claude Monet's paintings.  Many museums are giddy with pride to have one or two, but the Art Institute has a roomful of them.  And when you have a roomful, as only a few museums this side of France enjoy, you get the chance to see something that you don't see when there's only one or two.  Monet was a revolutionary who saw that a scene was never the same, no matter how many times you saw it, for the light was always different.  Here are two paintings done three years apart, in 1900 and 1903, of the same scene, Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather and Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect.

Similarly, Monet painted dozens and dozens of haystacks, playing with this same discovery about the mutability of light.  Here are three all done in 1890-91, entitled respectively Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), Stack of Wheat (Thaw, Sunset), and then, simply, Stack of Wheat.

Well, that snow looks good.  We're now off to the northwest of Chicago in weather that will be in the high 80s and maybe even low 90s for the foreseeable future as we head to another rendezvous with the Mississippi around Winona MN.  We'll write to you next from Wisconsin, which we'll first hit in 5 days of riding.

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