Dog Days with Biscuit

There’s a lot to do in Chicago when I visit my family, but I prefer spending most of my time there in the family home. The home is the only place where I can hang out with the oldest member of the family.

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Biscuit, our family shih tzu, is 15 years old, or 105 “dog” years, according to everyone who pulls out his or her smartphone to do the math after hearing she is 15. We’ve seen her grow up from a little puppy in Florida who zipped around the home like a heated molecule and used the world as her bathroom to an adult dog who always greeted guests with a downward dog and a roll over requesting for a belly rub of approval. Those habits are now gone in her elderly age, but she still shares with us whatever we’re having for dinner, prefers to sit on our laps when we hold her, or lies down her head/paw/back on our laps when she lies down next to us on the couch. (And if Biscuit is lying down, she’s falling asleep, and you can’t move for at least a half hour while she’s napping.)

Outside of the six months I spent looking for my first job after graduating from college, I haven’t been an everyday presence at the family home since I left for college eight years ago. So all this time I’ve been away from my family for UF and now work, plus knowing that dogs have a shorter lifespan than people and the uncertainty of tomorrow in general, has helped me embrace being a homebody when I visit my family. I wish I had more of that growing up — or at least took a few more breaks from the extracurriculars of high school and homework headaches of college to be that homebody.

But now, even through I have to spend vacation days and pay for airfare and airport parking, I’m trying to make up for that lost time. I love the simplicity of sitting on the couch with Biscuit on my lap, watching a Blackhawks or Bulls game on TV (God, I love the easy access to Chicago sports that the locals have) with the family, and snacking. I’ve had a lot of great experiences from traveling around between Los Angeles and London, but seeing Biscuit’s tail wag and then getting licked in the face when I step back inside the house for my first night of a trip home will always be my favorite.

I can’t wait to fly back and celebrate Biscuit’s Sweet 16 later this year, the first birthday I’ll celebrate with her since I was in high school. The party will be lively and energetic, with time allotted for multiple hour-long naps for our shih tzu, watching TV with her on our laps when she happens to be awake, and petting her and fawning over her after she opens her birthday gift (a chew toy loosely covered by tissue paper). It should be the most exciting birthday a teenager could ask for.

Frostbitten

CHICAGO–I flew into O’Hare on Friday night to visit my parents and spring-breaking sister for the weekend and they took a page from my playbook yesterday: they wanted to spend the day in the city. It would be sunny and a crisp 50 degrees in Chicago, ideal conditions for walking around town.

Their plans didn’t call for walking, though. Instead, we went on a Wendella architectural boat tour. This was a 75 minute trek on a double decker boat that started at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, traveled west and through the north and south branches of the Chicago River, then finished by going east to Lake Michigan before returning to Michigan Avenue. Being seated on top of a boat with the wind all over us didn’t make those 50 degree temperatures so appetizing anymore.

My family and I were one of the first ten groups to board, so we took upper deck seats on the right (starboard) side of the boat, toward the rear (stern). By the time boarding finished 15 minutes later, most of the other sightseers chose to brave the wind and join us in the upper deck.

The tour guide began our tour before the boat we set sail and talked about a few office buildings to our left (south) and the Trump Tower right in front of us (west). After our guide finished up with the Trump, the captain got the boat going and we traveled west, where a bunch of anonymous residential areas were pointed out for their office or industrial origins. When we reached the State Street bridge and the Marina City towers, the tour finally felt like it began. The majority of people who have seen the towers probably associate it with Wilco, but I will always prefer to connect Marina City to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Marina City

Marina City

We continued west and reached the Merchandise Mart just before the north-south split of the Chicago River. The art deco Merch Mart was built by Marshall Field and Co. as a center of commerce for the city and features the busts of commerce giants across from its doors. After all those stories I heard at the Tower of London about executions and pikes on London Bridge, the last thing I needed to see were those busts.

Merchandise Mart, when the boat was traveling north to exit the south branch of the river.

Merchandise Mart, when the boat was traveling north to exit the south branch of the river.

The boat made a right turn and we entered the north branch of the Chicago River. The guide spent the bulk of this section pointing out the multi-million dollar townhouses that have arisen along the riverfront and even more residential complexes that were office spaces in a prior life. One residential area received special attention, though: the Montgomery Ward Complex, a cream white building that used to be the headquarters for the building’s namesake. The company is now long gone, but it was Montgomery Ward that created the mail-order business and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in those bygone days before the internet.

The Montgomery Ward Complex

The Montgomery Ward Complex

The boat turned around after the Montgomery Ward complex and headed south to the south branch of the river. Along the way, we passed the Sears (Willis) Tower, the international headquarters for Boeing, and a deserted post office. The southern branch itself is stocked with more drab industrial buildings than flashy commercial ones, but if the boat could have gone west and traveled on land, we would have eventually reached the O’Leary farm — the traditional place where the Great Fire began.

Boeing HQ

Boeing HQ

It'll always be the Sears Tower.

It’ll always be the Sears Tower.

By the time the boat turned around at the south end to head northeast back to Lake Michigan, most of the other people bailed from the top deck for the warmer comforts of the lower deck and its bar. My family and I stayed on top with a handful of other people; I don’t know why the others stayed on top, but I know I remained because I’m stubborn.

At the intersection of the three branches, we went east, past Merchandise Mart, Trump, and our starting point again. As we passed Michigan Avenue, the tour guide talked about the Wrigley Building and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, home to former dream job/workplace of the Chicago Tribune. For the most interesting tidbit that the guide brought up, I learned that my two favorite skyscrapers, the Tribune Tower and Rockefeller Center, share the same architect: Raymond Hood, an MIT graduate who also attended Brown. He seemed to be a smart guy with great taste, based on those two structures.

Tribune Tower

Tribune Tower

The Wrigley Building

The Wrigley Building

With the sun beginning to set and my entire body pretty numb from the wind, our boat turned around at the boundary with Lake Michigan and returned to our starting spot. I liked the unique views of the city and some of the history I learned on the tour, but next time I’ll walk so I can spend as much time as I’d like at the skyscrapers I want to learn more about. Besides, walking keeps the body warmer than sitting.

The Bulldog Barf Bracket

Bracket

I named my March Madness bracket after that time the bulldog mascot for Butler University, Butler Blue III, barfed on the floor of Madison Square Garden during the Big East conference tournament. I thought the bulldog barfing on the floor of the Knicks’ home arena was a fitting metaphor for their season, but the mess on the court should also be an appropriate image for how well I expect my bracket to do this spring.

The bracket took about five minutes to fill out; the number of regular season games I watched can be counted on one hand. I have Wisconsin winning the NCAA title because Frank Kaminsky, their “high basketball IQ” leader, is from the suburbs of Chicago like me. That suburb is Lisle, Illinois, also home to the dealership where my parents got their first new Honda Civic in the 90s. Wisconsin is also the alma mater of my favorite sportswriter, Jason Gay, so the Badgers have that going for them. On the other side, Virginia should have been a number one seed because they finished on top of the ACC in the regular season. If they can get past Sparty, though, I see the Cavaliers going to the championship game and losing to the Badgers in a low scoring affair because the 35 second shot clock exists to be milked.

Kentucky has won 34 games in a row and deserves to be called the team to beat. I just don’t see the relatively young age of the team helping them get through the grind of the six consecutive games that they have to win to claim the title. I put Iowa State in the Final Four because Fred Hoiberg used to play for the Chicago Bulls and his nickname as “The Mayor” is slick.

If Arizona was on the other side of the bracket, I would put them in the championship game in place of Virginia, and then still have these Wildcats lose against Wisconsin. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona makes it to the championship game anyway. I’d also have Southern Methodist University fly to the Elite Eight because of Larry Brown, but my allegiance to Hoiberg crushed that idea.

As for the early round upsets I have, Wichita State defeats Kansas because we as a society have gotten past the point where a tourney victory by the Shockers is a shock. Davidson eliminates Iowa by the power of Steph Curry, Louisville reaches the Elite Eight because it has more BRAND recognition than Villanova, and Wyoming reaches the Round of 32 because Larry Shyatt is my Billy Donovan without UF in this tournament.

This nonsensical analysis of my Final Four and championship competitors is brought to you by my lack of knowledge of any player’s name in the entire field, as well as my general apathy to regular season college basketball outside of the University of Florida. I’ll need a lot of baking soda and towels to wipe up the slop of my bracket on Thursday night.

Lucy the Cupcake

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Four cupcakes helped me rediscover a bit of my childhood in Bolingbrook, Illinois, that I had forgotten about: watching I Love Lucy before catching the bus to go to school.

In Milford, Connecticut — a town that I have a soft spot for because it’s home to The Dan Patrick Show and the closest Chipotle to where I currently live  — there is a cupcake bakery named Sweet Cupcasions. On the front window of the store is a banner that says “WE WON!” in pink lettering; the logos for Cupcake Wars and the Food Network flank those words. I’ve never seen an episode of Cupcake Wars, but if the Food Network deems Sweet Cupcasions a winner, it must be good, right?

I made a mental note to check it out some day.

That was in 2013.

This past Sunday, at 2:15 pm, I finally followed through on that note. I was on my way out of Milford when I saw that banner and decided that the procrastination needed to end now. I took the street parking in front of the store, walked up to the door, and saw that it closed at 3 pm on Sundays. My timing is so good.

When I stepped inside, the wooden floor was clean and the tables were organized with merchandise, but it felt abandoned because there were no other customers and I didn’t see an employee behind the counter. I went over to the glass display of cupcakes on the counter and the four types of cupcakes closest to the register caught my eye: Fred, All About Ethel, Ricky, and I Love Lucy.

The Fred cupcake was a vanilla cupcake topped with white vanilla frosting and an edible smiling four-leaf clover adorning the frosting. All About Ethel was a chocolate cupcake filled with peanut butter mousse and topped with chocolate frosting, crushed peanuts, and a peanut butter cup ornament on top. The Ricky was a red velvet cupcake doused with chocolate ganache that stuck to the paper and topped with a cream cheese frosting. Finally, the I Love Lucy cupcake was the same as the Ricky, but without the chocolate ganache.

A young woman in a blue sweatshirt — not what I was expecting for work attire after being inundated with pink and white decorations and products in the store — stepped out of the kitchen in the back to greet me. I asked her for a little extra time to decide on what to get, but that was mostly to buy me time to find a Vitameatavegamin cupcake among the flavors available that day. There was none, but among all the other traditional flavors of cupcakes, Fred, Ethel, Ricky, and Lucy continued to call out to me. To bring them home with me.

I made eye contact with the employee to get the transaction started. But first, like any reasonable person who uses a debit card as cash and didn’t have any real cash on hand while in the downtown section of an old-fashioned Connecticut town, I had to ask the dreaded currency question.

“Are you cash only?”

“No, we can take a card for a $10 minimum, which is four cupcakes.”

How perfect is that? Four cupcakes minimum to use a card; four cast members of I Love Lucy immortalized as cupcakes in this victorious Cupcake Wars shop.

“Perfect! Can I get the whole I Love Lucy cast?”

She took out a plastic container with four slots and then put the couples from the show on the same side. I have no idea if she did this intentionally or it just happened by chance, but I’ll take the leap of faith and believe that she knew what was she was doing when she assigned the spots to the cupcakes. The top left slot in the container went to the Fred cupcake and the bottom left slot to All About Ethel; Ricky was given the top right slot in the container, while I Love Lucy occupied the bottom right slot. As she searched for a bag to put the container in, I decided to investigate why Sweet Cupcasions had cupcakes dedicated to the show.

From bottom left, going clockwise: the All About Ethel, Fred, Ricky, and I Love Lucy cupcakes.

From bottom left, going clockwise: the All About Ethel, Fred, Ricky, and I Love Lucy cupcakes.

“So why is I Love Lucy the cupcake theme of the day or the month?” I asked her.

“The owner loves the show, and it inspired her to make these,” the employee said.

When I got back to my apartment, I realized I had no way of watching those episodes again. But when I ate each cupcake, I thought about Vitametavegamin, the chocolate factory, and all of Lucy’s blundered schemes to perform in a show at Ricky’s nightclub. Reliving those laughs made the experience of eating cupcakes a sweeter cupcasion than usual this time around.

The British Museum (30 January 2015)

The paparazzi assembled around their prized target in the shape of a semicircle, packing tightly against one another like those compressed spherical gas molecules in a piston-cylinder that every thermodynamics textbook prints a figure of. Unlike those molecules, which try their darndest to continue their random motion in the confined space, the paparazzi didn’t jostle with each other as they came together. When another photographer exited the scene, those behind him or her took a tiny step forward, patiently awaiting their chance to snap a few pics of this popular and elderly polyglot: the Rosetta Stone.

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The British Museum was generous enough to save me a long walk and placed the inscribed stone that England took from Napoleonic France — which had taken it away from Egypt, of course — at the front of the largest gallery to the left of the main hall. It took just under 10 minutes and a few moments of temporary blindness from others’ flash photography (turn it off!) to make my way from the back of the pack to front and center with the Rosetta Stone.

The stone sat atop a beige pedestal and inside a glass case, the only protected exhibit in this gallery. I took the obligatory photos of the Rosetta Stone, then set off to find out what this thing actually said. You see, this high school history buff — that did wonders to deflate my social status — understood the importance of the Rosetta Stone when it came to deciphering hieroglyphics, and knew that stone had hieroglyphics and Greek text on the bottom. But I had no idea why the stone existed in the first place and what language occupied the midsection of the stone.

A lovely information card on the back panel of glass, appropriately titled “What is the Rosetta Stone?”, taught me that the inscription was a decree from King Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the Greek ruler of Egypt at the time, that declared the creation of a royal cult. The card also taught me that the language I didn’t recognize is Demotic, another Egyptian script that was apparently more important than hieroglyphics, but less important than the language of the ruling class, Greek.

Now that I had those pressing questions answered, I snuck back to the front of the glass and stared at the Rosetta Stone for individual characters. I saw the word for “cat” multiple times in the hieroglyphic section, only because another card on the back taught me that the pictorial representation of the cat’s “miaow” followed by a picture a cat spelled out “cat.” My eyes then turned their attention to the bottom and pointed out individual letters of the Greek alphabet, which I only recognized because they were used as variables for my college courses. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta… Lambda, Mu, Nu… Pi, Rho, Sigma, Tau, Upsilon… Psi, Omega. Those letters gave me the comfort that I at least retained some stuff I learned from college a little more than three years after graduation. (Hey, the Greek alphabet isn’t directly related to the content of my studies, but I’m halfway there to learning a language, right?)

I referred to this earlier, but the Rosetta Stone is another reminder that Napoleon, long after his death, has such a firm grip on London. The Rosetta Stone calling London home can be seen as a subtle celebration of the defeat of the Napoleon and the valor of Lord Nelson, but somewhere out there, Napoleon is probably smiling over some of the cultural control his memory exerts in one of Europe’s most powerful cities.

After my one-on-one time with the Rosetta Stone, my friend and I spent the next six hours roaming the rest of the British Museum.

Those six hours were painful.

Part of the problem was both of us wearing the wrong type of shoes. We had a reservation to a Scottish restaurant that had a smart casual dress code — a small price to pay to circumvent the American ban on haggis and try the dish while we were in London — and our dress shoes provided no extra comfort for our museum trek. We also contended with the mental exhaustion that came from reading so many information cards for so many of the items on display. The exhibits on clocks, Ancient Greece, Japan, the Assyrian Empire, China, Africa, and the Enlightenment all blended with each other while day turned into night outside without our awareness.

Even though we spent six hours at the British Museum, I doubt we got halfway through all of the collections on display. There is an overwhelming amount of artifacts to see because of the British Empire’s former supremacy and, as I vaguely tweeted back then, I would need a six month sabbatical to go through everything at the level of depth I wanted. But my complete exhaustion at the end of that initial six hour visit to the British Museum told me that it was one of the best workouts I ever had for my body and mind.

Magic Man in Brooklyn

Watching Magic Man perform last night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg was confirmation that the band has grown up.

I started listening to Magic Man (lead singer Alex Caplow, guitarist Alex Vanderhoop Lee, synthist Justine Bowe, bassist Gabe Goodman, drummer Joey Sulkowski) last summer after seeing them perform their hit song “Paris” on Late Night with Seth Meyers. I attended my first gig at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club this past October just to hear “Paris” live and loved the energy that the band brought to the dark and intimate venue with the other synth pop 10 songs they introduced me to. I bought their debut album, Before the Waves, at the gig and had it on repeat in my car for the rest of 2014. In December, I attended my second gig at the cozier Fete lounge, where all five members were crammed on a stage with no breathing space — including the area in front of them, which was standing room for the front row of the crowd

Magic Man’s gig at Brooklyn on Saturday was the second of three shows in New York City for their first national headlining tour. Even though this band was a supporting act just five months ago, the quintet stepped up to the larger venue and crowd more seamlessly than the three clubs that get promoted from the Championship to the Premier League each summer.

The band showed that they belong on this stage.

Caplow and crew scaled up the energy they brought to the smaller venues for the Brooklyn stage with no issues. The charismatic Caplow took advantage of the extra real estate to roam between the other four members of the band, stand atop the multiple speakers on the front of the stage for the most anthemic choruses, and reach out to more hands in the front rows of the crowd with the extra elevation. Lee and Goodman used the space to show off some flair and duel each other during the instrumental solos when the songs called for them. Sulkowski — rocking the A.C. Slater look with his mullet and long-sleeve dress shirt — finally got the elevated platform to make his drum set the sparkling center piece of the stage.

More importantly, the band nailed the acoustics: the higher volume levels were matched by the appropriate mixing to make everyone heard. Magic Man opened Saturday’s show with “Waves,” which I’d argue as the best song to come out of Before the Waves because of how the band navigates from a slow start to a crescendo at the end, with each section of the build-up marked by increased intensity from Justine’s synth. That first blast of the synth was perfect: loud, but not overwhelming, and faster than the album version to get the crowd dancing and set the tone for the rest of the night.

The upbeat party continued with “Every Day,” “Apollo,” “Out of Mind,” and “Catherine” following in quick succession. One of the tweaks that Magic Man incorporated into the concert was increasing the volume of Bowe’s back-up vocals for “Catherine” for the pre-chorus, where the guy pursuing Catherine asks her for a one-on-one to sort out their relationship. I liked how the bigger emphasis on Bowe’s vocals turned that search for clarity in the relationship into a duet; the verse had more impact with the mutual confusion between the two characters in the song. I know I’m overanalyzing a catchy pop song, but there was a good story to imagine while listening to this tune.

After a slew of old and new (“Honey,” a new song, “Tonight,” and “Darling”), Magic Man took the crowd on a field trip through “Texas,” “South Dakota,” and “Chicagoland.” Magic Man incorporated another slight twist into “South Dakota” that made me love this song more than I already do: they extended the end of the song and increased the number of times we’re asked “South Dakota don’t you want to run and run and run?” By the end of the song, I had a longing to just go somewhere I can call home because I know people there (i.e., not my isolated middle of nowhere New England apartment.) The pathos of “South Dakota” softened me; it was fitting that Magic Man piled on my longing for home and performed “Chicagoland” immediately afterward.

The band saved the most creative use of the stage for the encore. For the first song, Magic Man covered Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and invited their opening acts of Tigertown and Panama Wedding — nine people total — back on stage to do the Courtney Cox dance during the final chorus. It was a flurry of human motion all over the place and I have no idea how there were no collisions in that stretch.

The dance party continued with the crowd when Magic Man closed out the encore and concert with “Paris,” the song that started it all for me (and probably most of the other people in the crowd). The amped up instrumentals leading up to the bridge equated to an amped up crowd. A sweaty Caplow came perilously close to being crowd surfed, while Goodman let a few hands in the crowd strum the bass and Lee let Bowe do the same to help bring the show to a noisy end. It was an appropriate finish for a band whose energy is boundless, no matter the size of the stage.

The Tower of London (2 February 2015)

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It surprised me how quickly the Tower of London came within my line of sight after exiting the Tower Hill Tube Station. After I ran up the stairs to reach the surface, the massive stone castle stood across the street from me — a relic seemingly out of place with the collection of shiny steel structures standing in the surrounding area.

The tower was built in the late 11th century after William the Conqueror (of Normandy) defeated Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, but it is probably best known as a prison for enemies of the Tudor dynasty in the 16th century. In keeping with its reputation, the first stop on the official tours is Traitors’ Gate, where our tour guide regaled our group with stories of imprisonment, death, and one happy escape from the Tower.

The stories that stuck with me, though, are the ones behind each tour guide, or “Beefeater,” as they’re informally called. The official title for this select group is Yeoman Warder, which calls for a uniform of black vestments emblazoned with a red crown and “E II R” to mark the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a black top hat, and a cape. These Yeoman Warders reside in the Tower of London and also serve as the official line of defense for the castle on top of their hosting duties. To qualify for the opportunity to become a Yeoman Warder, the candidate must have served in the Royal armed forces for at least 22 years and give a sample tour presentation. The Beefeater who led my group was a man named Duncan — I know it’s his surname because he mentioned his Scottish ancestry — who made a 40 year career in the military before he assumed his role as a guardian of the tower.

As uncomfortable as I became hearing about the numerous executions and deaths related to the Tudors and the Tower of London, my main reason for taking a Yeoman Warder tour was death itself. Within the rocky confines of the castle is a little royal chapel from 1520 that is still used for worship today and is the final stop of the Beefeater tour, St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains). This stop is a Yeoman Warder exclusive, but most profoundly, St. Peter ad Vincula is the final resting place for Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard (both were wives of King Henry VIII); Lady Jane Grey (smart woman who should have been Queen); Thomas Cromwell (advisor to King Henry VIII, like Richelieu was to King Louis XIV); and Sir Thomas Moore (Catholic saint and author of Utopia).

The history textbooks and Duncan’s lectures came alive for me in the chapel. I took the rightmost seat in the front row of the chapel, staring directly into the graves of Anne Boleyn and Jane Grey that lied under the altar. An unexpected sadness overcame me as I gazed at the altar, the graves, the organ, and the rest of the cathedral, just thinking about all the lives lost due to bloodthirsty politics and the gruesome manner in which those lives were taken away. History remembers the names of someone like Boleyn or Moore, but countless more names in smaller stature suffered a similar fate (with their heads left on a pike on London Bridge) and are individually lost to us forever.

St. Peter ad Vincula

St. Peter ad Vincula

After the tour, I checked out the Royal Crown and Jewels, which were even more lavish up close than I ever imagined. If Moses was still around, he’d have a lot of fun getting the crowns and all those gold utensils, cauldrons, and plates melted down. I then stopped by the White Tower, where I went face to face with the armor of King Henry VIII. Those portraits weren’t lying about how tall and wide he was; Henry’s size is more suited for the 21st century than the 16th century he lived in.

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The White Tower

When I made my way to the exits, a couple groups of elementary school students were just starting their field trips inside the castle. One day, when they’re older, I hope those kids know how lucky they are to have the opportunity to take field trips to something as old and historic as the Tower of London. As grim as the history is inside the tower, it was exciting to absorb all those stories in-person for the first time.

King Henry VIII Horseback Armor

King Henry VIII Horseback Armor