Monthly Archives: January 2014

6 Ways to Survive Winter in Chicago

Winter in Chicago. Boy, is it ever. I fear the constant bundling and the cabin fever are starting to get to me. The worst part is knowing that, in Chicago, we still have two more months of winter. It is too easy at such times to become despondent. All the more reason to be more creative!

When the going gets tough, and in this case, frigid, I have a few methods for consoling myself:

Snowpocolypse, 20111

Snowpocolypse, 2011

  1. Get out in it!
    True, it has been colder than the South Pole a few days this January, the threat of frostbite has been high, and boiling water turned to snow when tossed into the nippy air, but there is something to be appreciated about experiencing extremes. Far worse than cold is what my family calls the season of the Blahs: 40 degrees and cloudy. At least when it is cold ice does strange and marvelous things to behold. The trick is getting out there (with the appropriate cold weather gear, of course), and experiencing it for yourself.
  2. Go to the Botanical Garden.
    Chicago has three botanical gardens, all of which have large tropical conservatories full of glorious, humid air. We went to the Lincoln Park Conservatory last Sunday and almost fell asleep in there, so happy to leave the chalky, dry, freakishly cold air outside. The Lincoln Park facility is open daily from 9-5 and is TOTALLY FREE.
  3. Build a fort.
    Honestly, I do have to explain why?
  4. Remember that warm places exist:
    It is important to keep some perspective–a vision of the big picture when we reach for a third scarf. This will not last forever. Warm places are out there. I will be warm again. My skin will see the sun once more. I can remember the feeling of sand between my toes. I know the smell of sunscreen. I have felt warm breezes in the shade of palm trees. I recall the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair where the evil queen is trying to convince the heroes that Narnia, Aslan, and even the sun, do not exist. In a brave effort to regain his senses under her spell, Puddleglum reaches his hand into the magical fire and uses the pain to awaken from the enchantment and remember that the sun is real. In other words, winter may cast a spell of despondency; it is our choice whether we succumb.
  5. Use your imagination.
    Cue Mary Poppins and 34th Street’s Kris Kringle and other such defenders of the imagination (If you feel yourself getting sarcastic, just tell your inner cynic that what I am about to describe is a legitimate meditation technique). Are you ready? Turn on this song from the J Band. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Imagine you are on a beach at night. The band drums and strums in sync with the waves gently tumbling onto the sand. Tiki torches light a stretch of sand where people are dancing. The happy faces beckon you to join them. Your hips begin to sway. Gals, give that fabulous dress you are wearing a twirl. Guys, don’t worry, you smell great.  Let the music and the sweet, warm, salty air intoxicate you. You have no inhibitions. Just dance. As the song ends, keep your eyes closed. Take a few more breaths. Open your eyes. Congratulations, you just visited my happy place.
  6. Um, well, leave.
    Ok, I confess. I just spent the last two hours looking up all-inclusives in Punta Cana. If you cave, as I did, feel no shame. Just say that Bloody Mary made you do it:

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Musings on John Muir’s Muses

Last Sunday I woke early (that is, for a Sunday) and pulled on my winter gear. It had snowed a little the day before and I wanted to go out cross-country skiing while I had the chance. Here in Chicago there are few opportunities for outdoor exercise in the winter so it is important to put the snow to use when I have it. The day was cold and gusty but brilliantly sunny. I live only a few blocks from Loyola Beach so I shouldered my skis and trekked out to the lake.

DSC_0788It is not often that I do my workouts in the morning, but I am always glad when I do. As the sun climbed up through the southeastern sky, its light shimmered violently on the lake as it skimmed across the deep blue hues and the bright whites and teals of the ice collecting at the water’s edge. Lake Michigan, God bless it, looks different every single day.

I always feel a bit sad when I turn away from the lake to head home, even if I am cold or wet or hungry. The lake is Chicago’s only real claim to “wilderness.” All of its State preserves—and I repeat, ALL—are surrounded by highways. It is a dreadful, thoughtless epidemic that denies a vast population the chance to reconnect with nature sans mechanical interruption. As my father says, Chicago is a topographical wasteland, apart from the lake.

On this particular occasion, it being Sunday, I had to get myself to church. This pleased me not at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love my church, but it seemed a poor substitute for staying outside, worshipping God alongside of the swaying trees, the lapping waves, and the shushing and creaking ice clusters. Nature builds its own cathedrals, I thought, mentally paraphrasing the great John Muir:

John Muir, at home

“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.” ― John MuirMy First Summer in the Sierra

I understand that many people do not feel this way. I have met and loved many urban dwellers for whom the sounds of crickets chirping frightens them more than that of sirens flying by in the night. I also totally understand the value of communal worship and a warm, dry space in which to achieve it. But John Muir, bearded eccentric, writer, and wild man that he was, would definitely find in me a kindred spirit. God manifests himself in so many ways, but perhaps one of the most tangible and inspiring is how he displays his majesty in nature’s organic grandeur. What is more, he invites us to join Him there that we might rest.

Rest. Rest is perhaps one of the hardest things for someone in this fast-paced, screen-addicted American culture to achieve. Many in the church have belabored this point, arguing that real rest—breaking from our routine just to BE—is one of the most important spiritual disciplines people can practice for the benefit of not only their physical health, but their spiritual, relational, and emotional health as well. It is also critical if we want to do good, creative work. Someone asked me recently, am I working to rest or am I resting to work? This question infers that we have confused the ends and the means. There is a highly productive element of rest. There is a reason creativity experts tell us to go for a walk when we hit roadblocks in our work. We need a change of scenery, a breath of fresh air, a tree. Nature draws us out; not just out of doors, but out of ourselves. Nature gives us some perspective, helping us not take ourselves too seriously. Have you ever thoroughly examined a stem of Queen Anne’s lace? A bird’s feather? A mountain’s silhouette? I’d bet good money that you weren’t thinking about anything else while you did. I bet that felt great. I bet you came away inspired.

John Muir understood this. Here are a few inspirational quotes from his writings along with some of my nature photography. I hope you enjoy it, but I also hope that it makes you want to GO OUTSIDE!

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

 DSC_4507“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”

girl with telescope“The mountains are calling and I must go.” 

DSC_4264“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” 

010609-0351-cameragear2.jpg“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” 

010609-0351-cameragear1.jpg“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” 

DSC_4444“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” 

DSC_0202 “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” 

There is that in the glance of a flower which may at times control the greatest of creation’s braggart lords.

 “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”


N.B. I highly recommend reading or listening to Dayton Duncan’s book, National Parks: America’s Best Idea, or watching the Ken Burns documentary of the same title, to learn more about John Muir and the ongoing quest to preserve our natural heritage.

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Tale as Old as Time, Part 2

At last, the long awaited Part Two of our experience to the Fantasyland expansion of Disney World, this time complete with video! See Part 1 Here.

On our last day at the parks we made sure to prioritize a trip to Enchanted Tales with Belle, the new interactive Beauty and the Beast experience. We weren’t sure what to expect considering we that were a group of adults and that this was most likely designed for young kids. But we had heard that the animatronics were not to be missed, so we gave it a go. As we turned the corner into Fantasyland we kept turning down a cobblestone path leading up to a thatched roof cottage with a stable attached. We wound our way through the farm-style fencing up to the house. Quickly I realized, “Wait, this is BELLE’S house and stable!” Remember in the movie when Belle goes out to the stable to feed the chickens and kicks the bucket of food over while swearing never to be Gaston’s “little wife” because she wants much more than this provincial life? That’s the one.

Belle’s living room

The line moved slowly but there was plenty to entertain. It was, however, about 200 degrees out, so we did feel a bit like melting into a puddle and calling it a day. The line twisted around the outside of the house and led through a door into Belle’s and Maurice’s living room—air conditioned and everything, thank the Lord. With the relief from the heat came a renewed sense of curiosity for our surroundings.  Between exposed wooden beams and yellowy-cream walls, the tables and counters were covered in stacks of Belle’s books and strewn about with Maurice’s blueprints for his inventions. On the wall hung a portrait of a young Belle next to who we were to deduce as Belle’s mother. We spotted along the opposite wall pencil markings—Belle’s growing heights over the years.

At intervals of about 10-15 minutes, a big door would open and a Disney cast member, dressed in culottes and tunics, would usher a new group into the next room. We (somewhat) patiently waited our turn. At last, our large party was welcomed into the “experience.” (Again, I use that word carefully and intentionally. Then again, I don’t know what else to call what followed. It was neither a ride nor a play nor a game, so experience is all I can say.) We followed a corridor down to another room where the cast member informed us that we were in Maurice’s workshop. Indeed, tools and blueprints and schematics and odds and ends appropriately suggested ‘eccentric inventor.’ The one component that looked out of place was a giant mirror hanging on the wall. The cast member explained that this was a magic mirror given to Maurice by the Beast so that he could talk to Belle whenever he liked. The cast member asked us all if we wanted to see how it worked.

The magic mirror

“Yes!” rang out young voices all around us. OK! The lights went dim and the mirror began to smoke and glow green. Slowly and seamlessly the mirror grew wider and taller. Before we knew it the glass had disappeared to reveal a secret passageway. Awesome.

The passage led through a short corridor and opened up into a broad, brightly lit hall, and who was there to welcome us but the Wardrobe in all her boisterous hospitality.

The Wardrobe hands out roles

With the help of the cast members the Wardrobe distributed from within her cabinets props for all of the children present, as well as any of the adults (Josh)

My knight in shining armor

who wanted to play along. She explained that, when we went into the next room, Lumiere would help us surprise Belle and reenact the story of how Belle met the Beast. After a moment or two of rehearsal, into the next room we went. We shuffled in and sat on benches facing a large fireplace. On top of the mantle sat the man—er—candelabra we’d all been waiting for. Lumiere welcomed us with broad sweeps of this brass arms and his charming, smirking smiles. He gave all of the kiddos (and Josh) their instructions to yell “Surprise!” when Belle arrived. “Are you ready?” “Yea!” The lights when down, the door on the left opened, and Belle came in. SURPRISE! Belle was appropriately surprised. Music played as she greeted us. With cues from Lumiere and some prodding from the cast members, the children (and Josh, who was a suit of armor) reenacted the Story of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a “Be Our Guest” parade around the room.

The experience

As if I were not already delighted, there was a particular moment that won all of our hearts. You might think that one of the young boys would jump at the chance to play the role of the Beast. On this particular occasion, however, this was far from the case. It was, in fact, a little girl in a Cinderella outfit who eagerly claimed the part. On went the Beast’s red cape and the play was cast. Half way through the play, the time came for the Beast to give a mighty roar. The lights when down, the spotlight went up, the music turned off, and then we heard it—tiny, sweet, and delightful: “rooooaaaar!” I later overheard the little girl’s mother tell a cast member that for months this little girl was desperate to play the role of the Beast, therefore making this a dream come true. A “Disney moment” if ever there was one!

As I reflect on these magnificently interwoven elements of acting, animatronics, timing, comfort, interactivity, etc., I realize how easily it all could have gone off poorly. It could have felt painfully cheesy, but we were all too impressed to think too hard about it. It could have been disastrously awkward if we had had to wait for too long to go from room to room, or if something else had broken down in the system, but there was never a moment’s doubt. We could have felt like cattle, what with all the shuffling we did, but our curiosity kept us moving. The professionalism, the high standard of service, and there being so much to look at completely prevented all of these possibilities. I noticed that a huge key to the success of this experience was the wherewithal of all of the cast members.

My favorite salt shaker

It is no easy task to herd kids with their costumes and their anxious parents on what must be an exceedingly tight schedule. Neither is it simple to keep so many people not only happy but enthralled, and keep yourself practically invisible in the process. I had heard tell of the exemplary Disney customer service. I even read a little book about it called Lessons from the Mouse, all about how other businesses can apply the Disney customer service standard. But here it was, in living color, making it possible for hundreds of people every day to leave behind their cares of the hot and sweaty world outside. No one does this better than Disney, and they do their best to prove it every day.

Here are a few clips from the experience strung together for your viewing pleasure. Be sure to admire the flexibility of the animatronics, the expert facilitating skills of each of the cast members, and best of all, the little roar.


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UnFrozen: Letting go of inhibitions

I received a lesson about inhibition the other day. It came packaged in the delightful voice of a child singing the big number from Disney’s Frozen (If you haven’t seen it, get thee to a cinema. Only then you will know why people who have seen it will be laughing when I say, “I don’t have a skull.”)

Here is the clip from the movie featuring the powerful lungs of Idina Menzel:

Here is the version featuring the equally moving performance by 3-year-old Ella:

Now, I might not belt with the oomph of Ms. Menzel, nor do I display the adorableness associated with being 3. But there is no reason why I too can’t sing with abandon*. Confidence, after all, is half, or at least some large percentage, of any battle. And like Maria tells us in The Sound of Music, we can have confidence in confidence, suggesting that even feigned confidence will win us satisfaction. Little Ella has inspired me, as the song says, to LET IT GO.


*I’m going to assume my neighbors find it endearing. 🙂

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Happy New Year! Love, the snowman and the bard


Frost on the INSIDE of my car. Yeah.

Greetings from frigid Chicago! We just returned from sunny California to gobs of snow and the promise of a -10 degree high for Monday. We suspect the weather karma spirits are making up for the (comparatively) mild winters of late.

Despite the fact that no one around here seems capable of talking about anything besides the weather, I do love snow, and Chicago is a decent place for Cross Country Skiing. I also enjoy the month of January because, owing to everyone’s desire to stay inside, it is a time that lends itself to thinking, and specifically for thinking BIG about the new year. Got any 2014 resolutions or plans? What inspires you as we head into this new year? Do share!

I stumbled across this list of 10 resolutions paired with Shakespeare quotes. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Do what you fear – “Boldness be my friend. Arm me, audacity, from head to foot.” –  Cymbeline, Act I, Scene 6
  2. Love your enemies – Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it doth singe yourself.” – Henry VIII, Act I, Scene 1
  3. Be patient – “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” – Othello, Act II, Scene 3
  4. Be positive – “It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
  5. Use time more wisely – I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” – Richard II, Act V, Scene 5

I resolve to memorize more Shakespeare. Please hold me to it.

I also stumbled across this piece on this amazing dude who draws massive fractal designs in huge swaths of snow by way of walking through miles of it. Check it out!

The snowman creates.

The snowman created.

See more of the snow designs.

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