Wednesday, April 26, 2006


As I was standing atop Starved Rock this past weekend, I had a revelation that is probably boring and obvious to a lot of locals, but I really hadn't understood how it worked until an informational sign enlightened me. This is the problem: the watershed in the Chicago area is really strange. For example, the water in Lake Michigan (and the entire Great Lakes Basin) flows to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence seaway. But, most of Illinois flows to the Mississippi River and then to the Gulf of Mexico.

As this map shows, the line demarking these two watersheds is just outside Chicago and rings Lake Michigan. And it's not like there's a great mountain ridge running along that dotted line - it's just prairie, swamp and dunes (or nowadays, suburbs). In fact the difference is so slight that canal projects in the 1800s were able to reverse the flow of the Chicago River so it flows out of Lake Michigan (and hence to the Mississippi as well). I mean, everyone always jokes about how the Chicago River goes the wrong way, but I never understood until now what that means. Does anyone else think it's strange that the watershed line is so close to the lakeshore?

In a sense, this geographic burp is kind of why Chicago is such an important city. Ever since Jolliet and Marquette, people had been looking for a passage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi so they could ship things easier to different places. Just outside Chicago was where the portage was shortest, and once the canals were dug the city grew rich on the shipping trade. Now it all makes sense!

There's an excellent overview of all this to be found here (which is also where I stole the map image from; please don't sue me).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Starved Rock

We recently bought a new tent, and this weekend we tried it out at Starved Rock State Park, which is this really lovely little park halfway to Iowa along the Illinois River.

The campground was pretty gourmet as far as car-camping goes, and not too crowded yet. I can imagine the place rivals downtown Manhattan come July. Lots of RVs and kids on bikes. We were psyched to have a campfire, and the site we picked even had some leftover firewood. Yet, having forgotten a lighter, we lacked the technology to actually make fire. Hmm. We had seen signs advertising firewood as we entered the campground "Jack's Firewood and Stuff", so we set off to find Jack. Turns out, Jack doesn't run a store but is this really nice old guy who lives on this ridiculously picturesque country road and who sells firewood out of his front yard for $5 a stack (leave the cash in the thermos, thanks!). Since we didn't need any firewood, he loaned us matches and threw in some old newspapers. Super nice guy. And now we had a campfire.

And when the sun went down, the stars came out. Now I've been spending the past several months designing a museum exhibit on constellations and the local stars, but I realized that I hadn't seen actual stars in months. And the night was clear and beautiful - perfect for stargazing.

The next morning it was warm and sunny, with the first signs of the woods coming alive for spring.

This is the view of the Illinois River from the top of Starved Rock, which is a layer-cake rock outcropping right above the river. Legend has it in the 1760's an Illiniwek war-party was besieged on the rock by Ottawa warriors avenging the killing of their chief, Pontiac. The Illini refused to surrender and they all starved to death. The park has had the good taste to not put a snack shop on the top.

Here's some pictures of us hiking around.

A view of Starved Rock from "Lover's Leap" (another cheerful story behind that one, I'm sure).

Here's Laura Jean looking cute. The watershed region of the Illinois River is pretty interesting in itself (I'll probably devote another post to it). The dam prevents this part of the river from freezing solid, and so bald eagles come to the park in the winter to fish. We didn't see any, but we did watch a barge go through the locks, which was kinda cool.

The park is mostly twisting canyons and waterfalls, which is weird for Illinois. I wouldn't really have guessed that there were things high enough for water to fall off of in this state, but this canyon was deep and cool and very peaceful, with a great waterfall back in the nook.

The nearby town of Utica is pretty adorable as well; 1000 people, nearly all of them proprietors of tiny shops or cafes along the Main Street. The vision of a church steeple perfectly framed by two grain silos is what greets you as soon as you enter the town from the interstate. Perfect.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Dream Jobs

I've started taking a Career Exploration Seminar through the U of Chicago's CAPS service. Since I'm planning on making a leap out of academia and into some interesting and useful job in September, I'm hoping this class will help me focus what I want to do and give me some tips on resumes, networking and how to get hired. Anyway, one of the first things they had us do was to make a list of what we would do with our lives in some ideal universe. Here's mine, in no particular order:
  • Travel the world, learn lots of languages and live overseas for a while (but not forever).
  • Be a rabble-rouser of some sort, i.e. community organizer, etc.
  • Write science-fiction novels.
  • Stay at home and raise the kids.
  • Be a really good high school math or science teacher, who makes students love (or at least not hate) math and science.
  • Work as a bread baker.
I'm not sure if I would be any good at these jobs, or even that they're what I want to be doing right away, but hey, ideal universe, right? For now, I'm looking for jobs in the non-profit sector, so if anyone has any contacts or good ideas about such jobs in the D.C. area, let me know!

Here's another list of jobs that aren't quite what I'm looking for, but seem like they would also be fairly cool.
  • Nicholas Kristof's job: I imagine that this is what many an aspiring journalist daydreams about doing: traveling the globe, talking to interesting people about human rights, exposing corruption and abuse, rousing rabble, raking muck, etc. These days, this is dominated by independent and/or foreign journalists since most corporate American media outlets don't put very much money money into investigative or international reporting any more. Among mainstream American journalism, Kristof seems to be the only big name who does this, but he does it well enough to score a Pulitzer. (By the way, how much does TimesSelect suck? I mean, I shoveled out the money for it, but still... thumbs down)
  • Google: Granted, they're probably the next incarnation of Big Brother (unless they really do stick to the "don't be evil" rule). But they do give their software engineers some large percentage of their time free to dream up cool stuff, like this, and this, and this, and this ...
  • Movie Reviewer: It still amazes me that some people get paid to do this.

The Storybook Project

When inmates make collect calls (the only calls they can make) from Cook County Jail, it costs their families 3 to 4 times the usual rate to accept the charges. It's a small thing I suppose, but like a lot of things in our correctional system, it seems like they're going out of their way to be rapacious and unfair and counter-productive. Talk about kicking someone when they're down. Does price gouging poor people and isolating inmates from their families and communities serve the common good in the long run? Does it make our streets safer or reduce recidivism? I very much doubt it. But, of course, it's a safe bet for the phone companies (or the jail, or whoever's idea it was) that sticking it to prisoners won't win them any enemies, even while it fattens their profit margins. The invisible hand is more like an invisible fist when you've got a monopoly and a captive market (so to speak).

This last Saturday, Laura Jean and I went with 3 other folks from our church to the Cook County Jail for our first session volunteering with Aunt Mary's Storybook Project. We had our orientation about two months ago, but hadn't been allowed inside the jail since, due to security lockdowns. These may have had something to do with, oh I don't know... the jailbreak that occurred just a few days after our first visit, and subsequent allegations that prison officers may have had a hand in the escape. So yeah, they've been having some security "issues", but they finally decided to let us in this past weekend.

Just getting into the jail is quite a task. Your name has to be on the right piece of paper, you get patted down (twice), go through a metal detector and an ion scanner. Not all of the officers seem tense and unhelpful, but after a while you feel like some of them are looking for any excuse to toss you out. So, you learn to be very polite and helpful at all times. The system is highly bureaucratic, yet oddly incompetent -- we had to ask them to carefully search the cart of books we brought in, not wanting to get busted for any accidental contraband and lose our right to do our program. Go figure.

Anyway, we finally got everything set up in one of the gyms, and they sent us an initial group of 15-20 mothers from the women's ward and we explained the program to them. We told them that we were there to give them a chance to connect with their kids. We had boxes and boxes of children's books for all ages (from 'Pat the Bunny' through 'Harry Potter') and tape-recorders so that they could read the book aloud to their kids (or sing them a song, or send them a message). We would then mail the book and the tape to the children. The kicker is, when we explained the program to them, there was an audible response, and at least three women started crying right off the bat. This, of course, made it tough for the rest of us to keep a dry eye. We got started by helping them pick out the right books for each of their kids, and handed them a tape-recorder.

The few hours I've spent in CCJ give me the impression that it is a pretty rough place -- hugely overcrowded and oppressive. A few years back there was a big scandal about the officers beating the crap out of the inmates (read the full Chicago Tribune coverage here). In CCJ, almost everyone is awaiting trial. Laura Jean tells me that the prisons downstate are calmer since everyone knows how many years they're looking at. Although some have been awaiting trial for a year or two, everyone in the jail is on edge and unsure what will happen to them. I should say that probably most of the women in CCJ are there for drug-related crimes (see also here), either possession or property-crimes related to a drug problem. The War on Drugs marches on.

Anyway, there are some times when you're doing a service project and you wonder whether it will have any impact at all: this was not one of those times. The women were all completely down with the project and they spent every last minute they could reading into the recorders and writing letters to their kids. I got a very strong impression that the books and tapes were filling a painful gap for them. A few women cried through the entire book; others were excited and everyone seemed grateful in the end. Communication out of the jail is very difficult; in addition to the collect calls, they have to buy paper, envelopes and stamps through the commissary just to write a letter. It may not be a systematic fix for a broken system, but if it helps keep even a few families from shattering completely it's a success.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Working Weekend

Over the past four days I have attended five church services at two congregations for a total 6.5 hours and Lord knows how many hymns. Not to mention a church volunteer trip on Saturday to Cook County Jail ("the real work of the church", as Laura Jean said). I'm pretty sure that that is more church than I logged during the entire Clinton administration. Turns out Holy Weekend is a working weekend for preacher's spouses too. Still, it was pretty fun. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, we got to see friends confirmed into their church Saturday night (which almost burned down, but then didn't), attended a very nice sunrise service on Sunday, and capped it off with a completely fabulous sermon from Susan at the full Easter service. And then we all got up on stage and sang the "Hallelujah" chorus together to close it out. Amen indeed!

And now I can drink beer again! Yay!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Goin' back to Cali

A few weeks back we had a really nice mini-vacation to California. Kinda like "spring break", except neither of us are students any longer. It was just five days but we packed a lot of stuff into them. Anyway, here are some pics...

The main impetus for the trip was that Laura Jean's little brother, Eric, is getting himself hitched this summer to a lovely young woman named Holly. They attend college in New Mexico and were travelling by train to Nevada City, CA, where her family lives, and so they stopped over in Fresno at my parents' house for a few days. Since Laura Jean had yet to meet Holly, we took it as an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone.

The happy couple and Laura Jean. We wanted to hike down by the San Joaquin River, and even though it was rainy and gross, we were brave and did it any way.

There were some really good rocks for skipping.

Hanging out with Eric and Holly was great, but they had to be on their way to meet her Mom for the first time (da da da!), so we set out to enjoy California for ourselves. We took one day to meet up with friends and go hiking on the coast in Santa Cruz. I had forgotten how much I miss the Pacific Ocean, having moved to the heartland for the past six years. Dad, Jessica, Laura Jean and Sandhya in front of a natural bridge.

More beautiful coastline...

Jess on the beach.

Ocean waves.

A raucous (and quite green) St. Patrick's Day party with the Knapps.

We spent Saturday visiting more friends in Berkeley. The rain had finally rained itself away, and we were treated to one of those days that makes the Bay Area the most wonderful place in the universe. It was warm and sunny -- everything was positively luminous. This is the view from our friends' apartment in the Berkeley hills. Amazingly, you can see the Golden Gate and downtown San Francisco from their porch.

Kate, Laura Jean, Alex and Becca enjoying a brunchly idyll.

We spent far too little time hanging out with Jessica and Cathy, but we'll take what we can get.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

night lights

There's a lot of things I will miss about Chicago when we move away. One small thing is the beauty of its skyline. Here are two photos taken from the bar atop the John Hancock Building, looking west...

and south.

Taken when we were lucky enough to have Carina visiting us.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Shamrock Shuffle

Today I ran in the Shamrock Shuffle (advertised as the "largest 8K in the world!" with 25,000 participants). For starters, the weather report was saying something about it being in the high-50s today, but actually it was a cold 40 with wind when the race started. Thankfully it didn't start raining until after. Not exactly what you would call a "nice day for a run", but whatever. I've done this race for the past two years, and its generally a fun time. You get to run through the downtown streets and lots of people come out to watch. I've been telling myself I'd like to run at a 7 minute pace (5 miles = 35 minutes), but actually I'd be happy with 8 minutes and my knee ligament not hurting (its been twinging a bit on my last few runs). Anyway, 'ere's the play-by-play:
  • Mile 1: Start out north on Columbus, right past the Gehry alien spacecraft and then into the underground streets. The downtown, stripped of its cars, is totally transformed -- it feels a bit like being in a music video or something. The pack of runners is quite crowded, and in the tunnel the thump thump thump of our shoes is the only sound. I start out fast and feel pretty good. We cross the river, quite windy, turn on Grand.
    Time = 7:10
  • Mile 2: Head back across the river on State. I don't think I'll be able to keep up the 7 minute pace, but I'm still feeling pretty good - no twinges in my knee yet. Crowd starts to thin out a bit.
    Time = 7:30 Total = 14:40
  • Mile 3: Mmm, gatorade. My ankle and shin start to feel a little tight, maybe I'm overcompensating for the knee? Anyway, we turn west on Jackson and head out over the river again. There's a pretty good crowd cheering us on, which is cool. When I look down the side streets, I can see the front-runners already returning in the other direction, almost a mile ahead.
    Time = 7:40 Total = 22:20
  • Mile 4: Return east on Van Buren. Starting to feel a... little... tired. I slow my pace just a bit, and wonder why there aren't bands serenading us along the route like last year. OK, starting to feel more than a little tired. Breathe in, breathe out, remember to keep your stride long.
    Time = 8:00 Total = 30:20
  • Mile 5: OK, we turn south onto Michigan and it's just a mile left. Despite wanting to die, I pick up the pace a bit. Only a mile left, right? Then someone decides it would be funny to end the race with the only hill in Northern Illinois - it's uphill along Roosevelt to the corner with Columbus. Brutal. But after that it's only 300m and I try to finish strongly. I manage to cross the finish with arms upraised for the cameras.
    Time = 7:50 Total = 38:10
After we cross the finish line, they present us with mountains of bananas and granola bars and water. We all stumble through the lines, grabbing whatever we can carry. The bag check line is really long, which is too bad because it feels really cold once you cool down and everyone wants their warm clothes.

We have the option of getting a free beer and listening to live music, but for me, the idea of standing shivering in the rain drinking a beer by myself at 10am on a Sunday morning sounds too much like an operational definition of alcoholism. I put on my windbreaker and try to track down a bus back home.

Of course, all the bus routes are screwed up by the race, but I do eventually find a 6 bus and am extremely grateful to be out of the rain and cold. But then as we're turning south onto Lake Shore, the bus sideswipes a cab. I didn't even feel the collision and it looked like nobody was hurt, but we had to sit in the bus, blocking traffic, for about 25 minutes until the next 6 came along to rescue us.

ps: ---
My official time was 0:38:09, which I think is identical to last year down to the second (a 7:38 pace) and which places me 2386th out of 20,408 finishers (top 12%). Among men I finished 1966th, and 494th in my division (age 25-29). The mens and womens champions clocked in at a mind-wowing 23:52 and 26:27, respectively. All in all, it was pretty fun time. Pictures coming soon, hopefully.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


OK. So it's been a looonnnggg while since I posted anything here. But never fear, I have a list of goodies I've been saving up to post and yak about: travels and photos and work and random thoughts galore.

But first, maps! I've always loved staring at maps - I have a distinct memory from when I was very small of looking at a globe and wondering which country was the United States (apparently I couldn't read yet). I remember deciding that Australia was in fact the U.S., mainly because I figured we were a large country and were too important to be connected to other, lesser nations. It seems I was a raging nationalist as a 3-year old.

Anyway I stole this idea from Leo's blog (it's apparently the hip thing to put on your blog these days): here are some maps of the places I've travelled.

First, the world map -- pretty pathetic really. I've really wanted to travel outside the U.S. more than I have. Laura Jean and I have plans to live overseas at some point in the near future, so maybe all that empty space will start to fill in a bit.

This is a bit more respectable. As a kid, my family's vacation of choice often involved super-long road trips to places like Yellowstone and Vancouver, thus accounting for most of the western states. And in this past year I picked up three new states: Nebraska, Missouri and Delaware. It looks like a swing through the South is in order at some point -- and since we'll likely be living in Virginia come September, that just might happen. But who knows if I'll ever make it to Rhode Island.

Anyway, the websites to create these maps are the following for the visited country map and the visited states map.

[ Update Feb 2007: Since I posted this I've racked up one new country (Poland) and one new state (North Carolina), bringing my totals to 12 countries (5%) and 35 states (68%). Wahoo! ]