Photo essay: Plants of my pandemic

I’m one shot deep into full inoculation. On my calendar, April 19, two weeks after our second shot, is circled in red, the outline of a wound, the unceremonious ending of a dread-full chugging along. I feel… complicated about it? I’ll be able to go hang out. Visit my masked neighbors. Be out again with people and friends. That makes me so happy but I am also shy about making plans, anxious about over-committing, afraid of under-committing. I feel like I have atrophied to my desk chair and the monotony of quarantine has emptied me, a hollowed tree trunk on its side. I have been growing behind a fence, having a conversation with myself in a gated space. And I feel trepidation about what to do once it is gone.

To do: Goat yoga

You agree to goat yoga at the Garfield Park Conservatory because you could use a break. A stretch break. And if baby goats are available for the whole process, why not include that little bonus of zoological Zen? Like fury parkour experts, these newborns. Or so you’ve assumed from YouTube videos of parkour and of baby goats.

When you arrive, you’re amazed at the conservatory’s calm and wonder why you have never been here before? Because you’re busy. You’re worried. You’re reading the news and staying up to date and even Story Corps advertisements are promising to “restore your faith in humanity,” which in-and-of-itself kinda does the trick because at least someone—even just a lonely NPR advertisement copywriter locked in a basement somewhere—is admitting people like you are getting nervous and feeling a little hopeless and climate change is real and ecoanxiety is also real (as of 2017, according to the American Psychological Association) and holy goats can we fix this or is it too late?

Regardless, all of this makes you grateful for the conservatory’s sheltered plants and the gated teeny triangle of prairie grass dotted with dandelions, which you’re now unfurling your brand new yoga mat onto, puffs of glittering seeds rise up to the morning sun. The L train zips by sporadically, charmingly. You begin to relax. You take some deep breaths. Stretch. Break.

When the goats come off the truck, you do everything you can to keep from squealing. But then you’re squealing anyway. You’re squealing and hand clapping like a child and have zero apologies for your excitement. Have you ever even seen a four-day old goat? Been climbed by one? Petted the peach fuzz of one’s recently crowned head?

You can’t focus on the poses, but that’s OK. Goat yoga is ultimately more about the goat—more specifically, what the goat is giving you—than the yoga but eventually you settle in to a warrior two or something like that and stop watching the bobbling babies struggle to walk the knee high grass and you push your drooling mouth closed and pop your eyeballs back into your head. And you breathe.

You hear the L ricochet by one more time and give thanks for a place like this and for your ability to move freely to and from it at whatever pace you like. You feel your legs in your yoga pants, which you haven’t replaced in years because you read somewhere yoga-pants-plastics were harming the water systems, but you’re not thinking about that now. You’re thinking about nothing but what this exact moment feels like to be you.

A goat bleats and you smile even more because that shit sounds so desperate and it’s funny because what sounds like a scream is really just him saying, “Hi. Got food?.” You cup the warmth of the sun in your open, welcoming palms. You smile. For a moment, this moment, it feels like you’ve got the whole world in your hands. Even if it’s a fucked up one. This is enough and you are happy here.

Published: Meet My Neighborhood

Don’t miss my latest dive into home sweet home Irving Park for I wrote about seven of my favorite spots in my neighborhood, including Independence Park and the best new cafe this side of the Blue Line.

Best window seat in the house.

P.S. Right after I filed this story with my editor, I read about Mirabella Cuisine & Bar in Bon Appetit magazine. The Italian steakhouse is owned by an Ecuadoran immigrant who is carrying on the red sauce legacy of Chicago. I didn’t even know Chicago had a red sauce legacy… or that Mirabella was a hidden gem in my neighborhood that I pass almost every week on my Irving Park runs. Can’t wait to try it!

That’s my favorite thing about living in a city as big as Chicago. There’s an infinite amount of restaurants, art, people, culture, events, drag shows, book stores, et al, to discover here.

Published: Tiki time in LongWeekends magazine

Check out the summer 2019 issue of LongWeekends magazine. The latest issue promises everything us Midwesterners need to plan the perfect long weekend trip this spring and summer.

My short piece is about three must-try tiki bars and restaurants in Chicago: Three Dots and a Dash in River North, Lost Lake in Logan Square, and Hala Kahiki Tiki Bar & Lounge in River Grove (worth the commute out to the ‘burbs, my Chi-town friends; this place has been tiki-ing since 1964 and claims to be the Midwest’s most authentic tiki bar).

Sober pals, don’t let the tiki-theme tempt you into not checking out these kitschy fun spots. Nonalcoholic treats abound. Example: Hala Kahiki’s zero proof Fruit Punch, a mix of passion fruit, housemade grenadine, housemade Orgeat, orange, pineapple, lemon, and lime.

Thumbing through the magazine has already garnered some travel ideas for us to conquer this summer, like taking a trek to Springfield, Illinois, to try the world-famous “hot dog on a stick” at The Cozy Dog Drive In. I guess I’m just a suck for anything corny! (Get it? Corn dog. Ha. Ha.) What are your big (or small) summer plans?

To do: Eat dumplings in Chinatown

It’s 4 p.m. on New Year’s Day. We’ve done nothing but watch TV in bed, eat in bed, read in bed, play video games in bed, anything that didn’t require us to leave the bed. Really, it’s the perfect start to a year in which I hope to slow down and allow myself a little more time doing exactly this kind of nothing.

This lounging has an unintended consequence, however.

We’re watching something forgettable on TV as Justin rubs my back. Both of our eyes are glazing over as his hand grazes a spot on my lower left side. This sloping hill is home to one lone hair that sprouts like a bamboo stalk in a pool of milk. It’s one of those hairs that seems to grow to its full size overnight.

Bamboo for sale in Chinatown. (Not my back.)

“Did you know you have a back hair? Like… one back hair?” Justin asks, laughing and using his fingers to seek out the thick strand’s exact location.

Oh boy, we’re both awake now. My cheeks start to flush. Then I remember it’s just Justin. (And then, later of course, it’s just a body. Just a back, a hair, an aging exterior, healthy.)

“Haven’t I told you about that before?” I say. As my instinctual insecurity unhitches, I giggle at the thought of it chilling all by itself back there. “It started growing about a year ago. I shave it.”

This sends him rolling off the bed in laughter. Literally, he falls off. Amused, I try to reach back and find the hair. It’s obviously been a while since I shaved it—I could weave a poncho with this thing.

Justin goes to the bathroom and comes back with tweezers. I lay on my belly as he plucks the lonely thing right off my back.

We inspect it together, like one does a popped zit or a tissue your nose (or whatever) just desecrated. We both determine it is thinner than it felt root-deep in the dermis, but where it lacks in girth it makes up for in length. Overall, a very impressive performance by one hair gone wild!

Next, I roll over on my back and ask Justin to do the same for the lone hair that similarly sprouts out of my chin. I’m better at shaving this one more regularly.

We giggle at each other as he lets it rip.

OK, but so these dumplings.

Intimate back and chin two-hair plucking comprised New Year’s. Chinatown dumplings *made* our Christmas Day.

This was the first year Justin and I stayed in Chicago for the winter holidays. Partly because we were so over traveling by that point in the year and didn’t want to spend 12 hours in the car again. And partly because we were hoping to purchase a condo over the holidays and wanted to be around to vulture something up if it came on the market.

We didn’t. Purchase a condo. But what we did establish a new Chicago Christmas tradition: Dumplings for dinner at Qing Xiang Yuan.

Best. Dumplings. Ever.

Take it from me. Or “Check Please!” if ya nasty.

I had recently eaten at QXY with a dear friend. She ordered for our whole party. Don’t you love when that happens? I do. Going to a restaurant with someone who knows where all the hidden menu gems (and, in this case, wood ear mushrooms) are buried is the BEST.

Her recommendations are now mine: Try the spicy shredded seaweed salad with chili pepper, flavorful wood ear mushroom salad (don’t look at the pictures, just do it), and grilled lamb kebab for starters. Then go straight to the dumplings. Your server can tell you which style (steamed, boiled, or fried) would be the most tasty for your combination. Order a bunch. They go fast.

On Christmas Day, we tried the pork and cabbage boiled and the beef and coriander steamed (yessss! definitely thisssss!). So delicious. So fun to eat. I love plucking them out of their little baskets, where they’re presented and unveiled together.

Like little stockings stuffed with care.

This is the only photo I took on Christmas:

The beef and coriander steamed dumplings at Qing Xiang Yuan.

I think one pic is review enough: I was too busy stuffing my face to take any more. But, Chinatown is really cool and I’d be remiss not to give you pictures from other visits we’ve taken there. Chinatown is a visual feast as much as it is a culinary one. Enjoy.

Thai rolled ice cream.
Dishes at MingHin.
Almond cookie desserts come standard at MingHin!
Lol… Look, I know this post was maybe not exactly what you expected… so here’s a distracting picture of a salt and pepper shaker from a Chinatown gift shop that will leave you with even more confounding questions. Namely: Wut?


To do: Write in CAA’s Drawing Room & visit AIC’s Thorne Rooms

A friend was picking my brain this summer for places that I go to write. Now that I’m living that good good #giglife, I can pretty much work from anywhere, so she assumed I had a hundred and one places squirreled away in my work-from-all-over office catalog.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have many exciting spots to offer up. In fact, she ended up giving me the secret gem, dream writing location: The Drawing Room at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.

Rumor had it, she said, that this space was open to the public, and it was beautiful, and you could just go sit in there and read and write! And no one asked any questions about your right to be in the club! Or your preference of golf swing! Or if your Izod shirt was in the wash! Sorry, my club stereotypes are very late-’90s.

Nevertheless, there it sat gathering dust on my radar all fall. Like treasure I knew the route to but didn’t feel worthy enough to hunt down. I was intimidated by the bougey rep of an “athletic club” and “chic hotel” and, just, you know, the whole notion that this was a private place for fancy folks, with a shrimp cocktail concierge and warm towelette dispenser on each elevator.

Per usual, I was wrong. And I took the stairs, so I don’t know about the elevator.

My friend was right: This second floor space inside the CAA is open to the public, and reading and writing in it kinda feels like reading and writing inside a castle!

There are dark, intricately carved wooden beams, ornate leather chairs, a crackling fireplace, and snow globe-style views of Michigan Ave and Millennium Park. There’s no shrimp cocktail concierge, but there was a very friendly waiter who brought me water and coffee and snacks whenever I need it. I mean, you do have to pay for that stuff, but it’s basically a BYOB(ook) library with food and drink service.

While you’re down in that neck-warmer of the woods, be sure to stop across the street to see the Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms.  

These are 68 itty-bitty rooms built on a scale of one inch to one foot, and they’re decorated to look like European and American interiors from the late 13th century all the way to the 1930s. AND, right now some are decorated for the holidays. Eeeeeee!

I recently went to look at the Thorne Rooms on my lunch break (giggity #giglife… I was posted up in the Starbucks across the street). While there, I broke a record for “Longest Time Spent Squeal-Clapping and Saying Oh This Is Just Delightful Over and Over Again.” 

Yes, Virginia, that is a Christmas marzipan hedgehog the size of a thimble.

Essay: Pitbull in a turtleneck

It’s ten past nine in the morning and my ass boasts the gridiron stripes of a beach chair.

I’m trying to read my book—a jaunty little beach read about AIDS in the 1980s—but I keep getting distracted.

I’m getting distracted by the beautiful Dominican women who are getting distracted by the Speedo-clad European men who are getting distracted by the unmistakable sounds of Pitbull drifting ashore from the island about a mile out.

Maybe I’m misremembering, but isn’t there a G-20 rule that Pitbull is only allowed to be played strictly between the hours of 11pm and 4am? You know, the timeframe when you can shamelessly acknowledge that you somehow know every word to every Pitbull lyric. Of which there are three.

I guess that rule doesn’t stand in the Dominican Republic, which is where I’m staying for the week with my husband and mother-in-law. It’s day three of our much-needed vacation, and we’ve each taken the morning to do our own thing. This was an unspoken arrangement necessitated by the former evening’s discontent slash disembowelment courtesy a dinner at the resort’s French restaurant. There should be a G-20 rule that Caribbean island hotel chefs don’t attempt French cuisine. Yes, the food here is total shit. I’m hungry and have been sustaining the past two days mostly on room service pineapple slices and the rogue mints strewn about the resort’s makeshift lounge areas. Their clear candy dishes double as ashtrays in the evening. Everything here is damp.

No matter. I still give this Caribbean island resort 10 out of 10 stars. Because it is, after all, a Caribbean island resort. But to be honest, trying to decide what to do with myself this lazy, self-directed morning has been a bit of a task for me. Three reasons:

  • Like a forlorn beached whale, I feel uncomfortable and exposed, flown in here from the gaping wounds of the Midwest cornfields. This means I am a white lady that’s as white as the putty-colored sand I’m now trying to happily dig my toes into, and I have to apply SPF-100+ sunscreen every hour to avoid sun poisoning.
  • Having fun, enjoying myself, playing, are not things that come easily to the bumper crop of workaholics from which fate has planted me like a rotten apple tree. In some twisted way of coping with the undercurrent of guilt I’m experiencing for enjoying myself on this vacation, I feel a bit relieved that the faux-French restaurant’s attempt at a lobster thermidor the night before tasted… like the putty-colored sand I’m now trying to happily dig my toes into.
  • As stated, the book I brought to read on my super-duper-fun-time-vacation is making me fall in love with characters who will ultimately die terribly, tragically from AIDS.

Equally disheartening is my sudden awareness that the last time I was supposed to be lounging sublimely on a foreign beach, for my honeymoon, the book I had brought along to read was about a man with an addictive overeating habit searching for his lost, troubled son with an addictive heroin habit. It’s as if my subconscious tries to armor me with subtle reminders that where there is pleasure found, there is almost always potential-pain afoot. My subconscious is like an annoying shoulder-angel dressed completely inappropriately for this vacation in a turtleneck. I assume my shoulder-devil looks like Pitbull.


This spiraling train of thought is interrupted by a neon orange flying saucer careening toward my head. It plops a foot away from me, but not before I can pretend to give a socially-acceptable level of effort to stop its descent. Like a Dominican Republic Daria.

“Ay mate,” says the strapping hunk of meat strapped in Speedo now inches from my face. He bends down to retrieve his frisbee. “Beautiful day, no?!”

“Yes,” I say.

“I’m having such a wonderful time,” I lie.

American to Aussie (in a land we’re pretending is ours when it’s convenient) we nod good day. I watch him walk away, thankful for the opaque sunglasses that let me surreptitiously stare at his Speedo bum while I appear, to anyone watching us, to read.

How do I become someone like that? A person who has a healthy enough respect for pleasure and the spiritual fortitude to enjoy it that I remember to pack a toy while I dally in the breeze that threatens to carry that same toy to <<<shudder>>> the beach next door where children are allowed. Instead, all I find remarkable right now is the way the palm tree waving above my head looked like a bodacious, billowing burlesque feather from my balcony an hour ago. But now, upon closer inspection, looks and sounds like sun-beaten, hairspray-crusted, dusty, rattling window blinds.

I apply sunscreen for the fourth time. I mostly associate palm leaves with Catholic Sunday school and Lent. I feel like, when I trace my lifelife, that there are always people, scared adults mostly, along the road reminding me like soothsayers that there was some man somewhere, sometime who died for me to live this way—so modern and unencumbered. Jesus. Soldiers. AIDS victims. Starving monks. iPhone makers. Pineapple pickers. Mermen.

Meanwhile, a seagull suicide bombs into the ocean.

Pitbull croons undisturbed.


Four days later, my husband and I are back in Chicago. We’ve deposited my mother-in-law at her car to drive herself back to Indiana. She’s glowing like golden corn silk with her new tan. I’m glowing like gooey glue paste with no sunburn. This is considered a win by all involved.

And despite notions I’ve give you to the contrary, I’ve decided I had a ton of fun on my vacation actually! After all, on our last day the islanders let us sail a catamaran on the ocean unattended. No training or anything. Just a life jacket and a wave. They told us where to sit as we hoisted our privileged American asses on the totally-unmotorized plastic ship and pushed us off with giant, totally-unsarcastic grins.

COFFEE IS HOT warning label-era child that I am, I’m used to having to sign a waiver of liability to do anything except cut my own toenails. Our next of kin could have sued the resort had we gotten eaten by sharks at sea, corpses on a catamaran. But instead they just let us figure it out ourselves. It was fun… refreshing, even if the food wasn’t.

It’s snowing in Chicago, but we’re both still on this oh-catamaran-my-catamaran high. So much so that we put off unpacking our bags and checking our emails and decide to play a game instead. And not just any game. We’re going to play the Ten to Ten, a game devised by my husband, Justin. Justin is our two-person family’s self-appointed Minster of Fun, because clearly I’m no good at things like having a good time, unless you count when I am drunk, but I can’t do that anymore because I did drunk as dangerously and as extremely as I do sadness.

We started playing the Ten to Ten this summer. Here’s how it works.

From a miniature velvet drawstring bag, one of us draws a dice. There are three sets of dice in this pouch, and each set is a different color of a CTA line near our apartment. Depending on which color we draw—red, brown, or blue—we will take a CTA train from that colored line to a destination. Our destination is determined by the number we roll next using the drawn dice. Once we have our color and our number, we refer to a map. On this map, we have numbered stops on the red, brown, and blue lines that we don’t visit that often but would like to see more of.

The rules of the game are that we have to now travel to that destination on the CTA and spend 12 hours exploring around the area—from ten am to ten pm.

This game is the most fun thing I’ve done since I quit drinking. I think that’s why Justin created it. He knew that, without unchecked alcoholism to help quiet my brain’s chaotic queries of crucifixes and syphilis, civilians droned and babies caged, I didn’t know how to have fun in a healthy way. He knew that, in fact, I probably never knew how to have fun in a healthy way. Fun to me used to look like a blackout.

But today I am almost two and a half years dry. And today, destiny has handed us a good mood and selected us a Brown dice and rolled for us a 6. Off we cruise by bus, then traincar to the Wellington stop.

First, we stop by a place that calls itself a bread café and eat dinner over a tiny table for two. I take a picture of the lace curtains that have happy chickens sew onto them. We stop by a free art gallery we stumble across as we traverse the neighborhood’s sidewalks. We get ice cream. The beauty of the Ten to Ten is that if forces us (me) to get out of our heads (my head). Without having a specific destination or two to hit up before heading back home, we find things we never would have otherwise.

For example, by 8 p.m. this evening we’ve ventured South enough to be on DePaul’s campus. Passing a gymnasium, we see volleyball players warming up through the crack of the heavy gym door. A game is starting. Do we wanna watch? Why not. They have volleyballs to kill and we have to hours to do the same. We fork over five dollars and climb the staticky bleachers to a seat.

As we cheer for the Lady Blue Demons, of which for the next hour we are diehard fans, we remark that we never would have done this together had it not been for the Ten to Ten. We finish out our evening strolling the campus, poking fun at the college’s marketing slogans by night that I very well could have written in my job by day. When we finally get back home, I smile behind Justin’s back as he unlocks our apartment door. It’s a real smile, as if I’m pushing clueless foreigners out to adventure and sunset on a catamaran. In this moment I feel so genuinely happy and I’m thankful for this person. A person who manages to always show me happiness despite his own lifeline landlocked by distress and anxiety, fear and sleep apnea.

He is a game maker and a game changer.

My very own Mr. Worldwide with a conscience.

My Pitbull in a turtleneck.

And a Speedo if I ask nicely.

To do: Timber Lanes bowling in Chicago

Old school wooden lanes and you track the scores yourself. Like a real man!


Timber Lanes Bowling Alley

1851 W. Irving Park Rd.

Chicago, IL 60613

There are several things about Timber Lanes in North Center that you can’t beat. They include:

  1. The price: $2.50 per game. Bring cash for games, shoes, and/or drinks/snacks at the bar.
  2. The digital jukebox, where frequently played favorites include 38 Special and Ah-Ha.
  3. The vibe. The ghost of The Dude is near.
  4. Me on Game 2. Bowled a 127, baybay! Must’ve been Steely Dan on the juke.

Home of Hamm’s Hamm’s Hamm’s Bowling Team.

Hell Mary.

Beat that. (Not pictured: My many gutter ball zeroes during the first game.)