Keanu Reeves and a Cunning Plan

I love a cunning plan. Especially when it’s mine. Especially when it works. The most cunning of all plans, ones that are celebrated and admired, are those which exceed all expectations. Mine was one of those. That was how we ended up in Chicago.

When we returned home from our previous trip, I put my devious strategy into place. Given a little bit of time, some gentle nudging and subtle exhortations, I was sure that my wife would return to work. Someone needs to work to pay for my lavish lifestyle and I’d far rather that it be her than me. Nobody can accuse me of not adjusting to our post-feminist society.

So, after tackling some adrenaline-fuelled house maintenance tasks (finding a guy to fix your roof can be hair-raising), I felt a small bout of profligate spending would suggest to San-Marié that she needed to earn an income. A couple of expensive study chairs, a new stove and a keyboard tray later, I sat back and admired my work – and waited patiently for her to update her CV. But my wife is nothing if not shrewd – all she did was stop shopping at Woolworths and started stalking the aisles of Checkers for discounts and 2-for-the-price-of-1 Handy Andy.

But those who know me well, know that I can be a dogged fellow. I initiated phase two of my scheme and started playing bridge again. This, I was convinced, would awaken some deep-seated angst in my wife that bridge was just one step before retirement homes, false teeth and colostomy bags and she would be spurred into action. But instead of crumbling in the face of my bold little gambit, she started focusing on playing bridge too. And in what was clearly an aggressive counter-strike of bourgeois one-upmanship, she also re-dedicated herself to cooking and going to daily boot camp at the local sports club fields. Disturbingly for me, she tackled these tasks with a mania reserved only for the most loyal of suburban devotees.

I remained calm. Fine, I thought, cook all you want – I’ll still be eating when you stop cooking. There’s only one winner in that contest. And I’ll do a bit of gym, too. Not too much, mind you, but just enough to show that I’m not intimidated by such flagrant guerrilla tactics.

I’m not sure what finally caused it – perhaps it was my insistence on doing some of the handyman tasks around the house and both of us suffering the consequences. Perhaps it was the cold yet deserving disdain that she experienced at the bridge table as she bungled a contract. Or maybe she just grew tired of hunting for the cheapest ingredients from 5 different places for every meal. Whatever it was, we began discussing travel once again. And within about 4 weeks of deciding, we were on our way. Not quite the outcome that I was angling for, but in amongst our talk of locations and destinations and aspirations, I did manage to sneak in a plaintive, “but you are going to work when we get back again, aren’t you?” A victory for the cunning plan, I would say.

Chicago is big. Whilst it lags New York  in terms of size, it somehow feels less contained and more sprawling than the Manhattan-centred city. Trying to come to grips with Chicago is like trying to hug a really fat man – you know that you’re unlikely to encompass it all, but if you give it a good go, it will probably make you feel warm and squishy all over.

Chicago is famous for the Bears, the Bulls and the Cubs. It claims the first modern skyscraper. Walt Disney, Barack Obama and Al Capone have called it home. Its name has been used by a famous rock band. Schools of thought in economics and architecture have taken on the Chicago moniker and it has been used as the headline in a really crappy musical. It has been called “The Windy City”, “The Second City” and “Chi-Town”. But none of this really interested us. What we wanted was The Blues.

Chicago is one of the great hubs of The Blues with a deep musical history and so we hunted down a local club. Settling in with our exorbitant drinks (a local bourbon seemed suitable to me although my wife bizarrely opted for some trendy, inappropriate beer), we watched a delightful hour and a half of Maurice John Vaughn and his band, the highlight of which was the differing styles of Maurice and his bass guitarist. Maurice was all passion – a bald headed, mustachioed wailer with a set of elasticated facial expressions that resembled those that one might pull if you heard someone scraping their nails against a blackboard. In stark contrast, his bass guitarist had a range of expressiveness that makes Keanu Reeves look like Jim Carrey. Unlike Keanu and his wooden face, this guy’s unruffled dead-fish eyes and poker face seemed cool. I think the dreadlocks helped.

Mr Wooden Face and Maurice

Mr Wooden Face and Maurice

We sampled some other cultural events. We went to a comedy improvisation (improv) – the one we attended being a Shakespearean one. Members of the audience throw out suggested titles and then the actors construct a play off the cuff in Shakespearean language. One bright spark suggested “Tequila Time Travel” which led to riffs on worms and years and hangovers. As in all good Shakespeare, the ad-libbed plot was fairly predictable and included love thwarted, evil and death, containing sexually-ambiguous characters that were a strange mix of the sprites of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the witches of Macbeth. Whilst initially amusing and impressive, particularly the ability to rhyme, it grew a bit old over time, so the actors found it quite hard to shine, as if they were being constantly dunked in brine. Still, I felt fine. I guess the tendency to introduce phrases with “How now, Petrarchio” as well as constant references to “Sweet Bianca” can hold one’s attention for only so long. More interesting to me was the audience. Accustomed to attending local theatre surrounded by fellow baldies and grey-headed aficionados, it was a novel experience having an audience that was a lot younger and very engaged – laughing, shouting, cheering and whooping. A bit like I imagine a Donald Trump rally to be, but without the venom and with a lot more intelligence.

We also attended a free outdoor dance festival, made up of seven different performances. Knowing about as much about dancing as I do about Hawaiian lauhala weaving, all I can say is that I found some of the dancing pretty athletic and some of it pretty odd (why were all those people sliding tables around and flapping their arms in the air?) My more informed wife considered the performances sound, yet not particularly inspiring. The setting was wonderful – it took place in a Frank Gehry-designed open-air pavilion with skyscrapers in the background. Once again, the American audience was of greater interest – I think relentless enthusiasm and indiscriminate delight is either DNA-embedded or perhaps they make you pass some sort of delirium test when you immigrate. Either way, to the average US audience, there appears to be no performance undeserving of a rapturous standing ovation.

Dancing in the dark

Dancing in the dark

As always, food is a vital ingredient for us when we travel and Chicago meant pizza. Deep-pan pizza. Inches of cardiac arrest-inducing cheese and crust and meat and whatever other goodies you can fit into the container. These are not thick-based pizzas, these are cheese and meat pies made of pizza, baked mini-mountains of carbohydrates that would make William Banting quake. We enjoyed the first one we had so much that the next day we tried another one at a a different place. Not wise for a man with my health history perhaps, especially since the portions of the second venue were so large that leftovers made up our next two meals. Still I think moderation is sometimes an over-rated value.

Pizza to die for

Pizza to die for

Our five month journey had begun. Chicago was a brief port-of-call before we hopped on a plane and headed north to Alaska. My next missive will hopefully tell exciting tales of brown bear-wrestling, mountain-climbing and riding the backs of orcas whilst singing the Star-Spangled Banner. But don’t get too excited. More than likely, it will just have snapshots of us with snow and ice in the background. But we will be smiling.

To view our Chicago gallery, click here.

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6 Responses

  1. Stephen says:

    I dunno Saul. You’re in the town that hosts the legendary 3 Michelin-starred Alinea, and Grace, and Au Cheval (Bon Appetit mag proclaimed its burger the best in the US, and they serve foie gras scrambled eggs with duck heart gravy hash) and you have pizza. Twice. Then go a dance festival. Were you ill? Those of us who are traveling vicariously through you are feeling the stirrings of disgruntlement. In your next missive I expect you to report the eating of brown bears and orcas, not the riding of them.

  2. Jean says:

    So pleased you back on the road and we get to live vicariously through you! I loved Chicago when I was there in 1990 – I just remember it being FREEZING cold. Enjoy Alaska – so envious! Love to both of you. xx

  3. Mike says:

    An interesting start of the new series. Trust to see the contribution the new lenses make in the next episode.

  4. Andrew says:

    Delicious review of Chicago, as usual! Great to share your adventures again. Would love to hear some perspectives on US politics.

  5. Gramps says:

    Blues show brilliant, and river walk looks cool. Looking at that pizza – it can probably eat an average sized person ….

  6. Daniel P. says:

    We welcome the return of our prodigal wordsmith. Good to have you back Saul. Long were the days of pain we have spent in silence awaiting your next blog, and long were the nights of apprehension as to your next sojourns; and who can re-hypothecate from pain and apprehension without discounting regret?

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