the champaign-urbana bowl?????

Soundtrack: Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew, “The Super Bowl Shuffle”

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I found out that the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts would meet each other in this year’s Super Bowl. The reason why requires some detailed explanation.

I grew up in the Chicago area, so the Bears were my football team for most of my life. But I’d always liked the Packers, and when I moved to Madison, Wisconsin four years ago, I decided to watch the Bears and Packers play on Monday Night Football to see where my loyalties were. I decided at that point to switch my allegiance to the Packers, and declare myself a member of Wisconsin’s official state religion.

Four years ago, the Packers were threatening to make the Super Bowl and the Bears had yet to beat them in this century. Fortunes reversed themselves last year when the Pack went 4-12 and the Bears won the division. The Bears and Packers met in the last game of the season late last year, and prior to the game, the Bears had already clinched their division, and the Packers stood at 7-8. If the Packers were to beat the Bears, not only would they be 8-8 but would stand a good chance at making the playoffs. So to the Bear fans I knew, I proposed a win-win situation. The Bears had been playing rather lackluster ball the last couple of games, so I figured that if they would let the Packers beat them, the Packers might make the playoffs, but the Bears would benefit, too, because it just might be the kick in the tush needed to get the Monsters of the Midway serious about the playoffs. But I found no takers among Bear fans. As it turned out, the Packers beat the Bears handily, but did not make the playoffs because the New York Giants won the previous day.

But there was another time when a few of us decided to stray from our loyalties as Bear fans. When I was a senior in college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my housemates and I decided that we wanted to see a Bears game. But this was the late 80’s, and the Bears were still a dominant team after their Super Bowl victory a couple years before, and when we made inquiries about tickets, we learned that the entire season was sold out.

The twin cities of Champaign and Urbana, Illinois are a good 2-3 hours south of Chicago. But I began to wonder if Indianapolis might be closer. I did some checking and found out that was indeed true. We didn’t have Mapquest back in 1988, but a recent check of Mapquest shows that Soldier Field is 138.17 miles from where we lived in Urbana, and the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis (now the RCA Dome) is 119.62 miles from where we lived. The Indianapolis Colts had moved from Baltimore just four years before and were not a very good team—maybe a couple of games below .500. But when we called, it turned out they had tickets available. So at that moment, on the basis of ticket availability and closer proximity, my housemates and I decided to become rabid Indianapolis Colts fans.

The whole thing was kind of a joke. None of us were rabid sports fans to begin with, but for fun we decided to play the whole thing up to the hilt. So on Sunday, when the Colts were playing, we’d try to catch the game on TV, and sit on the couch in our boxer shorts, drink beer and belch as we cheered on the Colts. (This included the one female among the four of us, who also had her own pair of boxer shorts.)

And then, on one cold November afternoon, we piled into my VW Beetle and took a road trip to the Hoosier Dome to see the Colts play the New York Jets. I must say, it was a little bit of a strange experience seeing a football game in a dome. It looked like football players in full padding were playing on a giant tennis court. But the Colts won as we cheered them on, and to this day, it remains the only NFL game I have ever seen.

So now I find it hilarious that the Bears and the Colts are meeting each other in the Super Bowl eighteen years after our momentary defection from the Bears to the Colts. I’m not quite sure whom I am going to root for yet, especially since my primary loyalty is now with the Packers. The RCA Dome is now 330.07 miles from my home so on that basis I should root for the Bears, but I don’t know. Each team has won one Super Bowl, but the Colts’ one Super Bowl victory occurred in 1971 when they were still in Baltimore. The Colts have had a great team for years, but couldn’t make the Super Bowl until now. The Bears weren’t supposed to make it far this year either, so it’s hard to say who the Cinderella team is here.  As of now, I’m leaning slightly towards the Colts.

Just in case anyone is wondering whether my Packer loyalties are legit: According to Mapquest, Soldier Field is 148.22 miles from my home. Lambeau Field in Green Bay is 134.38 miles. Thank you, Brett Favre and Mapquest.


Soundtrack in my head: Ahmad Jamal, “Poinciana”

At 2:20 p.m. on Friday afternoon, my mother passed away into the next world. Her soul and spirit are now beginning a new phase in the journey that God gives all of us. As such, the rest of us in the family, in various ways, are beginning new phases in our own journeys.

I have spent two out of the last three weeks in Albuquerque, and during that entire time I’ve had to grapple with the reality that my mother would soon be passing away. I spent most of that time in my parents’ house, just a few dozen yards from the edge of a bluff that overlooks the Rio Grande, much of the city, and the mountains to the east. (I did sleep at the house of my aunt and her partner because I am deathly allergic to my parents’ cats.)

It seemed that time froze during that period and moved very slowly. It was not easy to be there. Before I left Madison for Albuquerque, part of me wanted to be anywhere but Albuquerque. Part of me just wanted to run away from the reality. Yet once I was there, I knew this was exactly where I needed to be. We talked about closure a lot the last time I was in Albuquerque, but I needed to be out there again during the final days to make closure truly possible.

The weather has been strange both in Albuquerque and Madison for most of the last three weeks. Madison has been unseasonably warm with highs in the 40’s—ten to twenty degrees above normal—and as of the middle of last week, we had maybe a couple of inches of snow for the whole season. When I was in Albuquerque, their highs were also in the 40’s—but this was about ten degrees cooler than usual, and they had some 20 inches of snow dumped upon them in the space of a couple of weeks. Normally, entire winters might pass by without any snow on the ground. When I arrived in Albuquerque the second time, I was surprised to see snow not only on the mountains (which is normal) but also on the rise of land to the west and the extinct low volcanoes on the west mesa.

On the day my mother passed, the temperatures climbed into the 50’s and swift-moving clouds accompanied strong winds that whipped around the house. But I escaped bad weather yet again. Two weeks ago, my train pulled out of Albuquerque just hours before it shut down under a foot of snow. This time, the devastating ice storms that stretched from Texas to Illinois bypassed Albuquerque and I didn’t have to deal with any of it.

The snow melted more quickly that Friday, and as I took off on the plane yesterday, Albuquerque looked like its normal brown desert self again for January. Frighteningly strong turbulence greeted us as we took off (I really dislike flying), but this subsided once we hit cruising altitude.

They always talk about the stages of grief for a loved one’s passing. I’m not sure where I am right now—I think I’ve cycled through all four stages several times and will probably do so again. On the plane, I was talking to the woman next to me and made the mistake of referring to my parents in the present tense plural. I didn’t correct myself because, well, I didn’t want to share such heavy information with a stranger I’d never see again.

As we approached Madison at 8 p.m. we circled the city several times, enabling me to see the lights of the city from the air, the isthmus of the central city, and the black of the lakes surrounding it. In the final approach, I was able to clearly see the Alliant Energy Center, the Capitol, Monona Terrace, and the Copps grocery store just a couple of miles from the airport. And I also saw something else unexpected—snow. Madison was receiving its first snowfall in weeks, and like Albuquerque, was returning to its normal January weather.  Like fresh snowfall at Christmas, it somehow seemed fitting for the occasion.

breaking the silence on what had been heretofore a private matter

Soundtrack in my head: Steve Goodman “I’ll Fly Away”

My sister broke the silence on her blog a couple of days ago and I’ll break the silence today. We’re both flying back to Albuquerque this week to see our mother who is now in hospice care with late-stage ovarian cancer.

Neither my sister nor I had chosen to write in our blogs about our mother’s battle with ovarian cancer. We talked about this when we were in Albuquerque over Christmas and both of us felt the same way—it was a too private a family matter to blog. As far as I was concerned, I would rather express my feelings about it in private rather than in a public blog.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago. When I first heard the news, it felt like the floor was falling out from below my feet. Then I came to a place where I accepted of the situation. Then as her condition grew worse the cycle of freaking out and acceptance would repeat itself, and has done so more often recently.

Her condition turned sharply worse right before Christmas. I arrived by train two days before and my father gave me the tour of their new house. My mother was waiting for me in the family room and as I walked in, she had this look on her face that immediately told me something serious was up. She was much more exhausted and sleeping 16-18 hours per day.

If that weren’t bad enough, I had to deal with my parents’ cats, which I’ve always been deathly allergic to. I’ve always muddled through when I’ve stayed with them before. But this time I had real problems breathing—perhaps because my allergies combined with the mile-high altitude, and, who knows, maybe stress also. While I was not having a full-blown asthma attack, it was serious enough to warrant an emergency room visit right as Christmas Eve gave way to Christmas day.

It turned out that I had a mild case of pneumonia–not enough to hospitalize me, but enough to set me back a bit. This concerned me because I knew my mother’s condition would likely make her susceptible to any bugs we might catch. I asked the doctor if pneumonia was contagious, and she said yes. I told her about my mother’s condition, and she said that I would have to wear a mask at my parents’ house. I was like, “What???!!!” and asked a couple of other doctors attending to me if this was really the case, but they confirmed that I would have to do so for 72 hours. I knew they were serious when they came back with thirteen tight-fitting respirator-grade surgical masks so that nary a germ would escape into the open air. A difficult Christmas was now turning rather bizarre, but I endured it. I wore the masks, but I also got out of my parents’ house as much as I could by sleeping at my aunt’s house and making a few trips out and about to explore the city.

My mom knew that this might be her last Christmas with us, and, to her credit, would not let us pretend this wasn’t happening. She spoke with us individually and as a group about the things that we needed to talk about. She wanted us to have closure right there and then. It was painful, but she was right.

That made it hard to leave Albuquerque, and it’s going to be harder to come back this week, but that’s part of the process of parting with a loved one. Pretty much all of us gotta go through it. Mahikari talks about acceptance of the will of God, whatever it might be. My mom has already accepted it, I think. I think I’m kind of there, too. I still go back and forth sometimes, but I know that eventually I’ll get there, too.

Meanwhile your prayers and positive thoughts would be welcome…

in a city twice as big and twice as old

Soundtrack in my head:  Let’s Active, “Edge of the World”

I knew that Albuquerque would supplant Chicago as my second home once my parents moved out there.  My parents met and got married there, one set of grandparents were out there, and my aunt and her partner have been out there for a number of years.  I always thought I knew the city fairly well, but this most recent time out there, I got a stronger flavor for the city than I had before.  

Albuquerque is built in a valley, with the Rio Grande River cutting a north to south path through the area.  On the east side are the Sandia Mountains, with elevations as high as 10,000 feet.  IMG_0466.jpgOn the west side are bluffs and mesas,  further west there are even a couple of extinct volcanoes.  My grandparents lived in the far eastern section of the city close to the mountains.  From many places in that neighborhood you could see most of the valley, and see the city lights at night.  The east side tends to be more of a bedroom community.  This is the part of the city I was most familiar with for many years.  

My parents bought a house on one of the bluffs to the west, and while they are not next to the edge of the bluff, one can still see both the mountains and the valley and the city lights at night from the family room window (a view for which the photo doesn’t do much justice).  IMG_0481.jpgThey are also a couple of blocks from a park that goes to the edge of the bluff, and from there you can see most of the valley.  

While Madison celebrated its sesquecentennial (150th birthday) last year, Albuquerque celebrated its tricentennnial.  That’s right–300 years.  The city was founded by the Spanish, and still has a strong Spanish and Indian flavor to it.  Adobe style houses and buildings are everywhere.  I couldn’t seem to grow tired of seeing that style of architecture, though I don’t know if my opinion would change if I actually lived in Albuquerque.  I think that it gives neighborhoods an interesting feel.IMG_0478.jpg

And I was impressed by the neighborhoods, realizing that they are more diverse than I thought.  I was somewhat surprised by the urban feel of my parents’ neighborhood–they have been suburban dwellers for the entire time I’ve been alive.  My aunt and her partner live in the South Valley of the city, kind of a semi-rural, semi-industrial area.  There are neighborhoods with lots of ranches.  Not ranch houses,  ranches–the kind that horses run around in.  And there’s a neighborhood, Nob Hill, IMG_0470.jpgthat would resemble Madison’s State Street if State Street were located on a somewhat dusty stretch of Old Route 66. 

One of the unique aspects of Albuquerque is the sheer number of luminarias that dot the city landscape around Christmas.  Who knew that a paperbag, a tea candle and some sand could create incredible beauty in the right quantities.  Check out my sister’s pictures (her camera had better night vision) and see for yourself.

When I got back from Albuquerque,  a couple of housemates commented that I’d gotten a bit of color, presumably from spending time sunning myself on the deck.  Um, sorry–that’s windburn, dudes.  The temperature in Albuquerque has been about the same as Madison over the last month.  And  they’ve gotten several times as much snow as we have this winter.  Of course, it’s usually not that way–it’s usually twenty degrees cooler in Madison than it is right now.  IMG_0474.jpgAnd of course, the Southwest has had a number of winter storms.  The area near the mountains usually gets hit the hardest, as you can see from this photo, but the day that I left, my parents neighborhood was affected.  If this picture doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.  IMG_0485.jpg

As much as I like Albuquerque, I can’t say that I’m tempted to move there at this point.  Despite the many charming neighborhoods, it really is a city of cars. It’s not too much different from places like Phoenix or Las Vegas where you absolutely need a car to get anywhere.  But it’s a heck of a lot more colorful.  Still, Madison has the “community vibe” like no other city I’ve ever lived in.  People here get it when it comes to the feeling of community.  That’s what attracted me here, and that’s what will keep me here–at least for awhile.

ridin’ on the southwest chief (somehow sung to the tune of “city of new orleans”)

Soundtrack in my head: Let’s Active “Blue Line”

My trip on the Southwest Chief Amtrak train to and from Albuquerque did not disappoint. Cross-country train trips like this help define the full and multiple meanings of the word “trip.”  I originally decided to travel by train instead of airplane because it was much cheaper, but I ended up getting a lot more out of the journey than I would have had I flown.

When the train pulled out of Chicago, the weather there was rather weird for December 22nd–rainy and suprisingly warm,–probably in the upper 40’s. Interestingly enough, I discovered that the Southwest Chief train used the same Burlington Northern tracks as the Metra commuter train that I used to take out to my parents’ previous home in LaGrange.  I showed my seatmate the station near my parents’ old house. Now this same set of tracks was serving as the beginning point of my journey to my parents’ new home in Albuquerque.

I was surprised to see the Des Plaines River flooded–extending a few hundred feet into the surrounding woods, and going almost all the way to 1st Avenue. As the urban area gave way to farm fields, I noticed that many of those fields had uncharacteristically big puddles. I think this heavy rain might have been from the same storm system that dumped tons of snow on Colorado and the Plains and shut down down the Denver airport.  The sun went down before we crossed into Iowa, and in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, I only saw occasional lights representing some degree of human existence.

It took the train eight hours to get through Kansas, but the sun came up only as we approached the Colorado border, and when it did, the terrain revealed something new–snow.  Lots of it.  It wasn’t obvious at first until I realized that the utility poles and the barbed wire fences were, um, unusally short.  I watched the sunrise over the snow, and it was interesting to see the gradual change in the terrain from the Kansas plains to the Colorado plains, and watch those plains get gradually more hilly until finally we began to see some mountains. 

The view became even more spectacular as we approached New Mexico. Tufts of desert brush began to poke through the snow, giving the snow an orangish color as one looked in the distance. IMG_0463.jpgThe train snaked its way through the Raton Pass, and within one hour of Albuquerque, I recognized the shape of the Sandia Mountains–from the north and the east, as opposed to the west and south views from Albuquerque that I was used to. As we approached Albuquerque, it was interesting to see the little dusty haciendas sitting isolated in the middle of a sea of desert brush.   I watched from the observation car as Indian pueblos and little towns eventually gave way way to the city of Albuquerque. It felt like we were looking into everyone’s backyard in a way, kind of seeing the reality of the lives of these people as opposed to the Disney-esque setting in which most towns and cities want to present themselves. I saw a lot of backyards that had pick-up trucks in various states of disassembly , but this authenticity made these little New Mexico towns appeal to me that much more.

But one of the best aspects of this trip was the opportunity to interact with people. I talked extensively with a native of Taos, NM who just quit her job in Boston, and was travelling the country via rail before settling down and figuring out her next move. I spoke with another woman who had a flight from New York to Albuquerque cancelled by the snowstorms in Denver, and after two days stranded in the NYC airport she decided to take the train, which meant she was arriving in Albuquerque four days later than expected. There were a lot of Amish people on the train, speaking German with each other. At one point, we observed a card game between an African American man and an Amish woman. As a joke the man pretended to be hyper-competitive in the game–he’d slap down the cards and yell “Boo-ya!” when he won, and when he lost, he’d accuse the Amish woman of cheating at cards, which provoked a lot of laughter all around, including among the Amish people there.

On the way back to Chicago, I ate more at the dining car rather than rely on the microwaved delicacies at the snack bar.  Because of the small size of the dining car, strangers would be seated with strangers, and so I engaged in intresting conversations with a couple Chicago natives from L.A. who were on the train for the experience and planning on flying back to L.A. once we reached Chicago.  I also spoke with a musician from Memphis, and a student from Loyola University in Chicago who was minoring in Islamic studies.  One man kept on gathering a crowd around him because he had a laptop that continuously showed our current position on the map–eventually he simply left his laptop in the lounge car for anyone wanting to see where we were.

There was a minor incident late on the ride home when the conductor mistakenly seated a couple in my seat.  But nearby passengers I hadn’t even talked with before spoke up on my behalf, describing how the couple was being belligerent in insisting on sitting together and somehow pushing the conductor to seat them in my seat (perhaps due to the mysterious disappearance of a slip of paper that was supposed to hold my seat for me).  Another conductor found a different seat for me, and a couple other passengers in the area checked on me to make sure that the conductor found me a good seat.

The day that I left Albuquerque back for the Midwest, it had been steadily snowing for about four hours.  I’d heard on the news that the Denver airport was shut down again.  The Southwest Chief was a little late, and when I got on the train, I learned we were being re-routed.  Passengers with destinations in northern New Mexico and Colorado had to get off in Albuquerque and stay for the night.  Rather than go up north through the mountains of New Mexico, which were being socked hard with snow, we went south 30 miles to Belen,  cut east through Clovis, then northeast to Amarillo TX, and then straight north through Oklahoma up to Kansas.   The east Central part of New Mexico is not mountainous and in some ways more resembles the flat grasslands of the Texas Panhandle, and all of this was being covered in snow.  This part of the state is also very empty, and it’s possible to ride one or two hours without seeing any signs of human habitation.  The snow was coming down so hard that IMG_0488.jpgvisibility was maybe one or two thousand feet, and sometimes I felt like I was in a airplane flying through the clouds rather than riding a train on the ground.  The sunset acted as a dimmer switch for this winter scene, as white gradually became more and more grey and the terrain disappeared into complete blackness.

As we passed through Fort Sumter and Clovis, NM, the lights of those towns revealed thinner snow, probably due to the lower elevation.  But I could frequently see emergency lights on two-lane roads running parallel to the tracks, due to some unfortunate souls losing control of their cars in the slippery conditions.  Right about the time we crossed into Texas, the snow gave way to freezing rain, and eventually just rain.  We stopped in the railyards of Amarillo to switch diesel engines and I could tell it was very wet and windy.  I woke up in Kansas again, but this time there was no sign of snow.  I felt like time had gone backwards, with the sun having set in January and risen in November, and I could still see dead leaves at the bases of bare trees.  It was like this all the way to Chicago. 

Amazingly, we only arrived in Chicago four hours late on what normally would have been a 25-hour journey.  This was a feat considering the fact that we were going two states out of our way.  We were using freight lines to get through, not standard Amtrak routes.  Burlington Northern-Santa Fe owned the tracks, not Amtrak, and had to balance Amtrak’s needs with that of the freight carriers. The only issue with Amtrak was that passengers didn’t always know what was going on.   In Kansas City, boarding passengers complained that they had not been told of the four-hour delay even that morning, even though the decision had been made fourteen hours before to re-route the train.  And my father called me on my cellphone because the Amtrak website did not indicate what happened to the train.

But I think this performance still compared very favorably compared to the airlines.  I keep thinking of the woman in New York who was stranded in the New York airport for two days before giving up and taking Amtrak, just because she was unfortunate enough to have a connecting flight in Denver.  My aunt and her partner did not have Christmas dinner with us because they were in Puerto Vallarta, and the airline told them that they either had to go through Denver or go with a different airline, so they waited.  It does not appear that airlines cooperated with each other by offering the use of each other’s hubs, and so the entire system ground to a halt, with the snow in Denver creating delays in most of the major airports around the country.  Let’s hear it for airline deregulation.

When I got off the train, got my baggage, and got upstairs to Canal Street, it felt remarkably warm but windy–probably in the upper 40’s or low 50’s again.  My father called me on my cellphone and told me that I got out of New Mexico just in time–Albuquerque was buried under with twelve inches of snow.  It is rare that Albuquerque gets any snow, but so far the city seems to have gotten about five times as much snow as Madison has this winter.

I boarded the Van Galder bus for the last leg of my trip home and was surprised to see an Amish couple that I had seen in the Albuqerque Amtrak station.  I also saw a woman that had sat next to me on the initial Van Galder bus to Chicago.  Funny how these things happen.

Not only did I see the country and talk with a number of interesting people, but I may very well have gotten to  and from Albuquerque faster than if I had flown.  I think I’m going to try to take the train more often if I have the time and schedule flexibility to do so.