Tuesday, September 5, 2000 - Chicago, Illinois

My first day of freedom and I spend it running around the city – debatable as to whether this is better than running around the hotels – at least there is fresh (somewhat) air outside…I began the day by skipping breakfast (as is my want) and taking the “L” to Oak Park. I have always been a fan of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright (and not simply because of the song by Simon and Garfunkle than mentions him) and his prairie-style of design. Chicago is where he designed a large number of houses and buildings, where he first started his career. In Oak Park he created a home beside his mother's home in the middle of farm land, creating a studio next to it when he left the architecture firm he worked for in the downtown area. Of course now the area is all houses, many of which in the immediate area he designed for private clients.

Walked just a few blocks from the station, I could easily spot those houses he had designed and, taking a self-guided walking tour a bit later, these suspicions were confirmed. Most of the houses in the area are of Victorian design so his modern approach is easy to spot. I made my way to his studio where I was able to get a guided tour of the house. I had made sure I made it to the first tour of the day because I knew I would be busy…The house represents some of his earliest work though many of the styles and features he would use throughout his career are evident – the idea of “bands of light” (sets of windows close together in a band), open spaces, geometric shapes, horizontal (instead of vertical) lines both inside and outside, use of wood, etc. It is remarkable at how modern the house is today – about 100 years after he originally designed and built it. A few things he changed during is stay for practical reasons (a few children can do that to you) and a few things he did were very strange – pushing a grand piano through a wall and suspending the far end on a hook from the roof beyond. His use of light also was very much evident with the whole house seeming to be very bright and welcoming (though he did block windows when he did not like the view or changed his mind about how they looked…).

I took the self-guided tour (using the hand-held electronic devices where you type a number in and it tells you about what you are seeing) for the next hour before catching the train back to downtown.

The Frank Thomas House (1901) - 210 Forest - Oak Park

The Nathan G. Moore House (1895/1923) - 333 Forest at Superior - Oak Park

I was finally able to try a restaurant that had been mentioned repeatedly by people and the convention newsletter – Gold Coast Dogs (on North State) – they serve what is reputed to be the best hot dogs in Chicago (they have won many awards) and I must say that the two I had were terrific! It is NOT authentic to have ketchup on the hot dogs but it IS to have onions, pickle, hot pepper (optional), and mustard. I was QUITE full so I worked it off by walking the 3-4 blocks south to the Art Institute. This was the last museum in my City Pass ticket book but I did not need it today – today was the one free day they have every week. As a matter of fact, most of the museums have one free day every week to open up their collections to the public.

The Art Institute is VERY big and I made sure that I picked up a ticket to see their exhibit on “Pharoahs of the Sun”. I have always been fascinated with Egyptian art beginning, I am sure, with my interest in Tutenkamen when I was in high school when we visited Toronto to see the exhibit which travelled from Egypt and included Tut's burial mask. This exhibit was quite interesting with a very good introductory video that explained a bit about where the pieces in the exhibit had come from. The exhibit included many artefacts from King Akenhaten, who was Tut's father, and the city he built beside the Nile in the “middle of no-where” (so he could impose his will on the landscape and build what he wanted). The history was quite interesting and the artefacts quite something with such exquisite detail (especially in the hieroglyphics). This part of the Institute you had to pay admission for, so it was not as crowded as some of the other areas of the museum.

I saw the Chicago Stock Exchange room which was designed by the firm that Frank Lloyd Wright worked for (prior to him going independent), which they purchased and moved into the Institute when the original building was demolished for a skyscraper. It was quite ornate with gilt all over the place with many plant-like motifs.

One the best bits I enjoyed in the museum were the modern art exhibits which there seemed to be a lot of. The collection was incredibly expansive including Picasso, Monet, Pollock (Jackson), Warhol, Renoir and many others. For me to be able to recognize the painting (“Nighthawks”, “American Gothic”, etc) it HAS to be big (and pricey). I was especially taken aback by the Renoir's which they had in a large gallery together, such a light style and yet accurate at the same time…Of course, most of it makes no “sense” to me though I enjoy the aesthetic properties of the pieces nonetheless (and, it seems, sometimes the artist creates it not not to mean anything - just to “be”).

After about 6, the museum was quite quiet and I was really able to enjoy some of the pieces in quiet before I finally left at 7. I managed to skip the European art completely (I have seen enough of that in London, thank you).

Dinner was more fast food with my first taste of a “Po' Boy” sandwich (deep fried shrimp sandwich with mayo and lettuce). It was quite good but I felt too guilty afterwards – nothing like going up the elevator to the 23rd floor carrying a bag of fast-food, wearing jeans while everyone else in the elevator is wearing a suit (this is a nice hotel).

The evening has been spent largely watching television…perhaps I am getting too old to run around like this all the time, I seem VERY tired.

Digression 1 - The Convention

Well, now that the convention is over I must say there were a few things that really did not work terribly well. Though the material was quite good the convention fell victim to problems I have seen at other conventions the most obvious one being the SEVERE underestimation of the number of people that want to attend a particular panel – the preview I attended of the Dune Mini-Series was supposed to be in a room that could hold about 40 people and 300 showed up. There were MANY other rooms available that could hold a larger crowd but they had put us in a smaller room. I think that perhaps this could be due to cost – booking smaller rooms, even many days in a row, is cheaper than booking all rooms available all the time.

The elevators were also a constant source of aggravation (the ones in the main, East tower, actually pretty much shut down on the Saturday of the convention – when they only served the 1st and top floors because, evidently, the computers in the elevators, when the car is overloaded only serve the top and bottom floors – I heard of one person waiting two hours for an elevator, though why they did not walk down I will never know). Even at the best of times you could wait quite some time for an elevator - the hotel put attendants at the elevators ensuring that only a few people from the ever-growing lines, got in a car at once.

The elevators actually caused other problems because it was quite difficult to get to where the program items were. In one case the only way to go up to the floor you wanted to get to you HAD to take the elevator since the stairs could only be used going DOWN (you could get into the stairs but the door on the floor would be locked). This made it quite difficult to get to some of the program items when you only had about 15 minutes between discussions. The layout of the rooms was also quite confusing – on the first day it took me about 30 minutes to find the room I was meant to be in because the name was similar to rooms at a completely different area of the hotel (the “Regency Ballroom” and the “Regency Room”).

Back to the convention, a few items seemed to be cancelled or they had not even got around to planning the program item before the convention started, so no one, not even the panellists, knew where we were supposed to be (some groups actually ended up having their sessions in the hallways).

Having said all this, of course, there were a lot of things that went all-right (witness my discussion of such things in the previous day's lists) and there is a LOT to co-ordinate but it seems that some-things do repeat themselves year after year. Typical of a US convention, the ConSuite was truly amazing – open from about noon every day until about 5 in the morning offering snack food, soft drinks, and alcohol free to all comers. Unbelievable (and expensive, I should think though, generally, people do not overdue it at these things with regards to the alcohol).

Side Digression 1A - People at the Convention

Many of the people that attend the World Science Fiction convention are from the United States which is not surprising seeing as that is where it started. Generally, they have a bit of pride in this and so when a convention is held overseas there is a “North American” version of the event held so the people who would rather not travel can still attend a convention of some sort.

It is so obvious to me, though it may offend some people, that many of the Americans (and yes, generally, it seems to be limited this way) seem to be overweight. Not just a bit, you understand, a fair amount (some require walking devices due to weight-related problems). I don't know why this is, though I should think it has to do with their life-styles though what this says about Science Fiction fans I can only think that it appeals to those that cannot get out a lot or have a restricted social life due to weight. Of course, I am making generalizations but it seems that the number of such people around seems to increase at the convention (above what I saw when walking on the street, in the transit or anywhere else for that matter).

This year I saw very few costumes, except the night of the Masquerade (which is to be expected) but even then, only a few (though the Borg costumes were quite impressive!).

Digression 2 - Accommodations and Travel

You would think that the way I write these things that it is very simple for me to organize but actually I tend to start working on these trips about 6-8 months in advance. I always begin with getting my ATTENDING membership and, once confirmed, I try to get into the convention hotels. This year I was able to do this as soon as they started accepting billing but last year I actually booked at the hotel well in advance to when the convention organized anything. Most of the time I do as much of this as I can using the World Wide Web (Internet) since I am really against making lots of long-distance calls from England and it also allows me to explore other options.

As an example of some the problems I face, to see what was actually in Chicago I had my mother pick up some information from the AAA/CAA and bring it with her when she visited earlier this year to go skiing. This allowed me to find a hotel for the few days prior to when I could get a room at the convention hotel (at the convention rates - about 50-75% lower than regular rates).

The plane tickets I leave until a few months prior though this time was a bit tricky getting cheap flights. Eventually, because I had booked pretty far in advance they actually got me a cheaper flight (by #50, don't knock it!) with a different carrier closer to the time of the convention so I got a refund (towards my next flight, obviously, since I have more miles, it seems, than the Concorde!).

I was planning on a trip to Toronto to see my grandmother and my grandfather just down the road in Hamilton but it turns out that, allowing for the convention, if I wanted to go I would have to pay WAY too much (more than I paid for the flight from England) for the plane, and if I wanted to take the train I would be in Toronto for about 8 hours (not taking into account travel once I get there!). I decided that since it would mean about 36-48 hours of travel on trains for, perhaps, six hours in the city I was not going to do it, the risk of NOT getting back to Chicago in time for my planned trip to Minneapolis. That trip I actually booked on the Internet as well, I also used it to do the “what-ifs” for travel to Toronto which allowed me to rule it out (by the way, it turns out that for the six hours in Toronto I actually had to transfer to a bus in Buffalo to get to Toronto in any sort of reasonable time, the only train to Toronto directly from Chicago runs on weekends only!).

⇒ Continue to Wednesday, September 6, 2000 - Somewhere between Chicago and Minneapolis - On Board Amtrak's Empire Builder Train