Nashville-eoke

This might be my greatest life advice: find yourselves some friends who are just as ridiculous as you are. In March 2015, a good friend and I created a ragtag team of karaoke enthusiasts for monthly outings to a revolving assortment of bars all over Chicago. 4 years later, Karaoke Club is still going strong, and for the second year in a row, we planned a destination outing. In 2018, we went to New Orleans, and this year, we picked Nashville, Tennessee.

Since the first time since I first visited Nashville back in 2007, there’s been a “bachelorette-ization” of Music City.  Our Airbnb was located in a neighborhood that barely existed 10 years ago, now a hub of development, high-priced boutiques, and cookie cutter houses used exclusively as Airbnbs. While eating brunch in the Gulch, 4 or 5 party buses rolled by, piercing our hangovers with rampant “WOO!”ing. But thankfully, Karaoke Club is fantastic at finding our own good time, and this trip did not disappoint.

a woman sings karaoke in a karaoke bar inside a double-wide trailer.

karaoke at Santa’s Pub

Our group of 12 arrived in Nashville at various points throughout the day, by car or plane. We had barely been in town for a few hours before we found ourselves in a private karaoke room singing along with cosplayers, handing over the microphone to a dude in a full mascot suit who grunted along the chorus to “Beauty and the Beast.” After getting warmed up amongst superheroes, we headed to our next destination, Santa’s Pub, a double-wide trailer turned dive bar where the bartenders will sell beers by the six-pack from a kitchen fridge.

From that point on, the night becomes a beautiful blur.  We watched a woman wail and slay “Whole Lotta Love.” I sang “Wrecking Ball” and a drunk woman on the front porch later complimented me by telling me she had a “spiritual experience.” We laughed at so, so many hilarious moments, and inside jokes were born. Our hair and clothes absorbed the smell of beer sweat and cigarette smoke and we danced and applauded and stayed til the end when the (very patient and friendly) bartenders turned on the lights and we skedaddled outta there to our waiting Lyfts.

I nearly barfed during brunch the next day, but it was totally worth it.

The next night we ate BBQ then explored Broadway, wandering in and out of packed bars where live music poured through every open storefront window. Tourists, bachelorette parties, and stumbling twenty-somethings jammed the sidewalks. The gutters emitted that Vegas-y, Bourbon Street-ish smell of bleach covering up beer and vomit. Somehow amidst this mess, we found a great time. A guitarist mouthed “thank you” at us when we sang the chorus to “Dead or Alive.” We danced to the Spice Girls. And then we got the hell out of there and found a karaoke bar in Printers Alley. Jell-O shots happened. We sang a few songs, then moved on to a gay bar where we danced to Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, and Jonas Brothers before calling it a night.

Broadway at night, a street filled with neon signs and sidewalks full of pedestrians

Broadway, a.k.a. Honky Tonk Highway

Oh, but our last night… You know those nights that start like any old Saturday evening, then end up taking you in completely unexpected directions? From the first round of drinks at a bar packed with pub crawlers decked out as superheroes, to the weird phenomena of the song “Mambo No. 5” following us everywhere, Saturday grew increasingly hilarious. We escaped downtown and took a taxi to East Nashville, where we had heard about a talent show fundraiser happening in a small music venue. Almost everyone in the bar was roughly 15 years younger than us, with arty haircuts and hipster thrift lewks.

The talent show was silly and amusing, obviously thrown together last minute, but it was a lead-up into a set by a local band, Molly Rocket. The lead singer could really wail, the drummer rocked it out in pink pajamas, and modern dancers performed on a makeshift side stage. I instantly loved it all. We were already buzzy from music and drinks and the thrill of stumbling into this place when the band beckoned us to lay down on the floor for the next song, and we all complied. A net released from the ceiling, and dozens of balloons spilled onto the crowd, which we batted around like kittens rolling on our backs while the lead singer filled the room with her voice and writhed onstage.

a balloon drop in a small rock venue

Balloon drop!

Every time I caught one of my friends’ eyes, we’d shout at each other “This is the best!!” It was the perfect blend of music and art and giddy drunkenness creating a boundless feeling where you’re totally in the moment in a way you’ll never forget.

After the band finished their show, DJ Ponywine played an hour-long set that consisted entirely of remixes and covers of Ginuwine’s “Pony.” We danced the entire time, and if you think it would ever get old hearing those familiar opening bass synth kick in every 4 minutes, you are dead wrong. Afterwards, the venue slowly cleared out, and we got invited to the after party at a bar up the street. If there was anything we’d learned so far that night, it was to say yes to everything, so we went.

I can barely remember the conversations I had there, but I do recall standing outside under a nearly full moon, meeting new people, exchanging stories, and having an overall fantastic night. I randomly found Einstok, a beer I loved from Iceland. We talked to Nashville locals about Chicago and then, for a final time, the house lights turned on, and we boot-scoot-boogied outside with the horde of giggly, stumbling twenty-somethings and scattered to our various Lyfts and Ubers.

Listen, I’m nearly 40 years old and I am not a person who closes down the bar on the reg, let alone twice in three nights. I nearly keeled over onto a plate of Nashville hot chicken one morning because this body-ody-ody is now more accustomed to yoga and a high fiber diet than 3 a.m. pizzas and Yuenglings purchased by the six-pack. And though this trip probably took 3 years off my total lifespan, every second was worth it. Days later, I’m still remembering all of the jokes that were made during our trip, and the adrenaline rush of singing onstage with friends and strangers (and sometimes, a dude in a Beast suit), and rolling around on the dirty-ass floor of a gritty rock club batting balloons while shouting “This is the best night ever!!”

Travel Pairings

Book: this one was tough for me because for some reason most books set in Nashville seem to be mystery thrillers (the John Grisham effect, I guess?) and I wanted to read something set in the music world, so I brought Daisy Jones & the Six
Film: Nashville, duh
Music: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound”

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This Winter

I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago, through countless blizzards, several polar vortexes, early October frosts, surprise late April flurries, and as of this past week, the second coldest day in recorded local history. On Wednesday morning, the thermometer on our back porch registered -22 degrees (the record stands at -27 in January 1985, when I was 5 years old).

River pees on the porch in -22 degrees

While these extreme polar vortexes are more the exception than the rule, even an ordinary Chicago winter is typically brutal. It can be festive and pretty up to and through the holidays, but the dreary gray skies and frigid winds that batter us through January, February, and early March can really drain your spirits. And that’s not to mention the endless shoveling of sidewalks, the chipping of ice from windshields, salt stains on your heavy winter boots, and short days with long nights spent cooped up inside.

And yet, I love winter. I love CHICAGO winters. As a Midwesterner, I crave the rhythm of seasons. Winter is a time of resting under warm blankets, watching movies and drinking wine while the dog curls up on our feet. As soon as spring breaks, we tend to run  headlong into sunny summer days when we barely spend a weekend at home, taking in every opportunity to drink in the sun, jump into a lake, and sit around a campfire. Summer is a period of nonstop activity, and winter is, for me, is the perfect period of forced rest spent reading, writing, cuddling and catching up on TV shows. (Just like the pioneers but replace needlepoint with Netflix).

The temperatures on Wednesday were low enough to give you frostbite in less than 5 minutes. But inside our toasty warm house, in my Jon Snow t-shirt and Swedish winter cap, a steaming mug of coffee in my hands, I was living my Laura Ingalls’ “The Long Winter” best life. Candles and a salt lamp made my home office light and cozy.  I was all set for a peaceful day  bathing in the light of my laptop while frosty patterns swirled across our windowpanes. Then, Kurt realized his van got towed (someone  got home late the night before and forgot about snow routes). A few minutes of cursing went down, then I posted a quick “out of office, brb” message before layering up in all of my winter gear to drive Kurt to the city impound lot.

Outside, the winter sun seemed brighter as it reflected off the heaping snowbanks (we had gotten about 6 inches of fresh snowfall two days earlier). As we walked to the garage, the frigid air hit my face like a slap.

Traffic was light, but it wasn’t quite the ice-covered ghost town I had expected. A few brave souls were out and about, running their cars to keep their batteries from dying in the extreme cold. As soon as we got to the impound lot, I understood why–after paying for the van’s release, Kurt couldn’t get the engine started. Our poor van had given up on this batshit weather and died on city property. In my car with the heat running, we called multiple towing companies, but they were all either too busy to assist or gave an estimated wait time of 4-5 hours. With no other options, we left the van at the lot and went back home so we could finish our afternoon workloads.

Later that same night, the sun long gone, we went back to the impound lot to meet a tow truck, which showed up roughly two hours later. Sitting in the car with the engine and heat running, I read Twitter all the way to the end. My feet froze in the passenger side while my entire face dried out from the heat blasting from the vents. Finally, our tow truck savior pulled up. I would have cried tears of joy but they would for sure freeze on my face. Kurt rode in the truck with the driver while I took our other vehicle home. Back at our house, I threw a frozen pizza into the oven and poured a glass of wine before I even took my coat off. We slept soundly that night, the dog and cat huddled on of the blankets in the concave of our bodies. The house creaked, the winds howled, frost quakes erupted.

In Chicago, we don’t have to worry about things like hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, mudslides, and droughts. Our landlocked flatness makes our region geographically boring AF but relatively safe from natural disasters. In the event of a dystopian apocalypse, we’re situated near the country’s largest source of fresh water. But we get winters. And I think because of our notoriously shitty, 15-month long, arctic blast winters, we’re tougher than the average bear. We’re resilient, and usually good-natured about it (drinking helps). We help our neighbors dig out their cars. Just this week, a Chicago woman named Candice Payne took action and rented 30 hotel rooms on her personal credit card to get homeless people out of the life-threatening weather. I love the way this city bands together in the worst of times.

And today, 4 days after the worst of the winter storm, it’s nearly 50 degrees, I’m wearing a light sweatshirt and nano-puff jacket, and I just stepped in thawed dog poop. Ah, Chicago.

 

 

Doing the Most in Orlando, FL

Orlando, Florida is a place you go to for a reason–a sporting event, a theme park visit, a conference. It’s NOT a place you go just to check out the culture. Listen, I once lived in Las Vegas by choice so I am not against mass marketed entertainment. I LOVE me an entertainment complex where I can ride a mechanical bull, see Britney Spears perform live, and eat a steak for less than $10 all in the same night.

Orlando is a lot like Las Vegas, but instead of gambling and debauchery, they have theme parks galore. Both destinations encourage nonstop spending, have strip malls full of every chain restaurant you can think of, and attract the kind of tourist that likes to drink Jager bombs all night while still wearing their American flag swim trunks. On our first day in town, we ate back-to-back meals at chain restaurants, the second of which had a menu that included two full pages of Guy Fieri dishes.  But. But! I had a fantastic weekend, side trip to Flavor Town and all.

There were two very good reasons we ventured to Orlando, and they are Peak Kim Nelson:

  • attend the 2019 College Cheerleading National Championships, where Kurt’s niece’s squad was competing.
  • visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter/Universal Studios
We had one day to see it all, so we bought the single day park-to-park ticket and planned for an early arrival. Obviously, spreading the Harry Potter-themed attractions across two parks is all a big scam to force you to buy tickets to both, but as soon we reached Hogsmeade, I no longer cared. I didn’t anticipate the wave of emotion I’d feel upon entering Hogwarts Castle, and I don’t care how nerdy this sounds, but I teared up a bit. My rational adult brain knew that I was walking through a fake castle replicating a made-up fantasy franchise, designed by engineers to push the right nostalgia buttons, all in the armpit of America. But in the moment, I had entered the memories of a beloved book that has given me escape and comfort and catharsis many times, over through multiple re-reads and movie viewing.

a cup of butterbeer in front of the rooftops of Hogsmeade

butterbeers in Hogsmeade

Though we never had to wait in line for longer than 40 minutes, the queues for the Harry Potter-themed rides in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were actually enjoyable to stand in because of the level of detail in the surroundings. Dumbledore’s pensieve! The Fat Lady portrait! Professor Sprout’s greenhouse! We wandered through the shops of Hogsmeade, drank butterbeer, and took the Hogwarts Express to King’s Cross. In “London,” we saw Kreacher glare through the window of 12 Grimmauld Place. I bought a Ravenclaw jersey with Cho Chang’s number and a Deathly Hallows enamel pin.

a dragon sits atop Gringotts Bank

the dragon atop Gringotts Bank

A few quick ‘n dirty Universal Studios travel tips:

  • Seeing both halves of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in one day is definitely doable. Plan to get to the park as soon as it opens and stay til close, and make sure to end your night back in Hogsmeade for the castle light show, which occurs every 20 minutes once the sun has set.
  • You can purchase an interactive wand which allows you to ‘cast spells’ in various parts of the park notated by a silver plaque on the ground. OR, you can save $60 and stand behind people who bought the wand to see what they do.
  • MUST DO’s: ride the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade and Escape from Gringott’s in Diagon Alley. Look for Kreacher in the window at 12 Grimmauld Place. Go to the wand fitting presentation (it’s pretty cute). Wear a costume if you feel inclined to do so. There were tons of people decked out in cloaks on a high 70’s day in Florida, and they were among their people. Get a butterbeer.
  • Non-Harry-Potter-related Must Do’s: since we only had one day, we prioritized the Wizarding World stuff, but the park wasn’t overly packed so we had lots of time to do other things as well. The Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster allows you to select a song that plays in speakers on your seat (I recommend going with Beastie Boys “Sabotage”). The Simpsons section of the park is a lot of fun; get a Duff beer and buy a Bort keychain.  Don’t bother waiting in line for the Fast & Furious Supercharged ride; it’s not worth your time (unless there’s no line and you have 20 minutes to kill). That makes me sad to say, as a franchise fan (“Family”), but it’s pretty dumb.
the light show at Hogwarts Castle

Hogwarts Castle during the light show

College Cheerleading Championships
When Kurt asked me if I wanted to go to Orlando to see his niece compete in the College Cheerleading and Dance Championships, that was one of the fastest YESes that ever came out of my mouth. I LOVE competitive cheerleading for reasons I can’t articulate. I wasn’t a high school or college cheerleader (though, ahem, my eighth grade squad was regionally famous on the north suburban  Chicago Catholic school circuit for our choreographed pom routines to Erasure songs) but I love watching cheer competitions on ESPN. They’re a highly entertaining mix of gymnastics, dance, and Jock Jams–I mean, what’s not to love here?? OF COURSE I WANT TO SEE BRING IT ON IRL.

2019 College Cheerleading Championships

Go University of Wisconsin – Osh Kosh!!

As we walked up to the gates of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the grounds were packed with hundreds of cheerleaders in various bold-colored uniforms. Squads warmed up and practiced moves on every available open stretch of grass. I heard a man say as he walked past, “I don’t see any football players” and I immediately wanted to punch him in the mouth on behalf of all of the incredible athletes WHO DON’T NEED TO CHEER FOR NO MAN.

Inside the arena, I had flashbacks to my days of roller derby weekend-long tournaments. Young athletes huddled in corners, mentally preparing for competition while tuning out the world with their headphones. Teammates on crutches followed their squads, visibly heartbroken over not being able to participate. After finishing the first round, cheerleaders stood in the concession line with ice packs saran-wrapped to their legs. I dodged team prayer circles to get to the bathroom (OK, that never happened at derby tourneys, more like “Thong Song” dance circles).

a coed squad performs at the college cheerleadiing national championships

Division I competition

With our day passes, we were able to move around the grounds to check out various parts of the competition. We watched Division I and II Girls and Coed Cheerleading, Dance (jazz, hip hop, classical), and even a Mascot contest. Chip the Buffalo won my heart by twerking then lying down and refusing to leave the stage.

college mascot competition

Look I went to art school for college so I barely know what’s happening here

The whole day was a blast and I highly recommend going to a live cheerleading competition if you ever get the chance, especially if you enjoy Cardi B, because we sure heard a lot of her music that day.

All in all, Orlando, I enjoyed you! There was one morning we saw a theme park worker in full costume in line at Starbucks, and it struck me how strange it must be to live there full time. Those are the stories I’m always interested in–I want to see the dive bar where all the theme park mascots get loaded together after their shift ends. I want to hear what the chipper cashier in Hogsmeade who spoke to me as if I were the new Seeker on Ravenclaw’s Quidditch team actually thinks about tourists. How many times does the live actor in the Fast & Furious preshow have the same scripted, pre-recorded conversation with a videotape of Ludacris before she slowly loses her mind? I would read a full scientific study about the symbiosis of the Orlando theme park ecosystem.

Travel Pairings
I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting. For all of my future travel-related blog posts, I’m going to share a book, film, and music recommendation to pair with my destination.

Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Film: The Florida Project
Music: The Go! Team (cheerleader rock!)

2018 Wrap-up and 2019 Goals

Aww, look at wide-eyed innocent me back at the beginning of 2018. So full of hopes and dreams! This year was bonkers but I feel good about what I accomplished.

  • While I didn’t knock any major writing projects out of the park, I did some work that I’m proud of, had a small piece published, and committed to practicing the craft of writing fiction, which has always overwhelmed me in its difficulty.
  • Also, I took care of myself! I practiced yoga regularly, once for 27 out of 30 straight-ish days, and kept up with cardio. I ate spinach and kale by the fistful in mason jar salads and green smoothies more often than going out to buy lunch. I got enough sleep and drank enough water and meditated.
  • I consumed a lot of art. I read 38 books, and out of those, 76% were written by women, 36% by people of color, and 13% by LGBTQ writers. (I also rewatched a ton of Marvel and Star Wars movies, because I’m also all for comfort found in pop culture.)
  • And I traveled! Boy, did I travel: mechanical bull riding and Magic Mike in Las Vegas, karaoke and hangover brunches in New Orleans, castles and craft beers in Denmark, pastries and parks in Sweden, conferences and interactive theater in New York City, writing and drinking in Wisconsin, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking on the Chain O’ Lakes, camping through a snowstorm in Upper Peninsula Michigan, sleeping in a van listening to coyotes in Manistee National Forest. What a full year, and as someone who could barely afford the time and expense of leaving the Midwest for much of my earlier adulthood, this life feels like such an enormous gift.

So I didn’t write 6 hours a week, or master a handstand, or completely kick sugar.  I had some crappy setbacks  and work struggles and stressful months along with the amazing months, but of course that’s life, and it’s not what I choose to dwell on. I want to carry good vibes only into 2019.

Here’s my 2019 goals:

  • Become more conscious of my carbon footprint. Cut back on my use of plastics. Recycle, but reuse even more. Be less wasteful and more mindful.
  • Keep up with healthy eating, and continue to cut back on sugar and processed foods. Learn how to use the damn instant pot. Meal prep.
  • Keep practicing yoga and doing cardio. All movement is good, whether it be dancing to karaoke or walking across a new city. Every day is Leg Day.
  • Keep writing. I have two ideas for longer projects; pick one and commit to working towards a full draft. Blog and write about travel and pop culture opinions. Put the damn thoughts on the damn page.
  • Keep traveling whenever and wherever I can. Keep jumping in as many Midwestern lakes and rivers as possible.
  • Be more mindful of my budget. Sit down with Kurt and look at our current and future financial goals together. Reading Nomadland this year really opened my eyes in terms of thinking about our eventual retirement, and though I do the “right” things (have a 401k, pay off credit cards), I still (STILL!!) have a student loan to pay off, and a tendency to run off and make a tattoo appointment the second I have some extra cash on hand.
  • Organize my house and my digital life. Let’s not talk about the current state of my digital photo hoard.
  • Every week: Submit, Pitch, or Apply. Whether it be finding a home for a piece or trying to get into my first writing residency, it’s only going to happen if I keep putting myself out there.

Happy New Year, y’all! ❤

Lake Michigan Circle Tour

How amazing is it, to leave work on a Wednesday night in a van full of your stuff and your dog, and live on the road for a week? I love our van-centric vacations because everything is simple and flexible. We explore all day, finding a new spot to sleep each night.

On our trip to upper peninsula Michigan, we were joined by some friends and their dogs, creating a van/camper caravan. The first night, we camped out on the banks of Green Bay at Wells State Park in Cedar River. It was warm enough outside that I didn’t need more than a hoodie while sitting by the campfire. From there, we drove through Escanaba (stopping for a pasty breakfast) and then wove along the scenic roads of Hiawatha National Forest.

a white chevy astrovan with its sliding door open to reveal a large stack of firewood inside

For the next few nights, we holed up on Indian Lake in Manistique. Parked next to the lake, we could see the stretch of bordering forest. In Fayette Historic State Park, we walked through the abandoned and preserved buildings of an 1800’s industrial town, then hiked through a forest bursting with fall colors.

partial brick wall of an abandoned building, with three open windows facing Big Bay De Noc

The weather turned on us on Saturday night, freezing winds blowing over the lake pummeling us at our campsite. The first snow flurries of the season blew in sideways. Using one of the vans behind our backs as a windbreak, we made dinner–camping stew, smoked salmon, chicken wings. The dogs alternated between begging to stay in the vehicles, then wanting to come back outside as their FOMO kicked in. We layered up in our warmest clothes, drank hot toddies, and had a fantastic night.

On Sunday morning, we said goodbye to our friends who were headed back home or further south. Kurt and I had additional days off, and we decided to turn our trip into a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan. Over the next few days, we visited Tahquamenon Falls, Hiawatha, Mackinaw City, Traverse City, and Manistee National Forest. We drove over the (5-mile long!!) Mackinac Bridge, visited microbreweries, hiked by waterfalls, and drank wine by campfires. But there’s one moment in particular that really stands out for me.

a white dog wearing a red coat stands among trees whose leaves have turned gold

We were searching for a camping spot in the northern part of Manistee after the sun had gone down. As Kurt drove down a secluded road in the darkness, I watched the yellow stripes race by in our headlights, like the credits to a David Lynch film. Following a downloaded forestry service map, Kurt turned onto a dirt road into the thick of the forest. We found a driveway that traveled into the woods another 20 yards or so into a designated rustic camping spot. The site sat atop a semi-steep bank, and the Upper Manistee River gleamed in the moonlight, just beyond the treeline. After turning off the engine, the night fell silent around us–at least until coyotes began howling in the distance.

While I set up the sleeping bags in the van, Kurt explored the site. I could hear him and River’s footsteps crunching in the leaves along the river bank. “You’ve gotta check this out!” he called me, then told me there was a trail down the river bank, straight to the water’s edge.

“I’m not walking down a steep dirt trail above a river in the dark!” I told him. Using his headlight, he showed me where I could find footing, and promised that after the initial steep part, the path began to level out. Hesitantly, I followed Kurt down the path using his voice and our headlamps as my only guide. River moved ahead confidently, sniffing her way down. Just before reaching the water level, the trail opened up into a small sandy beach. We sat on the beach and turned off our headlamps.

The wide river stretched beyond in both directions, its surface velvety midnight blue, reflecting the sky. Wispy white clouds drifted around the waxing Gibbous moon. We sat in silence, in the moment. River settled quietly in the sand, her ears pricked as the sounds of coyote song traveled across the water. I didn’t feel cold, or nervous. Instead, a sense of serenity around us like a warm blanket, three little mammals in a big forest, simply being. I wanted to stay there forever.

I was so grateful for our trip, during a time when I very much needed to get away and escape stress and anxiety. In these recent months, whenever I look into the eyes of my friends, all of the other women in my life, I see exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty reflected back at me. What a time to exist in this world, when it feels like an arduous task to get through every day with what feels like a non-stop assault of horrific news stories and events.  I’m beyond lucky to have the life that I have, which allows me a week here and there when I can escape to the woods, to get away and move freely through wild spaces, where the only thing I fear is losing my footing and falling into a river. I am grateful to have had that moment, and to now have that memory to retreat to whenever I need to find some semblance of serenity.

Get out there and vote. And do something good to help other people, no matter how big or small. This world is too damn beautiful to give up the fight.

Chicago, Friday Night Trouble Bound

Neither of us had been to this bar in years, but as soon as we walk through the front door, hazy memories rush back like the swill at the bottom of a pint glass.  I sidle up to the cash-only bar and order two beers; the bartender hands me back my change,  a fistful of soggy singles that I shove into my wallet.

It takes two hours for the headlining band to take the stage. Before then, we stake out a spot in the crowd, bathing in neon light and the aural accompaniment of drunken banter. We’ve seen this band at least a dozen times before, but their shows make me feel like I never slowed down on all those killer parties. These kinds of nights feel like pure Chicago to me. How many times since I first turned 21 have I danced on this sticky floor, how many cheap PBRs have I crushed, how many times have I used the women’s bathroom where there’s never a functioning lock and I have to hook my foot around the bottom of the stall door so no one walks in on me. How many bands have I seen, and how many of them skyrocketed to fame or disappeared into oblivion.

The opening act is the frontman of another well-known band in town for the weekend, appearing solo, singing covers of 60’s and 70’s AM Gold radio hits. Catering to the local crowd, he launches into the rolling opening chords of “Lakeshore Drive.” I sing along, Friday night trouble bound.

When the headlining band takes the stage, the air is electric in that way that only happens when everyone there is a diehard fan who knows every lyric by heart. We scream in unison, hands punching the air like Mario raining coins from the sky. I can use this reference because everyone in this dive bar is my age. The room vibrates with body heat and joy. I feel the bass reverberate up through the soles of my feet and I wonder if my pulse matches the beat of the drums .

We pour out of the bar at 1 a.m., exhausted and exhilarated. As we walk down Western Ave, I feel the concrete sidewalk beneath my Chucks, rooting me to this city. Driving up Milwaukee Ave, we pass through my old neighborhood and I’m struck again by how much has changed–old laundromats and empty storefronts replaced with hipster bars, yoga studios, and breweries. I’m glad some time capsules still remain.

 

Waupaca, Wisconsin

I arrive at the lakehouse on a Sunday, where the rest of my family has already checked in and spent a night. The rental house sits on the easternmost part of a chain of lakes, with calm blue water. Each inlet is lined with lakeside cottages nestled amongst tall, lush trees. I look forward to this week all through the harsh Chicago winter, waiting for these blissful mornings on the back deck overlooking the lake with a fresh mug of coffee in hand, listening to birdsong and the soft breeze rustling the treetops.

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

On Sunday afternoon, my sister and I kayak across the lake to the local bar where people tie up their pontoon boats along the dock and a server brings drinks and fish baskets straight to your boat. We order a few New Glarus Moon Mans (Moon Men?) and watch a cover band perform from a boat while people dance in knee-deep water, living that #lakelife.

My sister brought along her 7-week old baby on the trip, and we take countless photos of him–wearing tiny baby sun hats, smiling in front of the lake, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms in front of a Wisconsin sunset. Through him, I see the beginnings of another childhood of summers spent in canoes, catching frogs, learning to fish off a pier, and splashing in midwestern lakes.

I brought my laptop to the lakehouse to work remotely, logging on right after my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. so I can finish my days early and jump directly into the water the second I shut my Macbook Air.  The dining room table serves as my makeshift desk for the week, giving me a view of the water and a wooded island just above my monitor crammed with spreadsheets and emails. I could easily live this life forever, beginning my day with sun salutations on the back deck looking out on lake still thick with morning fog, then changing into a swimsuit the moment I finish my final afternoon conference call. One morning, the local camp holds a canoeing relay race past our house, and we hear the sound of kids’ voices bouncing off the water as they chase each other. In the evenings, live music from the bar across the lake drifts to our back lawn where we crack open bottles of Spotted Cow by the fire pit.

We take the pontoon boat out into various lakes, waving hello to the various kayakers, speedboats, water skiers, and stand up paddle boarders that we pass. In true Midwestern Nice form, one girl even waves to us while tubing. Once we find a quiet spot, we throw in the anchors and do cannonballs into the blue water. The lakes are pleasantly cool, their depths warmed from a summer’s worth of sunshine. I have a high tolerance for cold water and no one trusts my opinion as the first one jumping in. But after a few minutes of watching me swim and float, one or two of my siblings usually end up joining me in the water. When the sun is out, it feels like pure heaven to view the sky and the treetops from the water’s surface.

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

One day mid-week, it rains, so my siblings and I go to the local bowling alley. It’s still happy hour and it’s $3 per game. When we walk inside, the TVs are blaring Fox News so we load up the jukebox with Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, and RuPaul, and dance around our score counsel. There’s a few other local stops in town that have become tradition over the years–plates of biscuits and gravy from Little Fat Gretchen’s Restaurant, beers and pull tabs at Paca Pub, family dinners at the Wheelhouse, late night stumbles to and from the Harbor Bar.

Near the end of the week, Kurt drives up and brings our dog River. We spend a day on the water with her, getting her to brave the kayak and learn how to balance on the stand up paddle board. From the shore, we can hear squeals of delight as people spot a cute little dog on the board. Kurt plays fetch with her off the dock, and when she catches the ball, a passing boat gives a celebratory honk and the passengers cheer for her.

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

At the end of the week, I take a full day off of work. Before coffee, I sit on the edge of the dock to meditate. I wish I could somehow capture and save these sounds and take them home with me, to begin every day listening to the lake breeze ripple through the trees, the geese calling to each other, the water lapping against the rocks. And once again feel the sun warming my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, the scent of water and pine.

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island