About a month ago I emailed a bunch of women I knew through various online endeavors who all live in Chicago. I don’t know. I was sort of in the mood for a little trip and my recent email activity has revealed that I knew quite a few people who live there. I was all “Yeah, hey, Erin is having a reading and I realized a bunch of people I like live in Chicago, so who wants to hang out? And who wants to let me sleep at their place and pick me up from the airport super early in the morning? Anyone?”

I am thrilled to report that the responses started rolling in and before I knew it I was all set up with places to stay and people to hang out with, dinner to be eaten, a freaky exhibition to see, and a stop to make on my World Aquarium Tour. Awesome, right? I managed to pack up my old backpacking-around-Europe-in-1998 pack that smells, I discovered too late, unfortunately like ancient cat pee…perhaps my roommate’s cat is nervous about our impending move, or perhaps he just hates me thoroughly…and make it to the airport for my red-eye. I’ve been taking those a lot as of late and I think I have almost perfected the secret to sleeping on the plane: grab the polarfleece blanket they give you and put it directly over your head, and then try to work some sort of crazy coach-class yoga pose that will allow you to curl up without getting a cramp. I found it helpful to put my knee up by my head but do whatever works for you. Also be aware that your hair is not going to look great when you get off the plane but if you are arriving at six in the morning you may or may not care about this.

Katia, whom I know from MATH+1, was picking me up at the airport and at first I walked right by her…we’d arranged where to meet but it was just as I was getting into pigeon pose on the plane that I realized I had no idea what she looked like. Fortunately for me, she came up to me all, “Uh, are you waiting for someone?” and I was all “Yes! Take me away!” and she took me to her extraordinarily cute apartment and to breakfast, as I was about to eat my own hand by that point, and let me take a shower and made me some tea while we waited for it to be a reasonable hour so that I could call various other people and arrange to meet them at the Borders downtown.

It’s 2005 and I no longer get freaked out by meeting people I know primarily from the journal or from the message board. I did find it difficult to explain to people at work who don’t read journals or blogs why I was flying halfway across the country to hang out with people I either had never met or had met once or twice. I wish I could explain better the complex joy of getting to hang out with someone you know both a lot and a little about…you’ve read their words and emailed late at night, maybe, but you don’t know what kind of shoes they wear or what kind of tea they drink. Being able to talk in person can feel kind of giddy, almost, with a lot of cross-referencing and odd moments where you pause to notice that, for meeting for the first time, you don’t feel awkward or shy at all, that it makes complete sense to ask personal questions and to give personal answers and just hang out the way you would with any other friend. I’ve been very lucky to get to do that tolerably often in the last few years and Friday morning with Katia was no exception. We jabbered on about built-in bookshelves and online personals and goat cheese and about various people we knew from various places and then it was time for her to take me to my beloved Dawnie’s office building downtown so I could go to the reading.

One thing I noticed about downtown Chicago was that, unlike downtown Seattle, you see hardly anyone wearing polarfleece. I felt very much like a country mouse, looking up at the big buildings and feeling slightly outpaced by everyone. I was just wearing black pants and a shirt but I felt a little schlumpy waiting in the big huge ornate lobby of Dawnie’s lobby, all in my red suede sneakers and my backpack, of all things. I’d applied product to my hair, which was, as usual, trying to stage a coup up on my scalp and set up its own independent republic, but it wasn’t helping much and I felt exquisitely out of place for a couple of minutes, until Dawn came to get me and let me stash my huuuuuge bag. I went off to the Borders an hour early to read magazines and to get a little thrill when they announced the reading over the speakers.

Dawn showed up soon enough, as well as what seemed to be all of Erin’s family, and then Jessamyn came in and I just recognized her immediately and it was so weird to finally meet her, again, in a not-really-weird way. I liked the skirt she was wearing. Erin came to say hi and asked if I’d like to read my little blurb in the book, and I was like, well, duh, of course I would…I loved how she thought I might be too shy to do so…and that was kind of exciting too.

People laughed and clapped at the reading and I liked how Erin made sure to read selections by the other authors in the book. Everyone was very happy to be there on a Friday afternoon up on the third floor by the cookbooks; they had to bring in extra chairs and the atmosphere was very casual and funny. I think my piece went okay, at least, and then do you know what happened? While Erin was signing up at the table, her aunt came up to me and asked me to sign a couple of books. I was overwhelmed by the niceness when someone very nice and funny from Chicagoist came up and asked me to sign his, I was so excited that I asked him to marry me on the spot. He declined politely, citing his vows to his current wife as the reason, and we all hung out and talked for a while before Jessamyn and Dawn and I headed out for lunch, and I felt very glamorous and it was all very exciting.

On our way to the diner we saw the oddest-looking couple I have seen in a long time. The guy was a normal nice-looking guy, wearing khakis and a sea-green polo shirt. His companion was a woman with blond hair and a headdress that sort of matched his shirt. She was wearing a lot of makeup and an elaborately beaded wedding dress (which she’d hiked up in big bunches to walk easier, I guess), and she just had the most confused look on her face I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t stop looking at them. “There’s a story there,” said Jessie, and we settled down to our hot turkey sandwiches, which I didn’t completely understand, because it involved mashed potatoes and gravy. There was bread underneath but it really stretched my conception of what a sandwich entailed and I had to focus on that for a while.

We saw the couple walk by again as we were eating and talking, and we asked our server what was up, lamenting the fact that not one of us had brought a camera. She said that the couple had actually eaten there that day and we speculated what could possibly be going on there. Did she just want to wear a wedding dress to City Hall because she’d always dreamed of it? Was he on his lunch break? Had she lost her bouquet and was wandering around downtown Chicago looking for it? Had she planned to match her headdress thing to his shirt or was that a happy coincidence? What the hell was happening?

All of a sudden our server…she was around fifty, with a stained apron and a few missing teeth, hair in a ponytail…started telling us about her own marriage. Seems she’d been with her husband for thirty years or something before they got around to getting married. We nodded and smiled and tried not to look too pointedly in the direction of our hot turkey sandwiches as she talked and talked and talked. Her monologue, interspersed with “Mmm hmms” and “Uh huhs” from us, shifted from her marriage to the death of her mother last year, to whom she was unusually close and whom she misses very much. It got uncomfortable…I didn’t feel like I could ignore her or ask her to leave or even eat my hot turkey sandwich, because she was talking very intently and making a lot of eye contact and clearly not getting our cues that we would rather talk to each other than hear her story. It seemed callous to dismiss her.

Finally, after two or three false alarms, she left us, and I wondered, later, what would make someone confess her life story to people she did not know, people who didn’t seem to care, people she was actually serving their lunches. Are those stories just seething in her, below the surface? Does she have to talk about her loss as much as she can, regardless of the context or circumstance, if she doesn’t want to explode from the pressure of her grief? Most of me was a little annoyed at her while she was talking (I wondered if we had to tip extra for the entertainment) but there was another part of me that wanted to hear everything she had to say and understand what it was about us that made her feel she could tell her secrets.

I couldn’t think much about that though because it was time to go to H&M (which we don’t have on the west coast! At least not in Seattle!) and try on forty bajillion things and listen to what possibly was a drug deal going on via cell phone in the dressing room before buying a couple of skirts and then it was time to meet up with Dawn again and take public transportation to her house, where, after procuring some Chinese takeout and strawberry cheesecake ice cream, I was able to finally get into my pajamas and watch Pretty In Pink and pet the cats and feel as much of a girly cliché as is possible. The only thing that was missing was a pedicure, I think. It was great. Dawn is very good for that sort of thing. We talked about everything in the world and wondered, as everyone does when they see Pretty In Pink, why the hell Andie doesn’t go with Duckie, and noticed how terrible the movie really is, and how New Order-heavy the soundtrack is. And then I immediately fell into a sugar coma from the ice cream and from the red-eye and Dawn made the funny joke of mentioning that she hoped she wouldn’t wake me when she got up early in the morning to go “running” in order to train for this “marathon” thing.

The next day was a very exciting day because not only Aquarium Day but also it was Weetabix Day. Because she is good and true and pure of heart and an excellent friend to boot, she decided to drive on down from Green Bay for the sole purpose of helping me appreciate sharks and rays and gigantic underwater snakes. Jessamyn and baby Katie were going to join us too. I had to wait a little while to meet up with Weet, so I took a little walk along the lake for a while. It was a gorgeous day and I was confirmed in my secret belief that Chicago loved me and wanted me to have a good weekend, because it was so sunny and warm and the lake was so bright and blue and big. Weetabix tells me it has its own currents and huge prehistoric fish on the bottom, and it was very strange to think there was an end to it somewhere, even though I couldn’t see it. One of those moments of very pure and simple happiness: beautiful day, wonderful friends, extraordinary creatures soon to come.

I honed in on Weet by following the rays of hotness coming off her and we got our All-Access wristbands (we hoped maybe there was an afterparty with the otters or something) and went downstairs to see the Shark Reef display. There was a big concave wall of water, it looked like, and we watched the sharks emerge from the shadows and cruise by, utterly alien. There were some excellent skates and rays too, and if I enumerate every cool thing we saw we’ll be here all day, but I feel I should mention the extremely yonic giant clam there, that made Weetabix go “Huh. Brazilian.”

We met Jessamyn and Katie and had lunch and then walked around and looked at more stuff. We went down to a part that was supposed to be like the Pacific Northwest, with lots of pines and ferns, which is also where the beluga tank is. There were three of them swimming around a little cove-y tank…one of the signs said that the belugas can swim anywhere they want to in this massive huge gigantic tank, but they just like to hang out together in the little enclosed area. Fine and good. I was regaling Weetabix and Jessie with some random facts about beluga whales…because if you go to the aquarium with me, just be prepared to deal with my need to give you lots of random facts…when one of the whales swam over to where we were all leaning against the railing and stuck its head out of the water.

It looked like it was looking right at us, and it started making all these clicking sounds, sort of like a dolphin. We could see the melon on its head shifting around and it just kept clicking, talking to us. Jessie said she wished she could make the same kind of noise back so that it would know that we heard it. It dove off and we were all enthusing about how great it was, when it came back and did the whole thing again. And then it did it once more, for a total of three times. It’s a little silly, but I imagined briefly that the whale really was trying to tell us something. Why did it come back to us? Three times? When I was a kid I used to think that animals were always trying to talk to me, and every time I went to Seaquarium I used to imagine that somehow the trainers would see that the dolphins or orcas were talking to me and they’d pick me out of the crowd and take me back in the back and let me ride a dolphin or something. I wished we could spend the rest of the day there, talking to the whales.
But! But there were cute outfits to be ironed and delicioustapas to be had and beautiful women to meet, so I went back to Weetabix’s hotel for a while, where the dangerously alluring TranceJen met us and shared some cookies and gossip. Weetabix put some makeup on me (she suggested the hoochie mama color of lip gloss, which was quite fetching) and I wore my new skirt that I got when I went shopping with an opera singer and after some difficulty parking we all got inside the restaurant and proceeded to stuff our faces with delicious, tiny food.

It was me and Dawn and Weetabix and Jessamyn and Katia and Trance and my beautiful Sassy, whom I also know from MATH+1 and whom I’d never met in person before either. Everyone looked adorable and we gave thanks that the tables were covered with paper because we needed to write down our very complicated orders, which involved a lot of goat cheese and fried things and…I cannot stress this enough…the Bacon-Wrapped Dates.

The Bacon-Wrapped Dates, the Bacon-Wrapped Dates. I had never had the Bacon-Wrapped Dates. I’m generally pro-bacon, though I don’t eat it often, but I didn’t think I liked dates. In fact I am not convinced I had ever had a date before Saturday. I forget which of us was the genius who ordered them but I do know some of us were like, “Fruit wrapped in meat? Hmm.” I mean, I love melon wrapped in prosciutto, but still, dates? Meh. It turns out that Bacon-Wrapped Dates are a pretty common appetizer, according to the internet, but I was just not sure.

We could neither stop eating nor stop talking about the Bacon-Wrapped Dates. We loved the Bacon-Wrapped Dates. We never wanted to eat anything other than the Bacon-Wrapped Dates ever again in our lives. The Bacon-Wrapped Dates gave meaning and substance to the hollow shells of our existence. The Bacon-Wrapped Dates, the Bacon-Wrapped Dates. You understand we’d already had some amazing food, including a delicious Spanish tortilla, some very yummy croquetas which totally reminded me of home, and some goat cheese in tomato sauce that made my eyes roll up in my head with goaty, cheesy goodness. We started talking about the wedding we would plan where we all married each other and how the cake would be tier upon tier of Bacon-Wrapped Dates, and how the punch bowl would be full of goat cheese in tomato sauce. Trance mentioned the dangerous idea of putting goat cheese on the Bacon-Wrapped Dates but conceded that “that might be flying a little too close to the sun.”

I just love women sometimes, you know? I love funny, articulate, gorgeous, compassionate, and silly women most of all, and there I was in Chicago, wearing my cute skirt and admiring everyone else’s cute skirts (and shoes and tops and pants and hair), surrounded by them. If walking by the lake Saturday afternoon was simple happiness, then laughing and screaming and eating delicious food at dinner Saturday night was richly complicated happiness: that I know so many amazing people, and that I know them through my silly journal hobby that means the world to me and brought me to a real community of like-minded people, and that friends from inside the computer really do live outside the computer too, and that I can do whatever I like, and part of what I like to spend time with awesome women. It doesn’t lend itself well to my slim descriptive powers, that kind of happiness, so I guess all I can tell you is that it was a lot of fun and I’m glad I got to do it.

After dinner some of us went to the very hysterical Neo, which was down a dark alley and featured a bouncer who was wearing a pirate hat. We sat down in a corner, in our cute Capri pants and strappy sandals, and made fun of the various Hellraiser types who were there…not that there were too many of them, to be sure, as it was still early by normal peoples’ standards. Trance entertained us by recounting her years as a crazy club kid and telling us about various pierces, and we basked in the Peter Murphy glow for a while, wondering about the gender of the lone dancer out on the floor. It reminded me a little of Spanksgiving except this time I wasn’t wearing a short vinyl dress. As much as I was enjoying the play of the black light against the sequins of my skirt, it was soon time to go home for Dawn and Jessamyn and I. Trance and Weetabix were punk rockers and stayed on, reporting the next day that people did eventually start dancing and that there were, as projected, many a drag queen among them.

Jessamyn dropped Dawn off and then conveyed me to her abode, which was set up with a very tall air mattress. We both said how tired we were and how we should totally go to sleep right now, and stayed up talking for another three or four hours in our pajamas and petting the cats. This was especially good because…well, you know that it was her archives that finally convinced me to start this silly thing you’re reading right now. I don’t know what it was about her writing that made me finally go “Me too!” and get the free account and start writing right here on the internet where people can see. Also, I met my girl Sundry through the comments on her wedding blog, years ago now, if you can believe it. I still feel grateful to her for starting that journal.

I remember how thrilled I was when I wrote her, all shy and self-deprecating, to tell her that I had started up a little web diary and maybe if it wasn’t too much trouble, she could take a look at it please…and she wrote back, and it was like a rock star was writing me back, and it was so exciting. I guess we’ve been emailing back and forth pretty much since then but of course had never met, and last week she wrote to say that she was pretty sure we were going to do okay hanging out together and I’m so happy to report that she was absolutely correct. I had yet another session of doing my favorite thing of sitting around and talking and laughing and going “Can you even BELIEVE it?” in my pajamas, and then it really was time for the strangely large and comfortable air bed.

I got to meet Jessamyn’s husband Geoff the next morning…while I was still, uh, on the air bed thing. He was lovely and gracious and didn’t mention the fact that I was lying prone in his living room and had extremely fuzzy hair at the time. We saddled up and went to meet up with Weetabix, Trance, and the crazily beautiful and funny Kelly at the insane Swedish Ann Sather for breakfast. Ann Sather, where the side dish is two huge cinnamon rolls. We all kept saying how the cinnamon rolls, in their lake of frosting, were bad and evil and would take advantage of us and not respect us in the morning and steal our favorite earrings to boot, but we could not stop eating them. “Just one more bite,” we’d say, lapping frosting from the plates.

I said my reluctant goodbyes to Jessie and Katie and Kelly and Trance outside after we rolled down the stairs and onto the street, smears of cinnamon still on our faces, and hopped into Weetabix’s Republican car with the heated leather seats to go to the excellent and amazing BodyWorlds exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. I’d read about it about a year ago and heard it was in LA, and then saw that Dawnie had seen it…in Chicago. Where I was going to be. Weetabix, who had proven to be such a good aquarium-going partner, was all over it, and so we got there as soon as we figured out where the hell it was, our pre-paid tickets in hand.

We had about four hours before we had to leave for the airport and I wish we’d known how unremittingly amazing and exciting the exhibit would be because I don’t think we’d have wasted time looking at the other displays in the museum, which involved, like a scale model of the Space Needle and some trains or something, and also a coal mine that you had to wait an hour in line to go down into. Those weren’t that fun, and our starchy starchy breakfasts caught up to us, but a couple of iced lattes later we were raring to go. You could get audioguide thingies at the desk…the BodyWorlds part was all separate from the rest of the museum and had all sorts of extra rules and extra security and everything…and you could either get Basic or Advanced, and it was with smug smiles that we opted for Advanced and wandered around checking out the plastinated dead people.

You just have to see it for yourself, I think, to properly appreciate the sheer awesomeness of this exhibit. Weetabix and I are not, I don’t think, women who are often at a loss for words, but we were reduced to constant “THAT IS INSANE, DUDE” and “CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE THIS?” The plastinates, as the audioguides call them, were so perfectly preserved, that I’d find myself wondering how the hell they managed the delicate rosy filigree of the blood vessels surrounding the skull, when I’d realize with a little internal shock, that they were actual people. I’ve never seen such a collision between the real and unreal before.

I learned so much during those couple of hours we were there…I wish we hadn’t even bothered with the rest of the museum because BodyWorlds was so endlessly fascinating. I never realized how small the brain is (Weetabix said, “That’s where Romeo and Juliet comes from.”) or how the muscles wrap around each other. I’ve never seen a uterus or fallopian tubes…I mean, how would I?..and it was strange to think that that tiny little muscle, smaller than the palm of my hand, can grow and expand so hugely, and that the existence of that same muscle has been the determinant of so much of how we do gender in the world. I saw the enlarged ventricle of a hydrocephalitic brain and thought about one of the kids I worked with at a disability sailing camp, fifteen years ago now, whose brain mass was about a quarter of average. It was so plastic, though, that the remaining tissue took over a lot of the function of the destroyed parts and so she walked and talked and did art projects with alacrity. Looking at that brain, I had a brief vision of her in one of the boats, in her sun hat with her crutches at her feet, and wondered where she is now.

“People are made of meat” I whispered to Weetabix, in between audioguide lectures on liver function and heart hypertrophy and the relationship between ligaments and tendons and the assertion that smoking is “suicide in installments.” It made me want to learn everything in the world about the human body, how it works and doesn’t work and what it’s capable of in various contexts and every perfect physical adaptation and innovation. I could have stayed there for hours, wondering about the people who donated their bodies to this work, and wondering about everything we know and don’t know about our own flesh and blood. We weren’t allowed to take pictures so I bought some postcards (which I have been keeping in my purse to show to everyone I know) but they don’t come close to the amazement that was the real thing. What a piece of work is man, indeed.

We didn’t want to leave, obviously, but we dragged ourselves away eventually and headed out to the airport after some minor drama that had to do with losing the parking ticket somewhere in the car in the thirty feet between the parking-payer-thing and the car itself. Then, of course, came the drama of traffic on the way to the airport, when I had only an hour before the flight took off. Weetabix was very soothing and played me her favorite songs on her iPod but I was pretty worried until I realized that Chicago loved me and maybe just didn’t want me to go quite yet. Weetabix proved, once again, her deep goodness of friendship by listening to me talk and talk about myself, me me BLAH BLAH ME, and reassuring me that I could just sleep at her house in Green Bay if I missed the flight. She said some very kind words to me that I have been thinking about since that afternoon and even though I was relieved when we finally made it to the airport…I mean, what was up with the traffic on a Sunday afternoon?…I was strangely sad to go, too. As fantastic as it is to have friends who live all over the country and the world, it’s also sad not to be able to hang out with them as much as you’d like, which in my case is every day.

I vaulted through check in and security going “Ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease” and sprinted to the gate with my ungainly bag, with less than thirty minutes to go, and was convinced that Chicago was giving me a final squeeze and kiss when the flight attendant was like, “You’ll get on the plane, just go and sit down and relax.” I spent the flight eating snacks and reading the rest of Tales From The Scale and listening to moody music, thinking about all the blessings in my life. I have a lot of good days and good times in general, I am happy to say, but for some reason this past weekend made me even more aware of that, made me know deeply that I have so much to be thankful for. I love Chicago, everything about it, the lake and the whales and the plastinates, the gorgeous, funny, generous, and kind women that showed me such a good time and let me spend some time being the favorite parts of myself.

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