9 things to like right now
Here’s my latest list of 9 things I like, loosely pegged to the festive, frantic weeks we call the holidays.
1. Millennium Park: From the windows of the new Tribune office at Prudential Plaza, we’re treated to one of the best holiday views in Chicago: the city’s 60-foot Christmas tree towering next to an ice skating rink.
The tree is a Norway spruce, and in the wintry darkness it glows like a holiday fantasy. Every time I see it I think: This is what the holidays are supposed to look like.
The park is conveniently close to downtown’s consumer frenzy but blissfully apart from it. You can even sing holiday carols at The Bean (aka Cloud Gate) on three upcoming Fridays and a Wednesday. Details are here: https://bit.ly/2fJFHrf
2. The Chicago Architecture Center gift shop: Looking for Chicagocentric holiday cards? Fun yet tasteful Chicago-themed gifts, like the $9.99 key chain with charms shaped like famous skyscrapers? This is the place.
The gift shop is in the center’s new home, which Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has called “the latest jewel in Chicago’s architectural crown.”
Admission to the center (111 E. Upper Wacker Drive, overlooking the Chicago River) costs $12; taking one of the excellent city tours gets you free or discounted admission. But the gift shop is open to all, no charge. Not everything has a Chicago theme, by the way, and you can shop online.
3. A pleasant visit to renew my license: A few days ago, I went to the secretary of state’s facility in the Loop to renew my driver’s license. Remembering a couple of long-ago visits, I dreaded going.
But the line moved quickly, the clerks were cheerful, and the new photo wasn’t terrible. When I posted about my pleasant, efficient visit on Facebook, dozens of people echoed the sentiment about other local license facilities.
In a world of bad news, it’s heartening to know that a bureaucracy can change, and for the better.
4. Colectivo Coffee: Chicago roasts a lot of good coffee, so it feels heretical to recommend a roaster from Milwaukee. But since it opened its first Chicago coffeehouse in 2017, Colectivo has won a lot of Chicago fans with first-rate coffee and its airy, colorful, spacious cafes. It recently opened a third Chicago location, in addition to its Evanston site. Unlike a typical coffeehouse, it also serves beer.
5. “A Place to Call Home” This highly rated Australian TV series has been dubbed “Downton Abbey Down Under.” Both shows focus on the social divisions between the landed rich and the working class, but “A Place to Call Home” is different.
It’s more unabashedly melodramatic but I like it better, maybe because the landscape of New South Wales is less familiar, and partly because it wrestles with more modern questions of religion and sexuality. It begins shortly after World War II, when an Australian nurse comes home to see her ailing mother, following years in Europe, where she had converted to Judaism and joined the Resistance. On the ship back home, she meets a wealthy family and …
I subscribed to Acorn TV to watch it, a bargain at $4.99 a month.
6. The novels of Domenico Starnone: I’d never heard of Starnone, an Italian journalist/screenwriter/novelist, until a couple of years ago when it was suggested that he’s really Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous writer of the wildly popular “Neapolitan” novels. Even if he’s not Ferrante, the speculation goes, he’s married to the mysterious woman who is.
Who knows? What matters is that his two recent novels, “Ties” and “Trick,” are compelling on their own.
“Trick” is about a man in his 70s who churlishly agrees to baby-sit his young grandson for a few days; the encounter forces him to confront his waning powers. “Ties” is about a long and complex marriage. Both are translated from Italian to English by the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. They’re short and emotionally astute, a shrewd mix of humor and dread that keeps you reading.
7. A good side table: A lot of side tables are too big, too fancy, too tacky, too heavy, too pricey. After a long quest, I chanced into the $99 Duke accent table from Pottery Barn. It has a smooth circular metal top on a simple metal base. It’s just big enough for a book or a coffee cup and light enough that you can easily move it around. I was surprised to discover it also works as a laptop desk.
8. Good holiday music: Good holiday music is not an oxymoron. The proof is these three albums I return to every year:
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” by the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s a Grammy-winning gospel twist on mostly familiar Christmas songs.
“A Dave Brubeck Christmas” by Dave Brubeck. The late, great jazz pianist offers a mellow spin on familiar tunes.
“Come Sunday” by Hank Jones and Charlie Haden. Jones, another late, great jazz pianist, joins bassist Haden on an album that sneaks a couple of Christmas tunes into a collection of spirituals that aren’t specifically for the holidays but perfectly fit the mood.
9. A good poem: Wendell Berry’s “Real Work” is about the psychological work we’re called upon to do when we’re not sure what to do. It’s short, so copyright won’t allow us to print more than one line, but it’s a good line:
The mind that is not baffled is not employed
Dozens of people skate during the official opening of the Millennium Park Ice Rink on Nov. 16.