a year later….

Chicago el platform, Clark/Lake

It’s been an eventful year.  I haven’t posted since January 2018 because, well, I thought I had nothing to say. My adventures living and teaching abroad had come to an end, and I was now adapting to the daily grind of trying to survive in late-capitalist America under Trump. It’s been an interesting journey, but not in ways that I thought deserved lengthy descriptions via blog posts.

First, my professional life: my teaching career continues. For a year now I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language at Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago. It’s a job that I love, and one that I can keep for the rest of my working life. There are a couple of drawbacks. First, it’s a part-time job, 20 hours a week, so my income is limited. Second, at present I’m teaching a split shift, one morning class 7-9 a.m. and an evening class 5-8 p.m. For five hours of teaching Monday through Thursday I spend about the same amount of time commuting on public transportation. It’s immensely impractical, and exhausting. Eventually, as I build seniority, I’ll be able to consolidate my schedule into more manageable time slots. Small wonder, then, that I was absolutely drained by the time the one-month winter break arrived.

Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inequities of income vs. living costs in this country. I can give a concrete example, since I’ve lived in the same area of Chicago during two stages of my life, 40 years apart. In 1978, after graduating from college, I moved into a studio apartment in Lakeview East (then called New Town) that cost $190 a month. Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m living two blocks away from that first apartment, in a comparable studio, and paying $1,000 a month. That’s an increase of 500% over 40 years. Over the same period, the average income (certainly not mine) has not risen by anything close to that percentage.

When I was young, rental agencies recommended that you apply for apartments that cost about 25% of your income. Today, I pay 50% of my (limited) income for extortionist rent. When you consider that I live in a popular, rather upscale area near the lake, you might think that there are cheaper areas of Chicago in which to live. There aren’t. Finding a rental in  any area under $1,000 is almost impossible.

In June 2018, the national average rent reached an all-time high of $1,405 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/u-s-urban-rents-hit-all-time-high-at-average-1405-report/). That’s insane. Chicago is much cheaper than New York or San Francisco, but I wonder how people on limited incomes actually survive here. For rent to be about one-quarter of income, as previously recommended, would require an income of over $5,600 a month. At 40 hours a week, that’s over $35 an hour. Even if minimum wage eventually rises to $15, that’s less than half of what it would cost to afford big-city housing.

Fortunately, I’m debt-free. I don’t own a car, property, and have no loans or credit card debt. However, my carefully-guarded savings from teaching in China, earmarked for a retirement nest egg, are almost depleted. I’m joining the ranks of older Americans who can look forward to no financial security, and possibly no retirement. I knew all of this before I moved back to my native country. Over the past year and a half, it’s been hammered home for me.

On the plus side, I enjoy my life here. I follow my creative pursuits, I have work I love, and I have a basic if comfortable life. Hopefully, I will share more of it via this blog in the future.

a different perspective

Most photos of Marina City are shot from across the Chicago River. I came upon this view of the iconic towers from behind the complex on Dearborn Street, on a bitterly cold day. I got a few decent pictures as I tried to keep my fingers from freezing.  My photography has been improving over the past year; I just need the time and the energy to get out on the streets and shoot.

progress, not perfection

Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago


December is closing in, and the weather is unpredictable. There’s been one brief snowfall, some low temperatures, and now suddenly it’s sunny and in the low 50s. Kind of like my life, I started to think, but then reminded myself that I’ve done a pretty good job off adapting to my new environment in the space of five months.

I came back to this country with a pretty clear idea of what I was going to do: become a freelance tutor. I’m doing that, but as with any small freelance business, it requires not only shrewd planning but tons of patience. I have to learn how to market myself, a new skill I haven’t quite developed yet. Networking is another problem; there’s no association or centralized database of private tutors, except on dedicated for-profit websites. It’s a challenge.

In the meantime, I’m working part-time for Pearson – yes, that Pearson, the huge testing and education behemoth headquartered in the UK, that has about a 40% share of the standardized testing market in the USA. I’m a Test Administrator, which means that I invigilate candidates as they take computerized tests, for professional licensing, college admissions, and other purposes. It’s a way to pay the rent. I’m a sometimes-substitute teacher for a language academy in Chicago as well.

I’ve reached a plateau, of sorts, which gives me a bit of breathing room and a respite from my intense two-year job search. That process left me exhausted and dispirited, and taught me two lessons: that age discrimination is very real in the education field, and that the market for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teachers is extremely limited.

In the meantime, I practice gratitude: I landed on my feet in Chicago, sort of; I had an 11-year career in China as a teacher, with its steep learning curve, professional development, and fascinating experiences; and finally, I’ve met each challenge as it presented itself, with self-assurance and relatively clear thinking. My dog and I have a comfortable place to live, and enough to sustain us for the moment. The realities of the shrinking job market, the “gig” economy, and difficulties of finding work after 60 will not defeat me; my survival and adaptive skills are pretty highly developed. Besides, there’s no alternative. It’s all about progress, not perfection, as they say in 12-step programs.

Open House Chicago 2017

The Arts Club of Chicago is both a private club and an exhibition space open to the public. The 1997 building, designed by Vinci/Hamp Architects, Inc., salvaged this Mies van der Rohe staircase from the Club’s previous headquarters.



Open House Chicago is an annual event sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, offering free access to over 200 buildings across the city, many of which are not normally open to the public. I’d been looking forward to the event for months, and over the weekend of October 14-15 I squeezed in as many visits as I could, in the process getting drenched in a torrential rainstorm on Saturday. I saw only a fraction of what was available, mostly in the Loop and near north / Gold Coast area. Six solid hours on my feet pretty much wore me out, but my camera and I managed to capture some decent interior views.

Fortunately, I’d seen a few of the open spaces before, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and his home and studio. 200+ buildings, though, is simply too much of a good thing, and I’m now looking forward to next year’s edition of the Open House.

Some of the highlights included visits to architectural firms such as Holabird & Root, successor firm to the designers of many iconic Chicago buildings, and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, whose offices were filled with scale models of skyscrapers, including the firm’s 1-km tall Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Favorite interiors included the sumptuous Red Lacquer Room in the Palmer House Hotel, with its long red-draped banquet table set with the original 1879 Haviland dinner service for the farewell banquet for Ulysses S. Grant. I also loved the calm, expansive space of the 8th-floor library of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, with its stunning view of the lakefront, Grant Park, the Museum Campus, and downtown skyscrapers.

Nostalgic visits included my first view of the interior of the H.H. Richardson Glessner House, a house I’d admired from the exterior many times. I’d long admired the Gothic steeple atop the Chicago Temple (First United Methodist Church) downtown, but I made my first (and last) ascent to the Sky Chapel, involving an elevator ride to the 22nd floor and then climbing up 172 stairs to the small chapel. It brought back memories of days when I could easily climb structures such as the dome of St. Peter’s.

Some of my edited pictures are posted here; you can also view Open House Chicago Flickr album by clicking here.




The crystalline glass façade of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership (Krueck + Sexton, 2007), is a striking feature of this building, which features open interior spaces for study with panoramic views of the downtown Chicago lakefront.




The art deco 1929 Carbine and Carbon Building has been re-purposed as the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago. Original lobby details can still be admired.





Another inviting interior space for reading and contemplation is the Poetry Foundation (John Ronan Architects, 2011), on the near north side.




The Red Lacquer Room is one of the stunning function rooms in the 1927 Palmer House Hotel.




On Nov. 13, 1879, the Palmer House was the scene of a grand banquet in honor of General Grant, who had just returned from his world tour. On display in the Red Lacquer Room were place settings from the original Haviland Limoges china service used for the dinner,  from the hotel’s collection.





The International Museum of Surgical Science, formerly the Eleanor Robinson Countiss Home, faces Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Period photographs show the former appearance of the rooms.




The offices of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture feature scale models of some of the world’s tallest buildings, as well as stunning top-floor outdoor terraces.





The 1887 Glessner House is the only remaining building in the city of Chicago designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson.




View my complete set of photos from Open House Chicago in my Flickr album here:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/81954544@N00/albums/72157687108662761