Bristol Renaissance Faire: A Chicagoland Spotlight

As an enthusiast, but sadly not practitioner, of time travel, I am especially fond of the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Just about an hour north of Chicago, right across the Wisconsin border, the Bristol Ren Faire is consistently voted the best in the country, and it’s easy to see why. Upon entering the gates of the 30-acre, open-air site, you’re transported to Elizabethan-era England (but, fortunately, with the benefit of modern-day conveniences).

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To escape the summertime heat and stench of London, Queen Elizabeth would spend time in the countryside, where villages would put on lavish festivals in her honor. The Faire replicates those visits, and serves as quite a shock to the senses, quickly forcing Chicago to fade into obscurity. When you’re at the Ren Faire, you really feel as though you’ve entered a new world, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and (only good, food-related) smells of the 16th century.

Within minutes, you’ll be greeted with several iterations of “good morrow,” “how dost thou?” or “hail and well met!” You’ll see costumes of grandeur, costumes of…scant fabric, and costumes that involve nothing more than a t-shirt that says “this is my Ren Faire costume.” (I’m convinced those are probably engineers.) You’ll look around in slack-jawed wonder and laugh at the anachronistic disparities between this world of fantasy and that of our own. It’s no wonder that the Faire’s slogan is “Where Fantasy Rules,” because that’s exactly what you’re getting when you go: a day of fantasy.

Why You Need to Visit

It’s a fun, living-color history lesson

There’s actually quite a bit of history laced in with the whimsy of the Ren Faire. As mentioned, it’s supposed to resemble the English countryside during Queen Elizabeth’s visit in approximately 1574, when townspeople would gather for elaborate celebrations and to flaunt their wares. This is why the Queen and her court are historically represented with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance each day of the Faire. You can even check out the Queen’s court as guests are being presented to her. The people representing these historical figures are quite impressive; they’ve auditioned for and researched their roles well and nail their accents. But it’s the costumes that really blow me away. Each one must be valued well into the thousands, if I were to guess, and they certainly add to the air of majesty and grandeur.

Visitors also have the opportunity to watch and even learn how to do the maypole dance.

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You can also learn quite a bit about the culture of knights and weapons, if you’re so inclined. The Military Encampment, or weaponry area, is especially fun.

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The 11 o’clock show is particularly important.

An inside source told us that most of the people in this section are, amazingly, wearing handmade, historically accurate costumes, and that several people working at the Faire hold master’s degrees in British history. Despite how silly it seems at times, there’s definitely some clout behind the scenes.

It’s a great place to take kids

The Ren Faire has so much to offer children, it’s like taking them to Disney, just on a much smaller budget and with little to no licensed character sightings. Aside from all of the history your child will absorb and weapons he will yield (again, great parents!), there are several play structures, face painting booths, human-powered carnival rides (which are hilarious to observe), free-range fairies and woodland nymphs, and so much more.

And, of course, there’s also the “horse part” as my son calls it, where you can see knights compete in an exciting jousting tournament. With this and all of the other kid features, I guarantee you’ll have much more fun here than you would at Medieval Times. It’s an almost laughable comparison.

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But make no mistake, there’s quite a bit of “adult” fun too

My implied salaciousness is purposeful, because bawdy humor abounds at the Ren Faire. Even the most unexpected of passersby may lash you with a biting tongue, as it seems implicitly understood and accepted that the sharper the wit, the more suggestive the commentary, and the more unseemly the pun, the more fun you’ll have (though, honestly, this is kind of how I feel about life in general).

For a taste of what I mean, I suggest checking out Adam Crack’s fire whip show, the Washing Well Wenches show, and Vegetable Justice.

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Throw tomatoes at the insult comic or you will face his relentless–and usually hilarious–scrutiny. Warning: throw only if you have a thick skin.

Grab one of the many available cocktails (I personally really enjoy the red sangria) and prepare to be mildly offended but thoroughly entertained.

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The Ren Faire is the only place I’ve ever seen chain mail or mesh bras–and shockingly, not just once, or twice, or thrice. Since it’s a little awkward taking a picture of someone in a bra, you’ll have to settle for this mannequin model.

There’s a ton of food and it’s pretty decent

With hundreds of food–and drink–options available, you’re sure to find something that whets your appetite. The turkey legs are popular, of course, but despite being Instagrammable, I actually prefer the calzones. Also worth trying are the pickles on a stick (the spicy one is great) and the jerky. Not worth your money is the white chocolate key lime pie on a stick. I should have trusted my gut on that one.

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You’re better off with a calzone, but I admit the picture is more exciting like this.

The entertainment is plentiful and worthwhile

There are so many kinds of performances you can watch at the Ren Faire that there’s guaranteed to be something up your alley. Even if you don’t want to sit down for an entire show, it’s impossible not to happen upon some type of art or musical installation just walking around. Keep your eyes and ears open (and check out the performances I mentioned above).

You can be anyone or anything you desire, and not a single person will care

To me, the best part of the Ren Faire is that everyone is 100% themselves; the day of fantasy also means it’s a day without judgment or shame. Everyone is welcomed and celebrated within the confines of the Faire, regardless of race, ethnicity, body type, or anything else. This also means you’re in for a treat as far as costumes go. Some of the most creative costumes I’ve ever seen have been right there in Bristol.

Sure, there are several people in traditional Ren Faire garb, practicing their Elizabethan English, but you’ll also find pretty much any kind of cosplay you can imagine. A mash-up fairy alien? Why not? Bruce Wayne with a Predator mask? Sure! Looking for a place to flaunt that chain mail bikini? This is it. Want to hang in the background and just observe in your normal, boring 2018 clothes? That’s okay too.

In fact, I’ve been so inspired and envious of all of the costumes over the years, that I finally decided to invest in one of my own. I love it so much I want to flaunt that baby everywhere: dinner, the gym, the laundromat, whatever. I’m pretty sure that’s normal.

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Costume from Silver Leaf Costumes. They were wonderfully helpful in selecting and fitting what is now my favorite outfit. Shoes especially historically accurate.

Quick Tips

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that will maximize your Ren Faire experience.

1. Bring sunscreen

Though there’s plenty of shade in spots, it’s hard to avoid the sun entirely. Make sure you’re packing and putting sunscreen to use, or you’ll end up as red as the tomato guy (probably redder since not a lot of people actually hit him).

2. Pack water bottles

Because it can get so warm, I highly recommend bringing your own water bottles. You’ll need to keep hydrated and I will say water fountains are not in abundance. Plus, a bottle of water costs $4. FOUR BUCKS. At a fairground in Wisconsin. For shame.

3. Take out some cash ahead of time

While most of the artisans accept charge cards, you’ll need cash for pretty much everything else, including food and drink. There are ATMs available at the Faire, but I recommend avoiding those lines and grabbing cash before you leave home.

4. Check out some of the stalls

The vendors at the Ren Faire showcase quite impressive craftsmanship, and you’d be seriously missing out if you didn’t check at least some of it out during your visit. You can find costumes (so many kinds of costumes), candles that turn into lotion, metalworks, blown glass, art, books, art-rendered maps, jewelry, and more.

5. Tire your kids out in the children’s garden

If you have kids, make sure to pay a visit to the children’s garden. It has adorable little Hobbit-style houses, slides, a stage, a big dragon egg, pirate ships that double as play structures, and characters who are all-too-willing to recruit your kids for some kind of mission. It’s spacious, right next to the mother’s room (see below), and a great way to make sure your kid is exhausted later that day.

6. Don’t be afraid to get in the spirit!

Most importantly, go with an open mind! Ask people questions, try your hand at one of the various activities (I went on the man-powered rocking ships and they were so fun), test out your best British accent, wear a costume (even if the rest of your family doesn’t), and have fun. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a joyous place with joyous people, and not exploring it in its entirety would be doing it, and yourself, a major disservice.

Plan Your Visit

Print off a discount coupon before you go and either take it to your participating Menards or go ahead and head straight to the box office (it’s never very crowded in the morning). Without the discount, tickets are $25.95.

Location and hours

The Faire is located at 12550 120th Avenue, Kenosha, WI 53142. It’s open on Saturdays, Sundays, and Labor Day from July 7 through September 3 (meaning you have two more weekends this year!) from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Parking

There’s no public transportation, but there is plenty of paid parking in the field on site. I believe it’s $5 cash.

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Stroller or carrier

The Faire grounds are primarily dirt, gravel, and grass, so as long as your stroller can traverse those, I’d recommend bringing it. You can always throw the carrier down below.

Mother’s room

There is no air conditioning at the Faire, meaning it can get pretty warm. For a brief reprieve, check out the mother’s room by the children’s garden. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a clean, air-conditioned room with changing tables and benches for nursing moms.

A Hit for All Ages

Do yourself a favor, Chicagoans, and make your way to the Bristol Renaissance Faire before it closes for the season after Labor Day. When you visit, you and your family are in for a day of lighthearted, boisterous hijinks and fun. If you soak in a little history or get into the cosplay, that’s honestly just a bonus.

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The Wisdom of The Vampire Diaries

It is official, blog followers. By now, you’re aware that I’ve been steadily binge-watching my way through The Vampire Diaries. In a feat of human strength and perseverance, I can now say I am a graduate of TVD!

I use the term “graduate” very deliberately, of course, because to graduate from something suggests that an actual life accomplishment has been achieved. If I think of the time it took to watch all 171 episodes in the span of 53 days–approximately 120 hours, 7,182 minutes, or five consecutive days–in any other way, I’d be forced to ask myself some pretty tough life questions. Instead, I choose to continue with the idea that the experience has been educational.

As such, my first post in almost two months (I’m sorry!) will be to impart the wisdom I have gained from one of our country’s finest cinematic triumphs. At the very least, I’ll share some of the things it made me learn about myself.

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Kermit gets me.

[Source: Instagram]

What I Learned from The Vampire Diaries

1. I know more about vampire lore than I ever thought possible.

See, this isn’t my first foray into vampire studies. I’ve done my fair share of reading about and watching vampires in all their silver screen glory. Of course, each piece of vampire literature has its own take, making for a pretty well-rounded vampire education.

For example, some vampires are to be feared (Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, or I Am Legend) while others are of the sexier and less frightening variety (The Vampire Diaries or, shudder, Twilight).

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Okay, so maybe “fearsome” isn’t the right word, but this is certainly not Tom Cruise’s best look. Sometimes being a vampire means turning into a scarier version of yourself. #harshtruths

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Some vampires live in a world where their existence is common knowledge (True Blood) while most others dwell in secrecy and shadows. Can they survive–even if begrudgingly so–on animal blood? Do they require sleep? Can they go into the sun or are they confined to dark places? Are they able to eat human food or, more unconventionally, procreate? The list of potential vampire qualities is nuanced and practically endless. In talking to people about my obsession with TVD, I’ve come to realize that I can explain, in greater detail than I’d care to admit, which universe has which kind of vampire and how their differences affect their quality of life and level of human interaction.

2. If I were 164 years old, I sure as hell wouldn’t spend my time courting a 17-year-old high school student in Virginia (or anywhere else for that matter).

I know, I know. Stefan already traveled the world, lived his best life, and came home again after a long time away when he happened upon a beautiful teenager who reminded him of a long-lost love. Of course he had to stick around to learn more about her. But really, willingly going to high school again? Are you kidding me?! I can think of at least 1,757 things I’d rather do first, even if it meant waiting for the “love of my life” to graduate. College, at least, would be a much more fulfilling way to pass eternity.

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Yeah, really, Stefan, WTF are you doing?

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This also begs the question: wouldn’t someone so old be more intellectually attracted to older women, women who have much more wisdom and life experience than a teenager? I get that he has been 17 for 147 years (at least in the above picture; by the end it would have been 153), but are those 17-year-old hormones still so powerful that he is more sexually enticed by a fellow 17-year-old than someone more mature? Perhaps, but if I were such an old vampire, I like to think I’d be drawn to someone a little more in the middle. But then there’s the whole human-ages-while-vampire-doesn’t conundrum. Hm. I guess I’ll never know.

3. High school is still not accurately portrayed on TV.

For one, what high school has such frequent and elaborate dances? Insane social calendar implications aside, can you imagine any high school kid having the budget for all of these costumes and gowns? Below is just a sampling of all their formal events. There would be too many to even show here. Oh, and don’t tell me they’re just rentals. These events usually end in bloodshed. No one in their right mind would return the security deposit on a blood-soaked dress.

[Sources: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here]

Or how about the fact that these high school kids can have sleepovers with their significant others and no one seems to care? I do realize that Elena’s parents are deceased and her guardian is a young and someone lax aunt. Still, I don’t know a single person who was allowed to conduct their life this way when they were in high school.

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Just a regular morning for a high school student on TV.

[Source: Instagram @tvd_obsession]
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A sleepover on a school night, no less. Even if I were allowed to sleep over with a boyfriend, the idea of being late for school as a result wouldn’t have been worth the anxiety. I guess I’ve always had my priorities straight.

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And if you thought a regular old sleepover was absurd, imagine spending a romantic weekend together at your family’s cabin! What?!

Most importantly, these kids are barely in school with all their vampire-related goings on: conducting spells, burying classmates, learning how to use a crossbow, taking lengthy trips across country with their boyfriend’s brother (okay just one girl; see sleepover comments above), traveling to a remote island to dig through a crypt, learning you’re a doppelganger (don’t even ask), being turned into a vampire, losing your humanity. That’s just scratching the surface. It’s a wonder any educational system would grant diplomas to such absentee students. I mean, did they ever even learn the struggle of deciding where to sit at lunch or having a too-heavy backpack weigh you down between classes? Do they even know what a textbook is?!

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They attend college in the following season, but the real question is when did they even have time to apply?

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4. My life is way more mundane than life in a TV serial.

I’m not a supernatural creature. To my knowledge, my city isn’t overrun with supernatural creatures (though depending on what time I’m on the Red Line, I’d say that’s debatable). I–knock on wood–haven’t been around many dead bodies, I haven’t had much interaction with law enforcement, and I haven’t had nearly the amount of relationship drama that these folks have. It’s a sign of privilege, I guess, to go along living my peaceful little life and getting my fill of drama through a TV screen. But when I think of the alternative, I’m pretty grateful for it.

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And here I am, sitting around and typing on a computer. The biggest explosion I’ve seen lately was when I turned on the stove.

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5. I can never say I don’t have enough time for something ever again.

You heard me before. I watched the equivalent of five straight days of TV in the span of 53. And that’s just counting the time I spent on TVD. Papa Bear and I are definitely what I’d call “TV people,” so it’s unfortunately not as if tube time was limited to vampires. If nothing else, this calculation made me realize that if something is important enough to me, I’ll make time for it. In this case, “important” meant lounging around and burning brain cells, but I’ve come to terms with it and have learned to accept who I am. Don’t worry, I mostly watched the show while Baby Bear was sleeping, so chances are good he never felt neglected.

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If Netflix had eyes, this is how it would look at me. “Are you still watching?” You know goddamn well I’m still watching, Netflix.

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6. I can fangirl like the best of them.

I’ve become so entrenched in the TVD universe that I now dream about it and have found myself thinking about it at the strangest times (like at the opera, for example). I follow many of the actors on Instagram in addition to countless fan accounts (I’m honestly too afraid to count). I’ve spent way more time than a respectable 29-year-old should going down Instagram wormholes (#stelena and #delena are my personal favorite TVD hashtags). I’ve rewatched some of my favorite scenes more than twice. I cried during the series finale even though I was left disappointed by it. I even strongly considered going to the recent TVD convention in Chicago. I am, for lack of a better term, a total fangirl.

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“Hello, brother.” *tear*

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7. There is real value in a guiltless guilty pleasure.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from this whole shebang is that having a “guilty pleasure” can actually be really good for you. There is a lot of crazy stuff happening in the world today–“crazy stuff” being a rather lighthearted euphemism. I think we’d all benefit from stepping away from it from time to time and allowing ourselves to be wholeheartedly entertained by something like The Vampire Diaries. My binge experience made me realize that there is no shame in mindlessly escaping to a fantasy world of juicy and wildly dramatic tales of lust, love, and betrayal. Quite the opposite, actually; watching the show left me feeling more relaxed, sane, and centered than before.

It also doesn’t hurt when the characters look like this.

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Yes, yes you do.

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So…Now What?

You know, there isVampire Diaries spinoff…

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Must. Not. Watch. Must. Regain. Control. Of. Life.

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Today, I Am Grateful

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Readers, I refuse to label today as a black-letter day. I am still a bit dismayed at how we arrived at this time and place, where the words “President Donald Trump” aren’t followed by a slap on the knee, a hearty laugh, and a “gotcha,” but nonetheless here we are.

Rather than allowing myself to think about all that could go wrong (my therapist would remind me that the future is where anxiety lives), I am going to focus on some of the positive things in the world and in my life specifically. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to eat my feelings today, but my theory is this: if we continue to focus on being positive, grateful for and reflective of what is good and right in the world, the more we will want those things to build and continue. 

Acknowledging what we have going for us will help us see more clearly what we have to fight for, protest, question, and challenge. Plus, happiness breeds happiness, right? It’s just like how they say that if you smile long enough, you’ll actually start to feel happier. Maybe this technique is a bunch of kumbaya bullshit, but it’s getting me through the day and that’s what it’s all about.

So today, I pledge to inject my life with positivity (even if it’s contrived at times) so that I can, in turn, create more positivity. Here are things I’m grateful for right now.

I am grateful…

…for freedom of speech.

Without it, I wouldn’t be able to post some of these hilarious political cartoons that have helped me cope with our current political landscape.

…for humor in general.

We are living in a bizarre time and sometimes the best way to deal with the absurdity is to laugh in its face.

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…for the integrity, vigilance, humor, and poise we saw over the last eight years with the Obamas and Bidens.

I truly believe history will look back kindly on this period as a time of progress and change.

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Thanks, Obama!

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…for the press who have and will continue to pursue the truth even when faced with blatant disregard and disrespect.

We are counting on you, press corps.

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…that I have the access and wherewithal to seek out the truth.

In this frightening Age of Ignorance, I commit to fact-checking, ignoring the abundance of fake news and confirmation bias, and supporting my arguments with the data and not opinion. Science and data matter!

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Last Week Tonight is a must-watch.

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…for democracy.

Though I (clearly) don’t agree with the candidate who was chosen to represent us at the highest level, I do very much support our democratic process. I appreciate that we live in a country where we have the ability to vote for our representation and have our voices be heard (even, I cringingly suppose, if they are influenced by the Russian intelligence community).

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…for my voice.

Similarly, I’m grateful that I, personally, can voice my opinion to those representatives. Just this week, I called both Illinois senators as well as every single senator on the HELP Committee to tell them to vote “no” for Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. My voice might not carry far, but at least I can use it.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn): “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”

Betsy DeVos: “I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

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Wut.

(Here’s how to contact your senators to do the same.)

…that there are a lot of like-minded people right now.

Clinton won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes (with 65,844,954 (48.2%) to Trump’s 62,979,879 (46.1%)). This, as #45 would say, is yuge. It’s tremendous! It means that though he is now our president, the majority of Americans didn’t support him or condone his abhorrent behavior. We, the not-so-silent majority, must continue to band together to promote freedom, liberty, peace, love, and togetherness. We must help people understand that we are more alike than we are different and that fear has no place in America.

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“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” – Emma Lazarus, “New Colossus”

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 …that I’m proud to be a strong, empowered, and intelligent nasty woman.

I’m grateful that I live in a time where I am able to choose how to live my life. I can make my own choices about my body, my career (if not an equal paycheck), and my future. I’m proud to live amongst other strong women, and grateful that we can stand up for ourselves in a way women never could before. Women’s rights are human rights!

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…for my friends and family.

It goes without saying, but what would life be if not for the people in it? I’m grateful for those who love and support me, even if they don’t agree with my political views.

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A Little Reminder

Remember, in the United States, we stand together. We rise together and we fall together. I am the first to admit that I want our new president to succeed because I want our country to succeed. I hope our new commander-in-chief can change my opinion of his character and judgment, and pleasantly surprise me (maybe he’ll end up being a champion for human rights; it could happen). In the meantime, I’m never going to be silent, I’m never going to stop fighting for myself, for my family, for my rights, for the little guy, and for what I believe is right. What I am going to be is positive and forward-looking. Cheers, America, and may God have mercy on our souls.

Mama Bear’s 2016 Holiday Wish List

Hello again, readers, and happy holidays!

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I’d be fine without a white Christmas if it meant living here. This festive one-of-these-trees-is-not-like-the-others photo was taken during my absence.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a month since my last post and, more importantly, the election. When I last communicated with you, I was under the hopeful impression that we’d be looking back and laughing right now at how absolutely ludicrous it was that we ever even entertained the idea of a Trump presidency. Well, much to my–and the nation’s–surprise, I was wrong.

Though I’ve been legitimately busy over the last month, I primarily decided to pause on a blog post because I simply didn’t know what to say in response. Because my last message was one of unity, about our “our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another,” I didn’t feel comfortable with a gut-reaction rant. While I’d shower and think of a string of words to convey my incredulity, fear, anger, and resentment, they just didn’t feel right.

So, like I’ve done with the majority of my good life decisions, I paused. I decided I needed to calm, reflect, and observe before I came back here.

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It doesn’t hurt that my calm reflection period took place in Hawaii.

Now that I’m back, I decided that rather than write about my (probably obvious and widely shared) feelings about the election itself, I’d write about what I’m going to do in a post-2016 election world. This relates to the holidays, I promise.

My Post-2016 Election Promise

I hereby pledge to help those in need and at risk with more fervor than I would have before the election took place. Maybe that’s a sorry excuse for a lack of activism before, but I can’t exactly change the past and figure this is as good a time as any.

I’m going to take my passion for equality, justice, and the little guy and turn it into advocacy. As a stay-at-home mom, I don’t have the ability to physically volunteer a lot of time right now, but I am able to put a little money where my mouth is to help effect change and protect rights. And what better time to start than over the holidays?

Mama Bear’s Wish List: Donations

This year, instead of asking for gifts, I’m asking for (and making!) donations to the following organizations. Unfortunately, the list of deserving organizations to which I’d like to donate is long, but as I have limited resources, I forced myself to narrow it down to the ones that felt most personal to me. As such, I present you with my finalists. For more ideas, see this list from John Oliver or this list from The Cut.

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May my holiday gift boxes be as empty as this ornament. Strike that, I don’t even want boxes. Too wasteful.

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago

This 100-year-plus organization’s mission is to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever. Chicago is going through a particularly dark period in terms of violence, and I believe this organization is chief among those that can make a difference for children in the most affected areas. In fact, there is a ton of anecdotal and statistical evidence that proves what an impact the Big/Little mentoring program has. While I hope to maybe mentor a child myself one day, this month I can donate in hopes of changing a life now.

Donate here.

Gulf Coast Humane Society of Corpus Christi

This non-profit, no-kill shelter holds a very special place in my heart because it’s where Papa Bear and I found our fur baby, Doggy Bear (new nickname; not sure how he’ll like it). It’s the largest no-kill shelter in all of South Texas and therefore has a lot of work on its hands. This shelter saved our dog’s life and there are hundreds more whose lives will be saved with a donation. #AdoptDon’tShop

Donate here.

Planned Parenthood

I have long been passionate about Planned Parenthood and its importance, but I cannot emphasize how strongly I feel now given the disgusting political attacks it has faced in recent years. I firmly believe Planned Parenthood will be under more fire in the next four years than ever before, which is why I feel an urgency to donate now. Despite what “gynoticians” (politicians who fancy themselves as medical doctors) will have you believe, Planned Parenthood offers high-quality, affordable health care, education, and information. It’s not just an abortion provider (but I’m glad it does that too!); it provides comprehensive and life-saving care to millions of people across the country. In fact, one in five American women has gone to Planed Parenthood at least once in her life. Women’s health and sexual health are population health; they affect us all.

Donate here.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Another organization that will need a lot of help in upcoming years (based on Trump’s climate-denying EPA Advisor pick alone) is the NRDC. This organization uses nearly 500 attorneys, policy advocates, and scientists, along with millions of member activists, to defend, protect, and safeguard the earth for its people, plants, and animals. Before it’s too late, we need organizations like this to help fight human greed and ignorance.

Donate here.

Final Thoughts

This holiday season, I encourage each of you to think of a cause that you hold dear. Instead of loading your wish list with frivolous goods, consider adding a donation to said cause. I’m not saying don’t ask for anything, and I’m not saying you need to give a ton of money (though, if you can afford it, consider an ongoing donation). Any little bit helps, and chances are pretty good the people (or animals or whatever) it helps need that money more than you need your stuff.

Your Dose of Perspective on the Eve of the Election: A Pale Blue Dot

It’s difficult to find a combination of words to accurately describe all my thoughts on the election tomorrow.

To put it most simply, I would love my son to take for granted a world where two formerly inconceivable things are a simple reality: that the Cubs are World Series champions and that a woman is President of the United States of America. 

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Not pictured: toddler who kept trying to run away from this beautiful marquee. At 1, he has no appreciation of the struggle. Hell, at 28, I barely do.

While I’m extremely happy to say we’re halfway there (#flytheW), I hesitate to say with confidence that the majority of Americans will cheer for the latter the same way they did the former (let’s be honest, the only people who cheered for Cleveland live in Cleveland). I’d be remiss to deny that there is a real possibility that America will elect that misogynistic, hate-spewing, turd-blurglaring, flaming hot evil Cheeto as our next President. In fact, there’s also a chance I’ll be thrown in jail for the aforementioned description should that apocalyptic possibility become a reality.

However, on the eve of this truly momentous day, a day that has been so long in the making and that has polarized millions of people, I came across the following refreshing and humbling reminder of our existence. Despite these paragraphs above, it caused me to focus on something larger than my personal views, those of my fellow Facebook friends Americans, and the great divide this election has caused.

My hope in sharing it is that it helps you, too, reflect on our collective past, present, and future, on the things that bridge us together, and on our foremost status as citizens of Earth. Regardless of who wins tomorrow–and to be very clear, I’m definitely with her–I hope we can remember that in the grand scheme of things, we are far more similar than different. As Earthlings, a term I so reverently use, I hope we can remember to be kindcompassionate, and united for the betterment of ourselves and for the protection and preservation of our planet. Enjoy.

Perspective: We Are a Pale Blue Dot

In 1990, at the suggestion of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, the spacecraft Voyager 1 took this photo of Earth from about 4 billion miles away. Here, Earth measures at less than one pixel and can be seen among scattered light rays as it was taken so close to the Sun. Sagan presented his reflections on this picture in a 1994 speech at Cornell University. What he said is as follows.

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Look for the pale blue dot in the orange ray. That’s Earth.

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“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

 

 

 

 

[Featured image source]

Volumes Bookcafe: A Chicago Spotlight

There are several things to love about Wicker Park’s five-month-old Volumes Bookcafe, but chief among them is its goal to bring the community together around a shared passion for books. Also high on the list? This place combines coffee, pastries, wine, and books. In other words, there’s really no reason to ever leave.

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Upon entering, visitors note the sleek, modern decor with just the right number of quirky embellishments to draw them in: a reading nook covered in colorful hardbacks, a high-contrast Don Quixote poster, quote-ridden chalkboard walls, and a decent-sized shelf of board games (squee!).

While it’s not the biggest bookstore in the city, it is apparent that a lot of thought has gone into what’s on the shelves. In fact, Volumes prides itself on having a well-curated collection, and from what I could see, it’s one that would satisfy any reader’s palette.

Like any bookstore worth its salt, personal recommendations are peppered throughout each section, many of which I wholeheartedly second (lookin’ at you, Geek Love). But what’s different is that in most cases, there are only one to three available copies of any book. This place isn’t aiming to pump out the latest best-sellers; they’re looking to spark conversation and engage their customers on a quest to find their next favorite novel.

And, importantly, the staff with whom I’ve spoken are readily available, knowledgeable, and able to provide thoughtful next-read suggestions.  They are also more than willing to special order anything not found in the store.

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The Paper Bag Princess is by far one of my favorite children’s books, too.

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If I didn’t feel like I’d be defiling books, I’d create something like this at my apartment. There’s probably a second-hand market for book covers, right?

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A reading bench in the children’s section helps even the youngest readers relax a while.

Then there’s the cafe, which, on a weekday around noon, was pleasantly populated but not overcrowded. Serving Metropolis coffee, (local) Dollop pastries, wine, and beer, it seems there’s something for everyone to enjoy while they walk the store, read, chat, or work away on their computer.

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Just in case you want to flaunt your nerd status via bracelet.

Overall, the ambiance of the store and cafe is inviting, relaxed, and enjoyable. It’s very fitting that Volumes is owned by two sisters with backgrounds in education because it feels welcoming to children and adults alike. Even though I had a baby and a stroller with me, I didn’t feel receive any side-eyes or feel the pressure to GFTO as I do in so many other places that are traditionally quieter and/or less kid-friendly.

With a ton of events, book clubs, and even an incredibly attractive sounding NaNoWriMo project, it truly is a place that encourages community interaction, which just makes me appreciate it all the more.

Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

Volumes is located at 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Those are pretty generous hours, if you ask me.

Parking and transportation

In my experience, parking in Wicker Park is kind of a nightmare because space is so limited and several areas require permits. However, metered parking is available.

I personally recommend public transportation, though, especially because the store is only a four-minute walk from the Damen Blue ‘L’ stop.

Stroller or carrier

With only my jogging stroller at my dispense on the day of my first visit, I can attest that there is plenty of room for a stroller–especially a normal-sized one–at Volumes Bookcafe. Plus, a stroller makes it substantially easier to sit down and enjoy a cup of joe.

Final Word

If you’re looking for a bookstore with spunk and substance, check out Volumes Bookcafe. If it were possible to be friends with a bookstore, I’d sign right up with this one.

And, after all, you know here at Baby Brown Bear, I am a fan of keeping it local.

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On Raising My Baby in Chicago

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Baby Brown Bear was born in the city of Chicago. His first year of life was spent living in the city of Chicago, and it is here that I plan to raise him for an indeterminate amount of time. I feel like I express this regularly, even going so far as to loudly sing the city praises for all it has to offer my son, and yet I am often asked when I plan to move.

To be fair, I do talk about, and have seriously considered, moving to other cities. I love adventure, and traveling to other places ignites my wanderlust and makes me wonder what life would be like somewhere else. I find most of the places I visit to be very agreeable; there’s hardly anywhere I can’t see myself living even for just for a short amount of time. I’m not saying we won’t move. I’m just saying I’m not ready for it yet and the constant incredulity I receive about actually liking it here is becoming a little trite.

What makes it rather irksome is that it’s not people asking us when we’re going to uproot to a different metro area; it’s people asking us when we are moving to the suburbs. Or basically, asking us why we’d want to continue to raise Baby Bear in a big city, specifically this one.

“Chicago is so dangerous. When are you moving to the suburbs?”

To that, I have a few canned responses, but I usually try to convey lighthearted indifference while I brush off the question with a meek smile. Depending on my mood, though, the person asking might very well get an eye roll accompanied by a tired and sarcastic diatribe.

It is a fully American assumption that people who breed will want to immediately expand their square footage along with their family head count. Don’t get me wrong, I love big, quiet backyards, and appreciate the smell of freshly cut grass that isn’t tainted by the smell of bus exhaust. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and loved it. (I’m not being sarcastic now, either. I really did love it.) My schools were among the best in the state, the extracurriculars in which I participated were top notch, the community to which I was exposed was safe and caring. My suburb in particular was even pretty well diversified in terms of race, religion, and sexual orientation. I am proud of my hometown and my upbringing.

Yes, the suburbs would be a great place to raise Baby Bear. I don’t deny it. But I also don’t like that people assume it’s the only good option.

I suppose I can see how they would. Like many other issues, it’s sometimes hard to think that other ways of doing things might work better for different people. Everyone needs to weigh their own pros and cons for decisions like how and where to raise their children. When we feel positive about the decisions we make, it’s natural for us to think other people would benefit from those same choices. Voicing these opinions doesn’t make us bad neighbors or friends, but rather means we care. We want other people to be happy and feel positive, too.

The case for or against the city of Chicago is especially loaded. It’s not for nothing that some people think we should move.

Chiefly, our safety is a little more at risk here. There’s a lot of crime right now, constantly making headlines. In blanket, city-wide terms, it isn’t what I’d call the safest place. And while most of the violent crimes occur in neighborhoods that are not where we live or frequent, the occasional shooting does happen not too far away and, I’m not going to lie, it freaks me out. My heart breaks for the innocent lives taken each day and seizes in terror at the idea of anything similar happening to my family. But you know what? Bad things happen everywhere. I’m not using that as an excuse, and it certainly isn’t to justify the crime, but no ground is too sacred and no place is immune to destruction. It’s arguably what human beings are best at, and have been for centuries.

All that said, however, I’d argue that another of mankind’s most remarkable abilities is to bridge together to form supportive communities. For as many rotten apples as there may be, I think big cities show better than anywhere else how many millions of good ones there are too, ready and willing to help those around them. Yes, we have to be careful and make sure we’re aware of our surroundings, but I do believe that we’re largely surrounded by people with the capacity to love, protect, and aid. We cannot stop living life because we are afraid.

Another reason people question our decision to stay in the city with a baby is simply due to the lack of space that comes along with apartment living. Given that our previous apartment had around 600 square feet, you can imagine how palatial our current place feels with about 1,200. Plus, with two bedrooms, one may argue it’s downright luxurious. As I like to remind everyone who asks, literally billions of people around the world live in apartments, many of them smaller than ours, and sometimes with many more children!

Sure, babies do seem to acquire an enormous amount of things, many even before they are born. I registered for a lot of it, but I continue to be surprised at the stuff Baby Brown Bear seems to “need.” I’ll save my own registry opinions for another post, but suffice it to say you don’t really need all that much to get by.

Babies are pretty simple folk. As many toys as we have (and enjoy), Baby Brown Bear is mostly drawn to non-toys like dog bones, coolers, and pretty much anything else he’s not supposed to touch. With the help of some cute storage shelves from Target, we’re able to stuff a lot of his odds and ends into boxes and keep them hidden away when they’re not in use. We are also extremely fortunate to have a temporary storage unit in my parents’ basement. When he outgrows something, it goes straight to their house. Without this extra space, I’m not exactly sure what we’d do, but I’d imagine we’d try to loan things out, sell them, or donate them. As a rule, city dwellers just have to figure it out when it comes to space. I’d like to think it helps you prioritize your belongings simply because you can’t continue to accumulate without semi-regular purges.

When talking about issues with raising children in Chicago, I’d be remiss to not mention this one that continues to baffle me: the Chicago public school system. Unfortunately the constant controversy of the last few years has caused it to reach peak notoriety for its problems with leadership, unions, and funding (to mention a few). Like anywhere, how “good” a school is here changes neighborhood to neighborhood. And since the success of any school largely depends on the support it receives, it’s important for families who are passionate about quality education to become active participants in their schools.

When I think of four years from now, when it’s time for us to send Baby Bear to kindergarten, I feel very torn. On the one hand, I want to stay, become involved, and be a champion of progress within Chicago Public Schools. On the other hand, if the school isn’t supported, the teachers are worn too thin, or, God forbid, I fear for Baby Bear’s safety on his way to and from school, well then I’m not willing to sacrifice his education or safety to make a political point. And forget private school; I cannot afford to (nor would I want to if I could, based on principle alone) pay $20,000 or more a year from kindergarten on so that Baby Bear can get an education he could get at a public school in the suburbs. For now, when people ask about what we’ll do when it’s time for school, I tell them the truth: that it’s something I’m going to have to reassess when it’s time. Anything can happen in four years, anyway.

Needless to say, there are challenges that come along with raising a baby in a big city. I, however, believe there are still so many more reasons to do it.

It’s not cheap to live in the city–we could have a nice house in the burbs for what we pay for an apartment each month–but it does allow you to save in some ways. For one, I don’t have as much square footage to furnish. Renting also means I don’t have to worry about making several trips to Home Depot and draining my bank account on home repairs. For another, public transportation is a thing of beauty, a thing that provides endlessly fun people watching opportunities, and a thing that allows you to get by without a car. If you can’t find a train or bus to get you where you need to go, then you can hop in a cab or an Uber, rent a car or a bike, or just plain walk. While we do have a car, it’s mostly because we have a dog and a baby who make taking public transportation to the suburbs to see grandparents a little harder. Still, I probably only fill up my tank about once a month, and that’s not bad.

Papa Bear and I walked a lot before Baby Bear was born, but now that I have more time to do it, Baby Bear and I walk almost everywhere. It’s great for him, for me, and for the environment. Plus, being on foot allows us to become much more intimately acquainted with all the city has to offer. If we lived in the suburbs, we would drive everywhere. For some reason, it just feels more laborious to walk in the suburbs, even when the distance is short (and this is coming from someone who isn’t afraid of distance). There, going for a walk rarely serves any other purpose than just going for a walk. Which I really like to do, but as a multi-tasker, I love being able to sneak in a little exercise while I’m on my way to do things. Plus, walking to brunch means I can eat a shortstack and a skillet without feeling guilty about it!

Walking around also allows us to see all the people who make this city so vibrant and alive. No matter the time of day, we can walk outside to see people going about their lives. There’s a constant energy here that just doesn’t exist in the suburbs. It’s not like stores are open 24/7 and people are milling around my neighborhood at three in the morning, necessarily, but there’s just enough going on that you are constantly reminded of how many different kinds of people leading different kinds of lives there are. I recognize that might not be for everyone, but I thrive on it. I relish that Baby Bear hears at least five different languages every day. I love that he sees people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds. It’s my hope that seeing this multi-dimensional world from the start will allow his worldview to be that much broader; that he’ll take for granted how well people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, etc., can function together.

Living among so many people is incredibly conducive to building relationships, too. Big cities allow us to connect with like-minded people, regardless of subject matter or interest. There is no shortage of people with whom to gather and form bonds, which means anyone can find some sense of community. The new mom group I joined after Baby Bear was born is an example of this, and it’s become an invaluable support network for me. I’m so grateful that I was able to find such a positive group of women, and it makes me sad for fellow new moms who don’t have access to something similar. I know these types of groups are not unique to cities, but they do seem harder to come across in the suburbs, even if it’s just because everything is much more spread out.

On the flip side, it’s sometimes nice how easy it is to remain anonymous in a city of this size. Our friends and family care about our well-being, of course, but I never have to worry about strangers knowing our business. When we want to be around people, we can be. When we don’t want to be, we don’t have to be. I have no reference for small-town living, but I do wonder how people deal with that aspect of it.

And if that’s not enough, there’s just so much to do in a city. I love that we’re never lacking in ideas for activities, many of which are free. On any given day, we have so much at our fingertips: museums, cultural centers, libraries, sporting events, world-class art and music, story times, gardens, parks, zoos, conservatories, running paths, playgrounds, beaches, pools, neighborhood shops, restaurants, bakeries, and mom and baby get-togethers. The list is practically endless, and this is all just within city limits. We could spend a lifetime exploring this city and it would hardly scratch the surface. Knowing that my kid might take for granted seeing a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton blows my mind. I hope to instill in him a sense of appreciation for all of the opportunities he has, but I do love that such wondrous things are so readily available to him.

Adventure is always around the corner when you’re raising your baby in Chicago. Like anything else, there are pros and cons to living here, but what matters is that we each make our own informed choices.

For me, all the benefits outweigh the challenges. Being surrounded by the people, activities, culture, and energy make living here well worthwhile for our family. This might change as Baby Bear grows and has different needs, but for now we will be damned sure to enjoy every minute.