Monday, June 23, 2008

Illinois and Louisiana: Different Song, Same Rhythm



In a few days it will be a full month since I moved to Chicago, marking the longest period of time that I have spent outside of Louisiana. Clearly, I need to take extended travel experiences more often. Don’t get me wrong; I’m in love with Louisiana. This time outside of my normal surroundings, however, has allowed me to experience certain aspects of a different state; some things that are iconically different from Louisiana, and some that are perplexingly similar.

DIFFERENCES:
Public Transit
As far as Lafayette and Baton Rouge go, we have the CATS and the COLT. Though the names are clever, these public transit systems are, for the most part, ignored. The CTA trains and buses, however, are the blood cells that flow through Chicago’s veining streets. The New Orleans Street cars may be the best comparison, but a ten-minute bus ride is hard to beat, and is a rare-find in Louisiana.
Revolving Doors
The concept and purpose behind revolving doors may be the reason you see very few of them in the south. Never creating a complete opening between indoors and outdoors, a revolving door prevents drafty winter winds from disturbing the peace of an otherwise warm lobby. Clever.
Skyscrapers
If I recall correctly, the tallest building in Louisiana is One Shell Square in New Orleans, coming in at 50 stories. In Chicago, most of the downtown area exists between elevator rides, climbing to heights unfamiliar to Louisiana buildings (which is understandable considering the bedrock needed for such foundations). I guess the comparison is difficult, considering that the tallest office building in the Western Hemisphere is in Chicago.
MLB
NFL Teams: Check. NBA Teams: Check. MLB Teams: Louisiana has to root for the Astros. Chicagoans, however, really love their baseball, so much so that they have two hometown teams just to satisfy this baseball craving. Wait, how foolish of me: Geaux Zephyrs!
Quick Turnaround
Needless to say, I was quite surprised as I listened to the casual voice of a Public Service Announcement that came in between the stops on a CTA bus. The voice said, “The renovation to the Brown Line is ahead of schedule…” Ahead of schedule? I didn’t know such a thing existed.
Cold Summers
Forty-Eight degree high temperature for the last week of May? Are you insane? Call FEMA, because if it were up to me, that would be categorized as natural disaster. That was only for one week, but still, for a warm-natured person like me, I was a little scared. Walking to the bus stop on my first day, I wondered if I had brought enough warm clothes.
Bland Food
They may have Deep-dish pizzas, Italian Beef sandwiches and Polish sausages, but my after a couple of bits my arm makes a Pavlovian dart toward a can of Tony Chachere's that isn’t there. Sorry northerners, your food could use some spice.

SIMILARITIES:
Amazing Food
Just because it’s not particularly spicy, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have flavor. Just reference the whole article about the Rib Fest. Plus, it’s difficult to go to Little Italy, enjoy an authentic Italian Ice and a Tiramisu and say that the food has no flavor.
Politics
I guess it’s hard to find a good politician, but whenever I listened in on the random bus conversations of locals discussing kickbacks and under-the-table dealings, it felt all too familiar, almost to the point of comforting. Imagine Louisiana politics but with teamsters and pipe-fitters in the mix.
Bad Drivers, Turning Right on Red
Chicagoans and Louisianans share the same fascinating ability to turn right on red lights, a cultural phenomena if you will. And as far as driving goes, to think I thought New Orleans drivers were bad! I’m just grateful that the CTA does the work for me, but even they could afford to learn how to apply the breaks slowly.
Jazz and Blues Culture
When I took The City of New Orleans train to Chicago in December of this last year, I couldn’t help but fantasize about the romance and mystic of the train, carrying some of America’s jazz greats to and from Chicago and New Orleans. When that train came to a halt, the musicians had to get off somewhere, and their influence rumbles through the streets like the subways underground.
Cultural Meccas
Perhaps it’s the different ethnic neighborhoods, the different languages being spoken on the street or the selection of music played at Millennium Park, Chicago mirrors the diversity, history and cultural blend of Creoles and Cajuns that makes up Louisiana.
Climate
It’s no Mississippi river humidity that sticks to your arms on a late August night, but Lake Michigan produces enough humidity for me to perspire at a familiar level, (at least after that first week.)

The similarities are certainly comforting. There is, however, one thing that Chicago doesn’t have, and that is the people I love. My friends and family have helped to define everything I love about Louisiana. At times, it feels as though I’m so caught up in the pulse of this city that I forget about returning home. All it takes, however, is a text message, a phone call or a facebook message to remind me what I miss about Louisiana. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not distressed or homesick – I was born to live in this city. Let’s just say Chicago would be only that much better if you were here to enjoy it with me.



[Clarification: Though the URL address for this blog is “chicagojoe2008” I am no way affiliated with Chicago Joe’s Bar and Grill (which, by the way, was present at the rib fest). I only picked the name because Pop called me that a few days before I left.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Performance with Purpose

Tomorrow is going to be an exciting day at PepsiCo Chicago. Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, will be touring the Chicago office, talking with associates and managers to observe the latest projects the PepsiCo team is working on. Of all departments, the Public Affairs team was quite busy preparing for her visit.

For me, it would be a great thrill to see her in person, considering she is on of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2008. She has taken the company to a plateau of responsibility that is rarely seen in Fortune 500 companies.

I’ve never been one to subscribe wholeheartedly to any particular company (except Apple maybe), but PepsiCo has a way of impressing me everyday. The motto “Performance with Purpose” is not just some catchy phrase casually tossed around the PepsiCo offices and plants, it is a mantra that is guides the company to heights of productivity and corporate accountability to be envied. Performance with Purpose focuses on three specific areas of sustainability: human, environmental and talent.

These are simple philosophies that, in a perfect world, would be second nature to more companies than just PepsiCo. Human sustainability refers to the products that PepsiCo sells – the foods, snacks and beverages that we consume every day. The “health phase” in the U.S. seemed to come and go, but the goal of responsible development and production of the foods we eat is a company standard. When PepsiCo aquired Naked Juice last year, it purchased one of the few all-natural, nothing-added juice producers in the world, and if you’ve tried Naked Juice, you were probably just as surprised as I was to realize that there was no added sugar. We can also look to Frito-Lay products as well. By the end of this year, every Frito-Lay product will be made with sunflower seed oil, reducing the amount of fat in every single chip at least by half. And staple products like Quaker Oatmeal have consistently proved the doubters wrong; tests continue to show that a steady diet of Quaker Oatmeal will reduce your cholesterol.

Environmental sustainability has provided even more amazing advances in terms of corporate responsibility. I will use Sun-Chips for this example. I am a firm believer in personal responsibility; I do not believe that people should be forced to buy certain products or forced to not use other products. The green focus that is sweeping the nation is quite impressive; I’ve seen more recycling and less waste than ever before, but many people feel that some green practices are too invasive. PepsiCo, however, has taken the trouble out of “going green.” When you purchase a bag of Sun-Chips and take that first crunchy bite, you are probably only concerned about the delicious snack that you are currently enjoying. You probably weren’t thinking about the Modesto plant where your chips were produced, which is off the power-grid and powered completely through the use of solar panels. Sun-Chips made with the power of the Sun; it’s almost too simple. And you, the consumer, can care or not, but by supporting PepsiCo you just helped the environment in the most delicious of ways. I’m so proud of you!

I could really delve into PepsiCo’s Talent Sustainability at the risk of bragging to you that they hired me, but it’s more than just the caliber of employee that PepsiCo employs. The incredible cross-section of the populace that works for PepsiCo really helps the entire PepsiCo team understand the needs and wants of consumers all across the world. The diversity of the employees at 555 W. Monroe is incredible. Everyone has a unique background at the company that further fosters the understanding of the consumer base that PepsiCo actually serves. I feel a little unique myself, considering that I’m yet to meet another Cajun in the building (even though I’m only half-Cajun, it still counts!) The programs in place for all employees allow us to track our progress through the company. Employees can see if they are on task for career goals and ambitions and can anticipate the potential for promotions. It must be working, because everyone I meet greets me with a smile and a handshake. These have got to be the happiest people on earth.

A simple motto “Performance with Purpose;” taking care of the consumer, the environment and the employee. In the aftermath of corporate breakdowns at the dawn of the decade, other companies need to follow PepsiCo’s lead. Corporate responsibility is the name of the game, and with a slowing economy, a health- and environmentally-conscious populace, and the growing need for resource responsibility, PepsiCo is in a league of its own, an industry leader meeting the call of an unpredictable future. By simply being responsible, PepsiCo has silenced the naysayers and set a standard for others to follow.

In closing, I have often debated the ethics behind corporate public relations. I fear that if a desperate situation were to arise, I would find myself as the person justifying your five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. After working with PepsiCo, however, I’ve realized that if a company is acting responsibly then there is nothing to justify. My goal would be to make sure you knew about it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

MCA

For a structure to house some of the most visually stunning, creatively stimulating, beautiful-yet-perverse contemporary art in the nation, one would hope photography would be allowed to capture these works. Regrettably, the Museum of Contemporary Art was not friendly to camera owners.

Though visual reminders would certainly help to recall the works inside, the lack of photographs is only a minor blemish on what was truly an amazing experience. From the quirky to the dramatic, from the twisted to the modest, from the emotional to the serene, the works inside challenged the concept of art yet remained ever true to its most fundamental purpose: to evoke an emotional response.

Fighting rush-hour traffic evokes certain emotions of its own, but the bus arrived just before I opted to get off and walk. It was agreed that we would meet at the MCA for “Tuesdays on the Terrace:” an evening of free admission to the museum and a live jazz band on the museum’s back patio. “We” consisted of several interns residing at TBH, led by Sophie Williams, our in-house art devotee and connoisseur. Sophie interns with the MCA and, though not a curator per se, she curates the exhibits through editing the descriptions that accompany each work.

The focal exhibit was that of artist Jeff Koons, whose works required a more advanced skill than implied by “kitschy,” a term often used to describe him. Perhaps you’ve seen his giant balloon dog or foil balloon. These works seemed to float across the room, prepared to bounce if gently tapped, yet they were all cast from stainless steal, tricking the eye and mind and inciting disbelief.

The household appliances in plexiglass boxes may not have been as striking, but the more I stood there questioning the purpose of the otherwise simple creation, my curiosity was enhancing the art, fulfilling its purpose. Did it compare to artistic works of other masters who worked in oils, pastels and clays? It was a sudden transition, moving from one work to another and shifting from thoughts of “I could do this” to delighting in what seemed impossible. The works, though not Monets or Van Goghs, followed that common thread and evoked emotions, calling forth curiosity, shame, delight, humility and humor.

Sophie guided us through the different exhibits, which included the patient and steady mobiles of Alexander Calder and the perceptive and piercing photographs of Chicago life captured by Art Shay. We made our way to the patio to soak in the splashings of a live jazz band, enjoying the comfortable Lake Michigan breezes and meandering through the gardens. It was classy, casual and relaxing, especially for a Tuesday evening. We gazed at the towering condos surrounding the back patio and all secretly wished to own one of them, especially one with a balcony.

So, no photographs to capture these exhibits. I was mostly captivated by the giant balloon dog, and even though I have no photographs of it, you can imagine it looks a lot like this, but three-dimensional, purple and 12 feet tall.

I really wanted a real picture of it, so much so that I haven’t signed off on the idea of sneaking a picture. Mark my words, Jeff Koons, I will have a picture of your balloon dog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

TBH


As far as residence halls go, I haven’t been very impressed. Having seen them at UL, Loyola, and LSU, the eight-by-six-foot box you’re required to share for ten months is not a high point of college experiences. Don’t get me wrong, though. I loved dorm life and I couldn’t have asked for a better roommate than Kevin Campbell. Still, as far as dormitories go, I haven’t been very impressed.

If Thomas Beckham Hall is a “dormitory” as they say it is, it is the Four Seasons of college dorms. It is a similar layout to my on-campus apartment at LSU. With free wireless internet and free laundry access, I couldn’t be more comfortable.

TBH is located in University Village, which has seen its fair share of rough times, but has also experienced extensive urban renewal in the last five years or so. A block east of the dorm is the Dan Ryan Expressway. Little Italy is about five blocks west, featuring authentic Italian cuisine, and my new favorite dive, Al’s #1 Italian Beef (thanks Curry, I found it).

A block north is the actual campus of UIC, and on the grounds of the UIC campus sits the birthplace of social work in America, the Jane Addams Hull House. That being said, you can imagine what the neighborhood looked like a century ago. Certainly no baseball field, no Caribou Coffee, no Coldstone Creamery or Barbara’s Bookstore. I was told that the nearby neighborhood was bluntly referred to as Jew Town, home to Jewish immigrants in the 19th century. I don't suppose many of those people would have imagined young twenty-somethings sipping on iced-coffees 100 years later, but sure enough urban renewal turned what otherwise wouldn't be a beautiful location into a safe, young and intern-friendly neighborhood.

For a city notorious for rough areas bordering posh areas, there's no exception to this rule near TBH. The border seems to fall just beyond the sidewalk in front of Express Original Grill, which makes an incredible (and incredibly cheap) Polish sausage.

Surroundings aside, the most comfortable and welcoming aspect of this dorm would have to be the people who live here: students at the top of their game interning in one of America's greatest cities. Whether it's performing plastic surgery or working for the Securities and Exchange Commission, I am humbled to be meeting and hanging out with such amazing people. Take my roommate for example:

Meet Alex Florea. A student at University of Illinois: Champaign, Alex is interning with Merrill Lynch, one of the strongest investment banking firms in the world. Alex, who will graduate at the end of his third year, is a devout sports aficionado with a penchant for soccer. He stays true to his Romanian and Italian roots, taking time out of his day to watch the triumphs and tribulations of these two national teams. Alex returns from work everyday as though he were flattened with a rolling pin, but only for a few minutes before he catches his breath, gathers his thoughts, and prepares to pour his incredible business knowledge back into his work. It's awe-inspiring, and considering his future aspirations, that's only the half of it.

And lucky for me, Alex is just one of the many interns living here with an extensive amount of determination, knowledge and skill. The caliber of people in this residence hall is such that I would be ashamed of myself if I were to lose touch with them.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ribs and BB King: Just my kind of weekend

I returned to my apartment from the grocery store around noon. It was drizzling a little when I walked through the lobby door, but by the time I reached my apartment room, rain was pounding so heavily against the window it felt as though the room was going through a car wash. Unpacking the groceries, I gave up on the day, doubting the storm clouds would clear before the end of the day. Thank goodness I was dead wrong.

I suppose it is true with every major city that the beauty of any trip is only further highlighted by the trip's timing with special events in the city itself. This weekend was no exception.

A group of six friends, Bill, Dylan, Ryan, Brad, Charles and yours truly, set out for an adventure in Irving Park, a neighborhood in North Chicago. The L's Brown Line would take us directly there, and on an elevated train ride through the big-shouldered city. Arriving in Irving Park, we were greeted with the aroma of charcoal, pork, and some of the finest barbecue sauce in the world. It was the 10th annual Chicago Rib Fest.

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Thousands of meat enthusiasts descended upon Irving Park for what was a celebration of life, a celebration of flavor, a celebration of pork ribs. A five-dollar donation to get in, and with every other pair of one dollar bills after that, I was treated to some of the finest barbecue in Chicago. Every rib brought with it a messy dose of different sauces and flavors, leaving nothing behind but two polished bones and a handful of soiled paper towels. It was amazing, to say the least. Many vendors asked us to vote for them, but never finding the ballot I will cast my vote via blog: I really enjoyed the Cordis Brothers Supper Club's ribs the best; the sauce was a perfect match of tanginess with a hint of fruit and a heavy dose of black pepper. Delicious.

We spent about an hour and a half in the sun, devouring rib after juicy rib. By the time we returned to the train, we were tired to say the least. But, a thirty minute train ride back to the city and we found our second burst, just in time for the Chicago Blues Fest held at Grant Park.

The rain that fell earlier in the day and the constant flow of spectators created a really earthy soup below my feet, but that didn't detract from the lively crowd, the great sunset, the beautiful view, and the legendary entertainment to come. By the time 8:15 rolled around it was time for the evening's headliner, the king of the blues himself, BB King.

The muddy people that filled Grant park exploded with applause when the 82-year-old King walked to the middle of the stage. "Ten years ago, I wouldn't have had to sit down," he said as he made himself comfortable on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, "but that was ten years ago." You certainly wouldn't have guessed it the way he handled that guitar and by the way he "took care" of the crowd. He began with "Let the Good Times Roll" and they certainly did.

To hear a legend like that and to see him perform (even though we were a couple of football fields away from the main stage) it was easy to get lost in the fun. However, we weren't lost for long, and after a few performances we took our dead-tired bodies back to the dorm and watched the last few minutes of Game 2 of the NBA finals.

With a day like today, I can't help but repeat in my head the first few lyrics of "Let the Good Times Roll:"

Hey everybody, let's have some fun
You only live but once
And when you're dead you're done, so...

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Summer Hours


Summer Hours: work an additional hour Monday through Thursday, and take half the day off on Friday. Simple as that. So what's a boy to do with five hours on his hands?

Just before I shut my office computer down for the day I felt a sudden urge to do some exploring. With a destination in mind, I found a bus route online. I shut down the computer, left the office and started on my journey. As it turned out, the weather was so nice that I disregarded the bus route I just found and walked all the way to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Perhaps you've heard of this place. I know my knowledge of it was minimal, but once inside I entered a place that transcends time. There I was, a little kid from Carencro, face-to-face with priceless works of art. The institute itself was beautiful, but the works inside were indescribable. I had a feeling of disbelief as I looked upon original works by Picasso, Monet, Edward Hopper, C├ęzanne and Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of the most striking exhibits was half-art and half-history. Pieces of pottery, statues and armor from various Chinese dynasties lined the walls of one exhibit. At first, it was easy to pass by and think "that's a nice teapot," and then I read the description of the pottery, saying that it was well over 1,000 years old. Some exhibits seemed more about history and geography than art, but every piece was extraordinary in its own right.

The beauty of the institute came from the steady realization of the time, dedication and patience that went into every single piece. From Picasso himself to an unnamed Asian peasant carving beautiful pottery from stone, it was overwhelming to think that, even if for only a few minutes, our lives intersected as I looked upon their masterpieces.

Much to my disappointment many exhibits were under construction, leaving great works like Van Gough's self portrait out of sight. That was alright by me; only further motivation to return. The same goes for the American Art Exhibit. My camera battery died just before I entered the exhibit, but by not posting pictures I'm providing something for my family to look forward to whenever they visit later this summer.

I didn't want to leave, and I certainly wasn't growing tired, but my feet, however, did get tired and they got the best of me. My day at the Art Institute came to a close, but I left determined to return. What an experience!

Knowing that in the late 1800s Chicago hoped to change its image, wanting to be known as a city of culture and art rather than an exaggerated stockyard, Chicagoans can rest assured that their city is home to one of the most extraordinary collections of art on the planet.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Work"


Tomorrow I see the fruits of my labor. My first assignment was to write an article for the PepsiCo Chicago's internal newsletter, which will be released sometime during the day. It's an internal newsletter, so I as much as I'd like to post a link, you will most likely not be able to access it.

And while I'm talking about work, I want everyone to know how great PepsiCo really is. I thought I was happy when they gave me an ID badge, but that was nothing. Maybe it's the company philosophy, maybe it's due to the free grits every morning, or maybe it's the beginning of the summer season that makes everyone so particularly friendly, but the people I am working with could not be nicer! Not even two full weeks on the job and I already feel like I'm part of the team! That in itself may be subconsciously convincing me to have a positive outlook on my work, but whatever the case, I am also really enjoying the work that I'm assigned. When it comes to Corporate Communications, I couldn't have asked for anything better! I'm fitting in comfortably, especially having my own (non-mundane) cubicle. And if none of this jumps out to you as incredibly appealing, then I should mention that I arrived in Chicago only days before the Public Affairs bowling party at 10Pin. Here's a link to the swanky-ist bowling ally I've ever been to.

So, considering all that I'm gaining thus far, I'm going to return a little and do a minor promotion for a PepsiCo product. If you haven't already, you have to try Tropicana Pure Valencia Orange Juice. You think you've had juice before, well you're dead wrong!

Bonus Points: What is Cap'n Crunch's real name? Leave the answer in a comment box and you may win something, who knows.

Pictured: Joe Coussan and coworker.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Welcome!

Whether in Washington D.C. or in Dublin, Ireland, apparently LSU Mass Comm students are creating live journals left and right. I just assumed it was my turn to do the same. And what a better way to let everyone know what I was up to here in the Windy City.

In all honesty, I don't know where to begin. Even though I'm only ten days into this internship, there is so much that I want to say that my fingers can't type fast enough. I will, however, give you the basics.

I am currently living at Thomas Beckham Hall on the UIC campus, which is located in the Near West area of Chicago. I conveniently (and apparently much to the envy of coworkers) have a 10 minute bus ride to and from work everyday. Considering how much of a burden traffic tends to be in Chicago, this has quickly become one of my favorite aspects of this summer.

Additionally, I should at least mention that Chicago has been my destination of choice since my junior year of high school. So, with it being a dream of mine for at least three years to see the Chicago skyline, the view I have on the way to the bus stop is only that much more of a blessing (which you can see below).