Fair warning: I’m going to brag about my kids.
We spent the last week in Chicago (hence my radio silence) so that my husband Pete could spend time with his ailing father and work through some of his legal issues. While he was dealing with all that, I took the kids on outings around the city. On Monday we went to Chicago’s famed Art Institute. I love the museum. We’d been there a number of times while we were living in Chicago. We visited when the kids were little and I was still pushing Josie around in a stroller and taking breaks to breastfeed while Pete did his best to wrangle a three year old Kolbe. The kids and I went during the summer before our move to Alabama, when Pete was spending all his time working on finishing his dissertation. And Pete and I have made the Art Institute a part of our anniversary celebration on two occasions, once in conjunction with the awesome Taste of Chicago, and once as part of our 10th anniversary, which included time at the museum along with high tea at the nearby Russian Tea House, a trip to the top of the Sears Tower (Willis who?) and an amazing fondue dinner at Geja’s.
I didn’t know what to expect from the kids on this visit. The last time they visited the museum was two years ago, when Josie was five and Kolbe seven. They were fairly well behaved, but very impatient, and not really interested in the art. This time we had a little over four hours to fill, and I was worried that they would only be able to take two before they were bored out of their skulls and letting me (and everyone in our proximity) know it.
What actually happened makes me so proud of my kids.
We started in the Renaissance, and from the very beginning both kids were deeply interested. We went painting by painting, and I pointed out symbolism, told them the bible stories depicted (when applicable), and did my best to talk art theory. (At one point I was using a painting of the ruins of a Greek temple to explain perspective, and a woman came up to tell me she was impressed that I was teaching perspective to kids so young.) Kolbe and Josie excitedly pointed out paintings and objects that they liked, and wherever there was a bench, my daughter asked if we could stop and draw in the sketchbooks I had brought for them. Kolbe wasn’t as interested in drawing, but he was willing to sit quietly and look at the art while Josie and I sketched our favorite pieces. I am very rusty at drawing; I used to draw a lot in college, but haven’t really put pencil to paper at all in the past five or so years. Sketching alongside my daughter was amazing, and I’m in awe of her talent.
When we got around to the Impressionists, we talked about Van Gogh’s brush strokes, Degas’ ballerinas, Seurat’s pointillism, Monet’s landscapes in different light, Rodin’s sculptures with the mold seams left in place. Kolbe and Josie were attentive and eager to make observations, about how Van Gogh’s brushstrokes made the scenes look like they were moving, or how one of Monet’s haystacks must have been at sunrise while the other was at sunset (supposedly it was the other way around).
I had been afraid that the kids wouldn’t last the entire four plus hours, but as closing time grew near, we unfortunately had to rush through the American contemporary collection, with Nighthawks and American Gothic, and we didn’t get to the modern wing at all. It is definitely worth another trip the next time we’re in Chicago (which looks like it may be sooner rather than later, as Pete’s dad’s condition is rapidly declining).
Admission to the Art Institute is $23 for adults, but free for children. Appropriate, since Kolbe and Josie’s experience was priceless.
[Note: When I searched Pixabay for a clown image, the majority of results were intentionally frightening, and a good chunk of the rest were unintentionally so. I picked one that I hope is sufficiently innocuous. If I trigger any clown phobias, my apologies.]
I ran with an interesting crowd in Chicago nicknamed “The Unusualists.” I will doubtless dedicate a blog post to them sometime in the near future, but for now I want to tell you about Clown Train.
You’ve probably heard of Improv Everywhere, “a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” They are particularly known for their “No Pants Subway Ride,” an annual event where people in cities across the country do their daily commute sans pants.
Clown Train is a prank that would be welcome in the Improv Everywhere repertoire. I wasn’t living in Chicago when my friends performed it, and despite talk about an encore, I left Chicago before it could be performed again. I m reporting this secondhand.
One of the main El lines in Chicago is the Red Line, which runs from Howard on the very northern edge of Chicago all the way down to the South Side, going straight through downtown. The prank starts at Howard, where a clown enters the empty train along with the clutch of commuters. He stands there, holding onto the pole, looking dramatically bored and tired, just a clown on his way to work. People look at him strangely, but for the most part ignore him. You see all sorts of things on public transportation, and learn to not pay attention to most of it.
The train stops at the next station, the doors slide open…and another clown walks in with the commuters. She finds a seat, pulls out a newspaper, and starts to deliberately flip through page by page. Another clown on her way to work.
The clowns don’t acknowledge each other. The passengers start to get uneasy.
At the next station, another clown boards. He has earbuds in, and is bobbing his head in time with the music only he can hear. He doesn’t acknowledge the other clowns. The commuters start to titter.
Net stop. Another clown, this one holding a big bunch of balloons. He recognizes the other clowns! He gives them a large wave, his face pulled in a huge grin. One by one he exchanges silent pleasantries with the other clowns, and hands them each a balloon. The commuters are laughing.
Next stop, another clown, and now they’re all interacting with each other. It’s a clown party! Their gleeful interactions spill over, and for the first time they engage the people around them, greeting and making mimed chitchat and handing out balloons.
The train arrives in downtown Chicago, and the business people exit with balloons and grins. The clowns themselves exit en masse at Millennium Park, and spend the rest of the day interacting with people, mostly tourists, at times delighting and at times disturbing their audience. They give silent tours of the landmarks, then act confused when people ask them what tour group they work for. They wave at children and their parents, absolutely pleasant regardless of the reaction. They buy hot dogs from a vendor, and those hot dogs are the best hot dogs they have ever had oh my god you people have to try this.
When the day is over, they all trundle back onto the train, exhausted, a group of clowns who have had a long day at work. Stop by stop they exit the train, waving goodbye to each other, until there is only one clown left, standing there, holding onto the pole, dramatically tired and bored. Just a clown going home.
We should all have such whimsy in our lives. We should all bring such whimsy to the lives of others.
This monument, in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, is the subject of many legends. Legend has it the girl Inez was hit by lightning, and the monument vanishes during thunderstorms. Legend has it she died of tuberculosis and the statue weeps on the anniversary of her death. Legend has it she comes out to play with children who visit the cemetery. People who visit the grave often leave stuffed animals.
In the world of my Haunted series, cemeteries are very rarely, if ever, haunted. In those metaphysics, a haunting is the result of a deep attachment to a location (or sometimes a person) that keeps a spirit bound to the physical world and unable to transcend to the spiritual. The attachment isn’t to the body, and thus places like funeral homes and cemeteries aren’t haunted. (Unless they’re haunted by former funeral directors or gravediggers!)
In real life, I’m intrigued by tales of haunted monuments. Chicago has several, including one in Rosehill Cemetery, where I used to work (a tomb for a mother and child that is said to be enshrouded with mist on the anniversary of their deaths). Even if there is nothing paranormal going on (and I remain agnostic on the subject) the psychology of it is fascinating. We are simultaneously frightened of and drawn to the restless dead. We want to believe that when we talk to a loved one at their grave, there is more listening than birds and worms and cold earth. But we’d still run in terror if someone or something were to talk back.
My husband’s family lives in the Chicago area, so chances are we’ll be visiting in the near future. I’m going to have to visit Inez. I’ll even bring a stuffed animal, in case the legends are true, and the girl, so young and yet so ancient, still wants to play.