Playing Tourist

Summer = Writing. For the few weeks in which the absence of schoolwork and gainful employment gives me time, I’ll be writing.

I’ve been in Chicago these past few days for a cousin’s high school graduation, which has helped ease the transition out of the college bubble.  Hopefully, it will also reduce the jet lag when I return to the West Coast. More importantly, though, I had a good time with my relatives as I got to be part of their family: going to church, picking up groceries, playing in the park, and watching sports on TV. It makes me even more excited to get home and see my sisters and parents.

When our extended family gets together, we usually travel as a spec-ops force. There’s a commander who directs the different teams to their respective missions: visiting a museum, walking around the city, cooking food, or playing sports. Groups scatter to these activities, then we join up later in the evening to debrief. Occasionally, we will travel as an enormous amoeba, extending pseudopods (usually headed by a young child) in various directions, but eventually moving in the correct direction.

However, on this trip, I also spent time alone. There are a thousand moments of realizing that you’ve reached a certain maturity, and going to the big city by yourself is one that’s been chronicled by many writers, some terrible and some extraordinary. I didn’t move to Chicago permanently, and in fact spent my time in the most touristy part of the city, which means my trip falls on the less interesting side of the big city narratives. Nevertheless, I’m going to add my experience to the pile.

Unfortunately, I was not at my most observant during the hour-long train ride down into the city. I was still a bit sleepy, and spent time dozing as we rattled along above small towns. I woke up more as the train dipped underground to approach the city. The sky was still grey when I emerged from the subway exit, drawstring bag on my back. The city still hadn’t shaken off the vestiges of the past night.

The Art Institute of Chicago (stylized Art Institvte Chicago) still hadn’t opened, so I joined the line spilling down the stairs and swinging around the sidewalk. It was a holiday weekend, so I expected the museum to be crowded. However, being there alone minimizes the sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes come from the busyness. The strangers are more a part of the museum than fellow visitors, a dynamic anthropological exhibit. This illusion inevitably breaks down when looking at the same painting or accidentally bumping elbows; in those moments, the other visitor’s humanity is glaringly obvious.

The museum itself holds a ridiculous number of art pieces. I only had one day there, so I found the most popular pieces, then wandered around the museum and looked at anything that caught my eye. There are many pieces at the Art Institute which merit deeper consideration than what I am capable of giving. I did take a couple of notes on notable pieces, and I’ve transcribed some of those notes here:

The Art Institute of Chicago:

  • How do they light the Thorne Miniature Rooms? It really looks like sunlight
  • History intrinsically that of the wealthy. What do we make of the anonymous poor?
  • “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”
    • tree in the upper LH corner seems to be dissolving
    • crowded, busy scene
    • border is also pointillist
    • man sitting on rock fishing
    • steamboat smoke a messy streak rather than precise dots
    • pale patch at feet of monkey: sand?
    • painting is covered by some kind of screen, but it’s so transparent as to be invisible
    • tree trunk on far right, but then what is the drooping tan fin above it
    • the painting is curiously flat in areas: looking across the water messes with my perception
    • trees are tightly bunched in the upper RH corner; it looks like a forest
    • patches of white in the trees: what are they? glimpses of sky?
    • Overall lighting is bright
    • four men in what looks like a crew boat, but they’re pulling a woman with an umbrella
    • control over boundaries are amazing. Harder/Softer lines depending on object depicted
    • White frame quite dramatic, and an idea of Seurat’s

Seurat’s painting

  • Edvard Munch – “The Girl by the Window” setting seems to flow out of the painting by virtue of the brushstrokes
  • Georgia O’Keefe – “Sky Above Clouds IV” finally! I had no idea these existed. It’s everything I wanted a painting of the sky from an airplane to be
  • Contemporary Art: how much does clarity, irony, and sincerity count for? There must be a sweet spot between didacticism and self-parody
  • McKinlock Court: a maze of sculpture, artifacts, and art


When lunch time rolled around, I chose to forgo the overpriced museum food in favor of a store to which Yelp assigned a single dollar sign. It was named “Falafel Island.” The storefront was plastered with brightly colored advertisements depicting a peaceful island filled with oversized images of food, and a laminated copy of the menu. Inside, the lighting was dim and the floor ambiguously clean. It resembled the Chinese bakeries and grocery stores I had seen countless times in Chinatown. For all its incongruity with the tourist-filled area, it seemed to be accepted as normal. At the far end of the dining room was the prep station popularized by places like Subway and Chipotle. I briefly perused the menu, placed my order, and walked out of the store with a falafel sandwich, an extra order of pita, and a wallet a couple of dollars lighter.

By this time, the sun had burned through the clouds, transforming a grey, cool morning into a muggy afternoon. I weaved through the crowds in Millennium Park and wandered into a garden, where I found a short stone wall on which to sit and eat my lunch. Warm pita, crumbly falafel, cool cucumber, and tahini – the restaurant had combined the simple ingredients into a satisfying lunch. I also had a piece of sponge cake which I had brought with me which made for a delicious dessert.

After consuming such a hearty meal, I wasn’t quite ready to walk around. Instead, I finished reading “Soulstorm,” a collection of rather poetic short stories by the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. While reading, I had the sensation of being in the eye of a soulstorm; while Lispector spun tales of many souls, and her own soul, in my head, other souls, primarily young children, flew past my seated person, the prospect of walking along an elevated stone surface too much to resist.

At a certain point in my reading (I don’t remember quite where), two people caught my eye, and I theirs. A woman and a man, middle-aged but dressed in clothing that suggested they were a bit older than that, approached me. The woman, named Marie, inquired whether I had ever been to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I replied that I had not. She encouraged me to visit, and after discussing the weather and faith for a bit, she and the man, named Mark, continued on. The moment made me reflect on what it was that made them approach me, whether there was some gap in my understanding of how I am perceived. Knowing that I was unlikely to receive any answers, and still slightly soporific from lunch, I returned to my reading.

By an instance of serendipity, I finished the book when the garden closed, and was ushered out by the employees. Lake Michigan had occupied the background of my field of vision while I was in the park, so I decided to give it a closer look. When I had strolled along the edge of the water for a bit, I found a space to sit which would allow me to avoid disrupting the joggers, bikers, segway tours, and other tourists enjoying the day. And I wrote the following:

There’s a certain music to the boats anchored in Lake Michigan. Buoys and boats clink and splash with the water and the wind, which adds its own sound as it rushes by the listening ear. Intermittent traffic on the eight-lane boulevard which runs along the water’s edge provides a bass line, punctuated with the more melodic lines of the occasional motorcycle. The fountain in the park separated from the lake by that boulevard – it murmurs in agreement. Sometimes, it dissents as well. The silent skyline sets the mood, perched like a frozen wave above the teal-blue-green of the lake. The potential energy is constant.


Another view of Lake Michigan


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