Measuring life through visits to Chicago

How one city enables me to see my growth with each new trip

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Roma even got her own matching name badge at the Academy of Management.

Precisely 44 years have spanned between my first trip to Chicago and my most recent trip to the Windy City. I vividly recall being here in 1974 when President Nixon resigned. My sister, mom, and I accompanied my dad to a conference at the University of Chicago. We did not see such an announcement from the White House during this trip when I brought my husband and daughter with me while I attended an academic conference of my own.

I love this Mark Twain quote which I saw several times this past week:

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How prescient that quote remains for me as I think of all the ways I’ve engaged this novelty. In that first trip at age nine it was an adventure. Up until that trip all our family travel had been to see, well, more family; familiar places with familiar faces. This trip was a journey to the unknown. We stayed in a family apartment near the campus and while Dad studied fundraising strategies Mom took Julie and me to visit art museums and department stores. I distinctly remember an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art featuring the work of Duane Hanson and his life-like human sculptures. Wishing to nurture my budding interest in architecture she even convinced the staff of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio to give us a tour; their website notes that it was not opened to the public until a year later in 1975. While I traveled a great deal as a child this trip stood out as a true adventure.

I returned in the early 80’s, unaccompanied, to participate in a national Boy Scout recognition where I added lunch at the top of the (then) Sears Tower, sailing on Lake Michigan, and seeing my first production of Fiddler on the Roof at the now defunct Candlelight Dinner Theater.

In 1990 I brought a handful of high school debate and forensic students to compete in the National Catholic Forensics Tournament and also introduced them to great jazz one night convincing a bouncer into letting me bring the with me into Kingston Mines to enjoy a few hours of music with the promise of no alcohol for any of us!

A few years later I spent several days here in a “career holding pattern” while a Kaplan exec tried to convince me to take a position in his division. I finally declined both the role and boss attaching myself to a more suitable mentor in Boston. That trip, however, is where I fell in love with the Chicago Art Institute making my first pilgrimage to see Seurat’s famous Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Naïve Kansas kid that I was I even let a cabby hold my luggage in the trunk of his taxi for three hours while I visited the museum. He promised to pick me up at 4:00 pm to take me to O’Hare. I had no record of him, the cab number, even the license plate as he drove off with my belongings. But sure enough at precisely 4, he was waiting when I emerged. A decade later another friend and I took a quick weekend trip to Chicago and visited the Seurat work again and also enjoyed a remarkable intimate production of the musical Sunday in the Park with George on Navy Pier at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

In 2009 I returned for the first time with my husband, Ken. The adventure of the city continued with our getting to see (and later meet) Patty LuPone at the Ravinia Music Festival while also seeing my first taping of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

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And this week I’ve come full circle and have now introduced my own daughter to Chicago. Her interests (at three) are still emerging and I did my level best to honor those while sharing some of my own. We did a boat tour (one of her fascinations) and also stopped in at a reception at the Art Institute for Dad to view Seurat. We had recently read the remarkable children’s book Dot by Peter Reynolds and I was hoping to show her his pointillist style of painting just like the little girl in the book who drew nothing but dots.

But Seurat’s work did little to impress Roma, she was, however, transfixed by Degas’ Little Dancer. We returned to this one simple statue again and again. Once Roma even tried to mirror the young ballerina’s pose, which I later learned is fourth position.

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Roma imitating art while at the Chicago Institute of Art

Roma became sad that this dancer was encased in a protective box and could not be free to enjoy the world as Roma does. It deeply taxed my nascent parenting skills to try and explain this. Asking a security guard to help me explain it simply made matters worse. We finally had to tell the ballerina that Roma was sad so we’d need to leave her, but would come to visit again. Roma perked up when we got to the Crown Fountain’s “spitting faces” and was her giggly little self again by the time we reached the Ferris wheel and carousel at Navy Pier.

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As I reflect on my scores of trips here over my lifetime I can see the truth of Twain’s statement yet the corollary also rings true for I am never the same either. Since I’ve never lived or studied in Chicago it has always been a short-term destination for a life in motion. I’ve seen it as a child, a teacher, a job-applicant, a mentor, a speaker, an academic, a consultant, a husband, an art lover, a theatergoer, and now most importantly as a dad. Neither Chicago nor I seem to be the same each time we encounter one another. I cannot wait to see what’s next as we continue to “outgrow prophesies” the world has for us both.

Written by

Gay dad, Stanford Faculty, and mentor

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