Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Escape from the Hinterlands

The whole family made an escape from the hinterlands last weekend, spending a couple days downtown celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary. Our headquarters was the W hotel on Lake Shore Drive, and it turned out to be one of those hotels that tries awfully hard to let you know how stylish it is. There was, for starters, the techno music thumping in the elevators and the scent of aromatherapy wafting through the lobby and the many cutesy design touches. The first thing A.J., our six-year-old boy, found upon entering the room was a set of small wooden blocks on the dresser top, with words printed on each side of each cube that you can arrange and re-arrange to make your own little sentences, as with those refrigerator magnet poetry sets. One of the blocks had the word “sex” printed on it.

“Daddy, what’s sex?” A.J. asked me.

Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. I told him that his sex was male, that sex was the set of characteristics that made each of us either a boy or a girl. He seemed to go for it. His next question had to do with whether the hotel got SpongeBob on the TV.

Later we all walked over to the little beach at the foot of Ohio Street, which was deserted enough for the two of us to run foot races up and down the sand while A.J.’s mom watched and took pictures. It wasn’t the most exciting thing we did that weekend—A.J. was probably more excited about the children’s museum or the aquarium or the hot dog we ordered him from room service. And the grownups liked the dinner at the Gage and the handholding in Grant Park, all made possible by the babysitting services of our friend H. We spent a lot of time talking about our wedding and the band and the dancing and how, seven years later, it still has to rank as one of the best days ever.

But back to the beach.

The thing about the beach was that it had been a hangout of mine about twenty years ago when I was working not far from there. I was in my first job out of college and I still fancied myself too artistic and soulful for office work and so I used to spend my lunch hours in long, solitary walks through the park and along the beach, carrying books of poetry that I sometimes even read. In those days, Navy Pier was still pretty much a deserted shell, but you could walk the length of it and when you reached the end of it, look back at the city looming and feel appropriately moody and misunderstood. Now Navy Pier is something like a cross between a carnival and a shopping mall. On our way to the children’s museum, we had to wade through all the gift shops filled with kids demanding trinkets from their stroller-pushing parents. Out in the plaza, there was a man dressed in a tiger-striped body suit doing some kind of pantomime/modern dance hybrid for an audience of tired-looking families.

It’s been six years since we left Chicago for the hinterlands and sometimes it seems like the city itself has moved to the suburbs and started a family. It wears the same kind of distracted expression that you sometimes see on fathers trying to get through another Sunday with the kids.

On Sunday morning, I went for a run through the rose gardens and past the museums and along the lake and I survived all the bicyclists trying to run me down and I met up with my beautiful wife and beautiful kid for breakfast. We ate outside, something I hardly ever like to do, but the morning was so lovely that even I had to enjoy it. Even the too-stylish hotel seemed not so bad.

But what I will remember from the weekend are the races on the beach with A.J. It’s a good thing he is around to show me, finally, how to really have fun on the beach.

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