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Saturday, August 17

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Airbags

Editor's note: This column was originally published on Dec. 3, 2006. Kids Ride Free will return to its regular schedule in two weeks.

Everyone with children occasionally has one of those special days where you feel you have made a horrible error, and what in the world were you thinking when you decided to forgo the birth control. It's not too often, or perhaps more often than you'd care to admit, but there it is. One of those days may be when the reality of being stuffed inside a cluttered house, utterly lacking in anything interesting to do, eat, play or talk about looms over the lot of you like a stalled storm system. Everyone is crabby, no one wants to pick up all of the scrap paper that has accumulated under the dining room table, and even the dog is bothered. That is a good day to, as a friend of mine puts it, "move the show." A while back we were having just such a day. Time for a field trip. Either that or child abandonment.

My first inclination was to go the Shedd Aquarium. We'd need a library pass for that, because to take the four of us to the Shedd would cost $83, not including train fare or parking. That's right: eight — three. Dollars. I called all of the local branches to see where I could pick one up, and found that they were all checked out. So, it was going to be museum roulette. That's when we go to the library and see what passes are available, and take what they've got. I was secretly hoping for an Art Institute pass because I was feeling a little guilty about having been bad mouthing it all over town. The last time I'd been to the AIC was when I had some baby up on my shoulders, trying to get through a packed gallery and a guard yelled at me. You can't have a baby on your shoulders at the Art Institute. We left, of course, as the other option was to chase a toddler through rooms of elderly people and precious historical artifacts while not looking at any art. I haven't been back since, I'm sad to say. However, since Child Magazine had recently declared the AIC one of the top ten art museums for kids in the country, then, by god, I wanted to take my kids in and see if things had changed.

We were in luck; the pass to the Art Institute was available. My kids were bummed at my choice. They would have preferred the Museum of Science and Industry or the Adler Planetarium, but as soon as I mentioned the hall of weapons, the boys were in. My daughter had a book, so she didn't care what we did, as long as everyone would just shut up about it already. Things were looking way up, and we headed for the train and took it to the Adams and Wabash stop.

We walked the short block to the museum entrance, getting that good downtown buzz. Sometimes it takes a good dose of the Loop to remind us that we really are lucky to live in Chicago. The marble steps, thoughtfully painted yellow for the enjoyment of three-year-olds, led us to the entrance of the Art Institute. Right away we were stopped. The backpack with our lunch in it was not allowed past the foyer. They really have issues with things on people's backs, I guess, because backpack baby carriers are not allowed either. We checked the backpack, with all the stuff, like water, tissues, paper and pencils, a full deck of Magic the Gathering cards and everything else we absolutely need to have with us whenever we leave the house. It's strange then, that on the website of the AIC, the following suggestion is given to families preparing to visit the museum:

Activity Bag
Prepare an activity bag to take along for your family's visit! Choose a small bag to hold things such as a notebook for children to use for sketching, writing stories, or writing down questions, and a favorite toy to occupy a young child. Create a series of activity cards based on your children's interests. Punch a hole in each card and connect them with a metal ring. Draw alphabet letters on cards, write numbers, or make swatches of colors. Use the cards to help guide your museum visit. Collect postcards from the Museum Shop to add to your family museum bag each time you visit.

Okay, activity bag does not equal backpack! Got it. I shoved the essentials into my pockets: a Kleenex purse-pack, the cell phone and my credit card, in case I needed to wipe a nose, call for back up or buy a bribe at the museum shop. Thus unencumbered, we made our way into the museum.

There is a moment upon entering a vast public building where I get a little panicky and find myself unable to read a map or orient myself, so, as usual, we found an out of the way spot to take a breath, regroup and switch over from transportation mode to being-where-we-are mode. Even after hanging out by a giant marble pillar for a few minutes I still couldn't make heads or tails of the map. At long last I found Gunderson Hall. For the record, Gunderson Hall is represented on the map by a large, long hallway shape with the words "Gunderson Hall #141" on it.

Weapons of mass destruction sure used to be fancy. Imagine all of the hours spent engraving the hilt of a sword, just so it could get rammed into someone's armpit on the battlefield. The armor is a trip, as well. We imagined how hard it must have been to move out of the way of a swinging ball of iron while clad in steel from knave to chops. One of the very coolest things we saw in Gunderson Hall was a shield made of leather and iron and stretched boars hide from the 1500's. We could see dents on it that may well have been put there by one of the 8-foot long lances on display further on.

If you've ever read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisberg, then you've probably imagined running away from home and living at a museum. We decided that if we were to run away and live at the AIC, we would avoid Gunderson Hall like the plague, because we are certain the place is infested with the ghosts of people whose blood is on those weapons. Plus the armor, marching around all empty, would be scary.

After looking at all of that manly equipment, we headed for the Arthur Rubloff Paper Weight Collection, which is like looking at candy while hallucinating. I spent about 30 seconds looking at them before I had to hustle after the boy/Tasmanian devil to keep him from touching the precious historical artifacts. I said "don't touch anything" about forty thousand times, mostly just to make the other adult patrons think I had the situation under control, but also to give myself something to do while running through the collection of European Decorative Arts (maybe a good place to hide if you are running away from home). He planted his paws on a blue satin Louis the something chair before I could catch him. Luckily I got to him before he could climb up and have a seat.

We got yelled at by a guard twice: once in the area where they have the very cool architectural models of the new wing, and once in the Mel Bochner exhibit, where one of the pieces is a couple of two-by-fours laying on the floor just like a balance beam, some might say, with some text taped onto it. Of course one of my boys had to start to step on it, because it looks like a balance beam. There is, of course, a guard stationed right next to the piece to handle all the small boys attempting to walk across it.

Of that exhibit my son said, "I don't get how this is art. It's just a bunch of letters."

Yep. It's interesting that he noticed, because Mel Bochner himself called a lot of these pieces "working drawings and other visible things on paper not necessarily meant to be viewed as art."

I asked him what he thinks art should look like and he said, "Well, a painting of something."

One of the pieces includes multicolored words taken from Roget's Thesaurus (perfect viewing for any English major/art minors in the area), with each letter evenly spaced and painted on a black background. I asked him to look at it as color and shape, without thinking of the shapes as letters making up words, which is pretty much like saying to a not-so-great reader, "Look! another block of squiggles and lines that represent something you don't understand!"

Even with that perspective, he gave the whole thing a big thumbs down. I did it myself though, and saw, as I occasionally do, how the world of text looks to a non-reader. I don't remember ever being a non-reader, so sometimes I need to see that. Conceptual artists, are you aware that your work is being dismissed by seven-year-olds?

We wandered around getting ever more lost looking for the rabbit hole to the Kraft Family Education Center. We took in a five-second view of about a million paintings along the way. I did make everyone completely stop and look at a beautiful Edvard Munch painting. One painting per trip, that's a good goal. There's no need to devour the whole museum in one trip, especially not when you live nearby. We found the Kraft Family Education Center, after getting a series of ever more complex directions from several guards, a scene which, if our day were to be shown on Saturday morning cartoons, would have pictured us playing in our rock band, running here and there, knocking ancients statues of Buddha off of their bases, being chased and eventually caught by an agitated, running band of guards.

Once we arrived at the Kraft Family Education we found the "family library." It's a great little room, with tables and chairs in both adult and children's sizes, tons of gorgeous children's books and art books for people to sit around and read. There is a stage area where I presume they hold story time, with a couple of crates of those great foam blocks that all kids love to build with because they sort of stick together. All this was manned by a beautifully attired volunteer. She had the most gorgeous magenta silk scarf on her head, and really was the perfect person for the space. There were also little window seats, and a soft bench in between the bookshelves. Just what we needed: a place to chill out for a while.

I'm not sure why I did not see any information about the exhibit entitled "Learning From Art." We'll be returning for that one before it closes on Jan 7. Another exhibit we all really liked was part of the "Faces, Places, InnerSpaces" exhibit. It was a slide show of faces in the AIC collection, morphing into a different face from a different piece. It was hypnotic, and surprising to see the similarities in the faces, and it brought the day full circle, as we had spied some morphing giant faces in the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park as we were crossing Michigan Avenue on our way in.

"I need a sandwich and some chips," said the youngest.

Time for lunch, I supposed.

Well, our hummus, pita, cucumbers and cheese sticks were in our backpack, which was way over yonder in the coat check. I suppose we could have followed the trail of bread crumbs back into the main museum to get it, then hiked back down to the cafeteria, and then had everyone be completely unenthralled with the exceedingly dull lunch when all around us people would be eating delicious things like sandwiches and chips.

What the hell.

Off we went to the cafe, back through Gunderson Hall and beyond. For $15 we had two huge sandwiches, good-sized bowls of fruit salad and garbanzo bean salad and a couple of chocolate milks. Not bad. The food was pretty tasty, and the bread was decent. I splurged and got the kids each an Oreo cookie parfait, because in the immortal words of Donkey from Shrek, "Who doesn't love a parfait?"

After we finished eating, things went a little south. In a bizarre personality switch, the boy began insisting we visit "the resting room." Resting room? What resting room? Did he mean bathroom, and, if so, wouldn't he just say "bathroom"? No, it was resting room, resting room, resting room and nothing but the resting room would do. When asked what was in the resting room he said, "Beds!" Ohhhh-kay. This is a child who has never once in his life requested a nap, or a bed to lie down upon, but here we were, heading for a full-blown meltdown due to the lack of a proper resting room. Parents, are you with me here? A child who doesn't nap who is suddenly demanding a nap can only mean a couple of things: the humiliating public spectacle of a full-blown temper tantrum or worse: potential vomit, code red.

Here I must interject. Sometimes meltdowns make me meltdown, too. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

Lately, there has been a trend in our house. A seemingly simple request is made, such as, "I need this Han Solo to stand up," which sounds like an innocuous request, and not the dangerous landmine it actually is. If I can't get Han Solo to stand up — let's say Han is missing a foot — and nothing I can do is going to change that — even going so far as to fashion a new foot out of Sculpy, then get ready to take cover because it's temper tantrum time!

Tiresome, tiresome temper tantrums are the most heinous stage of early childhood development. Sometimes I can take it, and be that lighthouse with the waves crashing down upon me kind of mother, but sometimes the other mother shows up and has a temper tantrum of her own.

Fortunately, the term "resting room" had me envisioning a lovely, quiet room filled with quilt-covered beds, turned down and waiting to receive weary art patrons ready for a cozy nap, which made me laugh at the whole situation. It seemed it was time to head to the only resting room I know: the one in my house with the unmade king-size bed that the dog and cat were undoubtedly sprawled all over. Getting to that resting room would be a bit of a trick, what with the mammoth train ride and all, and there's no vomit like train vomit! But then, as if from a celestial cloud, an angel appeared in the form of a docent who asked me if I needed a stroller. Absolutely! The stroller could be the resting room! Maybe things weren't as bad as they seemed. The scheme worked, and I popped my glassy-eyed chap into the blue molded seat and away we went. As we made our way back through the hall of horrifying implements, a couple approached me to tell me that my children were so well behaved during lunch, and they were just so impressed. Wow, they must have left before the whole resting room business kicked in, but I'll take that compliment any time. Way to go kids!

The magical stroller gave us more time. My daughter got to see the Thorne Miniature Rooms, which are so unbelievably perfect in every way, that you expect to see little people walking around in them. While she did that, we headed back to the family library for some good old-fashioned book reading, which was just the thing for the boys, and for me. We read a great book about the history of puppetry, until a little girl, who I am sure is a delightful child, came in and demanded that everyone take parts in her imaginary Babar-themed world. Sorry little girl, unless Babar is handing out guns, you're not going to have much luck bossing these two around. We hightailed out of there, ditched the stroller, collected our stuff and made it to the top of the steps at the L stop just as the train was rolling in. Before we knew it, we were back in our cluttered house, watching some "Teen Titans," reading some books and drinking tea. The field trip worked, the emotional storm had passed, and the house was no longer cluttered and stifling, but welcoming.

So, Art Institute, I'll give it up. My formerly grumpy attitude has changed. Is it because of the Kraft Family Education Center? No, although that library made the trip doable for us. Art doesn't need to be dumbed down for kids. Kids get art, and kids can look at art, just as readily as an adult can, albeit much smaller quantities of it. My ability to navigate a totally hands-off place like the AIC with kids has changed, because all of them have reached an age where I can expect reasonable behavior. I believe it's what they call the light at the end of the tunnel.

Art loving parents of toddlers, don't despair; you'll get to go back. Maybe you've been blessed with non-roughhousing kids, in which case, the world is your oyster. Enjoy it for the rest of us. For those of you who are in the process of creating your first baby, my advice to you: Get your pregnant selves to the AIC immediately, and make a day of it. Ask someone if they know where the resting room is. There are sure to be lots of pregnant ladies there, reclining amongst the quilts, resting up before they take in the rest of the museum.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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