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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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Fairly frequently I hear from out-of-town friends and relatives about how lucky we are to live in Chicago. I hear about their planned trips to the area and all of the fun things they are going to do while they're here.

It's true, we are lucky. There are a lot of fun things to do here, so many museums and parks and cool neighborhoods, restaurants and shopping. If we so desired we could go from one attraction to the next, from morning 'til night, every day for a long time. Unfortunately, when you live inside of the glittering snow dome, some of the glitter wears off after a while. You find yourself saying things like,"yeah, we could go down to the Museum of Science and Industry and see the Star Wars exhibit, and pretend to fly the Millennium Falcon today, and then we could head to the Cultural Center to see the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef... or we could stay at home and read the next chapter in our book, bake some scones and wash the bird cage." And the bird cage wins, because it gets exhausting living the tourist lifestyle. That being said, we've been doing a little too much bird cage, and not enough world class attraction lately, so I decided, unbeknownst to my often unwilling subjects, that we were going to take one five day section of our lives and live it up, Windy City style! Woot!

We have a book called A Reason For a Flower, by Ruth Heller, that has been a perennial favorite (pun intended) since it was given to my daughter as a gift for her second birthday. Heller has an amazing way of turning all sorts of information into poem form, and illustrates all of it with detailed colored pencil drawings. A Reason For a Flower is all about seeds and pollen, the real reasons for flowers. On one page there is an illustration of carnivorous plants — pitcher plants, venus fly traps, that sort of thing. My youngest child, always drawn toward the macabre, is very interested in that particular page, so we have — well, I — have decided to take a trip to the Oak Park Conservatory to visit their collection of carnivorous plants. We have to first go to Humboldt Park to drop off drama girl at her set-building workshop, so my thought was that we would first hop down to Pilsen to see the Dia De Los Muertos Exhibit at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum, have some lunch, and then head up the Ike to Oak Park. This is the sort of thing that tourists to the city might do, right?

This entails leaving the house. The boys were not dressed. I sent them upstairs to get dressed and find them 15 minutes later stockpiling weapons on the lower bunk and listening to Queen. We heard the songs "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "We are the Champions/We Will Rock You" on the radio the other day, which prompted a lot of enthusiasm from the back seat riders, as well as myself, because I had the 45 of "Fat Bottomed Girls/Bicycle" when I was 10, so we dug out some Queen from the archives and the boys have commandeered it for their room.

The Queen has inspired both boys to begin drumming, one of them using Tinker Toys sticks, and one of them using two wands from the collection of hand whittled wands that my 8-year-old has been obsessively carving for the last few months. "Mom, how long is this wand? I want to measure it." OK, off we go to find a measuring device, which in this house is as difficult as finding a working pen. We have many, perhaps hundreds, but can't ever seem to find one. We resort to the old standby of an 8-1/2" x 11" sheet of paper, and guesstimate that the wand is about 10.5 inches long.

Now it is really time to go, but the youngest team member is balking, as usual. He would prefer to play Nintendo. I throw out the plan, the carnivorous plants, the skeleton-filled offrendas, the plastic wrestlers available at the museum gift shop, but it's all to no avail, and before you can say ridiculous waste of time, I find myself involved in a power struggle with a 4-year-old. Who all of a sudden realizes that his halloween candy is gone. It would be a lot easier to stay home and play Nintendo, wouldn't it? Maybe run out and get some big bags of candy and eat it all day while we sit around in our underpants? That sounds like an excellent plan. But that's not what tourists do. Tourists get up, get themselves dressed, including underpants and matching socks, and get their asses out the door. Tourists don't have a Game Cube, and when they want some candy they head for the vending machines. It's time to toughen up!

Here's an amusing detail: The Museum of Mexican Fine Art is not open on Mondays. It's amusing because we didn't find that out until we were standing at the locked entrance to the museum. Ha-ha! That's funny because we had driven all of the way down to Pilsen without bothering to look at the website first. Fortunately there is a playground next to the museum. The boys ran around for a while, playing with a group of kids that arrived for their allotted 15 minutes of fresh air and exercise. It wasn't long before the inevitable "I'm hungry, thirsty, need a band aid, can't find my ______" started up, so we decided to head over to Nuevo Leon for some tacos. From there we would head to the conservatory to see those fabulous carnivorous plants.

As we walked to the van, I thought to myself that maybe I should make sure the conservatory was open, because we wouldn't want to make two unnecessary drives, would we? I called the answer desk, aka my husband, who got me the number for the conservatory and made the call. A dapper sounding british gent finally answered the phone on the eighth ring. "Are we open today?" he said in a befuddled way. I imagined that he'd run in from the greenhouse where he was splicing plants or something,"Uh, actually we are open, from 2pm to 4pm." Come again? What kind of stupid hours are those? There go the carnivorous plants. Two to 4pm is picking up the daughter time, and going home to brew up some espresso time, not going to Oak Park time.

But regardless of the conservatory hours, it's lunch time, so Nuevo Leon, here we come! Tourists love food, especially authentic delicious Mexican food! We don't need to drive to Pilsen for delicious Mexican food, we generally just walk the 20 steps to the Guanajuato, or a few blocks to El Gordo, but not being super familiar with Pilsen, we were going to go the route of La Tourista and go to Nuevo Leon. But wait just a gol-dern minute. Where was my purse? Not in the van. The van was locked, for once, so it hadn't been ripped off. That meant it was sitting at home, hopefully not on the front porch. Not good. No purse, no wallet. No wallet, no money. No money, no lunch.

If I were really a tourist I think I might have driven to the nearest Chicago style bar and had a few drinks, except I didn't have any money. So we did what anyone would do faced with such an insurmountable set of hurdles, tourist or not; we went home. The boys spent the afternoon happily playing a combination of soccer, basketball and football, with a little skateboarding thrown in. The neighbor boys were off of school and ready to play. I tried not to dwell on the fact that I suck as a tour guide, or as a parent, and really, if you get to the root of it all, as a human being, and did mundane tasks like laundry and girl scout paperwork all afternoon. But that was only day one of my week long plan to see Chicago through the eyes of a tourist. We still had four more days to cram as much of this toddlin' town as we possibly could.

... came and went. We didn't do anything touristy. I did walk to Dunkin Donuts for a box of munchkins. That was nice, lots of autumn leaves. Then I went to a fabulous baby shower in a glittering old school Logan Square condo, where I ate a lot of delicious food from Frontera Grill, drank a lot of pink champagne and watched my friends open gift after fabulous gift. Of the 800 or so people at the party, I think I knew four, two of them being the expecting couple, so I sort of felt like a tourist, visiting someone else's life, where all of the women were wearing gorgeous boots. Gorgeous boots, must get.

No touristing on Wednesday. The big kids were out most of the day at classes, we had a friendly 5-year-old come over to play. For the most part I was not very aware of what they were doing, as for the majority of the afternoon they were in the basement making car/explosion/fighting sounds with action figures. I don't need to see that. Around dinnertime the action moved upstairs. I was making dinner and could see that they were making a giant stack of pillows on our big brown chair, which is a good base for any sort of fort. They were getting pretty giggly, but I was busy making the Best Lentil Soup Ever, so I didn't look. How much trouble could they get into with a bunch of pillows?

Were a visitor from another place to walk into our house thinking it was some sort of attraction or museum, they might believe that they had entered the scene of a Chicago style ransacking. Maybe this was the home of some old school mobsters (there was actually a mob family living just down the street until about five years ago) that had just been busted by the FBI and the place tossed in a search for drugs, money and weapons. The boys had dumped every possible container — all of the legos, all of the blocks, all of the tinker toys. And then they took the big box that I use to collect all of my girl scout junk — paperwork, money, crafts and supplies — and dumped it too. On top of this was a liberal sprinkling of random books, assorted bits of clothing and a bingo game from the '40s that I got from my Grandma's house, including 20 cardboard bingo cards and about 1,000 little wooden pieces.

In the next room of our museum would be the scene of the old psych ward of Cook County Hospital, because I think I had to be straitjacketed and sedated. The boy who lives here was sent to the time-out step, and the boy who was visiting made himself cheerfully invisible. They both picked up the mess, we ate the delicious soup (the visiting 5-year-old ate three baked potatoes!) and thus ended Wednesday's tourist activities. Museum closed.

I awoke with a renewed commitment to my plan, since there were only two days left before I had to admit defeat. This day we would get out there and see something. We would enjoy some aspect of our multi-faceted city. We still hadn't made it to see the carnivorous plants. Maybe that would be our plan. I drank a bunch of coffee and read the paper while giving it some thought. Then I remembered that my middle child was not at home. He was in Uptown at a sleep-over. Uptown! The Green Mill! Wait. I can't take a bunch of kids to the Green Mill in the middle of the day. That's not right. Bringing it up a notch into the realm of the wholesome and good, I remembered the Swedish American Museum up in Andersonville.

Another bedtime staple these days is the book Pelle's New Suit, which is this adorable book by Elsa Beskow about this little Swedish boy named Pelle, who has a lamb of his own. Well, Pelle outgrows his suit and goes about getting a new one, in typically industrious old-fashioned child way, enlisting the help of his family and community in exchange for work that they need done. He shears the lamb and his grannies card and spin the wool. He dyes the wool, his mother weaves the wool. The local tailor sews him a new suit. It's all very lovely and moral and completely foreign to modern children. When my kids need new clothes, first of all it doesn't really ever occur to them, because until I throw it into the donation bag, they pretty much just keep wearing whatever shows up in their clean laundry basket, and second, a new shipment arrives from the Unique/Target/Nana on a regular basis. There is no shearing of wool or raising of ruminants involved.

But, we love the book, and the idea of a literature-based field trip is very appealing to me. The Swedish American Museum has an amazing play area up on the third floor, with a Viking ship, an immigration style ship, a log cabin, a Swedish stupa, a fake garden with incredible fabric vegetables, a wooden horse for riding, a wood pile and wheelbarrow, and even a replica of an outhouse. The two little houses are fully stocked with little beds and tables and cooking stoves, a grain grinder, fake food, and a baby. Hens in the yard with wooden eggs that you have to reach up and get out of the chicken. It's great.

We head to Uptown and stop in for some waffles at the sleep-over house. Sufficiently fortified, I take my three kids plus one more over to Andersonville. I'd love to stop in and look around at Women and Children First, but the boys are in high squirrel mode, so there will be no leisurely book shopping. My daughter and I sigh and look longingly at the books through the window and keep walking. We enter the museum and head for the front desk. It's $10 for a family, not a terrible price, though I was hoping for free. I am told that I have to go into the GIFT SHOP to pay. A chill runs down my spine. I hate gift shops in general, but a gift shop filled with precious Swedish gift items and groovy Swedish toys, in combination with the three boys jumping around on their maple syrup-and-Nintendo buzz has me on high alert. The well-meaning volunteers at the museum are befuddled by the complexities of taking a debit card. I see out of the corner of my eye the 4-year-old bull heading for the proverbial china shop. We get out alive, take a tour of the historical artifacts on the second floor and then head to the playroom.

We've got the place to ourselves. Play begins in earnest. The only child who is the correct age for this play space is the 4-year-old. The two boys, 10 and 8 are really too old for the intended use, which according to the signs, is gently imagining what life was like in the 1800s, when many people immigrated from Sweden. Plus, no running, no jumping, no boisterous play. I'm fairly certain that when the designers of this space were doing their planning they weren't imagining an elaborate game that involved pretending that the fake sacks of grain were bags of money that had to be hidden in the outhouse. I think they were hoping that kids would be more interested in dressing in the period costumes, which involved little wool caps, and mildly going about the business of pretending to be Swedish. I don't do shared woolen caps, even if they do look like Pelle's. I'm fairly certain that lice were around in old Sweden. The other rule was that things from one area were not to be taken to another area. For example, the wooden baby pigs were not to be taken onto the Viking ship and stowed in a box. I think, like many designers of play spaces, they were thinking of the imaginary children, not the real live ones.

We were there for about 15 minutes when a school group came in, probably about 20 6-year-olds. They all got extremely busy, right off the bat, doing the same things that my kids were doing, making up crazy scenarios, running around, putting wooden eggs into the grain grinder, gathering all of the fabric vegetables and dragging them into the cottages, taking turns pretending to poop in the outhouse. There was a real live baby crawling around, someone's coffee got spilled, it was pleasant mayhem. But then, ding! the 15 minutes were up, and all of the kids were stopped, mid-play, gathered for a photo op on the deck of the fake immigration ship. The kids who weren't already in costume (mostly the boys) were rapidly be-costumed, despite their protests, and the obligatory photos were taken. I tried to keep my kids out of the way. Luckily they were busy cramming vegetables into the outhouse and using the replica of a Swedish sleigh as a get-away speedboat. They read the vibe coming from the deck of immigration ship and kept clear. The whole scene took a good 10 minutes of loud commands and goofing around and rearranging kids and people saying things like,"If you can't see me, you aren't in the picture!" and "put your cap back on Sasha!" Photos at last taken, the kids were granted a scant five minutes for more playing, two minutes of which were spent by the chaperones making sure all of the costumes were returned to their pegs and baskets. Then, just like so many immigrants to our country, they were lined up, checked off of a list and marched off to their next destination.

My daughter observed this whole undertaking and said "I guess the parents would be mad if they didn't see a picture of their kids playing, but they didn't get to play very much." Yep. It seems crazy to me to stage a "look how much fun we are having!" scene, if it means stopping everyone from having fun. But that's just me. If I were a tourist in my life, I guess I'd need some proof that fun was had.

I felt pretty good about connecting the dots between Pelle's New Suit and a Chicago outing, even if the only mention of Pelle came when Ben and I were in one of the cottages and I opened a drawer to find some carded wool. "Look! This is just like the wool from Pelle's sheep, that his granny carded!" I said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. The wool was given a cursory glance, and then more fake fish were tossed into the grain grinder, ground to imaginary bits, thrown into a frying pan and shoved into the wood stove. We ate them at the wooden table, out of wooden bowls, then out he went, to stack some logs, steal some money and row off in his Viking ship.

To complete our day we went to Kopi cafe and sat on the floor and had some "lunch." I say "lunch" because it was scones and hot chocolate, not the sort of food that's going to get a 4-year-old kid all of the way home and up to dinner time without either a hissy fit or a nap, both of which were accomplished by the time we got to Lawrence and California. Kopi is a nice spot though, and much like my peek at how the stylish people live in Logan Square, I got to see all of the people sitting and having food and coffee with other adults. In retrospect maybe we were the attraction there, taking up most of the window area with the four kids, one of whom now has the pinkest imaginable hair.

We finally made it, within my five day deadline, to the conservatory to see the collection of carnivorous plants. If you are looking for a spot to catch some sun and greenery this winter, I recommend the Oak Park Conservatory, just a quick ride up the Ike to Oak Park Avenue — you can see it from the expressway. It's lovely, with the beautiful plants, and the classical music, and the birds, fish and turtles.

It's not a very big place, so we toured the whole thing pretty quickly, and went around again, but didn't see any carnivorous plants. Hmm. I asked a lady watering plants about them and she said that they were not on display at the moment as there is construction work being done on the part of the greenhouse where they normally live. And then she went back to her watering. So we watched the fish and the turtles for a while, said hello to the many caged birds, marveled at the orchids and huge chrysanthemums currently on display, and started towards the exit. On our way out we were greeted by the director of the conservatory, the man I had spoken to at the beginning of the week. He asked the ages of my boys, and once he had the answer he disappeared, returning a moment later with two pamphlets and some miniature golf style pencils. Apparently we were to tour the greenhouse and seek out the answers to the age appropriate questions found inside the pamphlets. He explained that kids needed to be given a focus, rather than just look around. Rather than get into a discussion about my parenting and educational philosophies, I asked him about the carnivorous plants, and told him that we'd been reading about them and were curious to see some. He seemed happy to know that we already had a focus, told us to follow him, and he'd show us the plants.

We went into the back with him and were shown the venus fly traps, the pitcher plants, and some other thing that traps small insects with sticky stuff, then digests them once they have decomposed. He stressed that none of the plants take bugs and chew them up with teeth, though we were clearly informed otherwise by the all knowing 4-year-old. A debate called "they don't have teeth" vs. "they do have teeth" ensued. Sensing that neither the botanist nor the child were going to give in anytime soon, I intervened and ushered my crew back towards the fern room. We looked in vain for a fiddlehead fern, as per our instructions in the pamphlet, and noted the water that had collected in the base of the bromeliad, circled the correct answer to the question about which animal would lay eggs in the water (chicken, poisonous dart frog, dinosaur) decided that we'd had enough with the pencils and paper and headed for Whole Foods, where we toured the exhibit called "get me the f*ck out of here as quickly as possible."

There are so many really great things happening all of the time that I have every intention of taking my kids to see, hear and experience. The five day experiment was neither a complete success, nor was it a bust. We did get out and see some things, and made the effort required to get there and enjoy ourselves. But, looking back, I think we could have done more — well, I could have done more. The kids are just as happy to stick around our neighborhood. They like to do the big stuff sometimes, but it's overwhelming and exhausting too, so best to keep it short and sweet, and possibly few and far between.

To make myself feel better about not actually doing all of the cool stuff as often as I intend to, I pretend that I really live in a small town, hours away from the big city. Sometimes we plan and prepare and make the effort to hitch up the team and take the wagon into town, rising at the crack of dawn to get fed and dressed and make sure our boxed lunch is packed for the journey. The rest of the time I can relax in my imaginary little farm house and do what everyone does everywhere else, just live a regular old boring life, where the main attraction is the big brown chair, the front yard football game, a few books before bed, some Carter Family on the stereo.

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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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