On Saturday, Chad and I ended up talking books a great deal over breakfast, particularly about a Western culture text assessing shifts over the last half-millennium by Jacques Barzun entitled From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present. He took me through some of the thesis of that while I dutifully added it to my mental "must buy and someday read" list. A little while later I was floored when I looked through one of Chad's architectural books, this one called Lost Chicago by David Garrard Lowe, which showed me the gems of Chicago that both had been lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and also that had been built and senselessly destroyed within a few decades to make room for a newer idea. In particular, I got my first glimpse at photographs of what had been standing in Chicago during the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, which I couldn't believe had been torn down. I had mentioned this in my conversation with him the night before: about having been told of the great classical architecture put up along the lakefront, of which (I had been told) the only remnants were the Field Museum and the Science and Industry Museum, and that all the land in-between and been filled with such classical treasures. This wasn't entirely accurate, I now discovered (the survivors are now in fact the Science and Industry Museum and the Art Institute), but I could see why the friend who had told me the story had also mentioned that a friend of his, a scuba diver, said that if you went diving off the coast of the city, where the rubble from the demolished pavilions had been dumped, it looked the ruins of Atlantis. How accurate that is, I'm no longer sure, having had Chad tell me and the book confirm that most of the buildings were not intended to be permanent and were not build of the marble they appear to be, but rather of a stucco of some sort. Plans to finish them in marble later were abandoned when much of the pavilions burned in a fire in 1894. So, anyway, I had to grab Chad and gabble about the photographs and the book with him for a few minutes. And then add that one, too, to the must-buy list. This also proved the occasion for Chad to enthuse about a book called The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson, which I had not heard of, but which sounded great fun. I sat down and strained my brain for a bit to come up with a list of books Chad might like as gifts, which made me remember us talking about books the same way years ago, with me pushing Julian of Norwich upon them with great gusto, and their questions about the types of things I was reading inspiring me (on top of a run of similar requests) to start keeping an ongoing Reading List on my old website. I suppose you'd have to go back through the journal here, and add up all the books tags to get the same thing, though that sounds like an awful lot of work.
Saturday afternoon the whole family headed over to the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Science, to take the kids to an appropriately kid-titled exhibition called "Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body" which was a wonderland of cartoonish displays of digestion, burping, mucus and zits. This was in addition to the hands-on and fun science of their Discovery Center. I was a bit more interested, along with Chad, in a display called "Within the Emperor's Garden: The Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion," which I tried and failed to photograph surreptitiously from my hip, under the suspicious stare of the little old lady who had told me that photographs were not allowed. The model of the Pavilion from the Forbidden City was interesting in its own right, but what especially captured my interest was the diagram and side display of how the fitted wood beams of their architecture allowed for such ornate and grand construction without the use of any sort of nails. I suggested to Chad that, in lieu of turning his yard into an English-style garden, he might at least construct a gazebo in their backyard on these principles. But when I mentioned that alone putting their home on the local tourist route, I could suddenly see why that might be unattractive.
On the way over to the Museum, Chad had taken me on a roundabout route through Peoria, past a contract his company was working on for a new ministry center for the Diocese (now headed by Bishop Dan Jenkins, who had been the Rector at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart during most of my time at Notre Dame and with the Folk Choir), through the West Bluff Historic District down West Moss Avenue, an older neighbourhood of wonderfully-restored or -maintained homes of interest, including a pair of Wright or student-of-Wright designs that were as tasteful as ever. Older homes under the shade of older trees. Just the way everyone should be able to live. From the Museum, Chad took me on a route that let me eyeball the magnificent homes on Grandview Drive, which I'd seen one night when Darcie Short drove some of us from LOMC around the sites of Peoria. Here on the high bluff above the Illinois River, I was particularly taken with some of the 1930s-style manors which you could easily imagine Cary Grant stepping out from in old Beverly Hills grandeur. Chad told the kids and me stories of taking drives along here with with mother on Sundays after church as a kid, zooming down the hairpin turns. We ended up near the equally-interesting look of the old Peoria Water Works Company down by the river before Eva hit her maximum tolerance of Dad's architectural enthusiasm and lecture, and I thanked Chad contentedly as we raced home before the looming four year-old meltdown.
Angie and Chad wanted to have an adults-only dinner with me (or at least used my presence as an excuse for an adults-only dinner, themselves) and they took me out to a very cool Italian restaurant down near the waterfront district of Peoria called Rizzi's on State that I liked a lot, and hope to return to someday. There I tackled their Pork Chops Siciliana (Thick cut pork chops sautéed with mushrooms, cherry peppers and onions with a touch of marinara.) with a glass of a Chianti whose name escapes me now, and which Chad tried as well. This is where I discovered, as we talked a bit of wine, that Angie – who, when I first had gotten to be friends with her, had been a teetotaler like me, out of caution – had since discovered that alcohol tended to make her quiet, if not sullen, of all things, whereas for me it makes me more lighthearted, talkative and giggly. ("As if you need that," said Dan to me when I told him this story.)
A block behind us, a photographer was shooting a bride and her party against the background of one of the old brick factories of the Peoria waterfront, and we talked about how that sort of visual juxtaposition had become fashionable lately, while I mentioned beyondthewell and wondered if it was her and her husband taking the shots. I suppressed the urge to go over and find out, though I thought it would be funny to just trip by and surprise her, if so. Their studio is just over in Bloomington, and after describing their business, we then got to talking about paying for serious portraiture and for art in general, and what that was worth to us. Karen herself had written to me about her and Nate taking up Over The Rhine favourite Michael Wilson's availability to do his "Daylight Portrait", and that had gotten me thinking about the value of such things, particularly given that I have an irrational impulse in my head that denies that there could possibly be anything in this world – houses, cars, books – that one ought to pay more than, say, twenty dollars for. [And instantly, Angie's recent citation jumps into my head: From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put. – Sir Winston Churchill]
I asked them a theoretical question about their sense of contemporary attitudes in Evangelicalism on the question of "certainty" in faith that they completely shot down, though I suppose that it might have more to do with my specific observations of Evangelicals who convert to Catholicism than with Evangelicalism in general. But I abandoned that tack of making them speak for all of Evangelicalism in America before I became utterly annoying.
We went walking then, after dinner, along the restored and lively waterfront, which seemed shockingly different from the Rust Belt ruin I remember from college days. It was a delight to see something have come to life again like that. I looked at this piece of now-fading painting along one of an old series of railway supports, from a line that once crossed the river here to descend into the city. We people-watched the other strollers, talked about weird Asian fish that had been disastrously transplanted into the Illinois River, wondered about a WWII submarine memorial that apparently stood there for no reason other than these subs having passed through Peoria, eyed the Segway rentals, listened to a bit of what sounded like a Dead cover-band, and talked.
I tried taking a decent portrait shot of them, which Chad was too amused to take seriously, flashing me a maniacal Joker smile when I tried. Angie had told me that they had shown the girls the shots I had taken when I'd last visited, before the girls had come along, which the girls found quite funny, perhaps because of Angie's unusually short haircut from the time. Myself, I was still having trouble getting used to Chad's short and business-like hair today, as he had then expressed his own preference for wearing his longer, and had wondered, if I recall correctly, whether he could get away with letting it grow even longer than it was then.
As we left the waterfront, I had Chad take me a bit further down the district so that we could go up the climb on Persimmon Street where I then told (or for Angie, re-told) the story of my grand misadventure the night of Darcie's wedding, with her Maid of Honour December Saucedo, Rich Alms, and Todd Peterson. The run back up to the downtown area is no longer the gauntlet of crackhouses, shooting ranges, brothels and clubs disguised as the above (and a police precinct squatting innocently in their midst) that it used to be. Chad regaled us with similar memories of sitting with his Dad in the window of the old brick place where he worked, eating sandwiches and watching police raids like they were quality entertainment.
Back at the house, with the babysitter returned to her family (and after a talk on the virtues of jr. high school girls versus high school girls for babysitting), we three just kicked back and talked the rest of the night. Angie was now having a Mike's Hard Lemonade, which managed not to cause the withdrawn effect we had discussed earlier, and perhaps aided in the talk. A bit more architecture. A long conversation on dreams, particularly dreams of flying, with the discovery that Chad and I experienced dreams of flying in exactly the same way, giving rise to my curiosity as to whether this would be a more common male trait, if we could survey the question broadly. For us, flight in our dreams takes an absolutely stillness of mind, a state of perfect confidence or faith in one's ability to fly, any wavering of which becomes a wavering of flight itself, with the threat of disaster. Furthermore, we discovered that we never remember launching into flight in our dreams: we always enter a flight dream in the midst of flying. Angie, on the other hand, described an actual "take off" process in her flight dreams of running down the street with arms stretched out, airplane-style, which had Chad and I howling at the image, to Angie's mild annoyance.
The next day, I simply got ready after waking and headed out to the Bloomington Amtrak station with Angie. We were listening to the soundtrack from Elizabethtown in the car as we began talking, and memories of the movie struck a certain chord with me at that moment. The film had come up during a long train of our Friday night conversation about movies. Waiting for Chad, I was tempted to foist a digital download of Before Sunrise on her when I found out that she had never seen the film, and I talked about why Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset duology had had such an impact on me over the last few years, acknowledging that I might have to push my other top favourites (Never Cry Wolf, A Man For All Seasons, The Man Without A Face) aside for them. She had given me a long list of favourite films, most of which I had never even heard of, which was kind of interesting in itself, to find that her taste had gotten so broad and independent-oriented. But Elizabethtown had popped up in the talk, one of the few mainstream movies to do so on her part, which I had just seen for the first time maybe a month or two earlier, and that got me thinking. I thought it was a flawed film (we both pointed to things like Susan Sarandon's dance sequence), but it somehow felt stronger to me for the flaws, if that makes any sense. While certainly the small town feel appealed to me given my roots, I think it was the theme of remaining open to the unexpected turns ahead of us in life that had struck me most strongly, and certainly that kind of openness was something for which Angie was ready to take me to task, as I had described the last few years to her. And so the parallels between themes in the film and themes in the weekend's conversations suddenly appeared in my mind as we set out on the highway to the road-trip music of the soundtrack. Go figure. She had time to get me to the train station and return easily before meeting Chad and the girls at church, and now the talk was pretty light, of odds and ends, and the occasional thought about this chance to catch up as a whole.
We sat there on the cement slab that serves as the "platform" of Bloomington's train station. We talked occasionally about this and that, but mostly I just found myself looking at her, mostly in a kind of quiet amusement and wonder that she was there. Or that I was there. I remembered the day I met her, noticing her red car pulling onto the gravel road leading back to LOMC after mine, a few days before training started, just after the end of the school year, and being introduced to her as one of the Coordinators for that summer. Along with discovering that she was one of my bosses, there was a bit of recognition that there was something about her that I already liked. Now, sitting on the ground this summer morning, I knew that maybe I was being a bit sentimental: it's a job hazard for me as an historian, paying as much attention as I try to to the past. "Did you ever think that we would still be friends after all this time?" I asked her, shortly before we realized it was already ten and that my train had not yet showed up. I continued thinking along these lines after we said goodbye, and while I sat the extra 40-odd minutes for the train to arrive. So many of these other rich, rich friendships from that amazing summer had blurred and faded with distance, but here we were, still talking as intensely and as curiously after all this time, as much as we ever had, late after the campers had gone to bed, sitting out on the Meadows' Deck, underneath the stars. Like everyone else who has ever lived before us, we had laughed about how it really does seem like just a year or two ago. That we would still be friends might be beyond expectations, but that certainly didn't matter: just the fact that it still seemed perfectly natural to be friends was the only thing that counted. Even though it was my own, there was a sense of realizing that I didn't know that the story would be this good.
With the train about 45 minutes late, I still ended up only missing my connection to Milwaukee at Union Station by two minutes. Declining to take part in the mild riot brewing by those who wanted those last two minutes to run down the track to the nigh-departing train, I took the opportunity to withdraw, grab some food, and go sit on a bench looking out across the water at the city, just a bit south of the Adams Street Bridge. I wished I had Chad handy as my personal architecture enthusiast as I looked at the different buildings, and I mused on the last week, at seeing and catching up with Jenny and Angie within a few days, thinking that I only lacked Sunshine strolling down the riverwalk with her husband to round out the sequence nicely. If anything, the last few weeks had both indicated that there was something in my life that was so much bigger than me, if that makes any sense: a sense of symmetry or narrative structure that didn't seem a conscious creation of my own, but also not quite something I'd want to give the grade school theology tag of God "writing my story:" I do believe that God gives us and our universe too much freedom for such a deterministic understanding of events, and yet... there was a kind of grace going on. Perhaps it really means that I've frequently done things right. I hoped so. I hoped that I've really been given a gift for friendship and for love that I've succeeded in using, and in healing where I've putzed it up. Whatever exactly it all is or was, as I sat there with just the two of us – me and Chicago – it seemed to give my presence in space and time a bit of meaning that defied the obvious fact that I was barely in this city long enough to cast an afternoon shadow. And though there were so many things that told me not to be – right then, I was content with that.