eh. I just opened an email from earlier this evening from my friend Kevin, who lives out in Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson
, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is one of the most ridiculously gorgeous locations in the United States, and the wider valley under the Grand Teton Mountains – Jackson Hole
– has become a favourite location for secluded houses for celebrities of various sorts. Warren Beatty idly waved to me in a "just between neighbours" sort of way out there the other year. That sort of thing. So I just got this note from Kev:
Just saw Harrison Ford at the cashier at Kmart ....
So it goes. I
got to spend Monday with Langers in Chicago, after some schedule-juggling. It turned out that he was having a weekend mini-reunion with his Notre Dame M.Div. classmates in Milwaukee, just as I was going to be out of town staying at my sister's. A few semi-frantic phone calls later, we figured out that I could come down to the Loop on the commuter train and meet him, as he was going to be taking the train back from Milwaukee to South Bend, where he had left his car. So, even though Mark missed his first train and arrived an hour late, he decided to stay an extra two hours in town and take the last South Shore Line train back to the Bend, giving us somewhere between four-and-a-half and five hours to spend together.
We hadn't actually seen one another since J.P.'s wedding in August of 2007
, so I had my first surprise when I discovered that he had chopped off his massive pony-tail. Mark's hair has been long for almost forever. I used a shot of him
and that hair for part of the interior art of Life and Other Impossibilities
back in 2004. When I met Mark at Notre Dame in December 1994, he had that sort of medieval-ish "bowl" haircut
one sees occasionally. This was even shorter. This hearkened back to a Mark I'd only heard about: the football player Mark, back in Pittsburg. I had seen this
Mark only once: on a videotape of the Freeks on their world tour, eyes closed and dancing the midst of a village in India, oblivious to the perplexed stares of the villagers standing around watching him. I'd never met a Mark who looked like this before. It was that big a deal. He bust out laughing, being in truth the same Mark, as soon as he saw my face, and told me that he had been hiding the fact that he cut his hair (for job interviews over a year ago) in our phone conversations, just so that he could see that look on my face.
We walked down Madison Avenue toward Millennium Park, as the panhandlers around the bridge over the Chicago River provoked Mark into recalling the outrageously persistent panhandler who stalked us while we were having dinner outside at the Water Street Brewery
, when Mark visited me in Milwaukee in July 2003. We got to talking a bit about what little we knew and liked of Chicago architecture, with me talking about how much had been lost or destroyed, as I had learned about in reading in Lost Chicago
. This conversation featured great visual aids as we walked by the classic Chicago Building
, the elegant base curves of the Chase Tower
(which reminds me of the fictional S.T.A.R. Labs), and this afternoon in particular, we were both struck by the façade
of St. Peter's Church
as we came up under it. Mark noted approvingly that it was run by the Franciscans, and we ducked in briefly to see the interior as people were coming out from a weekday Mass. That sort of thing got us talking Ecclesiology for a brief but intense stretch, as I quickly outlined for him where my dissertation research had taken me. In the time that I've known him, Mark has grown into an able theological thinker, and I was gratified to hear him respond as strongly as he did to what I was doing.
Arriving at Millennium Park
itself, I was curious to have a look-around. I had never actually been there, despite having been downtown on any number of occasions since the Park was completed about five years ago. We walked in straight to the Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion, where some percussionists were soundchecking, and I marveled at the sound quality from where we ended up standing, out in the center of the law. Mark was equally marveling when I tolk him that our mutual Notre Dame friend Jeanine was playing there during the summers with the Grant Park Symphony – information which had somehow eluded him. So we fondly talked about her – our co-conspirator back in April 1997 for "The Francis Sessions"
– and what she had accomplished musically. Had we more time, we would have immediately tried to track her down or summon her.
We eyeballed Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate
, like all good tourists, as we sat down in the plaza for a while, and so that Mark could scarf down a few hot dogs. This actually got us going in earnest for a bit on public art. The sculpture's ability to pull in a vision of much of the city (as well as the viewers) in its outer, convex surface really emphasized the nature of the piece as public art: as commentary on the city itself, or at least as pointing toward the city. The fact that it does so without metaphor or abstraction, but simply reflects the city itself, makes its functioning as public art perhaps as simple and direct as such a piece could theoretically be: all you see in it is the very city that you see all around you at that moment. This got us onto questions of Post-Modernity in art. I was initially dazzled when I was introduced in college to the idea of approaching a text not as a piece representing purely the author's intent, but with whatever you as the reader brought to it, to recognize that there is no single restraining, authoritarian narrative, but that a fabulous variety of narratives can be discovered in any piece. This excitement of mine lasted about five minutes. As with a lot of ideas, it has its point, but that if you absolutize it, it pretty much consumes all other possibilities. (Becoming a single restraining, authoritarian narrative, as it were.) I realized that this kind of perspectivism – of refusing even the possibility of narratives or meanings that transcend ourselves – had nowhere to go, although that ride to nowhere might seem fun in its capacity for self-indulgence. At the time, as an undergraduate, I just instinctively realized that I already knew everything that I already knew: what I was interested in was art that actually challenged me with some possibility, some insight into truths which I had not yet perceived. Art, physics, philosophy: all of them were only worthwhile if that possibility was out there. So, looking at Cloud Gate
with Mark, I raised the possibility that perhaps it sucked as public art: was it just looking into a mirror? Was it perhaps the ultimate artistic, postmodern joke: that everyone looking at Cloud Gate
simply, and literally, "saw what they wanted to see?" Possibly, but I opted away from quite such a cynical stance: the visual of the sculpture still was concrete and specific, even if it was grand in scale – it was still the city and the community, with one's self inevitably and necessarily in the midst of it.
We retired over to a Michigan Avenue coffeehouse for some liquid fuel for Mark and for a switch into chairs, people-watching with great pleasure and talking about the current states of our lives. I got to hear more (and to see his facial expressiveness, which I don't get in our occasional long phone calls) about his relationship with Shannon, his decision to put to rest his full-time musical work so that he could pursue that relationship, and his return to teaching Theology. He spoke of her artistic career, and her move from an internationally-prominent career to one more regional and settled, and happy to set outside of the New York-London gallery hustle. I talked about my vision of my time in Milwaukee, now that I am beginning to have a vision of it as a whole, seeing it as a distinct period in my life as it moves toward its close. When we got up again to walk back across the street and continue our stroll through the park, I got a bit of a surprise. Standing on the corner of Michigan and Washington, I was saying something to Mark when, somehow, in the midst of all the sound of the city, I thought I heard faintly behind me, "...ster Novak?" I turned around and hey! presto! There was Bryan Haney, bearded and years older than when I had last seen him, when he was a student of mine in Saint Joe's class of 2003. So we exchanged a bit of news, and he said something absurdly complimentary about my teaching. He talked about his work as a videographer and editor briefly, and I was so stunned by the randomness of it all that I completely forgot to ask about Long Distance Affair, his band whose gig invitations I've had to turn down for years because of, well, long distance. So a few stunned moments of lame conversation on my part later, Bryan merged back into the crowd, leaving Mark laughing at me for how easily I could be surprised.
We went strolling through the middle of The Taste of Chicago, and ended up in the neighbourhood of Buckingham Fountain, where we continued the conversation along the previous lines for about an hour, first looking at the Fountain itself, which had been barricaded off the last time we had each been in Grant Park, and then later over on the plaza stairs looking out over Lake Michigan. At that point I guided Mark over to the South Shore station, and we spent the last half-hour talking on those old wooden benches, which always give me an old-time train station feel whenever I see them. We found ourselves both pleased to note the wonderful gift we've found about these Notre Dame friendship: that in them we experience no loss of trust, intimacy or even familiarity, despite the gaps in time between our actual gatherings or encounters. I've had less occasion to see Mark than I have Erik, for example, but we can pick up just as we left off, and that's a treasure in this world.