Saturday, August 24, 2013

The old ennui

That sums up a recent piece found on CNN's travel web site with the iconoclastic, attention grabbing title,  Why I Hate Museums. The article was written by James Durston who is billed as "a senior producer for CNN Travel, who has visited many of the major museums around the world."

Mr. Durston apparently sees himself as a modern day Hans Christian Andersen recounting the tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes." In his updated version, he portrays the child who is not in on the myth that museums are supposed to be good for you; he only sees them for what they truly are, a dreadful bore.

Mr. Durston's list of things he doesn't like about museums is very predictable, in case you're interested, you can read it for yourself here. These three sentences sum up the article pretty well:
Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).
But where's the equivalent for adults? Why should over-16-year-olds, who still make up the significant majority of museum-goers, be subjected to stiff, dry, academia-laced presentations as if fun were a dirty word? 
Where's your joy gone, museums?
Mr. Durston believes that museums don't do a good enough job infusing life into their subjects. It's not enough for example to say such and such an object was made out of this or that in 5th Century BC Persia; you have to tell a story. In other words, you must make your exhibit exciting and above all, relevant. As the late Kurt Cobain sang in the refrain of his anthem to the apathy of his generation called Smells Like Teen Spirit: we are now, entertain us.
In order to attract new visitors, museums like other institutions in this day and age of ever shrinking attention spans, are forced to balance new ideas of presenting their collections, with keeping focus on their mission. There was a time when no one batted an eye if a museum displayed an object with a label that simply listed what the object was, when it was made, and in the case of an art museum, the artist who made it. It was assumed that the visitor given that information would be able to put the object in its proper context, or short of that, would have the wherewithal to go and find that information for himself or herself. Today it's almost mandatory to write didactic labels, describing in detail the object in front of the visitor, its creator, the circumstances under which it was made, and any number of useful tidbits. There's certainly nothing wrong with a museum presenting relevant information to the viewing public. The issue I have is that it's not uncommon to see visitors spending way more time reading about the piece on a label rather than actually looking at it, which in my opinion is a tremendous wasted opportunity.

The ability to behold a special object before your very eyes is the whole point of visiting a museum. That point seems to be lost on a growing number of visitors who go to museums, like the author of the CNN piece, to check off another item on the "to do" list, rather than something done out of interest or passion. In my days as a guard in the Art Institute of Chicago, more years ago than I care to remember, the question most asked second only to "where are the bathrooms" was this: "where's the original?", particularly in front of Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Here the "s" word comes in to play. There are those who view art lovers as snobs. Frankly that view is supported by some art lovers themselves, those who see art, or history, or whatever, as rarified subjects intended for a select few, namely themselves. Those are the folks who would scoff at the poor patron standing in front of American Gothic asking where's the original. I must admit to having done my share of scoffing myself. But thinking about it, a sense of awe inevitably came over those people the moment they learned they were standing in the presence of such a famous,  iconic object, and frankly it was humbling to be able to witness that. Their understanding of the role of the museum changed right before my eyes.

I believe that many people while not particularly enjoying museums themselves, still understand their importance. They respect, and even take pride in their community's great institutions of learning, even if they never set foot in them. I touched upon that subject briefly in my recent post about the Detroit Institute of Art.

So do museums owe it to those people to be more accessible to them?

I truly don't believe they do.

While some folks might find art or history fanatics to be snobs, they're really just people following a passion. In that sense they're no more snobs than anybody else following a passion, whatever that may be.

In this blog I write about some of my passions: art, architecture, the urban environment, music, sports, my children, you name it. I seldom write about things I'm not interested in because honestly I know little or nothing about those subjects, and as such have little to offer. For example, I must admit having hardly any interest in ballet. Not that I don't have tremendous respect for dancers and choreographers and what they do; not that I don't think the world would be a much poorer place without it, it's just that ballet is not something that particularly interests me. Should you the reader care in the least about my feelings about ballet? Hardly. So what would be the point of writing a piece about how ballet could be more appealing to me, when ballet is perfectly fine just as it is without me?

In the sentences from the CNN article that I quoted above, the author notes the push button exhibits so common in children's museums, and how museums geared toward adults should take a cue from them. Well that's happening as we speak as technology enables the introduction of more and more "interactive" means to display objects in a museum. Again I have mixed feelings as you can imagine. I've spent a great deal of time in museums with children pushing buttons and pedals and turning cranks. I've noticed that the act itself of pushing those pedals, cranks and buttons becomes the object of interest, not what the exhibit is trying to demonstrate. It's the same for the adults, where a technological device becomes the focus of the exhibit instead of the object.

The irony of all this is that today's fingertip access to information of all kinds would seem to make the spoon feeding of information to visitors in a museum gallery quite unnecessary. There once was a time when museums employed a sizable staff of lecturers who would regularly give gallery talks discussing the objects on display. It used to be common to stand in a gallery and be able to catch up with a tour of the collection given by a passionate museum professional. The good lecturers, and there were many of them, would encourage a give and take with the public where observations and ideas could be exchanged. Budgetary constraints have forced museums to lay off many of these valuable people who have been replaced by recorded guides. Visitors tune into devices through headphones so only they can hear the "voice of God" so to speak, telling them what objects to look at and how to feel about them. Gone is the dialog and the lone voice in the crowd crying out: "but what about...?"

Don't get me wrong, I think technology is a wonderful thing that contributes much to our lives. But for every great innovation, something is inevitably lost. Museums have been around for a good long time and have served us well over the ages. Like libraries, which the author of the CNN piece also seems to have disdain for, they are the repository of our collective history and culture. If they are not everybody's cup of tea, well so be it.

The great baseball writer Red Smith once said of the game: "Baseball is dull only to dull minds." Obviously the same can be said about museums. I'll end with another less elegant, but just as relevant quote:

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Monday, August 19, 2013

My park

Humboldt Park, 1995
I've been thinking about parks lately. Our book, The City in a Garden, A History of Chicago's Park's has recently been revised; you can buy it here. Fourteen years ago, Judith Bromley and I were sent by the book's author Julia Bachrach all over the city to photograph parks in various states of disrepair. Julia sent me back in 2010 to revisit some of the parks that had work done in the intervening years and other parks that did not exist a decade before, including of course Millennium Park. That park caused a furor among some people who believed that the money spent to create the extravagant downtown park would have been better spent on the neighborhood parks instead.

Well I have first hand experience that gives credence to my belief that those critics had no idea what they were talking about. Beyond the boon to the city that Millennium Park brought, obviously the critics have not visited the neighborhood parks in the past ten years, as a great deal of time, money, and effort have gone into their restoration and rehabilitation.

What attracted me to Chicago parks in the first place, photographically speaking that is, was their design. Some of the most renouned landscape architects this country had to offer designed parks in Chicago: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jens Jensen and Albert Caldwell to name only three. Over the years their parks have been neglected (to put it mildly), and much work has been done in the last decade to bring back a semblance of what these designers originally intended.

Needless to say, a lot of things have changed in the hundred plus years since most of Chicago's parks were conceived and built, including the very function of the urban park itself. Once the "lungs of the city", parks provided a refuge for urban dwellers from the inexorable grind of the industrial city. In a time of few options for city folk to get away from it all, urban parks were the essential civilizing institutions of the city. Today we have far more options for our free time, and in this day and age of play dates and organized sports, the folks who run the parks place their emphasis on structured recreation for their visitors over spontaneous activities such strolling or simply watching the world go by. The carefully nuanced landscapes laid out by the parks' architects often have to compete with ball fields, basketball and tennis courts and playgrounds.

Regardless, much to the city's credit, both aspects of Chicago's parks, the landscape and the recreational facilities have been vastly improved since the time The City In a Garden was first published in 2001. One of the prime examples of this urban renaissance is Humboldt Park.

I lived the first ten years of my life in an apartment building on Humboldt Boulevard on the northwest side of Chicago. Technically we were in the community of Logan Square, but everyone on our block considered themselves Humboldt Parkers, after the great park three blocks south of our home. To some Chicagoans today, the very mention of Humboldt Park inspires fear, evoking images of street gangs, poverty, drugs, and crime. To others the park with its rose garden, expansive lagoons, splendid Schmidt, Garden and Martin boathouse and refectory, and miniature prairie river fed by a natural spring, represents a magnificent work of design, the work of one of the great prophets of landscape architecture, Jens Jensen. Still to others, Humboldt Park is the heart of Boriqua, Chicago's Puerto Rican community.

To me, it's simply my Humboldt Park.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of riding on my father's shoulders in Humboldt Park as he whistled the Colonel Bogey March while strolling past the hill that I would later sled on, and the lagoon where I would learn to ice skate and play hockey. During the summer we'd use two perfectly spaced trees as soccer goal posts where we'd take turns shooting at one another. Or we'd just go for long walks through the park, which was really the best thing of all. Where the Loop was the domain of my mother, Humboldt Park was where I spent time with my dad. As he worked long hours on weekdays and Saturdays in his paint shop, the limited time we had together on Sundays in that park was special.

Drawn by the the American Dream of owning a house in the suburbs, my family moved out of our old neighborhood which had become shall we say, rough around the edges by 1968. That was the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed. We weren't touched directly by those riots that decimated the West Side of Chicago, but the parkway in front of our house served as a staging area for troops from the Illinois National Guard (who were issued the famous "shoot to kill" order from Mayor Daley the Elder), as they prepared to engage the rioters only two miles away. But none of that phased me. Responding to my protests about leaving our home, I'll never forget my father pointing to a discarded broken bottle on the sidewalk saying: "don't you want to get away from all this?" I can't recall my response but it was probably no.

We moved out of the city and into the suburbs in August of that year, exactly during the time of the infamous Democratic National Convention and the riots that took place downtown. The whole world may have been watching but not us, we were too busy moving. On the surface things seemed pretty idyllic. Our house had a big basement where I could permanently set up my trains, and we had our own back yard with its own trees, perfectly spaced for goal posts. On the other hand, in the suburbs I experienced for the first time in my life bullying, political intolerance and bigotry. Shortly after we moved, in the middle of the night I heard gunshots, also something new to me. To add insult to injury, my beautiful five speed Schwinn Stingray bike which I rode without incident in Humboldt Park, was stolen from our garage.

Our new house in the suburbs did have a park only three doors away. But it wasn't Humboldt Park, not by a longshot. My spirits were lifted briefly when one Sunday my father took me to Columbus Park, not too far away. I felt right at home there, little did I know at the time there was good reason for the similarity, that park was also the work of Jens Jensen. But we had little reason to schlep ourselves down to Columbus Park when we had a perfectly serviceable park practically next door. After that, Sundays were never quite the same.

That first year in our new home was probably the toughest year of my life; I didn't fit in at my new school and I missed my old friends and my old home. Suffice it to say, that experience only intensified my love of Humboldt Park. I went there every chance I could, going so far as moving back into the old neighborhood many years later.

This little trip down memory lane is a story the likes of which is told in big cities all over this country. Most people tend not to stay put, they move on, and the memories forged during the formative years of childhood are the ones we grasp and hold onto our entire lives. Perhaps because Humboldt Park was taken away from me (so to speak) at an early age, I never let go. Even though I spent far more of my formative years in the suburb, Oak Park to be exact, forging lasting friendships and determining the future course of my life there, I still tend to answer the question: "where did you grow up" with "Humboldt Park".

We no longer live within walking distance of Humboldt Park as we moved up to Rogers Park on the far north side of the city ten years ago. But our son spent his first two years worth of Sundays in Humboldt Park, on top of his old man's shoulders as I whistled the Colonel Bogie March while strolling past the hill where children still sled in the winter, and the lagoon where no one in these days of liability concerns is permitted to skate upon. Today we have three parks within walking distance of our home and take advantage of them every chance we get. My children learned to skate, sled, and do lots of other great things in those parks, they even learned the pleasures of just walking around taking in the scenery. Since we don't plan on leaving our current digs anytime soon, our children may not develop the same wistful relationship with their parks as I did with mine.

But I certainly hope they do. Those memories of Sundays in the park with my father, and later with my children, are some of the sweetest of my life. Despite its shortcomings and all the heartaches and tragedies that have taken place within its borders and the surrounding neighborhoods, it will always be a part of me, my beautiful Humboldt Park.

Humboldt Park with Jens Jensen's Prairie River, 1997. In the first decade of the 21st Centrury the park underwent a major restoration and the Prairie River, the centerpiece of Jensen's design, was returned to its original splendor.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Only a game

I'm not someone who usually comes up with the timely quip. Like many, I think of the perfect response to a situation perhaps a minute, an hour, or a day after the fact, too late for it to do much good. For example I could have used a good comeback the other day when I described the intensity of parents of some of the kids on my son's Little League team to my mother. She shook her head and said incredulously: "My God, it's only a game."

In a way she's right, in our day sports are inconsequential, unlike pre-Columbian America for example where participants in team sports really had something to lose if they lost the contest, usually their heads. To my mother, sports are uncouth, they have little value compared to allegedly more intellectual activities such as theater, literature, music and the visual arts. To put it bluntly, she's a bit of a snob.

Not that she objects to sports per se, they're perfectly fine in their place. As a schoolteacher and later a principal, she considered scholastic achievement to be the most important part of childhood. She made it clear that being a student was my job. My mother probably wouldn't have objected if I had expressed an interest in playing organized sports, but she'd never have thought of suggesting it herself and would certainly not have pushed me into it.

Which in a way is a shame.

I don't have any illusions that had I been encouraged to play organized sports as a child, I would have become a better, more successful human being. But I think certain aspects of my life relating to issues of self confidence, teamwork, and competitive spirit would have been much different.

Now it's all water under the bridge and we're making up for lost time with our son who has just finished his fifth year of Little League baseball. My wife and I did have to nudge him into it in the beginning but pretty soon (to borrow a metaphor from another sport), he took the ball and ran with it.

This year, in addition to his stint on a team in our local park's house league, he tried out and made the traveling team. As the name implies, a traveling team plays teams made up of the best players from other parks. For the first time in his baseball career, my son is not one of the best players on his team, in fact he's much closer to the bottom than the top. Much to his credit that doesn't bother him. I asked him the other day which he prefers, being the star of a bad team (which is the case with our house league team), or one of the worst players on a really good team. Without missing a beat, he chose the latter. Beyond the fact that winning is more fun than losing, I think my son is processing in his head that if he wants to get better at baseball, he needs to play with and against kids who are better than him. As far as that's concerned, he's way ahead of me. When I was his age, I would have taken the easy path, perfectly content to keep my dream of one day being a baseball star a fantasy, not having to deal with the grunt work of learning how to play the game correctly, and the pressure and humiliation that went along with screwing up in front of other kids who were better than me.

Baseball more than any other, is a game prone to humiliation and pressure. In team sports such as football, soccer, basketball and hockey, lesser skilled players can contribute to the team by mastering relatively simpler skills like blocking, passing off, setting picks, or hitting people. Kids playing those sports at a lower level can blend in with the better players by gleefully running up and down the field, not getting themselves open for a pass.

By contrast, there is no hiding in baseball; if the ball comes to you, you either make the play or you don't. In sports where there is a continuous flow of activity, if you make a mistake, you usually get the chance to redeem yourself pretty quickly. In baseball if you have a bad at bat, you get to spend a lot of time on the bench to think about it, if you make a bad play in the field, you may not get another chance at all as the ball may not get hit to you again.

I'd say that baseball is one of the most difficult games to master; not only do you need the physical skills to succeed, but so much of the game is played in the head. It's the head part of the game that can be devastating to so many players, professionals included. Imagine standing in the batters box with a pitcher throwing a hard ball at you at speeds that could reach 90 miles per hour or more. Not only are you expected to stand there stoically while that ball is coming within inches of hitting you, but you're expected to hit it with a bat that measures only about two inches at its widest. Or being a fielder having to place your body in front of the ball coming at you at even greater speeds, being expected to make a play that could be the difference between your team winning or losing the game. For most players, the biggest fear in baseball is not getting hurt, by far the biggest fear is, pardon the expression, fucking up.

One nice thing about playing on a bad team is that there is little expected of you. I eventually became a fairly decent player, playing mostly in beer leagues just for fun, never in very competitive leagues.  Even still, the pressure to make plays was always intense for me. Playing competitive ball where the stakes are much higher, on a team that expects to win, compounds the pressure exponentially. Frankly for me, just watching my son play on his traveling team is nerve wracking.

Fortunately, my son seems to thrive on the pressure. Yes he gets nervous, but I only know that because I've asked him, you wouldn't know it watching him take the field. He plays right field for the travel team, the position usually reserved for the worst fielder on lower level teams. At his level however, batters actually hit the ball to right field and it's just as important to be able to make plays in right as any other position. On the house league team he has played every position on the field except outfield, but he's adapted very well to playing his new position; as far as I know, he's only booted one ball hit his way. Batting is another story. Unlike his old man who couldn't wait to get up to bat, my son is a little tentative at the plate, still trying to get over an old habit of flinching as the ball comes toward him. In other words, he's doing something that any normal human being would do. But that hasn't prevented him from getting some clutch hits this season, often getting on base and scoring while the big guns at the top of the order have either popped up or struck out.

The travel team program began in our park about five years ago when our little league kept losing players to other parks with outlets for the better players. With a couple of exceptions, the kids on my son's team have played together for four years. It's a multi-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-racial group of kids. Two of the best on the team are girls. In this day and age, that last part shouldn't come as much of a surprise, however in all the games I've witnessed, I've probably missed only three, they were the only girls on the field on either team.

The travel team played in a couple different leagues this season, one a city league, another a suburban league. It's a little comical seeing the contrast between our city team and the suburban teams who are used to playing ball on pristinely manicured fields in their lily white hometowns. They show up at our park wearing freshly dry-cleaned and pressed uniforms, carrying matching equipment bags with the name of their team stitched on them. With attitudes to match their gear, they find a park filled with a highly diverse cast of characters the likes of which they've probably never seen in their young lives, except perhaps on the Discovery Channel. They take one look at our field, playable but less than perfect, no outfield fence (until recently), then notice our uniforms that don't necessarily match from player to player, and the two girls on our team. Then they snicker. The most satisfying part comes when more often than not this season, those snickering teams get beat.

Playing primarily to win is a controversial issue in kids sports. Some leagues, our house league included, hand out little trophies to every kid on every team at the end of the season. Some people have a problem with that but not me. For some kids it will be the only tangible reminder of their brief sports careers. Besides, winning has its own rewards, the desire to win doesn't need to be taught, at the end of the game, every kid knows, and cares about who won and who lost.

By design, a travel team is different. The team is built around winning. Unlike the house team, you have to earn your position. Beyond their skill level, there's not a discernible difference between the kids on the travel team, and their non-travel, house teammates. That's not always the case with the parents. For many of the kids who play only in the house league, baseball is just another summertime diversion. By signing your kids up for the travel team, you're essentially signing away your summer, committing yourself and your kids to baseball every day for two straight months. Small wonder then why these parents, myself included, get a little intense about the game.

There are different reasons why parents commit their children and themselves to such a rigorous schedule during a time that's supposed to be devoted to getting away from the stresses and commitments of everyday life. Cynics say that intense sports parents never themselves got far with sports and live vicariously through the exploits of their children. Others might say that participation in rigorous sports programs are good preparation for adult life, teaching children valuable lessons such as if you want to achieve something worthwhile in life, you have to work very hard for it. Some parents believe that participation in sports enhances a kid's chances of getting into better schools through sports scholarships and other incentives. Others may hold on to the faint glimmer of hope that one day their child may be able to play professional ball. Still others do it simply because their kids love the game. In my case quite honestly, I'd have to say that four of the five reasons apply, but don't tell my son, I see no point in deflating his dream of being a big leaguer someday.

That isn't to say there's not a great deal of personal satisfaction that comes from watching your kid play ball all summer. As compelling drama, few things compare to a well contested sporting event. In theater, the drama is contrived, the outcome pre-ordained. Not so in a baseball game where anything can happen at any given time. I can think of few things more compelling than watching a pitcher getting out of a bases loaded situation in a tie game in extra innings, helped along by a perfectly executed 6-4-3 double play. Or a late inning comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit. Or watching a player save the game for his team with a fantastic catch in the outfield.

Perhaps the sweetest moment this season came when our team participated in the district tournament to determine who would represent our area in the Sectionals and beyond, the ultimate winner making it to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. The toughest competition in the Districts was our arch rival from a nearby city park, well known for its less than scrupulous penchant for recruiting players from all over the city. The tournament came down to a best of three game series between us and them and frankly we had little hope of beating them. But in game one we held tight, after the regulation six innings were played, we were tied at four runs apiece. Following that came four of the most compelling innings of baseball I've ever seen: hits, walks, errors, hit batters, stolen bases, everything imaginable in baseball except for one thing, no runs were scored. I was standing with some old colleagues who live in the neighborhood and just happened to wander past the game. While I was talking to them, one of the other team's batters with two runners on base, hit a ball that looked sure to drop in for a base hit. But our outfielder got a good jump on the ball and at the last second made a leaping catch to end the inning and save the game. Remarking on the catch one of my friends said: "Wow these kids are good." "That's my boy" I proudly told him.

We played ten glorious innings that day until it got too dark to play and the game had to be resumed the next day. The joy of the previous evening did not continue the next day as in the first inning of resumed play, three of our guys (including my son) went down in order and in the bottom of that inning, the other guys scored and won the game. But we got out of that game a sense that we could beat these guys and in the following game, we outlasted them in a slugfest.

The rubber match the following day started out as a wash, our guys and girls couldn't do anything right.  Before we knew it, our team was down 5-0 and it looked very much like it would stay that way. But the other coaches didn't manage their pitchers well and were forced to remove their starter because he threw too many pitches. They brought in a reliever in the sixth inning who couldn't get anybody out. In the end we scored five runs off the poor kid to tie it up to send the game into extra innings. Then it became another defensive struggle as both teams found themselves one run away from either the Regionals or elimination. This time we were the home team with the last at bat and with two outs in bottom of the eighth, one of our best hitters was up to bat. During the series their coach kept switching their first baseman and right fielder depending on who came to bat. Expecting our hard hitting left handed hitter to drive the ball into right field, he took the better fielder who was playing first base and sent him to right. His move backfired as our guy hit a grounder to first which their guy misplayed, making a throwing error which enabled our batter to end up at second. That brought up our best hitter, the Mighty Katie, who promptly hit a single up the middle to score the run and win us the championship.

Since I'm writing this from my home in Chicago and not Williamsport, you can probably infer that we didn't get very far after that. It just so happened that at the beginning of the season our head coach signed the team up for a tournament in the resort city of Wisconsin Dells which would have taken place exactly at the same time as the state finals in the town of Beardstown, Illinois. This placed the team in an odd situation. Had they won the Reigionals, they would have next played downstate in a town best known for its slaughterhouse. If they lost, they would get to play in a place famous for its water parks. A glaring difference between the big leagues and the little leagues is this: the fact that they didn't advance beyond the Regionals didn't really seem to disappoint anybody.

My son's game face.
A fine time was had by all in the Wisconsin Dells tournament, lots of fun in the water, and the team finished second place in the tournament. The only bad part came during the last game when less than desirable officiating resulted in some truly bad behavior from a few of our parents, inspiring the comment to my mother mentioned at the top of this post.

Despite it ending on that sour note, this season was a fantastic experience for my son and me. All the years of playing catch, pitching, and hitting grounders and pop ups to my boy, have been taken to a new level. Having experienced baseball at a level previously unknown to him, he's now a bona fide ballplayer, his future in the game is now in his own capable hands.

While it's been exhausting, it gives me great satisfaction to hear these words coming out of his mouth: "Best summer ever."

Still I'm kind of glad it's over and I have some time left this summer to enjoy the thing that probably gives me more joy than anything else in life, playing catch with my boy, just for the fun of it.

It took me a while but finally I came up with a comeback for my mother's comment. She'd probably appreciate it too, coming as it does from a literary source.

So is Little League baseball really only a game?


To quote the great film director/screen writer John Houston (by way of Dashiell Hammett):'s "the stuff that dreams are made of."