One of the nicest things about this year’s Nebula Awards Weekend was that it was held in Chicago, which is one of my all-time favorite cities. Next year’s Nebulas will be held there, too, so if you’re going, or if you didn’t have time to see everything this time, here’s a list of my favorite Chicago things:
- All the Tiffany stained glass. I’ve been a Tiffany freak ever since I accidentally stumbled across the Tiffany windows at the First Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas, of all places. They were astonishingly beautiful, and ever since then I’ve sought them out wherever I could find them, from the Unitarian Church on the Boston Common to a beautiful jasmine skylight in Nebraska.
Chicago has tons of Tiffany stained glass. There’s the dome at the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center), nine windows at the Second Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue, and miles of it in the corridors of the Navy Pier.
Tiffany’s colors are like nobody else’s. Most stained glass is reds and blues and yellows, but Tiffany’s is all azure and lavender-blue and rust-gold, plus he does pearlized clouds and multicolored sunsets and trees whose leaves you can almost see shimmer in the sunlight. His faces are angelically beautiful, his scenes are transcendent, and he makes you feel like you’re seeing the beauty of skies and flowers and Nature for the first time.
- The Museum of Science and Industry, though I never get to see much of it because I am stuck watching the baby chicks hatch. Last time I was there, I spent four hours standing there watching an already-cracked and slightly-rolling egg, waiting for the chick to emerge and convinced it was going to happen any second. The heck with all those modern interactive exhibits designed to make museums into “a participatory learning experience.” The baby chicks are the best interactive experience ever, with children (including me) literally having to be dragged away, sobbing “Just a few more minutes! It’s going to hatch any second!”
P.S. The egg I was watching did eventually hatch, collapsing on the incubator floor so wet and exhausted I was afraid something was wrong with it, but after a few minutes it opened its eyes, perked up, and turned into the fluffy yellow chick it was supposed to. It was great! I didn’t even mind having missed the coal mine or the train.
- The sliced person. This is my second-favorite thing at the Museum of Science and Industry, which I now go visit first thing because I know I’m not going to be able to tear myself away from the baby chicks. It is actually two people, one sliced vertically and one horizontally, their organs stained different colors so you can identify them easily, and then the slices put between large pieces of glass. You know those racks of posters in stores that you can flip through? Well, the sliced person is like that, and you can flip through to look at your appendix and liver and brain and bones and stuff. It’s very cool.
I can’t tell you where it is because they keep moving it to more and more obscure places. (It’s been upstaged lately by those Body Worlds travelling exhibits, which are very cool, too.) You’ll have to ask at the information desk. But the first time I saw it, it was on the stair-landing just outside the ladies’ room. Since I was there with a pregnant friend, I had lots of time to look at the slices.
- The Bean. This enormous chrome sculpture (whose name is actually “Cloud Gate,” though nobody ever calls it that) is to my mind the perfect outdoor sculpture. You can walk all around it, under it, and up to it–and sometimes into it, since it’s concave, so your image looks some distance behind the surface and it’s easy to crash right into it, and lots of people do. Kids love it, adults can take funhouse pictures of themselves in it, and it reflects the afore-mentioned tourists, the Art Deco skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue, the lake, and the endlessly changing sky. Absolutely beautiful!
- The skyscrapers. A lot of Chicago was built in the first part of the last century (helped along by the Great Chicago Fire), so many of its buildings are wonderful Art Deco skyscrapers which were meant to be the height of modernity and which now look elegantly retro, with their soaring, streamlined towers (think the Chrysler Building in New York City) and linear, geometric designs. There’s the Chicago Tribune, the Carbide and Carbon building (whose top was designed to look like a battery), and the long row of skyscrapers along Michigan Avenue.
Just looking at them makes you feel like you’re back in the Twenties, in the Chicago of Ben Hecht, who wrote The Front Page and His Girl Friday, and the play Chicago (in the Twenties!) which was made into the Broadway musical Chicago. “Find a writer who has something American to say,” he wrote, “and nine times out of ten you will find he has some connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan.”
He loved Chicago and its skyscrapers, writing, “look again at the fire escapes that are stamped like letter Z’s against the mysterious rectangles; at the rhythmic flight of windows whose black-and-silver wings are tipped with the yellow winking of corset and ice cream signs.”
The buildings also make you think of Carl Sandburg, who captured the city of Big Shoulders, as he called it, better than anybody else: “Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.” He wrote about the skyscrapers “looming in the smoke and sun,” given a soul by the “men and women, boys and girls poured in all day,” and out again, “back to the streets, prairies and valleys.”
Sandburg seemed to be everywhere. One of the days we were there, the fog poured in on “little cat feet,” just like in his poem, and the elevated train rumbled past our hotel, winding through the city, “broken across with slashes of light,” just like he’d described it so many years ago.
My favorite thing by Sandburg is his biography of Lincoln, which may be full of inaccuracies and confabulations, but which captured the spirit of Lincoln like no other book ever has. It I love Sandburg for that, and for talking about it every day while he was writing it. He was working at the Chicago Daily News, and he talked about it so much to his friend and fellow reporter Lloyd Lewis, that Lewis fell in love with Lincoln, too, and wrote one of my favorite books of all time–Myths After Lincoln.
It’s all about Lincoln’s death and its aftermath–Lincoln’s dreams of his impending death and the funeral train and the grave robbers and all the myths and legends that have grown up around Lincoln in the years since, and it’s full of fascinating facts. Did you know that Seward was almost killed, too, in the assassination plot, and that he was saved because he fell down behind the bed and his killers couldn’t get to him? Or that his son Willie’s body rode along with his on the train that carried him back to Illinois?
Myths After Lincoln was my constant companion when I was writing Lincoln’s Dreams. I couldn’t have written the book without it. Copies are hard to come by, but Myths After Lincoln is definitely worth tracking down. So are Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. And his poems, particularly “Limited” and “Arithmetic”–and the lovely “The Long Shadow of Lincoln: A Litany.”