Traveling Mercies

WP_20160704_20_03_14_ProI have been thinking about the phrase, “traveling mercies” this week.  What brought this about?  Two incidents.  My niece landed in Moscow only to find that the friend with whom she was going to stay had just experienced a tragic family death.  And my daughter called me in tears.  I was in Indiana.  She was at the airport to go to Hong Kong and when she handed her passport to the agent, she discovered that it was her grandmother’s passport.  Their passports must have gotten switched a year ago when they crossed the Canadian border and now hers was in Michigan and she was in Boston trying to leave the country.

Why do we pray for traveling mercies?  We are often at our most vulnerable when we travel.  We have to depend on the help and hospitality of strangers.  I have two friends who have been traveling when they experienced the accidental death of a child.  In both cases it was outside the country where they lived. They had to depend on total strangers.

In my own family, the state police once had to track down my grandmother and step-grandfather who were traveling from Minnesota to Texas when my grandfather’s son died.  Just recently I asked my mother about the 1939 car accident the led to the eventual death of her father when she was 9.  They were in South Dakota traveling home to Minnesota when the car rolled.  She can recall the sound of the glass breaking and the feel of the car rolling.  She remembers her sister reaching over to turn the car off and seeing her father, mother, and aunt out in the field where they had been thrown.  She somehow ended up at a local doctor’s office to get her finger sewn up, but the adults were taken by ambulance back to Minnesota.  But who called for the ambulance?

Refugees are the most vulnerable travelers in need of traveling mercies.  When I lived in Iowa I helped with hosting 5 different Central American refugee families who had been accepted by Canada.  This was called the Overground Railroad.  The families stayed in our town for about 6 months while waiting for their final papers for Canada.  They each had their stories of travels to the United States.  Some had been in detention along the US border.  They had experienced death threats, trauma, and loss outside the confines of family and friends.  In one case a child had been left behind in Mexico City.  When it was time for them all to fly to Canada, we had to find someone in Mexico City who would take the paperwork to the 5-year old in the slums of Mexico City and get him to the airport at the right time to arrive in Canada at the same time as the rest of the family.  They were dependent on us—who had been strangers—and on our ability to find strangers in Mexico City to help us help them.

Traveling Mercies.  I pray for traveling mercies for those more distant from me—like Syrian refugees—and for those close to me.  We all are in need of traveling mercies.

My daughter did make it to Hong Kong.  I drove back to Michigan from Indiana and sent her passport by FedEx overnight. The agent rebooked her ticket for two days later and added two days at the end at no charge.  I wish I knew this stranger’s name…

Mind the Gap


Margaret Silf, in her book, The Other Side of Chaos, makes a comparison between the phrase heard on the subway platforms of London (and Hong Kong)—mind the gap—to the space between the “no longer” and the “not yet” that we all experience when we go through great changes.  This “gap” between platform and train is a risky space that makes us nervous and uncomfortable.

Throughout our lives, we go through times of living within these risky spaces.  And this space is where we experience the most personal growth because the alternative is to stay home.  For the past 4 years I have been living in “the gap” having left family, place, friends, and previous positions behind.  This past year there have been signs of having started to experience life on the other side of this gap of change.  Life is starting to have a recognized rhythm and cycle.

The more we navigate these “gap” experiences, the more we become familiar and anticipate times of growth and adjustment.  My younger daughter did not have an easy time living in New Zealand, but this “gap” experience, which pushed her beyond her comfort zone, shaped her in a profound way.  She became a cross-cultural bridge for others.  When I asked her to consider going to Hong Kong for her senior year in high school, she said—why not?  The alternative, of course, was to stay home.  In thinking about this opportunity she could articulate that she knew it would take some time to adjust once we got there.  And again it was an experience that pushed her beyond her comfort zone, whether it was controlling anxiety on the overnight train ride from Shanghai to Guangzhou when we had no idea what was going on, or managing to get to a friend’s house using multiple types of transportation all on her own.  She learned once again that she could “mind and navigate in the gap” and grow in new ways that she could not anticipate.  When we went back to live in Hong Kong the second time, she leapt into life without hesitation. And having had practice, she moved to an entirely different region of the United States after graduating from college and has navigated these changes.

Often we try to circumvent the process of living in this in-between state of change and learning between the “no longer” and the “yet to be” state of life.  Over time, I have found that I have become more conscious of trying to be mindful of being in the gap without pushing toward some future.  I have to say that I get great pleasure out of entering a new culture and not knowing what is going on around me—it is the process of navigating and learning that gives me pleasure rather than becoming comfortable as quickly as possible. I desire to be “in the gap” while being mindful of it, taking in each new piece of knowledge of a new place or culture and in the process being changed myself.

Margaret Silf says that there is no shortcut to the “not yet.”  We can refuse to move toward it and cling rigidly to the “no longer.”  “We can try to move too quickly by leaping across the abyss.   Or we can see this gap as not something to be avoided at all but something to be minded.  We are to pay attention to it, not because it is waiting to swallow us up into danger but because it is our God-given tutor to prepare us for the next stage of our life.”  Hold on tight to life and mind the gap.

Foods that Travel

kitchen cooked potato chips








In spite of the globalization of trade, I have found that some foods remain tied to place.  These items are the types of food that are likely to show up at the gathering of snow birds in Phoenix, all of whom are from Fulton County, Illinois.  What would you find there?  No doubt it would be Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips from Farmington, Illinois.  These same potato chips are shipped around the country (and maybe the world) for Christmas presents for those who grew up in Central Illinois and are now spread more broadly.

If you are from Pella, Iowa, you take Dutch letters from Jaarsma Bakery in a box when you visit family, or you send a dozen at Christmas by mail.  Personally I can take or leave these almond paste pastries but a true Pelladian cannot have a gathering without them.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan, another Dutch community, banket, an I-shaped version, is a typical gift brought to a Christmas party.








When I lived in Louisiana, everyone took fresh shrimp packed in dry ice in Styrofoam ice-chests when traveling to see family.  You could not arrive without it.

Having been children when we lived in New Zealand, my daughters gave me a list of candy to bring back when I went there to visit.  Pineapple Lumps were at the top of the list—my older daughter said they were best when put in the freezer and taken out to directly pop into your mouth.  Several bags of Pineapple Lumps travelled the 10,000 miles home with me.

Pinapple lumps

For a few years, I was able to get once such local food item at Target—Good Earth Tea.  This made sense.  Good Earth Tea comes from the Good Earth restaurant in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Target also began in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  My mother in Michigan could get it at her Target.  I could get it at Target in Boston. And then one day…it disappeared from the shelf.  To be honest, I had often wondered how many Minnesotans there could be across the country who were purchasing Good Earth Tea at Target.  Just to make sure I went back several times to Target to see if they had just run out of stock—it was still on their website after all.  But I was out of luck (and tea). This made the meaning of the tea more significant as it became a matter of identity for me.  Knowing my desperation, after Christmas I found a box on my desk, brought to me by a colleague who had gone home to Minnesota for Christmas to visit family.  But soon it was gone.

Last month I was in Minnesota for a weekend to attend a memorial service.  This service was for a mentor who over the years I had met at the Good Earth restaurant dinner along with his wife when I was in town.  I told my aunt, who I was staying with, that I needed to take Good Earth Tea home with me.  Amongst the things that filled the weekend, we had lunch with some cousins—and I reminded my aunt that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea.  We went to a movie—and I reminded my aunt that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea (and it was not a great movie).  We went to visit another aunt in the hospital—and I reminded my aunt that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea.  We drove close to the restaurant several times always enroute to someplace else as I reminded her that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea.

Finally, out of desperation, I had my cousin take me to breakfast at the restaurant my last morning, marginalizing my aunt in my effort to purchase a piece of my identity to take back with me to Boston.  And who showed up to eat and drink with us but my aunt!

Next Christmas, if we are together, I am not going to share my Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips.

Good Earth Tea

Prophets and Pragmatists: Deciphering Cultural Worldviews

On a recent trip to Hong Kong I was a bit shocked to see two big construction projects underway that seemed to me to be in the speculative stage when I lived there. One was the construction of an additional runway at the HK International Airport—Environmental groups had been opposed because of wanting a stop projects that involve land reclamation from the ocean. The other construction project is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge across the Pearl River delta. This bridge will stretch 30 miles across the ocean and further integrate Hong Kong with mainland China. This project is controversial because it requires only one border crossing—mainland China—rather than the usual two—Hong Kong and mainland China. Already there is great nervousness in Hong Kong over mainland China’s increasing influence and an inability of Hong Kong institutions to sustain their character and rule of law. While I was there, a bookseller disappeared and ended up in China without any record of his leaving Hong Kong.IMG_20160113_025421076

IMG_20160113_025412816 How do you negotiate your relationship between political entities under these conditions? This is the debate in Hong Kong and it is one that divides generations and families. Most Hong Kong people will tell you that their culture is a pragmatic culture. The pragmatism of Hong Kong may be tied to the larger Chinese culture. There is a saying about being blessed to live far from the emperor. The idea has been to continue to live your life underneath what may be happening within the larger official circles. Or as I sometimes think of it—you need to learn to read the tea leaves in order to constantly adjust your life o you can continue to live and avoid direct confrontation.

Pragmatism would tell you to be sensible and realistic in how you deal with mainland China—work within the realities. However, a more prophetic voice arose more recently in Hong Kong in the Umbrella Movement, especially as young people worry about their future. Everyone has the same desires for Hong Kong, but they have different perspectives on how to deal with the reality they have been dealt.

Hong Kong pragmatism is in contrast to the characteristics that cultural analysts often use to describe American culture. Such characteristics include valuing action over contemplation and dichotomous thinking in terms of right or wrong. My trip to Hong Kong has led me to think about this latter characteristic. My neighboring state of New Hampshire has license plates that say: Live Free or Die! You have two choices. I understand that dying is pretty definitive, but what if we can’t agree with what it means to live free? Do I have to die, or can I pragmatically decide to live and negotiate my way forward with others with differing ideas? If every American “stands firm” out of necessity of maintaining their principled and pure stand, then what does this mean pragmatically on the ground?

Don’t get me wrong. I am actually quite sympathetic to the need for the prophetic. But the prophetic has to grapple with the pragmatic, recognizing the painfulness of compromise. The meta-narrative of American culture has been described along the lines of the Lone Ranger: a hero rides in from the outside and overcomes evil and saves the town. But then what? Pragmatically what happens next?

One of the cultural gifts of the United States to the world may be the prophetic. Martin Luther King and the Civil Right Movement characterize this. The cultural gift that Hong Kong and China could contribute to American culture may be that of pragmatism. We need both the prophetic and the pragmatic if we are going to peacefuly live together with others at every scale of society.

My daughter’s thoughts on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge? She doesn’t want to ever go on it. Is this because of its meaning in the larger political landscape and her love for Hong Kong? No. In this instance it is pragmatic. Given the poor safety record of the new high speed rail lines in China, she says she will take the ferry, even with its associated motion sickness.IMG_20160113_025749989

El Nino or Climate Change?

I have a sense of impending doom left as part of my post-traumatic stress from last winter’s 107 inches of snow in 30 days.  I’ve bought a roof rake for the snow in the hopes of magically warding off winter.

But it is the end of December and winter has not come–we walked on the beach with bare feet on Christmas day.  Should I feel guilty for enjoying the continued moderate temperatures that might be due to climate change?

Last year’s winter could be attributed to climate change which causes weather patterns to get stuck in a cycle like the cycle of large snow storms that continued to hit us.  This year’s moderate weather is more likely impacted by an El Nino, a weather pattern also called the Southern Oscillation.  An El Nino, named after the Christ child because it often happens around Christmas, begins in the equatorial Pacific in the region of Indonesia.  Normally the low pressure in this area draws the winds toward it from the subtropics, driving equatorial ocean currents from the Americas toward the western Pacific.  The west side of the Americas are left with relatively dry weather and cold currents that move from the poles toward the equator before they go west along the equator.  The Baja of California is created by this dominant pattern.

When an El Nino occurs, the low pressure center diminishes, causing a faltering of the winds that drive the tropical currents to the west.  The warm current backs up bringing unusually warm water to the west side of the Americas along with its associated torrential rains and warmer temperatures.  This moderates the temperatures and winter in areas across North America.

My plants may be confused, but I’m going to just enjoy it while it lasts.  I can take a Christmas on the beach, like everyone experiences in New Zealand, for one year.  After all, next year we might have an El Nina–the opposite of an El Nino.  But that is another story…



Destination North Dakota

IMG_20151023_145706272I received quizzical looks when I announced to my New England colleagues that I was going to North Dakota for a vacation. One even asked—“Now remind me—where is North Dakota?”

On the other hand, I can still hear my Minnesota Grandmother refer to North and South Dakota collectively as “Dakota,” as in “we are going to Dakota,” perhaps hearkening back to the Dakota territory prior to the formation of the states of North and South Dakota.

IMG_20151021_112108719Geographer John Borchert, who studied the regional patterns of the upper Midwest, placed the Dakotas in the functional region of Minneapolis/St. Paul. A functional region is an area of circulation with a central node. The functional region of Minneapolis/St. Paul extends a very small distance east of the Twin Cities, where it encounters the pull of Chicago, but then extends hundreds of miles to the west incorporating North and South Dakota and much of Montana. I have family who grew up in the far reaches of this functional region and many have migrated to the Twin Cities.

Reflecting this pull of this regional central node, my Grandmother would say—“We are going to the cities,” as in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I began my journey to North Dakota in the Twin Cities where various members of my extended family live.

I decided to approach the journey through addressing questions that those from the Northeast might ask, as well as viewing the region through the lenses of comparing and contrasting New England and this upper Midwest region, including North Dakota, in hopes of educating my New England friends and reducing stereotypes of this region:

I suppose the first question is—do they have stores with food there? We packed our van with supplies before heading out from the Twin Cities. Someone from New England might have thought this was out of a concern over the availability of food. Actually it was because we wanted to eat some apples along the way. And drive-through espresso was found in all places, though at different scales.IMG_20151023_105411584

Clearly trees diminish as you go west from the Twin Cities to the Dakotas. New England has big trees. The Dakotas have big sky. This illuminates another difference. As you drive across the open land of the Dakotas, trees are planted in shelter belts on the west and north sides of homesteads. This is because winds primarily come from those directions. In New England, the strongest winds come from the northeast during a Nor’easter. IMG_20151021_170725271_HDR

Transportation is modern in both regions. North Dakotans do not use horses for transportation. They may be more likely to drive a truck or larger car than a New Englander because of the straight open roads that are all aligned North/South and East/West. We drove one 45 miles stretch with no curves and few vehicles. It was beautiful.


Railroads are prominent in both New England and the Dakotas. They are primarily used to transport people in New England. In North Dakota they are primarily used to transport grain for export to world markets. Or used to transport oil from North Dakota oil fracking fields to population centers. Dakotans and New Englanders are economically tied to global markets.IMG_20151021_115706361

Both New England and the Dakotas have buildings. In New England you might find the church as the tallest building in a town. In the Dakotas, grain elevators dominate the landscape. And in the fall, soybean or corn piles can be seen adjacent to the elevators waiting to be loaded onto trains. You can also see water towers in the Dakotas. I have never seen one in New England—how do they create water pressure in New England?

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In spite of the image of the Wild West, county courthouses exist in both places. And the police give tickets in both places. However, in New England you can get a $35 ticket for just parking your car to go to a restaurant if you fail to notice the “only local resident parking sticker” sign. In North Dakota, you may get a speeding ticket for going 35 in a 25 mile an hour zone and be charged only $10. It is hard to go slow when there is such a low population and the roads are straight. But it is easy to pay the $10. And parking is always free.

Regretfully, guns are part of American life in both places. In the Dakotas everyone knows that fall is hunting season. Communal groups of hunters are out with rifles enjoying company and the great outdoors to shoot pheasants, ducks or geese. Home décor reflects this autumn obsession. In New England, guns tend to be used against people rather than for gaining food and fellowship.










Dogs are loved in both New England and the Dakotas. In both places they are often allowed to sit on couches with those they love. However, in North Dakota they have a variety of dogs that are in camouflage to disappear once they are on the furniture.










Along with dogs come children. Children are found and loved the world around. Like children in New England, North Dakota preschoolers know how to use i-pads and TV remotes. The children of the upper Midwest, including the Dakotas tend to be blonde, reflecting the Scandinavian heritage of the region. Perhaps this same background makes them especially clean. They like to dust the furniture.

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I found two elements of the Upper Midwest that are absent from New England. Upper Midwest towns are often known by the phrase—Home of the… (fill in the blank). An example, is the town that is home to the largest ball of twine collected by one person.

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The other element of the Dakotas that is absent from New England is something called a “cell phone tower.” This amazing invention allows you to get cell phone coverage anywhere. I could only wish that my Boston suburb could be this progressive and up-to-date.

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Nashville: Cultural Crossroads

If anything is “American,” it is the rich range of music genres that come out of the mixing of culture groups and regions. I once attended an international meeting in Scotland where we gathered the last evening for a Ceilidh with dancing and music. Each national delegation was asked to provide some music from their home country and the American group discussed their options for several days in anticipation. In the end we had someone do a blues number, we sang a gospel song, and then ended with, “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.” When other delegations presented their musical gifts to us, I have to say, I was struck by the lack of variety within the individual offerings. What was lacking to my American ears was either a beat or a twang.

NashvilleIf any city is at the center of this musical mix, it is Nashville. It is a music recording and production center, the headquarters of the Gibson guitar company, and of course, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. If you want to make it as a song writer, you go to Nashville. But more than just a music-mixing center, Nashville sits at a geographic crossroads. The Bible Belt of the Deep South is to the south and east of Nashville. The cowboy country of the Great Plains lies to the west. Appalachian storytelling culture is to the East and the heartland of the Midwest is to the north. This leads to interesting cultural elements—Nashville is the home to Bible and hymnal publishing. Cowboy hats and boots are fashion elements (not real work clothes). Beer is the drink of choice. And it is the city where people come from everywhere to write the stories of their rising fame—often in musical form.


The Nashville Look






Hoping for Fame:  Live Music



Drinking Beer While Not Driving




 Popular Culture of Nashville:  Music, Beer, and Boots


NASHTRASH Tours:  Behind the scenes

Off the main street is the heart of the music industry in nondescript buildings along Music Row



Pip, with NASHTRASH tours is one of those who has been able to create a life in the music industry in Nashville, and share his experiences with visitors.

Empty Spaces and Identity: Roots in Montana

I have always been drawn to Great Plains–It could be the wide open spaces, and its long views.  I remember as a child, my father pointing out that those streaks in the sky far ahead of us were actually rain falling.  We were driving toward the Rocky Mountains someplace in the Great Plains.

It is specifically Montana that draws me, though. I can’t remember when I learned about my connection to Montana. Was it tied to asking my mother’s about her agate ring with what looked like a grove of trees in the stone?  My grandfather homesteaded in Montana from 1913-1919 with several of his sisters, and brought the ring back to Minnesota as a ring for what became a failed engagement. He did marry and have two daughters.  But in 1939, when my mother was 9 years old, the family was in a car accident that led to his death.  So what I know of my grandfather is through my mother’s memories.  He loved his daughters.  He would have them jump in bed with him in the morning and recite the names of Roosevelt’s cabinet.  He valued education and had a teaching license so that he could teach in the winters in town when he lived in Montana.  And he had a deep Christian faith. He was part of the Sunday School movement.

My mother and aunt, in his absence, or because of it, put themselves through college.  They passed on both his deep faith and his desire for education to all of us, especially all the granddaughters and great granddaughters.  The open space of Montana has come to represent my grandfather’s absence from much of our family’s history.  It is the empty space that always yearned to be filled and known.

When I went to graduate school I studied public land history including the settlement of the Great Plains.  A part of the empty space was filled through seeing the larger story of my grandfather’s time in Montana.  During that time, on a trip west, I stopped  to visit my mother’s cousins who became scattered westward from the Great Plains after abandoning their farms during the depression.  One took me to the top of a butte, 18 miles north of Terry, Montana and pointed to the remnants of his farm, describing all the farms that once populated the valley.  I walked down to hill and found his stove out in a field along with other remnants of his life in Montana–part of that empty space that always yearned to be filled.



When I had my own daughters, I once took them to stay overnight in a sod house just to help them imagine what his life had been like, before he built a wooden house.  And when they studied American History and the settlement of the Great Plains, I talked about my grandfather and how this was their history–it was not an empty space but a space that was filled with their own lives.

The long views that my grandfather had were shared by Evelyn Cameron (1868-1928), a British-born photographer who live in Terry, Montana at the same time as my grandfather.  I discovered the work of Cameron when I read the book, Bad Land, by Jonathan Raban.  The book centers on the history of Prairie County and Terry, Montana during the era when my grandfather and Cameron were living there.  I read it with interest as I tried to fill in the empty spaces of his life and experience.

Bad LandIn the past month, when I was again in Montana, I searched book stores for more of Cameron’s work.  I want to know if the photos I have of my grandfather in Montana were taken by Cameron.  Did Evelyn Cameron meet him as he got off the train with his two sisters and walked into a spring snow storm?  Did she take the photo of the sod house?

SC Groves and Florence Groves sod house in MTSamuel Clayton Groves and sisters Venita & Florence March 1913I’m still working on trying to bring closure to this story.  It has now been 100 years since my grandfather homesteaded on the Great Plains.  It has been 75 years since his car accident.  It seems like so long ago, yet not too long ago, my mother and I had dinner in Hong Kong with one of her cousin’s sons, a peer of my generation who we had not really met before.  Afterward my mother said–“He is like my father–quiet and gentle.”

I continue to yearn to fill in the empty spaces of place and identify.



Three Images of the National or State Park

Americans associate the great national park experience with the west. The reason for this is that the national park movement and our desire to preserve other public lands came at a time when the west was not yet settled (by Europeans). The only lands left to reserve were western lands. Thus we associate the national park experience with large expanses of relatively untouched natural beauty. The irony is that we had to kick the Native Americans out of Yellowstone Park in order to create this experience for ourselves—Americans know that parks do not include people.



I once attended a British geography meeting that stretched my imagination when it came to a national park. Several of my American colleagues and I joined a fieldtrip to a national park near Sheffield. The British guide drove us up into a beautiful area of higher elevation of heather, sheep, and a quaint and perfect village. Parks are essentially regions with land-use restrictions in Britain. They include people, economic activities, and are privately owned but restricted in uses. Since it was January, and gale-force winds were blowing, we longingly looked out the window of the bus as we passed the local pub in the picture perfect village.

Exhibiting typical British scorn for anything even close to central heat, our guide took us up a hillside to view the landscape. We held on to each other in order to keep our footing against the wind. The sheep were nowhere to be seen and the heather would not bloom until August. We three Americans managed to convince the guide to let a small group cut their hike short and meet the rest of the group in the village later on. We walked through the stone-buildings of the village and my two American colleagues stopped and bought Blue John Stone jewelry for their wives, a specialty of the area, before going into the pub to warm up. Once we rejoined the larger group and were on the bus, the guide looked directly at us and made a comment on how utterly tacky the village was (we were thinking—have you ever seen Mammoth Cave or Wall Drug???). And then with distain the guide said, “And I hope that none of you bought Blue John Stone!” I pursed my lips and shook my head while my colleagues pushed their packages lower on the seat—the British know that you don’t go to a park to shop or stay warm.


Today I went to a Maudslay State Park on the Merrimack River, near me in Massachusetts. I also walk at Bradley Palmer State Park just down the road from my house on a regular basis. With my sample of two of two state parks, I would say that Massachusetts state parks are old estates. Clearly there were no extensive tracks of public land to be set aside for parks so this makes sense. As I was walking along the hiking trail in the woods this morning, several people stopped me and asked—do you know where the formal gardens are? Residents of Massachusetts know that state parks have abandoned carriage houses, lanes lined by rhododendrons and perhaps what is left of a formal garden.

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Chicago: Like a Distant Relative


I have lived most of my life within a day’s drive of Chicago—Northwest, West, Southwest, and Northeast. I’ve come to see the city as a distant relative that you visit very occasionally. You recall visiting as a child, then as a young adult, and then you finally visit as an adult, perhaps taking your own children along to be introduced.

My earliest memories of Chicago were in early grade school. We lived within an hour and visited the museums. I can still picture the large pendulum that swung with the earth rotating underneath it, and the coal mine and submarine. I believe that the travel to one of these museums might have involved my father stopping the car on the side of the road to intervene in a fight between my brother and myself. It was always my brother’s fault.

IMG_20150424_130028704By upper grade school I was living further away but tied to Chicago through media. I listened to Larry Lujack on WLS Chicago ALL of the time. The Chicago Sun Times was our daily newspaper. I heard daily about the Dan Ryan expressway traffic, and Richard Daley was always the mayor… In fact, in Hong Kong there is the Dan Ryan Restaurant where speeches by Daley are piped into the men’s bathroom. I get the joke entirely.






My middle school years brought images of riots through media and personal encounters by members of our church when they went to Chicago to a specialized hospital for their daughter. I had become politicized by 1968 when the protests against the Vietnam War broke out in Grant Park during the Democratic Party convention. Chicago as a site with museums had been replaced with Chicago as a place of social conflict.


By early high school, I would occasionally have a chance to go to Chicago. My youth group took a trip to the Windy City and visited the John Hancock building, one of the highest in the world at that time. We, of course, visited WLS where I was highly disappointed when I saw Larry Lujack in person. Another time I went with a school group to take a Russian exam at the University of Illinois, Circle Campus. By then I was less interested in museums and more interested in seeing the place where Jane Addams started Hull House, and in reading the materials that the members of the Black Panthers handed out on the street corners.


In high school we read the poetry of Carl Sandburg and his description of the city became indelibly linked to my images of Chicago:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them…
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true…
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city…
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding…
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

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As an adult and geographer I encountered Chicago in a new way. I began to associate it with the history of skyscrapers, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and ethnic neighborhoods. It became more differentiated. And it became more historically situated as I tied the museums and the layout of Chicago with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and with names of Frederick Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham, who have both left their imprint on this city, as well as others, initiating modern city planning.


From Millennium Park to the site of the World’s Fair


But then again, I encountered Chicago through the eyes of my daughters as I introduced them to this distant relative of mine. We went there several times with family and friends when they were growing up. On one trip, given the choice among the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, or Art Institute of Chicago (with a Van Gogh exhibit), they chose the Art Institute. We looked for a Picasso and a Georgia O’Keefe to see what they looked like up close and personal. And we went to the top of the John Hancock building even though the Sears Tower was now the taller building. This was a Thanksgiving weekend so on Black Friday we found ourselves on Michigan Avenue among the horde of wall to wall shoppers. To my daughter’s embarrassment, my father, who was with us, quietly joined a PITA march that was protesting the purchase of furs.

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We shared Chicago with our New Zealand friends one December. The Christmas lights lit up Michigan Avenue and the skating rink was busy in Millennium Park. I couldn’t wait to see their reaction to the faces of Chicago in the glass towers in Millennium Park, as the figures came alive and winked at the viewers.


Most recently I went to Chicago for a geography meeting.  I was joined by a childhood friend and our mothers.  We recalled our visits with Chicago over time.


Self portrait of author and childhood friend.