Sunshine and perfect breeze, blue skies and fall weather. Marathon runners, couples on bicycles. The Cultural Trail, packed. White River State Park, teeming with inflatables and groups with matching T-shirts and orange and green and balloons and food. Feeling the air on my face, the wind on my skin. Pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. A husband and wife, their blonde-haired, two-year-old daughter between them. They point me to me, ask their child, "What color is her bike?" "What color are her shoes?" Red. Green. So much green, still. In the grass, in the trees, in the shrubs and plants. They will yellow, soon. Yellow and dry and decay, fall to the ground and collect beneath the benches. There's a homeless man sleeping on one now, on Virginia Avenue. His shoes are off, neatly placed on the sidewalk next to him. And he slumbers, twisting his neck slightly as I pass by him, pedaling past him. There are families, there are hipsters. There's the girl my age with the Fixie, the green Fixie with the white, glittering tassels. She answers her phone while paused at a crosswalk, hobbles and wobbles to gain control of the handlebar. I smirk. I smile. I stand on the pedals, breathing in the Indiana atmosphere. Pedaling toward the river, across the river. Indy, I am in you. And today, with the sun on my shoulders and on my knees, with the sidewalk beneath the tires and the sounds of people and talk and laughter and cars and even Frank Sinatra--as I cruise past a restaurant--I can let go.
"The function of art is to make rich people feel more important."
In 2005, ABC's 20/20 challenged its viewers with an online survey. The survey, composed of 10 images, included four pieces that are considered to be "masterpieces." The remaining six images? They were of pieces that no one would ever consider including in a gallery.
It was assumed that the most famous artwork would receive the most votes. As it turned out, however, the recognizable pieces received far fewer votes than the winner, which was "a piece of framed fabric 20/20 bought at a thrift store for $5."
As a result, 20/20 asked the question, "How do critics and curators decide which is art?"
We--Zoë, Ty, and I--posed similar questions when patrolling the contemporary art galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. "How is it random," I started, after walking into a gallery that spewed metal brackets and scrap fabric, "if it's deliberately random?" As we wandered those particular galleries, we did have moments of appreciation--especially for Pollock--but what I remember most is Zoë's notorious "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG" face when viewing clumps of plaster, wood, and nails. As she read the description, Ty stepped toward me and pointed out the window. "I appreciate the vista more than I do the art," he whispered.
Ty had other moments of contempt. As Zoë and I contemplated a Rothko, he came up to us, lips pursed. "Over there, there is a CHAIR," he said with unmistakable derision, "and there is a light on it. That's it. That's the ART." And with that, he brushed between us, presumably exiting the gallery.
Zoë and I shared a smile, and called to mind the textile museum in Toronto. "THIS is a WINdow," we said in unison.
We were mad and giddy, we were. Mad and giddy and giggling. ... Like always, I suppose.
And, like always, we didn't get to see everything we wished to see. Nighthawks was on loan, as was A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (the painting on which Cameron fixates in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). However, there were hundreds of excellent works that we did get to see--American Gothic being one of them. And there were the Pollocks, the Georgia O'Keeffes, the van Goghs, the Rothkos, the Warhols, the Monets. And, really, it was beautiful and intriguing, just like the people. An array of ages, cultures, interests, opinions. Art students and tourists, curators and creatives, regulars and picture-takers. We were all there. All parading through the thousands and thousands of displayed works, offering thoughts and critiques. Even I offered up a few pretentious phrases, ones like "a blurred sense of movement," "neatly sketched," and "clean, but darkly inviting."
My descriptions mimicked those of artist Victor Acevedo, who was quoted in the 20/20 article. He described one particular piece as a "competent execution of abstract expressionism, which was first made famous by de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and others. So it's emulating that style and it's a school of art." An excellent observation ... for an artwork created by two four-year-old girls.
Later that evening, at dinner, the three of us laughed at ourselves and our pretentiousness. "I love museums," Zoë mused. "Because you get all sorts of people, each with a different description for the same work. And you hear so many inflated phrases."
"Worth it," I said, cutting my deep-dish pizza into bite-size chunks.
"Definitely worth it."
Now, at 25, I welcomed the change of scenery. We arrived after dark, cruising up Lakeshore just for the hell of it. It was a city, sure, one just a few hours north of my own. But it was ... different. You could smell the lake, taste the breeze, catch a glance of those still at work, late on a Friday night, in those tall, reflective beauties. There were people--walking, chatting, eating, standing, waiting, talking.
I could already sense the city's pulse. I felt its steady heart, beating up from under the sidewalks and into the air. Into the car. Into my hands, which I pressed against the passenger window. Pressed and hoped and ached for attachment. I looked up and out, at lights and buildings, and a smooth, dark lake. Thump thump. Thump thump. It was there, all right. Thump thump. It was there.
In Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Giulio goes on to explain, "in a mixture of English, Italian, and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people's thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be--that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don't really belong there."
Rome's word, then, according to the novel, is SEX. The Vatican's is POWER. New York City's is ACHIEVE, which is "subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles," which is SUCCEED. I can tell you that CONVENIENCE is what defines Indianapolis. But Chicago? Chicago, now, I'm not so sure.
I asked Ty, who grew up there. Who drove us there. Who played tour guide and exuded a sense of familiar confidence. Evansville was where he lived, sure, but Chicago? Chicago was where he was from.
"Ty, if you could, what one word would you use to define Chicago?"
"Welcoming," he says after only a few moments of contemplation. "I've noticed more friendly people in Chicago than unfriendly. It's easy to strike up conversation. We're a talkative group. Even if it's small talk. Fewer pricks than in the East, fewer loners than in the West. A good mix." He continues, both ranting and raving. "Everyone kind of rallies behind the sentiment that what we lack in style, we make up for in substance. What we lack in size, we make up for in community. What we lack in trendiness, we make up for in unpretentious, Midwestern realness."
He pauses, but not for long. "Zoë summed up Chicago very well. It's like a series of potential romantic interests: New York is the most handsome, very charming, he says all the right things, but really he's just trying to get you into bed. L.A. will just try to fuck you on the first date. But Chicago is the one that would be good to you the rest of your life. A little homely, but faithful."
It could've been my birthday, it could've been Christmas. I honestly no longer remember. And, really, it doesn't matter. Because what my mother gifted me, what she gave me that holiday or that year, has ultimately remained a conversation piece.
Vern the Fern.
Vern the Googly-Eyed Fern, to be exacter.
Vern was consummated as the result of watching some old SNL skits. After laughing incessantly at a Christopher Walken piece--one titled "Indoor Gardening Tips from a Man Who's Very Scared of Plants"--my mother had a "grand" idea. You see, in the skit, Walken, over and over, asserts that he doesn't trust plants. "So I put googly eyes on them. That way, I know I can trust them. I can make eye contact." And so, from palms to ferns to leaves big and small, there are googly eyes glued to each plant.
My mother, mischievous and creative, decided to hot glue googly eyes on a fake fern. She gifted it to me alongside "The Best of Christopher Walken." And I laughed. Oh, how I laughed at my Vern.
That was at least four years ago, now. Four years I've had my little Vern. And I still tote him with me--from apartment to apartment, to storage garages and dorm rooms. And each time a new friend would visit my apartment, and every semester I had a new roommate, they'd point to Vern and ask, "What is THAT?" And I'd tell them. I'd tell them about my mom, about Christopher Walken, about SNL and laughter and fun.
Nowadays, Vern guards my living room windows. He sits in a pot crafted by my brother, who took pottery his junior year of high school. But Vern, who was once the lone "plant," now has a couple of friends. The parlor palm was a freebie, one of 2,000 plants that Engledow Group gave away as part of National Indoor Plant Week. And then the calluna--a gift from new friends, from people who encouraged me to find myself again in all this.
And, yes, things are messy right now. Emotions and heartstrings are pulled taut, in all directions. But when I come home from work, at least, there is a bit of sunshine in the windows, a bit of greenery on the sills. And even though I still have tears and stress and heartache, there's always cheer, always laughter, to be found in the leafy bits of life.