Reading by the lake

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I'm transferring to a new position at my day job soon, so I took a couple days off last week to shorten my lame duck term. With two small children and a wife who often works in the evenings and on weekends, my time off is usually nothing of the sort; it's filled with cooking dinners, cleaning up messes, and refereeing epic disputes over toys. So a random weekday off, not a holiday where I would be consumed with family duties and errands, is a rare treat. A whole day to myself. I hardly knew what to do with myself.

One of my favorite places in Chicago is southern bike path on the lakefront, from the museum campus and Soldier Field down to Hyde Park. Dodging pedestrians, taxis, and buses on my way through the Loop to get there is a little harrowing, but the view of the downtown skyline once you're there is worth the trip alone. On my first day off last week the weather was gorgeous, so I packed a lunch, threw my copy of Granta in my backpack, and rode down to Promontory Point, a park just north of the Museum of Science and Industry.

Of course, like a lot of well-intentioned attempts at recreation, the trip and lakeside picnic were more idyllic in my head than they turned out to be in real life. It had been months since I rode my bike more than a few blocks, and by the time I got there my legs felt like broken-down Slinkys. I picked a table in the shade, and as I ate my lunch the breeze off Lake Michigan almost made it too chilly for comfort. Park district employees were twirling giant, droning lawnmowers around the park, blowing grass clippings and dust everywhere and generally ruining any chance at quiet relaxation. And when I did find a somewhat secluded spot on the lawn away from the din, the freshly cut grass and displaced insects made my sweaty, sunburned calves itch like crazy.

But I was determined. I managed to finish a few stories, and it struck me that this was the perfect place to read a paper book. I turned it over and splayed the pages flat on the picnic table to shoo away a squirrel that got a little too close to my lunch, and I dog-eared a page when I had to scamper out of the way of an oncoming lawnmower. While I was reading "Tokyo Island" by Natsuo Kirino, a tiny bug landed on the page. When I tried to swipe it away I smashed it instead, smearing its remains across the word "dumplings" on page 37. These are things you wouldn't do with an e-book reader. Sure, you could bring it to a park to read, but you couldn't carelessly flip it around to avoid the flora and fauna and have it end up no worse for the wear. And now if I ever flip through the pages of that issue of Granta and see those brown-smudged dumplings, I'll remember my day off at the park.

Eventually my patience with the bugs and the lawnmowers and squirrels wore thin, and I packed up and left. I was also in a hurry because I received a notification from the FedEx app on my iPhone. The iPad I ordered a week ago was going to be delivered that afternoon, and I needed to get home to sign for it.