Virtue & Mischief: City of the big shoulders


Last weekend I took the youngest amigo with me to Chicago, the so-called “hog butcher for the world,” the “city of the big shoulders,” according to Carl Sandburg’s 1908 eponymous poem.

Over a hundred years ago Sandburg described the windy city as “stormy, husky, brawling,” and “proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning….” I’ve been to this quintessential American city many times, and the enduring accuracy of Sandburg’s ode is astonishing.

I had some business to conduct in town, but thought I could also construct some free time in my itinerary to take in a few sights. I decided it made the most sense to take Luke, our 11-year-old, with me because (a) Krista’s work schedule didn’t allow her to go during the one small window in my schedule, (b) Abby had already visited Chicago during a class trip a couple of years ago, (c) the sorts of activities and other demands involved required a more sustained level of attention and stamina than Daniel is capable of right now, and (d) Luke is almost certainly the only other Swensen who would fully appreciate a trip to Wrigley field.

So he and I packed a suitcase with clothes, filled a tote with electronic devices and books, cranked up the satellite radio (we alternated between sports talk radio and popular music stations, and I learned more than I cared to about his current musical tastes; still, his tastes are superior to Abby’s), and headed west and north.

Our first stop was an overnight stay with my parents in West Lafayette, Indiana. They live in a small two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community, an atmosphere Luke finds—quite understandably—boring beyond words. To his credit, he adapted well, waiting patiently in the dining area for his meal (a place where they tend to operate at a pace commensurate with the pace of their octogenarian-dominated clientele), playing “Old Maid” enthusiastically with his grandparents (who are nearly as competitive as he), and properly inspecting his morning cereal for signs that its “safe-if-eaten-by” date had long ago passed. These visits may strike him now as pedestrian or perfunctory, but I am confident that someday—perhaps decades down the road—he will look back on them with fondness and gratitude. Perhaps he will remember the “tick-tock, tick-tock” of their antique clocks, or the smell of bacon frying in their cramped kitchen, or how poorly the shower head in the guest bathroom worked, or how funky far-far’s (grandpa in Norwegian) hair was when he first woke up. He will remember some things, whatever they may be, and will know in his marrow that he is part of a quirky, crazy, imperfect-but-loving family, and (I hope) will strive to carry that imperfect love forward.

The next morning we traveled north to our ultimate destination. As we approached the southern edge of the city limits and the skyline loomed, I glanced over to inspect Luke’s expression. He had set aside his electronic gaming device and was staring out the window. His eyes moved up and down and his mouth was slightly agape. He reminded me of the kids in “Jurassic Park” getting their first glimpse of a T-rex. It was a spectacular, sunny day. Sailboats drifted to and fro on the lake to our east, pedestrians and joggers drifted to and fro to our west.

“Which ocean is THAT?” Luke asked, pointing to our right.

“That’s not an ocean, Luke, that’s Lake Michigan,” I replied.

“Lake Michigan?!” he asked, accenting the word “lake” heavily. “That’s Lake Michigan?!” he queried again, in disbelief. “I mean…I remember Chicago is on Lake Michigan…but…I mean…wow.” After a brief pause, he continued: “Are there sharks in there?” he asked.

“No, Luke, no sharks. It’s fresh-water. I know it’s huge and it looks like an ocean to you, but there are no sharks. I promise.”

We moved up the lake front and pulled into the underground parking lot for the Museum of Science and Industry. I have driven past it dozens of times but had never visited, and its size and scope staggered us both. After a few hours of exploring everything from a World War II era German submarine to an impressive mock-up of a coal mine, we returned to our car and headed to our hotel.

“So, Luke, what struck you most about what you saw at the museum?”

“Well, that pendulum thing [a 64-foot Foucault’s pendulum suspended from the ceiling of the museum and—for reasons beyond my understanding—demonstrates the rotation of the earth] was pretty cool. And I liked the submarine. I bet it smelled bad after all those guys had been at sea for a while and only had one bathroom.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“But, man, what really gets me is how expensive the parking is!”

As we continued our journey I could see that the sheer enormity of the city impressed him. He strained to see the tops of the buildings through his passenger-side window. I remembered my first visit and the sensation of urban claustrophobia—feeling trapped by the buildings and wondering if there was a possibility they’d collapse and bury me.



“Have any of the tall buildings here ever…just fallen down or something? Like in a bad storm? Or because of a bad design or something?”

“No, I don’t think so. Honestly, I know how you feel, but we’re pretty safe. Certainly, we’re safe from a building falling on us.”

“Okay,” he replied solemnly, and I knew that the city “fierce as a dog lapping for action, cunning as a savage” and its inherent dangers were having an impact, not altogether irrational or even unwelcome.

“Dad?” he added. “When we go to Wrigley field on the El, do me a favor. Don’t wear your Pirates gear. I don’t want anything to happen to you. I love you. Plus, I can’t drive myself home yet.”

By Timothy Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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