Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion at Ravinia

It could not have been a more perfect day.

The last few times I've gone to Ravinia with J., we've brought a few things, but we didn't plan ahead. This time I decided to overcome my work-related aversion to planning and to try to have a real picnic, taking into account our mutual desire—and need—to watch what we eat more closely. After a stop at Caffe RoM (Hyatt Center) and three trips to Walgreens and Treasure Island (four blocks away), I packed the following:


  • 2 blankets (1 has never been enough, I finally realized)

  • citronella candle bucket and matches

  • insect repellent

  • UVA/UVB 85 SPF sunscreen

  • plates

  • utensils

  • cups

  • napkins

  • wet wipes

  • cheese slicer

  • cutting board


  • sunflower oil crackers

  • goat cheese (garlic and chive, plain)

  • port wine sharp cheddar

  • Irish red Leicester

  • lemon humus

  • spinach dip


Caffe RoM JoJo sandwich (mozzarella, prosciutto, artichoke, plum tomato, basil, olive oil)


  • shortbread (Lorna Doone, Walker's)

  • strawberry yogurt


  • sugar-free sparkling pink lemonade

  • blueberry coffee

  • coffee from Caribou

J. brought film, digital, and disposable cameras; the Caribou coffee in an enormous vacuum bottle, an extra shirt, green tea from Italy, gifts, etc.

I had told him that, to make the 2:35 p.m. train, we had to be on a bus by 1:00 p.m. When I talked to him at 12:00 noon, I thought he was on his way from Homewood. When he hadn't shown up by 1;00 p.m., I decided a cab to the train station was the only way left, so I called to tell him—to find out he was at home. He'd run errands and gone shopping after his dentist's appointment and was just now ready to leave. Even if he drove off immediately (which he did), and even if we flagged a taxi right away, it would be close, and I tried to manage my anxiety and to resign myself to taking the later train, which wouldn't give us much time to set up, relax a bit, and hear the show's off-air preliminaries.

J. appeared at about 1:45 p.m. and had me bring up a gift that needed refrigeration, so we lost a few more minutes. I met him at the back gate, assigned him the heavy cold goods bag, then raced ahead of him toward 55th Street and Hyde Park Boulevard. A cab passed us as I was halfway down the second block—unfortunate timing. As I was looking anxiously down Hyde Park Boulevard, J. labored up and asked from 20 feet away, "What time is the train?" "I told you—2:35," "Oh!" he said in the tone of a man who has had an epiphany. "We need to catch a cab in the next five seconds to make it! I thought it was at 3:00!" Researchers: Take note of a classic case of male homo sapiens selective hearing syndrome. He really has no memory of what I'd said, and I have no idea where the 3:00 came from.

Before I could get myself too upset, I spotted a taxi, which was piloted by the only cab driver in Chicago who doesn't drive at breakneck speeds like an FBI fugitive with the agency behind him. He took us down Lake Shore Drive, Roosevelt Road, and Canal Street like a Sunday driver, which feels very strange when you've become used to breakneck speeds.

I bypassed the women's room (long line, no time) and bought tickets. As J. longingly eyed a pretzel counter and mentioned how hungry he was, I reminded him that, if he hadn't noticed, we were carrying 20 pounds of food. He had to settle for one of the bottles of green tea with dextrose and sugar, which he drank on the train.

We settled on the train with eight or nine minutes to spare. This sound like an ample margin, but the train was already nearly full; it would become standing room only after the north side stops.

This brings me to Metra, which doesn't offer a Ravinia Park stop for the 2:35 Saturday train. Normally, this would make sense because most Ravinia performances are in the evening. A Prairie Home Companion is an exception, broadcast live from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. CT. As a bureaucracy, Metra is unable to conceive of or adapt to exceptions. The conductor informed those going to Ravinia Park that they would need to get off at Braeside, walk through a parking lot, and take the bike path for "about a block" to the park. So, instead of making the unscheduled stop the occasion would seem to call for, Metra representatives helpfully tell the hundreds (or more) people crammed into the train with their lawn chairs and picnic gear to take a hike. It's worked this way for years, as far as I can tell, and it makes no more sense now than it did when I first noticed it. Surely somebody besides me thinks this is mindless and inflexible bureaucracy at its best.

At one point I lost J., and vice versa (I stopped mid-trail to look for him in the sea of humanity, but didn't spot him because he'd stopped at the beginning because he hadn't noticed me right in front of him). His feet hurt, so he walks slowly; I walk fast to keep my lower back from seizing up, so separation was bound to happen. After I picked up the tickets at Will Call, I found him by the gate, so that too worked out. I had to laugh when one of the employees handed him a plastic trash bag, and J. said, "Thanks, sweet—er, thanks." (He's so used to calling me "sweetie" that it's become a habit.) He's lucky the man didn't say, "No problem, darlin'."

Although a swathe of the lawn was "extremely wet" and off limits, we found a spot in the shade close to the path (my preferences). After an obligatory rest stop, I unpacked, and the feasting began.

Of course, we didn't eat most of what I'd brought. My intention had been to offer some choices. We didn't touch the goat cheese, red Leicester, second sandwich (we split the first), yogurt, or Walker's. Speaking for myself, I was well sated.

Before the show started, I noticed an elderly couple nearby, each with his/her nose buried in a book. It looked as though they hadn't brought anything else with them, and their reading was intense. I should have checked on them later to see if they'd put the books down after the performance began.

As usual, the off-air warm up began with the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which was complemented on air by renditions of "America, the Beautiful" and "My Country, 'tis of Thee." As the countdown segued into the intro, I was amazed by how seamless this always seems to be, given the nature of a live broadcast. Even for radio veterans like the A Prairie Home Companion crew and some of the guests, this must be an anxious moment—fraught not only with the jitters before any performance but worries about the technical and other issues that could derail a live broadcast. I imagine that it's hard to forget the possibilities.

After noting that the country seems to be headed in a better direction, Keillor stayed away from political humor and references, talking and singing about the "working class" in the pavilion and the "elite" on the lawn. He's not far off—I spent a lot on food, but it's not only that—on the lawn you can eat, drink, and be merry. The reward for the holders of the cheap seats is freedom.

You can also wander around. As soon as the show began, J. took off with his camera collection, reappearing just before the intermission. Later, I went up to look at the stage. On the lawn, you do miss some of the humor in the body language, but mostly I'd trade that for the liberty of the lawn experience.

I hope Da Mare does not hear about the "Guy Noir" episode, in which an ad agency tries to change Chicago's image from the city of the broad shoulders to something a little more Parisian. Da Mare has enough ideas already, some of which we could do without. It was funny, as was the skit about the bewildered groom and the dialogue between the controlling mother and her hapless adult son. Keillor and Jearlyn Steele also paid tribute to Mahalia Jackson.

All through this, the weather was perfect, like the best summer days in western New York that I remember—comfortable and sunny, idyllic in every way.

When we got back, we walked over to Promontory Point. I was irked to see a boy breaking branches (at least two) off a tree while his family ignored him and tried to regale J. with my views about empathy, but the few stars visible in Chicago were out, and so were the fireflies against a backdrop of dark Lake Michigan water, so we sat on the rocks and watched the fireworks at Navy Pier.

And so back to the necessary insanity tomorrow . . .

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a beautiful evening - nice menu! - but I'll admit I'd have strangled J round about the time he had his schedule epiphany. I hate being late/rushed/off schedule. Sadly, the people that don't seem to worry about such things have WAY less stress and seem to get through life just fine, if at a slower pace. Seems unfair...