Create a “Theme Day”


Not long ago I found myself in the Chicago area with a day to … I almost said “a day to kill.” Days are not cockroaches — don’t even think about “killing” them. Look upon a day, instead, as a pile of Lincoln Logs. You’re going to build something. The possibilities are endless, but odds are the project will turn out best if you make a plan first.

In other words: Create a theme for the day. And give your day a name.

I called my day in Chicago “Three Temples.”

I would visit a temple of design, a temple of commerce, and a temple of spirit. I’d soak up all I could at each stop. There’d be no quiz at the end. The object was simply to pay attention to how I felt in each of those spaces – and how I felt at the end of the trifecta.


Temple No. 1: Frank Lloyd Wright home, Oak Park, Ill.

The great architect was born in Wisconsin, but this is the house he moved to as a young man just kindling his career, and stayed in until that career was ablaze. He raised his children here, kept horses in the stable out back (and sometimes rode them, in a ceremonial kimono, down Chicago Avenue), got himself fired from the prestigious firm Adler & Sullivan so that he could go it alone, hired draftsman to be his wingmen in a studio he had built off the front entrance. But mostly it was where he worked out his ideas of what was beautiful.

Wright made change after change to the house. He rearranged the furniture almost weekly (which drove his wife crazy). He built gorgeous fixtures for the electricity he knew was coming. He sank a Steinway baby grand into the wall of the barrel-vaulted children’s room — he hated to waste space — which meant you couldn’t really hear the music when you played, but everyone else in the house could, since it stuck out into a stairway, which amplified the sound. They call this house “the laboratory.” A century and a quarter old, it still feels alive with invention. You have to pay an extra five dollars if you want to take pictures inside. I did, but eventually put my camera away and just opened my eyes a little wider. The light alone, how it falls, is art.

The house is actually easy walking distance from the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway, and there’s a neighbourhood tour you can take to get a wider sense of Wright’s world and the mark it made on him, and the mark he made on it (including the eight so-called “counterfeit” houses he designed, when he was still working for Sullivan but went rogue with his own projects, anonymously). Lots of people signed up for this extended tour, but I didn’t. It was already past noon, and I needed to buy a pair of running shoes. To do so would require a mental hairpin turn from aesthetics to pure high-octane capitalism.


Temple No. 2: Nike Chicago

My dad, one day in 1973, brought home a pair of joggers he’d bought from an upstart shoe outfit on the West Coast. Their sole was a big flat plate with square studs —molten rubber had been poured into a waffle iron. This little company had some good ideas, Dad thought. It might amount to something.

There may still be signs of Nike’s humble roots in this flagship store on “The Magnificent Mile” — squeezed between Tiffany and Sachs and Neiman-Marcus and the other crown jewels of American excess — but you’d have to look pretty hard to find them. There are five floors of shoes, plus outerwear, innerwear, look-at-me-wear, all displayed on headless torsos frozen in the middle of their workouts.

The place is a shrine not to athletic gear but to marketing. A lot of the inventory is hidden from view; but the dream, the promise, is right in your face. Words of wisdom from patron saint Michael Jordan – no doubt actually hatched by some Wieden & Kennedy copywriter (and I think I know the very guy; I wrote about him once) — grace the space over the elevators; they’re what you see when you naturally look up, toward heaven. The other old Nike apostles, the ones who built the brand but flew too near the sun, are nowhere to be found. Tiger Woods, Alberto Salazar, Lance Armstrong: gone. You’d never know they lived. In their place, a new slate of demigods: Mo Farrah, Rory McIlroy, Alex Morgan.

I have strangely shaped feet, and kind of a heavy thumping gait, and there’s only one shoe that fits right: the Nike Lunarglide. I figured I’d save a few bucks by buying it here at the mothership. But I was wrong. With the exchange rate, I was paying just as much. And I came to realize, as the sales guy disappeared into the basement to find my size, and the clock ticked down on my day, that I was probably actually paying more. They leave you standing there, while you wait, to think about the brand. Its whole history comes flooding back: the tourists in the barrios mugged for their Nikes, the “campus” in Oregon with streets named after founding fathers, the sweatshop scandals, the fall, the rebuild, the redemption. Everyone my age has a personal history with Nike, too: what it meant to want a swoosh on your feet very badly, but not quite understanding why.

I walked out of the store and into the slamming heat of Michigan Avenue. A homeless man sat on the sidewalk. Shoppers streamed around him as if he were a rock.

A hip young guy with a binder — Greenpeace? — stepped toward me.

“Hey, man, you look like you care about things,” he said.

“Sorry, man,” I replied, hustling past. “Not when I’m paying a dollar a minute to park.”


Temple No. 3: The Baha’i Temple

In Wilmette, Illinois, just north of Chicago, the only Baha’i Temple in the Western Hemisphere sits in urban parkland. It was already late afternoon when I found it. I parked on a dead-end street nearby, and started walking toward the huge beckoning white dome.

Beyond the reflecting pools, a wide stone staircase led up to an open door.

Inside, a fan-vaulted ceiling soared overhead — to a height of eight storeys, easily. Thirty-foot gossamer drapes adorned the walls. I didn’t have to be told to take off my hat.

There was actually no one around to tell me anything. The temple was empty save for one guy who sat in a chair in the middle toward the back, with his head bowed, fighting a private battle. No one in a city of ten million people could find a reason to be here.

The Baha’i are interesting cats. This is not my religion — we’re Unitarian Universalists — but there’s a lot to like about this peaceful group. The Baha’i are, as close as I can figure, about radical inclusiveness. “Consort with followers of all religions with friendliness,” reads a motto carved into the balustrade. Polls say that that’s what a lot of people want now – spirituality without dogma. And yet no one was here. Strange.

Buildings with no practical function make people uneasy. There are no stations of the cross here to observe, no script you’re obliged to buy into. It’s like looking in a giant mirror. (It’s not true that the Baha’i is a Seinfeld faith, a faith about nothing. I made a mental note to investigate further. Which is no doubt all the founders of this church could ask for.)

In the old days, conceiving places of worship, we built to the sky out of fear and awe. I wondered what the Baha’i were up to here. Can such a grand gesture really be born out of humdrum benevolence?

Anyone can come in and stay as long as they like, for free. Even parking’s free. There isn’t even a tip jar. Who funds all of this? Who maintains the lavish grounds? The reflex of the modern cynic says there’s gotta be a price you’d pay here if you overstay the unspecified free trial period.

It’s not even clear who you’re worshiping.* Compare this to the Nike store, where there’s a certain odd comfort in knowing who’s got you by the nads: a bearded overlord named Phil Knight. You can picture him, slender and hangdog.

I tried meditating, not entirely successfully. I’d been on the road too long. When I closed my eyes, all I could see was the butt end of somebody’s camper.

But there was no denying it: a benign, soothing, I’m just going to say it — ENERGY— pervaded this place. It was a very, very pleasurable place to be. It felt like the antidote to the pill I’d just choked down in midtown. I had five thousand kilometres of interstate driving ahead of me. Even if I couldn’t quite metabolize what this place meant, I was going to enjoy every minute of it.


  • In fact the Baha’i do have scripture. The faith is based on the teachings of “The Bab,” who is said to have received directives from God.

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