This past Wednesday was the monthly-ish meeting of the book club that I’ve weaseled my way in to.The club started with a group of Urban Planners, so it’s called the Chicago Urban Planning Book Club. We read books about Urban Planning, or Chicago, or the intersection of the two. Or really, anything that’s tangentially related to either. We also drink beer and eat an irresponsible amount of calories, so that’s obviously part of the appeal. But the books and the conversation are interesting too.
For this meeting, we ready Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s look at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and turn-of-the-century Chicago, of Daniel Burnham and his influence on not only the fair but on architectural theory and urban design, and on a transformative moment in American history.
This month I lucked out, because I’d read the book not once, not twice, but three times before. Just because. Because I’m a huge nerd, I suppose.
Burnham and the other Exposition planners decided on monumental buildings of white, electrically lit, of large scale and classically influence. They were laid out in a logical, efficient, yet picturesque manner. The fair itself was kept clean and safe, with ample opportunity to learn or become cultured, or find a meal and relax. For Americans used to dirty, unsanitary, dark, and unsafe cities (and, for that matter, for rural Americans still immersed in an agrarian lifestyle) the Exposition presented something of a transcendent moment. Here was America not as it was, but as it could be. The means to that end were easily within reach. A newer, brighter, better future was close at hand.
For those who saw it, understood it, and believed it, that must have split their life in two. Everafter, their lives were made up of what they saw before the fair and what they believed after the fair. Larson pulls two good examples of this: L. Frank Baum was so enraptured that he shifted the color slightly and turned the White City Emerald. And a young Walt Disney would listen to tales told by his tradesman father of the time he helped to build a gleaming palace surrounded by a picture-perfect city. Years later, old Walt would adopt the same model in building his Magic Kingdom.
Fascinating stuff, and it got me thinking about the transformative moments in my life. What moments, experiences, eras have I lived through that do a good job at splitting my life into before and after? Here are four, right off the top of my head. I’ll list them chronologically because any other ranking would be unfair. Interestingly, they’re all related to the definition of family. They are:
- 1988, My parents get divorced. Maybe my first lesson that life is shades of grey. Learned that “family” isn’t a definition in a dictionary, cannot be imposed by others. Family is what you choose to make of it – family is defined by you, on your terms.
- 1995 – 1999, The College Years. Forty eight months of self discovery. Get your head of the gutter, I’m talking intellectually and emotionally. I discovered in the most profound sense who I was. I applied the lessons of the self defined family and surrounded myself with one hell of a group of foster brothers and sisters. That new family gave me confidence.
- November 2002, My cousin is killed. Learned about all the things left undone and unsaid when those you love are taken unexpectedly. Learned not to take Family for granted. (Am still struggling to apply this lesson.)
- Sometime between 2003 and Today. Met Emily, dated Emily, fell in love with Emily. Proposed. Planned. Wed. Somewhere in there, although I cannot pinpoint the when of it all, I learned about the commitment to family. That there comes a point where you learn that you have to live your life as much for another as you do for yourself. That selfishness can only go so far. That you need to give of yourself. And that it will be immensely rewarding. I’m not perfect, but I do try awfully hard. I imagine this same lesson will become even more important if there are ever any mini-Mikes running around.
Transformative moments need not be good or bad. But they are always eye-opening. The result is a smarter you, a more savvy you, a more complete you.
Daniel Burnham’s perfect city never came to pass, but in striving toward that goal, I’d argue that he and his followers made a better America. And individually, we might not always be able to perfectly apply the lessons of our own transformative moments, but as long as we make the attempt, I think we’ll leave ourselves – and the world – a little better off.