Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Chicago

What I’ve Learned from “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”


Art speaks to us in many ways. Sometimes it makes us feel an emotion; other times it inspires us.

That’s how I have always felt about Georges Seurat’s, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”

The first time I viewed this painting at the Art Institute in Chicago, was in the summer of 1983. It was the first time for me to visit any kind of art museum or gallery and it changed my life. It just happened that summer there was an French Impressionism exhibition at the Institute and it was the talk of town.

What I liked most about this painting was Seurat’s use of pointillism. When you get really close to the painting, all you see are these dots of paint with spaces between them; as you move back and begin to look at the painting as  a whole, those spaces between the dots connect it all together.

In my latest novel, I have one of the characters describing this technique and how it affects our perception of reality.

AM Chicago

A winter morning in Chicago and trying out my first digital camera — 2001

Plenty to ‘carp’ about in Chicago

Especially if a trove of carp have  their way in the Chicago River  according to this article. These Asian Carp are also a big problem down the Illinois River in places like LaSalle, Peru, and Spring Valley.

Imagine that though, a bunch of carp closing a river. Now, if these carp were like some of those whoppers I’ve seen in photos from the UK–carp the size of Shetland Pony–well, then you best close the Chicago River and ask for some reinforcements from the Illinois National Guard.

Riding the rails in the US — The Texas Eagle from Chicago to Dallas

It was right before Thanksgiving 1990 and just a few weeks before I would fly to Korea when I boarded an Amtrak train bound for Dallas to spend the holiday with my Mom. 

It would end up being my last Thanksgiving at home before I came back to the States for a few months at the end of 2006. 

I suppose I could have flown to Dallas—which would have been easier because my Mom at the time lived in Irving right next to the DFW—but I had always wanted to take a long train trip in the States and most likely I was going to be gone for awhile and wouldn’t have the chance for sometime. I thought it would be cool to ride the rails and see a part of America that I had never seen before. 

I took the train from Princeton to Union Station in Chicago. On the way up to Chicago—about a ninety-minute ride from Princeton—the train went through Mendota and passed the Del Monte canning plant where I had worked a few weeks earlier. When I was working at Del Monte I sometimes watched the train either coming into town or heading out of town. It made me think about the previous year when I had been in Japan and many of the train trips I had taken. There was something charming about a long train journey and when I decided to visit my Mom in Dallas that is what I wanted to do. 

When I took the train from Princeton to Chicago I had a few hours to kill before the train left for Dallas. My best friend Chris Vasquez was living in Chicago at the time and we got together for lunch. It was a good thing that we did. I wouldn’t see Chris for another two years. We had hung out a few times over the summer—something we hadn’t done since before I had gone back to college in 1985. Sadly, Chris and I had drifted apart over the years and it wouldn’t be until Christmas 2001 when Chris and I would become close and best friends again. 

Until my trip to Dallas in 1990, the longest train trip I had taken in the States was back in June of 1980 when I rode The City of New Orleans from Kankakee, Illinois to Carbondale. That was only a few hours—just enough time to settle back into my seat and enjoy some of the scenery before the train arrived. It would be a few years later, in the summer of 1987 before I would take the train again. This time it was a shorter journey—from Bloomington, Illinois to Chicago when I went to the city to spend a few days with Michelle Mignone. 

Now, I had about a half-a-day train ride ahead of me and I was pretty pumped up about it.  

I spent some time hanging out in the “club car” which was on the first floor of the car I was riding in. There I bought some snacks and had a few Cokes. There was this middle-aged black man talking to the attendant behind the counter about Jimi Hendrix and other 60’s/70’s musical icons who “knocked on heaven’s door” before their time. He passed a bottle wrapped in a brown-paper bag to another middle-aged gentleman sitting next to him and they took turns enjoying whatever liquor was inside. 

Wanting to have something to eat, I had to make a reservation for dinner in the dining car later that evening. 

And then, it was settling back—once back in my seat—for the long journey to Texas.

There would be numerous stops along the way; sometimes recently boarded passengers passing by my seat. Fortunately no one would be sitting next to me for the journey. 

Looking out window as the train slowed down through many small towns along the way I caught a glimpse of Americana passing me by. Sometimes it was a town square; a few shops and bars open late—a splash of neon illuminating a dark corner of the night. Other times, towns were brightly lit up; people seen walking the streets or cars cruising this midsection of America. 

Along the way, some early Christmas decorations—up and shining brightly in the night—signaled the beginning of the holiday season.  

Sometimes, when the train slowed down and passed by some homes, the bluish glow of a TV could be seen through windows with curtains or shades drawn. You felt like a voyeur peering into the lives of people living along the steel ribbon that intersected and dissected the countryside. Each home was a living, breathing organism—filled with lives moving through the night and attending to daily routines and rituals. 

At some point I started humming Arlo Guthrie’s (originally written by Steve Goodman, a native of Chicago and a diehard Chicago Cubs’ fan who sadly passed away in 1984) City of New Orleans. Maybe that might come across a little cliché but if you have ever listened to the song you know exactly what I must have been feeling that night so long ago. 

Soon I would be leaving home again. Soon I would be getting on another airplane, like I had done the previous year and fly halfway around the world to begin, or at least continue something I had started but had not finished. 

The sound of the iron wheels upon the iron ribbons they travel on thrums the hypnotic clickety-clack that makes me feel drowsy. More towns will pass by in the night but I will soon be asleep.    

WGN’s “Family Classics” with Frazier Thomas

Frazier ThomasWhen I was growing up in Oglesby, Illinois in the late 60s and early 70s, late Sunday afternoons (at least from September-May) were reserved for Family Classics, a weekly movie program hosted by Frazier Thomas on WGN-TV Channel 9 out of Chicago.

It became a Chicago-land tradition (and also for those of us just outside of the city in the early days of cable TV) to watch these films on those cold, gray, fall and winter Sunday afternoons until we knew these movies by heart (most of the same films were shown every year). To be sure these films became old friends to any child sitting down in from of the television set and watching Family Classics every Sunday.

Frazier Thomas personally picked and edited the movies to be shown on Family Classics to insure they were safe for children to watch, but the films—many classic Hollywood productions—were equally enjoyable for adults. As host of the show, Thomas introduced each week’s film with a short commentary, and then, during commercial breaks provided additional commentary and getting us ready for the exciting climax/conclusion.

The show, which ran from 1962 until 2000 (Frazier Thomas was the host until his sudden death in 1985) was noted for many of its classic and family oriented Hollywood movies from The Adventures of Robin Hood and Lassie Come Home to holiday favorites like Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Carol.You know, life seemed simpler and more innocent back then if you were a child growing up—even though it was a turbulent time in America. Many of the movies shown fueled our imaginations and gave us celluloid heroes to admire from fictional ones like Robin Hood and Huckleberry Finn to real life heroes like Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Graham Bell. Some films like Sink the Bismarck! and Yellow Jack (a film about the doctors who tried to eradicate Yellow Fever in Cuba) taught us about history and other heroes. However, what I think these movies instilled in us—at least what they instilled in me was this whole notion of a simpler time. It was a time when kids could still just be kids.

So, yeah I am waxing a little nostalgic today and thinking about one of the films that I remember watching on Family Classics so many years ago, Mysterious Island.

This is a splendid adventure story adapted freely from the Jules Verne novel. A group of union soldiers in a Confederate prison hijack a weather balloon during a storm, which, due to some very strange climatic conditions, takes them across the United States and over half the Pacific ocean. Miraculously, they land on an island, where they soon encounter, among other things, a giant crab, bees the size of cows, and a smoking volcano as well as another Jules Verne character Captain Nemo (played by a young Herbert Lom).

Mysterious Island

The story is too good to give away, and much of the pleasure of the film is the way it unfolds, chapter by chapter, as it were, without seeming episodic or forced. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures are breathtaking, and movie is overall beautiful to see, very imaginative, managing to walk a fine line between the fantastic and the realistic, with just enough artifice in some of the exterior shots to make it seem larger than life, but not so much as to come off as contrived. Director Cy Enfield deserves his share of credit for keeping the focus on the story, not the special effects, and maintaining a deliberate pace with veteran actors like Gary Merrill.

It was the perfect film to be shown on Family Classics and one that you looked forward to seeing again and again.

And that’s exactly what I intend on doing today—watching Mysterious Island.

Cue the theme music now…

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