Artist Date 4: Stories I Tell Myself. A Visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo

I have never understood movie dates.    

You don’t talk.  You don’t get to know one another.  Don’t trade information about favorite books, first jobs and secret -private-fantasy careers.  Don’t find out if you both like to eat off of one another’s plate.  You sit in the dark, facing a screen and share an experience.  Not even.  It is parallel play.  People go on movie dates because they are easy.  They aren’t so scary.

The same is true for Artist’s Dates.

Last Tuesday.  I take myself on Artist Date Four—to the Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory.   It is overcast and near-40-degrees in January.

I am looking at my watch, wondering how I am going to spend my time.  Just like I did on my first Artist Date.   I have a cold.  It isn’t as warm as I had thought.  I should have brought a scarf, and worn a longer coat.  But I want to look cute.  “It’s a date.”  I have been absurdly literal about this at times.  I even change clothes a couple of times before leaving the house.  I buy myself flowers earlier in the day – red Gerber Daisies smiling at me from the refrigerator at Costco.  Perhaps even winking.  A deep crimson with yellow centers.

 I am flooded with memories. 

My husband is ranting that he does nothing but work and run errands.  I point the car toward the zoo and bring him here.   We leave our just-purchased groceries in the car, and I appreciate winter for the first time ever.  I don’t know if he likes the zoo but we are doing something different.  I show him that this might be a place worth staying.

Years later.  It is spring.  I ask Lee to take me here.  It is days after my breast reduction surgery.  I cannot drive.  I am supposed to be healing.   I am restless.   I walk slowly.  Gingerly.  Men and women, easily in their 80s, zip past me.  I realize I am not well.  That I have no business being here.   

In his book, “It’s Not About the Bike,” Lance Armstrong writes about climbing on his bike for an “easy ride” while being treated for stage 4 testicular cancer.  But it is harder than he imagines.  Tour de France hard.  A slightly-overweight, middle-aged woman rides past him on a clunky, mountain bike as if he is standing still.  This is how I feel.  Defeated.  Demoralized.

 Zoo Lights: We are with my ex-boyfriend Stu and his wife Maria.  We have our picture taken with Santa in the Lion House and drink instant hot cocoa.  I am with my friend Damita.  Raised Jehovah’s Witness, she didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up.  Now an adult woman in her 40s, she is mad-crazy in love with the lights.

My farewell ritual with Clover.  I am preparing to leave my adopted home and move to Seattle.  We visit places of significance for me.  I leave a rock from my hot-stone massage collection in each place, along with a blessing or memory written on biodegradable paper.  The Lincoln Park Zoo is my last stop.  I get on my knees and pray, and leave a rock under a bush near the Conservatory.

 I love the Lincoln Park Zoo for about a million reasons.  It’s free.  It sits in the middle of a city, in the middle of a park.   It has boats shaped like swans. 

I first learned of it my freshman year of college.  I met a boy from the Chicago suburbs who played me a song about a guy caught with his pants down – literally – sodomizing a cow in the petting zoo after hours.  I still remember the refrain: “Moo, Moo, I love you.  I know you’re a cow but anything will do.  Oh yeah, there’s a lot to do, when it’s just me and you.” 

My first visit is 20 years later.  I have just moved to Chicago for the first time.  My step-sister’s personal trainer takes me Nordic Walking (read: powerwalk with poles) here.  It becomes a regular stop for me.

On the way from my Thursday morning Weight Watchers meeting to my office across from Northwestern Memorial Hospital.  I spend the hours between walking from the one place to the next, cutting through the zoo.

It is early and I watch the staff preparing for the day.  I visit the polar bear, watching him swim to the glass and play with any kids who might be watching.  I love his black skin, his white fur and big meaty paws.  How he swims on his back.

I don’t have a friend in Chicago.  Not yet.  So I go see the animals.  It sounds sad.  It is.

Today.  Five years have passed and I have returned to this place.  To Chicago – to live.  To the Lincoln Park Zoo – for this Artist’s Date.

The Zoo Lights are still up but unlit.  The Chocolate Bar stands are also up, but closed.  Chunks of ice, green with glitter, are melting where the carving demonstrations took place. 

I walk on the new Nature Boardwalk, taking photographs.  Reflections of the skyscrapers on the pond.  Canadian geese gathering.   Flower patterns in the ice.  A picture-postcard view of the city.

I remember being here this summer, on my way to Rwanda.  My friend Michael picks me up and asks what I want to do.  “Walk.”  He brings me here, walking so quickly I can hardly keep up in my orange peep-toe wedges.  He insists nothing is wrong but I don’t believe him.  We stop and he shines his flashlight in the water.  Bullfrogs.  He knows their song.  We look at each other and grin and I think, “We’re ok.”

The furry camels are taking turns eating.  The blind leading the blind.  Orderly. Polite.  I remember a phone conversation with my friend Slade just a few weeks ago.  He lives in South Carolina now, but lived here once for a year.  We didn’t know one another then.   I tell him exactly where I am at and describe the camels to him.  We talk about his trip to San Francisco and about making art.  I am excited about our friendship, about knowing him.  It seems a long time ago.

I visit the alpacas.  One white.  One brown.  One black.  The jaguar and the skinny lion when I go in the Lion House to pee.  The polar bear is hiding.  I go to the African Experience to warm up and to be reminded of my trip this summer. 

I am accosted by a volunteer asking me if I “want to learn some things.”  He is about 17, kind of doughy and really excited.  How can I say no?  He quizzes me on the number of bones in the hand.  A former anatomy teacher, I should know this.

72?  27.  

How many cervical vertebrae? 

Five?  Seven. 

“Counting atlas/axis?” I say.  “I guess.” 

He shows me a cast of a human hand and a gorilla paw.  A human vertebrae and a giraffe vertebrae.  He tells me giraffes have seven cervical vertebrae too.  Theirs are just bigger.  And they work like a ball-and-socket joint.  I see this in action when I spot the giraffes.  Inside for the winter.  The tall one winds her head up in a flirtatious gesture and bats her eyelashes.  I may have a new love, I think.

I consider taking a strip of photos in a booth, like I have done with Angel. With Lee.  But it seems sad to do it alone so I don’t.

I wander into the Conservatory.  My lungs fill with warm, moist air.  I feel better.  I am tired.  I walk through the tropical plants, into the fern house, into the orchid house.  I remember carrying orchids at my wedding.  A mess of them cascading out of my hands like fragrant white water.  Gorgeous.

I take a picture of a sign.  “Sensitive Plant.”  I think of my friend Dina.  She used to call me Princess and the Pea because I am so sensitive.  She is too.

I sit on a bench by the sensitive plant and close my eyes.  I am feeling more comfortable on my date.  That first hour is about easing into it.  The second hour is about enjoying it. 

I post my photos on Facebook.  I consider these memories, little fragments of my life seen through a zoo lens.  Stories I would tell someone if I were here on a date.  I tell them to myself.





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