Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Walk in Lake Forest

One of the good things about the life of a professor is that one gets to enjoy a summer break and a winter break. Of course, the vacation also brings with it the realization that one has been indulging a little too much  during the semester and has accumulated a considerable amount of bulk around one's midsection. Owing to the fact that the excuse of having too much work and too little time is also unavailable during the break, one tries to make amends, at least partially, so that the midsection is fit to accommodate more bulk again the next semester. That, in short, is the state that I find myself in these days. Also, since the break is of the latter kind, the outside world is somewhat lacking in the temperature department, and any kind of exercise desired must be attempted either in overcoats or in the cozy centrally heated interiors.

From time to time, however, one gets a warm day even in a place like Lake Forest. When one says 'warm' here, one says so keeping in mind the fact that Lake Forest is 30 miles north of Chicago and the average temperature for December is -2 degrees Celsius with a historic low of -21. With those reduced expectations of warmth, a December day when the temperature rises 5 degrees above freezing is considered warm, and when the mercury climbs over 10, people are positively sweating in their aforementioned overcoats and centrally heated interiors. The local people are usually not heard complaining about the lack of cold, because living in these latitudes gives them a dread of lower temperatures and snow-covered driveways that is difficult to shake off. However, when one has grown up in India, and has suffered wearing a monkey-cap on a 10-degree day, one tends to look at these 'warm' days as some sort of cheating by Mother Nature and can't stop complaining about how global warming is robbing mankind from some of the simple pleasures of life such as cold winters, and how they are not getting their time and money's worth by spending the winter in the US.

But complain as one may about the lack of cold, one can't deny that a warm day has its advantages. One of the primary benefits that it offers is the chance to reduce the bulk around one's midsection by actually walking outside in the open air instead of the treadmill at the college gym. The gym may be shielded from elements, it is not shielded from the eyes of my students, and when I put on form-fitting exercising clothes that were bought when I was two sizes thinner and go to work out there, I present a spectacle for the occasional unlucky student that, to put it mildly, we both want to avoid. Walking outside, on the other hand, needs the presence of a winter jacket or overcoat even on the warmest of winter days that can conceal the finer details of my over-indulged anatomy from the world. So when we got a string of these warm days this week, I decided to grab the opportunity and walk downtown to post some letters. Downtown Lake Forest is about a mile from my home and the round trip could be considered a fair amount of exercise for someone out of touch with the thing. So I plugged in my earphones into my smartphone, casting the necessary spells to prevent them from falling off, and muffled, jacketed and capped myself with a muffler, a jacket and a cap, respectively. Finally I put the letters in my backpack and started on my walk through the campus. The campus grounds look mostly deserted now, as the usual occupants of the grounds have gone home for their break and the unusual occupants prefer to stay indoors. I crossed the campus, exited it through the large gate on Sheridan Road and entered College Road.

Lake Forest, as the name suggests, is full of large trees. Most of these trees are part of estates surrounding large mansions. Many years ago, I have forgotten exactly how many, the rich professionals working in Chicago decided they liked this little town on lake Michigan for some reason, which I have also forgotten. So all the affluent lawyers, doctors and industrialists built their mansions in Lake Forest. In time, media barons, actors and other kinds of rich people whose professions I can't even begin to imagine moved here and bought all the properties available. Today, Lake Forest has mostly mansions and hardly any regular-sized houses. The best and the costliest mansions, one imagines, are the ones by lake Michigan, with their private beaches and boathouses where they keep their yachts. That's only a guess, of course, since someone like me wouldn't know anything about the prices of mansions. My guess is based on a news report from a few months ago that reported one of the beachfront mansions was supposedly haunted and so its owners were trying to sell it off at a greatly reduced price of ten million dollars.

College Road is one of the roads that have these wooded mansions on both sides. The sidewalk here has deep deer tracks imprinted into the concrete at one point, which always makes me wonder how old those must be. The town itself is pretty ancient--- the college was established in 1857 and the downtown area in 1916. But the concrete sidewalks are probably much newer than that. I entered Washington Road at the next crossing and continued walking. Some areas of Lake Forest have a somewhat English-village-like feel and walking here often takes one back to the land of Miss Marple and Blandings Castle. People who live in real English villages will probably fail to see this resemblance, but when one's familiarity with the English villages is based on murder mysteries, even the small similarities seem significant. Thinking about murder mysteries, I reached the next crossing,  and walked across the triangular grassy area on Deerpath Road. There is a beautiful life-size bronze deer statue in this park which I had used for my holiday greetings last year. As usual for this time of the year, a bright red ribbon was tied around the statue's neck in a large bow. Most of the houses around me were also decorated in some form or another for Christmas. It was only half past three, but the low rays of a dying sun had turned the green grass at the deer's feet golden. Although Jim Reeves' soothing voice dreamed of a white Christmas in my ear, this year we have had only one light snowfall and very few frosty nights, so the grass is still mostly green everywhere. I passed the Lake Forest Library guiltily looking at the crowd of cars parked there. I haven't found time to visit the library even once this year. With an advanced new year resolution to visit the library in the coming year, I crossed the railway tracks and stepped into the downtown area.

The downtown in Lake Forest, like the other parts of the town, reflects the prosperity of the residents. For the most part, the businesses are either standalone stores, or chains like Williams-Sonoma, Talbots or J. Crew that stock items on the pricier side. When the first McDonald's was being opened in a different part of Lake Forest many years ago, the local residents were up in arms against it, claiming it would attract the wrong kind of people who would destroy the town. Later, they were allowed to open the store on condition of not displaying their iconic golden double-arch 'M' sign. Even the Starbucks Cafe on North Western Avenue, the main street through the downtown area, is a vast and fancy affair with rustic brick walls, fireside sofas and special reserve coffee blends that one can order and be served in porcelain mugs. I like this cafe a lot because the presence of students with notebooks and laptops inside gives the place a college-town feel seen in places like Cambridge, MA or Madison, WI which is otherwise missing from Lake Forest. The streetlights are now decorated with wreaths of red and green and the big pine in Market Square is decorated as a Christmas tree. Other trees around the place are also covered in lights, although they won't be lit until an hour or so later. I know because I have been to this place after dark. The town bookstore has a very nice window display of a model town, and I paused to take photos of it with my cellphone.

The Market Square in Lake Forest claims to be the oldest shopping center in the US which was built with parking space for shoppers. Built in 1916, the place has a clock tower, another tower with a sundial, and rows of shops around a central green. The central green has a bronze statue of a mother and her child which is also a fountain in the warmer months but has the water turned off now. The Union Pacific North Metra railway line which connects Chicago to Milwaukee has a station right opposite Market Square. As I turned into Market Square, I heard the bells from the railway crossing and seconds later, a bi-level train came to a halt at the station. I walked through the Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and Tesla cars parked around the parking lot of Market Square and headed for the post office at the opposite corner.

The Lake Forest post office is housed in a quite large building and the interior is reminiscent of the General Post Office in New York City. Much, much smaller, of course, but just reminiscent of that place. There was a line at the post office, mainly because only one window was manned and there were several people with dozens of holiday cards to mail. I myself had five envelopes which I dispatched, and then left. Work done, I was feeling elated. Also, Google Fit was informing me I had already walked for about half an hour. I decided to check out Sweet Pete's, the candy store at Market Square. Poulami and I have been yearning to eat some of their handmade chocolates since we arrived in Lake Forest two years ago, but something or the other always came up and prevented us from eating those chocolates. We even bought them as gifts for other people, but never ate them ourselves. I thought, I'll buy a box of those chocolates and surprise Poulami with them. Besides, the fact that one has started exercising to reduce weight is cause enough for celebration with chocolates. When I reached the shop, I found all the windows covered with black fabric. There were some legal notices stuck on the door. I tried reading them but they couldn't be understood because they were in legalese nonsense. I could only guess that the candy shop had been kicked out because they couldn't pay their rent. A mom with two kids was excitedly discussing the shop's closure with another man standing right there. Presumably, she had brought her children for a treat and had been disappointed like me.

I felt a little sad, not only because I wanted to eat those chocolates and now I couldn't, but also because I feel sad whenever I see stores closing down in this country. Since the time I arrived in the US in 2008, I have seen large and apparently busy stores abruptly go bankrupt and close. There was Steve & Barry's soon after I came here, then Virgin Records at Times Square, and then Borders which really hurt, and Circuit City, and then Pearl Paint which hurt some more, because I loved the place, and then the much-visited Times Square ToysRUs store. More recently, ToysRUs has filed for bankruptcy, and if news reports are to be believed, Sears won't last another year. Sears, whose office space requirement created the tallest building in the world, which was the original mail-order company in the days before the Internet, is bending its knees to and the like. Retail giants like Macy's and Bon-Ton are also closing down stores every year. I had no idea whether this candy store was one of a chain or just a stand-alone store, but its closure surely felt like a small but significant change in the town that I have come to love in the last two years.

But my sadness didn't last long. Pandora was playing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" into my ears and if Holiday music has one good quality, that's its ability to lift one's spirits. I started on my brisk walk back towards home. Chocolates would have to wait for another day, and I'm sure we'll be able to find other stores nearby. About fifteen minutes later, when I entered the college grounds through the gate on Sheridan Road, the sun had already dipped behind the trees and the lower part of my office building was submerged in shadows, but a narrow band at the very top still glittered golden. I stopped to take photos of that spectacle with my phone, and then walked home. That's when I thought, "I haven't formally described Lake Forest on my blog in the last two years, why not do it now?"

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