Musings + Essays

Triumphs, Sirens, and Geographies.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image via DC City Girl.

In his memoir, Dave Grohl describes the long drive from Springfield, VA up to Evanston, IL that his family took most summers of his youth. I related viscerally to his description of the trek, as Mr. Magpie and I drove from Glover Park (D.C.) to Lincoln Park (Chicago) about a decade ago, newlyweds setting out on our own. Like Grohl, I recall the transition from the familiar hills of the mid-Atlantic to the endless flatlands of Ohio and Illinois — a featureless blur of cornfield — and then, suddenly: Chicago. Chicago! Chicago rises like a mirage out of the plains. Grohl describes its sudden pitch into view as you barrel down I-90 perfectly: “Chicago appears, triumphant.” Just so. There is something about that approach that still stirs awe, even years after living there, and countless trips into and out of the city during our stay. The Chicago that ascends out of Lake Michigan as you approach from the northwest is sprawling, powerful, industrial, towering, and with each passing mile, you are only aware of your impossible smallness alongside it.

It’s funny, this sensation, because Chicago itself — its people, its vibe — did not exactly match its domineering cityscape. The Chicago I knew (I lived in Lincoln Park and then Ukrainian Village, for reference) was pleasantly unfussy and approachable. It possessed its own brand of sophistication, to be sure, but it was a quiet kind that did not announce itself. Given this low-key polish, the cityscape felt almost garish by comparison. And yet, in a strange way, it fit: there was something about the steady, driving, nearly mechanical pulse of that city — the screech of the L along the raised tracks, the sluice of the Chicago River through its center, the gridlock and elbow-to-elbow high-rises of the Loop, the clank of the wide metal bridges — that meshed perfectly with the no-nonsense, keep-moving-forward way in which Chicagoans appeared to live and carry on their business. Perhaps this sensibility was in part shaped by the elements. It would be negative 12 and there would be five feet of snow on the ground, and still my Chicago friends would arrive for happy hours and book clubs without so much as a word about the inclemencies they had faced en route. The Chicagoans I knew were unfazed by the cold, and similarly unimpressed by other instances of flash and drama. They seemed, in general, to be a thoroughly level-headed, unflappable sort: as tough and sturdy as the cityscape itself.

The food scene there bore a similar understatedly powerful profile: Chicago was (and still is) a hotbed for culinary innovation, with many world-renowned chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants within its city limits, but it did not boast the borderline frenetic, dine-here-or-be-dead-forever feeling of New York’s restaurant circuit. We loved dining in New York, but it was always a production — even when simply angling to get into a neighborhood joint at the last minute. Chicago, probably owing to size/census/density of restaurants/etc, never felt that way — in fact, seemed approachable and attainable! — but the food was superb and inventive all the same. Mr. Magpie has often debated whether he found Chicago or NY more exciting from a food standpoint, which probably amounts to sacrilege for some given New York’s global significance, but I have to agree: we had some of the best meals of our lives in Chicago, from fine dining haute cuisine (Alinea! Tru!) to farm-to-table magic (so authentic in Chicago and perfected in my opinion at Publican) to cuisines-I’ve-never-heard-of-before (Macanese at Fat Rice, R.I.P.) to the best damn bowl of ramen I’ve ever had (at the generically-named Wasabi).


I have been sitting here watching Chicago pour out of my fingertips. I did not know I had so much to say about the city, and all it took was Dave Grohl’s description of the city as “triumphant” to bring me here. What this says to me is how powerful place is. When I think about “memories,” I assume immediately I will be calling forth the people I love. But the places I have lived, the corners of this world I have at various points in my life claimed as my own, carry their fair measure, too. My daughter was born in a hospital overlooking Lake Michigan on a cold March morning, and my son in one over Central Park on a warm May day. I cannot separate those backdrops from their birth experiences, and so they “stitch in” to the very fabric of the tenderest and wildest moments of this blessed life. Their imprints are fixed, permanently, as though footprints in cement, on these cornerstone experiences.

But Chicago, New York, D.C., Charlottesville, and Lyon are woven into even the quietest of background memories, too: the mute and trivial ones that coalesce around the recollection of a date night, or a reference in a book, or the name of a restaurant. The ones I only vaguely acknowledge without realizing how wide and deep their panoramas are within my sensorial library. I still feel, for example, the line of avuncular-seeming buildings along Central Park West looking upon me with a kind of benign supervision while I’d walk Tilly at dusk those hundreds of nights in Manhattan. I still sense faces peering or not peering out of windows: the distinctively New York feeling of being anonymous and celebrity at once. I feel, too, the warmth and welcome of Chicago in June, as we’d walk through Lincoln Park towards Lake Michigan: crisp, cloudless azure over manicured green lawns that seemed to invite us to the water, banishing the city of its wicked winter sorrows. And the cold is there, too, of course: Mr. Magpie a dark form shoveling behind a snow-speckled window for what felt like months on end; the numbing feeling of air that was too cold to register as I walked through nearly-waist-deep-snow at the University of Chicago; the endless bracing against the needling wind along Chicago Ave. Just as easily, I feel the heavy, torpid weight of a D.C. summer against the icy blast of the buildings in which I worked, the way my fingers would go from blue with cold to almost buoyed by thick, hot air the minute I’d make my way to my car out in Tyson’s Corner. It’s an unpopular opinion, but I like that humid weight. I grew up in it, accommodated its stillness. It, too, is sewn into me, as sure as the scars that brought my children into this world. These are the physical geographies that have shaped my imagination. They have mediated my understanding of the world and baptized me in its phenomena. As an example, I have written elsewhere that my hometown of D.C. has always seemed to me “small and slack — like a mildly overgrown thicket or a tumbler of water that’s been sitting, sweating, in the heat, a ring of water pooled around its basin.  There is a languor to it — especially in the summer — underscored by the heavy shade of trees you’ll find most anywhere in Northwest D.C. in particular, and the torpid buzz of cicadas, and the canopy of humidity.  The lush green spaces are unmanicured; street signs are often partially obscured by vines or branches; medians will occasionally boast knee-high grass.  There is a thickness, a drawl to things, that has always made me think of the city as part wild — but not wild in the awe-inspiring sense of the Rocky Mountains; wild in the sense of the wood playhouse my father built with birch planks from Hechingers and installed at the top of a small hill in our backyard, beneath a shady pine tree.” Of course these impressions are idiosyncratic, anchored by the thick and overgrown median that ran down my childhood street and the proximity of my childhood home to Rock Creek Park. To many, D.C. is an awe-inspiring metropolis, with nothing unmanicured or slack about it. But I think it must be part of the human experience to find consonance between our lives and the landscapes in which they unfold, and so Chicago is perhaps not only a triumph owing to the architecture we all (Dave Grohl included) agree to be impressive but because it was my first home away from home with my new husband. We were pioneers then, and the city accommodated that spirit. The city then drew us through some of the toughest days of our lives — grief, loss, failure — and spit us out at the other end, and so it is easy for me to fixate upon the marching mechanical grind of its enclave.

Yes, it seems to me that the more I write about these geographies to which I have belonged, the more porous the lines become. I find the physical and emotional transpose onto one another. I will not even attempt an assay, so alloyed my malleable memories and the spaces in which they unfolded have become. Instead, I will observe them with greater care. The tree on the right side of our back porch in which those mating cardinals nest, emblems of the domestic happiness in which I am currently ensconced; the movement of branches outside my writing studio, conductresses no doubt to the wandering instrument of my imagination; the fireflies that began to emerge in droves this past week, the first siren of this new and hopefully permanent lifestyle we have built in Bethesda.

I want to remember everything —


+Musings on Manhattan.

+At the peak of the pandemic, I wrote enthusiastically about New York, describing it as “still as shock” in spite of reports elsewhere that it was a dying city.

+Our decision to leave NYC.

+It was tough to live there when I was sick and we were cloistered for months on end. But we made it.

Shopping Break.

+I haven’t used any tanning products/drops/lotions since my early 20s, but have become so fastidious about sunscreen that I feel I never get any good color any more. Do you all prefer Isle of Paradise or Tan Luxe? These seem to be the front-runners for me. Tips/alternatives welcome.

+Forgot to include this $30 Marysia lookalike in my roundup of H&M finds yesterday!

+Juliet Dunn dress in a great flamingo pink on sale here, plus extra 20% off with code YOURULE. Also love this fun top by the same brand (50% off!), with or without its matching shorts! A friend of mine sent me a picture of herself wearing the shorts and matching top in a different print and said she is stopped all the time by women asking where she got the set! So cute!

+Another fab shorts set situation — so chic!

+These decorative waste bins are insanely cute and so well-priced! How much do we love this floral or this seashell print?

+25% off everything at Nantucket Kids with code BIRTHDAY. This dress in this exact toile was one of my favorite pieces mini owned — I stretched and had her wear it two summer seasons in a row. Love all of their prints, though — these seahorse shorts and this pima popsicle dress are so fun!

+This pearl-trim straw hat is fab.

+Fun STEM-oriented activity to keep on hand for a rainy day. More activity ideas here and here.

+Hunza G vibes for $60.

+LOVE this bustier dress.

+I can’t get over this adorable striped dress for a little one.

+This lace midi is nothing short of beautiful.

+This Zimmermann mini is FAB.

+Lacoste polos for boys on sale for $31 here, at least in the size 3T!

+Pam Munson did a special collab with Schumacher! Such gorgeous embroidered pieces available!

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16 thoughts on “Triumphs, Sirens, and Geographies.

  1. I just adore this — as a fellow sentimental nostalgic, I so relate to what you’ve written. I’ve only experienced Chicago and DC in short visits over the years, but I can apply the same approach to the places I’ve lived and arrive at the same conclusion: I hope I never lose the ability to remember these places and what they have meant to me over the course of my life. Just love the way you’ve written about this!


  2. What a beautiful piece to linger over this afternoon – you write so beautifully. Though I can’t *quite* mirror that fond feeling for summer humidity here (I admire it, however!), I resonate with the “wild” feeling of DC at times. Our corner of Capitol Hill is a lush neighborhood within itself – abundant shady parks, overgrown trees and flowering bushes across sidewalks, mini gardens at each rowhouse, vine-ensconced historic alleyways, and (my favorite!) a smattering of fruiting fig trees throughout the one way streets.

    On the self-tanning q … I’ve used Isle of Paradise drops happily over the last few years, but grabbed the brand’s spray version on a whim in England recently. GAME CHANGER. I find it so much easier than smushing in drops with lotion/all over my hands, then face (…and then promptly washing my hands thoroughly, lest the residue stain my palms/in between fingers/etc.). Now, post-cleanse, I spray a toner, perhaps apply a serum/light peel, then spray the tanning mist, wait about 45 second (key!) until it almost dries, then top with evening moisturizer, so it all rubs in nicely. It gives the perfect does of glow, without any extra effort.

    1. Thank you so much for the note on the Isle of Paradise spray. I’ve still not pulled the trigger on a formula so this will be entered into consideration — merci.

      Also love hearing your perspective on D.C.! So I am not alone…!


  3. I often feel similar pangs of emotion when I think about particular places, but I would also attribute it to being a nostalgic person. The nostalgia and my attention to detail sometimes causes me to pine over certain places I’ve been – even places so minor as a certain table I sat at once in a restaurant I frequent – and what my life was like then.

    I grew up in the Northeast and moved 12+ hours away to the Deep South for college/law school, and I felt that the two regions, which are wildly different, mirrored how different I was before and after the move. We change so much from our childhood selves to 18- and 22-year olds entering and leaving college, so maybe I see the change in location as myself Before and After.

    As always, this was excellent food for thought. Place carries so much significance for many!

    1. Hi! I agree – I am a particularly nostalgic/sentimental person, and I think this makes me particularly sensitive to place/feel. I also completely relate to your connecting/projecting your state of being with your environment – this has obviously proven true for me across my life and its various geographies.


  4. Oh man, you always describe DC so evocatively. I respond the most to your descriptions of the summer humidity and the sheer atmospheric weight of the place because I spent the summer of 2011 (the hottest July on record at that point!!!) in DC in a mostly depressive state. And the humidity/the cicada drone was such a visceral part of that experience- it simultaneously enveloped me, taunted me, grounded me, consumed me. I distinctly remember getting up early to attempt to go for a run on the C&O Canal and having it be a muggy 86 degrees at 6AM and the whole thing just feeling so utterly futile. I ended the summer resolved to leave the city and never return. I needed to kickstart my life and establish momentum again and the weather was just thwarting my every attempt. Anyways, sorry for dragging down your lovely reminisce with my story of an episode of poor mental health! But it resonated.

    1. Hi Anna — This is EXACTLY what I mean about the ways we find consonance between ourselves and our environments. Where I have found comfort and familiarity, you felt stuck, drawn down, consumed — the same heat and humidity, two wildly different experiences of it. I will say, though, that 86 degrees at 6 a.m. (and a D.C. 86, which is like 1000 tons of weight on your shoulders thanks to the humidity) is enough to take the bloom off the rose even for me. No thank you. I’ll skip runs those days.

      Thank you for sharing this!


  5. “Just as easily, I feel the heavy, torpid weight of a D.C. summer against the icy blast of the buildings in which I worked, the way my fingers would go from blue with cold to almost buoyed by thick, hot air the minute I’d make my way to my car out in Tyson’s Corner. It’s an unpopular opinion, but I like that humid weight. I grew up in it, accommodated its stillness. It, too, is sewn into me, as sure as the scars that brought my children into this world. ”

    Oh, how I relate to this! Where I grew up in Southeast Missouri has very similar weather to D.C. (including of course, the oppressive humidity). One of the reasons I love living in DC is that I find the weather so comforting in its familiarity, especially the humidity on summer days that remind me of childhood. Such beautiful thoughts on place and memories – always one of my favorite topics for reflection.

    1. Thank you for sharing!! Another Magpie just suggested this brand on DM! Had not heard of it prior. Merci merci!

  6. This gives me all the Chicago feels. So beautifully written and perfectly captures the spirit of the city and it’s people. Brings back memories of bounding down Armitage in search of a cab on a very snowy New Year’s Eve after a party at your place!

    1. I’m so relieved (!) to hear a true Chicagoan agree with my assessment. I remember that New Year’s Eve (C was in town, too!), and also the many book club convenings with you and the other uncomplaining ladies who joined. You all made such an impression on me. Such great memories of that time and place!


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