CHICAGO -- As an antidote to Washington, a weekend in Chicago proves wonderfully instructive in the delights of simplicity. The occasion is a reunion of the class of 1947 at the College of the University of Chicago, an odd lot of adolescents and returning veterans, all of whom had struggled with the mysteries of Plato's Dialogues and the other classics our resident demi-god, Robert Maynard Hutchins, decreed to constitute the heart of a liberal education.
After dinner, our classmate, archeologist Robert McCormick Adams, now the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, tells us we should not try retroactively to invent a homogeneous culture that had not existed in our student days. But we find in conversation that we had more of a bond than we knew. Almost all of us can summon up with ease the terror we had felt in confronting those formidable works of philosophy, science and literature we had been asked to read and analyze. And all of us can recall the occasional exaltation at discovering, in classroom discussion or dormitory bull session, some glimpse of their meaning.
After the reunion events, I leave the South Side for the North, seeking more wisdom from the contemplation of the past. At least 10 years before I set foot on the Midway -- at least 50 years ago, that is -- I started going to ball games at Wrigley Field. And Saturday afternoon I confirm what seems increasingly important -- that it has not changed at all.
I had last checked it out in 1984. I had loved watching the first two playoff games against the Padres, surrounded by other longtime and long-suffering fans, all of us insulated from foreknowledge that the Cubs were about to blow their pennant chances again. But there was no link to the past in a Cubs-Padres rivalry, no precedent for the Cubs' being in a league championship series. It felt very strange watching baseball in October in Wrigley Field.
This Saturday afternoon, by contrast, as the Cubs prepare to play the Cardinals, everything reverberates with tradition. These teams have played each other forever.
Much -- perhaps too much -- has been written about Wrigley Field's fidelity to baseball's past: the grass surface, the ivy on the outfield walls, the refusal to install lights or play night games. Less noted, but equally important, is the simple fact that Wrigley Field allows baseball, the neighborhood game in every American community, to be played in a neighborhood setting.
Almost every other ballpark, old and new, is surrounded by acres of parking lots; many have spaghetti strands of superhighway circling their perimeters. A few years ago, I tried to walk to a night game at Shea Stadium from the LaGuardia Airport motel where I was staying. The distance was modest, but no sidewalks or surface streets lead to the Mets' home. By the time I had dodged traffic to cross three freeways, I was almost too shook-up to enjoy the game.
Wrigley Field, by contrast, is reached on foot. You walk down city sidewalks, past apartment buildings that look no better or worse than they did 50 years ago. The neighborhood is not being gentrified, and it is not slipping slumward. It is the same it always has been, and so is the experience inside the park.
You walk in, buy your scorecard, and find your seat -- in my case, in a box just beyond first base. The seats are still uncushioned wood; the scoreboard is primitive; and the game is unfolding just a few feet away. Time has stopped. The Cardinal bullpen pitchers, soaking up the sun on a bench just beyond the red brick wall where I have rested my beer, are as fresh-faced (and, in this case, as uniformly white) as were the players I first saw 50 years ago.
It is not until I get back in my rental car, savoring the memories of a satisfying 6-5 win, that the meaning of the reunion and the ball game become clear. I tune in Garrison Keillor's next-to-last ''Prairie Home Companion'' broadcast and find him answering questions from people in the audience. A man, obviously unhappy at the program's imminent demise, asks plaintively ''if we'll ever get another glimpse of Lake Wobegon.''
Keillor responds that each of us should be able to construct a far more complete picture of his imaginary village in our minds when he stops giving us the weekly news from Lake Wobegon. He says that he has learned that the fewer details he supplies in his stories, the more convincing the pictures listeners draw for themselves. ''I found that if I just didn't get in the way of people's imaginations, they would give me all kind of credit as a storyteller.''
That comment is more than charming modesty. It explains why Wrigley Field and the College of the University of Chicago exert such a hold on those who attended them. The ballpark has no electronic scoreboards or other distractions to get in the way of the spectator's experience of the game of baseball. And the Hutchins college, today as then, encourages a direct experience -- at whatever level of understanding one can achieve -- of the writings of the finest minds of Western civilization.
Keillor is bowing out, but Wrigley Field and the College of the University of Chicago go on, essentially unchanged. And that is something to celebrate in this overgimmicked, overcomplicated world.