There was the day, four years ago, when the great jazz singer Kurt Elling and I, two people not light on self-confidence, decided that we would teach our 4-year-old daughters to fly kites.
So, we bought a couple of plastic, diamond-shaped kites at a toy store, and we walked over to the treeless field that fronts the Museum of Science and Industry.
A strong breeze was blowing in off the lake, and with great assuredness we began assembling the kites. We managed that, but the ensuing hour was a disaster, a humiliating early afternoon that saw the kites get no more than three or four feet off the ground (because we were tossing them that high), two little girls so bored they left us to play tag with some other kids, and two dads tangled up in string and trying to cope with the combination of embarrassment and incredulity.
“It can't be this hard,” I said.
“I will never try to fly a kite again,” Elling said.
“Neither will I,” I said.
That turned out to be a lie, and so it was impossible not to think of Elling and his daughter one recent Saturday when, after only a modest do-it-ourselves effort, my daughter and I shared the wind-aided wonder of two kites — our kites — hanging and dipping and bobbing in the air against the bright blue sky above what is known as Cricket Hill, that 610-foot-tall mound in the Uptown neighborhood near Montrose Harbor.
“They look like floating paintings,” said the little girl.
And she was right, though I was thinking of lines from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American pilot and poet who died at 19 in a midair collision during World War II: “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/ And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”
We had started the day full of trepidation — at least one of us did. And so it was wise and beneficial to first get the counsel of Bob Zavell. He is, along with son David, the owner of Chicago Kite/Kite Harbor, a small but colorful and, in its spread-the-kiting-gospel fashion, influential shop at 5445 N. Harlem Ave.
“When we are kids, we build kites out of wood and paper, and then we try to fly them, and they won't fly,” he said. “That lack of success kills our interest. We move on to other things.”
The store's slogan is “Kites aren't just for kids anymore,” and there are many adults who will tell you there is something soothing, almost Zen-like, about flying a kite, an activity that forms a quiet bond between you and nature.
“And it is just a lot of fun,” Zavell said.
He was a grown-up when he came to kiting. Nearly 20 years ago, he left a career as a manufacturing sales rep and bought a store called Kite Harbor in the North Pier complex. That store closed, but he did well, opening a store in Oak Park and at his current location.
He became a vocal advocate for the activity, spending three years talking Mayor Richard M. Daley into lending his name and clout to the creation of what has been for more than a decade the annual Kids and Kites Festival, which takes place in early May at Montrose Harbor.
Other festivals followed. You could go to one today in Crystal Lake. Next weekend? There's one in Glenview on Saturday and another in Naperville on Sunday.
Of course, helping promote and being present at these festivals is good for Zavell's business. He offers cards that give a 10 percent discount at his store, which is like some combination of art gallery, costume shop and toy store, filled with some 400 styles of kites in all manner of shapes (panda, butterfly, fish, dragon, alligator and more). The store also has a selection of such other things as boomerangs, flags and banners, garden spinners and yo-yos.
It is a good thing the Zavells are almost always there to help explain the difference between Kayakites and Sleds, tout the value of “rip-stop nylon” and tell you that “Delta and Parafoil are the best kites for beginners. That traditional diamond shape is the most difficult to fly.”
You're telling me. And I will tell Kurt Elling, on tour and playing in Slovenia on Monday, how I was persuaded to stay away from those diamond shapes and instead buy one Superflyer and one Parafoil and head to the park.
“You'll be just fine,” Zavell said.
The last time the Census Bureau measured statistics on some leisure activities, kite-flying did not fare well. The sad numbers: From 1998 to 2007, the number of people who flew kites recreationally at least once in a given year decreased 27 percent, to 5,219,000 from 7,154,000.
Whatever that number is these days, make it plus two, because as morning moved into afternoon, the kites — our kites — kept dancing in the air, floating paintings in the sky. A tree or three interrupted the air show a couple of times, but nothing could diminish the simple pleasure of it all. A few people stopped by. Some merely observed. A few felt the need to comment, and one older man, gray-haired and shabbily dressed, said, “Wow. Neat,” and had in his voice what sounded like an echo of days long ago.