IMG_1281We may be in the depths of February, the middle of winter, but there are clues that we won’t be encased in ice forever. Sure, the snow keeps on coming, and the plowed mountains of it around parking lots will be with us till May, but each morning the sun rises a few seconds earlier than the day before.

Our conditioning starts in November when daylight savings time ends and we have to slog to and from work in the dark. The winter solstice passes almost unnoticed in December, overshadowed by the holidays, then sometime in January the sun is actually rising during my commute. What a difference that makes. Seeing the rosy sky makes me smile and feel hopeful about the day. Even if it’s 5 degrees out with crusty sidewalks and the sun isn’t melting anything, it feels less grim.

I recently had to update my computer password: I added “sun” to it. Wishful? Or maybe a silent invocation. Even on the dreariest days, I type those letters as if they had the power to part the clouds.

Growing up, the first sign of the potential end to winter was snowbells blooming in the yard. It was exciting to spy this impossible flower that literally might poke up through the snow. As the petals spread to reveal a green center, it seemed too delicate to be so hardy. It’s no surprise that people recommend you keep fresh flowers in your house during the winter. Anything to add color and remind you that the earth isn’t dead.

It can sometime be harder to let the light in. Our wall of windows seems porous in the winter, and the cold seeps in. Closing the blinds and drawing the curtains may warm things up, but the shafts of sunlight add an important element. One of our house plants has long tendrils that curl into the window frame, determined to find the outdoors in all seasons. Light is more important than temperature.

Fortunately, February is a short month, followed by March which is now the start of daylight savings time. That clock change won’t influence the temperature much, but the added light to our day will certainly lift the mood.


Slip and Slide

IMG_2727On the way to work after a winter storm, I’m threading my way through the five or six inches of heavy, wet snow. There are deep, slushy pools at the corner, so I have to leap over them to cross the street. At that moment, I fear losing my balance and landing on my back, like Charlie Brown when Lucy pulls the football away, or doing the splits into the slush pile. I pause, peering over the impossibly wide moat of gray goop.

Compared to most of us, winter Olympians embody grace and style in extreme situations. Skiers fly through the air, zoom down steep snow covered mountains, dodge the gates, bounce through moguls, and come to a perfect curving stop at the bottom. Speed skaters, bent together in formation, move impossibly fast while looking so calm. Curlers crouch gracefully while sending a heavy stone to the target (I’ve learned it’s called a house). Cross-country skiers make an orderly single-file path in the quiet woods. Bobsledders fly down an iced chute looking much more in control than I do behind the wheel of my car on a snowy street. And figure skaters? Well, they can glide more smoothly than any ballet, until they slip, stagger, or land on their butt. And this is the part of the Olympics I most identify with.

Of course, Olympic figure skaters are displaying the highest skill, and the level of difficulty can outweigh errors in execution. Even an outright wipe-out may only result in a 1 point deduction. And they jump right back up as if nothing has happened. Even though they never seem to be dressed warmly enough for the weather (no hats or gloves, and skin tight spangly costumes) they smile and keep going.

If I were to hit a slippery patch on the way to work, all the things I’m carrying would contribute to my being off balance in the first place, and then would be strewn in opposite directions. Part of the post-fall adrenaline surge would be to see if I could get my briefcase out of the snowbank and my lunch bag out of the bushes before anyone noticed. I imagine I’d also have to brush the snow off my coat and hair, and continue my stagger toward the train.

So, here I am at the curb with a pool of slush three feet wide and of indeterminate depth between me and the street. To get across I’ll need to leap. I brace myself, hold onto my bags and push off. It feels like super slo-mo and then I stick the landing. The Swiss judge gives me a 10 for my little Olympic moment.

See You in the Funny Papers

IMG_2721Morning routine: bring in the paper, find the comics, giggle while reading my favorites. The comics were probably the only part of the paper I read when I was young, and as I grew, I treated them like dessert to reward myself after reading the rest.

My earliest memories of the comics included the enduring classics: Peanuts and Blondie, but also an assortment of comics that have ceased:

  • Nancy: a school girl with spiky hair who was alway facing off against Sluggo the bully
  • Li’l Abner: this comic seemed odd to me, like a version of Hee Haw making fun of southerners
  • Pogo: I tried to read it but rarely understood the satire
  • Little Orphan Annie: that girl had creepy eyes!

I never read Prince Valiant, Apartment 3G, or Mary Worth – maybe they seemed too much like soap operas.  After I was married with children, The Family Circus, Baby Blues, and For Better and For Worse allowed me to laugh at the everyday things that threatened to make me cry. When the kids got older, Fox Trot and Zits hit the nail on the head about teens learning to drive, navigating school, and trying desperately to grow up. As a working adult, Dilbert and Doonesbury triggered knowing laughs about the workplace, politics, and media.

Recently I read that Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, passed away. While I haven’t seen that comic strip in years, I remember it clearly. The strip followed the life of the soldiers at Camp Swampy: a group of privates, their blustery Sarge and his dog Otto (a recurring crossword puzzle answer), a misguided Lieutenant, a head-in-the-clouds General, and two secretaries (one buxom and one decidedly not). Even though my dad was a veteran of World War II and Korea, that wasn’t why I connected with this comic. We had an original framed in our house.

I think the cartoon was a gift from a conference my dad attended. Dad worked for a packaging firm that pioneered the use of cardboard cylinders to hold frozen juices (and Pringles), and produced all manner of aluminum foils and containers like the plates that held TV dinners or pies. So in this custom Beetle Bailey cartoon, Beetle finds a stack of aluminum pie plates, and starts tossing them into the distance like frisbees. All of the privates join in and soon the sky is filled with the sailing silver plates. When General Halftrack sees all of these flying saucers, he sounds an alarm to fight the aliens. Meanwhile, Sarge figures out what is going on, and chases after Pvt. Bailey. The cartoon was signed by Mort Walker – “ To Jim, and your lovely wife!” It certainly made me look for Beetle Bailey everyday, wondering if there would ever be any other personal messages conveyed.

Lately, I find I read more news on my phone and computer without the reward of comics. But when the Sunday paper arrives, I pull out the colored section to catch up with old friends.

Blind Spot

91cqujed86l.jpgI can waggle my hand at my brother, whining a sing song, “Lance” and I know he’ll laugh remembering Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. My husband and I know all the words to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. I can quote part of a Beatles’ lyric, and someone can usually finish it. It’s great to make cultural connections with others who share the same experiences and memories. And then you find out there are differences. Things other people have done, read, seen and somehow you’ve missed it.

I’ve never seen The Godfather, never read War and Peace, never watched Friends. Have I missed something essential? War and Peace has never loomed before me as a something I must accomplish. And The Godfather? Maybe I was too young when it came out, and later, I guess I never got around to it. Asking my mom about the popularity of Elvis in the 60’s, she said that she completely missed it because she had her hands in the diaper pail. I can relate. The 90’s flew by and I never watched one episode of Friends – there was no time for most TV when the kids were small.

I was deliberate about wanting my kids to see The Wizard of Oz. First, I wanted them to be old enough that they wouldn’t be terrified (I spent many nights under the covers convinced that witch was coming for me), and I wanted them to be able to recognize the myriad references from the movie that they’d encounter everywhere (there’s no place like home, click your heels, and your little dog too, surrender Dorothy, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore, oil can,the witches broom stick, I’m melting).

When everything seems available and sharable, from downloading a library’s worth of books instantly on your tablet, to viewing any classic movie or TV show on a streaming service, one could fill any gap in cultural knowledge. But who has the time? In the late 80’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know was an interesting tome that did two things: it let me feel smug about all the things I did know, and feel bad about all the things I did not know. The book was probably more concerned that we know about the three branches of government than who Rachel and Ross were, but it didn’t make me fill those voids.

Shared experience and knowledge form strong bonds and allow for shorthand communications; but I guess it’s more interesting if we don’t all know exactly the same things. Right about now, I think you’ll be looking up Lancelot Link and scratching your head.

Wash Me

After a road trip over salted winter roads, my car is encased in a crust. Unending, fine spray from the cars in front of me kept my windshield wipers busy, so that I only have front and back portholes to see through. My car is more “ambient” colored than blue. Fortunately, there’s a small break in the cold temperatures, so I’m headed to the car wash. I wish it would be so easy to tend to all the other places where winter grime lurks.

Our front hall is filled with a collection of boots and gym shoes. We try to abide by the city-living rule of “no shoes in the house” so they all come off here. Even though our condo is a significant number of steps from the outside, gunk still clings to our shoes. Stowaways in the deep grooves of the soles come: gray, melting slush, crystals of salt, small rocks, sand, and leaf litter. They make it inside the door, and, eventually, all over our unit somehow. Walking though the kitchen, there’s a crunch underfoot as a piece of salt skitters to the side, and I find a leaf in the closet. Boots have a white line marking the depth of puddle slush before it dried. My coats have dusty patches from when I brushed up against some outdoor surface.

Sweeping and mopping seem a Sisyphean task, because we keep going out into the salty world and coming back. Granted, this is a year-round challenge, but exacerbated in the winter with snow and ice. Even when I think the floor looks clean, if I bend down to wipe up a bit of water, the paper towel comes back gray every time.

When we first moved to the city, the most striking example of city dirt didn’t come from our shoes, but from the windows. Window sills accumulated a fine black dust that wasn’t immediately obvious until you ran your finger across it. I was surprised because we didn’t live near any manufacturing smokestacks, or next to the train tracks. We were up high with a lovely view of the sky, and yet, the air was filled with particulates. Invisible car and bus exhaust that turned out to be not so invisible.

So I wash. My face and hands, laundry, windows, windowsills and floors. And sometimes, my car.

Home is Where the Soup Is

IMG_2705When I dream about home, it’s my childhood home. I can walk around furniture and look at rooms from different angles. I can see out the windows, as if I’ve been dropped in a museum diorama of my youth and allowed to walk around in it. This is the correct color of the kitchen cabinet, this is the quality of light in this room in the afternoon. I can zoom in to see the texture of an upholstered chair. These are details I may have noticed once, but after so much time, it’s startling have them laid in front of me.

My childhood home was sold, but I sometimes drive by, only to see toys on the front porch, and new trees planted in the yard. Inside, it would be understandable to find they had remodeled the kitchen. I remember it with everything we needed close at hand. A cutting board that pulled out from under the counter. The mobile dishwasher, a charming artifact of the days before everything was built in. The big ceramic sink. The Spice Islands spice racks. The cold floor in the winter. The view out over the back yard. The separate breakfast nook with hanging copper pots.

This weekend I’m visiting my mom. She’s been in her beautiful home for nearly 25 years, and while it is not where I grew up, I’ve been here often enough to make memories. Christmases and Thanksgivings with young kids, summer nights with cool breezes pulled in by the attic fan, poring over old photos, shoveling the long long driveway one winter when there was so much snow. But the core of those memories is always food. Some people buy a flower arrangement to welcome guests. My mom cooks a pot of soup. And roasts a chicken. And makes Benedictine. There is always something wonderful to enjoy. A mug of tea, buttered toast and a really good scrambled egg.

When I woke up this morning, I shifted to get out of bed and bumped into the wall instead. That’s when I remembered where I was and that I’ll be heading back tomorrow. It will be a few hours on the highway, and my own soup pot beckons.


IMG_2683I’ve always thought I was a normal height. As some comedian once said, my legs go all the way down to the floor. But occasionally I’m reminded that many things are made with bigger people in mind.

At the grocery, many of the items I want are on the top shelf, so I look around for a tall grocery employee, or any tall shopper and ask if they can reach it for me. I think they should have an attached, movable ladder like you see in book stores or libraries to help shoppers reach the items they put up so high. It would be less of a risk than having me attempt to scale the shelves on my own.

Clothing stores maximize their displays by hanging clothes at least 6 feet off the ground. This means that you have to ask for help to pluck anything you’d like to see off the wall. The store employee has a pole with a hook on it that allows them to lift the hanger and bring down the item. Recently faced with that type of display in a discount store, instead of looking for someone to help me, I decided to try to get an item down by using a nearby supply of full-sized umbrellas with hooked handles. I stretched up and thought I’d snag the hanger when all I managed to do was tangle the umbrella around the display pole until it was completely stuck. Embarrassed, I left the umbrella hanging there between two shirts that I no longer wanted to examine up close.

Growing up, my mom used to tell me I was a perfect size. I take after my dad’s short side of the family, while mom is tall. Even though I thought she looked glamorous like Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show, she says that being a tall girl in school was uncomfortable; she was always in the back row of class pictures, and would often slouch to appear shorter. Until at some point she surely recognized that being able to reach the top shelf was a valuable skill.

Being short has some advantages. I usually have plenty of leg room in a car or on a plane. Visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the docent cautioned us to watch our heads going through doorways, but I sailed through without a care. Even buying clothes has become less difficult with petite sizing, the 29” inseam, and three quarter length sleeves. When I look at old school pictures, I was never on the back row, but I was trying to stand out by sitting up especially tall.



hyn.jpgFlipping the calendar over to a new year causes us to review the past and consider the future. Do we want to keep things the same or do we want a radical change? I have a modest list that I hope won’t be too hard to achieve, but hidden in each are lots of little behaviors I’ll have to change.

Lose weight.
This really means reducing my portion size for each meal (even if it’s delicious and I want seconds), drinking lots of water everyday, and putting down that bowl of chocolate candy while I watch TV.

Have firm upper arms to look great in that special sleeveless dress.
Even though I’m barely awake most mornings at the gym, I need to do lots more lifts and curls and dips. My pushup form needs improvement, and I really have to learn how to do an unassisted pull-up.

Reduce the clutter in the house.
My normal strategy of straightening up and putting things away is only dealing with the symptom. Reducing clutter really means having less, purging and not replacing. Reconsidering things I have but don’t actually use (am I really going to wear that blazer again?). Our collection of empty boxes arises from my instinct to save things I think have a future use. Sure, I’ve found a way to fashion them into drawer organizers that is quite effective, but, I think it’s really a mania.

Try new recipes.
If I’m honest, there are probably only ten meals that I make, over and over. They’re yummy, family favorites, and most times, not too heavy. I can make them quickly without a recipe, and usually have the ingredients on hand. New recipes require time to study the instructions and buy special ingredients. The outcome isn’t assured, but I should stretch myself. There may be a new family favorite in those cookbooks.

Consume varied sources of news.
I think this may be the hardest. I currently depend on a group of podcasts, the Chicago Tribune, and news I’ve selected on a phone app. I’m aware that when we can pick our news we are likely to select points of view like our own. It’s comforting to think that other people agree with my world view, but I know I should seek out opposing thoughts. What good are my opinions if they can’t sustain a challenge? And there’s surely something there I can learn.

A theme in my resolutions is trying to change small things within my control. In a crazy, scary world, it’s a good start.

Dickens of a Cake

IMG_2630We’re putting together a fun menu for Christmas, each of us contributing ideas and labor. The finale is planned to be a plum pudding, straight out of A Christmas Carol. As the Cratchit’s observed, the pudding would be “like a speckled cannon-ball…blazing in …ignited brandy…with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Sounds easy enough. Little did we know how confusing this would be.

Researching recipes for plum pudding, we found that the primary divider is whether you want to make it with or without suet. Yuck, suet? No thank you. The next thing we discovered is that some recipes start by saying how much better the plum pudding will be if you make it ahead – like a year ahead. During which time, I think one is to pour brandy over it repeatedly. It’s starting to sound a lot like fruitcake if you ask me. Some of the recipes didn’t even call for plums. Just all those dried fruits in fruitcake. Finally we found recipes asking for either fresh plums or canned plums. This seemed like the right direction to go in.

The produce departments of five grocery stores served up disappointment. Even though we can buy every fruit you can think of, there were no plums anywhere. Apricots? Yes. Nectarines? Yes. Dragonfruit, kiwis, and blueberries? Yes. But no plums. We looked for frozen plums. We found peaches, avocado, and mango, but no plums. The baking aisle finally offered something we thought would work. Not canned plums, but canned sweetened reconstituted prunes. Close, but if this didn’t pass muster, maybe we could make prune Danish instead.

I haven’t opened the cans yet. I figure it can be a Christmas morning surprise, and we’ll make the best cake we can. Besides, any cake you can light on fire will make for a thrilling finale to a good day.

Till then, I’ll sleep with visions of …well, you know.

Christmas Story

Tall ChristmasFor some reason, I’ve never taken much to the Christmas Story movie with the BB gun, tongue stuck to a pole, and the outrageous leg-lamp. Instead, I watched the stop-action Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with the elf whose wish was to become a dentist, and A Charlie Brown Christmas with the poor sad tree and the fabulous jazzy dancing. But just as fundamental to the season as these shows was The Tall Book of Christmas, a collection of stories that appeared to be set in Germany or Switzerland or Russia where all of the characters were blond with pink cheeks.

I pored over this book every year, loving the unusual tales and the colorful illustrations. There was the mean giant who was placated when given limburger cheese; the granny who used candies in a pinch to dye all her white yarn, rendering the mittens she knitted deliciously edible; the tale of the mysterious babushka who wandered from house to house in the snow looking for a family to let her in; and the kind man who spent Christmas in jail and carved wooden figures small enough to push out of a knothole in his cell wall for the kind children who brought him food. There were also Christmas stories like Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, but these unusual stories stuck with me, probably because I’d never heard them anywhere else.

Eventually the book fell apart from use and disappeared. When I would remember it, I’d ask friends if they knew about the book, but was usually met with blank stares. Sometime after college, I was touring Victorian homes in Old Louisville that were decorated for the holidays. In the living room of one home, along with the Christmas tree, wreaths, and candles, I saw The Tall Book of Christmas displayed on a table. And they had copies for sale.

When our kids were small, I started bringing this book out for the holidays. As the name implies, it has a distinctive shape – only 5 inches wide, but 14 inches tall. It’s slim enough to read all in one sitting, but each story could be dwelt over as we examined the illustrations and talked about the characters. They’d giggle at the same things I had, and ask for multiple readings. Now, even as adults, they’ll surreptitiously pluck the book off the coffee table to look through the pages.

Of course the holidays have many stories, and books have a lot of competition. Kids’ programs (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), feature films (Love Actually), made-for-TV movies (Hallmark and, seemingly every cable channel). We will partake of all of them, dabbing our weepy eyes, happy to be home and warm. Then I’ll be on the watch for lemon-flavored mittens, and small packets of limburger.