Mini Me

IMG_1989The kids in our neighborhood are hipsters in the making. Their t-shirts feature snarky sayings or pop-culture icons; they wear Tom’s shoes and Herschel backpacks. In fact, they look a lot like their parents — not just their hair and eye color, but the whole sartorial package. The kids are mini-versions of the parents.

I guess that can be useful in a crowded place. If they get separated, it’s easy to remember that a misplaced daughter is wearing the same striped t-shirt dress and boots that you are. I’ve seen families use this strategy at Disney World. Each one wears a red t-shirt with their last name on it, or a cute phrase, like “Jones Family Spring Break,” making it easier to count heads and keep anyone from straying. They look like a unit, except for the teens who seem mortified that they’re wearing what amounts to a prison uniform.

I remember having fun dressing my kids when they were little. Adorable outfits from the Gap that mirrored the grown-up clothes (khakis and t-shirts) but had a twist for kids like an elephant or giraffe on the shirt. Colorful tops and bottoms, fun socks and tiny shoes. The clothes were comfy, had elastic waistbands, and generally lasted for a few months before they were outgrown.

Beyond everyday kids clothes, there’s the remarkable subset of clothes for special events. Tiny dresses for a flower girl, a fluffy concoction for Easter, little three-piece suits for ring bearers, or natty shorts sets. These outfits look so cute on the mannequin, but I wonder how long they’ll have it on before there’s a smear of a melted chocolate down the front or a grass stain on the seat. Let’s face it, kids are hard on their clothes. Even durable denim gets busted out knees, and shirts display evidence of the most recent meal. Why do we think this will be any different with special occasion clothes?

We have a picture of my brother, at about three years old, wearing a gray Eton suit with short pants and red knee socks. He’s got a grin on his face and for that one second looks immaculate. I’m sure that five minutes later the jacket was off, the shirt untucked and one of his shoes was missing. But it’s the memory reinforced by the picture that endures. We only remember that shining moment when everything looked perfect and we want to recreate that with our kids. So that’s why someone is going to buy a pale seersucker pair of shorts with matching bow-tie and cap plus suspenders, wrestle their son into it and take as many pictures as possible before he rolls in a mud puddle.

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Triangulate

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Living in Chicago with its grid system for roads, you’d assume that everything is regular, but you would be wrong. Sure, address numbering emanates from a central point increasing in all four cardinal directions so that you always know how far away you are from the heart of the Loop. But it’s the diagonal streets that seem to throw a wrench into things.

It looks normal enough on a map. A diagonal street cuts across the grid and in some cases is the fastest way to get from point A to point B. But when you encounter a diagonal street in your car or on foot, it’s not as clear. Imagine a four-way stop. Four right angles, and all of the cars are visible. Now, imagine a diagonal road cutting through that four-way stop making six entry points and less clarity about whose turn it is. Lights may be overhead, or on a lamp post; each street has a cross-walk and walk signals that pedestrians may or may not observe; and the street sign you see bears the names of the two streets you are not on, but you can’t tell which is the street perpendicular to you, or diagonal to you.

Chicagoans differentiate between a “hard” left (90 degrees) and a “soft” left (45 degrees). When Google Maps tries to make sense of the same intersection, they may call the “soft” left a “slight” left. None of this seems to help while dodging pedestrians when the car behind you is laying on the horn, so half the time, I end up on the wrong street.

Diagonal streets produce triangular plots of land and buildings are made to fit the space. Pointy apartment buildings look like the prow of a ship, a narrow retail entrance belies the building expanding behind, and many structures are reminiscent of New York’s Flat Iron building. The triangle bits may also be space for parks, cafe sidewalk seating, sculpture, flowers, a bench, commemorative plaques, or an ATM.

I admit, the triangles make it more interesting to explore the city. Reconnoitering may require a compass or a protractor, but there’s fun in discovery by wandering around. And once the diagonals are mastered, you feel pride in the navigational knowledge that might stump a visitor.

Death and…

slot-machine-1-678x381-e1523209882978.jpgIt’s that time of year again. Time to drag out all of the financial documents and file our taxes. Like a good spring cleaning, I look forward to the task, but find that once I start it, it takes longer than expected. I don’t have all of the necessary parts, I set it aside, I lose interest, I come back and start again.

Our taxes shouldn’t be that complicated. We don’t have a second home, or foreign bank accounts. No farm income, or nannies in our employ. No income from tips, no property sales, no lottery winnings or gambling losses. We file online and I find it to be pretty painless. I like how the program steps me through each section of the return, remembers what we did last year, and keep a running total of our refund, or what we owe. It’s a little like standing before a slot machine. Instead of putting in your quarters, pulling the handle and hoping to get three cherry clusters, I type in the amount of property tax we’ve paid, press enter, and pump my fist in the air while watching the “amount owed” number spin down to a somewhat smaller number we still owe, but not a refund. Rats.

I try to tell myself that this is better than getting a huge refund. After all, why should I treat withholding as a saving account? Don’t the experts say that we should calibrate our withholding over the year so that we break even at tax time? And yet I’m disappointed. It would feel like a gift, a reason for a meal at a fancy restaurant, or a downpayment toward a special vacation. Instead, I hear the “sad trombone” as if I lost the game.

It’s not clear to me how the recent tax reform will impact us. Nothing dramatic has happened so far, but it seems likely that our deduction for property tax next year will be even more limited. Illinois still has the second highest property taxes in the country, after New Jersey, so it’s inevitable that we’ll be making a tax payment come April.

At least there’s a silver lining. We’re one week closer to spring, and as soon as it gets above freezing, we might even enjoy it.

 

Fool Me Once

25795029464_ffc11ae261_bThe best way to get rid of belly fat! The one food you should never eat! Find out what’s really running up your electric bills! Click here! Download this! Open the attachment! I’m barraged by these urgent messages everyday. I know they are not as they seem, but they have provided one valuable service: immunization against April Fool’s jokes.

If you’re ever visiting a foreign country and lose your wallet and passport, don’t text me your plea for help. I may pause for a moment and wonder how you got all that time off work to explore the Balkans, but I’m not going to wire you any money. If you’ve written a draft of the great American novel, don’t send me an attachment to download. I will delete it and your Pulitzer-worthy work will be gone. After so many attempts to fool me digitally, I’m done with it. It’s not clever or unique and can be a dangerous load of malware. At best, it’s a big waste of time.

What I want are real practical jokes that require thought and planning. Encase my car in Saran Wrap, set a bucket of water over a partially open door, tape a “kick me” sign (or a poisson if you’re French) on my back, get me to unknowingly rub black grease onto my face, reverse all the contents of my dresser, replace all the money in my wallet with Yen.

Nearly 80 years ago, Orson Wells fooled many Americans with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. I wish some of the recent headlines could be so easily explained. Late night show hosts hardly have to alter the news to get a laugh because much of it seems unbelievable and absurd. As the news recaps wash over me, I’m making that “Really?!” face all of the time. I think I’d welcome a Martian invasion.

But today might be different. Maybe I can regard all of the news as an elaborate April Fool’s joke. I’m scanning the paper for a “gotcha” message, or a package of Swedish Fish. Ah, there it is: it’s spring in Chicago! Yes, the sidewalk cafes are being assembled and stores are selling sleeveless dresses and sandals. The forecast is 70 and sunny! April Fool!

Flatlander

IMG_2877Chicago is situated at the edge of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes formed by glaciers. While we are all enamored with the lake, and the beautiful soaring architecture, it’s easy to forget that the topography all around us is flat, flat, flat. Look to the horizon and it is a long stretch of streets in a grid. Drive to the suburbs and you see beehives of housing developments extending in all directions. But if you manage to escape the orbit of Chicagoland, as we have this weekend, you find that hills and valleys still exist.

As we trundled out of the city, we set our sights on Galena, a small northwestern Illinois town with some interesting architecture, and the home of Ulysses S. Grant. Not so far from Chicago, it’s a nice weekend trip. I imagine Chicago surrounded by a set of concentric rings, each with landmarks that signal our distance from the Loop. First we pass is O’Hare. After that, Schaumburg, the suburban shopping mecca. Next, we see the gleaming white castle of Medieval Times where knights on horseback joust to win the fair maiden’s hand while visitors eat joints of meat with their bare hands. Now we’re in the wilds of Illinois where the highway narrows to two lanes, but what surprises us is that the road begins to undulate. Pitching up and down as if our car was on a roller coaster track, we climb up, up, up and having reached the crest of the hill, point directly downward. Whee! I say, and try to throw my hands in the air.

The road rises again, and we round a curve to find that we’re higher than anything else. The valley is splayed out all around us. Farm land is sectioned off into discrete parcels, barns and silos glint in red and silver, black cows lounge in the grass. It’s breathtaking! While it’s not the Grand Canyon, it is still so different from what we see everyday, and marvelous.

With hands firmly on the wheel, we make it to our destination. This entire town seems carved into the hillside sloping down to the Galena River. There are stairs to take you from one street to the next, a cemetery where grave plots are set into the hill. I’m looking around for the funicular like the one we saw in a similarly hilly town in Italy. No, there is no elevator or train to take us up the hills. Instead, it is the perfect antidote to the generous meals, a distillery tour, and root beer flights we’ve enjoyed (who knew there were so many kinds of root beer?!). The FitBit must be happy, because we are getting in our steps.

So what makes a vacation? A warm weather escape, toes in the sand, a Disney character on your coffee mug? Sometimes all it takes is a new elevation and a view.

Stormy

Snowflakes Snowfall Winter Snow Blizzard FlakeWhen mom and I travel we attract the attention of the weather gods. Perhaps we send a ripple through the cosmos because we always make it snow. We visited New York one fall and they had an early freak snow storm that coated all the branches and downed trees in Central Park. We visited St. Louis in the spring and were hit with a one day white out – fat wet snow flakes and rotten visibility for site-seeing.

Is Mother Nature telling us to stay home? Maybe it’s just the times of year we end up traveling, maybe it’s global climate change, or maybe it’s a co-dependent superpower. A power only invoked when we’re together and have not packed boots. A trip with a light coat turns into a battle against the driving snow and rising drifts. Cute little flat shoes prove to be thoroughly inadequate in a slush puddle. Umbrellas turn inside out.

Of course we may be invoking the gods accidentally by awakening ancient knowledge as we remark on the interesting architecture we see. Driving by old buildings we call out: Corinthian columns! Egg and dart! Romanesque arch! Broken pediment! Oriel window! Inside buildings, we see piano hinges and mortise joints. In churches we recognize the apse, the transept and the narthex (gesundheit!). These terms, called from a far-away art history lesson, begin to float before our eyes, a swirling cloud that is picking up speed.

When you’ve planned a vacation, you can’t let bad weather get in the way. Instead, we laugh hysterically as we cross the parking lot with snow blowing in our eyes, and remark that the rental car didn’t come equipped with a snow scraper.

The day we fly out the sun is shining brightly, but there’s snow in the forecast where we’re headed. Mother Nature knows we’re coming.

Travels With…

IMG_2773This weekend I’m in St. Louis with my mom. It’s a modest trip with a few ideas researched in advance, and we have adventuresome spirits. I titled the preliminary itinerary, “Thelma and Louise” and for a hot second I considered renting a convertible.

Mom and I are good travelers. We can get everything we need into one bag, aren’t afraid to wear the same outfit more than once, and are unashamed to be tourists. Everything in a new city, no matter how mundane, is interesting to us. The buildings, the street signs, the sidewalk cafes, the grocery store. Then there are the landmarks that brought us here: Wash U, Union Station, and a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We keep seeing the Arch as we drive to another destination (we wave), and are delighted to stumble upon something we didn’t plan.

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is a tremendous building but the outside didn’t prepare us for what we’d see once we went through the door. The floor plan is fairly standard with a cross shape, colonnades running parallel to the main aisle, and domed ceilings over the altar, the apse, and the transepts (I have the advantage of a brochure from the cathedral to refresh my memory of all of this architectural terminology). Our eyes adjust to the low lighting inside. We admire the the marble floor and soaring columns, and as we look up, we see glittering mosaics covering every inch of the ceilings, and parts of the walls.

Most churches I’ve visited have stained glass windows and painted walls and ceilings. While mosaics may be used in a small way, I’ve never seen a church like this. The mosaics are made of small tiles, but the large scale of the images is stunning. Scenes with Jesus and Mary; angels and apostles; figures from St. Louis history. A couple of the installations fooled us by looking like fabric – a woven rug hung like a tapestry, and a lovely green drapery. There are curlicues, cherubs, deer, birds, vines and flowers. We have to sit and rest our necks while we continue to gawk.

I learned that some parts of the mosaics are done in the Italian style, some in the Byzantine tradition; there are 83,000 square feet of mosaic art created by twenty artists and installed over 75 years. Some of the mosaics were designed and installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Absolutely amazing. My personal favorite is the red ceiling in one of the side sections. The glistening color is somehow the last thing I’d expect to see in a cathedral.

Tomorrow we’ll continue our adventure and may even get to the Arch. In the land of Anheuser Busch and Cardinals baseball, who knew we’d find such a dazzling surprise.

Sweet Dreams

White-pillowsI’m accustomed to seeing all sorts of behavior in public spaces. People talking on their phones; cajoling or scolding children in the grocery store; singing or eating or applying make-up in the car next to me in traffic; even the occasional argument. But sleeping? We usually save this for home, on the couch in front of the TV, but some people pull it off in public.

Years ago, during a bus commute to work, I fell asleep and was then rudely awakened as I caught myself from falling in to the aisle. Blinking and wiping the drool from my lips, I realized I had passed my stop. Sleeping on public transit is so easy when you’re tired, warm, and rocked by the motion, but I try not to do it. Since most days I have to stand on the train, it’s not a problem.

Some sleeping commuters seem to have thought ahead – they have their possessions between their legs on the floor, or in their lap, straps and handles wound around their wrists. Some have rolled up a shirt to cushion their head against the window. Others are sprawled out across three or four of the molded plastic seats. It doesn’t look comfortable. In the Pedway system that adjoins the train stop there are more sleeping men who have piled up their bags to form a barrier between the nook they’re found and the passersby.

Sleep is a vulnerable state. Our bodies lax, our minds working through dreams. We see infants and children sleep in their strollers or car seats, but normally we don’t see adults we don’t know sleep in public. This week’s prize winner of Public Sleeping with Abandon was a large man in the train. Sitting up, sprawled over two seats, his mouth hung open and he was snoring to beat the band. He’d snort, flop around with the train movements, and sounded like he was sawing wood. If my husband were making that much noise in his sleep, I’d poke him to see if he’d change position. No one was trying to poke this man. Instead, we were all calculating how many more stops before we could get off the train and leave him to his rest.

We watch another commuter eat their breakfast on the train, but somehow it’s hard to watch someone sleep. If they’re quiet, you hope they wake in time for their stop. If they’re noisy or agitated, you hope they won’t fall or lash into whoever is closest. Apparently they trust all of us to protect their sleep. Maybe this is the best, warmest place they can find today. Maybe they’re been working the night shift and are on their way home. They deserve the rest and sweet dreams.

Cookie Season

IMG_2742We are all faced with the same post-holiday taunt: the order form for Girl Scout cookies. In January, it quietly appears at work accompanied by a sweet note from a young scout and soon the sheet is full of orders. In the 4 or 5 weeks before the cookies are delivered, we double down on our commitment to healthy eating, dodging Fat Tuesday and Valentines Day. But when those boxes are delivered, all resolve evaporates. A sleeve of Thin Mints is a serving size, no matter what the box says.

What is it about these cookies that makes them so irresistible? They certainly taste good, and they support a good cause. In part, I think it’s the element of scarcity, but it’s also nostalgic. The cookies you grew up enjoying, or for me, the memory of taking orders, collecting money, and delivering hundreds of boxes.

I was a Girl Scout for a very short time in grade school and I don’t think I ever sold a cookie, but I got a big second chance with my daughter. There was a Brownie troop that met at her school, so it seemed like an easy thing to try. She liked it, the troop was all classmates she knew and they had fun together. Because troops are led by volunteers, the leaders are always looking to engage more parents to widen the pool of resources. Before I knew it, I was pulled in.

It starts with helping out at meetings. It doesn’t feel that different than monitoring a playdate or directing activities at a birthday party. Soon I was a co-leader with another working parent; that’s when the training requirements came into the picture. Rightly so, the Girl Scouts want to be sure the adults know what they’re doing. Someone needs to be trained in first aid, how to build a fire, navigate a trail, cook outdoors.

The troop got to do so many fun activities over the years – camping trips, gardening in the community and working on an increasingly complex set of skills whose achievement was marked by badges – but the constant was cookie sales. My daughter was really good at this; outgoing and not afraid to talk to adults or classmates. We also did “booth sales” – those tables outside the grocery store with towers of cookie boxes, a bunch of excited girls and a bundled up adult. We borrowed cookie suits from the Girl Scout council and the girls learned they could have a blast taking turns being the dancing Thin Mint or Trefoil, while attracting customers.

Each winter when the cookie order form appears, I smile and write in my selections. When girls are standing in the cold outside the grocery, I’ll ask them what their favorite cookies are and I’ll buy some more. I know they’re having fun, and learning important skills. And I know those moms want to get all those boxes sold so they can get home and warm up.

Sunny

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.