Winter

IMG_2734Chicago can serve up some hard winters, but the longer I live here, the more I’ve come to like them. Sure, there are bragging rights (I survived the polar vortex!) but like anyplace that has all four seasons, there is something to relish about each.

The surprise of waking up to a snow or ice-covered landscape. The streets and sidewalks are undifferentiated, the parking lots are clear. The colors of buildings stand out against the bright white. Even a cloudy day seems bright because of the reflection off the snow.

The quiet of a snowy day. Cars are immobile white humps, streets are clear and the absence of traffic sounds is odd. Maybe everyone will stay in today, bundled in blankets. But soon we hear snow shovels scraping, the whine of snow blowers, and the rumble of plows clearing the streets and spreading salt behind – yet those sounds are muffled, wrapped in cotton wool.

Venturing out. We feel like arctic explorers as we walk through snow that has no footprints in it yet. We step over drifts blown to surprising heights by the wind. Snow has covered some of the street signs and decorates the sides of buildings. A rolled newspaper sticks out of the snow on a doorstep. Down spouts are sometimes giant ice towers.

Spots of color. Anyone who is outside is covered so that we may only see a part of their face. In addition to voluminous coats, there are orange hats, blue scarves, red gloves, polka dot boots, pink snow suits and the occasional green umbrella. Salted sidewalks may be lilac, and road salt is mixed with beet juice.

A reason to wear sun glasses. After a snowfall, our temperatures drop so that nothing will melt for a while. The skies clear and the sun makes the snow sparkle – you need your shades. I’m glad my moisturizer has sun screen in it.

Getting to wear corduroy pants. One of the perks of winter is layering up – turtleneck, fleece, long underwear, and corduroys. No matter how cold it gets, you can always add a layer (unlike summer when you can only take off so much).

Knowing spring is coming…eventually. If you look closely at the trees, there are the beginnings of buds that will become leaves. Snowbells stubbornly push up through the snow. The calendar moves forward while the temperature yo-yos up and down until finally, the snow melts. Though is may take till July for the mountains in the grocery store parking lot to fully melt away.

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Crossword

IMG_3527The Sunday paper’s section devoted to crossword puzzles will be our mental entertainment for the week; I might try to solve one on my own, or team up with my husband to see if we can finish one. Some are easy and we complete them in one sitting. Others have troublesome clues with snarky question marks that usually signal a pun or play on words. Fun and clever if you can figure them out; groan-inducing and maddening if you cannot. We’ve learned that a crossword can make you feel smart, or really stupid.

Burger King beverage option: four letters
Venn diagram regions: four letters
Wound cover: eight letters

I imagine the person who constructs the crossword as a mad scientist, reverse engineering the puzzle to fit the theme of the week, then circling some letters to form new words, and finding obscure synonyms, long-forgotten cartoon characters, or the names of foreign currency to fill in all the spaces. Some words come up so often, we dub them “crossword words.”

Alley: three letters
Ruckus: three letters
Hanoi holiday: three letters

Some are just odd.
Kinda sorta cousin: three letters
Floor support?: three letters
Clay, now: three letters
____: four letters (yes, there is actually no clue given!)

If a puzzle has remained unsolved by the end of the week, we may cave and start looking up answers online. I try to only look for one or two that may help unlock the other areas of the puzzle – things I have no chance of knowing like the first name of a Swedish Nobel prize winner from 1952, or the name of a river in the Urals. We aren’t as brave as folks who do a crossword in ink. We use a pencil and give the eraser a workout as well.

I only started doing crosswords a few years ago after working on a few with my mom. At first they seemed impossible, but a few clues would get me going: a French 101 verb (must be avoir or etre!), or the name of a celebrity or movie character (_____ Vader). But I quickly learned that the puzzle master is tricky. Some clues can be interpreted multiple ways. Is it a verb or a noun? What connotation of the clue should you be following? Is there an abbreviation? Should the answer be plural? Who knew there were so many words for a lasso?

Each week is a new challenge that we attack with relish. No matter the number of erasures, it’s a satisfying task. And now, my fellow puzzlers, to take you out of your misery, here are the answers to the clues given above: Icee, sets, gauzepad, Oop, ado, Tet, ish, ayes, Ali, twin (yeah, how in the heck would you have ever gotten that last one?)

Mealtime!

forkI love food. Breakfast, lunch and dinner – I want them all. Sure, I’ll try to limit the portion size, but I want those meals. No skipping a meal, no replacing a meal with a protein shake, no calling a bag of chips my lunch. I strive to hit multiple parts of the food pyramid, but even if I don’t, I find that lately, it’s not just the meal content I’m concerned with. I want meals to be on time.

My days are structured largely the same week to week, so meals are regular as well. I eat breakfast before I go to work. That way, I may have the willpower to resist doughnuts that someone brought in. I take a break to eat my lunch; generally this is at noon, but I may try to finish something I’m working on first to feel my morning had an accomplishment. Dinner is as soon as I get home – if I’m lucky it’s been made ahead and can be warmed up, or something simple to pull together.

Brunch, while a wonderful idea, is confusing. I don’t want to wait that long for breakfast, and it’s a really early lunch. I usually end up eating too much because I want everything on the menu and I feel like I’m making up for two meals. When we go out for dinner, we are thrilled with a 6pm reservation, but unless it is pre-theatre crowd, it looks like we’re out for the senior discount. On the occasions when I’ve had to fast for a medical test, I get through the day just fine. Of course I’m drinking whatever liquid I’m allowed in large quantities so I continue to feel full, even though I’m sure I’ve got enough stored calories to live for a week without food.

Growing up, I didn’t identify with a 6 o’clock dinner time like the Cleavers on TV. I don’t know if we were being cosmopolitan, or it was just when dad got home, but dinner was at 8. Maybe we got afternoon snacks to help make it to a late meal, but it didn’t seem strange at the time.

With kids, our meals were timed around the school day and dinner kept getting earlier so that there was time for homework. That pattern has stuck so that, like Pavlov’s dog, I’m ready for meals at 6am, noon and 6pm, and worry that any calories consumed after 7pm will never get burned.

We’re planning a trip to Spain where the most challenging element won’t be the language, but mealtimes. I hear that lunch is around 2pm and dinner doesn’t start until 9 (restaurants that serve dinner as early as 8 are only filled with tourists). Maybe they won’t notice if I carry around a peanut butter sandwich each day of the trip.

Bundle Up

img_3519There’s a ten minute ritual before I can go out: two pairs of socks, long underwear, pants, shirt, fleece, neck gaiter, down coat, hat, gloves, boots. I’m either ready for a space walk, or the outside where it is negative something degrees. All this preparation is to ensure that my exposed skin doesn’t freeze and my toes don’t get frostbitten, but it’s actually possible to dress too warmly in the winter.

When I first moved to Chicago I was really intimidated by the dire weather predictions. Single digits or negative numbers tend to get your attention – and then there’s wind chill. So I prepared accordingly, layering up and adding serious boots and a mid-calf-length coat with a hood. As I headed out the door, I was 50% larger than before and able to stand against the wind fairly comfortably. But I learned that if you’re active – walking briskly for an extended time, or shoveling snow – you generate a lot of body heat and suddenly you’re way overdressed. Even before I could lumber outdoors, beads of sweat were forming at my hairline and neck. My layering calculus also overlooked the sprint to the bus (I don’t want to wait 15 minutes for the next one), and by the time I’m safely onboard, I’m panting, unbuttoning my coat, and fanning my face.

One winter in junior high, there was enough snow for sledding and an amazing hill nearby, so a bunch of friends headed over. I tried to dress for the occasion by layering up (more had to be better, right?) I had pajama pants under my jeans, multiple pairs of socks, turtleneck and a sweater, coat, scarf, gloves, hat, and boots. Fashion boots. Lovely, vinyl, form-fitting boots. Everything about them was now tighter with the sock layers acting as insulation, but off I went. After a few runs down the hill, rolling in the snow, I was sweaty, my pants and gloves were wet, my hands and face were cold, and my feet started to hurt, so I headed home. Once there and peeling off all the layers, I was warming up, but my feet –  while no longer numb – were stinging. It may not have actually been frostbite, but we treated it as such, with a soak in tepid water. My toes felt worse before they finally felt better.

Chicagoans are supposed to be savvy about winter gear. A Chicago Tribune columnist I admire recently reminded us that winter in Chicago is not the time to look great – you dress for the weather: hats, gloves, sturdy boots, and a coat that covers your bottom. Some winters you can get by with fashionable clothes, but the polar vortex is upon us, and negative 17 is no joke. My favorite possession right now is a pair of weather-proof insulated winter boots. With plenty of room for layers of socks, I can tromp through any slushy curb-side mess without worry. And I can still feel my toes when I get home.

Do Over

broom-294061_960_720The big project has taken months to come together – details, research, formatting and proof-reading. When I proudly present it, I’m met with that look. The “why did you think I wanted this?” look. The “No, what I really meant was this” look. I clap my hands to my face like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. But I really feel like Dorothy.

You know, Dorothy Gale, sweet Kansas girl who is thrust into the technicolor world of munchkins, talking scarecrows, and witches. All she wants to do is get home and everyone directs her to the wizard for help. After overcoming many significant obstacles, she is brought into the wizard’s presence, her meek request is rebuffed, and the accomplishments that brought her to this point are ignored. “Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West!” he shouts. It’s as if there is a straightforward recipe for getting what she wants and she skipped over step three.

Years ago, I was asked to prepare a privacy policy as my employer was entering the digital age. The collection, storage and use of data was becoming more complex and scrutinized, and businesses were expected to be transparent about what they were doing. Having never written a corporate policy before, I used existing documents as a guide, added the appropriate details, and collaborated with my compliance co-workers to finalize the policy. For approval, it had to be presented to the company’s most senior management during one of their regular meetings. There weren’t any flames or giant heads, but it was an imposing room with the biggest table I’ve ever seen. When the policy came up on the agenda and I explained what it was for, one of the most intimidating senior managers held up the paper like it had a bad smell and said, “This policy should encompass our international business. Revise it.”

I was stunned. We didn’t have any international policies, so my models didn’t point me that way. No one ever asked for it to be international. And it was going to be very hard. Now my meetings were by phone with counterparts in England and Ireland; they had more detailed laws that went over and above what the US required. After more weeks of revision, review, and negotiation, I thought the policy was ready.

I went back to the senior managers’ meeting with my knees quaking. I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the item to come up on the agenda. The policy was named, there was no comment (not even one!) and it was declared approved. Somebody rang a bell (were we on a ship?) and it was done. I floated out of that room, proud of finally pulling this project across the finish line. At that moment, I think I had on ruby slippers.

Time Challenged

clockThe buzzer goes off at 4:30am. It’s still dark outside and I think for a moment, what is so important that I have to get up now? Oh, I remember. I need all that time to go to the gym, bathe, eat, and commute to work. The later I start, the more crowded the train will be. I should get up now…but it’s still dark out. I think that humans divided the day into hours so that everyone could have the same reaction to the alarm clock: “It’s too early!”

I like to start the day knowing I have lots of time to complete what’s on my list. A special weekend accomplishment is to have all my errands done by lunch so that I can use the rest of the day relaxing or doing projects at home. I try to use mornings at work the same way – tackle the big tasks, the harder things, in the morning; save more routine tasks for the afternoon when energy may be flagging.

Occasionally there is something happening in another time zone: a conference call with a colleague in Australia, or a vendor on the west coast. That’s when I need to consult a map to figure out what time is reasonable for both of us. I always get this wrong. I’ve dialed in for a New York webinar an hour late. I’ve shown up early for things in Pacific time.

I blame this blind spot on living in the Eastern time zone most of my life – even if Louisville bent the line out to include them – and I guess most of the people I knew lived there too. Now, I live in the Central time zone and have family and friends all over, so I have to consider times ahead and behind mine. Arizona is minus one hour, unless it’s summer and then it’s minus two. New York is plus one. It doesn’t seem hard, but it still trips me up.

I recently arranged lodging and bought plane tickets for a European family trip. It became immediately obvious something was wrong. Flying east from the US, we arrive in Europe the next day and I’ve booked the lodging for the day before we actually arrive. Fortunately, the kind proprietor agreed to change our reservation so we don’t have to pay for the day we’re not there yet. I guess I’m not the only American traveler to have this issue.

The day we fly over will magically shrink while the airline tries to fool our bodies into believing it’s morning by serving us breakfast at 2am. We’ll get those hours back on the return flight – otherwise known as the longest day ever. Fun travel aside, I think I prefer 24 hour days – especially when I can be sleeping for seven or eight of them.

Grocery Trip

110127-f-5640t-057I love grocery shopping – a weekly meditation as I stroll the aisles, examining produce, dairy, and frozen food. Success in finding all the things I need for the menu makes me feel ready to face the week. While I’m visiting two or more stores, it’s the check out clerks that stick in my mind.

The person at the check out is usually the only employee I’ll interact with. I may not visit the deli, meat or seafood counters where someone has to cut and wrap my selection. I usually don’t have to ask anyone in the produce section how to find a turnip. I’ve been to stores with “self check-out” but if you have any quantity of produce, it’s a slow process. This is why I want to go to the professional.

I consider before choosing a check out lane – how many shoppers are there, how many kids, how many items in those carts? But the most important element to gauge is how overwhelmed does the checker look? My favorite checker always appears calm and collected, with a pleasant smile for everyone. She remembers me, asks about my kids, and what I’m cooking. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving when the store was a mob scene, she still smiled at me saying, “So you decided to join the party?” Somehow the beeping of each item as it is scanned hasn’t driven her mad.

Some checkers ignore me, carrying on a conversation with the person bagging the groceries; some have impossibly long fingernails that appear to be an impediment. Some look quizzically at the produce I’m buying and have to ask – “what is that and what do you do with it?” I’m happy to oblige and potentially widen their culinary horizons: “That’s a dragon fruit / persimmon / Jerusalem artichoke. They’re great in salads / baked as a pudding / roasted.”

My dad visited us when we lived in another state, and he treated our grocery trip like it was a tourist attraction, marveling at the different brands of items our grocery carried, and perusing the meat and seafood displays. He added things to our cart that he wanted to take back home. And he chatted up the checker, telling her he was visiting from out of town. She probably wondered if she was supposed to recognize him as a minor celebrity, but took it in stride.

Today I visited a meat market in the neighborhood, because I’ve discovered that this store sells my favorite Darjeeling tea. (I was mildly panicked when my go-to store for tea abruptly closed.) After snatching up the tea, with no intention of buying any meat, the checker at this little grocery bagged my purchase gently and offered me help outside if I needed it. He treated me so kindly, I’m sure I’ll be back to try some of their house-made bratwurst.

Study Time

old-stack-study-carrel-300x225Home seems like a great place for quiet study. I’ve got my text book, my notes, my study questions. But the refrigerator is so close, I’ll just grab a little lunch. Oh and I think I’ll throw in a load of laundry. Before I forget, I’ll start a grocery list. Now someone is texting me. It’s been over an hour and I’m not making much progress. I need a simple space with no distractions. Something like those special desks in the college library: a study carrel.

Most of my college career studying was done on my bed, propped up with a pillow and using a lap desk. It worked well for reading, highlighting, taking notes, and any writing papers in longhand. Occasionally a professor assigned reading from materials that were kept in the library, so I had to go there and review them in the reading room. This large room was nicknamed the “Zoo” which indicated it wasn’t a place for quiet contemplation, but if I could get there in the afternoon and finish the reading, it wasn’t too rambunctious.

Every once in a while, I’d decide to spend more time in the library – for a change of scenery or research. The “Zoo” usually had lots of space, but it would fill up after dinner. Some tables had friends gathered together for regular study, other tables were classmates who’d been thrown together in a group project, or people studying alone. While quieter than some dorms, this space wasn’t immune to interruption. In fact, it seemed to attract activities meant to bring studying to a halt. A Halloween parade between the tables, wadded paper balls tossed from group to group, or just plain ogling at a group of beautiful freshmen sashaying by.

It was generally accepted that spending your library time in the “Zoo” was more to see and be seen, rather than really working. For that, you sought out a study space in the stacks. There were individual seats and work surfaces tucked into the rows of books, but being a limited commodity, you had to arrive early to stake your claim. Lucky enough to have a spot, I was aware of less fortunate folks going through the rows desperately seeking that perfect quiet seat.

For the very special scholars, there were private reserved study carrels. These small rooms were on the edges of the stacks: a spartan desk, chair, and light behind a locked door. Imagine, a private place to concentrate! I never had access to one of these carrels, but marveled at the rumpled people coming out of them. I wondered if it got hot and smelly in those little closets, or was I just jealous?

So what is a distracted student to do? If I move my chair into one of our closets, I might just establish the right ambiance – with a side of undergraduate anxiety.

Gift Wrap

IMG_3467Images of Christmas usually include the perfect tree surrounded by a shocking number of beautifully wrapped gifts – the kind of wrapping that only comes from the gift wrap counter in a department store. Large boxes cloaked in festive paper and impossibly symmetrical ribbon with a large loopy bow. Unfortunately, the packages I wrap stray pretty far from that ideal. At least you can tell I did it myself.

The closer you get to Christmas, the harder the shopping seems to get. Maybe it’s because stores are out of the perfect gift I’ve finally thought of, but really, it’s the traffic. My last shopping trip was supposed to be a precision raid on two stores because I had ordered online for in-store pick-up. I knew they had my items, but it took 30 minutes at each store to find a parking place. Already frustrated, I wasn’t getting in that long gift wrapping line at the store. I have all the supplies I need at home.

The large box where we store wrapping paper is very full, but when I pull the rolls out, only some of them have holiday motifs – snowmen and holly. The other rolls are colorful and were probably for a birthday – I’m sure it will be fine. Next, I review the large collection of gift bags we’ve kept from other gifts. Cute and festive, they only need a little tissue paper to make a pretty gift. As I paw through the bag of tissue paper, why is it we only have weird orange and green striped paper? Where are all those sheets of red and green or plain white? No worries, I’ll add some festive ribbon. There’s purple, hot pink, and five shades of green. The red ribbon looks more like wine and there’s not enough to fit around the gift. I dig the stick-on bows out of a bag and they appear to have been sat upon.

I find a book of retro wrapping paper and decide that the little rabbits are cute. No one will notice that it looks more like an Easter basket. And the lime green ribbon creates a little vibrating effect. If this doesn’t work, I can always wad this gift into the bag with a llama on it. Yeah – the Christmas llama. I’m pretty sure there’s a llama on our velcro Advent calendar, leaning next to the shepherds.

When the wrapping is almost done, I see the Sunday comics. Colorful and appealing, I think there’s enough to fit around this last box. With so many colors, literally any of the remaining ribbon choices will look good. As I’m making the last fold, I run out of tape. Surely there’s another roll somewhere. No? Then that is what the duct tape is for!

Magical Thinking

magic-40641_960_720When tasks and obligations pile up, it’s tempting to look for an easy way out. Someone delays the due date, or the return to standard time gives you an extra hour. Anything to avoid not getting everything done, or doing it poorly. When the world doesn’t cooperate, I try waving my hand like Obi Wan Kenobi and saying “this is not the completed project you’re looking for” to deflect notice. But it doesn’t work.

You can buy wands like those used by many of the Harry Potter characters – I want the one that does the dishes while I study, helps me type faster, and wraps gifts. I’ll pass on broomstick flight, but some help juggling everything happening at once would be good. Completing work projects, holiday shopping, and studying for an exam – my head is spinning, but I’ve been here before, and in a weird way, I think I thrive on the overload.

Early in my career I decided to pursue my MBA while continuing to work full time. I also joined a choir that performed four times a year. Inevitably, the intense preparations for concerts coincided with mid-terms or finals at school. On weekends when I could least afford it, I’d be dressed up on a stage singing while thinking about profit and loss graphs or economic theory. For fall semesters, I’d finally come up for air just before Christmas, and somehow get it all done.

Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” If this is true, bring that deadline closer! Agonizing projects that seem endless could be done by now. Sure, some things require deep thought, but not everything, so let’s get a move on! I don’t need to pore over all my cookbooks to come up with this week’s menu, I can read that chapter as fast as I can highlight the important stuff, and the first idea I had for a gift is probably the best one anyway.

I am prone to think of tasks as living creatures capable of conspiring against me – deciding to gang together to make my life harder with their simultaneous demands. Then I discover I can actually fit one more thing in – like reading a book for fun.

One of the characters in my book club’s selection is a magician. After years of practice, she excels at sleight-of-hand tricks with cards, scarves, and balls. She also has some larger-scale illusions like a vanishing cabinet, but the smaller magic is especially fascinating because she performs this up close where it’s harder to fool the audience. At one point, she surprises herself by turning a red ball into a beautiful fresh strawberry – she doesn’t even know how she did it, but there it is. So as I look over my juggled tasks, I’m wondering which one will surprise me by turning into a glistening fruit.