X Marks the Spot

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 12.03.20 PMIn the rush hour crowd I try to maintain my distance so I don’t run into anyone. Rather than admiring the magnificent sights of the city, I’m usually focused on the back of the person in front of me. That’s when I see the occasional odd mark; an X, sometimes faint, sometimes bright white, on the bottom of the coat in front of me.

Chicago is a town of serious winter coats. Canada Goose or NorthFace down coats, or full-length mink coats. But some people still wear cloth coats. A lovely wool or cashmere coat is the right choice over a business suit, but the wearer doesn’t always notice the X stitched on the back. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve worn the coat, and they’ve overlooked this, like leaving the price tag on, or worse, they think it’s some sort of decoration. It’s actually a basting stitch meant to keep the vent of the coat closed and unwrinkled during shipping and while hanging in the store. The first thing you should do is snip those threads so the vent can work the way it is supposed to: it allows you to move.

Most of us buy clothes off the rack and expect them to be ready to wear. For women, especially, there are enough sizing options that post-purchase tailoring is less and less necessary. Petite sizing and pants in custom lengths make it a lot easier for me, but I’ll still have jackets tailored to ensure it doesn’t look like I’m a 10-year-old dressing up in grown-up clothes. But usually we are many steps removed from the garment construction process, and may even turn to a dry cleaner to fix a hem.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that, once indoors, there are other X’s to be found. I’ve stopped co-workers before to free them of the stitches on the vents of their suit jackets and the slits of skirts. Not everyone grew up sewing, so I guess I can’t fault them for their ignorance. I’ll bet these same people think their clothes don’t have working pockets because they arrive sewn shut. Perhaps it’s a massive practical joke played on us by the garment industry. Maybe women’s pants really do have pockets, or deeper ones, if we only knew which stitches to snip.



Communal Living

Slide1Recently, I was surprised to see a youth hostel in the Loop. I guess I thought they only existed in Europe – like rail passes – but apparently not. I imagined the rows of bunk beds and shared dining tables for student travelers. Nothing fancy, but safe and clean with room to store a big backpack. Maybe the guests are US students coming for a music festival, or frugal international travelers who want to see the entire country in two weeks.

Hostels appeal to a very specific niche – adventuresome folks with limited funds. Before Airbnb existed, this was the low-cost option, unless you could find a friend’s couch. I spent one college semester in France and our group was on a budget, so we stayed in a hostel part of the time. I don’t remember where we slept, but there was a large common room filled with a jumble of couches, tables and chairs where we would meet each morning before venturing out to find breakfast. There was an evening curfew, so whatever else the day held, we had to be back by 10pm or the doors would be locked. I never missed the curfew, but I’d like to believe that there was a bell to ring after hours so tardy students weren’t left on the doorstep all night.

For a post-college trip across Great Britain, lodging was all bed and breakfast places. I don’t know if we even considered hostels at the time, or if those were only options in big cities. Most of the places were small, meals were in a common dining room, and we shared a bathroom with other guests. The least appealing place was in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was more like a dormitory with a kitchen; other guests cooked and watched TV, and every surface seemed to be greasy. The highlight was staying in Wales with Ian and Beryl who hired out a room, cooked for us in their kitchen, and made us feel like members of the family.

More recently we tried Airbnb in Brooklyn as an alternative to a pricey hotel. We ended up sharing a small apartment with a young couple – their rental offering was a single bedroom, not their entire apartment, but we didn’t figure that out till we showed up. At first we thought it would be awkward, but they were friendly. Our beds were only separated by a bit of drywall that didn’t even go up to the ceiling, but they never complained about my snoring,

Back home after a trip, we’re relieved to have our own space back, but it’s a temporary illusion as the city is mostly a communal place. It’s comforting to have people close by, but it also requires patience and civility.

Kid Stuff

hopscotch_drawing-13625Occasionally new train cars replace some of the older models. They’re shiny and clean, but, not unlike trends in airplanes, the seats seem to be getting smaller. Blue plastic scooped seats made for small bottoms in a jumbo bottom world. When I’m able to take an open seat, I press my knees together, my briefcase and lunch bag piled on my lap. As the car jostles, I’m trying to stay within my designated space but inevitably, I feel the warmth of my neighbor’s thigh. I question whether these seats were made for adults.

Maybe the builders had kids in mind – school trains, instead of school buses. I imagine 8 year olds excited about the ride, kneeling on the seats to look out the window, waving at people on the platform, watching the billboards fly by. Kids are standing, purposefully not hanging on to the straps or poles so they can test their skateboard balance, and then tumbling into their neighbors while squealing and grinning. Noses pressed to the glass when we come above ground. A small boy is removing his shoes and tossing them aside.

Someone opens an Ironman lunchbox to trade a ham sandwich for a cookie. Loose chips are flying through the air, on their way to an unseen target, and an apple is rolling around on the seats. A few of the older kids have text books open on their lap, hastily finishing homework problems or short essays. They observe the rowdiness with disdain. A hopscotch game is underway on quickly chalked squares. A girl in a frilly dress is sitting primly in her commodious seat, patting her curls.

As we approach a stop, one of the kids chirps,”we’re here!” Everyone scrambles to the doors and they’re gone. A small shoe is left in the chalk box marked “nine.”

There’s a restaurant near my neighborhood train stop that serves kids for free before 6pm. Most temperate nights, the outdoor seating is packed with families, strollers and highchairs. It’s just like any afterwork gathering, filled with commuters looking to decompress after their work day. Among them, I recognize the kids from the imaginary school train.


IMG_2525I’m standing in the rush hour train, mesmerized by the art being created before my eyes. A women is seated near the door, quietly crocheting in her lap. The flashing crochet hook is turning lengths of olive and purple yarn into a beautiful web of something – a scarf, a hat or part of a throw. She isn’t reading from a pattern, but she does occasionally stop to count the flower-like clusters she’s made. I alternate between outright staring, and oblique glances so I don’t seem to be too creepy. I should say something, but I’m across the car and don’t want to shout. Soon, she pokes everything back in the bag and we get off at the same stop. I’m following her up the stairs, wondering how much more of the work she’ll accomplish on her ride home.

Most people on the train are absorbed in their phones or tablets. Sometimes I see students reviewing text books or notes, finishing homework problems before school. But the rarest sightings are women (and it’s always women) knitting or crocheting on the train. Their work is usually contained in a small bag so you can only see the small piece they’re creating now. Small deft movements, and the color of the yarn usually get my attention. I’m looking at the stitch pattern, and the size of needles, admiring the even gauge and emerging pattern. If I’m close enough, I’ll say something complimentary. It’s hard enough to do sitting in your chair at home, but to do it on a train requires some focus.

I’m a big fan of using time that could be unproductive in a more productive way. I used to take my knitting to chorus practice to fill a break, or the time when the tenor and bass sections were rehearsing. I could usually get a few rows done, unfortunately, when one of my needles slipped out of my hand and hit the floor, it produced a tone just flat enough to prompt a glare from the conductor, so I decided this wasn’t the best multi-tasking atmosphere. I have taken my knitting on planes before, but now I’m afraid that the TSA will confiscate my needles, because they look like long scary weapons.

I’ve not tried to bring knitting on my current commute, mostly because it’s pretty short, and also because I stand most of the time. Plus, the project I’m working is proving to be especially tricky and I keep having to take it off the needles, unravel some, and start over. It may be that I can no longer knit in front of the TV and instead must seclude myself to get it right. But what if a long-quiet train ride is the answer? My knitting fits in a small string bag and I have all afternoon…


IMG_2519I head out the door laden with my lunch bag, my shoe bag, and my briefcase. I look like most other commuters, but what appears to be an ordinary briefcase, is really a magical object, George Jetson’s flying car/briefcase, that bridges the gap between home and work life.

Gripping the handles, I’m already in work mode, focused on the day’s tasks, who I’ll need to collaborate with, and what will be expected of me. I’m thinking about print deadlines, materials to go live on the website, proofreading, managing vendors, and tracking down data. For 8 hours, home fades to the background.

It’s surprising, really, how being a few miles across town takes you into a separate plane of existence. The people I spend my day with, the conversations I have, phone calls made, sentences typed, work completed are part of a seemingly secret life I carry on 5 days a week. My family knows I’m gone all day, and every two weeks money is deposited in the checking account so we can pay the bills, but they don’t really know what I do. I may relay stories about my teammates, but these are imaginary characters to them.

Over the years I’ve pointed out a building or two, and arranged a visit so my family can see where I sit – sort of like pointing out a museum exhibit – but they’ve never really seen me at work, doing the work. Once I took a call from a colleague at home and afterward, my husband commented, “wow, that was your work voice” – apparently my tone revealed that I am another person at work.

Sometimes I carry work back and forth in my briefcase – a draft to review and comment on. But most days, my briefcase only acts as a big purse, holding my train card and ID badge, wallet and phone. I guess my original thought was that a briefcase would make me look like a serious worker. My dad always carried a hard-sided Samsonite case with his initials next to the lock. It was a mobile office, filled with a legal pad, business cards, a Cross pen and pencil, and a deck of cards (he traveled a lot, so I guess those came in handy).

When I was able, I invested in a lovely Coach briefcase and carried it for many years. Finally, I admitted that it was too heavy even when empty, too slim to hold everything, and did not do well in the rain. So I shifted to something lighter and non-leather. It wipes clean, and feels pretty indestructible. Most importantly, it has the same power to demarcate the day. Now, if I can only find the button that turns it back into a flying car.

Turning Leaves

IMG_2489Looking out our windows, the solid green tree tops form a peaceful forest. Those leaves will soon start to yellow, and in one day of high winds, will be stripped naked. As if the theatre curtain dropped, revealing the mechanical underworking of the stage before the next scene is set, white and cold.

Fall is a beautiful time with colorful leaves, and some lingering warm sunny days. It is also punctuated with cold snaps, rain, and wind to remind us that this won’t last long. The familiar scent in the air must be the leaves as they settle on the ground, form wet mats in the gutters, get macerated by cars, and decay. The one thing you don’t smell anymore are leaves burning.

As a kid, autumn meant leaf raking. Hours of repetitive motion, moving leaves across the yard and down the driveway to a big pile. A pile that my brother and I could jump in, burying each other, and jump out of. I know that we burned leaves back then, but for some reason, I can’t remember where or how we did it, only that it made an aromatic, smoky fire that went on all day. Some neighbors tended large flat smoldering piles; others used vented metal trashcans.

All that smoke was clearly too much, and leaf burning became prohibited. Now leaves had to be bagged, so the work strategy shifted. Make a series of small piles, fill bags by the piles and struggle to carry them to the curb. Wet leaves fished out of the garden were the worst, making the bags extremely heavy. A weekend of raking and bagging produced so many bags, it was hard to park the car.

When our kids were small, we lived in a house on a heavily wooded lot. The volume of leaves generated was so high, we invested in a chipper shredder. It seemed like a great idea, but that infernal machine was loud, terrifying to use, and left us covered in leaf dust. In addition, it had a small capacity bag catching the leaf bits, so we were always having to start and stop – this chore seemed to go on forever. To wean ourselves off the machine, an interim step was to grind up as many leaves as possible with a mulching lawn mower. Finally we caved and hired a service. Like magicians, they’d arrive while we were at work, and make all of the leaves disappear.

Living in a condo, I don’t miss leaf raking one little bit. I am not tempted to stop by a neighbor’s yard to make a pile or bag and carry the leaves. We get to savor the good part, the colors, the smell, and the crunch under our feet.

Tool User

IMG_2484There’s nothing more interesting to me than watching a movie or TV character do something heroic with ingenuity. A prisoner picks a lock with a paperclip, a bystander performs a tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, the Professor makes a ham radio set out of coconuts. In extraordinary circumstances, ordinary items are pressed into service and the day is won! Alas, real life is sometimes different. If my shoelace breaks, I don’t have a handy back-up tie. If the cork crumbles in my extraction attempt, I’m likely to shove it into the bottle – OK, fancy twist, I may keep the cork from the bottle neck with a chopstick so I can get the wine out.

I’m reminded of pictures of chimpanzees using a long stalks of sturdy grass to “fish” in a giant termite hill. When the stalk is pulled out slowly, termites are clinging to it just before they are plunged into the chimp’s waiting mouth. This example of animals using tools is considered rare and unusual. We think tool use and language are the slim margin of superiority we have over the beasts. But since I don’t usually have to rely on my wits to eat or find safety, the animals may be gaining.

If the grocery store is out of my favorite tuna, I don’t reach for my fishing pole. On the rare occasion that the power is out, it never occurs to me to chop wood for the fire. Instead, I’m scrambling around in the drawer for the melon baller so that the fruit cup is beautiful. I’m peeling and trimming carrots, adding lemon zest to something, or using the magical microwave to reheat leftovers.

The pinnacle of fictional tool-using is MacGyver. If you need to know how to defuse a bomb, land safely after jumping off a 20 story building, or escape a sealed room, this guy is for you. I think he’s the reason we all wondered if the paint on our 10-speed bikes made them too dangerous to ride. Even bubble gum became a suspect item. I’m surprised the TSA lets us on the airplane with it.

The six classic tools, or simple machines, are the level, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. These are all around us today, fundamental parts of things like cars, elevators, and the humble doorstop. Other tools are harder to link to those classic forms. With a computer or cellphone I can determine the optimal path to my destination and even avoid traffic. I can find the answers to crossword puzzles, refresh my memory on the plot of any book, and pull up iconic movie scenes.

So while large scale tools manage to bring me water and heat my house, I can still use tools on a small scale. Screw in a light bulb, squeegee water off of the windows, knit a sweater of yarn. And if called, I’ll keep that bomb from detonating and rig a zip line to take me off the roof to safety.


Do you ever start something and realize that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? That’s what I imagine Sue Grafton thought at some point. With A is for Alibi, she set an incredibly high expectation that she would write 26 mysteries covering the entire alphabet. Why not something that comes in threes, or at most, a dozen?

I love to read and try different things – history, biography, memoir – but I keep coming back to mystery. It’s always the puzzle that engages me up to the last page. So I was thrilled to learn that Y is for Yesterday was available. Over the 35 years Sue’s been writing the series, Kinsey Millhone, her intrepid detective, has aged only 7 years and the stories are set firmly in the 80’s. No cell phones or internet, just good old fashioned peril and sleuthing.

I read Nancy Drew books when I was young. I can’t recall the plots, but I’m sure she was sharp as a tack. I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers sometime around college and thoroughly enjoyed the settings, the British-ness, and the suave Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane!) My heart pounded reading Patricia Cornwell’s grisly tales from the point of view of the medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. When I moved to Chicago, I dove into the exploits of V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago gumshoe. I love the way she uses the city as a character, and through her I learned lots about the neighborhoods and local history. When Robert Parker died, I decided to read his 40 book series about Spenser. Not ever having seen the TV series Spenser: For Hire, this PI was a marvelous discovery.

But during most of this time, I’ve read Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. A new one was available every year or two, and it’s always been fun to reacquaint myself with the main and supporting characters, and have new tidbits of Kinsey’s history revealed. The extra special treat for me is that Sue is from Louisville and she has on occasion woven it into the story. Part of the action in L is for Lawless was set there, and it was fun to recognize the parts of the city she described.

Louisville makes a big deal about native sons and daughters who have gone on to prominence in their chosen fields by draping banners of them on buildings around town. Muhammad Ali, Colonel Sanders, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Olympian Mary T. Meagher, Diane Sawyer, Denny Crum, Pee Wee Reese, and Jennifer Lawrence, to name a few. Where is Sue Grafton? She deserves this honor! Maybe they’ll consider it when she finally gets to “Z”.

Years ago, my brother stood in line at the Hawley Cooke bookstore (before it was a casualty of Amazon) and had Sue Grafton sign a book for my birthday. Looking back now, I realize I was the same age as Kinsey Millhone. Maybe not as brave or clever, but a keen observer, on the look-out for evildoers.


IMG_2458When life gives you lemons, get out the vacuum cleaner. I get some bad news, something I can’t change, and there is nothing I can do right now except absorb the information. I can’t go there, I can’t comfort, all I can do is worry. So I do what I always do, start to clean. I take the kitchen apart and scrub till it gleams. Then what? I pull everything out of the refrigerator and start to cook. All the ingredients are shaped into a coherent meal and the family is making those quiet approving noises as they tuck in. Yes, all feels right with the world. This part that I can control for a little while.

I don’t often acknowledge it, but life as I know it is a delicate balance. Life works when all those elements are operational, but take out one support, have one thing fail, and it’s shocking to see how quickly things fall apart. When the kids were small, that balance between two working parents, living nowhere near family, and daycare was more precarious than I originally recognized. Until the morning daycare called me to come pick up my son because he was sick. I was at work and thought, “no, he stays there until 5:30, what do you mean?” That project deadline was looming, but I had to leave. While I imagined my co-workers’ angry glares as I theoretically left them high and dry, it turns out the world didn’t end. This little bump in the order of things was absorbed and all was well.

For some reason, when life is chugging along, I tend to think that it will always be “this way” – whatever way has become the recent pattern. I know what to expect and there are certain things to look forward to. When something unexpected happens, I’d like to think that I can be flexible. I want to see myself as easy-going, able to roll with the punches, but I’m not always good at it. I get flustered or angry – reactions that feel like an important release, but I tire of rehashing what I should have done, and how the world conspired against me.

Hence, cleaning to sublimate whatever else is going on. Rather than rail against the world, or feel unfairly put-upon, I try to channel it into something that may at least have a useful outcome. With a cooler head, I realize the sky isn’t falling, the sun will come up tomorrow, etc. And – bonus!- I have a clean house.


Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.30.22 PMOnline, I am a username and password. That information can unlock my bank account, apply for a loan and file my taxes. In the old days getting money meant passing the scrutiny of a bank teller who would compare my signature to the one on file. Now, identification can be verified by a chip and PIN, a text to my phone, a thumbprint, or iris scan. While biometrics seems to be the new wave of establishing identity, I shudder as I remember thrillers where the eyeballs or digits of people with access are horribly removed so the bad guys can use them to penetrate a highly secure area.

I imagine the hackers who steal our information from digital storehouses as shadowy figures, persistently harvesting numbers and selling them to the highest bidders. Unfortunately, when these numbers are recombined on a credit application, the approver at the other end can’t look the applicant in the eye and make a human judgement like that friendly neighborhood teller. It’s harder to tell if a 75 year old social security number from Iowa could belong to someone who wants a loan for a sports car.

Once when we planned to lease a condo, a credit review indicated negative information from one of the reporting agencies. We were shocked by this, being model citizens. We learned that a long-ago mix-up by the Social Security Administration resulted in giving two people the same social security number. By the time the mistake was discovered and corrected, some work history and payment behaviors had been mixed. Even today we are occasionally asked about a repossessed pick-up truck we “owned” while living in Ohio.

There are many advantages in a digital world. The speed and convenience of online shopping, never having to fill out a 1040 form by hand, and booking flights. But the dark side of these modern activities is to be forever looking over your shoulder. What information am I giving to what organizations? Is it safe? Does one business know enough about me to do me harm, even if inadvertently? It’s not enough to pick an email address, I need to know whether the company who issued that address to me stays up-to-date on their security patches. Does the finance manager at the car dealership have a strong password on his computer? Does the gas station regularly examine their pumps for skimming devices? It’s enough to make me pay cash.

When I go to the gym in the morning, the attendant at the front desk recognizes me before he scans my ID card. The smiling checker at the grocery store asks about my kids each time I see her. My insurance agent knows my voice when I call. I doubt whether anyone trying to open a credit card account in my name could pass those tests, but they don’t have to. So I’m reviewing my credit history this weekend, relieved to see everything in order, for now.