Summer’s the Time

img_3147.jpgIn the dog days of summer when you sweat by just sitting still, even the idea of turning on the stove makes you feel hotter. Instead you want to stand in front of the open refrigerator door. You desperately wish for any meal that requires no cooking and gives off no heat.

Faced with a juicy tomato and a ripe avocado, I think I should make guacamole. I’ve got limes and tortilla chips and the makings for a margarita too. What’s not to like? But with a little more effort, I can have one of summer’s special delights – a chilled soup. I love soup in all seasons, but a summer soup is special because it’s available for a limited time.

Gazpacho is my go-to. I have a foolproof recipe and I usually double it. Half of the vegetables get diced carefully so that they’ll fit easily on the spoon and look pretty in the bowl. The other half get chunked up willy-nilly because they are going in the blender. As long as they’re not too big, it all smooths out in the whirring. I’ve learned that the onions and garlic should get sauteed before they get blended up so they imbue the “broth”with a great flavor without being too sharp. This soup can be the star of the meal or a starter. It elevates the lowly cheese quesadilla dinner, and rounds out a meal of farmer’s market finds. Even a double batch of the soup seems to disappear quickly.

Another perennial favorite is “no-cook” spaghetti sauce. It’s just chopped tomatoes and onion that rests in the fridge with some oil and vinegar till you have the will to boil a pot of water for the pasta. Toss the chilled vegetables into the hot drained pasta, add basil and /or parsley, top with parmesan cheese, and fight off all other family members while you snarf it all down yourself.

I tried a new chilled soup recently made with avocado, celery, cucumber, broth, a green apple and fresh dill. No careful dicing was required, as all of the ingredients went in the blender. The result was creamy and green and so delicious we didn’t even wait to let it chill, though we did manage to ladle it into bowls and sit down rather than guzzling it at the kitchen island. I may never be able to make guacamole again, it was that good.

School’s starting and I know the hot, sticky days are numbered. I will try to enjoy chilled soup until that first cold snap when I transition to something that warms up the kitchen and my tummy.

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Safely Stored

storage binKing Tut’s tomb and Al Capone’s vault: the thought of what hidden riches they contain must be why we place outsized value on things that are old and, at least temporarily, lost. This would explain why I was looking forward to visiting our off-site storage bin. To have kept things all this time, the contents must be valuable or at least important.

When we packed up to move to our new, smaller condo, even after what I considered extreme purging, we caved in and agreed to pay for off-site storage for the first time. “This will only be temporary!” we said. The most important things we use everyday stayed in our condo, seasonal things went in the storage room downstairs, and everything else went off-site.

Whenever we visited the storage room in our building, I’d think that surely we could squeeze more in and divest ourselves of the off-site storage. Anytime I couldn’t find something in our condo, I imagined it must be off-site. But what was actually stored there? Somehow in the fog of moving, we didn’t keep an inventory.

Years have passed and we are growing weary of paying a monthly rental fee for things we can literally not remember. Surely this means that we could throw it all away and be done, so we finally go out to take a look. We head down the dim industrial hallway to our bin, unlock the door and swing it open to gaze upon two leaning towers of cardboard boxes that were once straight, but have slowly collapsed into each other. Oddly, the wall of boxes aren’t even labeled – at least not on the side where it would be visible – so we have to heave them out to get a look.

Tax papers, boxes filled with who knows what from my past jobs, and old medical records. We make a hopeful pile of things we’ll remove and destroy. We find books and memorabilia our son left behind. Then a box of unidentified framed art, some of my dad’s things I kept after he died, art our children made, picture albums, year books, video tapes of school plays. These are the real treasures, the things I can never seem to discard. And yet they seem to weigh us down.

Maybe digitizing is the answer. Reducing VHS tapes, slides and photos into slim disks – and being sure we hold onto a player that can read them. But I know the real answer is to reject my pack-rat tendencies, and accept that many of these physical things are not as important as I once thought. Now if I could only remember where we stored the paper shredder.

Jiggety Jig

home-479629_960_720It’s fun to travel to new places and see new things. This summer I’ve spent a fair amount of time going elsewhere by car and air. I visited three states for the first time (four if you can count just being in the Las Vegas airport), and enjoyed mountain views, cactus and sage, and sunlight unencumbered by city pollution. But no matter how exciting the journey, it is always a relief to get home.

Don’t get me wrong, I like planning trips, researching what we can do and see, and then going on those trips. But I forget how exhausting it is to be on the go. Maybe it’s because I think I need to take everything. Clothes for each day AND an alternate outfit in case the weather does something unexpected (past experience has taught me that snow boots can almost always come in handy). Even after my bag is checked, or heaved into the overhead bin, I carry a backpack overstuffed with a book, snacks, toiletries – as if we were going to outer space, or a remote area where there are no stores.

Sightseeing usually means lots of walking. Fortunately, we are accustomed to that, and love to exceed the expectations of the insistent FitBit. The key, however, is to remember that breaks are important. Stopping for a drink, sitting in the shade, or building in some downtime from the itinerary makes the whole day better. In addition to the cultural attractions, we are also on a never-ending hunt for our next meal. What restaurants do we want to try, do we need reservations, is it far? And enjoying local delicacies usually leads me to overeat. Yummy, but after a while, I can’t breathe.

Exercise while traveling, other than walking, means using the hotel fitness center. If you’re lucky, they have equipment you recognize, and you can squeeze in next to other travelers. It’s a good start to the day, and helps digest last night’s big dinner.

When we finally get home, there are lots of little things we appreciate. Our computers and phones are connected to our home wi-fi without needing a password that’s hidden on some official paper in the hotel room. We can make our own meals and save the leftovers for another day. Our toiletries don’t have to come out of teeny bottles. We get to sleep in our own bed. We can embrace all our little routines because we’re home again, home again, jiggety jig.

In the Unlikely Event

first aid.jpgFlying can be stressful well before the plane lifts off. Getting to the airport through traffic, winding through airport construction to check bags (we arrived early enough!), feeling like we’ve picked the slowest security line to go through (why do they have to examine each of those bags by hand?) the occasional gate change, and finally boarding. What we didn’t expect was two rows in front of us on the plane.

Even though I could probably recite it from memory, I watch the flight attendants when they give their safety presentation, imagining how I’d open the exit door over the wing, brace for a landing, use my seat cushion as a flotation device, or disable the smoke detector in the lavatory. With my seat belt securely fastened, I settled into my book and enjoyed my complimentary beverage.

I noticed a group forming a couple of rows in front of me. All of the flight attendants were leaning over the seats to see a passenger. One attendant made the announcement: “is there a medical professional on board?” and a nurse practitioner came forward. The flight attendants switched to their trained purpose: pulling out a blood pressure cuff and oxygen, rearranging passengers so the woman in distress could lay down, conferring with the pilot through a headset, making medical arrangements for the landing, documenting everything on a pre-printed incident report post-it pad.

Planes are noisy, but I think everyone in the first 10 rows was struck dumb while we desperately wondered if the plane could go any faster as we were at least an hour away from our destination. We felt like intruders on this poor woman’s emergency, but where could we go? The nurse took her blood pressure, inquired about her medicines, reported to the flight attendants (yes, she took her medication today; no, she isn’t a diabetic), and kept chatting to keep her alert.

Suddenly I’m tearing up, thinking of who is meeting this passenger and what they know. Will security let them come to the gate? Will an ambulance whisk her off to the nearest hospital? As we prepare to land, they ask us to remain seated so the emergency crew can attend to the woman. No one is complaining about a connection they might miss. As soon as the doors open, there are three EMTs in the aisle. They ease the woman up and into a wheelchair and then they’re gone – no sirens. The nurse gathers her things and the entire plane applauds for her and the flight attendants. More crying from me. I guess we all hope there will be able professionals and Good Samaritans around when we need them. It was breathtaking to see it play out in close quarters.

 

Hidden Gems

IMG_3098I set my sights on a summer filled with adventures across Chicagoland. No weekend wasted; an endless number of new and varied activities; drinking it all in like a wide-eyed tourist; not overlooking the potential of weeknights while the sun is still up. There’s still plenty of good weather days left, and I’m energized by my early successes. Even better are those unexpected gems that I didn’t know I was seeking.

My adventures started small, because making time for small, fun things is important. Buying the tiny zucchinis and squashes at the farmer’s market, then sautéing them for dinner. Cooking rhubarb with a little water and sugar until all the fibers collapse – then serving it chilled over ice cream. Walking around the neighborhood to see what flowers have bloomed, and who has tomatoes and basil growing in their yard.

One afternoon I walked along the Chicago River using the new River Walk. Like San Antonio’s River Walk, Chicago’s winds through downtown, is served by water taxis and tour boats, and is incredibly popular. The day I chose was sunny and 75, and I was joined by a large crowd of natives and tourists sprawling over the river’s landscaped length. The views were breathtaking, the atmosphere was festive, and there were even some colorful Adirondack chairs available for a little rest. Our River Walk lacks the wonderful art installations that San Antonio has under the river’s bridges, but perhaps our buildings are art enough.

I took in the new John Singer Sargent exhibit at the Art Institute and was surprised to see some early impressionistic paintings along with the striking portraits. Next door was a Georg Jensen exhibit of fabulous silverware – everything from utensils, to candlesticks, pitchers, trays, and punch bowls – with designs ranging from ornate fruit clusters to smooth curving lines.

On a rainy day, I had a perfect activity – a guided tour of the underground Pedway. Even though I use the Pedway almost everyday in the winter, I’ve been aware that it’s much larger, and I haven’t tried to explore on my own. With the delightful guide, whose credentials include living for a week in the Pedway and never coming outside, I got to see parts of the Pedway I never knew existed. We roamed under multiple hotels, through a train station, peered out a window overlooking the dark and mysterious Lower Wacker Drive which runs underneath Michigan Avenue, and toured a stained glass museum. Our guide took us into the basement of Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s) and up the escalator to the ground floor. We threaded our way around the cosmetics counters until she brought our mystified group to a stop. “Look up,” she said, and there is was – a fabulous tile mosaic by Louis Comfort Tiffany, hiding in plain site on the ceiling. Chicago: the city of big shoulders, and surprises around every turn.

Nature Finds a Way

IMG_3089Many parts of the city are manicured. Huge planters line Michigan Avenue, overflowing with seasonal color. Neighborhoods have sidewalk planters and baskets of flowers hanging from street light poles. Any restaurant with outdoor seating surrounds their patrons with colorful plants and trailing vines. Chicago is the city in a garden, gloriously on display all summer, but there are still corners that defy landscaping efforts.

Most city properties leave no room for grass. Buildings reach to the edges of their lots, and paved patios cover the areas in front and behind. Yet, somehow, grass wants to poke up between the bricks; and roots, reaching from an isolated tree, will exert their power to lift a sidewalk, buckling the cement. Occasionally a grassy strip is left between the sidewalk and the street, but it won’t look like a Scott’s ad. Instead, it becomes a magnet for dogs whose ammonia leavings are not the best fertilizer. These areas degrade to a muddy mess, never looking like a putting green.

Condo and apartment buildings will have decorative planters in front, and if they’re lucky, they’re maintained by building management, because if left to the efforts of the residents, the results are variable. Plantings that once were fresh and beautiful decline to a few overgrown items, with the spaces filled in by volunteers – dandelions, crab grass, and the occasional beer can or cigarette pack to add a spot of color.

When untended, things certainly get messier. Plants spill over their boundaries onto the street and poke through cracks. Ivy that seemed like a good idea once upon a time has grown over a home, covering all of the windows. Greenery sprouts from gutters filled with leaf litter, and dirt that has accumulated around the sewer grate.

We used to have a suburban house with a big wooded yard. I learned first hand that it takes constant vigilance for your yard to look anything like a Better Homes and Gardens picture. Bushes and flower beds that were so beautiful when you moved in seem to go wild when you turn your back. That small bush has now grown to block the garage door, the sharp edging between the grass and the impatiens has blurred, deer have mowed down all your tulips, and bunnies are feasting on the herb garden. Trying to keep up with fall leaves finally broke us down and we engaged professional landscapers to help us retake the yard.

One of the undeniable draws of city life has been not having a yard to take care of. I keep a few potted things alive, but I don’t have to haul mulch, fertilize a lawn, or rake anymore. I can enjoy the beautiful plantings all around the city, and the only price I’m paying is, literally, my taxes. I recognize plants I used to grow, and see that professional and constant care helps them stay lush. But against all the landscapers’ efforts, one can still find nature gone wild.

Klutzy

klutzI’m not a dancer or a gymnast, but can generally control my limbs enough to walk upright, carry things and chew gum at the same time. I’m fortunate to have only had one broken bone and one wound needing stitches. And yet, I am often reminded that I can be a total klutz.

The copier at work is out of paper. Someone tall has loaded the cabinet with a stack of paper packages and since I can’t reach the top, I try the tablecloth magic trick – I’ll yank the bottom package out of the stack. Fail! Multiple packages come tumbling down on my head, arms, and the copier. The worst part is the loud noise that gets everyone’s attention, not the lump on my head.

I interrupt the dishes to do something in another room, then I come back into the kitchen and walk into the open dishwasher door that’s just above ankle level. In addition to the abrupt stop and shooting pain, I bang into the countertop and the dish rack. That graceful fall went unwitnessed, but now I have to explain the multiple bruises.

Walking home after dinner, I manage to find the uneven section of the sidewalk and make a three point landing – right knee and both palms – on the cement. Curiously, my pants are intact while my knee is scraped and bloody. It reminds me of dropping a letter opener on the top of my foot. The point made my foot bleed, but my stockings were unharmed. Ah, the resiliency of modern fabrics!

In college, my dorm’s laundry room was in the basement. While I was moving things from the washer to the dryer, I slipped on a small puddle of water, turning my foot slightly to the side. The swelling and bruising that ensued was evidence to the doctor that I had broken my little toe, and surprise! breaks that small didn’t get a cast, just ice and elevation.

In addition to goofy stuff I can remember, sometimes odd bruises or scrapes just appear. What is that scab on my knuckle? How did I get that bruise on my hip? I must go through life body-checking doors and bouncing off the corners of desks while I’m thinking of something else. So, I’ll try to get through this entire day without hurting myself. Maybe full-body bubble wrap would help.

Moving Day

nestFrom the moment your newborn fills your house with wails, cries, and coos, silence is only a memory. The noise that children can make is constant while it varies in intensity and pitch. Some noises reassure you that they’re playing, some are tired and whiney, and others make you drop everything and run. Their quiet sleeping breath is a relief at the end of the day, but you crave more quiet. To sit with your book and a mug of tea, having no one ask you to get something, come here, hold me.

It shifts a bit as they grow up, go to school, visit friends’ houses, and go to camp. But these are relatively short out-and-back trips that always end up at home base. By the time they go away to college, it feels like they’re gone, but their rooms are intact, and they visit often. And then, they move out for real. It’s the expected conclusion of “raising a child” – they should be able to stand on their own two feet, literally and figuratively – and yet, we’re taken by surprise when the day finally comes. Granted, it’s not a clean break. There are still calls and visits, requests for recipes or advice on how to fix something.

Our son moved into an apartment right after his college graduation. Our daughter came home after college and lived with us for a year, and now she too is moving to an apartment. All week, boxes have been lined up in our living room (AKA the staging area) waiting for the day she could pick up the keys. Now that it’s here, the hauling begins. Lifting boxes and furniture are a true trial of my supposed gym muscles. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Moving out a child seems just as hard as birthing one.

My first apartment was filled with a bed, a kitchen table, and a Queen Anne desk I could take from home, a hand-me down couch from a family friend, and two tables that were props sold by Actor’s Theatre from a recent play. The move was accomplished with a few car trips. I had some nifty built-in cabinets which meant I could get by without a dresser. Eventually I replaced my cinderblock and plywood bookcase with “real” ones.

Now that all my daughter’s things, including my Queen Anne desk, have been moved to her new place, I’m collapsed in a chair, muscles throbbing. I’m thinking of how we’ll use her room, and what new furniture we’ll buy. It’s quiet. Here’s the silence I was hoping for, and it feels empty.

Vanishing Point

vanishing pointWhen I close my eyes, I still see the lane markers extending to the distant horizon. The road is mostly flat and fairly empty. On either side are lush green terraced fields like Zen gardens; bluish green corn stalks, precisely spaced, curving rows of soybeans. Tall wind turbines and red barns punctuate the view. We’ve spent all day driving west out of Chicago and entered a foreign land.

Due to construction, the highway was reduced to one lane, seemingly a tactic to slow our escape from Illinois. Exits touting food-lodging-gas had unfamiliar names and we even saw a relic of the 60’s: a Sinclair gas sign with the green dinosaur. I heard a joke once about New Yorkers who tried to take a drive to the country and turned back when they realized they’d hadn’t seen a deli for miles. I’ll admit, it’s surprising when you learn the whole country isn’t like where you’re from. It’s all America, right? But when you live in a big city, the wide open spaces between require an adjustment.

The road goes on and on, there are no stop lights, no traffic jams, no honking. If I’m not careful, it can be downright hypnotizing. Instead of childhood road-trip games of looking for certain makes of cars, or license plates from all 50 states, we catch up on our podcasts. Gone are the paper maps and spiffy trip-tiks from AAA. We consult the GPS and are reminded that we stay on this same road for 300 miles.

Just off the highway is a giant convenience store / fast food restaurant / gas station / clothing store. They have everything you may have forgotten at home, and many things you didn’t know you needed. That jumbo bag of flaming hot Cheetos seems like just the thing for a long drive, but we get coffee instead.

Road trips with our kids felt like the fuse had been lit. There was an undetermined amount of time we could expect them to put up with being restrained in their car seats. We’d try to postpone the inevitable with books, music, games and food. With the realization that eating an entire Stuckey’s pecan log roll was a bad choice, and cries of “are we there yet?” we’d have to stop and give them a chance to run around. Back in the car, if we were lucky, they’d finally fall asleep so we could drive in peace.

After all day in the car, we took a long walk to remind ourselves that we can move those limbs. But tomorrow we’re going to do it all again. Westward ho!

Running

IMG_2993This month I’ve participated in two charity fun runs, though unlike years past, I was part of the “walk” rather than the run. While I’m active and relatively fit, I don’t run anymore. But pinning a number to my shirt, stretching, and joining a large crowd at the start line brings it all back: the cheering crowds, the water stops, the mile markers, the thrill of crossing the finish line with a personal record.

Though I was never a cross-country or track athlete, after college I started to run. I don’t remember any particular reason, but it was easy to get started, I could decide how far and how fast, and it seemed to come naturally. Of course when you’re 22, any physical activity is relatively easy. Eventually, I was joining in short runs for a t-shirt and increasing my mileage.

As I threaded my way through neighborhoods and parks I’d estimate distances by time, then I’d drive the same courses to get a better measure. I usually preferred an out-and-back course because it committed me to the distance I wanted to cover. If I ran 3 miles away from home, there was nothing to do but run 3 miles back.

I worked my way up to the “Mini Marathon,” a half-marathon the week before the Derby. Mom would drop me and my brother off at Iroquois Park for the start, and drive downtown to make sure we made it across the finish line. After the first mile in the incredibly hilly park, the rest of the course was flat, lined with supporters blasting the Rocky theme from their front porches.

A colleague at work and I started running together, including one Fourth of July race when we dressed in red, white and blue, wore crowns, and carried flashlights aloft, in the pose of the Statue of Liberty. After running lots of races of all sizes, and even a road trip to Atlanta for the PeachTree 10K, we decided to tackle a marathon. We had a training plan: most days were foundation distances of 5, 6, or 7 miles, and on the weekends, we’d have a longer challenge – 10, 13 or 18. Since the race was in November, the days were getting shorter as our mileage was getting longer. There were lots of long weeknight runs in the dark.

On race day, my friend was sick and couldn’t run, so I had to do it alone. I missed having her at my side, with conversation and the shared accomplishment from so many weeks of training. I finished in a decent time without injury, but I knew I could check “marathon” off my list and never have to do it again.

On a recent visit to Louisville, I drove over some of the same paths I’d run. I even saw the water fountain at the turnaround point of my 8 mile course. For a moment I felt wistful, remembering another life, a pile of race shirts, and worn shoes. But striding along the lakefront today as runners pass me, the pace is just fine.