Coming Soon!

coming soonIn a disaster movie I’ve probably dreamed up, the unsuspecting summer crowd is enjoying the beach, splashing and squealing. Then before they can react, the ocean pulls back from shore and forms a towering wave that crashes over everyone. A few of the victims saw the wave, but were so frightened they froze in place and were lost in the surge. With a similar deer-in-the-headlights stance, I’m looking over my calendar and it appears like a tidal wave is coming…soon.

After months leading up to the mid-term elections, the ads have ceased. I sigh, but before relief can set in, I realize that there are a host of pent-up activities on the horizon. This week alone, I have something every night after work – dinners, meetings, appointments – and this is just the beginning. The following week is Thanksgiving and I’ve hardly given it a thought. Sure, I’ve arranged some time off work, and our guest room is taking shape, but there is much to be done before we can serve a worthy meal.

The grocery stores have swept away the Halloween candy and put up holiday meal displays that include everything you need for baking, gravy, yummy appetizers, football-game-watching food, and food “gifts” – do people really still make fruitcake? It makes me feel like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland who cries, “I’m late!” – I can hardly think about one holiday and they’re invoking fear of missing out if I don’t start my Christmas baking.

Theaters are selling tickets to A Christmas Carol, and The Nutcracker; reviewers are suggesting great family movies for the holidays; inflatable snowmen and faux Christmas pine boughs are already decorating the neighborhood. Apparently, this weekend is the time to buy that set of matching “elf” or “Grinch” pajamas for the family (before they run out of your size!). I’ve come to accept that some people put up their Christmas trees on the day after Thanksgiving, so any second now the tree lots will appear.

Of course, I am a planner, and I like getting things lined up and ready to go. I revel in working ahead. But sometimes, it all seems to come at once, making it harder to enjoy individual events. My plan? Take it one step – one appointment – and one holiday – at a time.

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Civic Duty

vote
My first voting experience was a real throwback: our polling place was my high school. The concourse beside the gym was where the voting booths were set up, so I strode in, wondering if any of the students would cheer as they recognized me as an alum doing my civic duty (they did not).

When I had my first apartment, the polling place was in a neighbor’s home. It almost seemed like a rogue set-up (why are we standing in this guy’s garage?) but reminded me that civic-minded volunteers play a big part in the voting process – staffing polling places, ensuring each person is able to cast their ballot, managing a smile over a very long day.

In Delaware, we went to a mysterious little office building in a nearby park. I think they did some kind of data entry during the week, but that morning, a line snaked out to the parking lot in the chilly dark. I stood in line with my son, who I would drop off at daycare later.

I remember going to vote with my mom. We stepped into the booth together – the kind with a curtain that came down to about the calves of an adult, so I guess it didn’t hide preschool me at all. There was a wall of little levers that could be flicked to one side for individual candidates. The alternative was a bigger lever that you could pull for a straight party vote (all Democrat or all Republican). My mom pulled that big lever and I remarked on it out loud so everyone in the polling station could hear it. Nothing like subtlety.

In Chicago, our polling place is an elementary school next to our building. I enter a street level door, and step down into a basement room with tables set up for the volunteers who pore over listings of registered voters. I scoot up in the line, give my name, and receive the ballot – a ridiculously oversized paper form – and a special marker. I am directed to a polling station – not a curtained booth, but a small table with high sides so no one can see what I mark on my ballot. I fill in the little arrow next to the names I’m voting for, just like a standardized test. When I’m finished, I hand my form to a volunteer who feeds it into a scanning machine. My vote is complete!

Some states give “I voted” stickers, but for some reason Illinois only gives out wristbands, as if we’ve paid an entry fee for a 21-and-over beer garden. Well, I’m happy to hoist a brew, because I have voted!

Faint Images

IMG_3386I just visited a 19th century mansion in the heart of Chicago, a grand residence and shining example of the “Gilded Age” – think Downton Abbey meets American industrialist. Each room gleamed with inlaid hardwoods, marble, Tiffany glass, and glazed tiles. The walls boasted luminous portraits of men and women, but the home was literally a museum, fixed in time. I kept looking for signs of life peeping around the corners.

During a meal, the door between the dining room and kitchen would have been swinging back and forth as servers carried in steaming dishes and whisked away dirty plates. The sound of conversation and the clinking of silverware would have carried into the entry hall where a butler was gathering up wet coats and boots to be cleaned for the guests. In the back stairs, a small army of people kept the bedrooms stocked with firewood, the bedclothes washed, and shirts ironed.

While this home had modern amenities like gaslights (and later electricity) and indoor plumbing, loads of effort was required for things we take for granted today: refrigeration, a food processor, and a microwave. Instead, blocks of ice would be garnered from an ice truck going down the street, and food prep was an all-day, everyday task. Running the home was practically a cottage industry in itself.

My forebears didn’t have lavish lives. But as I go through family photos that reach back multiple generations, I see people that may have strode past that beautiful mansion. They would have been part of the wave of immigrants attracted to the US as its economy boomed, only to bust in the late 20’s. Photos of men in uniform are the only indication I have of their professional lives. I presume the women were homemakers. A bucolic afternoon in the country was surely a rare treat, a respite from domestic labor, a chance to wear a new frock and try to keep it clean.

If I squint, I can see a little family resemblance in these faces. But cognitive dissonance gets in the way. From my earliest memories, my grandmother was grey and wrinkled, so I have trouble imagining her as a little girl with skinned knees and hair escaping the ribbon.

These faint images of people forgotten, if not for spidery names penciled onto the backs of the photos, are parts of the family tree that eventually led to me. To later generations, they’ll be just as distant as any museum exhibit. A flat rendering of someone long ago who lived an unimaginable life far removed from ours.

Creepy Halloween

halloween-backgrounds-pumpkin-sunset-background-46173There’s a nip in the air and the leaves are starting to turn. Yards are dotted with color from mums, ornamental cabbages and peppers. Orange and white pumpkins are arranged on steps. Then there’s the severed hand laying on the grass next to a tombstone and a giant spider. It’s hard to ignore that Halloween is almost here.

This year the decorations in the neighborhood started going up in September while it was still 80 degrees. Eight-foot spiders crawling down the face of a four-story building, complete skeletons cavorting on the porch, full-sized demons and killers from movies stalking across the yard, limbs and bones strewn in the flower beds, bats and ghosts swinging from tree branches low enough to touch my head.

Mostly I’m walking past these homes in daylight, but some evenings after work it’s already dark and these yards teeming with decorations are creeping me out. First, they’re gory and scary. No one has an inflatable Casper the Friendly Ghost, or a smiling pumpkin. Second, when did this formerly one-evening event become a month-long extravaganza? It’s what happens when we find a good thing and want more of it, I guess.

Now we need to make room for bar-hopping costume events on the weekend before; kids-only events where a Halloween parade in costume and the attendant candy-fest can happen in a well-lit, safe place; and haunted houses and corn mazes with a resident slasher. You can also find scores of scary movies on cable to pretend it’s Halloween every night. I suppose if we’re going to do all of these things, it takes a month.

As a child, I remember getting a pumpkin, carving it into a jack-lantern, and trying to stabilize the candle so it wouldn’t keel over. This was the one and only Halloween decoration at our house. When we went trick or treating, I noticed that some homes elaborated a bit by having a stuffed scarecrow or ghoul on their front porch, but that was about it. No orange lights, no spiderwebs wrapping the fence or bushes, no zombies roaming the premises. Just big bowls of candy and friendly people at the door.

So Halloween has fallen victim to “holiday creep” – in the same way that Christmas seems to start showing up right after back-to-school shopping. Spreading out from October 31 like a killer fog from a horror movie, it has merged with harvest celebrations and Octoberfest to be one big orange distraction from the most terrifying prospect—winter.

Oddities

IMG_3332It’s that time of year again: Open House Chicago when venues of architectural, historical or cultural significance are all open to the public. My strategy is to pick a few things that are relatively close together and hope things I don’t visit will be on the tour next year. My selections yielded some surprises: huge wooden carvings, giant greased gears, a bird’s eye view, and clown shoes.

The tour of the upscale antique store was more like a museum. One room was disassembled in China, shipped to Chicago and reassembled – a stone floor hundreds of years old, and the wooden paneling forming the enclosure of a courtyard. On top of a cabinet in the next room was a large 10,000 year-old earthen jug (“we had it carbon-dated!”). But the best part was the “workshop” where unique pieces were being assembled from salvaged parts, or newly built using artists who still practiced old techniques. As we squeezed into the cramped room filled with shelves of odd things (rusty metal toy cars big enough to ride in), the wooden flower carving taller than me was hard to ignore. There were obvious vertical sections, I guess so you could get it through the door into your house.

The McCormick Bridge House is one of many structures along the Chicago River that contain the mechanisms for lifting the bridges – an event that happens twice a year to allow boats access to the lake (in the spring) and from the lake (in the fall) on their way to winter storage. This wasn’t a bridge-lifting day, but we did get to see the large, well-greased gears that drive the counterweights down so the bridge can go up. Even under beautiful Michigan Avenue, Chicago shows its grit.

I saw a crowd forming when I was still three blocks away from my next destination. About to despair, I smelled the aroma with relief: this was a line for Garrett’s Popcorn. The Cliff Dwellers Club was a modest space with a cozy fireplace seating area, a bar, and two dining rooms, but the focal point was the fabulous view of the lake and Millennium Park afforded by the bank of large east-facing windows. While not the highest observation point in Chicago, it was breathtaking. The fact that it was a clear day with a blue sky and deep blue lake didn’t hurt either.

My final stop was The Arts Club. Part gallery, part dining room, and part performance space, I had never seen this small building tucked behind Michigan Avenue. None of the art was labeled (I guess if you have to ask…). The gallery, which I imagine has a rotating display of pieces, had on this day an odd collection seemingly made of plaster of Paris: oversized clown shoes and a rubber chicken. Smiling, I waded back out into the sidewalk crowds thinking how fun it is to find new things in Chicago.

Trajectory

poolI want to put the nine ball into the corner pocket. After aiming carefully and controlling the cue stick, it should have gone right in. But the nine hit three other balls that bounced off the bumpers and skittered all over the felt. I sank the six instead and the cue ball wobbled to the side. Cause doesn’t always have the intended effect, but it may work out better than expected.

When I was young, if I gave any extended thought about my future, I imagined it laid out in an organized way: step one, step two, step three. But life had other plans. A cross-country move and a job change were things I never thought I’d face, until I did. Trying to apply the knowledge I had to a new situation, and hoping for the best seemed the only way to go forward and, on balance, it turned out OK. The key was the help others could give me – a supportive colleague, a manager who gave me a chance to take on new challenges and shine – and also taking lessons from things gone wrong – a flubbed project or a bad manager. Some job assignments helped me learn things I didn’t even know I needed. Dealing with ambiguity, building consensus, figuring out an operational puzzle. In retrospect, the detours were some of the most valuable experiences.

While I was focused on what was helping me, it never occurred to me that I may be inadvertently helping others. A former colleague told me my actions had made a lasting impression on her. I wondered, what the heck did I do? While I was busy second-guessing myself, juggling a big job and daycare pickups, I became an unsuspecting role-model. I must have fooled her by making it look too easy. A co-worker said she thought I was always polite. I paused when I heard this and wondered if that was a back-handed compliment, a way of saying I was too soft and forgiving. Rather than disagree, I did the polite thing and said thank you. Somehow, a small act of civility stood out to her. I decided that couldn’t be a bad thing.

So, this week, I’ll try to have a positive effect on others, even if I never see the result: listen to other people’s ideas, offer to help someone who hasn’t asked, say a friendly hello to the guy at the gym check-in desk who’s dying to finish his overnight shift at 5am. Maybe a good mood will be passed on to whomever they bump into next.

Memory

IMG_3230When I write, I have to categorize it as memoir, not historical fact. I write about things I know – my own experiences and how I remember them. At least, I think I remember. Memory is funny like that. It’s personal, and may differ from how other people around at the time remember those events. It’s not about true or false, but perspective.

I think I remember my 4th birthday party – the dress I wore, and the other little girls who came. But the memory is so closely tied to the pictures I’ve seen, that I suspect I really only remember the pictures. My mom’s memory of that day might focus more on the mechanics of the party, the invitations, presents, and corralling a group of rambunctious kids.

Even without any photo evidence to back it up, some very old memories stick with me:

  • Carrying a Christmas ornament to my brother’s crib to show him
  • Playing with dolls under the dining room table
  • The little compartment inside the belt of a school dress that could hold a penny
  • My grade school shoes: brown and white saddle shoes one year and very cool olive green suede shoes the next
  • The day my brother’s game of jack in the box with a large cardboard box turned into an emergency room trip

My brain is a grab bag of all of these memories – some useful (where I parked my car), and some less so (the grocery store display of sodas spelled out GO CUBS!). Some memories float up unbidden, others are triggered by something we see, and some things stay on our mind, resisting our strong hope to store them away. Some memories are intensified by emotion – getting bad news, a job interview, a wedding. Music also makes a powerful reinforcement. Long after divesting myself of vinyl records, if I hear a Beatles song, I’ll naturally start to hear the one that comes after it on the album.

Some memories are imperfect – pulled from the past, or maybe retold incorrectly until that version is all you remember. I thought my mom had dug up a jack in the pulpit plant from a local park – something I stored away as a minor crime. But when I told that story, my mom said, no, after leaving the park, she found a white violet plant growing on the edge of the road, and that’s what she dug up to bring home.

Some things I don’t remember at all like getting my drivers permit or license. Maybe my experience was overwritten by the more recent events at the DMV with my kids.

So, when I write, please know that it’s my imperfect memory, my point of view, things I experienced that I believe are true. Your mileage may differ.

Built-in

IMG_3206When I look at pictures of homes for sale, the one feature that invariably attracts me is a built-in: bookcases, pantry, closets with drawers and shelves. They’re beautiful and imminently practical because we all need a place for our stuff. I imagine an organized life where there is a place for everything and everything in its place.

The house I grew up in boasted storage throughout. We had a wall of built-in cabinets and drawers in the hall – a tidy broom closet, a space for vases, candlesticks and table ware. My bedroom had a walk-in closet with deep shelving that I loved; filled with light from a small, round window, it was my grooming station, personal bookcase, and trophy display. Behind the hanging rack for clothes was even more space – so cozy and hidden that I had sleepovers there. My dad built a wall of bookcases and cabinets in our TV room, making it my favorite. The continuous line of Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia volumes, and the Great Books series made it feel like a real library. Fiction and non-fiction books, framed art and photos rounded it out.

When our kids were young, we lived in a large colonial style home. Its most interesting feature – at least for me – was an interior hallway with a deep-shelved storage closet. It was the perfect place for cookbooks, the silver chest, large serving bowls and platters, the fondue pot, linens, and the occasional bulk purchase. The one significant improvement we made inside the house was adding a wall of built-in shelves and cabinets to our living room. Of course, it transformed the room from a dull rectangle to a place you wanted to spend time. Now there was a place for special books, art, and curios, and the cabinets were spacious enough to hold all of our photo albums – a feature I especially miss these days.

Now that we’ve down-sized, we find the closet-to-stuff-ratio challenging, but I haven’t let a lack of built-in storage stop me from trying to organize things. Bookcases, shelves, baskets and bins abound; our coffee table stores books and games; a padded bench holds towels and blankets. It feels good to have a place to put things away. In theory, you’ll know where it is the next time you need it. But while things are “away” is easy to forget what you don’t see, and that’s when stuff seems to expand to fill, and then overflow, the available space. Maybe a California Closets remake would help – especially if it comes with built-ins.

Flip Book

flip bookIf you’ve ever been bored in class, you may have doodled on the edge of a textbook page. Add that doodle to subsequent pages with small changes and you have the beginnings of a cartoon. By the end of the class period, and 30 pages or so of the book, you have a little animated film: a running man, an exploding firecracker, a planted seed that grows into a tree.

Fun, wholesome entertainment, flip books were first documented about 150 years ago and were considered a precursor to the motion picture camera. Now you can buy them at book stores or toy stores – either fully made or as a kit to make your own. Our kids made flip books out of construction paper that were uneven, but fun to watch.

I recently made my own flip book by accident. I found a set of photos I’d assembled for our son’s high school graduation. Seniors could contribute content for two full yearbook pages and often included childhood pictures, so I thought I’d help by pulling out a few gems including every “first day of school” photo we’d taken. After he made his choices, the photos when back into a box. This weekend, I decided to put them into a small empty album I found.

On the left I have the official school picture, and on the right, the first day of school picture taken at home. Even before she started school, our daughter wanted to be included, so I have them both starting with our son in first grade. I carefully inserted each picture into the plastic sleeves of the album, all the way to our daughter’s senior year in high school. Admiring the work, I thumbed through the pages and saw a surprising home movie. Our children, standing in the same pose, mostly in front of the same door, as they grew and grew; hair long, then short, then long again; faces smiling and grimacing; fashions and school dress codes changing. You can flip the book both ways – with them getting older, and also, in reverse until they’re back in pre-K.

They say that when you’re near death your life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not the only time. Sometimes it happens when you open an old envelope of photos. Even though I’m not in any of the pictures, my life just went whizzing by.

Oldest Garment

IMG_3192One weekend with cool temperatures and I’m already thinking about putting away my summer clothes in favor of sweaters and corduroys. While seemingly straightforward, this semi-annual task is fraught with anxiety and self-doubt. Will the clothes still fit? Will they announce their age with too-wide lapels or faddish style? The bin of clothes is like a time capsule that I open over and over again, hoping that something different will emerge.

When I unpack clothes I haven’t seen for six months I’m sometimes excited to see a garment I love – something that’s comfy, fits well, or fills a particular niche in my wardrobe. Alternately, I’ll find something I haven’t worn in years, but have kept around because… why? I decide that jacket has always been itchy and I’m going to donate it to clear space for something else. As I take inventory, I wonder, what is the oldest garment I have? Here are some contenders:

  • a long-sleeved shirt from a 10K that finished on the Churchill Downs track some 30 years ago. It’s red, and the white design of the twin spires is crackled.
  • my LL Bean jean shirt is as soft as butter and just the right weight. It must be about 20 years old; faded, with frayed cuffs and bleach splatters on one sleeve. I’m afraid if I throw it in the washer, it may fully disintegrate.
  • an elaborate wool cable-knit sweater I made. I don’t wear it often, but I can’t bear to part with it after all the hours of effort. Maybe new buttons would freshen it up?

There were years when I held onto clothes that I thought might fit me if I lost some weight. It never seems to work that way though. Pre-baby clothes never looked the same on a post-baby body, even if the pounds went down.

But what’s that at the bottom of the bin? A small package wrapped in paper. A pale pink, lace-trimmed baby sweater. Impossibly small. Last worn decades ago. Yep, it was mine. In fairness, I’ve only hung onto this garment since my mom sent it to me when we had small babies. I couldn’t bring myself to put our son in it, and I’m not sure if I ever wrestled our daughter into it either. It’s clean, with no trace splotches of carrot or juice. I’ll keep it safe in the time capsule and check on it again next year.