Sheet_of_S&H_Green_StampsMany companies are willing to pay you – a little – to be a regular customer. All the while, I’m made to feel thrifty as I pursue the discount, or free service. Now every transaction is fraught as I figure out the correct merchant to buy from. Apparently, I’m willing to enact a complex ritual to get something for free.

All my air travel is booked with a single carrier because I earn points that can eventually be used for a free ticket. I’ll use the hotel and rental car they recommend to earn even more points. When I can finally book that complimentary flight, I restrain myself from telling all the other passengers that I got on without paying.

Restaurant reservations are made through an app that also awards points. We don’t eat out that often, so it may take months before any balance of consequence accumulates. Converting those points to a restaurant coupon means we can get a pricey entree we may not have picked otherwise.

My keyring is full of fobs to scan when I pay – these record my purchase and offer some down-the-road reward at the drug-store or sandwich shop. “Come in for your free cookie” they’ll tell me in an email, or they’ll offer to take $5 off my bill at checkout.

When I was a child, groceries and gas stations promoted loyalty by offering S&H Green Stamps. With every purchase, a string of stamps would come out of the register along with the receipt. At home, I’d get to lick and stick the stamps in a book. When the book was filled, we could exchange it for something wonderful, like a Polaroid camera, jewelry, or flatware. Even if stamps weren’t involved, merchandise rewards were common. Banks gave you a blender for opening an account, convenience stores offered a set of commemorative glasses (“collect them all!”), and grocery stores offered children’s books.

A few years ago, our grocery offered an old-fashioned deal: purchases earned points toward cookware. If you shopped there regularly, pretty soon you could get a Cuisinart skillet or saute pan at a deep discount; if you spent enough, you could get them for free.  I was transfixed by the large display of gleaming pans. Instead of spreading my shopping among two or three groceries, I did it all in one place. Each week I watched our point balance grow while the tall display of cookware got smaller. I piled more things into our cart to be sure we spent more. When we finally had enough points, I proudly added the free pans to the conveyor belt with our groceries.

Most of the time, I hope I’m a savvy shopper – finding sales, buying store brands, opting for quality that will last. The prospect of a discount shouldn’t push me to buy something I don’t want or need. But I am loyal to a few merchants because I like what they have and I’m treated fairly. Plus, getting something extra for what I was going to buy anyway, is awfully appealing.



Strike a Pose

bodyThe treadmill at the gym is situated just outside a group exercise room, so I’ve had the opportunity to observe the weekly yoga class for some time. It seems calm and restful, the lighting is low and everyone moves slowly. Then they get to lay flat on their mats and rest. I decided to join and discovered it was a lie.

I had taken a yoga class before, and I looked forward to some good stretching. This is a part of exercise that I usually leave out, and it’s starting to catch up with me in the form of a tight back. So, what would be better for that than a yoga class? The instructor is friendly and creates a restful atmosphere with soothing 60’s and 70’s music – Moody Blues, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead. I’m almost expecting some love beads and tie-dyed mats.

We start with simple moves – a plank, downward-facing dog – and then the serious stretching begins. Legs are straightened, pulled down with a strap, then splayed up and as far to the right or left as our hips will allow. The instructor announces “Good Morning Groins!” with a little too much glee. My legs start to shake. Now I remember what is challenging about yoga: the poses themselves aren’t hard, but holding the pose for 60 seconds, or longer (it seems much longer) is where the real difficulty lies.

Next we stand up, legs wide apart and simply fold over. We stay there, head down. I can feel the tendons in my inner thighs complaining and I observe an unseemly drape to my skin. To distract myself, I think about the music in the room. I haven’t heard these songs since I was a much more flexible 16 year old. Maybe that’s the idea. If I can mentally transport myself back to that time, I’ll be able to do that leg lift more easily. Ouch! Oh, if it were only true. After triangle pose and other tendon stretching moves, we finally get to lay back on our mats with a towel over our eyes and relax. My limbs feel too heavy to lift.

As I stagger from the gym with wobbly joints, I remember a toy we sometimes put in our kids’ Christmas stockings: an animal or human figure standing at attention on a pedestal. When you depressed the button under the pedestal, the cords inside the figure loosened and the figure collapsed, as if all of its muscles just turned to liquid. Yep, that’s me.

Visiting Art

IMG_4213When centuries of human expression and culture are brought together in one place, it’s intimidating. You want to see it all, spending enough time with each treasure to appreciate it, but it’s just not possible when you can only devote two hours before your brain turns to mush.

Of all of the museums in Chicago, we decided to become members of the Art Institute so that we could come and go often, make visits to specific parts of their vast collection, and feel free to leave before becoming overwhelmed. This was the best decision ever. Now, I’m likely to drop in just to see the Islamic metalwork or the Japanese ceramics rather than running past those rooms to see the newest special exhibit and also try to see all of the Impressionists and sweep through the modern wing wondering where the Brancusi and Magritte are hiding.

There were two things I didn’t expect about seeing art in person: the size and the brushstrokes. After having studied these pieces projected on the screen in class, or in a book, I had no sense of their actual scale. So a giant Delacroix seascape or a dinner plate sized Rembrandt portrait surprises me. Leaning toward the canvas I can see the brushstrokes for the first time. Especially with Impressionistic pieces, the overall scene dissolves the closer you get until it almost seems like random blobs of paint. Maybe that’s what the art establishment thought of the Impressionists when their work was first displayed. I also discovered that I’ve crossed some invisible proximity barrier bringing the guard over to wag his finger at me.

The other surprise in the museum is to see how art is framed. I assume that technically, the frame is not part of the work – it’s usually not captured in art text books – but it’s hard to ignore. Wide ornately carved wooden frames, some gleaming gold or dark as pitch. The frame may have the title, artist name and date inscribed in a discreet plaque. Who picked the frames and the matting? And why is it that many contemporary / modern pieces are unframed?

Today I visited an exhibit of Manet’s paintings and was delighted to see many works I’d never been aware of. Still lives of flowers and fruit, portraits of his wife, and playful appearances of his cat. Most charming were the letters he’d written and decorated with small water color illustrations of whatever had caught his eye – snails, women’s heads, shrimp, and that cat again. My right-sized culture infusion of the week complete, I strolled back out into the sunny afternoon.


IMG_3087So far we’ve had an odd summer – cool and rainy for most of June, then into the frying pan with a hot and humid July punctuated with storms. Temperatures came down for a few glorious days, reminding me that Chicago summers are short and it’s important to take advantage of them. It’s almost August and the clock is ticking.

I’ve managed to do a few things, even if the weather wasn’t cooperating.

  • Broiling at the farmer’s market – at 90 degrees, I was more interested in finding a patch of shade to stand in than selecting produce.
  • Enjoying cold soup – gazpacho and an avocado/green apple/cucumber/celery soup have been our go-to summer choices (easy and delicious). This year I made vichyssoise (rich and tasty) and I’m going to try to make one with butter lettuce, onion and parsley.
  • Going to a movie in the middle of the day to escape the heat, eating popcorn instead of lunch, then blinking as we came out into the warm afternoon.
  • Getting an “emergency bailout” from the train station when caught in a torrential downpour without an umbrella.
  • Playing corn hole – a bean bag toss game very popular around Chicago. Apparently the best approach is to hold the bean bag in one hand and your beer in the other (only for balance, of course).
  • Stopping in the Starbucks where the server knows our orders by heart.
  • Strolling through the neighborhood in the relative cool of the morning. Our current favorite house is small with an ultramarine door. Gardens have evolved from the first spiky shoots of hostas to shady beds filled with drooping hydrangea blossoms. There are pigeons congregating near the Dunkin Donuts and a sleeping man in the park next to the pool’s retaining wall. Parents are up early to prepare the little league ball field for the day – wheeling the chalk to mark the baselines and denote the foul areas; raking the dirt around the mound.
  • Braving the line at the custard place across the street to enjoy a double scoop cone.

Due to a big construction project, the entire west side of our condo is covered with scaffolding and our terrace is a hard hat zone. This means we may need venture out to a local establishment with a rooftop bar or deck overlooking the Chicago River to toast the sunset with the few warm evenings we have left.


elevenI met with a vendor who was describing the capacity of her machinery for inserting multiple documents into the same envelope. Not only could it accommodate the six pieces I have for a mailing, she bragged about the equipment saying “ours goes to eleven!” I let out an involuntary guffaw and she just looked at me like I was crazy. I was amazed that she didn’t understand.

Pointing out that she had just quoted one of the funniest parts of This is Spinal Tap, she gave me a quizzical look – she had never heard of the movie. Later, I asked two colleagues of different ages if they recognized the quote and was met with blank stares. Either I was living in an alternate universe, or my movie experiences must be idiosyncratic.

In the movies or on TV, characters seem to always say the right thing – the witty comeback, a memorable turn of phrase, or a clever pun. These phrases manage to convey more than mere words and provide a neat shorthand with others who have enjoyed the show. I assumed that everyone knows them. When leaving for a short errand, I may say “I’ll be back” in my best Terminator voice; when something is a complete surprise, I may consider that “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” as Dorothy did upon landing in Oz; when someone is woefully behind the times, an eye roll and “welcome to the 90’s Mr. Banks,” from the remake of Father of the Bride, seems apt.

Why mimic John McClane from Die Hard (“Yippee Ki Yay…”) or Spock (“Fascinating”) or Doc Brown of Back to the Future (“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”) Maybe we think our own words won’t be good enough, funny enough, or the perfect encapsulation of the moment. But some of it is instinctual – these voices are as ingrained in my head as anything I heard from my parents or teachers.

The quotes also express a shared experience that connects us, a strong association, or a call and response to find others of our kind. If I say “seventy-six”, I’m sure my mom will answer “trombones in the big parade!” There was a moment when I knew the young man I was dating would become my lifelong companion. As he put the key in the ignition of his yellow Mazda, he said “Rockets for power” and I responded “turbines for speed, Batman!”


bingeIn a society where scarcity is almost an abstract concept, our worst habits emerge. If there’s something we like, we can have it all the time, or get it in a bigger size, or in every color. When no one limits us, we want it all, we want it now and lots of it! I’d like to think I’m above all that, but I’d be lying.

One of the first things we try to teach children is that there are limits: how much time spent in the park, you get one dessert, and I’ll read three (ok, maybe four) books before bedtime. They can’t have all the candy in the grocery check-out lane, or every toy they see. An important developmental milestone is the ability to defer gratification (you can eat one cookie now, but if you wait for 20 minutes, you can have two cookies). In theory this is a skill we carry into adulthood so that we will work for two weeks before anyone pays us.

Somehow, the idea of deferred gratification has fallen away in the Internet age. If I want to know something, I can Google it instead of doing library research or dusting off the family encyclopedia. If I want the answers to the crossword, I can find them online instead of waiting for the results in tomorrow’s paper. And if I like a TV show or movie, I can watch it now. I’ll admit, I enjoy watching something when it is convenient for me, rather than having to be available at 9pm on a Tuesday night, but the slippery slope is that there is always more to watch.

Streaming series are seemingly made for binge-watching. Instead of releasing one episode a week for 16 weeks, they “drop” all at once. The climax of one episode, that might have been considered a cliff-hanger, quickly transitions to the next episode, and the next. You have to be quick on the remote control to put a stop to it. I chuckle at the Netflix message that appears after three episodes have played: “Are you still watching?” I guess that helps if you’ve fallen asleep on the couch so you don’t wake up to episode 10 when you won’t know what’s going on.

I’ve reserved a book at the library that is very popular so I’m #71 in line for the 80 copies that the library owns. In the intervening days, I’ve been catching up on my 6 month back-log of National Geographics. While that sounds noble, I’ve also taken this opportunity to gulp down the entire third season of Stranger Things, just like a ravenous Mind Flayer. At the end, I felt a little dazed reemerging from an 80’s flashback, with an odd desire to visit a mall. Now, if I can only resist catching up on House of Cards and Handmaid’s Tale – all in one weekend.

Summer Reverie

Walking through our neighborhood, I’m on the lookout, as usual, for things I need to avoid stepping in. This next stretch has dark droppings which will stain my shoes. As I start to detour, I smell it. Like the effect of Proust’s madeleine, the scent transports me to another time and place: mid-summer in Louisville, I’m ten and standing under our neighbor’s mulberry tree.

Our elderly neighbors had a shady sloping yard like ours and both steep driveways were side-by side along the property line. Their driveway ended in a large concrete slab allowing cars to maneuver before entering the garage. This area may have once been a pleasant place to sit on a summer evening, but I never saw anything out there except for the giant mulberry tree. Taller than the house, the branches hung low enough to touch, and all summer, it seemed, the concrete was covered with berries. Probably during a game of chase or hide-and-seek, I ended up under the tree, skidding through the berries thick on the ground. The dark, glistening fruit looked like blackberries, or the black raspberries my dad made jelly with – I had to taste one. Sweet and juicy! Having made this discovery, I traipsed through their yard every chance I got and plucked berries from the branches.

Roaming around outdoors in the summer, I’d taste honeysuckle nectar, or nibble on the occasional crabapple, but nothing growing in the neighborhood was as satisfying as the mulberries. Perhaps I imagined I could live off the land, if only for a day. I collected a coffee can-full of berries and washed them off with the hose. Other than the occasional tart red berry, they were a wonderful treat. I even sugared them down the way my mom would do with strawberries. The only disappointment was the stem. Unlike a blackberry, the mulberry stem was like a spine extending the entire length of the berry. But come to think of it, there were no annoying seeds. We could have made jelly, or a pie, or added the mulberries to pancakes, but I don’t remember doing any of those things. Maybe mom was afraid I’d denude the tree.

It’s been years since I’ve tasted the berries, but the scent of them on the ground takes me back. The branches of this tree are way out of reach, and the berries on the ground are flattened, so I leave empty-handed. The higher branches lean towards the house, and I wonder if a young girl could reach out the second floor window to gather the berries.

The Boss

bossSometime I hear voices. Not the whispery ones in horror movies, but the voices of my former bosses. OK, that sounds much more boring than a zombie or serial killer, but stay with me. Whether it’s the good boss who was inspiring, or the bad boss who was a misery, they’ve all taught me a lot.

In my first real job, I didn’t have a lot of direct interactions with my manager who led the department. Instead, every member of the small team stepped in to welcome me and answer my questions. As I moved around the organization, I had different bosses with different styles: the swaggering pontificator who waved his cigarette around, the quiet, detail-oriented guy, and the salt of the earth father. I learned that big talk doesn’t get the work done, details are important, and parents can be great, supportive teachers (maybe it didn’t hurt that he had daughters).

I was lucky enough to work for people who allowed me to make mistakes without punishing me. (“If you’re not making mistakes you’re not trying enough new things!”) I was hard enough on myself if something went wrong, and I guess they knew that too. Equally memorable was the sting of a manager’s disappointment – I never wanted to see that look again. I thrived with bosses who gave good direction, were open to questions, and trusted me to do my best work. Faced with a puzzle, and knowing I was supported, it seemed like I could do anything.

One of my bosses scared me. Erratic and short tempered, I never knew whether he’d berate me, yell, laugh, or praise. He was incredibly smart and I’d hoped I’d learn more from him. And I guess I did – I knew I never wanted to treat anyone else the way he treated me. At the other end of the bad boss spectrum was a manager who only seemed to interact with people above his level. He wanted to be seen around the organization, but didn’t have time for his own team. He’d sneak in late, leave early and never say hello.

When I became a manager, I tried to apply the good and bad I’d experienced. Be welcoming, assign challenging work, let the person’s skills shine, provide balanced feedback, listen, support. Try to be a normal human by taking an interest in the person (How was your weekend? What’s your favorite lunch place?) Share information, solicit ideas, don’t dictate (other people have ideas too). Get coffee together or share a meal. Be transparent about mistakes and how they should be handled. The most important thing I learned as a manager was that you absolutely depend on your team so you need to be sure they can do their best work.

The ghosts of bosses past hover around me, reenacting their memorable behaviors. I carry the lessons everyday as they point me to the good, and warn me away from the bad.


bridal-bride-couple-38569I must have had a blast because everything is sore. It’s not usually a good sign when these are your first waking thoughts. Yesterday was full of wine, but it’s the dancing that I’m feeling now. My knees seem larger than normal and they protest, but we had so much fun.

Our family is distributed across the country, so get-togethers are infrequent. A visit to one city or another for vacation is how we usually manage to see each other every year or so. But a wedding is a special opportunity to bring many of us together. Nieces and nephews have become adults while I wasn’t looking. We catch up with each other on jobs, children and those who weren’t able to make this destination wedding on the west coast. A breathtaking vineyard with rolling hills is an ideal setting for a lovely ceremony and group photos, followed by a beautiful reception and meal.

A traditional set of first dances get the evening started, and then the DJ plays music we can’t ignore. Suddenly we are all on the dance floor as one song morphs into the next. Flash back to our dating days: my husband and I used to go out dancing when our favorite local band, Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes, was playing. Any crazy dance move was welcome, and if you could get the band to laugh, that was even better. We were channeling that vibe last night as we danced like fools. Jumping, twirling, twisting – it was an aerobic workout with abandon, and without the benefit of cushioned Nikes.

Dancing seemed to allow everyone, especially the wedding party, a chance to cut loose, and release the stress of carrying off a perfect day. So, as I hobble across our hotel room this morning, discovering every sore muscle in my calves, shoulders, and knees, I realize there are more family weddings on the horizon – I’m going to need more Advil.

Something Old, Something New

full-width-hero_Shoplife_2880x1440_acf_cropped-367x275Visiting New York is filled with things I expect: crusty old LaGuardia airport, the iconic skyline, tile decorations in the subway stations, people hawking tours. It’s tempting to do all of the familiar things, but the city that never sleeps has so much to offer that every visit can be different if you want it to be.

We spent one morning at the Tenement Museum, a group of buildings on the Lower East Side that have been preserved from the 1860’s. They are the literal framing device for the story of the various families and individuals who lived in them over 100 years, and the history of the neighborhood. We chose a tour of a lager beer saloon and learned about the immigrant Schneider family who ran it. A few steps below the sidewalk, we entered the bar where beer was poured from a cask into mugs or lidded buckets to carry home, and sausages, bread, and cheeses were provided for free (apparently the profit from the beer sales made that possible). The long rectangle of the “shotgun” home consisted of three small rooms beyond the bar: a sitting area for the family, a kitchen dominated by a coal stove, and a bedroom whose windows looked out at the privies in the back yard.

I’d never thought about there being German immigrants in New York, but maybe that’s because German culture folded into the fabric of America. Our tour guide prompted us to think about the foods we associate with the 4th of July: hotdogs, potato salad, beer – all foods popularized by Germans. And while Germans may have entered the country by way of Ellis Island, they fanned out to other areas as well.

My great-great-grandfather was born in 1828 in Saxony Germany, was a coppersmith, married a coppersmith’s daughter and came to live in Indiana. Perhaps they lived in a community not unlike Klein Deutschland in New York or Louisville’s Germantown, where they would find other immigrants from the areas that would eventually be joined together as Germany (Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Austria). They probably visited a beer saloon like the one I saw, and washed down a good bratwurst with sauerkraut.

Seeing the Schneider’s bedroom in the rear of the building, one visitor asked, “where did the children sleep?” The answer was “anywhere they could squeeze them in” and I thought of my mom’s description of her childhood home where she and her brother occupied make-shift bedrooms near the kitchen. Her family didn’t run a saloon, though I’ve heard one could still bring home a bucket of beer from the corner bar in the 1940’s.

While new skyscrapers and retail developments are all around us in New York, it can also be like the history buff’s “create your own adventure” where you can imagine generations of forebears welcomed by Lady Liberty.