Christmas Story

Tall ChristmasFor some reason, I’ve never taken much to the Christmas Story movie with the BB gun, tongue stuck to a pole, and the outrageous leg-lamp. Instead, I watched the stop-action Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with the elf whose wish was to become a dentist, and A Charlie Brown Christmas with the poor sad tree and the fabulous jazzy dancing. But just as fundamental to the season as these shows was The Tall Book of Christmas, a collection of stories that appeared to be set in Germany or Switzerland or Russia where all of the characters were blond with pink cheeks.

I pored over this book every year, loving the unusual tales and the colorful illustrations. There was the mean giant who was placated when given limburger cheese; the granny who used candies in a pinch to dye all her white yarn, rendering the mittens she knitted deliciously edible; the tale of the mysterious babushka who wandered from house to house in the snow looking for a family to let her in; and the kind man who spent Christmas in jail and carved wooden figures small enough to push out of a knothole in his cell wall for the kind children who brought him food. There were also Christmas stories like Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, but these unusual stories stuck with me, probably because I’d never heard them anywhere else.

Eventually the book fell apart from use and disappeared. When I would remember it, I’d ask friends if they knew about the book, but was usually met with blank stares. Sometime after college, I was touring Victorian homes in Old Louisville that were decorated for the holidays. In the living room of one home, along with the Christmas tree, wreaths, and candles, I saw The Tall Book of Christmas displayed on a table. And they had copies for sale.

When our kids were small, I started bringing this book out for the holidays. As the name implies, it has a distinctive shape – only 5 inches wide, but 14 inches tall. It’s slim enough to read all in one sitting, but each story could be dwelt over as we examined the illustrations and talked about the characters. They’d giggle at the same things I had, and ask for multiple readings. Now, even as adults, they’ll surreptitiously pluck the book off the coffee table to look through the pages.

Of course the holidays have many stories, and books have a lot of competition. Kids’ programs (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), feature films (Love Actually), made-for-TV movies (Hallmark and, seemingly every cable channel). We will partake of all of them, dabbing our weepy eyes, happy to be home and warm. Then I’ll be on the watch for lemon-flavored mittens, and small packets of limburger.

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Ornaments

IMG_2604Boxes have been hauled out of storage, a tree purchased and bolted into the new tree stand. We eye the tree to determine whether it’s straight, and rotate it so the fullest side faces front. The ornaments seem to be an impossible quantity for the size of the tree, and a jumble of styles. Some people have themed trees, a limited color palette and ornaments selected for an overall look. Not us. Our tree will look like a kid’s toy box, with a collection of everything gathered over the last 30+ years.

With the ornaments strewn over the dining table, it’s easy to see that they fall into a few categories:

  • homemade: flour dough cut outs of our children’s hands, paper ornaments made at school with their pictures
  • fabric: mittens, a quilted stocking, a felt skater
  • college: proudly acquired when our kids were still in school
  • museum gift shop finds: plums, miniature windmills and angels
  • flea market treasures (trying to evoke the ornaments from my youth)
  • recent acquisitions: a pickle, a rabbit, a hedgehog, a set of Christmas Carol characters
  • wooden: reindeer, Santas, houses
  • glass: balls in all sizes
  • funky items we added to our tree in jest, but now they’ve become traditional:  Yoda, a plastic toilet key chain, a bride and groom from a cake top

Among all these ornaments is a small tissue-filled box cradling the remnants of a delicate glass house. This is an ornament from my childhood tree, one of a few that I think were also on my dad’s childhood tree. I don’t remember exactly when I got to keep it, but I’ve always placed this little house up high where I could admire it. A few years ago, our tree fell over – twice – onto our hard wood floor. Among the casualties was the little glass house. It was such a thin bubble of glass, I’m surprised it didn’t turn to dust. Instead, the back was crushed. I can’t hang it anymore, but it still looks pretty propped up in the tissue paper on the mantle.

There’s a lovely frosted glass ballerina, a gift for our daughter when she danced. She takes charge of it each year to ensure it’s hung in a prominent place and mounted in front of a light so it glows. Our son likes a glass Buddha and a beautiful painted Earth globe. For our kids, the jumble of crazy ornaments have become their childhood memories. Somewhere on this tree is the one thing that will mean “Christmas” to them, maybe the precious item they’ll take to decorate their own tree one day. The purple plum? The glass pear? Harry Potter on a broomstick? It’ll probably be the plastic Yoda.

Is it Winter?

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The first snowfall, the morning there is frost on the window, when you decide to pull out your down coat. These are all indications of winter, but the universal signal in Chicago is when the heat lamps begin working at the L stop. There may be a cold snap in October and you can press the button all you want, but nothing will happen because it’s not really cold enough until November 1.

Usually train riders spread out across the platform according to the laws of normal distribution – gravitating to where the middle train cars will stop. However, once the temperature drops, people cluster around the heat lamps, in one small area of the platform. We look like a penguin colony. Bundled in coats and hats, I wonder if the heat even penetrates, or if it’s just a shared delusion, a distracting game we play when it’s 17 degrees below zero with windchill and there’s no train in sight.

A few of the busiest L stops in the Loop have large areas of the platform devoted to heat lamps. Though meant for big rush hour crowds, in winter, people have competition from pigeons for the prime heated spots. Approaching the pool of warm golden light, I see a dozen fat, puffed out birds, holding their ground. As people edge in around them, there’s a bit of cooing and shuffling, but the pigeons aren’t leaving. They know with the next train, we’ll be gone and they can resume their spa-like experience.

Of course, in Chicago, seasons are rarely just one thing. Temperatures spike and plunge year round – thank you, global climate change. This winter we’re having 50 degree days paired with 30 degree nights. But with a weather system from Canada, we could go back into the deep freeze. Mother Nature may not cooperate, but after March 31, the CTA says it’s spring. That’s when the heat lamps are switched off and the pigeons have to find a new way to survive.

Food Olympiad

IMG_2568Like good athletes, we’ve trained. Grocery bag lifts, squats to the bottom shelves of the fridge, stretches to the highest cabinet shelves. After work dinner preparation speed trials. Our muscles are toned from the repetitive motion of chopping, stirring, kneading, mixing, chewing, washing, and drying. We are ready for the biggest food day of the year: Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. No expectation of gifts, just food, football, and family time. There is literally nothing planned for the day except the creation and enjoyment of the big meal. There are occasional surrounding activities like running a local Turkey Trot 5K, watching the Macy’s Day Parade, and the professional football match-ups, but mostly we hover around the kitchen working out when to get the turkey in the oven and how to get all the sides baked as well.

Our menu is usually traditional, the most memorable update for a couple of years being stuffing made from White Castle hamburgers (delicious). Our kids love to cook and we let them take the lead this year: oyster stuffing with bread cubes from a homemade loaf, green bean casserole made with a garlicky white sauce and shallots, shaved Brussels sprouts and noodle salad with an Asian dressing. Of course there’s still a turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy.

When the kids were small, the feast was met with selective enthusiasm. Carving the turkey was exciting, making gravy pools in the potatoes was especially fun, and then there was dessert. Sitting in the formal dining room was a novelty, but odd, and after a few attempts at “trying everything on your plate”, they’d slither out of their seats and run off to play.

Now they’re as invested in the meal as we are, and skilled cooks too. We’re all vying for position in the kitchen, prepping the sides in the last hour before we eat. Every pot and pan is in use, all surfaces are covered, and our eyes are on the clock. I’m clearing counter space at the appropriate moment, washing and rewashing mixing bowls and pots, and pulling china from the cabinet.

Somehow it all comes together, like an elongated episode of Chopped. We are at the table, our plates mounded high, and everything is delicious. While proud of how well it all turned out, this is about the time that we realize we can barely finish our food, and there will not be room for the pies for a while. But we’ve also achieved an equally important aspect of the Thanksgiving meal – having leftovers! I see a turkey tetrazzini casserole, veggie plates, and pie for days. Yum!

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.

Crafty

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…

Briefcase

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.