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.

Body Image

IMG_3166Even though I attempt to mask my physical flaws with certain clothing styles, I appraise them in the mirror each morning. Am I gaining weight? Is the tone in my upper arms improving? As long as no one photographs me at the gym, I may manage to create the right illusion. But we never escape how our children see us. A recent unearthing of our children’s art revealed the classic stick-figure family, and I’m surprised at how I look.

I’m wondering two things: why I am so big compared to the other people, and why am I so orange? Psychologists say we can learn a lot about a child by how they draw their family: how they view their place in family, their overall self-esteem, who they’re close to, and who is “in charge.” So since I’m the biggest figure, I think that means I’m the boss – or was I just the one that kept making rules and trying to enforce them? Was I loud, or did I dominate the conversation? It’s hard to know. At least I’m not depicted as a witch.

Now for the orange part. In my youth, I curated a tan through long hours at the pool, but after years of exposure to florescent light and minimal time to sun bathe, I’ve become pretty pale. Was this picture done after a beach trip where I ended up looking like a lobster? Was I a red-faced yeller? Maybe the “flesh-colored” crayon rolled under a table.

In high school, our daughter did a project through the lens of a Barbie doll. It’s been noted that Barbie’s body measurements are unrealistic, and therefore set unrealistic expectations for girls, leading to a poor body image. To illustrate, our daughter distorted a photo of herself to match Barbie’s proportions. Limbs were stretched, eyes were very large, and the body’s overall hourglass shape ending with tiny feet seemed cartoonish. This rendering was offered side-by-side with her un-altered photo so that it was easy to see that the Barbie-like depiction wasn’t normal.

My most enduring memory of playing with Barbie as a child was assembling her professional outfit for the office – a blue dress with coordinating jacket – somehow that has had the farthest-reaching impact on my sartorial choices as an adult. I didn’t care about her high heels, or tiny waist – I cared that the skirt wasn’t too short for her to sit down in and her shoes and purse matched.

Whether I’m the largest figure in the drawing, or the most vividly colored, I’m still a stick figure – grateful that I’m not too lumpy or wildly out of proportion. Now I’m wondering why my hands and arms look like they belong to a T-rex, or a doctor going into surgery.



Clean Desk

deskI am a member in good standing of the clean desk club. It’s a long-time habit from a past job where we were dinged by Compliance if anything sensitive was left out on our desks overnight. So, at the end of each day, I clear off my desk, find room in a drawer for all of the paper, and lock it up. Of course, I’ll just pull it out tomorrow and start again, but for a brief moment, my desk is empty and I feel lighter.

A clean desk looks calm, supporting the illusion that there are no demands on me today – but it is fleeting. Inevitably, I’ll arrange the papers around my computer as visual reminders of what I need to deal with that day. People who don’t clear their desks off have a different approach – they find the “stack” method keeps them organized. I might see a teetering tower of paper, but they know exactly where everything is. It’s not a bad approach, if you have enough desktop real estate.

Computers were supposed to relieve us from all this paper, but the true enemy of the clean desk lies within: the email inbox. This is where work lurks, coming in the form of requests, attachments, and oblique messages you’re only copied on but better read anyway. During the course of the day, I try to open, read, and deal with each email. While I can reach the goal of having no unread emails at the end of the day, I don’t achieve the higher standard of “inbox zero,” clearing the inbox of all emails. I’ve dismissed this idea as too ridiculous to consider because I can’t really delete all my work emails. I need to retain messages that state agreements, due dates, and quotes. I make a effort to put emails into subfolders by project, but I can never seem to clear the inbox.

Instead, I view my email as a giant virtual filing cabinet. Everything is in there somewhere, and I only hope I can find it when the time comes. At least we can do a key word search for digital materials. This doesn’t help when trying to locate physical files. Once I heard a librarian say that a mis-shelved book is as good as lost. I have an image of rows and rows of book shelves, and how long it would take to look at each book if we couldn’t rely on the Dewey Decimal System, or alphabetical order.

So I’ll try to do a better job of organizing the virtual and the paper. Sorting into email subfolders once a month doesn’t seem too onerous, and a few paper folders with labels would improve the stack I jam into a drawer each night as I seek that brief clean-feeling moment.

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.

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.