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.

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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.

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.