Shopping Everywhere

102363696-skymall.1910x1000The train platforms and cars are filled with advertising – vacation spots, medical trials, fancy alcohol, and food delivery services. Even the LED displays with news about track repairs and reroutes alternate with ads for TV shows, and festivals. But there is something missing. Something that would complete the commercial experience: a phone app to buy whatever you see.

I’ve heard of devices you can point at your TV to buy the clothes your favorite stars are wearing. Sure, these are curated wardrobes, assembled by teams of savvy folk. But what about the clothes people are wearing during their commute to work? A lady is wearing a blue and white sleeveless seersucker dress that looks so cool and comfortable. I want to ask her where in the world she found the perfect summer dress, but she gets off at the next stop and disappears into the crowd. Someone else has a tote that is so much more professional looking than the bag I sling my lunch box and shoes into. Squinting, I can see a designer label and wonder if it’s real or a knock off.

Those polka dotted flats with a rounded toe look comfy, practical and cute. Plus they might be in my size. Searches on Zappos come up empty, yet here they next to me on the train. I’ve also seen an assortment of colorful insulated lunch bags that would be so much more fun than my black one. I assess the storage size of different backpacks, and the combinations of fabrics and hues available from Timbuktu.

I see young professional men wearing wild colored socks with their conservative suits, sports jackets of gorgeously subtle patterns, phone cases, cool earrings, and hats. Things I can never find when I’m shopping for family birthday gifts.

The CTA sells merchandise showing the rail system map, your favorite stop, and old fare tokens. I say they’re missing a big opportunity to use the Sky Mall model to turn idle travelers into cash cows. They could help us find the best commuting shoes, bags with comfortable handles, and lightweight clothing for steamy rush hour packed cars. We just need that app to tell us where the other riders found those things.

In my imagination, the app reveals that the people in this train car shop at Macy’s,Target, and Barney’s. Other items I can see around me came from the Salvation Army, a boyfriend’s closet, or were made by hand. Alas. One-of-a-kind and unique. But that’s makes the ride interesting too.

Crowning Glory

fourEach morning I point a hairdryer at my head to dry and style my hair. That’s a generous description since I doubt it ever looks as good as when my hairdresser does it. After a few minutes of brushing and lifting I have to stop because I’m now so overheated it’s canceling out the shower I just took. When everything looks in place – though I can’t really see the back of my head – I add a spritz of hairspray and I’m ready to face the outdoors.

I leave the building, braced for the gauntlet I have to run to get to my office. It can be humid summer air, wrapping around me like a steamy blanket, or cold wet wind undoing my careful coiffure. My hair is relatively straight, but a wonky wave emerges with humidity. After a few blocks walking to the train, I probably look just like I did rolling out of bed, or possibly even wilder.

As a toddler, I sported a cute pixie haircut. I suspect my mom favored this because I’d be easier to groom. After wrestling with my own daughter’s long thick hair, I completely understand that motivation. Somewhere around 4th grade, I grew my hair out. Long straight hair gave me options: braids, pony tails, buns, or loose and flowing. Occasionally I experimented with curling my hair, but no method could overcome the length – curls would just fall out in no time.

I got a dramatic Dorothy Hamill cut in college, but eventually grew that out as well and succumbed to a popular 80’s perm. Yes, I was finally going to have curly hair! I kept up the smelly, harsh treatments for years, and finally went back to a shorter cut. Shorter is supposed to mean easier, but it never seems that way. I’m still adding “product” to try to give my limp hair some body, and propping it up to withstand a breeze.

Maybe it’s just not short enough. Some women who have a really short cut say they only have to run their fingers through their hair after a shower, and they’re done. A spiky ‘do that tells the world that you’re cool and won’t be caught dead in a salon. Right now, I think that childhood pixie is looking mighty good.


IMG_2357I’m strolling on the shady side of the street when I hear something like a baby’s wail. No strollers, toddlers or ailing dogs are in sight but the sound persists. It’s odd and familiar at the same time. I stop beside an elementary school to find a hen house and six or seven chickens clucking and crowing. You’d think I’d never seen a live animal before – I’m momentarily transfixed. What are these birds doing in Chicago?

There are animals around town: pigeons, dogs on leashes, bunnies, squirrels, rats, and a big gray parrot the man down the block brings out occasionally. Farm animals, other than at the annex of the Lincoln Park Zoo, not so much. There was the 1999 Cow Parade when fiberglass cows were decorated and displayed all around town. But they weren’t mooing, or eating, or leaving cow pies in the street. I’ve read about folks in the area who have chickens in their yard. At best, the owner is collecting eggs every day, at worst, they spark tensions with their neighbors when they are awakened at dawn.

A yard full of chickens is a picture from an idyllic past. Self-sufficiency and living off of the land. Doubtless, generations back on all our family trees, there were some farmers; for me, that memory is filled in by movies. Dorothy Gale before Oz, simpler times, wholesome hardworking people. A quieter life evoked in this poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This henhouse is apparently a teaching tool for the elementary school, nestled next to a greenhouse. It’s important for kids to see where food comes from – tomatoes, green beans, and eggs – though I doubt seriously that they learn how to make chicken nuggets out of their feathered friends.

I hope these birds have a warmer home in winter, but till then, it’ll be fun to walk by and imagine I’m far from the hot concrete, cars, and city noise.






Version 2I want to create an image by using the perfect adjective. I see the word, but can’t quite grasp it. I shuffle through alternative words to find a synonym, but it’s not precisely what I want. Maybe the word will float up from my subconscious later, but for now it has disappeared like a puff of smoke.

One of the bags of groceries doesn’t make it out of the cart into my car. I go into another room and forget why I went there. I drive on autopilot and end up somewhere else. Is it ditzy, distraction, or am I beginning to really lose my mind?

My kids sometimes view me as a slower, less hip person than they are, and I’m sure that’s normal, but they also look to me for real world advice: filling out a W-4, polishing a resume, buying a car. I’m the planner of the family, the bill payer. A lot depends on me, so it’s unsettling to think of me blanking out or becoming unreliable.

Is there something wrong with the language center of my brain? A hidden tumor that needs attention? Mini strokes that have gone undetected because everyone looks for the symptoms that only men have? Will I develop dementia? Now I’m making too much of a small lapse. I’m articulate, with a good mind for process, and I navigate successfully through life. Though I do wonder whether the odd hiccup moments are the first indications of a decline. I expect to live a very long life, and it’s an unappealing prospect if the body and / or mind fails.

I could try to combat these gaps with homeopathic potions for memory improvement, cross-word puzzles to keep me sharp, and For now, I’ll try to slow down, focus, limit the multi-tasking, and capture interesting new words in a notebook. I think it’ll pass. Now, if I could only remember where I left the notebook.


IMG_2299I need picture hangers, so the local hardware store seems the right place to start. The one down the street isn’t part of a big box chain, and I’m drawn to its giant sign which is visible for blocks. An employee greets me near the door to ask if he can help me find something, then leads me to the correct aisle. It’s a good thing – otherwise I might just spend an hour here. Partly because the store is a jumble of all kinds of things that aren’t always organized in a recognizable way, and the merchandise is fun to peruse.

Bins of nails in different sizes, screws of different length and with regular or Phillips-head tops. Stacks of sandpaper in a range of grades from very rough to very fine. Light bulbs, including the special size we always needed for our old chandelier. Masking tape, blue painter’s tape and fancy duct tape in decorator colors. Bird feeders, grills in various sizes, rakes, and snow shovels tucked into a corner. There’s a whole section dedicated to paint. Stacks of cans and racks holding color chips. Brushes, rollers, and drop cloths. Seed and trowels. Bags of mulch and a weed whacker. Ladders and wheeled grocery carts. It’s the closest I see anymore to a general store.

The neighborhood “shopping center” where I grew up was a collection of small stores arranged around an oblong. The Loop, a former turnaround for the city’s trolley system, had a flower shop, a dress shop, a bakery, a candy shop, a meat market, a produce store, and a hardware store. There was also a supermarket, but we visited the smaller stores for a special cut of meat, the most beautiful fruit, or a bag of Jordan almonds.

A bell jangled when I went into the hardware store, alerting someone in the back. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I took in the displays of pots and pans, cups and saucers, model train cars, planters shaped like ladies’ heads, tea towels, toy trucks, woven baskets, Christmas lights, and door mats. After squeezing through the narrow aisle, the center section had tools, nails, and painter’s coveralls. The mixing machine was on one wall, usually vibrating madly as it blended a can of paint to the correct shade. Two-by-fours and quarter rounds were visible around the corner leading to the back storage area. The owner, emerging from a shadowy corner to pluck just what I needed from the wall, would add up my purchase with a pencil on a paper bag before ringing it into the large brass cash register.

Somehow a trip to Home Depot isn’t the same. The aisles are wide, the ceiling high, signs identify each section, and it’s brightly lit. I’m sure there are lots of employees, but they seem scarce as they are spread over the vast acreage. So I’ll duck into the neighborhood hardware store – I’m sure there’s something I need.

Phone Book

IMG_2227The new phone book’s here! …said no one recently. They appear mysteriously one morning; shrink-wrapped blocks, deposited in doorways around Chicago. Unrequested, and for the most part, untouched. After the rain, the bloated paper escapes the wrapping until someone finally decides to drag the sodden mess to a trash can. I guess businesses are paying to advertise in the Yellow Pages – and these books are all only Yellow Pages – but in the age of Google, I can’t think of the last time I turned to the Yellow Pages to find a store or restaurant.

This new phone book is smaller than the one I remember growing up. The Louisville phone book was a combination of white pages and yellow pages and at least 3 inches thick. It fit in a compartment in our front hall, right under an arched niche that seemed to have been the shrine for the phone before the phone line was moved to the kitchen. We consulted the phone book often. Unlisted numbers were rare, so everyone was in the book. I would look up the family of a boy I had a crush on to see what street he lived on, and then day dream about how I might casually find myself on that street and wave as I walked past. Any business you could think of was listed as well, along with ads vying for your attention.

I thought all phone books were like ours till I visited New York; the big city required two big separate books – one for white pages and one for yellow. When my dad traveled, he’d always open the phone book in his hotel room to see if there were any people in town with our uncommon last name, making a metal note of an unexpected branch of our family tree. I remember feeling excited when my name appeared in the phone book after I moved to an apartment. To paraphrase Steve Martin, I was somebody!

It seems like these paper resources were on the decline even before cell phones became so common place, and the Internet was probably the death knell. Today, a physical card or letter stands out in the sea of email. Maybe someone is using that same logic, thinking that thumbing through those tissue-weight pages will give us a burst of nostalgia. Even though I think my phone provides all of the same information, it’s not as easy to find out if your town has more Smith’s than Joneses, and my phone doesn’t make a very good temporary booster seat for a toddler.


undoI don’t usually dwell on what I wish I’d done. But sometimes you want there to be an “undo” button for life.

Some mistakes are small annoyances:

– I forgot to use my 20% off coupon when I bought that pair of shoes.
– I didn’t bring my list or my canvas bags to the grocery.
– I left the sugar out of a pumpkin pie, twice.

Some mistakes are the “what was I thinking?” type:

– I wore a crushed velvet hot-pants suit and allowed myself to be photographed.
– I agreed to take the five small kids I was babysitting to the swimming pool.
– I had white carpet and babies at the same time.

Some mistakes came at work:

– I did most of my MBA reading at lunch instead of eating with my office-mates.
– I didn’t understand the critical nature of a press check for a customer mailing.
– I thought the AV guy would be available throughout my presentation.

Fortunately, none of these mistakes resulted in irreparable harm to anyone, except maybe my ego or adrenal glands. As for life’s really big decisions, I admit, I sometimes play the what-if game, imagining other paths life might have taken – if I had been a stay-at-home mom, if the kids went to different schools, if we hadn’t moved.

In the process of a job search, I was updating my resume and found that I was able to state two or three redeeming accomplishments for every position I’d ever held. I could see a bright thread running through it all so it looked like my career had a plan. Of course there was not grand plan when I was in the middle of it, but in retrospect, even the worst job I ever had taught me something that I bring to my work today. Especially the mistakes.

Decisions + Mistakes + Time gives you perspective and confidence. Some decisions could have been made differently, not every mistake gets you in deep trouble, and you’ve learned something for the next time. Occasionally this is taken as wisdom, but I try not to get too cocky. There’s plenty I can still pick-up from my kids and my younger co-workers. More than anything, I think I’ve learned to regret nothing. Maybe the hot-pants, but we shouldn’t so easily shake off our past like it was one big ill-considered decision. It makes us who we are today.

Urbs in Horto

IMG_2170When the wind is howling and snow is stacked up high, Chicago’s motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden) seems like a joke. But in the spring, it becomes a reality. Starting in mid-May, perennials are in bloom, and everyone with a patch of dirt is busy planting something. Often the most striking displays are in public spaces: planters on the sidewalks, medians in the road, and lately, plants growing on the sides of buildings.

I’m sure there are battalions of city workers who tend to these plantings. Putting in bulbs, switching out plants with the season, and watering regularly. But since all those activities happen during the work day, I rarely see them, so the results feels magical. The garden fairy has romped through town waving a wand to produce these fabulous colors. This is also the season for photographers to capture the beautiful city. Wedding portraits on Michigan Avenue among the tulips; diners at a sidewalk cafe surrounded by flower boxes; shaded neighborhood paths with small, manicured lawns, columbine and bleeding hearts.

Living up to the motto, Chicago is also filled with parks and forest preserves. A welcome break from the asphalt and high-rises, though I rarely make the trek to those farther away. The city also makes a concerted effort to add green roofs to buildings. A condo that recently went up near our train stop covers most of the second floor roof-deck with plants – laid out like carpet squares – to absorb rainwater, and keep the roof cool. Many office towers have sections of green roof, with restaurants growing greens and herbs there to harvest for their patrons.

With rooftop plantings now more common, the new twist seems to be growing plants in unlikely places. Our new Whole Foods has covered three sides of their exterior with plantings. It’s an environmental play, but I’m sure the people living right across the street are relieved that they don’t have to stare at a blank brick wall. When the planters were first installed in March, the display looked sad. Barren sprigs stuck out of some of the boxes, and others appeared completely empty. After what seemed like six weeks of rain, things started to happen. Green sprouts emerged on different parts of the wall, leaves unfolded, and then small flowers. It became evident that a variety of plants were there, as they grew at different rates and sizes. Turning the corner one day, I was met with a purple wall. I think it’s the same plant (salvia?) that appears in many public plantings but projecting from the side of the building, it’s easier to see, and delightful.

I hope the wall has a built-in sprinkler system to keep the plantings fresh. I look forward to seasonal changes, up until the moment when winter returns. Meanwhile, we’re loving the glorious garden wall.


sawdnHeThe train pulls up to the elevated platform, doors swoosh open, and I step inside. It’s oddly dark, all of the interior surfaces are black. Even half empty, it feels close in here. At the next two stops people fill the car to capacity. As we hurtle forward, the track shifts and we begin a swift dive underground. Bill Paxton’s complaint comes to mind: “Express elevator to Hell, going down!” as the sun disappears and the gooey mouth of an alien leers at me from the wall next to the word “Hide”.

Summer movie season is upon us. Block busters, tent-pole wannabes, remakes, sequels and superheroes. All vying for our attention and dollars – and hardest of all – trying to lure us to the theatre. Movie trailers, posters, billboards and magazine ads are what you expect, but in Chicago, the more “experiential” advertising continues to surprise me. A “wrapped” train car is atmospheric and effective. I’m just glad they haven’t turned trash cans on the platform into eggs that open as you approach.

Of course, the quintessential summer movie experience is the drive-in. Practically non-existent today, there were multiple drive-in options where I grew up, though they were probably fading at the time. The whole family would pile into the convertible, trundle across the gravel lot to find an open spot, and hang the speaker from the half rolled-up driver’s side window. The cement block concession stand was a short walk away, and kept us in popcorn and Coke for a double, or even triple feature. Sometimes my brother and I were already in our pajamas with the assumption that we’d conk out before the evening was over. I have no idea what movies we saw – the novelty of seeing a movie in our car was the entertainment.

I like all kinds of movies, but seem to favor science fiction, action/adventure, and mystery/thrillers. So, it’s no surprise that I liked Alien. The story was so unexpected and the effects so creepy. When the sequel, Aliens, came out, I was a complete fan. It’s one of the movies that I’ll always stop to watch if I happen across it. I’ve followed the series and am looking forward to the newest installment, Alien:Covenant. Fortunately, the settings are different enough from everyday life, that I don’t usually stay afraid.

I look around this very full train car and think none of us could escape if we tried. If the aliens tore through the roof, only a few of us would get out the door, the rest of us resembling a delicious soft candy assortment. I’m pressed between a tall man with a backpack and a woman with a long mane of hair that’s tickling my nose. I just hope when the alien bursts out of her chest, she stays turned the other way.

In My Humble Opinion

icon-2174805_640My inbox occasionally has an offer to “Earn easy money at home!” You can be a secret shopper, paid to buy and review products, or evaluate the customer service experience in a physical store. It sounds intriguing, but who has time for that? It said “easy” money, didn’t it? Instead, I’ll answer online survey questions about different topics because I’m a bit flattered to be asked my opinion.

Each survey pays me a dollar amount that accumulates until I want to cash out in the form of a gift card or frequent flyer points. The instructions emphasize that they want my honest and thoughtful feedback, and they want me to pay attention to the questions. They ask whether I’ve recently purchased a submarine – I’m tempted to check that one just to see what happens.

Some surveys ask me about my leisure activities, some about what news programs I watch. What car I drive and which kind I may buy next. Stores where I shop for clothes and what kinds of vacations I take. Whether I recognize various bank ad campaigns and where I saw or heard them. The most complex survey I received wanted to determine whether I would use a Milwaukee airport rather than either of the two Chicago airports. I was given pairs of choices over and over again contrasting price with travel time/convenience. How low did the ticket price need to be to justify turning a two hour trip into six; while a low fare is appealing, I can’t imagine actually choosing to spend all day getting somewhere.

Who is Gallup is talking to when they measure presidential approval ratings? None of the surveys I’m taking ask me whether I approve. And they’re not about TV shows (guess I’m not a Nielsen family). No, the recurring theme in the surveys I’m taking is purchasing behaviors. What do I have and what am I thinking about buying next.

A small shopping mall near where I grew up was anchored by a Zayre’s and included some forgettable shops and an office for a market research firm. An interior walkway connected the stores. As you dashed in to buy paper plates or laundry detergent, you were likely to see a friendly person with a clipboard. This was not a large shopping mecca, certainly not upscale, and the foot traffic seemed meager, but they were surveying anyone who’d stop for a moment. At the time, I was probably too young to be considered an “intercept” subject, so I never learned what kinds of questions they asked. But I did notice them talking with mothers with young children, and men who seemed to hang around the mall for hours smoking and nursing a cup of coffee. I learned much later that the research gathered from this little mall was considered a representative cross-section of the entire country.

What’s my opinion worth? Maybe a plane ticket. Or perhaps this is just a glimpse into the minds of companies that want to sell me things.