My Uniform

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-10-24-25-amI’m getting dressed for work and realize that I’ve had this suit since George W. Bush was president. It’s clean and fits, but I have a sneaking suspicion the lapels might be the wrong width. No matter. I select a shirt and a scarf. I think I’ve had the scarf since before the kids were born. Hmm. I guess this is why I can watch a TV show set in the 90’s and the fashion looks completely normal to me.

I’ve maintained a pretty conservative wardrobe most of my working life, at first trying to look like I knew what I was doing, or at least like someone who shouldn’t be laughed at. I became comfortable in skirted suits with jackets and pockets. It took years before pants became part of the uniform, and even longer to get comfortable with “casual Friday”. And throughout, I’ve had the vain hope that if I bought just the right things, I’d never have to go shopping again. A magical wardrobe where all the pieces mix and match, making an endless variety of outfits. Of course, the “variety” in the many black and gray pieces may only be detectable to me.

Occasionally, I think, should my clothes make a statement? And then I find an article that assures me your clothes shouldn’t be more memorable than you are. A consistent color palette makes it somewhat easier to make decisions each morning, but I’ve learned not to get dressed in the dark. Once during a job interview, I glanced at my feet and realized my left shoe was black and my right shoe was navy. I felt like fashion klaxons must be going off, but nobody noticed.

My mom has always said that the most important thing about clothes is how they fit. If the newest style doesn’t look good on you – too tight here, too loose there – don’t wear it. This approach means I cannot be in denial about my physical features, and there are some entire years when there is nothing in the store I can buy. So when a new season brings something that fits me, I’m tempted to buy it in every color – well, every color within reason.

Maybe my clothes aren’t exciting, but I look like me. I’m comfortable, and I can climb the stairs, or crouch under my desk to reach a pen without popping a seam. My husband used to joke about wishing he could wear an coverall jumpsuit to work. Just step in and zip it up and you’re ready to go. Sounds great. I wonder who I can get to sew those long zippers into all my suits?

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Organization

img_1962January is the time we face up to our overwhelmed living spaces. It’s a combination of holiday excess, year-long acquisition, and lack of discipline to corral the clutter at the end of every day. Magazines feature organizational make-overs, urging us to get rid of stuff we don’t need, and make better use of our space. It’s an appealing, if daunting concept. Over the years, I’ve tried to streamline, but the best I can manage, usually, is to find a place for everything, even if I have to lean on the cabinet doors to shut everything in.

I’m a fan of furniture that provides storage. A bench that holds all of our towels, a sideboard that holds our paper products, and desk items like pens, pencils, paperclips and tape. Even pieces meant for specific storage, like bookcases, are pressed into wider range of service than may have been originally intended. Books, but also, games, pictures, plants, knick-knacks. Really, anything you can set down seems to end up there.

In my first apartment, before I could afford any furniture I hadn’t been allowed to take from home, I had a bookcase made from planks of wood and cinder blocks. Your standard college dorm room fare, but very practical. I could display my books, and it quickly became a place for all the stuff that accumulates. After a while, and a few paychecks, I decided to upgrade my storage by purchasing two seven-foot tall book cases – real ones, albeit, laminated fiberboard from an office supply store. A friendly store employee loaded the flat boxes into my car. During the unloading process, I discovered how incredibly heavy the boxes were, but I managed to get one upright and tried to “walk” it across the yard. I lost my balance and ended up spread eagle on the ground with the box on top of me. I imagine I looked like the coyote after being run over by the road runner. I wiggled out from under the box and went inside to call my dad for help. When he got there, and stopped laughing, we dragged those boxes inside and built the bookcases.

Nearly 40 years later, those bookcases are still in our home. They’ve been moved six times and are as sturdy as ever. We buy fewer books these days, due to an e-reader and a well stocked public library, so the contents don’t change that often. The bookcases hold representative tomes from our undergraduate and graduate degrees, favorite pictures, toys, small sculptures, and kids books. An accidental distillation of our life, the essentials, the things we can never seem to weed out or reorganize.

Alter Ego

img_1948-copyWhen I was in college, visits to the campus post office were an important part of my week. Fat envelopes filled with news from home, fortified with newspaper clippings and photos, lifted my spirits and encouraged me to reciprocate. One day I pulled a small envelope from my box. In it was a page of stationery with A Note from Lois printed on it. I didn’t know anyone named Lois, but apparently Lois knew me.

The note was chatty. Lois had recently returned from a day of successful bargain hunting, snagging a designer garment for a song. She had lunch with my beautiful mom (who said “hi”), and commented on a recent good grade I had gotten at school. Wishing me luck on upcoming mid-terms, she signed off. I decided to write back.

I told Lois about the antics of the fun freshman girls I lived with. I shared pictures of the jack-o-lanterns we carved, and the pies we made out of them. I gave breathless accounts of the football and basketball games, and the treks to far-flung-seeming parts of North Carolina for a hayride and a buffet meal.

Years later, I ran across a letter from Lois and shared it with my daughter. I explained that my mom had found a package of stationery on the ground at a shopping center parking lot and decided to use it. Lois was born. My daughter was so taken with the idea, she ordered some cards personalized with the name Dixie Beauregard, and asked that I use them to write to her at camp. During prior camp summers with both our kids, we’d tried to write every single day so they’d get something at the mail call. Now, this burden could be shared with Dixie.

As her name suggests, Dixie is a deep-fried southerner. I imagined her as a Mame-like force of nature, full of opinions and not afraid to voice them. She loves to cook and eat, and isn’t shy about showing her near religious devotion to southern food. Transplanted to Chicago, Dixie practically lost her mind when a Chick-Fil-A opened near the Loop. That letter had grease stains on it.

You’d think that writing under a pseudonym would allow extreme invention, but I found it to be closer to the truth. Refreshing and direct, fun and genuine. I just found these Dixie cards and realize she hasn’t written to our daughter in college. Well, we can’t have that.

Disoriented

img_1864I move through my day, things unfolding around me as expected. Following the same path on weekdays, I see the familiar buildings and storefronts, noticing the rotation of dresses in the shop window. I’m part of the surge of workers leaving the train, crossing the block, entering the building, scanning ID cards, and waiting for elevators. Days and weeks have a comforting pattern. Until the morning I look up from my seat on the train and realize I don’t know where I am.

With a quick glance at the system map, I decide to get off the train and climb the stairs up to the street. I must have been distracted by my phone and missed my stop; I’m not that far off, but the corners of this intersection don’t immediately clue me in. I circle the block before I get my bearings and head to my office. It’s a little embarrassing to realize my grasp of the Loop can be thrown so easily, my knowledge only superficial. If it was important for me to vary my route every day to elude surveillance, I think I’d fail.

When something odd pops into your day, it’s disorienting and can make you question your reality. One morning I saw Darth Vader on the train. I looked for rebels in pursuit. Multiple times around town, I’ve seen a Volkswagen beetle painted pink and decorated like a pig – complete with ears, a snout, eyes with eyelashes, a curly tail, and a piggy-sounding horn. I’m looking for the barnyard parade. A man was “skiing” in the park though there was no snow on the ground – he had roller skates attached to the skis. Where are the other Olympians?

When record players and vinyl were the norm, I enjoyed my Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief album for hours on end, listening to the routines until I could repeat them from memory. Then one day, I set the needle down on Side B and it was different. Bits I’d never heard before. I was transfixed and a little scared. I lifted the needle and set it down again. Now I heard the familiar Side B. I lifted the needle again and set it down again, only to hear the alternate Side B. Was it some kind of magic, or was I crazy? I’m not sure how long I puzzled over this Twilight Zone-worthy mind trick, until I realized that Side B had always been mysteriously shorter than Side A. But the alternate Side B made up for the deficit. There were actually two sets of grooves on Side B and the version you heard was completely dependent on where you dropped the needle. I never listened to albums the same way again.

I’m waiting in the elevator lobby on my way up to the office. On the side of the elevator door is the word “IF.” I get in, welcoming the alternate reality, wondering where I’ll end up.

Urban Development

screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-1-25-46-pmIn the city, businesses come and go. One restaurant is replaced with another. The pet store becomes a phone store. Some turnover sparks new construction – a frenzy of demolition followed by a shiny new structure. Another business stands empty for along time, dusty windows making a sad face on the block. Until one day it’s turned into a mattress store. As if the body snatchers came in the night, hauling box springs, memory foam, and pillow tops.

Stroll through any neighborhood and you’ll see one or more of these mattress stores. Oddly, they all appear empty. Unlike the TV ads where families romp through the showroom bouncing on beds, these stores never have any customers, or any employees that I can see. What exactly is going on in there? How do they stay in business when there seems to be so much competition? Ads for mattresses you can order online invade my podcasts, and are papered all over the train stations. One company stresses that you should buy a mattress every eight years – I guess this is one way to pump up demand. And bedbug scares probably have a lot of people thinking that the best offense is to get a brand new mattress.

We have had our mattress for over 25 years. I’m not sure if I should feel proud and frugal, or ashamed. It’s comfortable, doesn’t sag, and is the bed I look forward to after traveling. If I wake up with any aches, it’s more likely attributed to what I did at the gym than any fault of the mattress. Other than the proliferation of stores and their ads, the one thing that reminds me of our mattress’ age is its size. Pawing through mountains of Queen and King-size linens, it’s clear that “double”-sized sheets are in the minority. But I like the size, and the bed leaves room for other furniture in our bedroom.

And yet, I’m fascinated with the idea of a new mattress. Luxurious, covered in high thread-count sheets, adjusting to keep my spine straight, and even bending to support upright nighttime reading. I think I’m afraid to replace our mattress – either because it might not be as comfortable, or it might require a second mortgage. But January is the month of white sales, so maybe mattresses go on sale too. And unless it’s a portal to another dimension, I may even visit the mattress store at the corner.