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.

Smiling in the Rain

Boots - 1I’m afraid the rain and chill followed us from Chicago, so all of the events leading up to and around graduation are cold and rain soaked. Umbrellas, puddles, and mud supplant the desired photo backgrounds. Visions of sun dresses and sandals are replaced by sweaters, jackets, and ponchos. Our daughter is wearing an extra layer for warmth, and sensible boots with her cap and gown.

While not ideal weather for an outdoor graduation, it won’t stop the proceedings. A tent worthy of Ringling Brothers gleams in the center of campus, and we navigate the waterlogged, muddy path to find our seats. Body heat from 2,000 parents and family members keep us pretty comfy under the tent. I’ve been to a few graduations before and while they all have roughly the same structure, each one has unique elements. The music, the colors, the speaker, the size of the class, and of course, the one person in the crowd you’ve come to cheer for.

No matter how engaging the speaker, every family there is just biding their time till they see their graduate approach the stage. Five or six people at a time leap up shouting a name as their special person shakes a hand and clutches a scroll.

The day we moved our daughter onto campus to start her freshman year, it rained. After ferrying multiple boxes, suitcases, and supplies from the nearest parking lot to the dorm, we looked like drowned rats. In the pictures that day my hair was oddly wavy, but we were smiling. Happy that our daughter was happy. Excited for the adventure she was embarking on. And maybe the rain hid our tears. No matter how ready you think you are, when they take that big step, you pause and gulp a little.

Now four years later, the rain is back, ushering her out as it ushered her in. But she’s grown. Independent, thoroughly capable, and brimming with ideas, she has packed everything up herself and will drive home, while we fly. We never doubted her ability, or determination, but it’s one of those moments when you have to stop and take notice.

We hear her name, she’s crossing the stage, and it’s official! Not too long afterward, students and faculty began their recessional. She passes close enough to our seats for us to wave and get a picture. The emotion catches me off guard. Our girl, launching into her life! We clap as she sails past in her sensible boots, off to conquer the world!

The Breakfast That Time Forgot

IMG_2100During a museum visit when our kids were small, we stopped in a kid-friendly room called Gramma’s Attic, filled with artifacts that were OK to touch. Odd objects so far from our current reality, that they needed to be preserved for future generations to know how hard we had it. I was expecting a butter churn or bear trap. Instead, there was a manual typewriter and an insulated milk box – the kind we had on our back porch growing up. Sheesh, when did my childhood become a museum diorama?

In the grocery my go-to purchases are sometimes marginalized. GrapeNuts are on the highest shelf where no child will ever see them, tucked in between granola and bran; V-8 is a lonely item amidst a sea of sweetened juices; and plain yogurt is the red-headed stepchild of the dairy aisle. I’m afraid that the products I like are slowly disappearing, edged off the shelves by new and improved versions, snapped up by collectors.

One winter, I wanted hot cereal – not oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, or grits – I wanted Ralston. When mom would make this tasty wheat cereal, I’d add some milk and sugar, and eat every bite. It was delicious and warmed me all the way through. But where is Ralston now? I went to multiple stores, and asked clerks who gave me a blank stare. I started to wonder if I’d invented this yummy breakfast memory, when I happened to get a catalog in the mail from The Vermont Country Store. No offense, but this catalog looks like it comes from the land that time forgot. Where women wear aprons, 1940’s-looking bathing suits, and full-length flannel night gowns. But seeing the food they sell is a throw-back to my childhood: Necco Wafers, Charles Chips, brown bread in a can, and Ralston! I was thrilled to find Ralston, but it was being sold in an enormous quantity, as if some enterprising person bought up the last ton ever produced, and stored it for decades in an underground cave. I didn’t want to order 20 pounds, so I passed it up.

The things we use everyday evolve or are replaced by newer things, a process usually so seamless, we’re not aware of it, until an older object or memory takes us back to that time. In the movie Somewhere in Time, Christopher Reeve managed to time travel by hypnosis, but the spell was broken during a visit to 1912 when he pulled a penny from his vest pocket dated 1980. Bam! he was sent right back to the present. I feel like the reverse happens when I see something in a store or antique mall that I remember from my childhood: a bottle of Guerlain perfume, a Barbie doll, a pair of saddle shoes, or a Crazy Daisy sticker.

The Vermont Country Store now sells Ralston in normal quantities, so I’ve just placed an order. I’m expecting a transformative, time-traveling life experience, right back to 4th grade.