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.