Hat Season

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 12.00.59 PMLately, I feel strangely underdressed without a color-coordinated topper, tilted fascinator, or something with a wide brim to complement my suit or dress. Between the Derby and a royal wedding, it seems that all women are wearing big, beautiful hats. While I love to see fancy hats, they are part of another world.

Decorative hats are reserved for royalty, celebrities, fashion shows, or magnificent church ladies. While on display in historical films, I don’t see women in hats very often in everyday life other than the knitted or fleece kind for self-preservation in winter. Even in the coldest temperatures, I only wear a warm hat to and from the gym. Why? Because I’m worried about hat hair. I’m convinced that a hat will mash down everything I’ve tried to arrange through blow-drying. In reality, I’ve learned that it doesn’t really make that much difference. I may deign to wear a hat home from work (but never to work) and find that my hair looks just the same when I take it off.

A hat certainly makes a statement: “look at me!”, “watch out or I’ll poke you in the eye!”, or “what has landed on my head?!” Some of the colorful hats I saw at the royal wedding truly completed the outfits, while others looked like afterthoughts or downright attention-getters (woman with the spiky white feathers, I’m looking at you). The ones with visible headbands looked like a half measure. Derby hats are just as fanciful. Setting aside the ones that include a replica of Churchill Downs, or integrate an actual mint julep, Derby hats rival anything one would see at Ascot. TV coverage zooms in on the beautiful women and their hats so that one almost believes that everyone in Kentucky dresses this way all the time.

Special occasion hats are lovely, but they aren’t practical in a windy city. No one wants to wear a chin strap to hold it on, and many of them look like they could achieve some loft with the right amount of breeze before they go rolling down the street like tumbleweeds.

There is one person who doesn’t seem right without a hat – Queen Elizabeth. Calling her regal is correct and redundant at the same time, but she does look the part. Her hats go with her lovely coats, brightly colored intentionally so that she is easy to spot in a crowd. I may be mistaken, but she seems to only wear proper hats. OK, there were some styles that looked like bathing caps in her past, but at least she avoids the crazy fascinators. And whenever she removes those hats, away from the crowd, I’m sure there’s a stylist nearby to return her coiffure to its perfect form.

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Mother’s Day

thumbnailI awake to the muffled sounds of shared secrets coming from the kitchen. Little chefs are working on a surprise, so I feign sleep until they burst in with a tray of French toast, fruit, tea, a flower and a handmade card. Breakfast in bed is an activity for Mother’s Day when the kids are young. Exciting, endearing, and usually followed by washing the sheets.

Preparing and presenting this ceremonial meal is one of the first times you realize how easy cooking looks when mom is doing it. Making scrambled eggs just firm enough; keeping the toast warm enough to melt the butter; not sloshing the tea. But when you’re so proud to bring your attempt in on a tray, every mom expresses appreciation, even if the food bears improvement. I’m pretty sure my mom hugged me so I couldn’t see when she tucked some of those eggs under the toast.

As a child, I didn’t suffer from low self-esteem, but I always enjoyed it when something I did would make my mom happy. Whether it was cleaning a bathroom so that she didn’t feel compelled to clean it again, weeding the garden to save her some of that back-breaking labor, or making her tea just right. Somehow we know our mom will love us, no matter what, but it’s especially sweet when you know you’re not making her try too hard.

I probably never thought about it till I was a mother, but you retain this role forever. No matter how old your kids are, you never stop being their mother. I’ve grown to accept that they can make their own decisions, work through challenges, and manage most life skills. When asked, I’m happy to share my arcane knowledge of writing a check or filing taxes. In turn, they share great books, TV shows and movies I might otherwise miss.

This Mother’s day my children aren’t bringing me a tray, but they’re doing something pretty impressive: getting their bearings in adult work life and crushing it. And for that, I’m happy to make my own breakfast.

Sproing!

IMG_2923A jack-in-the-box, a trick can of nuts where a fabric snake jumps out, a magician who pulls a bouquet from his sleeve. This is what spring feels like in Chicago. One minute it’s cold enough to zip my winter coat all the way up, tree branches are bare, patches of dirt are hard and barren, and then after a couple of 80 degree days, everything is in bloom at once.

All around are colorful blossoms: daffodils, tulips, forsythia, periwinkle, hyacinth. Slim, green shoots are poking through the ground amid an expanse of dirt, before unfurling to be full beds of hostas and lilies of the valley. Trees are awakening too. Japanese cherry trees have a blush of pink sprinkled over the drooping branches, tulip poplars rival their namesake cousins, pear trees’ white blossoms look like they’re holding a snow storm. Those blossoming trees also boast small leaves. Looking up to taller trees I see more leaves awakening from a long winter. Like someone flipped a light switch: the makings of summer shade have begun.

It was nice enough over the weekend to sit out on our terrace where we have an atypical view. Not the Chicago skyline, or Lake Michigan, but a set of rooftops stretching to the horizon, occasionally punctuated with massive school buildings dating to the early 1900’s, a regional rail track, a pencil factory turned into condos, and the lights for multiple baseball fields. I was startled to see that the trees had started to leaf out. Soon they will form a green carpet that masks the neighboring homes, and transforms our 7th floor view to a floating island above the big city, far from the bustle.

With the warmer weather comes open windows to coax in the breeze and the sounds we’ve muffled all winter. Cars honk at someone not getting through the intersection fast enough, the bus announces itself at the corner, children squeal, and revelers from a Cubs game or corner bar shout to their friends. Another surprise, for me at least, is pollen. I’ve never been an allergy sufferer, but lately, I’m sneezing a lot, so I assume it’s all the microscopic new life in the air. It’s a small price to pay for this sliver of time before we close everything up and turn on the air conditioning. Chicago’s spring is short, but so, so nice.

Ready, Set, Go!

IMG_2916It’s the perfect confluence of events: sunny days with a hint of spring warmth, a serious case of Kentucky Derby Festival envy, and the prospect of summer. There are so many things I want to get out and do while the weather’s nice – I’m going to need a plan. Fortunately, this is my specialty.

On the brink of the best time of year to be in Chicago, I refer to my mental list of the things I always say I’ll do, but somehow never get around to. But like a good resolution, I know I need to make a real written list that will commit me to these goals. So here we go.

Walk the lakefront
This is the simplest thing to do, and I’m embarrassed that I don’t. Sure, we live a mile from the water, but a brisk walk or bus ride will take me there. I can join the power walkers, runners, bikers, and roller bladers, feeling the breeze and marveling at the blue expanse. From there it’s easy to stroll in Lincoln Park, visit the botanic garden, go to the farmers’ market.

Eat out
OK, I eat three meals a day, but mostly we cook at home. I think we need to revive our “eat out on Wednesday” plan and strive to go out of the neighborhood, enjoy the al fresco options, get ice cream and frozen custard. There’s a column in the paper about great breakfast restaurants that always has me drooling, so the addendum to the Wednesday plan should also be eat breakfast out once a month.

Act like a tourist
Last summer I had a fabulous week hosting an out of town guest. Criss-crossing the Loop on a weekday, taking the architectural boat tour (my fave!), trying a few new lunch places, visiting museums, taking selfies at the Bean. I can fit these things into a Saturday, or take a few days off work.

Find something I’ve never seen before
Today’s paper included a booklet called Secret Chicago, Your Guide to the Hidden City. Leafing through it, I see loads of things I never knew about. Interesting buildings to visit, a quiet garden next to the Art Institute, offbeat museums, groceries, a clump of fused metal from the Chicago Fire, and a list of speakeasy bars.

Back-up plan (or what to do when the weekend is rainy or miserably hot)
Air-conditioned theater or movies; the Museum of Science and Industry, the Planetarium, the Field Museum (I confess, I haven’t been to any of then since we moved here).

Important postscript to the plan: don’t be a tyrant about the plan, do what sounds fun, and bring a friend. I can’t wait!

Mini Me

IMG_1989The kids in our neighborhood are hipsters in the making. Their t-shirts feature snarky sayings or pop-culture icons; they wear Tom’s shoes and Herschel backpacks. In fact, they look a lot like their parents — not just their hair and eye color, but the whole sartorial package. The kids are mini-versions of the parents.

I guess that can be useful in a crowded place. If they get separated, it’s easy to remember that a misplaced daughter is wearing the same striped t-shirt dress and boots that you are. I’ve seen families use this strategy at Disney World. Each one wears a red t-shirt with their last name on it, or a cute phrase, like “Jones Family Spring Break,” making it easier to count heads and keep anyone from straying. They look like a unit, except for the teens who seem mortified that they’re wearing what amounts to a prison uniform.

I remember having fun dressing my kids when they were little. Adorable outfits from the Gap that mirrored the grown-up clothes (khakis and t-shirts) but had a twist for kids like an elephant or giraffe on the shirt. Colorful tops and bottoms, fun socks and tiny shoes. The clothes were comfy, had elastic waistbands, and generally lasted for a few months before they were outgrown.

Beyond everyday kids clothes, there’s the remarkable subset of clothes for special events. Tiny dresses for a flower girl, a fluffy concoction for Easter, little three-piece suits for ring bearers, or natty shorts sets. These outfits look so cute on the mannequin, but I wonder how long they’ll have it on before there’s a smear of a melted chocolate down the front or a grass stain on the seat. Let’s face it, kids are hard on their clothes. Even durable denim gets busted out knees, and shirts display evidence of the most recent meal. Why do we think this will be any different with special occasion clothes?

We have a picture of my brother, at about three years old, wearing a gray Eton suit with short pants and red knee socks. He’s got a grin on his face and for that one second looks immaculate. I’m sure that five minutes later the jacket was off, the shirt untucked and one of his shoes was missing. But it’s the memory reinforced by the picture that endures. We only remember that shining moment when everything looked perfect and we want to recreate that with our kids. So that’s why someone is going to buy a pale seersucker pair of shorts with matching bow-tie and cap plus suspenders, wrestle their son into it and take as many pictures as possible before he rolls in a mud puddle.

Triangulate

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Living in Chicago with its grid system for roads, you’d assume that everything is regular, but you would be wrong. Sure, address numbering emanates from a central point increasing in all four cardinal directions so that you always know how far away you are from the heart of the Loop. But it’s the diagonal streets that seem to throw a wrench into things.

It looks normal enough on a map. A diagonal street cuts across the grid and in some cases is the fastest way to get from point A to point B. But when you encounter a diagonal street in your car or on foot, it’s not as clear. Imagine a four-way stop. Four right angles, and all of the cars are visible. Now, imagine a diagonal road cutting through that four-way stop making six entry points and less clarity about whose turn it is. Lights may be overhead, or on a lamp post; each street has a cross-walk and walk signals that pedestrians may or may not observe; and the street sign you see bears the names of the two streets you are not on, but you can’t tell which is the street perpendicular to you, or diagonal to you.

Chicagoans differentiate between a “hard” left (90 degrees) and a “soft” left (45 degrees). When Google Maps tries to make sense of the same intersection, they may call the “soft” left a “slight” left. None of this seems to help while dodging pedestrians when the car behind you is laying on the horn, so half the time, I end up on the wrong street.

Diagonal streets produce triangular plots of land and buildings are made to fit the space. Pointy apartment buildings look like the prow of a ship, a narrow retail entrance belies the building expanding behind, and many structures are reminiscent of New York’s Flat Iron building. The triangle bits may also be space for parks, cafe sidewalk seating, sculpture, flowers, a bench, commemorative plaques, or an ATM.

I admit, the triangles make it more interesting to explore the city. Reconnoitering may require a compass or a protractor, but there’s fun in discovery by wandering around. And once the diagonals are mastered, you feel pride in the navigational knowledge that might stump a visitor.

Death and…

slot-machine-1-678x381-e1523209882978.jpgIt’s that time of year again. Time to drag out all of the financial documents and file our taxes. Like a good spring cleaning, I look forward to the task, but find that once I start it, it takes longer than expected. I don’t have all of the necessary parts, I set it aside, I lose interest, I come back and start again.

Our taxes shouldn’t be that complicated. We don’t have a second home, or foreign bank accounts. No farm income, or nannies in our employ. No income from tips, no property sales, no lottery winnings or gambling losses. We file online and I find it to be pretty painless. I like how the program steps me through each section of the return, remembers what we did last year, and keep a running total of our refund, or what we owe. It’s a little like standing before a slot machine. Instead of putting in your quarters, pulling the handle and hoping to get three cherry clusters, I type in the amount of property tax we’ve paid, press enter, and pump my fist in the air while watching the “amount owed” number spin down to a somewhat smaller number we still owe, but not a refund. Rats.

I try to tell myself that this is better than getting a huge refund. After all, why should I treat withholding as a saving account? Don’t the experts say that we should calibrate our withholding over the year so that we break even at tax time? And yet I’m disappointed. It would feel like a gift, a reason for a meal at a fancy restaurant, or a downpayment toward a special vacation. Instead, I hear the “sad trombone” as if I lost the game.

It’s not clear to me how the recent tax reform will impact us. Nothing dramatic has happened so far, but it seems likely that our deduction for property tax next year will be even more limited. Illinois still has the second highest property taxes in the country, after New Jersey, so it’s inevitable that we’ll be making a tax payment come April.

At least there’s a silver lining. We’re one week closer to spring, and as soon as it gets above freezing, we might even enjoy it.

 

Fool Me Once

25795029464_ffc11ae261_bThe best way to get rid of belly fat! The one food you should never eat! Find out what’s really running up your electric bills! Click here! Download this! Open the attachment! I’m barraged by these urgent messages everyday. I know they are not as they seem, but they have provided one valuable service: immunization against April Fool’s jokes.

If you’re ever visiting a foreign country and lose your wallet and passport, don’t text me your plea for help. I may pause for a moment and wonder how you got all that time off work to explore the Balkans, but I’m not going to wire you any money. If you’ve written a draft of the great American novel, don’t send me an attachment to download. I will delete it and your Pulitzer-worthy work will be gone. After so many attempts to fool me digitally, I’m done with it. It’s not clever or unique and can be a dangerous load of malware. At best, it’s a big waste of time.

What I want are real practical jokes that require thought and planning. Encase my car in Saran Wrap, set a bucket of water over a partially open door, tape a “kick me” sign (or a poisson if you’re French) on my back, get me to unknowingly rub black grease onto my face, reverse all the contents of my dresser, replace all the money in my wallet with Yen.

Nearly 80 years ago, Orson Wells fooled many Americans with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. I wish some of the recent headlines could be so easily explained. Late night show hosts hardly have to alter the news to get a laugh because much of it seems unbelievable and absurd. As the news recaps wash over me, I’m making that “Really?!” face all of the time. I think I’d welcome a Martian invasion.

But today might be different. Maybe I can regard all of the news as an elaborate April Fool’s joke. I’m scanning the paper for a “gotcha” message, or a package of Swedish Fish. Ah, there it is: it’s spring in Chicago! Yes, the sidewalk cafes are being assembled and stores are selling sleeveless dresses and sandals. The forecast is 70 and sunny! April Fool!

Flatlander

IMG_2877Chicago is situated at the edge of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes formed by glaciers. While we are all enamored with the lake, and the beautiful soaring architecture, it’s easy to forget that the topography all around us is flat, flat, flat. Look to the horizon and it is a long stretch of streets in a grid. Drive to the suburbs and you see beehives of housing developments extending in all directions. But if you manage to escape the orbit of Chicagoland, as we have this weekend, you find that hills and valleys still exist.

As we trundled out of the city, we set our sights on Galena, a small northwestern Illinois town with some interesting architecture, and the home of Ulysses S. Grant. Not so far from Chicago, it’s a nice weekend trip. I imagine Chicago surrounded by a set of concentric rings, each with landmarks that signal our distance from the Loop. First we pass is O’Hare. After that, Schaumburg, the suburban shopping mecca. Next, we see the gleaming white castle of Medieval Times where knights on horseback joust to win the fair maiden’s hand while visitors eat joints of meat with their bare hands. Now we’re in the wilds of Illinois where the highway narrows to two lanes, but what surprises us is that the road begins to undulate. Pitching up and down as if our car was on a roller coaster track, we climb up, up, up and having reached the crest of the hill, point directly downward. Whee! I say, and try to throw my hands in the air.

The road rises again, and we round a curve to find that we’re higher than anything else. The valley is splayed out all around us. Farm land is sectioned off into discrete parcels, barns and silos glint in red and silver, black cows lounge in the grass. It’s breathtaking! While it’s not the Grand Canyon, it is still so different from what we see everyday, and marvelous.

With hands firmly on the wheel, we make it to our destination. This entire town seems carved into the hillside sloping down to the Galena River. There are stairs to take you from one street to the next, a cemetery where grave plots are set into the hill. I’m looking around for the funicular like the one we saw in a similarly hilly town in Italy. No, there is no elevator or train to take us up the hills. Instead, it is the perfect antidote to the generous meals, a distillery tour, and root beer flights we’ve enjoyed (who knew there were so many kinds of root beer?!). The FitBit must be happy, because we are getting in our steps.

So what makes a vacation? A warm weather escape, toes in the sand, a Disney character on your coffee mug? Sometimes all it takes is a new elevation and a view.

Stormy

Snowflakes Snowfall Winter Snow Blizzard FlakeWhen mom and I travel we attract the attention of the weather gods. Perhaps we send a ripple through the cosmos because we always make it snow. We visited New York one fall and they had an early freak snow storm that coated all the branches and downed trees in Central Park. We visited St. Louis in the spring and were hit with a one day white out – fat wet snow flakes and rotten visibility for site-seeing.

Is Mother Nature telling us to stay home? Maybe it’s just the times of year we end up traveling, maybe it’s global climate change, or maybe it’s a co-dependent superpower. A power only invoked when we’re together and have not packed boots. A trip with a light coat turns into a battle against the driving snow and rising drifts. Cute little flat shoes prove to be thoroughly inadequate in a slush puddle. Umbrellas turn inside out.

Of course we may be invoking the gods accidentally by awakening ancient knowledge as we remark on the interesting architecture we see. Driving by old buildings we call out: Corinthian columns! Egg and dart! Romanesque arch! Broken pediment! Oriel window! Inside buildings, we see piano hinges and mortise joints. In churches we recognize the apse, the transept and the narthex (gesundheit!). These terms, called from a far-away art history lesson, begin to float before our eyes, a swirling cloud that is picking up speed.

When you’ve planned a vacation, you can’t let bad weather get in the way. Instead, we laugh hysterically as we cross the parking lot with snow blowing in our eyes, and remark that the rental car didn’t come equipped with a snow scraper.

The day we fly out the sun is shining brightly, but there’s snow in the forecast where we’re headed. Mother Nature knows we’re coming.