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.

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.

Aches and Pains

IMG_2096The moment I try to move, every muscle in my body protests. Getting out of bed or up from a chair, bending, going down stairs. Ouch, ouch, ouch! If I sit still for a few minutes, I almost feel normal until I try to stand. The cause of this betrayal is not hard to pinpoint. I was showing off at the gym yesterday.

We go to the gym at 5am most days for a regular circuit of machines, and sets of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, and free weights. At that hour there aren’t any group classes, so I’m on my own. While I prefer to think I’m being consistent, I sense I’m easing up on some of the weights or the number of reps, compared to how I exercised when I had a personal trainer. When I was new to the gym I wanted to learn how to use the various machines, and a personal trainer was a great start. But when there is no longer a coach telling me to run faster on the treadmill, or do more squats, I have tended to be less intense. Sure, I’m there regularly, and that’s got to count for something, but I may be substituting a memory of athleticism for the actual thing.

I used to run outside. Miles and miles after work, and races on the weekends. But now the only running I do is on a treadmill. Not terribly fast, but with an incline to make it more challenging. While I was just finishing last week, a gym trainer asked if I’d like to come to a complimentary group exercise class on Saturday. I had been thinking about taking the class for some time, but hadn’t acted, so I thought, this is perfect! I’ll try it for free and see if I like it.

When I showed up for the class, I was clearly the oldest person there – by a lot – but I thought, he wouldn’t have asked me if he didn’t think I could do it. I was fitted with a heart rate monitor so that my stats would be displayed on multiple screens in the room along with the other class members. Feeling a little competitive and determined to keep up, I did everything the trainer asked. Kettle ball swings, squats, push-ups, sprinting on the treadmill, rowing with one arm, and then the other. When I wasn’t looking at my heart rate on the screen, I saw my bright pink face on the mirrored wall. Near the end, my thighs were already starting to hurt.

I don’t want to race, or enter a body-building contest, I just want to stay in reasonable shape and stave off the dreaded wiggly upper arms. But it seems, the older I get, the more work is required to “maintain”. So I was back at the gym this morning, a bit chastened and hobbled, trying to work out some of the muscle pain. Oof!

Spring Color


IMG_2074After all the rain, this week feels like the payoff. Trees are budding and flowering; daffodils and tulips are blooming. It’s a riot of color that makes me smile as I walk through the neighborhood. I stop at one flowerbed to take a closer look because it’s got something rare: violets. I hardly ever see violets anymore, but here they are clearly planted on purpose. Violets bring back lots of memories, including a bizarre woodland escapade.

My mom loves violets. When I was growing up, our garden always had them, strewn all over the beds; some solid purple, and others a mix of purple and white. Violets would also pop up in the grass, or next to bushes, not unlike the way dandelions punctuate a lawn. There were so many violets, we could pick a big fat bouquet, and never seem to get them all. Grandma also loved violets, so any time she visited us in the spring, we made sure to have a vase of them in the kitchen.

The house I grew up in had lots of plantings that were well developed when we moved in. We hardly ever planted anything new in those beds, but mom did lots of thinning and replanting, especially of the monkey grass which grew all over everything, and the day lilies. However, there were a couple of notable plants we added to the garden.

We visited Bernheim Forest, south of Louisville, one weekend, strolled through the shaded paths, and admired the plants that thrive in the forest. Tucked in the understory was a Jack in the Pulpit – an interesting looking plant, kind of like a lily, with a leaf forming a protective “roof” over the flower. And near by was the unicorn of flowering plants, a rare white violet. It was surrounded with other violets of the normal shade, but we’d never seen a white one before.

I don’t know what came over us that day, but we dug up the Jack in the Pulpit and the white violet, brought them home, and tucked them into a shady spot in our garden. They survived the move and looked like they had always been there. Each spring when the Jack in the Pulpit unfurled, and the white violet reappeared, I wondered if that siren wail in the distance was meant for us.

April Showers

IMG_2065There’s a terrifying rumbling that travels back and forth above our kitchen, punctuated by the sound of flames and a giant cooking pot. Are the angels bowling? Or making a stew? No, it’s the roofers, into their third week of the second phase of putting a new roof on our building. This project started in the fall. Too late in the fall, it turns out, because they weren’t able to finish. So we waited out the winter, and now, it’s back to roofing.

Since we live on the top floor, we are able to experience this miracle up close. We know they have a bubbling cauldron of hot tar – we have to close our windows to keep the stench out. They aren’t actually bowling up there, but must be ferrying supplies across the roof with a wheelbarrow. Other things are smacking the roof with loud thumps. I visualize the extreme gym work-outs where you flip over giant truck tires. Normally, the roof work would happen during the week while we’re at work, but we’ve been getting a lot of rain, so they’ve been coming on Saturday’s to catch up. Lucky us.

Maybe the amount of rain is normal for April, but it has seemed unrelenting. Perhaps it’s payback for a winter without snow; gray days, sheets of rain coming down fast and forming massive pools in the street. As a transplant to Chicago, I recently learned about the “Great Chicago Flood.” Twenty-five years ago, 124 million gallons of water from the Chicago River breached a wall and filled underground tunnels and building basements throughout the Loop, shutting down some businesses for weeks. Since I’m frequently in an underground train station, and the Pedway, it’s an uncomfortable situation to consider. On really rainy days, underground train stations are wet. In part, because it comes down the steps from the street, people carry water in on their boots, coats, and umbrellas, and some of the wall seem to weep.

At home, when it rains, our terrace can fill up with water, and I hold my breath, hoping it won’t seep under our sliding glass door. Part of the roof project is meant to address this by installing a new drainage system, so water from the roof doesn’t pour onto our terrace. That will certainly make me feel more secure. Meanwhile, we alternate between rainy days, and days with enough sun for roofing to continue. Maybe the guys on the roof should build an ark.

What to Do

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 2.40.28 PMEvery once in a great while, I get all caught up and find I have nothing to do. Nothing pressing, nothing due tomorrow, nothing that anyone is asking for. Nothing. I guess most people would shout woo hoo! and run out to play, but not me. I’m momentarily transfixed. Am I forgetting something? What am I going to do today?

It seems like I spend so much time working (both at home and the office), that I don’t know what to do with free time. A sad state of affairs. I should be able to blow off steam, soak in my surroundings, or just veg out. But it’s never been that way for me. I’m a planner. I enjoy thinking something out and then getting people in motion. A trip, vacation, or dinner. Maybe I was a border collie in another life.

I think planning has served me well, so it’s hard to turn away from it so easily. Yes, I brought umbrellas if we might need them. Yes, I have maps and a list of restaurants. When our kids were small, good planning meant I always had tissues, lots of extra napkins, a change of clothes, and entertainment in the form of toys/books/food. I could have been a contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal” when Monty Hall picked people out of the audience and gave prizes if you had some unexpected item in your bag. Hard boiled egg? Check! Pez dispenser? Check! Coloring book? Check!

Of course, I’ve thought on occasion, that my planning lets everyone else off the hook. They don’t need to think of the details, because they know I have it covered. OK, I see they appreciate me, but I’m also an enabler of sorts. So I’ve learned to ask for help. Will you remember where we’ve parked the car? Give me your ideas for the menu. Proofread this for me please!

I have also mellowed a bit, and find it possible to enjoy a TV show without simultaneously doing a chore. I can be spontaneous in response to other people’s suggestions. I sometimes stop myself from running through a “what if” checklist before I leave the house (what should I be bringing that I might possibly need). I’ve even taken the tack on some trips that if I’ve forgotten something, I can buy it where we’re going. I mean, really, unless I’m flying into outer space, I’m pretty sure there’s an ATM and a Target.

So, how about enjoying this lovely day without a plan? I might just take a walk and see what happens. I’ll try to avoid herding total strangers.

Buried Treasure

IMG_2045After nearly two years, we’ve finally painted our condo, and are going to unpack the last moving boxes to put up art that has been languishing in storage. Each box is a bit of a surprise since we failed to write the specific contents on the outside. We pull out a piece, freeing it from paper and bubblewrap, and there’s the “ah!” of recognition along with the flash of memory.

A framed picture of the family on the kids’ first trip to New York City. We’re smiling and the kids are goofing around. Somehow I’ve completely masked my fear that we might lose sight of them in the throng of Times Square.

Water colors painted by my father-in-law. These are precious family heirlooms that we’ve had in every room of our various homes, depicting laundry lines, boats, kid’s faces pressed to a window, rows of houses.

Art fair finds that continue to make me smile: a trio of quilt squares, a super-close-up of a water plant, and a multi-media collage of the stone tower in Rockford Park to help us remember Wilmington.

A lovely picture of birds made from intricately cut paper – a gift from our Vietnamese exchange student/daughter.

Pen-and-inks and acrylics my husband has made: beautiful works that were created on our dining table. After finishing most of these, my husband would ask our daughter to tell him which way to turn the canvas – which way it looked best – before he’d sign in the corner.

Of course, the challenge is to figure out where to hang everything. We have open wall space, but don’t want to crowd too many things together. And which combination of things look good on the same wall? Our inspired idea was to put up a shelf or ledge where we could lean many pieces, and potentially rotate the selections. After making it through the installation process of measuring and leveling the two shelves, we are thrilled with the result.

I’m aware that there are other boxes I am not unpacking. Photo albums with everything from black-and-white prints of my grandmother and grandfather, to slides depicting my youth, to my children from birth to high school graduation. Sometime after that, everything seemed to shift to digital. It would save a lot of space to have all these photos scanned, but those treasures may need to wait for another spring.