Tool User

IMG_2484There’s nothing more interesting to me than watching a movie or TV character do something heroic with ingenuity. A prisoner picks a lock with a paperclip, a bystander performs a tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, the Professor makes a ham radio set out of coconuts. In extraordinary circumstances, ordinary items are pressed into service and the day is won! Alas, real life is sometimes different. If my shoelace breaks, I don’t have a handy back-up tie. If the cork crumbles in my extraction attempt, I’m likely to shove it into the bottle – OK, fancy twist, I may keep the cork from the bottle neck with a chopstick so I can get the wine out.

I’m reminded of pictures of chimpanzees using a long stalks of sturdy grass to “fish” in a giant termite hill. When the stalk is pulled out slowly, termites are clinging to it just before they are plunged into the chimp’s waiting mouth. This example of animals using tools is considered rare and unusual. We think tool use and language are the slim margin of superiority we have over the beasts. But since I don’t usually have to rely on my wits to eat or find safety, the animals may be gaining.

If the grocery store is out of my favorite tuna, I don’t reach for my fishing pole. On the rare occasion that the power is out, it never occurs to me to chop wood for the fire. Instead, I’m scrambling around in the drawer for the melon baller so that the fruit cup is beautiful. I’m peeling and trimming carrots, adding lemon zest to something, or using the magical microwave to reheat leftovers.

The pinnacle of fictional tool-using is MacGyver. If you need to know how to defuse a bomb, land safely after jumping off a 20 story building, or escape a sealed room, this guy is for you. I think he’s the reason we all wondered if the paint on our 10-speed bikes made them too dangerous to ride. Even bubble gum became a suspect item. I’m surprised the TSA lets us on the airplane with it.

The six classic tools, or simple machines, are the level, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. These are all around us today, fundamental parts of things like cars, elevators, and the humble doorstop. Other tools are harder to link to those classic forms. With a computer or cellphone I can determine the optimal path to my destination and even avoid traffic. I can find the answers to crossword puzzles, refresh my memory on the plot of any book, and pull up iconic movie scenes.

So while large scale tools manage to bring me water and heat my house, I can still use tools on a small scale. Screw in a light bulb, squeegee water off of the windows, knit a sweater of yarn. And if called, I’ll keep that bomb from detonating and rig a zip line to take me off the roof to safety.



Do you ever start something and realize that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? That’s what I imagine Sue Grafton thought at some point. With A is for Alibi, she set an incredibly high expectation that she would write 26 mysteries covering the entire alphabet. Why not something that comes in threes, or at most, a dozen?

I love to read and try different things – history, biography, memoir – but I keep coming back to mystery. It’s always the puzzle that engages me up to the last page. So I was thrilled to learn that Y is for Yesterday was available. Over the 35 years Sue’s been writing the series, Kinsey Millhone, her intrepid detective, has aged only 7 years and the stories are set firmly in the 80’s. No cell phones or internet, just good old fashioned peril and sleuthing.

I read Nancy Drew books when I was young. I can’t recall the plots, but I’m sure she was sharp as a tack. I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers sometime around college and thoroughly enjoyed the settings, the British-ness, and the suave Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane!) My heart pounded reading Patricia Cornwell’s grisly tales from the point of view of the medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. When I moved to Chicago, I dove into the exploits of V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago gumshoe. I love the way she uses the city as a character, and through her I learned lots about the neighborhoods and local history. When Robert Parker died, I decided to read his 40 book series about Spenser. Not ever having seen the TV series Spenser: For Hire, this PI was a marvelous discovery.

But during most of this time, I’ve read Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. A new one was available every year or two, and it’s always been fun to reacquaint myself with the main and supporting characters, and have new tidbits of Kinsey’s history revealed. The extra special treat for me is that Sue is from Louisville and she has on occasion woven it into the story. Part of the action in L is for Lawless was set there, and it was fun to recognize the parts of the city she described.

Louisville makes a big deal about native sons and daughters who have gone on to prominence in their chosen fields by draping banners of them on buildings around town. Muhammad Ali, Colonel Sanders, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Olympian Mary T. Meagher, Diane Sawyer, Denny Crum, Pee Wee Reese, and Jennifer Lawrence, to name a few. Where is Sue Grafton? She deserves this honor! Maybe they’ll consider it when she finally gets to “Z”.

Years ago, my brother stood in line at the Hawley Cooke bookstore (before it was a casualty of Amazon) and had Sue Grafton sign a book for my birthday. Looking back now, I realize I was the same age as Kinsey Millhone. Maybe not as brave or clever, but a keen observer, on the look-out for evildoers.


IMG_2458When life gives you lemons, get out the vacuum cleaner. I get some bad news, something I can’t change, and there is nothing I can do right now except absorb the information. I can’t go there, I can’t comfort, all I can do is worry. So I do what I always do, start to clean. I take the kitchen apart and scrub till it gleams. Then what? I pull everything out of the refrigerator and start to cook. All the ingredients are shaped into a coherent meal and the family is making those quiet approving noises as they tuck in. Yes, all feels right with the world. This part that I can control for a little while.

I don’t often acknowledge it, but life as I know it is a delicate balance. Life works when all those elements are operational, but take out one support, have one thing fail, and it’s shocking to see how quickly things fall apart. When the kids were small, that balance between two working parents, living nowhere near family, and daycare was more precarious than I originally recognized. Until the morning daycare called me to come pick up my son because he was sick. I was at work and thought, “no, he stays there until 5:30, what do you mean?” That project deadline was looming, but I had to leave. While I imagined my co-workers’ angry glares as I theoretically left them high and dry, it turns out the world didn’t end. This little bump in the order of things was absorbed and all was well.

For some reason, when life is chugging along, I tend to think that it will always be “this way” – whatever way has become the recent pattern. I know what to expect and there are certain things to look forward to. When something unexpected happens, I’d like to think that I can be flexible. I want to see myself as easy-going, able to roll with the punches, but I’m not always good at it. I get flustered or angry – reactions that feel like an important release, but I tire of rehashing what I should have done, and how the world conspired against me.

Hence, cleaning to sublimate whatever else is going on. Rather than rail against the world, or feel unfairly put-upon, I try to channel it into something that may at least have a useful outcome. With a cooler head, I realize the sky isn’t falling, the sun will come up tomorrow, etc. And – bonus!- I have a clean house.


Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.30.22 PMOnline, I am a username and password. That information can unlock my bank account, apply for a loan and file my taxes. In the old days getting money meant passing the scrutiny of a bank teller who would compare my signature to the one on file. Now, identification can be verified by a chip and PIN, a text to my phone, a thumbprint, or iris scan. While biometrics seems to be the new wave of establishing identity, I shudder as I remember thrillers where the eyeballs or digits of people with access are horribly removed so the bad guys can use them to penetrate a highly secure area.

I imagine the hackers who steal our information from digital storehouses as shadowy figures, persistently harvesting numbers and selling them to the highest bidders. Unfortunately, when these numbers are recombined on a credit application, the approver at the other end can’t look the applicant in the eye and make a human judgement like that friendly neighborhood teller. It’s harder to tell if a 75 year old social security number from Iowa could belong to someone who wants a loan for a sports car.

Once when we planned to lease a condo, a credit review indicated negative information from one of the reporting agencies. We were shocked by this, being model citizens. We learned that a long-ago mix-up by the Social Security Administration resulted in giving two people the same social security number. By the time the mistake was discovered and corrected, some work history and payment behaviors had been mixed. Even today we are occasionally asked about a repossessed pick-up truck we “owned” while living in Ohio.

There are many advantages in a digital world. The speed and convenience of online shopping, never having to fill out a 1040 form by hand, and booking flights. But the dark side of these modern activities is to be forever looking over your shoulder. What information am I giving to what organizations? Is it safe? Does one business know enough about me to do me harm, even if inadvertently? It’s not enough to pick an email address, I need to know whether the company who issued that address to me stays up-to-date on their security patches. Does the finance manager at the car dealership have a strong password on his computer? Does the gas station regularly examine their pumps for skimming devices? It’s enough to make me pay cash.

When I go to the gym in the morning, the attendant at the front desk recognizes me before he scans my ID card. The smiling checker at the grocery store asks about my kids each time I see her. My insurance agent knows my voice when I call. I doubt whether anyone trying to open a credit card account in my name could pass those tests, but they don’t have to. So I’m reviewing my credit history this weekend, relieved to see everything in order, for now.

Weather Watch

IMG_2447It’s an ideal day in Chicago – bright, sunny, temperate, and a weekend. We may seem blissfully unaware of the torment visiting our countrymen in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. But our days are numbered and preparations for our own weather event are underway, even if in super slo-mo. It doesn’t warrant any attention on the Weather Channel, but it is headed our way: winter.

Our preparations are subtle. No one is hauling sandbags, plywood or bottled water. Instead, planters and gardens fill with yellow mums and decorative cabbages. Snow shovels lean in the shadow of porches. Grocery stores have bags of salt around the corner from the pumpkin displays. Our down jackets have stayed in easy reach, and we can pull out a fleece or sweater at a moment’s notice.

Most important are the last rites of summer. Take walks in the sun, wear shorts, go to a Cubs game. Relish every day above 50 degrees, fill the outdoor seating at restaurants, run and bike on the lakefront without layers, resist wearing a coat as long as possible.

When it comes, the transition is short. We’d like to think that we’ll enjoy autumn with colorful leaves, Halloween decorations, harvest gourds and hayrides. Then, blammo! one morning we wake up to frost on the windows or a dusting of snow and we know there’s no escape. Sure, some people go south for the winter, but most of us tough it out, burnishing our Chicago grit. Heads down till sometime in April.

Somehow, when winter comes it’s never seems as bad as I’ve feared. We have good snow removal, public transit trundles on, and a brisk walk outdoors really does warm you up. Meanwhile, I’ll try to wear my sundress a few more times, and won’t worry if I get tan or not.


IMG_2445As I travel around Chicago, I often see graffiti on the sides of buildings. Extremely stylized lettering of an alien language left as artists roam the city at night, scale fire escapes, bridges, and train platform roofs to reach their lofty canvases. There’s a recurring image of a goose peeking from the corners of buildings – this must be their leader.

One neighborhood merchant group proudly states how much graffiti they’ve removed, while funding the installation of public art. Another neighborhood encourages local artists to create large colorful murals to celebrate local heroes and heritage. Some examples are small and seemingly random: letters on the opening of a mail box, an apartment door frame, and the bench in a bus shelter.

During one of the local public school funding crises, the mayor proposed consolidating some schools to make better use of limited resources. Families on our street quickly acknowledged that they couldn’t possibly allow their children to walk three blocks to a different school because it would require that they cross gangs lines. I had no idea there was a gang, or multiple gang territories. But I might have known if I could have interpreted that subtle graffiti.

In the summer, or “construction season,” a new kind of graffiti crops up. Spray-paint on the sidewalks, planters, and streets that indicate underlying water or gas lines, or crumbling drainage pipes. The marks are generally harbingers of backhoes and cement trucks, fresh sticky asphalt and dirt. But some marks must be a false notice, because nothing happens and they finally they fade away. My favorite lately is the blue W. It probably stands for “water” but on the north side of Chicago, its alternate, and not too mysterious, meaning is “win”, specifically a Cubs win. Flying the W flag at Wrigley Field is an old post-game tradition to let commuters know the outcome, and it is a cherished and widespread show of fandom, especially as we stretch out the World Series Champs title.

Maybe the sidewalk W’s are solidarity expressed by the city workers at the water department, or just the gang of crazed fans who want baseball to last through October.


IMG_2439The store employee hands me a glass of ice water to calm me down. I’m weeping and shaking and frantic. This store has an Escher-like set of staircases and none of them go to the right place. “I’m looking for the second floor,” I manage to squeak out, and the lady with the water is sympathetic. Up there somewhere is a pile of things I left behind, but I can’t remember what they are. I guess there’s not enough room in my day for rampant anxiety, so it has to creep up on me when I sleep.

But there’s more. In the disconnected way of dreams, I’m taking my daughter on an errand in the middle of the school day to pick up Girl Scout cookies, but after she goes to the door, the people don’t answer. It’s frustrating because I know we’ll have to come back, we’re stuck in a traffic jam, and I’m worried that I’ll be late getting back to work. Then I see a group of boys coming our way, yanking open unlocked doors of the stopped cars and grabbing purses and other valuables. Our doors are locked; they leer at us and finally move on.

As we approach the school, the road narrows and we are slithering back and forth to avoid clueless pedestrians who want to walk in front of the car. Next my daughter and I are walking the last block while eyeing on an odd man who keeps pace with us until he turns to enter his home.

Hoo boy! My guess is that a morning perusing the contents of a few storage boxes followed by a Tim Burton movie have blended to become a bizarre landscape. I’m always amazed at how real dreams can seem, even when unexplained things are going on. It’s all plausible and concrete, and triggers the appropriate physiological response. I wake up with my heart pounding and wet eyes.

Dreams are considered a rehash of your day, a way for your brain to process everything that’s happened. But I wonder if it’s also practice, what-if scenarios of things that I’ll need to get right one day. I keep studying that store layout. I’m sure the staircase I need is right around the corner. After I sip this water, I’ll try again.

Duck and Cover

IMG_2437It’s a warm, sunny day in Chicagoland, the kind that beckons you outdoors for a walk, reading in the shade, or a picnic on the grass. Picture-perfect. The normal city sounds of traffic, emergency vehicles, and train announcements fade into the background as the breeze ruffles the trees. And then a formation of jets scream overhead, white smoke and a sonic boom in their wake. Ah, it’s the annual Air and Water Show.

The first year we lived in Chicago, we had an opportunity to observe the impressive collection of planes from the roof deck of a nearby 20+ story building. Situated close to the lakefront, our view was pretty spectacular. Bi-planes with billows of decorative colored smoke doing loops, parachuting Army and Navy teams, a wide array of military planes – both current and vintage – and finally, the Navy’s Blue Angels. Starting from an airfield in Gary, Indiana, the planes fly in great loops over the city and the lake, but the fastest planes go far west and turn for their supersonic approach due east to the lake. The planes are right on top of you before you can hear them coming, and as the terrifying sounds catches up – ZOOM – they’re gone.

Of course we see planes all the time. If you’ve ever flown into Chicago, it’s likely that your pilot flew out over the lake and the impressive Loop. Understand, this is nowhere near the airport, but a way to spread out the heavy air traffic. After a tourist bureau-worthy glamour view of the Windy City, the jets line up for the next 20 miles or so until they can touch down at O’Hare. Living relatively near the lake, when we see the planes, they’re still very high in the sky, unlike the experience of homeowners in the suburbs near O’Hare.

And that’s the big difference. When the jets come for the Air Show, they are not only loud, they are a lot closer to the ground. I can read the numbers on their wings. As the planes do their practice runs right over our heads, or buzz past my office building, I’m ready to dive under the furniture. Even when you know it’s for show, I can’t help but wonder how it must feel for people who live with air strikes, or border-dispute posturing.

So this weekend I’ve been squinting up at our skylight, bracing myself for the planes. With the sun spilling over the kitchen island, I’m reminded of a less frequent and quieter event, the solar eclipse. I have an empty cereal box – it’s time to make a pin-hole viewer!


IMG_2417A cool, clean place where there are no chores and everything is provided. A daydream? Fairytale? No, a hotel! Whether it’s a weekend getaway, or a business trip, a hotel is a refuge. Of course they range in levels of pampering. At the high end you have a selection of dining rooms, room service, a spa and valets who will whisk your dirty clothes or shoes away and bring them back gleaming. There’s surely a fluffy robe in the closet and fully stocked mini-bar. At the low end are places that advertise TV and air conditioning as if they were recent inventions. Not a place you seek out, but one you might settle for when you need a driving break.

Most of the time we’ve chosen something in the “medium” range. Not too expensive, but clean and bright with a few amenities. Free breakfast included, a place to exercise, coffee in the room, a fancy shower head, pretty toiletry bottles, a neat folded stack of towels, and a big bed with lots of pillows. Paradise. Certainly more relaxing if enjoyed without kids, but even then, it can be fun to enjoy it from their point of view.

The first time we stayed with our kids in a big city hotel, their favorite feature was the elevator. It was a novelty, and it had all those cool buttons that would light up. Every trip was a race to see who could jump in first and push the button, and, perhaps whether all of the buttons could be pushed. No one wanted to get into the elevator with us. When we finally got them out of the elevator, the pool was a big hit, especially if it was indoors and available at night. Getting to swim between dinner and bedtime was a treat, alternating between the regular pool and the hot tub, and not having to put on sun screen.

There are lots of things to enjoy in our hotel. The popcorn cart in the lobby, wafting that movie-house smell, the small fitness center where the TV gets the Food Network, and the breakfast buffet. Yes, I’m aware of this food theme, but I’m on vacation. As I tucked into fluffy scrambled eggs and biscuits this morning, I heard a series of beeps in the corner of the dining room. Other guests were lined up to make their own waffles and the beeps were the timers announcing the waffles were done. These weren’t regular waffles – they were shaped like the great state of Texas. I immediately got in line to make my own.

We had a waffle iron once and while it worked well, it was a difficult to clean, so eventually we gave it up. But the chance to use a waffle iron that someone else has to keep clean? Oh, I’m in. Texas forever!

Cleaning House

IMG_2409On the weekend when I’m home for more than an hour before and after work, I get to see the task that’s been waiting for me all week. Dust bunnies lurk, clutter stands out, dust is visible as the afternoon sun flows into our rooms. I make the bed and clean the dishes everyday, but turn a blind eye to other more daunting tasks, until I can’t ignore them anymore.

The dilemma of a small space is that once you start cleaning, you have to clean all of it. While that shouldn’t be hard, it can seem overwhelming. Part of the problem is that I’ve abandoned routine. When I was growing up, I cleaned the house every Friday afternoon. It helped earn my allowance, but I’m sure my mom wanted me to contribute in a meaningful way and gain an appreciation for what it took to make the house the way we liked it. I dusted and vacuumed, mopped the kitchen floor, and cleaned bathrooms. I wonder how accurate that memory is. Maybe it wasn’t every Friday, maybe it wasn’t every room, maybe I wasn’t that good at it. But I remember being proud of the work, and excited to sit down when it was done and enjoy a Coke and the newly arrived Life magazine.

Dorm rooms and apartments never had the same cleaning routine, other than my trying not to be the messy roommate. Fast forward to life with small children and cleaning became a bigger challenge. I finally caved and hired a cleaning lady to come once a week. During this magical period, Donna would come while we were all at work and school. We’d return to an orderly gleaming home: toys put away, surfaces cleared, vacuum tracks in the carpet. Meanwhile, my children did not acquire a cleaning routine other than my pre-cleaning day rant that they at least pick things up off the floor because “it will make Donna cry.”

We did not hire a cleaning service when we moved to Chicago, so began my delayed and ultimately failed attempt to bring the whole family into a cleaning routine. Sure, many hands make light work, but it’s hard to find that moment when everyone is able to do it, fitting cleaning around school and sports. And in the process, I’ll admit that my standards dropped as well. Time at home is precious, and I don’t want to spend it all cleaning. Still, I like that feeling of satisfaction when it’s done. Sitting on the couch, surveying a clean carpet, shiny surfaces, and a fresh smell. Sigh – it’s time to close the computer and pick up a sponge.