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.

Tetris

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 11.32.34 AMI’ve never been a video game player, but I feel like I’m playing one in real life. I’m reevaluating our storage to see if I can weed things out, put things in new places, and perhaps, by some bit of magic, make the space expand to hold more stuff. It’s tantalizing to think that if I can get just the right arrangement,  re-fold or re-stack, I can make things smaller. Of course, there is some law of physics I’m trying to violate, so, it isn’t working. But I remain hopeful.

I’ve unpacked an entire closet. The volume of material coming out of it is surprising, and fills the room. Who knew this closet could hold so much? Looking at the contents, I wonder, what is all this stuff? And why do we still have it? Gloves without a mate, boots I haven’t worn in years, and my paper calendars between 2006 and 2013. Why?

Now the job of putting the closet back together is complicated by the weeding out process. The trash pile and the donate pile. There is also the pile reserved for our kids to review. I feel like I should give them one last chance to claim that scarf or coat. But, really, if they haven’t taken it with them for the last 4 years, they probably don’t even know it exists.

I open some of the boxes and say “Aha! that’s where it is!” Other boxes are full of things I haven’t looked for, but they are somehow useful, so I’m loathe to get rid of them. Why we need 20 cloth bags emblazoned with logos, I’ll never know. Sure, we have to bring our own bags to the grocery, but I already have a dozen for that. Donate pile.

“Important” papers are the hardest category to cull. I tend to think that everything that touches our budget could potentially be needed in an IRS audit, so I should keep it all for 7 years. But after checking irs.gov, I see that I should retain papers related to my taxes anywhere from 3 years to “indefinitely” – eek. This is why our filing cabinet is overflowing. I’ve also kept medical records since our children were born. Vaccinations, braces, prescriptions, height and weight measurements. Do I think I’ll hand these over to the kids one day and they’ll be grateful to know how many earaches they had when they were 2?

Maybe this game is more like a Rubik’s Cube. The size never changes, but there are some arrangements that are more pleasing than others. Finally, I’m happy that closets have doors. Everything fits in there for now, just don’t pull anything out.

Exposed

keysSo far, I’ve retained enough presence of mind to not leave the house before I’m fully dressed, but there’s nothing that makes you feel naked faster than realizing you’ve forgotten something important. My lunch was made and packed, but I never carried it to work. My purse is not on my shoulder – it’s on the chair in the coffee shop. I don’t have my keys.

Why isn’t there a scanner as I go out the front door that beeps if I’m leaving something behind? Why can’t I detect that I’m a few ounces lighter, or question why I still have a free hand? I don’t have memory problems, but while I’m thinking about the tasks in the day ahead, I sometimes shift the focus from what I’m doing, and I miss a step in the normal routine.

Last week, a snow storm was such a novelty that after trudging through the snow to the train, I realized I’d forgotten to bring shoes to change into. Annoying, but I decided to own it and claim “snow day rules” to anyone who wondered about my ensemble.

It didn’t go quite so smoothly when after all of my groceries were scanned and bagged I realized I didn’t have my wallet. This was where I shopped every week, but they still weren’t going to let me take those groceries without paying.

Approaching our building after work, I paw through my briefcase and realize that the keys are not there. They’re in the coat I wore yesterday.

This week, I was missing another increasingly important object – my phone. I hadn’t misplaced it, but it just stopped working. What began as random restarting became total battery failure that sent me running to the Genius Bar for help. I didn’t think my phone mattered so much until it was a blank brick. We don’t have a landline in our home, and I hadn’t even bothered to tell my family my phone number at work. I was off the grid, or so it felt.

I realized how many times a day I would reach for my phone to do something I couldn’t have imagined 4 or 5 years ago. Texting my kids, ordering lunch and paying for it with that nifty app, checking the train and bus schedules, the weather, and local movies times (I mean, really, they don’t even print that information in the paper any more!). And then there are the codes needed for multi-factor authentication that I use for work. Without my phone, I was stopped in my tracks.

I have a replacement phone now, and everything is “back to normal,” but I’ll admit I’m a little bothered that so much depends on this small object. I guess the phone joins an esteemed group: keys, a license, a payment card. Without them, it’s pretty hard to function anymore.

Where Does the Time Go?

ClockTime goes quickly when we’re busy or doing something we enjoy, and it drags when we’ve managed to choose the wrong check-out line. But when Daylight Savings Time springs forward to steal an hour from my day, it feels like an affront. How dare “they” take my hour?! I was going to …. what was I going to do with it? Read more of my book, make progress on that to do list, or something equally important and valuable, I’m sure.

We want to consider time a tangible asset that can be saved or spent wisely, but it can also be wasted. If I’m fiddling around without a particular plan, I look up and say, geez, how did it get to be late? A small errand stretches into more of the afternoon than planned because of traffic, a crowd, or getting distracted in a big box store. Going around the TV dial, looking through the overwhelming number of choices available on cable or Netflix sucks up at least 30 minutes and we haven’t even picked a show to watch yet. I regularly get caught up in social media – cute videos of children or animals are the culprits – and poof, there goes the evening.

Before I bemoan losing one hour, I should think back to the fall when we gained an hour. What a gift! More time to do…something. I used it to sleep in and it was delicious. Somehow, the darkening, chilly fall days did not motivate me to be spectacularly productive with those extra 60 minutes.

I remember the time changes being harder when our kids were young. A one hour shift either way wreaked havoc with standard bedtimes, and it didn’t help if it was still light outside. Just because the clock says 8pm doesn’t mean your toddler is tired.

In truth, we absorb these time changes pretty easily. Unless you completely forget and show up somewhere an hour late or an hour early, it’s pretty seamless. That hour shifts in the middle of night while we’re sleeping, and the most noticeable sign is the position of the sun when you get up. If nothing else, the time change makes me aware of time, and what I’m doing with my day. If I could make purposeful use of 10 or 12 of the hours, it’s a good day.

Mastery

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-12-18-36-pmWhen do you know you’ve mastered something? When you can do it without thinking? If I want to learn Italian, mastery might be jumping into a conversation with my nephews without them looking at me like I’m crazy. If I want to be a good swimmer, mastery may be out of reach, but I’d settle for making it two laps without stopping.

There are also things we master by accident. We didn’t set out to be excellent, it just came with multiple trials, and many repetitions. In the mini-Olympics of everyday life, there are some things that would earn me a little plastic trophy, or at least a participation ribbon.

Grocery challenge
Having forgotten the list, get through the store in under an hour with everything you’ll need for the week.

Transit timing
Navigate an efficient path to the train, dodging puddles, dog doo, and people who are walking too slowly so that you get up the stairs just as the train pulls in.

Meal coordination
Have all parts of the meal on the plate at the same time, still warm. Bonus points for not cutting your thumb and remembering garnishes.

Sock pairing
After completing the washer and dryer stages of the obstacle course, have all socks paired up with none mysteriously lost.

Printer wrangling
Print tax returns on home computer without ink blotches or paper jams. Expert round: change the toner without getting it all over your hands and/or the carpet.

Clothes horse
Take a minimal wardrobe and make it appear to be 14 unique outfits. Not applicable for weekends.

Life support
Keep houseplants alive; bonus points for pets.

News hound
Read at least one newspaper and one magazine a day to stay well-informed, develop opinions, and chat with co-workers. Entertainment Weekly is OK; subtract points for relying on social media posts.

Entertainer
Use tissues, gum, and receipts in your wallet to make puppet for a child; accompany with wild facial expressions, compelling story and/or song. Subtract points if baby cries.

Pack efficiently
Fit everything you need for a week into one bag. Look at it again and cram in three more outfits. Don’t even think about packing a carry-on bag of equal size.

I’m sure you can just see me, breaking the tape, basking in the applause, singing the national anthem. Woo hoo!

 

Test Anxiety

submitThere are a few things in life that hinge on a test score. A drivers license, college admissions, and professional certifications. Preparing for any of these may require months of study and practice, and if you’ve worked hard, you pass. And sometimes you have to take the tests again, and again.

Maybe because tests are a shared experience, we love to complain about them. “I’m not a good test taker,” or “I don’t test well,” some say. I never felt that way, but over the years, I’ve come to doubt if my achievement in school was as much the result of my ability to take a test, as it was to actually have a command of the material. Supposedly girls do better in school because we are able to sit still for extended periods, and we thrive in a structured environment. I guess that was me. I liked reading and doing my homework. I studied hard because I was supposed to, and I wanted to do well.

When it came time to take the SAT and ACT, I considered these tests as a measurement of my cumulative school experience, not something I could study for all over again. So I took them cold, and I did fine. Years later when my kids faced these tests, I wasn’t quite so confident, and wondered if a prep course would be required to assure they’d stand out from their peers.

In my professional life, past academic achievement has never been a sure indicator of success. I admit, I was surprised to discover that some of the best people I worked with were high school graduates, or had gone to a college that wasn’t on the US News Best Colleges list. And yet they were great at their jobs. I saw that learning doesn’t stop on graduation day. Jobs require additional knowledge, and they also evolve and demand continued growth. Marketing, for example, has changed dramatically, and I’ve had to throw myself into new technologies to remain a valuable, contributing team member.

Now I’m in a new role that requires some specific licenses. I was excited when my study materials arrived, and eagerly started highlighting the important concepts and facts. My coworkers have warned me that I need to study hard to ensure I get a passing score. I’m not intimidated. I know what to do. I’ve taken all of the sample tests, and drilled with my homemade flashcards. I feel solid.

The testing center has tighter security than the airport. I can’t even bring in a tissue for my runny nose. The online assessment has 100 multiple-choice questions. I read each question carefully and select the answers I think are correct. The Submit button glows at the bottom of the screen. Is it an action or a command? I hold my breath and click. After an agonizing 15 seconds my score is displayed.

Time Capsule

img_1999I’m dusting the high reaches of the book shelves, wondering how many weeks it takes for it to resemble the stacks of an abandoned library, when I find an old jar. Probably a former home for pickles, this unassuming jar is stuffed full of bits of faded, multi-colored paper. Most are stacked so they cannot be read, but two face outward: The Police. Apparently, I saw them twice, though I have the most vivid memory of the second time, the Synchronicity tour. I ran squealing to tell my friend we’d managed to get tickets and we didn’t mind driving 90 minutes round trip on a work night either.

I twist off the lid and poke through the ticket stubs. The larger ones are concerts: Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, Chuck Mangione, Neil Diamond (OK that one was with my dad), Judy Collins, James Taylor, Kenny Loggins, Billy Joel, John Denver, Chicago, Prince. And my most prized concert ticket: Paul McCartney and Wings. Some are more classical fare: the orchestra, a surprising number of ballets, and an off Broadway show. There are stubs from high school and college games with scores written on them.

But most of the ticket stubs are from movies. I’ve scribbled notes on each with the title, the date, and who I went with. Some of the stubs show the price: $1.75, $3.90, $1.50, $4.00. Most are movies I remember (Return of the Jedi, Body Heat), and the people I went with include my brother (a lot), girl friends, high school boy friends, friends I reconnected with after college, and a few boys I don’t remember at all. Double dates, groups, movies with my family. Clearly, movie-going was the dominant entertainment in my teens and twenties. French movies, Hitchcock movies, all the Star Wars movies, and Rocky Horror Picture Show (I wrote “4th time!” on the stub).

After going through the entire jar, some of these ticket stubs stand out:

  • The World Trade Center Observation Deck
  • Deliverance: this was a first date (yes it was)
  • Movie dates with my soon to be husband
  • Rocky: saw it with my brother, my mom and my grandmother; during the climactic fight scene, I noticed that my gramma had fallen asleep.
  • My first concert: Bobby Sherman (that was with you, Nancy!)
  • Derby Day 5/4/74

This jar is a relic of a by-gone time. Before video tapes, DVRs, on-demand streaming entertainment, and print-at-home tickets; a time capsule of my life between 1972 and 1986. Whew! I screw the lid back on and return to the present.

Eye on the ball

pingpongTik, tik, tik. I’m able to make contact with the small ball for three shots and then …whiff… I miss and the ball goes bouncing across the room. I turn to retrieve it but my opponent is already serving. Zip! It goes past my ear. Playing ping pong is kind of surreal. The ball moves so dramatically – and for me – unpredictably. The lightest touch with the paddle produces a seemingly disproportionate response. I want to blame physics, but it’s poor hand-eye coordination and a backhand that’s more like flailing.

I can’t remember the last time I played ping pong, but I remember learning to play tennis in college. It was the first time I’d picked up a racket, and I enjoyed learning the basics. Serving, returning a serve, running all over the court to try to be where the ball would be, staying in the lines. In class we almost always played doubles (lots of people, limited court space), and the game seems somewhat easier that way as we each had less space to cover. Emboldened, I tried to keep playing once I was home for the summer, but it was hard to find a consistently available partner on a weeknight, and also find an open court somewhere in the park. I’m sure I improved my ability to make contact with the ball and get it over the net, but I was never so committed that I bought any special tennis clothes.

That was about the time that running was getting popular. Maybe I was attracted because it seemed achievable, being able to set your own pace and distance. I also liked it because I didn’t have to hit a ball. I could throw on shorts and a shirt, and feel satisfied to make it back home in 30 minutes, all sweaty.  The only thing requiring hand-eye coordination was getting a cup of water to your mouth during a race, but if you spilled some, it still seemed like it could have been on purpose.

I can eat without missing my mouth, but smacking a ball and actually directing where it will go seems like a kind of magic. Athletes make it look easy. Three-point shots from mid-court, long football passes, baseballs over the walls of the ballpark. These aren’t flukes, but the result of hours and days and years of practice. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s important enough to put in the hours to win at ping pong. It’s fun to play for a while, and I don’t mind “letting” the other guy win.