Travels With…

IMG_2773This weekend I’m in St. Louis with my mom. It’s a modest trip with a few ideas researched in advance, and we have adventuresome spirits. I titled the preliminary itinerary, “Thelma and Louise” and for a hot second I considered renting a convertible.

Mom and I are good travelers. We can get everything we need into one bag, aren’t afraid to wear the same outfit more than once, and are unashamed to be tourists. Everything in a new city, no matter how mundane, is interesting to us. The buildings, the street signs, the sidewalk cafes, the grocery store. Then there are the landmarks that brought us here: Wash U, Union Station, and a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We keep seeing the Arch as we drive to another destination (we wave), and are delighted to stumble upon something we didn’t plan.

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is a tremendous building but the outside didn’t prepare us for what we’d see once we went through the door. The floor plan is fairly standard with a cross shape, colonnades running parallel to the main aisle, and domed ceilings over the altar, the apse, and the transepts (I have the advantage of a brochure from the cathedral to refresh my memory of all of this architectural terminology). Our eyes adjust to the low lighting inside. We admire the the marble floor and soaring columns, and as we look up, we see glittering mosaics covering every inch of the ceilings, and parts of the walls.

Most churches I’ve visited have stained glass windows and painted walls and ceilings. While mosaics may be used in a small way, I’ve never seen a church like this. The mosaics are made of small tiles, but the large scale of the images is stunning. Scenes with Jesus and Mary; angels and apostles; figures from St. Louis history. A couple of the installations fooled us by looking like fabric – a woven rug hung like a tapestry, and a lovely green drapery. There are curlicues, cherubs, deer, birds, vines and flowers. We have to sit and rest our necks while we continue to gawk.

I learned that some parts of the mosaics are done in the Italian style, some in the Byzantine tradition; there are 83,000 square feet of mosaic art created by twenty artists and installed over 75 years. Some of the mosaics were designed and installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Absolutely amazing. My personal favorite is the red ceiling in one of the side sections. The glistening color is somehow the last thing I’d expect to see in a cathedral.

Tomorrow we’ll continue our adventure and may even get to the Arch. In the land of Anheuser Busch and Cardinals baseball, who knew we’d find such a dazzling surprise.

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Sweet Dreams

White-pillowsI’m accustomed to seeing all sorts of behavior in public spaces. People talking on their phones; cajoling or scolding children in the grocery store; singing or eating or applying make-up in the car next to me in traffic; even the occasional argument. But sleeping? We usually save this for home, on the couch in front of the TV, but some people pull it off in public.

Years ago, during a bus commute to work, I fell asleep and was then rudely awakened as I caught myself from falling in to the aisle. Blinking and wiping the drool from my lips, I realized I had passed my stop. Sleeping on public transit is so easy when you’re tired, warm, and rocked by the motion, but I try not to do it. Since most days I have to stand on the train, it’s not a problem.

Some sleeping commuters seem to have thought ahead – they have their possessions between their legs on the floor, or in their lap, straps and handles wound around their wrists. Some have rolled up a shirt to cushion their head against the window. Others are sprawled out across three or four of the molded plastic seats. It doesn’t look comfortable. In the Pedway system that adjoins the train stop there are more sleeping men who have piled up their bags to form a barrier between the nook they’re found and the passersby.

Sleep is a vulnerable state. Our bodies lax, our minds working through dreams. We see infants and children sleep in their strollers or car seats, but normally we don’t see adults we don’t know sleep in public. This week’s prize winner of Public Sleeping with Abandon was a large man in the train. Sitting up, sprawled over two seats, his mouth hung open and he was snoring to beat the band. He’d snort, flop around with the train movements, and sounded like he was sawing wood. If my husband were making that much noise in his sleep, I’d poke him to see if he’d change position. No one was trying to poke this man. Instead, we were all calculating how many more stops before we could get off the train and leave him to his rest.

We watch another commuter eat their breakfast on the train, but somehow it’s hard to watch someone sleep. If they’re quiet, you hope they wake in time for their stop. If they’re noisy or agitated, you hope they won’t fall or lash into whoever is closest. Apparently they trust all of us to protect their sleep. Maybe this is the best, warmest place they can find today. Maybe they’re been working the night shift and are on their way home. They deserve the rest and sweet dreams.

Cookie Season

IMG_2742We are all faced with the same post-holiday taunt: the order form for Girl Scout cookies. In January, it quietly appears at work accompanied by a sweet note from a young scout and soon the sheet is full of orders. In the 4 or 5 weeks before the cookies are delivered, we double down on our commitment to healthy eating, dodging Fat Tuesday and Valentines Day. But when those boxes are delivered, all resolve evaporates. A sleeve of Thin Mints is a serving size, no matter what the box says.

What is it about these cookies that makes them so irresistible? They certainly taste good, and they support a good cause. In part, I think it’s the element of scarcity, but it’s also nostalgic. The cookies you grew up enjoying, or for me, the memory of taking orders, collecting money, and delivering hundreds of boxes.

I was a Girl Scout for a very short time in grade school and I don’t think I ever sold a cookie, but I got a big second chance with my daughter. There was a Brownie troop that met at her school, so it seemed like an easy thing to try. She liked it, the troop was all classmates she knew and they had fun together. Because troops are led by volunteers, the leaders are always looking to engage more parents to widen the pool of resources. Before I knew it, I was pulled in.

It starts with helping out at meetings. It doesn’t feel that different than monitoring a playdate or directing activities at a birthday party. Soon I was a co-leader with another working parent; that’s when the training requirements came into the picture. Rightly so, the Girl Scouts want to be sure the adults know what they’re doing. Someone needs to be trained in first aid, how to build a fire, navigate a trail, cook outdoors.

The troop got to do so many fun activities over the years – camping trips, gardening in the community and working on an increasingly complex set of skills whose achievement was marked by badges – but the constant was cookie sales. My daughter was really good at this; outgoing and not afraid to talk to adults or classmates. We also did “booth sales” – those tables outside the grocery store with towers of cookie boxes, a bunch of excited girls and a bundled up adult. We borrowed cookie suits from the Girl Scout council and the girls learned they could have a blast taking turns being the dancing Thin Mint or Trefoil, while attracting customers.

Each winter when the cookie order form appears, I smile and write in my selections. When girls are standing in the cold outside the grocery, I’ll ask them what their favorite cookies are and I’ll buy some more. I know they’re having fun, and learning important skills. And I know those moms want to get all those boxes sold so they can get home and warm up.

Sunny

IMG_1281We may be in the depths of February, the middle of winter, but there are clues that we won’t be encased in ice forever. Sure, the snow keeps on coming, and the plowed mountains of it around parking lots will be with us till May, but each morning the sun rises a few seconds earlier than the day before.

Our conditioning starts in November when daylight savings time ends and we have to slog to and from work in the dark. The winter solstice passes almost unnoticed in December, overshadowed by the holidays, then sometime in January the sun is actually rising during my commute. What a difference that makes. Seeing the rosy sky makes me smile and feel hopeful about the day. Even if it’s 5 degrees out with crusty sidewalks and the sun isn’t melting anything, it feels less grim.

I recently had to update my computer password: I added “sun” to it. Wishful? Or maybe a silent invocation. Even on the dreariest days, I type those letters as if they had the power to part the clouds.

Growing up, the first sign of the potential end to winter was snowbells blooming in the yard. It was exciting to spy this impossible flower that literally might poke up through the snow. As the petals spread to reveal a green center, it seemed too delicate to be so hardy. It’s no surprise that people recommend you keep fresh flowers in your house during the winter. Anything to add color and remind you that the earth isn’t dead.

It can sometime be harder to let the light in. Our wall of windows seems porous in the winter, and the cold seeps in. Closing the blinds and drawing the curtains may warm things up, but the shafts of sunlight add an important element. One of our house plants has long tendrils that curl into the window frame, determined to find the outdoors in all seasons. Light is more important than temperature.

Fortunately, February is a short month, followed by March which is now the start of daylight savings time. That clock change won’t influence the temperature much, but the added light to our day will certainly lift the mood.

Slip and Slide

IMG_2727On the way to work after a winter storm, I’m threading my way through the five or six inches of heavy, wet snow. There are deep, slushy pools at the corner, so I have to leap over them to cross the street. At that moment, I fear losing my balance and landing on my back, like Charlie Brown when Lucy pulls the football away, or doing the splits into the slush pile. I pause, peering over the impossibly wide moat of gray goop.

Compared to most of us, winter Olympians embody grace and style in extreme situations. Skiers fly through the air, zoom down steep snow covered mountains, dodge the gates, bounce through moguls, and come to a perfect curving stop at the bottom. Speed skaters, bent together in formation, move impossibly fast while looking so calm. Curlers crouch gracefully while sending a heavy stone to the target (I’ve learned it’s called a house). Cross-country skiers make an orderly single-file path in the quiet woods. Bobsledders fly down an iced chute looking much more in control than I do behind the wheel of my car on a snowy street. And figure skaters? Well, they can glide more smoothly than any ballet, until they slip, stagger, or land on their butt. And this is the part of the Olympics I most identify with.

Of course, Olympic figure skaters are displaying the highest skill, and the level of difficulty can outweigh errors in execution. Even an outright wipe-out may only result in a 1 point deduction. And they jump right back up as if nothing has happened. Even though they never seem to be dressed warmly enough for the weather (no hats or gloves, and skin tight spangly costumes) they smile and keep going.

If I were to hit a slippery patch on the way to work, all the things I’m carrying would contribute to my being off balance in the first place, and then would be strewn in opposite directions. Part of the post-fall adrenaline surge would be to see if I could get my briefcase out of the snowbank and my lunch bag out of the bushes before anyone noticed. I imagine I’d also have to brush the snow off my coat and hair, and continue my stagger toward the train.

So, here I am at the curb with a pool of slush three feet wide and of indeterminate depth between me and the street. To get across I’ll need to leap. I brace myself, hold onto my bags and push off. It feels like super slo-mo and then I stick the landing. The Swiss judge gives me a 10 for my little Olympic moment.

See You in the Funny Papers

IMG_2721Morning routine: bring in the paper, find the comics, giggle while reading my favorites. The comics were probably the only part of the paper I read when I was young, and as I grew, I treated them like dessert to reward myself after reading the rest.

My earliest memories of the comics included the enduring classics: Peanuts and Blondie, but also an assortment of comics that have ceased:

  • Nancy: a school girl with spiky hair who was alway facing off against Sluggo the bully
  • Li’l Abner: this comic seemed odd to me, like a version of Hee Haw making fun of southerners
  • Pogo: I tried to read it but rarely understood the satire
  • Little Orphan Annie: that girl had creepy eyes!

I never read Prince Valiant, Apartment 3G, or Mary Worth – maybe they seemed too much like soap operas.  After I was married with children, The Family Circus, Baby Blues, and For Better and For Worse allowed me to laugh at the everyday things that threatened to make me cry. When the kids got older, Fox Trot and Zits hit the nail on the head about teens learning to drive, navigating school, and trying desperately to grow up. As a working adult, Dilbert and Doonesbury triggered knowing laughs about the workplace, politics, and media.

Recently I read that Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, passed away. While I haven’t seen that comic strip in years, I remember it clearly. The strip followed the life of the soldiers at Camp Swampy: a group of privates, their blustery Sarge and his dog Otto (a recurring crossword puzzle answer), a misguided Lieutenant, a head-in-the-clouds General, and two secretaries (one buxom and one decidedly not). Even though my dad was a veteran of World War II and Korea, that wasn’t why I connected with this comic. We had an original framed in our house.

I think the cartoon was a gift from a conference my dad attended. Dad worked for a packaging firm that pioneered the use of cardboard cylinders to hold frozen juices (and Pringles), and produced all manner of aluminum foils and containers like the plates that held TV dinners or pies. So in this custom Beetle Bailey cartoon, Beetle finds a stack of aluminum pie plates, and starts tossing them into the distance like frisbees. All of the privates join in and soon the sky is filled with the sailing silver plates. When General Halftrack sees all of these flying saucers, he sounds an alarm to fight the aliens. Meanwhile, Sarge figures out what is going on, and chases after Pvt. Bailey. The cartoon was signed by Mort Walker – “ To Jim, and your lovely wife!” It certainly made me look for Beetle Bailey everyday, wondering if there would ever be any other personal messages conveyed.

Lately, I find I read more news on my phone and computer without the reward of comics. But when the Sunday paper arrives, I pull out the colored section to catch up with old friends.

Blind Spot

91cqujed86l.jpgI can waggle my hand at my brother, whining a sing song, “Lance” and I know he’ll laugh remembering Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. My husband and I know all the words to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. I can quote part of a Beatles’ lyric, and someone can usually finish it. It’s great to make cultural connections with others who share the same experiences and memories. And then you find out there are differences. Things other people have done, read, seen and somehow you’ve missed it.

I’ve never seen The Godfather, never read War and Peace, never watched Friends. Have I missed something essential? War and Peace has never loomed before me as a something I must accomplish. And The Godfather? Maybe I was too young when it came out, and later, I guess I never got around to it. Asking my mom about the popularity of Elvis in the 60’s, she said that she completely missed it because she had her hands in the diaper pail. I can relate. The 90’s flew by and I never watched one episode of Friends – there was no time for most TV when the kids were small.

I was deliberate about wanting my kids to see The Wizard of Oz. First, I wanted them to be old enough that they wouldn’t be terrified (I spent many nights under the covers convinced that witch was coming for me), and I wanted them to be able to recognize the myriad references from the movie that they’d encounter everywhere (there’s no place like home, click your heels, and your little dog too, surrender Dorothy, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore, oil can,the witches broom stick, I’m melting).

When everything seems available and sharable, from downloading a library’s worth of books instantly on your tablet, to viewing any classic movie or TV show on a streaming service, one could fill any gap in cultural knowledge. But who has the time? In the late 80’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know was an interesting tome that did two things: it let me feel smug about all the things I did know, and feel bad about all the things I did not know. The book was probably more concerned that we know about the three branches of government than who Rachel and Ross were, but it didn’t make me fill those voids.

Shared experience and knowledge form strong bonds and allow for shorthand communications; but I guess it’s more interesting if we don’t all know exactly the same things. Right about now, I think you’ll be looking up Lancelot Link and scratching your head.

Wash Me

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After a road trip over salted winter roads, my car is encased in a crust. Unending, fine spray from the cars in front of me kept my windshield wipers busy, so that I only have front and back portholes to see through. My car is more “ambient” colored than blue. Fortunately, there’s a small break in the cold temperatures, so I’m headed to the car wash. I wish it would be so easy to tend to all the other places where winter grime lurks.

Our front hall is filled with a collection of boots and gym shoes. We try to abide by the city-living rule of “no shoes in the house” so they all come off here. Even though our condo is a significant number of steps from the outside, gunk still clings to our shoes. Stowaways in the deep grooves of the soles come: gray, melting slush, crystals of salt, small rocks, sand, and leaf litter. They make it inside the door, and, eventually, all over our unit somehow. Walking though the kitchen, there’s a crunch underfoot as a piece of salt skitters to the side, and I find a leaf in the closet. Boots have a white line marking the depth of puddle slush before it dried. My coats have dusty patches from when I brushed up against some outdoor surface.

Sweeping and mopping seem a Sisyphean task, because we keep going out into the salty world and coming back. Granted, this is a year-round challenge, but exacerbated in the winter with snow and ice. Even when I think the floor looks clean, if I bend down to wipe up a bit of water, the paper towel comes back gray every time.

When we first moved to the city, the most striking example of city dirt didn’t come from our shoes, but from the windows. Window sills accumulated a fine black dust that wasn’t immediately obvious until you ran your finger across it. I was surprised because we didn’t live near any manufacturing smokestacks, or next to the train tracks. We were up high with a lovely view of the sky, and yet, the air was filled with particulates. Invisible car and bus exhaust that turned out to be not so invisible.

So I wash. My face and hands, laundry, windows, windowsills and floors. And sometimes, my car.

Home is Where the Soup Is

IMG_2705When I dream about home, it’s my childhood home. I can walk around furniture and look at rooms from different angles. I can see out the windows, as if I’ve been dropped in a museum diorama of my youth and allowed to walk around in it. This is the correct color of the kitchen cabinet, this is the quality of light in this room in the afternoon. I can zoom in to see the texture of an upholstered chair. These are details I may have noticed once, but after so much time, it’s startling have them laid in front of me.

My childhood home was sold, but I sometimes drive by, only to see toys on the front porch, and new trees planted in the yard. Inside, it would be understandable to find they had remodeled the kitchen. I remember it with everything we needed close at hand. A cutting board that pulled out from under the counter. The mobile dishwasher, a charming artifact of the days before everything was built in. The big ceramic sink. The Spice Islands spice racks. The cold floor in the winter. The view out over the back yard. The separate breakfast nook with hanging copper pots.

This weekend I’m visiting my mom. She’s been in her beautiful home for nearly 25 years, and while it is not where I grew up, I’ve been here often enough to make memories. Christmases and Thanksgivings with young kids, summer nights with cool breezes pulled in by the attic fan, poring over old photos, shoveling the long long driveway one winter when there was so much snow. But the core of those memories is always food. Some people buy a flower arrangement to welcome guests. My mom cooks a pot of soup. And roasts a chicken. And makes Benedictine. There is always something wonderful to enjoy. A mug of tea, buttered toast and a really good scrambled egg.

When I woke up this morning, I shifted to get out of bed and bumped into the wall instead. That’s when I remembered where I was and that I’ll be heading back tomorrow. It will be a few hours on the highway, and my own soup pot beckons.

Shorty

IMG_2683I’ve always thought I was a normal height. As some comedian once said, my legs go all the way down to the floor. But occasionally I’m reminded that many things are made with bigger people in mind.

At the grocery, many of the items I want are on the top shelf, so I look around for a tall grocery employee, or any tall shopper and ask if they can reach it for me. I think they should have an attached, movable ladder like you see in book stores or libraries to help shoppers reach the items they put up so high. It would be less of a risk than having me attempt to scale the shelves on my own.

Clothing stores maximize their displays by hanging clothes at least 6 feet off the ground. This means that you have to ask for help to pluck anything you’d like to see off the wall. The store employee has a pole with a hook on it that allows them to lift the hanger and bring down the item. Recently faced with that type of display in a discount store, instead of looking for someone to help me, I decided to try to get an item down by using a nearby supply of full-sized umbrellas with hooked handles. I stretched up and thought I’d snag the hanger when all I managed to do was tangle the umbrella around the display pole until it was completely stuck. Embarrassed, I left the umbrella hanging there between two shirts that I no longer wanted to examine up close.

Growing up, my mom used to tell me I was a perfect size. I take after my dad’s short side of the family, while mom is tall. Even though I thought she looked glamorous like Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show, she says that being a tall girl in school was uncomfortable; she was always in the back row of class pictures, and would often slouch to appear shorter. Until at some point she surely recognized that being able to reach the top shelf was a valuable skill.

Being short has some advantages. I usually have plenty of leg room in a car or on a plane. Visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the docent cautioned us to watch our heads going through doorways, but I sailed through without a care. Even buying clothes has become less difficult with petite sizing, the 29” inseam, and three quarter length sleeves. When I look at old school pictures, I was never on the back row, but I was trying to stand out by sitting up especially tall.