Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The family business

I'm halfway through Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Franklin, I learn, was at the vanguard of "compassionate conservatism" and "trickle-down economics." While he believed that consumption by the rich boosted the productivity (and prosperity) of the poor, somewhat ironically Franklin was also a founding member of the emerging American middle class and a devotee of the myth that hard work and frugality are the cornerstones of American success.

Had Franklin looked looked more objectively at his own career, and those of the hard-working poor, he might have arrived at a more balanced, accurate belief. Certainly hard work (including staying up all night to set type after a plate was broken) and his wife's frugality (if not always his) contributed to the success of his business and helped him and his family to live comfortably as stolid middle-class citizens. For many that is success of a kind. Franklin, however, was a success because in entrepreneurial fashion he saw, seized, and created opportunities, and, more than once, rolled over and sometimes drove out less astute or less ruthless competitors. He also built networks of like-minded men who could help each other and lend support to their respective businesses and interests. Like a modern-day self-made man, and with his appointment as postmaster, he could retire at a relatively young age—not wealthy, but not in debt, either.

When he saw his son, William, pursuing position instead of business or work, he advised him on the virtues of effort and frugality. Perhaps lacking the entrepreneurial spirit, William accepted appointment as the royal governor of New Jersey—a post that elevated him above his father and his middle class. Ultimately, Benjamin would side with the rebellious colonies while William remained a Loyalist.

The divergent paths of father and son and their mutual interest in politics reminded me of something I'd been thinking about since George W. Bush became president and later when Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.

Although there's nothing to prevent it, and my feeling disregards that the candidate may be as or more qualified than anyone else, it bothers me that American politics is dominated by a handful of families—perhaps most famously the Kennedys, and more recently the Bushes and Clintons. We've had father-and-son presidents, and almost a husband-and-wife set. We've had Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Beginning in 1989, George H. W. Bush was president, then one son became governor of Texas in 1995, another the governor of Florida in 1999. Joe Biden's son, Beau, serves as attorney general of Delaware. And Caroline Kennedy is itching for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, representing New York.

Here in Illinois, we have the Madigans, among others: Speaker of the House Michael and his daughter, Attorney General Amy (not to mention Governor-for-Now Rod Blagojevich and his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman-for-Life Richard Mell). Cook County Board President John Stroger managed to pass on the baton to his son, Todd, whose performance to date has underwhelmed even those with the lowest expectations of him. More locally, Chicago Mayor-for-Life Richard J. Daley fathered Chicago Mayor-for-Life Richard M. Daley. In a nation of 305 million souls and in a city of nearly 3 million, the same names keep popping up. Where are the fresh faces of new leadership?

A friend tells me that I'm looking at this the wrong way. She points out that politics is a family business like any other and that members of each younger generation may choose to follow in the older's footsteps, just as, for example, some children grow up to become doctors, lawyers, or coal miners like their parents. Certainly, many of the Kennedys seem to see themselves as devoted to public service, and for all I know so do the Madigans, Strogers, and Daleys.

Unconsciously, Benjamin and William Franklin (and perhaps Samuel and John Adams) were among those who helped start the American tradition of politics as family business. It may have made sense in the small world of the 13 colonies, in which Philadelphia (population 23,000) was their largest city and when American-style democracy was still years off. I am not so certain that it's still a good model, or the best, for a complacent, celebrity-obsessed society more interested in names than accomplishments and looks than abilities. To succeed in politics requires money, influence, backing, name recognition, and personality—something both Franklins would have understood.

I think, or wish, we could do better than that.

As Spock of Star Trek says, “There are always possibilities.”

And opportunities.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Book review: Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery

Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery by Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd. 2003. 420 pages.

Geoffrey Chaucer was justice of the peace, knight of the shire, friend of the king, and "greatest living poet." Abruptly, around 1400, this "public man of affairs" was never heard from again. Who Murdered Chaucer? stems from a coroner's inquest into Chaucer's disappearance staged at the Sorbonne in 1998 for the New Chaucer Society Congress. The resulting book is a smart, often irreverent layman's probe into the fate of the man who, through The Canterbury Tales and other works, helped to establish English as a literary language.

Even at a 600-year-old crime scene, context is everything, and the authors explore the efforts that Henry IV and his allies may have made to obscure Chaucer's memory. Painstakingly sifting through the clues that remain, they develop a convincing case that Chaucer was murdered for his political loyalties, religious leanings, and advocacy of the written English language.

The authors set the stage on which Chaucer played a number of roles, describing the progressive court of his patron, Richard II, and the turmoil that conflicting values and change invariably bring. On one side were John Wyclif and his followers, trying to make the Bible and God accessible to the people and to shame the church into reforming itself. On the other were the conservative barons and church leaders who stood to lose money and power in a world in which art and discourse might take the place of conflict, and the common man might be empowered to question age-old beliefs and practices. With the usurpation by Henry IV and the return of Thomas Arundel as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Chaucer became a prominent man who suddenly stood on the wrong side of the important questions.

Much of the initial focus here is not on Chaucer, but on the history surrounding Richard II and the nature of his court, the barons' rebellion, and the Peasants' Revolt, and Henry's usurpation. Later, the authors examine Chaucer's surviving works, including The Canterbury Tales and illustrations, as well as the writings of his contemporaries, for clues as to how he may have antagonized the new regime and how he may have met his end. For example, they speculate that Hoccleve's eulogy hints at an end that is both untimely and violent: "Death was too hasty to run at you and rob you of your life." Puzzled by the discrepancies between Chaucer's text and the Ellesmere manuscript illuminations, the authors examined the art microscopically and discovered that some of it had been clumsily altered, then speculate why.

Academics and historians may chafe at such conjectures, but generally they make sense. Occasionally, though, they do not. According to the authors, the Peasants' Revolt "presented the royal faction with a tempting opportunity to eliminate the baronial opposition," but they offer no feasible explanation for why Richard II turned on the rebels after he "signed their pardons and granted their requests." Without understanding what happened and why Richard acted so treacherously and brutally, it's hard for the authors to make a solid case, as they try to do, that Richard was not the unpopular monarch portrayed by Henry's chroniclers. Later, they mention the "persistent rumours that Richard was still alive . . . the kind of rumour that would only gather round a figure who enjoyed strong support and even affection." Yet the same type of rumours surrounded Hitler, as much from fear as from "support and even affection." The case for Richard's popularity is weaker than the one for Chaucer's murder.

Although not addressed directly, one implied issue stands out—the importance of separation of church and state. Thomas Arundel and Henry IV need each other to usurp their respective positions, and their combined power, with no checks or balances, emboldens them to repress political foes and “heretics” with terror and torture. The danger of such of a broad spectrum of power concentrated in such ruthless, self-serving hands is clear—as Chaucer must have observed.

Well researched, engaging, and passionately and wittily written, Who Murdered Chaucer? shines a spotlight at a different and revealing angle on a turbulent time in English history and a definitive one in English literature. Whatever your interest in this period, Who Murdered Chaucer? will make you look at The Canterbury Tales and Geoffrey Chaucer in a more appreciative light as part of a greater story.

Monday, 29 December 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book review: Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Transworld Publishers/The Random House Group Ltd. 2006. 352 pages.

As flock animals who can be herded to their own deaths (see Thomas Hardy), sheep are easy to look down on—that is, until you meet the individuals who make up the flock in Leonie Swann's Three Bags Full. From the clever Miss Maple (a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie's demure spinster detective) to the enigmatic black Hebridean ram, Othello, with a mysterious past, Swann's crowd is full of unforgettable characters.

This fable begins with the murder of their shepherd, George Glenn, whom they find run through with a shovel. Although the flock can't quite forgive him his habit of wearing Norwegian wool sweaters, they agree that he was a good shepherd and that they would like to know who did him in and why. Miss Maple, reputed to be the cleverest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), takes the lead in trying to nail the killer.

This is no easy feat for a flock whose contact with the outside world is restricted, whose primary human frame of reference is an outcast from his own herd, and whose humorous interpretations of abstractions don't lead them as far astray as might be expected—for example, their belief that the term "God" and all that humans associate with God refers to the village vicar.

As the story of George's complicated life unfolds, so do the inner lives of the sheep and the inner workings of the flock. Miss Maple is almost single minded in her pursuit of justice, which the sheep believe is something that can be found in George's caravan and that needs to be outed. She also asks pointed questions such as, "What does George have to do with drugs? What are drugs anyway?" Othello is haunted by his lonely, violent past and a voice that seems to taunt him with aphorisms like, "Sometimes being alone is an advantage." Zora daydreams of the depths and heights, of the abyss and the cloud sheep that sometimes fill the sky. Mopple the Whale, the fat "memory" sheep who forgets nothing and understands little, makes a lasting impression as "a plump young ram staring in bewilderment out of the car window and eating George's road map."

The humans, too, are vividly drawn, from the frightened "God" to the fearsome butcher, Ham. None, however, is more clearly portrayed and more enigmatic than the late George Glenn, the "Goblin-King" who read romance ("Pamela") novels to his herd and received mysterious visitors in quiet black cars. George, "who usually said things in a way that a sheep could understand," proves to be beyond the ken of sheep and humans alike.

Three Bags Full has the elements of a classic detective story—a gruesome death scene, an enigmatic victim, a village populated by likely suspects with secrets, a plot complete with red herrings, and a clever detective whose human understanding falls short. So does the ending, which introduces another ovine character who appears to be more clever than Miss Maple because he lives among the human herd that George left behind. Perhaps there's a lesson here about people, cleverness and intelligence, and herd mentality and individual reason. It's lost in the convolutions of the plot, the side tracking, and the contrived resolution. By the last page, with Othello contemplating mating season, the individuals who had captured my heart with their ruminations accompanied by mindless rumination seem to have been reduced to just another flock, doing what typical sheep typically do. In this case, the destination doesn't satisfy nearly as much as the journey.

Saturday, 27 December 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lessons and carols for Christmas eve

I waited at Bonjour for J. And waited. And waited. Left to buy additional treats at Treasure Island. Returned to Bonjour. And waited.

At last he arrived and, after a bit, we set off on the bus for the last day of the Christkindlmarket, with a brief pit stop at Argo Tea. At the market we ate pretzels (he: traditional Bavarian, me: pumpkin) and wandered a bit, then he disappeared for a while. For the next hour, I'd find him, and he'd disappear. I should take a hint. I bought a scarf, and he bought (among other things, like a kingly nutcracker) mismatched socks for both of us and, as I found out later, finger puppets for me.

He'd been disappointed that we had so little time to spend at the market, but the wind was piercing at times, and both of us had soaked feet from walking around in the slush and ice. Even he admitted that, after the allotted time, he'd reached his limit (for cold and for spending, I think). We took a cab to the Flamingo, I changed clothes, and we thawed out our feet just in time to head to "Lessons and Carols for Christmas Eve" at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel—that is, once we had safely navigated the ice rink of a sidewalk around it.

Aside from college graduation and a friend's wedding ceremony, I don't think I've ever attended anything at Rockefeller—despite living across the street from it for three years. I suppose my excuse was too much academic work and too little time, although the time I had wasn't spent improving my mind. I didn't know what to expect.

It was lovely. We were given candles and a program with the lessons and carols, then found our way to row 72. There were more people than I would have anticipated, including children. In fact, children played key roles in the reading of the lessons, portraying the voices for Gabriel, shepherds, and others quoted directly.

The mix of verse with carols sung by choir or congregation and choir and prayer seemed perfect to me—more spiritually moving than lectures and exhortations. Even a few fussy toddlers and gentle laughter at some flubbed lines by the child performers didn't quite break the spell as day darkened to evening.

A climactic candle lighting and processional accompanied by caroling "brings the light of Christ to bless every corner of the Sanctuary."

As we made our way up to the altar during the offertory to benefit the Friend Family Health Center, J. whispered that sometimes it's good not to have his camera (because he wasn’t distracted by a desire to take photos). A few moments later I turned around to say something and found his phone thrust forward, taking photos. Apparently, I gave him "that look."

Up front we found a receiving line—the dean and associate dean of the chapel, the choirmaster, and others. It was like a wedding, after all, complete with strangers. Even though it had been a two-hour service, which normally would try my endurance, I was a little sad when it was over. For the first time, I felt a sense of community, and it had been the most moving service I'd been to since our former pastor created chalk drawings at Easter time, long ago and far away.

I overheard someone say that it had gotten cold—indeed! The temperature had dropped from about 35 degrees Fahrenheit to 17 degrees, and it was still falling. We returned to Bonjour for dinner and so J. could stock up on sandwiches and "treats." Our feet had another chance to thaw out.

Here, we watched In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson (and Buster Keaton). If you're not familiar with it, it's a Christmas movie despite the title—a variation on The Shop around the Corner, with Garland performing a handful of songs.

We opened gifts (including a Swarovski brooch that J. couldn't resist); drank blood orange tea; ate chocolate Santas, raspberry mousse, and chocolate espresso tart; and drank Peru fair trade coffee from Caribou Coffee (another gift from J.—there were many). Although I'm sure he loved the service at Rockefeller and appreciated the film, the highlight of the day for him had to have been a program I found on WGN—a retrospective on shows such as Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose, and Bozo. He's 40something going on 7.

And to all a good-night.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to the sight of big snowflakes wafting down gently and thickly. There was little traffic, and the streets were unplowed, so everything was coated in pure white. This is one of the few times that even the city radiates peace and magic.

A movement caught my eye. It was a rabbit, probably the silvery old mama, hopping toward the east fence. It looked like something had startled her, possibly one of the maintenance men coming out to clear the sidewalks. I was glad to see she'd survived the bitter cold and wind of the weekend, and I wonder if I can sneak her some spinach later.

What a perfect scene—a snowscape complete with furry proof that life goes on. It reminded me of home.

My vacation has not been restful or productive. First, there was the Friday trip downtown for lumbar spine x rays. Monday I was able to get a 2:00 p.m. appointment at a dental practice I'm not familiar with. I couldn't have an anxiety-free Christmas with the swelling in my gums and pain in my teeth. Fortunately, the wind had died down and the temperature had warmed up—to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It took about 45 minutes to get to the practice by bus and al (Red Line). The worst part was navigating the untamed, single-lane sidewalks covered with packed snow and treacherous ice.

The staff were very good, from the receptionists and assistants to the dentists (a second came in to look at the x ray). All were so young and attractive that I imagined a hotbed of sex and mentally began writing the nighttime drama. Doctors and hospitals have received their due—why not dentists?

The verdict? A tooth problem or a gum problem—not exactly a surprise (or definitive), but all I cared about was getting it diagnosed (more or less) and treated before too much permanent damage had been done.

After numbing my mouth like it has never been numbed before, not even for my 1998 root canal, the dentist performed scaling in the affected area and finished off by popping in antibiotics. He said his explorer drew no blood—presumably a good sign. If the area hasn't improved by Christmas, I'm to e-mail him so we can look into a root canal and crown. My dentist had warned me that this was coming sooner or later—coin toss—sooner, apparently.

When I rinsed, I couldn't feel the water in the left half of my mouth. What a strange sensation, to have no sensation of any kind on one side. The assistant told me not to eat or drink anything until the anesthetic wore off as I might bite my cheek or tongue. I understood this, as I had seen J. bite through his lip while eating a bagel after a dental procedure. He didn't know it until I pointed out he was bleeding. Profusely.

The assistant also told me, "Don't smile." Clearly this wasn't a matter of health, so I said, "Am I going to scare people?" She answered, "Don't smile."

In their bathroom, I saw that my lips were slightly offset, and the right side curled into a snarl while the left remained frozen. I smiled—and the result was worthy of any horror film makeup artist. I looked like a stroke victim—a mad stroke victim. Even without a smile, the effect was impressive. I scared myself.

On the Jackson Park Express bus, I recognized a man I sometimes see on it in the morning, and I'd guess he recognized me. I think he did a double-take.

Perhaps he found my new look scary.

Or dangerous.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Parrot Cage

Thursday (December 18), J. and I were supposed to meet friends at Parrot Cage for dinner. The reservations were made weeks ago, and all was green for a good time—until meteorologists helpfully predicted a major sleet/snowstorm to start around 3:00 p.m. that very day. It was like the plot of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, only without music or Burl Ives. As one co-worker described it, "They're predicting Armageddon." Who would want to drive during Armageddon?

Let it be known that J. wasn't about to be deterred by a little ice, snow, and a wintry Armageddon.

The time for the fun to begin was pushed back to 7:00 p.m., so my friends canceled. Not J. After some phone calls, one during the hour I waited for my doctor, he made a 6:45 reservation, and we agreed to meet at Bonjour (or, as it turned out, Walgreens, because neither of us had money). Because there wasn't time for him to come into the bakery, I was pressed into service to order him a croque monsieur poulet, the ideal sandwich for a man with high blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose ("That's what medication is for!").

We found the gateway to the South Shore Cultural Center, which in the dark looked closed to me, so we parked on Coles. Yes, thanks to my impeccable judgment, we walked several blocks in the cold on treacherously icy sidewalks when we could have parked a hop, skip, and jump from the front door. I have my moments. My excuse is that it's exercise, and exercise before a meal is good.

Indoors it felt like springtime in an old-fashioned parlor, with flowered curtains and a giant parrot cage with decorative parrot that dominate the comfortable room. There was one table of two and one of four, so there was plenty of room. My tomato soup warmed me up, the wild mushroom fettuccine filled me up, and the sundae on a giant chocolate chip cookie filled me out. I'm not sure about J.'s starter, but he ordered maple-glazed pork chops and, I think, pecan pie as they were out of sweet potato. All in all, it was a very pleasant option that's convenient to me (and has parking, I must add). A 10 percent gratuity is added automatically; it goes into a scholarship fund.

Friday was my first day off, with a return date of January 5. Naturally, I would find something to do that wasn't relaxing—namely, getting lumbar spine x rays. Although my doctor thinks my current back issue is muscular (yes, even I have muscles), she wants to check for possible underlying arthritis. I've no idea what I do in my sleep (except dream odd dreams), but that seems to be when the trouble begins. Once I even pulled a hip muscle in my sleep.

As I was downtown, I made a few stops—Staples, Argo Tea, and Utrecht. At Argo Tea, I overheard a young woman enlighten a young man about the ins and outs of the theatre and her career in an amazingly mundane way—she was no Tallulah Bankhead, and if pressed I could probably make writing sound more exciting.

After taking care of some household tasks on Saturday, I headed over to J.'s to help him with his. We took a long detour to Dracula Cafebar, and after getting some work done ended up at Chef Klaus' Bier Stube in Frankfort. I ate some bread and salad, but I couldn't eat any of the fettuccine primavera I ordered. I wasn't full or nauseated; I simply couldn't eat. It seemed to be an effect of my growing anxiety about my worsening gum problem. It looked bad and ached badly, and I couldn't relax enough to enjoy anything.

From my windows we could see vehicles, one minivan in particular, struggling against the snow in the parking lot. It took more than an hour, and numerous nudges from a car, to get it out of the snow rut that had trapped it—and it almost got into another. The next day, Sunday, a pickup seemed to have the same trouble. I wonder if the drivers divide their curses between their vehicles and the Chicago Park District.

Yesterday I woke up to the sounds of a banging bathroom vent and howling winds. The temperature on my weather widget was -6 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was a layer of frost on the inside of my bedroom windows. After consuming coffee, steel-cut oats, and tea, I deemed it to be a good time for a long winter's nap to help me escape my anxieties.

When I woke up, my gum hurt more than ever.

Dream: Birds and butterflies

I was at home when I noticed a couple of enormous, disgusting cobwebs, so I got the vacuum cleaner to sweep them up. When I did, I saw beautiful butterflies caught in them and nearly became ill. As I went further along, I found entire bird carcasses, which was even worse. Everything about it made me feel sick.

I emptied the vacuum cleaner into an underground chamber, which then I could see had a drain. I thought it would be brilliant if I could wash away all those colorful bodies and wings and feathers.

It occurred to me that I didn't know if they would fit though the drains, and I saw, or imagined I saw, all the bodies and parts clustered in damp piles. I became even more ill, if that were possible.

As I reached for the tap or hose to pour water into what I now understood to be a kind of oubliette, I saw in gap in the floor between me and the water source. I could reach it only if I could maintain my balance while extending to the furthest extent of my ability. If I fell in, there was no way for me to get out and no one to hear any cries for help.

I was torn between washing away those bodies from my sight and memory and the likelihood of falling in and becoming one of them.

I wondered if they were truly dead.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dream: Alpine journey

I was in the trailer, which was being driven through Switzerland side by side with another trailer. The slopes were vertical, and I had no idea how we could get up and down them without tipping over or plummeting. We used a clock, navigating according to the vertical line between the 6 and 12. I was frightened when I realized there were no windows, so no one could see where we were going.

We lost control and plummeted. Mentally, I prepared for death while hoping to survive miraculously. To my surprise, I found that we landed right side up, side by side with the other trailer, in the snow. This simply wasn’t possible, yet there we were. None of it made sense to me.

The rest is not suitable for public viewing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dream: School, torture, sex, and marriage

This is a series of four or five dreams, all recalled imperfectly.

I was in an enormous classroom when I noticed That Boy. I tried to think of ways to attract his attention that would not be obvious, knowing that any effort would be futile. A Beatles song came on, and I couldn't help dancing. But is that how I wanted to be seen?

I walked into a room where a teacher was performing evil experiments on EP, torturing him with his mind. Although he inflicted no physical harm, the man would think of a torture, and it would happen to a cartoon projection that I could see. It felt real to EP. The cartoon was missing an eye and was covered with burns and other injuries. The torturer then imagined eating EP's eye.

I received an anonymous card with a return address of "Army Concert Band." I wondered which of my friends had sent it, although I found the anonymity creepy. Inside was a tattered antique booklet graphically depicting the tale of two Indian lovers. The beautiful tiny paintings showed them nude, making love. One even moved, like an animated graphic. I marveled at what it could mean, but it made me nervous, too.

Off in the distance was a breathtaking tropical sunset, and suddenly I realized I was married to That Boy. We were traveling with a woman who I suspected of being behind the "Army Concert Band" mailing. As for the marriage, it never went beyond outward forms, and I could not think that it was real. We were disconnected people acting out roles. I worried that he would find the booklet; perhaps I thought that it would look like I was setting expectations that could never be realized. I tried to be loving, at least outwardly so.

The time came to take a flight. I was especially nervous about it. The runway was a strip surrounded by water. The plane never reached takeoff speed, and we ended up somewhere else, still attempting to move more quickly. I would have been more frightened had I known what had happened and how we had arrived there.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dream: Hodge and the caravan

I saw an open door and knew that Hodge had escaped. I was in a caravan, I realized, but I didn't know what this meant. As it turned out, it was parked in a market, and he was hanging from a blue velvet curtain by front claws he doesn't have. I wondered where my parents were.

As I retrieved the cat, I noticed he had started to chew up a toy or stuffed animal; it looked like he had bitten the ear partly off a rhinoceros. My ethical side started to look for a cashier or proprietor. I saw that Hodge was wearing a frilly felt mask, like the face of a stegosaurus. I wondered where it had come from and if it were sewn on.

Everything around me seemed a little creepy, including the market, the caravan, and the mask.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

And now let us pause for a moment of panic

In the Silly Wizard video, Andy M. Stewart describes the feeling you have when you lean too far back in your chair and you don't know if you're going to plummet to your death through the window behind you or be able to catch yourself in time.

That's exactly how I felt when I looked into my wallet at Treasure Island and discovered my VISA card had gone missing.

It hadn't been turned in at Bonjour, where I thought it might have fallen out of my wallet.


I took the bus part of the way home—so much for much-needed exercise—and found one of my bills with the customer service phone number. Meanwhile, something had occurred to my smarter subconscious. Was it possible I had left the card at the last place I had used it—Argo Tea on Thursday night?

I called. I had. They had it.

Meanwhile, J. had sent a message about going to Starved Rock State Park as it wasn't as far as he'd thought. I told him I wasn't going anywhere until I'd retrieved my card. I was a lot more brusque to him than necessary.

As I was waiting for the bus, it was impossible not to notice how windy it was and how dark in the west. I left a message that it may not be a great day for a stroll in a park two hours away. He said later that he'd started to think the same thing when a branch torn off a tree just missed hitting his car.

After securing my card (whew) I called J. again. Somehow it occurred to me that it might good to go to Julius Meinl, and if we went there we may as well see a movie at the Music Box Theatre, a vintage neighborhood gem. We settled on the 5:30 movie, A Christmas Tale, not knowing anything about it. Sometimes just going to a jewel of a classic old theater is enough.

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël) is neither standard feel-good or cynical fare, Hollywood style. It's the rambling, messy vignette of a family that is dysfunctional in whole and in parts. How the trouble began is told through narration and silhouettes, a technique that reminded me of the opening of Amélie.

Slowly we meet the whole family—Elizabeth, the control freak in control of little; Henri, the alcoholic ne'er-do-well banished at his sister's behest; Ivan, the pathologically shy and optimistic family man; Simon, the painter languishing for love; Paul; Elizabeth's schizophrenic teenage son; and assorted spouses and children entwined by a tangle of relationships and emotional connections. (Ivan idly wonders if his wife has slept with both Henri and Simon.) Into this seeming disaster waiting to happen Henri brings a young Jewish woman he has picked up, who serves as bemused observer and who, more overtly than anyone else, isn't there for the Christian celebration.

With all the animosity, bickering, jealousies, and even cold detachment (for example, between Henri and his dying mother), A Christmas Tale is strangely uplifting. There is no plot—it's not about whether a compatible bone marrow transplant will be found for matriarch Junon, Elizabeth and Henri will reconcile, Ivan's marriage will survive, or Elizabeth and Paul will come to grips with his schizophrenia. It's simply a lush look at family dynamics in a world where, as Norman Cousins said, "Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."

I'm pretty sure J. didn't like it. And I'm certain the meal and music at Julius Meinl helped make up for it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dream: Cannonball café

To my horror I had bitten off the back half of my night guard on both sides, so a high school classmate said he would go with me to get a new one. He didn't mean a customized one from the dentist, but a bulky blue one from a drugstore, along with a strange implement to cut the excess off. I was wary of this idea, but it was too late.

We went to the bakery café, which looked more like a diner and was filled with characters. When one man in particular entered, everyone cringed. I'm not sure why he singled me out, but he insisted loudly and firmly that I was mentally deficient. Another high school classmate, who seemed to be the wife or girlfriend of the first, told me it was best to go along with him. I didn't like that he seemed so certain.

We went into another room to see a demonstration of a cannon being fired. This seemed very dangerous to me, but all went well—until a cannonball rolled toward the group from the cannon. I thought it must be hot, but no one along the wall seemed to be afraid of it. Another one rolled out (how?), another, and another, and as the pile grew people became worried that we'd be crushed by a room full of cannonballs.

We went back into the bakery café, but stuff was piled outside against the glass wall, and there was no way to get out and nowhere to go. I thought I saw a gap, however, and tried to break the window to get to it. The glass was unbreakable. I wondered if a heel might work, but I was wearing walking shoes. I thought of the device I'd bought to trim the night guard. I'm not sure that we ever got through the glass, but beyond it was a screen—or perhaps the screen was protecting the glass. There must have been a way out.

I did not panic.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dream: The treatment

I was at an apartment on the upper floor among the trees and opened the back door, perhaps forgetting about the household pets. The cat got out. I was upset at my stupidity, but he didn't seem to be going anywhere further than the back porch, so he was easy to retrieve. But the rabbit got out. Then another cat and another rabbit. For every animal we caught and brought in, another seemed to escape. I worried about the possibility they would plunge to their deaths on the ground below, especially the rabbits.

I noticed the tile in the kitchen was loose and that the floor toward the porch and on it sloped crazily down, as though it were collapsing in very slow motion. My friend said they needed to follow up with the landlord about the problem. I wondered. In a way, it added architectural interest.

The man I was seeing halfheartedly was diagnosed with a cancer. I took him to a place for treatment, which was some form of physical therapy delivered by attractive young women. One day they told him that they could do no more for him—death was inevitable.

I saw through this, perhaps because eventually they said the same thing to everyone. No one would get better, they claimed, and I wouldn't believe it. In the case of my friend, it was inconceivable to me.

A woman came out to address me. She was beautiful, but in my heart I knew she epitomized evil. To my shock and horror, a crowd applauded and cheered when she made her dramatic entrance. I could not believe they couldn't see past the beauty and celebrity to the monstrous evil that was obvious to me. Her popularity alone made her the victor, her air seemed to say.

Something else must have happened because in the end my friend and I won, which meant that he was going to live. I felt a great passion for him that I had not known before. As he came closer, I realized that now he was at least a foot shorter than I, as though his size were in an inverse relationship to the strength of my feelings.

The therapy people had made me love him by threatening him with death, and I had, in a manner, won back his life. Now that he was safe, he had become diminished symbolically in a way that made my unfulfilled ardor all the more painful.

Maybe that was the evil I had sensed.

Monday, December 8, 2008


With snow on the ground, the holidays around the corner, and only seven working days left in the year, I should be in a yee-haw! mood.

And I'm not.

For at least a week, I've had PMS or PMS-like symptoms—my breasts are tender, and my whole torso aches with tension. On Wednesday and Thursday I was near tears with frustration. I wonder when—or if—relief will come.

It was a boon to all that I was off on Friday.

Then, with the temperatures in the single digits, I couldn't bring myself to do anything or go anywhere—not even to read something fun.

Saturday would have been more of the same except I did manage to drag myself to the stores, and J. came over before heading to work and took me to dinner. He arrived bearing gifts—a blue Egyptian cotton comforter set and skirt. Between it and the Vellux blanket, I can't complain about the cold—in fact, I haven't even had to turn on the radiators.

Sunday was mostly more of the same. I gave into the mood and slept half the day away, having weird dreams about stairwell traps and Trickster. Finally, I had driven myself stir crazy and made a trip to the store and Bonjour. Not unusually for me, I'm regretting that I didn't  have it in me to do anything until it was almost Monday—and too late.

How irrational is my mood? Earlier in the week, the wind knocked over two of the lighted wire deer in the garden, and seeing these mere contraptions lying there helpless until the maintenance people set them right upset me almost as much as if they had been living creatures felled by the storm. On Sunday, I was startled and disturbed to see the lobsters at Treasure Island in a different and more prominent place where I couldn't miss them. I wish Treasure Island would follow the lead of Whole Foods and stop selling live lobsters.

Yes, I'm upset about seeing fallen wire deer and trapped, doomed lobsters.

As I was walking home and reflecting on how self-absorbed all of this is, it occurred to me that this is one of the effects of the colder weather on me. I get out and see people less and turn inward more. It's not the shortness and gloominess of the days that depress me; it's the sense of being confined, alone, and lonely. Social activities aren't always accessible, affordable, or practical. I crave intellectual stimulation, but want mostly to eat carbohydrates, sleep, and wait out the four or more long months until the warmer weather arrives, and once again I feel human.

At least for a while.

Dream: The pulpit

Suddenly I found myself on stage at a pulpit in front of an audience waiting for me to deliver a sermon. I found a Bible in front of me and started to look for passages from which I could tell a cohesive story. I don't know what I talked about, but I felt I was doing well enough that no one would notice that I wasn't prepared.

Realizing that music would be expected, I turned to the music director but naturally did not know the hymnal and could think of nothing that made sense in conjunction with what I'd just said. The music director announced "Hymn #141." Although I didn't know what it was, I hoped the selection seemed planned and complementary to the sermon. I had misgivings about the music director because I feared that he (or she) suspected me. My worry stemmed from a sense of guilt, but I didn't understand its source.

As I was waking up, I was thinking that being a minister isn't very difficult at all—I had gotten away with it without having had to spend time on agonizing over a sermon. After I became a little more awake, I felt oppressed by the idea of having to come up with something fresh week after week, year after year, while providing spiritual and marital counseling and performing all the other day-to-day duties I didn't know about.

By the time I was fully conscious, my idea of the job had been transformed from "piece of cake" to "overwhelming."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dream: The stairwell

I was walking down the stairs in a dormitory stairwell when I heard a single bell or chime. It didn't sound anything like a fire alarm, but that is what I took it to be. Whether it were a real fire or only a drill, I thought how fortunate I was to be in the stairwell approaching the first floor.

I had begun to notice how eerily quiet it was, especially if there were a drill or emergency. Shouldn't I hear feet running about and voices? If there were a fire, shouldn't I smell smoke?

I went to open the door to the first floor—but there wasn't one. I looked around, thinking that perhaps I was mistaken about its location. As I turned, I realized there were no doors. And now there were no stairs, either—only a stairwell with no exit.

I wondered somewhat incuriously how that could be possible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A meme of months

Lifted from Life and Trinkets, a meme of months.


1. Who kissed you on New Year's?
Hodge. At least, I’m sure he bit me.

2. Did you have a New Year's Resolution this year?
No, I never make resolutions as I am sure not to keep them. I do, however, hope to make small improvements.

3. Does it snow where you live?
Yes, but not as much as in Buffalo, New York, alas.

4. Do you like hot chocolate?
I am woman. Of course I love hot chocolate, especially this, but I really, really, really should watch the sugar.

5. Have you ever been to Times Square to watch the ball drop?
No, and I’ve been to New York only once to visit a friend in Brooklyn.


1. Who was your Valentine?
Hmmm, I think this shall remain my little secret.

2. When you were little did you buy Valentines for the whole class?

3. Do you care if the groundhog sees its shadow or not?
No, I wish they’d just let the little guy snooze.

4. What did you receive for Valentine's day?
I don’t remember, but I’m sure cards and possibly flowers were involved.

5. What did you give for Valentine's day?
The gift of my presence. ;)


1. Are you Irish?
Probably not.

2. Do you like corned beef and cabbage?
No, nor do I like German food, so it’s all even.

3. What did you do for St. Patrick's Day?
What did it do for me?

4. Are you happy when winter is pretty much over?
I am happy about the change in seasons, and especially love spring with its flowers, birds, bees, and warmer air.


1. Do you like the rain?
Who’ll stop the rain . . . yes.

2. Did you play an April Fool's joke on anyone this year?
Yes, but who noticed?

3. Do you celebrate 4/20?

4. Do you love the month of April?
I like April, but I love May.

5. Your birthday is in April isn't it?

6. Anything special in April?
Sometimes Easter.


1. What is your favorite flower?
Violets, lilacs, wild roses.

2. Finish the phrase "April showers…"
are wet.

3. Do you celebrate May 16th: National Piercing Day?
Egads, no.

4. Is May anything special to you?
It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May.

Umm, if anyone sees JUNE, please turn it in at the concession stand. Thank you.

Hey, June is when I was born. June is a wonderful month.


1. What did you do on the 4th of July?
I didn’t go to Washington, D.C., as I used to do, to visit my (late) aunt. :( This year, though, a friend and I went to A Prairie Home Companion at Ravinia that weekend.

2. Did you go to the fireworks?
Too crowded! I can watch the fireworks at Navy Pier twice a week during the summer, anyway. :)

3. Did you blast the A/C all day?
I don’t have air conditioning.


1. What was your favorite summer memory of 2008?
The visits to the forest preserves and nature centers.

2. Did you have a sunburn?
Mostly not.

3. Did you go to the pool a lot?
Not as much as I would have liked.


1. Are you attending college/school?
No, but am always trying to learn.

2. Do you like fall better than summer?
I like the cooler weather, but not the shorter days.

3. What happened this month?
I went back to work after a short leave.


1. What was your last Halloween costume?
I was Saavik, but that was decades ago. Now I’m just plain scary.

2. What is your favorite candy?
Peanut butter cups.

3. What was your favorite thing(s) about this month?
The fall colors at Morton Arboretum.


1. Whose house were you at for Thanksgiving?
My apartment.

2. What are you thankful for?
Health (irreplaceable), family, friends, means, and a world of wonder.

3. Do you love stuffing?
Yes, moist and succulent.


1. Do you celebrate Christmas?
Yes, but am not focused on the commercialism.

2. Have you ever been kissed under the mistletoe?
Hmmm. Maybe.

3. Get anything special last year?
Yes, everything, but especially the electronic photo frame.

4. What do you want this year?
To live long and prosper.

5. What do you love most about December?
Ancient Christmas music, snow, decorations, lights, the Christkindlmarket, the feeling of being a child again.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dream: Swimming in air

I was on a commercial flight and needed to use the swimming pool. I resisted for a while, but finally gave in and went up to it on the top floor of the plane. Even as I used the pool, I could not understand the logistics. It looked just like a hotel pool.

Now the plane was moments from landing, and I had no time to leave the pool and return to my seat. The pool was outside the plane, and so was I. For the plane to land, I had to cut the plastic bag that enveloped it. This meant I would have to cling to the skin of the plane for dear life and that I would be dragged along behind it when it landed, which sounded like it might be painful and even deadly. I could not picture any scenario that would come out well for both me and the plane and was stuck in indecision.

Ultimately, I knew I had to cut the bag and hope that the consequences would not be too severe and that I could bear and survive them.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Dream: Dream of my parents

One day I noticed that my mother's hair was straight and that she had bangs. With her hair so different, she didn't look like my mom.

"When was the last time you had your hair cut?" I asked, sounding more insensitive than I intended. "Or done?"

"Years ago," she said ruefully.

I realized that I was supposed to understand more than she said, and that is how I learned that she was ill. She did not even feel like having her hair taken care of or that she should spend time or money on it.

"Let's go across the street," I said, getting up to look for my dad.

"That place [salon] is long gone," my mother reminded me.

When had so much changed? I kept looking for my dad so we would both know that we had to take her to a salon in town on Saturday. She would not have let her hair go unless the situation were really bad, and if she wasn't in denial, I was. Had my dad not noticed, or had he simply not told me?

Next, I was outside looking at the trailer with someone and trying to explain the scene of devastation around it, as the woods and everything else had been razed for development. I could find nothing that was familiar.

"The trailer was sold to that woman," I said, pointing to a second trailer to the southeast, parked too close to ours. I wondered at the proximity.

I was trying to explain what had been there before when our trailer pulled out. "Where is he going?" I asked rhetorically. I was thinking, "How can he drive with all that stuff in there?" as I pictured everything on the shelves crashing, and then pictured it not crashing by magic. I didn't question how the trailer itself had become self-motored.

My dad returned five or ten minutes later, although somehow I missed him backing the trailer into the spot. "Where did you go?" I asked him. "Park Ridge," he said. "On I55." He could not have gone so far and returned in five or ten minutes, and I remained mystified by his journey, whether he'd completed it, and how it came to be in Illinois.

I had been looking at two gouged trenches behind the trailer, one deep, gray, and ugly like a scar, the other shallow and dark brown like a garden furrow. I tried to explain to my companion that one or the other—I couldn't be sure which—marked the spot where our lilacs had grown, the lilacs that in reality had just started to flower when my dad moved away in 1987. The devastation and strangeness around me were depressing, but the sight of that scarred earth where so much greenery had thrived was killing me.

My indecision over which trench prevented my companion from knowing how upset I was. Or so I thought.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Today's time-wasting meme

Picked up from Spynotes. Tag yourself if interested.

1. WERE YOU NAMED AFTER ANYONE? All I know about my name is that, after my dad came up with Virgil Ralph for my brother (Virgil = dad’s cousin, Ralph = dad’s first name), my mother (who wanted Dwight David) said she would get to name me and did.

2. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CRIED? When was the last time I didn’t? My tears are internal.

3. DO YOU LIKE YOUR HANDWRITING? I wish it were more regular so that it looked neat and more like a font, but I don’t have strong feelings about it.

4. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LUNCH MEAT? I don’t often eat lunch meat, but have been eating a lot of tuna salad, heirloom tomato, and goat cheese with lemon zest on wheat bread for lunch.


6. IF YOU WERE ANOTHER PERSON WOULD YOU BE FRIENDS WITH YOU? Probably, until I drove myself crazy with moodiness. But I would make myself laugh, so maybe that balances it out.

7. DO YOU USE SARCASM A LOT? Sarcasm hides a lot of sins.

8. DO YOU STILL HAVE YOUR TONSILS? Yes, and they are still enormous. And full of tonsil stones.

9. WOULD YOU BUNGEE JUMP? There are things I’d rather do.



12. DO YOU THINK YOU ARE STRONG? Physically, it would depend on who you’re comparing me to. Emotionally, probably. Lots of exercise.

13. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE ICE CREAM? Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough.


15. RED OR PINK? Neither.


17. WHO DO YOU MISS THE MOST? My family and family life.


19. WHAT COLOR SHOES ARE YOU WEARING? I’m barefoot, but was wearing black walking shoes in the sleet.

20. WHAT WAS THE LAST THING YOU ATE? Bread and butter pickles.

21. WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW? Silence and occasional running water from upstairs.


23. FAVORITE SMELLS? Fresh bread, coffee.



26. FAVORITE SPORTS TO WATCH? Equestrian events, as long as no one gets hurt.

27. HAIR COLOR? Light brown-red with a smattering of gray and white.

28. EYE COLOR? Grey-green-hazel. Or something like that. My hair and eye colors have never been well defined.

29. DO YOU WEAR CONTACTS? Not anymore.

30. FAVORITE FOOD? Babaganooj, if made right.

31. SCARY MOVIES OR HAPPY ENDINGS? A scary movie with a happy ending, e.g., Gaslight.

32. LAST MOVIE YOU WATCHED? I started to watch Holiday Inn and have 20 minutes left to go.

33. WHAT COLOR SHIRT ARE YOU WEARING? A mauve shirt that J. gave me yesterday.

34. SUMMER OR WINTER? Summer, although not in Chicago. My favorite seasons are spring and fall.

35. HUGS OR KISSES? Doesn’t that depend?

36. FAVORITE DESSERT? Devil’s food cake.




Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.

The New Penguin History of the World (Fifth Edition) by J. M. Roberts.

Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery by Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor, and Terry Dolan.

40. WHAT IS ON YOUR MOUSE PAD? I don’t use one, but I have a lot of them somewhere around here.


42. FAVORITE SOUND? Certain voices.




46. WHERE WERE YOU BORN? Lackawanna, New York.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Dream: Headlines

At around 1:30 a.m. I woke up from a vivid dream that may have come from the headlines. I was with an older man, perhaps my father in the dream but not my real father, in an aerie hideout when armed men broke in. They told us they were going to kill him bloodily, but that I could leave with one of them across the treetops. I don't remember wrestling with the decision, saying good-bye, or leaving; I recall only fleeing through the treetops, hearing gunfire, and being told not to look back. I didn't need to turn to see the horror in my imagination and to wonder at the ease with which I had left and my cowardice. I did not feel what I should have. When I awoke, I was shaking.

Next I dreamed that I was choosing my room at the White House, but it was nothing like the building on Pennsylvania Avenue. I liked every room I looked into better than the last, although all of them were bare bones, and some were underground. I wondered how I had come to be there and to have this opportunity. The strangeness of it frightened me.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Review: Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, edited by James Kinsley and with an introduction and notes by Jane Stabler. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2003. 480 pages.

In Mansfield Park, "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players." The cast of characters of both the novel and the play within it is drawn from three families and their social circles: the Bertrams of Mansfield Park, the Grants/Crawfords of the parsonage, and the Prices of Portsmouth. Even as she refuses to participate in her cousins' staging of Lovers' Vows, Fanny Price is at center stage as the observer we observe in Austen's social and familial drama.

As the poor relation of the Bertrams, Fanny is a natural outsider. Lacking social or financial aspirations, she is free to see the folly of those around her and bound by what seems to have become a quaint form of honor from warning Edmund about his. For all her acquiescence to fate, however, Fanny is not weak. Just as she takes a firm stand about not appearing in the ill-fated Lovers' Vows with its ill-fated cast, she stays on her moral high road even when it requires her to assert herself to Sir Thomas, to whom she is beholden and whose own daughters dare not defy him so directly.

Marriage is central to Mansfield Park. Maria Ward "had the good luck . . . to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income." Despite the narrator's cynicism, the Bertrams have what seems to be an effective marriage; Sir Thomas is the domineering household head, while his decorative lady provides the services of her busybody widowed sister and her niece Fanny. Lady Bertram's passivity complements Sir Thomas's active nature; she is "guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister." She can do without companionship, but only if Sir Thomas reassures her.

Motivated by his money and status and her good looks, the Bertrams have established a solid marriage, but its sons and daughters are not its pride. Restrained by and resentful of Sir Thomas's patriarchal hand, his elder son and daughter rebel against and eventually flout his authority and threaten the family's good name. His younger daughter seeks escape through the closest means possible, and even his younger son is spared from his poor judgment only by fate.

Unlike Lady Bertram, her youngest sister marries for love, or at least on impulse, and suffers the consequences of ignoring what matters most—money and social standing. Self-condemned to a life of poverty and negligence, Mrs. Price cannot depend on either husband or servants to manage day-to-day life so she can indulge in her natural laziness, as Lady Bertram does. Even as her family lives in filthy squalor, Mrs. Price, could, if she were capable of noticing, take pride in Fanny's personal growth and moral fortitude, William's accomplishments and career, and Susan's promise. Like the Bertrams on their extensive estate, she is trapped in the narrow drama she has written for herself. Those who exit—Fanny, William, Susan—are able, it seems, to craft a more positive narrative for themselves.

Like a proscenium arch, the trip to Sotherton and the use of Lovers' Vows frame Fanny's view of the relationships around her. Much of the action takes place out of her sight (to her dismay), but Fanny sees enough to disturb her sense of propriety and to bring to light her own desires. Fanny, and the reader, can only guess what is happening offstage and how it may affect her.

Relationships founded solely on money (Rushworths), rebellion or love (Prices, presumably), and lust (Henry/Maria) fare poorly, as does the Crawfords' sister's second marriage (to the admiral). Austen's narrator does not give up on the institution, however. "With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends . . . happiness . . . must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be," the omnipotent stage director steps in to say after having dispensed justice and wisdom to those characters who require one or the other, just before before the curtain falls on Mansfield Park and environs. In the end and with a heavy hand, the narrator redeems marriage, at least for the deserving (Fanny) and the enduring (the Bertrams).

Readers who prefer strong, attractive women may not appreciate Fanny, her apparently rigid morality, and her seeming weakness of will. As a perceptive outsider who understands what she observes, Fanny is a complex character. She knows and respects how Sir Thomas would feel about Lovers' Vows and participates to the extent she can so she can keep an eye on Edmund. She knows where his future unhappiness lies, yet does not deter him although it is in her power. She may be judgmental, as people are, but she asserts herself strongly only when she is herself affected, for example, when she is wanted for the play and when Henry pays his attentions. She is true to herself and allows others the same freedom, succeed or fail, with her real feelings hidden within her inner emotional life.

Set in a time of war and slave-supported prosperity that seems remote, Mansfield Park can still reach across the years. In spite of the antiquated social and moral codes that rule their lives, the out-of-touch adults, the rebellious children, and the lonely and unconventional heroine still hold interest today.

Friday, 28 November 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The fall of an elder

[I meant to post this in May. Spring has come and gone and will come again.]

The tree on the southwest corner of 56th Street and Hyde Park Boulevard took a long time to die.

First, the leaves of one limb would turn yellow, dry up, and fall off, and another would follow, and another. By last autumn, one limb of leaves remained, and it was dying. Of course, when winter came it didn't matter—it looked like all the living but leafless tress around it.

It made me sad to think of spring arriving, knowing that at least one prominent old tree would still be a stark hulk against the blue skies after all its brethren had burst into bud.

That's why I was relieved a few weeks ago to find a crew cutting it down. By the time I arrived at the bus stop across the street, they had cut its limbs off, and one man had sawed through about half the trunk. I had shown up in time for the crucial moment. One of the crew cleared the other southbound lane and halted traffic. I wondered how they were going to control its fall, then I noticed that the ropes tied to the tree were anchored to a bar on the front of one of the trucks. As the truck slowly reversed, the tree tumbled. It seemed almost like a gentle fall rather than a hard crash. I could imagine that the spirit of the dead tree was relieved of its burden at last.

By the next morning, all that remained was the stump and some wood chips missed during the cleanup. Within a few days, the stump had been cut down and removed, and all that is left today is a large, roughly circular patch of wood chips, the kind the Chicago Park District and landscapers sometimes put on the bare patches under healthy trees.

I miss that tree, and the one on the southeast corner behind the bus stop that was struck by lightning or torn apart during one of the spate of micro-bursts that have devastated so many trees here in recent years. I miss their shade and their guardianship of the ad hoc footpath through the park and of the bus stop, each a little like the sole remaining pillar of an ancient gate. When I look at the wood chips that mark the location of the one and the three spindly bushes that encircle the patch left by the other, I feel like I am visiting the grave sites of respected, beloved elders. Both look like scars that will take a long time to heal.

I wonder if their spirits ever leave, or if they too still mourn.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cooling lakes and hot spots

After the customary detour to Caribou Coffee in Homewood, where I picked up Bodum Pavina glasses, a boardroom mug, and a sweet little caribou, J. and I headed out to Goose Lake Prairie State Park.

Or so we thought.

I don't think I can call the drive "scenic." The area is mostly flat and bereft of interesting features, at least to my uninformed eye. We passed through the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor but didn't have a chance to look around and appreciate the history, which I suppose is based on industry and transportation.

We did see lots of industry. The area around Joliet and to the southwest reminded me of Buffalo and Lackawanna, New York, during the heyday of the steel mills and brought back my faint memories of northern New Jersey, which in turn evoked visions of a post-apocalyptic world.

I felt almost like I had come home to 1960s Buffalo when we crossed a huge steel bridge over the Des Plaines River, which at that point is flanked by steel and concrete. Further along the highway the Kankakee River, edged by trees, retains some of the its original natural beauty—that is, it looks like a river, not an industrial cesspool.

Interspersed along the way were small farms, houses, red barns, and rotting barns and outbuildings.

Off the expressway in Morris, we drove along fenced-off water set against a backdrop of power and industrial towers. We found an entrance to the lake shore on Jugtown Road, although the fields were closed to everyone except hunters shotgunning for deer. As we got out of the car, we heard guns popping off in the distance.

"I see," I said. "You brought me here knowing that it was closed for deer hunting, hoping a stray shot would get me."

J. laughed but didn't deny it.

Our first sight was of a live bait machine. The idea of keeping live animals, yes, even fish bait, in a machine disturbed me, so I distracted myself by looking at the names of the selections. "Fathead" was the clear winner.

We walked out onto one of the floating piers. I stayed well behind J., amused by the pier's side-to-side sway as he stepped heavily down it. Flat chunks of ice dotted the water's surface, which made the prospect of losing footing on the unsteady pier even less appealing. J. thought it best that we continue to leave space between us on the jaunt back to solid ground. After getting directions from the concessionaire (human food and fish bait), we returned to the car, where we took photos of the tall grasses bent away from the wind and of a camouflaged blind draped in hunter orange.

Later, I would learn that Heidecke Lake is the cooling lake for the Collins (fossil fuel) power plant. Dresden and Braidwood (nuclear) are also nearby, and J. remarked on the number of plants so close together and the availability of land.

I'm not sure that the Goose Lake Prairie Visitor Center was open because we didn't find an open road to get to it, although we eventually came to a spot that may have been the bank fishing point the concessionaire tried to steer us toward. It was confusing, and I'm not sure where we ended up, only that it was closed for the season and that a sign instructed visitors what to do if a warning siren went off for three to five minutes. Warning of what? Tornadoes? Or meltdown?

Before we got to that point, however, we'd driven past a small herd of cows and down a road with fenced fields and signs proclaiming that there's no trespassing allowed on this government property. At the end, we reached an open gate with clear indications that something to do with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers lay beyond (we’d seen signs but hadn’t thought much about them). I suggested that we not proceed, and J. said that now would be a good time to backtrack. I told J. that, between Dresden and this Army Corps of Engineers area, we'd probably been tracked by satellite and his license plate information captured as he'd driven slowly and stopped periodically to take photos of part of Dresden. We're probably in an FBI database now. And all we wanted to walk some nature trails. Honest.

On the return, we found a rocky trail down to the water's edge, a little too steep and unstable for me, constrained as I was by winter clothes. I couldn't quite trust myself to make it to the bottom gracefully without falling. J. found what he thought were black mushrooms, which he said were disgusting to touch. In the photos he took, they look almost like rusted metal caps. A friend tells me they're dried water lotus seed pods. They look alien. Or mutant . . .

We passed the cows again. I told J., "They started out as pigs . . ."

After some final tallgrass photos, we took off. On the highway in the distance I spotted a black silhouette broken up by bright squares of golden light. It looked like a 1940s stage set depicting a city skyline at night. J., who'd noticed it on the way, said it's an oil refinery and speculated that the proliferation of lights is meant to prevent any confusion on the part of pilots.

We stopped at a Mobil station because J., whose gas tank was nearly full, couldn't resist topping it off with premium, given that the price of regular was $1.829. While he took care of business, I took care of my own in the store's ladies' room, then explored a bit. The store was surprisingly large and was stocked with everything from convenience food and lures to winter jackets. I couldn't resist buying the only wolf t-shirt, which happened to be my size.

In Frankfort, Cactus Carol’s was closed, so we went to Chef Klaus’s Bier Stube for heavy German food. If you don’t have enough meat, organ meat, or fat in your diet, this is the place to dine. After I’d said earlier how much I wanted to become a vegetarian for humane reasons, I ordered chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese. I’m a woman of principle, if not of practice.

And so to the Flamingo for holiday chai, pumpkin cheesecake from Bonjour, and BBC America. In my mailbox was a pleasant surprise—a refund check from Northwestern Memorial Hospital for $195.43. I have no idea what it's for, but I'm not one to look gift cash in the mouth at such troubled times as these.

I also received Medieval Lives by Terry Jones, obtained with Borders Bucks.

Life is good.

For now.

Dream: The vampire and the gargoyle

The economy was very bad, and my father was washing his white pickup truck for sale. I asked how much he wanted—$20,000. I looked into its white bed flecked with rust and wondered at his lack of pragmatism.

We went for a drive in the country and stopped at the foot of a hill, where a man offered to make my sister and me something of our choice. She asked for a vampire. He disappeared. When he returned with it, his behavior had become very strange. Discreetly and without haste he pursued my sister, never quite catching her but always staying right behind her. He commented on her virtue and beauty and seemed delighted by her mounting nervousness.

I asked for a gargoyle, although I'm not sure that that is what I wanted. It was the first thing that occurred to me. When he returned, he did not follow or pursue me, and his comments were of a different nature. I sensed that he was attracted to me for more than looks alone. I and my attributes were desirable to him on some deeper level, and it frightened me that I could read his mind. His variable character repulsed, horrified, and fascinated me, and I was troubled that I understood him so well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


During my second physical therapy session, an older woman lay on the bed next to mine moaning something about "torture." I said that I had felt that way about the work on my shoulder several years ago, and she seemed pleased that someone understood her pain. "It's torture. They torture you," she continued.

I was speaking only from memory, from when my shoulders hurt so much and were so weak that I had to lift my arm with the other hand. Therapy had to be undertaken gradually because anything that caused pain (movement) would make the condition worse.

At first we eased into it, but now I recall that at some point when I felt better the therapist picked up the pace, adding repetitions, new exercises, and resistance—a slow introduction to what my neighbor might call "torture."

During the first session for my knee, I did 10 repetitions; during the second, two sets of 10. Wednesday she told me to do three sets of 10. Not sure that I had heard her correctly with my hearing problems, I said, "You mean 30?"

"Yes, 30. But three sets of 10 sounds better."

Even if it doesn't feel better.

Perhaps hoping to demonstrate that, deep down, physical therapists are sadists, I said, half-jokingly, "So next time we're going to do 40?"

"No," she said.


"No," she said. "Next time we're going to add weights."

I could almost hear the cackle I was sure she had had to suppress.

Dream: Stop, thief!

I walked into a restaurant bar and found people I'd known in high school, although I couldn't put all the names with the faces. I was right about a few, and EP introduced me to some of the rest. Many of them were boys who had bullied me, including SF. They, and EP, would not look at me directly.

Two fish escaped from an enormous aquarium and began to chase each other and fight outside it. They were much larger than typical aquarium fish and seemed to be getting bigger. I finally wrestled the more aggressive fish to the ground and tried to heave it back into the aquarium. At first it was half in/half out and struggled against me, but with a mighty effort I tipped it in. The other fish was caught, too.

Both escaped again and began to terrify the people. One took on the appearance of a cartoon whale, with an exaggerated head, no body, and tiny tail, but that made it no less dangerous, and those unable to flee from before it were bitten, mauled, or worse. As I came closer to waking, I wondered how these fish survived, moved about, grew, and morphed out of the water. 

I used a wheelchair to get to a store at South Shore Plaza and debated how secure it would be if I parked it outside unlocked. I seemed to have little choice, so I did.

Inside I expected to find a glittering, high-end jewelry store, but the shop was stark, mostly empty, and stocked with such valueless but useful items as old newspapers. I reflected upon how much had changed, although there had never been a high-end jewelry store at the plaza. My surprise was a mystery. I still puzzled over the fish, which I had escaped.

Only moments later I came out to find my wheelchair missing. I saw the thief running toward the edge of the trees and bushes and called for someone to stop him. A man, perhaps a classmate from the bar, took off in pursuit, but as the foliage swallowed them, I knew he would always be a step or two behind and would never catch the wheelchair thief.

I was afraid of encountering the fishes again.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lights, camera, 911

Late yesterday afternoon I was able to get a seat at Bonjour, where in the colder weather I like to watch darkness fall outdoors. It's a cozy, reassuring feeling to be warm indoors with people under bright lights when the darkness descends and the cold gets colder. I was writing, drinking coffee, and waiting for J.

Behind me was something I'd never seen there before—a wood screen with a painted floral design. Despite sleeping much of the day (a bad habit I thought I'd broken), I was still tired and too incurious to look into this phenomenon.

An older, ashen-faced man looked at me several times without focusing and then told a young man at the counter that he'd better call 911—he couldn't feel his legs, and he thought one had an area of discoloration.

The poised young man called and relayed questions and answers such as: "How old are you?" "He's 59." He told the man, who had the same emaciated, weather-beaten look as the late Jacques Cousteau, that he'd been advised not to give him anything to eat or drink. They decided to elevate the man's legs, and he arranged a chair for that purpose. The young man was willing to help but hesitated to touch the patron's bare, toothpick-thin legs or his socks, so he finally grabbed his shoes to heave up his legs.

The paramedics arrived within minutes and asked the man questions about his health breathing, medications, and so forth. They also wanted to know how he'd gotten there (walked) and how he'd felt when he'd left home. They took his blood pressure—100/70. He said something about going home, but the paramedics told him that he was going to the hospital. More showed up with a stretcher-chair, and away they went. All this took no more than 10 or 15 minutes.

J. showed up moments later and, after some discussion, was the first to realize that it was a fireplace screen. We watched as cake after cake was lifted carefully off its plate and doily and placed behind the screen, then J. spotted what I'd overlooked—a camera. A photo shoot! It turns out that they were taking photos for the Web site that is apparently in the works. Someday the rest of the world can drool over gâteau au chocolat from Bonjour.

While J. went in pursuit of yet more treats, a girl began hanging around behind me, trying to talk to Madame. "Comment ça-va?" Madame asked. "How are you?" I translated (loosely). The girl looked at me helplessly. "Tell her, 'Très bien,'" I suggested. She struggled. "Très bien," I repeated. She said in that fast, breathless way children have, "I'm learning Spanish at school," perhaps to explain her apparent deficiencies in French. Then she added, "I don't know any French." I told her that that is all right, as I don't speak Spanish. She failed to recognize my attempt, which I won't re-create here. Sigh.

Madame gave her two ornate, pastel-colored lollipops, but after running off for a few seconds with them, she returned and said, "I don't think my mom would want me to have these." I saw her with them later, so even her cautious mother knows better than to turn down a gift from Madame. Meanwhile, my mind had blanked on “merci.”

We stopped at Treasure Island and Borders and came out to tiny snowflakes sparking in the streetlights. With no wind blowing, the air was warm enough that it was hard to mind this precursor to winter.

Next we headed to Valois, where you can "see your food." I found myself puzzled by the juxtaposition of the Chicago skyline on one side with alpine mountains on the other—not exactly representative of downstate Illinois.

At the Flamingo, we watched as an experienced male bald eagle and his young bride successfully raised two offspring, despite the latter's rather stupid mistakes, such as turning tail to a 40 mph wind and stepping on the kids. As I told J., it was the old man eagle's fault for going after a young trophy wife. Almost on that note, he decided it was time to leave for work.

Au revoir.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Purveyors of this sad story"

If GE "brings good things to life," the Internet brings good things to light, or back to life—for example, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater (CBSRMT).

Radio Hall of Famer and Those Were the Days host Chuck Schaden aired a few episodes of CBSRMT many years ago, but was thwarted in his quest to broadcast the series by some kind of rights issues. Today many CBSRMT episodes can be found online as MP3s—which means I may need to break down and procure an MP3 player.

I was 12 years old when the CBSRMT series began to air, usually at midnight. I listened to the program in the silence of the night, trying to be quiet as I huddled under the covers and squirmed to the ominous tones of bass woodwinds and E. G. Marshall's "Pleasant . . . dreams?" I felt vulnerable in my little room in my little trailer, with little between me and the evils of mankind and the unknown supernatural.

I listened to an episode this Saturday, "The Lodger" starring Kim Hunter, which was originally broadcast 13 May 1974. I would see Hunter a few years later at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre in Elizabeth the Queen with George Chakiris.

"The Lodger" is a familiar story told many times on radio. For 1974, this version had a vaguely retro feel as a city newspaper reporter somehow gets the scoop on every killing. With blogs and news blogs and constant news updates, is there such a thing as a breaking news scoop anymore?

The commercials also took me back. One, for a discount grocery chain, touted, among other comfort foods, Pepperidge Farm Layer Cake on sale for 69 cents. It may sound strange now, but 69 cents was nothing to sneeze at for a frugal working man like my father (the licensed driver and therefore the grocery shopper and bargain hunter of the family). Of course, this commercial was targeted at "her"—Mom. Even in 1974, the title of "Mom" was attached to the majority of domestic chores. (As far as I've seen on the television at work, in 2008 household cleaning products are still within the woman's domain.)

The other commercial I paid attention to was for Budweiser, then still "The King of Beers" and known for the company's signature Clydesdale horse teams and the light musical theme heard in the background. The male voice talent suggested that you "reach for a glass" although "it's great beer any way you drink it." With a glass, you get the full benefit of "the wonderful head of foam"—"those bubbles, tiny though they are, still amount to something pretty special at the top of your glass—taste appeal and eye appeal." This is due to "exclusive beechwood aging and natural carbonation." The result is "a difference you can taste." So, "when you say Budweiser, you've really said it all."

No sports, no celebrity, no sports celebrity, no sex or rock music, and no irrelevant cuteness like frogs. Just "something pretty special at the top of your glass."

At least until microbrews, imports, and ADHD came along. Who today would pay for air time, even after midnight, for such a boring commercial about the product?

After the episode ended, a few moments of news commentary came on, delivered by Fulton Lewis III, defending President Richard Nixon. In a ponderous, old-style news voice, Lewis talked about how allegations of a "specific nature" had been answered "promptly and firmly" by the White House, whose response referred to "concerted efforts by some sources to circulate fallacious reports," the "vindictiveness of some people," and "the purveyors of this sad story." Lewis, who said that Nixon's language could be "rough," also asserted that those who knew the president, including him, agreed that racial, ethnic, and religious slurs were not in his vocabulary.

Nonsense. Any Caucasian of Nixon's age had slurs in his vocabulary, even if he didn't use or believe in them. For many Americans, they were part of the culture of the early and mid-twentieth century, along with Jim Crow laws and segregation. TV producer Norman Lear built a long-running comedy series on a character of Nixon's generation—All in the Family's Archie Bunker—whose bigotry was his hallmark. Later, the evidence would show that not only were slurs in Nixon's vocabulary, but that his racist vocabulary was more extensive than Archie Bunker could have dreamed.

How fascinating it is to look at even relatively recent history with the knowledge and superiority of hindsight. As I listened to Lewis righteously and indignantly question the charges and the motives of the "purveyors," I knew what he couldn't—that he was a dupe of the failed coverup and that the man he was defending would prove to be the "crook" he claimed not to be. Yesterday's heated debate long ago resolved itself into today's cold fact.

I can't wait to dive into the rich treasure trove of CBSRMT episodes that await—not only for the emotions revived by nostalgic memories bur for the history I witness, didn't appreciate, and have already forgotten.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dream: The wicked visit

I was making a quick stop at DW's house on the way to another city (I would figure out later that it was NYC). I didn't see most of their house, including the living room, dining room, and kitchen, all of which seemed to be off limits. Instead, I was restricted to a bedroom and/or sitting room.

When I tried to use the bathroom, I found that the doorway was so narrow that I couldn't fit through it. I used the one in the master bedroom once, but had the impression that that was frowned upon. I found another bathroom that was set up almost like a salon, with a woman or two sitting on chairs in a waiting area. I turned to close the door for privacy, but there was none, not even a curtain. This door was also unusually narrow.

In the bed-/sitting room, a green toilet seat flapped up and down erratically and mysteriously.

Every now and then I would open a door and, instead of a bathroom, I would find an ocean scene with a witch from Wicked astride the waves. I didn't know what to think.

Then there was a game that involved racing herb leaves down the length of the pan. I did well, but discovered only later that the leaves would follow the finger like a magnet. Finally, I accidentally flipped the pan over and panicked about losing leaves. All of them were accounted for.

I wondered how my friends could live in such a strange, chaotic place, but noticed that they still retained their old values from childhood.

I told DW I was going to meet a friend in NYC. When she looked at me inquiringly, I looked at her significantly, which surprised her. I began to imagine this liaison, although even in my imagination it did not happen as I wished.

I remembered that I didn't yet have a ticket to NYC and wondered at myself for doing so much flying in such a short time. I felt disappointed because I knew I could not pull it off—there must have been a miscommunication somewhere.

And I kept encountering the Wicked witch, atop the waves.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

You put your left knee in

It's been several years since I underwent physical therapy for impingement syndrome, so I was a little nervous about the new round of treatment, this time at a different place on a different part of my anatomy—my left knee. It all began with Dr. Knee's concern about the pain I've been experiencing for several years when I walk down stairs.

I was joined in the waiting area by a woman with a crutch, who asked, "Is this your first time here?" Nod. "You will love it!" I took this as an assertion, not a command.

While I waited, she hobbled back and forth to the desk a few times, and an older woman issued forth, walking very slowly and very gingerly toward the elevator and reaching out to the wall for support—a prime candidate for an assistive device. I wondered just how far she was going to have to walk to get to her transportation and her destination, every step painful and precarious. I remembered that, at the other therapy office, I had always appeared to be in much better shape than my fellow sufferers, with no obvious injury or limp. But when the shoulder pain kicked in, invisibly, it was excruciating and debilitating.

The sound of my name startled me out of a half slumber, and reluctantly I hauled myself out of the chair and followed H. to the very back. She directed me to a far less comfortable chair and pulled the hospital-style curtain closed for privacy. Unlike my previous PT experience, there were to be no witnesses to my efforts. She did say, however, that in the future we would venture out into the "gym."

After asking me why I was there, how long my knee had hurt, and other questions, she had me perform various tricks, such as balancing for as long as I could on each leg (I was able to last almost three times longer on the right than on the left) and bending my knee as far back as possible while lying down (left knee is more flexible than right). She dug into the front and side of my thigh with her palm and into my knee with her fingers. The side hurt more than I would have expected, and she found a tender spot in my knee above the patella ("I'm going to use the proper terms"), right where it hurts when I descend stairs. She explained the anatomy and the underlying weakness. The tendon (I think) is tight, and although x rays revealed no patella problems, she confirmed something I had noticed—the left kneecap is loose. Physical therapy is going to strengthen the function—at least that's the idea.

I find it fascinating that my two legs have separate lives, but she said that it's not uncommon.

After all these contortions and measurements of my flexibility, we were ready to get to work. Lie on your side. Lie on your back. Lie on your stomach. Raise your hips. Raise your feet. Repeat 10 times and rinse.

Unlike with my shoulder exercises, nothing hurt.

We finished off with an ultrasound treatment ("this shouldn't hurt, but it may feel warm," she said as she spread icy cold sonic gel on my knee) and then a cold wrap to reduce the small amount of inflammation remaining from my August fall.

With exercise handout in hand, I walked out self-consciously—the more normally I tried to walk, the more gimpy and awkward I felt I looked.

While I didn't exactly exert myself, I felt sore this morning—partly due to the little workout, partly due to being chained to a chair eight hours a day during an especially (and poorly planned) intense time.

Now my shoulders hurt.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Scattershot musings

Last Sunday, the trees were glorious, and Wednesday the air was balmy at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. By Saturday, the trees that had glowed against the blue of the lake were bare against the gray of the lake, and the temperatures had plummeted to the 40s.

Only two brave souls sat outdoors together at Bonjour, each reading a newspaper section.

I frittered the days away with sporadic reading, browsing, and napping—I hadn't indulged in the latter for months, especially not since my UFE recovery period.

It must be the weather. Because I can't blame fluctuating hormones, at least for the moment, I'm laying my increased carbohydrate cravings and consumption at the feet of the shorter days and colder nights.

So far this year, however, I haven't been as chilled outdoors as I am indoors, every day by midday. My fingers are aching even as I write this. We can do so many interesting things, solve so many problems, and conjure up so many improbable theories, but maintaining a reasonably comfortable temperature in a state-of-the-art office beyond remains beyond our ability. It gives women something to chat about as we warm our hands under warm tap water in the bathroom where, at my old job, the main activities (aside from the obvious) were networking and problem solving. Now we use the bathroom as a combination waste disposal facility and warming shelter, except the air in there is chilly, too.

When I started working, managers and above sat in window offices (with their backs to the windows) and worker bees aspired to move into a window office. Then design became more egalitarian, and offices began to feature cubicles, er, workstations with windows. I have two and one-half windows, and do so my cohorts. The other day I noticed that nearly all of blinds down the hallway are closed, which struck me as amusing—an admittance that the view is not as important as the perceived prestige once associated with windows. But there are two reasonable explanations: In this gloomy weather, it's easier for the people across the alley to see us. And there isn't much for us to see, either, except the people across the alley. Which is easy to do because they don't lower their blinds.

With the change in weather, J. and I have not been as active. On Saturday we ate at the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, where we did not see Obama, just as we had not seen him at Medici on 57. Perhaps someday we'll catch him at Valois Cafeteria or Mellow Yellow.

I started to watch the 1996 version of The Canterville Ghost with Patrick Stewart, but left the final half hour for the next morning—by which time it had disappeared from the on-demand list. Now I'll never know how it ends . . . it was not bad for a modern version, although the father's character was disturbingly inconsistent. It was strange enough that he greets his daughter only in passing as he rushes to gush over his boys. As the movie proceeds, he veers illogically between the rational and the emotional. As a scientist firmly grounded in the real, he refuses to believe in ghosts or any evidence they may leave behind. At the same time, based on only the flimsiest circumstantial evidence, he roundly condemns his daughter as a cruel, even dangerous prankster. Then he has the gall to whine to his wife that he and the daughter aren't close like they used to be, to which the wife responds with grating predictability, "She's growing up." Too bad Dad doesn't do the same.

As I was waiting for a bus that seemed determined not to arrive on Monday, I heard sirens, saw a number of unmarked black cars whizzing about officiously, and noticed that traffic was backing up down 57th toward Stony Island. Access to Lake Shore Drive had been cut off, with Everett being the only immediate escape east of Hyde Park Boulevard. Obliviously I assumed there had been an accident and wondered how late I would be.

Then I heard the helicopter and saw the spotlight hovering above.

“It’s the president-elect,” a woman told me.

“Really?” I said. I didn’t think he’d spend much time in Hyde Park anymore.

After a while a motorcade came along. I didn’t pay close attention, but did spot a black woman peering out of the open back window of one of the limousines.

The motorcade had passed before I realized that I should have been more interested.

“Did you see the hearse? It wasn’t the president-elect; it was a funeral,” the woman said.

I hadn’t seen a hearse, but I couldn’t swear positively that I hadn’t seen it, either, so I let that go.

“The only person I can think of who’s died is Studs Terkel, and I can’t imagine all that for him,” I said.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” she noted erroneously.

“I won’t get that kind of sendoff,” I said, perhaps a bit wistfully.

“Do I look like I will?” she laughed.

Silence for a bit.

“History is being made,” she added, but not conceding the funeral point.

“A better kind of history,” I offered.

“You know it,” she said as I was saved by the appearance of an X28 bus.

On the Chicago Tribune site, I saw that Barack Obama had dropped his girls off at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, then he and Michelle had taken off for Washington, D.C., to meet with George and Laura Bush. Hearse sighting aside, I’m fairly certain that all the excitement, complete with choppers, was over that daily ritual of every family with children—the trip to school.

The online photo spread showed Obama, sporting a Sox cap, hugging his daughters, who in their neat school clothes and backpacks look like any other Hyde Park student on a school day. They were the only ones who arrived with a Secret Service, police, and news escort, I imagine. How fascinating it will be to watch them grow up over the next four to eight years, now that they are in an inescapable fish bowl.

I spent many mornings waiting in the dark, cold, and snow, alone, for a school bus that never had a seat for me and my bass clarinet.

Yet I don’t envy them.

Not really.

Well. Perhaps a little as they get to see the world.

Still, there’s the fishbowl.

At least they’re used to it.

I think it would kill this lonely guppy.

On the other hand, a life of ease and comfort would suit me well just about now.

Stress free.