Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dream: Shelved

I was trying to be on time for the daily 9:00 a.m. meeting, but was cutting it too close. Mysteriously, I succumbed to an urge to get a particular book, title unknown, from the library before I left.

I had to climb onto the bookshelves, which seemed gigantic and crowded to me. I crawled over books as though they were boulders on a steep mountain slope. Some were so high or placed so close to an edge that they seemed insurmountable. Time was ticking away, and I was tiring rapidly. I could not haul myself any further over all these book obstacles. It was horrifying to me that I was going to miss the unimportant three-minute meeting, but inside I was afraid that I had deliberately trapped myself forever to get out of all of them.

I woke up early, exhausted and a little panicked.

In reality, I was late for the following day’s meeting.

Woo is me

Sure as shooting, if I sign onto a certain social network for more than a few minutes, my mailbox will start filling with woo notes—messages from men who purport to think that I'm their kind of woman. A handful are from young men who are not entirely subtle about their desire to score with an older woman. Most, however, are or seem to be from mature men seeing their soul mate/ideal woman (insert your preferred term here). Based on my profile (which does not show dating or a relationship as an interest), they would like to find out if I am The One.

Most of these woo notes have a few things in common.
  • They're generic. They're not addressed to me or my silly handle, nor do they allude to any of my displayed interests. They don't even ask what I like to read or watch.
  • They refer to my appearance in some way (which may change while my photo has been temporarily replaced by a satirical political button).
  • The spelling and punctuation are so bad that often the notes are undecipherable. I try not to be a language snob, and I understand that for many using a keyboard and computer would be like me operating a jackhammer or even a needle and thread adeptly—unnatural, unproductive, even disastrous. Still, what does the lack of basic literacy say about the 21st century?

Here are excerpts from a couple of examples:
  • . . . kind of man that loves completly,maybe thats the reason why im being taken advantage of ,makes me feel like im a fool loving, is it always a crime loving from the bottom of the heart, my friend told me if you show all your love to someone, that the person will take advantage of you, is tha true? i dont think it is ,someone women are just being heartless, all i want is someone that can share the same gift of love with me , not just for a day or a night stand i want what i call forever love, . . .
  • . . . nice to write to you and will like to meet a woman like you someday . i am single man hardworking and honets faithful lovely sincer caring and kind . i dont have kids.i will really like to know you more because you are pretty and i may think you have good sence of humor ..and will like spending some time with you as well . . .

Now, I'm not actively seeking a relationship, and (spelling and grammar aside), these woo notes, as positioned, aren't going to change my mind. I'm no expert on wooing anyone, let alone a woman, let alone myself. I can tell you what might attract my attention if not my interest:
  • Addressing me as an individual vs. shooting me a prefabricated woo note that sounds like it's dropped en masse in the hope of luring a lonely fish.
  • Addressing me personally.
  • Foregoing the direct approach of seeking romance (sex) and engaging me in a topic of mutual interest. Were I to write a woo note, it might begin, "Robert, I read your comments about Henry Miller and think you're off base. Here's why"—in which case right off I would appear to be disagreeable, not to mention honest.

This is part of why I don't write woo notes. I would introduce myself, but I wouldn't ramble breathlessly about myself and my desire for a soul mate who loves all the standard stuff of bad personals—walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and other things that people say because they think women want to hear them. I would try to engage in a dialogue that could lead to more dialogue and—dare I say it?—friendship. I wouldn't try to convince anyone that I'm a lonely, misunderstood romantic tapped in a cynic's universe. If he's perceptive—that is, someone I could be interested in—he'll figure that out without me having to spell it out. I would tell him what I'm looking for. Connecting with another person isn't about making lists and ticking off each point. If we develop a relationship, that too will come out naturally.

Woo notes, which I've received since the days of Love@AOL, are monologues without an opening for dialogue. "I'm here to talk about me. I don't need to ask you about you—whoever you are—because this woo note is a template I send to every woman whose photo strikes my eye. A few are bound to get a response someday, and that's all I need to get an online chat or even a date or two."

Besides, it looks like I'm not that special after all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Autumn continued at the Morton Arboretum


This week it was J. who suggested the trip to the Morton Arboretum. First, however, a combination of Bonjour coffee + chilly weather + the walk to the train station and the wait + my squished bladder = a quick stop at Caribou Coffee in Homewood for relief. J. loves this particular cafe, with its standalone fireplace, so after an hour, a scone (for him), and a turkey wrap (for me), we dragged ourselves away—but we were still an hour ahead of our previous week's excursion.

We were in time to peek into the outdoor gift shop, where J. bought me a hedgehog made of some kind of prickly pods—very cute if not cuddly—in addition to picking up more shopping bags. We also stopped at the cleverly named Gingko Grill for boca mushroom burgers. There's nothing so refreshing as dining al fresco in a chill wind.

While J. made his mandatory stop at the gift shop, I made mine at the restroom. This proved to be fortuitous. After I finished I read some of the Visitor Center graphics, including one that suggested Lake Marmo is a good place for fall color. A lake—this did sound promising. I love water at any time of year.

After J. made his relatively modest purchases, I looked at the map and steered him to his car. Lake Marmo is on the other side of Illinois 53, and, despite expressing some skepticism about my navigational abilities ("I don't think this is right"), J. drove through an underpass past what appeared to be a Morton family mausoleum, and along a road through groves labeled such things as "Flowering Trees" until we spotted a body of water sparkling in the intermittent late afternoon sun—Lake Marmo.

We found one of the nearby mini-lots, then set off to walk the circumference of Lake Marmo. It's one of the few lakes I've seen where in many places there are no barriers to the water's edge—no steep inclines or impossible footing, no vegetation fences—just a straight step from grass into water. Although I imagine it's not permitted, there are several places that would be perfect for a shoreline picnic—in warmer weather, of course.

The leaves were in better form this week, and we found a vibrant red, whole maple leaf trapped underwater at the edge. Even as we watched, the ripples caused by the wind tried to turn it over and carry it off.

On the far side, we found a waterfall spilling over a curved concrete lip into a lower pool. Despite the man-made look, it would be another idyllic spot—especially if you love the distinctive roar of a mini-waterfall (and you have a strong bladder).

We swung around, bypassed the intriguing Hemlock Hill (presumably named for the trees and not for people who poison), and, while taking a look at the eastern shore, spotted a drake. (J. also saw the female, which I missed.)

When we returned to the mini-lot, a trolley bus was blocking his car's escape route, and a dressed-up woman and little girl were watching as a photographer took photographs of a large wedding party from the main fork of a tree. We too watched while waiting for the trolley to back up for us. Suddenly J. exclaimed, "Whoa!" I asked what had happened, and he said, "I wasn't expecting that!" He told me what he meant, and then I saw it briefly—when the bride lifted her long, white, elegant dress up to protect the skirt from getting wet and stained in the grass, she revealed her footwear—carved, brown leather cowboy boots! If only he could have taken a photo of that!

Rudely and insistently nature was calling, so we went in search of an open building with a bathroom. This led me to choose our final destination from the map—Sterling Pond, "dug in 1960 as a sediment settling pond for Lake Marmo." Like the lake, Sterling Pond drains over a waterfall to a lower level. This area was more hilly and had a slightly wilder look. It, too, was surrounded by autumn colors. Alas, sunset was nearing when we came upon Lake Marmo again, so we backtracked  past Sterling Pond to the car.

After J. read and photographed signs at the Prairie Visitor Station, we headed out. As we rounded a bend, I involuntarily exclaimed, "Oh!" Two deer were picking their way delicately across the road. It was too dark for sharp photos—in the camera's night mode, there tends to be too much blur—but J. took a short video as one of the deer discreetly tired to hide behind a bare bush. Aside from the standard deer, ducks, squirrels, and rabbits, I wonder what species call the Morton Arboretum home?

My plan to drive around the east side was foiled by a gate across the road—fair enough, as by then it was 15 or 20 minutes past sunset. After driving a short distance on Illinois 53 and not seeing much, we decided to make a return trip to Oakbrook Center.

I was pleased that J. wanted to pay another visit to Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe. I was not so pleased when I turned the corner and saw dark windows. "They're closed!" I said, because I never miss the obvious.

It wasn't only that the lights were off. The windows had been covered with black paper. The cafe wasn't just closed. It was closed. On a window further down, we found a sticker confirming the all-too-clear. I peered through a teeny gap between the edge of the glass and the edge of the paper and saw that the fixtures were gone, and the place had been torn up. I was in a state of shock and denial. I recalled what a warm, inviting place it had been, with the trays and trays of specialty chocolates and "pigs in a pen," and the pleasant staff who had boxed our purchases with care. I recalled relaxing over hot chocolate and coffee and how much J. had enjoyed it. If we had known that our first visit would be our last, we'd have lingered and taken photos, but we also would have not enjoyed it as we did. There's something sad about the recent memory of a place when you know what you didn't know then—that within a week it would be gone, and the memory you didn't think you needed to cherish is already fading.

J. said, and has said several times since, that he's glad we finally made it there.

Dismissing The Clubhouse as too fancy for our needs and mood, we settled on Antico Posto, where the wait was 45–60 minutes—so much for an early evening. J., who typically doesn't complain about these things, later said that the wait was "horrible." He'd noticed that the table we secured (eventually) had been vacant for a while, which didn't make him feel better about standing in a crowded bar area for an hour. But bread and pasta did, followed by pumpkin gelato pie. The server made him happier, too, by, as he put it, "looking after him," replacing his coffee cup because the one he had looked "cold."

To the Flamingo for another episode of Antiques Roadshow—the end of a lovely autumn day.

Minus chocolate.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lost in the woods

While I was off last Friday, I sent an evil text message to J., telling him that he wouldn't like what I had in mind for Saturday. His return voicemail was full of trepidation. "Er, what exactly do you have in mind?"

I had in mind something he'd mentioned the previous week—a trip to the Morton Arboretum. Thinking that it might be the last relatively warm day while there were still leaves on the trees,I wanted one more walk in the woods before holing up with tea and comfort food for the winter.

J. picked me up at the Homewood train station at around 3:35 p.m., and away we went, initially missing a well-hidden tollway entrance (one way to cut down on gas consumption and carbon emissions is to make the entrances hard to find, with key maneuvers—"turn right at 171st Street—left off Google maps).

Aside from frequent toll stops with varying amounts required—this keeps the cash-paying citizenry alert on the road—it's not a bad drive compared to our travels on some of the crazier expressways. Traffic was light, and I don't recall anyone cutting us off by a few feet, as happened later on the expressway. Except for the fear of getting stuck in the I-PASS lane or missing an exit, it was a less harrowing drive than usual. With me as the Navigator Who Must Be Obeyed, we followed a straightforward route. I even managed to say "no" to the oasis temptation, with its bathroom and massage chair.

We arrived after 4:00 p.m., which meant I had to watch and cut into J.'s time in the gift shop. He managed to spend nearly $100 before I could wrest him away.

Outdoors, I headed in a different direction in the hopes of skirting the conifers and finding fall foliage. Eventually, we circled two or three of the loops. While we spotted some colorful individuals in reds and yellows, we didn't find any notable stands. My timing may have been off. I thought that, in general, the trees here would be bare by November, but now I realize that that may be the time they're reaching peak color.

It occurs to me now that a carefully designed and planted arboretum is unlikely to burst with color in the same way as New York or Pennsylvania woods do. I remember when my dad would suddenly—or so it seemed—decide that today would be perfect for an autumn drive in the country. We'd pass acre after acre of brilliantly hued woods glowing in the sunlight, interspersed with small farms and small towns. Unlike the formally grouped arboretum, these woods had grown up on their own on unused land, with many species randomly intermingled. The result was a visual cacophony of color, with red next to yellow next to green next to orange next to brown, with bare branches between. Its very beauty lay in its uncontrolled wildness.

Back at the arboretum, J. stopped at several points to photograph interestingly gnarled trees (and me, because I was in the unusual mood of wanting to appear in the photos, which probably ruined the effect he was seeking). As I would think, "Perhaps it's time to turn back," we'd come upon another branch in the trail and signs pointing us to more potentially autumnal deciduous trees. The sun was perilously low in the sky when we came upon a parking lot—surely a sign that now would be a good time to retrace the steps we had taken over the past 45 minutes or more.

We followed a road for a while until we came to a point where a decision had to be made. I asked to see the map as I thought the group of young people coming toward us (and heading away) were consulting their own map and did not look especially helpful.

I was wrong. J. (who pointed out later that a mature man like him isn't afraid to see assistance) asked if they knew the way. They did. They told us to follow the road until path branched off into the trees, then to take it. We did, stopping to take photos of a particularly flaming tree in the semidarkness (unsuccessfully).

Although we seemed to be headed in the right direction, I sensed that J. was getting a little nervous. I wasn't sure how far we had left to go or that we were going precisely the correct way, but I was less concerned about being lost in the woods after dark than about the parking lot being locked if we were really late.

At a point when I was behind J., I made snuffly noises and said in imitation, "Diane, is that you breathing so funnily? Wait—why is your face covered with fur? And your arms?"

We reached a point that, in the dusk light, looked somewhat familiar, and I had picked up the pace as I noticed a downhill slant.

"Do you notice anything?" I asked.

"No."

"We're going downhill."

"I didn't notice."

"Can't you see and feel the path sloping downward?"

"Maybe a little."

"Remember, we trudged uphill at first, so it follows that we'd go downhill on the way back."

An unconvinced (or tired) "Mmm."

"Hey, I'm trying to teach you some wood craft here!" I said.

He seemed unappreciative, and it occurred to me that, depending on the layout of the hill and paths, it may be possible to descend in the wrong direction.

We were in more familiar territory when we spotted an outbound couple holding the hands of an adorable little girl between them. The sight of people taking a small child into the woods (or at least among the trees) after sunset inspired horrible thoughts, which of course I had to share.

"It's okay, sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy are just taking you for a little evening stroll. Why don't you get comfy under that nice tree? We'll be right over here. Somewhere."

Now don't get upset—my mind thinks less of contemporary and real horror stories than of fairy tales. In my story, the girl, left without a coat under the "nice tree," would have been unwitting agent of revenge on the doomed couple, who would not be her real parents but some kind of evil spirits.

It is Halloween time, after all.

We were reminded of this when we walked past several scarecrows created by Girl Scout troops from local schools. J. and I disagreed about which were the most original and creative. He liked the ones with a pop culture theme, while I preferred those based on twists of nature and imagination. I wish I could remember the half-seen images in the dark.

At last, J. perked up when we saw the lights—from the buildings and parking lot. It was about 6:35 p.m., the light was fading even in the open, and my bladder, with its infallible radar, was twitching with the sensations that bathroom proximity causes. Ah.

Next, we headed to Oak Brook without knowing which exit to take (foolishly, I thought it might be labeled Oak Brook). I hadn't seen it when J. thought we should have come upon it, so he asked at the toll both. It was the next exit, helpfully called Midwest Ave. or something like that. J. had only a vague idea of where Oakbrook Center is, so after a brief foray in a wrong direction (payback for the march through the woods?), he stopped at a gas station to ask. We had gone straight instead of turning right off the exit to the third light—a wrong move that was easily remedied.

Once we were there, it became apparent—at least to me—that we'd never find Moonstruck Chocolate Café by walking around, especially in our walked-out condition, so I had him drop me off by a directory. Eureka. It was at this end of the mall, not far off. We parked and, with a bit of walking and guessing, found it within spitting distance of a Godiva, of all places.

This Moonstruck is nothing like its late, much-lamented counterpart downtown; it's smaller and more of a storefront, but we ordered hot beverages and a couple of treats (J. selected a Republican elephant truffle), after which J. bought me truffles of my choice (I think he eats vicariously through me now).

Having drunk and eaten dessert, we went in search of food. Maggiano's Little Italy was packed, so we ended up at an available table in the bar at Mon Ami Gabi, where he ordered salad, steak Dijon, and blood orange sorbet, while I had French onion soup and steak béarnaise. Mmm. It seemed to take a long time, and we left after 10 o'clock. J. dropped me off around 11:00 p.m.

Then he went downtown. To work.

I guess the walk didn't tire him out, after all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dream: The trailer park problem

I was in TC, Texas, sent to settle an outstanding municipality account. I found myself on a small green patch that looked nothing like I expected, with a trailer park on each side. I felt puzzled and wondered if anyone else knew about this. Then I realized that I had no way of returning and was probably stranded in this surreal place.

I wandered down a side street that looked like it belonged in Florida, not Texas. Mansions lined the street, which seemed incongruous. My dad came along and closed an open door as a courtesy. A woman on an upper floor heard the door close and yelled at him from a window as though he were a thief. He didn't react, but I was outraged even as I felt more and more confused, lost, and dazed.

Patrick Stewart and the idiot

Patrick Stewart is confronted by an "idiot"—Brent Spiner:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dream: Which witch?

My brother and my friend, DW, were driving me to meet a female relative. We passed the trailer park, the front of which was covered with shelves lined with used books for sale. All I could see were rows and rows of books. We backtracked to it, and I picked up a book—something I would never read, probably by Clive Cussler—but didn't pay. When we left, I asked my brother and DW where they had paid. "Up the steps at the side of the building," they said. I had seen it and knew I should have gone there, but I thought I would return later.

After what seemed like endless hours of driving, I asked where we were. Although it looked like a small town, I guessed that we were in St. Louis or Kansas City. My mother and DW looked at each other significantly, as though I were very wrong and they were very pleased about that, so I looked around again. We were in a declining small American town—with antique stores and diners, and a look and feel of being out of touch with time. It could have been anywhere. There was no frame of reference, and suddenly I became afraid. I no longer trusted my brother or my friend.

It was after dark when we rendezvoused with my relative, who proved to be a witch. She was high up in the country sky and cast sparkling red and green bolts to the ground. When I saw her closer up, she consisted of a shadowy form with a sparkly red patch and a sparkly green patch. I was terrified. I was expected to hug her, which I did very reluctantly. I was afraid that if I touched her I'd become a witch, too. Then I began to wonder what a witch is.

My brother said some strange, Latin-sounding words to us, which I interpreted to mean, "The less said, the better." As if the hug had not been bad enough, my words would give her even more power over me. It was not as easy as I thought to stay silent, but I did. After a while, to my horror DW started to talk about nothing. Didn't she understand that she was endangering us all? The shadowy figure driving seemed to perk up at the words. I was doomed and now damned, I was sure.

Inside, I fretted about the book I hadn't paid for.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Piqued about peak color

Here, Ed, the “Color Scout” at the Morton Arboretum, says:
There is no formula to predict fall color. The intensity and peak time of color are determined by complex environmental factors and the genetic makeup of the plants themselves. For example, trees and shrubs of European origin evolved where the growing season is longer and cooler, so they stay green into the fall.

The "best" fall color for an area occurs during the shortening days of autumn when days are bright, sunny and cool, when nights are cool but not below freezing, and when there has been ideal rainfall.
Here’s a photo I took November 3, 2007:

I’ve always thought that most trees were bare by early November, but here they look like they’re about at peak.

And here’s one taken October 18, 2008:

In this one, there’s still a lot of green.

I have to keep adjusting how I look at the seasons. My timing seems to be off.

More later.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Today at Promontory Point

Dream: The reunion train

I knew I had graduated from the University of Chicago, but now—probably years later—I was attending Yale University for an undergraduate degree. I couldn't understand my own actions, but I had to do it. I didn't feel as frightened of failure as I usually do when I am returning to complete the degree I already have.

Someone asked, "How many military officers have you had convicted?" What an odd question. I was sitting, stooping, or kneeling, but I sensed someone behind me. TB was there with a friend or two, and he was holding up both hands with all fingers and both thumbs spread. Before I knew it, I said, "Do you have enough fingers?" He glanced down at me in disgust at the implication. Again, I had blown it. A military lawyer? Is that what he had been? It didn't seem likely. The number 10 seemed high if he hadn't been, though, and I knew he'd run out of fingers. But what a strange question—who had asked it and why?

It was time for a class reunion, which involved a train trip. We stayed overnight somewhere; when I returned to my train seat, my computer (Titanium PowerBook) was still there, but the AlphaSmart NEO was missing. I couldn't remember any of my own movements but in a moment of denial was sure that I had left it in another car and that it had not been stolen.

PS, the office manager, was noncommittal but at least did not condemn me for my foolish actions and assumptions. She moved me to the next car, which was nothing like the comfortable one I had been in. Rows of wooden seats were packed in tightly; from above it looked like a cattle car, possibly with straw on the floor. The conductor told me people chose it because the back part was a swimming pool. Later, it would be more of a pond than a pool, and most people ignored it in favor of a chlorinated resort pool that had taken over most of the rest of the car.

All of us got out at a building, perhaps a shopping complex. I was clutching a handful of thin legal-size folders and my thick wallet awkwardly; hanging onto these would give me a great deal of trouble in my wanderings. The only way I could find to get between the building's levels were narrow, railless iron steps suspended above an abyss. I walked up two sets of them at different times, but I would have given almost anything to have let go of my dignity and crawled. On the last step to solid flooring, I tripped and for a horrifying moment or two thought I would fall.

As I walked around, I encountered people I thought I knew, like Lynn(e) P. I was confused, uncertain, and addle about whether they were from high school or college, or if they were there as friends of classmates. I didn't meet anyone I really wanted to see.

I started to worry about missing the train as I didn't know when it was leaving or how to get back to it. I saw what appeared to be an exodus and tried to recognize someone so I could be sure that it was safe to follow them. Suddenly, I lost the entire crowd. I was alone in the strange building with the terrifyingly tiny suspended iron steps.

I heard someone who tried to reassure me, but it was too late. My trust was no more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Our lady of October

Nothing makes me soar like a full October moon.

Not even city lights can diminish her rising glory.

She illuminates the faint wisps of clouds that try to veil her face.

Powerless, they reflect back her glow until she fills the sky.

It’s a perfect night for spirits. Ghosts. Mysteries.

Erotic love.

Soul-bending erotic love.

Shivering naked on the cool, damp earth.

Sharply outlined in her dispassionate white rays.

Shadowy under the mischievously moving wisps.

Crying out to her face.

Bewitched.

Enchant me again.

While our lady keeps watch.

And spirits roam, seeking a place to lie.

Moleskine alternatives at Black Cover

Check out this site which is dedicated to finding Moleskine alternatives. I’m shilling to win a contest, so please visit and boost my chances.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I want to grow up—or do I?


As if two hours of waiting, diagnostic mammograms, and ultrasounds were not exciting enough for one day, last Saturday evening (October 4) I met my first college roommate, H (an ENT); her husband T (a radiologist); and her sister, Ta (a dentist) at Tavern on Rush. I’d come home from the hospital thinking I didn’t have quite enough time to go to Bonjour and relax, but I found enough to shower and to nap. Light napping is how I keep my sanity in this surreal world.

It’s not that I had to brace myself for a social ordeal. Although I had not met Ta, H and T are easy to get along with, and all I need is a somewhat interesting conversation and someone willing to carry most of it. As long as I don’t have to fill in the silences or cover the gaps in my knowledge, I’m content.

It turns out that this early October trip to Chicago had a purpose—to celebrate H’s 46th birthday. Should I have noted that lately I’ve celebrated my birthday by getting out of Chicago?

They reminded me of an incident I had forgotten and that I can’t believe H remembers—I gave her a half can of beer, which made her drunk. In fact, she claims she passed out. I don’t recall that part, but I’d thought she had been acting snookered. I was assured that it was not an act, just as T was about to order the wine.

What had happened to my serious, studious roommate who one day had woken up at 2:00 a.m., peered miserably at her alarm clock, chided me in Vietnamese, and hurriedly dressed in her sweater-and-jeans uniform, all before I could persuade her that she wasn’t about to miss an important class on her medical doctor journey?

There she was, mother of four girls, dressed in a stylish suit, heels, and glasses, downing wine without obvious impairment—and enjoying it.

During a discussion about sleep apnea, she told Ta she should learn how to make some device for her patients because it’s not hard to do, insurance pays for it, and it makes money. Here was a pragmatic side I had never seen.

The conversation turned to H and T’s children, none of whom seem inclined to follow the medical call—to the great disappointment of their parents. Indeed, one wants to become a graphic designer, perhaps without fully understanding what that is.

“It’s okay as a hobby,” Ta declared, as all dismissed graphic design’s potential as gainful employment. They looked to me for my opinion. Uh-oh. “It’s competitive,” I stumbled. “If you’re talented, you can do well.”

“She’s very good at math and science,” they reassured themselves, still hoping the light would dawn.

“People can be critical of your work; everyone’s a graphic design expert,” I added. Aha! “She doesn’t take criticism at all well.” “No, she couldn’t handle that.” “It’s a good hobby.”

Not for the first time I realized how little I know about many of the people I know—their likes, dislikes, aspirations, fears, and motivations. I thought, and I may have been right at the time, that my roommate studied to be a physician because that's what her father (a physician) wanted her to do. She was committed to becoming a doctor, but if there was passion under all the effort I never sensed it. Even now I wonder if the love of being a doctor is practical, a psychological adaptation to the reality. I also wonder if their viewpoint is entirely practical—if one is "good at math and science," then medicine offers a mostly secure future for the competent. But I do not know what it is about it that they love. It will be interesting to see if any of the daughters continue the tradition and the careers that they do pursue.

Inevitably, politics came up, and H said their youngest daughter is terrified that her parents will vote for Obama and that he will be elected. "He will take all of our money away," she worries. But she has an even greater reason for thinking Obama is evil incarnate. "He smokes!" she exclaims. Even now, I remember being young enough to think smoking revealed lack of character—even though my parents and many of my relatives were smokers. All I could say, only partly tongue in cheek, was, "Perhaps it's time to teach her critical thinking skills so she can see beyond the campaign rhetoric and media distortions." In fairness, it's not just children who have barely reached double digits in age who think Obama is going to take all the money away—that is, from anyone who has any left.

Before Obama takes away their money, though, they'd spent much of the day shopping at outlet stores in Aurora. Later, as we walked toward Michigan Avenue, they discussed the work of several prominent designers (few of whom I recognized). Here was another new perspective for me—the sweater-and-jeans-clad, serious medical student had become a fashion plate. Perhaps she had always had the potential, and adulthood and prosperity had drawn out her inner clothes horse.

After we parted and Ta had driven me home, I thought about how each generation ends up very much like the previous one, taking perhaps slightly different paths to the same place—marriage, career, children, and middle-class values, combined with an understanding that they'd known their destination all along. It is I who never had any goals or purpose in life and who never knew that I should or what those goals should be. I keep waiting for rather than seeking an answer that never comes. While everyone I knows leads carefully arranged lives in carefully arranged homes, I still live like a college student—day to day, amid the random clutter accumulated over my lifetime. My apartment looks more like a dorm room than a showcase home, and I don't see that changing no matter how long I live.

And still I am waiting—waiting to grow up.

Dream: Exotic Reno resort plus

I was watching a documentary that may have been about a contest to win a stay at an "exotic Reno resort." The program focused on a couple who seemed to be the bane of the staff's working lives. They had four rules of behavior, and the husband publicly accused the wife of breaking one. "What do you mean, I'm not friendly?" she screeched at him in the lobby. I thought, "What an odd rule #4!"

The desk clerk was shown tacking their messages, called "graffiti," to a bulletin board and complaining that, while they had accumulated many, they never collected them. The viewer was supposed to be upset by the futility of trying to deal with such an unreasonable couple. I thought, "If the staff feels that way, they should just hand their 'graffiti' to them." I didn't understand the issue.

At the back of my mind, the beaches and palm trees, combined with "exotic Reno resort," puzzled me.
* * * * *
My dad had remarried, and he and his wife had had two children, a boy and a girl. I didn't live at home, so they didn't bother me. When I returned, though, something about them and the situation horrified me. "How could you?" I kept asking. He took the rhetorical question seriously and literally and said almost apologetically, "If you leave it alone a while, it works."

In my mind, I treated his actions as though they were fresh and an affront to my mother's recent memory, but as I was about to say, "She's been gone only _____," it hit me hard that she had been gone more than 25 years. I couldn't believe it. I felt as though I had just seen her.

As I woke up, I understood that the children, both under 10, were normal, and I'd felt alienated and violated. I went out and looked up into the half-lit apocalyptic sky.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Two kinds of autumn


What a glorious weekend—sunny and in the 60s and 70s. Late Saturday morning I made my usual trek to Bonjour to find the annual used book sale had broken out. There was no outdoor seating left, so I bypassed Bonjour and went to the hardware store and Treasure Island, but didn't have time to look at books. J. suggested that he pick me up at the shopping center later, so I arrived a few minutes early and hurriedly selected a couple of books—The World of the Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose ed. by E. D. H. Johnson and Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis.

J. and I headed to the Chicago Botanic Garden at around 3:00 p.m. The trees are perhaps not quite at peak color, but I'm not sure that we can count on sunny, shirt-sleeve weather for much longer.

After visiting the gift shop (a must for J.), we found the orchid show and sale in the Regenstein Center. Brutally, I dissuaded J. from buying any orchids by telling him they require a special environment and care. I don't think they're easy to maintain, and I don't like to see him disappointed when his plants succumb. He settled for taking many photos of the show plants as well as a couple in front of the plants. One orchid in particular appealed to me—the bloom was a cream color with green stripes. J. was amazed by the diversity, but I'm not sure he understood why I said orchids can be very sexual in addition to showy. I chose to leave that a mystery.

We walked through the Krasberg Rose Garden, which is a sad shadow of what it had been two or three weeks ago. J. still found roses to admire among the survivors, and I spotted one or two bumble- and honeybees among the flowers—how different from a couple of months ago, when the flowers at the Morton Arboretum were loaded with pollen-laden bees.

Unusually for me, I miss summer already.

As we walked toward the Waterfall Garden (one of my favorite features), I noticed a man with a camera pointed toward an island and followed his gaze. A little blue heron was standing erect at the water's edge, senses focused on securing a fish or frog. To its left, a black bird was walking around, probably having just come out of the water. Something about it made me think of an anhinga—perhaps it looked unusually wet or waterlogged. I was thrilled when it hopped onto the rock, turned its back to the sun, and spread its wings. The only place I'd seen an anhinga was at our community in Lantana, Florida. Of course, in this area, it would be a species of cormorant, which I’d never seen.

While Canada geese flew over, trumpeter swans floated across the distant water, and J. happily drained his battery and filled his card with photos and videos, a man asked me what everyone was looking at. It's possible some people were simply enjoying the vista, one of the best at the garden and currently very colorful. I pointed out the two birds, explaining as much as I could recall of their habits (I was still thinking of an anhinga, although I was sure that was wrong). He chatted effortlessly for quite a while until, aware of time passing, I pushed J. toward the waterfall, and the man's own companion joined him. Again I found myself wondering why I could not attract such attention when I was young, when it could have increased my social circle and my now perpetually low confidence level.

We climbed to the top of the waterfall, whose roar found competition in the late afternoon air; the strains of "As Time Goes By" played on a piano wafted up from a wedding party in the English Walled Garden.

At the top, we saw a woman in a wheelchair, which made me curious; often I had wondered if there were disabled access to the waterfall. As we walked behind it, I saw a sign, which we followed to another garden I'd wanted to see—the Dwarf Conifer Garden. The disabled have access to the waterfall via a path up its slope.

In this garden, there are tiny conifers growing even between the stair steps. When I saw a larch, I couldn't help saying in significant tones, "The larch. The larch" (Monty Python). Just beyond was an incredible weeping Norway spruce. "Look," I said, "it's pining for the fjords." Did I really say that? Several times?

This took us to what I think is the English Oak Meadow, which was also on my wish list—it's on what passes for a "hillside" in this part of Illinois. While we were taking photos of each other and not understanding the temperamental vagaries of the cameras flash (now it does, now it doesn't), a couple came along, and the man offered to take a photo of us together. He snapped several and pointed out that they were off center "to add tension." I favor the more artistic approach, although I'm not sure I'd call it "tension." I've found that it can be difficult to get even people who should know better not to center either photography or art.

By now the sun was low, so after J. took a brief detour through a wedding party's reception area to get photos from the water's edge and I used their candlelit bathroom, we found the Buehler Enabling Garden that I had enjoyed so much last month. Alas, the goldfinches and hummingbirds are gone, and to my surprise the garden had been entirely replanted. I'm not sure that anything was left of the summer flora and foliage. The autumn twilight suited the new look.

Both of us loved the garden's mischievous fountains. Sometimes they bubble deceptively sedately; sometimes each of the outlets shoots up a jet of water in an offbeat rhythm of varying pattern. We pictured someone leaning over one of the fountains in its quietly bubbling phase only to be caught unawares as it changes mode and shoots a jet of water into the face. I was tempted to try it.

After a last look at the Heritage Garden, we left as darkness was settling in and, after a few detours, official and otherwise, found Blind Faith Café in Evanston, a vegetarian restaurant we both love for the food and ambiance. During the wait J. sniffed out merchandise (T-shirts), and I decided not to leave without a piece each of vegan chocolate cake, chocolate peanut butter cake, and pumpkin pie. J. couldn't resist some side dishes, quiche, and muffins, and the owner bestowed a sixth T-shirt on him.

At my place, I found the Antiques Roadshow on demand, which was guaranteed to keep J. happy. In this edition, taped in Salt Lake City, Utah, a man who had indulged in a blond wood Fender guitar for $300 in 1961 discovered it is valued now at $50,000 to $60,000. The real winner of the night, however, was a woman who brought in her great-grandfather's personal memorabilia. He'd been a Mormon blacksmith, wine merchant, and actor who had known and corresponded with Brigham Young. His archive of letters, photos, paintings, etc., was estimated to have a value of $150,000 to $200,000. The woman reeled at the revelation. I always wonder if the person will sell for the money or hold onto it for sentimental reasons or in the hopes that it will appreciate even more. I know I'd invest in a fireproof, climate-controlled safe and an insurance policy.

This morning, I sat inside Bonjour (someone in front of me took the last outdoor table, alas) and listened to a conversation among an elderly man and woman and a young man. They moved from talking about political gaffes and the media, going back to John Adams, to discussing Netflix and the switch to digital TV. A typical Sunday morning conversation in Hyde Park.

Today the books have been marked down, and I bought five hard covers (Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser; Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment compiled by David G. Hartwell; H.M.S. Bounty: A True Account of the Famous Mutiny by Alexander Mckee; The World’s Best Poems ed. by Mark Van Doren and Garibaldi M. Lapolla, apparently printed in 1935 and with a faint old book odor; and Portrait of a Man with Red Hair: A Romantic Macabre by Hugh Walpole, apparently dating from 1925 and smelling strongly of mildew) for $3.75. They, and the rest of the formidable collection, should keep me occupied for several lifetimes. I suppose it is only when you have reached my age that you realize how short life is and how quickly it is getting shorter.

A date with Dr. Knee

Usually I can find some way to tag my doctors and other practitioners by the impression they make. The orthodontist was Dr. Pain, the ENT Dr. Sadist (what else can you call a man who says, "Step into my torture chamber here"?) I'm not sure what to call the latest character, an orthopedist. He didn't inflict pain or enjoy the thought, and he seemed genuinely kind. He has a lot of hair, but that doesn't really suit his specialty—the knee. So he, like my dentist, has ended up with a literal alias: Dr. Knee.

I knew from the address roughly where his office is, but didn't realize until the last minute at the Randolph bus stop that it's the building on the northwest corner of Michigan and Randolph with the solar energy collector roof shaped like a fountain pen nib. I'd never been inside the building except to visit a drugstore that used to be on the ground floor and the ATMs, so it was interesting to see a floor layout (geometrical, with lots of angles).

After completing reams of forms (including several questions about my mental stability—no, my knee has not driven me into the abyss of insanity), I was taken to exam room 4, the view from which is a Millennium Park fan's dream. As I waited I could see the Chicago Cultural Center’s green roof (now turning autumn colors); most of Millennium Park, with Cloud Gate (the "Bean") reflecting the mid-morning sun's rays; Shedd Aquarium plus Adler Planetarium at the end of the Museum Campus peninsula; and of course the sparkling blue and silver expanse of Lake Michigan. To the left lay the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the lawn structure resembling the intact metallic spine and ribs of an elongated dinosaur that died at rest in the park. Although I'm not fond of Millennium Park, I have to admit that it's beautiful in a very formal way when seen from above, and I felt healthier for the new perspective.

Dr. Knee appeared so I could confuse him with the date of my fall; I kept saying September when I meant August, and I caught my mistake only when he said, "So this happened only a couple of weeks ago?" I proceeded to repeat my error several times. Apparently the glare of the sun off Cloud Gate had gotten to me, and both of our heads were spinning.

Finally we straightened out what had happened, when, and with what NSAID it had been treated. I added, somewhat as an aside, that the affected left knee is painful when I walk down stairs, which got his attention more than the small amount of swelling left from the fall and the NSAID treatment.

After straightening, bending, and feeling my knew, none of which bothered me, he indicated that the pain on stairs was more of a long-term concern and that, if not dealt with now, it would result in more serious problems later. He sent me down the hall for X-rays. By now, with the UFE, two sets of dental X-rays, and a screening and a diagnostic mammogram within the past month, I wonder if I glow in the right lighting or click near certain instruments.

The technician took front, side, and top views. For the side view, he mounted the stool and demonstrated the correct position while I tried not to laugh and failed. It was a classic artist's model pose, one leg in front of the other like Mercury about to take off beautifully. I tried to repress another laugh as I imagined what I must look like, pant legs rolled up above the knee, an enormously fat Olympian captured on film mid-glide. The final view, from the top, required me to lie down with my knees bent and my fat thighs and ankles pressed tightly together. Owww.

Then it was back to the room with a view. The conclusions were simple: I have about 5 cc worth of prepatellar fluid, which to both of us is not worth worrying about in the absence of pain or infection. Physical therapy, which I signed up for beginning in early November, will strengthen the left knee and help to prevent or alleviate the future problems. He prescribed another month of meloxicam to help reduce the residual swelling. Of course he recommended weight loss. Apparently (even to me), my X-rays looked good except for some slight degeneration and loss of space probably due to weight—I won't deny it. I was surprised mostly to find that, after all they have been through, each of my knee caps is intact. I told him I walk as much as possible, and, although I'm not sure why, he pointed out that extreme sports, marathons, and the like (which he must be able to tell are not on my agenda) are not the best way to build strength in a weakened or injured knee. I'll remember that the next time I'm tempted to try a triathlon or climb a mountain.

So now I must give up my elderly woman crab walk down stairs. Coming up: finding out if physical therapy o a week knee is as painful as it is on a shoulder with impingement syndrome.

Dr. Knee ended by dictating his report as I stood there. The last orthopedist I'd gone to, Dr. Shoulder, also dictated a report, but not in front of me—I overheard him as I was checking out. Perhaps because I was right there, Dr. Knee was especially flattering, describing me as "young" and "somewhat overweight" (respective translations: "middle aged" and "extremely morbidly obese").

My knees are in relatively good shape, and I feel like I have been granted second, even third chances, numerous times to preserve my health. Today, Sunday, despite what could be the monthly visitor and the discomfort it brings (since the UFE, I haven't been quite sure if this qualifies as the monthly), I feel good and walked briskly (for me) to Bonjour this morning.

On Dr. Knee's advice, however, I bypassed today's Chicago Marathon. It's not good for my knee.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Creatures of habit

For the most part, the human being is a creature of habit. Intuitively, I’ve always known this, but now and then circumstances remind me how deeply programmed we are to stick with the routines that we are comfortable with and that make us feel in control and safe.

I observed the power that routine has over us a couple of years ago when I enrolled in a short story writing course. A number of tables were arranged to form an open square, with the instructor in the middle of the head table. Everyone else could sit where they chose. An older woman selected a spot near the instructor; later she mentioned that she has a hearing problem, so her choice was based on a reason. I sat in one of the chairs left when I came in without giving it much thought, as did everyone else, or so I assumed.

When I walked in the next week, however, those who had arrived earlier were sitting in the same seats as they had the week before, and those who followed headed without hesitation for their previous chairs. I made a comment about this and how I was determined to break the pattern every week. The reaction? A self-conscious, nervous titter and a few deprecating remarks. It was odd to see so many adults who couldn’t get past the assigned seating mentality of elementary school.

At work I’ve noticed the same behavior at meetings, whether the group is large (20 or more) or small (6). Each person gravitates to the same area of the table, and the same seat he or she always chooses if available. Some of this can be explained by social relationships—people who are friends herd together—but not all.

Lately two women who lunch together in the second-floor café have drawn my attention. The younger woman invariably faces east, the older woman west. I’ve yet to see them vary the pattern—a pattern of which they may not even be conscious.

Habit and routine—I suppose they are at least partly a reaction to the uncertainties of daily life. I may not know what kind of mood my boss will be in, but I can control my morning routine of coffee at 5:30 a.m. and shower at 6:00 a.m. I may be caught in traffic, but if I’m lucky I’ll get “my” spot. And at the end of the day I can sit in my place at my short story writing class. It’s there for me (unless Diane takes it).

Growing up, my understanding was that my father favored the Democratic party because he thought it favored the working man, while I was told my mother voted Republican because that’s what her father had done. (Yes, Mom voted for Richard Nixon.) Although some policies or postures may have interested them more than others—for example, my dad followed anything to do with Social Security—politically both were creatures of habit, voting less on specific issues of the time than in their personal comfort zones.

I suspect that’s exactly how most Americans vote—as much from habit as conviction. While the habit formed around the conviction, that’s what makes it that much harder to break the habit and periodically re-examine the convictions more critically. Emotionally, it’s like sitting in the same seat and using the same parking space. It’s comfortable, and nonthreatening. "Straight ticket" voting even makes it easy.

This year's election, however, seems to have thrown voters off. The unfriendly rivalry between Obama and Clinton left many of her supporters embittered. McCain isn't conservative enough for some, and his choice of Sarah Palin, her questionable suitability, and her political baggage have left some moderate Republicans shaking their heads and confiding to family and friends that this may be the year that they have to vote the other way. Change, even undefined change, is the new vision.

The habit of voting emotionally without thought or reflection is hard to recognize and harder to break without a compelling reason; smokers don't quit until they become short of breath, or their chest X-rays don't look right—and not even then. It's taken an expensive, now unpopular war, an economic crash, and a bleak outlook to rock our complacency. The "winner" will be left with the equivalent of a shattered chandelier, a glue stick, a ticking clock, and orders to "fix it." There are only two choices to perform the impossible. If there's any time to put aside our usual thought patterns and prejudices and to carefully consider who is more likely at least to pick up the pieces, this is that time.

Don't just punch. Think. Think hard. Think hard again. Think about the long term. And then punch.

Because how bright the future is depends on the choices we make. Don't make them from unthinking habit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dream: Witness to murder

I was at a party at EL’s house, which surprised me by its size and mysteriousness; it reminded me of the house I dream that my late aunt in Bellwood had. I was also intrigued by how she had come by it and how she could afford it. It was nothing like her first modest suburban home I’d known.

JT arrived, and at first I thought to avoid her because I thought she was still angry with me. We ended up on a ride together that went around the top floor on rails. The destination was an author’s book signing, but I was told I must meet this person and tell him (her?) about my great story ideas—except that I don’t have any.

At first we inched toward the booth because the author was so popular. Subtly, the ride began to accelerate and to fly in higher and higher circles. Just as I was sure I would be flung into the heights and die, it stopped near the ceiling. To extract me, the rescuers had to remove my clothes and cover me with hand and bath towels.

I found a tiny little shirt I thought belonged to the daughter of a former co-worker, but she didn’t seem interested. I saw then that it had become a beautiful sweater dress. In the meantime, a little boy kept trying to peer down the back of my pants. Irritated, I looked for his parents, but none were to be seen. His actions and the fact he was getting away with them appalled me as I considered the ramifications of disciplining him myself.

I was on a boat, and with each circuit of the bay it seemed to get larger; the deck rose high above the water’s surface. This alone would have frightened me, but I also noticed that the ship was in pursuit of a young woman. Her name flashed through my mind. The ship, which felt like it was flying faster and faster like the rail ride, was forcing her into a defenseless position. I wanted to tell everyone what was happening, but fear silenced me. I looked down and saw her apparently crushed against a wall. Perhaps it was then I knew who was the villain behind the scheme and lost some of my fear. I tried to tell the others, but they didn’t believe me. All they knew was that they were having fun on a cruise to nowhere.

By talking to them, I had revealed my knowledge, so the villain tried to corner me in a parking lot. As terrified as I was, I sensed that I would escape—and that his victim’s name and my silence would haunt me always.

Finally, he trapped me but I avoided being crushed. He got out of the vehicle and approached me, but I felt that he would have to get close to me to kill me and that he had no physical advantage over me.

I saw a tiny needle in his hand and knew I had to avoid it. We struggled, and he pricked me slightly, but I rationalized that this would not hurt me. I gained partial control of the needle or needles and pricked him back several times—enough to save myself. As I did, I realized that now I was the one committing murder. I felt sad.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Asymmetry

I'm writing this at Argo Tea at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where I just spent two hours in the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. I've finished eating cheese quiche and am enjoying the pumpkin chai far too much. (To my taste, almost anything benefits from pumpkin.) Life is better because after three additional views and the ultrasound, and pending obtaining past films from Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, the radiologist thinks my breasts are merely asymmetrical. This would not surprise me; I suspect my whole body is off. Even my ears, which are slightly offset, are different shapes. Nobody is perfect.

The verdict is: "Your exam shows findings with a high probability of being benign (non-cancerous). Short-term follow up is recommended."

How reassuring.

While I was waiting in the chair nearest the door, an elderly Asian woman tottered in on the technician's arm. I shifted over a chair so she could have the closest chair before she fell. She told me why she has trouble walking (broken hip). In fact, for the next 5–10 minutes, before she was called, she regaled me with her medical history and much of her late husband's, down to which hospital (when she could remember). I listened sympathetically, without a word, which seemed to be an acceptable response.

But before I reach my neighbor's age, I want to train myself in some interpersonal communications habits because I don’t want to fall into the same trap (which I’m stuck halfway in now):

  • Contribute no more than 50 percent of the conversation, whether measured in time, words, or subject matter. This should be easy for an introvert in a world of extroverts, but I can see how easy it is to forget.
  • Discuss health matters only if they are of interest to the other party, for example, if they are having or have had the same procedure, they want to know about the doctor or hospital, etc. It's not necessary to explain every groan or ache.
  • Make sure that most of what I say is relevant to the other party and that they will take away something worth remembering or worth repeating.

After the mammogram, I returned to the waiting room, followed by the woman who had come in at the same time as I had. A woman reading a magazine on the sofa gave her several pointed, staring looks. I would have thought she recognized her as her husband's mistress or first wife, given her facial expression. Then she looked down at the woman's green patent leather shoes for several moments, followed by a perusal of her own zippered brown leather boots. "What is that about?" I wondered, as I observed the observer and the observed.

I was now sitting on the side opposite a wall magazine rack, where Time's "The Republicans" special issue caught my eye partly because John McCain's head was floating against a dark background in the sinister way that too many graphic designers favor as "cool." Even worse, however—the wooden slat of the magazine rack was blindfolding McCain, masking his face from his eyebrows to his nostrils. The effect? The perfect Ian Fleming/James Bond villain, about to sneer and say, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

Never mind the woman glaring bitterly at the woman in green patent leather shoes. What goes through my mind?