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.

Nuts.

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

Hibernation

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.

JANUARY

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.

FEBRUARY

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?
Yes.

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. ;)

MARCH

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.

APRIL

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?
Yes.

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

5. Your birthday is in April isn't it?
No.

6. Anything special in April?
Sometimes Easter.

MAY

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.

JULY

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.

AUGUST

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.

SEPTEMBER

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.

OCTOBER

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.

NOVEMBER

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.

DECEMBER

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.