Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dream: It’s complicated, or dream in three acts

While walking down a theater aisle, I spotted TB for the first time in months. As I passed by, I quoted a line from a play in the voice or intonation of Orson Welles—or I hoped I did. That should have gotten his attention. Immediately I wondered if I also looked like Welles and what I had been thinking—that he would fall for the same kind of talent and abilities I do? In these dreams, I try to impress him and others with what I like.

I was wearing a light cotton housecoat when I realized I was standing in the middle of a road at night, and a car was coming. I ducked into my closet, which was right up against the narrow, shoulderless road, and tried to pull the housecoat around me and shut the door, but the coat wouldn’t fit around my breasts. The car passed within inches of me, and I felt shaken by nearly being hit and seen.

I heard a former boss from PwC come along with someone. They talked about moving some files in the closet on the other side. There was nowhere for me to go.

I went back to the hospital for a third procedure/second surgery and ran into T. F. F. while waiting. I felt ambivalent about this, but when he tried to be apologetically affectionate, perhaps even sexy, I didn’t like it. I left to find a bathroom, but everything was strange, with no doors or distinct toilets.

After passing through the corridors, I came upon a plaza of quaint stores like those in Wheaton, Long Grove, and Geneva. Now I was confused. I went back the way I thought I had come, but I was lost. Finally, I saw someone to ask for directions, but when I followed them I ended up in what appeared to be a fancy drawing room with no other exit. It was nothing like a hospital.

By now, I was panicking that I’d been called for surgery while I had been wandering, and a little worried that T. F. F. would think I had run off. I was anxious because I believed this surgery was critical to my survival, and that I’d walked out on my last chance for life (surgery) as well as a renewed friendship that I no longer had much interest in. All I could think was, “It’s complicated,” but I did not want to explain why.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dream: Racing donkeys

[Afternoon nap.]

Someone was driving when I noticed he was about to hit the stop sign at the edge of the grass. It fell over, so I got out to restore it while explaining to the driver why I hadn't been able to make my mouth work to warn him. The bottom of the sign seemed to fit in a stand I found in the grass, and I set both on the corner. As I did, I noticed that the stand would fit perfectly into a compartment on a hitch on the back of a parked car, so I set both the stand and sign there instead. Something didn't seem right, and I realized that when the car drove off the stand and sign would go with it. That didn't make sense.

Somehow I was lured out of my apartment, which was taken over by sinister-looking boys. Through the windows they threatened me with lollipops, then threw them at me when I seemed determined to get in. I threw them back, wondering if they were poisonous or explosive.

I was terrified of them.

While I was walking behind a cow, a hand reached out from under its tail and grabbed mine. At first I thought little of this, but it held mine more and more firmly as the cow tried to lead me somewhere, I knew not where.

This happened several times with other animals, including a donkey. Each succeeding hand held mine more tightly, making each harder and harder to get away from. The animals, if that's what they were, and the hands were trying to lead me somewhere bad for me. I never found out where, although I was very curious.

With someone I was watching similar farm animals and camels burst into racing speed for a short distance, then stop. We analyzed their movements, which were coordinated and graceful and contributed to the surprising speed they attained. We learned it was due to the influence of alcohol.

I woke up afraid, especially of the hands.

Monday, December 21, 2009

That girl

I’m on the Pennsylvanian. As a result of being among the last one-third to board, I found myself next to a young woman who is one of those nervous, self-centered pieces of work you don’t want to find yourself next to. The train was clearly going to be full; by the time I got on, there were few empty seats left. She had all her bags piled onto the seat next to her and had settled in comfortably with earbuds in when I disturbed her peace by rudely tapping her to get her attention when she missed my initial hail.

“WHAT?” she exclaimed.

“Is anyone sitting here?” I repeated.

Instead of replying, she huffed and sighed heavily, collected her bags, and flung them disgustedly onto the upper rack across the way. Clearly, she had expected to have the only empty seat on the train to herself. Meanwhile, I smiled beatifically at the people in the line behind me, who of course were waiting for her and me to get out of their way so they could find seats, too. I had spared them from my newly discovered Center of the Universe.

I took my coat off and sat on it. Apparently, a cord must have been nearly touching her through her layered clothing, akin to the pea bothering the princess through many mattresses, because she abruptly suggested that, if I weren’t going to actually wear it, I put it overhead. “It’s . . .” within an inch of her person!

When the conductor came through to collect tickets, she seemed taken by surprise. As she rummaged frantically through her bag searching for tickets and ID, she jabbed me a dozen times or more with her flailing elbow, which, oddly, didn’t bother her given her sensitivity to touch and wasn’t supposed to bother me. Later, as she read and tossing her hair, it was all I could do not to say to her in the same nervously fussy tone she’d used on me, “Would you mind not shaking your head like that? Your dandruff and vermin are, like, you know . . .” Eventually, after I’d dozed off, she woke me up to trounce off somewhere, which gave me the opportunity to plug in my iPhone, which gave her the opportunity to harumph when she demanded her seat back. After that, I left her with her space and mine all to herself.

My Christmas wish for her: The maturity and the wisdom to understand that she is no more significant than the 7 billion other humans with whom she shares Planet Earth. And the few dozen with whom she shares an Amtrak car.

I’m not holding my breath.

All aboard the Capitol Limited

I’m on the train from Chicago to Pittsburgh, where after a wait I’ll catch another train into Altoona. If all goes well—it sometimes does—I’ll arrive in about 12 hours. I preferred the old days of the direct route, the Broadway Limited, but there you have it. In these days of the convenience of 24-hour shopping and the handheld smartphone, the direct route has been eliminated, a tactic that makes life worse, not better, well, at least for me. Although I suppose some could and would say that 24-hour shopping and smartphones aren’t really a step forward, either. I’m on the fence.

I was lucky to get a seat on the Superliner’s lower level. There are two great things about this: (1) you don’t have to drag your luggage up the steep, narrow stairs, and (2) you don’t have to negotiate the same steep, narrow stairs at all hours of the night to use the downstairs facilities, a more important factor for me when I had 2.3 pounds of deadweight fibroid flattening my bladder. I’m finding another benefit now—so far, there have been only one or two others here on the lower level, depending on the stage of the journey. (We just picked a third person up.)

There seems to be a high number of urchins aboard tonight. Two in particular have caught my attention: Levi and Rose. I know their names because they’ve been running around, blocking the steps, and bumping into people, and their ineffectual father keeps admonishing them by name, loudly, and giving them orders, both of which they ignore. When told to sit, they did, but that lasted for less than a minute, about the same as the dogs I’d seen ordered to sit and stay at the veterinarian’s office the day before. Earlier, the same man had told me that he was going to be first into the café car because his kids need to eat, spoken as though their lives depended upon it. Most parents who travel with their children on the train seem to know the “rules”—bring plenty of entertainment, food, and drink. Clearly, no one had filled him in, and he had not figured it out on his own. Another reminder that parenting doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

The other person I noticed was a nerdy young man, perhaps 30, reading a photocopied article and penciling in notes. I caught references to Kierkegaard and something about the Christian religion’s basis on faith, not philosophy—my awkward and perhaps inaccurate paraphrase. What would he have said if I had observed, “That’s a rather narrow viewpoint of Christianity, don’t you think?” Philosophical though he may be, he didn’t ignore his bodily needs, making at least two trips for food—clearly not an ascetic philosopher.

I started to write a letter and before I knew it, my iPhone was showing the time change and the train was nearly to Ohio. Probably by 11:30 p.m., I was sound asleep, having woken up a few times to adjust position, but not waking with an urgent need to go. I was startled when the conductor tapped me awake outside Pittsburgh, and almost as startled to notice that more people had boarded without disturbing me. Here at the Pittsburgh train station, waiting for the Pennsylvanian to Altoona, I’m mostly startled to feel refreshed. Here’s another recommendation for successful overnight train travel: earplugs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Parting shots

During a mid-afternoon CNN program, one of the pundits being interviewed said emphatically, almost indignantly, "The Tiger Woods story is now a story for People magazine, not a story for the news magazines." He'll get no argument from me. So why is it the topic of a panel on CNN? A panel that admits this?

Of all the important issues that could and should be engaging our minds, capturing our emotions, and challenging our imaginations, we are reduced to gawking at a golfer and his infidelities.

Accenture, the consulting firm, dropped Woods, prompting the question, "What does golf have to do with business consulting?" The answer is, of course, nothing—unless the idea is that some c-suite executive somewhere is supposed to see Woods and think, "Tiger's a winner. Accenture must be a winner." If the c-suite learns about and chooses a consultant based on its sports celebrity spokesperson, why are we surprised so much of American business is a mess?

Years ago, in a previous work life, we the people (employees) received a memo from the partnership that would have been breathless if e-mail and paper could respirate. The gist was that we're excited (as excited as dry consultants, accountants, and actuaries can be) to announce that we've bought some of that exorbitantly priced commercial air time during the Super Bowl to promote brand awareness of the firm.

We the people weren't quite on board with the excitement. Like virtually every employee in the country, we felt overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated, and here we are, encouraged to be enthused about millions of dollars spent on a Super Bowl commercial—not for the beer, junk food, or consumer products traditionally beloved of football fans, but for business consulting services that only a handful of viewers would have the power to authorize, even if they were interested. A handful who, if they weren't at the game or watching it at some exclusive gathering, were, like everyone else, at home with clicker/remote/changer in hand, ready to take a booze or biology break. True, many watch the commercials in hopes of seeing something mildly creative, clever, or amusing. I'm not convinced that this is where or how your better executives start to form or solidify their opinions of potential consulting partners—except perhaps as nonstrategic spendthrifts.

I could be very wrong, of course. From my perspective, the c-suite may as well be an alternative universe inhabited by bearded Spocks and be-daggered Uhurus.

With that in mind, I'm off to a place that, if not home, is more comfortable—and more habitable.

Merry Christmas and happy new year.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden

These photos are from a Friday trip with J. to the the Chicago Botanic Garden to see Wonderland Express, about which I knew nothing. The walk through Chicago in natural miniature was followed by dinner with another friend at Don Roth’s Blackhawk in Wheeling and an evening of art and conversation over coffee. A walking tour of Tuscany or Scotland would be grand, but in the meantime life, or at least my life, doesn’t get better than this.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thanksgiving week plus in review

In his travels, J. had spotted a sign for Settlers’ Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, so off we went last Sunday, the 22nd. Traditionally, this event is held the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Settlers’ Day is a little hard to describe. We missed most of the planned activities, which I’d guess were geared toward families. When we arrived, we checked out a wall of photos from the event 35 years ago, featuring Girl Scouts and the dual names of the now-married women. The photos looked familiar—the glasses, the hair, the way the color had faded—and I told J. that those girls are now about our age, give or take a year or two. It struck me again how like a lifetime ago that period seems to me, yet sometimes how like the most vital part of my life.

Much of the visitor center’s back room was devoted to vendors, including wildlife photographer Joe Nowak. I bought an amazing pencil holder from his neighbor while a horde of little beasts delved into crafts at a long series of tables across the way.

Outdoors several tents and stands had been set up. At one, people dressed in what seemed to be an odd mix of Revolutionary War-era garb were roasting long spits speared through numerous birds over a pit, while pots in another pit simmered with what one man, obviously not the cook, thought were succotash and other vegetables.

For some reason, nothing else grabbed me until I arrived at the Civil War, a small display of replica guns (with one original, a carbine), shells, balls, swords, Bowie knives, and paraphernalia such as binoculars. And, of course, hard tack. One of the men was talking to a boy about balls, cannons, canisters, and the like, so I suggested he describe the virtues of hard tack. When he mentioned weevils floating to the top of the coffee in which the hard tack had been dipped, the boy scrunched his face and turned away. A few harmless insects were more horrifying than all those mangled and severed limbs and decapitated heads.

I found that these guys recounted the horrors of war with great relish, gloating over the technological advancements that made it possible to maim and kill more and more men in more and more terribly efficient ways. He described the effects of canisters with tremendous enthusiasm, as well as the effects of soft lead bullets on bone; instead of breaking cleanly, which could be set, the bone shattered or split along its length—hence, as he pointed out, the necessity to resort to amputation.

While I was there, I checked out three rehabilitated red-tailed hawks in a nearby cage and heard the story of how a female with a damaged wing escaped, crawling along the ground until a staff person nabbed her with a sweatshirt. I know why the caged bird doesn’t fly.

As the program was being shut down, we went for a very brief walk and discovered tombstones along the trail—part of the day’s “wagon train hikes.”

And so, after some fruitless driving around and discussion, we backtracked and ate at Outback.

For Thanksgiving I roasted a 2.75-pound turkey breast and steamed/heated a few basics, while J. caught up on sleep during Some Like It Hot. I am pleased to report that, to date, no one has fallen ill, not even Hodge, who knocked over the trash so he could lick the turkey breast package.

Saturday the 28th dawned in the 30s, but heated up into the unseasonably warm 50s. At last we made it to Lincoln Marsh in Wheaton. The people who live nearby are fortunate to have this perfect spot for walking, with a bike path at hand. Within moments of heading down the trail, I regretted not bringing binoculars as I watched birds flit in the trees and bushes ahead.

Lincoln Marsh is not big, which I think made it feel manageable to J. He was fascinated b y the rustling of the grasses in the wind and other small sounds that are now out of the range of my damaged hearing, so I left him behind to enjoy them. Except for the occasional passing train or jet overhead, the area is surprisingly quiet, with very little ambient traffic noise—quite the idyllic spot, lovely even in the starkness of late fall.

I came to a place at the water’s edge across from which a pair of mallards was floating. The moment I sat, the pair changed course and set sail straight for me. My guess is that some visitors ignore the “do not feed the wildlife” rules. I’m not one of them, so my disappointed ducks had to resort to dabbling in the water.

Another duck had hit the water further out with a splash, then had started to quack harshly, sounding very like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin in the old Batman TV series. The original pair seemed startled by her abrupt arrival. By the time J. caught up with me, they had disappeared into the offshore grasses. I was whispering this to him and wondering what had become of the third duck when a mighty row of splashing and quacking broke out from the direction of the offshore grasses. It sounded like quite an altercation, and I half-expected a duck corpse or two to float out belly up at any moment. Gradually, all three reappeared, alive and well, the pair still inseparable and the third putting distance between herself and them. I couldn’t help anthropomorphizing based on what I’d observed—the second female was obviously a spurned mistress, desperately making one last attempt to break up her lover’s union. But the first female was standing (swimming) by her man, who was undoubtedly horrified that he’d ever let that harridan into their lives. Their discomfort at her arrival was palpable, and the tussle in the grasses sounded fierce. It was not an amicable split.

And you thought all ducks have to worry about are a few predators and guys with guns.

I spotted a woodpecker in the trees, but while I was trying futilely to take a photo, both J. and I heard an insistent tapping above us. Overhead, a second woodpecker intently pecked at some small upper branches. Walkers who came along paused as J. took photos, but even when they moved on apologetically, the bird remained unfazed and unmoved, ignoring all of us. When I moved around to the other side, I felt dead wood detritus raining on my head and face. At last the woodpecker flew off, but not because it had deigned to notice us.

Time was running out, so we walked to a nearby overlook with a little dock below—as it turned out, the perfect place from which to take photos of the sunset over the water. Two jet streams were being etched in the deepening blue of the sky overhead, while long, wispy pink clouds were reflected nearly perfectly in the marsh’s still waters. How could anything like holiday shopping and bustle compare to this moment at this place, where one could almost imagine the world when it was younger and less spoiled?

After a detour (closed roads having become a suburban feature here), we went to downtown Wheaton, making stops at It’s Our Earth, Graham’s Chocolates, and La Spiaza. This last is a Spanish café where the menu is written on the cabinets in chalk, and a bumper sticker says, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.” The cream and other necessities are arrayed on a vintage stovetop, artwork hangs on the walls, and coffee quotations adorn the privy. The young woman at the counter was friendly, helpful, and quirky, there’s live music on weekends, and the lighting bright enough to offset the early dark of November. I liked it.

At some point, I had observed that Geneva is 11 miles west of Wheaton. Little did I know that J., prompted by a co-worker, had developed a burning desire to visit Geneva. After a detour for photos of the old Wheaton courthouse (now Courthouse Square townhouses and condos) and a little back-and-forth (“Are you sure?”), we were on the way to Geneva, which, from the east, is at the bottom of what is called a hill in Illinois. Geneva looks like the quintessential Christmastown, USA, with frame house-like shops on streets decorated for the holidays. Outside one was an old, heavy-framed bicycle like the one my dad rescued from a junkyard when I was four or five years old, covered with large, softly muted vintage or vintage-style lights. For the nostalgic who remember Christmas less for shopping and more for the festive atmosphere, places like Wheaton and Geneva seem to be havens of respite.

Our first stop here was at the Graham’s café, which offered an opportunity to get another cup of pumpkin ice cream. When J. observed my choice, he bought me a pint for later. Mmm.

A man came in with two boys, who started to run up the stairs to the second floor with their goodies. Dad, who must have had a back or leg injury, told them to come back. “I don’t think I can make it up there,” he said. The second boy paused in his upward flight to say, “That’s okay; you can stay down here.” I did not catch Dad’s response, probably because he didn’t seem to have one. While he contemplated the independence of his young sons, we ate our ice cream by the unlit fireplace and admired the little touches that made the room interesting, like the tile patterns painted in the corners. I wonder if those two boys, and the other children and teenagers, will recall Graham’s fondly when they children of their own, and whether such places—combination contemporary café with WiFi/ice cream and sweet shop—will be around in 20 years. I wonder this because I’m guessing that so little of anything I remember remains, whether chain or family-owned shop.

We found Graham’s Chocolates a few houses down. I didn’t opt for a third pumpkin ice cream, but I did pick up a few more peanut butter cups. J. did, too, because later he told me how good they are. I could not agree more! I sense that there will be a second trip to Geneva in the future.

I hinted that a third visit to Bavarian Lodge would work for me. I think it’s the beer varieties that keep drawing me back. Our server from two weeks ago, he of the slyly left dessert menu, recognized us. He pointed out the irony of a German menu whose only soups were devoid of meat; he always has a comment. This time, he couldn’t talk us into dessert, even to go, although J. relented and asked for the menu, then didn’t order anything. Each of us is getting better about this. It’s unfortunate that our waistlines and scales aren’t rewarding our restraint (or attempts at it).

And so home, and home.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dream: Anxiety much?

Five days off, one day back to work, and already I've relapsed into the habit of falling asleep early, waking up in the wee hours, and nodding off lightly to have dreams filled with anxiety. In this edition, I was lying naked but wrapped in a blanket (as I actually was) in a strange bed, trying to sleep. This is where the line between reality and dream blurs.

I froze when the door opened, hoping not to be seen by the intruder. It proved to be my brother, who crawled into the bed next to me while I contemplated the strangeness of this strange place. I could see outdoors into the night.

Later, shaking with her irritation, my aunt asked me how I had missed hearing the phone ring. I listened to a long, rambling, almost incomprehensible message from HR about how I'd never received formal permission to take these three days off and how I would be subject not just to pay withholding and disciplinary action, but to dismissal as well.

By now, I sensed that everyone was angry with me.

I was on a train platform for the next stage of my journey when I realized the train not only was on the opposite track, but was going to pull out momentarily. Leaving everything behind, I ran up the stairs to cross to the other side. Once I was there, children ran down the stairs in front of me. I cursed them for slowing and blocking me, although they kept well ahead of me, and I knew I could not catch up with them.

The platform emptied of people abruptly as I arrived, so with a sinking feeling I knew the train was about to leave, and I marveled at myself because I had not brought my luggage.

I woke up weary.