Wednesday, December 31, 2008

one page later

Imagine you have one of these desk calendars. You rip out a page each day and either toss it or keep it, maybe because you think the cartoon is funny. In November you make a note to yourself to get a replacement for 09.

And now you’re on the last page and it’s about to go out the way of the others. Is this a cause for celebration? Apparently. I learned today that it is the single biggest drinking night of the year. Worldwide. Imagine – the world gets drunk because we’re switching from one pack of pages to the next.

That would be the cynical view. And I know many who live by it. None of this frenzied minute counting until midnight!

But, that’s not me. I’m with the partying crowd on this night. Not so much the dancing and carousing type of party, but a celebration nonetheless. In my book, that means eating well and having a glass of champagne on hand at midnight.

[Drinking too much is not in the books. Over ingestion of anything has such unpleasant effects that at my age, you want to keep such indulgence to a minimum. But I do remember one year where the meal was too long and the wine flight too bountiful and standing straight was a challenge. I was younger then.]

We (not Ed; predictably, he turns his back on revelry of any kind) start New Year's Eve day with a meal out. Since we are staying in Andersonville, once regarded as Chicago’s Swedish enclave…

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…we go to a place that serves Swedish pancakes. And these. Arguably Danish-like, but hey, why draw boundaries.

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Then we starve ourselves for the meal ahead. It’s a challenge. Especially since, as each year, I stop by at Pasticceria Natalina to pick up a treat for the guy back home. How can one resist Natalina’s??

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I reluctantly pass on the trays of pastries. Natalina says they need to be eaten by day’s end. Not possible. Or at least not advisable. But man oh man, sweet, charming Natalina, you are an amazing baker!

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The rest of the day goes by quietly. You can hear the clock tick. Minutes, lived, tossed away, replaced by the next set and the next. Soon we’ll hail a cab and go down to Suzy Crofton’s place on Wells. Where we’ll eat well, make frantic calls to friends and loved ones at midnight and drink that glass of champagne.

Happy new stack of pages. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Rarely does it happen that I mix up the years of my life in the way that I, coincidentally, mixed them up today. Distant past, future, present, recent past -- intensely jumbled in the scope of an afternoon. Weird!

I drove to Chicago for our family New Year’s get together. Nothing strange about that. We have done this, through the low and high tides of family life, since, oh, since my family was newly formed.

As I pulled up, a daughter asked if I would give her a ride to Hyde Park (in south Chicago). Sure.

Hyde Park. I lived in Hyde Park after I graduated from college. My very first apartment was in Hyde Park. Some of the worst years of my life were in Hyde Park. (Before they got significantly better.)

After dropping her off at her meeting place, I reviewed my options. It was still light outside. There is a lot here that I would like to walk through again. And reconsider, now, thirty years later.

No. Let me delay that. Let me find Obama’s home first. I’m up on change. Yes, we can!

Hyde Park Boulevard merges into 51st... and suddenly I know exactly where he lives – here:

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I park and walk around. I expected more patrol, but, he's not here today and anyway, I expect there are hidden cameras I’m not even aware of monitoring my movement. I pause by a cop car. May I take photos? Sure, unless you’re the enemy (he named the enemy; I prefer not to include their mention here).

So, how is it patrolling this part of Hyde Park? Better than my own district. Picking up kids that I know – that’s miserable.
It’s some house, isn’t it?
You should see the one next to his – huge!
It’s cool that he’ll keep it as his own…
Yeah, but they all do that, don’t they?

But keeping your home here – that’s so different than keeping your place in Crawford! Which, in the end, is not to be kept.

We looked at the house together, the two cops and I. This is Hyde Park as I remember it. A block of big mansions, ten blocks of scruffy housing, some more modern high rise apartments, and rows of very undistinguished townhouses.

Why did I hate it here so? Back in the seventies?

The University. At least once a week (this is so true), I have nightmares about this place (thirty years later!). And my inability to fit in. And my distractedness. And my losing hold. In real, non-dream life, I pulled myself up and out of that rat hole eventually. When I met my future husband and he and I paired up.

We got married here:

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A university chapel. Small, intimate. And for a while, it all made sense – why I should be here, why I should reside in this part of the world.

I walk into the Social Science building, the “tea room” where my ex and I first met. Locked now. It’s winter break. All around the quad, in fact, it's winter beak.

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I drive down toward the lake. Eventually, we would bring our daughters here. The museum, sure, and then here – to the Piccolo Mondo Restaurant.

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I want to pause for a drink, but it’s a meals only place and so I move on. To my former grocery store. Co-op. Used to be Co-op. I hear Obama shops here now. Or, he used to shop here. Me, I once bought cartons of ice cream and links of Polish sausage. Disgusting? No, dinner.

I pick up my daughter and we drive back to the northside. We comment on Chicago’s virtues. There are many. I did not see them thirty years ago. Or twenty years ago. And maybe it’s not the place for me. But I’m pleased that I once lived here. I had a yes we can attitude then. Maybe even more then than now.

In the evening, I call Ed and apologize for all that I threw his way just a few hours back. Eh, woman's stuff. He tells me. He has a very matter of fact approach to life.

Woman's stuff. Maybe. Maybe. More likely, my stuff.

Monday, December 29, 2008

house and home

Late last night, she put together her gingerbread house. We watched her, and we watched a movie, running in the background, and occasionally we picked stories and anecdotes from the Net – to toss around the room, to anyone who was not yet dozing.

This morning, they left me the gingerbread house.

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I looked at it all day long. (Soon, I’ll place it in a woodsy place, so that birds and beasts can get their share of holiday sweet stuff. I hope they’ll love it as much as I have loved it.)

And then I watched them go off – first, toward the Capitol -- for breakfast (Ed and I trailed behind)…

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…and then for real. You could shrug and say – so what? You’ll see them tomorrow in Chicago. And I will and it will be wonderful. But as I put away the last towel and I make a hospital corner out of the just washed sheets, as I store the two extra napkins and placemats, and return the drip coffee maker to its basement resting place, I don’t think about Chicago tomorrow, but instead, I think how they will next return here, to my condo, next summer and not before that.

And that is a sad thought.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

a post on a post-holiday Sunday

The last twenty-four hours of daughter visit. The tree must come down. I can’t take the idea of having a tree shaking off needles after the family has dispersed. Besides, in the next several weeks, I’m only fleetingly in Madison. And I like closure.

In the morning, when the house is quiet, I want to get to it. Off with the ornaments, Put away stockings, bells, wreaths, holiday dishes and glasses – all of it!

It is a huge job and part of me wishes I would wait for daughters to return from their outing so that I'd have help.

Ed watches. I think he cannot believe what a big production this entire holiday is. The challenge of a rugged path up a desolate mountain? No problem. This? Best to retreat and hide.

But he is there, on the floor, grunting, when the time comes to take the monster bush out. We cannot get the tree into the tree bag. We cannot get the tree out the door. Or down the elevator. Or round back to the recyclable room. There is a lot to curse about and I manage to cover the range.

The tree is out.

The clean up really begins.

All the way until sunset.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

fog, part two

In the late morning the fog is still dense. At another time, I may have taken the camera out to the water’s edge, but today I shrug my shoulders and stay home.


Guilt. Powerful force, that guilt is. I head out.

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Empty. Pathways, bike trails by the lake are empty. One jogger. Brave man. It’s unpleasantly wet outside.

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At the entrance to Picnic Point I encounter another person. A neighbor actually. From the old neighborhood. With an unusual degree of formality, we shake hands. You’re here alone? – I ask. Yeah. I often come here. Especially on foggy days. Once I came with my sons and our bicycles. We went up the slushy path. I took pictures of ducks.

No ducks today.

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I’m alone again, stepping in snow that immediately melts under my weight. I am close to the shore. But of course, there is nothing to see. Just fog.

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Someone once told me it’s tricky to photograph fog. I suppose. A scene fading into nothingness. A robust week turning limp and obscure. Why do some people love fog?

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Friday, December 26, 2008

reviewing the day

Foggy, misty, wet, gray, dark, irrelevant.

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The day after Christmas.

On the bright side, there were daughters. Their presence made the day warm, luminescent, funny, relevant.

In the early afternoon, Ed and I poured over a book on Tobago – a place I am urging him to visit (with me, soon) and which, in spite of insignificant costs to him or me – he refuses to seriously consider. Weather comparisons notwithstanding (it is 85 F there at the moment).

The fog grew dense, the roads went from being merely wet to being wet and slick. Nevertheless, we ate dinner elsewhere. I needed to not worry about food. Just on this one day after.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day

Midnight. The yeast is not bubbling. Did I overheat the milk? How many rests does the dough need anyway? If it rests, may I rest too?

Okay. Done. To be baked in the morning. Still need to do the spice cake but, things are half ready.

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Morning. Sunlight comes in through my wall of windows. Hello, tree. Merry Christmas everyone.

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I work on the spice cake and once that is in the oven, I put ribbons on packages. We recycle ribbons and so it is a challenge to match sizes cut to packages of ten years ago.

Ah! Breakfast foods are ready.

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Wake up daughters! It’s Christmas!

[P.S. To Ocean commenter: send me an email and I'll forward cake recipe!]

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

I’ve been through so many! I’ve gone through Christmas Eves when there was fog (79), when there were stormy clouds around me ( 98, 99…), when there was such cold, only to become even colder in the weeks after (84), when there was too much snow and so nothing was easy (66), and it was especially difficult to find a tree to bring home (67), when all bad things happened to others but I thought that I was somehow spared (77), when it seemed that life was unfair just because a toy could not be put together easily (86).

This morning, I got up early enough to watch the night recede. Looking out, I knew that this would be the year of gentle, pretty snow.

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The kind that clings to every twig. The kind that does well if left undisturbed. Sensitive, delicate snow.

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We started the day as every year: at Hubbard Avenue Diner.

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Surely it is possible to have a quiet Christmas – a no fuss Christmas.

Ours is not a quiet, no fuss Christmas. Which means that the day before has no pockets of idleness.

For someone raised in a family that could not decide how it felt about any holiday celebration, and now, finding myself in the company of someone who feels no ambiguity at all but chooses instead to ignore holidays and grunt at the mere mention of them, I’ve gone in a different direction: I love these handful of days and all the possible ways they can bring together people, food, music and lights: You like the spiritual dimension? It’s yours. You’re a food nut? Cook up a feast. Thinking of others brings you satisfaction? Give of yourself – this is your day! Music – that’s your joy? Wow, you’ve got choices.

It’s a beautiful time.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I’m thinking -- here we are, at the inception of winter, and there are short days and cold nights and there is nothing inspiring about either. And yet, never mind, we surge forward anyway, as if there’s great enjoyment in skidding and sliding and freezing and turning on the lights at 3:30 in the afternoon.

We are a weird lot.

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Sometime in mid afternoon, I pause to drink coffee with Ed (do not infer from this that Ed drinks coffee – he does not; beguilingly, he sleeps through most of our encounter). But it is a fleeting (if warm and pleasant) thing. After, I go on to finish all shopping that has to be done in anticipation of Thursday and I go home to complete The Promise.

The Promise is no great wonder – only a childhood cake (mind you, not my childhood; no parent baked anything ever during my childhood) that has been on the list of “can you please bake this again” cakes that my daughters present me with when they come for a visit.

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I’m not sure when we are supposed to eat this (there are so many other items that must make an appearance), at the same time that I am sure that it will be eaten. Christmas time is like that: some things you can count on, others – you must wait and see.

[Written while listening to the strains of Clare College: the Holly and the Ivy, our favorite holiday CD.]

Monday, December 22, 2008


Ten years have passed since I last saw the Nutcracker ballet. By comparison, in the five year time frame before that, I had seen the Nutcracker at least 25 times. If you throw in rehearsals, the number multiplies.

We have a dancer in our family. If genes gave her talent, they certainly were of the kind that skipped my generation. But man oh man, could that girl dance. She was so enchanting that she rose through the ranks and danced on point far earlier than was probably good for her. And we all loved to watch her.

But after she went on to do other things, I stopped going to the Nutcracker. Until today when they persuaded me to come to Madison’s seasonal show.

At intermission I watched other little ones in their very dressiest, take a minute out from all that quiet watching. I know some boys like ballet and I know some girls hate it, but on balance, more girls than boys like it and more girls than boys come to be mesmerized by all that costuming and grace.

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I was surprised to see very very young children in the audience. Like around the age of one. Surely the one year old did not fully appreciate the coming of age story. Her coming of age will be when she is weaned off the bottle.

The tyke in front of us was both curious and sick, leading him intermittently to wheeze and ask lots of questions. I could not decide if I should mind. In the end, I found him to be disarming as he snuggled in his mom’s lap, sneezing, coughing and being actually extremely sweet.

Most people do not find that there is much of a story in the Nutcracker, but I think the best coming of age depictions (in film or music) are ones where plot is irrelevant and the whole drama concentrates on what goes on in the head of a person stepping into adulthood. Ever since I first saw the Nutcracker at the girlish age of ten back in New York, I have felt quite emotional about it. Predictably, I got emotional now, at the age of 55, but I would venture that it was for different reasons.

Outside, after the show, the air was so cold that it was sometimes hard to breathe.

Today, the air remained cold. I had some unpleasant tasks to do (shopping at the mall) and I asked for a ride over to West Towne. There again the world showed its gendered tones. Men sat in any and all available spaces and waited for the ordeal to be over. Women shopped.

Personally, I hate shopping at malls too, but I would not pause for a minute there to wait for anyone. Too chaotic in a disconcerting sort of way.

I left as quickly as I could and only when I was outside, did it strike me that getting home would be a challenge. Ed was out and about, daughters were out and about and I was basically carless. Buses do not run in the way that would lead me quickly home. And so I set out to walk the 4.5 mile stretch to my condo.

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That was a mistake. I was not dressed for below 0 F weather. My legs lost feeling quickly and I lost patience equally fast as the sidewalks along Mineral Point Road (a major Madison artery) were in many places not plowed.

I called the one person nearby whom I thought would rescue me and he did. He happens to have a car with seats that warm up and as I melted in the passenger chair, I thought the only thing missing was a laptop to warm the top of my thighs.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


When the snow falls, it’s easy to get carried away with photographing trees. A leafless tree is in itself dreary and uninspiring. Put it on a snowbank and suddenly it’s splendid.

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There’s something about the contrast that looks so modern. Suddenly, you, the photographer are creating art.

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But actually today I am focused on the Christmas tree. I picked it out early in December and it had been resting at Ed’s in the days when I was away. Until Friday night, when we loaded it onto his truck and drove it to the condo.

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Now, I have always assessed the size of Christmas trees by their height. And so when the nursery had told me that this one is about ten feet, I thought – fine. My ceiling is ten feet.

But just as people vary in their width and girth, apparently so do trees because this one is just so wide! And the trunk is like the torso of a heavyweight champ, weighing more, I’m sure, than two normal trees its height. So that even big Ed and determined me had trouble getting it on and off the truck.

And then it did not fit through the door. Branches had to come off. And it would not fit into the massive stand. Ed had to hammer it in. I almost returned it and asked for a baby sister in its stead, but Ed persevered and it is now standing.

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You need some perspective? Well, at 5’5” I hit about its middle. And when I lay down on the floor next to it, I find that there’s more tree beyond my feet and beyond my head.

I ask Ed if he has any ideas about getting it down and out at the end of the season. He tells me – the only way is to dump it over the balcony.

Now, I am on the rules and regulations committee of my condo association and I do not think that there is a rule about not dumping trees over your balcony, but nor is there a rule saying you can’t dispose of dead bodies in this manner and yet I feel someone would make a fuss if you did.

No matter. Let’s be Scarlettian about it and worry tomorrow. Today we have a tree and it is magnificent!


In the evening, the Chicago travelers pulled in and set to work.

This morning, this bitter bitter cold morning where the winds are howling and snow is drifting and I am assured it’s -30 F, what with all that wind and white stuff, I walk into the living room, turn on the lights and think how nice it would be to drink a warm cappuccino in front of the tree.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

slushy sentimentalism

I would have headed home Friday morning, but there were plenty of warnings to stay off the roads until the crews could push back the foot of snow that fell overnight in southern Wisconsin. I delayed my return, therefore, and daughters and I headed for the center of downtown Chicago – the Daley Plaza. [Daughters will be coming to Madison for their winter vacation late Saturday. Me, I need to get things ready for their arrival. More on that in my next post.]

Since my Chicago visit was to be a “one nighter” (later, after Christmas, we’ll return for a slightly longer spell in the city), I was dressed more for a long car ride than for a walk in city snow. You know how cities feel after a snowfall? Slushy and wet. You hope that there’ll be stretches where someone has cleared a path for you, but it’s not guaranteed.

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Over time, the snow turns into mush. At the curb, icy lakes form and you have to dive right in. There’s no other way of getting from one block to the next.

Within minutes, my little black socks and the decorative but insignificant black boots and all ten toes are soaked. Swimming in shoe slush.

Not important. We’re downtown now and it is seasonally festive and colorful here. We make our way (past countless signs announcing the danger of falling icicles) to the Daley Plaza, where vendors have set up stalls in much the same way holiday market stalls have appeared in most towns and cities of Europe (and especially Germany).

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Daughters eat hot dogs and potato pancakes and I slurp gl├╝hwein…

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..which warms my insides but stops short of warming my toes.

We pass stall after stall with colorful crafts and we look up at the display of trees that borders the market.

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… and because it is close by, we stroll over (did I say stroll? Slosh is a better choice here) to Macy’s. Daughters pause to admire the holiday windows.

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If someone would have told me, when I was little that, for all of my adult life, I would be in some way connected to the city of Chicago I would have said – not possible. Too stodgy, sprawly, dangerous, brutal, cold, corrupt. But, things change, people change, cities change. As the cop shouts out happy holidays to the people whom she helps cross the crazy intersection, as the snow is pushed back by the sanitation workers, who also take a moment to throw snowballs at each other,

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… it strikes me that I may even like Chicago more than New York now (I have spent an equal number of years in both by now). Weird how you can open up to a place you just couldn’t wait to leave way back when. Or maybe that in the holiday season, sloshing through the wet puddles and underneath falling icicles with daughters, you get kind of sentimental about a place.

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It was dark by the time I pulled up by Bascom Mall back in Madison. I walked into my office, took off my shoes and dripping socks and massaged my toes for a good many minutes.