Art Apprentice

Remember those TV ads, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on DMartTV”? I’m not an art critic, but I play one at home. I’m surrounded by artists in my family, but I’m not an artist. Stick figures are the height of my capabilities, though I’ll admit, I’ve not tried to develop those skills. In school, I sketched for art class, and produced a beautiful, detailed pencil drawing of our house. But subsequent attempts weren’t that memorable, and I wasn’t filled with a passion to improve. What appealed to me was art history. In my high school humanities class, we studied art and I loved learning everything from Greek sculpture to French impressionists. In college I took more art history classes, and had the opportunity to visit The Louvre. Standing before Monet’s haystacks, or Winged Victory of Samonthrace was awe-inspiring.

I’ve continued to love art, seeking out a museum in any city I visit. The surprise is how art has become a part of my daily life. I married a teacher who loves to draw. His father painted seriously (though it wasn’t his career), and my husband was encouraged to develop his early skill. Some art is in process at all times at home; whether a small doodle on the corner of a piece of scrap paper, or a series of paintings covering our dining table. Our first baby room was decorated with a stencil my husband designed and painted, and he created works we could frame for the kids’ rooms. We always encouraged our kids’ art, and strove to coax their efforts onto paper, rather than furniture or walls. There were many fun Sundays on the kitchen table with paint brushes, markers, and colored pencils. Running out of surface area on the refrigerator, we turned a long wall of our kitchen into a gallery of our kids’ art. Now, every room is filled with family art, both my father-in-laws’ watercolors and my husband’s works in pen and ink or watercolor. What we’ve hung on the walls is a fraction of what bulges out of a portfolio in the closet. That’s where my husband’s works reside, until called for another purpose.

This weekend, we put up over 25 pieces of my husband’s art in the school gallery. Pen and ink, acrylic, oversized doodles, fabric printed with electronically-designed patterns. Part of an ongoing display of student or faculty art, his works will be on display for 2 weeks. My job? To help measure, pin, staple, adjust, and render judgement on the final display. I’m not a trained curator, but I’ve had lots of experience providing feedback on art made in my family. Now I need to comment on what goes well with what. Does this piece hang horizontal or vertical? Should this go next to that? I use my gut instinct, knowing that my art sensibility isn’t as refined as others. Suddenly I’m the reason that bright painting is on the dark fabric background! Not bad for a stick-figure artist.


No one ever plans a trip to the emergency room. It’s an accident, or medical emergencysurprise, that takes you there. My husband appears at the door, his hand partially covering his bloody face. Time is momentarily suspended while my mind races. What happened? What do we need to do? What do I need to grab so we can go to the hospital? Of course, I’ve just taken my car to the shop, so we are hailing a cab. It would be so much more fun to say “follow that car!” instead of “take us to the nearest emergency room!”

We rush inside, the staff gets a quick recap of the injury and triage takes over. While bloody, our case isn’t life threatening or acute. We can wait while others are seen. I present IDs and fill out out forms while the priest who cannot breathe, and the woman who is moaning move to exam rooms. I don’t wish more injuries on my husband, but I’m pretty sure a compound fracture and an eyeball hanging out of the socket would move us up in priority. As my adrenaline dissipates, it seems harder to wait, and wait.

We’ve been to the emergency room a number of times over the years – broken bones, kidney stones, split lip, scratched cornea, contusions – with eventually good outcomes. Though the injuries are different, the experience (relatively brief and intense) is similar every time. You begin with a single-minded focus on your own injured loved one. Then, you begin to notice the other people thrown together in the most public of places: the emergency waiting room. Families slumped in chairs watching the TV like it was a lifeline, nurses talking to a drunk lady to find out where she’s been, police escorting people in and out, half covered bodies on gurneys being rushed away, spouses reciting medical plan information, nurses who know a woman by her first name from frequent visits, and a boy questioned about how he fell and broke his arm.

Alternately chaotic and quiet, being here is like an odd half-life, surreal and separate from the day or evening you were having before the emergency. A place where you’ve ceded control to the medical staff. No indignation or influence can change the triage approach. You need their expertise, their tools, their advice. But I feel lucky to have medical coverage, and to not need emergency care very often.

Half a day for my husband to get an X-ray and a few stitches.  Time to go home, pick up prescriptions and start the next phase of treatment: chicken soup, a soft pillow, and time.

Condo Christmas

IMG_1177Since we moved to Chicago 10 years ago, we have lived in condos, an adjustment from our large suburban home, but a practical choice in the big city. Having cast off rooms full of furniture, we felt lighter in our new condo life, even while we bunched together on one couch to watch TV. We adjusted and found we didn’t miss the extra rooms we had hardly used (formal living and dining rooms anyone?), that is, until Christmas.

Right after Thanksgiving, a temporary tree lot appeared near the L stop in our neighborhood. We chose our tree, carried it home, and began the climb to the 3rd floor. A few tight scrapes and fallen pine needles later, we emerged into the living room to set up the tree. Of course, to make room, we had to rearrange the furniture, but after the ornaments were on, it was perfect. We had a vaulted living room, and some years chose tall trees that would take advantage of the vertical space. Unfortunately, we learned that those trees were so long, they’d get bent and battered during the tight turns up the staircase. And worse was the trip down.

After Christmas, when the tree is a crispy shadow of its former self, the trip down the stairs to the alley is a giant trail of needles. After the ornaments are all put away and the furniture is returned to its regular placement, I’m in the back stairs sweeping and sweeping needles. Needles I will continue to find till the following September. Ah, the high rise life. More than once, I contemplated hurling our tree from the 3rd floor deck. I can see the alley from there, I’m sure it would be faster. Sigh, no, we never catapulted our tree. I thought about jamming it up the chimney, Grinch-style, but I knew how ridiculously flammable it would be – not a call I wanted to make to the insurance company.

Every year, my husband makes the pitch for an artificial tree. It would be easier, cleaner, we’d always know if would be the right size. It might even be “pre-lit”, thus avoiding the curse-laden task of winding the lights around the tree, only to discover that one string was dead. But I squash that pitch. I love a live tree, I love how it smells, I don’t might watering it every day. And I don’t really mind sweeping up the needles. Or, at least, I conveniently forget what it was like for long enough to get that tree inside.

This year, we are in a new building without a vaulted ceiling, but we have an elevator. Our tree came from a lot in the neighborhood, and we successfully wrestled it into our condo with a minimum of needle loss. Happily, we even found a place to put the tree that didn’t require rearranging all of the furniture. It’s against the windows and can be seen from the street. After dark, we realized that the lights are reflected in the windows, and look amazing. In fact, it’s the best looking tree I can remember.

Of course the tree is just a prop, and the real best part of the holiday is that the kids will both be home. We’ll have fun looking over the ornaments they made, smile at the silly ones of Yoda and a robot, and bemoan those broken in the move. Before the needles make a carpet beneath the tree, we gather, relax and capture happy moments by the tree.


I love riding around town on the L.  I can get almost everywhere I want to go,28_packedtrain_lg and while public transit may sometimes take longer than driving, there are the added benefits of not having to fight traffic or find parking, and it’s also a fun way to sight-see.  When the train is above ground in the Loop, you get an unparalleled view of the Merchandise Mart and the Chicago River, close-up views of interesting looking offices, The Art Institute, and, if you’re fast, a view of Lake Michigan between the buildings.

People-watching is the bonus, wild-card element of riding the train.  I like seeing the different kinds of coats, boots, and hats; backpacks and messenger bags in cool color combinations; whether they read from their phone or a tablet; people who are traveling alone, or with friends, or kids.  On weekends there are Bears fans headed to or from the game.  Also groups of tourists – either from out of town or the suburbs.  Often a group trying to read the CTA system map, and chattering about what they’re going to do when they get to a) Wrigley Field, b) the St. Patrick’s Day parade, or c) the packet pickup station for the marathon.  Some people ask others in the car for directions, and I like to help them if I can.

During rush hour, it’s standing-room-only, people packed in together like sardines.  Grasping the poles and straps, we all sway and lurch with the movements of the car.  I try to stand with my feet apart, knees bent, and I lean into the forward motion of the train.  I keep my hand on a pole, but when it’s really crowded, I may have to depend on my balance.  You get attuned to the train moments.  The jerk of acceleration when the train leaves the platform, the slight slowing when the train goes into a curve, the deceleration approaching the station.  Slower, slower, you think you’re stopped and then, wham! the conductor pulls the brake and everyone in the car shudders forward a bit as the train comes to a full stop. People jostle around as some leave and others get on.  Then we start again.   

I’m a chlorine baby.  I grew up in a neighborhood pool with occasional visits to lakes, and first saw the ocean when I was 17.  While I’ve never liked swimming in salt water, and the gritty, sandy aftermath of a beach visit, I loved the constant motion of the waves and the tides.  Maybe that’s another reason why I like the train.  That regular bobbing, back and forth, almost hypnotic.  Balanced there in the car, I’m surfing through Chicago.


Lately I’ve been spending time in 1999 and 1964.  Part anthropological study, part guilty pleasure, binge-watching old TV shows is fun.  I can immerse myself in a different world and catch up on long-deferred viewing.

Watching The West Wing, I’m reliving the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  (We had a “homework night TV ban”, so lots of TV escaped my notice then.) The perspective of the staff, the clash of personalities, and the pace of any given day form a rich slice of White House life. I’m so engrossed, I wonder about the characters’ lives even when I’m not watching. The national and international issues seem like they’re ripped from today’s headlines – international unrest, nuclear crisis, party polarization. And since my social studies and history classes were a long time ago, I feel like this show is teaching me how government works – maybe a dangerous assumption, like using Facebook as your key news source.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 2.34.15 PMThe Man From U.N.C.L.E. inhabits 1964, in all its black-and-white, 007-imitating glory.  I was spurred to revisit this show, a childhood favorite, after a movie remake was released this year.   The episodes seem like quaint set-pieces, presenting an idealized secret agent’s world to cold-war era viewers.  The intrepid agents, in their sharp suits, are protecting everyday Americans from easily contained evil. They use cutting edge communication and tracking devices, travel to exotic locales, make jokes while waving their guns around, and are occasionally, temporarily, caught in some outlandish snare by an megalomaniac planning world domination.  Yep, it’s fabulous.
While viewing these shows in the same month, I’m most struck by how women are portrayed.  U.N.C.L.E headquarters is filled with primarily decorative, beautiful women with guns holstered at their small waists. Napoleon Solo regularly ogles them as they walk away.  They answer phones, take notes, hand out security badges, and, curiously, sometimes knit or darn socks at their desks.  One intrepid translator played by Barbara Feldon (the future Agent 99 in Get Smart), manages to bungle her way through a mission she was assigned to, as a prank, only to run back to the safety of her quiet office.  Outside of headquarters, women are either damsels in distress, or evil masterminds.

Thirty-five years later the women are different.  The West Wing has multiple, prominent female characters in positions of authority.  Even the administrative assistants have extraordinary skill and influence over the orbit around the Oval office.  And while these characters have weaknesses, they don’t appear to suffer from being dismissed and objectified.  I’m more comfortable in the 1999 world, but I recognize the 1964 world.  It’s not that far removed from offices in the late 70’s – expect for the gun holsters.

I’m climbing back into my time machine (aka the comfy couch) with a firm grip on the remote, mulling my next classic TV destination – Twilight Zone? Mad Men? Downton Abbey?  Where ever I go, I’m sure there will be women to admire.





Family Unit

There seem to be two kinds of drivers in the world: those who decorate their cars with bumper stickers and decals, and those who don’t. And it seems that, like tattoos, one is never enough. It’s rather entertaining, while stuck in traffic, to read these expressions of belief, loyalty, and personality. Maybe the drivers are outgoing, friendly people who would strike up a conversation in a grocery checkout line, but since we’re trapped at rush hour, they let their cars broadcast their most important news: (My son is an honor student! Go Blackhawks! Notre Dame Alumni!, Imagine Whirled Peas).

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 5.08.48 PMMy recent favorites are the stick figure families that provide an inventory of each family member. Mom and dad, three sons, an infant, and two dogs. This iconography seems to have supplanted the “baby on board” sign, proudly giving everyone equal billing, whether you’re onboard or not. It’s sort of a census report combined with a hobby and vacation recap (skeet shooting! a visit to the Magic Kingdom!). And sports fans, who must spend loads of time in their SUV going to practices and games, are decked out in the correct equipment: hockey family in their skates and pads, the baseball family, and the gymnasts. I want to sidle up next to the car with the Star Wars family to see if there are really twin girls in the back with Princess Leia honey-bun hair-dos, and if the Darth Vader dad is really driving with that helmet on.

We are a family of four. While I don’t display that on my rear window, it is the way I always think of our family. Even though our kids are in their twenties, our nest is almost “empty”, and we are together less frequently. I’m glad my kids are independent and capable, but there’s always going to be that gravitational pull that wants them back in the idealized state, at the dinner table, in the van on vacation, around the Christmas tree. And for a brief moment, captured in a family photo. Regrouped, fixed in time, unchanging. Like those stick figures.


Travel-suitcase_(1)We’re traveling to Ireland for a week to see our daughter who is studying abroad and I’m stress-packing. I’ve already started a pile of things I need to take. A gift for a local friend, our daughter’s birthday present, a kit filled with electric plugs so that our devices can remain charged. Now I’ll start packing clothes. Besides the fact that everything I own is at least 5 years old and I hate it all, I don’t know how to select the best things to take. “It rains everyday,” our daughter says. So, boots? They take up too much room. I need to have shoes that can get wet, or multiple pairs so I always have something dry to put on. Shoes for pants. Shoes for a skirt or dressy dinner? Now I have a row of shoes in my packing pile. I ’m starting to sweat.

It’s November, so it’s going to be cold – and wet. Oh geez, that makes it feel colder. And we’re going to walk around outside. A coat to go with jeans, one for being more dressed up, and a light jacket in case there’s a warm day. The Weather Channel says there can be a warm day. Coats and a windbreaker join my pile. I’m quivering a little.

Good ol’ layering – that’s what I need to do. Out come the turtlenecks, pullovers, long underwear. I need to be ready for a really cold day too. Looking at the pile I realize I can’t wear the brown pants with a gray sweater and a blue top. So I start pulling out all of my black clothes. This seems more cosmopolitan. Or European. Or like I’m going to an undertaker’s convention. But maybe if I work in a colorful scarf to break-up the black? My head hurts.

I have filled my suitcase, then turn to find a stack the size of an ottoman that isn’t packed yet. I’ve forgotten toiletries. I’ve got to start over, re-thinking what I really need. I’m momentarily distracted by the idea that I can carry on a second bag – wait, I don’t have a second bag.

One of the little known perks of being an astronaut must be that they don’t have to pack for the trip themselves. A cast of rocket scientists have determined what goes on the ship, and ensures they are outfitted for every potential circumstance. The astronaut just zips up that one spacesuit and trots into the cabin, waving at the cameras.

Lost and Found

Being a wary urban dweller, I’m aware of my surroundings when I walk: the people I pass, cars that challenge pedestrians, signs, and interesting buildings. I also tend to look down a lot when I walk – to make sure I don’t trip on the sidewalk (I do anyway) or step in dog poop or a puddle.

IMG_1017City streets and sidewalks contain a certain amount of grit. It varies based on the proximity of a storm sewer (and how well it drains), whether the store owner sweeps in front, and how recently the street cleaner whooshed down the block.  Small pebbles from crumbling cement, shards of broken glass from bottles or tail lights, cigarette butts, and fluttery bits of trash are part of the landscape you expect.  The occasional outlandish item – a hair extension blowing down the block like a tumbleweed – is memorable. But clothing always surprises me.  Socks, shoes, hats, gloves, shorts, shirts.

My first reaction is to look up for the person who dropped this item. What happened?  An overflowing laundry basket? Out turned pockets? Maybe Wind, confident in the windy stronghold that is Chicago, has finally won the contest with Sun and rewritten Aesop.

I don’t collect the item – there is no universal lost and found box – and usually by the next time I pass the same spot the item is gone.  Reclaimed? or harvested for some mysterious use?

I hate losing things, but that doesn’t change what the object seems to want.  Many of my gloves are dancing around in the backs of cabs.  Scarves and umbrellas are caught in tree limbs with shopping bags, waving madly to imitate the leaves.

Sometimes I imagine I’m following a trail of breadcrumbs, a message left on purpose so I can find something.  If I walk a bit faster, I may approach a stroller where a giddy toddler waves a small sock in the air, then flings it to join the single shoe dropped earlier.  Her free toes wiggle in the breeze.   With a triumphant expression, she is the queen of entropy.






I love maps. They are the first way I get to know a new city. Where am I? Where do I want to go? What are the roads in between? Trace it with my finger, draw a rough facsimile on a piece of paper, and grip between my fist and the steering wheel, or hold discretely in my sweaty palm, so I don’t look like a tourist. In the days before I had a smart phone with Google Maps, this was how I approached the task. It worked pretty well, for “out and back” trips, but if I managed to veer from the hand drawn path, I had limited information to go on. Only the hope that I could circle back and somehow find the road I drew again. In those inevitable situations where I overshot the exit, or missed the turn, or couldn’t for the life of me figure out which street was which at the 6-way intersection, I would mutter a curse, and try to adjust.

Eventually, I learned enough to forego consulting the map every time I left the house, but there were still things to learn. In Chicago, addresses on streets west of State will increase as you travel west, and addresses on streets north of Madison will increase as you travel north. This is generally helpful since other indicators of North (moss on the side of a tree?), East (Lake Michigan), or the position of the sun, aren’t always immediately knowable when you’re zooming up a highway ramp, getting honked at by an impatient cabbie, or a dodging a delivery guy on a bike.

Taking the train seems simpler, but despite my best efforts to retain a sense of direction, I found that when I climbed down (or sometimes up) from the train platform to the street, I was turned around. At one of those moments, I looked down and finally saw exactly what I needed, when I needed it: a compass! IMG_1006They’re at every stop, and have probably been there forever, the brainchild of the CTA or the tourism bureau. Inlaid into the sidewalk, a sign pointing North! I probably gaped that first time, and looked like a rube, but then I smiled and marched confidently toward my destination.

Where are these clear signs when you want confirmation that you’ve made the right decisions about life, work, kids? Where’s the app for that? Getting lost on my way somewhere might be exactly when I learn something interesting. What was around the corner, how neighborhoods connected, and what ran parallel to where I thought I was going. A seeming detour or flat tire could be the chance to learn something new and adjust course.  I may not need to have a crumpled map in my hand, but I’d like to spy the subtle compass every once in a while.

The Turning Game

Cars 9 - 2In the late 60’s, my mother drove a black Volkswagen Beetle.  It was a standard shift with a clutch, and no gas gauge.  If the car sputtered because it was low on fuel, Mom would stretch out her left foot and turn a small lever to access the auxiliary fuel tank.  It held a few gallons, and usually meant we’d head straight to the nearest gas station for a fill-up.  The car had no seat belts, so when my mom stepped on the brake, she automatically pivoted her right arm to hold me against the passenger seat.  Sometimes, she ended up whopping me in the face, but I never went through the windshield.  We called the car “the bug” and later, “Herbie” like the car in the Disney movie.

Like all suburban families, we used the car for almost every errand or visit, but once in a while, we played the Turning Game.  The only rule of the game was that mom and I would alternate deciding which direction we’d head at each intersection.  No matter where we were, I could say “right” and mom would do it.  At the next opportunity she could choose to continue on that path, or turn again.  From the perspective of a generally powerless passenger getting whopped in the face, it was exciting to decide where we were going.

We’d cruise slowly through neighborhoods I never knew existed, checking out the houses, stores, trees, and parks.  Sometimes there were dead ends, sometimes we wiggled through alleys, and I was astonished when we’d emerge from a completely foreign street to find ourselves at an intersection I recognized.  In my memory, these games were played at dusk, and were far-ranging; there was the threat of getting lost, or ending up in a bad neighborhood.  But our entire town was native territory for my mom, and she didn’t get lost.  We never stopped to look at a map, or ask for directions, and we didn’t run out of gas.

I’ve been playing a version of the Turning Game to learn about Chicago, my adopted city.  The “grid” gives me some confidence so I know generally where I am, and which way I should turn for home, but there are still plenty of ways to get lost (on purpose or not) and explore.  Mom was just here visiting, and we drove up to Edgewater, a neighborhood I’d only seen from the Red Line.  We enjoyed a short walk to see the pink Edgewater Beach Apartments, and the gothic St. Ita’s Church, both surprises to me.  Afterward, we wound through the neighborhood, heading west and south-ish.  I told mom I’d never been in this part of the city before.  Snug in the seat-belted passenger seat, she said, “What if we turn left here?”