Category Archives: Neighborhood

Sweeping Up Glitter

Pinecone Ornament

Pinecone Ornament

I undecorated the Christmas tree this week and packed away the lights, garlands and stockings.  The nativity was carefully wrapped again and placed in a box marked ‘fragile.’ Undecorating Christmas is a quiet activity. Unlike the event of decorating, when the entire family drinks hot cocoa, listens to Christmas music, and helps decorate the tree. I do the undecorating alone. I know the routine of what goes in what box, and like to wrap certain ornaments in specific tissues and bubble paper to protect them until next year.

It was the usual undecorating chore until I held the newest addition to our family tree, a handmade craft created by our youngest son last year at the annual Cub Scout ornament decorating event. The ornament I removed from the tree was a cinnamon scented pine cone, with green glitter glue dripping from its tips, hanging from a shiny green cord. I drew it closer to my face. It still had the faint smell of cinnamon clinging to it, an earthy, warm, strong sweetness mixed with evergeen muskiness. It still sparkled.

My memory rewound to the day the cinnamon pinecone came into our home last December. When little boys decorate Christmas ornaments, it’s crazy good fun. Fifty little boys running from craft table to craft table in packs, asking their dads to hold their latest creation while they begin another. Traditionally, the favorite table was Mark’s cinnamon pinecone ornament table. The smell, the glue, the glitter, what’s not to like? Mark has three boys, so as long as I can remember, Mark’s pinecone table has been part of the evening’s fun.

And after an exhausting whirlwind of trying to keep up with my son’s decorating fun, I helped Mark clean up his table. We bantered about how much fun the boys had, and were pleased with a successful event. I crawled under the table and swept up the last of the glitter, wondering if more glitter was on the ornaments, in the boys’ hair, stuck to their scout shirts, or the floor instead. That’s OK, it’s not a party until somebody spills something. And our family enjoyed the new addition to the family tree last year.

This December, the pinecone came out of its paper lunch bag again, and graced the family tree. This December it still smelled of cinnamon and evergreen. This December it reminded us of Mark, who is not with us anymore. Mark didn’t set up his traditionally favorite table at the ornament decorating party. Mark didn’t make the room smell like cinnamon, no glue dripped, no glitter fluttered to the floor to sweep up into sparkly drifts in dustpans.

I find it halting, surprising, achingly beautiful, these unexpected things that stop me. That remind me. I’m thankful, despite it being hard. Remembering the moments that cannot be repeated, seldom are rehearsed or even counted as consequence at the time, but are sweet nonetheless. It’s always the little things, isn’t it?

Musical pairing: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Christina Aguilera version, 1999.

Calculating Dinner Rolls and Other Kindness

Sitting with Liz and family

I’d like to thank the lady who taught me a great deal about hospitality. Liz is one of my mother’s dear friends, and from time to time we’ve been neighbors and the recipient of Liz’s amazing hospitality. Liz and Mom met on an Army base in Texas in the 1960s. When we were in dire straights and needed a place to stay, we stayed with Liz. Decades later, when my husband needed a place to stay while we were moving, he stayed with Liz. I know we’re not the only people who have benefitted from Liz and her crash pad.

Liz also likes to cook for the soup kitchen at her church, and has coordinated and served thousands of meals over the years. Her favorite meal is of course, Thanksgiving. She loves to exhaust herself cooking and serving turkey and all the love that goes into a great Thanksgiving meal for several hundred people.

When we were neighbors again for awhile, I liked to go help sometimes on her Wednesday morning warehouse shopping trips for her weekly soup kitchen meal. She had all these formulas for calculating how many pounds of meat, how many cases of vegetables, how many gallons of tea, how many dozens of dinner rolls would feed the crowd she and her team were expecting that night for dinner. Liz understands street level hospitality.  With Liz you get more than a hot meal, you also get a warm smile and some dignity.

I’m thankful to have Liz in my life for many reasons. Liz is very kind. Her home is cozy and filled with laughter. She’s a woman in constant motion, organized, practical, and has just the right Midwestern sensibilities to give excellent advice. She loves kids, she loves a good party, and she loves to help other people.

I’m just so thankful to have known Liz all my life and spend time with her when I can. I like to cook in her kitchen with her, tag along to visit her goldfish in the koi pond, and talk over coffee. Her gift for genuine hospitality amazes me and I’m blessed that she has a tenderness for strays like me and many others.

Musical pairing: “Ordinary Miracles,” Barbra Streisand, 1994.


Bucket Lists and Touchpoints

I felt my own mortality a few days ago, and it’s unsettling. A good friend and neighbor of mine is dead. I had seen him the day before when he dropped off camping equipment he had borrowed to take our school’s Cub Scouts and their dads on a camping trip. We hauled the equipment into my basement, then stood in the driveway talking about the kids and the next camping trip. He said, ‘bye’ and I said, ‘see you later.’ The next day I got the phone call.

With heavy hearts, our community is absorbing the loss and drawing arms around his wife and 3 young sons. There’s that. And it won’t be over anytime soon.

There’s also the tough conversations with our own children, about how to behave at a wake, how to be a good friend to someone who is very sad, and focusing on good memories. The questions are hard to answer.

Looking around, I’m seeing something I’ve rarely seen before in the eyes of people my age, but will become more common. A questioning, a shock that this shouldn’t happen to someone our age, and could my spouse or I be next? A realization that we, the tribe of GenX, won’t all make it past middle age. The fact is, we’ll be grieving together from time to time, right now won’t be the only time. So here we are, standing around in black, holding cups of coffee, reaching out for hugs of comfort, searching for words to say to cover what we are thinking, sharing the silence.

I hope we’ll do a good job at this grief thing. That we’ll act in kindness, that we’ll support each other to fill in the missing spaces of practical helping hands. Not just now, but next Father’s Day, in a few years for the graduations, in all the ways this stone will roll into the future. Until it’s our turn.

Two things are rattling around in my mind about this, in trying to puzzle piece together what I feel. One is our bucket lists. My friend’s bucket list is complete. I know for certain there are specific items on his list that he didn’t get to cross off, I suppose there should always be something on the list to look forward to. But I think there’s a lesson from my friend here that time is not on our side to accomplish the list. Maybe we need to search our lists and reconsider making a few things happen sooner rather than the later that we might not be blessed with.

The other is taking more care with the everyday touchpoints. Not the business touchpoints, the interpersonal touchpoints. I’ve been thinking a lot about the last moments my friend and I spoke. I didn’t know it would be the last. Usually we don’t know. So did I take the time and emotional effort to look him in the eye? Did I speak a genuine thank you for his help with the camping gear? Did I smile and not rush? Did I take the time to communicate somehow that I was glad to see him? Of all the things I did that day, it turned out to be an important 15 minutes. Did I spend it well? I feel like the answers are yes. I don’t know, maybe I could have done better.

I want to live my life aware, and perhaps a little more slowly so I don’t miss anything, and find ways to connect in the touchpoints with people I share my day with. I can’t change mortality. But I can embrace the grace of the everyday moments and keep my bucket list in my pocket.

Musical pairing: “Don’t You Forget About Me,” by Simple Minds, 1985 and “Say,” by John Mayer, 2007.

Sparkler Time

A few days ago we celebrated Independence Day.  As long as I can remember, it’s been a fun birthday party with fireworks, picnic food, and hot weather enjoyed with family and neighbors.  A good time to rekindle our sense of community, feelings of optimism for our shared future, and a nod to the brave ideal of a UNITED States of America.  Happy 236th birthday and counting!

Turning 40, GenX Style

(This is a rejected magazine article I wrote in late 2007, about GenXers turning 40.  Hope you enjoy.)

Boston Birthday Trip

“Happy birthday” to a small and often misunderstood group, the Gen-Xers.  Generation X (those born from approximately 1965-1980) is beginning to turn 40, and it seems this generation will do so differently that its predecessors.  I’m watching, I know.  I’m one of them.

My friends and I who crossed over the threshold of 40 since 2006 have recently completed our virgin year of middle-age.  We spoke of it in hushed conversations at first.  “Does this mean I’m officially old?”  “It seems like my parents were much older acting at 40.” “Why are those narcissist baby boomers still running everything?”  We worried.  We looked in the mirror.  We pondered the ideas of our youth being gone, too little accomplished, not ready for this mantle of maturity to be thrust upon us like a soggy crocheted poncho.

Many of us decided to celebrate, and NOT with over-the-hill parties.  One of my girlfriends invited friends and family to a weekend in San Diego.  A dozen women showed up and had a wonderful time.  A friend trained and completed a 150-mile charity bike ride to mark the birthday.  Another took their junior high aged son surfing for the first time.  There was an unfortunate trip to the ER, but the kid is fine.  I traveled to Boston enjoying the company of ladies dear to me as we discovered a city together.

I also updated my resume and got back into the workforce.  A layoff during the dot com bust had seriously hurt my professional ego.  I wondered if my career was over at 40, and plenty of people told me it was, when I could manage to get an interview.  But as the process wore on, I became committed not to let the business establishment that my generation had scorned as untrustworthy define my self worth.  I stopped apologizing and started sharing my enthusiasm about providing valuable experience to an open position.  And it worked.  Another Gen-Xer understood my story hired me.  I still don’t trust that I have any job security or hope for the gold watch in the modern industrial age, but that’s OK.  I enjoy my work and will put in a quality work day as long as the position lasts.  (PS: Sadly prophetic, this wonderful job lasted 4 years and now I’m into the next one…)

Perhaps turning 40 is different for us because of the cultural influences of our youth.  We were born after Kennedy and King and were children during the bicentennial.  MTV turned on and the PC entered our classrooms in high school.  The first presidential election we could cast a vote in was Reagan- Mondale.  College graduation left us in debt during a recession.  Cell phones and email accounts were rare until well after college graduation.

I think that waiting to marry and have children a few years later than the previous generation has helped Gen- Xers to feel younger at 40.  Very few of the people I know have teenagers yet.  Many of us just got done with diapers.  A friend just came back from China with a toddler.  It’s easier to feel younger when you’re still visiting the playground, zoo and ToysRUs on a regular basis.  With modern medicine, exercise and organic food from Trader Joe’s, there’s a good chance we’ll still be able to actively enjoy the grandkids when they arrive sometime around our 60th birthday.  By comparison, my parents turned 40 as I left the nest, and some of their friends were already grandparents.   No wonder 40 looked different for them.

I remember watching Star Trek as a child and my dad telling me that by the time I was his age, many of the futuristic gadgets would be reality.  Bluetooth headsets, space shuttles, a diversified workforce and microwaves have gotten us close enough to see the similarities.  Good call, Dad!  So I grew up with expectations that the world around me would change dramatically and I’d better get good at adapting.

It was no surprise that the degree I’d chosen as a freshman wasn’t useful for long and I needed to retrain.  It wasn’t a shock that the companies with dream jobs at graduation had changed names, been sold to foreign interests or disappeared all together by the time I tried to step into management.  We’ve weathered the emergence of the dot com era and the global economy as we built our careers.  Several members of our generation helped to create it.  Among our ranks are Michael Dell, the inventor of the personalized, affordable PC, Larry Page, the founder of Google, that revolutionized web search , and Pierre Omidyar, who founded the worldwide online marketplace, eBay.

Yes we turned our noses up at the dark business suit and the excesses of yuppie-ism.  I’m proud we did.  It allowed us to pursue work-life balance, start thinking green, make friends with the Joneses instead of competing with them, and wear more cotton.  We feel more responsible for our own futures, and in an age of wild stock markets and malfunctioning government programs, it’s wise to be working on a personal plan B.  We wouldn’t call it pessimism… we’d call it realism.   (PS: Am I right?!)

So for a generation that was originally labeled as “slackers” and “disillusioned” I think we’ve hit this milestone in a different state of mind.  Happy 40th birthday to the first Gen-Xers.  Light the candles and smile.

Musical pairing:”Birthday,” by The Beatles, 1968.

Year of Thankfulness- January 2012

This past Thanksgiving, I enjoyed several of my friend’s Facebook posts in November, giving thanks every day that month for their blessings.  I’m starting a thankfulness list of my own with a twist- at least once a month I’ll post a thank you for someone I’m thankful for that’s outside my immediate family and close friends.  There are many people who have helped me during important times in my life that may not know how much their generosity, guidance or kindness affected me.  Some of the thank yous I can send to the person, and some will have to be posthumous gratitude.

Maggie, our real estate agent

My January 2012 thank you goes to the real estate agent that helped us find our current home.  Moving all over the country with my husband’s job, I’ve had multiple real estate agents that all did a great job and I highly recommend.   They tolerated my picky lists about kitchens and backyards and unfamiliar neighborhoods.  They patiently listened to me whine about prices.  They waited on me while I took breaks during house tours to breastfeed.  They coached me on house staging.  They answered 5 billion questions during contract negotiations.

Perhaps because this house was the one we insisted would be long term, the one we would turn down better job offers for, it holds importance.  This is the house our boys will remember as “home.”

For Maggie, it might have been just another house purchase that fall.  I do know she spent time getting to know what we were looking for and hunting it down.  It has meant the world to our family.

Dear Maggie,

Just a quick note to let you know how much I appreciate you being our realtor when we were shopping for a home.  We recently celebrated our 6th year in Park Ridge, and I am so thankful you helped us find a charming house in the perfect neighborhood for us to live and raise a family.  Out of town relos are scary, and you asked lots of the right questions and spent the time searching until you found the right match for us.
People often ask us, since you’re not from the area, how in the world did you find this neighborhood?  And we rave about our great real estate agent.  The boys love their schools, our neighbors have become good friends, and it’s logistically a strategic place for work.  One day a long time from now the house may be too big, but the location will always be right.  I don’t want to live anywhere else.
Thanks, Maggie.
Musical pairing: “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue, 1985

Beauty and The Brain

1970's Hair

My little sister was always called ‘the pretty one’ and I was called ‘the smart one.’  We were stereotyped by family and the community, just like most other siblings.  I guess in a twisted way it’s a compliment, taking one of your strong points and then reducing a description of you to just one word that contrasts you from your brothers and sisters: smart, pretty, athletic, funny.  So people can tell us apart I guess.  Some people’s strong point isn’t flattering: slow, clumsy, plain, small.  My sister and I were sometimes also described as ‘the uncoordinated one’ and ‘the fast one.’  My sister won track meets.  I won scrapes, sprains and broken bones completely by accident.

So this is a picture from the 1970’s.  I was 9, my sister was 4.  She had spent the afternoon trying to style my hair with tiny plastic barrettes and hairspray.  As you can see, my sister is graced with a natural beauty, including long blonde hair, sparkly eyes and creamy skin.  I had crazy hair with waves that refused to behave and stuck out every which way.  And I unlike my sister who loved to wear girly clothes, I preferred my collection of NFL jerseys with Levis.  I don’t know why anyone around us needed little labels like ‘pretty‘ and ‘uncoordinated.‘  It’s obvious we aren’t twins 🙂

Being a little girl in the 1970’s was confusing sometimes.  The traditional stereotypes of what girls should wear, what toys they played with, how they should act, what they should excel at, and what they should do when they grew up, were still very much in place.  We were told that math and science was over our heads.  We were told that good girls wore dresses and bras and got married and were homemakers.  There was no Title X.  There was a glass ceiling and a lower salary for the same work.  We were supposed to go to college to ‘get finished‘ and obtain an MRS degree.  Pregnancy guaranteed problems at the office or retirement.  Women over 40 were over the hill and replaceable.  Madison Avenue dictated the narrow definition of beautiful (white, thin, busty, air headed) and promoted one of the most impossible ideas imposed on our generation: SuperMom.

Given the times, my sister’s looks and natural preferences made it slightly easier for her to navigate her way.  I still think she had to play dumb from time to time, she’s actually smart too.

Me, I didn’t do pink or ruffles.  I liked to watch football and Star Trek.  I rode a skateboard and won ribbons in the science fairs.  Teachers sighed and said I was a problem.  It was awkward to be me in the 1970s.  Fortunately, I had a daddy that told me it was great to be smart.  He said not to mind what people might say if I was doing my thing.  He drew football plays on a legal pad so I could learn the strategy of the game.  He said someday I’d meet a guy who would think a girl who liked football and science was cool.  Oh, AND crazy hair that didn’t obey hairspray would be alright too.  And you know what?  I did.

Musical pairing: “American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz version 1999, and “Lady Madonna,” The Beatles, 1968.