The Call

These past few months, I have been preoccupied with my rehabbing; looking for little milestones on my path towards full functioning of my hand and shoulder.

I will listen to the news regularly, but very few bits of information penetrate my bubble. I consider that I’ve become numb to the circus that has become our national political scene and have never much hung on lifestyle trends, no matter which celebrity may be involved.

But last Tuesday morning, while making tea and watching the morning news, I caught video of a developing story; another weather related tragedy that was just beginning.

Wild fires were ablaze in northern California. Black smoke filled the streets. Beautiful trees along rolling hills seemed to have been turned into kindling. Thousands of homes were being destroyed.

I was upset about the suffering in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, but this uncontrollable act of nature hit me personally. My best friend lives in Sonoma.

Lin moved from Chicago about ten years ago. She sold her Bucktown home and joined her husband to live in wine country.

We have managed to see each other almost every year and have enjoyed many Friday afternoon Happy Hours telephonically. At the end of our respective workweeks, we have clinked glasses in the area of our receivers before venting about current events in our lives.

She has put so much into her house; reconfiguring the kitchen and entranceway, overseeing the rooftop installation of solar panels, converting a barn into a guesthouse, and landscaping. It was hard to think about it being threatened. Then, I was slammed with a heavier thought.

Oh my God, Was she okay?

Immediately, I texted a short note to her.

After not hearing back all day, I left a message on her home answering machine. Late at night, her husband called me to acknowledge receipt of my message.

He reported that the town was full of smoke, that they could look out their windows and see flames only two miles away, that the nearby town of Glen Ellen and various vineyards and tasting rooms I had visited with them were hit hard.

He relayed that Lin had left the previous day and was staying with friends in San Francisco and that he planned to join her the following day.

Last Wednesday, I abruptly ended another phone conversation when I saw her cell phone number flash on my caller I.D.

She explained that the devastation was incredible, that she was in touch with her boss and was advised not to even think about coming in to work. She explained that her husband was going to join her and stay a few days at Jennifer’s and that they were also in touch with his brother in Palo Alto.

The conversation was short. I don’t know if all her words registered in my brain, but I heard her VOICE. That meant everything.

For the rest of the week, I watched for more news on the region, but it was not personally geared for my concerns. She called me on Sunday night. She was home. The fires were still very close, but firefighters were doing a better job of containment.

She said that she was tired but glad to be home.

I realize how vulnerable we all are; to natural disasters or to psychologically challenged people with guns. Literally, her safety and the preservation of her home depended on which way the wind blew.

I have never had children and have never been one to require a call from friends or family after a visit to announce their return trip ended in safe arrival.

I’ve heard the expression, No news is good news, and I don’t like to indulge in worry, but I cannot explain how much I changed when I heard her voice. There’s something about hearing the actual voice of someone you love telling you that they are safe that spells relief and comfort like nothing else.

Getting a call from a loved one and hearing, in their voice, only that they are home safe is no small thing.

Café Seating

Okay, this past weekend was hotter than Hades. Here in Chicago, we broke records for consecutive ninety-degree days this late in the year.

But last weekend – well, it was perfect.

The temperature, the infinite deepness of the blue sky, not having obligations that needed quick attention, feeling that, although perhaps months away from recovery, I am actually making progress on the use of my arm and hand after my July accident – all these things led me to decide I needed to take myself out for breakfast.

I didn’t just want to go anywhere. I was in no mood for a quick bagel or Starbucks fix of sugar and caffeine. I wanted to go somewhere where I could sit under a big umbrella and watch the neighborhood enjoy the perfection of the September day. I wanted café seating and eggs cooked differently than I make them at home.

I took myself to Glen’s Diner. The sign over the awning claimed the honor of being the best diner in the world. I don’t know about that, but sitting under one of their giant umbrellas near the Montrose Avenue el stop seemed to be just what I needed.

I somehow remember the first time I heard the expression, al fresco.

I thought it referred to a man named Al Fresco. I assumed he liked to go out to eat a lot because I always heard his name in conjunction with a restaurant.

When I traveled in Europe, I enjoyed spending time in outdoor cafes. Whether for a glass of wine, cup of coffee, or a full meal, the people watching, the buzz of being OUT — was as important as the menu.

In Portugal and Spain, in France — it seemed that people took public transportation more often, regardless of their station in life, and they took special pleasure in communal life.

People filled the pubic squares and plazas. Going to a café was not just for slamming down food. It was about having a place to view the world, to experience life happening around you.

When I chose a table, I situated myself so that the umbrella would block out the sun’s rays from their most direct path.

I took a few deep breaths and took note of the other patrons; a few young couples, the men in long khaki shorts and the girls in light summer dresses. There was a fit, older man at a table near the street, the Sunday paper spread out up to his coffee mug, which was refilled frequently. Everyone seemed to relish the simple pleasures of Sunday breakfast out.

As I reviewed the menu, I remembered a friend telling me once that he didn’t care for the place. I realized that review might have kept me from trying Glen’s years ago. I decided to reserve judgment until I had my own experience.

I had a meatless version of a benedict; poached eggs with fresh tomato and fresh spinach, under pale gold hollandaise over an English muffin. They threw in one of their signature potato pancakes. A nice breakfast plate.

I enjoyed seeing my waitress bustle about, running between the kitchen and the outdoor seating section. No one chose to sit inside with the weather so perfect. She seemed happy and acted so graciously. Wearing a Rosie-the-Riveter tied bandana, jeans and black tee decorated with Glen’s logo, she obviously liked to answer menu questions and be of service.

I found myself amused by the condiments that were arranged in the middle of the table. Fifties style glass salt and pepper shakers with metal tops sat next to a molded plastic tray holding individual Smucker’s jelly packs. There was ketchup and tobacco sauce.

A single red carnation stood upright in a small bud vase, matching the color of the geraniums in large planters along the black wrought iron fence around the perimeter of the café seating section.

Someone came by regularly to top off water glasses.

I recall feeling in no hurry to leave. I felt I had everything I needed.

What a strange realization — that I could be so content by so simple a situation.

Eating outdoors, when the weather is perfect, and seeing your contentment reflected in the faces of your own neighbors, is no small thing.

Many Happy Returns

I don’t normally do this. When I buy something, I really do intend to put it into use.

But, the other week, I found myself looking at a couple neutral colored purses on the rack at a fashion outlet. I wanted something on the small side, but big enough to accommodate my cell phone and brush — something that would go with my new pink and green floral print linen dress. A summer handbag.

I found two contenders, neither very pricey, and couldn’t make up my mind.

As I stood in front of the register, with both, the clerk stared at me when I questioned their return policy. Well, of course, you can return an item within 30 days of purchase, if returned with a receipt and all the tags still in place.

She looked at me like I must have been living under a rock most of my life.

When I got home and examined both next to my summer dress and shoes, I formed a preference. I was surprisingly pleased, almost gleeful about setting both handbags in the seat next to mine for the short drive back to Riverpoint Plaza, so I could to transact the return.

It was easy. No cash was exchanged, only my credit card was re-swiped. I made a mental note to check on this month’s statement to make sure the credit was posted.

I kept thinking about the phrase, Many Happy Returns. I looked up the entry on Wikipedia.

“Many happy returns” is a greeting which is used by some on birthdays, and by others in response to “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.” Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. “

I now had a vastly different understanding of the phrase.

I think of the fantastic sense of freedom I have when I can re-choose something, or make a new choice.

At restaurants, I love it when I find myself gravitating towards the Alaskan Salmon, then end up getting the duck when the waitress actually asks (I figure I can get a single portion of nice quality seafood more easily than prepare a duck leg the French way).

I might get a kick over picking out a route back home from a destination and find myself changing my route multiple times after I get a beat on traffic and construction.

And who doesn’t fight with their couch buddy over the right to hold the remote during a TV night at home?

There’s something about exercising your right to re-choose that’s almost more liberating than making the choice in the first place. It’s great to remind myself that there’s no judgment involved in exercising a preference, even in changing my mind.

I’m not a big shopper. I don’t consider it a sport or hobby. I don’t think I’ll ever plan a vacation around bringing something back home from a foreign land — even if it’s not something my friends will likely have (and I do like feeling special).

I don’t think I’ll look into ways to stretch a store’s return policy or shop with the intention of bringing something back as a strategy to feel the short-term thrill of stepping into something I can’t afford.

But I like to feel the freedom of changing my mind. I like being able to change my mind without the weight of any judgment, even my own.

A shopping do-over is no small thing.


Pocket Change

I don’t usually read the morning paper, but I had the urge to today. I have no work assignments and no obligations until this afternoon. The idea of sipping a cup of tea and slowly pouring over the paper was very appealing.

I could get nostalgic about the good ol’ days when newspaper boxes (vending machines), like shady trees, were planted on every other street corner. I won’t even go into the fact that either of the city’s major dailies could be purchased for only a quarter.

The price is now $1 and the nearest box is a couple blocks away. (The machine requires exact change.)

It’s still an easy destination. A pleasant walk. The hard part is finding four quarters.

Years ago, when I had to bundle up two weeks worth of laundry and haul it off to a Laundromat to do, I used to save quarters. I looked for excuses to pay cash for things hoping to build up a stockpile of silver that would keep the coin-op dryers spinning until my jeans were not damp.

But finding four quarters was no longer a slam-dunk, and I didn’t want to drive to a gas station or drugstore, where I could use bills, just to buy a paper.

I seemed to remember I had an empty cookie tin in which I had some quarters socked away. You know the kind, some sort of European butter cookie you can buy for almost nothing on closeout. I looked on the floor of my bedroom closet then on some shelves until I found the blue round tin.

It was dusty. I can’t remember the last time I looked for quarters.

Opening it was somehow like opening a treasure chest. I didn’t know what I’d find. I ceremoniously wiped off the dust before I pried off the lid.

Wow. Ten quarters and a few nickels and pennies. Around three dollars. Three dollars I had forgotten about, wealth I didn’t think I had.

I wasn’t exactly giddy, but I felt a rush of motivation to look for more change.

I checked the lining of my coat pockets. (I figured the coats had to go to the dry cleaner soon anyway.) I took out the contents of my purse and combed the lining and zipper compartments for coins.

I remember friends who used to save pennies or nickels in glass jars. When they finally took them to a bank — No, they weren’t able to go on vacation, but I remember once a friend cashed in $52 in pennies – enough to for a couple pizzas and a bottle of vino.

When I pulled my pocket change and purse change together, I realized I had about five dollars.

Just a few days ago, I was with friends playing a board game. We talked about different times in our lives when we were poor, when we felt poor; a little bit desperate and a little bit hopeless.

My friend Val shared that she remembered looking for fallen and forgotten change in her couch cushions. We all talked about odd things we did to earn extra money or how we found money in unexpected places.

As I counted my coins, I was happy about taking a little detour from my planned activities to perform a mental inventory of what change, what money, I had that I wasn’t accounting for. I came to an interesting conclusion:

You’re never poor (or as poor as you think you are) when you’re conscious of what you have.

Finding a cache of coins is no small thing.