With the Weatherman’s Cooperation

Ah, people in my neighborhood were all smiles when I took my dog India out for a walk this past Saturday.

The calendar told us we were into December, but the thermometer told a different story. The mercury was approaching sixty and the wind was manageable.

Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the good weather day to put up Christmas decorations on the exteriors of their houses.

Can’t expect it will be so nice in January when you want to take everything down, I’d joke as I walked past someone trying to untangle strings of lights or wrestle with oversized red, all-weather bows they were hoping to place against a cupola or attic window.

Here, in the Midwest, where we’re accustomed to the changeability and dynamic nature of the weather, we’d refer to this kind of day as one when the weatherman cooperated.  

Not that the TV or online messenger of atmospheric phenomena has much control in the matter, this kind of day is welcomed with special delight, a kind of gratitude, which is so palpable we want to have an actual person to thank.

It’s always great to enjoy sunshine or be able to make a Goldilocks-like pronouncement that the temperature, being not too hot and not too cold, is JUST RIGHT. Still, it feels like an act of grace when the outside conditions support what we have on the agenda for the day.

During June, brides, ready for their big walk down a garden path, pray for no rain. During the summer, people planning outdoor events, from family reunions to music festivals — even baseball teams – have to make contingency plans for rain-outs.

During the winter, we don’t plan so many outdoor events, and we rarely have to make contingency plans. But, the temperature or wind might create a rationale to postpone…and postpone…and postpone…something like decorating our houses for the holidays.

We might postpone things until we have NO CHOICE. Maybe we have to get something done by a certain date and we can’t just wait for the perfect conditions.

Seeing my neighbors out with their ladders and lights and fake icicles and reindeer kits on a sixty-degree day in December is a wonderful reminder to take advantage of any opportunity when it presents itself.

I loved looking at the houses on Eastwood. I saw fake snowflakes hanging from the awning of a front porch trim, over-sized white boxes tied up with colorful ribbons on another lawn, and a blow-up smiling Santa under brightly colored spheres, like antique ornaments, near the end of the block. Ho ho ho.

These little signs of the season would probably find their places before the holiday itself, but, because the weatherman cooperated, the process was easier for many.

Taking advantage of opportunities when they come up and appreciating something BECAUSE it has been made easier for you, is no small thing.



Doing Evil Justice

I really enjoy taking walks in my neighborhood this time of year.

The temperature is comfortably in the 60s (my body’s favorite no-sweat, no chill range). The leaves have already turned from green to gold. They float to earth from tree branches, blanketing sidewalks and lawns in brownish hollow cones that greet our footsteps with their patented crunch-crunch-crunch.

I also love to look at Halloween decorations. This holiday has definitely surpassed Christmas as the time of year when homeowners go all out to transform their patch of front lawn. They become cemeteries, or giant spider webs or yellow-taped crime scenes.

Some front yards seem to call out the Dollar Tree provenance of their witches and skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. Other scary objects seemed to have come from a fire sale of props at the Theatre of the Macabre. Some scenes seem to be composed of an odd assortment of objects excavated from basements.

The source and expense involved in fashioning a compelling Halloween scene matters less than the creativity and attentiveness of the decorator.

Walking along Sacramento, I came across two dolls standing on top of cement and brick balusters flanking stairs leading up to a front entrance. They had curly red hair, which was a little wild, and their eyes seemed to be rolled back in their heads, appearing as nearly all white spheres under heavily mascaraed lashes.

Their red, bow-shaped lips were a deeper shade of red than that of a vampire’s last drink. They wore Victorian vintage dresses, which were hard to guess the age range they were made for. Were these dolls meant to represent schoolgirls or not-quite maids, women past their expiration dates for marriage?

Ah…I was standing before the Creepy Queen of the Pumpkin Patch.

I wondered what she could see with her eyes, turned, as they were, inside her head. I wondered if she was guarding the house or trying to escape some evil that resided there.

She wasn’t exactly threatening. I saw no fangs, no sickle of destruction. But she was creepy.   She was perfect in effect.

I started thinking about evil in literature and movies. Of course, evil is not something we want to see flourish, but I have a strange sort of admiration for authors or actors that create super memorable villains.

Some of the most famous came to mind: Sherlock Holmes’ clever nemesis, Moriarty; Shakespeare’s scheme-meister Iago from Othello and bitter hunchback Richard III; cruel slave-owner Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; uncompromisingly in control, psych ward warden, Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; sadistic Nils from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Of course, Darth Vader’s story can be conjured up whenever we hear particularly heavy breathing; a life destined for good that got corrupted.

Some of these characters had fine intellects, but misused them. Others centered their lives around manipulating others, which most of our better instincts tell us is wrong, and some were especially cruel as a sort of personal power metric, taking special advantage over the most vulnerable.

Some thrived on being in control (as many of us do), but took control to an extreme. Others showed no remorse or empathy for actions that harmed others.

All great villains are unique, but all teach us a little about our own humanity. Certainly, just the thought of EVIL makes me uncomfortable, but I have a great admiration for artists who make the qualities of evil real to me and remind me of my choices.

Doing wrong RIGHT is no small thing.

Autumn Bloom

For some reason, here in the Midwest, it feels like spring happens overnight. Regardless of what the calendar says, one day, the muddy gray, rainy landscape turns lush and green. Crocuses seem to bloom and leaves fill out branches seemingly overnight.

Like when Dorothy steps out of her Kansas cabin, newly landed over the rainbow, everything goes from black and white to Technicolor.

Fall announces itself slowly. The leaves on trees start turning colors. The temperature goes back and forth between hot and dry to cool. People debate whether it’s time to remove and store window air conditioners or wait a little longer. Fall creeps up over weeks.

That’s somehow fitting. After all, we mark births by an exact day and hour. Dying or going into hibernation is a process.

One day last week, while I was walking home from my physical therapy appointment, I saw a small collection of sunflowers in front of the Bateman Elementary School.

A few blooms were low to the ground but several came up over four feet. Sunflowers, I read, tend to open up mid-summer or in the fall. Somehow, they seem especially suited to fall.

Their golden color seems to go with the changing colors of leaves; the burnt orange and blazing red or crackling brown.

Generally, one bloom comes out per stem. For me, spring and summer seem like more social times. Activities, like picnics or concerts, are enjoyed in groups. Fall seems to be more of a solitary season. In October, I might put some thought into what movies I want to include in my Netflix queue or what foods I might want to stock in my cabinets or freezer.  I expect to be at home more — alone.

And of course, sunflowers actually turn to face the sun during daylight hours. This so captures the mood of fall. Knowing that the sun will be scarcer to see and feel on my face and arms for months, I want to drink in sunlight now as much as I can.

It’s funny to think of the season as having a special bloom, and maybe it’s just my tendency to want to see what’s unique or special about things, but I have an unusual fondness for sunflowers.

I don’t even think about cutting them or buying a bunch at a farmer’s market and bringing them home to put in a vase.

They’re at their best when they out in the wild, when they’re overgrown and a little unruly, when they crown a fibrous and thick stem in such fullness it’s automatic to think they could topple the plant over; when they share their space but are not too close to each other. Maybe part of their beauty is that each sunflower seems to be a solo act.

So, I had to snap a picture of this sunflower in front of the playground of the Bateman School. It was about my height (5’4”) and perfectly imperfect.

The head or bloom of a sunflower is actually composed of many flowers. I stared at the small yellow petals, ray flowers, that fanned around the dark mysterious center, a mega-cluster of disk flowers that clung to each other as they turned towards the brightest spot in the sky and sought warmth.

Standing in front of a flower, face-to-face, 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.