Family soup

Grandma getting married
“If I didn’t marry him, it would have been someone else.”

Cousin Gina is in town. Yesterday she came for lunch and we talked a mile a minute like we always do, rushing to catch up before one of us has to leave. I was missing my dad enough to talk to him in the car the other night, and Gina is the answer to an awkwardly asked prayer. “Dad, I miss you. I just miss you. I want to see you. You know? Dad? Hey jerk, I got right of way! Merry effing Christmas to you too.”

Gina’s mother’s mother, Albina, and my father’s father, Jerry, were sister and brother. Whew. While Jerry was still in Italy working up the passage to get to Chicago, 15-year-old Albina met a girl on Taylor street named Mil, and they became best friends. When Albina’s big brother got to town, he liked Mil, too. “Everybody was after him, he was that good-looking,” Grandma would tell me, when I went to visit her and eat Salerno butter cookies. “For some reason he wanted me.”

“Oh Gram,” I was 10 and eager for all romantic details, “How did he ask you?”

“Ask? It was understood. After he decided, he would follow me around. He wouldn’t let me talk to nobody else.”

“What if you said no? Don’t you ever think about what might have happened?”

“If I didn’t marry him, so what? It would have been someone else.”

“Then you’re glad it was him?”

“Sure. He was Albina’s brother. He was good to me. So?”

Gina and I made a salad and had it with a soup I’d made a few days before. She kept calling me Martha Stewart, having no idea that I’ve always wanted to be someone who makes big batches of soup but have never managed it. I picture us eating soup all week, a quick meal that’s homemade. Finally, this week of all weeks, I made a pot only because I had beautiful leeks that needed using, and it’s been nothing but trouble. I worry about it constantly. Are we going to eat it all before it goes bad? When will it go bad? Three days? Two weeks? Should I warm up just a little each time, or the whole thing so I can boil out the bacteria each time? And what if I’m not in the mood for potato leek? Most of the time I’m in the mood for pad kee mao.

I don’t know what it is about Gina that brings my dad to me. Something in her eyes, and the way she can laugh even when she’s crying. And of course, because some of the same blood flows through our veins. We cried about our parents, just for a second, just when I cracked that my family is falling apart, and talked about bread, houses, Italy, work, writing, her kids, our dogs, aging, soup, figure skating, and I forget what else. Then she left to pick up her brother from the airport, and I went to get my hair cut, go Christmas shopping, and hustle to a Hanukkah party. 

There is never enough time to tell Gina everything and ask her everything from a year’s worth of living in different parts of the country, but I got my fix. Thanks Dad, or Santa, or maybe just Gina for making the drive to Chicago. And now she’s got me thinking about Grandma Mil, who knew when to spend six hours in the kitchen, and when to reach for a can of Campbell’s. 

Mil was a great cook, but she saved it for special occasions. Savoury fried smelt and garlicky olio uolio on Christmas eve, and other things I can’t spell but can hear her say in her high-pitched voice. She was one of ten kids. When she was four, her parents had their house moved from Taylor to Peoria Street. Mil’s mother wanted the kids to live in a better neighborhood, but also wanted to die in the family’s first American home. Mil always remembered the sight of her house rolling up the street and around the corner. “You don’t forget things like that,” she once told me. “It’s the little things you lose, like who was the youngest.”

I’m not a mom: reason 43

sympathy card
I mean, there is a kid on the cover.

I thought I remembered everything on my shopping trip yesterday. After three years of missing my second cousin’s birthday party for his little girl, I’m determined to make today’s bash, so I added 4-year-old girl to my Christmas list and headed out. Instead of going straight to the small shops of Lincoln Square, where I’d find everything else on my list, I went to a mall, so the gift would be easy to return.

I stood in Carson’s and tried to find something that a four year-old girl I don’t really know would like but not already own. I found a make-your-own-necklace kit, for ages 4 and up. That’s creative and fun, right? Unfortunately, the beads and pendants were dull-colored—timid yellows and maroons and was that beige or tan? I couldn’t imagine a child wanting to wear the one long necklace, two short necklaces, or one short necklace and one bracelet that could be constructed from this box of sadness. But they could return it. The toy store in Lincoln Square surely would have a happier necklace set, but if she didn’t even like necklace sets, it would be a long drive.

On my way to the register I noticed a cute pink purse that said Peace in silver glitter. Little girls like purses, right? Only it didn’t cost enough. But on the same display were glittery newsboy caps, one size fits all. Next to them, the bead set looked positively funereal. I left the beads to scare the remaining glitter caps and took my new choices, holding them together to get the full effect. Happy and fun, but maybe too glittery? Are products like this the gateway drug to kiddie pageants and eye makeup? I’ve been watching Toddlers and Tiaras to prepare for a role in a friend’s upcoming short film, and I’m more suspicious of glitter than I used to be.

Then I saw a pink wool hat with yarn pigtails and heart appliques. It’s whimsical but not grown-up. And it’s got an appropriate return price. But what if it doesn’t fit? I saw a mom shopping nearby and wanted to ask, but she seemed like she was in a hurry. “What are nude tights?” asked her daughter.

“Oh, they’re tights that, you know, they’re tights that look, oh, they don’t even have them. Come on, let’s try the juniors department.”

Still holding my two options, I stood in line and looked for someone else to ask. A lady complaining about how Carson’s isn’t as good as it used to be stood in front of me. Too crabby. The woman behind me looked perfect, but as I smiled my preparatory smile a cashier opened a new register and called to me, “I can take you over here.”

When I got to the counter, still smiling, I said, “So for a four year-old girl, which do you think?”

She scratched her shellacked hair. “Oh, I don’t know…why don’t you ask someone else?”

“I was going to…”

Two Saturdays before Christmas, the line behind me was getting longer. “Oh, that one, I guess.” She pointed to the pink hat. “The other is…” she raised her thin, penciled eyebrows.

“I thought so, too!” I gushed, and bought the hat. I got a gift box, tissue paper, and a discount card for the next time I shop here, which will be never, but still it was a nice gesture.

I drove back to Lincoln Square and finished my shopping. Came home and unloaded everything and felt very pleased to be able to check everything off my list except Dave and a trip to the framing store. Then I realized, I don’t have a birthday card for a four year-old girl. Rats. I dug out my box of cards and found a few birthday cards, but nothing appropriate for a child.

“Take your birthday with a grain of salt, a squeeze of lime, and an ounce of Tequila.”

“Aging is inevitable. Maturing is optional.”

Also, a couple of Spanish-language sympathy cards that I’d bought for a film shoot a few years ago and kept, just in case. With anyone else, a sympathy card would be inappropriate, but I happen to remember that when I got married the first time, this cousin gave us a sympathy card instead of a wedding card. At the time, I assumed it was a joke and made some jokey reply in our thank-you card. But I wasn’t sure exactly whether the joke hinged on the idea that all marriages are fatal, or this one in particular.

Maybe that’s why I still remember it, 20 years later. A random omen, if omens can be random, or just another case of needing to bring a card and not wanting to stop at the store when you’ve already got something that sort of works? After all, it’s just something to put a check in, right?

My second cousin speaks Spanish, and his daughter probably doesn’t read yet, so maybe this would work. Four year-olds don’t care about cards, do they? Would my cousin remember the sympathy card from long ago? Or would he just think the weird, childless cousin whose husband didn’t even come to the birthday party is even weirder than he thought?

I could drop Dave at the theatre before his gig, but I think I’ll have to leave him to the el so I can go to CVS for a card. Children are exhausting. Then again, so are adults.

Endings and what comes before

sea lion
In the distance, a phone rings. Softly. Insistently. End of play.

Yesterday was my last class with Will Dunne, of the translations exercise I talked about back in October. Over the term, I’ve completed the second draft of my play, “St. George on the bus.” First draft, written earlier this year, was 79 pages and seven characters. Second draft is 33 pages and two characters. I can see things I need to develop more, or unpack as Arlene Malinowski says in my Saturday writing group, but I don’t think the next draft will be longer than 40 pages. Maybe it’s a one-act, maybe it’s a first act in a longer piece I don’t see yet. But I think I see where it needs to go to complete itself. I need to dig back in to push the characters into declaring their wants and needs a little more strongly, so they can fight a little harder, and be a little more of who they are, and make the story more of what it is.

I tend to write characters who are too ambiguous, a tendency that can make a writer feel like she is very deep. ‘Cause the characters are so “real.” And if you have a strong story—that is, a story that your characters are driving with strong wants and needs, then there’s room for ambiguity and yes, it’s super-deep. But if the story is somewhat tenuous, because your characters are half-moving and half-wanting in too many directions at once, it loses momentum. It becomes static.

A collage is not a story. The viewer can certainly make a story of it, but that’s not the same thing. If I order a chef salad I’m not asking for a head of lettuce and a block of cheese. Dressing on the side, sure, but don’t make me decide whether to slice or quarter the egg.

We went to a friend’s the other night and he screened the short film he’s making. It was beautiful, with sure pacing and compelling action and a tone that feels very specific. But then it just sort of stopped. Not ended, but stopped. Or at least that’s how I felt. Then Dave said the same thing, and our friend said he’s struggling with that too. The problem is, how to end it in a way that satisfies all major collaborators on the piece. Turns out each has slightly different thoughts about what front end means, so they’ve created an ending ambiguous enough that you can interpret as you wish. But because the ending didn’t feel like an ending, it made me question what I thought the whole thing was about. And not in a deep way.

Maybe my vision of story is too uptight. Maybe I take stories too seriously, because of my own struggles with middles and ends. I sort of want to add a phone ringing to the end of my St. George play, because as it ends right now, character 1 leaves character 2 behind. It’s kinda sad, because character 1 has made a choice that will propel her into a more honest and brave place in her life, and character 2 has retreated. And the connection they once had is gone. So character 2 is sitting alone at the end. Aw, it’s sad. And if the phone rings, and we can assume it’s character 3 calling, and it rings and rings but character 2 is too sad to pick it up, isn’t that even sadder? And the lights are slowly fading and the phone just rings and rings…are you getting teary-eyed? You’ve only seen that once or twice in plays or movies before, right? Or maybe six or seven times? Or 20? But the real point is, if it were happening in my head and I couldn’t deny it, I would know it was right. It would be an ending and not just an idea.

The other problem I’m struggling with is relevance. But I’ll save that for another day, because Django is bugging me for a walk, and I’ve just received an email from my godmother, telling me about a writing award my distant cousin David Holroyd just won in England, for his story, “Deliver Us From Bobby!” It’s a wonderful piece, incidentally with a perfect ending: “As for the aggressive miner, we never saw him again.”

Honor among truth tellers

Shirley temple in Curly top on an iphone

Memory and truth are weird. The truth of a memory is weighted by the event and by the teller, given our own capacity to record facts and our own sense of what’s important about those facts. But when the story is told, its truth is weighed by a listener who has no way to judge the facts, except by their own set of memories.

Someone else’s story can seem too pat to me, like in the song at a concert last night where three events in the singer’s life all neatly signified the same bit of wisdom that was summed up in the throat-lumping chorus. I scoffed when it was over, but Dave said he liked its unpredictability. “Are you kidding? First the guy, then the boat, then the road of life?”

“Oh, not the words, I’m talking about the musical structure.” And when the same singer sang another song later that evening, I absolutely bought it and got progressively more teary-eyed every time the chorus came around. Same story structure, three concentric circles of significant events, and I have no idea what the musical structure was, but those events seemed somehow truer to me. So they paid off in tears.

This month marks two years since my mom died. I’ve been writing a story about her for This Much Is True, whose November show happens to fall this year on that anniversary, Tuesday the 8th. I want to tell the story as truthfully as I can, but of course I also want it to be compelling and funny and complete. So I write what’s in my head, and put it aside, and then look at it later to see what feels true or not true. Today I dug out some journals from the months before my mom died, looking for a couple of facts I hoped I’d written down at the time. I found some decent notes, and also an entry from several days before she died. I’d asked what her favorite memory was, and this is what she said.

I went to see Curly Top with my mom at the Marlborough Theatre. It was never like that, just the two of us. But this time, no Marie, no Ralph, nobody but me and my mom. And we saw Curly Top, and it was Christmas time. The theatre was in a Jewish neighborhood at that time, Madison and Crawford, now Pulaski, and when we came out, you know how we always have colored lights? Well, they had all blue lights on their trees and in all these apartment windows. All blue, and the snow was falling so gently, and it was just so beautiful. Just me and my mom.

I didn’t think about it much at the time, just wrote it down as quick as I could, to catch the words and save them for later. Coming across them now, hunting for details about the guy at the cemetery who told me I couldn’t bury my mom the way she wanted to be buried, I’m first of all impressed that I had the presence of mind to ask her questions like this. I didn’t do it enough. And second, I wonder if this is why she always bought Shirley Temple paraphernalia, even though she never seemed to be much of a fan. And third, I wonder if the snow really was gently falling. Could it really have been that perfect?

But if it’s your very favorite memory that you tell at the end of your life, and the snow wasn’t actually falling at the time, do you get the snow thrown in for free, like a Clinique gift with purchase? And also, if she hadn’t mentioned the snow, would my imagination have thrown it in anyway? Yes, because where there’s Christmas in old Chicago, with blue lights sparkling in all the storefronts and apartment building windows, and a little girl is walking with a mom who rarely has time for her alone like she does right now, there simply has to be snow. And it’s got to be falling gently.


It made more sense after Dave translated.

We’ve eaten out a lot this week. Dave’s dad is in town and he is both a great cook and a lover of fine food. The other night we went to one of his favorites, Les Nomades. Serene lighting, sumptuous appointments (that is, chairs and stuff), and waitstaff who anticipate your every need without calling attention to themselves. Your water glass, your napkin, your every dining comfort IS the most important thing on the planet. And the staff’s comfort is the least. Maybe the point of restaurants like this is to let average people feel what it’s like to have servants—like, royalty-grade servants. You pay the price and you receive the experience.

Maybe that’s why a jacket is required. The Queen doesn’t dine in blue jeans. And there’s the food itself. A thimble-full of inspired parsnip soup,  a salmon appetizer prepared three ways, each better and smaller than the last, a presentation of warm apple tart contrasted with a melon-baller scoop of green apple sorbet. Tiny mouthfuls of gold.

But the experience changes with translation. The first or second time at Les Nomades, I didn’t try to understand, I just ate and drank and sank gratefully into my banquette as they invisibly pulled the table back for me after a trip to the ladies room. Which had a couch! But this time, I thought more about how it all works. Somehow, I couldn’t help analyzing the waiter. He was so formal in his language that I kept thinking he was kidding. “Would the Lady and Gentlemen care to order?” It was sort of like being at a renaissance fair, except I think in that time period Queen ate with her hands. At first, I tried to talk normal, but I am a chameleon and soon I transferred info formalese. “Perhaps a glass of the Springbank?” “Very good, Madame.”

At one point, he bowed in to ask, “Are the Lady and Gentlemen finding the meal to their liking?”

“Oh yes, it’s lovely.”

“Very good.” But when he bowed away, I saw him stop at the white serving table and make a small mark on a card. Suddenly I thought, is there a set number of times they have to check in with each table in their station, and the card helps them keep track? Doesn’t he really care? Did he only check with us so he could mark his card? I know, it’s all a business, like any other, and I appreciate that they run this business so well. But for a moment I felt like that king in the play, I think it’s by Ionesco, where he says to his servant, “Don’t you think I know that as soon as I go to bed you blow out the candles and turn on the electric lights?”

And the servant says, “So should I turn on the lights?”

And the king cries, “No. I want my candle. Bring me my candle!”

I started a new playwriting workshop this week. The teacher, Will Dunne, has already made me start thinking about writing plays differently than ever before. He had us do an exercise he called Translations. For the play you’re working on, you identify 12 words or phrases that come up in the play and then translate them into various actions or lines of dialog or images. When we went to see Clybourne Park at the Steppenwolf last night, I thought about what those 12 might be for that play. Racism, civility, institutional ignorance, what’s the point, burying your dead… It made it easier to identify what was so powerful in the play, and also to sense the few ways in which it could have been more powerful – at least to me. What were they? I forget now. Something about what was at stake in Act 2, but something more specific. Ignorance? Yes, I thought if the story of the suicide were more distorted by time, it would have strengthened the idea of ignorance being dangerous, or at least destructive. But maybe that wasn’t one of the playwright’s 12. Or maybe he didn’t have 12. This was only one exercise, in one class.

After the play, Dave translated his Dad’s classic reticence about what he felt like doing into agreement that a bite after the show would be good. At the table, when I was explaining this playwriting exercise, Dave’s dad said, “Music is music. It is what it is. No translation necessary.” That launched a discussion between Dave and his dad over who was the best composer, Bach or Beethoven or Mozart—or more specifically, what made each of them so good.

And that reminded me that at intermission, Dave’s dad stood up and said, “Back then, everyone listened to the same music.” Act One took place in the 50s, and closed with a Bing Crosby song that only Dave’s dad recognized. I was glad to hear him make a voluntary comment, but I almost replied with a disagreement. I remember my dad telling me about how, when he was growing up in the 30s and 40s, he used to have a radio in his room, and late at night, when the signals were stronger, he’d turn it to “the dark side of the dial” either the lower or upper end, I don’t know which. If he tuned it just right, and the night was clear, he could hear Black music, the blues and jazz he couldn’t get in the middle of the dial. But it didn’t seem worth pointing out, because it’s possibly pointless to disagree with a memory. Or maybe that’s why the world is so messed up, I’m not sure.

I don’t know if it’s okay to write “Black music.” We don’t say that anymore. But it’s how my dad described the music he loved. I guess we all pick our battles and our translations. Walking back to the train, I saw a For Sale sign. At first I thought the line at the bottom was the realtor’s name, and I was impressed that someone with such a strikingly foreign name would be selling such a swank property. Turns out it was a swank property, but I was still reading it wrong.

TMI alert

disposable rubber glove
Ultimate unspecific respect for what the story might be.

We were having such a lovely time, sitting outside at a corner table, being treated to dinner by my niece for the very first time. A great dinner and good conversation with her and her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s mom, who was in from out of town, and everything was just winding down. I thought, “I don’t really have to, I’ll wait til I get home.” Then I thought, “It’s going to be such a pretty walk home, I don’t want to suddenly have to.” So off I zipped to the women’s room.

Inside, there were two stalls. One was taken, and a woman was just exiting the other with her little girl. I went into that one. The floor was oddly wet, the seat less oddly so. I embarked on a series of strategic maneuvers to avoid all surface contact. Outside I could hear the mom gently instructing her daughter on washing her hands. “Rub your hands together…No, before they go under the water.”

Then I heard voice from the other stall. “Mommy, I’m done.”

“No,” said Mommy, “I don’t think you’re done yet.”

“But it doesn’t want to come out.” Oh no, I thought, I don’t want to hear this. But of course I couldn’t stop listening. “It’s halfway in and halfway out.”

Stuck in my stall with all my squeamishness, I remembered being in grad school and watching a documentary some guy had made of his wife giving birth. After the film, we had a class discussion about whether the guy had violated his wife’s right to privacy. In my opinion, it was my privacy that had been invaded. I didn’t want those images in my head. I’ve sometimes wondered if seeing that film contributed to my decision not to have children. That and over-population, lack of desire to semi-replicate myself, and other personal reasons. But also fear. Maybe for some people, seeing it step-by-step demystifies it in some respect so you can begin to understand the greater miraculousness of the whole process, but for me, I’m braver when I don’t know what’s going on.

“Just take your time,” said Mommy. “I’m going to take Shelly back to the table. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Okay, but Mommy?” Oh, please don’t say anymore.


“Make sure you come back, okay?”

I left my stall and walked to the sink as Mommy and daughter 1 walked out. I turned on the water and tried to wash my hands in a brisk, reassuring fashion, in case daughter 2 was listening and worrying about being left alone with a stranger. “Who are you?” she asked from her stall.

“Oh, I’m just another customer, here having dinner,” I said.

“But, what do you look like?”

“Um…” What do I look like to a small child? “I have brown hair. I’m about as tall as your mom…” I heard something behind me and turned to see the stall door opening. The little girl popped her head out. I tried not to look too closely because it seemed like she might still be sitting on the pot. But I noticed a tiny spot of something brown on her angelic cheek. She was probably five years old, and had the sweetest smile in the world. “Oh,” she said, “I really like your shoes.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying not to think about what the spot might be. I dried my hands and she closed herself back in the stall. “Do you want me to wait here ’til your mom gets back?” Please say no, I thought. I don’t know how to talk to you.

“No, that’s okay.”

“Okay, ‘bye.” I left and went back to my table. On the way, I saw Mommy getting daughter 1 settled at the table. For some reason she was carrying another chair to the table, though it looked like they were finished eating. A man and another daughter were also sitting at the table. Mommy looked very tired. I realized it must take a lot of effort to take three small children out for dinner. I don’t want to see that much reality when I’m out for a nice dinner, but it’s their reality and they’re trying to be out for a nice dinner, too.

On our walk home, I didn’t mention the little girl and the mysterious spot, but I did appreciate my new Birkenstocks that no one else had complimented up until tonight. Probably because they look exactly like my old Birkenstocks, or maybe because who compliments Birkenstocks? The moon was out and the streets were quiet, and the walk was just as lovely as I’d hoped. I did make Dave stop once, to take a picture of a disposable rubber glove lying in an alley just off Western. It caught my attention, but I didn’t want to get too close.

Me and David Hasslehoff

Objects in mind are farther than they appear.

I can handle hard work. I can handle tough choices. But when it’s hassle-y, when it comes to fitting two bikes in the car, taking them out and putting them in again in a slightly different way, I want to rip my scalp off. I resent the time it takes to even complain about it.

And the locks. The U-locks with the cables attached, and the keys, and Dave suggesting that I get both the front and rear wheels into the cable, which I know, I know, but the cable doesn’t stretch. On a folding bike, the smallness of the wheels makes their rims too far apart so just forget it, no one would steal a bike here anyway, would they?

“No. No one would steal a bike here, but if just one person did, it would suck to lose a new bike, and it would really suck to learn that someone would steal a bike here.” So by the time we unlock the bikes from the porch and get them and our helmets and our various possible biking clothes (none of which I learn later are good for biking) and grocery bags and other tools into the car after breakfast, I am fuming. We’re only heading into town to get apples and cocktail fixings, but the Betsie trail goes right through town and we might feel like riding, so why not bring the bikes? It sounds so carefree but the reality is, you take one of my bike lock keys and I’ll take one of yours but I don’t have a little key ring, should we add that to the grocery list, and do we need a patch kit or should we buy extra inner tubes somewhere, and what do we need to replace inner tubes, are there special tools we should buy, and what if our air pump doesn’t work?

“I don’t know why I hate this so much,” I say when we are finally after a million years on the road to town.

Instead of pointing out that he did all of the “this,” from unlocking the bikes on the porch to loading them and everything else in the car, Dave says something much more provoking. “Because you’re just like your mom.”

That is an unacceptable reason. My mom would never put her bike in the car and take it to town. My mom would never submit to wearing a helmet or buying an expensive and complicated lock. “I’m not going through all that,” she’d say. “If God wants me to crack my head, so be it.” I remember her going on bike rides with my dad and Auntie Marie and Uncle Vince and Norma and Bill. Was biking safer then? They didn’t go on bike paths. They rode down busy streets, a leisurely parade of six, into north Oak Park and River Forest.

I’m just like my mom is not acceptable, though it might be true. I don’t want to commit to an activity that might be too involved, might take too much time and effort, might keep me from the beach, which is how I define vacation here. Going into town is a guilty consumer pleasure that keeps me from the real magic of this place, which is the stunning miles of beach and bluff and blue, blue water.

Maybe commitment was what Mom hated too. Maybe it’s why she wouldn’t go to Europe when Dad asked or join a bowling league or take an exercise class. Okay. I commit to the ride.

We park near the library and take out our bikes and get all situated and pack the basket, which was purchased for my bike but which Dave loads onto his without a complaint (I don’t want the extra weight). It ends up being a full day, riding this sweet trail that goes past the tiny town of Elberta and past occasional houses and even past the lake sometimes, and over long wooden bridges over marshes and rivers, shaded by trees most of the way. I think it’s about four or five miles.

When we get to the next town, Beulah, we buy padded shorts and inner tubes. An old man with two big bags of cans sits at the railroad station, which has been converted to a very nice set of rest rooms and an area for picnic tables. He says what a nice day it is and we agree. The guy at the bike shop gives us a full demonstration of how to replace an inner tube and it’s suddenly very interesting. We wander through town a little and get ice cream cones, and I feel sorry for Dave that they didn’t have any padded shorts for him. When we stop at the railway station to fill up our water bottles, the old man is gone. We pass him later, limping along the road near the bike path, without his bags.

The ride back is even better than the ride out. When we get to Frankfort, Dave checks the trail map and learns it was almost 10 miles each way, not five. I am so glad I didn’t know this beforehand, because although I want to work on this commitment thing there’s no way I would have committed to a 19-mile bike ride when I could have been at the beach, which I ended up not missing at all.

That Rosanna lady was not wrong

string of lights
Gatsby could totally relate.

It amazes me to look at the list of things I wanted to accomplish yesterday and see from here that they’re all accomplished, but now there’s another list, just as long. Yesterday I did the shopping and hung the shade and did some cleaning and mowed the lawn and hacked the grape leaves and put out the tables and strung the lights. Whew.

The lights are beautiful and old fashioned-looking, even though they’re from Target. Target’s good at satisfying my nostalgia cravings at a reasonable price. Not that I grew up with anything that looked like these lights, but they’re something I picture having grown up with. The problem is, they’re real glass, so they’re breakable. You know, how things used to be.

I got my ladder and a drill and some hooks, and hung them high on the house, stringing them over to the cherry tree. As I was weaving a strand through a branch, one loose bulb fell out and shattered on the cement. Dave heard it from up in his office and came to the window. “Ow,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t think about how they’re glass.”

“Hm,” he said. Suddenly the lights went from twinkling globes of Gatsby-style ambiance to coiled-up dagger balls of death. What was I thinking buying these things? No wonder they were on clearance. I went inside to find the safe, plastic, low voltage, LED Christmas lights. X was over, doing some carpentry and I told him, “All that work for nothing.”

“You’re going to take them down?” he asked.

“Yeah, I can put these up instead.”

“No,” he said, which was surprising because he almost always finds a way to agree with other peoples’ choices. “Those lights are so beautiful.”

“I know, but what if more fall off and break on peoples’ heads? And I’ve got one hanging on the neighbor’s fence. She might not like that.”

“Their beauty is in their fragility,” he said. “This society is too litigious anyway. Let them be.”

As a compromise, I hung the plastic lights too, across another part of the yard. Now I need to put electrical tape over the empty socket of the fallen bulb and another one that burned out already. Though with the way the sky is thundering, I can quit worrying about anyone being outside when the daggers start falling. Instead, I can worry about whether anyone is going to show in the rain, whether I want anyone to show up in the rain, and how we could possibly feed them when we have no kitchen and Dave refuses to barbeque in the garage.

Just not the facts, Ma’am

an embroidered magnet
Snide remarks aren't helpful.

Cuz got her purse stolen yesterday. While she was at the park swimming, someone busted a window in her car and grabbed it.

You might think it’s weird to leave your purse in the car, but if you’ve ever swum at a park district pool you know there’s nowhere safe to keep it inside. Anyway, it’s a risk. We know that. We try to hide the thing under the seat and not be too paranoid. If you want the blissful experience of an early morning swim at one of the best outdoor pools in the city, it’s what you do.

So she comes out and a few cars have been broken into, including hers. Ugh. Call the credit card companies and minimize losses. Then call the cops to file a police report. Except the cop says, “You gonna file this with your insurance?”

“I don’t know yet,” says Cuz. “It depends on how much it costs to fix the window.”

“If not, no reason to file a report.”

Cuz reiterates, “My purse was stolen. My wallet was in there.”

“Wallet and credit cards aren’t considered valuables.”

“Okay,” Cuz doesn’t argue this; must be some official-type logic going on. “But don’t you at least want the information, for crime statistics?”

“I don’t keep no statistics.”

“Doesn’t the city track this stuff? So they know what’s going on?”

“You want to make a report or don’t you?”

“I’ll call back.” Cuz hangs up. I know there are way more great cops out there than not-so-great cops, so this is not about cops. It’s also not about the fact that purses and wallets are not officially considered valuables. Nor is it about the lack of secure lockers at park district pools. It’s just another day in the city that occasionally sleeps, even past the alarm.

Please enter through anywhere

store sign
Pathways in town were more complex.

When I made reservations and the guy said they had a labyrinth, I imagined some kind of New Age corn maze. But when we walked up from the B&B, there were no walls. Just a ballroom-sized expanse of stones in concentric circles, leading you through one half roundabout to the center, where a post displayed some Chinese or Japanese characters that probably said something significant, then through the other half and out.

The stones were bordered only by low grasses, so there was no suspense about which was the right path or the right turn. There was just one way through, or you could step right across the circle and ignore the path altogether. When I saw it, in the middle of the broad plateau, I thought, What’s the point if there’s no mystery?

But I walked in. My sandaled feet tramped first along the fine gravel of the outer pathways, then more quietly on the smooth stones of the inner pathways. It was curiously satisfying to feel that my feet were filling each part of the circle in an orderly though indirect way. Sometimes I’d feel like I was moving away from the center, yet the design always led, ultimately, closer in. When I got to the center, I looked at the post and wondered what the characters meant, but it was nice not to know.

Dave hadn’t entered when I did. He stood near some benches on the edge of the plateau. As I slowly rounded my way out, I almost shouted over a joke, or something to tell him it was no big deal, he could enter while I was in there, but something stopped me. I didn’t want to speak across the nonexistent labyrinth walls. I proceeded out through an exit which was exactly across from the entrance, and walked over to the benches. They were flanked by two spindly trees, maybe six feet tall, anchored to the ground with wires that I guess were meant to direct their growth. Everywhere in this place there were things built or planted with an eye toward the future. Five or twenty years from now, this will be a shady refuge from the merciless Kansas sun.

I watched Dave enter the labyrinth through the exit and wondered if that was right. Later I learned that it’s all about left and right, so I guess entrance and exit are relative. Madeline, who built the labyrinth with her husband Ken, from a design some MIT professor created, said it’s all about the three R’s — remember release, receive? Something like that. So when you enter, you walk first through the left side of the labyrinth, which somehow corresponds to your left brain, and think about what it is you want to get rid of. Then at the center I think you release it. Then you walk through the right side and maybe receive what you need to receive? But at the time, I hadn’t learned that yet. All I knew was that it felt really good to walk through it, though I didn’t know why, and when it was over I really wanted to walk through again, but it didn’t seem right to while Dave was in there.

And now that we’re home, past the stress of the grandmother visits and the challenging conversations about her offspring and the return flight on the tiny plane, I have one reason to want to go back to Kansas.