Category Archives: Chicago

The Blink of an Eye

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Once upon a time there were two little boys. So little. They became friends at age two, when their parents and I would do child care swaps, taking turns hosting a playdate before nursery school so that each week at least one parent had a few extra hours to get errands done or maybe just breathe.  Neither of the boys could properly pronounce each other’s parents’ names, and sometimes they even forgot each other’s names, if we’re being honest.  I remember giving out sticker incentives as they learned to pull on their own snow pants, hats, and tiny mittens, and striving to make a grilled cheese sandwich that would pass muster with a 3-year old who liked his mama’s sandwiches better and wasn’t afraid to say so.

And boy, did they have fun together. Playing with trucks and trains and big blocks, and on the rare occasion getting into a tiny bit of mischief. I can still see the two of them looking at me with huge innocent doe eyes, sitting under a table and shaking their heads earnestly, convincing me that they were of course not peeling all of Baxter’s Pokemon stickers from his treasured sticker book and dropping them one by one into the heating vent in the floor. What fun that must’ve been! Several years later, after sadly leaving another awesome play date, one declared that he was “born to play” with the other.

In our new apartment, the boys live a short distance from each other. They are big and responsible enough to take the El home after school together once a week without a grown-up, 10-year olds on a grand urban adventure. They head to one apartment or the other to eat a snack and play Wii, laughing and chatting for hours. I think they would still say they were born to play together.

There are parenting moments that go by so quickly you’d never believe it. One moment you are doling out colorful star stickers to tiny boys working so hard to put on their own mittens – oh, those awful thumb holes! – and in the blink of an eye you are looking at the same boys smiling broadly as they walk through a train station turnstile together after school and although you can just barely still see their baby faces in those expressions, you know you always will.

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We Made it!

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We made it. The last day of school. We arrived early, and they were thrilled. They’re excited about field day, report cards, the picnic this afternoon, and class assignments. Lyle showed me (twice) the tiny cheat sheet in his shorts pocket that matches next year’s teachers with their room numbers, so when he sees the room number on his report card today he’ll know which teacher will be his. He cried about having to say good bye to his beloved third grade teacher today. Baxter is hoping he gets his awesome math teacher for homeroom next year. She is truly amazing and so I hope so, too.

Baxter got an award for straight As this year and Lyle is on the honor roll for getting all As and Bs. I’m so proud of all their hard work, particularly in the face of a lot of stress for them at home.

Happy End of School!

One School Year

Dear Baxter & Lyle,

September 2012 to June 2013 — 9 months — one school year. So much change. Your lives at home have changed dramatically and you look so very different. But here you are, laughing and being ridiculous together just as you’ve always done.

Love you boys, and I’m so proud of how beautifully you are growing up. Keep being ridiculous together.

xo,

Mom

September 2012 June2013

26 Acts of Kindness

IMG_0920Yesterday was the last day of school here in Chicago before the winter break. In lieu of a cheesy holiday movie on that last interminable day of school, my seventh grader’s teacher made the decision to show the kids a video about Ann Curry’s 26 Acts of Kindness campaign, created to honor the 26 children and adults who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT one week before. My son and his friends were very aware of the tragedy in Newtown, pulling together the following Monday to wear blue in honor of those killed, and talking about it quite a bit. The kids were inspired to go out and engage in 26 Acts of Kindness themselves and then come back to share what they’ve been doing in person and on their class’ private educational social media site. The students have been posting their acts of kindness this weekend, and they’re quite uplifting.

My son came home with the idea to bake cookies for 26 people and deliver them around the city this weekend; his 8-year old brother jumped into the idea with both feet and they were off and running. I can’t express enough what a joy it was for us as a family to do this together and I believe that it is especially important for school children to feel that they are helping in some positive way during a time that is so sad and scary for them. I am very grateful for the teacher’s idea to share this with the kids; it’s a perfect example of ways teachers impact our children for life. I can point to specific ways my teachers positively influenced my thoughts and actions as I grew up and now I see the same thing happening for my kids.

For me, the heart and energy I saw the boys pour into this project, and their interactions with strangers around our neighborhood, was all the gift I needed this Christmas. Below are photos of our adventure as the four of us worked together to make this happen today. Here is our story (click on any picture to see it enlarged):

Each of the boys made 13 cards to attach to their plates of cookies…

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We all worked hard making a huge batch of sugar cookies while listening to music DJ’d by the 7th grader.

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Here we have the requisite Gangnam Style dance interlude while one batch was baking…

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Next, the kids assembled 26 plates of cookies, covered them in plastic wrap, and attached their notes to the top of them. They each carried a bag of 13 plates out into the neighborhood.

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Starting with our mail carrier, the boys approached every person they passed in our neighborhood, asking if they’d like some free homemade cookies. We walked the couple blocks to our local El stop and gave them out to people coming and going from the train, including a failed attempt to give some to the CTA worker inside. We all had our favorite recipients; mine was probably the runner who jogged the rest of the way home carrying his plate of homemade cookies. He gave each of the boys a high-five, exclaiming to each of them in turn, “You my man!” 

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Our New Year’s resolution is to think of more random acts of kindness all year long. Happy Holidays to you all!

(For more information about this campaign, here’s a video about it; you can also find plenty of inspiring ideas by searching the #26Acts and #20Acts hashtags on Twitter!) 

Summer Wanes

It’s been a glorious summer here in Chicago, and I ought to know: I haven’t left town since our mid-June family trip to my college reunion in Minnesota. Yes, we have stayed home all summer, catching up with local friends in between their trips to all corners of the earth, and serving as a stopover for families on long road trips, hugely enjoying seeing them on their way to faraway destinations. We had plans for this summer, all of which fell through; none dramatically, just in the ways that plans can fall through sometimes. And so here we were.

It was lovely, being here for long, warm summer days. In the end, it occurred to me that summer is exactly the time to stay home when you live here. Late winter is when I want to be far, far away, but summer? Flowers blooming, the neighborhood yards lush, the lake perfectly swimmable, fireflies glowing and cicadas buzzing into the evening. Why leave?

August was a quieter, calmer month for me. The kids were home more with their sitter, not requiring me to rush them to day camp every day with lunches and water bottles, swimsuits and towels. Many of my clients were on reduced schedules, allowing me to work three days in a row and take four day weekends all month. In the past, this is the month we’ve left town, in effect leaving at just the time when we could be home and relaxing. I’ve loved being home this year.

I’ve gotten some projects done around the house – cleaning out drawers and closets, setting up a budget for our family, and getting the boys on board with a set of expected household chores. But more importantly, the spaces in my days and nights have opened up my mind and creativity in new ways; I find myself with ideas that excite me about my work now and in the future. These margins in my days have also given me the energy to tackle the challenges we have had all year with our dog, and help us move in the right direction with him. We’ve made great strides with him in the past month. I’ve seen my friends often, and I found a yoga class I love, something I’ve been wanting to do for the past year. I also started swimming in the lake with a friend or two at least once a week at sunrise: now that is the best way imaginable to start a day. If yoga and sunrise swimming don’t leave you feeling zen and ready to take on the world, what will?

I can see the impact on my whole life when I have this extra time; indeed, the impact on all our lives. And I am managing to keep some blocks open in my schedule this year, something I was unable to do last year. That’s going to be time for me. Maybe I’ll swim, or go to yoga, or take a walk. I’ve arranged everything around those blocks of time: they’re non-negotiable. Because for so long, everyone else’s needs and wants have been non-negotiable, but what I needed came last time and again. Not because anyone asked me to put them last, but it was what I did.

And so the summer wanes. But this year I’m not scared of the fall routine, the full impact of demands at work that go from 0-60 in early September, because when I look at my schedule I see some days when instead of driving the carpool I will have time to run to the gym, and other days when I will be stopping home for lunch and a dog walk before seeing afternoon clients.

It’s become easier to shift the kids’ summer bedtime closer to their school bedtime this week because it’s getting dark earlier already; only last week that task seemed impossible. Their school supplies have been dropped off and we’ve seen their new classrooms. The sun comes up a bit later each day, and our sunrise swims – those that we may have left – will have to be timed just so. But I welcome the changing light and look forward to the golden trees and a new school year. And I welcome more days of this life that thankfully seems to keep spinning in sync with the amazing world we live in, year after year.

Secession

Lyle, my 6-year old, decided this afternoon that he would “secede from the family” when we got home from school, quickly adding “–after TV“.

This had something to do with hating Baxter. We discussed this as we wandered the hallowed aisles of Whole Foods, a rare treat. Lyle asked if he could choose some food to take with him when he left. I suggested that he could leave after dinner but, really, if you secede from the family, you are on your own with sustenance. As we were choosing apples, I was saying matter-of-factly, “You’re in or you’re out, kid. Either you secede from the family or you don’t. You can’t do this halfway, and besides, I’m not going to give you expensive food if you’re seceding from the family,” at which point I realized a tall bearded young man was looking on with wide-eyed amusement.

Anyway, he was definitely “out”. He was leaving. Today. Well, after TV and dinner. This was then further amended to take place after bedtime cuddling. But then he was definitely leaving.

He would be sleeping down at the beach and taking his bath in the lake. I mentioned that the lake is probably about 40 degrees still and he’d be awfully cold if he swam and then stayed out all through this chilly night, so, little rebel that he is, he announced that he’d be skipping his bath! He also explained that he’d be coming home at 7:00 in the morning, at “sun-up”. You know, for breakfast.

During dinner, Lyle recalled that there is a sign at the beach noting its closure at 11pm, so he switched the locale to the gated front yard of our condo building instead. At that point, Baxter felt this was an adventure he could get into, and they began to pack. Lyle showed me the contents of his backpack: “See? I have my penguin, my Nerf dart gun so I can shoot Baxter awake in the morning, some extra darts, a water bottle, and my extra hot dog from dinner with mustard.”

Clearly, he had all the bases covered, and I suddenly felt like I was in a Frances book. You know, Secession for Frances.

The boys found their sleeping bags and pillows, and Lyle put on a nice Garnet Hill sweater. “Gosh, Lyle, that’s kind of a nice sweater you’re wearing for sleeping out in the yard,” I pointed out. “Well, this is gonna be a nice camping trip,” he replied. Ah. Now I see why it’s appropriate.

While I helped him tie his shoes, he confided, “I was kinda talking to myself downstairs. I was just trying to convince myself that it was gonna be fun, so I said, ‘This is gonna be fun!’ over and over. Baxter asked me why I was talking to myself and that’s why.”

The boys used the bathroom and brushed their teeth, ready for their big night. I heard Lyle exclaim, “Books! Baxter, we need our books!” and they dashed off for some books. They read in the house for a while so that the neighbors enjoying a peaceful happy hour on our front porch could have some privacy, but finally we let them out into the dusk. Of course it’s freezing outside today so they had to gear up, thus the earmuffs and face mask.

First they lay their sleeping bags and pillows down on the sidewalk, city slickers that they are.

photo credit: Rob Taylor

I coached them through the window and once they were settled on the lawn I closed the window and we proceeded to hang out with a friend who was visiting and ordered Thai food for dinner, sneaking peeks and placing bets on how long they’d last. I felt bad that they might be disrupting the Happy Hour fun our great neighbors had going on out there, but we were assured that it was very amusing and one went so far as to suggest they should be paying us for the entertainment. They took pictures.

photo credit: Michelle Marquardt

Baxter lay in his sleeping bag reading a book until well past dark and then used a flashlight to continue, while Lyle turned this way and that, looked up at the trees and the night sky, ate his Vienna Beef hot dog with mustardy fingers, and talked incessantly to his brother, who “mmm-hmmm”ed him to death as he read. In short, it was very much like a night in their room except colder, damper, and with mustard.

In the end, they came back inside an hour and a quarter later, which was about an hour longer than any of us expected. Of note, the minute the neighbors on the front porch called it a night, the boys were right behind them, but the reason given was that Lyle was bothered by a “dripping noise”.

Lyle declared that the adventure had been “35% fun” as he gladly donned his warm pajamas and climbed into his soft bed. For his part, Baxter mainly seemed glad he had been allowed to stay up and read until almost 10pm, it didn’t really matter where he had been.

The boys smelled of damp spring earth and adventure as they snuggled in under the covers. I reminded them that we have plenty of camping ahead of us this summer, on nights that will be far warmer and certainly drier in our tent.

And so, for at least one more day, Lyle is still a member of the family. But we’ll see what tomorrow brings. I’ll make an extra hot dog with lots of mustard, just in case.

L’il Packers Fan


Translation:

Go Packers!

Boba Fett Rules!

(That’s Me.)

Packers Rule!

BOOOOOOO Steelers!

Go Lyle!

Gooooo Packers!

Steelers Suck!

 

[We had a little chat about the word “suck” right after I peeled myself off the floor where I collapsed in a heap of laughter when he went skipping out of the room. I also had something to say about the illustrations at the top of the page, which are apparently depicting something to do with the Steelers logo, missiles, and bombs. But ohmygod, the Packers fever is funny.]

Trying to Move On

When I went downstairs to turn off the boys’ light and forcefully pry their books out of their hands, seeing as how it’s nearly 9 o’clock, Baxter appeared quite tired. “Just reading about all these world records has tuckered me out!” he declared, rubbing his eyes, and handing over the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records.

While I found that humorous — that simply reading about “the tallest and the fastest”, as he put it, would exhaust my child — that’s kind of the way we roll over here. Sometimes I fear we are more likely to “get tuckered” from reading about other people’s adventures than from actually having them ourselves. My kids are the ones who start out running through the snowy street when I encourage a pre-breakfast, post-blizzard adventure, and then collapse from the effort or cry about the snow in their boots 2/3 of the way down the block so that we don’t actually see the snowy beach and I have to take a solo trip later to see it for myself. They’d rather go home and eat those blueberry waffles they picked out at Trader Joe’s.

This makes us the perfect candidates for a big blizzard with two feet of snow and a couple of lazy snow days without school. It has to be a “historic snow event” for Chicago to close its public schools, and it was: this was the third biggest snowstorm on city record. We listened to lots of music, I finally made the old-fashioned peanut butter cookies I’ve been dying to make with the kids, we played in the snow a lot, and they watched a great many Star Wars movies. We really did have an incredible time, and lived our small, snowbound life to its fullest. I had a blast, personally, taking in the sight of huge mountains of snow and neighbors banded together to clear alleyways that the city doesn’t plow. In fact, three days later, our own street has yet to be plowed, but I assume they’ll find their way here soon. People here have a lot of spirit and character. “Flinty toughness” indeed, President Obama. I’m totally impressed.

As is often the case for me when I turn away from work completely for a few days, I am having an incredibly hard time getting focused again. I could be using these days to catch up on paperwork that sorely needs doing, and yet it’s as if my brain itself were filled with two feet of snow. But today I was able to leave the alley behind my house in my car, and the boys went to school (Matt took them there on the El), and reality is coming around again as surely as those vehicles are being dug out of every street. Unfortunately, with Baxter’s tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy scheduled for next Wednesday, I will only be re-immersed in work for two days next week before I’m pulled back into family time all over again.

I believe that I should claw my way to the surface of reality and be a responsible clinician and business owner, at least to catch up a bit before Baxter’s surgery, but instead I edit and organize my Flickr set from the blizzard and spend too much time creating a video montage that expresses what these few days have been like for me. Then I watch it too many times, even though so much visual quality has been lost from the original photos. When I do some laundry or wash a few dishes I feel I’ve accomplished something.

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be ready to move on. I wouldn’t put money on it, though.

Magical Years

I love Christmas.

Love. it.

The lights, the tree, candles in the window. I love listening to great Christmas music in the house and the cheesy stuff in the car on Lite FM radio. I couldn’t be happier to be living again in a place where winter means piles of snow and dangerously dangling icicles and seeing our breath outside. Driving through falling snow to be with family on Christmas Eve. I fully embrace the Elf on the Shelf and prolonging the belief in Santa just as long as we can, reading the Christmas books that come out just once a year along with the decorations, sitting by the fire, and hot cocoa with lots and lots of marshmallows.  I get on a baking jag and can’t stop.  One day in December I made a double batch of sugar cookies, a double batch of butternut squash soup, and my Mom’s spaghetti sauce. It made me so happy to have delicious things to pull out of the freezer at a moment’s notice.  During the first snow I took the boys to the local garden shop and bought the most fragrant wreath I could find.

Seasons mark the passage of time in a way that is important to me, and holidays punctuate it. I piece together my memories of recent years by knowing where we were for Christmas that year, or who hosted Thanksgiving. As the kids grow older, our traditions become more important to us all. Listening to music, lighting candles at dinner, decorating the tree, making a million bajillion cookies and then giving away most of them. Christmas Eve with all of the cousins, the kiddie table set for eight, and the White Elephant Bingo game they love, singing carols all together and then opening gifts from that enormous pile 20 generous family members manage to bring for each other. Receiving actual presents in the midst of this season is truly an embarrassment of riches.

Matt and I, people who tend to prefer living in a less cluttered, more spare house, happily haul in boxes of decorations from storage in early December. Christmas is everywhere in this house, from the place mats and napkins to the hand towels in the bathroom. There are special throw rugs that come out, and certain photos of siblings (some now grown) with Santa and some of old friends in Christmas frames that are only seen during this season. Every snowfall is magical to me in the month of December and I love watching the beach down the street fill with snow while I wait for the lake to freeze over.  Heavy snow on trees and a sunrise over the frozen tundra of beach make me catch my breath with wonder early in the morning when I take the dog out.

Christmas changes over time, like everything else in life, and I believe we are in an especially magical period. I have no scars from Christmas past that open up each year; it is not a mixed experience for me like I know it is for many others.  We’re surrounded by kind, generous family on both sides, people who genuinely like one another and enjoy spending time together. A couple years ago, I thought we had THE magical Christmas and there could be no other like it. This year I realize I am feeling that way for the third year in a row.

The kids are old enough to anticipate it without being completely bonkers (most of the time). They can be up until midnight having fun with the family on Christmas Eve and sleep until almost 9 on Christmas morning, unlike their younger days when they’d be up at 6am NO MATTER WHAT. Even though Baxter and I had a frank conversation about Santa last summer, he clearly suspended reality for the season, choosing to believe (and therefore not questioning us about it or threatening to “trap” Santa) for a while longer. Both of them were on their best behavior, just in case that Elf they looked for every morning was real.

I don’t have a clue what Christmas with teenagers will be like someday, but I have no doubt it will be wonderful in its own completely unexpected way, just as every stage with these boys has been. However, I am fairly certain that when the kids are all grown up and I wax nostalgic about Christmases with the kids, it’ll be this stretch of their middle childhood that my mind will return to.  I can’t believe my great good fortune and need to preserve these memories by writing them down because I fear that someday I will laugh a self-deprecating laugh, accusing myself of sugar-coating these years with the false glow of nostalgia.

But, no: they really are beautiful.

That Which Doesn’t Kill Us: Life on the Alley

I may have mentioned (a few thousand times) that we live in a condo building on an alley. Yes, a long alley that connects a whole heck of a lot of streets runs right alongside our home. It’s urban. There are Dumpsters outside our windows, and when garbage trucks roll by the drivers are at eye level out my window if I’m sitting on my bed. The alley runs parallel to the major thoroughfare at the end of our street and is often chosen by people in the neighborhood to bike, walk, or drive on rather than the loud, busy street. Lots of people take the alley to the beach. Our dinner conversations are often punctuated by men cycling over the steep speed bump outside our dining room and yelping in pain, causing all four of us to grimace and then roar laughing. It is also the “road” of choice for those who might want to act ridiculous at night and not be caught. (For a little history on the Chicago alley, check this out. Turns out we have the most alleys of any city: 1,900 miles of them.)

Did I mention it’s a college neighborhood, too? So, yeah, the college kids run up and down our alley at all hours of the night, especially around 4 o’clock in the morning when the bar around the corner closes and they’re headed back to campus or their apartments.

Basically, what I want you to understand is that it’s as busy as some city streets, busier than any suburban street at any hour of the day, and its denizens are probably ten feet from us when we’re in bed. The noise Matt and I have learned to sleep through after three years of acclimation now causes the dog to wake with a start and bark his head off. Right next to our bed. We use the air conditioning more often now, just so we can close our windows at night.

But we and our neighbors have some awesome alley stories; it’s one of our favorite past-times, sharing these memories. They’re like our war stories and part of the charm (believe it or not) of city living.  There’s the guy who asked another shiftless passerby to help him get a double sink out of our Dumpster and when the dude did, leaning way in there, the first guy stole the other guy’s cigarettes and ran, prompting quite an argument; the drunk college girls hollering loud “Little Mermaid” songs and realizing with embarrassment that they couldn’t make it another step without peeing out there in the middle of the night; or the time we saw the young guys who pulled an enormous brassiere from a Dumpster and tried it on, strutting up and down the road.

Last night, round about midnight, I heard a crazy guy under the influence of something coming from a mile away. He was yelling at some unidentified woman who probably lived about ten miles back (or, even more likely, in another city altogether), at the top of his lungs. It was so loud as he passed by that Matt angrily slammed our window shut, causing us and the dog to nearly suffocate to death in here for the next six hours.

But when morning came and we acknowledged how little we’d slept, we actually had a lot of laughs about this episode. (I know; this is what makes us People Capable of Urban Living. It’s a choice between crying and laughing.) Matt created the “Labor Day Alley Quiz” over breakfast, which he dashed off via email to all of our neighbor-friends who were likely to have heard the guy:

1. According to the man who visited the alley at 12:17am today, a woman who lives nearby is a terrible:

A. Wife

B. Mother

C. Person

D. All of the above, I guess?

2. Has she ever been there for him?

A. Not ever

B. Never, ever

C. Not for a damn minute

D. All of the above

Answer key: 1:D, 2:D

Now, this, in and of itself, made my day. Suddenly, this dude’s screaming about his woman being a terrible mother who has never, ever been there for him, not for a damn minute, was hilarious. The friends who responded to the quiz – and our collective ensuing banter – had me laughing all day. Yes, this is what the adults were doing while the kids were sweating their way through their first day of school. First, there was Becky, a great college friend who lives behind us (up on the 3rd floor of their building: I tell you, the guy was LOUD):

I fessed up to Aaron at about 12:18 that yes, the man was correct.  I have never been there for him.  Never.  Not once.  Not for a damn minute.  Of course I don’t know who he is, but whatever.  He’s still right.

And then her husband Aaron (also an old college friend) chimed in with this:

You’re thinking about this all wrong.
I think it was a good communication strategy. The guy used clear and precise language and stayed on point the whole time.  And in a world where there are so many distractions (sleep, sirens, late night TV) he clearly got attention.
Plus, anyone trolling alleys within a few blocks now knows he’s single and probably up for a rebound. If you think about it, the whole “there for me” could have been a reference to Seinfeld’s “here for me.”. Maybe tonight we’ll be treated to a woman saying “I’m HERE for you loud depressed angry guy who swears too much and probably hurt his voice.”
And so suddenly, thanks to being surrounded by fun people with excellent senses of humor, my fatigue at being disrupted by Mr. Loud Ass was secondary to the fact that we got to laugh about it all day.
That which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.  And maybe a little punchy. Wish us luck tonight.