For the last time: get a’hold of yerselves!!!!!

Forest Animals

Well, here we are again, everyone.  As we depart the Mini-Me Polar Vortex and enter the positive side of zero, we take little comfort, for we have learned from our local meteorologists that sub-zero temperatures and snow will be with us daily at least through February.

It is time to cease questioning our fate … time to stop wracking our brains for possible sacrifices to the gods, time to stop obsessively reading the 5-day forecasts, hoping to see just one sun symbol pinned to the to the Weekly Weather Report of Damnation.

We are at a weather crossroads here in Chicago,  To avoid losing our edge, our tourism dollars — or worse, ending up like a bunch  of Jack Torrances, we must get a grip.  Right now.

May I suggest a new approach to our take on the Winter of 2014?  Not the loser mid-winter trip to Florida or any island in the Caribbean or Cancun or Ixtapa or … sorry, I got distracted there for a moment …  I submit that we must wax philosophical and take our cues from our forest brethren.  There is truly nothing left to for us to do.

Animals have got it going on.  Their survival depends on it.  Now, as someone who lives in a community just north of Chicago, I can honestly claim to have observed a surprising array of forest animals right outside my house.  With the exception of cougars and Big Foot, I can attest to the presence of an active population of hardy creatures who make us hairless bipeds the epitome of wimp-dom.

First, allow me to describe sightings during the more temperate seasons of the year, to demonstrate the typical foraging and survival activities of the neighborhood furry fellows.  As you read, try to  imagine dragging yourself down out of your tree nest or your subterranean hole or your deep forest thicket at 4am to go in search for food for the next 15 hours, crawling back home at sundown, sleeping for a few hours, only to start the whole routine all over again.  Of course, there may be some mating and prey-fleeing here and there, but seriously:  this is your daily existence.

In my neighborhood one can regularly see squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and a wide variety of birds.  In warmer months, at night, the bats fly in their erratic, darting and swooping patterns while the cicadas thunder in the shrubbery as the temperature drops.  Last summer we had our first-ever visits from humming birds, who made daily stops at feeders in our back yard , and who left quite abruptly on Friday, August 20.  Seriously.

More unusual sightings I have made include foxes, one of which was more like an orange blur moving past the bedroom window early one morning, and the second of which, sadly, was of an ill fox, hobbling in a daze right down the middle of the street.  This second sighting prompted a call to Animal Control, though the poor thing was gone by the time office answered.

On two occasions I have witnessed a buck trotting down the sidewalk across the street early in the morning on my way to school.   I swear, though I  can’t prove it — but both times the he had a long-strap  briefcase slung around his neck.

The hub of forest creature activity is in our back yard.  The beacon is the bird feeder.    This food source attracts not only birds, but many other furry community neighbors.

Birds at Feeder

I had always thought of bird feeder activity as a rather harmonious aviary event.  During  my initial, naïve  observations of the bird-only feeding behavior, I’d watch with my head cocked, my fingers laced together beneath my chin, sighing in a clueless, though possibly somewhat cute manner, as they fitfully pecked at the seeds, flinging about 50% of the supply to the ground.  Upon closer scrutiny, it was apparent that a daily battle was actually being waged to stay on a rung — any rung, of the feeder to access the food supply.  Those little finches and chickadees are vicious!  They dive-bomb each other, peck  each other in mid-air, and lunge at each other in ground searches for seeds.  They assume defensive stances on the rungs by spreading their wings in between pecks at the feeder opening.

Enter other forest animals, who also draw from this trough.  They include squirrels, chipmunks, black birds, cardinals, rabbits, and the occasional possum and prey-seeking hawk.  I mean to say that all of these animals converge at or under the bird feeder as if they’ve agreed to have a dinner date.  It’s like Lion Country Safari out there.

Cardinal Bird

The most consistent grouping includes finches, cardinals, mourning doves, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.  All at once.  Typically, if everyone sticks to his or her own 2 square-inch territory, all is well.  Move outside your own radius, and you are a pouncee.  Chipmunks have a surprising supply of moxie, often darting at squirrels, who retreat or shoot straight into the air, only to return within seconds to the feeding area.  Finches go after each other.  Mourning doves quietly waddle from spot to spot, leaving everyone alone.  Cardinals move back and forth between the ground and the bushes, calling to each other.  It is lovely to watch the male feed the female during these forays.    The rabbits press their snouts close to the ground, advancing in small steps as they sniff out the seeds.


On two occasions during the summer, a hawk landed on the ground, right under the feeder, too late for a meal of birds.  Each time, the bird was gone as quickly as it came.  Previous sightings included their perching high in trees at the nearby park district golf course, flying along the tree lines near our house, and sometimes perching on the cable wires that stretch across the street (yes … in my neighborhood we have cable wires that stretch across the street … and across our back yard as well).

So that’s the temperate weather forest creature behavior.

But remember, we are in the dead of winter, the Mini-Me Polar Vortex of 2014.   And yet, many of these creatures  manage to stick around.  In my little neck of the woods, the bird feeder is the food source, and these animals have what it takes to make it through the harsh winter months.

The bird feeder remains the hub, the fount of alimentation to all animals who can hop or fly or waddle to this magic spot.  The survivors include finches, cardinals, squirrels, rabbits — and:   the sub-deck-dwelling possum.   (We’ll deal with him in just a moment.)

First, envision 8 – 10 inches of wind-swept snow in a rather narrow strip of back yard .  All the afore-mentioned animals navigate it continuously.  The finches, cardinals, squirrels, and rabbits are at the hub anytime between 4:30am and about 5:00pm currently.  With each new snowfall, these animals traverse the puffy flakes, leaving tracks as evidence of their travels, or the icy-hard patches that form as the temperatures sink.  Changes in the terrain don’t stop them any more than the biting air.  They just keep on showing up.  They are the Survivors.


Now, the new-comer to this winter animal scene, though, are the possum.  Typically nocturnal creatures, they are known to venture out during day-light hours to forage for food (my readers may recall a previous post in which I described a pair that feasted on human beach-goers’ snacks at Cape Florida several years ago).  I have watched them waddle through the parking lot many times upon leaving the building of my school after teaching a night class (me, not the possum).

I believe a dynasty of possum live beneath the deck behind our house, despite our attempts over the years to suggest that other venues would be more suitable to their needs.   My cat’s nightly perch at the sliding glass door confirms their pending emergence from the underground bunker … and their tracks in the snow that I spot each morning are proof.    Recently I have watched them move across the snow, with steady determination, loping along the side of the house, and across to the spot directly beneath the bird feeder, to lap up  what fallen seeds are available.  They remain for just a moment,  then turn to lumber their way through the bushes into the next door neighbors’ back yard.  As I press my nose against the sliding glass door, fogging it up so much that I have to wipe the moisture with a napkin,  I envision them returning in the wee hours of the morning, while I am fast asleep, snickering and snorting as they squeeze their  slimy paunches between the slats and the side of the house, stretching out on their backs, crossing their hind paws, stretching their front paw behind their heads, their scaly little tales curling around their guts as they pick their snaggle-teeth with a used tooth pick foraged from a neighbor’s garbage bin.

OK, so maybe I don’t have an appreciation for possums.  But I do have respect for their staying power, and their keen determination  to survive the elements.  I gotta hand it to them.

And that’s my point.  These creatures are out there every day, doing what they need to do to survive.   They’re dragging themselves up every morning, grinding it out all day long, and then flopping into their nests at night.  And they’re not complaining.  So why should we?  It doesn’t really become us, after all.

Are we not CHICAGO????

So, let’s take a deep cleansing breath, accept the Mini-Me Polar Vortex, and move on.  Let’s think of the Winter of 2014 as a journey, not a destination.

And to bring this discussion to its appropriate close, I’d like you to make a list of the 5 things for which you are thankful.  I’ll help you get started with numbers 1 and 2:

1.  I am thankful I live in Chicago, the Coolest City in the Continental United States.

2.  I am thankful I’m not a possum.

Continue, please  …


In Honor of Eric Zorn’s Check-it List

Madison Street Photo

On several mornings during my drive to work last week, I noted people waiting for the bus, or attempting to cross the street while navigating the latest dump of snow.  Our collective fill of this weather has been well-documented — you don’t have to go far to read about it, and you’ve likely had a conversation or two, or three, about it with friends and co-workers.

During my drives to school, though, I recall feeling uncomfortable, and yes, guilty, watching from the warmth of my car as folks stood stiffly at bus stops, bundled into heavy coats, some with only their eyes visible, staring dull-faced into the distance for their ride.  I wondered how long they’d been standing there, and how much timing plays a role in their daily lives (how long do you wait before venturing outside for the time the bus is scheduled to arrive at your stop?  Step out too early, and you freeze — leave too late and you risk missing your bus, only to wait another half hour for the next one to arrive).

My car represents easy mobility and access, and I know I take it for granted.  In an unexpected way, I was reminded of it again after reading Eric Zorn’s column in the January 22 Chicago Tribune.  But this time my car took on a different significance, because the column called to mind my early professional days when I didn’t yet own a car, and how I typically got around using public transportation.  The plot thickens just a little here, though.

So, in Eric Zorn’s column, he introduces a spin-off to the concept of the bucket list:  the check-it list, an idea his wife suggested and which he admittedly refines in the column.  The check-it list is defined as “an inventory of things you’ve done — maybe once, maybe many times — and will be perfectly happy never to do again.”   Specifically, though, the list must contain “things that were or seemed like good ideas at one time … But they can’t be things you’d like to do again but aren’t physically able to do.”

Many of the initial activities Zorn and his wife included were leisure activities, such as ice skating, sky-diving, back-packing, and horseback riding.  But the second list is much more varied, boasting everything from  staying up all night to helping a friend move.

Zorn suggests that the value in constructing a check-it list lies in accepting your changing self — making some peace with your current self and your past self.

Stay with me here.

So, after thinking about folks navigating the snowy conditions, and my car, and my early work years without a car, I would like to offer my own single-item, professional version of a check-it list.  This anecdote, for me, typifies the kinds of  choices we make in our early professional lives when we launch that journey — and because these are the experiences that shape us, and help us cut our teeth in the world of work.

The spring right before completing my graduate degree, in the mid 1980s, I was teaching in the lab preschool of my undergraduate institution.  I learned of a job with a Head Start program sponsored by the Salvation Army, in a location west of downtown Chicago on Monroe Street.  The position involved administrative duties to assist the director of a multi-site Head Start program.  I was surprised to get the job, and figured that it was an important next step in my career.

I learned a great deal about the history of Head Start, about the function of grants, and about the specific ways such programs are structured to support young children and families.  The majority of the work that I did, though, was writing and reporting — a fair amount of paper-pushing.  While it was not as stimulating as I’d hoped, hindsight helps me understand that it was a valuable part of my first years in early childhood education.  The check-it list helps me understand that this kind of work I would probably never take on at this point in my career:  call it age and experience, youthful motivation that has naturally faded, and a different kind of psychic and emotional energy that we devote to our work when we have been through a myriad of experiences from which we hope we’ve learned.

Still, I have strong memories of the commute to Monroe Street, aspects of the community and the building and the people who worked there.

El Train

I didn’t yet own a car, so I travelled from Rogers Park to Monroe Street, starting with the Howard train and picking up the #20 Madison bus in the loop.  The views from the bus always changed dramatically after departing the densely packed streets and skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.   Soon we were surrounded on both sides by vacant lots, burned-out buildings, piles of concrete and trash, and abandoned store fronts.  Tiny bars and small, struggling grocery stores or hair salons dotted the landscape every few yards.  On the side streets were two flats, some abandoned and some  occupied.  A co-worker in my office lived in one of them.  During colder days it was not unusual to watch several men sitting on old couches and easy chairs, huddled around a fire built in a rusted trash barrel.

It was a sobering daily trip, seeing the result of the riots that took place in April of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and to consider how this area was all but forgotten.  I always tried to steel myself for this part of the trip, and the two-walk block to the building after arriving at my stop.

The building itself was a residential recovery center for people struggling with alcoholism.  The Head Start office was housed in the basement — not terribly unusual, as many early childhood programs , often those in poorer areas, operate in the bowels of buildings.  The main office and clerical areas, such as the photocopy center and similar offices, were located on the first floor.  It was common to cross paths not only with Salvation Army personnel but with residents of the recovery program in this area as well.  I saw many folks looking to make their way through this early part of their recovery and eventually leave that building.  Picture lots of smoking and lots of coffee.

My comings and goings from the building were just as much, if not more memorable, though, perhaps because of the impoverished conditions of the community.  It was not unusual for me to wait for the bus after work as a prostitute stood half-way down the block.  I’m stunned as I think back on that now.  I could have gotten beat up or chased away.  But it didn’t happen.  Sometimes cars would slow down, though I think my long winter coat and non-eye contact offered appropriate clues.

One morning, after alighting from the bus and crossing the street, a police squad car moved alongside me.  The officer asked me what I was doing there, and I explained that I was on my way to work, gesturing in the direction of the building.  He asked if I realized that I “stuck out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood” and if I carried a gun.  I responded “Yes” and “No” and recalled thinking that having a car wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  After that day, a squad car was often (though not every day) idling at the corner across from my bus stop.

Another time, while walking to the bus stop after work, a man called to me from behind to ask if I had voted for Harold Washington in the mayoral election.  I truthfully answered that I had.  He turned and walked in the other direction.

Madison Street Photo 2

On another occasion, as I stood at my stop, a man shouted from across the street, “Hey!  Are you afraid of me?”  I answered, “Should I be?”  He said nothing more and continued walking.  Where the hell my response originated from I will never know, as  I am not by nature especially tough — or extensively street-smart.  I may have been channeling my mother at the time … or some other forces were at work.

Later in my 18-month stint, one of the male residents began greeting me at the entrance of the building.  We’d exchange limited pleasantries.  But the building greetings morphed into his showing up at the bus stop on my arrival in the morning.  The third time this happened he presented me with a plastic rose.  It was then that I quietly sought assistance from building personnel.  I began sitting on the other side of the bus and got off the bus one stop further on the way into work.  This lengthened my walk, and seemed to remedy the situation in a few days.  I didn’t seem him very much after that.  Still, I felt bad about this man, who struck me as sad and weary and weathered.

I don’t know that I could ever take on this kind of work at this point in my career.  The check-it list helps me understand that and be OK with it.  When we’re younger, and more wide-eyed, we take on challenges with enthusiasm and curiosity.  We get around without a car because we have to.

Enthusiasm and curiosity take on a different timbre with experience.  I contribute differently to my field now.   Yet I’m glad I made the choice to take on the Head Start position back then.

This job was an important part of my own professional path.   My thanks to Eric Zorn for the Check-it List, and for reminding me about the significant steps in the journey.

So … what’s your professional check-it list?



To the Rescue!!!!!

Who was your favorite superhero in your childhood?

Superman?  She-Ra?  Batman?  Wonder Woman?  Spiderman?

Mine was Mighty Mouse.  I know.  Laugh yourself silly.  But it’s true.  I have no recollection of the cartoon or story lines, but recall deeply admiring his flying skills.  I used to stuff dish towels into the collar of my shirt for a cape and pretend to fly, arms hyper-extended in front of me, hands balled into tight fists, my head bowed in noble concentration.  The indoor flying area was the hallway that ran between the kitchen and my parents’ bedroom.  The preferred outdoor area was a set of concrete steps at the corner of a patio in the back yard.  I was convinced that if I jumped high enough, I’d go airborne.  It didn’t matter that I never actually took off, of course.  The point was that I imagined I was flying.

Mighty Mouse

In an article in the January 18 Chicago Tribune,  Geoff Ziezulewicz profiles a local group of costume-donning adults, self-named “Chicago’s Real Life Superheroes.”  This group of men constitutes a local chapter of a national legion of adults whose goal is to do good deeds — ranging from distributing food and clothing to the homeless to participating in neighborhood watch patrols.  In true superhero fashion, they carry out their good deeds in disguise, to protect their real identities — and create memorable acts of kindness.

I’m not here to offer an opinion on the activities of the RLSH – they may strike many folks as odd.  But I was taken by their effort to help the vulnerable — a primary function of superheroes.  In this case, it involved a recent morning walk through downtown Chicago on one of the most frigid days this winter, to provide food and clothing to people who were somehow still surviving on the streets.

Ziezulewicz’s story also got me thinking about the steady controversy that superheroes pose in early childhood classrooms across America.

Superheroes are fascinating to young children for many reasons.  They’re big, attractive, strong, powerful, fast, courageous — and magical.  Super powers are simply irresistible to a young child:  you can leap, run at supersonic speed, fly, disappear, morph into another being, deflect dark forces, capture and defeat bad guys, help people — and be revered for all those qualities.  (Are you remembering your superhero now?  Have you perhaps never truly forgetten him or her?)

Wonder Woman

Wouldn’t you enjoy having even one of those traits at your disposal in your regular daily human life?

Those of us who work with young children know that superhero play is a reflection of general fantasy play, which holds tremendous allure.  When productive, it has enormous benefits:  dramatizing someone allows you to get a sense of what it feels like to be that person; make some sense of experiences; it helps you see from another point of view; figure out how to negotiate ideas; manage and express emotions — all elements of emotional intelligence, by the way (skills most of us still need assistance with as adults).  Throw in some simple props — a crown; a cape; a glove; sparkly boots, maybe; some sun glasses — and poof!  You have a new identity.  You’re a different you.

Super Man

Children very naturally act out things they’re thinking about, working on, wondering about.  Fantasy play helps them figure things out and master events and experiences  — whether they’re delightful, exciting, confusing, or upsetting.   Play creates a safe haven for exploring the feelings associated with the experience, and it puts them in control.  They can step into the play or away from it, on their own terms.  No wonder we see children engage in some play themes over and over again.  (It’s similar to their response to a beloved book — when children say, “Read it again,” you know you’ve got a winner.)

When it’s not so productive, superhero play reflects the less savory elements of good vs. evil play, when children simply mimic  a character or focus on aggressive, or more violent elements of behavior.  This is when doing harm or using weapons becomes the focus of the play.   Diane Levin, professor of Education at Wheelock College, has written extensively on this theme.  She points out that young children are typically drawn to the most prominent attributes of a character, typically, the most vivid and aggressive traits.  That goes with the way very young children think, which tends to be rather sensory-oriented and in the moment.  And since, on some level, they realize that they are not terribly powerful, a character with special skills can be quite attractive .  It feels good to be powerful and in control.

This less-sophisticated, aggressive play stems from any number of sources, not the least of which includes the pervasive images of violence in  media, in the news, and for some children, in their own homes and communities.  This kind of play can quickly devolve into physical aggression, creating tension in a classroom and requiring constant adult intervention.  Children seem to learn that violence and use of weapons (guns, especially) are effective ways to solve problems.  This mindset bodes poorly for children’s emotional development, preparing them rather poorly for dealing with challenges and problems they’ll inevitably face as  they grow up.

It creates real conundrums in early childhood settings, particularly for teachers who understand children’s drive to play and its benefits to development.  A myriad of responses have  been explored by many practitioners — everything from banning superhero play altogether to suggesting children  dramatize the good guy- bad guy conflicts with gestures but no touching.

In the July 2011 edition of Young Children magazine, teacher Jaequeline Radell describes her effort to support children’s superhero play in a way that would preserve their natural desire to engage in fantasy, and still allow them to explore the roles of superheroes in positive and productive ways.

She first asked children to consider what superheroes do,  and then encouraged them to develop their own characters based on those themes.  Children indicated readily that superheroes are helpful, “save people,” and help people solve problems.

Radell and her colleagues provided materials for props, developed rules for safety, and in a clear effort at  non-violence, established a guideline that the classroom was a “weapons-free zone.”   This, along with a stronger focus on how superheroes are helpful — seemed to force children to come up with more clever and creative ways to cooperate together and solve problems with plot and theme.  The magical powers abounded despite the deceleration in aggression (children flew, became invisible, leapt from tall buildings).  Kittens were saved, transportation units were constructed in teams, and catastrophes were averted.  Not too shabby.

An interesting aspect that came up during one of the preliminary discussions about the work of superheroes was the way they help people — some children mentioned fire fighters as an example.  Police, fire fighters, doctors, ambulance drivers, and similar personnel are fondly known as “community helpers” in the world of Early Childhood.  These are and should remain very important role models for young children.

A cartoon has been posted on my office door at my college for several years.  It is by cartoonist Mark Parisi, published shortly after the 9/11 attacks.  In the single-panel scene, a father is seeing his children off for Halloween trick-or-treating.  He says, “I thought you kids were going to  go as superheroes…”  The three children, dressed as a police officer, a fire fighter, and a doctor, respond simply, “We are.”

Around this same time, children in the classroom at one of our lab schools dramatized the fall of the Twin Towers.  With the cooperation and support of their teachers, they taped orange and yellow crepe paper to the loft to show the fire, then donned fire fighter  outfits to douse the flames and get people out of the building.  That’s an example of very young children working out a catastrophic event — not directly experienced, but of which they were aware –in the best way they know how, by playing it out, and imagining themselves able to do something about it.  When real-life experiences, even events that are this devastating, are handled in appropriate ways — with caring adults who help children explore questions and feelings and concerns — play is at its best and most hope-filled.

So, my hat’s off to the RLSH.  May you continue to do good deeds and make the world a little better.  Hear, hear to all  police officers, fire fighters and doctors who provide inspiration to young children with your courage and strength.  And kudos to teachers who recognize children’s intense need to make sense of the world through play — for your courage to help them feel powerful and altruistic — and for knowing that these traits are not mutually exclusive.

So … who’s your superhero?

OK, sing it with me.  All together now:   “Here I come to save the daaaaaayyyyy!!!!!”

Here Comes That Snow Again — Dagnabbit.

Snow Scene

OK … a short time ago, during Chicago’s record-breaking visit by the Polar Vortex, I wrote an essay suggesting we should all just grow up about the snow and sub-zero temperatures.   At that time, I made a comparison between the extremes of living in the Midwest and the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.

I take it all back.

I’ve had it.  And it’s only mid-January.  What gives with this snow?  What did we all do in some past Chicago-life to deserve this?

Since there is no controlling the weather, I give the only thing I have to offer:   a piggy-back song, dedicated to all the great citizens of Chicago-land, my Esteemed Midwest Brothers and Sisters.  I offer it to everyone who’s already weary of slipping, shoveling, falling, chiseling away at an entombed car, losing a glove, being blown backward, spinning tires, etc.

With humble apologies to the Eurythmics, I give you:

Here Comes That Snow Again

(sung to the tune of Here Comes the Rain Again)

Here comes that snow again, falling on my head like an injury, Blanketing my world, causing new commotion. 

I want to walk in the sun again, I want to feel warm breezes;  I want to dive into a swimming pool; this white’s made me blue.


Mother Nature, talk to me — what’s up with you?  Come on, talk to me.  Do something new!  Please save me.  Move those temps past 32.

Here comes that wind again, pushing on my head like a hurricane; coursing through my veins like an evil potion.

(Here it comes again, here it comes again)

I want to walk on the beach again; I want to see some blue sky; I want to wear my new flip-flops — I can’t wait ’till June.

Beach Scene


Mama Nature, talk to me — what the hell’s up with you?  C’mon, talk to me!   Have mercy!  Save me!  Or I’m done with you. 

A mere five months to go.  Let me know how you’re getting through the Season of White.  I’m open to suggestions.

Desperately Seeking Coolness

Cartoon of Woman Falling Down Stairs

As I was leaving my sister’s house the other evening, crossing the street to my car, I spotted a couple trying to navigate their way through the ice and slush that remained on the sidewalk following the heavy snowfall from the previous week.  They were holding hands, walking gingerly in the dark.  The man took a misstep, sending his head lurching backward and his free arm sweeping upward for balance.  This caused him to jerk his companion violently, sending one side of her body air-borne as she crashed against him.    Still upright, they assumed a kind of sideways shuffle off the sidewalk and into the snow, his free arm now pin-wheeling and her legs taking giant cartwheel steps to keep up.  They somehow managed to right themselves without falling down.   After straightening up, they resumed walking along the sidewalk.

I was concerned, of course.  But I was secretly laughing, too because, well, they looked hilarious.  In a fit of self-interest, I slowed my own gate to a crawl, stepping gingerly over the layer of  ice beneath my car.  I was relieved after buckling myself in , happy that I had not slid underneath my vehicle as if to do some nocturnal under-carriage repair work.

This couple’s near-tumble, and my dual-reaction, got me to thinking (as many things do) about my childhood and how as children we responded to minor or near-accidents.  Growing up, my younger sister and I, along with our friends, typically laughed uncontrollably  at each others’ physical mishaps (slips, falls, bumps, trips, scrapes, cuts, bruises — you name it).  Throwing our heads back, guffawing,  holding our sides, rocking, pointing, and slapping our knees in delight was a common reaction to others’ misfortune.  In more enlightened moments, we’d make vain attempts to suppress our laughter, or, as my younger sister used to do, inquired between muffled giggles, “Are (laugh) you (sigh) alright (snort)?”  The victim could only wail in response, “It notttt funnnnnnyyyyy!!!”

I could laugh weeks later just remembering such events.  Sometimes I couldn’t stop laughing .  I’d laugh, then stop after gaining some control.  Then I’d start all over again, laughing until tears dripped down to my chin.  A more adult-version of this happens now, on occasion.   (Remember the Mary Tyler Moore episode when she can’t stop laughing at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown?   I pray that something like that never happens to me.)

This certainly doesn’t endear me to you, dear reader, but there it is.  I also wonder if there is a connection to this and my enjoyment of bumper cars at carnivals.  I start laughing and never stop, and laugh just as much when somebody smashes into me as when I crash into someone else.    This — despite my inability to handle certain motion-oriented activities.    (In a previous post I wrote about my inability to handle strong motion, especially carnival rides — so this doesn’t follow logically, I know.)

Chalk it up to childhood immaturity, or perhaps a nervous response to another’s stress and pain.  But it was just plain funny to observe someone reduced to the most basic form of physical embarrassment.  Or maybe we were just relieved to be on the other side of the peer’s accident.

I’d posit that this is a universal response, with the full recognition that it is not an example of  highly-ordered human behavior.  Vaudeville comedy, children’s cartoons, the Lucy Show, the Jackie Gleason show, Mr. Bean, reality TV shows, and Saturday Night Live, among so many other forms of visual entertainment, all seem to exploit this natural human tendency.

Of course, I have had more than my fair share of awkward physical moments throughout my life.  And while this may be a universal experience, I have thought that either I possess an Awkward Gene or perhaps am the victim of an Evil Awkward Hex.

Yes, this goes all the way back to childhood.  So, let’s take a little trip together into my past, through my teen years, and up to my most recent awkward moments.  Perhaps by sharing these experiences, I can push back against nature … or undo that Evil Awkward Hex.

When very young, my sister and I used to jump up and down on our beds, a typical childhood activity.  However, on one occasion I miscalculated and landed on the corner of the wooden frame — square on my tail bone.  This was one of those times when, as I writhed in silent white-pain, my sister, pulling her lips as far inside her mouth as they would go, eventually mustered a halting inquiry about my general state of health.  I reached out to grab her by the face, but she was too deft  to ever be within miles of squeeze-range.

At the community pool one summer, I spotted a penny in the deep end.  Diving in and swimming down the twelve-foot depth to grab my prize, I was taken aback upon scooping it up.  It was the softest penny I’d ever come across.  I dropped it readily, shot to the surface, and never told a soul.  This was a solo awkward moment.  As far as I know.

In high school, there was a brief time when I rode my bike to school.  Our house was only a few blocks away, and this was before I had a driver’s license — and when bikes still had those baskets screwed to the handle bars .  (I can’t believe how much I’m dating myself, but alas, this is true.)  There must have been five or six heavy text books sitting in that basket, and I was wearing my Catholic school girl’s uniform, which in this case was the usual blue-green plaid skirt and white blouse.  As I lifted myself from the seat to take a turn, about a block from school, the weight from the books  sent me pitching forward over the handlebars and onto the sidewalk.  Only after pulling my skirt from my head did I turn my attention to picking the gravel from the heels of my hands.  I walked to school from that day forward.

When leaving an end-of-year party hosted by my junior-year teachers, I stepped onto the front door steps and promptly slipped, my legs flying out in front of me, and bumped my way down every single step all the way to  the bottom.

One day, while teaching in a lab preschool at the University of Illinois, I was outside on the playground with my class.  I was tossing a ball with one of the boys, trotting backward to catch it.  As I raised my hands to catch the ball, the backs of my legs hit the large sandbox, pushing them out from under me and dropping me backwards directly into the sandbox.  The sand supply was rather low, so only my legs were visible from the box.

After arriving at work one morning when I was directing a preschool, I removed some items from the trunk of my car.  I closed the trunk with my right hand, catching the pinky finger of my left hand in the trunk.    My finger was stuck inside the trunk and I could not get it out.  I was standing there.  I could go anywhere. I tried pulling my finger out but it was sealed.  I tried lifting the trunk, and could not budge it.  I thought about calling for help, but my pride stopped me.  Finally, perhaps through sheer force of will, I wriggled my hand while pulling on the trunk, and freed my pinky, now mangled and pinched.  All the tugging stretched out that arm, too — it’s several inches longer than my other one, and when I walk  my hand brushes against my ankle.

On the very first day I taught a college class, upon entering the room, I walked to the podium to move it near the window.  As I did so, the top of the podium came off the base, and I, in my nervous momentum, continued walking toward the window with it in my hand.   Of course, re-attaching it proved impossible, so I dragged the base to the window, and set the top on the floor beside it.

Several years ago during class I could feel my slip inching down below my waist while leading a discussion.  I could feel it hitting below my skirt, though it was not readily apparent that any students were aware of this mishap.  It had fit fine when I left the house that morning, so I’m at a loss to explain what structural change took place in the molecules holding the elastic together between my departure for school and the start of the class session.   Anyway, I attempted subtle, alternating yanks at the waist line to keep it from dropping any further.  When class was over and I walked to the door, it dropped to my ankles, and I waddled around the corner to the bathroom, where I promptly discarded it.

While raking leaves in front of my house several years ago, I managed to disturb a yellow jacket nest.  Feeling stings on my legs and back, and with some of them getting underneath my shirt, I began a wild, shrieking run through my front yard, slapping at  every part of my body, twisting and twirling head-long into a tree, falling backward and clawing at my back, eventually making my way to the front door after three swipes at the knob, when my husband finally opened the door and I knocked him into the kitchen table as I ripped my shirt off on the way to the bathroom.

Remember the cicada visit several summers ago?  They flew in thick clouds at my college campus, diving and swooping everywhere.  The walk from the car to the building was like being in a really bad low-budget horror flick.  I would try to trot in a care-free manner through the parking lot, but I am not care-free even when there are no cicadas present, so who was I kidding?  I would break into a run, covering my face with my forearm, slapping at the air as they fell on me,  and claw at my hair and back until reaching the safety of the building.  I would then collapse on the floor, quivering and dripping sweat, my hair askew, and clumps of it clutched in my balled fists.

The following mishaps I have experienced somewhat regularly.  Lord knows I  try to be cool when faced with such challenges, but I just haven’t pulled it off all that well.

When gnats do that buzzing thing in the ear-face range, I find myself swiping at the air and then placing my hands in my lap to feign calm.  It is never a successful venture.  I swipe at the air and my face and my ear and my nose until I’ve worked myself into a clawing frenzy, causing anyone nearby to retreat, and I shriek, “What the hell are you looking at?”

Bees, of course, fall into their own Category of Loathing.  It matters not the setting.  I back up, run, squeal, leap, and twirl, demonstrating a kind of high-energy interpretive dance all aimed at separation.

I have been known to get my sleeve caught in a door handle, only to be yanked backward and twirled around back into the door, face first.

Given this life-long pattern of awkwardness, whether it is constitution or  the effects of an Awkward Hex, I have decided it is time to accept my fate.  It is my own Desiderata of Awkwardness.  My world is unfolding as it should.   In falls and bumps and splats.

I have a response now, too.  So after the next time I fall, trip, claw, slip, flail, or pinwheel in front of a crowd, I’ll stop — stare the onlooker in the eye — and say,”I meant to do that.”





Time-Out One Time

Little Boy on Time Out

Thank you, Jeremy, for teaching me early on about belonging and rejection.

(I’ll return to him in a moment.)

This past fall I returned to teaching a course in guidance at my community college.  The course focuses on students’ understanding of young children and how to effectively manage a classroom.  It’s often referred to as the “discipline” class.  But it’s really a course on supporting children’s emotional intelligence — the ability to effectively read others’ feelings, manage one’s own feelings, soothe oneself, build empathy, and delay gratification (Daniel Goleman).

Whew.  What a tall order for a child.  Do you recall your own tussles with siblings and friends?   How your parents corrected your behavior, and how that felt?  How did you express your feelings, and was this supported  (or not) by adults in your life?

For me, one of the most important aspects of this class is not only to help students truly understand child development — but to encourage them to appreciate the complexity of children’s experiences as they work to navigate all of their relationships  with   family, friends, peers, and teachers.   The truth is that they will inevitably make mistakes while doing so (Gartrell).  This is natural in early childhood.  And if you buy that idea, congratulations:  you have respect for our tiniest creatures.  The other idea you have to buy, though,  is the powerful impact adults have on children’s sense of self, their ability to get along with others, and their ability to tap into a reservoir of resiliency.    They are absolutely going to need it as the years unfold.  Without those elements in place, they’ll find themselves in that dangerous place — being on the edge of the group.

The thing about emotional intelligence is that we all need it, but we all have it in varying supply.  My guess is that the vast majority of us did not have emotional intelligence modeled to us in our families, primarily because our own parents were doing the best they could with whatever baggage they brought to parenting from their own childhood.  Most experts in the field argue that we can learn these skills in adulthood.   In my class we talk a great deal about understanding ourselves and how critical that is to being effective in our interactions with children.  That also means recognizing when we’ve made mistakes with them as well, and how we work to take responsibility for them.    The most effective teachers are those with a good supply of emotional intelligence — or who are self-reflective enough to be working on it.

In the guidance class, I often share anecdotes from my own teaching experiences to illustrate a principle or support a discussion theme.   One topic we must discuss, of course, is the ever-popular intervention technique popularly referred to as  “time-out.”  You probably know it, either from first-hand experience, witnessing  it, or employing it yourself as a parent or teacher.

In a nutshell, time-out involves the adult removing a child from a situation in which a conflict has developed, and isolating the child physically (e.g. on a chair, or in another room) as punishment for an offending behavior.  Often the child is told to “think about” what (s)he did.  In nearly every case, the child is highly emotional and agitated at that moment — and the adult may be also.

News flash 1:  time-out is perhaps the most misunderstood, misused, and over-used  intervention technique of all.  Children placed on time-out typically are simply stewing in their juices; do not have the ability to reflect on their behavior; and learn nothing from the experience.  Not a whole lot of emotional intelligence being taught there.

News flash 2:  time-out can be effective when it is used as an absolute last resort, in an effort to help an out-of-control child regain control and composure — with the adult’s help.  This is the time when the adult sits with the child until (s)he is calm.  Talking about the incident and the feelings that erupted are critical at this point — the adult is the emotional intelligence model and coach  here, assisting, not just now, but over time, to help the child build those critical life skills, and by doing so, sustaining membership in the classroom community.  The child must know that the adult is in his corner.  He has to know that he belongs, and that you have not given up on him.

My own lesson in time-out came during my first year of teaching, through Jeremy, the child mentioned at the start of this essay.  I tell my students this story for the purpose of helping them learn from my mistake.

It was sometime during the fall of that year, and on this particular day the energy level in the classroom was especially high.  Jeremy had been all over the room all during free-play, the broad point in the morning schedule when most stations in the room are available to children and they move back and forth among them.  It typically lasts a minimum of 45 minutes in a play-oriented classroom.

During clean-up, Jeremy delightedly draped dress-up clothes atop classmates, “visited” various stations to check on peers’ progress, and made projectiles of the wooden unit blocks by wrist-whipping them onto the shelf.

I got hooked.  Taking him by the hand, I walked him to the door of the classroom and sat him down in the hallway right outside.

A few minutes later, with clean-up over, my co-teacher and I began small group time with our individual groups.   After singing the gathering song and sitting down in the circle, I did the usual quick head count prior to the planned activity.  Then I asked, “Where’s Jeremy?”

A forlorn voice came from the doorway:  “Remember?  You put me out here.”  The doorway framed Jeremy’s pained, reddened face and wounded eyes, making him look smaller than he actually was.

Mortified, I jumped up and took him in my arms to hug him.  I told him I was sorry for forgetting him in the hallway and said I would  never do that again.  The children stared quietly as I walked him to the circle and sat him in my lap as we began the activity.   I was upset myself, but regained my composure as the activity unfolded.  The session went well.  What a relief.

I was very fortunate here.  This child forgave me, and our relationship remained intact.  But I know I frightened him, and that was horrible.  Had this happened today I would have lost my job.

Guidance and emotional intelligence is messy , difficult, and long-term.   It’s easier said than done — no technique works smoothly every time.  But it boils down to helping a child build his own sense of self, make connections with others, and weather the inevitable ups and downs of life.  He’ll need all of that for the future — for a  true sense of well-being and that the world is a good place.

I wasn’t a classroom teacher nearly as long as many of my colleagues,  and I realize there is still so much to learn.   Still, I’m fortunate to have received this one lesson very early in my career. Jeremy will never know the impact he had on my teaching.  He helped me be a one-time-only-time-out teacher.  What a gift.



Dormitory Glory

Mundelein College Main Building

A recent Christmas vespers at my undergrad alma mater, Mundelein College, had its usual effect on me:  flooding me with memories of my first four years in Chicago, arriving here to attend school.  The post-vespers reception took place in the lake-front dining room of  the dorm I lived in for the first three years of my four years there.

I attended the vespers with three of my four best girl friends, although there was a missing piece to the evening,  as one member of our group was unable to join us.  We’ll catch her next time.

The dorm, of course, was the home away from home during those four years.  It carried particular meaning for me, since I’d traveled from Florida to study in Chicago.  The city’s reputation preceded itself for me on many levels, too, since my mother grew up there, and one of my older sisters lived there.  My mother had been unable to take advantage of a voice scholarship to Mundelein many years ago, a dream unfulfilled.  My sister had graduated from there a few years earlier, so I had a built-in city and school mentor.

But the dorm was where you built your life.  It was where your friendships developed, if you were lucky.  You were especially lucky if you landed a decent room mate (or if you were perceived as such by others).  At least that’s the way it happened for me.  The  postage-stamp campus on Lake Michigan couldn’t have been more beautiful — all year round.  The lake was blue-green in the fall, ice-filled and roiling in the winter, and blue again in the spring.   On especially windy days the spray from the waves would hit the fourth-floor windows of the dorm.

We were Dorm Demons.  Trouble-makers.  Well … we were trouble-makers-lite, really.  We didn’t wreak havoc or break the law (well, I didn’t), but we certainly irritated a few folks.  Still —  what can you expect when you put a bunch of young women together, on extended leave from home for the first time, with all that freedom and all that Catholic repression in their backgrounds, too?

We were a gang of six at that time.  Our friendships grew over the evenings and week-ends we lived in the dorm, as we  learned to manage studies, work, fun, and contemplate our futures.  But the dorm was the hub of most of our activity, and as  our friendships grew, we decided that this life should be fun.

I am convinced that this collective, unconscious fun-decision was made at some point on a week-end, when the dorm emptied of most of its occupants, leaving us full-timers to create our own entertainment.  Allow me to share my favorite memories of those creative endeavors.

I swear I have no idea how this happened, but someone managed to break the lock on the pop machine in the basement of the building, leaving the door ajar.   This was welcome information, causing us to drag our bottoms to said room early on week-end mornings, to empty the machine of its contents in an effort to battle cotton mouth.

No one had mini fridges in their room during those years (this is making me feel really old), so we attempted to keep beer cool by attaching string to the plastic 6-pack holder, hang it out the window,  slam the window down on the string, and weigh that down with textbooks.  We lost several 6-packs before finally abandoning this scheme.

We tested the “You don’t spit into the wind” lyric from Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” hit from our windows during the most blustery winter months.  We were pretty confident that our loogies hit the third-floor windows (we were penthouse fourth-floor dwellers).

We quickly learned that the locking mechanisms on our door knobs were useless.  Taking the door knob in both hands and quickly rubbing it back and forth popped the lock.  This allowed us to take turns, at strategic times, to enter others’ rooms and conceal ourselves under a bed or in the closet, to scare the living hell out of the person upon her arrival, leaving the victim crumpled in the doorway.  One member of the group developed a regular entry  habit of marching first to her closet to fling the doors open wide, jump back, and follow that with a drop to the floor to search under the bed for any potential hidden intruder.

Carefully-selected centerfolds from Playgirl magazine might appear as you pulled your shade down at the end of the day (placed there, of course, by someone who had popped the lock on your room at some point earlier that day).

Anyone was a potential victim.  You were never safe.  You came to accept that.  One day when I returned to my room after class, I discovered a photo of myself, recently posted in a campus newsletter, taped to the mirror above the sink.  My teeth had been blacked out.

The showers and toilets were located at the mid-point in the hallway, separated by a wall.  We learned that flushing a toilet could inject a spurt of scalding hot water from the shower head located on the other side of the wall.  A common practice involved   flushing all the toilets, one by one, to create an extended  douse of hot water on the shower victim.  Of course, we all eventually learned to step away from the spray the minute we heard a flush on the other side of the wall.

We did questionable things with stuffed animals.  A lion often greeted  you in your bed, under the blankets, seemingly very happy to see you, given the raised covers.  Kermit and Ms. Piggy finally acted on their sexual tension.

We created a game called Dirty Story Scrabble.  With spelling,  grammar, and pronunciation rules nullified, the goal was to develop  a bawdy tale turn by turn, and to use up as many tiles as possible.  Superior to any romance novel … and a lot shorter.

Howling, crazy hall dances, disco dance routines, singing, dirty piggy-back songs,  water fights, and Walton-style goodnights became commonplace.

And on occasion,  you crossed the line.

One Friday night, my room mate and I were in our room after a long day of classes and work.  One friend was finishing up a rehearsal for a drama project and the rest of the group had gone roller skating,  (by car, a rare and revered form of transportation for us at that time).    In a typical display of undergrad logic in the face of a limited food supply,  we cracked open some Old Style and Oreo cookies.  This served as dinner.  As the evening wore on, we became relaxed.

Our friend who’d been working on the drama project eventually  returned to her room, and we paid her a visit.   She had ordered some take-out food and was clearly exhausted from the day.  Her sandwich and French fries were set up on her bed.  The usual teasing ensued — a familiar interaction among all of us.  We both began pretending to snatch her French fries.  She put up with this nastiness for the first few seconds, but as I stepped forward to snatch a fry, she bent down and caught my left leg at the ankle in a firm two-handed grip.  To compensate, I started bouncing on my right leg.   She took a step back and yanked.

Down I went.  I heard a pop come from my left wrist.  As I sat up, and we all laughed, I held up my arm and was surprised to see my hand dangling at an odd angle.  Within seconds, a thick gray knot formed at my wrist and sharp pain began shooting from my wrist to my shoulder.   My friend and I traded apologies as a rocked and held my wrist.  “I’m so sorry!”  “No, I’m sorry!”  “I shouldn’t have pulled your leg!”  “No!  I shouldn’t have teased you and taken your French fries!”

As if by clairvoyance, the roller-skating gang returned a few moments later, and I was whisked to the hospital.  While waiting for the results of the x-ray, I barfed into a trash can in the hallway, with my room mate by my side.   After a fracture was confirmed, my wrist was set, care and medication directions were provided, and we were sent on our way.

While this was one of our standout incidents, our  antics went beyond the walls of the dorm, to include placing a yogurt cup in the hand of the Christ statue near the lake; climbing the stairs to the nuns’ quarters in the main building (once only, but with cans of pop as proof of the visit); and rocking back and forth on wooden parking lot gates until they snapped.

We studied, too, of course.  And we worked our butts off.

Of course, the best result of those years is the enduring friendships that developed.  We get together at least once a year, and when we do, we catch up on each other’s lives and we laugh nonstop.  We still laugh about those times as if they happened yesterday.   I love that.

Life is short enough.  So hold onto your friends with both hands.  Even if they break one of them.







Quityerbellyachin’! You could live in Miami!

Woman in front of Fan

Chicago!  What’s up with you???  OK, so the Polar Vortex has slipped from its usual location at the north pole and knocked on our door for an uninvited visit.   So 187 million people have been affected by this deadly-cold air mass, leaving us crawling under layers of blankets,  reaching for hot spiced wine, and pulling on our bunny-face slippers.

Now I don’t mean to minimize the effects of this deep-freeze we’re experiencing, but we know snow.  We know ice.  We know wind.  We know shovels and snow blowers, and we are especially familiar with sore backs from shoveling multiple times a day to keep up with Mother Nature.

But the last few seasons of  mild winters have made us Winter Weather Wimps.  We’ve gone soft.  We’re bawling like babies because our fingers and toes are cold.  Or maybe we just can’t feel them anymore.   So what?

Well, we’re entering the crest of this blast, and after tonight the temperatures will re-enter the positive range.  So get your act together, Chicago.  And while  you do, let me tell you what you could be living through on a daily basis — 365 days a year, all year, if you weren’t here in the heart of the Midwest.

The grass is always greener on the other side.  And in this case, well, it really is.  You could be living in Miami.  That’s right.  You could be living in a place I lived for 5 flop-sweatty years.  A place where the temperature hardly ever reaches below 90 degrees and the humidity level is always one bazillion trillion  per cent.  Every day is a bad hair day in Miami.

Florida Beetle

You must understand something about south Florida.  Everything there is hotter,  sweatier, thicker, larger, heavier, stickier,  and much more dangerous to your health than any other area in the continental United States.

I offer a primer on all things Miami, and I want you to read carefully and remember these things the next time you want to start crying about a few flakes of snow.

Upon your arrival to Miami, as you disembark from the plane, you will feel that a giant wet blanket of humidity  large enough to cover a football stadium has been draped over you.  There is no escape from this blanket — no matter where you turn.  There are no exits.  You can check out, but you can never leave.  It’s the Hotel California of cities.

If you do not live in an air-conditioned building or home, or drive an air-conditioned car, you are destined to be in a perpetual state of drippy, nose-crinkling, over-the-top-offensive sweatiness.

Pianos go out of tune within minutes of being tuned in Miami.  Vacuum cleaners are useless on carpeting.  Push and shove all you want — that baby’s going nowhere.  Showers build up enough mildew on the walls to provide samples useful for a sixth grade biology class.  Think you’re gonna be dry after toweling off post-shower?  Fool!  You never stopped sweating – don’t you understand?

Visit any local high school during outdoor gym class, and watch how the students attempt to run the track.  Wait  just a few minutes.  You will soon observe them drop like flies, one by one, as they try to make it through the second lap.

You want to mow your lawn?  Good luck.  Just try pushing that lawn mower.  You’re better off purchasing a tractor-size cutter if you want to make anything happen there.  You say you want to prune your bushes?  Well, go right ahead.  But you might as well sleep outside, because the branches will have grown back by the time you stepped into your house.

And the animals.  Oh, sweet Lord, the animals.  The animals — from the tiniest insect to the noblest forest creatures — are mutant forms of their species.

You must be  careful never to walk or mow over a nest of red ants.  Their hills , subtly visible above ground, cleverly disguise their underground tunnels, which penetrate all the way to middle earth.  And they operate in armadas, sending millions of their brethren to cover you from head to foot, stinging you repeatedly with their acid, until you drop in a heap, unconscious, on your front lawn.

Grasshopper in Florida

Beetles in Miami are  the length of an average forefinger.  You could put a saddle on them.  They are invincible.  I crushed one flat with my foot in the kitchen many years ago, covered it with a paper towel, and stepped away for a moment.  When I returned the beetle was gone.

Grasshoppers are multi-colored creatures the size of a human hand, and can jump from one side of the street to another.    They can even jump over houses.

You know the adage that you probably swallow about 8 spiders over your lifetime, during sleep?  Well, you probably swallow 2 or 3 geckos during your life time in Miami.  They slip into your bedroom and cling to the ceiling, staring at you, unmoving, waiting for you to fall asleep.  You better tape your mouth shut and have clear nasal passages if you want to slumber peacefully.

Have I mentioned the raccoons yet?  Raccoons are the size of bear cubs.  They are everywhere.  We had them in our back yard all the time.  My father built traps for them, leaving a piece of meat to attract them.  They ate quite well.  Another time, my mother sent my father outside to squirt them out of the tree with the garden hose.  When he returned to the house and she asked what  happened, he reported that they were “licking each other.”  During a swim at Cape Florida, I actually watched two raccoons emerge from behind the trees, waddle out to the beach, and help themselves to the refreshments some unsuspecting swimmers had packed.  They actually perused the samplings with surprising decorum,  quietly exchanging sandwiches, fruit, and potato chips.

And do I even have to mention the sharks?  I mean, c’mon.  Many years ago the cover of the Miami Herald Sunday magazine showed an aerial shot of the beach at Cape Florida, with circles drawn around three sharks swimming within one hundred yards of the shore.  So it’s a very, very dangerous — life-threatening — place.

Now back to Chicago.  It’s a little cold here.  Yes, the winters are long, dark, bleak, and unforgiving.  But that’s the way they’re supposed to be.

And we’re tough.  Because we have to be.  We have to be tough, and we have to be nice, too, though.  We want folks to visit us.  We need their tourist dollars.  And  we want more movies filmed here.

Summer’s a mere six months away.  Right now, deal with the snow and ice.  Let’s adapt that other adage and say:  Slip on the ice three times, get up four.

We are Chicago.

The Cool.  The Proud.  The Snowmanators.


P.  S. Written with a wink to my brother Mike in Coconut Grove, FL

Marian Kathryn

Female Singer at Microphone

My mother died 23 years ago today.    Most of the people in my circle know the cause of her death – a brain aneurysm – but they don’t know all of the circumstances surrounding her passing because I simply couldn’t bring myself to reveal them.

Every year around this time I re-live the experience, with varying levels of intensity.  But I have never really made peace with it.  This year marks no particular round-number anniversary of her passing.   Telling the story may help me take a step in that direction.

Like  many other mother-daughter relationships, mine with my mother was complicated, despite how much I loved her.  In December of 1990 I was contemplating not visiting my parents in Miami during the Christmas holidays.  This would be the first time I’d not be there.    As the date drew nearer, though, guilt and my sense of daughterly duty won out, and I made travel plans.

Changes in my mother were immediately visible upon my arrival.  She had lost a good deal of weight.  At 5’3″, she was always diminutive, but now she  appeared thin and pale.  She had also moved from coffee to tea, was not drinking, and was hardly smoking at all — this in someone with a three-pack-a-day habit.  Her appetite had diminished as well.

On the Saturday after Christmas, I decided to visit Miami Beach for a while.  She heartily encouraged me to go, as she always did when   any social excursion was in the offing.  I left around 10 in the morning and returned home shortly before 3 in the afternoon.

Upon entering the house, my father told me that my mother was ill with a horrible head ache, had been taking large quantities of aspirin, and even ingesting vaporizing rub to battle the pain.  She’d refused to let him take her to the hospital.

When I approached her, she said it was one of the worst head aches she’d ever experienced.  I begged her to let us take her to the hospital, but  she angrily refused.   She made it clear she would not go.  I knew this behavior well , having developed long ago the habit of backing off in such situations, to prevent  the tension from escalating.

As the evening wore on, I followed her, sat with her, and offered everything I could imagine.  She was clear-headed, but quiet.

She went to bed  around 10 pm.  As she lay down, she assured me she would feel better in the morning.  I lay down on the other side of the bed, having decided to  stayed awake and monitor her.  I remained awake all night.

At 7am she was still asleep.   I checked on her again at 8am and found her still asleep.  This was unusual, because she had always been an early riser.  I tried to wake her.  When I did, she opened her eyes — they were dark and mottled, not recognizing me.  She sat up abruptly, and rose from the bed with my help.  She was disoriented, walking aimlessly as I grabbed her hand and wrapped my other arm around her waist.  I managed to get her to a chair in the living room,  Her eyes were closed and her head drooped toward her chest — two symptoms I would later learn were the effects of a stroke.

As my panic set in, I shrieked to my father that we had to get her to the hospital.  He pulled the car up onto the lawn, as close to the front door as possible.  I gathered her in my arms, stunned at how light she was, trying cradle her head against my chest.  We placed her on the front seat between us.

After admitting her to the emergency room, we sat silently in the waiting room.  A doctor came out a few minutes later, and the look on his face spoke volumes.   He inquired about how she fell ill, and we told him everything, including her refusal to go to the emergency room.  “I think she’s had a bleed,”  he stated.  He would need to confirm this with tests.

We would learn a short time later that she had an aneurysm — a blood vessel with a weakened wall — that had burst deep inside her brain.  The prognosis for survival was 50%.

I was horrified.  What was I thinking?  How could I have allowed my mother to stay at home, only to lapse into a coma during the night?  How could I have backed off like that?   I was sick to my stomach.

Later that day I telephoned my brothers and sisters to inform them of her illness.  Two were local, and the rest were in other parts of the country.   One lived in Sweden.  They began arriving, one by one,  over the next 24 hours.

Despite the prognosis, we all seemed to hang on to the possibility that she would recover.   The doctor said there was no way to predict an outcome, and that she would have to be monitored very carefully.  Given this information, my brother in Sweden was advised to wait a day or two to make flight reservations.

I walked around in a fog, visiting the ICU daily, obsessively replaying the events from the other day in my mind.  On one visit, during the second day after she’d been admitted, she actually awakened, looked at me briefly, and said, “I’ll be alright.”  A flicker of hope.  A flicker of redemption.

The next day, though, she had a stroke.  Her health deteriorated rapidly from there, and we were told that her passing was a matter of time.

She died that Friday morning, six days after falling ill.  My brother was in transit from Sweden, never having a chance to see her while she was alive.

I sang her funeral two days later.  It was the only thing I  could give  at that point.  I’m still not sure how I got through it.  I was a mess.


A few months ago at mass, I  listened to the homily by a priest who was here during his regular summer visit from Africa.  He was describing some terrible experiences he’d had prior to his departure — a fire that had destroyed a section of a school he’d been building, the deaths of two children in his village who’d been poisoned after eating un-ripened  fruit, his luggage having been stolen from his car.  He said that he shared these events was not to express his own sadness or frustration, or even to elicit sympathy — but to find meaning in the experiences.  He suggested that this is our life’s work:  to find meaning in our experiences.

After all these years, I still feel badly about how my mother died, and never thought that I would be with her when she fell ill.  I wish I’d known more about aneurysms and stroke symptoms, and maybe I would have acted differently.  Two years ago a sister suffered an aneurysm (they’re often inherited), but made it to the hospital in time and recovered completely.  She is a walking miracle to me.

So I’m trying to take some meaning from this experience, even after so many years.  My mother’s death has had a firm hold on me all this time.  I just want to loosen the grip.  I’m trying to think about the power of patterns in relationships, and to see the value of risk-taking when the dynamics take over:  to resist the urge to tread the  familiar, cautious route — to take the hit of tension that comes when you confront what doesn’t feel right.  That’s the greater good.

Had my mother agreed to go the hospital that night, she still may not have survived.  I have been told this repeatedly by siblings, both in their genuine belief and in an effort to comfort me.   My nagging thought has always been, though, that perhaps I could have spared her some suffering.

We like to think that we have control over things.  There is precious little in our control, of course.  But we do have some control over how we respond to our experiences.   That’s the kicker.  And that takes one hell of an effort.  I want to put more energy into living my life that way.

My mother would probably tell me that all is well and there is nothing to more to fret about, and nothing to forgive.

Maybe it’s time to forgive myself.


Neat Freaks Unite! (And line up in an orderly fashion, please …)

Organized Pantry

“I’m untidy, but I have an organized mind,” said my former faculty roommate earnestly, as we sat looking at our office.  We had just moved in to the office together, and I dismissed her comment out of hand, especially since I already owned my own  fastidious nature.  We were like the ECE Faculty Odd Couple.  She was relaxed,  unfettered by rules, and integrated enough to not be hooked by campus politics.  I was less experienced, with an over-developed sense of responsibility that, at the time, had me up grading my papers until 1am.  Lord knows how we survived our two years together.  Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting, but all I know is that we had a marvelous time.  I don’t think I laughed so much at work in my life.   She turned out to be the best teaching mentor I’ve ever had.

My natural tendency to be neat goes way back,  likely a combination of constitution and a home environment that supported  organization and cleanliness.  Still, though, even my  mother seemed a little mystified at its early manifestations, suggesting to me when I was in kindergarten that I let my bed air out just a little before making it every morning.

My neatness evidences itself in many ways.  I store similar dishes and beverage vessels together in the kitchen cabinets; refrigerated food items are placed neatly in compartments, ordered by food category and size, as necessary; pantry items are also placed, in order of potential consumption, by height, in that most-popular foods are placed higher on the shelf (I draw the line at alphabetizing items, Accidental Tourist-style;  however, it just makes good sense to place the soup cans with the labels facing front).  My toiletries are placed in specific reservoirs of a make-up divider, while larger items, such as deodorant, lotion, and bath powder are stored in a line, by height.   I have been known to pick up microscopic dust bunnies, food bits, and fallen medicine tablets from tiled or carpeted surfaces, and to sweep such objects from chairs and couches as well.  I have also been known to re-align dishes in the dishwasher  and correct mis-arranged table settings.  I’m only doing this  to be helpful.  When  I gave up my 12-year-old VW Beetle last summer, the dealer marveled at its excellent condition.  I blushed my thank-you, but secretly hoped that no fuzzy pennies or melted Skittles had  escaped my search-and-seizure cleaning.

At work, I use a filing system for all documents and textbooks.  I am quite fond of binders, as retro as they may be in this world of cyber-storage.   The bulletin board outside my office is organized into attractive quadrants, with appropriate notices placed tastefully in departmental-, field-, event-, and class-schedule categories, atop a color-sequence of construction paper stapled over the cork.   I still write “take attendance” on my class agenda every week, in case I forget to do that.  I may re-write notes on the white board before class 2 or 3 times, to get them just right.  OK, so there might be some mild OCD operating here, but don’t you think everything should be clear?  Huh?

During my years as a cantor at my neighborhood church, I wrote the hymn introductions on post-it notes, placing them strategically in my song binder.  I didn’t want to botch an announcement or say the wrong number of a hymn.  That the music was right there in front of me didn’t  suggest necessarily that I would actually read from it.  The post-it just made it official.  Doubly-clear.  Doubly-right.

So here’s the thing with we neat folks.  We value the predictability that organization, planning, and ordering the environment provides.  When the physical environment is cluttered, we get tense.  When I have to store fliers and upcoming event materials in my tiny office, and the floor space begins to shrink, I feel claustrophobic.  I actually close my eyes when talking on the phone during those times.  When the physical environment is more orderly, calm is restored.

I invite you to consider the benefits of being connected to a neat freak.

High standards for aesthetics and guest-readiness are clearly in order. We want you to feel good.  Things just look pretty.  I can find just about anything you’re looking for.  Things are very clean.  There are no surprises (or hardly any).  You will get the prettiest, most attractively-wrapped gifts ever.    Need I say more?

Yet, research has delved into the implications of our nature and its connection to the physical environment — and how a propensity for conscientiousness or sloth (are these terms too strong?) may influence not only the kinds of choices we make, but how creative we are.  An article in the September 22 issue of the New York Times Magazine summarized recent studies exploring such themes.  More recent studies have  explored the positive role a cluttered physical environment plays in creative thinking.  For example, college students placed in messy or neat offices were asked to make a list of different uses for ping pong balls.  The lists generated by students in the messy offices were deemed more creative.   Researchers were surprised, but concluded that the cluttered environment might have a hand in thinking that is “… free of tradition” and “… produces fresh insights.”

Still, the study’s director, Dr. Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, also suggested that one’s goals may require some careful thought in connection to the state  of the physical environment.  She suggests that if your goal is creative thinking, then a disorganized environment may prove helpful; if, however, you have a more direct goal, such as your own physical health or fitness, then organizing your environment first may help you march in that direction more successfully.

Interesting.  This seems to imply, of course, that both tidiness and disorder have a place in our lives.  We need both dispositions, though we may need to determine how to use them more effectively.  Perhaps the fastidious and the slovenly can come together in a meadow (not too far from an urban area and access to high-speed, comfortable transportation) for a  convention.  The fastidious folks would plan the agenda, and the slovenly would plan the entertainment.    And therapists well-trained in conflict management would be on hand for some post-meeting de-programming.  It could happen.

This study also proves that two very different folks can successfully share physical work space and thoroughly enjoy their different bents. Yours truly is living proof.  It may not work all the time, but it’s lovely when it does.

So, you need us.  We need you.  I can weed your garden, clean your house, and organize your calendar.  You can help me  double my time between loads of laundry, drink juice beyond the expiration date, and  stop ironing my slips.