Monday, September 28, 2009

Mt. Vernon Redux

It's been nearly thirty years since my last visit to George Washington's estate. Friday I drove my college roommate and her French visitors down to experience the place. I knew about the new memorial to mark the place were GW's slaves had been buried, but I had no clue about the three year old visitors' center and small museum.
Not sure who designed it, but I like it. It fits in well with the rest of the buildings, yet has a modern, light presence. A marvelous scale model of the main house is a feature we particularly appreciated. It's sides were open so that each authentically furnished miniature room was recognizable.
I suppose it's a good idea to orient people before they see the house and out buildings. We were herded into an auditorium to watch a film about GW. The opening was narrated by none other than Pat Sajak looking and sounding perfectly goofy in colonial garb. Following that was a melodramatic reenactment of parts of GW's life.
We were then ushered out into blinding sunlight to hike up a brick path to the main house. The line waiting to get into the house was too long, so we walked the counter-clockwise path toward the house and stopped in the gardens.
Along the way, we marvelled at the enormous trees, many of them labeled and wired to protect from lightning strikes. Some had been planted by GW himself. The gardens were still producing lettuces, rosemary, eggplants, peas and more. We then took a breather on the river side porch before heading out.
A flock of Canada geese adroitly flew out over the river then landed on the lawn, enthralling a class of adorable third-graders. Adults snapped dozens of pictures.
Walking through a phalanx of magnolia trees, I spotted one I'm sure had been spliced onto an elm trunk. It's not the best picture, but can you see what I mean? If you click on it, you can get a bigger view. What do you think?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

People Watching

Last Thursday I enjoyed some prime people watching. After I picked-up my college roommate and her visitors from France, we headed over to Arlington Cemetery, a place they specifically wanted to see. Being an emotional type, I no longer do Arlington nor the Viet Nam Memorial. Anyway, as the menage a trois took off to hike to the Kennedy graves, I hung out in the visitors' center. Previously, I'd only been in the administrative building, waiting to proceed with an interment of ashes in the columbarium. Everyone there was solemn and quiet. The visitors' center is a bright and airy gateway to enter and exit the cemetery. Moving photographs from events at Arlington line the walls of a central rotunda. I sat on a wooden bench across from a huge photograph taken at JFK's graveside the day he was buried. People were visibly moved by it and a tiny model of the funeral cortege in a case under the photo. I heard familiar languages and a few I couldn't identify. Every shape, size and ethnicity of human being came through. There were even a few gender-benders, too. I suppressed giggling at a young teenaged boy wearing hightops that looked several sizes too big. They were loosely strung with acid green and orange laces. He looked so intently at the photos while subconsciously fondling his very young looking girlfriend. To be expected, there were plenty of old-timers, too. Some were bent by age, while others strode purposefully through the building. Clearly, many of them were vets. I couldn't help but think about my Dad and how he waited until his last days of life to reveal any of his wartime experiences to his children. I wondered if these men and women were living the same, repressed lives. I hope not . . .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Playin' on the Tracks

When I was a kid, the Northwestern commuter trains connected the northern suburbs with Chicago. Now they're part of the Metra system. Right after we moved from our first home near the lake to an historic [old] house several blocks west, trains came into my life in a big way. There were three houses and yards between our house and the railroad crossing. One of my first memories of living in that house is watching big, black locomotives chugging down the tracks, blasting black smoke that streamed nearly to the end of the train. It was a magnificent sight. If a kid happened to be standing near the crossing gates, the engineer would blow the whistle in response to the kid's hand-signal. Truckers will sometimes do that, too, but getting a train engineer to blow the whistle was like winning first prize. Not too many years later, those grand old engines were replaced by sleek, yellow diesel engines. The horns on those trains sounded like meep, meep in contrast to their predecessor's sturdy, basso tooooot, tooot. And, rather than clouds of black smoke belching from the tall smoke stack, a trickle of bluish-gray smoke leaked from a squat, yellow stack. Not impressive. The northbound and southbound tracks were separated by an earthen ridge. It seemed pretty high to us little kids, but it was probably all of 10 feet high. My older brother and I spent a lot of time on the top of that ridge. Someone before us had scraped out a hollow in the top; a perfect hiding place from the putt-putt-man. The putt-putt-man was one mean dude! He drove a little engine up and down the tracks, checking for anything that needed repair. If he saw kids anywhere near the tracks, he would shoo us off with dire warnings. We had to keep an eye peeled for the putt-putt-man so that we could hide before he saw us. I can remember the smell of dry, sooty grass from throwing ourselves onto the ground to avoid being caught. If the putt-putt-man stopped his putt-putt, we'd nervously hold still, hoping he wouldn't find us. Climbing to the top of the ridge was pretty straight forward. It was steep, so we climbed in a zigzag path. Coming down was something else. It involved running at full speed or sliding on your butt -- sometimes in combination. There were a few close calls when kids rushed home in response to a parent's angry hollering. We were free spirits until a parent called us back home. The next time I spent any serious time with trains was during my first two years in college. I rode trains to and from my campus. It was always a big, 4-hour party because there were several more colleges along the route I took. My college was about 35 miles from a railroad terminal in Burlington, Iowa. I will always remember my first visit there. Walking toward the yard filled with dozens of idling locomotives felt a little like walking near the edge of a volcano. The ground trembled and the noise was intimidating. The wheels on some of those engines were taller than me -- much larger than the trains of my youth. It was over-powering just standing near one of them. From then on, I didn't mind being stopped at a crossing waiting for a 100-car freight train to pass by. Now I watch how the wooden ties under the iron rails creak and sag under the weight of those big ole locomotives hauling millions of tons of cargo. [Speaking of wooden ties: once, during a nighttime thunderstorm, a railroad tie at our crossing was struck by lightning and caught fire. Ties were coated with creosote to preserve them, so they were flammable!] To this day, I prefer trains to any other form of transport. I enjoy driving, but you can't get up and walk around in a car! Jets take you above the clouds, but trains allow you to see where you're going and where you've been. Besides, people are more apt to socialize on a train because they're not belted into a seat and stuck there for however long the trip takes. The smell of creosote still conjures good memories of getting up close and personal with Monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed plants and searching for [and finding!] fossils along the railroad track bed. Our choice of playground may sound dangerous, but we weren't distracted by electronic gadgets. We lived in the moment and usually had the family dog with us -- no batteries required.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Thought we needed some color . . .

Friday, September 18, 2009

Since when . . .

. . . did cold, hard cash become unacceptable?! Spouse had his first appointment with a specialist today and was told they would not accept a cash payment for services. Since he doesn't carry credit cards or checks, he ended up phoning me to provide my credit card info. Now I might understand their refusal had he offered foreign currency, thousands of pennies or a McKinley. He had the exact amount. What then has happened to the validity of good ole Jacksons, Hamiltons and Lincolns? They still work in the grocery store . . . I don't get it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Her Name Was Kenya

I am haunted by a little girl I first met almost twenty years ago. It was during the pilot phase of a collaborative program I developed between the then D.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross and the YMCA at 17th and Rhode Island Ave. in Northwest. The issue of homeless families was front and center then as it remains today. I was looking for ways to provide learning and play activities for children living in shelters. In a nutshell, I recruited several adults from ARC and the YMCA to mentor a group of middle-school aged kids who were living in a city shelter a few blocks from the Y. The first Saturday session, we invited parents to come with their children to see, firsthand, what they had signed them up for. We explained that each two hour session would include a discussion on personal safety, first aid, conflict resolution and other timely topics. The rest of the session would be supervised use of the Y's exercise equipment and interaction with the adult volunteers. Lack of enthusiasm on the part of the parents who came we chalked up to weariness and frustration with their situation. It didn't dampen our spirits. The kids were a little wary at first, but soon opened up when they got to use the exercise machines. They were bundles of energy ready to burst! A six or seven year old girl who came with her older brother and their mom pried her way into the group. She was not old enough and had not been registered, but there was something about her that forced me to let her stay. From then on, when we walked over to the shelter to escort the kids to the Y, she was ready and waiting with the older kids. I remember her dancing along beside me, her hand flitting in and out of mine. Unless I was doing the presentation, she would curl up in my lap as we all sat on the floor for that day's discussion. She seemed fascinated with my hair and liked to play with it. Her own hair was uncombed and matted. Her clothing was dirty and I'm not sure she was ever bathed. Now I admit to being sensitive to smells and would usually try to get away from an unpleasant odor. But this child grabbed my heart and held on for dear life. One morning she had pushed up her shirt sleeves. I noticed bruises on her arms and as soon as I did, she yanked down her sleeves. Then she put on a phony smile and started acting goofy. When I gathered her back into my lap she quieted down. Then, looking more closely, I saw scars on her hands and head. The following session, neither she nor her brother showed up. I heard nothing from their mother and my phone calls dead-ended. I couldn't get that child out of my thoughts and my imagination took over. Had her family found housing? Was she in the hospital? Was she living in a car somewhere? I never found out. The family just vanished. Child Protective Services could do nothing at that point, so I had to try to let it go. I don't know what triggered these memories last night, but I had to get out of bed to put them in writing so I could try to set them aside -- again. She still has a place in my heart.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Grandeur Gone With the Tides of Time

I've been reading reminiscences of Woodward and Lothrop -- Woodies to the locals -- in the Washington Post. I, too was heartsick when I heard that fine old department store was closing. I felt the same way when my beloved Marshall Fields was bought a few years ago. It had been an elegant, recognizable fixture in downtown Chicago. It was also the anchor store for our little suburban Market Square. Fields, as we familiarly called it, was where brides shopped for their wedding gowns in an elegant salon. The sales ladies all wore modest black dresses with stockings and heels and treated the brides like princesses. Like Washington's Woodies, Fields was also where wealthy matrons had their furs cleaned and stored during the off season. Fields would also clean and block one's kid gloves and offered a huge selection of the very finest. I recall that there was a code dictating which gloves to wear for which event. It had to do with their length, the number of buttons on them and, of course, color. One did not shop in Fields wearing jeans and flip-flops. During the era when ladies and young ladies (that's what well-mannered girls were called) all wore dresses, Fields was the place to shop for them. The selection was always tastefully conservative if not a bit boring. The bigger Marshall Fields stores had gracious tea rooms where ladies lunched and enjoyed their leisure. My favorite lunch was their cheesy chowder; an incredibly rich clam chowder. Frango Mints were world famous as were a few other gourmet treats sold exclusively by Marshall Fields. My family was not wealthy, but our Chicago suburb had long been home to some very wealthy families. For the most part, they had old money, so were down to earth and never snooty. Mom knew several of these families because she had sung at funerals, weddings and in our local opera company. She sometimes would be gifted with tickets to the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera. [One time, when I went with her to the symphony, I sat next to Mrs. Pirie. Her family was connected to Carson, Pirie, Scott -- another chain of department stores. I struggled to suppress my fascination with an absolutely enormous, cornflower blue sapphire ring she wore. Her furs didn't impress me, but that stone sure did!] It's sad that the grand, old department stores with their polished brass and bronze fittings, plush carpeting, chandeliers and uniformed elevator operators and washroom attendants are now history. Those stores thrived because of their painstaking attention to customer service and their charming amenities that made shopping an event. They purveyed quality products and a comfortable formality and elegance that made everyone feel special. Marshall Fields and Woodward and Lothrop were places where good manners mattered. It would have been unthinkable to leave a wad of ABC gum on a dressing room door!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Some of what I have learned from being married.

1. Pick your battles. > Before reacting to what happened/didn't happen consider whether or not you will remember it five years from now. If not, let it go. If you think it will continue to bug you, react reasonably and as civilly as possible. 2. Generously apply please and thank you. > Thank him for taking out the trash. > Thank her for surprising you with your favorite casserole. Please is the grease that makes asking for a favor less onerous. It can also be the reinforcement when you want to insist on something; eg. please don't wear that sweatshirt when we go out in public -- or -- please get rid of that stinky perfume. 3. Don't take everything personally. > If he comes home all bent out of shape, don't automatically think it's because you've failed in some way. He might have been cut-off in traffic and have a raging headache. Don't take offense if he crawls-off for some alone time. [Not that this should become a habit, mind you!] 4. The only time it's OK to let yourself go is during sex. 5. If you don't like the way he does something, learn to live with it or, as an example: > Slip in when he's not there and use the gritty stuff to really get the bathtub clean and DO NOT say anything about it! 6. Leave well enough alone. > In other words, don't complain when he wants to rearrange the contents of the freezer. Is it really such a big deal? He might actually do a good job. 7. Let bygones be bygones. > Let go of your anger at him for ogling pretty girls when you're together. However, quietly let him know you notice and don't approve. Sometimes a little feigned jealousy can be flattering. DO NOT store the incident away to fire at him during your next argument/discussion. Refer to #1. 8. Give him the chance to fix it, even though you can do it much quicker.