Friday, November 03, 2017

The $6.75 Smash-And-Grab With A Heartwarming Twist

NORTH CENTER — At 1:26 a.m. Thursday, Carrie Bowers got the call that all small business owners dread — an alert from her alarm company that there'd been a break-in at her North Center shop.
Bowers raced to Embellish Boutique, 4161 N. Lincoln Ave., within 10 minutes, to find police already on the scene.
The thief had (barely) busted through her front door — outfitted with a special plastic film to make it shatter-resistant — passed up all the jewelry and handbags on display and headed straight for the cash register.
The robber's haul?
"They took $6.75 worth of quarters," Bowers said.
After a robbery six years ago, Bowers learned to keep a small amount of money in her register at closing time, and to leave the cash drawer open. A thief's attempt to bust open a $4,000 register system winds up costing more than whatever's in the drawer, she explained.
Once officers gathered evidence, they waited with Bowers until a board-up crew arrived to put a temporary patch on her door.
"The cops were amazing. They were just on top of it," she said.
Then Bowers attempted to open for business as usual, declaring herself more mad than scared.
But there was nothing normal about Thursday.
Having seen Bowers' Facebook post about the break-in, a steady stream of neighbors popped in to deliver flowers, snacks and even essential oils to clear the shop of "bad energy." Fellow business owners offered to scour their security cameras for footage of the thief, leaving Bowers hopeful the intruder would be caught. Loyal customers stopped in to make purchases, just because.
"I've been in this business 10 years, I just kind of roll with the punches now. I'm not letting some jerk get to me," Bowers said. "But I get teary-eyed over the community response. I guess I'm speechless for that part. It's amazing a neighborhood cares that much."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Selfie Apocalypse: Does Anyone Even Give a Shit That We've Become Totally Tasteless?

Kim Kardashian has announced plans to release a book of selfies, titled, appropriately, "Selfish," and this, surprisingly is not the absolute nadir of the look-at-me picture-taking craze. (Though I feel in need of a "Silkwood" shower simply for googling "Kim Kardashian selfie book.")

Nope, that crown would go to the folks I saw snapping their smiling mugs in front of the World Trade Center Memorial. The folks posing for selfies in front of the names of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, standing on what is, for all intents and purposes, a burial ground, and sporting the same goofy grins they'd use at Disneyland.


The lack of respect and dare I say, decorum, took me aback. The memorial, in my mind — and I say this as someone who had never so much as visited New York City until a week ago — should be treated like hallowed ground. Like Gettysburg. Like the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Like Normandy.

But here were all these t-shirted tourists texting, Tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming selfies taken in the footprint of the fallen towers, oblivious, it would seem, to their surroundings.

Call me a prig or a curmudgeon or old (which, in these times, in this culture, is the greatest insult available) but I was offended. I wanted to scold, chastise or somehow otherwise convey to these people that were being assholes.

Instead, we walked away.

A shame, really, because the memorial itself is beautiful. Stark and sobering, its cascades of water shooting not skyward in exuberance but falling ever downward, like tears into the abyss. It made me sad, to look at those names, and took me back to that September day, when we sat in our living room, glued to the television as newscast after newscast played desperate answering machine message after desperate answering message that people trapped in the towers left for their loved ones.

It made me cry all over again.

But here were all these teens texting, Tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming selfies. And adults who should have known better. Adults who should have known that there is a time and place to simply be an observer, not a participant.

We spent the next few hours wandering Battery Park and Lower Manhattan and eventually found ourselves at Trinity Church. The sharply-pointed ancient spire caught my attention first, but it was the graveyard that held it.

I have a thing for cemeteries. For walking among graves, looking at stones, reading history. There are entire novels written in these names and dates. Much older men married to much younger women and you can imagine the decades she spent as a widow. And maybe that he wasn't her first choice, or any choice at all, for a husband.

There are beloved children gone to their rest at the age of 2 or 8 or 12, sometimes more than one in a family, and the sorrow of those words etched in stone is still palpable centuries later.

And there is always a surprise or two. The guy who defies every actuarial table ever devised and lives to be 86 in the 1700s when that was very nearly the equivalent of knocking on the door of immortality. "That's awesome, dude," I think.

We spent a long time at this cemetery, longer than my husband wanted to, with his eye on the clock and the Brooklyn Bridge still to walk across and back.

But I lingered, reading what markings were still legible in the heavily eroded rock, noting names and ages and respecting the stone path the church had carefully laid out among the stones. We were guests in someone else's home, was the path's implicit message, and expected to behave as such.

I couldn't put into words why I was so taken with these graves, but Dave could.

"You're remembering them," he said.

Yes, calling these people, so long forgotten, back into memory.

That's how I wanted the World Trade Center Memorial to feel. If I were managing the site and writing the rules, that is what I would say.

Call those buried here back into memory, and keep yourself out of the frame.

Monday, November 05, 2012


Here we are again, Election Eve. For the second cycle in a row, I've been all but blissfully ignorant of the presidential campaigns. Not the candidates, mind you, but the machinery and messaging that surrounds them. I live in Illinois, considered so solidly in Obama's camp, we barely merit a flyover. (Mistake? Witness Tennessee, circa 2000.) If Ohio weren't just a couple of states to the east, I suspect we wouldn't even merit that.

I don't mind being ignored. I rather like having my commercial airwaves freed up for more important consumer brainwashing. How else would I know that it's nearly Thanksgiving if Target weren't already promoting Christmas?

I'd even go so far as to pity all those undecided Ohioans the blitzkrieg of attention they've been subjected to in recent weeks -- attack ads, the horror! -- if I didn't suspect the Buckeyes weren't secretly enjoying their 15 minutes of quadrennial fame.

I grew up in Ohio and frankly spent most of my early years wishing I hailed from Michigan, my mother's native land. Hello, Kalamazoo, coolest name ever.

Ohio is what I'd call an extremely regular place, indistinguishable from every other decent, solid Midwestern state except Indiana, which ought to be relocated to the Deep South. Ohio is so nondescript in fact, that it's frequently mistaken for Iowa. Three vowels and a consonant -- you can see how that might confuse people.

Allow me to pull back the curtain on this heart-shaped state:
  • Ohioans play a card game called "euchre," termed "poor man's Bridge" by some. This is a past time they share with folks from Indiana and apparently no one else. Correct me if I'm wrong.
  • At Christmas time, Ohioans produce a confection called Buckeyes either because they resemble a buck's eyes (as in a deer's ocular orbs) or buckeyes (as in the tree nut). Whatever the origin, Buckeyes essentially consist of a peanut butter center, coated in chocolate. If you think that sounds like a re-formatted Reese's Cup, well I never said Ohioans were original.
  • The Cuyahoga River once caught on fire. It'll never live that down.
  • Ohio's NHL team is nicknamed the Blue Jackets, to commemorate the state's role in the Civil War. Because when I think Civil War, I think Ohio. Paging Ken Burns - I believe we've discovered a new episode for your epic series.
I mock because I love. Some of favorite people live in Ohio. My parents, half the year, for starters. My sister, one of my brothers, my niece, two of my nephews. I visited back in October and we all spent a chilly fall Saturday raking leaves and tossing Frisbees - the sum of my childhood encapsulated in a single afternoon.

What I'm trying to say is that if Ohioans are notable for anything, it's being spectacularly normal.

Yet every four years, residents of the state are treated like the "Avengers" cast at Comic-Con. They're courted and fawned over and otherwise made to feel like the only voters of importance in all the land. Yet they're no different from the rest of us - no worse, no better - aside from displaying a persistent inability to make up their collective voting mind.

Maybe we should feel good about that. Maybe we should rejoice that this year's presidential election hinges on the choice of uncommonly common people.

Or maybe we should be frightened as hell that our fate as a nation lies in the hands of folks whose state chant -- OH-, IO- -- amounts to little more than a child's spelling exercise.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Baked Sunday Mornings--The Brookster

It's been awhile since I've baked -- 100+ temps this summer were not particularly conducive to turning on the oven -- or blogged (surprising how my productivity dropped with the acquisition of a job). What I'm trying to say is that I'm a bit rusty at both--so keep that in mind with my first contribution to Baked Sunday Mornings.

The Brookster was an excellent recipe to ease into this group. I've made brownies and I've made chocolate chip cookies; mashing them together didn't seem too complicated. And it wasn't, though it did leave me wondering how a commercial bakery manages to churn these out for customers when I spent an entire day producing a dozen treats.

I'm guessing the folks at Baked have all the ingredients on hand. Me, not so much. With my visiting parents in tow, it was off to one shop for "quality" cocoa--Valrhona, $12.49, just like the guys recommend--and dark chocolate (a brick of Callebaut). And then to another market for the semi-sweet chips, where I thought I could pick up Ghirardelli but was stuck with Nestle. (I could feel Matt and Renato judging me, or maybe that was just my imagination.)

The chocolate chip cookie recipe came together easily, as did the brownie mixture. "Do you use European butter?" my mom asked. Nope. I pulled out the four-pound four-pack of Kirkland butter from the refrigerator, which amazed her almost as much as our 30 oz. bottle of Costco mustard.

With the cookie dough in the fridge for its mandatory 3-hour sentence, and the brownie mix waiting to cool before I could add eggs, vanilla and dry ingredients, I had some time on my hands and headed over to water the community garden. You know you've been drinking from the gardening Kool-Aid when you say things like "I'm going to harvest the basil" instead of "pick."

I've loved my first foray into gardening, but it's also highlighted the fact that I'm a baker, not a cook. Back before mold and vine boring pests decimated the squash, the zucchini plants reproduced like rabbits and all I could think to do with this bumper crop was bake zucchini bread. Neighbors sauteed and grilled theirs, but I didn't get the appeal. Why cook something that can be vastly improved by disguising it with massive amounts of cinnamon and butter?

Back to the Brookster: Brownie batter completed, I had another three hours to kill. I don't know what the rest of you did with this long inactive phase, but I accompanied my parents to Chicago's American Girl store where we were on a mission to get my niece's doll's ears pierced. The absurdity of this errand was not lost on any of us. "I hope they don't get infected," joked my husband of dolly's lobes--then again, there is a doctor on call at the Doll Hospital.

Home again, the doll newly accessorized with star-shaped studs, I set about assembling the Brooksters. I imagine most bakers who attempt this recipe will, like me, use a muffin tin, as opposed to four-inch pie plates. And therein lies my one quibble: the alternate directions for baking Brooksters in a muffin pan aren't as precise as they need to be, particularly when it comes to the amount of cookie dough to top the brownies. The regular recipe calls for 1/4 cup, the alternate directions offer no such guide.

I guesstimated and my ratio of cookie-to-brownie was clearly off, with too much cookie. No brownie peeked out around the edge of the cookie--the final product essentially looked like a two-toned or layered muffin.I know baking is largely about taste, not appearance, but after an 8-hour process (given a break or two), I expected my Brooksters to match the photo in the book.

As for the taste, I have no complaints, though if the center hadn't been near-molten chocolate, I may have been less than enamored with the effort, which didn't blow me away as much as I thought it would. But, you know, it's not like I'm not going to eat them all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why I Give a Rat's Ass About Ashton & Demi

I don't know that they were the oddest couple ever (um, Anna Nicole Smith and that octogenarian), but I can't imagine anyone looking at Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher and thinking, "Yeah, that makes total sense."

Quite the opposite. She comes across as sophisticated and humorless while he seems like a cross between a doofus and a douche--a doodou. So I guess it's fitting that she didn't find anything funny about his extramarital affairs. Cue the divorce announcement.

I can't say that I was surprised, but I was surprised that I was sad.

I wanted Moore and Kutcher to go the distance, if for no other reason than to prove a younger man could love, honor and find an older woman attractive into her 50s, 60s and beyond. I mean, Hollywood's offered us plenty of examples of the opposite: Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart, Regis and Kelly. Demi's ex, Bruce Willis (56), is 23 years older than wife #2; 23, coincidentally, is the age of Willis' daughter Rumer.

I'm old enough to remember Demi Moore's debut as the much-reviled Jackie Templeton on "General Hospital," a woeful attempt to fill the vacuum left by Genie Francis. Which means that, gulp, like Moore, I'm over the age of 40 (but not as far over as she is, let's get that straight).

So I was rooting for her and Ashton. Somehow, my logic went, if the two of them could make it, it would be a victory for every woman on the far side of the 18-35 demographic. See, we're still relevant. See, men find our confidence and life experience a turn-on. See, we're in our prime. Ashton + Demi = validation of my very existence.

I know--trust me, I know--that's a stupid and irrational belief system I've got going. But it's also stupid and irrational that the current darlings of the red carpet are Hailee Steinfeld, Chloe Moretz and Elle Fanning--combined age, 12. Against this tidal wave of youth culture, Demi was the dam holding at bay the utter annihilation of all humans born prior to 1990. And now the dam has been breached.

Last weekend, we were visiting my brother, his wife and their new baby in St. Louis. As we were saying our good-byes, we ran into a neighbor from their apartment building, a female law student. Before my brother could introduce us, she blurted, "Are these your parents?"

Are these your parents? Granted, I'm 9 years old than my brother, but our mother is 35 years his senior. Do I look 70? Do I?

I physically recoiled at her comment, which tipped the nymph that she had made an egregious mistake. "We don't like you," my husband added. He was kind of, sort of, not really joking.

We continued idly chit chatting for a few more awkward moments and then headed toward our respective cars. "You know, she's in her twenties," my brother said, once we were out of earshot. "Everyone looks old to her." (Actually, I probably looked like her mom to her. I did the math, it's technically possible.) Forty, 70, 100--yeah, we're all the same. Not young.

But Demi taught us that didn't matter. Demi taught us that we could be physically appealing well past the age when women of previous generations were pushed aside. Demi was a big f-you to Emma Stone, Keira Knightley, Evan Rachel Wood and the rest of their porcelain-skinned sisters. I might have envied her impossibly toned body and insanely lustrous raven locks, but damn, she made the rest of us feel like we still had game.

Then Ashton had to go and cheat on her with some young piece of trash. Turns out he's the pig, cheat, louse and overall ass I always thought he was. Worse, he proved all the naysayers right, all the folks who said Demi-Ashton, couldn't work and wouldn't last. I hate that he pretty much confirmed their opinion that one day he would wake up and say, "Shit. My wife is old. She works her ass off to not look it, but she is. And some day, she's going to be all wrinkled and stuff."

But that's not why they broke up. Truth is, their marriage ended because he's a big doodou.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Little Mississippi in All of Us

I went to see "The Help" at the Davis Theater this weekend and I suspect I wasn't the only one at the Sunday matinee who thought, "God, I'm glad I'm not from Mississippi."

Not that I've ever met anyone from Mississippi, ever visited the state or plan to, but I've got a pretty good idea--thanks to TV and the movies--of what it's like to live there: it's hot and humid and racist. It's almost like Mississippi exists just to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

And walking out of "The Help," I did feel pretty darned good about the fact that I've never said the "n" word, never treated another person like property, never refused to let someone use my bathroom based on the color of their skin. I like to think that if I were raised in the Jim Crow South, I would have been, to borrow from "The Help," a Skeeter, not a Hilly.

Which is precisely what many find offensive about the film and the book on which it was based. It lets white people feel good, even heroic, about a decidedly woeful period in American history. We're all Skeeters now. Well, at least those of us who voted for a black man for president.

Except that any thoughtful person, of which I count myself one, will, after patting herself on the back, have the presence of mind to say, "Whoa, not so fast."

It's easy for us Yankees to feel superior to our Confederate counterparts until we take a look around our cities and neighborhoods, our schools and dining rooms. Back in Ohio, where I grew up, black people were so rare in my cozy little suburb that I can recall the name of every African-American student in my high school (not just my class, the entire school)--there were only five so it's really not such an impressive feat. I've lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years and in that time I've made a fair number of friends and acquaintances: single, married, older, younger, gay, Jewish, Serbian, gluten-free. Not a one of them black.

There are no black people in our condo building, just as I can can guarantee there are precious few white people living in certain areas of Chicago's South Side. Ride a Red Line train toward 95th Street some evening. If there are any white people still on board after Chinatown, it's a safe bet they're going to a Sox game. Take the Lakefront Bike Path south of McCormick Place, heck, south of the Museum Campus, and watch the hordes of white cyclists, runners and yes, a few diehard rollerbladers, dwindle to a trickle.

While black and white in Chicago typically breaks down along South Side and North Side boundaries, there are sizable Latino and Muslim populations in my little neck of the world. But you wouldn't know it from strolling through Lincoln Square most any day of the week. Ocktoberfest, May Fest, Apple Fest, Folk & Roots Fest--these all draw predominantly white crowds. The Latinos are over in River Park picnicking and playing soccer and volleyball. One of the city's few events that routinely attracted residents of all colors and creeds, the lakefront 4th of July fireworks, was canceled this year, leaving us all to celebrate the founding of our melting pot nation in our own segregated enclaves.

It would be simple to view "The Help" as revisionist history, or history filtered through the guazy kind of lighting that keeps Barbara Walters looking wrinkle-free and dewy at the age of 108. It's more challenging to look at "The Help" and see ourselves, in 2011. "Separate but equal" is alive and well in Chicago public schools. Wealthy white people are still relying on "colored" people to raise their children--look at all those Latino nannies.

And what of the bathroom situation, the rallying point of "The Help"? A few months ago, a repairman came into our home to fix our dishwasher. While I normally wouldn't feel the need to point out his ethnicity, for the purpose of this essay it's important to note that he was Latino. Before getting down to work, he asked to use the bathroom and, having had a few bladder emergencies myself, I responded, "Of course." He was so grateful, you'd have thought I'd just offered to pay off his mortgage. "Do people really say 'no'?" I asked him. Oh yes, he assured me. Plenty of women would rather have their serviceman waste time driving around looking for a McDonald's or an empty alleyway to pee in than admit them to their bathroom. Maybe they would do the same if the person were white, or a woman, but there's a part of me that suspects not.

So, my apologies to Mississippi. Turns out you're not so different from the rest of us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I'm Saying It's Too Hot and You Can't Stop Me

I don't know why our local meteorologists persist in delivering long-winded forecasts these days when the weather can succinctly be summarized as "fucking hot." On to the traffic report.

Because I live in Chicago, I'm not supposed to complain about the blast furnace outside my door. I'm supposed to be happy it's 100 degrees and not 30 below. You know what, I'm not. I'll take the deep freeze over a heat wave any day.

My husband is fond of saying that I'm too cold until I'm suddenly too hot. The thing about being cold is that it's possible, especially in the age of the Snuggie, to warm up--just add layers. It also provides an excellent excuse to drink hot chocolate or stoke up the oven with a batch of cookies.

The thing about being too hot is that it's impossible in certain situations to get any cooler. Anyone who's ever stood on an "L" platform knows what I'm talking about.

There's a certain sense of adventure when it comes to braving the cold. You put on your parka, pull up your boots, add scarf, hat and mittens and tell Mother Nature to bring it on. It's exhilarating to push your shoulder into the wind, to wade through a snow drift, to feel icicles forming on your nose hairs. You feel like an explorer, conquering the South Pole.

By contrast, there's nothing fun about the heat. Forget a sense of adventure, there's no sense at all other than of being hot, hot, hot. We were walking to brunch yesterday and I had to tell Dave to stop trying to engage me in conversation--I was too busy concentrating on the line of sweat running from my boobs down my abdomen. (Don't get me started on sweat. That's a whole other topic.) Where the cold puts a bounce in my step, the heat makes me feel like I'm moving slow-motion through molasses--when I feel like moving at all.

I'm not saying I'd like the climate to be stalled on perpetual February. Don't get me wrong, February sucks. But so does July and for the most part August. It's just that in February, you look out the window and think, what a cozy night to stay in, pop some popcorn and watch a movie. In July, you look out the window and think, sure would love to go for a walk or a bike ride or sit at an outdoor cafe and read a book and show off my cute new sandals. But it's too fucking hot.

See you in September.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Stand By Your Man

Several years ago, when I first started working at Tribune Co., one of my new colleagues asked what my husband did for a living. A harmless enough question. When I replied "social worker," the co-worker responded, "Oh. You must be the dynamic one in the relationship."

I was so offended, I didn't know how to react. I let the comment slide, but it has annoyed me ever since. And it keeps coming back to me, especially in light of recent scandals involving Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rep. Weiner (whose first name is now utterly irrelevant).

I suppose if you narrowly define "dynamic" as ambitious, and equate ambition with making gobs of money as our culture pretty much does, then, no, my husband Dave isn't dynamic. (Neither am I anymore, having left the Trib to become a starving freelancer.) He doesn't want to climb the corporate ladder or become Master of the Universe or a Captain of Industry. His huge career move was to graduate from social worker to teacher--he works in special education, helping disadvantaged kids reach their potential.

Dynamic? You be the judge, but he puts my ambitions to shame every day.

Actually, the word people most often use when they find out Dave's profession is "noble." This irks him to no end, I suspect because he senses the slight note of condescension in the term. They don't say "how exciting" or "how innovative" or "how challenging." They say "noble" as if he's off doing the bidding of angels, while the rest of us engage in the "real" world of commerce and business, stuff like manufacturing and retail and research. Stuff you can buy, sell and trade--including power and influence. These are the things we value. And while we're glad that people like Dave exist to take care of the young and elderly and all those starving people in Africa, the implication is always "better him than me." We'd much rather be Bill Gates. Or, until yesterday, Mr. Weiner.

I guess that's what bothered me about the whole "dynamic" exchange. My co-worker reduced Dave to his job title and annual salary and dismissed him as unimportant. Of lesser value.

Let's ask Maria Shriver and Mrs. Weiner how valuable Dave looks to them now.

This is why I married him. Not because I thought he would make a good provider or that we could become some sort of unstoppable super couple. I married him because at his core he's quite simply the best person I know.

So I'm fine vacationing in Michigan. Shopping at the Gap instead of Barney's. Eating cheap chow at local bar and grills.

Because I know that I will never have to stand behind a podium, facing a blitzkrieg of cameras and reporters, while my husband confesses to sexting, or sleeping with prostitutes, or fathering a child with the maid.

My guy may not be dynamic. He's so much better than that. He's loyal, faithful and true.

He's a keeper, not a weiner.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Those Three Little Words

I spent my Memorial Day exercising my freedom to enjoy 40% off at the Gap. I'd like to say that I at least purchased items in the colors of red, white and blue, but truthfully I'm more of a yellow, purple and pink kind of gal. (Fun fact: Apparently Latvia is the lone country man enough to fly pink in its flag.)

It was only after I had spread out my new loot at home that I realized I had forgotten to check one important detail: the washing instructions. I swear, with God as my witness, that if any of these items were labeled "hand wash only," I would...never wash them.

Over the years, I have gotten pretty good at ferreting out dry clean only clothing. Certain fabrics are dead giveaways (wool, cashmere, silk), as are certain retail outlets (Banana Republic, say, versus Old Navy). You can avoid or buy at your own risk.

Hand wash, on the other hand, is like the stealth bomber of labels. Perfectly harmless T-shirts will, upon closer examination, prove to be too delicate for the old spin cycle. How have we allowed clothing manufacturers to perpetuate this fraud upon us? It's blatant sexism, I tell you.

The introduction of the washing machine freed women from hours of labor. Ladies, remember the bad old days when we schlepped down to the river to whack our jeans and sundresses against the rocks? How about scrubbing blouses and socks against washboards that our husbands mistook for an instrument in a bluegrass band? Yeah, me neither. Because, progress, thy name is Maytag. Except now there's a vast conspiracy to send us back to the Dark Ages, also known as 1930.

At least with dry cleaning, I can fob the work off onto someone else. Hand wash is just me, mano a mano with my garments. Frankly, there's a certain hubris I attach to an item that demands my individual attention, or is so fastidious as to refrain from mixing it up in the washer with her brothers and sisters in cloth. I'm more than a little put off by the presumption that my affection is so great as to overlook this major character flaw.

Against my better judgment, I occasionally succumb to temptation and pull little Miss Hand Wash out of the closet. I usually regret the decision about the time I'm scrubbing the bathroom sink so that it's clean enough to give Miss Prissy Hand Wash and her ilk a soak. Sopping wet items are then draped over the shower rod, picking up creases and rust fragments while dripping water all over the bathroom floor. All of which explains why I tend to simply throw "hand wash only" in the dryer with a fabric softener sheet and set to fluff. It's possible to smell clean without actually being clean.

This solution wasn't an option, though, when I dropped a greasy French fry on a brand-new hand wash tank top. Seriously, first time I had worn the thing. I tried spot cleaning with one of those Tide-to-Go pens--no go. Next I doused the stain with laundry detergent, scrubbed and rinsed. Now I had a big purple-bluish blotch in addition to the grease.

Screw it. I threw the top in the washing machine.

Would I remove the tank in tatters and shreds? Would it crumble to dust in my hands? Would it shrink, turn colors, lose its shape or cease to exist altogether? I waited with bated breath. (Not really. That's the beauty of laundry machines--set it and forget it.)

You know what happened? Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing--both the grease and the blotch were gone.

I was free! Free from the tyranny of hand wash. It was like finding a loophole in "some assembly required." Giddy with emancipation, I tossed another sacrifice into the maw of the washer. Same result.

Fair warning "Line Dry": I'm coming after you next.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It All Comes Back to Hitler

A friend of mine recently introduced me to Godwin's Law, which states that any online discussion will invariably lead to Nazis or Hitler. Once you're aware of the Law, I promise you will start to notice it everywhere. To wit....

I have, for the better part of my life, been convinced that I was supposed to be British. As evidence: my obsession with the royal family, my love of Jane Austen, and my preference for stiff upper lips versus touchy-feely Oprah-style self confession.

Now David Lebovitz has me thinking I might be French. Frankly, the notion had never occurred to me. I don't consider myself particularly rude. I'm definitely not uber-fashionable (I'm wearing sweats and slippers as I type, quel horror!). And I don't get Jerry Lewis.

But in his book, The Sweet Life in Paris, Lebovitz more than once calls out the French for a decidedly non-American quirk: they don't believe in customer service. Tres magnifique!

These are my people.

During college, I worked at a department store to earn extra spending money. Compared to, say, working at a nuclear power plant in Japan, it was not a particularly onerous job, though I definitely thought it was. My personal pet peeve: customers entering my orbit anywhere within a half hour of closing time, when I had pretty much already counted out my register. I was scheduled until 9 p.m., not 9:15, people.

Our company's motto was "We want what you want," which was emblazoned on buttons we were all supposed to wear. I made up my own slogan, which I shared with my pal Tom, who worked in Men's while I was ghettoized in Children's: "We don't give a damn what you want."

The thing is, customers and management operated under the delusion that employees (dressed up as "associates") were there to serve them. Wrong. We were there to pass a set amount of time in order to collect a certain amount of money, nothing more. Whether we waited on 30 people or 3, our salary was the same. Personally, when I was slotted into the early morning shift, I made it a goal to see if I could get through the day without a single sale (busying myself rearranging the sock wall). If a customer came in with a return and put me in the red, so much the better.

Apparently the French are like-minded and I was all set to celebrate my newfound heritage with a croissant and a rendition of La Marseillaise when Lebovitz noted another Gallic trait: these people refuse to wait their turn in line. Egads!

This I could not abide. I am a big fan of rules, even unwritten ones, and I like people to follow them. Order is everything.

"You would like Germany," my brother said.

That's funny, because I am German. Or, to be more precise, a good number of my ancestors hail from Deutschland.

But nobody wants to be German. As a people, they're not as fun as the Irish, as chic as the French, or as romantic as the Italians. They're hard-working nose-to-the-grindstone folks who are obsessed with recycling, but they also damn near annihilated the world. Twice.

It's hard to wear your German heritage with pride. Sure, you can strap on some leiderhosen and act a fool, but in the backs of people's minds, they will always think, "Nazi" or "holocaust."

My neighborhood used to be Chicago's German enclave and there's still a residue of German influence, specifically an annual Oktoberfest parade. We ran into an old neighbor during last year's festivities. "My Jewish friends won't even come here," he told us. "They think this is so offensive."

Never mind that most of the people participating in the parade were born in the U.S. or after WWII. When it comes to Germans, it's guilt by association with Hitler.

Viva la France!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Need More Jennifer Egans

Jennifer Egan, you just won the National Book Critics Circle Award! Where are you going next?

"To the Harold Washington Library!"

Fresh off the honor for her highly innovative
A Visit From the Goon Squad (a prize many felt was destined to go to Jonathan Franzen), Egan appeared at Columbia College's Story Week in Chicago.

While not addressing the surprise win directly, Egan did note: "There's a cultural expectation that our most adventurous books will come from men. I was aware of feeling that I might be overreaching. There was the sense, 'Am I allowed to do this?'"

She was and she did, but a number of her fellow female authors seems to have denied themselves the same permission.

For the past year or so, I've been reviewing books for
Booklist. Maybe the editor there has me pigeonholed into reading works from a specific genre, but it seems like all the female authors I've been assigned write about one topic and one topic only: relationships. A popular sub-topic: marital infidelity.

I'm not saying this isn't fertile ground for a novel--heck, even Franzen thought so--I'm just saying there's a whole wide world of other material out there that women shouldn't leave to the guys to explore.

Take the two most recent books I've reviewed (both due out this summer): One is about a woman's break-up with her long-time boyfriend and subsequent whirlwind romance with and marriage to her rebound guy. The other is about a wildly dysfunctional summer camp, a misfit counselor, and a tragic act of shocking violence. Guess which book is by a female author.

I realize I'm making a sweeping generalization here, and of course there are exceptions. Hilary Mantel picked up a slew of accolades for Wolf Hall, which had nothing to do with Men from Mars and Women from Venus and everything to do with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

More of that please.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why Skyrocketing Gas Prices Are a Good Thing

I'll admit, I'm freaked out about growing older. If I spot a gray hair, I pluck it (alas, half the time it turns out to be a golden highlight). If there's a moisturizer that markets itself as age-defying, I buy it. If I had the money, I don't even like to think about what I'd do with collagen.

As much as I focus on the physical--I'm also working on my balance and strength-building--it's the financial aspect of my senior years that has me more than a little worried.

"I hope you kids have as much fun in your retirement as we're having in ours," my dad says, while he blows through my inheritance. Never mind that half his money came from his father, who never met a nickel he didn't like to hoard.

I see lots of cat food in my future.

So the other day, Dave and I decided to get our financial house in order. We met with a bona fide investment adviser--he worked in a bank and wore a tie--and tried to look smart and moderately interested as he talked about things like IRAs and annual yields and bond exposure.

He recommended a few mutual funds that might perform well for us. I hated to tell him that, frankly, us sinking our money into anything is a near certain guarantee it will tank overnight: I'm pretty sure we're the only people who didn't make money hand over fist in the late '90s; the original owners of our condo realized a 50% profit in 2 years and we...well, I don't have to tell you about the real estate climate. The only stock I ever owned outright was in a newspaper company. Hah, joke's on me.

Still, as The Adviser scrolled through his charts and graphs, it was hard not to swoon over funds that with past-year growth in the 20% range were as attractive as George Clooney in a tuxedo (forget 5-year averages of 3%, which are like George Clooney in a beard and fat suit). We could be rich! So long cat food and pass the caviar.

The thing is, as we delved deeper into our potential holdings, we found where the money was being made. While most of the funds were incredibly diversified, with rarely more than 5% invested in any one sector, almost all had oil at the top of their list.

"It's a good time to be in oil," The Adviser joked with a dorky guffaw that suggested why he'd been banished to an outlying branch of this particular financial institution rather than afforded a corner office at central headquarters.

So here was a conundrum. Did we want to be in oil?

Ethically, no. I believe in global warming. I take public transportation. We recycle. And I'm pretty sure that if America weren't so dependent on oil, our government could afford to fund things like health care for all its citizens instead of a war in Iraq.

But financially? Dave and I need to make money. We need for Wall Street--which I totally despise for having cost a good number of my friends and family their jobs--to go gangbusters. We need this because Americans are expected to pay for their retirement years through ever increasing gains in the stock market as opposed to a more reliable safety net. Like, say, a pension.

Pension has, of late, become a dirty word. It's what those fat cat union employees collect while the rest of us muddle through with our vastly depleted 401 (k)s. What I don't understand is why, instead of being angry at--and let's be truthful, jealous of--these individuals, we don't demand the same benefit. Why, instead of asking the corporations that profit from our labor to invest in our retirement, are we expected to invest in them?

I remember back in the '80s when my dad lost his pension--the owners of his company looked at that big pile of cash and decided they'd like to have it for themselves. I was in junior high or high school at the time, so I had bigger concerns, like curling my hair, but I was profoundly aware of the stress this produced in our household. Suddenly my dad didn't have to just worry about paying the mortgage and putting food on the table and doling out allowances to four greedy kids, he had to worry about paying for all those things 50 years down the road. Subtracting the allowances and adding golf course fees.

He began saving like a fiend. Every expense became a catastrophe. Every school fee, every doctor's appointment, every bottle of contact lens solution felt like we were dooming mom and dad to the poorhouse. Meanwhile, his boss indulged his hobby of Civil War reenactments.

So, yea for the demise of pensions.

Which brings us back to The Adviser and our debate about oil. The thing is, my grandpa lived to be 98. If I inherited those genes--along with his sweet tooth and short stature--my nest egg needs to be feathered for a really long haul. "How much is enough?" Dave asks.

We're going into oil.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remembrance of Valentine's Past

Marcel Proust dips a madeleine in a cup of tea and cranks out the world's longest novel. I see madeleines and think Valentine's Day 1996.

At the time, I had been "dating" my now-husband Dave for about six weeks. I say "dating" because we lived in different states and during those six weeks we had seen each other exactly once, our relationship built less on dinner and a movie and more on phone calls and letters (ah, those quaint pre-email days; 1996 sounds like Victorian England). He had traveled to Chicago in January and for Valentine's I reciprocated with a visit to Ohio. And I have no idea why, but I thought that baking him a batch of madeleines would be the perfect way to convey that he was The One. I guess they delivered the message successfully because by the next Valentine's Day, we were engaged.

I don't think I've made madeleines since--in the pastry canon, they're about a gazillion notches below anything with chocolate--but sweets have factored into most of our Valentine's celebrations, whether it's a candy jar filled with conversation hearts or a red velvet cupcake. This year we kicked things up a notch: Fritz Pastry announced a pop-up dinner that would feature five to six dessert courses. Seriously? Dessert for dinner. Why has no one thought of this before (besides me)?

Because man can not live on lemon granita alone, the meal started off with fennel soup and a salad sandwich, followed by a vegetable ragout encased in phyllo. (A fellow diner provides far better photos than I was able to snap.) Having duly consumed our recommended daily allowance of vitamins and fiber, the granita cleansed our palates of all that wholesomeness and it was time to get our sugar buzz on.

Two fruit courses followed, which I would never order in a restaurant because, hello, boring, but I relaxed when I saw that we would be finishing with two chocolate desserts. I have to hand it to the folks at Fritz, this menu was extremely well planned. The emphasis was on flavor and texture as opposed to rich and heavy. Don't get me wrong, I like my rich and heavy as much as the next gal, but not for five courses. Gastro distress was not high on my Valentine's wish list.

Fruit One was a dreamsicle vacherin--orange sorbet, vanilla ice cream, vanilla meringue, whipped cream, candied orange zest and clementine. It reminded me of the dreamsicle ice cream we had at a roadside stand in Rochester, or possibly Syracuse, New York, on our way to the Adirondacks. One of the best soft ice cream cones I've ever eaten, and I've eaten plenty. If you're ever in Rochester, or possibly Syracuse, you totally have to find this place. You should also check out this spot in Wisconsin that serves pretty much an entire pint per cone. Or this joint in Wyoming, where they sell locally-made hard-serve that comes in flavors like cabernet. Overheard: "You'll find this in all the five-star restaurants in Wyoming." Customer: "How many five-star restaurants could there be in Wyoming?" Ben & Jerry's factory and scoop shop in Stowe, Vermont, is a no-brainer. (The tour of the factory is a total dud but, bonus, free samples!) If this sounds like we've criss-crossed the U.S. eating ice cream, we have. That includes Zion National Park, where we were enjoying a cone while the sun set over the glittering canyon walls when a pack of wild turkeys descended and chased us off the grounds. You don't get that at Dairy Queen.

Fruit Two featured a refreshing pineapple sorbet--it's not like you can't get fruit in Chicago in February but pineapple kind of disappears after August--and tapioca. I can't say I was super-psyched about mushy pudding to start with, and when our waiter delivered the detailed description, I remembered why I usually avoid fixed menus. Because the chef will always include something you hate. If there's one thing I've learned about Dave, it's that he despises coconut. If there's one thing he's learned about me, it's that I abhor cilantro. Chef Fritz, not being married to either of us, had no clue, and put both in the tapioca. Imagine your hairstylist shaving your head and dying your scalp blue--it was that level of disaster. Except that it wasn't. Honestly, I couldn't taste any cilantro and Dave couldn't detect any coconut. Perhaps this was the new molecular cuisine everyone's been raving about and the ingredients were present in sub-atomic levels. Fritz should do us all a favor and pass this technique along to every Mexican restaurant as part of a "save salsa from cilantro" campaign.

Next came Chocolate One, a black forest chocolate cherry crepe souffle, all sweetness and light. We were starting to feel positively European, what with the meal already clocking in at well over an hour and not including gigantic portions of meat and potatoes. We've only actually been outside the States twice, once to Ireland and once to Canada, which normally I wouldn't count as a foreign country except that we went to Quebec. The Quebecois are serious about not being American or Canadian. They're French, goddammit. To prove it, they say things like "bon jour" instead of "hello." We became so adept at this greeting, people started mistaking us for locals. "Bon jour" we said to our waiter at a creperie in Quebec City. "Voulez vous, couscous," he responded, or something like that. "English?" we begged, panicked. "Ah, your bon jour was so good, I thought you spoke French," he replied. Lesson: When in Rome, do not do as the Romans do unless you're prepared to speak French.

Chocolate Two was a chocolate semi freddo (ice cream-esque??) with chocolate creme anglais and chocolate covered chocolate cerieal. You could try this at home with Cocoa Puffs, Edy's chocolate mousse slow-churn style and Hershey's syrup. In fact, I think I might.

The grand finale, "mignardises," re-imagined the four preceding courses in bite-sized portions. (Think mini raspberry macaron with chocolate filling as a version of the black forest crepe.) The meal itself proved something of a mignardises, taking us through all the years we've spent together, all the memories we've shared, how much our lives have become intertwined. I think about all of the places we've been, all the things we've done and, yes, all the ice cream that we've eaten, and I can't imagine any of it without Dave.

As the server handed us our bill, she put the cherry on top of our sweetheart's dinner. Fritz' parting gift to all its Valentine's diners: a bag of madeleines.

Monday, February 07, 2011

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Dibs Wars

A couple of years ago, the San Francisco Giants rolled into town to take on the Chicago Cubs. We had tickets to the game, which promised to provide more drama than usual, given the presence of the much-reviled Barry Bonds in the Giants' lineup.

As the disgraced slugger stepped to the plate for his first at-bat, the crowd came to its feet. And booed.

The raspberries rained down on Bonds, each one pelting him with the verdict of cheater. Because even though he's yet to be convicted of a crime, we've all pronounced Bonds guilty of abusing steroids.

I didn't join in the razzing, partly because of a strong contrarian streak--the more everyone else does something, the less inclined I am to take part--but also because I didn't feel it was my job to judge Barry Bonds. Of course, plenty of other people felt that it was. Plenty of other people felt secure that, under the same circumstances, they would have just said no to drugs. They would have acted with integrity. They would never cheat to gain an advantage over the competition.


We all have a little bit of larceny in us. As evidence, I point to the side streets of Chicago, currently littered with chairs and buckets and, in one curious instance, a Casio electronic keyboard. I speak, of course, of dibs.

Dibs, for the uninitiated, is a quaint Chicago tradition of holding your parking space following a snowstorm, using whatever castoff garbage you can find around your house. As a result, our streets currently look like a cross between an open landfill and a contemporary art installation. The point is that after you've allegedly spent hours digging out your car, you have a right to claim that strip of public pavement as your private spot. To which I again say, bullshit.

Though the mayor himself has tacitly endorsed dibs, much as he has cronyism and corruption, the practice has plenty of detractors--some have even likened the subject to abortion, Sarah Palin and "Glee" in terms of the polarizing reactions it produces. I would call that an overstatement, except for that I participated in a heated comments-section war on the Internet a few weeks ago and emotions regarding dibs do indeed run high.

The trouble with dibs is that, just like steroids, it's ripe for abuse. Plenty of people set out their placeholders in spots that they didn't personally shovel. I've seen one con artist on our block drag what looks to be a portable toilet for a disabled person from space to space. (I do NOT need to know what's going on his household with that particular piece of equipment taken out of commission.) Wherever he finds an opening, he marks his territory. Then there are those who will call dibs under the flimsiest of circumstances--if two inches of snow falls, they're out their with their chairs and buckets, despite not having so much as needed to shovel a single flake. In the absence of any regulation or oversight--Is there a time limit on dibs? Nobody knows--and what with the mayor and his minions essentially turning a blind eye, people can twist dibs to suit whatever purpose they want, for however long they want. In short, they cheat.

The real issue, of course, has nothing to do with snow and physical exertion and everything to do with the fact that there are too many cars in the city and not enough parking spaces. Our condo building has 26 units, so factor minimally 26 cars. We can't all fit in the handful of spaces on our street. If you don't snag one of those cherished slots out front, you have to park around the corner or around the block, or around the block from around the block. Admittedly, this sucks, especially when it's cold out, or late at night, or raining and you've just brought home a shitload of stuff from Costco or Ikea. But that's part of the charm of living in the city. We don't have garages and this allows us to feel superior to people in Naperville. It's a trade-off.

Then along comes a snowstorm and people suddenly use dibs as an excuse to get what they've always wanted, a guaranteed parking space. An advantage, much like steroids, over every other poor sap with a car. Once one person does it, more are sure to follow. Because if you don't, if you clear your spot but fail to "own" it, you'll find it filled with some other vehicle whenever you arrive home from work or dinner or whatever activity you deemed more important than holding onto your parking space. Just like you would any other night of the year. Normally you'd move onto the next opening, but courtesy of dibs, they're also taken--by a cardboard box, a ladder or a pair of folding chairs. (I must say, I do appreciate the whimsy of people who face their sets of chairs toward each other, as if passersby will stop for a chat at this makeshift street-side cafe and share a cup of hot cocoa.) So you circle and circle and swear that the next time it snows you won't be such a chump, next time you're calling dibs.

Kind of how if everyone else were doing steroids, you would be tempted to take them too--just to level the playing field. When the rules of the game shift--they go from non-steroids to steroids, from non-dibs to dibs--you either get on board or you get left behind. It doesn't matter whether you think the new world order is wrong, or even illegal, because holding onto your ideals won't help you keep your place in the lineup or find a parking space.

Personally, I think dibs is crap. I not only think it's selfish, I find it galling for people to think that by setting out a Casio keyboard, they can somehow claim ownership of a public street. If I shovel my sidewalk, can I tell you not to walk on it? Mostly I hate that dibs is indicative of an every-man-for-himself mindset.

A mindset I was sorely tempted to give into. Last week, it took me an hour and a half to shovel the two feet of snow entombing our Honda. While I was out laboring, I watched a steady stream of cars drive down our street, searching for a place to park. All the openings were claimed, natch, some by cars and some by portable toilets. I knew that the second we moved our car, one of these vultures would swoop in and benefit from my hard work.

"We are so doing dibs," I told my husband. I was about to retrieve a pair of plastic lawn chairs from storage when Dave stopped me. He'd been talking to a couple of neighbors from our building, all of them likewise digging out their cars, all of them likewise opposed to dibs. One guy even went so far as to walk across the street, take the chair holding a space, and chuck it into the facing yard. (What keeps other people from doing this? Fear of retaliation. If you appropriate a dibs spot, who knows what vengeance the "owner" will take on your car.)

So now we were being pressured to do the right thing, instead of the wrong. Dammit. If Dave had come home five minutes earlier or five minutes later, we would have felt perfectly comfortable participating in dibs--because everyone else was doing it. Once we learned otherwise, the decision became more difficult--cave to the mob and give ourselves the same advantage they had no problem claiming or stick to our principles and find ourselves screwed. I imagine there's a point when Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa faced this same dilemma. Just like everyone who calls dibs, they took the easier path. Think about that, ye dibs proponents, the next time you're tempted to boo someone for being weak.

For our part, we compromised. Instead of putting out plastic chairs, we've yet to move our car. It's like we're still in the game, but sitting on the bench, waiting for the rules to change back to normal.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

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How I Spent the Day After Snowpocalypse

When we'd had our fill of local news coverage of Snowpocalypse 2011—they pre-empted "The View," for crying out loud, and what's the point of a snow day if you can't wallow in craptastic daytime TV—we decided to venture out to see for ourselves what havoc the blizzard had wrought.

It was as spectacular as promised, no small feat given the hyperbolic predictions. Our street had yet to be touched by a plow and glistened in the glare of the short-lived sun. We checked on our Honda and then, like most people we encountered, decided to have a little fun before digging out. Fun being a relative term and consisting largely of walking down the middle of Lawrence Avenue.

Where major arteries had been cleared, sidewalks were still thigh-deep in drifts (mad props to Harvesttime for shoveling down to bare pavement), leaving pedestrians to take their chances on normally bustling thoroughfares. Given that most cars were buried, and that most drivers were still suffering PTSD from what will go down in history as the Horror on Lake Shore Drive, Lawrence, Western and Lincoln were all but deserted of automobiles.

On Western, we saw a convoy of plow-salt truck-plow blow through the intersection, passing up a CTA bus struggling to free itself from a snow bank. In Lincoln Square, there were plenty of gawkers, but few businesses open. The Davis Theater, normally an excellent refuge for those afflicted with cabin fever, is closed until Thursday, with snow piled up against the theater's shuttered doors in case anyone got it in their head to rush the popcorn machine. No need to watch "True Grit," anyway, we're living it.

Trekking down side streets, it was impossible to determine the rhyme or reason of the city's snow plowing efforts. Wilson clear, Sunnyside impassable. A few hardy souls were shoveling out their cars, but unless they went all James Bond and turned into airplanes (O'Hare, by the way is open, we learned at this morning's press conference, it's just that there are no flights), it was hard to see where anyone thought they were going.

So where were all the kids? Given Chicago Public School's astounding closure—with a lame duck mayor and an interim school chief, clearly the inmates are in charge of this asylum—I expected to see more than a few little people running wild and building snowmen. But a hike to River Park produced sightings of a lone cross-country skier and a pair of snowshoers—all adults. "They have these things called video games," my husband reminded me of the youngsters.

Have duly borne witness to nature's mighty power, we headed home exhausted. I had insisted on walking through drifts instead of around them, because why not, and I promise you it's the best cardio blast, butt-and-thigh firming workout you'll get all year.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do Movies Need Movie Stars?

I'm not going to question, examine or otherwise dissect why I and millions of other people care about the Oscars. We just do.

Now that the nominations have been announced, the official horse race is on. If I were a betting man and not a female averse to gambling, I'd wager on Colin Firth as a lock for Best Actor and Natalie Portman for Best Actress, though I've yet to see "The Black Swan" because I'm not a fan of psycho-thrillers or birds. Up until last night, I would have been thrilled to see Christian Bale take home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.

And then I watched "Winter's Bone."

"Winter's Bone" is one of those small indie features, made on a shoestring budget, that grabs all kinds of critical attention and next to no box office. Seriously, who wants to go see a movie about the daughter who has to clean up the mess left by her sorry ass crystal meth addicted father. I'll take another ticket to "Toy Story" please.

Still, I didn't want to miss out on a potential Oscar contender, so I added "Winter's Bone" to our Netflix queue and it eventually percolated to the top of the heap. Turns out, the movie isn't so much depressing as outright compelling. We've grown accustomed to seeing the urban poor onscreen ("Precious," "Gone Baby Gone"), but not so much abject rural poverty, and it is an eye opener. The people who populate this film are menacing and hard, so it would follow that the actors cast in these roles are not your standard Hollywood type.

That's a good thing, and brings us back to Christian Bale. Bale is outstanding in "The Fighter," an emaciated bundle of twitchy energy. You can't take your eyes off him (why he's considered "supporting" and not "lead" is a question for the Academy). But at no point are you not aware of this being Christian Bale delivering an Oscar-worthy turn. At no point are you not cognizant of the way Christian Bale transformed himself for the part--losing weight, learning an accent, dressing like a downscale caricature of Vanilla Ice. I'm not saying I wasn't amazed by all of this, but I also felt like that reaction was the whole point--look at what Christian Bale can do. I've seen Bale in interviews and more glammed-up roles like "Batman." I know how articulate he is, I know how handsome he is, I know that he's a movie star--I know what a "stretch" it is for him to tackle the part of this low-class lowlife.

Contrast that with John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone." Like Bale's character, Hawkes' is a drug addict. Unlike Bale, Hawkes doesn't just make you nervous, he scares the crap out of you. From the moment his Teardrop appears on screen, you understand that violence is his language of choice; you do not, for one second, feel safe in his presence. Yet, by the end of the film, Teardrop, within the context of the culture depicted in the film, has become almost noble. This is so deftly handled by Hawkes, you don't fully appreciate what he's accomplished until his final scene.

Hawkes inhabits Teardrop in a way that Bale couldn't possibly inhabit his character largely because John Hawkes is a blank slate. We see Teardrop, not John Hawkes playing Teardrop or transforming himself into Teardrop. We see a guy with a grizzled beard, a slight frame, and a face that looks like its taken a beating or two, and we don't have to stop to think about whether Hawkes grew the beard for the part or whether those scars are his or an expert application of makeup. It doesn't enter our consciousness. We're never taken out of the story unfolding onscreen because John Hawkes, for now at least, is just an actor doing his job and not a movie star.

Think about any character Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks has ever played. If the name wasn't in the title--like Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button--would you know it? What about Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie? When you go home and talk about one of their movies, don't you always refer to "the Julie Roberts character" or the "Brad Pitt character"?

I don't mean to suggest that "movie stars" and "actors" are mutually exclusive. I just mean to say that we're always aware of movie stars being actors playing a part. In "The King's Speech," Colin Firth offers a stunning turn as a stammering king, but you never once look at the screen and think you're watching anyone other than Colin Firth portraying King George. In "Winter's Bone," you never once look at the screen and think you're watching anyone other than Teardrop.

I sat through the credits last night for Hawkes name alone. Turns out, I'd seen him before. He was in "The Perfect Storm," one of the crew who sets out with George Clooney (oops, I mean the character being played by George Clooney) and winds up fish food. I remembered Hawkes--he's the guy who's not John C. Reilly or Mark Wahlberg. I'd also seen him on "Lost," where he had the misfortune of playing the much-maligned "Lennon" in the much-reviled "temple" episodes during the much-debated final season. I would never have made the connection.

Now that I know who Hawkes is, the next time he turns up in a film, it's quite possible that I'll think, "That's John Hawkes playing so-and-so." His magical effect as an unknown (to me at least) will be slightly diminished.

We'll always have "Winter's Bone."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Realigning the Stars

Another birthday has come and gone. I like to use this time as an annual opportunity to take stock of my life, to look at where I've been and where I'm heading. This self examination rarely turns out well, particularly if I compare myself to others who share the same birthday as me, like Michelle Obama and Betty White. Let's see, first lady of the United States and comedic icon. And what do I have to show for myself? My major accomplishment in 2010 was finding a hat that didn't make me look like a total pinhead. Break out the accolades.

This year's reflection was even more traumatic than usual, considering a recent revelation that I might not be who I always thought I was.

I might not be a Capricorn.

Some astronomer in Minnesota broke the news last week that the Earth's orbit was blah, blah, blah and the constellations no longer line up with astrological signs.

I don't know about you, but I don't take astrology all that seriously, except when it comes to defining who I am as a human being. This is what it means to be a Capricorn: We set high goals, are ambitious and high achievers. We're committed, practical, grounded and disciplined. We plan ahead, you can count on us.

This is my tribe, these are my people. Sure, we may sound a little high strung and a tad dull, but we also make the rest of your lives a lot easier. You go on vacation, we've got the guidebook. You need something on Thursday, we get it to you on Tuesday. You say, "til death do us part," rest assured, we're not messing around with the mailman behind your back.

Now I'm supposed to be someone completely different?

I checked the dates associated with the new signs and crossed my fingers please, please, please, that I wouldn't wind up with the alleged 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which sounds like the wad of phlegm that collects in the back of your throat. Instead, I landed on Sagittarius.

Just like that, I'm no longer an introvert, I'm an extrovert. Apparently I also love to ride horses, which makes sense for half-man, half-horse centaurs. I'm an incurable optimist, always up for adventure.

In short, the anti-Patty.

How does one go from loathing crowds to loving them? From dependable to impetuous? From me to a complete alien?

Fortunately I didn't have to undergo a complete personality transplant. Astrologers immediately debunked the zodiac switcheroo as a load of hogwash. Phew. I can keep on being the same old inflexible perfectionist I've always been. I couldn't change even if I wanted to--my personality is written in the stars.

And yet.... I'd glimpsed the potential for something different as a Sagittarius. Setting aside their Pollyanna tendencies, they're not bad people. They also enjoy hiking and running. Hey, so do I. They seek knowledge and wisdom. Check. They enjoy travel and higher education (aka, travel of the mind). Check and check. I was starting to feel at home with these people too. They sounded kind of cool. They sounded like the kind of person I secretly want to be. Or maybe I already am?

I got to wondering, have I, all these years, been ignoring or tamping down aspects of my personality that didn't fit into my astrological box? What if, from day one, I'd been told that I saw the silver lining in things, that I lived in the moment, that I loved adventure? Would I see those traits in myself? Would I be that person?

In some alternate universe, I would totally go with the flow instead of trying to control each and every situation. I would act without thinking about consequences. I wouldn't care whether I made a success of my life or not. It was liberating to contemplate the possibilities of who I could be, if I didn't know who I already was.

I tried to explain all of this to my parents. "I would never in a million years put that much thought into this," my dad said. Funny, because he's a Taurus and we're totally supposed to be on the same page.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Need a Little Christmas

Last night, we polished off the last of the Christmas cookies. It was a lemon wreath, which my brother Matt said looked more like a bagel. Perhaps it was this very flaw in its design that allowed the wreath to survive so long. Where its sexier brothers and sisters bedazzled eaters with their chocolate coatings (cake balls), ginormous size (giant sugar cookies) or toffee toppings (millionaire shortbread), the misshapen wreaths slipped by under the radar, and lived to see another day. Until last night.

And just like that, the holidays were officially over.

I know, most people got on with their lives Jan. 2. They took down their trees. Put away the decorations. Completely denuded their households of anything remotely red and/or green. To which I can only ask, why the rush?

Because you know what comes after Christmas? Nothing. All the way to Memorial Day, it's one long slog of everyday living. You can try to make a case for Valentine's Day or President's Day, but these one-offs have none of the appeal of the holiday season. It's an entire month (or months, if you started celebrating back on Halloween) where we're encouraged to make our homes look cheerful, wear sparkly clothes, eat as much crappy/delicious food as we want and make merry with all our friends and loved ones. Why would we want to see that end?

Historians will tell you that December has nothing to do with the actual birth of Christ. We position the holiday where it is because right around that time of the year, we could all do with a little pick-me-up. When daylight savings ends, night falls in Chicago about an hour after the sun rises. Most days are relentlessly cold and gray. For awhile, amidst all the twinkling lights and shiny ribbon, you kind of don't notice. But once we've all been mandated to put the sparkle away, it's like stepping from technicolor into black and white.

I say we don't need less Christmas, we need more.

Why, for heaven's sake, do we all need to get in shape in January--suddenly every gym is full and salmon becomes our daily ration--when no one will see our flesh until June? What we really need is an extra layer of blubber to make it through February and, alas, March, or even beyond. You know, some years I've pulled out my winter coat in November, searched through the pocket hoping to find spare change or dollars, and come across a receipt or ticket stub from the previous May. That's right, I was wearing my winter coat in May.

It's still dark out when most people leave work at night, so why castigate the folks who keep their lights up past St. Patty's day? They're doing us all a favor, practically performing a public service, to keep us from getting SAD (seasonal affect disorder). We should be applauding these people, not sending investigative reporters to their homes to embarrass them on air.

These next few months are rough, particularly on northerners. There's snow, which loses all of its appeal the second it turns to slush, to say nothing of the blackened piles that congregate curbside. (You ever look at the charred snow and realize that soot is there, hanging in the air, all the time? We just can't see it without the white background.) The worst of the temperatures are still to come. Cabin fever will run rampant. Most of us will hunker down in our homes, no parties to go to, no reason to change out of our sweats or emerge from under our Snuggies. Wouldn't it be nice to have a little Christmas?

I don't mean all the presents and expense. I mean reveling in the child-like innocence of "Rudolph," and the frosted sugar cookies and the gatherings with family and friends. The tree, standing in the corner of the living room, a beacon of light and hope.

They say Ebenezer Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas all year long. So why can't I? I found a box of chocolate pudding hidden away in the back of a kitchen cupboard. It's no lemon wreath (and definitely not a cake ball), but it's a start.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Real Lesson From Arizona

When I first heard about the shootings in Arizona, like every good liberal American, I gladly pointed a finger at Sarah Palin. "See what your 'reload' and your crosshairs and your anti-'hopey, changey' speech has wrought! Now crawl back to whatever rock John McCain pulled you out from under and keep your hateful rhetoric and your malapropisms to yourself."

And then I stopped reading my Twitter feed and thought about Vincent van Gogh.

I just finished a soon-to-be-published novel about the artist, so it's not as random as it might seem to have Vincent on the brain, nor is his connection to Gabrielle Giffords. While this book has much to say about van Gogh's genius as a painter and the way he revolutionized the medium, it's also a profoundly compassionate story about mental illness. And isn't mental illness really what this weekend in Arizona was all about?

Growing up in suburban Ohio, I didn't have a whole lot of contact with flat-out crazy people. Since moving to Chicago, though, I encounter them on a regular basis. Near my old apartment, there was the shell-shocked man who would wrap himself in a blanket and huddle under whatever doorway would shelter him. Or the guy on the train who kept shouting "I've had it" and started banging his head against the window of the rail car until CTA personnel were notified and he was removed from the train. Once, I was walking home from the bus and an elderly man approached from the opposite direction. Too late I noticed he was ranting and raving--either at voices inside his head or invisible demons accompanying him on the sidewalk. I didn't have time to cross to the other side of the street, and as we passed each other, he swung his arm out to hit me. He missed, just barely, but I can still feel the whoosh of air his fist displaced near the side of my head, and the power and anger behind the blow, which, I've no doubt, had it landed, would have knocked me to the ground.

In van Gogh's time, such people would have been straight-jacked, locked up in asylums, labled lunatics or insane, or, by the more enlightened, deemed "hysterics" or "melancholiacs." No matter the nomenclature, the prognosis was poor. Van Gogh understood there was no stopping the violent episodes that gripped him without warning. We all remember that he cut off his ear in the midst of one of these spells, less known is that he later shot himself in the chest to ward off future anguish.

Today, we have kinder, gentler terms of diagnosis. Bi-polar, depressive, OCD. We don't say "mad," we say "mentally ill." We've developed therapies and drugs. Yet it's fair to say that we have no better understanding in 2011 of what it's like to lose control of one's mind than we did in van Gogh's time, more than 100 years ago. Often we can't predict what causes mental illness and, perhaps most frightening, typically we can't cure it.

Former classmates of the Arizona shooter have come forward in recent days. They confess they all but predicted just the sort of deadly rampage that ultimately occurred. So where was the help for this young man? If you saw a fellow student with an open, gaping wound, surely you would notify someone. We would rush to his aid, we would rally around. But when that wound is of the mind, when the fix is not a matter of a simple bandage, we turn away, not out of callousness, but more out of helplessness and fear.

We don't know what to do. It's not like cancer or heart disease. We don't know how to begin to try to offer assistance, and if we do, we don't know whether our efforts will meet with resistance or worse, violence. And the upshot is that while we no longer confine the mentally ill to asylums, they are just as isolated today as they were in centuries past, having scared away family, friends and neighbors with their erratic, volatile behavior. Only now they walk among us, sometimes with automatic weapons.

I've heard much in the past few days about the need to tamp down the hate speech our pundits have favored of late. I've even heard a few quiet rumblings about gun control. You can modulate the former, you can legislate the latter. But what to do about the mentally ill?

I've been thinking about Vincent van Gogh, and how we still don't have the answer.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Real Price of Pay TV

My dad is fond of talking about the early days of television, when he would sit, dazed, in front of his family's newly purchased black-and-white set, watching test patterns. Not actual programming, mind you, just test patterns, so powerful was the allure of this new medium.

I fear that soon I'll be doing the same.

Dave and I don't subscribe to cable (or satellite) TV. I know what you're thinking. Gasp! When we confess this deficiency to strangers, they react as if we've a) admitted to driving a horse and buggy or b) told them we have cancer. Disbelief mixed with a tinge of pity.

It's not that I don't like or care about TV. I love TV, especially really good TV, which these days is more and more often confined to cable, along with really, really bad TV. Mock "Dancing With the Stars" all you want, but cable made a "star" of Kate Gosselin first.

I just don't feel like paying for something that's supposed to be free. I mean, if television had existed at the time of the Declaration of Independence, I'm pretty sure our Founding Fathers would have agreed that we, the people, had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of "Mad Men."

At least that was the prevailing wisdom when I was a kid. Then cable came along, and by cable, I mean MTV, and suddenly we were all willing to pay for something that had previously cost us absolutely nothing. Kind of hard to believe in today's climate, where the Internet and its model of free content has all but wiped out institutions like the Chicago Tribune. How is that in one medium, we're patently opposed to shelling out so much as a penny to read a newspaper's online edition, something that we gladly subscribed to in print, but when it comes to television, we'll throw open our wallets to keep up with the Kardashians? If you have the answer, alert the execs at the New York Times.

Normally, I don't mind being a non-cable household. It feels kind of retro cool, like I'm standing up to The Man. But just to make sure that I don't fall into a pop culture black hole, I keep conversant with the latest cable offerings via Entertainment Weekly and Netflix. Never seen "Top Chef" but I can speak Padma Lakshmi. I make do. I get by. Besides, so many cable programs are watched by such a tiny fraction of the population, in any large group, I'm likely not the only one who hasn't caught onto "Caprica."

Then, damn if baseball didn't go and sell the early rounds of its playoffs to TBS. College football followed suit, handing off its bowl games to ESPN, the highest bidder. And that's just not right.

We all know we live in a fractured nation. There's hardly a topic that doesn't polarize these days. Used to be that we could lay those differences aside and gather around the boob tube for major cultural events, like "Who shot J.R." or the Rose Bowl. No more.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are the New Year's Days we spent at my Aunt Mary Jo's, where my entire extended family would gather to celebrate my cousin Holly's birthday and settle in to watch bowl game after bowl game after bowl game. Perfection would be a victory for my grandpa's beloved Notre Dame.

This year, I sent Holly birthday greetings on Facebook.

It's sad enough that my family has grown apart geographically. I saw my youngest brother, Matt, at Christmas for the first time since the previous year's holiday. Maybe, if you don't like your brother, you'd consider that a positive turn of events. I happen to love mine and think this a sad state of affairs.

Now television has to go and take away the precious few moments that have the potential to bind us all together, no matter where we are.

Last night, our home team, the Ohio State Buckeyes played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Normally, when the Buckeyes square off, I can picture Matt in St. Louis, dying with every dropped pass or fumble. I know my dad will be watching in Toledo or Florida, depending on the month of the year. I'll be pacing our living room in Chicago, ducking into the hallway if the outcome looks like it's going the other team's way. Physically we might be separated but mentally we're connected.

But this year, the Sugar Bowl was on cable. So off Dave and I went into the bitter cold night--the kind of cold that makes your teeth hurt, the kind of cold meant for snuggling under blankets with a cup of hot cocoa--in search of a bar with a big screen TV tuned into ESPN. We wound up at Bad Dog Tavern, where the bartender happened to be an OSU grad. The game was on half a dozen flat screens, and he cheered with us as the Buckeyes turned a near catastrophic fumble into a miraculous touchdown. We stayed through the first half, long after we had exhausted our order of food and drink. As we left, I smiled at the woman in the OSU jersey, sitting at a table near the door.

This morning I logged on to email to see a flurry of "Go Bucks" messages. It seems the game, which OSU had well in hand last Dave and I knew, had turned into a nail biter. We'd not only missed the best part, but missed out on the conversation. Curse you, NCAA.

My point, and I do have a point, is where does this end? Does the Super Bowl wind up on TLC? The Oscars on E!? Election night coverage on FOX News, and only FOX News? Oprah is now only viewable on her own network. How will the poor, tired, huddled, non-OWN households receive their daily dose of inspiration?.

When every event has a price of entry, you're bound to leave some people out. The more exclusive, the more who are excluded, and the less we have in common as Americans. Shared cultural experiences have the capacity to cut across racial, economic, religious and political divides. As they become more scarce, we are each more alone in our own little silos.

I say this not just because I'm too cheap to pay for cable. I say this because I think we're losing a little piece of ourselves as a society everytime something that once was accessible to all becomes accessible to a few.