December 20, 2014

2014 Christmas Letter

Happy Holidays from the French Family!

I so enjoy writing our annual Christmas letter. This past year saw ups and downs (and a few sideways thingies, too).

Lew continues to work those tough crossword puzzles and improvement is apparent. He attributes said improvement to his embrace of Crossfit. Looking to avoid the winter couch potato blues, he went over to our local franchise to see what all the hype and WOD was about. Honestly, it has been great, physically and mentally. Now, if I could just get him to stop flipping monster truck tires in the family room...

credit: Rankin/Bass Productions; Vic's beard
Vic and Claire left Nashville for a lovely apartment in Chicago. Claire continues her studies at The Art Institute and recently finished an oil on canvas series titled, "Still Life with Chicago Cubs World Series Memorabilia." A rather limited exhibit, she admits. As desired, Vic's music business is expanding, giving him time to reach out and help others. Just last month, he donated his oft-complimented beard to the Beard-Challenged Benevolence Society. After all, not everyone can grow one and you'd be amazed at the demand!

Jack continues his studies, earning good marks last semester. Touch and go, though, what with him being an atheist taking World Religions. In the end, he was saved. Er, I mean he passed and dinner table conversations are that much more thought-provoking. A truly positive force in our house with his indefatigable Bulls basketball loyalty, we have all learned to never turn the channel or leave the United Center before the final buzzer. Thank you, Jack!

December 6, 2014

The Most Important Thing


credit: Brian Sokol. Refugee in Iraq via Damascus
"What would you bring with you if you had to flee your home and escape to another country? More than 1 million Syrians have been forced to ponder this question before making the dangerous journey to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq or other countries in the region.

This is the second part of a project (from photographer Brian Sokol) that asks refugees from different parts of the world, 'What is the most important thing you brought from home?' The first chapter focused on refugees fleeing from Sudan to South Sudan, who openly carried pots, water containers and other objects to sustain them along the road." Source: Panos Pictures UK's website

November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

By the time I pulled in, the parking lot was packed. My husband usually picked up the turkey but he couldn't make it before closing so I loaded our youngest, then two, into the car and drove over in the dark.

I tried not to take kids with me to the grocery store. Shopping alone and uninterrupted, I felt a level of smugness every time I'd witness other children acting up. My favorites were moms who tried to reason with their toddlers. "Now Billy, we've discussed this. You know Fruit Loops are high in sugar and lack any nutritional value. Instead, let's go pick out some lovely carrots and eggplant."

In an alternate universe, Billy would help check the eggplants for freshness.

In this universe, he'd look at his mother like she was a meanie and keep yelling.

November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

I just got off the phone with my dad. He said the real heroes are the guys buried in Europe. The guys who never got home. I said, "That's Memorial Day." He knows. He wanted to tell me how he feels about it, is all.

Talking to him reminded me of a story I wrote.

Prom

I met my son at the downtown menswear store to pick up his senior prom tuxedo. Traditional black with a purple vest and long tie to compliment his date’s dress color. Other boys were already there, having walked ahead after school let out. When it was his turn to go with the salesman and throw on the uniform, I snapped a pic. Seventeen and dapper, smiling through braces, hand stylishly tucked in pants pocket. All that’s left is to pick up her flowers and take group pictures tomorrow.

His dad and I decided to chip in for a limo since the prom is at a hotel in another town and four couples want to travel together. Several hundred dollars per couple before most everyone leaves home for a college dorm.

My dad’s senior prom took place during WWII. Gasoline was rationed then, first as a recommendation and then by government decree. Other commodities rationed were meat, butter, sugar, coffee, tea, eggs, rice, soap, electricity, and clothing.

October 31, 2014

The Mulligan

I didn't finish my Halloween story in time. Instead, here's one I wrote years ago that seems to fit.

The Mulligan

This hangover was going to make a day of it. How she let herself get talked into shots was too nauseating to recall. Besides, she so knew better. Was anyone else as sick? Of course, none of them had the job or early meetings. She carried a lot of responsibility at the firm and client screw-ups didn’t go unnoticed. Her lost commissions made more work for co-workers already living one check to the next.

“You idiot.” Loathing punched around her headache as she patted “Pure Radiance” concealer under roughed up eyes. And so much for cutting down on the cigs. What was that, over a pack smoked from happy hour til closing? “Lord, just get me through this meeting.”

Settling into the car and waiting a beat for all motion to please stop, a weight pushed hard on her chest. Unsure, she looked down accusingly at the seat belt and tensed up. When it eased a few moments later, she inhaled deeply and swore to herself, “OK! From now on I’m off all the junk.” Turning the key, a second weight crushed down such that she impulsively released the belt.

And waited.

As with most sudden scares, there was an aftershock of heart pounding. Her queasy stomach rejoined immediately, signaling that some manner of vomiting was now probable.

October 19, 2014

Obituary Writing, Draft 1

I've read that writing one's own obituary is therapeutic, doubly so for writers. (I made this last part up.) Here goes with draft 1:

FRENCH, JANE

Jane French nee Doherty, of Naperville, IL since 1998, passed suddenly and unexpectedly into eternity on Friday, October 18, 2014 after a brief admission to Edward Hospital's emergency room from injuries sustained in a fall at home while carrying a load of laundry down a flight of stairs. It is estimated she carried laundry in this fashion 4,500 times without incident. Until October 18.

Jane is survived by her long-suffering and beloved husband, Lewis, and cherished children, Victor, Jack, and Kristen. She is also survived by her parents, six siblings, their spouses, and several nieces and nephews.

Born into this world during the month of May in Crystal Lake, IL, Jane was a mediocre cook and an inveterate daydreamer. She held positions at various social welfare organizations, from Hull House Association to Loaves & Fishes Community Services, finishing with a stint in leadership education programs.

Jane began writing short stories and essays in a resolute fashion ten years ago and leaves behind a stack of unfinished manuscripts and rejections in her home office.

In accordance with her wishes, cremation has taken place with arrangements by Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home. Jane was promptly and thoroughly raked into the flower garden, having communicated that memorial contributions be given to Planned Parenthood.

October 5, 2014

The Best Possible Day

From The New York Times, a Sunday Review piece by Atul Gawande on death and how we handle remaining days:

"Medicine has forgotten how vital such matters are to people as they approach life’s end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world. These moments are among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And the way we in medicine deny people these moments, out of obtuseness and neglect, should be cause for our unending shame."

Read the whole thing here.

August 16, 2014

The 40s: The story of a decade

This isn't a review so much as a reflection on The New Yorker magazine's anthology: The 40s: The story of a decade. Divided into seven parts - The War, American Scenes, Postwar, Character Studies, The Critics, Poetry, Fiction - it totals 700 pages and resembles a thick magazine issue, minus cartoons.

As a long-time subscriber, I approached the book as I do an issue: scan the table of contents and contributors, skip to the back for the cartoon caption contest, then jump from movie and theater reviews to profiles, fiction, and so on, until the next issue arrives.

The anthology, almost seventy years old, belies how conventional we are even as we're sure we're not. Insert current conflicts and cultural behaviors, and it is jarring how we still self-deceive ahead of events about to crash through the roof: "Paris Postscript (On the Fall of France)" by A. J. Liebling is fresh and poignant.

In the September 2, 1939 issue, E.B. White reluctantly admitted The New Yorker could no longer ignore approaching disaster and delivered a last bit of magical thinking in his Notes and Comment: "Let me whisper I love you while we are dancing and the lights are low."

July 19, 2014

Beck kills it at Pitchfork

I intended to post a story about gratitude today. Was going to finish it after reading the paper. As happens with online scanning, I jump around quite a bit and ended up setting aside the gratitude piece.

This morning, The Chicago Tribune reported that 22 people got shot in the city during a 24 hour period. One of those people was an eleven year old girl. Inside her bedroom at 9:35 last night in the 3900 block of West Gladys Avenue, a stray bullet found her. Eleven years old. Shot in the head. Inside a bedroom. At 9:35 p.m. in a residential neighborhood. Hear about it?

Pitchfork Music Festival is also happening in Chicago this weekend. Someone from our house attends just about every year. One of my kids is there now on a 3 day pass. I asked, "Who was on at about 9 last night?" I clicked on Pitchfork's Facebook page and saw this post regarding that time slot:
























Here's some perspective on locations - 3900 West Gladys versus Pitchfork (about 3 miles):













I'm sure Beck put on a great show. I'm confident that the thousands of people in the park had fun listening to his music and partying. But, in the time it takes blow dry Beck's hair, you can drive from Pitchfork to that girl's bedroom and see what killing it really looks like.

July 13, 2014

On Walking Cabbage

A switch in my head got flipped while watching a video last month. And that video dovetails with my developing reflections on health care and aging.

First, the video. After viewing the New York Time's, A Man Takes His Cabbage for a Walk, I looked up the video's subject, Han Bing. Born in rural China, now living in China and India, Bing produces art commentary that is at once deceptively simple and complex. I've been mulling how his diary entry, The Walking Cabbage Project, speaks to my own behavior and culture half a world away.

credit: Han Bing Studio
He describes Walking the Cabbage as "a playful twist on a serious subject—the way our everyday practices serve to constitute "normalcy" and our identities are often constituted by the act of claiming objects as our possessions."

Bing's essay "offers a visual interrogation of contemporary social values." While many Chinese still struggle at a subsistence level that includes cabbage, "what's changed is the value structure that dictates what—and who—is valuable or worthless in Chinese society."

This observation lays bare what is well established here in the U.S. And, with concerted encouragement from vested interests, we publicly vilify the use or need for assistance as a moral failing.

When I am financially comfortable, it is natural to conflate this comfort with moral superiority. "I must be a better, moral person because I have things. You must be doing something wrong because you don't." This makes sense, as the alternative means addressing an essential component of capitalism - that I get mine at your expense.

Now the dovetail part. I spend time inside an industry so massive, it is difficult to comprehend unless you witness it first hand.

May 4, 2014

Don't Let Me Go

If you saw Ed walking around town, you saw Buster, too. Inseparable through freezing cold, pouring rain, and steaming heat, they got up and out each morning to collect cans and bottles. Word was Ed had some disability income. But people figured it was modest, seeing how worn his clothes were. Buster was a stray mutt he found years back. Buddies, they lived in a tiny, droopy house next to Harder's Auto Garage.

If you passed them on the sidewalk, Buster'd let you pet him, his tail wagging. Ed would make eye contact just long enough to admit the interaction. He was a loner where people were concerned. When I was a kid, I heard that he'd been abandoned for being "a little slow." Most in town took him as he was, though, and let him be. The diner and quick-mart had water bowls and dog treats ready, local cops kept one eye peeled in case kids tried to prank them.

March 20, 2014

Mint Meltaways, Repurposed

Damn. The throbbing on the left side of my skull was making me sick. Driving into the sun with forty miles before home and pain killers, it was a mystery why I had a headache after visiting my parents.

I'm serious. It was a lovely visit.

After hugs, but before closing the door, my mother asked (told) me to take the box of Fannie May's from their freezer, declaring, "Your kids will eat them." I protested but knew she was right. My kids would eat them. If I didn't first.

Sensing a full-on migraine, I felt around the back seat for the care package. Wouldn't you know it, the still-frozen Meltaways pressed firmly into my scalp worked like an ice pack! With one hand on the wheel and the other flashing chocolates at passing cars and trucks, I finished the drive.

Thanks, Mom.

February 12, 2014

Barbie Dolls It Up

The New York Times: Barbie’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Causes a Stir Online

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
My oldest sister had a Barbie doll. She and the next sister sewed fashionable clothes for it. By the time another sister and I came along, Barbie looked like she had passed out in a ditch on her way home one morning.

Our youngest is a girl. When she started school, she asked for a Barbie. And kept asking. I counseled that real women do not look or act like Barbie. My daughter, nonetheless, said she wanted one for playing with her Barbied girlfriends.

February 9, 2014

Be My Valentine

A dozen red roses, tenderly wrapped in tissue inside a florist’s box, waited on her desk. No mistaking this delivery for copier paper or overnighted presentation handouts. Pamela purposefully scheduled arrival for when the office was humming. She knew she’d be in a meeting on another floor the morning of Valentine’s Day and decided, this year, to send herself a bouquet with a card that said, “Love to my Valentine.”

Soccer uniformed nieces and nephews smiled from pictures in Pamela's cubicle. Always paying rapt attention to co-worker’s family vacation and school play stories, she could be counted on to bake to-die-for desserts for office celebrations. Fifteen years at Shelby Investments as a hard worker and team player, her personae had also evolved to include "plain, overweight, and professional aunt."