Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Inertia or Prudence? On Blooming Where You're Planted

No filter -- just shot through a scrapbook
 protector that can't ever be removed. 
I had a hard time transitioning from elementary school to junior high. I left the neighborhood school where I had grown significantly for seven years for a building that looked to me like a prison (in fact, they kept the kids out of the school building in the morning with a large metal gate). I had to change classes and figure out how to deal with different teachers' personalities, and I had to integrate with kids from four other schools.

It was hard to leave this place.
But I'm fine now.
Similarly, it was difficult to leave my childhood home when my parents divorced and sold it. I had lived there for almost twenty years at that point and the house had been the base I set myself into every night and the backdrop for almost everything significant that had happened to me.

So perhaps it's not surprising that I have stayed in my childhood hometown and have now lived in the same house for almost twenty years. And while I complain about my town, it is undeniably a safe and pretty place to be.

What does surprise people is how badly I want to move, specifically to Chicago. Part of it is a desire to be closer to work, but my commute is actually considered fairly standard.  Part of it is a desire to have lived somewhere other than Downers Grove, Illinois.  Part of it is to have access to things I don't have here--better public transit, more restaurant choices, the ability to take advantage of what the city has to offer without sitting in traffic for an hour.

But are these reasons enough to uproot my life? Whenever I have this conversation with myself, the answer comes down firmly on "no." And still I want to go.

A change of scenery.
Last month, my husband and I tried Acting Without Overthinking. We saw a few apartments in our target neighborhood, and even thought we had one. There were many questions to be answered if we got it (cute vintage apartments seem to lack accommodations for two litter boxes). However, we were outmaneuvered by others playing Act Lightning-Fast if You See A Nice Place and lost the apartment of our recent dreams.

So now I am back on dangerous ground. It's finally summer -- Downers Grove's best look. My local mechanic just did the usual thorough and fair-priced job on my aging car. And I just paid my taxes, which have been going down in recent years (because my little area has not yet recovered from the housing crisis -- another reason to wait around here a bit more).

So I wait for the Apartment Fairy to flit on over and whisper in my ear that someone's daughter's friend has just been transfered and needs to sublet her lovely place just minutes from a Metra station and the Blue Line. Meanwhile, I guess I will remember when big change scared me, rather than excited me. And I will sit in traffic on the Eisenhower.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Shiver in My Bones Thinking About the Weather

We will not have a garden this year. And it doesn't even make me sad to say this. I am, for the time being, at least, relieved.

Since we live in a condo, we have no ground of our own, but we do rent a garden plot in our community garden. Every year we get 20 feet by 30 feet of dirt to grow what we want, which is usually tomatoes, peppers, onions, and squash along with some flowers (Cosmos have been recent favorites).

This can happen to you.
For the past ten years, I have looked forward to getting the garden started, and to the July or August twilights when I could stand among the growing things and take in how earth and summer smell -- like dirt and wind and the sharpness of tomato leaves and the natural rot of compost and whatever the trees surrounding the plots are offgassing. The plots sit between houses, a church, a road, and a park, so while I am inhaling I hear a background buzz of kids' voices, lawn equipment, and cars going by at 40 MPH. Around 6 PM. church bells ring, and once in a while a plane climbs from Midway Airport. And I feel that the garden is just a normal part of the world, and that the world can accommodate everything just given the space and time.

When I remember this, I forget other things. Like that we work, and that there are some days when I am sitting at work during the only nice sunny day in a week, sitting while I could be feeding the plants or tying up rogue tomato branches or detail-weeding around each plant. Or, conversely, doing errands on a rainy Saturday that was supposed to be a gardening day. Or waiting for the soil, which is very heavily shot with clay, to dry out so that the gasping mud does not take my shoe with it when I try to water.

Yes it was. Note the snow in the background.
Even if the only book about farming you've ever read was by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you know that it's hard. The Ingalls actually had some agricultural troubles of Biblical proportions, but mostly, they battled weather. Same as it every was -- the weather is what is halting my gardening ambitions for now.

Every year, I conveniently forget the stress that my plot caused me. Since we started gardening, it has gone from a what-the-hell-let's-try-it hobby to a member of our family that is with us for the summer. But every year this visitor is getting worse and worse at telling us when she will be arriving and what mood she will be in when she gets here.

So let's talk about the winter of 2013-2014. Actually, let's let 2013 off the hook. She was snowy, but should not be blamed for her successor's supremely bad temper.

Let's throw a few dates out there. First, January 2, the day of a huge snowfall that kept most businesses and schools closed for an extra day after the holiday. But snow -- we can handle that. Let's move on to January 13, when the temperature at noon was -14 degrees. I thankfully have blotted out that morning's commute but for some reason clearly remember the afternoon drive home. I prayed that both my car and  body did not shatter into a million pieces. I saw a woozy aura around the expressway, and felt like I was driving into a gray monster's eye. Possibly, I was hallucinating, but I came home and I said I would never again leave the house if it was below 10 below (notice I am eliding over the wind chill.)

Today is May 16, and there have been about seven nice days since January. Today, in some parts of the Chicago area, it was snowing this morning.

Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest,
who is clearly more interested in posing
than in securing me a fruitful garden.
Nice dress, though!
If it was like this every year, perhaps I could adjust my gardening accordingly. But two years ago, we had a freaky hot spring that brought us a streak of 80-degree days in March. Then July rains that wiped out a lot of our neighbors' plants. Sometimes the heat lasts into October, which is great because peppers need it hot for a long time, and they do very well with long summers. Sometimes you can feel the chill on Labor Day weekend, and you know to pack it in.

Laura Ingalls Wilder taught me that farming is fraught with risk because the weather is fickle. But the Ingalls had to farm, raise livestock, and secure their home against the weather. We do not. Sadly, we would be better off if we could return somewhat to the days of raising even a small portion of our own food. We all have questions about where our food comes from, and the simplest solution is to be your own farmer. The one thing I envy about the Ingalls is that they not only could but had to build our lives around the weather. We refuse to do so anymore, trying to bend the weather to us. But Mother Nature, I fear, is no gymnast.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Drive to Succeed

Not an easy commute on this day.
But it's fun to say "jackknifed semi."
For most of my career, my ride to work has been short. This is what you get when you live in a major metro area with a variety of industries -- you can usually find a job close to home. My former job was 5 to 15 minutes from home (I will explain the 15 minutes momentarily).

On most days, my brain had barely registered the new day and sent electrical pulses to all my extremities before I was in my workplace parking lot. I had time for about one NPR story or two songs. When it was cold and snowy, I spent more time cleaning off my car than I did driving it and the heat would just be reaching out of the vents before I had to shut off the car and cross the parking lot.

Unless, of course, there was a train. I live in a town that is well-serviced by a commuter rail line that shares tracks with a freight line. My last job was, shall we say, on the wrong side of the tracks and I often had to wait for a people train and a things train before I could get to work. Most frustrating: watching a full coal train go one way and and empty coal train going the other way. On those days, I truly believed we had not evolved much beyond the early industrial age.

Still, I had a short commute. Now, I have a longer one. Google Maps puts my current commute at 25 miles and 35 minutes. But due to a confluence of expressways that jam up as easily as an old bathtub drain, my morning drive is usually about 45 minutes.

There was a time when I would have dreaded this kind of drive. Perhaps it's the anxiety meds (SSRIs FTW!) but I generally enjoy my commute. Here are some reasons:

1) I mostly take expressways. Stoplights make me grumpy, so I purposely take the route with the fewest of them. Yes, I pay tolls. But you do this for a better driving experience, right (Chicago-area residents can pause to laugh now)?

2) Between broadcast radio and my phone, I can listen to anything I want. NPR (except when they do stories on college rape statistics or Mongolian goat farmers losing their land to global warming), liberal talk radio, Steve Dahl podcasts, Vampire Weekend.

3) I find that I am developing special relationships with the hundreds of billboards that line my main route. Giordano's Pizza used to have some ads featuring the Bulls' Derrick Rose's darling smile. There was a pop-eyed bro who illustrated an ad to get your basement seepage problem fixed: "Basement leaking got you freaking?" I was really bummed when that went away. There are a few that I hate. I have to avert my eyes from the bladder control fix ad that scolds "Diapers are for babies, not for ladies" and features actual panties blowing in the wind.

4) I get to drive by O'Hare Airport twice each day. Sometimes the planes come in so low that you believe their bottoms are scraping your car roof. Once in awhile, the airline is unfamiliar so you have to guess where it's from. And some of the cargo planes are freaking huge. It's way more fun to watch planes than to fly on them.

5) I love my job, so the ride is not even an issue. I love where I work, who I work with, and what I do. In fact, I think this is the best job I have ever had. Strange that I had to drive to get there. Sometimes, you need to reach just a little farther.

A sweet day at work. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Department of TARDIS Studies?

I have been trying to understand theoretical particle physics for decades. This started when my mother took a job at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the late 1980s. But I still find the subject hard to get my head around. I'm really bothered by the a huge gap between what the scientists are trying to know and what people want to know.

At Fermilab, I know that they are wading in the deep, dark waters surrounding our fundamental existence to get at the very essence of matter and, in the long term, unify many theories with one Grand Explanation. But I think science needs to learn to work more at the here-and-now level and worry less about some point in the future when It Will All Make Sense. Junk science (anti-global warming propaganda, conflicting and impossible food news, politicians who don't know women from ducks) is filling this gap, which is extremely troubling.

So I think there should be a new subset of scientists devoted to a Unified Theory that would be helpful, would get people's attention, would matter to many, and would generate revenue: map the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who and find any and all possible connections. (I am up for other major sci-fi franchises to be added, but not graphic novels. Sorry).


Never would I have believed that the goofy movie that debuted when I was seven would still be captivating people today. I mostly liked it because it was space, and Princess Leia was a sassy brunette with real responsibilities. I had the toys, watched the sequels, then grew up. But growing up is no longer an impediment to being a Star Wars freak.

I consider myself a bit of an early adopter when it comes to Doctor Who. In the late 1970s, PBS aired the Tom Baker series, and so, as a pre-teen, I became certain that a dalek lurked around every blind corner. Then I grew up, and laughed at the silly special effects, but still admired how those stories stayed with me. (The Ark in Space is low on actual cheese and high on concept). Those stories stayed with many other people, as well, and The Doctor was resuscitated in 2005. I wasn't interested, really, until recently, when the chatterings of friends whose opinions I value told me to re-investigate the reboot. I did, and liked many aspects of it, and found other aspects maddening. It turns out am exactly the right audience for the show's spin-off, Torchwood, so that's where I am spending my binge-time now.

As for Star Trek: never been a fan, but you probably are.

I am convinced that one day, hundreds of years from now, Star Wars will be a religion. Star Trek may spawn a political system, and perhaps the Doctor Who chronicles will be used as a theory of workplace dynamics and psychology. That's how important these story lines are to people -- many of us have found that they have worked their way into our daily lives. It's more than buying a TARDIS pencil holder or having Mark Hamill sign your still originally packaged Kenner lightsabre at ComicConExtravaRama. It's wondering how Rose Tyler would react to something, or really understanding why Han Solo replied, "I know."

Would it be silly to spend science time on sci-fi? Two answers: 1) Physicists are studying dark matter, or stuff that exists but cannot be seen around all the stuff that is visible. Doesn't that sound like sci-fi? and 2) Science and religion have always been traveling companions, but religion, some believe, is fading as a source of inspiration or explanation for people. Other stories and ways of thought are becoming central to our lives and maybe deserve more respect and attention.

One more thing: theories of sci-fi have posited that the seemingly outrageous thinking involved in creating alien races and whole other galaxies actually help human people reason through our earth-bound problems. Big, crazy thinking has a place. What scientists can learn from those who have created our beloved fantasy franchises is how to tell stories that allow us to conceptualize larger questions. We can keep things in their separate good/evil-colored bowls, or we can learn that our heroes are related to our enemies.

We can try to get our minds around time as an equation:

or we can have fictional characters 
       who we often love more than real humans 

inspire us to think about our place in the universe.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Meet George Jetson. And His Kindle.

I could not let 2013 end without catching up on 2011's big trend -- I finally read an e-book on a tablet (a Verizon with Android and a Kindle app, if you care). Until last December, many people have expressed surprise that I work in a library yet did not own a tablet or read e-books.

Except for the snow, this in no way resembled my first experience 
with an e-book. Thanks to the awesome site Paleofuture for the image.

It certainly wasn't any lingering devotion to paper. For the past few years I have been trying valiantly to replace jottings with typings, to store statements and documents with the companies they belong and/or have them emailed to me, and to move my calendar online. It was more that dead trees worked just fine for me. And since I work in a library, I can either practically reach out a grab a book or reserve it with a few clicks.

But on Black Friday, my husband scored a tablet for 99 cents (some restrictions applied). I was hooked very quickly. For the first month I was mostly using it for Very Important Business like Words With Friends and Pinterest. During my holiday break from work, however, I decided to take it to the next level and read an e-book.

And I picked a doozy: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. It's one of those epics where the author seems to sweep his arm over the world and dump it all into his pillow case. The book features a blockbuster novel with a mysterious author, shadowy otherworlds, a cult, elaborate revenge plots against rapists, and a lot of people following each other and meeting in cafes. I still am not sure what happened, but I do know that reading it on my tablet was no different than reading it in paper form. I still got a cramp in my arm from holding the thing, I could still monitor my progress (with a percentage read down in the corner instead of a bookmark), and I could even still "turn" the "page." Without a papercut. The novel was complex, beautiful, sometimes unbelievable, but it was still a novel.

When I was at a library conference at Navy Pier last year, I got lost (Navy Pier is looooong) and spoke briefly with a tourist couple who were also lost. When they found out what I was doing there, they both said to me, "Tell the librarians to keep books. We still want books, not just e-books."

I assured them that librarians are on their side, but are also trying to offer many formats for many different readers. Still, people seem to get afraid that technology will soon render their world unrecognizable. Predicting the future -- down to the most mundane gadgets and daily tasks -- used to be something we did with excited anticipation. Now, no one likes to imagine how we will be traveling, eating, or reading in 2125. This will save us from looking silly when most of our predictions don't materialize, but it also often makes us react negatively to things that can actually be helpful.

I will still read paper books, but I will also now read e-books. Neither are going away, and I make the choice based on what my needs are. I think if, looking form 1930, we could have seen all of our options for reading, we would have been happy to look forward.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Away With Part of Your Manger

Bike helmets. Thai restaurants in strip malls. Nativities without the Baby Jesus before Christmas.

These are all things that could have been commonplace when I grew up but weren't, but are now. No surprise considering the date: I am wondering about the third.

Nativities have always been a fascination for me. Maybe it has to do with growing up Catholic. The story of the birth of Christ takes on special significance when you believe that He is manifest in the daily world. That significance is magnified when you are a child.

As for me, I was a kid with an especially active imagination, and I always had a lot of questions about The Nativity. So seeing plastic or chalk or porcelain representations of The Greatest Story Ever Told transfixed me. The figures, dressed in various colors and styles, placed in the manger in a certain fashion, helped answer my questions. And since each Nativity is slightly different, it was like hearing many opinions on my queries.

Today almost all the nativities I see anytime before December 25 omit the Baby Jesus. All the usual suspects are there, and they are all staring at the center of the manger. Just tonight I saw a beautiful, almost life-sized Nativity made of painted wood. Clearly one-of-a-kind, the creche had been floodlit so I could see it even in the dark. Yet, Li'l Christ was nowhere to be seen.

I have not been a practicing Catholic for awhile, so perhaps I missed the Vatican edict to hold Christ back until Christmas.  At some point there must have been some discussion, even if it was just among the yard-decorating laity, about hewing more closely to what is considered to be the full story of the Nativity. (Of course, only Matthew offers the anything close to the narrative Christians are familiar with.)

Forgive me for being cranky, but isn't the retention of the child from the Advent manger a bit too didactic? In other words, la-di-dah that you listened real close in Sunday school, but lighten up. Isn't Jesus the Reason for the Season? So why not let him on the scene for the whole party? Are you saying that you are a better representer of the story than those of us who paid for the whole Nativity and are gonna display it?

And, until December 24, shouldn't your Nativity really look like this?


A timing question: since many people take their decorations down (or SHOULD) about a week or so after New Year's, you are effectively halving your Jesus displaying time. Should you ask for a discount on that particular figure?

Furthermore: what should I be doing with all my Nativities where the players are fixed in place? Snap off the plastic Jesus and glue him back in when the bells ring at midnight? That will give me one more holiday with some of my beloved Nativitii:


If these are the new rules, that makes some recent models more valuable than others. Here, the new Jesus Display Policy would save you a little bit of cooking.

image: Cakeheadlovesevil

And here, you'll have a little more Play-Doh to shove at your screaming child. Unlike Plastic Lawn Jesus, you can't leave him in the box until December 25.




Monday, September 16, 2013

A Conversation With My Millennial Self

Gen X Self: "Awesome! I just reposted something about Fleetwood Mac from Tai Babilonia on Twitter!"

Millennial Self: "Hey. That's great! Um, who's Tai Babilonia?"

"Are you kidding? Tai Babilonia!"

"Amazing name! But she is..."

"A famous pairs skater. You know, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner."

"OK. When did they skate?"

"Early 1980s."

"Yeah, I was kind of just being born."

(rolls eyes) "Fine. That's right. I'm just saying that it's so cool that Twitter brings so many disparate people together, and we all retweet each other and there's this really neat interaction between the famous and the obscure..."

(Nods head a bit too earnestly) "Yep. It's really interesting. It's kind of the whole premise of social media, but yes, it's really neat."

"Oh, you're humoring me."

"No...I just...It seems that Generation X is a bit more vocally enamored of the connections that social media can inspire, where we, who are slightly younger, take them for granted. That's all."

"So sorry for being old."

"No! Please don't feel that way. I'm just glad you are using social media and have embraced the possibilities..."

(Enter Baby Boomer with a vinyl album acquired during Record Store Day)

Baby Boomer: "Check this out! A rare Beach Boys recording!"

Millennial: "Really?"

(The two of them meet heads over the album. Generation X self is off to the side)

Millennial (to Gen X): "Wanna see?"

Gen X: "Nah. Not a big fan of the Beach Boys."

(Baby Boomer and Millennial turn to stare at Gen X. End scene).