Lately: Reading, cooking, and decorating my way out of cabin fever

Spring can’t come soon enough.

I’ve lived in Chicago all my life and winter weather — including snow, ice and bitter cold — is something we just learn to live with. However, this year’s temperatures have challenged the hardiest of us. I honestly cannot remember a time when sub-zero temperatures and wind chill hit 50-below, when the Post Office announced it would not deliver mail and the garbage trucks simply stayed put and these lapses had nothing to do with two feet of snow on the ground.

As my grandson would say, it’s been epic!

Although we have certainly been able to get out for groceries, go to the gym, meet friends for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we have often done so in bitter cold or sloppy snow. With boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. This is fun and adventurous early in the winter, after a few months it gets old, at least for me. Most of all, there have been too many days when we just couldn’t go out. When no one could.

Cabin fever is no joke.

When I look back at what I have done lately, most of it has been centered on coping with cabin fever. First, of course, I read. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was a book club read and, like so many of them, it pushed my typical reading choices. This multigenerational story about Koreans living in Japan (where they were viewed as second class citizens) recounts one woman’s life decision and the repercussions on her family for generations to come. I knew very little about the history of either country, so this was especially eye-opening for me. Pachinko was a little tough starting, but ultimately a compelling read.

Then I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Never assume. This was appearing on so many reading lists, I thought it would be one of those best seller/easy/fun reads. It was all that, but more. Eleanor is way more complicated than the heroine I was expecting. Yes, she has an amusing lack of social skills. Then she crosses paths with co-worker Raymond. (I know, this is sounding contrived, right?) Slowly, their growing friendship begins not only to reveal her terrifying past, but also the importance of human connections.

I’ve moved on now to House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’ll keep you posted, but so far, so good.

I’ve been cooking

In fact, I cooked so much I had to start passing out “samples.” I made Ina Garten’s Winter Vegetable Soup twice in one week. It was just that good! I made the first batch per all of her instructions, minus the pesto which I did not have. The second time, I tweaked the recipe a bit, substituting potato for some of the squash. It was just as good! (I did take Ina’s suggestion to use homemade chicken stock, and I do think it makes a huge difference!)

Since we really can’t live by soup alone, I also made beef burgundy and a batch of meatballs. I would have continued, but the freezer was quickly filling with the soup, homemade stock, etc.

So I turned instead to decorating…

And I re-hung this gallery in the stairway to our finished basement. I am the only child/only grandchild and therefore keeper of family photos. My mother-in-law also passed along boxes of photos to me. These riches are compounded by the fact that my dad was quite the amateur photographer. He had a small darkroom in our house and he enlarged/cropped and otherwise tweaked his own photos as well as old negatives that my mom unearthed. It was a lot of fun for all of us. But it also resulted in a lot of photos. I’m really drowning in prints, often multiples of the same image (though I am increasingly successful at weeding those out!).

Some of these have been hung here right along, some have been displayed on tabletops, others were stashed in the back of closets, behind dressers, under beds — you name it. Would it surprise you to learn I have a few more to add to this? My goal has been to save the best and get rid of the rest. Let’s just say I’m making progress.

My Instagram feed

And, yes, I’ve spent far too much time this winter on social media, which for me is Instagram. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my IG feed is pretty narrow, no celebrities, few FaceBook friends, a lot of designers and lifestyle bloggers. I’ve saved some screenshots, so I could share my favorite finds.

Anyone who has successfully grown a geranium in a porch pot is desperate for spring and the garden season after a winter like this. If you love gardening or decorating, I encourage you to follow Jenny Rose Innes, from Bowral, Australia. Her home(s) are stunning and her gardens beautifully lush. I was initially struck by the brick path in this image (I love the way it periodically cuts into the beds on each side), but I also thought that if my garden just looked this good in green, imagine how it would look when those plants bloomed!

 

I often think that “go big or go home” is a good rule in decorating. Look at the impact this big but simple bucket of lilacs has on this room. It’s not overpowering (though the fragrance must be wonderful), it’s placed to be seen but not in the way, and it beautifully balances the stone wall, wood floor, and baskets.

 

Elizabeth blogs at blueandwhitehome.com. Both her blog and her IG feed are populated with beautifully-appointed, mostly blue and white rooms. She’s traditional, sometimes with an edgier feel, and her daughter, who also contributes to the blog, has a similar aesthetic. Elizabeth also generously introduces a number of her favorite designers, like Caroline Gidiere Design. (Yes, I’m a little obsessed with this room: the gallery, the blue and white and that green!)

 

 

James T. Farmer is an interior designer, gardener, author and speaker whose work is always infused with a gracious, southern sensibilty. His IG is as likely to feature photos of his dog, whatever he’s cooking or eating, and/or his extended family and friends as it does images of his design work. This image says it all! (Check out his latest book, A Place to Call Home.)

 

 

Wouldn’t you love to attend or host a dinner party featuring this lovely table? Enough said.

 

 

Finally, Joni Webb — whose awesome blog Cote de Texas is, well, awesome — posted this image (and several others) of an apartment belonging to the late Lee Radziwell. Is there anyone else out there, of a certain age I suppose, who heard a door quietly close at the news of her passing?

 

 

And that’s my lately. What are you doing to combat cabin fever?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

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The heart of a garden

Sometimes writing a blog post reveals more to me than it does to you. That may be the case here. I started out to write about “Getting my spring on” and how nice it has been to get back outside after a seemingly endless winter. But as I typed I began to see that for me, this year, “Getting my spring on” meant a whole lot more.

Forget lilacs and peonies. One of the sure signs of spring here has always been moving the wicker sofa from the family room (where it “winters”) back out to the porch. Then we bring up the wicker rocker and side tables from the basement and the chairs that fit around the dining table out there, and life is good. This is where we eat most of the summer, have drinks with friends, read the paper, check our email, plan our day over coffee.

But the best way for me to get my spring on is digging in the dirt. It’s creative to coax color and texture from seedlings and soil, to pick the right plants for the right spot, to pair colors and textures for the best effect. But it’s a lot more. Planting, pruning and even weeding has always been therapeutic for me, as I think it is for many others.

The power of digging in the dirt

One of my “renovated beds,” with new lilacs and transplanted daylilies.

Gardening is a nurturing process, caring for the plants while enjoying time outside, being nurtured by nature. This is a lesson I learned from my maternal grandfather, who always had a garden. I’m sure the vegetables began as a depression-era effort to supplant the family budget. Grandpa tended the garden; Grandma canned. This morphed into a larger “victory garden” in World War II; it was one way they could support the war effort and I suspect it kept them busy and managed stress while sons, nephews and friends were scattered around the globe.

In addition to the tomatoes, beets, beans, carrots, and more, there were always flowers: geraniums, dahlias, phlox, marigolds. (Thinking back, I wonder how he squeezed so much into that tiny, 25-foot Chicago lot!) Happily he passed that gene on to me! (This totally skipped my mother, whose garden was limited to whatever Grandpa planted for her and that was totally lost on my father, who efficiently mowed down more than one rose bush without recognizing what it was!)

This year I have found my garden to be especially nurturing.

I wrote a few posts ago about suddenly, unexpectedly, losing a very good friend. Her death left me reeling and I was unable to come to terms with it until I got into the garden. I am sure time itself had something to do with it, but the simple tasks of raking and cleaning up the beds, of digging up the weeds and dividing and transplanting some perennials, of dealing with the life of the garden, brought me some peace. (This would be easily explainable if she was an avid gardener, but it’s actually her husband who has a green thumb and has mentored my gardening efforts. Sherry just loved flowers and and for her the garden was a natural source!)

So, this is the year I discovered that gardens also yield comfort.

Daylillies and coneflowers last summer.

I am, however, still left with lingering weeds, the purple coneflowers gone wild, daylilies desperate for division, herbs that need tending and some ideas to renovate tired beds. After assuming I had finally nailed the basic landscape at our house, the light conditions abruptly changed. The large ash tree that shaded our front yard fell victim to the dreaded ash borer. Not only do we miss the shade, but a bed with a number of shade-loving perennials was totally crisped last summer. In the back yard we had a bank of upright arborvitae along the southern lot line. They threw a lot of shade, but they got way too big, and then damaged by a heavy snow a few winters ago. We had them removed & replanted that area with hydrangeas last year. It looks terrific, but it’s pretty sunny now. (Aha! A new gardening opportunity!)

I’ve now spent some time moving things from sun to shade and shade to sun. (I think of this as the gardener’s version of tweaking bookshelves or furniture arrangements!) I’ve also spent two fun mornings at my favorite nursery, searching out replacement plants. I can’t wait to see how this all works out. And I’m feeling a little more at peace with the world each time I dig in the dirt.

These are the challenges gardeners relish and the rewards they reap!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

Grief in the Facebook age

One of the best friends I’ll ever have died two weeks ago. Just died.

She had been diagnosed with a serious condition about ten days before, one that would require medication and some lifestyle changes, but it would be manageable. Her death was shocking and hard to wrap my head around.

It still is.

I was unprepared, as were all her family and friends, but I was equally unprepared for this loss to be shared so widely on Facebook. Although we were among the family and friends her husband called, it took only a few more hours for her passing to appear in a Facebook feed (as had her illness earlier).

Of course, social media being what it is, and Facebook being Facebook, many people began expressing their condolences electronically and the family graciously responded. I’m sure they greatly appreciated the emotional support.

I don’t know how I feel about this.

Death is personal and private. I don’t use the same terms to describe Facebook.

Is it good that social media makes it so easy to quickly send a few lines of condolences or do our friends and family deserve something more personal? At least of course with Facebook, the comfort and condolences and even memories are shared. (That may not always be the case with well-intentioned cards and notes.) But it still seems just a little weird to me. I pretty much think of Facebook as the happy place where we post pictures of a new baby, a new graduate, a vacation. And if we have to post something more serious here, is there a way to whisper? Do these people follow up in a more personal way?

In my book, the friend who held my hand after cancer surgery and helped me empty my mother’s apartment after she died deserves more than electronic condolences. There should be hand-written notes recalling her larger-than-life personality, her sense of humor, even her preoccupation with air conditioning and avoiding frizzy hair (I think the two are related.) This is the friend who always, always used cloth napkins and with whom I shared the traveling wine glasses. She loved her iPhone, but it never replaced a hand-written note.

I suppose I should admit to a few disclaimers here. I’m sure many who responded electronically, also did so more traditionally. I’m certainly not accusing anyone of a major breach of etiquette. In fact, I’m blogging about this. 

Is this a generational thing? I think not. Even my daughter, who manages social media for a living, was uncomfortable with the way this worked. (My friend would have thought it just fine. I’m the one with the problem here.)

The real issue is that Facebook, texts, tweets, etc., are the only way some people are now communicating. Is that modern or a just an easy shortcut? Are they hiding? Writing a note, calling on the phone, or (Mercy!) showing up at the door with a cake or a casserole may seem old-fashioned, but is it more thoughtful?

Life is so much better when we reach out, live in the moment, actually shake hands. (And lately I’m all about living in the moment.)

I’m anxious to hear what you think of this. Some people agree with me that it’s awfully impersonal; others concede that it’s efficient in our modern world. Am I just being an old lady? Is Facebook okay for news like this or do we need a more personal approach?

In awe!

I’m temporarily interrupting the looks, books, cooks and occasional travels you normally read about here, for a topic I just can’t overlook.

I’m in awe of the brave, feisty, and very smart students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for fearlessly taking on the NRA, the United States Congress, the President, and the rest of the establishment that has repeatedly turned a deaf ear (at the least) and otherwise stood in the way of sensible gun control. The determination and straightforward message from the Parkland, Florida students has moved students and teachers, parents and grandparents, and so many more across the country to join them.

It would have been much easier to stage a vigil, comfort each other and privately manage their grief. What they experienced should happen to no one. But they chose to dig in and fight back. Hard.

They are focused. They aren’t giving up. And they are moving the needle.

A blog is a unique medium. It’s fun to share books and recipes and travel, but it’s also personal. And some days the elephant in the room is just too big to ignore. How can I talk about a trip to Italy or a book I just read when yet another gunman walked into a school, killing seventeen people and injuring more than a dozen others. I’m angry that it’s happened, and I’m even angrier that it’s happened so often we just pause to light candles, shake our heads and move on.

To those of us who don’t like guns, who view them as war tools and instruments designed for killing (because what else is an automatic weapon for?), time to step up and support them. Have their backs, vote, agree that this is the time. And to gun owners, who are hunters or who have a personal weapon for protection, it’s also time to think about weapons we need and those we don’t need and why registration and licensing may be advantageous. (This is a big concession for me. I’ve always lived in a gun-free home.)

There’s nothing normal about gunmen shooting up a school, or concert-goers, or nightclub patrons or any of the other hundreds of gunfire victims. Is it me or is there a real disconnect when one dog dies on an airplane in inexplicably awful conditions and Congress immediately proposes appropriate legislation, but hundreds die in schools, churches, nightclubs and concerts and the same Congress says “the time is not right”? More to the point, do we care more about guns than our children?

There are no easy answers here. This is a complicated stew of second amendment rights, lobbyists, money, mental health support (more money!), and a polarized public unable to move. I think we all have a part to play.

Whew! I had to share my thoughts. I hope you’ll tell me what you’re thinking.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

To the class of ’67

With “besties” Laura, left, and Pris, middle. I’m on the right.

I have hinted in the past that I had a big, BIG reunion coming up, the kind with a stunningly large number attached — 50. (If you are doing the math please bear in mind that I graduated when I was 7 years old!)

I enjoyed our 25th reunion and we had a mini 40th event that was fun. Although I passed on a few of the 50th reunion events, I was excited to attend the Saturday night dinner. I just felt lucky. Lucky to have a reunion and lucky to be able to attend.

First and most important, this reunion was a huge success. It was fun, heartwarming, and a little bittersweet since we missed those who could not attend. It was also, as one friend pointed out, oddly comforting to be with these people who had shared so much of our daily lives, often from kindergarten or first grade all the way through high school graduation. We weren’t all best friends, or even friends for that matter, but we were classmates. In it together.

Framing those four years

One of many group shots, here are junior high classmates. But I think most of us attended the same grade school as well.

Frankly, the Class of ’67 has always thought itself a little special. Our high school years were book-ended with the Kennedy assassination in the fall of our freshman year (when we were old enough to grasp the historic aspect but too young to really put it into perspective) and a deadly tornado that devastated our community late one Friday afternoon a month before our graduation.

We all have our own stories of seeing or hearing the funnel cloud; many of the boys were still at school for athletic events and, after taking cover inside, walked back out to total devastation. Nearby buildings flattened, cars and buses tossed around like toys, and even some loss of life. Now, of course, we know to call this traumatic shock. Fifty years ago we walked around in a fog for weeks, eyes to the sky for signs of another storm.

Because the same tornado heavily damaged the high school itself, our graduation was held outside. (Our choice, as I recall, as opposed to holding it at another school.) At some point late that day, clouds began rolling in. By the time the evening event was underway, the sky was ominous and only a handful of students (including me, because I was a Brown) actually received our diplomas, before everyone ran for cover in the building. It was a real downpour. Most of the class received their diploma from a teacher, standing on a cafeteria table, calling out names. No speeches, no Pomp and Circumstance. Just a lot of wet students and parents milling about.

One more thing to make us feel special, the graduation that wasn’t.

Back to this weekend…

If happy hugs, shared memories, and iPhone photos are any evidence, this reunion was a great success. But many of us agreed the reunion also had a comfortable and comforting warmth to it. We were all middle class baby boomers, the sons and daughters of the “greatest generation.” We communicated using the family phone, had Friday night curfews, and were happy to drive a well-used car. We graduated into the Vietnam era and its accompanying angst.

Life got increasingly more complicated.

Some of us have traveled farther from those roots — literally and figuratively — than others. There are no rock stars in this group, no zillionaire titans of business (at least that I know), just a bunch of older baby boomers who have done the best we could. Where we have been didn’t matter one bit this weekend. We were sharing time together.

To classmates I reconnected with this weekend who may be reading this, am I on to something here? Or am I over-thinking it? Thank you for your warmth and friendship and a great time (and extra, double-huge thanks to the hard-working committee that put this together). To the classmates who missed this event, we’ll see you next time.

To the rest of my readers, if you have a reunion opportunity, I hope you just go.

 

One very good friend and two museums

We have not seen the sun here in Chicago for 10 or 12 days. It’s getting old. Really old.

It hasn’t been “Chicago cold” (sub-zero or at most in the teens) and there is no snow. And while I certainly don’t bemoan the absence of cold and snow, they at least provide a little drama. This is just bleak, damp, often rainy, and gray. Very, very gray.

What have I been up to, besides complaining?

placewhite3Last week one of my oldest friends, one I never get to see enough of, suggested we meet in Elmhurst (another Chicago suburb) to check out exhibits at the local art museum and historical society. What a great day she planned for us!

The art museum is connected to the Mies van der Rohe McCormick House (one of only three houses that he built in the United States) which it acquired some time ago. The pairing of the house with the museum reflects the museum’s philosophy that “people from all walks of life and professions can learn how to see and to think differently through the study of art, architecture and design.”

The exhibit we saw is called “Sense of Place,” and it’s designed to consider the various ways we “map the places of our lives.” It also celebrates the museum’s 20th anniversary by recognizing its founding artists. I have to say, Laura and I were both (a) impressed by the museum and (b) taken aback by the opening gallery in this exhibit, a residential room, completely washed in white paint — chairs, sofa, tables, lamps, books. And it invited visitors to leave their mark, so to speak, using available crayons or colored pencils, to doodle, scribble, whatever. (Mine is at the start of this post.)

Since the exhibition opened in December, it was already heavily doodled. In fact, finding a blank space for our own doodles was tricky. And I honestly don’t know which I found more unnerving, the totally white background or the scribbles everywhere. What do you think? (This was called Welcome Home Coloring Book, by Donna Castellanos, mixed media, colored pencils, salvaged furnishings.) I think initially at least Laura and I both started channeling our mother/grandmother selves, “you wrote on what?”

placewhite4 placewhite1

The exhibit as a whole (it included 39 artists, some with more than one work) offered a genuinely diverse view of “Sense of Place,” everything from video to collage to oil on canvas. (And this is where I wish I’d taken more photos, but I just got caught up in looking! And I have to apologize for what I do have here, it’s pretty paltry.)

bestmedicineWe both loved this oil on canvas, Best Medicine, by Cassandra Swierenga. Did we like it because it was a familiar medium, great color, a happy, loving moment between a mother and three daughters? Probably all of the above. It seems reminiscent of a time and place you have experienced and hope to again.

marionmahonygriffinAfter the art museum, we stopped for lunch at a wonderful restaurant, then walked over to the Elmhurst History Museum to acquaint ourselves with Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), one of the country’s first female architects and a central figure in the Prairie School of Architecture. It’s impossible to overlook the impact of architecture on Chicago, particularly the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright, but Marion Mahony Griffon was a revelation to us.

Marion Mahony was Wright’s first employee and a key member of his Oak Park Studio for 15 years, but her work, as well as that of others in the studio was downplayed by Wright. Interestingly, her senior project at MIT was the design for this home and studio. If you visit the Wright home and studio in Oak Park, built somewhat later, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities.

mmgrendering

Architectural historians believe that Mahony’s distinctively-styled renderings, which share many similarities with Japanese woodblock prints, contributed significantly to the Prairie School style of architecture, landscape and design.

According to Wikipedia, when Wright left his first wife and fled to Europe with his second in 1909, he offered the Studio’s commissions to Mahony. Although she declined, she was subsequently hired by Hermann V. von Holst, who had accepted the work. In this capacity, she retained design control and was the architect for a number of commissions Wright had abandoned. She eventually partnered with Walter Burley Griffin on a number of projects. Mahony and Griffin married in 191l, eventually taking their prairie style to projects in India and Australia. After Griffin’s death in 1937, she completed their unfinished commissions but did little more to further her own career.

In so many ways, it seems, Marion Mahony Griffin’s talent was co-opted by the men around her. And that’s a familiar story.  I’m so glad we “discovered” her!

See you next time!