Living in history

This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.

I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.

What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.

Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.

As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.

When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.

Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?

Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.

The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.

I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.

I’m so glad you stopped by. See you next time!

 

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Keeping my cool

Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.

I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.

Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?

First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!

Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.

Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.

Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”

But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!

Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

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!

Logical loose ends

“C” was for crosswords in my Instagram Alphabet, though I just as easily could have said Christmas or Charleston or cooking (for starters). Sometimes it was hard to decide!

At first I thought of this is as one of those posts that goes all over, because I had a handful of ideas to share. However, as I was writing I realized they tied together somewhat logically. Read on and you can decide for yourself.

Thanks to all of you who followed my Instagram project, #alphabet2018. (I wrote about it here.) I made it through the alphabet without skipping a day! My posts went from A is for artwork thru Z for zinnia with twenty-four posts in between.

This was fun to envision and fun to finish, and it forced me to think more creatively about my time on Instagram, rather than just scrolling thru (something I do a lot). I think I’ll be approaching at least some of my IG posts more purposefully in the future. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll come up with another challenge.

Maybe not traditional “coffee table books” but certainly something to spark a conversation.

Speaking of Instagram, a number of followers there liked my IG image of Personal History by Katherine Graham and A Good Life by Ben Bradlee. I dug out both books after seeing “The Post,” first because I wanted to re-read what they had written about the Pentagon Papers (and yes their stories mesh with the screenplay), and, second, because the movie and the concept of journalistic freedom are suddenly so very timely.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do. If you have, I hope you’ll tell me what you thought. Most of the people we know absolutely loved it. The story is worth telling and re-telling. Frankly, I remember Watergate much better than I do the Pentagon Papers (which is probably a function of where I was in my life at the time). Looking back, the Pentagon Papers was a fairly a-political event. The Nixon White House was furious and tried to stop publication, but both republicans and democrats had been signing off on the silence for decades. That’s the point.

Beyond the story, however, is how well Spielberg captured the sixties. There were so many subtle nods to the time: the women were the secretaries; the men were the reporters and editors. Katherine Graham was an anomaly, a Washington hostess who also ran what was becoming an increasingly powerful newspaper. She came before so many others. I found it hard to ignore those subtle messages.

Which is the perfect lead-in for the Women’s March

Heading down Michigan Avenue to the March. This doesn’t  show the crowd, which was much more than expected.

My daughter and I attended the Women’s March in Chicago a few weeks ago. We’re so glad we did! The diverse marchers included little girls and boys as well as great grandmas and grandpas and every age in between. I think that’s one of the key messages of the march. We’re all in this together and we all benefit from the larger message.

Some signs (and marchers) were more strident than others, but I think that’s just the nature of the beast. The freedom to speak out is what makes our democracy special. What a message to participants and bystanders, including those around the world.

There is an inherent sense of camaraderie about events like this. I took the train downtown from my conservative suburb, and the crowd at the station was just a clue of what was to come. There were easily 150 to 200 marchers who boarded at my commuter stop, and the next three stops were the same story. (In fact the train, which already had extra cars, was so full that it skipped the last five stops on its way to Chicago. Another train picked up the riders at those stops.) Although I met a number of friends at my stop, we were all soon friends with everyone in our car.

We loved seeing young girls like this taking part in the March and applauded their parents for giving them a great civics lesson.

Once downtown I caught up with my daughter and another friend and we made our way, with a growing crowd, to the march’s overflowing start point. After a lot of walking and standing, and a few blocks with the march itself, Mag & I broke off for lunch. We were able to reflect on what we had seen and agreed that we loved seeing so many kids at the march, including some elementary school girls enthusiastically leading chants and cheers. They march and we march because others marched before us.

At times like this I think of the suffragettes who marched — and worked — long and hard and at great personal risk to win the vote for women. My grandmother did not have the right to vote until she was well into her twenties. But once she had that right, she never failed to “exercise her franchise” by voting at every opportunity. In fact, one of the last times she voted (in her eighties), she refused to go with my grandfather because they disagreed on the candidates. She went instead with a like-minded lady friend.

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!

 

More from my miscellaneous file

So, I have been thinking about the pictures of our life lately.

If you follow me on Instagram, this photo of the Chicago River is not new. I took it last week, walking down Madison Street from the train station to the Art Institute. This is workday Chicago, part of what the commuters see (or maybe don’t even see any more) on their daily travels to work or school. It’s not as glamorous as Michigan Avenue or the lake front, but it’s very much the city.

As I was flipping through a week’s worth of photos, I was thinking about how they capture life. We all get cameras (or phones!) out for the big moments: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. And then there are the vacation photos: the beach, the mountains or even the backyard. But lately I’m thinking about daily life, like this photo of construction at Madison St. and Wabash Ave. My challenge is to capture that.

Last week started on a tough note with the pictures from Charlottesville, Virginia, animated by a sound track my mother would describe as “ugly talk.” Yesterday the country was captivated by the power of Mother Nature and a total eclipse that stretched from coast to coast.

Resilience may be one of life’s most valuable assets.

When I took the shot of the Chicago River, my husband and I were headed to the Art Institute in Chicago to see a current show, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist.” (If you’re a regular reader, you know this is my idea of a great day and it seemed like a good antidote to the noise of Charlottesville.)

Most of us think of Paul Gauguin as the painter of vibrant and exotic scenes like “Tahitian Women on the Beach.” But this exhibition took a much closer look at his creative process, especially his ceramics and wood carvings. (I know, who knew he even worked in these mediums?)

 

Gauguin actually began his artistic expression as a wood carver, something he was easily able to do as a youthful sailor. Before he was a painter, before he was a businessman, before he was a husband and father, he was a commercial sailor and traveled the world more than once. The experience had a significant impact on his artistic expression. This single figure, right, is something a sailor would carve.

A number of the wood carvings in the exhibition  were flat, including some that were applied to pieces of furniture. We were impressed with the way Gauguin married the finished carving with the rough texture of the original wood.

 

 

I also think it’s interesting that this piece and the one below both feature figures similar to many of his south seas paintings, but in the carving, below, he has added color.

 

In addition to working with wood, Gauguin also created several pieces of pottery, though not all remain due to the fragile nature of the material. Doesn’t the design on this bowl reflect the colors and designs in his paintings?

 

 

This smaller vessel with added decoration and figures and all done in a free-form manner is representative of a number of ceramic pieces in the exhibition. The amount of color and detail he added is also reminiscent of many of his paintings.

 

 

Regrettably, I did not capture images of his printmaking. I really got caught up in the processes he used. Typically woodblock or woodcut prints are made to create identical copies of a single design. However, in Gauguin’s hands process was different. He purposely tweaked each print, with a wash of color, with different papers and inks.  In many cases the prints were displayed as progressions of a design, but not duplicates. Still searching for a better expression.

Steve and I were both struck by how much more Gauguin did than his paintings and about how much more there is to his artistic vision. He tested, experimented, and tried new mediums, always searching for a better way to express himself.

When you think about it, challenging ourselves to progress — in our work, our art, our life — is pretty essential. In this “back to class” season, what are you challenging yourself to do?

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

At the intersection of bestseller and headline news

Do you have a favorite hotel? I’m talking about a legendary, grande-dame of a place that may or may not be showing its age but remains elegant, with discrete service, a five-star dining room and the requisite, legendary bar. The Ritz in Paris or the Plaza in New York may come to mind. In Chicago it would probably be the Palmer House or the Drake. In Moscow it is the Metropol Hotel.

According to its website, the Metropol was built in “1899-1907 in Art Nouveau style, with contributions from some of Russia’s greatest architects and artists of the day.” Its location between the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin makes it ideal for travelers and as a setting for A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

This is my new favorite book. 


It would be a great read at any time (and obviously it has been for many since it spent 20 weeks on the New York Times best seller list since its release in 2016). But now, with Russia dominating our headlines, it seems almost too perfect. Do not, however, expect A Gentleman in Moscow to bear any resemblance to current events. Rather this is a tale from inside Russia in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, it’s a novel set almost entirely inside the Metropol Hotel.

Briefly, the novel tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1922, but saved from execution because as a student he had written an influential revolutionary poem. Instead of the Gulag, he is sentenced to permanent house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The Count had been living in a posh suite in the Metropol, where he had installed a variety of cherished family heirlooms and established a comfortable routine. However, under house arrest, he is forced to move what he can into a garret room in the Metropol’s attic and go from there.

The Count, being the Count, adapts.

That’s the charm and the challenge of the story. I must admit that I knew the premise of the book before I started reading, and I was intrigued about how Towles would handle the limitations of the hotel. Not to worry. The count’s former worldly circle is replaced by a new one within the Metropole: the cook, maitre’d, seamstress, bartender, and even an orphan for whom he assumes a paternal role. Towles deftly introduces hotel guests to bring the world to the Metropole and the Count, whose diplomatic skills and knowledge of history, literature, music, art, food and drink eventually make him a valuable mentor to high-ranking party members, netting a whole new range of relationships.

And then there are the dramas that play out. This is, after all, post-WWI and revolutionary Russia. There is the depression, the party’s struggles, WWII, Stalin’s death, the Cold War. The book spans nearly four decades, giving the count plenty of time to adapt while never losing his dignity or his sense of right and wrong.

Although the focus is on the Count, it’s impossible to overlook the challenges the other characters experience. The cook isn’t just losing access to ingredients in a time of shortages, he’s losing access to the tools of his trade, to his artistic expression. When the hotel manager — “the party’s” representative in the hotel — inserts himself into the daily restaurant meeting, the Count and his cohorts lose their autonomy. The losses may be incremental, but they mount. Life in Moscow is not easy, but these characters soldier on, assuring their guests the Metropol’s traditional service and style, and assuring themselves of their values and traditions.

This is much more than a survival story, it’s about thriving in the midst of adversity, never losing one’s “center” (and in fact, having a moral center). And this is the part that brings me to current headlines. Without sounding too political, what does it mean today to have a moral center? What does it mean to be an American in 2017? I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

This book would be a great read at any time, but right now, I think it’s perfect.

Bonus! Saving — and celebrating — a bit of every book

My daughter is an avid reader. (Hence her blog, What Maggie Read). We talk books a lot: what we’re reading, why, what’s next on our list, what our respective book groups thought about recent reads, and on and on (as my husband would say). One recurring topic of this conversation is documenting what we have read.

Maggie keeps a reading journal. (I’d like to be that disciplined, but I’m not.) She recently told me about a friend who keeps a kind of “annotated” list of books. As Adele finishes a book, she adds the title and the first sentence of the book. Cool, huh? We both think this is a great way to keep a record of what you have read. (Thanks, Adele.)

Do you track what you have read in a journal or a list or just by looking at your bookshelves? I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!