Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Farewell to Summer Part III: Al Fresco Eats

My woes were premature! We've had such a beautiful week of
late-summer weather that I feel like Chicken Little. No sky is falling yet, good people. In fact nothing is even falling out of the sky, so we've been able to stretch the sleeveless shirts and bocce ball farther than I'd dared to hope.

Still, it doesn't take much to look ahead to the forecast and realize the upper 70s this week will be the lower 60s next (and not so long after that we'll long for the 60s as a reprieve from the 20s). Break out those puffy coats; winter's just a deep breath away.

To honor this last glimpse of summer, I thought I'd celebrate one of my favorite indulgences: eating outside. It doesn't matter if we cook ourselves or pop over to one of our neighborhood spots; al fresco dining is a splendid thing. Never mind the flies and mosquitoes. Never mind the loud music in our alley (which I've realized, if I just hit that tolerance button, is a pretty awesome soundtrack to the meals on our deck). There's nothing better than grabbing a bite as the sun goes down in the distance.

As a final swan song to the season, here's a snapshot of some meals taken right here in the neighborhood, sometimes as close as our very own home. (You'll notice we don't have quite the talent for plating--or medium rare--that some of our local restaurants do).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Farewell to Summer Part II: Gardening

I might as well admit it: I don't have a green thumb. I take short cuts. I've never been good about prepping the soil, so most everything is planted in unctuous slabs of clay.

It's sad, really. Chicago yards are the size of postage stamps, and after you plunk a house, some concrete, and a garage onto these tidy 125 X 25 lots, you'd think a person of vision could make something of the leftover space. I guess I've had luck with perennials, but I swear, it's morning glories and not cockroaches that'll survive the nuclear winter. You can't really take credit for things that can plant themselves.

This year I got three zucchini before a fungus got to the stems. I got heaps of roma tomatoes, but none of them tasted like anything, as if they'd been bred for supermarket shelves. I got a handful of nice jalapenos, but the leaves shaded the annuals right next to them, so the flowers didn't bloom all summer.

In spite of these pitfalls, I love to garden. Even when my luck is modest, it's pretty amazing to look at a trumpet vine or black-eyed Susan or Japanese eggplant and realize, I grew that!

As we approach the chilly winter months that force us to swap certain creative forms for others, here's to trying things we're not always good at. Here's to adequacy, to majestic failure, and to occasional unexpected, breathtaking success.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Farewell to Summer Part I: Yard Sales

Usually by this time of year I'm aching for the fall: sweater weather, seeing my breath in the morning, nesting and cooking up big pots of soup. But we've had such a beautiful and temperate summer--plus it's been so mercifully quiet--that I'm starting to mourn the loss of the season.
Hey calendar, I'm not ready yet!

I've decided this summer needs a tribute, so I'll take a few posts and detail some of my favorite things about the season that's just about to leave us behind.

No summer weekend is complete for me without hitting a handful of yard sales. This used to wear John out, until he realized you can find great CDs and, just a couple of weeks ago, under-face-value
Nick Cave tickets (!!), and now he's a convert for life.

These are a few of the treasures we've found within a 6-block radius this summer.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What the community organizers in our neighborhood do with all their copious free time

I'd like to thank Sarah Palin for reminding us all of the frivolity of community organizing. Hooray for her astute observations! Otherwise I might be so foolish as to believe that the crime, litter, graffiti, unemployment, cracked sidewalks, under-resourced schools, crumbling playlots, nutritional deficiencies, vacant lots, and substandard housing in our cities were problems in need of solutions. I might forget that our government's done such a crackerjack job with these issues that community organizers are mere dabblers, regular Don Quixotes of the street.

Some of the fake responsibilities of community workers in our neighborhood can be found here at Christopher House, a community center for families in need.

This building is actually our former public library branch, part of a heated potential land grab back in the hot hot early aughts, when condo conversions were viral and every inch of buildable space was a developer's wet dream. Fortunately, the powers-that-be recognized that a building that had served the public good would be best re-used for public purpose, and the renovation targeted after-school programs instead of granite counter tops.

About a month ago, a drawing appeared on the front of the building, and since then an artist has been painstakingly placing ceramic tiles. I've loved watching this work in progress, seeing the vision take shape piece by piece, but also working backwards from the completed murals I've seen: understanding that a simple
line drawing lives beneath those splashes of color. I wish I could tell you more about the artist, but the fact is I've enjoyed this so far as an observer and not a researcher. I'd like to keep it that way for a little bit longer. If I find out more details, I'll report back.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Get well soon, Inez!

We just brought Inez home from ACL surgery. She now has what amounts to very strong fishing line connecting the bones around her knee. The cartilage will strengthen around it so she can walk without a limp. You can see the Frankenstein scar on her back leg, and you can probably imagine why she's whimpering with every exhale.
Poor girl.

She should be her old self again in six weeks or so, when she'll be ship-shape enough to do what she does best:

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Better than Butter

My friend Tracy used to say, "They need to invent some new foods." Tracy, this one's for you.

Ok, it's not exactly a new food, and it's not a single thing I can take credit for. It comes to me from a woman named Reva, who's been living in India the last two years and passed along this staple of Indian street fare.

What makes it doubly exquisite is that it was shared at the house that sealed our decision to move to this neighborhood. Seven years ago, while John and I were knee-deep househunting, our realtor got us an invitation to a local potluck. It was there that we met Dennis, Rachel and Steve, Bruce and Hannah, and countless other amazing folks who gave us an immediate sense of community. A few years later, some friends bought that very house, and it was there on their deck, this past Friday night, that the following tip was gifted to us.

Hopefully there's still a week or so left of seasonal corn. Make it a point to buy a few ears, and don't worry if it's not so sweet anymore. Cook the corn as you normally would, but -- and I know it sounds like a sacrilege -- skip the butter. Instead, mix salt, pepper, and cayenne in desired proportions. Take a lime wedge, dip it in the spices, and squeeze on your ear of corn to distribute. A little more cayenne here or there won't matter. Now: eat.

Tell me that's not one of the best things you've ever tasted.
Just try. I dare you.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day!

A few years ago, a 'This American Life' episode set out to determine, scientifically, if we have a shared sense of what qualifies as good and bad music. They consulted with musicologists, fans, critics, and artists to determine the elements of a good vs. bad song. The good qualities were things like a melody, a memorable chorus, and a pleasing vocal quality (whatever that means). The bad qualities were children's voices, abrupt changes in tempo, and lyrics involving the holidays. Then they hired musicians to write one song incorporating the good qualities and another indulging the bad.

You can probably guess the outcome: the 'good' song was an unqualified disaster: a milquetoast combination of Michael Bolten and Josh Groban on downers. The 'bad' song was a mess, but a magnificent one, and this time of year I find myself getting those wonderfully awful kids shrieking, "Labor Daaay! . . . Labor Daaay!" stuck in my head in a rolling loop.

This year, in honor of Labor Day, I want to salute my hard-working neighbors:

* Fernando, who's typically just getting home from work as I leave for my 7am jog, but always has a harried smile, never misses his children's basketball games, and will send his first son to college next year, followed by two more kids after that.

* Leroy, who works with industrial chemicals but has decided to commute on foot the four miles each way, even in the dead of winter, to keep himself feeling healthy.

* Cesar, who fixes cars out of his garage and has passed those skills to his son, also Cesar, who's managed to avoid getting mixed up in the trouble that afflicts most of the young guys here in the neighborhood.

* The hunched woman who collects cans out of the dumpsters on a daily basis, but was spotted buying organic beets at the farmer's market yesterday.

* Strange, unsettling Scott, who wears military fatigues and takes any available shift at O'Hare, but recently managed to coax his diabetic and agoraphobic wife at least as far as the front porch, where he holds her hand and keeps her water glass refilled.

* All the people who couldn't make it to our recent block party because they work on Saturdays (and are probably working today). They make my complaints about my cubicle job seem pretty feeble, even in a world where all things are relative.

Two blocks east of here, most of the residents have office jobs and a closet full of suits. They leave for the train around 8:00 and generally come home no later than 6:00. But from a block east as far west as Oak Park, you find a lot more long hours, graveyard shifts, wage workers, and uniforms. To these good neighbors I say thanks for all you do, and for reminding me how comparatively easy I have it.