Friday, December 31, 2010

Folk Hero

There's someone I'd like you to meet.

This is my friend and coworker Dan. He's a gifted architect who used to work with Alabama's acclaimed Rural Studio. He lives right here in the neighborhood, and you might see him singing at an open mike or biking back and forth to work, or the Y, or one of his favorite corner stores to pick up a jar of peanut butter.

About a year ago he got plunked down into my occasionally punishing workplace as a kind of birthday present. Not because we're so incredibly tight (we're not) or because I think I'll still know him in 10 years (I don't), but because he's the kind of guy who will quietly and without telling a soul step in to design and build 22 beds for a new men's interim-housing shelter.

And because two days after his beloved grandfather died on Christmas morning, he was rifling through his closet and was struck by the simple beauty of a vintage wooden coathanger, and decided to turn it into something more beautiful, which he turned into something even more beautiful:

We're about to turn to a new calendar page, and I resolve this year to be more like Dan. If I can also, every once in a while, applaud him after playing a song at a bar, or offer him some tea, or answer one of his tender requests for advice, well, that's no bad thing either.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Everyday Use

The worst part of insomnia is that terrible, middle-of-the-night feeling that you're the only person awake in the world. There is nothing lonelier. This has been far more pronounced, for me, in small towns, where it seems like everyone responds to the calm by closing their blinds and shutting down, far more successfully than I, for the night.

Urban living has offered the salve that something seems to be happening all the time: Businesses open, trains running, even people grocery shopping or taking a jog. It's comforting to know that life doesn't assume a single collective rhythm, but instead has a pulse, even in the wee hours.

I guess my preferred version of the world is one where things are in motion when you need them.

So it's been something of a thrill for me to watch our local daycare center finally open its doors. You may remember this building (actually a set of three connected buildings) having several failed attempts at productivity: A pathetic excuse for a shish-kabob restaurant called "Skewers," the more passable Super Pollo taqueria, a mortgage company, a random clerical office. But mostly, just empty, idle space, waiting for its best iteration.

I'd like to think it's found its way with the daycare center. Sure, I was sad to see the state-of-the-art hooded range disappear, thinking, if we just have a little patience, a perfect little eatery or bakery will make its home there. But you can't argue with the local economy, which says that services, not goods, make sense for certain corridors.

These photos are from two days after Christmas. It's just after 6am and pitch-black outside, but the bright lights are on and daycare workers scurry inside for their early arrivals, readying the rooms for infants, toddlers, and older children. I can only imagine those kids looking forward to their drop-off, so they can play in that cheerful space and take instruction from the sweet bilingual staff on how to make snowflakes for the windows.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Our next-door neighbors had to put down their beloved 15-year old gentle giant last week. It was a painful loss, especially this time of year.

We'd known Cosmo 10 of those 15 years, and he'd proven himself an exceptional neighbor. He was a reticent dog, but from time to time he'd leap up and rest his paws on the fence between our yards so we could give him a stroke on the muzzle.

John helped build a ramp when he got too infirm to walk down the steps, and we'd watch him periodically out the back window, clicking his paws down that slope like typewriter keys. We'd seen him dodge death a handful of times, including a prediction from his vet he wouldn't live to see the 4th of July . . . 2008.

We paid a visit to our neighbors yesterday, just to give them a squeeze and drop off a bottle of wine and some small gifts for their daughters. I supposed the house would feel empty and stark. But there was fullness there. Life. The tree they'd cut in rural Illinois was fragrant, dripping with handmade ornaments. The girls were almost giddy getting ready for a cookie baking party with friends. There was only one slip into sadness, when Mike came across Cosmo's collar in a pile of scarves. We all spilled over a little.

We invite these creatures into our lives knowing full well we're likely to outlive them. We befriend them and keep them safe and fed. They see us happy, devastated, naked, alive. In what turns out to be the best-case scenario, we decide their very last day, last meal, last moment on the planet. We're with them when they slip away. Aside from what we give to our very own children, there may be no more profound act of love.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Charity begins at home, or very nearby

Tis the season of charitable giving, and ordinarily the Boy Scouts wouldn't rise to the top of the list. I've got issues, I tell you. Not just about their stance against gay Scouts and leaders, which is deplorable. It's also the uniforms, the discipline, and that clear segregation between boys and girls. It reminds me of movements I find unsettling, and well, there are just so many other good causes in the world.

But when a sweet neighbor boy in his uniform comes asking for nonperishable food, and when I realize that food will feed hungry people potentially very close to home, and when I remember the Scouts arguably saved the life of another neighbor kid -- now all grown up -- whose parents died in unspeakable tragedy when he was young, and when we're shyly left this thank-you note along with two decorated cupcakes for our efforts, well, it's not hard to make that compromise.

Life might be easier with more absolutes, but it would certainly be less interesting.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jump Into the Shaker

What do I want for Christmas, you ask?

Anything new.

New necklace. New socks. New haircut. New job. New way of dealing with my winter skin. New place to try for dinner. New toothpaste. New gloves that keep my fingers from going numb. New living-room rug. New ice cream flavors. Unpilled sweaters. A day between Sunday and Monday. A 14th way of looking at a blackbird. New exercise regimen. New route to work. New lipstick color -- one that doesn't make me look like I'm on my way to a Cabaret tryout.

Hey, brand new bar popping up around the corner. Welcome to the neighborhood. What'll I have? Just pour me something -- anything -- I haven't tried before.

This is unlike me.

I think I need a realignment.

This nearby demo site fills me not with sadness, but with a weird sense of promise. No, I don't miss you, crummy old Mexican restaurant with your day-glo margaritas and forever-chirping smoke detector. (Please, for the love of god, change the batteries!) To whit, I haven't mourned your passing for a second.

I heard that a new fire station might be planned for the lot. New fire stations in Chicago actually seem to have some architectural zip. So bring it on, I say. It's fire season, after all. I like the idea of the city's finest being not far away with their trucks and hoses.

Of course we'll have a very different conversation if it ends up an Auto Zone.

But I'll take the beautiful dream of a little something new next to Vinos y Liquores. And ok, Second-hand Santa, I realize I've just spit in your eye. But don't fret. I'm bound to rekindle my love for flannel pajamas, clodhopper shoes, the same old dishes and sheets and lamps and curtains I've been looking at for years, and even this lame but reliable hairstyle. One successful visit to the thrift-store, one happy rediscovery of something in the back of the closet, and this yen for shiny veneers will be behind me.

But for now, I'd love to know the blue-book value for this old routine, because a trade-in sounds mighty enticing.