The Smells of Summer



Breaking out my white pants over Memorial Day weekend has launched me into summer mode. With the warming weather trend (finally), the longer days, and the explosion of bright green everywhere, I have started to feel that the lazy, hazy days of summer are at last on their way. But the smells are what really evoke summer for me.

Fresh mown grass, sunscreen, the chlorine in the pool, sweet melons, night-blooming jasmine, a juicy steak on the grill – all signify that time of year when we slow down, go on vacation, and read fat, escapist books at the beach.

When I was a child, the smells of summer consisted of Sea & Ski suntan lotion and Noxzema cold cream, which my mother would keep in the fridge and slather on our sunburns. My hair smelled chronically of chlorine from daily trips to the public pool, and I have fond memories of the sweet cherry sno-cones we would buy at the snack bar after swimming. Summer also meant the odor of musty pages from library books. It meant the smell of rain that would precede a big, wind-tossing, dramatic thunderstorm, which I would watch from the safety of my bedroom window.

To be sure, all summer smells are not pleasant. The stink of garbage or overripe fruit is not particularly pleasant. Nor is the pungent odor of mulch that gets spread around the trees and plant beds all over town. Sweaty children who need a shower – or sweaty adults on the bus who could use one too – are a staple of hot summer days. And walks outside are sometimes accompanied by the occasional whiff of dog poop.

All in all, though, I love smelling like a tropical cocktail or a coconut from the sunscreen or lotion I’m wearing. I like the fresh scent of a crisp cotton or linen shirt. I enjoy going outside and taking in the aromas of flowers and plants that flourish in the summer sun. These scents make me feel freer, less encumbered. And I am really looking forward to absorbing the smells of summer in the months to come.

Summer Lackluster


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It’s just beginning – the season of the movie blockbuster. As summer nears, I start seeing the full page newspaper ads and movie trailers for the upcoming crop of high budget, low brow entertainment. Already, the talk of the town is yet another remake of “Godzilla.” In fact, the plethora of sequels during the summer boggles my mind. Does the world really need yet another “Transformers,” X-Men,” or “Planet of the Apes” movie?

I have hard time sitting through such movies with their emphasis on action and special effects. Though I would hardly expect a science fiction, fantasy or espionage thriller to mimic real life, I find the unbelievable death-defying sequences to be, at times, ridiculous. Recently I was watching an action movie that featured a high speed chase with the hero on a motorcycle. The preposterous acrobatics performed by this motorcyclist, all the while dodging bullets and rush hour traffic, were apparently supposed to have me on the edge of my seat. Instead, I couldn’t help but laugh. No amount of suspending disbelief could convince me anyone would ever survive such an ordeal.

Modern day action movies have mind-numbing amounts of violence, destruction, and chase scenes. And the body counts in them are ludicrous. I try to picture a city enduring one of these onslaughts and then going about its business the very next day. Years ago, watching a film called “Ronin,” I began to sigh, “Another chase scene?” about two thirds of the way through.

My biggest problem with these escapist entertainments is that they often lack much of a story. If I can’t get to know the characters and their motivations in any meaningful way, I have a hard time caring if they make it or not. Even when the movie does have an interesting story, such as in the “Batman” series, it gets overshadowed by so much loud, over the top action.

It’s a shame because I really do love going to the movies. I enjoy settling into a stadium seat with my popcorn and immersing myself in  the world portrayed on the big screen. I revel in the big emotions of love, hate, fear, exhilaration, sorrow and hope that are depicted in good movies. For me, the summer is a desert time of waiting until the really juicy dramas and heartwarming romantic comedies return in the fall.

So instead of checking the theater listings this summer, I’ll head to the library and pick up some good beach reads.



Tale of Two Cities



My recent trip to Manhattan has me reflecting on the differences between Chicago and New York. We Chicagoans always seem to be on the defensive when it comes to comparisons between these two great cities. We see New Yorkers as our smug older siblings, lording it over us that they have more style and swagger.

It’s true that New York is bigger and brasher. Chicago is now only the third most populous city in the United States, having been overtaken by Los Angeles in the 1990s. New York has more of just about everything: museums, art galleries, restaurants, theaters, music venues, shopping.

Here in Chicago we have a lively downtown financial district, but New York has the famed Wall Street. We have Broadway in Chicago, but New York has, well, Broadway! Our skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Building are well known but not as iconic as the Empire State Building. And there is nothing else in the US quite like Times Square.

Nevertheless, I much prefer my hometown for the following reasons:

1. Chicago has alleys. While not the most exciting feature of our city, at least we have a place to hide all our garbage until the city sanitation workers can pick it up.

2. We have the lakefront. The beautiful expanse of Lake Michigan to the east makes a dramatic setting for our museums, high rise condos, parks, and beaches. If you want to go to the beach in New York, you have to travel out to one of the boroughs.

3. Chicago is not as crowded. Even on the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s beautiful shopping district and tourist haven, there is not the sense of claustrophobia I feel while exploring the streets of New York City.

4. Our architecture is magnificent. Some of the premier architects in history – Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, and Mies Van der Rohe, to name a few, have helped shape the skyline and character of the Second City. Chicago is also known as the birthplace of the skyscraper.

5. Chicago is much more affordable. The first time I ever saw a Manhattan co-op that had cost its owners half a million dollars, I was shocked. It was more like a dorm room than an apartment.

6. Most importantly, Chicagoans are friendly. Whether walking the streets of the city or frequenting the local bars, you feel a sense of camaraderie that I have never noticed in New York.

No matter its status as second class citizen to the Big Apple, I am happy to be a denizen of “sweet home Chicago.”


A Bite of the Big Apple



Last weekend I went to New York City to visit my oldest daughter. I have always found the city intimidating. On one of my first trips there, I tried to order coffee in a crowded deli. The exchange between the order taker and me went like this:

Me:  Decaf coffee, please.
Him: Regular?
Me (louder): No, DECAF!
Him (exasperated): Regular?
Me (questioning his hearing): DECAF!

I finally realized that in New York, “regular” means “with cream and sugar.” What I wanted was decaf coffee, black.

On this visit, I had an experienced New Yorker (my daughter) to squire me around. Now, my 23-year-old has only lived in New York for a year, but she can skirt around a huge pile of garbage like a seasoned native. She is barely five feet tall, but just try fighting her for a cab. I thought Chicagoans were good at walking against the traffic light, but she could stroll across a busy street, cool as a cucumber, with only seconds until the light changed.

On previous trips to New York, I had spent most of my time in Midtown, home of such tourist meccas as Fifth Avenue, Times Square and Central Park. Although crowded, noisy, and often smelly, Midtown is still pretty “white bread.” On this trip, my daughter introduced me to a hipper part of town – East Village and the Lower East Side. I stayed in a trendy hotel that looked more like an underground nightclub. On our walks around town, I noticed a lot more graffiti, unsightly construction, and oddly dressed people. As my daughter explained when I was fretting about what to wear, “Mom, everyone here is a freak, so it doesn’t matter how you look.” I decided to go with all black (Cue the finger snapping, Daddio).

The weather was perfect for being outside. We shopped in SoHo, went to see my daughter’s sardine can apartment, rode on the subway, and did a lot of eating and drinking. As my daughter put it, “Besides working, the only thing to do in New York is consume.” She also said she loves the East Village because she could live there for 10 years and never try all of the myriad restaurants in the area. I had to admire the number of little shops, cafes, corner markets and food vendors everywhere. It would be hard to get bored in New York City. (My husband would be on his iPhone trying to find the nearest Panera Bread.)

We also managed to fit in a Broadway show and found ourselves in hysterics at a performance of “The Book of Mormon.” As a send-up of organized religion, the play made me cringe and laugh in about equal measure. The most challenging part of our weekend was skirting around the mob-like theater crowd after the show got out that evening. Leave it to my petite but ruthless bodyguard to find a way through the crowd and to that rarest of New York evening phenomena, an available taxi.

I had mixed feelings as I bid my daughter farewell and headed home to the quieter, gentler Second City. I would miss her terribly, but at least I knew she could handle herself in the Big Apple. And as my plane touched down in Chicago, I looked forward to driving to the quaint, leafy suburb I call home.

Guilty Pleasures



Today’s Daily Prompt is:  What’s the one guilty pleasure you have that’s so good, you no longer feel guilty about it?


It’s hard to pick. I have so many: coffeecake, TV, chocolate, coffeecake, wine, Facebook, and more coffeecake! But the guilty pleasure that I find the most embarrassing is my penchant for crossword puzzles.

When I first started to do the Sunday crosswords in the Chicago Tribune (not even going to attempt the Sunday New York Times crossword), I struggled to finish them. Even for a former English major, they were a challenge. But I soon caught on to the tricks of the trade and became obsessed. Soon just the Sunday crosswords were not enough. I had to try my hand at the daily ones. While traveling, I bought books filled with crossword puzzles, even some challenging ones from the dreaded NY Times.

My family started making fun of me.

“There’s Mom with her crossword puzzle again,” was a typical jibe.

“What do you have on your agenda for today – a few crossword puzzles?” my husband would tease.

Every year at Christmas time, I buy each of my children a Christmas tree ornament. I try to make the ornament apropos of its recipient. My daughter received a chihuahua ornament because of her love for the little dogs. My son got one with a scene from his favorite TV show The Simpsons. You get the idea. One Christmas I found an ornament showing a brown-haired woman in a relaxed pose with a giant crossword puzzle in her lap and a pencil tucked behind her ear. I knew I had to get that one for myself.

There are so many things I love about crossword puzzles. Many of the clues feature clever plays on words. Sometimes there is even a theme to figure out, such as that all the long answers have an added “i” to them. And I now know the names of some obscure rivers in different European countries. I also find it interesting that certain names seem to be popular to puzzle makers, such as Omar Epps and Idi Amin.

Even my family has started embracing this weird, nerdy quirk of mine. My husband saves me all the crosswords from his Wall St. Journal, for instance. Yet despite the fact that my kids approve of my doing crossword puzzles to stave off dementia as I get older, I feel as if I am wasting time. When I complete one, it goes right into the garbage. All I have is the sense of satisfaction in figuring out some particularly hard ones. When I decided to commit myself to my writing, I knew it was time to put some controls on my crossword puzzle fanaticism. So I only treat myself to completing one after a productive day of work. Or on Sunday mornings with my cup of coffee and – you guessed it – a big slice of coffeecake.


Going to the Dogs



I have always loved dogs. When I was a kid, we were allowed to keep one of the puppies from the litter of our neighbor’s dog. She was a little black mixed breed, and we named her Melissa, Missy for short. Missy lasted about a month or so in our house. She drove my mother crazy by tearing up everything she could get her teeth into. She would sit by the dinner table and guilt us into feeding her table scraps. Spoiled is what you could call our Missy. Finally at her breaking point, my mother insisted that we give Missy away. She found a nice family to take the dog, and I remember the heavy air of resentment that permeated our car ride to the apartment complex where Missy was going to live.

I have been thinking about Missy lately because my kids have resumed their intense lobbying efforts to get a dog. Although I would dearly love to acquiesce, I just know I am not willing to do what it takes to be a good dog owner. For one thing, I live in a climate of extremes. It’s either cold or hot, and under both conditions, I am reluctant to have to walk a dog. Today I saw a man walking his dog in a torrential downpour. Both he and the dog were soaking wet. I could imagine not only the discomfort of the walk, but the dripping mess when they reentered their house. Another drawback for me is the need to pick up their poop. I am not all that squeamish. I have, after all, raised four kids. But this daily task would just gross me out.

Another drawback to having a dog is having to make arrangements for its care when we travel. As my husband and I get older, I anticipate more trips that would be complicated by the need to find good care for the dog. Even a long day can be difficult. I have known many people to cut outings or visits short because they have to get home to their dog. I am almost done with needing babysitters, so I’m not keen on having to find pet sitters.

Friends who have dogs are always telling me that once I got the dog, I would fall in love with it. No kidding! I would be its utter slave. One look from those big eyes, and I would be serving it filet mignon at the table with the family. I would have a hard time disciplining said dog, so it would probably be poorly behaved, ruining good shoes and jumping on people when they came to my door.

I know all the benefits of having a dog – their unconditional love, their companionship, and their ability to deter burglars. I was once in a serious relationship with a man who owned a beautiful golden retriever. After we broke up, I sometimes missed the dog more than the guy.

But I have been a stay at home mom for the last 23 plus years – and counting! As my youngest two children grow up and leave the nest, I am actually looking forward to having more time to myself and more adventures. It will just be so much easier without a dog.

Student Teacher


ImageFor years the smell of Cinnabar cologne by Estee Lauder caused a spike of cortisol in my bloodstream. It was the scent I wore during my six-week stint of student teaching, and it called to mind the terror of facing 30 pairs of eyes staring expectantly at me as I stood at the chalkboard in a high school classroom. I have heard student teaching referred to as a baptism by fire, and I wholeheartedly agree with that characterization.

Although I was supposed to be the teacher, I was facing a steep learning curve of my own. Armed with some educational techniques and a course on child psychology,  I was expected to fill 50 minutes five times a day with meaningful English lessons. I soon learned that the best way to keep a class under control was to have more than enough activities to keep us busy right up to the ringing of the bell. I spent hours preparing lessons with what I hoped would be ways to engage the interest of a group of teenagers. Doing so, I realized that you never learn a subject so well as when you have to explain it to someone else – in my case, many someone elses.

It was unnerving to stand in front of each class day after day, sort of like performing on stage but with give and take from the audience. These kids noticed everything – a run in my stocking, a quaver in my voice, a nervous glance at my notes, and even whether I had worn that same dress just the other day. One student seemed to protest my very existence by turning sideways in his chair every day and looking out the window for the entire class period.

The stress did not lessen when I began my first teaching job at a suburban high school. On the first day, a student skeptically questioned, “How long have you been teaching?”

“Three years,” l lied through my teeth.

As I gained experience and confidence in the classroom, I realized that there was even more to learn from my students. During discussions about literature, I would find myself musing out loud, “I never thought about that,” when a student took a view of the work that was outside my own research and analysis. They were fascinated about the “old days” when the first man landed on the moon, and I was interested in their lingo, music, and popular culture.

The students in my classes kept journals, and I would spend time each week reading and commenting on what they had written. From these journals, I learned about the many emotions, pressures, and difficulties they were facing outside of school. Sometimes I wondered how some of them could pay attention to vocabulary or grammar lessons when they had so much on their minds.

I loved “my kids,” and that is how I thought of them. I baked them cookies. I attended their school events. I tried to help each one realize his or her potential as a writer, speaker and thinker. My father once told me he thought teaching was a noble profession, and I think he was proud of me for my commitment to it.

When my first class of freshmen graduated, I was so proud and also grateful to have been part of their lives. I have learned over the years that the positions of student and teacher go back and forth, that we get as much from young people as we give to them. I hope this realization has made me a better teacher and a better parent.