Saturday, December 30, 2006

Powder Blue Skyline and True Green

After a fortnight in Chicago, I am settling in, and Morris is getting restless. I would be content to sit and knit and take walks into this neighborhood of coffee shops and cafes and a newfound treasurehouse of a knitting store. Morris, in contrast, has no cattle to chase or parts to get at the local agricultural store and has finished his Christmas book. He needs some diversion. So we decide on being tourists for a day. The more exotic tours require more planning or a different season, but the standard hop-on hop-off all day bus tour is available. So we set out for that.

Since this is more my territory than his, I somehow am supposed to know things like where things are and how to get there. I do my best to be in charge and Morris does his best not to be in charge and we bumble and grumble our way to the Red Line and off at Millenium park. I want to see and to show Morris the things I saw when I was in Chicago two years ago by myself. They are ice skating now where I had lunch with two friends I met on my segway tour. We wander a bit but have no luck finding the elusive hop on hop off bus until we cross the street to the Art Institute, which is a landmark for both of us now. There we find not one but two hop-on hop-off buses, or, in this case, trolleys.

I love knowing the inside story--what makes things work. Once, when I was a member of the Field Museum of Natural History and got a special invitation to an evening seeing behind the scenes in the museum, I drove from Champaign-Urbana, peeked into all the behind the scenes events, and then turned around and drove back home again. I must have spent 6 hours in the car for a couple hours behind the scenes, but it seemed well worth it to me. When I made my living as a technical writer, I got paid to see behind the scenes and then write up that insider's view for those who didn't get a chance to see it for themselves. Sometimes I got to see the marvelous blue of a nuclear reactor or the blueprints for a new industry; more often, it was the insides of a computer application to do things not nearly so interesting or dramatic. When that happened, I took satisfaction from being useful, a distant second.

On the bus, however, I am just a tourist. I have paid to find out such things as why the Chicago River is green. In case you wondered--algae, the color of the clay on the river bed, and not the supposed green dye dumped into the river for St. Patrick's Day create the green color. In fact, the dye dumped into the river is not green but orange, according to our guide, "to create a more intense green." I am struck first by the irony of that color choice, and then I try muddling through the physics of color. I thought opposites tended to dull each other out, not to intensify either one. I also failed the section in chemistrty on solutions so I do not even try to imagine the relative portions of one color and the other beyond the scale of what happened in my water color pan in grade school. In this case, no one was paying me to find out, so I drifted back into the patter of the driver---"the Wizard of Oz was written in this building on the corner. The White City of the World's Fair held here in 1893 was the inspiration for the Emerald City of Oz."

We get out at Navy Pier because for all the times I used it as a landmark as I drove to my daughter's house, I have never been there. When we stop, we discover that the water cruises that normally are over by this time of year are still running because the weather is unseasonably warm. I find a quiet corner in a restuarant for a glass of wine, a good burger, and time to knit a few rows. I love the city, but the energy of it takes a toll on me. By the time I have mellowed out, it is time to hurry to catch the last boat ride of the day. Even though Morris was noncommital about whether he wanted to go, I know that he is missing water and so I know he will be waiting anxiously to catch the last boat ride. I hurry as much as my newfound mellow will permit and get there with only seconds to spare.

It is 3:30 and the light is slowly fading into twilight. Over the water there is a haze that gives the skyline a lovely powder blue tint. I sit and take in the Monet-Manet impressionistic study of blues. An automated voice talks of buildings and water intakes and I let it roll over me. Today I am a tourist.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Faith, Fever, and Christmas Spirit

I have perhaps more than my share of imagination for starters, so a fever acts like steroids on an already well-exercised part of my brain. This past week I have either slept Merlin's sleep of forgetfulness or I have dreamed whole movies. In one morning's nap, I worked out a short story titled "Kamikaze Kid Meets Superboy and No one Lives Happily Ever After." Sadly, now that the fever has passed, only the skeleton of those fevered images remain.

The down side of the fevered state is that the logical part of my brain works erratically and slowly. The only rainy day we have had was somehow the one I decided to ride the red line into town. I thought I was over my cold, and Morris was too kind to tell me how miserable he felt for fear of disappointing me on my Christmas Quest. For several weeks now I have been on a mission to see the Marshall Fields Christmas windows. I don't know why this piece of Christmania stuck so hard in my brain, but once there all sorts of things collected around it. Nostalgia is like that. I remembered stopping by the windows with my parents as part of an idealized Christmas a la Christmas on 34th Street. I remembered fondly the window that had the little automated mannequins ice skating and one in particular twirling on her automated skate with her plastic hands tucked into a fur muff. I think some part of me has wanted a fur muff even through the feminist era and all my years of sensible clothes.

And so in a soaking rain--Morris noted optimistically that at least here the rain is only vertical rather than being driven into you from all angles as in Scotland--we set out for the short walk from the Art Institute to the object of my pilgrimage. I thought I was on State Street and when I did not see Marshall Fields where I thought it should be, I asked another person. I have always found Chicagoans generous in their help and directions and my urgency no doubt made them even more so. I was on Wabash not State, but I could get into Marshall Fields from this side, she assured me. I did not have the heart to say that I didn't want to go in. I just wanted to see the Christmas windows.

And so on through the rain. Morris is getting slower and slower as his cold takes over. We get there and I look at the windows on the corner--conventional Christmas windows. I leave him in a dry spot inside the double doors while I walk the length of the block and around the corner. I see mannequins promoting this or that clothing line. I see an entire window promoting Zambia and two windows frosted over, but nothing like a Christmas window. My heart sinks. I make my way back to collect Morris.

Morris needs a coffee, so we walk through Marshall Fields, which is now sprouting Macys signs in lots of silly, unaesthetic places to get to a coffee shop in the corner. This too seems like an awkward addition. I sit slumped over my stool. In the old days I say to make myself feel worse, all the windows were Christmas windows. In the midst of this fever-nostalgic-rain-soaked reverie still there lurks a small hope that on the other side of the building there is at least one Christmas window.

Morris and I are both tired from the cold, the rain, and the "many shaped too much peopleness" of the city after our rural life. We make our way through the store to the train stop on State street. When we emerge from the store, I look over my shoulder through the clusters of people hugging the windows and there are my Christmas windows! My faith is restored. Even if Morris had the patience to linger long enough for me to see them, I do not need to see them. I just need to know they are there. This year the mannequins are flying with Mary Poppins. I imagine some little girl in the crowd with an overactive imagination who will remember that in some corner of her mind as she grows older. And with that dose of nostalgia, imagination, quest completed, I felt the Christmas spirit swirling around inside me. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Palms, Poles, and a Shoeshine

We had a brief stop in Dublin on the way from the farm to Chicago. For more than 30 years I have had tucked into the back of my mind somewhere the factoid that palm trees can grow in Dublin because of the moderating influence of the water. It is true that there are palms in Dublin, whether as a result of the Gulf Stream I can't say. The palms in the front gardens of the houses I can see from the bus are not the grand palms that grow along the avenues in the heart of Florida, the shrubby palmetto of South Carolina, or the coconut palms so common in the Caribbean. They look more like the plants commonly sold in garden centres as houseplants, which to me always seemed reminiscent of the trees in Dr. Seuss stories. They are, however, members of the Draecena family, and hence, qualify as palms.

Because we are only very briefly in Dublin, I hesitate to generalize from little sample, but the second thing I noticed about Dublin was that, like Scotland, most of the people you see working in the restaurants and hotels are not Irish. The manager of the pub next door to our hotel was Irish, as was one of the bus drivers, and one of the hotel clerks. The waiter in the hotel's restaurant was from Poland. We didn't have a chance to ask which part of Poland. We recently made friends with a waitress near our farm, Magda, who is from a little place in Poland. Magda's brother is in Chicago. Poles, like Scots and Irish a genration or so ago move for the economic opportunities. Sometimes they stay; sometimes they go back. But where will people go when there is no longer a land of golden opportunity in the west?

The American/Idealist in me struggles to believe that opportunites can be found even in post modern industrial global economies for the simple virtues of hard work and honesty. The Dublin airport has shoe shine stands. I have heard that this is a project funded on the idea that a little entrepreneurailsm will go a long way. In my mind I make it into a re-importation of the ideas behind the little loans to desperate people in what we formerly called third world countries.

I have passed several shoeshine stands in the airport with time to kill and 5 euros plus change left in my pocket. I decide to get a shoeshine. My middle aged low tech black leather sensible walking shoes look silly on the pedestals with the young man kneeling at my feet. I lean over and talk with him as if to reduce the social distance. I almost wish that I hadn't. He is Irish and angry and sad. He tells me that last week it was really slow in the airport and he was accused of stealing. He tells me this in response to my comment that I want to belive that hard work and honesty pay off. He is not convinced. I persist polyanna like and my words sound increasingly hollow as they fall on the floor around him. Just the accusation, he asserts, is enough to linger like a bad smell around him.

I pay him the last of my euros and move to the last gate before we get on the plane to the US. Someone has gotten a grant to decorate the airport with large composite text and graphic stories of the Diaspora--all the Irish who have left their country behind. My ancestors were among them. I don't know when or how they got out, but they let the sea salt air wash away old accusations along with the comfort of familiy ties and familiarity. In type large enough to be read from across the room, I read the letter of a young man who emigrated in 1930. He wrote unabashedly of the pain and loneliness of the first year and then, he said, "I settled down."

That may be as close as I can ever get to the story of my own great great grandfather who first shows up in a Chicago census as having come from Erie, New York. I guess he was a navvy--one of many sturdy laborers who helped dig the Erie canal. His son was a skilled craftsman who created an invention that earned him some recognition and enough money that his son, my father, could squander in a life of too much spending and too little studying in college. Was the weight of the expectations of all those Irish immigrants too much for him or was it too far away to have any power over him in his America?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Under a Worrying Sky

I walked reluctantly out the back door to drive to town yesterday after a night of saw edge wind rubbing its shaggy, horned head against the gables of the house. I took one look at the sky and my midwestern consciousness took over. I let the cats in the back door (strictly prohibited by my husband) and said, "It looks like a tornado sky. Don't go out if it gets worse."

My husband smiled with a mixture of amusement about my weather eye and his acceptance of being "fussed over." The first year of our marriage, looked at historically, was all about who could fuss over whom and when and how. Both of us had been single for a long time and both of us are very stubborn and independent. Good mariages somehow manage to get that all in synch. I don't think anyone can tell you how or why in that instant between a comment and a reaction that we laugh instead of shout or harbor a grudge. As my wise friend counseled me, in life there are problems to be solved and mysteries to be appreciated and knowing which is which is what it is all about. I put marriage down as a mystery.

While all that went through my mind, I just said, "I come from tornado country, " and quickly added, "The cats are in just until the storm passes." Solomon, still the smallest of the swirl of cats, was so frightened by his first storm that he mewed plaintively and I could feel him quaking as I held him close to me. He is bigger and more experienced now but would still prefer the comparative comfort of the attic to the semi-roofed accommodation of the former dairy maid's cottage that is now nominally "their house."

As my husband pointed out, since I was the one driving into the storm, I should mind my own counsel. True enough. The wind nearly knocked me over as I walked to my car. My head-hugging (give up on any idea of a fashionable hat) beret was knocked silly on my head but not ripped off altogether. I opened the car door carefully so as not to have it parasail down the road and slid in behind the wheel with an enormous sigh of relief.

As I headed down the farm road, I hoped that today the sheep would choose to stay put and was very happy to find them sheletering contentedly in the lea of the dyke. The wind seemed to have whisked wanderlust out of their minds.

I stood in a queue at the post office and chatted amiably with the folks in front and behind me, even those I did not know. Scots, like gorse, seem to be able to bloom in any season. I dropped things off and picked things up in that next to last minute frenzy of preparing to be away for a month all under a sky that huffed and puffed one minute and gave a crocodile sun-smile the next.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas Crackers

Christmas Crackers are one of those quintessentially British things. They look like firecrackers--big fat ones, you pull them apart like a wishbone, and things fall out of them like a pinata when cracked open. I first experienced them last Christmas in New Zealand and decided when in Glasgow two weeks ago that I must have some to take to the States for Christmas. My work mates told me where to go to look for them--Debenhams or another classic British store whose name I can't now recall.

I found them in this posh department store with Disney motifs on them. I was appalled. I found some also in a shop run by a Pakistani that were imported from China with Asian-influenced ideas on what was quintessentially British. I began to despair in my quest to take British icons to America to demonstrate my conversion to Britishness.

And then I found them. A box of one dozen golden wrapped extremely British looking Christmas Crackers at half price (I am, after all, not just British but Scottish, and part of my conversion is to become a canny shopper.) My friend's car was filled to the brim with the things the three of us bought in the Big City. I was prepared to hold my Christmas Crackers on my lap.

The Christmas Crackers and my friends and I all got home safely. I proudly announced my purchase and my intentions to my husband who deflated me with a single word: "Explosives." I am not sure how much explosive potential even one dozen Christmas Crackers would have or what diabolically clever mechanism one might devise to pull both sides of them simultaneously from the hold of an airplane, but I realized in an instant that I could not take them with me to Chicago. I did not want to have to explain to a humorless clerk what Christmas Crackers meant to me.

I thought I had put the crackers out of my mind. Last night we were eating by the fire in one of our favorite pubs and the waitress set out Christmas crackers for a large table of guests expected soon. I looked wistfully at the Crackers--shiny red foil ones containing the kinds of treasures that only very small children could want, and, of course, the ultimate treasure.

As the waitress turned, with the basket full of Crackers on her arm, she asked would we like some, too. My husband and I said yes and the table of Americans sitting next to us said, yes, too, without hesitation. Christmas Crackers reduce us all to a mental age of about 8. My husband pulled one end of my friend's cracker. There was a disappointing sound of cardboard and foil tearing. He and I pulled mine open with a very satisfying bang.

Both tables set about reading the enclosed wit: "What did the first mountain say to the second one?"
"Let's Meet in the valley." and looking at their gee gaws.

Only Morris and I indulged in the ultimate nonsense and donned the paper crowns that are the ultimate treasure in a Christmas Cracker. They never seem to fit anyone. Little children take a tuck in theirs and count on their ears to keep it from becoming a collar. Ladies with big hair perch them decorously on top. I put mine on and fiddled with it from time to time as it slid down over my hair so that my ears could not keep it from falling into my eyes. The crown is the ultimate treasure because it is so absolutely silly. I have seen photos of worthy lairds or dour patriarchs or seen the most sober-minded, self-conscious individual donning these paper crowns with no hesitation and being just for a little while transformed into the child we all like to be.

Friday, December 08, 2006

1,2; Red,Blue; Deja Vu

Much of the past two years could be described as resolving dichotomies or juggling pairs: new-old, real-virtual, here-there, light-dark, town-country, and even the biggest of irreconcilable differences: life-death.

I have not been in virtual space for nearly two weeks because my real world was too full of new words for my mind to be able to pick the right ones to march across the virtual page. In keeping with the creativity inherent in slicing through paradoxes, I need real quiet to build a virtual conversation.

The farm was recently jerked out of its settling in for the winter equilibrium with the sudden death of an animal. It just dropped dead of a heart attack when being moved from one pen to another. That was a blow to everyone. It is an economic loss, of course, but far more concerning is the shock to the sense of stewardship. These animals are given to us in trust. We look after them. As she has so often done for me, Wee Calfie helped to cheer Morris up. As he stood by one of the pens, she came up to him and gave him a little nudge and he reached out and scratched her shaggy forehead.

The next day our stockman spotted two sterks (young cattle--between calf and adult, kind of adolescent) that were "no' right." One was red; the other, blue. Neither animal fits the bill of a true Crayola scarlet red or ultramarine, but if you saw them you would definitely be able to say that one was reddish and the other definitely blue-ish. If they were school children, you would have no qualms saying "Yes, you can stay home from school today." They were lethargic, feverish. The vet came and dosed them with antibiotics and took their temperatures. We moved them to the quiet byre where the dun-coloured heifer spent her convalescence*.

When I came home in the evening, Morris asked me to go with him to look at the sterks in the steading. I moved slowly along the edge of the byre so as not to disturb them. I can see that Red is breathing roughly and has the bright eyed look that comes with a fever. Blue's breathing is OK and he rises easily to his feet. Morris opens the gate between their well-strawed bedding area to a pipe in the corner. He runs water into a large tub and both animals come toward it eagerly. "Sometimes when cattle don't feel well," he explains, "it can be too much effort for them to push the tab on their water bowl."

He watches them with a practiced eye and I watch them carefully not sure what to see. Blue ambles out the gate and down the corridor. "Where is he going? Do you want me to bring him back?"

"He's looking for his pals. No, no. Let him go. They'll come back to the nice bedding area when they are ready."

I am distracted by our own resident former orphaned barn kitty now self-styled court jester, Solomon. He follows me around when I go out and comes to the kitchen window to remind me to bring breakfast or dinner or snacks. He usually watches from a safe distance when I am with Morris or wearing my Wellies, whose thick soles and clunky shuffle look like trouble to cats. I don't think he has been back in the barn since he moved to the dairy maid's cottage, but he has followed us right into the byre and is rolling and purring and behaving in a way that he cannot be ignored. So I pet him and then bundle him up into my arms to get him past the sterks who look very large compared to Solomon.

Where Solomon leads, Sheba and Nomie usually follow, at a safe distance from beneath a parked car or behind a bush. From timid, orphaned, half-starved kittens they have grown into local royalty. Even Morris has been charmed by them--in part, no doubt, because he now believes what I have said all along: all cats remain predators. Morris has seen them in action and so is willing to accept their uncharacteristically cheeky behavior as long as they continue to fulfill their duties on rodent patrol. Everyone works on a farm. I drop Solomon back onto the ground just outside the kitchen door and as I do so, Sheba and Nomie make their appearance. I pet them all before I go inside and they go looking for mice in the garden.

In my town life, I was enrolled in Energy Efficiency training in Glasgow, about 8 hours drive south of here. I was so excited to think that Glasgow was far enough south to give me 10 more minutes of daylight that I overlooked the fact that it usually has more rain even than we do. Fortunately, my colleagues and I had great weather and I got not only my ten more minutes of daylight but also the lights of a big city. I learned, among many other more useful things in three days of training, that a cat, on average, generates about 11 watts of heat.

Since I last sauntered through this virtual landscape, I turned 60. It is more significant here than in the US because I am, over here, now officially of pensionable age. I can get a senior rail card, a free bus pass, and maybe a little bit of a pension. All that is fine, but the gratifying part of this birthday was just how many people genuinely wished me well. My work mates and friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic sent cards and took me out and bought me lunch. It made it easier to be 60 and to be here.

My daughter and grandson reached across the Atlantic with a card from Oxfam saying that 50 trees had been planted for my birthday. It was a wonderful present. I like to think about those trees growing up somewhere they can make a difference--their toe-roots holding on to fragile topsoil, their green leaves swapping oxygen for CO2, and a scent, or just a friendly touch of green saluting passersby.

Deja Vu nearly swamped me when I filled in for other members of the community association where I work at an all day conference on the arts. The presenters were earnestly making the case for the economic value of the arts. Nearly a decade ago in Indianapolis, I had again filled in for a colleague at a similar event with earnest presenters, arts organizations, and some sturdy funding agency representatives trying to have a useful discussion about the way forward with the arts in the community in a time of limited funding. If not for the Scottish accent, I would have believed that I had fallen into a time warp.

As if to ensure that clothes from my former life got a proper airing, my brown suit, taupe basic pumps, and I then went to a series of presentations on microrenewables at a research organization associated with the local college. I am, nominally, one of the presenter's 10 student researchers.

Today was a day of catching up with farm life and our social life. We went into town, did some errands, and met folks and had coffee and then lunch and then more coffee with other friends. No brown suit and pumps. When we turned into the farm road, we were greeted by half a dozen breakaway sheep. I don't know what makes sheep go walkabout. We herded them back along the road with the Volvo. I hoppped out to open a gate to the field where they belonged and then backed away so that they would not be put off going back to where they belonged but close enough to have enough time to keep them from the main road.

The leader of the band came halfway back to the open gate but tried, instead, to leap over or through the drystane dyke--the 3 foot high stone wall. After beating herself up against the rocks for more times than you could imagine even a sheep would try, she wised up and led the group through the gate.

As it turns out, she knew more than I gave her credit for. I thought she had squeezed through the side of a gate until Morris pointed out a gaping hole in the stone wall below the gate. Her persistence had previously been rewarded although why the grass on this side of the fence looked greener to her band of tearaways remains a mystery.

With the sheep tucked up, we settled into trying to tie up the loose ends of accounts and Christmas cards and all the details that need to be tied up so we can be away for a month. Nostalgia hit me a couple months ago and among other things, I wanted to see the Christmas windows in Marshall Fields--I know that it no longer is called Marshall Fields but in my mind's eye it is Marshall Fields and I am sure that if I ask directions to it or tell a taxi to take me there, they will not say, "What do you mean?" Place names change slowly. I need it to be Marshall Fields just this one more time then perhaps I'll be ready to move on.

*The dun coloured heifer is OK. She was put in with the calves and was very pleased with the company.