Friday, November 30, 2007

A Starbucks on Every Corner

Although I have often stopped at a Starbucks for a cuppa to revive flagging energy levels or as a convenient meeting spot for friends, I had not thought of it as an oasis or a safe haven from a world gone awry until our borrowed car--usually a stalwart and trusty vehicle--gave up the ghost altogether at the intersection of 38th and Meridian in Indianapolis. I mention the intersection in particular for several reasons.

I mention the intersection first because it is still a long way from home in Carmel or Anderson despite the fact that we have managed to coddle the car along for about 10 miles already. The second reason is to be able to explain how improbable it is to find a Starbucks on this particular corner in a neighborhood in transition. Many folks actively choose to live there rather than take the easy path out to the suburbs because they like being able to walk to local restaurants and public schools and parks, have a reasonable driving distance to work, or have a house that is not cut out of a developer's pattern book. I know because I lived close by here while I was looking for a house to buy. I might have bought a house there except for two things.

The first reason that I did not buy a house in this neighborhood was the economics. I needed a starter house, a euphemism for something not very expensive, smallish, and easy to maintain. The houses that I could afford needed more work than I could manage; the houses that didn't need work were way out of my price range.

The second reason that I did not buy a house in the neighborhood is that the house where I was staying was broken into while I lived there. They circled the house testing each of the windows until they found one they could pry open. Someone crawled into the space they created and then calmly walked to the front door and let his companion in. I don't remember what they took. After the initial shock, I was grateful that they had only taken things. I had my old checks laid out on the kitchen table in preparation for doing taxes. My whole life could have been whisked away. I prefer not to think at all about what might have happened if I had done more than stir in my sleep while they were prowling downstairs.

I cannot fathom either the cold bloodedness of sneaking into someone's house in the night or of the mean spirited humor that led them to open the garage door with the automatic opener and then leave both the keys to the car and the one garage door opener they left behind inside the locked garage. An older neighborhood meant that it had only the one door into the garage. I managed to break a window and climb into the garage. After that initial shock, again I learned to be grateful that they had not stolen the car or burned down the garage, or, worse still, used the garage door opener to come back again.

Friends and neighbors rallied to my side and the damage to house was quickly put right. I managed to enjoy my last few months living there, but I stopped looking for houses to buy in that neighborhood and I became wary and restless when dark settled in. Although I did not expect to be broken into again, I knew that evenings meant the night shift coming to work in the neighborhood. As dark settles in, drunks, prostitutes and hustlers take their appointed spots appearing as if they emerge from the sidewalks themselves.

Starbucks appeared on the corner opposite the strip mall after I had moved out of the neighborhood. It was created as a place to provide much needed local jobs and to redistribute income. In theory, people on their way to work might stop and buy coffee and a newspaper on their way into the office. I stopped there when I passed that way. It seemed to be working. It also provided a place for people from very different neighborhoods to come together. Starbucks, after all, is safe, familiar, predictable.

When I tucked the moribund car into a corner of the parking lot of the strip mall, I had all these thoughts swirling around in my mind with the anxiety of having to deal with the car. I took a deep breath so that my voice was calm, smiled, and looked my husband in the eye to make sure he would heed my words without getting unduly concerned. "This is a pay attention kind of neighborhood. Be canny." The zone between paying attention and being overwhelmed by the kind of violence that Americans get used to, if not inured to, is small. I must have missed the mark not wanting to alarm him, so it was even more imperative that we get out before the night shift came to work.

We walk across the road--after two weeks in the US, I have him pretty well trained to walk with the lights and in the crosswalks, but as soon as we crossed the street, he took a shortcut across the parking lot in the path of a car. I don't know how I could explain to him that in this neighborhood, if the car didn't hurt him, the driver just might.

The staff at Starbucks were very nice about letting us use their phone. We bought coffee and a New York Times and a muffin and began the back and forth conversations that culminated in: "We have gone to Autozone and have a new battery for the car, but AAA is on the way and they are expected in about 10 minutes." We hurry out to the moribund car. The first of the hustlers has arrived on the corner as dusk settles in, and the cars full of office workers hurry home. We are in transition along with the neighborhood as we stand on the corner.

My family arrives first and begin operating on the little car. AAA arrives. While they work on the car, I jump into the other car to keep my brother company. He needs a routine and a familiar setting. He is outside his comfort zone, so I work hard to keep my tone light, my voice calm, and fill the inside of the car with comforting thoughts both for his sake and my own.

Although the car would need one more intervention and a towing by AAA before the night was over, we made it back to Carmel in our vehicles like the others heading north that evening. Starbucks would be there and providing a safe haven until 9pm when they leave the neighborhood to the night shift.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


After having endured bone chilling cold for three years in the North of Scotland, I was surprised when my husband said that it was cold today. It is 27 degrees with a wind chill of 19. Although not balmy, for Indiana on the brink of December this is a good day. The sun is shining as if to do an "aw shucks we don't really mean it" about the 19 degrees.

Even though I am in an old house (the furnace labors into action as I type this), nonetheless it is centrally heated and all the rooms are warm enough that you can talk without seeing your own breath in front of you. The skin on my hands may get a bit dry in this heated air, but it will not crack into tiny painful rents as it did in Scotland.

As I watch the sun brightening the corn stubble on the field out the window of the kitchen in the company of two dogs who have come to see me as a distant second to my sister for opening and closing doors at their whims, I think about the psychology of cold.

I remember as a child playing for hours in the snow that clogged the roads so that school was closed. When we finally came in from playing in the snow, there would be patches that had melted and refrozen on our trousers and our breath would have formed mini glaciers on scarves wrapped up to protect our chins now bright red and cold to the touch having escaped the scarf. Our lungs rebelled at the sudden heat of air sucked into them and fingers that had carved snow creatures and hurled countless snowballs now refused to move well enough to pull off damp mittens. Would splashing in a hot tub til our skin was pink again and snuggling into flannel pajamas have felt as good if we had not first known cold with such intimacy?

As an adult, I lost that sense of adventuresomeness with cold and snow. I adopted a Chilly the Penguin persona. At the first hint of snow or cold breeze, I was decked in down filled parka and long underwear and scarves and hats and mittens. My daughter reminded me of what I had accomplished unselfconsciously as a child. "Embrace the cold," she said as we trudged into a head wind. It worked well enough for me to unhunch my shoulders and step out with a more lively stride so that more blood circulated through my Chilly the Penguin body, but once having given myself over to the weight of cold, it is hard to let go again.

Cold has a power over us even as an abstraction. Reading Jack London's "To Build a Fire" definitely chills me even long after my first reading, but I can close the book and shake that chill off. My husband takes my emotional temperature by feeling the relative warmth of my hands. The conjoining of psychology and physiology are twinned in the familiar phrases "icy dread" and "cold fear." Logically, if emotions can make us cold, then they can warm us, but I was skeptical about bringing Tinker Belle back to life even as I went along with it.

Back in Indiana, I am closer to that childhood self that unselfconsciously embraced the cold. From the safety of the warm kitchen, I think that I would like one of those storms that closes schools and offices and challenges us once again to see if I can make a big snowman whose head I can still lift into place. My arms are a bit longer now, so perhaps I could finally make the snowman of my childhood ambitions.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Back in the Land of Ketchup and Sidewalks

I am back in Chicago. I was born here though I spent so many years in Indiana that I think of myself as a Hoosier. Still, like a salmon, I come back to Chicago. My daughter and grandson are here. That makes it home enough for me. I hope to drink in as much as I can of their everyday lives so that when I go back to the North of Scotland I will have details enough to fill my mind's eye with them. It is a far distant second to the real thing, but details help me to hold on until the next visit.

I had the pleasure of seeing an oak tree while in Dublin on our way here. I am not a Druid, but the familiar oak leaf after months of sycamores and birch and beech and larch were just a hint of what was awaiting me. I had been alerted to the fact that a late autumn meant many leaves were still in colour and on the trees. I hoped to see the whole panorama of mixed forest in full array and I have taken the first glorious step in that direction. Chicago, being a city, cannot host all the trees, but it has some lovely exemplars of deciduosity--scarlet maples reigning over city streets or tucked into vest pocket front yards, sturdy maples crowning at the height of third story windows in green and yellow splotches, and piles of leaves on sidewalks and in the park.

As my husband and I walk to a favorite local breakfast place on our first full day in Chicago, I want to walk through the park. I cannot explain why, but he accedes, and we cross to the park and my feet take me faster than a matron of my age normally moves to go shuffling through a carpet of green-gold-yellow-brown leaves of all shapes and textures. I scuff along the sidewalk and then swoop into a carpet of leaves and make a wide figure eight liberating the green grass beneath the carpet of leaves. Then, content for the moment, I join my husband on the path for a more sober sided stroll the remaining distance to the breakfast place.

When we walk in, the manager instantly recognizes us and smiles. My husband is a character and perhaps because we danced out the door the last time we were there, they remember us. Or maybe it was because he put salt on his oatmeal and called it porridge. At any rate, far from home, my husband has someone who knows his name and welcomes him back. It is a good start to the holiday.

Now that we are back on my side of the pond, it is my job to make sense of the words we see around us to him. "What is a 'side'?" he asks puzzling over the menu. As I muddle through an explanation of that I have to try to remember what I have worked hard to un-learn. Although ketchup is available in all the places we routinely eat (along with brown sauce and tartar sauce and vinegar), it often goes by the name of "tomato sauce." Likewise, when we stop in a local grill for a Diet Coke I ask if they have potato chips. That sounds easy enough except that I have to stop my inner translator from converting "potato chips= crisps". I also have to stop from adding, "or anything savory?" because savory is not that kind of category over here. Thus, it is both perplexing and refreshing to have the old foods with their old names.

Some words however just don't translate well. I emailed a friend back in Scotland that we had taken the elevated train into the center of the city. I thought by using the full name rather than the customary term, El, that I had made it clear. It never occurred to me that there are no Els in Britain. My friend asked was it like a monorail. Well, yes, and no. And did she go on one in Seattle. I have never been to Seattle, which is almost as far from me here as Scotland is.

And for some reason in Britain the sidewalk is "pavement", so phrases such as "pounding the pavement" have to be amended to make any sense at all. Fortunately, Chicago is a cheerfulk city that enjoys sharing itself with misplaced Americans and curious Scots so Morris and I are assured of a good time whatever the word for it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Busarus and the Business of Scribes

In case you have ever wondered what rhymed with "thesaurus", I give you "busarus"--not a newly discovered dinosaur, but what they call the bus station in Dublin. I am, like so many of my forebears, about to depart from Ireland for America.

The weeks running up to this have been hectic. I have lacked the enrgy to write. Forgive the silence.

Yesterday we went to see the Book of Kells. It is always a pleasure to see the real thing after years of comments around and about it. As the guidebook said, the exhibits on the way to the book are well worth a close look. Pages from the Book of Kells many many times life size and illuminated from behind create a sacred space of arches and stained glass within a stark simple room. For all its religious power, the large pages are very welcoming, like stained glass windows in your favorite church.

Two books contemporary with the Book of Kells are displayed along with poems written by the scribes talking about their craft. We got to the exhibit in the Old Library building early and had the luxury of poring over the displays, peering closely at the text and catching the occasional word or looking intensely at the details of the illustrations. An interested collection of onlookers were reverentially quiet, which made it possible for the scritching of the quill on velum from a video embedded in an exhibit to reverberate throughout the room, rendering it a scriptorium again.

Almost as an afterthought, the long room above the Book of Kells exhibit has opened its doors. The guidebook comments on the barrel vaulted ceiling and the fact that the room is very long. I was struck by the fact that this was the continuation of the work begun below. The feeling was made all the more compelling as young people going about the business of preservation pushed carts of leather bound tomes up and down the length of the long room. A note at the door as we enetered said we could watch the preservationists in action, but preserving, as in scribing, is slow work. It is hard to make it a consumable event except for nerds of a certain flavor.

I am such a nerd. I like seeing behind the scenes of things. I started my working life in book publishing as the craft changed from hot metal impressions on paper to linotype and stayed on as computers took over more and more of the manual aspects. As books became more accessible they became less precious. This like the consequences of so many changes in technology is a mixed blessing.

As I watched the scribes at work I thought also about how we write ourselves into our world. One scribe was particularly aggressive in putting his own name into his work. Did the other scribes sneer about it? Did they have little talks with the head of the order about brotherly love? Did the monk with the BIG NAME have long sessions about pride coming before a fall? I would like to hear those stories behind the stories, but all I could hear was the quill on the velum.