Monthly Archives: January 2014

snow eyes for Jim

Freewrite from the morning of Jan 26.

I left the run early and eased to a walk. With each squeaking step on a fresh layer of snow, my eyes adjusted. Jim had challenged me to write less about myself, and more about the world. To focus around instead of within.

Walking helps. Not just because the pace opens the lens to more details, but because it brings me back to childhood. And those memories are not triggered just because I was a child during the last Big Winter, decades ago, but because my eyes were strong and every detail mattered.

On Albany Street last night, an apparition approached, dark clothes blurring into the darkness behind. The whole block seemed to recede into darkness. But the squeak of boots on packed snow, followed by Gareth’s familiar voice, pulled the buildings back to the foreground.

Gareth is always cold. He is strong but thin, a robust and handsome step up from skin and bones, but lacking insulation. He explains that he has been forcing himself to walk daily through the wall of cold that hits him harder than most people. We agree that the snow has helped. He compares it to walking on sand. I think we have all being thinking about beach time of late, as evidenced by last week’s flurry of booking houses for the annual August takeover of Miller Beach.

I praise the waves of snow that keep smoothing out the parkways. I want to compare it to wiping off a white board, but it’s more like burying the mess: the soot, dog pee, and other indignities that usually fade into the background, but are now showcased—a rebuke—against the whiteness. Every dusting tidies things up, just like shoving dirt under a rug.

Now I am thinking about the daily battle between store floors and the dirty snow that hitchhikes on boots. Business as usual, the customers buy mangos and bananas that have traveled so far, that have never seen snow. And their long travels, fueled by more energy than they provide, are likely changing our seasons, giving us these extremes. Chicago now has tropical storms in the summer. Maybe we will be able to grow our own mangos and bananas. In the meantime, the mop is always moving at Armitage Produce, sweeping out the slush at the same rate we carry it in.

Of course I am thinking about waves. Ebbs and flows, texture and erasure. It is hard not to compare snow to both beach and waves. I am thinking how the snow makes our ankles work hard on the run, just like running on the beach. And how snowflakes are like grains of sand. Snow, a soft but solid form of water. Sand, a solid but soft form of rock. Both can fill buckets to build igloo or castle. Funny that water is sturdier than rock.

A few weekends ago, we took our big ole black dog to an untouched field of snow, maybe 18 inches deep. I am not sure there is a purer expression of joy than a dog romping in the snow. His running usually reminds me of a hurdling horse, his spine drawing a wavy line, curving up and down. Here he looked like a dolphin splashing in and out of the water—especially when he buried his nose and flung up a spray, or dove to fetch a stick.

I am thinking about scale and contrast. He looked small, but the black fur popped against the calm white surface. This morning I could see from afar my running friends, or rather their spectrum of jackets, gathered near whitened trees in Palmer Square: Megan’s green, Claire’s red, Julie’s blue, Christine’s aqua, was Karen wearing purple? They too seemed more like specs than people, dotting the white and grey background, returning the third dimension.

As I walk home the last few blocks, having split from the group upon our return to Palmer Square, I am thinking about Jim, and being more observant, and I notice the things you tend to notice when walking in a city after two fresh inches of snow have cleaned up the new topography. Parkways and yards undulate thanks to the snow plows, shoveling, snow men, and igloos. An old mountain range in miniature. A treat in the flatlands.

I see a snowplow and exchange a wave of solidarity. I think it was the same one we ran behind in Humboldt Park—at a safe distance because we think it was replacing snow with salt, but not as much as in years past. Not sure if this is due to budget or concerns for the environment.

There are more hellos and quick smiles on an early morning like this amongst the few people who have ventured out. Probably because it is not terribly cold (because 15 degrees feels warm now, and we know there will be few smiles in the next few days—sub-zero temps predicted for 60 hours.)

But I mostly listen to the snowplow pushing the slush of a busy road to the side—please don’t bury the corner—and the wheels of cars splashing forward—because there are still many streets to be plowed. And they sound likes waves as they always do.

I think of Jim and his poem about a loping (?) dog running along the rails in the snow, I think, and how he uses so few words to bring the world into such clear focus. And I think about his urging for me to observe, and I feel kind of lame for the ye olde winter/summer/snow/water/beach language, but I have also promised to simply write, uncensored, when I get home, the way I used to urge others to do, when I was helping adults or children trust that they have a voice and things to write about, and that in free-writing you almost always find a little pebble and sometimes, if you are lucky, a gem, that you might want to write about, or at least mull over, in the future. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” If you want to revise, you can always slash the ands, buts, and sos.

So I walk down Dickens, and keep my eyes open, and forgive myself for having unoriginal thoughts, including the one that follows. That we are specs as Jim reminds me, but also unique as snowflakes. It almost staggers me to think that there are no other moments in time or universe that are the same as the ones I am moving through. I follow footprints. People have walked before and will walk behind the temporary tracks I am making, but none will have also just left behind their rainbow jacketed friends and looked at the nooks of trees holding cups of snow, as well as straggling Christmas decorations on front porches and fences. And even if they have or will, is their vantage point from five feet?

I am thinking about music, and how people don’t stop writing about love, heartbreak and anger, and how all those same songs have their own opening notes, so that you can recognize them within seconds. This has always astonished me. How can there be so much music, each with its own signature?

I bring my focus back to the street, and the one thought I have, which is probably not original, but is one I like: that snow fall reminds me of rubbings, those art activities where you place paper on something textured, and rub it with a sideways crayon, so the structure pops. Or like invisible ink blooming onto paper after the antidote has been applied. That’s what I am enjoying in addition to the smoothing of mounds  of parkways and yards. The contrast, etching, reliefs—I am not sure the word or phrase I want, that call attention to edges and lines—hard, firm, not like the mounds—like the sides of poles in black fences, or sometimes even the grout of brick buildings, reminding me of the individual bricks that make the whole, and the individuals who placed them there.

And now I have to intercept Michael, Miguel and Meatball, because Miguel is walking home and his feet are too cold. He is seeing the world from 3 and ½ feet, which sounds like less wonder than I had this morning. Of course, I have been in those shoes many times.

Frozen Muffin Top

jan2014 temps
The upcoming forecast is a representative sample of the famous winter of ’13-14. Oh, wait, it’s not over and in the books yet. Drat.
A sliver of my belly stung during this morning’s run. When I left the house at 7:15am, our thermometer read 1 degree and by my return it had climbed to 5. But the gusting winds erased the difference, sending the chill below zero as has happened so many days this season. Still, it was great to be in the fresh air, even if it did tickle my nose with snotcicles.

Between a few key pieces of gear and overall hardiness (developed through experience, not character), I can manage pretty much anything Chicago dishes out.*

No such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.
No such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.

However, desire does not always match ability; I have spent too much time inside lately, cozied in slippers and a treasured wool shawl from Ecuador which conveniently hides my expanding belly.

My rarely used cold weather warrior leggings date back nearly 15 years. Alas, that also dates them to at least 15 pounds ago. As I trotted along this morning, the bottom of my top and the top of my bottoms could not adequately protect my muffin top. My belly wasn’t exposed directly to the air.  It was just perched over my leggings under my shirt. But the wind breached the tenuous barrier and scraped at my paunch with mocking persistence.  Fair punishment for recent indolent ways.

It reminded me of another sliver of burn from the opposite side of the year and body. A blazing hot mid-summer day, when you lean over your handlebars, and make your own breeze, and your shirt

Note full back coverage. And the reminder of pleasant days ahead. Right? Right???
Note full back coverage. And the reminder of pleasant days ahead. Right? Right???

slides up your back just a bit, and you regret forgetting to sun screen that spot. But I much prefer the red burn of summer to the red slap of winter.

*Actually, like Stringer Bell from The Wire, I can’t handle 40 degree days, especially when it is raining. (Following clip is one of my faves, but NSFW or children.)

Stopping by a 10K on a Slushy Morning Grocery Run

(Writing this was frustrating, and it does not hang together well, but it manages to exactly capture what was on my mind.)

Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” has been on my mind, perhaps because of the recent snow-filled days. The meter, rhyme, and words have always felt just right. They convey not only a picture, but sounds and mood, the tension between journey and destination; they place me on the back of a little horse who waits while I watch—just for a few moments—snow falling gently in the woods on a long, dark night.

Our apple tree, not in the woods, or at night, but covered with soft snow.

The poem’s resonance varies. The nature loving adventurer within me wants to plunge into the woods that are lovely, dark, and deep. Late nights diligently working towards deadlines hum with the refrain of promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, while my deepest depressions have despaired at those same words, same miles in darkness.

After last Saturday’s 10K Polar Dash and grocery shopping jaunt with Karen, my mind turned to lines I usually gloss over:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake

There is a literal connection; the race hugged Chicago’s iced covered lake, with at least some trees and green space (currently brown and dotted with grungy piles of snow) on the other side, buffering us from the hum of Lake Shore Drive and the city beyond. But the key word is “stop.”

Michael imagined that life would slow down when we had a child. Then Miguel was born, and we shifted into hyperdrive. While I wouldn’t trade the ride for the universe it is speeding through, I appreciate the pauses, especially when they take me away from the village.

Karen is using one of my favorite capacity expanding tricks: tie a bulging plastic bag on the rack on top of a pannier.
97.3% of the time, living car-free and bike-centered in Chicago works just fine, and saves money for splurges like races. Here, Karen is using one of my favorite capacity expanding tricks: tie a bulging plastic bag on the rack on top of a pannier.

My family lacks easy access to natural-ish areas within and near Chicago, in part because we chose to live without a car. The metro area oozes miles and miles in all directions but east; even with a transit assist, it takes a lot of time to simply get to an area beyond noise and asphalt. For a day trip that means the getting there (especially with a child) to being there ratio is often not worth it. The flat land of northeastern Illinois is not exactly rife with wilderness anyway.

But we have Lake Michigan and a mostly “Open, Free, and Clear” shoreline. While I have no horse, I do have glorious girlfriends who keep me running year round, and sign up for races by the lake, even if it’s just to take a break from routine, get a new shirt, and turn our gaze away from the city to the water. And lately there has been so much snow, soft and deep.

The earlyish morning trip downtown, Yeah, yeah, we could have biked. Can I blame the ice?
The earlyish morning trip downtown, Yeah, yeah, we could have biked. Can I blame the ice for our choice?

Well, I intended this post to provide a play by play of my last minute, $68 date with Karen to run the Slushy, Icy, Polar Dash, followed by my more than $68 trip to Trader Joes. Then it got all mushed around when I started wondering about our mellow approach to the race, and why grocery shopping was part of the day’s anticipation. Sure, going to TJ involves leaving the neighborhood, which has become somewhat of a special occasion (through no fault of anything but my laziness). But it’s not like I have a TJ fetish, despite the appealing prices on nuts and dried fruit.

I think I grabbed the morning for the pause, not the race. The registration fee was not for the event, but for the time. Time away, time together, time with a few views of nothing but open land and water which soothed the soul even though they were dull browns and whites smudged against the grayest of skies. Time to be leisurely in the grocery store, and consult on future meals to be made for harried weeknights.

After we stuffed our saddlebags with provisions, we rode our bikes to the train, which has no bell, but shook us through the deep, dark subway, miles back to our village.


Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

This is a cheat picture b/c it is from the Michigan side, but it is the only frozen Lake Michigan pic I can find.
This is a cheat picture b/c it is from the Michigan side, but it is the only frozen Lake Michigan pic I can find.
And, in truth, we have some lovely places to run in our area: Palmer Square, Humboldt Park, the boulevards. But nothing quite beats the lake. Except maybe mountains. Why do I live somewhere without mountains?

Running from the Polar Vortex

This is actually a post about having to find a pit stop during a recent well-below-freezing-but-not-a-polar-vortex day. See paragraph 6. I just tend to preambling.

This links to a NYT article about Grete Waitz, winner of 9 New York Marathons. It does not mention diarrhea.

Dangerous wind chills are supposedly on tap for the next 48 hours or so. Predictions say highs won’t break zero, and that the winds will make it feel like who-knows-what below zero; at a certain point, cold is just cold, at least from a psychological standpoint. Mountaineers, arctic scientists, and excited reporters know the formula for wind chill + exposure time = when frozen snot and frostbite settle in, but I’ll wait until I do some serious mountaineering, research, or reporting to focus on the details. Thankfully, inside = warm and I have the outerwear, including goggles, to likely manage the three block walk or bike ride to Karen’s house if we decide to invite ourselves over for dinner.

Gah–again, a false start. This is not really about the impending temperature plunge. It’s just that it reminded me I’ve been meaning to write about a recent, very cold run, which involved a near panicked search for a place to poop.

There seem to be certain circles and contexts where issues of elimination are discussed with a zeal rather disturbing to others. For example, my mom and I have talked shit for as long as I can remember, much to the deep sigh and red cheeks of my dad, and eye-rolling groans of my husband. Perhaps it is because Mom and I are so short; dropping a load for us can be the difference between pant sizes. Most of my close friends also banter about bowels; I’m not sure what comes first–does sharing your inner GI secrets forge the close friend bond,  or does the bond allow for the sharing? I imagine much research has been done on the evolution of friendships, but I will resist the urge to start looking for it on-line right now.

Shared contexts can also bring out the potty talk among acquaintances and even strangers. Parents of young children share war stories about bathtub Baby Ruths, blowouts, etc. Though I have let go of many memories of Miguel’s march to toilet independence, whenever Michael and I walk past the terminal A food court at BWI airport, we share an awkward “remember when” moment. That’s a story for another day.

Similarly, runners seem comfortable admitting that their top race day worry is not pooping before cueing up for the start. I have read articles and chapters in books devoted to the “runner’s trots” and am flabbergasted and in awe of marathoners, such as the late, great Grete Waitz, forging to the finish with said trots dripping down their legs.*  I wish I could imagine pushing my mind and body to that level of dedication.

Instead, I keep my eyes open for plastic bags.

So, here is the little story, which is out of proportion with the preamble, but that’s just the way I get going.


The other day, when it was cold but not newsfrothing cold, Julie, Clare and I went for a run. We met at Palmer Square and la, la, la, beat our typical path to Humboldt Park. As we began running through the park, my stomach started churning and I told them I was not feeling well and was going to head home. Soon after I turned back, I recognized the discomfort. I needed to take a shit. Gah!!!

While I am not unfamiliar with the squat-stop while running, I have always played the look out (or just wait it out) role for others. I know the drill. Find a plastic bag, look for a secluded spot (not always easy in an urban setting), and, as we tell our pets, “do your business.”

But although I knew that pooping in the public way (and cleaning it up, of course), was–from a runner’s perspective–not a big deal, it was not my preferred course of action. My thought process was likely familiar to others:

“How far away am I from home?” Almost a mile. “Is it better to walk and maybe temper the urgency, or run like hell to get home?” As my mind churned on these questions, I headed towards the nearest alley, plastic bag in hand. I also had flashbacks of other similar situations which may or may not warrant additional posts.

Up the alley I went, but no place seemed suitable. I hit Wabansia and veered west to cross Humboldt Blvd which is basically a city block wide cross section of service roads, parkways, and a busy four lane arterial (see above). In other words, a long way to cross, with no place to hide.

I retreated and returned to the alley. It was now a matter of where instead of if. Brisk walking, lot by lot. Drat! There’s a woman coming out to warm her car. Er, there are a lot of windows on that apartment building. Ooh, is that a construction site? Why, yes it is. Wait–I know that shade of blue! Well, there’s no way the portapotty is open. . . what?? no lock? dial on green?? Well, someone might be sleeping there to escape the cold. . .

I tentatively opened the door. Empty, except for not one, but two rolls of toilet paper. I am trying to think of a milder, secular word than miracle. The phrase Deus ex machinapopped into mind. Maybe I should call it simple good luck. Michael just reminded me I could have run to the nearby Dunkin Donuts or McDonalds. It’s always good to know where you can go before you head out the door. And that brings me back to memories of charting out all the public restrooms before outings with little Miguel.

Hmm, well, I am not sure why I feel compelled to post this, but the words are now down, and I know at least a few people, per paragraph 4, who will appreciate it.

*And here are Grete Waitz’s words:

Finally, the great Norwegian champion Grete Waitz suffered famously from diarrhea at both the London and New York City Marathons, but overcame it to win both races.  In her book “Run Your First Marathon,” she describes the problem:

“One of my most dramatic race stories is also my most awkward. I was in the lead of the London Marathon when I got an attack of diarrhea. (This happened again, in New York.) In my mind, there was no question: I had to keep running, despite the shock of onlookers and worse, the television cameras broadcasting the event to millions of people. If I had stopped the race, for any reason, I would have lost. It was not a pleasant experience, but winning those races was.”

A Fabled New Year

the-ant-and-the-grasshopperFirst goal attempt of the New Year: giving myself only 30 minutes for writing.

Like lots of folks, I have spent the last few weeks, rather months–oh who am I kidding, a lifetime– scheming and dreaming about the myriad ways I can become a better person. Similarly, I have tried to think of these goals, resolutions, etc. in realistic, actionable terms.

Perhaps like fewer folks, I have also spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to phrase them.

Take some of the “big ideas” I have been circling around in anticipation of 2014:

  1. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good
  2. Be early
  3. Choose wisely
  4. Treasure each moment
  5. Have a place for all things and put all things in their place.
  6. Be kind

I could stop there, because those truly are the ways of being I want to work on. When I test out my specific goals, they fall into one or more of those categories. But:

  1. I believe in the power of three item lists. Six is too many, too easy to forget.
  2. Even though the first mantra is the most important one, I don’t like phrasing directives in the negative. Oops, I mean I prefer to phrase them as a positive. Do instead of don’t.
  3. Though technically parallel in structure, starting two lines with “be”=blech. Number five also sticks out in length and overall vibe.

After spending too much time trying to solve this puzzle (see perfection vs. good), I had another idea, that is, alas, more complicated and cumbersome. But it seems like more fun, and has catchy phrases built in.

So, I hereby declare 2014 to be the Year of the Fable. Humans have been trying to get their shit together (and telling others how to do it) for a long time. Why reinvent the wheel when I can turn to venerable voices such as Aesop, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and “unknown”?

Here are a few that are already on the list:

  1. There is a time for work and a time for play. (The Ant and the Grasshopper)

Drat—time is up! And per the ants, I need to tackle cleaning the post NYE house instead of continuing to write like a grasshopper. Here’s a link to a list of other lessons linked back to Aesop’s fables. I’d love to hear which ones resonate with you!

Confession 1: Between looking for an image and moving the text to wordpress I blew the 30 minute quota. And the fam came back early from sledding which will make it harder to clean.

Confession 2: I do have a soft spot for the grasshopper. Music is also important for getting through the long months of winter. . . Takes all kinds, right?