Category Archives: daughters

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

Lipstick, Then and Now

Let’s talk about lipstick.

Lipstick?

I know what you’re thinking.  Lipstick is not the weightiest topic I could be writing about.  But it’s a pretty good reflection of how our lives have changed since March.

A few years ago, I wrote about something I called “The Lip-Kick Effect.”  At the time, we were working our way out of a financial recession, and many Americans still felt stuck in neutral or worse.  I wondered:  How do we cope?  By buying more…lipstick?

The improbable answer was “Yes.”  Researchers had concluded that the more insecure the economy, the more women tended to spend on beauty products, especially lipstick.  They dubbed this phenomenon the “lipstick effect.”

(I preferred to call it the “lip-kick effect.”  When one of my daughters was quite small, she pronounced “lipstick” as “lip-kick,” and her mispronunciation struck me as an even better moniker for the “lipstick effect.”)

Five separate studies confirmed this hypothesis.  They found that during recessions over the previous 20 years, women had reallocated their spending, deciding to spend their money on beauty products instead of other items.

Why did women confronted with economic hardship seek out new beauty products?  The researchers came up with a host of reasons.  Most significant: a desire to attract men, especially men with money.

Another reason?  Wearing lipstick could boost a woman’s morale.

In that blissful time BC (before Covid-19), I cheerfully admitted that I was a (credit-)card-carrying member of the latter group.  Like many women, I got a kick out of wearing lipstick.  I added that “while uncertainty reigns, we women get our kicks where we can.”

Believing that a brand-new lipstick could be a mood-changer, I bought into the notion that lipstick could make women feel better.  And lipstick was a pretty cheap thrill.  For just a few dollars, I could head to my local drugstore and choose from scores of glittering options.

That was then.  This is now.  A very different now.

In 2020, lipstick has become expendable.  If you’re still staying-at-home, sheltering-in-place, or whatever you choose to call it, most makeup has become expendable.

By April, I had pretty much given up wearing lipstick.  When I wrote about wearing scarves as face-coverings, I added:  “One more thing I must remember before I wrap myself in one of my scarves:  Forget about lipstick.  Absolutely no one is going to see my lips, and any lip color would probably rub off on my scarf.”  [https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/]

The same goes, of course, for masks.

A former believer in the lip-kick effect, I now gaze at my collection of colorful lipsticks and immediately dismiss the idea of applying one to my lips.  I’m not alone.  When many of us decided to adopt masks and other face-coverings, sales of lip products fell.  As a market research analyst noted, “Nobody wants lipstick smudges inside their masks” (quoted in The Washington Post on June 15th).  Today, as cases of coronavirus spike in many parts of the country, there’s an increasing urgency to wearing masks, even legal requirements to do so.

I wear a mask or scarf whenever I leave home.  Now, viewing my wide array of all sorts of makeup, I primarily focus on sunscreen and other products that protect my skin when I take my daily stroll.

Instead of lipstick, I’ll apply a lip balm like Burt’s Bees moisturizing lip balm.  For the tiniest bit of color, I might add “lip shimmer.”  But neither of these has the look or feel of a true lipstick.  The kind I used to view as a morale-booster.

For a boost in morale, I now rely on sunshine and the endorphins produced by my brisk walking style.

Wearing lipstick right now?  Forgeddaboutit.….

Now let’s think about lipstick in a new light.  When a vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, and a vanishing pandemic no longer dictates the wearing of face-coverings like masks, will women return to adding color to our lips?  Will we enthusiastically rush to retail establishments that offer an array of enticing new lipsticks?

The answer, for now, is unclear.  Many women, adopting the almost universally accepted cultural norm that lipstick will make them more attractive to others, may happily put their dollars down to buy those bright tubes of color again.  Some women may continue to view wearing lipstick as a morale-booster.  But others, after some contemplation, may decide that buying lipstick and other types of makeup isn’t where we should direct our hard-earned cash.

Maybe at least some of our dollars are more usefully directed elsewhere:  To help our neediest fellow citizens; to bolster causes that promote long-sought equity; to support efforts to combat climate change and polluting our planet; to assist medical research that will cure diseases of every stripe.

The future of lipstick?  Who the heck knows?

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

Return to Xanadu, or Have you found your “Rosebud”?

“Rosebud”… every film buff knows the reference. In the monumental 1941 film, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane repeats the word on his deathbed, recalling the beloved sled so cruelly snatched from him during his impoverished youth.  He was still obsessed with its loss, a loss that may have represented the loss of his mother’s love.

I hope you’ve never lost your “Rosebud.”  But it you have, you might look for it at Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle?  It’s the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California.  Most filmgoers acknowledge that it was Orson Welles’s inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion, “Xanadu.”

Today Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark (as well as a California Historical Landmark), and this year it’s turning 100 years old.  When I learned of this milestone, I couldn’t help recalling my two visits to that extraordinary place.

It wasn’t always called “Hearst Castle.”  Hearst inherited the original estate at San Simeon from his father (along with even more land and $11 million) when his mother died in 1919.  Together with his architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan, they greatly enhanced it during a span of over twenty years.

Hearst himself later called it “The Ranch.” After he separated from his wife in 1925, he and his mistress, Hollywood film star Marion Davies, spent time at his mansion entertaining prominent guests from the worlds of politics, literature, and film.  In addition to the mansion itself, Hearst acquired an enormous amount of priceless artwork and furnishings on an epic scale.

I first heard about Hearst’s mansion in the early 1970s when my soon-to-be husband (I’ll call him Marv) proposed that we drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where we’d met a few months earlier, to San Francisco and back.  Marv said we could stop at “San Simeon,” and our stop there turned out to be a shimmering highlight of one of the most memorable trips of my life.  Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

We set out from LA on a beautiful sunny morning in mid-March.  Driving north on Highway 1, we visited Danish-themed Solvang and beautiful Morro Bay en route to San Simeon.

When we arrived, we walked up to a fairly small entrance and joined a few other tourists on a tour of the mansion, where we learned a lot about Hearst and his mansion’s history.  I knew something about Hearst from his role in U.S. history, especially his “yellow” journalistic efforts to embroil the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  But before we visited San Simeon, I knew very little about his personal life.

When the tour ended, we were able to explore the outdoor areas by ourselves.  My photo album includes scenes of the two of us at “Hearst Mansion.”  Unaccompanied and unbothered by any staff or other tourists, we roamed around, taking photos of each other, choosing backdrops like the gorgeous Neptune Pool and some of the exquisite outdoor statuary.

Just after leaving the Hearst Mansion, we drove through Big Sur and relished a memorable lunch at Nepenthe.  This charming restaurant, which first opened in 1949, features an outdoor terrace offering a panoramic view of the south coast of Big Sur.  The breathtaking view is still worth a stop.

The rest of our trip included equally memorable stops in Carmel and Monterey, as well as a celebration of my birthday in San Francisco.  Visiting a couple of wineries in Napa, seeing friends in Berkeley (where Marv had spent five happy years as a grad student), and a trip down the coast to return to LA (via Andersen’s Pea Soup just off Highway 1 in Buellton) completed our remarkable trip.

But most unforgettable was our joyful decision to marry each other in a few short weeks.

Fast forward about 35 years.  I returned to Xanadu…er, Hearst Castle, during a road trip with my daughter in 2008.  This visit was very different.  First, we had to enter through a sterile structure, the visitor center, which didn’t exist at the time of my earlier trip.  In this dreary “holding pen,” we waited with a large crowd of other tourists until we were herded onto a bus, herded through the castle, and herded back onto a bus.

This new approach struck me as far too regimented.  Although my daughter was delighted to see the castle and learn about its history during our tour, we had very little chance to roam around the grounds by ourselves when the tour ended.

With the castle’s 100th anniversary coming up, some positive changes are arriving on the scene.  For example, the slate of tours has expanded to include tours with exciting new themes.  Even better:  Most tours now allow visitors free-roaming once their guided tour is over. This appears to be much like the roaming I remember from my first trip.  Visitors can admire the grounds, including the Neptune Pool (recently renovated for $10 million), for as long as they wish.  So it now promises to be a far better experience for visitors than the one I found wanting in 2008.

 

In my mind, Hearst Castle is inescapably linked with the movie Citizen Kane.  That classic film looms especially large because it turned out to play an important role in my own life.

Marv and I had met on the campus of UCLA, where we were both working, and we had rented apartments in the same building on the fringes of the campus.  Our lives, not surprisingly, often centered around UCLA.

One of our most remarkable dates involved a showing of Orson Welles’s film in a classroom building on the campus.

Sometime after we decided to get married, Marv asked me whether I wanted to see Citizen Kane.  I immediately jumped at the chance to see a film I’d only heard about but never saw, even on late-night TV.

Marv grinned and said something like, “I think you’ll like it,” adding, “There’s a surprise in it for you.”  That clearly piqued my interest, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

We took our seats in a bare-bones classroom and began to watch the film.  It was fascinating from the start, beginning with the announcement of Kane’s death on the “March of the News” (patterned after the “News of the World,” a newsreel shown in movie theaters in the 1940s). The story then flashed back to Kane’s involvement in politics, the purchase of his first newspaper (soon followed by other papers), and his marriage to his first wife.

I was totally caught up in the storyline.  Then came the surprise.  A character named Susan Alexander suddenly appeared on the screen.

My birth name is not Susan Alexander.  But I was never very fond of the last name (my father’s) I was given at birth, and I was planning to change it to Marv’s last name when we married.  Now here was a character with the name I hoped to have.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t a totally positive character, and as the story moved on, she became less and less so.  Abused by Kane, by the end of the movie she had become a pathetic alcoholic, engendering sympathy rather than antipathy.

I would have been happier to see a more positive figure with my future name on the screen.  But what’s astonishing is how the character’s name has lodged in filmgoers’ minds.

During the decades since I married Marv and assumed her name, I’ve encountered countless people who, upon meeting me, mention Citizen Kane.  I immediately know that these people (sadly, a dwindling number) have seen the film and vividly recall the name of Kane’s aspiring-soprano second wife, who was actually patterned after the wife of another tycoon, Samuel Insull.

I’ve always been happy that I took Marv’s last name and became Susan Alexander (even when I’ve been confused with other women who share my name).  And I’ve never regretted being associated with a truly great film like Citizen Kane.

 

Do you have a “Rosebud”?  I didn’t have a favorite toy that I lost during my childhood, so I’ve never obsessed over something the way Charles Foster Kane obsessed over his sled.

But if you have a “Rosebud,” I hope that you’re luckier than he was, and that someday you, unlike Kane, succeed at tracking it down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycling Through Bliss

I’ve recently embarked on a new exercise program, and I’ve chosen a recumbent bike as one means to accomplish my goal.  It’s fairly boring to cycle in my current gym, a gray and sterile place, so I’ve taken to closing my eyes while I cycle and imagine blissful scenes I’ve cycled through in my past.

I focus on the scenes around my home of 30 years in the eastern section of Wilmette, a charming village on Chicago’s North Shore.  We bought our home in 1975 for less than $70,000, but during the three decades that we lived there, home values increased enormously, and by the time we sold it, its value had multiplied about 14 times.

During those years, east Wilmette became exceedingly desirable because of its location near Lake Michigan and its lakeside beach, harbor, and park—Gillson Park– along with excellent schools, a nearly invisible crime rate, a top-notch public library, a Spanish-influenced small shopping mall called Plaza del Lago, its 28-minute train ride to downtown Chicago, and other highly sought-after features.  Although we were not at the most affluent end of the spectrum in Wilmette, especially as the years went by, we reaped the benefits of living in a near-idyllic setting.

I set my second novel, a mystery titled Jealous Mistress, in this part of Wilmette, which I called East Winnette (blurring its name with that of another North Shore suburb, Winnetka.  [https://www.amazon.com/Jealous-Mistress-Susan-Alexander/dp/1463503652]

I’ve loved cycling ever since my parents gave me my first Schwinn during my growing-up years on Chicago’s Far North Side.  I continued to pursue cycling throughout my high school and college years.  And even when I was a law student at Harvard, I purchased a second-hand bike from a graduating 3L and delightedly rode it through the beautiful Cambridge streets until I myself graduated and passed it on.

While working as a lawyer in Chicago before I married, I bought an inexpensive bike at Sears and loved riding it through Lincoln Park, along Lake Shore Drive, and elsewhere along the lake, near where I’d rented a small studio apartment.

After I moved to LA in 1970, I bought a second-hand bike and hoped to ride it near my apartment in Westwood. But the neighborhood was too hilly for me, and I soon abandoned cycling there.

Landing in Wilmette in 1975, I was determined to once again be a cyclist.  With the bike I moved from LA to Ann Arbor then moved to Wilmette, and the bike my husband acquired in Ann Arbor so he could ride with me there, we set out on our bikes as soon as we could.  Having two daughters complicated things, but as soon as we could somehow attach them to us or to our bikes, or they were old enough to ride bikes themselves, off we went.  Both daughters became avid cyclists, often biking to school during their high school years.

Here’s one of the blissful North Shore routes our family shared, one I remember with special and heartfelt fondness:

Our family of four would cycle out of the detached garage behind our house and set out on our bikes, riding a short way to 10th Street, a sometimes busy through street.  We’d then ride three blocks down 10th Street (carefully, to avoid traffic, which was usually fairly light) to a delightful route down Chestnut Avenue.  This route enabled us to ride for about six blocks without interruption by any curbs or cross-streets because we took the sidewalk on the eastern side of Chestnut, and it had no breaks of any kind.

I always loved our rides down Chestnut Avenue.  Chestnut features huge homes and extensive front lawns, and I memorialized it as Oak Avenue in my novel Jealous Mistress.  In this story, set in 1981, the protagonist-narrator is planning to visit a house on that street:

 

“It was only a few blocks from my house, but those blocks made all the difference in the world.  The houses on my block ran the gamut from ordinary and somewhat cramped (mine) to large and fairly impressive (the one next door…).

But the houses on [Chestnut Avenue] were borderline mansions.  One of them always reminded me of an art museum I once saw in Williamstown, Massachusetts (on a slightly smaller scale, of course).”

My protagonist-narrator hopes that the house she’s visiting “would turn out to be the museum lookalike, but it wasn’t.  It just looked like one of the houses in a Cadillac ad in the latest issue of LIFE magazine.”

 

As our family cycled alongside the magnificent homes on Chestnut Avenue, we savored the uninterrupted ride that led us to where Chestnut ended and flowed into the adjoining suburb of Kenilworth.

Kenilworth was and still is an upscale, somewhat snooty, suburb just north of Wilmette.  Like some areas of east Wilmette, this section of Kenilworth, east of Green Bay Road and close to Sheridan Road, also features huge homes, tall trees, and extensive front lawns.  My older daughter remembers these areas as “park-like.”

Kenilworth’s streets had very little car traffic—a definite plus—but the best thing about them was that they were all paved with asphalt.  In our part of Wilmette, later called the CAGE because of the four streets that bordered it (one of them was ours), the streets were still paved with red bricks.  The vintage bricks (expensive to replace when they broke) lent a certain cache to the streets, and we loved them, but they were so bumpy that they were truly awful for bike-riding.  So whenever we could ride our bikes on the streets of Kenilworth, we knew we’d have smooth sailing for that part of our ride.

When I close my eyes at the gym, I often picture the sights along this route.  During the six months of the year (May through October) when cycling was more-than-pleasant on the North Shore, we’d relish the cool breezes from Lake Michigan and the delightful sounds of birdsong that surrounded us.

But another route was equally blissful.  On this one, we’d head east, tolerating Wilmette’s bumpy brick streets as far as Sheridan Road, where we were able to ride down smooth sidewalks and streets leading to the stunning lakeside gem called Gillson Park.  Riding into Gillson gave us a couple of options:  We could head all the way to the sandy beach, riding alongside Lake Michigan, or we could cycle along Michigan Avenue, the posh residential street just east of busy Sheridan Road.

Gillson was, and still is, a gem for a host of reasons.  One is the accessible beach and harbor, where sunning, swimming, and sailing were happily available in good weather.  Another is the abundance of tall trees and green grassy lawns, where countless barbeques cropped up every summer.  Still another is the marvelous Wallace Bowl, where Wilmette offered free concerts (and Broadway musicals) every summer, and where a concert of patriotic music, followed by fireworks at the beach, was an annual tradition on the Fourth of July that attracted people from all over the Chicago area.

So we would enthusiastically ride into and through Gillson, sometimes stopping to look at the lake, sometimes zooming past Michigan Avenue mansions, always having a glorious time on a breezy, sunshiny day.

Gillson Park turned up as Sheridan Park in a scene in Jealous Mistress.  I couldn’t resist setting a scene in a secluded spot along the water where my protagonist-narrator could meet up with someone who turned out to reveal important secrets.

 

Update to today:  If you’ve read my blog before, you know I live in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  So you may be wondering why I don’t envision cycling on routes through my new neighborhood rather than the routes stored in my memory bank.

The truth is that although I moved a two-year-old bike from Wilmette to my new home in San Francisco, I’ve sadly never used it.  Why?

The apartment building I chose is perched in a very hilly part of SF, and I soon realized that cycling on these hills would be much too arduous.  Hence I ride the recumbent bike at the gym while my own bike still leans against a wall in my building’s garage.

Instead of cycling, I walk almost everywhere I can in San Francisco.

But cycling still beckons.  I plan to abandon my boring gym and acquire a new recumbent bike of my own, a stationary one that will reside in my apartment, to be ridden whenever and for however long I wish.

I can hardly wait.

For Father’s Day: A Coronation to Remember

The U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth has been front and center lately.  Between an awkward state visit by the U.S. president in early June and the colorful celebration of her 93rd birthday a short time later, she has recently occupied a lot of media attention.

But the Queen has a long history in the minds of the American public.  I first heard about her when I was growing up in Chicago and she ascended the throne after the sudden death of her father, King George VI.

The brilliant Netflix TV series, “The Crown” (which I’ve recently caught up with on DVD), has revived my memories of the early tenure of the Queen.  One particular episode in Season I immediately caught my attention.  At the beginning of this episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” the young Princess Elizabeth helps her father prepare for his coronation in 1937 (following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII).

The extreme closeness between father and daughter is demonstrably clear.

The story moves on to the preparation for Elizabeth’s own coronation in 1953.  By this time, her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (dubbed Prince Philip in 1957), has assumed a significant role in her life.  He insists upon orchestrating the coronation itself, choosing to bring “the modern world” into it.

His efforts to “democratize” the ceremony leads to a shocking innovation: televising it.  He proposes that television cameras capture all of the pomp and circumstance in Westminster Abbey.  This move is unthinkable for many who had long served the royal family.  One of the holdovers from the past calls the prospect of televising the coronation an “unconscionable vulgarization.”

But even despite the opposition of Winston Churchill, the Duke finally gets his wife’s approval, and the new queen’s coronation is broadcast on black-and-white TV for all the world to see.

This splendid episode on “The Crown” has special relevance for me.  As I watched the story unfold, I was brought back to June 1954, when a color version of the coronation was showing as a film in a movie theater in Chicago.  For some reason I can’t recall, my father was in charge of me one day.  He decided that we would go together to see the film at the theater in downtown Chicago.

This was a memorable event for me.  I adored my father, but he usually devoted more attention to my older sister than to me.  I was the little sister who, on road trips, was relegated to sitting in the back seat with my mother while my sister sat in the front seat next to Daddy.

It’s not surprising that my father could communicate more readily with my sister, who was two years ahead of me in school.  Although both of us were voracious readers (stunning our local public-library staff by how quickly we zipped through countless books), my sister was probably reading at a somewhat higher level and understood more about the world than I did at that time.

Following a similar pattern, Elizabeth was the older daughter in her family, and if the opening of “Smoke and Mirrors” accurately portrays her relationship with her father, he paid more attention to her and depended more on her than on his younger daughter, Margaret.

As the younger daughter in my family, every hour I could spend with my father when the two of us spent it alone was more memorable than those we also shared with my sister and mother.

That’s why seeing the color film of Elizabeth’s coronation with Daddy became one of my most treasured memories.  Going downtown and plunging into a darkened movie theater in the middle of the day with my father, but no other member of the family, was extraordinary.

When Daddy died later that year, I was staggered by losing him.  As I grew older, it became increasingly clear that our afternoon watching Elizabeth crowned in Westminster Abbey was an afternoon I’d never forget.

As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, I recall once again how lucky I was to have that golden time with him and him alone.

 

The Demise of the Flip Chair

It’s gone.  The not-so-badly worn, crumbs-in-its cracks, cocoa-brown chair faded in spots by the sun.  Our venerable flip chair is gone.

The flip chair followed us from the day I first found it on the spiffy North Shore of Chicago to a student’s studio apartment in DC.  And later, from three different apartments in Cambridge, Mass., to a charming one-bedroom in San Francisco.

And now it’s finally gone.

The chair served us well.  I discovered it at an estate sale in a posh section of Winnetka, Illinois, inside a grand house on a private road near the lake.  It was in perfect condition, and I thought it would be useful as an extra chair, just right for my daughters’ sleepover guests because it could flip out from its chair-like position into a bed.  A single-size bed that would turn out to be quite comfy.

One of my daughters first used it when her friend Katie stayed overnight and slept on the flipped-out chair.  Katie was a nice young girl, but she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.  After she went home, we found she’d left behind a copy of Teen Beat magazine.  My daughters, who didn’t relate to Teen Beat’s focus on vapid teenage idols, leafed through it, and none of us could help laughing when we saw that Katie had underlined certain stories.  Underlining stories in Teen Beat?  Our scoffing reaction was probably unkind, but we made sure that Katie never knew.  I think we called and offered to return her magazine, but I don’t think she took us up on it.

Other young friends slept on the chair once in a while, so we held onto it, figuring it might continue to be useful.  It finally justified its existence years later, when my younger daughter (I’ll call her Laurie) left to study law at Georgetown in DC.  We rented an SUV, stuffed it with her possessions, and stuck the flip chair into the mix.  When we arrived, it happily fit into the studio apartment she rented in Dupont Circle, and I slept on it myself a couple of times.  It was comfy indeed.

After law school, Laurie began work as the law clerk for a judge in Boston and rented an apartment in Cambridge.  The flip chair joined her there, and it went on to reside in two other apartments in Cambridge before Laurie moved to a one-bedroom in San Francisco.  There, placed next to a window in her living room, the chair basked in the California sun, its color fading.

I sat on it occasionally, but it wasn’t a great chair for sitting.  We clung to it, thinking it might serve once again as an extra bed for visitors.  But things changed dramatically about a year ago when Laurie’s new baby arrived on the scene.  The flip chair stayed in its place by the window, continuing to fade, while no one ever used it as a bed.

As the year went along, it became clear that Laurie needed to make room for some essential things for her baby.  Some of the old stuff had to go.  Beginning with two skinny chairs and a dented metal wardrobe, then a creaky IKEA chest of drawers and an unwieldy suitcase—all were set outside for takers driving by her apartment building.  And finally, the bell tolled for the flip chair.

Two days ago, Laurie shoved the flip chair into her elevator and carried it to the sidewalk outside her building, where a lucky scavenger could seize it and get a few more years out of it.  In its place is a large play yard for the baby, filled with a heap of his books and toys.  Clearly a much better use of the space where the flip chair once sat.

And so we said goodbye to the valued but largely ignored flip chair.  It won’t be missed, but it will be remembered as a quasi-member of the family, one whose tenure in our homes had finally come to an end.

Another Benefit of Progeny

Being a grandparent?  It’s wonderful.  And I just learned about a benefit of spending time with my grandkids that I never knew.  What’s more, you don’t even have to be a grandparent to share this benefit with me.

If you’re lucky and you already have a grandchild, congrats!  Grandparenthood is an extraordinarily good thing.  Free of the challenges of parenthood, you’ve plunged into a whole new shimmering world. And unless you’ve had to assume parent-like responsibility for your grandchild, you’ll relish the many rewards you’re now entitled to enjoy.

Spending a day with my grandchildren is my idea of a perfectly splendid day.

(By the way, I don’t call it “babysitting”!  I view babysitting as a paid job—a job I did to earn money in my younger days.  By contrast, spending time with my grandkids is a joyful pursuit I welcome doing.)

It’s not always easy to become a grandparent.  We all know you can’t make a grandchild appear with the wave of a magic wand.

First, you need to have a grown child or two.  Next, that child must want to have a child or two of his or her own.  (Let’s just say her.)

That child must be able to produce her own child.  Several routes now make that possible: the old-fashioned way; new ways to conceive and give birth, thanks to medical science; adoption; or becoming a step-parent.  (If you know of any other ways to produce a child, please let me know.)

Sometimes you can wait a long time.  A savvy parent doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t offer advice.  You need to be patient and let your child achieve parenthood whenever and however it works for her.

If, at last, your child has a child of her own, you are now officially a grandparent.

I’ve been lucky to have two exceptional daughters who both have children of their own.  And I delight in their company.

But even though I’ve always reveled in my role as a granny, empirical research has now uncovered a wonderful bonus:  It seems that spending time with your grandkids can significantly lower your risk of dying sooner rather than later.

A research study, published in May 2017 in Evolution & Human Behavior, concluded that caregiving both within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver. This heartening conclusion seems to apply to every caregiver, grandparent or not.

The researchers from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia looked at data collected over two decades and focused specifically on grandparents. They concluded that “mortality hazards” for grandparents who provided childcare were 37% lower than for grandparents who did not.

Half of the caregiving grandparents lived for about 10 years after they were first interviewed for the highly-respected Berlin Aging Study, while half of those grandparents who did not provide childcare died within 5 years. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for such factors as physical health, age, and socioeconomic status.

What about non-grandparents and childless older adults?  The positive effects of caregiving also extended to them–if they acted as caregivers in some way.  For example, older parents who had no grandchildren but provided practical help to their adult children also lived longer than those who didn’t.

The results of this study are even more significant than they might have been in the past.  According to the federal government’s latest scorecard on aging, there’s been a drop in overall life expectancy. If your goal is to stick around as long as possible, you might want to think about providing care to others, even if they aren’t your own kids or grandkids.

No kids?  No grandkids?  Here’s my suggestion: Enhance your longevity by becoming a grandparent-surrogate.  Even if you think you might have a child or grandchild of your own someday, why not offer to spend time with other people’s kids or grandkids right now?

If you do, you can expect to see little faces light up when you arrive on the scene.  Parents will be forever grateful, and you’ll probably have lots of fun.

How long will each of us live?  Who the heck knows!  But you might as well do what you can to prolong your life.  Spending time with children and grandchildren, your own or others’, is a jim-dandy way to do it.

 

The Battle of the Sexes: One more take on it

When Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs on a tennis court at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, I was miles away in San Diego.  I’d just finished teaching a class of law school students about Poverty Law, and I was blissfully pregnant with my first child.

I was watching the clock, assessing the time it would take me to drive from the law school on the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego to our recently-rented apartment in seaside La Jolla.  Waiting at home for me was my handsome and super-smart husband Herb, finished for the day with teaching math students at UCSD, the University of California at San Diego.

We were both Professors Alexander that year, and I took delight in answering our phone and hearing a student ask to speak to “Professor Alexander.”  My somewhat amused response:  “Which one?”

Herb had snacks and drinks ready for the two of us to munch on and imbibe during the televised tennis match.  The drinks included nothing alcoholic for me.  Not because the medical profession had pronounced that alcohol was detrimental for growing fetuses.  As I recall, that came later.  I avoided alcoholic drinks simply because I had no desire to drink them during my pregnancy.

Was it instinct or just dumb luck?  When we later that year saw the film “Cinderella Liberty,” in which an often-drunk woman’s pregnancy ends in tragedy, my choice to avoid alcohol was clearly vindicated.

I drove home from USD with as much speed as I could safely muster, arriving in time to watch the much-hyped tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”  In the 2017 film that tells the story of the match, Emma Stone captures the Billie Jean King role perfectly.  She portrays with aplomb not only King’s triumph over Riggs in that tennis match but also her initial uncertainty over her decision to compete against him and her continuing struggle to ensure that women’s tennis be given equal status with men’s.

As one of the estimated 50 million viewers who watched King on ABC television that night, I can’t imagine any other Hollywood star assuming the role with greater success.  Emma Stone embodies Billie Jean King to perfection, and I hope her performance garners the attention of countless moviegoers, including many too young to remember  the match that took place in 1973.

Steve Carell carries off his role as Bobby Riggs in the film equally well, depicting the outrageous antics of the 55-year-old Riggs, who initiated the concept of the “Battle of the Sexes.”  But the focus here has to be on Billie Jean, the Wonder-Woman-like heroine of her day.  By accepting Riggs’s challenge, and then defeating him, she became the mid-twentieth-century symbol of women’s strength and perseverance, advancing the cause of women in sports (and in American culture at large) as much as she advanced her own.  Watching the battle on TV with my adored husband, my hoped-for child growing inside me, I was ecstatic when Billie Jean defeated Riggs before 90 million viewers worldwide.

As my pregnancy advanced, I was frequently asked by complete strangers, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”  I took pleasure in answering “a girl” just to see the reaction on the faces of the nosey parkers who clearly expected another response.

I was in fact hoping I would give birth to a healthy child of either sex, but I knew that I would treasure having a daughter.  When my beautiful daughter was born about seven months after the Battle of the Sexes, and when her equally beautiful sister arrived three years later, Herb and I were both on top of the world.

Maybe watching Billie Jean King in September of 1973 sealed our fate.  We really wanted her to win that battle.

Did the endorphins circulating inside me as we watched Billie Jean triumph produce a feeling of euphoria?  Euphoria that later led us to produce two Wonder-Woman-like heroines of our own?

Maybe.

Tennis, anyone?