Category Archives: parents

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #10

This is the tenth and final post in a series recalling what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk.  It will encompass the following:

  1. Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial
  2. My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983
  3. My life, post-clerkship (in brief)

Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial

What happened in the appellate court?

            After reading several rulings by the appellate court, I’ve come away with this:  There was plenty of blame to go around.

            At the end of the trial in February 1970, the jury found five of the defendants guilty of the statutory crime with which they were charged:  the intent to incite a riot.  These criminal convictions were reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which sent the case back to the district court for trial.  A new trial never took place because the Justice Department apparently chose not to bring new charges against these defendants.

            In addition to the criminal convictions, Judge Hoffman convicted all seven defendants and two of their lawyers of contempt of court for their behavior during the trial.  Most but not all of the contempt convictions were also overturned by the appellate court.

            The appellate court issued a lengthy and detailed opinion reviewing the defendants’ criminal convictions. In that opinion, the court concluded that the Anti-Riot Act was not unconstitutional.  It also discussed the evidence presented during the trial, as well as the conduct of the prosecutors, the defendants, and the judge.  If you’d like to read the appellate court’s opinion, you can find it online:  United States v. Dellinger, 472 F.2d 340 (7th Cir. 1972).

            In a later ruling, in 1974, the appellate court focused on the contempt convictions issued by Judge Hoffman. (These were, as I noted above, separate from the criminal convictions.)  In this ruling, the appellate court acknowledged that three of the defendants (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and David Dellinger) were guilty of serious misbehavior and “overwhelming misconduct,” including the wearing of judicial robes in court.  It also upheld the contempt conviction of attorney William Kunstler, noting that his bitterness and anger on at least one occasion “constituted a vicious personal attack on the judge,” delaying and disrupting the trial.

            When the appellate court reversed the defendants’ criminal convictions, it commented on the defense’s arguments attacking Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial.  The court noted Hoffman’s “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense” and his comments that were “often touched with sarcasm.”  The appellate court stated:  “Taken individually any one was not very significant and might be disregarded as a harmless attempt at humor.  But cumulatively, they must have telegraphed to the jury the judge’s contempt for the defense.” 

            The appellate court’s comments might well have applied to other criminal prosecutions that took place in Hoffman’s courtroom.  The judge often made similarly “harmless attempts at humor” that were attacked by defendants on appeal.  But in most of the other criminal prosecutions over which he presided, the trials were far shorter and the defendants and the charges against them were far less newsworthy.  In addition, Hoffman’s comments were never broadcast by the media to the same extent.  For these reasons, Hoffman had formerly escaped the kind of criticism that was aimed at him during this much more newsworthy trial.

            We should also note the appellate court’s focus on the conduct of the trial by the government prosecutors.  The court criticized them harshly. These lawyers, representing the Nixon administration, took advantage of Hoffman’s general bias in favor of the government, encouraging him to rule in favor of the prosecution–as was his wont–regardless of the merits of its position. In its 1972 ruling (cited above), the court stated that the prosecutors’ remarks “fell below the standards applicable to a representative of the United States.”  Doesn’t that say a lot?  I think it does.  The court pointed out some examples, such as prosecutors’ calling the defendants “evil,” “obscene liars,” “violent anarchists,” and “predators.”

            At the same time, it’s only fair to add that it was clear from the beginning that these particular defendants chose not to play the game the way defendants are supposed to.  They were determined to upset the courtroom at every opportunity.  A lot of the blame for the fiasco that followed must therefore fall on their shoulders as well. 

            My conclusion, when all is said and done?  The government never should have brought the indictment in the first place.  It was ill-conceived, and although the statute under which it was brought was later held by the Seventh Circuit to be constitutional, it was a highly dubious piece of legislation, spawned by the turmoil and the upheavals of its time.  If the Nixon administration had not pursued the indictment, this whole sorry chapter in U.S. legal history would never have been written.

            In the end, Hoffman’s reputation was besmirched as almost no other federal judge’s reputation has been, before or since.  The Sorkin film has revived interest in the trial, and in that film, Hoffman is portrayed as the arch-villain of the piece.   But in retrospect, I believe that this portrayal is not entirely justified.  With all of his faults, Hoffman was not an evil or cruel man.  I think he saw his role as that of a presiding judge compelled to impose order during a frenetic and chaotic trial, a trial unlike any he had ever encountered.

A side note on judicial findings of contempt

            During my high school years, I was a devoted fan of the TV series “Perry Mason.”  Every episode concluded with a courtroom scene, and I watched with fascination to see how admirable defense lawyer Perry and his opposing counsel, along with Perry’s clients and any witnesses, conducted themselves in the courtroom.  The judge’s rulings also interested me.  D.A. Hamilton Burger’s repeated objections that certain testimony was “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial” lodged in my mind, and when I took a course in Evidence during law school, I recalled many of the judges’ rulings.  Classmates who were questioned by Professor Chadbourn sometimes couldn’t come up with an answer, and I often thought to myself, “Didn’t you ever watch ‘Perry Mason’?  If you had, you’d probably know the answer.”  (I did.)

            “Perry Mason” reruns now appear on late-night TV in San Francisco, and I occasionally watch one.  In a recent episode dating from the 1950s (“The Case of the Purple Woman”), someone in the courtroom (not a lawyer) shouted out an objection in the middle of witness testimony.  The judge first issued a $25 fine for contempt.  But when this individual repeated his misbehavior, loudly protesting the $25 fine, the judge (who looked remarkably like Judge Hoffman) sentenced him to 24 hours in county jail for contempt.  It was great fun to come across an episode of “Perry Mason” featuring a conviction for contempt issued by an irascible judge like Hoffman.

My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983

            After observing the trial twice, and each time feeling uncomfortable, I cut off my relationship with Judge Hoffman almost completely. I was working as a lawyer in Chicago, and I was embarrassed that the judge I had clerked for had become the subject of so much criticism.

            But when I decided to leave Chicago and move to California in August 1970, six months after the end of the trial, it seemed only right to phone the judge to tell him I was moving and to say goodbye.  And so I did.

            During our phone call, I didn’t mention the trial, but after an awkward silence, he did.  “I still don’t understand what happened,” he told me.  He sounded almost mystified.  Uncertain about what had happened.  Baffled by all of the criticism hurled at him, without understanding why–or perhaps, without wanting to understand why.

            Despite his many flaws, this admission by the judge led me to feel sorry for him. Looking back, I think that when he agreed to preside over this trial, he never contemplated what might actually happen.  He somewhat ingenuously found himself dealing with a group of hostile defendants who were intent, from the outset, on disrupting his previously well-ordered courtroom. 

            Thinking about his admission to me during that phone call has–50 years later–left me wondering:  What actually happened to him, outside the courtroom, during the trial?  Did he witness protests in the streets surrounding the courthouse?  Did his wife try to bolster him at the end of every day in court?  And what happened inside the courthouse?  Did any of his fellow judges come to his aid?  Did any of them offer him support or advice?  Did he welcome their advice, if it was offered? 

            I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I’ve never tried to find out, and I don’t plan to try now.  But I suspect that the judge was left out there by himself, trapped in his appalling situation, twisting in the wind.  His colleagues and his law clerks, probably grateful to have themselves been spared what happened to him, may have failed to give him the kind of support he needed to help him get through the whole awful mess.

            When I think about the two years I spent as Hoffman’s law clerk, I recall some uncomfortable and unhappy times, some of which I’ve set forth earlier in this series.  But I can also recall some truly pleasant times.  He treated his clerks and office staff to holiday lunches, as well as farewell lunches for a secretary or law clerk leaving his chambers, at the Empire Room in the Palmer House hotel and the posh Standard Club.  He would also give us year-end bonuses paid out of his own pocket.  And, as I noted earlier, while I worked for him, he always treated me and my co-clerks with respect.

            My life changed dramatically at the end of the summer of 1970.  I moved to California, met the man I fell in love with and married, and did not return to Chicago with my husband and delightful one-year-old until 1975.  Instead of returning to working full time, I sought out part-time work in a variety of law-related jobs, and I only seldom ventured to downtown Chicago.

            But in 1980, my co-clerk Susan Getzendanner became the first woman judge on the Northern District of Illinois bench.  I was thrilled for her, and I was happy to congratulate her and wish her well.  My friendship with Susan led to two final contacts with Judge Hoffman.

            After Susan’s appointment, the judge cheerfully called me at home one day.  He told me he was about to speak about Susan at a celebratory gathering and asked whether I could tell him a funny story about her, gleaned from the year we worked together.  I came up with a silly story for him.  But before he hung up, he asked me when I would be returning to work as a lawyer.  I was busy with two young daughters, ages 6 and 3, and trying to stay viable in the legal profession by working at part-time law-related jobs.  When I told him I wasn’t sure when I would go back to working as a full-time lawyer, he emphatically responded something like this:  “Well, you should come back sometime soon.  We need good lawyers like you!”

            I replicated this dialogue in my mystery novel, Jealous Mistress, which I began writing in 1985 and finally published in 2011.  Alison Ross, the protagonist (who loosely resembles me), gets a call from the judge she clerked for.  A reporter had called to ask him about his former clerk Alison, who had garnered local attention by solving a recent murder. The judge asks Alison, “When are you going to go back to the law?  You were a real crackerjack when you worked for me.”  Alison tells him that she’s been busy at home with her kids, but the judge insists, “We need more good lawyers like you.”  Thanks, Judge Hoffman, for inspiring the dialogue I later used in my novel.

            Susan Getzendanner also wangled an invitation for me to attend a high-profile luncheon held in honor of the judge, sponsored (at least in part) by his alma mater, Northwestern University Law School.  It took place at a snazzy private club on Michigan Avenue, the Tavern Club, where I ran into a bunch of lawyers and law professors I knew, as well as a few of Hoffman’s former law clerks.  There had been a huge student protest at the law school during the trial, and a plaque (noting his donation to fund a room at the school) had been torn off the wall outside the room.  Some faculty members had also expressed scathing criticism

            The judge was not surprisingly offended by what happened, and the rumor was that Hoffman had dropped NU from his will.  By sponsoring this lavish luncheon held in his honor, NU made a huge effort to get back in his good graces, but I later heard that the effort did not bear fruit and Hoffman died without leaving anything to NU law.  (I don’t know whether that’s in fact true.  When I later taught at NU Law, I never asked any other member of the faculty whether it was.)

            During the luncheon, the judge smilingly walked over to me.  He seemed terribly pleased to see me and greeted me by kissing me on the lips. This was somewhat startling, but I forgave his brashness.  Probably because he was about 85 at the time.

            After the NU luncheon, I lost touch with the judge once again.  I sadly learned of his death in an unexpected way.  My family was traveling to the East Coast that summer.  My husband, whom I’ll call Marv, was a celebrated mathematician, and he was invited to speak at a math conference held at Yale.  The four of us memorably stayed in a stifling dormitory on the Old Campus. (We’d been assured that it was air-conditioned. They lied.) 

            After leaving New Haven, we drove to Cambridge, and Marv thought it would be fun to have lunch at his old Harvard College haunt, Elsie’s sandwich shop.

            As I perched on a stool at one of Elsie’s tables, I spied a copy of The New York Times left behind by another customer.  I picked it up and began leafing through it.  My heart stopped when I came across an article buried on an inside page:  a lengthy obituary for Judge Hoffman, who had died on July 1, 1983, while I was traveling.

            Was there a funeral?  If so, who attended?  I never looked into it, and I choose not to do so now.  But I hope there was some sort of memorial service that praised the many good things Hoffman did, instead of focusing on the notoriety he had earned as a result of the trial.

            As for me, I’ll be forever grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to begin my legal career as his law clerk.  The two years I spent as his clerk provided me with a solid foundation for my career.  I learned how the courts worked.  How lawyers did or did not craft persuasive arguments that could sway a court.  How judges did or did not conduct their courtrooms in a fair and unbiased fashion. And how litigants themselves could influence the outcome in a given case.

            In that benighted era, when most judges selected their clerks from among male law graduates and only male graduates, eschewing the opportunity to choose highly capable women, Judge Hoffman had the sense and good judgment to choose women like me.     

My life post-Hoffman (in brief) 

            When I finished my clerkship in the summer of 1969, I chose not to enter the private practice of law.  Instead, I applied for and won a fellowship in a program that helped lawyers learn how to represent poor people and placed them in programs where they could use those skills (the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program}. 

            I became a “Reggie” with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, where I was soon immersed in a lawsuit, Doe v. Scott.  My co-counsel and I filed this lawsuit, which challenged the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law, on February 20, 1970.  In August 1970, at the end of my first year as a Reggie, I transferred my fellowship to a program at UCLA Law School that focused on legal issues related to health problems of the poor.  During my year there, I continued to work on Doe v. Scott.  (I plan to write much more about my involvement in this lawsuit.  I hope to finish in the next year or two.) 

            Six weeks after moving to Westwood to work at UCLA, I met Marv, and my life changed again.  I’ll say more about that in my next blog post, “Another Love Story.”

Postscript

            Would Judge Hoffman be viewed differently today?  Should he be?  I titled this series “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” implying that he could be described as a “hanging judge.”  But in retrospect, I now think he was a much more complex human being than I used to think, and this implication is probably unfair.

            During the five decades since Judge Hoffman presided over the trial of the “Chicago 7,” we’ve witnessed the rise of sharp-tongued “Judge Judy,” who has starred on one of the hottest shows on daytime television, winning high ratings in 25 seasons from 1996 to 2021.  The title of her 1996 book gives us a clue to her judicial demeanor:  “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining.”  Her great success might lead one to assume that the American public now admires an acerbic judge (who has also been called abrasive, discourteous, and insulting) and prefers her to one who displays what’s usually called “judicial temperament.” 

            What can we say about the public’s fascination with an acerbic judge like Judge Judy?  Does that fascination lead us to view a judge like Hoffman differently today? 

            I don’t think the public views these two judges in the same way.  One was (at least until the trial of the “Chicago 7”) a generally respected federal judge who presided over a great many important cases in his courtroom.  The other is a judge who is closer to a comedian than a respected jurist. 

            As a member of the legal profession, I think that “Judge Julius”—often lacking in fairness and judicial temperament–was not the kind of judge we need.  He wasn’t the villain the Sorkin film makes him out to be.  But he could have, consistently, throughout his tenure as a judge, been less abrasive and less biased in favor of the government.

            Although “Judge Judy” may be an amusing figure in the world of entertainment, she’s also not the kind of judge we need. 

           In short, lawyers and litigants in the real world, confronting serious legal issues, deserve serious judges who invariably display judicial temperament and avoid, as much as they possibly can, acting in an abrasive and biased way.

Waiting for a Vaccine

 

While the world, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I can’t help remembering a long-ago time in my life when the world faced another deadly disease.

And I vividly remember how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.

Covid-19 poses a special threat.  The U.S. has just surpassed one million cases, according to The Washington Post.  It’s a new and unknown virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky.  So far.

Testing of the entire population is essential, as is the development of effective therapies for treating those who are diagnosed as positive.  But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.

Overwhelming everything else right now is an oppressive feeling of fear.  Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to a gruesome hospitalization and, finally, death.

I recognize that feeling of fear.  Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.

Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio.  Some may have memories of that time that are as vivid as mine.  Others may have suppressed the ugly memories associated with the fear of polio.  And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.

People were aware of the disease called polio—the common name for poliomyelitis (originally and mistakenly called infantile paralysis; it didn’t affect only the young) — for a long time.  It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.

Before polio vaccines were available,  outbreaks in the U.S. caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year.  In the late 1940s, these outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year.  Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.

Polio appeared in several different forms.  About 95% of the cases were asymptomatic.  Others were mild, causing ordinary virus-like symptoms, and most people recovered quickly.  But some victims contracted a more serious form of the disease.  They suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.  Many survivors were disabled for life, and they became a visible reminder of the enormous toll polio took on children’s lives.

The polio virus is highly infectious, spreading through contact between people, generally entering the body through the mouth.  A cure for it has never been found, so the ultimate goal has always been prevention via a vaccine.  Thanks to the vaccine first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk, polio was eventually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.  It continues to circulate in a few countries elsewhere in the world, where vaccination programs aim to eliminate these last pockets because there is always a risk that it can spread within non-vaccinated populations.

[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear.  It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear.  There is still no vaccine, although research efforts continue.  Notably, Jonas Salk spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS.  Until there is a vaccine, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened fear of the disease.]

When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease.  Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer.  We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.

We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims.  Even though TV images back then were in black and white, they were clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside a huge piece of machinery called an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe.  Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs.  They were the lucky ones.  Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.

So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.

I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  He had a serious case, causing paralysis, and although he was open about having had polio, he has been criticized for concealing how extensive his disability really was.

Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and it soon became a charity called the March of Dimes.  The catch phrase “march of dimes” was coined by popular actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor, who worked vigorously on the campaign to raise funds for research.  Using a name like that of the well-known newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio, as well as to help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes has evolved into an ongoing charity focused on the health of mothers and babies, specifically on preventing birth defects.)

Yes, polio was defeated by a vaccine.  For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of the recipients of its funds was a young physician at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine named Jonas Salk.

Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially after 1947, when he was recruited to be the director of the school’s Virus Research Laboratory.  There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus.  He first administered it to volunteers who included himself, his wife, and their children.  All of them developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. Then, in 1954, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children between six and nine, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.

I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking.  It changed everything.  It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.

But it wasn’t immediately available.  It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone, and the number of polio cases during those two years averaged 45,000.

Because we couldn’t get injections of the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered.  Before I could get my own injection, I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking around at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.

My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971:  “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”  I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine already existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.

I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly.  Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.

In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, an orally-administered vaccine that was both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.

(By the way, neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by commercial entities like pharmaceutical companies.)

Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims.  But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.

Because the whole world is confronting this new and terrible virus, valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a “safe, effective and potent” vaccine.  And there are encouraging signs coming from different directions.  Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and they have pivoted toward developing a possible vaccine to defeat the new threat.  Clinical trials may take place within the next few months.

Similarly, some Harvard researchers haven’t taken a day off since early January, working hard to develop a vaccine.  Along with the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, this group plans to launch clinical trials in the fall.

While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did.  With today’s improved technology, and a by-now long and successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal very soon.  Only then, when we are all able to receive the benefits of an effective vaccine, will our lives truly begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”

Hooray for Hollywood! Part II: I Love Your “Funny Face”

I’m continuing to focus on films that have been relevant to my life in some way.

The film I’m focusing on today is “Funny Face,” a 1957 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

I first saw this film at Radio City Music Hall during a memorable trip to Washington DC and NYC, a trip made with my high school classmates, and one that represented the height of excitement in my life at that time.

It wasn’t my first visit to NYC and Radio City.  It also wasn’t my first trip to DC.

My parents had taken my sister and me on a road trip to the East Coast during the summer of 1950, when I was barely conscious and didn’t get a great deal out of it.  I did have a few notable experiences—staying at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park West (how did we afford that?) and viewing some astounding sites in DC, mostly from a cab Daddy hired to show us around town. The place I remember most was an FBI museum, where I was frightened by a loud demonstration in which a gun was shot at targets to prove how the FBI dealt with crime. (Not a great choice for a young kid.)

Some other memories include our entering a DC restaurant where the tables were covered with pink “reserved” signs, and one sign was magically whisked away when we arrived.  I later learned that the restaurant used this ploy to prevent people of color from eating there.  The staff would refuse to seat them, telling them that all of the tables were reserved.  Even at a tender age, this struck me as wrong, although I was too young to fully understand the ugliness of this blatant form of discrimination, one I’d never encountered when we ate at restaurants in Chicago.

Another vivid memory:  Strolling through Central Park Zoo in NYC, I asked Daddy to buy me a balloon.  Daddy refused.  I didn’t view my request as unreasonable.  Looking around, I saw all those other kids who were holding balloons.  Why couldn’t I have one?  I was too young to grasp reality: My father was in NYC to search for a new job (which never materialized), and our family budget didn’t permit buying an overpriced balloon.  No doubt the balloon vendors catered to far more affluent families than mine.  But I remember crying my eyes out because of the balloon-deprivation, which seemed so unfair to me.

Finally, I remember viewing a film at Radio City.  It was a poor choice for a family film: “The Men,” starring Marlon Brandon as an injured war veteran.  It was a somber film, and the atmosphere was not made any cheerier by the newsreel (ubiquitous in movie theaters then), featuring the brand-new war in Korea, which had just begun in June.  The Rockettes probably did their thing, but I barely noticed them, too disturbed by the sad movie and the scary newsreel.

Fast forward a bunch of years, when I joined my high school classmates on a school-sponsored trip to DC and NYC, during which our group of rowdy teenagers disrupted life for countless locals.  Standing out in my memory is a concert held at the Pan American Union Building, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building in DC, where my silly friends and I began to stare at a mole on the back of a young woman sitting in front of us.  Our adolescent sense of humor led us to start laughing, and once we started, we of course couldn’t stop.  Other concert-goers were probably horrified.  But something else I can’t forget:  The concert included a brilliant rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a piece I’ve loved ever since.

Moving on to NYC, where we were bused to an odd assortment of sites, we finally arrived at Radio City. The film that night was one of Hollywood’s new blockbusters, “Funny Face.”  Surrounded by my friends, whispering and laughing throughout, I barely focused on the film, certainly not enough to remember it very well.  But when I recently re-watched it on TCM, I found it completely delightful.  (Thanks, TCM, for all of the classic films I’ve watched on your channel.  Please keep showing them!)

In the film, which features a number of Gershwin tunes (including “Funny Face” and “S’wonderful”), Audrey Hepburn stands out as the radiant star she had become, while (in my view) Fred Astaire recedes into the background.

The movie’s storyline focuses on a NYC-based fashion magazine like Vogue, dominated by an aggressive editor played by Kay Thompson (much like the editor played by Meryl Streep years later in “The Devil Wears Prada”).  The editor (Kay) insists on major changes at the magazine and demands that her favored photographer, played by Astaire (Fred), help her effect those changes.  (His character is based on the renowned photographer Richard Avedon.)

Their search for a new look for the magazine improbably leads them to a bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Hepburn (Audrey) is the sole salesperson, the owner being off somewhere doing his own thing.  When Kay proposes that Audrey be the new face of her fashion magazine, Audrey—garbed in neutral black and gray– ridicules the whole concept of such a publication (it features, in her words, “silly women in silly dresses”).  But when Kay’s offer includes a trip for her to Paris, Audrey decides to go along with the idea.  She’s always wanted to see Paris!

Kay, Fred, and Audrey arrive in Paris about 15 years before my own first trip there.  But when the film begins to roam through the highlights of the city, I easily recognize the many breathtaking scenes I saw for the first time in 1972, including the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (I’ve luckily returned to Paris many times, and the city and all that it offers still thrill me.)

As a teenager, I had a high regard for “fashion.”  My family’s business–women’s fashion-retailing–probably had something to do with it.  Peer pressure also played a role.  Some of my classmates were obsessed with pricey clothes, like cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, and even though I wasn’t in the same income bracket, their obsession couldn’t help rubbing off on me.  At least a little.  My place in the world just then probably accounts for my somewhat detached view of Audrey as someone who spoofs the fashion industry, at least at first.

Once the story gets underway, “Funny Face” offers a wealth of imaginative episodes.  The writer, Leonard Gershe, whose writing is clever and surprisingly not extremely dated, was Oscar-nominated for best writing, story, and screenplay.  Gershe came up with a whole lot of scenes that highlighted Paris.  A special scene takes place after Audrey goes off on her own, and Fred is sent out to track her down.  He finally finds her in a small café on the Left Bank, where she launches into a stunning dance set to jazz music.  (You may already know that Audrey had a background in dance.  She studied ballet as a teenager in Amsterdam and later studied it in London.  She then began performing in West End musical theater productions and went on to star on Broadway in a non-musical performance of Gigi in 1951.  She reportedly turned down the same role in the 1958 film.)

The jazz dance scene in “Funny Face” became famous a few years ago, when Gap used a portion of it in one of its TV commercials.  (As I recall, Gap was promoting the sort of black pants Audrey danced in.)  A controversy arose during the filming of this scene in “Funny Face.”  Audrey wanted to wear black socks while director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white ones.  In an interview Donen gave shortly before his death, he explained why. The white socks would highlight her dancing feet while black ones would fade into the background.  Donen succeeded in persuading Audrey to see things his way, and the dance scene is now film history.

Without elaborating on the plot, I’ll point out that Audrey’s storyline has an interesting focus on “empathy,” a concept that has gained a foothold in popular culture in recent years.  (I attribute some of that to Barack Obama’s focus on it, something I picked up on when I first heard him speak to a group of lawyers in Chicago in 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator.)

Dance highlights in the film include not only Audrey’s jazz dance scene in the Left Bank café but also Fred’s dance scene with an umbrella and a coat lining that transforms into a cape.  The two leads share at least two memorable dance scenes, including the closing scene set in a charming landscape outside a Paris church.

Notably, after Audrey leaves NYC for Paris, she poses all over the City of Light in clothes designed by Givenchy, who became her favorite designer, and whose designs for this film seem timeless.  Also notably, she wears shoes with heels, but they’re invariably very low heels.  These became her favorite style of footwear.  (For some of the “inside Audrey” comments made here, please see my earlier blog post, “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published on August 14. 2013.)

Finally, the age difference between Audrey and Fred is stark.  She was 28 while he was 58—and looked it.  Despite his agile dancing, he was an unlikely man for her to fall in love with.  But then Hollywood often paired her with much older men.  The all-time creepiest example was Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.  (You can find my earlier comment on this topic in my 2013 blog post.)

In sum, “Funny Face” is a glorious film, featuring a radiant Audrey Hepburn, a clever storyline, and countless scenes of Paris.  The Gershwin songs and the wonderful dancing, which blend almost seamlessly into the story, lead to a stunning result.  Even though I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1957, the memory of seeing it back then has stayed with me for the past six decades.  Seeing it again made me realize just how “’s’wonderful” it really is.

 

 

 

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.

 

 

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.

 

 

 

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.

Hats Off to…Hats!

 

I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era.  If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean.  In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.

Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats.  On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater.  But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.

Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras.  Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras

Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today.  Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.)  Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.

When did things begin to change?  Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus.  He was almost never photographed wearing a hat.   It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat.  (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)

The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change.  When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office.  But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.

The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago.  Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.

I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions:  I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.

But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats.  “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.

The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats.  Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world.  Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats.  Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.

Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light.  Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats.  This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.

The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right.  This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections.  Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.

When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it.  It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten.  Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10.  Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends.  Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.

On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her.  I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.

We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street.  We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light.  Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.

Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers.  It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly.  Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat:  a straw cloche with a brim.  Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way.  Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.

Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat.  She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it.  Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.

She treasured that hat.  So did I.

 

 

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.

A Holiday Story

This is not a Christmas story.  Although I have a good one I’d like to tell sometime, this is a story about a different holiday–Valentine’s Day.

I should have saved it for February, I suppose.  But I’m thinking about an old friend and the valentines he gave me many years ago.

My friend (I’ll call him Alan R.) grew up with me on the Far North Side of Chicago.  We were in a pack of friends who attended the nearby elementary school.  This was back when all of us walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school again for the afternoon.

On the very coldest or snowiest days, Daddy would drive me to school if he could.  Those days were different in another way, too.  Girl students, who otherwise had to wear skirts or dresses to school, were granted a dispensation because of the sub-freezing weather.  We were allowed to wear something that would cover our legs.

I usually opted for blue jeans.  But wearing them was verboten during class time.  They could be worn only going to and from school.  So I would wear my jeans under a skirt, then remove the jeans and stash them in my locker.  Heaven forbid that a female child should wear pants in school!  Unthinkable!

I had a handsome “boyfriend” in 5th grade. (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms merely meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.)  My best friend Helene had a major crush on him, but I was the lucky girl for whom he made a misshapen plastic pin when he went away to camp that summer.

By the fall, Alan R. had replaced him.

Alan was never one of the best looking boys in our class.  He was tall for his age and somewhat awkward, and he tended to be rather stocky.  But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”

In October, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house.  Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—tight t-shirt tops and skinny black skirts.  We were trying to look like French “apache dancers.”  I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but looking back, I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother must have inspired us to choose that costume.  However it came about, we knew we looked simply terrific in our very cool garb.  We may have even added a beret to top it off.

Alan played the gracious host, and when the party wound down, he led us outside, and all of us paraded through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and yelling “trick or treat.”  It was a truly memorable Halloween.

I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months.  The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and wonderful family outings.  But I definitely have a vivid memory of Valentine’s Day the following February.

When my classmates and I exchanged valentines, I discovered that Alan had given me two.  Not one.  Two.  And they weren’t the ordinary valentines you gave your friends.  These were store-bought pricier versions.  One was sentimental, flowery, and very sweet.  The other one was funny and made me laugh.

What inspired Alan to show his affection for me that way?  We were fond of each other, but I don’t remember giving him a special valentine.

Looking back, I have questions about his decision to give me those two valentines.  Did he choose them by himself?  Did he have enough money in his pocket to pay for them?

As a mother, I can’t help wondering what role his mother played.  Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue where we all bought our valentines?  Was she standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice?  If she did, what did she think of this extravagance on his part?

I like to think that Alan came up with the idea and executed it all by himself.  He saved his money and brought it to the store with the firm intention to buy a valentine for me.  When he saw the display in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or try to make me laugh with a funny one.

So he bought one of each and, head held high, gave me both of them.  I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him.  I simply can’t remember what I did.  But I know that his delightful gesture has remained with me ever since.

Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother one day scoured our house and tossed everything she considered inconsequential.  But they weren’t inconsequential to me.  I still remember the thrill of receiving not one but two valentines from my caring beau.

Everything changed in 7th grade.  A new school, new boyfriends, and new issues at home when my father’s health grew worrisome.  As always, life moved on.

I recently learned that Alan R. died this year.  He and I drifted apart long ago, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory during the many decades since we last met.

Did Alan’s flattering attentions give me the confidence to deal with some of the rocky times that lay ahead?  Teenage years can be tough.  Mine often were.  But his two-valentine tribute stayed with me forever.

Thanks, dear Alan, for being a warm and caring young person, even at the age of 12.  Although the rest of our lives have had their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.

 

 

 

Sunscreen–and a father who cared

August is on its last legs, but the sun’s rays are still potent. Potent enough to require that we use sunscreen. Especially those of us whose skin is most vulnerable to those rays.

I’ve been vulnerable to the harsh effects of the sun since birth.  And I now apply sunscreen religiously to my face, hands, and arms whenever I expect to encounter sunlight.

When I was younger, sunscreen wasn’t really around.  Fortunately for my skin, I spent most of my childhood and youth in cold-weather climates where the sun was absent much of the year.  Chicago and Boston, even St. Louis, had long winters featuring gray skies instead of sunshine.

I encountered the sun mostly during summers and a seven-month stay in Los Angeles.  But my sun exposure was limited.  It was only when I was about 28 and about to embark on a trip to Mexico that I first heard of “sunblock.”  Friends advised me to seek it out at the only location where it was known to be available, a small pharmacy in downtown Chicago.   I hastened to make my way there and buy a tube of the pasty white stuff, and once I hit the Mexican sun, I applied it to my skin, sparing myself a wretched sunburn.

The pasty white stuff was a powerful reminder of my father.  Before he died when I was 12, Daddy would cover my skin with something he called zinc oxide.

Daddy was a pharmacist by training, earning a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois at the age of 21.  One of my favorite family photos shows Daddy in a chemistry lab at the university, learning what he needed to know to earn that degree.  His first choice was to become a doctor, but because his own father had died during Daddy’s infancy, there was no way he could afford medical school.  An irascible uncle was a pharmacist and somehow pushed Daddy into pharmacy as a less expensive route to helping people via medicine.

Daddy spent years bouncing between pharmacy and retailing, and sometimes he did both.  I treasure a photo of him as a young man standing in front of the drug store he owned on the South Side of Chicago.  When I was growing up, he sometimes worked at a pharmacy and sometimes in other retailing enterprises, but he never abandoned his knowledge of pharmaceuticals.  While working as a pharmacist, he would often bring home new drugs he believed would cure our problems.  One time I especially recall:  Because as a young child I suffered from allergies, Daddy was excited when a brand-new drug came along to help me deal with them, and he brought a bottle of it home for me.

As for preventing sunburn, Daddy would many times take a tube of zinc oxide and apply it to my skin.

One summer or two, I didn’t totally escape a couple of bad sunburns. Daddy must have been distracted just then, and I foolishly exposed my skin to the sun.  He later applied a greasy ointment called butesin picrate to soothe my burn. But I distinctly remember that he used his knowledge of chemistry to get out that tube of zinc oxide whenever he could.

After my pivotal trip to Mexico, sunblocks became much more available.  (I also acquired a number of sunhats to shield my face from the sun.)  But looking back, I wonder about the composition of some of the sunblocks I applied to my skin for decades.  Exactly what was I adding to my chemical burden?

In 2013, the FDA banned the use of the word “sunblock,” stating that it could mislead consumers into thinking that a product was more effective than it really was.  So sunblocks have become sunscreens, but some are more powerful than others.

A compelling reason to use powerful sunscreens?  The ozone layer that protected us in the past has undergone damage in recent years, and there’s scientific concern that more of the sun’s dangerous rays can penetrate that layer, leading to increased damage to our skin.

In recent years, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what’s in the sunscreens I choose.  Some of the chemicals in available sunscreens are now condemned by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as either ineffective or hazardous to your health. (Please check EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide for well-researched and detailed information regarding sunscreens.)

Let’s note, too, that the state of Hawaii has banned the future use of sunscreens that include one of these chemicals, oxybenzone, because it washes off swimmers’ skin into ocean waters and has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs.  If it’s harming coral, what is it doing to us?

Because I now make the very deliberate choice to avoid using sunscreens harboring suspect chemicals, I use only those sunscreens whose active ingredients include—guess what– zinc oxide.   Sometimes another safe ingredient, titanium dioxide, is added.  The science behind these two mineral (rather than chemical) ingredients?   Both have inorganic particulates that reflect, scatter, and absorb damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Daddy, I think you’d be happy to know that science has acknowledged what you knew all those years ago.  Pasty white zinc oxide still stands tall as one of the very best barriers to repel the sun’s damaging rays.

In a lifetime filled with many setbacks, both physical and professional, my father always took joy in his family.  He showered us with his love, demonstrating that he cared for us in innumerable ways.

Every time I apply a sunscreen based on zinc oxide, I think of you, Daddy.  With love, with respect for your vast knowledge, and with gratitude that you cared so much for us and did everything you could to help us live a healthier life.