Tag Archives: parents

Happy Valentine’s Day? Maybe

 Much of the world celebrates today, February 14th, as Valentine’s Day.

Are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?  I’m wondering just who among us is.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have a loving spouse or an ardent beau, you’re probably celebrating this year.

I was a member of that fortunate group during my loving marriage to my darling husband.  Our blissful marriage came to a halt only because a terrible disease ended my husband’s life.  I like to think that we’d still be celebrating our love today if he’d survived.

Since he died, I’ve had one or two romantic liaisons with others, but at this moment I’m in a different place.  Today my kids and grandkids are my primary givers and recipients of valentine cards and gifts, red and pink hearts splashed all over them.

Of course, today is a bonanza for some commercial enterprises.  Americans spent about $21 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2021, and experts predict that nearly $24 billion will be spent this year, making today the fifth largest spending event of the year (after the winter holidays and Mother’s Day).  Will inflation and supply-chain issues affect these totals?  Valentine’s Day is probably inflation-proof, and delightful gifts can always be tracked down.

Benefiting the most are florists (about $2.3 billion), purveyors of chocolates ($2.2 billion), jewelers ($6.2 billion), and sellers of other heart-emblazoned cards and gifts. 

Which raises another question.  Aside from elementary-school kids, required to bring a valentine for every other kid in class to avoid any Charlie-Brown-style left-out feelings, is anyone still buying valentine cards this year

I hope so.  I’d hate to see an end to the decades-long practice of sending sweet wishes to loved ones and friends on February 14th

While we’re still stuck in the middle of a pandemic, confronting scary international events, and facing ongoing political divisiveness, I find it heartening to recall happier, simpler times.

Today 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.

In 5th grade, I acquired a handsome “boyfriend.”  (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms simply meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.)  My best friend Helene had a major crush on my boyfriend, 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 hefty.  But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”

In October that year, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house.  Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—black t-shirts and skinny black skirts.  For some reason, we were trying to look like French “apache dancers.”  I wasn’t really sure what that term even meant, but I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother inspired us to choose that costume.  However it came about, we knew we looked 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, probably the most memorable Halloween of my childhood.

I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months.  The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and happy 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 exactly 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 wonder about his decision to give me those two valentines.  Did he choose them by himself?  Did he have enough money saved from his 6th-grade-level allowance to pay for them?

As a mother, I can’t help wondering about the role his mother may have played.  Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue, the one where we all bought our valentines?  (A long-gone kind of neighborhood store most of us patronized back then.)  Was his mother standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice?  If she was, 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.  Then, when he saw the colorful display of cards in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or to try to make me laugh with a funny one.

So he bought one of each, and, head held high, he gave both of them to me. 

I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him.  I can’t remember exactly what I did.  But I know that his delightful gesture has stayed with me ever since.

Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother scoured our home one day 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.

Alan R. died a few years ago, and I wrote this story about him then.  He and I had drifted apart long before he died, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory.

Did Alan’s flattering attention 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 our lives went on to have their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

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.

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.