27 July 2016

Our Terrible Stories

News comes in one ear and flies out the other, barely pausing to be filtered, to be thought about, to be noticed.

Is this a consequence of the 24-hour news cycle? There must be something to report every minute, even if that something is a story on how someone took offense to an earlier story: news about news.

Or is it a consequence of social media? By the meaning of its very words, we are all reporters—both of our lives (“Look at the pizza I’m eating right now!”) and of the world around us (“Look at my thoughts on the election!”).

Or is it that we live in a more connected era? Snaking deep in the oceans are the cables that carry all this information, like a belt cinching the earth together and squeezing every last bit out of it. Flying high above us are satellites that bounce all this information from one point to another, like a net cast over the earth to hold us all in place as we wriggle through our lives. An earthquake in India is instantly reported in Indiana as the cables and satellites ignite with information, always more information.

Our lives are filled with an ever-increasing stream of information, a trajectory that was set in motion the first time a caveman etched a drawing into the rock. We are made to communicate, to share our stories. We want to know more, be more, do more—and we know that we want more—and that’s what more or less sets us apart from the domesticated dog and the wild tiger.

Every generation has seen its technological advancement, and I sometimes wonder if, when telegrams first came to the masses, people were astounded.

“You mean I, from Chicago, can instantaneously tell my mother in Iowa which train I’ll arrive on so she knows when to come to the station?”

“You mean the New York Times can relay a story to the Los Angeles Times all the way across the county? From Atlantic to Pacific, we can all read the same news?”

It must’ve been astounding, this speed of communication, when they were used to writing letters and waiting—and waiting—for replies. (But let’s mourn just a small moment for the lost art of letter writing. The crisp paper! The formal questions and loopy handwriting! The charming sign-offs—“Always your most affectionate friend!” The proof that someone cared and that someone thought of you when that letter was delivered!)

In those early days of telegrams, it must’ve felt like the world was starting to spin faster and rush at humanity from all corners as trains picked up speed, ocean liners picked up speed—and then even saying hello picked up speed.

Now, not so many years later in the grand scheme of that little thing called history, we are not astounded by the speed of communication.

We are tired.

We are overloaded.

We are—it’s like when there’s a certain path you walk every day. You figured out that by cutting across the lawn here, you can save a few key seconds, so day after day, you cut across. A new path is worn down, and you forget that an old path ever existed. You trudge along, barely taking note of where you are, because you’re so used to where you’re going.

We are like that: we are in this time where everything new immediately feels old, and we barely notice. We keep moving forward as this news stream flies at us.

Black lives matter. All lives matter.
Avoid sugar to live longer. Avoid fat to live longer. No, eat fat, but only the good kind.
Killer cops. Cop killers.
Hillary’s a liar. Trump’s a demagogue. Bernie’s a sell-out.
Who is Taylor Swift dating?
Munich shooting. Orlando shooting. South Side shooting. Shooting. Shooting. Shooting.
110 dead in a suicide bombing in Syria.
Here’s a new cat video. Cats with cucumbers! Cats with lemons!
Russia has hacked us. China has hacked us. North Korea has hacked us.
The media is in the pocket of the politicians. The politicians are in the pocket of the corporations. That is a very large pocket.

On and on the news cycle goes, and I feel this urge rise up within me—like the urge to scream in a very quiet place. You know you shouldn’t do it, but you sense in a primal way that it would be so very satisfying. From deep inside as I listen to the news, the urge to bury my head in the proverbial sand rises.

I want to binge watch Friday Night Lights, where there’s anger and tension but also football and passion and Connie Britton’s enviable hair.

I want to listen to nothing but the Broadway cast recording of She Loves Me with its songs about vanilla ice cream and selling perfume and a surprising trip to the library. It is quotidian joy with Laura Benanti's coloratura soprano, and listening to it is the equivalent of a spring walk with the magnolias in bloom: you can’t help but be thrilled and content.

I want to read Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Sense & Sensibility—any book with a guaranteed happy ending.

I want to do anything but think about where the world is today, and then something like this happens: I woke up yesterday morning to the BBC World Service, as I do every morning. The announcer said, “We are now following the developing story of an attack at a church in Normandy. It’s believed that the priest has been stabbed.”

Normandy, where I used to live: what a way to wake up.

I reached for my phone—always on my bedside table overnight—and took advantage of those cables crisscrossing the oceans, the satellites in the sky, the instantaneous news world we live in, and the fact that my “phone” is really a small computer: I found out more in less time than it took to get my little pug out of her kennel for the day.

I learned this was happening in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, just across the Seine from where I lived in Rouen. I learned that the priest’s throat had been slashed while he was saying mass. I learned that ISIS was claiming responsibility and that the French president was angry and sad.

Another tragic story, but this one hit close to home, and I stopped to pay attention to the news; I didn’t let it stream right past me. I was reminded by my very small personal connection to this that we have to pay attention to these stories; they are all personal to someone. We have to hear them because it’s only by listening to each other that we have any hope of getting through this.

It is easy to say this from the safety of my kitchen in Glen Ellyn as I make puff pastry and sing along to She Loves Me. But I don’t know what else to say, and I think it’s sometimes enough to simply say: I will listen. I will pay attention. I will be present to these terrible stories because while they are terrible, they are our stories and they must be told.

08 July 2016

July, a Storm {a poem}

Temperatures in the lower eighties, a threat of thunderstorms. Gray
clouds fill the sky to the east, pressed against the stratosphere like
dirty sheep’s wool. But to the west—where our weather comes from, much
like the Wicked Witch—inked black thunderheads gather,
swirling, threatening, with exaggerated drama, daring,
eager to release their nervous energy. It—your garden party—may not happen
after all. Or it—the storm—may not happen after all. Yes, there’s this nagging thought: you don’t really
control anything, even if you did match the linen napkins to the cake’s buttercream, and that
come next week—come tomorrow—you will see yet another reminder
of this truth.


Inspired by July by Louis Jenkins.
And by the storm that rolled in just as I headed into the city for a Cubs game.

The storm clouds were nowhere near this dramatic, but isn't it a fun picture?

29 June 2016


The first thing I did this morning, after getting my little pug her breakfast, was check on my basil plant. It was out on the balcony, and last night, its leaves had been shriveled, drooped in the surprising humidity of an early June day.

Defeated: that’s what it had looked like, although it’s possible I’d been projecting my own emotions. Yesterday afternoon on the train home from work, the temperature had hovered at 95 and the air conditioning had been broken.

Shirts that had been crisp and white on the morning commute clung to armpits, shoulders, stomachs, backs—places that should never have so much attention drawn to them. Men and women who had gone confidently into work in the morning were, in the afternoon, avoiding eye contact, aware of every drip of sweat coming off their reddened foreheads. Buttons were undone as far as propriety allowed. Suit jackets were shed and would’ve been thrown from the train windows, if they opened, which of course they don’t, and we were all thinking dramatically of what it would feel like to grab that emergency fire axe and take out our overheated aggression on the windows.

Some tried to read the paper or play a game on their phone, but no distraction could scale that wall of heat. I watched one woman wipe down her iPhone screen several times; her sweaty finger as she played Candy Crush kept leaving trails, and she eventually gave up, thinking, like everyone else on the train, “Oh, what’s the use?”

I’d made it home to the air conditioning yesterday afternoon and stepped out on the balcony to check on my plants. And there was my sad little basil plant, looking every bit like every commuter on the westbound 4:15 train. “Oh, what’s the use?” its deflated leaves asked. “If I can’t make it through a June day, how will I ever survive July?”

Filling the watering can at the kitchen sink, I thought again of what I could make with the basil, if only I could keep it alive.

Caprese salad with those grape tomatoes that taste nothing like the big, tough, bland supermarket tomatoes we all now think of as a tomato.

Zucchini crostini with burrata. I’d chiffonade the basil, slicing it into very thin strips I could sprinkle over the sautéed zucchini and that creamy, mild but memorable cheese.

Wouldn’t it be delicious, a just-right summer taste, with grilled peaches and vanilla ice cream?

And there must be a cocktail I could make, one to call my signature summer 2016 drink—perhaps a gimlet?


I bought my little basil plant at the farmers’ market last Saturday. It had been early—8 in the morning—and I will admit to feeling smug superiority for beating the crowds by being a natural early bird.

Later in the morning, around 10 or so, the aisles of the market are always packed with strollers and people trawling for free samples of just-shelled sweet peas. Inevitably, there is a girl pushing her cruiser bike—the kind with wide handlebars and brakes that you use by pedaling backwards, as if it were a child’s bike—next to the stand selling microgreens. She always pauses, considering if she really would like to spend $10 for very tiny scraps of arugula, just enough to make a salad for a fairy or a woodland creature. While she imagines the very small dinner party she could build around these microgreens, traffic stops behind her, unable to get past her handlebars. Deciding against the microgreens, she slowly moves onto the raw honey stand, and by the time she leaves the market, she will have nothing in her basket but a single sunflower and an iced latte. Which she bought at Starbucks on her way to the market.

Every summer, just once, I make the mistake of agreeing to meet a friend, someone who is not a natural early bird, at the market later in the day. And every summer, as I watch the bicycle girl examine honeycomb as if she’s actually going to buy it, I am filled, all the way down to my toenails, with an urge to tell her to get over herself, something I wish someone had told me when I was 22—and at the very least, to get out of the way of the eggplant I’m trying to reach.

But at 8 in the morning, the aisles are always clear, the eggplant easily accessible, and last Saturday, I’d smiled at every vendor and every other early bird: We were going to get the proverbial worm.
I’d come away from the farmers’ market with:

  • Rhubarb that would become a crumble to celebrate the first day of summer
  • Shelled sweet peas that would be sautéed in a little butter and a lot of garlic, then tossed on top of pasta carbonara
  • Pain au chocolat, made by a French nun whose life I always wonder about. How did you end up here, in middle America? Do you speak French in your convent? Do you ever go home to Auvers-sur-Oise or Castelnaudary or wherever you’re from? But I have yet to work up the courage to ask. The most I have done is to throw a “Merci et bonne journee” to her in a small, timid voice, hoping she’ll hear my accent and lead us into conversation.
  • And the little basil plant.

On the way home from the market, I’d stopped at the Pet Supplies Plus. Even in just the few minutes it took to buy dog food, the inside of my car began to boil, the sun already so hot at 8:30 that when I opened the car door, waves of sticky heat emerged, practically tangible. And there, just as strong as the heat, had been the smell of basil.

In the heat of the car, the basil had preened. Feeling the sun on its leaves, it had burst forth with the smell of summer, of evenings in the garden, of southern France or southern Italy or some other sun-soaked world where people eat dinner on terraces overlooking vineyards. That smell of basil was a day spent reading in a hammock, fresh-pressed olive oil, a bike ride along the sea, a morning where you don’t have to wake up to an alarm, and dangling your feet in the teal coolness of a pool.

Standing in the asphalt parking lot of Pet Supplies Plus, suburban traffic of SUVs and minivans crawling past on their way to some soccer game, I wanted everything that little basil plant was offering. I wanted to drink up the world, which I was certain would taste of basil and gin.


I brought home that basil plant and found the sunniest spot for it out on the balcony. I told my little pug to not eat it. I watered it and I admired it.

And then yesterday the humidity got the best of it, as it does to so many of us. Last night, I sprinkled water from above so it was like a cool rain shower. I told it not to worry, that it could still recover, but inside I was thinking: What a waste of a farmers’ market purchase.

And I was thinking: Why can’t I keep anything alive?

And I was thinking: I probably shouldn’t have imbued this little basil plant with all my hopes for the summer, which are defeated and shriveled now, too.

And I was thinking: That’s kind of a dramatic turn to take; it’s just a plant.

The first thing I did this morning was check on it—and it has sprung back to life. I’m once again ready to drink up the world, which will definitely, certainly taste of basil.


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