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The Sky is Falling

Unknown I was just getting comfortable with the idea that my youngest daughter was living and working in New York City when I heard, on Halloween afternoon, that there’d been an attack on the city in the shadow of the Freedom Tower. It was, apparently, a senseless act of violence against absolutely innocent people, international tourists mostly, who were riding bikes in a designated bike lane along the Hudson River when they were mowed down by a rented Home Depot truck. I wasn’t scared for my daughter’s safety when I heard the news; I knew she was sitting at her computer in her office on 6th Avenue. But, I did pull up a map to see exactly where Chambers Street and the Westside Highway intersected. And I checked to see how near it was to her office at the corner of 6th and Spring Street in Soho. Pretty close. We exchanged information via text messages and she was fine; just concerned about the masses of people gathering outside on the street preparing for the largest Halloween parade in the world. I asked her to let me know when she was safely back at her apartment in Brooklyn. A few hours later she reported that she had to take a different route home due to the parade but was back safe and sound. Whew. I went to bed that night feeling a little unsettled to say the least. I spent time analyzing my discomfort. It wasn’t that I felt my daughter was in immediate danger. There’d been no evidence that this was a coordinated plan of multiple attacks on New York City. The violence seemed to be over. I suddenly realized that I was worried about all of us. It’s as if war has been declared against us, innocent people going about our business or our fun, anywhere in the world. The likelihood of a plane striking a skyscraper seems unlikely in this age of zealous TSA agents and multiple restrictions on our carry-on bags. But, perhaps more terrifying, is the thought that some horrible act of aggression can take place against us at anytime, no matter what we’re doing by people we don’t know. We can’t see the enemy, nor do we know who it is. But, we know the enemy is out there and he doesn’t seem to value his own life any more than he does the lives of innocent people. He’s prepared, and even willing, to die. We didn’t sign up for a battle. We’re unprepared and unarmed for it. It’s as if a bomb could drop at any moment without warning, a truck could run over a bunch of people strolling lively Las Ramblas in Barcelona, or lounging on a sunny beach in Nice, France. A gunman could open fire from a Las Vegas hotel window onto a crowd enjoying a concert down below or in a packed nightclub in Paris or Orlando. Or at an office party in San Bernardino or at a Christmas market in Berlin. Or in a crowded movie theater in Denver or at a mid-week prayer service in a Charleston church.  Or on a bike lane in New York City on Halloween afternoon. We can’t rely on any person or organization or military branch to protect us because our enemy is cowardly and doesn’t play by the usual rules of engagement. We can’t say nor can we predict where they’ll strike next. It could be Isis or a radicalized extremist raised in the U.S. and addicted to online propaganda. Or an Uzbekistan immigrant. Or a Tunisian, a Syrian, an Afghan. Al Qaeda. Or a white supremacist or a person suffering from mental illness. The labels don’t matter. There’s no planning for it, no explanation of it. There’s seemingly no protection against it. No wonder so many of us feel helpless and afraid. But, we cannot and should not feel hopeless. As FDR famously said during a time of great despair and uncertainty, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And the British poster on the eve of WWII, “Keep calm and carry on.” Following the attack, I took comfort from NY officials who encouraged everyone to continue about their business but also made some some valuable suggestions. He said we can pay attention, put away our phones, take off our headphones and be aware of our surroundings. See something, say something. Be alert, be vigilant. But, above all, be ourselves, live our lives and don’t be paralyzed by fear. Yes, let’s, no matter how difficult that may seem. As travel guru Rick Steves says, “Keep On Travelin’!” He believes that 24-hour news and social media has increased our awareness of these events and oftentimes magnifies them by the non-stop coverage. For each horror story, there must be many more untold stories of bravery and thwarted attempts at evil. One thing’s for sure: most of us care for our fellow men and would jump to their aid if need be, as evidenced after every attack. We would never think of causing an innocent person harm. I believe there are way more people like us than like those causing all this senseless harm. And we can win this war. Ok. I feel better now. Good night!

This was written four days before the massacre in the Baptist church at Sutherland Springs. Lord, help us.



Dearly Departed

UnknownOne of my daily rituals is reading the obituaries in our morning newspaper. Ok, I realize I just morphed into an obsolete dinosaur in your eyes. “Really? She reads an actual newspaper? And never misses the obituaries?!” But, I’m here to tell you that many of the day’s obits can be a bright spot in an otherwise horrid news landscape. Who wants to read more about Harvey – the hurricane or the sex offender? Who has time for more political shenanigans involving Russians, Republicans, North Koreans, Democrats or He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named? So, I just skip right past the front page and even the sports page and head straight to the business section. Isn’t that ironic? The obituaries, or “Life Tributes” as they’re called in our paper, are at the back of the business section. Makes perfect sense if you think about it. The business of life includes marching onward to the inevitable, death. I like to think that reading the obituaries makes me a better person. Every morning I’m reminded of the fact that our time here on this good earth is fleeting and we’d best make the most of it lest we have a really short two- or three-line obituary. Seriously, reading the obituaries makes me want to try harder to be a more loving wife, mother, aunt, sister, friend, to contribute more to my community and those around me in need. I love reading about the 90+-year olds who have died; some of them have been married to “the love of his/her life” for over 60 years! How hopeful! Some ladies, life-long homemakers, are described as “behind the scene chief of staff” or “entertainer-in-chief” and it’s often mentioned that her greatest accomplishment was raising her children. That makes me feel good, too, especially since my husband has taken to answering for me, on the countless times I’m asked – “And, what do you DO all day?” “She manages the household and is an essayist,” he says, albeit with a chuckle.

Obituary writers follow a common template. They begin with the obvious, “So-and-So died” or “passed away peacefully.” But some quite cleverly describe the manner of death: “She left with God as her travel agent.” “He entered the Kingdom of Heaven in the company of angels and reunited with the love of his life, Mary, who preceded him.” Ahhh. That’s a nice picture. Next, they list every degree obtained and each position held in business or philanthropy. Others paint a picture of a long life well-lived, full of hard work, followed by retirement and lots of travel to exotic places and the eternal love of family and friends. Something to aspire to, no doubt.  But my favorites are the ones that serve up unexpected gems about the deceased’s life. For instance, I read this in today’s paper: “He spent several years traveling across the U.S. with his wife in his frequently needy but ever-faithful Winnebago called Elsa.” I wonder if the same adjectives applied to his wife? And this, “Despite many health issues, she enjoyed life to its fullest, especially her frequent gambling jaunts to Las Vegas with her best friend Donette.” Oh, can’t you just picture it? I wish I could have gone with them! To Vegas – not Heaven (yet). Here’s another item from today’s Tributes – “She firmly convinced us that Irish cream and vanilla cakes are highly superior to chocolate, for which we stand eternally corrected.” I assume they are eternally grateful as well. Just one more: “He loved fishing, trail-riding, his horse John, and his mule Herbie.” These obits are so joyous you can’t help but smile while reading them. Despite the variations in the body of each obituary, the endings are always similar.  “He will live forever in the hearts of his family and friends.” or “She will be dearly missed by all who knew and loved her.” After reading all these life tributes, I can’t help but wonder… what will they say about me when my time comes? That I could be a mean old b+#** who, for the most part, loved her husband and kids?! I hope they at least mention my talent for making frozen margaritas and my eternal love for the Beatles. I’m reminded of an old saying, “Be nice to your kids. Someday they will choose your nursing home.” Not only that, they’ll probably write your obituary.

Back to … Life?

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IMG_2632It’s that time of year again, mid-August and time to go back to school. Time for parents to take their kids to Target or Wal-Mart loaded with the traditional list of school supplies: pencils, pens, spirals, highlighters. Time for new blue jeans, or school uniforms, and for sure a new backpack. But, I’m feeling a bit out of sorts as this is the first August in 23 years when I have no child going back to school. Our youngest daughter graduated from college in May and just moved to New York City for a job. That, in itself, is a major transition, which is evident from the reaction of everyone I know, and even strangers, who say “WOW! New York? HOW EXCITING!” No one says that when your child gets a job in your hometown. They say, reservedly, “Congratulations,” or “That’s great,” but not, in a high-pitched voice, “WOW! HOW EXCITING!” That is reserved for a job in New York. Others offer, “Well, she’ll either love it or hate it.” Which could be said for most jobs, but people don’t say that when your child gets a job in San Antonio or Dallas or Houston.

It happened very quickly, my daughter’s new position. She interviewed a couple of times then the offer seemingly came out of the blue. She had to make a quick decision as the job started in ten days. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I’m going.” And, my husband and I supported her decision. The pay was decent, the perks even better and she was fulfilling her dream. The next thing I knew, she’d found a place to sublet for the first month, which would give her time to look for a more permanent situation. She agreed to let me come help her get situated. We each lugged two over-stuffed bags through La Guardia to the taxi stand, and the agent whistled for a van to help us with our load. We eventually made it to the East Village and to her temporary home. As we lugged our bags down 9th Street from Second Avenue, we both smiled. It was the quintessential Carrie Bradshaw, Sex & the City New York neighborhood. In a few minutes the lessor arrived with the keys and we walked up the two flights to her apartment. “I’m sorry it’s such a mess,” she said, “But the girl who was leasing went home to India and I really don’t understand the situation. Oh, and she took the window unit with her.” The place was a hot mess, literally. Shoes were tossed in the common area, lots of shoes. A large box rested against the wall. A stained pillow and blanket had been tossed on the sofa. Trash was piled up in and around the trash can in the kitchen, under yellow sticky notes that read “Hard plastic,” “Paper & Cardboard,” “Landfill.” Opened boxes of cereal, Keurig pods, and shopping bags full of plastic bags were evident. There were dirty dishes in the sink and no paper towels on the paper towel holder over the sink. I heard a persistent drip, drip, drip coming from the bathroom. I peeked in to see a toilet full of pee and paper and a dirty bathtub with hair in the drain. The bathroom rug was wet and the shower curtain mildewed. My daughter proceeded to her bedroom. “Mom, look how pretty the trees are. And the courtyard down below.” It was pretty. Hot, but pretty. We opened the windows wide and realized how quiet it was despite the busy, bustling neighborhood streets below. We glanced into the bedroom next door and found clothes hanging on nails on the walls; there was no closet! But my daughter was lucky enough to have a closet and two big windows. Life was good. And she was happy.

We left the apartment and went to the nearest Bed Bath & Beyond. For a minute, things seemed familiar. Then we saw the escalator just for shopping carts! We loaded our cart with a couple of fans, two pillows, a light blanket, and other necessities, paid for it all and exited the store. Then it was time to extract our bags from the cart and make our way down the street to a taxi. Amazingly, we did it, each carrying multiple shopping bags. A cab whipped over, picked us up and soon delivered us to the apartment. We felt like we had accomplished something major. We high-fived and we smiled.

A couple of days later it was time for me to go home. But first, I took my daughter and two of her friends from college out to dinner. The mood was light and gay and the girls promised to look out for each other. Too soon, we all said goodnight and I walked my young one home. We tried to keep things light as we watched the homeless curled up in doorways, young boys skateboarding down the street, the change of a neighborhood from bustling frenetic daytime to the quieter dark of night. Too soon we returned to her apartment. Standing on the sidewalk out front we turned toward each other with tears in our eyes. I hugged her and told her I knew she was where she belonged and wished her well. Suddenly, out of the blue a man appeared between us, begging, “Ma’am, please. Can you spare some change? Please?” I was so shocked, I jumped and yelped. “Anne, open the door to your apartment.” She did and we rushed inside. We giggled nervously and hugged goodbye once and for all. Then I walked down the street and looked for a cab.

Now I’m home. It’s mid-August and it’s time for school to start again. Time for me to figure out what’s next.


Waco’s Gain(es)

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images-1.jpegI presume you are all familiar with Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Waco power couple who have a hugely popular reality t.v. show, FixerUpper on HGTV? I was late to jump on the Gaines’ train, as I was generally late to cable and “smart” t.v. When I channel-surf, I’m a creature of habit and look at the Big 3, ABC, NBC, and CBS, which were the only channels on when I was a kid. It’s taken me awhile to realize the world is my oyster, as far as television shows are concerned. I forget that there are hundreds of channels available for my viewing pleasure. Our daughters are highly amused when they hear my husband or me announce, sadly, “There’s nothing on t.v. tonight.” Or, “The Spurs’ season is over; now what are we going to watch?” Technology is hard for us, but we’re getting there. I’m proud to say we’ve watched all of Friday Night Lights and Bloodline, and a couple of wonderful documentaries, such as Somme and Chef’s Table. But there are still times when we plop on the couch to watch t.v. and all we can remember are channels 4, 5, and 12. Cable shows are on such channels as 1226, 1450 and 1507. Who can remember that? Of course I’d heard of the Fixer Upper show, but it never popped up on my channel surf, limited as it was. How do people find these things, I wondered.

A few weeks ago I helped my daughter drive home from college in Tennessee. On Day 2, waking up in Little Rock, we looked at the map and realized that we’d be passing through Waco. “We should stop at the Silos,” my youngest said. I agreed, remembering that the Gaines had transformed an old granary in the heart of Waco into a shop and a bakery. (Trust me, I’ve seen your Instagram photos, people!) A few hours later we found ourselves near the silos and saw a line snaking around a cute white building with black awnings. It was a Tuesday at 11:30 in the morning. We couldn’t find a parking space, so we decided to have lunch elsewhere and try again later. We soon headed back and found it only slightly less crowded. We parked and walked toward the silos looming large in the landscape. Everything was so pretty! In the middle of Waco, on a railroad track on a hot summer afternoon, flowers bloomed in window boxes on every building, the grass was green and pristine, children frolicked with their parents, skipping and playing games. And the line still snaked from the bakery door around the building and down the block. We looked at the famous silos which were surrounded by cute food trucks, then entered the retail area unsure of what wonders awaited.  We found every variety of fake flowers and plants in galvanized buckets, multiple candles, and metal signs announcing “Demo Day” and “Adventure” and “Market”. There were lots of inspirational quotes painted on rustic signs. Apparently, signage on the walls of fixer-uppers is a big deal. We passed a table of bobble-headed figures with the names of the show’s regulars on them, like the cabinet guy.  My daughter chuckled. Then we went downstairs to see more of the same. Flowers, candles, galvanized stuff, t-shirts, gimme-caps. Cute, but not my style. My daughter wanted a “Magnolia Farms” t-shirt. (That’s where the Gaines actually live.) The young checker cheerfully asked where we were from. I felt I was letting him down by answering, “San Antonio.” He said that the person in front of me was from Canada and had flown down just to see this. I was perplexed.

Last week I helped another daughter move into an apartment far, far from Waco, in Madison, Wisconsin. Shortly after arriving, we went to a furniture store to look for a sofa and met a darling local girl. “You’re from Texas?” she asked, excitedly. “I went there last year with my mother for spring break.” When we asked what areas of Texas she’d visited, she answered, “WACO! It was amazing.” Oh, I said knowingly, “What’d you think?” “I loved it so much. We met neighbors of Chip and Joanna and stayed in a bed and breakfast owned by a friend of their’s. And I loved the Silos. The cupcakes were awesome!” What cupcakes? She explained they were in the small bakery building but you often had to wait in line for a long time for them. But we have perfectly good cupcakes in San Antonio, I thought, why would I stand in line? My daughter asked, “Did you make it to Austin? or San Antonio? They are really cool cities.” “No,” she answered. “We thought about traveling to Galveston, but it was too far from Waco.” Makes sense, I guess… Next stop, Pier One in Madison. Stepping into the store, we were greeted by none other than Joanna Gaines, the large life-sized cardboard one, hawking her own line of rugs. We couldn’t believe it. Way to capitalize on your fifteen minutes, girl! A few days later it was time to board a plane for home via the Milwaukee airport. I was in line behind a girl decked out in Baylor gear. I caught her eye and asked, “Do you go to school in Waco?” “Yes,” she beamed. “I’m from Wisconsin but I’m going back to Waco for summer school.” Soon, several people starting leaning in, asking her questions. “Have you ever seen Chip and Joanna? Have you been to the Silos?” She smiled, resolutely, as if used to this line of questioning. “No I’ve never met them but I’d sure like to.” Geez. What’s the big deal, I wondered.

One day not long ago, I punched what I thought I’d memorized as the Food Network channel into my remote. I’d made a mistake and hit one wrong number. Eureka! I’d stumbled upon HGTV and was smack in the middle of a Fixer Upper marathon. I began watching and BOOM! My world was twisted on its axis; I was charmed by Chip’s toothy smile and goofy manner, and by Joanna’s no-nonsense approach to “fixing up” and her wealth of patience with her silly husband. Plus, she was so pretty! At the end of the show they revealed the transformation of a house from a dump to a dream home to the startled homeowners and my tears began to flow. This process repeated itself over and over again through the six or eight episodes that I watched that day. When I finally pulled myself away I felt happy. And hopeful. And relaxed. I couldn’t explain it. There’s something special about how Chip looks at Joanna and says, “Sure, Jo. You want to press those salvaged tin pieces into something charming for the ceiling? No problem! You want a custom herringbone wood floor? I’ve got this!”  And while Chip is stuffing cupcakes in his mouth, juggling eggs for his children’s amusement, or trying to climb the silos, Jo doesn’t seem the least bit stressed or irritated with him. She just smiles slightly and indulges him. Then the house their clients bought for under $50,000 suddenly looks like a million bucks. Seriously. There are no pitfalls, no setbacks, nothing disappointing ever happens while they remodel a piece of property. No wonder people love them. This is everyone’s idea of heaven: an affordable property turned into your dream home by two adorable people in a matter of a few weeks. I’ve been through a couple of remodels and, trust me, this is reality t.v. at its finest. Sadly, this week the Gaines find themselves in some trouble. A drunk driver plowed into a fixer-upper home in Waco and caused a great deal of damage. The homeowners are mad. Not at the drunk driver, but at the Gaines and the City of Waco for not telling them the neighborhood was dangerous. Really? They purchased their house in a large metropolitan area for $35,000! Chip and Joanna can only work miracles with the houses they’re given; apparently, not with the whole neighborhood. Although that would make a good sequel. And I’d probably watch.






Goodbye to a Place

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IMG_0105Next weekend my youngest child, Anne, will receive a degree from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. This week I feel great joy mixed with supreme melancholy as I anticipate the momentous occasion. I’ve already celebrated my two older daughters’ graduations, but the last child’s college exit is truly a milestone. For the first time in ten years, we’ll have no tuition payments, no more spring breaks to plan around, no 4-5 week Christmas visits, no parents’ weekends to look forward to in the fall. The nest is feeling very empty. It’s time for me to get a life (past time), and time for my youngest daughter to get one, too. But first, indulge my melancholia about her departure from a place we knew virtually nothing about four short years ago.

Sewanee, a school of around 2,000, is truly “a special place” as all the college’s promotional material states. Where else can you attend a university that looks and feels like Oxford on the top of a mountain, surrounded by 12,000 acres of waterfalls, blooming trees, flora and fauna, caves, hiking trails, lakes and bluffs overlooking a green valley, all situated over 50 miles away from anything resembling a bustling city and lovingly referred to as “the Domain?” It’s where students thrive and are truly free to be whoever they want to be for four years…wait, that part is true for most colleges. But Sewanee seems different. It’s a place where tradition dictates that students lightly touch the tops of their cars when entering or exiting the gates to catch their Sewanee angel, and I’m always moved nearly to tears when I sneak a peak in the rearview mirror to see kids in cars behind me all reaching toward the rooftops. It’s a place where students dress up for class and, where every Gowning Day, there’s a ceremony awarding high-achieving students a black gown  to wear to class, which is then routinely passed down to future generations of students.  It’s a place where, freshman year, a friend of my daughter started a women’s rugby team because she asked permission to do so, where kids who’ve never danced before gleefully perform on stage for audiences at Perpetual Motion weekend, and where students grab their guitars and friends and sing together at various open mike nights across campus, where students line up each Advent to celebrate Lessons and Carols in the chapel, completely covered with cut evergreens, holly and berries from the Domain. It’s a place that celebrates the four seasons, and for our Texas girl that’s been a unique experience. It’s a vacation destination for those who appreciate its beautiful natural surroundings, and the cool mountain air. Our family will miss spending time there each fall with the many wonderful families of our daughter’s friends who have come to be our friends over these four years.

I’ll always remember our first weekend on campus. The Vice-Chancellor spoke to nervous freshmen and their anxious parents, just before we were told it was time for us to move on down the road. “Be Afraid to Try New Things,” was the topic. His message to the students was “Reinvent yourselves but be wary at the same time.” I chuckled, then drove away, teary, that Sunday in August of 2013. Now, as we approach the end of four years, I am afraid it will be even harder to drive away from campus than it was four years ago. Undoubtedly our daughter tried new things, some of which I’d rather not know about. But she was also given opportunities I could never have dreamed of on that August afternoon. She hosted her own radio show for three years as DJ AK, and handled the highest of high-tech equipment in a state of the art listening room on campus.  She traveled to France and studied for a summer, where she lived in a gorgeous apartment in Paris with a view of the Seine and a woman who cooked dinner with a small monkey on her shoulder named Lola. She presented a thesis on French separatism and several of her friends came to cheer her on. Her professors became friends and she attended dinners and parties in their homes. Her classmates and chums were from Austin, Nashville, Birmingham, Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York and everywhere betwixt and between. She loved and was loved. She got sick and got through it. She made some bad grades and some good ones. She danced on tables with her girlfriends. (I made that part up, but I bet it happened!) At Sewanee, she wrote and photographed and studied and played and grew and saw that the world is not as large as it once seemed. She learned compassion, empathy and tolerance. And she received continuous encouragement and affirmation for who she was, not who people thought she should be. But, now it’s time to leave.

I’ll let the commencement speakers deliver the words of wisdom, but I want my daughter and her friends to know that this may be the end of college, but it’s just the beginning of bigger and better things. It’s the start of lifelong friendships and gatherings across the miles.  Imagine the heights to which you will soar because of this special place and the lessons learned on its 12,000 acres. It may not be evident to you today or next Sunday at graduation, but eventually you’ll find your next place. You’ve been given a sturdy platform from which to jump onto the next one.

Last night my little girl took her final turn at the WUTS-91.3 FM microphone and hosted her last hour as DJ AK. The song she chose to end her session was “Thinking of a Place” by The War on Drugs. Apropos, as she’ll always think of Sewanee with the fondest of memories and a grateful heart, and the future, to her, seems a bit scary.

I’m moving through the dark
Of a long black night
And I’m looking at the moon
And the light it shines
But I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real
Oh, it was so full of love!

-Thinking of a Place, The War on Drugs

Oh, and then she snuck in “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac, but that was probably for her dad and me, because she knew we must be listening and we’ll sing it loudly to the rooftops.

If I could
Baby I’d give you my world
Open up
Everything’s waiting for you
You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way

-Go Your Own Way, Fleetwood Mac



Apartment Hunting: A Wisconsin Tale

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IMG_1319Yes, I did it again. I accompanied my eldest daughter on her search for an apartment in a totally unfamiliar city in an unfamiliar state where we know no one. And, this time we did it in a blizzard, technically an Alberta Clipper. One week ago, we left our respective Southern homes, where it has felt like spring for weeks now, for the bitterly cold Midwestern plains just in time to experience a weather event for which the area is famous. My eldest had been invited to leave the warm confines of Auburn, Alabama, where she is working on a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, for a one-year internship at the University of Wisconsin. Hence, Madison was our destination, via the Milwaukee airport. You might have heard of Winter Storm Stella which pounded the Northeast early last week. Well, Stella was born crossing the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Michigan upon which Milwaukee sits. We breathed a sigh of relief upon landing and seeing nary a speck of snow. The lake looked beautiful and placid upon approach to the airport. But, we had been warned. Dashing to the rental car counter, we joked that being from Texas, we weren’t sure what to expect with this winter storm. The agent smiled sweetly and said, “Oh, you may need an upgrade.” How about an armored tank, is what I wanted to say. Instead, we jumped into our all-wheel drive vehicle and took off for an 80-mile trip. Chatting all the way, time passed quickly and we soon arrived in downtown Madison. Still no snow, no ice, nothing! We had the audacity to walk a couple of blocks to dinner at Dotty’s Dumpling Dowry – it’s a well-regarded establishment, apparently. We enjoyed such local fare as cheese curds with ranch dressing and an abysmal Old Fashioned cocktail, which I should have declined as soon as the waitress asked “sour or sweet?” I tried to explain what I wanted but somehow was served a drink with muddled cherries on the bottom and olives on top. Due to our exhaustion and anticipation of a busy day ahead, we left after only an hour. Stepping outside we were blasted by a biting wind. We pulled our coats tighter and began walking. Softly falling snowflakes already covered the sidewalks and made everything look prettier. My daughter thought it was lovely. I prayed it wouldn’t get much worse.

Monday dawned and our busy day of apartment searching began. I threw back the curtains of our hotel room and faced the day. And reality. Snow covered everything.  And it seemed to be blowing all around and still falling. Let’s go downstairs for breakfast and re-assess the situation, I suggested. Based upon my Texas experience with snow, I expected the restaurant and streets to be empty, an accidental holiday declared by Mother Nature. Instead, it was jammed with businessmen, students with backpacks, groups of young women in yoga gear, all chatting and carrying on as if there wasn’t half a foot of slippery white stuff on the ground. We took a table by the window and watched in awe as university students hurried along the sidewalks to class, seemingly oblivious to the wintry weather. Cars, buses and trucks passed by without a tire chain in sight. And every few minutes a truck with a plow attached to its front end raked the street free of its snowy cover. This town was impressive! Fortified by hot coffee and warm donuts, we headed toward our car.

I took the wheel and slowly turned out of the hotel garage onto a busy street near the University of 43,000 students, all of whom appeared to be crossing at the first traffic light we encountered. I pulled to a slow stop. Please don’t let me slide, was my constant prayer. I recalled the words of my first ski instructor as I struggled over an icy patch, “Quietly go.” That became my mantra for the day. Amazingly, and to our complete surprise, we went all day without incident. To clarify, without a traffic incident. Our first stop was an apartment complex called The Normandy, perhaps because it appeared to have been built shortly after the D-Day invasion of 1944. Our search proceeded. On to The Carolina just about a block down the street, next door to The Monticello. I was getting an Old South vibe. I won’t go into much detail here, except to say that after our viewing, the agent who showed us the apartment apologized, adding that it was the worst apartment she’d ever seen…or smelled. But she assured Claire that it would be really nice by the time she needed it because the abysmally stained carpet would undoubtedly be replaced and the oily walls would receive a fresh coat of paint. We were slightly deflated but undaunted as we continued to quietly go down the streets of Madison for two and a half days. We saw other units with cozier names, like The Lodge and Yorktown Estates, which described itself as “A Place of Comfort and Refuge from the Demands of Your Lifestyle.” That might be true if you considered a bathtub overflowing in the unit above your kitchen, necessitating replacement of the ceiling, to be a comforting haven. The painter was making the necessary repairs as we gingerly stepped around his ladder to admire the “updated kitchen” and “large pantry.” I should mention that these places are not cheap. Picture Austin but on an isthmus, as Madison is situated, with less land mass and nearly as many students. All agents delightedly touted their gas grills, available year round, for tenants’ use. Seeing them covered with 6 inches of snow, I tried to imagine friends gathered outside roasting wieners and marshmallows while covered head to toe in parkas and snow boots. I nearly shouted to the fourth or fifth such agent, “SHE DOESN’T GRILL, OK?” That’s when my daughter sweetly said, “We must get going to our next appointment. Bye-bye.”

That night we consoled ourselves at one of the city’s many farm-to-table restaurants, where we enjoyed a veggie platter (like charcuterie, but with carrots and fennel instead of meat), finished with a dusting of chocolate dirt.  “I feel hopeful,” I said to my daughter. “Tomorrow we’ll find your home away from home.” And, you know what? We did. A cozy little 525 square foot nook with nary a courtyard or gas grill in sight. And, no cooking odors, no stained carpet, no repairman busily working on the ceiling. In the words of Goldilocks, “I think it will be just right.” I sure hope that’s not a fairy tale.

(For another similar adventure, see my previous post, “Apartment Hunting,” published approximately four years ago when I helped same daughter find her dream home in Alabama.)

Celebrity Spotting

img_4291There are two kinds of people: those who enjoy spotting celebrities, and those who could care less. I happen to fall in the first category, and, lucky for me I have a true knack for it. It’s a gift, what can I say? I don’t know why it appeals to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small South Texas town where there was just one movie theatre and not much other entertainment besides Friday night football. My father was a huge movie buff all of his life, spending many weekend afternoons at the movies. On Saturday mornings, he’d drop my siblings and me at the “Coke show,” sponsored by the local Coca-Cola bottling company, where the price of admission was an empty coke bottle. My mother’s father was a movie critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Dispatch for many years. His autographed black and white photos of movie stars hung in the hallway of our home for as long as I can remember. I always loved the movies for taking me to places I’d never been and introducing me to characters I’d never dreamed of.  So, imagine my great thrill when, on my first trip to New York City in the ’80’s, I had a close encounter with Darryl Hannah, star of “Splash,”  when she was John-John’s girlfriend and a hot movie star. My husband and I spotted her walking around a flea market down in the Village and couldn’t believe it.  Shortly afterwards, we walked past a pet shop and I could swear I saw Kevin Kline, then the star of “The Big Chill,” shopping with his daughter. Years later, when my eldest daughter turned 16, my father and I took her to New York City and splurged on a carriage ride through Central Park. She and my dad were busy looking at the skyline, the park and the monuments, but I kept a close eye on everyone on the trails. Good thing, or we would have missed seeing John Stossel jogging. This was a BIG deal; he was a co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20! A day or two later, while walking back to our mid-town hotel after an afternoon of sight seeing, we saw a big crowd in front of The Waldorf. We walked into the hotel and learned we had stumbled upon the arrival of celebrities for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. JACKPOT! We stood by and saw Tom Petty, Tom Wolfe in his signature all-white suit and hat, ZZ Top, and many, many others. My daughter excitedly chatted with the nice man standing next to her, who happened to be Chubby Checker, although she didn’t know that.

Ever since, I’ve been like a kid in a candy shop when I go to New York City.  I simply keep my eyes and ears open. It’s amazing to look around and realize that no one else seems to be paying attention. Once I was with my husband for a medical meeting on the Upper East side. We stumbled into Eli Zabar’s deli, E.A.T., just north of 80th and squeezed into a table for two. After ordering, I glanced to my left and noticed a familiar face just a few small tables away. STEVEN SPIELBERG. Yes. It was him with his cute mother, Leah Adler, with her short, stylish silver bob. His movie “War of the Worlds” was premiering that weekend. (That would be the infamous day that Tom Cruise got into a tiff with Matt Lauer over prescription drugs and Brooke Shields, followed closely by his jumping on Oprah’s couch proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes.) Now that was a sighting! Even my husband was impressed.

Since then, I’ve made several trips to New York with a close friend who shares my enthusiasm for seeing celebrities in person (otherwise known as stalking). We’ve tried hard to sniff out celebrities where we think we’ll find them, but we usually have our best luck when we’re not trying. We have tripped over Eva Longoria who was talking on her cell phone and wouldn’t move past the rotating door at a department store near the High Line, and followed Angie Harmon around the home and gifts department at Barney’s. In November of 2015, we were strolling through Washington Square Park where a memorial had sprung up overnight for the victims of the Paris terror attacks. I bent down to read a sign left by a mourner and when I popped up, I was face to face with a beautiful woman in a stylish hat and boots. It was Rachel from “Friends,”  Jennifer Aniston. And accompanying her was her movie star husband, Justin Theroux. We followed them, from a respectful distance, of course, all over Greenwich Village.

My friend and I just returned from another trip to our favorite city. As always, we started our celebrity hunt by stopping by the Today Show for an up-close glimpse of Matt Lauer and Al Roker and whoever happens to be the guest that day. We spoke to Willy Geist and Jenna Bush Hager, shook hands with Dr. Oz, and made meaningful eye contact with Matt. Later that day, we had reservations at the new Polo Bar by Ralph Lauren, excited with the prospect of seeing celebs, and bolstered by the menu which read, “Please keep your photographs limited to your table,” implying that we could not turn our cell phone cameras toward Beyonce and Jay Z even if they were dining under the same roof. Seeing no one that evening, we felt defeated. But, we had also made reservations at Bar Centrale later in the week, an unmarked locale near the theatre district where, we heard, the stars hang out after their shows. After seeing a great new musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” we raced a couple of blocks to the unmarked bar on 46th Street, climbed up the steps of what seemed to be a brownstone apartment, pushed open the door and found ourselves behind two couples trying to get in. Both were turned away for their failure to make reservations in advance. Due to our foresight, we were shown to a table around the corner from the front room near the bar. Shortly after ordering drinks I saw the hostess coming around the corner with a guest. It was one of the the lead actors of The Great Comet of 1812, a play we’d seen the day prior. We were encouraged. About fifteen minutes later, a small entourage came toward us. A smiling woman in a large overcoat approached our side of the room. It was Glenn Close, current star of “Sunset Boulevard.” We were trying to be cool, but couldn’t help giggling. Next, came a couple of men we didn’t recognize, followed closely by a beautiful, tall blonde. In my excitement I couldn’t think of her name, but my friend recognized her immediately as Cate Blanchett, who also is starring in a Broadway show, “The Present.” We ordered another cocktail and some potato skins, pleased with our ability to mingle with the stars. Just when we were preparing to ask for the check, in walked Mark Ruffalo with his wife. He is starring in “The Price,” an Arthur Miller show that was visited the following night by former President Obama. (I won’t even speculate about what I’d have done had I seen him. It would have surely embarrassed my friend.)

I can’t explain my silly fascination with these beautiful people. It’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But, I enjoy watching them on screen and it makes me happy to see them up close. Like tourists who pay lots of money to see exotic animals in Africa, I think it’s fascinating to spot exotic people who live in a totally different world from me, and to observe them from afar for a few minutes.

I’d been back to reality for a few days before receiving a text from my friend. “Did you watch the Oscars? They let a bus full of tourists into the Dolby Theatre!” I know, I replied. “Next year we’re going to L.A.”