Friday, December 30, 2016

My Y2K New Year's Eve

Although we laugh about it now, New Year's Eve 1999 found millions around the world anxious about what would happen to computer systems if their internal clocks failed to roll over to 2000. People withdrew cash from their banks in case ATM's wouldn't work. People were concerned about public utilities failing. People feared communications networks would break down. Most of us didn't really understand what the issues were, but everything sounded pretty serious if it actually happened. I imagine that the change from the year 999 to the year 1000 also brought its own apocalyptic fears.

At any rate, my husband and I were far away from home and family on that fateful New Year's Eve. Yes, if any catastrophes had occurred, our children were on their own! My husband and I were in Italy, as a matter of fact, doing some preliminary reconnaissance for the spring academic quarter when we would be leading a group of students for two months around Italy.

New Year's Eve found us in the compact and wonderful hill town of Todi.

As the evening rolled on, and the new year arrived in Japan and Australia and India, it became obvious that the world's infrastructure had made the leap into 2000. Everyone relaxed and began to enjoy the festivities.

My husband and I first dined in a subterranean restaurant near the town's main square. A memorable, set dinner, boasting several delicious courses and the type of Italian table wine that makes you want to have wine with every single meal.

After eating, we walked back up to the main piazza and mingled with the crowd. The weather was crisp but not Chicago-cold, so walking and mingling was popular. As we meandered around the piazza, city workers passed through the crowd and passed out plastic flutes of champagne! (Perhaps it was Prosecco, but equally lovely.) I personally considered this the nicest touch of the whole evening. Sipping and strolling, we absorbed the magical atmosphere in Todi as the clock approached midnight.

At one end of the piazza, a stage had been erected, and the tech crew were putting the finishing touches on the band's equipment. Soon the minutes had dwindled down to five. More champagne/Prosecco circulated through the crowd. More folks gathered in the piazza. Finally, the countdown! Midnight arrived, kisses were shared, greetings were spoken, and the fireworks began!

Todi is really a very small Italian hill town. It's quite vertical, so the main piazza truly is the focus of the public life of the town. That night, it seemed that the entire population had gathered in the piazza, yet the feeling was open and festive rather than jam-packed and claustrophobic. Once the fireworks finished, the band began to play, and everyone just danced around in their own free-spirited way whilst sipping on their drinks. Suddenly it struck me that this was a town party, in the very best way. No concerns about crowd violence or other threats. Just friends and neighbors and a scattering of tourists, laughing, dancing, drinking, and celebrating together.

New Year's Eve 1999 remains my ideal of a good public celebration. We could never have something like that here, but it cheers me every year to think that the budget for the town of Todi includes free Prosecco in the piazza at the New Year. Buon anno! Auguri!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Wrong Little Town of Bethlehem

I spent the Christmas season of 1973 in Great Britain, splitting my time between Scotland and London.The Scots didn't tend toward elaborate Christmas decorations and displays then, although things may have livened up in the intervening years. London displayed a more Dickensian spirit toward the holiday, but the combination of a coal strike and the first oil embargo meant that all the colorful Christmas lighting couldn't be turned on for lack of electricity. Christmas, therefore, seemed different to me in many ways.

Scotland did not, however, let me down completely. Our residence hall at the University of St. Andrews partook of a delightful and delicious Christmas feast before everyone went home for the break. We didn't have a boar's head brought in, but we had some tasty dishes that were new to me and I enjoyed everything.  The final dish to appear was the Christmas pudding. Each table had its own pudding, and these were delivered flaming!! That seemed rather spectacular to me. I was enjoying myself immensely. I dug into my serving of pudding with enthusiasm. Suddenly I bit down on something hard. Uh oh. That's not a surprise that I welcomed. I reached into my mouth and retrieved a silver coin. What on earth? I'm muttering to myself when the friend sitting next to me said "Oh, you've got the sixpence!" Apparently, whoever found the silver sixpence in her portion of pudding would have good luck in the coming year. I laughed and put the coin in my pocket. I still have that silver sixpence!

I spent another pleasant evening before Christmas attending the St. Mary's College Ball. St. Mary's was the divinity school portion of the University of St. Andrews and was where I was taking all my classes. An older student named Iain invited me to the Ball, so I rustled up a formal dress and off I went. We had a grand time, and I felt like I was celebrating Christmas quite well.

All of this is to say that when I read notices of the University's Christmas Carol Service, I made sure to be in attendance. I looked forward very much to singing the old familiar carols.

The service took place in St. Salvator's Chapel, a beautiful Gothic-style building in St. Salvator's College (the undergraduate liberal arts division). Many, many people packed the chapel and sat ready to sing. The program listed a satisfying number of familiar carols. Interestingly, only the words were provided in the program, accompanied by the name of the tune we were to sing for each carol. In Great Britain, folks don't always need the music because they know the tune of Duke Street, for example, or Kingsfold, or Diademata. I was a little at sea here, but enough of the hymn tunes were familiar that I managed. I continued to hope for a familiar match-up of words and music. Finally, the title "O Little Town of Bethlehem" appeared next on the list. I was so happy! I even knew harmony on this one. I could sing with 'full heart and voice'.

Not so, not so. The carol began and the rest of the congregation burst forth into song. I had no clue what this tune was. None. I had never heard it. I couldn't sing a note. Whose idea was it to substitute the 'wrong' tune for such a beloved carol?

It's difficult enough to be thousands of miles away from one's family at Christmas, but to have even the most cherished and familiar carols sung to different tunes shook me up a little. I rallied, however, and vowed to learn the new music I'd just heard. I still can't automatically sing a hymn tune simply from its name, although I do know a few. But over the years, the "new" tune used for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has become my favorite. Yet another souvenir of that unusual Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

An Unforgettable Coca-Cola

I was watching Coke's Christmas commercial earlier today and smiling at how well it conveyed the absolutely spot-on refreshment an ice cold Coca-Cola can provide. If I still drank sodas, I would have jumped in my car and gone to the market to pick up some bottles of Coke immediately. An ice cold Coke satisfies in so many wonderful ways.

Let me tell you about the best, most refreshing, most satisfying Coca-Cola I ever drank. I will never forget how good it was.

In the spring of 1974, my friends Jane and Kris and I were backpacking round Western Europe during our spring break from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. We took trains and stayed in youth hostels and carried our possessions on our backs. Very typical of 20-year-olds in Europe in those days. Our trip began in Paris, after an overnight ferry crossing of the English Channel. From Paris we rode the train to Geneva and a few days later to Zurich. A few days after that we hopped on an overnight train to Rome.

Rome boasted plenty of lovely sunshine and balmy temperatures. We felt like flowers opening up to the springtime after several months of rather gloomy weather in Scotland. We found the youth hostel without too much trouble, venturing forth on Rome's public bus system. Unburdening ourselves of our backpacks (which we could leave safely with the hostel staff), we set out to go to Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's).

We thought we had figured out which bus stop would take us back the way we had come and would deliver us to St. Peter's. A bus came along and we hopped on. Wrong choice. The bus went two stops in the opposite direction and everyone got off. It was the end of the route! Oh good grief. There we stood: tired from our relatively sleepless train journey, hungry, a bit rumpled, very hot from the lovely sunshine, and, suddenly, dreadfully thirsty.

Being intrepid travellers by that time, we looked around to see what opportunities awaited us before the bus started its route toward St. Peter's again. Close by was some sort of bar, as I recall. The three of us went in.

Ahhh. First of all, the bar was air conditioned! Not really usual in those days. We had chosen well. We sat down and the bar tender came over to us. We ordered three Coca-Colas. We didn't expect them to be cold, really. (In Europe, drinks were generally tepid.) At this point we simply needed something familiar to drink. The bar tender quickly brought us three bottles of Coke with straws sticking out.

As soon as we picked up our bottles, we knew these were ice cold Coca-Colas. That first long sip from the straw nearly brought tears to my eyes. Sooo cold, sooo delicious, sooo Coke. Oh my goodness. No one said a word. We inhaled those Cokes. Suddenly, we knew our time in Rome was going to be wonderful. (And so it proved, but that's another story...)

We may have ordered another 'round' of Cokes. I can't remember. It seems likely. Fortified and refreshed, we left the bar, caught the bus to St. Peter's, and began our explorations.

Nowadays, I can't imagine drinking a Coca-Cola. The sugar would overwhelm me. I haven't had any soft drinks in many years. As I think about it, I probably will never taste a Coke again. Isn't that funny? But once upon a time, in a far country, an unexpected ice-cold Coca-Cola brightened my day unforgettably.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I Know What the Shepherds Felt Like

As I set up our Nativity scene each year, I stop and think about each figure as I place it. I usually smile when I think about the shepherds who were watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appeared in the brightly illuminated sky. I know exactly how that stunned them. How could that be? It's what my earliest memories of Christmas are like.

The bright lights part.

My father could do so many things and had taught himself a great deal about photography. He was an especially talented videographer, to use today's term. Our family movies stand the test of time in both quality and subjects. Daddy was good at taking movies.

What family doesn't take photos at Christmas, and nowadays, videos? We have a treasure trove of Christmas movies. These were not, however, completely spontaneous.

After I was in bed (I'm the oldest child, so I have a few solo Christmases to recall), my father set up his big flood lights in the living room, carefully positioning them so as to catch my face when I toddled down the hallway and saw what Santa had brought. He also set up his Bolex movie camera on its tripod, loaded with new film, ready to roll. All that was necessary was that he should get in position before I slipped out of my bed and ran into the living room un-photographed.

He and my mother must have slept very lightly on Christmas Eves!

Usually my mother intercepted me, and held me up long enough for my father to get in place and fire up the lights and the camera. (I can remember later Christmases when she had to physically restrain all three of us children, blocking the doorway to the living room!) My Christmases truly began with "Lights! Camera! Action". As I approached the living room, I remember the absolutely blinding light from those floods. When I watch those movies, I can only laugh at that dazed, squinting, confused little girl who had to hold her hands up to block out the brightness so she could see her presents.

Once I was in the room, the lights didn't bother me and I could focus on my stocking and my toys. My father continued to film me for awhile, and then shut off the camera AND the lights. The world returned to normal.

This approach to filming Christmas continued for ten years, so that we also have movies showing my sister and I being dazzled by the lights, followed later by my sister and brother and I staggering into the living room, overcome by light. Definitely a theme running through our Christmas movies.

The advent (pardon the pun) of new video technology eliminated the need for those bright floodlights. Super 8 movie cameras, followed by huge video cameras, and then more video cameras opened up vast new possibilities for my father's film making talents. Christmas now had gentler video coverage but I had left the shepherds behind.

Nevertheless, I can still understand how bright lights can overwhelm an unsuspecting person, rendering her confused, unsteady on her feet, and in need of some guidance. Sounds a bit like what struck the shepherds 'in fields as they lay' on Christmas, doesn't it?



Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Third Rail and the Pilot

All parents try to be diligent about teaching their children how to be safe in the outside world. We hold their hands while crossing the street, we teach them to look both ways when crossing, we teach them how to ride the bus and the train, and we especially teach them about railroad tracks. Or at least I did! Once I seem to have been much too successful about that one.

In Chicago, my children and I rode the "L" all up and down the Ravenswood Line (now simply called the Brown Line, how dull). We used it to get to and from the wonders of the Loop and to and from Wrigley Field. A simple ride on the Ravenswood Line filled many an afternoon, when we "looped the Loop" practically for free. Naturally, I had repeatedly talked to them about not ever touching the third rail of the tracks, because that one was "live", full of electricity to power the train. Going to and from the Loop we never needed to worry about walking across the tracks because everything was elevated above the roadway. Easy as pie.

One day, however, when my son Peter was about 3-ish, I left him with a close friend while I had a job interview or something. An unremarkable day. When I arrived to pick him up, I found my friend laughing ruefully in consternation about Peter. She lived very close to the Rockwell stop on the Ravenswood Line, and she and Peter and her own two children had set out to walk down the street, across the tracks, and then to the bakery, where she wanted to buy some bread. All went well until she tried to get Peter to cross the tracks and proceed down the other side of the street.

No, ma'am. I won't cross those tracks. If we step on the third rail, we'll die. He wouldn't budge. No matter how my friend tried to show him that the third rail didn't extend into the pedestrian crossing, Peter could not be moved. His mother had told him about that third rail. He wouldn't even let my friend carry him across, because he knew she would be killed! So the discombobulated little group had to turn around and return to her house.

My friend and I did laugh about it, but I know she was flabbergasted. Peter and I drove back to our apartment. I praised him very much about remembering what I had told him about the third rail. Then I explained how it was possible to cross those tracks at street level because the third rail stopped well before people would cross and didn't resume until after the train had completely passed the street. I explained how the power fed into the rear cars while the front car disconnected to the third rail and then when the rear cars lost the third rail the front car had already picked it up again. Smooth as smooth. Peter absorbed everything I said (Mr. Sponge), and the next time we drove past the Rockwell stop, we parked our car and walked over to examine the rails very closely. That sealed the deal. He saw exactly how things worked at a level crossing.

Fast forward several decades. Peter now flies 767s for United Airlines. He defines what a careful pilot should be. No pilot in a cockpit is more aware than Peter of everything going on in that airplane. I have never met a more careful pilot or driver of an automobile. Peter pays attention constantly. (He left his first professional job as a flight instructor for a flight school in California because he witnessed the shoddy maintenance of the planes and experienced the refusal of the management to correct the problems.)

He's super careful with his little twins, and we practice train safety with them all the time. Their experiences are on the Metra so far, but pretty soon they'll graduate to the L.  Then it will be his turn to expound on the dangers of the third rail. He will be sure to explain about level crossings, though, unlike his mother!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Goodbye John Glenn

We had seven true heroes in the US when I started school. The last one died today.

I can't really convey how much we kids idolized the first astronauts, the Mercury 7. Those of us who lived in Tidewater Virginia boasted of Alan Shepherd's living in Virginia Beach and of the astronauts' training in Hampton at Langley Field. We followed every news story diligently. (I'm confident the space program helped develop improved reading skills all over the area!) In that era before "smart classrooms", our teachers brought in televisions so that we could watch the launching of Shepherd's and Grissom's capsules. Breathlessly exciting they were.

It seems so naive now to be excited about a spacecraft orbiting the earth. How many things orbit routinely, 24 hours a day? But in 1962, we didn't know if that would work for the US. The Soviet Union had already placed two different astronauts into earth orbit, so we understood it could be done. But could we do it?

The day John Glenn climbed inside his capsule and prepared for launch remains quite vivid to me. I can still hear Walter Cronkite's voice narrating the step by step process as Glenn approached the launch pad. I can still see that joyful smile on Glenn's face as he climbed inside the capsule. (Have you ever SEEN a Mercury capsule? How did they even fit inside it?) Then the countdown, and the scenes of the crowds waiting at Cape Canaveral, and the scenes from inside Mission Control, and finally "T minus 10 seconds and counting". Oh, my goodness, what an exciting moment.

Glenn's spacecraft successfully entered earth orbit and we cheered. On the television, we could follow his path around the earth via a track that as I recall looked like a sine curve. An anxious moment made us watch intently as his capsule communications switched from the continental US to Perth, Australia. Static, static, then the acknowledgment that Perth "had him". Yes! One orbit, two orbits, and then three orbits. Time to come home. Of course, nothing is a given in spaceflight, and Glenn and NASA had to deal with the possible loosening of the heat shield and the destruction of everything in a re-entry fireball. What would happen? Watching that capsule break through the clouds and safely land in the ocean caused much rejoicing. We were on our way to space!

John Glenn was everywhere in the news for the next couple of years. He paraded in cities big and small. He was the face of the space program without a doubt. The parade I remember best was when he returned to his hometown in Ohio and the citizens honored their native son. I remember watching Glenn and his wife Annie, and watching the friends and neighbors amongst whom they had grown up. It didn't get much better than that in those early years of NASA.

What I admired most about John Glenn was his determination to continue contributing to our country. You would think his career as a fighter pilot and an astronaut fulfilled that goal. Yet Glenn's integrity and ideals led him to the U.S. Senate for over 20 years. By all accounts, he served his constituents well and faithfully.

After retiring from the Senate, while in his mid-70s, Glenn returned to space! He flew again, this time on the space shuttle. I still smile at the thought. No age barrier for him. Good for you, Mr. Glenn.

Now he has slipped the bonds of earth and belongs to history. I'm sad to say goodbye but oh, so grateful for his courage and his service to us all. Thank you, John Glenn.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Little Behind in My Decorating

Last Saturday, delivery men brought us a new couch. I am enjoying it very much. We enjoy having the extra seating space and look forward to having our family stretch out comfortably over the holidays.

The one fly in the ointment is that the loveseat and overstuffed chair it replaces can't be picked up by St. Vincent de Paul until the 19th. Our living room closely resembles a furniture warehouse, in fact. This would not necessarily cause a problem in, say, September, but it certainly is cramping my Christmas decorating plans. No point in buying a tree: no place to set it up. No point in unwrapping all my little knick-knacks and dispersing them throughout the house. No point in bringing my decorative lighted penguins up from the basement, because I can't get them outside onto the porch! No point in sending my husband up into the attic to bring down the boxes of decorations: they would completely fill up the rest of the living room and we would not be happy.

All of this means I truly am celebrating Advent this year rather than Christmas! I enjoy the anticipation of Christmas itself. I light the Advent candles every time I sit down to eat. I faithfully put the little magnetic figures of my Advent calendar up on my kitchen cabinet door. I listen to my collection of Christmas and Advent CDs playing all day long. I watch the snow falling and hear the winds blowing. I read.

I'm not able to get out to the shops very much this year, so most of my Christmas purchases come on-line. This brings its own fun, because I can also spend time poring over catalogs! Frankly, this enforced calm regarding decorating and shopping brings quite a nice change from the usual compulsions.

I don't recommend redecorating your living room just before Christmas, but there might be compensations. Savor that hot chocolate and listen to Christmas music, because you can't put lights on your non-existent tree anyway!