Garden Clips

Lurie Garden in fall

Pots of happy succulents lined the porch railing. “I only grow things that like it here,” said my husband’s cousin as we toured his mountain-top cabin in North Carolina. So obvious it made me laugh. Laugh at how many times I placed a plant where it never wanted to be. Like the azalea—a woody skeleton at the end of a Midwestern winter. Lush cascades of rhododendron roll down the Carolina mountain side. Ha!

Piet Oudolf, the legendary plantsman from the Netherlands, recently came to Chicago to talk about seasonality in garden design. He counters the traditional practice of putting the garden to rest for winter with designs of year-round interest and plants in all their stages of life. The Lurie Garden in fall is a painterly, nuanced vision.

Metaphors grow in gardens. And sometimes I listen to what the plant kingdom has to say. When we lost all the JFK roses, I knew it was time to sell the house.

At the End of the Day, I’m Tired

Femme Banale is glad to be back in your company after a short break.

For more than 20 years, I worked as an editor, and like many editors, possess a certain crankiness.* Maybe it’s the banality of enforcing the serial comma. Who knows.

Today I get cranky about the popular expression “At the end of the day.” News commentators use it with gravitas as the preface for telling us what’s really important. Politicians love to use the expression too. One Chicago mayoral candidate recently said “at the end of the day” seven times in less than a minute. Please make it stop.

The old-school language constables Strunk and White would describe this expression as “threadbare” from over use. It reminds me of another such expression from the Rolex 1980s: “the bottom line.” I’m not sure either metaphor works anyway. At the end of the day, I am not taking account of the day’s wins and losses; instead I’m unwinding with a book or garbage TV.

There are more like it out there. What cliché would you like to see sent to language detention?

*Yes, you sticklers, my writing mixes first person and third person. It’s my party…you know the rest.

January 10

While recovering from cancer treatment in 1998–99, United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser took early-morning walks in the wintry Nebraska countryside. And each day he composed a poem from his walk, pasted it on a postcard, and mailed it to his friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison. Here’s what he wrote on January 10, 1999.  

January 10

Eight degrees at 6 a.m.

Cloudy and cold, the moon like a lamp
behind a curtained window,
and who could be sitting alone in that room
with its dusty, ancient furniture
if not a god?
—Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison*

Thank you Ted Kooser for your example of grace and resilience. Here’s to you, from my 15th story window in Chicago.

January 10
(for Ted Kooser)

The chimneys breathe hard,
their vapors tumble and spin
like pale pixies
taunting: come outside
and play in the crystal magic.


*Printed with permission of the publisher, Carnegie Mellon University Press.


Just Say No…To Your To-do List

Coffee in hand, Femme Banale looked over her to-do list for the day and didn’t want to do any of it.

To hell with the tyranny of 10,000 steps! The 10,000 steps dropped to the cutting-room floor along with barre class, cleaning the front hall, and practicing guitar. Blog writing remained on the list but not the proposed topic.

What’s going on? At Chez Banale, to-do lists are de rigeur. Family members boast about checking off all the items on their lists. Lists are emblems of organization and productivity, if not best practice in mental hygiene. Friend Shauna of the Star likely would say Femme Banale overturning her to-do list has something to do with Mercury in retrograde. Perhaps. Intuition simply said today’s list wasn’t right for today. It lacked communication and creativity. Here’s what the scrapped to-do list made room for:

  • Writing a long letter to an old neighbor
  • Reading personal travel essays at Wanderlust Journal for the pure pleasure of listening to someone else’s story (i.e., not THE NEWS)

Femme Banale acknowledges that many people have indispensable list items like work deadlines or picking up the kids from daycare, but present in all to-do lists are those insidious tasks of self-inflicted confinement.

Take the Banale challenge: Swap one uninspired dud on your next to-do list for something creative or satisfying or that makes you laugh or smile.

All Souls’ Day Playlist

November 2nd marks All Souls’ Day—generally a Catholic observance remembering the dead.

It caps the nether-worldly triumvirate including Halloween and All Saints’ Day at the time of year when the fluid of the natural world slows and activity moves underground. Traditionally, All Souls’ Day has been a day of spiritual bartering in which the currency of prayer was to commute a loved one’s stay in the graceless murk of Purgatory. But this isn’t the way that I want to honor my dead. Too burdened. Too intangible. Too much of a downer.

Like the Mexican celebration of El Dia de los Muertos, I want to express a lighthearted tribute through the senses, in particular with song.  So, I’ve put together a playlist with selections from each loved one’s personal history.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” sung by Roberta Flack

This one’s for my younger sister Cathy who at the age of six had the moxie to turn on the stove to show me how to fry an egg and who as a teenager had the guts to have a paper route when it wasn’t cool. She could buy $5 LPs while the rest of us scrounged babysitting change for 99-cent singles. But it was Flack’s 1972 hit single that Cathy played the most—the singer’s voice wafted through our house for months.  Was my 16-year-old sister in love before the music stopped?

“Rocky Mountain High” sung by John Denver

Mom was a singing waitress at a place called Mario’s in Aspen in the early Fifties. She was a nursing school graduate briefly pulled by the ski bum’s life, plus she had a voice.  Seven kids later, she’d return with us on ski trips either on the train or packed into the station wagon with a cooler full of bologna sandwiches. It was all fun except maybe for the mildly uncomfortable moments when she’d sing along to Denver’s hit as it played at the lodge cafeteria.

“The Victors” played by the University of Michigan Marching Band

My dad was not a music guy. But as a former UM football player, he loved Michigan’s fight song, teaching us the words and tune as little kids. It was an indelible link to the Glory Days of being a student-athlete.  From him came the terse wisdom to my son as a college freshman: “Mike, you can be a student, an athlete, or a partier. You can be two of the three, but not all three.”

“Empty Pages” by Traffic

Everyone should grow up with a best friend like Mary Gael. She was a mastermind of mischief who filled our long summer days and Friday nights before The Ghoul Show came on. Prank phone calling was the gateway antic that led to more ambitious productions like dressing up for the Domino’s Pizza delivery man and staging slapstick bits before paying him. This often involved a cast of my younger brothers and sisters, my charges for the evening.

So, what about the song? It’s here because the 1970 Traffic concert in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is the last best memory of my childhood best friend, hip huggers and all.

And in case anyone remembers me with a song, please don’t let it be “Für Elise.”  Although those subjected to my constant practicing of this piece deserve time off in Purgatory.








The Magical Realism of Regifting

A Seinfeld episode in the ‘90s brought regifting to the fore, in a way validating the practice of passing off unwanted items—often dressed up in rumpled tissue—as gifts. By Femme Banale’s estimation, regifting could be responsible for flagging US production growth. That is, production will not expand in the face of low demand for consumer goods, especially gifty goods. And demand is low because of the invisible and unmeasured supply of regift-ware.

We now live in a new Macondo-like reality with millions of regifts and potential regifts magically multiplying behind closed cabinet doors. Open the door, let the light in, and there they are! The scented candle, the candy and nuts, the wine bottle with the unusual label, holiday potpourri, gift-sets of all kinds.

Regifting holds risk: There’s the risk of recognition or discovery that the gift is recycled material and the resulting dispiritment. But there also lurks a deeper risk—that is, unknowingly regifting an item that the recipient gave you earlier. Let’s call it circular regifting. Femme Banale gives a firsthand account.

It was a casual dinner for friends in which I did indeed receive a scented candle. No surprise there, but what followed was surprising. A flash of recognition passed as one guest handed me a hostess gift; my brain churned to understand. (Cue: psychedelic music, “And somebody spoke and I went into a dream. Ahahahah ahahahahah…”) That’s it! The Christmas present that I gave them two years ago. A cascade of emotions followed: wonder, annoyance, suspicion (Are they messing with me?), resignation (“Thank you”), delight (Gotcha!), concern (Here comes the memory decline), and finally gladness. Yes, gladness.  I was glad to get the item back because I liked this particular item. Through the dubious channels of regifting, the gift made its way back to me.







Show and Tell

Today Femme Banale shares a few selections from her modest vintage book collection.  Space is scarce, and what has earned these books a place of honor on her bookshelf is their timeless human stories. These classics were written in the early part of the last century, but  they present life’s enduring drama of longing and conflict and triumph and defeat and triumph again (sometimes).

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

This is an “unexpurgated” edition, which contains the book’s original love scenes once deemed pornographic. Critics describe Lawrence’s social commentary and portrayal of England’s idle and ineffectual aristocracy. Femme Banale’s takeaway is this: women prefer men with skillz.


George F. Babbitt is a “manly man” of the 1920s who “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.” Babbitt is a story of all the folly in social climbing and conformity.

Students of American English usage may be amused to find these words in 1920s speech: chump, buttinsky, and shindig.  Let’s not forget the book’s own contribution to the American dictionary—babbitt, of course!

Obscure Destinies

Obscure Destinies contains three short stories of tender humanity.  In “Neighbor Rosicky,” we see how the immigrant experience has formed the warp of our country’s fabric. “Two Friends” is a story of friendships gained and lost; the truth is things change. The best here is “Old Mrs. Harris”—let’s say you’re a young girl who longs to go away to college but whose family doesn’t have the money…

What treasures are on your shelves?  Show and tell in the comment section of this post.

The Finger

Did you know that in yoga the middle finger represents patience? This fact poses an amusing irony given that the obscene gesture commonly known as “the finger” represents the opposite of patience. Let’s see how the former finger has the power to overcome the latter.

A little background first. According to yogic tradition, the middle finger is associated with the planet Saturn and the law of karma.* Karma is a cause-and-effect proposition kind of like Newton’s law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Plainly put, whatever you do has a consequence. Exercising patience has an effect and so does showing impatience.

When you touch the pad of your middle finger to the pad of your thumb, you form a mudra or seal.

Shuni mudra

This particular mudra is called Shuni mudra, and its practice invokes patience, discernment, and discipline. By touching the middle finger to the thumb, “the finger”—a lightening bolt of rage—becomes a grounded gesture of calm.

Last week, a car charged at Femme Banale while she crossed a busy street on the Walk signal. She wanted to give not one but two “fingers” to the driver,  but instead she formed Shuni mudra with one hand in her pocket—a reminder of the choice.** What karmic fallout could “the finger” have brought down? At best, a flood of the stress hormone cortisol for all parties.

So much can change with the touch of a finger.


*Femme Banale has heard that you should not wear a ring on the middle finger because like a sled out of control on Saturn’s icy rings, it spins your karmic stuff back at you.  In other words, what goes around, comes around.

**Shuni mudra is typically practiced in meditation, not on the fly as described here.  If you would like to explore more, seek an experienced yoga teacher. Try Yoga Alliance for starters.

Whistler’s Mother

Anna McNeill Whistler, aka Whistler’s Mother, is in Chicago for a short stay at the Art Institute.

“I don’t think he liked his mother much,” a visitor says.  But he did! James McNeill Whistler was close to her and relied on his mother to help with his business affairs.   She entertained Southern-style his coterie of Bohemian friends. When Anna moved from America to James’s London home, he dispatched his mistress to another apartment. Ma Whistler was clearly the lady of the house.

Art historians talk about how this painting of an older woman in dark Victorian garb became an enduring symbol of motherhood. More than 150 years separate her and me but we share this: our adult children are still our children.

Mothers are forever there in either the foreground or background.


For Betty

Is anyone named Betty anymore? Maybe the name will make an ironic comeback, but when my Aunt Betty died at the age of 102, the last Betty left the world.

102 years old! She got there with all the right cards stacked in her actuarial favor: no husband, no booze, strong faith, walked to work every day, the presence of a large network of family and friends. Her modest life as a factory worker in a Midwestern tavern town was the flipside of the urbane aunt with a martini glass in hand.  Yet, to me—a girl growing up in the 1960s—Betty presented possibilities. She had a job and drove a Rambler.

Was she a feminist? Such a label had little meaning in her world. But Betty, with steady determination, made a stand for what was hers. When her parents were in arrears with tuition payments, the Catholic high school she attended said that Betty wouldn’t receive her high school diploma upon graduation; the school would, however, award a diploma to her twin brother. What’s a girl need a diploma for anyway? How little they knew of her will. With steely resolve she saved her factory job earnings, later returned to the school to pay her tuition, and received her diploma. I like to imagine the scene of her handing a money order over to a startled clerk in the school office who would likely defer in hushed consult with the priest-administrator. Betty settled the score.

Quiet. That was her style as she walked through the noisiness of life. If one of her brothers or sisters was in a tough spot, she was always there to help. She paid her own way, never bragged, in fact, she didn’t talk much at all.

Once in a while she would open up. In her nineties, she surprised me with a story about the long-ago boss who would invite young girls to his office and sometimes to his cabin. Betty knew what he was up to and wasn’t going to have any part of it. This was the closest she ever came to talking about sex or men within its context. Men were generally brothers or nephews or priests—some simply tolerated, others admitted to the circle of her kindness.

Childless, Betty was the matriarch to many and fairy godmother to generations. Every new baby in the family received a hand-knit blanket, followed in time by hats, sweaters, ponchos, stuffed animals, slippers, and one-off pieces of her own invention. A 3-by-5 index card with our birthdate assured us a place in her permanent record, which meant at least a birthday card and Christmas box of treats. I received a birthday card with a five-dollar bill well into my fifties.

The furious abundance of her “Maker” skills extended well beyond knitting. Betty grew and canned tomatoes and green beans. She made her own fruit jam. Before Christmas, her small kitchen became a production site yielding commercial proportions of cookies, candy, and popcorn balls—all to be packed in tins and shipped to scores of relatives local and far away. The arrival of Betty’s Christmas box via UPS was cause for uncontained excitement when my sons were little.

They are mostly gone now—Betty and her generation of women who crafted ornaments out of clothes pins and walnut shells in the church basement. Who lit candles with whispered intentions for someone’s safe travel or a deeper secret appeal.  I miss them. I miss her.

My son wearing a Betty creation