February 28, 2011

Our Wedding Curse

Table Leona's
My husband and I have been trying, with limited success, to have a date night once a month.  Usually, we skip the date in favor of hanging out with friends, or even just going to sleep early.  But once in a while one of us gets it in our heads (usually me) that it's high time we went out and enjoyed each other's company a bit.  Usually there's some sort of outside force prompting this idea- the the arrival of Valentine's Day, or our anniversary.  Sunday night's date was prompted by the discovery that one of our favorite restaurants was closing.

M and I tried really hard to make our wedding personal and unique.  One way we did this was by foregoing the standard table numbers, and instead using the names of our favorite restaurants.  Instead of putting up numbers in the middle of the table, we had menus from all the best places to grab a bite in Chicago.

Unbeknownst to us, we were cursing those restaurants.

There were nineteen tables, represtenting 19 restaurants.  In the almost three years of our marriage, three have closed, and two have closed and reopened.

RIP Standee's
First, there was Standee's Diner.  It was the most fabulous greasy spoon diner, just down the back steps from my old apartment.  They were open 24/7, and they had WONDERFUL malts.  There was a jukebox that was well stocked with all our favorite bands- Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd...  There were reproductions of Union Army recruitment posters from the Civil War on the wall- advertising how many brass buttons you'd get on your uniform, and that they were looking for, "Brave, Sober Young Men."  Aside from that, it was standard stuff.  And it had been there when my old landlord's father bought the building.  It was an institution.

Until one day when we stopped by for a bite to eat, and it was all boarded up.  It was like getting punched in the gut.  We had only missed it by a matter of days, and that was that.  No more jukebox, no more posters, no more sweet middle aged blond waitress calling me sweetheart and teasing me for my love of malts.  Standee's was gone forever.

RIP Costa's
And then, only a month later, dining disaster again.  Our favorite Greek restaurant, Costa's made headlines in the local news.  It had burned to the ground.  The owner said he had no interest in opening a new restaurant, he was getting old anyway, and to this day the lot stands completely empty.  This was a particularly unpleasant was to say goodbye for me, as the restaurant stood two blocks away from where I was taking classes.  Day after day I would walk past the charred rubble, remembering gigantes and the AMAZING garlic tortellini they would make.  I could almost smell the spanikopita in the ashes.

And last week, seemingly out of the blue, another restaurant from our wedding tables announced it was closing.  Earwax Cafe.  This one hurt even more, as it was one of three restaurants in town that did EXCELLENT vegetarian food and had WONDERFUL meaty selections.  They made the best veggie burger in the city, a black bean quinoa burger TO DIE FOR.  They also had the most delicous sweet potato and black bean quesodillas, great smoothies and shakes, and the ambiance!  Oh, what a place!  Completely decorated in the style of an old time freak show- painted tapestries of bearded ladies, carved monkeys and masks, bright colors and beautiful carved wooden shadow boxes everywhere.  We loved that place.  Once upon a time, they even had a great video rental running out of the basement, but that ended with the death of VHS.

RIP Earwax
This time, though, we were prepared.  We decided to go on closing night, and actually bid farewell to Earwax.  We were lucky- we figured that we needed to go out early if we were having a date on a Sunday night, so we arrived at six.  It was a zoo.  We waited twenty minutes for a table, and by the time we were seated, they were out of almost everything.  They stopped seating people before we could order- it wasn't even seven o'clock.  They had no chicken, no bison, no buffalo seitan, no eggs, no buns, no peaches, no strawberries, no cherries, no ice cream, and no salad.  They were out of stew, chili, veggie loaf, soda, or goat cheese.  And nobody cared.  I got the third to last Earwax veggie burger ever.  The staff were doing shots, constantly hugging and sighing.  The off duty staff kept coming in with their dogs and their kids, to bid a final farewell.

It was fun, but very sad.

Since 2008 two more restaurants have closed and reopened for health violations, including the one that catered our wedding.  One of our restaurants had to close for a week when a car went through its front window.  A few are thriving, a few more definitely struggling in the down economy- one of those is widely considered THE place for Chicago Deep Dish and still just filed for bankruptcy.  And I really have to wonder if this is our fault for involving them in our wedding.

It's amazing how attached you get to places.  I always picture myself bringing the girls to Earwax, it was such a fun place for kids.  I would have eaten well and still had a happy night out with my girls.  But now... no more.  Goodbye Earwax.  Goodbye Standee's.  Goodbye Costa's.

Three down, sixteen to go.

February 27, 2011

Top 11 Books to Read My Children

My children love books- chips off the old block!
As a child, my parents were proactive when it came to fostering a love of reading in their kids.  From a very early age, instead of the standard picture books we would read chapters from BIG books.  And my sisters and I loved them.  It was a wonderful imagination task- putting faces and scenery to a story being read aloud.  By the time I was eight or nine my favorite books in the world were all either "grown up" books or written during a time when children's stories had more adult themes and tones.  They had complex vocabularies and spoke in a voice that was never condescending or belittling.  Even as a tween, I found the tone of most books written specifically for children my age offensively simple.  I look forward with more glee and anticipation than I can say to reading a few of my childhood favorites to my own children.  That isn't to say that I don't love picture books, and that there isn't a place for them.  So without further ado, I give you my top eleven list of books (ten just isn't enough!) to read to my children.

Firstly, and the one for which I know I have M's undying support, is The Hobbit.  I LOVED this book as a little kid.  It has everything a child could want- fantasy, swordplay, music, magic... my parents had an incredible copy that was filled with random works of art from all over the world, illustrating different scenes from the story.  This was great, because peeking across the pages I would see myriad Gandolfs and Gollums, drawings both terrifying and silly.  It was a reminder, even as a very young child, that I was allowed to invent the characters as I saw fit- that my own interpretations were as right as anyone elses.  I was allowed to be as imaginative as I liked.  I would love to find another copy of that edition.

The next book on my must-read list for my children is The Good Master, by Kate Seredy.  I have often heard other women complain that there aren't enough books featuring strong female leads, and I have a hard time agreeing too wholeheartedly.  That is because I grew up on The Good Master.  It's a marvelous story set in rural Hungary just after the turn of the 20th century.  It follows "Cousin Kate from Budapest," who has moved to the country to stay with her aunt and uncle and cousin Jancsi for her health.  Like Kate, I (the child reader) found it hard to understand or accept the complexities of life in this setting, and learn along with Kate how to make my place.  But she's not just a city girl in the sticks, she's also a firecracker, and trouble maker, and the spunkiest kid you ever saw.  After a fight with her aunt and uncle, she runs away with Gypsies.  She gets herself trapped in the rafters of the house going after forbidden sausages.  She forces her cousin to teach her to ride a horse like a boy, despite all complaints that it's unseemly for a girl to go in pants.  She was my hero for much of my childhood, and the book is filled with wonderful glimpses into a life that seems almost magically idyllic.  It's a masterpiece of children's literature.

The next book, and one that I already read to my children (when I can get through it without weeping), is The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  I have always been thoroughly moved by this book, even as a little kid.  It taught me, almost as much as my parents, what it means to love somebody.  It gave me the blueprint upon which I built the foundations of my personal philosophy, that to give of yourself in love and joy is the only way to truly give meaning to your life.  It also taught me about what is important- friendship and love, not possessions or petty wants.  While I know that my children are still too young to understand these deeper messages, I know that one day they shall.  And I hope they will be able to take that lesson deeply to heart.

Another of my favorites that my parents read to me was Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  This is one that many of my friends have expressed a lot of surprise about.  After all, it's war stories enacted by rabbits.  But it's also an incredible work of fiction.  And as a child, it's easy to relate to fluffy bunnies.  It has action and adventure, and even better- a beautifully constructed mythology.  I LOVED the tales of El-ahrairah- the rabbit version of the Coyote, Adam, and Hercules all rolled into one.  I have to admit there were probably a night or two that I lay awake, wondering how Hazel would escape General Woundwart, or how Bigwig would recover from being trapped in the snare.  But I think this is important for a child- to become enough entangled in a story that it becomes the most real and important thing in their lives for a time.  Learning to cope with story induced stress teaches you how to cope with stress in your real life.  And it makes a happy ending that much more rewarding.

One that I've tried on a few occasions to read the girls already is The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss.  They don't have quite the attention span for a book this long yet- it's longer by far than some of his other titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, or One Fish Two Fish.  But it is an extremely important and wonderful book.  While most of his stories have healthy morals (try news foods, a person's a person no matter how small...), this is one that I find particularly prescient.  It's about not wasting the precious resource that is our environment.  It's about being a steward of the earth, and not just using it up as fast as we can.  It was so far ahead of its time, and its message is more important than ever.  I plan to read this to my girls before getting them started planting their own flowers and vegetables in my garden each year- reminding them that they must care for the earth, protect it, and that our planet is capable of so much life. 

Another childhood favorite was Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Florence and Richard Atwater.  This story begins with the most sympathetic of childhood heroes- an adult who never let go of his dreams.  Mr. Potter always wanted to be an explorer, and after striking up a correspondence with one, receives a pet of a penguin.  He and his piano playing wife turn their basement into a penguin wonderland, take their amazing performing penguins on the road, and eventually to a new home.  I won't give it all away.  This is the sort of literature that can get a kid into non-fiction- get them excited about learning and developing their own interests.  Suffice to say, grown-ups with overactive imaginations are absolutely the best, and this is one of the best of those stories I know.

Now, this book is one I never read as a child, but would have adored.  I completely understand my parents' decision not to read it aloud, as it might have taken months, but it's in the cards here at SuperMommy's house.  The book is Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  It has all the elements of a perfect story- love, battles, freedom, nobility...  It has children who become dynamic adults, the morals of personal freedom and honesty, and most importantly- Jean Valjean.  He is, I believe, the perfect hero.  Redemptive and humble, he suffers endlessly- but always striving to protect and aid the people he loves.  It's a story filled with good morals, with heartbreak and victory... it is one of the most perfect stories ever written, and when my children are old enough (eight or nine?) you can rest assured we will read it together.  I just hope they don't make too much fun of me for crying over it.

Up next on the list is A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  I know, I'm Jewish.  Who cares?  This is a fabulous story.  And on top of that, I would love to have it be part of our family's Christmas tradition.  After all, M is Lutheran- we're a two religion family.  So why not share this amazing book with our children each year as part of the build up to Christmas?  I'd rather this than watching endless cheesy movie tie-ins and schlocky cartoons.  Like The Giving Tree, this book is filled with lessons to take forward into your life.  Similar messages, even, about materialism and greed.  And that is so particularly important around Christmas. when so much of the world seems focused on buying useless crap for each other.  I'd love for my children to always associate Christmas with remembering to care for each other and fostering the best of themselves, instead of just thinking about what they want to find under the tree.

Of course, you could be sure that if I was putting a Christmas book on the list, there'd be some Jewish literature in there too.  The first of those books is The Devil's Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen.  I just cannot say enough good things about Jane Yolen.  Her works for teenagers, for small children, and for adults alike are all wonderful.  In this book a girl in the mid 90's opens the door for Elijah during a Passover seder, and is somehow magically transported to Poland in 1942- just before her family is relocated to a concentration camp.  Cheerful, no?  As the book goes on, she makes friends with a girl who's life she saves- a girl that goes on to become the very grandmother attending the seder at the beginning of the book.  I know, this seems like a total downer.  But surprisingly, it's not.  And most importantly this is a book that created a powerful connection for me with my own Jewish heritage.  It is so desperately important, as Jews, to remember our history and culture.  This is a book that really drives home that importance and the weight of those remembrances.

Hand in hand with The Devil's Arithmetic is another Holocaust related book- Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse.  This book I read over and over and over again.  Unlike most other Holocaust stories, this book features absolutely no camps.  Instead, it's the story of Rifka's family as they flee to the United States.  Rifka is quarantined on Ellis Island, trapped in limbo between the old world and the new.  As my own family came through Ellis Island round about the same time, this story connected me with my own history in a profound way.  The writing is simple and uncomplicated, told in excerpts from Rifka's diary.  In addition to the Jewish and historical themes, it is also a coming-of-age story, in which Rifka learns that she has become a competent young woman, versus the frightened girl she was as she began to flee the Nazis.  This is another book that will have to wait until my children are a little older.

Last but not least, the Harry Potter books.  I know, I'm a gigantic nerd.  But these books are wonderful.  I imagine I'll read them as my children come closer to Harry's own age- perhaps one a year.  I'm sure they'll find the movies for themselves. but let's be honest- those movies have NOTHING on the books!  The books are filled with adventure and wonder, and manage to maintain a few really worthwhile themes- the importance of friendship, loyalty, and goodness, for example.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow from quirky children into brave and triumphant young adults.  What more could anyone want for their own children?

Of course, there are so many other books I want to share with my children.  Great books, even a few bad books.  But these are the ones I KNOW I will share with them.  And I know that most of these books will have as much meaning for my kids as they do for me. 

A few runners up:  



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