Category Archives: Born in Chicago

The Stocking: That’s Christmas Cheap and Cheerful

Opening the stocking in front of the fireplace on Christmas morning is the platonic ideal of Cheap and Cheerful. The fireplace is optional, of course, and my mother never made a Martha-ish ideal of hanging stockings as decorations – in fact they were actual socks, wool – one sized for my father and recycled into his wardrobe after the holidays. As we got older, my booty was stuffed into a pair of black tights and my brother’s into a pair of his own wool socks: two stockings, why not?

I can remember the invariables of every stocking of my childhood. The wide top bit might hold a copy of “Seventeen” and Yardley Glimmrick eyeliner – they were the variables, changing with every year and every interest. For Ian, it might have been hockey cards and licorice, for my little sisters, skipping ropes and headbands. That was the changeable top layer.

Here’s the never-changing bottom layer, from the toe up: a quarter, wrapped in tissue paper. (A quarter was serious currency for a kid in the early sixties. ) A mandarin orange, which was a piece of Christmas exotica back in the day in Quebec. Then there was the awesome orange: the foil-wrapped Droste chocolate orange that fell into segments when you tapped it on a tabletop. As an enormous fan of “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” that Dutch chocolate orange put a silver stroke into my skating when we tried out our Christmas skates in subzero weather on Boxing Day.

Of course there was a big, I mean a foot-long, candy cane hanging over the lip of the Xmas Sox.

When my daughter was a girl the top-of-the-stocking might have included the new Beverley Cleary, a pair of earrings, or a Burt’s Bees lip gloss. The toe of the stocking was frozen in time: a quarter wrapped in tissue paper, a mandarin orange, a Droste orange, available from Walgreens or TJMaxx — the big old candy cane came from Fanny May.

A stocking may not be quite as cheap as it was when Honor was a nymph, let alone when I was a bookworm, but, adjusted for inflation it can be kept Cheap and Cheerful. Resist the sweet impulse to slip a blue Tiffany box under the copy of “Vanity Fair.”  The Christmas stocking top layer should be personal and, well, cheap.

If I still hung up a stocking, here’s what I wish Santa would grok. A cheap fun pencil sharpener. Two soft pencils. The ab fab Burt’s Bees Facial Cleansing Towelettes, worthy of its own blog post. Some fruit jellies in a tiny box.

But never forget the toe: don’t wrap up a dollar coin – a quarter is fine. Many firms make better chocolate than Droste, and you can send me a box for my birthday, but not on Christmas Day. And the fragrance, pressed against the Christmas morning nose, of the mandarin orange and the candy cane, is fifty cents worth of cheerful.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, Holidays

All I Want for Christmas is my Left Bicuspid and Other Stuff

Actually, I’m not totally kidding here. My mouth is a dental nightmare and I lost my upper left bicuspid a year or so ago. I could get by in public with a “flipper,” a tooth on a wire and plastic armature, but somehow someone stepped on it and broke it in half (probably me) during the Thanksgiving festivities. It can still fill in the gap when I don’t want to appear in public as a Dust Bowl matron, but the rough edge hurts. All of you with good teeth: know how lucky you are.

But that’s selfish stuff. What I really want for Christmas is my Daddy at home after his therapy for his hip replacement, as vital and optimistic as he was before the Fall. I believe he will be.

It’s funny, the Christmas List devolving. Even ten years ago I could write: “Silver bracelet from Tiffany’s, Vol de Nuit, ____________ novel, silk jammies, new Cuiz. Although I’d still love any of those items, the sheer desire isn’t there. I own the jammies, the bracelets and still have a few spritzes of Vol de Nuit.

What I’d love is miles. Because we don’t own any credit cards we don’t have any miles, but oh! to revisit Paris and Rome. To discover for the first time Athens and Istanbul, to sunbathe in Antibes or Antigua.

When we were newlyweds and broke, we had season tickets to the Lyric Opera. Monserrat Caballe, Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo — but we were a cheap el ride from the Opera House. In my wildest dreams of avarice I’d take a season subscription and the moolah to spend a night in a boutique hotel, dining with my Chicago buddies and drinking lots of Henriot champagne.

I want to spend most of February in LA with my daughter and son-in-law. I might just swing half of that, unless my neighbors get annoyed at the cat-sitting calendar. (And I wouldn’t blame them.)

You might have noticed that World Peace isn’t on my Christmas list. Well, pierced ears were on my list for ten years and Santa never took my mother’s hand and led her to the Piecing Parlor. It wasn’t gonna happen with earrings and it’s never gonna happen with World Peace, because the world has never been at peace.

My list is shorter every year. But y’know, it’s cheaper and cheerier.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Collections, History, Holidays, Home, Into the Mystic, Music, Worth it anyway

Pyrex: Pretty in Pink

Cleaning out my father-in-law’s pantry while we were in the Upper Peninsula this spring was moldy, musty, melancholy work. I can’t remember the oldest expiration date on the cans, though 1987 rings a bell. We drove home with some newish pasta and tinned tomatoes, but mostly it was toss toss toss. In retrospect, I applaud the integrity of the house’s construction: even after a long cold snowy winter we didn’t find any mouse raisins in the corners.

When we opened the pantry door my eyes went to these sweet lovelies as the eyes of a fifteen year old boy’s to the cover of Maxim. In that crowded, gloomy pantry they shone with cheerfulness.

Pink Pyrex!

Of course I own plain ole Pyrex: the pie plates, the loaf pan and a couple of “vintage” casseroles I inherited from my mother-in-law. These two bowls were hers, of course — thanks, dear Pat. I’m guessing they’re 50s vintage, but they’ve hung on to their good looks and good health. The smaller one is quart sized, the other twice as big. I’m sure there was another one, probably smaller. What was its fate, I wonder? Pyrex is hard to break. Did it go home with a long gone family member, filled with Thanksgiving leftovers?

Since I brought them home I’ve used no other other bowl to whip eggs in. I’ve moved the coeur a la creme mold to the back of the open shelf, the better to show off their wholesome rosy prettiness. The larger bowl is the size of the clear Pyrex bowl my mother used when she made Scotch Omelet of Aileen’s Pudding, a cakey pudding bathed in Lyle’s Syrup — hey I have that recipe somewhere! That pud was a dessert highlight of my youth, sweet syrupy and spongy . Talk about cheap and cheerful.

Pat’s pretty pink Pyrex bowl, my mother’s pudding  recipe. I like that. I can unite around the kitchen counter with two magnificent women, and eat dessert too.




Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Born in Chicago, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Food, History, Home, Into the Mystic

When I Hear That Whistle Blowing

Unlike the Man in Black, when I hear that whistle blowing I don’t hang my head and cry. I snuggle deeper into my pillows and give thanks. It means I’m going to sleep.

Nothing, nothing works like the hoot of a train as a soporific. Not a hot bath, not chamomile tea, not warm milk (yuck) not a belt of bourbon. I’ve never been a great sleeper, and the older I get I suspect that’s because of my frantic dream life, which wakes me up exhausted and appalled. (Dr. Freud on 1.)

That whistle, that chugging  — my college friend Llyn said her father called it” TO Chicago FOR  tobacco”  is like intravenous Ambien. The long rumbling roll of the freight cars, that rhythm, the knowledge that life is going on and  and goods are being delivered to somewhere… I listen to it, under my Ikea duvet, and I sleep.

The EJ&E  tracks are about five blocks away, and mark the boundaries between the ‘Ville and Fermilab. The mighty CNR (Canadian National Railroad) bought the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern this year and the flap about it is wild. Because the CNR is running more trains through the EJ&E tracks, the city fathers are making them put up a sound-suppressing wall. The CNR is doing it, but my question to my ‘Villian neighbors is “For God’s sake, why?”

You nitwits, you’ll receive more train poetry and music. ” TO Chicago FOR tobacco. TO Chicago For tobacco. TO Chicago FOR tobacco.”  I want the chuggachugga as my last slip into the dreamland Great Beyond.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Free, Into the Mystic, On the Street Where I Live

Election Night Nosh

The night that Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada is the first election night I remember. I’d spotted him early, because of an article in McLeans, and as a young teen I thought he was the coolest guy on earth — cooler than Stevie Winwood, cooler than Glenn Gould, cooler than Jerry Lee Lewis. He wore sandals into the House of Commons, sported a red rose in his buttonhole every day, and met up with John and Yoko when they did the Bed-In in Montreal.

It must be noted that Pierre Trudeau got Canada a constitution.

I can’t remember what we ate that election night, but I’m sure my mother served up a memorable meal — except that I can’t remember it . My parents were excited as I was, watching the CBC returns on the old  b&w.

I’ve never missed an election night since. I sat in the Student Union at McGill, eating soggy fries and seeing Hubert Humphrey go down. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, two Bushes, Obama. I realize that Election Night, while we’re watching the returns, joyful or disgusted, we’ve drifted into Election Night Nosh tradition.

It’s snackie night, clean out the freezer night, cheap cheerful food night. Because the coverage goes on and on, there’s a leisurely feel: it the news is bad, why not be in the kitchen frying up that half package of pot stickers from Trader Joe’s? If the news is good, you can run from the kitchen where you were making guacamole from a couple of elderly avocados. When things get grim, it’s just as well to be deaf over the stove, cooking up the end of a bag of frozen shrimp in a spicy sauce to throw over a bed of rice.

It’s like a low rent Oscar Night party. Thankfully there are no musical acts, no evening gowns, no comedians. But trust me, I care about a swing district in North Dakota more than I care about Best Director. Excuse me while I bite my nails and stir up a wok of fried rice.


Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Born in Chicago, Food, History, Politics

Bringing Out the Vote

(I swiped this image from my buddies at www. Thanks, guys.)

For reasons to long and twisted to enumerate here, after almost forty years in the USA I’m not an American citizen. It’s tough living in a country you love, being a political junkie, and not being able to vote. On Saturday a spritely voice on the telephone asked me to be a  part of a Bring out the Vote drive for our local Congressman. He’s a Fermilab scientist, a small businessman, and has been endorsed by every newspaper in Illinois, both liberal and conservative. His opponent is against a woman’s right to choose, whether it be rape, incest or losing her life. He has one high-profile endorsement: Sarah Palin. You wouldn’t think our guy’s seat would be in danger, but this year, it is.

I told the sprite, “Sure. Sign me up.” And so it was today that I was handed a map, and a list of voters registered to the party but hadn’t voted recently. That’s the Bring Out the Vote thing.

We met at a sympathizer’s house, who’d donated her garage to the Get Out the Vote people. We got a spirited role play from the dude in charge, instruction on the best way to roll and insert a flyer into a front door so it doesn’t fly away, and were handed a map, some literature , and a list of registered voters who haven’t dropped into a polling station for a couple of election cycles

Our largest paper demographic lived in the Woods of Wayne. The WoW is a square mile of the most outta control upscale new housing development I’ve ever seen. Now, it avoids the McMansion slur — the mansions are set on large, gorgeously landscaped lots, every house is different, and I can’t believe that there are still enough people in this economy with the moolah to set up Hallowe’en trees, to sport lions on their brick gateposts, and to avoid the vulgarity of streetlights. (Wayne is horsey, by the way. A horse trailer snuggles up to the Porsche in the circular driveways.)

Then we crossed Smith Road, and not two hundred yards away were sixties split levels, rusty pickup trucks and guys in Goth teeshirts opening the doors — I think they borrowed them from their grandsons.

Here are a few observations:

1) Tha larger the house, the smaller the dog.

2)The pricier the neighborhood, the less likely the existence of streetlights.

3)Even the wrong side of Smith Street was poorly lit.

4) If a voter’s age is listed as fewer than twenty-five years, they’ve moved out of the house.

5)You can understand, talking to the parents, why their kid’s decision might have been a protest vote. Trust me.

6) It gets dark early in Illinois in November. What with the zero streetlights,half of your shift consists of backing up and trying to make out an address on a mailbox with your brights on.

7) New evidence to reinforce a cliche: Midwesterners, if you can find their houses, are polite.

The details were annoying. (“Is this 336 or 384? Where are the damn streetlights?) I’m shameless in asking strangers to do something that’s important to me — I’m never shy about this. I loved seeing a part of my county, close up, that I never knew existed. But you know, here’s the thing: even though I can’t vote, I could be part of the process. It makes me cheerful.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Free, History, How Cool is That?, Worth it anyway

Aprons: The Keith Richards and the Missy Monster of the Midway

Did I tell you that my sister-in-law Patty sent me a sampling of her artisinal tags to attach to my aprons? She and my friend Kim both pointed out that when they buy an apron to give as a gift, it would be a bright business idea to include a card that announces my business name — Magz Rags — and, say, an email address should the recipient want to give me  an order. I packed up two aprons today and admired the cards, attached with black ribbon. Then a strange irresistible urge came over me : I picked  up a pencil and wrote the model name on the tags. They were “Lady in Blue” and “Sweeties and Sage.” I’ll be posting pictures after Patty receives them. (Hope you like them, Babe!)

I’ve never made the same apron twice, because it keeps the design process fresh and allows me to indulge my appetite for new cotton prints. (Of course it also allows me to personalize an apron for my Apron Patrons — thank you Patrons!)  Their individuality has always made me nickname them in my head “Birdies and Budweiser, ” say, simply to remind me of my inventory. Henceforth, I’m naming each apron as if it were an expensive handbag, like a Kelly or a Birkin.

These two aprons are made on spec, just for fun and with hopes that the prints would resonate with potential Patrons. I listened to Terri Gross interview Keith Richards yesterday and the fun of that interview reminded me that I had a few yards of rocker cotton. Here’s the Keith Richards apron:

Lou Zoolander doesn’t know who Keith Richards is. Sigh.

Here’s the reverse. I love skulls and roses and I added some rock star glam with my beloved gold rickrack,


The Missy Monster of the Midway needs no explanation from any Chicago Bears Fan. Here’s the Monsters side:

The Bears’ navy and orange color scheme appalls me, but it goes well with the cover of the Scriabin Etudes sitting on the music rack. Here’s the closeup:

The pink calico eyelet Missy side is self explanatory:

(A Bears fan can get a discount on Missy Monsters of the Midway because the pink side  isn’t dark enough to completely block out the Bears aggressive color scheme. But it’s pretty. Let me know.)

My husband just asked “How the hell can you write so much about aprons?” Easy, really. I don’t like cooking without an apron. I like to sew. I love that I’m never, ever making the same apron twice. And sometimes, Dear Husband, someone send me a check.

And now I have the writerly, frivolous fun of naming each of my “batter-proof, butter-proof” babies.



Filed under A yard of fabric, Apron of the Day, Born in Chicago, Needlework