Minutiae

When I wake up in the morning, I usually check the weather forecast before I do anything else. I can think about how to dress for the day, whether I’ll be in or out, pretty mundane stuff. Since the pandemic started, I pay more attention to weather than I did before. I’m lucky that I don’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder and mostly don’t care if it’s sunny or gray. These days, though, I’ve been pushing for as many hours as I can get outside. I like the inside of my house but with other options so limited, the freedom of open space means a lot. I saw a winter weather advisory posted for tonight, snow and possibly ice, with temperatures hovering around the freezing point. I’m alright with cold but as I age, the idea of crashing on a slippery sidewalk doesn’t seem as benign as it once did. So I layered up and headed out into the cold just in case I don’t get out tomorrow.

I headed over to what once was a dirty creek that runs through the middle of town. Called “The Boneyard,” back in the old days, you had no clue what might be dredged up from that stream, which eventually was transformed into a lovely basin surrounded by a nice walkway. Lots of waterfowl, turtles and fish can be found there, along with miniature waterfalls cascading over rock formations and naturalizing plants as accent features. Right now the water is low after a relatively dry summer and fall. I was annoyed to see how much plastic and garbage had been thoughtlessly discarded into the stands of wildflowers along the shores of the water, not to mention what’s floating on the surface. Do people tune out all the conversation about the current threats to nature and the importance of conservation? Evidently.

In addition to these tables, benches dot the pathways that encircle the basin. The large apartment complex on the west side of the lot is only a couple of years old. I was disappointed when it was built. The ambience of the site is disrupted by its presence, especially at sunset when even in the midst of an urban area, you could be treated to a broad vista of color now blocked by the sight of brick walls. Business concerns instead of aesthetics. Back in April of 2017, this place was the last outdoor, natural setting Michael experienced before dying the following month. I don’t think he would’ve liked the building either. But life goes on and there isn’t much that stays immutable.

When I’m out and about, I’m always noticing changes in the community. Right now, there’s a strange combination of closures of places that have been around for years, along with new construction. A vestige of my job. I hardly ever think of myself in terms of the work I did for over 30 years. Although I had a profession, I was more about who I was than what I did. Still, a big part of my time was spent as a commercial property assessment official, responsible for determining the value of the buildings and land for every business structure in my city. Getting those numbers right meant establishing a fair and equitable way of determining local property taxes which are key in supporting critical community services like police and fire departments, schools and the park district. Those taxing districts are about as close as people can ever get to knowing how their tax dollars are spent. The habit of noticing what’s happening out there is still a part of me whether I’m conscious of it or not.

The above photo is of a really ugly building that occupies almost an entire square block in the downtown area of my city. An empty building and a vacant lot had been sitting there, an eyesore for a long time. So I guess it’s good news that there’ll be a new revenue source, finally, even though it’s so close to the street that I can’t see room for an inch of green space. Just east of this place is what’s called an historic neighborhood noted for its old school unique houses. I suppose design and architecture are a matter of preference. It would seem I’m not into your average rectangles and such.

More my style.

When I started writing this blog three years ago, my primary purpose was to create a history of both Michael’s and my life, both individually and together, as a gift for my kids and theirs. The avid interest we both shared for history, along with my long-delayed desire to write just for the love of it, finally coalesced in the new space I found myself occupying six months after his death. Current events and random impulses have frequently shifted my focus away from my original intent. What some might view as critical moments in the combined history effort have been sloughed off to the corners of my mind, popping up intermittently only to recede again as I get distracted by another thought. Minutiae. In the end I guess we’re all just the total of small moments in time, which taken together, make our lives. All this thinking about buildings and my job reminded me of something I did for awhile back in the early 80’s that I haven’t thought about in ages.

This house, constructed as a private home by loving parents for their artist daughter, eventually became the home of our local county historical society. And for a time, I volunteered as a docent there, my primary role being the person who explained the customs of the early 20th century in this mansion with its ballroom, butler’s pantry and its twenty two rooms to visiting classes from local schools. After our history lesson, the kids were seated in the formal dining room at the long table where I served them cookies and lemonade before they departed. I have strong visual memories of the house, its wallpaper, the large copper kitchen sink, and especially the blue and white tiles around the fireplace, painted by the daughter who eventually occupied the house with her husband until the Great Depression changed their fortunes. I believe the tiles were painted in 1907. Her other work, primarily china which she fired in her own kiln on the third floor of her house, has mostly vanished.

Thornburn School, ca. 1900

I hadn’t thought about that little slice of life in a long time. I did a lot of different things back in the 1970’s, when I was floundering around in my work life, my only true anchor being my relationship with Michael. I worked for a time on the top floor of this old school building which housed the local park district offices. I was the assistant office manager for a program called the Youth Employment Agency, which attempted to place teens in paying jobs during summers and after school. Under the park district auspices, I also worked to develop a youth center, a safe drop-in facility with activities and programs to deter juvenile crime and provide support for kids in borderline crisis situations. These jobs remind me of squares in the virtual quilt of my life, smallish but nonetheless part of how I came to be the current me.

Back when Michael was getting ready to run for his first crack at public office, I remembered that I too was on the ballot. For a couple of terms I was an elected precinct democratic committee person, a representative for the Fifth Ward, one of seven in my town. I think I knew the names of virtually everyone who lived within my jurisdiction and many of those people personally as well. I kind of forgot that I played a pivotal role in local elections, was Michael’s campaign manager, treasurer for a few other campaigns, and that when Michael was a city council member, he recused himself from voting on my salary for my job as a city assessment official. More life details that have slipped to the back of my mind.

I unearthed these rulers the other day – they’re left over advertising treats for one of the school fundraisers I headed up when my kids were in elementary school. I think Michael had plans to do some creative art project with them. I next recalled that I volunteered to head up the all the major annual fundraisers at my kids’ school, like the Walk-a-Thon, the Chili Supper and the Teachers’ Special Projects fund. Those events were a lot of work while holding a full-time job, parenting a couple of kids, being a wife, a daughter, a sibling and a friend. Huh. I just haven’t thought about that stuff in such a long time. I was on the school site-based management team and the hiring committee for a new principal as well as working for the PTA. An activist parent. But as the times moved along, so did I along with the memories of those days. At least those ancillary events which my kids were too young to recall. So now they’ll know. Absent this musing time, when I’m having this opportunity to cruise along, driving around in my car, listening to music, looking at the place I’ve lived for over fifty two years, letting my thoughts wander, I’m not sure I’d have unearthed these random parts of my life. The minutiae. Maybe that’s all we really are in the end. I’m going to have to get cracking if I’m going to have the time to dig through this decades-long stash of experiences. An interesting journey, to say the least.

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