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December 24th, 2008:

Sliding Into Christmas

I’m not even sure I’ve mentioned that Carol and I are in Chicago for Christmas, though it’s a shorter trip than most and (as always) nothing has happened quite as quickly nor as well as we had hoped. This is worse weather than I’ve seen on a trip here in years: bitter cold followed by three days of more or less continuous precipitation. (As I was saying while shopping the last few days to anyone who would listen: “So much for global warming.” Let’s see if we can make it a meme, or at least a contrarian tagline.)

Yesterday was unusually bad here in Des Plaines. Our condo is only a few minutes from Randhurst Mall, the oldest enclosed mall in the Chicago area and at one point in the mid-60s the second-largest enclosed retail space in the country. So I decided to head up there, hit Borders on the outskirts, and then prowl the mall for some last minute gift ideas in the smaller shops. It took me half an hour to get there in our rented Camry, slipping and sliding down Rand Road at ten to fifteen miles an hour, dodging whackos in their CJs who didn’t seem to grok important things like the reduced coefficient of friction. And when I got there, egad: They had closed the mall three months ago. (One downside to being an out-of-towner is being out of the loop. Hey, you coulda told me about that! This is my hometown! That was my mall! Most of my underwear came from Randhurst when I was a teenager!) When the snow melts (if it ever does) they’re going to tear the mall down and build a “lifestyle center,” which is code these days for “more damfool condos.”

Well, they’re certainly going to tear it down. Whether the condos actually happen or not, we’ll see. In any event, some of the outlying big-box stores were open, and I picked up some odds and ends at Borders and Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Spotted a book I had heard about and meant to grab for some time: Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, (reviewed briefly here) which is a polemical history of the battle over whether fat or carbs make you overweight. You’ve all heard my opinions on that, and with some luck Taubes will have organized the research into a form that I can digest and cite to the carbohydrate deniers when they dive down my throat for eating bacon and eggs regularly and yet having the temerity to weigh less now than I have in 20 years.

I barely got home intact after threading the ice ballet back along Rand Road, and (having nabbed a reasonable night’s sleep) will shortly be headed off to Crystal Lake (a 35-mile slither out Highway 14) to pick up Carol, visit her mom, and then mid-afternoon head back down to Des Plaines for our Polish Vigilia supper at Gretchen’s. Vigilia is Polish for “vigil,” and it’s a Polish custom we observed on Christmas Eve when Gretchen and I were kids. In short, the family gathers for simple foods from the old country (ok, augmented by some odd Americanisms like Hawaiian salad) sweet red wine (the first Gretchen and I had ever had) and a blessing ritual I didn’t appreciate until I was much older: Breaking oplatki (a thin white wafer like Roman Catholic communion hosts) with one another and offering a blessing and a wish for the coming year.

Do read what I wrote back in 2001 about Vigilia and oplatki. It’s as true now as then, especially with our nephews grown men with ladyloves of their own, and Gretchen’s girls becoming interesting individuals in their own right-and at top volume. After a run of years when it seemed like every Christmas there were fewer hands across the table to offer oplatki, life is reasserting itself, and reminding us that renewal happens. Bidden or unbidden, recognized or unrecognized, God is with us, and (as slippery as things get at times) life is good.