Helping to Keep Austin Weird  

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I’m too excited to sleep. I blame you for this, Austin; you overstimulate me. You work hard to maintain your city’s official slogan “Keep Austin Weird” by tantalizing me with the bizarre, the off-beat, and you keep peaking my curiosity. And now that you have recently been named the best place to live in America by U.S. News and World Report, there will be no stopping you.

As I reflect on my first year of living here, it’s been a great ride, made up of interesting experiences that I am not sure could or would have happened anywhere else:

Central Market
On arrival, we need to get our bearings and Mr. Wiz* has a plan. Having visited a Central Market in Houston (shop at this gourmet marketplace on steroids, then dance to live music at night), he logically reasons that locating the Austin store will lead us to a great neighborhood, so he’ll ask at their information desk. Pointing out that the staff may be more prepared to locate a product by aisle than to relocate us, I decide to wait in the car. A few minutes later, I am surprised to see a woman in a cowboy hat and boots walk out of the store with Mr. Wiz and shake his hand. He had seen her on line at the information desk and perused her shopping cart. Noticing an excellent wine selection, he decided to ask her where we should live. He was not surprised at all that she enthusiastically lauded her neighborhood and pointed him in the direction of a new building. We signed a lease there 2 days later.

Pints and Poses
The Hyatt Hotel and I have accomplished the impossible; we got Mr. Wiz* to attend a monthly yoga class. Studies have proven that if you offer a guy a free beer, he will happily execute a downward dog pose, no questions asked. In the spirit of community (turns out that yoga and beer are great conversation starters), the hotel offers complimentary parking, a yoga class and a glass of craft beer.

Chicken S**t Bingo
The unassuming Little Longhorn Saloon is a tiny place that looks more like a church with a steeple than a bar. The band is loud, the beer is cold and the place is packed, both inside and out. It’s a Sunday afternoon and my family is still shocked that this was my birthday destination of choice. I explain to them that this is a famous venue and we’re going to be experiencing a bit of the original Austin. While we visit the chickens and chat with Ginny, “the chicken whisperer”, we learn that the afternoon will include “chickens, chicken feed and what happens after chickens eat.” The $2 ticket has a number on it and will get you one chance on the giant plywood bingo table. I’m sure that these chickens have their SAG cards; they are real professionals. They strut around the table, working the room into a cheering frenzy. As luck would have it, the chicken leaves her “mark” on my number and I am the winner of $115 in cash!

Keep Austin Weird Festival
We had so much fun last year volunteering to assist with the 5K check in, that we decide to do it again. Known as the “Slowest 5K Race on the Planet”, everyone is welcome to participate and a bizarre costume will win you a prize. Young, old, babies in strollers and dogs all strut their stuff and stop along the way at different stations for beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), ice cream and activities. At the festival, I cheered on aardvarks as they raced and chatted with a woman in a mermaid costume, who explained the story of her tattoos to me.

Weird Homes Tour
I am very excited for tour day to come and even more so now, since I am the winner of 2 VIP tickets that include the tour and the after party. By the end of the day, we will have driven 90 miles all over Austin, investigating homes that range from a bucolic wonderland in a nature preserve, with quotes from Emily Dickinson poems written over the doorways and pastoral views out every French door to a series of domes lovingly pieced together into an artist’s retreat, rumored to have special healing powers to a traditional home on the outside and a Feng Shui inspired home on the inside with a red velvet lounge room and a royal blue cosmic room featuring a 100” flat screen TV (most guys did not get past this point and just stood, gaping at the TV).

The owners of the next group of homes, self-confessed pack rats, delighted in the fact that they were living in a never to be completed work of art. Whether it was a police car hood with working sirens on the ceiling, doll heads under glass, a wall of salt and pepper shakers, a lamp made from a 1950’s salon hair dryer or a hollowed-out armadillo containing guest washcloths, each treasure had a story. Chatting with the enthusiastic homeowners, who were so warm and welcoming, I left the day wondering if there was any room in my perfectionist personality for a little eccentricity. Sensing Mr. Wiz’s concern over the souvenirs I collect during the day, I ease his worries and announce that I am not adopting hoarding tendencies any time soon.

We arrive at Indra’s Awarehouse for the after party. It’s a large metal roofed warehouse, filled to the brim with the owner’s art and collections of oddities. The surreal setting is right out of a Fellini film: a barefooted band plays on a carpeted stage; as if on cue, a dog drops a deflated ball at the feet of guests, prompting them to throw it on to the stage for him to chase; scantily dressed acro-yoginis glide up yards of silk fabric and perform above our heads. A cocktail seems in order, even though the professionally dressed bar staff looks out of place. We laughingly imagine that this is probably just another day for the owner; waking up to coffee in the morning and greeting some hangers-on at the bar (with bar staff still in uniform) and waving to the overhead performers that continue all day long. Hungry, we peruse the snacks. While, protein is always welcome, tonight it is in the form of bags of flavored crickets and mealy worms. We grab some regular popcorn and eagerly await some daring guests to taste them and offer a critique. We learn from the more adventurous that anything crunchy with a BBQ flavor is edible after some of Austin’s handmade Tito’s Vodka.

Austin, you give me the same feeling that I experienced whenever my grandmother would open her coat and let me snuggle in with her. You opened up your big, warm, wonderful, weird arms to me. Your people are so friendly and so welcoming. Sure, the temperature heats up, but living here makes me feel so cool. You have that big city vibe with the twang of Texas mixed in. You seem to bring out the best in me and I feel like this is where I am supposed to be. I only hope I can continue to do my civic duty and generate the accepted level of weirdness.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

Doing the Big D with Big A  

Photo Big D

Happy Birthday, Big A*!

One month after his 28th birthday, our Bon Vivant was finally going to be at home for a weekend, so we (Mr. Wiz*, JC* and I) head to Dallas to celebrate. We take our festivities seriously; after much research and many emails and texts, we come up with our food-centric itinerary. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights:

Friday

The driving rain on our arrival does not deter us and we opt for a visit to the Dallas Museum of Art. We’re already impressed that the general admission is free, but then Jack, the elderly greeter at the entrance, quickly sizes us up, suggests we go see the Coco Chanel exhibit and we are transfixed. Five rooms from Coco Chanel’s Monaco home, Villa Pausa, have been painstakingly recreated in the museum. Once she married the Duke of Westminster, this was to be their home. When plans changed, she kept the house, but always felt a twinge of sadness for what could have been. When she finally did sell it, the home was reborn when Dallas art collectors, Emery and Wendy Reves renovated it and hosted their most famous guest, Winston Churchill, who adopted it as his second home. Investigating all the nooks and crannies and reading all the personal letters and detailed descriptions of their lives there made for a lovely afternoon.

Big A’s furniture looks great in his new apartment. I particularly like his bedroom barn door. He surprises us with hors d’ oeuvres and serves us our favorite wine. A few toasts later, we’re off to Stampede 66 for dinner. We enjoy the braised beef short ribs and honey fried chicken as we peruse the décor, a mix of Texas whimsy and sophistication. Metal horse sculptures surround the TV monitors that feature a rodeo. I’m fascinated by a wall of wooden plaques with the names of Texas towns such as Looneyville and Dicey.

Saturday

It takes a lot to get Big A up and out early on a Saturday, so we are all in when he suggests we meet at 10:15am to stand in line for lunch at the Pecan Lodge. When lines started to form at their farmer’s market stall, the young business couple turned caterers knew they had an award-winning barbeque recipe and opened a restaurant. We eat a little of almost everything on the menu and agree the collard greens are the best we’ve ever had. Fortified, we walk around Deep Ellum, the revitalized warehouse district now full of shops, bars, restaurants and music venues.

With Big A as our guide, we get a tour of Dallas. Most people still remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot and the big X on the street, marking the spot brings back a flood of memories. We play classical music on the radio as we drive through the Turtle Creek and Highland Park neighborhoods to view the mansions.

Leave it to JC to be the life of the party when she announces that in honor of Big A’s birthday, we will be having cocktails at the Petroleum Club, a private club on the 39th floor of Chase Tower. How did she make this happen? It all started the month prior, when she danced with a spry, 90 year-old retired doctor who mentioned the Austin Club, a private social club housed in a historic building in downtown Austin. Before you could say “sign-me-up”, JC had researched the club, texted me to see if Mr. Wiz and I were available for a complimentary lunch and a tour of the facility (we were!) and then proceeded to join. Now, as a member, she receives reciprocal privileges at dozens of clubs across the country.

The evening continued with dinner at St. Martin Wine Bistro, named one of the top 10 most romantic restaurants by Trip Advisor. We dined on grilled rack of lamb under a twinkling chandelier as we listened to the live piano music and toasted to a great day.

Sunday

According to D Magazine, we are brunching at one of the best spots in Dallas. Boulevardier is a French bistro, simple in décor but complex in flavors. I still dream about the 2 dishes that JC and I shared: the Prospector’s Breakfast (crispy oysters and arugula atop an open face omelette made with house-made bacon) and the Legs and Eggs (a crispy duck leg with sunny-side-up eggs served on stone ground grit cakes with huckleberry preserves). Not wanting to miss anything in this eclectic neighborhood, we head out for a walk in the historic Bishop Arts District. The store displays are so incredible, we’re not surprised when signs ask that no photos be taken.

There is work to be done, so we head back to Big A’s. Mr. Wiz helps Big A hang some pictures, while JC and I head to the pool to relax. The boys find us one hour later, sound asleep in the shade. It’s Big A’s first time at the pool and I sense a look of panic on his face when I tell him that I’d be happy to introduce him to all of his neighbors that I’ve met (Millennials, no sense of humor!).

We head out on foot to explore Big A’s neighborhood, Knox-Henderson. The area is bustling; every restaurant, bar and shop is busy! Not sure if JC will want to climb all the stairs to a rooftop bar, I discreetly ask the waiter is there is an elevator (there isn’t). It’s then that I notice JC, who has already sprinted up the staircase, yelling down to ask me if I am all right. Big A is determined to have me taste a drink he thinks that I will love and by the end of the day, Deep Eddy Red Grapefruit Vodka (made in Austin), club soda and lime is my new fav.

Our dinner reservation is at a neighborhood restaurant, right down the block. Gemma has received rave reviews for the husband and wife team’s concept of sophisticated dining in a relaxed atmosphere. The blue and white décor combined with the professional wait staff’s control over the dining room create a tranquil setting. We liked the braised rabbit pappardelle and the chicken porchetta the best and were glad we shared 3 entrees (our secret for not overeating).

We say goodbye to Big A and head out of Dallas the next morning, determined to eat only lettuce leaves and ramp up our workouts for the next couple of days. We know we’ll be hungry for another visit soon. There are still lots of restaurants and sights we missed this time around and we want to check them off our list before Big A moves again.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Farrah Before Farrah  

Photo Farah

I feel as if I knew Farrah Fawcett, even though we’ve never met.

Never needing an excuse to visit Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, we were quick to RSVP for two recent free events. After enjoying cocktails and hors d’ oeuvres on the patio and a walk around the gardens, we visited a new exhibit entitled “Mentoring a Muse: Farrah Fawcett and Charles Umlauf”, which included works by both Farrah and Umlauf, along with an informative lecture. We returned to the patio a month later, but this time we were treated to a presentation entitled “Friends of Farrah”, at which her nephew and her childhood friends, the “amigas” (Spanish for female friends), shared memories and personal stories with us.

Farrah, a Texas girl from Corpus Christi, attended college at the University of Texas at Austin and studied art. It was there that she met Charles Umlauf, the professor and mentor that she shared a lifelong friendship with. Her artistic talent, while incredibly impressive, was something that most never knew about. Overshadowed by her beauty, the only freshman to be named one of the “ten most beautiful coeds on campus”, she was soon discovered by a Hollywood agent and left before graduation.

She rose to international fame when the photo of her posing in a red swimsuit became the best selling poster in history. And, who can forget the TV show Charlie’s Angels? In 1996, she was named one of the top fifty greatest TV stars of all time. Four Emmy award nominations and six Golden Globe nominations later, Farrah was still the same soft spoken, sweet girl from Texas that her small circle of friends and family knew and loved.

Farrah’s “amigas” told stories of accompanying her into a venue, their amazement at the total silence that would ensue and Farah’s nonchalant way of making everyone comfortable. Scripts were always piled high on her bedroom floor, her phone was constantly ringing and she spoke of experiencing a constant emotional tug between being famous and longing for anonymity (especially when there was strife in her personal life).

Farrah remained a sculptor all her life. She and Umlauf seem to share a secret language, both becoming the other’s muse. With him, she was able to express the part of herself that she kept hidden from the world. Was Farrah’s deep connection to Umlauf the justification of her artistic side and her decision of a road not taken?

One of the “amigas” told the story that when Farrah was diagnosed with Cancer and lost her hair (she passed away at age 62), she visited her and couldn’t help but think “…Wow, if she doesn’t have the most beautifully shaped head!..”. The “amiga” tearfully told the audience that there was nothing the beautiful Farrah would have wanted more than to be honored for her art. At that moment, the lights flickered, the microphone squealed, the audience gasped and I knew she was there with us.

 

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Why a Stranger Isn’t Strange to Me

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First, we acknowledge each other as we pass by each day. Then, we smile and wish each other a good day. Next, we share a few comments about the weather, finally introduce ourselves and begin to make small talk. This is my how my relationships started with my walking friends; strangers that I’ve met while walking the same route each day.

First, there was the young woman who left the corporate world to become a dog walker (the same mother that left the room crying when she announced her career change, now introduces her as her successful entrepreneur daughter). It was the colorful set of keys hanging from her belt that sparked our initial conversation. Because she was out in all kinds of weather, she was tuned in to the National Weather Advisory 24/7 and became my personal weather forecaster.

Then, there was the striking, older couple who would take their morning constitutional; she, always wearing a stylish hat and he, looking like Santa Claus and sporting a carved cane (only for effect, his wife would say). After running into them at a couple of charity events throughout the city (including Big A’s* grammar school), I would instinctively look for a lovely hat whenever I’d enter a venue. I’d never know when they would pop into my life next, surprised to see him on a local TV station interview (turns out he was a famous Chicago area writer) or as Mr. Wiz’s* customer at the Mercedes Benz dealership.

Finally, the gentleman that would be up so early walking his dog was always so cheery that I’d find myself smiling and continuing on my route with a newfound spring in my step. One of his daughters was the same age as Big A, so we started comparing notes and swapping Millennial one liners. A chance meeting in our neighborhood with our spouses has since led to a wonderful friendship.

A stranger is just a person that you haven’t gotten to know yet; take Miss Rye Bread. Once, when Big A was a little boy, we were walking back from the grocery store and decided to stop at Woolworth’s. One of the cashiers, a young Filipino woman who seemed a bit stern, noticed our loaded cart and cheerfully said “…Why don’t you leave your cart here. Don’t worry, I’ll watch your rye bread…”, noticing the loaf balanced at the top. For years, we would say hello to Miss Rye Bread on the street, visit her in whatever area store she was working in and never failed to surprise her when we’d sing Happy Birthday to her on her special day.

Nowadays, it’s not that strange to interact with strangers. Thanks to the internet, we date them, room with them, vacation in their homes, stay in their spare bedrooms or on their sofas, rent their cars and pay them to host us for dinner, along with other guests (who are also strangers).

As a child, I remember being told never to get into a car with a stranger. Then, Uber came along and I became totally confused. Now, Uber is currently developing new technology whereby cars will drive themselves. That means that when you’re picked up, there won’t even be a stranger in the car with you. Now, that’s strange….

As a self-taught expert in “strangerology”, I have found that it’s the age of the passerby and not the size of the city that dictates the eye contact level. The younger the passerby, the more likelihood that they will be tuning out the world around them, either by wearing ear phones or by walking, head down, transfixed by some form of social media (the latter technique should not be attempted by amateurs).

Attempt this next exercise at your own risk. There’s no chance for a repeat relationship. It’s just the flash of a human connection, a one-time opportunity for a relationship, the gift of a personal link from one to another. Try it; smile at a stranger as you pass them by and see their countenance change as if by magic. It will change their day and it will make yours!

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mother, Daughter & A Soul Bearing Secret

Photo Teddy

It was Christmas morning and JC* was ten years old. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for children to expect only one gift awaiting them under the tree (how that exploded into the shopping and gift giving frenzy of today is a topic for another post). The fact that she was living with her grandmother since her parent’s divorce did not seem to impact her celebration. She was an independent, resilient child and Nana was always fun to be with.

Nana finally awoke and the celebration began. The fast process of unwrapping only meant that JC had more time to play with her gift: a beautiful, white teddy bear. It was love at first sight and for the next couple of days she spent day and night with her new friend. JC thought she was the luckiest little girl in the world to have only white teddy bear in the world. In part, she was correct; teddy bears, which were first produced in the early 1900’s, were named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt and were usually brown.

It was a day later that Nana mentioned that JC’s aunt and cousin were unexpectedly coming to visit for the day. …’’I don’t have a gift for your cousin, Ruthie. She’s about your age, so let’s just give her your teddy bear and I promise we’ll get another one for you tomorrow…”.

Before she could react, the doorbell rang and a few minutes later, her teddy bear was in the arms of Ruthie, a bratty little girl that she remembered not liking the last time she had met her. Prompted by her mom, Ruthie mumbled a quick thank you, threw teddy on the couch and ran outside to play. JC’s lips quivered as teddy left the house that day, being dragged on the ground and then thrown into the trunk of the car.

Nana kept her word and the next day they were up and dressed early to go teddy bear shopping, downtown. She always made outings special and this time announced they would first stop at the bakery for a sweet bun. Fortified, they traveled from store to store, only to find no white teddy bears in stock. Finally, Nana decided they needed to settle on a brown teddy bear and made the purchase. JC tried, but could never play with that brown teddy. The crushing feeling of disappointment left her with a lump in her throat and a pain in the pit of her stomach that never really went away.

All these years later, these memories would come to the surface and take hold of her. She found herself sharing this story with family and friends, as if re-telling it over and over would somehow free her. Why was there a white and a brown teddy bear all of a sudden sitting on JC’s bed? They looked out of place against the sleek sophistication of the modern décor. It happened they were recent gifts, lovely gestures- the white one from her daughter-in-law and the brown one from a male friend, who like Nana settled for a brown teddy when no white ones were available.

A couple of weeks later, after enjoying dinner together, JC all of a sudden, teared up and confided in me that the adorable duo were wreaking havoc on her emotions. Each time she entered her bedroom, she would go back in time and re-live her parent’s divorce, bouncing back and forth from her grandmother to her aunt’s homes, the quiet strength that she wore like armor. She couldn’t just give them away, but realized they had to go…, but where?

The answer came to me immediately. When I dropped her off that night, I brought the teddy bears home with me. Now named Blanca and Castaña (the words white and brown in Spanish), they are delicately wrapped up and awaiting their introduction to JC’s great- grandchildren, along with the story about their spunky, resilient great-grandmother who was tough enough to endure all of life’s heartbreaks and smart enough to know when it was time to bear her soul and let go of the past.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

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Moving Mania: It All Depends What State You’re In

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Where is everyone going? Whether it’s housing or job related, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in every 8.5 people are relocating.

I’m not sure how it all started for me. Somewhere between a curiosity about a peripatetic lifestyle, longing to eat dinner with my extended family every Sunday and meeting Mr. Wiz* (who was a “retail brat”, moving with his family each time his father was transferred), it just happened. Once it did, I took pleasure in the fact that, with each move, the slate was wiped clean and I had the opportunity to start over and reinvent myself.

When I look back, each experience had its unique qualities. I tried to find the best of every city, made it my own while I lived there, then happily moved on, tucking those memories away into the layers that formed who I am today:

  • Mr. Wiz moves from Cleveland, Ohio to a Park Avenue studio in New York City. We start our sales representative business together. Business cards look great, but no one is invited to his cramped quarters.
  • Little by little, Mr. Wiz is moving his belongings to my place in Mohegan Lake, New York. He presents a spreadsheet at dinner one evening, showing me that we could afford a New York City showroom for our business if we move in together: deal done!
  • Our Mohegan Lake rental goes co-op. We spearhead our fellow renters to unite for better purchase terms and are relieved to find out that the young couple with a new business who are turned down for a loan is not us.
  • Executives from an English company fly over for the day to meet us and offer us both a position. It’s too good to pass up and we’re off to Lake Bluff, Illinois.
  • A Chicago company with a subsidiary in Arkansas sweetens the pot just enough and our next stop is Heber Springs, Arkansas.
  • Mr. Wiz excitedly surprises me with his idea to buy a historic building in nearby Mountain View, Arkansas. Once a car dealership, it’s now utilized as a warehouse by the company he is running. We scrape the black paint off the windows and experiment with selling their products at the upcoming Bean Festival. Fifty thousand tourists crowd the little town, we sell out, renovate the building, move upstairs and our store Mountain View Mercantile is born.
  • Once Big A* is born, we are starting to wonder where he will go to school (Arkansas is not high in its educational rankings) and missing family and friends. We head back to Merrick, New York, a suburb of N.Y.C. and home of my parents.
  • As hard as we try, we just don’t seem to fit into the suburban lifestyle. This time, rather than have the job dictate our new city, Mr. Wiz decides that we should first choose the city and the job will follow. We choose Chicago and after a few phone calls, he is offered a position there.
  • From our city rental, we move to a city condo.
  • We move two more times within the same condo building. It’s a win-win; Mr. Wiz gets to gut and renovate and Big A and I are happy not to have to leave the area.
  • We (J.C.*, Mr. Wiz and I) decide to put our Chicago condos up for sale. They both sell quicker than expected and before we know it, we are in Austin, Texas, signing leases for rental apartments.
  • Our heads have almost stopped spinning. Once we get our bearings, I’m not sure what will be next.

The word moving is defined as “to change one’s place, position or residence; to make progress; to advance”. In one way or another, I hope that I never stop moving.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

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I Danced with a Man with No Legs (and Other Inexplicable Moments)

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Coincidences? I like to think that things happen for a reason and if you take the time to analyze each situation, you will come up with its rationale. What I first thought were rather strange occurrences were really just wonderful experiences in disguise:

When I read about the dance in the church bulletin, something told me to get out of my comfort zone and go alone. My first husband and I had just separated and I was feeling sad and lonely. A young man with a great smile asked me to dance a couple of times and then we sat and chatted. I complimented him on his dancing skills and he said “…Not bad for a man with no legs…”. He then went on to tell me that he had lost both legs in a motorcycle accident and had been fitted for prostheses. He opened up about how he was determined to not let that accident change his life. I listened in awe, embarrassed by the drama I had created in my mind over what now seemed like minor issues that I was facing. I never saw him again, but after that evening I resolved to get back to positive thinking and get on with my life.

Before I deleted my Facebook profile, I decided to look up one of Big A’s* pre-school classmates that had suddenly popped into my mind; I’m not sure why. I just wanted to glance at her home page, which is visible to all, without having to “friend” her. I was so happy to see that she had recently gotten engaged. The next morning, the hair on my arms stood straight up when I saw an email from her asking for our new address so she could send us a wedding invitation.

My Dad had just passed away and I had put his business card in a frame at my bedside. A great marketer, he had created the persona of the “Gentleman Roofer”. I loved seeing the picture of him in a bowler hat, smiling back at me from the card each day. I awoke one morning and was amazed to see the metal frame of the picture sparkling! Though the technical reason was the combination of the sun hitting the frame just right and the movement of the ceiling fan, I like to think that it was my Dad letting me know that he was okay.

It was my Dad’s birthday. I kissed the little frame at my bedside and asked him to give me a sign that he was all right. As I walked to work, I was startled to see a can lying in the street near the curb, across from the convenience store. I rolled it over with my foot and gasped. It was a can of Progresso Wedding Soup, my Dad’s favorite. I picked up the can, carried it lovingly to work and enjoyed it slowly for lunch, thinking of the times we would cook together, even making our version of that same soup.

Be open, be attentive and look for signs all around you.  Slow down enough to let the little surprises in life astonish you and enjoy the inexplicable moments.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.