The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

March 28, 2006

What I've been doing lately

I know, with such a scintillating entry title, you can barely tear your eyes away. But here's the list:

Looking at photos of sea otters. Sweet, fuzzy little sea otters. On Sunday I went to the Shedd Aquarium, because the day was stretching in front of me with nothing to fill it besides puttering around the condo and petting the dog. John was at the office, his second home during tax season, and suddenly I was overcome with a strong urge to see otters and penguins. So I took the el down to Roosevelt and walked the 10 minutes to the aquarium, where I was confronted with a looong line of families with squealing children, waiting for entry. Ugh—spring break! Luckily I’d brought our iPod along, so I passed the time listening to Sarah Harmer and Tom Petty and Sufjan Stevens, trying to imagine what it would be like to bring three children under the age of five on an aquarium outing. Answer: Damn hard.

After a 30-minute wait, I was finally inside and past the turnstile. I headed straight for the otter area and spent awhile watching the little guys swim, scratch their fur, and play with a plastic ball. I watched the penguins getting fed, and then I visited the stingrays, an assortment of eels, dolphins, various African fish, seahorses, poisonous frogs, and a hideous giant crab. I ended the day with another stop at the otter area. I really, really wish I could have my own otter.

Watching Big Love. Tuning in to this show is like watching a trainwreck. I simply cannot look away. After reading Under the Banner of Heaven, I’ve been fascinated by Mormons, and the fundamentalists are even more intriguing because they practice polygamy. The very idea of sharing John with another woman makes me want to throw a plate across the room. I just can’t comprehend how these women do it… to know that your spouse has an equally intimate relationship with someone else, that your spouse looks at someone else the same way he looks at you… it’s just mind-boggling, and such a radically different view of marriage. Thanks, HBO!

Hanging out with Moose. During tax season, I am Moose’s single parent, the one who feeds him dinner every night and takes him on most of his walks. Of course, this also means I have ample opportunities to meet the assorted odd people who live in, or simply pass through, our neighborhood. Some people don’t even seem to register my existence and instead speak directly to Moose. Two recent examples:

1. A shabby man leaning against a storefront and smoking a cigarette says to Moose, “Do you smoke?” Since Moose doesn’t actually know how to talk, I answer for him: “No, he’s not a smoker.” The man pauses, still looking at the dog. “Well, you do have a smoking jacket.” (He’s referring to Moose’s fleece coat—since greyhounds have next to no body fat and very short fur, they need protection in the winter.) I smile politely and move on.

2. An older woman sitting on the curb and wrapped in a sort of plaid cape asks Moose, “Do you like McDonald’s hamburgers? Because I sure do.” She is not eating a McDonald’s hamburger when she says this. I answer for Moose that yes, he likes meat very much, and she smiles at him in return.

Planning the summer. In true Chicago form, the weather is still cold, in the 40s. We’ll have spring for a month or so, and then we’ll be broiling. While I generally despise the heat and humidity, I’m looking forward to everything that goes along with summer—green trees, ice cream cones, baseball games, flip-flops, eating dinner outside. We have tickets to three Cubs games and reservations for two camping trips to Wisconsin. In July, we’re taking a trip out East to spend a few days in New York City with John’s brother and a few days in the Pocono Mountains with my family, in the big cabin where we used to vacation when I was little. It should be a good combination—just when the familial closeness of it all becomes a bit too stifling, we’ll be off to the Big Apple! I haven’t been to New York since I was 18, and that was just a daytrip to see “The Phantom of the Opera.” My brother-in-law lives in Queens, and I’m excited to explore his neighborhood, in addition to visiting Central Park and Greenwich Village and the World Trade Center site and various restaurants and bars. But the Poconos will be enjoyable, too, in its own way… hiking in the woods, clean blue mountain air, pine trees and simple homemade food… a time to sleep in and breathe deeply and reach back to remember my ten-year-old self. I very seldom get to visit the places of my childhood, so I intend to savor this.

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March 23, 2006

In which I prattle on about weight and marriage

I think I’ve always been afraid of becoming overweight. I’ve never had an eating disorder, but it’s safe to say that not a day goes by when I don’t think about how my body looks or mentally tick off everything I’ve eaten in the past 24 hours. Kinda sad, isn’t it? And it’s so habitual now that I don’t even notice I’m doing it.

As a child I had “baby fat,” as Mom termed it. In photos from that time, I look very… round. Most of the pudge was shed by the time I hit junior high, and I skipped through high school at a delightfully average size: 7 or 9 in juniors, 6 or 8 in women’s clothes. I ate cheese fries for lunch. I hated playing sports. I had the blessed metabolism of a teenager.

In college I began to pay more attention to my size. I took full advantage of the pasta bar and frozen yogurt machine in the dining hall, but I also didn’t have a car and walked a few miles a day to and from class and work. I sometimes used the weight room and the indoor running track. My clothes size remained a 6 or an 8.

Much is said about the jolt of entering the “real world” after college, but one of the biggest changes for me was my new sedentary lifestyle, driving everywhere in my leased Saturn and sitting in a cube eight hours a day. Together with my roommate, I began exercising five days a week—walking, jogging, flailing along with a kickboxing video. I gained a few pounds during this time, but I also gained a really terrific habit: ever since 1998, I’ve felt like something’s missing if a few days go by without exercise. It’s ingrained in me now that this is something I should do.


This topic’s been on my mind lately because of a fascinating post (and follow-up post) that I read at another blog, Morphing into Mama. The post generated quite a bit of commentary on the Internet, and several other online writers tackled the subject as a result. I don’t usually write about these types of things, but this time I wanted to.

I’m not sure I agree with MiM’s term of “false advertising,” although I know I’d be annoyed if John stopped exercising and caring about his appearance after we were married. But more than that, what I’ve been thinking about is this determination I have to not gain weight. As if my life would be over if that happened.

I don’t know where this determination comes from, exactly. I’m sure it’s part insecurity, part “the media tells me I need to be a stick figure.” I know that part of it is for health reasons. My job involves reading a lot of health information, and one of the things that’s really struck me is the danger of heart disease. It’s the number-one killer of American women, and having a waist size over 35 inches significantly increases your risk. I don’t want heart problems. I want to feel good, have energy, be in shape.

Of course, part of my determination is also a desire to look good. I’m 30; I know I don’t look like I did in college, and I’m not attempting to. But I want to look fit. I want to wear clothes that are somewhat hip. I don’t want to look matronly or older than I am. And yup, I want my husband to like how I look, to be proud of my appearance. Some people think that husbands should like how their wives look no matter how much weight they gain. That being able to do that is part of a mature, loving relationship. But I’m not sure I agree with that. I wouldn’t expect John to be just as happy with my appearance if I gained 50 pounds; I wouldn’t be as happy with my appearance. And I don’t know if that’s caused by vanity or insecurity or shallowness or what. Maybe I’m not the “feminist” I’ve always thought myself to be.

After I read that post on Morphing into Mama, I asked John his opinion. “Would you be upset if after we got married, I ‘let myself go’ and gained 50 pounds?”

“Well… yeah!” he replied, without much thought. “I’d wonder what was wrong, and why you were letting that happen.”

His answer didn’t offend me; it would be my response if the tables were turned. I’m not sure if this “says something” about our marriage. Obviously we wouldn’t stop loving each other if one of us gained weight, although I wonder if we’d be less attracted. But I’ll still love John when he’s bald and love-handled, and I expect him to love me when my body changes after childbirth and when I have gray hair and sagging skin. Botox is not in my future, thanks.


When I’m really busy, with work and school and freelancing, exercise does fall by the wayside. But I’m active. I walk the dog every day, I try to take the stairs at work, sometimes I lift weights while watching The Daily Show. I belong to a small, cheap gym that’s within walking distance of our place. I use the treadmill in our building’s basement. I’ve started jumping rope sometimes. Are my workouts two-hour marathons? No, more like 30 or 40 minutes. Do I always feel like doing this stuff? Hell no. Sometimes I have to literally force myself to lace up my New Balances.

But I know that my metabolism is slowing down. I’m still a size 8, although my body doesn’t look the same—my waist is a bit thicker, and cellulite has rippled up in unexpected places. Some of my older pants and skirts are a bit tight. On Monday, I ate three chocolate chip cookies, a handful of chocolate Easter eggs, a Rice Krispies treat, and some mint chocolate-chip ice cream. So believe me, I am not the most disciplined girl on the block.

But I’m working at it—both for me and for my spouse. I don’t think John is shallow for being glad that I haven’t gained weight. I’m not ecstatic about how I look, but I’m satisfied. I feel pretty good. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what matters?

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March 16, 2006

In my spare closet

I seem to have had quite a bit of free time this week. Work is slow; we’re between publishing cycles. I’ve organized all my paper files, cleaned out my email folders, caught up on invoices, and Googled interesting websites on ex-Mormons, men in black, real-life ghost sightings, houses for sale in Evanston and Skokie, and the latest spring shoe styles.

I haven’t had any freelancing work lately, either, so I’ve gone home and taken the dog for a long walk, then hit the gym, then cooked dinner and caught up on my New Yorkers. I’ve rewatched the season opener of The Sopranos (which is completely rewatchable). I’ve added more of my favorite Diary-X entries to this site. And I’ve delved into the bowels of our spare closet (its contents include summer clothes, Moose supplies, wrapping paper and ribbons, Christmas tree ornaments, extra pillows, two suitcases, and the vacuum cleaner) to retrieve my old formal dresses, with the intention of finally letting them go.

When I was growing up, my mother kept all her old prom dresses in a suitcase in our attic. Every once in awhile, I’d ask if I could try them on. We’d go upstairs to my grandma’s third-floor room, open her closet, gently push aside her clothes, and open the wooden hatch-like door that led to the attic. I was afraid to enter that musty, narrow space, but my mom would gladly retrieve the suitcase for me, and we’d spend an hour in front of the mirror, with her telling me the story of each dress… which dance she wore it to, who escorted her, what her corsage looked like. The dresses were late-sixties mod; they had empire waists, A-line skirts, wide satin sashes. They were pale yellow, dark-sage green, icy-blue white. They felt stiff and crinkly to the touch, and they smelled old, somehow… the same smell that clung to my dad’s old folk records and college yearbooks.

It seemed natural and right to me that my mother kept those dresses, tangible memories stored in a place where she could always access them, touch them, breathe them in. So I’ve done the same thing. We don’t have much storage space in our condo (I keep my voluminous wedding dress at my parents’ house), but all of my favorite prom and college formal dresses are bunched into our spare closet. I hardly ever look at them, and I won’t wear any of them again—but I like knowing they’re there, sleeping quietly in their plastic sheathes.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was browsing at an artsy store in Lincoln Park and came across a flyer for the Glass Slipper Project, which I’d vaguely heard of before but didn’t know much about. It’s an organization that provides gently used formalwear to disadvantaged teenage girls who otherwise couldn’t afford a dress for their high school prom. And this artsy store is a drop-off location. You just come in with your dresses and leave with a tax form and a good feeling. What could be easier?

So I thought about it, and I thought about it some more. And I decided that I should donate my dresses. They’re in good shape, they’re still somewhat stylish, and what good are they doing anyone, crammed into my spare closet? So, last night, I took them all out and laid them on the couch in our study. I took each one out of its bag. I tried some of them on (probably not the best idea, although I can still zip up almost all of them). I took pictures of them, even though I already have pictures from the dances where I wore them.

There’s the long red brocade dress, the one with the slit that my mother hated, that I wore to my senior prom. My boyfriend Josh wore tails and a red bow-tie. The dress had spaghetti straps and a heart-shaped neckline. I loved it.

There’s the short black sequined dress with the halter top and flowy chiffon skirt, the one I wore to my first sorority formal as a college freshman. I went to tanning booths in preparation and got drunk with Josh on Zimas on the night of the dance. So, so young and dumb.

There’s the long sleeveless brown dress with the empire waist that I wore to my junior and senior formals, both in Chicago. At one of them, I swallowed a live goldfish. Don’t ask.

Then there’s a short, kicky black sleeveless dress with a V-neckline and a print of red and white roses. I think at least five of my sorority sisters borrowed that dress. Everyone loved it—it was flattering; it made you feel sexy. I bought it at a Merry-Go-Round store for $40 and got three years of use from it. It is really hard to part with that dress. (And in fact, I haven't actually put it in the donation pile yet.)

But I probably will. I like the idea of my dresses creating even more magical nights for people. I like the idea of a girl looking at herself in the mirror, eyes round with wonder as she sees herself, for the first time, in something other than jeans and a sweater. Maybe she’ll donate it to yet another girl when she’s a little older. Or maybe she’ll keep it in a suitcase, in her attic, and pull it out when she’s feeling old or wistful or nostalgic. Either way, I’m glad to give her the opportunity.


March 10, 2006

Birthday portrait; or, playing with Flickr and Blogger

Birthday portrait
Originally uploaded by strass.
I'm just experimenting with posting photos from Flickr directly to my journal. This week, I've also learned how to allow comments on this journal from anyone, not just people who have Blogger accounts. I'm becoming quite the techie!

So anyway, here's a recent photo, taken on my 30th birthday (January 27). We were getting ready to head out for dinner at my favorite Cuban restaurant, Cafe 28. A great meal, and a great night. I feel pretty good about entering a new decade. Although I did pluck seven gray hairs from the right side of my head this morning.


March 8, 2006

Dog-walking tales; or, why it’s not so bad that we don’t have a yard

There’s a group of four or five little Mexican girls, maybe nine or ten years old, who live down the street from us in a small apartment complex. Sometimes they’re playing outside when I’m walking Moose, and they always run over to him and gather around excitedly: “Hi Moose! Hi Moose! Oh, I love you, Moose! Can I pet him?? Can I walk him??”

So I let them each take a small section of the leash, and then we all shuffle down the street, a slowly moving mass of girls with one skinny black greyhound in the middle. As we walk, they pet him, scratch his ears, giggle over how skinny he is: “I can feel his bones!” Every once in awhile, I tell Moose encouragingly that he’s being such a good and patient boy, and it’s funny to see him look up toward the sound of my voice, as if he’s relieved that in the midst of the hubbub, I’m still there. He really is remarkably patient. Although I’ll continue to say no when one of the girls invariably asks if she can “ride him like a pony.”


One evening we passed a lanky mailman wheeling his cart down the sidewalk. He was young and African American, maybe in his mid-twenties. He skirted us widely but grinned as he did so. “I wouldn’t even try to outrun that dog,” he declared.


We’re cutting through a darkened playlot around 6:45 p.m. when we come across a middle-aged white man and his black Lab/retriever mix. The dog is running loose, weaving this way and that and sniffing bushes. She bounds up to Moose to say hello. The man follows and introduces his dog as “Treevey.” Treevey is wearing a sort of square, Velcro-fastened covering on her back that labels her a “Therapy Dog.” I ask the man about it.

“We work at the home there on the corner for mentally ill people,” he says, gesturing at the square, shabby building just north of us. “And the people there just love her. We go every week. One time we couldn’t go for two weeks in a row, and one of the residents asked for a photo of Treevey so he could look at her while she was gone.”

Moose tires of Treevey’s excitement—he usually prefers humans to dogs—and approaches the man instead, tilting his long, pointy head up for a pet. His tail is flapping. The man caresses Moose’s ears. “I love greyhounds,” he says. “They have such a kind, gentle soul.”

We leave the park together. Treevey remains unleashed. When we reach the busy intersection, the man tells Treevey to stay, and she stops at the curb. He walks out into the middle of the street, looks both ways, and then turns back to her: “Cross.” She trots neatly across the street to join him. Moose looks up at me. The only English he reliably understands includes his name, “Are you hungry?” “Wanna go for a walk?” and “Do you want dinner?” I have a feeling he isn't interested in learning any new commands.

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March 6, 2006

Take II

So this is my second online journal.

The first one, also called The Purple of Life, lived at Diary-X crashed and burned rather spectacularly in February 2006 and has gone to the great server cemetery in the sky, where it maintains a death grip on about one-third of the entries I wrote between March 2002 and December 2005. The other two-thirds, luckily, were cached on Yahoo and preserved on the Internet Wayback Machine, for which I am profoundly grateful. You see, in almost four years of writing, I had never bothered to back up my online journal. And yes, I’ve learned my lesson. (If you’re looking for my recovered Diary-X archives, I’m planning to place them on this new site. I just need to figure out how to organize them.)

I’ve landed at Blogger for a few reasons: one, it’s easy to post entries and photos here, and two, it’s a reliable site that’s been around for awhile and only seems to be improving. I don’t know much about coding and html, and frankly, I’m not all that interested in learning. So the simplicity of the site is a plus. And actually, I don’t intend to post entries in a “blog” format—you won’t find quippy two-line entries about what I ate for lunch or my reaction to the latest episode of The Daily Show.
I’m not looking to amass hundreds of comments from readers, although of course I’d love to hear from you! My plan is to keep my old format of long-ish, essay-ish, journal-ish pieces of writing. (But I do hope to write more frequently than once a month—sadly, I was pretty lazy about posting during my last few months at Diary-X.)

If you’re brand-new to The Purple of Life, you should know that purple isn’t my favorite color. The expression actually comes from an amazingly wise woman and writer who taught creative nonfiction workshops at my alma mater. I adored Nancy N. and her work. She wrote about dying silk to make her own wedding dress and about riding a train through wintertime Russia and about life-changing notes left on kitchen tables, and I sort of worshipped her, truth be told. Soon after I graduated from college, she sent me an email that ended with this guidance: “Hold on to the purple in your life.” And I knew exactly what she meant, even though I’d never heard the expression before. That purple is the richness, the shadow, the mystery, the beauty and the bruises, the deep, dark, dusky places of life. It’s a candle in an Advent wreath, a juicy summer plum, a Kool-Aid mustache above a child’s lip, a queen’s velvet robe, the color that I wished my bedroom was when I was young. It’s what I find when I remember to keep my eyes open, and it’s what I want to write about.