people watching

Le fabuleux destin de Paige Worthy.

Sunlight streamed into my room this morning. I squinted at the oversized clock that hangs on the wall; the red hands pointed in the ballpark of nine and seven. I panicked. 8:35?!Oh, sweet Jesus. I'm late. To my temp job.

But myopia's tricky like that: Little hands become big hands; hours become minutes. It was actually only 6:42, six minutes before my alarm was set to go off. Panic turned to annoyance. Six minutes wasted. Grumble.

An hour later, I closed the front door behind me, begging Emaline not to take another dump in an unfortunate location. (Last night, I came home from choir rehearsal and found a really glorious gift from her on my sofa. She'd somehow managed to shut the door to the room with her litterbox; clearly the only piece of soft furniture I own was the next best option. Hardwood? That would be far too neat.) Across the street, I pushed through the turnstile and surged up the escalator with a small mob of other Lincoln Square commuters, armed with their full-length North Face jackets, massive coffees and RedEye newspapers. Ill equipped with only one of the three, I scuttled to my seat and poked idly at my iPhone for the entire ride downtown. People watching isn't much fun during the morning commute on the Brown Line — everyone is more or less a zombie, or dead set on making it to the next level of Angry Birds — unless you're into watching some DePaul kid wearing tattered jeans and a coin purse of a handbag stumble into you every 40 seconds. Then it's fantastic. Ah, I wear the disgruntled, not-a-morning-person commuter look so well.

Except that I so am. A morning person, I mean.

The woman taking orders at Starbucks was singing when I walked in. She's a morning person, too, and she knows what all her regulars like to drink. She sang along between orders to the Al Green song playing over the din of the espresso machine, joking with the man in front of me in line that she'd finally found some decent music mixed in with the other stuff. The line was at least ten deep, nearly out the door in the miniature matchbox café that overlooked the Chicago River, but my drink was ready just a few seconds after I'd paid, and I was out the door with my soy. My soy chai. My grande, soy, extra-hot, no-water, no-foam, five-pump chai. Yeah. I'm working this week and next in an office on the 12th floor of a building across the river from the Tribune Tower and kitty-corner from the Wrigley Building, settled into the intern's cube with a lifetime supply of red pens and Post-It notes. The job itself isn't…well, it pays the bills. But I'm part of the pulse of the city again, if only for a couple of weeks. I haven't worked downtown since New York. I haven't quite fallen in step with everyone else just yet, but at least I'm there. Here. My life lately has felt a little like the scene from Amélie where she leads a blind man by the elbow around her little corner of Paris, describing everything she sees in brilliant Poulainesque detail — my favorite part is the baby looking at the dog gazing at the chickens in the window of the butcher shop. There's no way the man could ever absorb more than the tiniest bit of what she's told him, after a lifetime of isolation and darkness, but he's enchanted all the same by her. By the sheer magic of it. Every day this week, I've taken a different route fro

m the train to the building. There's so much to see along that half-mile, so much I've never needed to notice before as I rushed from point A to point B. This week, I'm still rushing, but it matters that just a little bit more. I want to absorb it just a little bit more.

Christmas: The McPhersons.

I got a Christmas e-letter on Wednesday from the McPhersons.It was a two-page, full-color PDF, laid out like a church bulletin or corporate annual report, studded with family photos and well wishes for the coming year. It was such a sweet letter. Just one thing wrong: I don't know the McPhersons. The trouble with electronic greetings — especially those sent en masse — is that it's pretty easy for them not to reach the intended recipients. The letter I got was meant for Pam Worthy, whose e-mail address supposedly differs from mine by a single character. But for some reason, it didn't make it to her and came to me instead.

Before I checked the distribution list, I read the entire letter, thinking the McPhersons were long-forgotten friends of my family, business colleagues from deep within the horticulture industry or among the thousands of people I follow on Twitter.

The wife and mother, editor and publisher of the McPherson annual update, is so proud of her family. Her husband just started working for a local nonprofit. They have two daughters, the oldest of whom suffers from a pretty severe disability. Mom's days are spent shuttling the daughter to and from doctor's appointments and therapy sessions. In one of the photos, their oldest daughter had just won a blue ribbon in an event at the Special Olympics and displayed it proudly as she leaned in for a celebratory kiss from her father. The younger daughter, with curly hair and glasses, smiled wide in another picture as she held a tiny baby bunny in the cupped palms of her hands. Another photo shows her dressed for Halloween as a cheerleader.

This family has its hands full; that much is clear from the letter. The sentences are short and each paragraph jumps to completely different aspect of life. Wife and mother seemed to have trouble picking which news to share from 2010, a year full of "blessings and challenges."

In my circle of friends, we half-jokingly complain about our semi-tragic first-world problems: Not being able to get a primo reservation at Girl & the Goat. The battery dying in our $400 smart phones. Agonizing over which color to pick for that spa manicure and pedicure. Gosh, life is hard!

The McPherson family's life is hard. I imagine that caring for their handicapped child affects absolutely every aspect of their lives. Money's probably tighter than they'd like. Husband and father's job as an addiction counselor must worry wife and mother every day as she hurries from place to place with daughters one and two. And yet? There's not even an inkling of negativity to be found in that letter. The McPhersons are deeply religious and thank God regularly — in every paragraph of that letter, actually, sometimes more — for all the blessings in their life. Husband and father is doing God's work in his new job. The Lord blessed them with a new van with a ramp to help get them around with a new wheelchair in tow. God has provided wonderful doctors, therapists and teachers.

The McPhersons' life seems to be all about those little blessings, those tiny miracles: Wife and mother would miss the weekly appointments if she suddenly didn't have to go to them anymore. Disabled daughter has learned to eat real food this year, and her little sister is delighted to be learning the names of the months. The girls fed a giraffe at the zoo.

Christmas at the McPhersons' is all about the miracle of Christ's birth, that much I can say for sure. For me, this holiday has never been about Jesus. It has always been about Santa. All about Santa. (And the occasional reindeer, and maybe Frosty.) And I've always been perfectly happy with that. I get pretty cynical about religion. And I flinched when I saw the Bible verse at the top of the McPhersons' annual update. But their profound faith seeped into every word of that letter. It made me warm.

Tomorrow, they'll go to church. They will have a quiet, peaceful day basking in the simple happiness of another year together. Husband and wife will settle in together, exhausted, in front of the fire, after another joyous Christmas with their two beautiful, special daughters.

Wife and mother will never make a video of her kids throwing a tantrum that they got books for Christmas. It will never go viral with more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. I sat by myself and laughed hysterically watching that video early this morning, shared it with my sister and snickered expectantly as she watched it for the first time. There's a particular holiday pleasure that goes with laughing at some spoiled, snot-nosed 3-year-old boy yelling "POOH!" at the top of his lungs.

But it's another thing entirely getting a glimpse into the cozy, complicated and wonderful life of a family that still seems to understand the meaning of Christmas. Because it can be pretty easy to lose sight of that in my life, over here with my first-world problems. With my laptop and smart phone and the piles of presents waiting to be torn into under the tree.

I love my life, and my family, and the way we celebrate the holidays. I do. My extended family will arrive in two hours for cocktails, a beautiful tenderloin that's been marinating since before I went to bed last night, and caroling by the fire with toy instruments bought for the occasion. We'll wake up in the morning and sit with our piles of presents, with our mimosas and breakfast casserole and festive holiday napkins, with Christmas music playing softly in the background, and enjoy one another in our own way. But when the inevitable Christmas Guilt kicks in, after the hypercaloric gorging and orgy of gifting, I may take a few quiet moments and say my own version of a prayer for the McPhersons. The I'll go back to enjoying my family and appreciating those tiny miracles I find here at home.

Pam Worthy is a lucky woman to count the McPhersons as friends. And I was lucky to happen upon them by accident this Christmas.

God bless us, everyone.

Reflection.

I could smell the Spice House from half a block down Wells Street; even the wood of the huge, old doors is infused with scents of curry and cinnamon and black pepper. I was the collateral damage as a wave of warm, heady fragrance rushed toward the cold outdoor air as I walked inside.In my shin-length North Face, I was channeling the Michelin man and barely had room to shimmy around the rickety old displays, spice mixing tables and stumbling spice-drunk patrons as I looked for the gift boxes I'd come for. I found the boxes, one for my mom and one for my dad, and a couple of other things, including a jar of peppercorns and a bag of cocoa mix for myself. The man at the register told me he favored a 4:1 gift-giving ratio — one treat for yourself for every gift purchased — to cut down on buyer's remorse.

The little boy behind me in line told his mom they should just steal their spices so they wouldn't have to wait in line. I turned around to waggle an eyebrow at him, and complimented his plaid hat with fur-lined earflaps. You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Four-to-One likened himself to a Christmas elf, stuck in Santa's workshop while everyone else bustled around buying their gifts. But he didn't seem to mind. Huddled behind the counter with the other employees — they had three registers going, and the line was still halfway to the door — he had a little red sound-effect machine that he used like Jim Cramer on Mad Money. He pressed the little "cha-ching" button when I handed over my credit card, and he followed a co-worker to the stock room, pressing the fart button repeatedly.

I didn't want to leave, go out alone into the cold again. Inside that cozy oven of a shop, we were all baking together like little Christmas snickerdoodles. My iPhone's battery was dying, and I knew I'd lose my Christmas soundtrack before too long. As expected, the phone kicked the bucket — just as I stepped into the Southern, a comfort-food restaurant back near my apartment. I hadn't eaten all morning, nor had I eaten a real meal all weekend. So I ordered chicken and a biscuit — a buttermilk-fried breast with a homemade biscuit, swimming in a thick, rich brown gravy with tasso ham and rosemary — and sipped coffee and orange juice as I finished writing my holiday cards.

Everyone else at the restaurant was brunching with friends, celebrating the holidays with mimosas and shrimp and grits, exchanging Christmas gifts. No one seemed serious, or stressed out, or even hung over. Just bright eyes, hearty laughter and full bellies as they got up to leave.

I wasn't envious; I wasn't lonely. I'd spent my weekend outside my comfort zone, with cocktails and conversation and unexpected new friends I hope to see again.

And as I paid my check, I watched a little girl discover her reflection.

She'd been nestled in a booster seat in the corner booth, and her family bundled her up in a pink hat and boots, and a houndstooth coat with a ruffled bottom. While her mother fussed with her own coat and the mess of bags she'd brought in with her, the little girl wandered over to a tall mirror leaned up against the wall. She furtively glanced around, looked closely at the other little girl in the mirror then put her hand up to the mirror. She admired the pretty little girl in the black and white coat and pink winter hat, pondering her good taste. Then she spotted me. She watched me in the mirror, and I waved at her reflection. She smiled her gap-toothed, jack-o'-lantern smile and patted the mirror to say hello back.

All packed and ready to go, her mother joined her, showed her how to dance along to the bluegrass music gently keeping time with the muted football game. They were still exploring the mirror world as I gathered my own things and made my way to the door and home to my little apartment.

As she discovered her reflection, I discovered that my Christmas spirit hasn't gone away; it's just been in hiding. My busted tree and the same old holiday tunes couldn't bring it out this year. It needed a little coaxing: warm, rich scents, the kindness of strangers, fried chicken, and a toddler getting a new perspective of her own.