Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sitting on Top of the World

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and I have something in common: ambition and hubris knocked us both off lofty perches. Although his tumble was from a Mount Everest-sized peak, and mine closer to, well, a molehill, our anguish has similarities.

I’ll explain. Back in 1981, I was hired as a press aide to then-mayor Jane Byrne. I couldn’t have been happier, or prouder of my new assignment. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I relished local politics with all of its Shakespearian drama: treachery, jealousy, greed, and also noble works.

Now, here I was, not on the sidelines, but in the middle of the action. My glee became insufferable, though, as I blathered on about writing speeches, escorting the mayor to groundbreaking ceremonies, dropping off news releases to City Hall reporters (several pictured on this post), riding in the mayor’s limo, and actually entering her inner office after joshing with the security guards posted outside her paneled doors.

And when my workday ended and I was at home watching the evening news, and heard the mayor read my words as she stood at the podium, or at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, my swelled head threatened to topple my 5’ frame.

Alas, from such a high opinion of myself, a downfall was inevitable. My Blago-moment occurred when I was assigned to accompany the mayor to some benign event. Unfortunately, that very morning, a bigger story broke and reporters swarmed the ceremony determined to capture one of the mayor’s infamous quotes.

Along with my writing tasks, another of my roles was to buffer the boss from the tide of microphones, tape recorders, photographers, television cameras, and reporters threatening to flood the city’s diminutive first executive. Problem was, at my wee height, I got shoved aside as easily as a rubber ducky. I stood helpless as Mayor Byrne became engulfed and bombarded with unwelcome questions.

I returned to City Hall dejected, sat hunkered at my desk as she walked into the Press Secretary’s office and closed the door behind her. When I crept up to eavesdrop, I could hear her angry words, “Don’t send Elaine out with me anymore.”

My boss (Was it Ray McCarthy or Steve Crews? I can’t remember.) never actually relayed her decision, I just wasn’t assigned to outside events anymore. Despite that episode, I loved every minute I was a press office employee. And I never blamed the mayor for her ruling. She was right – I couldn’t handle it.

So if I don’t join the crowd damning Gov. Blagojevich’s obnoxious behavior, you’ll understand. I hope he takes this experience as one of life’s lessons. For my part, I learned that a seat at the top of the world could easily be upended when haughtiness overtakes humility. For Rod (since we’re linked, I can use this familiarity), his warning is simpler: stay off the f*@#$%^ phone!

(Pictured are some of the City Hall reporters during the Byrne administration: Ray Hanania, Andy Shaw, Fran Spielman, and Gary Washburn.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Parallel Parking

I'm in the back seat of my daughter's Mazda and delighted she’s found a parking space on a narrow street in Harvard Square. I’m visiting Faith from Chicago and we're about to stroll one of my favorite Boston neighborhoods.

I sit silently as I watch Faith line up her car with one that is parked at the curb. Slowly, she backs up, then turns the steering wheel to the right as she slips the car into the empty space. Her eyes are fixed on the right headlight of the car parked behind. She aims for her target, then reverses the direction of the steering wheel. Finally, she tucks her car into the tight parking space.

"Perfect," my 44-year-old daughter says as she turns the key and shuts off the ignition.

"Who taught you how to parallel park?" I ask, preening because I already know the answer.

"You, mommy, you."

I didn't teach Faith, or her 43-year-old sister Jill, how to drive. But I was their passenger when they practiced on Chicago streets. I clutched door handles, stomped imaginary brakes, and shut my eyes to avoid collisions I thought inevitable.

Today, when I’m their passenger in Boston or Los Angeles, I relax and enjoy the scenery. If I'm lucky, they'll be required to parallel park, and I'll have another chance to gloat.

My father taught me how to do it in 1952 in his four-door Buick. I had already mastered how to operate the stick shift, play the clutch, and inch down the brake. I'd grasp the steering wheel in the ten and two positions, and when turning, execute the hand-over-hand ballet maneuver. I was cautious, kept eyes on the road, and obeyed the speed limit. But I'd long for the day when I could drive brazenly, with only one hand on the wheel, just like him.

I could see myself leaning my left arm out the driver's side window and watch it grow tan in the same odd way as Dad's arm, blooming brown from elbow to fingertip. From shoulder to elbow, though, the part of his arm that remained inside would stay a sickly white.

When he sped -- which he almost always did -- Mother would cry, "Irv, you're going too fast. You'll kill us all." In the back seat, I'd rise up to look over his shoulder and watch the speedometer climb past 50, but never say a word that might reveal distrust of his caretaking. "Relax, relax," Dad would say, then ease up on the gas pedal until both his wife and daughter would lean back in their seats.

Mother didn't know how to drive back then. She was one of those women who grew up not expecting to be a driver; instead depending upon a husband to take the wheel. When Dad died of a heart attack at the age of 48, Mom recruited her youngest brother, Hy, and his 1957 Chevy Impala for driving lessons.

"You can do it, Min," Uncle Hy would say on the Sundays of her lessons.

"I'm proud of you, Mom," I'd add. But I could see her hands tremble and notice her usually sparkling blue eyes grow dark.

On the third Sunday, I jumped up from the living room couch when I heard her key in the door. “Min, don’t give up yet!” I heard my uncle plead as he followed behind her. “No, no, I can’t do it,” she said. She went straight to the bedroom and slammed the door. Her brother shrugged his shoulders. “I tried,” he said.

I don’t remember following my mother to give her a pep talk that might’ve returned her to the driver’s seat. Perhaps I worried she was right; the skill was beyond her -- too old at 45. Maybe I couldn't tolerate the image of my mother defeated, a young widow dependent on others to drive her around. Perhaps, like her, I wished for some man to enter her life who would do the driving for her.

When she married Joe, 20 years her senior, she believed he was wealthy and would relieve her children of having to care for her in her old age. Joe did serve as her driver until his creeping Alzheimer’s scared her when he took the wheel. But Mom didn’t have to endure many months of his forgetfulness; she died at 67 -- years before him, and years before my brother or I had to worry about her becoming a burden.

In 1960 I married. My husband bought a beige Volkswagen Beetle that was perfect for someone my barely 5’ size. The only problem I encountered was when I was pregnant with Faith. My basketball belly forced me to push the drivers’ seat backward and then my feet could barely reach the pedals.

I’m sure it was those awkward trips that inspired my recurring dreams in which I’m driving huge cars, so big I can’t see above the steering wheel. My nightmare cars are double the length of ordinary ones. I know I’ll never be able to squeeze them into parking spaces, despite knowing Dad’s parallel parking trick.

Eventually, in real life, I had my own car – an orange VW that was a make-up present from my husband. We had had a particularly painful argument, whose content I can’t remember, which is odd because my husband and I rarely argued, preferring instead to bury our unhappiness under the hood.

By the time our marriage ended, I had moved on from the VW, to a Toyota, and then to a Honda. Eventually, I passed the Toyota on to Faith and the Honda to Jill. In 1990, I bought a silver-gray Honda Civic hatchback, which I still drive.

In 1998, I married a non-driver. Tommy learned how to drive as a teenager, but because he never had his own car, his driving ability atrophied. Soon though, I grew tired of chauffeuring and insisted he take driving lessons. When he passed his test, he bought a Honda Accord.

Although I was the one urging Tommy to become a driver, I’m a poor passenger in his car. I prefer my Civic where I can take the wheel. When he does drive, I close my eyes until we reach our destination. I open them when he’s about to park because I’m relaxed, now that he's concluded the treacherous part of the journey.

Once we’re safely tucked into the curb, I ask brightly, “Who taught you how to parallel park?”

“You, honey, you,” he says.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Taste For Brisket

So? How many are you having for dinner?”
“About twenty.”

That's part of a telephone conversation between mother (me in Chicago) and daughter (Jill in Los Angeles) regarding plans for Rosh Hashanah '08. The only thing odd about the dialogue was the reversal of traditional roles. For it was my kid doing the balabusta-ing and me making plans to go to Myron and Phil's restaurant for dinner.

As I listened to my daughter’s menu, I wondered how this came to be. How did I – a woman who placed cooking Jewish for a crowd at the bottom of her list of favorite things, who was not a member of any synagogue, and who took a goy for a second husband – spawn a child about to shove a multi-pound brisket in the oven?

Jill’s embrace of her religion is easy to explain. She has a son, and since public schools in Los Angeles are chancy, she enrolled him in Temple Israel of Hollywood. A natural networker and compulsive organizer (that, she got from me), Jill was recruited to head committees and produce events. News of her output spread, and Reboot, an organization for creative young Jews, invited her in. She soon found the Jewish thing – its positive influence on her son, the camaraderie, and the stamp of identity comfortable and positive.

Her sister, Faith, on the other hand, who lives in Boston, is Jewish in the way I am -- culturally (we like Jewish food and humor) -- but is absent from organized worship. In fact, Faith is so relaxed with her religious identity that she worried not a whiff when creating her infamous rock opera “Jesus Has Two Mommies.”

Enough about the kids. I grew up in the 1940s in an immigrant Chicago neighborhood (see my memoir, “The Division Street Princess”). My Zadie and Bubbie lived down the block and aunts and uncles were also a stone’s throw. (Of course, stones were never lobbed back then as you could knock somebody’s eye out!) And like many who were part of the mass migration from Russia in the 20s, my parents cared more about making a living than worshiping a God who neglected them back in the Old Country.

We had a shul, the Galician on California Blvd., but my family attended only during High Holidays. In the woman’s section, I'd give my Bubbie’s papery cheek a kiss before rushing outside to run wild with my cousins. I did try cheder because my brother was attending bar mitzvah classes and didn’t want to be left out. I lasted one week.

My high school years' High Holidays were spent with my Roosevelt classmates standing outside a temple on the northwest side of Chicago. I recall perspiring in a lamb's wool sweater, woolen skirt, matching jacket, and pantyhose. My family held no membership there, which was fine, as I didn’t plan on entering. Kibitzing on the steps with friends was genug.

Despite my lack of religious cement, at twenty-two, I did marry a Jew. He grew up in a conservative household, and was bar mitzvahed, but had no desire to return to the synagogue. And since our daughters never expressed any wish to become affiliated or study Torah, we didn’t join.

It wasn’t until our chicks left the nest that I felt bereft and believed a connection to Judaism would help me repair. My husband cooperated and we landed at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. It was there I met its charismatic rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, who recognized my hunger and encouraged me to join the board. My husband and I attended Saturday morning services and I began to study for a bat mitzvah. At fifty-one, I stood before 300 friends and relatives to read from the Torah.

This is where the colorful memories switch to black-and-white. The first hint something was amiss was when I saw the tape of that memorable experience. My husband, who has a beautiful tenor voice, participated in the service. When he was at the bimah, he appeared confident and happy, but when I took center stage, his eyes focused on the ground. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts.

All the time I believed we were bonding on Saturday mornings, he was trying to figure an escape route. As much as I'd like to make him the bad guy, I was as much to blame for the failure of our thirty-year-marriage. I preferred to push our problems under the rug, while he was gutsy enough to destroy the covering.

We separated, divorced, and today remain friends. Although our relationship repaired, my connection to JRC was still frayed. When I returned to the synagogue as a single woman, I felt weepy. The congregation continued to welcome me, but I didn't like being a third wheel and my predicament was an unspoken shonda.

My current husband, a lapsed Lutheran, has no interest in his religion or mine. He's accompanied me to bar mitzvahs, and he'd have no problem if I wanted to join a synagogue on my own. But for me, the thrill is gone. This I can't blame on Husband #1 for if I had enough desire, I could surely trump those sad memories.

Perhaps the hunger will return at some point in my life. After all, at age 70 I'm on the down side of the mountain and a connection to spirituality might be a worthy companion. But for now, I can get a vicarious thrill from Jill's Jewishness. And, if I'm lucky, she'll freeze a bissel of brisket for my next visit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Under House Arrest

While some women may lust for a diamond bracelet, like the $5,000, 14K, white gold cable number pictured on the left, I have my eye on a less flashy cuff. It’s that gunmetal gray ankle monitor also pictured on this page.

Why, you may ask (and you’d be dotty and uncooperative if you didn’t), would I prefer a radio transmitter unit fastened to my foot when the diamonds would look fetching on my wrist? And, the bobble would surely elicit gasps of “Oooh, let me see!” or “How gorgeous!” or “What’s the occasion?”

Here’s my explanation: if I wore the ankle monitor, I could truthfully respond to invitations with a shrug, a finger pointing down to the band, and the line, “Sorry, not allowed to leave the house.” Of course, I’d have to come up with some reason I was under house arrest. But surely, with my imagination, and my love for tech products, I could suggest something pilfered at the Apple Store and no one would question me further.

If I told the truth to potential hosts – that I’d prefer never to leave the comfort of my own home – they might think me a recluse and classify me with some of the famous sequesters pictured on this page; i.e. Marlon Brando, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, and J.D. Salinger.

Of course, those celebrities had their own reasons for preferring isolation. They may've wished to escape the attention of fans (not my problem), unable to tolerate other humans (don’t take it personally), or have some psychological disorder that causes them to hide away (let's not go there).

For me, it’s quite simple. Within the walls of my casa, I possess every amusement, convenience, and food to make me happy. Why would I ever want to leave? Come; take a tour (then promise you’ll skedaddle because if I have to chat with you, I won’t be able to enjoy my toys). See, there’s my iMac desktop and PowerBook laptop. If I get bored with one, I can trot over to the other. In the wicker basket adjacent to the couch are copies of the New York Times and paperback of the day ("Talk Talk" by T.C. Boyle). The TV remote can put me in touch with my on-air news source, CNN, the entire Law & Order franchise, and premium channels. A short walk to the kitchen finds enough goodies in the fridge and pantry to keep my tummy satisfied for the rest of the year. And if we run out, there’s always Peapod to truck on over.

I’ve even eliminated the need for a health club with my treadmill and weights, plus earphones that hook to the basement TV. Okay, so my downstairs gym is absent of socialization; but it also removes the vision of all those young, toned bodies that frequent the locker room and cardio studio of my former club. Now, it’s just little ole me huffing and puffing. And when I check myself out in the full-length mirror, I look okay compared to, let's see, the wood-beam columns in the space. (Actually, now that I’m measuring, those timbers are looking pretty slim.)

No matter -- you get the picture. So the next time you’re inclined to invite me out for an evening of enlightenment, dining, or companionship, save yourself the effort. I sincerely appreciate the thought, but you see, I’ve got this thing on my ankle…

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

If At First

Between the Olympics and the presidential campaign, we've learned of ordinary folks who overcame humble beginnings and other obstacles. While their tales can be uplifting for some, for others -- still trudging towards long sought-after goals -- their sagas can seem as harassment. I'm here to help.

Although I've been fortunate to see my memoir published, and am nearing the final pages of my novel, I admit to three unmet goals that continue to taunt me. Perhaps you have a few in your sights.

Over the years, I’ve enrolled in Spanish language classes at DePaul University, the Institute of Cervantes, and Digame Chicago. I possess enough textbooks, workbooks, audiotapes, and CDs to equip the entire student body of a Columbian school.

A One-A-Day Berlitz calendar sits on a kitchen counter, adjacent to my coffeemaker, so I can easily capture a new phrase each day. And yet, when I attempt a conversation with a native speaker, I get eye rolls from my daughters, a puzzled expression on the face of the fluent person, and a notion to chuck the whole pursuit and save myself embarrassment. And yet, I soldier on.

Spanish isn’t the only goal I shoot for every now and again: Swimming and Playing The Piano (not simultaneously) are also battles that find me trudging uphill, reaching a third of the way, and then find me sliding downhill on my tush.

Similar to my accumulation of equipment para habla espanol, my closet holds a gym bag containing flippers, goggles, lessons encased in plastic, and a waterproof watch; and naturally, half-dozen How To Swim manuals. (Truthfully, I find the gathering of gear to be the most fun in my pathetic pursuits.)

Our Wurlitzer upright sits on the wall of our dining room with a musical score opened to Rogers and Hart’s “Blue Room.” The book hasn’t moved since 2006. A pencil sits alongside the book, as if to suggest the pianist will scribble instructions to herself; i.e. count, quarter note gets one beat, or EGBDF.

Every so often, I feel a pull toward the abandoned instrument, lug the bench out – which has grown leaden with Adult Beginner books and Large Type Broadway Musicals– and sit myself down. After a few measures, I’ll get to one of those mysterious symbols, then spend the rest of the hour trying to find the meaning of pianissimo. But the idea of giving up my Piano Bar Dream, the one that includes a snifter stuffed with dollar bills, boozers begging for “Blue Room,” and yours truly bopping her gray head at the keys? Never.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Happy THAT Birthday!

On the 10th of this month, I’ll be celebrating a significant birthday. I’m giving you advance notice -- not to ease your gift giving dilemma (though anything Apple will be fine) – but to alert you to the response I expect to receive when I reveal my soon-to-be age. (Photographs on this page include celebrities who share my year of birth.)

I figure if I give you fair warning, there'll be less disappointment on my end, and you might even get a kick out of making my day.

I'm taking this nervy route because I've already been blurting my upcoming digits and notice the reactions of others depends upon the age, occupation, and gender of the person hearing it. Ideally, the reply should be, “No! I don’t believe it! You look terrific! I took you for 10 years younger!” And indeed that often spills from the mouths of kindly middle-age waitresses whose tip, I admit, depends on my good nature.

But, I've found that younger women who overhear the occasion and its tally offer a tepid “Happy Birthday” and continue passing my groceries down the conveyer belt or searching for the book or article of clothing I was seeking.

As for the male species, it has been my experience that no matter where they land on the age or job continuum, they have no clue as to the match-up of appearance and age and only prefer the woman they are facing be younger.

If you think this is a rant, and want to offer phrases meant to ease my birthday passage; i.e. It’s Only A Number, Think Of The Alternative, You Could Live Another Twenty Years, don’t bother.

Or if you plan on scolding me for being ungrateful for my good fortune in reaching this age intact; I am aware of my blessings and thank Her every morning for Her generosity.

All I’m asking, when we meet face-to-face, and I disclose the birthday number (you can find it in my memoir or on my Facebook profile, but you’ll have to do the math), just remember the response I've requested in paragraph three. (A reminder: “No! I don’t believe it! You look terrific! I took you for 10 years younger!”) Then you can forget about a wrapped and beribboned present. Your sincere look of surprise and awe will be more than enough.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Can't Hear You!

First-time authors are like the unpopular kids in high school, eager to accept any invitation that comes their way. Sometimes, the event turns out spectacular, like my May 2006 book launch of The Division Street Princess at Women and Children First bookstore.

On that occasion, just as I had dreamed, my family joined me on stage to take turns reading excerpts from my memoir. The 100 or so people who attended – old friends, and new ones drawn from long-ago Division Street, Humboldt Park, and other old neighborhoods -- stuffed the store from front to back.

There were other stellar readings where I shared the stage with more prominent authors: Jill Soloway (Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants) and Hillary Carlip (Queen of the Oddballs) at Women and Children First (pictured), Amy Guth (Three Fallen Women) and Rick Karlin (Show Biz Kids) at the Book Cellar, Charles Blackstone (The Week You Weren't Here) and Rick Karlin (Show Biz Kids) at the Fixx Bar, and Billy Lombardo (The Logic of a Rose) and Frank Joseph (To Love Mercy) at Newberry Library.

But other occasions, (although I remain grateful for the invitations) turned out, well, not so great. Topping my list is the event held at a Polish banquet hall where my hosts had to share the dining room with another party. At that reading, I stood on a box to reach the microphone, used one hand to hold my open book, and tried to ignore the piercing chatter on the other side of a three-paneled screen. As I raised my voice to send the words to my audience -- who were returning to their seats after circling the buffet table -- the group behind the screen increased their decibels, too, as if outbidding me for a signed first edition.

I soldiered on for a few pages, while my hosts sought remedy from the catering manager, who raised her shoulders and opened her hands in a “What can I do? gesture. Once seated with their full lunch plates, my audience offered me their own suggestions: “Louder!” they yelled. “Can’t hear you!” they confirmed.

Sensing defeat, I closed my book – its pages carefully marked by Post-it flags and highlighter -- took a seat, and dug into the kielbasa plate someone had thoughtfully fetched for me.

There were other inappropriate sites and distracted audiences, like the field house gymnasium and career day at a Chicago high school. But rather than further spotlighting my follies, I’ve asked Charles Blackstone to share his own best and worst book appearances.

Charles Blackstone

When I began a book tour, in Chicago, for "The Week You Weren’t Here," the first reading was jammed with attentive fans (okay, friends and friends of friends), and I kept things moving and had enough vodka before (and during) to keep jittery panic from causing me to read too quickly, or self-edit, or stumble too much because I was nervously self-editing.

Other cities I visited would have fewer “fans” in the seats, or maybe the fans were there for the opening reader, who was often known in the town. There was no way to control this; I could only make sure my passage Post-it flags were secure, and try to give the best performance up there that I could. The highs and lows were numerous, but being open to an outcome falling into either category always kept things interesting:

My favorite reading was in a record shop in Cedar City, Utah, where they put my name on a giant marquee outside, and the story I read, after my obligatory bit about the novel, about a young woman whose ex-boyfriend just wouldn’t let her go, despite having abandoned her for a couple of years, made some girls in the audience cry.

The power in that room made up for previous years of latte ordering and brewing and toddler cawing and angry confrontation by a fan (after a reading in a Lafayette, Colorado coffee house, a guy chased me out to excoriate me: I’d gone on for too long and abbreviated the open mic that was to follow me; he didn’t seem to agree that my being invited as featured reader should somehow afford me a little temporal leeway).

I still accept every reading invitation, no matter near or far, no matter if I think the audience promised will get me or what I write or if they won’t (if anything, I usually have the crowd wrong; the least likely in my mind tend to be the most appreciative, the most giving, once I’m there).

To my mind, after all of these experiences, it’s almost as important as a writer (def.: one isn’t satisfied to simply write away in a journal in a vacuum) to perform, as it is to generate content. And performing isn’t just mumbling your way through a draft you find momentarily acceptable on the page. If you want to be a writer, or if you are an evolving writer, you need to consider this an ineluctable component of the game (to say nothing of performing on the radio, which I also do), and write and revise accordingly.

I like readings and book tours because I want to engage with readers, and in order not to lose them at hello, I need to never stop honing my performance skills, with any luck, without compromising the writing itself. I must always try to determine what an audience wants and needs and how I can make my prose-on-the-page live up to those expectations, if not fully, at least half way.