Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lie to Me

Whoever said, “Honesty is the best policy,” must’ve been thinking of vote tallies, thumbs on scales, and other spots where truth is preferred. But if you’ve got some insight about me – let’s say you find my tics troubling, my grey hair aging, or my book underwhelming -- I’d prefer you curb your candor, and instead, lie to me.

I’ve thought about unsolicited opinions often, but the subject hit home after my Nov. 15 appearance on WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight” show. When a friend asked how I enjoyed the experience, I coyly admitted I winced each time I saw the TV-me lower an eyelid or pucker my lips. I was fishing for, “You looked great! I didn’t notice a thing,” but instead caught, “I know what you mean. I’ve seen you do it in person.”

Okay, in this case I take blame for providing a cue, and realize my friend had my best interests at heart -- perhaps thinking there was a remedy for my flaws. But, I wish he had taken a less honorable route and fibbed.

Am I the only one who feels thusly? To wish for duplicity, rather than frankness? To learn the answer, I queried a few friends and am happy to report -- when it comes to their looks or their books -- they’re just as eager as I for fudging.

First up, Jonathan Black, a fellow panelist on the “Chicago Tonight” gig, and author of “Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz,” offers this experience with unsolicited advice:

“The husband of a friend, a fellow I’ve talked to maybe twice in my life, called me out of the blue to share his thoughts about my book. He’d read a Chicago Tribune review and agreed with the one reservation expressed. Did I need to hear this? No. If he felt compelled to call—I still don’t know why—I’d have preferred excessive praise, even if he didn’t mean it. I was so stunned I actually listened to him for several minutes, adding cowardice to offense. Criticism is a right reserved for professionals and very close friends.”

Next to offer her riffs on the subject is Elizabeth Crane, author of “All This Heavenly Glory.” One involves her husband, Ben, and the other…well, read on:

“Ben got his hair cut a few days ago, fairly short. He knows I like it on the long side, but that I respect his preference to wear it a bit shorter. (His tendency to go a long time between haircuts usually works out well for me.) However, he's had a couple of - um, not so good short haircuts - one had some fringy, well, bangs, let's call them, even though no man should really have bangs, and another we took to calling the Prince Valiant. His most recent haircut came out pretty good, and I told him so, prompting him to tell me that I really could tell him if I didn't like it. I said I would if that's what he really wanted, but that I'd prefer to wait until it grew out so that he didn't feel bad the whole time walking around with a bad haircut. He insisted he really didn't mind. So I said, ‘Okay, but let's just understand that this doesn't work both ways. If I get a bad haircut? You're not allowed to tell me.’

As for writing - that gets quite a bit trickier. One of my friendships suffered dramatically because of some insensitivity on that account that was aimed in my direction. I think sometimes there's a fine line between help that's useful, and criticism, especially of published work - what am I supposed to do if you tell me I suck and it's already out there? But other times, the line is very clearly crossed, and I'd just assume you tell me I'm brilliant to my face and go tell someone else you think you're better than me. But you know, I don't dwell on this stuff too much...”

My third friend to weigh in is Josh Karp, the other panelist on our “Chicago Tonight” show, and author of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture. How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever.” Josh had this to say about comments concerning his looks:

“I was a teenager in the right place (Glencoe, Illinois) and at the right time (early 80s) for a certain brand of Jewish mom (not their daughters) to think that I looked like a movie star.

‘Oh my god!’ they would almost scream, ‘Tom Cruise!’

The overall effect was mortifying. But, in some way, it was a compliment as he hadn't embraced Scientology, jumped on a sofa or gone medieval on Matt Lauer yet.

From 1985-2003, no one thought I looked like a celebrity. I had only the memory of Tom Cruise to keep me warm. Then, while at a bar for a friend's bachelor party, a drunk woman from Ft. Wayne began hitting on me, sitting on my lap and trying to call my wife to tell her ‘how fucking lucky she is.’ Then she said, ‘Oh my god!! Do you know who you look just like?’ As I no longer even remotely resemble Tom Cruise, I began to think, ‘She's from Ft. Wayne. So, George Clooney maybe?’

‘Steve Perry!” She shouted, ‘You look just like Steve Perry! Your totally hot!’

Steve Perry was the lead singer of Journey. One of the 10 living men with a nose larger than mine, and dark hair (his long, mine is short) that integrated feathered bangs with a stringy mullet. The man who, as an 80's solo act, shrieked ‘Oh Sherry.’

The drunken Hoosier took my picture with her cell phone and ran to her friends, ‘Steve Fuckin' Perry!’

Lie if you think I look like Steve Perry. Say nothing. Tell me I resemble Robert Mitchum. Or, be like my vet who (2 years later), in a fit of White Sox fever, said I looked like Paul Konerko, with whom Tom Cruise, Steve Perry and I share a great deal: dark hair, largish noses and - well - the fact that we're white.”

And last in our list of contributions, my husband, Tom Madison. Tommy says he empathizes with Josh’s “You look just like…” problem because many people compare him to former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. My spouse realizes the resemblance is sparked mostly by their similar hairstyles, so Tommy blocks the shot with this favorite thrust, “I had wavy hair. Now it’s waving me goodbye.” Oy.

After reading everyone’s experiences with unsolicited opinions, I’m now wondering if I’ve ever been guilty of telling the truth when the recipient would have preferred otherwise? Did I supply a candid assessment of your temper, business skill, romantic choice, career path, grammar usage, creative work, computer preference, spending habits, addiction or affliction you would rather I have sidestepped? If so, I apologize. It’ll never happen again. Honest.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Angels on Division Street

Barbara Kapner Offenberg and Greg Lopatka have never met. But it’s no surprise their paths have failed to cross. After all, Barbara was a dark-haired Jewish girl attending Hibbard elementary and Roosevelt high schools on Chicago’s North Side, while Greg -- a tow-headed lad at the time -- spent the same years at St. Mark’s grammar and Holy Trinity high schools in my old Humboldt Park neighborhood. But today, I’m introducing them to each other, and to you, and exposing them for what they’ve grown up to be: Angels. My angels on Division Street.

Perhaps it’s this Thanksgiving week that has cooked up the idea of gratitude. But I want to be sure, before this outstandingly fun journey of authorship goes any further, that I acknowledge my many angels. While Barbara and Greg are in today’s spotlight, they actually represent the hundreds (my count, give or take 10%) of friends, relatives, bloggers, authors, journalists, producers, bookstore owners, book club hosts, and others who deserve angel designation for generously boosting "The Division Street Princess."

When I decided to declare Barbara and Greg my Division Street angels, I was pretty sure Greg wouldn’t protest because spiritual beings are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures. But what about Jews, like Barbara and me? What did our sages have to say about these heavenly creatures? So I Googled and learned that angels play a prominent role in Jewish tradition, too; and both religions consider angels to be God’s messenger and our guardian.

Now that I’m comfortable our theme is kosher (sort of), I’ll explain why I elevated Barbara and Greg to their roles. Also, I’m posting photos that are identified at the end of this essay.

Barbara and I attended Roosevelt High together in the 1950s, but at the time, we knew each other only as classmates, not buddies. She was involved in dozens of extra-curricular activities, while my resume is sort of skinny, so there were few opportunities to interact during those four years.

But thanks to our recent 50-year high school reunion – and the zeal of another one of my angels, Beverly Fischmann Steinberg – Barbara learned about my memoir and immediately booked me to appear before her sisterhood at Congregation B'Nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview.

As we say in Yiddish, Barbara is a Gantseh Macher (big shot) at BJBE. She served as Sisterhood Interfaith Chairman, Religion and Education Vice President, Program and Human Services Vice President, and is now on the Temple Personnel and Interfaith Committees. In her career, she’s been at the right-hand of rabbis at Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation, Niles Township Jewish Congregation; and true to her interfaith leanings, is currently in the same seat at Wilmette Lutheran Church.

The event at BJBE, which took place Nov. 8, was a grand success with more than 75 (my body count, plus or minus 10%) sisterhood members attending, including several spouses. I read a chapter of my book, and the crowd followed up with memories of their own old neighborhood days. On top of that, my angel Barbara sold a stack of my books, won me an honorarium, treated me to dinner; and here’s the guardian part: snagged her husband, John, to accompany her while they drove me back to my Independence Park home about 15 miles away. (Skittish about driving at night beyond Chicago’s city limits, I had taken a cab to Barbara’s house and was prepared to do the reverse. But you know these angels…)

While Barbara’s adoption of me shouldn’t be too surprising considering our common Jewish background, Greg Lopatka’s embracement has been a continuing wonder. Back in the spring of this year, after reading a newspaper article about my book (Chicago Sun-Times, April 10, 2006), Greg sent me fan e-mail. And then, being the messenger he has proved to be, mailed a glowing review to nearly 100 of his friends from St. Marks, Holy Trinity, and other places where he picks up chums.

And as a Chicago Public School employee for nearly 40 years, a volunteer at the Morton Arboretum where he helps Naperville kids and parents make atmospheric observations and report them to the GLOBE Program Data Base, Greg has built a mighty potent e-mail list. Now, all of his correspondents not only learn about his celestial teachings, but also are regularly updated on my book events.

Perhaps my astonishment at Greg’s interest in my book displays a bit of naiveté – or dare I admit it: small mindedness – on my part. I had always assumed that the primary fans of my memoir would be Jews my same age. Now I’m happy (nay, ecstatic) to report that Catholics like Greg, plus those of other ethnic and racial groups, and of various ages, are finding themes in my book that resonate in their own lives. Yea!

As for Greg, I believe my book’s draw for him has been nostalgia for our Humboldt Park neighborhood and “the good old days.” In his e-mails to me, he includes photos and descriptions of landmarks, streetscapes, products, pastimes, and other memorabilia. You can take trips down memory lane, too, by clicking on his website.

Can you understand why I feel so fortunate this Thanksgiving week? Absent a large publishing house behind me, and the publicity budget that might have provided, my book has managed to cut across religious boundaries, soar beyond city limits, and travel throughout the U.S. and as far flung as Taiwan. Something heavenly must be at work here. Hooray for my angels, and for any you are blessed to have.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo Captions:
1. Emma Thompson, as pictured in “Angels in America,” the breath-taking HBO film directed by Mike Nichols.
2. Greg on a pony that traveled the old neighborhoods with its photographer-owner to capture treasures like this one.
3. Barbara in her Roosevelt High days, plus a list of all of her activities.
4. Greg at age 14 watching his 12.5-inch Sonora TV.
5. A little blurry, but who could resist this photo of Barbara as a Roosevelt High drum majorette?
6. Beverly Fischmann Steinberg, my angel who was responsible for alerting the entire 1956 class of Roosevelt High School about my book. She also arranged my first book club appearance.
7. Barbara, in the light shaded multi-colored jacket, is seated on the right in this photo taken during the Sisterhood meeting. To her left is another Roosevelt High alumna, Beverly Mann Hollander.
8. Harvey Kupfer at BJBE relating his own old neighborhood memories. To his left is his wife, Elaine. Seated behind Harvey is Frances, and behind her, Lois.
9. St. Mark’s guys all grown up. From left to right: Phil, Greg, Paul, Father Rochford, Gerry, Father Charley, Ray (another Division Street angel), Ken, Ron, Jim, and Jerry.
10. Greg at his Morton Arboretum volunteer gig.
11. My newest angel: Dan Maxime. He is the Tuley high school (class of 1951) historian-archivist. Dan sent news of my book to his group’s several-hundred mailing list. Here he’s pictured with some of his collection of political memorabilia.
12. Charlotte Levy and her husband Marv at the first gig she arranged for me: the Good Timers social club. She has also included me in the upcoming Judaic Culture Day, Nov. 26. Contact Charlotte at Char0223@aol.com for more information.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


For one full year, my daily mail brought a fresh rejection letter from an agent or publisher. I survived those daily wounds believing that once my memoir was out and stocked on bookstore and library shelves, I’d be safe from further pain. But now, six words have emerged in my blogging life that cut even deeper than those earlier brush-offs: Take Me Off Your E-mail List.

While my rational self understands that those who make the request mean no harm – they’re busy, inundated with e-mail and spam, have better things to do than to read my essays – it still smarts. Just hit the delete key, I want to tell them. But if I replied with that suggestion, I’d just be aggravating the situation, don’t you think? After all, they just wrote to tell me they NEVER WANT TO HEAR FROM ME AGAIN.

Instead of weeping onto my keyboard, I decided to query some of my favorite people (photos included in this post and identifications are at the end) who, via their art, gain critics and dejection along with fans. I thought perhaps I could learn a thing or two about growing thicker skin from these stars who survived barbs, digs, despair and other weaponry.

First up, my daughter Jill Soloway, author of ‘Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants’ offers this stinging episode:
“Once, in the ‘do-anything’ frenzy of the first few weeks of my Tiny Ladies publicity, I agreed to do an interview with a site called Television Without Pity. I spoke to the guy for about an hour, mostly about Six Feet Under and a little bit about my book. All seemed fine until a week or two later while masturgoogling I came upon a violent discussion about the level o' my intelligence. I know I'm not the smartest person in the world but these people were actually calling me a dumb bitch. Turned out the guy who'd interviewed me published an exact transcript of our interview instead of an edited interview like most people who publish interviews do. He left in every ‘um,’ ‘uh’ and ‘like’.

It was like a court document but less funny. It's a full fifteen pages-- he took out NOTHING. And, although he removed most of the ums and uhs and likes after I sent him an email explaining how a kind interviewer would do it, I still sound like a total tool. I guess my wounds were that the 6 feet under fans were so quick to jump onto my grave and call me out as an idiot. Read the whole thing plus the mean-ass comments for yourself right here.

Hillary Carlip, author of “Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories from a Life Unaccording to Plan,” sends us this story of dashed hopes:
“OK, here's a wound. Maybe not a deep puncture, or a severe laceration, but more of an oozing scrape. When you're wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin' about having your book reviewed in People Mag, and your publicist tells you the good news -- IT'S HAPPENING! THEY ASSIGNED A REVIEWER, THEY NEED YOU TO SEND SOME PICS OF YOURSELF ASAP!!!!! (alright, maybe she only used one, perhaps two, exclamation points) -- life is good.

Sure, in another email, moments later, she adds, ‘Um... they over-review and not all reviews make it in, so don't get too excited yet.’ But that doesn't deter me. I'm CONVINCED a Critic's Choice, 4 star review will be in there! In fact, I still look in each new issue, every Thursday. So what if my book came out six months ago?! I'll get back to you in a year and let ya know what happens.”

Danny Miller writes a wonderful blog called "Jew Eat Yet?" yet despite scores of faithful and passionate readers, got bruised in this painful episode:
“In March I wrote about a recently discovered home movie of my 1959 circumcision ceremony or bris. I wasn’t trying to proselytize at all and I added a few comments about the people who oppose circumcision, stressing that they made some good points. I also included a tongue-in-cheek recounting of my wife Kendall’s queasiness on the subject in the event we one day have a son. I received some interesting comments, including several from people who thought
circumcision was an unnecessary practice, but it was a very civil discussion.

“In addition to my own blog, I’m an occasional contributor to the Huffington Post, a group blog founded by political commentator Arianna Huffington. I decided to post the circumcision piece on Huffington as well and I was excited when I saw my post zooming to their ‘Top Posts’ list, inching above entries by Nora Ephron, Deepak Chopra, and Harry Shearer. When the comments came fast and furious, I was glad that my post was generating such attention. But I couldn’t have been less prepared for the level of personal attacks (including examples of blatant anti-Semitism) that I received on the
Huffington Post. Here’s a small sampling:
—Pull your head out of your egotistical Jewish ass.
—Would you think the same thing if all male babies had to have their ears cut off at birth? Let’s dress up and make a fucking ritual of it and have a party with covered dishes!
—YOU are the reason there are self-hating Jews, asshole. Your son would have every reason to hate you for being a coward.
—Being Jewish and circumcised is no excuse for the kind of abusive behavior Miller exhibits. Many Jews are humane, decent people. This bozo is a disgrace to the good name of Judaism.
—Circumcising infants is a Satanic blood ritual. All children who are
circumcised are severely injured for life.

“Hello? One person compared me to a Nazi and another urged my wife to ‘replace this monster and find a human being for a father for your children.’ Suddenly the cozy left-leaning website felt about as safe as a Munich Beer Hall in 1942. Oy. When I started getting personal emails on the subject including some ugly comments about my 11-year-old daughter, I realized that this topic was too incendiary for my comfort level and I deleted the whole post. I don't mind a little controversy but I've learned that there are some topics I'll write about on my own blog but not on a national forum. There are a lot of crazies out there!”

While Danny stirred up a whole mess of circumcision critics, my daughter Faith managed to rile the Catholic community with her schlock opera “Jesus Has Two Mommies.” To explain what happened, I’m reprinting the Boston Herald’s description of the controversy. It appeared in the Dec. 14, 2001 issue:

“Faith Soloway was looking for laughs, not controversy. ‘But any time you name a play 'Jesus Has Two Mommies,' I guess you have to be prepared for trouble,’ said Soloway.

The musical satire, which features Catie Curtis, Jennifer Kimball, Sean Staples, Jim Infantino, Meghan Toohey and Soloway, sold out the Somerville Theater twice more than two weeks ago. On Dec. 21 and 22, the uproarious musical will be reprised for three shows at Boston's Copley Theater.

Soloway's goofy, high-spirited, lesbian-themed comedies often place the writer's neuroses center stage. Yet last Friday night, Soloway suffered a different sort of spotlight. A segment of the Fox News Channel's ‘Hannity & Colms’ show pitted Soloway against Bill Donohue, Catholic League president.

Donohue, who hasn't seen the play, continually claimed Soloway was a liar, and then, calling her ‘baby and ‘honey,’ offered to pay for her therapy sessions he felt she obviously needed.

‘It was like watching, not playing, a tennis match. I could barely get a word in. Donohue was like a feral rat,’ said Soloway, who spent much of her allotted time trying in vain to explain that a press quote of hers about ‘putting my middle finger at certain sorts of social construction’ had nothing to do with Christianity.

‘She wants to stick it to Catholics,’ Donohue retorted.

Soloway was ultimately forced to admit, however, that she doesn't approve of Catholicism's condemnation of homosexuality. ‘I think you guys are a little harsh on us,’ she said.

Soloway, ex-musical director of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, good-heartedly lampoons gays, straights, folkies and big-haired women from Revere in her silly, excessive, highly personal and often hilarious shows.

‘Jesus’ concerns Faith's difficulty committing to gay marriage and motherhood, while a black, funky, female God tries to guide her by telling her the tale of Jesus, Mary and Josephine.

As theater, it's both impressive and cheesy, sophisticated and adolescent. The Video segments and multimedia effects, by Ian Brownell, are sensational. (Mary Chapin Carpenter makes a campy guest appearance as the musical star of one video.)

‘Jesus’ is, ultimately, an affirmation of gay lives. ‘I want to please a mixed audience, but the gay crowd doesn't have much theater, and I think it's needed,’ Soloway said.

Will Soloway ever write nongay plays? ‘I will when I get it all out of my system. It's almost out now,’ she said. ‘You see, it's all about me.’”

Now, having poured out our hearts, I think I speak for all of my blog contributors when I acknowledge that our scrapes and kvetches are minor compared to real problems of the world. And, I suppose you can say that if we’re going to put ourselves and our work out there – in cyberspace and for audience consumption -- we should anticipate some jabs and disappointments.

But in the end, we’re all as eager for pats as my golden retriever, Buddy. And when -- instead of earning the “good girl/boy” we’re expecting for sitting up or rolling over -- we get a swat, it hurts. Ouch.

Photo Captions:
1. My rejection letters.
2. Jill Soloway.
3. "Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants" paperback edition.
4. This is the photo they're going to include when Hillary's review finally appears in People.
5. "Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories From a Life Unaccording to Plan."
6. Danny Miller at the 30th reunion of Von Steuben High School on Chicago’s north side.
7. Faith Soloway.
8. The cast of “Jesus Has Two Mommies.” Faith is in the yellow t-shirt.
9. Buddy, mellowing out with my Shuffle.

No pain here; just great fun. Some photos from our Oct. 27, “Holy Trinity of Girl Power” gig at Women and Children First Bookstore with Hillary, Jill, and me. More than 75 people attended and enjoyed the hilarious readings of the two L.A. authors, plus a poignant piece from yours truly.