Monday, October 15, 2007

I'm All Ears

Pull up a chair; I'm all ears. Don't be embarrassed because you find yourself turning to me for advice. Many other souls -- lost, confused, or indecisive -- have made the very same pilgrimage. But before you surrender your woes, you should be forewarned there’s a hitch in my mode of problem solving.

First off, while I am a certified expert (photos of more well-known counselors are included in this post) in a variety of subjects, I know my limits. If you stick to relationships, child rearing, weight loss, memoir writing, and Macs, it'll be smooth sailing.

But if instead, you are querying about fashion, travel, sports, financial planning, religion, nightlife, deep sea diving, dog obedience, cooking, home decorating, sewing, crafting, carpentry (I could go on, but am trying to limit this to 500 words.), I'd suggest a Google search.

If you are like the hundreds (okay dozen, um, handful) of callers who ring me up, you're likely to begin our conversation with the standard, "Do you have a minute?" Now, others might respond to that question with an exasperated sigh, but for yours truly, it’s positively lyrical. "Absolutely," I invariably respond, pushing away my mate who's wondering when dinner will be served, or my pooch desperate for some tummy-rubbing attention.

With coffee cup in hand, I settle into my office chair, and depending upon the problem, either log on to my computer, retract a folder from my resource files, flip through my Rolodex, pull books from the appropriate shelf, or simply listen. There's likely to be a number of uh-huhs on my end, which I can assure you, doesn't signify inattentiveness, just eagerness to jump in once you've paused in your downloading.

If you're wondering where I have the chutzpah to claim wisdom in my handful of fields, consider this evidence: In the realm of Relationships, although my first marriage ended in divorce, it did last 30 years and my ex and I are on friendly terms, even vacationing together as a family. Also, my second spouse and I will be celebrating our 10th year in 2008.

Re: Childrearing. Have you met Faith or Jill? Need I say more? Weight loss, down from 119 to 102 and have kept it off for more than 10 years. Memoir-writing, check out the title of this blog at your local bookseller. And as for Macs, I may not be on par with the guys at the Genius Bar, but can hold my own with any of Apple's other black t-shirted personnel.

Now, as to the forewarning I hinted at: If you turn to me for counsel or problem solving, do not expect it to end there. While you may be satisfied your issue has been resolved, I, on the other hand, may not be ready to let go. I may have to press on, refuse to dislodge even when you plead, "That's fine, that's all I needed to know." Well, maybe that's fine for you, but I haven't gotten to the root of the problem. Surely there's more we can discuss to clarify the picture. And when I contact you tomorrow to learn how my advice changed your life, I'll expect you to answer the phone and not screen my calls.

But I'm all ears.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Short Fuse

Stand back, I may be about to blow! In the past, you could've described me as mild-mannered and been spot on. But as I age, I find myself easily erupting; and some recent flare-ups have made me wonder: Am I alone in my new volatility, or are other traditionally tame people experiencing similar behaviors? And, is having a short fuse so bad?

To start you thinking, I've shared two tantrums and hope you'll confess to a few of yours. For inspiration, I've included pictures of some famous hot heads.

Here goes: In my childhood (see "The Division Street Princess"), I was the classic good little girl. I can't recall ever talking back to my parents, raising my voice, or stalking off a sidewalk game. If challenged, I'd likely cry, or run home to mommy. Adolescence continued the same pattern and first marriage tussles typically ended in silence rather than a strong defense.

I admit to losing it a handful of times with friends, daughters, or second spouse. But I don't count these as authentic blow ups because my anger dissolved in tears. The following blow-ups, though, where absolutely no aqua was in evidence, made me feel 10-feet tall.

The first occurred on the CTA Blue Line. Husband Tommy and I were seated near exit doors when a male passenger leaned over the metal bar, smiled at the two of us, then dropped his pants to show off his …..

Because Tommy was partially blinded by a patch over one eye (recent cataract surgery), he didn't catch what was going on. I, instead, leaped from my seat and erupted in profanities. "Get the f@#$ off the train!" I shrieked. I don't know who was more startled, the flasher, other passengers, or me. I continued screaming until the offender slinked off the train, hiking up his pants on the way out. I felt like Wonder Woman!

Number two for your enjoyment took place during a discussion with a neighbor (known to be a feisty guy). We were in the midst of a debate, when he switched from the topic at hand to a personal attack. "You're retarded if you believe that!" he threw at me. "Shut the f@#$ up!" I returned. (You'll note I have a preference for a particular epithet.) He continued on, Tommy intervened, then pulled me home. Again, no tears, just a feeling of triumph.

(In the interest of full disclosure: I wound up writing my neighbor a note apologizing for my outburst because I realized his anger covered a raw spot. “Let’s put this behind us,” I suggested. He happily agreed. But I still count my initial rage as evidence of new boldness.)

I can't guarantee future outbursts won't find me dabbing my eyes and seeking a tissue. And I can't predict what will set me off. So, this will have to serve as fair warning: Watch out who you're messing with. I may be short, but…

Monday, August 13, 2007

Keep In Touch

In the past, I've failed to keep in touch. You've complained I don't call often enough. And as for letter writing, well, we've both neglected that quaint courtesy. But all that has changed, I promise. You see, my daughters bought me an iPhone for my birthday and now I can't keep my paws off the buttons. So call, text, let's catch up.

After receiving my iPhone (it was the first time in memory I lunged for the gift rather than the birthday cake) and swatting away my grandson who kept trying to snatch it from me, I reflected back on telephones of the past and the scenes they conjured.

Back in the 1940s (described in my memoir), I clearly see a small, spindly telephone table with a shelf for the Yellow Pages. When the telephone book wasn't a booster seat for me, it lived in its cubbyhole and grew tattered and smudged. A black, rotary dial phone topped the table; and my inventive father somehow anchored a pencil to that stand using string and rubber band.

I can't remember our phone number on Division Street, but my husband Tommy swears his prefix at the time, on Chicago's far northwest side, was Gladstone-something. Maybe my brother, Ron, although three years older than I but with a better memory, can come up with the long-buried name.

The Princess phone (It lights up!) was introduced in 1959, and that image finds me sitting on the floor of a narrow hallway in the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my mother. The phone was mounted on the wall, so I wound the cord around my fist while I yakked with my fiancé/first husband. During some of those daily calls, we considered eloping because we were both furklempt from the wedding arrangements. (We didn't elope, but interestingly -- to me, maybe not to you -- second husband Tommy and I got married in Las Vegas, somewhat of an elopement.)

During those same years in the late '50s, my mother Min was employed as a switchboard operator for American Linen Supply Co. After toiling behind a counter wearing a stained apron in our mom-and-pop grocery store, the new job was one she relished. I can still see her returning home at 6 p.m., her gorgeous blue eyes as bright as my illuminated phone, bringing tales of how her fingers zoomed across the board.

All of the other long-ago phones have faded from memory; the only images tied to them are rings that brought exceedingly good or bad news.

As for cell phones ("mobile" now, I guess) I was a slow subscriber, believing them primarily useful in case of emergency or for ordering pizza on your way home from work.

But because I've been a M.O. (Mac Obnoxious) since 2004, I have lusted for an iPhone since it was first unveiled. But the price tag kept us apart. My daughters -- evidentially witnessing their mother's desperate need for an object to love and pamper (other than themselves) -- on Aug. 10, presented me with the perfect gift.

Sadly for Faith and Jill, now that I'm armed with my clever iPhone, and have mastered Text Messenging, those poor dears are continually being harassed by their mother's: "hi, luv, how r u? xoxo"

I'm still w8ing 4 their reply.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Nap Time

If you and I happen to be in the middle of a conversation, and my eyelids start to lower and my head falls forward, don't take it personally. Check your watch. The big hand is likely on 12 and the little on 1, signaling time for my nap.

Daily 1 p.m. naps are a strict rule in the Soloway-Madison household. To assure that postal workers, UPS drivers, Watchtower evangelists, or other doorbell ringers heed our sacred hour, Tommy and I post a note on our mailbox pleading for silence. Our visitors likely pause as their fingers near our bell, read the well-worn sign, and believe their compliance protects a sleeping baby from stirring. Whatever.

Before you deride our daily habit, you should know that health experts praise nappers, and also that many famous people were fervent nappers. First, the benefits of napping: In a Feb. 13, 2007 article in The New York Times (my absolute favorite newspaper and source of all of my boorish conversation starters; i.e. "According to an article in today's New York Times…), "napping at least three times a week for a half-hour was associated with a significantly decreased risk of death from heart disease." Since most of the relatives cited in my memoir succumbed to this particular scourge, I'm up for any remedy that might stave off the family inheritance.

A website devoted to the subject (did you doubt it?), adds "nature intended that we take a nap in the middle of the day." Also, "an afternoon nap as short as ten minutes can enhance alertness, mood, and mental performance."

Second in my evidence are these famous nappers, whose accomplishments in life should further convince you of the practice's perks: Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and several more from yet another website on the topic.

These noteworthy schlufflers likely have their own excuse for their siestas; mine is related to the hour in which I awake: 4 a.m. Please do not suggest I stay up past my usual bedtime (9 p.m.) to encourage later awakenings. Others have offered this and the result is by 10 p.m. I am wide-awake, then struggle to fall asleep, finally drop off at 1 a.m., and pop up at my traditional early hour. It's hopeless.

As for Tommy, I don't know his defense. He sleeps soundly from 10 p.m. to 5:45 a.m., returns for a morning nap from 7:45 to 8:45 a.m., and joins me in our joint 1 p.m. nap. Lest you think my spouse is aged or infirm, know that he is a vigorous guy who recently made the front page of the Lakeview YMCA newsletter.

And naturally Buddy, our 9-year-old Golden Retriever, accompanies Tommy and me for all bedtime snoozes. Flat-dogging* it on our bedroom floor, Buddy is happy to be part of our daily ritual. The only problem is that our dog's superlative hearing allows him to detect the footsteps of the postal worker, UPS driver, and evangelist. Duty calls, Buddy barks. Goodbye naptime. For me, of course. Nothing disturbs my Tommy.

*I have tried several times to take a photograph of Buddy in his flat-dog position. Have you ever successfully crept up on a sleeping canine and attempted a flash? Not possible; this one will have to do.

Yawn…. Honest it's not you. Time to…zzz, zzz, zzz.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Celebrating Dad: Old Spice & Gastronomy

Sunday the 17th is Father’s Day, so naturally I’ve been thinking of ways to celebrate Dad. Although Internet and newspaper advertisers have generously offered gift ideas, I’m relieved of that particular task because my father has snubbed the holiday for the past 49 years.

Of course, Irv Shapiro didn’t intentionally skip all of those gift opportunities. I’m certain he thought himself invincible and that his three-pack-a-day Camel habit or king-size appetite despite diabetes would never catch up to him. Alas, it did, and my father died at the too-young age of 48.

Today's post not only honors fathers long gone, but also those hale and hearty -- specifically Michael Blackstone, the dad of Charles Blackstone who is the author of "The Week You Weren't Here." Following my serving, Charles dishes up his own take on the subject.

My dad’s corporeal absence doesn’t stop me from considering the sorts of gifts I’d like to bestow on Pop. For nostalgia’s sake, there would have to be Old Spice, the men’s aftershave lotion manufactured by the Shulton Company back in 1938 and still on the shelves under the Procter & Gamble label.

In the Fathers' Days of my childhood, Old Spice with its colonial sailing ship logo was always first choice. And although Chicago's Division Street and Dad’s butcher counter were far removed from the nautical theme of the product, Dad gleefully accepted my perennial gift as if it was the cleverest choice on earth.

My father read a paperback book a week (we called them pocketbooks back then), especially pulp novels. Mickey Spillane was one of his favorite authors. "I, the Jury" was published in 1947 (Spillane wrote it in six days), and it introduced his tough detective Mike Hammer.

So when Old Spice bottles started backing up on our medicine cabinet’s shelves, I would switch to a Spillane novel, or another writer with an equally gritty pen.

Now this may be odd for a Jewish man, but my dad was very handy with tools. At one point in his life, he even had a workshop. The feature I most remember about that oil-stained and jumbled cave was the row of baby food jars that Dad used as containers for nails, bolts, and screws. He would fasten the jars’ covers to the basement’s ceiling, unscrew the container when in use, and then reattach it at the project’s end. I recall thinking how clever he was; I still do.

I recently saw a Stanley 62-piece Professional Grade Mechanics Tool Set on sale for $32.90 (regularly priced at $71.99) and in my mind’s eye; I carefully wrapped the set and presented it to my delighted father. “Old Spice would’ve been fine,” he might have said. “You shouldn’t have.”

Oh, there’s many more gifts I could think of that would please Dad, but I believe I’ve just given him the very best present a child could offer: Although 49 years have gone by, he's as fresh in my mind and in my heart as he was when he opened his very first package of Old Spice. What more could a parent wish for than to be forever remembered by his princess?

Father’s Daze by Charles Blackstone

My father has always been rather hard to shop for. He just doesn’t like anything. It’s not just disdain for all things pedestrian; a lot of popular gift items are just lost on him. The only DVDs he’s ever wanted to watch—The Curb Your Enthusiasm boxed sets—he already has, thanks to me. Worst of all, since he retired nearly five years ago (“I’m not a doctor!” he's taken to proclaiming), he no longer wears anything more elaborate than Dockers and button down shirts. Not even to fancy parties. And this means I can’t give him ties.

I know, I know. Ties for Father’s Day are so cliché. Right up there with fireworks on the Fourth of July and Christmas evergreens. The tie, though generic, was always at the top of my list because it was a gift that still allowed for tradition, for whimsy, and for me to get him something that he actually knew how to use and desired—until he gave them up. And it didn’t matter if I picked out an ugly one, or one so shockingly contemporary that we both knew there was no chance of him removing it from the gift box, let alone wearing it in public.

You could always win with a tie, even when you were losing. A tie wasn’t hard to find. You could get them at the supermarket. A tie said love, admiration, and appreciation. But none of that mattered if he had renounced them.

The prospect of choosing became a little more daunting with each passing tie-free year. I got away with gag gifts. Smile, nod, thanks, back to TV. What would it take to really impress The Dad? A $200 bottle of Chateau Neuf-de-Pape?

My wife solved the problem last year. I was about to suggest we just pretend we were out of town over the weekend and skip Father’s Day entirely. That would buy me at least a year. Then, from out of nowhere, Alpana said, “Why don’t we just take them to dinner?” I immediately recognized this as the pure genius that it was. All it would take was a phone call to make a reservation. (It didn’t hurt that we were friends with the proprietor.) And I wouldn’t have to give up the chance to give a gift that would not only be desirable and useful but also showcase my personality.

So we took them to Papillion, a charming eight-table French place, tucked away on Brown Street in downtown Skokie. Chef Danny regaled us with asparagus soup and beautifully marbled steak and soft shell crab and lobster medallions and a festive array of coronary-inducing cheeses. My dad ate like an emperor, or a pro-wrestler. Volnay and Pommard flowed into us like we were tributaries. We ate and drank and enjoyed the beautiful early-summer night. There was even a festive crème brûlée at the end. You can probably guess who got the first—and last—spoon.

At the end of the evening, my dad, the last to leave, stumbled out sated, impressed, touched, and, I can only hope, adequately loved. If he remembered tonight for even an hour longer than he’d remember having received a carbon-dioxide-powered corkscrew or pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones, I could consider this Father’s Day a resounding success.

“You’re a good son,” he said to me, after draping a leaden arm over my shoulder.

“And you’re a hard dad to shop for,” I returned.

He couldn’t deny it. I didn’t want him to.

(Photo above: Michael Blackstone is pictured with his wife Linda and daughter Maya. Taken in Normandy, 2002.)

Happy Father’s Day to Dads everywhere!

¡Muchas gracias!
To Andrea Telli (pictured on the left), manager of the Humboldt Park Branch of the Chicago Public Library; José López, executive director of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center; Billy Ocasio, 26th Ward Alderman, and Ann Bishop (on the right) professor, the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science for inviting me to be part of their marvelous June 9th event, "Historic Memory and Literary Tradition in Humboldt Park: The Intersection of Puerto Rican and Jewish Experience."

I shared the program with poets David Hernandez, "The Urban Poems;" Eduardo Arocho, "The 4th Tassel;" and members of Café Teatro Batey Urbano; as well as authors Hazel Rochman, "Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World;" and Carlos Quiles and Josefina Rodriguez, "Memorias de Josefina.

And another bow of gratitude to Maddi Elga Amill (photo), owner of Books Plus Publications for making my book available for purchase at the event.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Obsessions: The Bag Lady, The Pen Freak, and The Bone Collector

If you’re wondering what to get me for Mother’s Day, I could use a bag. Not to worry, I’m not talking about one of those obese leather designer bags, or the tiny jeweled ones shaped like animals that ring up at $3,000. I’m talking backpack or messenger bag – tops sixty bucks.

Wait. Perhaps I should be clearer. I don’t really need a bag; I already have more than a dozen. And that’s not counting the handful I’ve already bequeathed to others or sold on e-Bay. It’s more like I can’t stop myself from acquiring more and more and more -- trying to find the perfect bag. That one bag, with the ideal dimensions, correct number of compartments, durable material, nifty design. It’s an obsession.

But I’m not the only one with an odd compulsion. Husband and wife contributors, Kevin Davis and Martie Sanders, let us in on their strange collections, too. Kevin is a Chicago-based journalist and author whose book, “Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office,” was released from Atria Books in April.

And Martie is a Chicago actress who is currently rehearsing "Criminal Hearts" for Apple Tree Theatre's summer season.

But first, my own backpack/messinger bag nuttiness: I’m not sure why I prefer to strap a 30-pound load on my back, or weigh my right shoulder down with an equal burden, rather than opt for a leather purse more appropriate for someone my age. But I have a theory: I’m the sort of a person who lives her life in “what ifs.” What if I wind up somewhere – let’s say a doctor’s office, emergency room, police station, or other setting where a wait is inevitable, information is urgently needed, and data must be recorded? I’m prepared.

Clever me will have stuffed on her person: a paperback book, cell phone, iPod, electronic and paper address book and calendar, water bottle, snacks, pens, pencils, marking pens, highlighter, lined notebook, cosmetics, mirror, Advil, Tylenol, Gas-X, Band-Aids, wet cloths, digital camera with extra batteries, Post-it flags, a Chicago street directory, and a rubber-banded batch of The Division Street Princess postcards.

Before you chuckle at the above list, consider the answer my daughter Jill gives to those stumped by my refusal to stow my gear. “Why doesn’t she park her bag at home, in the car, or with the coat check?” they’ll ask, shaking their heads at Jill’s loony mother.

She responds, “After the Armageddon, when we’re all living on cots in the high school gymnasium, my mom will be the most popular person in the place. She’ll be surrounded by desperate souls, offering to trade, bribe, or beg their way to her backpack.”

My other daughter has an equally sanguine view of her mother’s schlepping system. In fact, Faith wears one of my forsaken bags on her delicate frame and awaits others I toss on the discard pile.

Now, let's hear from Kevin Davis, who says he took most of his notes for his new book using black ink Papermate Fine Point pens. He titles his contribution, “Awash in a River of Ink”:

For someone who does most of his writing on a computer, I have an absurdly huge collection of pens. I cannot stop hoarding them. I have a sickness and think I need help.

I shouldn’t really call it a collection. It’s an accumulation. There are hundreds, maybe as many as three million pens in my house. I never counted. I cannot resist taking free pens from hotel rooms, offices, seminars or promotional booths at street fairs.

I pick pens off the floors of coffee shops, on the train or the bus. I have enough ink to copy the entire contents of the Chicago Public Library–including every branch and bookmobile.

My collection includes all genres of novelty pens, most of which are rarely clicked open or uncapped. Among my favorites is a green, torpedo-shaped, soft rubbery Zyrtec pen I got from my Mom, who gets tons of these from the pharmaceutical reps at the doctor’s office where she works. She also gave me a pink Ultram ER pen (extended release tablets).

I have a pen commemorating Robert Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival from 2002, an American flag pen from a video store, one from a Bangkok hotel and a blue light-up pen from a lawyer friend. I have never used these for writing anything.

Most of these pens sit hidden and untouched. I store them in old coffee cups, in desk drawers, shoe boxes, art boxes, on my nightstand, in my car glove compartment, inside jackets and coats, briefcases and backpacks. I shall never be without one. Or five. Yet I continue to buy more pens because I can never find the right one, that perfect pen that combines grip comfort with a smooth, rolling glide, even ink flow and a sharp finish. I recently bought a box of “Office Depot Rubberized Barrels” for everyday use. Not bad. But not perfect.

Maybe it’s time to go with the flow. There’s no reason for all this plastic and unused ink to sit around. I should treat pens like my most frequently used writing tool: my computer keyboard. Squeeze the life out of it. I will type until the keys are worn, coated with enough crud and dead skin so that I can’t see the letters any more, or they get stuck or break. Then I buy a new one. It’s time to drain some ink and flick some Bics.

Now Martie Sanders shares the story of her scary stockpile. Watch for her solo monologues in Live Bait Theater's "Filet of Solo Festival 2007," and for the fall show of the Sweat Girls, a group Martie co-founded. Listen up:

I collect bones, but only bones I find. Ribs, vertebrae, skulls. I consider seashells bones, too. And cobblestones...and beach glass. I suppose my bone collection could be defined as intriguing objects that won't disintegrate in my lifetime. It wasn't until well into collecting that I learned you are really not supposed to take a bone from its sacred resting place. Since I lived so many years completely ignorant to this, I'm hoping the Gods will let me live a few more.

I guess my bone collection is my mother's influence. Among my mom’s many collections is an expansive gathering of animal-themed art and tchotchkes. Upon visiting my childhood home, one of my friends said "Wow! Have you ever tried to count the number of pairs of eyes in your parents home? It's boggling!"

But I suppose my mother's biggest collection is quirks. And "quirks" being just as expansive by definition as "bones." Mom loves oddball people, bizarre food, mystical experiences, and wacky jokes. She has been known to gather all of these in the same setting and call it "a party."

When one of the deer skulls I found needed a place to weather and sun to get rid of its gamey stench, I decided to bring it to Mom's backyard. As I was traveling by plane to get back to Detroit, I had to pass through the airport’s x-ray baggage check. I got stopped. The guards were alarmed by the skull -- probably wondering what kind of psycho travels with a head in a plastic Jewel grocery bag. "It's for my mom who's an anthropologist... uh archeologist,” I lied.

And really, it was for Mom because she unflinchingly gave my deer skull a respectable shrine in the sun. As the two of us posted the skull on a stick above Dad’s prized bed of tulips and daffodils. It looked so "Lord of the Flies" we giggled, just imagining Dad's reaction. Which eventually was, “For God's sake. What the hell is that in my flowers?”

So dear readers, spare your pity for Kevin’s, Martie’s, and my harmless afflictions and instead fess up to your own assortment of irresistible whatnots. We’ll start with my husband, Tommy, and the packages of golf balls he’s unable to pass up.