Chicagoland, Spertus Style, Traffic and The Midwest Work Ethic

Before I went to Chicago, my friend, Anthony Giacalone, told me: “Chicago is that iconic town that’s in your head when you think ‘American city’. It’s not vast and hectic like New York City, but it’s not provincial like Boston. And you can get a cab anywhere, anytime.” He was right. What a remarkable place! The architecture, like a necklace of glittering diamonds draped around the neck of sublime lake shore, stunned. When you come from a city like Charleston with its refined antebellum garden homes and walk Chicago’s wide boulevards of soaring steel and glass, you feel as if you’ve stepped through history from one era to another and maybe you have.

I have to sincerely and deeply thank the Spertus Institute, Chicago’s leading center for Jewish learning and culture, offering graduate degrees in Jewish Studies, Jewish Education and Non-Profit Management, for inviting me to the One Book/One Community program which featured my One More River this year. Beth Schenker, their program director, knows how to put a party together. We had phenomenal crowds, around eighty at one of our venues, and they were informed, engaged, and appreciative.

But the truly remarkable part of the size of the crowds has to do with Chicago traffic. Every time we stepped out of the city or tried to roll into it, the traffic beat Manhattan and Boston’s combined! The hour, the day of the week didn’t seem to matter. There were rows and rows of vehicles snaking slowly either into or out of the city virtually all the time. One of our drivers told us you could leave Chicago at two in the morning and wind up in a jam.

So how to explain the size of my crowds? I have to credit the programs Spertus offered leading up to my talks, showing the film Shalom Y’all with a discussion following by the superb Rabbi Capers Funnye and hosting a book talk by the insightful Rachel Kamin, Director of the Gray Cultural and Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. There was also provided a brilliant study guide created by Spertus’ Lisa del Sesto. Talk about warm-up acts!

Spertus put Stephen and I up at The Standard Club, a private club established in 1869 by Chicago’s German Jews, which exudes both in its structure and service a rare old world charm and attention to detail. Think marble steps, wrought iron balustrades, intricately coffered ceilings, wood paneled walls, a dining room to rival The Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge and you’ll have it about right. It’s in the financial district of The Loop and across the street from the Federal District Court, which proved convenient as Stephen has an old student, his best student from his days teaching law school, who is now a federal district court judge, Judge Sam Der-Yeghiayan, who we were most excited to see in Chicago as he’d promised a tour of the federal court, his chambers, and as a special bonus, he happened to be hearing a criminal case during our stay to which we’d been invited as observers.
So there we were, nested in the warm embrace of the old world with a view out the window of the shining, spanking new. We open the curtains of our room and across the street is an office building. At eye level, a grey-haired lawyer sits working in his shirtsleeves, files piled high around him. It’s late on Saturday night, after we’d arrived and been taken out to dinner by the Judge. “He must be preparing for court,” I tell Stephen. “Yes,” says he, with a bit of a shudder. “Reminds me of how late I’d work back in Boston. . .”

Throughout our stay, we kept checking on this hard-at-work fellow. Every time we opened the curtain, no matter what the hour, there he was, sometimes in the lone lit office window (out of hundreds), plugging away. I get up at seven on Sunday morning to get ready for the folks at Anshe Emet on Chicago’s north side, and there he is, spinning in his wheeled office chair from one end of his long desk to the other. I get back around noon and there he is, still at it. When we leave for Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard at one, we check and he hasn’t yet had a break. We’re back around four thirty, after the Bears game, and the city’s emptied out. We breathe a sigh of relief. Our workaholic’s not there, although he’s left the lights on. We head out to grab some Italian at the legendary (amongst lawyers) Villages and when we return, we check on him just for fun. He’s there! Staring at a monitor. Still in shirtsleeves. I’m thinking when he wasn’t there before, it must have been a quickie bathroom break or maybe he was that harried guy downing a pizza next to us at the bar at the Villages. Monday morning, Monday afternoon, Monday night, Tuesday morning, same story. By this time, I’m wondering: does he live at his office? A nasty divorce in progress, maybe, and a wife that’s kicked him out? No place else to go? Or is this indeed a man preparing for a very important case? Whose life and liberty depends on him? Is it a tax case that could ruin a business and family? Or a murder that cries out in the night for resolution? Whose angel of justice is he anyway?

Of course, I’ll never know the answer. What I do know is that although Stephen worked throughout his Boston legal career like a dog til ten p.m. most nights (ok, he didn’t start til eleven or twelve in the morning, so what?), this Chicagoland lawyer is the hardest working sun of a gun I’ve ever witnessed. I raise my hat and glass to him and to the values of a Midwest whose work ethic could inspire such devotion to cause and career.

Unless he just couldn’t face the traffic.

The Lonely Art, A Little Less Lonely

I’ve never been a joiner of clubs. Not since the Blue Birds, the Campfire Girls, and Horizon Club. Maybe the weight of all those beads dragged the joiner in me under at a tender age. I’ve never regretted my refusnik status. My banner is emblazoned with the old Groucho Marx riposte: I’d never join a club that would have me as a member. Never until this weekend, anyway.

Enter the Atlanta Writers Club. I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when the AWC invited me to speak on my (very) long path to publication. Who were these people? Why did they bother to gather monthly to talk about writing when everyone knows the only way to write is to sit down and do it? There’s a reason writing is called the lonely art. The first thing that’ll kill it is to have someone looking over your shoulder while you’re trying to work.

So I went there with a few preconceptions. (Always a bad idea.) I figured I’d be speaking to the young and uncommitted. While I crafted my speech, I worried they’d be too young to comprehend a couple of my cultural references and I played up my matronly status,thinking that if the young’uns could identify with me as a sweet ole mama, I’d be golden. I stressed perserverance and good luck as the keys to my success but I hoped the first quality was the one they’d remember. You know how flighty the young can be.

And then I walked into the Student Union at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody and saw my audience. About fifty or sixty writers, if my dismal ability to assess such matters can be trusted, most of whom were grey-haired, if they weren’t dyed, white, or bald. There were a smattering of people in their 30s, I think, but only a handful in their 20s. Probably young in this crowd meant 40 on average. Clearly not the group I expected.

These were serious, accomplished people. Witness George Weinstein, author of Hardscrabble Road, a Pulitzer nominee. Romance author, Nicki Salcedo, who if the sample of her work provided here is any indication will take romance to a literary level in her debut novel, All Beautiful Things, soon to appear out of Belle Bridge Books. And Soniah Kamal, whose short story available on Kindle here, gives one a taste of her raw, edgy take on a cross cultural love affair that takes one on a rollercoaster ride of the unexpected at every turn.

But if you know me, you know I’m used to being wrong. I sat down and listened to the preliminary speakers, a grammarian who talked above my head – I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about but maybe my frequent and intentional breaking of rules has something to do with that – the aforesaid George Weinstein who spoke on recycling and revising older work. There were awards given to the winners of a recent writing competition. And then I was up. In the end, I’m sure it was Southern hospitality in part, but the group seemed to like me. They laughed at all the right places, anyway, and their questions afterwards were cogent, incisive. They bought my book and chatted with me while I signed. Apparently, I was inspiring! Informative! Spot on!

And that was very nice to hear. I think I’ve come to comprehend why people join clubs. How good it is to hang with the like minded, focused on the same goal. I can see how these people help each other, support each other. And if only my thick-headed self hadn’t been a refusnik all those years, I like to think maybe these folks would have had me in their club. And that would have been a very good thing.

Home Improvements

My husband is a very smart man. According to his I.Q., he’s in genius territory. When I was a girl, women were just beginning to assert that they could do any job a man could do, and many of us still looked to a man to take care of them, to guide them through life’s thickets. I was no different. I sought out men who could teach me something. If they were good-looking and possessed of a degree of charm, all the better, but what I looked for was smarts. When I met Stephen, handsome, brilliant, accomplished, and with a certain odd panache, I hit the motherlode.

“This guy is better than an encyclopedia,” I’d tell my girlfriends. “You can ask him anything – I swear to God, anything – and he’ll give you chapter, verse, and exegisis!”

Honestly, before Google, there was nothing sweeter for a writer than to be able to ask from across the room: “Hey, honey! What’s the capital of Kafiristan again?” And to hear the reply: “Ancient or modern?”

Over forty years of Q&A, however, I learned the downside of life with a mastermind. He’s hardly ever wrong. When occasions of domestic discord arise, it’s a misery to always be on the losing side over matters of recorded fact. So I confess when we were standing in the Outdoor section of Home Depot that day and Stephen gravitated to the big stand-up grill with some assembly required rather than grabbing the cook ready little Smokey Joe, I felt a cheap, petty thrill.

He’s got an Achilles heel, you see. The man’s a bit challenged when it comes to mechanical perception. When he had his induction physical during the Vietnam era, he took the Army intelligence test. The test consisted of a drawing of an engine with its parts spread out and labeled by letter. The chore was to decide where the parts fit. Stephen flunked. The grunt next to him who needed help figuring out where to put his name got a 98%. It was a transformative moment for a proud young man unaccustomed to failure and the beginning of a life-long respect for the mechanically inclined.

Not that his deficiency stops him from taking on home projects. I appreciate his courage in this regard, but what I hate is being drafted into the role of assistant when I know the enterprise is going to be a long, drawn-out exercise in frustration for both of us. So before we went to Home-Depot’s check out line, I said: “You buy that monster and I am not helping you put it together. Just remember that. You’re on your own.” Himself, balancing his oversized box over the top of his shopping cart with loving care: “Gotcha.”

Box sat in the garage for about four weeks before he decided to tackle assembly. Then last Tuesday, the hour had arrived. I was upstairs at my desk trying to get some work done. I hear the box ripped open. I hear the removal of items, the trashing of wrappers, and the soft, low cry, “Oh no.”
I’m a bad woman sometimes. I start to laugh quietly. Then: “Mary! There’s at least a hundred pieces in here!”

“That’s ok,” I say. “I didn’t want to use that ‘til Saturday. You’ve got time.”

Poor guy’s down there working furiously. There’s a lot of clatter and bang, a few curse words, and once or twice: “Ouch!” Over the next four hours, more clatter, bang, curse, “Ouch!” End of Day One and he’s got the hood assembled.

Day Two. “Where the hell is the ash receiver slide? What the hell is an ash receiver slide?” Then: “Mary! I have to go to the hardware store! They didn’t give me enough wingnuts! I need six more!”

Day Three. I hear the words I’ve been waiting for. “Mary! You have to help me!” I don’t bother reminding him he promised not to enlist me in this project from Home Depot hell. I discover I am, after all, more compassionate than vindictive. In a flash, I’m at his side. Poor darling looks miserable. He hands me the 12-page assembly guide. “I can’t figure out where the charcoal grid support rods go.” I study the diagrams. “Well, honey, that’s because you’ve got the side shelf fastened where the control panel goes. That’s why the side shelf wobbles. The rods are supposed to go through those holes you’ve put screws in.”

A couple of hours later, we’ve each done some swearing. I think a couple of times I stamped my foot. We had to get the magnifying glass out to be able to follow the little dotted lines on the diagram that tells you where to stick what. But the job is done. And I hear the words that are sweetest to my ear, signifying a rare triumph over forty years of always being wrong:

“Thanks, Mary. I couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t told me how.”

In the end, a blessed occasion. Only the side shelf still wobbles. And we’ve got six left over wingnuts.

How Hannah and Ralph Came to Love the Shiksa

I met my husband the same year his first marriage fell apart. Theirs had been a short union, under three years, but in that day divorce was still scandalous in most circles and cross-cultural unions considered dangerous or an indication of an imbalanced mind. Which is why my my husband’s parents, Hannah and Ralph, did not want to see me, know me, hear about me, or so much as consider my existence when Stephen told them he’d fallen for an Irish-Polish Catholic girl whom they would come to love as much as he.

This was before the house in Delray Beach. Hannah and Ralph were snowbirds, spending a month or two every winter in North Miami Beach, at the old Colonial Inn. They had a regular social crowd there, a group of five or six couples, New York or New Jersey Jews all, who palled around together. They played Hollywood gin rummy by the pool, went to jai alai, ate at The Famous (kosher) restaurant downtown, took in the revue at The Americana. A few months after Stephen and I met, Hannah and Ralph, worried about their eldest coping with his failure in the marital department, sent for him to join them for two weeks, which he dutifully did, taking a room on the opposite side of the pool at the Colonial.

Now there was nothing Stephen hated more than a Boston winter. He should have been delighted to bask in the sun and enjoy maternal attentions and paternal pride. But he was lonely. After the first week, he sent me a plane ticket then told his parents his plans: I would arrive the next Tuesday. They were aghast. Not the shiksa! they cried. How can we show our faces around here if you bring the shiksa! But I love her, he told them. I want you to know her. They were adamant. We will not speak to her. We will not meet her.

Alright, Stephen said. Do what you must, but she’s still coming. I’ll check out of the Colonial and move into the Suez. The Suez was the motel next door. There were tears and protestations from Hannah, scowling disapproval from Ralph. But their son was a grown man. He did what he wanted. When he told me of their opposition, I said: Maybe we can win them over. No, I do not think so, he told me, somewhat mournfully. And maybe it was his tone of voice, of this man I loved who had already suffered enough from the break-up of his marriage, but I decided to punish these cruel parents for their refusal to meet me. I thought: Get in the way of his happiness? I’ll show them!

Basically, my plan was this: They expected a blond, blue-eyed, slut of a shiksa who would ruin their son’s life. Well, then that’s what they were going to get. I dyed my dark brown hair platinum, I bought a very short black crepe suit. I bought false eyelashes, upper and lower. Luckily, my eyes were already blue.

When I got off the plane at Miami International, Stephen was waiting for me. I saw him some ten yards away and my heart leapt. I click-clacked towards him in my black crepe suit and spike heels. He glanced at me, then looked beyond me. I had to stand in front of him and pluck his sleeve to get his attention. Uh, Stephen. I’m here, I said. He started and dropped his far off gaze to the bleached out hussy in front of him. Mare? he asked, is that you? Well, yeah, I said, fluffing out my hair with an upturned palm. Do you like it? He was drop-jawed but covered quickly. I like you any way you choose to be, he said, his voice low and heavy with subtext. I laughed. We hugged. We kissed. We got my luggage and to the hotel in record time.

The next day, he told me he had to go make an appearance at his parents’ hotel next door and then he’d be back to spend the day with me. He returned after fifteen minutes, shaking his head with wonder. They want to meet you, he said. Who knew if I called their bluff, they’d crumble like a house of cards. Who knew?

Now it was my turn to feel anxious, guilty. I brushed down my bouffant Marilyn Monroe do. I put on minimal make-up. Unfortunately, I hadn’t packed the one bra I had that I’d not burned in ‘71. All the skirts I had with me were mini. My shorts were short shorts. But I did my best in to dress respectfully to meet the Glickmans. With what I had to work with.

Our first meeting was stiff, formal. Much as I’d tried to tone Ms Slut Shiksa down, I knew I still shocked. Yet they were polite. I could see what it cost them to make the effort and I was ashamed. They told us they were going to the Bahamas for a few days with their crew of friends, returning after we’d leave to go back to Boston, but they wanted to have dinner with us first. I thought this a radical victory of young love over old world prejudice.Then we drove for dinner. Far far away from North Miami Beach. To the most out of the way, nobody-knows-you’re-there delicatessen in all of Florida. It was so out of the way it’s possible we were in Louisiana.

When we got back home, I dyed my hair back to its natural color. Three months later, Hannah and Ralph came to Boston to visit us. Our buzzer was broken, so I ran downstairs to answer the front door when they arrived at our apartment on Beacon Street. Hannah was climbing the steps, her hands busy with shopping bags full of New Jersey delicatessen and bakery goods she was certain were not available in Back Bay. Ralph was at the car, half way in the trunk, unpacking yet more provisions. Hannah took one look at me and without pausing to say hello, she called to her husband: Raaalph! She’s not a blond anymore!

It was an odd weekend. Everyone played nice but I knew there was still a lot of parental resistance. Then on Saturday night after dinner, someone suggested we play Hollywood gin rummy. We pulled a card table out of a closet and played. Hannah and I won big time. She was so excited at one point, she called me by Stephen’s first wife’s name. Good hand, Julie, she said. And we all ignored it because after all, it was a sign of acceptance, wasn’t it?

The next time they visited, she brought me gifts. Two pantsuits. Two polyester pantsuits that were Hannah’s idea of fine dressing and mine of please-God-don’t-let-anyone-I-know-see-me-in-this. We went out to dinner at a high-profile restaurant. I wore one of the pantsuits for that one and only time. On seeing me, Hannah and Ralph sighed. She looks beautiful, Stevela, they said. Their son beamed.

And they loved me ever after.

Cain, Abel, and Everybody Else

Everybody knows the Cain and Abel story. Good son, bad son, jealousy, murder, exile. Then there’s Jacob and Esau.Trickery, betrayal, more exile, guilt, reconciliation. Mix up genders and there’s Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom.Innocence, rape, revenge, exile yet again, rebellion. All of it meaning there’s a motherload of complexity when siblings disagree and rarely do siblings disagree with more passion than when the parents are in extremis. That’s a fact, Jack. And I’m here to say Amen, brother, Amen.

There are two parts of this, I think. One is that individuals bring their own manners of coping with trouble to the table and one man’s rosy dawn is another’s night of the dead. The optimists and the realists, the half glass full crowd and the half glass empty crowd each get to bang their spoons against their plates. Which is where it ought to end because we’re all tolerant, aren’t we? Of opposing views in 2012?

But then heads bang against the second part: adolescent roles are revived quantum style when Mommy and Daddy are fading away, abandoning the field, leaving the troops to their own devices. Where childhood’s roles resurrect in adult bodies, no one’s safe.

As I’ve been pondering this awhile now, without coming up to any useful conclusions, I thought I’d go to an expert. That’d be Susan Morse, author of The Habit, a humane, humorous memoir of coping with her very unique and elderly mother’s battle with cancer.

Here’s what she said:

“I really can’t comment. In fact I have no idea what you are getting at, and honestly I resent the implication that my siblings and I have any trouble getting along whatsoever. My siblings understand perfectly that I was sent from heaven. I am the one with boots on the ground, the Good Daughter Who Takes Care of the Aging Parent, and they know their job, which is to do exactly what I tell them. If they behave themselves (and that’s a Big If) they are allowed to occasionally offer advice, and then duck when I lunge around ready to bite their heads off for interfering. We all have our roles in a family. We just have to figure them out.

“So I feel for you and your problems with your adult siblings, Mary, but they have nothing to do with us. By the way has my sister been talking to you? Oh, man, she is asking for it; that’s it, I’m calling her…..”

Ah well. As Tolstoy said: All happy families are alike. Not sure about those unhappy families. Neither Susan nor I know anything about them.

Gals n’ Guns

In the South, people take the 2nd Amendment very seriously. It’s a cultural thing. Maybe it has to do with the Civil War. Whatever else the Civil War was about, the threat of federal troops in one’s backyard left an indelible impression that bleeds into notions of self defense.

So many Southerners are rather fond of their guns. After all, the South has a culture that can support a magazine called Gardens and Guns. Many daddies teach children how to shoot at a very young age, by overall national standards. I’ve known young women who’ve received pistols as graduation presents, tucked away in the glove compartment of the traditional graduation car. They’re meant for self-protection. The bluest democrat I know, a gentlewoman of great compassion and charity towards her fellow man, can shoot the flame off a candle. (She’s also a little deaf from target practice back in the day before ear protection became mandatory.)

While I learned to shoot up North prior to a trip to Jerusalem (long story), when I moved South, I got myself a Concealed Weapon Permit. Why? Because I could. Later, I bought a gun, a 38-revolver known as a Pink Lady for its pink laminate grip and its light weight. It took me a while to find the time and occasion to fire it.

Then a friend asked if I’d like to accompany her and her husband to a local shooting range and at last get to fire that new gun of mine. I said yes. We went to a standard indoor range, satisfied ourselves that our weapons worked, our aim was serviceable, and our nerves still intact. The women tired first. My friend and I went to a lounge to wait for her husband to finish up. It was there we were treated to an only-in-the-South moment.

One of the ranges had been closed for a private party. NRA bigwigs? Hunters’ confab? No. Out of that door fluttered six twenty-something women, each flushed with pleasure, each in her own pink t-shirt reading “Caution: Gals with Guns”, each carrying pink ear and eye protection, pink targets, and huge smiles. I asked if they were a club. No, says they, we’re a bachelorette party!

Well, I thought, here’s something new under the sun. Let me investigate.

Me: So you’ve shot before?

Them: Only Shirley!

Me: How about the bride?

The bride: First time today!

Me: So, did you like it?

All of them: It was great! I never felt so empowered!

Me(to the bride): Does your intended shoot?

The bride: No.

Me: Keep it that way.

As their happy pink backs skipped out the door, an old man approached my friend and I. Very smart gals, says he. We concur. Know what you do with them pink targets? he continued. I’ll tell you. You put ‘em on the wall where a man lookin’ in from outside can see ‘em. Ain’t no low-life goin’ to enter a house that tells him from the git-go ‘There’s a gal in here with a gun. And she can shoot.’

He had a point, I suppose. But I don’t think even our bridal party would get past the idea of used targets, especially pink ones, as living room décor. Earth tones work much better there. Pink is for t-shirts and grips.

In Memento Mori – a guest blog by Felicity Carter

I once read a novel about mortality, about an apocalypse that was wiping out earth and heaven simultaneously. The central conceit was that the dead only exist for as long as they’re remembered; once the last living person forgets them, the soul disappears forever. So a well-known historical identity like, say, Socrates might go on and on and on. A nonentity who never reached the history books, on the other hand, might be forgotten about after a few years, and wink out of existence altogether.

This week, Mary’s mother died, which is why she isn’t blogging today. I’m Felicity, a friend of hers who lives in Europe, and I’m filling in for her. I thought about that book again this week, because Mary and I have been discussing grief by email. One of the things we’ve talked about is how physically painful it is when the people close to us die. It’s like the deceased hack away a big chunk of our flesh on their way out the door.
There’s probably a physiological reason for this. I’ve read that grey cells – the same ones that can be found in our brains – also live in the stomach and the fingertips. We literally process emotions in our stomachs, so it’s not surprising that when we’re under extreme emotional pressure, our stomachs twist and clench and make us feel like hurling. Grief can feel an awful lot like the urge to vomit.
But I think there’s something else at work as well, and it’s to do with memory. Except the novel got it the wrong way round. It’s not that we the living forget the people who have passed on, it’s that the dead take their memories of us with them. People who have played an important role in our lives, who have witnessed us at crucial times, take their witnessing with them when they go.
Like most people, I’ve passed through several distinct phases of life. For example, one of my major goals in my 20s was to stand on stage in a red velvet recital gown and sing something operatic, to huge applause. While I never managed to get the huge applause, I did at least accumulate a series of voluminous recital gowns, in a wide range of eye-catching colours.
Those gowns are now in storage somewhere. Today if you asked people to describe my personal style, they’d probably say ‘middle aged and boring’ and they’d be right. I could protest and tell people about my inner yen to parade through the streets in a Baroque gown, swigging from a bottle of wine, but they wouldn’t believe me. That’s not a side of me they’ve ever met.
Sometimes even I feel like I should grow up and accept the fact that I’m tediously middle aged. What saves me is that I have a handful of friends who remember what I was like back then, who have experienced at first hand that I have a wilder, more bohemian side. Their first-hand knowledge of me is my assurance that I really do have more dimensions than meet the eye.
I need people in my life who can put me in touch with who I was, who I’ve been and who I might still become. Without that, I’m literally no-one.
Having a novelist as a friend is always fraught with danger, because you never know if something about you is going to be used for creative purposes (a character called Felicity Rose Carter, anyone?). But novelist friends are also capable of reflecting our deeper truths back to ourselves, which is why I value Mary’s friendship so much. Good friends help you remember who you really are.
And mothers, well, mothers literally define who you are. What could be more physically painful than losing a mother, even if she was very old and died peacefully, and we’re long past the age when mothers are supposed to mean so much to us? Because who knows us better than our own mothers? Who else saw us when we first came into the world, when we made our first mud pie, or when we first went off to school? Those are parts of our identity that we ourselves usually can’t remember. When our mothers die, those important parts of who we are, held within her memory, die forever.
Mary, no wonder it hurts.