Write more, own less

The dishes are back in the cupboards, the leftovers have been safely stowed in the refrigerator, the dog has been walked and another American Thanksgiving is about to be in the rear-view mirror.

I have a writing deadline, and I really want to get this house set up and in order. We moved in while I was in graduate school and working, then I moved my mother across six states into a two-bedroom apartment and then into a single room in a nursing home. Since graduating in May, my two goals have been to write more and own less. I was going to write my deadline piece last night, and then spend my post-meal holiday cleaning and divesting.

But after baking four pies (apple, chocolate chip walnut, pecan & lemon meringue) and baking six sweet potatoes last night, I was too tired. Then, this morning I got up and made stuffing, sweet potato & marshmallow casserole, a salad, a vegetable platter, cheese & crackers, covered a wheel of brie with fig jam and baked it, baked an acorn squash and got the potatoes cooked for Sweetheart to mash. And defrosted and heated the smoked turkey I found at our local co-op last month. My uncle had a smokehouse when I was growing up. When I saw that bird at the store, it went straight into the shopping cart.

I was the main kitchen person, but I had help. My sister and nephew are here from Canada. Debby (the other kid in that picture of me with books from an earlier post) writes books. She has three children’s picture books in print, all based on Jewish folktales; one young-adult (middle school age) novel and a non-fiction book, “Your Child’s Hearing Loss.”

She wrote it with an audiologist after finding out that her three-year-old daughter – my now 18-year-old niece – had mild-to-moderate sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. Debby, raised by parents whose first instinct when faced with a need to learn about something about which they knew little was to find a helpful book, went looking for a helpful book. It turned out that there weren’t any. Now there is.

Naturally, I think all of my sister’s books are wonderful. But I have a special fondness for “Room Enough for Daisy,” which she wrote with her friend Rita Feutl. Cindy Revell is the illustrator. It’s a story about a kid who has too much stuff and wants a bigger room – and more stuff. Over the course of the story, Daisy learns about the hazards of clutter.

I know all about the hazards of clutter. If I ever write a screenplay, it’s going to be a romantic comedy/horror film called “When Packrats Fall in Love.” So I relate heavily to Daisy.

Which is why you won’t find me shopping tomorrow. I’ll be home, cleaning and getting rid of things. I plan to start by cleaning a plate full of leftovers.

Tommy in Spandex (with pictures)

So, this weekend we were going to drive to Chicago to see Sweetheart’s brother, Tommy, who is playing an angry bass player in “Dee Snider’s Rock-n-Roll Christmas Tale.”

The poster outside the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place

I’ve been looking forward to it since June, when he’d got cast.

Tommy is a ridiculously talented singer, actor and bass player who’s done a fair bit of work locally, but this is the biggest thing he’s been in since I joined the family. And he’d been a Twisted Sister fan in high school. If I’d ever heard a Twisted Sister song , I wasn’t aware of it (I was married to First Husband and too busy with babies to pay attention to ‘80s hair metal when it was happening), but I knew the name Dee Snider and that he was big for something. So I was thrilled for Tom and excited to see the show. We were going to drive down and stay at a friend’s house, then stop to see First Husband’s father on the way home. He’s not in terrific shape, and I try to visit him once a month or so.

Ironically, however, Downtown Chicago was closed for Christmas. Driving was a non-option. Thanks to our sister-in-law J, we didn’t find this out the hard way. This is the e-mail she forwarded Friday morning:

“Subject: IMPORTANT – PLEASE READ Lights Festival Information


The Magnificent Mile Association’s Lights Festival Parade is going to be this SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 22nd. There are events that occur from Oak Street to the South Side of the Chicago River throughout the day on Saturday.

Street closures occur throughout the Broadway Playhouse neighborhood during the day and evening. The attached notice defines streets and times of the closures. Please know it will be EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO CROSS MICHIGAN AVENUE LATER IN THE AFTERNOON AND EVENING. Closures will begin as early as 7am and end as late as 10pm.”

She wondered if anyone wanted to ride the train with her. P, my mother-in-law, did. So did we. I arranged for a dog sitter (and cat feeder), called our friends M&G for a ride and met up with J and P at the train station. P bought us a hotel room – our anniversary is Thanksgiving Day and that was her gift – and off we went.

After settling in at the hotel, walking along my side of Michigan Avenue (the parade was in full swing and I had a great view of peoples’ backs and the tops of floats) I managed to score us a dinner reservation at Deca, thanks to Fadi and his colleagues, who were staffing a hot chocolate stand outside the Ritz-Carlton.  (Evidently Lights Festival Parade night is a big one for downtown restaurants and our hotel’s restaurant was full-up.) Three filet mignons later, we headed to Water Tower Place and the theater.

J’s parents and other family members were there. So was Sweetheart’s sister, her boyfriend and several of her friends. We took up the center section of two rows, and marveled at a guy with a dreadlock long enough to stuff into his back pocket.

Then the lights went down, and Dee came out and settled himself into the comfy leather chair in a nook at stage right set up as a study. He picked up a book and began to read the story of Daisy Cutter, a hair-metal band whose following had moved on decades before the curtain rose.

The show was silly, heartfelt, and a whole lot of fun. The music was great – all four actors played and sang (no lip-synching necessary), and the costumes alone – designed by Dee’s wife Suzette – were worth the price of admission. (Imagine technicolor Louis XIV crossed with stripper vibe times four, and you’ll kind of get the idea.)

The playbill said it ran 100 minutes (no intermission). It felt a lot quicker.

Afterward, Tommy introduced us to his castmates, and to Suzette and then Dee. Both hugged P and told her how much they adore her boy and what a great mom she clearly must be. (They got that one right.) They were gracious and open-hearted with the rest of us, too, as you can see from the pictures.

Group shot of Tommy, his mom and Suzette Snider
My mother-in-law, Tommy & Suzette. Suzette designed the costumes.
My mother-in-law with Dee Snider.
My mother-in-law with Dee. He is my hero for seeing what a great guy my brother-in-law is. I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t sing a note. (He can sing many notes, and did last night. But he is also a very generous performer and has great comic timing.)
Tommy, Sweetheart, Sister & Dee
Sweetheart is the one between Tommy and his sister. Dee is, of course, on the right. My other brother-in-law missing is the only thing keeping this from being an absolutely perfect photo. They make ’em photogenic in that family, I tell you.
Dee and me
Dee with me. Even I don’t look so terrible. (Side note: I’m probably going to write about the buffalo shirt at some point.)

If you’re in Chicago between now and January 4th and want a silly, uncomplicated laugh – even if, like me, you’re Jewish, go. You won’t be sorry.

How to become part of a musical instrument

Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the picture at the top of this blog. If you don’t want to know what’s going on, stop reading.

I didn’t know Kit was taking the picture. I was busy scattering our friend Julie’s ashes. I’d never done anything like that before and was apprehensive. Then I got my handful. They were beautiful, a kind of grayish ivory dust. They were Julie and we were together, still. She was spilling through my fingers and sticking to my hands because it was raining and the wind was blowing. So I was finding pretty small plants and leaves and places she would like and making sure she got to be part of them.

Julie was 48 when she died on August 22nd, 2012. By then, we’d been pals for more than 20 years. We’d planned on being old together, and we were, just not in the way either one of us had imagined.

Julie had envisioned an old people farm, with all of us together in some sort of communal arrangement. We hadn’t worked out the logistics, but we had the broad-brush basics of the thing. Land, animals, and younger types who would do the heavy lifting while we venerable elders did whatever and bankrolled the operation.

She’d had breast cancer in her 30s, but had beaten it. So when she developed a cough that spring, the doctors told her it was allergies. By the time she went to the hospital in July, her blood oxygen was so low she ended up in the Intensive Care Unit with three tubes down her throat for nine days.

The tests came back and the news was grim. The cancer was everywhere. Julie could live one to two days without the tube, or two to three months with it. My friend, who had already filled up 12 yellow pads keeping up her end of conversations with medical staff, her husband Joel and visiting friends, didn’t hesitate.

She lived another month without the tube, most of it in hospice (except for the week she went home because she was worried about spending too much money being there). She was alive and we were going to lose her but we hadn’t yet and we were all so happy to be together. It was a glorious time. She ate pizza, drank wine, and held court during visiting hours. And, of course, she spent time with Joel. They’d been married for 14 years by then.

Sweetheart’s Aunt Betty had died there the year before. She was only there for a day; the first person I ever saw die, and the first time I’d ever been to a hospice. It was lovely. There were walking paths and a creek on the grounds and large, spacious public rooms. The patient rooms were comfortable and large enough to comfortably accommodate eight to 10 people.

Julie and her crew, hanging in the gazebo
Julie’s crew, hanging in the Gazebo.

The hospice staff was delighted that someone was finally using the gazebo – Julie was the first patient to ever really take advantage of that space. The four of us had dinner together there one night. I told Julie that the idea of her dying was less upsetting than the idea that she might be in pain while it was happening. She laughed and told me not to worry.

“It’s the pharmaceutical death factory!” she said. “I can have hallucinations! I can have bunnies or unicorns or anything I want!”

So I didn’t worry. I just promised her I’d make sure Joel got fed for the first year after she was gone and made arrangements for my then 12-year-old dog to have a post-life person until I get there.

I didn’t see bunnies or unicorns the night she died. But we were all gathered, and at one point JonAnne and I crawled up in bed, on either side of Julie, and just talked. We told stories about different adventures we’d had with her. I was on the left side and could hear her heart beating.

Eventually, it was just Joel and his father and Elaine, Julie’s best friend since fourth grade. Elaine said she’d give me a ride home at 10 and Sweetheart took off at about 9. Then it was just us. We were going to leave Joel and his dad at 10, shift change.

Julie died at 9:57.

On the drive home, we agreed that Julie hadn’t wanted those two alone when she Left. It was only later that Elaine realized that Julie had managed to die with a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim and a Pagan in the room.

There was a memorial service in summer. We scattered and buried her ashes in fall. I had my Yamaha guitalele (you can see its neck in the photo).  First, we scattered. Then we walked up the hill and buried. While people put things in the hole – rocks, or other things she would have liked – I put my fingers on the fretboard and tried to empty my mind and let whatever song came come. It was one I didn’t know I knew, and afterward Joel told me that “Singin’ in the Rain” was one of Julie’s favorite movies.

It wasn’t until the next time I took it out that I discovered ashes had blown back on my instrument.

I thought about what to do for months. Then I asked Joel if he would be okay with my having the guitalele varnished. He was.

Julie probably would have preferred a drum. But none of us have the slightest doubt that she would be delighted at being part of a musical instrument.

Leonard Cohen, Suzzy Roche and parties

Last year, Leonard Cohen did something I never thought would happen in a gatrillion years. He played a show in my city. I owe my Cousin-by-Choice Peter a huge debt of gratitude for that, because Peter’s the promoter who got him here.

Turned out that Sweetheart had never heard of Leonard Cohen, which I discovered when I told him I had just spent few weeks’ worth of grocery money on tickets.

Sweetheart and I are both musical, but our paths have been divergent. There’s plenty of overlap. But encyclopedically, I’m the classical, folk, progressive, Jewish and rock-of-a-certain-era side of the house, and he has the punk, new wave, metal, rap, reggae and hip-hop categories covered. We both know our psychedelia.

It didn’t take Sweetheart long to realize I’d been right when I told him he already knew lots of Leonard’s songs, and within the first 15 seconds of the show, he declared the sound “pristine.”  It was. If you’re looking for a crazy-intimate concert experience in a large hall, a Leonard Cohen show is just what you’re after.

This week, I’m looking forward to a crazy-intimate concert experience in a smaller venue. It was a fictional venue when faux band Spinal Tap played there, but Cousin Peter made life imitate art when he opened Shank Hall 25 years ago. On Wednesday, Suzzy Roche and her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche are playing there. I first heard of her in 1979, when Danny Rosenthal showed up at my house with an album by The Roches. They became one of my favorite singing groups instantly and were one of my first interviews as a baby music journalist.

I would describe Suzzy as a warm acquaintance, one of those people who’d probably be a great friend if time and life circumstances had lined up. Her Lucy is a little older than my oldest, and when they were wee and our friend J told L about Lucy, she insisted we send her a birthday present. So I shipped off a copy of “The Paper Bag Princess,” and it was a hit. Suzzy returned the favor by turning me on to “The Story of the Dancing Frog” and “Brave Irene.” I’m schlepping a copy of “Froodle” to the show for them. If you share my sensibility with children’s picture books, it’s a fair bet that you are my kind of person.

I want them to fill Cousin Peter’s club, so I posted an interview someone did with them on my Facebook Feed. The interviewer asked about three “dream guests” they’d invite to a party. What I liked even more than their answers was their agreeing that it would be more fun to watch what went on among their guests than to interact directly. Those two are my partygoing soulmates.

Which is why, in addition to “Froodle,” they would probably like Harvey Kubernik’s new coffee table book, “Leonard Cohen: everybody knows (Backbeat Books)” as much as I did. It’s like being at a party where he’s a guest and you get to listen to all of his conversations without having to deal with an actual interaction.

Kind of what you might get from eavesdropping at a party where Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell and Phil Spector were all present, but without anyone giving you side-eye for being a creepy stalker.

Kubernik has organized the book in sections delineated by timelines. Each contains photographs, vignettes, quotes and biographical information. In confident, unpretentious prose, he outlines the ways in which Cohen’s experiences informed his artistic identity and shows, using their words, what he has meant to other artists.

He also gives us a clear sense of the way in which Cohen did not set out to become an icon. He just set out to live, following one logical move to what looked like the next in any given moment, utterly unaware of the degree of which – and how far – his logical path differed from the average person’s life trajectory.

Accidental courage, I think, drives the luckiest among us. I’d long considered Cohen’s words and music a great gift, but had never imagined how his life had lined up the way it had. I’m grateful to Cohen for yet another gift, and to Kubernik for wrapping it up into such a satisfying package.

A gluten-free fairy tale, starring Montana

Once upon a time, say this past July, a hungry, tired couple riding their motorcycle from Alberta to Wisconsin checked into a fabulous hotel in Billings. The restaurants in the hotel were closed. So they walked down the street and into the Montana Brewing Company.

The place was hopping, full of white people being waited on by skinny young servers with perky blonde ponytails. They were seated, handed menus, and the woman asked the skinny ponytail assigned to their table if there was a gluten-free menu.

Three years before, the woman had traded the chronic disease with which she was diagnosed in her early 20s for the one she actually had. Now she was one of “those people.” The ones who, when you invite them to dinner, tell you what you’ll be serving.

This woman owed a huge debt to anyone who could eat gluten without getting sick and avoided it anyway. She knew they were the reason it wasn’t as big a deal now as it was when her friend Scott was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 1985. (Back then, cooking dinner for Scott & Sara was one of her favorite sports. They practically had to mail order his food. She felt sorry for Scott. Life hardly seemed worth living without sourdough bread and bagels. She found out, though, that not spending hours doubled over in pain or trying to act normal when your guts are in total rebellion was even better.)

She figured the gluten-free menu would look similar to the one in her hand. It was many pages long, large and heavy and laminated. Delicious options, such as “Wood-fired Nachos” and “Roasted Garlic & Brie,” were described in glorious detail. It was late. She was tired and hangry. She needed more than a salad, but didn’t want a big, heavy meal.

The server returned with her gluten-free menu. It told her everything she needed to know about what the Montana Brewing Company thought of her celiac ways.

The Montana Brewing Company’s gluten-free menu. (The rip is original.)

Her man ordered a beer and something yummy. She went for the only thing that bore any resemblance to the “You are our kind of people” menu – the roasted garlic & Brie – with apples instead of pizza bread. It was exactly what she was in the mood to eat.

The server was back in no time flat to tell her that the kitchen was out of apples, so no brie and roasted garlic. She ordered steamed vegetables. Her sweetheart had a beer. She drank wine and served him a verbal appetizer of righteous indignation spiced with bemused laughter.

Then dinner arrived. It turned out the kitchen was out of steam, too. She ate raw veggies and ranted. She watched Sweetheart enjoy (as much as anyone with a ranting dinner partner can) his perfect dinner. Before they left, she asked Ponytail if she could keep the gluten-free menu.

They walked back to the fabulous hotel, fell into bed and slept.

Then the sun came up, and the day was new. The hotel diner was open. The couple ate breakfast.  She ordered eggs and potatoes, which came with gluten-free toast. He ordered Captain Crunch French Toast. They drank excellent coffee. It was heavenly. Their server had dark hair, a cool tattoo and a six-year-old son. By the time the couple rode out of town, the woman and the server were friends on Facebook.

They all lived happily ever after.

Annie Proulx, awards banquets and other First World problems

So, today was a frustrating day on multiple First World fronts. I’ll spare you the details of all but one occurrence. Mid-afternoon, as I was fruitlessly trying to find a copy of Annie Proulx’s “Accordion Crimes,” which was at no bookstore – and the library was closed – I gave up and went to the grocery store.

Serves me right for waiting until the day of Book Group to read it. Sigh. I had actually planned to fly to Washington DC today. Every 10 years, it seems, I receive a journalism award that comes with a banquet. So I was excited about picking up a Simon Rockower award from the American Jewish Press Association for a story I wrote last year. We were going to fly out and stay with my wonderful friends Diana and Allen. Allen couldn’t go to the banquet, but Diana was going to. And then, a couple of months ago, I went to buy tickets.

They cost $185 apiece.

“Are you serving gold?” slid out of my mouth on hearing the Sweet Young Thing on the other end of the phone inform me of the cost. That was when I asked if award recipients got any sort of discount. The answer was no.

I’d figured it would be an expensive proposition – these events are, in part, fundraisers. And I didn’t mind paying my way. But when a trade group prices its awards banquet tickets at a higher price than the amount most of the recipients were paid for their award-worthy stories (yours truly included), it might be time for some organizational soul searching.

As a reality check, I posted what happened on my Facebook feed, asking whether I was overreacting. More than 100 comments later, I was reassured and comforted. And grateful for my amazing support system.

So, when my award arrives in the mail, I am going to host an awards banquet… for my friends.

Out from under the bed, with a couple of books

So, Tuesday was Election Day and we all woke up the next morning here in the US either depressed beyond belief or jubilant. Neither one is a very healthy state to maintain over time.

Truth is, the world is kind of a scary place these days. What with beheadings making an unfortunate comeback, income inequality, climate change, the digital Third World (more on this sometime later) and other things, the underside of my bed is becoming a very attractive place to be. So what if you can build a Great Dane out of the dust that’s collected there? I just think of it as soft lining for my secret nest. But only one percenters can spend all their time hiding beneath their beds (and they’ve no reason, even though I’m sure even their underbed regions are plush and fabulous with real soft linings and not the imitation stuff made from excess pet hair). I do not have that luxury.

Which might explain why I was particularly drawn to two recently published books.

Adrian and the Tree of Secrets (Arsenal)” is a graphic young adult novel originally published in French with a story by Hubert (English translation by David Homel) and illustrations (no translation needed) by Marie Caillou.

I’d actually never read one of these before. It’s more a short story than novel, the tale of a teenage boy for whom school and home are both equally unpleasant. The smart-and-awkward combo plate is generally a one-way ticket to high school pariah-land. Toss coming to terms with being gay into the mix and you’ve got a whole new level of angst. Adrian is handling it pretty well until Jeremy, the most popular boy in school, turns out to have his own secret. Jeremy also has a girlfriend, who doesn’t take kindly to idea of losing – or sharing – him. Caillou’s drawings are a worthy match for Hubert’s spare prose, and the point at which they leave Adrian is both disturbing and authentic. I would go with 13 and up on this one, and it’s a great way to spark a discussion about difficult topics with people in that age group.

The other, “Graphic History of Anti-Semitism (Schiffer)” is a coffee-table book, a perfect gift for the history buff in your life, particularly if your history buff is a Jewish fatalist. Jerome Forman, a retired attorney, began collecting antique European and American anti-Semitic graphic art – postcards, posters, ads, sheet music, books and other material – after handling an employment discrimination case. His client, an African-American woman, had worked for years at the same company and was passed over for a promotion which was, instead, given to a white woman who was less qualified than she. As he prepared for and tried the case, Forman wrestled internally with his own issues and thoughts about the consequences of hatred borne of differences between people of different hues and beliefs.

Forman has divided the book into several chapters, among them, “The Mythical Jew,” “Organized Anti-Semitism” and “Jewish Power.” Many of the pieces in his collection are not in pristine shape, because he sought out material that had been used – postcards that were purchased, written on and mailed.

Forman provides information on the pieces in his collection (the places from where and to where a postcard was mailed, the history of terms such as “Sheeney,” thought to have originated in England in the 19th century). His descriptions are informative without being tedious, and devoid of outrage, a wise move. Letting the art speak for itself is a big part of what provides this worthwhile book with its power.

I’m sure they’re out there on the big web-based bookselling behemoth, but if you decide to buy one or both and there’s still an independent bookstore in your town, go there. You can also check out Worldcat, which will steer you to the nearest library where they’re available.

Or just skip it and go hang out under your bed.