Friday, October 30, 2009

European Noodles

A while back I was noodling around on facebook and clicked on an ad for a Habitat for Humanity build in Thailand. I had nothing better to do, so I continued through to the application part of the Habitat website, and submitted an application to work on a Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter work trip. Having submitted countless job applications over the past five months without much response, I wasn't expecting to hear back, it was just something to do to pass the time and to feel like I'd accomplished something.

A couple weeks later I received an email from the team leader for the Thailand build, saying my application had been accepted. My response was one more of fear than excitement, I really wasn't expecting to get on the team, and although I'm sure Thailand is beautiful its not at the top of my list of places to visit. I contacted the team leader with questions about the trip, and she seemed, well, less than enthusiastic. It wasn't helping me to overcome my apprehension, and certainly didn't inspire me to travel halfway across the globe. I politely declined the invitation, choosing instead to do some research on the Habitat website to see if there was perhaps a build project that I would feel more comfortable with.

I researched carefully, and applied for projects in Romania, Portugal and New Zealand. Romania holds sway in the primitive part of my brain as I have some Romanian ancestry; Portugal seemed fairly unintimidating - its right next to Spain after all; and New Zealand was a ringer, I probably wouldn't go simply because of the prohibitive cost of flying there, but I'm a huge fan of Flight of the Conchords and a friend of mine traveled there recently and saw Bret McKenzie in a theater. She even took a picture of the back of his head for me. I'm more of a Jemaniac than a Bret Girl, but still, that's pretty sweet!

To my surprise, my application was accepted for trips to all three countries, who knew it was that easy? I politely declined New Zealand because of travel costs, and began to weigh the pros and cons of Romania vs. Portugal. I spoke to the team leaders to get a feel for how it might be to spend an extended period of time under their direction, and while both trips sounded like fantastic opportunities, I finally settled on Portugal. A high school friend of mine lives in Barcelona, so I worked in a trip to visit her before the project, and my dad lives in Switzerland, so we made arrangements to meet in the south of France at the beginning of my trip.

All this was months ago, and it seemed like a project that lay far in the distant future. Meanwhile I continued applying for regular paying jobs while keeping myself busy with volunteer work and writing for Gapers Block.

Amazingly, the day has arrived that I must begin this journey. My flight to Marseille leaves later today out of O'Hare airport, and I'm apprehensive, excited and nervous all at once. I've never traveled this far by myself, but I know it will be a great experience no matter what happens. I managed not to spend any of my severance pay from when I was laid off in May, so I was able to pay for the trip without going broke, and since travel is always a question of having enough time and money - and I rarely have both, I feel like this is a rare opportunity that I should take advantage of while I still can. Someday I'll be sitting behind a desk wishing I'd taken advantage of all this free time, kicking myself for not doing something a little bit crazy, like travel to Europe for two and a half weeks even though I have no job.

I'm leaving the laptop at home, I want to travel light and the fewer things of value that I bring with me the less I have to worry about once I'm there. I'm not sure how much Internet access I'll have, so I'll post as I can but there's a chance that I won't have any big stories until I return in mid-November.

So, Happy Halloween to all of you - or as they say in France, Appee Alloween. There's no hard "H" sound in their language, silly French people.

A bientot!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Me On The Radio

Here's the link to today's Moth wrap-up show on, I'm on starting at minute 24, and run through minute 31.

Chicago Moth Recap

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Firsts" story for the Moth StorySLAM

Tonight was the second StorySLAM at Martyr's, and although I came prepared this time and dropped my name in the hat, my name didn't get called. All is not lost though, tomorrow at 1pm Central time I get to call in my story to Vocalo along with all the other runners-up whose names didn't get called.

It was a good story too, but that's allright - next month's theme is "Blunders," and I'm sure I can think of something worth telling.

Here's the story I came prepared to tell:

The first time I had a UTI - that’s Urinary Tract Infection for those of you not in the know, I didn’t know the warning signs until it was way too late. I felt a strange pressure when I peed, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I had just started dating the man who would later - much later, become my husband, and we were just getting comfortable with each other.

I lived in a roach-infested apartment in Uptown with a roommate who spent her days smoking pot in the living room and watching TV with the volume cranked up, and I spent my days working one horrible temp job after the next, trying to make enough to cover rent and groceries.

So I was temping, I was in the beginning stages of a really tenuous relationship with a man who had just gone through a very bad breakup, and when I sat down and peed I felt a strange pressure. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it - it was like someone was touching a finger to my urethra while I was urinating, it was something I’d never felt before. It didn’t feel alarming, it just made me think: "huh, that's different."

My sister called me from Boston, and during the course of our conversation I happened to mention the strange sensation I felt when I peed. A UTI veteran, she told me to go to the closest health food store and buy a bottle of Lakewood 100% cranberry juice - not cranberry juice cocktail, but 100% cranberry juice. No added water, no sugar, tart enough to turn my mouth inside out and sour enough to give me a stomach ache. She said that should help. We continued talking and I described the strange pressure I felt on urinating, and she said “oh girl, if you’re feeling pressure when you pee, it’s too late for cranberry juice. You get off the phone and you go to the doctor. Now!”

I was taken aback by the tone in her voice, it was one she reserved for delivering really, really bad news, like when someone died or something valuable caught on fire. I was scared. Really scared. The next time I peed it felt like someone was stabbing me in the urethra with a barbecue skewer, and when I looked into the toilet bowl it wasn’t yellow - it was red.

I considered my options: the closest emergency room was a block away, but I couldn't walk a block, it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much, there wasn't a position I could stand, sit or lie down in that didn't hurt. I needed someone to drive me. My roommate had a car but she was stoned, and didn't seem terribly alarmed by my situation. The only other person I knew who had a car was the guy I had just started seeing. I calmed down as much as I could before dialing his number. I don't think he even said "hello" before I burst in with “I’m bleeding, I have to get to a doctor, NOW!”
“Where are you bleeding from?” he asked. I hesitated, we had only been seeing each other for a couple weeks, this was way too intimate a conversation to be having but I couldn't think of a pretty way to say it. “When I pee,” I blurted, “blood comes out when I pee!”

We drove the block between my apartment and Thorek hospital, I walked to receptionist and said “I think I have a urinary tract infection, when I pee blood comes out!” She told me to take a seat and fill out some paperwork. I remained standing, not that it helped.

At the time I was a heavy watcher of the NBC series ER, and I imagined that I’d be waiting for hours as people with shotgun and stab wounds were wheeled in on stretchers, surrounded by fast talking medics, maybe Dr. John Carter himself would be pumping furiously on their chests in an effort to save their lives, but the reality was much different - I was the only one in the ER that night. The biggest emergency that night was that blood was coming out of me when I peed.

I was seen by a doctor, and had to produce a sample. I never truly appreciated just what a wonderful thing it is to urinate without pain, what a wonderful, magical thing it is to pull down my pants, sit on a toilet, and let the urine flow while my mind wanders until that simple act of voiding made me do the silent scream - have you ever done the silent scream? I sat on the ER toilet with a plastic cup between my legs, eyes squinched closed and mouth wide open, silently screaming as a tiny river of red daggers came out of my pee-hole.

This was not how I’d imagined things would progress with my new boyfriend.

The doctor examined my red urine, and wrote a prescription. My boyfriend - I mean, the guy I was seeing, drove me to a 24 hour pharmacy to get the prescription filled, and took me back home. Back in the apartment my roommate was watching loud TV, and barely acknowledged my presence when I returned. She kept the TV on all night, turning it off somewhere around 6 am. At 6:30 my alarm went off. I had a temp job to get to, and I needed the money more than I needed the sleep. I took a shower, clothed myself, and still in a haze made my way to an office building near Union Station. I looked like hell, but nobody seemed to notice. It was a fairly quiet day, and I passed the time drinking huge quantities of water and visiting the ladies room, where I slammed the sides of the stall with my hands and silently screamed every single time I had to pee.

After an eternity of watching the clock, 5pm blessedly arrived. I made the trek back to my apartment, opened the door, and found my roommate on the couch watching loud TV next to the guy I was seeing. I barely said a word to either of them, closing myself into my bedroom and curling up onto the twin futon mattress that I slept on. I heard a knock on the door; it was the guy I was seeing. He took his shoes off and climbed under the sheets next to me, and stayed there with me until I fell asleep.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I have to pee.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Butt Pumpkin - A Very Special Buttered Noodles

In September of 2002 we bought a two-flat on the northwest side of Chicago with another couple; we moved into the first floor unit and they moved into the second. At the time I worked as an executive coordinator at a company that sold advertising air time to cable television stations, and it was as soulless as it was demeaning. I worked for a bully of a boss who enjoyed throwing his weight around and making people feel uncomfortable, but it had seemed like a good job at first, mostly because of the nearly $10K increase in pay over my previous job. I'd managed to stick with it for over two years, but after about six months I'd learned all I could and had no interest in moving up in the company. I grew bored, and began taking classes of all kinds to take my mind off of work: a yoga class at the Y; a magazine article writing class at a local college; and a ten-week intensive course on Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. My boss noticed my lack of interest, but rather than encourage me to expand the scope of my work he began removing items from my plate. He was over six feet tall and easily 300 pounds, and from time to time he'd call me into his office, close the door, lean his fat red face inches from mine and ask things like "is there a problem?" No answer I gave was ever the right one, and he'd keep me captive until I was inevitably reduced to tears. The following day he'd tiptoe around me and greet me with false smiles and a saccharine platitudes, but I knew it was just a cycle that was bound to come around again.

I had been sending out resumes for months and would have stuck it out until I'd landed another job if it weren't for one incident in particular. It had to do with a presentation my boss needed for an upcoming business trip. I'd worked on it for weeks in collaboration with another executive, and there were several versions of it on my computer. Somehow the version I gave him turned out to have an older set of data from an earlier iteration, and when my boss caught the error he called me and my colleague into his corner office that overlooked Michigan Avenue, right across from the Tribune Tower. I watched his massive frame turn from the closed door and approach the table where I sat with my colleague, and steeled myself for the coming onslaught. He opened by telling us that the numbers in the presentation were wrong, and that if he hadn't looked it over he would have taken it onto a plane the next day with him and brought it into a conference room, only to discover that he had bad information in front of a client. He said some bosses would find this kind of thing to be grounds for termination, then stared directly into the eyes of my coworker and held his gaze, turned to me, and did the same. My colleague, a formidable human being and the only reason I could stand coming into work day after day, took the blame saying he had been supervising the project and should have caught the error. I don't remember exactly what I said, something generally apologetic, and when the moment seemed right my colleague and I stood from the table. "Not you," my boss said to me, "you stay here." I stared longingly at the back of my colleague's retreating figure, and lowered myself back into the chair I'd been sitting in. I knew what was coming next, and in that moment something inside me snapped. I'd simply had enough. I offered my resignation on the spot, and asked for six weeks notice instead of the usual two so that I could finish closing on the house and maybe even have a chance at finding a new job. I had to sign a humiliating document stating that I knew my performance was poor, and that if my attendance or performance were unacceptable at any time between now and the agreed upon termination date I would be asked to leave immediately. It was one of the lowest points of my working life.

We closed on the house in late September, but as exciting as it was to move in, I fell into a malaise. I foresaw a miserable fall and winter of working temp jobs until I could find steady work again, and worried about money. A couple weeks into our home-ownership M and I went grocery shopping, and came across a display of pumpkins outside a Jewel food store. This would be our first Halloween in our new home, and we were excited at the prospect of trick-or-treaters ringing our doorbell. In the apartment building we'd moved from there was really no point in buying Halloween candy, but this would be our first communal act with our new neighborhood, and we wanted to be prepared. Of the hundreds of pumpkins on display outside Jewel that night my eyes lit on one that had a cleft down the center, a long wispy tendril that looked like a piece of jute rope emerging from the middle of the cleft, and was shaped exactly like a butt. I laughed so hard that tears ran down my face, and M walked a few paces away so as not to be associated with me. That butt pumpkin gave me a bigger laugh than I'd had in months, and I had to have it. M tried to talk me out of it, we'd just moved into the neighborhood and he didn't want to put a butt pumpkin on the front porch when we hadn't even lived there a month, what would the neighbors think? I gasped and sputtered and wiped away my tears, all the time saying "butt pumpkin... butt... pumpkin," and then collapsed anew into a seizure of bent-over laughing and eye-dabbing. "Alright, pull yourself together," M finally said, "we'll do our grocery shopping and if you still want the butt pumpkin when we're finished we can buy it." M is the king of this kind of evasive maneuver, and I saw right through it. "We'll see" from M means the same as it did when my parents said it to me as a kid, and waiting until the grocery shopping is done was just an attempt to distract me.

I giggled the whole way through Jewel, recovering enough to check items off my list and push the cart up and down the aisles, but the butt pumpkin's high round cheeks kept making their way back into my mind's eye, causing me to burst into laughter at regular intervals. When our shopping was done, the butt pumpkin was still there and I still wanted it, but somehow M convinced me that we were already laden down with groceries and buying a giant gourd on top of all our purchases just wasn't in the cards. I giggled the whole way home, saying "butt pumpkin... heh heh... butt... pumpkin."

The next morning I woke to the buzzing of my alarm clock, and another day at my hated job. The worst part was leaving the house knowing I would spend the entire day in what was effectively a prison, serving out the final weeks of my sentence. At least I didn't have to sneak around about going on interviews; I simply told my boss where I was going and when I expected to be back. We were like a couple who had broken up but were still living together until the lease on the apartment was up. When I got back home I needed a good laugh, and I told M that we had to go back to Jewel and buy that butt pumpkin. We got in the car and drove to the store, but the butt pumpkin was gone.

In a stroke of amazing good luck I was offered a job with two and a half weeks to go on my sentence. It was for a job that I'd sent my resume to months before, and the interview process had been slow. I accepted immediately, and then gleefully called my boss who was out of town on business to let him know. Although he'd had several weeks to prepare for this eventuality, my boss didn't take my departure seriously until I had a job offer in hand. Suddenly he became frantic trying to find my replacement, and enlisted my help in interviewing the poor soul who would take my place. With three days to go before I left the company he gave the job to a woman who was unemployed and could start right away. I heard later that she had some of the same troubles I'd had, and about a year after I left my boss was let go from the company.

Ages have passed since that fateful October. Every year since I've searched in vain for a butt pumpkin, and every year I recite the tale of the ephemeral butt pumpkin from the Jewel parking lot, its powers growing larger and more magical in each retelling of the story, and every year M feels tremendously guilty for having denied me that one simple pleasure during such a dark chapter of my life. I don't mean to instill guilt in him, but thoughts of fall naturally turn to pumpkins, and thus to butt pumpkins.

I did manage to find a butt apple about a week ago at the farmers market, and I gave it to M to bring to work, where it caused quite a stir. People took pictures of it and uploaded them to their facebook accounts, and one of M's colleagues looked at it and said, quite casually, "I saw a pumpkin that looked like a butt on my way to work today." M demanded to know where this pumpkin had been spotted, and drove directly to the alleged location right after his shift was over. The pumpkin was prominently displayed and could be seen from the street. M made a beeline for the butt pumpkin and brought it to the cashier, who looked at M and said "we were wondering who was going to buy that one."

When I got home that night M said he had a present for me in the living room. I went into the room but didn't see anything unusual.
"Just sit down on the couch and watch TV," he said. I did as he said, but still didn't see anything out of the ordinary.
"Is it something on TV?" I asked.
"I can't believe you still haven't figured it out," he said. Finally I looked above the TV and saw it, and an involuntary sound escaped from me - a kind of half scream, half laugh. I clapped my hands over my mouth and stared at it in wonder.
"I got you to do a Pretty Woman yelp over a pumpkin!" M said triumphantly.

Now, at last, after all these years, I have my very own butt pumpkin. I have it prominently displayed in the window of our living room, where the whole neighborhood can see it, and it makes me smile every time I look at it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More Gapers Block

I wrote a post for my own blog, but then thought it would be good for Gapers Block because it was so Chicago-centric. The original is here, which looks just the same as what's below, but I figured I'd put a link in anyway.

Graduation Week at The Old Town School of Folk Music

Last night was my final West African Dance class of the current session, and we had a recital onstage at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The school is housed in a grand building on Lincoln Avenue that was once a library and retains traces of its bookish past; above the stage is a WPA mural underscored by the words "enjoy toys, the world we live in, making airplanes, boats, books tell us of King Arthur, costume and pioneer days, building skyscrapers, electricity."

My fellow classmates and I - six of us in all, got on stage to the rhythm of live djembe drumming, and brought the house down. After spending eight weeks dancing in the studio classroom, it was gratifying to perform in front of an audience, and the group assembled at the Old Town School couldn't have been less judgmental - everyone in the auditorium had to get on stage at some point, making the atmosphere less American Idol and more like talent night at summer camp. We practiced our dance moves in the hallway as a group of musicians rehearsed Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it was a quintessential Old Town School moment.

The six of us stood across from each other on the stage, three on each side, and at the appropriate drumbeat - what our teacher calls "the break," we started moving towards each other in dance formation until we'd found our mark, faced the audience, and moved to the next step. Midway through the dance we formed a circle using dance steps and then moved back to our original spots, a maneuver that wowed the audience. I was standing up front at stage right, and could see the audience - mostly guitar students, with instruments in their laps or in cases sitting next to them. Our dance lasted all of three minutes, and we received a truly raucous round of applause and shouts for our efforts. It was fantastic. Three West African Dance classes performed in a row, ceaseless drumming spurring on one class after the next. After that came the Middle Eastern Belly Dancers in all their jangly, hip-centered self-confidence, the metal disks on their hip scarves bouncing in unison like a school of small, shiny fish.

Next came the guitar classes, who serenaded the audience with the following:
Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Were Made for Walkin';
Neil Young's Harvest Moon (which I sang along to);
Chris Hillman's My Baby's Gone;
The Eurythmics' Here Comes the Rain Again - which, if you've never heard played on acoustic guitar, is something else; and
Brandy Carlisle's Wish I Could Be There Tonight.

The guitar-heavy lineup was broken up by harmonica level one, and a class called "harmonica forever", who played Roll On Weary River and Bob Dylan's Beyond Here Lies Nothing, respectively. They had a backup band supporting them: a mandolin, two guitars, a standing bass and a tambourine, and I decided that if one instrument could follow me around in my daily life to provide a soundtrack to the most mundane of my everyday activities, it would be a standing bass; no other instrument underscores the moment in quite the same way.

Once the harmonica students moved off the stage there were more guitar classes, and picking up on the Dylan theme they started us off with You Ain't Goin' Nowhere, followed by America's Sister Golden Hair, and a song called Ophelia, (I'm not sure who wrote it). The evening closed with a rendition of Stone Temple Pilots Plush, which reminded me of an adage told onstage many Old Town School graduations ago - if you're looking for the definition of folk music, well... that depends on which folks you're talking about.

I sat in the audience and I watched it all; fingers squeaking along guitar strings as they moved from one note to the next, harmonica players hesitating before chord changes, and it reminded me of why I love this place. The first time I ever set foot in the Old Town School of Folk Music was before they moved into the Lincoln Avenue Location. I was visiting a friend who worked on Armitage, saw the Old Town School's music store, and walked in out of curiosity. A concert was about to begin, and the person manning the doors of the concert hall asked if I'd like to take a seat and listen for free; there were empty seats, and the musicians had come all the way from China to perform.

What I saw mesmerized me. The only Chinese music I'd heard up to that point in my life was played on the sound systems of cheap Chinese restaurants. This was different, it was beautiful and enchanting, and unlike anything I'd ever heard before. That's what I love the most about the Old Town School of Folk Music; whether it's a band from Uganda you've never heard of or a headliner that you bought the tickets to months in advance, you hear it in the intimacy of a 300 seat auditorium, and even if it's music you've heard a hundred times before, it becomes new to you.

When you become a student at the school, you become a part of a 50-plus year history of people who picked up an instrument, or decided to learn how to dance, or opened their mouths to sing, and allowed themselves to once again be beginners at something - perhaps for the first time in years. None of the people on stage last night were experts, and none of them were trying to be the best, they were just people who enjoyed learning a new instrument or a new dance and had a chance to get up on stage for three minutes and share it with a roomful of peers. Its one of the best things about Chicago, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

School Story for The Moth

Last month The Moth came to Chicago for the first time to do a StorySLAM. I went on assignment for Gapers Block, and even came prepared with a story to tell in case my name got pulled from the hat. I didn't prepare very well though, I typed the story up that very morning, and spent the day trying to memorize it. I was so caught up in my notes that I forgot to put my name in the hat once I got to the event, and I was feeling insecure about how little time I'd invested in rehearsing. I did get a decent Gapers Block piece out of it though.

It would be a shame to leave the as yet unperformed story in its dusty little corner of my computer, so I thought I'd publish it here even if I never manage to tell it on stage:


I almost didn't graduate from high school because I failed gym. I'll say that again - I almost didn't graduate from high school because I failed gym. Not calculus or AP French - no, gym.

I went to a tiny Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, a town about 60 miles north of New York City that might qualify as a rust-belt city, but with none of the accompanying cache. A percentage of the student body was on the fast track to success, but it was widely known as a second chance school, and several of my classmates had repeated a year upon entering, or had been given the choice between boarding school or military school.

As boarding schools go, it was pretty lax. There were no uniforms, no football team - only soccer, and it was co-ed. We had dances, but no prom - that went against the Quaker aesthetic of not making people feel bad if they don't have a date - or whatever, I can't remember exactly which tenant of Quakerism is compromised by prom night.

The PE requirement was, to say the least, relaxed. While I'd spent two seasons on the cross country team - becoming a Hudson Valley Athletic League All Star, by the way. I even got a letter, but since the cross country team didn't have jackets I never sewed it to anything.

I was never a great student, I had trouble concentrating on anything that didn't interest me, and had perfected the art of self-sabotage to the point that every semester it seemed I might fail all my classes, but by some miracle of last minute studying I passed. By the spring of my senior year I had developed a serious case of what is sometimes referred to as senior-itis, and the most athletic endeavor I could bring myself to sign up for was Outdoor Club. Yes, we had something called Outdoor Club, and it counted as PE credit. A few times a week the Outdoor Club would load up in a van, drive to some out of the way, picturesque locale in the Hudson Valley, and go for a walk.

And I failed.

I was in my Outdoor Club coach's office, if that's even what his title was, I'm not sure. It was about two weeks before graduation. My family had made arrangements to rent a car and drive up from Brooklyn to watch me graduate under the shade of a 100 year-old oak tree in a ceremony that featured the puppeteer Kevin Clash - best known for bringing Sesame Street's Elmo to life. My coach and I were having what I thought was a friendly conversation. Jack was somewhere in his fifties, he was balding with a monk's fringe of gray hair on the sides of his head, he had a pot belly and all the menacing presence of Santa Claus.

"Well," Jack said, his eyes on an attendance sheet spread out among a pile of other papers on his desk, "it looks like you've missed four sessions of Outdoor Club." It was true, I had. That spring I'd met my first real boyfriend and together we cut class and idled the hours away. By the time I was accepted to college, most of my academics, including Outdoor Club, had fallen pretty low on my list of priorities. Who cared if I wasn't out walking with Jack and the rest of the club? I was so out of here, my life was just beginning, and what kind of a gym class was Outdoor Club anyway?
"Yeah," I said.
"You know the maximum number of absences is two," he said.
"Yeah," I said. As bad of a student as I was, I never made excuses for myself, I took whatever punishment came my way as a result of my bad habits. I spent hours in what was called "special study hall", where all the under-performing kids were sent. We sat together in the dining hall under the supervision of a teacher, who sat at a table grading papers. They didn't care what we did, as long as we didn't leave the room. I spent my time writing notes to my friend Cori. I never did a lick of homework in special study hall.
"Well I'm sorry," Jack said, "but I'm not going to be able to give you a passing grade."

Suddenly the future that I was no longer going to enjoy flashed before my eyes - college, career, family, success - and in its place came a new future, an unpleasant and dark future filled with menial, backbreaking jobs, cigarette smoke and a terrible soundtrack - songs like Irene Cara's What a Feeling.

"But Jack, I..." I stammered, and the rest became in incomprehensible blur of half-choked pleas and stammered explanations, "I... can't... not... graduate... I'm ... already accepted to college..." My tears were so forceful they practically shot out of my eyes like water from a lawn sprinkler, I couldn't see anything. All I knew was that my life was ruined, and that it was all my fault.

"Okay, okay," Jack said between my outbursts, "now let's just take it easy, just settle down." His tone was soothing, listening to Jack was like listening to a bedtime story. "If you go outside right now, and go for a nice long walk," he said, "I'll just erase two of these absences, all right?"

My tears stopped. Could this really be true? Could one walk really make the difference between working in a gas station or becoming a tenured college professor? Was this even ethical, could Jack really do this? I didn't care if it was or not. "Uh, okay," I said, and left Jack's office.

I went outside and walked like I had never walked before. I walked all the way around the school campus, up the hill past the auditorium and the gym, past the boys dorms and beyond to the other side of the hill, past the main building, the science buildings, the infirmary, the girls dorms and the dining hall until I was back in front of Jack's office. When I was done circling the campus I did it again for good measure. To this day I don't know if Jack was watching me.

Two weeks later I graduated under the shade of a 100 year-old oak tree with 65 other students, in a ceremony presided over by Elmo, and never told any of my classmates how close I came to not graduating.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Uncle Lloyd -or- How I Met The Funky Drummer

A couple weeks ago, M and I drove north to Madison to visit my aunt Mary and uncle Lloyd. My uncle had just started dialysis treatments, and we hadn't seen either of them in about six years so I figured a visit was overdue. I didn't know my uncles when I was growing up; my family lived in Switzerland when I was small, my uncles lived in Maine and Wisconsin, and neither of them ever visited us. The only childhood memory I have of either of them was the year my uncle Stuart sent us a huge package of American candy for the holidays. I was overwhelmed - while there was no shortage of chocolate where we lived, I had never seen such a cache of sugary bliss: candy corn, Tootsie Rolls, Razzles, Pop Rocks... it made quite an impression on me, and the irony that my uncle Stuart was a dentist never dawned on me. The night after my mother told me we'd be moving back to America I had a dream about all the candy that I would find upon our return; I wasn't disappointed.

Dad still lives in Switzerland, and he visits me from time to time. Not long after I moved to Chicago he visited me and we took an Amtrak train up to Milwaukee - halfway between Chicago and Madison, to meet Lloyd and Mary for lunch. On the train ride dad read a copy of the Wall Street Journal, folding it in thirds when he was done and holding it out into the aisle with an outstretched hand to the passengers seated across the aisle. The two men seated across from us were in mid conversation when one of them noticed dad's unsolicited offering. "This is for you," he said, "I'm finished with it." Amazingly, they accepted his gift. The train driver made periodic announcements, telling us about points of interest along the way. Dad found this unbearably funny, he laughed loudly and repeated the announcements as they were being made.

Dad only has one volume on his laugh - loud. It starts with an outburst, an uncontrollable exhale of air, and quickly devolves into a full body, rhythmic shaking with an accompanying noise that's similar to a saw moving back and forth on a 2 x 4, while his eyes grow wide and glisten with manic hilarity. It's a snakebite that has no antidote; once dad starts laughing you just have to let it run its course. I can't tell you how many times I've missed movie dialogue because of dad's laughing, and while I'd like to say that I inherited none of this, every once in a while something tickles my funny bone so hard that I find myself laughing until I literally weep. Dad's laugh attracted the attention of the woman seated in front of us, and she turned around so that her knees were on the back of her seat and her hands on the headrest. She was traveling alone and looked to be somewhere in her sixties, but carried herself like a seven-year old. "You sound like fun," she said to dad. I could barely handle the embarrassment of being in public with the challenging sixty-year old that I happened to be related to, let alone one who was just along for the ride. I gave her what must have been my deadliest stare ever because we made eye contact and she promptly turned around in her seat and stayed put for the remainder of the journey.

In Milwaukee we had lunch with Lloyd and Mary at a brauhaus, and during the course of our conversation dad asked Lloyd how his diabetes was going. This was the first I'd ever heard of it. "There's diabetes in our family?" I asked dad, my pulse racing, "why didn't you ever tell me this? For years I've been going to doctors and handing them blank forms that ask for check marks next to diseases that run in my family because I don't know of any!" Dad mumbled something about it being a "mild diabetes" that I shouldn't worry about. Our waitress cleared the plates and dad asked her if they served espresso. "No," she said flatly, "we just have coffee."
"Dad," I hissed once the waitress had left the table, "we're in Milwaukee, not Florence."

I left that lunch wondering: if there's diabetes in my family and I never knew about it, what else didn't I know? I began an email correspondence with Lloyd and Mary, and visited them several times in Madison. My aunt - a retired librarian, had cataloged every piece of information about the Cohen family that existed on paper, and arranged them in scrapbooks that lined an entire bookshelf. I stayed up until three in the morning the first night I stayed at their house, poring over news clippings about my grandmother, who died in 1957 and was a concert pianist; my grandfather, who died in 1962 and was a chemist; and childhood photographs of my dad and his two brothers: photos of them dressed in cub scout uniforms, wearing mortarboards and gowns at graduations, and posing with cars and girlfriends. It was at once engrossing and alienating - if I was a Cohen, then why hadn't I been indoctrinated in the family history years ago? What wasn't in the scrapbooks I asked my uncle about. I learned more about my family in one weekend at their house than I had ever learned from dad.

When we weren't busy catching up on family history, we had fun. Lloyd is a retired car salesman, and a classic car enthusiast. He had a cherry red 1957 Thunderbird that he kept in a garage all winter, and took for joy rides in the summer. He even has a mailbox shaped like a Thunderbird, with plastic windows that fog up with condensation in the morning. He took us for rides in the T-bird, one at a time since its a two-seater. We visited for the fourth of July and watched as choreographed music played in time with exploding fireworks at an annual event called Rhythm & Booms; we walked up and down State Street, Madison's shopping district; and Lloyd treated us to his famous eggs Benedict, and homemade gazpacho made with tomatoes and cucumbers from his garden.

My dad and both his brothers came to our wedding, and we saw Lloyd and Mary in Chicago once about a year afterward, but then somehow the fragile ties that we'd built began to erode. One year passed, and then five more without either of us making the effort to visit, until Lloyd sent an email saying he was scheduled to begin dialysis, and I picked up the phone.

We borrowed my mother in-law's Mini for the journey, and I found a mummified banana in the passenger side door that I'd left there the last time we borrowed her car - in June. It was completely shriveled and black, the moisture having completely escaped, and had an unused Band-Aid stuck to it. The ride to Madison was familiar; we drove up through Rockford and crossed the state line into Wisconsin, passing through Janesville and driving up Highway 14-18, known as The Beltline, past streets with names like Old Sauk, Rim Rock, and Fish Hatchery Road, until we pulled into my aunt and uncle's driveway.

Lloyd greeted us outside, and the first thing we noticed was that he'd slimmed down. He's been heavy his whole life, and had dropped 40 pounds in order to improve his health and qualify for a kidney transplant. He was drawn to the Mini, and asked M several questions about it before we entered the house.

New floors had been installed since our last visit, and Lloyd had bought himself a new, large screen digital TV as a consolation prize since his travel options were now severely limited - his dialysis schedule is three sessions per week, three and a half hours per session. He'd also adopted a friendly orange tabby cat named Fernando who's about two years old. Fernando was the name given to him by the shelter that Lloyd and Mary found him in, and they kept it because Mary has a great love of all things Spanish.

Lloyd served us homemade gazpacho for lunch and got us up to date on his condition, telling us everything there was to know about dialysis. Lloyd can talk for as long as you let him, a trait that he shares with his brothers and that served him well as a car salesman. The morning after our arrival a couple Jehovah's Witnesses came to the door, and he out-talked them. Lloyd's condition did nothing to dampen his spirits or his sense of humor; at a trip to Copps, the local grocery store, we walked through an aisle of sugary treats. "Do you want some of these?" He asked, pointing to a bag of mini-donuts dusted in powdered sugar. "I can't have them, but you can."
"No thanks," I said.
"Are you sure?" He asked, "I really get a kick out of buying them for other people."

We accompanied Lloyd and Mary to the dialysis center, driving along a stretch of road that was under construction and hadn't been repaved yet; it felt like we were driving on square tires. A woman wearing a t-shirt with the word: Single...ish stood at the front door of the dialysis center. Once inside, Mary, M and I sat in a waiting area while Lloyd got hooked up to the dialysis machine. An aide pushed a woman in a wheelchair to the seating area, she had a beehive hairdo and a cone of soft serve ice cream, which I'm guessing was a reward for having undergone treatment. I flipped through a copy of the dialysis center's newsletter and tried not to get anxious. Lloyd had explained everything, but something about being there made my pulse rise; we were surrounded by people with failing organs, and it made me nervous.

"Lloyd sits in the same chair every time," Mary said, "and the man next to him is a famous drummer, maybe you know him - his name is Clyde Stubblefield." M's eyes popped and he leaned forward in his chair.
"Clyde Stubblefied?" he repeated.
"You know of him?" Mary asked.
"Are you kidding? He's the one who invented boom-boom siss, boom-siss," M said, holding his arms out and playing air-drums as he sounded out the beat to Funky Drummer.
"Oh," Mary said. "He lives in Madison, and he still does a show every Monday night."

We walked into the treatment area, where Lloyd sat reclining in a chair. He was attached to a machine the size of a refrigerator via two tubes in his right arm - one taking his blood out, the other pumping it back in. "This is my kidney," he said, pointing to the machine. I could see his blood being filtered behind a circular glass window, like laundry in a front-loading machine. A curtain separated him from the other patients, creating a semblance of privacy. "I've got everything I need," he said, "right here's a TV and headphones," he said, pointing to a TV bolted to his chair. "And right next to me is Clyde Stubblefield," he said, lowering his voice, "he's world famous."
"Yes Lloyd," Mary said, "I told them."

On the other side of the curtain Clyde Stubblefield was being attended to by a nurse.
"Can I get you anything else?" She asked him.
"Just some eggs, grits and bacon," he joked. The nurse returned to her desk and Clyde put his headphones on, and turned on the TV attached to his chair.
"Hey Clyde," Lloyd said - loudly, since he couldn't see around the curtain. When Clyde didn't respond he called for him again, and then a third time.
"Clyde," the nurse on duty finally said to him, "Lloyd is talking to you." Clyde removed his headphones and asked: "Yes Lloyd?"
"Clyde, this is my niece and her husband, they're visiting from Chicago," Lloyd said, as M and I sheepishly waved and smiled from Lloyd's cubicle. "They know who you are," he added. M and I continued to smile, our eyes darting from the floor to Clyde and then back again.

Back at the house, Lloyd said he'd bring Clyde a set of drumsticks to sign for us.