Monday, December 3, 2012

Well hello there...

Hi, it's been a while... I think it may be time to wrap up Buttered Noodles and start something new.  For a long time I've thought I should probably have a website, though I haven't quite figured out what to do about it.  Meanwhile, That's All She Wrote is about to have our 3rd show on December 9, and that blog gets updated way more frequently than this one does. When I know what's coming next, I'll post about it.  Thanks for reading!


Monday, August 27, 2012

That's All She Wrote

So, my friend Angela and I have been plotting and planning to start our own live lit/storytelling series called That's All She Wrote, it has a website and everything. Over the past couple years I've read my work at numerous live lit venues in Chicago, but I'm nervous about running my own series in a way that makes me think terrible, negative thoughts.  This is probably going to be a boring post, but it's mostly to make me feel better during those moments when I think I can't possibly do this, which is most of the time.

I haven't really blogged a lot about the readings I do, I'm not sure why.  It's the only thing I feel really, truly proud of these days what with my career being so far down the toilet I'm pretty sure it's being processed at the water reclamation district. So here's a big impressive list of all the venues, with hyperlinks embedded so you can click through to them and be thoroughly impressed. Maybe someday I'll get around to writing a "performance" resume, or something like that.  Until then, here's a big old list:

Story Club - where I got up and read my own work in front of people in late 2010, for the first time since college.  I purposely picked a 300 word piece that only took me a minute to read because I was nervous about reading in front of people.  I've since read there countless times, and was made a Featured Reader along with superstar Johanna Stein in early 2011 (March, I think.)

Story Lab - where storytelling superstar Scott Whitehair included me in the debut show (along with Ms. Angela of That's All She Wrote) in January 2011.  It was a ridiculously good time, and made me want to do as much storytelling as possible.

Essay Fiesta - where the musical and comedic Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon meet monthly in a local bookstore, get people to read, and raise money for the Chicago chapter of 826.

This Much Is True - one of the funnest storytelling shows in town, and I had an unbelievably fun time reading the story about visiting my high school boyfriend's farm.  It was one of the best nights of my life.

Tuesday Funk - an offbeat series that combines nonfiction and fiction of all stripes.

2nd Story - which, all told, took about 3 years for me to get to perform in.  They did get my story podcasted though, which is fancy.

SKALD - an annual storytelling contest run by Don Hall of WNEP Theater and WBEZ, and hosted by Steve Edwards, which is very fancy.

Mortified! - one of the funnest shows around, in which participants read from journal entries and other ephemera that was written prior to turning 21.

The Moth - at Martyr's, where I won the February 2011 slam with my urinary tract infection story, and at the Haymarket, where I did not win, but it was still fun.

The 2nd Chicago Moth GrandSLAM - hosted by Peter Sagal of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, which is extra fancy with a side of smart.

The Paper Machete - a weekly live magazine where writers and comics read pieces related to the week's news, and I talked about the murder rate in Chicago in the summer.  It was a real mood lifter.

Real Talk Live - a show that's really about poetry, but I snuck in anyway and read at the open mic.  Nobody said anything about it. Also, I was lured by the wordtastic wiles of Roger Bonair-Agard, who I had just seen perform at This Much Is True, and really REALLY wanted to see him perform again, and maybe even get the chance to speak to him, and he was handing out flyers to RTL, so...

Stories from the Bottom of the Glass - a one-time show put together by the aforementioned Dana Norris, where I went serious and told the story titled "Me and Luke."

Massmouth - Boston's answer to The Moth (although I think the Moth is opening in Boston pretty soon, if not already) I went to a show in Jamaica Plain because I was visiting family, competed in a Massmouth storyslam, and got the second worst score.  I told the same story 2 nights later at the Moth in Chicago.... and won.  Draw your own conclusions.

So that's like... 14 different venues that I've performed in since the fall of 2010.  Some of them (4 of them) I've performed at more than once.  I say this to make myself feel like I can actually make my own show work, and that even if it doesn't work for some reason, it will all turn out okay in the end.

And, AND.... this Thursday I'm CROSSING STATE LINES to tell stories at the Acorn Theater for a show called Adult Education.  So by the time we launch That's All She Wrote, I will have performed at 15 different venues.

So.... so that's my version of talking to myself in the mirror before the big show, or the big sell, or the big presentation, or the big boxing match, or whatever it is that people need to talk to themselves in front of the mirror for.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 2

There’s a poster up in my supervisor’s cubicle that reads “what am I doing here?” For a second I thought maybe it was some kind of office humor, but then read the smaller print – it’s about church, and god - the bigger “here” in “what am I doing here?” 

I started this temp job yesterday. Before I was allowed to walk past the reception desk I had to read ten pages regarding nondisclosure of information, appropriate working behavior, and signed three different papers saying I wouldn’t give away company secrets.
The office looks brand new, it’s on the 17th floor of a high-rise downtown, and it takes two elevators to get there from the ground floor.  The furniture is mod 60’s style, and reminds me a little of Mad Men after they move into their new offices. There is a huge flat screen TV installed at reception, and three more on the walls of a circular break room area that looks like Diane Keaton’s house in Sleeper. All of the TVs are muted, not even with subtitles to read, just silent home and garden shows and CNN stories, all day long.  The kitchen area has an enormous silver double door refrigerator, and there’s free coffee – some in big containers, some in those little pod things that make you one cup at a time in different flavors. 

It is a remarkably quiet office. The only sounds I hear from my cubicle are of people typing, filling their cups with water and coffee in the corner behind me, and talking on the phone. It’s like being on a spaceship, a really quiet spaceship, like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There was nothing in my cubicle when I arrived except for a brand new ergonomically designed chair and a computer. I asked the receptionist for a stapler, and some staples to go with it.  She unlocked a clean, brightly lit, organized supply closet, handed me a stapler, reached into a box of staples, and removed one thin row. When I asked for thumbtacks the next day she opened the same supply closet, pointed to an open container of thumbtacks and said “be very, very careful,” in a voice generally reserved for three year-olds. 

This is an end-of-the-line job for me. I’ve interviewed for so many jobs I’ve stopped counting. At one point this spring I was up for six different positions at once; none of them were offered to me. This is the third temp agency I’ve signed up with, and the first that has found me work, so I accepted the assignment when it was offered to me. 

At home, the letters Y E S are strung across the kitchen wall. They are old movie house marquee letters. Each one is dark red, 12 inches high, weather-beaten, with a groove on the side that hangs onto the marquee. With so much rejection, it’s nice to see YES sometimes. 

My husband asked me how my first day on the assignment went.  “Okay,” I replied, “I almost cried a couple times.” I can’t help it - I know I’m not the only one going through this right now, and I know it could be worse, but sometimes it’s hard to get excited about it could be worse. It feels ridiculous that I can’t pay my half of the mortgage, or that I haven’t paid one cent of our credit card for months. This stage of my life was supposed to be over decades ago, and as humiliating as it is to be doing temp work, it makes me feel better to have an income – a tiny income, but at least something to defray the cost of my existence. “The office is really, really quiet,” I continued, “it’s circular like a spaceship so it’s hard to find my cube, but I guess that’s better than rows and rows of cubicles. The person I’m replacing has the same last name as me so everyone thinks we’re related. I met her. There was a cake thing for her in the afternoon - she got promoted. She said she’s worked there for 8 years, and to consider this a way to get a full time position because they’re looking to replace her, and that it’s a good place to work, so… that’s nice.”  

Today was my second day, it was better than the first. I can find my cubicle, and I have an ID badge so I don’t have to sign in at the security desk every time I walk in and out of the building. When I came home the red marquee letters were strewn across the kitchen floor, one of the screws holding up the wire they were resting on had come loose from the wall.  They lay scattered around a pile of cat puke that I had discovered that morning and covered with a paper towel because I didn’t have time to clean it up before leaving the house. Later, one of the cats took a crap on the bathmat. My husband cleaned up the crap, and I cleaned the puke and put the letters back on the kitchen wall, hanging them on thumbtacks instead of wire. They’re off center and misaligned, but it’s nice to see YES sometimes, even if it’s a little off-kilter.

Friday, July 6, 2012


So it’s come to this: I’m preparing to interview for a temp job; when I used to do temp work, not that long ago, I met with someone from a temp agency, and was placed at assignments sight unseen.  Now, more than three years after getting laid off and looking for work, I’m submitting to the possibility of being rejected for temporary work. My contact at the agency sends me a humiliating email telling me what to do: Please wear a suit, it says, as if I’m new to this, as if I’m a high school senior going on her first interview, as if I’ve never seen the inside of an office before. 

The definition of insanity, in a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I’ve been doing the same thing since June of 2009; I look at job postings, send a cover letter and resume to ones that look promising, go on interviews, sometimes get called back for a second interview, sometimes make it to the final two candidates, and never get offered the job.

I sleep poorly the night before; I wake up tired, bleary, and depressed.  I go through the morning ablutions of any regular working woman, and make my way to the brown line at 7:30am. As the train makes its way toward the loop, it gets crowded. It’s been so long since I’ve had a regular commute that it’s strange to see all the working stiffs on the train engaged in behavior that has become alien to me: people from around the city have gotten up early, showered, fixed their hair, put on a suit – maybe a tie, and gotten on the train where they sit or stand in a mute, deadened state, interacting only with their iPhones, iPads, and the odd newspaper. They get off downtown, walk into air-conditioned buildings and spend the day pretending that they don’t know any curse words.  I get off at Adams and Wabash and join the streams of people walking down the stairs moving urgently towards their destination. It looks like a carefully choreographed piece of performance art, or a salmon spawn. 

I find the building, and make my way to the security desk, where I get a temporary ID and pass through the corral that separates the public from a bank of elevators, and make my way to the 14th floor.  Halfway through the second interview (there will be three in total) I’ve heard enough to I know I won’t get this job. As it turns out, I’ve been interviewing for a personal assistant position, but the description was for a development assistant position, and in retrospect it’s clear that I’ve answered some key questions incorrectly. I make my descent to the first floor and call the agency, as per my emailed instructions.  “Do you think you’d accept if they offered you the job?” they ask.  “Yes, I would,” I say, even though I know this won’t happen.

I go to Einstein’s Bagels to get coffee and something to eat, and as I walk in the door the theme to “Sanford and Son” plays on the audio system, like some kind of cosmic commentary on my life. I order a bagel and a small coffee, and the woman at the register recommends that I get the bagel and medium coffee combo because it’s cheaper.  It saves me about a dollar and a half, and it makes me feel protected somehow that this woman I’ve never met is looking after my financial well-being.  I sit at a table and pull out my Hallmark thank you notes from my purse, the cheapest kind available, $4 for a pack of 10, and my book of stamps.  I’ve been on roughly 30 in-person interviews and 10 phone interviews since I was laid off in 2009, and I like to think that my contribution to the greeting card industry and the US Postal Service has made a dent in the economic viability of both entities. I used to pore over every word in a thank you note and keep a copy of the text for future reference; now it comes out like so many prepackaged Hallmark messages: “Dear [name], thank you for taking the time to meet with me today regarding the open [job] position.  I enjoyed our conversation, and hope to have the opportunity to discuss this opportunity further. Sincerely…”

I’m downtown so rarely these days, and it’s usually for some humiliating interview, so I make sure to build in other, more practical reasons to be there so it doesn’t feel like a total waste of train fare and effort when I ultimately get rejected, and I’d noticed a couple days earlier that one of the rhinestones in my eyeglasses had fallen out.  They’re LaFont frames; an extravagant purchase, they are by far the most expensive thing that I wear, excluding my engagement ring.  It took me a year to convince myself to buy them. They sit perfectly on the bridge of my nose, making my face appear neither too large nor too small, they are feather light, and I’ve owned them for about four years. My last trip downtown was for a farewell lunch for a former coworker who’s relocating to San Francisco, and I sat silent as my former colleagues caught up on their work lives. Dan talked about his upcoming job change, and spoke in disparaging terms about his current supervisor, who didn’t make a counteroffer when he told her that he’d been offered a job elsewhere, securing his opinion of her and of his current workplace.  It was like listening to aliens talk about alien things dressed in alien clothes; I had nothing to add to the conversation. My built-in practical reason for being downtown that day was to visit the optician who’d filled the prescription for me.  He couldn’t help with my missing rhinestone, but gave me the business card of someone who works in the Jewelers Building at 5 South Wabash, and recommended that I try there. 

Thank you notes written, coffee and bagel consumed, I got up and made my way to South Wabash.  I rode the ancient, creaking elevator in the Jewelers Building to the eleventh floor and walked into the wrong studio – an expensive looking, brightly lit establishment that specialized in watches.  They weren’t sure they could help me, and I’d have to leave the eyeglasses with them if I wanted their expertise.  I thanked them and left with my eyeglasses in hand.  As I approached the elevator again I saw the place listed on the business card – Danny & Debbie Jewelers, it was tucked behind the elevator bank in a moldering two room studio with a view of an alley.  In the back room, a man in his late 50s or early 60s who must have been Danny worked on a piece of jewelry, in the front room dusty display cases that were mostly empty housed a few pairs of silver earrings, and a plate with the Aztec sun calendar hung on one wall.  I explained to a dark-haired woman who must have been Debbie what I needed, and she went to a shelf stacked with boxes of rhinestones.  She pulled one down and Danny joined her in poring over them.  They spoke to each other in Spanish, and I tried to understand them. Debbie referred to Danny as “Papa,” and I heard him use the word “chiquita,” which I’ve only heard in reference to bananas.  I made a mental note to look it up.  “Esta, papa,” she said, holding a tiny purple rhinestone in a pair of tweezers. Danny affixed the rhinestone into my eyeglass frames, told me not to wear them for a few hours, and retreated into the back room.  I packed the eyeglasses into my bag, and pulled my wallet out, but Debbie made no move to write up an invoice or ask for payment.  “What do I owe you?” I asked.  “Oh, like, a dollar,” she said.  

On the train ride home I reflected on the events of the morning: for less than half of what it cost for me to ride the train downtown for my useless interview, two people worked earnestly to replace a tiny rhinestone that only I knew was missing. A few days later I would get a phone call from the temp agency, which I would let go to voicemail.  I played it back, and missed the first few seconds because I was fumbling for the speakerphone button.  “…great news” the voice on the message said, but the intonation was flat.  I rewound to the beginning and heard the phrase in its entirety: “Unfortunately I’m not calling with great news…”  

I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to find a job for three years, but it only took a minute for Danny and Debbie to find a rhinestone for me.  The color isn’t an exact match, but only I know which rhinestone it is.  I like the fact that it doesn’t match perfectly; it reminds me of the small dignities that still exist in the world.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Weather Report

I performed at The Paper Machete for the first time this afternoon, it was fun - and very different from my usual stuff.  For once I read about something other than me, which was kind of refreshing.   I hope to do more Paper Machete readings, and I hope you enjoy the following piece.

The Weather Report

Memorial Day weekend kicked off the unofficial beginning of summer in Chicago with a long list of outdoor activities: street closures due to construction caused headaches for motorists; the beaches officially opened, allowing Chicago area E. Coli enthusiasts to bathe in fetid waters from Belmont Harbor to Oak Street Beach and beyond; and farmers markets around the city opened for the season. The official start of summer happened this week with the arrival of the summer solstice on June 20, which is a day earlier than usual because 2012 is a leap year.  Also early this year: the annual summer shooting sprees. Type the words “shooting” and “Chicago” into any search engine and you’ll find news items and blog posts regarding recent gun violence. Ten people died from shotgun wounds in Chicago over Memorial Day Weekend alone, 8 died and over 40 were injured in gun related violence the weekend of June 8-10. With the unseasonably warm winter we just had, the seemingly weather-induced violence began as early as March. In a recent NPR piece, Dr. Jens Ludwig, head of the University of Chicago's crime lab, said higher temperatures bring more people outdoors, which seems to lead to more crime.

DR. JENS LUDWIG: And we know that when there are more people out and about there are just more opportunities for crime. And so, I think the thing that everybody is talking about - mild, wet winter weather - might actually be a contributing factor to this thing that we're seeing.

Chicago has long been known for its violence; before the advent of Michael Jordan, the usual trope heard in foreign cities by visiting Windy City residents was “Chicago, bang bang,” thanks to Public Enemy #1, Al Capone; a figure who left Chicago with a mixed legacy.  I can’t think of another American city that clings to its felonious past with as much pride and enterprise; if you log onto you can make reservations for something called Untouchable Tours, which is described on their homepage, appropriately enough, in bullet points.

EXPERIENCE...Chicago as it was during the 1920s and 30s!
SEE...the old gangster hot spots and hit spots!
HEAR...historically accurate accounts of the exploits of Capone, Moran, Dillinger and the rest a da boys!
FEEL...the excitement of jazz-age Chicago during the era of Prohibition!
ENJOY...a journey into the past as we cruise the city in search of the old hoodlum haunts, brothels, gambling dens and sites of gangland shootouts! 

I don’t think weather had much to do with 1920’s gangland Chicago, there were other factors: prohibition high on the list. So what is it about warmer weather that seems to make us more violent? We hole up all winter long, ordering pizza and watching cable TV so we won’t have to go outside, we only leave the cocoon of our homes to walk our dogs and dig our cars out from under twenty inches of snow. We long for the day that we can open the windows and walk around the house in our underwear. We imagine that warmer temperatures mean going outside and socializing more, and when summer actually arrives, socializing more can mean anything from barbequing in the backyard, to watching movies in the park, to a drive-by shooting.  Does the heat literally make our blood boil? 

In a recent piece in Medill Reports, Arthur Lurigio, a professor of social psychology and crime expert at Loyola University in Chicago, suggested that the culprit is not the temperature so much as it is people leaving their homes. 

“People who commit crimes are just as susceptible to the weather as law abiding citizens are… more people spend time outside when the weather is nice, which can facilitate everything from pickpocketing to gang violence. And with 83 percent of homicides in 2011 having been committed outside, it’s no surprise that monthly crime rates would be higher when the weather is more temperate.”

This could lead one to conclude that it’s not the heat, and it’s not the humidity, its contact with other people that increases the probability of violence. Perhaps Chicago should consider changing its motto, “I Will,” to be more specific.  “I Will Be 83% More Likely To Kill You Outdoors,” or: “If The Mercury Rises Above 90 degrees, I Will Be More Likely To Shoot You.”  If that’s too wordy, we could always get literary and go with the famous Jean-Paul Sartre line from No Exit, “Hell Is Other People,” which would make a great travel poster, and would confuse and irritate tourists, figuratively killing two birds with one stone.

The recent spike in violence has not gone unnoticed and earlier this week I received an email from my Alderman, Richard F. Mell, which included the following item:
4)  This Saturday, June 23, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. there 
will be a gun turn-in drive at 23 locations throughout the city.
The closest collection site to our ward is the Uptown Baptist 
Church on 1011 W. Wilson.  For more facts and all locations, click on:

There’s an embedded link in the email that takes the reader to a pdf document listing ten frequently asked questions regarding the gun turn-in, typed in all caps, which is generally considered “yelling” on the Internet, which I guess is appropriate:

Answer: No
2.      WHERE CAN I USE THE PREPAID VISA DEBIT CARD? (part of the gun turn-in incentive is debit cards in exchange for firearms)
A: anywhere that accepts Visa debit cards.
A: every gun turned in will be accepted, and each gun will be exchanged for a prepaid debit card.
A: all guns turned in will be destroyed.
A: yes, BB guns turned in will be exchanged for a $10 debit card; toy guns will not.
A: no.
(For instance, what if I’m reading a piece at the Paper Machete?) A: you can always dial 911 or turn in your gun to a police station; however, only guns turned in on June 23 will be exchanged for a prepaid debit card.
A: no, however, you may turn them in.
A: no, but feel free to turn them in.
A: call the CAPS Implementation Office at 312-745-5900.

Perhaps you marked the solstice this week by going to one of the museums that stayed open late – the MCA or the Peggy Notebaert; maybe you got up extra early for the Sunrise Yoga Cruise with Shoreline Sightseeing; perhaps you were lucky enough to catch JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound at the Pritzker Pavilion; or maybe you got your Pagan on, erected a scale model of Stonehenge in your backyard, and got stoned. However you chose to mark the advent of summer in Chicago, approach this hottest of seasons with caution: buy a new thing of sunscreen, chances are the old one in your medicine cabinet has expired; the same goes for bug dope.  Splurge on a big floppy hat for added sun protection and a pair of fashionable UV blocking sunglasses.  If you’re a beachgoer, buy a pair of flip flops or water shoes so your feet won’t get all burnt up on hot sand and cut up on broken glass.  And most importantly – no matter how high the mercury rises keep a cool head, turn in your guns to your local police station, and consider spending more time indoors. It might be the best decision you make this season.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Little JP - for TW and MA

I am eleven, perhaps twelve years old but I look younger. On the back porch of the house on 1st Street, balancing precariously on the edge of the railing above the 20 foot drop to the backyard of our 100 year-old brownstone, I hold a Siamese kitten in one hand, and the wand from a bottle of bubbles in the other.  Slightly out of focus, the photo looks older than it actually is.  It is the early 80’s, but my friend Shelley tells me it looks “quintessentially 70’s” due to the frizz in my hair and the earth tones in my clothing.  Straight hair had come back into style full force by then, and I’d given up battling my mane.  My mother and sister both had tame hair, and as an even younger child, I’d tried to brush my hair straight, which only exacerbated the problem. I am so focused on the task at hand that I do not acknowledge the camera, no doubt being held by my mother.  I’m wearing pink plastic eyeglasses, they are the second pair I owned – I was first fitted for glasses at age 10. 
The overalls were a staple of my wardrobe; I owned two pairs – one blue and one rusty orange, and wore them constantly. Newly transplanted to Brooklyn from an unincorporated town outside of Geneva, Switzerland, where our closest neighbors were dairy farmers, I was inexperienced with city life, or the idea that clothes might be an important indicator of personality. Tracy McTeague nicknamed me “Fannie Farmer” because of those overalls, and the name stuck.  My mother took me clothes shopping every fall before the school year began, and it would be several months before she bought me anything new to wear.

Everything about Brooklyn was foreign: the noise, the dirt, even the climate -- that first summer I developed heat rash on my neck and under my arms from the humidity, and when I started fourth grade that fall, was ostracized by my more culturally adept peers.  I had never gone to public school, and was overwhelmed by the mad crush of unruly kids, the endless lines that had to be stood in – to go to recess, to return from recess, to go to music class; the assigned tables in the lunchroom; and the perpetual wrath of the overworked, underpaid teachers who didn’t have the time or energy to take note of any new students. 

I hadn’t grown up watching American television, or any television for that matter, and didn’t understand the cultural references that my peers took for granted.  I was fascinated by cartoons and watched programs considered too young for me: Scooby Doo; Batman & Robin; Woody Woodpecker. The teacher led a discussion of the made-for-TV movie The Day After in class the day after it aired, and I was the only student who hadn’t watched it.  When the teacher asked why, I replied “I didn’t know it was on,” prompting riotous laughter. “How could you have not known it was on?” My classmates asked. 

My sister, six years my senior, went to a private high school and took the B67 bus to Pearl Street every day.  I went to P.S. 321 because it was across the street from our house, on the corner of 1st Street and 7th Avenue. My mother worked full time, and stayed at work late into the night on a regular basis; my father stayed behind in Switzerland, and our contact dropped to the occasional letters he typed on crinkly, light weight airmail stationary, and two visits per year.  

I became responsible for myself; I cooked Stouffer’s frozen and Bird’s Eye boil-in-bag meals, and became more connected to the cats in our house than to any human.  We bred our female Siamese cat with a male who belonged to one of my mother’s coworkers, and within weeks there was a litter of four tiny, blind, pink kittens – two males and two females.  They were my constant companions, following me up and down the three floors of our house, playing with my shoelaces, bits of string, and each other. We found homes for three of them, and kept one.  

This photo used to make me sad because it symbolizes everything that was lost when we moved back to Brooklyn: family life as it had once existed; the pastoral landscape of rural Switzerland and the sense of safety that it afforded; the easygoing attitudes of my teachers and classmates at the International School where my quirkiness was noted, but accepted.  Looking at it now I can appreciate it for the strengths it symbolizes: my self-reliance; my unruly, tomboyish ways; my lifelong bond with cats; and the inward-focused intensity that grew with being transplanted to a foreign place. I can’t say that I would do it all the same way if some magical being offered me the chance to do it over, but it made me who I am – my strengths and weaknesses, my dark sense of humor, my lifelong attachment to cats, my traveler’s spirit, and my constant inner dialogue.  It taught me to never feel alone, even when I am the sole human in the frame.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Me and Luke

If there’s one bar I’ve always wanted to drink in, it’s the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, from the first Star Wars.  As a child I was fascinated by the curious assortment of aliens who patronized the establishment: the creature that looks like a crocodile in a red beret sipping from something that resembles a Molotov cocktail; the bug-eyed instrumentalists; the mousy creature asking the bartender for another.  Obi Wan Kenobe saves Luke’s ass in that bar, establishing his role as protector and mentor. Although Mos Eisley is clearly dangerous, it also serves all kinds, and I get the feeling I might like it there.

On Easter Sunday of 2000, my sister and I split a list of phone numbers and sat in our respective homes, she in Boston and me in Chicago, faced with the task of calling relatives and family friends with unpleasant news. I couldn’t get anyone on the phone –most people were traveling, and cell phones were still a novelty. I left messages. I’d been at my boyfriend’s parents when I got the news myself. There had been indications that this might happen. I’d had a bad feeling the night before, while attending a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I don’t remember who was playing, but a blanket of despair came over me during the performance and froze me in place. A thought had crept in on the fog outside and lodged itself in my brain: what would it take for her to attempt suicide?  She was miserable, disheveled, her body suffering from decades of alcohol abuse. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her wear anything besides sweatpants -- this from a woman who had a personal shopper at Rodier on trendy Newbury Street in Boston, and updated her wardrobe annually - at great expense. When my sister called the next day, I already knew what she was going to say.

I have a tremor in my right hand, it manifests when I try to raise something to my face: a glass of water; a utensil; a tube of lipstick. My husband noticed it before I did, and made me see a neurologist.  “Have you ever noticed,” the doctor asked, “that the shaking subsides after a glass or two of wine?”  “Um….no,” I replied.  “The alcohol helps to calm the nerves,” he explained.  I’m fairly certain that’s the only time alcohol will be prescribed to me. It turned out to be hereditary-- my mother’s hands shake but I always thought it was from drinking (although I’m sure that doesn’t help.) My grandfather’s hands shook, but I thought it was from age. 

It makes me self-conscious, and I do a lot with my left hand to hide it.  I mouse with the left on computers, I lift beverages with the left (what would people think if they saw me lift a pint to my face with a shaky hand?) It’s a constant reminder of where I come from, of the shaky woman who birthed me. It reminds me of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when, in a fight for Luke’s soul, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand with a light saber and says, between mechanical breaths: “Luke, I am your father.” Luke tries in vain to deny his parentage, but it’s no use; “Search your feelings,” Vader says, “you know this to be true.” In a later scene, Luke has been fitted with a prosthetic covered in a black glove. You can buy plastic action figures of Luke that have a pink left hand and a black right hand.  It is a symbol of Luke’s connection to the Dark Side, and to the fact that he cannot escape his lineage.  Like him, I have in my right hand a constant reminder of where I come from, of the dark forces in my heritage.

It wasn’t until her suicide attempt that I began going to ACOA – Adult Children of Alcoholics, in a post-war building on the north side that smells like cigarettes and plastic chairs. The first time I read the list of ACOA traits was like reading a high school detention report; revelatory, and disturbing. Listed before me were all the traits that I had believed were part of my personality, but as it turned out were just symptoms of growing up in a diseased household: We guess at what normal is; We judge ourselves harshly; and, the most damning one for me to read -- It is easier for us to give in to others than to stand up for ourselves. At night she’d come up the stairs in a drunken rage to yell at me, and I’d cower in a corner of my bedroom, silent, waiting for the moment she’d slam the door behind her so hard that objects flew from the walls. In the morning we’d both behave as if nothing had happened. 

Thinking about it makes me tired.

In my apartment, after leaving messages letting people know that mom was in the hospital and we didn’t know what was going to happen, I manically cleaned to distract myself. I took breaks when the phone rang and spoke to mom’s friends – some in tears, some curt and businesslike.  I hadn’t heard from any of them in years. None of them knew what to say to me. In fact, I haven’t heard from any of them since, except to decline invitations to my wedding the following year. 

“Well, at least it’s out in the open now,” Irene said after I’d told her this was the culmination of a lifetime of drinking and depression. Her words fell like fresh cat turds on my newly mopped kitchen floor. At least now? Was she kidding me? My mother had driven drunk to Irene’s country house in Vermont, and gotten pulled over after sideswiping an 18 wheeler and spent the night in jail.  I’d had to make a phone call to Irene that night too. At Irene’s home in Chevy Chase Maryland, at another Easter, my mother had tripped down the stairs to the bathroom and thrown up in Irene’s toilet. 

A few nights after speaking to Irene I had a dream that my boyfriend and I were looking for a new apartment and were considering renting a coach house from Irene.  The space was great, the rent was reasonable, but there was a problem – there was a woolly mammoth that charged the front door at random intervals.  I knew what it meant – there was an elephant in the room, and not just any elephant – a prehistoric one, because this issue was fucking ancient, and nobody wanted to deal with it, not even our prospective landlord.

I had just started a new job a couple months prior, and when I told my boss what had happened he asked if I wanted to fly to Boston.  I did.  Nobody knew how bad it was. If these were her final days, I wanted to be by her side, limited as she was in her parenting. I got a half-price ticket on United Airlines citing emergency circumstances (it still cost me over $600).  When I got to the hospital a curtain had been pulled around her bed, and a social worker was asking her questions.  I struggled with the ethics of listening in on a conversation that I wasn’t meant to hear, and in the end my curiosity won out – the questions were important, and as her daughter, I wanted answers.  

“What did you take?” The disembodied voice of the social worker asked.

“Half a bottle of Tylenol, and half a bottle of Advil.”

“Did you realize that this could kill you?”


“Knowing now that it could kill you, do you think you would have done it anyway?”  

There was a pause of maybe fifteen seconds, and then: “Yes, I think I would have.” 

Having completed her interview, the social worker pulled back the curtain, and my mother saw me sitting in a chair by the door.

“My God,” she said, blinking behind her glasses.

“Hi mom,” I said.

She behaved as though this was something that had happened to her, rather than something she’d done to herself. The details were nauseating; she’d taken the pills just before meeting a friend who was in town with her 8 year-old daughter.  They went to dinner and mom began to act strangely. Her friend asked what was wrong, and she confessed to what she’d done. 

In the hospital, she’d been prescribed what looked like a fast food shake to combat the effects of the pills.  She aimed it toward me, the plastic straw pointing at my face and playfully said: “Would you like a sip?” “No, thanks,” I said, and she laughed, as if it were some kind of inside joke. 

She reveled in the attention of her visitors, regaling them with tales of what had happened: “I felt a strange feeling in my stomach…” she’d begin, as if this were an adventure gone wrong, as if there were a different reason for us to be here.

I slept like a rock that week in my sister’s apartment; sleep is my go-to habit when faced with stress.  I can sleep through anything – I once slept through an earthquake.

There were conversations: with doctors, psychiatrists, aunts, family friends.  The pills had damaged her liver, no one knew how much. It was possible that she’d have to be on medication for the rest of her life. “It upsets us because it makes us think about our own drinking,” one family friend said, “was this a real suicide attempt or just a cry for help?” asked another. Suddenly I was the expert, fielding questions I couldn’t possibly know the answers to, soothing the fears of people coming out of the woodwork.  “It must be so hard knowing she’s in the hospital,” they said, misunderstanding the most basic tenant of the child raised in an alcoholic home: the time I least worry about my mother is when she’s in the hospital.  “I’ll keep you posted,” I said. “Posted” was implicit for bad news – funereal news.  I’d brought a black dress with me just in case.

We cleaned her house – me, my sister, and my two aunts. There were piles of unread New York Times and New Yorkers clogging the place up and giving it the feel of a recycling center.  Her ageing cat that I’d grown up with, who was now missing an eye and required a special low-ash diet for his urinary tract health did his best to distract me. My aunt Jean talked about her own struggles with alcohol; she hadn’t touched the stuff in years.  My aunt Donna filled the empty spaces with conversation. She offered to cook for us, to give us wake-up calls in the morning, and I welcomed it.

At the end of the week we met with the doctor, there was no permanent damage – she wouldn’t have to take medication, and there were no complications to her already compromised liver.  The cosmic unfairness of it hit me hard – she had cheated death, or at the very least, cheated permanent damage.  Meanwhile, much younger people in my life would be culled too soon: Lisa, who died at 25 of a congenital heart defect, leaving behind a toddler; Brad, who died of cancer before his 30th birthday; Dara, who died a few months ago at age 40.  Death, like violence, is random – you can minimize your chances, but you can’t eliminate them. 

ACOA was useful up to a point – about a year and a half into my tenure a couple showed up who weren’t actually Adult Children of Alcoholics, but insisted on attending meetings.  “My name is Judy,” one of them said, “and I’m an Adult Child of a Child Abuser…” Being a room full of ACOAs, none of us was able to stand up for ourselves and tell them that while their problems were real and terrible, the help they needed was not in this room. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so pathetic. One by one the core group of people I had come to depend on began dropping out. The last time I went, Judy was running the meeting. I haven’t been back since.

Luke Skywalker and I have more in common than I first realized; we were both born with one foot in Dark Side and the other in The Force.  We are both survivors – children without real parents, cobbling together our own families from the Wookiees, droids, and occasional Ewoks that we come across over the course of our lives. We are human children from another planet, and do not know Earth customs first hand.  Like Luke, I cannot control where I came from, but I can try to steer myself towards the future of my choosing. If I could, I’d buy him a drink at the Mos Eisley Cantina. We could talk about Leia’s attraction to bad boys like Han Solo, I could ask if Lando Calrissian likes to drink Colt 45, and what the real reason is behind Yoda’s syntax. He could ask me about life on Earth, what it’s like to use a toilet (I never once saw a bathroom in Star Wars,) and we could compare right hands. I think we’d have a good time.