Suffering the Consequences

FeaturedSuffering the Consequences

In late summer 1962, I ran away from home; away from my mother, away from my three sisters, and away from our year-round Jersey Shore beach house. My mother had left my father a few years before, after we were evicted from a mid-century-modern in the Chicago suburbs.

I loved moving close to the Atlantic Ocean but not even the beloved beach down the block could keep me from escaping from my mother’s uncontrollable, screeching, violent rampages. I fled to my father, two hours away in Manhattan. He’d moved there to be close to us and to try, once again, to stay sober. My mother suspended her hatred long enough to allow a few visits between us, but when he moved into a new girlfriend’s suite in the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue, my mother cut off all communication with him.

When I arrived, he checked me into my own hotel room, across the hall from his and the girlfriend’s suite. I enrolled in the sophomore class at Marymount Fifth Avenue Catholic girls school, where I became fast friends with another girl who lived in a hotel—her father managed the Waldorf-Astoria. I was no stranger to hotel living. My family had lived in the Meridian Hotel in Indianapolis for a year when my parents were drinking round-the-clock and couldn’t pull it together to find a family home. At 8-years-old, I had learned to run a tab for grilled cheese sandwiches and Coca-Colas in the hotel coffee shop. I relied on the doorman to report my whereabouts to my parents when I went out to play, since they weren’t always available to ask permission. I loved that part.

In early December at the Delmonico, I woke to a fiery, closed throat and vice-gripping headache. I went by ambulance to the emergency room of New York Presbyterian Hospital and was diagnosed with mononucleosis, hepatitis and migraine. The doctor explained that mononucleosis is called the kissing disease because it’s transmitted by mouth. Oh shit. Shame ran in my veins alongside the debilitating virus. I was afraid everyone would find out I was kissing a lot of boys and having sex.

Treatment included nausea-producing morphine injections and steroids. To heal my inflamed liver I lay flat on my back for 30 days— through Christmas and New Year’s. Classmates from Marymount brought homework; friends from the Jersey Shore sneaked in beer; my Boston boyfriend came with a stuffed Wiley Coyote; a case of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups showed up from my cousin,Therese. My mother never visited nor called.

Central-Park-New-York-city-NY-6While I was in  the hospital my father rented a furnished 3-bedroom apartment
overlooking the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park. Prolonged bedrest in the new home led to my recovery. The compulsory homework necessary for me to move on to my junior year slipped from my hands and onto the floor as I slept off my diseases. I returned to school after four months and failed that year with a final average grade of a humiliating 34.

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A long sentence about a ride down memory lane

My my wife, Kath, and I have our schedule, dutifully returning to downtown Chicago on Sunday afternoons, hoping we’ve left early enough to avoid the heavy traffic that invariably heads downtown and hoping against hope that we can catch the express lanes, but today after smooth sailing through the incessant freight train tracks of Des Plaines, we’re slowed at the River Road toll booth, giving us a chance for a five miles-per-hour ‘up close and personal’ encounter with our fellow travelers, but fortunately we have good air conditioning and a radio to help us pass the time of day as we hum along to some of my favorite songs, when, with little warning, both of us break into song with ‘Taking Care of Business’ by Bachmann Turner Overdrive (BTO), reminding me of my days in summer camp in southwest Ohio, probably the first crank-it-up-real-loud-and-roll-down-the-windows song that I remember,

“You get up every morning From your ‘larm clock’s warning

Take the 8:15 into the city

There’s a whistle up above And people pushin’, people shovin’

And the girls who try to look pretty”

and I feel younger again even as I feel like my grey hair is growing faster than my progress on the Kennedy Expressway, and Kath remembers all the words to the song, adding that she remembers hanging with friends in Evanston when BTO was big, and that our lives were nothing like the song where the band never adheres to a regimented work schedule like we have because they “can love to work at nothing all day” while both Kath and I have managed work and family, but our nostalgia is broken a bit when we hear that we can ‘save big money at Menards’ with their big spring garden sale, and out-of-the-blue I experience the exhilaration of my Camry hitting 25 mph as we near Foster Av and I wonder about hearing loss in the driver next to me whose base is making his car vibrate, but my thought of complaining about it is sidetracked as Simon and Garfunkel begin to sing, reminding me of my tumultuous late teen years, when their Bridge over Troubled Waters was popular, and we again join in, “When you’re weary, feeling small” and I recall that the mood of many of my friends whose emotions vacillated from day to day and sometimes minute to minute, and how we all felt we could save one another as we belted out “if you need a friend, I’m sailing right behind,” loving a song with some depth to it at a time when so many songs were about unrequited love and drug experimentation, and I don’t even care if the folks in the cars next to me think I have a screw loose as I belt out “like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind,” as now, at long last, we creep through the Edens-Kennedy merge at Montrose, but then, commercials seem to have taken over the airwaves until, on the eighth radio button, I run across the Clancy Brothers and I again join in song,

“A gypsy rover came over the hill,

Down through the valley so shady,

He whistled and he sang ’til the green woods rang ,

And he won the heart of a lady”,

 

and Kath asks how I know an Irish drinking song since I’m of German extract, knowing full well that she and the girl I’d dated before her, both ladies of my dreams (sequentially, not concurrently!) are Irish, and that I’d become acquainted with the Clancy Brothers through trips with each to the ‘Emerald Isle’ which was somewhere downtown, and that over the years I’d been well indoctrinated into being an honorary Chicago Irishman, and as the song concludes,  Tommy Makem encourages us to sing the chorus along with the band, and I oblige,

“Ah-dee-doo-ah-dee-doo-dah-day,
Ah-dee-doo-ah-dee-day-dee, 
He whistled and he sang ’til the green woods rang
And he won the heart of a lady, “

while at last I find myself at the Ohio Street exit ramp and progress at moderate pace across Ohio toward our downtown home, continuing to punch buttons and settle on one of my favorite karaoke songs, one with some good advice from Kenny Rogers and The Gambler,

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,

know when to fold ‘em,

know when to walk away,

and know when to run.

You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done,

As our building’s garageman smiles seeing us belt out along with Kenny, grateful that what should have been a 40-minute trip downtown only took 90 minutes on this warm Sunday afternoon, and grateful that we’ve enjoyed a trip down memory lane as we traversed once again between the suburbs and our home downtown.

______________________________________

And in case you’re wondering:

Takin’ Care of Business” is a song written by Randy Bachman and first recorded by Canadian rock group Bachman–Turner Overdrive (BTO) for their 1973 album Bachman–Turner Overdrive II.

Bridge over Troubled Water is from an album of the same name, the fifth and final studio album by American duo Simon & Garfunkel, released in January 1970 on Columbia Records.

The Gypsy Rover, is a ballad composed and copyrighted by Dublin songwriter Leo Maguire in the 1950s.

The Gambler is from an album of the same name, the sixth studio album by Kenny Rogers, released by United Artists in 1978

Caught in a Naive Web on the Window of Reality

FeaturedCaught in a Naive Web on the Window of Reality

In 1973 and ’74 Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what Bible passages like “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with us. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a brief time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God.

“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,”  Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my bad marriage.

And so I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey — answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”

Then one day a couple appeared when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.

I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The pro forma Owner arrived with a contract but doubted that he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him encumbered with cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the Owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discriminating against the black couple. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.Unknown

It never went to court. One day Adele brought me a news article that the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property. “See?” she said, “they were shills.”

Appraising this explanation, I thought, “Good for them.”

The Tragedy of 11/9

Calling All Predators

Zoophagous and silver spooned.
Queens street smart.
Boys school ass-slapping
name-calling. Winning

at all costs no
matter how you get there. Win

Win. Win. High school lying and cheating
to win doesn’t count in the real

world but forms and shapes
the real man. Get away with it to
win. Say anything to
win. Break laws to
win. Make money to break
laws to buy lawyers and courts not

to prove but to
win.

Won and now
What?

Win more. My way.
My family. My hair. My plane.
My gold faucets. My servants. My
Mine. Yours?

Not so fast. I get mine. You
get yours. You say I need.
I say you get
it
yourself.

You cheat. You lie. You break laws.
You don’t play that way? Then
you are a loser. You lose.
You will
lose.
Again.

Weak Women care about
others. Take care of
others. Spend money on
others. Help
others.
Church. Soup kitchens. Volunteer. Weak. Soft. Losers.
I’ll keep them

that way. Don’t you
worry.

I’ll make
the world smaller. Our women. Our world. Our goods. Our military.

They will ask and ask and ask. No more mercy. No more
giveaways. Humanitarianism
– over. Negotiation is now. What do I
get for what I’m giving? Strength.

Boys. Men. White. This is your
world. What you want

I know. Have always
known. Since Queens.

Where ARE You, Mary Riley?

Where ARE You, Mary Riley?

Vehicles on Ridge Road held landowners and families, deliverymen, trash collectors, handymen, maids, sheep and no others because the country road rolling along the distant end of our north shore Chicago suburb past big old generational homes like yours, one modern (mine) and one sheep farm disinvited disturbances to the quiet outside while inside Meet the Press murmured on Sunday mornings before Mass and the nightly news narrated the evenings before dinner, but you, Mary Riley, clomped 5 miles down Ridge Road on your horse and brought another to me so we could trailblaze in the sheep fields and eat wild raspberries in season then ride through the back brush to your barn spying on your mysterious brothers and their polo ponies, making the best of memories in a time that held the worst for me inside my family’s rented mid-century modern that reeked of cigarettes, Scotch and Budweiser—outside, chlorine rose from the pool my mother cleaned for us so we could swim after horseback riding in the summer—then in the fall Sacred Heart Academy took us in navy blue blazers for French and Religion, The Mikado and recess and lunch with the nuns and Cuban girls from the revolution; after school I avoided the shame of the empty ice box and food cabinets and met you on Ridge Road to ride our bikes with my baby sister Stacy on the handle bars past the sheep farm to the seven-kid Burns family compound for softball and ping pong, joking around and drinking cokes in the Burns family kitchen watching horses in the fields and chickens in the coop, a respite from my house down the road where talking was dangerous and lies took over and my father was absent for long stretches, commuting to the city and flying to Mexico on extended business trips, and my mother drank all day and night and I wondered if she was still alive in the morning because she didn’t wake to wrap peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in wax paper and boil soft eggs— what about yours? she had something wrong with her, did she drink too? was she sick?— then learning to drive on the macadam driveway in the white station wagon when my little sister Erin ran over her kitten, splat! hysterics all around except me—I went numb, wise to parents not giving a damn behind the flat walnut door to the Mies-like architecture where danger lurked and drunks stumbled but where, once, pointing out the bathroom window at eye-level with a tree limb, my mother showed me a robin’s nest holding blue eggs, and when I told you, you said, my father told me your phone is disconnected because you didn’t pay the bill, and Boom! that was the end of our friendship, right there at the lunch table in front of the muchachas who didn’t speak English and the Cuban girls who did and the French nuns Mon Dieu! alarmed but inept at how to reprimand you, you double-crossing rat bastard—whatever happened to you?

Thank you, Kevin Coval, for the brief but spectacular teaching.

I Love Lucy: Meditation on Funny

I Love Lucy: Meditation on Funny

I Love Lucy. The weekly television show from October 1951 to May 1957 starred Lucille Ball as Lucy and her husband, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo. The naïve, curious, ambitious th-3and untalented I-Love-Lucy sought love and approval through show business and schemed her way into hapless situations that led to trouble for the couple and their friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. At the end of each half-hour black-and-white show, I-Love-Lucy was forgiven and everyone hugged. From the age of five through eleven I never missed an episode.

 

F    U    N    N    Y


amily. Imperfections aside, I-Love-Lucy had everything I wished for my mother – vitality, ambition, curiosity, best friends, fun costumes and love for her family. In 1954 my mother drove past the 1600-seat Indiana Theater on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute with my 8-year-old eyes peering out the open window from the backseat. Parked curbside, an oversized flamingo-pink tractor trailer emblazoned with the words, Long, Long Trailer promoted the new Lucille Ball-Desni Arnaz movie. “No, you are NOT going to that movie.” My mother and her sister insisted it was not their job to provide entertainment for their children.

nyielding. My mother’s sister, Jean Renehan, was the exact opposite of I-Love-Lucy. Whip-smart, well-informed and organized, her only ambition—to connect to Jersey Shore high society—led her to marry a charming, well-turned-out blue blood alcoholic with a dowry. Always the strongest, most graceful and best-dressed woman in the room, she wasn’t prone to bumbling mishaps—until each cocktail hour separated her from grace. She laughed with others but the only lines she delivered herself were opinionated sarcastic put-downs of those who didn’t meet her standards.

onsense. Rick Steves has recorded three different videos of the Iberian Peninsula’s Rock of Gibraltar with its infamous native monkeys. Like I-Love-Lucy, the monkeys’ obsessions get them in trouble and make people laugh. Tourists move in to pet the comical wild animals and in the blink of an eye the monkeys snatch hats, purses, lunch, keys – anything to engage the unsuspecting humans in a game of hide and seek.

incompoop. Donald Trump is the I-Love-Lucy of American politics. He announces thpreposterous schemes, gets himself in trouble and we create punch lines to make ourselves laugh. When TrumpCare passed the House of Representatives, he tweeted, “ObamaCare is dead,” and threw a victory party at the White House. It looked like he actually believed the nascent bill became law. Late-night comics played Schoolhouse
Rock’s “Just a Bill” to show the fabulist President how a bill becomes law. Unlike I Love Lucy, this is not a TV series we can turn off.

uck. The sloth is named after the human vice because it is the very definition of inactive and lethargic, two characteristics totally foreign to I-Love-Lucy. Sloths spendUnknown-2 most of their lives hanging upside down in trees. Their fur houses moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi and algae. I recently heard about a service that will deliver a sloth to people who want to hug them. Eww. Do they know about the fur? God bless the sloth-huggers who embrace these imperfect funny creatures as I did with I-Love-Lucy.

Conquering High Rise Nature

Conquering High Rise Nature

I threw down the Sunday Real Estate section, flew out the door and sped toward the city to catch the last minutes of the 1-3 pm Open House in a Lake Shore Drive condominium. View of Lake Michigan, one-bedroom, 900 square feet, 24-hour doorman, close to everything, dogs allowed, balcony.

Balcony? During the hour drive to downtown Chicago from temporary quarters in my son’s suburban home, I fantasized sitting on the as-yet-unseen balcony overlooking the Lake, tending my garden.

“I’ll take it,” I said to the agent as I moved across the living room of the third-floor apartment and saw old-growth trees fully dressed in their summer clothes. Outside the wall-to-wall windows a flickering in the trees revealed a red-headed house finch flitting from limb to limb. And then, there was the balcony.

Before light bulbs, blinds or a shower curtain, I bought clay pots and flowering plants for my new home. Young lime-green sweet potato vines and purple morning glories would grow up hugging each other, curling around the railings, stretching toward the sun, competing for space on the top rail, then spilling over the top, and finally hanging down in a graceful cascade of tangled color.

I laid the pots of soil on the balcony overnight to let the dirt cure before planting, leaving the door open – inviting the overnight breeze to bring on a soft sleep. In the morning I strolled into the living room to find dirt tracked all over the floor. My terrier, Usher—legs splayed out on the balcony floor, muddy nose, dirty paws—held his head high with half-closed eyes basking in the light wind. What do you suppose dogs think? Was he grateful IOzzy Gardening 5-4-12 gave him the opportunity to dig up our new backyard?

Off to Home Depot I went for another bag of soil and over-the-railing brackets to hold the pots up and away from those ancient canine instincts. I planted and watered. Perfect.

My north-facing home juts out just enough on a curve of Lake Shore Drive to have a tree-filled lake view. In fact only the trees stand between my balcony and the North Pole – no buildings, no mountain ranges, not much to break the full force of prevailing winds barreling down the Great Lakes, slamming into my building and battering the sweet potato vines and morning glories. They didn’t last the week.

For three years I tried all manner of perennials and annuals praying for wind resistance. The gardeners at Gethsemane Garden Center finally told me I was in a losing battle. Abandoning the outdoor garden, I still delighted in my tree-filled panoramic view full of IMG_1778sparrows, chickadees and one squirrel that sat on a parallel branch, squeaking and shaking his tail, tormenting the dog.

Eventually the emerald ash borer brought down most of the old trees, allowing more
light to fall on the indoor geraniums that are spread across the window sills and bloom all year. Conquering nature in a high-rise requires unwavering love of God’s creatures and a solid commitment to the game.

The Russians: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

The Russians: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

I was three years old in 1949 when the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating their first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin and pushing their way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my toddler head at cocktail hour told me the Russians wanted to rule the world and they were coming for us.

By the time I entered the first grade in 1952, the US government had created the National Civil Defense Administration and devised a plan to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Teachers were required to conduct air raid drills, shouting, “Drop!” and school children dropped under their desks, fell over their knees and covered their heads. The nuns at my schools added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

As first, second and third graders, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God… One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she confirmed the worst that could happen hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school.

At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event so I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. “This is it,” I’d pray, “this is the day I’m going to see Jesus.” I believed Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice so desperately to avoid such ecstasy?

By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television and I began to realize why those air raid drills were so ominous — there were worse things than death.

Our parochial school teachers taught us Communists were going to hell because they prevented Catholics from going to Mass, which was one of the worst things that could ever happen. Words from the TV news — Stalin, USSR, Iron Curtain, the Red Army, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the CIA — put worry on my parents’ faces and terrified me.

Throughout my childhood, I had reasons to think the worst was going to happen every day. But the worst never happened and over time these early worst-that-could-happen fears immunized me against pessimistic eruptions the way a bout of the measles inoculates against future outbreaks of inflamed skin . For instance, my mother’s alcoholic dementia killed her at 70, but it was not the worst thing to happen, rather relief to her and to those around her.

Today’s words —Trump, FBI, emoluments, North Korea, hacking, Putin, charter schools and my old friend Russia — needle me with foreboding, but history is on my side. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?