Marlboro Woman

Agnes smoked Marlboros. I can’t separate the ubiquitous red and white box from any memory of my mother. Her hands were never far from that flip-top pack. Like shrimp between two chopsticks, a cigarette dangling casually between the joints of two fingers is a practiced dexterity, one she learned long before I was born.

The broad flatback of her hands extending from wide wrists guided her muscled fingers. They looked like they worked hard and long. But they didn’t. Her young hands held rackets, bridles, hair brushes and probably cigarettes. Her maternal hands chopped, sliced and scrubbed until motherhood bored her.

Freckles splattered over raised veins tunnelling through the back of her hands. When the freckles blended together into “liver spots”, I was ashamed, embarassed. Later on, those liver spots scared me, until I learned prolonged beach time was the cause, not alcohol or tobacco-related diseases. 

To paint her nails, Agnes would sit in her arm chair next to the mahogany table, a cold beer on a coaster and a cigarette in a flowery ceramic ashtray. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself.  She’d unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark-bristled brush coated in toxic red lacquer. With one hand flattened on the table, and the other one holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get the exact amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form, nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. She was never hurried, but finished before the cigarette was burned to the halfway mark. Lifting the cigarette to her lips without smudging her half-dried nails, she’d take a long rewarding drag.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lipstick brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left, slide the top up with her left fingers, and let the top drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the curved tapered bristles of the brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. She’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips, then brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. After blotting her freshly-colored lips with a folded Kleenex, she’d lift a lit Marlboro from the ashtray and gently mouth the filter tip.

In the 1960s Philip Morris secretly started using chemicals in Marlboros to free base the nicotine and increase its addictiveness. Smokers said the cigarettes calmed their nerves. By the 1970s Marlboros were the best-selling cigarette in the world.

My mother carried a small leather purse until the day she died. The only contents: lipsticks and Marlboros.

May Day

For a few years my son and I lived with his stepfather at the confluence of New Jersey’s freshwater Toms River and brackish Barnegat Bay. The east-west river begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells as it picks up smaller estuaries on its way east. Just ten degrees north of the subtropical Horse Latitudes, the Toms River is beloved by sailors, especially during summer’s prevailing southerlies.  

Our sandy backyard bulkheaded the rich brine nourshing vibrant sea creatures that, in turn, fed the migratory bird colonies.

We lived for the water.

The used Sunfish we purchased for fifty dollars came with a booklet on ‘how to sail’. With a crab claw sail and simple two line rigging, the thirty pound polystyrene Sunfish distinguished itself as a perfect learner’s boat. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats.” I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

1973 Budweiser ad

I practiced my new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead with a double braided dockline. On our first untethered day at sea, six-year old Joe, who’d studied the how-to manual, rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I pointed toward shore and asserted “go home”. Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we made it to the middle of the wide river before the dog got to us. We were too far out for her to swim back so we hauled her aboard and headed to shore. The only solution was to tuck the faithful dog away in a bedroom before heading out to sail. 

One breezy afternoon, we took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back east. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. We were trapped. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. The sail luffed out of control.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my worried brow. I could swim with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other.

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. No beaches. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. “You should name her ‘May Day’.”

And we would have.

If we’d ever sailed again.

The Sound of Metal

It’s been twenty-four years since Christopher Reeve, aka Superman, fell off his horse competing at an equestrian event and broke his neck. Why was a good Democrat like him jumping around in such a patrician sport? I love to watch fancy horses and riders ballet through their Olympic paces on TV but come on! Superman?

After an understandably gloomy recovery, wheelchair-bound Superman rose to become an effective advocate for disability rights and a staunch promoter of research for spinal cord injuries. When he appeared at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) in 2004, I asked my friend, Marca Bristo, herself a world-famous disability rights advocate, if she was going to see him.

Marca broke her neck when she was a twenty-year-old nursing student, spent a year recovering in what was the first year of RIC’s existence, and learned how to live and love in a heavy metal wheelchair. We were avid moviegoers, but she hesitated in honoring Christopher Reeve. Not because he was no longer a movie star, of course, but because she didn’t fully support his work in regenerative research. To Marca life was all about acceptance. Reeve plunged headlong (pardon the pun) into seeking a cure for spinal cord injuries.

He lobbied for embryonic stem cell therapy to heal the spine, took synthetic drugs to heal the spine, exercised to heal the spine. He founded one of the leading spinal cord research centers in the world. Knowing his injury would lead to an early death, he was on the inside track running toward the regenerative finish line.

I understand the frenzy to find a cure. I thought I was going to die before I found a solution for my chronic pain. The search alone turned pain to suffering. And I understand the reluctance in facing an incurable malady. For ten years my outsides announced I’m an alcoholic out loud in AA meetings, while my insides waged war against the world.

I didn’t drink but I didn’t want to be a sober alcoholic, didn’t want to say I was an alcoholic and sure as hell didn’t want to know other sober alcoholics. I looked for relief in self-help books, exercise, talk-therapy, anti-depressants, sex, food and spiritual retreats. I’ve always known there was no cure for alcoholism, but subterranean stubbornness kept me on the prowl for anything other than acceptance of that truth. I banged my head against a steel drum until the sound of metal made me so sick I finally cried uncle. 

Like walk, eat and love,“accept” needs to be put it in motion. Everyday I actively accept what I can’t change. If I let acceptance lie fallow, uneasiness simmers below the surface. Eventually defiance boils over and I find myself throwing tantrums in Walgreen’s because the clerk is too slow or obsessing over a bag of potato chips. 

I accept this. 

It is what it is.

This is what Marca Bristo wished for Christopher Reeve. 

Witness to Writing’s Healing Power

I have no idea when I first started going to the movies. Lists of movies from the 1950s always include ones I can tick off. I know I saw some in theaters, some on TV. 

My father loved thinking-man westerns, film noir and dramas. My mother knew all about the latest movies from reading reviews in the New York Times. They never went to movies together, but they discussed movies, fought about them, of course, as they did everything.

He started taking me to the movies with him when I was about ten. I instinctively knew to supress my yearning to see Elvis or Davy Crockett movies. In order to be included in the moviegoing, I’d feign more sophisticated preferences—Alexander the Great with Richard Burton, Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman, Giant with Rock Hudson. He never admitted to liking musicals or comedies like Anything Goes or Pajama Game. But he hummed songs from the musical Pal Joey as if he’d seen it and expressed careful admiration for its stars, Rita Heyworth and Kim Novak. 

One of the movies I’d be forbidden to see by today’s standards is The Searchers. John Wayne and his cowboys ride off in search of female relatives abducted by Indians. When they find them, the women are all dead. It’s the first time I heard the word “rape”. When I asked what that meant, my father had no answer. Faced with the unknowing, I sensed an ancestral knowing, a subconscious knowing churned up from the genetic code. I listened to these cross-generational gut reactions and the fear I heard settled quietly in my lower back. 

In 1959 my father took me to Witness for the Prosecution. An avid reader of Agatha Christie, he knew the story. I hadn’t paid attention to the chatter about the acclaimed movie starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Deitrich and Tyrone Powell. As we entered the Deerpath Theater in Lake Forest, my father casually offered a wager.

“If you guess who did it in the first five minutes, I’ll give you fifty cents.”

“Ok, but I don’t even know what it’s about.” I balked.

“That’s the point.”

I watched each second tick by on my Timex, and at the five-minute mark I leaned over to my father.

“He did it.” I whispered.

“We’ll see.” He said.

I was electrified for the rest of the movie. He did, indeed, do it. I won. My father was so pleased he let me drive home.

Desperation to please my father dominated my secret life. I wanted to be a reason he’d stay home with us. The fear, the anxiety, the straining to decode adult silences landed like hot lava in the tangled ganglia of my lower back where it lay dormant for forty years.

That’s the last movie we saw together. My parents split up soon after. In my fifties, the secrets smoldering in my lower back suddenly fired up. The secrets turned to truths through writing. And the writing put out the fire.

Call My Name

Call My Name

My name evoked unwelcomed curiosity in the John-and-Mary 1950s.

“Say in a loud voice ’It’s from Shakespeare,’” my mother Agnes demanded of me as soon as I could talk.

When strangers asked the inevitable, “Where did that name come from?” Agnes greeted the question as an accusation. She silently goaded me into defending my name with a withering look meant for the questioner but sent my way. She hated talking about it or anything else having to do with her children.

Catholic clergy intimated my name wasn’t written in the Book of Life, and the gates of heaven might be closed to me. “Hmm, Regan. That’s not a saint’s name.” They’d muse aloud. “Is that your middle name?”

In King Lear, Regan is the king’s middle daughter. She’s a power-hungry evil sister who tries to flatter her father into giving her the family fortune, then drives him out into a raging storm. In the end, Regan’s jealous older sister poisons her.

Six months out of a psych ward in 1971, I picked up the besteseller The Exorcist at the Main Street Drug Store in Belmar, New Jersey, and headed to the diner. Sipping on a coke, I opened the book while waiting for my grilled cheese. An hour later I was in my Volkswagen Bus in the diner parking lot, bewitched by the story.

The book’s demon-possessed twelve year-old protagonist? Regan. Exorcist Regan’s name came from King Lear. In the book, Regan’s mother was an actress who frequently entertained her director, Burke Dennings, with too many martinis. My father, whose last name was, of course, Burke, loved too many martinis. Exorcist Regan lived with her mother in Georgetown. My family had lived in Georgetown.

I finished the book and serpentined down the road in second gear to my mother’s house. The dizzying story of Regan’s demon possession plundered my recovering nervous system. I blasted through the front door and slammed The Exorcist down on the coffee table. 

“Who’s this author? How do you know him? Why didn’t you warn me about this? How could you let me read this?”

Though an avid reader, Agnes was oblivious to the summer blockbuster. She speculated that author William Peter Blatty was one of the hordes of anonymous acquaintances who’d attended parties at our Georgetown home when I was a toddler.

Years later, a friend ran into Blatty at a political event and asked if he’d named Regan after me. Blatty’s reply: “Absolutely! That name always haunted me. Who would name their little baby after one of Shakespeare’s most craven females?”

When The Exorcist became a movie in 1973, my then-husband started calling me “Babe.” The movie uncloaked such evil that he was afraid to even say Regan. The Exorcist was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. For years afterwards whenever I met someone new, I’d get, “The Exorcist, right?” Right. 

What’s worse: having the name of an evil literary character and horror film freak?

Or, not having a saint’s name? 

Microaggression and Blackbirds

Long ago someone told me pigeons are flying rats and I’ve never bothered to think differently. Pigeons have discovered the bird feeder on my balcony. I shoo them away but they lurk on the ledges of the building across the street and return when they think the coast is clear. A single red-winged black bird, one-fifth the size of a pigeon, will scare a pigeon away from its breakfast on my windowsill.

 Red-winged blackbirds can be aggressive in defending their nests this time of year.

Red-winged blackbirds nest in Chicago parks. The males chase intruders — other males, crows, raptors, and people. I wandered down Michigan Avenue the other day to check on the migrating flock that sets up housekeeping every year in Lake Shore Park. Though I readily observe one or two red-wings at my window, there’s nothing like watching a flock dive-bombing unsuspecting dog walkers who pass under their nests.

On the way, I clutched my bag as I passed the Louis Vuitton store. I funneled myself between the ever-present queue around the store and the narrowing sidewalk. Lines formed outside Louis Vuitton and other high-end stores when Covid Shutdown rules required a limited number of people inside. And for the umpteenth time this year I noticed my silent microaggressive thoughts on Black people. Where do these people get the money for four thousand dollar purses? 

Covid Shutdown coincided with the proliferation of online free programs about white privilege, implicit bias and microaggression. For the first time in my old life I’ve been made aware that my whiteness affords me privileges such as crossing paths with a policeman without fear, a privilege Black people don’t have. I’ve discovered that fear of Black men is an implicit bias that governs where I live, eat, shop and travel. Microaggression is a bit trickier to face. Awareness of clutching my bag as I silently scorn Black people lined up at Louis Vuitton is a start. 

On a recent anti-racist zoom program, I learned about workers in the “informal” or survival economy. These are the bucket boys. The handymen. The loose cigarette sellers.The sex workers. The retail money-launderers. Until recently I thought of informal workers as criminals, and not as resilient, courageous, burdened and traumatized spirits of the survival economy. 

A dapper old pensioner sits in a busy park near my building. I know he’s often short on rent, the way you know these things about the neighborhood. He palms a bill in the hand of every passing informal worker: the Streetwise peddlers, the panhandlers, the street people. He’s the only person I know who still carries cash. I used to think he was not only foolish with his money but that he actually hurt people by providing cash for booze and cigarettes. I now think of him as the buddha, the christ, the manifestation of noble kindness. 

I’m receptive to changing my thinking about people.

But not about those pigeons.

___________________________

‘Nature’s A–holes’ Are Back: Red-Winged Blackbirds Attacking People Along The River As Nesting Season Gets Underway

Microaggression and Blackbirds

Long ago someone told me pigeons are flying rats and I’ve never bothered to think differently. Pigeons have discovered the bird feeder on my balcony. I shoo them away but they lurk on the ledges of the building across the street and return when they think the coast is clear. A single red-winged black bird, one-fifth the size of a pigeon, will scare a pigeon away from its breakfast on my windowsill.

 Red-winged blackbirds can be aggressive in defending their nests this time of year.

Red-winged blackbirds nest in Chicago parks. The males chase intruders — other males, crows, raptors, and people. I wandered down Michigan Avenue the other day to check on the migrating flock that sets up housekeeping every year in Lake Shore Park. Though I readily observe one or two red-wings at my window, there’s nothing like watching a flock dive-bombing unsuspecting dog walkers who pass under their nests.

On the way, I clutched my bag as I passed the Louis Vuitton store. I funneled myself between the ever-present queue around the store and the narrowing sidewalk. Lines formed outside Louis Vuitton and other high-end stores when Covid Shutdown rules required a limited number of people inside. And for the umpteenth time this year I noticed my silent microaggressive thoughts on Black people. Where do these people get the money for four thousand dollar purses? 

Covid Shutdown coincided with the proliferation of online free programs about white privilege, implicit bias and microaggression. For the first time in my old life I’ve been made aware that my whiteness affords me privileges such as crossing paths with a policeman without fear, a privilege Black people don’t have. I’ve discovered that fear of Black men is an implicit bias that governs where I live, eat, shop and travel. Microaggression is a bit trickier to face. Awareness of clutching my bag as I silently scorn Black people lined up at Louis Vuitton is a start. 

On a recent anti-racist zoom program, I learned about workers in the “informal” or survival economy. These are the bucket boys. The handymen. The loose cigarette sellers.The sex workers. The retail money-launderers. Until recently I thought of informal workers as criminals, and not as resilient, courageous, burdened and traumatized spirits of the survival economy. 

A dapper old pensioner sits in a busy park near my building. I know he’s often short on rent, the way you know these things about the neighborhood. He palms a bill in the hand of every passing informal worker: the Streetwise peddlers, the panhandlers, the street people. He’s the only person I know who still carries cash. I used to think he was not only foolish with his money but that he actually hurt people by providing cash for booze and cigarettes. I now think of him as the buddha, the christ, the manifestation of noble kindness. 

I’m receptive to changing my thinking about people.

But not about those pigeons.

___________________________

‘Nature’s A–holes’ Are Back: Red-Winged Blackbirds Attacking People Along The River As Nesting Season Gets Underway

Coming Out

NPR reporter Monica Eng posts traditional homemade dishes on Instagram for every holiday. When I spotted her photo of colcannon, I recalled that on St. Patrick’s Day in the before-time I would hop the downtown bus to The Gage restaurant for their annual version of colcannon. Colcannon is a peasant Irish dish of potatoes mashed with butter, cream, cabbage and onions. 

In 2020, Governor Pritzker shut down St. Patrick’s Day and all restaurants for a month to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in Illinois. Our watering mouths were abruptly slammed shut not for a month but for the year.

Let’s have lunch! I messaged Mark this St. Patrick’s Day. We entered the same bus at different locations. Pandemic bus culture dictates you huddle in your seat and never look around. We didn’t recognize each other’s masked faces until we lined up by the bus driver at our destination. We hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of the shutdown.

The Gage is near the recently reopened Art Institute of Chicago. Mark and I could have visited the Art Institute after lunch but I dared not mention it. I’m not accustomed to “going out” yet and I needed to take it one occasion at a time. The Gage is only two miles from my home and I already felt like I was on an out-of-town excursion.

I’ve spent as much time in The Art Institute and the nearby Harold Washington Library than almost any public space in Chicago. Long before I even thought about writing my own book, I loved to see and hear authors talk about their writing in the womb-like Pritzker Auditorium at the Library.

In the year before the shutdown, the Member’s Lounge at the Art Institute was my favorite haunt for eavesdropping on conversations. I’d grab a coffee, find a seat and nonchalantly leaf through the delights in the oversized art book from the latest exhibit. I overheard couples argue over lunch plans, strangers flirt with each other and friends gossip about the get-ups of passersby.

Those best of days—lunch, art and authors—flicker in my memory like a moth dancing around a light bulb. The moth, and its cousin the butterfly, are metaphorically overused these days to describe how the vaccinated are acting after the year-long pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted. I get it. In order to get back in the habit of going out, my soul measures future steps, like an inchworm sprung from its cocoon. I loop up, edge forward, look around and take the measure of the awakening world, retreating when un-masked danger arises. Like the metamorphoses of the caterpillar to the butterfly or the inchworm to the moth, I suspect I’ll soon be free to flit about at will.

Molting Monarch Caterpillar

It can’t come soon enough. I’ve become an eating machine. If only my outer layers would molt like those of the voracious-eating inchworms and caterpillars. They need all the calories they can chew off.  

I don’t.

Marching Forth in Love

Marching Forth in Love

Throughout the fall of 2016, I spent three days a week at physical therapy to exorcise the demons from my new knees. That summer I had ceramic installed to replace disintegrating bone and cartilage. Recovery was a long process, made worse by those who’d gone before and bragged about walking a mile six weeks after their surgeries.

At the PT office, Assistant Colleen and I yakked up a storm about how awful Donald Trump was and how Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in to win the presidential election. My new knees took me to Cleveland the last few weeks of the campaign and marched me around neighborhoods campaigning for Hillary.

After the election I took advantage of my leftover Medicare hours and returned to therapy. By then the PTSD from the election outcome had exploded in my lower back. Colleen and I groaned away our sorrows as I waited to be treated for ongoing knee therapy and newly acquired back pain.

One day in late December I walked in the door and she exclaimed, “let’s go to the Women’s March in DC!”

The Women’s March was a worldwide protest on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. I wasn’t clear what the message of the March was except that Trump had a vile reputation with women. But Washington is the motherland for old protesters like me and I was all in.

Colleen found the last two seats on an overnight bus. We brought old pillows and blankets to leave on our seats and light backpacks to carry on the March. Outside Chicago’s Union Station four hundred cold but jubilant marchers filled up bus after bus and drove off. One bus driver told us they had run out of buses around Chicago but were bringing one down from Kenosha. We gratefully boarded our heated bus three hours late.

No photo description available.

At each of the two stops on the twelve-hour trip, the packed restaurants and bathrooms were abuzz with women in hand-knitted pink hats. The small bus caravan multiplied on the Pennsylvania Turnpike the closer we got to Washington. When our bus driver mistakenly pulled off the George Washington Parkway headed toward the heart of the March, I had to guide him to an improvised drop-off point behind Washington’s Union Station. We nervously deboarded, hoping our bus would be at that spot when we returned. We marched to the beat of  Women- in-Construction drummers toward the National Mall. Joining 500 thousand ebullient demonstrators carrying hilarious and poignant signs, I still had no idea what the point of the March was. As we passed by portable toilets all along the way, it began to sink in. The toilets were for Trump’s Inauguration crowd the day before. This day, toilets were padlocked. 

A young girl on her father’s shoulders passed by holding a homemade sign, “Hate Does Not Make America Great.”  And I knew that’s what we were meant to demonstrate. And so we did. And so we are.

Month 11 in the Shutdown Lane: The Shot

Month 11 in the Shutdown Lane: The Shot

Remember “flattening the curve”? By March 15, 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic in Chicago threatened a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment. The governor cancelled St. Patrick’s Day parades and temporarily closed bars, restaurants, schools, churches and stores. Dr. Anthony Fauci told us not to leave our homes except for groceries or medicine or to walk the dog.

“Look at the curves of other outbreaks,” he said, “they go up big peaks, then come down. We need to flatten this curve.”

Staving off the collapse of the nation’s health care system was dependent on the unselfish actions of the body politic: hand-washing, mask-wearing, not traveling and figuring out how to stay at least six feet from others. We were so afraid we’d end up in the makeshift hospital at the cavernous McCormick Place Convention Center that we followed shelter-in-place orders. The curve flattened. For a few weeks. Then it spiked. And spiked again.

On March 20, 2020, I wrote the first in a series of thirteen weekly blog posts, “Week 1: Life in the Shutdown Lane.” By June, I lost interest. Oh, I wrote about it, moaned about it. But as time shifted into months, I stopped marking the time in weeks.Untitled 2

 “Flattening the curve” left the public discourse. Some embrace staying at home. Some double down on mask-wearing and malign
those who don’t. Some defiantly refuse to be masked and mock those who are. And some pay no attention at all as if the rules don’t apply to them. And now, the only hope for this cowboy nation to fight the deadly Covid-19 virus is the vaccine.

The first vaccines arrived in Chicago in mid-December. Priority was given to health care workers and people living and working in long-term care facilities. When the sixty-five and over age group was able to line up, all I heard about on my ever-present Zoom chats were adventures of the shot.

I thought I’d sign up on my doctor’s automated scheduling system, but when I looked, the web page said they don’t do shots. “Click here” it suggested. I clicked there and nothing happened.

“Go on the Walgreen’s site,” a friend insisted. “If there’re no appointments, keep trying.” He’d exhausted himself getting up at all hours of the night checking for available appointments. He thought I should do the same.

“What’s the hurry?” I shrugged. “My life won’t change. Fauci says I still have to wear a mask and stay home.”

Hounded by the challenge, I succumbed to the bird-dog pursuit and registered on every site, not just Walgreen’s. When I received a phone call from Mariano’s pharmacy, I reacted like I’d won the lottery.

It may be a while before I go to the Art Institute, lunch with friends or linger in a grocery store, but after almost a year of restrictions, it sure is nice to have the freedom to do so.

Just the shot in the arm I needed.