Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I’m holding my own personal Irish wake tonight, cheap box wine and all. Like most wakes, it has less to do with the deceased than with my own specific experience of loss. And for that, I know, my friend Joel Hershey, who died yesterday, would forgive me. “You and your Irish and your self-pity,” he would snarl. “Didn’t you have a great aunt a thousand years ago who was a professional mourner?”

Well yes, as a matter of fact, I did.

For all the time I knew him, I was always a little bit afraid of what Joel was going to do, and I guess that’s why I stuck so closely by his side for twenty-five years. I wanted to see what would happen next, even as I was holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut and peeking through my fingers. He was, and always will be, my bad boy, and that’s just one of the many reasons I loved him.

Maritz Motivation Company Picnic, July 1987

 Annual No-Hope Dessert Classic Miniature Golf Tournament, 1991

We met in the most sterile and confining of corporate environments, back when he wore a tie and I wore pantyhose, and yet he found a way to poke his fingers through the bars of our cages and cause mayhem of the sort I could not resist. I followed along behind, the rules-obeying girl who finds herself swept away in naughtiness. And, as it turned out, in goodness. Jesus, that man was good to me – when I was heartbroken, when I was frightened, when I was unemployed – there were many nights when Joel was the thing that kept me from the edge. And now he’s gone over that very edge himself, and I keep wishing I had one more night to stand in line at the TKTS booth with him and hear him argue with the clerk about which are, actually, the best seats in the house. Him and his first balcony, center -- just try to get him to sit anywhere else.
These days, I am a nondescript woman who lives a nondescript life in a nondescript part of the world. I am invisible on good days and contemptible on bad ones. I am reminded, sometimes hourly, of all the ways I will never Be Enough. And yet, when I was with Joel, I unclenched enough to just be myself, the one who could never follow directions or understand how to split a bill or say no to that next drink at the happy hour. Lost or dumb or drunk, it didn’t matter to him. Or if it did, he loved me anyway.

The past two summers, we’ve met for a totally illicit and utterly impractical week of New York theater together. This picture below is from this past July, the day I dragged him to see the taping of the Seth Rudetsky radio show in midtown. I normally take a terrible picture. I tense up and worry that I’m going to ruin it for everyone, that my frozen, frightened and mud-ugly face will forever make the picture unusable. Look at how relaxed and happy I am, next to him. O Joel. 

The last meal we ate together was at Zen Palace on 9th Avenue. We'd met Mary Katherine at her Acting Workshop and were heading towards the neighborhood of the Brooks Atkinson, where we'd see our show for the evening, Peter and the Starcatchers.  See our show. For us, that was the phrase that brought everything into focus, and made us giddy with the thought that we were about to slip out of the grim fantasy of daily life and tumble into the true reality, the one that can only be  experienced with a Playbill on one's lap.
It was time to pay the bill, and I extracted a few sweaty dollars from the recesses of my cargo shorts. "Figure out what I owe you," I'd said, handing them over, and he repeated what he always said to me when we were splitting a bill: "Darling, it would be so easy to cheat you, but you'd never even realize it was happening, so what fun would that be?"
I am angry with myself right now, because he called me from the road, and I missed his call, and I kept meaning to call back. All this past weekend, as I stood at the edges of playing fields or stood still in traffic or stood at the stove grinding out yet another meal I wasn’t at all interested in eating myself, I was thinking, “I have to call Joel. Maybe he’s in Pocatello, Idaho, and we can sing about the Princess Theater, like the last time we did when he was there. That’s next on my list.”

I never got to the next thing on my list.  I never called.

And he died in Boise, not even in Pocatello.

I’m also angry with him for going out like such an establishment tool, just quietly passing into the next life while he was puttering away on his laptop in this one. How respectable. How boring. How unlike him. Me, I plan for my body to be found with a 20-year-old pool boy with whom I have been romantically linked. I want everyone, everyone, to be buzzing with gossip at my funeral, in between enormous gulps of champagne. I want to make a scene.

But I’ll be somewhere else by then. I’ll be with Joel. He and his friend Jon Prel, long ago dead from AIDS, used to talk about how they hoped there would be good lighting in Hell, how we naughty kids could sit up front, fanning ourselves and continuing to make catty remarks about everyone we knew.

Get some extra pink gel on that follow spot for me, Joel. And do save me a seat in first balcony center, darling.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Just One Slice, Boys

For a minute there, I thought Emma was going to pick up the pizza slicer and go after that lady. And honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed her. I try to avoid giving in to small-minded prejudices, but I have to confess that I harbor a deep loathing for a certain variety of my own tribe – the Absolutely Correct Mom. Last week, Emma got an eyeful of one of those high priestesses in action, and the results were entertaining for me and educational for her. Finally, my daughter got a snootful of what I’ve been contending with, lo these seventeen years of the enforced volunteer-at-the-potluck servitude that is modern motherhood.

Emma had helped me drop off yet another dish at yet another team dinner, and we’d been hanging around to help out. “Help” is always a dicey term at events like this, because there are usually several women in attendance who have very, very strong opinions about the way things need to go down, and woe to those carefree souls who don’t comply. At potlucks in my past, I’ve been instructed to move the same table forward, back and a little over to the side, all by warring factions of the same group. I’ve moved the napkins to the front, no, that’s crazy, put them to the end, no, we need to find a space in the middle for them … and then I’ve just hidden in the ladies’ room for a while until the Great Napkin Controversy gets sorted through.

So there Emma and I were at the serving table, stationed right behind the pizza boxes. I’d already followed instructions to cut each slice in half, and we’d set up a couple boxes and watched the team file past and dig in. Then, our vigilance slipped, and we leaned back against the wall and began talking to each other. That’s when the lady who was spooning the Starch Surprise out of the slow cooker swooped in to set us straight. “You’re going to have to tell them that they can only take one slice,” she hissed at Emma.  My darling, rational daughter considered her demand and countered, logically, with this observation: “But there are like, ten more boxes of pizza here,” she said. “There’s plenty.”

O, you little fool, I thought. Rules always trump reality in these settings, and sure enough, the Starch Surprise lady called over the dinner’s organizer for an official opinion. Everyone talked at once about the new one-slice mandate, with a great deal of righteous indignation serving as subtext: two slices, as if. Then one of the boxes was emptied, and, as Emma moved to replace it, her new bestie offered even more advice. “You’ll need to put that cheese over there, and stop handling it so much, we want to handle it as little as possible,” she harrumphed, as if Emma had somehow missed the mandatory Pizza Serving Skills Seminar.

That’s when I got a glimpse of my darling daughter. The way her eyes were rolling in her head, I was put in mind of a crazed horse from a bad Western movie. Starch Surprise didn’t know what she was dealing with, however, and she reached around Emma to fuss, adjust and otherwise manage this ultra-complicated serving task in a manner befitting its incredible strategic importance. That’s when I noticed that Emma was tightening her grip on the pizza slicer in a manner that can only be described as menacing. 

“Look at the time!” I chirped, glancing at my watchless wrist. “We don’t want to be late for choir practice, so we’ll leave all this pizza in your very capable hands.” I linked arms with Emma and got her to the vestibule before she blew. “What the hell?” she spluttered, and I had a quick flash-forward vision of new momma Emma at the playground, the first time some other mommy tries to shame her for not having eco-friendly wooden teething rings, or organic cotton diapers, or whatever the latest mommy must-have will be in the (what I hope will be very, very distant) future.

“This is what mommies do to each other,” I told her. “They make up stupid rules about unimportant stuff and drive each other crazy.” Then I thought of Emma’s oft-voiced thoughts about a career in intelligence work, and I imagined Agent Emma drawing a bead on that self-righteous twit who is breast-feeding her seven-year-old at the Teacher Appreciation lunch.

Come to think of it, I could not imagine one potluck volunteer experience that would not have been improved through the judicious display of firearms. Good luck to you, future mommy Emma, I thought, and let me know how those other mommies fall in line when they find out that you’re packing heat.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Last Blackberry Standing

There is still a typewriter repair shop in the Twin Cities, bravely holding out in its own personal Alamo at the corner of Penn and 63rd. I’m taking a bit of solace in that fact these days, now that I am the last person in my family, and perhaps in a hundred-mile area, to still be using a Blackberry. While my friends are whipping out Smartphones that calculate their calories burned, brain waves expended and exact location in the universe at every moment, I still think I’m a snappy bit of tech genius because I don’t have to go home every couple hours to check my email on my personal computer (the one with the massive CPU under the desk).

I hadn’t really intended to be such a Luddite (I discovered, not on a smartphone, that they were 19th-century English textile artisans who violently protested against the machinery introduced during the Industrial Revolution). Laziness is a contributing factor, but mostly I haven’t stood in line overnight at the Apple store for the same reason that I buy my annual pair of “pearl” earrings at Wal-Mart – I can’t be trusted with the nice stuff. These Smartphones may be fabulous, but they have a supermodel’s delicate constitution, which is a bad way to roll if you’re a piece of equipment owned by Julie Kendrick the Impaler (just ask my mortally wounded KitchenAid and my recently deceased Cuisinart).

A drop of water, an accidental fall, and it’s curtains for these delicate little Smartphone butterflies (after a tearful trip to the Genius Bar for last rites). My Blackberry, on the other hand, has an aura that is utterly Midwestern … boxy, ugly, clunky – but reliable in a un-show-off-y way. The last time I was in New York, I was having lunch with three friends, and, as we got up to leave the table, I accidentally swept my Blackberry to the floor. My friends, whose pockets each held the absolute latest in phone tech, collectively gasped. “Hey fellas,” I said calmly, “It takes more than a tumble to the hardwood floor at Joe Allen to bust up this baby.”

One of them gingerly picked up my phone for me, and was sore amazed to see its cover intact. I imagined it was how a Lamborghini owner’s face must look after a fender-bender with a rusty Buick that’s crumpled his fancy little ride beyond recognition. This thing is ugly, but it sure is strong, I could almost hear my pal saying. He noticed the bright blue strip at the top of my phone. “Is this a special device to improve your 4G connection?” he asked, hoping that I was somehow leading-edge in my clunkiness. “No, it’s a piece of painter’s tape so I’ll stop stealing my husband’s phone, since we have identical models,” I replied. Midwesterners, I could tell he was thinking. Those winters are just a little too long out there.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to withstand the approaching tsunami of the Smartphone, but I’m hoping that inertia keeps me bobbing in place for at least a little while. I think of all the outmoded bits of business paraphernalia that I’ve seen in my day – the shoulder-breaking garment bag that every serious businessperson was required to carry, until suddenly it became okay to use rollerbags; the one fax machine that existed in an office, to which everyone had to run for their latest business updates; the one-ton roll of 30” x 40” presentation flip charts that I ferried, gasping, through the Detroit airport.

It’s enough to make me nostalgic for portable electrics, circular erasers with the brushes on the ends, and White-Out. I think I may check out that Typewriter Repair Shop one of these days. It might be time to downgrade from this newfangled laptop, after all.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shoes Before Breakfast

Mary Katherine has been expanding her French language repertoire of late. Her favorite phrase, “Cinq minutes, Hugo!” is currently being performed at 8:00 a.m. each schoolday, delivered with jazz-hands-level energy from the top of the kitchen steps. When she’s feeling extra sassy, she drops in an exasperated “Allez!” She waits for a Gallic grunt of acknowledgement from below, then finishes her Cheerios and starts getting the Mary & Hugo Show (or “Hewgz,” as she’s now calling him) on the road.

While her high school incarnation has a morning style that leans toward Lucy Van Pelt’s, Hugo is all Linus at 8 a.m., expressing pure, childlike amazement at the smallest things, and some not so small. His feet, for example. For several mornings running, he has appeared at the top of the stairs and stared down at those stockinged size 11s in astonishment. “Mes chaussures!” he exclaims, and turns tail downstairs to fetch the Vans. Meanwhile, Mary foot-taps and sighs at the back door, while I nurse my coffee and muse over the unique quality of the kitchen's lighting, which seems to reveal the unshod nature of feet so effectively.

It was while we were waiting for Hugo’s re-emergence last week that Mary Katherine dug into her endless bag of family trivia and reminded me of the “No Breakfast Without Shoes” rule, later amended to the “No Breakfast Without Shoes That Are Completely On Your Feet, Not Just With Your Tippytoes Stuck Into The Tops” rule. Emma argued against the rule every day (“Mom. Mom. Mom. I have something to tell you. Mom. Mom. Mom. What do my feet have to do with eating? Mom. Mom. Mom.”), but I held firm.

The rule, which I realize may seem arbitrary to anyone who never tried to get Emma out the door on time each day, was enacted one cold September morning, after I watched her hop on one foot to the school bus, trailing her other sneaker behind her. Seeing something like that does things to a mother. It was either start drinking gin out of the cat dish, or make the kid put on her shoes before she got to the table.

Mary’s memory triggered a discussion of other bizarre mealtime rules from those early school years. “No Blankets at the Table,” for example, was an edict laid down after the chill of the morning kitchen led Emma to decide that she could cover her head with a blanket, leaving just a tiny slit that would allow her to effectively spoon breakfast into her cozy face space. The resulting calamitous spillage was of Exxon Valdez proportions, and blankets were henceforth banished.

Free speech even took a backseat to the efficiency of morning meals. I laid down a “No Discussion of Hair Color While Eating” dictum because protracted debate over that thrilling subject of black vs. brunette, or yellow vs. blonde, was leading to a marked increased in early morning pop-ups to check out the refrigerator mirror, thus slowing breakfast progress. And what do you mean you don’t have a mirror on your refrigerator? If you don’t stick one there, a girl has to run all the way to the bathroom to check out if one of her eyebrows really is higher than the other, as her sister contends, and that pushes everyone even more precipitously toward tardiness. If mirrors could wear out from overuse, all of the ones in my house would need fresh batteries every week.

I’m sure we’ll settle into a routine that will seem like a piece of cake (or, if Hugo manages to teach us anything, morceau de g√Ęteau) by next spring, but for now, there are still a few kinks in the two-high-schooler system. Mary and Hugo have missed the bus only once (so far), but delay-inducing snow is on the way, so I have some concerns. On the plus side, the two of them don’t seem interested in early-morning debates about hair color, at least so far, and for this, they earn a tired mom’s unending gratitude.