Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I saw him for the first time in a long time the other day. He stopped by for a few minutes. We laughed and joked and just for a moment it felt like old times. But it didn't last long. I could tell he was thinking of her; the latest in his succession of women; I even know her name--it's Martha, a good friend who lives in the neighborhood. He always has them lined up like that --one right after another. Sometimes he even juggles two or three at a time. He's very organized that way plus he has Oscar and Alberto to help him with the heavy lifting.

I'm talking about my contractor of course, what did you think I meant!

Yes, my contractor, Michael. He stopped by to look at a leak in my bathroom ceiling. He's the guy who added on two baths, a sunroom and an expanded kitchen for us in the summer of '03. We saw each other every day back then, that golden summer, huddled over grout samples, discussing the placement of outlets and waste water pipes. Those were heady days.

I remember running into my friend Carrie in the grocery store during that time. "How's the construction going?" she asked me.

"Great!" I said, "I love my contractor."

"Oh that's good," she said, "That makes such a difference."

"No, I mean, I LOVE my contractor."

She nodded knowingly. "That's very common. Like falling for your shrink or your doctor. They're the perfect man. They do anything you tell them to."

"I know!" I said, relieved that I was not the only one. "And he knows what I want."

"Totally!" she said.

Oh yes my friend, Michael knows what a woman wants. He should--he's been pleasing them for years. He knows we want lockers for the kids' stuff, double-hung closets, and a counter to fold our laundry. Those are just the little things he remembers. He knows about the big stuff too like making sure the workers are there on time every day and having them clean up after themselves.

Yes, we spent a glorious summer together as he knocked out walls and built my dream house. And then one day when an autumn wind blew through, and the counters finally arrived, he finished installing the garbage disposal, hooked his thumbs in his tool belt, cocked his head and declared the job to be done. And he walked out of my life for good. (Except for last year when he came and redid the basement.)

It was good to see him the other day but I could tell his mind wasn't on my leaky ceiling. No, it was on Martha's drywalling that was going up that day. I could see that. It's okay. I know, that's just how it goes. Right now it's all about Martha and that's how it should be.

I saw Martha at a neighborhood party Saturday. I couldn't help but ask her how it was going.

"It's great. It's like having a second husband!" she enthused. "When he comes in every morning I call out, 'Hi honey!'"

Damn her! I never thought to call him honey. Maybe if I did he'd still be here, fixing that leak in my ceiling. Adding shelves to the laundry room. Re-doing the old bathroom that's causing the leak.

My only consolation is that this won't last. No, my dear Martha, when the counters go in and the garbage disposal is all hooked up he'll do the same to you that he did to me. He'll move on. Who knows where. Maybe an addition in Highland Park. Could be a teardown in Arlington Heights. But make no mistake, a man like Michael is always looking for the next job, moving forward, moving on. And then you'll be just like me and the rest of the women he's left behind--just another former client.

But take heart, you'll always have the summer of '09 --and that fabulous double-hung walk-in closet. No one can take that away from you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The first lasagna came the first night I got home from the hospital. Jeff and I were switching off between the hospital with Lilly and being home with the other two kids and it was my night home. The doorbell rang and it was my neighbor Bill. He looked ashen and held a lasagna in his hands. "I'm sorry to bother you but Marjorie and I wanted you to have this. You can freeze it if you need to." Behind him I could see my next door neighbor Sue looking disapproving. It was her job to keep the crowds away and manage the meals. Bill had slipped by her and she wasn't happy about it. I smiled and waved her off.

Under Sue's expert management, the meals came twice a week. There would have been more if we had wanted between the nursery school, the elementary school, and our church we were inundated. At one point, I ran into a friend in the grocery store. "I tried to get on your meal list but it's easier to sign up for the Titan swim classes," she said, referring to a popular class that you have to camp out for to get your kid into.

The truth is I had plenty of time to cook. We only went to the hospital for chemo once a week and the rest of the week looked (though it did not feel) fairly normal. I kidded Jean the social worker at Children's Memorial. "It's like people think casseroles can cure cancer,"

She laughed and then said, "People want to help. Let them." And so I did.

And it was good. These women, having made countless meals for each other as each child was born were expert at putting together a fabulous, nutritious, kid-friendly meal with a bottle of wine thrown in for mom and dad. But it was more than that, much more than that. Their meals were prayers in action; a ritualistic offering; quite simply they were love you could eat.

I've been remembering those days lately because I've been called on to make a few meals for church members. Young and old, facing illness and too much time in a hospital. I am so very grateful for the chance to make these meals. To give back just a little to the universe that fed us so well seven years ago. To deliver a prayer in a casserole dish.

I always said that science cured Lilly and prayer got us through it.

And the casseroles certainly helped.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Stuffed raccoons for sale in an ice cream store
in a place called Michigan. Pure Michigan.
There are still places that can slow the world down just long enough for us to catch our breath. Reconnect with what really matters at one of over 11,000 crystal clear Michigan lakes, thousands of rivers and streams, and more freshwater coastline than any other state in the country. Find out what pure feels like on your Michigan vacation.

Have you heard these radio advertisements extolling the virtues of my home-state, Michigan? Here in Chicago we are bombarded by them. The narrarator sounds like George Clooney and he describes a near-Nirvana that you can find in Michigan. Sometimes I wonder what the hell he's talking about. His Michigan is magical, mystical, and full of wondrous beauty. My Michigan is full of wondrous beauty but after that, not so much. I have to believe he has never set foot in the state. For one thing, he pronounces the town I was born in as Yip-silanti, when it is really pronounced Ip-silanti. For another thing, he almost never mentions the stuff I think of when I look back fondly at the state I grew up in and still visit frequently.

So here, with apologies to my friends and family who still live in Michigan, is a more realistic advertisement for Michigan.

Cue the background music:

There's a place just 90 minutes from here where fancy cars give way to beat-up Ford trucks with charming bumper stickers that say clever things like "Gun control is holding it with two hands." A place where old cars are never sold or disposed of but are merely set up on blocks in the front yard for the neighbors to admire. Where you can keep your haute cuisine and just enjoy a coney dog.

In this magical place, everyone wears a University of Michigan or Michigan State sweatshirt even if they never set foot in a college classroom. Yes, school team loyalty is a passion sprung up no doubt in the absence of any decent professional team in a place called Michigan.
In Michigan there is a special time called hunting season which is so revered that auto factories simply shut down on the first day of deer season. In a place called Michigan, you can take the animal you shot, stuff it and hang it on the wall and it is considered fashionable decor.
Yes, in Michigan, pure Michigan, every major event is celebrated by opening the garage door, putting the lawn chairs out, and renting a keg from a place called a "party store". And at every graduation or birthday party in the garage, your uncle is sure to have snuck venison into the sloppy joes and then say proudly, "Bet you didn't even know that was deer meat, did ya city girl?"

In Michigan, pure Michigan, when you ask someone where they're from they don't need a map, they simply hold up their left hand and show you. And if you drew a line from the base of your pinkie to the base of your pointer (that would be Muskegon to Bay City) anything above the line is a wonderful place called "Up North."

Up North is a wonderful place full of bars where men wear baseball caps with the names of farm equipment manufacturers on them and women who should not, wear tube tops. And in the winter at these magical Up North bars, the height of fashion is to wear your unzipped half-hanging down snowmobile suit.
Up North is where everyone you know has a cottage (never a lakehouse or a cabin) and you are always welcome there where you can be sure to play Euchre and drink beer while it rains the entire weekend.
Yes, there's a magical place and it's waiting just for you, a short drive from here.

It's Pure Michigan.

Friday, September 04, 2009


The Zen Mountain Monastery

Last month Atticus took his journey to the Catskills to attend a Buddhist retreat. This seemed like a totally reasonable excursion last February when he first asked if he could go on a retreat in France. No, I told him, France is a nice place to go for croissants and sidewalk cafes and to get treated rudely but it is not where you go for a Buddhist retreat. You should go to Bali or Thailand or something. But since that is a little far and a lot out of our budget you should find something in the states.

Which he did. In the Catskill mountains a few hours outside of Manhattan. But how will you get there? I asked. No biggie he assured me. I will fly into NYC and take a bus out. There's one that goes directly to the monastery, I can do this alone. Okay. Sounds reasonable and the retreat itself was very inexpensive. Turns out they don't charge you much to come sit and meditate for a few hours and eat vegetarian food and do chores in the hot sun. Not a lot of people signing up for that kind of thing I guess.

So we said okay but when he went to sign up he found out he had to be 18 or older to attend. We made a few inquiries to find out if they would make an exception. He was interviewed over the phone for about a half hour by a senior monastic (who no doubt wanted to make sure this kid knew what he was getting in to) and then he was declared fit to attend. So now, I thought, he's good to go.

But as the date to attend the retreat grew closer I began to second guess my decision to allow my 15-year-old to fly into LaGuardia, take a taxi to the Port Authority and find a bus into the Catskills. He's no stranger to travel, he's comfortable in major cities, but after all, he is only 15. So I came up with an alternate plan. Together we would fly into Albany. From there I would rent a car and drive him into the mountains and make sure I liked the looks of the place. After that I would abandon him--I mean leave him there--and he would take a bus back to the Albany airport and fly home alone when he was finished. I chose Albany because it seemed a lot more negotiable than LaGuardia and was about the same distance as NYC to the monastery.

Anyhoo, that is what we did and it all went very smoothly on the way there. Oh sure, the people at the monastery did look at me kind of funny when they asked where I would be staying during the retreat and I said I was hightailing it back to Chicago. But other than that it went fine. And he stayed and had wonderful time despite the fact that he had forgotten to pack bug spray, shampoo, and soap. After five days it was time to get himself home.

He had to catch two buses to get to the airport. I had warned him that if he missed the second bus he was kind of screwed because if he waited for the next bus he would miss his flight and I really did not have a plan B for him. I gave him a wad of cash and told him he'd just have to wing it if that happened. Of course, that is what happened.

He got on the first bus just fine but unfortunately, it was late which caused him to miss the second bus. So there he was in Kingston NY about an hour from his final destination. Did I mention he was in the Catskills? It's a bit, umm, rustic and remote there. But, he took matters into his own capable Buddhist hands. He went out front and looked for a cab. He found one being driven by an old Indian man with a turban and a long beard and asked if he would take him to Albany airport.

"I take you anywhere you want to go,"the cabbie said.

"How much?" Atticus asked. (He had $150 in cash and was praying it would be less than that.)

The cabbie sized him and correctly guessed he was a rather desperate kid whose parents would be anxious to see again and quickly said, "$115."

"Hold on," Atticus said and texted me if that price was okay.

While I am a big enough idiot to leave my kid in the Catskills, I am not a big enough idiot to try to negotiate the price of a cab ride from the only cabbie in Kingston by cell phone so I texted back, "Hell yes and remember to tip him."

Atticus got in the cab which he described as a beat up very old Lincoln. The driver's window did not go down so the cabbie had to open the door to pay tolls. The passenger window did not go up but luckily it was a nice day.

As they pulled away from the curb the cabbie picked up his CB and spoke to the dispatcher. "Don't bother me. I busy for the next two hours."

"Where you going? Got a hot date?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yeah, that's it."

"No really, where are you going?"

"Albany airport."

"Sweet! How much you charging for that?"

Now--even a 15 year old Buddhist can tell he just got scammed but he only chuckled, grateful to have a ride.

The cabbie did not miss a beat and replied, "You know, the usual we charge for going to Albany airport, $115."

"Oh right," the dispatcher said finally catching on. "The usual. Good job!"

The rest of the ride was uneventul. The cabbie was cheerful and talkative and offered to buy him lunch, which he declined since he was anxious to get to the airport.

Atticus arrived in Albany safe and sound and on time. Unfortunately the plane was delayed three hours due to bad weather in Chicago which means he could have safely caught the next bus but of course he had no way of knowing that was going to happen.

Besides, if he had grabbed the next bus he would not have this memorable story and as any good Buddhist can tell you, it isn't about getting there the most efficient way, it's all about the journey.