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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Five Good Things About Sunburn in February

You never know how the calendar is going to pan out: you make an important appointment for a wide-open week, and then the week fills in with crazy conflicts....

Monday, February 16, 2015

Five Lessons From Chocolate, Almonds, and Pop

             I was eleven years old when I learned a secret that continues to shape my life and challenge me.
            Back in 1961, I was in Sister Clareen’s sixth grade class at Our Lady of Sorrows School. It was almost dismissal time one day when Sister reached into her big wooden desk and pulled out an object about as long as a twelve-inch ruler, but much thicker.
            Sister Clareen held up the thing. Its white wrapper said “World’s Finest Chocolate.” Then she began walking up and down the rows of desks, gliding like she always did, as if she were on ball bearings, her long black habit floating behind her. While she walked, she waved the thing in front of each kid’s nose.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Sex, Love, The Land, and More: Beautiful Writing by Wendell Berry

Pretty much the only way I read books is when someone puts one in my hand or recommends it so strongly that I go out and find it.

Last week I was at the home of my son and his wife, Katie. She had a library book on the table that she had just finished for her book club: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry.

"I loved it," she said.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Carol and Gail: Not Candidates for Ferrante Books

That day in 1958, the playground was covered with snow. At recess, we kids dove into the job at hand: making trails through the drifts. Like my classmates, I dragged my boots along the ground, cutting into the giant piles of white. I was in my own world, like a train chugging along a track, eyes cast down at the buckles on my galoshes and the increasingly-tamped down white paths.

I finally looked up and saw a girl who was also dragging her boots along. I didn't know her, but I was pretty sure she was in the other third grade classroom. As she drew closer, I could see that she was my size exactly. She had big brown eyes. Wisps of light brown hair escaped from her headscarf.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," she answered.

We returned to chugging along with the other kids. Our paths became smooth and easy to navigate. 

The girl and I didn't swap names until recess the following day. She told me her name was Carol. I told her mine was Gail. The two names sounded like they went together. 

And that's how it was from third grade through eighth grade at Our Lady of Sorrows school in Milwaukee: Gail and Carol. Carol and Gail. Kids in our class seldom said the one name without the other. In our "slam books" in sixth grade, where we polled each other on our favorites and our least-favorites, our classmates sometimes answered questions with "Gail and Carol" or "Carol and Gail," but never one of the names alone. 

Our last names were Grenier and LaVesser, but we didn't need them. There was no other Gail and no other Carol in our grade - 99 students in two classrooms taught by the strict but loving School Sisters of St. Francis and a few intrepid lay people.

Our entertainments were the humblest and most home-made. In the early years, we played in Carol's backyard sandbox or built forts in her basement with giant cardboard kindergarten blocks. We swung on Carol's swing and played a game she created, about "Mrs. Reppandik," who was a kidnapper (note the spelling of her name backwards). We dug dandelions from the LaVessers' lawn. We used screwdrivers to pry out the yellow blooms, then threw them into a bushel basket. Mrs. LaVesser paid us five cents per bushel basket.

As we grew into the middle grades, we created paper dolls and designed glamorous paper evening gowns and bathing suits for them. We also wrote cartoon strips whose heroines were "Fran K. Avalon" and others. 

We designed our own special-occasion greeting cards (get well, birthday, and so on). On the back of each card we put our insignia: "GLV Inc." The GLV stood for Grenier-LaVesser, of course. After the logo came the price: $5 (exorbitant at that time, when cards cost about 10 cents, but the big number was fun). Carol and I were the only ones who sent the cards to anyone - usually to parents and grandparents.

Eventually we produced a half-dozen issues of a magazine called Fun From Fun Land. There was always just one physical magazine in each issue's run. We handed the mag to a friend, who passed it to a friend, who passed it to another friend. To produce the  magazine, we wrote cursive, in pencil, on one side of thin pink or yellow paper. On the opposite side of the papers were order forms for my pop, who sold Gerber Baby Food to pediatricians. We folded the papers into fourths and stapled them at the fold, like a real magazine.  Fun From Fun Land featured riddles, jokes, dot-to-dot games, and stories penned by various classmates.

Carol and I lived about six long city blocks apart and we took turns walking along Appleton Avenue to each others' houses. Sometimes I biked to Carol's, but she never joined me because her folks wouldn't let her have a bike. I think they were afraid she'd get hurt. 

Once when she was at my house, I let her ride my bike and I hopped onto my brother Danny's bike. "Watch me," I hollered. "I'll show you how to take the corner." 

A second later, I leaned into the corner like a motorcycle cop, and went right down in a long, dragging spill on the concrete. The throbbing pain on my calf was only exceeded by the throbbing pain in my pride.

Carol was too nice to laugh at me. The long thin scar on my calf lasted for decades (and always served to remind me not to be a big shot).

We spent most Saturdays together, hours and hours playing "Parcheesi" or "Monopoly." Years later I tried to get through a Parcheesi game and I couldn't believe how boring it was. It made me think how slow our lives must have been, that this was entertaining for us.

We made up our own games too. We didn't have a name for our favorite game. We found a word in the dictionary and challenged each other to create a definition. We laughed our heads off when we shared the actual definitions and found how different they were from our invented ones. Some words stuck in our minds: "Cynical," for instance, and "garrulous," and "antediluvian," and "chiffonier."

From this game grew a mock insult that we flung at each other from time to time, funny only to the two of us: "You cynical, garrulous antediluvian." Also from this game grew a secret description we used for busty females: "She looks like a chiffonier with the top drawer pulled out."

Yes, we had square fun and we were as square as square could be. But we were having too much fun to notice.

We both lived in small houses: hers, a three-bedroom ranch on Congress Street, and mine, a three-bedroom Cape Cod on the corner of Beckett and Glendale Avenues. Both homes nestled on city blocks that grew more and more crowded with single-family homes, apartment buildings, small restaurants, a deli, and a synagogue. Our streets went from dirt roads to concrete. After the workmen left for the day, we climbed on the big street-building machines and ran around on them. Along with the concrete streets came sidewalks - glory be! Sidewalks were great venues for cartwheels. I once did cartwheels around my entire block. I can't remember if Carol joined me on that venture.

At school, we were competitors as well as best friends. If Carol told me at recess that she got a 100% on a spelling test and I had to report that I only got a 98%, my stomach flipped with a pang of jealousy. Of course I never let on to her. Instead I'd deflect the topic with a distraction: "Let's dance."

And we'd grab each others' hands right there on the playground and do the cha cha (singing "Tea for Two") or polka (singing "Stodola pumpa"), or what we considered rock n' roll (singing "Teenager in Love" or some other current hit). Other girls danced with each other too; we weren't the only weirdos. The boys kept their distance.

Carol knew all the popular songs. Her parents let her watch "American Bandstand." There was no "American Bandstand" in my house, only "Lawrence Welk." When Carol and my other classmates passed around their slam books in sixth grade, one of the questions was "Who is your favorite singer?" Typical answers included Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Paul Anka, or Frankie Avalon. 

I wrote, "Perry Como."

At recess, Carol's and my friend Patti asked, "Perry Como? you like Perry Como?" She laughed, along with Donna and Chris, who stood nearby.

I did like Perry Como.

I was the oldest kid in my family. I had no musical influences from big brothers or sisters. But Carol was also the oldest. She just always managed to be cooler than me, a fact that asserted itself in about sixth grade and grew from there.

However, I did lay claim to being the first one of us to be kissed. I recounted my romantic encounter in great detail, and then we walked together along Appleton Avenue, singing "And Then He Kissed Me."

After elementary school, my family moved from Milwaukee to Brookfield, a nearby suburb. In high school, Carol qualified for the cheerleading squad at John Marshall High School. I tried out at Brookfield Central, but never got picked. 

I didn't see Carol much during high school - we were pretty consumed with our love lives - but when we did get together, I could tell that she knew what was cool in clothing, places to go, and people to see. Me - not so much. But Carol still liked me. Once she and her boyfriend, Mike, set me up with their friend George. We had a blast at a Greek wedding, dancing the Hasapiko for hours in a big sweaty circle of young people and grandparents.

Carol and I chose the same college - Marquette University, where I befriended a bunch of townies who called themselves the Munchers. Carol got to know the Munchers, but wanted to meet more people. She joined a sorority. She also moved away from home, while I kept living with my parents and brothers and sister. There, in her own apartment, Carol began experiencing life on her own.

Then, junior year, we did something that re-cemented our friendship: we became roommates at Loyola University's Rome Center. A year in Italy! Even at age 19, and even though student life in 1970 Europe was crazy cheap, we were constantly aware of our severe good fortune. 

As roommates, we had a few differences, but we ironed them out. We found different groups of friends. Because Carol was a smoker, I found out how long it took for her to have a cigarette (about three minutes) while I was waiting for her to go with me somewhere. I learned to incorporate the three minutes into my plans.

Like we did when we were children, Carol and I always sang - not always in tune, but always loud. In Rome we walked arm-in-arm like the Italian ladies, on ancient cobblestone streets, while we belted the song "Monster/Suicide/America" by Steppenwolf (like the old days of "Teenager in Love," Carol knew the words but I didn't - so she taught me) - 

America, where are you now?
Don't you care about your sons and daughters?
Don't you know we need you now
We can't fight alone against the monster...

At various times during that year in Rome, Carol and I held each other weeping as we suffered heartbreaks in turn.

In 1972, after we graduated from college, Carol married Bill from Chicago and I married Mike from Milwaukee. 

As an adult, Carol became a high-earning Chicago businesswoman with a wardrobe of power suits. I became a stay-at-home mother who raised chickens and earned a little on the side with freelance writing and substitute teaching. I had children earlier; she had children later. 

But our lifestyle differences didn't matter. During the few times we got together, we laughed at the same stupid things we always did. An ongoing joke was our vertically challenged lives (we're both about five feet tall) and our continuing battle of the bulge. Any time we got together, it was like we had never been separated, even if it had been five years between visits.

And I noticed something I'd never noticed before - on the phone, when I talked to Carol, I felt like I was talking to myself. Her voice sounds a lot like mine - kind of deep for a woman, with the same inflection.

During the quarter-century Carol was married to Bill, she and I exchanged birthday cards and Christmas cards and sometimes even remembered our Friendship Day, which we had selected when we were children to be October 10, right between her September birthday and my November one.

After Carol divorced Bill, she and I saw each other much more. Eventually she married Bob, a classmate of ours from Our Lady of Sorrows. She and Bob had dated in high school, and all these years later, she was single and he was widowed. Mike and I witnessed their very emotional wedding in 2007 (I think it was).

In 2008, I realized that Carol and I had been friends for 50 years. StoryCorps was in Milwaukee, and I called Carol to ask her if she wanted to record a 20-minute conversation about our half-century friendship for ourselves and for the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. She said sure. We did it. On the recording I could tell more than ever how alike our voices sound.

Since then, Bob and Carol and Mike and I have had some rollicking visits at our home in Menomonee Falls and at their homes in Minoqua, Wisconsin and in Scottsdale, Arizona. We play cards. We compete fiercely (always women against men). We listen to oldies. We sing along loudly, sometimes on key. We drink. We eat. We laugh about the funny times going to Catholic grade schools.

Good square fun.

Bob and Carol are retired now. I'm semi-retired and I hope Mike puts down his CPA pencil soon. I'm ready to make time for more square fun with our friends.


Last fall, I discovered a box on my front porch. Inside the box were three books by Elena Ferrante, along with a note from Carol: 

"Happy 50th (or so) Friendship Day, 10-10-14. Everybody in the GLV Club is receiving a set of these books. They sounded interesting for you and me. From Carol. Love you."

Carol told me she'd heard that the Ferrante books are about two best friends who grew up in Italy during the fifties and sixties - perfect subjects for us. Once I began reading, I devoured the novels, even though I usually prefer nonfiction. (I suspect, in fact, that much of the Neapolitan saga is drawn from the life of the mysterious author, who uses a pen name and remains reclusive). A fourth book in the series will be released later this year (I can't wait).

Like Carol told me, the Ferrante books do indeed feature female friendship and Italy and the fifties and sixties - themes familiar to us two Milwaukee girls. But that's were the similarity ends. The book characters, Elena and Lina, are much more vicious competitors than Carol and I ever were. And while all lives share struggle, heartbreak, love and death, Elena's and Lina's have much more heightened drama than you'd find reading about the lives of Carol and me.

I don't think the GLV Club would ever make for a series as riveting as the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante.

But I much prefer our own story.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I want to meet Brendan Behan

You know how it is when you're cleaning out in order to move? You become ferocious. You clearly see the difference between "need" and "want."

My husband and I are trying to sell our large house so that we can move to a smaller house, condo, or apartment. Over the past months, I've taken books by the box-full to Goodwill and to Half-Price books and to a charity that distributes them.

However, there was one book on my shelf that I couldn't throw into a box: Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan.

Monday, February 2, 2015

An Interloper in the First Class Section

In the old days, air travel was considered glamorous and comfortable. But since 9/11, getting on a plane has not been the same. Nowadays when I fly, I try to remember something I heard from a nursing home worker who had a philosophic attitude about being hit, bitten, kicked and scratched by her patients who have Alzheimer's. The aide told me, "Every morning when I go to work, I say to myself, 'You're not going to win today.'"

When I travel by air, I warn myself, You're not going to win today. That helps me to not get impatient about inefficiency in the airport, or upset about discomfort on the plane.

During my odyssey back from Hawaii this past weekend, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong, including five and a half hours of turbulence over the Pacific, and a blizzard in my destination city of Milwaukee. But my misadventures took an unexpected turn when a cancelled flight resulted in me being re-routed back home through two other flights - both in first class seating!