A Pool Hustler's Daughter grows up in subterranean America. She dreams big, hustles daily and loves her Daddy. With empathy, fascination and grace she navigates and inhabits every tier of society; sees beauty and hope and magic in all things; respects and lives by the "mitzvah."
A Pool Hustler's Daughter calculates the trifecta payout at the racetrack, hides money on three parts of her body, has an arsenal of "Uncles," and keeps a baseball bat by the front door. She values friendship, loyalty and experiences over "things." Like her father, she seeks to learn "The secrets of the universe" and believes "Life ain't on the square." She applauds the self-made and those who learn to "overcome" their circumstances. Her door is always open for a sofa to sleep on, a hot meal, or an eager listener for a life story.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

To All the Jewish Mothers I Loved Before

To All the Jewish Mothers I Loved Before
By: Cat Adami

I am not the most religious person, but I do believe in a shared, universal god. I also prefer to consider myself a "Transcendalist" Catholic. I learned about transcendalists in History class in High school and I kind of latched on to their philosophy. I had always prayed on my own, without any intermediary, so I felt very in sync with the transcendentalists who believed everyone spoke directly to God versus through a representative or a house of worship. When you were in the middle of a desert, or watching your father get pounded to a bloody pulp by some speedy hustler in the pool room next door to your house, you needed to be able to talk to God on your own and talk to him quick.

I think I kind of had no choice but to create my own religion as my parents had left my brother and I in serious spiritual limbo. My Mom was a hippie from the south who escaped the persecution of her family religion(Baptist but previously a more mellow Methodist) in the 1960's. She couldn't recognize there being a God if we had war. Except for singing in the church, a family tradition, her memories of church life and what she believed to be two-faced morality(racism, pro-war) were anathema to her flower child, love everybody philosophy. Religion pushed her to move out on her own and get a job in Fort Lauderdale when she was seventeen. My father was Italian and Roman Catholic and although he was adamant about tradition, he was also a pool hustler and had no time for church on Sundays. He always said his pious older half-brother prayed enough for the both of them and would "take care of" any of his own sins. So, both my parents decided that my brother and I would choose religion for ourselves when we got older, which I eventually did, converting to Catholicism after college. After four and a half years living in the city of New Orleans, "cleansing"
was probably a good idea.

The first school I attended was Temple Sholom in Chicago for preschool. I don't remember much from that young year except that a large yellow bus would transport me to and from and that I was often mocked with the "Baby Talk" song: "Baby talk, baby talk, its a wonder she can walk." My Mother's best friends, Barbara Reid and my beloved godmother, Sandy Schwartz, were Jewish and my Mom latched onto them looking for the love that she did not find in her own home growing up. She told me over and over that her parents never loved her. It always made me so sad to hear this. I barely knew them as they lived all the way in Florida. They definitely did not approve of her being a hippie, marrying a Catholic, especially not a pool hustler. Unless she was "saved," she was "going straight to hell." When I grew older and began a relationship with my grandparents they always wanted me to tell her that they did in fact love her. I have tried my best to convince her of this.

With her girlfriends, my Mom had an extended family and immersed herself in the Jewish culture to the degree with which she could. My Mom bought history books, read to me from the Diary of Anne Frank and told me about the atrocities of the holocaust. On the lighter side, we had a sign hang in our kitchen that read "We serve Kosher only here." My mother was also adamant that "Jewish men make the best husbands" usually remarking this in the presence of my wayward father. When her girlfriend Barbara, the wife and manager of a famous pool hustler, Jack Cooney, would come to visit from LA, it was a time of unending celebration and I would count down the days, hours, minutes, seconds, before her arrival. We never knew too far in advance of their visit as they were always on the road, and potential victims of revenge or theft from winning on the road. One time my parents took us to a Holiday Inn "Holidome" just outside Chicago which had an indoor swimming pool. We were going to swim in the winter! When we showed up at the front desk, Jack and Barbara were there. Barbara apologized to me for the surprise, but she didn't want to put my family at risk by staying at our house. Some "bad" "mother f-ers" were after them. She always spoke like a ventriloquist. She spoke without moving her lips and pretty quietly from years of practice of spilling secrets amidst a silent pool or pinochle game. We had a ball at the hotel ordering club sandwiches and french toast from room service. Oddly enough, the Ramones were staying at the "Holidome" as well. I recognized the band from the movie "Rock and Roll Highschool" and got an autograph from Joey Ramone. I wasn't even ten yet, but all the older kids wanted to be my friend afterward. Sometimes, we would show up in a small town for a tournament with my Dad and BAM, Barbara and Jack would show up and surprise us, never aging. They were always on the road and always elusive, so you could just randomly see them. I always wished, if I was forced to endure one of my Dad's out of town tournament's, that Barbara and her Clark Kent looking hubby, Jack, would show.

Barbara was a goddess to me. Barbara to me meant decadent food, lots of shopping and jokes centered around my Dad. Since Barbara and my Dad were on the road hustling pool together when she was a teenager (while married to another pool player many years prior), Barbara had a unique perspective on my Dad and had no fear of him. It was refreshing. My always loud and barbaric Dad would just melt in her presence. He saw her as a tag a long to his hustling adventures at first and then came to have the utmost respect for this fearless young girl from LA who could calculate odds faster than a calculator and "wasn't scared of NOTHIN'." Barbara was always the only woman surrounded by all men. There are only men in the pool halls and poker rooms. So, the fact that Barbara had met my Mom and let her be her best friend was truly special and unique and I always felt that being her little girl I was special and unique, too. As a road gal, Barbara was extremely paranoid, trusted nobody and always carried the money. I don't know how we broke through her tough shell.

A visit from Barbara meant dazzling us with talk of the road and all the silly, hard to believe occurrences that turned out to be true. Fearless, she even took a few bullets in a pool hall in Baltimore when a game went bad. She would show up at our humble apartment in her large Cadillac or Lincoln Town Car dressed like she WAS the Pimp. Usually in a flowing silk blouse and blazer, tight pants or jeans and high heeled boots. She looked so much like Stevie Nicks. My Mom would fill the house with Barbara's favorite deli treats like Beef Brisket and Pastrami and make her favorite, Royal brand chocolate pudding. Barbara and Jack relished the home made dinners and desserts my Mom would prepare as they only ate in motels and drive thrus. Le Creperie, a few buildings down from our apartment on Clark Street, made her favorite chocolate crepes with whipped cream on top. The ladies, joking about their bodies, always claimed at least a ten pound weight gain after a visit. Barbara's parents were jewelers, and she always had the most beautiful gold necklaces. She was just gorgeous - tall, with long, thick, dirty blond hair and a Southern California lightness and accent. She is just one of those people who are always cool and in style regardless of age. Like my paternal Grandfather, O'Brien - Sicilian but given the Irish nickname based on an early girlfriend - who maintained hipness into his nineties.

I joined Barbara and my Mom for extravagant shopping sprees, as they relished in the money recently earned from a big pool "score." I saw her buy seven pairs of these sexy boots once and I remember telling my friends for days - "Seven pairs of shoes! Can you believe it?" Carrie Bradshaw had nothing on Barbara Reid. Barbara and Jack loved us unquestionably with their whole hearts and us the same right back. Isn't that what religion is all about?

I believe our underworld, semi-normal nuclear family provided both a respite from the road and an anchor for them. It was so rare to have someone so smart and beautiful actually understand your outsider life. It made me feel like we weren't so much stranger from all the other families I saw because look at Barbara - I can claim her as one of ours. How lucky am I? Barbara always joked how she was convinced she was adopted as her parents had no pictures of her. I, too, did not feel like I belonged to my family WHATSOEVER. This woman understands my crazy, unpredictable and often unpretty life. In her presence, I don't have to pretend to be anyone other than who I am, a pool hustler's daughter. Barbara's visits provided me with a breather and the confidence that I mattered. If I played my cards right, I could be as unforgettable and successful as her someday. Growing up, Barbara was a rock star to me and I continue to be her biggest fan.

There is no person other than my parents who treated us more like her own children than my late Godmother, Sandra Schwartz. She was a bit older than my Mom, and we met when my parents moved into their apartment above Kiyo's Japanese restaurant across the street from the Century mall in Chicago. The restaurant owner's wife wore a beautiful kimono and allowed me to eat her abalone soup which was my favorite and also ridiculously costly. My parents still reprimand me for my expensive tastes. The apartment building itself was owned by a mobster. I spent my early years in that run-down apartment as it was just one block from Bensinger's pool hall on the corner of Diversey and Clark streets. It began as a one-bedroom and then we knocked down a wall and expanded to a three bedroom. Had we not been living there, I would not have seen my father at all, I presume. He was either in Bensinger's basement - where one might not see the sunlight for days - or on the road. When he did show up at home he was often tired, sleeping all day on the couch and asking me how old I was or what grade I was in. This irritated me immensely but when he walked through the door we always sprinted screaming right up to him, begging for Pall Mall hugs and scratchy kisses.

I think of Sandy Schwartz as the quintessential Cosmo girl of the 1960's. Having spent her early years with Russian Jewish parents living near Taylor Street after WWII, surrounded by Italian immigrants, she had nurtured a soft spot for Dagos just like my Dad. When she was older, she lived on the far north side of Chicago and attended Mather high school. She told me how all the girls wore cashmere twin sets and a pearl necklace back in the fifties. She married shortly after high school and divorced quickly after. She left the safe environs of the Edgewater neighborhood and moved to the Clark and Broadway area, which at the end of the 1960s/early 70s I can only compare to the Castro in San Francisco or the Village in New York. There were lots of wild parties going on. This was a heavily bohemian and homosexual area, chock full of methadone clinics(count them - two- within one block of my house) and hare Krishna's, but only a few blocks west of tony Lincoln Park. The side windows looked onto a rather active alley full of hobos, transvestites and druggies. Mostly relieving themselves or shooting up. On the light side, it was also a short cut to our beloved Renaldi's pizza on Broadway.

The front windows of our apartment looked down upon the Clark Street bus stop so strange people were always standing outside waiting day and night. If you opened the front windows you would likely inhale exhaust, so they were kept closed. The front windows of our entire building were always filthy because of the traffic. There was black grime on the doorknob.

My father constantly threatened that he would sell me to the Gypsy's if I was bad. My Mom told me not to talk to the Hare Krishna's as they would brainwash and steal me away to their cult. When I heard their tambourines and chanting outside, my stomach would tie up in knots. That damned Peter MacNichol movie. Suffice it to say, I had very few "safe" people nearby I could talk to - so Sandy was a godsend. My Mother almost had a heart attack when I hugged a homeless woman outside the grocery store - Stop and Shop- one day. She yelled at me so badly that I cried hysterically. I had known this crazy old bag lady my whole six years of life and didn't know it was "wrong" to touch her.

Our only other neighbor friend was the flamboyant Puerto Rican hairdresser Peter, who would come and cut our hair, drink Bolla red wine and call me "Lola Falona." He died of AIDS before anyone even had a handle on it. He just kept having to go to the hospital and they were amazed with all of the illnesses they were finding in such a young man. I heard his funeral was a very quiet affair and we were not invited. I was very young, but also, Peter's very conservative family did not acknowledge his sexual preference, so that side of his life, which I just thought was so much fun and delightful - was suppressed. At least he got to be his true self when he was at our home - creative, playful, affectionate, talented. He made you think being gay meant having the time of your life, honey!

I had such a hard time comparing my early home - above a Japanese restaurant and next door to Gypsy's - to anything I saw on TV. Everyone on TV or in the movies lived in a house - a real house - in the suburbs - with lawns and friendly neighbors. Even Tom and Jerry, the Monkees( I loved Davy Jones) and Casper lived in a house. I lived in an apartment. The only TV families I could come close to comparing myself to were the Flintstones. My Dad's name was Fred and also had a serious gambling problem, his eyes hypnotized into stars and all you hear him say is "BET, BET, BET, BET, BET!" My brother's name was Dino(like their pet) and my Mom was always yelling "Frrrrred!" You know, it really did bring me a lot of joy to watch that show.

Sandy got a job as a secretary at Leo Burnett - the Sterling Cooper of Chicago - THE ad agency for having invented the Marlboro Man. This is where she worked for almost 40 years taking at least one highly lavish trip somewhere around the world by herself(Paris, Hong Kong, etc). She truly wanted her independence from her family and from what was expected of her. She was incredibly cultured and worldly from working with all of the satellite offices of Leo Burnett and her travels. She did not need a man for anything. I don't know why her marriage was so bad but she never wanted to talk about it or her parents. Her mother's name was Shoshanna which I told her was beautiful but she never elaborated. I imagine she paid a price for her choices in life - to be alone and without her family or a man to take care of her. She was incredibly smart with her money, managing to always have top quality everything at the best price and pleasuring herself with exquisite french food(all the rage in the 60's and 70s), travel and chocolate. She even named her dog Rolf after Rolf's Patisserie on Diversey. She took in many unwanted dogs in her lifetime. These were dogs who had been abused and now dangerous yet she loved and spoiled them. After Rolf bit not only her, but another person at the park, she had all of his teeth removed rather than put him to sleep. She wanted the dogs NOBODY wanted. She would give them a home and any and all expensive medical care that might be needed, including a Prozac prescription for Rolf.

Sandy took the bus to work without a second thought, regardless of weather which helped her put pennies in the bank. She was the most liberal of people - loved everyone - stood up for the rights of all. She was always on top of the news and the current political issues of the day - she was very methodical about her research and organized which probably attributed to her longeivity at Leo Burnett. She had a size 2 slim figure but a bad addiction to those extra long Virginia slims which she kept in a clasped leather case. A large cup of strong black coffee was always nearby.

My brother and I were the children she never had and she treated us as such. She was our neighbor first and always in good physical shape and I loved to do exercises with her. Although she was over thirty, she would wear two short pigtails just like me as if we were schoolmates. She shared our Christmas's with us every single year and we shared a bit of Hanukkah tradition with her. I spent every X-mas eve morning with her for nearly 35 years of life. Sandy just loved to be downtown during the holidays - especially the flagship Marshall Field department store on State street and would take me with her to see the unveiling of the magnificent X-mas windows depicting the Nutcracker and such. She told me I looked exactly like the princess in the window. The day after Thanksgiving she would ask my brother and I for a list and buy us almost everything on that list. Like EXACTLY what we asked for. My girlfriends were always so interested to see what the Sandy "spread" was this year. A few highlights being - Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" album, all the gear I would ever need for my first trip to Europe - waterproof camera, compact umbrella, Swiss army backpack; pearl necklace and many, many cashmere sweaters. She could have been a personal shopper. Her spending far exceeded our parents, which they were always grateful for, especially during gambling downturns. Our X-mas eve tradition was always the same. My Mom bought a few pounds of Nova(hand cut only) lox(always 1 pound for Sandy to take home), and fresh bagels from New York Bagel and Bialy open 24 hours on Touhy in Lincolnwood. There was always some sort of a chocolate gift for Sandy and the three of us ladies(my Mom, Sandy and I) were all chocoholics. We even gave her a teddy bear which when you squeezed it said "I LOOVE CHOCOLATE!" in a Wolfman Jack voice. Sandy's presents would encompass multiple large bags with expensive wrapping paper - you know the kind that is thick and does not tear easily. They were wrapped so exquisitely in bows and ribbon that you felt guilty not only for the expense of her generosity but of mangling these works of art made with such love. She did not make you feel the least bit guilty for her indulgences - she truly loved to spoil my brother and I with this bountiful mitzvah upon our crazy, loud, often broke gentile family who were always blown away by her X-mas Eve presentation. She just beamed over the phone when asking us for our list and in person when she got to unveil the packages. She was always smiling from ear to ear in front of us and you could hear her infectious laugh up the stairs when she was on her way up to our apartment. She always wanted my brother and I to have the best and supported us in all our life pursuits.

Sandy passed away one month before X-mas, and it was just us as her mourners - my Mother, father, brother, husband and I - and we stood shivering as these two older Jewish men in suits who ran the cemetery, opened and poured a packet of soil from Israel over her casket and then dug into the frozen dirt with shovels and broke a sweat as they continued to dig and pour this dirt to cover her. The immigrant Hispanic workers in overalls just sat in their truck quietly and looked on. This pure act of selflessness was so deserved for our dear friend. Those two men made me feel closer to God, and his love, as this was the most holy of acts, I have ever witnessed. Sandy may have rejected her immediate family fifty years prior to be a ground breaking feminist, but her extended Jewish family gave her the reverence and respect as if she had been an obedient and observant woman her whole life. It reminded me of the scene from Godfather III where Michael Corleone, now in his late sixties and in poor health himself, goes to Sicily and visits his own Godfather, now in a wheelchair and rather than let one of his many lackey's push the old man, he pushes it himself. That these men who had never seen our Sandy with the warm happy glow in her face while detailing her world travels, eating chocolate and watching us open our gifts, should be so respectful to her, was just beautiful. Sandy got the respect and unconditional love she had always given us and her beloved pets, right back, from strangers. I remember the pain in my heart when the case worker first spoke to me over the phone, to let me know that they had found Sandy alone with her dogs in her apartment, and that there were pictures of my brother and I throughout the house, so she knew just who I was. Sandy had no family by blood, but she treated my family as such.

That first X-mas Eve without Sandy I drove way out to the cemetery an hour out in Buffalo Grove at dawn, another frigid Midwestern day, to visit her grave site, which had yet to bear a headstone. I had to imagine where she lay (her beloved dog Rolf lain close by) and put down some chocolate and even a bagel - the way she liked it - plain cream cheese(no goyum butter, please), not toasted with the hand-cut nova and said a prayer to the God I know we both shared. I wanted her to know somehow that our tradition - which she continued even when my brother and I were in our thirties and I myself even married with children, would continue forever with my children, who would know that Christmas Eve morning would always belong to Sandy, and we would always have to wake up early and drive to the North Shore for those perfect bagels and never go cheap and buy anything other than the more expensive(and less salty) hand-cut Nova. Some people create art to buy immortality, others have children, or donate their name to a favorite cause. I will do my best to keep the memory of Sandy Schwartz, a gentle, generous, loving, youthful woman with the highest of standards, who took in numerous dogs that were abused and nobody wanted and gave them all the love in the world. A single, resourceful woman who pioneered life in the big city without a husband. A woman who made my own life so magical, exciting and full of love. And she made sure her own life was rich in good food, friends, pets, travel and of course, chocolate.

I clean out my closet on a regular basis as I am plagued by a tiny one, sending various out-of-date pieces to the Salvation Army and such. But I just can't seem to give away my heavily worn, black cashmere twin set from Sandy. It just reminds me that fairy godmothers really do exist and that our thirty five joyous X-mas eves together were not a dream.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why I am Here

Before I delve into my autobiography of sorts, I want to make sure you, the beloved reader(hopefully at least one of you exists) know why I am writing online. I have a Bachelor's in History and a minor in English from Tulane University. No journalism degree have I, nor the good fortune to be compensated for writing up to this point(a young 37). I do respect most journalists - better read or heard than seen - for their proper education and truth finding integrity. I also have the utmost admiration for editors. The push and pull of the writer/editor process more often than not, results in best story possible. Witnessing a page from a piece of literature before and after editing truly brings home that point.

So, I have neither a journalism degree nor MFA, no editor(although I would LOVE one someday). I simply have the desire to continue my love of reading(fiction, newspapers and magazines), as well as watching and listening(to the beauty in day to day life and how it speaks to me) to type away at my keyboard the writing that such experiences inspire.

What I do have is a long tenure as a journal writer. I began my first diary when I was around nine or ten and have kept one up ever since. My entries were more prolific during my youthful "Blue" period when I was searching for love and companionship. I was a certified tree killer in those days. I also have a sordid past of letter and postcard writing. At one point, only on pink paper. At university, I was always writing to one person or another - sharing, if not force-feeding, my daily machinations, dreams and allegorical heartbreak. I often, and I do mean often, become so immersed in the story I am reading that I find a way to compare myself or my situation to that of the story or heroine. Once I was the crippled daughter who is smooth talked into giving up her prosthetic leg by a hustler in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." from her collection of short stories "A Good Man is Hard to Find." I was ABSOLUTELY convinced I was Tereza, or the "baby in the bulwark basket" in Milan Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being", emphatic about nighttime hand holding. I'm not sure if Tomas said he did not sleep with or kiss women he did not love - but that ALWAYS stuck in my mind when I was alone with a man(so did the line "all good things they say never last" from Prince's "Sometimes it Snows in April") . I also liked(this is meant to be past tense) the idea that Tereza forced Tomas to be with her, that her innocence and neediness won him over, even if he would continue to be an adutler. I had hoped to similarly succeed on more than one occassion.

Lt. Henry's first love, Nurse Cat from Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" as well as Heathcliff's Catherine in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" were just gimmes. Dick Diver's psychiatric patient, later wife, Nicole Diver, in Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" was a Corsican sister of sorts. It should come as no surprise that my first physical relationship with a man(I mockingly now recall love) was during my college Shakespeare history class Junior year Spring, the play - Shakespeare's "First Part of King Henry the Fourth"- the boy I fell for - Harold, aka, Hal or Prince Hal as I later privately referred to him. The fictional Prince Hal, the rebellious playboy who was as at ease in a brothel inebriated with Falstaff and his merry men as at the castle of his father, was and has always been my romantic ideal(darling husband, you have more than exceeded this wish). My Hal was shorter than I, wore coke bottle glasses, a poncho and called me "Katarina." Needless to say, I thought he was the sexiest thing on the planet. He was well read - knew of W.B. Yeats(my favorite poet) and whispered Jane's Addiction's "Summertime Rolls" to me as if he were a poet himself. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Prince Hal later marries the French princess Katherine.... And so on.

Dear Reader, please do not be alarmed by the recurring psychological makeup or tragic outcomes of these fictional women I once admired(but still love in my own way). I am happy to say that the victim phase ebbed shortly after leaving university and the completion of my first magical realism book - Gabriel Garcia Marquez's " Love in the Time of Cholera." The last word of that book - Fermina Daza's elated response to her now old, but found, long time Don Juan love, Florentino Ariza - being "Forever." Perhaps the second greatest ending to any romantic novel(even such as one playing with the idea of romance) next to James Joyce's "Ulysses" whose stream of consciousness monologue by the beloved Molly recalling her early life with scorned hubby Leopold Bloom is "Yes." I apologize to you naysayers out there but any book that ends with the words "Forever" and "Yes" respectfully, are pure perfection and indicative of my turn to hopefulness, post-college, in the world of love.

But this blog is not about my youthful love life(I like you too much for that). Other qualifications I may bring is the fact that I am actually quite good at editing. Editing other people's writing that is. I have always had a knack for active voice, short sentences, and over all theme. I always seemed to be someone people could rely on for editing papers in college. Another qualification is that being a History/English student I had to write lots of papers and take lots of essay tests. Sticking to only History and English classes concerned my college advisor and he routinely asked me to "get out of my comfort zone."

Dear Reader, be warned that my grammar has always been a bit off. I somehow managed to sleep through basic grammar in the third grade and have never been quite up to speed on it since. "The Elements of Style" helped only slightly. Please do not be dismayed if punctuation or grammatical errors take place. In a better world, I will have the amazing EDITOR to help me with such corrections, but for now, I am on my own.

It should convince you of my love of reading that I had almost enough credits to have a double major History/English but wanted to only take English classes that I enjoyed, not the prescribed offerings for a major. Such "electives" usually had to do with 20Th century American Literature. I actually relished studying a novel for the second or third time as I got to dive deeper into the meaning of the story(and I could be almost guaranteed an A from my old notes). I could always uncover a new angle to an old story.

The first book that I clearly remember reading is Steinbeck's "The Pearl" in eighth grade. Not very uplifting, nor a driving force to have me read another(although I did go to Steinbeck at least once upon entering high school as at least I knew one author's name to look for at the library there). My freshman and sophomore years at a private high school were very difficult and I am happy to have survived them. Although I had been an A student during grammar school, I had not been taught how to be disciplined about reading, clearly dissect a novel, and know how to write a paper. I especially remember teasing a girlfriend who completed a "recommended" reading list during the summer between six and seventh grade. I found this demand OUTRAGEOUS and thought that her parents were trying to ruin her vacation. It was SUMMER, after all.

So, not only was steady reading and paper writing already ingrained in the freshman class I had joined(the private school began in Kindergarten), but I was one whole year younger than my peers. Lets just say I had not even begun to have a woman's body until middle of my sophomore year. Magnified by the fact that I was a scholarship student, with a wonderful but college degree less parent working on site, I was a bit of a fish out of water - not too much - but academically, definitely. When a teacher asked us to find a short story to direct for Drama class, most of the kids brought books from home, one that their parent's probably read in college. Whereas I had no idea about authors(except Judy Blume and the aforementioned Steinbeck), a classmate shows up with J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." My mind, and that of Mr. See More Glass - gets blown to bits. I had never read anything so shocking. This girl just shows up with it - like its no big deal or anything - from her home library. Yes, she had a LIBRARY at her home.

We only had a few books at home, mainly WWII history books left over from my Dad before he moved out and concentration camp memoirs from my mother. My Mom did have a penchant for Pearl S. Buck, but that was about it. So, I ended up finding a book of Tennessee William's short stories and chose one that I could convert to the stage. We had already performed scenes from Tennessee Williams in the Drama class prior ( I would like to think I was above average as the mother in "The Glass Menagerie"). Mr. Williams was one of the best playwright's in my teacher and the class's eyes(as evidenced by the number of monologues chosen to be performed by him- probably eighty percent of the class chose either "Cat on a Hot Tim Roof" or "Streetcar Named Desire"). So I went for something I was comfortable with(the short story accompaniment to "The Glass Menagerie") and an actual writer I was interested in learning more about. I hadn't yet a clue the playwright or some of his characters were homosexual. However, I did know that Stella needed to appear as if she had recently enjoyed a "satisfying romp" with Stanley in one of the scenes I was assigned to perform from "Streectcar." I knew nothing of "romps" satisfying or not, but I do know the risque edge to Tennessee Williams made him my favorite writer(for a short while anyway). This class experience motivated me to gobble up as much of his work as possible. As my former, now departed, American Literature teacher, Dr. Marie K. Stone used to say "Sex sells." She claimed there was no easier way to get a class to remember a lecture than to bring up sex at some point. The identification of a phallus was particularly powerful . Dr. Stone was ABSOLUTELY right. And Mr. Williams began to open my eyes to the joy of reading.

I don't want you to think I was not surrounded by readers - my father is an exceptionally hungry reader who reads a book every other day, but mostly John Le Carre and other spy masters. An early highschool graduate and honoree of a scholarship to the University of Illinois, the pool bug bit hard and soon enough he was off campus and on the road to hustle. I am accustomed to having almost all conversations with my father while he is reading - newspaper, more often than not a racing form, or a paperback. He did read novels in his youth and had a passion for Salinger, which he only told me AFTER I read "Catcher in the Rye". He supposedly gave my Aunt two books back in the late sixties that he told her were all she ever needed to know about men. One was JD Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" the other - "The Kama Sutra." To be fair, my maternal grandmother, Mamaw, supposedly read a new book every day, even her obituary stated she was an "Avid reader." She read mostly Christian books, the good Baptist that she was, but I have heard she went overboard for anything romantic - like Harlequin - and I bet she influenced some of those early fiction choices of mine. Thank you, Mamaw. She had a strong, passionate, loving relationship with my grandfather, Poppy. While she lay in hospice at a ripe old age and due to natural causes, she asked if there was some way my wheel chair bound ninety year old grandfather could share the hospital bed with her. It reminded me of my beloved Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, a little, but mostly it amplified to me all of the beautiful secrets and stories each person has to offer. For Mamaw and Poppy, I could only guess. If you do not pay attention to people, those subtlties go unnoticed and in a fleeting second, you miss them. So, in short, I did not grow up with a house full of books, but there and then, at the age of thirteen, in freshman year Drama class, having been stunned by Salinger and titilated by Tennessee, I decided when I grew up, I would ABSOLUTELY, have one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why I am Here Part II or For the Love of Reading

Whereas the first two years of high school were spent catching up to my peers, Junior and Senior year were filled with understanding and success. Academically, things just "clicked." After many one on one meetings with advisers, how to read critically(actual finishing a book I was studying versus Cliff notes), analyze (psychologically, politically, etc) and write a paper(intro, thesis, topic sentences, supporting points, conclusion) was finally drilled into my skull. I began Junior year with a brand new bedroom set I had purchased from "Affordable Portables" with my summer earnings as a nanny. The most useful acquisition was a long black desk, chair and lamp to be devoted to my studies. I had a bedroom in the basement of our Lincoln Park apartment which was quite dark, but the privacy(limited of course since I was the walk - through to our laundry room) was ideal for any teenager. I was so anxiety ridden in regard to Junior year and the new teachers I would face that I felt like preparation was necessary. These grades would be looked at closely when applying to colleges, I told myself, and I needed any leg up I could get. Other than my "Mademoiselle" subscription and my Mom's "People" I still was not a reader for fun. This year I promised myself I would plow through and read everything put before me completely EVEN if it bored me to no end. In addition I would read at my desk versus my King size bed which I used to do all of my reading and homework on and often, in a narcoleptic fit, fell asleep before completion. Now that I had some reading reference points, I actually enjoyed most of the assignments because I understood why I was reading and how to feel comfortable reading something new. Whereas prior I always skipped the table of contents and preface, I looked at those intently so I could get a "feel" for what I was about to read. What year was this book published? What was going on at the time in history? For this individual writer? What did the title mean? At this point I began to have a better relationship with the dictionary and thesaurus. I needed to uncover what the words I was unsure of meant. It was a drag, but I had to force myself to look up words to discover their meaning. The importance of the dictionary was amplified upon visit to a well-off peers' home in order to study for a class production. The student was in the grade above and we reached for her dictionary - unabridged of course, and weighing about a ton. I noticed all of the underlines as I flipped through the pages. She told me she underlined every time she looked up a new word. Needless to say, as you flipped, underlines dominated many of the pages. It should come as no surprise this student later attended Yale, although I believe her recommendations were unprecedented in their glamour(the most famous Democratic Senator at the time and one A-list actor it was rumoured), there was no doubt in my mind that she would be more than prepared for the Ivy walls of New Haven.

Three classes Junior and Senior year were responsible for my academic turn around and I am forever grateful for the inspiring educators who taught them. The easiest fit was American History. As I mentioned earlier, my Dad is a history buff so I had some reference points. He came from the generation obsessed with World War II as his father and half-brother both served in the army. My grandfather(who also served in WWI BTW) was at Pearl Harbor and my Uncle(my grandfather's son from a previous marriage) was the FIRST to drop down on the beaches of Normandy. It was my Uncle's job to light the fires on the beach so that all of the other drops could be made. I believe the survival rate for that first drop was only 10%. Both father and son served in two of the greatest U.S. battles of all time and had not even met yet (Did I mention neither one knew of the other's existence?). The fact that both survived to meet each other a few years post-war even more extraordinary. My paternal great-grandmother Josie(mother to 12) had a large number of sons and sons-in-law who served in WWII and Korea and somehow they all managed to come home in one piece. This fact just amazes me. Although I have no doubt that woman had a magical rosary, her flock did inherit a strength of spirit. These inbred family survival skills do carry me through insecure times, and I am grateful for the dna. As my great Uncle Ray used to say, "You can have all the riches in the world, but if you have your health, you are a millionaire."

So history was a great fit as I was simultaneously studying American Literature. The two classes(Am Lit and Am History) played off one another and I found I enjoyed reading novels more when I grasped the time period the story took place in. My American History teacher was a handsome, extremely tall Oakie who drove a twenty year old Volvo and still dressed like it was 1968 yet completely devoid of pretense. He was a parent at the school, which may have created some empathy for me, but I think he appreciated that I was one of the only students who actually read every assignment completely. He knew I was working my butt off and that I had to work my butt off in order to survive. Sometimes he threw the most challenging words at me when we spoke privately and I would say " Ugh, I think I'll have to get back to you on that one!" I was able to answer almost every question on the reading each class, it was ridiculous, and it was amazing how much more you learn when you come prepared for class! My discipline at home was paying off. Once you have the bases covered(the reading) then you are able to actually analyze what you have read and make comparisons to other events. Why hadn't I done this all before? Again, my history teacher appreciated my strong effort, and I appreciated his enthusiasm for the class. He enjoyed the subject matter and therefore we as students enjoyed it as well. He introduced to me to the New York Times, The Economist, The New Republic and National Review as resources. Even though I read the materials intently and attended every class, alas that was not enough. My writing skills were still being honed and I only achieved an A- that first semester. On the flip side, I did learn something new about school and work. Some people just don't have to work as hard as you do. There were other students in the class, who may have shown up sporadically due to "mental health" days and who were not prepared at all for the reading. Grading was set up just like in college where the majority of your grade rested with papers and exams. Our Oakie attended both Stanford and Wesleyan with a Masters and he truly prepared us for college. Some students even brought in university style blue books for tests. You couldn't believe the look on my face freshman year of college when I received my required textbook for history and it was the same one we used Junior year in High school! Anyway, these stellar students would show up for an exam or with a paper and just kill it. They knew the system - what was most important to the bottom line (their grade) and made sure to excel when it counted. This was the epitome of work smart not hard to me, but they obviously, as evidenced by their university future Alma mater, were gifted with not only strategy but keen intelligence and although I was disappointed that all my preparation garnered only an A-, I tried not to be envious of my peers(quite lovable too) who could just deliver when it counted most and get the A. But such is life and I had to get over it. I would have to work harder in school and that was the end of it. Maybe if I wasn't a year younger than everyone I would have had an easier go at it, but it didn't make a difference. One other thing I learned that year is that the way you present yourself, your expectation for yourself does impact the way others think of you. If you can manage to get classified as an "A" student, very little you do to hamper that image can take away those As when it comes time for grading. When I mentioned to this same Oakie that a friend of mine known as the "pretty blond" had been accepted to my same college, he seemed a bit shocked(in the most benevolent way possible- god bless this man as he wrote my college recommendation!). Because her persona screamed "party girl" he had made that assumption instead of noticing her intelligence. So, the lesson here is, believe in yourself as much as you can that you are an A student and the teachers will soon believe it as well. I believed in myself Junior year and earned that true A finally that second semester in Am History II, an amazing feat.

So, whereas the history classes I took Junior year helped ingrain my reading skills and studying discipline, the English classes I took spoke to my heart and opened up my creative side. You know how it is often noted that pet owners often look like their pets? Well, the same can be said, in my experience that is, that an educator can embody the subject matter or author they specialize in. Two such teachers with impeccable education merits are no longer with us today but are fondly remembered as they introduced me to my favorite writers of all time(sorry Tennessee). They WERE the artists.

The first teacher I speak of is Dr. Stone. I mentioned earlier that she highlighted sex in novels the same way a television show does so to garner better Nielsen ratings. Once something taboo was identified in the novel we read, the class was hers.

Dr. Stone was the teacher I feared most entering Junior year and as it turns out the one I loved best. She was a force to be reckoned with and the rumour mill of the atrocities she inflicted on her class legendary. You could witness her in action in the hallway yelling at a student - impeccably dressed from Europe, perhaps an alligator bag and Hermes scarf, black wig and blazing blue eyes. Lipstick which at times caught her teeth but you dared not say a word. Slim as a runway model, standing straight as a Roman sculpture, she emitted smart and gorgeous and so was the expectation. Some detractors might call her batty but aren't all artists a bit off any way?

Among her merits was being the cannon of information on progressive education, as began by Col. Francis W. Parker(our school namesake) and John Dewey. She witnessed first-hand the 1968 Democratic national convention via her students as a young teacher and had been published numerous times. Dr. Stone's womanhood fell somewhere between the conservative Eisenhower generation and that of the hippies. She deeply believed in peace and equality, but also of decorum and manners. She was also a survivor - having battled Hodgkin's her entire, gifted long life. She tried any experimental treatment possible and would knock that disease out of the park. She was a divorcee, travelled extensively and had definitive ideas about how a woman should carry herself. On our first day of class she called out my Sicilian surname and yelled, "Italians make the best leather!" She certainly did her best to break me out of my bad posture habits. "Get your hair out of your face!" she would scream across 20 people to land in my ears. She was part Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and part Imogene Cocoa as Jan's eccentric Aunt Jenny on "The Brady Bunch." But she was all alive, a smoking fireworks show that never ends, blood pumping, passion evident.

There was perhaps no greater instructor you could ever ask for than Dr. Stone to teach you about the 1920's "Lost Generation." She knew this material backwards and forwards, relished and delighted in every symbolic word Fitzgerald bled onto each ground breaking "Great Gatsby" page. I had the pleasure of volunteering for one of her charities - Big Brothers and Sisters of Chicago. The event took place at a bowling alley. Not very Marie - but she went with it. Some of the prep work took place at her lovely Coop apartment overlooking Lincoln Park and the lakefront above Stockton Drive in Chicago. She had lots of pictures of her with mysterious men - her "suitors" taken on one of her worldly adventures. We shared bagels and got a look at her front living room, or what she referred to as her "Salon" filled with various pieces of art. She was not too modest to have us make the Gertrude Stein argument - she was our own Gertrude Stein - an independent free-thinker who had an abundance of patience and interest in supporting all artistry. Just like in Stein's Paris salon, young artists gathered in her living room to be heard, tutored and encouraged into how to be an artist. "You all have a great American Novel within you" or "Which of you from my class will write the next great American Novel?" was always repeated. Even me, I thought to myself. Even me. I could write the next Great American Novel. I could...."You must do this while you are young!" "Art is truth and truth is life!"

What a delicious, sumptuous treat to have had this course. Listen, I realize that it is cliche to say you love F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many aspiring writers come out of high school and college wanting to write the "Great American Novel." Shameless, I was most definitely part of that pack. What I loved about Gatsby was how he was a self-made man. I, too, would be a self-made woman. Just like Gatsby honored Benjamin Franklin's disciplined almanac as a road to success, I too hoped to be as disciplined, a female Horatio Alger but without the drastic moralistic, naturalistic downfall. It was also the first novel where I learned the meaning of "amoral." One female character, Jordan, was "amoral." I knew of morals from Catholic school but this type had never come up. An amoral person is without morals completely - either for good or for bad - simply blase and perhaps the most dangerous. I knew I never wanted to be this type of person. "Her voice is full of money" was also one of my favorite lines in regard to the lovely but lethal Daisy Buchanan.

Highlights of Am Lit were Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", Richard Wright's "Native Son", Theodore Dreiser's " An American Tragedy" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter." What fun it was to call Hester Prynne a "Whore" in class! What parallels I found to Fitzgerald and Gatsby as modest Midwesterners trying to "make it." The flood of sad memories of Bigger Thomas while visiting my husband at the University of Chicago Hyde Park campus. I probably took the naturalistic novel way too seriously as an impressionable young woman. I liked the fact that "society" created you and you were defenseless against it. This theory of being a product of society stayed with me til I reached college(again, remember past "victim" allusions?). I thank god these evaporated after graduation.

As an Am Lit student you were required to have a specifically sized three ring binder to which you would have Dr. Stone's curriculum - her Magnum Opus so exquisitely detailed. She was not kidding there and I did in fact, use her copious notes while at university. "Time, task and materials management" were constantly being embedded into your brain through the Am Lit class. These skills sets are of incalculable value to me today. Her schemata for organization elevated me to one of the most-sought after resources for university class notes.

I felt strongly for Dr. Stone. She was a hero of mine, and was the first teacher to ever truly build up my confidence. Did I mention that I was insufferably shy in high school? There was no hiding in her class - she would find you. When her sister passed away, I presented her with the W.B. Yeats poetry compilation, my favorite. When I had a small health scare of my own in my very early twenties, Dr. Stone wrote me a long, personal note recounting her own troubles and keys to longevity. One of the keys to her success was broccoli. So devoted am I to this green vegetable to this day that my husband often asks for a meal without broccoli once in a while. Whenever someone was in need or experiencing personal loss, Marie was there by their side. "Can't you see I am talking to this poor girl - her mother is sick!" or "I have NO time to speak with you now - this woman just lost her husband!" In a way her loudness took the sting out of scariness and fear and must have in some way empowered her own immune system. She had no husband, nor children, but many many admirers who would give anything to be shuddered by her screams in a school hallway once more. Did I mention my grade in Dr. Stone's class? An A. My first true, perfect A in high school. Her last note to me was "You are a Star!" I can only hope that my life will live up to her lofty expectation.

At her memorial service at the school a few years back, I listened as friends and family gave their fond memories of Marie and presented the school with a bronze bust to be displayed which she had been fond of. I always recall her being larger than life, always bragging about her A-list students who left her advisory nest to Hollywood adulation or other success. The school halls just seemed so quiet without her. This was it - I thought - a bust. This can't possibly be the end to such a great woman who believed in progressive education - all education - as the most precious gift. Could this possibly be it? A life ending not with a bang but with a whimper?

But it didn't end and will not end for every student who got a burst of confidence, like I had, or comfort, as many had, to be an artist. "You must write - every single one of you!" I remember her screaming. I was just one student out of a thousand through forty plus years of teaching, but I always felt like her only one, and that was her gift to me.

Being young and living in the tail end of the Reagan eighties I was naturally drawn to the Jazz Age writers of the roaring twenties. Young, beautiful, nouveau riche, cocktailin' ex-pat aesthetes. I fell for the story of the artist almost as much as the art itself. To my surprise it was in a class my senior year, and the study of an insecure, sexually repressed Irish Catholic who would win my heart forever. The name of this literary God is James Joyce. British Literature - or "Brit Lit" had a completely different yet no less compelling teacher. Another U of C grad swallowed up by the school, this one with a very interesting history himself.

Bill Duffy was the closest thing I could find to James Joyce on earth. A former monk, he walked the classes with a constant cup of coffee and a chocolate candy bar. He was always hyped up on caffeine, perhaps his only vice, but you could tell he was as pent up as a raging Lamborghini engine stuck in neutral. He was perhaps the most nervous individual you would ever meet. Breathtakingly brilliant, there was so much he wanted to reveal or tell you about himself or what he was thinking but held back. So his brain just racked up these crazy thoughts and ideas with no release as if he was still back at the monastery. His was a stream of consciousness one would beg to hear! He almost always had a glimmer in his eye when he spoke about a writer or story, but was also incredibly ornery. You didn't want to tap him on the shoulder in his office - he just might rip your head off.

High School Senior year is one of those transformative years for us all. Weekends are spent looking at colleges, writing essays and studying for SATs. It is an end, but also the beginning. You get to particpate in all of the activities you had envied earlier like Senior Ditch Day and in my case, running the hot dog stand during County Fair. That Fall of Senior year when I took Brit Lit, I remember very dark mornings and days, cold and rainy. It took a lot to keep out of a depression.

And then I was transported to Dublin. My first "Red and Green" Christmas spent with Stephen Dedalus, the insecure writer in the making of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Who better to teach the story of a repressed Irish Catholic abandoning home and religion than another repressed Irish Catholic having left his life as a monk to become a teacher(many of whom weave artistry themselves?) As in similar fashion I began to take on the characteristics of Stephen Dedalus. Ready to leave home for college? Yes. Sexually repressed? Yes. Eating greasy eggs and sausages at La Petite Greek coffee shop and finishing with a Marlboro Light? Yes. Drinking flasks of whisky at North Avenue turn around until I blacked out? Yes. Writing contrived youthful indulgences? Yes. Would I have to leave the comforts of home to grow as an individual and become an artist one day? Absolutely yes. Do I still fear the sight of a dead cold rat like the one at Stephen Dedalus's boarding school to this day? Yes, of course, yes.

Early Senior year I was not even sure I would be leaving Chicago for college. Since my closest friends age-wise were in the class below mine, I strongly considered taking a year off to travel and then join my age-appropriate class the following year. I remember my very tense father and mother meeting with the school college counselor to discuss these options. My mother was very smiley and my father uncharacteristically silent in his thousand dollar alligator shoes. When I showed him a few of the college brochures I brought home to read the next day, he threw the American University one across the room and said "What the f--k am I supposed to do with this?" I don't know if he felt guilty that he had not finished college when he had every imaginable smart and opportunity to go, or if he was just pissed that this was one area of the world of knowledge that he knew not of. How could his pool hustling skill sets on human nature be transfered to the college application process? It was a mystery to me, my mother and father. Both parents had always told me I could be whatever I wanted in life. That I always had to shoot for CEO rather than secretary was ingrained. I learned then when it came to getting into college, I was pretty much on my own. My Mom would make sure my application typing was as neat and as professional looking as can be, but deciphering the requirements, writing essays and taking the tests - that would all rest with me.

I truly understood why the affluent had an advantage on exams such as the SAT. If your parents had taken you to Paris at some point, even dragged you to the Louvre as a toddler, you may have had a better chance at answering a geography or art question having been exposed to it early on. You have some level of comfort with the question being asked, even if you do not know the answer. Perhaps there was a book of poetry on your bookshelf at home growing up. The author's name would not be new to you. If only the songs of Frank Sinatra or how to bank a pool ball into the corner pocket were on the SAT. Any disadvantage can easily be overcome, I later learned, simply by visiting the nearest library where you can transport yourself anywhere - even the moon- at no charge. As my father told me repeatedly "every solution begins with education." To me, these college tests and applications were all new and very scary. I had no point of reference and neither did my family. I was on my own, fingers crossed.

I did attend college out of state - Tulane University - only the 2nd or 3rd person to attend a 4-year college out of hundreds of relatives - WASP and Italian-American sides- and the first to ever go AWAY to college. My familial priviledged few attended school while living at home with their parents. Man, am I lucky I didn't have to do that! My father was in the service so as soon as he could translate his experience in Germany in the late 1950's to my experience in college, his insecurity about mainstream higher learning disappeared. We both agreed that his army and my university were the best years of our life. Just like Stephen Dedalus, we had to be vigilant about leaving home and exploring the world in order to have a greater understanding of ourselves.

To my relief, I was accepted into two great schools - George Washington U. in D.C. and Tulane University in New Orleans. George Washington was my first choice as my American History classes and a failed attempt to get Dukakis into the White House pot boiled my love for politics and the also bound to fail youthful mission of wanting to make the world a better place. When it came time to put a deposit down, my father, with more weighted wisdom than a lithe paper degree could provide - chose Tulane University and the city of New Orleans - for me. I didn't know much about Tulane other than the fact that the weather would be warm and I would have 4 Mardi Gras to celebrate(in my case 4 1/2). I tried to argue for GW but I soon relented. Tulane was my "reach" school he said and you always go to the best. Plus my grandfather, who passed away in January of my senior year, had been a Dixie land Jazz drummer and spent a lot of time in New Orleans as had my Dad when he was young and hustling pool. I would be the next to carry on the family tradition. New Orleans it would be. Best decision ever made for me. Thanks, Pops!

Brit Lit also introduced me to my favorite poet - another Irishman yet Protestant - W.B. Yeats - "Sailing to Byzantium"whom I chose to monologue in my Senior year college poetry class "Fish, flesh or fowl. Commend all summer long. Whatever is begotten, born and dies." My favorite playwright - Tom Stoppard. "The Real Thing" was probably WAY too complex for me to understand at sixteen but I was struggling with the idea of romantic love and the play challenged it. I also liked the idea that a writer could "play" with the idea of writing itself. A play within a play (hadn't read much Shakespeare yet). Graham Greene was so enjoyable - I fell in love with both the man and almost every single middle aged British civil service male protaginist stranded in an exotic locale or time that he threw at me. And it all started so easily with "Gun for Hire" right there in Mr. Duffy's syllabus. From "The Quiet American" to "The Heart of the Matter" to "Our Man in Havana" I became obssessed with Graham Greene. Even read his biography. Speaking of Biography - I also took the James Joyce "Ulysses" class at the Newberry library - twice! Many men failed my "Ulysses" test. I would send or read them the last few pages of Molly Bloom's ecstatic monologue and wait to see if it moved them in any way. I knew I had finally found the man I would marry when I nervously sent him the last page to "Ulysses" in an email and his response to me was "Yes!" I hope it is indictive of the power of Mr. Duffy that I continued to read these author's after class ended, for many years after, and to this day. There is no greater compliment I can bestow upon an educator than this gift - the gift of introducing a great author, authors that I have absorbed into my body and will grow old with.

Goosebump Goddess

"Tell me, the dream , again..." "Well, it's night, and New York is particularly quiet. It's not necessarily late at...