Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer Part 1 - The Appointment

The Appointment - Part 1

School was out for the summer, but for those of us about to enter first grade in the fall it was pretty much just more of the same. For us, it meant that big brothers and sisters were around to bother, to play with and to annoy.

Chicago weather made the transition from erratic and cool May days to the sultry summer heat of late June. We played joyfully and energetically from early morning until we were called in at dusk, just as fireflies began to signal nightfall.

We were fortunate to live in an area where adjoining properties lacked fences, and empty lots stretched on for two or three periodically mowed greenways. Each year a neighboring contractor emptied a dumptruck of fresh sand into a sixteen foot square, two-by-ten wooden frame next door. He also assembled a large above-ground swimming pool in his own backyard that was generously shared with those of us who had only sprinklers or “slip-‘n-slides” to cool ourselves. His pool was where I learned to swim.

Three lots away, a foundation had been poured for a new house. The large dirt hill that resulted from the excavation created a strategic vantage point from which kids could survey the entire neighborhood, throw clods of dirt or roll them earthward down the gray and dusty sides. It was our neighborhood Chitzen Itza, a temporary monument to our endless summer.

The summer also seemed endless to my mother, I am now certain. She had timed doctor visits around my schedule while I was in kindergarten for half days. But uterine cancer would not wait until Fall. I did not know what cancer was. I did not know what a uterus was, or that I had come from within one. I did not know that a mother could be taken for a morning or for a lifetime. I just played.

It was a weekday morning. Dad was at work. As a parent I can now imagine the anxious request that resulted in our neighbor Mrs. Farley showing up in our kitchen to lead me away to her house for the morning. Mom explained that she had to go out for a while, but that I should go and play until she got home.

Nothing doing. I had a date with my toys, the television and my innate fear of abandonment. Mom leaving me? Me leaving the house? One or the other, but not both. I refused to go.

The mothers conferred in hushed dialogue while I pretended to search for my marbles as far under the living room sofa as I could squeeze.

Eventually I was convinced. It would be fun. It was hot out and all the kids were in the Farley’s new inflatable swimming pool. Mom left and I followed Mrs. Farley.

The scene that followed was beyond my ability to cope. As we rounded the Farley’s garage we emerged from shade and silence into sunshine and a wall of sudden noise. Splashing, shouting and screams of delight that sounded to me very much like screams of agony were harmless in reality, but magnified through an anxiety-ridden filter, horrifying. And there at the center of the whirlwind of activity was freckle-faced Greg Farley, age twelve. To me he was a man. A mean man with a crew cut. It was the perfect workshop for a hyperactive bully seeking victims. He splashed aggressively and held kids under water, threw soggy sponge balls at those who ran away and tackled those who got too close. Greg locked eyes with me. I ran.

I ran past a picture window overlooking the front lawn of our neighbor’s house and took a quick right turn up our driveway. I then realized that our door was locked for the morning and would provide no easy escape. Into the backyard and across the lawn, my little legs leapt over the bush-lined boundary of the vacant lot next door, tearing past the giant sandbox and bounding across another border, over a second stretch of green and onward to the base of the big dirt hill. Mrs. Farley was in slow pursuit in her housedress and heels, calling my name, pleading for me to return.

I instinctively knew that mothers don’t climb dirt hills. Up I went, stopping at the summit and turning to face my pursuer, out of breath and as isolated as if I’d been on the moon.

Mrs. Farley never lost patience or raised her voice, which is probably why Greg turned into such an undisciplined monster. She pleaded and bargained with the child on the hill. She looked so small from where I sat, frightened and alone with my rolled up swim trunks and towel tucked under my arm. Unable to hide earlier under the sofa, this afforded a similar inaccessibility that gave me great comfort. I stayed on the hill. It was a stalemate.

How she talked me down from that hill remains a mystery. Ensuring my safety was her assignment. There were no cell phones for frantic mother-to-mother calls, nor would she have revealed that she had allowed things to spin entirely out of control. I was eventually allowed to stay inside my house, playing by myself until my mother returned. I’m sure I was frequently checked up on, but the pool full of kids at the Farley’s needed serious supervision. It was the last time my mother asked for help of this kind. My grandparents moved in to watch me during her hospitalization.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Spring 2012 24-Hour Writing Contest Honorable Mention


With blistered, salty skin and matted hair, they were down to their last sips of fresh water. A recreational day at sea had turned into a fight for continued existence. Slumped on the bow, searching for any hint of a breeze to soothe her burning face, her eyes widened when she noticed something fast approaching in the distance...

Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.

Length must not exceed 875 words.

"Lost in Thought"

Sienna spent most of her time tanning near the Pacific, although she was unable to swim and feared “yucky ocean things.” Her boyfriend Rick, a water enthusiast from San Diego had coordinated the entire tropical vacation. The boating adventure was his idea. Mark and Kelly reluctantly agreed to ride along, but made Rick promise to end the day at a restaurant with a well-stocked bar. Six strangers accompanied them along with a crew of two. The name of the boat had since taken on new significance. Lost in Thought, chartered out of Barbados, now sat half-submerged between reef and shore, stranded along with her battered passengers.

Seventeen brutal days elapsed since gale-force winds swept the catamaran into the path of a sudden storm. The twelve huddled in the heat with blistered, salty skin and matted hair. Biting sand fleas attacked up to the edge of shady jungle foliage where voracious mosquitoes took over. They were down to their last sips of fresh water. Mark busied himself assembling remnants of the shattered craft to catch rain and as a makeshift shelter. He delighted in the diversion and his own resourcefulness, and assumed it was just a matter of hours or days before they would find help or be found. The boat’s last GPS reading placed them on an isolated stretch of rocky shore somewhere between Guyana and Brazil.
Three injured passengers were in increasingly desperate condition, requiring attention from three others. Sienna mostly whimpered about being hungry. Rick’s initial bravado diminished, and his platitudes became less convincing, even edgy. He went on more frequent ventures into the jungle.

Mark organized the digging of Captain Ron’s grave, and was the first to cry when the body was rolled into the crude pit and covered with sand. The situation became real in those few moments. They were fighting for their continued existence.

Kelly searched for strength in meditation. She had a competitor’s ability to lie to herself, fully believing that she had the skills to surmount any problem. She focused on her new environment and quickly set about fashioning a longbow from available materials, based on what she remembered from a college archery class. She had seen rabbits near the beach. Hunger was weakening everyone. She had often wondered how she would fare in circumstances of survival, and found it sickly amusing that stories of stranded people so quickly deteriorated into tales of cannibalism. With little to eat other than coconuts for over two weeks, Kelly enjoyed a private thought that Sienna’s soft, tanned flesh was gaining the appeal of fried chicken as days passed.

Searing sun and relentless wind chilled burnt skin with a gnawing discomfort. Night was a primal time as darkness bonded the survivors closer together against a shared instinctive fear.

The unoccupied four were sent on short reconnaissance trips inland. As they succeeded, trips grew more frequent. Animals were spotted. Food. Fresh water brought back in empty Evian bottles harbored unseen parasites, and coconut milk was a mild laxative. Diarrhea further depleted their strength.

Kelly’s bow was surprisingly strong, strung with untwisted strands from a water-ski rope. Arrows were tipped with fragments of shattered fiberglass. Her aim was good. She relished the possibility of a successful hunt that would help them all.

Kelly struck off on the eighteenth morning. She took measured steps along the beach, near the edge of the trees and denser vegetation. Sweat stung her eyes and clouded her vision. She was lightheaded and feared collapsing, using the weapon as a crutch. Slumped on the bow, searching for any trace of movement that might signal prey, Kelly’s eyes widened when she noticed something approaching in the distance. She licked her blistered lips with a spitless tongue, shook her head and tried to focus on the shape ahead. Lifting the longbow gently off the ground she recited the steps she remembered from school.

“Nock the arrow.”
The animal moved slowly toward her along the top of a low dune. She had not been noticed.

“Address the target.”
She adjusted her stance slightly to straddle the shooting line.

“Draw to the face.”
A brief burst of adrenaline gave her the strength to draw the arrow back, maximizing its tension against the drawstring.

Kelly shook her head, attempting to clear her vision as the bow began to tremble.

“Loose the arrow.”
The arrow passed through rippling bands of sunlight and shade along the tree line on its trajectory to the target. As it streaked through the air, Rick crested the dune and cried out, reaching with his hand but unable to move as the arrow drove through his right eye and into his brain. He staggered slightly, knees locked and mouth open, dead on his feet before falling. Kelly screamed in a raspy, horrified breath.
She dropped to her knees and bent forward, gagging, but aware that any loss of body fluids would diminish her condition. Tears would similarly deplete her.

She crawled to Rick’s body, touched his face, and ran her finger through the blood on his cheek. She brought the shimmering red fluid to her mouth and tasted.

“Dinner,” she whispered, and laughed uncontrollably in an emotional release that would ensure her survival for another day.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


A black and white photo reveals a side view of a four year old boy clad in a winter coat, mittens dangling at the ends of his sleeves, hands grasping a railing at his back like a fighter on the ropes. The scene takes place in a small area at the rear of a department store where the noisy atmosphere is festive and the line is long.

The boy’s gaze of hopeful terror is directed at a large man with a white beard seated in a relaxed and receptive pose, black boots under white cuffs, huge white-gloved hands gesturing to come closer. The boy does not approach. In fact, he is stunned motionless and speechless, having forgotten the entirety of his carefully prepared script.

“Go ahead,” says his mother, “Tell Santa what you want.”

Silence. Time is frozen like the cottony scene in which the big man sits. The boy wants to run away. Moments later, he does.

“What is your name young man? What would you like for Christmas?”

No reply.

“Just tell him, ‘Whatever you want to bring me, Santa’” whispers Mom, unseen and disturbingly distant to the rear.

An impatient photographer snaps the precious photo, disappointing the mother and irritating Santa.

“Next." The big man greets the next visitor.

It feels like yesterday.

# # # # #

Fifty years later, the boy still has heroes, but has learned that it is often best not to meet them. They are often disappointing or not what you would expect. I am the boy, and now a fan of Garrison Keillor, host of the popular weekly radio program A Prairie Home Companion. He has been called a modern day Mark Twain, a humorist who tells rambling tales of a fictional town in Minnesota called Lake Wobegon.

I generally do not get involved with “fan” things, so it was with uncharacteristic enthusiasm several years ago that I headed to a book signing at the Michigan Avenue Borders store to buy Keillor’s new book and have it signed.

Borders had a small room with folding chairs off to the street side of the store. The area held perhaps fifty people. We were instructed to buy books prior to the event if we wanted them signed. Each book-holder was given a piece of paper on which the intended recipient’s name was to be printed so that the spelling would be accurate. I assumed that Keillor would sit in the front of the room at a table that provided comfortable separation between him and his adoring fans. The reality turned out to be much more intimate and personal.

Garrison launched into an off-the-cuff presentation, telling a tale from his new book, along with much related information. He spoke for almost an hour, a private Wobegon segment for an audience of fifty. It was generous beyond belief, and a fan’s dream come true.

After the monologue, a line culminating at Keillor himself formed in the front of the room. He stood there unguarded and larger than life. At six foot four he strikes an imposing presence, his reputation and personality making him seem even larger. At six foot one I still felt tiny by comparison when my turn came to step up for an autograph.

Keillor opened the inside cover of my book and located the piece of paper with my name. In under a minute he asked me a couple of key questions in order to extract some small essence of who I was, then captured his findings with a short personalized sentence and a quick signature.

I was nervous, stricken silent and stammering as I stood next to him. This is not like me at all, I thought, but then recalled the event fifty years earlier that rendered me similarly inept in the presence of a legendary figure.

I looked up at Garrison and said, “I haven’t felt like this since I was four years old and ran away from Santa Claus.”

I guess my comment resonated with him, for he tilted his head back, mouth to the ceiling and emitted a belly laugh so loud and long that I new it was genuine. I had made Garrison Keillor laugh. I felt as if I had thrown a strike ball in a major league baseball game.

Pictures were allowed, but being alone I had to hand my camera to a stranger who struggled to operate my small digital device. I stood beside Keillor, who posed with an offer of his hand to shake. I guess he preferred this to hanging our arms around each others’ shoulders.

We stood clasping hands, smiling and facing forward. The photographer struggled with the camera. He couldn’t seem to coordinate placing his finger over the shutter release button while looking at the LCD viewfinder. Garrison and I continued to smile. We continued to clasp hands. The photographer looked up and down several times, muttering something unintelligible. We still stood, hand in hand.

At this point, our smiles became forced and uncomfortably long in duration. Still the camera did not flash. Our attention shifted from smiles to hands.

A typical handshake lasts about two seconds. Anything beyond that feels eternal.

Garrison pumped my hand once as if to indicate, no, we are not holding hands, we are shaking like a couple of guys would shake.

The fumbling photographer once again muttered something under his breath. Keillor and I alternately flexed and relaxed our grips, not unlike the dance people do when approaching each other in a hallway head-on, deciding who will be the one to yield the pathway to the other.

“Next,” came a prompt from behind. The impatient photographer snapped a somewhat blurry photo, disappointing me and visibly irritating Keillor.

I grabbed my camera and walked away. The big man greeted the next fan.

It feels like yesterday.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tasting Different

My grandmother and I enjoyed a special relationship. We lived together for about nine years following a series of unfortunate events in our family. She was a second mother, a friend and a truly interesting person.

We often ate dinner together, frequently in front of the television, exchanging stories about our day and snacking. She was a chocolate fan. Fannie Mae candy was a favorite, but M&Ms ran a close second.

One evening Grandma grabbed a handful of the colorful round objects and began popping them in her mouth.

“Mmmm, yellow!” she commented with her eyes closed.

I’m not sure what got my attention. Many people have favorite M&M colors. I like the red ones. Lots of people do, as evidenced by the outcry when the Mars Co. discontinued producing red M&Ms during the red dye #2 scare in 1976. But the way she spoke about the yellow color left me with the impression that she was talking about the color as if it was a favorite flavor, not just an appealing color.

“They’re all the same you know,” I laughed.

“No they’re not, they taste different.”

“It’s just an unflavored colored coating. I think.” Now I wasn’t so sure.

In the days before the internet, the source of answers to everything, you had to rely on your senses, your history, and sometimes a very slow process of discovery to be sure of anything.
I was studying Medical Technology at the time. Ever the scientist, I decided to conduct a blind taste test. It’s an amusing image: a college student securely blindfolding an 80 year old woman, carefully administering random M&Ms from an opaque container in a living room laboratory.

Yes, the blindfold was effective. No, she couldn’t see the candy before I handed it to her.
Given a green candy, she conscientiously rolled it around her mouth, made lip-smacking noises and confidently declared, “Green.”

A red one followed. Same result. Then Yellow. Both properly identified. Back to green to throw her off. “Green.” I believe she even said, “Lime.” Based on what has been subsequently discovered about this ability, she may have been assigning a known flavor to a relevant color.

My grandmother could taste colors!

I immediately wrote a letter to the Mars company describing my findings and asking if the candy coating was indeed flavored.

Weeks later (imagine that, internet generation) I received a formal written response that said something like this:

Although there are chemical variations in the formulation of the coatings applied to our product, those differences are intended to produce color variation, not flavoring.

Much has been learned in the field of neuroscience in the intervening years. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. In other words, a color might produce a taste in a “Synesthete.” It has been estimated the two to four percent of the world’s population might be able to hear colors, taste sounds, etc.

So Grandma may have been a synesthete. It was a memorable and amazing revelation, and a story that I often tell. Sadly, it appears that the gene for this did not get passed along to her grandson.

So you might try this test the next time you rip open a bag. Plain or peanut. I love them both. But I have to go now. I haven’t had breakfast, and there’s a delicious song on the radio.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

There’s No Place Like Tome

I was fortunate as a child to enjoy a collection of Oz books on our family bookshelf. The original Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the lesser known thirteen sequels authored by L. Frank Baum were from a hardcover printing issued during the late 1950s. As an adult, I began a quest to find older copies of these favorite books, with the ultimate goal of finding one or more first editions dating as far back as 1900.

My journey down the yellow-brick road was pre-internet, by phone and on foot. I visited a number of used bookstores in Chicago and the suburbs, perusing shelves and gradually becoming more obsessed with discovering a printed treasure. It was hunting, and my prey was increasingly rare and elusive. Shop owners came to recognize and trust me, no doubt relating to my glassy-eyed infatuation.

The musty bookstore underground eventually led me down a trail of referrals that felt like a detective mystery or video game. Scraps of paper with phone numbers and names were passed in stealth and with a nod of the head. “Tell them I sent you,” was a frequent key to the next level.

From Evanston I made my way by appointment to a private collector in Lincoln Park who lived in an apartment that was as fascinating as the collection of books I found there. I was welcomed into an expansive living room, sunken and elegantly decorated with a thirty-foot wall of leather bound collections showcased from floor to ceiling. The matching bindings were generally imprinted with gold leaf, gleaming and precisely arranged. The red, green and brown rows were not unlike a barrister’s bookcase, but on a massive scale. To my left, the living room led through French doors to a rooftop garden, meticulous and in full summer bloom. It was an oasis in the city, a secret vantage point elevated above the unsuspecting pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk below.

I purchased the book I had come to inspect. How could I not? The volume included an association to this magical location, not unlike a visit with residents of one of the four counties in Oz; Gilikins, Winkies, Quadlings and Munckins. The collectors were pleasant, private people, granting me entrance through a network of trust and a web of shared passion. They showed me around their home, obviously proud and eager to share. And then came my next referral.

The Wrigley Building is a widely recognized Chicago landmark. It stands above the Chicago River like a sentry on the Michigan Avenue Bridge. My directions led me to a security guard in the lobby, where I requested access to an antiquarian bookseller somewhere in the building. I was taken to an elevator that traveled half way up the building’s 30 stories. There I was escorted to a single car for the remainder of the trip up the 425-foot tall south tower. When the doors opened at the top, I was admitted to a climate-controlled library with an attentive and cautious docent. I had died and gone to book heaven.

I spent the next thirty minutes in row upon row of neatly preserved tomes, some so old I was afraid to touch them. Vastly older than anything I had previously seen in run of the mill used bookstores. I could have spent days wandering the stacks, but it was clear I had been granted admittance for a short time and a single purpose. Once again, I bought a book for my collection. A token from the Wizard’s bag of tricks would have had no more impact on me than the place itself. Exiting by hot air balloon would have barely equaled the special elevator ride down to street level and my departure from this amazing library, hidden in plain sight.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Curb Appeal

When shopping for homes we favored those with extreme curb appeal, and that was our first mistake. We fell in love with a house. In addition to putting us at a competitive disadvantage in the negotiating process, we couldn’t afford the place, but we were buying in the years leading up to the housing bubble and it was just money, so what the heck.

And then there was the matter of our unsold property. The one we were trying to leave behind. The one with the in-ground swimming pool. In November. A contingency? No, we’ll just go ahead with the purchase because the seller accepted a ridiculous lowball first offer. We could theoretically double up on mortgages for a couple of months.

How were we to know that the seller was wealthy, a cunning business person, who was also willing to write us a check, bridging us a loan to get his house sold? All at the paltry interest rate of nine percent.

I drove to the seller’s new house to pick up a personal check for $60,000. The drive to Lake Forest was short and scenic. I didn’t realize at first that the street I navigated was a driveway. The doors to the massive home reminded me of the huge entryway that frequently served as a backdrop for Jed Clampett and Granny. But that was a painful association, reminding me of our own home with the “see-ment pond” sitting unsold as our closing date approached.

I produced a thundering metallic knock on the portal, fully expecting a green-clad sentry to deny me entry to see the Wizard. When the door swung open, our seller appeared in a foyer framed by two arching staircases that culminated in a railed balcony overlooking a crystal chandelier below.

“It would be great for a wedding photo, don’t you think?” commented seller.

Seller’s wife appeared. They were retired, living in 7,000 square feet of custom designed opulence. I had never before been in a house with a five-car garage, a library, music room and an open hearth imported from Europe. The money I had come to collect became a secondary issue. I was mesmerized by the view ahead of me, far ahead of me, seemingly half a football field ahead of me, of a fireplace that appeared large enough for several people to stand inside. And the whole scene was vaguely familiar.

“It was modeled on the house you’re buying. Scaled…up” said the seller. “Would you like a tour?”

I nodded, stunned into silence.

It was a mansion so large I would have gotten lost had I not been accompanied. Many of the features were typical house stuff on a grand scale. Quality throughout, and oversized beyond reason. Twelve foot ceilings? Perhaps. But the kitchen! Most restaurants lack this splendor, losing in elegance what they gain in stainless steel. The wall to my left was entirely paneled in dark wood, floor to distant ceiling, curving almost out of sight ahead and to the right. The subtle curvature of the space masked some of the more utilitarian elements of the room. Appliances were built into seamless cabinetry.

Stepping over to one such highlight, Mrs. Seller smiled and proudly demonstrated a particular favorite. Opening what could only be called an oven door at shoulder height, see proudly commented, “This can bake forty potatoes.”

I spoke before thinking. The notion of baking forty potatoes was funny to me, and I chuckled mildly to this retired couple and responded, “Can it bake two potatoes?”

“Well, you have to keep the next owner in mind. Many like to entertain in this area.”

That ended my tour. Check in hand, I was shown the door, the portcullis, escorted over the moat and drawbridge and sent on my way. I looked behind me as the gate closed with a resounding thunk, imagining a windlass taking up lengths of clanking chains, and a large wooden bolt swinging into place across the span to secure the castle against battering rams and marauding hoards. Stupid savages. Curb appeal does that to people.