REPORT A PROBLEM
A letter in today's Sun-Times equates financial success with hard work, and lack of such success to "loafing." Sometimes, maybe--but financial success is also tied to choice of career. A prime example is day care. Day care teachers typically earn pitifully low salaries, often barely above minimum wage--but what job can be more important--or demanding--than nurturing young children? Teachers in Catholic elementary schools work very hard but do not have the highest of salaries; neither do employees of nonprofit social service agencies. These professionals are far from lazy. Success--and one's value to the world--is not just measured by income level.
My son teased me, four years ago when he was in eighth grade, for tearing up at the last packet pickup day. Today we enter St. B's high school library, converted temporarily into a red-white-and-blue polling place; he pulls out his voter card and D. asks, "Is this your first time voting?" Yup, I had to hold back tears. My baby is officially an adult, squinting at endorsements lists like the rest of us--he has a voice in who's running our neighborhood, city, and state. A rare moment of patriotism for me--yes, he has a voice--and that is very precious.
1959. Pneumonia. My mother carried me in scratchy red blanket on the bus to St. J.'s hospital, where that night--my first away from home--an aide roughly scolded me for crying: "A big girl like you." But the next day a sweet nurse made me smile. When I gushed to my mother about the sweet nurse who'd comforted me, my mother seemed to want to tell me something about her: "But she's colored." Excited, I looked about, hoping to see a blue or purple or green person; human colors were so boring. But the nurse, though sweet, was ordinary looking.
1960. Kindergarten. I asked my six-year-old cousin N., "Do you wear your coat at school?" In church, no matter how stifling the heat, we kept jackets on. No, N. said.
At school, we colored pictures of the Virgin Mary with jumbo crayons. The sister talked about God, how it was horrible to not believe in Him; panic-stricken, I wondered: What or Who was God? My grandmother, despite kneeling for hours with rosary beads, and my mother, who'd brought me to 3-hour Latin Masses, had never told me.
Shy and myopic and desperate for friends, I don't remember playing with anybody.
Artist Date Ideas:
-thrift store on Roscoe
-long walk to noplace in particular
-Try new off-the-beaten-path restaurant.
-Go in a new store--like the record store near Delicious Cafe.
-At home, draw with crayons!
-At home, check out online art lessons!
-Cook an interesting dish.
-Go to the library.
-Travel to a suburban museum.
-Go to Chinatown.
-Go to a free concert.
-Write at a new coffeeshop.
-Go to a sporting event and write.
-Lincoln Park Conservatory
-Lincoln Park Zoo
-Garfield Park Conservatory
-Mexican Fine Arts Museum
-long walk until find cool store or restaurant
1961. I started first grade and the process of learning to read. Books didn't immediately pull me in, though my mother had read me Little Golden Books and "The Five Little Peppers." She took me to the library for colorful thin hardbacks, but reading seemed like a chore.
Sister Mary R. could never figure out which group to put me in. I forget the names (bluebirds? robins? sparrows?)--one was for smart kids who seemed stuck up, another for average kids who seemed boring, and yet another for the slower kids who were friendly. I liked the slow kids group best.
1962. One spring afternoon, I came home from first grade and found out my mother was in the hospital--Gran said she'd collapsed at work with a bleeding ulcer.
When my mother came home, she was different. Fired from her job--no ADA then--she had another nervous breakdown to match the one she'd had before. She no longer wore clean clothes, spent hours cursing her old job and the Catholic Church. And when my mother's ring disappeared down the kitchen sink drain, how my mother screamed for hours at my grandmother, blaming her.
My mother wasn't the same any more, never would be.
1963. One empty afternoon I picked up a shiny-covered book that had been sitting on a bookshelf forever--my mother read to me, but I never read myself; what was the big deal about print on a page?
I opened "The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore" and within minutes found myself in a train car with Freddy, Flossie, Nan, and Bert, munching on watercress sandwiches, as though I were there and one of them.
From that day on, I was a reading addict. Side benefit--grades zoomed up. But--side benefit. I now had friends and siblings, imaginary maybe, but no less real.
I hate Valentine's Day. Walgreen's shelves are stacked with heart-shaped candies; the Sun-Times food section overflows with romantic recipes. My favorite coffee shop is advertising a vegan dinner--even White Castle is hosting a special feast.
But what if you have no sweetheart? It's not like getting a degree or a job, work hard and you get that piece of paper or position. Love happens or it doesn't; I'm through with having a relationship just to have a relationship. But part of my sadness about getting older is that I'm afraid I'll never have a Valentine's Day I look forward to.
When I neglect my blog, this is what I am doing--writing 100 word entries for 100words.com. I learned of this site in November 2008 in a NaNoWriMo forum. I'd just earned my MFA; I recalled how word limits often produced better writing, forcing you to pick the best possible word, not a fuzzy approximation.
So far, I've completed 10 "batches"--a month's worth of 100 words. Some are diary entries, telling details, thoughts, and feelings about a day's worth of living. Others are instances from the novel I'm revising. Recently, I'm writing memoir entries--100 words for each year of my life.
1964. Easter break, bored, I decided to write a book. Addicted to the Bobbsey Twins, I wrote The Bringley Twins, sending my twins to Birch Bay Lake; my uncle had taken my grandmother there and she'd raved about blue water and white-barked trees. I wrote in pencil on blue-lined paper, illustrated construction-paper covers with crayons. I also wrote about the Ruler Family, based on the Five Little Peppers, but with six little Rulers. I named the oldest girl Mary, the youngest Ann; I forget the names of their brothers. Funny years later to discover four real half-brothers and a half-sister...
Why can't we go back in time? Today, I attend the RU Honor's Luncheon with my son, and professors talk enthusiastically about research, students talk about honor societies and Thai food and pizza parties and making new best friends. A good mother would simply be overjoyed for her son and the rich college life he'll experience--but selfish me wants to go hunt down some time machine and relive my own young adult years, this time at the right school, this time with a supportive family cheerleading me: "Go D.!" Sigh. And yet, those painful isolated years made me me.
1965. I became hooked on Nancy Drew; when my mother screamed nonstop about "prowlers" who existed only in her schizophrenic mind, I survived by imagining bad guy prowlers hunted down by Nancy and her mystery-solving gang. Thinking of these fun-loving characters made the scariness of my mother's obsessions manageable.
Yet it was my mother who took me to second-hand bookstores in the first place, and finding an as-yet unread Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton or Cherry Ames or Outdoor Girls book would be like me today winning the lottery--better yet, getting a letter from an editor: "We want your novel."
1966. Early June, last week of school, we were evicted, badged men in uniform shoving our couch out the apartment's front window.
We stayed at my grandmother's that summer--my mom, gran, and me squeezed into a kitchenette apartment with a pull-out couch.
But, end of summer, we found an apartment on W. Ave.; for the first time I made friends, played running games of tag, made concoctions with flower petals. At St. A's, M, was my best friend; lunchtimes we sat at a table of friends, ate brown bag lunches, played Mother-May-I in a side street blocked off with wooden horses.
I am not edgy. At Story Studio readings, published writers brag about edginess, characters losing virginity in Chapter 1, a gang member enduring a brutal beating to become an ex-gang member. My middle-grade novel is not edgy; R. is a shy eleven-year-old, bullied at her old school--lunch flung over fence, routinely called "retard"--who changes to a new school and recovers with the help of new, supportive friends who give anti-bully lessons. "R. and the Cousins" probably won't sell in a climate where agents gush about edginess. But do all books have to be edgy? What about readers who aren't edgy people?
I hate when friends my age talk about "senior moments." Since when did "senior" start meaning people under 65? Why, as life expectancy zooms upwards--people born in developed countries predicted to live past 100--are we labeled retirement age when we hit 50? Are we supposed to sit around for a few decades in rocking chairs watching soaps? Talk of "senior moments" feeds into ageism. As though younger people are never forgetful! If an older person is more forgetful--if--couldn't it be that the wealth of the knowledge he or she has accumulated over a lifetime occasionally crowds out a new fact?
"California Girls" plays on my Pandora. Years ago, Beach Boys music seemed mere fluff; they didn't sing about "War, what is it good for?" not being a "fortunate son." or wonder "where have all the flowers gone." No, they raved about surfing and cute girls, lightweight party stuff that sorority sisters danced to, oblivious to a world beyond the ivy. But years later, when I went back for my MFA, a fellow student wrote about the Beach Boys' childhood, physical and mental abuse so bad that one brother became mentally ill. Now their music doesn't seem insubstantial but triumphant.
Once a month I submit writing, spending hours perusing the Writer's Market and Web sites. Should I submit to a publishing house that's just starting out that won't pay an advance--but that doesn't have a minimum page limit? That's the problem with BF--it's short. It's the length it needs to be--but agents and publishers consider how to package and sell your words. Sometimes I feel I'm putting bits of my soul out there and asking for money. Maybe Emily Dickinson had the right idea, never even aiming for publication, thinking the whole idea of fame ridiculous--"how public like a frog"!
I hate feeling sick; I want to plunge into novel revision but a certain tiredness when I start scrawling words scolds, "You want to get better?" I turn on a TV show I remember loving as a child, "The Patty Duke Show"--the sappy perfect family and cliché jokes prompts me to shut it off.
Will it be like this when I get older--the same creative urge without the ability to use it? Society doesn't help, assuming age limitations when they don't exist. J.D., only 36 years old, isn't allowed to play baseball although he knows he is in his prime.
1967. In May, evicted again; another stifling summer cramped in my grandmother's studio apartment, the three of us sleeping on the pull-out couch. September, started N. School, where I quickly established myself as the smartest kid in the class--and the one to be mocked because of unstylish Goodwill or Community Discount clothes. I loved flowery shirtwaists--what did I know about miniskirts and leather boots? Home, my mother sicker, screaming obscenities nonstop, never bathing, always in dirty bathrobe. School, the constant laughing jabs of my peers. Hung out with B. and K., though they criticized and laughed, too. Books my only refuge.
1968. Constant school mockery stung, but I dreaded summer's spectre, the apartment with windows my mother had plastered shut, her nonstop piercing curses. And I'd fallen in love--C.B., a short skinny boy with bright blonde hair and black glasses, who'd grab my hat and make me chase him.
I discovered Charles Dickens--Oliver Twist, the Chimes, the Cricket on the Hearth--poor people to be helped, not scorned. And I remember a sunshiny Saturday listening to the Doors on scratchy transistor radio reading the complete Sherlock Holmes escaping into the murky gaslit atmosphere of Bakers Street, relishing the beautiful eccentricities of Sherlock.
Writing 100 words for each year of my life, I'm hurled me back in time, colliding with shadow-memories of people who still have the power to hurt. Seventh grade boys who made smooching sounds: "Oh, will you go out on a date with me?" elbowing buddies, practically falling out of seats with laughter. I had no words--why was I so ugly, so different?--turning to schoolwork that won me effusive praise, that added to the kids' desire to tease me. Eighth grade girls who'd grab my lunch, toss it behind iron fence, mock my attempts to retrieve it from the mud.
1969. L.V. High School. Red-brick building with castle-like stone turrets--though its back fire-escaped walls seemed dungeonlike. Teens taking buses here from all over; we were no longer little kids walking to our neighborhood school. C.P. invited me to her lunch table; E.K. and I became daily bus buddies together with J.M., and on Saturdays we'd head to L. Stadium to shiver and cheer on our Wildcats.
When I think of LV's feel, I think of a bus stop friend whose name and face I can't remember, casually shrugging off what people might think of her, encouraging me to do likewise.
1970. I became a nerd. At the beginning of sophomore year, I decided to enjoy learning and not worry about grades; every evening I'd study leisurely, plopping on the couch, books and notebooks strewn about me, radio rock music on low.
The highlight of school--my lunch table, a United Nations of friends: E.K. recently from Korea, R.C. from Hong Kong, M.S. from Egypt, Z. born in Puerto Rico, and me third generation Irish. I watched in fascination as R.C. pulled out her lunch container of rice and vegetables; I listened, absorbed, as E.K. and R.C. spoke of former lifestyles with maids.
At the party, a guy quotes a famous author--somebody in the same league as Updike--who said "I've wasted my life! I spent my life writing about imaginary people and places instead of living." Maybe rejection slips aren't that bad. Oh, I'm still going to write novels and memoir pieces and send them out--it's a compulsion like gambling or downing whiskey--but I'm going to make time to visit A., plan Art Institute adventures with my niece and with L. and her baby, go to Grant Park concerts with C., take walks enjoying my neighborhood, cheer the White Sox with my son.
1971. In February, I was transferred against my will to S. High School; my mother ranted that L.V. people didn't like or respect her, I should be "normal" and go to S. because it was closer. For the first time in my life, I shut down completely, offering my mother no friendly chatter. She'd taken everything that mattered away. Three weeks later, I was back at L.V.
When they calculated class rank, I was number 1; I didn't even know what that meant, but the compliments thrilled me.
Summer, I worked in L.V.'s library, basking in Mrs. C.'s praise.
Why do I feel so gloomy this morning--too spiritless to cross the street and chat with R. the crossing guard, despite rare time before work? Is it the cold I'm getting over? That T. will leave soon for college, doesn't want to join me on neighborhood walks any more? That I'm getting older although I don't feel old and older guys who "wink" at me on OK Cupid look ugly? Rejection letters--is my lifelong dream of being an "author" silly? That some reject my go-for-coffee friendship overtures? As I type this litany of woes I smile--children must grow--who doesn't get rejected?
1972: end of junior year, summer working in L.V.'s library, beginning of senior year. Saturdays I took the train from the Loyola stop downtown to Jones Commercial and the All-City Orchestra where I was a second violin and fell in love with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto and Tschaikovsy's Fifth Symphony and dreamed of being a musician. My mother scoffed: "It'll be just like your writing," for I wrote no more, unable to match my life with any book plots. I'd fallen in love with the book "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," though, about Francie who overcomes a dysfunctional family to blossom.
The Tip Jar