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What is age?
- A nightmare, E. says, thinking of true love that never happened, a career passion discovered too late
- A gift--how J. and M. would have loved to still be here, J. going to sports games no matter how frigid the temperature, M. getting together with friends for cappuccinos
- Irrelevant: G., 93 going on 94, still loving the Harry Potter books, always the clear-cut voice of reason in any gathering; G, who got up from her wheelchair to dance the salsa at the deaf-blind social club meeting
Age is like tufu; you flavor it yourself.
"Homework. First day." Benjie kicked a pebble so hard it hit the door of a white car parked on Willow.
"You're lucky the car alarm didn't go off," David said. "Yeah, but getting homework right away, you know what you're in for, so you can stop worrying."
"Isn't he weird?" Benjie nudged Rachel, who giggled. "Well, isn't he? I know you hate Ms. Perez, too. Don't tell me you don't."
"She's so different from Ms. Green," Rachel said, letting out a sigh. Ms. Green had felt comfy.
Rachel's dad was no help.
"Homework the first day, Dad! Already telling us a book report a month, on top of other homework, and they have to be hard books or she'll mark us down."
Rachel's dad laughed as he poured pasta sauce over noodles. "Sounds like Ms. Perez will be a great teacher. Everybody always hates the best teachers. They're hard because they care."
"Care? She doesn't even smile!"
Rachel's dad shook his head. "Smiling doesn't mean caring."
Lupe was chubby and shy and not great at sports at all but she loved them because the grandfather she'd idolized had been a total sports nut. She'd watched so many games with him, listening to him cheer on the White Sox, his voice hoarse both from cheering and from cussing.
"Dad!" Lupe's mom would yell at him. "Remember Lupe!"
Her grandpa had died two years ago, and now, to keep him alive, Lupe read books about sports and read the Sun-Times sports section and watched baseball games and played with her brothers and friends on the block--but she was lousy.
I tell H. that my son and I stayed up until three talking about religion and the existence of heaven; H. responds that his thinking is along the lines of Hitchens. I google Hitchens, only to discover that, when diagnosed with cancer, Hitchens asked people not to pray to their "deaf" heavens for him. Hm. This might be a problem. I message H. back--I believe in heaven but don't care what others believe. Will he respect my belief in God and heaven, or will he throw cynical barbs and try to change me? For any relationship, respect a necessary ingredient.
I'm in a foul mood; R. came for lunch, but left early, no mention of "Let's do this again sometime." Did I say something wrong, or did I talk too much about myself? When I said that I knew my son was smart (leading up to my point that smartness isn't nearly as important as working hard), did I offend her, did she think I was bragging?
My friendship overture rejected, I hear all the words well-meaning friends and strangers have been throwing at me ever since my son went off to college: "Now you're all alone."
I hate my rosacea.
"No caffeine, alcohol, or spicy food," my ophthalmologist advises. This last visit, he amends his advice: "No caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, chocolate, or cinnamon." All the edible and drinkable joys of life, forbidden--unless I want to risk more eyelashes grow in backwards, or, ultimately, vision loss.
I subscribe to the rosacea organization's magazine; even more triggers are listed! Hot weather. Cold weather. Hot liquids. Stress. Tomatoes. Different people have different triggers, experts say--keep a food diary and discover your triggers.
Mine seem to be weather-related--but my doctor is firm: "Watch the diet."
What do people expect me to say?
"How do you feel?"
My son is off at college; it's not enough to say how happy he is, how he likes his roommates and classes, the joy of living downtown.
"But how do YOU feel?"
I guess they expect me to sniffle, say, "How I miss T.!" or some other stereotypical sentiment.
Of COURSE I miss my son--duh! Why ask rhetorical questions, inviting me to dwell on negative feelings of loneliness?
I veer back to my son's happiness--
"But how do YOU feel?"
Thirty-five years ago, I was hit by a car while running for a bus. I don't remember being hit; I woke up in a hospital bed, plaster cast covering leg from toe to upper thigh, hearing Sunday church music from some radio. When they told me where the accident occurred, I guessed the rest.
I cursed God--only later did I remember my prayers the summer before, yearning for direction.
Angry no bus service existed for people on crutches, I began to volunteer with disability rights organizations. Ultimately, I was hired; I'd found a career and direction.
After school is the first meeting of the St. F. Flash. I'm sort of excited, but I'm only going cuz I promised D. last year, and sure enough he reminded me last week. Just one meeting, he said, see if you like it. With the way you draw...
But it's mainly the honor roll kids who join the school newspaper--I dread walking in the room and everybody looking at me.
I wish B. would join, but she said no--it's bad enough being in school till 3.
Sept. 11. Extremists take the stage. A pastor of a church with 50 members, who's never met a Muslim, threatens to burn Korans; other extremists take to the streets and one man is dead.
I think of A.'s best friend who is Muslim, a young girl who cried for fear of losing A. to cancer. When you think of individuals, hatred against an entire people or religion is ridiculous.
Yet a Sun-Times writer makes a point--what about free speech? I support the right to burn flags even if that angers veterans--doesn't that pastor have the right to burn the Koran?
"A child in grade school does not need a cell phone. Period." Uncle Richard didn't look up but turned to his next paper to grade.
Benjie gave out a huge huff, muttering as she walked away, "If my real parents were alive..."
"Wait a minute, young lady." Uncle Richard made the kind of whistle a coach would make. "Sit down." He motioned to Aunt Kate who left the counter where she'd been chopping carrots.
The three sat, math papers and carrots and cell phone debate pushed aside.
"We may not have given birth to you--but our love is real."
On Facebook, a "friend" likes "if you can afford alcohol and cigs you don't need those *** food stamps." Suddenly I'm back in high school, honors U.S. history, the current events topic food stamps, all my peers venting against "food stamp" people: "I work, why can't they?" "They should be more humble!" "They think they should be able to buy toilet paper on food stamps--the nerve!" "They're buying sweet rolls!" I wanted to disappear; they didn't know it, but I was a "food stamp person." Yet I doubt they'd want the luxury of living on welfare with a paranoid schizophrenic parent.
I feel sad today; my son wanted to get off the phone with me last night because I started lecturing about study habits.
"I know how to study, Mom."
Yes, he does. Maybe I feel the need to offer "friendly reminders" because he's the kind of all-A student who doesn't need to work hard, whereas I earned my all A's by studying 4 hours a night in high school.
I'm glad that I said what I said--my words may linger and help him--but sad because he's annoyed with me and maybe won't visit this weekend and I miss him.
"A bit morbid," J. describes my motivation to finish chapters so I can send them to G.
"She's 94," I'd said, "I want her to have a chance to read them."
Maybe it doesn't seem morbid to me because I've lost friends at much younger ages--J.F. at 37, M.K. at 53. I had only felt like my father's daughter for two years when a heart attack stole him. Death is not far from any of us; it adds urgency to our days, to make sure we appreciate people while they're still here, to make sure we realize our own dreams.
It's hard for me to write about Aunt D.--or any of my characters--dating. Did I ever really go on dates? No, I had "relationships" and slept with guys, and eventually I was T.'s fiance and married him--somehow I was never the kind of girl courted with chocolates and flowers and taken to concerts. Or maybe I didn't demand it. I definitely didn't know what I was doing. Once I began making friends in high school, friendships came easily--but not romance.
I see D. as being the same way, and frantic about her biological clock--but is that just because it's easier?
The security guard eyes my Bears sweater.
"They won today," he says. "Glad I'm not the only fan here."
"Watched the game with my son," I said. I feel bad for guards at Festa Muti, accosted by classical music aficionados who can't comprehend the words: "There are no more seats." "What are we supposed to do?" one woman demands, an undercurrent of privilege rippling beneath her words--what, you expect ME to stand?
"There's a double header tonight," the guard adds, "wish I were home watching. No offense."
None taken. Somehow I like sports fans better than fellow Tchaikovsky lovers.
Today was a living and reading day, not a writing one--English muffins and conversation and garage sale hunting with L, then meeting T. at the Cell for Nancy Faust Day, celebrating her 40 years as White Sox organist, T. explaining umpire signals for strikes. Then home to a message from C., wanting to plan another thrift store adventure. After I feed the felines and give the diabetic one her injection, I dye my hair, planning to call H. sometime tomorrow--will we ever actually meet? I watch Masterpiece Mystery and finish reading "Chicago Blues"--wow. But my own writing? Tiredness is encroaching.
My stomach feels queasy and I yearn for Pepto Bismol, which since I've left the house is beyond my reach. I sit in the comfy Mexican restaurant where the waitress brings me chips and salsa even though I've only ordered a taco, where orchata refills are free. The green awning outside always seems to beckon; I remember sitting here past midnight with T. the day he and M. went to a Sox game, my treat, a 40th birthday gift for her. Then she changed--she no longer liked baseball and she was angry at me and somehow I'd offended her.
Writing classes. My last "real-time" writing class was the one I attended at a Chicago city college when I was pregnant--it was specifically for women, and I read about it right after a friend, learning of my pregnancy, told me to "kiss my writing goodbye."
I loved the class but felt on the outside, never called on and too shy to volunteer, and when the others planned a get-together I wasn't invited. Of course, I wasn't super outgoing--and then I learned that my husband had also impregnated a friend of my best friend. I never went back to class.
In Rachel and the Cousins; 7th Grade, the adults react more to September 11 than the kids do; the kids are more affected by the adult reactions than by the actual terrorist attack itself (unless, of course, their loved ones were killed). Rachel's dad and Debbie feel that "life is short." Not only does Rachel's dad get dragged to meet Debbie's family, but Rachel's dad and Debbie get engaged for a spring wedding. The kids do plan a bake sale to help the Red Cross, and because both Rachel and Benjie have lost parents, they feel for the new orphans.
Divorce anniversary. Fourteen years. Is that why I felt so drained yesterday, finding it hard during work hours to write about the iris, choroid, and ciliary body--is this why, in the evening, I chose not to go to Columbia reunion events? It's actually a happy anniversary--my life is much better without my ex--yet it's a reminder of huge life mistakes, marrying the wrong guy, letting him be the father of my child.
Fourteen years. Since then, I've dated a few times, but nothing serious, tried online dating sites where guys lose interest after seeing my picture. Will I ever remarry?
Writing about race is tricky. If I don't mention ethnicity, some readers may assume I'm writing about a heterogeneous environment. If I do point out nationalities, however, another reader may ask, "Why?" Of course race doesn't matter--yet it does. My Irish Catholic background shaped me, probably in ways I don't know. And your ethnicity affects your appearance-- the color of your eyes or the curliness of your hair--all part of a diverse world I'm trying to describe for readers. So instead of labeling characters, I give clues--almond eyes, golden brown skin, blue eyes, last names like Garcia and Schmidt.
Sept. 11 Memories:
- Blonde young woman in Voc. Rehab says, as we pass outside the cafeteria: "I'm in shock." Had I already bought my coffee, or was I heading to the line? "About what?" I ask. "You haven't heard?"
- C. didn't want to respond to a coworker's greeting: "Peace" in Arabic.
- The cover of the next day's Sun Times: stark black, only a few words in white.
- White powder laced with anthrax sent through the mail. Train stations shut down at the merest hint of white substances that usually turned out to be sugar or flour.
When my cat Helenore was diagnosed with glaucoma, I envisioned having to hunt her down in a zillion closet corners, then yanking her out, ignoring piteous meows, grabbing her tightly and somehow sticking her with the insulin syringe needle.
It's not like that.
A wonderful tech at the vet's office suggested I clear off a book shelf, so I could "corner" Helenore--and give treats.
So I bring Helenore to the bookshelf, cooing, "It's time for your treat!" I discovered that when eating Fancy Feast grilled chicken dinner, Helenore is oblivious to the needle.
Sometimes, Helenore actually waits for her "treat"!
My son calls me a feisty puppy dog, and he knows me better than anyone does.
It's a problem. I believe in speaking my mind and that I have a moral obligation to do so. Growing up in the sixties, standing up for what you thought was right was a key value.
But--I'm a puppy dog. I want everyone to like me, to be my friend, from the folks at 7-11 who sell me coffee to my upstairs neighbor to the moms of my son's friends.
But when you're feisty and say what you think, of course you'll alienate people.
Years ago, I didn't go to church, but instead spent time with J. and my son at Burger King, and J. listened to all my single mother angst about neighbors' banging broomsticks on ceiling when my son made the slightest noise, running a plastic truck across the floor.
"I'm always there for you," J. would say, and I felt God present, too.
Nowadays I sleep in on Sundays and my college student son comes over and scrupulously draws football diagrams and we watch Bears games together--and again I feel God present.
J., up in heaven, I think you're near, too.
The Hawks Victory: My son and I watched Game 6 at ESPN Zone, arriving early and getting front-row recliner chairs. After realizing Kane had made the final goal, the crowd burst into cheers as the restaurant piped "Chelsea Dagger" through the stereo system. People stood, jumping, dancing, slapping hands with total strangers--in our rejoicing, we didn't feel like total strangers--one man fell to the floor, seemingly praying as well as crying. Another man rolled around on the ground in utter bliss, and "Chelsea Dagger" played on.
My son and I then walked about downtown; cars honked and strangers high-fived us.
I feel sad: the W. Ave. bus driver assumed I was old and lowered the step for me; fast food counter folks routinely ask if I want the senior coffee. When I was a kid, senior citizens were 65; now that life expectancy is much higher, you're a senior at 55. Makes me want to vomit. In "Violent Crimes," one cop says no one will believe a 76-year-old witness. Why extend our lives if we're not valued?
And yet--people have flaws, prejudices. I must remember truth. Who is more "with it" than 93-year-old GL? To God, each person has value.
I feel I'm becoming a stereotypical cranky old lady complaining about kids not calling or visiting--all because my son didn't call me yesterday. Didn't help that he hung up on me Monday night when his roommate entered the room. Being caught talking to your mom when you're a college student is probably worse than being discovered chatting with your mistress when you're a married man. Doesn't help that I'm preparing his birthday gift--an installment of his "memory book" detailing memorable life events. I recall 7-11 walks and long talks about God or capitalism and miss those times.
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