Monday, November 13, 2006

Having Reservations

This October, I made the 200-mile drive from Chicago to my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. I drove past mile after mile of scrubby fields newly shorn of the summer’s corn crop, dilapidated red barns in need of more than a few licks of paint and dulled-grey metal grain silos. Over the years, I’ve probably driven this route more than 100 times. I know the curves in the road and the special hiding places the state troopers like to frequent, just looking for a city slicker speeder like me. I’ve calculated the distance down to the minutes and the mile. Dixon marks the halfway point, 90 minutes left to go. Turning off the toll-way leaves about 42 miles still to cover.

Now, my hometown may be like many in the Midwest. It has some historical claims to fame; Carl Sandberg was born there, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place there and it was the home of the man who conceived that fairground favorite, the Ferris Wheel. And in the not so distant history of my childhood, it was a hive of industry. No less than three railroads crisscrossed its streets at one time and ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, lawnmowers and assorted car parts where made there.
On Saturdays, the Main street and later in the early ‘70s the newly-build Sandberg Mall would bustle with activity. It wasn’t unusual to bump into a friend, a neighbor or even your less-than-favorite third-grade teacher while making your weekly shopping rounds.

But today each time I go back, the town seems quieter and more run-down. And the bustle is definitely gone: only ghosts walk the sidewalks of Main Street now.

Much of the industry, except the railroad, has moved production south of the border leaving lots of folks unemployed or underemployed. You can see it in the shuttered businesses and the empty lots that once held homes that were subsequently condemned due to disrepair or abandonment and torn down. Lake Lawn the private tennis and pool club that we could never afford to join when I was young is now owned by the city and its once green and guarded confines can be enjoyed by all.
Even the swanky neighborhoods seem to have far less swank. The houses now go for prices that even I could afford and still have some change left over if I was to sell my less-than-palatial city abode.

The fact of the matter is, Galesburg has become a little grim. Well on its way to becoming a ghost town. It wouldn’t be out of place to see a billboard along Main Street proclaiming “Last one out of Galesburg, please turn off the lights!” But no matter how many trips I make, there’s always one place I have to go in town. One place that’s unchanging and feels like home. The Landmark.

Right smack in the middle of historic Seminary Street, it’s the best place to eat in town. I’ve been a frequent customer since the place first opened back in the '70s. And almost thirty years later, not much has changed (even after a fire in the ‘90s).
The menu is still printed on the same stiff, ecru paper that I remember, the painted tin ceiling still makes it seem twice as populated as it usually is and Phil, the maitre’d, is still the guy who greets you at the door. And best of all, my favorite menu offering is served up every day: Spinach Bisque.

Every time I go through the door, I’ve never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a table and every visit reminds me of all the ones I’ve made before. I only have to look at the table in the corner by the mirrored coat rack to see myself at nineteen seated with my mother. I’m wearing the red Pendleton sweater I got for ten-cents at my college town’s thrift store and my hair is cut short at a rather punkish and jaunty angle. And we’re drinking coffee, waiting for our cups of Bisque and sandwiches to come along and we’re laughing. About what, I don’t remember. . .I just remember that we’re laughing.

Over nearer the large plate glass front window, I see an even younger me—maybe fifteen--sitting with mom again and her best friend Liz and her son Marc. We’re all eating Bisque (after all, what else is there?) and gossiping. And it’s easily apparent that I have a raging crush on Marc, because everything he says is just plain hilarious.

And so after my three-hour drive into town, I was more than happy to find myself joined by my best friend and her three children opening the door to the Landmark to get some much-needed lunch. “Table for five.” I said to Phil, smiling in my “remember me? I used to come here all the time” kind of way.

Phil looked up at me slightly sternly, as if he’d never seen me before, and replied, “And that that would be under?”

“Under?” I thought to myself, my mouth falling open in astonishment. “Uh, do you need a reservation? I didn’t make a reservation,” I mumbled, clearly taken off guard by this apparent change of protocol.

“Today, yes,” Phil replied brusquely. “It’s homecoming weekend.”

How ironic that my own homecoming now necessitated the need for RESERVATIONS! And I had none. “How long is the wait?” I asked still somewhat in disbelief that I was not going to be momentarily ushered to a cozy table for five.

“About an hour,” Phil replied. “Maybe more.”

“Never mind,” I said turning from Phil back to my friend and her three children and motioning them towards the door.
“Let’s go to Steak and Shake,” I said as we made our way back to my Chevy and piled in. But still, I was somewhat shell-shocked. I’ve made so many trips back to Galesburg and never before had I not been able to get a table at The Landmark.
Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again. So much of the town had begun to feel different to me. So much of it changed. Friendly faces gone. My childhood home now occupied by a new family who keep the shades tightly drawn, never letting in the sun or curious glances from previous residents.

And now I couldn’t even get into The Landmark. Surely, this town no longer had a place for me. But that evening after a rousing wrestling match with my young godchildren, I was still thinking about The Landmark. “Maybe I could call and make a reservation for lunch tomorrow,” I said to my friend Jo, still partially in disbelief that such forethought and planning was even necessary.

“I’ll do it,” Jo replied, reaching up to grab the slim phonebook from the top of her refrigerator.

The following day arrived dreary and overcast. After a morning of pancakes, coffee and the busy chatter of the children, we again piled into the car to go to The Landmark. This time, with trepidation. Would our reservation have been recorded properly? Would there be a problem that would prevent our entry?

Again we came through the front door and Phil sat sentry at his usual spot. But this time, I was ready. “Reservation for Sumner for 12:30,” I said rather formally half expecting Phil’s brow to crease with anxiety.

But instead he stepped from behind his table and ushered us in with a smile saying “Right this way. We have your table all ready for you.”

And I followed him happily thinking this is how it should be. I’d begun to have serious doubts about my place in Galesburg. I lived here for ten years growing up, but with each return visit it seemed to become more and more foreign to me. Not getting that coveted table at The Landmark seemed to be the last straw. But as I sat enjoying my delicious bowl of Spinach Bisque I did feel like I was back home again. My former selves were still seated in memory all around me and all seemed right with the world.

As we rose to leave, I stopped at Phil’s counter to pay the bill. “Was everything ok?” he asked in his usual manner.

“Great,” I replied smiling in his direction, my annoyance of the previous day now dissipated as I signed the credit card slip and handed it back to Phil.

He took it from my hand and as I turned to leave he added, “It’s good seeing you here again.”

With that, any lingering reservations I had about my place at The Landmark also vanished. I exited knowing that no matter how much things changed in my hometown of 34,000, this place would probably always be here. And I’d have a place at the table and a bowl of Bisque just an order away. Just nowadays, I might have to remember to call ahead first.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Last Time

I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the afternoon darkness creeping in, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of things.

Like the last time you saw a certain person or place. . .the last time you did something ordinary only to realize later that its action was suddenly no longer relevant to your evolving existence.

My husband Craze and I talked about it. We agreed, more or less, that while we frequently make big fanfare over what we know to be an official “last time,” it is more often the case that a “last time” goes by unnoticed. Quietly slipping by you. It's only later, when subsequent knowledge spells out the enormity of that overlooked moment, that we strain to remember it. Or more poignantly, we recall it all too clearly—and the present knowledge that we let it pass by makes it sadder still.

I can think of several official “last times,” most governed by a schedule or contract—the last days of high school and college, the last night I slept in my single-girl apartment eighteen floors above Dearborn Street, the last day at my “real” job after I resigned.

Each of these “last times” brought their own moment of nostalgia at the recollection of times past. And yet still, they were tinged with a greater sense of expectation. The brightness of the unknown sometimes added a sense of hopefulness and excitement that the next stage along might be even better than the last.

But I remember other “last times,” too.

The last time that I saw my mother she was being carried from the house where I grew up on a stretcher, her slipper falling from her foot to the green, sculptured living room carpet below. I remember picking up the embroidered beige satin slide and thinking that I would have to retrieve the other one at the hospital.

At that moment, I had no way of knowing that she would never wear those slippers again. That she would never be in our house again and that I would never see her face or hear her voice ever again.

And each time I think of that particular “last time,” it is always that silly slipper that still comes to mind—even after more than twenty years.

I remember too the last time I saw Lee on the final day of my sophomore year in college. I recall how it felt as we held each other and kissed in the parking lot of the brown Women’s Spanish House where I lived. And then how I took his keys and threw them onto the grassy lawn in a vain attempt to make him stay, if only a little longer. We laughed together at this, but the keys were all too easily retrieved. Then he got in his parent’s blue Datsun, started the engine and drove away from me all the same, not pausing to look back.

At that moment, he knew this was a “last time,” that he was leaving me for someone else and, he hoped, for some other, brighter future. And as I ran back into the house as quickly as I could, I held back an avalanche of tears. Finally in my room away from prying eyes, I began to sob loudly, my whole being racked with the most profound sadness I had ever felt. I thought I could not bear to be parted from him even for a little while. That I might not actually survive it.

I still remember that pain. How it ripped through me unabated. How it was so hard just to catch my breath. God only knows what I would have done at that moment if I had actually known that he had just left me for good. That this was the “last time” I would ever see him this way—young and beautiful, his black, black hair shining in the sun. So full of the future in front of him and, as I wrongly believed, in love with me.

I guess that’s the thing about “last times,” the ones we ceremoniously mark often blend into the background of our lives. Easily forgotten. Unremarkable in how they make us feel as we recall them—if, in fact, we bother to do so at all.

But the “last times” we overlooked at their happening, hold more emotional weight with their recollection. And even the most incongruous elements, the beige slipper, the blue Datsun and the keys lying in the green grass, only make a particular “last time” truer and harder to put behind you as you face each new day that follows it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Vote for Change

Like good citizens, Craze and I headed out this morning to vote. To say I'm not thrilled with my choice of candidates is truly an understatement. For the first time in my life, I actually voted in a write-in slot. I didn't write in Mickey Mouse or some similar silly protest. Instead, I wrote in the name of someone I thought actually deserved the job and got ripped off in the earlier primaries. Likewise for a major race, I cast my vote for the Green Party. Take that Republicans and Democrats!

I'm sure my efforts will prove fruitless, but maybe if enough people do the same politicians will start paying attention. Like many people, I'm so sick of all the negative, misleading advertising and government officials who are more concerned with keeping their job than doing a good one.

Maybe I'm just super naive, but why do politicians suck so much? Surely this isn't true for all of them. But, I'm so tired of all the rhetoric. All of the words getting so twisted that they end up being just a conceited waste of breath. Supposedly this is the greatest country in the world. We can say it as much as we want, but the words alone don't make it so.

We're fighting an unjustified war. Our valiant men and women are dying every day and we're wasting billions. But it's not making this country safer; it's just giving our enemies more reason to hate us. If the government had really been so concerned about our safety, wouldn't it have been better to spend much of this money on homeland security efforts within our own borders? Or on the border itself for that matter. . .

And don't even get me started on the dismal state of education. All that money could be going to improve our schools and help make sure that we don't continue to lag far behind much of the developed world in terms of educational excellence. Or it could be providing much-needed healthcare for those in need. Or helping the homeless get out of the streets. I often see an old women living on Irving Park Road and I'm sure she doesn't want to be there. In a country of such wealth and power, we should ensure that no one goes hungry or has to sleep on the sidewalk at night.

I'd rather be spending my tax dollars on setting some of these things right, plus helping New Orleans get back on its feet and a concerted effort to stop global warming, versus dropping one more bomb over Baghdad.

Maggie Sumner will be casting her vote for Obama in 2008!

Monday, November 06, 2006

You Say Tomato. . .

I'm a little obsessed with tomatoes recently. And more to the point, about how I can't seem to find one worth eating.

I've tried all kinds--organic, non-organic, plum, hothouse, vine ripened, cherry, grape, heirloom. I've even made attempts over the past three summers to grow my own; first right in my yard and then in large pots on my deck. But no matter what I try, nothing tastes just right. And maybe I'm trying to make them measure up to a memory that seems sweeter and more delicious with each passing year. Those tomatoes from long-ago summers spent far away from here in the home of my elderly British grandparents.

I can still remember so clearly as a child going to Wincott's, the green grocers, in Banbury. Down a winding and darkly cobbled road not far from the ancient marketplace in the town renowned for the nursery rhyme, the shop sat on a corner. Jim, whose family owned the place, always recognized my mother even if it had been years since our last visit. "How are you, luv? All right?" he'd call with a surprised and delighted smile from behind the counter when the tinkling bell announced the arrival of his latest, and quite unexpected, customer.

They would chat for a few moments and catch up. My mother would tell him about my cockney father, Sam. Having been a familiar face on his family’s market stall in Banbury for many years, he was still warmly remembered by the locals. But now he worked far away, back in the States while his family, my mother, brother and I, spent the summer with his in-laws in their tidy brick council house on Woodgreen Avenue. And as Jim and mother continued talking, my brother and I would wander through the shop, so unlike the A&P where we got our groceries in Illinois.

Artfully displayed groupings of the freshest veg lined the wooden display counters. The white cauliflowers were placed in perfect rows, the deep green pods of the delicious broad beans piled high. They were always my favorite. I loved the way the beans turned a purplish grey when cooked. And better still, I loved shucking them. The inside of their pods lined in a kind of lush lime velvet. Rich and sumptuous to the touch and smelling of earth and gentle showers, it seemed a tragic waste to discard such beauty.

And every variety of tomato sat plump and smiling, waiting to be weighed and carefully placed in their brown-bagged packets. Most were grown abroad as the British climate, so adept at growing many things, didn't usually provide adequate sunshine or the warmer temperatures that they preferred. Often, we'd buy the "misshapen tomatoes." My young brother and I would revel in their odd shapes; some like little hearts, others squared off and some like perfect teardrops. Their bright red flesh gave off a matte glow and, though beautiful in their own unique way, they were pence cheaper as they did not meet the expected, round shape of tomato perfection.

We'd pick out our favorite shapes and put them carefully in the paper bag. "About a pound," my mother directed, glancing our way while still chatting with Jim. We'd place the chosen tomatoes onto the well-worn counter for payment along with our other finds. Bunches of heavenly-scented white freesia and robust and glorious burgundy dahlias filled our small arms. Plus a pound or so of scarlet runner beans, wide and so, so long. And finally we added a larger bag of Cox's Orange Pippens, cheerful apples named like some kind of Dickens' character.

A handful of coins was usually all it took in those days before each of the packets found its way into our green string shopping bag. We'd take turns carrying the bag and the flower bunches, carefully wrapped in paper, as the three of us made our way back to the central bus station. There, we’d catch the number 11 back to the Bretch Hill stop and teatime.

Once home, Nana had already laid the table for tea. Pulling out the extra leaf from their heavy and darkly stained '30s kitchen table, she had then covered it with a pale blue and white cotton cloth still smelling of the wash line and the iron. The bone-handled stainless cutlery and Flemish green Spode sat at each place, just as it had every day for the past forty years.

We'd unload our purchases onto the grey Formica kitchen countertop. The scarlet runners went into the pantry awaiting tomorrow's 1 pm dinner. The flowers were artfully arranged in my grandmother's only crystal vase and placed on the top of their upright rosewood piano in the lounge, as they called it. The apples also went to the lounge put into Nana's only other piece of crystal, the deep fruit bowl which took pride of place on the tall, dark Welsh dresser that always smelled of lavender and wood polish. The dresser also served as my grandparent’s not-so-secret hiding place for chocolates and rose-infused Turkish Delight.

Back in the kitchen, the small brown packet of our misshapen treasures was finally torn open to reveal the tender rubies within. Gently washed and dried with a tea towel, they were then placed in a bowl and put on the table. Assorted buttery sandwiches filled another large plate; cucumber and fish paste, hearty white British cheddar with tangy, dark Branston pickle or HP Sauce, smoked ham and tomato with a tiny dab of Colman’s mustard. Each was neatly cut into halves.

Then finally, Nana would take the cake tin from the fragrant pantry and cut slices of that week's cake assortment. Fat, perfect squares of Battenberg, a checkerboard of pink and yellow cake covered in nutty and sticky marzipan. Rich and aromatic slices of dark ginger cake were also added to the serving plate along with the doughy and delicious currant buns. They had been bought that very morning at the front door from the baker paying one of his frequent door-to-door visits, a wicker basket of freshly baked treasures at his elbow.

With everything arranged, the kettle finally whistled and a pot of tea was made. Only then would we sit, my brother and I fidgeting slightly with impatience until my granddad finally joined us at the table after pulling himself away from the cricket match on the telly. We were so eager to dig in and fill our plates with our favorite sandwiches and some of our tomato finds. After a few moments of steeping, mom would pour a little milk and carefully spoon sugar into the delicate cups. She’d fill each teacup halfway and then stop to give the pot a stir before making another round of pouring, finally filling each cup to the rim with the steaming brew. That way no one would end up with a weak cup of tea, which often happened if a cup was filled on the first pouring.

Once we began eating, we all commented on the deliciousness of the oddly shaped tomatoes. Some were small enough to pop in my mouth whole, their tender skins giving way easily, but not too easily, to the pressure of my teeth. The explosion of flavor was one I still remember. They were so sweet with a hint of acidity that you wanted to linger on your tongue. Perfect.

They were the tomatoes that every tomato since has been measured against in shape, size, color and, most of all, taste. And it seems no amount of money, gardening or searching has yet revealed a fruit that can compare to those discounted, misshapen beauties. And yet like those long-ago late afternoon teatimes, their flavor and delight are still ripe in my memory.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Arrested Development

Last night found Craze and I heading out the door at 10:45 pm to see a show. About 25 minutes later standing in Chicago's famed Double Door, our timing couldn't have been better. As we moved through the echoing, smoky, cavernous space, the headliners took to the stage. In a nod to our increasing foothold in middle age, we were there to see 1985 one-hit-wonder, Scitti Politti.

To say that many of our recent concert forays have us stuck in a time warp would certainly be fair. We've bought tickets in the past year or so to see Thomas Dolby, Siouxie and the Banshees, Pretenders, Midge Ure, Kraftwerk and The Fixx to name just a few of our eighties heroes. But to give us points for not totally living in the past, Scritti Politti actually has a new album out that got a pretty decent review earlier this summer in The New Yorker.

From the first guitar riff, Green Gartside and his band of accomplished musicians had our toes tapping and heads nodding to the familiar rhythms. And it was easy to forget that this guy's been rocking out since the late seventies and secretly revel in my "hip," still-club-going self. In his fifties, Gartside could easily pass for thirty and his current band mates were obviously in diapers at the pinnacle of the band's popularity more than twenty years ago. Together, this made his ensemble seem fresh, almost au currant.

Standing there in the crowd, I suddenly found it rather interesting that I'm doing the same kind of things I did twenty years ago when I first heard this band. With no kids at home, just a good-natured mutt and a couple of independent felines, Craze and I still live like a couple in our twenties. We have jobs and a house and some of the trappings of our forties counterparts, but have actively avoided many of the other accoutrements. We haven't purchased a Lexus or any other kind of luxury, status vehicle and have never seriously considered moving to the 'burbs. Our time and cash is not taken up with childcare or trying to find the "right" school for our little ones. Since the Bug graduated some time ago from puppy training and now is making good inroads at Agility Class, education of any kind is a hobby for us, not a parental necessity. We have the luxury of time and little responsibility that allows us to grab dinner, see a movie or hit a late night music venue at a whim without worry that the babysitter has to get home soon.

But then my train of thought asked the next logical question: "Will I still be doing this stuff twenty years from now, when I'm. . .60?"

The idea seemed kind of crazy. How does a sixty-year-old fit in at a place like the Double Door? And when, if ever, might it really feel right to put away my dancing shoes and just take up knitting or some equally sedate past time? This thought percolated through my head as I continued to sway to the tunes from the new album (see, showing my age again!). Looking at the crowd around me there were plenty of young trendsetters. The twenty- and thirty-somethings of the skinny jean and bangled-arm persuasion lit up frequently, still armor-proofed by youth, oblivious to how their next drag could kill them one day. The cute lesbians provided perhaps the most enjoyable spectacle, dirty dancing towards the front of the stage, their bodies folding neatly together in exuberant, simultaneous rhythm.

And then I saw them. Right at the front, stage left. A couple stood there, clearly quite a bit older than Craze and I; their faces bathed in the stage lights. They weren't in their sixties, but easily pushing fifty. Mr. John J. Boomer was dressed in his weekend uniform of jeans, navy turtleneck and denim shirt. He was almost completely bald and stared up at the lead singer with a kind of reverence. As if he was looking up at the face of God. And only occasionally did his prominent chin bob ever so slightly to the music, like he was absorbing every note, versus letting its course flow through him.

His lady friend reminded me of a shorter version of my mother. Her short, curly gray hair was nicely styled in a demi-bouffant, not unlike the coiffure of Queen Elizabeth. She wore a tidy gray car coat, brown plus-size petite trousers and equally sensible, brown, soft-soled shoes. The strap of her handbag was draped over her left shoulder and she clutched the purse at her hip. Mrs. Boomer had a ruddy, round-cheeked look, rather British, and, like her counterpart, stood virtually motionless, staring up with a look of perfect peacefulness as the band ran through their pop, rap, rock program.

They clearly did not fit in. Still, there they were, not just at the concert but right at the front of the stage. And while I found myself hoping to God right there on the dance floor that I'd never give in to such bland attire or, for that matter, let my increasingly gray hair remain its now natural color, their presence provided a reassuring answer to my earlier mental question.

In twenty more years, will I be heading out to the clubs to inhale too much second-hand smoke, make a dent in my ear drums and stay up way past bedtime? Chances are, if Craze has anything to do with it, we'll still be living in the city in a state of arrested development. I may take up knitting at some point, but we'll still be sporting the latest jeans and taking our nieces and nephews out with us for a spot of late-night fun.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Halloween Gets the Blue Light

Craze has never been much into making a big deal about any holiday. So, I was really surprised this year when he got all excited about Halloween.

Now, to be fair, he's always loved Halloween, just more in an "I'm going to dress up in a crazy costume and go to a bunch of fun parties" kind of way. He's never been much into decorating our house in an effort to make it a more trick-or-treat-worthy destination. But for some reason this year, he made a "hail Mary" effort to spook things up.

What this required was a last ditch trip to the land of the blue-light special, K-Mart, to try and get more ghoulish props. So on Sunday, that's where we went. To say it was a little nightmarish, wouldn't be a Halloween pun. The seasonal section was crammed with yelling, and some crying, children desperately trying to find a costume. The kids were spinning through the aisles like real-life whirling dervishes, pulling hangers off the racks at random and then just as quickly discarding them. Hulk hands, princess crowns, tiny firemen helmets and other assorted costume elements littered the floor of aisle 12 like so many autumn leaves, making smooth shopping cart passage virtually impossible. The parents, for the most part, made no effort to stop the commercial carnage or enforce any kind of good shopping manners. They just stood at the end of the aisle, apparently exasperated, their eyes glazed over. Like zombies really, at the mercy of their juvenile puppet masters.

And so into the midst of this lunacy, Craze and I ventured. We weren't really looking for costumes, although one of the first things Craze grabbed was a rubber ghoul mask with a black hood. "This is cool," he grinned like a kid himself, "I'll wear this when I answer the door. It will look great with that Dracula cloak I bought a few years ago. Do you know where that is?" he asked, not waiting for an answer and instead hurtling himself towards a pile of discounted conjoined skulls, perfect as a wall hanging.

After placing the skulls, which featured a motion-detector that triggered them to sing a crazy Halloween song, into the cart, we officially began to rummage through the mess. Craze found a platter with a skull in the middle of it. Motion detector technology clearly the thing this Halloween, it also broke into song or dialogue when any hand ventured in its direction. A rattling rendition of "I Ain't Got No Body" was a favorite. Next, he found an almost life-size skeleton with blinking green eyes. I found a rather creepy and tattered raven apparently made with real bird feathers. In keeping with my dislike of any kind of dead animal, it sort of grossed me out. But then, I remembered that is the whole point of Halloween and offered it up for Craze's review.

After a few minutes, I'd had enough. While Craze continued to rake through the leftovers, I steered the cart to the calm oasis of the nearby candy aisle. It offered up a brief respite from the screaming, running kids and gave me a chance to shore up my candy supplies.

A few moments later after finally deciding that there was nothing left there to find, Craze emerged from aisle 12 and we headed to the checkout. Once home, he emptied his sack of haunted goods and set about improving our blood-curdling curb appeal. He found some green light bulbs in the basement and put these in the lamps on our front porch and entryway. This simple addition cast a spooky green glow over our entrance and, I was surprised to see, was really quite effective. Next went up the assorted skulls and skeletons. After the last nail was driven, our Halloween decor was much improved. All that was left was to wait until Tuesday and see how many kids we could scare up at our door.

Halloween itself arrived bright but really quite cold. As I walked the Bug around 4pm, I saw the first little trick-or-treater out with his mom. Thinking I might miss the rush, the Bug and I headed home. Once there, I put in a call to Craze to remind him he better not leave the office too late if he wanted to fulfill his wish of offering a friendly fright to the neighbor kids.

Our first visitors, Dorothy and the Princess Bride, arrived promptly at 4:33 pm. It was a full hour later before any more kids came calling and another hour before the rush really began. After our first couple doorbell ringers had arrived, I shut the Bug in the kitchen to stop her from barking away visitors and rushing the door. She likes to protect her territory and, Halloween or no Halloween, she had her own plan for scaring off any visitors and that just wouldn't do.

Finally around 6:45 pm Craze arrived. He quickly pulled the rubber mask over his head and the collar of his dress shirt and found the Dracula cape in the front closet. Pushing an eyeball ring onto his finger, he grabbed our boom box and rigged it up on the front porch to play scary music.

The next time the doorbell rang, he'd be ready. And as soon as the next set of footsteps fell on the front porch, he sprang into action. Opening the door to the unsuspecting kids, he moaned at them in a loud, fiendish voice, "What do you WAAANT?"

"Candy," was what most of the kids replied, laughing at their unexpected, scary host. One smart alec forgot about the candy and offered up a more demonic request, actually asking Craze for his very soul!

"OK, here you go," Craze would reply in a gravelly tone, handing out the peanut butter cups, crunch bars and assorted other goodies from the skull platter. "Now get out of here and LEAVE ME ALONE!" And then just for effect, as the giggling kids made their retreat down the front steps towards the safety of their grinning parents, he'd yell again as an agonizing afterthought, "and DON'T COME BACK!"

This repeated drama went on for the next hour or so, and it made me laugh with each performance. I'd relinquished my candy-giving duties to someone more capable than I and instead sat on the couch with the Bug. Every time the doorbell rang, the kids got candy and the Bug got cheese if she didn't bark or make a move to rush the door. Give our dog cheese, and she's putty in your hands.

Around 8pm, the number and frequency of visitors dropped drastically. And it was a good thing too, as we were on our last bag of candy. Craze and I finally sat down to eat some sandwiches, his mask pulled back over the top of his head but still at the ready should any stragglers appear. Finally after a few last-minute arrivals, Craze reluctantly closed up shop at 9pm, turning off the green lights and blinking skull eyeballs and locking up for the night.

Later that evening, I overheard him talking to his brother in Ohio on the phone. He was recounting all his decorative efforts and how he'd made the kids squeal. And over and over, he kept repeating that next year's tableau would be bigger, better and scarier.

Hello K-Mart. Here we come.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Starved for Attention (Uh, and Some Food, Too)

I found the Alley Cat three years ago last July. It was a normal summer evening and I was drying the dishes after dinner. Craze had already taken off to a film screening when I heard a cat screeching. It was loud and pained. My first thought was that some young serial-killer-in-training in our neighborhood was torturing a cat. So, I opened the backdoor to investigate, intent on putting a stop to any bloodshed.

Immediately, I saw the source of the wailing. Instead of the imagined scene of carnage, what I saw was a tiny kitten looking out at me plaintively through the window of my garage. As I walked towards the window, it didn't run away and when I spoke to it through the glass, it just howled at me woefully with one eye closed.

Now Craze and I had seen a cat in our garage a full six days before. We had been coming back late on a Friday night after some social outing and, as we drove down the alley, our car's headlights hit the window at the side of our garage and we saw what we thought was a large cat leap across its expanse. "Was that a cat. . .in our garage?" I'd said in surprise. As we opened the garage door, shining the car's headlights into its empty space, we saw no cat. But what we did see was a mess. This cat had knocked down books and unwanted knickknacks from one of the high shelves. "It must be a BIG cat," we agreed as it had knocked down half a set of hefty encyclopedias, circa 1930.

But further inspection showed no sign of cat. We left the garage doors open for a few moments and walked away, giving the big fella time to escape without fear of capture. After walking back, and still no sign of anything feline, we pulled in the car, shut the doors and retreated into the house for the night.

But on this mid-week summer's evening with many food-and-water-less days between that moment and this, I found myself staring at our apparent culprit. Could it be that this little cat had made all the mess? And worse still, could it really have squirreled itself away in our garage for all this time, with nothing to eat or drink except the odd grasshopper or spider it might catch? Clearly, the animal had finally given up trying to hide. It was in pain, probably because it was starving to death.

So, I ran back into the house, grabbed the garage door opener and opened the door wide. But the cat did not run out. Once inside the garage, I walked towards the window where its tiny body still sat and as I did, it ran, quick as lightening, into a pile of boxes in the corner. "Here kitty, kitty, kitty," I called, to which the little cat again wailed his now obscured reply.

I put on a pair of garden gloves, afraid that this wild cat might scratch or bite me, and then started moving the pile of boxes working my way towards the meowing. Just as the kitten was in my sight, he was off again, hiding himself in another part of the garage under yet another stash of junk.

After 20 minutes of digging through boxes, I finally had a better idea. Food. Food would surely bring this starving creature out of hiding.

Back in the house, I grabbed some of my old cat Dee's kibble and put it in a bowl. Walking back towards the garage, I spoke to the alley cat again. And again in response, it wailed, now from underneath an old bookcase. Placing the bowl at the edge of the bookcase yielded dramatic results. The tiny cat, probably smelling actual food for the first time in at least a week, immediately came out of hiding and began to eat. He literally seemed to inhale the food, making a noise I'd never heard a cat make either before or since that moment. It couldn't get the food into its mouth fast enough.

I talked to the cat gently as he ate and then it occurred to me it probably needed a drink. I dashed back inside and grabbed a small bowl of water. Back in the garage doorway, the little cat immediately made a b-line for the water, actually slurping as he drank. In fact, he was so dehydrated that he drank the entire bowl in one long drinking session.

This little cat was impossibly filthy, but cute. It was mostly grey with some black markings, a black tail with grayish white rings cascading down to the tip. One eye didn't seem work too well, often staying closed when it looked up from the food and water to send admiring looks towards its savior. The kitten was so small, maybe only 8-10 weeks old by my guess, its ribs clearly outlined against its dirty, matted fur.

As the cat continued to eat and drink, I gingerly put my still-gloved hand closer to the cat. It didn't flinch. More boldly, I ran my hand over the cat's body, which the cat immediately seemed to enjoy. For the first time, it actually moved away from the food to enjoy some more petting attention. Clearly, after initially satiating its hunger and thirst, the cat was also clearly starved for attention. For several minutes, it happily went back and forth between the bowls and my hand, its little body beginning to purr loudly like a small engine.

"What are we going to do with you?" I said to the little cat, picking it up gently to reveal that "it" was a "he." The cat just looked at me happily, continuing to purr, eat, drink and periodically make erratic dashes towards my hand for additional petting.

Clearly, I had to contain this creature until a decision was made about what to do with him. I ran back into the house, headed to the basement and grabbed the trusty cat carrier. Taking it back outside, the little cat was still there enjoying the riches of Maggie's all-you-can-eat cat buffet. And as I approached, the little cat did not flinch, still in a state of blissful contentment that he was now no longer dying of hunger or thirst and that someone was actually petting him. Just twenty minutes before, he had avoided all attempts at human contact. Now, he couldn't get enough. "Hi, little boy. How we doin'?" I said, as I leaned down again to scoop him up. He wriggled happily in my hands, enjoying the scratches and the chatter, always replying in his own feline voice.

I put him in the cat carrier along with the food and water and an old towel, left it in the garage and headed back into the house. I'd wait until Craze got home to chat with him about what to do with our little visitor. I was thinking we should keep him. He had no collar or tags and just looked like a stray. I wasn't too sure that my old cat Dee would love him, but I also welcomed the opportunity of having another cat. As selfish as it might be, Dee was pretty old and I liked the idea of having another, younger cat still around when the day came that Dee would have to leave us. Maybe she would like him? And if she really didn't, we'd find another home for him. A better home than the alley or our garage. But if we did decide to keep him, we'd first have to take him to the vet to ensure that he didn't have any diseases. Dee's health was fragile and I didn't want to compromise her by bringing the little guy into the house too soon.

A few hours later, I was lying in bed watching TV when I heard the back door open. Craze was home. Within a few moments, his footsteps were on the stairs and then his face appeared in the doorway. He looked a little startled. "Um. . .there's a cat in our garage," he said both as a matter of fact and at the same time, a question.

"I know," I replied victoriously like the storied great white hunter. "It was hiding in our garage and I captured it." I then went on to relate the whole story in minute detail. At the end, I looked at Craze hopefully and asked, "What should we do with him?"

"Take him to the shelter, I guess," Craze answered, with the response I was definitely NOT hoping to hear.

"I was thinking that we could keep him," I offered tentatively, waiting for a moment. Then I continued, "We could take him to the vet in the morning and have them make sure he's healthy first, of course."

Surprisingly, even though it was clear that Craze wasn't totally thrilled at the prospect of another pet, he agreed to make the final adoption decision once we knew the cat's health status. He even agreed to drop off the cat at the vet the next morning. The vet would do their blood work and then we'd decide if it made sense to pay for all his shots and then bring him home and give him a name.

The next day, I sat in my office staring at the commuter screen, engrossed in a new business pitch when the phone rang. I picked up the phone, identified myself and the familiar voice at the end of the line immediately said, "You suck."

"Why?" I replied unsure what I'd done. Craze went one to relate his trip to the vet. He'd put the cat in the car, resolved not to keep him. But then once in the vet's office, the little Alley Cat had made quite a ruckus. Craze said that his outcry was so plaintive, that he couldn't help but feel sorry for him. So heart-wrenching, in fact, were the little guy's cries that Craze had admitted that he'd started to cry, right there in the vet's office.

"It was embarrassing," he grumbled. "Crying over that dumb little cat at the reception desk. But, he just seemed so alone, I thought if we don't keep him, who will take care of him?" After a moment of silence, he added accusingly, "You totally planned that. You knew that I'd feel so sorry for him at the vet's that I couldn't say no to keeping him. That's why you had me drop him off there."

The fact of the matter was, that hadn't occurred to me at all. It never crossed my mind that having Craze drop the little cat at the vet's would cause such an emotional outpouring. But, I was secretly glad that it had. "So, what did the vet say?" I asked, changing the subject.

Craze, his composure regained said, "They're going to look at him and run the blood tests this afternoon and give you a call later. If he checks out, we can pick him up tonight."

Later the vet confirmed that our new little friend was fine. They estimated that he was about three-months old, just very underweight. His wonky eye was also fine, he just seemed to have an odd blink. He had fleas which they'd treated him for, but all other tests came back negative. The vet then offered to keep him overnight until the fleas were completely eradicated and said we could bring him home the next evening.

So, one more night and $375 dollars later, we brought home our little garage tenant. We gave him a bath and watched much of his grey coloring run down the drain to reveal pure white across large expanses of his body. So, we had a black and white cat, not a black and grey cat as first thought.

We kept him separate from Dee for a couple of weeks. She was never thrilled with our new adoptee, hissing at him and giving him a good whack now and again. And she refused to play with him. But as time went on they learned to live in peaceful coexistence. You could often find them curled up separately but together in our front window or in the sunshine just inside the back door. And a little over a year later when the time finally came when Dee left our house for the last time and did not return, the normally happy and affectionate Alley Cat went into mourning. Each night as we'd return from work, he would cry the kind of loud, pained wail I'd first heard the previous year emanating from our garage. His old friend was gone. And even though the Alley Cat had two humans who loved him, he was lonely.

And then, just as it had come to me that long-ago summer evening, I had another bright idea. "Let's get a pet for the Alley Cat!" I offered gleefully, like a kid contemplating a trip to the circus. "Let's go to the Anti-Cruelty Society tomorrow and get him a friend," I continued, smiling at Craze over the dinner table.

Craze just rolled his eyes at me, immediately resigned to his fate. After all, he loved the Alley Cat and knew that I was right. Though he was now a big, majestic boy, the Alley Cat was starving again, this time for companionship. And as his providers, it was up to us to serve up a solution.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Spam Anyone?

I love my father-in-law. But clearly he loves Internet spam. And what he loves even more is forwarding it to everyone he knows with reckless abandon. A couple of months ago, he had me washing out my dryer filter with hot water and a scrubbing brush because supposedly the use of dryer sheets blocks the flow of air and causes fires. From the moment I put said filter under the tap, the water flowed right through though--even before any scrubbing took place. Obviously his online warning was not needed (and I'm sure the lawyers at P&G would have done something about this long before now if it was true that an innocuous Bounce sheet was bound to set homes across America ablaze).

Today, he sent out two spam-erific missives. The first was about Daisy, a seeing-eye dog, who supposedly saved her master, almost 1,000 other people and herself from the collapse of one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. It seems far-fetched to me and I have yet to google the particulars of this to see if my dad-in-law's high percentage of false info versus true is still being maintained. The second message included a long list of surprising "facts." Some, indeed, are true. For example, Warren Beatty IS the brother of Shirley Maclaine. However, I couldn't believe one of the other items and a momentarily online search verified that, to the contrary, soap vixen Susan Lucci is NOT the daughter of Phyllis Diller. Please, Paul--make it stop!


So, I'm working away on the computer at home as usual and The Bug has taken up her roost at the end of our bed. The master bedroom gives her the perfect vantage point to keep me in her sights and an excellent launch pad should any anonymous noise require her immediate barking attention and intervention. So, I decided to take a break and actually make the bed. After shooing her off, I noticed a dark patch on the hot pink fitted sheet. Had The Bug peed on the bed? Oh no. It's her latest doggy habit. Drooling.

Now, The Bug is not a massive, foul-mouthed beast. Unlike some dogs, I've never seen her drool, not even when we were eating some delectable nugget right in front of her. She is typically a tidy, medium-sized mutt of the Border Collie-ish persuasion. But I have noticed with increasing regularity dark patches of doggy drool on her favorite dozing spots: the bed, the couch, etc.

Aside from my dribbling dog, something that might be even more disturbing is my reaction. In the past, I probably would have been grossed out by some visiting canine drooling on my furniture and bedding--running to the sink or washing machine to put things right asap. However, since becoming a dog parent myself, I have become increasingly ok with her various bodily fluids, drool seeming somehow the least offensive. When seeing the puddle besmirching my bottom sheet right where my feet will rest tonight, instead of immediately removing it, I just shrugged my shoulders, pulled the duvet over the top, and said out loud, "Eh. . .it'll dry."

I'm beginning to understand how parents get used to changing shitty diapers. . .

Monday, October 23, 2006

Maggie Sumner is Mind Bloggled

I started writing this blog because I think (make that "hope") that I have interesting things to say. And it would be nice if others read it once in a while and offered up their thoughts, too. So, this past weekend, I stalked the Internet trying to figure out how people get traffic for their blogs. What's interesting is that some of the blogs I enjoy are mere blips in the blogosphere, while other blogs have HUGE numbers and, for the life of me, I can't see why.

There is the girl in Singapore who writes about eating ice-cream on a bus. Her blog is in Technorati's top 100. Unless she's repeatedly posting nude video of herself or others as part of her discourse, I'm not sure what it is that keeps folks coming back for more. Many of the top blogs are admittedly techie and that ain't my thing, yo. And having worked for years as a professional communicator, I find the long-winded sites authored by "experts" in social media both tiresome and pompous. Too much marketing speak. Too many middle-aged guru guys touting their online prowess as a means to woo potential clients to their agencies and get them to fork over the big bucks. And there's no spontaneity there. You know everything they put out goes through their PR filter. WHAT-A-YAWN.

But what's truly "mind-bloggling," is the sheer number of folks out here, trying to have themselves be heard. If there was a volume dial for all these blogs, the noise would truly be deafening. It's at once exhilarating and terrifying. So much angst and anger, love and sorrow, and smart-ass and just-plain-smart commentary thrown up into the ether.

I may be in my forties (very early forties, thank you very much), but where this blogging thing is concerned, it's clear that I'm just a fledgling with a lot to learn. That said, I think the key to traffic is probably not to think too much about the numbers and just keep writing about damned interesting topics. After all, as technology seems to make our personal relationships more and more distant, the need to make human connections seems to be proportionately more pressing.

If you build it, will they come? I guess that remains to be seen. And sadly today, when it comes to keeping things interesting, I think I may have lost the battle. But in the long run, as my cockney father liked to say, there's still a chance that I might win the war.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Dinner Was a Real Pain

Friday night before leaving his office, Craze informed me that he felt sick. Now, I'm pretty lucky that he is not sick very often and any illnesses are typically short lived. And thank god, because when ill, he can be the most annoying, whiney baby ever. He's just not fun to be around when he's sick.

All Friday afternoon, I had been gleefully been looking forward to the approaching weekend even though I'd been fighting off my own cold for the past few days. I showered, got dressed in my going-out-someplace-fun clothes and put on make-up, only to have any hopes of dinner and a movie dashed at 5:40 p.m. when Craze called.

So after a Friday night spent at home in front of the TV and a Saturday of the same, I finally asked him what he wanted to do about dinner. I didn't want to cook. I cook ALL of our meals. So, come the weekends, I want a break. After much back and forth discussion, it was decided that we would check out an Ecuadorian restaurant not far from our neighborhood called La Peña (Spanish for the "rock," group" or "circle," not the "pain") on Milwaukee. The Chicago Tribune gave it Three Forks and it had gotten rave reviews on an episode of "Check Please." Craze called and made reservations for 8pm.

When we arrived, the place was buzzing with activity and we were ushered to a table near the stage. "Cool," we thought, since we'd heard good things about the live music. We were handed menus and then our wait began. After about ten minutes, a dour waitress arrived at our table. We ordered an Ecuadorian appetizer and a salad, two chicken skewer entrees and one margarita. Our appetizers arrived fairly quickly, but Craze's salad was a fiesta of room temperature iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Not too great. My bacon and cornmeal pancake appetizer was an unappetizing beige ball of dough. It was lukewarm and not very tasty. Craze looked at it and said, "It looks like it has problems." A later taste test verified his visual diagnosis.

The entrees were the most measly portions I can ever remember seeing in a Chicago restaurant. Each of our skewers had three tasty, but thinly-pounded pieces of chicken breast, one tiny piece each of both red and green pepper, and one almost overlooked piece of onion (not even a chunk of onion, just one single sliver apiece). This miniscule offering was then accompanied by plantains, which in this case were two bite-sized rations on each plate. We had ordered a side of beans and, after confirming with our unfriendly waitress that these were black beans, they arrived, but were not of the black variety. More like a bowl of navy bean soup. They were tasty enough, but not what we ordered. And to top it all off, my margarita tasted a little like windshield washer fluid and was a big disappointment considering it cost about the same as my entree.

Our waitress never once returned after delivering either of our courses to ask if everything was ok and Craze even had to flag her down to get more water. In each interaction, it was clear that she did not to enjoy her job and wanted to ensure that no one around her enjoyed their experience either.

Forty-three dollars and change later, we exited leaving dissatisfied and still a little hungry. The only high-point of our evening was the live music which was very good. But would we go back? No way. And that's a bummer, as we're always looking for places to eat in our northwest side neighborhood because we're not spoiled for choice. I'd happily go back and pay more for my entree if it was a more robust offering (i.e more food, please), the appetizers had a lot less "yuck" factor and we had a server who cared about her job. 'Til then we can't help but misinterpret La Peña,, into a PAINFUL dining experience, versus the place we want to group around the table and enjoy a great meal.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dead And Gone

The day before yesterday, as I left my house to take the Bug for a walk, she suddenly made her snorting, high-spirited, "there-is-something-for-me-to-chase-in close-proximity" noise. She reared up and ran forward just a few feet barking and then stood with her head down at the right side of my neighbor's front doorstep. As I walked over to see what it was that so immediately grabbed her attention, I realized that she was sniffing some kind of large animal.

"Oh my God," I said out-loud. "Is that the neighbor's cat?" The long, smooth-coated body looked like that of a honey-colored, tortoiseshell tabby. But then I saw the head. And this thing was definitely not a cat. Its weasel-like face stared glassy-eyed toward the street, death making it unaware of the dog or me. And it was big, the size of a large cat or a small dog. And it was, definitely, DEAD.

"Let's go, Bug. . . now!" I said sternly to the dog, retracting her lease, suddenly worried that this animal may have died from some disease that my beloved pet might catch. And so we walked away from this large, dead creature only a few feet from my own front door. "What the hell do I do with that?" I thought to myself, at once grossed out by the dead animal and even more grossed out by the thought of its rotting corpse staying at the side my neighbors' doorstep unnoticed for too long.

Let's just put it right out there: I am not good with dead things. Of the things I've cared about, I have only experienced close proximity to death twice. When I was fifteen, I went to see my Nana at her visitation a couple days after she died. My aunt asked me if I wanted to give her a kiss. Instead, I dropped the bunch of burnt-orange dahlias I was holding into her coffin, careful not to actually touch the body, and bolted frightened and nauseous from the room. When my mother died suddenly at 50, my father wouldn't even let my brother and I go see her one last time after the emergency room docs declared her dead after working on her for more than an hour. And at her funeral, the coffin was closed.

Then a couple of years ago, my old cat Dee had to be put to sleep. She was almost 19 and her kidneys were failing. I sat with her for a long time on the couch before we left for the vets. I scratched her ears and petted her soft, white and carmel-colored fur and told her how much I loved her. Later, standing in the vet's treatment room, I had held her as she died. I was amazed at how quickly life left her body. How different she felt once her heart stopped beating. And the dividing line between life and death had only been a second. Maybe even a mili-second. She was here and then she was gone.

But the demise of less beloved creatures usually just made me plain sick to my stomach. The rats that died curled up in the insulation in our outdoor crawl-space were dealt with by Craze. I wouldn't even go near the basement entrance for months. And I once picked up the decapitated head of a small bird that had been kindly deposited right on our back doormat with a handful of paper towels, tossed it over the side of our deck, and then ran back into the house as quickly as possible, into the bathroom and promptly threw up my entire breakfast.

But getting beyond my stomach-churning dislike of all things deceased, one thing that was dead but not yet gone was this unspecified creature at my neighbor's door. And it had to be dealt with. . .promptly.

As is my typical modus operandi, I immediately took responsibility for solving the problem even though it wasn't on my property. And as Bug and I continued to walk along the sidewalks littered with fallen leaves, past houses decked out in Halloween ghoulishness, I couldn't get that thing out of my head. Was it a possum? But aren't possums white? Some kind of weasel, perhaps? But who's heard of wild weasels running the streets of Chicago? Its face looked a little bit like a fox, but it looked too small to be a fox. It was just a dead creature of unknown species, littering my neighborhood.

Now, I could have just gone and knocked on the neighbor's door and informed them of the deceased currently lying in state on their property. But my neighbors are a somewhat odd Hispanic family who never turn their lights on at night, go out of their way not to communicate with us and, appropriately, seem to speak mostly Spanish. And while I actually speak Spanish, the idea of having to walk past that dead thing to get to their front porch, knocking loudly on their front door and then trying to explain in Spanish that there was a dead animal in their yard and that I wanted them to dispose of it, seemed just too gargantuan a task.

"Hola, soy Maggie, su vecina. Quiero decirse que hay un animal meurto aqui en frente de su casa. . ."

It wasn't going to happen. Firstly, the wife might answer the door and there was no way in hell that I'd expect her to get out there with a shovel and a garbage bag and pick up that dead thing. I wouldn't do it myself, so why should I expect her to? So much for feminism and my usual "I-can-do-anything-a-man-can-do" attitude. When it comes to dead animals, rodent problems or any kind of outdoor home repairs, I default entirely to my meek, "but-I'm-a-girl" stance. I am woman, hear me roar. . .but I can also be a woosie baby.

And then I had a bright idea: maybe the city would come and take it away? Did this fall under the domain of Animal Care and Control? Could they be called upon to rid our old neighborhood of this dead menace--my tax dollars in action? It was worth a try.

So, after finishing our walk and returning to the house from the direction that did not require us to pass the dead visitor again, I picked up the phone. I called the city's non-emergency number and asked if Animal Care and Control could be asked to pick up dead wildlife. I explained to the pleasant woman on the line that I wasn't sure what this thing was but that it was fairly big. She said that she could put in a work order with the Rodent Patrol. Rodent Patrol? It sounded like some kind of cartoon. I imagined cute, helmeted mice racing around on mini motorcycles attending to emergencies and tracking down diminutive, animated crooks. But as fun as that sounds, I was also sure that the reality of Chicago's Rodent Patrol is far bleaker.

And so I gave the operator my neighbor's address and the approximate location of the diseased thing, crossing my fingers that the Rodent Patrol would be a quick and efficient outfit.

That evening, after dinner, I told Craze about my find. "Wanna go see it?" I asked like some carny offering tickets to the freak show.

"No. . .no, I don't," he answered matter of factly, obviously not wanting the image of this dead creature burned into his own imagination. And I was somewhat crestfallen that I was the only one in our household, besides the Bug of course, who would have to live with the memory of that fixed, necrotic stare.

The next day, as I went about my work at home, I went out of my way to avoid any trips to the front door. At some point, the Bug stood at the front window and went ballistic for several minutes, which surely meant that some unknown person was creeping around the front of our house. I was hoping that it was the Rodent Patrol, but didn't get up from the desk to look.

Later, when the daylight was about to ebb, I finally decided to get the mail. As I stood on the front porch, I peered hesitantly over the white railings onto the ground near my neighbors' first step. But there was no fur there to see. So, I more brazenly walked to the railing and looked straight down onto the death scene. But it was gone. Either the Rodent Patrol had efficiently done their job or my quiet neighbors had taken care of business. And thankfully I could finally describe the animal with the only two adjectives that seemed appropriate to me: it was now both dead, and gone.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Working For a Living

I've been seeing a counselor pretty much every week for almost a year now. I quit my job about 16 months ago and this time last year found myself sitting at my kitchen table, staring at an episode of Jerry Springer, mired in misery. Trading in my big title and fat paycheck had not brought me the happiness and balance I had expected. I'd had four months of unadulterated free time and found myself at a standstill. Unable to create a better more fulfilling life for myself but not wanting to go back to my 12-hour-a-day, Blackberry-checking-at-all-times, frenzied, unappealing work life either. So, I broke down. . .

I finally realized that, as super smart as I think I am (and in this department, my ego can be ENORMOUS), I needed help. Perhaps putting my hand up and admitting this would not totally crush my self-sufficient self image or make the walls around me come crashing down. On that day in the kitchen, I finally picked up the phone and made an appointment with Jane.

Jane was the pre-marital counselor that Craze and I had seen as a pre-requisite to getting married in the church. I had liked her. She had a straight-forward manner that I appreciated. I felt like Jane could help me--and somewhat comfortingly, she already knew me and my husband. And as I've driven to Evanston each week over the past year, I look forward to seeing Jane in her cozy office in the church basement. I like taking off my coat and sitting down between the pillows on the plump, beige couch. I talk about whatever is on my mind and it's been pretty enlightening.

I've realized that I spent much of my childhood bringing up myself, since my parents' time was taken up by my harder-to-handle younger brother. After-all, I was so self-sufficient from such a young age. They were neglectful without ever really meaning to be. And things obviously got worse when my mother died when I was twenty and my dad had a nervous breakdown. But through all this, I just kept going/doing. I worked hard to try and keep the family intact. I cleaned the house, cooked the meals and made sure my dad got up to go to work and that the rent check got mailed every month. I called my college's financial aid office to ensure that my brother could still afford to attend college the following Fall, because we were suddenly a one-income family.

I've also talked about Lee during my couch-sitting sessions. He is the man I've loved for two decades who left me for a "friend" only to return 12 years later. And then of course, he left again, silently, without a word of why. I haven't seen him now for eight years. But I still wonder how he is and what his Big Apple life is like today. And woven through these thoughts is the single wish that I could just find it in me to just stop caring and wondering. To finally just left him go.

I've also relayed the anger I still feel towards Lynn, who is no longer in my life, but once accused me of being a neglectful friend. It should be noted that during this time my focus was totally on my elderly father who was living with me for six months while he recovered from a massive stroke. I cared for him all by myself, slept on the couch of my one-bedroom apartment for months and still held down a full-time job. And through this, all Lynn felt the need to tell me was that she was experiencing "lack of friend." I barely had time to take a shower during that period, let alone find the time to chat with her or arrange a frivolous dinner outing. What a self-centered bitch! Of course though, I never called her on this.

The recurring theme of my life seems to be that I often feel alone. Even in relationships. Even in the midst of my tiny, disjointed family. I feel that I am my only safety net. I believe that I am the only one I can really rely on. And as a result, I often make it difficult to accept help from others. My drive to be the all-seeing, all-knowing doer made me great at my job. But it also gave me a crazy, work-obsessed life that never allowed the time to reflect on what I was missing or how I'd never really stopped to grieve my losses.

And unbeknownst to me, when I sat at that kitchen table all those months ago, I wasn't alone at all. All those losses were still there with me. Weighing down my spirit and scratching at the closed door inside my head wanting to be set free.

During my 17-year career, I worked really hard. And I've done a lot of creative and strategy consulting in the past year, too. Enough to pay the mortgage and some of our bills, but only a fraction of the big bucks I used to make. But we do ok. And after months of Jane meetings, I've finally begun to use my free time more constructively. It's clear that quitting my real job and going through these months of sorrow and contemplation might just be the most important work of my life.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I Am Not My Handbag!

I was just reading a well-read blog (I won't name names) where the author talked about her expensive designer bag, love of buying designer goods on her trips abroad and how she misses hanging out at Hermes with her pals.

Why am I reading this blog? This sort of stuff is so far removed from the life that I lead to be just plain annoying and patently irrelevant. Yes, I have more than a few designer handbags (even a few Anya Hindmarch) and I could spend my money on more designer goods if I made that a priority. But do I feel the need to crow about the pedigree of my possessions as a way of revealing who I really am? No.

This is just another example of how our personal identities and character development are being usurped by rampant materialism. I am not my handbag or my pricey bangle. What I wear (which at the moment is a long-sleeved Mossimo t-shirt from Target) may help me express myself to some extend, but it doesn't define who I am. Having a nice clutch doesn't make me a more thoughtful human. It doesn't convey that I have important things to say or am quick to put on the kettle when a friend needs a cup of tea and a friendly ear.

Certainly, I appreciate innovative and thoughtful design as much as the next person. And there are some things that you long to own because they are simply beautiful and just seeing them brings you pleasure. But shouldn't these purchases speak more to our personal tastes silently versus becoming the focus of dialogue? If actions truly speak louder than words, I would rather show through my behavior that I can be funny, kind and smart. Vocally defining myself as Gucci, Prada or Balenciaga says little about my character other than that I may be lacking my own originality or, indeed, character itself.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Maggie Sumner Finally Puts Out

I've thought about doing this for so long. Why finally start today? Today's as good as any day, and I'm tired of all the words swirling around in my head. GET THEM OUT! I could claim that they were voices, but that would be needlessly dramatic and just plain wrong. . .

So, what am I going to talk about here? Things that matter to me. My husband. My dog. What I think about the world. The fact that how we use all this new technology isn't necessarily making our lives better, richer. I guess I'm just gonna be putting ideas out there to see if they strike a cord with others. Some ideas will be BIG. Others may be mind-numbingly small. Whatever I write, I'm hoping that it will be honest, mostly grammatically correct and that at no point will I be precious or overly annoying (fingers crossed on that last one). And as much as I have a high regard for niceness, I can't promise that I won't sometimes overuse sarcasm. Sorry, it's just my inner conflict peaking out.

Today is damp and dreary in Chicago. I think Fall, my favorite season, has been officially cancelled this year and I'm saddened. We had snow last week. I don't ever remember seeing snow in October. I can remember plenty of youthful years where my carefully planned Halloween costume (the year of Cleopatra, in particular) was ruined by the needed addition of outerwear, but snow? Nah. And to make matters worse, I woke up with that horrible scratchy-throat-stuffed-up-right-nostil feeling. A cold may be on its way. How fitting in keeping with the official cancelation of Fall.

Besides my aching, mucus-packed head, I'm somewhat consumed by the news that Madonna is trying to adopt a little boy named David from Malawi. I can't help but think that either this kid's life has been ruined or he's the luckiest boy in the world. I find myself wondering about the rightness of a celebrity arriving god-like and plucking this tiny soul from obscurity and changing his life forever. And who gets to decide if that's ok? Probably some nameless Malawi official. Maybe it's just destiny. Or maybe it's just plain wrong. I'm hoping the kid falls into the "luckiest boy in the world" category, but only time will tell. Either way, whether she adopts him or not, his life will now never be the same. Either he's always going to be the kid who Madonna almost adopted and be constantly reminded of what he missed out on, or he's going to be Madonna's son and wonder about the place and the people he came from who have no connection to his affluent life in the celebrity microscope.

And speaking of kids, I'm still pondering whether or not to try to have one of my own. Let's face it, I'm old in the world of first pregnancies. . .maybe already way too old. And while I like children and enjoy their company, I'm usually happy to pass them back to their parents and be on my way. Every time I think of all the great ways that having my own child might enrich my and my husband's life, I'm also so aware of how it would change EVERYTHING. And that, in turn, makes me appreciate how much I love my dog, Bug, even more. Can't she be enough? Craze is indifferent to the idea of being a father. In fact, indifferent isn't really even right. He actively avoids any discussion of the subject. Hello! He doesn't want to be anything but a doggie daddy. But that's really no surprise, I've pretty much known that since I met him. And I've always been somewhat ok with that.

Ah, life's big decisions. . .they are indeed weighty.

And my final thought for the day: I'm distressed that American Pie (the song not the stupid movie franchise) is now the advertising theme for a Chevy. Clearly it is lyrically appropriate ("drove my Chevy to the levy. . ."), but it just seems plain wrong. And I drive a Chevy for god's sake! But wrong on so many levels.

Maggie Sumner again distressed by the commercialization of her childhood soundtrack.