Sunday, May 14, 2017

All the Mothers' Day, 2017

Aunt Susan, me and Aunt Ruth

Mia and Aunt Joan
No one can replace your mother, but you can be loved and mothered by many. People commonly use the village metaphor, but the baker in me prefers to think of this cobbled together love as the pieces of a pie. Many women in my life, friends, cousins, aunts have all filled in the circle of need for me. Men too, my husband, colleagues, teachers, even works of art and yes, even my children. Here has been unconditional love, there has been rich compassion, here gifts and hugs and advice, over here has been silent understanding. There was a woman in New Orleans in the summer of 1986; I sat in her kitchen and she asked me about my life with immediate intimacy and made me feel so welcome and wanted, I will never forget her.

My mother's sister and my father's sisters have been the biggest slices of goodness and giving in my life. They all rose to help and teach me. Aunt Ruth, of course, did the lion's share of raising me, bless her. Aunt Susan babysat my siblings and me before and in the weeks after my parents' disappearance; her gentleness has always been a balm when I see her. My father's lovely sister Joan opened her home and her heart to me so many times; she left us in 1994 and we miss her so much. I have another Aunt Joan, my mother's only sister, and while we love each other, I know that that love is mixed with an amount of unavoidable pain. We look at each other and we both see shadows of Bernadette.

There's a boy at school who lost his mother this winter is the worst way possible -- suddenly, violently and in the next room. I don't feel right telling him my story; we are not that close, but when I ran into him in the hall on Friday, I pulled a box of Thin Mints out of my bag and pressed it into his hands. He was walking with another teacher when I passed him going the other way -- it looked something like an escort during the passing period. He had some new marks on his face.  

"Thin Mints!" he said. "Ms. Fey, I love you." "I love you, too" I called as I went on to the tutoring center. I had been hoping to run into him and had put aside the cookies just in case of a chance meeting. It wasn't much but I know how agonizing a holiday can be.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Romeo and Juliet Breaks My Heart (In a Good Way)

I must must must tell you a story about our Reading class where the freshmen have been struggling with Romeo and Juliet for the last few weeks. The text grows more and more beautiful every time I read it, but you know, for these kids the language is largely impenetrable, and the text is a dense ancient wood with only a few shafts of comprehensible light in the darkness. So we work our way through, translating, trying to give the kids as much info as we can reading out loud and watching movie clips and reading the ever-helpful graphic novel and slogging away, line by line by line.

So I've got to tell you about the wonderful day in First and Second Period when we put the kids in groups with a section to paraphrase into their own words, then act out for the class. We were working with Act III, Scene 1, where Romeo's friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's fiery cousin Tybalt in a street fight, setting in motion the final inevitable cascade of tragedy.

The scene opens with Mercutio, our resident jester, teasing the good Benvolio by accusing him of being a hot-headed fighter. Now we all know that dear Benvolio only raises his sword to part fighting fools so this speech is a gentle joke at the expense of a friendly and favored character.

(Whenever I think about Benvolio, I think of a freshman I had in 2002, the ego-less and cooperative quarterback on the freshman football team, who asked me, "Hey Ms. Fey, why can't you keep teaching after you have your baby?" And he laughed with wide eyes and a big open-mouth smile when I said, "I could! But I want to take care of the baby. And they eat about twelve times a day! And they POOP about twenty!")

Adorable Dash Mihok as Benvolio in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version Romeo + Juliet

So our freshmen were working in groups on their passages and Sugar, Dristian and Mayla were grappling with these lines:

Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says, “God send me no need of thee!” and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

Am I like such a fellow?

Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon mov’d to be moody, and as soon moody to be mov’d.

And what to?

Nay, and there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrell’d with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath waken’d thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter? With another for tying his new shoes with old riband? And yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!

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Mesmerizing Luigi Sotille as Ned Alleyn playing Mercutio in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Shakespeare in Love

I sat with the three kids and told them my story about the quarterback and read them some of the lines with all the inflection and drama I could muster and they were totally getting it. "What's tavern?" asks Mayla and "What's hazel?" "What's quarrel?" We worked through it and it was so exciting to see the light break through. At the end of the period, Imee the English teacher collected their work and made a copy of the script for each kid in the group to perform the next day.

The day of performances one of the kids drew a background of houses and trees on the whiteboard and Christine the Reading teacher brought in placards with the characters names strung with yarn to hang around the kids' necks.

The three kids got up in front. Imee had put down a wide rectangle of purple duct tape on the floor to designate the borders of the stage. Dristian gave an overview of the scene, then Mayla as Benvolio and Sugar as Mercutio began the scene.

Mayla/Benviolio: Let's go home. The Capulets are looking for us. We don't want to start a fight.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are one of the angry people. You walk into a bar and pull out your knife for no reason.

Mayla/Benvolio: Am I that type of person?

They were doing great. Mayla put on a smile to show she how sweet Benvolio is. The irony in the casting was that this lovely girl is the one I need to remind nearly weekly to use her words instead of slapping other kids.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are as stubborn a-a-and moody as anyone in Italy. 

Sugar's stumble may have been because he was a little nervous. His one hand held his script, the other was tucked into the pocket of his red hoodie.

Mayla/Benvolio: And why is that?

Mayla gave Sugar the stinkeye.

Sugar/Mercutio: If there were two of you, you'd kill each other! You'd pick a fight with someone who has a bigger beard than you! You'd a pick a fight with someone who has the same hazel eyes as you. Your head is always thinking of fights, like an egg is full of meat. And like an egg, you always get beat!

And with the egg line, the class LAUGHS. They laughed, a quick little bubble of joy despite the rushed, monotone recitation, the swaying awkward stance of the actors distracted and concentrating by the work of reading, eyes down on their papers.

Sugar smiled as he continues: You'd  fight someone across the street because they woke up a sleeping dog. Didn't you fight someone for wearing a jacket before Easter? And another for wearing shoes with old laces? And you're teaching me how to fight?

Mayla/Benvolio: If I fight like you describe, I would be worthless.

Sugar/Mercutio: Oh yeah, you are worthless.

ANOTHER LAUGH! this time, with a taunting "uh-oh" and "oo" thrown in to heighten the tension.

Mayla/Benvolio: The Caps are coming.
Sugar/Mercutio: Let them come, I don't care.

Big applause and finger snaps. One of my favorite moments of the school year.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A South Florida Vacation with a Tween and a Teen

Travel with little kids is a different animal than travel a few years later and while you're grateful for the ease of what has loosened up, you can bear what's harder by knowing these are yhe last few trips you'll take together as a family, deep sigh.

Take the rooms. You used to be able to get by with two double beds snd s single bath for four, now you may need to dig deep and give the girls their space for the sake of peace snd sanity. So worth it to keep down the bickering and isolate girl mess.

All four of us smile at the sturdy toddler boy on our flight into Orlando who still qualifies for a lap seat on his patient momma, but I have amnesia about those days.

I hope you'll try downtown Orlando at some point; it is a real city, after all, and Spice is a cute spot next to Lake Eola to catch up with family after a stroll with the girls' grandma around the lake. Dear Grandma Lulu is fading away but her face still lights up when she sees her son and hears the greetings of her grandaughters. Our lakeside walk, past the familiar bandshell now painted rainbow bright in tribute to the Pulse victims, past the Sunday farmer's market, past egrets and swans both white and black, past turtles who sun themselves on mangrove roots we have no idea how they climbed, this walk gives us precious time together even if Grandma no longer speaks to with words. We describe what we see to her, like I did with the girls before they could speak, and she dozes a bit in the sun, as they did too, as I wheeled them through their new world.

We leave that afternoon for a three hour drive to Miami. Randy's playlist includes the Butthole Surfers' "Moving to Florida."

First thing you need to adjust to at the Fontainebleau is that bikinis are apparently acceptable everywhere and a little dab of crochet cover makes the trnsition to evening. Freak out a bit because DJ David Guetta played the nightclub here the night before we arrived and Frank and Sammy a few decades before that.

Did you know scenes from Scarface, The Bodyguard, The Sopranos, Goldfinger and that mesmerizing, hilarious American version of Jacques Tati, The Bellboy, were shot at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel? Ukraine-born Morris Lapidus designed the hotel which was completed in 1954 and the latest renovations have left the gorgeous mid-century modern details intact. The burnished stylized "F" shaped door handles look straight out of Rat Pack days, while the chandliers overhead in the lobby were reconceived by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei after Lapidus's originals. There's beautiful black and white bowtie marble floors in the lobby and elevators and a free-form version of the same signature bowtie in the shape of the largest of the several palm shaded pools.

You'll spend afternoon time with the kids in those pools, sipping orange water and giggling at all the Pitbull and Nicky Minaj lookalikes then you'll get a little overloaded and need something natural right over the dune where waves, sky, wind and views forever wait. The cute front desk had said the water was chilly for him but your pool warmed skin loves the bracing thrill and in a few minutes it's warm as a bath again. Floating in the turquoise are garlands of bronze lacy seaweed studded with tiny hollow berries that pop in a delughtful way betwwn my fingers.

But before the pool and beach there's a pilgrimage down to the Art Deco hotel row on Ocean Avenue. The girls may remain largely immune to the architectural joys of the rule of threes and the subleties of coral and sea foam pastel, but one block over lies shoppy shops to satisfy. Lunch could be Big Pink or Puerto Sagua, two stops I enjoyed with Aunt Ruth and Aunt Susan on Ruth's 90's birthday trip but we'll need to skip the wonderful Bass museum this time because it's closed for renovation.

Grab a Citibike from the rack, adjust the seats and off you go up the shady boardwalk between the sand and the hotels. Whee! The views of the beach on one side and glimpses of secret pool enclaves to the other side keep us entranced on the too short trip back up to Millionaire's Row. My favorite of the hotels? The Confidante, whose name in that kitchy Miami cursive font makes me sigh with pleasure.

The drive from Miami to the Keys turns scenic all at once when you turn on Card Sound Road running parallel to  Route 1. Deep mangroves line the narrow two lane road and Alabama Jack's, recommended by Orlando brother-in-law, pops up out of nowhere. An unassuming sign bext to the dumpster but the parking lot is full of cars. An old school open air crab shack on the water (do they call these watery mangrove mazes "bayous" like in Lousiana?) with beat-up lisence plates from every state nailed to the walls. My first blackened mahi mahi Rueben (delicious) and the girls' first taste of conch fritter, indistinguishable in its sweet crispy batter but still off-putting to our silly sqeamush girls.

A few more miles and we're at the Martha Stewart-recommended Playa Largo,


Yeah, it was a tough trip. I might write more about it later but for now, I'm just going to leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Rickie Lee Covers

Not an Oscars post; I'm not so fleet nor confident a writer to be able yet to wrap my head and typing fingers around the awful conundrum of Manchester by the Sea. 

"Love the art, hate the artist" I told a co-worker lately about some other creepy celebrity but my rushed words were less thought out and more in sympathy for her grief over the destruction of a comforting father figure who had been what she needed when she needed him. I cannot take such facile advice right now, nor can I easily understand or forgive my hero and guide Ken Lonergan for hiring him. 

But forgiveness is the theme of the longer post I am wrestling with that links Manchester with its kindred film Ordinary People so give me some time, or don't, to work it out. Or not.

In the meantime, here is another awards show story that was an awesome moment for me recently.

I'm floating around Facebook on the night of the Grammys and spy a post from dear Rickie Lee Jones herself, who somehow accepted my friend request to my delight a while back, and who won her own set of Grammys for Best New Friggin' Artist in 1980 AND Best Jazz Vocal Performance for a jubilant "Making Whoopie" with Dr. John in 1990, and who may have been reminiscing as she watched the same show I was watching at the same time. Her raw post: "I wonder why people don't cover my songs?"

It must have been the Bee Gees tribute that sent her over.

You may know that I ADORE Rickie Lee Jones. My daughter Mia's middle name honors Ms. Jones and her music has been a refuge and an answer and a cure in my life.  So witnessing her rueful moment gave me a flood of sympathy for a mature artist watching the new bright and shinys and also a flood of wonder that the modern world made possible this moment of intimacy with one of my brilliant musician IDOLS.

(The other is Joni Mitchell who describes a similar moment in the song "For the Roses." Now I sit up here the critic/And they introduce some band/But they seem so much confetti/Looking at them on my TV set)

I can't believe I'm saying this, but thank god for the comments. Below Rickie's post came the rush of fan and friend responses, a chorus of support speaking the truth that she is so singular and unique an artist and stylist that all imitation fails and pales. But here are a few that her fans offered that are lovely. And that highlight the brilliance of her lyric. Oh, enjoy, enjoy!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Arc and The Gyre

I turned 52 this month, this awful month when we said goodbye to our dear President and his beautiful family and now watch in horror the awful baseness that follows.

All the complicated feels accompany this birthday, including a daily dread at dawn temporarily lifted by quick good morning moments with the daughters and by my fast walk down the freshman hall arriving at work, coat and hat still on, down the freshman hallway where the fourteen year olds lounge, finishing homework or watching videos on their phones or squealing with joy while being showered with birthday hug and balloons, or once, strumming a ukulele.

These tall children, taller than me, are still sweet, still distracted and entranced by tiny pleasures, still open to the goodness of the world, still needing. They ask for Band-Aids, for candy, for breakfast, for stressballs to squeeze as they work. The ninja Band-Aids I found at Paper Source charm them; they really just want a sticker.

I smile when I am with these adolescents, I smile as I walk down the hall, I smile because of them and I smile for them.

They are still sweet and I am working to hold on to that sweetness because bitterness is so close to the surface right now and I've discovered this gob-smacked season that there are worse ways to become than the peppery anger bite of bitter.
Pence Protest

There is sour. Apathetic, cynical fat-free-plain-yogurt-water sour. I woke that clear November morning after the monster got his 62 million votes and waited for the quiet to be broken by sirens. Knew they were coming.

It's the last thing I want to become in this second half of life, (please let this be the second half.)

At this age I'm trying for unagi instead of sour, if I can, if my senses and pleasures are dulling, at least leave me the good meaty richness of work and sustenance and love as a verb and comfort in our daily family rituals, dinner and dishes, homework, reading, our ablutions before bed as the girls and I meet in the hall with their hairbrushes to compare how little Nora still is and look Mia, touch this! how soft Nora's cheek still is and has Mia grown taller than me yet?

The girls don't remember any president but Barack. I do, all the way back to a fuzzy memory of sitting on the floor in front of my grandmother's black and white TV and watching Richard Nixon resign. But even though Reagan and Bush and Bush were painful, they were men who knew the meaning and responsibility of being "public servants." Not this one.

Please let me see this unexpected curve in the road, this car-wrecking turn for the fragment that it is, a brief pang of pain in America's long life.

I have a choice here. To either see this curve as a part of Yeats's gyre, the monumental rotation of a world spinning off its axis. Or I can see the spiritual and literal darkness of this November, December, January, as an essential part of our color spectrum, an edge of the rainbow, a curve of time, the arc of the moral universe that continues and will continue farther than I will see.

Dr. King's principles of non-violence help me, especially number five and six:

Principle Five: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.

Principle Six: The universe is on the side of justice.

The fury I feel as I listen to the alternate facts, to the sycophants, to the enemies of logic and justice, this fury is a kind of violence I need to contain and understand. It can harm and exhaust me and those in my wake.

I call on my strength, the gift from the one who made me, loved me and then left me against her will. At the beginning of my life my mother worked the neighborhood, having conversations with parents in our neighborhood to consider desegregating the western Chicago suburbs. The Sunday before she took flight she worked Sunday School at our neighbor Catholic church, teaching the special needs children down the hall from my father, who had a class of his own.

I take to the street, join the crowd in the cold on Michigan Avenue in the shadow of the Fine Arts Club where Mike Pence is guesting a Republican fundraiser brunch. We shout in the cold, chant "Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Mike Pence, Go Away!" A Mike Pence imitator with the moniker Hot Pence runs around with silver fox hair, a suit coat and tie and bright red short-shorts.

Michigan Avenue March for Chicago murder victims
I pick up a wooden cross bearing a name of an 84 year old woman killed in Chicago this year. The cross is made of rough, unfinished wood. It's heavy. The woman standing next to me as we prepare to march has no gloves and puts down her cross to worry at a splinter. I give her an extra pair I have in my purse, then ask her little son to show me his hand-lettered sign.

I fly to DC, stay with my cousin Mickey, take a packed train from Reston, talk about the landed gentry origins of the conservative movement with a history teacher on the Metro, join the chanting crowds in a slow joyous shuffle up the escalators and out of the train station, all of us thrilled with the size of us all together, laughing at the excellent signs, the Lincoln and Hamilton costumes, the Sousaphone pounding our heartbeats and spelling out curses in lights from its black bell, the children, the helpful transit workers, the tables of Obama merch (I'm tempted to hug the sellers until I remember they were here selling Trump stuff the day before), the choirs, the marching drum ensemble, the Jumbo-trons and loud speakers, Michael Moore and Ashley Judd, Janet Mock and Van Jones and Maxwell's ethereal voice floating "This Woman's Work" over the crowd.

A lovely girl stops me and points to my Wear Orange hat. "Moms Demand Action!" she says and we trade excited updates, I missed the gathering at the Museum of the American Indian but there's a warming room at the Holiday Inn, she tells me, just show my hat and I can use the bathrooms and power my phone. I'm so grateful and that rest stop is deeply appreciated, the forty-five minute wait in line better than the pissing behind the parking garage option I hear about.

We start to hear about other cities but the overhead telephoto shots of thousands at a time will have to wait for the news tomorrow. Right now we can only feel the masses pressed together, "I can feel people's cell phones vibrating!" says a woman next to me, but no one feels crushed that I can see, even wheelchairs and motorized carts and double strollers are welcome in this tight scrum.

There are rumors that the march has been "cancelled," but we are still all pushing toward the Mall and once an ambulance nudges through, some invisible barrier is removed and we are moving, moving. I cross the Mall from Independence to Constitution, thrill to the Capitol and Washington Monument, join the stream again at the Museum of African-American History, call and sing and chant and yell "Black Lives Matter" with every punched word raging at the absurdity and bad faith and mendacity and doublespeak of Trump and his toadies and puppeteers. A giant Constitution is unfurled, signed by hundreds of living Americans. The crowd up 15th goes as far as I can see.

We maneuver around a corner, the crowd opens up and it's there, the Ellipse in front of the White House. A kind of destination, but despite the Wicked Witch costume and the young girl who borrows a phone to tell her contact, hilariously, "We're between the Washington Monument and the White House. Next to a police car," I am falling down a bit under this gray sky in the late afternoon. We press against the fence, toss the cardboard signs, chant, cheer, jeer, "Welcome to your first day! We will not go away!" We can see black fortified SUVs in front of the White House portico and those hanging lights within. I'm blue but I don't figure it out until I head back east and north up 15th past the rows of food trucks and back into another marching crowd up as close as we can get to 1600. A portable sound system on a cart pounds out Beyonce's "Formation" and we find voice enough to scream again, this time in joy. A moving, marching, street dance party.

When I first saw this woman, she was not smiling. We have much to do. But I understand now when I hit the Ellipse and stopped moving forward, the energy dissipated. Get up, stand up, keep going. We are in for a long, hellish haul. We're stronger together and we can, yes, we can.

* * *

I had a dream where I was struggling to enunciate my frustration: "I. Keep. Making. Sandwiches. And. They. Keep. Falling. IN. THE. GUTTER!" In my dream, I bade Nora help me, as I do so often at home. She grimaced at the soggy bread, the disintegrating tomato slice, the slimy meat piece, but reached out with her thumb and forefinger to pick up my sandwich out of the sandwich gutter.

Randy laughed at my retelling of the dream but it's symbolic of everything these days. Nora is still my little helper and there are going to be so many times I am irrationally in need of irrational help. She knows, and her big sister knows that Mommy will storm and the storms will pass, and they buckle down and believe me when I wail, "This is not about you! This is not your fault! You haven't done anything wrong!" Randy still sometimes pushes back against the wind although he was a wise wise man the week before my birthday and ignored my furious howl to "CANCEL THE RESERVATIONS!" during a spat about (get this) whether he shared responsibility for the guinea pig since he had suggested the girls get a gerbil or hamster.

"It's the same thing!" says Mia, sensibly, and permitting the girls to witness our squabble is both unavoidable in this small house and, I would argue, healthy for them to see how grown-ups can be both silly and forgiving.

So despite all, the reservation remained intact and Bad Hunter was an excellent choice for my birthday dinner, with sunchokes and what the waiter called "hyper-fresh" radishes and nori-butter.