Friday, November 27, 2009


Holidays are tough even from the perspective of a home and place you’ve lived in for a lifetime. Handling the pressures of holiday obligations from a newly rented home in a city far from where you had planted your roots with a pocketbook made up of pennies and a bucketful of misgivinings makes it hard to even drag yourself out of bed. But life goes on and Thanksgiving will still happen with or without you. Here’s my guide for the holiday blues.

My family’s traditional Thanksgiving plan begins with dinner at the family farm. Old habits still prevail with an early dinner originally planned so the meal wouldn’t conflict with getting the cows milked. Because of the size of my extended family the meal always took the form of a buffet with mashed potatoes, dry turkey served from a roaster, marshmallow jell-o and baked beans. Other than the hint of color in the jell-o the general rule was for meals to consist of food groups displaying a color palette ranging from white to brown.
It had been our intent to add to this with a second dinner at our new apartment later that night. We were going to host round two: an evening meal with invitations extended to only my immediate family. Rick had fabricated a menu including a glazed ham, cheddar and sage biscuits, Brussels sprouts smothered in a medley of cheeses, potatoes Anna, some harcourt verte topped with beer-batter crusted and caramelized scallions, an onion tart and several desserts too numerous to mention. This was all planned before: one - Rick got his work schedule showing a 3:30 am call to action, two - we counted out our pennies and realized there weren’t enough to purchase the sprouts let alone the ham, and three - we looked around at the piles of still unpacked boxes that would take days to put away. We scaled back and decided one big bowl of banana pudding set amongst a room with neatly stacked boxes was about all we could realistically accomplish.

Let someone else in the family host that first dinner. Sit back and enjoy someone else's labors. You have enough on your plate to deal with.

We have a new home. The home isn’t in Chelsea on 30th between 6th and 7th. It’s on North Thompson at the corner of County Trunk T. It’s less than three miles from the home I grew up in and just over a mile down the road from the farm where my mother was raised and where we were headed for our Thanksgiving dinner. This has the sense of having gone full circle. Madison is where we now hang our hats and I need to be fine with this no matter how much I wish I were still able to wake up and walk down the block to catch the "F" train at 34th and Broadway.

Don’t wake up Thanksgiving morning and turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and expect not to feel a shooting pang of nostalgia. Turn on the Packer game instead and enjoy what Wisconsin has to offer.

Someone had to do it and we didn’t have any vanilla extract for the banana pudding so I ran over to my mom’s to check on her. I could do a little double duty: pick up the extract and make sure mom had taken her medication. When I got there, mom was dressed for work having slept in her clothes for the third or fourth time that week and the pills she swore she had taken were still there in the Thursday compartment of her medicine dispenser. On a whim I took a quick tour of the downstairs. There was still enough salt in the water softener. None of the clothes laid out on the pool table belonged to us. The extra fridge was closed but empty, and then I walked into the downstairs bathroom. I immediately noticed the ceiling had turned a rusty brown and water bubbles had formed from one end of the ceiling to the other. The water damage was beginning to creeping down the walls. The plans for the day were going to have to take a u-turn. After several phone calls we all decided we could still make dinner at the farm (who was going to find a plumber willing to come over on Thanksgiving day), but dessert at our house would now have to be demolition at Florence’s. It’s where the unexpected turned into an event with benefits, nothing like a little bonding while wielding a sledgehammer with siblings and in-laws.

Go with the flow. Time spent with a family swinging hammers for a cause instead of slinging barbs and innuendo can be a joy to behold.

This may happen in many parts of the United States but it is a whole new world to me. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, where the retail world opens its doors the minute the clock strikes twelve. It seems such an insult to Thanksgiving. Here was a day the pilgrims gave us to eat, relax and watch football and now the mighty world of commerce has lopped off a good eight hours shortening the day to two-thirds of what a normal day should be. Clerks, cashiers and customers alike now have to end the eating frenzy and quality time with family and ESPN to go to bed by two in the afternoon so they can get up to form huge lines waiting for those all important door busters only available as Thursday turns into Friday. Who thought up this one? Best Buy has crowd control drills for its employees; stampedes occur where women and children actually get injured and all for what? Insanity has slithered into the holiday season. The Thanksgiving morning paper arrives with an audible thud due to the sixty-three circulars announcing microwaves for twenty-four dollars and alpaca lined hoodies for twelve, all bundled between the eight pages of actual news. The first three hundred customers in the door get a free ten dollar gift card with the purchase of a hundred dollars or more of stuff they don't need. People...get a grip.

Have an extra slice of pumpkin pie, stay up until eleven and forget the impulse buying. It’s what the pilgrims would have wanted. 

Monday, November 23, 2009


If an apple a day can keep the doctor away, my family is going to be eating oranges. I don’t need the doctor to pass by my door because we can’t afford health insurance. Healthcare is what we need right now and now that option sits outside our reach. For years we carried insurance to protect us from any catastrophic event. We went to bed knowing if that discolored mole on my arm turned out to be a melanoma we could deal with it. Luckily it wasn’t. If Rick ran over his glasses with a rented bike when we were pedaling through the park in Rome they could be replaced, and they were. If something really horrible happened to one of us our family doctors would be there to help us. This was our security and it lasted until we really needed it.
When Rick became ill and fell into a clinical depression our world fell apart and when it fell apart our ability to keep our insurance evaporated with it. When we needed healthcare the most our insurance was no longer something we could affordable and we lost it with so many other aspects of our former life that we had taken for granted. We had spent thirty years of paying into a system and now we had nothing to show for it. Now we have to worry about how Rick can get a new pair of glasses so he can see the menu he can barely read. I have to find a way to renew my beta-blocker prescription before my last refill runs out in the next sixty days. Emmy’s crooked eyeteeth will have to wait for braces until we can find a way to finance an orthodontist. None of us can see a therapist when seeing a therapist is a necessity for finding our way back to normalcy. We have gone to the available sources for free care but we either don’t qualify or we can’t prove our eligibility. We’re that middle group of people too rich to qualify and too poor to pay.
When a room full of one hundred fully insured senators can’t find the humanity in making sure everyone has the same safety net to fall on when they need it, is a dark mark on our American brotherhood. It is our responsibility to be our brother’s keeper and stretch out a helping hand when it is needed. I had no idea how much we took for granted when we were all healthy and fully covered.
We need universal healthcare. No one should have to live in fear of what could result from as small an illness as a common cold or the flu.

Never take your health or your families health for granted.

Friday, November 20, 2009


So far I’ve sent out resumes for sales positions with Barnes & Noble, Borders Books, American TV and Steinhafels, a local furniture retail store I’ve nicknamed “Steinawfuls” due to the unlikeability of their stock. I’ve applied as a wedding planner with a local hotelier and as a night shift phone family vacation planner for Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor waterpark resort chain headquartered in Madison. Each and every application has been processed through the internet with a series of questions: some necessary, some mundane, and then some down right rude.
Let’s take Borders. They had an impressive sign taped to their window next to the entry, “Now Hiring”. If you’re looking for work, to find someone asking for applicants seems like a good place to start. I parked the car in their enormous but virtually empty parking lot, walked in and went to the customer service desk to ask for an application form. The young bearded man in the wrinkled shirt behind the counter smiled and said, “You need to go to our website to apply. We don’t have actual applications.” new age, new way of applying. I got back in the car, drove home and searched Safari for their site. What first comes up under their banner is an image of a group of smiling faces, all ethnicities and age groups duly represented. They then give you a choice of job opportunities in three areas: home office, in store or distribution center. I negated options one and three, I’m not located near their home office and I’m no good at driving a forklift, all I wanted was a job giving me a little bit of self-respect and a 10% discount. I clicked on store opportunities only to be confronted with a list of possible positions I had no idea even existed: zone vice president, senior district marketing manager, paperchase area manager, what the hell is that? All I wanted was to sell some books. I finally advanced the search through enough pages of job descriptions and fairness regulations to get to the actual application, which I was now informed, would take 15 to 45 minutes depending on the type of application I would be filling out. Thinking I had selected the least elitist position I could find, I assumed I would be at the low end of the time commitment. Let’s see how this goes.
The first eight or so pages of prompts asked for pertinent information: name, address, availability, proof of citizenship, willingness to submit to a background check, the usual. The next page asked for compensation expectations. They started out by suggesting hourly rates at $6.00 or less and finished with rates $12.00 or more. I figured I had a better chance if I picked somewhere in the middle. I went for $8.01 to $10.00. The next section in the application process was called criminal history. They were kind enough to inform me that the existence of a criminal history would not automatically disqualify me from getting a job. Boy, was that a load off my mind. The next section had to deal with my educational, employment and life experience data, geared at helping them decide if I had the appropriate passion for selling their books and advancing childhood education. The best question here asked me to give a life experience that might add value to the customer experience. I thought of many clever responses: I did an interview with the Duchess of York about her children’s book (true), I directed Lauren Bacall for an Italian Trade Commission event (also true), I wrote a book on the history of numbskullery (not true). I decided to go with “I’ve done some traveling”, I really wanted to get the job. The last part of the application was by far the most fun. Thirty-five pages of strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree to questions like: “Are you proud of the work you do at school or on the job”, “Can people tell when you are happy or sad”, “Do you get angry more often than nervous”, “Would you rather not get involved in other people’s problems”, heady stuff. My forty-five minute max turned into ninety as I mulled and faced up to aspects of my personality I wasn’t expecting to have to evaluate for a nine dollar per hour job application. When I finished my hands were shaking, the tips of my fingers raw from typing in my answers and then the waiting for a response set in. I immediately received a do not reply notification letting me know my application had been received and human resources would be evaluating my resume notifying me if I would be asked to come in for a full interview. What more personal questions they could ask me I couldn’t imagine.
Sorry to say, I’m still waiting. I’m not sure if it was the Masters degree or the inability to fill in the line about my last salary that has caused them pause. Maybe I shouldn’t have included a list of past publications but for whatever reasons not a single request for a follow up has come through. I’m not sure how to take this rejection. Am I too old, too crazy or just too overqualified? If we could only go back to the old ways of meeting the person on the other side of the computer, that is if one exists, I think I could do a better job of pleading my case.

The truth about rejection is it frequently has little to do with who you really are. Someone’s pronouncement of your capabilities based on a sheet of paper or a computer fill-in the blank isn’t necessarily the whole story. Sometimes they’re just looking for a blond when you’re a brunette.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


When ironing a man’s dress shirt, Martha suggests you start with the shirt fresh from the dryer just before the full cycle has finished. She prefers it when the shirt is slightly damp, grabbing it before it has completely dried. I like to save my un-ironed shirts, letting them stack up in crumpled heaps waiting for my time of need. When the stress of everything going on around me becomes unbearable that’s when I get out the ironing board and the spray starch. I like doing dress shirts better than something simple like tablecloths or napkins. With a napkin the process is too monotonous. Each napkin is pretty much identical. First you spread it out on the ironing board, smoothing out the folds and wrinkles. Then it’s the spray starch. I like to put a little swish in my spray, moving my hand in an “s” motion overlapping the path of the starch. I usually start with the iron in the middle of the napkin and then work my way outward to the edges. Then I turn the napkin over and repeat the process on the other side. Once both sides are done I begin the folding process setting in the creases for what I want the final shape to be. First I fold the napkin in half adding my first seam. Then I fold it in half again and finish it off by folding the remaining form into thirds giving me an elongated rectangular napkin perfectly sized for setting on the table next to a dinner plate. I like a heavier fabric, a strong linen rather then the thinly worn cotton napkins that tend to pucker and stick to the iron when you first lay the iron down on them. After having finished ironing two or three napkins into perfect rectangles the fun is gone and the repetition turns into an ache in my lower back.
Dress shirts are different, more complex. Martha and I approach the process in much the same way. I start with the collar, so does she, ironing it from the backside first and then turning it over and smoothing out the front. Next I use the pointed end of the ironing board and stretch one side of the yoke over it. I use my swishing spray technique and then iron out the yoke and the upper part of the sleeve. Each stroke of the iron leaves a path of smooth fabric where before there were crumpled limbs and furrowed skin. The healing aspects of ironing works wonders on my self-esteem. It elevates me to the status of doctor fixing broken bones and mending cuts and gashes. After repeating the work on the other side of the yoke I move on to the cuffs. I do the inside of the cuff first and then move to the outside. I do one cuff and then its corresponding sleeve before I move on to the second cuff and then the second sleeve. Once the sleeves are done I begin the plackets starting with the right placket. I tuck the board into the niche formed by the yoke and sleeve smoothing out the fabric and pulling it as close to the seam as I can. Sometimes I’ll get starch dots laced across the fabric. I focus my attention to these first, letting the iron rest on them just long enough to dry them up but not too long to leave an iron imprint on the shirt. Slowly I move around the shirt doing the back and then the final placket, ironing around the buttons and the pocket if the shirt has one. Martha prefers to do this from the inside of the shirt laying down an extra towel to cushion the buttons. I like to iron from the outside driving my iron in circles around each button. It may take longer to do it that way but for me that’s the point. When the shirt is finished I gently place it on a rubber-coated hanger. God forbid the ghost of Joan Crawford should peek in my closet and find any wire ones.

Ironing is an art. You can’t rush through it. It forces you to slow down. You need to focus and pay attention to each wrinkle and starch stain. The iron has its own speed of healing the crinkled wounds of the fabric. It leads the way and you follow. It’s mesmerizing and it takes me away from the stress. It calms and my heart slows down. For some men fixing a car soothes their jagged nerves, For me, standing in front of an ironing board pressing out the furrows on a clean white shirt steams out the wrinkles of my life. 

A drawing of my mom I did in the late 70's when she was at her ironing best. It was apparently no fluke that I inherited the ironing gene from someone who practiced the zen of the perfect crease.

Find something that can take you out of yourself when the stress of money, joblessness and providing for your family becomes too much. Get out the iron, the monkey wrench or the Sudoku and remove your mind from the moment. Take time for yourself and allow the blood pressure to settle to an acceptable level.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


We’re trying to add up karma points this week because we’re running out of time. We were given a golden opportunity early on in our arrival in Madison when a guardian angle lit a path to our champion and friend. As I have mentioned before, we met Carol, the owner of Sprials, by chance and/or by design, which is one of the great debates in life. Did we precipitate the meeting or did Devine intervention step in and create the opportunity. Either way the path was there and we followed it. In searching out the design community our noses first led us to a new kitchen store on Williamson Street where we met Stephanie, the store manager, who then told us about a very beautiful shop on Monroe Street she thought we should check out. We followed the path of breadcrumbs being laid out for us and walked into Spirals and Carol’s open arms. As luck would have it, on our second meeting with Carol she told us she had just gotten a call about a design related fund-raiser for the Madison Symphony. She wasn’t interested in doing it alone but if we wanted to do it with her she’d sign us all up. We jumped at the opportunity. Here was a key to hopefully unlock the door to Madison society and get our name out to some design starved new clients. Previously the event had been a designer showcase on the order of a mini-Kips Bay, but this year the event had been scaled back to a table setting event where local designers could create themed or fantasy tables displaying their creativity and design knowledge. When the organizer of the event told us we might want to shy away from a Christmas theme, she already had six, we were a little concerned about the other designers. We decided to sidestep the holiday route and go with calling our table, “A Long Winter’s Supper”. It was to represent an informal dinner in front of the fire with lots of ice and glass and subtle romance. Having done “Dining by Design” four times before in New York kinda primed us for doing this event. We had a bit of a leg up on the rest of the group. The providence of pairing up with Carol and her store became the guardian angle part of the story. The symphony only sponsors an event like this every other year. Our timing couldn't have been more fortuitous.

The gala opening for the event called, “Tables of Note”, was last Wednesday evening. The venue was on the top floor of a new glass clad twin tower on the southwestern outskirts of Madison looking out onto the downtown skyline. Madison has a unique beauty with a series of lakes forming a necklace surrounding a thin isthmus of commercial and newly built or converted residential architecture crowned by the capitol building. On fall evenings at dusk with the sky a Maxfield Parrish blue the capitol dome’s lights fad in illuminating it’s curves and details and Madison becomes its own version of New York and the Empire State Building. This was the backdrop for the event and we took full advantage of it. We used what we had; a vintage Biedermeier sofa, a couple of Barbara Barry chairs, our Dan Levy china and the canopy that had hung over Emmy’s bed in New York. We had no budget to work with so we found the rest of what we needed at Spirals and then we begged and borrowed everything else. The centerpiece of our space was a table made from a set of highly polished metal trestles we salvaged from a William-Sonoma desk we had and a seven and a half foot piece of three-quarter inch sandblasted glass we got from my brother’s stained glass shop. I convinced my brother and sister to make it for us and let us pay it off on time in very tiny increments. It was a perfect marriage of contemporary and antique, simplicity and elegance, New York and Madison, and the blending of our three visions, The result was a lot of buzz, several people taking brochures or business cards, and two bids on our donated three hour consultation. Finally, It’s a start.

If you're looking for work and can't find it, volunteer. If you don't have any money, give time. Time can sometimes be more valuable then money for both you and the organization.  Look for organizations that might be related to the work you would like to find. Then make sure you believe in what the organization does. Volunteering can greatly benefit the organization and the networking it might provide you can be the key to opening a new door to what you want to do.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I thought I knew what it was when I was twelve and I spent my first week away from home at my aunt’s house in Illinois. Then I thought I might have felt it at sixteen when I flew up to Wausau for a two-week stint at art camp. These were the only times I was away from home long enough to think I might be experiencing what others call homesickness. Mirriam-Webster calls it a “longing for home and family while absent from them.” A longing…a longing doesn’t describe what I feel now. It snuck up on me like a winter flu, a scratch at the back of my throat, a sudden chill and then an ache so bad I couldn’t move. The pain made every bone in my body throb. Hallucinations crept into my psyche reminding me of all I left behind. I’m not sure there was a specific catalyst; maybe the approaching holidays have brought on my malaise, or the nostalgic Macy’s commercial with Bob Hope as Santa and Lucy telling me how she got it all at Macy’s. I miss so many parts of New York. The hours spent walking the streets of The Village or the Lower Eastside searching for inspiration, discovering new stores in old neighborhoods. Watching how the streetscapes change from year to year and even season to season. Just the ability to walk wherever I wanted to go makes my soul yearn for the chill of a window-shopping trip down Mulberry or Hudson. Shops filled with new eye candy for me to consume. I’ll miss not bundling up Emmy and carting her down Fifth Avenue as my shill so I could see the holiday windows at Saks and Lord & Taylor. There is no Times Square here, no place that can transform night into day with its marquee lights and huge video screens. I miss the clip of my leather-soled shoes on the cobblestones in front of the Savoy at the corner of Prince and Crosby. I miss the cheese puffs at Eleven Madison and the lines waiting for a burger and shake at Danny Meyer’s Snack Shack. I want our office back. I fear I won’t get things done without a place to go to, to do them. I miss the spontaneity of the city, the thought that every corner you turn could lead to something unimagined, a business man walking his lamb down a residential street, a cowboy dressed only in his underwear singing for his supper, two women kissing each other good-bye in the midst of the morning rush hour. I ache for the sweet smell of a Magnolia cupcake wafting down Bleeker Street or the musty pungency of wet leaves huddled between the black boulders of Central Park. I miss the memories of friends and the adventures we had resurrected in the reflections of the buildings and spaces of the city I took for granted. Most of all I miss who I was. I’m homesick for the guy who felt himself a success. 

Like a good boy scout: be prepared. Doubt and regret are all part of the transition. You have to find a way to deal with it and move forward, you can't move back.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Friday has come and gone and still more boxes need to be packed and moved. The list of “to-do’s” far out weighs the big black check marks indicating things completed. You want to do it all but time says, “Sorry we’re only giving out twenty-four hours today.”
On Friday my sisters, my brother-in-law and my twin nephews all showed up to help lift and tote. We accomplished the major tasks of getting the big furniture out of my mother’s house and into the new apartment. We still have forgotten laundry, hidden toiletries and Emmy’s ever-disappearing homework to collect and then there’s the unpacking. Every new box, cut open and untethered of its plastic bonds seems to explode like fireworks throughout each room. It’s truly amazing how a one cubic foot box when opened can form a ten cubic foot pile of stuff I barely recognize and now have to find a place to store until we have to pack it up again for the next move. All of this detritus and I still can’t find the can-opener or the toilet plunger. What possessed me to pack the lamps in one box but put the harps in an unmarked container with Barry Manilow CD’s we’ll never listen too is something I’m still trying to understand. The whole process can get so out of hand.
We had explained over and over again to my mom that we had finally found our own place but every time we showed up at her backdoor for an additional load of bits and pieces she continued to ask where we were going and what we were doing. The questions became so persistent that we finally packed her into the backseat of the ford escort between the wicker laundry basket and the box marked 2007 tax receipts and took her over to the new pile of debris we are going to call home. After prying her out of the car we let her crawl up the first flight of stairs the rest of us following behind our arms filled with wrinkled clothes. Having broken her ankle on three separate occasions had now fused her foot at a permanent ninety degree angle to her leg making going up and down stairs very difficult but comical, one hand on the railing the other on a stair tread, the good leg bent and the bad foot sticking straight out hitting two steps below the good one pushing her butt out to a level with her head. This bug-like crawl got her up to the main floor. It was clearly too soon for a real tour but her constant queries of “what are you doing with all of this stuff” left us no choice. We pushed and twisted her through the maze of boxes and mom immediately honored us with her verbal blessing, “What the heck, this is a real mess”. I didn’t have time for any additional insults so we rushed her through the living room and deposited her on the deck, the one place not stacked sky high with boxes. We felt there wasn’t much she could get into out there except for the adjoining storage closet, the deck railing was too high for her to climb over or fall off of. We let her stay out there with Buddy while we went about looking for the missing can opener and plunger. When we finally managed to clear enough space on the sofa for her to sit we brought her back in and deposited her down while we continued on our merry moving way. About thirty minutes went by before mom became too antsy to sit anymore. She began voicing her fears she hadn’t locked the doors at her house and worried the mice might get in which was my signal it was time to take her back. I got her coat on and started calling for Buddy to ride along.
“Come on Buddy, let’s go,” but no Buddy. I called up to Emmy, but no Buddy. Rick jumped in and now all of us were going around shouting out, “Buddy!” Buddy seemed to always be under foot and when we got no response we all began to worry.
Let’s step back.
Clue one – disoriented octogenarian with the ability to get lost on a six foot by ten foot balcony.
Clue two – a co-dependant dog in constant need of being the center of attention always at the heels of my mom hoping for a handout or fallout of uneaten or unwanted food.
Clue three – a balcony with a storage closet.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I guess mom thought the closet was a room fit for a dog. She opened the closet door when we weren’t around and stashed the dog inside thinking she had just let him into another room. There he was crouched in the corner of his lightless prison. Even a dog can show anger.

Moving not only affects the human element but it wares on the domestic animal kingdom as well. It's tough to dig up all your old bones, sort out the ones not worth moving and then to have to make sure no human drops a box on you, steps on your tail or locks you in a closet. It can be rough being a dog.