Friday, December 24, 2010



May the new year bring all of us the opportunity to find inner peace, enough prosperity to feel safe once again, and a really good pair of slip-on walking shoes with cushioned heels.

Friday, December 17, 2010


I started this blog with the tag line jesting of already having reached the pinnacle of being over the hill. It was meant as an indictment about how we’re now riding the downside of a rollercoaster and it’s moving at mach speed. The upside of this is the thrill you get with the downward rush, the downside is the ride is over way too quickly. I thought the tag line was a bit tongue in cheek but now I think there is more truth than fiction here. Here are some reasons why:

  1. When your fourteen year-old daughter smirks at your hairless calves accusing you of shaving them and you have to explain how several decades of wearing too tight jeans has rubbed the hair of your legs. Nature’s depilatory has finally won out and now my legs are as smooth as an octogenarian’s bottom.
    1. When you take-off for the supermarket because you ran out of toilet paper and all you come home with is a box of double cream filled Oreos.
    2. When you think Betty White is beginning to look pretty hot.
    3. When you realize you haven’t changed your underwear in two days and you don’t care because you know nobody else will.
    4. When you can’t read the ticker on your 52” HDTV even with your glasses on.
    5.  When the guy next door asks your partner if he can meet his dad and the dad turns out to be you.
    6. When you realize you bought your winter dress coat in 1982 and you don’t consider it be vintage.
    7. When you walk past a plate glass window and assume the reflection peering back at you is some old homeless person wearing your clothes
    8. When you hear Phil on Modern Family refer to WTF as “why the face” and you don’t get the joke.
    9. When your partner of thirty years calls you from his colonoscopy and says they found out he has cancer.

    Friday, December 3, 2010


    The harsh fluorescent lights of the Walgreens drugstore made everyone look sick even when they weren’t. It was the Sunday after Black Friday, early evening. She was maybe in her early fifties, dressed in black but very stylish for a Sunday night in the Midwest. Her hair was dyed a soft red, not a brassy color red but the color of faded rose petals. It was unseasonably warm. She wore a black shawl flecked with platinum over a loose black blouse and black Argentinean gaucho pants covering the tops of her high-heeled black boots with the slouchy folds indicative of fine leather. She almost bent down to touch my shoulder but then she walked away, down the aisle of Christmas candy and outdoor lights. I couldn’t get up off the floor. I stayed squatting, my knees bent with my hind end resting on my heels, the box of lights clutched in my hands. I couldn’t believe there were still boxes with the image of our old house in Andes cleaving to the shelves of a Midwest drugstore. Each year I think it’ll be over, that the supply will have dribbled out and a new home will appear on the infinite rows of boxed Holiday lights, a newly crowned symbol of a Merry Christmas. It’s a simple image of icicle lights outlining the eaves of our old house shot with a star filter so the lights seem to twinkle. The picture was taken with a hint of snow on the ground at sunset when the sky seems painted with magenta and deep blue, a huge Douglas fir silhouetted in the background. Our antique white wicker furniture put back on the covered porch completing the vignette. I fight the urge to begin ripping the box apart, my fingers making deep grooves in the cardboard. The holidays bring with them memories, memories that now cut like knives on my attempted recovery. It seems as if hours have gone by. I had only come in to pick up some black and white film so Emmy could finish her photography assignment. I never intended to spend any time here paralyzed on the floor, held captive by a photo. A photo that unfolded like a scrapbook in my mind of past Thanksgivings our friends lined up the back staircase with sated smiles the snow circling around the kitchen windows. Then the harsh image of old toilets lined up across our front yard put there by a neighbor who wanted to see us gone. The joy that house gave us and the pain it had to endure all collided in that unexpected moment over a box of Christmas lights on a shelf in a holiday aisle in a drugstore in the middle of the Midwest. I found the strength to rise from the floor and make my way to the cashier. The lady in black stood ahead of me at the checkout counter. She didn’t look back at me clutching the film I had come in to buy perched on top of a box of holiday lights I couldn’t leave behind nor shake from my memory. It seemed better to purchase the memory and erase one more box from the shelf of regret and wait for a new Christmas where the past is the past.  

    Saturday, November 20, 2010


    It seems my entire family is a little short on cash these days making the holidays more worry than wonder. Gone are the days, at least temporarily, when Christmas Eve meant a room so packed with gifts the ritual of opening them would run well into the wee hours of Christmas day. Holidays were always my mom’s domain, the goal that propelled her through the year. She taught us well in the principle it is just as good to receive, as it is to give. Our personal Santa had the mysterious ability to find the exact time we tiny children were out of the house so he could fill the holiday decorated living room with packages that reached well beyond our eight-year-old shoulders. My mom would begin the planning
    (and the purchasing) of the following year’s gift parade on December 26th, not leaving a minute wasted as she boarded her buying sleigh for the next twelve months. She’d make lists of who was getting what, always making sure that everyone had the same amount of wrapped items tallied within her ruled spiral notebooks. If money was running short, it was off to the blood bank to donate a pint and pick up a few more bucks to buy what she knew we absolutely needed. Alzheimer has taken time out of the equation for her. She can no longer measure the three hundred and sixty-five days between Christmas’ and she has long ago put away her spiral notebooks, so it is up to us to carry on for her.
    Our traditions are no longer about quantity but about the importance of family and who can make the rest of us laugh so hard the tears run down our cheeks or the pee leaks onto our seats. Here’s how we’re doing it this year:
    Long ago my mom made patchwork stockings for all of us. We’ve managed to keep them and hang them on the mantle or along the staircase every year. Most them have our names embroidered on them but as relationships have changed we’ve had to go with pinned on index cards to accommodate the yearly newcomers. In deference to the economy we’ve each been given three names we’re responsible for letting our imaginations go wild devising the perfect gift for ten dollars or under. After the stockings have been opened there’s a small intermission for dessert before the real holiday giving begins.
    Here’s where we’ve instigated the anonymous gift wars known as dumpster diving. Everyone brings a wrapped gift that they either found on the street or scooped up for less than a saw buck. All the gifts are placed in the center of the room with all of us sitting in a circle eyeing the packages anticipating which are really good gifts and which are, well, not so good. We pass a hat filled with numbers. Each person draws a number assigning him or her a position in the gift selection queue. Whoever draws number one gets to select the first mystery package and either delicately or ravenously unwrap their chosen treasure. They get to hold on to the gift of their choice until it’s number two’s turn. Lucky number two makes his selection, unwraps his gift and then decides if he likes it or not. If he decides what number one got was better than what he picked he can switch with number one and hold on to the better gift until it’s number three’s turn. Now number three and all subsequent drawers have the opportunity of surveying the field after their pick and decide if they want to swap with anyone that preceded them. The exchange goes on until everyone has picked a gift and then lucky number one gets one more chance to evaluate the plethora of bounty and make the final selection. Last year’s most desired item was the hand decorated Christmas vest complete with a three-dimensional reindeer and little felt mice. The mice were courtesy of my mom’s handiwork from decades ago.
    The last exchange of the evening involves bringing all of the things you never wanted and piling them in the middle of the floor, unwrapped. The dice come out and everyone takes turns trying to roll doubles and an opportunity at snatching something off the pile whether you want it or not. The same rule applies with snatching and trading until all the refuse in the middle of the floor has been taken. Some things will make it home, some will get as far as the trash can. Other than real gifts for anyone under the age of consent the point is to laugh and enjoy what the time we have together. That’s something money can’t buy.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010


    Yesterday I went to my first circuit training workout. The kind of workout meant for people with more stamina than brains, the kind of workout where your sweat really stinks, the kind of workout that wipes out every worry about your to-do-list because it’s overshadowed by the pain that has seized every sinew in your musculature. This wasn’t just sweating to the oldies. One of my sister, Ebby’s, best friends is a woman slightly younger than I am who managed to survive raising a set of triplets now in their early thirties. Not only did Carla survive the rigors of child raising but where others have resorted to letting motherhood enlarge their cabooses Carla still maintains the body of a woman her daughter’s friends would envy and her son’s friends would hoot at behind his back. It turns out one of their kids is a bean counter by day and a tri-athlete dominatrix by night and weekends. This whole circuit system was Laura’s idea and for some inexplicable reason her bother and her parents have volunteered to be her guinea pigs trainees. Why Ebby got involved with this is still unclear and why I decided to go along, I can’t explain. Maybe it was the thirty-four inch waistband I’ve been forced to invest in, maybe it was my secret desire to apply for Survivor, or maybe I was trying to capture a second shot at my glory days. Take your pick, I’ll admit to any and all of the above.
    I should have realized I was way out of my element when getting ready I discovered I didn’t own a pair of sweat pants. Now I do exercise on a semi-regular basis but it’s usually on my mini-Stairmaster in my underwear in the privacy of my bedroom. Only Matt and Merideth are privy to my moaning and groaning. Group workouts were never my thing. I rifled through Rick’s drawers until I found a pair of sweatpants that fit once I loosened the drawstring to its maximum extension. I had just enough room left to tie a single knot hoping it would hold. What I didn’t take into consideration was what I put on underneath the sweats. Living on the poverty line has forced me to give up my Calvins and buy my underwear at Wal-Mart where I can get three pair of China made u-trough for the price of one leg of most name brands. The problem with these non-union mid-length tightie whities is they tend to loose their elasticity after a dozen or so washings. Although, even with the elastic deficiency they tend to stay in place with a snug pair of jeans, but with a pair of loose sweats…not so much. I didn’t understand this until Laura, our tri-athlete task-mistress, barked out our first assignment: a run around the block, a half-mile trip to horror. Laura was kind enough to let us walk up the initial hill and sort of get our swagger going, but then the jog began. I was okay for the first hundred yards but after that I could sense a bit of slippage happening under my sweats. Now this was the first time I had met Carla’s kids so modesty wasn’t going to allow me to stuff my hand down inside my sweats in a nasty attempt to grab my underwear and hook them back up to where they belonged. Besides the knot I had tied was so tight there wasn’t room for my belly and a searching hand and arm as well. By the time I had rounded the next corner I had dropped to last place and my underwear had dropped to knee high. I was a homeboy in disguise, and my pants were quickly approaching the ground. My running had slowed to a waddle as my knees were now locked in 100% cotton bondage. Finally I realized the sweats had pockets and if I stuffed my hands in the pockets I could just reach the top band of my underwear. I was now running knock-kneed and bent over in a ridiculous game of pocket pool. Any attempt at proving age is not a barrier to physical fitness was washed away with the pathetic image of my Quasimoto form limping along the streets on North Madison. All my fellow athletes were kind enough to bow their heads as I made the last breathless turn into the driveway. How I would survive the circuit workout that stood ahead of me was almost more than my embarrassed butt could handle. Next time I’ll remember why god invented jock straps; of course, I don’t own one of those either.

    Sunday, October 31, 2010


    Every night before I fall asleep I say a little prayer and list all of those people important to my life. I hold the sound of their names long enough for their faces to materialize behind my closed lids. It’s a form of meditation, a way to slow down the adrenalin rush of the day, a rush that can make falling asleep weigh like a failure for the night.  As the minutes pile up on those nights when sleep keeps running away and leaving me with its angry sister, insomnia, I try to push away the intruding worries and focus on those things that transport me to a place of peace. Sometimes I focus on a trilogy of images that always make me smile: Emmy dancing down lower Broadway in the rain, Stephania, our Italian hostess’ smile, and Dorothy Lyman’s red velvet cupcakes, the ones with a single red hot jelly bean perched on top. I’m also not above using the simple mantra l learned from Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love”, Ham-sa, “I am that”. There are times I am that desperate to think as a part-time practitioner I can numb myself to sleep through spirituality. This hardly ever works. It’s like suddenly praying to God for a miracle when you’ve lived the majority of your life believing yourself to be an atheist.  And then there are times I return to the visions of those I love, the ones I started out with in my beginning prayer. When this happens it’s no longer about falling asleep. It’s about memory. It’s about engaging their assistance in fighting evil, the evil that comes from those nighttime battles where negativity and a sense a failure pound on your castle walls crumbling the ramparts of your self-confidence. It’s when I become a little kid and look to Mom and Dad to shield me from harm, now a mother in the midst of Alzheimer and a father dead almost twenty-five years.
    Last night was one of those nights. The battle was raging out of my control. I couldn’t see the progress we were making. It was covered in a thick blanket of fog. My mind was my enemy catapulting thoughts of despair at my sleepless self. When the red velvet cupcakes and Ham-sa had lost their strength and succumbed to my angry mind I tried to pull up my dad and dress him in armor to defend my self-esteem and ward off the evil thoughts of self- destruction. I called him into battle. I heard my voice plead with him for protection. His visage stood there dressed in metal and chainmail but his response was barely a whisper. I couldn’t hear his voice, not with any clarity. Age and time where colliding. I realized that his memory was beginning to slip away. I was losing his sound. I could still see him, his thin-lipped smile and wire-rimmed glasses. I could see his flattop haircut saved from the military look his generation held onto even in old age. But the audio track I had been able to play of his laugh and his selective wisdom was playing like an old record all crackly and scratched. Modern technology had given me photos I could go back to, to reinforce his image. Memories of events could still play over and over again, but his ability to tell me what to do was fading away. I was slowly losing the baritone of his sound, the one thing I really wanted. How long do we get to hold onto that part of a person? Was twenty-five years the limit? How long will my daughter be able to hold on to me after I’m gone? Will it be long enough? Will she even want to ask? I hope so, and I hope I’ll be able to respond.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010


    We’ve been friends with Jaye for years and we’ve known her husband, Joe, for as long as Jaye has known him. We were kids together. Jaye and I went to the same college, passing each other in circles of friends we had in common but never finding the time to be introduced. It was only after we all found ourselves in New York working for an industrial showbiz production company that Jaye, Rick and I became friends. We all worked the twenty hour shifts of twenty-somethngs trying to climb our way to our fates.
    After Rick had escaped the A/V production business and become a graduate of the interior design educational system and Jaye had found Joe, the love of her life, our lives collided again. Jaye needed design help and asked Rick to be her guide. Now two homes and a pied-a-terre later we are still meandering hand-in-hand through a never-ending design journey.
    As happens with many long-term relationships the net of acquaintances brought in expands as new introductions multiply into a greater circle of new friends. Jaye has three nieces, her sister’s daughters, two of which live in Wisconsin. Tracy is here in Madison and Joy is in Milwaukee having just passed the bar she joined a law firm located there. Joy is also getting married in June 2011 and true to her generosity Jaye has involved herself in the wedding planning. Here’s where we come in. True to our inability to understand that maybe enough is enough and since the wedding is going to take place here in Madison, we have offered our services playing the role of flamboyant wedding planners. We thought we needed another line to add to our business cards along with interior designers, event planners, graphic designers, home and garden retailers, design bloggers and now wedding registrars. What the heck.
    So if you get a chance please go to this site:

    and register to vote for Joy so she can win the wedding contest sponsored by Madison Magazine. It would be great publicity for us and a real kick for Joy and Steve. Oh, by the way, Steve’s last name is Page and Miss Joy Schnackenbeck couldn’t be more pleased.

    Saturday, October 9, 2010


    The mystic number for luck, both good and bad, is supposed to be three. As much as I hate to admit it, in a tough situation I’ll let superstition guide my thinking. If I missed the six a.m. alarm, then burnt Emmy’s breakfast toast, I could be as sure as Joan River’s next plastic surgery I’d be slicing my face when I went to shave. It just comes in threes for me. Now I’m not the only one who sees luck coming in threes, we all see the world in three dimensions, Christians have their holy trinity: the father, son and holy ghost. Our entire life cycle is based on a form of three: birth, life and death. Three is a prime, magical, metaphysical, spiritual and for some of us emotional number. That’s why when things start to turn either bad or good for me I’ll start counting the happenings until I can gather together the destined three.
    The latest round of numerological coincidences began on last Monday. I managed to make it through the morning routine without burning the toast or shaving off my chin but soon after that, things started to get a little weird. We had a huge meeting scheduled for mid-morning with a potential Madison client that could potentially put us on the Madison design map. I squeezed myself into my best go-see costume and then began the rush to get out the door so I could get Emmy to school, pick up my mom, get her to the studio and then high-tail it back to pick up Rick and get to our downtown meeting. I had gotten Emmy into the car and the ignition started when I remembered it was junk day. I cranked off the ignition, bolted out of the car and ran to the garage to make sure I had pulled out the recyclables and trash before the garbage trucks made their rounds. All of this got done except for a very large box that our friend, Susan Johann, had used to ship us one of her extraordinary photographs we were going to be hanging in our store. I had debated throwing the box out or keeping it in case I needed to send the piece back. I was too flustered to figure it out on that fateful Monday morning so I left it in the garage thinking I’d deal with it later.
    All my fires seemed to have been extinguished until I tried to locate my cell phone so I could double check with Rick about the meeting time. We were in the school parking lot dropping Emmy off when I reached for the phone I thought I had dumped into my suit jacket breast pocket. Emmy’s a stickler about not using the cell phone while driving and rightly so. I’m absolutely incompetent when it comes to doing two things simultaneously so I’m really an accident in the making when I try to drive and dial at the same time. The problem was my phone wasn’t in breast pocket. I searched all my other pockets and came up 21st century technologically deprived. I couldn’t worry about it now. I had a mission and a meeting to get to. I had probably inadvertently left the phone at home.
    After all of the human deliveries had been made I was still able to make it back home in time to do a once around in search of my phone before we had to leave for the meeting with destiny. I searched all of the logical places: the crack between the cushion and the arm of the sofa, under the unfiled papers next to my side of the bed, and in the frig next to the Greek goat’s milk yogurt I had wolfed down before I bolted on my weekday morning chauffeuring rounds. Time ran out without having located the little voice, picture and video transmitter.  I had to give up the search and live the rest of the day like a communication leper untouchable be the ring tones of the world.
    The meeting went well, very well. Here’s where you all have to cross your fingers. I’ve meddled with karma enough here to not expose any more about this meeting until we know for sure that it’s a done deal. Anyway it was back home with enough time to do one more check of the house for the missing phone before it was back out on the road to retrieve Emmy from school. This time I enlisted Rick in the hunt for my precious two inch by four inch verbal communicating devise. I had him call my number to see if I could hear the dulcet tones of Vivaldi and locate the little sucker. No dice, back in the car, past the grunting noises of the garbage collectors on the other side of the complex, barreling down Stoughton Road and into the Monona Grove High School parking lot where Emmy stood waiting behind a pillar doing the teenage dance of embarrassment at having her parents pick her up in the oh-so uncool Sorency mobile. When she finally hunkered on down into the car we began our ceremonial repetitious verbal exchange.
    “How was your day?”
    “Fine.” And then it was back to the complex.
    As we turned into the complex driveway I broached the subject of my lost phone with Emmy to see if she remembered anything I had done in the morning that might prove a clue to the whereabouts of my missing phone. Her response as we pulled in past our unemptied trashcans was,  “I don’t know Papa. Did you check the trash?” The odd thing about this was that trash collection at Prentice Park had an kept to an iron tight schedule with the regular trash truck picking up at eleven and the recyclable truck making its pass at one. It was now four in the afternoon and the trash was still there. On this now holy Monday it seems karma had cut me a break. For some unknown reason the trash collectors had left our trash smoldering in an unusually warm October afternoon sun. I held my breath and began fishing through some slimy soup cans and there hidden under an organic egg container and next to a plastic gallon jug of Arnold Palmer iced tea was my phone, unclaimed by the mechanical iron arms of the recycling truck. Coincidence or karma…you be the judge.
    Now with the first good luck notch carved into my triad of good fortune I went back upstairs and fell onto the couch, laptop in hand, to check my email. Email has become my compulsion. My addiction has become an hourly obsession. I even open offers for reduced rate “Depends” or how to get a degree in cosmetology. Now here’s where the karma thing starts to get a little freaky. Susan Johann had sent me an email with a time arrival indicator of earlier in the day giving me some pricing information on her photography and then very tactfully asking if I had received the framed gift she had sent with the large photography. She wanted to make sure the glass hadn’t arrived broken. The subtext of this was, "Did you get the photo and if you did etiquette would prescribe an acknowledgement". I ran down to the garage and began throwing cardboard corners and scrapes of bubble wrap out of the big beautiful box that fate had told subconsciously told me not to discard and there in amongst all the packing debris was this gorgeous silver framed magnolia print wrapped in several protective layers of cardboard and tissue. Susan, if you read this do so with all my apologies and love. Step two in my trilogy complete I wait for part three to occur. Fingers crossed, it has something to do with our downtown meeting but I now know karma will figure it out. All I have to do is sit back and let it happen.

    Monday, October 4, 2010


    I didn’t want to mess with karma. I thought 1227 was a done deal. I could post it without fear. It was safe to tell the world. It’s Sunday, October third, almost four months into the process and we still haven’t got the C of O. On Friday our real estate agent was required to show our space, OUR SPACE, to a group of boys interested in purchasing the little bungalow, the shed and the big garage out back. The worst of it was I was the only one with a key. I had to be the one to come and unlock the doors to let them in. It’s a lesson I thought I had learned, the part about not messing with karma. 
    It was1995.
                Our ad read:
                ADVANTAGE, love & opportunity
                complete with bedtime stories & hikes
                in the woods are what we can offer.
                We want to be dads
                Call Rick or Lee 800 555-2323

    We had brought the phone into our bedroom in Andes. Snow was pounding on the ground outside in sync to the pounding of our hearts. The ads had appeared that day in a couple of local shoppers we had selected and some college newspapers we also thought we might have some success with. Suzanne, our adoption attorney, had prepared us. We were ready for the crank calls. We could handle them.
    The calls began fairly quickly. There seemed to be three kinds of calls: the hateful calls, the crank calls and the ones that made our two pulses burn with anticipation. There were very few of the first but they were brutal. They came laced with bible quotes and threats.
    “God never meant for two men to make a baby. You stay away from them kids and may you bun in hell for eternity.”
    “I’d watch my back if I were you. I’ve got your number. Sin is sin and you are the dirt on the devil’s boots.”
    The crank calls usually came around the same time of day. Suzanne told us to expect this. It coincided with the phone time provided to prisoners.
    “So you’re looking for a baby.”
    “Yes we are.”
    “Well I got two of them. Are you willing to take two?”
    “Yes we would. We want a family”
    “Well here’s the story. You’re two guys right? If that don’t beat all. Well I got two kids on the way. Ya gonna haveta pay for em now.”
    “You’ll need to call our lawyer for that. We would just like to speak to the birth mother. We can then give her the information on how to get in touch with our lawyer.”
    “Well now that’s the problem. Ya see I got two ladies. One here’s my sister and the other is my mama. Ya still wantem?”
    The last kind of call on our list was not as frequent. It might come during the afternoon or late at night. These were the calls that stole our hearts.
    “I saw your ad in the Price Shopper. I’m pregnant and I’m looking for someone who can raise my child. I just can’t do it.”
    “We would show this baby every bit of love we have.”
    “I just don’t know. What religion are you?” Most of the callers were well informed and had lists of questions. The sound of remorse touched their voices. We became aware if the dread and fear weren’t there the caller probably wasn’t serious.
    “My heart goes out to you. We know that this isn’t an easy choice for you. The next thing you need to do is give our lawyer, Susanne, a call. She can answer a lot of your questions. You need to make the right decision for you. We would love this child with all our soul.”
    Rick always phoned after one of these calls to let me know what had gone on and then he would call Susanne to let her know what had happened. Some called Suzanne, most did not.
    We were warned from the beginning it might take several blasts before we found a real connection. This first blast left us empty handed. There was a certain amount of defeat connected to this but Suzanne assured us this was not unusual. The average time it took a couple to find a child was about eighteen months. Suzanne never said this, but we knew we were not a typical family, so we had accepted the fact it might take us more time to connect.
    We waited a while before we decided to try again. We had decided to focus on a different part of the country for our second blitz. We went through the same burrowing in at our country retreat and once again waited for the phone to ring. The calls were similar, fitting into the same categories as before. The hate calls were still chilling. The crank calls were disappointing. The real calls still brought the butterflies to our stomachs, and then one stuck. It was the middle of the day when the phone rang. I answered the call. Jamie Lynn was slightly older than most of the callers.
    “I saw your adoption ad. I’m pregnant. I’m in my fifth month.”
    “I’m glad you saw the ad. You know who we are. We’re two men. We really want to be parents.” I tried to put as much meaning into each word. I spoke slowly selecting what I said as carefully as I could.
    “I’m twenty-three. I already have two boys. I want to go back to school. I can’t take care of another baby.”
    “I know how hard this decision must be. It has to be right for you. You did the right thing to call.” I wanted her to feel comfortable talking to me. I didn’t want to ask too much. I definitely didn’t want to be judgmental. I just needed to connect. At that point I just wanted her to like me, to like me enough to take the first step and call Suzanne. I gave Jamie Lynn Susanne’s number and asked her to call. Suzanne would take care of the data gathering.
    “Jamie, I’m really glad you called. Thanks”
    “I’ll give Suzanne a call.” “Oh Lee, it’s a boy.”
    So it was going to be a boy. Jamie called Suzanne and went over all of the necessary steps. The father was known but she wasn’t able to locate him. Her two older children had different fathers. She was seeing a doctor. She needed financial help. Her mother lived nearby and was aware of the situation. Now the courtship would begin. We would call each other several times a week and talk about life. We slid into a very comfortable dialogue. The three of us were all involved but Jamie and I seemed to have the stronger bond. We talked about the weather. We talked about what the boys were doing. We talked about how she was feeling. Doctor’s reports and monetary concerns were never part of our conversations. That was always given off to Suzanne. We all seemed to enjoy the road we were going down. Several months into the relationship Jamie asked if we would like to come down to meet her and her family. We had already exchanged photos so we knew what each of us looked like. We talked it over with Suzanne and she decided it would be okay for us to make the trip.
    We decided to meet at a Cracker Barrel restaurant just outside of town. The irony of meeting in a restaurant with a long history of homophobia didn’t escape our amusement. We drove up in a rental car. We were aware of doing everything we possible could to protect our privacy. Suzanne had suggested the anonymity of using a car that didn’t belong to us or anyone else in our family. Jamie and her mother were waiting outside. The two boys were running back and forth across the front porch. Jamie immediately recognized us. She greeted us with a weary smile tinged with shyness. She was shorter than I expected. The boys were completely uninterested. Her mother was a big booming woman with a ruddy complexion and a pair of open arms. She did not wear her daughter’s shyness. Actually meeting this family seemed to make the whole process more real. We could see the baby bump. We could talk to Jamie and see how her responses registered on her face. It gave us reassurance. It turned out that Jamie’s mother had also been adopted. She understood the life of an adoptee. She could allay some of the pain Jamie was going through. Slowly we relaxed into a comfortable rhythm of conversation as the boys wrestled with their food and spilled their drinks. Lunch was over in less than an hour. We all walked out to our cars having succeeded in surviving without anyone from the Cracker Barrel coming up and asking us two gay boys to leave. Jamie gave each of us a soft kiss before we headed back into our cars.
    I drove back elated. Rick was more cautious. I felt so positive I was willing to tempt fate. I went out and bought an aviator snowsuit size eighteen months. Rick held his breath.
                Then all of a sudden the phone stopped ringing. We were only weeks away from Jamie’s due date and we hadn’t heard anything for over a week. Something had happened. You worry about miscarriage, or some accident. That first time it happens you worry about all sorts of things but not rejection. She loved us. It couldn’t be that.
                We finally called Suzanne to see if she had heard anything or if she could try to figure out what was going on. A day went by and then another. Then the call came in. Suzanne’s voice was calm but we immediately recognized the somberness of bad news.
                “Jamie has decided not to go through with the adoption.” My heart had plummeted into the soles of my feet.
                “What happened? She was fine when we went to see her even her mom seemed on board.”
                “Apparently she has a brother living in Alabama who she hasn’t seen for awhile. When he found out she was putting the baby up for adoption with two men, he had issues.”
                “This was a brother who she hadn’t seen for several years, a brother who had no interest in her until he found out she was given the baby to a gay couple?” My anger was exploding like fireworks throughout my body. “Can’t you talk to her and tell her how ridiculous this is?”
                “This happens.  She asked that you not call. She doesn’t want to speak to you.”
                “There’s got to be something we can do. I can’t believe this.”
                “Lee, you have to let it go and you have to move on. You need to remember the only families that don’t end up with a child are the ones that give up. You can grieve but you have to get through it and get back up on the horse.”
                I dropped the phone. This was my child. She had no right to take it back. Rick was the comforting one. He had fortified himself against this happening. There was something intuitive in him that forewarned him of this. I was the devastated one. Something became very clear to me. I saw now it wasn’t only a birth mother we were courting but a huge outer ring of relatives and friends. Everyone was going to have an opinion on this. Everything about adoption turned into an insurmountable mountain. The air had been sucked out of me. I couldn’t face going through this pain again. I felt I had leapt before I looked. I had been so positive, so cocky, so sure this was a done deal. I bought that snowsuit without waiting for permission from whoever it is that doles out karma.
                The possibility of losing 1227 now looms large. The international fire code states a commercial building built within ten feet of another structure must have a window to wall ratio of no more than twenty-five percent. We’re at sixty. The fire marshal has given Mark four possible solutions. One: fill all of the windows on the adjoining side with glass block and destroy the historic nature of the building. Two: move the building six feet to the west. This was not a joke but a listed alternative. Three: replace all four windows with fire rated new windows at a cost of $1000 per window plus labor. Mark’s pockets are not nearly that deep. Four: install a sprinkler system, the only viable solution from our point of view. We are waiting for bids and waiting to see if we pissed off the gods and bought that aviator snow suit before the adoption papers had been signed or maybe the gods have something else in store for us. I have to remember that our first karma misfire resulted in the path that led us to Emmy.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010


    How long do we have to wait before we can feel the security of having a signed lease in our hands? It’s now been three months since we confirmed our intent to move in to 1227 but bureaucracy has held up its hand like a staunch crossing guard causing us to skid to a halt right in the middle of the road. I can’t really put all of the blame on the Madison buildings commission, our presumed landlord has to shoulder a bit of it. Mark, as sweet a guy as the Midwest can produce, has not exactly lit a fire on his way to get things done. Mark’s aesthetic is terrific but his business sense ranks only a short distance ahead of ours and if you’ve been following this blog you know that’s not saying much. I’m not sure if Mark was trying to do an end run or he just didn’t know there were hoops he was legally obligated to jump through. My guess is the later, but it means when he converted 1227 into a photo gallery for his now ex-wife he sidestepped the local authorities and just went ahead with the conversion. It worked out fine for him, well other than the divorce, but it meant there wasn’t a certificate of occupancy acquired on a building that went from residential to commercial. So in our inimitable way we’ve once again put ourselves out there as the freebie workers at “Bend Over” enterprises. I’ve now done site plans, floor plans, recreated construction drawings, and structural surveys all for the price of a smile and sometimes a pat on the back. Now it turns out that there is one tiny little favor he needs to move the process along. 

    Apparently the shed at the back of the lot since it is included in the rental agreement will also need a set of drawings for the planning boards perusal. Does anyone know what a real draftsperson charges. It has to be more than…well nothing. Which brings me to the new Lee. I’ve somehow transitioned from the sissy who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead to this uber-handyman. All I need is a tool belt to weigh down my jeans exposing my awesome butt crack. On my usual gratis basis Rick has been pimping me out to friends and clients, who think ten dollars is an expensive curtain rod, to fix there picture walls and affix handles to their newly painted kitchen cabinets. Actually I did the last thing for Rick to keep peace in the household and chalk up a few extra points on the lifetime tally of chores done by him or me. I have to admit a certain sense of pride and accomplishment has crept into my low self-esteem on the butch scale. 
    So last night as Chelsea Handler stopped laughing long enough to let me know she had just peed herself, I finished another two plates of floor plans and elevations then went to bed sated on my drafting accomplishments and one step closer to signing our names on the dotted line. 
    The saga to continues. 

    Friday, September 17, 2010


    I know, I know, I only showed the shabby little bungalow with two overgrown spirea bushes framing a pealing blue stairway leading to that little brown door. Unimpressive to say the least. We weren’t impressed either. Standing outside we thought maybe Tom, our real estate agent, wasn’t the man we needed to find us something that would match the dream we were carrying around in our heads. It wasn’t until we walked inside that we really fell in love with 1227. 

    Tom lead us up the steps and unlocked that little brown front door. What we saw in the interior was absolutely nothing like the exterior, a beautiful raw pearl inside a crusty dirty shell. The space was still small, divided into two rooms with a bathroom and work sink area and access to a full basement through a hatch-covered stairway in the back room. 

    The interior had been completely gutted and renovated in a way that appealed to our aesthetic. The walls had been taken back to the original concrete block with uneven smeared mortar.

    The blocks weren’t the kind we’re used to seeing but concrete the way it looked a hundred years ago. The ceilings had been removed allowing the space to sore beyond its original stunted height. 
    The landlord had wrapped the rafters with a rusty corrugated steel and then opened it up with a pair of skylights. The floors were newly laid wood the color of honey. Even the fixtures were identical to the ones we had imagined in our dream space.

    The only thing left for us to do is paint out the red trim to Charcoal.

    The space had been renovated as a photo gallery for our landlord’s ex-wife. When the relationship ended so did the gallery and the space has remained empty ever since. The overgrown front yard hid the beauty of what was within. There’s not a lot of land here. Pleasant Living sits on is a small sliver of space a vacant rooming house on its east side and a driveway leading to a storage unit and large garage on the west. 

    The driveway is sprouting a beard of weeds growing out of its expansion joints. Rick has already been down on his hands and knees pulling out baby oak trees and prickly little nettles. There is a small area in the back where Rick is planning on a little garden and place to put some outdoor furniture. The process continues and so will the blog until the Pleasant Living doors officially open.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010


    Pleasantries was the first tangible movement to tangible forward progress, the first actual rung on the ladder of recovery. I said we had three planned steps. I think it’s safe to begin the reveal of the second rung on our three rung ladder. It resides at 1227 East Wilson Street, a block off of Williamson Street, right around the corner from the Crystal Corners Bar.

    It’s a little bungalow built in the early part of the twentieth century, a one-story brick structure. My imagination tries to picture a family living here in what was barely six hundred feet of space. Trying to divide that into a kitchen, living room, a bathroom and then two bedrooms confused my mathematically programmed mind to the point of an overwhelming migrane. Our potential landlord tried to point out the layout to us but the whole thing made those Asian cubicle homes look not so inventive or original.

    So this is it, our new store/office, the reincarnation of our New York enterprises. Named by our daughter, this is to be the home of Pleasant Living. Until we actually open the door I’ll be chronicling the progress of how we’re moving along with all the giant steps forward and the tiny steps back.
    Early on in our arrival in Madtown we made the rounds of the local retail markets in pedestrian neighborhoods. There's the Monroe Street area next to the university and the East Johnson Street corridor, but the one that fit our criteria best was the William Street neighborhood beginning at the Yahara river and ending just before you run into the Capital Square.

    One of the stores on Williamson Street that we fell in love with was the Kitchen Gallery, a beautifully done kitchen store with a professional staff.

    It's an anchoring force in this small pocket of retail reminiscent of what we loved about big city retail. The Willy Street alley is the kind of area crammed with tiny shops in pre-war buildings lined shoulder to shoulder like little soldiers holding fort against the big box stores and malls of the current suburban retail scene. 

    This little retail pocket exemplifies Madison's diversity by hosting a wide range of offerings like a clock repair store that has graced the street for almost fifty years, the Jamacian Jolly Bob's making you question if you're in Madison or somewhere in Miami Beach,

    a home converted into a store dedicated to all products hemp

    and the long living Willy Street Co-op - a food collective offering natural and organic local products since 1974. 

    The mastermind behind the Kitchen Gallery, Tom Christensen, also serves as the resident real estate agent for the Willy Street – Jennifer area. In the early part of summer when we finally decided it was time to make the move from idea to reality with our business we stopped by to talk to Tom. We had been surfing the net for possible available locations but hadn’t found anything that fit our criteria. It was Tom who showed us the space at 1227. We were in love. Step one completed – finding the right spot. A place just the right size to dip our toe into the market without feeling like we were jumping in over our heads. The lease has yet to be finalized. There are still hurdles ahead but here’s to the hope we haven’t jinxed our karma by a too early reveal.
    More to come.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010


    My calves’ ache from the constant pounding I force them to do walking the sidewalks of Madison Avenue, Chelsea, Soho and the Meat Packing District. The cobblestones of Little Fourteenth Street have made blisters on my pinched little toes, but the pain in my feet is overshadowed by the pleasure of the visual stimulation of a city so filled with magic hiding around every corner. Sure you can still find the ubiquitous box stores that now stretch from continent to continent, but in New York you can still see the tiny specialty stores tucked into decades old niches in neighborhoods where people still call out from fourth story walk-ups to their boy friends on the street below. 

    Recession has brought the demise to many a mom & pop but not to all mini-enterprises in this city of retail wonders. For over twenty years I’ve stopped to listen to the click of the game clocks as pairs of combatants duel over a chess match in front of one of the two chess stores that stand in opposition to each other on either side of Sullivan Street. Stores dedicated to a single game still battling along sans a “going out of business” sign bolted over their moat protected doors. 

    Down the street a lady sits on the stoop outside the “Little Lebowski” teasing her cat with a feather on a stick. How does a store focused on the paraphernalia of one independent film continue to have a stoop where a lady with a feather can sit in the company of customers buying little look-alike figures of Jeff Bridges or t-shirts with sayings like, “You might fool the fucks in the league office, but you don’t fool Jesus”.

    If you go far enough North on Lexington Avenue there’s a store that sells nothing but model making supplies for models of ships and jet planes and racing cars, a place where kids and adults alike can buy miniature dreams of life-size obsessions.

    Head into the Village where a little shop has specialized in portraits of man’s best friend for over a decade and across the street you’ll see an amber lit window filled with art glass from the fifties and sixties. 

    Then there’s the store in the West Village dedicated solely to cookbooks, still thriving against all odds from the stiff competition of Barnes & Noble and the virtual stores of the internet.

    There are stores so small they are barely the width of a doorway and once inside you can touch both walls while standing in the middle. 

    There are stores on wheels selling cupcakes baked on site. Red velvet, mocha and aromatic banana spice lasso your nose and pull you to the wagon window. I don’t need a gun pointed to my head to force me to plunk down my three bucks for a taste of the city I wasn’t anticipating.

    The ability of these entrepreneurs to pay the rent and succeed from spaces so small and so sweet gives me hope that retail isn’t dead as long as the passion exists.

    Friday, August 13, 2010


    The time has come to move on. We’ve stepped into the future by capitalizing on our past. Using our forty-foot storage unit of vintage collectables and antiques we’ve decorated a space at a local antique mall. It’s a little space, eight feet deep by twelve feet wide with the ceiling hovering around ten feet. Madison has three multi-dealer antique malls stretching from the far eastside to the tonier far west. We’re starting on the less fashionable eastside where the competition is miles of salt and pepper shakers and vintage Avon. It’s not hard to put on a good show and the rental price is right for us right now. Business wise we’re moving away from what has gone wrong into what we hope is a path lined with pleasantries. That’s what we’ve called our little corner of the market here in Madison, Pleasantries. It’s part of a three-pronged approach to gaining our stability. So far the gambit has been productive. We’ve virtually depleted our Roseville collection and sold a large needlepoint rug. It points to the diversity of the market from New York to Madison. In our shop in the Catskills we couldn’t unload a rug no matter how beautiful, inexpensive or unique. Now we’re going to have to work on pricing. It’ll take us a while to figure out what the Madison market can handle. It may feel as if the world is currently at an economic standstill but if each us takes one small step at fearlessly moving forward the wheels of the world might just start to turn again. It may take Madison a while to find us and then figure out if they like what they see. Until then we’ll focus on delivering as many pleasantries as we can, hoping good vibes will be returned by a bounty of customers.

    LESSON 23:
    You can't always know when the time is right but there come a point when you have to hold your nose and jump.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010


    The sun was just right that day, spread out across a clear blue sky reflecting back off the warmed water in the Russian River. Our friends Adam and JoHannah had invited us to spend some time with them in San Francisco. JoHannah had rented a house on the Russian River and it had plenty of room to add us on as guests. On that day at the beginning of July Adam was out kayaking,  JoHannah and Rick sat under an umbrella in a pair of red canvas lounge chairs, the kind with a hole sewn in to hold your glass of wine. Wine was plentiful but precious in Sonoma and JoHannah and Rick were no about to let a drop spill in the sand. JoHannah was Rick’s opposite when it came to worshipping the sun, she sat covered from the sun with a great floppy hat, Rick sat exposed and unprotected, burning away. If he didn’t think the rest of us would yell at him I think he would have slathered himself in baby oil and cooked himself to a pre-cancerous golden brown. At fifty-seven the fear of skin cancer or fine-line wrinkles no longer came up on his radar. The two of them sat, one with red and the other with white, sipping in between lengthy gossiping episodes and peals of laughter. But the story isn’t about them, it’s about  Emmy splashing away in the waist deep water of the river. In early-July you could ford the river at most any point. The water level rarely hit above my bathing suit’s waistband. Full submersion required falling backwards into the slow moving current that flowed from up river then down toward the Pacific Ocean. Growing from the river floor were water-worn limbs of trees long since dead raising their knurled fingers out toward the sun. Their thumbs and index fingers providing destinations for children to swim to, climb and dive back into the warm comforting water of the river. Rick had finally succumbed to the heat and had gone out to join Emmy cooing his toasted soul. The two of them had half waded, half swam out to one of the few places in the river where the current had worn a hole deep enough for them to submerge themselves and swim. The drop-off was a congregating spot for kids equipped with its own dead branch diving board.
    Another family with three small boys had camped out on the opposite bank of the river from our rental house. The parents had spread out an old blanket laden with all their beach paraphernalia while the boys played games of dare and chase in the water. The two older boys were around seven and nine. The younger one was closer to five. Emmy moved out of the drop-off where she had been swimming so the boys could have full rein of the dead tree in the middle of the hidden pool. As the older boys swam and chased each other through the rippling water you could feel their excitement through their squeals of laughter and witness their joy through the smiles that formed under their glistening black hair. The five year old was desperate to mimic his older siblings. He splashed his arms and tried his best to keep up with the other two while the parents watched from the safely of their blanket on the opposite shore. The excitement of the two older boys became too much for their younger brother and soon he was wading and splashing his way to their king of the mountain perch. You could reach the dead limb from the back where the height of the river was only a few inches over his head but once you jumped off to the other side you were in the deep murky unknown. The older boys would tumble off their nature given diving board, pop up and swim to where they could once again run through the water. The littlest boy finally grabbed onto the dead branch and pulled himself up the diving position. With death defying verve he leapt in cannonball position into the depths of the other side. You could see the look of accomplishment quickly vanish from the little boys face as his eyes popped from under the water and his little fingers slapped at the sunlit surface. His parents six sense of knowing a child is in danger, rose from their blanket on the side of the river. Rick was still in the water and the closest to the little boy. The kid was panicking as he dropped below the water again his hands trying to grab on to the waves as if they had the ability to transform from a liquid to a solid. His mother, too far away to help, began pleading for someone to help. Rick swam over to the boy but the boy’s flaying was too much for Rick’s swimming and rescuing abilities. Emmy was standing on the edge of the drop-off.
    Rick shouted to her, “Hon, you’re going to have to help. I can’t get him in.” The boy’s eyes had filled with terror. His little hands pummeling Rick and the water. Emmy swam out to the two of them. She grabbed the boy and he wrapped his arms around her. There was no panic in Emmy. She instinctively knew what to do. She was so confident in her ability to hold the boy and swim him to safety. It didn’t take her long before she had swum out of the drop-off and was able to walk the boy to the safety of his mom. All afternoon the parents took every opportunity to thank her.
    On that day Emmy’s karma rose to automatic entry to heaven. Not everyone is given the opportunity to save a life so early in their own life. Her destiny is blessed.

    Monday, July 26, 2010


    The alarm went off at 6:00am Sunday morning. It’s one of those alarms that activates with light not noise. My eyelids have always had the consistency of parchment. It was never the crow of the rooster but the crack of dawn that would wake me each morning. It’s what makes me more a winter person than a boy of summer. The light had already started to part the slates on the white wooden blinds in the bedroom at around 5:30. Anxiety hadn’t been my bed partner that night. I woke up rested and ready to put on yet another hat, one that might pull us closer to recovery. Sometime in March or April when there was still snow on the ground and Emmy was still participating in her skin research study, Rick and I stopped in at Madison’s Pottery Barn. We only had a few minutes before we would have to return to pick Emmy up from her session but it was enough time to go and introduce ourselves to the people at PB. We drove over to the West Towne Mall,. The Pottery Barn is located next to William Sonoma and across from Banana Republic.  This would make the West Towne Mall Madison’s upscale venue. You’re not going to find Armani or Donna Karan here but the vendors here are a step above Walmart and Sears. You are going to have to go to Chicago for real high-end.
    We walked in with our portfolio and a couple of brochures. We had heard that the Pottery Barn periodically hosts lectures on everything from arranging flowers to planning your wedding. This was another of my cold call attempts at trying to see what might happen. This time my intuition was right. We met with Jenna, the assistant store manager, and she was thrilled to offer us the chance to do the color and pattern lecture coming up in July.
    After the light of the alarm went off my other senses woke as well. Rick was there hacking to beat the band. In the time it takes to go from Saturday night to Sunday morning he had developed the worst summer cold. I was going to have to mount the podium all by myself. After a quick shave and shower I was off to lecture a class of fifty on how to use color and pattern. Here’s how it went:
    I arrived in time to stop by McDonalds and treat myself to medium caramel frappe, no whip. Then I met one of the PBers outside the store at our appointed time of eight o’clock. The lecture was scheduled to begin at nine. I spent the hour between arrival and spilling my ounce of knowledge running around the store gathering props to detract the attendees from how much I really didn’t know. Satisfied I had accumulated every pillow in the store I sat back and waited for them to lift the gate to let the women in, well forty-eight women and two men.
    I started with a bit of puffery blowing smoke so they wouldn’t see my nervousness. I pointed out our book and told them they could look at it after the lecture, hoping a few of them would still be there and hadn’t collapsed from boredom. Then I dug in my heels and went through what I had rehearsed and outlined.
    Color paints the emotion within a home. There are now colorstologists, Michele Bernhardt being the most famous (her website is Benjamin Moore actually consults with her on new seasonal color trends. I mentioned BM a lot since they are partners with PB. Then it was on to color vocabulary and pulling out examples of color schemes: monochromatic, complimentary and analogous. This is where I got to pull out the props and do some pillow play. This kind of loosened up the whole session. The tongues started to wag and hands started shooting in the air. By the time I got done with color and how it relates to paint and light I was ten minutes away from my allotted hour and I hadn’t even touched on pattern. I did a quick overview of scale and how to mix and match and the lecture was over.
    Questions took us way past the hour of scheduled chatter. By the time I left, the store had opened the till and added a tidy sum to the Pottery Barn coffers and I had handed out a half dozen business cards to people interested in consultations. The boys seemed to be my biggest leads.You have to start somewhere. I think we’ve finally started the ball rolling.