Monday, June 28, 2010


We decided to leave around seven in the morning. We wanted to be in Chicago around ten. Friday had started out warm and clear. We hadn’t hit any really hot humid weather yet. I had to remind myself it was still spring, summer wasn’t going to officially start for another couple of days. In New York you could count the number of perfect days in a year on one hand. In New York, even if Al Roker had predicted a sunny day, a grey haze would come hand-in-hand with the sun preventing visibility from extending much beyond the island. In Madison, this year, we’ve already had more perfect days than I could count using both hands. If it’s sunny here you can see miles of rolling hills, painted in amber and emerald green under a cerulean blue sky. This is one of the big differences between New York and Madison, where Madison has the edge.
We had gone on line to rent a car for the day. The Sorency-mobile isn’t trustworthy enough to make the three hundred mile roundtrip journey to the loop and back and besides that it doesn’t have any air-conditioning. We were making our first trip to the Merchandise Mart and neither of us wanted to arrive dripping sweat or looking like a couple of derelects. For the week of Emmy’s graduation we had rented a car from Enterprise. It was an education in debit card etiquette. Since a car rental is open-ended (gas charges, mileage calculation, any damages to the car and various other tiny print stipulations) your actual charges can’t be debited to your account until you return the vehicle. When Rick went to rent the car at Enterprise with his debit card they wouldn’t let him do it without a copy of his utility bill, his most recent pay stub and the results of his last colonoscopy, none of which he was carrying with him when he approached the rental counter. This was a lesson learned. We made a second trip and came back prepared with the proper documentation.  For our Chicago rental we made the arrangements through AVIS. Rick’s wallet was sufficiently stuffed with all his vital information this time, but AVIS wasn’t Enterprise. For them, if you hand them a debit card, they don’t want all the information, instead they do a credit check. No credit card – no rental. It was back to Enterprise and the nice young man who remembered Rick and gladly accepted the clean bill of health documentation and rented us an air-conditioned car more likely to make the round-trip to Chicago and back without breaking down somewhere near the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
The Merchandise Mart is Chicago’s version of New York’s design and gift buildings rolled into one big indoor mall for designers, decorators and retailers.  Unlike the suspicious folks in New York, nothing was asked, no ID required, we just roamed the halls unnoticed, unquestioned and unsupervised on the road to re-establishing our brand under a new moniker. Madison requires a presence in order to get noticed, so we’ve finally bit the bullet and now we’re out to establish our identity through the wonders of retail. This is a blog I’ll save for later.
Chicago, in turn, decided to show its approval of our new venture by presenting us with the most glorious storm Chicago had seen in a long time. When we had finished perusing the halls of floors thirteen through eighteen at the Mart the skies were already broiling to a pre-ignition charcoal grey. Umbrellaless, we decided to make the one and a half block dash to the parking garage and our full size black Ford Fiesta fortress. The prepayment kiosk for the garage was located on the bottom floor. Rick paid the ticket and then we took the elevator to the fourth floor where the car was parked. The garage was one of those open sided structures, By the time we got out of the elevator the wind had climbed to over sixty miles an hour. I, being the coward I am, ran to the car. Emmy and Rick, either through some sort of unbridled courage or extreme stupidity ran to the open ledge, cameras in hand. The rain started pelting them as it shifted to a horizontal trajectory. Lightening was striking everywhere. A canvas sign attached to the side of the building ripped in half. I remained safely inside the car out of the way of flying glass and debris.  Storm chaser is not the occupation I was going to be auditioning for in Chicago.
We waited out the storm until we thought it safe enough to start the ignition and wind our way down from the fourth tier of the parking garage to street level. All systems were set to go until I slipped the parking voucher into the automated gate release. We had exceeded our grace period between having paid the fare and then left the facility. Once again we had to pay up for Mother Nature’s mighty tantrums.
Safely back in Madison the verdict is still out as to Mother Nature’s omen. Was she telling us to get out while we still could or was she encouraging us with a strike of lightening to the branch were standing on to flap our wings once more and take flight?
We’ll see.

Friday, June 11, 2010


There are points in your timeline that can’t be ignored even in the depths of the most devastating financial situations: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths. You figure out a way, no matter how small, to acknowledge the event. This week it was a graduation. Emmy moved on from middle school to high school. This was not a noted event when I was a kid but now it encompasses a huge ceremony. Our equivalent was the religious milestone: confirmation. Way back when, it was a time boys dressed in suits and ties and girls donned grown-up dresses. We were then encased in virginal white robes and promenaded in front of the congregation for a sip of Morgan David wine and a paper-thin wafer embossed with an image of Christ, our first communion. Emmy’s entry into quasi adulthood would have to be provided by the school system instead of God.
The good people of Glacial Drumlin Middle School sent us a letter providing four printed tickets to the graduation event to be held on June 8, 2010. The letter informed us our eighth grade graduate was to arrive at school at 5;30 pm, the ceremony was to begin a six sharp followed by a dance for the then ninth grade hopefuls. Rick and myself immediately claimed two of the tickets for the ceremony and the other two were left up to Emmy to decide whom she would like to invite. She wanted her nanny, Angelina, and her auntem (Rick’s sister) to be the other two. Both selections said a lot about the kid we raised. Rick hadn’t seen Sandra for three and a half years. Angelina had been the mother figure Emmy had relied on since she was born.
On June eighth the school still made the kids go for a full day of classes so the beginning of the day took on the itinerary of a typical school day. It was up at six, arrival at the rear entrance of Glacial Drumlin at seven fifty-five, and then pick-up at three thirty-three. Unfortunately, this left us less than two hours for hair, make-up and wardrobe. I don’t know how the other parents were planning on pulling this off. At three thirty-three I was right there waiting in the rain to whisk her off to the Boston Store’s Estee Lauder counter and Rick’s friend Ann’s capable hands for the first step: her make-up. We had done a dry run on Saturday to get the age appropriate look. It was transformational for Emmy. You could see how beautiful it made it her feel. Once the make-up was complete and she had successfully dodged the raindrops under my guiding umbrella, it was back to the apartment and Rick’s sister’s expertise with hair. Emmy opted for a simple straight look given the time constraints we were under. Then like Cinderella all us mice scurried around getting her into her dress, sewing on straps and arguing about which shoes to wear. Was it going to be the golden strap pumps or a pair of black flats? We carried both of them to the car as the debate went on between safety and beauty. Then it was off to the event.
Once out of the car and into the school proper we walked through the cafeteria festooned with streamers, colored lights and a banner reading “Good-bye GDS, Welcome MG”. GDS stood for Glacial Drumlin School and MG stood for Monona Grove, the high school all of the kids would be going to as freshmen next year. I thought the banner meant “Good-bye God Damn School, Welcome Mean Girls”. The fear every parent has when you have a daughter entering the ring of teenage bullying. The bleachers in the gym had been pulled out and were almost filled by the time we got there. There was a stage with a podium and screen flashing stills and video of the eighth grade class that you couldn’t see for all the halogen lighting spilling all over the crowd. Given the formal attire I was told the kids would be wearing we thought it appropriate to dress as well. I forgot I was in Wisconsin. We showed up in suits while a majority of the other guests were in either jeans or shorts and their dress tees. This meant they didn’t have the arm holes cut out or slogans stenciled on like, “Wisconsin: Only 2 out of 3 serial killers live here”.
The parade of students began promptly at six, just like they said. Emmy was seated in the second row. She had pleaded with us before we arrived not to embarrass her. This meant we were not to do anything that might reveal us as her parents and she would then do us the favor of not acknowledging our existence. Her future at high school was dependant upon our cooperation, but she was the first to break the rule when she gave us the smallest of smiles as she walked by. The first part of the ceremony began with an invocation from the principal followed by a series of recognitions.
“For each award we will ask the students to please stand and remain standing until all awardees have been recognized. Could you please hold your applause until all the names have been read?”
And the reading began; honors, high honors, math club, music, The Ali Torhorst Award, athletic participation, student council. After we passed the honors award it became clear GDS had a star student.
High honors, math club silver award winner, all state music gold medalist, student council vice president, all-American sudoku finalist, best speller at the Dane County spell-off – Claire Hacker, Claire Hacker, Claire Hacker.
Other than regular honors the only award she didn’t stand up for was the Yahara River Writers Contest, a countywide competition for essayists, poets, short story writers and political cartoonists. Ten students made it to the finals and publication. Emmy was one of them.
The final element of the ceremony had all the students walking across the stage to the traditional handshake and the handing out of certificates. Emmy, in the end, had opted for the pair of black flats. She had succumbed to her fears of tripping in a low heeled shoe. Claire Hacker should have taken Emmy’s advice as she became the only girl to go knee down on the steps on her way to the VIP platform.
Emmy made it through. She shined. She grew. She learned she has a ways to go. She saw she could do it. Another milestone on life’s journey completed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


We have opted for Milwaukee as our airport of choice for getting in and out of Wisconsin. It’s an hour and twenty-three minutes from our door to the departure level at General Mitchell International Airport. Madison has a very beautiful airport and it’s certainly more convenient but it costs almost twice as much to fly those extra seventy miles and for a couple of guys counting every penny we’ll take the cheapest means possible when it comes to necessary air travel. Now General Mitchell is no slouch of an airport. It’s very homey in a Midwestern kinda way. The airport interior is housed under an expansive metal grid and skylight blanketing the waiting area and commercial shops with sun in the summer and snow in the winter. It’s the shops under this glass lit dome that make me show up for flight after flight early enough to make the rounds of window-shopping. There’s a Brooks Brothers for the conservative in me, a Harley-Davidson shop for my adventurous side (actually I’d never connect my name and the word “hog” in the same sentence but the leather fashion can be a real turn-on.), and a used bookstore with some rare first additions for my more intellectual travel needs. Weegens, leather jackets and a first addition of Travels with Charley offer enough variety to satisfy most aspects of my schizophrenic personality. But the most amazing bit of Midwestern creativity isn’t in the shopping experience but occurs after having passed through the metal detector machines on my way to my departure gate. After having suffered the humiliation of stripping off my watch, my shoes and my belt, after having to place my computer in a separate plastic bin and then being asked to take off my jacket, after dumping my change in a small plastic cup, after having to walk through the detector for a second time because I forgot I had my cell phone in my back pocket and had to dump it on to the conveyor before I could proceed through the metal detector for the last time, I finally crossed to the other side and what to my wandering eyes should appear but an area with extra chairs and a very official sign  designating it as a legitimate recombobulation area. Now I know the word and I can easily define it but my spell check won’t recognize it no matter how I try to reconfigure it. With my shoes, belt, jacket, watch and change tucked under my chin, wrapped around my arm and grasped tightly in my hand I could think of nothing more likely to put a genuine smile on my face and diffuse any hostility I might be harboring than an area officially designated as a place to recombobulate. I dumped my belongings onto the floor just in time to catch my unbelted pants before they slipped to somewhere above my ankles and below the point of decency and began recombobulating. As I secured my pants and redistributed my worldly wealth of quarters and dimes to their proper pockets I began to relax and reflect. My recombobulating made me wish the world had a recombobulation area, a place where we could all reombobulate. It’s nice to see that even in the most serious of places, an airport screening area, people in this part of the world still have a sense of humor and can have a laugh without feeling as if they are jeopardizing the safety of the planet.

“Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel
The world’s at your feet
Make ‘em laugh
Make ‘em laugh
Make ‘em laugh
            Donald O’Connor
            “Make ‘Em Laugh”, Singin’ in the Rain