Shocked, shocked

striped cushion on a carpet
Stripes make the cushion look taller.

I’ve been having this weird experience lately with full-length mirrors. I pass in front of one at a fancy restroom or someone’s house and am shocked to see that I am significantly shorter than I thought I was when I got dressed.

These flowy-wide jeans that I chose because they make my legs look super-long, so they’re the perfect match for this tunic thing I’ve got on top? Yeah, my legs look exactly the same length in these as they do in my six other pairs of jeans. Also, these happen to be too short, which is probably why they make my legs feel longer but actually only make my feet look bigger. Also they make my middle look wide. But then I realize, my middle is wide. Not excessively so, but in my mind there’s no wideness at all, just super-long legs in flowy-wide jeans trailing up to this cool tunic top thing.

Where did I get these false images? From ads? From how these clothes feel as compared to how other clothes feel? From the fact that I don’t have a full-length mirror upstairs? The only one in the whole house is on the front hall closet door, but to use it you have to stand right in front of it, so close you don’t get much perspective. Try to stand farther back and there’s a desk in the way. Or you can stand on the other side of the desk, but then you have to stand on the first step of the stairs going up, which is what I usually do, so you can only see the upper half of your body, which now looks six inches taller.

This visual disconnect wouldn’t matter much except for two things: 1) The abundance of full-length mirrors I seem to be encountering lately in the rest of the world, that shock me with the image of how I actually look. Which wouldn’t be so bad except that 2) They mess with my confidence. To be confident enough to go out and do the things I want to do, like…

Like what. What am I trying to do that requires model-tallness? I’m a middle-aged woman who’s trying to create stuff and collaborate with other people gifted in various aspects of the performing arts. None of this requires me to be five-ten. But it does require confidence. And if I am constantly being reminded in the outside world that I am not in fact five-ten, as I previously seemed to believe when standing in my cramped closet with the door closed so I wouldn’t have to bother closing the bedroom window shades to get dressed, than what else have I mis-estimated? Am I also not as talented, accomplished, intelligent, entertaining, and pleasant to be with as I might have assumed? And things just spiral from here.

So either I need to get myself a full-length mirror in the bedroom, so that I can begin the day with my confidence accurately calibrated to my actual height, or I need to destroy all the full-length mirrors in the world. But that would be a drag, because just every now and then, when I’ve started the day thinking I’m too short and out of ideas and not confident at all, I catch a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror somewhere in the world, and am shocked, shocked to discover that for some reason, I am actually six feet tall and perfect.

Crowd controls

wildflower print
I keep thinking it says “be past forever.”

We went to a benefit last night and stayed longer than I’d planned; almost an hour. It wasn’t bad at all—a nice bar, live music, a good cause. It was a casual low-cost benefit to augment the theater’s more traditional pricey benefit. I talked to a couple of playwrights I like, and even met someone new. I had a snack. But still I watched the clock. Midway through a perfectly nice conversation I said to Dave, “We have to go.”

Next, we drove to Home Depot so Dave could order a 30-dollar storm window he’d seen advertised on their website. On the way, we stopped at CVS for Tylenol, and remembered all sorts of things we needed: Kleenex, conditioner, foaming hand soap. We ended up spending more time in there than at the benefit. Dave tried to talk me into a no-installation-needed screen door that came in a package the size of a hand towel. “Let’s get out here,” I said.

Up front, I waited at the counter for a clerk. Dave stood at a self-checkout counter and laughed at me. “Oh yeah,” I finally realized, “they don’t do that anymore.”

We checked ourselves out. Rather, we self-checked ourselves out. None of my items would scan. A clerk came over and demonstrated the proper technique. “I know how,” I wanted to say, “I’m just not doing that right now.” Instead of swishing each item across the scanner area, I was setting each item down. I was busy thinking about the benefit. Should we have stayed longer? Did I spoil Dave’s good time? Was I missing anything?

Dave finished scanning while the clerk looked on, smiling. I noticed that Dave no longer gets angry at self-checkout counters. Not long ago, he used to fume through the whole endeavor. And as soon as something went wrong, forget it. But four self-checkout registers and one clerk mean everyone can get out faster, even if everyone needs help. It’s crowd-sourcing for Kleenex.

When we got back in the car I said, “I wonder if we should go back.”

“Huh?” said Dave.

“To the benefit.”

“You want to go back?”

“No,” I admitted, “I just always feel, at events like that, like there were more people I should have talked to, more better things I should have said.”

“I was surprised at how many people I knew,” said Dave. We went into Home Depot, where Dave learned that the 30-dollar storm window advertised on the Home Depot website isn’t an item you can actually buy.

While he considered whether to order a different one, I headed to the faux metal tile display. I found a pattern I liked for the bar backsplash, and it looked easy to install. I brought it back to Dave, who had decided to do further storm window research. “I’m getting this,” I said loudly, because I knew in advance he would scorn a faux material.


“Yep. It’s exactly what I want. It looks weathered. It looks real.”

“Okay,” said Dave. “You don’t want to use real metal?”

“They don’t have real metal. What’s wrong with this?”

“It’s just…” Dave peered closely at the panel. “It’s strange how this aging effect repeats at the same point on each square.”

Suddenly all I could see was the same repeating smudge on every fake metal tile within the panel. Like playwrights on a banquette. I sighed, and returned it to the display. Dave pointed out the poorly executed backsplash in the display photo, where you can see gaps between the panels. “They didn’t even bother to line them up right,” he noted.

We left without buying anything, which doesn’t happen often at Home Depot. The regular checkout lanes were blocked, so we went through self-checkout.

[note: to learn more about the artwork, by Gwen Frostic, visit]

Girl’s day out

I kind of wanted a tiara.

At Claire’s boutique, I picked out my earrings. I kept changing my mind—white gold posts vs. cubic zirconia vs. garnet—but the assistant manager was patient with me. It was the middle of a weekday, pre-high school rush.

My situation was complicated. “I haven’t worn earrings in 20 years,” I said. “One hole has closed up but I’m not sure which.” Something I could have figured out beforehand if I’d known I was going. Probably I would have showered first too. But I was only at the mall to return a coffeemaker (I don’t want to talk about it), and on my way back to the parking lot something beckoned, all pink and purple and glittery. There was a Mirror Mirror promotion going on, and Claire’s window was filled with tiaras.

“Maybe we’d better pierce both to be sure,” said Assistant Manager.

“I also want a second hole on this side,” I pointed to my left ear.

She pointed to a bar height chair in the window, and I sat down. There was a stuffed bear already sitting on the chair so I just perched on the edge. Then I shoved it back into the corner and tried to sit properly. The bear’s fat paws dug into my side so I held it out, thinking Assistant Manager might take it. But she was busy readying her equipment – setting out bottles and cotton balls, putting on her latex gloves, loading up little white plastic guns with earring cartridges. The plastic guns reminded me that I was about to get my skin broken. Would it hurt, like it did when I was a kid and my mom’s friend Lynn pierced my ears in her living room? “Oh, that’s why the bear is here,” I said, suddenly clutching it to me.

Assistant Manager smiled. “Yep.” She approached my left ear and marked the spots with an official-looking blue pen. Then she held up a hand mirror for my approval.

“Looks good,” I said, and she switched out the hand mirror for a gun. “I bet the technology has improved a lot, huh?”

She paused. “The old gun was bigger and kind of clumsier. And these new ones don’t make that loud noise like the old ones.”

“That’s good,” I said, hugging my bear. I didn’t mention that by new technology I meant post-needle and potato. I’m pretty sure that’s what Lynn used, after numbing my ear with a cube of ice.

“Hold totally still,” she said, and shot the earring through my ear. It didn’t hurt at all. None of them did. I sat the bear back in his seat, paid my seventy-four ninety-nine (it was free when Lynn did it), got my Claire’s ear cleansing kit, and went home.

Go backs

from “The Kentons,” by Wm. Dean Howells.
  1. Tub of pine nuts from Gene’s Sausage Shop. Reason for return: The label says ‘Product of China.’ When I brought them home, Dave mentioned a news story about how some Chinese pine nuts aren’t actually pine nuts and may taste metallic. I got them so I could replicate Justine’s amazing quinoa salad, which she credited to Cookus Interruptus. So I went to a different store and bought Alessi pine nuts. But though Alessi markets itself as Italian, the label on these said ‘Product of Italy and China,’ which probably means product of China. I was so fed up that I used them anyway and they tasted fine. So maybe the Gene’s ones would taste fine too?
  2. Curling iron from Walgreens. Reason for return: Didn’t have time to use it before Oscar party. And as Wendy pointed out, I don’t need curly hair.
  3. Feathered headband. I thought it represented the only time I would enter a Forever 21 store, when I purchased it for Oscar night. Wrong.
  4. Lacy top from Urban Outfitters, along with two pairs of tights, none of which I will ever wear. I hate that I always feel compelled to buy more than the one thing I went to a store for–in this case, a perfect dress I found on clearance. Instead of marching it to the counter, I needed to continue shopping so as to extend my bargain.
  5. Last night’s audition. To get the bad taste of it out of my mouth I went to Bed Bath & Beyond afterward, looking for a 2-Qt saucepan with a spout and a glass lid.
    Before the audition, in all my thinking about the specifics — how it made me reexamine lying,
    whether I should cancel,
    why I was spending so much time making up lies instead of working on my script, which lie to tell,
    whether to go funny or serious,
    where on earth to dig up my acting resume and how to revise it for the new me, etc. — I had totally forgotten about all the very general ways in which an audition can mess with you. How the floor can shift from under you the moment you walk into the audition room. No matter how prepared you think you are,
    no matter how much you might love performing,
    no matter how ready you might feel to share yourself and your creativity,
    the smallest thing can get the escalator moving in the wrong direction, and you’re suddenly scrambling to get back to level ground. Things that should be easy, like saying your name, suddenly sound strange in a room you thought would look different,
    would feel different,
    would have different lighting,
    would have a different combination of people sitting behind a different set of tables, with a different look on their faces. Maybe I’m just out of shape audition-wise, or maybe it’s because I didn’t truly believe in my own lies the way I do when I’m telling them spontaneously, or maybe it really was because I didn’t go with the first thing in my head the way I used to when I improvised, but it was the longest five minutes of my day.
    So I went back to the car and drove Dave to Rolando’s for band practice, then I continued on to BB&B. And because I cannot buy only the thing I came for, and because I was still in shock that things hadn’t gone the way I envisioned them in my head, and because I kept thinking of really great things I could have said and should have said, like “I’m originally from Mars,” yeah that would have killed, I continued shopping.
  6. I found a wall-mounted paper towel holder that Dave wants me to take back. It’s exactly like the one we had at the condo. Even when I put it in my cart I remembered Dave saying he didn’t like it, but I needed something besides the saucepan, especially because I was getting an extra 10% off on it because it was the last one, and I’m tired of not having a paper towel holder. When we got home and I showed Dave, he reminded me of all the reasons this was not an acceptable design. Distasteful prominence of the rubber ball grabbers and how they collect lint, and insufficient roll grip as time goes on, and I forget what else, he lost me at linty balls. “I’m not returning it,” I said, and went to bed.
  7. Removable wall graphic from JoAnne Fabric and Craft. “Songs and Wishes Tree, Black.” “Not a sticker!” “Easy on Easy Off!” But nowhere to put it, now that I’ve begun drawing story charts on the walls in my office.
  8. Cute toothbrush holder from the Chicago Architecture Foundation Store. Dave got it for me because it grosses him out that I keep an extra toothbrush in the shower, right on the soap caddy. But he mentioned it in front of a bunch of our friends, who were all grossed out by the thought of me brushing in the shower. At first I fought back, but over time, every time I shower I think what if I’m getting spit somewhere it shouldn’t be? So I’m giving up. The toothbrush holder goes back, maybe not all the way to China, but at least downtown.
  9. Spring. I don’t care if March steals it back tomorrow, I’m getting my money’s worth today.
  10. Say what you won’t about William Dean Howells, because no one reads him anymore, but I swear to God, I opened iBooks for a minute while I ate breakfast, and out of the blue, he captured life in one line, with a sense of humor so subtle that it would never audition for anything, buy more than it needs, or get seduced by removable wall art.

A humidifier story

We are still married.

It’s the time of year to wax nostalgic about old times and old loves and dear ones gone by. Every song, every scent, every email seems to pull at the heartstrings. Like this one from Marcello: “What kind of humidifier you had running in the living room? I need to find a good humidifier.” And suddenly I’m back in 1998.

Bemis Tabletop model, you were my first grownup humidifier and I’ll never forget you. You made me realize what was missing in the cheap Walgreens models I bought and discarded, only to re-buy and re-discard. I immediately connected with the wicking system, and when I opened my first bottle of bacteriostatic treatment, suddenly everything made sense.

But Bemis, though you changed me, or maybe because you changed me, I outgrew you. The upside down water tank thingy, it started to grate. I’m not accusing you of spills, but the whole idea of it, the slightly squishy experience of picking up the tank, turning it over quickly to avoid excessive drips, and then filling it and having that sinking feeling when I had to turn it upside down again, it started to outweigh the humidification highs. And no, the top never came off. But just knowing that it might, Bemis, just knowing that it might.

A dalliance with an April Air whole house solution forced the transition. We were living in a place with forced air heating, and April promised we’d never need silly room humidifiers again. We wanted to believe, and we set Bemis up with a friend. I hope they worked out. She never talks about it and I don’t ask. I like to think of Bemis still humidifying, cleanly, with bacteriostatically treated water. As the HVAC guy predicted, April Air was “kinda lame, but it’s your call.” Whole house systems only care about you when the heat is blowing. But it was invisible, and maintenance-free, and whenever anyone asked I said, “Our air is great, couldn’t be healthier.”

Then we moved into a house with the driest heating system of all: hot water radiators. I couldn’t appreciate the irony of all that hot water being so near, but completely closed off, until my first bloody nose. I briefly wished for steam radiators, but after one night with Essick 4-Speed Mini Console I was like, Steam who?

This time it’s forever. To fill Mini Console, you don’t deal with any upside down water tanks. You don’t worry about drips and spills. You just take the top off and fill. You can even use a bucket (a clean, new, dedicated bucket is only like four bucks at Matty K’s), to transport the water so you don’t even have to pick up Mini C and move it into the bathtub. If you just fill it with a bucket a day it never becomes a big chore. And I find this model also sort of fades into the room. It’s actually less noticeable than the Tower model.

Tower, also an Essick, was a huge mistake, but I’m living with it. Big brother to Mini Console, Tower seemed like it would be less noticeable and would humidify better, but no. It’s got upside down tanks, two of them, which are even more prone to spills and drips than Bemis Tabletop. So you’re paying more for something bigger that doesn’t last longer and is more of a pain.

Last thing: Make sure you purchase the bacteria treatment, and put in about half a capful every time you fill the humidifier or the bucket. This is crucial. Really important. And new filters every year. You can get both of those at Matty K’s too.

Oh, don’t be fooled by the Venta Air Washer humidifier. My mom gave them whole years of her life and they only caused her heartache. And backaches.

I’m not a mom: reason 43

sympathy card
I mean, there is a kid on the cover.

I thought I remembered everything on my shopping trip yesterday. After three years of missing my second cousin’s birthday party for his little girl, I’m determined to make today’s bash, so I added 4-year-old girl to my Christmas list and headed out. Instead of going straight to the small shops of Lincoln Square, where I’d find everything else on my list, I went to a mall, so the gift would be easy to return.

I stood in Carson’s and tried to find something that a four year-old girl I don’t really know would like but not already own. I found a make-your-own-necklace kit, for ages 4 and up. That’s creative and fun, right? Unfortunately, the beads and pendants were dull-colored—timid yellows and maroons and was that beige or tan? I couldn’t imagine a child wanting to wear the one long necklace, two short necklaces, or one short necklace and one bracelet that could be constructed from this box of sadness. But they could return it. The toy store in Lincoln Square surely would have a happier necklace set, but if she didn’t even like necklace sets, it would be a long drive.

On my way to the register I noticed a cute pink purse that said Peace in silver glitter. Little girls like purses, right? Only it didn’t cost enough. But on the same display were glittery newsboy caps, one size fits all. Next to them, the bead set looked positively funereal. I left the beads to scare the remaining glitter caps and took my new choices, holding them together to get the full effect. Happy and fun, but maybe too glittery? Are products like this the gateway drug to kiddie pageants and eye makeup? I’ve been watching Toddlers and Tiaras to prepare for a role in a friend’s upcoming short film, and I’m more suspicious of glitter than I used to be.

Then I saw a pink wool hat with yarn pigtails and heart appliques. It’s whimsical but not grown-up. And it’s got an appropriate return price. But what if it doesn’t fit? I saw a mom shopping nearby and wanted to ask, but she seemed like she was in a hurry. “What are nude tights?” asked her daughter.

“Oh, they’re tights that, you know, they’re tights that look, oh, they don’t even have them. Come on, let’s try the juniors department.”

Still holding my two options, I stood in line and looked for someone else to ask. A lady complaining about how Carson’s isn’t as good as it used to be stood in front of me. Too crabby. The woman behind me looked perfect, but as I smiled my preparatory smile a cashier opened a new register and called to me, “I can take you over here.”

When I got to the counter, still smiling, I said, “So for a four year-old girl, which do you think?”

She scratched her shellacked hair. “Oh, I don’t know…why don’t you ask someone else?”

“I was going to…”

Two Saturdays before Christmas, the line behind me was getting longer. “Oh, that one, I guess.” She pointed to the pink hat. “The other is…” she raised her thin, penciled eyebrows.

“I thought so, too!” I gushed, and bought the hat. I got a gift box, tissue paper, and a discount card for the next time I shop here, which will be never, but still it was a nice gesture.

I drove back to Lincoln Square and finished my shopping. Came home and unloaded everything and felt very pleased to be able to check everything off my list except Dave and a trip to the framing store. Then I realized, I don’t have a birthday card for a four year-old girl. Rats. I dug out my box of cards and found a few birthday cards, but nothing appropriate for a child.

“Take your birthday with a grain of salt, a squeeze of lime, and an ounce of Tequila.”

“Aging is inevitable. Maturing is optional.”

Also, a couple of Spanish-language sympathy cards that I’d bought for a film shoot a few years ago and kept, just in case. With anyone else, a sympathy card would be inappropriate, but I happen to remember that when I got married the first time, this cousin gave us a sympathy card instead of a wedding card. At the time, I assumed it was a joke and made some jokey reply in our thank-you card. But I wasn’t sure exactly whether the joke hinged on the idea that all marriages are fatal, or this one in particular.

Maybe that’s why I still remember it, 20 years later. A random omen, if omens can be random, or just another case of needing to bring a card and not wanting to stop at the store when you’ve already got something that sort of works? After all, it’s just something to put a check in, right?

My second cousin speaks Spanish, and his daughter probably doesn’t read yet, so maybe this would work. Four year-olds don’t care about cards, do they? Would my cousin remember the sympathy card from long ago? Or would he just think the weird, childless cousin whose husband didn’t even come to the birthday party is even weirder than he thought?

I could drop Dave at the theatre before his gig, but I think I’ll have to leave him to the el so I can go to CVS for a card. Children are exhausting. Then again, so are adults.

Birthday party

Grandpa sitting in a chair
The biggest man in the room.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. He would have been a hundred and something. Remember when we’d go over there on this day? Grandma always made ham sandwiches and Grandpa gave the presents. He’d bring out shopping bags full of his bargain basement finds – costume jewelry and ice skates and celebrity-themed knick-knacks.

Grandpa was a retired El train conductor who then took a job at Cannonball Messenger Service. This is back when they used foot messengers in addition to bikers, mostly for Loop runs. His retiree’s CTA pass was a bonus for Cannonball because they didn’t have to reimburse his travel, but he warned them, “My mind is made up. When I turn 80, I’m retiring for good.” His 80th birthday came and he kept his word. He couldn’t believe they didn’t put up a fight. It kind of hurt his feelings.

From 80 on, Grandpa left the house each morning with empty shopping bags, and travelled the city filling them up. He’d ride downtown to the Marshall Field’s basement, to the D’Amatos on Grand and May for his favorite bread, to Woolworths in Oak Park, to Maxwell Street, to some bakery in Belmont-Central for Grandma’s favorite pound cake. He knew all the El and bus routes, and knew people in every neighborhood. Years later, at his wake, the strangest people showed up.

Grandma would wait for him at home. She didn’t like to go out much, and she was nervous about having people over. Her medium was the telephone. She talked to each of her kids every day, transmitting family news through the filter of her particular world view. My brother used to say, “I make so much more money when it goes through Grandma Sue.” She only visited once or twice a year, and on Grandpa’s birthday my mom had to warn her we were coming. “It’s my father’s birthday, Ma. I want to see him.” “You don’t have to come,” Gram would tell her over the phone, “We still look the same.”

But once we got there, Grandma would relax. “How ’bout a sandwich,” she’d say, “I’ve got some nice ham.” I hated ham, so I always got straight to the pound cake. Then Grandpa would open the hall closet and bring out the shopping bags, with multiples of any really good buys. One year it was fake seed pearls and Brook Shields clocks. “You don’t have to keep her face in there,” he advised, “You could put any photo if you cut it right.”

I reached my hands into the bag, pulling out fistfuls of necklaces and bracelets. All mine, as many as I could hold. It was a very, very good birthday.


My Almost Friendship with a British or Maybe Even Australian Woman

I was at HarvestTime, the smallish and wonderfully stocked and also extremely reasonable grocery store where everyone in our neighborhood, from Viking stoves to WIC cards, loves to shop. Fresh and diverse produce, good organics, surprising treats like warm squares of spanakopita and fresh dolmades.

So it’s Sunday afternoon, so of course it’s crowded. I’ve just gotten my cart and started into the huge produce section. I’ve grabbed a pint of strawberries – $2.49! I see rings of dried figs, which can be either magnificent or too dry, and wonder if it’s worth the risk. There’s an extended line of carts along that side so I can’t get close enough to check them out. One of the carts belongs to a woman who was just ahead of me as we came in. Red hair, plump body that looks even plumper squeezed into tight black capri pants and some kind of fashion tee shirt. She was smiling so cheerfully when she extricated her cart that I assumed she was with someone, mid-conversation. But as we started through the store, her stretch pants jiggling in front of me, I realized she was alone. Something about her made me think Australian. The type that turns out to have this great, unfettered perspective on life and not taking it too seriously, that you feel you could appropriate just by becoming friends with her.

So we’re at the figs, and I could just wait until she or the Korean man next to her makes a selection and moves along, clearing the way. But instead I say, no preamble, just trusting my voice to cut through the shoppers’ din, “Could you just hand me a thing of figs?”

And she hears me like we’ve been friends forever and replies, in a British accent, “Certainly!” It’s almost too easy. My new international friend I met at the grocery store! She’s sexy and confident in her body and her easy breeze lifestyle. British can be as chill as Aussie if you get the right region, Suffolk maybe, or Cork.

She hands me the package of figs and I choose an appellation I sometimes use with my best girlfriends. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I say it with a slight Western twang, so it’s a sign of respect, playfulness, good nature, you name it. But also, I realize a second too late, just as her face changes from sunny look to closed book, it can sound like acknowledgment of an elder. I can’t add, “I don’t mean Ma’am like you’re older than me, because honey I’m sure you’re not,” ‘cause that’s just overkill for a package of figs. And maybe the frown is her just trying to remember what ingredients she needs for her Sunday barbie recipe?

But in any case, there is no more friendly interchange. Although we remain in sync throughout the deli section, dairy case, bread aisle, and even checkout lanes, each setting out our items on parallel counters in perfect time, there are no more easy smiles. I try to catch her eye as we leave with our bags full of food bargains, but nothing doing. Is she as sorry about our lost friendship as I? Is she wondering where the hell some middle-aged woman gets off calling her Ma’am? Should she have worn different pants? Was it cilantro or mint that went into the tilapia recipe?

We’ll never, ever know. My probably British or maybe even Aussie friend is lost to me forever. She’ll never know I kept the figs, which on closer look were definitely too dried out, in my cart as an homage to her. I will eat them as my penance. Next time, I’ll just say Thanks.