Thursday, December 17, 2015

Have Pillows, Will Travel

My lifelong friend Ruth is allowing me to practice driving in her 2003 green Honda Accord. "I have to be able to see over the steering wheel," I tell her. She raises the driver's seat as as high as it can go.

I remove two pillows from my shopping bag, place them on the seat, and then hop atop. "Not yet," I say, balling up my puffy jacket, and adding it to the small tower.

"Perfect," I say.

I turn on the ignition, and pull out of the parking lot of Calo Restaurant and into Clark St. en route to Ruth's condo in Evanston. This will be my first time at a wheel, after just passing the road test a week ago and renewing my license. Gratefully, I am at ease. I had owned Hondas for most of my adult life and although it has been more than two years since I drove any car, I feel at home.

But, this was not how the day was supposed to go. Instead of Ruth's Honda, I had planned to drive a spiffy red 2015 VW Golf from the garage of the Sheraton Hotel to our restaurant meeting place. I picked the Golf from the rental agency's website because I wanted a hatchback with rear seats that fold down and offer extra visibility for backing up.

I was desperate to have my first drive go smoothly, so on Monday, the day before my Tuesday reservation; I played the role of a bank robber casing the joint. First, I clocked the time it would take to walk from my apartment to the hotel -- 10 minutes.

After twirling through the revolving door, I studied my printed instructions: "Go to level P1. Walk out of the waiting area and you will see our cars along the north wall." My quarry -- as precious as a safe filled with treasury bonds -- was a standout among the bland sedans along the wall.

Outside the hotel, I located the exit from the garage, and then recited "left on Park St., right on Illinois, follow the cars to Lake Shore Drive, exit on Foster, right on Clark St., left to Calo parking lot." (I had debated taking surface streets rather than the Drive, but I was eager to challenge myself.)

The following day -- Tuesday, the morning of my virgin drive -- I left my apartment at exactly 10:20 for my 10:30 a.m. reservation. I was carrying a Uniqlo shopping bag with two pillows I had inherited from my dear, departed friend, Judy, who I had assigned the role of guardian angel.

I entered the elevator, pressed P1, exited the waiting area, and approached the Golf. My membership card scanned the window shield sticker; I opened the front door and placed Judy's pillows on the driver's seat. I tossed my backpack on the passenger's side, and then opened the rear door to lower the back seats.

The two pillows weren't enough to lift me above the steering wheel, so I added my puffy jacket; still not enough. I removed my cellphone and water bottle from my backpack, squished it atop the pile, and pounced on. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was dry. Gulps of water drained the bottle.

The ignition key was latched to the right turn handle, but I was able to insert it. I turned it; interior dashboard lights came on, but no engine noise. I tried again, and again, and again, and then sought out garage personnel.

"Dead battery," said the guy who came to my rescue.

I checked my watch. I had spent 30 minutes in my attempt to start the VW, and would be late for my lunch date if I didn't give up right then. I couldn't believe that all of my preparation, my reconnaissance mission, my two days of pumped-up courage, and my visions of success, proved as useless as the battery.

The company agreed to cancel my three-hour reservation ($41.75 including taxes and fees), and offered a half hour of driving credit. I used a Lyft shared-ride ($15.00) to get me to the restaurant on time.

When I arrived, still carrying the shopping bag and pillows, I proposed using Ruth's car to salvage my practice day. And that's how after lunch, I safely drove her green Honda to her Evanston condo. After hugging her goodbye, I took the Purple to the Red to the Brown lines back to Chicago.

Next time I seek driving practice, I'll skip the car rental and take the three trains from my place to Ruth's. Or, perhaps you have an idle car and a destination?

Have pillows; will travel.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


It takes three pillows to lift me high enough to see above the Kia Soul's dashboard. "I had great visibility in my last car, a Honda Fit," I tell Michelle, as she hauls a trio from the trunk. "I'll be more confident if I can see both front fenders."

"Pedestrians, too," Michelle says, "you have to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Check left, front, and right before proceeding or turning, think 'left, front, and right."'

I repeat, "left, front, and ride," hoping her mantra will guarantee that any walkers and riders in my path remain unscathed.

Michelle, who is young enough to be a granddaughter, has picked me up at 6:00 in the morning for my first driving lesson. After two hours of instruction and practice, she will accompany me to the DMV, lead me through the lines, and then wait while a tester takes over the passenger seat.

It was just four months ago, on my 77th birthday, when I decided to let my driver's license expire. I reasoned that since I hadn't driven for nearly two years, I wouldn't bother with the renewal and instead apply for a state identification card. After all, with my two legs, shared rides -- Uber and Lyft -- and the CTA, I had competently managed my travel needs.

Recently, the lack of a license started to nag: I felt my decision to forgo renewal had prematurely aged me. And the only way to reverse that discomfort was to get it back. But, first I'd had to pass a road test.

I was certain any licensed friend would be willing to escort me to the DMV, and then turn over their car for the test, but I was too skittish for that route. If I could take a few lessons from an accredited driving school, and then use their auto for the road test, I was certain my chances of passing would improve. A search on Yelp led me to the Nova Driving School, to Michelle, and to the three pillows between my tush and the Kia's front seat.

In 1952, when my dad first taught me how to drive, I pulled pillows from our plastic-covered sofa to prop me in his four-door Buick. As he flicked ashes from Camels into the butt-littered tray, he showed me how to grasp the wheel in the ten and two positions, execute the hand-over-hand turn, operate the stick shift, and play the clutch.

And he divulged secrets to parallel parking, which I have since passed down to two daughters and one grandson:  Line up your car with one that is parked at the curb. Slowly, back up into the empty space as you turn the steering wheel to the right. Fix your eyes on the right headlight of the car parked behind. Aim for your target, then reverse the direction of the steering wheel. Slip in.

"Make a left at the next light," Michelle says. I push the lever down to signal my turn, step gently on the brake, and come to a neat stop at the red signal. My instructor looks pleased as I say, "left, front, and right" while checking each of the three directions.

"You've got this," Michelle says, likely relieved that despite my age and lack of practice for two years; she will not have to stomp on her instructor's brake. "You haven't forgotten anything."

"This is fun," I say, resisting the urge to floor the gas pedal as if I were a felon fleeing the scene. Muscle memory has renewed and I am once again the teenager who has been handed the keys to the Buick.

"Both hands on the wheel," Michelle orders, after my left dropped to my lap following the classic hand-over-hand.

"But that's how I always drive," I tell her.

"You could lose a point for that," she says.

When Dad drove, he used only one hand for the wheel; the left lingered out the rolled down window. His arm was tanned from finger to elbow, and the remainder white as his grocery store apron.

During the road test, I forced myself to keep both hands on the wheel. And with Michelle's meticulous instructions, and memories of Dad's lessons, I easily passed. Sadly, I wasn't required to parallel park; I would've aced that.

To keep fresh, I'll occasionally rent a Zipcar, haul pillows from my couch, and take a spin. Anyone need a lift? Costco run?

Thursday, November 19, 2015


I had three choices: I could drag over the step stool that was across the aisle, climb to the highest shelf, and reach up and snatch the bottle of house brand Vinegar and Oil salad dressing. Or I could wander the supermarket to uncover a clerk. Maybe, I could catch the first tall person I'd see and plead for help.

Because I'm prone to disaster scenarios, I envisioned bitty me atop the stool, losing my footing, hanging onto the shelf itself, hauling it and its contents down with me, and falling flat into a sea of Caesar, Italian, and Ranch.

Instead, I chose option three and called out to a man who entered the aisle: "Tall person!"

He pointed to his chest, indicating he was unsure if I was referring to him, or if he had encountered a demented elder mistaking him for a wayward son.

"Could you get that bottle of salad dressing?" I said, pointing upward and smiling to make sure he understood my mirth. "I'm horizontally challenged."

With the ease of a basketball player, he put one hand around the neck of my prey and handed it to me. "No problem," he said, likely relieved I was sane.

Such episodes describe the life of an adult under five feet tall and shrinking. The towering supermarket shelf is just one inconvenience we wee ones endure. The other side includes the adjectives assigned to our stature. For example, this scene in the women’s locker room at a former health club: I was at the mirror, putting on makeup, nude except for a towel around my torso. She was to my right, smiling down at me. A tall woman, five ten, I’d guess.

 “You’re so cute!” she had said. “How tall are you?”

I shifted to the left; afraid she might next pat my head, as if I were a puppy or toddler. “I used to be four eleven and a half, but now I’m four nine,” I said. “You shrink as you get older.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, images of Dorothy's Wicked Witch rode into my brain. Instead of a broomstick, I saw the crone dissolve into a puddle with only her pointy hat remaining.

I suppose by now I should be  used to cuddly responses to my height. After all, I’m 77, and have always been the shortest in a group. Early class photos are evidence: first row, first seat, and feet barely touching the floor.

“You were so cute,” that’s how my best friend Ruth remembers me in sixth grade when we first met. “Just like a doll.” We have been close friends for more than 60 years. Ruth says she’s shrinking, too, but she’s still at least five nine.

I don’t remember it bothering me in grade school, but I think by high school the words started to chafe, and the older I got, the more irritating “cute” and “doll” became. If it were up to me, I’d select comments about my personality, not my dimensions.

To be honest, I've never felt handicapped as a short woman. I do my best work sitting, where size is irrelevant. Yes, I have to perch on a phone book to get my hair shampooed, and I have a hard time at the movies if someone tall fills the seat in front. And, there's that supermarket thing.

Now that I think of it, one reason I fell for my first husband, who at six feet proposed despite my size, was because he thought me smart, clever, and funny. As for me, I loved his tallness – believing I had gained stature, just by hanging on his arm.

But from the beginning there were problems with our differences in altitudes. “Can’t hear you,” I'd shout up as we held hands walking down the street. And when we danced, his arm around my shoulder, my nose at his navel, we were comic.

My sweetheart of a second husband was a perfect five seven. No communication or waltz snags. While he did throw in a few “you’re so cute” endearments, I knew it was my accomplishments he bragged about to friends.

I've been a widow for three years now, and am thinking I'd like a male companion -- not a husband, just a buddy for early dinners, TV watching, and chaste spooning. If he's somewhere in my age range, his height has likely dipped a few inches, too. Fortunately, for the three activities I've just identified, that shouldn't be a problem.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


I slipped into an aisle seat figuring I could sneak out early if I got bored, or if I felt out of place. I looked up as others entered the synagogue's sanctuary and I'd nod a greeting when I'd spot a familiar face. As a pianist struck up notes and a choir of four began to sing prayers for the Friday night service, I settled in.

But why, in the midst of this fellowship and serenity, did I feel as guilty as if I had crept into a casino?

I was embarrassed to tell friends and family of my evening activity because upon returning to Chicago from Los Angeles three months ago, I had declared: "I've given up religion. I'm not going to High Holiday services this year or join a synagogue."

My dear crowd accepted this decision without debate because they have been witness to my forays in and out of Judaism. Growing up in the 1940's, my family's relationship with religion was cultural, rather than observant: We devoured fatty foods; championed Jewish athletes, movie stars, and comedians; supported Israel; and prayed that headlined criminals were not part of our tribe. And we attended synagogue services only once a year on the High Holidays.

But that mediocre piety didn't prevent my parents from pushing my brother Ron to become a Bar Mitzvah. As for me, in 1951, when I was 13 -- the age for this rite of passage -- girls in my group weren't similarly coerced. So I faltered on my faith for several decades.

Things changed in 1989, and I peg it on Empty Nest Syndrome. Both of our daughters were out of the house and I was seeking a project my spouse and I could do together. Instead of moving to a new residence -- which was my usual solution for our feeble marriage -- I suggested we join a synagogue.

We did. I jumped in, submerged, and resurfaced with a desire to have an adult Bat Mitzvah. I hired a tutor, learned to read Hebrew for my Torah portion, chanted, and hosted a celebration. Alas, one year later, our marriage expired and my link to that Reconstructionist synagogue ended, too.

In 2012, after my second husband Tommy died and I moved from our house to a downtown apartment, I joined a Reform synagogue where on Saturday mornings a group of 20 or so debated the week's Torah portion. "I love the intellectual stimulation," I told those skeptical of this fresh trail in my religious journey.

In Los Angeles, I quickly found another Reform temple and another series of Saturday morning studies. So why, after these two seemingly worthy religious experiences, did I vow, upon returning home to Chicago, that I would be avoiding Judaism, Torah study, and the High Holidays?

"I wanted to feel part of a community," I told a friend, whining like a pathetic teenager who had been excluded from the popular girls' clique. "But I was never invited to anyone's home for dinner. At both synagogues, they'd all been together for decades, and evidently weren't interested in squeezing in this newcomer."

"Maybe if you had stayed longer," she suggested, "or joined committees, then you'd feel more part of the group." But I wanted to be immediately bonded. I was impatient, felt wounded, and decided I was finished with religion.

So, what happened last Friday to send me to evening services at the very same Chicago Reform temple I had huffed my way out of? My theory is while I originally believed I was seeking community and intellectual stimulation, I was really searching for something deeper, something to heal losses. In the first case, I was a recent widow who had buried a dear husband, and in the second, a transplant who moved away from good friends in a beloved city.

 Evidently some pains remain: Tommy's death still feels fresh. And by returning to Chicago, I left behind my adored Los Angeles family. Add in, some in my circle face health challenges. Perhaps it is these facts of life that propelled me to find a harbor.

At last Friday night's service, as I sat in the synagogue's sanctuary, I listened to the choir and absorbed the rabbi's words. (In my absence, a new rabbi and assistant rabbi came on board. The latter is a woman -- a bonus in my view). And, I joined the congregation in reciting communal prayers for healing and mourning.

Based on my seesaw history with Judaism, my relatives and friends may be skeptical about this current religious plunge and wonder how long it will last.

Does it matter?