Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Comfort Zone

Felix showed me the slot where I was to slide in my two quarters. Then, my seven-year-old grandson skipped away leaving me on my own at the pinball machine. I pulled out the knob near my tummy, watched a tiny silver ball shoot out, and pressed buttons on either side of the cabinet to send flippers flying.

As the glass case lit with each bounce, and numbers racked up to announce my progress, I realized I was having fun. And I had been wrong to protest this evening excursion to a game place I've never coveted. But my main complaint had been I would be taking a predawn plane the next morning, and my comfort zone demanded I be tucked in at that hour.

This experience during a recent five-day trip to Los Angeles followed me home, as if it had been a memento packed in my luggage. I haven't visited a pinball arcade since, but I am still trying to stretch outside my comfort zone.

This change in my rigid behavior got me thinking: when did I first map out this zone, which I had originally thought of as "comfort," but now believe it was more like a corset: tight, restricting movement, impeding breath, and hindering new experiences.

My "sorry, can't do that," usually revolved around time, and my inflexible need to eat dinner at 6 p.m., go to bed at 8, and rise at 4 a.m. This habit was so long-standing that I figured it must have started in my childhood. Surely something that had survived for 77 years -- albeit with minor attempts to break out -- began all those decades ago.

Whenever I talk about growing up in the 1940's, on Division Street in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, people always respond, "Ah, the good old days." But, I'm quick to correct: "They weren't always so good. Things happened then that weren't sweet and pleasant."

While I hesitate tarnishing anyone's remembrance, in my case, there were episodes that have clung to me as if they were similar to my tattoo, which has faded over the years, but never disappeared. In my memoir, "The Division Street Princess," I describe my parents' contentious marriage; our stateside fear for the safety of uncles fighting overseas, my family's drowning grocery store business, and evil men who preyed on defenseless little girls.

Perhaps it was back then, that I decided it was more comforting to shield myself early in bed, under the covers, protected by my older brother who slept nearby and my parents on the living room's Murphy bed.

Now that I think of it, early bedtimes weren't my only self-imposed confinement. For most of my career, I've been a public relations practitioner, which meant staying behind the scenes and pushing others toward the spotlight.

But that changed in recent years. When my second husband, Tommy, began to decline with brain degeneration, I started writing a personal blog as self-therapy. Slowly, I was starting to tiptoe out, but only on the page.

After self-publishing two memoirs and arranging book readings to push sales, I was forced to move from computer keyboard to lectern, further expanding my comfort zone. I began to say, "yes" to requests to speak before an audience, and two recent events found me center stage.

My latest escape from my inner clock's comfort zone spurred me to enroll in a TV pilot writing workshop that begins at 3:30 p.m. and lasts until 6:30, requiring me to postpone my dinner- and bed-times. While I first hesitated, and balked at the uncomfortable schedule, I've learned that desire eclipses doubt; and dining and retiring later aren't fatal.

And just last week, one of my daughters suggested I attend the performance of her friend who was starring in a one-woman show nearby. The only problem: it began at 8:30 p.m. But, I went. I stayed awake throughout the evening, got to bed at 10:30, and managed to stay asleep until 5:30 a.m.  Bolstered by this experience, I've ordered tickets for another one-woman show where the curtain rises at 7:30 p.m.

Based on my history of frequently changing my mind, or leaping before I look, it's possible that one day I'll have journeyed so far from my comfort zone that I become scared, exhausted, or embarrassed, and want to bolt back. If that were to happen, I'll think of my darling grandson and the noisy, darkened arcade. I'll add in a mixed racket of flippers slapping silver balls, people laughing, and remember: I not only survived; I had fun. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016


She was sitting in the armchair, her legs stretched out on the footstool.
"Hi, Mom," I said, as I closed the door behind me.
She didn't speak, so I jumped right in. "You're angry, aren't you?"
She sighed and said. "I guess I should be used to it by now. It seems every chance you get -- first in your memoir, and now on stage, before an audience of 100 people, mostly strangers -- you sneer at my mothering. When are you going to give it a rest?"
"Mom, could we talk about this in my next dream?" I was yawning and tugging off one boot at a time. "I'm so sleepy; it's two hours past my bedtime."
"Poor baby," she said.
My deceased mother visits me often. I hoped I'd be able to get away with the event, which was just a few hours earlier and had focused on my life and my mothering style.
"Let me see if I can repeat it?" she said. "I've heard it often enough." I sat down on the couch that doubles as a daybed. I leaned back on the cushion, closed my eyes, and listened. Even though my mother was not in the best of moods, I welcomed this chance to hear her voice.
"I always admired their audacity," my mother said, repeating the quote that was first published in the Chicago Tribune. I had said that line at the event, referring to my daughters.  Mom continued, "And wish I had it. I grew up more traditional, became a teacher, married a Jewish man at the end of college, and cooked like my mother."
I stopped her. "I said 'cooked,' doesn't that imply that I valued your cooking and wanted to emulate it?"
She ignored my interruption, and went on reciting my words. "When I grew up, my mother decided what I wore, how much I should weigh. I decided to turn it upside down, let my girls choose their clothes, not brush their hair if they didn't want to. They are who I wanted to be. I wanted to be as free as they turned out to be."
"I noticed you added a new shtick tonight," she said. "My daughters credit me with raising them to be protagonists in their own stories." (This had been gifted to me by one of my kids and I used it to show off.)
"Poor baby," she repeated. "You turned out so horrible, didn't you?"
I left my spot and tucked myself in beside her. I put my legs up on the footstool, just like her. "You were a wonderful mother," I said. "It was the times; that's how mothers were back in the '40s. I admitted that in my spiel. I didn't blame you. Did you hear blame in my voice?"
Perhaps I had been a bit harsh. "What part of that hurt you?" I said. "Was it about my weight? You have to admit you were on me about that."
"I was only thinking about you, about your prospects," she said. She leaned her head against my shoulder. I wished it could linger there throughout the night. "I wanted you to marry well, not like I did. I thought if you were thin, like the models in the newspaper ads, you wouldn't wind up behind a grocery store counter like me. I had bigger dreams for you."
"I didn't know you had dreams for me," I said.
"Not when you were a child," she said. "Remember, when you were 42 and I visited you in your office. You introduced me to your boss. I was squeezing your hand so hard, you had to pull it away. "
I was so sleepy. I closed my eyes and conjured the scene. It was 1980, just one year before my mother died at 67. I was working as a communications director for the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools.
"Listen," I said. "I'm so sorry I've hurt you. It's not easy being a mother; I'm sure I've done hurtful things to my own daughters. I just hope they forgive me."
"Does that mean you forgive me?" she said, her voice soft.
"Forgive you? There's nothing to forgive," I said. "You were a wonderful mother; I'm a blabbermouth who fancies herself a writer. Will you forgive me for any words I've written, or said, that have hurt you?"
She smiled, that gorgeous one I so easily remembered. "Of course," she said. "I just wanted an excuse to visit. And by the way, you did great tonight."
With those words, I fell into an even deeper sleep.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Using both hands, I slide the bathroom scale away from the wall. It is flat, silver-rimmed, angelic, as if no unpleasant news could ever emerge from its opaque surface.

After first resting my palms against the wall to steady myself, I step on the scale. I close my eyes, count to five, and then open to read the digital numbers.  One-Oh-Six, I say aloud, although no one is in earshot to hear me.

There was a time when that number would have distressed me. It would've sent me rushing to search for a solution that would've lassoed that number and dragged it downward to a desired 100. But now, at age 77, after nearly a lifetime of obsession with my weight, I no longer seek a fix.

One-Oh-Six isn't horrible, I tell myself.  I'm only four-foot-nine-inches tall, and those 106 pounds appear to be collecting - as if they were a family reunion of ten generations -- at my waistline. And, in a full-length mirror, my image seems to resemble a water tower. (Instead of H20, my short cylinder is filled with salt, oil, and beef from the Asian dinner the night before. Those were the nasty ingredients that shot my weight up to its current altitude.)

I'm truly grateful that other things have replaced my former weight obsession, including technology. So, if I did a Google search to find a Weight Watchers meeting near my zip code -- just in case -- that'd make sense, wouldn't it? It's the hunt driving me, after all, not the long-erased addiction.

In my morning journal, I record the page number, time, and my weight. I'm a list maker, you see, a writer who appreciates details. With this daily practice, I am able to go back to journals of many years ago and review the events that demanded memorializing. (In November of 2012, 99.)

I drink my black coffee as I write, and after 30 minutes, it's time for breakfast: a quarter cup of orange juice, a half cup of blueberries, one dried prune, four slices of banana, one tablespoon of plain yogurt. This is followed by one-third of a bagel, one teaspoon of original cream cheese, one slice of lox.  It feels good being able to eat whatever I want, and to no longer be concerned about the scale.

I'm amused when I think back to the time when my weight mattered to me, unlike this present day. Grade school. Mother. You don't need that, she says as she swats my hand from the apple strudel cooling on the stove. 

I can't remember, did she then take me to the diet doctor, or was I already in high school when those visits occurred. After weighing in, a nurse would hand out pills for morning, noon, and night, and then schedule the next appointment.

Weight Watchers opened in Chicago in the '70s, and my two daughters would sometimes accompany me to weekly meetings. Is this true, or am I imagining it: did one of them announce to the leader, after I stepped off the scale and was told I had gained instead of lost: Mommy ate a candy bar.

My first husband was tall and skinny. I was short and pudgy. (120) Although he and my mother differed on many things, they bonded about my body. Using his nickname for me, he once joked to our daughters as I reached for a slice of cake, Mother loves her sweets. We all laughed.

My second husband was short and wiry. A runner and an athlete -- he played softball, ran half marathons, and worked out at the Lakeview YMCA three times a week for 40 years (he was featured in their newsletter). We both became vegetarians; I dropped out after a few months, but Tommy continued the practice until his deathbed. (Now that I think about it, he could've been slightly anorexic in his obsession.) I can't remember him ever mentioning my weight, which I think was around 102 during our marriage and fell to 99 during his hospice.

I know that tomorrow when I step on the scale, the number will likely be One-Oh-Four. And my smart, snickering scale will confirm the two-pound loss. Although I haven't let the One-Oh-Six bother me, I'm certain I will do what any other rational, self-confident woman will do and simply avoid salty dishes, select fish for a main course, and substitute a half cup of applesauce for the same amount of low calorie frozen yogurt.

It's wonderful to be in my seventh decade, content with my self-image, and not the least bit obsessed with my weight.