POST-OP WEEK 53
week of February 1
My dad found a kite one day. And I don’t mean on the ground or at a toy store. He found a kite flying through the air. He was taking our dog for a walk, at the train tracks, like he usually did, let the dog run loose, no leash, pooping anywhere he wanted without picking it up. And, the way he told it, a string came swinging by, I guess, coming out of the sky. He grabbed the string and tied it to a stop sign.
When he came back home with the dog, he told us he found a kite. I had to go and see what he was talking about so I ran through the yard, taking the shortcut through the garages to the next block and the train tracks and there it was, tied to a stop sign, the string. And on the other end a teeny, tiny speck shaped like a kite floating in the sky. I untied it just to feel it pull against the string. I thought about trying to pull the string back to my house but it was too far, across a busy street. Did that for a few minutes, then tied it back onto the sign. I checked in on the kite one more time before I had to come in for the night, squinting at it as it drifted around. All that night in bed, I can remember, thinking about the kite hovering in the black night sky. There was something noble almost about it, like an explorer, I thought, standing vigil or something.
The next morning before school, I ran to the stop sign to find that the string (and the kite) was gone. Broken off or untied I’d never know. It’s weird, but I felt sad about the kite drifting off and away. “Sorry, sonny, but I can’t be hanging around here no more. I gotta be goin’” Or something like that.
I tried to imagine where it might’ve gone but I couldn’t. Space, I figured maybe or the Atlantic probably. Off to another adventure.
I’m never sure anymore if I actually remember this happening or if I’m replaying a story told to me over and over until the story became the memory. But— I was in kindergarten one day. The teacher gathered us in a bunch sitting on the tapestry rug laid out in front of the cubbies where they kept the wood blocks.
One by one, I guess, the teacher had us come up and sit on a chair in front of all our classmates. She’d wrap a blindfold across our eyes and hand us an object of some kind. The point was to try and identify our object with only our sense of touch.
My object was small and round and smooth. I guess I must’ve thought it was a rubber ball because I gave it a squeeze. The surface of the object gave way with a squish; the teacher had given me cherry tomato to feel. Blindfolded, I could hear everyone burst into laughter. I didn’t see the humor in the situation; I felt betrayed, like the teacher should’ve known that a tomato in the hands of a five-year-old was not a wise idea. She removed the blindfold and I looked down at my nice blue shirt with tomato seeds slopped on it and I was not happy.
My dad started a coil and transformer factory after WWII from scratch. Everyone called it The Shop. It did quite well for a long time, provided for us. Everyone worked there at one time or another. My mom. My aunts and uncles. My older sister when she got out of college. Everyone worked there, except me. I’d sometimes do work for The Shop at home (putting little wires into cardboard squares for 2 cents a square), but I never went to work there. Not as a summer job, nothing. I can remember playing there as a little kid but I was never an employee.
My dad, however, had a plan. According to that plan, I “took over” The Shop and ran it some day as if it were my own.
In fact, when it came time to pick a college I didn’t apply to five or six schools to study something that might’ve interested me, I went to the Illinois Institute of Technology. It’s where my dad went to study electrical engineering. It’s where my sister went to study electrical engineering, then business when she didn’t do well at engineering. So, it’s where I was told to go.
I flunked out my first semester; I was okay at math, couldn’t handle the science. My parents and I fought a lot; there was lots of yelling. Through sheer force of will, I guess, I switched majors to photography at IIT’s institute of design. I flunked that semester, too. Lots of yelling again and I eventually transferred to SIU to study film. (My dad said: “Study whatever you want. When you graduate, you come to work for me.”)
Meanwhile, my sister had been working at The Shop five or six years.
My dad had his first stroke during my fourth year; my mom died of an aneurysm at the beginning of my fifth. I eventually graduated and came back to live at home. Dad had another stroke in there, sis started running The Shop, and I got a job as a photo assistant at a catalog studio downtown.
I couldn’t tell you how exactly, but I refused to work at The Shop and never did.
POST-OP WEEK 54
week of February 8
I was about 20 when I got my first job: bartender at a place down in at school. I never had one as a kid, no lawn mowing for money, none of that. My dad used to say, “You’ve got your whole life to work.” The part he didn’t say was: “… at my factory.”
I was a photo assistant, then a photographer from ‘81 to ‘88. A TV writer/producer from ’89 to ’90. I pursued the TV thing for a while.
I took my NBC credit and my Jenny Jones credit, a couple of spec scripts and I started making calls. I interviewed at Channel 11, up on the north side for a writer/producer spot on a talk show they were starting up for a woman named Bertice Berry. Who? Exactly. They were all serious about the show. I came in and we talked. Then I went away for a day or so to write some sample “bumpers,” the little snippets that they put on before and after the commercial break:
“When we come back we’ll be talking to a man who says he talks to ghosts, right after this word from our sponsor.” Stuff like that.
If the next segments were winners from the annual Husband Calling Contest (like hog-calling only with husbands), I’d write— “Coming up next: women who call their husbands, withOUT using a telephone!”) Not what they were looking for, apparently, because I didn’t get the gig.
I think the show actually made it to air for a few months before it was cancelled.
I have a vague recollection of an interview with Vikki Lawrence, Carol Burnett’s old sidekick and star of the spin-off show “Momma’s Family.” We were sitting in a hotel lobby, I can recall, the two of us and an executive producer. She was doing a talk show, too. I think I had some cache because of Jenny Jones. I can’t remember how I got the interview or what we talked about but I know I didn’t get that either. And I don’t believe that show ever saw the light of day.
I got a connection somehow with somebody at The Ben Stiller Show that ran on Fox for almost a year. I knew a couple of people there, had worked with them in Chicago years before, so it could’ve been anyone. They told me to put a few samples of wacky skits together and send them in to the executive producer of the show, a young unknown named Judd Apatow. Whoever it was told me the name quickly so I heard Ape-tel. I didn’t ask him to repeat it or spell it for me. I didn’t spell it back to him. I just addressed everything to Apetel and never heard from them again.
I also, somehow got the chance to send samples into a show called In Living Color, a sketch comedy show on Fox that was supposed to be an urban SNL. The unknown Damon Wayans was in that as was an equally unknown Jim Carey. I couldn’t tell you how I heard about that one.
I think maybe I cold-called them. I did that a lot in those days. Either things were much looser, less formal, or I was just ballsier. Or both. But I’d just find the number somewhere and call around, asking to talk to who ever was in charge.
I was a member of an improv comedy group (on stage, cable TV, WLUP radio, etc) from ’84 to ’94. I was a limo driver, a bartender, and a temp secretary in that time, too.
In ’94 I was trying to get another TV job, sending material to the producer I knew on Conan O’Brien’s new show, when I fell into advertising and, except for my layoff, have been doing that ever since, going on fifteen years.
My wife says I’m never happy at any job, that eventually I get fed up or find something I don’t like, constantly, all the time, so I switch careers. I don’t know, maybe that’s true.
Getting laid off was scary and I was nervous, frantically looking for work right after I got let go. I had four kids and a HUGE mortgage to feed, after all. They gave me a severance and I was on unemployment but we knew the money would run out eventually. My wife got whatever theater job she could at that time (daytime children’s shows, whatever) and I stayed home with the kids. The older two were in grade school and I’d drop them off for the day. #3 was in morning kindergarten, #4 in preschool, so I’d have my mornings to myself and afternoons hanging out with the younger two watching trains or going to parks.
I spent the summer at the local pool hanging out with the neighborhood moms. I’d still look for work, making calls and checking the paper, on-line. Unlike a lot of men I know, I didn’t miss working. I don’t identify myself with my job. I often refer to these 15 months as the best time of my life.
I finally got a freelance job at a small pharma ad agency in the summer of ‘02, which led to the job I have now.
POST-OP WEEK 55
week of February 15
I’m surprised my mom spoke to my uncle (her brother) considering their history. My grandparents came from Belarus (when it was still Russia) back around the turn of the other century. The way I heard the story, my uncle was the oldest of several kids; I’m pretty sure he was born in the Old Country. There were a couple of other siblings, though, I don’t know the gender spread, who died of the flu, I’m thinking in that big pandemic of 1918 or whenever.
At any rate, my mom and her siblings were orphaned in 1928-ish. I say it that way because the way I always heard it, their mother had “put her husband away” in a hospital (mental hospital?) earlier on and then she died. My uncle was 19, but married by then. The next down sister was 16, then my mom who was six, and the youngest was six months. Maybe my uncle couldn’t handle so much because of the Depression but he cut the 16-year-old loose (though I think they didn’t get along) and put my mother in a foster home. He took the youngest sister in. He had a son of his own at one point, who became a Chicago cop. My mother’s life sucked, pretty much after that. She bounced around foster homes, some not so nice, some worse, one family locked her in the small shack they used to smoke meat when she wet the bed.
One Sunday morning they had my mom up in front of a Russian Orthodox church service where the pastor said something to the effect of: “Who will take this child?” A woman my mom always called Mrs. Brodzik spoke up, “Me.” This was the closest thing my mom had to a mother. She would always speak well of Mrs. Brodzik (but never telling anyone her first name). I vaguely remember going with my mom to visit her when Mrs. B was quite old— though I don’t remember what she looked like.
By 17, my mother dropped out of high school and married my dad. (I guess, through it all, she was going to school, which is something.) The story of how they met goes: my mom had a date with my dad’s older brother but he stood her up. Some time later my mom saw someone she thought looked like the brother across the street and started yelling at him something about standing her up, etc. It turned out the person across the street was my dad, not his brother; they looked alike and walked alike. They hit it off and started dating.
I don’t know when exactly but my dad joined the army at some point, they placed him as a lieutenant to start with and sent him to MIT and Florida Tech to study so he could be in the Signal Corp to work on radar equipment. (He had already gotten a Bachelors degree from Armor Tech, class of 1940, the city college that would later become Illinois Institute of Technology- IIT) When he was done studying, they stationed him Hawaii, after the Pearl Harbor attack. He eventually became a captain.
My mom stayed back on the home front, working at a factory retooled to make B29 bomber engines. She always said she felt really good during those times because she was in charge of something— she would inspect the engine after they came off the assembly line and if they weren’t right, she’d reject them. She always said she liked that kind of authority.
Four or five years after they were married, my dad convinced my mom to go back to school and get here degree. I saw her senior yearbook and it says Mrs. Michka.
My mom was volunteering at our Lutheran church one afternoon with my little sister in tow. She was around three or four. My mom and the Pastor were busy working on something. My mom gave my sister a piece of hard candy to keep her quiet and happy. It was an “anise” candy (my mom liked those, she used to eat them all the time) —they were square candies, about an inch long, half an inch wide and half an inch thick.
Everything was fine for a little while, then my sister starting tugging on my mom’s sleeve, trying to get her attention. My mom brushed her off, “not now, sweetie, I’m busy” sort of thing. My little sister tugged again and again until she got my mom to turn around and see that she was choking. She was turning red and purple and she couldn’t speak.
The Pastor saw this, too, and grabbed my sister, heading for the car. My mom got behind the wheel of her station wagon, the Pastor took my sister into the backseat and they drove to the hospital. (Why my panicky mom thought to drive, I don’t know) As they drove, the Pastor had my sister upside down, slapping her on the back, trying to dislodge the candy from her throat.
Eventually the slapping worked and the piece of candy came flying out of my little sister’s windpipe and onto the floor.
My mom used to have these sayings… Some were a bit crass. Actually, a lot were a bit crass.
Sayings like: “Drier than a beggars fart” when she was talking about a cut of beef for example. When she or someone else was bending over their flowers in the garden she’d say they were all “asses and elbows.” When she made a mistake, screwing something up she’d say: “shit and two makes eight!”
When someone went outside in freezing weather, let’s say, wearing a light jacket, she’d say: “No sense, no feeling.” (meaning: this person had no common sense, so they must not be able to feel how cold it is)
When I was not moving along, let’s say. We had to go somewhere, in the car, maybe, and I’d be taking too long getting my stuff together or I just wasn’t moving, she’d say: “Make up my mind…” (You know, a jokey way of saying “make up your mind so that I can make my own decision…”)
There was this little poem she said, too, I’m not sure when it’d come up, but I remember her saying it to me. It came from the old, pay-toilet days. “Here I sit, broken-hearted. Paid a nickel and only farted.”
I can remember her singing this song whenever she’d change my little sister’s diaper. I obviously can’t sing the tune here, but here are the words: “Feet up, pat ‘em on the po-po… Let’s hear ‘em laugh… Ha! Ha!”
When two people were kissing, “making out,” really, she’d say they were “swapping spit.”
POST-OP WEEK 56
week of February 22
My dad finally put in a bathroom, a half-bath, in the basement of our tiny, three-bedroom house. Actually, I think my brother-in-law had a lot to o with it. He and his dad, the plumber. I don’t think my dad did any of the work. Maybe. I don’t remember seeing him do much.
Ah, to be fair, I just remembered he put in a drop ceiling in the basement, I remember him doing that much— you know the kind you see in office buildings, 2X2 foot squares that rest in those metal cross pieces. He also connected lights: giant fluorescent banks of bright light, flooding the place, making it feel like a surgical theater. He did that much. I think they were leftover from his factory.
Our basement was a small place, tight ceilings, cement floor, painted bright red, cement walls. But now there was this bathroom along one wall, sticking out. We paneled it with this grey wood-grain-looking stuff. It helped with us getting ready in the morning. Of course, my two older sisters had already moved out, so there wasn’t much of a crunch in the mornings, but it was the thought that counted, I guess.
Something got in me right after that. A rehab bug or something. I didn’t have much of a bedroom, so a place to hang out with my friends might be good. Red floor and bright, baby blue walls was sort of cool, but I wanted a cooler pad. I put up a couple of posters but that wasn’t enough, apparently.
Somehow I convinced my parents that I knew how to install flooring and paneling. Or maybe they were going to let me, and see if I failed. I don’t know, but all of a sudden I was lying on the floor, arranging tiles. I scraped the loose paint off and found the center of the room (that’s what the instructions said— I read them). I applied the adhesive with a trowel (no peel-and-stick for me!), then started putting down tile— a lovely faux wood-grain sort of crisscross pattern in brown.
One after another all the way to one wall, cutting around obstacles, making sure everything matched. Then back to the centerline and out toward another wall. I even went into the laundry area, around and under the workbench in that part of the basement, and under the stairs. I’m nothing if not thorough…
The floor worked out so well I thought maybe it was time to tackle paneling the walls. So I read up on that. Found out how to install studs into cement, anchoring them with “Ackerman” (I think that’s what they’re called) mounts with screws anchored into the wall with lead material that fans out when you pound on it. Drilled the holes into the cement with a masonry bit. Attached studs to those every 16 inches like they recommend. Then glue and paneling nailed to the studs.
Because the new paneled walls came out from the old cement walls by a couple inches I had to “adjust” the ceiling, cut the metal frames of the drop ceiling and move everything so it’d fit.
Over and over, covering one or two walls, center posts, with paneling. I thought it looked pretty good for a 70s basement in the suburbs.
While I was at it, I installed stereo speakers in the ceiling, too and can-lights to replace the huge fluorescent one’s my dad did— with dimmer switches (although I can’t imagine I did the electrical work, I’m terrible at electrical). In the corner with all my sound equipment, I wired a patch panel where I could connect any piece of equipment with any other piece of equipment, like an old-time phone switchboard. I don’t know if it accomplished much, really, but it looked cool.
I had a “device” they called a “color organ” that I installed into the ceiling, too. A color organ was pretty much just a printed circuit board that you soldered yourself (like solder by number) and stuck into a box with a clear panel in the front. You’d connect it to your stereo and when you played anything, there were light bulbs inside arranged in patterns. The lights would react to certain frequencies of sound: blue for the high notes, yellow for the next range down, green even lower, and red for the lowest notes. It was a psychedelic light show in a 4-foot box.
I took that all apart and installed it in the ceiling. The circuit board installed in my equipment corner (I think in the wall), each light group behind its own frosted panel, shining down on four corners of the basement. This way when you played a song, the basement would light up in a trippy light show. Cool.
I also installed a cool, digital clock into the wall so just the faceplate was visible about eye level in the paneled wall— bright red 2½-inch digital numbers shining. I thought that was a nice touch.
When we got our Betamax, I put that on a cart with wheels normally used for microwave ovens, on the middle shelf, the TV on top. I wired it up so you could wheel the whole assembly anywhere in the room, depending on where you were sitting, and it’d still be hooked up to the cable and electricity that was in the front wall. (I’ve seen my doctors at Northwestern with this kind of set-up for their computers— of course, 30 years after me!)
After this basement project, I got the bug in me to insulate the attic! What for, I don’t know. Actually I think I heard something about how to save energy by keeping more heat from escaping through the attic. So one day, I think it was a Saturday afternoon, I climbed up into the attic with a staple gun and rolls upon rolls of pink scratchy fiberglass insulation and started rolling it out. Again, I think I must’ve read up on it, because I was laying the stuff in the spaces between the joists, like you’re suppose to.
I know my parents paid for all the materials to do these projects, but they didn’t help me with any of them. I did these by myself. My mom would come by when I was up real late, gluing tile down, and tell me I shouldn’t be up so late. But she didn’t offer to help.
I was probably a sophomore in high school.
I may be remembering this wrong but I don’t think they said “thanks” or “nice job” or even smile and nod approvingly when I’d do these kinds of projects. Maybe I’ll ask my sisters but I think they reacted with a “that’s Wally— always up to something…”
diary continues in March 2010...