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Grasslands Driftin’ Cowboys

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by Mark Andel


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by Mark Andel

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Reflections and Ruminations

A Bahamas of the Mind

Bartering For Memories at a Garage Sale

Battling the Bulge: What Makes Weight Watchers Work?

Billy Goat’s: An Oasis of Authenticity

Blame It On El Nino 

Confessions of a Commuter: Briefcase Blues

Consumer Paralysis

Drive-In Demise: An Appreciative Farewell

Fall Fell, Just Like That

Gardening Catalogs

I’m Not Here Right Now

Instant Karma at the Home Depot

New Car Fever

Objects On The Rear-View Mirror

Old Man River

On Autumn’s Brink, Another Renaissance Faire Ends

Taking Some Down Time

The Farewell Tour

What Am I Signing Here?


A Bahamas of the Mind


“Tis brief my Lord.”

“As woman’s love.”

From “Hamlet”

Wm. Shakespeare


In Chicago, when the first eighty-degree day arrives, we seem to forget all the agony it took to get us here.

The pleasure cancels out the pain, which is something like what they say happens when a mother gives birth. The joy of the new arrival makes a mother forget the pain it took to make that arrival happen. (disclaimer: THEY say this, not me. I’m sure many Moms would counter with something like, “Twenty years later, and I can remember the pain like it was yesterday,” and “Thanks a lot for reminding me.”)

Some women claim to have said terrible things to their husbands in the throes of childbearing, as nurses scramble to reassure these dumbstruck, blue-gowned, worried-looking, hair-netted Lamaze coaches that “She doesn’t mean that!” or “That’s the pain talking, not her!” Perhaps much later, the couple will revisit that moment and chuckle about it, and odds are he will have a clearer memory of the blameful invective she spewed forth as she lay there in agony, including something about “never laying hands on me again.” But years roll by. Seasons change. Grudges and hurtful remarks usually melt away given enough time and warmth.

We rarely curse winter when everything’s in bloom. The stinging cold in the face, the endless sidewalk shoveling, the wearing of goofy woolen and fur hats all seem as far away from us as Santa Claus himself once the warm southerly breezes blow and the sun stays up well past its winter bedtime.

This past winter, during a major snowstorm, I made good on an old promise I made to my daughter Jillian that when she turned sixteen, we would go to the Bahamas. A snowstorm had crippled the expressways the night before, stretching the commute to well over three hours to get out of the city. “Just my luck,” spoke the cynical voice in my head, but I kept it to myself.

And a good thing, too, because the jet did take off the next morning, and lifted us over all that dull gray misery on the ground and into bright sunlight in an instant. It’s a freakish sensation, soaring away from all the slow struggles just below us on land and gazing upon that gorgeous cloud bed. I’ve always wondered if the first instant of death will be like that. (I kept that to myself, too.) In a couple of hours, we touched ground in Nassau, where a warm blast of tropical air hit us, and the trees were enrobed in pink and snow-white blossoms. But no snow!

And that’s the feeling spring gives us: a Bahamas of the Mind, to paraphrase Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We need the sensation of warm sun on our faces, the fragrance of flowers coming into bloom and freshly mown grass on a nearby baseball diamond, the echoing sound of songbirds chirruping or squirrels quarreling in a thick timberland.

We need them deep down, need them more than we allow ourselves to believe, because we live in Chicago, and Chicagoans make do with many months of cold and gray misery for a few weeks of long, sunny days. It’s a deal we strike every year with ourselves and our families.

These days, it seems like a good trade.

So we hold fast to the memory of good days, because, very quickly, that memory becomes all we have.

©Mark Andel 2001


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Bartering for Memories at a Garage Sale


There has never been any room in the garage to hold the car.

  Over the years, it has become our own storage depot, where things would go and rarely be seen again. When the accumulated junk finally became stacked so high that it looked like an IKEA store run by Lieutenant Colombo, we knew it was time.

Time for the garage sale.

 So my next-door neighbor Leon suggested one night over tall margaritas that we have a multi-family sale, in which he could sell his baseball cards and tools and I could sell the leaning tower of 486 computers and cable my wife Linda had constructed in the garage. We took out an ad, and sure enough, come Saturday morning, the cars came slowly cruising by, passengers with narrow, hungry eyes, looking like they were preparing to make a drive-by hit.

By 7:30 a.m. I had made my first sale: a beat-up arch-top electric guitar that had gone unplayed for the three years since I purchased it at the Midwest Buy and Sell on Irving Park road, a store full of new and old guitars hung by their polished necks. I had rescued this one, expecting to rock out in my basement and finding out later that the family was happier if I just brushed the strings of my aging acoustic guitar very, very lightly sitting alone down there. Yeah, man, I’ve got the blues. It was sad to see it go.

            And then as the items began disappearing, the cut-rate bartering for my memories attached to objects intensified, and the ridiculous process made me feel as though I were at my own estate sale. How much for the bowling ball? The one that I won as a prize at a golf outing in 1979 and once rolled a 226 with at the Thunder Bowl in EnglewoodOhio? How does a buck sound? Too much? I ended up parting with it for a quarter from some kid on a bike with a backward baseball cap who will probably terrorize his little brother with it by rolling it down the hallway.

How about this tuxedo? There’s a picture of me in that thing standing behind Mayor Daley at a charity boxing event, a cigar clenched jauntily in my fingers. It has a velvet stripe down the slacks and a velvet lapel.  For two bucks, I threw the shirt in, too, and some guy seemed very happy to get it, although his wife appeared nonplussed. You can’t help feeling a bit like Dino in a tuxedo, and a lot of wives just hate that.

I even let some books go, my most steadfast companions over the years. I ended up carting a lot of those back into the house at the end of the day, the ones with titles like Investigating Wittgenstein and Anna Freud’s Journey. Linda’s Dean Koontz books sold like gangbusters, though, paperback and hardcover alike.       

And on it went, this casting off of old vases, clocks, bottles, board games, and an EZ Bake oven that I remember my stepdaughter slaving over in order to quell my insatiable appetite for freshly made chocolate cakes the size of Oreos. The Elvis eight-track never sold. Neither did the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album that seems to make an appearance in everyone’s garage sale. DVDs will make junk men of us all.

When it was all over, Linda and I scraped some cash out of the till and went out for a steak and a few beers and felt like you do when something is done: glad to be rid of the mess, but hopeful that you can hold onto some memories when the objects that were involved in yours are cleared away and sitting in a stranger’s house.

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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 Battling the Bulge: What Makes Weight Watchers Work?


“My salad days, when I was green in judgment.”

- Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra


My wake-up call to lose weight came after a hospital diagnosis on December 26.

“You had too much Christmas,” the ER doctor told me when I said that I felt like a giant slimy lizard was in my stomach waiting to burst out and scoot across the floor like that one in the movie “Alien.” In a way, I was hoping the monster would emerge, so I could lose a few pounds.

Our friends Brian and Julie had gifted us with a one-pound box of Belgian chocolates, and I ate nearly every one of them while watching a new Beatles video that my sister-in-law gave me. “Maybe just one more,” I kept telling myself, until I was surrounded by empty little corrugated brown trays. This was after a big ham for dinner and a few ham sandwiches on the side. Too much Christmas, indeed. I waddled around like I was in my 9th month, waiting to give birth to a gigantic hazelnut and raspberry truffle.

  So, like a hundred million other Americans, I resolved on or around January 1 to lose some weight. There were diets out there by the hundreds, to be sure. A cabbage soup diet purported to allow a safe ten-pound weight loss week if you ate nothing but cabbage for the whole week. This is a most unpleasant exercise and does nothing but make you miserable for the duration of the seven days as you pine for a taste of anything else. When the week is done, you order up a few Italian beef sandwiches with some fries and you’re battling your way back to your bulge in no time.

            Therein lies the problem with diets. Whatever foods are restricted, those are the ones that call your name the loudest in the stillness of the evening, when there’s nothing between you and the bag of double-stuffed Oreos but a flimsy pantry door.

            The low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, of course, is the meat-and-cheese-lover’s dream, with no restrictions on either. But what are great slices of Genoa salami and provolone without some crusty Italian bread to slip them between?

            You want the thing you cannot have, and you want it constantly. This is human nature, and this is why diet fads don’t work for very long.

            An investigation into lifestyle changes is in order for all who long to lose weight.

For me, during the past five years, food had become a comfortable refuge from an unpleasant job, a terribly long commute, and a general rush to squeeze in the stuff of life that had once provided real sustenance: yoga, leisurely reading, sports activities, long, unhurried walks by Lake Michigan. Instead, I found myself hip to chubby hip with men and women in suits, standing on line at the McDonald’s counter at the Metra station at 6:30 p.m. waiting to order to the two-Big-Macs-for-two-dollar special, and super-size that, will you?

And then, I discovered something. It was the line from the Weight Watchers commercials saying that you could eat what you want as long as you count points every week. Every food item has a point value. It resonated deep down. Oreos? Okay, just count the points. Italian bread? Yes. Belgian chocolates? Sure, but maybe not a whole pound of them.

So far it’s working. The biggest change is mental, a desire to feel better than you do when you eat a box of cookies. I’ve lost twenty pounds in the past month, my wife has done very well herself, and I’m sure we can lose twenty more pounds each in the next few months. Our grocery cart is no longer a source of embarrassment, and we started swimming again. We’re on our way. We don’t want to go back to the fat stuff. We’re getting older but we’re arriving at our true salad days.     

 And we’re allowed to put dressing on it, too.



©Mark Andel 2002


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Billy Goat’s: an Oasis of Authenticity


IT IS, OF COURSE, the legendary Mike Royko who was most responsible for spreading the word about Billy Goat’s Tavern on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago, across the street from Royko’s old office in the Tribune Tower.

It’s the kind of place you descend to, much like the set-up they had in the TV show “Cheers.” The red linoleum table cloths are still there, the cheeseburgers cost $2.50, and newspaper columnist by-lines are blown up and placed haphazardly above the bar. Being located between the Sun-Times and the Tribune, Billy Goat’s always drew a lot of journalists. There’s Jack Griffin, Bill Granger, Robert Cromie, Maggie Daley, George Vass, Tom Watts, John Bell, and Roger Ebert, all yellowing and peeling off the wall. But the brightest star in this particular firmament is “Mr. Big,” Mike Royko himself. At Billy Goat’s, everyone certainly knew Royko’s name, and they either left him alone (he was never inclined to suffer the company of fools) or if they had the guts, they’d pull up a stool next to his.

 “He’d always sit right here,” Ronny told me, pointing to a stool just to the right of the front door. “Either there or at the other end. You didn’t want to argue with him, that’s for sure. You better have all your ducks in line, or he’d slice you apart. He had kind of a mean streak, but you always had the feeling he was just having fun with you.”

 Ronny was having a beer at 9:30 in the morning. I stopped down at Billy Goat’s after a business meeting in the Wrigley Building. I ordered an egg and cheese sandwich on a Kaiser roll. It cost a buck eighty-one. Ronny’s beer looked pretty good, so I ordered one myself and started asking about the storied tavern.

 “It’s quiet in here now,” Ronny went on, seemingly surprised by that fact, even if it was morning-time in a tavern. “You should come back about 3:30, when Jeff gets here.”


 “The bartender,” Ronny said. “He’s more Sam Malone than Sam Malone. He doesn’t drink, and he plays golf every day, doesn’t he, Bob?”

Bob took a sip of his beer. “Yeah,” he said.

Then Ronny got onto a touchy subject, and for a moment, I felt as though I were sitting next to Royko’s fictional character Slats Grobnik.

 “What about this Clinton thing?” Ronny asked, testing the waters.

 Well, he’s certainly taking a bath in some pretty hot water.

  “Not hot enough,” Ronny said. “That water should be hot as hell.”

 “Who cares?” Bob broke in.

  “The man lied!” Ronny moaned. “He had a hand on a Bible and he lied through his teeth!”

  “So what?”  Bob said, really stirring up Ronny’s ire.

 Instantly , I got a brief taste of what Royko loved about this place. The egg sandwich was tasty, the beer was good, but more importantly, this is a place where people bounce things off each other. It’s got the feel of a neighborhood bar, right under a street that plays host to fancy designer shops and galleries and a bunch of fancy yuppie eateries that would have made Royko’s flesh crawl.

It’s real, and authentic, and honest and inexpensive  – all the things that journalists crave. It was good stopping in.

 “Here’s to Mr. Big,” I said, hoisting my beer.

   That was something Ronny and Bob could agree on. ~

©Mark Andel 2001


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 Blame It On El Nino


  FROM THE SOUND of his name, he could be a bouncer at a disco in Cicero.

He's big, bad, and unpredictable as they come. And if he has a notion, he can lay waste to your village. He's a claims adjuster's nightmare. He's the talk of the town. And he's hot.

            Literally. As far as I can tell, El Nino is a mass of hot water as big as the continental United States, bumping against all the other cold water, turning the oceans into something like a big baby pool. For some reason this affects weather patterns on a grand scale, but so far, nobody around Chicago is complaining. When it's sunny and forty-something in February,El Nino is everyone's best friend, Typical exchange at a bus stop: "Nice out, huh?" "Yeah, must be that El Nino." And then both parties smile knowingly, although neither one knows much at all, really.

            A certain level of acceptable ignorance comes into play here. Since none of us can imagine having a four-hour chat with Tom Skilling to find out what the phenomenon is really all about, we fake it. Unusual bit of weather? El Nino gets the rap. The nightly news is full of video clips of cars being swallowed up by sluggish mudslides in California, torrential rains flooding out trailer parks in places like Kissimmee, Florida (which sounds like something someone named El Nino might say when he's feeling amorous) and gale force winds in South Carolina absolutely wrecking someone's round of golf. Through it all, the voice of the announcer mentions El Nino as the culprit, as though the big warm water mass should be on the FBI's most wanted list for inciting plagues of biblical proportions on small coastal towns.

            When all the devastation is boiled down, and all the nice days around Chicago are credited to this phenomenon, what we are left with is a vague feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty. Naming the phenomenon affords us a level of comfort and familiarity -- something we can point to and hang our hats of reason on. Without El Nino, we have "the thing which cannot be named" -- the cold, brute force of nature itself, and that becomes terrifying, making us aware of our own fragility as small earth-bound creatures.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that if someone told him when he was drunk that that he was hurtling through the vastness of space at an incredible rate of speed on a tiny, unseen orb that would one day be as desolate as the surface of the moon, he would immediately start weeping. Confrontations with the awesome power of nature are scary -- and liberating at the same time. The number of people who feel the urge to jump into Niagara Falls upon seeing it for the first time is higher than you might think. There's something attractive in giving yourself over to a larger phenomenon and going along for the ride. It's like being in love.

Ultimately, it turns out that the best we can do is blame it on El Nino when we find ourselves in hot water, weatherwise.~

 ©Mark Andel 2001


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Confessions of a Commuter: Briefcase Blues


 A LONG COMMUTE puts a real strain on the old briefcase.

 When you live as far north of the city as Woodstock and you're facing down an hour-and-a-half train ride each way, you tend to load up your briefcase until it's heavier than Willy Loman's sample case. You've got all kinds of stuff in there: a bottle of water that you drew from the tap that morning into that liter-size Evian bottle you keep around for show, a couple of chocolate chip cookies because you know your kids will have eaten the rest of the batch before you drag your sorry self home at 8:00 that night, a spread of magazines that surprises even you (everything from "Caribbean Monthly" to "Parabola" to "Architectural Digest" and "Time"), a portable cassette player and a handful of tapes, extra batteries, a folder of work papers that don't ring a bell anymore, a daily planner that's thicker than a Big Mac carton , and three daily newspapers because three years of this trip has turned you into a stone newspaper junkie.

The idea of boarding the train without suitable reading material is enough to strike mortal fear into your soul. You have found yourself in that predicament before when you left your briefcase at work and didn't have time to purchase a newspaper. You have stood edgily in the vestibule, waiting until the train makes its first stop at Clybourn, and then scrambled through the aisles looking for a discard, any discard. In these moments, finding a pizza-stained "Weekly World News" is like scoring a first edition James Joyce novel. You're hungry for the printed word; it doesn't matter if it's a story about a scientist finding Elvis' sideburns on the ocean floor (which is a real "Weekly World News" story by the way, told in very convincing prose).

Sometimes you carry around a batch of magazines for weeks without looking at more than an article or two, and the weight of your briefcase has scored grooves at the top of your shoulders. But you don't care. That heft represents sweet assurance to you, telling you that you have access to escape the dull landscape that slides past you out the train window.  The buildings out there have long ago lost their appeal to you. Your greatest fear is that you will doze off between Crystal Lake and Woodstock, miss your stop and find yourself wandering the streets of Harvard, seeking advice on cab fares from "Harmilda," that big plastic cow in the center of town there.

Maybe out of your anger at having missed your stop, you start telling Harmilda about the Chicago cows on parade last year, the ones that brought more than $60,000 each when they were auctioned off. "Not bad, eh, Harmilda?" you say. "I bet nobody ever offered that kind of dough for you." Of course that may be because common sense rules the day in these parts, instead of urban one-upsmanship. At any rate, you find that Harmilda exhibits a kind of Zen-like calm that you wish you had, the kind you read about in that thick issue of "Parabola" last month, the one you're still carrying around in the briefcase.

 When you arrive in Chicago with your bloated briefcase, you envy the folks walking around with thin attachés that couldn't hold more than a Snickers bar and six pieces of paper. And then there are the women with perfectly reasonable-sized purses who don't struggle at all under the weight of them, and slack-jawed teenagers with small backpacks who may never have lower back problems their whole lives. You survey them all with an odd mix of jealousy, but something else, too. Serenity, maybe.

You like living in Woodstock, with its cobblestone Town Square. You like going to the movies and being able to park right next to the theater instead of driving all over the place looking for a spot that doesn't require a special city sticker. You like the neighborhood dogs that come over and greet you when you're walking past, and you like knowing them by name.

And deep down, you like having three hours a day to do nothing but read or listen to music. But maybe some padded briefcase straps would help.

Or an expedition-sized, aluminum-frame backpack. ~

©Mark Andel 2001


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 Consumer Paralysis


It takes me several hours to go to the grocery store to get a few items.

I can waste an entire Saturday evening at the video store deciding what movie to rent.

I can stare at a menu through many visits of a waitress asking, “Have we decided yet?”

I am suffering from a distinctly American illness called “Consumer Paralysis.” It occurs when I am faced with too many acceptable options and cannot make up my mind. I survey the grocery store shelves and video box racks and menu items and I am totally flummoxed. It all looks perfectly fine to me, but what do I really want? I’m lost in America. There are just too many possibilities here for us.

Take the grocery store. I shudder when asked to go to the store to pick up some salad dressing. I stand stock-still, gazing at rack after rack of bottles filled with all kinds of colorful, spice-filled and chunky liquid from the deep crimson of Balsamic vinaigrette and eggshell white of creamy garlic to the key lime shade of Green Goddess and salmon pink of Thousand Island. If it were acceptable, it would be nice to smell them before being forced to decide which to buy. I have bought Roka blue cheese simply because I liked the word “Roka,” though I have no idea what it means. It reminded me of one of those Tiki drinks they serve in carved wooden cups in Polynesian restaurants, so I went with the feeling. A few months later, my wife Linda unceremoniously tossed it. It’s cruel and unusual to send someone like me to the store to buy salad dressing.

Or brownie mix. Or maple syrup. Or waffles, for that matter.

There used to be a brownie mix that I liked because it said this on the box: “Chocolate Brownie Mix.” Surveying the shelves this past weekend, I was assaulted by Turtle Delight brownie mix, Double Fudge, Double Deluxe Chocolate, Caramel Swirl, Super Chunk Chocolate with Walnuts, Rocky Road, and Cheesecake Dream, of all things. And then which product spokesman do you go with? Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines? On the maple syrup front, whom do you go with? Mrs. Butterworth or the reliable Aunt Jemima? Or should you get Karo because the name reminds you of something you read in Huck Finn? But that was spelled differently, wasn’t it? Another fifteen minutes pass as you ponder that. Then you notice that there’s cinnamon-flavored syrup and raspberry-flavored syrup and real Vermont maple syrup in a small tin jug that costs sixteen dollars.

You visit the waffles. There’s Homestyle Eggos, Buttermilk Eggos, Blueberry Eggos, Apple-Cinnamon Eggos, and there’s your old pal Aunt Jemima again, looking younger and prettier and more fit than you remember her as a kid. She’s got more of a June Cleaver look now, you decide, and she’s wearing a smart-looking necklace. Her waffles are square instead of round like the Eggos: very retro. You debate in your head about this for a while, and recall the waffle iron that your brother Tommy used to have. Now those were great waffles! You decide to go with the Homestyle Eggos because they look like the ones Tommy used to make. Another fifteen minutes has passed.

Off to the video store. If you’re a victim of Consumer Paralysis, you feel compelled to read the copy on every box. You spend an inordinate amount of time in the “Classics” section even though you were instructed not to get anything “old and weird.” You check the new releases. You look for the ones that have a whole wall of empty boxes and only a few videos left tucked behind them. Popularity of a film must count for something. There’s only one copy of the Keanu Reeves flick “The Watcher.” After an hour of reading boxes, you take it up to the front and learn soon enough that popularity doesn’t count for anything. You wished you had gotten Tracy and Hepburn’s “Adam’s Rib” or “Braveheart” or “The Quiet Man.”

Another symptom of Consumer Paralysis? If your partner is with you, and you start reciting lines from movies you’ve seen to her, then you’ve got it pretty bad. To you, this movie rental business means everything; as if it’s the only movie you’ll see for a very long time. More often than not, when you finally bring something home, it’s approaching 10:00, and your wife is watching something else.

When it comes to menu reading, the victim of Consumer Paralysis will as a matter of course read every item description, including appetizers, sometimes aloud. We can’t help imagining what the entrees will taste like, and attempt to approximate the feeling prior to committing. Sometimes, you become aware of other victims. “Is the halibut fresh?” You’ll hear someone ask their waitress, and you know that the couple is in for a long night.

Maybe that’s what we victims of Consumer Paralysis like about places like The Billy Goat downtown. You can get a cheeseburger or a double cheeseburger. That’s pretty much it.

And a coke.

No Pepsi.

An actual restriction in the land of the free!

Well, that just suits us up and down.

©Mark Andel 2001


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Drive-In Demise:

An Appreciative Farewell


THE NEW YORK Times Sunday magazine recently ran a short piece on Drive-In Movies, featuring recollections from celebrities on their childhood experiences at these disappearing stations of Americana. The photos of the hulking, patched-up movie screens, stark against the nighttime skies, looked like struggling, doomed dinosaurs.  The article itself had the moldy whiff of nostalgia and sentimentality on it, like a favorite book unearthed from a damp box in the basement. To paraphrase Norman Mailer, such is the odor of funk and loss. It carried me back in time.

My first drive-in experience was of Biblical proportions. My whole family packed into a Chevy wagon to see Charleton Heston in 'The Ten Commandments.' I don't remember too much about the movie, except my father giggling at Edward G. Robinson's performance with his high, chirpy laugh that I imitate to this day, and then eating the best crinkle-cut french fries I ever had, after breaking open about ten small packages of ketchup over the paper tray, and squeezing their minimal contents over the top. Blanket and pillows formed our makeshift lair, and I swear, as Charleton's Moses implored the ocean to part in a critical scene, all of nature conspired to bring on a breeze that bent the treetops behind the screen. It was the original interactive "sensurround" experience.

When I was twenty one and plenty old enough to know better, my brother Chris and I went to see 'The Seven Voyages of Sinbad,' a movie that promised to be chock-full of Ray Harryhausen stop-action animated monsters at a Drive-In near Richton Park. Our date was a gallon jug of Mad Dog 20/20. Somewhere into the third reel, I vaguely recall twisting off my rear-view mirror to get a better look at the screen while my brother went outside the car to do battle with a huge on-screen walrus, using an imaginary spear. Every time the beast lunged forward, my brother stepped back gingerly in the gravel, and positioned himself for a good thrust at the throat.

The muffled laughter of girls could be heard from nearby cars, but his concentration remained unbroken. When he came back in the car, completely drained and fatigued from battle, Chris asked how many of his men got killed, to which I inexplicably answered, 'Two.' He took it pretty hard. I offered him a drink.

When I lived in Tennessee a few years ago, the Woodzo Drive-In in Newport had their concession stand microphone wired into the movie's speakers. Once while watching McCauley Culkin threaten someone with absolutely no conviction whatsoever in "The Good Son," a voice crackled over the window-mounted speaker in a low, nasal Southern drawl: "Your pizza's ready." My wife and I agreed we were in the perfect place at the perfect time. We still say that to each other when we see a particularly unengaging movie performance: "Your pizza's ready."

In Chicago and the suburbs, you would be hard-pressed to find any Drive-In theaters in operation. They're disappearing, to make room for sleeker, more profitable 10-screen Cineplexes, which feel, for all they're worth, like watching someone's big screen T.V. in a rec room. There aren't even any fake stars painted on the ceiling (an attempt to imitate the grandeur of cinema al fresco) and no dramatic statuary. Just tasteful, voluminous drapes, closing the curtain on an era. ~

©Mark Andel 2001


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Fall Fell, Just Like That


    LABOR DAY WEEKEND is famous for its quick-change artistry. During the length of time between Friday morning and Monday night (practically overnight, really) the seasons changed. Technically, fall doesn't arrive until September 21st, but the chill in the air, the leaves suddenly appearing tinged with reds and yellows, and that inevitable question from my wife, "Do I need a sweater?" tell me that it's official enough. It's here.

 Summer technically arrives on the 21st of June, but by then, kids have cannonballed innumerable times into the neighborhood pool, Little League baseball is in full swing, and school is a quickly fading memory. Memorial Day weekend is when summer really begins. And when it arrives, I also get the inevitable question from my wife, "Do I need a sweater?"

There is no definite answer to this question, I've found. You can never use your own body's temperature as a barometer or thermometer, as the case may be. A man, perspiring heavily and feeling stifled by the heat could look around a room and find women hugging their arms around themselves to ward off a chill. A "yes" or "no" answer to the sweater question simply shows lack of experience. You can give a direct report of the temperature and let the woman decide for herself if that evidence by itself merits some extra fabric, but this is largely unsatisfying for the woman and shows a certain "coldness" on your part.

 You can step outside briefly and invite the woman to join you and in so doing get her to experience the elements first-hand. And then you can turn to the woman and say, "I don't know what do you think? Sweater weather?" Never step into the heat of an early fall or early June day and declare, "Nah, you don't need a sweater," because sure enough, when the sun drops below the horizon, she will ask you for your shirt, leaving you to fend for yourself in your t-shirt. (By the way, when that happens, and she asks, "What's the matter? Are you cold?" the answer is always, "No, I'm fine." Just hope quietly to yourself  that she doesn't see the goose bumps.) Or you can say this, which I've found works very well: "You may not need one right now, but you may later, so you should probably bring one along."

And then you say this, for extra credit: "Let me carry it for you." Girls never quite get over someone willing to carry their school books for them. There's a deep, psychological truth at work here, and it applies to many things. Put it to your advantage.

 The arrival of September causes an academic reflex in me. I recall crunching through leaves to board the school bus, the way the sun slanted into the school's library window at a certain hour of the day, the aroma of vanilla pipe smoke coming from the faculty lounge.

I even took up pipe smoking briefly as a young English major at Elmhurst College and grew my first beard. Selecting the pipe was a matter of great significance. My roommate J.C. and I went to John Popp's store in Elmhurst and surveyed the wares. Different brands and textures of tobacco were in huge glass jars behind the counter. A triple beam scale was used to weigh the ounces. I picked out a rough-hewn briar number with an albatross bone for a stem. This after having just read about the albatross around the neck in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in Doctor Barclay's Survey of English Literature class. The slender bone had a delicate curve and was the color of a blanched almond. Gorgeous!

 Later, amid friends, I tried to tamp out some old, smoked tobacco into my palm like I had seen some professors do, and the albatross bone cracked in two. Gluing it back together was out of the question. I had visions of the flammable glue flashing mid-smoke and igniting my beard. I left pipe smoking alone soon afterward. Winter was hard upon us, and smoking a pipe or a cigar indoors was a sure ticket to isolation.

And yet, come September, the urge hits - not only to smoke a pipe, but to read some Coleridge and Wordsworth and Lord Byron and all the rest. Doctor Barclay instilled in me an affection for literature more than twenty years ago that that resides deep down, an affection that come September still glows like the soft orange embers in a favored pipe when you breathe it in. Doctor Barclay wore tweed knickers and a short gray beard and small wire-rimmed spectacles, and he knew more about English literature and poetry and the language than anyone I had ever seen before or since.  He's retired now, and in early September, as I put together my lesson plans and lecture notes to teach English Composition 151 at McHenry County College, my thoughts float toward those years and those times in his classes (I took every one I could!), and as I get ready to go to my classroom, a question arises like smoke from burning leaves that begs to be answered:

 Do I need a sweater? ~

©Mark Andel 2001


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Gardening Catalogs


“I don’t have a thing in the ground.”

-- Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”

During the depths of winter, few things cheer me up as quickly as getting a gardening catalog in the mail. They are a spring breeze let in through the door, with their lush photos of beautiful flowers in bloom, ripe orange and red tomatoes bending heavily on their staked-up vines, and strawberry plants growing impossibly enormous and sweet fruit in big terra cotta pots on the porch.

I used to get more excited when my copy of Esquire arrived, with its glossy pages of starlets, and it occurs to me that it must be a function of age, this new-found affection for pictures of hostas and dwarf lilac bushes. The older you get, the more you want to plant things. To feel underneath freshly dug earth in order to insert a flowering plant of some kind is to connect yourself to something major: to be rooted and grounded in the awareness of your own mortality, and to realize that whatever happens down the road, you had, at least, some good days in the sunshine.

Winter, at least in Chicago and all points north, robs us of that experience for a while, and so it is nice to see pictures of growing things and know that it will all be happening soon, that the tulip bulbs resting just underneath a few inches of soil now will germinate and come back to us again, if only for a too-brief time come April, and that crocuses will sprout around the shaggy bark of the old hickory tree down the block.

We crave the sun like an old dog.

Hank, the beagle-bassett mix that we got a year ago from the Pets In Need shelter, sprawls on the floor in the only patch of sunlight that slants into the living room window on a lazy weekend afternoon. He finds that patch of light, needs it somewhere deep in his old bones, just as we do. Notice how his eyes close in the bright light as something very like a smile creases his baggy face. He will lay there as long as the sun is on him, and will follow the patch of sunlight to various places on the floor until it disappears. There are dog days of summer, but there are dog days of winter, too. These are them.

I planted grape vines outside the house last year, and built a makeshift arbor out of stakes supported by the kind of wire used to make electric fences. It’s a wonder it held up during the heavy snows of December. The brown vines are clinging to the wire, holding on for dear life, reaching corkscrew tendrils around the stakes as they make their slow ascent toward the sun. To see the first green buds appear again will create an almost primal sense of pleasure in me – a feeling that would have been totally foreign to me a decade ago.

Chicagoans should be congratulated for all they endure during these cruel and bitter cold months. Amazingly, we remain pretty civil to one another, with the exception of those folks who attempt to save a freshly dug out parking space with a rakish scarecrow on a lawn chair only to be dismayed past civility when someone removes them.

We make do and we get by. We cling to our hope for a season that seems so far away now amid the gray slush and salt-spattered cars moving slowly along under the dead white of a winter sky.

The catalogs help. They remind us of the need to be always hopeful.

©Mark Andel 2001


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I'm Not Here Right Now


THE COMMUNICATIONS AGE has your number. It knows how you can be reached. It has your cell phone number, your beeper number, your e-mail address, your home and office number, and your CB handle -- even though you haven't used it since the Eighties. You can be found -- make no mistake - unless you lie into your own answering machine, which many people do.

It goes something like this: "I'm either on another call or away from my desk at the moment, but if you'd like to leave a brief message, I'd be happy to call you back soon…" A pack of lies. Here's another: "I'm not here right now, but your call is very important to me…." More lies.

Chances are, the person whose machine so sincerely tells you these things is sitting right there next to the phone, chugging a Starbucks, rolling her eyes when she hears the caller say, "If you're there, pick up."

Answering machines have given us a certain amount of freedom, but they can make liars out of us. What are the reasons for someone saying that they're on another call? Because the truth is bad for business. Imagine a message that went like this: "I'm sitting here at my desk, but I'm sick of all the inane calls I've been getting, so I'm screening this one. I would just as soon have you hang up right now so I won't be obligated to phone you back, when, in all likelihood, I'll get your machine and have to respond to whatever lies you're telling people on your taped message this week. If you must, speak when you hear the obnoxiously high-pitched squeak."

The only thing I can figure is, people wish to give the appearance of industry. Their plates are full, but there may be a little corner where they can heap on just a tad more responsibility. They don't want to miss anything in this big bowl of fiber-optic spaghetti. Leave a message -- and they'll call you back! They are compelled to claim that another responsibility is taking them away from the call at hand. It's almost an apology -- and it needn't be that way.

I have a brother named Chris who lives in Tennessee. He doesn't have an e-mail address and he doesn't have an answering machine and he doesn't have "call waiting," which he calls, "The scourge of the planet." If you call him and he's not home, you hear the phone ring six or seven times, and then you try again later. When you're talking to him, you never hear a click and have him say, "Wait a minute, I've got another call." And if he happens to be on another call, you get a busy signal. It's great. And simple. And honorable.

"Call Waiting," in his estimation, causes nothing but resentment. Someone interrupts your call. You tell them that you're going to put them on hold while you field another call, which, in effect, turns you into something like an ill-mannered switchboard operator. And then you tell the person who broke in on your call that you're on another call, giving them the impression that the call  your were already on is infinitely more important than this one. Or worse, you decide to take this call, and dump the one you were on. You get back on the line and explain who it is on the other call, hoping that the other person will take the clue and hang up. You can't come out of this situation with a gain of any kind.

Answering machine messages should be short and sweet. And truthful. You don't need to lie. You don't owe anybody any explanation. You don't have to say where you are or what you're doing that's preventing you from taking the call. Just say, "This is so-and-so. Please leave a message if you like."

It would be a gentle personal victory in the Communication Age battle, in which the tools that are supposed to serve us sometimes end up enslaving us.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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Instant Karma at the Home Depot


"You better recognize your brother

Is everyone you meet.”

-John Lennon


YOGIS, GURUS, GUARDIAN ANGELS, and enlightened masters are not always easily  recognized by us as we go about our everyday lives.

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, guardian angels were very popular. People wanted to believe they had one on their shoulder at all times. In fact, I tried to ensure it by having a reproduction of a William Blake engraving of a weeping angel tattooed on my left shoulder by a burly, bearded guy named Kendall at a little tattoo parlor on Roosevelt Road. I've never regretted it, but I can't say that the little blue seraph in the wrinkled robe has ever helped me out of any jams. Mostly people just say, "Is that a tree?"

Occasionally, we meet Zen masters that influence us and make us better people - and more often than not, we're not aware of their influence or their gentle pull on our psyches. The subtlety of the encounter is brilliant, vital, and important beyond words.

There is a yogi at the Home Depot in Vernon Hills.

He is an unassuming man, humble and modest to a fault. He helps customers and makes them feel good about being where they are, and about coming to the Home Depot to have him help them with their needs. He was born in Bombay, India, but spent most of his professional life in Great Britain and the United States, a background which has provided him with exemplary manners, and full possession of the golden keys to the house of Eastern philosophy. His name is Jack Shenoy, and the journey which landed him here is a story unto itself.

I worked with Jack for a while at Newark Electronics, producing a huge catalog full of obscure connectors and DIP switches, until the company decided to hire an orangutan to run our department, making the situation intolerable for us and prompting our departure. What helped us get through the day there were our "philosopher lunches." We would walk around the blocks near Lawrence Avenue and Ravenswood and talk of all manner of things - the temporal nature of life, the laws of karma, the possibility and likelihood of reincarnation, the cycles of life and death, Buddhist and Christian thought, the importance of breathing correctly, and the crystalline awareness of  the smallest ant on the sidewalk carrying a crumb across the vastness of a concrete square.

If Jack focused and meditated, he could put himself in the ant's place to the point of weeping, so strong was his fellow feeling for God's creatures. To be sure, allusions to Sisyphus were brought up, the mythical figure who was doomed to push the same rock up the same hill for all of eternity.

Working at Newark, we could relate pretty easily to that kind of sentence. It was just a matter then of waiting for the black boot to come down and send us to our next incarnation.

Although our friendship is mostly over the phone now, Jack is quick to remind me that friends don't need to speak to each other every day or even every week or every month. Our awareness of our friends in our own minds will keep us close to them in their minds as well, he reminds me. Family members can go for years without seeing each other and yet, when they get together again, it is like they have never been apart. This happens because psychically they have not been apart for even a moment. How do people go on living when their parents are dead? This is how.

I miss those lunches with Jack. Encounters with an enlightened master can pull us out of the mundane aspects of life that wear us out - the remembering to pick up the dry cleaning, the stocking of our pantries, the circulation of a memo or the distribution of an e-mail - and plug us into an awareness of the world before the world consumes our physical selves. It's all over so quickly, and on that last day, will it matter at all to us, as we perhaps look at the gorgeous blue sky with more longing than we ever felt before, that we wore pressed and starched shirts to go to a place where we sat all day long for years looking at a computer screen? Will it matter that we met our Winter sales quotas instead of attending our child's performance as a reindeer in the school play?

Jack is nice to his customers at the Home Depot, but not just because that is his job. In his new role, he imparts something special to them as he gives them what they need. For one customer, an old woman who needed some paint for touching up her bathroom, Jack found out that she needed some caulking done around her tub as well. When he left work that day, he arranged to stop by and do the job for her, free of charge. Another man had trouble with his shower head. Jack figured out what was wrong with it, and the grateful man told him, "God bless you," then subsequently bought a lot of other merchandise at Home Depot.

That "God bless you" meant the world to Jack. According to him, in the only  bank account that matters, the more sincerely intended "God bless you's" we can deposit in there, the better off we will be, as the Karmic wheel spins.

Sometimes the most important life messages we receive come from people we regard too lightly. If someone seems too preoccupied with today's business section or The World According to Oprah, they should step away and take a deep breath.

There is better information to be had out there, and more tuned-in messengers. ~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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New Car Fever


ONE THING THAT THE AUTO SHOW at McCormick Place attempts to inspire in everyone is desire: an unabashed lusting for painted metal and sleek rubber that new cars and trucks and SUV's are. There's something about the way they gleam when they're indoors, too, something illicit about it all, like having a lip-glossed girlfriend in your Mom's living room. She shouldn't be in here like this, all potential energy and promise, but doesn't she look great?

It's no fun to think that if you were to drive one of these burnished beauties home, by the time you got there it would be streaked with salty gray, fat lumps of ice would be hugging the wheel bases, and it would look remarkably like . . . every other car on the road. Talk about a short honeymoon. Next thing you know, you'd be listening for little noises that shouldn't be there, little squeaks and groans from all the plastic out there in front of you. "Will you shut up?" you'd say, and slap discontentedly at the dashboard.

We're taken in by the romance though, every time the car-makers roll out their fancy new models, preening like so many fashion designers. Even the brochure descriptions read like something out of Vogue: "Sleek styling that will guarantee that you stand out from the crowd," and "Comfortable and responsive, with an attention to detail you wouldn't expect at such an affordable price." And the colors! There is no such thing as "red" anymore.

It's "candy apple," or "brick" or "bull's eye" or "carmine" or  "sunset" or "bauxite," of all things.\

For a time, we do our best to keep that much-ballyhooed "new car smell."

There's even an aerosol product by that name that smells very much like an air mattress doused with model airplane glue. They could call it "Eau de Vinyl." And then, it happens. One day you walk out of the grocery store, and you see it. The first ding on the driver's side door. Not long after that, the first Quarter Pounder with Cheese wrapper hits the floor, and you see this bauxite-colored lump on the back seat that could only be Radical Red Bubble Yum, which turns pink (I mean "coral") when you scrape at it. And when you see the cola-colored stain on your custom logo floor mat, you know that your car has been baptized and is now a legitimate member of your family. And it's a relief somehow, like loosening your necktie.

I know someone who keeps his car spotless. He has no children, no dogs or cats, and his friends quake when they enter his pristine vehicle. I got in once and checked myself for dog hairs before getting into the passenger seat, brushing off every last one. If only I could train my dogs to do that. His carburetor looks like a silver serving tray, and he's perpetually picking imaginary lint from the seats. He never loosens his necktie, and I have a feeling he never quite participates fully in the feast of life, or if he does, he certainly doesn't spill any of it. I sometimes wonder what he'd do if I got in the car with a gooey double dip sugar cone of Oregon Blackberry and Rocky Road. Something about being around clean freaks brings out the Rodney Dangerfield in me. For me the dried layers of Baskin-Robbins on a car's seats represent the true archaeology of the vehicle - and contribute in a strange way to its intrinsic value, if not its blue book value. Cars undeniably become a part of someone's life, extensions of themselves.

That dream of what a vehicle can bring to a person's life is what's being sold at the annual Love-In called the Auto Show. And it's interesting that the SUV size has seemingly topped out and the newest vehicles that will come rolling out of showrooms across the country will be hybrids - part car, part truck, part SUV. They will be sturdy-looking vehicles to be sure, and will accommodate plenty of passengers and groceries and lumber and plumbing fixtures from the Home Depot. They will have back ends that swing down like small pick-up trucks, but they will be lower and more car-like than a typical SUV.

They will be "station wagons," but you can bet your 3.9% financing that they will be called something else. ~

©Mark Andel 2001 


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Objects on the Rear View Mirror


You can tell a lot about a person by the object they elect to dangle from their rear-view mirror.

The variety is inexhaustible, but there are some time-honored favorites such as the fuzzy dice (now available in red or blue!), the bridal leg garter from a wedding reception, the graduation tassel, and the green pine tree air freshener. Other items are more obscure or comical or downright bizarre, such as the medium-sized stuffed bear I saw recently on the mirror of an SUV, swaying like a hanged criminal.

Certainly some choices are more momentous than others, but some seem like life-affirming totems, or the polar opposite of the momento mori, or skull placed on a scholar’s desk to remind him of his mortality. The great German writer Goethe kept the skull of his good friend Schiller on his desk for nearly two decades. It’s no wonder he wrote such depressing novels as The Sorrows of Young Werther.    

Indeed, I have seen small skulls and shrunken heads suspended there, too, and trolls with rainbow Don King hairstyles, and cardboard Playboy logos and pictures of girls who don’t look much like wives or girlfriends, in cutoff jeans or bathing suits with wild danger in their eyes. In the old days, you might see feathered roach clips with leather braiding and perhaps a Navajo dream catcher made of twine moving slowly in the van next to you. Only an insubstantial dream could be thus captured, I’m thinking.

Most intriguing to me are the objects that defy explanation. It is one thing to see sunglasses or air fresheners in all shapes and sizes, from the aforementioned coaster-like pine trees (also available in all shades and smells!) and cherries, lemons, watermelons and a veritable slot machine’s bounty of other fruits and vegetables, to small wicker baskets with droplets of eau de vanilla in them. It is quite another thing to see a piece of fabric or a filthy hankie knotted up on the rear-view mirror. These objects beg for an explanation and a reason to be.

I have taken to writing little stories in my head when I see something unusual on the rear-view mirror of a nearby vehicle. A blue knitted baby pair of baby booties might bring to mind a mother whose hunger for existence was filled by the birth of a son. Perhaps the child is older now, but through the object on the rear-view mirror, she can still reflect daily on those tiny boot-stockings, and those tiny feet that were warmed by them once. There may have been a matching cap as well, a handcrafted gift from a loving new grandmother. They were placed there with tender care, to be sure, the reasons never fully known.

A copper bracelet suspended on an old pick-up truck mirror might be a remembrance of a soldier long gone, a victim of a skirmish in the Seventies that was never called a war. Maybe it is touched every day by a grieving loved one, and feeling it there and seeing it brings a modicum of comfort.    

My wife keeps an authentic 60” strand of love beads on her rear-view mirror, looped over itself and knotted as neatly as a cravat. When the sun is shining, the small glass beads glisten as though they were just pulled from a treasure chest. They are a joy to see. On the rear-view mirror of my Jeep, I have a pair of miniature boxing gloves tied together the way boxers do with their gloves when they are leaving the gym. The thematic difference between the love beads and the pugilistic bent of the gloves does not escape me, but I have rarely wondered why they are there. They were on my old car, too. Perhaps they remind me of a time when I was younger and stronger and wished to convey a go-to-hell brashness. Perhaps I still do, though I have not been in a boxing ring for more than ten years.

And maybe the leg garters and graduation tassels accomplish the same thing for people. Maybe they transport them to a happier, healthier day when the world seemed so full of promise and good cheer.


©Mark Andel 2001


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Old Man River


"You smell good. You smell like toasted cheese sandwiches my mother made for me

when I had a temperature."

- Anthony Perkins in "Psycho II"


ALTHOUGH I’VE NEVER really heard brooks babble (unless you count an old art appreciation teacher of mine named Mr. Brooks) I have to admit to a certain affection for the sound of gurgling, splashing water. I'm so drawn to it, in fact, that I recently went overboard (so to speak) and purchased a little desktop fountain.

It's fake bronze with a little cherub perched at the top, looking down narcissistically at his own reflection bubbling up in the top tier, while a Captain Nemo-like clamshell basin catches the water that drips down and recirculates it.

After I got it, the first thing I did when I came home was plug my new fountain in, stare at the moving water for a while, and then rearrange the pieces of shale in the basin so I could redirect the racing of the water ever so slightly. Watching the water running over the cool black rocks would transport me to a certain trout stream in Tennessee with my brother Chris on a fine Southern summer day.

But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that this desire of mine to hear water may not be just some kind of Piscean post-partum blues about not having a decent trout stream in Chicago. In the flow of that water, if I listened hard enough, I could recall the muscular pull of every flooded creek I ever waded as a kid, or picture a green garden hose stuck with pin holes spraying a rainbow mist to leap over on a hot summer day, or recall a bedroom aquarium, pouring water steadily through a filter while I slept, or the sluggish blackness of the Mississippi River at night in the Iowa town I lived in -- and in all of those sounds I could make out the rushing and singing of my own blood, and its own recirculation and journey of replenishment over the years. It just keeps rolling along.

Certain aesthetic things transport us. The nuance and connotations are different sometimes, sometimes they're the same. The smell of burning leaves. The creak of a farmhouse floor. The odd, heady aroma of lighter fluid, charcoal, and sizzling beef on an open fire. The flapping of sheets hung out to dry on a clothesline. The taste of cherry Kool-Aid. Or the sound of rushing water.

We seek a certain reassurance in the familiar, as we develop our quiet rituals. Some people can't go to sleep with the radio on. Some people can't sleep without it. I still recall the tinny sound of an inexpensive tape player (the kids got all the good equipment) in my father's bedroom playing the Mills Brothers singing "Cab Driver" or Eddie Arnold singing "I Really Don't Want To Know" for the umpteenth time. If I hear those songs today, I long, in a profound way, for the distorted tinniness, so I can be more easily transported, and I wonder if, at some not-too-distant date, a recollection of my own nocturnal playing of a Vern Gosdin CD or Hank Williams' Greatest Hits will one day have the same effect on my girls. I wonder, but I really don't want to know.

I've since moved my fountain into my office, where it has been received with some speculation and bemused expressions. One associate of mine refers to it as the "Champagne fountain," likening it to something you might find at certain wedding receptions.

If that association transports him to a memorable time, when he, bow-tie askew, got down with a pretty girl to the strains of "Proud Mary" or "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" and the memory of it makes him feel the slightest bit better about things for that moment, that's just fine with me.

Drink in whatever association you like. Drink it all in. Drink deep.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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On Autumn’s Brink, Another Renaissance Faire Ends


“Much have I traveled the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen.”

-        John Keats


The Renaissance Faire in Bristol, Wisconsin shuttered the clapboards on all of its shops and folded its tents for another season this past weekend. As I sat brooding over a pint of ale and a roasted turkey leg watching the shadows lengthen, I mused on the ongoing popularity of these festivals.

            My wife Linda has always had an affinity for the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and as a little girl enjoyed comfortable reveries in the pages describing that particular time in the history of the western frontier:  a time that seems to me fraught with the equally disturbing perils of Indian raids and itchy clothing. But she loves imagining a life then, and that is the journey that books can take us on, if we let them: an inexpensive conveyance to another time.

And so it is for the assembled throng here at the Renaissance Faire, all dressed in silken, embroidered finery that would be the envy of Queen Elizabeth herself – and I’m talking about the men. The Renaissance Faire is the world’s largest participatory theater, and it’s difficult to distinguish whether the person in the feathered hat begging “your lordship’s pardon” is on the payroll or is just enjoying his afternoon of role-playing. And therein lies the charm.

              For a mere $75, a person could get a season pass good for nine weekends, and become part of the pageant until it seeps in so deep that it becomes inconceivable to leave the house without your leather jerkin on and a pewter-handled mug strapped to your belt. The time machine that H.G. Wells envisioned and that Mr. Peabody perfected is truly evident here, if you suspend your disbelief and shut out the sightings of yuppies in golf shirts with cell phones, who must think themselves “too cool” for a tunic and a snood (those droopy hats that courtiers wore).

            Where else can you see jousting without having to eat an entire roasted chicken like you do at Medieval Times or sword fights breaking out in the path right before you after some choice name-calling that seems right out of the mouths of Falstaff and Prince Hal? Where else can you see an enactment of a visit from the Queen? Where else can mimes find work?

Not to mention the hourly mud eating.

There is a guy there whose job it is to eat one mouthful of mud after another and appear to enjoy it. It reminded me of my old job at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.

Not only that, consider the “current” fashion trends of tattoos and body piercing. It was even more popular in the days of the Renaissance, and so the assembled guests today have even more of an appearance of authenticity. And this event is all about people watching and participation, as you watch Sir Shine-A-Lot clank past you in a full suit of chrome armor, or notice three belly dancers jangle by. It’s fun. And something else, too.

    If you believe that there are old souls roaming around out there looking for a place to belong, people of another age who possess a lustiness of mind and spirit, and a hail-fellow-well-met quality, then this ground belongs to them. And here they are able to inhabit the linen and velvet clothes wholly, having a place at last away from the traffic that smothers the flowering of the spirit.

At least for the summer.

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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Taking Some Down Time


WHEN WE LEAVE old friends we tell them that it has been way too long, and that we'll have to get together more often. We say our good-byes, and then watch the seasons change a few times before we hear from them or decide to call them again. Our jobs take over, chewing up our time faster than a ten-year-old on a pack of Bazooka.

Our days become a monotonous routine, making every morning seem like a Road Show version of the movie "Ground Hog Day." Try as we might, we can’t do anything too differently.

I make it to the Metra station about 7:15 every morning. There's nothing like a train to make you stick to a routine. Every day, I see the same man standing in the same place near the track, a studied location where he has calculated the door will open. Every day, he's peering at the same brand of newspaper, with the same overcoat on, the same plastic-framed glasses, the same blocked haircut, the same pink, clean-shaven cheeks, and the same look of self-satisfaction and contentment on his face that seems to say, "My life is running with the precision of a fine timepiece." I feel like smacking him and pulling his hat over his eyes. I can’t explain why, fully.

"Life's too short." Ask anybody. Who hasn’t committed the phrase to memory, or nodded sagely when someone has said it to us? And yet, what progress do we make, day-to-day, in real terms? We continue to get up and go to work ad nauseum, come home to the same variations on a theme for dinner, and then watch television shows that won’t demand too much of an engagement of our brain before we drift off to a coma-like state, only to be roused again by the beeping of an alarm to begin the same process anew.  Where's the fun in that? Where's the living in that?

It is incumbent on us to rebel a little bit. People firmly ensconced in jobs don't take enough days off, in my opinion. It may seem like an  call to anarchy, an encouragement to ignore the country's GNP, and a proposal that would make Mr. Greenspan's blood run cold, but I'm going to say it anyway: do yourself a favor and call in sick. Plan a day off from work with your spouse or an old friend. Do something you enjoy, maybe something you haven't done for years.

A while back, when the Chicago Film Festival was in town, my wife and I noticed that the 1960 Best Picture of the Year Oscar winner, "The Apartment" was playing on the big screen, a favorite old chestnut of ours.  There was no question about it. We would forget about our jobs for the day and go.

We had a nice, long lunch in a Downtown restaurant, and then we went to the movies in the middle of the day, holding hands. On the big screen, when Shirley McClaine asked Jack Lemmon why she never fell for nice guys like him and always got stuck on cads like Fred McMurray instead, and Jack Lemmon said, "Well, that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise," I felt a tear leak out of the corner of my eye. My wife squeezed my hand. All in all, it was a better day than I can recall having on the job in recent memory. It took a piece of 40-year-old celluloid to make me tap into the emotions of real life.

And that's the thing. That moment when I was shirking my responsibility stays with me more tenaciously than the zombie drone of Groundhog days that are the norm nearly every day of the year. Another time, we caught a Kandinsky retrospective that was in town. The vibrant canvases excited us, enlarged our sensibilities, made us feel connected and human. That day rings as clearly in my mind as a Zen gong. Many other days are a blur.

Imagine if we were really able to live life every day by filling our hours with activities that really mean something to us, hanging out with people we choose to be with, feeling those bright pieces of joy that we know are out there. 

What a wonderful world it would be.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


The Farewell Tour


 TWO WEEKS POST new year, my wife Linda recommended having a "Farewell Tour." That was enough to strike fear into my post divorce heart, but what she meant was saying good-bye to the fast food establishments we've known and loved over the years and begin an austerity program. But not before having a gluttonous celebration with them and spending some "quality time" with their cheese sticks.

    We would spend the weekend visiting our favorite fast food restaurants one more time - make absolute pigs of ourselves - and then at the end, we would slide out of those orange plastic chairs, scrape incredible loads of paper products into trash bins by the door from our plastic trays, and bid them adieu.

    It seemed like a plan: so much better than going cold turkey (but if you've ever had the cold turkey at Erik's Deli on Oak Park Avenue - I digress). It was going to be tough. Not only would we eat meals out, we would watch a few movies and load up on Milk Duds and popcorn, and Twizzlers - and then say good-bye to those as well ("My sweet!"). I did happen to find a Hershey with Almonds in my coat pocket yesterday, which I still haven't told Linda about. I have to wait for the right moment. I fear slipping in one night to find her at our well-lit kitchen table holding that sleek silver wrapper with the chic block letter brown jacket and saying, "Is there something you need to talk to me about?"

    For breakfast, it was going to be the bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit at McDonald's. Ounce for ounce, it's a real contender in the fat-'n-calorie festival that our Farewell Tour was all about. For lunch? Two slices of Gigio's sausage pizza, the one near Broadway and Lawrence. Painted on the window of this small joint under the el tracks is this line: "Best pizza in town!" For years, no argument from me. "Buonissimo!" And now, "O Solo Mio!"

And dinner? We were watching "The Sopranos" on HBO, and in every other scene, someone was eating pasta that looked gorgeous - with the emphasis on "gorge." I had to get the meat ravioli at Napoli's. My wife had an Italian beef. And it was over.

    It is over.

    Farewell and adieu.

    And now? The places that were left out play on my mind like scorned lovers: the saganaki at Central Gyros ("Ooopahh!" it seems to cry out to me), the steak-and-eggs at the Alpine on Irving Park, the barbecued pork chop sandwich at U-Dawg-U on Touhy, the char dog at Flukey's on Western Avenue, with the pickle relish that's as green as a field of clover, the warm  pecan pie with whipped cream at Baker's Square.

    Farewell, old friends! We'll meet again.

    (Just not when my wife is with me.)~

 ©Mark Andel 2001


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What Am I Signing Here?


YOU’VE COME TO the end of the deal. The salesman pulls out a ballpoint pen and pushes the contract toward you. It's dense with copy so small you can barely make it out, and every so often, you notice an "X" scribbled with the pen of the salesman, indicating where you are to sign. The paper is thin and there's a white sheet, a pink sheet, and a light yellow sheet. If you sign one, it will bleed through to the other two, without carbon paper. You start to wonder what ever happened to carbon paper, but decide this is not a good time to ask.

You pause mightily. You realize that reading and comprehending every word of every page in front of you would take the better part of the afternoon, but your wife has already started clutching the top of her handbag -- your signal to wrap things up.

You give it the college try anyway. Your Dad always taught to read everything before you signed it. You imagine him peering over your shoulder, looking at the print on the contract, head tilted up (the better to engage the bifocals). Guilt gnaws at you, in spite of the fact that your wife has started stealing glances at her Mickey Mouse watch, and you could swear that she shared an eye-rolling shrug with the salesman.

You scan the first paragraph. When you reach the first "hereinafter" your eyes glaze over. By the second "wheretofore" you feel little beads of sweat begin to form on your forehead, and you wonder whether it's really true that many lawyers majored in English. At this point, it seems quite impossible. You reach the phrase "party of the second part," and you slump in the vinyl chair, and stare grimly at the Styrofoam cup of 12-hour coffee the salesman graciously offered you, looking for some kind of sign. Marcel Proust reading tea leaves in "Remembrance of Things Past" comes to mind. You don't mention it.

And then, you give up. You try to stay jovial, but with an edge of impatience that you think your wife will appreciate. You ask the question. "What am I signing here?"

            The salesman is only too happy to oblige. "Oh, that first part is just saying that I told you about the 30-day warranty," he says. "Then why doesn't it just say that?" you ask. Suddenly, your wife's eye rolling is a palpable thing. The salesman chuckles. "Well, you know, we've gotta keep those legal boys happy," he says, letting you know that if it was up to him, why, a handshake would be just fine. Pause. "Why do we have to keep them happy?" you ask. Another roll of the eyes, and finally, it's on to the next ballpointed "X."

            It occurs to you that there are many documents out there which have the legal imprimatur of your signature, which you've never fully read or taken the time to decipher, and the reason why is clear -- many have been signed quickly, rashly even, at the behest of a hurried salesman.

Somewhere in there could be buried the phrase, "The party hereinafter referred to as DOLT agrees to permit withdrawal of funds of not less than $10,000 per annum from monies in the joint account shared between DOLT and EYE-ROLLER, commencing immediately upon DOLT signing near said X below." You'd never know it. Instead, you ask the salesman what it is your signing, and rely on a straight answer -- one provided to you in plain English.

It turns out that's just the way the salesman likes it. And those legal boys are pretty happy with the arrangement, too.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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