• Conquering My TV Phobias

    Television can be a scary thing for the uninitiated. The red light goes on, I play with my hair just a second too long. The camera hones in, I look at the wrong one.

    I trace it back to the first time I ever appeared on TV. It was on WGN. The year was 1965. And OK, I was not the featured guest on Bozo’s Circus that day, but I had air time. And it was not pretty.

    I went to the show with my mother and my sister, tickets courtesy of my Uncle Norman, who I think had some unsavory connections. My older brothers got to come home from school during lunch hour to watch as TiVo had not quite been perfected yet. I think my dad even came home. All the makings of a future Brady Bunch episode.

    Considering that at age 4 I was deathly afraid of clowns in any form, the idea to go to the show was probably ill-conceived. The fact that Bozo wore your typical size-24 clown shoes and had your typical fire-engine red clown hair, did not help.

    I’m told I trembled as we walked into the big top.

    At home, my brothers gathered closer to the set in anticipation of the show’s big moment – choosing contestants for the Bozo Buckets with the magic arrow. The magic arrow, seen only by the television audience – hence the magic – zipped through the grandstand, landing on the lucky head of a little girl or boy. If it landed on an adult, Ringmaster Ned or Bozo or Oliver O. Oliver would yell disappointedly, “Oh, it’s a mom,” and then the magic arrow search would commence once again.

    Try to imagine, if you will, two boys, ages 11 and 13, watching from home as the arrow landed on their 16-year-old sister, only to hear Bozo yell, “Oh, it’s a mom.” And then, just as that humiliation began to die down, to see the arrow settle on their younger sister, who could have come down and at least hit two buckets given that they had practiced all week, but instead burst into tears. On television.

    Ringmaster Ned and Bozo and.Oliver did not have anything to say for kids bawling, other than to once more set the magic arrow in motion and move on. Needless to say, we slinked home in disgrace – after I cried through the Grand Prize March, of course.

    I have been back to the WGN studios since then and I still get the shakes.

    Thursday night at WTTW was considerably easier, I must say. For starters, there were no clowns. Also, I am getting much better at TV. And in the hands of an interviewer such as John Callaway, whose “Chicago Tonight” show I taped Thursday night for airing on Channel 11 Friday night, I would have had to be legally mute to fail completely.

    Of course, if I had been someone with something to hide, like a politician, for example, Callaway would have eaten me for lunch and then flossed whatever remained. Callaway is to the interview what Sir Georg Solti was to conducting; what Emeril Lagasse is to the kitchen knife. And in his hands, I was butter. Or to continue this really fun game of never-ending analogies, he was the Lion King (complete with the James Earl Jones’ voice) and I was little Simba, knowing I could be crushed at any moment and yet feeling safe and secure as I tried to trot after him.

    We talked about my book “Sweet Lou,” and about my website and about being fired, rather laid off, in the prime of your career. It was about this point that I tried to remember exactly what the non-disparagement clause said in my Tribune severance agreement. 

    As a journalist, just hearing John Callaway introduce you by name must be what it feels like for a baseball player to have Bob Costas do it. I left his set Thursday night feeling exhilarated and extremely fortunate, even without remembering a single word I had said.  

    It was not the first time I had been interviewed by the master. I hope it will not be the last.

    The Bozo demons, I can confidently say, are nearly behind me.

    Watch Melissa on WTTW-Ch. 11 Chicago — Chicago Tonight with John Callaway. 

  • Facebook Rants and the Woman with No Pants

    When you say things like, “I don’t understand Facebook,” you risk sounding ancient, un-hip, dumb — none of which looks good on a resume.

    That said, I don’t understand Facebook.

    I signed up – well, ok, my daughter signed me up – for the same reason I do a lot of things, because someone told me I should.

    I should point out that this rule of thumb has not always worked well for me in the past. Once I shopped at a boutique because someone told me I should, ended up spending $1,300 and getting sued for defamation. I would explain, but not sure I want to go down that road again.

    I am reasonably sure I am not the only person to make this observation about Facebook, but here goes — who’s talking to whom? And what are they talking about?

    I thought I knew a little something about Facebook before I joined. I knew you had your own page. So I pictured a sort of video bulletin board with pictures of friends and family, maybe a recipe or two, memorable sayings and warm exchanges. Not a corkboard on my locker, where any stranger passing by could scrawl graffiti or — as the case may be – tell me they’re looking for mayonnaise.

    Not that it can’t be interesting at times. The very first week of my Facebooking career, I found out that someone I knew had a part of their personal anatomy “propped up.” I did not need to know this about the woman. But I can’t say it wasn’t entertaining.

    I can be entertaining. Not necessarily in that way because I don’t have any surgery to share. But I could talk about my friend Debbie and I going to lunch today and sitting next to a woman with no pants.

    We saw the woman getting out of her car and Debbie, being from out of town and unfamiliar with the area, asked if there was a pool nearby. I said no. Debbie then asked if the temperature was indeed in the 50s and rainy and I confirmed that yes, this was true.

    At this point, we could only hope that the woman, who was 60ish, was wearing a bathing suit under the button-down blouse that did not – I repeat, did not – provide enough coverage for anywhere but poolside, and even that would be up for debate.

    I should also, just for the record, point out that our restaurant was indoors, had table linens, menus and located not in Berkeley but a Chicago suburb.

    As luck would have it, the woman sat next to us, enabling us to take stock of the situation and make sure that before we passed further judgment, she had all of her faculties and really was half-naked. Check and check.

    It also allowed us to watch the woman leave the table for the restroom, and overhear her friend remark upon her return that she had made an especially quick trip.

    “I didn’t take off my bathing suit,” the woman explained.

    Now, I would love to read this kind of stuff on Facebook. Allow people to offer their own interpretations. Or to simply let it slide as Debbie and I ultimately opted to do, given that we were eating lunch at the time.

    But no, other than the occasional plastic surgery gossip, you never get that really good, substantial stuff.

    I’ll have to try Twittering. I heard that’s fun. And someone told me I should.

  • Patrick Hat Trick

    Turns out, Patrick Kane didn’t have to grow a full beard – or even a scrawny mustache. He didn’t have to bulk up. He didn’t have to stop ordering ice cream with chocolate sauce after every meal or taking long naps or playing video games.

    Kane, the top draft pick in the National Hockey league last year and a 20-year-old who still looks like he’d mow your lawn for a couple bucks or babysit if he had a free night, is a full-fledged, full-grown star.
    Monday night, Kane had three goals and an assist to help the Chicago Blackhawks clinch their playoff series against Vancouver and advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 14 years.
    A year ago, I stood with his parents in Kane’s bedroom in Buffalo, N.Y., looking at his trophies and pictures on his wall. I looked at the jerseys and the blankets and the posters and hockey cards. I leaned on his bed to get a better view of some stuff framed behind it.
    And then I ate baked spaghetti at the family’s favorite restaurant and drove through a blizzard to London, Ontario, Patrick’s last stop on the junior hockey circuit before the big-time.
    It is where, I believe, I came to fully appreciate the relative wholesomeness of the sport compared to others, which may sound a bit odd when you are talking about a group of men whose vast majority are missing their front teeth and sport scars that would make hardened felons blush.
    Watching Kane pose after Tuesday’s thrilling victory with his three pucks, I knew that his parents were beaming. And not because their prodigy had fulfilled their every dream, but because their boy – 18 when he was drafted by the Hawks last season – was fulfilling his.
    Patrick’s father, Pat Sr., whom his friends and family refer to by his childhood nickname, “Tiki,” owned an auto dealership in Buffalo until one day while on his cellphone with his wife Donna.
    “Patrick just scored,” she told her husband from a game when Patrick was competing in Detroit for one of the top junior programs in hockey. “Oh wait, he just scored again.”
    “My heart is breaking,” said Tiki, describing the oft-repeated scene. “What am I doing?”
    So he quit a job and sold a business that had consumed him.
    “Our goal was to be No. 1 in sales and I don’t know if that [competitiveness] rubbed off on Patrick but it was very important to us,” he said. “But I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
    Though Patrick was more than dedicated to his sport, this was not a kid wearing skates by age four. At four, he spent a year refusing to wear anything but a Batman cape and hood. At six, he learned to skate. Just skate. No stick for a year until he could handle himself on the ice.
    By 10, the other kids were asking Patrick for his autograph.
    Still, they continually questioned the kid’s toughness. He was tiny, even smaller compared to the older kids with whom he consistently competed. But he excelled because he learned to evade the checks, to be more agile, to become a gifted passer and an even more gifted scorer.
    He also grew up with three younger sisters, and that will toughen up anybody.
    “I always tried to get my sisters to play hockey,” he said. “I remember one time they said ‘OK, we’ll play hockey with you, but only if you play dolls with us.’ It worked like that with my sisters.”
    His dad had taken his son to Buffalo Sabres games from the time he was two, sitting along the glass with Patrick propped on his lap.
    “I’d sit right on the glass,” Patrick recalled, “and I could see everything right in front of me, all the players. I got to see the ice, see what those guys were doing. I went to so many games when I was little that you fall in love with the great players. We’d go to warm-ups and see what the great ones did, how they stick handled and stuff like that, just to learn.”
    Only once did the son rebel against his father’s “enthusiasm.”
    “He’d definitely get on me if I wasn’t playing up to my potential,” Patrick recalled. “I remember one time when I was in Detroit, the coach was really tough on me, a real big motivator and if I didn’t have a good shift, he’d be all over me.

    “Looking back on it, it was really good for me because he’d get the best out of me. But I remember one time, he ripped me too hard after a game or something and I kind of went to my dad upset, and said ‘It would be nice for you to be my dad now instead of giving me advice.’ That was it. And it’s been like that ever since.”

    When Patrick left home for junior hockey as the great ones do — 14 years old but looking like eight according to those who knew him — Donna Kane’s little boy couldn’t stand it.

    “I remember the first night I was crying and called my mom and said, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” he said. “But give her credit. She said later she wanted to turn around and come get me, but she decided to keep going and let me gut it out for a bit and see where I was after a couple weeks. And after a couple weeks, I was fine.”

    In the meantime, his parents drove the five hours to Detroit at least once every week to see him play and he’d come home for weekend visits briefer than the drive.

    Hockey players stay with “billet” families (the phrase comes from the practice of lodging military personnel in private homes), and Patrick had surrogate moms and dads and siblings in Detroit and Ontario.

    When he woke up one night in London in horrible pain from a horribly infected wisdom tooth, it was Sylvie Richer, his billet mom, who sat up with him.

    “He was just a gem, we just absolutely adored him,” Richer said.

    I saw Pat Sr. and two of Patrick’s sisters after a Hawks’ game I was covering for the Tribune recently. I asked him how Patrick’s mouth was after his son had severed off his front teeth in a collision with teammate Jonathan Toews several days earlier.

    Patrick has a habit of taking his mouth guard out on the ice and letting it dangle from his mouth. A bad habit, evidently, as he was doing that when he ran into Toews.

    His father shook his head. And how about Donna, I asked? How does she handle it when her son gets clobbered?

    “She’s very strong in front of him, then she’ll walk away and collapse,” said Pat Sr., acting out his wife’s body language as he sunk into a corner, his head in his hands and a smile peeking out.

    A year ago, Patrick lived in the basement of Stan Bowman, who was in the Hawks’ front office and is the son of Scotty, famed Stanley Cup coach and now Senior Advisor to the Hawks. Kane’s parents were making the car payments on his Jeep Wrangler.

    His parents came to nearly every game.

    “I think it was even tougher on me when Patrick left home because I was the one who took him to the rink,” Pat Sr. said. “When I’d go to Chicago practices, Patrick would say, ‘Dad, why do you want to go to practice?’ But he doesn’t understand how much I enjoy just watching him skate.”

    After Kane was drafted, then-Blackhawks’ coach Denis Savard joked to me, “When I was 18, I didn’t know how to make toast.”

    And at 5-feet-10, 175 pounds, Patrick Kane still looks like your little nephew.

    “But my thought on that,” said Donna, “is that if Patrick was 6-4, 200 pounds, he wouldn’t be the player he is today.”

    The player he is today is a playoff hero.

    The player he is today, is all grown up.

  • Eating Brownies, Listening to Fogelberg

    Most days it is my computer that beckons to me like an only friend. And then other days, like today, it is a pan of brownies. Make that two pans of brownies. Two pyrexes of my mother’s brownie recipe that I brought to a friend for Mother’s Day, but are now back in my house because she did not want her family to gorge themselves on the leftovers.

    No, much better that my family/I gorge.

    I’m wondering when this became acceptable to send back unused fattening desserts with the guests who brought them. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law and I perform this dance all the time, nearly coming to blows over who will be stuck with the excess birthday cake, cookies and whatever else we will be cursing the next morning.

    “I don’t want them in my house,” one of us will yell at the other until the nearest male simply takes it out to the car while the women are still arguing. It’s always a gracious way to end any gathering.

    Being a woman, I have spent considerable time pondering the direction of my life and wondering whether I’ll do it underweight or overweight.

    I ate almost nothing for two days after the financially motivated dissolution with my former employer (just trying out different ways to say “laid off”) and thought this might be a bright spot to unemployment.

    Then the trauma gave way to depression and somewhere on the way to resurgence, I found my appetite and then some. So now I’m wondering if Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers or someone might consider a deal like Hyundai’s, which allows you to return their car if you lose your job within the year.

    Like maybe if you gain more than 10 pounds after you lose your job, they’ll come to your house and weight you in private.

    You know, just some kind of gesture.

    So desperate am I for inspiration that I recently stopped my spin class at the ‘Y’ in mid-spin to ask what song was playing on the instructor’s iPod. So for a few days, Dan Fogelberg’s 1975 hit “Part of the Plan,” was my new anthem.

    I especially like the part in the chorus when he says, well sings, that I should “cry when you have to.”  I’m pretty sure he was talking about some ugly break-up with a girlfriend and not losing your job as a sportswriter, but that’s not really important right now.

    What is important is that I’m eating brownies and watching the end of “Dancing with the Stars” and not at the Blackhawks’ game right now.

  • Motherhood II

    Storytelling, I have decided, is sort of the verbal hieroglyphics of a family, the color added to the commentary; the explanation for the picture of your brother dressed as a princess at age four long after everyone has forgotten it ever happened.

    After a couple dozen re-tellings, stories take the place of actual memories. They fill in all the gaps.

    My mother was a fabulous storyteller. So good that at some point, she simply took over my father’s own childhood stories, which were clearly lacking, and told them herself.

    She’d recall detail from 50 years earlier, what she was wearing, the precise dialogue, the emotions she was feeling at the time. But if there was any chance at injecting humor into a story, which was pretty much always, you never knew where the facts left off and the improv took over.

    As a true child of the Depression, she told us of her father Morris, a loving,  hard-working housepainter, and her mother Bess, a woman scarred from her own abandonment as a baby, moving from apartment to apartment on the West Side of Chicago, to escape landlords after rent money often gambled away by her mother.

    But even this my mother would recount without a trace of melancholy. Like the roller skates she rented for seven cents an hour with her best friend Rhea – “I paid four cents and she paid three,” my mom would explain, “because Rhea was really poor. Her father was on relief.”

    It was my grandfather Morris who would take my mother, his youngest of three girls, for a canoe ride on the lagoon. “He bought me a sailor suit,” my mother would recall lovingly. “And then we’d row out to the middle of the lagoon, I would throw up over the side and then we’d row back.”

    There was also the one about her goldfish, which swam round and round in its bowl on the kitchen window sill until one day, with a hot summer sun pouring in, “it jumped out,” my mom said, “and committed suicide.”

    “Committed suicide?” I asked.

    “It was the Depression,” she’d say with perfect timing.

    She told these stories even as her short-term memory faded. The dress she was wearing when, while playing stickball, the neighborhood bully pushed her down, imbedding gravel in her knee. The Chinese doll — her only toy ever, she said, I think to inject the story with some added color — given to her by her beloved older sister Pearl. The game she played under her mother’s dinette, the tablecloth concealing her grown-up, make-believe life in “Chi-Town.”

    They were her memories, but somewhere along the line they became mine, as clear in my mind as if I lived them myself. And yet why couldn’t I remember the final words she spoke that made sense? The last time she looked at me and knew it was me. For a while, I beat myself up for not having the good sense to ask her more questions while she was still able to answer them.

    Like how did she make her brownies so light and cakey? How did she always know the right thing to say to make us feel better?

    How were we supposed to fill in the gaps without her?

    I miss my mom today.

    Seniority always rules on Mother’s Day. You may be a mother, but your mother or mother-in-law is still the guest of honor. And if her mother is still around and at the party, she is the queen.

    This is how it should be. You are your parents’ children until they are gone. And then you are the adults.

    Thank God for my mother-in-law, because I am no more ready to be guest of honor at that party than I am to be queen.

    But I think I’m finally comfortable in the storyteller role, able to conveniently make up details to fill in the gaps whenever necessary. And thinking of my mom every time I do it.

    I never knew her father Morris, but it was his humor that everyone remembers. And it was our grandfather who surely passed it on to my mother and her sisters, a trait imbedded in me and my siblings and my children, a gene I pray will sustain my grandchildren and their grandchildren for generations to come.

    “Did I tell you about the time my father came into our apartment dragging a long rope over his shoulder?” my mother said, and of course, I pretended she hadn’t.

    “I was so excited I couldn’t stand it,” she began. “He kept pulling and pulling on the rope. ‘Daddy, daddy, what is it? What is it?’ And then finally, at the end of the rope, was an adorable, scrawny little puppy. I named him Spot.”

    “Spot?” I would say. “That was the best you could come up with?”

    “It was the Depression,” she would reply, seemingly the perfect answer for anything. “What did I know? Can I finish the story?”

    “Sure,” I said.

    ” ‘Oh daddy, I love him, I love him,’ I said, and I was so excited I jumped up with the one roller skate and stepped on the dog,” she said calmly. “And that was the end of Spot.”

    “What do you mean, the end of Spot?” I asked, horrified. “You killed the dog?”

    “Well,” she said, reconsidering, “he was never really the same after that.”

    I loved my mom.

    It will be two years in August since we lost her. But they’re still her stories.

    And still her Mother’s Day.