Reacting to life: Essay Fiesta – 07.21.14

I haven’t read at Essay Fiesta in three years so it was great to be back at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square last night. It’s now hosted by Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin and benefits 826Chi, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth get excited about reading and creativity. Their next event is August 18th at 7pm. You should go.

Or: Come see me read at Tuesday Funk on September 2nd at the Hopleaf.

I’ve had a couple things knocking around in my head recently and writing this piece really helped bring them all together. Saying more about that spoils a couple bits in the below so…

Last week, my grandfather and I were sitting in a steakhouse in the northwest suburbs drinking dry Rob Roys on the rocks, with a twist. It has always been his drink and so in his presence it is mine as well.

We were waiting for our food to arrive and he was telling me the story of how he and my grandmother met. I’ve heard this story at least ten times before but something about the way he told it that night – or maybe it was the second Rob Roy – made me realize how close I came to never being born.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how my grandparents met because it seemed really complicated but that night it seemed moreso.

grandmaHere’s the gist: This guy from another school (which is all I’m ever told about him) asks my grandfather, who is then just a 17 year old Norwegian kid named Edgar, if he knows a certain girl named Jean, a 14 year old Polish girl. This guy asks Edgar if he knows Jean because he’s trying to find out whether she was in Holstein Park some recent evening. (The reasons why he’s asking have never been made clear to me.) My grandfather says no, he doesn’t know her, but he thinks Jean is in class with his brother, my uncle Hal. Edgar says he’ll ask him. Either Edgar has Hal ask Jean or the two of them ask her together – again, the details are less than clear – but what is made very clear is her emphatic no: She was not in Holstein Park that night because her mother – my great-grandmother Martha – would never allow her to be in Holstein Park at night. But Edgar takes a liking to Jean and so they begin dating and then a few years later they marry, then have my mom and et cetera, et cetera.

So I’m sitting there sipping on that Rob Roy, listening to this story and I suddenly realize after all these years that this story makes no sense.

First of all, who the hell is this guy whose name has been lost to time? Consider that he has to know my grandmother well enough to kinda know what she looks like but not well enough to be able to track her down and ask her this question himself. I realize this was the 1940s and he couldn’t just send her a message on Facebook but still. There were phone books and people actually used them back then so come on.

Also, he has to be close enough to see this person in the park who sort of looks like my grandmother but isn’t close enough to confirm it. Or maybe he didn’t see her at all and just heard she was in the park? In either case, why is he asking at all?

Incidentally, I’ve asked my grandfather all these questions and he says “I don’t know.”

It also occurred to me that maybe my grandmother was not in Holstein Park that night and lied because she didn’t want to get herself in trouble with either my great-grandmother or with societal forces that would perhaps look down on a 1940s teenage girl in a park in the early evening but I quickly dismissed this thought because if my great-grandmother said don’t hang out in Holstein Park that night, my grandmother would not have been hanging out in Holstein Park. Martha was not a woman with whom to be trifled.

So we’re back to this guy from another school and his weird inquiry into my grandmother’s whereabouts that night without which I would never have been born. Because if this guy doesn’t mix up my grandmother with some other girl or my grandfather doesn’t realize she’s in class with my uncle Hal or they forget to ask her or maybe they get into some kind of old-timey argument where my grandmother says “Take a powder, ya crumbums, you two sound like you’ve been hittin’ the giggle water!” And then my grandfather says “Ah, applesauce, ya Dumb Dora, you ain’t that keen!”

(I looked all that up and that is all definitely stuff people in the 1940s actually said except for crumbums but I’m feeling pretty confident about that one.)

The point is there’s a million reasons why they could have never met or gone their separate ways after. It was just luck and chance that they got together in the first place and therefore luck and chance that I am here talking to you.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately because a month ago I was robbed at gunpoint while walking home from the train. It was a Wednesday night and I don’t normally take the train home on Wednesdays, or most weekdays. But my wife was on vacation that week and needed the car so I took the train home from work and just happened to cross paths with these guys. But I’m fine. I walked away from it and like the old saying goes “any armed robbery you walk away from is a good one.”

I’m one of those people who spends a little too much time inside his own head. But according to a therapist to whom I pay good money, one of the things that saved me from losing my mind and doing something stupid either during or after the robbery was having thought through what would happen if I was ever robbed. “What if there’s a gun? What if there’s two guys? What if I’m by myself?” All those things occurred so when it happened it was really easy to do the math.

But asking “What if?” was pretty key.

Getting a gun stuck in your chest definitely makes you re-evaluate how you live your life. I’ve become somewhat obsessed now with how we talk about crime, poverty and education and how all those things are tied to each other. But it also makes you think about all the other things in your life that could have gone one way or another. And how different your life would be if they had.

For instance, in the winter of 1996, I’m home from college and my dad and I decide to go to this restaurant called Popolano’s for lunch. On our way out, we just happen to run into his old boss’s daughter who works in D.C. and hosts a political talk radio show. I’m working at my college’s radio station at the time and she offhandedly says I should come be an intern for her for the summer and I do and end up meeting a girl who also happens to be from Chicago.

She and I would be married seven years later. All because we didn’t go to a pizza place instead.

She and I would divorce three years later but that’s another story.

A few days after dinner with my grandfather, I was reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself and he has this line that describes all these situations perfectly:

“So much of what happens by chance forms what becomes your life.”

Now, there are two ways of thinking about this view:

1) Absolutely nothing in your life is at your discretion and free will is a myth. You can work hard to set and achieve goals but ultimately the great moments in your life will be determined by whether you board the Western Avenue bus or arrive at your stop in just enough time to see it pull away.


2) Everything in your life is a moment of potential greatness, including your next sandwich. Your overall approach to life is what matters and not the external metrics imposed upon you by society. You take heed of the Greek philosopher Epictetus who said “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it.”

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a sense of the kind of person you want to marry, the trajectory of your career or what your life will look like one, three or five years from now. Stupid people still ask you the latter in interviews and your relatives will want to know the former so definitely have some answers at the ready.

And Lord knows there are whole segments of our society who are denied access to the systems and institutions that separate the haves from the have-nots. This is not a conversation about bootstraps, and whether anyone should pull oneself up by them.

No, this is about leaving the space open in your mind for new ideas or welcoming challenges to what you think you know about yourself. It’s also about watching for the times when someone in your life pulls out a chair…so you have the good sense to sit down.

Last month, my grandmother passed away. She and my grandfather were married for 69 years. Because some guy nobody remembers thought he saw her in a park and my grandfather decided to ask her about it.

If my dad and I go someplace else for sandwiches one day in the winter of 1996, I never meet and marry my first wife…which probably would have been a good thing but it would have meant that a year into a bad marriage I don’t go looking for something to take my mind off it and end up submitting an application to be a writer at a local website…which is where I meet the woman who I want to spend the rest of my life with and the mother of my daughter.

(They’re the same person in case that wasn’t clear.)

And if I’m never robbed at gunpoint, perhaps I never feel compelled to…

Honestly, I keep trying to finish that sentence and, at this point, I don’t know how. Like I said, you don’t really need to know what happens next. You just have to be ready to react to it.

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