Susan, Lee and Dana having a floating birthday party on Lake Norman earlier this month
We were born during the summer of ’69. Woodstock, man on the moon, the whole bit. That year, Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel, the world first strolled down Sesame Street, and new homes on Main Street averaged $15,550.
When our parents turned 40, we were old enough to buy them wiseass cards about being over the hill. Funny, because we don’t feel old. Corneas don’t wrinkle and from the inside out, everything looks pretty much the same.
Except when it doesn’t.
Now that we have navigated four decades of living and dreaming, of Judy Blume, John Cougar Mellencamp, and broken hearts, of life threatening illnesses, DateMe.com, therapy, dirty diapers and rude awakenings - both literally and figuratively, are we wise enough to dispense advice?
I invite my old friends (and anyone else) to add your lessons learned to my list. In the meantime, here are a few things I wish I’d figured out sooner.
Buy second-hand clothes. Because, poor kid, you will pay retail for prairie skirts, paisley shirts, argyle socks and Bermuda shorts, monogrammed sweaters, duck shoes, penny loafers, Izods, Polos, ill-fitting Jordache jeans... and god, that’s just the 80’s. Go to Crossroads Trading Co. or go to thrift stores run by little old Jewish ladies. You’ll save money and look cooler.
Take an IMPACT class. Take it when you’re 16. Take it again when you’re older. Tell every woman you know to take it. When that guy grabs your ass in Istanbul, slips his hand in your pocket on the London subway, pretends he’s asleep in the shared cab heading east from Haifa (and you’re his pillow). When you’re walking across campus alone at night, home from the library, home from the El and someone is creeping you out. When Mr. Napoleon Complex screams at you, when Mr. Frat Boy lunges at you, when Irving is an asshole. You won’t say nothing. You will say Stop. You will say stop, with conviction and with strength. And if that doesn’t work, you’ll know where to kick him.
You can love being Jewish without having the God part figured out. Shabbat at overnight camp, sex education in Sunday school, watching graying, grinning kibbutzniks dancing their hearts out on Shavuot, crispy latkes with applesauce, tikkun olam, the rabbi you love, the Young Judaea madrich you love, the song leader you love, running into Jews on remote islands, in Vegas, on gondolas, in Rome, surviving (more than surviving) your Bat Mitzvah, listening to your toddler squeal Dayeinu, over and over again. What’s not to love?
Everybody’s shit stinks. The rabbi’s shit stinks. Every last girl on the cheerleading squad, the professor, the Department of Motor Vehicles dude who is about to fail you, the guy who is interviewing you, the people who are pointing at you. Their shit stinks, too, don’t forget.
Don’t believe everything your mother tells you (there is plenty of real stuff to worry about). I never saw anyone’s eyes get stuck crossed. I never saw anyone’s eardrums burst from a probing q-tip. I don’t know anyone who died from running with a lollipop in their mouth, or going outside with a wet head, or eating hummus that has been sitting out in the sun for too long. And I certainly never saw a magnifying glass or a germy sponge spontaneously combust.
Listen to your mother – she’s often right. Wear sunscreen. Embrace differences. Don’t smoke. Try your best. Say thank you. Be honest. Share. Remember nobody is perfect. Learn to say, I’m sorry. And for god’s sake, don’t run with a lollipop in your mouth.
Money is overrated. Seven figure bank accounts haven’t kept my friends out of psychotherapy or out of chemotherapy.
Boobs are overrated. A) They generally produce milk, regardless of size, and they eventually sag. B) Just laser the goddamn unwanted hair and be done with it. Otherwise you’ll spend hours, day in day out, plucking, waxing, bleaching, zapping, obsessing. It’s ridiculous. C) One day those popular kids will be fat and bald.
Grades are overrated. You might get a D in calculus and straight A’s in grad school and in the long run it won’t make one iota of difference. Like mom said, just try your best. Read the books that interest you; try a few that don’t. Listen to the teachers who believe in you. Ignore the ones who don’t. Find your passions. Fuck the rest.
Marry the mensch. No doubt you’ll have a crush on the cool, conceited drummer, the soccer player who doesn’t know you exist, the cute one, the challenging one, the evasive one, the one who can’t commit. You won’t be able to change them, so don’t waste your time trying. Marry your best friend, the one who brings out your best, who tells you the truth, who loves you as you are. (And I have plenty of happy, single friends, too.)
Remember Sandy. Sandy Andy Agnes Brown who came to me in a dream the summer I turned 20 and today, on the eve of my 40th birthday, remains the children’s book I never wrote. Sandy Andy Agnes Brown may be my dream unrealized, but as my husband always says, tomorrow is a new day.
Learn to say, I love you.
And don’t get depressed about turning 40. That’s what Susan told me and Lee while floating on noodles in Lake Norman, North Carolina, three days before her 40th birthday, eight years after surviving breast cancer. And she’s right.
I always thought it was ironic that we refer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as “our fathers.” These three figures had extremely dysfunctional relationships with their children. Abraham almost killed one son at God’s command and tossed the other one out into the middle of the desert. Isaac’s son, with the help of his wife, tricked him while he was blind on his death bed for the blessing. And Jacob played favorites with Joseph and spent his last dying moments chastising some of his sons for their behavior.
It is difficult to find a Cliff Huxtable type among not only our forefathers, but of any Biblical figure in the Tanakh.
So why do we revere the very men who, if they were our own fathers, would cost us many thousands of dollars on a therapist’s couch?
The answer is for some reason that must go back thousands of years, we revere fathers less for their interactions with their children, and more for their prominence and success in the community. While we expect mothers to be nurturing, we expect fathers to make us proud inside and outside of the family.
I find it extremely difficult to write about my relationship with my father not because we don’t have a good one, but because our relationship is less based on our interactions and more on who he is and my great respect and admiration for him.
I do have fond memories of my father as a child: he and my uncle swinging me by my arms; singing to me before bed his own version of, “Do you love me?” from Fiddler on the Roof; acting stern but reasonable when I drank the Chocolotini from the liquor cabinet during a slumber party.
But when I think about my dad I think less about him and me and more about him for himself.
I think about how he came from very modest beginnings (Chicken farmer), to receive a scholarship to Purdue earning a bachelors and masters in five years, to becoming a respected businessman. I think about how much my mother’s mother and father adored him for being a good husband to my mother. I think about how my Zadie and his six siblings entrusted my dad with their family business. I think about how he has been the president of too many Jewish organizations to list. I think about how, after his mother died, he brought my grandpa from New York to South Bend to live with us for a few months until the care became too much and he moved him to a retirement home, where my dad visited at least once a week, usually more. I think about the favors he does for friends. I think about the money he has donated to many organizations. I think of him putting pills for my grandparents in their pill box, looking like a pharmacist, followed by paying their monthly bills when they no longer could. I think about his honest reputation and tremendous integrity, so much so that he is the “go to” person for many, many people for advice, including myself.
I don’t make a move financially without talking to my dad. I don’t make a move professionally without talking to my dad. Some might call this childish, I call it smart, because my dad is wiser than I am, and even if I don’t follow his advice (which I usually do) I at least want to hear it.
His sometimes Solomonic wisdom can be dispassionate, which isn’t always what I want, but is often what I need. He has taught me to be reasonable when I might want to be emotional. And most importantly, he has taught me to take care of myself.
I can tell you stories when he got it wrong as a parent, but that’s my point of view, not an objective one.
Objectively, by anyone’s standards, he is a great man and a great father. Happy father’s day Dad!
Three lessons from my father
By Michael Bregman
Mike with the Bear
My dad, affectionately known as “Bear” by close friends and family, is an imposing figure. There is nothing he can’t fix, and he looks like a cross between the dad from the “Wonder Years” and Abe Vigoda. Beyond his 6’3” frame, my dad is a caring and devoted father. Without his guidance (and that of my mom), I would probably be face down in a gutter somewhere or wandering the streets hungry and naked as I tried to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a fire engine.
Lesson number one: You only have one brother. Never let anything come between you.
For my dad, whose older brother tragically drowned in a lagoon as a child, the brotherly bond is paramount. Each time my brother and I fought my dad would literally whimper and beg us to stop. Seriously, even a simple noogie elicited a whopper of Jewish guilt.
My brother and I support each other at every step of our lives, especially now as we are preparing for our careers. “A doctor and a lawyer” sounds good to any Jewish parents, but who is going to mess with a massive red fire truck? In any event, our parents are our rock.
Lesson number two: Work hard for yourself and your family and don’t look back.
My dad didn’t have the luxury of growing into adulthood with such a rock; He lost his own father to cancer when he was 14. The loss of his brother and father influenced the kind of father that he became. When I was a baby, he would sit next to me in my high-chair, meticulously breaking my Cheerios in half out of fear that I would choke. My dad dropped us off and picked us up from school every day. He has always made sure to do those things that his father wasn’t able to do, all while working hard to provide for us.
Last year, I started my first year of law school while working 40 hours a week. Occasionally, after long night classes, my parents pick me up, with a care package, and give me a lift to my apartment. Through every challenge, my dad has been there for me. I can’t imagine doing what I do without him, as he had to do without his father.
Lesson number three: Speak up for yourself.
Right or wrong, my dad always stood up for us. Unlike him, I was shy and quiet until high school. I realized, by myself but in my dad’s example, that I would have to find my own voice. I plan to take his example of a strong, confident voice into my career as an attorney.
When I taught in the Bronx, most of my students did not live with their fathers. My most successful student did not know his father, but he improved two grade levels in reading during his one year in my class. Even though he has no father to speak up for him, I did my best to give him the tools so that one day he may speak up for himself.
My dad and I enjoying another hobby we share in common
I’m the (very) youngest of my dad’s three girls. There is an 18 year age difference between me and my sisters and it took my mom five years to convince my dad to have another child. While my dad has never admitted to it, part of the third child bargain meant I was to be a boy and for nine months, everyone, including him, assumed I would be. Oops!
So, what did this mean for our father-daughter relationship? Sports. My father was determined to have one daughter who appreciated Chicago’s professional sports teams, starting with his beloved Bears. This was the 80’s, the time of Mike Ditka, Walter Payton and the “Fridge.” He wanted someone to share this enthusiasm during such a historic era. He wasn’t successful. I have very distinct memories trying to hide under many blankets at multiple Bears games** wishing I was anywhere else and there was no way I was watching a game at home with him on TV.
While I didn’t catch Bears fever, my dad found other ways to take advantage of having a young child, particularly around Halloween. While my mom primarily supervised my trick or treating exploits, there was one house each year we reserved for my father, the one belonging to our neighbor, Michael Jordan. My dad would get his once-a-year moment to bask in the presence of MJ while he handed out candy to me and my friends. I did have a slightly higher tolerance for the Bulls, particularly Michael Jordan, and I’d willingly go to those games, but I spent most of the time eating and wandering the stadium.
With two older sisters and my mom steering me towards all things girly, my dad never really stood a chance, but he tried hard and he did succeed in one arena— the Cubs.
Every year, I looked forward to Cubs season and attending games with my dad. There is no better feeling than spending a warm summer day in Wrigley field watching my beloved team play some ball. I can’t really explain the obsession, maybe baseball was easier for me to follow, but that’s where my dad succeeded in getting his “boy.”** And while my dad probably won’t admit it, it’s been my influence (and my ticket buying addiction) that has made him a bigger Cubs fan.
This year we have a new Cubs fan in the family (and he’s a boy!), my nephew Matt. He’s the first grandchild to show any Cubs enthusiasm, and were both hoping he will continue on the family rooting tradition.
The three of us will be celebrating Matt’s first Cubs game and Father’s Day over at Wrigley Field.
Love you Dad—Happy Father’s Day!
** While it took a few years and a boyfriend to get me into football, I love the Bears now and I can’t believe I took for granted my grandfather’s no-longer-in-existence Bears season tickets.
*** Yes, for those of you who’ve been listening to my Cubs temper tantrum, they’re still my beloved team, even though I plan to spend this season pouting about DeRosa and Wood and bashing Milton Bradley and Jim Hendry.
My dad is kind of a celebrity. He’s so famous that we can’t go anywhere—not out for dinner or on vacation to Disneyworld or even Israel—without seeing some of his adoring fans. The phone is constantly ringing off the hook with calls for him. And people are always asking him for advice…well, medical advice…
Now I know what you’re thinking but no, my dad isn’t Dr. Phil or Patrick Dempsey—he’s a pediatrician. But he’s a famous pediatrician—well at least from Northbrook to Arlington Heights. Seriously, ask any parent in the North Shore if they know Dr. Pervos, and they’ll not only know him, they’ll rave about him: “Dr. Pervos is so wonderful! He’s so kind and gentle with the kids—we won’t take our kids to see anyone else!”
The life of a celebrity-pediatrician isn’t easy. He is constantly working, running back and forth between his two offices, and when he’s not there, he’s making rounds at the hospital or doing paperwork at home. He’s on call almost 24/7, answering questions that range from ridiculous to tragic, from sore throats to cancer. But he answers every call with patience and consideration (unless you’re a family member, in which case he tells you to suck it up and go to school/work).
Despite his rigorous work schedule and masses of adoring fans to attend to, luckily for me and my sister, our celebrity-pediatrician dad also makes plenty of time for us (unless of course it’s Sunday morning—that’s golf day—or if the White Sox are playing). He was one of only a handful of dads in the stands at the ice rink at 6 a.m., cheering us on with all the other “skating moms” and he spent hours transferring videos and later DVDs with theme music and picture menus (yeah, it’s nerdy).
Dad always listens to our tales of strict teachers, mean boyfriends, catty girlfriends and stomachaches and sits through shopping trip after shopping trip. Though he often gets stressed out and upset with us—like when we overdraw on our checking accounts, or accidentally back our new car into the garage door (okay that time he was furious), or can’t seem to wake up or get ready in time, ever— he can almost never stay mad (my “groundings” never lasted more than an hour).
He wears the doctor’s “uniform” of khaki pants and topsider loafers almost every day. He can talk your ear off about golf and the White Sox (and did I mention, golf and the White Sox?). He’s obsessed with Arizona (no we do not need another southwest themed piece of Judaica), has to stop and talk with everyone at the grocery store and gets really cranky on “call” weekends (not with patients, just with us).
But the truth is my dad’s not a celebrity because he rocked a Weird Al mustache for 36 years (which he recently shaved because, seriously, who still has a mustache?). He’s famous because he’s the kind of person, the kind of dad, and the kind of doctor, that everyone wants for their children.
Speaking of, if you’re in the market, my celebrity-pediatrician Dad will be opening a Sanders Court Pediatrics office in the new Affinity building in Buffalo Grove next month! (Good plug, huh Dad?-Love you!)
At age seven I was crazy about collecting rocks. Once a month, as a treat, Dad would take me to my favorite rock and mineral shop where I’d lust over semi-precious stones such as purple amethysts, dark and haunting Tiger’s Eyes and ever-shiny chunks of Fool’s Gold. My all time favorite gem was the Geode—an ugly on the outside round volcanic rock that when split-open revealed a colorful landscape of gleaming crystals. The trouble with Geodes back then was that they were more money than I could afford as a kid.
One day I got the bright idea that if I gathered in my backyard a bunch of mediocre rocks and then broke them open like Geodes, the collective value of all the little stones would equal that of one nicer stone at the rock shop. My parents went along with the idea and I collected and smashed stones for hours. I never worked so hard in my life! Later on, my mom helped me package my findings by neatly arranging them in a fancy shirtbox and lining the box with pretty blue tissue paper.
Dad then drove me to the rock store where I presented to the store clerk the proud work of my hands and asked to make a trade. After taking one glance at the dull, broken fragments of sand and limestone, the clerk understandably shot me one of those: “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME” looks. I was completely deflated and embarrassed. I mean I had worked so hard!! And then suddenly without explanation, the man’s demeanor miraculously changed for the better. He brightened up and with smile on his face he gingerly led me over to a shelf where he told me I could pick any rock I wanted. Though I couldn’t figure out what had come over the clerk, I was elated. Without hesitation, I chose for myself the cantaloupe-sized Geode that I had desired for an entire year. Today I still treasure that Geode…The End……
NOW WAIT JUST ONE MINUTE!! You are probably wondering why the clerk suddenly changed his tune. Years later I think I figured it out. Just after I presented my proud work for the trade ---I can now picture my father standing behind me and dangling in the plane sight of the store clerk, a crisp $20 bill. As soon as the clerk saw this bill, he smiled and took me to a shelf of rocks each valued at that price. And though my father, the gentleman that he is, still denies that this is what truly happened that day (so that I can remain proud of my trade), I know the truth. The truth is, in this story (and in so many more like it) it is my dad who is the real gem. I love you Dad! Happy Father’s Day!
My sister and I have been riding and showing horses for most of our lives. Therefore, our dad has been going to horse shows for most of our lives. We were in Pony Club for what seems like forever—we spent so much time going to lessons, cleaning tack, studying for ratings; even our wardrobes were decked out with our club’s logo. My dad had so many Miami Valley Pony Club polo shirts he has a separate drawer in his dresser for them. When we’d go to a weeklong horse show I just thought that he wore the same outfit every day and that he didn’t mind being super stinky. Turns out he’s a pretty clean guy and had eight of the exact same shirt.
We have 10 years worth of video coverage from all our glories and mishaps, and if you look closely, Dad is in the background of every single tape... wearing the exact same outfit. Kinda creepy, kinda really awesome. In the earlier tapes he’s just chasing after us on the jump course trying to get a good picture, but when he started spooking our horses we all decided it was for the best to leave the photos to the professionals and put Dad on the jump crew to set up the courses and fix knocked down rails. Sometimes he’d be out on the course until 8 at night following drill sergeant directions from the course designers. He was such a good volunteer that one year they offered to pay for his hotel during the show. But, because of his jump crew dedication I’d forget he was even there. (Sorry, Dad.) But then when I’d get home and watch the video, there he was, jogging alongside my horse, in his green polo. I just had no idea.
So, in honor of Dad, my sister and I (and I only say “I” because I’m in the video, not because I was of much help in the production) put together a video tribute to his years of volunteer service. Thanks Trysta. And extra big thanks Dad.
Much has been written and said about the embattled, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich over the past few months. And yet in this very blog, it is my pleasure to report some brand new, breaking news you might not have known about Blago:
He’s been paying my mortgage since February.
No, Blago hasn’t been funneling money into my checking account as if he was Shawn Kemp and I was a horny NBA groupie in the mid-1990’s. But he did serve as the impetus for a musical I co-wrote for The Second City, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar,” currently playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. My writing partner Ed Furman and I wrote the show shortly after word of Blagojevich’s impeachment became front-page news. It was only supposed to run for a short time at Second City e.t.c.; and at least one critic who shall remain nameless (OK, no he won’t: it was some dude I’d never heard of named Dan Zeff) assured his readers, in so many words, that the show would be short-lived and quickly forgotten.
That review was published shortly after the Steelers won the Super Bowl, in February. In the four months that have passed, Dick Cheney has become America’s leading advocate for gay marriage, Sarah Palin has tried (and, naturally, failed) to turn David Letterman into a dangerous pedophile, and “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” is entering its’ fifth month; playing to packed houses who can’t get enough of Springfield’s former least favorite son.
The show was recently extended through August 9, and to announce the extension, a far-fetched idea was dreamed up to have Rod Blagojevich “guest star” during a performance of the show. The idea was, at best, a laughable pipe dream. Even someone as self-involved as Rod Blagojevich wouldn’t dream of being part of a show in which he’s so ruthlessly satirized, right?
Leave it to Blago to prove us wrong. Orchestrated by Second City vice-president Kelly Leonard, who’s also my boss and is therefore the single greatest human being of all time (please tell him I said that), Blago actually agreed to do the show. He was paid a nominal fee for his time; a portion of which was donated to the much deserving charity, Gilda’s Club. He was to participate in the opening musical number, (which features lyrics like “are you as nuts as we think you are?”) announce the extension, and be a part of the improvised second act. The cast, crew and creative team were in disbelief once his appearance was confirmed. Could this really be happening? Would he actually show up? Would one of us get punched in the face once he heard the lyrics ascribed to his wife in her tender ballad, “I Don’t Know How to F**king Love Him?”
Blago showed up around 6 for a 7 p.m. curtain and was quickly implemented into the opening number amongst a mostly speechless cast. From the get-go, he seemed excited – if a little nervous – to be with us. He appeared oblivious to the potential of the mercilessly wicked satire of his own life that was to come, which was fine by us. As part of his agreement to appear in the show, he would soon join the audience in a choice aisle seat to watch the show. Imagine your personal life, and the rise and fall of your career, satirized by Second City for an hour through one liners and show-tunes, all while you sat and watched about 20 feet away. You probably wouldn’t want to sit through that. Then again, you’re not Rod Blagojevich. You’re welcome.
The cast of Rod Blagojevich Superstar
I had the opportunity to speak with Blago backstage before the show, and found him to be genial, interesting and hilarious. He also attempted to convince the cast and crew of his innocence, insisting in an all too familiar way for anyone who’s followed this saga that a majority of the otherwise incriminating wire-taped phone conversations the public has yet to hear will exonerate him of any wrongdoing. He held court backstage to an enraptured cast and crew, as we listened to his stories about Jesse Jackson Jr., his wife’s experience on the NBC reality show, “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here,” (he asked us to vote for her) his acrimonious relationship through the years with Mayor Daley, among many other unprintable topics in this family-friendly blog. One thing was clear: the man loves to talk. Cameras or no cameras, he told stories for nearly a full hour as we all listened in disbelief. As the clock neared seven, the cast and Mr. Blagojevich did a brief warm up – you’d have to see Blago warming up with a hearty round of “Zip-Zap-Zop” for yourself to believe it.
The cast and Blago received their places call, and Ed and I were ushered to our seats. The audience was buzzing, completely unsure of what to expect – not unlike those of us personally involved in the proceedings. The house lights dimmed, the opening notes emanated from the piano, and from an upstage chair rose Rod Blagojevich. The audience responded just as I’d expected: with wild cheers and applause. For one brief moment, Rod Blagojvich had more in common with Barack Obama than he did George Ryan. Scandal be damned, the public – at least those assembled at Chicago Shakespeare Theater that night – were caught up in the outrageousness and uniqueness of that particular moment, and just went with it.
Shortly after Blago appeared onstage, he read a short monologue that told of the extension. He also used the opportunity onstage to tell a few jokes, including, immediately following the raucous applause, “where were you when I was getting impeached?” It was clear that the enormity and strangeness of the moment didn’t seem to phase him, nor did coming back to perform in the improvised second act, where the supremely talented and nimble cast improvised off of comments Blago made about his life.
That Blago stuck around after the show concluded was amazing in itself. I was seated in the balcony, directly above Blago, and it was obvious that he smiled infrequently during the show, and occasionally held his head in his hands; as did I every time I knew an offensive lyric or joke was coming. (And there are many.) Despite this, once the show was over, he thanked the cast, laughingly called the entire show “bulls**t”, then was briskly escorted from the theater. Blago had saved his last surprise for the end of the evening. Upon seeing the throng of assembled national media gathered in the press room, he did the last thing we expected – he kept his mouth shut and got the hell out of the theater faster than a White Sox fan leaving U.S. Cellular field at the end of a night game.
As the evening concluded, most of us involved in the show – a collection of cynical creative types – came to a strangely similar conclusion: maybe Blago isn’t deserving of all the scorn heaped upon him. After all, there are many other public figures who are even more worthy of our disrespect; whether they’re politicians who’ve ensured that we’ll forever pay through the nose to merely park on a city street, or media blowhards who believe it’s inherently patriotic to wish failure for President Obama. Folks like these make Rod Blagojevich look like “J.D. Power’s 2009 Man Of The Year”.
TJ with the man himself
After my night backstage with Blago, I’m still not entirely certain what his motives are. Even Dr. Freud would likely be stumped trying to figure this one out. (But oy; all those billable hours trying to do it!) That said, he absolutely exuded a charm, likeability, and, however misguided, a doggedness that gave me legitimate reason to re-think my perhaps over-inflated outrage at the man’s actions.
And yet, that very over-inflated outrage is a big reason why “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” is such a hit. Therein lies the dilemma: can one be sympathetic towards a person who made some of the worst decisions of any elected official in a state historically full of them?
The answer is yes. As long as he keeps paying my mortgage.
T.J. Shanoff is a writer, director, and musical director for The Second City. Click here to read his full bio, and here for more information on “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” now extended through August 9 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
When comedy takes center stage in Chicago from June 17-21 for TBS Presents A “Very Funny” Festival: Just for Laughs Chicago, Jewish Chicago comedian Susan Messing will be at the ready with her unique brand of uncensored improv comedy.
The New Jersey native and Northwestern University graduate has been making Chicagoans laugh for more than 20 years at funny venues around Chicago. She is a founding member of the Annoyance Theatre, where she has created her own improv show “Messing with a Friend,” running every Thursday night for the past three years. She performs with Chicago’s iO Theatre, and creates and teaches curriculum for iO both here and in Los Angeles. And she wrote and performed in two main stage revues at Chicago’s Second City, and directed its National Touring Company.
Her daughter, Sofia Mia, a recent kindergarten graduate, is “very six, very ridiculous, and very awesome,” Messing says. So awesome, that she inspired her mother—a cussing fanatic—to install a “swear jar” in their home.
Messing will perform “Messing with a Friend” as part of the TBS Presents A “Very Funny” Festival: Just for Laughs Chicago, in two shows at the Annoyance Theatre on Thursday, June 18. For tickets, call the theatre at (773) 561-4665 or visit www.annoyanceproductions.com or www.justforlaughschicago.com.
Messing recently sat down for an interview with Oy!Chicago to talk laughs, Jewishness and swear words:
Oy!Chicago: What do you love about doing improv?
Susan Messing: “I’m in the Mecca [in Chicago] of improvisation, not just for the country but for the world. It works for me because I’ve been making up stuff all my life and I just didn’t know there was a name for it. So when I started doing it, I was like ‘Oh my God. This is like breathing.” If the [improv sketch] was awful, you’d never see your scene again and if it was wonderful, you’d never see your scene again. That’s the beauty and the horror of the beast.
How do your gigs at the Annoyance, iO, and The Second City vary from each other? They draw from everything I’ve wanted to be and everything I’ve never wanted to be. I’m known for uncensored comedy—that’s where the Annoyance protects you. When I’m at Annoyance, I’m just playing. When I’m at Second City, I’m doing political and social satire. When I’m at iO, I’m doing teamwork and working with a group mind.
What can audiences expect from your show ‘Messing with a Friend?’
After 17-18 years of being an improviser…Part of me cannot believe I am so arrogant to do a show with my own name it. That’s so creepy because we’re all taught to work together. So if you do something on your own, it feels just wrong and odd. I’ve always been trying to be a good team member and play well with the other kids. Then, I said, ‘fuck it.’ I want to do what I want to do. Now I get to play with whomever I want. We get a suggestion and we just [play around].
Are you excited to perform for the ‘Just for Laughs’ festival?
I’m excited about it. [Many of the comedians] are doing stand up. I think that’s an awesome art and I have done stand up and enjoy it, but I really don’t like going off on my own. I get at least half of my show off of my friend. Why not just be inspired by what the hell’s right in front of you instead of making up something better?
What inspires your comedy?
I’m inspired in comedy by seeing a horrible episode of “Deadliest Catch.” The interesting thing is I do not watch comedy any more. Maybe there’s something about me where I don’t want to inadvertently take [other comedians’] shtick. I’m widely proud of my highly successful friends. I think “Judge Judy” is more interesting though. There are about 3,000 different kinds of stupid on that show a day…And “The Bachelorette?” Funny! I also like “Survivor,” because I like seeing how people can deal with subterfuge and lying while they are working as a team in order to win and to see when teamwork works and when it doesn’t.
What was your Jewish upbringing like? I was raised Conservative and had a bat mitzvah. I feel like I’m sociologically and culturally Jewish. I just went back home to Short Hills, New Jersey for Pesach and looked through the Haggadah and we couldn’t have gone through it faster. The one thing that keeps me being a Jew is knowing and questioning the existence of God. That’s part and parcel for the course.
What are you teaching your daughter about her Jewish identity? Based on Jewish law, Sofia is Jewish (Sofia’s father, who is divorced from Messing, is not Jewish). I feel like she should be taught some of the Jewish stuff….because I can see her trying to figure out what she believes. Even now, she’ll ask about Papa Bob, my dad, who is dead. So I tell her that he lives in the sky, he smiles, and he gets us good parking spots. I’m not really sure what our beliefs are on the after-life and all that good stuff. I don’t know why we put little boxes on our heads, I don’t know why we do what we do.
Are you working on swearing a little less now that you have a daughter who mimics your every word?
We have a swear jar at home. In the first two weeks of Sofia’s life, we had collected $94 at $0.25 a swear word. My child is not going to state school at this rate. I swear like a motherfucker.
My next door neighbors at Tabor Absorption Center, Israel, 1994. The grandma, of blessed memory, used to cover one nostril and blow her nose directly onto the linoleum floor with astounding nonchalance. Of perhaps greater relevance, the mom (seated) permanently changed my view of childbirth.
When it came time to deliver, my Ethiopian neighbors used to squat, yelp, yelp some more, and pop out those little babies. Then and only then would they call for an ambulance. At least, that’s what Benny the security guard told me, and he should know. He witnessed it five times.
Eight years later, the scenery had changed. Benny the security guard was now my husband and the view out our window was no longer the hills of Upper Nazareth but the sloped embankment of some not-so-scenic El tracks in southeast Evanston.
It was our turn now. Benny and I were ready to procreate. At least, we’d successfully deceived ourselves into thinking we were ready. And we remembered our former neighbors.
If Ethiopian women could squat, yelp and deliver -- why should I subject myself to the Western world of obstetrics-gynecology, in all its induced, episiotomied, caesarian section glory? Hadn’t I successfully turned a roundoff, back handspring, back flip the summer before fifth grade? Hadn’t I, at age 28, ridden my bike 500 miles in five days with only modest butt-chafing? Hadn’t I mastered Pilates teasers and other abdominal torture? My body was made for this.
That’s what I told myself. But the truth is, part of me longed for a nice silent, sterile C-section.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but skinny girls hate their bodies, too. You know those kids in the gym locker room who changed their clothes without giving anyone a glimpse of their underwear? That was me. I won the Silent Camper award at overnight camp (where, it goes without saying, I showered during off-hours). I wore XL shirts on my 120 lb. frame from age 12 to 21, simply as a distraction. (No, I didn’t think I was fat – just ugly.) I walked around my entire junior year with my right hand plastered to the side of my face in an attempt to hide three small moles (as if, that didn’t draw attention). I even sneezed silently.
So the thought of making loud, guttural noises up and down a maternity ward – with my ass hanging out – held no appeal.
Here’s how I got over it.
Not one for secrets, surprises, or superstition, I told pretty much everyone I was pregnant within days of conception and then got busy preparing myself. The first person I told, on the train approximately 46 minutes after watching that little blue line appear on the pregnancy test, gave me the name of his midwife.
Debi Lesnick, CNM. To Debi, I was never merely a uterus, an inconvenience, or an imminent complication. I was a person – a wise, strong, capable person on an extraordinary journey – and I felt cared for. So much so that I kept her business card in my wallet and bedside drawer for the next five years.
Debi told us about a class in Andersonville taught by Mary Sommers. For six consecutive weeks, Benny (the security guard turned husband turned doula) and I learned the ins and outs of natural childbirth. He learned how to apply counter pressure, both on my back during a contraction and to any doctor pushing pitocin. You need to know enough to know what’s right for you at any given moment.
So I had my team – Debi, Mary, Benny. And I had my inspiration – the Ethiopian women of Tabor Absorption Center.
But sisters, I’m not going to lie to you. Squat, yelp and deliver, my ass. My former neighbors were clearly not having their first babies, sunny-side up, weighing in at 8.3 lbs. It hurt like bloody hell.
After 13 hours of back labor, uninhibited nudity and bodily fluids (because really – who gives a fuck when it comes down to it), one bite of purple popsicle in the labor tub, 90 minutes of pushing, and plenty – believe me, plenty – of loud guttural noises, Emma Sigal was born with her hand plastered to the side of her face. And Benny, the proud abba, cut the cord.
While I took pride in my Pilates teasers, flips, and marathon bike rides, nothing compared to childbirth. I had grown a person from scratch.
Emma is now six; her sister just turned five. And with two little girls watching, I try to send the right messages about beauty, about bodies, about strength. It’s hard to begrudge your barely B cups after they’ve nourished two kids to toddlerhood. What’s a few stretch marks, when you know why you stretched? Diapers trump vanity, contractions give you strength.
Not that I’d deny that at 2:41 this morning, my daughter woke me up to cover her and on my way back to bed, I ducked into the bathroom to get rid of a few pesky chin hairs.
The sad thing is, Emma – at just six – already engages in a daily battle to straighten her bouncy curls. Some days, she complains about her unibrow and moles and rounded belly. They’re beauty marks, I tell her. Your body is just right, I tell her. Look how fast you run.
Dana and Emma, making noise.
Three days after Emma was born, I wrote a poem in my journal. We’ll call it hormone-induced, if you don’t mind.
I found my voice.
I found my heart.
I found my strength.
When I had you.
Someday I’ll tell her about the Ethiopians. And electrolysis.
20 something Rogers Park resident Jennifer Rottner contacted Oy!Chicago about a month ago to suggest we profile her father, Deputy Chief Chicago Police Officer Bruce Rottner, for A JYSK. We think he’s a really cool dad and you’ll be reading more about him in the coming weeks. (Jennifer will be writing a tribute to him for our Father’s Day issue.) But we quickly realized that the real Jew You Should Know is Jennifer!
Jennifer is the scheduling & advance coordinator for the Governor of Illinois, which means she’s responsible for planning the logistics behind all of his public events. Jennifer has been at the job for three years, and if you’re familiar with the goings-on of the governor’s office, and haven’t been living under a rock, you’d know that means she worked for former Governor turned indicted politician and reality show wannabe Rod Blagojevich. Jennifer survived the transition and now happily works for Governor Quinn.
Jennifer describes herself as a gym obsessed foodie who enjoys staying home “watching murder-mystery documentaries on MSNBC or TruTV” just as much as she enjoys girls’ night out. She sports several kabbalah related tattoos and has a penchant for target practice. So if you’re super close to your family, always carry two blackberries and consider yourself a “rebel Jew,” then Jennifer Rottner is a Jew you should know!
1. What is your favorite blog or website?
I read CNN.com religiously every morning, followed by Dlisted.com (my all-time favorite celeb blog). I am just as interested in President Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court as I am about which pop star was arrested in the last 24 hours. I like to think it keeps me balanced.
2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
Everywhere! I love to travel and although I’ve been to a handful of amazing places, I am far from being “well traveled”. I’ve never been to Europe or South America, so those are a top priority. I’d also love to spend some time in South Africa and Australia.
3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Although I’m clearly not blonde, I’d say Kate Hudson. She is funny, quirky, and witty and a few of my friends say we have similar mannerisms and even look alike at times. I think she’s beautiful, so if they say so, I may as well agree!
4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
First, I’d say John F. Kennedy. I am oddly fascinated by the Kennedy family, especially the assassination of JFK (and the conspiracy behind it…I have my own theory). Then I’d say my grandmother, because she was my best friend and one of the most kind-hearted, warm, intelligent and loving people I have ever known. Ideally, I’d like to go to Rockit, because I could eat their turkey burger and truffle fries on a daily basis…but my grandmother would probably insist on cooking, so I’d say we’d eat potato pancakes and chocolate bundt cake at her house!
5. What’s your idea of the perfect day?
It would be 78 degrees, sunny and no humidity. I’d wake up around 9am, head to the gym for an hour and then get the biggest cup of coffee Intellegentsia has to offer. I’d spend the day doing all the things I can never get done during the week (maybe throw in a mani/pedi for good measure). Then I’d meet my girls for a drink, before meeting my boyfriend at Table 52 for macaroni and cheese and Hummingbird Cake.
6. What do you love about what you do? I love that my job has allowed me to meet and interact with some truly incredible people. I met Sgt. Daniel Casara two years ago at an event with the Governor, a solider who served in Iraq and was critically injured after his armored carrier rolled over an IED. He now dedicates himself to helping other veterans coming back from the war recover and get back to their everyday lives. I met Donna Marquez about a month ago at another event the Governor attended. Her brother Donald, a Chicago Police Officer, was killed in the line of duty in 2002. As a result, her family helped to open the Donald J. Marquez C School in his memory, which not only offers law enforcement classes but was also honored with one of 31 Gold LEED certifications in the country.
Those are just a few of the people I’ve encountered doing this job and there are so many others who have touched me and stay with me everyday…making me feel very fortunate to do the work that I do.
7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I would have loved to do something in fashion. Working as a stylist or as a fashion editor for a magazine, I just love everything about the industry. This could explain my slight shopping addiction…
8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago?
I’d say the Lox & Bagel Shoot. My father is very involved in the Shomrim Society (fraternal organization of Jewish Law Enforcement Officers in Chicago). Every April, they host an event called the Lox & Bagel Shoot at the Chicago Police Academy, which is a brunch, followed by a shooting competition. I don’t think anything is more Jewish or Chicago than eating lox and bagels at the Chicago Police Academy while testing out your skills at the range!
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