It Really Is a Wonderful Life

Source: RKO/NBC

The first time I watched Frank Capra’s magnificent film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I was a single twenty-something living in Dearborn, Michigan. The movie made me sob, first and foremost because I am a gigantic sap. But also because it made me think about how much value each of us has and how many other lives we touch, whether we know it or not. It made me think of my future and the place I wanted for myself in the world. It made me realize I wanted to matter to someone.

I’ve watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas since then (the black-and-white version, of course), and each time it says something new and different to me. There was the year I watched it for the first time in a Chicago apartment with the man who would be my husband, and he loved it just as much as I did. There was the year we watched it in our first house, a 1920s’ bungalow in Chicago, and I understood exactly why Mary wanted to fix up and live in the drafty, old Granville house. There was the year we watched it for the first time with our kids, neither of whom liked it all that much, and I cried extra hard when George found Zuzu’s petals in his pocket. There was the year we watched it after my husband lost his job, when Mr. Potter seemed extra villainous and George’s victory celebration was particularly poignant.

This year, the line that resonated most with me was Clarence’s inscription in the copy of “Tom Sawyer” that he leaves behind for George: “No man is a failure who has friends.” It has been a tough 12 months for me (parent’s death, job loss), and I don’t know what I would have done without the strength and support of the friends who buoyed me through it. I’m also very lucky and grateful to be married to my own George Bailey, my best friend and the richest man in town.

On this Christmas Eve eve, I am happy and thankful to be exactly where I am. I wouldn’t change a thing. The bad times only make the good ones mean more. I guess I don’t need Frank Capra to tell me it’s a wonderful life, but I do enjoy the reminder.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays with those you love the most in your own wonderful lives.

What Happens in Vegas

As a little girl, I didn’t dream of walking down the aisle in a white satin dress while Prince Charming waited worshipfully for me at the altar. I didn’t imagine him carrying me off into the sunset on his white steed to a castle where we would live happily ever after. While my Barbie dolls sometimes wore the wedding gown my mother made from her own dress, they preferred the stewardess uniform. My favorite Barbie, a brunette like me, traveled the world with Pilot Ken. They went on dates during layovers in exotic places, but they never discussed marriage. Brunette Barbie had other plans.

When I was a preteen, my plan was to leave Michigan once I turned 18 and relocate to California or maybe New York. Next I would travel to Europe and possibly settle in London. My roadmap grew sketchy after Europe, but I was certain I’d stay single wherever I landed. I didn’t want kids, so there was no point in getting married. I wouldn’t even think about settling down until I was old, like 40 or something, and had seen the world.

At 18, my plan went decidedly south. I wound up living at home with my dad and his wife while I went to the University of Michigan-Dearborn and then moved out and took a job in nearby Birmingham when I graduated. I promised myself I’d only extend the deadline for leaving Detroit by a few years and that I’d be on my way by age 25. Two months before my 26th birthday, I quit my second post-college job, sold my car and moved to Chicago. Six weeks later, I met my future husband.

The prince of Lincoln Park (and later Bucktown) and I lived together for two-and-a-half years before he proposed. I was fine with that, happily focusing on my career and enjoying our big-city lifestyle. Marriage remained the “m” word for me, and the idea of planning a wedding held no appeal. Still, I knew that if I were going to embark on the journey down the aisle and into the unknown, he was the one I wanted beside me.

During a visit to Michigan to celebrate our engagement, my father and his wife tried to sell us on getting married in Livonia. We politely agreed to check out some locations with them, but we never made it past the first generic reception hall or the talk of which of their friends should be on the guest list. The prince wanted a church wedding, but suddenly my crazy idea of eloping to Las Vegas looked good to him. Or at least it looked better than a bunch of my parents’ friends doing the chicken dance under a disco ball.

The prince and I were married in a gazebo at the Island Wedding Chapel of the Tropicana Casino by a minister named “Hap,” which, as he explained, is three-fifths of happy. I had wanted a drive-through wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator, but we compromised. Twenty friends and family members celebrated with us, and a handful of us partied well into the night. I think we rode the rollercoaster at the top of the Stratosphere at 3 o’clock in the morning, but I can’t be sure.

Sometimes what happens in Vegas is only the beginning of the adventure. The prince and I have been to both coasts multiple times in our 16 years of marriage, but we decided the Midwest is where we belong for now. This summer we took the two kids I swore I would never have to Europe for the first time. It seems the plans I made when I was a little girl didn’t change, although the order of them did.

I guess Brunette Barbie just needed to find the right copilot.

The prince and I celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary in November 2011 where our adventure (or at least the marriage part) began: Viva Las Vegas!

The Bad Wife

I dreaded my husband’s business trips when our kids were young. Parenting alone for a few days several times a month left me in need of therapy, a vacation, or at the very least a case of wine and a visit from the fairy housekeeper. I missed his help more than his company when he traveled back then. Perhaps that sounds coldhearted and selfish, but anyone who has single-handedly wrangled a baby or toddler will understand.

Nope. That's not me. (Image source:

In the tween and teen years, parenting alone is trying but manageable. The angst, attitude and backtalk stress me out, but at least my kids are old enough that I can reason with them some of the time. And because they are independent and more or less self-sufficient, this mother’s work actually is done at the end of the day. When my husband is away now, I miss his company because I do fine without his help, usually at least.

His latest trip has been a different experience for us here at home. One of our kids is having a tough time, and life has been more than a little challenging. (As much as I would like to talk about it here, I can’t, because I have to respect my child’s privacy. I’m starting to understand why people blog anonymously. Self-censorship sucks.) In light of our struggles, you would think I would want my husband here with me.

Instead I’m enjoying a few days of freedom. There’s nothing sordid to tell. I haven’t been out boozing, gambling or carousing — at least not yet. Actually, I’ve been home every night since he left.

I’m a bad wife not because of anything I’ve done while he’s away but because I’m relieved that he’s gone.

For the past few days, I haven’t worried a bit about being unemployed for the past four months. While the kids are at school, I write and work out at my leisure because he isn’t here to see me slacking. In the evenings, I relax on the couch in front of the TV without a twinge of regret because he isn’t still working in his office upstairs. I do whatever the hell I want, when I want, and I revel in it.

I’m a bad wife because even though my husband has supported me lovingly and completely ever since I lost my job, I still think I’ve let him down. He’s given me no reason to feel this way, none whatsoever. It’s all in my insecure, delusional head. He wants me to be able to relax and do the things that make me happy. Instead, I’ve relegated myself to serf status in my own home because I think I am not carrying my weight financially.

I’m a bad wife for the same reasons I’m a good mother: I would rather give support than receive it. I want to be the caregiver not the patient. I want to heal my family’s wounds, while ignoring my own. If I want to be a good wife who is worthy of my even better husband, I have to allow him to take care of me a little. I have to admit I need the emotional Band-Aid of someone telling me it will all be OK.

This bad wife could really use a good husband right now. Thank goodness he comes home tomorrow.

A Pre-Apocalyptic Bucket List for the Soul

On the way to school this morning, my 13-year-old son reminded me that the world is going to end Dec. 21. Of course he was kidding, but we decided it might be a good idea to plan a party for Dec. 20 just in case. I don’t know about you, but if the Mayans (or the folks who misinterpreted when their calendar ends) were correct, I have a lot to do in the next 38 days. The good news is we can at least scratch Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa shopping off our lists, right?

Here’s my challenge to you: Write a list of the top 10 things you wish you could change about or accomplish for yourself before you die. I’m not talking about skydiving or mountain climbing here. Let’s call it a bucket list for the psyche.

Here’s mine:

  1. Let go of past hurts. I can forgive, but I have a lot of trouble with the forgetting part. Dwelling on things doesn’t hurt anyone but me … and my husband, who gets stuck listening to me obsess.
  2. Love and be proud of my body. I’ve spent 45 years on this one so far, and I haven’t made much progress. I’d like to learn to look in the mirror and at photographs of myself and see the good parts instead of the bad. (Disclaimer: I don’t voice my body image issues in front of my daughter. It’s not healthy for me to force my saddle — I mean, emotional — baggage on her, and I recognize that.)
  3. Quit being an easy target. I wear my heart on my sleeve and always have. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but I never learned how to fight back verbally or physically. Melting into a pool of emotional mush doesn’t work out so well. Take my word for it.
  4. Stop yelling at my kids. Strangely, this correlates with No. 3. My kids don’t listen the first three or four times I say something because they don’t take me seriously. Until I yell, that is. Then they get upset with me for raising my voice and shout back. Then I yell louder. It’s a vicious, and headache inducing, circle, and I hate it.
  5. Be a better friend. I have let so many relationships fade over the past 13 or so years. I know it’s a copout to blame it on having kids, but I do, at least to a certain extent. At the end of a crazy, busy day, the last thing I want to do is pick up the phone or even compose an email. I want quiet, peace. And as a result of my lack of effort, I’ve lost track of a lot of people I truly love and miss.
  6. Call my sister more. This goes back to No. 5 and the fact that I despise talking on the phone. But that’s a lame excuse. Our parents are both gone and it’s just us (and our wayward brother; see No. 7). My sister lives alone, and I know she would love to hear from the kids and me more.
  7. Reconnect with my brother. He’s a lost soul who has been in and out of trouble over the years. He has issues I don’t feel comfortable sharing publicly without his permission. But he was always good to me, and I love and miss him like crazy.
  8. Listen more. To my husband, to my kids, to my friends. But most of all to myself. If I listened to my inner voice a little more often, I think No. 1 would be much less of a problem. I tend to overlook bad first instincts about a person, thinking that everyone deserves a chance. Maybe some people don’t, or I just need to learn to give up sooner.
  9. Let people in. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life. I hate when people leave me, so I put up walls to keep them out in the first place. I guess that’s why No. 1 is such a problem. When I actually do let someone in and he or she hurts me, I’m emotionally devastated and I can’t let it go. Ugh. This is the thing that drives me the craziest about myself, but I think it’s also one of the hardest to fix. I for sure haven’t had much luck in the past four-and-a-half decades.
  10. Seize the day. It’s been a tough year (death, job loss, etc.). I lost my positive mojo and confidence somewhere along the way, and I need to find it. After all, the clock is ticking.

 So what’s on your psyche’s bucket list?

Our Hillbilly Anniversary

What better way to spend your anniversary than with a bunch of hillbillies, right?

Those of you who’ve been here before know my husband and I are music nuts, him being an actual musician and me a die-hard groupie. Well, yesterday was our 16th wedding anniversary, so we decided to celebrate it as any true fans would. We had a quiet, romantic dinner at our favorite local Italian restaurant, and then headed over to the VFW hall for some foot-stompin’ music and dollar beers with our good friends the Righteous Hillbillies.

The band was on fire, and it was a great night. I’m kind of sorry we missed the fish fry, though.

The Righteous Hillbillies rockin' the house at last night's release party for their new CD, "Trece Diablos" (photo by Michelle Gadeikis)

Jeff Buckley and a Flat Tire

It was Feb. 9, 1994, a snowy Wednesday night in Chicago. I was with a friend at Schuba’s Tavern, one of our favorite music haunts. We met there to see Jeff Buckley, but it was a sold-out show and we didn’t have tickets. A drink at the bar before we trudged home through the snow: Why not?

When the guy with snow-covered hair nudged his way up to the bar next to me, I noticed his cheekbones, his motorcycle jacket, his playful smile. As he waited for his beer, he built a house out of matchbooks. He was trying to get our attention, so we indulged him.

I asked him if he was there to see Jeff Buckley. He wasn’t. His friend had a flat tire outside the bar and called him for backup. Apparently, he called several other friends too, so Cheekbone Guy decided to go inside to warm up and have a beer.

I teased him for not helping his friend and laughed when he admitted he’d rather be in the warm bar having a drink. We talked about the NPR “Car Talk” guys, and he told us Janis Joplin was one of his favorite female singers. The conversation was easy, so we shared a few more drinks.

When he asked for my number, I gave it to him. I assumed he wanted to hang out with my friend and me. (I’ve always been a little naïve about picking up on guys’ signals — even the blatantly obvious ones.) My friend laughed at me. “He is going to ask you out,” she said. But I didn’t take her seriously. He was a few years younger than us; I really didn’t see it happening. Plus, I was 26 and had just moved to Chicago four months ago. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend.

Cheekbone Guy called a few days later and asked if I wanted to go see a movie. I asked him if he meant “go see a movie” as in “go on a date.” Yep, he said, that was exactly what he meant.

We saw “Reality Bites” at the Biograph Theater on our first date, which lasted 24 hours. Six weeks later we moved in together. Today we are celebrating our 16th wedding anniversary.

Thank you to Jeff Buckley and a flat tire for making it all possible.

My Bipartisan Marriage: Agreeing to Disagree

Source: City & State (2012)

“And as we have for the past 18 years since we met, my husband and I just canceled out each other’s votes.” That’s what I posted on Facebook and Twitter this morning, after my husband and I left our polling place in Chicago’s South Suburbs, and I was surprised to find that lots of female friends and followers are in the same boat.

I’m not sure how things work in their bipartisan households, but in ours it’s a matter of agreeing to disagree.

Politically, my husband and I couldn’t be further apart. He is a self-professed libertarian with what I would describe as strong Republican leanings. His vote is determined by the state of the economy: tax and deficit levels, unemployment and inflation rates, and other key business and financial indicators. I, meanwhile, am a liberal Democrat. I vote on social issues like protecting same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose. I vote based on the man or woman running and his or her view and treatment of people; I vote with my heart.

In terms of our morals and values, though, we are on the same page. We both come from blue-collar backgrounds and value education, hard work and, above all, family. We want to instill strong work ethics in our children and teach them to be proud of what they achieve rather than what they are given. We believe in championing their victories and letting them learn from their mistakes.

In our early years together, before marriage and kids, the presidential election was a source of extreme contention. Every four years, we’d bicker and argue, each trying to sway and convince the other. But as we’ve grown and matured together over the past almost two decades, we’ve come to realize we can’t change each other’s opinions. We can let go of our political differences because on a personal level we know we’ve worked out a pretty effective system of checks and balances. His practical business mind keeps my (often) overly emotional one in check, and vice versa.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. No matter who is in the oval office come January.

What about your household? Are you and your partner on the same page, or do you agree to disagree too?