Amy Krouse Rosenthal--book author, columnist, Yippie-yuppie prankster, and mother of three--was sitting at a table in a Wrigleyville coffeehouse when she heard from a fellow patron that Simone de Beauvoir had had her first orgasm ever in Wicker Park, one night she stayed with Nelson Algren. "They should have a bronze sign there!" Rosenthal nearly hollered. "That would be awesome. That would be the most brilliant example of insight and creativity, and they could have one of those brown highway directional signs like they have for the Children's Museum or Navy Pier."
Recalling the moment, Rosenthal peers over her tortoiseshell reading glasses and sighs. "These are the ideas I get really jazzed about," she says. Her days seem to brim with ideas too good to be true, interrupted only by the ring of her cell phone. It's a cold fall afternoon and she's sitting in a North Center coffeehouse. Her heavy pullover sweater looks like she's stolen it from her big sister's closet, but it's hard to find any clothing that doesn't look oversize when you're 5'1" and a half-eaten biscuit over 100 pounds.
She stops banging away at her laptop to answer the phone. It's her baby-sitter, the only person who has her cell phone number. This morning Rosenthal's youngest kid, a three-year-old girl named Paris, had the sniffles. "She's getting worse?" Rosenthal asks the sitter. "OK," she says after listening to the update. "Give her the Motrin. If it's not on top of the fridge, it's upstairs in the medicine cabinet." She pauses again then says, "That's it, one teaspoon of children's Motrin," though she must know the sitter is savvy enough not to administer the hard stuff. "If she gets any worse, I'm going to have to go home," Rosenthal says.
Erma Bombeck isn't dead; she's been transformed into a Jewish mother originally from Northbrook, now living in Chicago. This writer, however, is more than happy to use the word "motherfucker" in her books and essays about parenthood, home life, and whatever else pops into her head. Her new book, The Mother's Guide to the Meaning of Life: What I've Learned on My Never-ending Quest to Become a Dalai Mama, is due out in March, and she's producing an audio magazine on CD of writers musing on writer's block. In December Rosenthal is participating, with such notables as Elie Wiesel and Kinky Friedman, in National Public Radio's annual Hanukkah tribute, during which she'll read an essay written for the occasion.
After dropping the kids at school, Rosenthal dashes to whatever coffeehouse she favors this season or speeds to a meeting with a graphic artist, then perhaps on to the printer to get quotes on her latest prank sign (she was responsible for the ubiquitous "Employees Must Hold Hands Before Returning to Work" signage that seemingly popped up at every bar and restaurant in town a year and a half ago). Then on to Muskie's to pick up dinner.
The first essay she ever wrote for the New York Times was on the topic of busyness. She began the piece with a typical phone exchange between friends: "How you been? Busy. How's work? Busy. How was your week? Good. Busy." The word "busy," she asserted, "stands alone as the easiest way of summarizing all that you do and all that you are." She shared the op-ed page with Salman Rushdie, who opined on India and Pakistan pointing nuclear missiles at each other.
"Somebody once asked me, 'Are you a columnist?'" Rosenthal says. "And I said, 'No, I'm an um-ist.' It's a lot of umming."
With two books out and a third on the way, Rosenthal has turned umming into a cottage industry. She says she started umming when she was a student at Lake Forest High School. (Her family moved to that community from Northbrook between her freshman and sophomore years.) But "the funniest thing about Lake Forest," she notes, "is definitely not me. It's that a lot of people walk around in duck pants--they have these little pictures of duck bottoms on them--or plaid pants. It was a very preppy community. Nobody else seemed to think the pants were funny, though."
It wasn't only her sense of humor that set her apart in Lake Forest. "I was the only Jewish kid in class. The rest of them had no clue what was happening when my family took off for the high holidays. There are about three more Jewish kids there now, but there weren't a lot of bagel sandwiches in the cafeteria when I went to high school."
Rosenthal's Lake Forest home was next door to Ragdale, the artists' and writers' colony. But Rosenthal's path to literary excess would not be that simple. She studied French at Tufts University in Boston and traveled to Paris her junior year. Aware that a degree in French wouldn't earn the bus fare back to Chicago, she inventoried her interests to determine which might earn a decent living. "I was an ad junkie," she says. So she scored ad-agency internships in her last two summer vacations.
After graduating from Tufts in 1987, Rosenthal worked as a freelance copywriter at a small River East agency. She hoped to become part of the permanent staff, but otherwise writing ad copy was a dream job. "I loved advertising," she says. "I thought I would do it forever. It's all about ideas and stuff. It's a blast. You don't have to get dressed up. You spend half the day sitting around with your partner being stupid and then writing an ad and then being stupid some more and then going out to lunch. It was great!"
Aiming for more permanence, however, Rosenthal applied for--and got--a job with a hot shop in San Francisco. While living in a little studio apartment at the top of a hill there, she began writing a column of observations called "Brain Lint" for the industry journal Art Directions, illustrating the column's multiple frames herself. One typical frame featured stick-figure drawings of a waiter taking the orders of a couple at a restaurant, illustrating the following observation. "When a waiter says, 'Good choice!' after I order, I feel good, proud even. But when he says it to someone else and not me, I feel like I've failed some sort of restaurant pop quiz." After a couple of years the column was picked up by the humor magazine Might, published by Dave Eggers, and was given a different name each issue, perhaps "Toe" one month and "Pantyhose" the next. The columns became so popular that Rosenthal eventually printed up a series of trading cards, each featuring a different frame.
Life at the San Francisco agency turned out not to be the dream existence Rosenthal had hoped. "The pressure was too much," she says. "I was burned-out after a year. I was in over my head. I needed a break." She saved a few dollars, handed in her notice, and booked a flight for Europe, where she planned to backpack around Greece and Italy. But first she stopped in Chicago for about a day and a half to see her folks. "While I was here I said, 'What the heck?' and I interviewed with an ad agency, this great little shop that did all the Dove Bar stuff." She'd interviewed with the same agency before she moved to San Francisco but wasn't hired because she lacked experience. Now they snapped her up.
About two weeks after getting back to Chicago from Europe, Amy Krouse was introduced to "a lawyer with good hair," as she describes him, named Jason. She was drawn to him immediately. "We dated from that point on. He didn't know he was going to marry me," she says. "But I knew."
During the next five years or so, Rosenthal moved on to two other agencies and had three children. She believed she'd be in advertising "forever, that my destiny was to be an ad chick." But one day, out of nowhere, she had an epiphany. "I was at the McDonald's across Addison Street from Lane Tech. My kids were crawling through the tubes in the Play Place. I started to think about stuff: being with the kids, writing, advertising. Something had to go. All of a sudden it felt like I wasn't going about this living thing the right way. I knew I had to keep writing. I thought about getting rid of the kids, but that wasn't a viable option. That's when the epiphany came. I said to myself, 'I'm done with advertising.' I wanted to try this stuff on my own."
Leaving the children with a sitter, Rosenthal would identify a good coffeehouse and set up shop, writing four hours or so a day. She had plenty of ideas for expanding her eclectic "Brain Lint" concept. Another, less esoteric set of columns was picked up by Parenting magazine. After Might folded, what had originally been "Brain Lint" ran in the Tribune's on-line magazine, digitalcity.com. And when that folded, the column was picked up by amused.com, a humor Web site, where it can still be found as "15 Megabytes of Fame."
Almost from the start of her full-time writing career three years ago, Rosenthal envisioned turning her columns into books. It turned out to be an almost Herculean task to find an agent. Nobody was interested in repping an author who really couldn't describe her own work. "I give long, rambling, incoherent answers when people ask me what I do," she admits.
Finally a meeting with an agent paid off, partly because Rosenthal had a plan. She arrived early at the Northside Cafe on Damen ("not far from Simone de Beauvoir's first orgasm," she notes). "I asked the waitress to come over to my table after 20 minutes and say, 'Oh my God! Are you Amy Krouse Rosenthal? I've been reading your stuff in Might! I've been a big fan of yours for a long time.' It turned out she really had read my stuff. It's a weird coincidence. He was impressed--that helped. You gotta do what you gotta do."
That agent sold her first volume, The Book of Eleven, in a couple of months--after repeated rejections. "A lot of editors totally didn't get the Eleven thing," she says. "I had such a huge stack of rejection letters from publishers. I had one that said, 'Thank you for the submission. However, we don't know what you intend to do with this.' I wanted to call back and say, 'We intend for it to be a book!' Like we wanted them to print it on Scotch tape. Like that was an option."
The Book of Eleven: An Itemized Collection of Brain Lint, was a 122-page collection of lists, an extension of the columns. In the chapter "11 Thoughts about Cars and Driving," for instance, Rosenthal offered this nugget: "I couldn't have made this up: I saw a crossing guard finish up work, get into her car, blow through a red light, and crash into the side of another car."
Her second book--The Same Phrase Describes My Marriage and My Breasts: Before the Kids, They Used to Be Such a Cute Couple...Notes While They Nap--was closer to the tamer Parenting material: "Paris dropped her bagel with cream cheese on the sidewalk--cream cheese side facing down--and I picked it up, wiped off the dirt best I could, and gave it back to her."
She believes these musings fit the lifestyle of her audience. "I was hoping that the short-nugget format might make it easy for a tired parent to actually read a piece or two without falling asleep in the middle of a sentence," Rosenthal said when The Same Phrase was published in the fall of 1999. Soon after The Book of Eleven came out, Rosenthal discovered an ancient Japanese literary form that consisted of random musings and lists. "I thought I'd invented this really neat thing," she says. "But I was only about 1,000 years late."
Her upcoming book, The Mother's Guide, will be a collection of longer essays. "They'll be about me seeing life stuff through my experiences as a mother. But it's not just about motherhood. They're going to be more like grown-up essays--beginning, middle, and end." Both Family Life and Redbook magazines will run excerpts in late winter or early spring.
Today Rosenthal posts her column on her Web site, mommymommy.com, as well as on amused.com. Excerpts from that column have appeared in the Utne Reader, and she contributes to Redbook magazine. She's read pieces on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and All Things Considered and regularly appears on WBEZ's 848. The Tribune Company's college-campus syndicator has picked up her "Brain Lint" trading cards for distribution. And the CD Writers' Block Party, with contributions by nationally known novelists, poets, playwrights, and singer-songwriters, should be released by the first of the year.
But her street-theater schemes--none of which has earned her the price of a Happy Meal--give her the most satisfaction. Striking up a conversation with a man who painted specials signs for grocery store windows, she got a brainstorm. She hired him to paint "Brain Lint"-type signs that they could hang up--without permission--in local supermarkets. "I would give him copy like 'I'm ultimately ashamed and embarrassed by my life,'" Rosenthal says. "We would have them printed up. We spent money and time on them. One sign, at Jewel on Ashland, stayed up a long time. But usually the manager would find out and tear them down right away--that was always a bummer. We never got busted, though."
As store managers became more vigilant, Rosenthal began photographing the signs after they were hung. "Those were the best things I could ever do, and not many people saw them," she says.
She also began collaborating on signs with syndicated cartoonist Charise Mericle Harper. A few years ago they taped printed signs on lampposts all around the city. One sign read "Lost--My Virginity--Last seen on my parents' couch--Age 19." Below, Rosenthal and Mericle Harper provided a post-office box number for replies.
"One of my favorite things we did was we set up a card table on the corner in front of Urbus Orbis [the late, lamented Wicker Park coffeehouse] on a hot day in the middle of August," Rosenthal says. "For 25 cents you could get a glass of lemonade, a drawing of a glass of lemonade, or a paragraph about a glass of lemonade." Mericle Harper was to draw the pictures, Rosenthal would write the paragraph. Most customers opted for a cool drink. "On a hot day, art does not win out," Rosenthal says. "We put a lot of effort into it, but it gave me a lot of happiness."
Another time the pair set up a table at the corner of Clark and Fullerton and offered passersby their choice of a used library book, a pair of old wedding pumps, or a dollar. "We did it all day," Rosenthal says. "We wrote about it. We took photographs. People couldn't understand why we were giving away a dollar. They thought they had to do something for it. We gave away all 17 books. Nobody took the shoes."
About a month ago Rosenthal began combing Web sites and local phone books, putting together a mailing list of Rosenthals and sending each a letter: she encloses a dollar as payment for their time, then asks them to "support your fellow Rosenthal." She suggests they check out her listing at amazon.com, mention her books at cocktail parties or business meetings, read her column at mommymommy.com, buy her books as gifts, and lend her their "good wishes." In return she promises to support them in their endeavors. One woman has written back already, saying she's now a big fan after buying Rosenthal's books simply because they shared the same last name. Another, a psychotherapist, returned the dollar, saying she normally charges $150 for an hour of her time.
Whatever her reception, at least Rosenthal has her kids. Justin, Miles, and Paris like her "most of the time," she says. "Sometimes they hate me. I tell them that's OK. If I'm doing my job right, they should hate me sometimes." She adds that "the best advice ever given to me about writing was by Justin when he was about five. He was asking what it meant to be a writer. I was trying to explain it to him. Finally I said, 'Do you get it? Do you understand what I'm saying about writing, what writing is?' He said, 'Yeah. Do you try to use all the letters?'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.