Saturday, January 31, 2009

Musts and Wants


Late spring or early summer, before I turned twelve or maybe thirteen. A beautiful day, with the kind of famous Southern California weather that people assume lasts year-round. (It doesn't.) Our house had a pool, and bricked out of one corner was a small jacuzzi—which was common enough for the time and place; it didn't particularly set us apart socially. Still, it was a luxury. I have only three memories in connection with the pool/jacuzzi: two specific and one a composite memory of the pool parties held there for my 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th birthdays. Of the specific, one concerns a natural disaster (and will form the basis for a future post). The other—the memory for today, the last day of January 2009—has to do with life planning, decision making, making lists (something I now do very, very well). At the time, in the jacuzzi, I believe the decision facing me was regarding summer camp, where to go for it. I was having a hard time choosing. Blame it on the Libra in me, if you believe in that sort of influence. I was outside with my dad, and we were talking about it over the bubbling noise of the water jets. (Yes, I realize this sounds almost shamefully privileged: jacuzzi, summer camp—even the idea of having choices, which too often is tied directly to socio-economic standing, to locale of birth, things we never ask for when we are born.) The thing I remember is that it was here that my father introduced me to the idea of "musts" and "wants." He told me to make a list, two columns down a page (which we furnished mentally, out of the steam rising from the swirling water's surface). What were the necessary things? The elements that, when lacking, would make the option under consideration an impossible one? Those were the "musts." Everything else, however nice, was a "want"—so-called icing on the cake. This sounds simple now, of course; to a preteen girl, however, it is revolutionary. Children, by default, are creatures of wanting, and everything they want is something they want so urgently that it feels imperative; it feels like a "must." The idea that making responsible choices means prioritizing, separating out the truly necessary from the merely desired—the fact that when you sit down to make two lists, you are priming yourself for healthy compromise—this habit of list making, I owe to my father, who clearly had more in mind for me than just resolving the issue of camp. This memory, the designation of "musts and wants" in a jacuzzi, is my earliest memory of a lesson that has stayed with me my whole life. "Musts and Wants" is the first real life tool my father put in my solve-it box, and for this I am grateful; I use it all the time. The jacuzzi, the California sunshine . . . those fell into the "want" category for a while (they do not figure into either of my columns now); but the sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle, the two headings underscored at the top, awaiting my accounting—this is the "must" of the memory, a template for a self-directed life of informed choice. Thanks, Dad.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Keith Jarrett, Carnegie Hall


It was only last night, but already it rates among my most powerful memories—one I know will reverberate down time's lonely corridors, enduring where the daily slush of logistical life (thankfully) does not. Yesterday contained plenty of logistical craziness, but by 8:00 PM I was seated in the last row of the dress circle at Carnegie Hall next to my father, looking down on a stage empty but for a single piano, a bench, and a collection of microphones wired for the live recording of Keith Jarrett's solo improvisational performance. I have always loved these charged moments of anticipation before a performance, and I expected this concert to be something special—that much more so because the tickets came through a friend of a very dear friend in California, a last-minute opportunity to be seized, and because a love of Keith Jarrett was transmitted to me by my father, and this was a great way to thank him for bringing awareness of this man's music into my life. But this is all back story, not the memory. The memory is hard to put into words—music does not want your words—and I know I will struggle for days, weeks, maybe months or years, to find appropriate language for it. Nearly fifteen years ago, in notes to the ECM Complete Recordings of Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note, Jarrett himself wrote: "A master jazz musician goes onto the stage hoping to have a rendezvous with music. He/she knows the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness. It must be let in, recognized, and revealed to the listener, the first of which is the musician . . . . [This process] is like an attempt, over and over again, to reveal the heart of things." Last night, I don't think it would have been possible to see a greater openness, a greater dedication to this process; Jarrett's music was incredible genius, but just as great was the ability to not only hear the music but to have a visual experience of its creation. If you have seen him in concert, you will know what I am talking about; if you haven't, try to picture: a man for whom there is nothing else but one note and the next, the piano, the pursuit of a melody, a motif, a means of exposing the sacred. Picture a body that cannot stay seated, upright, but rather hunkers down ear to keyboard and then rises, leaning into the body of the instrument, his partner, all but folding his own inside. Picture a man playing with such physicality and passion—the stomping of feet like in a lusty Spanish dance, the vocalizing grunts and groans—you feel, despite your concert hall surroundings, that you have stumbled upon a moment of excruciating intimacy; one that you, the voyeur (écouteur?) cloaked in darkness, are not pure enough to merit, yet that you are fortunate enough to experience vicariously. Jarrett played last night with his whole body, clearly from the core and despite the limitations of his humanity. He said at one point, contemplating the tasks of starting, ending, playing through, that maybe beginning was the hardest part. That may be so, but once he did begin each piece, he chased it down relentlessly—he seemed to stretch the keyboard beyond its size, to push against its extremities, particularly at the upper end of the scale—and yet sometimes with such a gentle caress of the keys. Sometimes the sounds were ethereal, and at the end of some pieces, the notes seemed to tip off the edge of sound completely, rushing into a silence that was otherworldly. Last night's music was full of depth, humor, and most of all hope. One piece in particular—and it pains me that I do not have a more technical knowledge of music that would allow me to understand or communicate how this might have been achieved—one piece, to my mind, truly epitomized that human of all conditions, hope, capturing a notion of what people could achieve and create in the world, if the world were in the hands of artists. It was the one piece that, I will admit it, brought on tears. (Jarrett, by the way, clearly has his own opinions about the people whose hands have shaped our recent history: on a tangent regarding the economy and referring no doubt to the moral decay that helped bring it down, "Why would you want to bolster that?") The other thing he said—here I am, falling back on words again for lack of an ability to capture the music—was that perhaps the hardest part of all about this sort of improvisation was playing for 45 minutes "without getting into a corner." I can imagine; I wouldn't be able to get past two minutes, if I could begin at all. But, he added, "If you redefine 'corner,' eventually you won't be in it anymore." How true this is of everything, not just of playing jazz piano! In all, he played two sets, and we left after the second encore (first "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and then "Miss Otis Regrets," two most excellent standards). And already, though this was only 24 hours ago, I could not hope to accurately reproduce any of the improvised passages. But the visceral quality of the music, the emotion, depth, humanity, and clear genius—that will last my lifetime, and I have a profound gratitude for those who made it possible for me to have this experience firsthand. For the notes themselves, I am happy to wait for the release of the recording. If you see "Keith Jarrett, Live at Carnegie Hall, January 2009" . . . be sure to listen up!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Friend, Grendel


It was January 1990 when I found out about the death of a family friend, Morgan R. He was an IT man we knew through a work connection, a "techie" before that designation meant much to the average person—before the dot-com Silicon Alley boom (or bust) became part of public discourse. Morgan was a tall, thin man, and somewhat frail. He had pale skin, brown hair, brown or hazel eyes; he wore glasses. He spoke with a Southern accent, though I don't recall where he was from. Perhaps the Carolinas. He was sweet, intelligent, and was dying from the day I met him. He was the first man I knew personally who was homosexual (until then I'd only known boys who were struggling with the issue), and he was HIV-positive when the AIDS epidemic was ripping mercilessly through that population in the 1980s. I remember Morgan walking the office in his gray suit pants, his white shirt—his employee badge and a tiny red-handled screwdriver in his breast pocket. He wanted to leave his job, I heard, but of course he couldn't—he would never have health coverage otherwise. I remember a time when he came to my parents' house, a time when I was there, too, home from college for a weekend or a longer holiday. We talked about books, about one in particular that he encouraged me to read and that he eventually loaned to me—it turned out to be a parting gift, and the two will remain forever linked in my mind: Morgan, and John Gardner's Grendel. If you're not familiar with the book, it turns the epic poem Beowulf on its ear, revisiting the story from the point of view of the monster that the hero fights and slays. Gardner's version transforms the hideous creature into a lonely, intelligent outsider, who more resembles humanity than perhaps the humans do. I have thought often of Morgan through the years, especially when scanning my bookshelf and spying the worn paperback, yellowed and dog-eared, clearly read often. I wonder to what extent he identified with beastly Grendel: isolated, intellectual, outsider . . . all descriptions that fit Morgan perfectly well. Did he feel persecuted? I'm sure he must have, though we never talked about anything that personal—I am not sure he was aware that I knew about his sexuality, or about the affliction ravaging his body. Now Morgan is gone, Grendel remains. If we could re-create "the whole universe, blink by blink," what would we change?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Suck It Up


He was a pip-squeak in a suit—a weak-featured, whey-faced redneck type with the bleached look and moral substance of a slice of Wonder bread: soft, tasteless, mostly air. He was my peer in age (actually, I was a little older, by as much as two years perhaps), but he took himself for my superior. Sadly, in the very corporate, conservative pecking order of Chicago-based Ogilvy, Adams & Rinehart, he was. It was January 1994, and I had recently moved back to Chicago, alone, after what seemed like a lifetime away: after my family had made a couple of cross-country moves, after high school and college and a misfire stint at Washington University Law School, and after a first internship in public relations at a boutique marketing agency in St. Louis. I had interviewed for (and been subsequently "blessed" with) this next internship that could, if the fit were right, lead to a permanent position in OA&R. The person in question (let's call him J.) was a junior account executive. He took the word "executive" as license—no, as mandate—to exhibit pomposity and conceit of the most unimaginative sort. He took advantage. I worked all day doing the dullest work the agency had to offer. I learned next to nothing, except lessons in how to survive nasty coworkers. The clients were big, "sexy" accounts like Motorola, Helene Curtis, Quaker Oats (OK, not sexy), NutraSweet (also not sexy, but big money fighting "crackpot" people who professed the chemical sweeter was unhealthy). Close to quitting time, there would inevitably be some Very Important Report on media coverage or some such that had to be done, so I would then work into the night on something I suspect was really J.'s responsibility, at least in part, but that he deemed beneath him. Instead, he made sure to wangle an invitation to join Senior Account Executives for an overpriced dinner to woo prospective clients. He was, basically, a mendacious kiss-ass, a scraggy sycophant, a lackey to the higher-ups. He knew what was good for him. On at least one occasion, I saved his hide by staying late; I did work he then ascribed to himself. (I will not even get into the ordeal it was to get time off to fly to Florida for my grandmother's funeral, or how this reflected badly on my work ethic.) At the slightest hint of dissatisfaction, he put me in my place. He put himself—his dark suit, white shirt, boring tie, and condescending attitude—between me and the door to the windowless closet-like space I worked in. The room felt even smaller, airless, like a coffin. He stood so that he could look down the hallway, spoke as loudly as the empty corridor permitted, and told me to "suck it up." Verbatim. I wish I'd told him to go to hell. I wish I'd told him lots of things. In truth, I was so shocked, so angry that I was utterly speechless, which I'm sure he took as a sign of my submission. I did finish the internship, and decided to follow some sage advice when it came time to update my resume: "Don't look for a job; look for a boss," my parents told me. I've had nothing but good ones since.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mimi's Vanity


By which I do not mean to call her a vain woman, as the title might suggest; she was no more vain than the least of us who give average attention to hygiene. But I remember that my paternal grandmother, whose wish was to be called "Mimi" instead of anything sounding more grannyish (OK, maybe that pushes the envelope a tiny bit), had the most amazing "vanity," as used to refer to a dressing table, or a woman's personal toilet items. She was a large woman—mostly just by natural stature, big bones—and not particularly delicate. She walked with a heavy step; her movements were brusque. She was in her element in a busy kitchen but not overly careful with pots, pans, or utensils, which she'd toss into the sink from across the room. There was, however, one way in which she was the epitome of Southern grace and beauty, and that was the care she took with her appearance, her makeup, and the preservation of a youthful, glowing, Georgia-peaches-and-cream complexion. Mimi was born in the South, in Georgia; she raised her two sons in Alabama; she retired with my grandfather (I called him "Granddady") to the AARP enclave of Winter Haven, Florida, which is the only place I ever visited them. I mention this because I think it's a cultural marker of the Deep South, this extra care a woman pays to her skin. When I visited, as a young girl, I loved more than anything to watch her "put on her face." (As she wielded a lip liner, I remember telling her, in the blunt way of a child who thinks she's being helpful, that she'd missed a spot; she replied that she didn't have a nice cupid's bow like I did and that she had to draw it in. I thought a lot about that.) It was great fun to investigate all the tubes and jars and pencils and bottles that made up her vanity. She used, I believe, a regular dresser for the purpose of storage and not a traditional vanity table, but a large mirror was mounted on the wall just above it, and the surface of the dresser (plus its top drawer) was dedicated exclusively to beauty products, plus some jewelry. There were blushes and eyebrow pencils, mascara, lip liners, lipsticks in bright pinks, reds, and corals (never brown or beige, which are my daily choices); there were nail polishes, perfume samplers, you name it. What I remember most, though, were the skin care products. They were the time-tested classics, not hyped with extravagant packaging, not elite or expensive—they were made in the USA and sold in the Eckerd stores (now Rite Aid), accessible to women of any taste or budget. These were probably the same products her mother had used before her, and the same that littered the dressing areas of women across the South, and across the nation: Oil of Olay, Jergens rose-scented lotion, Pond's Cold Cream. I remember how grown-up and special I felt when Mimi pumped a bit of Jergens into my outstretched palm; the idea that a lady's hands should smell like roses was incredibly mysterious to me and suggested a life of garden tea parties and genteel courtship (men did used to kiss women's hands, didn't they?). The pink bottle of Oil of Olay, with its black cap or pump and its logo of a serene, elusive woman, was somehow off limits, to say nothing of the cold cream, which I still don't really understand: it's cold, yes, and extremely thick; my mother used to complain that its greasiness would leave stains on the pillowcases when Mimi came to stay with us. But this regimen of lotion, facial moisturizer, and nighttime cold cream . . . well, the result was a flawless, nearly wrinkle-free face, which mocked her age and stayed with her into her final, hundredth decade of life (she was in her early nineties when she died). What I remember about Mimi, ultimately, is the way she kept this form of Southern dignity, the careful attention to her appearance and above all to her skin, always. Whether going outdoors or staying in, whether living alone in her house once my grandfather died—she did this for a sense of herself, not because she felt she must be attractive to a man—or whether, finally, in the bed of a hospital . . . she kept her routines of self-care. Skipping down the generations, I have to admit and take responsibility for a downward trend, a loosening of standards in skin care and makeup. My beauty tools are very few, and I use them infrequently. (I am also generally ignorant of hair dryers and irons, if that tells you anything.) Someday I will likely pay the price for sun exposure, though mine is not excessive. I wish sometimes that I had the desire, the determination, or the patience required to devote such time and attention to my skin as Mimi did. Instead, I am thankful for genetics, which keep me looking a bit less than my years. But I do hope, fervently, that I am like my Southern grandmother, in elemental dignity, when I reach my last days—the contents of my own vanity be damned. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tuition Slips


When I was five, we were living in Chicago. I went to a kindergarten called Camelot, though I do not particularly remember this as a fairy tale place. Truthfully, I don't remember much about it at all. Only three things: One was that my teacher's name was Miss Kathy. The second thing was that I was not allowed to bring a lunch from home (which pretty much wrecked me, since I was a very picky eater at that age, and "sloppy joe" was definitely not in my culinary repertoire) and the exit from the cafeteria was barred by "lunch monitors," whose job it was to inspect the trays you were returning when the mealtime was over. I don't recall anyone ever forcing me to turn around, sit back down, and eat whatever had displeased me—I don't recall what they actually did about the kids who hadn't eaten whatever the food of the day happened to be—but I do remember dreading that moment of egress, when I could see up the steps leading to freedom outside, but had to pass the tray Nazis first. Not that I knew what a Nazi was, and not that they were anywhere approaching evil or even remotely horrible to us, but the whole thing seems absurdly strict when dealing with five-year-olds. The third and only other thing I remember about this early school experience was that every so often, as we kids were lining up to get on the mini-bus that took us home, someone from the school office would use a safety pin to attach a thin yellow slip of paper to each child's coat—I assume so that we would not lose the paper and that it would make it home safely to our parents. Perhaps they were also concerned about saving money on postage? Anyway, the slips of paper were carbon-copy (when there still was such a thing) receipts for tuition payments. And the thing I remember about these receipts was that, for some reason, I thought they looked like something that might taste good. I have no idea why I thought to eat these faint-blue-ink-on-yellow-paper goodies. Maybe the bus ride was boring. Probably it had something to do with the lunch monitors and uneaten sloppy joes (or other mystery food); I likely was pretty darn hungry. But eat them I did. I remember tearing off a small corner of yellow paper, rolling it into a ball between my fingers, and then starting to chew on it. One small piece became another, larger one; before I knew it, the whole thing was gone. More than taste, I remember the texture of the paper pulp as it got wet and started to break up inside my mouth. I don't know how many of these I ate. I don't know whether my parents ever wondered about not getting receipts for their payments. I don't know if they remember this habit of mine (they may not know about it; after all, I was swallowing the evidence in its entirety). It's weird, I admit. But maybe it was the earliest indication that a life of ink and paper lay in store.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Flying Fingers, Lace Legacy


They'd move so quickly—hooking, looping, twisting yarn with a crochet hook—your eyes couldn't keep pace with the motion of Yiayia's fingers as they transformed an unbroken strand link by cotton link into a lace doily, a place mat; wool into an afghan. Her hands were always busy, fingers flying, creating an abundance of fabric objects, some functional and others purely decorative, placed under lamps and dishes, serving to cover side tables, the backs or arms of the plastic-coated living room furniture I remember quite well (and thought of as strange). The white lace doilies, several of which I have inherited, are quite delicate, some simple and others intricate; they have in common an elegance that was generally lacking in my grandmother's difficult and often impoverished immigrant life. Because of her circumstances, her culture, her upbringing, her temperament, it should be said that she was not delicate with her children (my mother and her five siblings), and that this had its effects. My grandmother was a Greek woman of meager means, direct and coarse in her speech—but with her handcrafts and her other passion, tending roses in her garden, she brought some beauty into hardship, at least in this way. With the grandchildren, I remember, she was all affection: wobbly arms to give hugs, fingers to pinch cheeks and offer homemade cookies. Her voice contained the gravelly sound of pebbles and the Ionian sea that formed her native landscape. For me, when I was perhaps ten, she crocheted a beige lace purse, lined with cotton muslin. I have not seen it in years and fear I may have given it away in a teenage shedding of skin, so to speak. Another lost treasure is the granny-square afghan of shocking mix-and-match colors against a black background (looking very 1970s kitsch), which was in my parents last house but seems not to have made the move to their present apartment. They do still have a soft, off-white baby "blanket" (more like a shawl) that was a gift at my birth, plus a duplicate that had been made for a friend's family and that was given back to ours when my own son was born. Today is the anniversary of Yiayia's birth; she would have been 109 years old. If I had the afghan, I would curl up in it, think of her tonight, and keep warm on a cold evening. As it stands, with a few pieces of lace for a legacy, along with a simple gold cross on a chain, a water pitcher, and a set of cordial glasses, I will simply decorate my table tonight and toast to her memory. Yia sou, Yiayia, s'agapo!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thick Ankles


The crash-and-burn of my ballet career (which was in fact before the actual career part ever got started) may be summed up with two words: thick ankles. Such was the pronouncement about me made to my mother by my principal teacher at North Carolina School of the Arts at the time, whom I'll call (with liberties) Madame S. This was at the end of the Fall 1984 semester, my last at NCSA, which had contained nothing but grueling classes, casting disappointments, and rehearsals for ballets in which I would ultimately not dance. I remember the way "thick ankles" was said, with some disdain and a shrug of hopelessness, as if it didn't matter what other qualities I possessed—fleetness was best among them, as was the passion I felt—the genetic anatomy of a body cannot be helped. My fifteen-year-old dancing self of course translated this as code-speak for "fat," which I most definitely was not. Any photograph of me from that time period will attest to the opposite. When you're fifteen, however, you will believe what others tell you about yourself more than you will believe the evidence of your own eyes or your own heart. In fact, as it turns out, my "thick ankles" were really just a single ankle, or rather the space immediately above the right ankle. One year (plus several weeks) after Madame S's verdict, the offending ankle was X-rayed, at the insistence of my mother who noticed a bit of a limp when I came home for winter break from my new school in 1985. The lower segment of my right tibia was revealed to be not at all "fat" in fact, but incredibly, dangerously thin: my bone, tenderly nursing a growing tumor, was declared by an orthopedic surgeon to be "the thickness of an eggshell." So much for Madame S.; it was time to say hello to Sloan-Kettering. This all seems to be a lifetime ago, but I have kept one thing from those final dancing days, a parting gift from Madame S., which has become my own internal shorthand. At times when I am tempted to feel overly critical of myself, especially of my appearance, I summon forth the superior-sounding voice of Madame S., sweeten it with the thick syrup of irony, and bite down hard: whatever else may seem less than perfect, at least it's not as bad as having (stage whisper) thick ankles! With time on my side, it nearly always gets a good laugh from the woman in the mirror.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Revive with Vivarin


I didn't drink coffee in high school, nor did I drink soda—morning joe straight through until noon, Diet Coke the rest of the day were the fuel of my mid-twenties. But I do remember a caffeine buzz in teen years nonetheless, which took the form of a product called Vivarin, which I'm pretty sure came in a yellow box (the packaging was subsequently given a face-lift) and was sold in drug stores along with a competing brand, NoDoz. Marketing for this OTC stimulant was the key to its true pronunciation: "Revive with Vivarin" . . . but for some reason, I insisted on pronouncing "Viv-" as though it rhymed with "give," a short i sound. Now that I think of it, I'm not sure if the box was yellow, or if it was just the tablets themselves; maybe both. Anyway, the pills tasted horrible, chalky and bitter. I swilled them down with orange juice and cereal for dinner once the scheduled day was done, at least once in a quantity that was close to overdose strength. I do not remember why I wanted to buzz so badly. But to clarify, I wanted only to buzz, not to have a complete anxiety-driven freakout. I remember one night, my roommate and I (recall, these were boarding school years) went on Vivarin overdrive to the gymnasium and climbed a flat-plank ladder up to a high wooden platform area (it seemed high at the time, anyway). We sat up there and talked, that's all. But the talk included what was going on inside our bodies. I remember my heart racing, and that I was starting to feel sweaty. I was probably talking fast as well. I don't remember anything else except that suddenly it was about five minutes to curfew, when we had to sign in at the front desk of our dormitory, and that right at that moment, I had the worst panic attack I had ever had. She climbed down the ladder, and when it was my turn, I just couldn't do it. I didn't feel dizzy exactly, but had this sudden bout of vertigo, like in the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, and it was as though the ladder leading down suddenly telescoped into an impossible length; the height was way too much for me to manage, and I am not (as established in earlier posts) afraid of heights. I had to get talked down by my roommate, and what I remember, other than the panic, was that my roommate truly felt like a lifeline to me then. I knew, just as I knew that we were about to be late for sign-in, that she wouldn't leave me there. I wish I could say that this was the last time I ingested a bunch of caffeine pills; it probably wasn't. What can I say? Teens are stupid that way. I do feel lucky that nothing worse than that happened—the accelerated heart rate surely was dangerous enough. In subsequent years (mid-twenties with coffee and Coke aside), I have become caffeine free, nearly one hundred percent. I do still have the occasional cup of full-strength Earl Gray, green tea, or sometimes a coffee, but it's rare. I dislike the racing heart these days. True, I often feel overextended and tired these days, and maybe sometimes I do need to revive . . . but usually a cup of decaf with a good friend—the kind of friend who'll share your excitements and also talk you down in a crisis—will do the trick just fine.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Clutch the Corniche


January 1990. I had been traveling in France, staking out possible foreign study programs; the City of Lights was not yet a firm choice. I began my tour in Paris during the last few days of 1989, spent a plate-smashing New Year's Eve shouting "bonne année!" in the Latin Quarter (but that's another story), subsequently headed to Besançon, and then left colder climates behind as I went south by train to Nice and the sunny Côte d'Azur, where my mom joined me for several days before we made the return trip to New York together. During these days of winter sun, we marveled at the light on the Mediterranean, watched swaying palm trees and brave beach-goers from the Promenade des Anglais (warmer than in the north, it was still too darn cold for bikinis on the beach!); we visited wonderful museums and, venturing to Menton, not far from the Italian border, ate some of the best pesto we've ever had. All that was lovely, but the thing I remember most about this time with my mom in the French Riviera was the driving. More precisely, her driving; I was relegated to navigator. This made sense, so I was perfectly willing. After all, I was the one who could read the signs more easily, having studied French for years already and being used to all the excess vowels in the language, and she was the one with the International Driver's License. And yet . . . well, you have never been in a compact manual-transmission car with my mom (who largely prefers automatics) while attempting to navigate a "rond point" rotary intersection in a second language—which, by the way, is what I felt like I was speaking to her, instead of us both communicating in English. I was saying, "Take the next right," wasn't I? But in spite of the fact that I was entrusted with the map and the street-sign decoding, mostly I got resistance. When I said "next right," we just kept going around. And around again. Was I sure? Yes, I was. And cars were passing us, and my mom was starting to get a bit stressed out, and to be fair the rotaries are tricky for someone who is not at all used to them, as we Americans generally are not. And did I mention this was a manual transmission? This, however, was nothing. To get to Menton, and our best-ever pesto, we needed to take the famous Corniche. The Corniche, for those who do not know, is not really one road; it's three: Grande, Moyenne, and Basse. Because my mom is not only manual-transmission averse but also acrophobic, we had agreed on the Basse Corniche, which is the lower and slower seaside route. We were definitely (to my disappointment, since I am not afraid of heights) against the highest route, the Grande Corniche. Where we ended up, though, was the Moyenne Corniche. As navigator, I should take the blame, I guess—I do swear that the mistake was not intentional on my part, despite the fact that the middle road came closer to satisfying my craving for a view. Winding into some town or other on the Basse Corniche, we wound out of it on the Moyenne. I should say here that the Moyenne Corniche, near La Turbie, where the road turns down to Monaco, is where Grace Kelly had her fatal car accident in, I believe, 1982; there is still a small marker at the side of the road where flowers are placed by devoted and probably mostly touristic mourners. My mom was quick to point this out, but was equally quick to avoid looking too long at the spot, which does feature a lovely, cliff-hugging turn. High above Monaco, not yet any sign of a descent, just one hairpin turn after the other, Mom began to drive slowly. I don't blame her. Locals made everything more tense, as they would all but kiss her bumper, flashing their lights and honking horns to try to get her to speed up until they could pass her (recklessly, we both thought; who'd actually pass anyone on that road?). Of course we came down, eventually, and I think we did manage to take the Basse Corniche all the way back to Nice from the Italian border. The last part I'll always remember, though: the smell of burning clutch that followed us from one end of the French Riviera to the other.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Compartes in the Brentwood Country Mart


From 1979 through the early 1980s, when my family lived in Los Angeles and when I was between the ages of ten and fourteen, one of my favorite treats was to go to the Brentwood Country Mart, which had a quaint, carefully arranged rustic charm, a rather folksy feel to it at the time. We would often go for lunch, which we ordered at the Reddi Chick counter, a fabulous rotisserie and barbecue chicken place that would prepare a basket for you with a side of fries piled high in a red and white patterned paper food tray. (Side note: Reddi Chick opened in 1979, the year we arrived in L.A., and it is apparently still operated by the original owners, Steve and Carol Salita.) We would take our food and find a table at the Mart's open-air patio—preferably a seat near the central fire pit, which was enclosed with a black (or smoke-blackened) mesh. The chicken was fabulous, but the best part about a trip to the Country Mart was the promise of what might come after lunch: a visit to the tiny, mom-and-pop chocolate shop, Compartes. Walking into the shop from the patio, you'd see an older woman—I think she may have been the shop's originator, Myrna Comparte—busy behind an L-shaped configuration of display cases. I remember her as often wearing a pink smock of sorts, though perhaps this is my own bit of confection. She reminded me a little, for reasons having more to do with a general "European grandmother" aura than with any physical feature, of my own yiayia. Or maybe it was just that she was a source of sweets; that alone seems to merit a grandmotherly association. In the stainless steel and glass display cases, meticulous pyramids and rows of hand-dipped chocolates beckoned. There were many chocolate-robed fruits (whole dried fruits, glacé slices, orange peel), plenty of dense caramels and nut clusters, but I always only wanted one thing: a log of English toffee. Compartes' English toffee was the freshest and best I have ever tasted. The coarsely ground nuts gave a toasted crunchy coating to the generous layer of rich, soft chocolate that in its turn surrounded the hard (yet somehow melt-in-your-mouth) buttery core of the candy. I would order a single piece, and it would be handed to me in a thin sheet of waxy paper. Something about that fact made it even more special; it was perhaps my first taste of candy that did not come pre-packaged, but that someone pulled lovingly from a case just for me. I would give anything to have a piece now. Of course, I had to do a quick Internet search to see if Compartes still exists. It does, but I don't recognize anything that conforms to the shop I knew when I was young. Like me, the shop is all grown up. It has moved from its old home in the Country Mart, and, looking at the shop's website, it's clear that it's become a very upscale boutique where the chocolate is displayed like fine artwork—and probably costs as much. Supposedly the new shop (with its new owner) has kept the old recipes, the famous fruits, the careful techniques of Myrna Comparte; but it must be said that the homey, comfortable feeling seems gone, and the product itself (though earning plenty of accolades), looks more to me like eye candy.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To Sir, With Love


Today I remember Mr. McCatty, my middle school English teacher. His first name, I believe, was Ed. On a daily basis, he made himself memorable to us kids with his tweedy, uptight, grammarian ways; with his perfect enunciation; with his personal crusade against the interjection "like," which in Southern California in the 1980s was a quixotic endeavor (this was, after all, the time and place of the song "Valley Girl," by Moon Unit Zappa . . . like, gag me with a spoon, fer shure). Mr. McCatty had many other bêtes noirs. When someone raised a hand and asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?" his response was always, "I don't know. Can you?" If you didn't rephrase your question with "May I . . . ?" you may as well have peed in your seat. Mr. McCatty further disapproved of using the pronoun "I" in any kind of an essay. One could not write "I think that . . . ," under any circumstances. It was an egregious redundancy, as (presumably) you were the one writing the paper, therefore all thoughts were automatically yours. I learned that lesson well, because the first time I forgot this rule, he gave me an F on what he himself admitted was an otherwise A effort. My father tried to go head-to-head with Mr. McCatty on that one; no dice. Mr. McCatty was immovable. This was a man of uncompromising principles of English grammar and composition. This was also, quite possibly, a man with a racial ax to grind, a man with things to prove. Mr. McCatty was a dapper black man of elegant elocution, perfectly qualified beyond any doubt for his job, and he was, to my recollection, the only black teacher in the middle school—perhaps in the entire school at that time (I no longer have access to my yearbooks, so cannot scan the faces of the faculty). This was a somewhat prestigious, private prep school in Los Angeles. And now that I think of it, Mr. McCatty was my first black teacher, anywhere. Odd (or maybe not), that I am only realizing it at this very moment. At the time, I did not think anything of this. My upbringing was color blind, and I was too innocent of race relations and the politics of academia to consider that his being black meant anything at all in terms of his teaching a bunch of privileged, mostly white kids in the posh neighborhood of Brentwood. However, today is a historic date in American history. Today we are seeing inaugurated the first (half) black president of the United States. Today, with such public acknowledgment of Barack Obama's intellect and eloquence, his charisma and obvious leadership qualities, I cannot help but consider all the other black men, equally smart and articulate, who struggled against prejudice and perhaps did not overcome it, or did but at great cost. The New York Times recently examined, in its Arts & Leisure section, the ways that the entertainment industry has evolved in terms of its acceptance of blacks and the kinds of characters and stories they have been allowed to portray, asserting that the inroads made in movies and television have contributed to America's readiness to elect a black leader. The article featured entertainers such as Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and of course, above all, Sidney Poitier. (Imagine: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner . . . at the White House"!) In fact, if you watch this film clip, you'll hear Sidney Poitier's character "predict" the presidency of Barack Obabma. Interestingly, I now remember Mr. McCatty as looking quite a lot like Sidney Poitier, though at the time I didn't know who the actor was. He was conservatively dressed, impeccably groomed, polished in appearance and manner. I wonder, though, what assumptions were still made about him. Did his colleagues assume that he shot hoops on the weekends, that maybe he visited relatives in the ghetto area of Compton, or that he came from there? When people noticed how well he spoke, did they think "for a black man"? And what did we look like to him? Were we spoiled, pampered white kids with all the advantages and a head full of ignorant, hateful ideas? What must it have seemed like to him, when my father argued on my behalf over the unfairness of the grade on my essay? Honestly, I have to say that when I was in middle school, I very much disliked Mr. McCatty. But it had nothing to do with the color of his skin. Now, however—especially at times when I catch myself correcting my son: "It's 'May I be excused,' not 'Can I' . . ."—I think of him with the fondness that I never felt at the time. I don't know where he is today, if he's watching the inauguration on television, and if he is, what he's thinking. I hope that he feels pride and some measure of gratification. And I hope that, if he ever thinks of us kids, he does so knowing that some of us (the majority of us, statistically), are feeling pride, too, and are thinking of him . . . not "like" a teacher, but as perhaps one of the best teachers we ever had.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blue Tutu


I should have been in lightweight, fine-mesh tulle, pink or white; costumed to evoke a Degas dancer (I did have a black ribbon around my neck), posing among the polished wood furniture featured in the print ad for a fine antique store. If my costume had been white or pale pink, I felt sure, I would have been placed up front in the photograph. (Though maybe it was my olive complexion, too, that was too dark; I loved the sun and did not yet cultivate paleness as a mark of beauty, though at the time, there were still many assumptions about what a ballerina's skin ought to look like: anemic, as if to belie any suggestion of her true athleticism.) As it happened, though, I was in a costume of coarser blue material, and when the ad appeared in Architectural Digest in the mid-1980s, I was in the background, next to a seated violinist, pretending to be more interested in following along with his sheet music than in performing any dance steps. Front and center was another girl, a girl with the right costume, who showed off a lovely arabesque penché, using the back of a carved walnut chair as support. I remember looking at the glossy page of the magazine and feeling no thrill at all, no pride or glamor, only a bitter disappointment, as though there were humiliation in my pose and in my uniquely light blue tutu. In fact, I believe the requirement was any pastel color with a long skirt, so technically there had been nothing wrong with my light blue costume. And I had no right to be disappointed, to be surly even, considering the fact that my mother had moved small mountains to create a costume for me, just so I could have this opportunity. But I was thirteen and fully initiated into the ballet world, where the stock in trade at any cost is the illusion of perfection. Let the extent of my ingratitude (the real shame in the story) be clearly stated, because despite my mom's labor of love, imperfection was precisely the problem, through no fault of her own: the costume, which had been purchased with a short tutu that my mother then altered by hand with pins, needles, thread, and longer lengths of stiff blue tulle, was jury-rigged and second-best. We had tried, but had been unable to find anything more classical in style at the last minute, such as it was when we learned about the photo shoot. I had wanted "Les Sylphides" and ended up with something, well, not at all sylphlike. It—I—did not conform to the image in my mind; nor, I guess, to the very commercial image in the mind of the artistic director for the ad. It was an early lesson in disappointment, and in superficiality. Both were to become hallmarks of my experience in the dance world.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Chicago Sundays


Sundays in Chicago, when I was young: elementary school age, Sunday school age. The mornings belonged to me and my father. Often in those years, he traveled for business during the week, and this made "seventh day" mornings all the more precious. On Sundays, we'd leave our family's Lincoln Park apartment early, dressed in church clothes, and head downtown. Occasionally we'd stop at my father's office in the old Playboy (Palmolive) building, which was the art deco, stair-step style skyscraper at the top of Michigan Avenue—the one with the beacon on top, sometimes called the Lindbergh beacon, that is now extinguished but that would, throughout my childhood years in the Windy City, shine like a lighthouse guiding nighttime traffic down Lake Shore Drive. I used to watch the spinning, searching light in the dark and know that this was where my father was; those evenings he worked late, I imagined that beacon of light still connected us and that this was what would pull him home. The beacon was stilled in the morning, of course. Sunday mornings: a stop by the office perhaps (where I could play with the magnetized paper clip dispenser that so fascinated me); we'd have breakfast across East Walton Street sometimes, at the Drake Hotel. An old hotel of esteemed history, I don't have many memories of it from a child's eye (I could describe it from my later, adult visits), but I seem to recall indulging in raspberries, thinking it was the best thing in the world to be there with a dish of jeweled fruit, having my father to myself; he was all ears to a week's worth of childish prattle, saved up just for him, and he made me think that to him it was all important. After breakfast, we would walk south down Michigan Avenue, to Fourth Presbyterian Church, another grand structure (the link includes sections on the church's history and architecture). The feature I remember most about the church is its courtyard, set back from the Avenue and separated from it by an arcade of arches. In winter this space was snow-covered and serene; in summer, the sound of water in a carved fountain echoed off the surrounding stone walls of the church buildings. I would go to Sunday School, and my mom would join my dad in the "big service." We would learn about Moses (a central figure, of course, but the lessons seemed to be about him disproportionately); I wasn't sure what the adults were learning. Sometimes I sat with my parents in the nave of the sanctuary, looked up at the high, carved wooden ceiling, at the elaborate stained glass panels that colored the light on all sides. I thought that the stone pulpit, jutting up and out in its octagonal form to the right of the chancel, made the minister look like he was floating above us, but I also know from later conversations with my parents that he was a gifted preacher, and that his words erased any sense of distance that might have come between him and his congregation. After church, juice and cookies. It was a lovely Sunday tradition, punctuating time; a pause before the routines of work and school took us in our separate directions for another week. When I think now about my childhood—if it was happy, what it meant, whether it provided a sense of closeness, safety, and comfort—I often think about Sundays in Chicago, and how my father found a way to make sure he was there, fully present, even when the weeks belonged mostly to Mom. This time together was ours; I looked forward to it always, and I look back on it now with gratitude.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jet Lag


Ireland, 1998. It had been three years since my previous visit to the Emerald Isle. Having crossed the Atlantic, and having endured an additional five hours of northbound transport courtesy of Bus Eireann, the fatigue of travel caught up with me at last in Sligo, drugging me to sleep in my hotel on Douglas Hyde Bridge at 6:00 PM. When I awoke, the light was partial, a hint of sun in an overcast sky—a typical morning; it fit with my memories of Irish weather. I looked at my watch: 8:00. When was the last time I'd slept for fourteen hours? It suited my exhaustion. I still felt groggy, but I got up, showered, changed my clothes. I took my morning medication (daily dose of Synthroid, plus a multivitamin) and headed to the lobby, asking at the reception desk what time breakfast was served. They told me from 8:00 to 10:00. As I rounded a turn that led to the restaurant, I glanced out the glass front doors. The streetlights were still on, and the sidewalks quite populated. The streetlights made sense, given the weak light outdoors, but I remembered the Irish as being slower to start in the mornings, thinking of a time I'd done my best to find a newsstand open at 8:00 AM, to no avail. Plus, it was the weekend. When I got to the hostess station of the restaurant, there were some breakfast menus in a stack. I was seated at a small table, and I began to anticipate Corn Flakes, eggs, and toast, with a cup of tea and maybe some juice. I looked out the window and noticed that it had gotten even darker rather than lighter. An approaching storm, maybe? And then the first knowledge that something was horribly wrong: a few tables away from me, a couple shared a bottle of red wine. Next, the menu that was presented to me was not one of the breakfast menus from the hostess station, but a dinner menu featuring steak, fish, poultry. So thorough was my disorientation, so stubborn my mind in trying to make the world conform to my (mis)understanding, I remember wondering for a moment if I hadn't been handed the prior evening's menu by mistake. That didn't explain the wine. (Sure, Irish are maligned for their drinking, but this was ridiculous.) But in the end, it became clear that, in fact, I had not slept fourteen hours; I'd slept only two. I wasn't sure whether to be more disturbed, embarrassed, or amused, but decided quickly I ought to choose the last option. Never had I experienced a stranger case of jet lag. And now the slightly strange look given me by the front desk staff made sense—I hoped somehow they might think that I was just asking so that I'd know for the following day. When the server came to take my order, I chose grilled salmon with vegetables. I confess that I'd been looking forward to breakfast food, and also that I was a bit dismayed to be paying for a more elaborate meal than I'd otherwise have found for myself if I'd known it was dinner time (breakfast came included in the cost of the room); but the salmon was wonderful, and after all it made sense to treat myself well for the first meal of the trip. Jet lag be damned, I had come back to Ireland, and I was glad of it. I ate, paid the check, and went back up to my room. I read for a while, then let the rushing waters of the Garavogue River lull me into a deeper, second sleep.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Desert Storm


January 16, 1991. Eighteen years ago to the day, and I was just a few years beyond eighteen myself. I had spent the fall term of 1990 securing placement in a study-abroad program that combined a semester's coursework with professional work experience in Paris, France. I was excited to be studying in another country, and yet . . . although I was no "innocent abroad," when the new year arrived it became clear that world events were much bigger, more complex and sophisticated, than a college student's adventure in language and culture; what else could I seem in comparison, if not innocent? At this point, Operation Desert Shield was in full swing, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. With support from the U.N. (at least there was support), U.S. Armed Forces had been deployed to Saudi Arabia by George H. W. Bush (who would eventually be called "Bush père" by the French) in a "wholly defensive" tactic that was impossible to maintain. There were discussions with my parents about whether it was a good time to go abroad, and in fact some college programs had been cancelled. The Boston University Paris Internship Program was moving forward, however, and I moved with it . . . into the home of a host family who lived on the edge of the city, right near the Peripherique in the 17eme arrondissement, where the rue de Saussure ends at Boulevard Berthier. The family turned out to be less than hospitable overall, but at the outset, in mid-January, I was relieved to be living with them, and not with the rest of the American students at the "Fondation des Etats-Unis" at Cité U, a large complex of international dormitories. I did not want my nationality on display, and this would prove even more true as the weeks passed; I was happy enough, with my more Mediterranean looks, to pass as French (at least, until I opened my mouth). But back to this particular day in 1991. Rather, the evening before. You may recall: the U.N. Security Council had passed resolutions giving Iraq a deadline of January 15, 1991, to withdraw from Kuwait or face the use of force. Despite an international coalition (which included France, mind you), the popular view seemed to be that this was a "wholly American" deadline, and anyway it came and went. On the evening of January 15, I sat at a small, square table in a small, square kitchen/dining efficiency room that was as close to a living room as the family had. This was where meals were cooked and served, where homework was done in a formal national script, where the eldest daughter, D., sulked with her long thin face and insisted on eating only endives with vinaigrette at every meal . . . and where the boxy television with its rabbit ears became my nightly reproach. On January 15, we ate rubbery calf's liver, which I had to force down, trying to be as polite as possible and all the while knowing I would have to go out to the small grocery down the street in order to buy something sweet to cut the aftertaste. (We all know that the French reign supreme in matters culinary—or carry on as if they do, and earn much if not all of the bragging rights—but I had the hard luck of living with a family who ran far afoul of the norm.) This is what I remember: It was cold outside, and I walked quickly to the grocery. The scene inside brought me up short. In all my life I'd never seen, and never have again, a run on staples such as happened there. Sure, I could have my Lu biscuits, but I was out of luck if I'd wanted anything like bread, flour, sugar or filling starches. The shelves were bare, and it was beyond eerie. This, more than anything else, filled me with the knowledge that I was unprepared—for big-world worries, for the reality of anything resembling war, for the sense of isolation, and for a fear I had not felt before but that was quickly closing in on me. I really was an innocent; protected, privileged, naive. Thinking back on it, I know this was an isolated panic in the "quartier," perhaps simply on the part of the grocery owner; the rest of Paris responded to the deadline in the desert in a much more rational (sang froid? laissez faire?) way. But I had no way of knowing, at the time, that this was not a city-wide response. I bought my chocolate-covered cookies and returned to the "living" room's peeling wallpaper, and to CNN. In the early hours of January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Desert Storm, with  Army General Norman Schwarzkopf urging his troops to become the "thunder and lightning" of a just cause (U.S. Navy 9/17/97). But if his confidence was great, mine was not. Not when the high-tech air assaults began; not when televised war, transmitted live into living rooms, became a groundbreaking and then a common occurrence; not when terms like "Stealth" and "Scud" and "human shield" crept into daily language; and not when the city of Baghdad became rubble within 48 hours, underneath more than 2,000 combat missions and 5,000 tons of bombs. In the weeks that followed, there were many "manifestations" (protests) against the war, against our president (I remember "Stop the Busherie," a play on the French word for butchery), and I found it difficult to be an American in Paris at that time. I admit that, when I grew weary of defending, discussing, agreeing, lamenting, and dodging the situation, I just shrugged and called myself Canadian. I felt like less of a target for hostility that way. (And imagine: this was the FIRST President Bush's campaign; a widely supported one, much more popular even overseas than anything that would come later!) Now, of course, I'm older, know how to be both critical of my country and maintain outward patriotism simultaneously; I can even hold down a debate with the French in their own language. But on this anniversary of open warfare between the U.S. and Iraq—especially knowing the road we've since taken—what I remember most vividly is a girl, still in salad days, standing before the bare shelves of an earlier generation's experience, wanting more than anything a measure of comfort that, in pathetic consolation, took the form of a box of biscuits.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Little House Days


On Thursdays in first or second grade, maybe both—every Thursday, mind you—I donned an olive green calico print dress and asked for my hair to be parted down the middle and braided in two long, low pigtails. There's nothing remarkable about this, but let's not forget the finishing touch: I insisted that my mom use her brown eyeliner to pencil a sprinkling of "freckles" on my cheeks. They looked real enough to me, though I'm sure I was the only one who thought so. What was I playing at? Well . . . Every Thursday evening, beginning on September 11, 1974 (that date now seems to strike hard at the heart of what an innocent life I led then!), the one-hour television drama series Little House on the Prairie aired on NBC. My parents were strict about limiting television exposure (hours and content), but this was a show with strong values and good topics for discussion, so we watched it together every week. The morning dress-up routine was just one way to build anticipation throughout the day. My mother indulged me in this, freckles and all, so I went to school looking like Laura Ingalls; rather, looking somewhat like Melissa Gilbert, the child actress who played Laura on the show. I didn't care what anyone would say, and if they did say anything, I don't recall. I was lost in my fantasy of being a true prairie girl, despite riding the CTA through clogged city streets to get to a school that resembled not a bit Miss Beadle's one-room schoolhouse (I always heard "Miss Beetle" and thought that was an odd name). But a child's determination to believe, her ability to slip so thoroughly into imagination, can be powerful; I was convinced somehow that I really became Laura every Thursday. I practiced running downhill as she did, tilting my outstretched arms this way and that like the wings of a banking airplane (never mind the incongruity of that image, given the historical time period of the show, 100 years earlier, this was how the opening credits always ended); I began to call my parents "Ma" and "Pa" (though that didn't last, as my mother made it clear that she was no Caroline Ingalls in a white ruffled nightcap: "mom" or "mommy" were more than fine with her, thank you very much), and I seem to recall a request for the nickname "half pint," which is what Laura was called by Charles Ingalls, her father, played by Michael Landon. Now there was an interesting character. Struggling farmer, rugged Frontier man, hard working and honest; a man who loved his family and had an especially soft spot for his middle daughter—I felt that he could be my own father, there was clearly a special bond between this televised parent and child. True, my father was no farmer and did not go to work in suspenders, rolled shirtsleeves, and a battered hat. He worked behind a desk, not a plow. He wore a dark suit and wide ties—though his hair was on the long side, as was Michael Landon's curly mop (it was the 1970s after all, which also pardons the wide ties). All the residents of Walnut Grove interested me—as did their logging, butter churning, and pie baking, plus the possibility of a raccoon as a pet—and it was easy to get caught up in their hardships, their conflicts (small and large). Every week, I waited impatiently to discover what would happen to the Ingalls family and especially to the exuberant, feisty girl I longed to be. I delighted in knowing that Laura would best her nemesis, the spoiled and nasty Nellie Oleson with her blond banana curls and satin ribbons (I was mortified that the actress who played this character shared my name, taking small consolation in the fact that she spelled it with only one el). Perhaps I relished this aspect the most; I had my own "Nellies," after all, and victory over them seemed much less certain. But in my calico dress and pink bonnet (yes, eventually I had one of those, too), in my braids and freckles, nothing and no one bothered me. No, Thursdays were "Little House Days," and thanks to some costuming and Mom's makeup, I was carefree and bold.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Easy Affection


I remember the way we were free with our bodies—as teenage girls, with each other. I don't mean this in a sexual way, though perhaps in some cases there was a subtle undercurrent of flirtation, maybe even of longing (but who does not long for signs of affection?). Here I am remembering an innocent, unconscious pleasure. Among us girls, there was no sense of "personal space" between friends, and I think we were not even aware of our touches, much of the time. If we sat next to each other, we leaned shoulder to shoulder; if we sprawled on the ground with limbs outstretched, one set of legs draped over the other; an arm would curve around someone's back, rest on a shoulder for no reason at all. It must have seemed to anyone looking at us, that we wore each other's bodies like accessories. And how interesting, that this happened at a time in life when girls are so painfully self-conscious about their bodies in general . . . but how much sense this makes! The nagging insecurities of how we looked, how did we hold our bodies, or how should we touch another person, all belonged to the mysterious world of coupling. And if we were afraid we were untouchable (by boys, by a lover), then we had more than our share of touching within the safety of our own circle. Perhaps this was unique to the experience of boarding school (mine was coed), where young girls lived together intimately in suites of four, but I don't think so. There is something about teenage girls—I see them now, from my distance of years, on the street or in cafés—always touching each other in a taken-for-granted way that is all but impossible later in life. Even with these same friends, in an adult world, there is not so much room for touching. We hug, kiss cheeks, put an arm around a shoulder in a moment of consolation, but there is always a social intention now, a recognized reason for the contact. There are not many things I miss about the teenage years. I am thankful we only live them once. But I do miss the closeness of bodies, the easy physicality of affection that seems so alien to me now. I do mourn this.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Michigan Sky in Winter


The middle of a Michigan winter. Darkness slipped down around us early, and we would move in a huddle of coats and hats and scarves that, if they covered our faces, would trap our breath and the smell of damp wool next to our mouths. We didn't care how cold it was; we wanted to be outside, where everything seemed still, the silence broken only by our own voices and the sound of our feet crunching across snow, our footsteps and teenage banter made louder in contrast with the surrounding quiet. We would lie down on the tennis courts that were beyond Faculty Lane, on the other side of the highway from the main campus buildings, near the summer camp's "High School Boys" area. During the academic year, there was really no reason for any of us to be on that side of the highway—then again, it seemed we were often where we had no business being. We'd lie on our backs, side by side on the cold clay courts, a chill pushing through our padded layers, reaching up and down our spines, and we would look up at the Northern sky, awed. The stars sent the sparkling light of their fire down to warm us—if not physically, then in spirit. There were so many stars, impossible to count, and against their cushion of deep blackness, they seemed so close, within reach. We mapped out constellations, watched for shooting stars (and always saw them). In those moments, we knew how small we were, how unaware of the mysteries of life, but we also knew that space, infinity, the possibility of anything and everything, was ours. Living among the bright lights of the city now, it is not so often that I see stars in the night sky. There are some I can point out to my son, but they seem faint and so distant, it hardly counts as an experience of stars. We take an annual camping trip in the summer, and then the vault opens for him, the jewels of dying suns spread themselves out for his pleasure. I hope that in his life, he has the chance to experience the magic of what I had: the Michigan sky in winter; its dazzling, endless display that kept our hearts young and full of wonder, even at an age when youth seemed worthless.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Napkin Zen


White expanse of linen; bleached perfect square in front of me on a polished walnut bar. Folding, without too much thought required. Repetitive action draining away the minutes before the doors to the restaurant would open for business. Making my way through graduate school, I covered some measure of expenses by returning to the standby job of many artists: waiting tables. Growing up, it seemed you quickly fell into one camp or the other when it came to the (not necessarily) simple job for money—you were either "restaurant" or "retail." I dislike shopping, dislike salespeople trying to help me shop . . . I'm hardly right for retail. For me, it's always been restaurants, either front or back of house. I have worked at restaurants of varying degrees of size and finesse, from small hash-slinging diner to raw bar (shucking oysters is no mean task!), from bookstore café and espresso bar to the most recent, a more upscale American establishment. The shifts would often be grueling, and service in this last restaurant meant a good amount of stair-climbing, as well as requisite diplomacy of State Department caliber with the finicky clientele. But no matter what lay in wait, there were always those last 15 minutes or so, when the stations were prepped, the tables set, everything done but those napkins. I would take a handful, sit on a stool at the bar, and fold. Spread, smooth, fold, stack, repeat. One pile would decrease, the other increase. Servers would talk among themselves, or to the bartender on duty; I would remain silent, focused only on folding. It was a very simple practice, pretty much for its own sake and serving no other purpose but a slightly more delicate presentation for the clients. Hardly important in any common understanding of the word. But I remember looking forward to folding (indeed, it was the only part of the experience that I enjoyed fully), and feeling that somehow, it was an important time. I paid attention to what I was doing, but as it did not require all my concentration, ideas and thoughts came to me frequently. I would observe them, then fold them away, one by one. It was my first lesson in true meditation, and I still find that my heart rate slows, my mind becomes a bit less agitated, and I am able to sit in the moment much more easily when I remember these squares of white linen, blank and cool and inviting, even though I am no longer responsible for them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mr. B


For any dancer of a certain generation (or two), there was only ever one "Mr. B," and that was Balanchine. He was ballet master extraordinaire, and before I was double digits in age, I knew enough to know that he was the surrogate father to please; the signposts of my nascent life read "NYCB or bust." Not that I needed another father—mine was wonderful—but Mr. B was the man whose vision shaped the ballet world, and that was the world I wanted to claim. I read biographies of Balanchine and autobiographies of dancers who were lucky enough (they must have been lucky, mustn't they?) to have inspired him to make ballets. I wanted, as did all my peers in the ballet world, to be the next Suzanne Farrell, the next muse, if only time and luck would be on my side. But it was not to be. Turning fifteen, attending NCSA (North Carolina School of the Arts), I already sensed that something about my dreams and my reality were not matching up. I saw the New York City Ballet, and Mr. B, slipping away. At this school that would make or break me, however, I had another Mr. B: the tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Ballard. It should be said that, in this setting that existed almost exclusively to groom professional dancers, academics were at best a necessary evil—the quid pro quo of getting parents to bankroll their sons' and daughters' chosen career paths. On the first day of that tenth-grade year, I didn't know that I would be making a drastic and permanent life change in a matter of months. I couldn't possibly imagine what I'd do with myself if I wasn't dancing, and I never would have guessed that I would pursue a vocation in which the eccentricities of this Mr. B would aid me far more than Balanchine ever would. (I wasn't yet willing to give momentum to the latent suspicion that I was coming to the end of my dancing days.) Thinking about it now, I'm sure that the jobs of the academic faculty at NCSA must have been somewhat frustrating. It had to have been clear that none of us cared much about any subject of study that didn't involve adagio, partnering, or rehearsals for some production or other. But some of the teachers, Mr. Ballard included, stood stubbornly fast in the seriousness of their own disciplines. Now, of course, I am thankful this was the case, and I credit my knowledge of the finer points of language mechanics to this short, somewhat affected man with wild white (or blond? dyed?) hair; a man who was completely obsessed with two things: English grammar and the actress Vivian Leigh (in his house in the backwoods of campus, he had a framed swatch of the "Twelve Oaks Barbecue" dress worn by a costumed Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind). I remember he would bar the door to his classroom with his arm, and as we students arrived for class, perspiring and preoccupied with the counting of tempo and steps, he would make us purchase entrance with a preposition, a conjunction, or a rule about comma use, repetitions not allowed. Once inside, he made us diagram sentences, and although I did not particularly want to, I saw in the logic of syntax, the complex dance of clauses (commas only before non-restrictive modifying clauses, please, not before restrictive!), a pas de deux of language. Now, on a daily basis, I ply my editing trade and I often think of this unexpected mentor, this stand-in Mr. B, and his is the voice I hear, urging precision not of the feet but of punctuation. To him I tip my hat and recite, across twenty five years of memory: two independent clauses are joined by a comma and a conjunction, or else by a semicolon. Reverence.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Touch Typing


Between seventh and eighth grades (or between eighth and ninth?) the deal was this: if I wanted to take an art class in summer school, I had to take typing. So said Mom. Although I didn't mind being in an art studio soldering bits of stained glass together, the thought of staying inside, seated in front of a typewriter when I could see the sun in its beautiful blue sky out the window, was torture. Still, I sat there. Such is the suffering one will endure for art! I typed the home keys in order, hundreds of times: a-s-d-f-g-h-j-k-l-;. I stretched my fingers up for T and Y and down for B. I did pages of the prototype sentence, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs." Yes, it has every letter of the alphabet in it at least once. I learned to automatically put two spaces after each period. (I have had a hard time undoing this habit, but a copy editor's job these days is often to make sure there is only one space following a complete sentence!) It's fair to say I hated the class at the time. Now, though, I have to tip my hat to Mom and say a belated "thanks" for making me do it. Then, I thought it was such an old fashioned, secretarial thing to do—and it was clear I would never be a secretary—but of course it was good advice, regardless. And now, with my current art form dependent on my fingers keeping up with my thoughts (I work directly on the computer most of the time, I have to admit, though it's a poor substitute sometimes for good old pen on paper), well, it's a good thing I can type fast. Except, pardon me, it's not even called "typing" anymore; it's "keyboarding." And it's quite silent, at least compared to what typing was. No hard striking sound of an actual key on paper, no loud electric hum (when you were actually using an electric typewriter and not a manual one), no bell to signal the end of the line, no carriage return or satisfying roll of the platen as you pull out a finished page. And suddenly I'm feeling old: I realize that my son will not even know, unless I tell him, that there ever was such a thing as a typewriter!  Maybe I should send him to this site, the Classic Typewriter Page. I can also tell him about the black Underwood that belonged to my grandmother, plus my mother's Royal, which she painted a bright enamel red. I inherited both of these typewriters, but my son has not yet seen them: they were sent for overhaul to a mechanically gifted Luddite genius in a scary-looking office space in the Flatiron building, and I have yet to reclaim them (have to follow up on that). But back to the touch-typing. I see myself at thirteen years, seated at a purgatorial row of desks with electric typewriters (IBM, I'm sure), and I'm amazed, knowing how resistant I was to the whole idea, that these drills and skills have never left me, that I did not revert to the "hunt and peck" method that many make work for them all their lives. Not only do I remember touch typing, I have gotten to be quite fast, and I will close by revealing something that a friend had to point out to me a couple years ago. As a testament to my touch-typing abilities, I didn't even know what she was talking about; I had to look at my keyboard to find that, in fact, she was right: there are no letters on my home keys anymore, the labeling has completely worn off. My laptop is all but useless to anyone who is not, like me, a touch typist.  In my house, that does provide a bit of added security. Again: thanks, Mom!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Nickel Tapping


I don't know who told me this, or why I believed it. I was in high school, and someone said that if you took a regular nickel and pounded around the rim of it long enough, the center would fall out and you would have made a ring. I don't know if the pounding was supposed to be done with a metal spoon, or if that was my own odd touch, but sure enough, I started carrying around a nickel and a metal spoon, pilfered from the school cafeteria; I had them with me everywhere. I would tap, tap, tap on the edge of the nickel whenever I had a spare moment. Did it annoy the people around me? If it did, no one said so. I remember thinking that I was probably falling for some stupid trick, and yet . . . it's true that the rim of the nickel started getting beautifully smooth and nicely raised, definitely a ring in the making. I don't know how long I carried around the nickel and the spoon, and who knows how many taps I must've given it (one good thing: keeping both hands busy meant there was no devil's playground for me). Sadly, I cannot tell you whether it was in fact true that, if I'd kept at it, the center would have dropped out of the coin. I either lost interest, or else lost the coin and didn't want to begin again. I am almost tempted to start another one, actually, just to satisfy my curiosity; however, I cannot justify the time it would take. Long gone are the days when I had so little obligation in my life that I could tap on a nickel all day! Maybe it's an assignment I'll give to my son someday when he claims to be bored, see how far he goes with it. Then again, maybe not: I'd be the one listening to the tapping then, and I'm not sure I'd have the patience that my friends apparently had with this project. (But if you're so inspired, have way too much time on your hands, and can tell me how it turns out, I'm all ears!)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pan Am Building


I cannot call it the MetLife Building, not to save my life. It was, and to me it still is and always will be, the Pan Am Building. Going up the escalators from the main hall of Grand Central Station, you'd reach the top, circulate through the revolving doors, pass a newsstand on your right, the bank of elevators, and eventually you'd reach Zum Zum, the breakfast (or lunch) counter run with efficiency by Edda, the middle-aged Polish waitress who always had a smile for her regulars. For a time, that included my father, and me. We'd perch on the stools and order eggs (him), or French toast (me), and we'd talk to each other and to Edda. I remember her as being short, a little stocky but not plump, and as having short blond hair. I could be wrong. I'm sure she had an accent, but I can no longer hear it in my mind. At Christmastime, she would purchase silk-thread ornaments (the basic globes you could buy in sets in a drug store and that came in bright solid colors of red, green, gold, white, and royal blue). She'd buy long pinhead needles, sequins, and colored beads, and create elaborate baubled patterns by threading the tiny sparkling "gems" onto the needles and pushing them deep into the ornaments. She gave many of these to our family, and each year they still grace our trees. She lived, I think, in New Jersey, and maybe she still does. I think my father stayed in touch with her for a while, even after there was no more Pan Am, no more Zum Zum. My father worked for Pan Am at two different times, once in the early 1970s and the other in the mid-1980s, leading up to the company's hostile takeover and ousting of top executives. It was sad what happened to Pan Am—its history was rich; its pioneering of passenger aviation was a study of luxury and good taste (that's certainly a bygone era!). It's my opinion that the company was originally brought down, as many are, by labor-management disputes and by greed (this was the first shoe falling, the other was to come a short time later). My father was a bit of an oddball in the company, being neither a shady business/teamster type nor a former military pilot as some others were. It's a cutthroat business, the airline industry. But most who worked at Pan Am knew a passion for the airline, and the Manhattan skyline is an eyesore now with the MetLife logo atop the historic, squashed-octagonal building of the early 1960s that used to be PA headquarters. After my father left the company, I had occasion to work there for a summer and then during my first winter break from college. This was in 1988, and yes, I was at work in the building on December 21, when Clipper Maid of the Seas, Flight 103 from London to NYC (a flight I myself had taken many times), was blown from the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland. I worked in the Customer Service department, which I remember as being on the fifth floor of the building, going up the right-hand bank of low-rise elevators, if you were entering the building from the north, and my main task was to code complaint letters for possible compensation. (There were some pretty bizarre requests, and I had many ways at my disposal to reply in the negative, though they tended to be generous with legitimate issues.) I remember the switchboard area lighting up, the gloom that fell over the office as word of the tragedy spread. No one could focus, everyone eager for that day to end so that we could get home to our families and hold someone tightly, or be held. It was a long hour and twenty minutes up the New Haven Line on Metro-North for me that rush hour, up to my parents' house in Connecticut and back to my dad, who would know what this day had been like, who knew the layout of the office I had sat in while the phones continued to ring, families of victims trying to get news through our department. These calls were redirected, but every one was like a nail in the heart, even to me, sitting in my cubicle space with no phone, just a stack of letters. That was, I suppose, the other shoe dropping. The company was already flying empty planes, and things got worse. Bit by bit, Pan Am was sold for scrap to other airlines, and eventually the logo on the top of the building that presided over Grand Central and rose high above Park Avenue, came down. Today, I travel through Grand Central on a regular basis, and I often walk past the place where Zum Zum used to be. I remember the family drama when my father became a casualty of the company takeover; I remember Lockerbie, of course. But there were wonderful times, then, too, and I am fond of the building, still: the Pan Am building, thank you very much.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Whiteout


January 1985. At fifteen years old, I was an angry ex-dancer; passion crushed, career shunted. It seemed so true, that statement about not going home again. After being on my own at fourteen, across the country from my parents in order to pursue a dream that didn't work out, there was no question of going back to a "normal" high school, no desire to live at home, despite my parents' support (or maybe because of it—I didn't want sympathy or for anyone to say they'd been afraid this kind of thing would happen). So, I was once again the "new girl" at another boarding school for artists, and that was fine; I could remake myself into anything at all: drama major, costume designer, metalsmith, photographer. Assuming, of course, that my parents and I made it through the whiteout. We had just arrived in Traverse City, Michigan, had found the school some 14 miles away, situated between two frozen lakes, abutting State Park land, and we were heading out to find a restaurant where we could have one last family meal before my parents flew back to New York. It was snowing steadily, but not too heavily when we set out in the rental car, and none of us thought much of it. We'd lived in Michigan before; we'd survived the Chicago Blizzard of 1979; we were troopers. We headed north on M-137, the road that bisected the campus of my new school and led toward civilization. I don't remember where we ate—it was some small, funky little place. I think we'd made it onto US-31, but certainly not back into Traverse City. It was snowing harder, and I suppose we realized we'd be better off keeping the driving distance to a minimum. We ate (I am wondering now why the place was even open; we were certainly the only customers crazy enough to be there), and we went back outside. With misgivings we noticed the increased snowfall, but there was nothing to do but drive back. We certainly had no place else to go; my parents were staying in hotel-style accommodations on campus. Dad got behind the wheel, my mom was in the passenger seat, and I was picking over my thoughts in the back of the car. At some point, my father began to find it difficult to see. The defroster was on full blast, along with the wipers, and together they kept the windshield clean. The headlights were on, of course, but they cast their beams out into a void of white. There was snow on the road in front of us and piled up on the sides of the road as well. The needle on the speedometer started to fall. At some point, the hazards were punched on, and although there probably wasn't much conversation in the car at the time, whatever there was ceased. On 137, heading south now, we crept along in what became a total whiteout. I remember being impressed. I hadn't known it was possible to lose sight of everything. The road—all but about six inches, if that, in front of the hood—disappeared entirely, and with it its lines of demarcation: there was no way to tell our lane from the oncoming, no visible difference between the road and its shoulder, or the shoulder and the deep trench filling fast with snow just beyond that. Everything was white, including my father's olive-skinned hands on the steering wheel. Continue and risk missing a curve, sliding off the road; stop, and risk being stuck there all night, freezing, maybe being hit by another vehicle, assuming there was anyone else crazy enough to be out there. Time slowed, the distance between us and our destination dwindled in tiny increments. Each of us in our separate sphere of consciousness, each of us sending up our own thoughts to god or nature, certainly humbled, I don't know what my parents were thinking (probably something along the lines of "I hope we make it..."), but I remember looking out the window, at white on white on white, and thinking that erasing everything felt appropriate somehow. Tabula rasa in a winter whiteout we will never forget.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Note From a Friend


I had just turned sixteen, and the world was a dark, melodramatic place of unrequited love and friendships betrayed. I'll tell you something about boarding school: you don't have anywhere to go to escape a bad social situation; the offenders are always there, not just in classes, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It wasn't just some deceitful teenage lothario who plagued me, however; everything was impossibly wretched. Classic teen anger and angst, hormones pounding the shores of my self-esteem. No one was any help, so I thought. It's all quite cliché On one particularly Gothic night—that is, dark and stormy, doom and gloom—I was feeling empty, without much hope. Not suicidal (never had a serious thought about that), but just this side of it. Then, a note from a friend arrived at exactly the right moment. Three words, written in tiny block print with a lot of white space surrounding them. The single imperative was neatly written in pencil on a quarter sheet of white paper and stuck in my pigeon-hole mailbox in the lobby of the dormitory: don't • give • up, just like that with the little dots and everything. I kept that message for years, well beyond high school, always tucked in my journal of the moment. I may have it still, somewhere. But even if I don't, and even though the friendship itself has disappeared over the years, those perfectly timed words of encouragement are still having their effect, still shoring me up. Thanks, B. D., wherever you are.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Aunt Bea


Today, first and foremost, I want to remember my Aunt Bea, who is no longer with us—at least not in any physical sense.  I choose the word "want" deliberately, for wanting to remember and remembering do not necessarily follow each other.  I did not spend a lot of time with her; we almost always lived too far away to make that practical.  But I can sketch out some details.  First her looks: I remember her always as having dark hair, though in later years the color was lighter, warmer, a carefully selected auburn.  I remember the shape of her face as being rounded in youth, with lady-apple cheeks and a chin that formed a soft protruding orb but was also cleft the way her father's was; on her it looked delicate somehow, more like an elegant dimple.  She was not tall, and she was slim.  She wore fashionable but understated clothing.  In the photographs I have of her, time runs afoul of traditional chronology.  I have a portrait picture (above) taken in 1950, when I know she could not have been more than about 15 or 16 years old.  She looks older, however; it was common in that era.  Maybe it was the pose, the hair style, the three-strand faux (I think) pearl choker.  Later on, when she was a young adult, and then middle-aged, and finally on into her sixties, the reverse was true: she looked younger than her years, always.  Maybe it had something to do with the maxim that we get the face we deserve.  Hers was beautiful, I have to say.  Next, her manner: she was quiet, in all things.  I never heard her raise her voice, though perhaps I just never had the occasion to hear; still, I cannot imagine it.  She was one of those people who lived in silent observation, it seemed.  She saw things with a fresh eye, a delighted artist's eye (she was, in fact, an artist, though she came to her painting later in life).  I remember that she and my mother would spend long hours on the telephone, but that I always felt anxious about saying hello, because I never knew what to say, and because she was quiet, and because silence over the telephone always feels uncomfortable to me.  I wished I could see her instead, be in her company, because then the silence would feel natural, peaceful, welcome.  What she did say, she said slowly.  It always sounded like hesitation, but I think she just took the measure of each thought before she let it out.  I wish I were more like her in this way.  She liked simplicity, and neatness.  She wore a simple black dress at my wedding, and I thought it was wonderful.
I received from her one year a set of antique crystal candlesticks.
One had broken in shipping; I never told her, and I cherish the single candlestick all the more (see photo, right).  Another year she sent a silver toast rack from the same shop.  These are small luxuries from a bygone era: who uses toast racks anymore?  Something about her, too, always seemed to belong to another time, a more innocent time (if such a thing exists).  She was not out of touch, but seemed to me somehow disconnected from the ugliness of the world at large.  The only other thing I remember in connection with her is my being quite a young child and worrying, as my parents were about to go away together on a trip, what would happen to me if something happened to them?  Where would I go, who would I live with?  When I asked my mom, her answer was that I would live with Aunt Bea and her family, and I remember thinking this was a small measure of comfort for my fears.  In a child's language, Aunt Bea was nice.  But nothing did happen to my parents, I am happy to say, and I never lived under Aunt Bea's roof.  Today, I think of her—of the life I imagine she led in the silence of her thoughts, of some few facts I possess of her outwardly lived life.  I regret that I did not get to know her better, but I feel blessed to have known her at all.  I also think of my mom, who has her own memories of a little sister tugging at the hem of her dress; I think of my cousins, who have lost their mother . . . I wish all of them comfort on a sad anniversary, but hope that they will do something to celebrate the life Bea lived, more than dwell on the loss of her.  And if anyone who knew Bea is reading this post and wants to share a memory or two, I welcome all contributions.  I, meanwhile, will light a candle in the crystal candlestick, and eat kolyva, the traditional Greek memorial dish, in her honor.  (For more about kolyva, visit my other blog, Melting Pot Family.)