Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bookbound


For twenty years now, or very nearly, my father and I have shared a tradition of leather journal giving. I confess that the ratio of giving and receiving is not at all an even one. Mostly it is I who have been blessed with a package to unwrap—a hardcover, hand sewn, hand bound package smelling of rich, oiled sheepskin. The color of the hand-dyed leather has varied, as has the size of the journal (from the rather large to the quite compact) and the image carefully pressed into the cover, but one thing has always been the same: the journals all have been brought to life by the same hand, that of bookbinder Greg Pfaff. The first journal, I remember, was discovered by my father at a small gift shop in Rhinebeck, New York, where I lived alone in an apartment on Montgomery Street while I attended Bard College. He gave one to me for Christmas, I think in 1990 (if not, I could only be off by a single year). I was immediately honored and intimidated. How could I ever hope to have thoughts, ideas, feelings worthy of the artistry that had gone into the making of the book? I only imagined that whatever I had to write would surely be a dark stain on someone else's exceptionally beautiful, creative gift to the world. Impossible. That first journal sat on the shelf for a long time, blank except for the bookbinder's signature and date in black archival ink on the inside back cover. Another journal came, and another after that; a tradition was born. These books, too, sat unused for a while, before I worked up enough nerve to use them. I would handle them, feel the smoothness and the indented places where a ginkgo leaf had been pressed into the leather to make its veiny fan-shaped mark; where other forms of nature or fantasy played across the cover: a mountain range, two hands touching, a landscape of winter trees, moons, or the mask of a dreaming face. Before I began to use the books, I wrote a letter of praise to their creator. My father had started ordering directly from Pfaff, whose bindery (Boxwood Bindery) was then in a bucolic-sounding place called Meadows-of-Dan, Virginia. I received a letter in reply, and it was Pfaff himself who convinced me to start writing in his books. I started in a small, square one that I kept on my bedside table and in which I recorded the night's dreams. Over the years, Pfaff's signature migrated from the back of his blank books onto letters that we exchanged more and more frequently. His came always on the same cream-colored, recycled, acid-free paper used for the books, and at first they were lonely letters. He lived alone on his farm in rural Virginia, with only leather and paper and soulful images from the natural world for company. We exchanged countless paragraphs about art, about solitude, about the joys and pains of being human. I began to fill his books at a steady pace, and I came to see my words on his pages as a collaboration. Just before I met him in person—the one and only time, in Chicago, when he was there for a craft fair—he'd written that he met his soul mate; eventually he married her. Now he has a thirteen year old daughter. I almost feel that I've watched her grow up, although I've never met her, only seen pictures. And now we are both parents, with similar worries for our children, although our surroundings are different: I in New York City, he in Winston-Salem, having pretty much closed the Bindery to pursue a more steady income. (This seems tragic to me and makes me sad.) He still makes books, though, on a smaller scale, and our family tradition continues. It began twenty years ago, with a redolent book of sumptuous material but simple design, an earnest, heart-in-hand vision guiding the cover imagery. A stranger's craft that became part of the fabric of our celebrations—part of my family's celebration of life, our dedication to self-knowledge and communication with others. From a casual stroll through a gift shop, decades of friendship. The writer and the bookbinder, creating and struggling through life's endless corridor of blank pages.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Napoleons


In L.A., we shopped often at a grocery store called Vicente Foods, which was (eponymously) on San Vicente Boulevard and directly across from my elementary school. It was (still is, I believe) a small market, convenient to Brentwood neighborhood residents and known to carry exclusive foodstuffs not found at the mega-stores. For convenience and quality, one paid a premium, but it was worth it for certain shopping. Vicente Foods was where you'd go for excellent produce, a great butcher, and an in-house bakery. (For things like paper towels and toilet paper, there was always Ralph's.) My mom and I loved the little bakery section tucked into the back left-hand area of the store, and it wasn't too hard to make a convincing case for stopping and picking up a dessert to accompany that night's dinner. The modest pastry case was always filled with fresh temptations. Perfectly iced cakes, pies, and glazed fruit tarts, plus the smaller French standbys: eclairs and napoleons. At the time, those French desserts seemed extremely sophisticated to me (I had a lot to learn). I preferred the eclairs, but I'd happily eat the napoleons, too. The thick yellow custard/pastry cream was the best, then the "thousand" layers of flaky-sticky puff pastry; plus, I admit I was in awe of that chevron pattern of chocolate drawn through the gooey white fondant. Over the years, I think we ate quite a few of them, but there was definitely a last. It was the one before this day: Mom and I stopped at the bakery. The woman behind the counter greeted us and asked what we would like. My mother ordered three napoleons. Today, if you did the same, you might well be served by someone wearing disposable sanitary gloves. Back then, no one wore them. But really, the hands were not the problem. The woman bent to partially slide out the tray containing the napoleons, reaching for one and pulling it out to place it carefully inside the square white bakery box. And this is when she sneezed, onto the napoleon. My mom looked at me. At the time, due to my age, I'm not sure I understood just how icky and awkward the situation was. In retrospect, however, I can pinpoint this as a moment of defining character: what would my mom do? How would she handle a sneezed-on napoleon? "Excuse me," she said, going on to explain as politely as possible (largely out of shock, I think) that she didn't want that one, that it had been sneezed on. Denial followed, and there was a brief back-and-forth (still polite on my mom's side, increasingly hostile on the part of the woman) about whether the pastry had in fact been sneezed on. (It definitely had.) And of course my mother prevailed, insisting that, after all, we would not be taking any of the napoleons. I don't recall whether we ordered something else. I think not. I do know that the napoleon in question went back into the case. We were horrified, but left the store without complaining to anyone else. Within a matter of days, the scene turned into a family joke. Any time my mom or I wanted to put on mock outrage, we'd look aghast with wide eyes and say (and for some reason this was always voiced with a High British accent that none of the players in the real-life drama possessed): "You—you SNEEZED on my napoleons!" It still gets a laugh. To be fair, this was not a repeated incident at the store, and we never had any reason to complain about anything else, at least not to my recollection. This was more than twenty-five years ago now, and should not reflect badly on Vicente Foods. Still, the mere idea of a napoleon provokes two responses in me: mild disgust, with a dose of hilarity. I do believe that I have never eaten a classic napoleon since.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Playboy Mansion Playground


OK, here's the story: first in Chicago, then in Los Angeles, my father worked for Playboy. In Chicago, it seemed like no big deal. Maybe my young age had something to do with it; certainly the Midwestern normalcy of Windy City operations also played a role. In Chicago, Playboy is business; in Los Angeles, it's THE Business (meaning Hollywood entertainment). We moved from Chicago to L.A. in 1979, so that my father could take on the position of Senior Vice President, Office of the Chairman. The Chairman at the time was Hugh M. Hefner; the "office" was his legendary mansion in the Holmby Hills neighborhood (though my dad actually did have an office in the boring-looking building on Sunset Strip, which I think no longer exists in that location). There are many stories-within-the-story, as you might imagine, but most of them are properly my dad's stories to tell and not my own. So, in this blog of firsthand memories, I will stick to my elementary-school view. And now, here's a dilemma: how do I relate any of this without it sounding over-the-top or impossibly spoiled? The name Playboy is so loaded with immediate assumptions, and yet . . . this is precisely what I had to cope with back then. I remember the day in fifth grade that, somehow, the name of my father's employer leaked out. By this time, an age/awareness line had been crossed: Playboy got a reaction among the boys that it never did in earlier years in Chicago (in fact, the "Where does your dad work?" question probably never came up among classmates to begin with, not that young). Actually, thinking back on it, I am surprised that I did not get teased a lot more once the Playboy connection was known. I got off easy. There were the occasional taunts, meant to embarrass me, like, "What is he . . . a pho-to-gra-pher?!" (the word drawn out in some incredibly long, suggestive way). I guess the implication was a kind of parental role-reversal of the classic yo-mamma "ho" jokes that also flew around the schoolyard. As though, if my father had been a photographer, surely he'd also have been sleeping with all the centerfolds. The teasing bothered me, but it wasn't unmanageable, and it just stopped on its own after a while. My consolation prize was that, every so often, I got to accompany my dad to the Playboy mansion and hang out there for a while, generally on a Saturday morning. In case you're wondering about the morality of a ten-year-old girl on such premises, I assure you that in the morning hours, there was nothing anywhere to suggest "pornography," sex, or even nudity, really. (Well, there was the "brass ass" finial knob at the top of the staircase that led to the private chambers, but other than that, nothing I can remember.) You could walk around the property and simply think you were at a luxurious resort, where you were the only guest. The place was generally abandoned (or slumbering) at that time, except for staff. I remember a sunlit kitchen for some reason, and fresh berries. (Or was it a breakfast nook, with the kitchen proper behind doors?) I remember walking around the right side of the mansion to where there were tennis courts set off by a very low stone wall on which a series of red and yellow cushions were placed end to end to create bench-style seating. Continuing along a stone path that went toward the back of the property, you'd come across the infamous "grotto," an open-air pool with water curving into a sculpted rock cave. Inside the cave area, a sign I thought was hilarious: "Welcome to our OOL. Notice there is no P in it. Please keep it that way." Walking around the grounds, I would look for Papa Dog and Mama Dog, two giant English sheepdogs I loved and wished were my own—but they were not the only animals. Behind the mansion was a private zoo. There were peacocks (who caused distress to neighbors who complained of their racket), plus other colorful birds. There were monkeys large and small—the tiny spider monkeys would eat grapes out of your hand. I'd stay with the animals a long time. Eventually, though, I would return to the front of the property and end up in the Game Room, a kind of detached bungalow filled with arcade games you could play at will, for free. Pinball (Playboy theme, of course), foosball, Pac Man. Plus, on a coffee table, a perpetually full dish of M&Ms. I remember meeting "Mr. Hefner" there at least once, where he came to say hello to me and my father before we left. He was alone, dressed not in silk pajamas but in jeans and a denim button-down shirt, wearing a tan cowboy hat and carrying his pipe. And somehow, because it was just the place where my father worked, and because my parents always kept it in that perspective, the whole excessive scene seemed almost banal—almost—stripped of its skin-show glamor, its notorious evening luster (or lust). You can get used to anything, I guess, and at the end of the day, a job is still just a job; Playboy paid the bills, but it didn't own any other part of us.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Red Door Spa


There was something "coming of age" about my first spa experience. In fact, the half day I spent at Elizabeth Arden's Red Door Spa in New York City was a gift from my parents for my twenty-first birthday, so it really did mark a milestone. It was the kind of pampered indulgence that I imagined only the most mature, confident, fashionable, and privileged women enjoyed—and that is mostly true. Did walking through the Red Door on Fifth Avenue suddenly make me one of them? Yes and no. I was certainly privileged to be there, and I was pampered and indulged the same as any other client of the spa. I suppose I was fashionable, if in an edgier way than what seemed the usual Elizabeth Arden demographic. I was not mature in years . . . though in some ways I was older than my age (in other ways younger). Finally, I confess that in this environment I was not particularly confident. I was out of my element. I was self-conscious and nervous every bit as much as I was eager to give myself over to the experience. Let me say now: I have not become a spa habitué. Today, if it is for a professional massage, I will gladly disrobe any chance I get and slip between crisp white sheets, push my face into the cushiony, donut-shaped extension on a massage table and let a paid stranger knead the many knots in my back. On a rare occasion (less than once a year), I'll get a manicure or a pedicure, usually if given to me as a gift. (I have always done my own nails, when I have bothered, which I generally do not anymore; they don't come out as nice, but you can't beat the price.) The thing I flat-out refuse to do again is a spa facial. Here is what I remember about the Red Door experience: The visit began with the massage. Since it was my first, I had no idea about underwear protocol (keep it on or take it off?); I kept mine on. It took me a while to relax, but relax I did. I loved the combination of sensuality without sexuality, loved how many ways there were to touch a body. By the end of the massage, I was beyond the point of relaxed muscles—I no longer felt that I had any. Next came the facial. This is where the person who schedules the various components of a spa day has some serious issues. Why would they bother to massage away every worry and stress—every trace of quotidian care or discomfort—only to submit you to something as tortuous as "extractions" under a high-powered magnifying glass? For those who don't know, this is basically the highfalutin term for popping pimples, which is something that my mother always told me I must never do. And, during this particular visit of mine, it came without warning—none that I understood, anyway. There was the wonderful steam treatment, the scent of something herbal in the lightweight, heated terry cloths wrapped around my face. More relaxation . . . And then the tweezers came out. I had my eyes closed so really didn't know what was going on. I suppose the aesthetician said something, but it didn't register until it was too late. They have a technique for getting way down inside the open pore, plucking out the head of the blemish (white or black), and it hurts. I remember that every newly relaxed muscle in my body tensed right back up in that chair. And, despite my initiation into a woman's spa world, I was not mature or confident enough yet to just politely say no way, stop please, no more. Things did get better again after that (and my eyebrows were left alone; another thing my mother made me swear to never do: pluck my eyebrows), but I'm not sure I ever fully regained the blissed out massage state that day. There was a light lunch that I know was delicious even though I can't tell you what it was. Finally, a manicure and a cosmetic session during which the make-up artist actually listened when I explained that my motto in this department was "less is more." She's the one who made me look the grown-up part, for real—not like an under-aged girl wielding face paint to get past a bouncer at a nightclub. Overall, it was a very good day. I had the sense that I'd been treated in a most special way; I walked back out onto the bustling New York avenue looking and feeling like a secret, subtle metamorphosis had taken place. I am thankful for having had this experience that many people in the world could never have—dire lives make personal luxury unthinkable to most. To spa goers, I would certainly recommend the Red Door Spas. Ultimately, though, for pure indulgence, give me no more and no less than the masseuse who knows how to slip her hand underneath my shoulder blades and banish all tension from the deep tissue of my muscles. Like that, I could come into my own. I could, with regular care, finally be that mature, powerful, put-together woman who makes it all look easy. We all could, couldn't we?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gray Desk


A small, private moment—almost missed and never intended to be witnessed. The top of a staircase; a glance right instead of left, and a single instant in time becomes the defining line of "before" and "after," a shift in the balance between protected innocence and mutual knowledge. I was eleven, maybe twelve. We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and the stairs were the ones leading from the open space near the family room, up to the landing where my parents and I went our separate ways: my room to the left, the master bedroom to the right. Framed in the doorway, shown in the afternoon light cut to ribbons by the vertical blinds in my parents' room: a desk, curved on its outer edge to form a softened L; the smooth, pale gray surface of a hard, poly-substance, veined with white to look like heavy marble. Behind the desk, a tall-backed chair, wide and thickly padded with light gray suede. A powerful executive chair—one I used to like to swivel in—not at all the chair of a man with his head in his hands, making quiet sounds of self-doubt. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It took me a moment to realize that this was what he was doing. He had left a high-profile job to hang his own shingle so to speak, launching a management consulting business that he would abandon and then rebuild with great success some years later. At this time, though, it was all struggle and very little payoff, I suppose—at least in proportion to the debts of mortgage, auto expenses, private school tuition, and extra-curricular activities that my parents never let me think were a burden. I was too young to understand the grip of "money worries," the reality of financial pressure. In my presence, these things were talked about in only the most oblique ways. My parents tried always to give me the gift of a wider window of childhood freedom: freedom from worry, from fear, from all the ugliness in the world. It's not that they hid everything from me—not that my life was sheltered or naive in any unusual way—but I was never allowed to fret about these things, never allowed to doubt my (or our family's) basic security. Childhood is short enough, and where is the harm in shoring up its foundation? But in L.A., along the fault lines, foundations are only as solid as the plates of land beneath them. At the top of the stairs, approaching the gray desk, a seismic shift was taking place. This is the moment I remember as a catalyst for the new knowledge that the world was truly bigger than us all, and that it was not only children who felt powerless at times, and small. At the time, my father was not much older than I am now. Now, it's all too easy to put myself in his position: with America's economy in shambles, with my own uncertain shingle hanging outside my door, I sit often at my desk and wonder how we will pull through, how I will manage to not fail my son but to give him the opportunities he deserves. Remembering my dad in this low moment, wondering about the touch of embarrassment—no, shyness—that maybe we both felt at the time, I am nevertheless happy to have spied it. Shaking as it was, it was in no way a tumbling from a pedestal; rather, it was the gift of first knowing the humanity in the man.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Kyoto Ryokan


Some experiences—no, many—I wish I could have over again, exactly the way they were except for one thing: I'd like to take my intervening years and their wisdom, maturity, or or insights back with me. I'd like to see with the eyes and feel with the heart I have now, those things that I am tempted to say were wasted on my youth. Full-time student status (the unadulterated chance for learning, with no distractions, that college presented), first love, and many of my travel adventures. Of these last, the one I most wish I could replay: my family's visit to Japan. I was fifteen years old, and both my mother and I got to accompany my father on a business trip to Tokyo, then take the bullet train to Kyoto, where we stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. I'd like to think that I did take advantage of the opportunity, to the full measure of my ability at that time of life. I was mesmerized, curious, immersed myself in small details (the photo here is one I took on the trip, and I'd like to think it presents some evidence of really looking, really noticing and wanting to capture something essential about the experience). But I would ask different questions now, and more of them. I would see more. I would understand a little more about the rituals and traditions, steeped as they are in centuries of zen buddhist tradition. The classic Kyoto ryokan where we stayed is now more than 300 years old, run continuously by the various generations of a single family. Here is what I do remember: sliding rice-paper ("shoji") screens, the blond tatami mats on the floor of our suite; leaving our shoes outside the door; scrolls of calligraphic art; an alcove with a single flower; windows in our room that showed a lush, carefully tended interior courtyard garden; futons made up with crisp white linens, laid out in a neat row on the floor at night and stored in a closet during the day (the sleeping area became the space where we took our meals); a low dining table with seats that amounted to chairs that had backs but no legs; the tiny bathroom with its traditional cypress wood tub, stool and wash bucket. I remember the women of the ryokan: the room attendants ("nakai-san"), old and deferential, more supple in their movements than even I, the young girl trained in classical ballet, despite their restrictive kimono dress. Carrying a tray laden with the elements of a traditional tea service or else an assortment of steaming lacquer soup bowls, our attendant would drop slowly to her knees in a single fluid motion and rise again without the use of hands. The woman who served us spoke not a single word other than Japanese, yet she seemed to know our needs instinctively. She was formal, austere—yet I remember that my father made her laugh (almost soundlessly, hand covering her mouth but a spark in her eye): unawares, he had wrapped and tied his blue and white "yukata" (cotton kimono) in the direction of a woman, or a corpse. We were served two meals each day in our room: breakfast and dinner; for lunch, we fended for ourselves in the bustling open-air market of Kyoto. The meals were traditional "kaiseki," in the style not of restaurants but of the tea ceremony: frugal, yet somehow sumptuous in every carefully arranged detail of ingredient or presentation. I wish I could have those meals now. Dinners we relished at the time; during breakfast, I confess, the ingrained habits of Western morning meals were nearly impossible to overcome. While sushi in the evening was anticipated and enjoyed, there was something about sashimi (or anyway some unidentified fish dish) in the early hours that we all had trouble with. I know that one bit of biodegradable ocean food did end up in a potted plant, so impossible it was for us to either eat or risk offending by leaving it on the tray. Now though, if I could, I would relish every bite, morning as well as night. What else? I remember becoming finally adept at eating rice with chopsticks; I remember delicate tempura, dashi broth, cooking finely sliced meat on a hibachi. I recall my parents' near-tortuous shiatsu massage experience: my mother convinced she'd have bruises from the rapid back blows. There were also our excursions into Kyoto and to the temples (subject for another post). Finally, I remember that it all went by too quickly—an experience true to its surroundings, though; true to the fundamental transience taught by any Zen teacher or aptly expressed in any proper haiku. It is nearly twenty-five years since we took this trip, and I still ache to grasp the moment, to replay it, relive it, to not let it go. It is hard to give up the mind of attachment. Yet, this was, in all likelihood, a once in a lifetime encounter. Ichi-go, ichi-e.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Geja's Cafe


In the 1970s, my parents and I would go every so often to a fondue restaurant in Chicago called Geja's Cafe. Here I had my first experience of fondue, that communal cooking ritual that became a fad in this country in the sixties and grew in popularity through the next decade as well. If you go to Geja's Web site, you might see their warning: "As always, please remember that Geja's does not allow children under the age of 10 in the restaurant." I have no idea why they say "as always," since this restriction was definitely NOT always in place. I was only turning ten later in the year of 1979—the year we left Chicago to move to Los Angeles. I'd been enjoying dinners at Geja's for years by that point. What I remember from my childhood is bubbly, gooey cheese, popping oil, fruits and cubes of pound cake dipped in chocolate. I loved those long, skinny, two-pronged forks; I felt somewhat grown up being able to cook my own food. But I also have another memory of Geja's. When I lived in Chicago later on as an adult (my parents now back on the East Coast), I saw Geja's in a different light. Geja's now stakes the claim of being Chicago's "most romantic" restaurant—so much so that it is more like a romantic cliché (though I don't mean that as a negative comment on the restaurant itself). It is a hot spot to take a date, and as a result nearly impossible to get into on the weekends, unless you're willing to go early to put in your name, leave for a few hours, and then come back to wait some more. I have no recollection of it being like this when I was a kid, but then again, romance was not on my radar when I was still in single digits. I went exactly once as an adult (not a weekend night!): it was with my father when he came to visit, for old times' sake. It was a fabulous trip down memory lane; we were immediately transported back about twenty years to the comfort of the familiar, the family tradition of exchanging ideas and tidbits of conversation while dipping and swirling our food in a shared pot. It took us a while to realize the two features that would linger in the fabric of our minds and clothes, though. First, that the people around us (wait staff included, we're pretty sure) were making assumptions about the nature of our relationship, failing to see it automatically as father-daughter, but rather as something colored by the general ambiance of the restaurant: a May-December romance. This was both funny and a bit weird. Mostly funny, because my father and I can talk about things like this and laugh. I wish I remembered what it was, specifically, that clued us in (we both came to the same conclusion, and we are decidedly not paranoid personalities), but for the moment, I don't recall. The other feature of the evening that we did not realize until after we'd gone out into the chilly air, returned to apartment/hotel, and hung up our coats in the closets: you cannot visit Geja's without coming home in a perfume of smoking oil. Dry cleaning is pretty much mandatory. But for all that, it was worth it. Geja's remains a great childhood (and adult) memory, and a good place to eat. I'm only sorry that there are no subsequent generations who will have this experience etched into their earliest, under-ten memories . . . free of romantic associations, if not free of smoke.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Aunt Jean's Basement Parties


Detroit in the 1970s. My aunt (my mother's sister, the eldest child out of six in the family) had a finished basement in her house, and she would host large family parties there—often I think, although pretty soon after my birth, we left the Detroit area and so were too far away to participate in many of these celebrations. I think I attended two of the parties, but even to me, it felt like a ritual occurrence, such was the welcoming atmosphere, the instant acceptance of family. Jean and Louis (my aunt and uncle), plus their grown kids and my cousins once removed (who were closer in age to me than my first cousins), opened their home and their hearts, their basement and their kitchen to us all. I was very young, so I don't remember much, nor do I trust the memories I do have; they may just be associations. Mostly I remember two things, and the first is culinary. When we came through the front door of the house (or maybe it was a side door? I have an image of a set of two doors, actually, one spring-hinged and white with large glass panes for letting in light if you kept the second, solid door open . . . Is this memory paired with the right house?) the kitchen was to the right, and if you stood in the open entry to the kitchen, then the stairs leading to the basement were on your left. I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing a tray of pasteli, the traditional Greek sesame-honey candy that was sometimes store-bought, but I think on party occasions was homemade. Anyway, I have firmly linked my love of pasteli with my Aunt Jean for some reason, and knowing she is the one in the family who learned the traditional recipes, I assume she made this sticky sweet. (Don't tell me the Greeks didn't invent the original health-food bar!) Toasted seeds, golden brown, with thick and gooey honey set hard when cool, naturally perfumed with whatever flower nectar the bees had worked their transformation on. Other than the pasteli, I remember sitting at long tables in the basement, getting up at every provocation to play with the cousins. The tables were always to one side, which left a wide open space for my only other, deeply engraved memory: my grandfather, in those few years that our lives overlapped, rising from his patriarchal place of honor to lead a traditional Greek line dance. The bouzouki strings would tear at me, captivate me through the stereo speakers, and my grandfather became magical to me then. A mostly serious man, he was also serious when he danced, but that did not preclude an outpouring of joy, which was obvious. He became a proud god on the mountainside, yet never lost who he was, who he had always been—an illiterate shepherd whose flocks in the New World were the automobiles pouring off the Big Three assembly lines. My grandfather waved a white napkin or handkerchief high in the air, and where he stepped you saw rocks and wildflowers sprouting, rather than the (earth-toned?) carpeting that I think might have been in the basement. I wish I remembered more. But a final word, in case any of my relatives read this: if I've misremembered anything, please—don't tell me! Let me keep my visions of Greek honey, sesame, and soulful dance; I want to keep my memories of Aunt Jean's basement parties, just as they are.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Physical Therapy Hell


Discharged from Sloan-Kettering after two weeks of bed rest, I was an atrophied version of my sixteen-year-old self. Atrophied physically from lack of exercise and loss of muscle tone, but also somewhat in spirit. I sported a toe-to-thigh fiberglass cast that immobilized my right leg; my left was graced with a wicked scar. (My surgeon did not give a hoot for the aesthetics of his sutures; he was no plastics man). Weakened, in pain, but nonetheless happy to be leaving, I was wheeled through the hospital doors in a chair, then driven to our family home in Southport, Connecticut. It didn't feel like home to me; my parents had moved to Connecticut when I was away in boarding school. I knew no one there and felt isolated. And then there was the problem of autonomy, or lack thereof. Independent from day one, the family joke is that I "moved out of the house" for the first time the day I was born—two months early and put in an incubator where I "lived alone" for the first six weeks of my life. And sixteen is not an age that begs for reliance. But there were plenty of things I could not do for myself, and during those first couple days at home, that included going upstairs. The house had two floors, and if I recall correctly, I was pretty much confined to the ground level until a physical therapist could come and help me build back enough muscle strength and teach me how to properly navigate stairs on crutches. I don't know where the PT came from, but come she did, from some healthcare agency or other. I don't remember much about her, except that she was a woman of probably late middle age (she seemed old to me, but that was through the filter of a teenage mind; everyone over thirty looked old). Her skin was white, her manners Puritanical. She got me on the stairs. I remember I had gone up halfway and was turning to come back down. Confused momentarily about how to do it, here is the handy memory device she gave: "Just remember, it's like Heaven and Hell." I could hear the capital letters; this was a woman who believed these were proper nouns, names of physical places and not just states of mind. "When you go up, you lead with the good leg, like going up to Heaven. When you go down, you go bad leg first. Up with the Good, down with the Bad." I know I looked at her like she was crazy. I think I decided right then and there that I would go no farther with her. I don't remember what exactly I said, but I do know that the message was a perfect extension of her own metaphor: in so many words, I told her she could go on "down." She could just plain go to hell.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ships Coffee Shop


I didn't know what "Googie" architecture was—didn't know Martin Stern Jr., the designer, and couldn't tell you the name of Matthew or Emmett Shipman (or any other of their clan)—but being a Southern California girl at one point in my life, in a certain era, I knew and loved Ships Coffee Shop. There were three of them in Los Angeles, but the one I visited with my family was the one that stood at the corner of Wilshire and, I think, Glendon, marking the edge of Westwood Village. Here is what I remember about Ships, a place that provoked (along with Polly's Pies in Santa Monica) many a comfort-food foray out into restaurant land: I loved the "back to the future" look of the place, the 1960s "space-age" sign, which called to mind a rocket shooting its neon into the (smoggy) California sky. The facade of the building carried through on this visual, with an irregular roof line that echoed the arrow motif. In the early 1980s, the exterior of Ships managed to look both modern and retro at the same time. Inside, the decor felt a bit more dated, with its row of sixties light fixtures suspended over the counter. I associate the interior with grainy walnut veneers and a general palette of brown and orange; this may be completely inaccurate, but it was in any event a brown-orange-walnut-veneer kind of place. Like a neighbor's vintage family room. I do remember that the restaurant's dining hall was spacious and that the seats at the counter were not the average round, too-small toadstools, but rather cushy square ones with padded back rests (they still swiveled like regular stools). But of course we didn't go to Ships for the building or logo design, neither for the cozy interior, though these were part of the experience. We were regulars at Ships Coffee Shop for two things mainly: toast and individual deep dish pies. Anyone who has ever been to a Ships knows about the former. One of the features that helped put this coffee shop in a class of its own were the battery of electric toasters—the aluminum pop-up type with black operating lever—one on each table and also positioned at intervals along the counter. At Ships, your toast never arrived cold; it arrived as bread that you got to toast to perfection (or burn) yourself. So breakfast was almost as good as homemade, and it was a lot more fun to make toast while sitting in a restaurant booth than in your own kitchen. We also went to Ships for dinner sometimes, and at least from my perspective that was always fine because dinner also meant dessert. For dinner I would invariably eat a grilled American cheese sandwich on white bread. There'd be fries, and maybe even a milkshake. My dad ate "Ship Shape" burgers or open-faced sandwiches with potatoes and gravy. I don't know what my mom found to eat, but her drink of choice might have been Tab. All of it was in anticipation of the moment when, after our plates had been cleared, we'd order deep dish pies. There were apple and boysenberry pies, in individual-size brown ceramic ramekins. The pies were baked or heated to order, so they arrived piping hot, with sticky fruit filling bubbling and oozing down the sides. We'd take forks or spoons and break open the golden top crusts of our pies, releasing steam and the aroma of fruit. My dad usually ordered his à la mode, with vanilla ice cream. I don't remember doing the same, but I may have. The boysenberry pie was always my choice, and I loved the deep purple color of the berries and their juice. We never tired of these treats, and I never again saw them on a menu—not like this. Now, the Ships are gone. A little investigating reveals that the Westwood Ships is a parking lot, the Culver City Ships is a Starbucks, and the La Cienega location is now a truck rental business (though it seems that they've preserved the old Ships sign at least). Apparently the Ships on Wilshire—our Ships—was demolished not too long after we left Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Another bit of family tradition erased from the landscape . . . But in memory, anyway, I'll always have piping hot toast to butter and jammy boysenberry deep dish pies to eat. A slice of residual heaven.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dorothy Hamill Haircut


Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, and America's Sweetheart for some time after. If you didn't see her on the ice—if you didn't really see her at all—then you saw traces of her image reflected in neighborhood acquaintances who copied her style. In the late 70s and early 80s, everyone knew at least one person with the "Dorothy Hamill 'do," that hairstyle she made incredibly popular: the wedge. Despite the fact that I was dancing, and ballet still mandated long tresses, I made a bold move the summer I was ten and cropped off my hair; it would always grow back. It was the first time I wore my hair that short, and once the shock of being light-headed wore off, I remember thinking that it looked very sophisticated. (Give me a break; as I said, I was only ten!) But since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this was not exactly a universal opinion. Maybe it was the fact that my wedge may have looked a bit more like a bowl cut than is dignified on a girl. Maybe it was because at this age you could hang ten off my chest; I was flat as a surfboard. Maybe it would have been better if I'd been old enough to wear makeup. As it was, my new haircut lent me an air less "waifish" or "gamine" (which could have been cuter)—less feminine "sweetheart" and more just ambiguous in gender. Of course I wore skirts often, and bows on my shirts, and diminutive jewelry (a thin gold chain with a charm shaped like a pair of ballet shoes was typical), so I didn't really look puerile . . . Except apparently to the tobacco/candy store guy. I guess it was a shorts and T-shirt day. I remember my mom was driving me someplace (to a dance class no doubt), and we were on either Wilshire or Santa Monica or Pico—some main thoroughfare in the heart of Los Angeles. Mom pulled up to the curb so that I could run into the shop and buy some candy, I think. I recall something artificially colored, overly sweet in any case, maybe Jolly Ranchers. I paid, and on my way out I heard the man behind the counter call, "Take care, sonny." I was climbing back into the car by the time I fully registered what he'd said. I remember being upset by this. I remember that I told my mom, and I think maybe I brooded over it until we got to our destination. Wherever that was, it was sufficiently absorbing for me to then forget about being mistaken for a boy. Since that time, I've grown wiser. The idea of androgyny does not bother me, though there's no longer a question of it being an issue for me—not since my body took on unmistakably female lines. By now, I've had many short haircuts. In fact, I've relished growing my hair out at times for the sole pleasure of having a stylist chop it all off at once. But thankfully, I learned one lesson well: wedges may look great on many ladies, young and old alike, but not on me! Now I prefer vintage Mia Farrow or Jean Seberg. Neither figure skaters, and neither—not really—America's Sweethearts.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sloan-Kettering


I remember the words "giant" and "bone" and "tumor." I remember looking at fuzzy black and white X-ray films (fuzzy-looking to me anyway), and being told that the bone in the lower part of my right tibia was the thickness of an eggshell: a fracture would pose severe risks. The deformity was ever so slightly visible from the outside; there was a softly swollen, bowed look to the outer line of my leg above the ankle. I thought of my ballet mistress, Madame S., and her parting assessment of "thick ankles" when I left the pre-professional dance world of NCSA (see previous posts on dancing). I suddenly longed for the luxury of earlier days when I could still tell myself that anything wrong might be fixed with paraffin wax and Ace bandages. Instead, I sat in the office of one of NYC's top orthopedic surgeons—a near deity with whom an appointment was worth its weight in gold (we obtained one through a man named Stanley G., who worked with my father at Pan Am; cost was no issue then, as these were still the days of full-coverage health insurance, premiums paid entirely by the company).  I was sixteen years old, the perfect example of a hostile patient. I—a girl trained to move gracefully, barely displacing the air around me—tossed the urgently proffered crutches to the floor, flat-out refusing to use them. A few days later, I found myself on York Avenue, about to pass through the entrance of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, clinical arm of the city's (possibly the country's or the world's) most renowned cancer center. I didn't process the word "cancer"; I was in such a murky fog of loathing (the situation, my traitorous body) that Sloan-Kettering meant nothing to me. In retrospect, I suppose the medical assumption must have been that we were dealing with malignancy. Thankfully, the pathology reports proved otherwise, but the Sloan-Kettering experience was nonetheless difficult. Here is what I remember: Being sixteen, angry, and terrified the night before my scheduled surgery; the morning of the procedure, I remember the sting of an alcohol swab followed directly by a needle inserted to open a vein for my IV hookup. I remember an iodine wash on my leg, also being asked to remove all jewelry; whatever I had, I gave to my mother for safekeeping. I remember being wheeled on a gurney through a labyrinth of halls and tunnels that connected various parts of the hospital complex. Lying on my back under a thin blanket I watched the ceilings pivot in a dizzying succession of turns until I got to the operating room. I remember the anesthesiologist asking me to count backward from ten, and I don't remember how far I got. (I similarly do not remember, but was told by the surgeon later, that even in my unconscious state, I kept trying to get up off the operating table and that they had to hold me down.) I remember next a frantic bustling around me in the recovery room—the sound of beeping machines, urgent voices raised then lowered, the removal of defibrillation paddles from my chest. I remember thinking that I wished they had not bothered. I am ashamed of that thought now. I am also ashamed of how far I let myself sink into feelings of anger and self-pity during my two-week tenure as a pediatric in-patient. As horrible as my experience was, the only roommate I had was a girl of maybe ten years old: thin as a rail, bald from chemotherapy, and in need of bone marrow transplants to overcome her disease. Me? I had a benign tumor, bone grafting, searing pain and a life-threatening allergic reaction to the standard palliative solution of morphine and something called Visterol (spelling?). But otherwise, I was fine. In comparison. Here are some other things I remember: I was in pain so intense, I begged for an injection—me, the one who'd go to great lengths to avoid shots—rather than wait for the effect of tablets. The food was unappetizing but my parents brought me pizza and sandwiches. I was embarrassed by the need for a bedpan, since I was not allowed to get out of bed for any reason, and at sixteen this felt like the worst humiliation imaginable. My surgeon came into the room several times, trailing a group of students or interns; I reminded them all with an acid tone that I had a name—the surgeon was in the habit of announcing, without greeting or introduction, "Here we have a tibial blah blah such-and-such," naming me by body part, condition, and procedure only. I remember that for two weeks I was no longer a person but a specimen, a case to be studied, a leg that housed a tumor, nothing more. (I should say I don't believe this is indicative of the hospital today—it was an insensitivity belonging to a specific person and perhaps to an era of medical care in general, not to the place.) I remember thinking that time had stopped, that I was in purgatory if not in hell, and that I'd never get out. I remember turning away with dismissive hostility a hospital chaplain who made his rounds (or whom my parents asked to visit). I was close to atheism in those years. I remember a long length of wide, strong gauze tied around my right foot, the ends trailing like a leash I was supposed to grab and pull several times a day to maintain articulation of the ankle. And I remember, finally, that oozing bandages ceased being replaced and that I was at last taken to a room where a man wrapped the length of my entire right leg, toes to top of thigh, in a fiberglass cast (non weight-bearing) that would stay with me for nine long months. With that, I was on my way home.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dishwasher Disaster


Just days after I received my MFA degree, I got officially engaged (the idea had come up before, in a very unofficial moment). Perhaps my husband was afraid that otherwise I'd decide to go back to Chicago, where I was living before I attended graduate school. There had not been much danger of that, really. By staying in New York, I would be close to my family—the main reason I came back East rather than doing graduate work elsewhere—and also, New York still held its lure as a vital place for someone interested in the publishing industry. I was jobless and was waiting to find out about residencies at artists' colonies to which I had applied, all the while remaining pragmatic and working on employment options in the city. While in this state of limbo, I had a good amount of time on my hands, and much of that time I spent in the apartment that my husband then shared with his brother and another friend. Their place was on East 92nd Street, on the fifth floor of a brownstone walk-up; theirs was the top floor, plus an aerie comprised of two small rooms that opened onto a rooftop terrace. It was easy in those unscheduled days to make social plans, and so we offered an invitation to another couple (friends of his) and made our debut as an official domestic pair, hosting a dinner to start the tradition of conjugal hospitality that we hoped to extend to the mingled circle of our acquaintance. I don't remember what we cooked up to serve to these friends. And I don't much remember what we talked about once they arrived (other than recalling a brief moment of hot debate about Franco-Arab prejudices). Of that night, I remember in detail only one thing: the dishwasher disaster. Backtrack a bit. I was alone in the apartment for some time before anyone came through the door, including my husband to be, who was out working; including also his roommates. In their absence I was—or anyway I declared myself—responsible for cleaning the bachelor kitchen in preparation for our couples' evening. There were dirty dishes to be washed, an average amount (one could imagine it much worse). I loaded the dishwasher, poured in liquid detergent, and set the machine to work. In the meantime, I scrubbed vegetables, or cleaned shrimp, or performed some other culinary tasks, then decided to freshen up with a shower before anyone arrived. At this point, in self-defense, I should say that I had always done my dishes by hand in the kitchen sink. I acquired this habit from my mother, who did the same despite her having an automatic dishwasher available to her. I complained sometimes about doing dishes, but really I kind of liked it. I found it relaxing, even hypnotic—long before I understood that what I was doing when I washed dishes by hand was a form of zen meditation: dishes for the sake of dishes; focused only on wash, rinse, dry. Also in self-defense, I was not in my own kitchen. (This fact seems to be a good excuse, at least momentarily; it's also what amplified the feeling of desperation.) The bottom line? OK, yes, I should've paid more attention—or maybe I had paid attention; maybe I had actually noticed that what I poured into the liquid compartment of the dishwasher was regular dish soap. Of course, it's possible (I'm hoping) that you have made the same mistake. If you have, you know what greeted me when I came out of the shower and back through the kitchen: the floor quite wet already; a rabid, frothing foam of soap bubbles oozing out from the cracks around the dishwasher door. With good probability that my fiancé would come home soon and discover my blunder, I was in a complete panic. I had no idea where the men of the house kept mops or sponges with which I could absorb the overflow, though I could (and did) look in the usual places. The more immediate concern was that I had no idea how to stop the dishwasher without making things worse by breaking the machine or who knew what else. (If I opened the door, would a mini tsunami of water and soap bubbles overtake me?) I did stop the dishwasher, somehow. Or else the dishwasher continued but the bubbles stopped oozing out. I managed to clean the floor. I remember at some point determining that it was safe to open the door to the washer, and I remember that my heart sank at the sight of a dish-den full of white fluff (no more water at that point, just "dry" bubbles in every open space). I pulled the dishes out, rinsed and dried them by hand. I scooped out the cavity of the dishwasher and chased the froth down the sink with tides of tap water. Somehow, I did manage to remove all evidence of the mishap. Eventually, I gave some vague excuse about why the dinner preparation was not further along when my husband-to-be showed up to tease me. No one was ever the wiser, but I am still (nearly a decade later) haunted by a sense of domestic ineptitude—a lingering fear that this early episode was perhaps not just an average accident but rather some kind of omen. I have of course, by now, mastered the art of dishwashing detergent. And I will always argue that the onus of  domestic duties does not in any event rest solely on my (read: the woman's) shoulders. Still, in a small frothy crevice of my mind, I drag this memory around like a secret shame and wonder what it means to me.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February Mudslide


The myth we believed, to a certain extent, when we left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles in 1979 was that the weather in L.A. was beautiful in the winter. The weather was not the reason we moved, mind you; it was our consolation prize for uprooting ourselves due to a job promotion (my father's). We assumed that we were leaving our tribulations of harsh weather conditions behind, and in terms of the thermostat, I guess we were. The air temperature in Southern California was undeniably milder. We moved at the end of spring, settled in during the summer, and made it through the "Back to School" season without incident. The end of the year, and the holidays with it, took us by surprise--we were lost without our usual seasonal cues of falling mercury, blankets of white--and our Christmas shopping that year was done in a last-minute rush (we simply couldn't believe it really was December). We rounded a new decade: January 1980, then February. We were living in a house, and it was partway up one of the canyon roads in Brentwood. The house had a pool; behind the house and pool was an ivy-covered hill; the hill was held back by a beige cinderblock retaining wall. Maybe we should've known. My memory of February in Los Angeles (any February) is mostly this: rain. Lots of rain. We learned that first winter that, in the canyons, lots of rain also meant flash floods. One day my parents and I were in the master bedroom. I don't know why we were all in there, but we were, and our conversation was interrupted by a cracking noise--muffled, but still audible from the second floor. I remember looking out the windows that faced the back of the property. At first I couldn't see anything. Then, I saw a brown murky mass spreading through the water of the swimming pool. I told my parents that the hill was sliding down into the pool, and they weren't sure whether to believe me. They soon saw for themselves. I remember all of us running outside. Sure enough, under the cover of ivy, the hill was giving way, dirt turning quickly to a river of mud flowing over the retaining wall and into the pool. I do not ever remember us owning a shovel--it is typical of our family to be less than fully equipped in terms of anything suggesting DIY home maintenance or improvement--and yet I also remember my father procuring one (from the garage?). I have a memory of the two of us starting to dig just enough of a channel on the ivy side of the retaining wall to divert the flow of mud. (Confession: we diverted it to the left, behind the white picket fence that separated our property from the down-canyon neighbors' driveway; the driveway sloped steeply down to the street, so the mud flowed to the canyon gutters, no harm done.) And then came the classic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do parental moment. My father: "Whatever you do, don't climb up the hill!" I stayed where I was and watched as my dad scaled the low retaining wall, began to ascend the hill, and slipped. The result? At least one cracked rib. I get a bit fuzzy on details after that. I'm not sure where exactly my mom was in all this; I'm sure she was right there, but for me she really snaps into focus after the fact. Somehow, we did manage to divert the mud. Eventually, the rain stopped. My father got medical care. My mother would have to be the one to tell of her hours in line at L.A. "disaster relief" centers (I only seem to remember something to do with donuts). Eventually, our patch of landscape was returned to normal--at a cost to household budget and nerves. What may never have been restored: that sunny myth of a winter paradise. Welcome to L.A., land of natural disasters.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine Turtles

Valentine's Day, 1980. Red and white striped rectangular candy box. In my memory, before finding the picture posted here, the stripes covered the entire background, but otherwise, the box is as I remembered it. Old-fashioned Turtles: roasted pecans, chewy caramel, and milk chocolate--before the brand was bought by Nestle. For 29 years, every Valentine's Day, I have remembered with bittersweet sentiment a gifted box of Turtles. That almost counts as a lifetime; it counts as longer than some lives. The candies on this day in 1980 were the most extravagant Valentine's gift I had ever received, with the possible exception of tokens from my parents in previous years. I was in the fifth grade (Brentwood Science Magnet School, in Los Angeles), and the candies were given to me by a classmate--a girl who was a friend, but a girl whose friendship brought with it certain tests for my developing moral compass. K. M. was a quiet girl, withdrawn and challenged socially in the face of childhood cruelties. She was not popular at school; in fact, I'd say she was rather the opposite, the class scapegoat. Thinking back, I don't remember what specific objections others found to her, but I do remember that she was often teased--I assume it was about her appearance, since kids of this age are generally superficial in their criticism. She had a long, thin face and a somewhat egg-shaped head. She had long, brown hair that I remember as sometimes looking stringy or slightly unkempt. Although she may occasionally have worn a skirt, it's possible that she never did. I have absolutely no memory of her in one; she dressed like a tomboy. I remember blue jeans, gray hooded sweatshirts, keds. I remember her hands stuffed in her pockets. She had a fraternal twin who was in another class, and I wondered somehow if this was the reason she seemed sort of boyish. She was largely shunned, but I was drawn to her. As I got to know her, I liked her more and more. She was sullen but smart, and she could be funny. She had a rich imagination, a wisdom beyond her years--or maybe it was the attitude of resignation. She did not complain about how others viewed or treated her (not to me, anyway), and to this day I'm not sure if she cared. I imagine she did, but she did not show any hurt at school. She did not seem to pity herself for her social status, and if her feelings were bruised, neither was she the type of person who would hide it behind bravado. Of course, it is a universal truth that you are known by the company you keep, and being friends with her marked me in the collective opinion as well. I don't remember any showdowns, don't remember expressly having to defend my friendship with her to anyone. But by turns I wasn't popular, either. It's not that I aspired to be; I had other, loftier goals (at the time, my dancing). And I knew what it was like to be teased--I received my share at this and at my former school. What is it about a sensitive child that seems to spur the mean ones on? Like a pack of hunting dogs, they smell vulnerability and it drives them to the chase. Was it also in the way she talked, walked? I remember sitting alone with her on a field trip, eating Saltines to keep ourselves from being seasick on a whale-watching trip. Anyway, we were often a pair, but I did have other friends, too. And no one wants to be an outcast. Which is why, when K. gave me this huge box of Turtles at school on Valentine's Day, my response was a mish-mash of embarrassed thanks.

K. died young. She died while we were still classmates in elementary school, struck by a car while crossing San Vicente Boulevard. For nearly thirty years, I have tried to imagine her last moments; I have gone on to live what feels like an entire life that she never got to realize. I didn't see the accident, but I will always be marked by it. I was never in peril, but from time to time, I have a sense of "survivor's guilt." I did nothing to betray her friendship outright, but I have a lingering sense of shame over the fact that my response to her Valentine's Day present to me was anything other than unadulterated gratitude and happiness. I still love Turtles. If I see them in a hand-dipped chocolate shop, I will purchase a single one and eat it slowly, but I have never again possessed a red and white striped box of them. I wish that I could see her again and thank her. I wish that I could tell her, adult to adult, friend to friend, how her life touched mine and how I hold her image close as a reminder of how important it is to truly honor and be loyal to every real friendship you possess, public opinion be damned. I can't do those things, but I can write about it. I can remember a long-ago February and say to her memory: Happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Supernatural Slumber Parties


It being Friday the 13th tonight, I have been doing some thinking about "super" things--superstitions and the supernatural in particular. And somehow, this track of thought has led me back to the "tween" days of BFFs (though back then, of course, no one used these terms); to those goofy, giggly, just-starting-to-cop-an-attitude years, when it suddenly became clear that friends were infinitely more important than family. Back then, the most coveted of all invitations for a Friday night was the slumber party. If it was a birthday party, too, so much the better. We would have pizza and cake; we'd strain for the best view of the birthday girl opening presents, making our mental notes (who gave the coolest gift?); we'd spend long moments haggling over where our sleeping bags would go, who'd sleep next to whom (this would invariably provoke friendly accusations of drooling, snoring, talking in your sleep, and so forth); there would be a pillow fight, a game of Slipper Scramble, maybe Truth or Dare; someone would have forgotten a toothbrush and would squirt toothpaste on her finger instead; we'd settle in for a movie (they got progressively scarier as the years went by). But the best moments always came later, after the lights went out and we were all supposed to go to sleep. No one wanted to, at first. We'd whisper, then laugh too loudly and get told by someone's mom to be quiet. Eventually, inevitably, someone would suggest the classic slumber party levitation game: Light as a feather. This is when the supernatural came into play, or so we told ourselves. Someone would lie on her back, perfectly still with her eyes closed, and the rest of us would gather around, sitting on our heels but leaning slightly forward, holding our hands palms-up on the floor and slipping a few fingers (not the whole hand) underneath the subject's head, feet, torso, legs. The girl at the head would take the lead. It was up to her to invent the story of the subject's death, the creepier the better. We would all listen eagerly, and with some dread--especially the girl about whom the story was created. From the times when it was my turn to lie there, I remember the vulnerability and the fear that somehow, the girl telling the story would mortify you with some embarrassing detail of your demise. The stories always ended the same way. No matter the grisly method of death, the storyteller would say, "When they found her body, she was light as a feather, stiff as a board." And then everyone would begin a whispering chant: light as a feather, stiff as a board; light as a feather . . . and the lifting would begin. If the first time didn't work so well--if the body was not lifted up with the impression of effortless motion--it's true that subsequent turns, in a cycle of self-fulfilling prophesy, were more successful. Willing to believe, determined to make it so, the fingertips can lift a body. And at eleven, twelve years old, you can convince yourself it's with the help of spirits, magic. I wish I could remember the specific stories that I told, or that were told about me. I cannot. Eventually, we'd start to get tired, and although no one wanted to be the first to fall asleep, once someone did, it was not long before most of the others did, too. Then there were the holdouts, like me. Like my friend, E. G. For us, with the spooky shivers gone for the night, we'd turn our attention to pranks on the slumbering innocents. Levitation was over, but there was always shaving cream; there were always hands to place in bowls of warm water.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't Be Ugly, Sugar


Am I five years old? Seems about right. At this age, I took a plane by myself from Chicago to Florida to visit my paternal grandparents. (Being the mother of a boy the same age now as I was then, I shudder to think of this.) I remember I was in a window seat and, I think, in a bulkhead row on the right-hand side of the plane; I have a memory of seeing the exit door to the left of where I sat. I recall the widening space between myself and my parents, their worried withdrawal (or was it just my father I glimpsed at that last moment?)—also my sense of perfect security despite being alone. I don't remember the flight itself, what I did to pass the time, if I talked to anyone. I don't remember arriving in the airport in Florida, don't remember the drive to my grandparent's house (in an overly large dull green American boat of a car), but I can clearly see their driveway and the garage through which we entered into Mimi's kitchen. This is the central memory, though: the kitchen table, with a view out the window to the front yard and past that to the street without traffic, in the sunny, somnolent community of retirees. Sitting at this perch in the kitchen—my grandmother's kitchen, make no mistake about who reigned there—I received an education in Southern food, manners, and conversation. My grandmother was a mystery of manners, to me anyway. I am sitting in her kitchen, having come a long way down to Nowhereville on a plane by myself to visit. I see her maybe once a year, if that. I am sitting at the round table in the corner of the kitchen, and another child comes over to play; some neighbor's kid or grandkid. My grandmother sets down a plate of cookies. Among the cookies are a confection known as "divinity" (not the fudge kind, but the airy, Karo-syrup-and-egg white kind, like meringues, my favorite). When I reach for one, too hastily, she says, "Now, don't be ugly." It's a common idiom in the South, and she is only telling me that it's polite to let a guest choose first. Of course, I am thinking that the neighbor's kin can come over any time for divine treats—is it wrong to expect that I am the guest that matters more? Wrong or right, I was five at the time, so it's neither here nor there. I remember being shocked; it must have been the first time I'd ever heard the expression, and it stung. But if I got stung at times, there was also honey on my grandmother's tongue. Just as often, and still yet at that kitchen table, I'd hear "Gimme some sugar," and it wasn't just a request to pass the bowl and spoon so that she could sweeten a glass of iced tea or powder her grapefruit. (I loved to watch the sugar dissolve into the juicy citrus, though I could never understand how anyone could actually do that to a grapefruit, especially the ones she had so often that were naturally sweet.) "Gimme some sugar" meant kisses and hugs, cuddles and caresses. For both of us, I guess, it took some adjustment, some settling in and efforts at translation (I won't even go into all the "y'all" and "yonder" and "fixin' to" that went on). But we managed to make ourselves understood and, in the end, appreciated: I gorged on citrus and she on "sugar"; we sat together at the kitchen table and looked out the window, waiting for something to happen but just as often being happy that nothing did.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Free to Be


Sometimes our memories are visual, sometimes auditory. One of my earliest musical memories is when I had my first turntable—it was white and blue, I think, and definitely crafted for children—and I recall one of the first records I owned: Free to Be . . . You and Me. (Yes, I am seriously dating myself here: not only with the title of the album, but with the fact that music was still mainly vinyl when I was young!) The album was first released in late 1972, but I was older than three when I first heard the songs. We were living in Chicago, on Commonwealth, so I must have been around eight years old. And it was exactly the time in my life when I needed to hear the messages in this socially progressive collection of stories and songs. Now, when I think back on it, I am amazed at what Marlo Thomas and her "friends" (the likes of Alan Alda, for example, and Rosey Grier the pro football player and needlepoint crafter!) accomplished, and what an impact they made on a whole generation. At the time, I just liked to listen, not really aware that my mother had carefully selected for me a compilation that would shore up my values and feelings of self-esteem. (I have to note here: in all areas, she was wonderful in this way. In an era when it was not exactly easy to find representation of minority culture on the shelves of local bookstores, she found amazing titles to open whole worlds to me, to help make me see the universal and not things like gender or skin color. She was always ahead of the times, my mother—she still is!) Free to Be . . . You and Me focuses on busting social stereotypes. I remember so well the songs "William Wants a Doll," which is self-evident in its subject matter, and "Atalanta," the story of the young girl who ran fast as the wind and raced for her right to marry a young man of her own choice . . . or to not marry at all. I remember "It's All Right to Cry," sung by Grier, and also the creepy tune of "Girl Land," with its ominous factory-style theme park that would turn girls into "ladies" and where you would forever "pick up after the boys" (happily, in the song, Girl Land is dismantled). Although it was long ago, I can still remember a lot of the songs, their lyrics. The messages are so ingrained, and happily taken much more for granted in today's world. But as much as this album might seem a folksy, archaic relic of the 1970s, I suspect that the messages can still benefit today's kids. When I have a moment, I will find a copy for my son and play it for him. Until then, I'll just say—about the music, and about my mom who found it for me, and by way of quotation: "Glad to have a friend like you, and glad to just be me!"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Over and Under


Back in the Paris Métro, I don't remember which station. I was with a couple of friends, G. and (I think) N., one male and one female, both of them participants in my study-abroad program. We were on a cultural excursion that day, waiting to the side of the ticket booth for the entire group to assemble before continuing on toward the platform. I remember it was a very cold day. All the more reason for us to take notice of the two men (Scots, we assumed) in their kilts on the other side of the entry/exit barriers. None of us, not even the most feminine girls, could imagine wearing a skirt on a day that cold—at least not without tights, which the Scots certainly did not have on. They were trying to exit, but were having some difficulty. We watched them attempt repeatedly to get past the barrier without success. Was it N. who asked whether the rumors were true? It was said that men in kilts wore nothing underneath. In a flash, it was decided: the men shrugged and vaulted over the barriers. Over they went, and up flew the kilts; underneath, we witnessed, not a stitch. Flying kilts, flapping genitals—not exactly how you might imagine being flashed in the Paris Métro, but certainly memorable. The sudden skin show resulted ever after in a private greeting between the three of us: never again could G., N., or I see each other without waving our hands in a flourish from the waist, mimicking the pleated plaid material traveling on its revealing updraft.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cape Sounion


Thirteen years old, on the cusp of my own turbulent waves of adolescence. No longer a child but not yet anything other, I walked with my parents back through time; we stumbled among the rubble of ages, the ruins of Poseidon's temple at Cape Sounion. A spring day, blue Aegean sky and bleached white marble—the temple's Doric columns holding up the heavens, as if to cushion the proud, forgotten Olympians in their centuries of slumber. If they awoke, what would they take me for: supplicant or sacrilegious trespasser? I walked near the promontory's edge, looked across the water in the direction of Crete and saw—what? Was my command of mythology solid enough then to have imagined a ship approaching, its black sail hoisted instead of white? Hellenism, Romanticism—there we saw the name of Byron carved deep into ancient stone. However loyal to Greece, a mortal name gouged into holy marble seems enough to summon a strike of the trident. We strolled the once-sacred ground, now swelling with tourists. I remember most of all the abundance of yellow wildflowers in the field; how I sat on the warm earth and strung them together to make a garland that I wove through my long, brown hair. My own sea changes stayed for the moment—sitting in the shadow of this colossal monument to the god of oceans and earthquakes—I was still at an age when I wanted to wear flowers in my hair.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

E. F.


She was short, very, with a compact build. Not overweight at all, but definitely not exemplary of the type of thin Parisian silhouette so much in fashion, so expected in France. She wore trim black trousers, tight black sweaters, flat black shoes; she wore no lipstick but sometimes lined her eyes, doe-like, in liquid black; sometimes she knotted chiffon scarfs around her neck (she did have a way with fashion nonetheless). Her hair was glossy black and short, slightly wavy. She was Parisian, born and raised, but because of her "Arab" name and her darker complexion, she often faced discrimination. She transformed a lifelong feeling of being marginalized into a streak of deliberate nonconformity and a critical wit. She was my French teacher while I lived and worked in Paris, and I believe she saw herself as an ambassador of the "other" France. She and I became fast friends—we were not all that far apart in age, actually—and she made it her project to usher me past the country's official image, behind the back of Marianne. I spent many late evenings in her apartment in the Latin Quarter. We'd eat simple food, share some wine, and talk about intolerance and art, translation and the untranslatable. We'd laugh hysterically. When she laughed, it was a high-pitched sound that shook her small frame, and to this day I have never seen anyone get so red in the cheeks as she did. Her slightly darker skin did nothing to mask her habitual, furious blush. For her, I bought my first bottle of wine ever: it was a Saumur-Champigny, one of her favorites, from the Loire. This felt like a rite of passage. With her, I went to Caveau de la Huchette, to listen to jazz and dance on a cramped floor until the last Métro had long since left the station and I had to walk the long, dark avenues back to where I was staying, singing all the while. She was the one who introduced me to so many of the French artists I came to admire for their skill with language; for their rebellious, poetic and sometimes tragic voices: Serge Gainsbourg, Leo Ferré, Emile Ajar (Romain Gary). I think it's safe to say I was always somewhat enamored of this woman I felt was a kindred spirit. I am sorry to say that I am no longer in touch with her, so our friendship is now just a memory. "Avec le temps va, tout s'en va . . ." Unless, someday . . . But regardless, wherever she is, I hope she is happy, and I hope she knows how much difference she made. Merci, E. F. Gros bisous.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lion and Blue


Blue, blue, Brazilian blue. My one, my only love is you . . .

I may not recall with total accuracy this, or indeed any, specific passage, but to this day I bear the imprint of the text and vivid artwork bound together in the book Lion and Blue. My father gave this book to me for a birthday in the 1970s (maybe '75 or '76); he inscribed it with words I also can no longer quote verbatim though the emotion behind them still resonates. I was between the ages of six and eight, no more. The book, a fable of love written by Robert Vavra and illustrated with reproduced oil paintings by Fleur Cowles, was published in 1974 by William Morrow & Co, and was marketed as children's literature. It's appeal, however, crossed over to all ages. What I remember most is the deeply saturated hue of the blue Brazilian butterfly with black-veined wings, who was the object of the lion's love. I remember being mesmerized by its intensity, and the color has in fact become a motif in my life: appearing in the transformative wash of light that bathed me in calm as it passed through a set of stained-glass windows in the Musée Chagall in Nice, France (I was in my twenties); shimmering even now in a collection of antique cobalt jars and bottles. The color is a visual mantra for me, unlocking without fail the most profound sense of peace—and my first awareness of it was in the pages of Lion and Blue. The story itself is lovely, too. It dramatizes the expression "true blue" with its theme of unwavering loyalty. This fantasy tale—set in a jungle of tall grass, blazing sun, and flowers—is an allegory for true love, a quixotic quest for the Impossible Dream (perhaps this is one reason it appealed to my father, a lover of Cervantes and his windmill-chasing hero). Each animal, lion and butterfly, is destined to search for a metaphorical sun, the perfect center of a subjective universe, ultimately finding the "flower of the sun" in each other. Each animal has its journey of the soul—a journey that separates them—leaving, being left behind . . . It is a story about the steadfast heart; a story in which faith and faithfulness are rewarded. The book, without my knowing it at the time, held out a romantic ideal for life and relationships, as well as proffering messages about setting free the ones you love, striving to earn acceptance and love through patience, sacrifice, and the pursuit of inner perfection (in the form of a pure heart). The book, marrying verse and a visual equivalent of poetry, is a work of beauty, but also one that sees past the exterior shell into the soul. Now just a memory, Lion and Blue was perhaps my first meditation practice: an awareness of color, of the cadence of the author's language. I see my father's somewhat tight and slanted script, in black ink against a bright blue flyleaf, blessing another year of my life. I am grateful to have been gifted with a contemplative blue.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Paraffin Therapy


Sitting on a stool in the school infirmary, shoes off, I'd roll the right leg of my sweatpants up to the knee; I'd take up the tights on that leg, too, courtesy of a slit I always cut in the sole. I'd look down into the metal vat of hot liquid wax and plunge my foot in past the ankle, soak for 20 minutes or so. I'd do this several times a week, hoping that this "one size fits most" treatment would do the trick. (Soaking in paraffin wax was recommended frequently, for a variety of complaints that we just shrugged and called overuse, maybe tendinitis, not caring much what it really was, only needing to keep it at bay.) If the treatments did what I hoped, then maybe I'd have less discomfort to dance through, because that was what we all did with our aches, pains, and injuries: we danced through them, Ace-bandaged and ignored them—at least long enough to perfect the choreography in that day's class or rehearsal. The wax was clear-looking in the vat, and although hot, it didn't burn the skin; it was silky soft because of the paraffin oil, but not at all greasy. I would sit with a book and not read. I would look out the window, look at the clock, pull my foot up every so often and look at the wax shell growing in thickness around it. The gooey paraffin buildup made my foot look large, bloated, and shapeless. It was cozy and trapped the heat next to my skin. The warmth seeped through my pores, penetrated and soothed my uncooperative ankle. Whenever I lifted my foot, the air began immediately to cool the wax, and it would turn very white—the foot looked bloated and pale, like what I imagined the foot of a fat corpse would look like. When it was time to stop soaking, I'd take a wooden stick and loosen the wax, watch it fall back into the vat in a single, solid, soft piece. Were I now to soak in paraffin, it might be a hand or a rough-skinned foot, but only at the urging of a beautician in a spa (assuming I ever went to a spa), and only in preparation for one of the manicures or pedicures that I never have. I do, though, from time to time, push a finger into the soft wax of a recently extinguished candle and remember my former dancing life—a life also extinguished—and I remember, too, the comfort and desperate hope of ritual therapies, the healing properties of paraffin.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Desert Springs


When we wanted to get out of Los Angeles on a last-minute weekend trip, we would occasionally go to the desert—to Palm Springs, to Desert Hot Springs. It was more of the same, only much more of it: more sun, more hours by the pool, many more palm trees, drier climate. The only thing there was less of, thankfully, was the city's smog (which you forgot about while living in it on a daily basis, but that you saw unmistakably from the sky if you were flying into LAX on the way home from someplace else). We would take the car, because we were always in our car out there, it's unavoidable, and we'd drive east from L.A. on Interstate 10—excuse me, "on the 10." I don't know which season it was, though probably it was not summer. In my experience, the seasons were always confounded in Southern California due to the weather, which didn't qualify as weather at all as far as I was concerned. After having lived in Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and Chicago, it was hard to think of sunshine, generally mild temperatures, and rain as "weather"—although eventually our family did get a bitter reeducation on this point. We went to Palm Springs/Desert Hot Springs several times, and nearly all the trips blend into one another in my memory now. We would usually break up the two-hour drive with a stop at the market of Hadley Fruit Orchards, where we would purchase dried fruits and nuts for snacking and consume the world's best (only?) "date shakes." Really, if you like dates at all, you have to try the shakes; they're fabulous. One time, I remember we were on the main drag of North Palm Canyon Drive, after dark, and we saw a couple of young Hispanic guys cruising the sidewalk wearing zoot suits. This was after Hollywood released its 1981 feature film by that name, so who knows if the guys were authentic (if that is even possible once "the business" dusts its glitter on a subject). The most memorable trip to the desert, though, was the one I took with my mother and one of my aunts—the third eldest in my mother's family, who is also my godmother. I remember my aunt, in those years, as impeccably coiffed, always. Her hair was auburn then, upswept, rolled, pinned, and sprayed. Never a strand out of place. She epitomized to my impressionable eye the highest standards in propriety, fashion, overall good grooming, and cleanliness. Which is why this memory of us in the desert sticks so particularly well: we were not there one entire day when our motel room served as temporary haven to the most colossal cockroach imaginable. It set us screaming, like the worst stereotype of hysterical women (well, two women and a girl), and yet it was my exceptionally refined aunt who proved her mettle and resourcefulness. Pulling out her purple and white-lattice-patterned can of AquaNet, she sprayed the insect stiff—immobile if not dead—and disposed of it efficiently in the great, arid outdoors. It was, hands down, the most action any of us ever saw in the desert. The rest was predictable: a blissful "far niente" under blue sky and palm fronds, with mountain vistas and all the UV rays you could wish for.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Twin Dragon Restaurant


If we wanted Chinese food, there was only one place we would go when we lived in Los Angeles: Twin Dragon, at 8597 West Pico Boulevard. When we went there, business seemed to be all right, but I suspect that they have gained more of a following since. A quick search turned up a Hollywood celebrity sighting at the restaurant, plus a link to the Twin Dragon Web site. (I am gratified to know they are still there, at the same location where they've been for close to fifty years.) If food quality has stayed the same, then they deserve recognition. I don't know how we discovered it in the early to mid-1980s, but it probably had something to do with the fact that my ballet studio was nearby. We were regulars, my parents and I, stopping by for an early dinner as frequently as once a week, and occasionally bringing guests with us as well. We got to know the owners and all of the wait staff, in particular a waiter who called himself Wilson—his name was incongruous with his nationality and surroundings, but of course the United States has a history of hostility toward "overly" foreign names (the list of fouled up birth certificates and other documentation on my mother's Greek side of the family is legendary), and I think Wilson was the type of (maybe lonely?) person to do most anything to endear himself to his American neighbors, hoping to convert them to friends. He succeeded with us quite easily, he was so sweet, and I also remember that when I went away to boarding school, Wilson sent me a thick cut-glass lamp (that eventually broke; I was miserable about that for a long time). We always ordered the same things for the most part: won ton or hot-and-sour soup; sweet and sour shrimp; Kung Pao chicken, which came with a side of anecdotes (of dubious origin) about General Kung Pao, supplied by my mother; and then there was maybe something with broccoli or cashews; finally, fried rice. We were usually given a choice red-leather, semicircular booth back near the kitchen, and we were well attended to overall. Eventually, we were so well received, that we were almost always gifted with some "very special on the house" dessert, in addition to the fortune and almond cookies. Sometimes the dessert took the form of cubes of pineapple that we ate with toothpicks. Once we were the beneficiaries of a giant platter of lychee nuts. These days, it wouldn't bother me; I have grown to like the rose-water flavor of lychees. At the time, however, I didn't like the smell or the texture. My father was not a particular fan, either. But when someone brings you a sincere "very special on the house" gift, you do not look it in the mouth, rather you open yours, bite, chew, and swallow. If you don't really like it, you figure out how few you can eat in order to make a good show of it and not cause offense. Except that I should clarify: you do not do this if you are my mother. Still the cause of a teasing family outrage to this day, my mother flatly refused to eat any of them. We tried to convince her to join us, but it was no use. To make matters worse, in the midst of forcing them down: "You know why I don't like them?" "Why?" I took the bait. "They've always reminded me of eyeballs." No, she wouldn't eat a single one. There are other stories—you can't frequent a restaurant as often as we did the Twin Dragon without having a supply of stories—but more than any one dish or any single event, what I remember was that it was a family tradition I looked forward to, and that the Twin Dragon owners and staff made us feel like we were also part of their family. It's nice to know that, no matter what changes have occurred in our old stomping grounds of West L.A., this slice of culinary nostalgia still remains.