Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Touch Club


Another experience to come out of my father's L.A. years with Playboy was involvement with a private, membership-based Beverly Hills supper club called Touch. The connections are fuzzy in my mind. I always want to say that the club was backed financially by Playboy Enterprises, but I'm not sure this is accurate. It may have just been that one of the club's owners belonged to Hefner's entourage—being one of the many who made it their business to stop by the Playboy mansion on a regular basis. Or perhaps he (I forget his name, despite having heard it regularly at one point in my life) was a salaried employee of the company, linked somehow to club/casino operations? However it came into being, the Touch Club opened in the early 1980s (perhaps it was the year 1980; it was eventually sold in 1986), and we dined there sometimes, my parents and I; this was always a special occasion I got to dress up for. I don't remember the menu, but based on the intended clientele, I'm willing to bet it was fairly sophisticated, and I know I had my favorite dishes. I remember thinking the food was very good—then again, I was hardly a qualified restaurant critic at the time. We ate in semi-circular booths, which, I seem to recall, were upholstered in a slate gray shade of rich suede; the color scheme of the club was black, gray, and perhaps maroon. I could be way off on the maroon, but gray and black were prevalent. The most stunning feature of the club's interior was an incredible work of art: upon entering the club, you'd see a phenomenal wall of etched glass, floor to ceiling and dozens of feet long, forming a transparent corridor through which guests might follow a hostess to their table, if they weren't passing the opposite direction to the dimly lit bar. The etched figures of women on the glass were Erté-like in their style, very tall and slender, very glamorous. I hate to think of what happened to those glass panels when the club was finally dismantled. I remember two visits to Touch above all the others. The date of one of these visits is completely unknown; the other I can extrapolate from the occasion, but somehow the chronology is at odds in my mind with other details of my family's history. I seem to recall that my father's fiftieth birthday party was held privately at the club. I remember us all standing around on what was otherwise the dance floor, eating and drinking; I remember some guests (especially one family friend in particular, M.), and a rich chocolate cake with candles. The confusion comes because if this memory is factual, then that would have been in January 1985, and I would have sworn that my parents had left Los Angeles by then, moving back East to split their time between New York and Miami (my father commuting back and forth for Pan Am). I had already been in boarding school for a year and a half, and I would have been transitioning from one arts school to another. Christmas 1984 was spent in New York City, I am certain. Clearly I've lost track of the date of my parents' final move from California, and I can make no sense of how I could have been both at Touch for a party and settling into a new school in Michigan at the same time. But there was my father's fiftieth (or whatever paternal event I'm confusing this with), and then the one other visit to Touch I remember, the one with no hope of linking a date to it other than to say it was years earlier than the party: my mom and I spent a Saturday afternoon in the Touch Club kitchen, where the chef, Noel Cunningham, gave us a private cooking class—a hands-on tutorial in pastry art. This was, I'm pretty sure, my first visit to a commercial kitchen. Since then, I've walked through many others, even worked in a couple. But this was special. Chef Cunningham took my mom and I through the steps of baking a professional and rather elaborate (for us) cake. It was a rum-laced cream layer cake, with ground nuts pressed around the outside of the cake and the top decorated with pink marzipan roses. It was the first time I tasted the kick of rum in pastry cream, and I loved it instantly. I'd never like plain whipped cream again. The almond-paste roses were more amazing to me than those found in nature: we molded and sculpted them petal by petal, and I remember feeling so proud of learning to make them. Chef Cunningham couldn't have been nicer to us, though I wonder whether perhaps we weren't in his way, two VIP family females, no doubt foisted upon him. He probably had better things to do, but if he thought this he was much too much the gentleman to let us know. I think instead that perhaps he genuinely did enjoy that time together. Mom and I took the cake home on a blue and white round porcelain platter that we were told to keep, and which later made many moves with us, was used often and fondly, but finally broke beyond practical repair some years ago. Chef Noel Cunningham later went to Denver, Colorado, where he opened the restaurant Strings, which is still in operation. (The link to Cunningham's profile on the Strings site is here. He is pictured with his wife, Tammy, and together they also run the Cunningham Foundation, which since 2003 has had the mission of "helping the courageous people of the impoverished areas of Ethiopia to help themselves." The foundation is www.cunninghamfoundation.org.) I also remember another chef in the Touch kitchen that day (the sous chef, perhaps), whose name was Graham; he had an Anglo accent of some sort, had close-cropped carrot-colored hair, and we heard that he ended up in Hawaii (also that he died young). The club's doors were shut for good more than twenty years ago, it seems. I'm glad that, in contrast, the door to my memory of the place and the people, the enjoyable moments spent within the club walls, is still open. Maybe I'll contact the Cunninghams and let them know I'm thinking of them, too.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Different Dances


Then there are the books that shock you. Really shock you. There's a book like this for me, a book by Shel Silverstein. It wouldn't shock me as an adult, and especially not now that I myself am a writer: I understand the desire to make sometimes drastic departures from your best-known material. (Plus, sometimes your best-known material doesn't even represent your best self, though I'm not saying one way or the other with respect to Silverstein.) We all have many facets to our personalities, many wells to draw from in our quest for creative expression. Today, I'm sure I'd love this large-format, coffee table book of drawings—or if not love it, then at least really appreciate it—and I hope my parents still have it in their personal library. I'm guessing that they do. But when I saw this book for the first time, I wasn't an adult. I was around ten or eleven years old, and the book in question, despite Silverstein's huge contributions to the world of children's literature, is decidedly not for kids. It's titled Different Dances, and the "dances" are certainly that: different from anything you'd expect if all you'd ever read was Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Missing Piece. The moment that I saw, and then leafed through, Different Dances is a moment that's definitely seared in memory. The book was originally published the year that we moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, 1979. (It was reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 2004.) We made the move due to my father's promotion within the management circles of Playboy Enterprises, and it turns out that Silverstein had a history of contributions to Playboy, though I didn't know it at the time. On the face of it, knowing each man's most recognized legacy, it seems a very odd pair: Shel Silverstein and Hugh Hefner. The only way most people would ever think to link them would be if they happened to know that both were originally from Chicago. My first experiences with Silverstein (and with Playboy, for that matter) were in the Windy City. I remember that in the first grade, the two "big sisters" and one "big brother" for my class (the school program paired high school seniors with the little kids) read Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back to us, and I loved it. Not long after, Where the Sidewalk Ends became one of my all-time favorite books. (It still is; when I read "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" to my son, we both crack up.) Because Silverstein was a contributor to Playboy, my father had the occasion to meet him; in fact, he'd taken my copy of WTSE in to the office to see if he could get him to sign it for me, which eventually he did. (He kept the book for a long time, then felt guilty about not having returned it promptly. To compensate, his signature is actually a poem he wrote about how hard it is to find rhymes for the name Allison!) And perhaps because of Playboy, my dad ended up bringing home Different Dances. Or maybe he just purchased it independently of the work connection. Anyway, it was in our family room at one point, and I remember thinking, Oh, Shel Silverstein, great! Don't get me wrong, the book is great, I'm sure, but as I've pointed out, it's great for adults. Different Dances is a book that tackles adult relationships, adult lust, and, in some drawings, a very grown-up despair. It's a wordless commentary on social taboos and on self-destructive patterns of behavior; it also sheds light on some of the misguided ways in which adults attempt to combat feelings of isolation by essentially abusing others. Some drawings I remember come from a pretty dark place, and many are startling in their depiction of human anatomy. You might think that for someone who was used to seeing copies of Playboy around the house (though mostly at that age I was just interested in finding the hidden bunny logo on each new cover), seeing sexually explicit drawings wouldn't be any big deal. I suppose it was a bigger deal than usual, though (I'd say an ordeal, really), because while I just took the magazine at face value, the mixup of graphic sexual content with an innocent childhood image of Silverstein took me by complete surprise and was more disturbing for its unexpectedness. It was definitely a loss of innocence moment, flipping the pages and seeing a series of pictures in which a man uses his exaggerated penis as a kind of lasso/harpoon against a doughy looking woman. This was drawn by the same hand that penned The Giving Tree? It makes sense now—the way the man, who used to be the boy, lays waste to the selfless tree to serve his own needs; a good example of deplorable adult behavior, a kind of rape of nature—but at the time, it seemed impossible and unspeakably wrong. This was the advocate for childhood dreams and imagination ("If you are a dreamer, come in.")? I remember staring at that one particular series of drawings for a long time, then slamming shut the book's cover and wishing desperately that I had not discovered the contents. I was actually pretty angry about it. Even so, every so often, I'd tiptoe up to the book, open it, take in a little more. It seems funny now, that I wouldn't have thought anything of opening up one of the Playboy magazines in front of my parents, but I only ever approached Different Dances in secret, when they were out of the house. Now of course I forgive Silverstein his adult material, applaud him for it (and wish he were still alive and practicing his craft to surprise me in yet other ways). At the time, though, upon seeing Different Dances, all my ten-year-old self wanted to do was to take a ride in a flying shoe: "Hooray!" "What fun!" "It's time we flew!" said Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cleary and Blume


Although I am an only child, I paraded through childhood with a group of kids who felt very much like family—they even lived in my house. They were fictional characters, but no less real to me. Actually, while I was growing up, they often seemed more real to me than real people did. That is, they were much more honest. They didn't try to stuff you with platitudes or false optimism when things weren't going well, but they gave it to you straight . . . including giving you the knowledge that you'd make it through whatever it was, intact. These characters most often were the brainchildren of one or the other of two classic children's book authors: Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. (In fact, they're so classic that I almost worry it's cliché to remember them here.) While living in Chicago, I started out with Beverly Cleary and her neighborhood of kids on Klikitat Street. Ramona may have been a "pest" to her sister Beezus—and as a parent, I tend to agree more these days with assessments of Ramona that include adjectives like "annoying" or "exasperating"—but she was also a triumph of daring. She was imaginative and could be counted on for some great moments or escapades. Who couldn't relate to the urge to pull a "boing-boing" curl on a girl's head and watch it snap back? Who didn't want to invent new joyful noises? (I must've wandered around saying "yeep!" for a while after reading Ramona and Her Father.) I, too, thought that Chevrolet was a perfectly good, if somewhat odd, name for a doll, and to be completely honest, I envied Ramona her "great big noisy fusses." I didn't generally have the temperament for those, and they'd have been greatly unappreciated by my parents, but they seemed like fun. I don't recall reading the "Henry Huggins" series of books by Cleary—those are the ones I now read to my son, who loves them—but I did go through the whole catalog of Ramona titles. I remember being pleased that, like Ramona and Beezus, I, too, had an "Aunt Beatrice," my Aunt Bea. But eventually, I made a shift from Cleary to Judy Blume. First came Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, then the "Fudge" books. If I cracked the spine of one now, that whole invented world would come back to me. It'll happen eventually, because I know I'll introduce my son to these titles before long. The only thing I remember, unaided by a trip to the local library or any kind of Web search, is the ultimate mealtime showdown between one of the brothers of this story cycle and the father: "Eat it or wear it . . ." was the final threat, and sure enough the food in question (a bowl of cereal, I'm pretty sure) was reversed overhead, by the child himself. That one got a lot of play in my family—never seriously, but I found it so funny that I think for a time it became a mock threat followed by sure laughter. Getting older, the books became more serious, and they always provoked long talks with my mother. What could you do about the kind of merciless teasing that went on in Blubber? How great would it be to really star, like Sally J. Freedman, as yourself? Then, the physical development books: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won't. One for the girls, one for the boys, though I read both with equal interest. My mother had already given me "the talk" by the time I read Margaret, I'm sure—she was always good about providing timely, accurate facts of life and womanhood, and in an open way that was never perfunctory or frightening. But reading the book was different than talking to a parent; it was somehow even more personal, because the reading was done in private. I'm sure thousands, maybe millions of girls have been ushered into puberty thanks to the genius and generosity of Blume's books. Probably a significant number of girls got their only frank guidance from her titles. I had my mom, plus my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Strauss at Chicago's Parker School in 1978-79, who sent the boys out for an extra recess period one day to talk to the girls alone. Kind, approachable, willing to answer any question. But lots of girls never have this advantage in their home or school, I know. Some girls only ever have their own versions of Mr. McMurphy, who was my sixth grade teacher in Los Angeles, and who actually banned Judy Blume from his classroom. My mom and I can still work up a fine indignation over this. He may have done it because a couple of girls were hiding Forever behind their textbooks, giggling over the "dirty" passages during class. It's true, of course, that in class we all owed him at least the respect of following the lesson plans. Still, banning Judy Blume seemed to have more to it than just anger in the moment of a couple of girls not paying attention. Mr. McMurphy had other issues, which are beside the point. (Actually, the whole public magnet school had issues surrounding reading that are beyond the scope of this post, but trust me: it wasn't a place that encouraged freedom of selection or even self esteem in reading.) Forever. This title really caused a flap when it was published in 1975, and the controversy is well known. Forever is now marketed as a "young adult" novel, but that category didn't exist when I was growing up. It's about a teenage girl's first sexual experience, in her senior year of high school. I read the book in the sixth grade, in 1980 or else the spring of 1981, the year that Mr. McMurphy banned it. The sexual content didn't make me uncomfortable, but it didn't seem like anything I wanted to try, either. It just made me and my best friend laugh. A lot. Particularly one sentence, which I can still quote, even having not laid eyes on the book since that time, nearly thirty years ago: "And he moved with her." God, we thought it was hilarious. And thinking back on it, I realize something about that sentence: reading it may have been the first time I noticed how a writer could create ways of communicating something clearly, without saying it directly; the skillful employment of a sexual euphemism was not just funny to me at the time, but also pretty interesting. That the boy "moved with her" wasn't just a literal description, and it wasn't a metaphor—the author wasn't comparing sex to something else in order to convey what it was like—Blume was writing about the physicality of penetration, but in a way that was more acceptable than if she'd described specific body parts right then (we knew what part "he" stood for). So we'd read passages out loud during lunch (where Mr. McMurphy's authority ended). We'd break into gales of laughter, not having any idea what the sex scenes would be like in real life, but we trusted Blume, her euphemisms and her more physical descriptions. We put the book away, stopped thinking about it. For years. But I think it was good that we'd read it—and that we'd read it way before we were ready to contemplate sexual activity in our own lives (I don't want to think of what sixth graders do today). As these skilled "children's" authors knew, filling a need in literature in the 1970s and beyond, girls benefit from knowing that they don't always have to love their sisters; that there is no shame in a body's development; and also that not every story of first (sexual) love is a morality tale of doom and punishment. Cleary and Blume opened up subjects of conversation that I'll always be thankful for: surviving teasing, getting a period, whether it's okay (or not) to be physically intimate when you love someone. And I'll always be hundreds of times more thankful to my mom, both for providing access to these books and also for never flinching or brushing away any question that the books provoked me to ask.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wrentham, Mass.


In the summer of 1999, while I was still in grad school pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing, my father and I planned a brief getaway—a bit of time for the two of us to change the scenery, to reconnect, to share simple meals, and to write and read and talk together. My father selected the destination out of a guidebook to monastery guest houses: we were to stay at Mount Saint Mary's Abbey, a community of Trappestine nuns in Wrentham, Mass. Mount Saint Mary's, it turns out, was the first monastery of Cistercian nuns in the United States. The first sisters had arrived from St. Mary's Abbey in Glencairn, Ireland, back in 1949, so our stay coincided with the Golden Jubilee anniversary year of foundation. We arrived, checked in, and were then shown to our rooms in the retreat house by the "guest sister." I remember two interesting things about the guest sister, though I don't remember how I learned them. Did she just volunteer this information? It would be unlike me to pry into a nun's background; maybe I simply asked how long she had been at the abbey (or maybe it was my father who asked). Regardless, I remember first that she tended bees and that she said she was not affected by their stings; they were used to each other, she and the bees. Second, I remember her saying that she'd only seen her reflection in a mirror one time, recently, since coming to the abbey decades before. I think she said it was while making up one of the guest rooms. She said that it was quite a shock, because she hadn't realized she'd aged so much physically; all those years, and she'd only had the mental image of herself in teenage years to draw on, that being the last time she lived in the outside world. This fact of her life took me completely by surprise. It belongs in a list of details you'd never imagine about the life of a nun—you just wouldn't think of it, having seen your own reflection in the mirror once a day, minimum, nearly every day of your life. At least I suddenly realized that this was the case for me. And just as suddenly I wondered if my looking, even when incidental, made me vain. I don't think anyone who knows me would call me so, but still, compared to a woman who had no idea what she looked like at all . . . Hard as I tried, I couldn't imagine seeing decades of aging all at once, a complete transformation from adolescent to middle-aged woman in the single flash of a mirrored medicine cabinet. My dad and I settled into our rooms. We were put on separate floors, for propriety's sake—perhaps because there was another female guest on the floor where my room was. Or did the two of us start out on the same floor, and then my father moved later, for the reason stated? Anyway, we settled in. For meals, I think we subsisted on a sack of groceries we had purchased and stored in the guest house's kitchen. Eggs for breakfast, yogurt, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner. I do remember the fresh bread that was always there on the counter, though: Give us each day our daily bread, baked and offered by the sisters. It was a hearty, grainy bread that was delicious. We toasted it in the mornings and spread thick Trappist Preserves (made by the monks at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass.) on top. We'd meet up for meals, talk, dip back into silence. We kept each other company on the sun porch, each absorbed in an activity, alone together in our thoughts. We went across the road sometimes to the church (I still confuse the services: Lauds is morning, vespers is evening, but in between I forget), and the singing voices—only for one reason, only to give praise—were beautiful, harmonized perfectly together. I have not often heard such a complete blending of individual voices (nearly fifty of them) into the sound of one unified voice. Not every moment of the stay in Wrentham was peaceful, however. I do have one unpleasant memory, from the afternoon I decided to take a walk alone to clear my head. I was following a bend in the road, and as I approached the turn (I don't know how far from the guest house, but far enough to be out of sight, out of reach of any helping hand), a dog began barking. I heard it first, then saw it. Black, medium-sized, running fast down the driveway in front of a (yellow?) house. What it lacked in height or girth it made up for in ferocity. This dog was clearly protecting the property. I was a reasonable distance away, walking in the middle of the road, and I thought the dog would surely stop at the boundary of driveway and street. No such luck. The dog advanced, slowing to a growling, barking halt about four feet away from me. I stood stock still, looked toward the house and hoped to see the dog's owner, but for the moment there was no one. I have to say, I was never so convinced in all my life that I was about to get mauled by a dog. I thought about running, but also realized that if I made sudden or quick movements, probably the animal would pursue me harder. I thought about my next-door neighbor in Chicago, Jenny S., who'd had a scar on her face from a dog bite. I thought suddenly about a time in my father's life, before I was born, when he was a man of the cloth (an ordained Presbyterian minister), and had a church in Tennessee, in the years of the Civil Rights movement. I thought about his stories of protests, the news reports and press photos I'd seen of angry police dogs attacking black demonstrators. I experienced a small sliver of the fear they must've had when they could see a dog coming at them. I was sure that the day would end with me in the hospital, getting stitches and rabies shots. I backed away as slowly as I've ever moved in my life, all the while facing the dog. No way was I going to turn my back. The dog kept up its deep growl, its chilling bark, but it didn't move any closer. Finally, it turned and went back to its driveway. I tell you, that day I believed in divine protection. I spent the rest of the retreat within the borders of the abbey's property. Happily, it was a very peaceful place to be. I was sorry when we had to leave—the time seemed short, and we had spent it so companionably, I wanted it to continue. As a consolation, when we gave our donation to cover the cost of our stay, we also purchased a couple of boxes of handmade Trappestine candy: the sisters make a wicked Butter Nut Munch, plus many more varieties of candy, including a maple candy called penuche. The abbey is currently in need of capital to be able to continue their candy-making industry, which goes toward self-sustainment (contemplation and work being equal partners in the Rule of Saint Benedict). In November of last year, the Boston Globe ran an article on the sisters and their need; you can read the article here. If you'd like to support the abbey through the purchase of some delectable confections (at a good value), you can shop for Trappestine candy here. I will always remember my stay at Mount Saint Mary's Abbey—in retrospect, even the horrid dog—with a profound sense of gratitude. The sisters' openness to visitors of any (or no) faith, their generosity, and their transcendent singing have stayed with me now for ten years. I hope they are blessed in their days, and that the abbey continues to thrive. And to my father, I have to say thank you—for making a retreat choice that I most likely would not have made, but that was wholly restorative, food for the soul, and a cherished memory.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Nan-Do's Chocolate Cake


In my experience, it's generally true that people living in city apartment buildings don't really get to know their neighbors. Of course there are exceptions to this, but more often than not, the neighbors-turned-friends are people who, I think, must live in other areas. I think of small town blocks lined with shade trees and kids who run from house to house, "Our Gang" style. But sometimes it happens that a building's inhabitants are drawn together; they rely on each other for the occasional ingredient that's no longer in the kitchen or for childcare in a pinch or even for genuine friendship. Most places I've lived, I couldn't tell you the names of the neighbors—it's not that I don't remember them, rather that I never knew them in the first place—but in the last apartment we had as a family in Chicago, I remember there was the S. family across the hall. I remember the mother, Dolores, and the daughter, Jenny. I don't remember the father (was this because the parents were divorced?). If there were siblings, I don't remember them, either. But Jenny and her mom were in our lives a fair amount. Jenny was a couple years older than I was. She had straight brown hair like mine, and it was styled in something resembling a bowl cut. I remember her in navy blue corduroy slacks. I know she dressed in a tomboy fashion, but why do I remember those slacks? Maybe they were a school uniform. She didn't go to my school; I don't know where she went, but they must've had a dress code at least, since I can't imagine that girl without the blue cords and a white shirt. She also had a scar on her face. It wasn't huge, nothing frightening or ugly, but it was noticeable. It was caused by a dog; Jenny S. had been bitten by a German Shepherd, I think. (But wait, did they themselves own a Shepherd as a pet? Maybe I'm mixing things up, but anyway I know she did receive a bad dog bite somehow, and therefore the scar on her face.) After knowing this, I was always extra careful to stay away from stranger's dogs, and to give any large dog its berth. Jenny used to come over quite a bit to play. I don't remember what we did together, but I remember she was fun to be with. The other reason I remember the S. family is because the mom, Dolores, was the one who gave us the recipe that reigned in our kitchen for many years as the ultimate comfort cake, the kind of dessert you'd make for no reason other than a craving for something rich and chocolatey. It was a thick-square-slice-after-school kind of cake, always served with a tall glass of milk to wash it down. The recipe was originally called Nan's Chocolate Cake. But since it came to us not from Nan herself, but through Dolores (who also went by Do, pronounced "Doe"), we called it Nan-Do's. The cake was made with standard squares of Baker's chocolate and was baked in a square or rectangular pan. The cake had a large, airy crumb to it. It had a chocolate frosting to top it off, and my memory of the frosting makes me guess that I wouldn't enjoy it anymore—way too dense and overly sweet—but at the time it was hands-down the best chocolate cake we'd tasted. My mom would make it on occasion, though as I said, it was an "everyday" cake, not ever used as a birthday cake. We'd make one and cut it into squares, and when we were done with one piece, we'd often eat another. I don't know if my mom still has the recipe. We took it with us when we moved to Los Angeles, and we made it quite a bit when we lived in the house in the canyon. After that, it wasn't made much anymore, and eventually not at all. By the time the family moved back East, Nan-Do's recipe had been replaced by something much more sophisticated: a dense chocolate cake with a consistency much more like a gooey brownie, boosted with a shot of brewed espresso in the batter, and with a kind of thin, cracked crust that formed on the top of the cake as it baked (created by the stiff egg whites that had been folded in). Never any frosting on that cake, only a dusting of powdered sugar sifted through a doily that was later removed to leave a lace pattern on the top. It was indeed a far cry from Nan-Do's simpler American classic. If given the choice today, assuming I could ever locate Nan-Do's recipe, I would still choose to make the more gourmet cake; it simply has a better, more intense chocolate taste, and it's a cake that is sweet without somehow tasting like a bucket of over-processed white sugar. And yet, a part of me longs for that comfort cake, longs for a square of Nan-Do's and that glass of milk to go with it. Or maybe it's just a longing for neighborly neighbors. Most likely, it's both.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chicago Childhood Easters


March 26 was Easter Sunday in 1978. I was nine years old. I have had many memorable Easter celebrations—among them, one in Ireland and one in Greece, both when I was an adult—and I'll certainly write about them in coming weeks, but the general spirit of a childhood Easter season will always belong to 1970s Chicago. Between the ages of five and ten, those years in which holidays are perhaps most magical, we lived in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was here that I still believed in the Easter Bunny (a tradition that seems odd to my French in-laws, since for them it's the "bells of Rome" that fly overhead dropping eggs down to expectant children; really, I guess that's no stranger than the idea of a rabbit "laying" eggs—we also go round about whether the Easter Bunny is the reason why "Americans don't eat rabbit," which of course we do but not as much as in France and, it's true, often not in childhood). And it was in Chicago, too, that I cottoned on to the fact that the benevolent holiday characters of childhood were fabrications: I surprised my parents one Holy Saturday as they were kneeling on the floor assembling a coveted red scooter in the living room, my spring-weather Easter gift that year. Of course it took me no time at all to make the devastating leap from "no Easter Bunny" to "no Santa Claus," but my parents handled it well. The holidays continued to keep their magic, for all the reasons that make holidays truly special: family celebrations, awe at the life cycle of birth and rebirth, and at religious stories of love and sacrifice. OK, yes, and the synthetic-grass-lined baskets, the stockings stuffed with treats—those continued, too, even if I'd figured out who was behind them. Easter in Chicago meant a few things: First, the morning discovery of said basket, a wicker one that usually contained a fluffy toy rabbit or plush yellow chick or duck, jelly beans, and a large chocolate rabbit (I was sorely disappointed the year the rabbit was white chocolate; at the time I only wanted solid milk chocolate, though now I much prefer the deepest extra-dark chocolate I can find, especially with spices in it). Also, it meant PAAS-colored hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator. We'd have a bite of breakfast (maybe one of the dyed eggs), and then get dressed and go to church, which for us meant Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue (I wrote about it, and Chicago Sundays in general, in this post). A word about getting dressed: Chicago Easters in the 1970s also meant another tradition, the fancy Easter frock. I think this tradition started after we moved to Chicago, and I'm not sure whether it continued once we left the Windy City for Los Angeles. I may have outgrown it by then. But in Chicago every spring, about a week before Easter, a package would arrive from Florida, where my paternal grandparents lived. In the box, I could be sure, was a new dress—the girliest, twirliest, pale pinkest, ruffle-and-laciest dress you'd care to imagine. The dresses had layers, were light and floaty, generally fell to the knee, and sometimes came with white anklet socks trimmed with a ribbon rose, a bow, or lace cuffs. My grandmother—perhaps due to a Southern belle, antebellum-Georgia family pedigree?—excelled in picking out the most perfect Easter dresses. As long as I still longed for sweet and pretty, for dresses that looked like spun sugar confections, she was my go-to relative. My one requirement was that if I spun in circles, the dress would have to flare out around me in a wide circle. It was the first thing I did once the dress was on: spin. The dresses always behaved exactly the way I wanted them to, and they always fit perfectly to my recollection. So, outfitted in a new Easter dress, groomed from my long brushed-out hair to the tips of my patent-leather Mary Janes, we'd go to church to celebrate. The services were always jubilant, the pews packed, everyone singing louder than usual, the standard Presbyterian Easter hymn, "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today . . . Alleluia!" After church, we'd have a special Easter lunch, generally at the Drake Hotel (I think that was a repeated occurrence, not just one year), and sometimes we'd go with friends. Once we went with an Australian family—the father was a diplomat of some sort; the daughter was my age and a good friend. My parents could certainly tell you the mortifying details of the scene caused at the hotel buffet that year (apparently, my friend threw quite a temper tantrum over some treat or other); I don't remember anything about the specifics and have only a vague recollection of any bad behavior, which I'm hoping does not mean that I contributed and am in denial. I am hoping that I was, despite my young age, able to keep some perspective and simply stay absorbed in the joy of the day, in the pleasure of a new dress and a lovely lunch. Regardless of my attitudes then, I know how much I appreciate it all now: the efforts of parents and grandparents to create a special day, to build anticipation and help me feel that the holiday was one worth celebrating (and, yes, for the instruction in why we celebrate Easter, for they were careful to help me see that it wasn't just about jelly beans or marshmallow Peeps or anything store-bought; the religion never got lost in the commercialism). And just in case my memory ever begins to fail me when it comes to childhood Easters, I do have a wonderful photograph my mother took: I am maybe six or seven, and we are in Lincoln Park on Easter Sunday, with a carpet of new green grass all around; I am wearing one of the fancy pink dresses, and I am twirling, hair flying out like the hem of the dress, which forms a perfect circle around me. It's a picture of springtime life and joy, a shot of pure childhood happiness, and an icon of life unburdened by grown-up concerns. To my family for creating these Easters, and to my mom for documenting them, I owe a debt of gratitude.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fran O'Briens Greek Restaurant


Sometimes a restaurant location is simply doomed. No matter the change in management or ownership, no matter the various menu concepts and decor overhauls, no matter how much promotion, nothing makes it in this spot. (There's also the converse: the gold-mine location that will make even the most unworthy kitchen profitable. I'm not sure which scenario is more pitiful.) There's a restaurant I remember from the early 1980s in Los Angeles, and since that time it seems to have disappeared leaving almost no trace, or anyway not in cyberland. Perhaps it was just one in a string of restaurants in just such a bad location. Wanting to verify the name, to see if I really could have remembered it correctly, I did a Google search, and I didn't come up with much: some steak houses around the country (not the right cuisine); a link that looked promising, but once clicked routed me to a very unexpected pornographic site that made me want to pour Purell over my keyboard; finally, one mention of the place, buried in a comment on a popular restaurant review site. The review was for a different restaurant that had apparently gone into the same spot, following another (and maybe numerous others) sandwiched in between. But one instance of the name was all I really needed, just to convince myself I hadn't invented the whole unlikely thing. Fran O'Brien's Greek Restaurant. Excuse me? Not that I think every Greek establishment needs to be called Uncle Nikos or Barba Yiani's something or other, but then why not create more of an allusion—not to the sea, since that's hackneyed at this point, but to some other element of landscape, tradition, or culture? Why have a couldn't-be-more-Irish name to promote Greek food? Granted, they included "Greek Restaurant" in the name, to thwart misconceptions, but still. Maybe this had something to do with why the restaurant didn't survive, though it must've been more than that. I don't know how my parents found the restaurant (passed it on Pico Boulevard, read about it in a guide somewhere, got a recommendation from a friend), but it became our favorite Greek restaurant in the city. Actually, there weren't many choices, but if you wanted a great saganaki or other Greek specialties, then it was the right choice. The food was always fresh, prepared well, very tasty—and we have always been hard customers to please, since my mother's Greek heritage means an intimate, home-cooked familiarity with authentic Hellenic cuisine. The service was always attentive without obsequiousness, and come to think of it . . . a high percentage of the wait staff was Spanish speaking (likely Mexican, given the Southern California setting, although I dislike making assumptions). Irish name, Greek food, Hispanic waitstaff. And this was before cultural fusion was on the mainstream radar (not that the food itself was fusion cuisine). As I said, Fran O'Brien's became our favorite Greek restaurant, and we went there often. We went together as a family of three, and my parents also chose this restaurant when we went out to dinner with friends. Aside from remembering the restaurant itself, in general, I also remember one colorful evening spent there, not long before I went away to an arts-intensive boarding school to pursue a dance career. We were five that night: me, my parents, and another couple—in fact, the couple I referenced in an earlier post about the Beverly Comstock Hotel (see Dumpster Dive 90210). It is true that whenever we went out with this couple, something happened; it was usually a dramatic something, although the night at Fran O'Brien's was tame. The guy was a comedy writer for television and had done a stint with Saturday Night Live I seem to recall, which to my thirteen-year-old self meant I was in the presence of greatness when he was around. He was funny, a prankster, and I liked to think of him as the much older brother I never had. His girlfriend also had a zany sense of humor, but while he was genuinely a freewheeling sort, her easygoing manner was more superficial, layered over a very tightly wound set of nerves and a deep sense of Baby Boom entitlement. This is beside the point. The dinner I remember at Fran O'Brien's was actually made more interesting by a woman sitting with her date at a two-top just across from our larger table. Her name, I will never forget, was Henrietta. I don't recall exactly how we got involved with her, or she with us. It may have been because we wanted to take a group picture, and she was asked or else volunteered to take it for us. The next thing we know, our friends (either Mr. SNL or his girlfriend) invite her to get in on the group, she jumps at the chance, and a waiter is flagged down to take the photo. Henrietta's date is left sitting by himself. When we said, Come on, bring him on over, too, what's his name? Henrietta's response was one for the books, going down in family memory as a one-liner that could always make us crack up. In a voice that was perhaps the most high-pitched, nasal, annoying one I'd ever heard, she said basically no, that was OK, he didn't have to join them, adding (and I quote verbatim here): "A couple more nights is all I want." Was it loud enough for him to hear? Or maybe at this point he wasn't actually sitting at the table and had excused himself to find the toilet, which is apparently where he was headed in his relationship anyway? I couldn't say, but I know my eyes must've widened, and my mom and I were giving soundless signals to each other and trying not to laugh at the outrageousness of her statement, given outright like that to a table full of strangers. For years I kept the resulting photo. It was the only one I had of our friends, who themselves were doomed for splitsville a few years later, and it was a picture that perfectly captured the evening at Fran O'Brien's: the exposed brick rising up to chair-rail height behind us, the (Aegean?) blue backdrop above; the six of us, including Henrietta, who leaned in tight at one side, her curtain of straight, chin-length brown hair swinging (much like she herself) out and away from her face with its squinty closed eyes; all of us smiling, broadly, knowing that it was one fleeting moment of light-hearted fun we wanted to capture on film and keep forever—despite the fact that nothing in the photo would last. Not even the walls around us.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Introduction Game


Besides singing or watching traffic on the 405—or the other auto entertainment in Los Angeles, spotting outrageous vanity plates (there were never so many in comparatively straitlaced Chicago)—when stuck in the car for long stretches of time, my mom and I also played something we called the Introduction Game. I'm not sure if we invented it ourselves. It was an alphabet-related memory game, a pretend scenario in which we took turns being the host of a party, responsible for introductions as each new guest arrived. I think I loved the game in part because as the fictional guests showed up, I actually imagined the party scene unfolding. I was at an age when I thought that the most grown-up thing I could do was host a dinner party, or a cocktail party (though I had much less idea what that was actually like). It seemed such a glamorous challenge, being responsible for everyone's comfort and good time. Sometimes I imagined a sophisticated gathering of interesting, witty people. Other times, the scene was wild and unpredictable, kind of like the Peter Sellers slapstick farce, The Party, a favorite of mine and my mother's, in which a perfectly made-up Sellers plays an East Indian man of excruciating shyness and manners, trying with disastrous (and hilarious) results to break into the movie business. The rules of our game were simple: we'd agree on one letter of the alphabet, and every guest had to have a set of two names, a plausible first name accompanied by an adjective (still the same letter of the alphabet) to describe the invented person. We'd then introduce them to each other. I know we varied the letters we used, but one letter we kept coming back to, over and over: the letter F. It yielded great results, never failing to keep us amused. A couple of the names we came up with stuck, becoming the way we'd always start: Flabby Fern, meet Freaky Frida; Freaky Frida, Flabby Fern. We'd go on from there, and the list would start to get impossibly long, our memories severely taxed as we had to repeat a full roster of wacky names: Flabby Fern, Freaky Frida, Far-out Freddy, Funky Frances, Farmer Filbert, Fickle Felicia, meet . . . Foosball Frank? Filibusting Filmore? Maybe Fastidious Fanny, though now that I think of it, I'm surprised we never paired Fanny with the adjective Flabby. On and on we'd go, until we could think of nothing else, and then we'd switch letters. I don't know why this was something we only did in the car, only in Los Angeles. Other times and places never seemed to lend themselves to this activity for some reason, despite it being a great way to pass the time and an almost guaranteed way to provoke some laughs. (No, it's not polite to laugh at one's guests, but there are exceptions to every rule.) We stopped playing the game, haven't played in dozens of years, but now if I still wanted to indulge my imagination, here's what I'd do: I'd erect a giant tent on a beach somewhere, light tiki torches, offer some grilled shrimp skewer appetizers—no, I'd rent out a contemporary art gallery, open bottles of crisp and slightly mineral white wine, pass platters of fussy gourmet canapes—whatever the setting, highbrow or low, I'd mentally prepare for the party to end all parties; I'd fling open my arms and call to every invented invitee of my childhood; to every flabby, freaky, funky, filibusting friend: let the fun begin!

Monday, March 23, 2009

American Top 40


Until I began to approach the middle school years, I didn't really listen to the radio. I listened to albums (yes, vinyl), on a turntable that was very juvenile in style but got the job done. Mostly I listened to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and to this day I can sing almost all the songs, even the more obscure ones, from their classic Broadway musicals. The radio was on in the car sometimes, but one of my parents set the dial or else I spun aimlessly through the stations, scanning for anything that sounded good despite not really knowing the songs. But, even in the car, the radio took second place to conversation or our own singing. All this changed sometime when I was around eleven, definitely by the time I turned twelve. In fact, I think it might've been some girls at a week-long (two-week?) sleepover camp for the horsey set who turned me on to the "coolness" of radio, the necessity for knowing the most recent hits. They, plus friends at school, were my introduction to pop and to rock. And to the essential of the early 80s: the weekly American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. I ended up with a kind of standard-issue Radio Shack clock-radio, and I started holing up in my room every weekend to listen to forty of the week's chart-topping tunes. From those days, I remember liking songs by The Cars, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield; then there were those highly emotive songs, that a couple years later made my girlfriends and I laugh and riff most vulgarly—songs like "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Islands in the Stream," that sort of thing. Secretly, though, we all dreamed of one thing: to be the recipient of some boy's romantic Long Distance Dedication. God, how we loved to listen to those! In L.A., the hot radio station was 102.7 KIIS FM. On my clock-radio, all I could get reliably were AM stations, so I listened to the "Mighty 690," in one of its many incarnations. This was, I am pretty sure, the station of Wolfman Jack, who was extremely popular at that time, but usually on later than I had radio privileges. Still, I knew who he was. But back to Kasem. He was known for flying off the handle on a couple of occasions (you could Google Kasem and U2 and probably come up with some interesting YouTube links), but I just remember his voice, which for me really was the "voice of 80s radio," the radio voice of my youth. I am not going to try to describe his voice—I really wouldn't know how, though I might be able to pull off an impersonation. But I do remember his standard sign-off on the Top 40 show, and when he said this, I always took him seriously. It sounds hokey to me now, despite the fact that I still agree with the sentiment, but back then, I loved it. I'd just listened to the number-one song in the nation, the realization of some musician's dream, and then Kasem would bid me and his entire audience good-bye for the week, advising us all: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." It was what radio was all about.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Discovering Divorce


Somewhere in the later years of elementary school, say the fifth or sixth grade, divorce became an important topic of conversation on the playground during recess and lunch. I had at least one friend whose parents either were divorcing or had already completed the process. Prior to this time, I'm sure the word "divorce" had come up—I mean, I knew what the word meant and knew that some portion of my classmates' families were "broken" (which was often the word that accompanied divorce back in the 1970s and early 1980s, despite being linguistically judgmental and rather inconsiderate of the families in question)—but it had nothing whatsoever to do with my family. I remember sitting outside with my friend, in some more secluded spot on the school grounds, not far from the "bungalows" that served as our classrooms. We sat on a cement ledge, I think, facing a couple of trees, and this I remember, too: we'd eat pomegranates and sunchokes, foods that most people in America did not have any acquaintance with in those days. (They were definitely "California" items; I was in Los Angeles at the time. While we could find these products in the grocery store quite easily, I'm not sure they'd yet been elevated to the status of Thomas Keller's haute cuisine, either. Now, the super-antioxidant pomegranates are ubiquitous, and you can expect to pay a premium for sunchoke velouté or some such at Per Se here in New York.) Anyway, we'd sit and bite into the deep red clusters of pomegranate seeds, juice staining our fingers and chins, and we'd talk about our parents' marriages as though we truly understood them, which at our age was pretty much impossible. It was one of these years, when I was ten or eleven years old, that I had a bit of a shock. I was with my mom, in the car (naturally enough, because in L.A. you are always in the car). She was driving the 1979 white-0n-white Volkswagon beetle convertible that day, not the station wagon (I'll confess: the wagon was a Mercedes; honestly, though, we couldn't have cared less about the stupid hood ornament), and I think we may even have had the top down, although this part would have been unusual, because my mom didn't like the convertible, or the manual transmission for that matter. We were on Sunset Boulevard, just beginning to cross over the 405 (that is, I-405, the San Diego Freeway), and I was looking out the passenger side window at the traffic and the round high-rise Holiday Inn (now the Hotel Angelino). My mom said something about my father and a woman named—I'll call her Jane Doe. "Who?" I asked, whereupon my mom repeated the name like it should've been familiar to me, as in: you know, Jane, your father's first wife. The memory of this moment is always oddly (or not so oddly, maybe) linked to those pomegranate seeds that my friend and I used to spit full force across the school yard once we'd stripped them of their ruby flesh. I remember that I felt like spitting; I was seeing red, messy like the juice of that mythic fruit with its own violent legend attached to it. I had no idea what she was talking about and said so. My mom was surprised in turn: she insisted that she (or she and my father together) had told me about this first wife, back when we were living in Chicago. Now, I have what is generally considered a very good memory, but it's a trait I likely inherited from my mother—so, which of us is right in our assertion? No matter how many years have passed since then (and that's about thirty years), we have not been able to resolve our dispute: I am still sure that there, over the freeway, was the first time I heard anything about it; she is still sure that I'd been informed a year or more before. I admit, of course, that the key to it all may be in the word "heard"—often, things are told to us and we simply do not hear them, either because we are not paying attention at the time, or because some part of the psyche does not want us to hear. It's still strange: I have never completely lost an event before. I've forgotten things, yes, but then if someone tells me about it, I remember. The fact my father had been married before, though? Zip, zero, not a single spark of recognition. I asked all the questions you would expect: How long were they married? Why did they get divorced? Did they have kids? (I couldn't imagine my father would have other kids that he never had any contact with and that I didn't know about, but then, I hadn't known about the wife either, so suddenly everything seemed possible. The answer was a relief: there were no half-siblings.) I'm sure all this sounds melodramatic on my part, after all, what difference should it have made to me? I was not a child of divorce, even if my father had been through a failed marriage. I was not the one from a home that was "broken," did not have to experience the hardships my friend no doubt suffered as things like visitation were resolved through lawyers and holidays became fraught with negotiations. But at the age of ten (or eleven), this "new" information dragged doubts along with it, and the effect was unsettling: if my father was a person who could have divorced once, what was to say it couldn't happen again? And right then, in the admittedly warped reasoning of a child, my whole family foundation seemed shattered—though really, in retrospect, it was just the infantile illusion that one's parents have no history before their romance with each other. Now it's no big deal, not disturbing in the slightest. On the contrary, it's reassuring to know that my father, like anyone else, is a person in evolution; a person with a past, with mistakes made and lessons learned. So is my mom (who, as it turns out, was also married once before, very briefly and to no effect). Maybe I only say this because, all these years later, my parents are still together, and because they seem happy. In the long run, that's the only thing that counts. Not my ideas about families whole or broken; not any anxieties I myself may experience as I navigate the challenges of married life; not even the fears of a ten-year-old girl being driven over the 405 in Los Angeles, wanting to do the impossible and turn back time to a moment that felt more pristine, the moment before any fruit is bitten or any unwanted knowledge received.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dumpster Dive 90210


OK, the zip code was different—90024—but it was as close to Beverly Hills as I'll ever live. I was in the eighth grade, and we were still in L.A., moving from a house in Brentwood to a condominium in Westwood, right near the Mormon Temple (on Eastborne Avenue, off Santa Monica Boulevard). But the condominium was being renovated, and as with just about any renovation, the job was behind schedule. The house closed, our things went into storage somewhere, and we shacked up at an all-suite hotel for what turned out to be some number of months. Of course this was not your average "shack." To me, at the time, it was just a transient hotel—nothing remarkable other than a heated pool and a friendly staff who let me have the run of the place. But in fact, it was the Beverly Comstock Hotel at 10300 Wilshire Boulevard at Comstock, situated between Westwood Village and Century City. (It is now under new ownership, has been made significantly more posh, and is called the Beverly Hills Plaza). I had no sense of its luxury, its worth on a "star map." I had no concept of the cost of things, their relative value. Which is why I was less than careful with the mail one day, and ended up mistakenly trashing some stock certificates. I don't know who discovered the error—my mom, I think)—or how it was discovered so immediately; I have no idea how anyone knew for sure that the stock certificates were in that day's mail to be lost. I felt bad, because I knew that it was my fault that they were gone. Due to my age, however, as already pointed out, I really couldn't grasp why this was a crisis. I knew of course that there was such a thing as the stock market. But other than that, the numbers associated with the financial pages of the newspaper were a complete mystery to me. Nonetheless, it suddenly became very clear to me that we had to find the misplaced mail, pronto. I went through the usual process, backtracking through the past couple of hours to figure out where I'd been, where I could have left the envelopes, and so forth. I finally decided that I'd left them in the small hotel-bar area, which was immediately to the right of the reception desk. (The bar? What the hell was I doing in there? It's another long, crazy L.A. story, involving a Peter-Pan type guy and his lunatic lady who became family friends and also had a knack for making us "persona non grata" at local restaurants.) My mom, dad, and I traipsed downstairs to find out whether the mail was there. Now, with the name and address of a resident on the envelopes, you'd think that the mail would have been noticed, given to the front desk, or delivered up to our room. You wouldn't think that obviously unopened mail would get thrown into the trash, but that's what happened. And (now that I think about it, maybe we were looking for this a day later?) where did all the trash end up? Why, in the giant hotel dumpster in a corner of the parking garage, of course. Here I will permit myself to compliment my family in general: we are the kinds of people known for just rolling up our sleeves and getting done what needs to be done. It was in this spirit that my mistake led to a family adventure in garbage. We did precisely that, rolled up sleeves; climbed on into the dumpster. I knew better than to laugh, but it's true that even at the time, it seemed comical to me. It is hard to forget such a moment of exasperated family bonding, picking through trash bags, cursing and praying to find what we'd come for. In the Beverly Comstock, no less! I will say this: the story has a happy Hollywood ending. We did find the stock certificates, and they were in perfectly acceptable condition. You can imagine that I was not left in charge of the mail again for some time, but with a bit of distance gained, my parents did eventually come around to my point of view regarding the humor in the situation. In a short time, we were all able to laugh about it—about the symbolism of our family wading through the garbage of La-La-Land, where we never quite felt we belonged, and about the complete and literal truth of the maxim that one person's trash is another's treasure.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dixie Montage


"Mama's little baby loves shortnin' shortnin', mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread." My father would slap his knee as he sang. If I ran into the kitchen to fetch a pair of soup spoons, he would put them back to back and clack them together, good as any member of a washboard band. He'd do "Swing Low," "Dry Bones," "Old Man River." George Jones, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Alan Jackson. When I talked to my grandparents on the phone, they called me "sugar"; they asked "when're  y'all fixin' to come down and visit?" When we visited, there was always a trip to Morrison's Cafeteria. Southern vegetables are cooked within an inch of their lives. Collards and pot likker; string beans, okra, and black-eyed peas. Butter your corncob using a slice of white bread. Cornbread dropped in a glass of buttermilk, dug out sopping with a spoon. For a while, our northern kitchen boasted a set of heavy, cast-iron pans for corn sticks; long fingers of cornbread, crisp golden-brown crust with a kernel pattern baked right into it. Red-eye gravy. Pork rinds, pork belly, pig's feet. Salt pork. Hickory smoked barbecue and the great barbecue debates: wet or dry rub? Memphis or Carolina? Pies: pecan, sweet potato, fresh peach. Strawberry pie with gelatin. Cool Whip. Apple pie with a slice of American cheese melted on top. Bacon-flecked Crisco crusts. Breakfast: biscuits and gravy, country ham, scrambled eggs, hominy grits. No trip was ever complete without a stop at the dilapidated roadside shack where the man in the white cotton Hanes sold fresh boiled peanuts, soft with their salty juice squirting out onto the newspapers we spread on the table or the floor, if we could get them in the house before gobbling them up. Regular, dry roasted peanuts were for pushing through the thin neck of a glass Coke bottle: salty-sweet fizz to drink down quick. Krystal's square burgers and a box of fries. There was more than food. There were dogwoods and honeysuckle; fruit trees, magnolias, and the mottled bark of the crepe myrtle. Slow talkers, slow walkers. Baptists and Methodists. Manners. Hospitality. Gun racks and Confederate flags, the shame of slavery and segregation. Not being Dixie-born myself, I have the luxury of pick-and-choose, own and disown. I never heard my father's accent, only sometimes when he'd travel south and then call home. Living on my own in Chicago, friends would ask "Where's your dad from?" if they heard his message on my answering machine. "Alabama," I'd say, reminding myself. I'm only half Yankee, after all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Atlanta 911


Almost exactly seven years ago, early April 2002. It was three months after my small civil marriage ceremony, performed in Connecticut by a justice of the peace; it was three months before the church wedding and reception planned for family and friends in southwest France. Married, yet somehow not, in a state of transition, I embarked with my father on a "heritage trip" by car, driving down into the Deep South. Georgia, Alabama: the roots of my father's childhood, the seat of a civil rights revolution in its infancy. I had really never explored this part of the country, not in any important way, and in no way with a feeling of connection. My grandparents, Southern to the core, had moved to a Florida retirement town before I was born, and visiting them never really seemed "Dixie" to me. This was a bonding trip, a time to pause and honor ancestry before the life of the future (my separate, legal family life) came to assert itself, forcefully, everywhere. We had planned it to perfection. After two days of driving to reach Atlanta, our first significant stopping place, plans went awry. We had gone out and had a lovely dinner with a woman who was a long-ago friend and mentor to my father, back when he was still just a scrawny high school kid. In our hotel later, we told each other good night and locked our rooms, one across the hall from the other. A persistent knocking on the door in the middle of the night woke me up; I opened it and saw immediately that something was horribly wrong. My father was leaning against the door frame in his pajamas, doubled over, pale and short of breath from pain. The thick fog of sleep was instantly replaced with confused panic: what was wrong? I helped my dad back to his room, sat with him on the side of his bed, and tried quickly to pinpoint what hurt him. He'd had a kidney stone decades before, but he said this seemed different. I called the hotel's front desk, and they called 911. Have you ever had to call an ambulance while out of town? I hope not. There's a layer of added fear: Where will you go? If there is more than one hospital, which is the best? How long will you have to stay, prolonging your hotel reservations and general sense of disorientation? At least at home, you would have your outer bearings if not your inner calm. An EMS team showed up, took charge of my father while I grabbed whatever essentials I could think of (wallets with insurance cards, room keys, cell phone...). We went out into the chilly night air, got in the ambulance. A lot of things get blurred together with a general sense of desperation, but this I remember well: I sat up front next to the driver; my father was moaning, strapped on the stretcher in back with the number two EMS guy. The driver and the second guy were having a debate about what hospital to go to—I guess we were equidistant from a couple emergency rooms. This wouldn't have been so bad if they had made a quicker decision, turned on the siren, and picked up the pace. However, even as they were clearly heading in one direction, they seemed to be in no hurry. Typical Southern; they were driving with a drawl. In fact, they were stopping for red lights. Red lights? An ambulance with an ER patient inside? Excuse me for the assumption, but I thought the whole point of an emergency vehicle equipped with a siren was to be able to run through those lights. I finally said something, asked them did they really have to stop, as another light was changing from amber to red. There wasn't even any other traffic at that time of night, so the stopping and waiting seemed all the more idiotic, if not outright dangerous: could these guys tell for certain that my father was not in a life-threatening state (and if they somehow knew this, why didn't they reassure me)? I will say this: the driver obliged, put on the siren, and sped up. Also, he chose the right hospital as it turned out. My father ended up under the fabulous care of the Head of Urology in the best ER in the city. He was in fact suffering from a whopper of a kidney stone—what everyone admits is the closest a man will ever come to knowing the pain of childbirth—a hard calcium deposit that was blasted into micro-particles by some non-invasive, high-frequency sound-wave machine. But it was a very long night, to say the least, and I can't say I was at all comfortable emotionally with the unexpected turning of tables that happens when a child becomes caretaker for a parent. I was seized with fear as I was forced to take the pen, to take the responsibility that went with it, and sign the admittance papers, the consent for care and all the rest. There on the cusp of so many things: my own marriage, motherhood that would come with the birth of my son almost exactly a year later (did I somehow sense how soon that would happen? was I somehow in training for the role of guardian?) . . . It was too much to also confront a parent made feeble in his own body, twisted by physical pain, when I was powerless to do anything other than admonish an EMS driver, ask a triage nurse for the umpteenth time how long it would be before they could administer pain medication. It was  a situation I knew I'd only have more of, in some indeterminate time frame (that was hopefully many years off). In a few months, I'd walk arm in arm with my father, symbolically down the narrow aisle of a church in a foreign land; I was a willing bride, but that night in Atlanta, I felt I was not yet ready to be "given away." Eventually, although we discussed canceling the rest of our trip and just going back home, we continued our journey into the Deep South, salvaging a good portion of our trip. It was not the trip we had hoped for, but it did fulfill some of its purpose. We became closer, certainly, through shared drama. But also there were pecan trees and crepe myrtle, grits and hush puppies. Today my father's fine, still healthy, still planning trips, and I am glad. Maybe we'll have another chance to see Atlanta, and not just the interior of an ambulance, an emergency room, a hospital cafeteria. Maybe we'll go when the fruit trees are in bloom, sit outside in the sun somewhere, smile, and let fresh sticky peach juice run down our chins.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Horses


Whinnying, stomping, snorting, sweet-sweating horses. Horses short or many "hands" tall, sleek or barrel-bellied, good natured or mean tempered, nervous or lazy; horses that would jump or rear, balk or bolt. I loved them all. I first used to ride at Bailey's Stables in Chicago, when I was somewhere between the ages of five and nine. This was in the mid- to late 1970s—a time that may also bring to mind for native Chicagoans the highly publicized disappearance and (it was later ruled) murder of the candy heiress, Helen Brach; Richard Bailey, stable owner and despicable con artist, was indicted in soliciting her murder and was ultimately sentenced in the mid-1990s to what amounted to a de facto life term in prison, given his age, for a complex scheme of fraud and a trail of sordid crimes that included murdering many horses as well. I shudder to think of what must have been going on behind the scenes of my weekly riding lessons. All I remember was the gentle giant of a horse I usually rode (whose name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can't place it), a chestnut colored horse with a white triangle marking its forehead. I remember, too, the single horse show I was in at Bailey's, where every child rider was awarded a ribbon, and mine was purple, a color I think was second-to-last out of twelve in the show, and that I hardly imagined existed. (I was very disappointed, I recall, and tried unsuccessfully to imagine that purple was the new blue.) My showmanship may not have been the best—I probably owe this to "conflicted feet"; I danced so much and had to point my toes all the time, but in stirrups good form and stability required flexed feet—nevertheless, I loved to be around horses, to care for them if I had the chance, and to ride them, especially if I could push past trotting and feel the rhythmic, muscular movement of a canter or gallop. When we left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles, I did much less riding, nothing regular at all. However, there was one week-long stint at a horse camp called Foxfield, in Westlake Village, CA. Some aspects of the camp were fabulous: I got to learn about grooming horses (the curry combs, brushes, hoof picks), about all the tack and how to handle it, got to take care of a horse that was "mine" for the duration. There were some not-so-great experiences, though: the moment my horse tripped while I was riding, went down, and nearly rolled on top of me (I'd never moved so fast, and I was thankful for good reflexes); the pressure to jump when I wasn't ready; the elitist attitudes of many of the other girls. (The horsey set is elite, by virtue of economics, but the sense of social self-importance was something I could never cope with very well.) I ended up requesting to leave the camp early, which I did; it wasn't the right environment for me, no fault of the horses themselves. Then there was the Western adventure: a family trip to an Arizona guest ranch, where I was one of just a small handful of kids. More on that trip in later posts, I'm sure, but for now, I remember the adjustments to Western style: jeans not jodhpurs (no pretense to dressage or fox-hunting here), "loping" not "cantering," one-handed reins, and that darned horn on the saddle (you are reminded quickly and painfully not to post when your horse trots!). One day, the kids had a "funkhana," a kind of gaming event on horseback, with relays around barrels—at last, the blue ribbon was mine! I won for speed, which interestingly enough was my forte (if I had one) in dance as well. And then I didn't ride for years. I outgrew my black velvet hardhat, the tall leather boots; the crop was stashed in the back of a closet, lest it become the source of raunchy teenage jokes. What got me back in the saddle, after high school, was my trip to Ireland, the trip mentioned in my post for Saint Patrick's Day. The first stop on my month-long solo journey was the Horse Holiday Farm (owned and operated by Tilman and Colette Anhold) near the village of Grange, Co. Sligo. In March, way off season, I got to have an experience that was less like that of a paying guest (which I was) and much more like that of a local stablehand. I cared for horses, exercised them, hung about the stables much of the day—an activity made more attractive by the attentions of the farm's blacksmith, S., a few years older than I, with whom I got on instantly. We'd get the work done then saddle up for a ride at the seaside: no trail or path or map to guide or restrict us, only the rolling landscape for reference and the sand dunes where we'd stop to rest. I will say there is something very special indeed about riding a wild an untamed coastline, feeling free of fences and signs, directions and protocol. Out in nature, on the back of a galloping horse, with nothing to slow me down—I'd race faster than S., laughing as I overtook him; when he was out of sight, I could forget he was there at all, and I could believe I was the only person in the world. But he was there to make sure I didn't get lost, anyway; was there to direct me back to civilization, to the single pub on a stretch of road leading north where we'd hitch the horses and tuck back some horrible combination of pints of stout, shots of whiskey: it took one of each for me, and although I didn't think I'd had enough to make a difference, the combination of alcohol and saddle-bouncing resulted in a highly comical and somewhat embarrassing slip off the side and onto the sand once we'd gone far enough to speed past a walk. Other than the spill at Foxfield, it was the only time I've ever fallen off a horse. We laughed about it, headed back to cool down the horses, muck their stables and bed them down for the day. Since that time, in 1988, I have been back on a horse exactly once: in Wyoming, with my husband when we'd gone there for a business event in his industry. It was a mild trail ride through a beautiful landscape, the mountains for a stunning backdrop, wildflowers everywhere. I had a stubborn horse, but one nonetheless coaxed to move when there was room for it. There was a single spot where we were allowed to break our single-file tourist ranks (mostly the trails were too narrow, the ground too rocky for this), and I pressed my horse to a canter, or, since this was out West, a lope. The open distance was too quickly covered, though, and it only left me wanting more. Now, who knows when I'll ever ride again. I'd like to make sure my son has the chance sometime; he may now be a good age for it. But if I go with him, it will be different indeed; I'll be more concerned about how he's getting along than about my own experience. Maybe, though, just once more, I'll somehow recapture that freedom I felt, following a horse's lead, galloping through the ebbing, flowing tides of water and the cold, humid air; chasing through that desolate landscape of the northwest coast of Ireland, and feeling the power of equine muscle to carry me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Erin go bragh


It's Saint Patrick's Day, and if a country could talk, today America would say, "Pinch me, I'm Irish," just as many of its citizens do entreat, whether the claim is legitimate or not. (Here I confess, I never did understand the pinching bit.) On March 17, you may as well just stick an honorary O' in front of your name, call in Irish to work, and set up a pint or two at your local pub. Sláinte! I am willing to bet that nowhere else in the world could you find a bigger deal made out of St. Paddy's Day, and I can tell you from firsthand experience (details to come) that it's a much greater event (by far) here in the States than it is in the "old country." I'm glad, actually, that this is so. It would seem a bit off-putting—not to mention totally out of an often self-deprecating character—for the Irish themselves, in Ireland, to parade so lavishly on their own behalf. Here, though, especially in my home cities of New York and Chicago (to say nothing of Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere), it's good that the Irish contribution to America's melting pot is recognized. The Irish literally built up these cities with their own hard-working hands; they have served them for generations with a strong showing in the police force, the fire department, and other essential industries. Skipping the criticisms I have of our country's celebration (and there are quite a few, believe me), I have the following American memories to share: First, no matter where you are, there's the "wearin' o' the green," the sea of green shirts, scarves, pants, skirts, tam-o'-shanters (wait, aren't those Scottish?), and various accessories. From early school-years, I donned the color every March 17; at one point, I had a tiny silver ring with a cloisonné green shamrock on the top, and I wore that as well. (I don't know what happened to that ring, too small for even the slimmest pinky finger on an adult's hand. I wore it on a chain for a while, but it's lost to me now.) Then, for years, each year I lived there in the 1990s, I watched the City of Chicago mark the holiday (on the weekend before), by turning the Chicago River a vivid shade of emerald green. This is done by the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers, who use a vegetable-based dye to intensify the already greenish color of the water—apparently, it's the same dye that plumbers use to detect waste leaks into the river, and the EPA says the dye is harmless to the river. Now I'm in New York, where the Big Apple boasts the largest parade going. There are the bagpipes, of course, the kilt-wearers and Irish dancers, the bands and clans and officials riding or marching up Fifth Avenue, following the bright green line painted in the middle of the road. There's Saint Patrick's Cathedral rising above it all, the Cardinal (Eagan, for his last year this year) watching farther up the Avenue with various bishops, certainly to remind us that there is religion in the day after all. And, since 9/11, there has been the moving tribute during the parade to commemorate the lives lost by the NYFD and other emergency responders on that day: 343 American flags, one for each sacrifice, breaking the tide of green with a fluttering red, white, and blue. But what about the Celts themselves? It may be natural for someone born and raised in this country to assume that if Saint Patrick's Day is such a phenomenon here, it must be a truly staggering event of grand scale on the Emerald Isle. Well, in March of 1988, I learned the contrary. I had taken a year off between high school and college—largely because I was sick of school—and the year was a tough one. By the time March rolled around, I couldn't wait for college, but I had to. I needed to get away from the daily grind of uneducated work and freeloading "friends" (who got me evicted from my first apartment). I planned a solo trip to Ireland for a month. There will certainly be other posts containing memories of Ireland, maybe some thoughts on the pre- and post-Celtic Tiger years. But here, today, there's really just one memory that counts: my experience of March 17, 1988. I was in Galway. I had just arrived there from an extended stay in Co. Sligo and had yet to make any local acquaintance. I figured, though, that there'd be no need to go looking; come Saint Patrick's Day, the whole city would turn out and I'd be swept up in a grand national to-do. It would be idiotic to ask about festivities, as they'd be loud and noisy and impossible to miss. This was not exactly the case. There was a parade, yes, which I did find eventually (I had a problem getting lost in the Galway streets, for some reason). It was small and somewhat pitiful. The weather was dismal: rainy and gray, as the whole month is in the country. The few spectators there stood under umbrellas, which added some much-needed color, though the umbrellas weren't green, or even orange or white. I didn't care about the weather, since being in Ireland was enough, and traveling off-season has become my preference. But I admit I was quite surprised and a bit let down at this non-event in the celebrated land. I took a couple of pictures, which were never worth saving (so I didn't), and then took refuge in a pub for an afternoon pint. As would always be the case, a conversation arose between myself and the barman, or else some local sitting nearby. I don't remember what we talked about, but I am not sure we even talked about the day's occasion. Saint Pat's in Ireland was like a good, average Sunday: church for the faithful, shops and government offices closed, people socializing with family and friends, much of this going on in private homes. Hardly the siss-boom-bah I got back home each year. So, another example of American excess? Definitely. Fun? Yes, it still is. Where would I rather be on March 17 each year? That's a toss-up. But wherever you are, it's always possible to say "Erin go bragh" (Ireland forever), and toast to your luck, the luck of the Irish.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bambini!


My father is a seasoned, sophisticated traveler. This is true now, and has been for a while, although of course it could not always have been the case. There was a first trip, sometime (a boy from Alabama battling fear and loneliness on a Protestant mission trip to Mexico in the 1950s). As long as I've known him, though, he's been the consummate travel planner. After working out flight routes well in advance and anchoring any trip with carefully selected accommodations, my father would stop at his favorite bookstore for guidebooks and other titles of local interest (whether "local" meant one state away or across an ocean), then he'd hit any store or stores that sold convenient travel items, including but in no way limited to: passport holders and money belts (for the traveler's checks he'd get from AAA), power cord adapters, pocket rain ponchos, protective bags to shield film from airport X-ray machines, mini plastic bottles for shampoo or lotion, "W.C." essentials for use in places without sanitary toilets (this could be mini "wipes" or even a roll of toilet paper with the cardboard core pulled out so the paper squashed down flat), compact travel toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, single-use packets of Woolite, and even a laundry line kit that included teeny multicolored clothespins. He thought of everything. His enthusiasm was always contagious, and I remember as a child that I loved to investigate his purchases as he brought them home. In the weeks leading up to the trip, he would work his way through books and magazines, would find all the recommended and out-of-the-way sites, restaurants, shops. He would build up excitement for the trip when my mom and I were accompanying him, sharing the tidbits and unearthed treasures of our destination. The night before departure, my father turned into the luggage gestapo. It's become family legend, how he'd drill us (me anyway) in a complex wardrobe selection and elimination process, which generally involved laying out first choices, then working on simple division: cut it in half; cut that in half again. I have learned to travel very lightly, to avoid if any way possible any bag big enough to have to check in the plane's cargo hold. It's a valuable skill—especially in an age when travel has become even more complicated (ever my father's daughter, I can now brief you on the TSA's 3-1-1 guidelines). But no matter your level of travel experience or savoir faire, the beauty of visiting foreign places is that there is still always the possibility (I would say the inevitability) that something, large or small, could be your undoing. Or if not your undoing, then fodder for humorous stories told at your expense for decades to come. My father will never live down the episode we now tag by its punch line: "Bambini!" Remember that laundry line with teeny multicolored clothespins I mentioned? In the spring of 1982, my parents and I went to Italy (Rome) and to Greece (Corfu and Athens). In Rome, we splurged: we stayed in the renowned Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps. When we arrived, having flown across multiple time zones from L.A. to New York to Rome, we were jetlagged; I'll certainly allow that as a mitigating circumstance. Our bodies and minds were numb, the flights resulting in a horrible struggle to stay awake long enough to approximate a local sleeping schedule (or rather, resulting in two-thirds of the family, my mom and I, being wide awake at 3:00 AM local time, dancing and laughing in the bathroom). Anyway, we arrived—exhausted but giddy, amazed at the simple fact of being in Rome. One of the first things we wanted to do was settle in, claim the Hassler room as our own for the duration of our stay, unpack our things, open the desk drawers to look at the hotel stationery, and so forth. My dad went to check out the bathroom. A moment later, he called out to me (or maybe I just followed him there), and he pointed to a flat, round metal fixture shaped like a cap that was mounted high on the wall above the bathtub, at shower-curtain level. It had a cord in the middle of it. "Look," my dad said, and then he went on to explain how great these grand old European hotels were, how they had wonderfully convenient amenities such as a built-in laundry line; we didn't need that travel kit after all. He tugged the cord across to the other end of the tub, looking for the hook where it would attach. He couldn't find one, so he released the cord, but then pulled it out again, and maybe even a third time. Caught up in the mystery of where we were supposed to hook the end of the laundry line, we were both scouting the wall when the door buzzer rang. My father opened it and was nearly knocked down by an ample-figured, middle-aged Italian woman wearing a starched white attendant's or maid's uniform and wildly flapping her way toward the bathroom, all the while streaming the most urgent but still musical Italian we'd yet heard. She looked at the wall-mounted cord, saw that there was no one but me in the bathroom and that I was wide-eyed but perfectly fine, and she realized what must have happened. "Bambini," she said, looking at me and smiling now. "Bambini," she said to my father. The woman gestured to me and to the bathroom cord, and somehow made it clear what the cord was for: it was a medical-emergency cord, to be pulled in case of, well, some kind of medical emergency, and apparently my father's strong tugging on the cord (three times?), triggered quite a panic among the staff. Far from being angry, though, the woman was more relieved that everyone was all right. She also seemed predisposed to find delight in a child's innocent mistake. "Bambini," she repeated once more, ready to return to some employee area where she'd probably share the story with others and laugh. Standing in the entryway developing a cat-who-ate-the-canary look on his face, my father smiled back at her and nodded happily, repeating "Bambini, bambini," closing the door behind her as she left.