Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Hour and Six Years Old


On this day six years ago, at the corresponding moment of this post, my son was exactly one hour old. I had delivered him (after a two-day medical dance of IV pitocin, raised and lowered doses, fetal monitors, anticipation, frustration with the stalling process of induction . . . ), and I had held him close to my heart, touching skin-to-skin after nine months of wondering what that moment would be like. Then he was whisked off to the NICU. I was too exhausted to think straight; my blood pressure too high to be calm, and yet I had no energy left to be anything but. I wondered when I would see my son next—the fact that I'd had a son took time to sink in, as we had elected to wait until birth to discover the baby's gender—and I wondered whether it was somehow my fault that he was in an incubator and not sharing my postpartum room. It turned out to be something fairly common (who knew?) with a horrible sounding name: he had a pneumothorax, a tiny air leak from the lung tissue into the space outside the airways. The pediatric specialist in the NICU explained that this happened sometimes during the initial air exchange, when a newborn is first required to breathe on his own. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that when my son was born, the umbilical cord was around his neck. I don't know. The condition was monitored, and in the space of four days, it resolved on its own and my son came home. On the night of April 30, 2003, though, I just remember an odd collision of emotion: elation and anticlimax as I lay in bed alone, unable to caress or feed the baby I'd carried to term with such care and unfocused (but intense) love. Later, we'd make up for it, my son and I. We'd take naps together, his tiny body sleeping peacefully on my own rising and falling chest, his fingers curled tightly around my thumb. We'd become inseparable, and learn to read each other's faces. Now, six years later, that initial separation seems insignificant. Then, it was emptiness and longing mixed with the contradictory feeling of having a full and satisfied heart. And really, this is what parenting is, I suppose: the contradictory impulses of wanting to keep a child with you, contained inside you, and also wanting to let him be a separate and even unknowable person, his own self without you. One hour and six years after his birth, my son reveals himself to me daily, little by little, but there will always be silences, absences along the way. Today, though, I focus on joy. On that brief moment after he took his first breath, when he was passed into my care, and I held his curled body—like a comma, a pause—in the cradle of my arms and wished for him every beautiful thing that life has to offer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SOS Benadryl


I remember never understanding why people complained about allergies. I assumed it was some kind of psychosomatic thing, something possibly without merit. I didn't know anyone who had allergy problems, and I myself had never had even the slightest symptom. I also thought this somehow meant I was of heartier stock—maybe it was my Greek immigrant family history that had something to do with it. I couldn't imagine anyone on my mom's side of the family ever complaining of allergies; it seemed such an American condition. My father had allergies, asthma, hay fever, too, I think, when he was growing up. I remember him telling me that he was allergic to goldenrod and many other things. But long before I was born, he outgrew all of it, and I never saw him with itchy eyes, runny nose, and so forth, despite outings in nature. There were seasonal allergies, which I'd heard about for a long time, and then suddenly people had peanut allergies and wheat allergies . . . I rolled my eyes, because little did I know. I do still think that a prevalence of allergies seems particularly American; or maybe it's just our intolerance for any kind of discomfort. Maybe in other nations, people just suffer in greater silence, with a feeling of resignation. We are generally a soft population. Perhaps I, too, have turned soft in the past decade or so. It was not until I reached my early thirties (actually, maybe I was just thirty, or thirty-one tops) that I realized how uncomfortable seasonal allergies can be. For some reason, they hit me full force one spring, and now they return yearly in varying degrees of intensity. Today is the second day this season that I've battled symptoms, and it's making me miserable. The worst for me has to be itchy eyes; I'd like to tear them out of my head. And I'm so distracted that all I can remember to write about now was that first cursed day. It was, I think, spring of 2001. I was on my way to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to meet a friend for coffee. As I set out from my apartment, my eyes began to get very dry. By the time I made it to the subway, they itched like crazy. And, in the time it took me to go maybe three stops north, I literally could not keep my eyes open. When I emerged from underground, my eyes started watering like mad. I had no clue what was going on, having no history of reactions to what must have been an extremely high pollen count. Luckily, one block between the subway and the Starbucks that was my destination, there was a Duane Reade drug store. I popped in and headed back to the pharmacy counter. The clerk there took one look at me and before I could get a sentence out said: "Let me guess, your eyes bother you." I didn't even care about the ironic tone, I just wanted help. I was ready to throw myself at the mercy of just about anyone, I was so pathetic. I said I had no idea what the hell was going on but I needed relief. "Allergies," said the clerk. "What do I take?" I had no idea what people did to ditch the symptoms, it was all a mystery to me. "Benadryl." So I bought some and took it immediately once I reached my friend and her Frappuccino or whatever it was she was drinking that day. The Benadryl, to my relief and dismay both, worked pretty quickly. The relief is obvious. The dismay was because, really, I didn't want to know anything about what Benadryl was, its variations and uses. I didn't want to be one of those people with allergies. Of course when I explained this sudden attack to another friend, she told me I was stuck with them. That it was not a one-time thing. Once you got them, at least as an adult, you'd just keep getting them. Maybe it's denial. Every year, I run out of my supply of Benadryl. Every year I forget to replace the box in the medicine cabinet, until it's too late. I let it get too late because I think I won't need it, not this year. Now I'm in a full-blown, red-eyed sneezing fit. But I do comfort myself with this: the knowledge that, if I wanted to, I could still go to the kitchen and make myself a sticky, thick peanut butter sandwich, and the only effect that would have would be to bring on an extra pound or two, plus the need for a glass of milk.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dernier Métro, When You Gotta Go


When I was living in Paris in the spring of 1991, I went out at night as much as possible. Mostly this was to escape my dysfunctional and completely inhospitable host family. If people visited, then I crashed in their hotels. If there were no family or friends from home in town, then I often had an evening of dinner and music and sometimes dancing with my French professor, a woman with the initials E. F. (see another post about her here). She lived in the Latin Quarter; I was on the other side of the city. Not much of a trip on the Paris Métro, but quite a long walk. I think the last train of the night—the famous "dernier métro"—was at around 1:30 in the morning, and service didn't start up again until sometime in the 5:00 a.m. hour. Of course, being used to the 24-hour convenience (if dubious late-night safety) of the subway system in New York City, the fact of the trains shutting down often escaped my mind. So I'd miss the last train, and although it was late, I'd set off with my air of twentysomething invincibility, fully prepared to enjoy the night air of springtime in Paris. Once, though, all it took was the cumulative effect of too much wine, water, and tea to make me realize that I was not invincible and that the enemy in this case was my own body. Sure enough (we'll call it Murphy's Law) I was well off the beaten path, well away from the late-night spots on the Champs-Elysées, making my way along either Avenue de Wagram or Boulevard Malesherbes when the call of nature came, urgently. Nothing open, not for blocks in any direction. The internal debate started: could I make it back to the host family's apartment in time? I started walking faster, but it was absolutely no use. And this is when I did what probably any Parisian—certainly any male, anywhere in the world—would do: I decided to relieve myself on the street. When you've got to go, you've got to go, and of course any woman would have done the same rather than soil her clothes. It's just a little more tricky when you're female. I ducked down between two parked cars and hoped no one would happen by just then. No one did. I stood back up, and for some ridiculous reason, I suddenly felt incredibly European. Not sophisticated, mind you. No, not at all. Far from it. But nevertheless freed out of necessity from a very American attitude toward public urination. I was in Paris but may as well have been in Belgium, or who knows what other country of the E.U. I mention Belgium because, perhaps ten years later, a colleague of my husband who was Belgian and living in New York City found himself in the same predicament. Like me, he chose (if this can be a question of choice) to unzip on the street. Unlike me, he was less than careful about who might be around to witness his desperate act. I will say, there is a difference between being in the middle of a shuttered-down arrondissement in Paris at 2:00 in the morning and being anywhere in New York City, at any hour. Something's always open in New York, and within a block at most. Probably, though, the thought never occurred to this man that what he was doing was illegal; it isn't back home, for him. The truly unfortunate part was that he was spotted not by some shocked tourists or giggling, nightclubbing girls, but by two officers of the NYPD who ticketed him for public urination (or indecent exposure?). After this, I assume he was more careful. As was I, no matter the continent, legalities aside.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Middle School P.E.


I have to say: my son has a wonderful P.E. teacher, and he (my son) is only in kindergarten. Unless there's a big hole in my memory, I did not have a coach or a P.E. class until I was in middle school. Kindergarten was kind of like a one-room schoolhouse, without much of a curriculum other than learning how to "get along." The two elementary schools I attended—one a private school in Chicago, the other a public school in L.A.—did not have physical education classes, or really any organized sports activities at all. We had recess, though in Chicago I remember watching the older kids practice field hockey. The school in Chicago was K-12, so there were junior varsity and varsity teams, but as I was only there from first through fourth grades, I knew nothing about these. The kids our age just ran around outside playing tag. In the fifth and sixth grades (still considered elementary school in L.A.), same thing. There was recess. There was lunch. There were games of four-square and double-dutch, and sometimes someone had a Lemon Twist or hula hoop, but in general I did my best to stay away from the concrete basketball courts or other physical play spaces. They were always overrun with tough kids. Plus, I just didn't care about sports. I got a lot of exercise—more than the average child, I'll bet—but my time was mostly spent in a dance studio, with the occasional weekend bike ride to the beach or roller skating outing. Until I reached seventh and eighth grades, my lack of sports interest was not an issue. In my new school, however, which was a private 7-12 middle and high school prep academy, I ran into trouble. From my point of view, the trouble was one Coach Hooker. Coach Hooker was a woman of average height and build; she had dirty blond hair that was styled short and straight; I remember her with a light blue polo shirt, navy shorts, a silver whistle around her neck, and a very clunky black stopwatch on her wrist. I also remember for some reason that she drove a light blue Ford Pinto—the kind of hatchback car that was recalled in the late 1970s for fuel-tank design flaws. And, much as I hate to admit it, I also remember growing to dislike her so much that I'd wish (in the vengeful but not-meaning-it-literally way of children) for her to get rear-ended. Why I disliked her had less to do with her, I think, than it did with where I was in my life at the time: dance was everything to me in those days, and I trained for a professional level, for hours each day, which meant I often had damaged feet that could somehow still perform in pointe shoes but not in a pair of adidas. I'm sure we did many different sports throughout the year as the seasons changed. I remember volleyball, and how I hated the way the insides of my arms would get red, plus how I rarely made it over the net when I served. Besides that, I only remember two things, but remember them all too well: the cross-country course that we ran every Friday morning, which was either a full mile or else three-quarters, and The Hill, which was something else entirely. First, the locker room, where I changed into a blue-shorts-white-shirt uniform that was always ill-fitting. I hated the locker room, too, where popular girls who wore bras already took over all the space on the benches; where I had trouble remembering the combination to my padlock (I think I had one); where, perhaps on a day when I didn't have my lock or else forgot to close it, I "lost" a new gold locket on a chain that had been a gift from my parents. (Why is it that financially comfortable families often breed kleptomaniacs?) Baggy shorts and itchy T-shirt, tube socks and sneakers on, the hour or so of torture would begin. On Fridays I remember that we'd head out to the back of the campus, where a paved road wound around snakelike to come back more or less to its starting point. This was the cross-country track. It was mostly flat, I think, but did have some slopes. We'd line up, hear Coach Hooker blow her whistle or otherwise indicate that we should start running, and then there was no way out of it. I got the impression that there were others who disliked this activity also, but perhaps no one so much as I. I was almost always the last one to finish. I was lucky if I ran a ten-minute mile, which was simply not good enough for Coach Hooker. Is this, then, what The Hill was for? To add insult to injury; to give you more of the same when your time wasn't fast enough? Or did the one have nothing to do with the other? Maybe The Hill was for complaining, or for a fresh mouth, which I probably gave her. Or maybe it was for being out of uniform? I no longer know what the infractions were. But I do remember that the penalty for displeasing Coach Hooker was to "run hills." To run The Hill as many times as she told us to run it. The Hill was a very steep incline that led from the lower, middle school part of the campus (which, when I was there, consisted of a bunch of temporary trailers) up to the high school and main campus buildings. From bottom to top, we're probably talking an 80-degree angle or something ridiculous like that. Coach Hooker would stand at the bottom, blow that damned whistle, and count the number of times you ran up the hill and down. Halfway up was enough to knock the breath out of you. I remember trying to get out of cross-country, out of hills, out of everything, by explaining that I had Band-Aids on nearly every one of my toes, and that I just couldn't do it. The response was that P.E. was required participation, so that we all met the minimum recommended levels of physical fitness. It didn't matter that I already met those goals on my own. Now of course, I can understand how impossible it would have been to make exceptions for me, but did Coach Hooker have to make an example of me instead? This is probably an exaggerated impression, but that's how middle school feels, like the world and the coaches in it are against you. And the thought never occurred to me then, as it does now: what if I'd simply refused to run? What if I walked instead, at a comfortable but defiant pace, along the cross-country track, or up and back down that tortuous hill? What would she have done? Increased the hills I was already not running? Send me to the principal's office? What exactly? It's one of many unsolved mysteries of the middle school years. I don't know where Coach Hooker is now, nor do I care to know. I don't wish her ill anymore; in fact, I hope she drives a nicer, safer car. But I will say this: I am incredibly glad that my son is excited about his time in P.E., that he's being eased in gradually, with fun games and new skills to learn from an early age. And also, I'm glad that on his flat Manhattan campus, there are no penalty hills to run, only the threat of time out for misbehavior, but really, there are many more rewards to earn, and he likes to rise to the challenge.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Verdi: ristorante di musica


The first time I heard someone singing opera in live performance was not in a theater as you might expect. In the 1980s I was living with my parents in Los Angeles, but they did not take me to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for opera. No, the first time I heard the passion of, specifically, Italian opera was while eating a plate of pasta at a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica called Verdi: ristorante di musica. Verdi opened twenty-six years ago, in 1983, and it quickly became one of my family's favorite places. We were regulars and got to know the manager, a man probably close to seven feet tall, who was a singer himself, I believe, or had been—I remember thinking it interesting that his first and last names were really both first names: Chuck Frank. (How do I remember that?) The food was fabulous. I ordered classic Italian standbys such as angel hair pasta pomodoro (the pasta was fresh and deliciously eggy, the tomatoes pleasantly acidic and sweet), sometimes veal scaloppini with its lemon-buttery goodness. I don't remember what my parents ordered, but I know they always raved about their food as well. Dessert was always the same, at least for me: a chocolate mousse cake of just-right intensity that had perfectly crisp and airy toasted meringue fingers around the outside edge. I loved the way the two textures, smooth creamy mousse and crunchy sugar meringue, melted together in my mouth. But a sweeter moment came when the lights in the restaurant were dimmed and the small stage in the center of the dining room gleamed in the spotlight. We always sat at the same table when we ate there: one that was to the center right of the stage, raised a level higher to see perfectly over the heads in front. Actually, I'm pretty sure that there were no bad seats in the intimate restaurant. Onto the stage would step one of the regular singers hired by restaurant owners Sheila and Bernie Segal, or perhaps by Chuck Frank. The singers were generally young, perhaps at the beginnings of their careers, but all operatic professionals. I remember one soprano who was fairly slim, with long blonde hair, and who also sang on Sundays in our church's choir. That surprised me. I had no idea until then that anyone in our church was professional, paid to supplement the voices of volunteer hymn-singers. Often, she would be joined by two men, a tenor and a baritone; all the voices were incredible, impressed me beyond an ability to express it. I know that if I am interested in opera now (I don't attend often, but I do enjoy the music), it is probably a direct result of the exposure to various arias and other pieces at the restaurant. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 1991. I don't know why. But, in fact, a fascinating offshoot of the restaurant still survives: the Verdi Chorus. Initially, the chorus was established for restaurant patrons who'd always wanted to sing opera—they were given the chance in this amateur group to realize their dreams. They'd rehearse and perform at the restaurant from time to time under the directorship of Anne Marie Ketchum, a professional soprano who performed at Verdi. When the restaurant closed, Ms. Ketchum continued on as Music Director of the Verdi Chorus, and the group evolved into a more ambitious venture. Membership became restricted, auditions were held, and a nonprofit organization formed with fifty semi-professional singers performing a repertoire that now consists of about two hundred choruses. They are the only Southern California ensemble devoted exclusively to choruses from opera. On February 27, 2009, the American Chronicle published an article by Jenine Baines about the Verdi Chorus; you can read the article here. The Web site for the Verdi Chorus is at: http://www.verdichorus.org/

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Marzipan at Lutz


It was not an everyday treat, rather an indulgence. In Chicago in the 1970s, when I was in the earliest years of elementary school, my parents would sometimes get the car (which was used on weekends and for road trips) and drive northwest to the city's  Ravenswood neighborhood, stopping at 2458 West Montrose Avenue. This is the address for Lutz Continental Café and Pastry Shop, which I'm happy to learn is still there (though no longer operated by its founders, Mr. and Mrs. Fred C. Lutz). The authentic Bavarian pastry shop, also called a "konditorei," was opened as a corner store in 1948 in its present location. In the mid-1970s, when we frequented Lutz, the shop had just expanded to include the café and an enclosed, seasonal garden space. If we ate meals there, however, I don't remember them at all. About Lutz I remember only one thing: marzipan. This was the place where, to my knowledge, I first tried the traditional confection of almond paste and sugar. Never before or since in any pastry shop I've visited in the U.S. have I seen a selection of marzipan treats to rival the display at Lutz. I would likely have to make a trip to Luebeck, Germany, the proclaimed home of marzipan, in order to come close or else surpass it. The marzipan at Lutz was kept in the last of several long pastry cases set end to end along the left-hand side of the shop when you first walked in. Along the right-side wall, I believe there were a few small tables and chairs, and this is where I remember sitting to eat whatever treat I selected that day. The thing about the marzipan was not so much the taste, which was always delicious, very fresh and moist (dried-out marzipan is a confectionery crime), but rather the alluring, fanciful figures into which it had been shaped by hand and precisely painted with food dyes. I remember fruits, of course, and also animals: frogs, ladybugs, dogs, horses . . . I'm sure there were dozens more. I remember wondering if the fruit shapes tasted like what they represented (they didn't, which was fine since I liked the marzipan the way it was). I remember a feeling of reluctance to eat the animal shapes—a child's internal conflict between the desire for sugar on the tongue and the protectionist instinct to not harm creatures that looked so real by biting off their heads or tails or limbs. Of course I ate them, but tried to do it slowly. In adulthood, I still love marzipan, though now I prefer it robed in rich dark chocolate. I can still appreciate the fantasy and imagination of a well-sculpted and painted marzipan figure, but I will leave those to my son to discover and enjoy . . . as soon as I find the New York equivalent to my childhood Bavarian haven. (For those of you interested in Lutz, you can click here to visit visit their somewhat kitschy, stuck-in-the-seventies Web site; if you happen to be in Chicago, maybe one day you'll let me know if the marzipan still measures up.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spit or Swallow?


No, it is not what you think, get your mind out of the gutter. The etiquette in question is oenological, not sexual, although another writer might well draw parallels between the adult pleasures of wine, sensuality, and physical arousal. For a wine professional, of course, it is really no question at all. Faced with a long lineup of vintages for tasting, the thing to do is to sip, swish, and spit. Etiquette likely isn't even a concern; it's just standard practice, reflexive. For a twentysomething woman raised with good manners, who has never been on a wine tasting before, however, spitting is just not an easy thing to do. These days, of course, I know better. I am the wife of a sommelier, and after ten years of dating and marriage, I have been to enough tastings to know that any highfalutin idea of manners may be safely (and should prudently be) forgotten. But back in 1998, I knew no such thing. In October of that year, I traveled to southwest France to meet my husband (then just a boyfriend) on his home turf for the first time. He was there for a two-week visit; I, due to a series of writing deadlines, could spare four days only. They were a blur of jet lag and jitters (meeting family I already suspected might become in-laws one day); they were a whirlwind of names, faces, and altogether too much foie gras. And, on one all-day road trip through the appellations of Corbières and Minervois, I was initiated into the world of professional wine tasting. We were three: my husband (I'll call him that throughout, to make things simple), a friend and fellow wine professional I'll call P., and me. We set out mid-morning by car and went to a vineyard in Minervois. For the life of me I cannot at the moment recall the name of this first property, but I do remember the walking tour of the grounds, on which stood an old "capitelle," or shepherd's dwelling, which was a hut made of stone. It was a sunny day, and the light warmed the stones to the touch. I did a rough sketch in my notebook. We sampled some red wine, and this is the first time I noticed the "crachoire" or spittoon, which I don't believe my husband and P. were using yet. From there we went on to a tiny property in Corbières called Faillenc Sainte Marie, owned by Dominique and Marie-Therese Gibert and now run by their son, Jean-Baptiste. Here I felt at home, sitting on the porch of their house among the vines, enjoying good humor and great wines. It was here that I tasted (still without spitting) the first rosé I ever liked—no, better to say I loved it—and also here that I was gifted with two beautiful, ornately drawn labels from the current vintage that I could save as souvenirs (you can see the labels and more on Faillenc here). For sentimental reasons, Domaine Faillenc remains close to my heart. The small-yield, artisan, and organic approach to winemaking truly results in fine bottles, and I was reluctant to part with any of what was in my glass. At this point, though, I had to; we were served a flight of three wines (white, rose, then red), and there was no way I could finish them all (nor did anyone expect me to)—still, it was hard to see that lovely wine go to waste, poured into the bucket which was set on the table for that purpose. Next we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant in Perpignan, owned by a chef friend. Excellent food, more wine. I am sad to say that Côté Théâtre is closed now (I may yet write a post about it, nevertheless), but happy to report that the chef has moved on to Bordeaux, where he has just earned a second Michelin star at Le Saint-James in Bouliac (link here, and follow menu items "Cuisine" and "The World of the Chef"). By now, a lightweight like me was having trouble staying completely sober. Or maybe it was just the combination of sunshine in autumn and a new love in my life. No, I'm sure the wine played no small role. Our third and final tour of the day: Domaine Gauby, a biodynamic vineyard run by Gérard Gauby, about twenty kilometers northwest of Perpignan; it is no doubt considered by many as the grand cru of Roussillon (website, in French). Here, finally, is where I had to come to terms with the crachoire. Out of the sun, amid large oak casks, we were set up with what seemed to me an impossible number of bottles to taste. My husband and P. were by now spitting regularly, casually, elegantly even—or if elegant is not the word, then I should say they were at least efficient. I'm sure they were taught this in their trade, or just by force of repetition. Unless you are in the wine trade, though, no one teaches a woman to spit. I was the only female there, and in general, I found myself (as had been the case all day) wanting to make a good impression. Because I was meeting friends of the man I was dating; because I was the only woman; because I was American and did my best to avert any negative assessments that may have affixed due to my nationality; because I care about the French language and do my best to use it properly, though my shallow vocabulary can often give others a false impression of shyness. I took tiny sips of the wine poured into my glass. I took one sip for every three taken by my companions. I poured out remnants of glasses. I did pretty much everything I could to avoid spitting into the communal bucket. To me, spitting had always been crass. Something you were not ever supposed to do. Spitting made me think of slobs on the street, of baseball players with wads of chew, of cowboys in the Old West with their tobacco. When my future husband asked me if I was all right, I nodded and smiled and said yes. But eventually, the moment arrived when I simply could not swallow another sip of wine, no matter how good it tasted. I had had more than my fill, and my head was swimming. So, spit I did. Let me tell you, it takes some getting used to. It takes practice. I had no trouble hitting the bucket, of course—it was right there under my chin, after all—but my chin was pretty much the problem. I'm sure I remember it as a more magnified incident than it was, out of pure self-consciousness. Still, I managed to dribble from my lip nearly the amount I spat directly into the bucket. It was hardly the purposeful, determined "pftht" that punctuated the others' mouthfuls. In trying to find a more dainty manner of spitting—in trying to not make noise or call attention to myself—I was just infinitely more clumsy. If anyone noticed my awkwardness or inexperience, though, they were too polite to even crack a smile. Bless them. I repeated the process a few more times, getting a little better with each spit, but never relaxing into it. Eventually, the interminable tasting over, we were treated to an off-road Jeep ride across the stunning expanse of wild, mountainous, terraced landscape that makes up the Gauby estate. And then it was time to make the drive back toward Toulouse. A day of tasting and my initiation into the cult of the crachoire was complete. Nowadays, the spitting is no big deal. I find that the more forceful, and consequently the noisier I am, the more effective, quick, and painless the whole thing is. I don't think about it much anymore, which is good. I just enjoy the wine and avoid its intoxicating effects. But somewhere in my memory, there will always be a day dominated by the crude question of this post's title, the question of whether to swallow or to spit the stuff out.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fermer les volets


I don't consider myself a phobic person. I have never been afraid of heights (though I have blogged about a recent fear of flying, here); in fact, I have been skydiving and loved the experience. I am not fearful of things like speaking in public or needles or spiders. I am not afraid to take creative risks or to make mistakes. I am not, strictly speaking, afraid of the dark. However, on this last item, I have to confess: it depends on what is meant by "dark." For most of my life, I thought I knew what darkness was—I don't mean metaphoric darkness; I'm talking about the lack of light at midnight. But I was raised primarily in large cities—New York, Chicago, L.A.—and in a city like this, the darkness is never complete. There is always a light-leak from someplace. You get ready for bed, turn off the lights, and at most it takes your eyes a few seconds to adjust before you see outlines of objects emerging from shadow. If you have a window in your bedroom, then you sleep with some gradation of light; not even a "blackout shade" keeps out every particle. With this urban background for context, here now is what I remember about the first night sleeping in my mother-in-law's house in the far suburbs of Toulouse: It was a new house; rather, it was new for her. She had moved into this particular house about two days before I married my husband in a church ceremony in Carcassonne, in front of nearly one hundred people, some of whom had traveled across borders, channels, and oceans to attend the ceremony. It was a hectic time. We were staying with other family until after our honeymoon in Greece, but when we returned to France, we stayed with my mother-in-law. In her former house (which had been a rental), the shutters on the windows had been the old-fashioned kind that open out to the exterior of the house: wooden, hinged, heavy, but that still let in slivers of light when closed. As anyone familiar with the French language knows, these heavy European shutters are called "volets." Nowadays, it is more popular (only in certain areas? for reasons of security? for the allure of the modern?) to have a kind of rolling electric shutter instead of, or in addition to, the old-style volets. On our first night back from the honeymoon, I climbed into the guest bed prepared for us, and my husband closed the window, lowered the electric shade. There's an option for stopping the shade at any point along its descent, and even when fully down, there's a way to stop the slats from closing up entirely, so that there remain little pinpoints of light at regular intervals. My husband, however, closed the shade completely. I didn't think anything of it at first. Why would I? I am not afraid of the dark. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the usual shapes to define themselves as shadows in the semi-dark. It didn't happen. I remember thinking that it was taking quite a while for my eyes to adjust, but in fact, they never did. And when I realized that I truly could not see a thing—not the giant armoire in the corner of the room, not the door to the hall, not my hand in front of my face—the darkness became more than darkness to me; it became fear. It became a palpable and malevolent presence in the room, a vacuum that pulled into itself all the air that was meant for me to breathe. I remember feeling intensely this impression of suffocation, and with it a mounting panic that I tried hard to talk myself down from. But one thought rose to meet me, and I couldn't shake it. I was convinced, even as I heard my husband's deep breathing beside me (he will fall asleep in two seconds flat when he's tired), that I was alone in that room, and that the room was a damp, heavy, tomb-like place. That, in fact, it was not a room at all but a hole in the earth, a grave where by some horrible mistake I was being buried alive. My heart beating fast, my breath getting shallow, it was when I was nearly sure I could imagine the taste of mulch in my mouth that I forced myself up and groped for the light switch. I can't say my husband was happy to have the lights flashed on, but as it pulled him back from his own half-sleep state, I made him get up to open the shades again, which he did. Turning off the lights this time, it was dark again, but not with the velvety depth that spooked me. I was able to sleep, and, while falling asleep, to know that I would indeed wake up come morning. Ever since, when we are vacationing in France, I remember that first night, and although I know now what to expect and could certainly adjust, still I make sure to keep a direct line of light and air coming in through the cracks of the shades at night.

As a side note to this post, the words "fermer les volets" (close the shutters), have another connotation: that of a song, "Canoë rose" (pink canoe), by the chanteuse Viktor Lazlo. For those who don't know, Viktor Lazlo was born Sonia Dronier in 1960 in Lorient, France. She grew up in Belgium, where she launched a modeling career before focusing on music. She debuted as Viktor Lazlo—a direct reference to the movie "Casablanca"—with the release of her first album, titled She, in 1985. The album went platinum in Belgium and gained her an international following. Viktor Lazlo's voice had a smooth, jazzy, lounge-music quality; her singing was sultry, sexy, augmented in a perverse way by her choice of a cross-gendered stage name. A beautiful and sad song, "Canoë rose" has a refrain that loosely translates thus: [There was nothing left for me but . . . ] To close the shutters/and no longer change the water in the flower vase/to forget who you were/to never again be afraid/to tell oneself that one was not/really cut out for the role.

For those of you who read French, the full lyrics of the song:

Canoë rose

C'etait pas l'année dernière
c'était pas à Marienbad
comment voulez-vous que je m'en rappelle
à force de l'attendre
je ne savais plus qui l' attendait
Le temps est un traître de cape et d'épée
qui vous glisse sa poudre d'oubli
dans votre coca
Faudrait pouvoir choisir son film
j'n'avais plus qu'à me barricader
dans la p'tite maison
près du lac
avec le canoë rose, à deux places
qui flotterait, comme ça
pour personne

Fermer les volets
et ne plus changer l'eau des fleurs
oublier qui tu etais
ne plus jamais avoir peur
Se dire qu'on était pas
vraiment faite pour le rôle


Pleurer plus que le saule

Plonger sous les draps
et ne plus jamais remonter
dormir sur le pont du galion
qui s'est laissé couler
parce qu'il t'a connu
une de plus à t'aimer

Le soleil essaie de se glisser
par le store vénitien
c'est pas lui qui m'f'ra lever
je commençais une longue nuit
j'ai pas l'intention de demander le réveil
je regarde les photos qu'il à prise de moi
j'en ai aucune de lui
il s'est jamais laissé prendre
Le vent fait grincer le canoë rose, à deux places
Il servira, peut être, pour un autre film

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Stonington, ME


I drove into Stonington, Maine, for the first time under cover of night. Still on the interstate when darkness fell, I had no way of knowing what would meet my eyes in the morning. Night up in Maine makes a city dweller rethink darkness completely. When was the last time I had driven on streets without streetlamps? Only the car's headlights to guide me down the twisting coastal road of 15 South, heading to Blue Hill, then farther down and over the bridge to Deer Isle; down the eastern length of the island to Stonington at its tip. In darkness, the senses of sound and smell are heightened: rolling down the window, the aroma of pine came in on a current of cold air that carried with it also a chorus of insect song. Due to my late arrival in Stonington, keys had been left for me in an envelope in a box at the office of the inn where I was staying. Tired, I dispensed with the necessary bedtime tasks, turned off the overhead light, and saw a single rippling gleam on the water. I slept deeply, without dreams. At sunrise came the full-on shock of disorientation, of complete transportation—a surreal sense of having entered another world without quite knowing how—a result of my blind arrival. The journey had been long (about ten hours), but so much of it withheld from view that the transformation seemed instantaneous. I hadn't realized I was so close to the water, the piers. I walked around the tiny fishing village in the early morning, listening to hungry gulls and the sound of moorings. Low clouds made everything dull white and silver, diffused light bathing a landscape of water-washed rock, tall pine peninsula. Stonington is a hard-working community of commercial fishermen and also home to many artists; docks and galleries side by side. Worlds collide at the Harbor Café, where I'd go for coffee and poached eggs early in the morning (you were late if you ambled in at 6:00). Sitting at a table, waking up slowly with a notebook in reach, I'd listen to revealing stories, snippets of which I still remember: a young writer talked about her need for solitude and space, about learning to speak up for what her craft requires, rather than always getting "too wrapped up in my man"; at another table, a mature voice, strangely accented, advised the heartbroken wife of a fisherman that she "may as well give the presents to someone else; he's not coming home"; yet another said that although she'd lived up north by herself for a while, well, her husband . . . "You know what they say about fishermen, well, it's true. So I came on back to town." Commercial fishing is a tough industry, dominated by men; but from what I overhear, the women have it much, much harder. In a booth one morning, I saw four kids in their early teens, two boys with two girls. The older-looking girl sat next to her boyfriend, nuzzled and kissed him, tried on a cloak of sexuality—an inexperienced girl's idea of what a woman should be. The younger girl watched her closely, but I remember a sullen look on her face. Her eyes were ringed with dark blue pencil; she bit her lip and held her body at an uncomfortable angle. She would either stay in this town, or she would leave. If she stayed, she might follow the worn paths of the other women in the restaurant. Lives seemed difficult in Stonington, but the people impressed me as rugged and real. And in the end, it all came back to the island itself: the seascape and the sky above it. Thick fog rolling in off the bay, a terrific downpouring of rain and the sound of water striking water, the rising and swelling of the harbor, boats coming in. An hour or so later: fog dispersed, sun bright, time for chasing the slant of light on the pines, capturing it with paint on canvas, time for sunburns and songs, for black raspberry ice cream or wild blueberry pie. I returned to Stonington several times, though none of them recent, and I have to say it's a place I miss, a place I long for. A place where, in darkness or in light, in solitude or in company with others, you can find yourself reflected in the water that surrounds you—rippling, changing, flowing . . . and yet somehow providing a sense of the same.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Than Finger Lickin'


When my family lived in Southport, Connecticut, we would go on occasion to an Indian restaurant in Fairfield. I can still see in my mind's eye the dark green awning with white lettering that spelled . . . something. Or maybe I'm confusing the awning with a different Indian place; that's possible. Anyway, I can't remember the name of the restaurant, though probably my parents do. I'll have to ask them. I'm pretty sure that this was the only Indian cuisine available in Fairfield at that particular time (late 1980s), and it was lucky for us that the food was good. Quite good. The people who owned the restaurant were nice, too; the kind of people you wish to succeed. I have the feeling that the restaurant closed eventually, though—after my parents had already moved away and Fairfield in general turned into a consignment store haven. At the restaurant, we always ordered the same dishes, the ubiquitous items that have assimilated best into the American "ethnic" idea: paratha, nan, raita, chicken saag, lamb vindaloo or tandoori chicken, vegetable biryani. (We didn't order mango lassis, though now we can't go into an Indian restaurant and hope to avoid one, at least not if my son is with us.) This restaurant was fairly small, with maybe a dozen tables maximum. They dressed the tables with white cloths, served the food on nice white china. Going there was always a good experience. It was to this restaurant that we took my paternal grandmother for her first Indian meal when she came up from Florida to visit. She was very close to ninety if she hadn't passed that milestone already, and we all remember how adventurous she was in trying new flavors, new preparations. She loved the spicy heat of the food. But this is all beside the point, not the main memory that got me writing tonight. What I remember this evening is one particular dinner, probably during a weeknight and quite early; there were not many other customers in the restaurant at that time. My parents and I sat at a square table to the left of the dining room, one table away from the kitchen entrance. The table was situated in such a way that my mom's back was to the front door and windows that gave a view of a small side street; my father was opposite, facing the front of the restaurant, and I was between them. Behind my mom was also another occupied table, a three-top like ours, with two men and a woman enjoying their meal. It's not that we were eavesdropping, but every so often a snippet of their conversation would drift toward us. We gathered that they were academics of some sort; educated, anyway. They were all dressed fashionably, well groomed. They were generally the sort of unremarkable, socially acceptable, possibly even privileged people you'd expect to find in Fairfield County. Which is why, when one of the men lifted his empty plate level with his face and began to lick it clean, my dad and I were completely stunned. We looked at each other immediately, one of those "Did you see what I just saw?" looks. We would like to have had my mom's confirmation as well, but there was simply no discreet way that she could have turned to observe this otherwise well mannered (we'd thought) man, giving his dish a tongue bath. He absolutely covered the whole surface of the plate, very methodically, with gusto. To this day, I'm not sure my mom is convinced that we were not exaggerating in our report, or that the man was not doing this as a joke. But although it was completely outrageous, it was no joke. And the weirdest thing about it was the non-response of the man's dinner companions. It was as though doing this in a restaurant was the most customary manner of showing appreciation for a talented chef. We whispered under our breath, discussed it in greater detail once the party had paid their bill and left. And periodically, it has come up over the years as a funny "Remember when . . ." I wonder sometimes if I'd ever allow myself to do such a thing in public, in a relatively fine restaurant. The answer is a pretty firm no. In my own kitchen, sure—after all, there are the tempting cake batters and cookie doughs to clean out of the mixing bowls—but that's different. It's rooted in childhood, and it's personal. In the privacy of one's home, there is no one to offend. But no matter how lacking in social graces, I do have to marvel at this man, utterly without self-consciousness, enjoying his meal to the point of abandon. It was quite a sight.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Life Tools


I was in my late teens, I remember. And I believe this was during my freshman year of college, as I moved off campus into my own apartment, where I lived alone for the rest of my undergraduate years. It could have been earlier, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that this was a moment when I was taking a step toward independent, solitary living, and my father wanted to make sure that I was prepared. In terms of practical responsibility and emotional maturity, yes—but on this day also in terms of a toolbox. We went, the two of us, to a little mom-and-pop kind of hardware store in Fairfield, Connecticut, and talked about the basics. I didn't need much, Dad said, but I needed to be able to fix some things, to be self-reliant and not have to call a superintendent or handyman (emphasis on man) for matters that required only the right tool and a little bit of elbow grease. The first thing we did was pick out a box. It was small, rectangular, and fairly flat, made of metal and painted candy apple red. We walked the narrow aisles of the store together and surveyed the gadgets. Into the toolbox we placed a hammer, a box of nails, a pair of pliers, a wrench (which I never used), four screwdrivers (two flat, two Phillips-head, each in a large and small size), a retractable metal tape measure (the kind with a yellow latch to hold the extended tape in place and a belt-clip to keep it handy), plus an assortment of picture-hanging hooks. There may even have been a small roll of narrow black electrical tape and some Crazy Glue. The cashier unpacked everything, rang up all the items, put them back in the box. My dad paid for all of it; I thanked him; we drove back home. That's the memory—a simple errand that took perhaps a total of forty minutes door to door. But of course it was much more than that. Let it first be said up front: my father is not really a DIY kind of guy. Throughout the years, my mother and I learned to feign a mock terror (well, there was a touch of genuine apprehension mixed in) whenever my father headed for his own "fix it" kit or, god forbid, grabbed some electrical power tool from the garage. Let it also be said, I share his DNA. But neither of us is useless, and in fact we can manage the basics as well as anyone. Mostly I think our lack of real prowess has more to do with a shortage of time and interest than with any innate handicap. And the real point of the memory, the real lessons here still apply. Twenty-plus years and five states later, I still have the same toolbox. It's a bit more crowded now with additional hooks and screws and wire and random hex keys for in-line skates and children's toys and who knows what all. The latch on the front of the box is a bit loose, so care is needed when lifting it that everything doesn't spill out. No matter how much it bursts at the seams or refuses to stay shut, however, I can't imagine ever outgrowing it. It's become too sentimental and too symbolic. Every girl needs a red toolbox, needs to be told in myriad ways that yes, she can fix it (whatever it is) herself. I couldn't possibly count how many things have been broken over the years—material things and intangibles, broken only metaphorically. In the case of objects, most times the repair can be handled straight from the box. With life's bigger breakdowns, it's often true that my simple kit just can't do the job. But in those moments, I am not without resources; I do have other tools. Foremost among them, a grain of willpower and the desire for self-reliance. And when things feel too far gone, there is still the simple but powerful knowledge that I have the kind of father who cared enough to tell his teenage daughter that she could build and fix, patch and plug, construct what she wishes in this life. I know he still cares, and sometimes that and a hammer are really all that's needed . . . the hammer to do nothing more than drive the feeling home.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kalo Pasxa


The final panel in a Greek Easter triptych: Friday, Saturday, and now the wee hours of the morning, officially Easter Sunday. "Christos anesti!" "Alithos anesti!" He is risen indeed. Leaving church past midnight, through the smoke of celebratory explosives, my mom and I found ourselves following George Kanellopoulos, my grandmother's cousin on the paternal side, a man who was probably a good twenty years younger than Yiayia, but who now looked the spitting image of my memories of her in her old age. He was, for an evening, a surrogate Greek papou. We went with him to his house over the protestations and histrionics of another cousin of my mother's (on her father's side); she wanted to know why we weren't going to her house, although we only had learned of her existence moments before. She carried on about how she'd found us and now we were being taken away, and po po po . . . the Greek tragedy continued behind her own closed doors, while, with some feelings of guilt and remorse that we couldn't accept every invitation, we went to George's house to break a fast that we hadn't observed. The Kanellopoulos house was not large, especially the space to the side of the kitchen that served as a combined dining and living room. For all of us to sit around the table, my mother and I were very nearly perched on the edge of a daybed. We were seven: George; his wife, Soula; their daughter Maria, plus Maria's own daughter, Nancy; and finally Maria's partner, Andreas, plus the two of us. Nancy went to sleep immediately, and the rest of us settled in for the most tradition-bound meal of the Orthodox year: mageiritsa (lamb tripe soup), with tsoureki (a sweet Easter bread) and boiled eggs that had been dyed the obligatory blood red color on Great Thursday. There was also a salad and some tzatziki (the famous yogurt-cucumber dip that has made its way onto the menu of every Greek or pseudo-Greek establishment in the States). The eggs this year had come out more maroon in color than a proper red, and there was some shrugging of shoulders by Maria and Soula over this before George held the dish of eggs out to each of us for our selection. Then, the egg-cracking competition began. George was the undisputed champion; he cracked Mom's egg, then mine, on each end. Asked if he was stacking the odds with a wooden egg, George smashed his own on the table to break the shell, and the matter was settled with good humor and appetite as we all peeled the eggs and ate them. The mageiritsa was another story. Thick and green, pungent in a way I don't want to describe—there'd been no attempt made to disguise what we all knew was in the soup anyway: tubes of chewy intestine floated in the bowl, chopped into pieces not nearly small enough. Maria flat-out refused, but we could hardly do the same. I have to say, it was not as bad as I would have thought. Still, it was not anything I wanted seconds of, and I watched George carefully to see if he was going to finish his bowl, or if I could safely stop eating when he did, without offense. My mom somehow ended up with additional servings of innards, and I know she thinks I got off scott free, although I did eat almost the entire (and generous) contents of my bowl. The hours slipped by, and we found all manner of things to talk about. We talked about family connections; about America and Australia, where some others in the family had gone; we heard about life in Filiatra and in Athens, where Maria had gone to work; we talked about jobs and culture, about Greek pop stars and other talent. We pulled family photos from our wallets, and George kissed the picture of my son. We exchanged addresses, and promised to write (which we did, but with no certainty that our letters ever arrived). Finally, hours into the holiest Sunday of the year, we embraced and said our final "Kalo Pasxa," Happy Easter, as Soula pressed bags of homemade koulouria (braided cookies) into our hands to take away with us, back to Methoni after a few short hours of sleep. If there is one thing Greeks have earned in reputation, it's the honor of welcoming visitors in a spirit of "filotima," or hospitality. Of course, however remote our connection might have seemed, they were family to us. They were what we'd come to find this Easter holiday: a rekindling of blood ties, a bond that transcends all distance of time and space. Now, two years later, I think of them with great affection and a deep desire to see them again. Kali anastasi to the Kanellopoulos family of Filiatra. And efxaristo para poli to my mom, for vowing to find them for me, which she did.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Zoë!


Darkness, thick and warm on all sides, enveloping us. Standing in a crush of bodies, shoulder to shoulder at the back of Saint Athanasios—the very same church where, a century ago, my grandmother attended Easter services. 2007 now, the pilgrimage made, a dream realized: to attend the resurrection service in the town of Filiatra; to go to church with relatives, whom we had found only that afternoon (a story worthy of its own posting) thanks to the owner of one of the town's many kiosks. Expectation in the air, candles—this time white; those of children adorned with ribbons and trinkets—held unlit in eager hands. The lights in the sanctuary were extinguished just before midnight. Only the luminous canopy of this church's epitaphios, the bier of Christ, now reaches out its gleaming fingers to the congregation. The priest disappears behind the iconostasis. When he bursts back through, it is with joy and no longer grief: he is holding aloft a candle lit from the holy flame of Jerusalem, and as he walks forward, he is met with a rush of worshipers tilting their wicks to his to receive the light. "Receive the light!" The greeting ripples from row to row as one candle is lit from the next, and slowly the church is illuminated, shadows chased deep into corners, forgotten for another year. The priest walks up and down the aisle, and suddenly there is celebration everywhere in sight and sound; jingling, pealing, tolling bells shake death and darkness from the room. The words "thanaton" and "zoë," death and life, ring out repeatedly. Everything is transformed from dark into light, from stillness into motion, from silence to sounds of joy. A man comes from behind the icons, carrying a long pole with a gold finial—he uses it to prod the four large chandeliers in the front of the church, to set them swaying with no thought to any danger (there is none, apparently). The chandeliers rock, sway; everything is alive and dancing. The prominent icon is changed: an image of the new Christ, risen, framed with white flowers, is now placed in the center of the church. A sudden shock of minor explosions outside shakes the building's foundation, the sky brightens behind the windows, and a smoky storm of fireworks announces the beginning of a new cycle of life. And somehow in the din, I hear the whisper of ancestors, feel their participation in an everlasting story—a story that is now mine as well. Together with distant cousins, my mother and I spill into the night, which has been broken wide open. We make our way to a family house to share a traditional midnight meal, and for once I feel fully that this is my family, too; that this Orthodox experience of Easter and all its beauty, is completely in my grasp. I know that I will never see another Easter the same way again.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Great (Orthodox) Friday


April 2007. Great and Holy Friday, as it is today in 2009. I am sitting with my mother in the "women's section" of the Orthodox church of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) in the sea town of Methoni in the province of Messinia, located in the hand-shaped Peloponnese of Greece. A row of women, perched like crows in their wooden seats, keep watchful eyes on everyone in the church. I am glad to be sitting behind and not before them; not all of them seem benign. We have each purchased a long, skinny, buff-colored candle, lit it just inside the church doors and pushed it down into a round tray of wheat berries to stand, burning in memory with dozens of others. It is 7:30 PM, and we will not leave the church until 11:00—even then, there will be one last ritual to observe. Contrary to expectations, the time passes quickly, awash in sacred sights, sounds, smells. In the center of the church, the epitaphios, symbolic bier of Christ; it is covered by a canopy of red and white carnations, a garland of more delicate white flowers (orange blossoms, perhaps) hanging in graceful loops around the perimeter. As mourners—for that is what we are here—come into the church, they purchase candles as we did. Their stream grows thick and swift, townspeople and relatives who've migrated to cities (but who always return for this holiest of days) pour into the small church; the sound of coins in the coffers as more candles burn—so many that a man appointed for this task routinely collects and extinguishes them to make room for more. The tide carries the faithful up the center aisle to pluck a handful of rose petals from the baskets of two girls, sprinkle them on the cloth effigy of Christ before planting a kiss. The surface of the bier is covered and re-covered in fragrant roses; a priest sweeps them to the head and foot of the epitaphios, leaving room for more—more rose petals, more kisses. Look up to the front of the church, and the flickering light of candles dances across the iconostasis, which incorporates icons so elaborately covered in metal that the only painted surface showing is a round, holy face. Medallion ribbons of purple and white decorate the sanctuary: white for light and life to come, purple the color of royalty, and of the cloak Jesus was made to wear in mockery on the day of his execution. Behind the icon screen, altar boys await their moment of participation; they stand or sit, move around casually in that sacred space reserved for men and boys alone. They wear light blue tunics with gold brocade over jeans or sweatpants; privilege means not having to make undue effort. A sense of excitement and expectation builds; the church is now standing room only, but without much space to stand. Communal ties, collective spirit are all palpable now within the walls of St. Nicholas. There is something comforting about a place that serves as the single repository for the entire town's history and faith. Always a dweller in large cities, I have never felt a sense of solidarity this strong with my neighbors, every last one of them, and I long for it deeply before reminding myself that the cost is diversity. Throughout everything, the cantors are chanting in biblical Greek, an extra layer of inscrutability added to my already flimsy grasp of mother tongue. I think it will be impossible to understand a single word, but in fact I can grasp five essential terms that themselves form a chant within the chanting, the touchstones I can comprehend in a sea of unintelligible sound: death, life, dead, love, resurrection . . . over and over again. The cantors chant in rotation. Priests come with ornate censers, cruets of rose water. Incense and perfume shower the congregation, refresh the air that is by now stagnant in the church's overcrowded space. The chanting reaches a climax, and in this moment, I feel something shift inside me; it is clear now I am listening to lamentation, and in a space deeper than intellect, I am aware of the funeral I am witnessing. The whole town is here now, and all across Greece, in every village or great polis, the death service is unfolding the very same way. And suddenly, I wonder: why does the reenactment of a funeral (without which there can be no life after) have no place in the Protestant traditions of my childhood? Is it Protestant or American, this desire to hold death apart, to pretend it doesn't exist? Even our crosses have no body upon them. Here, though, there is a body—symbolic, but no less present. At around eleven o'clock, two long poles are used to lift the epitaphios; four men carry it at the corners, and we all move outside. The air feels good, and in the sky stars burn brightly like the flames of the new candles we all hold carefully, sheltering them against the evening breeze. The town follows the epitaphios down one long street and up the one parallel, chanting the same lamentation repeatedly. Some people who live along the route take their candles home, open their windows and gaze down on the procession, still singing and lifting up light. We move along, with a couple of stopping places for prayers recited by the priest. Returning to St. Nicholas, we pass under the epitaphios, held aloft by its bearers, a line of worshipers ready to conclude the service. The evening ends, and as one body is left to lie in rest within the church's holy walls, two hearts continue to beat in a shared, reverent silence. Together my mother and I make the walk back to our hotel by the sea, arm in arm.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

1970s Urban Legend Story


At night, tired from a long work day, strange things surface. What would make me remember a story I hadn't thought about in decades—a story that isn't even mine, although it belongs to my childhood? When I was young, I loved to tell jokes. Knock-knock jokes in particular, as my son tells now, and when I was older, jokes from the "Truly Tasteless Jokes" series of books (I think there were many volumes; I had at least one of them, with a black cover). Then for some reason I stopped being able to remember jokes at all. I've rarely told any in my adult life, though I like to think I've managed to keep a sense of humor anyway. The jokes were often quite long, with complicated stories leading up to a punch line. This is probably why, in time, I became unable to tell them. I'd remember the punch line but not the setup. I do know that some of my old jokes were rather inappropriate, especially for a child telling them. One involved a rip-off artist in a house of ill repute, an inflatable doll, and the punch line, "I bit her; she farted and flew out the window." Lovely, yes? Another joke was a political one that I loved to recite, despite not really knowing who all the players were. It had to do with the president, vice president, the "smartest man in the world"—who was supposed to be Henry Kissinger, as he himself was known to profess—and some kid with his backpack, all in an airplane with engine trouble. But here's the thing I remember now. It's not really a joke, just a crazy urban legend story with a sickly, kind of funny ending. I heard about this story from my mom, who saw it in the newspaper in Chicago, I believe, when we were living there (or else someone sent it to her, but I think not). After hearing it, disbelieving that it could actually be true as purported, it became a story I loved to tell, especially at parties and often to grown-ups, who must've gotten a kick out of my narration. I probably haven't told it in at least thirty years, but here goes: A woman decides she will host a winter-season dinner party. The afternoon of the party, she's preparing all the dishes and storing them in the refrigerator, until she runs out of room. For dessert, she has made a Jell-O mold (remember, it's the 1970s), and since it won't go in the fridge, she decides to keep it out on the fire escape where it will stay at least as cold. Guests begin to arrive, and she (or her husband) puts out their cat. As the evening wears on, everyone eats, drinks, is carrying on, and eventually it's time for dessert. The woman goes out to get the Jell-O mold, and sees that the cat has bitten into it, just a bit. There's no other dessert, so she scoops up the mold, brings it in to fix it up and serve it anyway, with no one the wiser. In fact, everyone compliments it. The party continues, a few people head home, then others, and eventually she and her husband are alone again, and they go to let in the cat. (Here I wonder: how cold was it really, and did it make sense to put the cat out in the first place? But at the time, it was a story taken at face value, most normal thing in the world.) The cat, however, is lying dead on the fire escape. The couple wonder what happened, what on earth they can do, and they feel panicky, because suddenly it's horribly clear that somehow the Jell-O mold poisoned their cat. And the guests, then? Feeling sick herself, the woman calls them up and explains what happened, recommending that they go to the hospital, which they do. The couple themselves go next. Later, after a most unpleasant stomach-pumping, convinced that nothing else could possibly go wrong, they go home and run into their neighbor. The neighbor looks forlorn and says, "I'm so glad you're home. I have to tell you, the most awful thing happened. I was out driving, when your cat ran into the road. I tried to swerve, but it was too late. I knew you were having a party and didn't want to disrupt you with such awful news, so I put the cat on the fire escape and waited to tell you. I'm so sorry." Naturally, the neighbor was not as sorry as the couple, or their guests, all of whom had ended their evening at the emergency room for nothing! Now, as I said, it's not exactly a joke, but I always told it like one. I told it much better then than I just have now, but I'm at least content that I remember it. True story? If you want to believe everything you read in the newspaper, maybe. Or maybe it's true despite the skepticism it provokes. I'll probably never know. As a side note, though, I don't think I've eaten much Jell-O since.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paying the Man


Every year, we've got to pay The Man. The Tax Man, I mean. The government. April 15, time to pay for all that stuff they do that we don't even know about until it's too late. Not that there aren't good uses for tax dollars. But this is not a political blog. It's a memory. I am in Chicago at the age of twenty-five. I had just left a job with a PR agency to test my hand at something more editorial, and while waiting to land a salaried job I started doing a little freelance work. I had not done it before, so this was a first lesson in entrepreneurship. It was scary, but exhilarating. I did a couple of projects that were passed along to me by a writing teacher who developed a lot of texts for a healthcare-related organization. He landed the jobs, then subcontracted to have me help with certain chapters, usually to do with management tools or patient education in hospital settings. The work was interesting enough, and the pay was okay, though nothing to live on. I kept up my job searching activities—it hadn't required much to see that I was not quite ready to freelance full time—and a few months later I was offered a job with the Chicago Sun-Times. Fast forward to April of the following year. Tax time. I remember that I was dreadfully sick the week of the fifteenth. I had not had time to deal with taxes yet because I'd been working a lot of long, crazy hours, and suddenly I was paying the price for letting myself get run down. I almost never called in sick, but this was a rare exception. Although I was sick, I realized that I really needed to do the taxes, and I was afraid that if I waited until my illness passed, then I'd just be back at work and unable to spare the time. I'd left this task until the last minute, but it was always easy for me to write up the numbers, do some simple math and (usually) wait for a refund. Because I'd waited to even obtain the forms, though, I had some trouble locating them. I remember dragging my achy body to a couple of post offices, which were all out. A trip down the block became a schlep farther afield, and then eventually I went all the way downtown to the Harold Washington Library Center, where I grabbed the 1040EZ-Form (two copies, just in case), then headed back toward home. Sitting on the El, I remember feeling dizzy and nauseated. I thought I was going to pass out at one point, although thankfully I didn't. I had chills, then sweats. I made it back to my apartment and curled up under the covers to take a nap. When I sat down later to look at the form, I realized that things weren't adding up. I had always done the EZ-Form, done it myself with no trouble. The thought of anything more complicated was beyond me, as was the notion of paying someone else to prepare my returns. I tried to convince myself that, if I could only think straight, then I could figure out what to do with my one and only 1099, issued by my writing teacher for the subcontracted work I'd done during the past year (at least I don't think it was the client organization that issued it), where on the form it would go. Well, the answer of course is that a 1099 doesn't go anywhere on the EZ-Form. Nowhere. No can do. Maybe I was just unusually ignorant of tax matters, but really, how was I supposed to know if no one had told me ahead of time? After reviewing and re-reviewing the EZ instructions through a fog of decongestants, trying to figure out what the hell . . . It became apparent that my days of EZ-Forms were over. I needed something else. Could I use the 1040A, or did I need the plain old 1040? It was too much to deal with. I remembered an H&R Block down the street. Did I go that same day, or did I have a day to spare, another sick day? Anyway, it was last-minute, I didn't feel well, and I wasn't the only one: H&R Block was full of anxious people waiting their turn with a CPA. The place had the feel of a deli counter—that kind of turnover—but I'd take salami over tax prep any day. When it was my turn, a youngish man, whose name I have no hope of or desire to remember, asked me some basic questions, began tapping things into a computer, and then we came to the 1099. You're self-employed? he asked. I told him that I was, although I was working one full-time job now. Let me ask: if you do two very small and not-very-lucrative projects during a couple months out of one year, should you really be counted as self employed for the year? Anyway, I was summarily told that I should've paid self-employment tax, estimated quarterly payments. Plus that there was a penalty for not doing so. Huh? I don't think I itemized any kinds of deductions to offset any of this, and the money I'd made truly wasn't worth it; I don't think it even covered the cost of the penalty. Sitting there, still miserable and knowing I had no time to figure out any other alternative—knowing that I had run out of time and that this was the only way it was going to get done—my stomach flipped as the seasonal accountant churned out my standard forms and fees. I don't remember what I paid him to do the returns. Don't remember what money I had to pay the Feds or the State of Illinois. It was too much, anyway. But the numbers were there, black on white. I paid H&R Block. And after that, all there was left to do was say thanks, toss in some irony for good measure, and head home to write another couple of checks. It was a rite of passage: one more jolt of growing up, another year gone. You know what they say about death and taxes. Well, death has never been an easy subject. And now, taxes were EZ no more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spring Thunderstorms


It's raining again. I love the sounds of the city in the rain: the slip slap of wipers, the swoosh of tires on wet pavement, the tapping of drops blown by the wind against my high-rise windows. I relish the sounds—plus the sight of taillights and neon dragging their long, rippling reflections through the blacktop of the avenues—but I confess I've become a curmudgeon about getting wet. I love the rain most when I'm warm and dry inside. When did that happen? I hadn't realized. I'm sure it was my son in his big rubber boots and his slick jacket; my son who, despite loving the thing, never wants to take his umbrella out when it's raining—I'm sure it was his enthusiasm for puddles and his wanting to stick his tongue out to catch the drops that made me see how old I've become, if not in years necessarily then sometimes in attitude. Who is this person, cursing the feel of cold water seeping through an ill-sealed sole? Who is this person carrying an umbrella? I used to not even own an umbrella. I remember when I was a teenager, in school up in Michigan. Spring meant water, coming down from a cloud-filled sky or else dripping from rooftops and snowbanks and making mud everywhere. It was the big thaw we'd been waiting for, the promise that got us through those interminable Februarys. I remember that when it had warmed up enough to have a true spring rain—the kind that refreshes and invigorates rather than punishes—it was cause for celebration. And I remember some dramatic thunderstorms. Was the impulse to stay inside and listen from a distance? Hell, no. I remember running outside with friends, with one girlfriend in particular, and we'd find a patch of soggy new grass strip off our shoes if we'd worn them at all, which often we didn't. We'd feel the soft blades between our toes, and we'd dance in circles, spin around. The harder it rained the better, the bigger the boom of thunder, the more we knew we were alive, and the lightening made everything glow. We'd dance in the rain, no shoes and not even a coat. We'd be in flimsy shirts, not caring at all what color they were or what they revealed. The sop and suck of mud and wet cotton clothing was sought and sustained, not at all the discomfort I'd be apt to call it now. Our hair would hang in wet ropes, would lash us in the face and stick to our foreheads as we moved through a sky of water. It was joy, and I wonder: What is it that keeps me indoors now? What really holds me back from the love of lightening and thunder, the sizzle of electricity in the air? What if I left the umbrellas at home, stopped seeking the shelter of scaffolding on the sidewalks? And wouldn't it be better if, the next time it rains, I take my son to the park to slip down a soggy slide, to spin in circles on the small patch of grass allotted to us urban dwellers? I could learn to play again like that, couldn't I?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cool Blue Glass


Senses swimming in a deep, blue hue. An unexpected bath of color, and the feeling of being washed clean. In the intimate, empty auditorium of the Musée Chagall, in Nice, France, I sat in shafts of light made dazzling by the stained-glass windows of the artist's spiritual genius. Outside, at the base of the hill on which the museum perched, the January air did little to keep beach goers off the Promenade, but my mom and I preferred being inside, in this museum. I am surprised we did not go back daily while in Nice. It was 1990. I was living my twenty-first year, and in that moment, in front of that three-panel installation of Chagall's windows, I could allow myself to feel that I was just then, only then, beginning to live. In fact, the windows are called La création du monde, or "The Creation of the World," dating from 1971–1972. I was two to three years old when they were made, so we were very nearly born at the same time, the windows and I. The auditorium was unexpected. My mom and I had been wandering the white-walled galleries, admiring the canvases—their symbolism, their dreamlike images, their saturated colors. We'd seen a beautiful mosaic that depicted the astrological signs turning in clockwork fashion around a central biblical figure (a prophet, I forget which); the mosaic was reflected in a pool of water at its base. From the museum interior (I don't know why we didn't or couldn't go outside), I took a photo of my mother there; in the photo she is wearing a dark green quilted jacket, and, I think, a necklace of pearls—no, a bracelet? After touring the museum, we happened upon the auditorium, slipped inside its doors, and were amazed. The auditorium lights were off, but the space was flooded with natural light seeping through the abstract windows, made eerily blue like life-giving water. On the small, semicircular stage a grand piano stood, lid propped open, waiting to send its sound into the light. The rows of chairs were all upholstered in a deep blue meant to camouflage with the windows, nothing to detract from their beauty. Interestingly enough, my life is punctuated by another set of windows by Chagall: the America Windows at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were installed 1977, when we were living in that city, but I don't remember them from that time. I remember seeing them only later, living in Chicago as an adult; and then, I walked straight back from the museum entrance, down a long corridor with gallery wings to each side, only stopping in front of the windows dead ahead. That same blue, but different images—more identifiable—to commemorate America's bicentennial, to honor the freedom (artistic and other) and the innovation that were once hallmarks of America. The windows were also dedicated in memory of the former mayor, Hizzoner Daley Senior, but that's another story. (If you want to watch some documentary footage about the making of the America Windows, you can do that here.) Chagall and his cool, blue glass always made an impression—or sometimes, ironically, they allowed me to empty my mind of impressions altogether and just exist in a more meditative state. For this reason, I guess, I began to collect cobalt blue glass bottles that I would find in antique stores. Due to space constraints, I've whittled down my collection a bit these days, but I do have many of the bottles and jars: old Noxema jars, a "baby head" milk bottle, a medicinal eye cup, among other pieces. The one I regret losing is one that broke by accident a few years ago; it was a tiny vial fashioned in an octagonal prism shape with a clear glass stopper and the word "poison" in raised letters on one side. It was the one treasure to come from another international antiques market I visited with my mother, this one in Dublin, Ireland, in 1995. Who would advertise a thing like poison? We invented all kinds of scenarios surrounding this little bottle: who had poisoned whom and why. But maybe it was good that it broke, in a way. Maybe this color blue, for me, cannot contain allusions to poison; it is the one color of the spectrum that, no matter my ills, consistently heals me. I don't know if I will ever visit the Musée Chagall in Nice again. It's probably safe to say that I'll return to the Art Institute at some point and get my dose of the America Windows. But until then, I have my own reflections of blue cast upon my walls when a shaft of light passes through cobalt. I have my memories of Chagall's windows, and of the peace they bring.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Crosses and Lilies


It's Easter—at least in the non-Orthodox world—and, setting aside the commercial lure of bunnies and bonnets, creme eggs and Peeps, I consider it a day for two visual symbols: it's a day for crosses and lilies. I saw both in church this morning. A processional cross and candle announced the beginning of the service; potted white Easter lilies stood front and center, amid an explosion of springtime color in bloom (an embarrassment of floral riches at the foot of the pulpit). I have to say, I don't pay much attention to lilies at any other time. There is something about the most popular varieties of the flower that I find a bit showy, though the beauty is undeniable. In terms of lilies, I prefer to think of lilies of the valley. And I think of them because they were named once, long ago, by my mother as a favorite flower. I was older than five, younger than ten. We were living in Chicago, bordering Lincoln Park. Daily at this time, my mom and I would walk along North Lakeview Avenue. I remember the Elks Veterans Memorial at the north end, at the corner of Lakeview and Diversey, and it was not far from there, heading south, that we'd pass a building with a black, wrought iron fence that curved out at the sidewalk. Behind the fence in the springtime, there were patches of lilies of the valley. I loved that the delicate white flowers clung to thin stems but sprung from a bed of hearty dark leaves. I loved their scent, and always tried to find it in hand soaps or perfumes. For a time, I remember giving my mom packets of lily of the valley bath salts. They weren't Caswell-Massey, not Crabtree & Evelyn, either I don't think. The packets were white and had thin, ornate, black script letters, plus an illustration of a flower spring on the front of the packet. The "salts" were powdery and formed clumps. They were an inexpensive child's gift found at a local pharmacy, I think, but I remember thinking they were perfect for my mom. Later, when I spent a spring in Paris, come May first, I learned about the tradition of giving this flower (called "muguet" in French) on May Day. But if I love the flower now, it's only because I associate them with my mother. They are a perfect, humble but beautiful flower for springtime, for a fresh start, new life, fitting for Easter every bit as much as the large, show-stopping lilies at the altar. As for the crosses, well, of course they are everywhere today. The processional cross at our church is new, shiny and lovely on its tall staff. There was also a cross fashioned from white carnations hanging from the balcony rail where the organ played. The most personal crosses for me, though, are the following: First, the one I keep in my wallet at all times. It's old and, somewhere under centuries of grit, I believe it is copper. You wouldn't know unless you studied the places where it's been rubbed over the years; it looks more like iron. It's hand carved, somewhat crudely. Its outlines are intricate, but the figure of Christ upon this cross is almost primitive. My mother gave it to me, and there are stories connected with it that I won't relate here, though perhaps I'll post more information in a comment when I have more time. Another cross I have is a small, yellow gold one on a chain. It is very straight-edged, without adornment of any kind, no body hung upon it. It used to belong to my maternal grandmother, and she brought it with her when she visited my mother once, saying that she wanted me to have it. She was already anticipating the moment when she would no longer have need for worldly things. I keep it someplace safe, and mostly do not wear it out of fear of losing it (though I do sometimes put it on). Finally, there is the collection of Ethiopian crosses I own, most of them purchased in an antiques market in London (the name of which I cannot place; I am pretty sure it was not Grays, which is well-known, but for the life of me I can't say what or where this market was . . . the place reminded me of a train station). We were repeat visitors—I'm pretty sure that both my parents went there, sometimes alone and sometimes with me; my father made contributions to this collection along the years. I remember the first time I was there, though, with my mom. (This may have been after we nearly got ourselves escorted out of Harrod's for causing a clumsy and disorderly scene and laughing in some out-of-control way about it.) The Ethiopian crosses deserve some kind of writing dedicated exclusively to them. At the moment, however, I will just say that I love their lacy shapes, their intricate hash marks. I wish I could decode their patterns. I also remember the dealer who sold them. She was a strange woman. Abrupt in manner, short, and there was something odd about her eyes. She had what I remember as a cloudy eye. If her vision was impaired at all, I nonetheless had the impression that this woman saw more than the average person, more than you wanted her to see. I imagine her as the type of person who would only sell a cross to someone worthy of it, and I don't necessarily mean a confirmed Christian. I remember thinking she should be a fortune teller, a reader of destinies. Would she have imagined me as I am now? If my superstitious ideas about her had any grain of merit, might I take comfort in the fact that she deemed me a proper owner of these crosses? I have quite a few, and these I do wear fairly often. For years, I looked on them as art objects only. As jewelry more than any significant spiritual statement. I don't like to wear spirituality on my sleeve or elsewhere, and I resist thinking of myself as "religious," even on this holiest of Christian days—even as I sit in church and sing traditional Presbyterian hymns of resurrection. And yet, they are more than handcrafted ornaments of beauty. There is a story behind them, perhaps the most passionate, wildly imaginative story ever told. These days, I say, we could all use stories like this. Stories that get at hope and life, stories that look at death and destruction and laugh. Today, I am glad for lilies and crosses, for the memories they bring as well as the renewal they suggest are possible.