Tuesday, June 30, 2009


We stopped at the side of the road, shocked by yellow. A full field of sunflowers, turning their large, open faces to the sun. Tournesols in French. My friend, D., and I jumped out of the car, went to stand at the edge of the field, and had our pictures taken. Saturated color: gold and cyan behind and above us. Kodachrome tribute. But even in black and white the shots are impressive, the flowers big as our own heads, a field of dark eyes glistening. Before France, I had never seen a vibrant field of growing sunflowers, only their kin, turning up sometimes in a florist's shop or else in the farmer's market. Bringing them home, there was never a vase large enough or heavy enough to hold them; their long, thick stalks had to be cut with knives. The flower heads would bow toward the table, stooped under the weight of their cheerful petal halos and spiky, mane-like leaves. Across the street from the house purchased jointly in name (post about that here), there are also fields like the one described above: vast, undulating fields of sunflowers, which I thought might not be wild but rather cultivated for seeds, oil, or for the marché aux fleurs. Rumor has it the fields will be plowed under before long—that some batch of government housing will be built on the lot, the sunflowers gone. It's painful to think of their loss. It hurts especially since there seem to be not enough flowers in the world, not enough sunny dispositions, and altogether too much of everything else.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Wedding Blur

OK, so after choking on this post for a while, I have realized that it is pretty much impossible to create something that will live up to the expectations that we (people in general, I specifically) put on the "big events," in this case my hopes for a post to perfectly capture a single facet of my wedding day in stunning detail. In part this is because I am tired today, but in part it's also due to the fact that weddings are like this for the couple in question—at least for most brides, I think: hard to experience fully in the moment. This is one reason why a good photographer is worth every expense; you are too invested, too much the director of this production to set yourself aside and just live fully in the "now" of it all. Our ceremony was lovely, beyond a doubt. It was full of love and joyful celebration and outrageous indulgence and passion. All these things, and yet it passed in such a blur. My memory of the event itself is a fragmented collage, a culmination of months of exhaustive planning (past), and a hopeful gaze toward more relaxing days and a settled life (future). But not very mindful in the present; not very zen, I have to say. So I will, without further apology, spill the random bits that lodge in memory and give the flavor of this day, the 29th of June, seven years ago.

I remember: The coiffeuse who came to the hotel room to do my hair and makeup, and who, since I was basically hostage to her at that point, upped the price from what we'd agreed upon—how I sensed she must've had a conversation with someone the night before who told her that for heaven's sake she should charge more, after all I was an American and staying in luxury accommodations (a gift from my folks for the last night of single life; a room I shared with my best friend who served as my only witness of honor). The way this self-styled arbiter of fashion piled on more makeup than I could stand and, after she left, my friend helped restore me to a semblance of self I could manage. The photographer came, a "vrai artiste" without any arrogance at all, and he worked his wonder with light and shadow; he did a series of shots as I dressed, garters and all, and did it with such class I will be forever grateful. Coming down the carpeted stairs of the Hôtel de la Cité, seeing the groom in white tails at the bottom, impressed. We teetered arm in arm across the uneven paving stones of the medieval fortress town of Carcassonne, stopped for photos, and then it was time to drive to the church at the foot of the walled town, just outside the gates, under a light rain that began to fall. Good luck. Shouts as we were driven out of the old city: "Vive les mariés!" Trumpet prelude by Purcell (played on an organ); walking down the aisle with my father, misty-eyed. Sitting, standing, repeating prayers and vows. Tugging with an attempt at inconspicuousness at a beaded strap that kept slipping down my arm underneath the sheer, short "jacket" I wore to cover my otherwise bare shoulders. (This gesture and my vexed expression caught on video by a cousin-in-law, and we laughed about it later.) A bilingual ceremony, missed cues and confusion at having to say the Lord's Prayer in English while hearing it all around in French. Funny moments of language that made me laugh, and the sudden realization that to laugh—however innocently, nervously; even however briefly—was considered by the priest as an insult to the sacrament of marriage. Signing the registries, looking for the priest after the ceremony; he'd vanished, offended. Rose petals tossed at us on the steps of the church; a group photo; a long procession driving from Carcassonne to Cuiza . . . At the reception, a champagne aperitif in an outdoor château courtyard. My parents, kissing, taken by surprise by the photographer and a series of shots depicting love and mirth. Being announced as "Monsieur et Madame," as we entered the dining hall. A blur then of greeting guests, circulating among tables, finding it hard to sit at the banquet-style head table and eat, there was too much going on. But eating nonetheless, and everyone making way through a flight of fourteen phenomenal wines, the best from this region of Southwest France. Toasts, dancing (and how my mother-in-law cut in on the first dance with my husband, before the DJ changed over the music from waltz to Elvis Presley as he was supposed to do fairly quickly but missed his cue); this horrible DJ who played every song I asked him NOT to play (did I actually hear the "Macarena"?); the same DJ who demanded to be seated at one of the guest tables and eat the meal served to family and friends (the sweet and consummately professional photographer grabbing a sort of staff meal downstairs). A stunning "pièce montée" tower of caramelized pastry puffs and nougatine to serve as our cake—plus a decadent chocolate dessert served as part of the château's package menu. Guests talking, laughing, more dancing—the Greek faction taking over at one point. And eventually, as it grew late and guests got tired and gave their final blessings to us, my search for a back way—a secret way—to the bridal suite, room number kept in strict confidence, doing my best to avoid any nod to the French tradition of the "pot de chambre" (the "chamber pot," you can look it up!) . . . my husband and I, successfully escaping to our room, unnoticed, in the wee 4:00 hour of the morning. Exhausted, happy, ready for the next phase of a joint life. Slipping into welcome oblivion.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Driving, Dancing, Dad

As a daughter who enjoys a deeply bonded relationship with her father, a memory springs to mind now, on the eve of my wedding anniversary; a memory concerning a tradition I imagine might be perfunctory for some, but that for me was anything but: the father-daughter dance. I remember, in the months leading up to the wedding, agonizing over what song we should dance to. Whose idea was it, finally, to choose a song by Alan Jackson? By default, I assume it was my idea, but I can't remember the notion actually coming to me; it's possible he made the suggestion. Really, it seems just as appropriate (emotionally, if maybe not technically accurate) to say that we found the song together, both of us owning the idea equally. My father had been a fan of Alan Jackson since way back. I remember being college age when I first borrowed his album, Don't Rock the Jukebox, and heard Jackson's accented voice and his clever lyrics, humorous and soulful, for the first time. I appreciated his songs, but I didn't follow his music on my own. I leaned toward Patsy Cline later on, then abandoned country altogether for a while. But country was how my father grew up, and some part of it—cornbread and chicken!—was undeniably my legacy to claim, too. The song we danced to was a song called "Drive," and it tells an intergenerational story of parenting and the way a parent and child can feel as a certain exhilarating freedom of control, of transportation, is transferred. The song's narrator recalls how his father taught him to drive—first a plywood boat, then a hand-me-down Ford—and then how he in turn taught his daughters. He imagines the girls, grown, thinking back and remembering with a smile:

It was just an old worn out Jeep
Rusty old floorboard, hot on my feet
A young girl, two hands on the wheel
I can't replace the way it made me feel
And he'd say, "turn it left and steer it right,
Straighten up girl, you're doing just fine"
Just a little valley by the river where we'd ride
But I was high on a mountain
When daddy let me drive

My father taught me to drive, too. We had some mishaps (including barreling in reverse through a closed garage door—don't ask!), lots of stalling on hills when I was learning a manual transmission, but he was patient and encouraging, and the words of the Jackson song capture perfectly how I felt when he gave me these keys to a more independent life. Of course this was always about more than just driving a car, which is why my next big life transition, this shift to being someone with a separate family life (no matter that our nuclear family would never suffer for it), was such an appropriate moment for this particular song. So, this was it. I couldn't recall having ever danced with my father before—though perhaps we did once, at some adult function I attended when still a teen or even preteen—and the wedding would be such a public performance, I decided to sign up for a series of private lessons at a dance studio on Broadway in the West 60s. I used half the lessons with my father, half with my husband-to-be (who, bless him, has two left feet and not much sense of rhythm on a dance floor). It was a series of four Tuesdays, in the afternoons. Our instructor was a young Russian dancer—the kind who was a pussycat, but also very proud of her reputation: she played the role of the strict Russian dance mistress to the hilt. She taught us a modified swing, and I can still hear us counting in fours: right, left, back-step . . . right, left, back-step . . . We worked on a routine that lasted the duration of the song, and at the wedding, nerves perhaps had us leaving out one step along the way, but otherwise the dance was perfect. I am willing to bet that if we were tossed together on a dance floor today and the song put on, we'd have that kind of muscle-memory to carry us through even now. Of course time has passed, and we've both aged somewhat. Neither of us is in the shape we were in back then, and my dad has since had knee replacement, so maybe the actual dancing wouldn't work out as well. It doesn't matter, though. The memory is there: of those Tuesday afternoon sessions we both looked forward to so much, and of the big day, when to be completely honest, the best dance of all was the one I did with my father—all the more valued in being a unique opportunity—a dance to a song called "Drive".

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sublime Chèvres

We are standing at what seems to be the summit of the world. Cordes-sur-Ciel, France. A fortified town ("bastide"), founded by the Count of Toulouse in 1222 as a safe haven for the heretic Cathars. The old town juts into the sky, high above the valley below, even above the clouds. Our physical height begs for metaphorical application: a couple of days now before our wedding, and we are also feeling high on hopes for the future, the beginning of a new chapter of life. Inside the ramparts, we stroll with some of our guests, point out the sculptural details of 13th- and 14th-century Gothic architecture. All is beauty and bliss.

Amid the tall stone columns of the open-air marketplace, under the thick wood rafters and medieval pennants in the center of Cordes, our sublime moment takes a turn toward the ridiculous. My husband is on a cell phone, checking in with the manager of the château in Couiza, where plans for our wedding reception are underway. Have I mentioned that, being a sommelier by profession, my husband has decided to serve fourteen different wines at our dinner? A flight of three wines to taste with most courses. And since we will have a head count of nearly seventy, you can imagine the stemware required. Something has gone wrong, or rather just has not been going on at all. There are complaints, and a suggestion that we will need to pay for additional staff. My husband, used to the turnover in New York restaurants and the demands of clients, loses his cool. Pacing the historic market in Cordes, our aerie of the moment, he raises his Gallic voice and asks who the manager has working in the banquet hall, a bunch of "chèvres"?! Goats. Lazy, inefficient staff. Content to give him space now, I busy myself by inspecting what looks to be a giant mill wheel, wondering why it took this long for pre-wedding stress to hit my "better half."

Note: Today, Cordes-sur-Ciel is a revitalized, year-round community, enjoyed by artists and others who appreciate the town's unique place in history and landscape. Albert Camus is reported to have said that "In Cordes, everything is beautiful, even regret." The official tourist Web site for Cordes-sur-Ciel is here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Case of Mistaken Identity

A funny memory: Days before our wedding in Carcassonne, France, my husband and I were in Toulouse, playing host and hostess to guests arriving early from overseas. Some of my husband's family were joining in these festivities, but the main goal of the pre-nuptial evenings was to introduce my parents, some aunts and cousins, and some close (mostly American) friends to the pleasures of Southwest France. Toulouse, being the home of decadent, rich dishes such as cassoulet, foie gras, and the famous Toulouse sausage, is not necessarily known for seafood, but the rosy-bricked city does lie on a stunning river, the Garonne; a twilight meal on a "péniche," or houseboat, seemed just the right way to ease travel-weary guests into the local color and fine dining scene. We decided to take our party to the Bateau Restaurant La Daurade. My husband and I were running a little late that evening, coming as we were from a hellish (for me anyway) legal rendez-vous. The decision to visit La Daurade was a last-minute plan, so when we arrived at the hotel where my parents were staying, my husband asked someone at the front desk to ring the restaurant for us and verify that we could come over. I should say that this particular hotel, the Grand Hôtel de l'Opéra, on the Place du Capitole, was where my husband used to work—where he first cut his teeth as a sommelier in a restaurant of "haute gastronomie." The restaurant, Jardin de l'Opéra, was at that time the showcase for the culinary talents of Dominique Toulousy, one of the "Meilleurs Ouvriers de France" (a culinary distinction of the highest order). I believe it may have been his wife, Maryse, who called La Daurade on our behalf that evening. Or maybe not. Regardless, the message to the proprietor of La Daurade was essentially that the Grand Hôtel was calling on behalf of a former sommelier of Jardins de l'Opéra, and that we were a party of however many who wished to come at such-and-such a time, and could they reserve space for us under the name Parker? Or maybe they gave both my husband's name and my own family's both (that would make more sense). The reply was an enthusiastic "bien sûr," and after an aperitif at the hotel, we made our way down to the river. Assumptions are funny things, as is celebrity. Especially funny is to realize what passes as celebrity in different parts of the world. Here in the States, my last name is common, and generally no assumptions are made about who we are when we we make dinner reservations. Appropriate enough: we are a not a family of note, not in that sense. At best, I have been asked if my pedigree has anything to do with writing implements (the association suits my writerly self just fine, though it's untrue). At worst, during the peak in popularity of the television show Melrose Place, I was asked at a CVS pharmacy if I was joking when I said my name was Allison Parker—it took seasons for me to uncover the fact that I shared a first and last name with a character on the show (though maybe hers was spelled with one el?). But this is in America. In France, there's really no danger of anyone mistaking me or others in my family for either of those Parkers. But put together allusions to luxury hotels, sommeliers . . . I have to say the poor man who greeted us at La Daurade was completely crestfallen (though he did try not to show it, and we were ultimately treated very well during our dinner) when he realized that my father, though he cuts an impressive figure, was not Robert Parker, the international wine celebrity! It was an "only in France" moment, I have to say, and one we laughed about for a long time. As a side note, we drank a lovely white that evening: Château Tariquet. Not 100 points from Robert Parker (if you care; we didn't), but a damn nice wine.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Acte de vente "sans profession"

What things plow through a woman's mind just days before her wedding, making her fertile perhaps but also furrowing her brow? If, like me, you are overseas, marrying someone from another culture (albeit one you are familiar with; it is European, Western, and you speak the language), the wedding ritual is made slightly more complicated, concerned as you are with the comfort of international guests and the possibility that any of your own faux pas will be magnified through the lens of difference: different customs, a different church, different any- and everything. A destination wedding is beautiful, but it is also an act of loyalty, courage, and maybe insanity (or at least masochism). All this to say that a lot was going on in my head space four days before taking vows, much of it logistic. An abundance of logistical detail of course means that you do not have to think too deeply about your emotional state. But here's what I remember about June 25, 2002, exactly seven years ago today—an event having nothing to do with the wedding or marriage, per se, and everything to do with that core of emotion rubbing raw despite my efforts to ignore it: at 18h30, I was in the office of a "notaire" in the city of Toulouse, to finalize paperwork on a real estate transaction that I had opposed, but which was going through anyway with my name attached to it. The story is long, complicated, and involves other people I do not wish to expose in this blog. Let me stick to the thing that haunts me most, with the open admission that it does so due to misplaced pride, perhaps, and also some rage against the machine of bureaucracy and a woman's historical place in society. So, I am sitting in the notaire's office, listening to a pompous man read aloud pages of legalese in French. A side note here: do not make the mistake of confusing a "notaire" with an American "notary public," despite the similar sounding terms; in France, a notaire is a function of higher standing and apparently quite lucrative—it's closer to a lawyer's role, though it isn't that either. (Which makes me wonder how common these hybrid positions are: there are the gendarmes, too, an additional mid-level we do not have in the States, something between police and military.) Sitting in this office, it occurs to me that our English word "bureaucracy" does not derive from the French for nothing. So I'm trying to focus, and then something catches my attention. It's a description of me as a spouse "sans profession," without a profession. Excuse me?! I am particularly ticked off when I hear and read this in official language, typed black-on-white, because my husband and I had been in the French Consul's office in New York City just weeks before, reviewing a copy of this paperwork we were to sign—reviewing it for any corrections to be made—and we had in fact corrected this same error on the spot when it came up the first time. Another bit I remember, this from said visit to the Consulate: When asked to supply my occupation, I said "writer and editor," because that is what I am, what I do. I am a professional, published writer; I also make a living as a freelance editor. Yet I was told, quite clearly, that this was not possible; I could not be two things, I was one or the other. I wasn't sure I was hearing right, but that was the case: there is no such thing as a solidus in a French career path. If you want to make me angry, try to stuff me inside a narrow box of bureaucratic thought. I am perhaps a square peg in the world, but there are many of us, and not every hole is perfectly round. Despite this, I had made a choice because I had to. I probably said "writer," but anyway something was meant to go in that gaping blank space on the form—something other than "sans profession"! In Toulouse, in the notaire's office, four days before I'd walk down the aisle and therefore remove the last barrier to actually becoming, legally, French (I knew the language, I would just have to wait a few years to qualify automatically for citizenship by marriage), my cheeks burned with an indignation I could not or would not express. It was too late, anyway. And what does it matter, really, what a document says about me? It doesn't. And yet, being a matter of public record, it does. Even now, this memory is enough to flip my stomach and quicken my pulse. Why? Is it because I know what my mother sacrificed for family life (motherhood being in fact a fine "profession" of hard work that she did exquisitely well), and for good or ill, I knew even before marriage that I could never make the same choice and feel satisfied? Is it because of the history of women who were, no matter what work they did, labeled as having no occupation . . . and the backlash of feminism, growing up in an era when the old rules no longer applied and the idea of being without a career began to carry a stigma? To hell with it all; however, as I sat there in that office, I couldn't shake the realization that, because I did not receive a weekly paycheck from a single employer, assumptions were made about me and about the worth of my work and contributions. I couldn't shake the suspicion that maybe this—a woman "sans profession"—was actually how the large population of my soon-to-be in-laws viewed me. And I couldn't help feeling misunderstood, unappreciated on a level that went deeper than a description on legal paper. At the end of the hour, we signed the documents that needed signing, and we left the office to find some members of the wedding party and head out for one of many celebratory dinners to come. Socializing was the distraction I needed, and I remember the ease with which a glass or two of champagne went down, the resulting lightheadedness a relief to me—a more appropriate way, I thought, to spend those few precious days left to me as a single woman, when I was still only just myself, a square peg that did not need a round hole.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


A good twenty-five years after I made that little girl's purchase of a doll in bridal attire (yesterday's post), I found myself shopping for my own wedding dress. I remember the process as a bit surreal, particularly for me—my friends will all attest to the fact that I am not a natural shopper, and often I will go out of my way to avoid the task. When I do venture into a clothing store, I am one of those customers who rebuffs the advances of overly solicitous salespeople. I prefer that they act like the best staff in the top restaurants, moving invisibly among clients, never intrusive (you shouldn't notice that someone refilled your glass), yet there at the exact moment you need them. I prefer that the salespeople ignore me, basically, and I almost never have an answer for the cashier who asks: "Was anyone helping you today?" No, thank god, I managed to give them all the slip. Of course, shopping for a wedding dress—perhaps the most significant, and likely the most costly garment you will ever wear—means you can expect the opposite: you can expect to be the center of attention in an obvious way, with someone there to both advise and serve you; a someone you couldn't shake off if you wanted, as you've made an appointment with them, and their job is to talk to you, shadow you as you peruse the racks (if there are racks), guess your tastes, size you up, and make suggestions. Although I made a couple of appointments, the one I remember best was the one at the famous NYC institution, Kleinfeld's. When I visited this bridal mecca for the first time, in late 2001, the store was still located in Brooklyn; I remember it took much longer than I thought it would to get there on the subway, my mother gamely in tow. The store is now in Manhattan, which would have been much more convenient for me, but I am actually glad I had the Brooklyn experience. It felt more authentic somehow, joining sixty years' worth of women who had traveled to Bay Ridge since 1941 to become "Kleinfeld brides." Plus, the transit gave my mom and I some additional, valued time together. I was glad she was with me—and I would turn out to be especially glad, since it was on this visit that the magic happened, that I found the dress. OK, yes, I apologize: I did just fall into the land of horrible cliché, but really that is what it was. I remember being skeptical as we were introduced to the "consultant" assigned to me, Renée Pinto; even more so when she added a dress I never would have selected, ever, to the batch in my dressing room. It did not seem to fit at all the style of the others I had pulled from the racks. And yet, sure enough, when I put it on, obedient in a way that was foreign to me, a transformation took place—not just of the dress, but of myself. I remember standing in front of a three-paneled set of mirrors, looking at my mom reflected behind me, and before saying a word, she confirmed what I knew: this was it; I was the image of a bride on her wedding day. As a stubbornly self-aware person (of the "no one knows me better than I do" type), I would never have believed that the person who'd be most responsible for the selection of my wedding dress—the perfect dress for me—was not myself, not my mom, but a woman who'd laid eyes on me only ten minutes earlier. It was spooky, but there you have it. And there I was, standing in that soothing interior of beige, cream, satin, silk, flattering lights, and all variety of white dresses, feeling that I'd been transported into a garden of trailing vines and wild flowers, a romantic country garden, rather than anything pomp and circumstance. The style of the dress captured exactly the spirit of the wedding (and marriage) I hoped to create: free flowing, natural, and poetic. The contract—yes, such dresses come with contracts!—was signed on the spot, and the next couple of times I'd travel to the store, it would be to meet the seamstress in charge of my alterations, who, if I'm not mistaken, was a Turkish woman named Feride. Today, if you go to the Kleinfeld's Web site, you can read promotional copy that suggests that "the magic lies in the hearts of the most professional staff anywhere" and that their bridal consultants possess "listening ears, a keen sense of style, and a vision of perfection" that will lead you to the dress of your dreams, worthy of the significance of a wedding day, should you believe in the power of a garment such as this (which I confess, heading in, I did not). It sounds like bold hype, but, at least based on my experience with Renée, I can say: believe them. Do I have issues with the wedding industry? You bet. With emphasis on the material trappings of the day? Indeed. But even close to eight years later, with the dress sealed in an acid-free box, having been cleaned and a small tear in the hem repaired, I don't regret this particular experience, or the purchase. It was an extravagance, and eventually I will bring myself to part with it by donating the dress to charity so that it can give new life and dreams to another, future bride—but I'll always remember the enchantment I felt when the delicate layers of this one dress, selected by a stranger, swirled around me in a whisper of answered desire.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bride Doll from Marshall Field & Co.

So what exactly did I do with those Chicago summer lemonade stand profits? What do you do with pocket money when you're younger than ten and the basic necessities (food, shelter, clothes, books for education) are provided by your parents, as they should be? I remember the first significant purchase I ever made exclusively with my own money, and although I can't be 100 per cent sure without asking my mom, I'm willing to bet that the lemonade stands in Lincoln Park were partly responsible for funding my acquisition. And what I acquired was a little girl's dream: a delicate bride doll, the kind that while not made of porcelain (my generation was, sadly, pretty plastic already), was in that china-doll style. What was it about that doll? My girlhood was not, in fact, filled with tales of weddings, marriage—not in the sense that this what I was "supposed" to aspire to; not at all. I was raised reading books like The Practical Princess, a beautifully illustrated collection of fairy tales with a feminist slant, a "you don't need to rely on anyone else just because you're female" guidebook for my earliest years. I was not, in fact, much interested in things bridal—not unless it pertained to my mother's experience, which I loved to hear about—but it's true that I was captivated by the fashion of lightweight "meringue" layers of material, lace, veils, and so forth. So, this doll. I'd seen her in the downtown department store of Marshall Field & Co., the one that is no longer Marshall Field's but was acquired by Macy's in 2005–2006. The Field's store itself merits a Chicago memories post: its flagship location on State Street was a landmark I loved, a treat to visit. I remember the green patina clock jutting from the store's corner, out toward the intersection of State and Washington. Inside, I was awed by the open arcade galleries that housed the individual departments of wares; looking up, the glass mosaic Tiffany Dome mesmerized me with its opulence. It was the perfect setting for this doll, which sat (stood?) in a glass display case and summoned me to her with blue eyes that could blink a dark shelf of lashes. The doll had real hair (blond), pale skin . . . I imagined she looked like my mother did when she got married, although by that time I'm sure I'd seen the pictures, which revealed a more elegant, tailored, off-white dress and no veil. When I asked my mom about the possibility of having the doll, her answer was a wise one, opening a door to the life skills of saving, of delayed gratification. It was not my birthday; it was not Christmas. I could wait for those, or I could save my own money and buy the doll for myself, which is what I did. I was so proud that day that we counted my savings and realized that I had achieved my goal. I don't know how much the doll cost, and I have no clue how to guess without doing research, considering inflation and all. But however much, it was worth every penny. The feel of the doll in my hands after weeks or months of only imagining what it would be like to hold her; the knowledge that I could want and provide myself with this doll . . . it was priceless. And although in time the white of the doll's dress would turn yellow with age, her feet would become bereft of their satiny slippers, and she herself would be packed up in a cardboard box for storage—still, the magnificence of this purchase for a child, the power of self-sufficiency in meeting this one small desire, stay with me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Douglas Ranch Camp

Today was my son's first day of summer camp 2009. When I asked him how it went, on a scale of 1-10, he was quick to give it a ten. He talked about swimming and how he can put his whole head underwater for "ten minutes" ("You mean seconds?" "Yeah, seconds."); he mentioned kickball and an art project and making a new friend . . . all great to hear, especially described in an enthusiastic tone of voice. Camp, of course, can be a good or a bad experience. Last year, camp was not so great for my little guy. This year hopefully will be different. Meanwhile, I am reminded of my own summer experiences—most of them good, some not; many blogged about already. The hardest for me (and maybe the most memorable for this reason) was the summer sleep-away camp I attended one year when we were living in Los Angeles. This was probably 1982, maybe 1983. I should say that the camp is a traditional, family-operated camp with a long history, a great reputation, and lots of fabulous activities, and I really don't know why it didn't appeal to me. It seems now like it would be a kid's paradise. Perhaps my discomfort there had something to do with the other girls in my cabin, with whom I had a hard time bonding (despite some congenial poker games with M&Ms as stakes). Or else it was the threat of "pink eye" that was going around, along with the exaggerated, graphic rumors of what it was like to come down with it: I was told that your eyes got crusty overnight and you couldn't open them at all, so it was like being blind (!) with gunky, oozing eyes. Maybe I was just missing home too much; missing my parents and my usual, obsessive routine of dance, dance, dance—not campy "barn dancing" either, but ballet. Anyway, for whatever combination of reasons, I remember discussing with my parents whether I should come home sooner than originally planned. I believe, however, that I did stick it out for the two sessions I was registered for. The camp, because you must be wondering by now, was the Douglas Ranch Camp in Carmel Valley, CA. Douglas Camp is coed for kids ages 7-14, is located on 120 acres, and has a camper:staff ratio that would please any parent. The days, I remember, were very structured; maybe that was one of my complaints: I felt bullied into a specific routine, with mandatory participation in all activities regardless of interest level. The activities I remember most were swimming (because the pool was freezing and we had to pass tests and learn CPR), tennis (which I didn't want to do), crafts (which I loved, lanyards and all), and the two that were most unique to me at the time: archery and riflery. Archery I hated, because, frankly, I was not good at it. The bows were too big, the arrows too hard to pull back, and nothing ever hit the bull's-eye. The rifle range, however, proved interesting. I couldn't believe that I was shooting a real gun. I was fascinated by this, despite the fact that weapons of any kind generally held no interest for me; in fact, they have always repulsed me. Still, there I was, shooting from a prone position, feeling the kickback into my shoulder when I pulled the trigger and also being amazed to find that most of the time, I hit my target dead-on. (Mind you, I am now the mom with the "no guns" rule; we live in a different era, though!) The other thing I remember about Douglas Camp is something my parents also remember well: the fact that the camp was so strict about etiquette at mealtimes that I came home with impeccable table manners. As I said, the camp was family run, and the matriarch of the clan, who was probably in her seventies or eighties back then, used to rotate tables. She'd sit first at this one, then that, and the campers were all warned of her eagle eye and intolerance for elbows on tables or talking with mouths full or what-have-you. I remember my dad telling me that this aspect of my experience reminded him of his boyhood camp, where the instructions were to drop a serving dish full of food if the person you passed it to served himself without taking the dish from you first. I don't remember what kind of penalty system was in place to keep us all on our toes (with napkins in laps), but it was effective, whatever it was. So, camp was tough, but I got through it. I laugh about it now, especially because I think Douglas Camp is a camp my son would love—and of course at the time they selected it, my parents thought I would love it, too. But sometimes there's no accounting for taste, preference, experience. For now, I just remember a challenge I met; and I renew my wish for my son to have no challenges this summer . . . just a riotous good time.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

With Dad: Gatlinburg, TN

Father's Day is coming to an end. I have been thinking of my dad throughout the day, though, and wondering what I could possibly write to do him justice, to honor him. A lifetime of memories—forty years of them, shy some months—often simply blend into a constant, comforting knowledge: less a specific image or recalled dialogue, more just an ongoing certainty that he is there for me, always has been, in every interpretation of the phrase. We are bound by more than our blood, our cells, our DNA . . . and without him, I would be a sorry shadow of the person I am. And yet, he reminded me of something the other day: our first trip together, just the two of us, in the summer of 1978, when I was almost nine years old. In August of that year, we drove from Chicago down into Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains, before continuing on to Georgia, where we'd meet other family members. We stopped and stayed a couple of nights in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a quaint rustic town proud of its simple country heritage and its majestic natural surroundings. On a mountain pass (I think heading into Gatlinburg), just before a tunnel, we saw two black bears at the side of the road. My father stopped the car some distance away so that I could take a picture of them, and I think now how instead, he could have just kept driving. Having grown up in urban settings, the only bears I ever saw were bears in zoos, and it seemed the luckiest thing in the world to happen upon them in the wild like that. Of our time in the town itself, I remember a few things: Although I don't recall the name of the little hotel we stayed in, I do know that it was at the edge of the Little Pigeon River, and that we had breakfast outside on a small patio where yellow-orange objects conspired to wake us with cheerfulness (the same sunny orange hue was seen in patio umbrellas with white polka dots, in the rubber slats of the deck chairs, and in glasses of chilled orange juice that we drank down as we talked about what to do that day). On August 15, 1978, we took the Gatlinburg Sky Lift five hundred feet up to the top of Crockett Mountain to a viewing platform. The frame of the sky lift was yellow (more good cheer); I remember also that I wore a favorite pair of yellow leather (or fake leather) sandals and that my feet did not reach the foot bar, since my legs were not long enough and stuck straight out in front of me. This was in sharp contrast to my father's long legs, bent at a severe angle to fit. As we neared the top of the mountain, our photo was taken. I loved scaling the mountain in this way, dangling from cables, exposed on all sides (it was like a ski lift)—and I reveled in the fact that this was something I would just share with my father; even if my mother had been with us, she would likely have skipped the ride, acrophobic as she generally is. I was proud of having no fear, and happy to look straight down, thinking nothing of danger. I don't know what else we did during the day(s) we were in Gatlinburg. I am guessing that we went in and out of shops, am guessing that we bought old-time treats like salt water taffy and caramel apples. I know that one evening we went to a vaudeville show, my first, and I was captivated by the crazy word play in a full rendition of the famous "Who's on First?" skit. Another night, we went to the movies. I am not sure which film we saw, but I know it was either Grease or The Cat From Outer Space, both of which had come out that summer. Everyone was buzzing about Grease, but I was also captivated by CFOS, and I remember the leaps of imagination by which I transformed myself into the alien space cat, Jake, with his glowing collar. Neither of these films, I'm certain, was what my father would have decided to watch on his own—bless him and his indulgence, he never let me see that he was anything other than enthusiastic for my choices. In the flow of years, our time in Gatlinburg was short—too short—but back then, time slowed down for us, and I know we had that rare opportunity to lose ourselves in each other's company, to trick ourselves into thinking that it was just us two for the world and that our special journey with its inside jokes and songs and laughter could last forever. And, in many ways, it has. I am thankful for many things about my father—I hope he knows this—but above all, I am thankful that he is the kind of man who could take a genuine interest in the ideas, thoughts, and dreams of a nine-year-old girl. I am blessed to have as a father a man who has, no matter how busy with his own work or life concerns, always made time to nurture our relationship. Thanks, Dad. I love you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tangled Skates: a Love Story

A perfect Indian Summer day, nearly eleven years ago. An afternoon in early September, sunny and warm, blue sky, a day for being outdoors. I had recently gone out on a series of dates—platonic coffees, pleasant lunches—with the man who would in time become my husband. And just a week or so before, he had upped the ante significantly: he told me he'd be going home to France for a vacation in the fall, and did I want to go with him? At that point, although there was clearly a mutual attraction, we hadn't even kissed; I had no possible answer to a "meet the family" proposition. On this end-of-summer day, though, I didn't need to give an answer to that question, only accept an invitation to go skating around Central Park. At his apartment on East 92nd Street, we strapped on our in-line skates, and too little protective gear, and headed out. It had been about three or four years since I'd skated. Maybe not since I lived in Saint Louis, when I'd burn off stress by circling Forest Park. (It was there, in fact, that I first learned to skate in-line style—encouraged, if you can believe it, by a couple of married of senior citizens I'd met haphazardly in the park who were also wearing Rollerblades, and helmets.) I was a bit rusty. It should also be said that although I was confident on level surfaces, and comfortable with a certain amount of speed, I had really never practiced on hills of any major significance. Central Park was fine. It was more than fine, in fact. A perfect date, and I remember being extremely proud of the fact that I didn't fall down and embarrass myself . . . until we started the return to my husband-to-be's apartment. I never realized before, how hilly that part of Manhattan is, the low 90s on the East Side, sloping down to the East River from the park. My husband (I'll go ahead and call him that now), decided it would be best to head across 91st Street, because where it got real steep, between 3rd and 2nd Avenues, this part of the street is blocked to traffic. It's a nice, calm pedestrian way, with benches lining each side. At the top of it, I hesitated. "It's like skiing," my husband said. "You just slalom down. Going side to side allows you to control the speed." Which I'm sure was great advice, except that I don't ski—and there's a reason for that. But there was no way I was going to take off the skates, so I took a deep breath for courage and started down. My husband was quite solicitous and charming, doing his best to accompany me slowly back and forth. And it was working out fine until about halfway down. I'm not sure what happened exactly, but as if in slow motion (which it certainly wasn't), I see the replay: how we got out of sync somehow and when he went right, I was going left; how we were weaving back and forth past each other, crisscrossing, and I was clearly picking up more speed than I could handle; how he was downhill from me, and at some point, it was inevitable that we would crash into each other. We did, or rather, I crashed into him. I remember that I landed smack on top of him, a tangle of limbs and skate boots and spinning wheels. We provided a very entertaining spectacle, no doubt, for the people who were sitting on the benches. We laughed about it and helped each other up, dusted off our grazed elbows and knees and made it back the remaining two and a half blocks to his apartment. The end result? Our roller derby escapade sped us up in more ways than one: my final memory of the day was on his apartment terrace, a champagne cocktail to dull the sting of the cotton pad soaked with rubbing alcohol to wipe the grit from our joints, and finally . . . a first kiss of many.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Jumbleberry Pie

During the summer of 1991, I was living in Dutchess County, New York, soaking up sun in the Hudson Valley. It would be my last summer there, as I was heading into my senior year in college and already knew that I would be moving on to do other things after graduation. At this time, I was involved with a local man who was nine years my senior (I've posted about him here and here). He was self-employed and didn't work traditional hours so we got to spend a lot of time together. Things were still good between us that summer, easygoing; we took care of each other, which also meant taking care of each other's friends. One friend of his in particular (I'll call him "Adman") worked and lived in the city during the week; each Friday he would take the train from Manhattan to Rhinecliff, New York, and my boyfriend and I would go pick him up. The three of us fell into a routine that suited us all quite well. With summer hours in play, Adman would come up a little earlier, and we'd drive from the train station to the pale blue house—historically a home for boys—where I had my apartment. Out in front was a communal wood picnic table, which usually no one used. With the temperature dropping just enough to be comfortable outside at the end of the afternoon, we'd set up for a meal that I had prepared. I don't remember any of the main dishes I made, and of the desserts, only one. But that one came to represent all of summer to me: Jumbleberry Pie. It was a recipe I'd found in the July 1991 issue of Gourmet magazine. In fact, I just looked it up online, and you can find the same recipe I made, here, on Epicurious. Jumbleberry pie had a name I loved, and the recipe's picture showed deep purple fruit oozing from between the pie's double crust. I remember that this particular summer, I was teaching myself how to bake all kinds of pies. Pies were not something that my mom made at home—together we made cookies and cakes, sometimes other desserts, but not pies. Pies, however, are the perfect vehicle for summer's berry harvest. I remember in that same Dutchess County kitchen, I made whole-wheat-crust blueberry pie, peach custard pie, my paternal grandmother's fresh strawberry pie. In the fall of course, with all the orchards there were around, I made plenty of apple pies as well. Jumbleberry pie, though, was the tops, an unqualified success; a jammy blend of blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, all at the height of their flavor and so naturally sweet, I could reduce the sugar in the recipe and no one would be the wiser. So on this particular summer Friday, shy of twenty-two years, you could find me dusting the flour from my denim cut-offs, the stain of fresh berries still on my fingers, working to feed two guys past thirty and reveling in their calls for seconds, for the rest of the pie "to go," when we'd eaten our fill in the slanting sunlight, swatting away the yellowjackets and listening to the crickets. Darkness would set in, and with the extra pie wrapped up, we'd pile back in the car, drive across the Hudson to Saugerties, where we'd drop Adman off, confirming plans for the weekend, maybe water skiing. My guy and I would head back to our side of the river, back to my apartment, where we'd do the dishes together, standing closer than necessary, and there was a feeling of happy domesticity that I mistook at the time for an eternal quality of life.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lemonade Stand

When the weather got hot, when I was between the ages of six and nine and my family lived in Chicago, my mom would kindle the entrepreneurial spirit and set us to work in the kitchen. We'd cream sugar and butter; add eggs, vanilla, flour, baking powder; we'd overdose the chocolate chips and spread the batter in a pan. I remember the smell of gooey bar cookies fresh from the oven, chocolate still shiny with heat. We'd do a taste test for quality control. We'd get a giant pitcher, fill it with cold water and scoops of Country Time Lemonade mix, stir well. We'd take the lot of it, along with an antique ice-cream table and chair set (wood table top and seats, iron legs and backs), and head across the street from our apartment on Lake View, into Lincoln Park. We'd set up at a sidewalk intersection, where people came frequently in and out of the park, and do a brisk business in lemonade and cookies. I remember the Dixie cups, the repeat customers (especially joggers, hot and sweaty, thirsty and happy to feed a child's kitty. I don't remember how much we sold these treats for—it was the mid-1970s, so it couldn't have been much: a dime a cup? a quarter a cookie?—and I don't remember how much money was made. I do recall that what we earned, I was allowed to keep. And I know that it gave me a feeling of efficacy, of power, that I didn't have before. It was a rite of passage the first time we did this, and it also became an annual tradition during those Chicago years. Now, in an adult world with financial problems deeper than can possibly be fixed with zesty citrus ade and chewy chocolate cookies, I hold even more tightly to these memories and to the simple fact that they were allowed to develop—memories shaped by the hand of a patient parent who looked for ways to stir life skills into the carefree days of childhood. Now, thanks to those summer days with my mother, when life gives me lemons . . . I know what I am supposed to do with them.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mississippi Houseboat

I see the picture in my mind's eye: me, my mom, and my mom's sister Cay. Is my father in the snapshot, too, or was he the one pointing the camera at us? The photo is in an album somewhere in my parents' home. In it, we are sitting on the deck of a houseboat, floating on the Mississippi River, each of us wearing a white T-shirt with a large navy blue logo of the Playboy bunny in the center of it. It's the mid-1970s, and my father has taken some time off from work (Playboy Enterprises, therefore the shirts) so that we could have a bit of Mark Twain summer adventure on the great Mississippi. We've rented this houseboat, maybe for a week. I don't remember how long the trip was, or what our starting and ending points were. I suppose it was a round trip, and the starting point couldn't have been far from Chicago, which is where we were living at the time. Many details are fuzzy, but not the overall sensation of excitement. I know now that this trip was likely planned for my benefit, for the chance to give me exactly the kind of memories I have of family, time together, exploring the world and nature—also marveling at human innovation, which we witnessed not only in our motorized boat but in the system of locks that captured my interest and leveled the water as we made our way. When I imagine now, as an adult, the four of us pent up on that little boat, I wonder how no one was ever thrown overboard. I'm not sure I could manage it these days, but children are blissfully ignorant of adults' needs for personal space, and I'm sure I was quite comfortable with the run of the boat. Small as it was, it was expansive in my mind, since we could take it anywhere along the river. Dad piloted our homey vessel, and I will say now that this was something he learned to do during a five-minute lesson at the dock, courtesy of the man who rented us the boat. I don't know what the man showed my father, but it seemed sufficient enough—with one exception. Perhaps the guy thought that this point was so obvious that even the most novice boat captain would know it intuitively, but it bears stating here: when you're putting in to dock, go against the current. Following is my view of what ensued when my father flew in the face of this common wisdom. We were a good bit into our journey, and along the way we needed to dock. Maybe it was for fuel, or else some other provisions. It was a quiet, sunny afternoon. Two heavy guys, beer guts in overalls (that type anyway, if they weren't really dressed thus) were sitting out on a couple of wooden chairs at the edge of their dock. Lazy day, nothing doing. My father starts his approach, going along with the current. He notices the men on shore now and remarks how friendly they are, waving at us with big sweeping gestures. My dad waves back, emphatically. As we get closer, however, we notice that the men are not just waving, they're waving us off. But by then it's too late. Pushed along by the river, the houseboat picks up speed, and the men, incredulous, can only stand at the dock, helpless, arms now dropped to their sides, as the boat comes crashing in. There was some damage, but nothing catastrophic. It should be said that the dock was a bit dilapidated to begin with—still, it was probably all these guys had for commerce. The thing that made the lasting impression, though, was that apparently the dock was home to a hornet's nest, and when the impact occurred, the sky filled with angry buzzing. I remember taking cover inside the boat's small cabin, along with my mom and my aunt. I was terrified of any kind of stinging insect at that age (they still make me nervous today), and I was all too happy to stay out of range of the swarm. Of course, the rest of the family legend is that my father, being the gregarious, sincere man that he is, spends five minutes with the guys on the dock and by the end of it, they are practically thanking my father for having crashed into them. I don't know how he did it, how he has this effect on people, but sure enough, as we were leaving, the waving this time was in genuine friendship. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. There was a thunderstorm one night, I believe, but it seems pale in comparison with the excitement at the dock. In all, this trip ranks easily on the Top Ten list of our family's vacations; it's one I'd like to duplicate sometime, before my son gets to an age where he wouldn't last a day on a boat with his parents.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Santa Monica Playhouse

During the summer when I was eleven (maybe twelve) and living in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I had my first taste of The Industry, which of course out there means acting. For two summers running, my parents enrolled me in the summer camp program at the Santa Monica Playhouse, which is still going strong, still under the ownership of Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo. Back then, the place felt as homey as it was professionally run; now, their Web site (even the fact that they have one—but of course they would, we all have moved into another century!) seems so far removed from my impressions of the place; they have expanded tremendously. I am glad for them, but I like holding on to my simpler memories. I remember sitting on the ground with other kids in the courtyard on sunny days, learning lines and completing writing exercises where we'd "get into the minds of the characters." I remember seeking refuge from the sun, too, inside the cool, dark theater, where we practiced our singing (the plays we did there in the summer were musicals). I also remember being surprised when told that, in fact, I didn't know how to breathe! I'd inhale and suck in my stomach, and I certainly had never heard of that deep-breathing space in my body called a diaphragm. The theater was a dream come true: intimate but no less "big time" with its lighting system and backstage area; this was not the public school gymnasium rigged up with folding chairs. The plays were great fun, and I especially recall the one called Our Camp, which was (at least in name) a takeoff on Our Town. The story, script, and songs were created by Evelyn and Chris, and everyone got a chance to do at least one solo. We learned the entire play by heart (including other cast members' lines), and during a visit from my aunt and uncle, when my mom and her sister went out somewhere and left my uncle watching over me at home, I bent his ear with the entire production, start to finish. In Our Camp, I had the part of a social-climbing, materialistic, trouble-making camper named Rhonda. (Note here: I was not typecast based on my actual personality!) The crazy thing is, all these years later, I still remember verbatim the solo verse I sang during one of the songs. The lyrics were written as though they were letters home from the campers, and for the record, here's what I sang:

Dear Uncle Joe,
Camp is expensive, you know.
I had to [deep breath here]
pay for the sheets that I tore when I tried to escape through the window, the hole that I shot in the big air-conditioning unit I thought was the rifle range target, and they never said what I owe for the time that I turned my counselor's hair green...
And shucks, you said you'd send me something if I wrote,
so could you send me fifty bucks?!

It was a great experience, with end-of-summer performances to show off everyone's efforts. I saved the show programs for some time but no longer have them; still, I see the layouts: the giant red rose on the cover of Our Camp, the photos within rocket-ship portholes for the play whose title I don't remember (though I remember one song: "Calling All Stars"). There were cast parties as well, which I attended and enjoyed, despite being a bit confused by the older kids' interest in Spin the Bottle. All in all, these were summers well spent, summers that fed my desire for creative expression, for performance, for stepping out of myself and into an imaginary world where I could be anyone at all and earn applause.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Summer Reading: Kon Tiki

My first memory of reading out of pure obligation and not deriving any form of pleasure from it is linked to the start of middle school. I was in California, where it's typical for middle school to consist of seventh and eighth grades only. I'd graduated from my public elementary school and had gained admittance to a private prep school. Heading into the summer before that seventh-grade year, incoming students were given a reading list. Apparently all the books were mandatory. I only remember a single one—though probably there were books on that list that formed a much more lasting impression, I just don't associate their titles with the marching orders I received in the summer of 1981. Until this time, I read voraciously, and I read everything I wanted (including Judy Blume books banned by my elementary school teacher) and nothing I didn't want. I mean, yes, certainly there were other school assignments, probably other summer reading lists, but if any of them were less than exciting, they didn't raise a complaint that I can recall. This was different. I don't remember ever being so certain that I would dislike a book, nor so accurate in such a prediction. The book was Kon-Tiki, a nonfiction account of a high-seas adventure, written by the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. For those of you who don't know, Heyerdahl led an expedition of six men (including himself) to sail across the Pacific Ocean from South America to Polynesia, in 1947. This was no ordinary sailing, however; the men made the journey aboard a balsa-wood raft, which was constructed using primitive techniques indigenous to Peru—the idea being to prove Heyerdahl's theory that it was possible for South Americans to have settled the islands of Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. What ensued was a perilous journey lasting more than a hundred days and spanning thousands of miles of open water. The book was published three years later and was an undisputed success, spawning additional works in film and television. Almost thirty years later, it's impossible for me to remember much about the book, or why specifically I disliked it so much. Maybe if I reread it, I'd even like it now—who knows? I do know that at the time, the book went down like a horse pill swallowed dry, which is to say not well. I kept setting it aside, arguing with my parents about the necessity of reading it all the way through. I was sick of salt water, cloth sails, sharks . . . whatever various dangers threatened these men who, I thought, were fools to float themselves out there to begin with. I suspect that the book was on the list specifically to appeal to boys, and maybe it was successful in that regard. Not that the girls would dislike it automatically because of their gender—that would be a gross stereotype and I'm sure (I hope!) inaccurate—but it was just not my thing at all. Suddenly, reading was the worst kind of chore. And it would often be so in the years that followed. I'm glad that, eventually, I attained the discipline to read all assigned texts with as much careful attention as I gave the books I loved. But I have to say that it was a bit of a shock to the system to have my favorite pastime—reading—suddenly crammed down my throat. It was a sea change (pardon the pun), and a signal that I'd moved into serious academic territory. Now, it's summer again. This time, it's my son who has the printed reading list, issued from the Junior School librarian. At his age, the list is optional; it's a list of suggested books that parents might encourage their kids to read, according to their own tastes. The list is long, with a diverse collection of titles. Certainly my son and I will work through quite a lot of these, and I will be glad for his sake that, this year at least, the activity will remain one of pure pleasure.

Note: If you want to keep track of what my son and I are reading together this summer, please visit my page on GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/acparker and look for the "mother-son book review" shelf.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Miami Driver's Permit

It's hot and very, very humid. I am fifteen and standing with my mother outside at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Miami, Florida. Miami, fabulous as it might be in the dead of winter, is not where you want to be in June, July, and August. And if you do find yourself there in the summertime, for heaven's sake, stay inside with the air conditioning where it's possible to breathe. If you do have to go outside—because who am I kidding? you have to go out eventually—then the next best strategy is to stay away from the DMV. But when you're fifteen, all you want is that most cherished badge of dawning independence: a driver's permit. You can't drive alone yet, but the day is coming, and it's imperative to get that permit so that in another year, you'll be ready for the real thing (or not, but you'll be behind the wheel anyway; clear the sidewalks!). For weeks I had been studying for the written test: questions from the obvious (What does a red octagonal road sign signify?) to the less obvious (How many feet before an intersection are you supposed to signal a turn? I hated the "How many feet . . ." questions). I'd been quizzed by my parents and we all figured I was ready. I don't remember where the DMV was exactly; somewhere in the heart of the city. Here is what I do remember: We, my mother and I, show up and are told to get in line. The line at the DMV is long. In fact, it is very long. It spills out of the squat, square, one-story municipal building, out into the suffocating heat. We are standing underneath some projection of the roof, so there's a little shade, but it doesn't really help. The sun pierces everything; the whole city feels like an oven, but with thick, soupy air, not dry heat. So, we're standing there, and at some point it occurs to us that we are the only non-Latinas at the DMV that day; we may even be the only women, period—in any event, we are vastly outnumbered. All around us are short, dark, middle-aged men, wrinkled from the sun, speaking Spanish. In Miami, one presumes they are Cuban, but who knows. Latino men, anyway. And the other thing that becomes clear pretty quickly, as we are standing there with nothing to do and the line does not seem to be moving at all, is that these men operate by different social rules; their culture allows a much more overt dynamic of male/female, ogler and . . . oglee? Ogled. I'll tell you, the DMV line in Miami is a perfect place to get ogled, if you're into that. We weren't. So we're there, wondering if the line is ever going to get shorter. We're drinking Diet Coke. My mother notices the man behind us in line; he is staring at me, and it's freaking her out. She gives him a look. Next thing I know, the man is pointing to his eyes, then pointing at us (at me, at my mom, at us both . . . I don't recall, and it doesn't matter; it was a shared experience that made us both uncomfortable). We have no idea what the gesture truly means, and he repeats it. Did he say something in Spanish? Maybe, but we remember this later as a mute transaction of increasingly emphatic pantomime: the guy pointing to his eyes with the first two fingers on one hand, pointing to us, back and forth, grinning. My mom's solution? She kind of shoves the soda can out in a "back off" gesture. Eyeballs, Coke cans, volleying with heightened frustration until—what? I'm not sure what stops the interaction. It stops by itself, we turn our backs . . . eventually, what stops everything for good is that, disappointing as it is, my mom realizes we could be standing there for hours—apparently people do just that, then have to come back again the next day—and it's way too uncomfortable in every way, so we leave with her muttering that there simply has to be another solution. Which she finds. In the next day or so, my mom locates another DMV office about a half hour away, where there is no line and we are in and out in no time at all. The only notable thing there was the way, when I took my written test, I had to stand at a counter with a couple other people, and the guy on my right kept trying to cheat by looking at my answers. He had a couple solid decades on me, was also a Spanish speaker, and I assume had ESL issues. I don't know whether he passed his test or not, but I did pass mine. Got my eyes checked, photo taken (I still remember I was wearing a greenish-beige and white striped shirt, sporting long dangling earrings made of hammered copper), and left with a driver's permit in less time than it took to shake a soda can. All these years later, my mom and I still laugh about the scene at the inner-city DMV. The humor doesn't translate so well into words (at least, not in this draft, I don't think), but the pantomime still gets us every time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Breakup: A Mixed Tape for Driving

During the 1989-1990 academic year, I was in college and at the end of another mismatched relationship: this guy being the jealous, possessive type, which did not suit me in the least. At this point, we'd broken up—his fault and my own; neither of us was blameless—and things were still a bit raw and messy. As is the case for so many of us in these moments, music was the cure. Songs were the balm used to soothe, the bubbly champagne-like celebration of freedom, and the arrows we conveniently slung at each other when we'd used up all of our own words. I remember the progression of our relationship in music, starting with "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes and ending with "Train in Vain" by the Clash. These songs were much older than our short-lived romance, but they fit. As for contemporary albums, in 1989, Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever hit the charts. I remember that a girlfriend from high school was staying with me at the time of the album's success. As a humorous side note, there had been some unfounded rumors about us—about the nature of our friendship—back in high school, and as luck would have it, some other alumni had matriculated to my college and had befriended the guy who'd become my ex. Go figure that when my friend showed up on campus (and in my apartment), the rumor mill cranked up again. My ex wanted to know whether what he heard was true. In response to this green-eyed question, my friend and I had a good platonic laugh behind closed doors—especially the doors to my car, where we cranked the stereo, rolled down the windows and pushed back the sunroof, then proceeded to belt out the lyrics to "Free Fallin'," which nicely summed up how I felt, the wind in my hair and a certain freedom back in my life. With a gender reversal, I was the song's narrative persona: a bad girl 'cause I didn't even miss him; a bad girl for breakin' his heart. Along with Tom Petty (the other great anthem of his being "I Won't Back Down"), there was also Sínead O'Connor and I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, in 1990. That album featured relevant songs such as "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance." I remember these ended up on a mixed tape—back when that's all we had: the hours spent taping onto cassettes, not the digital world of playlists, iPods, MP3s—and that the compilation became known as "the breakup tape." When I was sad about the split (which I still sometimes was), or especially if I was deemed in danger of an unhelpful reconciliation, my friend and I would push the tape into the car's player and go for a drive. Anywhere, really, but preferably someplace in view of the Hudson, the Catskills. And before long, we'd be "Runnin' Down a Dream," feeling fine and "like anything was possible" once again. The cure-all in my teens and twenties was simple: a good mixed tape to put me in a singing mood. Come to think of it, often enough this still works (though there's not a cassette to be found in my house). Only the songs themselves are different now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Spackle and Bus Fare

We had paint, but needed Spackle paste. Scores of tiny holes riddled the wall over the mattress where for the past few months I'd slept occasional, fitful hours next to a deadbeat boyfriend of sorts, whose every aspect I had to take in hand, and even then he was useless. Unwilling to share responsibility, unable to share intimacy, he did nothing except waste himself—along with my time, money, and emotions. But as bad as things were, sometimes it takes external forces to bring about change, and in this case change came in the form of an eviction notice. Although I never thought I'd be thankful for an eviction, the request to vacate my first apartment was a huge relief. The posts of the past two days explain why in more detail. But the time had come to move on, and the night before I needed to turn over my keys, I had one thing on my mind: try to recover the deposit money. I don't recall whether this was a futile effort—whether the eviction precluded any return of deposit—but I knew at the time that effort was needed. It had been my parents, I'm pretty sure, who had put up the deposit money for me; I, fresh out of high school, had no credit and no substantial savings, so this had to have been the case. And the only hope I had of accomplishing even a partial return was to fill the holes, refresh the paint. The holes reminded me of the kind of destruction you'd expect from termites, if termites ate drywall. They don't, of course. The holes had been made by darts, countless darts that had missed the round board hanging over the bed. I used to think that a dart-thrower's game improved with a couple of beers, but this clearly was not the case in my apartment. Anyway, painting straight over the holes wasn't working, and so we—this being a collective of myself, my so-called boyfriend, and two squatters who called themselves friends—acknowledged the need for spackle. Except that, realizing this past midnight, with only hours to go before move-out time, spackle wasn't an option; no store was open where we could obtain any. As a result, I can tell you: in a pinch, use Crest. Yes, the toothpaste. It works fairly well. I remember standing on the box spring and mattress, pillows squishing under my feet while I went about squeezing minty, white paste onto the wall. I don't remember what I used to push the toothpaste into the holes, or how long we let it dry before applying a coat of paint. The whole process was less than ideal. But as I said, it worked. Crest, paint, garbage bags: the place got relatively clean. We opened the windows to air the place out. After sunrise, my freeloading friends took off. My mom came to pick me up—me and the boyfriend, too; my mom is not the type to just leave someone out on the street. But neither will she assume more than her fair share of responsibility either. This next bit I remember in a secondhand way; I only heard half of the conversation, but I was told the rest later on. My mom called the boy's mother, a long distance call to Illinois from Connecticut. She told her she was putting her son on a bus, that he'd be home on such-and-such a day, at whatever scheduled time. And the part that sticks with me still—the only part in the story that can still strike a note of sympathy where this young man is concerned—was this woman's response: "But what will I do with him?" she said. As though he were a commodity being returned, defective (which he was); one she didn't have room for in her house, her heart. My mother made it clear that this was not really her problem. Whose son was he, anyway? The next scene was the bus depot, complete with an awkward good-bye. Today I am thinking about new beginnings in general, but particularly remembering this one. The liberation of it, the burden lifted. The fresh start symbolized by a coat of paint and a one-way bus ticket out of town. I thought about this person I used to love and whom I used to call my friend. As the bus picked up speed and headed out of town, his journey was just beginning, but the free ride was over. And I felt free for the first time in ages.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Soup Kitchen Bum Surfing

1987. Privileged Cheeverish town in Connecticut. An odd place to be down and out, but I promise, you can find the homeless, the hungry, or a band of penniless liquored-up losers anywhere. Even in Fairfield County, they don't all drink like bull-market Minotaurs in labyrinth mansions. Read the post just prior to this and you'll know my basic situation: fresh out of high school, college deferral, "friends" of the worst sort, rent to pay, and a dawn-past-dusk job that had me too dog tired to work toward fixing the mess I was in or really even to complain about it. I would just come home, step around the cases of Black Label, and try to get some sleep before having to get up and do it all again. The jerks who lived with me—nay, who mooched off me; who turned my first apartment into a flophouse and got me evicted—were a pathetic bunch. Of course, I was even more pathetic for playing hostess to them. I did it in part because I'd fallen in love with one of these freeloaders when I was just a bit older than fifteen. At that age, I thought you could fix anyone with good intentions. I thought that "potential" was a worthy mate, trumped the flesh-and-blood mess in front of you, because if you just believed in the person with enough ferocity, they could attain that other, higher self. I wanted to save the object of my desire, to make excuses for him (misunderstood artist, dysfunctional family . . . ). I was also stubborn in relationships: despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I persisted in believing that if I was loyal, the guy in question would come around, see me for what I was, love me back. But what I was, was a naive fool. Come to think of it, I guess he did see that, and he took full advantage. So, we lived together, but then there were the others: the so-called friends who also knew a sucker when they saw one. None of them were employed. One was a runaway drug addict from Ohio (she'd left a husband back there somewhere), another a good-looking guy with a quick sarcastic wit, a top-notch education, and an axe to grind with his parents. He reminded me of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. We were a bunch of punks, literally, in terms of musical taste and fashion; upper middle-class kids, none of us older than nineteen, raised with advantages and rebelling with out much cause (if any). But at least I held down a job, while they preferred to work a system of outreach programs and quid pro quo with the local bums. Here's what they'd do: since there was never any food in the apartment (I ate in the restaurant where I worked), and since the only money came from me and went to the rent, they surfed the local soup kitchen to accomplish their two-fold aim, which was to feed themselves and to find someone old enough to buy alcohol for the night. I remember I went with them one time, on my day off. The homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Westport, Connecticut, opened around 5:00 or 5:30 in the afternoon, just as everyone was waking up. This was an interfaith operation, staffed by eager women who seemed to be suffering from empty-nest syndrome; we were treated like surrogate children in some respects, yet also held at arm's length. The food was decent, but not much more than that. I remember the runaway wife from Ohio, sitting across from me, wearing a red plaid shirt and army pants, combat boots planted firmly on the floor, hunched over a plate of rice and beans and holding her fork like a shovel. Things then go down according to the established routine. Mr. Breakfast Club finds one of the known bum-addicts and launches his proposition; next thing you know, we're on our way to "trenchtown" or "T-town" (a neighborhood to score in, a few towns over to the northeast), with some scraggly guy missing a tooth or two sitting in the backseat of someone's car. First, the alcohol. Our jonesing friend takes his middle-aged self into some package store and buys the wino wine or the grain alcohol or the case of beer that's on tap for the evening. Next, the score. I remember thinking this was going to be about hash, and the surprise I felt when the needle came out. The fear that we would be caught with a junkie shooting up on the spot, after he'd melted down his ration with a metal spoon and a lighter. I have always felt lucky to get in and out of that car unscathed; people as innocent as I, stupid enough to put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, have done much worse. I remember sitting next to the window, behind the passenger seat, looking pointedly out into the deserted parking lot, away from the site of the injection, away from addled euphoria coursing the veins of the desperate man we'd taken for a joyride. I remember thinking—knowing—that I didn't belong there, and that what I wanted more than anything in that moment was to go home. Not to the stinking crash pad my apartment had become, but home where my family lived. And yet, I was still too proud to tell them I was in over my head. I was too proud and too tired and too much in the habit of unrequited love to say out loud what I knew in that instant: that the hand I then felt on my knee—the hand of the lost boy I once thought I could rescue—was not one that thrilled me at all anymore. No, not in the least.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ships (Westport, CT)

I graduated from high school in 1987, and although I had applied to college (one only, I knew what I wanted) and gotten my acceptance, I deferred matriculation for a year. It was for the best. Teen angst and anger were peaking, I was sick of school, and really it would've been a waste for me to go straight through when all I could think of was living on my own in the "real" world. Well, I got a dose of that. A good dose of what I could expect to do with a high school diploma and—let it be said—a bunch of shifty slackers for roommates, whose only ambition was to get wasted and stay that way all day. Except that I was not a slacker; that's something I never have been. And even if I had wanted to party—illegally, mind you, I was still underage for beer let alone the rest of what was out there to be had—well, there wasn't the time or energy for it. After a somewhat lost summer following graduation, I set about getting a job, a checking account, and an apartment, trying to making a responsible go of it. My credentials got me a peon's job in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant in Westport, Connecticut. Well, I suppose it could've been worse; I could've been busing tables or washing dishes, except that I had legal citizenship and did not speak Spanish. The restaurant was called Ships (or maybe The Ships), and like all the other restaurants where I have worked since that time, it exists no more. I was hired to work the cold station: salad prep, raw bar, dessert prep. I was not responsible for creating any recipes, so don't get any fancy ideas about my being a pastry chef or anything of the sort. And when I say "raw bar," I'd best disabuse you of any highfalutin' ideas: this was not the Grand Central Oyster Bar or Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar or any "Bar à huîtres" in Paris. In fact, oddly enough, most of the "raw" orders had to be run under the broiler for dishes like Clams Casino and Oysters Rockefeller. My job was tough, and the hours were long. I started early, and because my freeloading roommates remained stubbornly unemployed, I soon began working late as well: double shifts almost every day; leaving to go to work on the town bus before anyone was awake and coming back in the wee hours, dead on my feet, to an efficiency apartment that stank of booze and reeked of smoke and was just heating up for an all-night party when I walked through the door. If you're wondering how I let this go on, I'll tell you first that I was simply too exhausted to deal with a confrontation, and second that this stupid frame of mind should be excused with a plea of youthful lack of savoir faire. It took about three months and an eviction notice for things to sort themselves out, by which time the restaurant was already set to close.) But back to the restaurant; I will tell you what I remember. First, cue the cheap black-box stereo with cassette player: Boston's Greatest Hits, played in an endlessly repeating loop. Honestly, I'm not sure I'd ever listened to Boston before working at Ships—almost certainly not, wasn't my taste—but I can still hear that falsetto today, and in a lovely synesthetic mash-up, I immediately smell briny, iodine oysters. First thing I did in the morning was make up a batch of whipped cream to stash in the fridge for desserts. Leaving the cream in the automatic mixer for too long, it was here that I accidentally discovered how to make butter. I plated tray upon tray of skimpy side salads. I sliced meats for chef salads, boiled eggs, washed spinach, and crumbled to bits the bacon fried by the line cooks. I did who knows how many other tasks before the lunch crowd came. I remember that the kitchen was very low-tech by today's standards, but the crazy ticker tape machine over my station spat out orders quick enough to put me in a tailspin on a regular basis. I'd get slammed twice most times a table turned: apps then desserts. As though it were yesterday, I can feel the floor under me roil and suck like quicksand as the tape dictated multiple raw bar orders. The thing about those clams and oysters was that there was no way to prep them in advance; they had to be opened to order. Six at a time, I'd open the clams. For the oysters, I'd shuck and cuss, gouge my hand and suck the sore spots on my palm where a stubborn shell had refused to open, the tip of the oyster knife stabbing my skin instead. This was the job hazard no one really explained; nor the potential for a vibrio infection (which thankfully I never got). I had no gloves, nor did the thought occur to me that maybe I should wear them. I just kept shucking. I'd get a breather, then I'd plate desserts, and at least that task was easy. My other memories are about people, two in particular: the line cook who worked the grill, and the fry guy next to him. We were three in a row throughout the service. The grillmaster acted like he had seniority, whether he did or not. He was a crotchety, foul-mouthed, middle-aged black man who did all he could to widen the traditional rift between kitchen staff and front of house. If an order came through incomplete or fouled up in any way, this guy had a tendency to smack the servers on the back of their hands with his hot metal spatula. The fry guy smelled like smoking fat. He was a very tall, skinny, redheaded guy who spoke English as a second language, but I have no idea where he was from. Someplace in South America, I think, although his looks certainly didn't fit the typical Latin image. One day, I remember, he was late to work. Then more than late. He pulled a no-show and it caused a scandal; rumor was he'd been arrested for stabbing someone in an alley or behind a building in town somewhere. I had a hard time believing it, but saw something in the paper a day or so later. The details I lost sight of, but not the haunting feeling that just maybe he was innocent and getting a bum deal—or else I'd been working in close proximity with a person who'd gone homicidal. Neither thought was comforting. But, heading home at the end of every crazy day—no matter how crazy—I had other fish to fry. As I said, I got evicted from the apartment I was living in. Not a very good start to my new, "adult" life of responsibility. I moved back in with my parents while my roommates (and assorted squatters) scattered to the winds; I have to say I was as relieved as I was ashamed. When Ships closed down later that year, I looked for my next paycheck and started saving money for travel, biding my time until the following September . . . when I'd be more than ready to continue my education—in books, not in barnacles or any other fishy thing.