Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Books!


I'm at least partially responsible for keeping the Strand Bookstore in business this year. I took three strolls around the joint and took care of most of my holiday shopping. Some of the more meaningful gifts I unearthed turned out to be the thriftiest, plucked right out of Lady Luck's hands from the outdoor dollar racks. This cold weather we've had has kept some great titles lingering on those shelves!

Here, a list of books received, and given.
Received:
The Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. Maybe I'm the last person on earth to read this, as the book jacket wears a "#1 New York Times' Bestseller List" flag at the top. Just finished it after a middle of the night sprint, and enjoyed it. Turn of the last-century mystery. Page turner.

Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser. I've ducked into the author's prelude, and already appreciate Ms. Fraser's studied examination of a biographer's role.... in this case, she makes every effort to create this historical epic tale without offering allusions throughout to our heroine's terrible ending. Oh, and she didn't say "Let Them Eat Cake", after all!

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham. Looking forward to this; I've only heard amazing things about Mr. Cunningham. I've not read The Hours, so will be moving backwards through his catalog if this goes over. The Hours, in particular, always sounded like it would be a dark read, but that didn't stop me from loving Tess of the D'Urbervilles or for that matter, Anna K.

Room, by Emma Donaghue. I've been dying to read this, and it's next up on my list. I don't know very much about it, but think it might freak me out since the protagonist is a five year old boy who, I understand, is raised in a closet. Still, the reviews are amazing, and this was one of those "Hey, Jim, I bought this book and you can give it to me for Christmas" titles.

The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Novel set in Paris, in the 1930s! Given by my brother and sister in law avec Salt, the cookbook (cute theme, no?).

Books I Gave:

Uncle Steve: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Beautiful and poetic. I've wanted to underline sentence after sentence. Also, The Book of Imaginary Beings, an encyclopedia style book about various creatures that appear in Middle Eastern mysticism, by Jorge Luis Borges. Steve knows more about mysticism than anyone I've ever met, and I was excited to discover this.

Daniel, age 14. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and other stories, Roald Dahl. Daniel is frighteningly smart and sarcastic. Hello, Mr. Dahl Junior.

Claire, 16. Breakfast at Tiffany's. Oops, gave my 16 year old niece a book about a prostitute. Oh well. At least it wasn't about a grisly murder, ahem, In Cold Blood.

Davis, age, 11. A Game of Thrones, by George Martin. Some adorable nerd working the bag check in the comic shop Forbidden Planet told me this would be an excellent choice for a brilliant little guy who probably finished the entire Harry Potter series when he was like 8. It's being turned into the next saucy HBO series, to boot. Again, perhaps I overreached with the age, but people used to do that with me and I turned out alright.

Scott, age 19. Dreamland, by Kevin Smith. Historical fiction about old Coney Island. Scott's going to school across the river at Seton Hall, studying International Relations. I hoped a book centered in the five boroughs would be an incentive for him to come on over and explore more often.

Rebecca, age 20. Are You Somebody? Accidental Memoir by a Dubliner. by Nuala O'Faolain. One of the most beautiful coming of age autobiographies I've ever read. Rebecca goes to school at St. Andrew's in Scotland. She's already soaked up much of Europe in her two years over there, so I thought she would enjoy a beautiful life story to fill in some of the holes that more touristy travel tends to reveal.

Matt, age 19: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe . Car culture essays published in Esquire in the 1960s! Matt's going to college in the middle of Pennsylvania in the small city, Altuna. He's a big hearted, rap-listening, hard-working kind of dude who likes to have a good time, and I thought he would enjoy reading some of the first "Laddie" lit.

Nick, age 14: What is the What? The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers. Nick is already a competing rock climber on the international circuit. I thought he would enjoy Mr. Eggers' fictional memoir of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I've not read it yet, but have it sitting in one of my many piles.

Elizabeth, age 16: The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists they Inspired, by Francine Prose. Elizabeth is such a lovely girl. She can be quiet, but there's something stirring about her, and I suspect behind the scenes she's inspired her own share of burgeoning teenage boys.

Jim, my sweetie: new copy of Patricia Wells' Simply French cookbook-- one that isn't being held together by rubberbands. Also, the new Mark Twain autobiography (a real door-stopper, at that). A sweet Bird Encyclopedia that he already likes to read before falling asleep (one of the beautiful disconnects about him that I love; his rural reading in his urban environment-- when we first met, he had a pamphlet about raising chickens that he used to read, and I thought "this is the guy for me", despite the fact that I've not ever raised chickens). The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky. A look at how food was studied and catalogued by the Works Progress Administration- I'm looking forward to borrowing this one.

My mom: An American Wife, by Curt Sittenfeld. This, to me, looked like a guilty pleasure that's only thinly veiled fictional account about Laura Bush and her conflicted White House years. Puritans, volume 2, to inspire a beautiful work in progress.... Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. Anything about circus folks intrigues me; throw them back a few plus decades and I'm hooked. A hard-worn biography of Elizabeth the Great that looked interesting.

Mother in law: The Museum of Innocence, by Nobel-Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. This epic love story set in the Middle East looked like something she could really tuck into over a long winter.

Jamie: Jungle Book popup book; Cricket at Times Square, Sea Monsters...

It seems that I got carried away, but I'm a careful shopper and did pretty well at the Strand. In the past, when the kids were younger, I got them toys or cute clothing, but from now on I think I'm going to follow in the footsteps of those people who loved me and supported my reading and writing when I was growing up.

Did you buy books this season?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yes, Jamie, There is a Santa Claus


Today, Lisa Belkin was kind enough to indulge me again on her New York Times Motherlode blog. This time, I wrote an essay about Santa Claus, and about how every year a certificate comes in the mail that puts Jamie "on the top of Santa's list". I expected to receive the "Way to set your kid up for the real world!" comments; I have to say, I wasn't expecting quite so many. Read it below, and feel free to add your own two cents....

It’s Silly, but I Believe

Yesterday we questioned Santa. Today we defend him.

Sort of.

In the first of two guest posts today from parents who want their children to believe, Rachel Aydt wonders how long the magic should continue, and whether there’s such a thing as believing too deeply.

YES, JAMIE, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS

Four years ago I stumbled into a way to have Santa Claus send my now 7-year-old son Jamie a personalized letter, hand-stamped from the North Pole. Every year it’s delivered in a parchment-colored envelope addressed to him in an ornate font, and has a vintage picture of Santa swirling about on the background as if it were magic itself. Details dropped into the letter always an added layer of mystery: Santa always seems to know whether we will be waking up on Christmas morning in Kinderhook, N.Y., Philadelphia or even Florida, certainly a more challenging spot for a reindeer and sleigh to visit than the northern East Coast. He also knows which friends, pets or cousins will be around. “Be sure to tell Max…Spunky… Davis and Isabel… that if I don’t get a chance to write to them, I’ll drop by their house as well.” The letter arrives after Thanksgiving, and around that time he perks up about me checking the mail in the lobby of our apartment building when his school bus rolls home at 3 p.m.

That first year I discovered that you could also send an official “Good List Certificate” which arrives in a separate, larger envelope. The 8 1/2 by 11 heavy stock document is pretty swank with its shiny gold and crawling holly-berry borders and Jamie’s name swirled around in calligraphy. The thing is even hand signed by “Alfonso Elfonso, Chief Elf.” Suffice it to say that four years have gone by, and Jamie has managed to remain “at the top of Santa’s List” each successive year.

I’ve tried to teach Jamie not to brag about this incredible knack he has for making it to the top of Santa’s list. Last year, my lesson didn’t take, and subsequently a teacher told him that the list goes sideways, which means many kids are on the top. He came home quite flummoxed about this clear mistake, and with some new reassurances the matter was closed.

Another year has come and gone. Last week, as he was jumping up and down for joy after checking the mail, he was climbing the four flights of stairs to our apartment when I heard him say breathlessly: “Out of six billion people on Earth, I made it to the top of the list again! Mommy, how did I do it?” After being hit with the concern that I’d taken it too far and there was no going back, I considered his question as if it were etched truth. There was the bad chemistry he had with another boy in his classroom earlier in the school year that led to some parent and teacher contact, and he worked hard to overcome his entanglements with a boy whose bravado could be attributed to coming to a new school after his own parochial school had been shut down.

“Well, you give people second chances,” I said, and explained how proud I am of how he and the boy are friendly again.

“And you work really hard on your homework even when you don’t want to.” I was on a roll.

“And I gave a poor person my allowance in Paris,” he continued.

Yes, I thought, you did drop a Euro in a hat while we were in that outdoor market. This back-and-forth commentary went on for a bit, and by the time we reached our fifth floor landing, he was well convinced that there had been no mistake; he had done it again. There were other things I didn’t think I needed to go into at the moment that for me put him at the top of the list, mainly that he’s thriving in his first year in a full-inclusion classroom setting after being in a self-contained special-ed classroom since he was 3.

Yesterday, Jamie came home from school and said, “I’m worried about my best friend [they're all his 'best friend' these days] M. because he doesn’t believe in a lot of things.”

“Really, like what?”

“He doesn’t believe in Santa.” My heart sank. This is the year, I hear, that many kids have their bubble burst.

“That’s so sad, Jamie. Maybe Santa doesn’t come to his house.” The moment that left my lips, I regretted saying it.

“But M is a good boy! What happens when Santa doesn’t come to your house?”

I thought about this again, as if it were truth etched in stone, and thought of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter. I didn’t have an answer for him that could sound as certain as I would have liked, because he’s right, M. is an amazing child, and Santa should come to his house. So I said something along the lines of, “I think you have to believe in Santa for him to come.” Maybe we’ll take Jamie to the giant, red, quite official looking “Believe” mailbox at Macy’s, which I believe is located somewhere near the overzealous perfume sprayers. Suspicion looms now, but the spell hasn’t been broken, and I have a few tools left in the woodshed to scrap together another year or two.

“Mom, can people get on top of the good list when they’re 30? Or 35?”

“I think that might be a record, Jamie.”

“Do I have the record now?”

“Sure, why not?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity


Roughly ten years ago, Jim and I became interested in a growing movement called Voluntary Simplicity. The motivation began as financial. The group was inspired by a book I'd admired, Your Money Or Your Life, a keeper that I go back to from time to time when I need a boost of frugality. At weekly meetings, an interesting cross-section of people sat in a circle in a host's apartment speaking about what cool free things they did that week (hiking; kayaking; ushering at a theater and seeing the play). The main idea of the group was to support each other in the "enough is enough" philosophy. For some, that meant getting out of debt; for others, saving money for a downpayment for an apartment; for others, it was about finding a group of new like-minded friends to picnic with in Central Park-- potlucks, naturally. The philosophical questions circled around how to pare down one's existence so that one could spend more time pursuing their interests rather than spend all waking hours working in some hated job to pay off bills for piles of crap that no one even needed. "Piles of crap" is of course a relative term: my crap entailed those two non-negotiables, rent and food. Eventually we slipped away from these meetings, feeling that the leader's politics rather than the original idea for the group had taken over the bulk of the tone, but something about the driving philosophy has lingered over the years.

This is the time of the year when we're all reaching for our wallets to shop for people we love. We shop to show appreciation, to fulfill some desire in others and ourselves. And yet, the theme I hear buzzing all around me this December, both among family and friends, is that once again, Less is More. People are choosing to live within their means (despite what TV news shows would leave you to believe), and shopping seems to be more calculated and thoughtful; much less impulsive and extravagant. Gifts are less about impressive sweeping gestures that leave credit card hangovers long after January comes and goes, and more about, well, the person behind the gift.

In one of my favorite sappy Christmas movies, The Homecoming (the pilot of the Walton's), John Boy's mother, played by Patricia Neal, presents her budding writer son with a couple of Big Chief tablets and pencils so he can get to work writing his books. The euphoric pleasure she takes in a blooming Christmas cactus in her basement fills up her whole home with joy.

I have the Big Chief tablets on the brain this year, and have bought loved ones mostly books. This year we're spending Christmas in Philadelphia, and being together with Jim's mom and siblings will be a tonic to the loss we still feel in Jim's sister passing away six months ago. This upcoming weekend, we'll spend an early Christmas in Kinderhook with my family by the lake. My mom's asked me to bake, which I'm happy to do, in the spirit of offering a simple pleasure, like the Christmas cactus bloom. What do the holidays mean for you this time around?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What I'm Thankful For


Today I'm getting ready to host my first Thanksgiving, in my very own little 750-square-foot Manhattan apartment. Manhattan is home, of course, to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which we'll attend. My neighborhood is home to the Bowery Mission, which will feed an untold number, and I'd love to drop in and lend a hand for a bit so Jamie can see where his donated mashed potatoes really went. Thankfully, my mom is bringing the turkey and dressing for our own table, along with her homemade cranberry sauce and a pecan pie. I have a 28-inch stove, and while it's an industrial-style Blue Star gas range that we bought and installed ourselves, it's still on the cramped side for cooking up, well, an entire Thanksgiving dinner. Plus, I fall into more of the baker category when it comes to things I'm naturally drawn to cooking (hello, carbs), and so am making homemade yeast rolls with a pumpkin pie, the homemade dough for the crust of which is chilling in the refrigerator now. My pie filling, made last night with my own freshly ground pumpkin pie spice, is hanging around my packed fridge in a mason jar (tip: this takes up about 4 inches of space rather than a huge tupperwares' worth!), and waits to be poured into the pastry shell, once that's underway.

Oh, Thanksgiving. Sometimes anxiety gets the better grip of me, and I'm dealing with that in my life; who isn't? Show me one person. I don't write about it normally, but it's ever present, particularly around the holidays, and my triggers are numerous. I'm thankful that I know I'm not a SuperWoman, even if I want to be, and know when to ask for help when I need it. When I'm feeling strong, I can see my triggers as sculpture, and walk around them with aplomb. When I'm tired and vulnerable, nothing much seems to do the trick, and I walk around with a lump in my chest. This, for now, given that I'm falling into the Vulnerable camp these days, is best treated with a positive attitude and some old-fashioned therapy. And so I've been thinking about what I'm grateful for this year.

I'm deeply thankful for my family.

I'm thankful for Jamie's progress. He's just gotten his first official report card, and his overall average was an 88 with a huge smattering of As for general excellence. His teacher, Sister Rita Maria, who I'm growing to love, wrote one sentence in the comments section: "It has been a joy to have Jamie in my class this year, and I'm thankful for the opportunity." Wow. We've come a long way, baby. So much of this success can be attributed to his own strength, hard work, and determination, but without the fleet of experts who've helped him along the way, and who continue to do so, we would not have been able to navigate his special needs with the same patience and understanding. I keep thinking of the director of the Child Development Center, Margo Bayroff, who took Jamie into her therapeutic nursery with open arms, and who loved him for who he was, seeing his full potential at 3 after he was thrown out of nursery school. I also keep thinking of Billy English, the director of Admissions at the Cooke Center, who took him in when he was turning 5. I'll never forget Billy looking at me at a meeting and asking me, "What can Jamie bring to us?" What followed was the to-be-expected-from-any-mother litany about his compassion, his sensitivity, and his empathy, and the knowledge that he just needed a chance-- some extra helpers to help him navigate his social challenges. So in 2 1/2 years, after being given that chance, Jamie comes home with a B+ report card from his mainstream classroom. My sweet kid has a heart that opens up and gives and gives unconditionally, and I want to continue to learn from him, as I do every day.

I'm thankful thankful thankful for this life, with all of its bumps and turns.

I'm thankful for, and missing dearly, those lives which have ended, but which have left a lasting impact on mine. The recently lost to cancer, my dear sister in law, Patty, and father in law, Jim, continue to live on inside of me, in Jim, and in Jamie. I'll raise a toast to them and call on their loving, calm spirits. To the further departed, I raise a toast in my heart to my Granddad, who I miss every holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers~how thankful I am that you let me bend your ears from time to time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Missing the Marquees


Today, one of my favorite blogs, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York , joins a discussion originating from a New York Times slideshow about how franchises are taking over old theaters in the city. One woman summarized the shift in venues very succinctly: she's scared she'll get bedbugs in a moviehouse, and plus, "I like pumpkin lattes."

Two years ago, we took Jamie to see his first Bollywood movie at the old Eagle Theater in Jackson Heights. I'd checked to make sure it wasn't a violent choice (I can't remember the exact title, but I believe it was a remake of Babu), and it wasn't. However, it sure was sexy, and at one point my then-five-year-old leaned over to me and said "If I had to dance with all of those ladies, I'd be embarrassed." That said, he couldn't peel his eyes off of the swirling saris and ensemble numbers, and I wonder if that seeded his love of music in a far more powerful way than the "Singing Songs With Susie" class he took when he was three or so. The peeling Art Deco theater was freezing in the winter months and I remember that we had to wear our heavy coats throughout the whole feature. It's my understanding that it's been shut tight since May 2009, but I hope I'm wrong about that.

Sometimes I can't take how quickly my own neighborhood is changing, and I'm grateful to another great blog, EV Grieve, that chronicles the changes of the East Village in a thorough, well-researched, and poignant way. These bloggers are the town criers, the seers, and the historians, and I hope you'll drop in on their pages from time to time.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Novel Thing


This is my first time attempting to write a novel, what with the NaNoWriMo and all. I've been having delusions about how days off can be made up, and the more you take, the further of course you are from what you've created. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing for me: I was able to take early morning clarity and sort of many, many untold problems with a fresh eye, and that's recharged my word count mojo.

For example, my story is set around three different families, but I haven't anchored down when exactly it takes place. I'm thinking sort of now, but closer to the late 1990s. Big difference when it comes to cultural references. I'm trying to just avoid those altogether, or mentions of changing technological variables like cell phones, computers and the like. Nope, just skip it for now. My families seem to have a lot of kids (they're all loosely varying shades of Catholic) and I've had a hard time keeping track of whose child is which age, and are they the losers or over-achievers of the family dynamic?

This morning I created a separate document to keep track of the new people who fill my brainspace these days. Their ages, likes, dislikes, and past experiences are knitting themselves together in a sloppy way. I have no idea what's going to happen to them; I'm taking the more automatic writing approach, and just hoping for the best. To the NaNoNaysayers out there, I say Mind Your Own Business and get busy with your own lives. To the compadres, I raise a virtual drink. To my fingers, I promise to crack you and stretch you and to my eyes, I promise to look out the window in the distance, de-blurring you in the high hopes of the next stretch. Moving into 8,000 territory, can I do it?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Authors and Booksellers Find Funding Online


The lead feature on Publishing Perspectives today was a piece I wrote about independent booksellers and authors trying to raise money online to fund their projects...

Kickstarter: “A New Way to Fund & Follow Creativity”, which was founded in April of 2009, is an online fundraising tool that has raised over $15,000,000 for various creative projects. The numbers continue to impress: 200,000 self-anointed patrons have donated seed money for everything ranging from independent films to decorating a front yard as the “Journey to the Center of the Earth” for Halloween, to launching a LGBT-friendly independent book store. More than 3,000 projects have met their goals and raised enough capital to get going. The founders of Kickstarter are Brooklyn-based Yancey Strickler and Perry Chen. “It’s amazing when you give creative people a space what can happen,” said Strickler.... finish reading the rest of the story here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Mexican Suitcase at ICP


I'm not sure why looking at black and white pictures of Spanish Civil War soldiers sitting casually against the landscape of their homeland is so poignant to me. They're laughing and smoking, or looking vacant, or marching, all with the distinctive barren and rocky backdrop of Spain (or how I imagine it beyond Madrid, the only part of the country I've ever seen with my own eyes). The photographers who captured these images are Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Chim, all Magnum war photographers who put their lives in danger to show the world what Franco was up to during the 1930s. The show is "The Mexican Suitcase" which is running at the International Center of Photography through January 9, 2011.

The epic story of the "Mexican Suitcase" is a long and confusing yarn. Three small cardboard boxes that disappeared from Paris shortly after World War II, and which contained 126 rolls of film taken by the three photographers, resurfaced after decades in Mexico. Robert Capa's brother, Cornell, was able to see greet the finale of his long quest in 2007 when he was 89 years old and rapidly nearing the end of his own life.

The result of his dogged search for the negatives is an exhibit chock-full of evocative old photo ephemera: worn rectangular manilla envelopes, labeled by Capa in pencil: "Taro: Sierra" and old notebooks filled with tiny developed contact sheet images, arranged by the photographers to tell the story of which images were used in which publication. There's Capa's 1939 Press Card. Old covers of yellowed magazines splashed with the confidence of handsome Spanish generals. Even a haunting film shot by Henri Cartier Bresson, a founding member of Magnum, of American volunteers in Spain.

My favorite images were the ones where civilians are living their lives with the war falling naturally into the backdrop: life goes on with an old woman selling sardines straight from the ocean's edge. We're also given the choice, for the first time, to examine the published prints against the surrounding images on the contact sheets. Take, for example, the picture of a little girl with saucer brown eyes, a refugee who sits on a bed clutching her toy bears staring off into space. Now you can see that in the surrounding images she looks more like a child than a shell-shocked war veteran, her eyes actually engaging with the camera. Those pictures, in the end, didn't make the cut.

Bonus: Take a minute to soak in the only known photograph from the show, shown above, of Capa and Taro together in the first blushes of their tragic romance.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Interview With Emmy Winning Cartoonist, Dean Haspiel


In today's Publishing Perspectives, I interview my friend Dean Haspiel, the comic book artist who's illustrated the new book Cuba: My Revolution. It's a collaboration between himself and his old family friend, Inverna Lopez, who lived through the idealism and the horror that followed. Here's the beginning of the piece, with a link at the bottom to the rest (check me out in the panels above, linked here for a larger, more readable version. Thanks for the flattering portrayal, Dean!)...

Some 20 years ago, Eisner prize-nominated and Emmy-winning comic book artist Dean Haspiel heard about a family friend, Inverna Lockpez, who escaped from Fidel Castro’s revolution-era Cuba and began documenting her story. Now comes, Cuba: My Revolution, a graphic novel published by Vertigo, a division of DC Comics in New York, that tells the story of a young revolutionary named Sonya who struck out from the beliefs of her family and friends for a greater ideal — it just didn’t turn out the way she thought it would.

Here, Haspiel has offered a visual interpretation of his interview with our writer Rachel Aydt and discusses the challenges taking a friend’s delicate story and giving it a fictional and visual voice:

Publishing Perspectives: How long have you known your collaborator, Inverna Lockpez?

Dean Haspiel: I met Inverna Lockpez through my mother and have known her for over 25 years. She’s a longtime friend, an extension of my family, and has become like a second mother to me. The whole time I’ve known her, she’s been this gregarious, amazing person and painter. She’s an artist and curator, and organized INTAR, a Spanish arts gallery in Manhattan. I always knew her in this context, and thought she was a very interesting, albeit, mysterious woman. Over the years she would reveal stories about Cuba, the things that happened to her.

PP: How did you and she settle on turning this into a graphic novel?

DH: I became fascinated with the fragments of her story as I would hear them, and began knitting a narrative together from the pieces that had drifted out of her. I’d illustrated The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames, and I’d worked with Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, and The Quitter, and Inverna became fascinated with the power of the medium. In our discussions, I said to her, ‘I feel like there’s a full narrative here that we should explore.’ She hesitated because she’d been burying information and keeping it back for so many years. It must have been extremely difficult for her to leave Cuba and to find a new home. I imagine her coping mechanism was to block it out until I encouraged her to open that door.

PP: It must have been difficult to illustrate the more nightmarish parts of her story… click here to read on....

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Seek and Ye Shall Find More, and More, and More


Yesterday, a friend of mine, Ellen Seidman, posted a piece from NBC on her Twitter feed about how to help kids with sensory issues have a better Halloween. Some of the advice was to get them get used to wearing their costumes before the big day, avoid making them stick their hands in squishy pumpkins (which can make some kids with sensory issues feel nauseous), and for God's sake, cut the tags out of the costumes. I would also add that it might be helpful to find a quieter trick or trick stomping ground than the loudest one in your neighborhood, which in my case is the symbol of chaos itself, the Annual Halloween Parade which rolls through the West Village every year.

This piece was sensitive and helpful, but I'm always left scratching my head after reading advice regarding sensory issues. They always, nearly 100% of the time, fail to mention the other type of child with sensory issues, the one who literally needs more to feel; the "sensory seeker." My 7-year-old son has struggled with this going back to nursery school (which he was booted from for being the Hitter, though the professionals failed to note that he was also the Hugger). He struggles with boundary issues to this day, though he's becoming less impulsive by leaps and bounds. I remember him screaming as a baby whenever we'd unroll packing tape, because the loud noise frightened him, but for the most part his responses have beckoned more input. This is a kid who needs tight, tight bear hugs, and stomps his way through life asking for more hot peppers at our local Ramen house. The technical function of the stomping and squeezing is that it gives him the necessary joint compression he needs; the social result is that when he's not getting the input, he drifts when he's not finding his sensorial equilibrium. For these children, there's a fine line between finding this balance and becoming over-stimulated. In the classroom this means he needs to sit up front and be called on often. Weighted vests have, on occasion, given him extra input so he can feel good in his skin and focus on the task at hand. Squeeze balls, sugar free gum, and a whole host of sensory toys have allowed him to do everything from walk in a straight line down the street to endure a long car ride.

We're fortunate to live in a place and time where Early Intervention has given him a hand up in educational settings. He now understands, thanks to untolled hours of sessions with patient Occupational Therapists, when he needs sensory breaks, and he'll ask for them. Stomping up a staircase or two before settling into his arithmetic seems to do the trick. We're finding our way through these challenges, yet reading articles like the one my friend posted make me wonder how many other parents of kids with sensory issues feel that they're not reading tips that are applicable to them?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

That Little Anita Hill Thing


The absurdity of the Virginia Thomas phone call to Anita Hill this week has had me recalling many of the times I was harassed in the workplace, or witnessed harassment, mainly during my restaurant years. It's quite possible that Ginnie Thomas has never been sexually harassed, but for a good number of my friends this isn't the reality. My own experience of being harassed nearly twenty years ago left me having an uncomfortable conversation with the owner of the restaurant I worked in; I remember it like it was yesterday. I felt I should tell him that his manager had informed me he wanted to -- well, let's take one of those "dime store donkeys" and leave the rest to your imagination. I had just moved to New York, and was mortified, poor, and felt powerless. It was probably thanks to Anita Hill that I had the courage to speak up about it and a) be left alone, and b) keep my job. It didn't hurt that the owner was Geraldine Ferraro's husband, and when I told him what had happened he slammed his fist into his wooden desk and hollered something along the lines of, "That sunofabitch, it's a good thing for him Gerry's in Geneva!" I knew I'd be okay, then (even though I was making roughly $2 an afternoon in tips for awhile working the least lucrative shifts; hmmm...).

In an earlier job, a friend was informed (in front of me) that our boss had had a dream about her nether regions, and that she'd resembled Rapunzel (I understand that years later, said boss was sued by a group of brave waitresses who banded together after they couldn't take it anymore). Others have been groped in the walk-in. Others have had affairs with their married bosses, and I've wondered what their lives were like leading up to these arrangements.

Naturally, there's a difference between a sexually-charged environment and a hostile one where power is systematically chipped away in the form of undesirable daily nuances. We're human, and I've also witnessed relationships blossom in the workplace that are completely successful and healthy. These situations shouldn't be a part of the harassment conversation, because there's a difference between love and violence. I think it was Andrea Dworkin who referred to these little jabs as "the little rapes." You're victimized, and in order to not make it worse you keep your head to the ground and move along. You don't create a scene; you don't make it worse. Apparently, in Ginnie Thomas's world, you even have to apologize.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Bullies


Lately, I've been remembering my experiences of being bullied when I was growing up in Santa Fe. It's a blight on my memory, but these days the dark smudge is receding , revealing feelings that are surprisingly raw due to the recent swarm of hi-profile teen suicides in the news. I'm disgusted when I open the paper, an abhorrent laundry list of cruelty that should be unimaginable outside the realm of a horrific C.S.I. episode.

I wish I could go back in time and talk to myself at 9 years old. I'd pick up that pigeon-toed girl out of the Wood Gormley Elementary school yard and tell her it would get better. I was a latch key kid who wore tube socks with dresses to school once in a blue moon, and walked funny with my toes pointed in and my butt sticking out. Day after day, plenty of mean girls in their tight Jordache Jeans would imitate me during recess. The same girls also targeted Lisa S. and Allison G. We weren't allowed to forget that we were ugly, or poor, or fat. The worst it got was one day when the ringleader (she knows who she is) wouldn't let me go to the bathroom. I had to pee, and she (were there others?) held the metal stall door closed until I had to leave. I don't know what I did; I can't remember; I can't remember a lot of those times. This was in the 3rd grade; I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I hadn't switched schools, getting a blessed fresh start. For awhile, anyway.

The poverty issue got me a few years later when I was accused of stealing $20 from another (wealthy) member of my J.V. volleyball team. I hadn't. An apology was eventually coaxed out of my accuser in our school principal's office, but when you move through those channels it only makes it worse behind the scenes.

My younger brother is a whole different story. For years and years he caught even more crap than I did. Being one of the only blond kids in his class garnered him the nickname Hillbilly; Hillbilly was chased and hit, and once, to my horror, even had his shoes lit on fire with gasoline after school one day. Maybe my proudest moment is breaking a glass bottle and holding it to the throat of "Eddie Spaghetti" after he chased my brother down for the millionth time, threatening to slice his neck open if he didn't leave him the hell alone. When C. tells this story he likes to punctuate the ending: I'm his knight in shining armor, standing in front of our bathroom mirror pulling a shard of glass out of my eye. And I'd do it again.

Now I watch my own son, not much younger than my little brother was during some of the worst of it, grow up in a world that's far more heinous, cruel and dangerous than the one we struggled to navigate. I hope he doesn't have to experience the loneliness and fear of being singled out, and I hope that if he sees cruelty being pointed toward someone else, he'll have the courage to do something about it.

As an aside, I was at an exhibit today that transformed a parochial school into a three story gallery stuffed with paintings and installations about education, with the aim to revamp the entire national school system. It was there that I learned it's still legal in 20 states to beat children in school as a punishment. You know, with a belt. Apparently this happens every 4 seconds; and every 4 minutes a student is hurt so badly by their "educator" that they seek medical help. Doesn't violence beget violence?


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Notorious and Notable Women


I took my Parsons students to see the Notorious & Notable: 20th Century Women of Style exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on Tuesday morning. I love visiting museums at the top of the day; you have the place nearly to yourself, similar to catching an 11 a.m. movie. The items on show appear to wake up alongside the rest of us, particularly when they're mannequins donning clothing worn by the likes of 'Was she, or was she not killed by her husband Sunny von Bulow' (pink mini dress, circa 1968) and 'the brunette Buster Brown, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' Anita Loos (pink tea dress, circa 1930s).

The show features jewelry and clothing owned by eighty women who were, at one time or another, active socialites on the New York scene. The intention was to highlight the relationship between the media and the women (hence the "Notorious" in the title). This aspect of the show wasn't as in depth as I would have liked; generally there was just one descriptive quote pulled from a newspaper or magazine of the person's era, mainly directed at their personal style rather than the very things that gave them notoriety, implied riches aside. Some of the lifted quotes described cheeky traits (apparently Hilary Geary Ross has an embroidered pillow that says "Eat, Drink, and Remarry"), but none were doggedly mean like the tabloids of today. Joan Crawford is lauded for her charity work; not her alleged parenting shortfalls (to put it mildly). The exhibit would have benefitted greatly, in my opinion, from a smattering of framed relevant newspapers and magazines.

The jewelry that was captured two-dimensionally in newsprint, dangling on their owners during benefits and parties, perches in cases under flattering light. The irony of the tidy presentation of a pendant owned by one of the two Edie Bouviers of Grey Gardens fame didn't elude me. A giant calla lilly broach shares the spotlight with a pure gold clutch, clutched by Jackie O (earrings to match).

The dresses were magnificent, and varied wildly from a custom made Oscar de la Renta caftan worn by Jayne Wrightsman, to a stripper costume worn by Gypsy Rose Lee. There was an emblematic flapper-era Poiret worn by Isadora Duncan, and other gowns worn by the likes of Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Jesse Norman, and Lauren Bacall. I was particularly moved by two items that appeared worn with age. One brick-red Geoffrey Beene jersey gown was pilled through the bodice, and Alice Tully's blue and white-floral silk coat still needed a good pressing. These are the details though that remind us that breathing, blood flowing women wore them, usually to their advantage.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Parents: Meet Peer Pressure


I'm in the process of developing a pitch about Peer Pressure, and how it kicks in when children turn 7 and 8 years old. This idea came from the following experience: Shortly before Jamie turned 7, he started saying he loves the color black, and doesn't like any other color. This came on the heels of me asking what color we might paint his room if we were to give it a fresh paint job. At first I didn't think too much of it; it seemed like he was teasing. But over the next weeks, he continued to say how much he liked gray and black and brown; not red or green or yellow, like he used to (funny how much the subject of color actually comes up in daily life, but I digress). Over the weeks I became worried and wondered, Was he depressed? Is this color thing emanating from a slurry of dark and gloomy feelings? He seemed to be acting normal, otherwise. This is a kid who used to dive into jars of paint and cover a whole swath of paper, leaving no white space behind from streaks of reds and oranges and greens. On the eve of his school birthday party, we were painting his goodie bags, which we always paint ourselves (this brown bag birthday tradition is either overly-frugal or a nice personal touch, take your pick). Jamie insisted on painting them black.

Looking back, I can see that I had a narcissistic reaction to this. Birthday goodie bags black? What will the teachers and parents think? Isn't that a bit macabre for a birthday bash that's happening in June, not say, October? I wish at this point in the story I could say that I was the cool parent who let him do what he wanted to, hey, they're his birthday goodie bags. I did not. I insisted on brighter colors, and waxed on about how bright colors represent celebrations while dark colors are used for sad occasions, like funerals.

Eventually, Jamie became interested in the red and pink and orange poster paints I put in front of him. And eventually he told me his best friend at school told him that he didn't like any colors besides black, brown and gray. In fact, he got so emotional talking about it that through tears he spat out that his "mind had been washed." Where he picked up that phrase, I don't know. When I asked him what colors he would want to paint his bags if he didn't care what his friend thought, he started bawling and said "red and pink!" For some reason the colors red and pink resonated an innocence that broke my heart.

When I was researching a piece I wrote for Parents about parental negativity and how it affects children, I talked a lot with child psychologists about the mental development of the school-aged set. Among the refrain that came out of the experts' mouths was that kids at this age really, really begin care what their friends think. I'd never considered this too much until this event cropped up, and it got me to thinking, Is it important now that I'm mom to a seven year old to look at others' influences, and learn how to delineate between the positive and negative ones? Maybe this is extremely obvious to every other parent out there, but I have to say, there's a certain moment where outside influences click hard, and your kids come home with a strong idea about something they didn't leave the house thinking about that morning. I have to keep reminding myself that this is not about bullying; it's about maintaining your individuality and being proud of your daily decisions, and filtering them through your own burgeoning belief system. I'm aiming to now talk to experts about how to teach children to use these influences in a positive way, and how to teach them to be connected to their peers, but stay true to their own beliefs and desires. What do you think?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Catholic School Begins, with a Hail Mary in the Bathtub


This morning I woke up early and decided it was such a beautiful day that I’d play hooky from the story I’m supposed to write and head down to Chinatown. I always like to go to the Mayahana Buddhist Temple when I’m that far south. I’m not a Buddhist, but I find the temple comforting and beautiful, and when I go inside during the weekdays I’m usually one of three or so people. The temple sits at the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge right off of Canal Street. Walk into the front atrium, and there are two small shrines of different deities. Each is surrounded by baskets of fruit, oranges being the most common offering. There are two red cushions in front of each alter where the devout bow and pray. They make hand gestures, waving the incense that burns, or the spirit, through their hair. In the middle of the room and throughout the whole of the temple there are podiums whose purpose is to collect donations. Give a dollar, take a fortune.

When you step into the main room, you are transported into China. Monks in saffron robes play drums with sticks; elderly ladies line the walls, chit chatting despite the “Please Keep Noble Silence” sign. There are antique prints, framed in plastic, that wrap around the entirety of the room, telling the story of Buddha, from his beginning as Siddhartha, to the end of his life when he achieved enlightenment. But the thing that steals the show is Buddha himself. He stands golden at 16 feet tall, surrounded by oranges, and by ornate pedestals of brass lotus flowers that shine like the sun.

The first time I entered the main room with my, at the time, 5 year old son Jamie, he observed a young woman at prayer below the mammoth Buddha. She kneeled on a red cushion, and then lay prostrate on the ground. When she stood up to leave, Jamie stepped into her place with confidence. The old Chinese ladies chit chatting along the side of the temple paused to watch as my blonde haired, blue eyed kid waved his hands into the air, dispersing the incense around him. They watched as he lied down on the floor, his forehead touching the tile. Mortified by his devout offerings, I felt the first stirrings of independence twist away from our connection. He was doing his own thing, and in that moment, we were gone to him.

“I want to give the Buddha big respect,” Jamie later told my mother, a few months after that first visit, as we strolled down Mott Street. I’d taken him and my mother and stepdad down to Chinatown for the afternoon to introduce them to our usual weekend round of soup dumplings, bubble tea, and the Chinatown playground. Jamie loves the fortunes. I always give him a dollar to drop into the podium, and he always fishes around the huge pile of scrolls in ecstasy. I know it feels good to him, like sticking your hand into a burlap sack of dry beans. It always makes a rushing noise of paper scratching paper, but the Temple, while solemn overall, is still a busy place, and I let him indulge in this tactile pleasure. A couple of times when it’s been less crowded, the paper rustling echoes, and in my hyper-parenting state, it seems to disrupt the occasional local who’s stopped in to pray. At these times I stage whisper “Jamie, go ahead and pick. You can only have one.”

This seems to be the closest thing to regular religious outings I’ve embarked on with Jamie. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and was quite active in the church when I was younger. I started singing in the church choir, marching myself and my little brother to practice on Thursday afternoons at Holy Faith in Santa Fe. Later, I served as an acolyte and attended a church camp every summer. I loved the music, and maybe I loved the ritual of the mass, or maybe I just found it boring. Whichever it was, it left an imprint that I’ve walked around with forever. I don’t call on it often, but it’s there if I want to access it. I liked watching Father Campbell turn his back from the congregation, lifting up the chalice to the cross, and then knocking the leftover communion wine back until the bottom of the chalice was pointed toward the vaulted ceiling.

My husband Jim was raised in the Catholic Church, and attended Catholic school for much of his primary education. He remembers the knuckle raps and getting pulled around by the scruff of his collar by nuns. Although Jim has volunteered at the Catholic Worker on and off on East 1st Street, he’s never become a part of a congregation in the 20-plus years that he’s lived in the city.

So when I passed by our bathroom tonight to check on my now seven year old, who was taking a bath, I was more than a little startled to hear “[murmur murmur] and keep us from sin at the hour of our death…[murmur murmur]… pray for us sinners… pray for us sinners…” was he saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub?

Jamie has been a part of a unique special education program that uses the only inclusion model in the city; they house themselves in the Catholic schools, where they’ve been welcome. Full inclusion for Jamie is a great thing. He gets to be in a room full of “typical” kids, for the first time in his little life. I see him gaining confidence on the playground, in reading, and now, in his faith, which is not cynical and fractured like my own. In short, he’s happy. To pull him out of religion because of my ambivalence feels selfish; after all, he was learning about every holiday under the sun in his last class’s diversity curriculum. Why should this be different? He comes home and tells me he held hands and sang songs in church, and it was beautiful.

“Hey Jamie, whatcha doin?”

“Do you want to hear my favorite prayer?” he asks, pouring his bathwater through his red funnel and into a Curious George bucket. He went on to recite it, beautiful as a child’s prayer would sound. I felt guilty for the cocked eyebrows I must have worn, and the sneer on my face. Why should a kid be referring to himself as a sinner? So what if he didn't eat the second half of his ham sandwich at lunch? And why did he come home with a drawing of a crucifixion, replete with a guy holding a sword, leaping out of red flames like a superhero, and an angel hovering above in a cloud, during his very first week of religion class?

I haven’t given Jamie religion in his young life. He’s gotten tastes of it, sadly, at funerals. We’ve had talks about god and spirituality, and I don’t dismiss the idea to him. I have painted a picture of, probably, agnosticism with Jesus as an avatar who did a lot of people a lot of good. I skipped the parts about him rising from the dead, and at this point he has no idea what a Virgin is anyway. When I went to church, I always felt like there was a line drawn in the sand between the language of the Episcopal and the Catholic masses. Catholics, it seemed to me growing up, were far more interested in reciting the things we couldn’t explain. They talked about the Virgin thing. They prayed to relics, boxed up and treasured, whether a tooth of poor, tortured Appolonia, or a fiber from a shroud held by Veronica. There were no confessional boxes at Holy Faith Parish. Sin was a word used in prayers, but not something referred to about ourselves in our daily lives.

This isn’t something I feel like I can summarize with a kicker. It’s going to be an ongoing process, I think, of his attending classes, becoming a part of the one community who would take him, and who understand his daily struggles and challenges in the classroom. I’m grateful to them for giving him this safety, but it’s still strange to hear my only begotten son saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Galignani Bookstore, Paris



This marks the end of my English bookstore blog entries in Europe (for this year, anyway!). I'm grateful to my editor, Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives, who gave me the chance to wander and write whatever I wanted to about pretty much any bookstore I felt like writing about. There were dozens more had I had the time, and my hope is that I can pick up the thread in years to come. In the meantime, I saved the oldest for last....

Old World, High Style: A Visit to Paris’ Librairie Galignani, Est. 1801, Publishers Since 1520

• Paris' venerable Librairie Galignani lays claim to being the oldest English language bookstore on the European continent.

• Despite its age — the store was founded in 1801, but the publishers of the same name date back to 1520 — it has weathered the years well and continues be an important part of Paris’ vibrant literary community.

PARIS: A publicist friend of mine who was staying at Hotel Costes in Paris had waxed on about the famous hot chocolate around the corner from her at Angelina’s on rue de Rivoli. Although the end of summer is stultifying — even in Paris and doesn’t usually mean the Best Hot Chocolate Weather — I decided to take my little chocoholic boy to try it out. We’d been on a bickering roll lately and I felt like offering him the ultimate olive branch instead of dragging him through yet another museum. I hadn’t even put together that Angelina’s would be across the street from Fete des Tuileries, an amazing little fair in the Tuileries Gardens with a Ferris Wheel and tons of rides and games, right across the street.

On the walk between the “chocolate l’Africain” which — at the princely price of seven euros — was actually to die for if not slightly nauseating in its richness, and the carnival, was a handsome bookstore called Galignani.

The sign outside claimed it to be “The First English Bookshop Established on the Continent.” On their website, they say it’s been in business since 1520 (as publishers), though the store was originally opened in 1801.

Galignani does boast an impressive history: “The Galignanis were among the first to use the recently invented printing press in order to distribute their books to a larger audience. Beginning in 1520, Simone Galignani published in Venice a Latin grammar (the oldest “Galignani” known)…. However, their greatest success was the Geografia by PTOLEMAUS published in 1597, an incredible bestseller in both the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Not surprising, the shop has moved locations several times in four centuries, and only as recently as 1856 has been parked in the posh arcade of the rue de Rivoli. It is still run by direct descendants of the original family.

I used the carnival as a carrot to keep my kid in check while I took a few spins around the bustling store, which is lined with enviable hardwood shelves dating back to the 1930s. This is an international bookstore, so there are of course massive amounts of titles in French, as well as other languages.

English-language book seekers should walk straight through to the back of the store (passing an incredible International Fine Arts section chock full of esoteric coffee table art books) where they’ll find a comprehensive selection of titles in English, with a strong emphasis on modern fiction and classics alike.

I was happy because my mom, who was doing an apartment swap in Anzio, had run out of books to read in English, and had requested one or two to be thrown in my suitcase for when we visited. She’s obsessed with dark Swedish mysteries, a la Detective Kurt Wallender, and it’s nearly impossible to find something that she hasn’t discovered on her own. The multiple display tables heaved with fun choices — not with any new Swedish murder mysteries — and I was able to snag a couple of lightweight (literally) choices that wouldn’t overburden my strict RyanAir luggage limit.

Small disclaimer: Those who seek out Galignani’s to soak up the atmosphere of an ancient bookshop might be disappointed, not in the selection of titles, but by the newness of the place. It’s pristine, which isn’t of course a bad thing, but I was surprised to learn how old it really was, including the wooden bookshelves. They’re gorgeous, but don’t scream “Old! Made in the 1930s!” I guess I’m always up for a mustier, dustier experience, but I certainly can’t blame Galignani’s for being as high-style as the block that it calls home. Take a look for yourself: their website offers a charming video tour that takes you right into the store (click here).

Librairie Galigani is located at 224, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rachel Aydt vs. Girl's Life- judgment in favor of plaintiff


First, let me say that I am telling this story because for a decade I've been teaching magazine journalism at the New School, and I think this story emulates a very real side of the freelance journalism life. Why would I drive nearly six hours each way to stand in a freezing courtroom just so I can get paid $1,500 by a crappy teen girl's magazine? Am I crazy? Two years ago, when (the far superior) CosmoGirl shuttered its doors forever, I made a hard decision. I would make a go of freelance writing, a sort of horrifying prospect for a couple with a kid to feed. My husband is an independent general contractor, and my job always gave us the stability of health insurance. As an aside, my decision was helped in huge part by the fact that the New School provides decent insurance coverage since I'm in their adjunct union.

So it was in good faith that I agreed to take on two extremely research-heavy pieces for the teen magazine Girl's Life shortly after CosmoGirl folded. The first was a piece on dating violence, which followed the Rihanna/ Chris Brown incident; the second was a piece about the dangers of distracted driving, a story which involved speaking to friends and family of teens who had been killed in tragic accidents. Draining work, and time consuming. I was paid for the dating violence story.

So not getting paid for my driving story, which took two weeks' time to research and write, using data from a study put out by State Farm, and locating sheriffs from car crash scenes, and family and friends of the dead, seemed unacceptable, particularly since there was a signed contract in play that said Pay Upon Publication (last August). The work itself was praised by my editor and later in an email, by State Farm. In fact, my first draft was published practically untouched, more untouched than the newsy features I saw come through CG for 9 years. Maybe a couple of "yous" were changed to "ya" --which I think smart teenagers find insulting and contrived, but I digress-- and a paragraph or two switched around, if that. Months later, after not getting paid, promises came in emails from the Editor in Chief, Karen Bokram ("the check will be cut in the February run"; "I'll keep you posted"; "Of course you'll get paid, and I appreciate your professionalism").... the check never came.

Girl's Life is registered in Maryland, roughly 20 miles from Washington D.C., and for that reason I found myself having to travel from New York to Rockville, MD for my court date-- either that, or take a "settlement" offered by her lawyers. I was confused-- what exactly was there to be settled? I wrote something, there was a contract, and she published it. Also, how can she afford lawyers if she can't afford to pay her writers? Maybe that's what lit the fire for me. Putting a check in the mail with a 44 cent stamp would settle the issue. Was she waiting to see if I'd travel round trip to Maryland to get paid? Her lawyer called me to ask if I was planning on making the trip, and I told him I was. I did show up, they didn't, and I won. Mysteriously, on the official record of the case which can be found online by anyone, you can see that they filed an intent to defend. Something about "must provide proof that $ is owed"... okay, so a contract and a published article seems like adequate proof; both, of which I'd submitted to the court as official evidence with my claim. I'm sure this is why they didn't show up. Whether this court judgment against Girl's Life will amount to a check in the mail remains unseen, but I feel proud that I stood up for myself. Making the trip wasn't a monetarily wise act on my part (twice, because I first sued the wrong entity, the owner of the mag rather than the corporation, because I'd misunderstood a clause in the "how to sue in small claims" brochure from MD that said it's best to sue the owner rather than the name of the company; I should have looked more deeply into that. I don't regret the quality time I spent that first time around with my lovely mother in law who first drove me from Philly to Rockville, giving me an initial lay of the land). Jim had to leave work early twice this week to pick up Jamie; gas, tolls, hotel came to roughly $250, and expenses can't be paid on small claims.

What was worth it though, was knowing that if I'm going to be my own business entity now, I have to learn how to navigate this last-resort terrain. Finally, I can now use this case as a teaching tool in my classes now that this judgment is on the public record.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coney Island Museum


Last week I found myself at Coney Island on a rainy Sunday. My Uncle Steve was visiting from Dallas, and a bunch of us were able to snag a few overcast hours of boardwalk, Cyclone, and Nathan's time. When the rain started we spontaneously made our way to the Coney Island Sideshow; five minutes to go before Heather Holiday (or somesuch) would swallow swords and fire, and Vick the Vomiter (or somesuch) would slam nails through his sinus (Sideshow sidenote: There's an X-ray of a nail through a nasal cavity at the bar, perched into a corner of the illuminated Pepsi case, to prove it).

The show came and went; the rain came and didn't let up for a good while. The Sideshow warehouses itself in a large corner space at 1208 Surf Avenue near West 12th Street, and I was glad to find the cafe and bar to wait out the worst of the rain. I should have gone in for the Coney Island Pilsner like my brother did because the coffee was old and bitter, but I digress. A Coney Island-themed pinball machine kept Jamie occupied for a long while. I told Steve that I was pretty sure there was a Coney Island Museum nearby that would be neat to check out; he said, 'It's here. It's at the end of the gift shop.' We'd just passed through the gift shop on our way out of the show, and I'd not seen that for 99 cents you could climb the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor and be thrown back in time a hundred years or more. I found this unsettling.

To me, when I think of the vast history of Coney Island, I think about its loyal protectors like Richard Snow, my dear old boss who pops up all over my site lately, and who wrote a book of poetry, a history, and a beautiful and authoritative documentary about Coney, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who wrote not one, but two beautiful books about his ghosts from the beaches of Brooklyn. One of his poems I love so much that we read it at our wedding (from A Far Rockaway of the Heart). I hadn't considered that the latest wave of history protectors are the tattooed Rockabilly Sailor Jerry types who are employed by, and frequent, the Sideshow and its bar.

The museum itself is smallish and has an old fashioned attic feel. Entering the space I had a sharp memory of being ten years old and holding Cat Club meetings in a similar feeling space. A makeshift theater with metal folding chairs and a large screen TV shows on a loop a campy "Come to Coney Island!" video from the 50s (they'd be far better off showing Richard's documentary, in my humble opinion). There are a few old ride cars hailing back from when they looked like covered wagons, and old bubble-lettered, candy colored signage fills the walls. There is also a room dedicated to an exhibit called "Postcards from Paradise: Writings and Images from Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Parks", showing through February of next year. Glass display cases frame artfully placed cards with fading ink, their sentiments to relatives and friends hollering out poignantly after all these years. A girl with a pompadour hairstyle sits behind a sturdy wooden desk. She wears an old fashioned navy postal uniform, and explains to me that if I want to buy a reprinted postcard from her, and pay for the postage, she'll be happy to stamp it with This Coney Island Stamper and drop it in the mail for me. I decline, because the relative I'd probably send it to is in the other room looking at the old freakshow photographs.

I'm grateful to those who are working their mightiest to pull together their offbeat lives with the dwindling traces of the old Coney Island. The whole flavor of each distinct element of the franchise, if you will, - the sideshow, the museum, the Mermaid Parade, and other events, share the cohesive thread of being run by a non-profit group called Coney Island USA, which has been around for 30 years. Visiting this diminutive, but lovingly curated, museum was certainly the second best dollar I've spent in a long while (you can read about the first best here, if you like).