Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shanti Ananda

This morning I looked for the faded scar between two fingers on my left hand, and was troubled to not be able to see it. If I pull the skin on the back of my hand tautly, I can at least imagine that it's still there, barely, a centimeter of white to remind me of being 12 or 13, a Plaza Rat hanging around daily on the Plaza in Santa Fe. Shanti Ananda, a sweet boy who I looked up to in an indescribable way when I was between 12 and 16 years old, passed away on December 31st after a sudden brain aneurysm, I learned through old friends on Facebook. That afternoon so many years ago, we'd played a game called bloody knuckles. We each held our hands out, while the other tried to swipe their opponent's hand with a metal comb, right in between their knuckles. I was on the losing end of that particular battle.

I can only speak of knowing Shanti for a small group of clustered (and very intense, formative) years in the early to mid 1980s, years that I believe launched us Plaza Rats into our true selves. His blonde mohawk and Ank necklace would appear on the Plaza every day after school, and everyone would light up. Despite the fact that we were all committing daily, crazy shenanigans together, I always felt safe when he was around. He gave the best hugs; this I remember after 25 years, and let me tell you, I'm sure I needed each and every one of them.

The image that I have seared into my mind that I can contribute to what will surely be a long littany of first and last impressions, is of Shanti strolling down one of the paths that lead to the center monument of the Plaza. There he is, adorned with his exterior palette of teen angst, with one exception; he also exudes a protective light, and his loyalty knows no bounds. If we're scaling the walls of the post office after school, we'll be safe because he's with us. If we're climbing through the tunnels of Heaven and Hell after school, we'll be safe, because Shanti's with us. If I'm sneaking into the Lensic up the fire escape, I'm safe because he's around somewhere; he always was. If Catherine and I are getting picked up from Crapshaw Junior High by older  kids, and Shanti's among them, we're safe because he's there. Thinking back, I think he had a gift for soaking up the burden of others' insecurities with a kind of precious and unconditional love. He listened, and he was a wise counselor.  The cast of characters that surrounded us in that time have left the long lasting memories of a beautiful and struggling lot.

Today is New Year's Day, and I took my son hiking down the Appalachian Trail at the Delaware Water Gap. The scene reminded me intensely of growing up in Santa Fe and taking drives up the mountain to hike at Big and and Little Tesuque. As Jamie and I scaled jagged, mossy rocks, appreciating the sounds of the rushing water and the sun shining, I thought of Shanti. I kept imagining him in his youth, because that's all I knew. He was beautiful and smiling, and his arms were outstretched in the way that I remember them. May you find peace, my old friend, and may your family find comfort in those  in-between spaces that loved ones leave behind when they leave too soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Everlasting Meal

There's one book that's stood out to me in reviews this month, and after reading an excerpt I purchased a few copies to hand out to various extended family members who I still exchange with: An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler, is a sort of cookbook, but more a collection of beautifully crafted essays harkening back to her biggest inspiration How to Cook a Wolf by M.K. Fisher, a book that explored rethinking  the meaning of food bounty during times of rationing.

I've only made my way through the first half of the book (hanging off every word), but I can already tell that this will be one of those books I keep nearby and reach for often, just as I do Simplicity From A Monastery Kitchen (which I realize I borrowed from my mom something like 7 years ago)... I have grown to adore this monk who writes about lovage the way others write about love.

For Tamar, first thing's first: boil a pot of water and make it salty. Once you get that going you'll figure out what goes into it. Second: Purchase and roast loads of in-season vegetables at the top of your week. Save all cut stems, onion peels, cores, leafy tops, and other produce castings. Save the water from the vegetables and pasta you boil, and use it as a base for  soups.  Pickle onion peels and beets and toss them on top of frittatas, another great template for re-imagining the cycles of cooking that build on one another. I cook in a pretty judicious way anyhow, and am fairly creative with leftovers, but keeping cooked rice on hand for no other reason to know that someone will, at some point, be hungry, seems quite clever, if not like obvious common sense. Old rice makes the best fried rice, and fried rice is perfect for those odds and ends, and while you're at it, take the old rice/ polenta/ pasta, and make a curry at weeks' end out of the mish-mash. Make these things the center of your meal, and get creative about salads, which of course are not always made from "astronaut bags of lettuce."  I hate making salad, so therefore I don't eat enough of it. However, tonight I grabbed an apple, two little pears, and a sad, spare stalk of celery. I chopped up everything and tossed it with cracked pepper, rosemary vinegar, and good olive oil. To brighten it, I squeezed on it lemon juice and tossed in a handful of chopped parsley. I think Adler would approve of this; even more for saving the vinaigrette which fell to the bottom of the bowl, which will spruce up rice at some point in the next day or so.

So it looks like one of my copies will be hanging back with me. I might replace it with two more to give away before the week is out.

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Top of the Empire State

For years, I've found reasons why it's not a good time to take Jamie on top of the Empire State Building. It's too crowded; too expensive; we might run into King Kong; who knows? But last weekend, the opportunity presented itself in a way where everything clicked. It was Friday and Jamie had the day off from school. The weather was warm, and we were two blocks away after catching a matinee of the Muppets. Out came the question I've heard so many times before: "Can we go to the Empire State Building? I was born here, and I've never even been on top of it." Jim and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and I said "Sure, why not?" The look of unbridled joy on my kid's face because he thought he was hearing things-- "She said Yes?" --was worth the hefty ticket price to the 86th floor.

Toward the Southern Tip of Manhattan
Before the ascent, we were greeted by various tour guys trying to sell us tickets for joint bus trips before we had a chance to hit the box office. No, thanks. We were invited to purchase a map so we could know what we were looking at. No, thanks. We know what we're looking at. In short lines I heard several languages, not surprising. We were officially tourists in our own town.

I have been to the top, but not for close to twenty years, if my sketchy memory serves me correctly. The ear-popping trip up the elevator didn't take long at all, and once we were outside, the views were staggering. Visibility was excellent, and we could see up the Hudson to the Palisades, down the island to our block, East 4th Street, which was marked by the relatively new Cooper Square Hotel. We saw every bridge crossing the East River, and the Intrepid perched upon the Hudson. The Hearst Tower was easy to spot with its diagrid triangular facade, and Central Park served up fall's fading colors in a wash of earth tones. The Flatiron Building stood confidently with its narrow facade, where Broadway and 5th Avenue part ways. The archaic-looking wooden water towers speckled the rooftops, daring one to figure out which decade we're in.

Jamie was thrilled that he could poke his hand through the fence and hang it off the building. He spotted things that we hadn't: the Macy's windows we had just walked past; tour buses with people's heads popping out; tiny bicycles. He was so excited that vocalizations brimmed over, sheer joy pouring out of him.

The best part about it, aside from the obvious part of spending the afternoon with my guys on top of the Empire State Building, was looking down on this perfect city, all of its daily imperfections wiped away by a swath of broad sight lines. It's everyone's city to carve out a life as they wish, whether by luck or hard work or simple circumstance, and it can change on a dime from moment to moment, as fast as the clouds' shadows pour across Central Park before trolling up the Hudson. It's a dear old friend that I cling to, and every once it awhile it deserves a proper visit.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cecil Beaton: The New York Years

Tuesday marked the last day of my Fall semester classes, and to change it up my fashion students and I went to see the "Cecil Beaton: The New York Years" show at the Museum of the City of New York. Beaton, a British born photographer and designer, was shooting portraits of Hollywood greats during its nacent 1920s and into the 60s (including the one of Ms. Monroe, above), many of them in his New York apartment. We see the Astaires yucking it up, a perfect young Marlon Brando, Hepburn in his "My Fair Lady" designs, among others.
Young Brando Avec Moi

My class had been to one other exhibit this semester at ICP, the Harper's Bazaar show, and found it lackluster at best. So this was a bang-up change from that. In fact, everything lousy about that show that my student Julia complained about on the Parsons blog was the polar opposite here. The work was arranged subject by subject, which made it easy to follow and absorb. The curatorial design was stunning, and incorporated Beaton's own designs; the Beaton-inspired wallpaper alone garnered a collective swoon upon entering the passageway that leads to the show. There were costumes on display from his opera years (La Traviata!), and fashion illustrations with swatches of fabric adhered to them, which two of my cooing students noticed and loved.

Beaton was interested in fame, and apparently donned a phony and exaggerated Hollywood accent. It's no surprise that he was longtime pals with Truman Capote, who he began to resent when In Cold Blood propelled Capote's fame far out of orbit from his own. It's also no surprise that he found himself in the company of Andy Warhol shooting his factory scene. If I close my eyes, I can pluck Beaton from one of his self-portraits and hear him say "Can-dy, Dahhlling."

This museum is such a quiet treasure in our city. If you go, be sure to check out another room or two. I paused for a long time at the Stettheimer dollhouse, which includes, among other treasures, a miniature wall hanging from the sisters' friend Marcel Duchamp. I've only been to MCNY a handful of times in my years in New York, and rather than mourn the shows I've missed I make a promise to myself to check in more frequently.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

French and Japanese Brain Scramble


There are words and phrases that I find myself uttering to myself in French when I'm walking down the street. I love the sounds of these words, no matter the meaning. A satisfying "maintenant"[mant-en-o] only means "now", but when I'm walking down the streets of New York in the rain, looking up at the half-obscured-by-fog Empire State Building, carrying a big orange umbrella, saying "maintenant"gives me a staccato walking rhythm that carves the perfect path home. So does the act of conjugating my elementary verbs: Je vais, tu vas, il va, elle va [for some reason, a deep pause here before continuing with] nous allons, vous allez, ils vont, elles vont. I like thinking about which mono-syllabic sound goes with which form of the verb. Add to that the verbs etre, faire, and avoir, and you have the crux of my final exam coming up. Actually, that's just a fraction of my final coming up, but c'est la vie. Phrases like "j'adore Professeur Samuel" are coupled with "je suis tres fatigue apres mon cours de Francais." I'm still totally screwed up with my articles [de + le = du, but not always; past participle of etre is eu, etc. etc.], but to me it doesn't matter so much, because to be able to utter "apres mon cours" --after my course-- is a lovely thing. "Boite de nuit" means nightclub, and its literal translation is "box of night." How pretty is that? Box of night.

And then there's the Japanese coming up in the written portion of my blue belt test on Saturday, but that's just a series of body parts and movements. Shotei (palm); sutko (knife foot); shuto satkutsu uchi komi (knife hand strike to face); kensetsu geri (sp?, sideways joint kick to knee).

Next Friday marks the official end of my semester. Cinema et livre date avec moi, moi, et moi!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day


Sometimes it seems like an entire lifetime has passed between my first awareness of HIV and today. Today I woke up and remembered that it's December 1, and a flood of memories came crashing down on me, most strongly what my first introduction to what AIDS was. A history teacher at my little high school in Santa Fe had gotten very sick. He was short and adorable with a ring of grey hair, and soft spoken. He wore tweed. During a school assembly he was led by the arm down the middle aisle to the front of the auditorium, where he gave his illness a name. I'm sure that most of us hadn't heard of AIDS then; I certainly had not. Shortly afterward, a friend's father perished from pneumonia-related causes.

When I first moved to Chelsea in January, 1993, it was still possible to identify the walking sick and dying population. Those who were inflicted often wore a ghostly pallor and were rail thin. My apartment was three blocks from ground zero of the AIDS crisis, of course St. Vincent's Hospital, and this was a daily vision of sadness. It was nearly impossible to walk past the little white building on West 12th Street, with the circular windows, and not imagine the horror and sadness unfolding inside. When did the cocktail kick in that began to protect them?

Last Thursday night, Community Board 2 passed a near-unanimous resolution to create the first official AIDS Memorial Park at the sight of the current St. Vincent's Triangle Park, right on Greenwich and 7th Avenue. I can think of a no more appropriate place to meditate and remember what the neighborhood used to look like, and who used to populate it-- New York alone lost 100,000 people. This is a day to raise awareness about the ongoing AIDS crisis, but today my thoughts are hanging on to those who are missed dearly from our streets.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Friday, Indeed


I was so lucky that growing up I was taught to be frugal, use what we had, and not pine (too much) for that which we didn't have. We struggled financially, but we never went hungry, and most of all, we were loved "to the moon and back." I'm so grateful for that, because from that consistent heartbeat of my childhood I know I have the tools and resources to pass those values along to my own child.

Thanksgiving. It's a time of reflection-- of gratitude for health and home, family and friends. It's also a time of decision making. Do what your country tells you to do: shop, shop hard, shop fierce, shop often. Shop on Thanksgiving Eve, Thanksgiving Day, the day after. Cyber Monday, countdown to Christmas, shop shop shop.

Every year the Christmas music starts seeping into our consciousness earlier and earlier; this year I heard Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer in a Rite-Aid before Halloween. Certainly, we are in a struggling economy and the stores are doing whatever they can to lure in shoppers' tight holiday budgets. This year, I have a particularly strong wave of disgust for the new lengths the box-shops are going to in order to get to the consumers first-- even if it means making your staff go to work on Thanksgiving, since apparently Black Friday now begins on Thursday (or a week ago, were you to see all the junk mail piling up in my gmail inbox). The media manages to support this frenzy. They find the box-store employees who are obviously happy for the overtime that will show up in their paychecks (presumably so they can shop), and you hear the soundbites of their refrains over and over again: "I'm one of the lucky ones, I have a job." Well, I hope you don't get trampled by the onslaught of "consumers" as they barrel down your doors at midnight, before their turkey is fully digested.

I'm sitting this one out. I've felt the fever before. I've wanted to hit the stores and find those deals. Who doesn't want to be done with their Christmas shopping early and spend less money doing so? You probably have the day off, so what else is a better thing to do besides get out and there and shop? Go shopping! Now! Some of you will go shopping, and I implore you that if you do decide to go shopping on Black Friday, consider your personal decision making process. Pick one indie business and spread your budget to the David's of the Perpetual Holiday Season David and Goliath fight. Should I spend money at Dinosaur Hill on East 9th Street, the toy shop that gives Jamie a little yoyo on Halloween since he was a baby trick or treating (and whose owner remembers his name), or Wal-Mart because it's a "steal"? Steal is a good word for it. The frenzy threatens to steal your quaint Main Streets; take away your valuable family time; put you into a debt cycle that is nearly impossible to break free from.

Take a hike. Read a book. Do nothing. Volunteer yourself to simplicity, and the rewards are far greater than what's in the bag.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just the Right Book


It feels good to showcase an indie bookstore company, Just the Right Book, right before the official Holiday Shopping season begins. Oh wait, it began before Halloween this year, didn't it?
My feature that's on Publishing Perspectives today is about a creative bookseller named Roxanne Coady who launched a new business model online-- matching readers to books based on human to human customer service. Not eBooks, not discounted books... just books.

It was a pleasure to talk to Roxanne and learn about a self-imposed exile she gave herself from her bookstore four years back. She left the shop in capable hands and embarked on an 8-week journey interviewing people in the book business, from other bookstore owners to the heads of all of the big publishing houses to Ron Johnson, the visionary designer behind the first Apple store. Click here to learn about how those conversations reshaped the philosophy of her business practices.

Monday, November 14, 2011

New Museum: Carsten Höller



This weekend, we had a spontaneous opportunity to join old friends at the Carsten Höller: Experience exhibit at the New Museum, just a short walk from our apartment. On the surface, it seemed like something that kids would love: an interactive show with a giant slide, carousels, fish tanks and strobe lights. Visitors may enter a giant slide on the 4th floor of the building, zoom down two stories, and exit from the 2nd floor where they will be dumped into a room filled with strobe lights and fluorescent sculpture animals lurking around the floor. A blue chimp here; a pink alligator there. My friend Mary opted to cuddle for a moment with the blue chimp... I opted to stick my head into a head-shaped glass bubble inside of a fish tank, as did Jamie, which I began to regret when he started throwing up the next morning. All those people sticking their heads in there, gack...

This is how the New Museum summarizes the show: "Taken as a whole, Höller’s work is an invitation to re-imagine the way in which we move through the world and the relationships we build as he asks us to reconsider what we think we know about ourselves."

This is how I summarize the "Experience" show: The New Museum gets a big Fail for not managing crowds in more efficient way. If you head over on the weekend, be prepared to stand in three lines that are each no less than a half hour: line to get in; line for wristbands which you must be wearing to get in the lines for the carousel and the slide. And you must wear them, or you'll be asked to get off of the carousel at the midway point, as Jamie was because his mom didn't know she needed to stand in line for a wristband after paying the entrance fee. Really? Kick a kid off of a very slow moving carousel when he had like 4 seconds left to go? Fail! Three hour wait for the slide? Really? What's the hold up, you ask? Grownups being coached on wearing helmets and sliding down slides.

Also, if a child walks up to a giant vat of empty gelatin pills that's part of the exhibit, maybe the security guard standing there shouldn't hand him a pill so he can run up to his mommy holding the empty capsule and argue "But a man with a name tag gave it to me! He's giving them to everyone!" My bad for having him out of eyesight for five seconds flat. Was it the strobe lights that threw me off my game?

For some, this show will be the pinacle of a mind-altering and experimental hallucinogen-inspired experience. So don't be put off by my crankiness; just plan to go during the week when it's not so crowded. Or hit a playground and experience a slide immediately. Teardrop Park down in the Battery has an impressive one, and you don't need to put on a helmet and sign a waiver to go down the thing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Third Grade Bliss: The First Field Trip


Today I was treated to a third grade field trip. Mr. Mattson, 19 kids, and 8 parents walked the 8 blocks to the Spring Street Firehouse Museum. The museum was chock full of cool stuff that threw me into the depths of New York City history in a far stronger way than I imagined it would while crossing 7th Avenue South with so many squirming kids. Turns out, the treasures were indisputable: painstakingly preserved hand-painted helmets from the 1800s; embroidered belts used for fancy dress during parades; original buckets used in the first "bucket brigades"; stovetop hats for helmets? Really?

The Firemen that run the museum were walking history books and knew how to tap into the kids' collective mentality without blinking an eye. The class sat for a video about fire safety (um, I will be doing a fire drill and checking the batteries in my fire alarms, which everyone should be changing twice a year, "when you change your clocks", according to Mr. Eddie, retired Fire Lt.? Colonel? Captain?). Then they got to go inside of a fake apartment where they identified all kinds of unsafe things, including space heaters near billowy curtains and irons plugged in near bathtubs. From there, they got to make their way through a real fake fire made from a heavy fog that had somehow been emitted into the atmosphere! They dropped to their knees and crawled along the perimeter of the room until they found their way to the exit. Once out, they stayed at their designated "meeting place", which we should all also determine in our own personal fire plans.

The history of urban life can be seen in the progression of the fire trucks themselves. We moved from the first Bucket Brigades to hand pumps drawn by horses; moved from steam controlled pumps to, finally, trucks with engines. There was even a gorgeous carriage stamped with "Steinway" that Mr. Steinway himself had commissioned to protect his early workers in his Queens piano factory.

The charmer of the day was the stuffed dog "Chief" who was taken into a firehouse and wormed his way first into the hearts of the firemen, then onto the trucks, and finally, into the fires themselves where he rescued animals and people alike. A real canine hero (shown above). In the same room was a painting of three firefighters who lost their lives in a rudimentary house fire on Watt Street in 1994. A woman had carelessly let a bag of groceries fall onto her stove. The man in the middle was Mr. Mattson's High School football coach, and it being a Catholic School, he paused to say a Hail Mary with the children for his lost mentor.

This was just a precursor to further tragedy: the 9/11 room honored the 343 firemen who lost their lives on that day, in a 102-minute period, a fact I hadn't known so specifically before. The photography of that day surrounded an arched memorial, which featured faces of all of the fallen. Most moving of all was the uniform of Father Judge, which hung behind glass, still covered in soot. From the fire safety education to the history to the remembrance of lost heroes, this field trip packed a wallop of an impact.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning French


I'm blogging less because I'm sitting in a French class for four hours a week. Literally. Both classes are held entirely in French, and I'm getting to the point where I can understand most of what Professeur Samuel is saying (j'adore Professeur Samuel); responding to him without freezing first is another story altogether. I lose my confidence when I have to conjure the correct articles and verbs. Verb endings aren't that horrible right now; it's confusing etre (to be) and avoir (to have) constantly because the French use them differently than we do.

I can see that my hurdles of speaking are largely around the thinking process-- I try to translate English into French, word for word, as I speak, and it just doesn't work that way. The article usages are completely different. You aren't cold; you have cold. You aren't tired; you have tired. Or something like that.

The other problem is that I need to hit the books more. I feel like the time I've given over to learning French has been a generous four hours a week, but that's not enough. I need to compound it. The best I felt in class was when I had class on a Tuesday, came home, watched a film in French with English subtitles, and went back to class on Thursday. That was slightly more immersion.

The scope of the idiomatic underbelly of the language is extremely daunting. I remember thinking I'd never crack the surface when my friend Jenn explained to me that I was a little chicken, and that was a term of affection that women called one another. Ma petite poulet? Or is it mon? Because the masculine and feminine are a whole other wrench thrown in. I'm hoping that this part of it becomes second nature after I take the clues that the language can give to me; certain endings are always masculine, certain endings are always feminine, and there are exceptions for every rule.

I guess we're mired in our own abundance of idioms. I consider this as it's raining cats and dogs outside of my window. Or as Jim snores like a train in the other room. Or Jamie tries to read his book until the cows come home when it's time to hit the sack. I'm climbing a huge mountain, but shall persevere.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Social Media as Art


On Thursday me and my Word City Studio collaborator Kathleen Sweeney went to check out an exhibit at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea about social media. This is how the gallery summarized their show, which closed on Saturday: "An exhibition investigating the ways in which contemporary artists approach public platforms of communication and social networks through an aesthetic and conceptual lens and examining the cumulative effects of social media on our daily lives."

To be fair, it's accurate that it was an investigation of how artists are incorporating social networking into their lives. The possibilities are as endless as the infinite Twitter feed, and most effective to me was a collection of thermal printers hung from the wall with a constant stream of twitter feeds that were in their wholeness a study of how emotion moves through the electronic ether (the paper mess of it is shown above). Overall, the artists communed on the theme of pulling together collections of words/ collections of images/ collections of Google Searches to illustrate greater happenings of our collective consciousness. A wall of sunset images from Flickr (?); a study of the emotional peaks and valleys of emotional expression across the span of a lifetime (20 somethings tweet about connectivity and isolation, while people over 50 tend to feel blessed about their worldly and unworldly accumulations).

I left the exhibit feeling empty. It seemed to me that everything was so parceled out, broken down and abstract that I couldn't reach in and pull out anything human and real. Makes me want to ditch social media for awhile and call a real person on the telephone where our concerns can't be captured and tampered with and manipulated beyond, "Wow, it's just really great to see you."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thanks, Momosyllabic!



It's an honor to have had my essay "Robot Moms in the Closet", which was published in the eAnthology Welcome to My World, reviewed by a fellow blogger, Antje Rauwerda. Antje also contributed an essay, and blogs over at Momosyllabic.blogspot.com. My desire to clone myself over and over again in order to tend to any task, person, or role in life, resonated with her. If there could be an Army of Rachels, why not an Army of Antjes?

I have to admit, it's deeply gratifying to know that my writing isn't being swallowed up by a big vacuum, vortex, or black hole. It mattered to someone and made her feel better about her own ability to cope (or not) at any given time. In my essay I spoke candidly about treating depression. To have this mean something to another mother makes the vulnerability of this disclosure fall away. Though I don't believe there should be a stigma for such self-care, I still fall prey to the occasional self-deprecation over why I can't tackle everything on my own, all the time, every single minute of the day. When I try to tell myself "I'm better" and can end treatment, the bad end of my emotional cycles comes whooshing back to remind me that I'm better off with therapy and closely monitored medication. From a parenting perspective, this means I've been able to make good and thoughtful decisions instead of rash and reactive ones. I've had to fight the good fight in a few areas, and frankly at times it's exhausting: legally, with the Board of Ed for Jamie's education; legally, with a deadbeat magazine that doesn't like to pay writers; and even with my own physical health, which requires monthly monitoring and blood work to manage my blood clotting disorder. Mama's need help sometimes, and it's okay to ask for it.

Thank you, sweet Antje!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Welcome to My World" is in the World

Okay, so this Work From Home Mom thing is rewarding when I can actually get around to doing some work from home. In this new anthology, which just hit Amazon this week, thirteen bloggers (myself included) wrestle with their various life situations, whether chosen or hoisted upon them. What makes our different situations work, and what makes them fall apart? Somehow the landscapes of our busy lives are navigated. While it's not exactly rocket science, it is a delicate balancing act that can become unhinged faster than you can say, in my case anyway, "where's his other shoe?" or "trading deadlines for doctor's appointments" or "second shift after bedtime."

My essay is called "Robot Moms in the Closet", which is a reference to a Science Fiction world I imagined in which I could pull various selves out of storage to accomplish various tasks. The fantastical efficiency of it was appealing to me until I realized that giving up my chaos would mean giving up the subtle rewards of the seemingly mundane tasks at hand. You only get to fold Onesies out of the drier for like five seconds before it's gone forever.

I'm going to take a close read at the essays of my peers and report back on a favorite. In the meantime, you can pick up the Kindle version here on Amazon, and soon on the Nook. This is my first experience of having something published in eBook form, and while it's strange not to have an actual book in hand, the easy dispersement of it is appealing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Painted Bird


I've not read Jerzy Kosinski before now. I was browsing books at the "Unoppressive Non- Imperialist Bargain Bookshop" on Carmine Street, when his 1965 novel The Painted Bird caught my eye. I liked the poetic title, and the idea that I could immerse myself in a tense story of a young boy's survival following being abandoned by his parents in World War II. Who doesn't want to read an inspiring yarn like that from time to time? The "gypsy or Jewish stray" as he's called, moves through villages that reviewers assumed were scattered throughout Poland. He moves through winters wearing nothing but scraps of rags and various pieces of animal hides, witnessing and being the victim of unimaginable cruelty. His keepers are many, and each more imaginatively cruel than the previous one. No sooner after being taken in by a random farmer at the insistence of a priest would the cruelty cycle begin again. The exception was Kasinski's Old Woman Sage archetype, who appears as several different characters in the book. Each time, she's knowledgable about homeopathic witchery (the childlike confidence he has in her time again is chilling, because in reality she makes potions and lotions with removed abscesses, animal parts, etc.). The Sages care for the boy, but the small comforts can never last as each one moves from one horrific fate to the next.

I put it down a few times, but kept going back, thinking that if I could finish it, the senselessness of the violence might come to an end and move into a field of philosophic reflection and human redemption, a la Victor Frankl. It just couldn't keep going in this way.

After moving through the first few chapters, I began to research Kosinski's history a bit. The only thing I'd been exposed to growing up was his film Being There, with Peter Sellers, which I barely remember but remember liking. His introduction to this edition of The Painted Bird had been odd; he basically defended the fact that it was meant to be a work of fiction, not autobiographical, and that he and his family had endured so much hatred following the publication that he'd had to move his mother to another town. He wrote a lot about how his wife was dying, and that was so off topic that it seemed like he was trying to garner his readers' sympathies before they even cracked the story.

It didn't take long to get through the first few grafs of his Wiki biography to realize he was exposed as a fraud, time and time again, and even considered a psychotic borderline personality. In his mini bio was an anecdote about his literary life of lingering at elegant dinner parties with book editors waxing on about his horrific youth and tales of survival during WW2.

Such realizations made me want to put the book down, because suddenly the stomach churning cruelty and abuse were formed not from his own history, but from his imagination. Finishing the book was an exercise of endurance on my part, but I wanted to finish it so I could find out if there was any redeeming aspect to humanity whatsoever for his suffering protagonist. What would I glean about survival and humanity after putting his book down? When would the relief come? At the midway point of the story, the boy becomes a mute, but regains his voice in the end, so at least there's that. I was glad to hear him utter sounds again, to literally come back to life again from his horrors, in the last pages. But I also felt like burning the book, literally setting it on fire and watching it turn to ash.

I felt that way after seeing the 1995 film Seven, too-- that it depicted such gratuitous horror that it seemed a waste of resources to put it into the world. The film wasn't created or shaped to make people act on good will or kindness; it seemed to me that it was irresponsibly put out into the world just to make money depicting senseless violence and sociopathic disconnect. Seven gruesome murders based on seven deadly sins; well, Kosinski trumps that with probably 7,000. It's no wonder to me that he could no longer tolerate his life and committed suicide in 1991.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anniversaries, Part 2


I'd left my apartment on East 4th Street, only to see my neighbor, Maritza (now gone; I miss her and the lovebirds that hung from her fire escape, and the way she'd say about Jamie, "He's gonna be a football playah"). She told me a plane had hit; a small gathering of people stood on the corner of East 4th Street and Bowery looking up at the billowing black smoke. I went back home to tell Jim so he'd come and look with me. It was unbelievable was that some guy, probably an amateur pilot, had crashed into the building. We gawked. Then I walked to the subway and went to work. The day, as is described by everyone recollecting it, was the most beautiful clear crisp day. The sky was so blue.

I got onto the F train and there was a Hasidic man who'd just come over a bridge and was visibly distressed said that he'd been crossing the bridge (which one?) when he saw a second plane hit. Everyone was talking about it. The next part of the day is a blur. I had to attend an editorial meeting at CosmoGirl, and we all felt agitated that we didn't know what was going on. A TV went on at some point.

Towers fell; work ended; subways shut down. The walk home from 57th Street was chaotic. My memory's of the whole day are an impressionistic patchwork. Here are some of the random swipes of memory: strangers on 7th Avenue in the 50's handing out water bottles to pedestrians. Moving south down Bowery I saw the the waves of people moving uptown by foot, covered in ash. People pouring up Bowery, many holding their shoes, covered in ash, scratches, blood. Stunned. Men in business suits holding their briefcases, white from head to toe with ash, everyone walking as a unit and each somehow separate in their shock; the picture of the man is what every other third person walking north looked like.

Jim and I eventually connected. He had seen the first tower fall from a corner of Washington Park South. That night we sat at an outdoor cafe or bar on Second Avenue, having gathered with friends. I don't remember if we'd called one another, or just run into each other because everyone was out. We watched a convoy of pick up trucks headed downtown, filled with nothing but upright shovels, obviously new. The smell was that of an electric fire, and lasted for weeks. Checkpoints were set up very quickly; for a day or two we had to show ID to get as far downtown as we lived.

At some point we ended up at Union Square, and I can't remember if it was that night or the next that the piles of candles started burning in impromptu memorials, and fliers with faces of the missing began showing up posted everywhere. Missing: Any kind of face you could imagine, faces you'd see anywhere in a cross-section of people. Old and young, black, white, hispanic. Most of the faces were snapshots that were hastily used to create the fliers, so most of them were smiling, probably on vacation or at birthday parties, standing next to Christmas trees. Men had their arms around children; Grandmas smiled. The people poured out in the nighttime to Union Square, and strangers hugged. I just remember feeling like I needed to be around other people to help me absorb what had happened.

A particularly ugly memory I have is that the next morning I got a phone call from my Managing Editor telling me that work was on, "It's business as usual." It was so upsetting that Jim called her back and said, "The next time you call someone you might want to ask them how they are or if they lost anyone." It was difficult to understand how clueless and disconnected she was, and how much pressure she must have felt from her bosses to have to call her staff with a chirpy tone like that to tell them to come into work.

In 1998, I was Managing Editor at Balliett and Fitzgerald, a book packaging company located two blocks north of the towers on Warren Street. On the coldest winter days I'd spend my lunch hours at the WTC, knocking around the shopping concourse beneath the towers, or hanging out at the giant Borders. The clean lines and wide open space of it was a respite of sorts from the quirky lines of the East Village; the Mall-feel of the concourse was also atypical of my normal stomping grounds. The mundane nature of the Bath & Body Works; Sharper Image; Gap stores, and other familiar franchisey places were appealing in a way.

I didn't know anyone who died. I know that our Firehouse on Great Jones took a big hit, and the firehouse on 12th Street and every other firehouse within walking distance. For weeks you'd see giant memorials of flowers outside the firehouses, and every year on September 11th you still do. Ultimately, something happens when I try to write about this; a spaced out zoning where I can't remember what I wanted to say, what I was thinking. The zoned out state is how I cope with other things, so it doesn't surprise me that I can't put a linear thought together. The smell and the ash lingered for so long, so when I remember those days, smell is a sense that is invoked. It's my hope that today the heroism and bravery in the face of it all will rise above the horror and sadness.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Anniversaries, Part 1


This post is about my wedding anniversary, which is today. My next post may be about that other anniversary that everyone is thinking about this weekend, though I'm not sure if I'm going to put that day into words.

On September 9, 2000, Jim and I were married in my sister in law Patti's pre-Revolutionary barn in Exton, Pennsylvania. Our wedding was tiny- there were 40 people there- and a decade-plus gone by means that a handful aren't living anymore. Jim's father, his Aunt Dooley and Uncle Tad, and the sister who hosted our wedding in the first place, have all passed on.

So, this Marriage Thing. I was always an independent soul, and have written a lot about growing up with a single mother, and the added responsibilities of co-raising my little brother. Our home was as love-filled as a home ever could be, it was just structured in a different way, without a marriage to watch and learn from day in and day out. However, there were marriages that I witnessed over the years which meant more to me than I realized at the time, particularly my stand-in New Mexico grandparents, Bob and Marylou Mayhew, who used to take us to their Taos cabin when we needed a getaway. When I was 12 years old, Bob taught me how to catch rainbow trout and gut them, a skill that I used to impress Jim during our first dating days. Their names ran together: "Bob and Marylou."

I've heard that marriages that do best happen when one spouse is from a broken home, and the other is from a stable one. I can see why this is the case: the stable home gives you something to model up to when times get rough, and the broken home allows you not to take your stability for granted. Now that we've been together for 15 years, 11 of them married, I have some of my own ideas about marriage that have evolved with our relationship.

The most important epiphany to me has been to understand that you can't expect your husband or wife to give you everything you need to make you happy. That's lazy, and it's not fair. When we planned our wedding, I'd read that you should pick two things that are most important to you to spend your wedding budget on. We wanted to 1) serve a beautiful meal and 2) take a memorable trip together. We did both, and we filled in the other spaces with frugal creativity and other people's unwavering generosity. The dishes we used at our wedding were our family's China sets that we dusted off and put to use; antique pink roses were bought in bulk from a flower market the day before and kept in the cool spring house next door overnight; my mother in law sewed dresses for our flower girls; and a photographer cousin's gift to us was a set of professional photographs.

Over the years, the two things we've come to prioritize, and these developed as our lives and needs changed, are freedom and travel. Our freedom comes by making daily lifestyle decisions, like driving used cars, wearing what we can afford, and living in a small space (the smallest space within both of our families, actually). Who said "More Rooms, More Problems"? I loved working full-time, but when I did I wasn't free. When CosmoGirl folded, my whole world opened up by being able to structure my time differently, and my relationship with Jim and Jamie blossomed in ways that I couldn't have predicted. As far as travel goes, our last two summers in France required frugal creativity (apartment swapping), and I love that I'm married to someone who thinks it's as important as I do to show our kid the world and see new things whenever possible.

We also know better now than we did when we married that life is fragile. Since 2000, we've seen relatives we love die of cancer, and I nearly died when I was pregnant with Jamie. When that happened, all of our little problems fell away and we had to pull together and be strong to get through it. There was some depression, and I rose up to treat it. We forgave each other for not necessarily being our best in those hard times. How could we be? Jim was there to take care of me in ways that I wouldn't have wished upon him on my dying days. That's another story I'll post some day. Those are the times that show you someone's true character, and I'd happily put myself in Jim's hands if my life depended on it, because I already have.

We've now been together long enough to have seen many marriages crumble, many of them couples who met and courted around the same time that we did. These events shake me up more than they do Jim. Jim's parents met when they were teenagers and stayed together till the day he died, but I lived through, first hand, what can happen when they crash and burn. Some were family, some were friends, and all had to go through unimaginable struggles in different ways. But in 100% of those cases, friends and family have seemed healthier and happier cutting themselves free from their chronic unhappiness. I've been surprised to learn how constant the pain had been in those marriages; you never know, after all, what goes on between two people behind closed doors. Those marriages went down in the flames of substance abuse, love affairs, lack of personal growth or room for new challenges, or bitter disagreements that became so infected the marriage had to end before healing could take place. I don't believe people should stay married if they're chronically unhappy. For those who say they "Stay for the kids," how is it good for the kids to see the two people who are raising them be miserable? I've done my best to honor those relationships that have ended by learning something from each and every one of them.

If I were writing this as a formulaic service piece, I'd end it with this "Bottom Line": Keep growing, or perish. I'll try if you try, but as Bruce Springsteen said, "If I should fall behind, will you wait for me?"


Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Magic Simile


Tonight Jim and Jamie and I were sitting at Nho Trang, our favorite Vietnamese joint on Baxter Street, when a little girl and her family walked into the restaurant. Said little girl promptly approached a gumball machine at the cashier's bar and cranked the dispenser, taking the candy that it deposited into her hand over to the table where the rest of her family had been seated.

Jamie observed this injustice and stood up to do the same thing, but I stopped him and told him he had to eat his dinner first. We told him that he would probably have a chance to take a piece of candy at the end of the meal, like when he gets a lollipop at the end of a haircut. "I hate that stupid girl," he said in a stage whisper. Since I was apparently already feeling preachy, I launched into some diatribe about how Hate is such a strong word, and it's such a terrible emotion that it can make people sick after they decide to cling to those feelings, so maybe let's not toss around the word Hate about the girl who took the candy before she ate her dinner. I was on a roll. "Let's come up with ten things you could say besides Hate, like maybe she annoyed you, or it didn't seem fair, or" .... Like I said... a real diatribe. And to pile it on, something I'm quite good at, "People have the choice of whether to live out their lives as negative people or positive people" and yada yada yada; could I shut up, already?

Later, when we'd found our way back into the car, despite the three pieces of candy he'd managed to snag after his second crank of the dispenser, he began to complain once again about "the stupid" girl. I fell into my half of our bickering cycle. Then, out of his mouth came this:

"I'm not trying be filled with negativity, but it's really hard. I can't stop thinking about things sometimes. Like when I got punched in the stomach two years ago on the playground and I still think about it. It's like a magician's trick when they pull the everlasting scarf from their mouth and it never stops.... But then I tell myself to look at something else, like that beautiful stoplight, and it can go away for a second, but then it comes back."

These moments have the effect of instantaneously shifting something inside of me. Often, what shifts is simply my perspective, realizing that there's a fully formed creature in front of me with his own thoughts and ideas and opinions and we're quite separate and it's changing so quickly and I can't stop the train. Or, in this case, the thing that shifted was my understanding of the depth of his feelings, and the insight that it's important to give him space to discuss his magic scarf similes without being overbearing. Finally, the "magician's everlasting scarf" simile struck me as such an adult way to understand the process of rehashing things, but it was stated with such a child like image. I love this age of eight years old. We're perched on a ledge that drops over into God knows where, but I'm happy to straddle the Child to Tween time as long as we can. I only hope that I can shut my own mouth long enough so that I can hear the other things he's saying to me every day.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad + Me + David Byrne


Have you read A Visit From the Goon Squad? I just did, in roughly three sittings, the last one soaking up the second half of the book. Jennifer Egan is new to me, despite the fact that this looks to be her fifth book. Goon Squad is the winner of untold prizes, including the Pulitzer. Having finished it twenty minutes ago, I'm still processing why I loved this book so. I hate to do that Film Treatment thing where you smash together two authors to give people an idea of what something is supposed to be like, "Poltergeist 2 is basically like Cape Fear meets The Night of the Hunter." This book could have been the baby of Mary Gaitskill and Italo Calvino. Hard to imagine, but rings true to me.

The time markers threw me off from time to time. Goon Squad winds its way back and forth through the decades, intertwining lives together, like in some warped rock and roll time machine. You meet characters, and then their children and their children's technology, and then jump back in time to regain a foothold on why it all mattered so much in the first place. Egan's language is so poetic, and each chapter stands alone as a short story. It didn't surprise me to read the acknowledgements and see that many chapters first appeared in Granta, the New Yorker, and other magazines of fictional record.

I know nothing about the music industry. My greatest claim to fame is dating a couple of guys who were in bands that would play at the QE2 bar in Albany in the early 1990s. We wore a lot of black, but I leaned more toward the vintage dress with combat boots combination; a fashion era aptly covered in Goon Squad. That said, I was relatively squeaky clean compared to Egan's characters who smoked pot and downed ecstasy pills like they were Tic-Tacs. I could drink a few watered down rum and cokes at the Palais Royale, but it was generally with my nearest and dearest restaurant pals after a long shift, with Patsy Cline crooning in the background. Not sordid, in other words.

My real musical Brush With History crashed into me one day in 1995 or so due to an acquaintance's out of town emergency. Heather, who worked at Rykodisc (or was it Rhino?), a label David Byrne was affiliated with at the time, was supposed to show up at his home in Chelsea to help him get his equipment to the Supper Club for that evenings' show. I was an Editorial Assistant at American Heritage, which was in the neighborhood at the Forbes Building on 5th Avenue and 12th Street, and since she couldn't be in town she called on me to pinch hit and act as if I was someone who worked for her label. My boss Richard Snow gave me the afternoon off so I could go and be an imposter (yet another reason he was my best boss, hands down, ever). I showed up at Byrne's doorstep on, I believe it was 21st street between 8th and 9th Avenue, rang the doorbell, and he promptly answered. I told him I was sent by Rykodisc to help him get settled at the Supper Club. He asked me to follow him downstairs to his studio, and then he picked up a guitar and played a few chords. "How does that sound to you?" he asked me. ME! I can't remember if/ how I came up with words to answer him. "It sounds great!"? "Wow!"? I'm sure I said something brilliantly articulate like that. I helped him plop some guitars in the trunk of a yellow taxi cab, but he'd inadvertently locked us out of his house before we'd packed everything he needed, and so we had to make our way to his office on 12th street so he could pick up an extra set of his house keys. The whole time we were in the cab, he would say these random things that sounded like Talking Heads lyrics: "Look at that bicycle hanging on that pole!"

Only when he began to ask me about people connected to Rykodisc did I dissolve into a puddle of transparent awkwardness. I'm a terrible liar, and I couldn't figure out how on earth to answer his question, "So, how is John doing?" What if John had been in the hospital? What if he'd moved to Africa? Who the hell was John? In that panic, I told him I had to confess something; I don't work for Rykodisc, but was actually an Editorial Assistant at American Heritage magazine and I'm helping out a friend who was in a bind.... It probably wasn't even a big deal to him. It's not like I was threatening in any way, probably wearing some heinously garish red lipstick and some prairie dress; scary in one way, but not in an I'm Going to Murder You in a Taxi Cab On the Way to the Supper Club Way. Once we got there, I helped him carry a few pieces of light equipment, and he invited me to come back later to hear his rehearsal and see the show for free.

For a few years, I'd see Byrne in small clubs when I'd go out to hear music, like at the Mercury Lounge. When I stopped going out so much I'd still see him, but he'd be riding his bicycle; still handsome, but older, with a beautiful crop of silver hair.

The other night, when we were holed up in Upstate during the hurricane, I showed "True Stories" to Jamie . It held up for me, and got most interesting for Jamie when the laziest woman in the world got to be fed by a robotic fork while she watched infomercials from bed.

This Jennifer Egan book has sent me on quite the nostalgic spin-out; I'm sure it will do the same for you. Going back to the book, I'd like to add that there is one experimental chapter involving a sister and her brother who has autism that was one of the most moving and spiritual, though sparse, pieces of writing I've come across, ever. I was thinking to myself that the Pulitzer committee must have been taken by the sheer modernity of this novel until I got to that chapter, and at that point for me brilliance settled in and didn't leave. Reading it threw me back in time to yet another place and sensation, predating my David Byrne encounter. I was in college, and I'd read something (what?), when suddenly, everything that I'd been studying came together like a thousand crystals forming into some beautiful lucid object. Everything made sense, and was exciting, and clear; the way moments leading up to poems feel.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Changing the Season Guard


Ms. Irene brought with her a hard-core cleansing of seasons. Leaves ripped off of trees, many losing their birthright foliage. Along with her other random spoils: a crushed child, and other loss of life; ripped off rooftops; countless flooded homes and crushed bridges; toppled trees, millions without power and many of them friends, humming into the void of their Facebook pages for small comfort at 5:45 a.m. while children still sleep, oblivious, their computer batteries on the wane. My family got off lucky in New York, we got off lucky in Lake Kinderhook, and we got off lucky in Philadelphia.

I woke up thinking about the season turning. It turns violently and softly. It's sudden and it seems to takes forever. If you're not watching carefully, it happens at once. The natural markers of the season changing are peeking through, so I'll try to soak up Harvest-y things like boxes of utility tomatoes to haul down to the city and pecks of new apples which have just come in. Time to process the old mealy ones, Golden Farms; your cold storage can only do so much for a year.

It's odd to spend days in grayness and then emerge into a sun spilled morning. At this moment, birds are chirping and everything seems sharper. This summer has been such a gift. I'll never forget it. Part 1, the Paris swap, and part 2, the Upstate meandering to visit friends while Jamie was parked either up at his worm and fishing farm or firmly rooted in the back seat of my car. Jim, on the other hand, came back from Paris to work, work, work. I've missed him on my Taconic travels, but I know it's also healthy to miss him.

The pressing in of Jamie's school schedule will give us some structure beginning next week, and my schedule will largely follow his. With his mainstreaming, there will be some changes from last year. For example, I used to bring him downstairs every day at 7:25 for the bus. Now, we'll hit the pavement on our scooters at 7:30 to have him to school on Bleecker Street by 7:50. While it's fun to zoom along the sidewalks with him past Washington Square Park and into the West Village, walking to school also presents a valuable time to connect. Jamie likes to talk and walk, an insight that could be valuable when he moves into his adolescence.

I'm getting ready to pack it in and hurl us back into the city. I guess one way I can cope with the end of summer is to crash into the minutia that needs tending to: syllabi updated and printed before tomorrow; pick up a new pair of uniform shoes for Jamie; write a random feature about a publisher in Milan who I know virtually nothing about yet.

A bientot, sweet Summer! Till we meet again!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bodice Rippers: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Sounds like a bad joke: What do you get when you put together the vicar, the farmer, and the other hot guy with good prospects that haven't panned out yet? I don't know the punchline, but Miss Fancy Day, the heroine of Thomas Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree" (mellow-compared-with-Tess-and-Saint Jude) might be able to answer that question. Whoever produced the BBC adaptation of his most subtle book needs to get slapped upside the head with a handful of, oh, a batch of dewey heather or something.

My guilty pleasure has always been a good bodice ripper, preferably based on 18th or 19th century novels. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton. My husband, bless his soul, has put up with every predictable romance scrolling across our TV. There's usually long dresses, up-dos, a good ball scene, and cute men overly dressed in foppish peasant/farmer/aristocrat clothing which is wet from the spontaneous rain storm that always hits right before the mid-point conflict. In the happy stories, the smart heroines (Lizzy Bennett, duh) end up with their guy. In the sad ones, they of course end up destitute and without their children, or in other ways dead altogether (Tess).

There's also always one hot sister who's heartbroken, a crumbling house that can't find enough wood to fill its drafty fireplaces, a poor family down the street who makes our heroine seem nobel when she delivers them a meal, a la Jo March in Little Women, or Emma Woodhouse. In the good adaptations, the extras seem natural. In the bad ones, like "Under the Greenwood Tree", they look like they've been plucked from the local watering hole and asked to put on a hat and fake beard. Oh, and speaking of watering holes, there's always a sad drunk character who is beyond repair but for brief bouts of wisdom. And there's also a sickly person, like some sneezing Auntie (like in every Austen novel) or hypochondriac father or neighbor who gets a terrible cold that's revealed in a long letter to loved ones. Letters that were mailed from far away places, like the next county over. A scorned lover who's pathetically homely, and usually a man of humble origins who needs himself a wife, a la Mr. Collins. There's also permission given to marry, because of course woman can't make up their own minds on such matters. Oh, why? Why? Why?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Remembering R.I.F. Day


When I attended Wood Gormley Elementary School in Santa Fe in the late 1970s and early 1980s, every year (or was it bi-annually?), people who ran the R.I.F. (Reading is Fundamental) van would show up to our school library with a box of books nearly four feet wide and as tall as myself (I was the second tallest girl in the class; Martha Cooke was the first tallest). To come to school and find out it was R.I.F. Day... Wow. To reach into the box and pull out a shiny paperback was an event that would have the school yard buzzing at recess.

I grabbed for the usual 3rd and 4th grade fodder like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but one day ended up with an Encyclopedia Brown book. It didn't turn out to be as prized a possession as Harriet the Spy, which I emulated with close detail, often walking around my downtown neighborhood with a little notebook and stubby pencil taking down notes "spying" on people. Oh why couldn't I be blessed with poor vision so that I could wear glasses like Harriet's (which hello, are the same that Harry Potter wears!). Encyclopedia Brown was new, though, it was mine, it was free, and I didn't have to return it.

I was curious to see if R.I.F. was still on the radar and it is, despite an ominous guillotine that looms large in the background. The statistic that pops up on their homepage says there is only 1 book for every 300 children in the United States living in poverty. When I clicked through that stat to their action page, I learned that in March, Congress cut federal funding to this program. Is it R.I.P. for R.I.F.?

Studies have come out saying that the "print environment" at home is an accurate predictor of literacy success. I can't imagine that this comes as a surprise to anyone. So to you librarians out there who fight tirelessly to keep R.I.F., the excellent First Book program, and others like it alive, I offer a belated Thank You all these years later. I know you're also fighting for, like, your jobs.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Musee de la Vie Romantique



One place I can't shake from my post-Paris brain is the "Musee de la Vie Romantique", or "The Museum of the Romantic Life", a tiny museum in an old mansion down the street from Pigalle. The museum is the converted home of the accomplished French portrait artist Ary Scheffer, who frequently played host to George Sand and her sickly boyfriend Chopin. Ergot, the heavy and seemingly unbalanced focus on the feisty Ms. George Sand herself (a brilliant watercolor landscape artist in her own right).

Walk into the front parlor and you're greeted by jewelry cases full of historic bibs and bobs. It's like shaking out your glamorous Great Grandmother's junk drawer from the end of the nineteenth century, to find costume jewelry, snippets of hair (how Gothic, no?) and old faces decaying and gazing from lockets. The fading faces always get me. There are these long-gone souls staring out at you from a tarnished locket, whose lives I'm not familiar with, but still it's as if they could leap out and ask for directions. If they were alive, I might buy them a cup of tea at the adjoining Salon de The.


On the last day of my cousin Lori's visit, we meandered down the hill from Monmartre and found our way to the museum an hour before it closed. In the garden, green iron outdoor tables are surrounded by various rose bushes, and tea is served up strong in lovely old China teapots and delicate cups and saucers. Because it's Paris it rained on and off, but overgrown trees protected our buttery crumbles and Earl Grey before the sun opened up again.



I love how the museum is barely visible from the street, and how you have to approach it by walking through a little cobblestone driveway. I also love how the permanent exhibit is free, so I felt able to go and stare at the mold made from Chopin's hand a few times over during different visits (to the left of his hand you can see a curled piece of George Sand's hair in a see-through locket). His hands were small and delicate and quite beautiful, and with his Nocturnes playing on a loop in the background, I could almost imagine holding onto it for a few minutes.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dividing up Brain Time


A summer epiphany:

Like most other writers I know, I have to do some sort of rudimentary writing for cash. I want to work on more meaningful projects (not that making a living isn't meaningful) and so I'm going to attempt to no longer hand over clear morning energy to that sort of writing. I can save that for long stretches of afternoon lulls or burned-out nighttime hours. Morning should be for essays, my blog, a novel, a poem, and for reading and thinking. Not for describing groovy wedding favors or cool places for kids to go.

So here's a raised cup of coffee to the little ladybugs and slugs and things in Arnold Lobel's "Grasshopper on Road" who carry signs in fields that say "Morning is Tops!" I can be like Grasshopper and agree to like both morning and afternoon, but let's give Morning its due and not clutter it with the formulaic stuff.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Couch Surfing


I have this big birthday coming up next Spring, and in the happy wake of it I've been reflecting on how lucky I am to be inhabited by a free spirit. I love driving around aimlessly while blaring Pete Doherty albums.

Yesterday, I left Jamie at his Geepie and Granddad's place for his annual "camp" week where he sleeps in a tent by Lake Kinderhook, eats ice cream every day from a waffle cone, and digs up as many worms and slugs and centipedes as he can get his grubby hands on. After spending the night I left him to his bliss (which at the moment of our goodbye involved being snug inside of his new 4 person Coleman tent), and hit the road, taking this rare opportunity of unscheduled time to see friends for a few days.

I pulled off the Thruway at exit 20 headed toward Saugerties when my car suddenly smelled like a rotten egg had exploded. After conferring with the sweet Toll Booth minder, I made it to Steyer's Car Repair one mile down the road, and Mr. Steyer himself took a look and informed me I need a new alternator and battery. The alternator overheated (?) and fried my battery, so it's apparently a lucky thing I made it that extra mile.

But no worries! I'm in the land of Old Dear Friends who are each in their own way tucked away happily in the Catskills. I got a lift from a Steyer to Howard Johnson's where I sat at the old bar and had a cup of coffee, waiting for Kait to pick me up. It was so gleaming and empty and quiet, I felt like I was dropped into an old Edward Hopper painting that hadn't quite come to life yet.

Last night I crashed at Kait and Paul's beautiful homestead, which is perched right under a mountain and over a creek. I had a beautiful dinner with her and her Mr. Oh My God He's So Gorgeous 15 year old son, Jesse. Seriously? I remember holding him when he was just days old, and now he's donning cute glasses and talking about different musical genres, including his passing Jazz phase. After dinner he left us to our silliness which dragged on with way too much after dinner Bailey's, but c'est la vie. Bailey's didn't feel too great at 3 a.m., but I woke up next to a giant snoring Rottweiler named Bosco so that was... a comfort?

Car should be on the mend this morning, so more adventures to come.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Disoriented in New York


I woke up at 3 a.m., because my body thinks it's 10 a.m. When I went to the bathroom, I thought I'd flush by pressing the silver push button thing on the top of the toilette, but in my sleepy state didn't find it where I'd grown used to it. When we landed in New York last night, we'd been awake for nearly 24 hours. Jamie was a trooper like I'd never seen, until the very end when he was furious that I'd left a water bottle on the plane and there was no fountain to be found-- or kiosk to purchase a new one--anywhere within a mile of Customs at J.F.K. Where were the Evian vending machines that dotted the platforms of every Metro stop in Paris? Or the 100+ green "Wallace" fountains that rise up from the landscape of Paris parks, medial strips, and sidewalks, that were donated by the English philanthropist Richard Wallace back in 1870-something because so many Parisians were dying of nasty water-borne diseases like Cholera?

I new I'd be extremely sad to leave Paris, and I was, but there was honestly too much packing and cleaning to do to allow myself to wallow. That process wasn't exactly helped my our deciding to ditch Paris on the last two of three blue-skied days for the beach in Normandy. Leaving a foreign city after a beautiful trip used to feel final, somehow. I think my progression of not wallowing too much in the leaving part This Year is a sign of a healthy progression into Next Year thinking. I probably would have benefited from a good cry. Maybe I just haven't had it yet.*

Last year I had to come home in August, leave NYC again, and return once more, to find its edges not too abrasive. This year, my antidote to these rough edges of returning to New York may be to pick up a hearty history of the city, a la Luc Sante, to grease the wheels back home that had gotten me so fired up in Paris. I think I'll shoot my old buddy Richard Snow an email and ask him for a recommendation. For starters, I could pull down from my bookshelves "Here is New York" by E.B. White, a little treatise on my storied hometown that's always described as "elegant" or "succinct". I could also ditch my coffee maker and pick up one of those whistling stovetop espresso makers that I used every morning.

(*Postscript: Good cry nearly happens at our Key Food, where every vegetable is mysteriously wrapped individually in plastic.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sans TV


Take away cable, television, Netflix, and video games, and at first what I had on my hands was a cranky and complaining little beggar in withdrawal, much to my chagrin. I'd like to think I don't lean heavily on electronic conveniences to pacify my kid while I get stuff done or take a moment to myself (or an hour, or an hour and a half). Alas, not the case. This wasn't an act in parental piety, but rather the reality of what it meant to land in a Parisian's apartment filled with not much more than 20 bookshelves filled with Marx en Francais. There have been a few exceptions, for example watching soccer in Arabic on Al Jazeera and a matinee- priced 3-D showing of Pirates of the Caribbean on the "MacDoe"-filled Champs Elysees.

Here's the fast working miracle of it all, a no-brainer to you strong-willed Waldorf, Rudolph Steiner adhering parents out there. He's reading now with a fervor that I've not yet seen before. It's hard to drag him away from a book now, as hard as it was to make him turn off the computer from the Marvel superhero games he'd somehow wormed his way into like a stunning Grand Slam that took everyone by surprise. The books have elevated from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series to Roald Dahl snatched up in huge bites. "Hey, Mom, Look. Chapter 21. Goodbye, Violet!" The type size on the Dahl books is quite smaller than the script font of the Diary series, but you're still rewarded with illustrations on every page.

We have a few left to move through: James and the Giant Peach, the Bridge of Terabithia, and Charlotte's Web. At the rate of one book every few days, we might be headed toward Galignani before long.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Into the Mainstream


I'm humbled and touched by the comments my last essay on the New York Times' Motherlode blog received from last week about Jamie mainstreaming. Only one person felt that they had to teach me that I wasn't a "special needs mom" and that Jamie wasn't a "special needs child." That's all well and good, but the truth is-- or should I say, my truth is-- adapting to this label and assimilating into that culture to meet my son's needs as a first time parent many years ago was overwhelmingly an identity-changing phase in my life. I like to think that it will forever offer me a sense of understanding into the particulars of every child's challenges, whether deemed "typical" or "special."

I don't offer any particular value to any title or diagnosis that labels a child, but what I have learned is that living as an advocate for mine has been an active choice that at times has required the support of those categories in order to push forward. I feel privileged that I was led, circumstantially, into the understanding that there was another way. Jamie didn't have to be ostracized in school. He's brilliant and sensitive, and most of all, valued in a school environment that recognized and gave him what he needed.

If you haven't had a chance to read my essay, check it out here: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/into-the-main-stream/.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Swapping Part of the House Swap


I don't care that there are near-strangers in my home for six weeks, because we're in theirs. I know what it means, because we're also rummaging through drawers looking for things, stumbling upon the surprising and sudden ant infestation in our new jar of honey, downloading a washing machine manual in English so I can figure out how to keep it from banging too loudly. Oops, there's not a stove after all.

In our New York apartment there is "a" mouse, and most certainly a few baby cucarachas. It's summer, after all. There is also a desk piled (neatly) with personal papers that I couldn't bother to put up, up and away, just like they didn't put away theirs. We swapped our good for their good. Our good is a bathtub after long days of walking around New York; their good is a kitchen window overlooking the entire city of lights, from the Eiffel Tower to the archway at Champs Elysses to the crazy and outdated colored pipes that wrap themselves so brazenly around the Pompidou. Our good is a large-for-New-York children's room complete with cozy comforter and toys; theirs is a child's bedroom complete with cozy comforter and toys. It's just that her toys speak French. "A bientot! A bientot!"

This trip we're not traveling up and down the country, which essentially doubles our length of time in Paris since last year we spent three weeks moving our way from Normandy to Marseilles to Anzio to Rome and back again. This year, we're recovering from the end of the semester (Jamie's and mine) slowly with lots of walks and cooking and climbing the stairs in Monmartre. It stays light here until 11 p.m., so the days are long. We work. Jim continues to steer jobs from far away ("you can find that color of paint at the Janovic"), and I already have a new pile of copy writing to hit. Somehow the work makes the idea of living here more real. The structure of it seems to be good for everyone, and I love the quiet mornings when I can wake up before anyone else and work for a few hours. Jamie loves visiting different playgrounds not once but twice a day, his scooter or soccer ball close at hand. We found mini frogs in a playground yesterday! Stick around somewhere long enough, and you'll spot some too.