Why I love my daughter

I count it among one of life’s gifts to have a daughter who enjoys doing things with me. Rock concerts. Hiking when we’re on vacation (even if she leaves me in the dust). Shopping.  Enjoying the sights and streets of NYC when she comes back East. But it’s something else, as deep in what it says about character and resilience as it is funny that has me moved to write about her.

Because she lives on the West Coast and I’m in New York, it’s not uncommon for me wake to texts written by her late at night.We’d had more than one conversation about the distressing direction of health care and insurance last week. Hard to offer reassurance when things are so tenuous politically and socially, conservative right-wing Republicans have more power than they deserve, and there’s a psychopath in the White House.  And, yet, when we talk a switch in my brain automatically turns me from worried mode to mama mode, in which I remind her that things are bad, yes, but we have to consider that resistance counts for a lot. After we talk, I send a text.

So when I turned on my phone Friday morning and saw there was text from her, I was so sure it was going to be about John McCain, a villain earlier in the week. Then came Thursday night, the tension, the mystery, the anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep, I dreaded what Friday would bring in the wake of the Senate debate on the last of the three options to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s the text I woke up to.

I laughed.   Already in a better mood than I thought I’d be because of two persistent women who would not cave to party pressure augmented by a tweeting psychopath, and a man I’ve had mixed feelings about over the years, I reminded myself a small win is still a win.

I reminded myself, too, that my daughter has always been this way.  She unloads, tells me all the troubling things on her mind. Then her own neurological switch kicks in.

Survival strategies take many forms, and humor is one of the best.  Timothy Ferris makes a good case for laughter as a response to stress in an essay in his book, The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context. We all need some comic relief.

I thought a little about John McCain, too.  His dramatic return in the throes of a terrible prognosis had so many seeing him as a hero. Humility in the face of death would not be a stretch when trying to understand his thumbs-down moment.  In truth, we all know the vote could have gone either way,

And I thought of two strong, remarkable women, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who I’m thankful are not getting (too) overshadowed by the vote heard around the world.

Then there’s my daughter. The greed that fuels the climate change deniers, the heartlessness at the heart of attempts to eviscerate Obamacare get her absolutely worked up. Factor in random personal frustrations and you could have a pretty miserable individual.  But a capacity for getting on with things, coupled with a sense of humor and an admirable resilience, always ends up winning the day.

And sometimes all it takes is a puppy or two to make her smile.

Patiently waiting for a Shake Shack poochini 😉

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Young at Heart

July 1985. I’m behind the counter of Farmhouse, Inc., an East Hampton design shop my husband opened with the man who would have been his partner had he not died. It’s Saturday night. We play Frank Sinatra music, always a draw.

It had all the markings of a good plan. Keith, my husband’s assistant in his NYC interior design business, wanted to open a design shop in East Hampton. He spent half his week in the city and the other half in Sag Harbor where he lived with his life partner, Peter, who had a thriving hair salon. The Hamptons had plenty of antiques shops but nothing focused on contemporary design. Lew liked the idea.

They found a space for rent, gave it a name: Farmhouse, Inc., a gallery of craft/tech. That was February 1985. Another person might rethink signing a lease with someone just diagnosed with HIV. But that other person would not have the spirit of the man I married. By springtime Keith had full-blown AIDS but was holding steady. We had a Memorial Day opening bash filled with friends (including local luminaries), and all the promise of a creative new venture.

 

If pictures truly are worth a thousand words, how’s this one for silliness and feeling young at heart? Please ignore the socks I’m wearing. It was a time. It was a look. Do not ignore the smile on the face of my dear friend, Regina, and me.

By early July Keith was gone.

Can’t say I would ever really fill Keith’s shoes, with all that he would have brought to the partnership but we gave it our best shot. The following July would find me very pregnant and overjoyed by my mother’s visit. Sara would be born a month later.

Why is this on my mind now?

Well first there’s the Frank Sinatra connection. Almost any song on the cassette we regularly played as customers browsed takes me back, but “Young at Heart” puts me there in a flash, the wistfulness of it, hand in hand with a melancholy undertone.

Then there’s the novel I would write, sparked by the need to make sense of a very troubling time. These were the early days of AIDS. Nobody knew what was really happening. Days felt shadowed with clouds.

More and more a sense of innocence lost took hold. All those years of sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll free love and now we have sex equated with death. What would the impact of that be on anyone coming of age in the ‘80s? I pictured a girl, a beloved uncle, the mysteries surrounding him. I pictured her born in the summer of ’69, coming of age in the ‘80s, a time when the mysteries give way to tragedy. How does a young person, in all her innocence, make sense of it all? How does she confront the ugliness of that thing we call homophobia?

How does she handle grief?

And, what if her own sexual awakening occurs while her uncle is dying?

There you have it, the seeds of Just like February, which will at last be published next April by Spark Press.

In the words of the young narrator’s quirky grandmother: “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Speaking of which, here I am, another July years later, the kitchen renovation I recently wrote about brought to completion but forever holding all that’s contained in those moments defined by before and after.

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Space fantasy 2

As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn I craved space. How else to explain my taking up residence in the Loew’s Kings ladies’ room during movie intermissions? It had a plush sitting room where I could pretend I was holding court before (or after) going into the bathroom proper. Then there was the furniture department of Macy’s, down the street from our family candy store. I would wander over there, settle myself in any of the arranged living room settings. It was the cusp of the ‘60s, a time of social upheaval, yes, but the world clearly felt safe enough for a mother to give this kind of license to a ten-year-old.

An entire past comes to dwell in a new house, I wrote in a previous piece that touched on the places my imagination took me as a writer-in-the-making longing for a room of her own. Today I have that, and much more. And I still marvel at how any change, even for the better, is tinged with something gone.

My house, a veritable work-in-progress, is no longer new, but every phase of renovation brings a new way of being in it. This time—I could shout at last!—it’s a kitchen upgrade. The kitchen always had its charm—colorful cabinets, a floor like none other, which had messages (some coded) cleverly laid in decals by my husband. There’s history in these floors and walls of the warm home our house became.

But modernization and efficiency in storage were in order. Exciting, yes, to envision, even if it feels overwhelming: clearing out the kitchen, organizing the contents of drawers and cabinets into boxes for some semblance of easy access. It’s the little things—not wrapping each and every coffee mug in newspaper—that keep the ache at bay; we’re not moving out, we’re just moving things to another room.

In the interest of change, I’m experimenting with a little blog music more regularly. Click on the audio widget (upper right) and enjoy what you hear while considering ten things to remember when you renovate a kitchen:

  • It’s temporary.
  • You will cry as you pack boxes to put into your dining room and living room and wherever you can make them fit, and think about all that has taken place in the kitchen as it was.
  • You will feel disoriented. Which cardboard box did I put the boxes of pasta into? Where are my mixing spoons?
  • You will walk back and forth a lot, in need of things—a towel, a fork, a knife and cutting board—not within immediate reach.
  • You will remind yourself of the privilege that is your life and makes this upgrade a possibility—then take a step back to consider that, for too many people, this is not even an option.
  • You will suddenly remember how well you managed in that ridiculously tiny kitchen in your studio apartment, back when.
  • You will cry.
  • You may even curse.
  • You will be distracted from rituals and routines that require your focus: writing, reading, yoga, meditation.
  • If you’re lucky, you may even welcome the disorientation for whatever new insights it brings.
  • And when all is said and done, you’ll marvel at something that seemed to take so long becomes another thing completely in an instant.

So here you have it—a glimpse of what was/what is/what will be my spiffy, new kitchen.

 

The best (photo), I might add, is yet to come.

 

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Torch Songs

A few weeks ago I had dream in which I was onstage, getting ready to sing. Maybe a little nervous, maybe not, I launched into a song. I surprised myself at how good I sounded.

This is not my ego speaking. It’s my unconscious playing with me. Yes, I love to sing (who doesn’t?). But being able to carry a tune is not going to turn me into Mariah Carey, never mind Adele. I love to dance, too. And in my dream, I could feel the bodily sensation of belting out a song. Good for the heart. Good for the soul.

Then I wake up and see the metaphor for what it is. For a writer there’s skill and competence, but nothing matters as much as voice.

“If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page,” notes Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair piece he wrote during his “year of living dyingly.” Moving, and filled with Hitchens-style intelligence and wit, “Unspoken Truths” gives voice to a newfound awareness re: the connection between what is said and what is written. Among other things and people he touches on is Leonard Cohen singing “If It Be Your Will,” a song he acknowledges should not be listened to late at night and one he cannot imagine anyone else bringing what LC brings to it.

Leonard Cohen would be among the last singers I’d listen to for a good torch song, all of which makes his cover of Always something to smile about.

Speaking of torch songs, I’m in my car (otherwise known as my mobile sound machine), an easy listening moment, a voice as inimitable as it gets, with or without the distinctive quaver.

Even before the song comes to an end, Billie Holiday pops into my head. Sirius Radio is reading my mind. The ache in her voice brings tears to my eyes.

From there the playlist is less torch song, more soulful. Joe Simon has me Drowning in the Sea of Love though Peaches & Herb bring me right back, slow dancing/make-out music at its best. The sound is tinny, a reminder of transistor radio days on the beach, or better yet, those 45s stacked on my record player, one by one dropping to the turntable, with a click, as I cry myself to sleep with longing or heartbreak, sometimes both.

Leonard Cohen says there ain’t no cure for love.  Eddie Cochran says there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. Bob Dylan tells me summer days, summer nights are gone.

Here’s what I say: Take a walk, let the chorus of birds or that single one trilling a song surprise you with their reminder that nothing keeps them from coming back. Yesterday brought the added joy of watching a Duck Tolling Retriever climb up the steps of a playground slide, then run down the slide itself. All to retrieve a ball. It’s summertime, after all, and the living may (or may not be) easy but it’s easier than winter. Barbecues. Long days. Outdoor concerts. Emmylou Harris will be in my neck of the woods this summer. And Rhiannon Giddens. Last year it was Cecile McLorin Salvant. If you’ve been lucky enough to hear/see her even once (twice for me), you’d be hard put not to agree with Wynton Marsalis: “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” To learn that becoming a singer wasn’t even what she set out to do is beside the point. This is an artist who does more than interpret songs. Trust me when I say you’ll never hear a cover of Wives and Lovers like hers.

 

Women who run with the wolves

March and April have brought a confused aspect to spring. The groundhog never really gets it right, but I love the lore of it all. A March blizzard threw things completely out of whack. Before the blizzard there was this in my front yard.

Birds were visible, then seemed to go into hiding when the snow came. After the snow cleared, the natural order of things seemed to return—even if ‘natural’ may be a stretch: 45 degrees one day, 70 degrees another. Easter Sunday was a high of 80 degrees though the real what’s-wrong-with-this-picture was told by the trees, pretty much bare.

Noticeably missing was the subtle green chartreuse that encroaches a little more each day. It may be my favorite thing about early spring, the incremental change I get to witness.

There’s certainly some cruelty to April, being the month my mother died. But it’s Robert Frost who resonates even more deeply:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Early spring is nothing if not a reminder of how fleeting things are.

With renewal comes the reminder of all that’s lost to us.

Joy is a bubble, sadness carries weight. No escaping it. Bubbles are light. They float. Touch them too hard and they disappear.

A life well lived is one in which we pay attention—to the daily mysteries of changing seasons, to the people we care about, to whatever the world presents us with. I could easily enumerate the things in my life that give me joy but, on any given day, something heavier—a daughter feeling sick, a relative or friend in need or distress, my own personal challenges—gets in the way. Then there’s the world.

Is the cup half-full, half-empty, or always a little of both?

Don’t we often get the message we need when we most need it—assuming we’re not too closed off to receive it?

“While much psychology emphasizes the familial causes of angst in humans, the cultural component carries as much weight, for culture is the family of families,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run with the Wolves. A 25th anniversary edition, due out this year, tells me how long the book has been on my shelves. My curiosity about what myths and fairy tales bring to our consciousness, both in terms of story and archetype, may have been what first drew me to the book years ago. What prompted me to pull it from my shelf just the other day is more elusive.

Or is it? I’m an older woman than I was when I first read snippets of the book, but maybe it’s something about the times in which we live that has me craving the call of the wild. What better way to combat the predator wolves at the door than reclaiming the wolf spirit within? It’s metaphor, yes, but the point is to trust the intuitive side of our nature, give it more expression. “Like the wolf,” she writes, “intuition has claws that pry things open and pin things down, it has eyes that can see through the shields of persona, it has ears that hear beyond the range of mundane human hearing.”

Margaret Atwood is much in the news these days, what with the Hulu mini-series of The Handmaid’s Tale airing at a time when the Oval Office stinks with oppression/repression/misogyny. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” says Atwood in a recent New Yorker profile.  She also points out that “in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had the pushback, and now we are going to have the push again.”

#WomensMarch, #ShePersisted, #PussyHat—we’ve only just begun, even if we never thought we’d be marching and fighting to protect and preserve what we’d already gained.

Sometimes when I sit down to meditate, I have the misfortune to see the face of an ugly man with orange hair. Takes some time before he slips out of my consciousness, but his mere presence calls to mind the predator archetype who lives in our psyche, as Estés tells it. Bluebeard, in the story she tells and takes apart, may be the epitome of the predator who, in fairy tales (and life), chooses his women for their easy acquiescence. He may not be handsome but he’s powerful and rich. One by one his brides fall into the trap of a curiosity that kills them. Until one comes along who has the presence of mind to outsmart him.

The titles of books interpreting fairy tales—The Uses of Enchantment (Bruno Bettelheim), Off with Their Heads! (Maria Tatar), From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (Marina Warner)—speak worlds about their staying power and adaptability to changing times. Even Disney, with its formulaic charm and musical scores to tap our spirits, figured out that, for every fairy tale about a girl/woman saved by a prince there are countless others telling the story of how she saved herself, and others.

It’s easy to remember . . .

Sometimes even I surprise myself.

Last year, in a post focused on the spirit of place, I wrote these words:

Walls hold secrets. Memories are something we make.

Oh, to be a fly on a wall when something we’re not privy to is taking place!  The walls I’m mostly thinking about are the ones that give definition to the places I’ve lived.  They may be repainted and redecorated, but, barring any demolition, they remain standing.  Stepping into a room you once inhabited is bound to be riddled with emotion. Nostalgia for what’s gone may kick in, unless a nagging sense of what was really never there gets the best of you.

Memories are of a more fluid nature.  It’s one thing to understand the neurological processes that give shape to them in the first place, another thing altogether to laugh or cry at the spontaneous recall of some past moment triggered by a smell/a sound/a conversation or scratch your head in frustration at something that never gets past the tip of your tongue.

The gorgeous, bittersweet saxophone of John Coltrane tells me it’s easy to remember but so hard to forget.

I’m not so sure it isn’t the other way around.

Ask me the date of my mother’s death, and I still say 17 Nissan, the third day of Passover. That’s what the Jewish (lunar) calendar tells me, and that would be today.  The secular (solar) calendar marks her death on April 8, 1993. Don’t ask me if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the disconnect between the two different ways of marking time had me unable to recall the April 8th date for at least a few years after she died.

Passover, like Easter, is nothing if not a spring ritual, each holiday underscored by stories of renewal, not to mention death and resurrection. Photographs help me recall a time when there was no Passover without a Seder.

Young as I was, there was always that moment of mystery and magic—opening the door for Elijah the prophet, checking the level of wine in the cup left on the table for him to see if he really did take a sip. That would be my sign that all was okay.

Sentimentality, coupled with a sense of keeping some semblance of tradition, would have my family continuing to gather for Passover after my grandfather died. But the Seder would fall apart like crumbled matzoh without his guiding presence. Memory may (or may not) fail me but the last Seder I recall ended in a fight between my uncles. So the ritual of gathering to tell a story of enslavement and freedom would give way to the ritual of gathering simply to eat. It was my mother and aunt who held it together, with their cooking.

Food as ritual? You tell me. With each passing generation something is lost. These days I do some semblance of a modernized Seder to bring together friends and family.

And I do my best to remember.

Break up to make up?

Music purist that I am, I was slow to catch the Pandora streaming train.   To my thinking it was one step ahead of piped in Muzak, what you hear is what you get.  Real radio, which I love, has disc jockeys, and disc jockeys liven things up with personality in lieu of algorithms.  What a treat to be surprised by a song I forgot I love or another one new to me!

Radio days may not exactly be gone but the cream of the crop have gone the commercial-free, listener-supported route, which is a good thing—except when those radio signals of my favorite FM stations crackle and fade across the miles.

Enter Pandora, everything from blues to baroque, Diana Krall to Adele, early jazz to Bill Evans, classic rock (not as classic I would hope) to Al Green and the Chiffons and, yes, Barry White. All it takes is hearing that string section of his Love Unlimited Orchestra and I’m right there, under the influence of love, ‘70s style  (no apologies necessary, even before reading the perspective DJDiscoCatV2 brings via his YouTube commentary).

So hear me out. It’s dinnertime, I’m in my kitchen, chopping and prepping.  My trusty Bose sits on a shelf.  I can so easily pop in a CD, and I often do, but more often than not I’m not in the mood to choose.  All it takes is a dash of Albert King/ Stevie Ray Vaughan via Pandora’s Blues Guitar Legends and the mushrooms in my Chicken Marsala positively shimmer and dance in the pan.

At the lightest touch of my finger on the app, Diana Krall croons, “Too Marvelous for Words.”  Dinner is served.

It was all so swell, really, this lazy listening, commercials intermittent and not too intrusive.   Until one day, and from then on every time I tuned in to any of my Pandora stations, a message came through loud and stridently clear in the voice of Mike Lindell trying to sell me on a pillow guaranteed to give me the best night’s sleep ever. His success story may, in the words of Bloomberg News, be preposterous, (former crack addict turned entrepreneur) and I wish him no ill. But that grating voice had me running for a pillow to put over my head, not under it, giving me all the impetus I needed to break up with Pandora.

There is, indeed, no free lunch and no free music gotten without a price to pay.

I tried, really I did, to tolerate it.

I resisted the impulse to upgrade to the paid version of Pandora, even as I reminded myself that an app that gives me so much deserves something in return. But I already pay for Apple Music, which I can’t say I take full advantage of.

So, here’s what happened instead.

I started combing through my treasure trove of CDs, choosing ones I hadn’t listened to in a while, a more deliberate kind of company to keep while cooking.  Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, jumped out at me.  The art of a great album is the segue, one song seamlessly into the next.  It’s a segue of sorts, too—isn’t it?—when the next CD calling out to me is John Coltrane, Ballads.

This is your brain on music, really a mind/body thing when anything you love listening to infuses itself into your spirit.

I could go down the list of albums rediscovered, maybe even heard in a new light, memories recalled. I could tell you, too, how that re-listening had me picking and choosing songs for playlists of my own making, a joy to listen to via that thing called wireless speakers. And let’s not forget my Bose SoundTouch app, which gives me access to my fave FM stations, streaming a more consistent medium than choppy radio waves.

But somehow I began to miss my Pandora.  Maybe it was time to make up, take her up on her pay-for-play manifestation?

***

At this very moment, a cusp-of-spring rain outside my window, Bill Charlap (via Pandora’s Bill Evans radio station) has me in an “Autumn in New York” trance.  I don’t often write to music but today it feels so right, and, God knows, I need that soothing easy piano jazz to calm my nerves, what with news headlines that make me more jittery by the day.

Ay, here’s the rub.

In the time it’s taken me to write these words, “Autumn in New York” has segued to a handful of other easy listening piano standards that settle in me like the wine I’m sipping.  Bill Evans is back now with “My Foolish Heart,” anything but foolish in the way it interprets its messages. The algorithms that string together songs in the music apps we buy into are no measure for the thought that goes into an album from start to finish.  And they do get boring.

But that, my friends, is the price you pay 🙂

 

 

 

 

What we talk about when we talk about love

How’s this for a trip down Memory Lane: It’s Valentine’s Day 1983. Just months earlier I met the man who would become my husband. Maybe not exactly a Tony and Maria West Side Story moment, but close enough. Suffice it to say I spotted him across a room, Tavern on the Green, to be exact, talking to my brother. I had a feeling about this guy. To this day, the mutual friends who had invited us to the party take great pride in a match made, if not in heaven, at their daughter’s christening.

Back to Valentine’s Day. I lived on the West Side of town, he lived on the East Side. The city never sleeps but it slows down during a snowstorm. Not a taxi in sight. I and the lasagna I’d made for that new love of mine would have to make the most of public transportation.

I get to his spiffy apartment building and the doorman tells me I have to wait. WTF? That new boyfriend of mine had to have the lighting just right on the flower arrangement I would see when I walked into his apartment. It’s all in the details—right?—all the more significant when the boyfriend happens to be an interior designer.

We live in cynical times, and no matter how I recast the phrase I can’t help but see/hear Tom Cruise in his humbled Jerry Maguire mode.

More to the point, cynical times demand more of us. For reasons that have as much to do with my mother sending a Valentine’s Day card to me (and sometimes friends of mine) during my single years. I still send a card (usually emblazoned with a puppy) to my daughter. She’s engaged now, and I love the young man she’s going to marry. But . . .

Love is love is love . . .

Speaking of which, Cupid may be the cute little god shooting arrows but the Romans were pretty, pretty nasty during the feast of Lupercalia (February 13-15), sacrificing animals and whipping women. It took a pope to erase all vestiges of the pagan rituals; and it took the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare to infuse the holiday with romance. Oh that sentiment, not commerce, were the overriding principle!

And even if we don’t need a cheesy Hallmark reminder of it all, it’s as good a distraction as it gets. Not feeling romantic but feeling the need to say it with anything but flowers? There are e-cards galore, from the silly/animated Jacquie Lawson to the over-the-top tongue-in-cheek some cards. All brought to you in a time when La-La Land becomes more than a place or state of mind in a Hollywood love story as bittersweet as it gets.

John Lennon said it simply:

Love is real/real is love

Raymond Carver got to its unfathomable underbelly in a masterful story.

So, while I can’t promise I’ll be concocting something to make America love again, I am planning to cook up something (not lasagna) to share with very close friends who, like us, are still happily married (if not crazy) after all these years.