Shoot to Kill

Once in a while, around dinnertime, I need to tune in to TV news. For all that’s available to me via the Internet, sitting on the couch and watching a news anchor deliver the top news of the day, condensed for easy consumption, is, oddly, a tuning out of the 24/7 mentality. I like Brian Williams for lots of reasons — his repartee with Jon Stewart, his appreciation of Bruce Springsteen, his resemblance to Peter Jennings. His intelligence and empathy.

Tonight’s top national story (October 19) was more human interest than politics, reporters on the scene in Zanesville, Ohio, where dozens of exotic animals were let loose by the very man who kept them in his own private wild kingdom.  Why he did it will never be known (unless he left a note not yet made public). He shot himself after releasing them, the dozens of lions and tigers and bears left to fend for themselves in a heartland that was no real home to them.  “Shoot to kill,” police were instructed. As one of them pointed out, this was not a situation they were ever trained for.  At least 49 animals were killed, among them Bengal tigers.

The local news, a half-hour earlier, was my real reason for watching tonight, curious about a story I had gotten wind of the night before and was still having difficulty processing. In this Northern Westchester community where I live, upscale by most standards, a man bludgeoned his wife to death, shot his two young children in bed, then killed himself. This is not a family I know (though I know exactly where they live), and all I keep trying to fathom is what rage or mental derangement it must take to commit this kind of murder and suicide in one fell swoop. Divorce proceedings were in the works, but even the most acriminious of family break-ups do not end in such violence. Having raised a daughter in this (mostly) wonderful exurban part of New York,  I keep imagining what it’s like in the local elementary school today (and the days to come), how teachers are trying to conduct classes and what’s going through the minds of those friends of a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old they’ll never see again. Just the thought chokes me up.

Zanesville, Ohio, and Cross River, New York, are dots on a map, hundreds of miles from each other.  Animals running in a wilderness not of their choosing, connected in some curious way with two children lying still as stone in a bloody, forever unmade bed.



9:15 p.m., an early October night. I go outside, lured by the tree frogs and crickets, the same as I do in the height of summer – just to listen. The air is cool, more summer than autumn/less autumn than winter. There’s a ring of light around the moon, a lunar halo. The sound, bells strung together on a vine of dying light, is thinner than it is on those mid-August nights bursting with syncopation – katydids in tandem with peepers, a cricket singing solo.

Every autumn in the Northeast is different, some more vibrant than others, this one off to a dull start, too much rain saturating the ground, making trees drop their leaves before the magic really begins – bouquet after bouquet of red and yellow, gold, orange, brown crisp against the sky. In spring I’m all ears, the birds signaling to take note. In autumn I’m all eyes, each day on the lookout for that pop of red in the distance, the glow of yellow against the sky. Today’s walk around the lake has me feeling a little autumn-deprived.  It’s the season of nostalgia, with its undercurrent of melancholy, my yoga teacher reminds me.  And every bone in my body tells me she’s right.  No sooner does September roll around, with its reminder of beginnings  (the Jewish New Year, the new school year) than thoughts of a year coming to an end creep in (Thanksgiving just around the corner, Christmas and Chanukah not far behind).  I need those autumn colors, with their announcement that something is so very alive before it dies.

Today, on my walk, something on the other side of the lake catches my eye, a heron perched on a rock, a swan next to it, neither paying any attention to the other. The swan is preening, the heron ever zen-like in its search for food.  Closer to me, but far enough not to feel threatened, are turtles lined up on a log. The swan and heron are a rare sighting, the turtles sunning themselves something I can so often count on. I usually stop, just for a quiet look, three or four small ones in a row, a snapper standing sentry. The splash as they dip back into the lake, one by one, is worth the break in my stride. Anytime I think of a turtle lumbering along with a shell on its back, I remind myself that they also swim.

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,”  begins John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” a line that’s a tongue twister if ever there was one. Autumn, for all its beauty, is not a season of playful ease. It’s something of a rush hour for squirrels and chipmunks.  A season when,

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The way it was / the way it is

A family affair. A wedding on a gorgeous (almost) autumn day, Duchess County, New York. A distant cousin walks up to me. “You know who I am — right?” She says her name at the very moment I recall it. “You look the same as you always did,” she tells me. I smile at the compliment.

The truth be known, I feel far from ageless. If anything, seeing the distant cousin, and all the others I see only at these few-and-far-between family events, both joyful and sorrow-filled, has a way of heightening the sense of something long gone. We talk about the grandparents who were cousins, and the affection our own mothers had for each other. We used to see each other (a little) more.

Nothing is the way it was, I remark. Everything just is what it is.

The father of the bride (a close cousin of mine) walks with a cane.  One cousin of the bride has flown in from L.A. (with his girlfriend); other cousins, from Ohio, came a few days early to visit with family.  Friends and family from the tri-state area got an early start for a ceremony scheduled for 1 p.m. on the lawn of Mills Mansion, an historic site that overlooks the Hudson.  With weather as perfect as it is, who could even complain that the ceremony would end up taking place more than an hour late? Whatever it was that delayed the bride will turn out to be well worth waiting for when we see a white Rolls Royce pull up, delivering the princess of the day. My daughter, also in from the West Coast, sits next to me. What more can I ask?

Maybe this is what we mean by ‘stolen moments.’ In another time, an earlier one, this very same celebration of a marriage would have been just another link in the chain of family events, an assumption across generations. Yes, there would be a touch of acrimony (former husbands and wives bristling at being in the same room, siblings holding their rivalry in check)  thankfully overshadowed by the joy of it all.

Just a month ago a death in family brought at least some of these same cousins together. I felt a little more saddened by my reason for not attending the funeral than the fact of not being there.

What happens when the yoke of obligation gives way, the glue of ritual thinned to a paste more water than starch?

‘Bittersweet’ has long been a favorite word of mine. Today there is no bitter, only sweet. Yes, there is a sense of something not here, except in a ghostly way, reflected in the tears I see filling the eyes of a cousin who I can only imagine is thinking about her mother, the grandmother of the bride, long gone.  The very same cousin who, reflecting on the good time had by all — laughing, sharing photos from our iPhones, doing shots with our (now grown) children, dancing to Sister Sledge (not to mention the hora)  — becomes wistful: why can’t we do this more often? Her heart, always in the right place, would love nothing more. I grant her this much: yes, I feel the tug of nostalgia, but more, perhaps, as a room to visit from time to time than a house in which to dwell.

The Riddle of the Reader/Writer

I admit it, I don’t know how the Blog-A-Licious Blog Tour got started, but here we are, installment #9, and I have the pleasure of introducing Nat and Sarah, tucked between them as I am. What I like about this blog hop is that the number of participants — ten in all — doesn’t overwhelm me.  The more the merrier does not necessarily hold up when it comes to the give-and-take of the blogosphere. With so much out there, how do we pick and choose?  It’s a mix of shared hyperlinks and and dumb luck.

Now to the theme: ‘Reader or Writer — Which Would You Rather Be?’ At first I thought this must be a riddle, sphinx-like in its asking. There is, after all, no writing without reading. Then I read Pandora Poikilos’s very poignant post, and things became a little clearer.

Writing, no less than reading, is an act of discovery, the difference being that, with reading, someone else has done the legwork. The reader gets to sit back, take it all in, see what resonates. The writer, in contrast, starts with a slate begging to be filled, a temptation all its own. Asking which I’d rather be is a Solomon-like conundrum: cut the baby in half and no one gets anything that lives. It’s in the love of reading that the love of writing begins.

At this moment — a night on the cusp of summer and autumn cheered by a symphony of insects and an incandescent full moon — all I want to do is put into words what I see and hear. And recall. Just hours earlier, the see-saw was weighted in favor of reading, serendipity leading me to a Twitter link, E.B. White, in his own words, “There are too many things I’d rather do than read.” It seems that the writer who gave us the most ‘literate’ of spiders, would “rather sail a boat than crack a book.”  Which makes me think that it isn’t so much about preference as it is about making connections — the kind that come from  staring at the moon or taking a walk,  listening to the blues or surfing the Web, sailing a boat or curling up with a favorite book on a winter night. And it’s about taking risks.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work,” says White, “will die without putting a word on paper.”

P.S. As irony would have have it, days after writing this post, an article comes my way re: the growing disconnect between writers and readers:  Writers who don’t read  may seem  like an oxymoron . . . and, yet, as Buzz Poole so eloquently points out, ” Humanity is losing its ability to be alone with nothing but our thoughts.”

Without Power

Photo ©Abe Frajndlich. Reprinted with permission

Saturday, September 3, 2011:  The air  is filled with anticipation. Irene is on her way. A friend who lives in lower Manhattan takes heed:  an 8:48 a.m. train will deliver him, with his son, to the exurban community I live in, about an hour north of the city. If Irene is as fierce as predicted, he doesn’t want to be in her path. Little does he know that leaving the threatened eye of the storm will take him right into it.

Irony. It adds zest to literature. Makes a mockery of all those woulda/coulda/shoulda moments placed in our laps daily/weekly/monthly. Once in a lifetime.  The predictive tools we have at our disposal are no measure against our individually peculiar ways of dealing with all things unknown and out of our control. Yes, knowing a hurricane of such (potential) magnitude is coming allows me some time to prepare, stock up on (at least) water. I’ve lived in an area of overhead powerhead lines long enough to know that all it takes is one heavy branch or one squirrel looking for warmth in all the wrong for places to leave me in the dark. Prepared? Sometimes I’m not even sure what that means.

Sunday, September 4, 2011:  The sky  is thick with rain and wind, no letup in sight, the power already knocked out by Irene in the wee hours of the morning. Not to worry, I tell my friend over an early cup of coffee. I have a rule of thumb: if the power isn’t on within two-three hours, we’re in for the long haul. No point in (yet) waking his son, the college kid. Without Internet access, what’s a boy to do? We wait it out, keep ourselves entertained with conversation, eating, reading by daylight. How lucky am I to have an iPad, backlit and fully charged. My friend, a very gifted photographer, points  his camera to the world outside, from the world inside. We have buckets positioned beneath scuppers, collecting rain for the necessary flushes. Showers? Nobody cares right now. We’re in the thrall of Irene, captive, maybe even a little captivated. We talk about alternative plans — what if the power isn’t on by nighttime?

The day passes, and, like a miracle, the sun comes out. The college kid has a craving for grilled chicken, and it’s a craving we can easily accommodate.  We have friends, too, who by luck of being on a different part of the electrical grid, have power but no cable. Wouldn’t they like some company, a DVD at the ready?

Anticipation. At its worst, it skips like a broken record scratched with anxiety. At its best, it suggests hope. We leave our friends, go home, make our way through the dark house. Collecting candles, lighting them, settling down in the living room. Talking. Laughing. Two men, a college boy, and me. It feels a little like camping out, albeit with (almost) all the comforts of home. Life could be worse, my husband says. It could be the dead of winter, not a beautiful summer night.

Monday, September 5, 2011. We wake up, still no power, my friend and his son ready to head back to a city hardly grazed by the storm. I could have said what I was thinking before they came up — namely, that if Irene is as bad as projected, they might not be able to go back Monday a.m. Mother (often) knows best, even if she doesn’t say it. Fortunately, by afternoon, there are trains from a larger hub (White Plains). Even if all’s not really well, there’s something to be said for a little relief.

Hurricanes. They used to have only female names, and no one could really say why, except to assume it had something to do with a volatile, fickle nature. The joke: whoever heard of a himicane? Now there’s no gender bias, and we’ve had our share of male names  (Floyd one of the worst in recent memory). And yet I can’t help thinking about all those women with the name Irene and the power it held, almost mythical, for at least a few days. I’m thinking, too, how many times, in the course of the three days I would be without power, I turned on the light switch in the bathroom, surprised more at the reflexive action than the result it did not bring.

The Big Screen

The last time my husband and I bought a new TV was 1995. Thirty-six-inch Sony, pre- flat-screen/high-definition days. We had just moved into a new house and the size was predicated on the room, coupled with the design aesthetic of my husband (a designer by trade). I have a very strong memory of the salesman trying to sell us on an even larger TV with this pitch: you never have to leave home.

Little did he know he had the wrong customer.

I love going to the movies – the smell of popcorn the minute you walk into the theatre, the scramble for the perfect seats (or whatever is available), the settling in once the lights start to dim, the enveloping darkness, the shared escape from the world as it exists to the one that lures us with technological wizardry, three dimensions (even more these days) captured on a very large flat screen, a blurring of lines between observer and participant. I can still remember the sense of awe that carried me through The Ten Commandments, the mesmerizing hold of Lawrence of Arabia, the tension that gripped my body the first time I saw Jaws. Used to be a more majestic experience, I admit. Double features. Glorious movie theatres (the Loews the king of them all) with bathrooms the size of NYC apartments. Not so much anymore.

And yet, even with state-of-the-art home entertainment systems and DVDs and the immediate gratification of streaming a film, up close and personal on your laptop the minute it’s available, very little beats the cool relief of a movie theatre on a sweltering summer day or the inviting warmth on a frigid winter night. Doesn’t take a Don Draper to tell you why Hollywood makes most of its money on summer blockbusters and winter holiday fare.

Say what you will, Mr. Salesman trying to sell me on private screenings in the comfort of my home, some movies demand being seeing on a very big screen. And I’m not just talking about the stupendous 3-D experience of Avatar, which may have raised the bar in movie making but was proof positive – based on the mediocre copycat follow-ups – that it takes a certain vision and art to know when that extra dimension is best left out of the cinematic experience and when it is oh-so-wizardly employed, as in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” Just the word – CinemaScope – suggests something a little larger than life. Give me My Man Godfrey or Casablanca or Strangers on the Train on the telly anytime. E.T.? I’ll take it (especially once the boxy outdated Sony is replaced by the affordable flat-screen LED we’re holding out for) but nothing will ever beat the experience of watching it at an outdoor screening on a summer night. And it wasn’t just the ‘bigness’ of the screen. It’s the shared experience of it all, the reminder of the time when we didn’t have everything at our beck and call.

I’d be the last person in the world to romanticize the waiting in line, the overpriced candy, the scramble for seats, the smirk you can’t resist when the seat you got – dead center, unobstructed view – becomes less than ideal once the six foot man sits squarely in front of you. And I’ll be the first to applaud that sensation, unabated joy, of sitting in a packed movie house, everyone simultaneously laughing out loud.

The Rich Get Richer . . .

I thought I was making a difference, my little contribution to stimulus spending, when I walked out of Ann Taylor with a spiffy little cardigan and tank top. The fact that I got the ensemble for a price that made me feel like a thief is beside the point. I love a bargain, sure I do, but I don’t like the feeling I get at seeing racks of summer items on sale when the season has barely gotten off the ground. Not a full-scale depression and, yet, is there a better word to bring together the personal and the political these days?

I thought for sure I was doing my share, even if fiscal contraints have turned shopping into a measured affair, when I indulged (is there a sweeter word?) myself a month later, those sandals I thought about and thought about, an oh-so-perfect replacement for an old, worn-out pair. Sometimes want has a way of becoming need. Then came the harsh truth: what I spend barely makes a dent. According to a recent New York Times article, Even Marked Up, Luxury Goods Fly off the Shelves, “the top 5 percent of income earners accounts for about one-third of spending, and the top 20 percent accounts for close to 60 percent of spending.” These are the women pre-ordering Chanel coats at $9,000 a pop and getting first dibs on Christian Louboutin pumps. The men responsible for the surge in profits at BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz. Consumer confidence? For that top 20 percent it’s creeping back from whatever brief, humbling jolt it took.

I hear a voice, my mother’s: Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.

With it comes a nod of the head, the wishful thinking, the sigh. A hard-working woman who always managed to have some rainy-day cash tucked away, in envelopes at the bottom of a dresser drawer, she believed that honest work and good living would eventually pay off. Not an ounce of ill-will toward anyone better off than she was, more a simple acknowledgement: if only things could be a little easier, her personal debt ceiling kept from getting out of control. Maybe it’s true — the rich get richer, money goes to money — but that never stopped her from buying an occasional lottery ticket. You never know when you’ll get lucky.

Luck? My daughter, when we she was young, liked to engage me in a game she called ‘Jewelry Store’. She, the owner, would spread out her trinkets, invite me to make a purchase. Only problem was that anything I wanted, it seemed, was off-limits, “too expensive,” I was told. The more I persisted, the more she did her best to veer me toward another choice, the consummate sales pitch, words of wisdom — you get what you get — out of the mouths of babes.

It so often boils down to language — what you hear/the way you hear it; what you believe/what you choose to believe; the concepts and Metaphors We Live By, brought to vivid light in a classic book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was Lakoff who opened my eyes to the political push-pull: nurturing/liberal Democrat vs. father-knows-best/conservative/Republican. The winner is the one who speaks best to the times. Terrorists at your door? Daddy will take care of things. Hungry and not feeling so great? Nothing better than chicken soup for the soul, the secret ingredient Mama’s own.

My daughter barely knew my mother, and yet something that got passed on — that thing called taking care, making sure things are just right. An aunt of mine, strong as they come, lived fifteen years after a diagnosis of lung cancer. The night before she died she got the call she’d been too long waiting for, a son in prison for more than twenty years was being released. Now she could let go.

Money can’t buy happiness (duh) and whatever piece of mind (not to mention occasional perk) it may bring is illusory, short-lived. Some say the world is divided between haves and have-nots. The greater that division gets, the worse it feels to that 80 percent making hard decisions every day about how much is too much for a new (needed) pair of shoes or eyeglasses, a crisp shirt or skirt for a job interview, every bone in your body saying this will be your lucky day. Maybe looking deeper beneath the have/have-not binary opposition would strike a chord, get to that more telling division, the one between those who see strength in numbers as a means to alleviating society’s ills and those who see it as a stock market rally. In a way that a picture is worth a thousand words, this week’s New Yorker cover says it all, three fat cats sipping champagne in a lifeboat while a ship is sinking in the background.

The more things change, my mother would say, the more they stay the same.

Every Father’s Daughter/Every Mother’s Son

A friend posts a link on Facebook, 5 Ways to Donate/The War Photographer’s Retreat. I take note for a few reasons, not the least of which is that she’s a wonderful poet and photographer herself whose son happens to be in the service. I don’t have a son in the service, but I am a mother and no stranger to the grip of anxieties that can take hold when a grown child leaves the fold even for places and circumstances that would (in theory at least) not seem fraught with danger.

My sister-in-law calls, her voice slow and thick. A good friend’s son, twenty-four years old, has died, in his sleep. He was in recovery for drug abuse, assumed to be clean. The body can only handle so much, even less, it seems, when you play with fire.

Now Amy Winehouse, all of twenty-seven. The same age, ironically, as Jim/Janis/Jim (Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix within two weeks of each other, Jim Morrison some nine months later). I was younger than they were when they died, a big fan of each, distressed at the triple loss, not just with its reminder of how hard they played at life but with its cautionary implication to a generation casting caution to the wind. When you’re in your early twenties, processing the death of individuals (forget that they’re rock stars) just a few years older than you, it places you smack in the presence of your own mortality. And when you’re sixty-something, processing the death of twenty-something-year-olds, you feel those fingers around your throat, the lump that rises. Some father has lost his daughter; some mother has lost her son.

Something has upset the order of things, something no parent ever wants to contemplate. Does any mother or father ever get past it? Or do they just go through the motions? Take Pearl, a friend of my family when I was growing up, two sons, one dead from smashing a car into a wall. Think gorgeous, in an Elizabeth Taylor kind of way, and you can see Pearl in an instant — the large, sparkling eyes, stylish clothes, incandescent smile. Until her son’s death, which triggered a downslide from which she never recovered, her best friend now Valium or whatever it was that kept the demons at bay. I can still hear my mother’s voice — It’s the worst thing in the world, losing a child — anytime we saw Pearl at any family gathering. Even if my mother didn’t actually whisper the words, I’d hear them. That’s how imprinted the notion is.

It’s exactly what my sister-in-law said when she gave me the news of her friend’s son. It’s exactly what I think when I see the photo of Amy Winehouse’s father spotted at JFK on his way back to London after getting the news.

And yet . . . we do the best we can as parents, guiding our children when they’re young, sending them off into the world with the hope that they’ll make (mostly) good choices. Sometimes it feels like one big balancing act — one day you’re on the high wire walking that tightrope between holding on and letting go, the next day you’re on the ground, safety net at the ready. In David Grossman’s exquisitely poignant novel, To the End of the Land, the main character is a mother who does what would seem counter-intuitive when her son, recently released from the Israeli army, voluntarily returns to the front for a major offensive. Rather than wait at home and risk that knock on the door from the “notifiers,” she embarks on a journey. In the hands of a gifted writer (haunted by his own son, killed in Lebanon barely two weeks before his twenty-first birthday, uncannily while Grossman was working on the novel), a deceptively simple premise – bad news can only come if you’re home to receive it – becomes a complex narrative that touches on the futility of war, not to mention the power of love and redemption.