Rose is a rose

In the last gallery of The Steins Collect, which recently ended its run at the Metropolitan Museum, is a glass case with books, their own form of art by virtue of both writer and illustrator.  What captures my attention is not the fact that Gertrude Stein employed her inimitable prose style to write a children’s book, The World Is Round, so much as the page to which the book is open: ‘Rose is a rose.’ Which of course got me wondering when and how ‘Rose is rose’ became ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’  A simple article at the beginning of a sentence makes all the difference in the world.

Last week people all over the world were entranced by a black dot making its way across the sun. As language goes, it doesn’t get much more poetic than ‘the transit of Venus.’ I’d read Shirley Hazzard’s novel many years ago, captivated by the title. Even if I knew little about what it meant from an astronomer’s point of view, I knew enough about Venus in all her mythological and metaphoric allusions.  Frankie Avalon sings to me each time I catch a glimpse of that first diamond in the sky at dusk. She may well be a planet but there’s every reason we call her a star. The prospect of witnessing metaphor transformed into something measurable – something never to be seen again in this lifetime — is too tempting. And if I did not have the proper glasses for looking up at the sun (without going blind), I do have an iPad on which I can watch the NASA livestream. What the eye can’t readily see, the mind can readily imagine.

   “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.
    Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals. That is the way it was. And everybody dogs cats sheep rabbits and lizards and children all wanted to tell everybody all about it and they wanted to tell all about themselves.
    And then there was Rose.
    Rose was her name and would she have been rose if her name had not been Rose.”

Watching Midnight in Paris a second time is even better than the first, especially after the exhilarating experience of viewing paintings by Matisse and Picabia, Juan Gris and “a young Spaniard named Picasso” against a backdrop of black-and-white projections that transport you to a very particular time (early 1900s) and place (27, rue de Fleurus). Woody Allen, with his mix of romanticism and comedy and intellectual grappling with what it is that makes for great art, got it just right.

I turn the tables, imagine Gertrude herself walking with me through another exhibition, this one at MOMA, that somehow evokes the very experimentation with language that is her genius. From the picture poem by Guillaume Apollinaire to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Disk inscribed with pun . . . ‘ to collages by Paulina Olowska, Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language explores the creative interplay between text/visual art as well as text/sound art. There are many pieces I imagine would capture her interest, and, if she happens to pick up one of the handsets in ‘Dial-a-Poem,’ she just might hear these words from Michael McClure’s ‘Lion Poem’:  ‘I love to think of the red purple rose/ in the darkness cooled by the night. . . ‘

Like some other Beat poets, Michael McClure was a practicing Buddhist, something that can’t help but cross my mind as I sip a glass of wine and read Rumi poems in the cafe of the Rubin Museum of Art. Every time I visit here, I marvel at the fact that what feels like sanctuary to me was once the epitome of high fashion, Barney’s, jewels by the likes of Robert Lee Morris replaced by the gold and silver in paintings and artifacts and the gorgeous manuscripts and books on display in Illuminated: the Art of Sacred Books. In this age of instant e-books and print-on-demand publishing, I can’t help but marvel at the shape of ancient books, with their hand-made pages folded concertina-style between hand-carved wooden covers, not to mention the time and care and devotion it took to create them. The religious purpose is almost beside the point.  I learn, too, that to be a scribe was to hold a position of power and pride. Which strikes me as proof positive that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.





There’s a woman who lives down the road from me, a hearty soul who ran the family business, a septic-tank service, until Alzheimer’s put the brakes on some of her organizational skills.  I’d see her on the road walking one dog or another (she has two), a stick in hand to keep at bay any aggressive canines straying from their property, getting a little too close for comfort.  She always carried biscuits in her pocket, treats for the friendlier dogs she’d come across. All mine had to do was sit and look pretty, her wagging tail as good as any smile. Over the years we’d strike up conversations, mostly about dogs, sometimes about the challenges of life. She lost a brother early on (a car accident), ministered to her husband when his kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis, at home.  She drove down to visit her father in Florida for a few weeks every year until he became too frail to live by himself. At which point she brought him (and his dog) up to her house in Westchester County.  She lives an hour north of New York City and has never been drawn to its pulse.

Her Alzheimer’s is far from advanced, and she always seems to recognize me, though I’ll have to remind her why Maggie isn’t with me, pulling me toward her house, a dog’s charm all the trick she needs to get her treat.  And she’ll remind me of how much pets bring to our lives. The tug of her dogs, small as they are, is too much, so these days she’ll take walks with a friend or her brother-in-law, who shares her home.

She always wears lipstick, and it always extends past her upper lip. There’s something about this that really touches me, the need to smear on that lipstick, no idea really that she’s missed the mark. She is not a glamorous woman, has never been. She could be wearing sweatpants and a sloppy sweater.  Her hair is neatly in place. Then there’s the final touch before she heads out the door, the lipstick.

Many years ago, as an editor of a newsletter focused on AIDS-related health and social issues, I attended a panel discussion on developments in research. One of the panelists was a ground-breaking researcher, a woman who had a certain style and glamour to her. Still, the last thing I would have expected, as the panel discussion was winding down, was to see her pull out a compact and freshen her lipstick.  Years later, I still remember being struck by the ease and nonchalance with which she did this. The more I thought about it, the more I admired her for the ever-so-subtle pronouncement. It’s only lipstick.

And yet. There are studies that call up the ‘lipstick factor’ as a reflection of economic times.  Maybe yes, maybe no. More to the point is what that purse-size stick or tube reflects in the woman who has made a deliberate choice today:  Red or pink or tangerine. Purple. South Beach Bronze or  Peppermint Candy . My (unglamorous) neighbor is doing her best, putting on a face that pleases her even as something inside is dissembling.  I would like to tell her she doesn’t need it, and in fact might look better without it. I would like to tell her that the person she sees in the mirror when she puts that lipstick on is not the person she is, or was. But she knows all that. And besides, who am I to talk? I always dab on some lipstick or lip gloss when I head out. I like the way it makes my lips feel. I wear it like an assumption.

P.S.  The delightful photo accompanying this post comes to me courtesy of Mercedes Yardley, and is a reminder, if ever there was one, of the ways in which the world of bloggers pays tribute to their own.  All the more fitting that I post this essay on the occasion of receiving the Liebster Award by another blogger. Like the Versatile Blogger Award (for which I’ve been twice chosen) and the Kreativ Blogger Award, there’s some mystery surrounding the origins of the Liebster Award. No matter. I accept it graciously from B. Morrison, whose Monday Morning Book Blog never fails to enlighten me about writers I may not be all that familiar with as well as those I know well. Now I get to pass it on to other bloggers I admire.

The very title of Mercedes Yardley’s blog,  A Broken Laptop, coupled with the banner photo zooming in on a pair of high heels, is riddled with metaphor and the suggestion that you’ll always find more than meets the eye here.  Whether she’s sharing thoughts on writing and the world of publishing or the day-to-day with her children, she does it with an ease and grace that’s hard to beat.

Speaking of metaphor, Knitting with Pencils is, in a manner of speaking, something all writers do. All the more reason to find a kindred spirit in Tracey  Baptiste for reminding me of that each time I visit her blog to see what she’s offering up re: the nuances of  the writing process, not to mention her rich, invaluable ‘This week in writing . . . ” round-up.

No surprise that Monica’s Tangled Web has received the Versatile Blogger Award, the Kreativ Blogger Award, and a few others that Monica Medina recently wrote about with the characteristic witty edge I’ve come to expect from her. Spirited is an understatement here. Then there’s Henry, the most dignified of canines, who gets his chance to woof a word or two.

In Jayne’s World is a more recent find of mine, and I have only to thank other bloggers who expanded my world via Jayne Martin’s  mix of humor, political/cultural commentary, and, yes, fiction.

I first encountered Cheryl Snell several years ago, when online literary journals, etc., were just beginning to evolve. Rediscovering her via the growing network of writers in Cyberspace has been a gift. Her blog, Shiva’s Arm, is a testament to a writer’s tenacity, talents, resilience, and resourcefulness.



‘Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey’

Years ago, as a single woman living in New York, I came home one night to a message on my answering machine, no mistaking my mother’s voice: “Close your windows, there’s something coming from Jersey.” Apparently some sulfurous vapor had been released into the atmosphere from, yes, New Jersey, and was headed straight to NYC. Humor aside, what may have been lost on me as the daughter testing her independence (if only a stone’s throw from the fold) was made ever so manifest the minute I found myself on the flip side of the mother-daughter coin. I may not leave LOL voicemails, but e-mails and text messages underscored by :-)-worthy typos are part and parcel of the daily repartee with my daughter.  Each year out on her own brings a new mix of freedom and frustrations; I get to observe both from afar, give only as much advice as I’m asked to give, breathe a little lighter as  anxieties give way to healthy coping strategies; the more she takes care of herself, the better off we both are. And if I can’t protect her (forever), I can still remind her of my favorite line from The Runaway Bunny:  “‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’”

Some things take a little getting used to.  On the first Mother’s Day I would spend without my own mother (she had died a month earlier), there was no chance to mourn. My daughter, six years old at the time, wanted to test her mettle on a two-wheeler.  We were on a cul-de-sac next to my in-laws’  house, Grandma all smiles as I kept her pride and joy as steady as I could, until it was time to release my grip, the gift for me truly in the giving. On the first Mother’s Day I expected to spend without my daughter (her freshman year at college), the blues went out the door the minute she walked in – surprise!  The best things come in no packages at all.

A recent rereading of the Demeter-Persephone myth has me thinking about Mother as archetype and the ways in which we celebrate motherhood.  In Charlene Spretnak’s  concise and eye-opening Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, she reminds us of how patriarchy’s ‘managing of information’ over the centuries has colored the classical myths handed down to us. The pre-Hellenic Persephone is a young woman whose entry into the underworld is a willful, compassionate calling, not an abduction; her return is in the form of spring crocuses.  Likewise for Demeter, who renders the earth barren not as an act of anger or vengeance but out of sorrow and despair.  And the myth surrounding the birth of Zeus, even in its Hellenic form, is nothing if not a reminder that hell hath no fury like a mother’s need to protect her child. As Robert Graves tells it, Rhea is enraged at her husband, Cronus, who, as a hedge against the prophesy that a son would dethrone him, swallows each of the children she bears.  When it comes time to give birth to Zeus, she does it in secret and hides the infant. Of course, the megalomaniac husband gets wind of it but she’s one step ahead. She wraps a stone in swaddling clothes, a ruse that Cronus apparently has no problem swallowing.

Mother worship may well be traced to ancient times, but the credit for Mother’s Day as we know it goes to a woman named Anna Jarvis. In 1907, two years after her mother died, Jarvis started aggressively campaigning for a national day commemorating mothers. By 1909 a day of observance would be set aside in forty-five states,  red and white carnations (a favorite of the elder Jarvis) worn in tribute  to mothers.  Seven years later, the second Sunday in May would be declared a national holiday.   As a poignant afterthought, Anna Jarvis, so distressed by the commercialization of the holiday, would spend much of her resources and the rest of her life in outright opposition to the holiday she had created.

Who can blame her for feeling the way she did? The truth be known, Mother’s Day is my least favorite day of the year to go out to a restaurant (but don’t ask me to cook, either).  Just let me sit quietly with the Sunday Times, a cup of coffee and a fresh scone.  Flowers are always welcome. Most important of all, a phone call from my daughter.


I get a call the other day, automated, VISA randomly checking up on possibly suspicious credit card activity. I call back, a little leery, phishing expeditions rampant these days.  After pressing one touchtone key after another, I finally get a live voice, a sweet woman who tells me she can’t get into my account without my password.  Whichever one I came up with was the wrong one. Not to worry, she said. She’ll have someone call me. A security thing. 

A few minutes pass. No call. Of course now I’m worried, at the same time a little glad I forgot my password.  I go online, Google the number I called, mildly reassured that it really is from VISA.  To ratchet up the reassurance I call the customer support number on my credit card. Yes, the representative tells me, it was a legitimate call.  He asks me for my password. Again it escapes me, not being one I use regularly, and it’s nowhere in that secret place where I write down passwords. I tell him this is no silly senior moment, and maybe it’s a sign I should reset my password anyway. Not a problem, he says. He has the power to override the password, but only if we hang up and he calls me back at the phone number I give him. I’m starting to feel a little like a bit player in a spy movie. The only thing missing is the telephone booth.

My head is spinning now, all those passwords painstakingly constructed from very precise instructions: four-to-eight characters, all lower case, for one site; must be eight-to-forty characters long, only alphanumerical characters, dashes and underscores allowed, for another site; birth dates not advised. Then the password hints: first car, first pet, favorite movie, mother’s maiden name.  Now the conundrum: the very same consistency that makes for easy-to-remember passwords is the stuff of hackers’ dreams. Am I lazy if I decide on a password I’ve used elsewhere? Maybe.  Or am I just counting on odds? So many people to pick on in cyberspace, why bother with me?

I’m still waiting for my callback, time-traveling now, Allen Ludden on the TV screen, how quaint it all seems, two celebrity-contestant teams trying to outsmart each other with clues, a linguistic, charades-type endeavor, guess the password.  Whoever concocted the game was clearly ahead of his or her time.

The representative is back now, the questioned charge a very small one. I suppose I should be thankful for this random checking up; but before sending out an alert you would think someone might have noticed that there are two names on this credit card account, and this is hardly the first time a charge issued from the city where my daughter lives.  So be it.

Now it’s time to get to the matter at hand, changing my password. The one I have in mind is an unusual one (even a hacker would be hard put to crack the code) so I spell it out, which brings a peal of laughter from the representative. “That’s the password I thought I forgot – right?” He’s very amused, not a hint of condescension, and in total collusion when I suggest this is a password no one will ever guess, a little too good to give up.

Photo courtesy of Christine Boyka Kluge





The Passover Games

It was in reading chapter 23 of ‘Catching Fire’ (otherwise known as Book Two of The Hunger Games trilogy) when it hit me with the full force of a plague of locusts: Lightning. Blood rain. Fog. Monkeys.

This modern, dystopian tale has the markings of a recast Passover story. Think about it: there’s oppression, enslavement, hunger as both a reality and a metaphor. The death of children. Katniss may not exactly be Moses, but her first presentation at the games is a fiery one, indeed.

We need our heroes. We need our children. We need our stories  . . .

Evolution is a funny thing. The human mind’s capacity to conjure hail and locusts, an all-knowing, all-powerful God that can part a sea just long enough to let the good guys get through and the bad guys drown now conjures forms of torture that stretch the imagination.  The ten plagues recited during the Passover seder  – blood, frogs, locusts, darkness, etcetera, etcetera – pale in comparison to what the Capitol powers-that-be in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy put the young tributes through. And, yet, it speaks to something as powerful today as in biblical times, namely, the will to survive and the endurance of the human spirit.

In the Passover story, we have a God who ups the ante each time the pharaoh, his heart hardened, refuses to let the Israelis go – until the final plague, death of the firstborn, takes his heart past anything it can handle. What could be worse than that? – except maybe a world in which games are premised on children killing each other to death. In the godless world of Panem, risen from the ashes of a civilization that destroyed itself, it’s left to the inhuman heart of President Snow to keep upping the ante. There is no letting go of his grip, no softening the stone that is his soul.  Only conquering.  Goliath is ultimately brought down by a girl with a bow and arrow.

As archetypal heroes go, it doesn’t get much better than Katniss Everdeen.  She heeds the call, questions it, retreats, comes back with a vengeance underscored by her inherent humility: “Power. I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed.” She walks into the fire, one too many times perhaps, and emerges with just a little more wisdom than a teenager can be expected to handle.  Too much blood is shed, too many people suffer.  Those who manage to survive will have a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, to heal. No one says it better than Katniss: “Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.”

So here we sit, between the dark futuristic world of Panem and the Biblical world of the past, held together by the power of stories and a collective unconscious that spans time and cultures. Yesterday I watched a real president make a pitch for something that should need no pitch, namely  common sense and decency and keeping politics in the political arena where it belongs.  Today I watch tractor trailers flying through the air in Texas, no special effects for a twister of a movie, the real deal.

Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, burns on.  Moses is never the same after his encounter with the burning bush.

Each year, Jews around the world gather for seders. The more traditional ones take hours. The condensed ones cut to the chase – drinking wine, breaking matzoh, asking the key four questions, reminding ourselves we were once slaves and now we’re free.  Traditional seders read through the entire Haggadah. Less conventional ones turn the telling into a dialogue – about hungry children around the world and families left homeless by war and natural disasters.  The fictional President Snow may be the embodiment of every evil dictator humanity has known – and more.  But we all know that truth is too often stranger, and darker, than fiction.

More and more I think that stories are what we live by. We may be curious about the facts that give rise to them, dig around for what really did or did not happen, question why we tell the same ones year after year, a kind of hunger all its own. It’s never the same, though, if we’re really listening.  Just watch the delightful movie about a Passover seder gone awry,  When Do We Eat?  Or read The Hunger Games if you already haven’t. Then sit down with friends and family, sip wine.  Share stories. And, eventually, eat.



I’m standing (im)patiently in line at my local Barnes & Noble, my attention riveted by a woman at the checkout counter.  Putting aside the Blackberry she’s fiddling with while the cashier, polite and as efficient as she can be, does her best to move the transaction along, it is her pencil-cut white shorts, halfway down her narrow hips, that have me wide-eyed with wonder. “You think she knows?” asks the woman ahead of me in line.  I shake my head. “Too much multi-tasking.” Exposed black undies (in a bookstore, to boot) speak volumes about obliviousness. The woman behind me chimes in, maybe it’s a style. We are patient, curious, no cattiness here, just chit-chatting our way to the next open register.  “If it were a guy with his shorts hanging out, would we give it a second thought?” posits the woman behind me. “Should someone tell her?” asks the woman in front me, though she admits maybe she wouldn’t care if she “had a butt like hers.” Subsumed in her query is simple consideration, the kind you would give a woman who leaves a restroom with her skirt inadvertently lifted or toilet tissue stuck to her shoe.  At the same time, it is hard to resist the measuring up, woman to woman, about the same age, fifty-ish.  I nod in the direction of the register, open now to the next customer, throwing out one parting query before she heads over.  “Would you tell a guy his fly is open?” She gets my point: “If it were my son, yes I would.”

“Did she have a good body?” asks my husband when I relate the story over dinner.  He wants details. Bikinis? Lace or cotton? How low-cut?  “Not the point,” I point out.  He is relentless.  “Admit it – if she were fifty pounds overweight, the conversation would have taken a decidedly different turn.” I take a sip of wine, Jumilla, ask him to please pass the salad. He continues to bait me. I decide to indulge him.  “The point is not weight or body type.”  The hint of berries in the wine washes over my palate.  “It’s about not caring – or being aware of – how you present yourself.  It’s about being a grown woman and adopting the style of a teenager.  And yes, it’s about taste .” Or the lack of it.

The fashion police (aka my daughter) are out in full force when I reach for my denim jacket.  Didn’t I know (duh!) it’s a big no-no, denim jacket with jeans? Maybe I did (I shrug), maybe I just didn’t care. It’s a roomy jacket, vintage design, a remnant of tapestry pieced into the back.  I remember buying it, a crafts fair years ago. I had my choice of designs but this one, a tapestry of books, appealed to me most. Tongue in cheek, I think of it as my book jacket.  I have another jean-style jacket, soft green, more cropped and form-fitting, something I picked up at Anthropologie, shopping with my daughter.  I hang up the ‘book’ jacket, put on the green one. Out we go.

“Cute top,” says my friend.  H&M, I tell her, two for the price of one, a mother-daughter moment. How could I resist? “Isn’t it great,” she goes on, “that we can still dress cute at sixty?”  We are long-time yoga buddies, dressed for vinyasa (Lululemon for her, Be Present for me), minutes before class.  We are both sixty-ish, spirits (in training) in a world gone more material than ever.  Is there something of a paradox here, grown women enticed by a marketing culture that encourages us to dress like our daughters?  Is it the ‘sixty’ that gives me pause? Or the ‘cute’?   Tell my mother she looked cute in something, at any age, and she would bristle. No woman should ever be called cute, she insisted. Girls are cute. Boys are cute. Little dogs are cute (she hated cats).

There’s a photograph of my mother, long disappeared, now a picture imprinted in my mind.  It is New Year’s Eve, early1960s, and she is wearing a shimmering white sheath, silver threads running through it, a mandarin collar, hair done in the style of Elizabeth Taylor.  She took pride in the way she looked, welcomed those occasions when a little more than day make-up was required. I loved slipping into her shoes. There was one pair I borrowed (permanently), in my twenties, a sexy high-heeled mule, black suede with accents of gold leather, open toe. The base is a slight platform made of two different types of wood, and the heel is a skinny ziggurat of brass. Putting aside the sheer, original beauty of the design, the shoe reveals something about my mother’s sense of style.  Even Christian Louboutin would be impressed.

Things have a way of coming full circle. I’m walking around my house, breaking in a pair of satin pink-wisteria-orange-toned slingbacks. There is a tie-dye look to them,  summer Manolos, a smashing complement to the gorgeous pink satin dress my daughter will wear to the wedding of a good friend. It was my daughter’s idea, get mom a pair of spiffy shoes, let her borrow them. Not that she wouldn’t love them for herself, but a working girl on a budget knows her limitations, and it is indeed the thought that counts here: ever since the day she herself was granted entry into Manolo world as a rite of a passage, twenty-one years old, a gift card with the insistence that she treat herself to that special pair of shoes, she has wanted her mom to walk down the same runway. A year later, another passage, some of that graduation gelt would be put aside for another pair of Manolos, one last treat before leaving the safe haven of college for the insecurity of the real world, overworked and underpaid.  There was hesitation (should I? shouldn’t I?) but weighed against the impracticality of the purchase was the sense of self and style the shoes brought.  Act confident, I would say, you become confident. Look great, my mother would say, you feel great.

“Cute,” remarks my husband, hearing the clomp clomp before he sees me, a mismatch of Gap khaki capris and la crème de les chausseures.  He does not say a word about this maternal indulgence (collusion, he would call it, secretly amused at what it is that mothers and daughters do with, and for, each other).  Nor does he say what I know he’s thinking (yes, they’re elegantly designed, beautifully made, even if wildly overvalued).  “Don’t you think they’ll look great with jeans?” He nods, sure, whatever. Not that he wouldn’t appreciate seeing me in fitted jeans, my legs elongated by sexy tapered heels. Even better a skirt, preferably a mini. I can pull off the look, I have the legs, why not? It is the rationale of a dare, the crux of defiance. And yet, for all that it reveals, a mini skirt insists on keeping something masked. You’re making too much of this, I can hear my husband say.  You should feel good, you can still look hot. At least he doesn’t say cute.

Times change, styles (and Attitude) evolve, disappear, return.  It was a mod mod world when the mini skirt came on the scene, the lid on repression knocked off its hinges, freedom of expression in full flower.  If the mini never really left, just got pushed to the back of the closet in the decades that followed, it left its mark in the youth culture that has us in its thrall. Irony of ironies: Gap-lore has it that the iconic store was named to mark the generational gulf that existed when it opened in 1969, San Francisco becoming the first jeans-only retail outlet. Who could have predicted that it would spawn more than 3,000 stores worldwide, in essence becoming the pioneer for a way of shopping, Baby Boomers and their Gen Y offspring in adjoining dressing rooms?  Or that fashion, dominated by the monkey-see/monkey-do mentality of market forces, would become so homogenized? The chains may do a good job of making clothes affordable, but we all pay a high price in the loss of originality.

Which brings me back to my Manolos and the mini skirt. For all the mother-daughter bonding that shopping brings, my daughter has her own sense of style and I have mine. Yet somewhere between her Vans’ sneakers and my sporty Arche, her Steve Madden and my Cole Haan, there is common ground.  It may be the Stuart Weitzman pumps or Sigerson-Morrison boots we both try on. Those Gap tank tops and Banana Republic tees for everyday wear, the occasional American Eagle button-down, those French Sole ballet slippers and Victoria’s Secret leggings. But I draw the line at very low rise jeans and boots with shorts, pajama pants with the VS Pink logo and, yes, dresses or skirts that make me tug at the hem when I’m seated. Maybe it’s simply a question of taste and comfort. Or maybe it has something to do with being a little more true to the person inside the persona.  In Carolyn Heilbrun’s eloquent book, Writing a Woman’s Life, there are pithy epigraphs beginning each chapter, among my favorites this one from a poem by Maxine Kumin: “When Sleeping Beauty wakes up/she is almost fifty years old.”  It may have been Carrie Bradshaw who brought out the Cinderella, Manolo-longing in my daughter, but there’s something to be said for having a mother who knows it doesn’t take much to acquire a taste for the feel of a cashmere sweater or the suppleness of a shoe designed to last. A mother who’s been there/done that – Hippie bell bottoms, Annie Hall la-de-da trousers, fitted vamp jumpsuits – and knows that the way we dress is but one of the many ways we tell stories about ourselves.

I’m in a funky clothing store, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with my two dearest friends, one a month older than me, one almost a year younger.  We look young for our age, feel the pinch of youth even more shopping together in a store that’s as close to retro East Village hip as you can get in New Hampshire. There is everything here from glitter to linen, more low-brow than high, no brand names I recognize. We browse the racks, hold things up for each other’s approval, decide which might be worth trying on.  One of us has experienced the loss of a husband, one has never married. The one who has lost a husband, only a year ago, is trying on a new life,  cooking meals in a new home for friends old and new. No need to dress for success (telecommuting for years now) except for the occasional business trip, and I take pride in personally having helped her divest, items of clothing no longer worth keeping even for the sentimental value.  The three of us are having a ball, in and out dressing rooms, reminded of a time, just yesterday it seems, when we all lived in the place John Lennon called the center of the universe, NYC, a place only one of us still calls home (though living in an exurban town only an hour north, and going in as often as I need, sometimes makes me feel as if I never left).  The friend who is too young to be a widow tries on a baby doll top (colorful bra peeking through) and leggings. She looks fantastic, all smiles, even if uncertain whether this is the right look.  The other friend and I nod – yes yes – don’t give it a second thought.   We continue picking through the racks – everything from Cher to Grace Kelly here, both reminders in their distinct, iconic way that it is not styles, changing with each season, that define the woman so much as it is the woman who defines her style.

Modern Love

My husband does not own a cell phone. This is no Luddite, holier-than-thou holdout. He doesn’t need one, he insists, case closed.  He has a two-line phone for his business and only recently made a big technological leap, from an old-fashioned answering machine (the tape was beginning to crackle) to the state-of-the-art answering services provided by Verizon. Anyone wants to reach him when he’s out of the office doing errands, tough luck.  I forget something on the list of grocery items I gave him, too bad. He has nothing kind to say about drivers on their cell phones, except that they’re accidents waiting to happen.  The proof is in the telling, a woman who shot past him in her SUV, into the left-turn lane at an intersection, cell phone glued to her ear, a near-miss with an oncoming car. He bristles if a cell phone rings in a restaurant (I don’t like it myself). And yet . . .

My daughter and I switched to AT&T so she could get her first iPhone a few years ago, now we both have them. I couldn’t help myself. It’s that encroaching technology thing. Or do I mean enticing? My first cell phone was basic, no frills, family plans making two phones (almost) more economical than a single-user plan, especially with my daughter going off to college;  next came the picture phone (like, why not, even if I almost never used it?).  Texting took me some time to get a handle on. Then there was the simple question – do I really want to be that available 24/7? – which turned itself into a twisted logic, Mad Men doing what they do best: you need a cell phone, I’m told. Just in case.

Need? My husband smirks. We did just fine, maybe even better, before cell phones, thank you very much. He thinks my daughter calls too much. Only when she needs me, I explain. (Let me say it again, need.) It makes him edgy, the beep of a text message while we’re watching a TV show or movie.  When do we let go?

All of which places me smack in the middle of a modern-day love triangle. I love my tech-wary husband, he’s the one I live with. I love my tech-savvy daughter, so far and still so near.

My husband believes that cell phones will be the downfall of civilization. He is convinced that dependency on cell phones is going to backfire one day, turn us into a nation of nervous wrecks. Watching him use mine, when we’re in the car together and a friend of his (or our daughter) really really really needs (ha!) to talk to him, is always good for a laugh. He speaks loudly into it, as if it’s more toy than phone.

My daughter e-mails me a list of must-have apps for my iPhone, among them At Bat Lite (for dad, she says).

My husband says he can just as easily check baseball stats on his computer, no need to have them on-the-go.

My daughter e-mails me a link re: updates in ebook publishing. She consults with me via text messages re:  TV shows I should watch, fitness classes she is considering, dogs she thinks I should adopt, and calls me when the stresses of health maintenance, car maintenance, moving to a new apartment, and generally trying to make it on her own get a little overwhelming.  Also for some recipe and shopping advice.

We’re too dependent on gadgets, says my husband. Forget the GPS. Look to the sun for direction.


Measuring Time

Like most people, I have several clocks in my house. One may tell me it’s 11:30 a.m., another may say 11:35. This drives my husband crazy. I kind of like it, the notion that the measurement of time is only as accurate as the device. Some clocks like to run fast, others slow. Just read Alan Lightman’s exquisite Einstein’s Dreams, with its rich imagining of different theories of time via a brilliant patent clerk’s dreams before his awakening to the one that would forever change our perception of the time-space continuum.  In one world, there are no houses in the valleys or plains, everyone having moved to the mountains once it was discovered that “time flows more slowly the farther from the center of the earth.” In another place, time stands still. Everything is relative, isn’t it?

I went out for a walk a little earlier than usual this morning, to beat the inclement weather that tells me is on the way.  Rain is coming  at 11:00 a.m., snow a little later.  I can monitor its progress in fifteen-minute increments. Know before you go.

I’ve long had  a certain fascination with the notion of a Leap Year. In some traditions it’s considered an unlucky day to be born. In astrological circles, ‘Leapers’ (or ‘Leaplings’)  have “a general magical and  reputation as being lucky.” To my own thinking, how could it be anything but special (even if confusing) to (technically) celebrate a birthday once every four years?

I have nothing but great admiration for those who spend their lives in search of precision and what their own curiosity about the inner workings of all things, both in the natural and man-made worlds, makes available to me. At the same time, we’re all only human and I do smile at the suggestion of vanity that left February short a few days. Here’s what David Ewing Duncan writes in his well-researched and delightfully written Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year:  It was under the reign of Julius Caesar that January  came to mark the beginning of the year (formerly it was March). Accurate as the new calendar was, it was not free from errors, and, centuries later, another emperor (Augustus) came up with some reforms.

“But either out of vanity or because his supporters demanded it, the Senate decided that Augustus’s new month, with only 30 days, should not have fewer days than the month honoring Julius Caesar, with 31 days. So a day was snatched from February, leaving it with only 28 days — 29 in  leap year.”

The Jewish calendar, a lunar one, has a leap month. For Native Americans, the concept of time encompasses much more than its linear component.  And who knows what the Mayan calendar has in store for us this year?

All of which is to say: Time is nothing short of what you make of it.