Feb. 2nd, 2020




Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly. ---- Harry Lime

LJ Idol Week 5: Build a Better Mousetrap

In the summer of 2013, at the age of 61, I became a VISTA volunteer. VISTA is a national service program designed to fight poverty in the United States. I figure the bureaucrats came up with the catchy acronym first and then worked backwards to come up with the organization’s name: Volunteers in Service to America.

I’d always wanted to join the Peace Corps to combat poverty on the global scale when my kids were launched, but it struck me that 2013 was not a great time to be an American in the developing world. Plus it’s not like there’s any lack of poverty in the U.S. In fact, I was dealing with my own poverty issues.

I’d had a long, successful career in corporate marketing and business development, but in 2001 when I was laid off from a biz dev job with a mega-successful global entertainment agency, I hadn’t been able to do the horizontal hopscotch into an equivalent job with another company. At first, I was mystified: I’d never had trouble finding employment, but after six months or so, I finally realized that I was hitting my head on that mythical glass ceiling. In biz dev and marketing, charm is an essential weapon in your arsenal. My prospective employers had probably decided that a 50 year old woman lacked the requisite charm.

Since I couldn’t get anyone to employ me, I decided to employ myself. Started a business. For a few years, it was a moderately successful business. But then the recession hit. The business tanked, my life went into a tailspin. I managed not to become an alcoholic and to keep my son and myself from living in a large cardboard box under the bridge, but these two skills,however useful, didn’t look impressive on a resume. Hence… VISTA.

I found myself running a youth group for a highly dysfunctional nonprofit. The nonprofit actually kept the lights on by overcharging for services to the developmentally disabled population. I’m not sure how they got into disadvantaged youth racket, but when I came on board, we had no operating budget and no support from the parent organization. If I’d had anything to go back to, I probably would have walked away right then and there.

The youth group had been limping along on absolutely no money for two years. It was supposed to be providing the kids with summer employment and scholarship opportunities. It wasn’t. The kids were very bright and very engaging, but I’m not entirely sure why they kept coming. Possibly it had something to do with the snacks we fed them at our biweekly meetings. Many of these kids woke up routinely in households where the only food were the fumes in an empty Dorito bag and a bottle of flat Fanta Orange in a refrigerator that wasn’t working because no one had paid the electric bill in several months.

Anyway, my first order of business was to come up with a scheme to generate some kind of operating budget. I’ve always had a good head for business. I’m that rare do-gooder who actually sees capitalism – minus what Karl Marx would call “economic rent” – as a force for good. After all, it’s the only economic model that incentivizes hard work and creativity, right?

I came up with a wonderful plan if I do say so myself. My VISTA assignment is in Poughkeepsie where the chief tourist attraction is something called the Walkway Over the Hudson. The Walkway Over the Hudson is an old railway bridge, a mile and a half long, that’s been retrofitted for pedestrian travel. It attracts upward of half a million visitors a year. And there’s virtually no food being sold on the Walkway or anywhere close to it.

So my thought was that we’d put food carts on the bridge staffed by my kids. The food carts would sell fruit smoothies, a delicious and more-or-less nutritious snack option that would hit the spot on those hot summer days the Hudson Valley is so famous for. I spent some time thinking about transportation and design – the smoothie carts would be bicycle-drawn and laid out for ice and fruit. We’d forge business relationships with the farms that supplied the local farmers’ markets. I’d give as much ownership as I could to the kids - let them name the business, come up with the uniforms and marketing materials. We’d do an extensive training on health protocols, customer service, and point-of-sales software.

Unfortunately, all these things cost money. And we didn’t have any. So the next phase of my business plan was to launch a donation campaign on one of the crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter to raise the 12 K or so we would need to launch our business. I explained to the kids that we’d have to make a video, and they got very excited. They started composing rap ditties for soundtrack, and three of them wrote a script.

Meanwhile, though, the parent organization was growing more and more dysfunctional. In January, they weren’t able to make payroll until three days after paychecks were due. And finally around February, I realized there was a very good chance that the organization wouldn’t be around by the summer. Plus there was the added quandary that the organization would be acting as the steward for any donations I managed to attract, and that there was no guarantee that the organization wouldn’t use those funds to float payroll or something.

Reluctantly, I told VISTA Central in Albany that it was probably prudent to pull the plug on this project. And in March, they did.

It was still a great business model, though. And I’ve been looking around for other local nonprofits that might be able to pick up its pieces.

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Happy Four-One-One to Yew-w-w-w



Big crowd on Main Street yesterday afternoon, and the police had cordoned off the street between North Hamilton and Academy.

“What’s up with the block party?” I asked someone.

“Oh, some white lady’s fixin’ to jump” he said.

“Ain’t no white lady. Some white dude,” someone corrected him. “Big old hairy legs and short shorts.”

Sure enough, I could see the lower half of the presumptive jumper’s body dangling out a second floor window (and if my iPhone 4 had a better camera, you could see it too, near the red line above.) It looked exactly like the mangled form of Icarus in Brueghel’s famous painting, the inspiration for my Favorite! Poem! EVAH! by W.H. Auden, which begins: About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters…

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “There’s no way that guy could possibly kill himself jumping from there.”

The guy I was talking to shrugged.

Some people closer to the building were attempting to rally the street crowd in a rousing chant of, “Jump! Jump! Jump!”

The jumper withdrew his legs back through the window and then stuck them back out again. The gesture seemed weirdly coquettish, like some kind of morbid striptease. The atmosphere was festive, kind of the way I imagine atmospheres were back in the 17th and 18th century during public executions.

“I mean, the most he could do is break his legs. Maybe,” I said, but I was no longer talking to anyone. Really, I thought. What an absolutely ridiculous way to attempt to commit suicide. Several police cars and an ambulance were gathered around. I suppose it made a pleasant break for the cops and EMTs who would otherwise be preoccupied by Poughkeepsie’s ever-soaring homicide rate. It was a beautiful spring day.

###


Earlier that day M___ K_____ had insisted on telling me at great length the True Story of how her brother had committed suicide in 1982 on his birthday, which also turns out to be my birthday. M___ K_____ definitely wins the dysfunctional family prize – I mean, my family is dysfunctional, but it’s more a House of Atreus type of dysfunctionality, like we’re all pieces in some ghastly, fatalistic Parcheesi game Lucifer is conducting with Jehovah. Mizz Kimmie’s family could have been dreamed up by Stephen King. They’re not just dysfunctional; they’re evil mothah-fuckahs.

“Okay!” I said. “Well, I understand why up to now April 11 may not have been one of your favorite days. But all that has changed because it’s my birthday, which means it’s a cause for universal celebration!”

“It’s just really weird that we're so tight and you turn out to have the same birthday,” M___ K_____ said. We were talking on the phone so I couldn’t see her facial expressions.

“It’s the best birthday anyone could possibly have because it’s four-one-one,” I continued.

“Huh?”

“Four-one-one,” I said. “Information. Get it?”

“Oh,” said M___ K_____. “Right.”

“It has universal significance,” I explained kindly. She was having a hard time connecting the dots. Overly preoccupied, no doubt, by the image of her brother in his death agonies, one hand still holding the heroin-filled syringe he’d been attempting to shoot into his arm while the other clutched an electric guitar. Didn't have her priorities straight.

###


As I slowly circle and glide down for a landing on the actual date of my nativity, I find myself brooding over Brideshead Revisited. It’s a novel I’m obsessed with. I am similarly obsessed with the 1981 BBC television production of the novel, which I think is one of the most successful translations of a book into another medium ever attempted.

I’m not sure what it is about Brideshead Revisited that fascinates me so. Roman Catholicism doesn’t interest me particularly, although I have been known to defend it aggressively in arguments when friends and acquaintances sneer at its rituals and the miraculous properties of its many saints.

“You don’t get it,” I’ll say. “It’s like the actualization of that Lewis Carroll quote: Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I’m mildly obsessed with the British upper classes and of course, I adore all Big House representations in literature and in film.

But I suppose what rivets me about Brideshead Revisited is that its theme is redemption. Evelyn Waugh was a great stylist but a fairly nasty human being. A bully, in fact. So redemption in the Waugh lexicon is not a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card but a kind of double-edged sword – Charles Ryder’s deep depression, Sebastian’s alcoholism, Cordelia’s thwarted spinsterhood is the price these characters had to pay for achieving a state of grace, and you really have to squint hard to see it as grace.

###


So much more I feel like writing today, but alas! I must work.

Swainage and Its Discontents

The weekend was largely taken up by swainage.

But it occurred to me when I got home Sunday afternoon, and was lying in bed reading Elizabeth Graver's The End of the Point -- an oddly compelling novel -- petting Mister Rutger and nibbling Dove bars, that I hadn't really enjoyed it. The two swains are names on a dance card; I don't feel a strong connection to either one. Of course, I was brought up to want my dance card to be full. What woman isn't? But the truth is there's no shortage of names to write in dance card slots if that's what I want. The weekend felt like seeing the bottom of the swimming pool when I really wanted to be swimming in the ocean.

They're both very nice gentlemen, of course, although S1 can be petulant and self-involved to the point of actual rudeness at times, and S2 is virtually humorless. They both take me out to places I couldn't afford to go out to on my own. So essentially the relationships are transaction-driven rather than emotion-driven. A form of prostitution, in other words. Not that I think there's anything wrong with prostitution, but if that's the essence of the relationships -- and I suspect it is -- then really, I'm selling myself cheap. I should demand to be taken out to more expensive restaurants! Or make them give me cash upfront.

Anyway, I think I'm going to begin to deescalatate. Nothing dramatic. Just no more If-this-is-Friday-this-must-be-James types of assignations.

BB offered to be my writing partner last night. That really excited me. Four years after our traumatic breakup, Ben is no longer one of the regrets with which I line my pillow but I do miss hearing his voice as part of my internal dialogue. We were great writing partners.

BB is not a writer, but that's only because writing has never interested him enough to become totally obsessed with it. He is brilliant, witty, allusive, entertaining. Our gab fests are epic. There's an enormous amount of material to harvest there. And he knows how to craft beautiful, multi-layered sentences when he wants to. That's what's really necessary for writing: the primary source material and the ability to take those primary sources and weld them into something less ephemeral.

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LJ Idol Entry: Week 4

LJ Idol Entry, Week 4: Nobody can ride your back if your back's not bent

Some families produce doctors and lawyers. My family cranked out topless dancers.

“Topless dancers” is what they used to call them before stripper poles became cutting-edge technology, when public undress was still regulated by legal stipulations prohibiting the exposure of pubic hair.

In the early 1970s, we all loved pubic hair.

Annie did it first.

Although Annie's my mother's sister, she's only five years older than me. We're more like sisters than members of two different generations. Separated from her college professor husband, stalled on her PhD dissertation -- what relevance, after all, did medieval Italian literature have to a failing marriage? -- and not knowing how to type, topless dancing didn't just seem like the wisest career move open to Annie at the time, it seemed like the only career move open to Annie at the time. Who wants to be a bank teller?

###


We were a tribe of Amazons -- long-legged, big-breasted, with a slant to our features reminescent of a Modigliani portrait caught in a stray beam of sideways sunlight. We were eager, restless talkers. We could discuss Jane Austen and Elizabeth Taylor knowledgeably in the same breath. We were completely over-educated for our economic circumstances.

When we talked, we used our bodies -- we waved our hands, we bobbed our heads, we bounced our legs. Large, friendly, over-eager puppy-women -- that was us.

Puppylike is not the preferred behavioral mode for a sex object, so we were unlikely sex goddesses.

###


Naked on the stage, Annie felt remote and reflective as the moon. Her performance was a Kali-dance, a ritual unveiling in three parts.

Part 1: You warm up the crowd. You jog in place, you do low-impact aerobics. Guys at the front tables slosh beer companionably, elbow one another, hoot. At the end of part 1, you remove the shortie nightie.

At the end of Part 2, you're down to pasties and g-string.

For Part 3, you remove the bra.

Part 3 is hump and bump -- the least interesting to perform, but apparently the most mesmerizing to watch. The guys in the front row sit with their eyes bugging out of their skulls while you do stomach crunches face down on an over-sized pillow.

"It's good exercise," Annie commented mildly. It's all she ever said about that. She'd grown more distant and distracted since she'd started working the clubs, increasingly disinclined toward human interactions. It could have been the late nights.

A year or so later, Annie wrote a novel about the experience, which earned her a fair amount of money and has almost continuously been in option over the years by various fading movie stars looking for a vehicle to launch production careers. Annie's novel contained some of the most graphic descriptions of female genitalia ever captured in print up to that point and to this day, my family believes Carrie Fisher stole the phrase Surrender the Pink from it.

I See Crocuses and Dead People!!!!



First crocuses appeared three days ago. Crocuses have a short growing season; in another three days, they'll be gone. By then presumably the green arrows shooting up beside them will have metamorphosed into daffodils.

Harbingers of spring, yes?

Though, of course, the odd black-crusted snow pile can still be seen in vacant lots. Poughkeepsie has a lot of vacant lots. These snow piles are kind of like the remains of some mythical antediluvian creature named Winter. When sunlight hits them, they vaporize. Poof! Magic!

###


A lot's been happening.

Nothing's been happening.

Albany approved my feasibility study, so I went back to Pollyanna last week.

Nothing's changed there, but of course, there's no reason why it should. Pollyanna hasn't gone broke quite yet, but I'm guessing the lights will go off permanently around the first of September. I have this mental image of Reverend Cal in an ankle-length great coat and natty fedora cackling madly to himself as he makes his final tour of the light switches. A demonic mythological presence himself, that Reverend Cal. Much like Winter.

The Pollyanna family -- yes, this is how Reverend Cal encourages them to address each other in emails, Dear Pollyanna Family -- continue to respond to this uncertainty by oscillating between a kind of frantic inappropriate merriment and sullenness. It's exactly the kind of reaction you'd expect in a real family if Dad was an alcoholic or molesting the family dog. Sure, it's not good. But you don't wanna rock that boat too much.

Over the course of my lifetime, I've held some extraordinarily prestigious, high-paying jobs. But I've also done my time in the low-hourly-wage salt mines. The dysfunctionality of the American workplace never fails to amaze me. Is it like this everywhere in the world? Are research scientists -- a term I define broadly -- really the only people who enjoy what they do for money?


###


I see Lucius everywhere. It's disconcerting because, of course, he's dead. So I'm not really seeing him. Except I am.


I've had a number of friends and family members die over the years -- at the age of soon-to-be 62, that's unavoidable. Some of them I've felt after they died; most of them, I haven't.

I won't try to explain, justify or defend seeing ghosts, subconscious psychological projections or whatever the fuck you want to call them. In the ancient cathedral town of Ely -- a ghastly island floating in muck for most of its geological history until the East Anglia swamps were drained -- I once fell into a fugue state and watched a blind monk tap-tap-tap his way over some 14th century cobblestones.

When I got stuck in that Yosemite blizzard for three days, lost all sensation in the distal toes of both feet to frostbite (permanently, as it turned out), and had to be rescued by helicopter, there was a point when our little band of four was struggling up a mountain on our cross country skis in the blinding snow and I saw a downhill skier coming down in the opposite direction. He was wearing a bright yellow muffler and huge futuristic goggles so I couldn't see his face, but he waved at me. Neither Ann nor Joe nor Dan saw him, and I knew that he was dead.

Those were probably my two most extreme visions.

When my mother died in 2001, I felt absolutely nothing. On the other hand, after Tom died in 1995, I felt him hovering just out of reach for years afterwards, a beneficent presence who was very concerned about me, who was watching out for me. I felt it when his spectral attentions began to focus on other matters, as he slowly withdrew his attention. It felt like an abandonment.

So anyway -- Lucius. He uses the public computers at the Adriance Public Library. He shops for breadfruit at the weird Jamaican supermarket. He leers at me affectionately from the other end of a parking lot, standing near one of those ancient black-crusted mounds of dead snow. He's not mad at me at all. He gets the joke, the cosmic goof. He's riffing on it. He wants to create one of our old screamingly funny comic routines. He catches my eye from the corner where he's crossing the street, shrugs helplessly, shakes his head and beams. He mouths words that I can't hear but then, I don't have to because I've heard them before: Ya gotta be cruel, Patrizia. Cruel to be kind.

He draws out the word "cruel" in a fake English accent: cr-r-r-uel-l-l. He throws back his great leonine head, and he laughs and he laughs and he laughs. And then though I don't hear him laughing, and nobody hears him laughing, a guy driving a car comes to a screeching halt just in front of the pedestrian walkway even though the light is clearly in his favor and there's nobody on the street.

Kitten and Puppy Postcards

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My very first road trip once the car was insured and registered in my name was up to Syracuse to see the Number 2 Son. Ostensible mission was to teach the kid to drive -- I figured a stick shift would actually be safer than an automatic since there’s no way the kid can go over 5 miles per hour in first gear. (Well. I mean, there is a way the kid could go over 5 miles an hour in first gear. He could burn out the transmission. But I’d scream at him long before that happened.)

Alas, the little scamp flunked his learners’ permit test, and I was reluctant to take him out, even in a parking lot, without the proper paperwork.

Next time.

###


We ended up having a surprisingly good time together. I say “surprising” because truth be told, I’ve had a difficult time relating to RTT since I left Ithaca. I love both my kids more than anything in the world and I would cheerfully throw myself in front of a speeding bus for either of them. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be too many speeding buses in either of their lives just at present, thus my capacity for maternal sacrifice remains unappreciated.

RTT was pretty vicious to me those last two months in Ithaca the way that only a young zealot who views the compromises all adults are forced to make as “selling out” can be.

He may have been ashamed of me too. During that last August, I walked around with big, gaping holes in my mouth because the extensive dental work I was having done could only be done in stages. I have many character flaws, but vanity has never been one of them. I wrapped a scarf around my head and over my mouth, and tried not to think about the fact that I looked like a monster. It was embarrassing, but I was on the conveyor belt and the only thing I could do was roll along on the belt until the process was over. RTT, though, has always had a hard time with physical aberrations. When Milo started developing those large tumors in the last stages of his cancer, RTT refused to be seen with him.

“But he’s your dog,” I said. “You can’t just stop loving him because of something he can’t control.”

“I love him,” said RTT. “But he’s ugly. He’s embarrassing. People make remarks about how ugly he is.”

Easy to love something that’s pretty, Robin, I thought. Not so easy to love something that’s ugly. But I didn’t say anything. What would have been the point?

We had a screaming match one day when he dragooned me into driving to some employment possibility that wasn’t really an employment possibility. He was feeling sorry for himself. Other kids in his class had gotten cars and trips to the Bahamas for high school graduation. What had he gotten?

This infuriated me. “You got plenty, Robin,” I snapped. And went on from there.

Shut up,” he said. “Just shut up! You’re always playing the victim! Always trying to get people to feel sorry for you, and I’m sick of it!”

In context, this was just so bizarre that I think I just sat there with my mouth hanging open. We’d pulled up at the shabby storefront where he was going to leave his application by this point, and it was one of those days where it hit 90 degrees before noon. He was the one who was feeling sorry for himself. And I’d never painted myself out to be a victim. I understood that I had made some staggeringly bad choices and that my unhappiness was the price I had to pay for them.

It was true that I didn’t want to be in Ithaca. It was true that the only reason I was in Ithaca was because of him. I’d never tried to keep that a secret from him.

Then Ben got sick.

That’s an understatement.

Five days before I was scheduled to get the hell out of Ithaca, Ben ended up in a hepatic encephalitic coma for three days in the local ICU. We thought he was going to die. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. Was I trapped in Ithaca forever? Carting RTT to Long Island with me was out of the question; it wouldn’t have worked at all, plus I was fairly sure he would have refused to go with me. And what did that mean? That RTT would live with Ben’s purse-lipped girlfriend, the holier-than-thou Jayne LeGro who had the fucking gall to tell me I was a baaaaad mother? That RTT would go to live with Ben’s holier-than-thou brother Lew who entertains an active contempt for Ben and who apparently didn’t have much use for me either as he let me know in the ICU room while we were clustered around Ben’s unconscious body?

“You’re a horrible mother, Patrizia. A really horrible mother.”

Funny. Up to that point, I’d thought he had some sympathy for me. My business had collapsed; I’d been transplanted 3,000 miles from my home and support systems; and then my husband had walked out on me. Left me for a girl he’d dated when they were both 4-H Club members 35 years before.

I think I deserved some sympathy from someone.

The ex-husband and I remained buddies because I simply did not know anyone else in Ithaca, and for whatever reason, Ithaca turned out to be a tremendously difficult place for me to make actual friends or even activity partners.

“Wanna hear something?” Ben asked me six months or so after he walked out when we were driving together on some RTT-related errand late one night.

“Oh, sure,” I said. “I always like hearing things.”

“You’ll hate this,” he chuckled. “You’ll think it’s really stupid. Jayne’s kept copies of every poem I ever wrote and showed her when I was 18. Every one! I mean – she’s not a materialistic person. She doesn’t believe in collecting a lot of stuff. But she kept all those poems! For all those years.”

Fuck Jayne and fuck you, I thought. But did not say. I think maybe I smiled vaguely.

Anyway, Ben recovered – after a sort – and I got the hell out of Dodge, and I thought about Robin as little as possible. Thinking about Robin made me very, very sad, and I was sick of feeling very, very sad. I texted him occasionally – little bright, cheery texts, what my mother used to refer to as “kitten and puppy postcards.” “When you have to communicate with someone but you don’t want to communicate with someone, you send them postcards of puppies and kittens, and you write, Thinking of you,” my mother told me once.

Best advice my mother ever gave me.

My relationship with Max remained as close as ever during this time, maybe even closer. I was forced to confront the stunning revelation that while one might love one’s children equally, one might like one child more than the others.

Then Justin committed suicide.

Jonathan to Robin’s David. Patroclus to Robin’s Achilles.

It was an awful time, a painful time. I didn’t know what to do other than to call ESF and explain the situation on the phone to save his academic career. “Well, yes, we’re sympathetic, “ his advisor told me. “But of course he has to contact us himself.”

A month later, RTT came down to Long Island to visit me. “One condition,” he said when we were planning the visit on the phone. “Not one word about Justin. Don’t ask about him. Don’t try to make me feel better.”

The visit was not a tremendous success, but it was better than nothing. My red Veedub was no longer operational, so we were more-or-less housebound. We watched a lot of bad movies together. I cooked for him. I took him on public transportation to the Museum of Natural History. Robin doesn’t like public transportation.

The iciness between us slowly thawed, but not to the degree that I was altogether comfortable visiting him when I went to see him in November. I had an agenda: I was going to cook two weeks’ worth of meals and leave them in his freezer. And that’s what I did.

This visit was similarly agenda-ized: I was going to teach him how to drive.

But he didn’t get his permit.

###


So of course the first night, after some minor pleasantries, we descended into the old Sturm und Drang. He’s happy, but he’s not happy. Part of that, of course, is that while he’s the most extroverted human being I’ve ever met, he seems to have inherited my essentially melancholy disposition so that when he’s not distracting himself with endless rounds of social activity, the world seems to him to be a dark place.

He’s having major cash flow problems. His ESF financial package would have been tight under any circumstances, but this year, he decided to live off campus – expensive! Plus he’s stuck paying rent during the summer months when he won’t actually be living in the place – plus he joined a fraternity and has to pony up $1200 a year in fees.

“But you seem to be doing well,” I said helplessly.

“Doing well,” he sneered. “My best friend is dead. I wish I were dead.”

“I know,” I said.

“The only reason I don’t kill myself is because of Dad. I’m all Dad has.”

“You told me never to mention Justin, “ I said. “So I’ve never mentioned Justin. But just because I don‘t talk about it, don’t think I don’t know what’s in your heart. I’m your mother –“

“You’re not my mother,” he said. “You’re just some random person in my life I talk to randomly. There’s no real connection.”

“So you want me to leave?” I said. “Great! I’m outa here.”

“No,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s a cruel thing to say, Robin,” I said. “This is a conversation I’d like to have with you but I don’t think this is the right time to have it. We’re both tired.”

He nodded. He was crying.

We wandered out into the TV room where the housemates without girlfriends had gathered to watch Wisconsin hold off Arizona in the night’s episode of March Madness. Eventually, I went out to grab a beer with an old hippie acquaintance who lives in Syracuse, which is a story in itself except I don’t have time to tell it.

The next morning I took RTT out to breakfast.

“So-o, I’ve been thinking about what you said to me last night,” I announced.

He nodded, moved his Denver omelet around on his plate with his fork.

“And I think you’re right,” I continued.

He looked up.

“I haven’t been a very active parent this last year and a half. I’d like to change that, become a more active presence in your life. But I need your help. Can we agree to put the ugly stuff in the past and move forward?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’d like that.”

I took him to the local discount grocery store and bought him a bunch of groceries, and then we went to the mall and watched The Grand Budapest Hotel.

“Wes Anderson is like my favorite director,” he told me. “I’ve watched The Life Aquatic like about 10 times.”

I hadn't known that.

I gave him the printer/scanner/copier I’d gotten for him and promised to come up for another weekend in April.

“But do me a favor,” I said. “Get your learners’ permit first, okay?”

He nodded eagerly. “I will! And you know what else I’d like?”

“What?”
“I’d like you to teach me how to cook a couple of things. All I really know how to cook is spaghetti, and it gets so expensive going out to eat all the time –“

“That can be arranged,” I said. "I'm a good cook."

"I know."

An hour into my drive back from Syracuse, I got a text from him: I love you. I miss you already.

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LJ Idol Entry: Week 3

On a trip to somewhere, I fell asleep in the car. When I woke up, night had fallen. A sliver of moon kept struggling to get free from dark shapes that might have been tree branches but might also have been the elongated, strangely veined arms of the monsters that live on the edges of the world, very far from my home.

In the front seat, my father and my older brother were having a serious conversation about the end of the world.

“The oceans are going to rise,” my brother said. “Coastal cities will become inhabitable.”

“Is that what your teacher told you?” my father asked.

“It’s a fact, Pops,” my brother said.

“Davey, Davey. When I was a kid, it was the atom bomb. We used to have drills in school. Duck and cover! We used to have to hide under our desks and cover our faces with our arms. Like that would really save us if a bomb fell.” My father laughed. “The point is that every generation has its own staring contest with the apocalypse. Maybe it’ll happen; probably it won’t. And if it does happen, so what?”

“Well, I mean. It’s a bad thing if the oceans rise. New York City, San Francisco, Seattle. They’d all be destroyed.”

“So what?” my father asked.

“It’s a bad thing,” my brother repeated.

“Why?” my father asked. “Certain people may want you to believe it’s a bad thing. Generally, those are rich people who don’t give a damn if you starve to death because they outsourced your job to Bombay –“

“It’s Mumbai now, Pops –“

“— Bombay, but somehow you should care if their real estate investments in New York go bad. They finally woke up to the fact that they’re sharing their planet with the rest of us dumb schmucks. But see, I don’t care.”

“I care, Dad,” said my brother.

I’d been to New York. Our parents had taken us there last fall on a family vacation. What I remembered best was a giant toy store called FAO Schwartz. We’d had to wait in line for ten minutes to get in, so many people wanted to visit the store

The first thing you saw when you walked through the doors from Fifth Avenue was a giant stuffed panda standing next to a spiral glass staircase. Every imaginable stuffed animal you could possibly imagine lived in that store. There were also games innumerable, a room filled with Madam Alexander dolls with elaborate costumes and coiffures, and glassy, unblinking eyes, and shelves and shelves of miniature furniture that I desperately wanted for my castle. Just one of those exquisite little miniature dressers, my father informed me, would cost more than a brand new pair of shoes.


I listened to my brother and my father talk, and I pictured FAO Schwartz filling slowly with water. Fish would swim around the giant panda. Tall slippery, spiky green grass would sprout up from between the steps of the glass staircase. The Madam Alexander dolls would float belly-up in the murky water and their eyes would come loose, perhaps acquire a life of their own like tiny poisonous fish. The miniature furniture would sink to the store’s silty bottom. Eyeless flatworms would sleep in those exquisite miniature beds. Squids and blobfish would gnaw the edges of those tiny casements, dressers, and wardrobes.

My castle was made from pink plastic. I didn’t like it very much. Some pink plastic animals came with it at the beginning. Horses or giraffes or something. I lost them as soon as I could.

Animals shouldn’t live in castles. Princesses should live in castles. Tiny exquisite princesses surrounded by tiny exquisite furniture. But, of course, they wouldn’t want to live in a pink plastic castle. When the flood came that would destroy the world, the pink plastic castle would bob around on the ocean’s top and the real princesses who lived in another castle would all be drowned.

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LJ Idol Entry: Week 2

The Missing Stair

Lolly was four when she taught herself to count. Sequential ordination was a challenge but somehow comforting.

The stairs that led to the second floor bedroom were steep and sticky. Lolly didn’t like climbing them on her own, but she was too big to carry, her mother told her. There were tenteen stairs. Lolly knew because she’d counted them.

How many stairs?” asked Matty, Lolly’s brother.

“Tenteen.”

“You are so stupid,” Matty said. “There’s no number tenteen.”

“Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” said Lolly. “Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, tenteen.”

Not tenteen, dummy! Twenty!”

“You say twenty,” said Lolly. “But I can say tenteen if I want to.”

“You’re a dumb shit,” Matty said suddenly. Lolly knew the words were aimed at someone else. She blinked thoughtfully as her brother howled with laughter and ran off chanting through the back door, “Tenteen! Tenteen! Tenteen!”

Two versions of the same numbers. She frowned, preparing to climb the stairs once again, counting out loud . “Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen --“

###


The stairs led up from the front door of Grandpa’s house where Lolly, Matty, and her mother now lived because Lolly’s father was a bad man. Lolly was not quite sure how that transformation had come about – she remembered when Daddy would sing her back to sleep if she woke up crying in the middle of the night, would make chocolate chip pancakes for her and Matty on weekend mornings. It was an incontrovertible fact, though. Daddy was bad.

“He killed someone,” said Matty at dinner.

“He didn’t intend to,” said the children’s grandfather. The children’s grandfather had grown up far away in a place called Sussex. He had a strange way of maneuvering his knife and fork and he pronounced words very differently than Lolly, Matty, or her mother.

Dad,” said Lolly’s mother.

“He got drunk,” said Matty.

“What’s drunk?” asked Lolly.

“You drink beer,” said Matty.

“Enough!” Lolly’s mother said.

“Sooner or later, you’ll need to address this, Catherine,” Lolly’s grandfather said. “Perhaps it best be sooner. Dolores, your unfortunate father was inebriated when he climbed behind the wheel of his car and unfortunately he turned the wrong way on a street and collided with another vehicle. And the driver of that vehicle was killed.”

“Oh,” said Lolly.

“He didn’t intend to kill that driver, but of course, he did kill that driver, and needs must pay the penalty.”

“But he didn’t mean to be bad,” said Lolly.

“Well, no,” her grandfather said. “But unfortunately, that’s irrelevant.”

“You made him leave,” said Matty to Lolly’s mother. “You screamed at him. You called him a ‘dumb shit.’”

“That’s enough, Matthew,” their grandfather said. “I think perhaps you should go to your room.”

###


Lolly’s mother walked her daughter up the steep, sticky steps.

“I’ll read you a story,” said Lolly’s mother. “Your favorite story. What shall it be? The Wind in the Willows? Winnie the Pooh?”

“No story,” Lolly said.

“Lolly –“

“I’m counting,” the child told her. “Eighteen, nineteen, tenteen. The top!”

“Oh, Lolly. It’s twenty, not tenteen.”

“It can be tenteen if I want it to be,” the child said. “Maybe for you, it’s twenty. But for me, it’s tenteen.”

“No, Lolly, no,” her mother said, sighing. “It can never be tenteen. Twenty is real. There’s no such thing as tenteen. Get used to it now, baby. There’s only ever one version of the way things really are.”

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What Remains

My not-so-secret vice is reality TV. I refuse to be embarrassed by my devotion to The Shahs of Sunset or The Real Housewives of New York, which just began its sixth season.

I'd been thinking about reading Carole Radziwill's memoir What Remains for quite some time, but of course #BookGate spurred me to take action. Verdict? Not ghostwritten. And honestly, Aviva! Your husband's cousin is Fran Leibowitz, for God's sake. You should know something about the way real writers operate.

That said, I would have liked this memoir a whole lot better if Carole Radziwill hadn't gone out of her way to insult me on page 20.

There it is, as the capper to a meditation on the random nature of fate. Two beautiful people die tragic deaths: a popular girl in junior high school and Radziwill's beautiful best friend a quarter century or so later. In both cases, the tragedy becomes a touchstone for people outside the victims' immediate spheres. Same as it's ever been for thousands of years. See the heartbreakingly beautiful communal laments composed in conjunction with the Adonia, for example, an ancient Greek religious festival commemorating the death of Aphrodite's lover Adonis. Prime kitsch back in the day.

People grieve, of course, according to their own abilities, and not everyone has the advantage of Carole Radziwill's literary education or fastidious nature. Some people people grieve messily and vulgarly. Yet the intensity of what is essentially a collective -- for which read "second-hand" -- emotion may not be any less even if it is more diffuse and disconnected from its primary source.

So it was for me. I picked up this book, frankly, not because I'm interested in Carole Radziwill, Special Snowflake, but because I wanted to hear more about JFK Jr.'s death. My late mother was utterly obsessed with the Kennedys; I've always dismissed them as opportunists. But I've always tremendously admired Jackie O, whose quote about parenting -- If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much -- was kind of a compass point for me as a mother. Naturally, I felt a personal twinge when this woman's son died.

Ms. Radziwill dismisses people like me as "weepy girls who barely knew her."

Ho-kay. Fair enough.

But then she continues: I gave a name to these sobbing girls later, when we were grown women. I called them tragedy whores.

Damn, Carole! That's harsh!

Why do you think I bought your book anyway? (Okay! I didn't buy her book! I checked it out of the library. But you get my drift.) Because your personal life story and reflections thereupon are so singularly compelling? No, dumb ass! It's because you're writing about famous people!!!!

So, Carole is a snob. I find it hard to feel entirely sympathetic toward a protagonist who's a snob, no matter how tragic her narrative is.

She's a solid writer, although no where near as good as I imagine she thinks she is. And I don't think her editor did her any favors. (For example: I would have red-penciled much of her purple-prosey meditations on Fortune (her capitalization) or, at least, shoved them toward the back of the book so that the reader -- by this point, presumably invested in her story --would actually be motivated to read them rather than skim over them.)