mommies, stories worth repeating, thoughts, writing

In Africa…

My grandma is blessed with the most excellent, innate, and timeless style of anyone I have ever known. As I tried on a red knit hat with an oversized flower that I got as a holiday gift this year she said, “It will look better with your hair down.” And it did, of course.

At ninety, my grandma has Parkinson’s disease, and very serious memory loss. Sometimes, she cannot remember what has happened in the prior sentence, ending one definitive statement about something with a question about what has just happened. “It was so great to see them,” she says. “Is it just us here today?” She will often remark on the darkness of the night. Again and again. The darkest night she has ever seen. What day is it? Isn’t it dark tonight? What day is it? Isn’t it dark tonight? This is the darkest night I have ever seen.

I modify and streamline my answers until my response is honed and perfected. Yes, the darkest night on the longest day in December. She nods. Isn’t it dark tonight?

Some number of years ago, and before it came back into fashion, my grandma suggested I purchase a white shag rug for my living room. That was a year or so before everyone started doing it. Her apartment still looks modern, although now some of the paint near the top of the 13 foot ceilings show their age. The rugs are slightly worn, but still lively with color. But the chocolate brown wall in the dining room is still perfect.

My grandma has never really worked, she but was the daughter of an immigrant who did. My great grandma was a single mom, before the term had been coined. She owned and ran a successful business when women were thought incapable of it, and later, she bought and managed real estate properties, and her son joined her in the business. Not her daughter.

She raised her daughter very carefully. My grandma was excellent pianist, careful not to to play tennis so as not to damage her hands. She was charming. She elevated conversation to an art; you were lucky to be seated next to her at dinner. She knew just how to go to lunch, buy the best presents for friends. She gave lovely dinner parties, dressed beautifully, shopped creatively, wore her hair just right. She was current on art, music, theater, ballet, opera. I still have and love Japanese flower scissors she bought for me from Takashyimaya on 5th Avenue. They are beautiful.

She always knew what color to paint the walls. You would still choose the same wallpaper she has in her den (if you could find it) even 42 years later. All this is not to say she was perfect, that she did every thing right, that she didn’t struggle with not having a career, or never becoming a concert pianist, or raising her three children. She was human. I know many people feel that, especially for women, pursuit of excellence in the aforementioned areas is considered worthless, or even demeaning, but for my grandma, it was a life well lived. She seems to be the last of certain kind of person. Her life was her art, and she, the maestro.

“It is not easy being a woman in Africa,” says Issac Denison in Out of Africa (played by Meryl Streep). Or any place else for that matter. And the rules of womanhood, femininity, equal rights, equal pay, stay- at-home-moms, right-to-life, when to get married, and many other issues will not be settled anytime soon. I am not convinced anyone knows, well enough, the answers to these questions.

When I was 13, she gave me just the right length pearl necklace for a girl that age, with an extra strand to add when I turned 16. You may not have known that there is an  appropriate length necklace for a girl that age, but there is. And it does not change with fashion or time. Before she lost too much of her memory, she gave me another set of pearls that had been hers, the grown-up version. She knew many secrets in that magical process of turning a girl into a woman. They have not been lost.

She is a kind, wonderful, lovely person, even now, even though she is not who she was. There are still the same moments of grace and kindness and charm in her. When I am in her apartment, there are many memories. Opening the medicine cabinet in the guest bathroom, I remember, many years ago, when I accidentally broke an expensive bottle of perfume. I was horrified, but she didn’t get angry, she didn’t even seem upset. She just wanted to make sure I wasn’t hurt. She got married at 22 and has been married for 68 years. My grandfather is with her still, taking care of her, making sure these final years are okay.

A friend of mine told me recently that if you go to a foreign country and teach a man English, the language will be lost in one generation. But, if you teach a woman, the language lives forever because she will teach her children, and so on, and so on…

thoughts, writing

getting your story straight

I like the sound of getting your story straight.

Aside from the criminal implications, telling a “straight” story is an interesting idea. Is that the truth? The facts in order? A narrative that makes sense historically or emotionally?

I’ve got a story that I want to tell. And I want to tell it straight, how it will have the most impact. I think a lot about where that story starts. What is the beginning of it? Here? No, here. No, here! And when I start to write it, I always ending up cutting back in time. And digressing. Knowing something about the past makes the present make sense, and sets up the outcome. Chekhov and the gun in act one that has to go off by act three and that.

Which should say something about the outcome of our lives. As, at least mine, has been sufficiently set up. Except that life isn’t a straight story. The story is just the thing we make out of it, tell about it, craft out of the non-linear trajectory. And yes, it’s my birthday today. But I digress…

thoughts, Uncategorized

Of Course I’m Writing A Book

I started in 2002.  Now, I haven’t been writing that whole time.  No.  And in fact, you don’t even want to know all the crap that’s gone down in the last 7/8 years.  Trust me.

The problem is, I keep re-prioritizing what I think are the most important things to do in life.  Sometimes I think the book just needs to get written and sometimes I think, why would I waste time writing a book when I could-be-out-having-fun-since-I’m-going-to-die-anyway-and-it-could-be-soon-and-in-that-case-what-will-I-regret-not-doing-the-most…

I could be baking.  That gives me a lot of pleasure.  I need to find a job and fast (well, I am trying to do that).  In that other “lifetime” I think I would have liked to have been a dancer. So, in this one, I do it at least sporadically.  (The click of “outside” shoes on a wooden floor as I walk out with my bag banging against my thigh…)

I could be giving back to my community or building one or doing various social things or planning more activities… helping people…  Practicing my guitar.

I just read a post by Marc Andreessen (and yes, he has invested in Fluther.com) about maximizing personal productivity.  I keep going to back to it, because it’s interesting but also, there’s this incredible whiff of freedom surrounding it.   It’s tantalizing.  Freedom–I just want to inhale–as if it’s a virus I could catch.  I love the days of totally open schedule and that feeling of time, stretching out like one of those slow moving airport walkways ahead, of course, always faster moving then they look.

Now I am trying to be productive in the exact opposite situation, where I know I have a short and very finite period to write something.

All of which brings me around to the point that the book isn’t finished although people keep saying, are you sure because “perfect can get in the way of good.”  Or finishing.  Very true. But still, I laugh uncomfortably and say, “Uh… yes, I am sure.”

Regarding finishing the book though, there’s a missing piece and I just had this idea about love and the lubricating nature of love (and I haven’t yet thought of an analogy), and something about the Heisenberg principle too, and how the structure of the book has a similar effect in that it affects the characters or the the central character as it progresses.   Cannot be seen and unaffected, right, structure connecting to meaning, form influencing function.  It’s on my mind.

So, yes, I am writing a book, but first, I’m going to yoga.

mommies, stories worth repeating, Uncategorized

the satisfactory ending

Frog and Toad

You may or may not have had occasion to read Frog and Toad Are Friends recently.  However, if you are like me, and have a young child, you may have read it hundreds of times in the last few months.

And happily so.

The Frog and Toad series, by British author, Arnold Lobel, are among the children’s books that one can read repeatedly and still enjoy, or at least tolerate, or at least not totally loathe.

In fact, I love Frog and Toad and especially Frog and Toad Together.  The stories are good, the characters relatable, and the endings are brilliant.  Enviable.  Analysis-worthy.

But let’s start with two excellent characters, long time bffs. Frog is the elder statesman, the more responsible, more reliable, wiser character with Toad, his immature, ill-mannered, ill-temperated, often neurotic and, of course, good-hearted best friend.  Toad is usually suffering through some lesson, something which more often than not, he does not appreciate.  My daughter has often said, you’re Frog and I’m Toad, and tonight when I asked her who her best friend was, she said, “You.”  So, I guess, I’m still Frog, which is kind of funny, since I relate more to Toad, despite my being older and wiser.

Cookies, a story about Frog and Toad binging on delicious cookies that Toad has baked, ends with Frog giving all the cookies to the birds in order for them to gain willpower. Toad rejects this concept announcing that Frog can keep the willpower–he is going home to bake a cake.

Almost every story is a juicy little nugget; shaped perfectly, with just the appropriate amount of  plot and character development to make them full bodied and delicious.  And the endings…  I don’t want to use the word perfect, but, they really are.

They often end with “place,” like, “The hands of the clock moved to show the hours of a merry Christmas Eve.” Or, “Then they sat in the shade of a large tree and ate their chocolate ice-cream cones together.” “They ran around the corner of Frog’s house to make sure that spring had come again.” In one, Toad has the last word, “Winter may be beautiful, but bed is much better.”

I think my favorite is from The Letter (Frog and Toad are Friends): “Toad was very pleased to have it.” It really comes down to a mixture of closure and uplift.  It’s just so damn satisfying.  You feel as good as Toad getting his first and probably last letter (sent to him by Frog, of course).  Just two best friends feeling as content as can be, as right in their little world as conceivably possible.  The best part is, Frog has already told Toad the contents of the letter, because he has to convince him to wait for it, being, as it is, delivered with interminable slowness, by snail. But they actually end up enjoying the wait because they share the knowledge of the contents of the letter.  Togetherness is a big happy theme too.  But I digress.  I mean, what more can I really say?

Toad was very pleased to have it.

Stories worth considering, thoughts, Uncategorized

Words Matter (In Memory)

IMG_0270

September 16, 2009 is the 10 year anniversary of my father’s death.  He did not live to see the 21st century; he did not know that the twin towers would be attacked and that they would fall.  He would not have necessarily welcomed the digital age.  I guess there are many things that each of us will never know.

If you asked my father what he did, he liked to say that he taught college. He was not a professor, he was, Don, a teacher.  Not always perfect, but always learning, always embracing his path and encouraging me to skip along mine.  I think no more so than, with fearlessness and pure heart, he faced his own death. “Are you afraid,” I asked.  “No,” he said, “just curious.”

I was with him 2 hours before he actually died.  They tell you to say goodbye, to say that it’s okay to die and that you’ll be okay when they pass.  All these things to make it easier for the person to “let go.”  Cancer, being the aggressive bastard that it is, wasn’t likely going to be influenced by what I said or didn’t say, but I said everything anyway.

Fourteen months earlier, I had arrived at his hospital bed.  “Have I given you enough?” he asked.

Many words have been written and spoken about my father.  At the funeral, students I didn’t know approached me: “You were the apple of his eye,” they said.  And six months later, students running the ticket booth at the local movie theater looked at me strangely, “We know who you are, and we loved your father.”

There was one piece (Craig Carlson Eulogy) written about him that I have always especially loved. Penned by Craig Carlson, poet, teacher and long-time colleague of my father’s, the essay had story, memory, surprise, reveal.  It was an excavation of history, with them sitting in the backyard of the old house with the bees.  As with any good story, if perfectly captures who my father was and it revealed extra words and thoughts he had, which, like the fragments of ancient pottery, are precious beyond explanation.

A few years later Craig drowned, and there was a story told about it.  He and his teenage son had been swimming, maybe out a little too far and then the current had taken them out further.  They knew they were in trouble.  Craig was tired, and told his son to swim back without him.  His son didn’t want to leave him.  “Get help,” said Craig.  And so the son swam back and was saved.

Not, save yourself.  Not, just go on without me.  Get help.  A task.  A reason to survive. A charge to save the life of someone else. It’s Muhammad Ali winning Rumble in the Jungle–fighting not just for himself but for his community.  Something greater than oneself.

Get help.

For 10 years I have missed my father, but I have cherished the legacy he left behind and I am deeply grateful to Craig, a poet to the end, for his words.

***

Check out my father’s book: Teaching with your Mouth Shut.

Also, his as of yet unpublished, Out of the cave; steps to essay writing.

Stories worth considering, Uncategorized

The Fairy Tale Ending; the beginning of the end?

bachelor

I have to confess, I have wasted somewhere around 12+ hours watching The Bachelor this season on ABC.  Why? Well, good question.

Ostensibly, the show is about watching one man search through 25 “beautiful” (which really starts to make you question the meaning of that word) women, to find true love ending in the ever lusted after “proposal.”  At least that’s what the women lust after: their fairy tale ending.

This phrase is batted around The Bachelor with careless and casual abandon, almost exclusively by the women. Often through tears in the back of limo after being “sent home.”  Noticeably, many of the women on that mournful journey say the same things:  Why is this happening to them?  Why are they getting rejected?  What’s wrong with them? When is their time going to come?  Where is their fairy tale ending?

Endings are important, and we do like the good ones. Kind of. The show ends with the chosen woman finally getting to hear the Bachelor confess his love.  Ahh, it could be us.  But part of the appeal of the Bachelor is not only the so called happy ending, it’s the recognition that all of us, no matter how beautiful still get rejected, and it just so happens, it is kind of about our failings.  We’re boring, we’re self-absorbed, we’re dull, we lack talent, humor, the willingness to go bungy jumping in New Zeland, and frankly, we don’t look that good in a bikini.  But even if we did all those things, even if we were that “beautiful” the Bachelor would still probably reject us. Statistically speaking.

It was a happy moment for Melissa when Jason Meznik chose her at the end of this season’s show.  She finally got her fairly tale ending.  Until six weeks later when Jason, ambivalent and weepy, unable to find the, well, balls to either “fight for the relationship” with Melissa or forget about Molly broke up with Melissa on national TV.

The most hated Bachelor in television history, the tabloids claimed the next day.  You’re a bastard, said Melissa during the breakup, in a moment of utter candor.

Ryan and Tristan are a still married couple from an early season (maybe the first) of The Bachelorette.  “I got my fairy tale ending,” said Tristan, barely finishing the sentence before her husband cut her off.

“Well,” he said, “the end of the show was really the beginning of our real relationship.  We have to work to make it work.”

Melissa’s fairy tale ending ended as most fairy tales do, at the beginning of something real and something tough. Unfortunately for her, she was trying to do the work with a guy who didn’t have it in him.  And “he’s making a big mistake” Molly, of the big beautiful eyes and the shocked smile when Jason asked for her back; Molly won’t put up with his bull for long, I suspect.  “What about Melissa,” she asked with a shake of her head.

The best endings resonate in ways that both satisfy and satiate.  They find that illusive spot and tug.  There is usually little of fairy tale about them.  And endings, at least for the characters living them, are the beginnings of something else and thank goodness for that.

In the limo, on her final tearful ride home, Melissa said, “I don’t understand why this happened, but I’m sure that someday, I’ll be able to look back and I’ll say, okay I see why this happened to me.”

It turns out that tonight, there is an After The Final Rose part 2, where we get to check in with Jason and Molly. What happened? Did Molly take him back?  Did they rekindle their love?

How does it end?  I won’t be watching.

Note:  Quotes from the show are paraphrased to give the gist but are not exact.

dancing

Tracy, We Hardly Knew Ye

In life, it’s natural to try to avoid pain and suffering. That makes intuitive sense and yet, what a boring story that would be.  Obstacles, difficulties, trauma, these are essential parts of interesting stories.  We like to see how those things can be overcome or dealt with by our favorite protagonists.  And then we like to relate. Or feel superior, or grateful.

Failure, too.  If you’re like me, you try to avoid failing as if it were warm gum on the sidewalk.  But it turns out that the most successful people are those who see failure as a chance to learn something, try again, or become successful.  They don’t say to themselves: you miserable idiot, you’ve messed that up pretty badly. They say: hey, I see I really need to improve on this, and now I know how!  And then they do.  They welcome failure.

And as of last night, so do I.

I consider myself a good dancer.  I took ballet and various modern/jazz as a I kid.  I have, what you could call, natural rhythm.  In high school, I learned how to swing dance and I’ve never forgotten it.  Several months ago, I took a swing dance class with Richard Powers amidst the fading southern light, worn wooden floors and airy old locker rooms of Stanford’s Roble Studio.  Richard is the intellectual’s dance teacher.  He’s got history, he’s got knowledge, and he’s got a smooth step. At Stanford, so hungry are the students for dance partners that men will dance with men, which for me, conjured up images of what I imagine Yale must have been like before it went coed.  Time reversed.

A couple months ago, I took a two hour waltz lesson at Friday Night Waltz (FNW) in Palo Alto, and fell in love. There is possibly nothing more romantic that waltzing, and like very few other things in life, it doesn’t even matter who you’re dancing with as long as he can lead.  Waltzing engages the brain and body with life and on every level, physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual; it’s transcendent, also like very few things in life. It’s the story of your life, as avidly and heartwrenchingly as you could ever tell it, all without words.

Last night, I went back to FNW.  Set in a church gymnasium, the most motley of motley of crews: students, scientist and engineers and the like, all of whom, improbably, know how to dance.  There’s something about a guy in the old cliched high water pants and thick glasses who can turn you on the dance floor that really boggles the mind.

Richard was teaching, so the class was crowded.  He started it promptly on time, as is his way. He taught, for beginners, the Grand Polonaise, Irish Kerry Polka Sets, 5/4 dances, Waltz Swing and Salty Dog Rag. Then he said, if you know the waltz, you can stay up here where we will be learning pivots, or if you’re a beginner, go downstairs to learn the polka.  In fact, in this email he had written, “The Canter Pivot class will probably start at 8:10.  Canter Pivots are full 360 pivots done in a 3-count waltz measure.  The art and skill lies in leading and following them.  Pre-requirement: knowing how to do a Rotary Waltz or clockwise Viennese waltz.  If you don’t, you can move to Tom’s introductory class.”

But I wanted to learn Canter Pivots and hadn’t I taken that beginning waltz class just a few months ago?  I had.  So I stayed and needless to say, I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to dance the pivots.  I really could only barely remember the proper waltz let alone the Viennese version.  It wasn’t only that I couldn’t dance them (which, because I was following, I though I might be able to do) it was that I couldn’t even figure out what was going on.  Even the basic mechanisms eluded me and I spent a good deal of the evening apologising to my partners and feeling more and more like a failure, and a pathetic one at that. How did all these people know how to do this?  And if I didn’t feel useless enough, there was Tracy.

Tracy Powers is Richard Powers’ younger and astonishingly beautiful wife who rarely smiles.  She’s got dark, soft-looking features, and a dancer’s aloofness.  It’s hard, when you watch them demonstrate together, not to imagine her as his student bewitching him into abandoning whatever life he had to travel around the world teaching dance with her, which they now do.  Maybe it’s the look in her eye as she watches him talk, seemlessly adjusting her body to make whatever point he’s explaining.  She’s a difficult person not to watch, and she moves with the effortlessness that years of training and hard work can provide.  And yet, she never smiles, which makes her even more achingly compelling.  I imagine her, a lonely and distant child, with the same swollen lips and lilting step.  When I danced with her last night (which sometimes happens in between lessons for a brief moment if there aren’t enough partners), she was still completely unsmiling, looking me right in the eye, and yet, the perfect lead–the only person I danced with all night who kept their carriage firm and supportive, and all without seeming to work at it.

Which only deepened my feelings of cataclismic failure.  Why hadn’t I just gone downstairs with the other beginners?  Why have I not dedicated every spare childhood moment to dancing so that I too could spin gracefully around the floor, swept by various men of science often several inches short than I?

I knew not.

And so, this morning, I am resolved not to feel bad or embarrassed about my performance last night, ashamed to ever show my face in the FNW gym again, but resolved to find the time, to spend the energy, to learn the waltz, and to know the feeling of turning on the floor in a pivot, counter pivot.  I have not failed; I have seen the path which I now know I must travel.  Richard said the waltz is his favorite dance, explaining how it felt to move with another person in a weight balanced spin.  He didn’t use the word perfection, but we all knew what he meant. Women love to spin, he said to a classroom laugh, and Tracy just watched him without nodding.