Thursday, July 24, 2014

The House of Blue Tape

Our apartment is tangled up in blue–blue tape, that is.

No, we aren't painting the place. I wish we were; we could really use a touch up.

But I digress.

When M was just a toddler, I arrived at the idea of posting things on our stainless steel refrigerator–who knew magnets wouldn’t stick on it?–with blue painters tape. From there, I perfected the art of looping the tape around the back of his preschool pictures for display. Little did I know I had a small blue monster in the making.

Before too long, M took to wanting to "build" things out of his riding toys. But as an only child who lacked the skill to work independently, he always expected us to help–aka do it. By the time he was 3, he would rouse us from our wrinkled sheets as early as 6 a.m. on a Saturday to "make doors" for his PlasmaCar, a marvelous invention that is powered solely by the steering wheel. (It also managed to scratch up our wood floors pretty well; guess we'll fix those when we paint. When hell freezes over.) 

The car is plastic and rounded and does not lend itself to adding doors, or a roof, or any of the other myriad things M demanded that we create for him. But try we did, with cardboard and tin foil and rolls upon rolls of blue tape. (If I had to add it all up over the years, I’d say we’ve spent thousands on the stuff.)

M graduated from the car to his scooter and now his bike, which in its latest incarnation is "pimped out"–as the kindly bicycle shop guy puts it–with a bell, plastic strips that make his wheels clatter insufferably, and a misting fan he insisted on lifting from a box of castaways, even though I told him not to.

The thing is, at 11, M is already a longtime "collector." Our Brooklyn neighborhood is the epicenter of stoop sales and the “leave your old crap on the curb” phenomenon, which used to mean arguing him out of schlepping home every dead TV he saw on the sidewalk. My carefully curated loft apartment is starting to look like something out Hoarders.

The latest pièce de résistance: A broken white ceramic frame with the picture of a random model M bought at the school flea market for 50 cents. He can't understand what's odd about leaving some stranger’s picture in there. He “fixed” it with 12 pieces of very visible blue tape.

I must admit, it’s starting to grow on me. Anthropologie would probably sell it for $25.

But the ultimate blue-tape incident happened one night not long ago, when I came home to discover that in what appeared to be an OCD-like flurry to order his universe, he had labeled everything in the house: "fish tank," "fish bowl," "light," "TV," "misc. home items" (aka the junk drawer), ad infinitum. The poor kid went to such an effort, I left it all on for him a few days.

The latest: a box of tissue seemingly levitating above his bed, suspended by, what else, blue tape. 

I'm thinking of submitting it to the next Biennial. I may just have a design genius on my hands.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Back to the Womb

You can go home again.

With my 10-year-old son settled happily at camp, I have returned to the St. Louis suburbs for some much-needed time with my extended family. Back in Brooklyn, I yearn for such support, and so I have left the paperwork and cleaning behind for a few days. I know all of it will be waiting for me when I get home.

My parents long deceased, I always stay with my Aunt Fran and Uncle Jerry. I like to call their subdivision ranch house "the womb," named for the back bedroom where I'm ensconced. When the drapes are closed, the dark hush that envelops me in a room furnished with my grandparents' bedroom set–the one I used as a girl–makes me feel safe and comforted. While I'm here, I will sleep and eat, eat and sleep, with plenty of talking and deep hugs and raucous laughter to punctuate the time in between.

Someone asked if I have old school friends to whom I can turn for love and encouragement. I do, but I depend mainly on my aunt and cousins as we talk for hours about our children, our marriages, our work, our family history, cramming into several conversations many months' worth of events and feelings.

There's even Ruthie Ann, the beautiful yet spiteful cat who will tolerate a brief amount of petting. Eventually, the fangs come out, but I'm sure my blood pressure has gone down, regardless.

If I lived in town, I wouldn't need a therapist.

My aunt and uncle keep a house of calm order and routine, so different from my own. And unlike my apartment, their home–with its full finished basement right down to a complete kitchen–offers enough storage to get them through several rough winters. Their hall closet alone is stocked like a Walgreens. A very partial list of contents:

3 bottles Sarna lotion
6 boxes Kleenex
12 packs Kleenex packs
3 bottles nasal moisturizer spray
7 tubes Colgate Optic White toothpaste
3 tubes Arm & Hammer Advance White toothpaste
10 toothbrushes (you never know when house guests might forget theirs)

I'm not even going to begin cataloguing what's in the basement; let's just say that regular trips to Sam's Club and Costco mean there's little chance of running out of anything.

The refrigerator is another marvel of home engineering. The asparagus stalks stand on their tips in a shallow glass bowl of water so, as my aunt explains, they don't dry out. The strawberry tops have been sliced off, the fruit placed in rows on an oblong plate like tiny red Christmas trees "because otherwise," she says, "you know what happens."

For the first time in weeks, my mind is clear enough to write.

Frannie, 76, and Jerry, 79, both look 20 years younger. They are still strong and independent; at an age when many lean on canes or walkers, he logs 2.6 miles almost every day–my engineer uncle's precise calculation–in the park or shopping mall, depending on the weather. (And I now know from experience that he moves at a brisk clip.) When my aunt doesn't join him, she works out at Curves.

I only wish I had half my aunt's energy. I take after my mother, her older sister, prone to depression and anxiety. Frannie is always busy in the kitchen and takes joy in the things she does for her family. She never lays down to rest; I do.

My uncle continues to cut the grass and do most of the home repairs. (He also often cooks and does the dishes; any gender-based division of labor that existed when I was growing up seems to have disappeared.) Both engage with the family, many friends and the community, running volunteer organizations and helping the elderly neighbor.

They continue to make the small daily concessions–there is much discussion over the temperature setting–and exhibit the acts of kindness that demonstrate their love for one another and allow a marriage to thrive nearly 60 years. They are a team. This is their life, here in the quiet suburbs.

I know there are reasons I rejected all of this as an about-to-burst 18-year-old, ready to make her mark in the big wide world. I know I'm lucky to live where I do, close to the most exciting city on earth, blocks from an urban park oasis. and within walking distance of shopping and the subway.

And yet here I sit on their front porch, the wind whistling through the branches of oaks they planted 49 years ago, wistful for this life in the Midwest. What was once mundane to me has taken on a glow. At this moment, I wish I could pull up stakes and start over.

Don't we all want a redo sometimes?

Monday, April 14, 2014

This Year in Kansas City

Yesterday's murder of three innocents at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas, truly hits home. I spent many of my formative years at the St. Louis JCCA–first on the swim team, then as a swim instructor, lifeguard, camper and counselor–and I am certain the Kansas Jewish Community Center is much the same, attracting people of all faiths and backgrounds to its fine facilities and programs.

This kind of thing isn't supposed to happen in the quiet suburbs, and yet a former Ku Klux Klan leader with a history of anti-Semitism and racism was able to get a gun and randomly mow down a doctor and his 14-year-old grandson in the JCC parking lot before heading for a retirement village, where he shot and killed a woman. Both of the JCC victims were members of the nearby United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.

As news of the tragedy got out, my Facebook feed became a hotbed of debate–some feel anti-Semitism is on the rise in this country, while others continue to believe this is the best time and place for Jews since the diaspora. I am in the latter camp, but I realize I've been sheltered from much of the blind hatred toward my people.

I grew up in an insulated community with many Jews and now live in a liberal Brooklyn neighborhood where, I hope and believe, people are judged by their character rather than the color of their skin or religion. Many if not most of my friends are Jewish; it's a tight circle. I have never been called a kike, though I know my mother and her siblings were when they were growing up. I imagine that's at least part of the reason my mom made sure I'd go to school and camp with other Jewish kids.

I did spend two years in a small town in Colorado; it was there that I experienced what it feels like to be a minority. When I asked for matzoh at the grocery store, they had no idea what I was talking about. There was no synagogue; a rabbi would travel up twice a month to conduct services in someone's home.

Tonight, I'll be with dear friends, but I'll be heading to the seder with a heavy heart. We will recount the Exodus tale of freedom from slavery, and I'll pray for the victims and their families–and freedom from hate.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Forever, Mom

The check came today, bringing the usual bittersweet mix of gratitude and sadness. Gratitude for my mother's continued love and generosity, sadness for my loss.

It's been coming for 16 years, ever since the first anniversary of my mother's death.

As discombobulated and disorganized as Mom seemed toward the end of her life, she still managed to hire a financial planner and set up a fund that distributes a tax-free dividend to her children each winter.

A product of the Depression and a displaced homemaker of the '70s, Mom was terribly nervous about money. So when we read the will and I learned how much she had saved for us--by no means a fortune, but a sizable amount for someone who acted impoverished--it made my heart hurt.

"Why didn't she spend it on herself?" I kept asking through my tears. She should have traveled more, we all thought. She'd started taking art museum bus tours, traveling from St. Louis to see Impressionist shows at her beloved Chicago Art Institute, which she'd attended for a year before meeting and marrying my father. Why couldn't she have done more?

She did take one last big trip, to visit us for a summer vacation on the North Fork of Long Island (that pink Victorian we rented is a blog in itself) and then see my brother's family in Salt Lake City. It was the last time I saw her.

There were signs she wasn't well, but my brother and I didn't think there was anything serious going on. Her death was a shock.

And now the checks come, year in and year out, a reminder of how she cared for us.

These days, I understand her mindset. The first 25 years of my career, the economy was robust, my industry--print journalism--viable. But no more. I need to remake myself, much as she did after my father left on the eve of my departure to my first year of college.

When I was working full time and sure of my financial footing, I wanted to tear that check up every year. It felt like blood money to me.

Now that I'm a freelancer, I thank her silently as I deposit it into my savings account.

Just as she would have wanted.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy Birthday to Me!

I'm slightly jealous of the petite blonde who lives next door.

First of all, V comes by her tresses naturally. Second, she mixes it up with the boys with plenty of spunk. (I like spunk.) Third, she celebrates her birthday with gusto, right down to posting a sign on her apartment door broadcasting how old she is.

Then again, she's 7.

One thing we do have in common: We were both born in January, albeit a "few" years apart.

This year, while she was off broadcasting her number in No. 2 pencil, I was answering my brother's birthday call with, "Yeah, whatever."

It wasn't all about my number, though that figured into the equation. I was also nursing a broken ankle that had been sidelining me for weeks, with the stomach flu thrown in for good measure.

But larger changes were afoot. Up until 50, I crowed about my birthday, seeking attention in the worst way. This year, it felt like just another day I might want to move to Australia.

Thank goodness for phone calls, my friend S's visit and Facebook; goofy as it sounds, those greetings really did lift my spirits. (No, I didn't tell everyone what a downer of a day I was having. I have a positive image to maintain!)

Speaking of my social-media fix, my mood hadn't lifted all that much over the following weeks until my friend M posted an excellent meme. (I only wish I could find the link.)

It's a vintage shot of six middle-aged women on an amusement park ride. The two in the first row, decked out in pearls, look like the girls they were, hysterical with laughter; the two in Row 3 look downright dire.

The caption: "You can choose to live in the front row, or in the third row."

On my birthday, I'm afraid I was one of the Sour Sisters. I needed the reminder to move up. After all, I can't let the petite blonde next door think only 7-year-olds have spunk.

Besides, it's my birthday. Last one to the front row's a rotten egg!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Snow Queen

At 3:30 a.m., I awoke to hear the plows rolling down my street. The second of January's gnarly snowstorms had hit New York City hard the previous day and, true to form, I had gone to bed not knowing if there would be school the following day. I prayed the verdict would be "yes."

I dialed 311 and heard the recorded "school is scheduled to be open today." (It turned out the new schools chancellor had called it at 11:30 p.m., but I had crashed at 9.) Then, for the next hour, I followed the debate raging on Facebook: Should school be open? Are you sending your kids? Why can't the Board of Ed cancel school early, like everyone else? Why are you sending your kids? (Implied: What kind of mother are you to send your kids out into this awful storm?)

I was relieved to drift off until my alarm rang at 5:50. I called the bus company to be sure the yellow fleet was running--it was. I thought of keeping my son home. What if the roads were slippery? But I managed to quickly dismiss the thought. After all, the buses were up and at 'em, and so was school. I know I might sound cold, so trust me when I say I'd never send my baby out into what I feared to be a dangerous situation. And it seemed clear we didn't have that. Heck, we didn't have the foot they'd predicted, either.

Here's the thing: As I see it, the world is divided into three kinds of moms, with a sprinkling of dads in the mix. On the one hand, you have the 21st century version of the Saturday Evening Post mother who celebrates a snow day as a chance to bond with her children, making memories filled with baking, sledding and hot cocoa.

Then there's the 21st century mom who figures it's no biggie if her kid stays home; he'll keep himself occupied with Minecraft and Harry Potter all day.

Then there's the panicked mom.

Guess which group I belong to?

Even at 10, my son requires my constant engagement. If I go to the bathroom, he asks me where I'm going. (It's an far could I go?) I might as well be living with a retired husband.

Not only that, I had just survived a three-day weekend. A three-day weekend, I tell you. It was far too soon for another day with my darling hanging around when I had work to get done...and a blog to write!

And so if school says yes, I say yes. I went even further. When my friend Judy messaged me, "Did you send the boy to school this morning? I'm going through all kinds of Jewish angst about how selfish I could be to let mine go," I told her it was OK, our kids would be fine. And yes, we would be, too.

I'm just glad I missed the email from school saying that many of the teachers wouldn't be making it in today, but not to worry, there was enough staff to handle things. It might have given me pause, if only for a moment. And they did handle things. And the bus delivered M to school and back home again just fine.

Don't get me wrong, I love my son. I just happen to hate snow days.

Call me the Wicked Witch of the South Slope.

That's how this mom rolls.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blogging Rights

Two stories in the news have captured the attention of this neophyte blogger. They touch on important issues of privacy vs. the right to tell all. I think that as long as writers are clear and aren't hurting anyone, it's their prerogative to do either, or both, at any time.

First, fine writer and memoirist Dani Shapiro wrote a wise, on-target open letter to "a dear disillusioned reader who contacted me on Facebook" that touched me so personally, I had to comment like this: "Thank you, Dani Shapiro. It's good to know I'm on the right track and shouldn't be cowed by those who want 'more.'" It's not that I need the justification, it's just always nice to have backup, for what is this blog but personal memoir? 

Shapiro starts by clarifying this important distinction: memoir is not autobiography. Amen. "When a writer sits down to write memoir, she is not sharing her diary," she writes. "She is not confessing. She is not doing some sort of public striptease. Her whole entire life is not up for grabsCan I tell you how many times I have been the recipient of precisely the gotcha! moment you so furiously leveled at me on Facebook? I’ve had readers angry with me for not writing about certain members of my family. Other readers have been angry that I’ve written too much about certain members of my family. I’ve had readers inquire as to why I haven’t written much about my husband. Or my ex-husband. Or my other ex-husband. (What can I say? Memoirists! We have complicated lives!) Then, I’ve had readers approach me with tears in their eyes, telling me that we are soul sisters. Separated at birth. You told my story, they sometimes say."

She continues that those who write, and read, memoirs, are "looking to make music" out of the "random, merciless jumble" of our lives: "The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts."

Shapiro is describing exactly what I hope to do, in at least some small measure, with my blog. I stated early on that I've avoided writing one until now because I am a private person. Now that I am doing one, I have chosen to focus mostly on myself, for better or for worsemy experiences, past and presentleaving my family out of it much of the time. In the past, editors and other writers have questioned my choice of not focusing more on my son and marriage, but I've always had a gut feeling I didn't want to do that. 

Perhaps my motivation has something to do with my experience with out domestic open adoption. From the get-go, the agency impressed upon us that the story is our son, M's, to tell, if and when he's ready. (He's 10 now.) So when someone would ask a seemingly innocent question about him like "who are the birth parents?" I had my pat answer ready: "That's not my story to tell. M will share, or not share, what he wants to when the time comes." I'm sure some people were taken aback but I couldn't worry about it.

I also don't post recent photos of M on Facebook, for reasons that go well beyond the latest warning that our images may be co-opted by advertisers and whoever else feels like it. 

Back when I first got active in social media, I proudly made my profile picture a shot of my then 4-year-old, Botticelli-beautiful boy (someone else's words, not mine) with brown cascading curls and almond eyes. 

We were on vacation and he was wearing swim trunks. The photo stopped at his soft shoulders, but it was enough exposure for my sister-in-law, D, to warn me to take it down right away. She felt it could be used for online kiddie porn, something she knows about due to her work with a foster care agency. Part of me thought "rubbish, she's far too paranoid," but there was a little voice that said, "What if she's right?" And so down it went. 

While I do not judge what others choose to reveal on social media, I remain strongly protective of what I share, both in terms of words and images. I have been warned that by not doing that "striptease," it will hurt my readership. If that's the case, I can only hope that as I try to make sense of the jumble, at least a few people along for the ride will recognize something from their lives, too. There are universal truths, happy and sad, about love and life, loss and death, after all.

Which brings me to the strange, disturbing case of Lisa Boncheck Adams, who has chosen to tweet and blog about her battle with Stage IV breast cancer. Columns by married writers Emma Gilbey Keller of The Guardian and Bill Keller of The New York Times have fired unseemly rounds at Adams for sharing what they see as misguided (at best) details she should have kept to herself. Keller's take: As the ultimate act, Adams should go softly into this good night, something his father-in-law did under palliative care in England. (The Guardian has since taken down its post.)

Only Adams has three children she wants to stick around for, and I daresay she's years younger than Keller's wife's dad was. Writing as a cancer survivor, I say she's doing a service by exposing the realities of cancer and cancer treatment, minus the pink ribbons. Adams is not the first and she certainly won't be the last to share her cancer journey; in fact, the Times ran an acclaimed series titled "Life, Interrupted" about a young woman battling cancer. But most importantly, it's her business.

When I went through my treatments some 14 years ago, there was no such thing as social media as we now know it. Were I to have a recurrence or some other health crisis, you better believe I'd consider strongly sharing it in some way or another.

For an observer to feel she has the right to grill someone for not sharing enough, or sharing too much when it's about something as personal as how one chooses to deal with one's cancer, is wrong, plain and simple. Privacy vs. exposure: I say it's a question of choice. The writer's choice.

And in this space, my choice.