Posts Tagged ‘General’

The language of flowers

February 5, 2011

I have always had a general reluctance towards flowers. Not so much an aversion as a mistrust. Very possibly it comes from the fact that they purport to send one message, but oftentimes end up sending another. I mean, there are books on flowers and their meanings. A black locust, for example, means platonic love. A buttercup; wealth, a daisy; innocence; a rose; love, desire, passion.   But do you think people are capable of sending the same message as the flowers they choose to send? Highly difficult task, if you ask me. In all likelihood it’s not so much that I dislike flowers as that I have always poorly  understood human nature to the point of knowing that someone may say one thing but mean another. Seriously. I’ve learned through the years that a flower isn’t just a flower, but rather, a symbol with some message attached. And that that message isn’t always the cute, flowery one that Hallmark and FTD would have you believe. Couple that with some pretty traumatizing associations to flowers and you have a recipe for doubt and dismay.

For starters, my grandmother died when I was 14. She was obsessed with flowers and so, prior to her death, she arranged to have a gazillion flowers at her funeral. There were daisies and tiger lilies and begonias and whatever else, and the whole funeral parlor was popping with yellow. I loved my grandmother dearly, but the smell of all those flowers paired with the smell of embalming fluid ruined it for me. For years every time I walked into a florist’s shop it reminded me of death.

Then there was high school. Every February there was a carnation sale. And depending on how much money your parents gave you, whom you were dating at the time and how many friends you had, you could buy carnations for your sweetheart or your friends till you were blue in the face. Then, on Valentine’s day, the teachers during homeroom would call out your name and you’d go up to the front desk, where everyone would see you, and you’d collect your carnation. Most of us received one, maybe two carnations with a little note attached that generally said something like “BFF,” and that would be the end of it. But then, there were the popular people. The cheerleaders. The football players. The jocks. The preps. They’d get some ridiculous amount of carnations, somewhere upward of twenty or so. And you’d have to watch them all day, carrying these carnations around, struggling down the hallway, fidgeting with them in class. Of course, they never put the damn things in their lockers. No. It wasn’t that easy. These people rubbed your nose in it. Literally. You didn’t just brush elbows with classmates in a crammed hallway on V-day. You had carnations smashed into your face. “Oops. Sorry my forty-seven carnations whacking you in the head. My bad.” All this, to the point where you found yourself sneaking around the gym locker room or looking in trashcans for discarded carnations to claim as your own. It was sickening to say the least. And I never quite got over it. To this day, any time I see someone giving out carnations, like Moonies or Christians on the side of the road or something, in the city, I want to ram my vehicle into that damn plastic bucket and be done with it.

Thankfully, I was able to recover from my botanical complex, if only for a short while. But, it was only a matter of time before I too, hater of anything with a stem or a bud, fell victim to that ancient and perennial commercialism of love, which states that if you do not receive a flower from a man, you have no worth.  My life changed at this point. I suddenly adored flowers. Not so much for their beauty as their ability to define me. And most likely because I’d never received any. And by the time I hit my twenties I felt I was something of a freak. If society validated a woman by the flowers she received, I must have been an alien.

Until S.

I was 22 and dating this Air Force police officer named S when I lived in Greenland. We had fallen in love, and despite my leaving to return home, we remained in touch. For my birthday he sent a dozen yellow roses. They were stunning. Everything I had imaged they’d be. It was the first time I’d ever received flowers. And I probably have every petal saved in a box somewhere up in my attic, that’s how amazed I was at the idea of flowers.

He drifted into the past, of course, but his flowers were possibly the last I’d ever really appreciate for a very long time. It was all downhill from there.

Throughout my marriage I only received one bouquet of roses from my ex-husband. He never bought me flowers for anything. Not Christmas. Not Mother’s day. Not any holiday whatsoever. Not even on the days I gave birth to either son, or the day I graduated with high honors from Rutgers University, after 16 years of trying. I don’t believe he even gave me flowers when my father died. Like I said, I only received one bouquet from him. Back in 1999, when I was about four months pregnant with my second child, I found out quite to my dismay, that he had sent some girl down in Georgia a dozen white roses. It would be the first of many more indiscretions on his part and the onset of the most miserable years of my life. Aside from frothing at the mouth with anger that he was cheating on me, I was possibly more incensed over the fact that he had sent some strange woman flowers (roses, no less) and had never given me so much as a dandelion. Anyway, shortly after this betrayal, I came home one day to my own bouquet. Out of guilt for what he had done, or possibly as a buffer for what he was about to do, he had sent me the clichéd dozen red roses that I still affectionately refer to as the “I just fucked around on you and sent my girlfriend flowers but now that you caught me, I’ll send you flowers too” bouquet. I can still remember throwing those things out long before they died on their own.

After the dissolution of my marriage, flowers sent to me never much improved. In fact, they became downright insulting. There were the occasional carnations wrapped in plastic from Wawa that my boyfriend G would pick up out of obligation on days like Valentine’s day. No card attached. There was the “I’ve been neglecting you to go party with friends” flower from S. It was a lily (isn’t that the flower of DEATH?). I planted it in my front yard and the squirrels ate it. And finally, there was the “we just started fucking and I want to move out of my parents house and in with you” roses from M, which, admittedly, were quite beautiful. Yet, they came with such onus that every time I looked at them I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t being tricked.

The truth is, my history with flowers has been grim, at the very least. But, despite my seeming ingratitude and suspicion I do have hope.

Yesterday, in fact, was Valentine’s day, a holiday I typically downplay and try to ignore.   So, I went into the city by myself and walked and walked and walked down Pine and Spruce and then over to Walnut to revisit a few of my favorite antique shops. I bought a little vintage tin sign for the bathroom.  I had tabouli at Sarhara’s. And I strolled around looking at windows and doors, which I love to do. I thought of virtually nothing all day except maybe the temperature and how cold it got after a few days of unseasonably warm weather. When I got home though, sitting on my front porch step, there were flowers.

They were the prettiest flowers I’d ever received. There were twelve red roses, encircling a spray of extraordinarily green tiny buds, which rested upon the lip of a cylindrical glass vase with stones at the bottom.  I brought them inside and sat them on my countertop and I breathed them in.  I stared at them for what seemed a very long time. I made peace with them.

I actually found them to be quite beautiful.

I opened the notecard. They were from D. And he had scribbled—in his own handwriting—this little “xo” on the card. Just that. Nothing more. No “I’m sorry,” or “last night was great,” or “I’m giving these to you because if I don’t, you’ll think I’m lazy and cheap.”  Just “xo.” Possibly the purest, plainest, most direct language of affection I’ve ever received from a flower, in a very, very, very long time. A bouquet that actually came with the message it intended.

How rare.

I can’t say me and flowers will ever have the kind of relationship that say, Georgia O’Keeffe has with flowers, but I can say, I’m no longer opposed to them. They’re growing on me.  I don’t love them or hate them. I don’t see symbolism in them. But I am not averse to them. Umberto Eco once said that, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.” And I suppose that’s true. But what’s more, is what’s behind the rose; what’s behind the flower; both in the giver and the receiver. It is this that speaks more loudly than anything. It is the underlying current of love, or lack thereof that can make or break a daisy, a lily, or even a rose.

Winter blues

January 11, 2011

"Beyond Repair"

Day two of severe mood flop. January dragging on too long…Need a distraction…Drowning in my own boredom….Help!

I’m not sure if this is the winter blues or the fact that I’m coming down from a one-month coffee high. Whatever the case, I’m miserable around this time of year. Any new and exciting stimuli is a ray of sunlight. Trouble is, I’m usually too depressed or unmotivated to actually go out and look for stuff to stimulate me. When I’m really withdrawn (hours of watching Cold Case Files and Dr. Phil) I tend to wait for someone to knock on the front door. That’s about the only thing I’ve got going for me from January until late March. Well, hello UPS guy! That package for me? No? Wrong address? But, I’m sure I ordered something online. Wait…come back..!

Of course there’s my perfect guy, and the kids, and a couple events coming up, and if I’m really in the mood, there’s always planning for a summer vacation. But I suppose it’s just my circadian hibernation rhythms taking over making all that seem, well, a little, dare I say it, bland. So while the seasonal affective disorder makes its yearly round, I’ve come up with a plan. Only read happy websites. Instead of letting the brain atrophy and the heart sink, I’ve found some interesting websites to help draw me back into the world of the living. Let’s hope these do the trick. If not, there’s always shopping online.

  • Jason Shen’s blog is, well, fun. Even though it’s a little media/corporate driven he’s come up with really inspiring blogs. One in particular is something called a “Rejection Challenge,” which, if I were single, might be a huge motivation for me to get off my arse and go ask someone out on a date. I’m a sucker for challenges, and for taking calculated risks.
  • The Happiness Project: “Happiness, many people assume, is boring – a complacent state of mind for self-absorbed, uninteresting people,” says Gretchen Rubin on her highly acclaimed website. And yet we all want it. Well, if this site doesn’t offer a nugget of how to be happy, I don’t know what else will. Peruse the site. See if you can’t find a dozen uplifting concepts. Either that, or be happy you don’t have to visit that site every day. Even for me, Gretchen can be a little too much.
  • Global Good News: This is one of my favorite sites, especially the Maharishi’s funkadelic fashion. And while it’s an India-based religious website, the designers have done a great job collecting positive news around the world.
  • TED: I was surprised to learn that not many people know about “TED,” (“Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”), so I’m posting it here as one of the greatest resources for learning ANYTHING. I could spend all day here.
  • Horse Pig Cow: Powerful woman, uplifting, inspiring, funny, brave. Subscribe. I did.
  • My Marrakesh: Simply beautiful website on Moroccan design and living. I waste time here every winter, dreaming about the desert.

Crossed off my list for good

December 31, 2010

My kids and I recently took an 8 hour drive up to Canada, just for kicks. We had nothing else to do for three days and thought it would be fun to just drive and hop a relatively close border. And it was. We got pulled over at border patrol, our car was searched, and I was told I needed “permission” from my ex to leave the country, which I knew, but forgot to get. They let us cross anyway and so, we made it to Ottawa by dinner.

We wandered down Dalhousie Street to Byward Market and amid a grouping of rather cool pubs (which I would have preferred in a pinch if I were with D) I noticed the slumping facade of the Hard Rock Cafe. Oh let’s go here! I immediately remembered my youthful self, circa 1989, and the envy of all my friends when I told them I’d not only been to the Hard Rock Cafe in NYC, but in London as well (remember the eighties when you collected visits to the Hard Rock Cafe and that made you so cool? And then that goofy Planet Hollywood came out and tried to whoop up the same fervor, but never really did, and you suddenly weren’t cool if you liked that place?).

Anyway, I thought my boys would love the HRC. And they did! But the truth is, the food was horrifying. Everything tasted fake and enhanced. J’s burger had that fake char-grilled smoke flavor on it. The sweet potato fries had some weird aftertaste and the salad had rubbery fake chicken, diced perfectly into tiny squares and yellowish white iceberg lettuce (who makes salads with just iceberg lettuce anymore?). On the walls were Britney Spear’s blue sequined shirt, Eminem’s high top sneakers (and maybe even his stinky socks), a turtleneck sweater from Alanis Morissette and a pair of ripped jeans from Shania Twain. Back in my day they had Ringo Starr’s drum pack, Jimmy Page’s guitar and Prince’s purple overcoat. Hard rock memorabilia that hung on the walls where famous people sat down and had a Guinness at the bar. The crowds now? People like me with their babies screaming and their kids running around tables, knocking over trays of rubbery chicken and greasy fries.

So, this got me thinking, firstly, that I will never go back to any Hard Rock Cafe, no matter how big the guitar above their front door. And secondly, that I will probably never go back to a long line of other crappy places. And so, this morning’s blog is my top ten “Crossed off my list for good” list. What’s on yours?

1. Hard Rock Cafe
2. Chuckie Cheese
3. Sahara Sam’s
4. Miniature Golfing (any of them!)
5. Medieval Times
6. Planet Hollywood (does this place even exist anymore?)
7. Gillette, Wyoming
8. Hostal Pedregalejo, Malaga Spain
9. Mars 2112
10. Midtown Manhattan during the Christmas holidays
11. Albuquerque, NM
12. “The Pub” in Pennsauken
13. The Berlin flea market
14. A bowling tournament
15. Being 142 lbs
16. Anywhere (except locally) on New Year’s Eve
17. Getting my hair bleached
18. A football game at any stadium
19. The Mummer’s Parade
20. Any parade…
21. Friday’s
22. The top of the Empire State Building

Midtown Manhattan with kids and a neurotic, anxiety-ridden woman, filled with thoughts of imminent doom

December 18, 2010

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D and I are taking the kids up to NYC today; Rockafella Center, FAO Schwartz, etc. etc. What to any normal human being is usually considered a fun day trip in the city, to me, it is a day spent quieting the obsessive voices of imminent doom and certain death that run through my brain while trying to appear normal and “happy.” That’s not to say I won’t entirely enjoy myself. I will. But I’ll have to work hard for it. I’ll have to fight what many would consider a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder. For example, it’s not a stretch for me to believe that there will be a terrorist around every street corner. A tall building will fall on my head. We will be mugged, shot, victimized, kidnapped, beat up. A bridge will collapse. A car bomb will explode. Someone will get lost. I will die. We’ll all die.

Luckily, this type of thinking doesn’t keep me home. It’s not so severe that I am unable to overcome it and get out of the house. I’m used to it. My little neighborhood street in the middle of no where is about to explode into a million tiny bits too, while I’m naked in the shower, of course. And yet, New York City is a scary place.

So, wish me luck today. And if you read this, Shhhhh…don’t tell D or my kids what’s going on inside my little ol’ brain. I’m going to try my best to pretend that I’m normal. Oh lookie there! It’s the tree!

I shop therefore I am

November 28, 2010

People in a retail store reaching to be the first to purchase a limited gaming system

Thank God Black Friday is finally over.  Every year it’s a sad reminder of the ugly side of human nature. The day that a good  “deal” can drive us to do disastrous things. Trample people. Steal from them. Even kill. All for the thrill of snatching up a limited edition Wii or an Xbox 360.

I often wonder though, if the whole concept of Black Friday is just a simple case of herd mentality, or if a majority of us are propelled by a relatively new evolving need to hoard stuff and buy? I mean, just as food is comfort, so is a day devoted to retail therapy, right? Nothing  identifies me more than my clothing style. And hell if I don’t have a plasma screen TV like everyone else on my block. I often wonder too if my love of French clothing, espresso makers and talavera tiles is nature or nurture. Is it so far fetched to believe our DNA has mutated to the point in evolution that shopping is now an instinct? Clothing is, after all, one of our top five necessary human resources. It’s up there with food, water, shelter and oxygen. But then, where does the purse hook, the pocket projector or the tattoo sleeve fit in? Especially when we’re going to wrap them up and give them to someone else.

In The Boston Review, Juliet Shor’s essay “The New Politics of Consumption” argues that we “Americans [have] been manipulated into participating in a dumbed-down, artificial consumer culture, which yield[s] few true human satisfactions.” In “Consumerism in America,” Kendra Wright writes,  “Americans are consumed by consumerism.” She says, “Our belongings have become probably the most important part of our life. We are so possessed with our things that it seems we often forget what’s really important in life.” And a Newsweek article entitled, “America’s Crazed Consumerism” the author writes, “Uncontrollable consumerism has become a watchword of our culture despite regular and compelling calls for its end.”

And so here we are, stuffing our souls and dresser drawers with useless crap that 85% of the world’s population has probably never seen or heard of. Do you think societies in the Australian Outback would know what to do with a baby wipes warmer, a pair of laser guided scissors, or a fondu pot? If aliens landed on our planet, and walked through one of our shopping malls,what do you think they would surmise about human culture if they saw baby toupees, clothing for dogs, or the leopard print snuggie? We obviously no longer purchase on a needs basis anymore. According to Globalissues.org “the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%.” That tells me that a huge percentage of our purchases go above and beyond the percentage required to simply cover our basic needs.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our common sense. We believed in Capitalism so much that we were willing to buy into the ads and the culture and the lies that told us the more we bought, the stronger we, as a Nation, would become. We believed it when they told us we’d be happier, stronger, more beautiful, better. We wanted happiness and perfection so badly, we believed Calvin Klein and Gap and Whirlpool and Kenmore. We bought into the idea that we all needed bell-bottoms, Beanie Babies, and  hand soap in a pump. And we wanted so desperately to keep up with the Joneses and fend off our own self-hatred and insecurity, that we (yes, me) believed in the plasma TV, the iPod touch and the HTC.

The author of “America’s Crazed Consumerism” summarizes the work of Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who argued that “the modern economy didn’t flourish by satisfying the needs of consumers, but by creating the desire for products consumers didn’t need at all.” Even Dorothy Parker once said, “people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.” We were told that if we don’t consume, others lose jobs, shops go out of business, our economy fails, the stock market crashes, we fail as a society. But if we do consume, we lose touch with our basic human dignity and succumb to false gods. We become something we probably never expected to become: a product.

At this time of year I always think of the Grinch and how he “stole” Christmas. Bad, ugly Mr. Grinch straps a pair of antlers on his little dog Max and steals all the Christmas stuff from the Whos down in Who-ville, for what purpose I’m not sure. On the surface, it’s to stop Christmas from coming. But in reality, the Grinch is probably somewhat of a cranky Marxist who believes that Capitalism is evil. OK. A stretch, perhaps. But the bigger message is that despite the Whos having nothing, they wake up Christmas morning and still sing their hearts out. Mr. Grinchy “hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” But the depressing reality is that Americans most likely wouldn’t be so happy without their stuff.  Would any of us really be able to celebrate a holiday without all the packages, boxes or bags? Are family and friends enough? These are good questions and ones that I am trying to get to the bottom of. I confess; I love stuff. But I’m willing to make sacrifices if it means altering the direction in which my DNA is mutating. Shopping does not have to be the “be all and end all” of my existence.

This post is “lovely”

June 23, 2010


Someone said it at lunch. A student. I can’t remember now who. It was a warning to vulnerable, over-sensitive student-writers with flimsy self-esteem: “You gotta toughen up for these workshops.”

Twenty years ago when I took my first writing class at a college in North Jersey run by Dominican nuns, I would have agreed. Sister Bridget was a fairly kind-hearted woman but she’d rip you to shreds in front of your peers if you failed to put together a story with some semblance of meaning. But times have changed and now, successful writers with huge credits to their names (New York Times book review, New York Times Op Ed section, Granta, Harper’s, three published books, etc.) forewarn their workshop groups to be “compassionate,” “sensitive,” and to “discuss the piece’s finer points.”

We don’t want to offend anyone, now. Do we?

Here’s my gripe: The pros, who are all having nightmarish flashbacks of their MFA workshop experiences are applying these nicey nice terms (Great, Lovely, Has Potential) to everyone’s work. It’s not just my stuff that’s “great.” It’s John’s, and Jane’s and Larry’s and even Juanita’s who’s never taken a writing class in her life. We’re all “great,” and “lovely.” And there’s no distinction among us. And while this is great and lovely for our self-esteem (God forbid anyone’s sensitivities are offended) it doesn’t do squat to help us learn, grow or trust the validity of our professors’ opinions.

Granted, I’ve only been to three workshops so far this summer, but inevitably, they all begin with the same recurrent address: “First off, let me say that overall, this was a lovely piece of writing…I really enjoyed the bit about the blah, blah, blah, and I love the way you intuited blah, blah, blah…Also, I think you have a lot to work with here as far as blah, blah, blah goes.” If we’re lucky, the lecturer says this: “I have one criticism…”

Inevitably, when I’ve been workshopped previously, that “one little criticism,” no matter how clearly it comes across (which, usually it doesn’t because no one wants to offend me), no matter if I take notes and write it down in my binder and later, circle it and put arrows around it to mark its existence, goes in one ear and out the other. It evaporates. I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to be a writer that has to go back and edit her work. I want to be a writer who delivers a work of art on the first draft. I want to be the diamond in the rough. I want to be a star. And forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think others are like this too. Heck, who doesn’t want to be told that what they’ve created is a flawless shiny ball of fuzzy perfection?

But the trouble is, none of us are perfect and only maybe one or two of us (yes, that’s it) have submitted a publishable piece that has real potential at the moment it is being workshopped. And we as students know this. We have to read all the manuscripts as well and comparatively speaking, we all know what’s crap and what isn’t. So two things occur: cognitive dissonance—we recognize something as being black, but then we are told it’s white, and an internal prompt to follow the herd and be nice too. No one wants to offend anyone else. No one wants to step up to the plate and go against that social construct known as correctness (political correctness, social correctness, etc.). And why should we? We’re taught, so as to bolster our self-esteem of course, that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was rejected 20 times before someone published it, or that no one wanted to publish Bukowski for years. Not only that but the very nature of art and creative writing is subjective. Who’s really to say what’s crap and what’s not? And who am I to be so presumptuous?

And yet, this is our business. This is our life’s work. There is standard in the industry that, as students, we need to know if we are to attempt to reach it. My guess is that Obama will not “gently suggest” to McChrystal that he should resign. My guess is that Ben Bernanke got where he is by virtue of a lot of hard knocks and struggles, not by a gently cresting sea that propelled him forward with “First off, let me say that overall, you’re a lovely person…”

Bullshit.

In yesterday’s workshop I felt Big Brother was watching, controlling what we said and how we said it. And we were not given enough credit for trying to be humane on our own. We were forced into using words like “lovely,” “great” and “nice,” even if we didn’t mean it. Everyone was on guard. Even men like ______ held back their idiomatic language and bold criticism that for an entire year, inspired me to work harder and strive for better.

I am not suggesting that we denigrate or disparage individuals. There’s no place for “you suck.” But work is another matter. Work cannot be taken personally, despite the fact that it is the product of the individual. Work is in the public realm and when you put it there, it is up for criticism.

There was this kid yesterday whose piece was about to be discussed, until we were reminded to be nice. He spoke up and said, “I can take it,” but by then it was too late. Instead of a more accurate discussion of his work, he got the “this is lovely” version. And to add insult to injury, everyone talked it to death out of nervous energy. Truth is, it wasn’t bad. If he held his focus, if he removed the immaturities and judgments in his voice, if he tightened up a few parts and expanded on others, it would have read better. Would he believe me amid the phoniness that ensued? Could he trust anyone brave enough to tell him the truth? I don’t know. I hope so. Because that’s what will make him a stronger writer. And if he’s able to identify with and trust the judgment of people whom he admires, he just might be led in the right direction.

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to students not only to foster an environment conducive to learning, but to tell the truth. We need to know when our work works and when it doesn’t. The problem is, no one wants to suppose that there is one truth or that they have the right to judge. And maybe there isn’t one truth, and maybe they don’t have the right to judge. But someone needs to step up to the plate an offer up what’s known as an OPINION. Because there is a standard of good writing, and opinions count, and if a teacher is not willing to cultivate someone’s work, a student has to be willing to seek out the truth, even if it hurts. As for me, I’m looking for the truth in magazines. One thing I can be sure of is that the publishing industry isn’t afraid to tell me if my work sucks or if it truly is lovely.

Thanks Freshly Pressed

June 4, 2010

I was in abundant joy yesterday reading and receiving so many wonderful comments on my work. What should have been fifteen minutes of fame lasted a good 24 hours. Nothing beats that. And more than anything, it’s motivating me to write more and try to submit my work more aggressively.

Par example: the Summer Writers Conference begins in two weeks. I’ve redone Fertility from this older version and will submit that. I had my trusty “first reader” read through the revised copy and though he found a couple flaws, decided it was, overall, in good shape. I was glad to hear that because after having worked on it for almost 10 hours straight the other day, I couldn’t even focus on one line without getting dizzy. I’ve determined that  I do not make for a very good editor.

C’est la vie. At any rate, I’m happy today. The weekend is upon me, the weather’s supposed to be nice, and I have no plans.

Thanks again for reading.

The Visit

April 23, 2010


She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.

“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.

“Your whole life, huh?”

He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.

“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.

Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”

Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.

“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.

Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little.  How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them.  Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”

“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”

And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”

Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”

“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”

She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.

They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.

When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.

When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.

When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.

By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.

At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.

Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.

“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”

It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.

“Translation, please?” he says.

“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”

There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.

She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.

They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.

Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.

“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.

This post has no point except to say that time is circular, despite the illusion of it being linear

January 1, 2010

One year ago today, I learned how to make soap. In fact, I uncovered the buried understanding that adding any number of additives will not, after all, interfere with saponification and that soap is actually a paradox. It takes oil to remove oil. I even made my own recipe:

24 ½ ounces of Olive oil
12 ounces Palm oil
4 ½ ounces of Cocoa butter
6 ounces Canola oil
1 ounce Palm Kernel oil
6 ¾ ounces Lye
17 ¼ ounces distilled water

I never actually made the soap. I got distracted. I listened over and over and over again to DeBussy’s Claire de Lune while emotionally reuniting with the girl I was in Paris, in 1989. I sang Martha Wainwright’s “Wish I Were” lying on the floor of my bedroom, until my voice shattered into broken glass and I kept quiet for a very long time. I read Hills Like White Elephants and prepared my soul for its delivery, though I didn’t know it at the time.

A year is long. But we are only reminded of its length at the end, when we have the sensation that we are back “there” again. Remembering the past. And all that we no longer are.

Swine Flu Blues

October 28, 2009

To vaccinate or not; that is the question, and one mother’s quest for the right answer.

There’s a medical form resting on the kitchen table that my son brought home from school yesterday. It’s asking me—his mother—to make the decision to have him vaccinated for H1N1. The form has been there for 24 hours, and if not for the word “URGENT” stamped across the front, it would take on the usual lifecycle of most forms that come into my house: backpack to kitchen table to trashcan; or, if it’s a particularly pressing concern, like the ten page form needing my signature and a note from the doctor, costing ten dollars, and a photocopy of shot records and checkups and probably even blood samples, okaying the fact that my kid had all his shots and won’t be infecting anyone with polio or rubella or any number of odd, extinct diseases, the form would be filled out within a couple weeks’ time and ultimately sent back to school.

I hate forms for two reasons: they’re printed on paper and thus, waste our natural resources, and they’re seldom of any relevance to someone who prides herself on dodging the frenzy of herd mentality that forms tend to confirm. Case in point: the issue regarding your child’s appearance in photographs taken by the school. I suppose with so many men, women and children in the witness protection program the idea of a teacher taking a photo of classmates and posting it on the school’s billboard had become a matter of contention. One person complained about it, didn’t want their child photographed and then another and then another. For weeks everyone was clamoring about schools violating and exploiting their children with one click of a camera. Shortly after, a mandatory form was sent home, requesting the signature of a parent or guardian, to authorize or deny the act of photographing each child.

It’s like that with the weather around here too. One severe weather alert from Action News on a Monday produces a slew of forms regarding school closing numbers, a list of what to include in a disaster preparedness kit and even a barrage of websites, links and contact numbers in case of emergency. The next thing you know there are mile long lines at the grocery store and bottled water is completely out of stock three towns away. And for what; usually two inches of snow that turns to slush by the end of the school day.

But this form in particular is causing me emotional, mental, moral and ethical strife. I simply cannot decide whether to get the vaccination for my kid or not. As a mother I am torn between doing the right thing for my child while avoiding doing something just because everyone else is doing it. In my mind, it should be this easy: if my kid has a one in a million chance of dying from the flu, as well as a one in a million chance of contracting some bizarre neurological disease from the shot, then either route I take seems statistically safe. I shouldn’t be worried. Right? But I am– so much so that I can’t stop weighing the facts, possibly because so many exist.

In typical culturally-savvy, liberal, progressive parent fashion, I did everything I possibly could to weigh the pros and cons. I posted a poll on Facebook. I watched the youtube video of a beautiful cheerleader who got a neurological disorder triggered by a flu vaccination. I listened to an NPR radio interview with some guy from the CDC. I read a “Short History of Vaccine Panic,” along with Amy Wallace’s, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” followed shortly by Dr. Kim’s Holistic Heath Blog. By accident, I even read some article online debunking vibrational strings and the theory that we are all made out of light until I realized that had little, if anything to do with swine flu. I asked friends, neighbors and family. I even asked my son’s pediatrician. And after all this, I can’t help but wonder how any of us are capable of making a personal, private, parental decision in the face of all this hysteria and abundance of information.

How, in fact, does anyone make a decision about their child’s health, and possibly life, with so many influences circling around? It makes me wonder how much of a threat something is, compared to the media’s propagation of it. And the bitter truth is, when people stop making individual decision and instead, base their actions on the common good of the herd, the best choice isn’t always made. Who remembers the old VHS versus Betamax war? VHS won dominance over Betamax despite being technically inferior. Why? Really good marketing and probably the fact that consumers were impressed with the recording time of VHS. In other words, consumers lost out on a better, cheaper costing product, for the sake of one flimsy feature. Even the sub-prime mortgage crisis and housing bubble is a reflection of herd mentality. Swine flu is no exception.

Frustratingly, when I polled my friends—and most are no dummies—there was a huge gaping divide. Some believed that it’s best to vaccinate and protect. Others believed the side effects of vaccination weren’t worth the risk. As for me—the form was still on the table this morning, heading to the trashcan, until my neighbor called asking me if my kid needed a ride to school. Yes, yes, yes, I said. He always needs a ride to school, or back from school, or to be picked up from soccer, or dropped off at fencing. For whatever reason, he needs to be stuffed into someone’s minivan, along with a gazillion other kids, for the sake of being taken somewhere. Going back to grad school and teaching has left me hugely dependent on “the village” to help me in times of need.

So, among small talk and neighborhood gossip, I asked her if she was getting her kids vaccinated. Heck, why not. I had asked everybody else by this point and nothing had influenced me either way. Seriously, what difference would her answer make? But the moment she uttered a resounding yes, two things occurred. First, I immediately thought, that’s just typical. And second, I thought, I must get my son vaccinated.

I hung up the phone. In a matter of minutes I speedily filled out the form: Name of child, Birth date, Address, Is the child presently sick? Does he or she have any chronic diseases? Has the child ever had a reaction to a seasonal flu vaccine? Has the child ever had a reaction to eggs?

I signed and dated it and stuck it in his backpack; I kissed him goodbye; and I waved, from my doorstep, to the pack of children crammed into the minivan that, along with my son, were being carted off to school.

Herd mentality or not, I am a member of a community. I depend on “the village” and the village depends on me. And sensationalism aside, (and the one in a million chance of getting some bizarre neurological disease from a flu shot), decisions based solely on me and my child cannot be made. We are not islands. We are not loners. We are part of something bigger than us and thus, have a responsibility to stay safe and healthy not just for our sake, but everyone’s.

Am I happy that I am following the herd? Not really. I have always prided myself on being an individual. Do I think the swine flu is so out of control that it could kill us? Nope. Do I think that mass-hysteria is influencing our better judgment? Yes, I do. Do I think that seasonal and swine flu vaccinations are the answer for everyone? No. That’s not what this story is about. It’s not about any of those “facts.” It’s not even about uncovering obscure information or taking polls of the general public or basing my decision on what a pediatrician suggests (because they’re all on the fence too). And it’s certainly not about being swayed by a form sent home in my son’s backpack. But it is about the bigger picture—my bigger picture, and the fact that all I really have to do to make the right decision is believe in it.