Hey Fella

Dad in the middle.

You put yourself through college playing gigs and working odd shifts at the local hospital.

Were you buddies with the other guys in the picture?

Is one of them actually Al Anderson?

In my head I hear you say, “They were all nice fellas.” That was one of your words.

Years later, when I was about eight, you said to six of my boy friends who were playing a bit too rough for your liking, “Hey fellas, take it easy.”

To this day I’m not sure if they stopped because of the inherent authority of your presence, or because they were so startled by the word “fellas.”

You called Steve, my brother, “Ace.”

Even me, once in a while too.

Neither of us knows from where that came.

I imagine you taking a break at that gig in the picture. Outside the back door of this school auditorium? Dance hall? It’s freezing cold, and you’re all hunched over in stiff tuxedos with smoky breaths rising, cigarettes cupped in your hands. You talk about what song to play next, which girl is the prettiest, how much snow will fall.

Isn’t it funny, this life you had? I’ve spent countless years trying to understand the Dad you were. These days I wonder about the younger you…before you were a Dad, a husband, a businessman, a coach. When you were just a horn player. Just a fella.

Love

Love is patient, kind…and sometimes wears a monkey hat.

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Love is not proud…unless it has a mink stole and a walkin’ stick, y’all!

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Love keeps your food delicious…and free of extraneous hair.

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Love is a DRAG QUEEN.

Duh.

Everyone knows that.

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Love is freedom and equality for all.

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Love is the Pig Power t-shirt your Grandma did not understand, nor approve of, but never said a word about.

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Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours.

A portrait of the loud laugher as a young child

My Dad was a sensitive guy.

Sometimes it seemed like the whole world was too much for him.

Too loud. Too odiferous. Too crowded. Too bright. Too fast.

When overwhelmed by his senses, he raised one eyebrow in disapproval, lowered his newspaper, looked over at whoever was nearby, shook his head, muttered something inaudible, raised the paper again.

Mom called him, “The Nose,” because he could sniff out even a hint of spice or seasoning the second he walked in the door.

“Is that garlic?” he’d bellow, nose wrinkled in disgust.

Hardly.

Due to his sensitivity, we were raised on the blandest food, only ever-so-slightly salted.

Which might explain my lifelong longing for flavorful food.

Please, pass the garlic!

One night at home many years ago, I laughed hard at something and saw him out of the corner of my eye, fake-wincing in pain at the decibel level of my guffaw.

Which made me laugh even harder.

I said, “Sorry, Daddy,” not really meaning it.

He smiled broadly, shook his head in disbelief and said tiredly, but with love, “You’ve had that laugh since you were a little, little girl.”

Young loud laugher
Young loud laugher

What I’m Digging

Listening, reading, and watching much right now. The world provides much rich fodder.

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Excerpts from President Obama’s Inaugural address. Here’s the full transcript.

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

…We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

…Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.

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From Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs…

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.

…I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

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Jodie Foster, accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. Full transcript.

I hope you guys weren’t hoping this would be a big coming out speech tonight, because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago, back in the stone age. In those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family, co-workers, and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met.

…I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved, the greatest job in the world. It’s just that from now on, I may be holding a different talking stick. And maybe it won’t be as sparkly, maybe it won’t open on 3,000 screens, maybe it will be so quiet and delicate that only dogs can hear it whistle.

ImageFrom Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek:

It snowed. It snowed all day yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud. The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light on paper inside a pewter bowl…

…My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.

Citrine & Hillary

Last week, I had a 10 cm dermoid cyst removed from my ovary. For those of you not as well-versed in the metric system, allow me to put this into a more relatable image: a grapefruit.

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I had a grapefruit-sized TOTALLY BENIGN (thank heavens) dermoid cyst removed. Also, they removed the ovary on which the dermoid was perched.

Yes, it’s weird that was a citrus-sized intruder hanging around my reproductive organs without my knowledge, and might, I add, permission.

I am very glad it’s gone.

If you Google “ovarian dermoid cyst,” I’d advise you do it on an empty stomach, because dermoids are gross, gnarly even. They often contain…are you ready?

Hair. Gobs of it.

Also, sometimes teeth.

How did I manufacture this?

No one knows.

In an effort to keep my sense of humor about this situation, I shared the news of my “grapefruit baby” or “my lost twin” with friends and family.

My brother’s response: “You always wanted a little brother or sister!”

Photo by Flickr user chicks57
Photo by Flickr user chicks57

My friend Will named the dermoid Citrine: a nod to its citrus size, but more European in style. Will surmised that Citrine wore a bowler hat and held a cigar stump between her teeth.

Yes, teeth.

I added that she had a Madonna-style British accent and always showed up uninvited. I wish I had a sketch to share with you.

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My friend Anne thought Citrine looked more like the Mad Balls that were so wildly and grossly popular during my 1980s childhood.

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An ex was convinced the dermoid was a manifestation of a baby I’ve yet to have, and rather than stress about the thousands of dollars in surgical costs, I should consider the delusion that Citrine is actually a freshman at Brown University, major undecided. And I am footing the bill.

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Days after the surgery, I lamented the loss of my ovary. Thankfully, my friend Heather brought me back to reality.

When you lose an ovary, the other does the same job as two, so rather than grieving the lost ovary, you should be proud of your super-ovary! She’s doing two important jobs for very little recognition. We should call her Hillary Clinton.

Screen Shot 2012-12-06 at 10.56.03 AMSo, while I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I must inform you that since Hillary is very busy being my super ovary, she will be unable to run in the 2016 election. She has very important eggs to make – scrambled, hardboiled, I can’t know. She’s Hillary Clinton.

Sorry, America.

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgivings of my childhood had much tradition tied to them. The origins of some remain a mystery; others are burned into my brain as “the way” to do things. I’ve collected a few scenes from the turkey days of my youth.

Here’s to the people, food, rituals and familial idiosyncrasies that make each Thanksgiving so wonderfully perfect, flawed, complicated and simple. Happy Thanksgiving.

The night before Thanksgiving:

Mom thaws the semi-frozen turkey in bit of tepid water in the kitchen sink, which is scoured to surgical-level sterility. I periodically walk into the kitchen and poke at the thawing turkey’s naked self, presumably contaminating the otherwise sterile environment.

A scene from Home For The Holidays

Thanksgiving morning:

Mom wakes us early to help with the polishing of the silver, setting of the table (good tablecloth, pressed cloth napkins, china, water and wine glasses), and the washing of cooking utensils, pots and pans (Mom is a “clean-as-you-go” cook).

We watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (whilst dusting, vacuuming and fetching).

We de-vein shrimp. I don’t know who started the shrimp cocktail Thanksgiving appetizer tradition, but my Mom insisted on it. Related: I could eat shrimp cocktail all day long, as could my brother. Reality: Everyone got five. Lesson: Shrimp is expensive; Get a good job!

We never light the politically incorrect but TOTALLY CUTE Pilgrim and Native American candles. Why? Because then we couldn’t use them every single year, silly! We handle those candles with the same care and reverence as we handle the family china. Do. Not. Break. Do. Not. Drop. White bread Hallmark heirloom? You decide. Mom still has them.

Thanksgiving afternoon:

The family, now faint with hunger and overwhelmed by the heady smells emanating from the oven and stove, is warned against eating anything that might “spoil your appetite” for the eating extravaganza that awaits.

Dad sneaks a butter and peanut butter sandwich. We are all jealous.

Time for the feast:

Dad is beckoned to carve the turkey. His brow furrows in deep concentration at this mighty task. Also, his tongue sticks out ever so slightly: evidence that this feat requires the precision of an expert marksman.

We fill water glasses. (Hand blown red glasses that my parents received as a wedding present. Reserved for holiday use only.)

We fetch serving dishes and utensils for Mom who is frantically moving from one burner to the next to the stove to the refrigerator. She barks orders and physically moves us where she wants us to be.

We WASH OUR HANDS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE! Thanks, Dad.

We usher grandparents, aunts, uncles and other guests to the table like royalty.

We help Mom serve the shrimp cocktail. Did I mention that everyone gets five? Savor ’em, people, because that’s it until next year!

We eat:

Lots of “please,” “thank you,” “this is delicious,”and “are you sure you want that last shrimp?”

We kids have a moment of quiet dread when we realize that we have to hand wash, dry and put away every single plate, glass, salad fork and hand blown water glass that sit before us. We die a little.

Mom rises to clear the dinner plates and gives us the eye to help her.

Coffee is brewed and served; dessert plates are carried to the table.

The pies are presented. There are always several. The most popular response to the question, “Pie?” is “I’ll try a sliver of each!”

Homemade whipped cream, people.

Post feast:

There is a massive clearing of the table that enlists the help of all females present. The men retire to watch football. I realize how antiquated this seems, but that’s how it was in my house when I was very young. Years later, there was much more male participation. And by participation, I mean dish washing.

Tupperware madness. Mom has the uncanny ability to size up the leftover food in a bowl and find the corresponding Tupperware into which it will snugly fit. It’s a gift.

There is endless dish washing, dish drying, dish putting away. We go through at least eight dish towels and steam up the kitchen windows from the hot dish water and ceaseless activity.

Finally satisfied, Mom releases us from our servitude, and we collapse onto the floor of the family room where Dad and all the males are watching football/slipping into turkey comas.

And for every bit, I am grateful.

Songbird

Last week, I went out to see friends and hear a great band play. I saw lots of folks I knew and met some new ones, all of our voices growing louder to hear one another over the amazing music. Before long, it was too loud to talk and that suited me fine. Sometimes you just need to soak in sound, let harmony and melody mix in your brain, feel the drum reverberate through your chest.

I left the bar late and found myself stunned by the sudden silence into which I’d tumbled. My ears rang as I walked to my car. It was an exquisite night: finally, actually cool, dry, the merest sliver of moon, like the edge of a plate perched high above the world. Fall in South Carolina.

As I got close to my car, I said aloud, “Hi, Daddy.”

I’m not sure why.

Maybe I was overcome by the beauty of the night all around me.

Maybe I was happy and wanted him to know it.

Maybe I was calling out because I wished he was there.

Maybe the reason doesn’t matter.

From the darkness, from a tree near my car, a songbird sang out.

Then, just as suddenly, a chorus of birds further away answered back.

Then, the songbird sang out once more.

And then, quiet.

Oh.

Hi, Daddy.

Reunion

These are my people. More specifically, these are my college people. Not all of them, mind you, although we did attend a small liberal arts university in the woods of New Jersey.

We, my people and I, have been places – London, Amsterdam, Rutland, Las Vegas, assorted diners, bars and athletic fields.

We have done things. Surfed couches. Mixed cocktails. Danced madly. Talked deep into the night. Fell extravagantly in love. Pushed one another to our limits. Wrestled while intoxicated. Spooned. Hiked. Roadtripped. Hooked up. Broke up. Bucked up.

Degrees were earned. Jobs won and lost. People died and babies arrived.

In other words, life: in all of its imperfect perfectness.

And in July, we came back together – in two houses, up a dirt road in Vermont. And in a jam packed, joy-filled 48-hours, this magical band of people filled my belly, mind and heart.

As a writer, I should have more words for those 48 hours, these feelings, than this, but they seem somehow sacred. Perhaps because we are so much older now, and our lives have taken turns and been shaped in ways we can’t know because we are in the midst of them. Because there are deadlines and commitments and responsibilities that could easily keep us apart. Because we know how easy it is to slip from one another’s reach.

Perhaps this is why it’s such an exquisite gift to enter a room of friends you haven’t seen in years, with whom you share time and life and memory – and be embraced, exactly where and as you are.

For Maureen: a three-legged race

I feel so angry, sad and confused right now that I’m not even sure I should be writing. But maybe writing through these feelings will help me make sense of them, because at this moment, there is so much that makes so little sense.

Back in July, I wrote about a childhood friend that suffered a massive heart attack and slipped into a coma. Despite all medical efforts, healing thoughts and prayers, the damage to Maureen’s heart and brain was too great. She passed away Sunday morning. She was 40 years old.

Maureen leaves behind her husband, Mark, her five-year old daughter, Natalie, her lifelong best friend, MaryBeth, and a host of friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.

The knee jerk reaction to this sudden, unexpected loss is to ask why. Why does a wonderfully loving wife, Mom and friend die this young, this tragically? We try so hard to figure it out. We cry; we yell; we shake our fists at the sky.

Maybe the space between life and death is only as wide as a strand of hair after all. Every moment of every day, there are near misses: semi trucks that just miss plowing into cars packed with kids, falling glasses caught seconds before smashing to bits, blood that slows almost to stillness and suddenly finds its flow.

Maureen: It’s not so many years ago that we were playing kickball and hopscotch. We don’t have to dig back far in our memories to remember days spent running three-legged races across each other’s yards. It’s easy to hear your voice in my head.

I think of Natalie, age five.

At five, our parents are magical beings, capable of great feats: keeping us safe from real and imagined harm, carrying us high on shoulders, sending us off to sleep, molding the way we experience the world.

I don’t know.

Perhaps there is no reason in any of it. No lining up of facts. No theories to prove. Life and death exist side by side, because one simply cannot exist without the other.

This is when it hurts.

This is why the ancient Aleutians bound tightly the limbs of the bereaved. Without it, they feared those in grief would, literally, fall apart. Or so said Annie Dillard in her novel.

I can’t leave it like this. If there is sadness and anger, it must also mean that happiness and joy eventually follow.

So I go back to basics.

Back to girls with legs bound together, arms linked, running and laughing hard, leaning on one another.

Friendship has no end.

 

 

Letter to a friend

For Amy, an ocean away.

Across the Atlantic
We sit
Each in our own room
Typing frenetically
Sporadically
Updating one another
On news
Life events
Woes as experienced from the bathroom floor
Wonders which include enchanted encounters
We condense stories
Better told leisurely
Over coffee or tea
In each other’s actual
Physical company
Wherein a raised eyebrow
Or pause
Tells its own story.

Instead.
In lieu.
We abbreviate
We abridge
We g-chat.

It is, perhaps,
For just this circumstance
That letter writing was meant.
So that we could tell stories fully,
Extravagantly fill pages with prose,
So as not to miss a detail,
In order to describe most vividly
Our lives at that particular moment.
Believing this action
Might somehow lessen
The inexorable ache of missing one so dear.

To hold your letter in hand,
Revel in the familiar swoop of your script.
(Do we know anyone’s handwriting anymore?)
To reread one’s favorite passages over toast,
To open and smooth out folded pages,
And hear your voice in my mind.
To imagine you in the scene you’ve described
So perfectly, with such intricacy
That Virginia Woolf now reads somehow vague.
To accept this painted scene meant for me alone
This is the gift of friendship.

I fear a future of
The Lost Emails of [Insert Author’s Name]
Or even
The Collected G-Chats.

Forget not the motion of your own hand
Across a page.
Forget not the letters you keep in boxes
Like secrets,
Like a child’s collected treasures:
Half a robin’s egg, a piece of beach glass, a bent penny
Hidden, sacred.

Say you’ll return to paper and pen.
Let flow the words you would say
In-person
Were it not for an ocean.
Transcribe the conversation
Of head and heart, magic and memory
And sign it
Not “With love,” or “Missing you,”
But “Always.”