BEING CENTRAL

One day last winter we woke up to snow.  “Ahh,” M said.  “It’s so good not to have to go in.”  And then he turned over and went back to sleep.

This was the man who used to live out the following scenario: snow blowing, winds whipping, storm in progress he put on his boots, his twice-a-year ski hat, and got ready for work.  His only concession to the storm was wearing the heavy ski jacket over his business suit, and making sure he had the scraper with the snowbrush on the other end.  And I would follow him from room to room, saying things like, “Don’t forget to call me when you get there,” and “Why don’t you wait and see what the weather report says?” and “Can’t you just make your calls from here?”  And he would always have an answer.  “Someone is coming in to see me.” Or, “Can’t miss the meeting.”  Or, “I’ve got a report due.”  But whatever the answer, the bottom line was that he was too important to the operation of the company to take a day off.

I remember the days when my children were very young.  I might wake up knowing I had a sore throat, but staying in bed was not possible, because the children had to be launched into the day, taken to school, PTA meeting had to be attended, groceries shopped for, dinner cooked.  I lost count of how often, in those days, I and other young mothers said to one another “I can’t get sick.  They need me,” and somehow willed ourselves past our aches and pains, and through the bad weather of our lives, fueled by their needs and our self-satisfaction.

After my children were grown, when I taught at Queens College, I would not have dreamed of missing a class because of bad weather or illness.  I had a lecture to deliver, I had papers to return, I had grades to give. People were counting on me.

In short, we were too important to not show up.  Cancelling was, as they say, not an option.

And now?

We can go back to bed and no one will be inconvenienced.  Maybe no one will even know.

That’s one of the big changes as we grow older  — we are no longer central, to family, to jobs, to responsibilities.  Well, this is no surprise, is it?  It is the way of the world.  I might even say it is “right.” If we have done our jobs, our children get jobs, establish their own families, and become the center of their own lives. Even though we may remain linked, we are on the sidelines.  If we’re lucky, we will get a call when the grandchild scores a perfect ten in math or gymnastics, but we are no longer the one required to sign at the bottom to let the teacher know we have seen it.

If we are retired, there is no longer the Department or Division or Section or Classroom or Sales Floor, that big or little pond we swam in, where we were expected to float by every day and if we didn’t, someone wanted to know why.  This is good, too.  It is a relief.  It makes time to slow down and it leaves time to make and keep all those doctors’ appointments.  (Of course, we are not central to doctors, since they don’t know until they enter the examining room that it is us, so they wouldn’t know if we decided not to come. They would just open the examining room door and see the substitute patient whom the nurse had called to say there was a cancellation.)

And of course, as good and right as it all is, it is also a little sad to lose centrality in life.  Luckily, most of us are left with one or two small orbits which still spin around us.  A few friends.  A mate. Losing centrality with them is the worst, of course: if friends move away, or die, if your mate dies. There is nothing consoling to say about it.

Except this:  losing centrality in every aspect of your life may lead you to think about the ultimate centrality – yourself.

When was the last time you said, or thought, “What do I want?”  “Where do want to be today?”  What’s best for me?”  We grow up being taught that it is selfish to think “me” first. Yet, in the end, if we are lucky, we have that self to go back to.   I wonder where such thoughts will lead.  What if I decided to practice thinking about myself first?  Would I still do the same things I do now?  Would people say, “She’s getting crotchety in her old age?” Or would I have a whole new circle of people around me, drawn by my confidence and my centrality to my own life?

 

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BOOKSTORE STORY

There is a website with pictures of beautiful bookstores, one in Portugal, one in Venice, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and some others, and it got me thinking.  As a kid in the Bronx, I didn’t know about bookstores, I knew about libraries.  Then, one day, on a visit to Manhattan, I saw a book in the window of a store.  Stars Off Gard was the title, and the cover was gold and I wanted it.  It turned out to be filled with caricatures of famous people, most of whom I didn’t know, and though I kept it until my last purge of books sometime last year, gold cover hanging by threads to the browned and foxed pages, I admit it was a disappointment almost from the first, and having it was a burden.  (I just looked it up, and it turns out Gard, the author of the book, was also creator of the famous Sardi’s restaurant caricatures, and the book is now rare and listed at $75.  Still, I don’t regret letting it go.)

Well, you know where this is going: gold covers don’t great books make?

So back to those aesthetically splendiferous bookstores: sweeping staircases, vertigo-inducing double and triple mounted shelves too tall to read the titles off the spines of anything above eye-level, whimsical stacks of former books you can sit on, filigreed faux folios that don’t open, dark and atmospheric caves.  What makes a great bookstore anyway?

For me, though I can appreciate the nice interiors – the warmth of Rizzoli-dark wood shelves, the sweeping staircase of the old Scribner’s on 5thAvenue – it is about the promise of finding what I want to read when I want to read it.  I want to be tempted and surprised by titles, forced to turn to first pages before moving on, with enough light and no one pushing me to move on in a “flow” or a too-tight aisle.  I want joyous discoveries of books long desired, remembered and forgotten but never bought, like I used to find at Argosy, and sumptuous sales I can’t resist that make me stagger out with too many books in my arms, like the old Coliseum on Broadway.  I want comprehensive collections, like Kitchen Arts & Letters, and Gotham for all the literary journals extant, or the Drama Bookshop.  I appreciate Strand but find it charmless.  (Maybe because I found a reviewers’ copy of my first novel there half price a week after it was released?)  I want bookstores, like my local Golden Notebook who have people who know and care about books.

I ran a bookstore in Queens for a while, and I wanted my customers to find every book they were looking for and books they didn’t know they wanted before they came in the door.  For me it was a straight-up pig-out.  I got to sit with the publisher’s rep and order. The boxes of books were delivered. Sitting crosslegged on the floor in a puddle of sunshine that came in the back window, I lifted books out  and checked them on my inventory list, and read a page or so of every title before I shelved them.  On slow days I would contemplate rearranging the shelves, imagining what I would do if I owned the shop.

Eventually, I did own the shop, in my imagination.  My first novel was a bookstore mystery.  But it wasn’t perfect, either.  At the service of the characters and plot, I had no way to raise the roof or widen the aisles or solve the pesky problem of the smell of Chinese food from the store next door seeping between the pages of some of the books.

Where I live now, on the road I take to and from my market, there is a small yellow house which was once for sale, and I imagined buying it and installing all the books I loved and wanted other people to read and love, all the books I wanted to read, all the books I felt were good for me to read so they would be ready for me when I got to them, and the biggest collection of books guaranteed to make me laugh until I cried.

The house was sold.  But the idea is still there, still yellow, still keeping it up like a hula hoop dream.

 

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Once Upon A Time

I’ve taken a day off for Labor Day.  But I offer you this from my novel VINEGAR MOTHER, which inspired this blog.

Everything happens in the mid-century kitchen.   The pressure cooker lid blows under too many pounds of pressure and drives your teeth up into your sinus.  The pilot light goes out so unobtrusively that you are almost dead before you smell fumes, and then it explodes when you re-ignite it.  Lemon juice squirts in your eye. You fail to tighten the ceiling light globe when you change the bulbs and it comes loose and crashes down, missing your head but little slivers of glass get embedded in your feet and legs.   A pitcher of lemonade drops out of your hand and smashes, severing an artery in your ankle.  Boiling water splashes up as you drop potatoes into it, and scalds the tender skin of your neck.  Someone drops oil and doesn’t wipe it up, and you slip and fall onto your back, cracking your head against the corner of the cabinet for a slight concussion. The stepladder isn’t entirely open and your armful of dishes fall on top of you as you topple to the floor.  One dish, like a discus, goes straight for your nose, which it smashes in three places.  You pop the cork out of the bottle of champagne and it hits you in the eye. The edge of a can of peas slashes you from cheek to jaw. 

         Sometimes you don’t get hurt, but an unpierced eggplant explodes in the oven and it takes half a day to clean up the mess.  The pitcher misses your ankle, but contains grape juice instead of lemonade, and it stains the linoleum floor.  Beets bleed all over the bone cutlery, which picks up color like a sponge.   Eggs fall on the floor and spread under the refrigerator like The Blob.   Unwatched pots burn  their bottoms.  Forgotten cans of beer expand and explode in the freezer.  The five-pound bag of sugar has a leak in its bottom, and as you lift it out of the cupboard, a stream of sugar covers everything and goes into the toaster.   There is a smell like a decaying animal and you cannot find it and it comes and goes over a period of years.  There are mice.  There are ants.  There are roaches.   There are mealie bugs in your flour and you have to discard everything  in containers, including salt, sugar, rice, cereal, cornstarch,  white flour, rye flour, kasha and arrowroot.  Botulism is hiding in a can of clam chowder, but which one? Salmonella taints your chicken, brown tide has washed those deceptively white scallops, the echo of mad cows moo in the filet mignon. Infatuated or in love, you cook spaghetti carbonara to seduce. And when it doesn’t work out,  feeling the weight of hate,  you stir poison into the soup.   

         And when a lady is going to have a baby, they say she has a little something in the oven.

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STORY OF A DEER

A story is never just what happened.  It is the meaning that eventually adds up, is instigated by, influenced as a result of, or because of what happened.  And the event might turn out to be the least of it, while its accrued meaning will make the most interesting part of the story.  So when something particularly plotlike-with- a- capital- P occurs, in spite of that voice in my head that says, “Oh, boy, that’s something to write about,” I know from experience that I had best resist pinning it down too quickly.  It is always better to think about it and give it time to develop.

It had been a terrible two weeks.  The weather went back and forth from stormy to sunny and gave the dog (and me) the jitters. It didn’t take much to get the jitters since the summer had already delivered some unsettling surprises.  To add to it, I have been feeling the political weather, too. The shootings, the hating, the dissension, in the pit of my stomach.  It’s hard not to, isn’t it?

Then, like a deus ex machina, I cut my finger badly (see my Watermelon blog).

Then a trip into the city to see a wonderful Broadway show left me feeling wrung out and exhausted instead of properly joyful; what was wonderful got buried by unhappy thoughts about being in crowds in the city I once called home.

Everything felt up in the air.

Then, last Sunday morning, as I was driving in the town of Woodstock, thinking about the word “premonition,” a large deer literally went up in the air, across two lanes, hit my windshield, sailed over the top of my SUV, and landed on the other side of busy Tinker Street.

That was the event.  Flying deer.Unbelievable. What to make of it? All bets are off for the unsuspecting? Respect your premonitions?  No trip is without risk?

In the next week I told everyone what happened and answered all their questions: yes, I am all right, yes, the windshield was damaged, yes, I reported it to the police, yes, it looks like the deer survived.  And with every telling of the event, came another story of another deer. It brought to mind twenty-five years ago, when we first came up here, how a neighbor welcomed us to the neighborhood with the warning that everyone eventually has a car-deer encounter;  it reminded me of an almost-encounter I once had on route 209 when I narrowly missed one.

Dinner out with friends turned into a deer story festival, one story more unbelievable than the next, until we laughed and marveled and believed them all. A stunned deer that woke up in the back of someone’s pickup.  A mother leaning over a dead foal on the side of the road.  A damaged car grill.  A crumpled fender.

I might comment on the universality of unbelievable events and the comfort and even pleasure of sharing them and think of my deer as a metaphor and say that everyone has a flying deer in her or his past.  That’s life.

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DOG WHISTLES

 

There is an accepted belief out there that we revere the older people in our society.  But as far as I can see, something else entirely is true, though a lot harder to discern.  While we’re all Oh, the elderly are so wise, we can learn so much from our seniors etcetera, the culture is whispering something else in our ears.

Mostly it’s inaudible.  But once, when I read advice from a real estate expert in a major newspaper which said that assistive devices in the bathroom shower are likely to depress your asking price when selling your condo, I heard it, clear as a bell.   Getting old is unsightly. So if you have to do it, keep it to yourself.

Then it went away but came back briefly when a friend complained about print so small and light that it was impossible to read the instructions in a toaster manual, and I thought, there are tamper proof medicine tops for children. Why not legible instructions for older people? Blame your eyes and ears and stop complaining.

But it faded again and stayed so until last week, when I  spent two nights paying attention to tv commercials and I heard and saw advertisements for cars, candy, milk, hotels, water parks, department stores, markets, juice, realtors, pizza, toilet paper and Clorox, to name a few, and not one single actor was an older person. And the message came through loud and clear:  older people don’t buy enough cars, eat enough candy, drink enough milk, stay in enough hotels, play at water parks, shop in department stores, care about fresh produce in their markets, drink enough juice, buy or sell houses, bring in pizza, wipe themselves with toilet paper and decontaminate afterwards — in other words LIVE –to be represented in tv commercials.  You know the rest of this, don’t you? The only commercials for older people are about the medicines they take, and the medicines which they take to defray the effects of the other medicines, and about those ugly assistive devices that they will have to remove when they sell their condos, and alert buttons for when they’ve fallen and can’t get up, and about hospitals for their diseased and bedraggled selves.

Most of us in the third third of our lives hear the societal dog whistle and either turn it off or hear it as a distant buzz.  Nothing to “stress about” as the saying goes.  I’d just point out that we ought to be aware of the distant sound of ageism before we become entirely deaf to it.

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ENTER WATERMELON

Ever have “one of those” days, weeks, months? Of course. We all have.

Well, it’s been that kind of summer for me.  Early promise rained on, then rain, rain, rain, and summer racing past at an unreasonable pace.  Well, that’s funny –complain about how bad the summer is and regret its fleeting nature? (There’s no getting ‘round it, though, is there?  As soon as July 4thslides past, it’s downhill from there.)

We’re still recovering from a July 4thnear disaster, one of those if-not-for-this-then-that moments that come along in life, like: If it were not for quick thinking by a bystander, the baby might have been hit by a car; if it were not for stepping out from under the picnic tree to get better cell phone reception he might have been struck by lightning; if it were not for first responders administering Narcan the addict might have died.

If it were not for first responders, M might not be here, unscathed, today.

But a close call, even one that ends up with everyone all right, lingers, like the afterburn of an engine when the ignition is off.  It shimmers in the light and rumbles in the dark, disturbing sleep and waking hours, too. And sometimes what makes it go away is that it is supplanted by another event, another close call.

Yesterday, cutting a watermelon, I nearly severed the tip of my thumb.  If not for bad aim, I would have.  And the subsequent first aid, and visit to Urgent Care took up every bit of our minds, and activities, and thought.  And in a weird way, it was a relief, clear cut (pun here) as musings about if not for this, then that are definitely not.  And it was a reminder about something I have learned before and will surely forget and learn again: that “getting over” life changing events just doesn’t happen. You don’t ever “get over” things that change your life.  If you are lucky and determined you fold them into life and then move on to other events.  Nearly hacking off a finger was delightful compared to being haunted by what could have been but wasn’t but might have been if not for. I guess it is the funny truth I am always looking for: a pain in your leg can take your mind off your headache…and that is a reminder that life keeps on coming and we just have to keep on going.

Because of my sore thumb I was going to take a break from blogging this morning – my first in more than a year.  But then I got a message from my friend, G, (who has had to fold a whole lot of if not for this, that events into her life lately) saying she was looking forward to her Monday Vinegar Mother. So here I am, with love and thanks to G, sore thumb notwithstanding.  If not for G, this blog wouldn’t be here.

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THINKING OVER MEDITATION

 

I have been trying to learn to meditate ever since I moved up here to Woodstock where meditation is a Thing.

When I lived in Queens I was used to “thinking things over.” But  “thinking things over” is an inferior product compared to meditation, like a rickety handmade bench compared to a sturdy one ordered from Overstock. Your slipshod thoughts are likely to slip off and land you on your ass somewhere you don’t want to be when you are merely thinking things over; when you meditate, the structure holds you, and you get peaceful and chill. As I understand it.

Meditation allows you to gain control and focus your thoughts by letting them loose, unhooking them from the You of you, ceding control and focus.

Obviously, I do not understand.

I can sit in a lotus posture, but it is not strictly necessary, online gurus tell me.  Just as long as I am sitting comfortably.  (But I suspect it might be a little bit better to sit in a lotus posture to put my body on notice that I am serious about this, so I sit in a lotus posture.)  It makes me tense.  Well then it’s pretty clear I am not getting it, since it is supposed to lead me to feeling the opposite of tense. It is really all right, online gurus say, to sit comfortably anywhere.  I can even lie down.

My unruly mind, however, asks if it would be okay to stand.

My inner guru says suit yourself,  but it is clear I am still not getting it.  I have failed.

You can’t “fail” at meditation my inner guru says taking a deep In breath, the kind I am supposed to take while I am sitting, though I sense a little exasperation in the long air I (she) take(s) in.  “But most people sit.”

I sit.  I sit. There’s something hard under me and I shift. I shift.  That’s good, my inner guru says, you are tuning in to your body.  I scratch my knee. I scratch my nose.  I toss a psychic stone out into the deep blue sea of vague thought.  I am getting there.  I feel I am on the sturdy bench of meditation.  Then my inner guru says you just mixed your metaphors pretty badly and boom, I am on my ass again, back in my own head.

Not bad for a first try, my inner guru says.  I check my watch.  Two minutes.

If I could stand, I would call it Standing Meditation.  It would be an entirely other Thing, maybe not as good as sitting meditation, but surely better than just “thinking things over.”

As it stands today (pun intended) I do a pretty intense standing meditation in the aisle of Home Goods, looking at the hanging rugs.  All the rugs to the left, all the rugs to the right, what is the difference between unhooked and unhinged?

My inner guru purses her lips.  She does not want to make any judgments, but…

My standing/stirring meditation is better.  The circular motion around the sides of the pot is gentle, and the sauce thickens. The small element of control I have, turning down the heat, scraping the bottom and bringing it up to the top, fills me with peace and goodwill.

“Dhyana “(a Sanskrit word meaning advanced meditation) sounds to me like the Hebrew word “Dayenu” (which we chant at Passover and which means “enough.”)  I can say dayenu to dhyana and stir my way to a peaceful day.

Or I can sit at the computer and in the deepest mindfulness of all (for me) I will think things out here, as I write.

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