THE SWAP: STORY OF A FRIENDSHIP

I am one of those people who has a story for everything. 

You like the sweater I am wearing?  Well, there’s a story behind it. Really.

The story begins more than fifty years ago, at Hunter College, when two girls—P and me — met on the college newspaper.

We were very different in many ways but we both loved writing, and we laughed at the same things, so we became friends and then writing partners, writing Hunter College Sing together through our four years of college.

That first summer out of school we looked for work.  Every Monday morning we met at a beauty school on Broadway and 42nd, and got our hair done by students for something like fifty cents or a dollar.  Then, all dolled up,  we went job hunting, sent by  the same employment agency, sometimes to the same offices. By the fall we were both working at Decca Records, sharing one big office.  She worked for the head of Promotions and I worked for the head of Publicity. We ordered lunch from the same takeout place, and bought our clothes up the block at Bloomies. Our next jobs were on the same block, across the street from Carnegie Hall, and after work we met at the Carnegie Deli or the Automat and worked on writing pop songs, comedy material and lyrics for a musical we were trying to get going. We spent our salaries on studio time and demos and professional singers to showcase our work. Once, we auditioned for the Chicago comedy club, Second City, and once I got to try out our comedy material on a nightclub stage.  Eventually we got a few things performed and a few things published and earned our ASCAP memberships. We were on our way.

But then, marriage — first mine, then hers — broke us up.  It didn’t have to, of course.  We could have gone on trying to make it in show business, but in those days, it was not the conventional thing for young women to do.

After marriage, she moved away, first to another borough, then to another city, and eventually to another country. There was no internet.  Telephone calls were expensive and there was a big time difference. And so our once intense partnership became occasional letters, further and further apart. I didn’t miss her and she didn’t miss me.

Yet, during those years, we lived parallel lives. I had children, she had children.  While she was learning a new language and a new way of life in Israel, I ran a bookstore, then went to grad school.  She began writing children’s books at about the same time that I began writing my first novel. 

She visited the States, though not often. We managed to see each other from time to time.

As time went on, she started attending writing workshops in the States, so we saw each other more frequently.  She began to extend her stay long enough for us to have a week together, to catch up. 

We learned how different our lives were and how similar. We shopped together. We talked writing.  Our days were filled with memories of the old days, of people we knew, things we did, clothes we bought. At the same time, our friendship was reconstituted into present day, as we discovered we still had the same love of writing, and the same sense of humor.

Between visits we now had e-mail to help us keep in touch. 

If she saw a scarf she knew I’d like, she sent it to me. If there was something she couldn’t get in her bookstores at home, I would get it for her.  Once, when I was in Marshall’s, I saw a sweater I knew she would like, and I bought it in two colors, one for her, one for me.

When my first novel was published, she had tee shirts made up with the title on them.

I edited her first novel and it won a big prize.

She made a point of visiting my mother shortly before she died.

We made the long trip to attend her son’s wedding. 

I know her siblings and her children, and she knows mine. 

These days, we even see one another on Skype.

One morning recently, we found we were both wearing the sweaters I had once bought us, now at least ten years old. “I’m tired of the green,” I said.  “I should have given you the green and kept the pink.” 

“I like green better,” she said. “Send it to me.”

So we made the switch, and now I am wearing the pink and she is wearing the green.

But it is not the end of the story, yet. Because we have promised each other we will switch back, in another ten years.

And I can’t help thinking of how many ways, trivial and serious, deep and not-so-deep, barely-there and ever-constant, our friendship has survived.  Come and gone.  Taken a turn. Ebbed and flowed like the ocean between us. 

And maybe one day, when we get tired of wearing them, we will run the pink and green sweaters up the flagpole and salute them, as emblems of how long we have been friends.   

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TO DO OR NOT TO DO…YOURSELF

Some do-it-yourselfers are born; I married into it.  My parents, like many of their generation, took pride in buying what their parents and grandparents had had to make.  A garment bought in a store seemed to say something not only about their new purchasing power, but also about their acquired education, and, by implication, their improved status in the world.  Those homey little knots and bumps in a handknit sweater (which my local boutique now upcharges — a dollar a knot, two dollars a bump) they would have considered flaws.  The variations in a hand- rubbed piece of wood furniture would have marked it, in their minds, as crude.

So, of course, in accordance with life’s irony, I married an exceedingly handy man, who loved to fix, tinker, re-build, craft and re-shape.  He preferred spending hours and days and weeks figuring out how to get something to work rather than buy a new something. (He even sometimes tried to improve a perfectly operational thing, I learned, thereby breaking it; but that’s a story for another day.)

I took to his ways like an ant to sugar.

We had very little money in those days and there were lots of things we wanted that we couldn’t afford, so M’s talent and my ignorance of what was too tough to tackle made a powerful combination:  we took on some pretty wild do-it-yourself projects.  For example, when my rich boss offered us fine wool wall-to-wall carpeting, even though it was a hideous orange, I didn’t turn it down. M picked it up from the boss’ place, hauled it to Queens,  installed it, and I made bucket after bucketful of Rit dye and using a scrubbing brush (nailbrush for the corners) turned it blue.  It took a week to dye and another week to dry and a month for my fingers to stop looking like I had frostbite.

Then M re-caned six dining room chairs, tutored by the man who was going to charge us too much to do it and who didn’t mind losing the business he wasn’t going to get anyway. M had to soak the cane in the bathtub, and then wedge it into the little channels in the chair backs. He got splinters of caning material under his fingernails (like tortured captives in WWII movies) but the chairs were perfect.

Through the years, M made lamps out of vases, and rewired antique chandeliers.  Together we painted, and wallpapered, tiled floors, tabletops and windowsills, stained floors and shutters, installed vinyl-flooring, slipcovered a sofa, and upholstered several chairs. We adapted old things to new uses.  A Jenny Lind crib became a loveseat in the children’s room for a while.  A rocking chair lost its rockers and sat up straight.  A tall breakfast bar became a coffee table.  When we remodeled the kitchen in our vacation house, the thick piece of wood that had been the pass-through became a beautiful dining room sideboard with the addition of legs I bought at Home Depot and antiqued.  In my time, I sewed curtains and drapes and bedspreads.  I edged fabric to make a rug.  But, oh, my friends, that was a long time ago.

So recently, when my favorite Wing chair seemed ready for the trash heap, I thought, how hard could it be to re-upholster it myself? I was thinking I would just take off the present covering and use it as a template.  I was thinking I would just press it and cut it and then just staple the new fabric back in place.  I wasn’t thinking how many staples I would have to pull free before the upholstery came off the frame or how deeply attached old staples are to the mother chair.  (The force of pulling them free sent me halfway across the room to a hard landing more than once.)   I wasn’t thinking about my sore shoulders and arms, and back, and muscles I didn’t even know I was using.  I wasn’t thinking about the mess of fabric and batting and threads and nails and staples. About a day into it, I saw that my patience (much less my body) was not going to last.  And Pete Seeger’s beautiful rendering of the verse from Ecclesiastes kept playing in my head.

“There is a season/ turn, turn, turn.”

So, I went to my favorite home furnishings store and guess what? They have chairs, too.  With wings and without!  The chair I bought is beautiful.  And I know now, my season for DIY is past.   No regrets.   But sweet memory lingers on.

 

 

 

 

 

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MY BUCKET LIST AND “CHUCK IT” LIST

 

I’ve been thinking about George H.W. Bush and how he skydived (skydove?) at the age of 92.  Which brought the phrase “bucket list” to mind.  According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it comes from “kick the bucket,” the slang idiom for dying, and means the things you want to do before you die. I think it was coined as the title of a movie, and there have been other movies on the same theme.  But come to think of it, have you ever actually met a real person who made a real bucket list? I haven’t, either (though there are always television reports about such people).   And I think I know why:  for most of us, by the time we are old enough to think about doing something before the literal “deadline” we’ll probably be too tired to do much of anything. And until then we’re too busy doing things in our regular lives to stop and dream up things we don’t ordinarily do.  

But, what about making a bucket list of things you want to be? Things that would be possible without any personal effort, just like magic?  Wouldn’t that be nice?  For example, I’ll start by saying I am tired of being short. I have been short all my life, so now I want to be tall. It would be nice to be tall.  If I were tall, I could reach the top shelf of my pantry, which would mean that I would not keep buying cans of baked beans because I did not see the ones hiding up there on the top shelf.  And if I were tall I would be able to wear a belted wraparound coat without looking like a height-challenged bear.  I could be a model in my next life.  I could see the stage over the head of the lady with the cowboy hat who always sits in front of me at the theater.

Another item on my bucket list of what I would like to be is a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, so I could endow libraries, and still buy those shoes with the red soles which sell for a thousand dollars per shoe.  If I were a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, I would indulge my inner philanthropist, and write a book about how great wealth brings with it great responsibility, which would be a bestseller and bring me more great wealth.

There are also certain “bucket list” items that, without any stress or strain on my part, I would like to have.  They could be big things, like patience, or the ability to play the violin.  Or they could be small things, like an inner leisure-meter which would tell me when I have wasted enough time; a fast metabolism, so I could eat ice cream every night and burn it before it settles on my bottom; high arches instead of flat feet.

        While I’m busy making my bucket list, I think I am going to also make a…let’s call it a “chuck-it list” of things I would like to get rid of, throw out of my life.  First on the list which I would say “chuck it” to is fear.  Fear of getting lost, of flying, of dying.  I would say “chuck it” to my habit of going along to get along.  I would say “chuck it” to worry (but not to stress, because stress can sometimes spice up life).  Those are the big things.  The little things?  I say “chuck it” to restaurant servers who call me and my fellow diners “guys,” and anyone who answers “thank you” with “no problem.”  I would also say “chuck it” to doctor’s offices that keep you waiting for hours, and robo-calls, and telephone solicitors who call and ask for me by my first name because they think I am stupid enough to think we know each other.  And $4 cups of coffee.

What does your bucket list look like?  And your “chuck it” list?  Write and tell me. Right now I’ve got to go — I’m conferring knighthoods in my own personal kingdom this afternoon.

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A Few Words On Words

 

I’ve been reading the dictionary again. And I’m here to tell you:  the English language is exciting and complex, and very fluid.  Words come and go, new ones get invented, old ones flow down some universal drain and are heard no more.

My father used to call a blouse a “shirtwaist” and a slip a “petticoat.”  When was the last time you heard those words?  And when was the last time someone under sixty put on a pair of “dungarees?”  They are “jeans” now.  Ever eat an “alligator pear” or an “egg tomato”?  Of course, you have, only now you call it an avocado and a plum tomato.  Dragonflies are “darning needles” in some parts of the country, though in the Bronx, where I grew up, we somehow made them “dining needles” which makes no sense at all.  What is a dining needle, anyway? The mispronunciation completely destroys that nice mind-picture of the long, needlelike body emerging from the lacy wings, which led to “darning needle” in the first place.  On the other hand, I recently heard someone ask for brandy in a “brandy sniFFer” instead of the correct term, “brandy sniFTer” (the glass with the wide bottom and tapered top, the better to sniff the brandy) and I thought that was a great improvement.

Words and phrases come in and out of our language every which way, across geographical borders, and through public events, and politics: “Blacklist,” for example, became a common part of our language in the early 50’s with the McCarthy era, and now means any list that names people or groups with the intent to deny them work or access, because of something they did to displease the list maker. “Holocaust” changed from a small “h” word meaning firestorm to a capital “H” meaning the decimation of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe in WW II; now, it has changed again and come to mean any systematic destruction of a people of one ethnic identity. “Blitzkreig” came into English from WWII, as well.  It was the sudden, intense German attack plan, and has come to mean any sudden, intense action:  think of a media blitz or an advertising blitz.  And look how politics has changed the word “abortion” into the phrase “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion” to “pro-life.” Let’s not even discuss the phrase “politically correct.” (Which is kissing cousin to “emotionally intelligent.”)

Technologies, television and the internet borrow words from nature and everyday life:  we “surfed” the channels and now we “surf” the net, like riders on a great big sea of airwaves and information.  We “hack” into someone’s private e-mail, and it sounds like what it is: a blunt instrument and a break-in.  “Spam,” chopped up and indeterminate food became chopped up and unwanted material on our e-mail. We “browse” with a “server,” which once might have meant going to the library with our restaurant waiter, but now means we use a computer to look through information.   And, in turn, technology has given us back words, redefined.  “Default” once meant only a setting for your computer printer. Now it can describe your habitual position on an issue.  It doesn’t take a machine to be “hardwired,” anymore; it could mean you and your genetic predispositions. To build a “firewall” is no longer just to protect your computer files; it can refer to your life.  And there are entirely new words we got from the computer: “laptop,” “emoji,” “online,” and, of course, Google, which is not only the name of a company, but has become a verb which means to look something up on the internet.

Sometimes words get re-purposed. “Drop” used to mean the shape of a tear or the vertical trajectory from the top down. Now when a new song is released into the world, it is said to “drop.”  Colors “pop.”  A traffic accident is referred to as a crash lately, which I find refreshingly blunt.  Nouns get to be verbs: “journaling” and “friending” are trending, as are “texting” and “sexting.”

There are certain words that are on my…shall we say “blacklist” because they are so overused that I think if I hear them again I will scream:  The noun “abuse” because people use it to mean everything from real abuse to the lack of whipped cream on their ice cream sundaes; “awesome” which used to be reserved for sunsets at the Grand Canyon, but now is shrunk to fit things like a nice hat or a new singer;  “challenge” because it is the euphemism du jour: vertically challenged is the formerly short, horizontally challenged the formerly fat, educationally challenged the formerly dumb, psychologically challenged the formerly crazy and so on.

Portmanteau words are nothing new. “Sitcom” for example.  Now we have “frenemy” and “dramedy” and “podcast” and “spork,” neat word-suitcases that tote two words in one.  I like them all, with the exception of “blog” which strikes me as an ugly little plug of a word to describe this nice thing that I am doing right now.  What could replace it?  “Wessay?” Nah.  But language is fluid and something will come along.  It always does.

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LIFE AS IT IS NOW

To update an old riddle about chickens and roads: Why does the lady cross the river?

In my case, the answer is “To find a shoe repair shop.”

It began with a pair of boots, and the only repair shop on my side of the river, a little hole in the wall on a main street where it is hard to park.   The person behind the counter made a face that told me she disapproved of the state of my soles, and then quoted me a sum so huge I felt she was tacking on a punishment tax for walking too hard.   I took my insulted boots back and went across the river, looking for a non-judgmental shoe repair shop.  There was an old-timer there, I heard, who did beautiful work.  His shop smelled of shoe polish and leather, and when he took my badly worn boots in his hands, I knew everything was going to be all right. “Only fifty-one years,” he said, when I asked him how long he had been at this work. As I inhaled the pleasant aroma of the shop, I recalled when I was a child and my mother would take me to the “shoemaker’s” (as we called it then, because they not only fixed shoes, they could make them, too).  He had had two leather chairs on a tall platform, with metal feet just below which you could rest your feet on while you got a shine.  The opera was playing on the radio. Where are the shoe repair shops of yesterday?

And while we’re at it, where are the tailors? Remember tailors?  Once you could throw a piece of chalk in any direction and it would hit a tailor shop.  Then, tailors began sharing space with dry cleaning establishments.  Every dry cleaner had someone who did alterations. He would sit toward the back of the shop at the Singer machine, eyeglasses perched on nose, at the ready. If you asked if someone could “take up” or “take in” or “let out” a garment, the man at the desk would beckon the tailor up front and there would be a consultation. A look at the hem, a look at you, a look at the seam allowance, maybe a nod of approval for enough fabric to let something out, or shake of the head if the fabric was sparse.    You would have to put the garment on.  In the back. Behind a curtain.  Or in a coat-closet-sized room.  The tailor would ask tersely whether you were wearing the right shoes.  I always brought the pair of shoes I intended to wear the garment with.  If it was a hem, the tailor would get down on his knees, and pin the garment. He held the pins in his mouth.  I could hear him grunting, from the effort.  It took time, it was a procedure.   Nowadays, if you are lucky, your dry cleaner might pass on a telephone number of someone who does alterations.  The days of the easily accessible and expert tailors and seamstresses are gone.

And how about watchmakers?  I would imagine once you didn’t have to wind your own watch, the whole world of watchmaking changed.  Nowadays, it is a matter of changing a tiny battery in a mall kiosk or jewelry shop. Or, in more serious situations, the jeweler will “send it out” which usually means back to the company that made it.  Where, of course, an expert watchmaker still does his or her thing, though anonymously and long-distance, without the eye contact, or me standing on the other side of the counter, holding my breath, waiting, while he looks through his loupe and makes a determination, and maybe says, “nice timepiece.”

I sharpen my own knives, and miraculously there is somewhere for me to take them to have it done “professionally” (at the  kitchen supply shop that provides goods and services to students at the Culinary Institute)so I do both, but neither compare with the memory of the knife sharpener of my childhood:  the man who drove the streets of my city in a specially-fitted truck, and a loud clanging bell, stopping when you called out to him, or ran out waving your knives.  That guy talked knives because he knew them and loved them, they were his business.   I won’t even mention the seltzer man and the milkman, who are not strictly craftsmen, but somehow seemed totally committed to  bringing fizzy seltzer and fresh milk to your door.  It wasn’t just some delivery man, it was Stan the seltzer guy, Rodney the milkman. (I know, I mentioned it.)

Yes,  time moves on, and there is no need for certain craftsmen anymore, and for others, no profit in staying in the business.  But what has been lost is more than just convenience.  Great workers, who take time and pride in their work, whether it is knife sharpening, or piano tuning, or tailoring or shoe repair or watch repair, are fewer and harder to find, and I worry that we are beginning to forget what great workmanship really is.

When I went for my boots, the man turned them upside down.  “How’s that?” he said, with pride. He had shined them up, too.  “Beautiful,” I said.

And I promised myself I would always cross a river to get to someone who is proud enough of his handiwork to do a good job.

 

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Studying Studies

I heard on the news recently that someone did a study which produced the following fact:  Talking baby talk to Alzheimer’s patients is offensive and might even be harmful.  Raise your hand if this surprises you. Me, neither.  So this study can join a whole list of studies that tell us things we already know.  Like,

Divorce is stressful.

Red wine is good for the heart.

Too much red wine makes you drunk.

Drunk driving causes accidents.

Laughter can improve your health.  ( So hurry up and laugh).

People like simple pleasures, like a nice walk on a sunny day.  Duh.

Then there are the studies which refute the previous studies, like the one about fat in your diet (yes, no, yes, no, a little, a lot) and the ones that say coffee is bad for you, good for you.   Fish Oil? Iron supplements? I am beginning to worry that the study about dark chocolate being good for the heart is due for some awful follow-up findings, like that it is good for everyone but snarky left-handed Jewish women in their 70’s.

And could there be a good-cigarette study in the future?

Have you ever noticed how many studies there are that tell us things  we never wanted or needed to know,  like the effect of bird guano on the third world, or why ants are happier than inchworms, or what cats really think of their owners, or why butterflies never cry? Why apes overeat?

There must be good reasons for these studies.   Curiosity on the part of the person who originally asks the question, to begin with.  And no doubt they create jobs for hard-working researchers and fund research institutions and departments of psychology/sociology/biology and all the other –ologies. And now that the internet is in most every household and information is an ever greater commodity, studies fill websites and give blogs a reason for being and satisfy the search engines’ hunger for more and more knowledge to disperse.

So, in the interest of furthering knowledge and putting researchers to work, I propose that someone do a study to look into whether the weather has a spiteful streak and really waits until I go on vacation before it turns bad and rains until the day I go back to work.

Or a study to find out once and for all whether clothing really does shrink in one’s closet from one season to the next.

Or a study that examines the phrase “you can if you think you can” to see if it has any actual validity, besides sounding nice.

And, maybe, while you’re at it, how about a study about how many studies there are in the world and how many we really need.

 

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THE SLOW MOVING TRAIN OF THOUGHT

The other night, I was sitting around with M and an old friend, trying to come up with the name brand of the sleds we all used to ride down the hills where we grew up — M in Brooklyn, my friend in Manhattan, me in the Bronx — and giving one another hints.  “It’s red,” one of us said.  “Red um something.”

“No. But it had red paint on it.”

It took only fifteen minutes to come up with FLEXIBLE FLYER but oh, what a relief when it finally came.

Sometime in the middle of the night M sat up in bed.  “Red Ryder,” he said.  “The comic book cowboy.”

“I know,” I said, and we both turned over and went back to sleep, satisfied.  Obviously, the near-rhyme of “flexible flyer” and the color red had touched off the question,  “Who was that popular comic book cowboy that reminds me of that?” in the back of M’s mind.  It just took a while to get from back to front.

Is there anything more satisfying, I ask you, than thinking of the name that is just beyond the tip of your tongue, around the corner from your brain?  Like, that actress, you know the one, with the red hair?

You laugh.  How many actresses with red hair are there, you think.  But you know (if you happen to be over forty) it’s Emma Stone, or (if you are over sixty), Julianne Moore or Susan Sarandon, but eventually (if you are over seventy) you’ll come up with Maureen O’Hara.  Oh, well, I might have meant Arlene Dahl, my friend says.

Speaking of which, that kind of forgetfulness is NOT a sign of Alzheimers, as we all know (or should know) by now.  It is just a sign that the old skull is getting too stuffed with information for its own good, and only keeps what it needs.  The retrieval of irrelevant information takes a little longer to access nowadays, but the pleasure when it comes almost makes it worth it. Like scratching an itch or quenching a thirst.

The name of the other actor in the movie THE THIRD MAN, by the way, the one who wasn’t Orson Welles?  Michael Rennie.

The little song, plop plop fizz fizz oh what a relief it is, was for…wait a minute, wait a minute…Alka Seltzer, wasn’t it?

Who sang “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me?”  Andrew Sisters.

What product advertised “Where’s The Beef?” Burger King.

Who promised a chicken in every pot?  (Well, okay, that was before my time, but I remember reading about it. Herbert Hoover.  Election Promise.  1928.)

Who was the late night radio host who interviewed people who claimed they had been abducted by aliens and probed?  Long John Nebel.

What was the thing, white, sort of egg-shaped…a shmoo. What was the deal with shmoos?  I’m working on it.

And then there are the private memories that we play hide and seek with, that make the people we share a history with so important. This friend, for example, is the only other person who could answer the question, “What was the name of the teacher who wore the funny hat and always hummed to himself…” because we went to school together.  And those connections become more valuable as they become rarer, especially since we can now easily Google the red-haired actress, but not the hat-wearing humming teacher.

But whether it is private memory or memory shared by everyone of a certain age or from a place we have long been absent,  it can come slowly: the thought, then one detail, then another, tumbling, catching up, thickening with the accumulation of details that attach to the old recollection.

As I was falling asleep the other night, on the heels of the words, “Who was that…” I had a split-second blankness and then “Who was that masked man” popped into my head, and then “The Lone Ranger” and “Tonto” and after him trotted Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Trigger and Scout, and sweet dreams of more innocent days.

Happy Trails to you, too.

 

 

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