CONTROL FREAKS: A BLOG BY ME AND MY GRANDDAUGHTER, JILLIAN

Me: I never think of myself as a control freak.  I mean, I like my routines, don’t get me wrong, and I prefer you stay out of my kitchen when I’m cooking, I don’t need your help, and I have to get to where I’m going fifteen minutes early or my whole system is off, and I don’t like surprise parties that I don’t know about first.   But that’s not being a control freak, is it?

Jillian: I don’t see myself as much of a control freak, either.  Control freaks are loud about it; they emanate control.  You look at one and you think, hey she looks like she’d make a decent totalitarian. But come to think of it, don’t we all have a little bit of control freak in us?  I mean, if you were to diagram us, wouldn’t we all fall somewhere in the grey area, between freaky and not?

Me: Oh, I agree. Most of us like to be in control of our lives and we take measures to see to it that we are, by what we say and do.  And mostly we aren’t even aware of it.  We have our daily routines to protect us.  We have our jobs.  We have our domains.  Our ducks are in a row.  But just pull us out of those regularities, like in an airport, say, where we are on someone else’s schedule, and watch us go berserk.

Jillian:  Here’s an example.  My roommate has knocked a pillow off of her bed, wedged in between my desk and her bedposts.  It’s right near my trash can, but I won’t, I won’t, I won’t move it.  It’s hers. And it’s not where it’s supposed to be. I nudge her, telling her even though I know she is half-asleep, hey, so, your pillow is in the trash can, probably something to think about. Or, another time, when my friend has taken a video of our (lousy) dance rehearsal and I ask her to send it to me, and she doesn’t, right away, and the thought of the video, temporarily living on her phone is more than I can handle.  I fidget for two minutes before I have to ask her again to kindly forward the video.  NOW.  Are these control freak moments? Maybe. They’re not not controlling, or me acting freakish. Still, I would call it a desire to be orderly and organized. Definitely meticulous. But control freak? I hesitate with that damning two word phrase.  Sure, I may lean on the side of control, but by no means completely subscribe to this character trope.

Me: Well, I did actually freak out once, when I lost complete control for three days.                   Grandpa and I were in Australia for a convention and his main Aussie rep, a totalitarian if I ever met one, invited us to his country home outside of Sydney, where we would drive with him to the convention in Canberra. He kept us waiting 3 hours before finally driving there, then casually mentioned that he had forgotten to make reservations for us to stay, and finally found a place at the last minute which had no indoor heating (it was mid-winter) and the fireplace was down to embers by the time we got there, and it was only for one night anyway because they had no availabilities after that, so we had to stay with the totalitarian at his little cottage outside of NOWHERE, and at the last minute he forgot things he had to do the next day at his office so he dropped us in another little town with the phone number of a cab company and the key to his cottage.  We had no car, grandpa had business to do so I couldn’t tell him to go x&*##&, there was literally nothing I could do to change things.   Or maybe, I could have relaxed, relinquished control and, you know, que sera sera?

Jillian: Agreed.  But wait a minute, Grandma.  Isn’t there a time that being a control freak is a good thing?  Like for instance if you’re writing a haiku?  17 syllables…five on the first line, seven on the second, five again on the third. You gotta have some control there, right?  To follow those rules?  I mean, you have to be strict, in control, no 18th syllable even if you want to.

Me:  I think you’re on to something, girl.  I’ll admit to being that kind of control freak.

Jillian:  Works for me, too.  So the next time someone accuses us of being  control freaks…

Me:  Write a poem about it?

Jillian: Or cop to it.  Que sera sera.

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THANKSGIVINGS PAST

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I enjoy it doubly through the lens of past Thanksgivings that wind all the way back to childhood.

I’m in the Bronx, at the table opened up to accommodate the four of us: mother, father, sister and me.  The emblems of the holiday are there: turkey, canned jellied cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes.  In addition are the individual touches that make each family’s Thanksgiving its own.  For us it is my mother’s chopped liver, speckled with egg whites and burnt bits of onion. Though many of my friend’s families served it on a plate, in a neat scoop, nestled on a bed of iceberg lettuce, to be eaten with a fork when they were already “sitting down,”   for us it was a forschpeis, smeared on a cracker while we were  on the way to the table.

Our Thanksgiving menu was the same as the Passover one (except the crackers were replaced by broken pieces of matzo), and the same people were there. In fact, when I was very young, I wasn’t quite sure which was Thanksgiving and which was Passover.

I looked forward to the busy preparations, pulling open the unassuming side table which my mother called her “hunt” table, and on which rested a fancy silver pitcher which never saw liquid every ordinary day of the year. On Thanksgiving and Passover, that ordinary table expanded magically to seat as many as eight.  Daddy would pull some metal loop on the table’s underbelly which released a hinge which allowed us to pull, two at either end, until the table reached its length. We would bring out the leaves from the back of daddy’s closet, and slip the dowels into their holes, unfold the felt-covered tabletop and over that mother’s bright white linen with the fancy filigrees.   I was in charge of setting the table. We had cloth napkins beside our plates which we were taught to put on our laps, though we still used paper napkins to wipe our mouths.  Once, my mother’s brother and his family came. (It was only once, so I suppose it didn’t work out.)

When I was a young adult my(much) older sister took over the preparations and the party expanded to include her young and growing family, and eventually my fiancé, then husband, then babies.

Sometime in the late seventies, we struck out on our own.  I don’t remember why, likely it was encouraged by the gasoline crisis and our not being able to “spend” the gas to drive the distance to my sister’s.  Or maybe it was two fretful toddlers who didn’t always travel well.  For a while I regretted breaking the tradition, but since we still did Chanukah and Passover with my sister, Thanksgiving suddenly became something new, and I became the maker of the day.     Since then, it has always been family first , but never just family.  We opened our arms and all our loved ones, friends, and the kids’ friends, came.  At its best, Thanksgiving was a tradition shared by some forty of us.  In our two-bedroom duplex, people were everywhere: living room, dining area, kitchen, on the stairs, upstairs in the kids’ room.  We always rented at least three kids’ movies, to keep the kids occupied, until the kids grew up.  They invited their friends.  One year a friend of ours called at the last minute to say she couldn’t come because her son had arrived home with two roommates, so we said bring them along.  They arrived with a case of beer, and it was one of the best Thanksgivings.

Then the kids had kids and we rented movies again.  And then the grandkids grew up and we included their important people in the group.

Time changes things.  The old hunt table sits in the corner with its “show” vase, since we now opt for a buffet.  Chopped liver is gone, but shrimp dip gets smeared on crackers during cocktail time.  No one rents movies anymore, but everyone agrees the football games can stay on as long as the decibel level is low enough. Some friends are dead (my dear Paula, Alan who used to sing “here comes the turkey”), some live too far away to come to Thanksgiving (you know who you are, dear one) so this year we are back down to a precious few, mainly the kids and the kids’ kids (A shout out to Matt, Nick, Dan, Jillian and our new granddaughter-in-law, Matt’s wife, Rachel).

I think one of the things that makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday is that it carries the weight of tradition and the ongoing lightness of our now.

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PHOTOGRAPHY AND ME

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, when I was growing up, taking photos was not like it is now.

Photography was something an adult did, to commemorate a very important event, like a graduation, or a vacation trip.  My family did it but rarely, and though I was aware of the Kodak Brownie box camera on a shelf in my father’s closet, and I liked the look of its square, friendly face with two glass eyes and a big glass mouth, I had no interest in trying it out. (I was much more interested in the working of the shoe trees on the bottom of his closet, smooth wooden feet split to be spread or narrowed with the twist of a key.)

I remember excitement over the Polaroid Land Camera when it first came out. You could snap a precious moment, count to sixty, and then peel off the now immortalized happening in sepia. But it was disappointing, without color, warping a little as it dried, never looking as exciting as what it was meant to memorialize.  And by the time the instant cameras came with color film, the big excitement was over.  At least for me.

When I was raising my kids, I kind of had to take certain pictures, otherwise what kind of a mother was I? So there’s the Little League Opening Day Parade (albeit with only half my son’s head because he turned quickly as I snapped); my daughter’s sixth grade graduation; some early birthday party; a handful of other “big” days which, it is true, would not be remembered but for those pictures.  But looking at them does not reconstitute the memory in living color or even elegant black and white, though it may touch off a related memory, say of another Little League day (like the one where my son the pitcher blew out his arm), or my daughter’s college graduation where we met our future son-in-law for the first time.  There are no photos of either of those days, but they are vivid.

When I travelled, I felt a kind of obligation to have a camera handy but I wasn’t happy about it.  I felt it nullified my travel diary.  Why bother trying to write a description of Big Ben when it was already done with the click of a shutter, and probably better in the professional post-card photos I could get in any souvenir shop? The only thing missing was my point of view, and I could only express that point of view in words. My photos were, predictably, bland or blurred.

I changed my mind a little on one of the last trips I took, to Australia, and started to play with the idea that my point of view could actually be expressed in the way I framed what I saw.  I had recently read the Wright Morris photo essay “God’s Country, My People” and it reminded me that photography at its best was art, too, and that text and photo can each pay their own way, and neither one gets a free ride off the other.  An old friend, trained as a musician, found her life’s work as a photographer of opera, because she felt so passionate about what she was seeing that she had to memorialize it.  It’s the passion I feel when I put something into the “right” words.  Unfortunately, that takes a lifetime to learn to do, so, sad to report, my photos remained pretty bland and blurred.  Still, my rendering of the Sydney Opera House, with my husband’s hand pointing up the steps, is one of a kind and I’m glad to have it.

Recently my son was in the Bronx neighborhood where I grew up and with the ease that only an iPhone user has, sent me a snap of my old apartment building.  It was already memorialized in my first novel, as the fictional place where the protagonist lived (and a reader contacted me and gave me the real address of my fictional place, saying I had rendered it so clearly she knew where it was), but seeing it there, as it still stood, was a pleasure.

I can still do without taking photos, especially at the speed and frequency that people do it now.  I have never particularly wanted to catch myself in the act of catching myself in the act.

But there are a few times and people that I wish I had a photo of now.  Predictably, it’s not the sights of sightseeing tours, it’s the random moments that are pictures in my mind, but I’d like to make them a little more concrete:  A particular evening where I managed to corral my mother and father to sit in the living room while I gave them a “concert” of my recent piano lesson.  And a Sunday  when M and I and the kids had a perfect afternoon on the beach.  Nothing special happened, but I’d like to see it in a frame.

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PSYCHIC INDIGESTION

Dear Friends, I stand at the podium today to talk to you about Psychic Indigestion.

Psychic Indigestion is what happens when something you have said or done comes back up in you and won’t stay down.  Though it has nothing to do with actual food, it can not only  take a toll on your psyche but also tie a knot in your stomach.  It happens when you swallow an angry response, or fail to chew carefully before you say yes to something you should have said no to.  It also occurs when you don’t say “Hey, stop pushing,” when someone pushes, or say nothing when someone hands you a sly uncompliment like, “You look better today.”

“May we bring the dog to the wedding?”  “Can you loan me another thousand?” “Would you watch the kids next weekend?”  “Will you be at the rally and join the committee and can my cousin stay at your house?” Yes, we say, yes, yes, yes, because we don’t want to disappoint. We want to be good people. We want to be reputed to be good people.

Or, we don’t want to put anyone out.  So, to “Refill your drink?” “Another coffee?” “Too cold in here for you?” we say, no no, no, while we stay thirsty and our teeth chatter.

And then comes the bitter emotional reflux.  It can happen almost instantly or after several days, or sometimes it takes months to manifest, like an out of control sweet tooth or beer habit, which eventually leaves you seriously out of sorts.  And sometimes it can even last a lifetime, when the last words you say or fail to say to someone cannot be either withdrawn or uttered.

But (and I’m ditching the metaphor now, before it chokes me) if the things we say yes or no to are time-stamped, our resentment will eventually end, too. And maybe we even learn from our mistakes and limit our vulnerabilities, though I don’t see that as likely, since most of us don’t make big changes in our natures, mid-life.  But that’s okay, if we see and accept it with some humor. Most of us don’t say or do what we mean or want, sometimes in our lives. It’s the price we pay for being in the world.  So let’s let ourselves off the hook.

Which brings me to “toxic” — that recently popular metaphor I see all over the media lately.  Have you heard it?  So-and-so is a “toxic” person?  Such-and-such is a “toxic” situation? It is a verbal avatar for what we are living through now: harsh, accusative, and divisive.  To be “toxic” is to poison.  There’s no coming back from “toxic.”

Is this blog about language?  Spoken, unspoken?  I guess so.

The impulse to round things up, and make an ending which connects with my beginning moves me to observe that the only spoken words that fail us forever are words of hate; the only unspoken words that have to be spoken are words of love.

Take it from there and go forward.

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NOTES IN THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE, PART I

Clipboard.  Pen on a short leash, attached on the right side and I am a lefty.  Questionnaire. To be answered by writing between extremely narrow lines, like a right-handed calligrapher with tiny fingers.

Questions. Do I smoke?  Do I drink? Am I pregnant? Do I remember that far back?  Should I still list my tonsillectomy under surgeries or is there an expiration date beyond which this information is irrelevant?

Someone two seats away is sneezing.  I turn my head away, trying to inhabit the spot of empty air least likely to carry germs.   I think I see the germs dancing up there.

A nurse opens the inner door and calls out someone’s name.  It is the sneezer.  I cover my face as he walks past.

I don’t know if I like the fact that the nurse uses the patient’s first name.  It is an unwarranted familiarity.  But then I realize it is because of the privacy laws, so no one knows his last name.

Another nurse comes and calls out another name.  Wasn’t I here before that person?

Why did I leave my newspaper in the car?  I meant to bring it in. If I am not called in another minute I will go out to the car and get it.  I would go now, but I am afraid I will miss being called.

I should have gone a minute ago.  Now it is too late.  Is it?  It is.

I should have gone a minute ago.  Now it is too late.

I should have gone a minute ago.  Now it is…was that my name?  How could someone mispronounce my name?  It is so simple.  Oh.  That was Teddy, not Bette.   I’ll just run out to the…

Oh.  Too late.  Finally!

The nurse weighs me and measures me and takes my blood pressure, and goes over all the particulars of my history and current medications.  I am in a nostalgic mood and remember when this is what the doctor did.  But that was long ago, when he was still called “the doctor” instead of “the healthcare provider.”  She tells me he will be in in just a moment.  I look at my watch.

I hear a murmur of voices from the next room.  He’s probably just finishing up in there.  a moment means a minute.  He’ll be in in another minute.  I try to eavesdrop, hear the words being spoken in the next room, but it is just a hum.  I review my appointments for next week on my smart phone.  That takes about ninety seconds.  Then I look back at my appointments since June. Another ninety seconds.  I read the labels on all the jars on the exam room counter.  Then I read them backwards. The voices next door have gone silent.  There are no sounds in the hallway.  Why did I leave my newspaper in the car?  If he does not come in in another minute, I will run out and get it.

I feel like I am sliding off the butcher’s paper of the examining table, so I dismount and sit down on the doctor’s little stool.  I notice the peeling green paint on the side of the room I never get to see when I am sitting on the examining table.  I check my watch.  It has been a while. Maybe I should check outside.  It was a late appointment.  Maybe they have all gone home? I remember once when I was in an eye doctor’s office and they put drops in my eyes and then forgot about me. Which reminds me of my brother-in-law’s classic eye doctor story, when he got so impatient with his examination, with the doctor switching lenses and asking him, “How about now?  How about now?” when he couldn’t tell the difference between one lens and the other that he said, “Fine, fine” and then when the glasses were made up, he couldn’t see.  I was in the middle of laughing out loud at that, when the door burst open.  It was the nurse.  “How are we doing?” she said, as if I were in the process of something, instead of just waiting for her boss.  “Fine, fine,” I said, echoing my brother-in-law. I was not fine.

They should have left me outside in the waiting room.  They move you from the waiting room to the examining room so you can think you are making progress.  But you are still waiting.  I look at my watch.  It is half an hour since I progressed.

I dig around in my bag and find my notebook.  I dig around and find a pen.  I begin writing: Notes in the doctor’s office.

A little knock on the door, and then the provider comes in.  “Hello!” he booms.

I hold up my finger, for him to wait.  I must finish this sentence.

 

 

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PACKING IT ON

Yesterday was a beef stew day.  Next week I am going to make gnocchi, the Italian version of potato dumplings, which I will bury under a blanket of creamy gorgonzola sauce, or a Bolognese, or, if I want to go light, just plenty of melted butter and parmesan. If I am watching my weight, I will go with the butter and parm.  No?  Really?  You don’t think so?  Well, maybe you’re right. Whenever I decide to watch my weight, I get hungry for bad bad things. I begin to eat rebelliously.  To boot ( high and fleece lined in the northeast), winter is coming, and when winter comes my thoughts go to things that warm me up: soups that your spoon can stand up in, stews whose reason for being is the  potatoes, pot pies, lasagna, creamy sauces, fried chicken, rice pudding, and the three “p’s  – pumpkin, pecan and pear pie. What better time to make all three than now, when they are in season?  (I’m not sure about pecans, since they don’t grow around these parts, but as long as I can harvest them in big bags from Sam’s Club, they’re in season for me.)

When the clocks get turned back next week, and darkness descends by five or six o’clock, I tend to slump, and nothing is better than food and drink to give me a lift.  A glass of wine.  A handful of chips.  Some camembert, or smooth peanut butter on a Ritz.  A brownie. Or just the sight of a tall, broad, beautiful menu of entrees, none of them cooked by me (for a change) and all of them whispering their promise of deliciousness or comfort.  And there are so many occasions coming up!  There’s Thanksgiving to think about, and Chanukah and Christmas, so I’ve got to stock up on cookies and other freezer-worthy, prepare-ahead goodies.

Wait.  Hold it.  In 500 words or less I’ve just given a handful of excuses for doing what come naturally to me: loving food.  I can take anything and turn it into an occasion to eat.  If I’m sad, if I’m happy, weather bad, weather good.  When I want to celebrate.  All the kids and grandkids get their favorite meal on their birthdays.  If I want to give someone a token of my esteem, I bake it.  When I have something on my mind, I go into the kitchen and dice veggies or make bread.  No wonder I have to watch my weight!  How could I NOT have to watch my weight with the regularity of a traffic light: STOP! Reach for a carrot stick; GO, have a cupcake, STOP! eat a rice cake, GO on, have a rice krispie treat instead.

Sometimes I think about those folks who are not excited by food…and there are such people, I know some of them. One of my oldest friends is such a person.  And here’s the curious thing: they’re not all thin.  What I’d like to know is how, when someone’s entire attitude toward food can be summed up by  “eat to live,” instead of “live to eat,” can such a person get fat?  I’m not saying they don’t have a right to get fat, but I just wonder how they do it, without fantasies of mac and cheese oozing its pinky orange sauce, without being bothered making advance plans for tomorrow’s lunch during tonight’s dinner? These are people who have probably never been preoccupied by thoughts of whether crushed pralines will make a good substitute for streusel in coffee cake or how wonderful olives and cashews are when they are chewed together by the same teeth at the same time. These are people who don’t spend hours watching cooking shows, jotting scraps of recipes on napkins left over from the last meal they ate.  I’m just glad if I’m going to gain weight that I have a good time doing it.

Now, I know some people will say this is a politically incorrect message, what with things like cholesterol, and triglycerides and salt and sugar to think about.  To them I say, “Sorry.”  ‘Tis the season to pack it on, load up the plate, go back for seconds.  Right after that, I am going watch my weight. Right after I finish the Halloween candy.

 

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HIDDEN WORLDS

You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.

 I was walking Pete this morning, and suddenly he stopped dead in the road. He does that from time to time, so I waited, and then gave a little tug on the leash.  “C’mon,” I said, but he didn’t budge.  I waited again, then tugged again, and this time he closed the distance between us, got up on his hind legs and gave me a little push with his front paws, then pulled me back toward home.  Very unusual.  But what was more unusual was that I completely understood.  “Not there, not now,” he was telling me.  Had he sensed a bear? Felt a coming thundercloud? Intuited a high-pitched danger that I was not privy to?

Before I had Pete, the world of dog ownership was closed to me.  I had no idea of what a relationship between dog and person could be, what knowledge he would share with me, in what ways I would learn to trust him as he trusted me.

It got me thinking about the hidden worlds that exist around us, no matter how far and wide we have traveled, no matter how long we have lived.

Some worlds are temporary and we are glad when they become hidden again.  The world of hospital stays, for example.  Have you ever been in one?  Amazing, how quickly you get to know the beating heart of the hospital, with its routines and regimens, set hard and fast against their mission of life and death.  They come at 6 for vitals, again at noon, again at 6.  They call giving pills a “med pass” and you learn all the other jargon associated with why you’re there, too. You know the tread of “your” nurse. You temporarily straddle two worlds, and visitors bring a foreign influence with them: street clothes, the smell of real food, a chill from the outside. You say “come later, they’re taking me down for tests,” and establish yourself as part of the hidden world.  And then you get better and that world closes again.  And you go home to your dog.

(And I can resume my happy tale of the hidden world of dog ownership.)

Nowadays, I hear a distant bark and I can tell the size of the barking dog before it comes around the bend.  I also have a fuller understanding (and forgive me please for all the ridicule I once subjected you to) of the phrase “pet parent.”  Who knew? I love Pete like a kid, fuss over his diet, worry about his stress level.  If he misbehaves at the dog park, I tend to blame the other dogs or alibi Pete with as much bias as I once did in the playground.  (Did I do that?  Am I that kind of parent? I only thought you were!)  “He doesn’t usually do that,” the lady with the terrier/Chihuahua says, the third time her dog snarls and foams at the mouth. I may not believe her, but now I get it.  Entering previously hidden worlds can not only bring new knowledge but self-knowledge, as well.

As long as we keep on living, hidden worlds open to us, some like blossoms and others like chasms.   There is a last line lurking here, a final thought, a bullet ending, but I don’t have it yet, it is still hidden inside the thought that keeps unfurling this morning.

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