Here’s to you, Phil

Double-Stuf-Oreos-2My uncle, Phil Ottley, turns eighty today.  I haven’t seen him since my mom, his sister, celebrated her eightieth birthday, two years ago, at a big shindig on Long Island. Phil and his wife Glenna threw it down and came.  When I say “threw it down,” I mean they traveled from afar:  they have homes in Idaho and Florida, and when they are not in residence either place, they are traveling in between in their motor home, with an energetic yellow lab to keep them on their toes.  Phil would not have missed Mom’s eightieth celebration for all the salt in the sea. Family is everything to him – he, Glenna and their kids are close-knit and funny, they share a love of sarcasm, racquet sports and skiing, dogs, cabins, boats, and the outdoors.  They are huggers and belly-laughers; in their presence, wine, wisecracks and witticims flow generously.  They are deeply loyal to our “Ottley” clan.

Phil has a special place in my heart.  I learned a lot about family from him, mostly that the people you love the best are the ones you can tease the most mercilessly, as long as you are willing to get as good as you give.  Phil is a top-of-the-class tease.  I’ve always been hyper-sensitive; my husband John despairs that you just cannot rib me—I take everything so personally.  If I can be messed with it all, it’s thanks in part to Phil.

I spent a couple of vacations in my early teens with Phil, Glenna and their kids, my cousins Lalyn, Heidi and Gray.  I’m a few years older than Lalyn, their eldest, so ostensibly I was along as a mother’s helper, at least that’s how I remember it.  I certainly don’t recall being called on to do much beyond setting a table or maybe helping pack a picnic basket.  Perhaps I just distracted the kids so Glenna and Phil could catch their breath in those intense years when it feels like your three children are the cast of an entire three ring circus.  My first vacation with Phil & Co. was a two-week trip to Nantucket, back when his family still lived in Greenwich, and he was a dissatisfied executive at John Deere, itching for a wider horizon.  We stayed out past Wauwinet at a little group of unfussy, weathered shingle cottages sprinkled in a semi-circle around a central lawn.  I think I remember a barbecue, and maybe a volleyball court, definitely there were sandy paths worn in the grass from cottage to cottage. We drove out to Great Point in their Chevvy Blazer for nighttime bonfire picnics, the huge tires digging deep grooves into the sand. Our trunk bucked and swayed like a drunken donkey as we drove in the ruts across the beach, and whoever got to ride in  the “way back” laughed and laughed, tossed with the coolers and beach chairs like picnic salad.   We’d meet up with other four-wheeling families driving their Jeeps and GMC Jimmys out to the point–SUVs were for off-roading back then, not Costco trips.  The parents would drink beer and wine; the kids roasted marshmallows and played endless games of Go Fish and War with worn decks of cards dulled by sand and dotted with little glops of dried ketchup.   On that trip, I was also Phil’s partner for crack-of-dawn bluefishing expeditions.  It was hard to interest Glenna or the kids in the early morning fishing runs while I was there to be Phil’s companion/victim, although I’m sure they all had many tours out to the point with him at other times.  He’d implore and cajole, saying they’d be missing the best part of the day, the sunrise, the cold, the thrill of casting your line out over the waves before the rest of the world was even cutting the coffee cake.  But no go. Glenna was a great sport who went along with his whims ninety percent of the time, but this wasn’t one of them.  So he’d turn to me and say, “Hol, we’re goin’ fishin’ tomorrow morning.  Be ready to rise and shine at four-thirty.”  Those who know me will laugh at the image of me weilding a fishing pole anywhere ever, let alone at four-thirty a.m., but I was flattered to be noticed.  Life at home was fraught.  My parent’s marriage was strained, my older brother was agitated and acting out.  My little brother was seven years younger, funny and original, but only six, so he stood a bit to the side in our family drama.  The nanny whisked him away in her Datsun hatchback at the slightest whiff of conflict.  They spent a lot of time in that little car, zipping off to the park or the library.  When I was at home, I tried to fly below the radar, spending whole days reading or playing the little electric tabletop organ in my room. Or I’d go off to friends’ houses, where perhaps the parents also fought, or drank too much, or yelled at their kids, but since they weren’t my parents, it felt like a haven.  So when my Uncle Phil insisted I bundle up and head out in the truck before daybreak to the point, helping him schlep the rods, the cooler and the bait box divided into sections for the different lures, I was pretty happy.  I have never asked him or Glenna why they brought me along on that trip, or my mom for that matter.  But I’ve always felt it was a great kindness to a niece who felt lost in her own crumbling family, and that, on some level, Phil recognized this.  I wasn’t an obvious choice to tag along with my sportier cousins: The only thing quick about me was my mind.  I was bookish and plump, not active or outdoorsy, the kind of sensitive young teen who occasionally got homesick at sleepovers. Yet I didn’t feel homesick staying with them.

The next summer, when I was fourteen, I joined the Ottleys for another trip—my National Lampoon vacation correlate—as we traveled from Denver to Los Angeles by way of British Columbia and the Pac Northwest in a motor home.  Phil was ready to shuck the corporate world.  He’d fought the good fight, but he just wasn’t a clock-punching, office job kind of guy, and suburban Connecticut life on him was an ill-fitting suit and tie.  He and Glenna decided to reinvent themselves, to head out West in search of a lifestyle that was expansive, fun, adventurous—like them.  They didn’t know exactly where they should move, just that they wanted to find a place that was beautiful and growing, with good skiing and great people, somewhere Phil could start a new career as a developer and general contractor.  Maybe Vail?  Or Jackson Hole?  Possibly Sun Valley or somewhere in Washington State.  Who knew?  What better way to find out than to load your wife, three kids, and teenage niece into a jumbo size Grumman motor home and literally drive off into the sunset, in search of home.

What a time we had.  In southern Wyoming, we parked in strip mall parking lots.  My bed was a pull-down cot that during the day stowed away above the driver’s seat, so by necessity, I was last to bed and first to rise.  One night, in Laramie, I think, Glenna shook me gently, urgently awake.  “Get up, Holly!  We need to leave.” My five-year old cousin, Gray, had developed a torrential nosebleed that could not be stanched.  We sped off to the ER in our jammies, my cousins Lalyn and Heidi still asleep in their beds.

In Jackson, Wyoming, we were briefly joined by our grandmother, who arrived in her patent leather Verragamo pumps with little bows on them, clutching a boxy, matching handbag containing her cigarettes and gold lighter.  Her one concession to being “out West” was a London Fog trench coat for the cool evenings.  When we visited Yellowstone Park, she stood outside the Grunt smoking, her bold pink lipstick branding the filters, while we walked the fifty or so yards from the parking lot to view Old Faithful. Her adventure-loving son seemed a mystery to her. Or perhaps he was just like his father, my grandfather, who died when Phil was only eleven or twelve; maybe Phil’s boundless energy and hijinks made her miss her first husband.  But give Grammie credit:  she came along for the ride, sitting at the four-seater table in the motor home doing needlepoint as the Sawtooth mountain range flashed distantly outside the window.

When we got to Glacier National Park, Phil set up the tent for me and my oldest cousin, Lalyn, so we could spend a night in the fresh air instead of cooped up in the Grumman, aka the “Grunt.” Its lack of pickup was so severe that every mountain range we crossed was an arduous crawl of uncertainty, like an exhausted marathoner, only the whole race course is Heartbreak Hill.  In our tent, we had a copy of the bestseller, “Night of the Grizzlies,” along with a couple of flashlights in case we needed to venture out to pee.  We curled up to read: The book was the true story of a rogue killer grizzly who had, in separate incidents, killed two young women staying at the very campground where our tent was pitched.  The first chapter graphically relayed tales of the big boy methodically slashing and clawing his way through dumpsters, cabins, tents, even a car door, to get to his victims. He was a bear with an axe to grind.  I was terrified, convinced that every rustle and snap outside our tent all night long was this insatiable creature, ready to slice us to ribbons if we so much as hiccupped.  I barely slept a wink.  At breakfast, Phil asked us, with a twinkle in his eye:  “How was your night, girls?  Hear any bears?”

In Banff, we stayed at a remote campground embedded in an exquisite fir forest.  On the compound, there was a little general store for emergency purchases like eggs or coffee, milk or matches, and we went in to pick up a few groceries. I seem to remember we were always running out of toilet paper (also, always emptying the Grunt’s septic tank.)  I can’t remember if I was alone or we all went in together, but I do recall standing in line waiting to pay behind a family of spent-looking hikers buying candy bars for dinner, no ubiquitous protein bars in 1974.   A TV burbled in the background.  When we got to the counter and paid in US dollars, the cashier—in my memory he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a wool hat, but this was August, so my mind must be conflating him with SNL’s Bob and Doug McKenzie– cocked his head towards the black and white TV, its picture flickering and fuzzy below rabbit ear antennae.  “Your president is resigning,” he said.  There was Nixon on the screen, seated at a desk flanked by flags, reading a speech from a sheaf of papers in his hands.

Phil liked to tease me on that trip about my habit of sneak eating.  I was an emotional eater, still am, and I used to steal into the Grunt in search of Oreos when everyone was outside preoccupied with cooking or tent-pitching.  I thought I was being devilishly stealthy, in that magical-thinking way of the eating-disordered: if no one saw me actually chewing and swallowing, then it never really happened, right?    But Phil wasn’t going to let it go: “Rustle, rustle, like a little squirrel looking for nuts,” he’d say, chortling, when I emerged from a trip to the pantry.  It felt simultaneously awful and liberating, to be called out for my shame-filled fixes, always with a chuckle and a hug. It normalized something that I felt was so defective about me, brought it into the light. I was mortified, and oddly, relieved.  At home, it felt like such issues either stayed in shadow or were met with nearly operatic dispair.

Which isn’t to say Phil didn’t have his own issues or struggles, that his family was all sweetness and light. They squabbled like any other brood, and sometimes the teasing was just plain infuriating.  Phil went through bouts of not eating enough and drinking too much.  My last lengthy stay with them was when I was twenty, during my “year off” from college.  After my sophomore year, I was burned-out, a bit lost in my sense of purpose and identity.  I spent the fall selling “dinnah-wayah” at Fortunoff’s department store in Syosset, Long Island, eventually saving enough money to buy my first car, a red Honda civic sedan with plush seats and a dashboard cassette player that was my pride and joy.  In January, I drove cross country, intending to visit a friend I met in summerstock theater that summer who lived in San Francisco and take acting classes with her.  “On the way,” I stopped to visit the Ottleys at their home in Ketchum, and stayed through June.  I lived with them for my first month there, helping my cousin Heidi with her French homework, or on my knees organizing Gray’s voluminous Lego collection so we could vacuum his room. In their lovely loft guest bedroom, I spent two weeks reading obsessively: “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “East of Eden,” “Duncton Wood,” sweeping stories I would never encounter in a Princeton lit class—a tonic for my academic malaise.  I’d sit up with Phil after Glenna and the kids had gone to bed while he nursed a bottle of Taylor white wine, and we talked about my grandmother, his childhood with my mom, skiing, the history of Ketchum, and the Sun Valley ski resort gossip of the day.  He celebrated my arrival in Sun Valley by escorting me, a nervous and novice skier, to the top of Mt. Baldy and insisting that I’d be just fine—there was, after all, no way but down.  I’ll never forget the name of the trail I fell on, ”yard sale” style, skis and poles littered on the slope above and below me: Blue Grouse.  It was a blue cruiser that nonetheless felt like the Matterhorn to me.   I watched, dejected, as my cousins, aunt and uncle, all beautiful, fluid skiers, carved lovely arcs away from me down the mountain. After a long, bargaining conversation with God, I picked my way carefully to the bottom, where Phil et al were waiting for me, leaning casually on their poles, more at home on these slopes than I was anywhere on earth, at that time. Phil smiled cheerfully and said “At long last. Ready to go again?”   Shortly thereafter, he and Glenna took a trip back east for a week or so, visiting my cousin Lalyn at boarding school as well as some East Coast friends and relatives. I stayed at the house, cooking dinner for Heidi and Gray, driving them in the family SUV to and from school, ski practice, friends’ houses, feeding the dog, then back to my lair in the loft to read some more.  After I decided to stay longer in Ketchum, I moved out to my own place, but I’d still stop over for dinner every week, just to check in.  It was home away from home, for sure.

So happy birthday, Phil, and many happy returns. This post has been my toast to you. Thanks for being my fun, encouraging, needling, humor-filled, supportive, and only occasionally really irritating uncle, for teaching me how to tie on a bluefish lure, not to fight the fall line, how to take a joke.  I have forgotten the former, but the latter two skills have served me well.  Next time I see you, the Oreos are on me.  Love you.

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Two years ago at my mom’s 80th birthday: Uncle Phil & Aunt Glenna, with daughters Lalyn (the blonde with the attitude) and Heidi and their husbands, although not in that order!

Heart in mouth…

%gt7lkoJQ2uw5Aw9B2DPwgI sometimes listen to the morning news on NPR on my way to teaching my 8:30 a.m. Nia class.  Today, the anchors gingerly navigated reports of the West Wing venom du jour, this time the diction of our intemperate President more foul-mouthed and lowbrow than usual, even for him.  Were she alive today, my maternal grandmother would fix him with an icy glare and announce: “young man, we are going to wash your mouth out with soap.”  A nanny of ours once made me do this when I was six or seven years old.   I can’t imagine what I possibly could have said to earn such discipline, since I didn’t know any curse word stronger than “darn.”  I still remember the taste of the lather on my tongue; little flakes of soap in my teeth; the ensuing gag reflex. Continue reading “Heart in mouth…”

Blog, Meet Holiday Letter

IMG_0461Another writer asked me recently what gave me the chutzpah to attempt writing a novel.  Her implication being: “I mean, you could try a story first.” Fair point.   I’ve wondered myself, as I flounder around in the weeds of chapter thirteen, whither goest all this verbiage, whether there is a story in there trying to claw its way to the light. I have an outline, but for the most part, I’m winging it, following the lead of some inner gyroscope calibrated to the characters’ caprices.  Last week I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of back stories, events, details. It’s a lot. How on earth did Tolstoy survive without Scrivener or Excel?  I understand the subtext of my friend’s question: There is a kind of wide-eyed naiveté (or wild-eyed mania) to plunging into long-form fiction with zero experience or training.

The simplest answer is that I found both the confidence and the thirst to attempt a larger scale narrative courtesy of our annual Christmas letter.  I am going to cast false modesty to the wind and proclaim from the rooftops:  I was once Queen of the high concept holiday card message.   I have written our annual letter in the form of David Letterman-style top 10 lists (remember him?!), true or false questionnaires, annual family statistics, dramatic dialogues, a theater company program.  The year Nate was a junior in high school, our family news was delivered as a series of SAT-style questions; at the time, we were immersed in the inflated importance of standardized tests. (Can you hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of the helicopter parent hovering backstage?)   To celebrate my 50th birthday, we took a family trip to Rome; the news that year came in an Italian menu,  l’antipasto, il primo, il segunda, il contorno, il dolce.  There was a Kania family news crossword puzzle, I regret to say. If you remained my friend after that obnoxiously interactive gambit, I am eternally grateful for your patience.  I’m hoping most people just tossed it in the trash rather than actually attempting to a. answer the questions or b. decipher the answer key on the back.  Daunted by my own cleverness, one year I sent the news as a job listing: “Seeking Copywriter to create Christmas card insert for Massachusetts family of five.  Need to devise wholly original format, year-after-year, communicating mundane family news in fresh, readable way.”  No one applied.

I’ve taken a couple of years off from any substantive attempt at a holiday missive, largely aided by the fact that Shutterfly lets you print limited text in the card, a game-changing advancement in epistolary brevity (the phrase “game-changing advancement in epistolary brevity” would never fit, for example).  As a result, we all are sending and receiving far fewer multipage TMI holiday tomes detailing a beloved aunt’s botched gallbladder surgery (swear to God, one Christmas letter we received years ago went into granular detail on this topic) or grade school graduations.  I’ve taken the time to develop other writerly muscles, namely, this blog, which began as a dare from my inner frustrated writer to my fraidy-cat, perfectionist self, one winter morning after John and I had gone on a meditation walk in the woods. As frozen pine needles crunched underfoot and our breath frosted the air, words tumbled unbidden into my mind: “Do the thing that scares you the most. That’s where the growth is.”  And that “thing” was to commit to writing and publishing immediately.  I felt compelled: The universe had just come calling for me, and I had bloody well better answer the door.  Hence, abodystory.com.  Feel free to browse the archives if you’re interested in watching me pedal around on my training wheels.

I’m still standing on that threshold, trying to answer the call to face down fear and self-doubt, now with a novel. It’s called “Shebang!,”a breezy yet barbed tragi-comedy of start-up social media, menopause, millennials and feminism in the Trump era, which seemed like an original idea a year ago when I began writing it.  (If only truth wouldn’t keep being SO MUCH STRANGER than fiction.)  Every writing session is a dance with the demons of uncertainty. I don’t know where I am going, which is daunting for someone who organizes the spices alphabetically by flavor, sweet, savory, international, digestive. I gird myself–literally, I’ve gained ten pounds–with snacks for the journey, I procrastinate (damn you, youtube), I bite my nails, I pace.  This last year has been like that for a lot of you, too, a hard slog. Whatever your stance on the news of the day, it’s hard not to feel abused by repeated ­whap-whaps of anger, uncertainty and chaos.  The key thing I’ve learned from my writing life is that no matter what, I have to show up and keep trying.  Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t.  On occasion, I laugh out loud. The work itself is almost always better than I think it is in the moment of creating it.   But whether the prose is good, bad, or indifferent, the act of writing is my commitment to hope and growth. I remain steadfastly grateful for my many blessings–health, dance, friends, humor, kids, readers, courage, words, music, doctors and nurses, hospitals and therapists, pets, home. Despite a dreary year of relentless challenges for me and many people close to me, and even though tempers are short and our national discourse is rude and mean-spirited, I am determined to lead with love.

My holiday season/everyday wish for all of you, dear readers and friends, is that you keep showing up and trying in your life, whatever its challenges, wherever you fall on the timeline of cradle to grave.  To quote the poet Mary Oliver: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I hope it will be something amazing.  I know it can be.

Now here, without further ado, in less than 140 (to 280) characters because I know how busy you are and you know I couldn’t resist, is the Kania family holiday news for 2017, Twitter-style.

Quantified Comms @QuantComms  What is #authenticity, and why is it important? #leadership #communication http://bit.ly/2z2Zjix    Ask Nate Kania, he works here:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/natekania/  HUGE data analytics.  BEST DATA IN THE UNIVERSE.  U WILL COMMUNICATE BETTER THAN ANY1 ELSE EVER!!

Austin Rowing Club @AustinRowing   Is there a prettier boathouse than @WallerCreekBH?  Nate says NO.  #oldrowersneverdie_theycoach #plustheresabar

Tufts University @ Tufts University  Lucy Kania graduates May ’17, Drama maj, English minor. Phi Beta K, Summa, big class prize, musical theater president, yada yada.  SAD.

Noble and Greenough @Noble_Greenough  We are pleased to announce Lucy Kania is our 2017-18 teaching fellow in costume design.  #shoppingforaliving #lucykaniadesigns.com
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Scripps College @scrippscollege   78 and sunny.  AGAIN.  Wish u were here. #SoCalcollege  #Miainparadise

Scripps College @scrippscollege  Meet Admissions Ambassador Mia Kania  ’20, Environmental Analysis major, Music minor, a cappella singer.  Hobbies include knit-flixing, word games, Cheez-Its, Petfinder.

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FSG @ FSGtweets  Collective impact, shared value, systems change, diversity, equity & inclusion–Global Managing Director John Kania still fighting the good fight. fsg.org/people/john-kania  #socialchange #doesntgetanyeasier

Holly Kania @hollyhackkan  Pls don’t follow my twitter becuz I signed up on a whim & I never tweet & if u follow me I’ll feel like I have to

Holly Kania @hollyhackkan  & everyone knows the road to hell is paved with tweets.

Westley & Cordelia @going_to_the_dogs   Like the bumper sticker sez:  “Wag more, bark less.”

Holly Kania @hollyhackkan  Why r u still here?  Go frolic!

Heartfelt Holiday Wishes to You and Yours

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hither and Yon

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The past week and a half was a whirlwind.  If I could mark the map of my life with a GPS tracker, there would be a dizzy ribbon stretching from Massachusetts to New York and back and back again, unfurling out to the west coast, coiling from LA to Claremont and back home again.  I realize people travel like this for work all the time, but I am unused to it.  It feels like little molecules of my self are suspended along the way, unable to keep up with my body’s movements.  They’ll catch up eventually, but for a while they lurch in a drunken orbit around me, dissociated.

My travels have been family related, beginning with a visit to my dad in New York to catch up and check in.  Now that my divorced parents are in their eighties, new fissures emerge in our family narrative, and my role as daughter and caregiver spans that breach. Mom and Dad lead separate existences on either side of the Triborough Bridge, close enough that it seems a wasted opportunity to only visit one or the other, but far enough that the details, and the traffic, can be vexing. When your elderly parents are not married to one another, visiting them, caring for them, staying on top of their ups and downs is an a la carte gig.  Where do my own needs fall in this algebraic equation?  How do we solve for Holly?  The solution involves sharpening clarity about my boundaries, getting comfortable with the balance of what I can provide vs. what I cannot, acting from love instead of guilt, and developing skill at discerning the difference.  Also:  chocolate.  And: wine.

My dad is in good health, overall, which means in terms of mind-share, he’s been on the back burner for a couple of months while other family members have taken bigger swigs from my loving cup.  It was good to see him.  We had a couple of nice meals together:  a lunch of elegant salads at the French bistro across the corner from his apartment on 73rd street, and later, take-out Chinese food on tray tables in front of the Yankees-Astros game in his den/bedroom, walls chockful of artifacts from his travels to Asia back when my stepmother was still living.  I caught him on up on the kids’ comings and goings, we traded impressions of a recent family wedding weekend where we’d been seated at different tables both nights and hardly saw each other.  He seemed healthy and upbeat, although I wish he got more exercise.  Also, more variety in his diet of TV and online news.  Dad asked how Mom is doing.  They have recently struck up a phone correspondence, comparing notes on their three fifty-something children. He knows Mom’s partner of forty years died this past spring.  Dad lost both his mother and his wife in the past several years, so he has lived the brutal walk of grief.  He observed that Mom doesn’t sound like herself, which is funny to hear coming from him.  But it was nice of him to enquire; he knows a lot is on me. Mom has told me his perspective is reassuring, which I relay to him, passing a shuttle through a loom, weaving another line.

Sleepless and addled, my mother still feels her partner Jim’s May death like a punch to the gut.  She wonders when it will pass – if ever – and whether at 82 she has the drive to write another chapter.  She is isolated, rattling around in her own head like a loose part, pinging against the margins, constantly aware of her disrepair.  This is grief, we all tell her.  Give it time.  But at her age she wonders, how long will it take?  What portion of her remaining store must she earmark for suffering, then for rebuilding–selling a house, sorting through decades of belongings, perhaps moving to a new state, a more suitable community, one with handrails in the halls and dinner at five in the dining room (neither of which you need right now but you don’t know when you will, only that the day is closer this month than last).   I tried several times over the past few years to engage her and Jim in addressing this awful inevitability:  someone would be left grieving and alone. What was their plan?  He was building a big house of his own design, a gracious residence that I felt would be over-sized for a young family of five.  Jim was a gifted architect, and this was his last hurrah. They planned to move there from Mom’s more modest home in year or so when it was completed.  Jim was suffering from CPD.  At eighty-nine, his hearing was tenuous, his gait shuffled, he breathed shallowly, effortfully, as if he was sucking a thick milkshake through a straw.  I was concerned for them.   Was building this elaborate home a good idea, I asked again when they visited my house a year ago for Thanksgiving.  Mom told me they had his family’s backing for the ambitious venture.  After all, he was the one bearing the burden, financially, artistically, and as project supervisor.  But what about our backing on our mom’s behalf?  I worried she was forestalling decisions about her long-term situation that would affect our ability to be there for her when the need arose.   The question was never really put to us.  The salient unit at issue wasn’t mother and children, but mother and partner. Understandable.  Frustrating.  Complicated.

One of the threads weaving its way through my last week was to scoop up Mom from the service plaza just north of Mamaroneck on the Hutchinson Parkway and bring her to Massachusetts for a short visit.  I’d suggested it about a week or two ago when I knew I’d be in New York seeing Dad. Although it’s hard to rebound from parent to parent in such short order, the efficiency is undeniable.  Mom doesn’t like to travel.  With her tendency towards migraine headaches, it’s no longer practical for her to do a four-hour drive on her own.  Once up in Massachusetts, the hope was to get her some rest, a couple of good meals, dinner with my older brother who lives in Ipswich. If she felt up to it, we planned to tour a continuous care community that my sister-in-law Binni and I checked out over the summer on our reconnaissance tour of “adult prep schools.” Once Mom arrived at my house, her eyes brightened.  She chatted with Lucy at the kitchen table, and bonded with Lucy’s cat, a lap jumper who meows conversationally in a running commentary on feline philosophy. The dogs barked and wagged, annoyingly underfoot.  There’s life here: animals, conversation, cups of tea.  Yes, Mom assured me.  She wants to move to Massachusetts.  “It’s okay, mom, if you want to stay in Long Island,” I told her. “It’s okay if you don’t want to visit these places just yet.”  What we think we want and what feels right don’t always align. But she expressed certainty. She was here, after all, and couldn’t get back up our way until spring because she winters in Florida. “Let’s go visit Carleton Willard,” an assisted living community nearby, she said.  I was glad.  It’s hard, but we need to consider the possibilities.

I decided to drive her there via the back roads in Concord.  In October, Monument Street looks like a page torn from a tourism calendar, rolling vistas unfurling in red, green and gold.  The pavement winds charmingly between woods and farms, quintessential New England.  I wasn’t sure how to navigate to Carleton Willard coming from west of Bedford. I programmed it into Waze, and the app did that irritating thing where it plots the most circuitous route imaginable, but since you’re on unfamiliar ground, you hesitate to overrule. It took over a half an hour to get there when it should have been a twenty-minute drive at most.  As we pulled up the hill towards the main entrance, I could tell mom was already drained.  It’s a quirky facility:  the original revolutionary-era structure augmented by a low, flat brick 80’s addition on one side, and a tasteful, teal-colored 00’s shingle affair on the other.  The effect is rambling and wonky, attractive in its own way, nicely landscaped, but not architecturally cohesive.  Particularly not compared with the five thousand square foot, high-end home with formal courtyard and custom rounded moldings your long-time partner was building for your golden years.

After lunch in their new bistro ( the burger gets five stars–the carmelized onions were delicious), we got a tour, followed by a long sit-down with Carleton Willard’s masterful and empathic marketing director, Peggy.  She is soon to retire after over twenty years.  She could tell Mom was unnerved.  “Everyone always asks ‘why are all the people here so old?’” she reassured us. You couldn’t help but notice the walkers and wheelchairs maneuvering carefully, like city traffic, through the main corridor.  “I can promise you that almost no one who makes the decision to move to a community like ours does so because it’s what they’ve always dreamed of,” said Peggy.  “The reason you do it is sitting right here,” she gestured to me.  “Because you have to make a plan, for your family.” I appreciated this validation. A tidy balance of clear-eyed pragmatism on one hand, and compassionate salesmanship on the other:  nobody wants to admit they are at this life-stage, but nonetheless, this is where you are.  I get it.  Let me help. Peggy will be difficult to replace when she retires.

Despite Peggy’s best efforts, the surprisingly good food, the perfect location, I could tell something about the place stuck irritatingly for mom, like a burr on your pant leg.  There was a lack of fit she hesitated to express. She was willing to plop down her deposit for a spot on the wait list, box checked, duty done, but that would have belied her gut. Over tea back at home, I suggested perhaps we should check out another community, the one my sister-in-law and I felt would appeal to her the most after our summer touring – Fox Hill Village, a cooperative community that’s more formal and luxurious than Carleton Willard, the kind of place where men wear jackets and ties for dinner. Even the convenience store there was elegant.  Fox Hill also had a bit more zing, energetically.  Mom was open to it, even though we didn’t have an appointment and wouldn’t get the full download from Karen, their Peggy-counterpart.  We made a detour down there on Saturday, before delivering Mom to the friend who had come to drive her home.  Diane, the front-desk receptionist, walked us around. It wasn’t her job and she didn’t have to, a kindness more compelling than a color brochure.  An older gentleman noticed us and took obvious interest – my mother may be feeling frail and grief-thumped, but she has always been spectacularly pretty and is no less so for her current stress.  He joked loudly with staff members in an obvious gambit for Mom’s attention.  They bantered back, good-natured, playful.  There was a lively and generous mood to the place, not to mention the physical plant is drop-dead gorgeous and more in line with the aesthetic Mom and Jim preferred.  Something in her shifted.  She could picture herself there, imagine another chapter, in a pretty apartment with a little patio. She might try bridge again or join the hand bell choir.  There would be people to share meals with, her kids popping down for lunch or dinner. Maybe she’d even adopt a cat.  How we get there from here is overwhelming to think about, but the end result could be okay.  Maybe even good.  Possibly very good.

The next day, John went to visit his parents in Connecticut, Lucy was at work, and I had the house to myself.  It was Indian summer warm, so I took my laptop out to the porch, hoping to close out a novel chapter I’ve been wrestling with, one that refuses to end, just keeps spooling into another fragment like a Lernaean Hydra, growing new heads every time I try to cut one off.  Things got cooking and I stumbled onto an unexpectedly gristly plot twist, which is the fun part of writing.  When the land line rang, I ignored it – it could wait.  The only calls we ever get on the home phone anymore are telemarketers. Or one of our parents.  But I had just seen both my parents and John was with his.  Then my cell rang.  Hmmmm, some distant voice wondered in the back of my mind–should I get that?  I was scribbling a scene that takes place, appropriately enough, at the retirement home of the narrator’s father.  It made me laugh.  I ignored the phone.

Ten minutes later, my cell rang again, and since I had to pee anyway, I decided to check it.  Patty, my mom’s Long Island housekeeper slash friend slash caregiver.  Shit.

By Monday afternoon, I was down on Long Island by my mother’s bedside in the telemetry unit at the community hospital, where doctors were trying, with limited success, to diagnose the cause of her sudden onset of symptoms:  aphasia, nausea, light-headedness, confusion, high blood pressure.  Atrial fibrillation throwing off clots, leading to a series of TIAs? A small stroke?  Or just “a really bad migraine,” possibly brought on by stress?  Neither the range of options nor the lack of clarity inspired confidence.  Her pacemaker rules out MRI testing.  Her CAT scans looked normal, but the EEG showed definite left hemisphere glitches, we later found out.  For some reason, no one thought to download the data from her pacemaker, which would confirm or deny the presence of a-fib.  Or perhaps they weren’t able to, for some reason?  The logic of hospitals is perpetually murky to its subjects.

When I arrived, Mom’s eyes were cloudy and she looked at me as if from a distance.  She  ranged from coherent to garbled, sometimes making perfect sense, then lapsing into spoonerisms:  I had mightnares Laturday sight and I wouldn’t cake up. Her cellphone wallpaper (a benign white daisy on a black background) was undecipherable to her, making her think she couldn’t dial calls.  Her roommate cried out, “Help me, help me!”  Courtesy of Patty-the-housekeeper’s charm and extensive local connections, God bless her, we moved Mom to a private room, talked to doctors, did the best we could to understand her condition, which improved markedly with sleep, hydration and the promise of discharge.  By late Tuesday afternoon, she was back home, clear-eyed and articulate, if still a little foggy.  My brother Randy arrived from Ipswich to take over.  I drove home Wednesday.  I had Lucy’s debut show as a paid costume designer to see; I had to pack for my early Friday morning flight to California, get the house in order, retrieve a car from the shop.  Picking up the threads of my own life.

II.

On Friday by lunchtime, I was checking in to the Beverly Hilton, an “Oasis” room that was simultaneously hip and dated, with a sliding door leading out to a fountained interior courtyard that would be lovely, except for the cheesy artificial grass.  You feel the lurch, right, from the dimly lit Long Island hospital corridor, to the plastic glam of Beverly Hills?  I certainly did.  On Friday afternoon, I visited with my brother Welles’ wife Liz and their young kids while he, inconveniently, was on set in New York.  There was a flurry of stories and hide and seek, my four-year old niece Tess making me laugh out loud when she offered to help me wedge “that big booty” in the kids’ tiny pop-up circus tent for a game that I never quite understood (in which I had to growl like a bear from inside the tent while Tess and Sam disappeared outside).  Liz ordered take-out Ramen for the kids, and later take-out Italian for us.  John arrived from a business trip in San Francisco and we drove to Claremont after breakfast on Saturday, the Scripps College campus saturated with sunshine and roses, mountains rising aridly behind a backdrop of white stucco Spanish revival buildings with red tile roofs.  Mia was showering when we arrived, so we drafted into her dorm in the wake of another student. We wandered through the exquisite common spaces:  a vast terra-cotta tiled entry foyer with soaring ceilings and a grand staircase, the upholstered living room with its antique piano, a quaint interior courtyard with a stone-carved well in the center.  Standing on the courtyard lawn we considered the balcony above, trying to pinpoint the French doors to Mia’s second floor double.  One set of doors was festooned with laundry, hanging from the sage green shutters and black wrought iron railing.  I recognized Mia’s plaid shirts, a flowered dress, her red bath towels.  What a luxury of the desert college lifestyle.  Air-dried balcony laundry was not a feature of my New Jersey college years.

A second breakfast with coffee crackled with Mia’s animated recitation of her collegiate life:  classes about the environment and cities and music; acapella and play rehearsals; her job as an admissions tour “ambassador;” her study-abroad application.  To borrow a word from her girlhood friend Chessy, she seems “thrive-y,” vibrant and blooming.  After Mia left for her pre-show call, we checked in to the Doubletree and took a quick shopping trip to Trader Joe’s, stocking up on her favorite Luna bars and dried mango, getting a bottle of Pinot Grigio for the dorm fridge.  We delivered these to her room, leaving congratulatory flowers in a ceramic mug on her desk.  We took in both Saturday performances of “Cabaret,” in which Mia played several roles: a cabaret patron, a German-speaking train conductor, a Kit Kat club dancer.  The timeliness of the musical is disconcerting:  Germany’s slide into nationalism, from there to perverse nativism and racism — how easily evil roots when leaders demonize the “other” and good people look away or make excuses, many turning to escapism.  The parallel to our current political climate is chilling.  The performance, chosen at this time, means to provoke discussion, reflection, perhaps even action.

We grabbed dinner between shows with our daughter, still in full stage makeup, laboriously blinking enormous false eyelashes.  “Ugh,” she said.  “There’s something in my eye.” Dozens of bobby pins pin-curled her long hair close to her skull, better to fit under costume wigs.   She ordered steak as she always does, with béarnaise sauce and truffle fries.  I couldn’t stop marvelling at how beautiful she is, how full of life, so interesting and engaged, a woman coming in to her unique power.  She told us about the backstage drama, the challenges of updating the play while respecting history.  A Jewish friend in the cast was wounded by the revisionism; castmates rallied, outraged, to the young woman’s defense; tense conversations with the director ensued.  Mia’s college experience is exactly as it should be, I thought.  I miss her.

By Sunday morning at seven a.m., after logging in four hours of sleep at the Doubletree, we were back in LA, sitting on the tarmac, hoping to beat bad weather to Boston.  Our plane pitched and rolled precipitously just before landing, yanked out of our approach pattern by air traffic control because of a runway emergency involving a galley fire on an incoming aircraft. We landed at four.  By five-thirty, we were home.

Monday morning, I was still in transit, mentally and spiritually, so my class—the first time I’ve taught in ten days– felt a little disembodied, the opposite of what a teacher wants to transmit in a movement class.  But today, I felt drenched in sensation, the music washing over my skin and into my sinews, swirling in and among the students in a whirlpool of healing movement. I’d be lying to say that I am not greatly and deeply pleased to be back home.  I’m mindful, though, of that old bumper sticker:  “Wherever you go, here you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salty and Sweet

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Walking the trails out back  the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to sense subtler cues that the earth is folding in towards winter: a scent of ripeness on the verge of decay in the trees, the slight yellowing of pine needles before they drop, the occasional acorn plum gall on the path.  My kids used to call the galls “extraordinary berries,” before Google, when unanswered questions could linger in the mind and no imagined explanation was too outlandish.  With Google, I would have felt I should explain to them, at five and three years old, that the “extraordinary berries” were formed when the pupa of a gall wasp (Amphibolips quercusjuglans) burrows into an acorn cap and incubates there, forming a protective ball around itself.  They, in turn, would have felt they should understand, nodding, their eyes determined (Nate) or anxious (Lucy) to incorporate this esoterica into their worldview as they cradled the precious “berries” in their little palms, fingers grubby with dirt streaked by leaks from their juice boxes.     

A collector, Nate used to walk the woods ahead of me and his sisters with his head down, eyes sweeping the path for the telltale flashes of red.   A few weeks ago, I encountered an odd old fellow dressed head to toe in khaki cargo gear, pockets up his legs and across his chest, swinging his metal detector along the trail floor, earphones in.  I imagined each pocket cataloguing different metals he might have found: an old shell-casing, maybe a lost earring or ring, a zipper pull, a dog’s tag, a dropped key, a quarter.  That’s what Nate was like:  always on the lookout for a find, arriving home from our daily walk in the woods his pockets stuffed with “special” rocks or sticks, berries or feathers.  The Odd Fellow looked up as I drew near and gave me a kid-like grin.  “Find anything interesting?” I asked him.  It seemed a questionable choice to be out in nature with a metal detector clacking away, while the life of the woods thrums around you, unheard.  I feel the same way when I pass someone on the trail palavering on the cellphone.

The Odd Fellow removed a headphone plug from one ear and reached down to scratch my dog Westley between the shoulders.  “You’ll never believe what I found!” he said.  He showed me a nineteenth century Irish coin he’d dug up about fifty yards back, where the narrow trail intersected with an old cart path.  The coin dated to the 1880’s or so, he explained, when Irish immigrants in Boston were plentiful as acorns in October, and their money was readily accepted alongside the local currency of the day.  He was breathless at this stroke of luck, striking a vein of history six inches down, on a trail skirting the backyards of newly constructed mansions and mid-century deck houses in millennial suburbia.  “Go figure!” he said.

Yet I wasn’t that surprised: The woods near my home have a feeling of proximity to human society, our noisy vehicles, our litter, our cellular packets of bits and voices wafting on the air. Evidence of humankind’s continual presence out here is expected.

Last week I found myself walking a different trail, this time a perimeter path on an isolated private island in Maine I was visiting on a retreat for women writers called “The Salty Quill.”  It was a heavenly place, with ten or so women gratefully perched in a favorite alcove or patch of sun, scribbling away all the livelong day, greedily drinking in the quiet.  At mealtimes, our chef Nancy would ring the ship’s bell, and we’d scuttle out of our little corners, our eyes dazed from peering at screens or journals, blinking in the sunlight as we walked down the hillside from the main house with its sweeping views and expansive porches to the cozy “cookhouse” where we ate our meals.  I arrived mid-week when most of the other women were well established in the routine, and I wasn’t sure how to read the stillness at my first lunch.  It would have been easy to mistake the inwardness of my compatriots as coolness to a newcomer.  But like them, I didn’t come to the island for a party or group therapy. I came as a statement of commitment to my development as a writer; I came for the freedom from distraction; I came to jumpstart my stalled novel after a summer of emotional jolts. I wanted to give myself no other choice but to write.  I quickly caught the focused mood of my more experienced colleagues.  I pulled a bentwood chair into a patch of sun and wrote my way across the lawn that first afternoon, shifting my seat five or six feet every half hour as shadows moved over the grass.

Writers differ in how long they can dive deep into the world of their story or research before coming up for air. I once read that John Irving writes for eight hours daily without breaks.  I’m good for three hours max of immersion before my brain starts to skip like an old vinyl record and my legs itch to move.   So, at around 5:30 p.m. that first day, when the feeling that I just couldn’t sit a moment longer welled up in my gut like a rising tide, I headed back to the main house and pulled on my cross-trainers.  The lime green neon laces and orange logo squealed anachronously in the rustic woodiness of my shared room, timber clapboards and beams framing a high ceiling, windows looking across the 1900’s covered porch to the water.

“Are there any good walking trails on the island?”  I asked another writer.

“There’s one that goes all the way around.  There are buoys hanging from the trees as markers,” said one woman, Joy, or maybe Deb?  I was still working on names.

“Don’t be confused when you get to the rocks,” said another.  “Just barrel ahead and keep making right turns.”

This seems a pretty good set of directions for writing, actually.

The sun had lowered to eye level as I began the circuit, the air salty and cool.  I passed one retreatant seated on a fallen tree trunk, hand shielding her eyes as she looked across the water towards the sunset, an open journal on her lap. “I was planning to walk,” she told me.  “But this show is too good, and I’ve got a G&T,” she raised a mug jauntily in salute, “so I decided to just drink it all in and write instead.” I knew how she felt: thirsty for deeper currents.  We all had that yearning.

The trail roller-coastered down to a little cove, up through a forest of desiccated trunks, bony fingers of driftwood-like branches scratching the evening sky. I wondered what had happened here to kill the trees.  The trunks were upright, bleached out, but the understory was densely green.  An osprey nest cradled in the upturned palm of one tree.  Another roll of the path curled up, down, and up again through meadows thick with golden ferns.  I walked up over a rise and startled two deer on the hillside above me, not ten feet away.  I thought it might be a doe and her fawn, although my heart was tap-dancing so fast from their sudden leap into the brush that I couldn’t be sure.  Faded buoys hung like charms from tree limbs to mark the trail.  Who had come out here to place them, a caretaker, or a posse of family members from the clan that owns the island, a father and his small children dragging a sled of buoys, perhaps? The kids would have been distracted by the little caverns under the roots of trees, or the elaborate whorls on slabs of rock.

The quiet of this place was extravagant.  Yes, I heard the typical insects clicking at dusk, plants rustled in the breeze, waves lapped the rocks.  Below that hum was a steady silence, a sense that the matter is settled,  the plants here could grow and the wildlife could forage and hunt, fly or mate, undisturbed by the business of humanity.  It felt almost magically nourishing to me, not to strain as I do in the woods at home to catch the pulse of the natural world.  I walked the island trail twice a day.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

My time in the company of the other writers felt similarly expansive yet grounded.  Each night after Nancy had fed us some gloriously delicious dish that could have been gruel and we’d still have been grateful, except it was beef bourguignon or steamed lobster, we would follow the little beams of our flashlights back up to the big house, where we’d sit by the fire and read from our work.  I don’t super love to read my own writing aloud, but I’m learning how important it is to look up from the comfortable confines of my laptop and hear how others experience the quirksome world of my novel.  That word, quirksome, resonated for me as I listened to each woman read – individual voice and imagination revealed in her work, each preoccupation particular and salty.  Yet we all had so much in common:  motherhood, relationships, growing up. Loss. Magic. The fierce intelligence of women.  Each time someone finished reading, we’d sit appreciatively, the fire in the massive fireplace crackling and spitting.  A minute might pass before anyone spoke; you didn’t want to break the spell.  “Wow,” I’d think.  “That was good.”  I loved that I couldn’t always match the story to the writer’s persona as I’d come to know her over meals or idle chitchat on a break from working. It was like digging into a seven-layer dip; each new flavor spicier than the one before.

On those evenings, we were surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves lined with old books, clothbound volumes published in the 1920’s and 30’s and long since out of print, with titles like “Storm in a Teapot,” “Mr. Henderson Explains,” “A Woman Lost,” stories of a bygone era.  And yet each of them was the product of a particular human imagination.  We laughed, a little nervously, to think our efforts might end up similarly, on a dusty shelf, long forgotten.

If, that is, we ever manage to publish anything at all.

But we are a salty bunch of wenches, so I think we will.  I love this word, “salty.”  My daughter Mia and her friends use it all the time, as in “I was pretty salty not to get called on in class today, because I was hella prepared.”  It means to feel a kind of proud irritation.  It’s righteous.  I think about the line in scripture “You are the salt of the earth,” not the honey, or the fruity berries. The salt, the flavor.  I recall standing over countless pots of steaming soup or chili or mashed potatoes, holding out a spoonful for one of the kids to taste, asking “does it need more salt?”

The answer: yes.  Always.

I haven’t been out on the trails since I got home on Saturday.  John walked the dogs yesterday and today.   I’ll miss the salt air, the nearness of water, that island quiet, so deep and pure.

Maybe I’ll find a coin though, or a berry.  That’s something.

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McGee Island, Maine.  Thanks, Pam, for giving us the chance to dip our quills in salt.

 

 

 

 

#notokay

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I’ve been uncharacteristically wordless of late. I am taking a break from posting, instead working on a novel project, mostly plotting, stewing, and outlining. I have to confess an addiction has snuck into the empty space: I’ve become an avid consumer of satire. I don’t know how I would cope without the incisive wit of the likes of Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher, SNL. They can say it so much better than I; if irony were a superpower, they’d be the Avengers. And yet, as I feast at the trough of liberal outrage, I am deeply troubled by the chasm of mistrust, vitriol and judgment that so divides our experiences as Americans. We are countrymen and women, are we not?  After November 8, we are all going to have to make our peace and move forward together.

It doesn’t feel very likely we will be able to pull that off right now, does it?

My grandmother died just weeks before the 2012 election at the age of 106. She was a staunch Republican, and I recall our conversation late that summer about Barack Obama, whom she disliked enormously. She was troubled that I planned to vote for him. She thought he was “the worst” she had ever seen. I pressed her: Really? Worse than Nixon? Worse than Bill Clinton, whom she also disdained?  As I raised name after name, all the way back to Woodrow Wilson, a twinkle came into her eye.

“Politics has always been a dirty business,” she sighed. They are all liars and cheats, that’s what her 106 years had taught her.

There are the crooks you like, and crooks you don’t like, I guess.  Let’s take this as our conceit: they’re all crooked.  So do you want to vote for a crooked politician with a distinguished career in public service, or a crooked businessman with a history of bankruptcies and sexual assaults?  Hmmmm….

I’d like to tell myself the anger and discontent will die down. Although it won’t be pretty, we can survive a Trump presidency, in much the same way as we survived McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials, but hey, we’re still here. We can do better than survive with a Clinton presidency, because whatever your complaint about her may be, surely you cannot charge that she is under-prepared, unintelligent, inexperienced, or batshit cray.  Troglodyte Trump will trundle back to his gold-plated cave, dragging behind him a trail of slime and perhaps an unwilling beauty contestant (or two, or four – the number keeps going up). Back into his lair with him he’ll take Chris Christie, Rudy Guiliani, Steve Bannon, Roger Ailes and the rest of his collection of misfit misogynist toys. They are a nice bunch, aren’t they? An ex-wife once charged Steve Bannon with domestic abuse. Thrice-married Rudy Guiliani, lest we forget, cavorted with his mistress and used NYPD police details to keep their trysts under wraps. He announced his separation from his second wife at a press conference with her by his side before informing her—nice guy, right? Roger Ailes, as we know, was terminated by Fox News for sexual harassment of Gretchen Carlson, which one suspects is but the tip of that particular iceberg. Chris Christie seems comparatively restrained, reserving his bullying for the mayor of Fort Lee and his rush-hour constituents. It’s clear that Trump has built up a team of woman-hating Neanderthals for his campaign: like-minded thugs who see women as objects to be controlled, objectified, commoditized, and screwed. Imagine his cabinet. I shudder to think what kinds of legislation such a confederacy of chauvanists might concoct when it comes to women’s health and wellfare, no matter how hard Ivanka tries to convince Cosmo readers otherwise.  If Trump somehow prevails and gains the White House, maybe some loaded Russian mobster wants to buy up all our properties and we’ll see how Canada deals with an influx of liberals across its Southern border. (Justin Trudeau, we love you.)

You know I cannot turn the other cheek on Pussygate. Viewing the Trump-Bush tape was, to use Paul Ryan’s word, “sickening.” If you are a girl or woman, it’s almost laughable how recognizable, how defining, that kind of experience is in your life. I get a kick out of the heartfelt expressions of male outrage at Trump’s felonious sleaze when this kind of behavior has been going on since before Homo Erectus discovered fire.  For starters, Trump & Bush’s prurient ogling confirmed what every women has ever suspected about this sort of skeezy, objectifying guy: a gentleman to your face, perhaps, but behind your back, he’s assessing your body parts like a butcher presented with a fresh carcass. And how about that sniveling little weasel Billy Bush, pimping out Arianne Zucker for Trump’s amusement? Ewwwwww. Anyone who has been in her shoes—smile and look pretty for the boss, your ideas and skills are secondary—knows how humiliating it is. As for the “locker room talk,” it bears repeating that unsolicited sampling of lady parts is assault; that “even” kissing without consent is sexual aggression.  Period.

It bears noting that such sexual predation is not the exclusive purview of any one political party or ideology, nor of the political sphere — the Hollywood “casting couch” comes to mind as another pernicious example.  I know women doctors who were harrassed or assaulted during their residencies, likewise lawyers, business executives, teachers, the list goes on.  And on.

Let’s consider the indignation of our more sensitive men this past week: From Jeb Bush to Mitch McConnell, it seems every Republican politician has a beloved, “precious” daughter, sister, wife—imagine that– whom they are genteelly dismayed to think may be getting her hoo-ha or boobies grabbed without her consent.  As singer John Legend points out, “You don’t have to have daughters or granddaughters to find Trump’s comments repugnant. It’s an odd, unnecessary qualifier.” You just have to be a human being who values human dignity. Dudes: we don’t need your chivalry. We’ve been coping with this crap for millennia. What we need is for you to keep your freakin’ hands, tongues and other appendages to yourselves unless expressly invited to do otherwise. Oh, and equal pay for equal work would be good, too.

Shortly after the Pussygate tape broke last Saturday, Kelly Oxford, a writer and blogger with a large Twitter following posted this invitation:

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Ok, I’ll play:

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These are just the stories I could easily summarize in 140 characters.  Can you guess how many replies/retweets Kelly Oxford received by Saturday, the next day?  9.7 million. It’s up to 30 million just six days later, both in reply to her original tweet, and to the resulting hash tag: #notokay. Stories of women who were assaulted by uncles, “family friends,” coaches, teachers, old men on buses, subway riders, clients, bosses, delivery men, store clerks, security guards, upperclassmen, the list goes on and on and on. The abuses chronicled in response to Oxford’s tweet begin when girls were as young as three or four. So while I believe that most men are good, kind, and horny-but-respectful, there are too damn many who are not, Donald Trump among them.

I heard a commentator on an NPR radio program Monday, an African-American man from Tennessee, describe the inflammatory insanity of this election, and in particular, the hate speech that Mr. Trump seems to delight in chumming to his supporters, as “the last gasps of the old confederacy.” I hope he was right. To that, I would add the hope we are also witnessing–are you listening, girls?–the death throes of the Patriarchy.

Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy is unabashedly sexist. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the “stamina” to be president, he said over and over during the first debate. He may as well have said, “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a penis.” (And if she did, it would presumably be smaller and more inclined to premature eruptions than his manly spadroon, those tiny hands notwithstanding.) Newly released Trump television spots picture Clinton stumbling when her pneumonia was at its peak, while a voiceover starkly suggests she lacks “fortitude, strength or stamina” to be president. (Again, with the stamina.) The ad might as well say (cue alarmist soundtrack): “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the balls to be president.” Literally.

So, nothing against you guys. I have a fine, millennially feminist son, and a wonderful, respectful husband, both of whom I love dearly. I am the daughter of a father and the sister of two terrific brothers. I have several excellent nephews, and a male dog that is devoted to me. (Okay, so he’s neutered.)  I don’t want to cast aspersions on the entire male gender any more than I want epithets hurled at us sisters. But I have to say, the testosterone club has had its shot at governance for pretty much the bulk of recorded history, with mixed results.  It’s time to see what the ladies can do.  It may be the only hope we have for getting along again, once this wretched election is over.

 

 

 

Blue and Black, Part I

I wrote the piece below en route to Portland, Oregon last week for my Black Belt training as a Nia teacher. Believe you me, there will be a follow-up piece about that profound experience, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

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I’ve been blue since dropping Mia off at college in California. There’s a melancholy feeling to the early September light, a late-summer sense of things winding down that has suited my mood. Dog walks out in the drouistock_000015512688smallght-thirsty woods have been validating; leaves crackle drily overhead, the air is heavy, insects buzz hazily, their last song of summer. I come home from our evening walk and the house is silent. It’s a new kind of stillness, lacking the promise of a child rattling chattily home from school, hungry or grumpy or anxious or cheerful, the crunch of tires on the gravel driveway, backpack thumping on the mudroom floor, fridge door cracking open. Even though last year Mia was rarely home before 8 p.m., the anticipation of her return from school gave shape to the evening: walk the dogs, cook, do a little work, have a glass of wine or a cup of tea, connect with John over dinner, then Mia comes home. Those four words skip, childlike: Then, Mia comes home! Excising them from my daily vocabulary radically alters the rhythm of my days.

Often lately, my mind has ranged back through years-old memories of me and the kids reading stories, collecting leaves, visiting the animals at the community farm in Lincoln. Nate had so much energy, I used to tell him to run the circuit from the dishwasher through the dining room to the front door and back while I’d time him. “Am I faster yet?” he’d ask breathlessly, before tearing off for another lap. Lucy loved her arts and crafts; when we renovated our kitchen last year, they pulled up the ceramic tiles and found little piles of glitter from her projects all over the subfloor. Mia was obsessed with a book series about fairies and read voraciously. We’d sing and we’d go on walks and we’d take “car adventures”.  I’d pretend the car had a mind of its own and had decided to take us on a mystery tour: to the library at bedtime, or the ice cream stand up the road. “Car! What are you doing, car!!” they’d squeal. Sometimes, we’d just drive around playing I SPY. They’d press me to make up another story about “Diggy Doo and Cutty-Kut,” a dog and cat duo with magical powers. We’d tell riddles or play badminton. We’d sit on the porch after dinner and guess the color of the next car to drive by, and the evenings would slowly melt into twilight, and bath time, and John coming home. The quiet of three young children tucked into bed and asleep was precious. I feel disoriented by the stillness of my house without children.

Yesterday, I found myself wondering: “How can I top this?” I’m certain I won’t ever like my co-workers as much. People ask me how I’m doing, but they’re often uncomfortable if I’m honest with them: I’m fine, but I’m also grief stricken. I took a Nia class on Monday, and the last song in the routine was Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”. Are you kidding me? I used to sing it as a duet in college with my friend Harrison Miller. I know the lyrics by heart: We can’t return, we can only look/behind from where we came/And go round and round and round in the circle game. I cried like a baby, tears running down my cheeks onto the studio floor. I needed that. Every so often, with the very best of intentions, people want to talk me out of it. They tell me how freeing it is, not to worry over kids all the time. They say John and I can rediscover ourselves and each other, playing out a whole new, wonderful third act in our marriage. They say it’ll pass, I’ll be fine, it gets better, your children will always be your children, even if they are far from you. Well, of course. I know these things are true. But I resent it when people want to cheer me up: this sadness is my trophy, it’s my proof of a life lived with love and joy. (Okay, also some ill-temper.  Goes with the territory.)  I want to feel it, because it honors the choice I made to be a stay-at-home mom, and it celebrates the beauty of the family I helped to shape. I know people mean well, so of course, I smile, and I’m gracious, and thank them for their kind words.  I am appreciative. But I must insist: I’m still sad.

I have friends who’ve breezed right into the empty nest with nary a backwards glance, but I knew that wouldn’t be me. I anticipated this funk would come. So this summer I put a couple of projects in motion to give me a sense of purpose that might power my little boat through the doldrums. One was to apply for a yearlong writing class that will result (fingers crossed) in a full draft of a novel. If you helped me out in July by reading my chapters and letting me know your thoughts on which piece you liked better, thank you so much. Sorry that I ignored the majority of your opinions. I promise I’ll write both at some point. The class starts in late September, and although it scares the crap out of me for any number of reasons too neurotic to share but having to do with self-doubt, and fear, and perfectionism, I’m also excited. My characters are kids, and as we’ve established, I really like spending time with children.

The other commitment I made was to pursue my “Black Belt” Nia training in Portland, Oregon. The training is only offered once a year in the US, and I’m posting today from 37,000 feet as my flight crosses the Utah salt flats, bound for Portlandia. With me are three friends from Boston, Amy, Lisa and Kira. We’ve rented a snazzy corporate apartment (surprisingly affordable) and our plan is to try not to take ourselves too seriously, to dance, explore and learn all day, to come home to the apartment and laugh until we cry (or snort, or pee, whichever comes first). I hope our fellow students don’t find us terrifically obnoxious and that they sense our love for each other is inclusive of them as well.  I wasn’t feeling much about the trip except mild anxiety: I have a pinched nerve in my back, I put on about five pounds this summer from emotional eating (always my Achilles heel) so my fitness isn’t optimal, I didn’t make studying a priority, so the material from prior trainings is hazy, at least mentally. But this morning when the alarm went off, I felt truly excited for the first time. Who cares if I’m the worst person at remembering all the Nia lingo and concepts? What does it matter if I’m a little lumpier or less energetic than usual? So what if I don’t have a freakin’ clue how to write an entire novel, and my plot is currently kaleidescoping crazily between scenes, outcomes, and voices?

Here I am, at fifty-six, stepping into a new chapter and I have no fuckin’ idea, really, of where it will lead. I am grateful beyond words for the joy I’ve been privileged to know as a mom; for three amazing children whom I love and admire so much; for a husband who loves and encourages me; for students who support me; for a generous body that has given me everything–children, health, intelligence, pleasure, voice, dance; for friends who are willing to share a queen bed with me this week, because at night, I’m twitchier than a squirrel in acorn season. I am thankful to have always had within me a North Star sense of God, Love, Spirit–whatever you choose to call it.  I will eternally feel an invisible, umbilical tether to my kids, however independent they grow. I will continue to miss them, every day.

And I’ll build something new. And so it goes.