Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Club vs a Bad Book

My book club is happy for a lot of reasons, but what distinguishes us is we talk about the books. Yes, we learn what’s going on with our lives. Yes, we do things together. Yes, we eat food, drink wine, and share recipes. BUT we talk about the books, and we’ve been doing that for more than 20 years.

As soon as the book for the following month is decided upon, we used to race each other to reserve the book at the library. Over the years, that’s proven a problem: if we read the book too far in advance, we forget a lot of it by the time book club meets. (We’ve spent many book club evenings talking about “what’s-her-name” or “was-that-before-that-happened-or-after.”) Billy Collins, in his poem “Forgetfulness,” writes:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of
So we have to time finishing the book so we’re still fresh with it when we meet. But that has its own problems: what if the book is long or tedious and we run out of time? What if everyone else has the library book and it’s not available? So we play this little dance of balancing memory against opportunity. The dance just gets trickier with time.

Over the years, there have been many books we’ve all loved: Bel Canto, Seabiscuit, A Gentleman in Moscow. There are books someone didn’t like while someone else loved it. Book club is the perfect place where discussion actually changes our opinions. There are books no one liked, but there were no books everyone hated.

Until The Echo Maker.
The Echo Maker was unanimously and universally hated. It was long, repetitive, and tedious. The characters were unreal, unsympathetic, and boring. Characters repeated themselves endlessly, so that finishing the book was torture. What may have been an interesting exploration of self and the perception of self was positively excruciating. Only the sand hill cranes came off well.
Am I not being clear enough about this?

Astonishingly, the discussion was terrific. It’s amazing how hating something really enhances the memory! We remembered every hated detail. We knew names, we knew characters, we knew every ludicrous, plodding plot iteration.

One of our more recent experiments was to come to book club with a sentence from the book that impressed us. Mary offered her sentence: Karin, the sister in the book, is thinking back to a time with a former lover:
“Two years ago that month, she’d lain with this man in the pouring rain, naked in the sloppy riverbanks, licking his armpits like a kitten.” (page 329)

Do you see what I mean? Who, who, who would ever find that plausible? What kind of woman licks muddy armpits during sex in the rain? Could you finish an entire book like this?

During the course of our energetic discussion lampooning of the book, I related another hairy armpit story. A friend of mine had worked summers at A&W Root Beer. There were big vats of root beer with some sort of stirring contraption at the bottom. When it became jammed, they had to use a special tool to realign it. The manager got fed up with jimmying it, rolled up his sleeve, and stuck his arm to the bottom of the vat. It was a hot summer day, and his armpits were sweaty. When he pulled his arm out, root beer dripped from his armpit hairs.

I told you, we talk about the book.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

I am who I am because of Vietnam

I cried in public. Worse: I cried while speaking publicly. It surprised me. Why? Because I was crying over the Vietnam War.

It was only the second time I’d cried speaking in public. The first was at Sophie’s bat mitzvah, and I blubbered so badly I served as the benchmark Worst Crying Mother for many years of bar and bat mitzvah kids. But that moment was intensely personal, a life cycle milestone, a sense of time passing, and a sense of family history. A sense of optimism and loss, hopes and dreams.

And so, actually, was Vietnam.

We were all gathered to watch the opening excerpts of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War for public television. The speaker opened by asking the military members of the audience to stand, asking the Vietnam veterans to stand, asking those touched by veterans to stand. And then the program began.
There it was on the big screen, the same horrors in the jungle that had been on the T.V. news every night. Plus the things that had not been on the T.V. screen; the deceit and lies our government had told us that only came out afterwards. There were the marches, the protests, Kent State, the moratorium. There were interviews with Vietnamese people, with families whose sons never came home.

If you’re in your Third Third, you lived it, too. It was the most formative event of our First Third.

And when I rose to speak to the audience, I choked. It was incredibly embarrassing. Apparently, I still hadn’t recovered. Have any of us?

Because, I felt, we all needed to stand, not just the soldiers. The protesters, the people from Southeast Asia, the people still dying of land mines in Cambodia. The families split by the “generation gap.” The people who lost faith in government; the people who lost faith in generals. We were all injured by Vietnam.

When I was in London, I realized that war really happened there. Bombs fell, houses were destroyed, food was rationed. Whether you were on the front lines or on civilian rescue patrol, the war touched you.

Vietnam touched us. All of us. Bombs didn’t land on our homes, but they detonated in our lives.

I still have my black armband from the moratorium. I still remember watching the T.V., hoping my brother’s birth date wouldn’t be drawn “low” in the draft lottery. I still remember fights between “love it or leave its” and “peaceniks” right in our living room.
I still remember raising bail money for protesters, writing an essay for a friend’s conscientious objector application. I still remember my mother’s Another Mother for Peace stationery.

Later, I encountered returning vets, friends who’d gone to jail, men who came back from Canada. I visited the Vietnam Memorial. All I could see were the brothers and sons that never came home, and the broken, broken ones that did.

Many years later, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, I was astonished. I thought we’d all learned that lesson from Vietnam, that we didn’t mess with unwinnable wars. Even further, that we didn’t solve problems with bombs. And now, nearly 15 years later, we’re still recovering from that decision, from a government that lied to us about that, too.

But it’s different now. We can practically ignore this war. We have so many news channels, we can switch when the war comes on. We don’t see the same images; the war isn’t fought in our living room. Without a draft, we can safeguard our brothers and sons because “someone else” will do the fighting. As one friend put it, the news is about new prosthetics, not about whether we should be sending soldiers to be injured.

And yet, they’re still getting injured. They’re still dying. Families and hearts are being broken. Civilians are dying. Gains made are lost, “winning” is a meaningless concept. “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.”

There are just so many reasons why I cried in public over the Vietnam War.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Hair Rebellion

My hair has declared its independence from my head.

My hairdresser says, “Our hair changes texture over time,” but she’s being nice. My hair is in its Third Third, and it’s become a behavior problem.

My expectations are not unreasonable: I don’t expect to have cheerleader hair. You know, the hair that falls magically into place after the high school cheerleaders twirl and tumble. My hair snarls if I turn my head quickly. I’m used to that. And yes, I know if you look at my self-portraits, it looks like I’ve always had a wild head of hair. The color is deliberate. That’s not the problem.

The problem is the direction my hair has taken. As in, it aims away from my head instead of lying down on it. It has become very, very straight, with no bend or curve to match my head. Bangs stick out like porcupine quills. I look like Raggedy Ann. (Comparisons to Bozo not appreciated.) Observe.
So my hairdresser recommended a leave-in hair conditioner to “nourish” my hair. As with all things food, there’s a line somewhere between nourishment and obesity. My well-nourished hair got lazy and listless. It no longer flew off in all directions; it just laid itself out on the couch and declined to move. It hung from my head, flat and apathetic, as if it had been trapped in a bike helmet for two thirds of my life (with no intention – ever – of getting on a bike). It is the helmet.

The option of mechanical aids came up. While I may not, in fact, be a technological dinosaur when it comes to computers, I am a resoundingly inept dinosaur when it comes to … curling irons. I hold the hair up, look in the mirror, and proceed to burn the daylights out of my hands. My brain might correct for the reverse mirror image, but my motor skills don’t get the message. Too many welts and not enough motivation, and I abandoned the curling iron.

Which leaves my hair styling equipment of choice: electric rollers! Yes, me and Barbie. You put them in, wait a bit, and pull them out. Drab, flat, fly-away hair is transformed into bouncy, peppy, springy curls! Just seconds and you’re a Sandra Dee/Gidget/Donna Reed facsimile.
Since the flip went out somewhere in our First Third and even looking in the mirror you know the word is “dated,” you have to do something. You shake and shake your head till it’s a jumble of … hair.
I call this the “rumpled but smoldering” look. I actively sought this look in my 20s. I aspired to look as if I’d just jumped out of bed after sex.

Other people might just have called it “bed head.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Of Tea and Adirondack Chairs

About the tea thing. About why Happy Uterus Tea would even show up on my radar.

Tea is a symbol.

Tea is the Adirondack chair of my life. The Adirondack chair figured in an essay I read once years ago: a woman bought Adirondack chairs because she had visions of pouring lemonade, setting the glass on the wide arms, relaxing and enjoying life. I have that same fantasy, but in mine, I’m sitting and drinking tea.

The woman in the essay got rid of her Adirondack chairs years later, because she’d never sat in them.
I may not have Adirondack chairs, but I have a lot of tea paraphernalia. I have beautiful teacups, I have teaspoons, tea party place cards. I even have a penguin in a tuxedo who lifts the tea bag out of the cup after three minutes have passed.

My daughter and I had tea parties. She collected tiny tea sets. Lots of them. I’ve moved her tiny tea set collection several times during room relocations, carpet removal, carpet replacement. I know her tiny tea sets intimately. Much of the tea paraphernalia we collected together.

The beautiful teacups were a gift many years ago from a friend. I let them sit in the cabinet for years because they were the “good” teacups. They were waiting for special occasions while we drank regular, no-special-occasion tea from no-special-occasion mugs. Those teacups waited a long time … till I learned in my Third Third that life was meant to be enjoyed now and waiting is a misguided gamble.

The tea vision involves having women friends over to drink tea with me (and my teacups and my teaspoons and my penguin). That meant I needed a large enough teapot to fill many cups of tea. I searched and searched for one for years, and finally found one at a crafts fair in Massachusetts. It’s beautiful.
It’s the teapot I made the tea cozy for, the “tea yurt.”
And then I went to London, where people sit down with their tea no matter what. On Masterpiece, the characters are always offering each other tea for distress and trauma, illness and worry, and it works! In London, I tasted tea at Twinings and bought the most delicious Ginger and Sicilian Lemon “silky bag infusions” at Fortnum & Mason.

So this is what tea is: it’s a vision of a life of friends, of conversation, of quiet, of appreciation for now. Of special moments, of finding calm, of a daughter’s enchantment, of sharing in another culture. Of finding something beautiful, creating something new, of trying out new tastes.

In my Third Third, tea is way more than just worrying about all the peeing afterwards and whether I’m near a restroom. And what to do because everyone else drinks coffee.

This is the bigger Third Third question: Do I actually sit down and drink tea? Do I actually let myself enter that tea drinking mental space? (sigh…) I’m more like the woman in the essay not drinking lemonade in her Adirondack chair.

My Third Third is always a work in progress….

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Missing a Birthday

My mother would have been 92.
This was the first year I hadn’t bought her a birthday card since I can’t remember when. I’d always find one that had some forgetfulness joke to it. A woman in jogging clothes: “I run to stay in shape. I just don’t know where I end up.” Things like that.

I’d come across the card on some other errand, decide it was just right, and I’d save it up for her birthday.

I didn’t get a card this year.

I didn’t remind Sophie to phone Granny.

I didn’t phone either.

Many years ago, I learned a lot about loss and grief. I kept trying to get past a hole, to remedy it somehow. And then I realized that holes never go away; we just learn to live around them. Sometimes, I look around and I wonder how many holes are behind all the people I see.

The last two years, thoughts of my mother came in the form of emergency phone calls and emails, crises to handle and worries to calm. “Mom” meant doctors, going back into hospitals, rehab, walkers, physical therapy. It meant fighting battles, getting pissed off, evaluating care, strategizing. That “Mom” crowded out everything else. Finding a birthday card was just another tedious “to do.”

Nevertheless, when she died, it was like a shock wave passed over my world. But when you’ve lived 4,000 miles and two visits a year away for so long, after a while, the waves fade. They don’t reach to Alaska. I don’t brace myself when the phone rings anymore. Those crises are over. They were a distraction – a complication – from the real hole to come.

Something in me couldn’t let September 2nd pass unnoticed. Something in me thought of birthday cards. And on a sunny moment on our brand new back deck, I thought back to the back deck I grew up on, and I wish I could show my mother. I wish she could lie on my deck and soak in the warm sun, and I wouldn’t even yell at her that it was too much sun already.

I would tell my theater-loving mother that I managed to get non-scalped, affordable tickets to Hamilton, and the whole family was going, and I’d see her in New York in March. And she – the woman who knew and saw every Broadway play for the last 60 years – would ask, “What’s Hamilton?”

And now I will actually visit New York and not see my mother. My sisters tried it and didn’t know where to go when they first arrived. They stared at each other in the car, rootless. My mother’s hole is as big as Long Island, and we haven’t yet figured out how to negotiate it.

But when I think of a birthday and a card, it’s … a warm thought. It’s sad and it still comes with an impossible “I wish” attached to it, but it’s a warm thought. Pleasant even. Comforting. Lying on my back deck, buying a theater ticket, using her pot for soup, peeling a cucumber with her vegetable peeler – who would know they’d trigger so many good memories?

The road around a hole is paved with good memories. Only the good ones seem to linger. I let them in quietly, and they comfort me.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

How happy is your uterus?

I’ve said before that what I lack in artistic execution I have to make up for with imagination. So that’s why, when the rest of my Bricolage Group deals with the monthly challenge of “tea bags,” they make beautiful art out of the tea bag paper. The thinness of the paper, the way it absorbs brewed tea and various inks, and their experiments with the translucence yields gorgeous, colorful art.

I made tea.

Happy Uterus Tea, to be specific. This week’s New Thing.

It all started with the unruly Lady’s Mantle growing in the backyard and whether or not I was going to uproot it for the new deck going in. So I Googled Lady’s Mantle to see what it was good for (other than making the dew that collects in the leaves look like jewels).
Lady’s Mantle is good for Happy Uterus Tea: “Lady’s mantle is a powerful female herb for anytime during a woman’s reproductive life.” So, in our Third Thirds, that would mean it “reduces or eliminates hot flashes/night sweats, … frayed nerves, insomnia, sadness.” What’s not to like?

The recipe was pretty simple: I had the Lady’s Mantle, both leaves and flowers. I even had the raspberry leaves. On a trip to Fairbanks and the Farmers’ Market, I landed the lemon balm. I had to dry out all these cuttings, but that was pretty simple once I discovered that leaving them in a hot car on a sunny day works. Then I just occupied myself crumbling leaves into jars. And as long as I was crumbling leaves, I threw in some mint from my garden, too.
Once before I’d made tea bags out of coffee filters – that was another project for a different crazy idea – which I sewed into the right rectangular shape. But this was supposed to be Art. I needed some kind of Happy Uterus shape.

Uteruses (uteri?) are pretty unrecognizable as shapes. In fact, they look suspiciously like something else which I dare not mention after my previous scary experience of this blog becoming an Asian porn attraction.
So I tried several different shapes. Since they’d be soaking in hot water, I thought I could decorate them by sewing designs on them rather than painting.

I filled them with the dried leaves and sewed them shut. I made little tags and attached them with thread.

Is this Art? Or, the bigger question: Is my uterus happy?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Visiting Daughters Come ... and Go

I love being the mother of an adult daughter. Well, I love being her mother; it’s just that now, we’re in this stage, and I just realized: this stage – unlike the others – is permanent!

The adult daughter interacts with us. She doesn’t hide out in her room, she doesn’t spend all her time disappearing with friends. And while she interacts, she says interesting, intelligent, compassionate things. We’re treated like human beings; we’re not embarrassments or dinosaurs or targets to vent frustrations on. (Been there, felt that.) We even get compliments. She observes us, says nice things about us.

We are all lucky I’m in my Third Third. Here’s an example: She was running a marathon, and I knew she’d be seconds away from making her hoped-for time. Tim and I met her at the bottom of the last hill, and we ran alongside, running her up the hill, pushing her pace, calling encouragement. Along the way, she shouted, “Stop running me in!”

Previous, Second Third Barbara (to herself): “Oh, no! I see other people running friends in. I was just trying to be supportive. I hate that she’s always embarrassed by me.”

Third Third Barbara (to herself): “Let it be.”

Later, the adult daughter said, “I was so worried that I’d be disqualified for having you run me in, like it was some sort of assistance.”

“But,” I said, “the guide encouraged it, said it was fine as long as we didn’t get in the chute.”

“Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know that.”

This is how adults talk with each other!

The adult daughter compliments you on all your cooking. She grabs leftovers from the refrigerator and eats them again and again. The adult daughter makes plans with you for a trip to New York. She pores over genealogy information, asks for your maternal grandmother’s maiden name so she can search out more data. She meets you for lunch, loves the little kids’ entrance door you show her at the library because you know that is right up her alley. We play many hours of 5 Crowns on rainy nights.
The adult daughter never makes her bed, throws clothes every which way. The mother of the adult daughter makes the bed because that is her thing and she is so incredibly pleased that the adult daughter is home. The adult daughter finds a hole in her favorite running pants; the mother of the adult daughter mends it because she is good at that. The adult daughter thanks her effusively!
The adult daughter stays up very late, so the mother of the adult daughter stays up very late, too. They’re not really talking; the mother is just there, on the couch, reading nearby. It’s called “just being there,” and it was her whole principle in child-rearing and it’s there to be done again, so she does.

The only problem with the adult daughter? Adult daughters leave. They return home. The mother knows this, knows she gave her daughter wings, knows she’s soaring.

But when she leaves, that mother is so very, very sad.

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