A tribute to my mom, it’s been five years since her passing on Rosh Hashanna…NOW I can cry!! You’d be so proud of me.
This evening, while answering some interview questions from a guy named Sam McArdle, who is starting a website for Freelancers and Contractors, I somehow got into The Whole BNI Thing. It’s been hard for me to talk about this, but I’ve wanted to blog about this experience, so here goes.
Sam: What about your freelance business do you do best? The actual design work, communicating with clients, administrative aspect, etc…
Violet: I am always working on my administrative and project management skills. I am pretty good at communicating with clients, but sometimes my wimpy business radar and my need to be liked get in the way of being a better businessperson. If someone is needy, naturally I want to help them. I want to say yes to everything, and tell them I can fix all their problems, and that I can do it right away. But in fact some of their stress is just their stress, and maybe their favorite serotonin re-uptake inhibitor can’t even fix it. But I’m fascinated with people, and fall easily into the role of part shrink, part designer.
What am I best at? I’m a really good designer and illustrator, and cartoonist, and a really good writer. You’d be amazed at how little that seems to matter in some cases. I have excellent musical pitch, and I have good visual composition pitch, too. I can look at most communication art and tell you what’s wrong with it from an interactive and aesthetic standpoint. So I’m a good design teacher. When it’s something I’ve been deeply engaged with for hours and hours, though, I need a little time and distance to see it properly, from a variety of perspectives. I particularly enjoy illustration—I’ve been illustrating since I was a kid in front of the TV—and of course, writing. After being a cartoonist for many years, writing is liberating: You mean I don’t have to draw any pictures? Cool! I’m a fast, visually descriptive, copywriter—I think well on my feet. So that’s the stuff that thrills me.
I also like making do with what I’m given, as a kind of challenge; I’m the kind of person who isn’t a fantastic cook but can take a can of chickpeas and some other odds and ends and invent something really cool. (Don’t ask my son about this.)
I also need to ruminate on a project for a few days…I mean, really let it take form. This drives left-brained clients a little nuts. If I’m working with a real creative department, they get it. But when I’m working for a real estate agent or an insurance guy they can often miss the point. They don’t know what goes into it, and they expect some kind of placeholder—and placeholders are not what I do. Less visual thinkers are not able to differentiate between “good” and “bad” art…they just want something, and they want it now. I am spending more and more time making it clear to clients why a brochure can’t cost $45, or why I cannot use the 72-dpi logo they bought online for $99 on their printed business cards.
Sam: Could you give me a recent project you are particularly proud of – your best work?
Violet: Go here. I have a whole bunch of my “best work” in this video I did about branding. And the video itself isn’t bad, either, though I need to fix the music to fade out. Nothing is ever really “finished,” it could always be better. I deliver it on time, but I end up playing with my own version of it forever. Anyway, I am really enjoying doing presentations in Keynote lately. These also output well in Powerpoint.
The Air-Sun Awnings Website worked out well, I think. As for writing, I have some very nice copy up here. Oh! And the biggest iPhone app I’ve designed so far is here. These projects took time, but they were for clients that really appreciated the work that went into them. I am also enclosing a comic I like from when I syndicated Ask Aunt Violet. As a body of work, I am probably most proud of Ask Aunt Violet.
Sam: Could you give me a recent project you struggled with for some reason or another and comment why it gave you so much trouble?
Violet: Why I thought you’d never ask. We Jewish girls from Queens so hate to complain, you know. The project was having joined a BNI group, which is essentially a business networking luncheon that you go to once a week. At one point I thought, “Hmmm. Therapy or BNI?” I picked BNI. I decided what I needed most was to work on my business skills, and I learned a lot from being in BNI for three years.
The way BNI is designed, there is one person representing each profession: a realtor, a mortgage broker, an insurance broker, an interior designer, a chiropractor, an estate planning lawyer. It’s a kind of simulated village, with its nice, small town aspects and its creepy underbelly as well—for at the root of every BNI is the corporation that owns it. Everyone, from the top down, is in it to make money, of course, which is fine. But inevitably, the BNI chapter favors certain people—the ones that really drink the BNI Kool-Aid and volunteer a lot of their time. Yes, I said volunteer, and yes, this is a corporation.
The idea behind BNI is “Givers Gain,” i.e., if you give out a lot of referrals to other business people, they will give referrals to you. I did my job admirably, recommending everyone I had real confidence in. And I got plenty of referrals, too. If I didn’t like a vendor, though, I certainly didn’t recommend them to anyone. If I wasn’t crazy about them, it was generally because they had treated me as if I were special in the BNI meeting, but when I called on them between meetings they gave me no special treatment at all, which made them seem untrustworthy to me. However, I offered all BNI members one free, overflowing hour of creative consultation, and a rate that was $10 off per hour.
The realtors are the Big Cheeses of these BNI groups—they often start them—and I had done a lot of work for realtors before I ever even heard of BNI. This BNI’s realtor was interested in an e-newsletter. She asked me to “work one up.” She asked me a few times, actually, before it dawned on me that she actually, seriously wanted me to make her a sample newsletter for free, on spec. [For info on not doing spec work, go here]. I finally found a little time to do this, and rather than say, “I don’t work on spec,” like I should have, I mocked up a gorgeous e-newsletter for her.
This was a challenge, but a rather enjoyable one for me. Her logo and other graphics were very unprofessional-looking. Flat Crayola green and red spot colors appeared to be stamped all over a field of lavender lettering, embellished by a pointless Photoshop-happy halo of fuzzy white—all sitting on that hackneyed photo of San Francisco taken from Alamo Square. (You know, the one with the City skyline rising up behind the Victorians?) And to make it worse, the skyline was inexplicably outlined in black. In other words, her existing branding was atrocious. But I did what I do best, which is take messes and make gorgeous graphics out of them, and I was quite proud of this one.
So she said, “That’s not bad.”
At which point I should have billed her.
Next, she and I had a 2 1/2 hour meeting in my studio so we could look at her existing newsletter—which turned out to be through her costly subscription to a glum-looking realtor marketing website which you can’t access on a Mac. In 2010! I had no idea such a lame thing still existed. So I knew I would have to use her computers to work on it.
I was disappointed but undaunted by the prospect of using Windows. I had actually taught college Photoshop and Illustrator classes in Windows, and had used it for on-site copywriting jobs. So I said, “Fine, I’ll come to your office and work on it there, it’ll be nice to get out of the trailer on a Friday.”
The following Friday I went to her tiny, cluttered office, her harried young assistant peeping out from behind a megalopolis of papers, and spent the afternoon grinding away at an ancient, overcrowded beige Microsoft Vista (or whatever) behemoth with at least 8 windows running along the bottom that I was afraid to touch. I worked patiently, only allowing myself to scream when I went out to feed the parking meter. I spent two hours spoon-feeding her branding and my editing into the realtor-marketing website’s clumsy Applephobic e-newsletter interface.
It took forever for it to digest anything, when it wasn’t cheesing up, but I stayed calm. Her instructions for where I was to obtain articles to use as content were vague at best—and brazenly dismissive of that little detail, copyright infringement—but I parsed out what it seemed like she wanted, and rewrote a bunch of existing online articles so they wouldn’t appear plagarized. Finally, I cobbled together a finished newsletter of some kind—not quite the ingenue I’d drawn up on my Mac, but I did the best I could with what I had. It was a fait accompli, and I bid her a great weekend and scurried back to my Mac in my chalk-wheeled Toyota.
But when I checked my messages, I heard she’d left me a message that said her newsletter “didn’t look any different from before.” Hmmm. While I was working, I had noticed two newsletter templates, so I called her right away and left her a message that said, “I think you’re looking at the wrong newsletter template. Try the other one.” She never called back.
I mean, really never. Week after week, I’d see her at the BNI lunch and try to explain the problem, asking her when she wanted me to come fix it for her [for free]. She gave me excuses weekly. I didn’t bill her because I was afraid to—I was scared of her because she was the chapter’s founder and realtor.
Finally, after several months of waiting to meet with her, I billed her for only two hours (so far, I’d worked six: two on the mockup, two consulting in my office and two tearing my hair out in her office), beginning with a note apologizing, of all things. I thought this was fair, I whimpered. If you need me to finish this up I’ll be happy to finish it up for you for no extra charge, I whined. She completely ignored me, while I was attended to by automated replies generated by one of her beige plastic boxes.
Next thing you know, she became President of my BNI! And guess what? All of a sudden they “opened up my category.” This is how they get away with not refunding you the rest of the year’s dues. Which is BNI-ese for dumping me. It’s like, if you’re married and your partner doesn’t say, I want a divorce, but rather, You can still be married to me, but I am going to open up your category, i.e. look for another wife. I didn’t even know that was possible without a warning unless you maybe forked someone to death in your BNI, or maybe stole money from the chapter treasury. I’d adored my BNI chapter, treating it with reverence, touting its usefulness to my friends and colleagues. I felt like the guy in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man: As far as I knew, everything was fine…and then suddenly twenty-six people decided they didn’t want to have lunch with me.
In a subsequent poison pen letter (“take a chill pill…” she begins, before defaming my character to a small crowd of high-ranking BNI officials), she took issue with “my high prices,” which is interesting, not only because of the insanely high price of real estate in my neck of the woods ($700,000+ for a little two-bedroom, one bath), but because she never paid me a cent—and, in fact, my prices, for a designer, are very much on the moderate side, especially for BNI members. I mentally went over every single other transaction from BNI, and no one had complained . I called a few of them to make sure they were happy with my services. I looked up standard rates in the Graphic Artist’s Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines and checked design websites that listed prices, to confirm that my prices were well within the moderate price range for small businesses.
So one might say the challenge for me is that I’m not very good at business politics. I keep thinking everyone is my friend. I’m gullible that way—it’s genetic; my mother was very much that way too. But the whole thing makes me ever more determined. When my graphic novel is finished, they’ll hear me in the car on the way to their BNI meeting, being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
All righty. I can now step up to the dinner plate and post a recipe that puts my chocolate where my mouth is, and hopefully where your mouth will be soon. Move over, Patty’s Newsletter. Finally, after about five years, I now have a low-sugar, low-fat, low-calorie answer to your Twinkie Malt.
For those of you who are not familiar with Patty’s Neighborhood Newsletter, let’s just say that on THAT day of the month—ladies, you know what I mean—the day we receive our Patty’s Neighborhood Newsletter—I breathe a sigh of relief, as once again I am decidedly reassured that I am not eating as badly as I thought. Go ahead, join Patty’s Neighborhood Newsletter yourself. I actually kind of like Patty, not only because I have gotten a lot of mileage out of her recipes (not to mention her awesome Cousin Marie), but she is a resourceful, Midwestern woman with a mind of her own, who has not yet quoted Sarah Palin on her blog.
Just for fun, here’s a recipe from the latest Newsletter, in case you haven’t yet had your little dose of sweetness today:
Chocolate-Chocolate Cake by Patty
1 box chocolate cake mix
1 bag of chocolate chips
1 jar of marshmallow cream, or 1 bag of marshmallows
Follow directions on cake mix
Stir in half bag of chocolate chips
Pour into greased 9×13 cake pan
Spoon marshmallow on top of cake batter
Sprinkle the rest of the chocolate chips on top
Bake in oven, (350 degrees), cool and oh so good and Yummy!!
How many calories do you think is in that? And how many people who make that, do you think, are seriously toasted when this suddenly seems like a good idea? And how many of those people will end up either 1. Eating the ingredients directly out of the box/bag/jar or 2. Stop at only one “serving?” And, come to think of it, this dish has only three ingredients (cake, chocolate chips, marshmallow fluff) so I was wondering if Michael Pollan would approve.
Willie Nelson would approve.
You know, I think I just figured something out about Cousin Marie.
OK, well, if you have a craving for that cake up there, maybe you should just go for it. However, perhaps you ought to try my shake first. It really satisfies even the most decadent taste for chocolate, and tops out at 300 calories. If you eat like a normal person (and trust me, I don’t) you might want to share it with a friend. But in Leschen Brothers’ Luncheonette in Brooklyn, we always served the milkshakes with the extra in the can…to me, that’s just part of having a milkshake. And the whole thing is still 300 calories.
Aunt Violet’s Low Sugar 300-Calorie Dark Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Milkshake
[Also delicious divided into 2–3 portions, frozen in paper cups.]
10 oz. fat-free milk or vanilla coconut milk (90 cal.)
2 heaping tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder (40 cal.)
2–3 tsps. fine-grained vanilla sugar* (60 cal.) OR
1 oz. vanilla (or other flavor) Italian soda syrup (90 cal.)
3–4 packets Stevia natural sweetener (I use “Truvia.” I think it tastes less like licorice than other stevia products I’ve tried)
10 large ice cubes
3/4 oz. (or so) Belgian 70% (or greater) chocolate bar (80-120 cal.)
Fill a blender container that has ice-crushing blades (most of them do now) with everything except the chocolate bar. Blend on high. After 10 seconds or so, or use a spatula to make sure no powders are sticking to the sides. Then add the chocolate bar. Fit cover on blender tightly and blend again on high, looking and listening carefully to make sure the chocolate is broken up but without making the shake too thin. Vary the buttons once or twice or shake the container a couple times to make sure to get rid of lumps. Pour into a tall glass and eat, if possible, with a stroon.
What’s a stroon? Well, you know, there’s a restaurant in Aunt Violet’s Neighborhood called Spork, which is a pretty good restaurant, actually, in a building that was a KFC for decades. You know the little combination forky-spoon that comes in the packet with the moist towelette and the napkin? Well, it’s called a spork.
A stroon is the straw with a little spoon on the end that they serve Icees with at the 7/11. You can steal some next time you go to any store where they sell Icees and gasoline.
Well that about does it for now, folks. I’ve procrastinated enough. I have to go do my taxes now. Hmmm…I’m pretty sure I have a box of cake mix around here somewhere…
*Oh, I almost forgot. Vanilla Sugar: Cut up a vanilla bean and tuck the pieces into a sugar bowl filled with Superfine Baking Sugar. This sugar is also nice because it dissolves fairly quickly, and every time you walk by the sugar bowl you can lift up the lid and smell the deliciousness of that fresh, natural vanilla. Yummy!
Posted in Uncategorized | Tags: Ask Aunt Violet, Aunt Violet Productions, chocolate, Chocolate chocolate Milkshake, Cookbook editing, Cookbooks, Cooking, Diet, Food Copywriter, Food Copywriting, Food Illustration, Graphic Design, Humor, low-fat, Low-fat milkshake, Low-sugar, Milk Shake, Milkshake, Patty's Neighborhood, Recipe Blogs, Recipes
My mother was born in St. Louis just before New Year’s, 1920, to Bessie Grossman from Ukraine and Hyman Mandel, from Lithuania, under unusual circumstances. Not the usual unusual circumstances: it wasn’t that her family lacked money. Her father was an educated man who became a successful plumber in the New World. It was a time of hope and prosperity, but not in her house: on Passover, her parents would be taken from her and her siblings: Mildred, 2; Rena, 5; Iola, 8 and Sydney, 11.
My mother, Selma, was three months old.
Selma Anne Mandel was taken into the home of an Italian woman whose name we do not know; a woman who wet-nursed her, providing what her mother couldn’t. Her Italian mother loved Baby Selma so much, she kidnapped her and took her to Florida; the authorities had to go after them to peel them apart. When my mother was brought to the St. Louis Orthodox Jewish Children’s Home, they said she had a speech impediment, but we think it was an Italian accent. My mother always said that was why she made such great veal parmagiana.
So, at three, Selma lost a mother a second time. At that time, they felt a Jewish child needed to be raised Jewish, and couldn’t stay in a Catholic home.
What I know about The Children’s Home was that they taught her to walk like a lady with a book on her head, and they fed her evil gray vegetables she hated, especially eggplant. To annoy her, all you had to do was mention eggplant at the dinner table in our house. But many of her housemothers were kind. The Home was a cultured environment, and she was able to go to the musical theatre and operetta. In fact, a young British actor who’d been performing nearby once bought her an ice-cream cone; his name was Archie Leach, otherwise known as Cary Grant.
Although my mother was only allowed to have one doll, her sisters Rena and Iola were there to keep her company. Her sister Mildred lived with her grandparents, who she saw often.
My mother delighted in telling Ya-Ya Sisterhood-style stories of the escapades she had with her cousins The Gold Girls. Many cousins were like siblings to her, because she was raised by everyone in her mother’s family. She loved all of them her whole life, particularly the glamorous Mildred, Loretta, Beverly, and Farilyn Gold; Harold Gold, and her cousins Gene and Eileen, who became Debbie Reynold’s dress designer in Hollywood. She was so proud of that. In fact, in her last days, she kept thinking my sister was her sister Mildred and that I was Eileen.
Selma was taller and had a more colorful personality than most girls. Everyone tells me how glamorous she was, but she felt like a geek playing the cello in the school orchestra. However, she blossomed into a woman with outstanding, um, assets, and legs that made Betty Grable look dumpy. And inside, she was full of love and enthusiasm: for art, for books, for clothes, for hats; for shoes, for theatre, for the movies — but most of all, for music. Her love came pouring out through music.
As my cousin Patty wrote to me this week:
Aunt Selma was a beautiful woman. She was always upbeat and had great style. My fondest recent memory of her was as she went upstairs in her auto-chair, she was waving to me and singing Give My Regards to Broadway.
My mother left The Home at 16, and struck out on her own, working as a salesgirl in department stores in St. Louis, then living with her sister Iola, who was a fashion illustrator in Chicago. Then she moved to the Deep South. It was the early 1940s. It wasn’t easy for a Jewish woman out on her own in The South those days; she’d get thrown out of rooming houses as soon as they found out she was Jewish.
In 1943, she was a secretary for the Navy in Jacksonville, Florida, and singing for the USO. One night she was performing for Jewish soldiers at a Rosh Hashanna dance. The soldiers wanted her to sing My Yiddishe Mama, a popular Jewish song at the time. But she didn’t want to sing a sad song; she wanted to sing something uplifting. The soldiers were giving her a hard time. My mother was so kindhearted, she didn’t know what to do. Finally, a tall, dark and handsome stranger in uniform came out of the crowd and onto the stage, took over the microphone and said, “Let this pretty lady sing whatever she wants, it’s her show.” They all quieted down as he left the stage and disappeared into the crowd.
That man was my father, and my mother’s life took a turn for the best.
My father, previously known as “Morty” or “Mutty” as his mother called him, was entranced. When they met again at a dance the following night, he told her his name was “Monty.” A great love affair, a love that was to last more than 65 years, began.
He called his mother, who he’d told my mother was a very fancy New York lady. “I’m engaged, Ma, you wanna meet Selma?” He put my mother on the phone. My midwestern mother expected high New York society, but she got Grandma Rose. “Selma, how’s by you? Mutty says he wants you should marry him.”
And so my very midwestern mother married my very Brooklyn father. He was shipped to India, she was shipped to 499 Ocean Parkway. She was like a Chinese bride, living with her in-laws in an alien apartment; she hadn’t had anyone to call Mom since she was three! She also acquired three brothers-in-law, Artie, Howie and Jackie, who was a little boy at the time.
Although my mother always had one foot in St. Louis, she became as close to her sisters-in-law Ettie and Sylvia as anyone could be to any sister. And who wouldn’t love this trio of fabulous babes? Among them they had all the heart, brains, and beauty Brooklyn could bear. They opened their hearts to my mother and my mother made NYC her home. I never heard quarreling or back-stabbing. I learned love, compassion, tolerance, and how to tell a good story from my mother and her sisters-in-law.
And when Uncle Jackie, my dad’s kid brother, grew up and was in the army, my mother suggested her little cousin Vickie in Arkansas write to him, and they got married — making my mother’s cousin Vickie the fourth fabulous Leschen sister-in-law.
Did you know my mother was Miss Internal Revenue? In Brooklyn, she got a job for the IRS, and her boss was apparently quite impressed with her. But when he started to get fresh, my mother took off her Miss Internal Revenue sash. “I don’t care if I have to give up the crown, I am a happily married woman with a husband overseas!” she announced, proudly.
My mother didn’t know how to cook, she didn’t have a mother to teach her. The first time Grandma taught my mother how to make chicken soup, my mother strained the soup down the drain and left the limp chicken and exhausted parsnips in the pot. She had to learn everything about being a mom and a wife — she had no role models, well, except for Grandma, Sylvia, Ettie, and I Love Lucy. In fact I used to confuse my mother with that other wacky redhead, Lucille Ball, because they looked so much alike.
My parents had my sister Gloria exactly 9 months after my dad returned from the war, on the same day of September on which she just left us, the 25th.
They lived in a tiny walk-up on Pacific Street, where they befriended a couple from Cuba and Jamaica, Sio and Oswald. She taught them how to live in America. Sio had a son, so in return she helped her learn to be a mom, and they become lifelong friends. They had us over every single Christmas day so we wouldn’t have to eat Chinese food on Christmas like other Jews. I was fascinated with them.
You see, my mother loved people from all different cultures. She knew what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land. My mother had few acquaintances…if you were acquainted with my mother, you were her friend. She just couldn’t be phony, it just wasn’t in her. My mother loved showing people how to shine in a new world. Where other families went to an amusement park, my family went to Idlewild International Airport to watch Italian families cry and greet one another as they got off the planes. And she always wanted to find the planes that came in from St. Louis, just in case she knew anyone.
In the fifties, my parents and sister moved from Pacific St. to Bell Park, a paradise where my mother would live, as it turned out, for the rest of her life.
My mother set high standards for herself and her family. Because having a nuclear family was something she’d never had, she needed to prove she could do it. And of course it was a time when everyone had to be beautiful like Donna Reed and practical like June Cleaver. My mother was both, but she was also quirky. When she put up stylish modern curtain panels, the neighbors didn’t get her artsiness; when she listened to the opera, lowbrow neighbors complained. She wanted a group of artistic, fun people to hang out with, so she started the Bell Park Choral Group. If she saw somebody washing their car and singing, she would walk up to them: “Do you like to sing? Why don’t you join our choral group?” And one by one she formed a choral group who became lifelong friends. She was also active with the Queens Village Players, putting on shows so they could build new schools for their burgeoning families.
I have no idea how my mother did all she did. I work at home and can hardly defrost at the end of the day.
Right after they moved to the duplex on Springfield Blvd, they had me. With two children, she worked, first at home selling sweaters, then in department stores, later as a transcribing typist for the Probation Department at the Queens County Court. She had the Choral Group, the Queens Village Players, Bell Park politics, being a good wife, whooping it up with an entourage of friends that partied every weekend and went up to the Catskills for more partying on a regular basis; weekend BBQs at “Leschen Park” in Smithtown or in Canarsie with my very missed Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Artie; visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Brooklyn—and she still took the time to make our Halloween costumes from stuff around the house. They took my sister and I on long, historical road trips, and trips to bungalow colonies in the Catskills.
And when my mother served dinner, we always had an appetizer, fresh rye bread from the Pettifour Bakeshop, a salad, a vegetable, a starch, a protein and a dessert. The first time I had my first boyfriend over, I was horrified as she insisted we serve him ketchup out of a little dish. And she did it with pancake makeup, complicated underwear, a glamorous, whimsical mole on her cheek, and matching costume jewelry, belt, scarf, hat and bag. She wouldn’t mail a letter without lipstick on.
And come to thnk of it, neither will I.
But she was far from superficial. My mother was fascinated by the intricacies and infinite complications of peoples’ lives, and she was there for anyone who, in her words, “had problems.” Unlike many who succeed against the tide, she never, ever blamed people for not being able to rise above their circumstances. She was a lover of civil rights, and she always stood up for the downtrodden. She knew how hard life was, and that not everyone could pull themselves up by the bootstraps. She knew that not everyone HAD bootstraps. She opened her heart and her home to many — a young, mentally-disabled cousin and his sweet, devoted wife, having them over to dinner again and again; my teenage cousin Esther, her sister Iola’s daughter, for almost a year; anyone in the neighborhood who “had problems” — and for years she took the train to St. Louis to see her relatives and make sure her sister Iola was taken care of.
“I don’t say this about most people,” said Aunt Ettie, “but she never said a bad word about anybody.” Many people told me that this week, including my dad. She taught me never to look down on anybody, either. My mother knew there was always more than meets the eye.
And of course, my mother loved to SING! There isn’t a member of my family or a close friend of my mother’s who hasn’t had her sing at one of their weddings or bar mitzvahs. As if they could prevent it! My mother would literally sing at the drop of a hat. She sang over the phone for many of my friends in California. And she had a beautiful voice! I have videos of my mother singing only one year ago, sitting at the dining-room table with my father, dancing in her chair and hamming it up to Show Tunes, Klezmer — which my father loves so much — and Christmastime in Hollis Queens by Run DMC! My mother loved to sing and dance, and she sang and danced to show tunes with a senior group that performed for schools and nursing homes over 200 times. This is something I only learned the true value of when my mother herself had to suffer a couple of awkward months in rehab last fall. And wouldn’t you know it, she went in squirming but when she left, she’d made friends with everyone, and everyone adored her.
“At first, I resisted everything,” she said to me later, when she was sprung. “But I learned to just play the game. The people that work here are just frustrated with their jobs, and I found that if you just observe them, you can learn a lot. It’s very interesting. Now when someone new shows up, I tell them not to fight so much; it’s better not to waste the energy.”
Selma, 88, enjoying Halloween festivities last year at Little Neck Nursing Home.
Wow. How enlightened was that? My mother was a Buddhist and she didn’t even know it. “I’m still doing that Yoga exercise you taught me,” she’d say, years after I had forgotten it myself. In fact, I was very proud of how she continued to learn and grow and read as much as she could, even up to about a year ago. We’d pick out Netflix movies over the phone. My mother was more than open-minded, and she was smart as a whip.
When my mother was in the ICU last April, we didn’t think she’d make it. I waited ’til my father and sister left, and sang her Sunrise, Sunset softly as I tried to contain the big tears running down my cheeks. But she made it! The next day, she was weak, but she was listening to a radio playing nearby, playing the song Lean on Me. I started singing along. It was a theme that my son Liam and I sang together often, arms around each other, swaying back and fourth—and she loved me to sing with her. So the next day I brought in the words on my computer, set it in her lap, and she and Gloria and I had a singalong. The nurses and other patients loved it; they thought she was adorable.
My sister took such great care of my mother — and my father. For every birthday, every holiday, bringing them perfectly-wrapped presents and balloons and party hats, making them chicken soup and running out to Queens from Upper Manhattan every single time my mother wound up in the Emergency Room. My sister took care of my mother a lot, and she loved her fiercely. She will miss her terribly.
For the past year, my mother was ill—but mentally she was strong. She was not afraid, and she often enjoyed the little things in life—music, my father’s jokes, food. Man, she loved food. Right before she left us, she was angry with my dad for something, and was inconsolable. In the middle of her rant, my father walked out of the kitchen with a slice of cake. “Selma, would you like some cake?” She stopped talking, paused, and in her most ladylike voice she said, “Why yes, I’ll take a piece of cake.” She forgot her suffering.
Even the bizarre little things that were happening in her brain served as a source of entertainment for her and those around her. She was so creative: “I know you won’t believe me,” she said one day over the phone, “But I could swear the room was upside-down this morning! And there was so much room to put things!” she said. “I guess Daddy was right, it probably didn’t really happen, but — to tell you the truth — I was a little disappointed.”
She had the best possible caretakers — Maggie and Barbara. Maggie during the day, who made her work hard to “be all that she could be” — Maggie is a little like the US Army. Maggie was strong enough to get my mother to do what she had to do, made my dad’s life easier, and I know she loved my mother. Unfortunately, she came to us because Elsie next door passed away just when we needed her, and I have advised Maggie to perhaps get herself some younger clients.
And then we had Barbara, for two years. Barbara IS a party — she was perfect for my parents. I called up last New Years Eve, imagining how bleak it must be over there, and Barbara was getting them drunk, making the festive mood happen all around her like she always does.
“Your mother is singing, your dad is telling jokes, and I am dancing,” she said, in a Manischewitz-infused Patois.
Barbara adopted my mother and pronounced herself our little sister. In April, when I thanked her for helping us, she said it was we who she needed to thank: She’d learned a lot from my mother. I said, “Yes, my mother has a lot of compassion.” Barbara said, “Compassion doesn’t cover half of it! I learned everything from your mother. When I was afraid to go to school to be certified, she said, “You can do it.” Every day she said to me, “You can do it.” I wouldn’t have accomplished anything without your mother.”
My mom’s beloved hairdresser, Margie, told me the same thing when she came by to find out how my mom was in April. Our former next-door neighbor, Debbie, told my sister, “I was like a third daughter to her,” and my sister had to say, “You’d better get in line.”
Selma identified with women who worked hard. For years, the high point of her week was when she and Rita Lubatkin would go to the beauty parlor on Fridays. Margie lived through everything with my mother, but was still grateful for what she had learned from her. Last night, when I spoke to my cousin Anita in St. Louis about her mother — my mother’s dear sister Mildred, who passed away last year — she said exactly the same thing about her mother. “Everyone said they’d learned so much from her. People keep telling me how grateful they are to have known my mother.”
My mother was such a fighter. She was in the hospital nine times before she finally let go. She even beat the last infection, with a stroke, because down to every cell, she was a fighter, my mother.
Daddy, every time I talked to Mom the last 2 years while she was sick, she told me about how much she loved you and how much she appreciated you and how well you took care of her. You took care of her her whole life, you were her mother and her father, her brother and her lover. You were the sun and the moon and the stars to Mom. And you always left her laughing.
It is true my father made one or two jokes at her expense…but always lovingly. A few years ago he dropped her off in front of Barnes and Noble in Bay Terrace to go pick out a book. He waited in the car. When she came out and got back in the car she told him excitedly, “There was a man in there chatting with me and trying to pick me up! He was handsome, too. He couldn’t have been past 60!!”
My dad paused to take the toothpick out of his mouth, looked at her and replied: “Did he see you walk?”
In her last year, I would put my mother to bed when I visited, lying down in bed next to her and handing her her pills one by one, helping her choke them down, and talking about everything under the sun. I could tell her anything; there was a casualness about my mother she had never had. She could let her hair down and relax. I think in those last weeks and months she learned to accept herself more. She was totally coherent and smart. And funny and sarcastic. She told me stories about The Home and good times before and after meeting my dad, and what it was like to be a young couple raising a family in Bell Park. I know she had had a blast.
My mother was preparing to leave us for a while. I told her it was OK if what she said about where she was didn’t sound true to other people. I told her that this was her reality, and I wasn’t going to argue with her. She was loosening her grip on this world, and it was heartbreaking. I’d cry after I talked to her on the telephone because I missed how she used to be. I avoided calling because I didn’t have time to cry. But I was with her on and off for many weeks, for two years. And I was here with her this last week of course, and it was excruciating, because we hated to see her go. I watched my father say goodbye. I watched my sister fall apart over a box of Mallomars she’d planned to buy her, but hadn’t. My heart had a big empty hole in it.
But when my mother left, I noticed my heart didn’t feel empty any more — it felt full. Full of her. Since she left, memories of my mother have come flooding back. She’s as clear as day, waving to me like the Queen from the little stairway elevator, singing Sunrise, Sunset to my friends in the hall at my wedding, showing interest in a Cristo installation I was explaining to her at the Whitney Museum. She is now a part of me, and my heart is bigger for it, and I will never be the same. I am at peace with myself in a new way, and I can feel at home anywhere now, because my mother is home, right here with me. At home in my heart.
A reporter I know, Janis Mara, sent me this question today, and I just had to respond.
Yes! I live in the Inner Mission, off Valencia Street, which happens to be the Hipness Epicenter of the hippest city in the hippest country in the hippest planet in the hippest galaxy in the universe. For those of you who aren’t so hip, this means a whole lot of bars and art galleries and restaurants. I just happened to find an apartment here. Within a 1-mile radius, my block is the only one that doesn’t require a parking permit to park over an hour, or doesn’t have 2-hour parking due to being close to a BART station.
Not long ago, I had so many tickets I was finally booted. True, it beat being towed, and it had a faint European air. But it still sucked. I had intended to go down and fight several of my tickets because they were so ridiculous. I had already paid for many of them, and the sticker, and the smog certificate, but still hadn’t paid enough to actually get a registration sticker, because every time I went down to pay they added on more penalties, and I had no more money. It was Catch 22, because I was getting many of these tickets simply for having “out-of-date tags.” And for every ticket I got, I got two, because of the tags. It was, for the meterpeople, as though I had a sign on my car that said, “Two for the price of one.” So they could take their donut break sooner.
One ticket was for not having my wheels curbed on my block, which IS on a hill, but not an insanely steep hill, as San Francisco standards go. That one was particularly nasty, because all that time I was home with a migraine, and I was very careful about making sure my car was parked legally over a period of a few agonizing days…and when I finally came out of my migraine-induced minicoma, I was stunned to discover a ticket on my car. I was certain it was a Chinese menu, but no, it was in fact a ticket, and a painful insult to my already-debilitating neurological injury.
I was also angry about a ticket I received when my car apparently violated the handcrafted painted curb around a residential driveway on Guerrero Street, which was clearly just selfishness on their part, because the painted curb far outsized their actual driveway. I parked there because I’d literally looked everywhere else in the neighborhood and found nothing better, and I was not overhanging their actual driveway at all. I took pictures with my phone (Can you imagine anyone saying that 20 years ago: “I called them right away with my camera …”), but felt so powerless, I let the complaint go. I was too busy trying to make more money.
A friend who visits quite often from San Mateo, who is always very careful about where he puts his vehicle, got four tickets in a row recently, one for not curbing his wheels. He sent in a complaint about that one, since he is not from SF, but his plea was turned down. I doubt if they even looked at it. He is the most upright citizen in the world, in utter dire straits, constantly on the verge of losing his house, and working very hard to make ends meet. It was pathetic, and I don’t currently have the money to help him out, either.
Each time this happens, I feel like I, a long-time resident, a resident who has made numerous cultural and financial contributions to this City, am being pushed out, and I vow to move to Fairfax or Grass Valley or a tiny hamlet in Southern France, where I can pretty much park wherever I want. I even asked about obtaining a handicapped parking permit due to my chronic migraines (so I could park in handicapped spots), but they scoffed at me like I was nuts, because I was under 90 and not in a wheelchair. I told them I felt like I was 90 and momentarily considered obtaining a wheelchair or at least some crutches, and limped away from the counter.
A dear friend who lives in the Castro drove over one evening for a visit. Instead of engaging in this cat-and-mouse game, she just decided to pay to park in the neighborhood City Lot, which has always been very reasonable. Later, I was horrified to hear that just a few hours at my house had cost her eight bucks! She posted this on Facebook when she returned home:
“Parking in a city lot in the Mission: $8. Spending the evening with Caryn Leschen, one of the funniest women in the world: Priceless.”
I wish The City of Hipness felt the same way.
I found out today that my friend Sue in England died.
The details are not yet in, but from what I know it goes something like this: It’s a Tuesday early in June, and at 6 AM the edges of the green green grassy hills of Kent are lit with chartreuse morning light. A big, old stone house sits in the middle of a pasture, in a little valley, and as we peer inside, a pleasant-looking fiftyish schoolteacher is just waking up. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt with a red and blue media company logo on it, and tries to gather her wits about her. She winds bundles of mahogany hair around her fingertips as wakefulness takes hold, and then stretches as she yawns.
Her husband Ian snuggles up closer to her, snoring lightly. He has a great head of gray curls. She shoves him playfully and he rolls away. She tosses a pillow onto his head. He grabs the pillow and relishes the feeling of his head sandwiched between the crisp, cool linens. He’s a video engineer who works long shifts half the week and is off the other half, so Tuesday morning Sue lets him sleep.
She relaxes for awhile in her quiet married king-sized bed with a cup of coffee made fresh from a bedside alarm clock/coffee maker; there’s even a small fridge below, in the nightstand, so she’s got milk without going downstairs. Ian has always loved installing convenient gadgets and filling their house with comfortable toys. Wishing as always that she could go back to sleep, she suddenly remembers that a friend is coming to visit the school today with her daughter. That’s better, she thinks; something special to look forward to today.
Soon, Sue is up and dressed in a sleeveless red cotton frock with light blue flowers. Clip-clopping around the house in stylish, low-heeled gladiator sandals, she’s preparing her own children, Rupert, 13, and Phoebe, 10, for school. A flurry of clothes and books and cereal bowls later, they’re all outside, sliding open the squeaky doors of their navy blue Land Rover, then slamming them shut. She winds her way east down a country lane, and as they rise up out of the trees, the sun finally makes it over the horizon. Sue’s heavy-lidded brown eyes are squinting now; her unusually tapered, impeccably manicured fingers adjust the visor so she can see.
Sue teaches kindergarten in a nearby school. She’s always been energetic. Tall and tan, with a low center of gravity, she moves with a bounce that belies middle age. She’s got a classic adenoidal East End accent full of dropped aitches; final consonants all become effs, and she’s even prone to rhyming slang. She’s got big teeth and full lips and everything she says sounds like a joke, even if it’s not intended to. This imbues her with a misleading air of ditziness. She’s oddly demonstrative for an Englishwoman—this is why the kids love her. She also has a keen interest in sharing the physical properties of the world with little kids: how fast an “ice-lolly” stick hits the floor; what happens when you mix up a couple of household powders.
At around ten, Sue collapses in front of a classroom full of young children, just as she’s about to lead them out to the old slate courtyard for morning tea (or whatever they call their mid-morning snack). All the children are wriggling to the front to see what’s happened to Ms. Mullings, who seems to have fainted.
From what the email from Laura—Ian’s sister—said, Sue died soon after, and they still don’t know why, though heart trouble is suspected.
I was just gearing myself up to work on a couple of logos that are overdue; I have trouble keeping up some days, and it’s just been busy lately. People add on endless additional tasks, and it is up to me to schedule them somewhere. I have allowed one incredibly needy client to take up time that should have been spent on other jobs, and my other clients are starting to notice. I want very much to learn new ways to make my client’s websites, and there’s so much to see online. So I sign up for a new Adobe color service, Kuler, and try to figure out how it works. This will help me pick a palette for the next logo, I think, but it requires a newer version of Flash, of course. Doesn’t everything? How much newer a version of Flash can it require? My computer is only four months old.
In the middle of it I get an email from my sister in New York about how we need to talk about my parents’ finances. Then she says, and of course it was so awful to get that horrible email with the news from Laura. That’s all she said.
Oh my God, I think, what news? I think, oh God, something’s happened to one of Laura and Roger’s kids, or Ian and Sue’s kids. Or someone has cancer. It’s probably nothing, whispers the voice in my head that always says it’s probably nothing. I think, someone’s been in a terrible auto accident, or Laura’s got breast cancer. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice that always says that. Ian once had Guillaume-Barré Syndrome, I remember vaguely, and that was pretty weird, but it’s history now. Maybe it was really Lou Gherig’s Disease after all. Maybe it’s something that I have too. It’s probably nothing, goes the voice.
What does this remind me of? Well of course there was the morning of September 11th, when my sister called from New York to tell me the World Trade Center had fallen down. It’s probably nothing, said the voice that says, It’s probably nothing.
“It’s probably nothing.” I said, having just arisen on another peculiar Tuesday, at 8AM Pacific Time.
“No, I’m not kidding, the entire World Trade Center doesn’t exist any more…” said my sister, and so on.
You know the rest of that story, of course. I didn’t believe her; if I thought about all the awful things my sister tells me, I’d probably have to be hospitalized. She sees people get killed in the street; she steps on rusty nails and breaks her feet for no reason and has to go to weird emergency rooms. She sits in parking lots with my crazy 88-year-old parents in bad neighborhoods in Queens at 3AM while my parents are freaking out and explains to them that my mother’s pain medication won’t be ready for an hour. She is a bearer of bad tidings, and I hate her for it. My feet are planted over here, fresh mist curled around my ankles like I’m the Jolly Green Giant, surrounded by artichoke fields and brussels sprouts, redwoods and walnut orchards, leaning over the Pacific Ocean like italics, going It’s probably nothing.
I did my job, I procreated. What more do they want from me? Now I have a son, who brings me and my family cute stories that entertain and enliven the party. Even September 11th brought fourth a cute story from California: After my sister called, I summoned my ex-husband to my apartment; I was shaking like a leaf, and completely unable to make Liam’s egg salad sandwich. When we finally sat Liam between us on the couch, it was obvious something was up. Then I said Honey, some people sometimes do bad things and blow things up; then his dad said, Sit still, Honey, you don’t need to get dressed, there’s no school today. My adorable son, who was eight and in the third week of third grade, looked from one to the other of us incredulously. “They blew up my school?” he asked, with a widening grin.
Always, with a story.
What email from Laura? Somehow I’d missed it.
I met Ian when I was 18 years old, and he was a counselor for a program called Camp America. He worked at the same summer camp as me, Camp Delaware. I remember little about it, except that I met Ian, who was the first real English Person I ever knew, and I thought he sounded like George Harrison, which was really naive because George was from Liverpool and Ian’s from Bexley. I felt like the coolest counselor at camp with my English boyfriend, though he acted inscrutably restrained. All summer long Ian kept reciting Monty Python routines: Nudge, nudge, wink wink, know what I mean? I didn’t, but I laughed anyway, as if I did.
The following year when my friend Wendy and I made our debut trip to Europe, we stayed with Ian and Laura’s family. Ian and Wendy and I were hippies, unlike Disco Queen Laura, who preferred the The Hughes Corporation to Joni Mitchell, out in the back garden in Bexley sunning herself on a chaise lounge with one of those metallic cardboard sun reflectors. We thought everything was terribly charming and their family was so nice to us; after that we sent people to them and they sent people to us on a regular basis.
Since that first visit, I visited many times, with my husband and subsequent boyfriend, and sometimes alone. Laura married Roger and Ian married Sue and we all had children and Laura grew out of her disco stage, though she’s still quite the party girl. I first met Sue in 1983 when she and Ian were living together with a house full of roommates in Chiswick. This time Ian was going on and on about The Young Ones, and I got it. I was there through Thanksgiving, and they’d requested Mexican food, so I looked all over London for tortillas to make turkey tostadas. I had to make do with papadams.
I’ve taken snapshots of them that I cherish, and I’ve done paintings and pastels from these pictures. They are my British family, and I will always be here to welcome them and their friends and family. This brings me a sense of peace and connection, and rounds out who I am. I am a person with just a few very special friends and relatives fanning out around the globe. I have fun with them when we’re together. They are gracious hosts. We will always be there for one another.
Until today, when I found out that Sue died.
I can’t concentrate on logos. I went into a vacuuming—Hoovering?—mania and ingeniously cleaned out the vacuum’s filter with a plastic fork; then I vacuumed my heart out, with my iPod on. When I heard “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc, sobs burst out of me, like in a soap opera. I’d been thinking about how we all sent telegrams when Ian and Sue got married, because that’s what you did. For their wedding I sent a reproduction vegetable-serving dish from the Santa Fe Railway china that I love, very American. And when they had their babies, we sent baby clothes or fuzzy toys. They have sent us my favorite clock, Noddy, Postman Pat, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Absolutely Fabulous. Now I guess I’m supposed to send flowers. Just like, that’s the next thing you do? Telegrams, baby clothes, cool media, flowers. Next! Is this just the first of a lengthening chain of funerals, now that I’m middle-aged? They’ll snowball for awhile, the chain of funerals, and then they’ll stop?
I must call Ian tomorrow and break the chain. I must bring meaning to the chain; I must honor Sue by making the rest of my life count, and do all my logos on time so I can make my life better, and go to England and cheer up my friends and not just send flowers.
I ended up digging out a digital file of an old pastel painting I did of Sue and me in their garden when they lived in Greenwich, and fixing it up. The original is huge, like a mural; pastel dust caked on brown paper, rolled up in my closet. I’m wondering if it’d be okay to send the digital image to England, since it’s not really that flattering, and doesn’t really resemble her. But it reflects, to me, the sunniness of Sue’s personality. All day I can hear her distinctive voice clanging “don’t get your knickers in a twist,” followed by her nasal, maniacal laugh, as if, somehow, if I fill my head up with all of her chattering, it will somehow balance out the horrible silence of her absence.
I recently returned from New York where I was trying to help out my parents, who have been married for 63 years are both pushing 88. They still live in the apartment I grew up in, in Bell Park, which is a post-war (that would be World War Two) housing development of approximately one square mile, encompassing about 1000 “garden apartments.” The apartments are what I think are now referred to as “town homes,” and many of them (like my parents’) have front and back doors and a little postage stamp of grass in front and back. Most of them have red brick on the bottom and white clapboard on the top, or just red brick all over, with traditional grey tar-shingled roofs and lots of fenced-in “drying areas,” playgrounds, benches and laundry rooms scattered about. And trees, lots and lots of trees. This one used to be a tree nursery before it was built around 1950, so it’s full of perfect lollypop maples and less refined, scraggly old oaks and aloof birches and weeping willows and fat, jolly old chestnut trees.
The first time I went to Liverpool and saw Paul McCartney’s house I was astounded to see how much Abbey Road was like Union Turnpike, and Paul’s house in Allerton is a garden apartment — just like the house I grew up in! We thought the Beatles were so exotic; no one in Bell Park wore Beatle boots until the Beatles actually wore them. I often wonder if this is why I’ve always identified more with working-class British movies and novels than the [Fun with] Dick and Jane and Baby Sally of traditional America. My grandmother didn’t live on a farm with cute baby chicks; she lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn that reeked of a thousand pots of chicken soup.
Anyway, my mother came down with shingles, not the tar kind, and she really sounded horrible. Now, she’s not exactly the type to suffer in silence, but really, everyone says shingles is unbearably painful, and the more I heard from my sister and my dad the more concerned I got.
For those of you not hanging with the Swinging Shingles crowd, shingles is a kind of Second Coming of chicken pox, speaking of chickens, and it’s caused by a crappy immune system. The kind you might have, say, if you were almost 88 and kind of depressed, and all your friends and contemporaries were dying or dead, and you were obsessed with your bowels and your aches and your pains, and grieving because your husband who used to run a restaurant and build furniture and totally took care of you your whole life is no longer smart enough to make dinner or even figure out the remote control.
Being Little Sister, they usually try to protect me from such unpleasantries, and treat me like I’m about six years old and will only get in the way. That’s why I was surprised when my mother actually welcomed the idea of my coming out to help. She welcomed it almost as a little girl would, too: “Really?’ she said. “You’d come? That would be so nice.” I was honored she was going to let me take care of her. Well, I thought, I have a fourteen-year-old, maybe she finally trusts me.
She’s obviously not in her right mind, thought I, because usually she gets all stressed out about how she’s going to have enough in the Meat Tray, and where I’m going to sleep and whether she’ll be able to make it to the beauty parlor in time. But this time she seemed like she wanted me to come. In a way, I was moved.
I waited a few days to make sure she was serious, and my sister, who is eight years older than me, agreed that it would be helpful, especially because we’d been trying to get my mother to take an anti-depressant for about ten years and it seemed like finally she was ready. Besides, nortryptaline, the one I thought she should take, happened to be listed as one of the things people take for something icky called Pain After Shingles. So we could actually tell her it was for pain, as opposed to just her being unbelievably annoying, which she probably knows is why we wanted her to take antidepressants all along.
I actually used to wish my mother was an alcoholic like my ex-boyfriend Jim’s bitter, sarcastic-but-adorable mother Dotty, because Dotty was Catholic and Suffered in Silence while she smoked cigarettes and knocked back Manhattans. But then Dotty only lived ’til she was about 74.
So off I went. To treat myself, I made a reservation on Virgin America. I thought I could pretend I was going to England. Anglophile that I am, I actually checked to see if I could extend my trip to England for a few days; what the hell, I’ll be halfway to England anyway, and I have friends there. But apparently Virgin America only identifies itself with Virgin Atlantic to get you interested in flying on it. As soon as you book the reservation the mystique disappears. I got a little suspicious, actually, when I watched the fancy Flash movie, and a fridge full of glossy bottles of spring water was the only image accompanying the word “snacks.”
“I was wondering,” I inquired, by telephone, “If there was some way of extending this trip to include a little side trip to England? Maybe make New York a kind of stopover?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am” said the customer service representative. “Wha-ir not really associated with Virgin Atlantic in any way.”
“You mean, I can’t tack this mileage onto my Virgin Atlantic miles?” I asked, horrified.
“No ahm afraid you cain’t” she said, in a very distinctly non-English accent. I was a little crushed.
“I’m surprised. I mean, it’s Virgin and everything.”
“Yes, ma’am, many people make that mistake, but ah don’t know wha-ir they get that ah-dea,” said the CSR.
Maybe because of the advertising, I thought. Maybe using the same logo? Maybe that it’s owned by the same company?
It reminded me of when in the old days we used to get our photos on paper from the drugstore, and they had finally put a “24 Hour Photo” sign in Walgreens’ window, and when I brought my pictures in, the guy said, “That’ll be ready Wednesday” and it was Monday.
“I thought it was 24 Hours? ” I said, with obvious disappointment.
“That’s just a logo,” said the clerk, the one with the bushy eyebrows who always looks at me like he remembers the nude pictures of me from when I was pregnant. Probably because they decorate his bedroom mirror.
It was just a logo.
Well, I knew I wasn’t going to get fed, and I knew I wasn’t going to England, but Virgin Atlantic gave out cool yellow cotton eyeshades with provocative little words printed on them, and made playful references to the Mile High Club in their onboard magazine. As soon as you were on the plane you knew you were in swingin’ England. As soon as I was booked on this plane I knew I was, uh, not in England. Very not.
Incidentally, I had actually thought I might be going to England this fall, when for about an instant I thought I had a little extra cashflow, the instant right before I found out that the high-pitched screech coming from my front left wheel meant I needed a new hub. A hub! Not a hubcap, a hub. I had no idea you could actually mess up your hub. I thought the most expensive thing your car could need was a new clutch. Turns out, a hub costs just as much. So much for the extra cashflow; a bientot, Angleterre.
So one of my wacky but lovable clients gave me a ride to the airport, and I boarded the plane, knowing that probably the most fun part of my trip was going to actually be the plane itself, which is a pretty depressing thought, but sleeping on my parents’ couch wearing my old Virgin Atlantic eyeshades and earplugs and having to face the fact that my mother really was miserably sick and that they were so damned old and would never be the way I think of them in my head didn’t sound like all that much fun. I closed my eyes and tried to think about sex.
[to be continued]
I love Burning Man.
The best thing about it is that there are so many parking spaces in my neighborhood this weekend.
As my son Liam and I were returning from a party this evening, a charming couple of women from Canada and London happened by, and we chatted in front of my building in the misty San Francisco night air.
“Oh, there are plenty of spaces this weekend on my block,” I gushed. “It’s Burning Man.”
I babbled on. “Actually you can block that driveway across the street, as my neighbor isn’t there on weekends, and there are only workmen during the week.” I was divulging classified information I wouldn’t share with my grandmother. “The City lot’s on 21st Street, Gramma,” I’d say. “Vat?” she’d answer, if she were alive and didn’t live on Ocean Parkway and drove a car. “You vant I should park dare? In dat doity LOT? Oy, Jul-is, vere goink.”
Well, back to the party I was returning from. Instead of Burning Man, I went to Burning Chicken Thighs, but unfortunately, when I requested a breast, I was given one with yellow, goose-pimply flesh. The Burning Thighs looked much better. When they make a movie of this post, the chicken thigh shot will symbolize guileless yet wanton lust. There were also Burning Sausages, and some Burning Corn-on-the-Cob, which I saw birthed from the grill and swaddled in aluminum foil, but they were whisked away like they were struggling for life and I never saw them again.
The best thing was this salad that had Wasabi peas (is Wasabi an ethnicity? a geographic location in Japan?) and fresh white corn and limp lettuce leaves and mozzerella cubes we mistook for jicama until we realized they weren’t crunchy. The salad was provided by an elegantly-dressed German woman who I noticed immediately looked sort of like me: tall, blonde, she wore big white sunglasses like mine, the kind that should be worn under a silk scarf knotted at the chin and over a 1964 Peugeot convertible. I wondered if I was as scary-looking as she was. She looked so sophisticated, in that Eurohip kind of way, like a woman who designed BMWs or curated for the Secession Gallery in Vienna. I thought about getting a haircut like hers. My hair was flying all over the place like when I was 14. I needed a silk scarf knotted at the chin. I ate a little Burning Tri-Tip.
“How did you think to put Wasabi peas in there? I asked, eloquently. “What a fantastic combination of flavors!” She looked at me like I was an idiot. “I don’t know, I was looking around the kitchen for some nuts, and all I had was Wasabi peas.” Sure, I know the feeling, I thought. I like to put ‘em on my Cheerios. They’re awesome on pizza. It’s fusion-style cooking, yes? My friend Marty recently told me he made Potato Salad Mole. I thought that was more like confusion-style cooking. Do they have mayonnaise in Mexico? You never see it in your burrito. Marty’s very friendly; he could’ve loosened up Fraulein Wasabi Peas considerably. We could’ve shaken her down about whatever else she liked to throw into her eclectic salads: scarlet Italian anchovies, Eritrian sourdough starter, grubs.
I was looking for Intelligent Life at the 50th birthday party of a pleasant-looking stranger named Matt. But most of the Intelligent Life there was married. If they weren’t married, they were 13 and playing video games. I love married people. Married people are great—hey, I was married for a couple of decades myself. But why do I often feel these days like the only divorced person on earth? All these married people look so goddamned happy. A few years ago, when I had a boyfriend, the Universe was full of divorced people. Divorced men. A few straight men, even. And now I’m the Last Divorced Lady on Earth.
One guy made eye-contact with me as soon as I arrived. Then he stood next to me and I just knew I wasn’t very excited about it. His eyebrows were knitting furiously, as if they were knitting themselves eyebrow-cozies. He told me he met all his dates at AA meetings. This made me want a drink. I was more excited about wooing the Wasabi Pea lady.
Then I spotted him: a guy who looked just like my cute ex-boyfriend, One-eff Geof, but not as crazy-looking. I walked up to him and said, “You look just like my ex-boyfriend, One-eff Geof.” He was very pleasant, an architect, friendly, and even laughed at my jokes, and then he introduced me to his brilliant gorgeous daughter who is just graduating from Lowell (San Francisco’s version of the Bronx High School of Science) and his good-looking wife, and left. I started worrying about whether or not I should be worrying about whether or not Liam will get into Lowell.
Finally I relaxed a little. I ate some cake. Then I ate some more cake. I talked to a couple who knew my friend Lisa. (Everyone knows Lisa. Haven’t you ever heard of the game, “Six Degrees from Lisa Gross?”) The female half of the couple liked my button jewelry. We talked about having pubescent children. She was a Corporate Executive and Baby Masseuse, and he was a Landscaper. She made Martha Stewart seem a little lazy. They’d brought some drink involving vodka and cucumber slices; a recipe she’d found on the Schweppes website. OK, hands up— who has time to be a corporate executive, massage babies professionally and surf soft drink websites? I gave this perfect, gorgeous couple my card in case they wanted to buy any button jewelry. Then, just as Walk This Way by Aerosmith and Run DMC came on, we had to go home.
I thought about last year, when the people in New Orleans were suffering so, and the people at Burning Man had no idea about that until they came home. I thought about how, as each year passes, I become less and less interested in Burning Man. I still don’t get it; it still doesn’t get me. If I had all the time and money and energy it would take me to go to Burning Man, I thought, I’d go to Paris, or Prague. I’d rather go to the fucking moon. I’d rather sit in my car in a great big parking space right here on my block in a silk scarf and white sunglasses and just savor the experience.
For ten years I’ve been a member of a group of women — 1/5th of them men — that are involved in some way with the Web. It began as “webgrrls SF,” but within a couple of years became San Francisco Women on the Web. I am on a few professional lists from which I get a ton of email, but this list is the one I’ve been on the longest, and in many ways it is closest to my heart. I even attend a live event once in a while. A fellow early participant in these events was this sweet, nutty guy named Craig who had this weird idea about doing some kind of web listings bulletin board. As the Web has grown up, so has Craig’s list, and so has Women on the Web San Francisco. There are writers, coders and other technical geeks, designers, marketing people, project managers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, caterers and many more talented people on this list. I know that if I need something: advice on who should host my blog, suggestions for a spa to take my squeamish East Coast relatives, or just to process an unpleasant business experience, I can write to sfWoW and get what I need. I give back to it too, when I can. For example, I happen to have the address of the very best inexpensive but very comfortable small hotel in Paris. And, no, I’m not telling just anybody. But I owe it to sfWoW, because they’ ve always been there for me.
So recently there have been some sfWoW postings about blogs, and I wrote that it was hard to keep up with because, aside from my business, I had middle school homework to do. Then a couple of very nice, well-meaning fellow “Wowsers” who do not currently have middle-schoolers under their roofs wrote in wondering why that was, and whether it was the right thing to do or not. “No one ever helped me do my homework in middle school!” they claimed, in that “When I was a boy…” tone, like Michael Palin going, “We dreamed of living in a cor-ri-dor!”
Which forced me to write a Middle School Parent Rant. I started a riff which got into a groove which took me on a trajectory that went off like, like something that takes off really really fast.
I had something to say to those non-middle-school-parents who think it’s wrong for parents to help kids do their homework. I didn’t think it was right either, when my kid was little, attending the smallest alternative public elementary school in the SF school district, in the Haight, with about 15 kids per class. Back then, I also had a quasi-stepdaughter in middle school who I thought should be allowed to sink or swim on her own, too, and I complained often that he was doing too much of her homework. But now I know why.
Now my son goes to the second-highest ranking Middle School in the SF School District. I am glad he didn’t end up going to the number one Middle School because I hear they give “too much homework.” I can’t even imagine what that’s like. I was initially all for it, but now I know what “too much homework” really means.
There are 38 kids in each of Liam’s classes. This means that each teacher cannot make sure each kid understands the homework assignment, or even what is going on in class from minute to minute. One of Liam’s teachers is is rather soft-spoken and likes things done a very particular way — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but Liam was spacing out on him totally from day one, from the first row. So, being in Early Seventh Grade and still a little Unclear On The Concept of homework generally, he gave up paying attention to Social Studies altogether for several weeks, because he kind of felt it was hopeless. My 12-year-old son didn’t know what to do and just decided to pretend Social Studies didn’t exist, something I remember doing in college…well, all of college, one particularly hazy semester. So being that Liam couldn’t drop out of Seventh Grade like I dropped out of SUNY Buffalo, he sort of shoved it under the table.
Then his Social Studies teacher called me, which was considerate of him. I had trouble hearing him on the cell, as I was in the doctor’s office doing something demeaning, like wearing a backless paper dress while begging for an extra month of klonopin in case of a natural disaster. Liam was terrified when I found out about the Social Studies problem. But I know I have a good kid, and my first response was, what on earth is going on that would freak him out so much that he would do this? Liam is by nature a rule-follower; I knew he must be pretty freaked out. He was having a little Management Skills problem.
In Middle School, boys have a lot going on: they’re growing like weeds, their bodies are doing weird things, their friends are forming rock bands, their voices are changing. They are being flirted with by cute girls from all over the globe and don’t know how to feel or act, they’re really, really disorganized, and their #1 priority is not to look like a dweeb. Boys generally are a couple of years (like, 25) behind girls in maturity. Girls tend to be more organized. And somewhat artsy boys with some attention issues (like my son) zone out easily: he didn’t have strong enough glasses and he was living in a fuzzy world and he liked it that way. During Fourth Period, Liam liked being an impressionist. Social Studies was situated between Gym and Lunch and it’s hard to focus right after working out, when you’re hungry. He was granted permission to eat a piece of fruit or liquid yogurt in Social Studies, but this offer was recently rescinded by his teacher, who said he was abusing the privilege by moving on to his salami sandwich and even a slive of pie. I personally think he was trying to work up the nerve to order a pizza to be delivered to his desk like Spiccoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Liam also lives in two households that are sometimes not communicating optimally.
So Liam’s parents were told by his teachers to keep track of his notebooks and his papers and his projects and especially to keep on top of what he needs to do for homework. This is the first time he’s got all different teachers for different subjects, and it’s a challenge; it’s not like he needs to sink or swim just yet. For heaven’s sake, he’s twelve. He gets to wear training wheels. He’s a baby adult.
Another reason kids need help with their homework is that all those “cool” teachers who like to assign “creative” ( 3D or Powerpoint presentations or audio-enhanced) projects often underestimate the time required for kids to do these projects. There is no law that says they need to test-drive them on real 12-year-olds. They have no time to cook them up themselves in a test kitchen. They just assign them and guess how long the should take.
Recently Liam was asked to do a 6-panel comic for Social Studies about the Muslim faith. The teacher told me we’d love this assignment, because he knows I am a cartoonist. Initially I was enthusiastic, but soon I was appalled, as he gave only 3 days to pencil, ink, write, and letter a 6-panel comic. I am a professional and this process takes me a week! I suggested Liam use stick-figures due to the time crunch, which made the stick figures look kind of tribal-postmodern. Anyway, the “comic” was rejected because Mr. K said it was “offensive to Muslims.” None of us has been able to figure out why it was offensive, but he was asked to do the whole thing all over again. Maybe I can post it and you can tell ME how it was offensive, but I’m still trying to figure it out.
I called the teacher and said that professional cartoonists need to edit sometimes, but you are permitted to do your edits over the art by witing-out or pasting paper over the original, so Liam shouldn’t have to do the whole thing over. This of course leads to another much more interesting topic, which was whether it’s okay for a teacher to “reject” an assignment because he disagrees with a student’s point of view, and this is indeed an issue. Had I gone down that path I would still be in the Principal’s Office arguing about the First Amendment, which reminds me of the Billy Bragg album called Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. It just seemed futile. So I decided to pretend Mr. K was Liam’s finicky editor and to have him make the changes and hand the damned thing in and get it over with.
Since Liam’s stepmom (let’s call her “Martha”) and I are both artists and of course wildly creative, and his dad’s also a writer, we all work together on ideas for these “creative projects” and help bring Liam the materials to build stuff. One project that worked out very well was his Labor Day project for English. I suggested Liam research the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the internet which is gory and fascinating and great Labor History and my grandmother’s friends died in it, and I didn’t even know about it ’til Ken Burns’ documentary on New York City, in my forties, which is ridiculous since I grew up there. Liam learned all about Labor Day in a very riveting, memorable way. (This Cornell Web Exhibit is fascinating). I did go from store to store on 24th Street to buy a bunch of those tiny Guatamalan dolls to use as people to jump out the windows, because none of us — even ambitious Martha — had the time to make them. (Here is a photo of Liam’s project. I am particularly fond of the squished shopgirls on the map of NYC. They are made of Halloween blood.)
The point of school is LEARNING about the world, and I had to ask myself: did Liam learn from this? Of course he did. I don’t want it to be about learning that you are bad if you want to spend the evening talking with amusing houseguests or shelling peas or snuggling with mom reading a book rather than doing oodles of homework. Homework should be manageable: it should fit into an ordinary workday, i.e. there shouldn’t be more than 2 hours of homework a night. Generally. With a few book reports and tests to study for, this should be enough. Some kids are set up better to do homework than others: they are genetically predisposed to doing things more efficiently, or have faster web connections, or have a nicer space to do homework, more or fewer siblings, fewer chores, or don’t have to worry about which house they left which books in. I try to do my best.
I object to the fact that it is quality family time that is impinged upon by the school system’s inability to take proper care of our kids’ education during the time allotted. I think a GOOD school that is run well doesn’t have to have so much homework, as the children are working hard and are focussed during the school day.
I don’t DO his homework, but I make sure he knows what he’s supposed to do, and listen to him say “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom…” every 5 minutes while he’s doing it, because he’s excited about what he’s doing and wants to show me. It’s hard for ME to focus on MY work or write my blog while this is going on. And, being a City parent, I want him to do well enough so that he goes to a decent high school and not the one in my neighborhood, which I hear isn’t very good, and if he winds up there I’ll have to shoo away visions of Columbine and worry that kids he plays with after school might have guns in their houses. [I am exercising enormous restraint here because I would like to fly off into a tangent about how if all our neighborhood schools were good, and government subsidies were going to public schools rather than K-Mart, children would be able to walk to school, and not have to have their moms or dads waste petroleum products and precious blogging time by driving across town twice a day to drop them off and pick them up.]
Still, there is nothing like The Arts to get across the essence of the thing, so at the risk of having written the world’s longest sfWoW post I wrote a short playlet of what life is like here at home between 5:30 and 7 PM on a typical weekday middle-school family night. I don’t think the folks at sfWoW liked it much because, so far, almost everyone’s ignored it, but maybe since you already like my writing you’ll enjoy it. It may sound familliar to you, and I would love to learn how you manage this delicate time. In any case, thank you for reading this.
Liam (doing English homework at diningroom table): Mom, how do you spell “interspersed?”
Mom (trying to work on other side of room while burning dinner): Look it up, honey, the dictionary’s right over here.
Liam: But it’s not IN the dictionary, I tried looking it up in class. Just tell me how to spell it.
Mom: No, Liam, it is in the dictionary and you just have to walk across the room and get the dictionary, which is next to my desk under the little green table, and look it up yourself.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-i-r-s-e-d?
Mom: No, Liam I don’t think so. Go get the dictionary.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-e-r-s-e-d?
Mom: Yes, ok, yes, I think so. Liam will you check on that rice over there please?
Liam: What does it mean? I have to write the definition.
Mom: Get the dictionary.
Liam: Does it mean, like, spread out all over the place?
Mom: (sigh) Yes, Liam, that’s what it means!
Liam: OK, I’ll put that.
Mom: Are you supposed to write the dictionary definition or define it in your own words?
Liam: Um…The dictionary…no, in my own words is ok….uh… (trailing off)
Mom: Are you sure? What is the assignment? [Mom gets up from desk, sniffs, goes over and sees that the bottom half of the Trad'r Joe's Instant Risotto has become a black frisbee stuck to the bottom of the pan] Oh shit, I have to deal with this…
Liam: I have to use it in a sentence.
Mom: So use it in a sen—wait! OW! Ow! WAIT LIAM! I JUST BURNT MY — [phone rings, it's a client who owes me $1500] A sentence, yeah. Liam, I have to get this [puts up special hand-signal we have for when Liam shouldn't talk to me because it's a business call.]
Liam: I can’t use it in a sentence. I don’t know what to write.
Mom: [hanging up] What have you written so far? [goes over to table which is near the kitchen, sees Liam's loose-leaf page with some sloppy scribbling-out and several Manga-style pictures of warriors and various Japanese instruments of torture drawn around it] Liam! This is a mess! You can’t turn this in!
Liam: Oh, she said it’s ok.
Mom: No, it’s not ok, I want you to do that page over. Where’s your sentence?
Liam: Well, I couldn’t really think of anything so…
Mom: Well, think of something.
Liam: I need HELLLLPPPP!!!
Mom: [trying to figure out whether Blackened Risotto might not be all that bad...] Interspersed. Think of a sentence using interspersed.
Mom: Liam! I am not speaking to you any more. You do your own homework, and if you can’t, fine. Suffer the consequences. I don’t care if you flunk out of middle school. But let me tell you, if you do really badly they’ll kick you out of the GATE (gifted) program, and you’ll have to go to a crappy high school, and crappy high schools have tough kids that often aren’t very nice to skinny kids with glasses, and they’ll eat you for breakfast. So if you don’t want your life to totally, totally suck, I would (comes over and lovingly pulls Liam’s head and neck out of the socket between his shoulders, pushes his shoulders down off his ears, straightens his chair) SIT UP STRAIGHT AND TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND START A NEW PAGE AND GET THIS STUPID THING OVER WITH! YOU’RE UP TO THE JOB!! Sit up! Put your butt in the chair!! Face forward!!
Liam: (whining) I’m hungry. Is dinner ready yet? (pauses; looks wryly at the contents of the pot in Mom’s hand; smirks) How about “There are a few little yellow grains of rice interspersed between the burnt ones?”
Mom: Yes, Liam, that’s excellent. Among the burnt ones. That’s fine.
My girlfriend Catherine and I have started a rock band. It’s all pinched-looking moms with glasses — well, so far we’ve been lucky — and we’re called The Carefuls. True, we don’t have as many lower-back tattoos as some other girl bands, but we make up for it with our vast experience doing middle-school homework. Having a kid in middle school isn’t absolutely required — but it helps.
Our first release will be two songs (we just can’t get over that old-fashioned “A” side “B” side thing). The “A” side is “You’ll Put Your Eye Out With That,” and side “B” is “When Peter Gets a Job.” We have a few other songs in the works: a spirited cover of the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting,” and others: “I Ovulate for Tim Robbins,” “Ask Me if I Give a Shit” and “I Googled your Mom for her Cranberry Mold Recipe.”
We’re looking for gigs — after the holidays, of course, when we have a little extra time, all those pesky crafts projects are off the dining-room table, and the kids are back in middle school. Anyone interested in talking to us, especially on the air, especially Terry Gross, can contact us here.