Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Terrible, Horrible etc. Day

On Tuesday, one of our e-mail accounts got hacked. I found out first thing, while still in bed, when a friend phoned to tell me (these productive, early-rising friends of mine!)  I was supposedly mugged and crying in London, in desperate need of dollars. Other friends soon weighed in, saying the note’s grammar was so bad, they knew it couldn’t be from me, a perverse sort of comfort. The whole thing was so pathetic it should have made me laugh, except the word “hacked” is pretty descriptive. All my old e-mails and contacts were wiped out, and eventually I had to call for tech support, and do that thing where someone takes remote control of the computer, and you sit watching the cursor do a ghostly flit around the screen. In the course of the day, I got three new passwords and a new distrust of this e-world I normally embrace. 

The same day, my daughter who’s a social worker in Bushwick, New York, had her purse snatched. “Snatched”—funny how it and hacked share that short a, as in attacked, cracked, jacked and crapped. She was robbed in the very neighborhood where she works to help people find and keep jobs. If only that dastardly (and you know what rhymes with that) fellow had come to her office, he’d be employed and able to quit his life of crime. This sunny, resilient daughter (third child, who was expert at taking naps in the car seat, the grocery cart, on the rug) says she’s actually enjoying being cell—phone free for the time being.  She got my hermit gene.

All this thinking about evil on the loose made me remember that this will be the first Halloween our neighborhood doesn’t have the Haunted House. It stood empty for fifty years, so you can imagine the stories about bones in the basement, mad women in the attic. Dashing up onto the front porch in the dark of night was a rite of passage for the little kids, and the teens…well, again, you can imagine. I never got it straight who the owner was or why he continued to pay the high local taxes on the place all those years, but something changed, because a month ago the city knocked it down. Now it’s a surprisingly large, city-owned lot, and the debate is on about what should happen to it. In deference to the Haunted House heritage, someone has suggested turning it into a neighborhood gathering place, called, what else, Spirit Park.

Happy Halloween!



My prescient husband gave me a copy of “Wolf Hall”, the novel about Henry VIII and Cromwell,  for my birthday. I’ve read all the terrific reviews, and having read “Beyond Black”  know what a wild, original risk-taker Mantel is.  I’m also looking forward to learning some history for real.  Non-fiction accounts, no matter how well written? In one ear and out the other. But fiction?  Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, Ruta Sepetys, Luong Ung, Patricia McCormick make the facts stick. (Is there a diagnosis for this condition? It’s got to be linked to my inability to remember what floors my apartment-dwelling friends live on. If only they lived on “Bluebird” or “Cabernet” instead of “3” or “6”, I’d have no trouble).

“The Dead Are Real” is the title of a wonderful essay on Mantel in the Oct. 15 New Yorker.  It’s full of pithy bits on writing fiction of any sort, including this one: A writer…”has complete power over what happens, but she must feel that her characters have free wil or else the dead hand of detemination will crush the book. She must feel that her control of them is partial–so light that it is barely sensed. Sometimes one of her charaacters will say something and it seems to her that she has no idea what is going to be said back until suddenly she does because there it is, on the page. When this happens, she knows the process is working.” This is as precise a description of the imprecise art of fiction writing as I’ve ever seen.

“Wolf Hall” sits on top of the pile beside my desk. I have yet to open it–and now Mantel has won the Man Booker for the sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies”.  I’ll never catch up, but that’s okay.

Speaking of wisdom, how about this from Lois Lowry, whose book “Son” is another one I’m immensely looking forward to.  Describing a speech where she said a few things that delighted her middle school audience but upset the adults (don’t be fooled, she said, into thinking these are your golden years–they are at best a dull beige),  she realized she could talk to kids or she could talk to adults, but not both. “And so I chose the kids.”

Dream Come True

Earlier this week I did something I’ve wanted to do for, say, fifty-five years. No, not kiss Paul McCartney. Not discover a star subsequently named  for me, or tame a wild horse  a la National Velvet, or even trounce my little brother in an argument (without resorting to biting him).  This week I–actually ate dinner on a fold-out tray, while watching  TV!

My family worshipped at the altar of the idiot box.  My father bought our first set in 1951–probably among the First on the Block. So many of my childhood memories are tied to TV shows.  All those Sunday nights gathered around Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (which we watched in black and white for years).  How many Saturday afterno0ns did we while away watching World War 2 movies? “Up scope,” intoned  the captain of the submarine, and I’d shiver in fear. I was likewise terrified by those blood thirsty Indians who were always menacing innocent women in bonnets, and by the evil-doers in “Superman. ” How could it take me so long to figure out the same guys won every time?  My friends and I played “Three Stooges” and, later, “Dr. Kildare” (I was so excellent at dying.)  Miserable afternoons when I’d come home from ninth grade, the ugliest and least popular girl in the universe, to slump in front of reruns of “Dobie Gillis” and “Gilligan’s Island” (even as I type those words I’m fighting off the theme song ear worm). Watching the  Beatles on “Ed Sullivan”, I began to cry, and my brother made fun of me, and my mother told him to be quiet this minute, which I still love her for.

But there was one hard and fast rule: no TV during dinner. Not even when we ate actual TV dinners, which made no sense whatsoever.  Like so many of the rules I hated as a child, this one stuck with me.  I’d no more watch the news while we eat than I would put my shoes up on the couch or fail to write a thank you note. 

Except that the other night–I did!  Not at my own house, of course, so the rule did not apply. My friend and I ate salads and watched several episodes of “Girls”, a show so graphic, hideous and hilarious in its depictions of sex that we both kept yelling, “No! No, please!”, then pouring more wine.  The show is a complete fantasy with no relevance to the lives my own 20-something daughters are living, right?  Right? My girlfriend and I have a date to do this again very soon.

Next up: wearing stripes and polka dots together.

Sweater Girl

When I was growing up, you only had one. Mine had the blonde pony tail and those bubbly bangs, and came dressed in a slim, gray skirt topped by a knitted, dark orange shell and matching cardigan. That cardigan had perfect gold buttons that really buttoned. The shoes, of course–open-toed pumps of torture. (How many of those shoes did I deviously, deliberately vacuum up twenty years later? My daughters were much more careless as children.)  It was the only Official Barbie outfit I ever owned–after that it was all discount knock-offs and clothes I made myself, from sewing remnants my grandmother gave me–and so I especially cherished the accessories it came with: the wooden bowl of yarn, the silver knitting needes, the scissors that really worked.    

My mother bought me my Barbie, chose that outfit.  I wish I could ask her if she remembered, and why she picked it over, say, Suburban Shopper or Roman Holiday or, outfit of my dreams, Solo in the Spotlight, with its glittery black evening gown, pink chiffon stole and long, slinky black gloves. My mother never felt it necessary to express any opinion about Barbie, the way I did to my girls, yet she chose me a working girl model, not an air head or a diva.  She also made me take short-hand and typing in high school, so I’d always have “something to fall back on”.  When I was younger, I actually loved to play Secretary. I’d sit at a table, scribbling on yellow note pads, pretending to answer phones. My favorite thing was to buzz the boss and tell him someone was here to see him.  My favorite character on “Madmen” is, of course, Peggy, but I have a soft spot for all those sweet receptionists in their bow-blouses and costume jewelry. 

Alice McDermott–it’s time to re-read her. Her childhood was a mirror of mine–the Irish Catholic odyssey from the Bronx out to Long Island. Reading her novel “That Night” was a blow to the heart.  Oh Sheryl! After I grew out of my secretary phase, she was the girl I secretly–very secretly–longed to be. Or at least, I longed to be loved the way she was–insanely, against all odds, the kind of love that makes a boy stand on your front lawn and howl your name in the dark. The scene where Sheryl sits with a younger neighborhood girl, and, for just a few minutes, plays Barbies, is a killer.  Her own childhood is still so tangible–to dress your doll, to make her into a princess or a bride or a rock star! Sheryl remembers that, yearns for it, even as her own possibilities and power slip away.  Such a tender, brutal depiction of what growing-up-girl can be like.

Sometimes when I’m writing, when I’m saying the lines of dialogue out loud but softly, to myself, I remember playing Barbies in the backyard with my girlfriends.