Jiggety Jig

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Going to a conference in a famously warm climate was fun and all but let’s face it: You can’t avoid your fate and our fate as Americans is obviously to shiver for five months, because that’s sure enough what we’ve been doing. My man and I packed shorts and t-shirts, bathing suits and sunscreen and really, except for about 90 minutes at the end of one afternoon we never took of the twenty-five towels we tried wrapping ourselves in out by the pool.

Plus then you have to come home again… Where It’s raining and HAS been raining and PLANS on raining for the foreseeable future. Suffice to say we didn’t need these!

This was a conference about gaskets, which we all know and love. And in the end I was happy to be there in the company of people who know gaskets.

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“You should come with me to the gasket convention in Orlando,” David had said to me months earlier.

“Gaskets! What are gaskets anyway?” I  had said.

“O-rings,” he said. “Things used to make a joint water- or air- or particle-tight.”

“Come on, there aren’t any O-rings anymore, only microchips!” I said back, just to get him going. He’s in manufacturing, an industry which for a while appeared to be diminishing here in the good old US of A like a tray full of Shrinky-Dinks in an oven.

“How wrong you are,” he replied. “You couldn’t live without O-rings. Nobody could.”

And if that wasn’t the language of romance then I don’t know what the language of romance is. And so, to paraphrase Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I said, yes I said yes, I said yes, I will go with you to Orlando.”

And go I did, to sunny central Florida, where I saw exactly no preening by the Gorgeous Young, nor anyone enviously eyeing anyone else’s contours. Instead I saw only myself reading a story in which the main character finds herself touring Ireland as a passenger in a car her mother has to rent because she herself can’t drive a standard shift. Every day the narrator sits on what should be the driver’s side but without any steering wheel until she begins to feel like a child again and thinks, “I’m back.”

That’s how I felt, despite the chill:  Back.

 A little kid again with all this solitude.

Watching the people go by.

Reading my book.

Times like this you almost don’t MIND the chill, and hey your fate is your fate. Plus one way or the other you gotta figure there’ll be tulips in a month. Right? Am I right there, please God?

lovely tulips

 

  

We’re All in This Together

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven on a bus 50 miles out, you can feel the great city pulling you toward it, and next thing you know you’re rolling down an off-ramp to a small sign. “Welcome to the Bronx,” it says.

Here, a century-old schoolhouse stands, with cutouts of small paper tulips adorning its windows. There, items on a clothesline resemble notes on a musical staff. They hum a few bars as they snap in the stiff spring wind. And ever southward the big bus lumbers, as it carries us closer to the city’s soaring towers.

One wide corner more and we are on the isle of Manhattan: high up in Harlem.

“Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard” a street reads, and the earnest commerce spreads all around us from the Wizard of Eyes Optical Shop to a take-out shop called Young Fish.

A man in a wheelchair sits by a crosswalk as if waiting for the light-change – until a closer look shows him to be sleeping, head bowed, his hand resting on his head as a mother’s hand might rest on the head of her little one.

Before an old brownstone, a young dad stoops beneath his popped-up car hood, probing inside it, as beside him, a slender little girl in pink looks thoughtfully on.

Here are You and Me Fashions and The Bethel Church of Our Lord God Jesus Christ.  Here now is the We the People Document Service Center. 

And here is a mosque. And there is a temple.

Every time I come to this city, I am amazed by the easy exchanges among its citizens.

At home, I live on a corner lot in a town with yards both front and back. My neighbors are great and friendly people but we keep a certain distance.

Here, the opposite is true, and I can’t help but smile at people as I pass them. 

Most smile back, though often after that little hiccup of hesitation when you can see that they’re thinking, “Do I know her?”

But they do know me, in a way.  In New York we all know one another. 

We are all eating at this pushcart, with its pretzels and hot dogs. We are all watching this street vendor as he puts on his lively show.

More important, we are sleeping side by side, and I think it is this fact that moves me the most when I come here: the implied human trust that lets us lie down in such proximity.

 The bed in my hotel room is not 15 feet from the bed of the woman next door. I tune out the ventilator’s humming din and I can tell: she has a little cough. 

When it is time to leave this wonderful place my big mooing bus just reverses direction and wades on upstream: Past Fineman’s, the department store and Engine 35, the firehouse. Past P.S. 57, the elementary school and Casa di Dios, the house of worship.

Past playgrounds and past basketball games. Past housing projects with their benched and sunning elders.  

In my town, one family has its property rigged up so that a loud recorded voice warns you away the second your foot hits the driveway.

That’s no way to live, if you ask me. What makes a city work is the same thing that makes a country work: the willingness to look out for one another and not just ourselves; the willingness to extend our good wishes and our greetings both, and the willingness to freely use and share our public spaces.

  

Inside the Bathing Suit

Here’s the latest Believe It or Not: I found a bunch of bathing suits that come with the ladies already in them! And OK yes they’re made of see-through plastic and are missing their insides and their arms and their whole back half but still they have the important stuff, meaning,  ahem, breasts, that fill out the suit very nicely.

“Wo they’re selling ladies! “ I cried when I came upon them in the bathing suit bin at my local BJ’s. Four other shoppers whipped their heads around to stare at me, but I couldn’t help it: they reminded me so much of the Visible Woman I got for my ninth birthday and oh the fun I had painting her little pancreas and tiny colon!

She had breasts too, which were highly interesting to us kids since our mother was so modest she practically hid in the cellar to change. As a result Nan and I grew up in ignorance. What were breasts anyway? WE sure didn’t know and we were girls! We called them ‘lumps.’ “When will WE get lumps?” we asked each other.

And now here were all these bathing suits that came with them! I picked one up. A two-piece, nice. Little black shorts and a kind of overblouse, cute. Made by Jantzen, a reputable house.

I grabbed one and brought it right home; put a fright wig on its stem of a neck and propped it up on the bed next to Dave who said “DO NOT take a picture! OK DO NOT put that picture on your blog!”

So I took her into the study and propped her up against the window so you could se her.

selling-ladies

She’s amazing , right?  She even has a bellybutton!  I love her.

She goes with my skeleton, the next best thing I bought in the last six months.

Now all I need is a bag of insides and there’s my kit: Visible Woman ’14, here I come!

see thru TV pal

 

I’m Happy Today

I’m happy today hanging out with my old man David  – these are his arms –

the arms of dpm

who slept so late I thought he’d been kidnapped from our very bed, sucked out through the bedroom window by aliens. Call Liam Neeson!

I’m happy because we will see our daughter Annie and her man John,

just annie

though not their baby-dog Archer, still just a pup, though tall enough at 8 months to sweep the counters clean if left unattended.

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We’ll see our daughter Carrie too, which makes me happy…

mama carrie & baby caroline 11 days old

…though sadly not her  Chris, or their oldest son, since the two of them will I suppose be watching basketball or some such silly March thing while the rest of us are at our favorite eatery.

Along with Carr, we’ll also get to see their two younger children who are always ready to join me in restaurant fun. (Today: tiny black-velvet fuzzy-posters with bright neon-colored markers!) 

Sadly, we won’t get to see our son Michael

mike says didnt we say no pictures

since he’s out in Utah this weekend pretending to ski, a thing not really in our blood. David grew up with sandlot baseball, and pounding and being pounded by the other kids at the park, while the main pastime for my one sister and me was sneaking into the alley just around the corner from Blue Hill Ave. to inspect this one dead cat as it went through the absorbing transformation from the three-dimensional to something flatter than an old kid glove squashed under somebody’s tires. 

I’m happy because I’m about to sit down and write 14 days’ worth of entries in my diary. (My entries are a lot more interesting, I find, if wait ’til I’m really in the mood for the endeavor and can do the mental levitation that let me look at my last few weeks from the air, so to speak, and thus spot the highlights.)

I’m happy because I just said ‘Screw returning those shoes to Macy’s today. The store will still be there tomorrow when my workday ends.’

I’m happy because I think I might be about to actually vacuum that room I’ve been meaning to vacuum for a month.

I’m happy because we watched that old chestnut Ghostbusters yesterday and I read my three books and stripped the lid to the piano bench for a piano that lives at the ABC house. I’m happy because I got it all sanded and primed and even stained. Now David will help me screw on the lid, I can put on two finish coats and then trot it on over there.

I am not so happy when I remember that I almost learned to play the piano as an adult, together with Michael who was then 11, but quit just as I was getting that itchy feeling in the top of my head when my fingers were starting to know what a note was. We both quit and I’m sad now that we quit, causing the people who gave us the loan of that nice old upright piano to take it back again to give to worthier persons … But the days are getting longer now and who knows but what I’ll go out and buy a little keyboard and have another go at learning a new thing? We learn till we die do we not? I’m happy remembering that truth.

And now, me playing that classic beginner’s piece The Happy Farmer at age six (but why doesn’t that guy in the suit leave my nice pink dress ALONE! 

 

Cynical? Sarcastic?

massage proneI was getting some bodywork, on account of a spine that in the last few years has started to feel like one of those twisty drinking straws your kids will beg you to buy, then use once and forget all about. Only of course your back you can never forget about since you use it every day, along with the muscles in your core that hold it up.

There I was anyway, prone on this massage therapist’s table, my face pressed into that padded doughnut-looking thing they have at one end.

I was doing my best to get through the part where they use the tip of an elbow to press the living daylights out of your calf muscles – since, as they explain, everything is connected to everything else in the body and if you want to ‘open’ the tissues higher up, you have to start by undoing any kinks closer to the floor. 

“Breathe through the pain,” she had just said and God knows I was trying to. Then, as she was walking around me to get at my other leg, she asked what I did for work.

“I write,” I said in a voice muffled by the foam of the face cradle. “A column,” I managed to add.  “For various newspapers.”

She started in on my other calf and as the lights inside my head began to dim and billow with that point-of-the-elbow move, she went on:

“What do you write about?”

“Oh I don’t know,” I squeaked. “ Our common life I guess.  It’s mostly observational. “Sometimes it’s funny,” I added.

That’s when she asked the question that leads me to bring you into this sacred-seeming room in the first place:

“So what is your writing like? Is it cynical and sarcastic?”

Puzzled by the question, I stayed silent for a beat. “Oh no! Not at all!” I finally blurted.

“Because I mean I can be pretty sarcastic myself,” she said.

Cynical and sarcastic?

The words kept echoing in my ears. In all the interacting and people-watching I have done in the course of my career, I have never seen anything that would prompt me to write in a cynical or sarcastic fashion.  In fact 99% of the time what I see is either funny or uplifting. 

Here’s one example: This week in Starbucks I got a free coffee, because, as the barista told me, that man in the blue shirt by the windows had told him he wanted to pay for the beverages of the next ten people to walk in the door. “A random act of kindness,” the man smiled when I went over to thank him. 

And here’s another: I sent a skirt back to the J. Peterman catalog people, asking for a refund, since, as I wrote in the “Reasons” section, it seemed very ill-made.

Then, not four days later, a fresh J. Peterman box arrived holding two precious-to-me documents, which I had inadvertently enclosed in the box with the poorly made skirt. 

No note accompanied it these documents, no scrawled first name on the “Packed By” card you sometimes see. More importantly, no charge was posted to my credit card, then or ever. 

Someone in the shipping room had lifted out the skirt, seen the photo of the 14-year-old Brooklyn boy and the citation, done in gorgeous calligraphy, awarded to him four years later and understood what these might mean. This person then wrapped then in fresh tissue paper, adorned it with cream-colored ribbon and shipped it right back to me. 

So I ask you now and I really do wonder:  In a world with such generosity and kindness, how can anyone, ever, speak cynically and sarcastically? 

And now, just for proof, the two documents sent back to me by that good person in the shipping room at J. Peterman.   

rayvoughn at 14ray citation

 

Irish in This Way

the farm in granville062I am Irish in this way and not in that way:

I am Irish in the way that I know the story of the first of us to come here, a woman in her 50s in the 1850s, fed up with the injustice of it all, the hunger and the dying and finally, last straw, the death of her only son in the Crimean war, his blood spilled for England, in England’s war.

I know how she got here and I know where she lived.

I know what she took for a drink, nights, along with her pipe, and what she said to the children when they came spilling in the door of that farmhouse so poor the tree that grew outside it couldn’t afford branches.

I am Irish in that way. 

I am not Irish in the way of saying all the time what a great fine thing it is to be Irish.

Of the four bloodlines that went toward making me, I know about only two. I never learned a single thing about the family on my father’s mother side or the family on my father’s side because then I would have had to know about my father and I don’t.

I am Irish on all sides, as I have been told again and again, listening to all the jolly talk about how there were two kinds of people in the world the Irish and the ones who wish they were. Also I have heard the less jolly talk about the One True Church and the pagan babies and the non-elect, marooned outside forever, like smokers, the non-Catholics into whose houses of worship we never could go under pain of… what? Excommunication was it?

No wonder then that as a girl of 19 I fell for a boy of 21 (still wearing the suit from his ninth grade graduation because it was the only one he owned) and he wasn’t Catholic and he wasn’t Irish and didn’t I just sleep with him after all those years of saving myself and go right home and march into my mother’s bedroom to tell her I would marry him, and I did. (Poor lady! I can still see her trembling hands that night as she lit one cigarette and put it to her mouth, then immediately lit a second one and tried to get it in her mouth too.)

I guess I was just sick of all that Only-Us-ness by then and so  set sail in a life that kept on opening before me as I, who had never tasted lasagna, or wontons or hummus, or naan, tasted all of those and found out about what I’d been missing.

Still, all day yesterday I thought about our ways as Irish people: All the remembering, and weeping we did. All the songs.

That long-ago woman, born in 1800 and dead of the dropsy in 1891: I know about her because I knew her youngest grandson, who was my grandfather. My sister Nan and I lived in his house, together with our abandoned mom, and two ancient great aunties born in the 1860s. He would pass me playing on the floor and lay his hand on my dark  curls and call me Blackberry Top. “Little Blackberry Top” he would say.

So yesterday I went to the attic and read all of his papers. He really did get the Boston teachers their first-ever pay raise, exploited women that they were. I have the public talk from 1919 in which he vows to do that. He really did run for Mayor of Boston against the ‘rascal king’ James Michael Curley, in such a quixotic bid that a full 40 years later we were still making grocery lists on the unused letterhead from that campaign. 

He was an idealist and maybe I am too, on account of him.

I know he fell hard for a blue-eyed girl in the early 1890s. She married him when he got done law school and bore four babies in five years, and, scarce out of her 20s, saw her fifth baby die inside her only hours before she died herself.

His world went black then, as he wrote in his diary of that day.

In time he fell in love again with the younger sister of that blue-eyed girl  and tried all over again like Job and here sure enough came a new fifth child… But then that wife died too, at only 40, and he found a snatch of verse in the newspapers and cut it out and hung it by the mantle where I saw it every day walking past that hearth. Here is what it says:

Good night! good night! as we so oft have said
  Beneath this roof at midnight in the days
  That are no more, and shall no more return.
Thou hast but taken thy lamp and gone to bed;
  I stay a little longer, as one stays
To cover up the embers that still burn.

When he died and we sold the house he had built with such joy, we took the yellowed piece of newsprint and tucked it away, where, these 50 years later, I have again come upon it. 

I am Irish in the way that my heart contracts to read it again as I have done just this morning But no more than the heart of anyone would contract at the thought of the lost, in whatever breast  that heart beats, and from whatever land.

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Thoughts on the Vernal Equinox

6pm but wintry stillHuge leaps of time ago, I watched small waves lap against a raft just to the left of this scene.

Only it was June. A lone swimmer oared his way leisurely along, his arm upraised. A breeze arose and the water’s surface, cracking into a million shards of blue, coral and lemon, became an Impressionist painting: Monet’s water lilies, without the lilies.

It was the longest day of the year and the wooden dock on which I lay felt smooth. Its planks, gone silver with age, drank in the sun’s warmth.

An hour before sunrise, I had risen to look for a window I could lie down in front of to catch the Early Show put on by birds, who swoop so close to our house they seem like aircraft, cleared one by one for flight. So fast do they pass I can detect neither species nor color even, only glimpsing in a flash the fuselage of an underbelly, the landing gear of two tucked-up feet.

By 8am I had I stepped out on my sidewalk, across which an ant lumbered as ants always lumber, bearing their burden of crumbs or fallen comrades.

Just nine weeks before that day it had snowed, the day before Easter or not.Six weeks later, tornadoes skipped and whirled and set devastatingly down across the region.

remember all this.

I remember too an evening in that hard winter just past, when four deer came over the deep snow to nibble any roots they could find. The papers all said they were starving and they certainly seemed to be in sore need, the way they came so close to people’s homes, their antlers held aloft like complicated branching torches.

Was this truly just four months before the luxurious long cat-stretch of the summer solstice? 

It seemed from there an eternity. 

But Time plays tricks on us all.  

As I lay on that longest-day dock, the breeze stretched a new canvas over the frame of lake and did another impression of 19th century painting: a Van Gogh this time, I thought.

On how many a summer solstices have we stretched out on docks, or sands, or sun-warmed stoops, thinking each time that June would last forever? Too many to count?

In her wonderful novel The Maytrees, author Annie Dillard has this to say: 

“Old people were not incredulous at having once been young but at being young for so many decades running.”

I smile every time I remember that passage. I smile for its truth.

For we are all young who draw breath Really all the living are young, as any bird or ant can tell you. 

My thoughts ran this way on that year’s longest day with, as I told myself, many such days before me.

But in truth there is but one longest day and after that, they get shorter and shorter still.

Give me not the summer solstice therefore. Give me instead the spring solstice now approaching, when, for a lovely billowing incandescent bubble of a moment, Day and Night meet as equals and kiss, the day fully as long as the night, after many months being so much shorter. 

I study the tables. One day this week in my part of the world, the sun sets at 7:07 and rises at 7:04 the next morning. At that day’s end, it sets at 7:08, and rises the next day at 7:03.

Then finally comes the day, when it both rises and sets at 7:05,  Day and Night again stand as equals and we feel ourselves lightly if briefly held, inside that lovely wobbling bubble of a moment. 

It’s almost upon us now. Run outside and get ready for the Return!

dawn-at-the-lake

 

 

 

The Fun Never Ends

Really and truly, in this life the funny stuff never stops coming. That is, if you’re willing to LOOK at it as funny. 

And if you have people around you who support you in that view. 

Time was, my ten-year old boy and I used to think everything was funny. Microwaving an egg with the shell on as we once did? Hilarious! Duct-taping my old wig-head to a folded-up ironing board and dressing it in my bathrobe to scare his napping dad? Sidesplitting! 

Last week at the supermarket with the new ten-year old in my life along for the ride, I selected a bottle of sparkling water flavored to taste exactly like a fresh pink grapefruit. 

I needed some of this Ruby Red, and I needed it bad, because my trusty thermos-with-the-pop-up-nozzle had been sipped at over the last 30 minutes by this grandson of mine, whose mom and baby sister were bumping along in their own aisle, several food categories away. 

The boy just loves the special concoction I fill it with, a zesty combination of lemonade and mint tea that I mix up by the gallon. He named it ‘TT juice,’ when he first learned to talk, I guess because he calls me  ‘TT’ and he sees this as my signature drink. 

Anyway, he had drained it down to the final two inches in this jaunty blue thermos of mine when at last we stood on the far side of the checkout lanes. 

Thirsty as I had been, I’d wanted to set an example for the child and not be one of those shoppers who begins devouring the bag of chips or cookies before even paying for them, secure in their belief that no ‘mere’ stock boy or sales associate would dare call him on this behavior. 

I had waited until I’d handed over the money and was on the ‘paid’ side of the register.

But at that point, as my daughter paused to re-fasten the baby’s shoes, I saw my chance: In one swift motion,  I twisted off the cap of that bottle of Ruby Red and began swiftly pouring it into mouth of my handy little thermos.

In went the fizzy stuff. On went the screw-on top with the pop-up nozzle.

I knew there was still SOME TT juice down at the bottom so naturally I shook the thing, to mix it up.

I shook it hard. Then, I pulled on the pop-up nozzle…

When I say the stuff geysered like Old Faithful I am not exaggerating. There was a loud pop and it flew high in the air, utterly soaking the whole front of my head before raining a fine mist down on the nine or ten people in the three checkout lines closest to us.

Worse, it kept ON geysering, for almost half a minute. I couldn’t stop it, hard as I tried.

And what did my young grandson say?

“Don’t look up. Don’t look around. Just let’s walk out of her fast.”

His mother, my own daughter, agreed, and so we did walk out.

Which I found kind of a shame.  I mean, I SAW those people’s faces. I KNOW they were about to join me in the laugh.

As it was, I had to wait ‘til we got home with the groceries, where my mate was making a sandwich, along with our own visiting former ten-year-old, now a thoroughgoing adult of 29.

I told them both the story.

My mate just rolled his eyes, for the ten-thousandth time in our marriage.

My son, however,  laughed delightedly.

Then he and I staged a reenactment – and the geysering was every bit as funny the second time as it had been the first.

Who says you can’t repeat the past?