‘That Girl’

Click on this link to hear the theme song and opening sequence: That Girl

I loved “That Girl.” I wanted to be Ann Marie, the lead character. She had great hair (I’ve written about my struggles with my hair before in Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful). Hers was shiny and straight with a stylish flip at the bottom. Her bangs were perfect. My bangs always curled – the least bit of humidity or sweat and my bangs were history, just frizz and curls. She also had a cute figure, like a real-life Barbie doll. She had a boyfriend who was devoted to her, despite her sometimes-exasperating adventures. She was bubbly and had a great smile. She lived in Manhattan and her loving parents lived in a nice suburban house. Oh, why couldn’t I be her?!

I was seven years old when “That Girl” first started airing. It was on for five years. No matter what I did, my hair would not look like Ann’s. No matter what I did, my body was simply too thick. I come from Eastern European peasant stock, after all. The closest person, in real life, that I knew who met that ideal was my Dad’s cousin, Carol. Somehow the peasant stock was noticeably absent in Carol. She was petite and had fabulous hair that she wore in the same style as Ann Marie. She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she was a lawyer. I was in awe.

But, and this is big, she wasn’t married! While it is entirely possible she had a boyfriend, I was not aware of that as a child. This was a major problem, in my young mind. It confused me. According to my sophisticated world view, she should have either been married or had a steady boyfriend, since she was the epitome of what a woman should be.

The messages I received as a girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were conflicting. I was paying close attention to the women’s movement and I bought in to the idea that women can and should have it all: career and family. That message turned out to be incomplete – maybe we could have it all, but not at one time. It was also unrealistic given the need for all of society to change – men, the world of work, families, our institutions. It was a tall order that hasn’t been fulfilled yet – 50 years later.

Even with those ideas about changing roles for women, my notion of romantic relationships remained quite traditional. I thought a woman should marry a man, have two children and a cat. The idea of having a cat may have been revolutionary, but otherwise, I was quite traditional.

I got the message that a woman should be attached, that something was amiss if she was without a husband. Even as a girl, I felt that pressure. I could not separate what was societal, familial or my own neuroses.

In my family, the dating status of single female adults was not spoken of. Generally, you had to be engaged to be married for the relationship to be recognized. And, while that is understandable, in terms of welcoming someone into the family, it doesn’t explain the silence on the subject. I took the silence to mean there was something wrong with being a single woman. In our extended family, there were a few who fell into that category. Oddly enough, there was only one single male, my Uncle Mike, and it was understood that he certainly wanted to be married (which he did, eventually). We had no ‘confirmed bachelors.’ In retrospect, I wonder if the silence around the women who weren’t married was more about wanting to avoid any conversation about sex.

All of this contributed to my great fear that I would not marry. If Carol wasn’t married, pretty as she was, how would I ever ‘catch’ someone. Why, as an adolescent, was I preoccupied by this fear?

I remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were teenagers. For a couple of summers, Mark and I worked at the same summer camp. One time there was talk on the girl’s side about a counselor, Robin, coming back to her bunk with grass on her back and in her hair. There was some joking and teasing about who she had been with. Rumor had it that she was with my brother. That was weird for me to hear. Some brothers and sisters may talk or joke about their dating lives, but that was not the case in our family. After hearing the scuttlebutt, alone with my brother, I asked him if he thought Robin liked him. He responded that he hadn’t really thought about it.

That was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. He hadn’t thought about it!! That is all I would have been thinking about. It was all I ever thought about when it came to guys: does he like me? Not, do I like him? I would worry about that once I knew that he liked me! Now, my brother may be unusual, actually, I know he is unusual. But I do think there was something to this. I spent endless hours with friends parsing words, body language, tone of voice to determine if the guy was interested. While I don’t doubt that guys were concerned with whether they were liked, I think their priorities were elsewhere – like: What’s for dinner? How did the Mets do? When would they next have sex? Maybe that is an overstatement, but I think there’s truth to it.

So much of my self-worth hinged on whether there was a guy interested in me. Or at least that’s what I thought during my teenage years and well into young adulthood. The irony is I came to learn that having a boyfriend or husband didn’t fix that self-worth issue. As author Anne Lamott said in her recent TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching here), that is an ‘inside job.’ No outside validation can silence the persistent voice in your head that tears you down. You have to find a way to do that yourself.

 

 

 

 

Anger

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Is it socially acceptable for women to express anger? I have thought about this forever– long before Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was called to task for dropping the f-bomb in frustration the other day. My first reaction to Senator Gillibrand’s outburst was, “Way to go! You tell ‘em, sister!”

Anger is a mysterious emotion to me.  As a girl and then as a woman, it was/is difficult to express. There is a caveat to that. I have had no problem expressing anger with my mother or my husband. Aren’t they lucky?! While they might prefer it be otherwise, I choose to think of it as a mark of how comfortable I am with them. They are the recipients of the full range of my emotions. That is the positive spin I’m putting on it and I’m sticking with it. (Perhaps I’m letting myself off too easily.)

My children might say that I freely express anger with them, too. (Leah and Dan, you can take this opportunity to offer your first public comments on this blog, if you wish.) That may have been true when they were children, but it is much more complicated now that they are adults. The truth is, I don’t often get angry at them. More frequently I can be hurt or frustrated, emotions which are also difficult to express.

Which brings me to the question: what is anger? Isn’t it the result of fear, frustration or hurt? Is anger actually a separate thing? Turns out these aren’t original questions, as the image below reveals.

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I reflect on my Dad’s temper (which I wrote about previously here) when we were growing up.  I think 95% of the time his anger was a manifestation of frustration. Driving the car in New York City traffic, where other drivers did dumb things, where rubbernecking could cause endless delays, where the Van Wyck Expressway was under construction for my entire life, the aggravation sent him over the edge. Add Mark teasing me, telling me I was adopted or calling my shoes canoes, and me responding by hitting him or whining to my parents; it was a toxic mix. “Don’t make me pull over!” he screamed. Dad’s voice was deep and intense – in a small space like the car, the sound reverberated. We got in line quickly. Until the next provocation.

It also seems that some people are born angry. I don’t know if that was the case with my dad, but it seemed to be the case with my son. Perhaps it was low frustration tolerance, or over-sensitivity, but Dan was angry a lot. If something didn’t taste the way he expected, or if a fabric was rough on his skin, he objected strenuously. Gary and I tried various strategies to help him manage it and find outlets for it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dan, but by the time he was in high school he seemed to have a much better handle on it.

For me, anger was often expressed in tears and sometimes when I least wanted them. I couldn’t cry in grief, but I could cry in anger.

I was working for the City of Pittsburgh’s Finance Department in 1984. Computer systems were being implemented and there was resistance from staff. One of my jobs was to train the city’s auditors on the new system. The audit department was comprised of about 15 men (zero women), who had been doing their jobs, on average, for more than 10 years. I was 24, right out of graduate school, from New York City and Jewish. And, at that time many of the Finance Department employees, even in the audit department, only had a high school diploma. I was an outsider for many reasons and my message of change was very unwelcome.

I walked the group through the new system. I don’t remember exactly how it started to devolve, but it became a gripe session. They vented all of their anger and frustration on me. The department supervisor, a man at least 30 years my senior, stood by silently. I almost wondered if he was taking pleasure in the display, after all it was directed at me, not him. I tried to stand my ground, explaining how this was a tool to help them, explaining how I was not the decision-maker here but the messenger, how I would share their concerns with the higher ups. After a while, although I was angry, I got shakier and shakier, my voice cracking. Eventually some tears rolled down my cheeks. I wished I could have channeled my father’s rage. Finally, mercifully, the session was over.

I went to my office to collect myself. Then I went to see my boss, the treasurer. I told him he might hear some things about the training session and I wanted him to hear it from me first. While at that point I was composed, I was still shaky. The one thing that came from that meeting was that he spoke with the audit supervisor about his failure to step up and help, given that he was a member of the management team.

A few days later, I ran into one of the auditors on the staircase. He apologized for his behavior, explaining that I was the unfortunate recipient of their built-up frustration. I accepted his apology, but something about it made me uneasy. I felt like he was patronizing me. He was one of the most aggressive offenders at the training session –  his last name was Heckler.  Unbelievable! How appropriate.

It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time that a workplace experience played out that way. If I felt that my integrity was in question or if criticism was unfair, it resulted in tears, rather than anger. I hated that about myself. Fortunately, the circumstances didn’t arise very often. I was in my late 40’s when I finally could stand my ground without tears.

Actually, standing my ground in the workplace, even without the tears, didn’t work out that well either. I never did figure out how to successfully express disagreement or frustration (if success is measured by changing minds of those in power).

As I got older and less concerned with what other people thought, I was freer in stating my opinion. This didn’t always go over very well. When I worked for the school boards association, if the organization was taking a position that I thought was not in the best interest of students or my fellow employees, I could be quite passionate in expressing my views. I wasn’t very effective in changing minds, which could reflect the weakness of my argument, or it could have related to how I delivered the message. I came to believe that it was at least partly because strong opinions expressed by a strong woman were not welcome.

Research, at least in one study reported on in Psychology Today,*  suggests that when women show anger, they lose credibility, while men gain credibility when they do. That finding is certainly consistent with my experience.

For both men and women anger is a tricky emotion to manage. But for women it seems to be a no-win situation. If you come across too strongly, it turns people off. If you are too meek, you get walked over or patronized. I don’t know how this will ever change, but I am hopeful that awareness is the first step.

*Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation. Law and Human Behavior, doi:10.1037/lhb0000147)

Life’s Mysteries

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Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.

That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.

More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).

One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.

While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.

Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.

“Stop the car!” I pleaded.

“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.

“You did that on purpose!”

“What?”

“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.

“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”

“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.

At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.

“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.

It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.

I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.

I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.

Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.

Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.

Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.

For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.

To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.

Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.

These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.

I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.

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Roger and Raffa posing in my bedroom May 2017

Living the Dream

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It’s no secret that I am trying to be a writer. I am not yet ready to call myself a writer, that would be too audacious. I’m not sure when I will be ready to assume the mantle, but this past weekend I took a step in that direction. I attended a writers’ conference!

I am a veteran of conferences – as an attendee and a presenter – but those were school board-related, where my identity was firm. I had a love-hate relationship with those conferences. I loved the learning – hearing experienced, knowledgeable professionals share insights gets my adrenaline going. I also enjoyed presenting information that I thought would educate and motivate school board members. The thing I hated about those conferences was the stress – juggling my stuff (I always seemed to have too many things!) without spilling coffee all over myself, making small talk with people I didn’t know, getting adequate sleep after exceptionally long days where I had to be ‘on’ for so many hours. The stress was a big part of the conference experience.

I wanted to further develop my writing, and improve my odds of getting published, so months in advance I ponied up the money and committed to spending Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh to attend the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ conference. I even paid extra to get a half hour one-on-one session with an agent. I thought I was ready to take the plunge.

One would think, given that I was so invested in this conference, that I would plan my time so that I would arrive fresh and rested, ready to maximize the experience. One would be wrong. Here was my schedule, of my own design, for the week leading up to it.  I drove with my brother, Mark, from Albany to New Jersey on Wednesday night so that we could escort my Mom to Florida on Thursday. We were in Florida to attend my aunt’s unveiling (a Jewish tradition where the headstone is unveiled at the cemetery about a year after a death). We flew back on Monday, arriving in Newark at 9:00 p.m. We drove back to Albany that night, arriving at 1:30 a.m. I had Tuesday to do laundry and get organized. On Wednesday I drove to New York City to leave my car with Daniel so he and Beth could visit Leah over the holiday weekend. I took Amtrak back to Albany on Thursday. Gary met me at the station and we left for Pittsburgh. We arrived in Pittsburgh at 10:30 pm. The conference started with breakfast at 8 a.m. on Friday.

Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep that well Thursday night. It was one of those nights where you wake up every hour and look at the clock. I finally fell into a restful sleep at about 6 a.m. When the alarm went off at 7:30, I was disoriented, to say the least.

I stumbled around in the hotel room (the room-darkening curtains worked a little too well), trying not to disturb Gary, and managed to shower and dress without injuring myself. I got down to the lobby and saw that it was pouring so I decided to treat myself to a cab even though the conference was only a 10-minute walk away. The doorman hailed me a cab. I took a deep breath and thought, “Okay, this is good. I’m on time. I can relax.” Not so fast.

The cab rattled and bumped down the potholed streets. The driver, in a muffled, raspy, unfriendly voice, warned me that I should buckle up or hold on. I did as I was told. In anticipation of walking to the conference I had set up the map function on my phone, so a voice was giving directions – directions which the driver wasn’t following. I said, “Oh, that’s just my phone,” thinking he’d be wondering about the disembodied voice. He said, sounding defensive and annoyed, “Oh, people do that all the time. They use their phones and say, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ Not realizing that I’ve been doing this for 30 years and might know a better route than the damn phone.” I started to explain that I wasn’t checking on him, but thought better of it. Fortunately, we arrived at my destination within minutes. I was relieved to get out of the cab.

I found my way to the conference registration desk and breakfast. I even managed to find some very pleasant women to sit with– one from Missouri (originally from Long Island) and another from Texas – who were newcomers to the conference. It seemed like things were settling down when it was time to go to the first lecture. The three of us trooped upstairs to the ballroom for the session and settled into seats. I reached for my phone to silence it and couldn’t find it. I went through my purse, my briefcase, the conference bag, my pockets… multiple times. I went back downstairs to where we had breakfast. I retraced my steps. No luck.

I went back up to the ballroom, where the lecture had not yet begun. My new friend from Texas offered to let me use her phone to call Gary. “Please pick up!” I repeated to myself, thinking Gary would ignore the call since he wouldn’t recognize the number. Fortunately, he answered. I explained my dilemma and said I had a feeling that the phone fell out of my pocket during that godforsaken cab ride. After consoling me, he readily agreed to try and track it down. I gave him as much information as I could (white van, cranky cab driver, etc.). We made up to meet at the hotel room after my consultation with the agent, which was scheduled from noon until 12:30.

I still had time before the talk began to go up to the front of the room and ask the conference organizer if she would make an announcement about my lost phone. She did. Although everyone was being very nice, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a sign that I didn’t belong at the conference. It didn’t take much to derail my inchoate confidence.

I tried to concentrate on the speaker. I took notes, writing down articles and books that were referenced as stellar works of creative nonfiction. Following the opening lecture, there were breakout sessions. I went to one on research and fact-checking. I barely had time to think about the meeting with the agent. It was quickly coming up on the time for that meeting. I left the breakout session early to try and gather my thoughts. What was it I was trying to accomplish with my meeting?

Though I wouldn’t allow myself to say the words to myself, let’s be honest. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the agent to be so bowled over by me, she would ask to sign me up right there. My logical brain knew that wouldn’t happen, so I did think of some questions.

Our conversation was cordial. I briefly described my blog and that I had two goals: growing my readership and developing a couple of themes from the blog into a book. She shared some insight into what an agent looks for. She told me that having 40,000 followers will get a blogger noticed. Okay, then. While I don’t know how to interpret the numbers WordPress provides, I know I’m nowhere near that!

I asked a couple of more questions, she gave me a couple of suggestions. We made some small talk about the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She commiserated over the loss of my phone, and she took my card, at least I think she did. Who knows if she kept it or looked at it?

We shook hands, she wished me luck. I gathered my things and walked back to the hotel to meet Gary. I was in a funk. I was bone tired, disappointed and worried about finding the phone.

I opened the door to the room to some good news! Gary, after persistently calling my phone, reached the cabbie. Gary was similarly unimpressed with his personality, but at least he agreed to meet at 4:00 p.m. at the taxi stand in front of the hotel. He asked for a cash reward. We weren’t sure that he would show up, but we had hope.

I filled Gary in on my meeting with the agent; he was philosophical about it. “You know what steps you need to take. You just need to decide whether you want to.” True. He also pointed out that I should take some time to process all that had happened. There were no decisions to be made immediately.

Part of me wanted to get under the covers and go to sleep. That would be a decision. I didn’t, though. We had some lunch, he filled me in on the particulars of tracking down the phone. I revived a bit and went back into the fray. Gary would message me on my computer, which I had with me, to let me know the status of the phone. I returned to the conference.

I attended the sessions, still not fully present, but better than the morning. I checked my computer at 4:15 and there was a message from Gary; he had the phone! What a relief! And, the day was almost over!

The last session of the afternoon concluded, I met Gary. We went out for a nice dinner. I had a cocktail and regrouped. I got a better night’s sleep and went back for day two.

I’m glad I did. I met some more interesting people, most were making a living doing something else, but wanted to write. I met a massage therapist, an airline pilot, several teachers, a nurse practitioner, a publicist, a researcher on nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan! On that second morning of the conference, I sat down to breakfast next to a young man from New Orleans. He is in the midst of an MFA program. He asked about my situation. I told him I retired two years ago to pursue writing. He smiled, “So you’re living the dream.” “I suppose I am.”

After listening to author after author at the conference talk about their journey, I learned just how daunting this endeavor is: getting published isn’t easy and even if you are lucky enough to get published, it doesn’t necessarily get easier.

After all is said and done, it comes down to this: do I want to tell stories? Do I want to work on the craft? Right now, the answer is yes.

A Year in Review

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Note: Today is Leah’s birthday. It is funny how Dan, Gary and Leah all have their birthdays on the same day of the week – this year it falls on a Monday – blog day! So, as has been my custom with Daniel and Gary, I dedicate this post to Leah. It is particularly appropriate because though the rest of my family has been supportive of this endeavor, Leah has been my biggest cheerleader and frequent editor. Her comments are always incisive and helpful. More than any of that, though, she is an inspiration to me. I admire her willingness to put herself out there by sharing her songs and expressing her creativity. It only took me until I was in my fifties, but she was a trailblazer for me J.  So, Leah, happy birthday! I love you hugely! I wish you love, health, peace and wonderful adventures – and everything you want for yourself, too.

Today’s blog post is my 52nd! A year goes by fast! Well, technically I skipped one week, but still, I think it is a good time to take stock.

First, some numbers. The blog has had over 6000 views and it has had 2,250 visitors. Believe it or not, there have been 50 views from Germany, 10 from Italy, even 3 from China (and some other countries, too)! WordPress provides these stats. I have no idea how to interpret them. Clearly my Mom has visited the blog many times, but not from Germany! I’m not sure how the system tallies these things. I’ve also had well over 100 comments on the blog itself, not counting what has appeared on Facebook, or what was conveyed to me personally.

Despite not knowing how to make sense of the numbers, or how to compare them to any standard or expectation, I am just pleased to have readers! I started this blog to share memories and start some conversations and I think it has been successful. Without you, dear readers, it would not have been possible.

The blog has also had some unintended consequences. One of the reasons I entitled it “Stories I Tell Myself,” was that I believed each of us has a narrative that we use to describe the events of our lives. I think we have experiences and we interpret them so that they fit into the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. For example, to simplify the idea, if a person thinks of themselves as a victim, then they might look for how a set of circumstances reinforces that belief. I think we can trap ourselves in our own narrative.

In my case, I thought of myself as an unhappy child who felt insecure. I felt like I never got the love and attention I wanted. That perception shaped my life in important ways. It has been an effort to move beyond that – an effort that fortunately became more successful the older I got.

Writing these stories, and then editing and rereading them, and receiving comments has been a revelation. In digging through my past, I found so much love and warmth. I think while I was living through it, I didn’t absorb it – I didn’t feel it. I can’t explain that. I think I was more focused on the painful or disappointing parts. But, as I wrote and as I uncovered more memories, I couldn’t help but notice the love that was the foundation.

As is often the case for me, a song lyric comes to mind. Jackson Browne (once again) wrote, in Fountain of Sorrow, “And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” While I haven’t changed the past, and I wouldn’t describe the blogging process as easy, I think I have changed how I feel about the past.

I think the idea of ‘stories we tell ourselves’ is valid, even if, upon closer scrutiny, mine was a little off. Maybe that is the whole point. To discover whether the story is true! Not everyone would choose to examine their own stories in a public blog, but I think it has been helpful to get feedback. When people comment, for example, that the stories about my Nana and Zada make them feel warm and safe, it helps me process and amplify my own feelings.

Writing the stories was also useful. Describing the images in my head helped to clarify them. Having to choose adjectives to express an emotion, or paint a picture of Nana’s kitchen forced me to think more deeply about the memory and its meaning.

I don’t think I am done yet. I think there is more to uncover about growing up in Brooklyn in that time with my family. I think, too, there is more to explore about the beginning of my relationship with Gary, our early marriage and starting a family. I hope you will continue to share my journey and, perhaps, share some of yours. I have very much appreciated when Gary and Leah offered their own stories (and judging by the comments, readers have enjoyed their posts, too). Others are welcome to do that in the comments or in a guest blog piece.

I think it is helpful to examine our stories, our memories; expose them to the light of day. You may be surprised at what you find. I hope I continue to surprise myself.

Music

 

Music is so powerful in evoking emotions. During a recent visit, my Mom and Aunt Diane were recalling times when a piece of music brought tears to their eyes. Not tears of sadness, but tears inspired by the beauty of the sound. Aunt Diane recalled a time when she was driving home from work, on the FDR Drive, when she pulled her car over to listen without distraction. They were talking about classical music, identifying particular works of Bach and Beethoven that triggered the tears.

I have had occasions, especially with a live performance, where I have gotten shivers down my spine and my scalp prickled upon hearing something that touched my soul. Most often, for me, I’ve had that happen when voices harmonize and I feel uplifted. But even when I don’t have that physical reaction, I almost always have a response to music.

As a teenager and young adult music was central to my life. I think many people share that experience during that time of their life. Perhaps there are those for whom that isn’t true – my brother Mark comes to mind, but I think, not surprisingly, he may be the exception rather than the rule.

In high school, I have vivid memories of putting an album on my turntable, in my room the size of a closet, lying on my bed, and letting the music take me away. I didn’t do anything while I listened. Occasionally I may have read or done homework, but mostly I just listened…to Simon and Garfunkel, Seals and Crofts, Carole King, James Taylor. I put on my headphones, turned up the volume so that my head was filled with their voices, their melodies, their poetry.

The combination of the music and the lyrics in songs like Fire and Rain, The Boxer, Only Living Boy in New York, America validated my own feelings of alienation, loss and sadness. Sometimes it felt good to wallow around in my loneliness – I may have overdone that a bit as a teenager. But, the music could be hopeful or soothing, too. You’ve Got a Friend, Beautiful and Bridge Over Troubled Water reminded me that I did have connections, there was another way to look at the world.

Somewhere along the line I stopped doing that – just listening. Of course, life intrudes, especially when you work and have a family. But, I waste plenty of time – there could be time to do it. Concentrating fully on music, other than when I am in the car or at a concert, is just not something I consider doing anymore.

Music was a significant part of bonding with other people, too. We took it quite seriously. I remember going to my friend Cindy’s house (not the Cindy I played hooky with in elementary school, for those of you keeping track) to hang out. We weren’t long out of high school. She put on Turnstiles (Billy Joel) – a newly released album at the time. As she was setting it up on the turntable she turned to me and said, “Let’s not talk during it, ok?” I nodded in agreement. “And, I hope you don’t mind if I sing along to some of the songs, I really love James.” Cindy had already listened to the album many times over. It was still new to me. I was fine with her singing, she had a good voice. If we wanted to discuss a song, she paused the record so we could talk – we wouldn’t think of talking over it. This was one of many times that I bonded with someone over the shared experience of listening to an album.

At college, especially freshmen year, this shared ritual was an important part of establishing friendships. Merle introduced me to Jackson Browne and Dan Fogelberg. I remember sitting on her bed in her dorm room, we weren’t roommates yet, and she handed me the album Late for the Sky. “You have to listen to this,” she said. The evocative photograph on the cover, a solitary old car parked in front of a house as a day draws to a close with a still bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds, set the stage for the intense, searching songs that followed. We sat together and listened, cementing our friendship and a shared love of Jackson Browne. The same thing happened with Fogelberg’s Home Free. I heard the first notes of To the Morning and knew it was special to me. We eagerly awaited the release of their new albums, hoping one of us had the money to buy it.

Alison introduced me to Joni Mitchell. Aside from listening to Ladies of the Canyon, Alison played the guitar and we sang the songs. Again, a bond was formed that has withstood the test of time.

Music had another role in that time and place (the mid ‘70s). It was often used as a complement to getting high. I managed to make it through high school without trying pot. At times, I felt literally alone in that status. In college, I decided to relax my rules a bit and experiment (thank you, Merle, for getting me to loosen up!). One friend, Rob, fashioned himself as a kind of pied piper for those getting high for the first time. He liked introducing people to weed and I was one of his subjects. I went to his dorm room, where he had created an appropriately mellow environment with low lighting and wall hangings. He put on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and we rolled up. I admit it was kind of pleasant and relaxing. I remember walking back to my dorm in the dark and feeling like I was watching a movie where I could see the campus scenery as frames of film. Fortunately, it didn’t freak me out, I just took it all in. Although it was a positive introduction, I never fully embraced getting high. It was fine now and again, but not something I wanted to do regularly. I wonder if my feelings about pot relate to my failure to embrace the Grateful Dead, though that may be a ‘chicken or egg’ thing. Did I not like the Dead because I didn’t love getting high? Or, was it that I didn’t love getting high and therefore didn’t love the Dead? Either way, it wasn’t my scene.

Music was also an important part of my relationship with Gary. In our first year together we spent time listening to each other’s favorite albums. I had heard Bruce Springsteen before, but I didn’t fully appreciate his artistry until I listened to it with Gary. Our taste in music overlapped quite a bit, but Gary tended to like a grittier sound. I was drawn to prettier, more melodic songs. I remember playing James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes for him, expecting him to be similarly moved. Gary said something disparaging about it. I’ve blocked out what he said – but he made fun of it.  I nearly broke up with him right then and there! His dismissive attitude cut me to the quick. We had a real fight (maybe our first?). We had to learn to respect each other’s taste in music – this was serious business. Clearly, we figured it out or we wouldn’t be here almost 38 years later (34 married).

There is one thing that remains different about Gary and me and our attitude toward music. Gary is happy to listen only to music from before 1980 – unless it is Springsteen or Jackson Browne. He listens to their new music. If something that sounds remotely like rap comes on the radio, he immediately changes the station or turns it off. I, on the other hand, like to hear new things, new musicians. While I’m not particularly interested in Top 40 or hip-hop, I do like trying out new artists. I listen to an alternative radio station. I’m still drawn to singer-songwriters, but I’m open to hearing new people. I listen to my old favorites, too, but I’m curious about new stuff.

As I write this and reflect on what music has meant to me, I have made a decision: I want to devote more time to listening, without distraction. Maybe I’ll borrow a page from my teenage self:  Put on a CD, lay on my bed and let the music envelop me.

Binghamton, 1977

xcourt

 

After I retired I took a writing workshop that was an awesome experience. I have written before about how liberating that class was for me. One of the assignments we were given was to write a poem in response to another work of art – a poem, a painting, song lyrics – whatever inspired us. I wrote a poem in response to “Down to You,” by Joni Mitchell. For those who aren’t familiar with it, or if you don’t remember the lyrics, here they are:

 

Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
Constant stranger
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you

You go down to the pick up station
Craving warmth and beauty
You settle for less than fascination
A few drinks later you’re not so choosy
When the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this strange new flesh you’ve found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
You hurry
To the blackness
And the blankets
To lay down an impression
And your loneliness

In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Ooh, love is gone
Written on your spirit this sad song
Love is gone

Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
Constant stranger
You’re a brute, you’re an angel
You can crawl, you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you

Joni Mitchell from the album Court and Spark, 1974

 

I must have listened to that song, among many other Joni songs, hundreds of times during my college years. She was a mainstay of the soundtrack of that time in my life. This is the poem (or prose-poem) that I wrote after reflecting on that song:

 

Binghamton, 1977

It is a Binghamton kind of night.

The air so cold it hurts.

The sky is clear, pinpricks of light shine against the velvet blackness.

I am in exile.

 

My roommate’s boyfriend is visiting.

I will spend the weekend studiously avoiding my dorm room.

 

I am holding my pillow pressed against my chest, my knapsack on my back.

Waiting til 8:00 pm when I will meet a friend at her dorm room

where I will crash for the next two nights.

 

So, I wonder, where is the ‘pick up station’ that Joni sings about?

I have never found it.

Wouldn’t know how to work it, if I did.

 

She counts lovers like railroad cars.

I’ve had none.

 

But, I would like to lay down my loneliness.

I don’t think her way will work for me, though.

Can’t imagine picking up a stranger and feeling less alone.

 

Joni is right about one thing, though.

Pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow.

When I am in a tunnel, I can’t see the light.

If only the reverse were true.

When I’m in the light, I wait for a shoe to drop.

 

Right now I am clutching the night to me

And it is cold.