FOUND IN A TWEET: “THE ONLY LANGUAGE I SPEAK,” BY VICTORIA CHO

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Nearly one year after beginning to blog, I’ve finally stuck a big toe  — just one — in Twitter. About certain matters, mainly digital, I’m very slow. (I think I’ve mentioned that before, but thought I’d repeat it just in case anyone forgot.) It took half a day for me to master the Twitter button widget. Thank God for Julie Lawford – who knows the ropes, and kindly offered to guide me through the quagmire of hashtags and punctuation when I tweeted helplessly in her direction.

So now, at bottom left, anyone with patience and time to kill can see the most recent sound bites I’ve managed to tweet. But that’s not what this post is about. Besides, there’s not much extra there you won’t find here — certainly not much of substance. 140 characters is practically jail for folks like me who need freedom from word counts.

Will all this toil in Twitter’s vineyards bring more views to TGOB?  Only, I suspect, if I spend far more time than I’m willing to contemplate in building up follows on Twitter.  As the young might tweet: OMG!

However — and this is a big however — on my very first day of following other people’s tweets, I did discover something:  A link to a splendid post that beautifully illustrates the benefits of addressing the blank page or screen bird by bird.  (See Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, four posts back, in “Give Yourself A Short Assignment.”)  Which just goes to show there are rewards in heaven for the various purgatories on earth, such as learning to tweet — in this case, one less post I have to dig out of myself and a lovely read for you.

Although the link was to a piece in Perigee, a WordPress blog maintained by Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, a literary review interested in issues of diversity and ethnicity, I couldn’t find a reblog button. (Shame on you, Perigee or Apogee.)  So I’ve had to recopy it  (which is not exactly a reblog, but the best I could do). It comes from Issue 3 of Apogee, and was posted on September 22, 2014. I’m thumbs up both on what it says and how delicately it’s put together — rather like a collage (which I understand its author also practices). I do hope readers and writers who stop by at TGOB will enjoy it too:

THE ONLY LANGUAGE I SPEAK

By Victoria Cho

My elementary school classmates ask, “Are you from China?” “Are you from Japan?” I say no to both. They ask, “So where?” I say, “My parents are from Korea.” They ask where that is. I say, “Close to China and Japan.” They don’t ask any more questions.

***

My brother and I are sent to a summer camp for Korean Americans in a small Korean town. The other campers are surprised we don’t speak Korean. The teachers give lessons on Korean music and food. My brother and I are bored and play basketball. When we return to Virginia, my parents ask if we picked up any Korean. We shrug and say, “Not really.”

***

I am a college freshman. I join the Korean American Student Association. We’re planning the first outing of the year, and someone recommends a club. Someone else says, “That place is too white.” I realize the only places I go are full of white people. I realize I’d feel uncomfortable at a place full of Koreans. I drop out of the Association. I make new friends. None of them are Korean American, but a few are not white. It is my first time with not white friends.

***

In Thailand, locals greet me with, “Konichiwa.” I assume my colorful outfits and short haircut reflect Japanese trends. I almost don’t get a job teaching English because the school principals don’t believe I speak English. I tell one principal, “English is the only language I speak.”  She asks, “But your face?” I get this question everywhere. Vendors and tuk-tuk drivers ask where I’m from. I say “America,” and they ask, “But your face?” I say my parents are Korean, and they nod with satisfaction.

***

People say “Konichiwa” and “Ni-how” to me on the streets of New York. They are usually non-Asian men and occasionally teenagers or children. My responses range from, “I speak English” to silence to curse words. Sometimes waiters or shop owners in Chinatown or Sunset Park say “Ni-how” when I enter. I speak English, and they switch. The transition is fluid and forgotten.

***

A guy I am dating says I am the third consecutive Asian woman he has dated. I think of the time one man told me Asian women are known for having small, tight vaginas. I think: everyone I have dated has been Caucasian and male.

***

A drunk young man on the subway asks where I’m from. I say, “Virginia.” He asks where my parents are from. This is what people ask when they want to know why you look like you do. I reluctantly say, “Korea.” He asks if I speak Korean. I say no, and he wags his finger at me. I stop speaking to him and look annoyed. He apologizes. I think of my guilt that I do not speak Korean the rest of the ride home.

************

Victoria Cho’s writing has appeared in The Collagist, Quarter After Eight, Word Riot, and Mosaic Art and Literary Journal. She was born in Virginia and now writes, collages, and plays in New York.

ARE YOU A JEW?

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[When I began this blog eleven months ago, I promised myself my children and grandchildren would be off limits. Period. No telling tales about them, however loving, that would forever float around the digital universe to haunt them till the end of time. Therefore this story is about another boy.]

Once upon a time, say in September 1978, a little boy moved with his mother, father and older brother from New York City to a small and pretty town on the south shore of Massachusetts called Duxbury.  It was the first place the Pilgrims had come after spending the winter of their arrival in the New World on the Mayflower, the ship with which they had made the voyage.  As soon as the weather warmed up, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay and called the place they landed “Duke’s Borough.”  [I forget which Duke, but you can be sure he was English and Protestant.] John and Priscilla Alden built a house there, now a tourist attraction. The town also has a monument erected to the memory of Miles Standish.

An executive search lady had steered the little boy’s parents to Duxbury because it was equidistant between Boston and Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where she was hoping the little boy’s father would accept a position as CFO for a privately held corporation. According to the little boy’s mother, who tended to be hoity-toity about such things, public schools in Hyannis were unacceptable, and there were no private ones anywhere near, except Catholic parochial schools, which were also unacceptable because the little boy’s parents, and therefore their children, were nominally Jewish.  Also she felt she might die if she couldn’t get to a big city once in a while, preferably one with a reputation for culture and learning, like Boston.

Thus Duxbury it was.  When the little boy’s older brother first heard where they were moving, he asked, “Is there also a Chickenbury and a Turkeybury?”  But he was already beginning to make sardonic comments about many things, even though he was only eleven, so never mind that.  Duxbury was certainly lovely when the family came up one weekend to look at it before making a commitment — all  green trees, and winding roads, and historic New England houses with plaques bearing dates of construction going back as far as, and occasionally even farther than, the late eighteenth century, and steepled white churches of nearly every Protestant denomination dotted here and there on well kept lawns.  There was also one red brick Catholic church, and a yacht club with its own tennis courts and golf course, and a beautiful expanse of golden beach on the Atlantic Ocean reserved for town residents.

They moved in on the first Saturday in September. School began the following Monday. The little boy’s brother was in a higher grade, in a different building, served by a different school bus. So he would be going alone to his new school. In New York, they had walked with friends from their apartment house to their respective schools. The yellow school buses here were new to them. On the first day, the little boy’s mother therefore walked him the half-block down their street to the corner where the lower school bus would pick him up, and waited until he was safely inside.

She was back on the corner at 3:00, when school let out. The  little boy descended the bus steps, happy to see her, and took her hand as they ambled back to the house. “You don’t have to come anymore,” he declared proudly.  “I can do it myself.”  In the kitchen, she poured him a glass of milk to go with the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, and sat down opposite to ask how his first day had gone.  Everything was good, he assured her.  Teacher nice, other kids fine. Except for one thing on the bus in the morning. “What thing?” asked his mother. So he told her, which is what he’d been wanting to do all along.

********

A big kid had got on at the next stop after his and sat down in the empty seat next to him. A very big kid. [As the lower school to which the bus was going only went through fifth grade, the size of this "big kid" must be considered in relation to the size of the little boy, who was about to enter fourth grade. We're not talking teenagers here.]

The big kid looked the little boy over. “Never saw you before,” he said. “New?” The little boy nodded.  The big kid asked his name and where he lived.  “What kind of name is that?” he wanted to know. “My name,” said the little boy, bravely.

Then the big kid asked which church the little boy went to. The little boy was next to the window or he would have got up and changed his seat, but he couldn’t do that. So he said he didn’t go to any church.  Not even the Catholic one? The little boy shook his head. No.

Right away the big kid demanded, in a not friendly way, “Are you a jew?”

The little boy had already sensed that “jew” might not be a very good thing to be in this new town. Or at least, not on this bus. On the other hand, he also knew one shouldn’t lie.

So after a moment, he said to the big kid, “Which would you rather be?  A jew… or Hitler?

The big kid had to think about that one.  “A jew, I guess,” he said finally.

“Well then,” said the little boy. “You see?”

*******

“Was that a good answer?” he asked his mother that afternoon.

“It was a very good answer,” said his mother, getting up and kissing the top of his curly head as she went to pour more milk.

The big kid never bothered the little boy again. The following weekend, his mother and father took him (and his brother) to Fenway Park in Boston to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox as a present for his ninth birthday.  It was harder for him to decide which team to root for than it had been to decide what to say on the bus.

His mother is still very proud of him.

AUTUMN LEAVES

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“Aren’t they beautiful!” says Bill.  “They’re just beginning to turn color.”

The autumn leaves of New England are indeed celebrated for their glorious yellows, oranges and reds during the week or two in early October when they flame into brilliant color before falling to the ground to be swept up, bagged and disappear. (Or else to disintegrate into mulch in heavily forested preserves.) I hear enterprising touring companies in England even organize one-week trips abroad to come look.  (Although in my view that’s a waste of a cross-Atlantic journey.  How long can you look?)

We live three states south of Vermont and New Hampshire, where most of the publicized beauty takes place. So what happens here happens several weeks later.  But Bill’s right. (Even though his enthusiasm for the beauty of it is perhaps a trifle premature.)  It’s beginning.  Now that he’s brought my attention to it, I notice it whenever I step out the door:

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It’s also across the way, where our neighbors live, and where it’s even more pronounced:

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Should I be glad we”re soon to have a feast for the eyes whenever we raise them upward?  Or is there something melancholy in this last gorgeously defiant display before the fading of the year?

I suppose it depends on where you stand on life’s arc and how steady your footing.  Now that I’m 83 and — yes, let’s be candid — on life’s downward chronological slope, I can’t help feeling somewhat sad when I see all this dying beauty. And also can’t help hoping I’ll still be around to see it (however sad my feelings) when it returns again and again.

So here’s to years and years more autumn leaves!  Bring them on in all their splendor!  I’m ready.

Autumn on McComb Road

GIVE YOURSELF A SHORT ASSIGNMENT

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IMG_1088I’m not a great fan of “learning to write” stuff for would-be writers.  As fellow blogger Julie Lawford has recently been discussing in her excellent and beautifully written blog “From A Writer’s Notepad,” there’s a huge figurative shopping mall out there, replete with books, courses, workshops, retreats and other sorts of “writerly learning” that can drain your energy and empty your wallet while keeping you from your writing table (or electronic device), if you’re not extremely selective in your choices.

I’ve already expressed myself at length in Julie’s comment section  — possibly at too great length — on the dubious value to the quality of one’s writing in excess consumption of these products. Yes, there is merit in meeting fellow practitioners of what is essentially a solitary endeavor and in getting a feel for the hurdles confronting you in the world of publishing and/or self-publishing. But I stand my ground that the best way to learn how to write is to write…and to read, read, read all your life, both extensively and intensively.

However, there is one book I often turn to when discouraged.  It’s very well known, and I haven’t unearthed anything new in bringing it to your attention.  Its author relies somewhat more on God in her life than I do, but her practical advice is so sound it’s worth looking at again and again when you feel stuck.  She talks about shitty first drafts, about perfectionism, about false starts — and yes, also about character, plot, dialogue, set design. But the chapter I like best of all, the one that really speaks to me, is the one called “Short Assignments.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a short chapter.  However, it would make a very long blog post, so I’m only going to quote some of it.  But it’s such a good tonic for budding novelists, memoirists, belle lettrists and also bloggers who’ve run out of steam that I thought I’d offer up the choicest parts, including the bit for which the book is named, before turning TGOB in a different direction for a while.  Here it is, abridged. From Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of — oh, say — say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop….[until] I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. [Bold italics added.]

So….I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…..[H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

….Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.  It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously…. Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.

WHICH ONE’S THE REAL ME?

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Those of you who’ve been coming around here for a while will have realized by now there’s a lot of looking back in this blog. It’s certainly not all backward glances yet, thank you. But when one reaches these golden/twilight/over-the-hill [choose one] years I seem to have arrived at despite best efforts to stall, delay, color my hair, and otherwise try to put off the “getting old” for which the blog is named — there seems to be less blogworthy stuff in the day-to-day compared to that rich lode of times gone by with which to fertilize posts and memoirs, and perhaps even interesting pieces of stand-alone writing.

But (you may ask) why do I sometimes write about what I remember in the first person, as if we were having a conversation, only in slightly more “proper” language than I’d probably use if we were just hanging out — and sometimes write about a girl or young woman called Anna or Molly or Sophie?  Some newcomers who have stumbled on the recent set of eight Anna posts and then looked me up have conflated my age with the dates of these stories and quite sensibly concluded in their comments that what I write about Anna is “sharing” or memoir or personal history.

Well, yes and no.  Clearly, Anna (and Molly and Sophie) lived when and where I lived, and had similar parents and similar experiences and feelings.  But when I put all that in the third person I am trying to do something other than tell you what I remember.  Disassociating myself from what I may recall happened to “me” and considering the girl and young woman I was as someone other than me — in other words, putting her in the third person — permits me to write something that’s not really just my personal history, as told to you and you and you, but to paint on a larger canvas and hopefully to suggest something about the times this female person was born into and lived in, the societal expectations for girls and women then in place, the people in her life that she herself would have been unable to understand at the time but who may have had their own problems and concerns and blind spots that would necessarily influence and shape the young woman she would grow up to be.

For example, each of the eight Anna pieces posted just before this one (and the four about Anna posted previously as “from a novella in progress” — as well as the ones not yet written) are intended to comprise part of a narrative of sequentially arranged snapshots of the life of a particular family in mid-twentieth century New York as seen by the only child.  Its tentative title, if it ever gets finished, is “Anna’s Version” — meaning there might have been other ways of telling this story.

The father, for instance, would likely have had an entirely different version of the same events, if he had ever had time to sit down at his Royal typewriter to tell it, including an account of matters about which Anna at the time knew nothing.  The mother’s story would have been a third version (although since she was afraid to learn to type and apparently had no close friends, I’m not sure who she could have told it to). A family therapist — if consulting one was an idea that could ever have crossed the minds of these parents — would undoubtedly have given us a fourth, far more objective, version.

But I hope I have been writing from Anna’s viewpoint with enough implied clues as to what may have made these naturalized parents from another culture the way Anna perceives them, so that it eventually will become a view of what we all do to each other without meaning to — as well as Anna’s story.

Well, enough of that. These possibly overly clinical distinctions may derive from too many years of shrinkage. (Or perhaps too many years of trial lawyering: “Is it your testimony, Ms. ___, that so and so really did this that or the other thing on such and such a date?”)  Now that we’ve cleared up once and for all what I was aiming at (hah!), go ahead and read whatever you find here any way you like.  There’s also plenty of just self-referential me me me rummaging through a basement of memories in these posts to satisfy the most insatiable appetites for “sharing.”

Be my guest.  Enjoy.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #8

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Under the Clock, 1946

About six months after the end of the war, the Philadelphia hotel where Anna’s father was working decided to replace him and his ensemble with a pianist, bass player and drummer who played popular music and jazz. This time, however, he’d sensed management might be up to something and was able to jump before he was pushed. When “they” came to give him his pink slip, he informed them he would be leaving in any case.

Anna tried to visualize this scene as her father, the wonderful raconteur, waved his fork in triumph over his plate of Sunday roast beef and mashed potato. Who was the “they” who had come to him with the dreaded piece of pink paper? Surely it had to have been a single person. She imagined a balding bulky man in a dark business suit, with a white handkerchief folded just so in his breast pocket and gleaming gold cuff links at his wrists. Dressed exactly like her father when he went to work, as a matter of fact. Well, her father wasn’t bulky. Although he was getting there. He must have been eating very well in Philadelphia.

“Where are you jumping to?” she asked.

Her mother’s eyes shone with happiness. “He’ll be playing at the Biltmore!” she announced. “Under the clock. Isn’t that wonderful? They’ve put his picture up all over the hotel already.”

“Clock?”

“The clock in the cocktail lounge off the lobby,” said her mother, as if she were explaining something to an idiot. “It’s a well-known meeting place. Haven’t you ever heard the expression, ‘Meet you under the clock at the Biltmore’?”

She’s just showing off, thought Anna.   As if she ever met a friend for cocktails in the city!

All the same, the next day she dragged a friend from her Latin class to the Biltmore after school let out. The friend was for moral support. Clutching their strapped books and notebooks against their winter coats, the two tiptoed through the hushed resplendent hotel lobby towards the cocktail lounge. No one stopped them. Anna looked up. Her mother had been right: there was a large clock face suspended from the ceiling.

“We’re not old enough to go in,” whispered her friend.

They didn’t have to. You couldn’t miss the important-looking photograph of her father holding his cello — wearing his best dark suit and gold cufflinks, with a white handkerchief folded just so in his breast pocket. It was to the side of the lounge entrance on a tall stand, above an announcement in beautiful lettering:

Beginning March 1

 the music of

 Michael Shaskolsky

 and his ensemble

 For cocktails and dinner

  “I didn’t know your father was famous.” Her friend was still whispering.

“He’s not so famous,” said Anna as they backed away on the plush carpeting. Her father’s photograph and the announcement were also on the mirrored wall by the elevators in two places. She felt proud, and at the same time ashamed of being proud. After all, it was just an advertisement, wasn’t it? And she herself had had nothing to do with its being there.

My father doesn’t have his picture up all over the place in fancy hotels,” said her friend.

“Your father probably comes home for dinner every night.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

It was too complicated to explain. “Never mind,” said Anna.

They walked out of the hotel and as far as the subway at the corner. “Are you sure you know how to get home to Brooklyn from here?” Anna asked. This friend wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But Anna was glad she had asked her to come along. It was very pleasant to be envied, if only for having a father with his picture in a hotel lobby.

[To be continued at a later date….]

 

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #7

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Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”

“And?”

“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.