EATS FROM THE MAD MEN ERA

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[This one’s for you, Liz.]

An acquaintance who’s a fly on the wall of this blog  — she’s posted only one comment since she began following it and has no gravatar — recently let it be known over lunch that what she likes best are the pieces about literature and food.

The literature I understand. She teaches literature courses.   I met her in a writing group.  She writes.  She’s invited to read aloud what she writes in public places where people buy drinks in order to listen.

But food pieces?  In my blog? There have been just three in the nearly eighty posts I’ve done so far.  One —  about big pot minestrone — was because I really do often make minestrone in a big pot when it’s cold out, since it’s good, good for you, and lasts at least three days.  The second food piece came about because, as a promise to Bill, I was making something for the first time and thought, “Why not two birds with one stone?”  That one,  Brisket for Thanksgiving, I can’t even take credit for.  The recipe came from The Jewish Festival Cookbook. However, it did turn out to be quite tasty, if you’re as fond of onions and garlic as we are. The third was the upside-down roast chicken piece, which even I thought unmemorable when it came out of the oven onto our plates and then online. But I’d been stuck for something to write about, went to the kitchen to console myself, and found in the fridge both leftover roast chicken and a blog idea.

In short, a blogosphere cook I’m not.  So when I asked myself what I could do for my food-loving follower, I knew I needed help from a friend. In this case, the friend was old, and spotted with grease.

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Here’s the first page, just so you understand we’re talking about a very old friend indeed.

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In 1975, I was a P.S. 166 mother twice over.  [“P.S.” is the acronym for “Public School” in the New York City school system.] I had an eight-year old in Mrs. Koch’s third grade class and a six-year old in Miss Wishny’s first grade class. (Don’t ask who Tanya Kaufman was. If I ever knew, I’ve forgotten.)  It behooved me to contribute at least one recipe to this fund-raiser of a PTA cookbook.

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My kitchen repertoire wasn’t much to talk about even in those days.  To make my contribution  — and not shame my children by absence from this important Parent-Teacher effort — I had to look still deeper into the past, to that halcyon period between husbands one and two when I worked as an advertising copywriter in New York. (Although only once at an agency actually on Madison Avenue.) In that capacity I wrote snappy headlines and body copy for products to be advertised in glossy women’s magazines: clothing, shoes, lingerie, perfume, shampoo, furs.  [Never cars, refrigerators, butter, bread: back then you needed a Y chromosome to write about those things.]

One year I shared an office with a person even younger than myself.  Her name was Gina.  What I chiefly remembered about her by the time of the P.S. 166 cookbook, other than her quick-and-easy college girl’s recipe for spaghetti sauce, was that the summer we sat together in our two-desk office under our one giant ceiling fan, she wore a lightweight summer suit in dark blue without a blouse. That’s right:  just bra, panties and Gina underneath. No panty hose either; bare feet in high heels — a very European look in those days. It was probably a money thing; she had only the one suit to wear to work all summer because she was saving furiously to get herself to Europe, which she did the following year.  But it seemed sexy and daring at the time, even if she could never unbutton her jacket when the fan stopped working.

Although it was not until 1975 that Gina’s Spaghetti Sauce made its appearance in EAT! — Section VII, Dishes From Around the World —  the recipe for it was therefore really from the Mad Men era, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.  I can’t guarantee that those folks from the television series ate this in between their cigarettes, triple martinis and double scotches. But it was exactly the kind of food all the rest of us were then chowing down:  heavy, caloric, not at all healthy, and delicious.  However, I can guarantee that Gina’s recipe did not come from Italy, despite the “From Around the World” come-on.  She was pure WASP on both sides at least four generations back, with a last name to go with her genealogy.  [Perhaps the casting aside of blouse, slip and stockings and the subsequent flight to Europe was an act of rebellion?]

You will need a couple of proactive atonement days of salad and broiled salmon before you do this thing. So you can dig into it without guilt when it’s done.  But it really is very easy.  You could make it with just one onion, three cans of tomato paste, and a pound of ground beef, plus water and seasonings.  But to gussy it up a bit, I’ve added garlic, parsley and wine.

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Ingredients:

1 lb. extra lean ground round.  (You could also use ground sirloin, or even buffalo, which is leaner.)

1 large onion, roughly chopped.

Lots of chopped garlic.

Three cans of tomato paste.

Chopped parsley, as much as you want.

At least 1 heaping tsp.each of dried basil, oregano, cumin.

Salt, pepper, pinch of dried fennel, pinch of sugar and red wine. (None of these are in the photo.) The wine and fennel are optional. The salt and pepper are not.

Instructions:

1.  Brown meat on one side in large frying pan (cast iron, if you have one), together with the chopped onion and chopped garlic.

2.  When one side is done, turn and crumble meat with wooden spoon. Continue until thoroughly cooked.

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3.  Empty the three cans of tomato paste on top of the meat, add an equal amount of water (three cans full) and mix. You could substitute red wine for half the water.

4.  Add some of the chopped parsley, all the seasonings, and salt and pepper to taste.

5.  Throw in a pinch of sugar.

6.  Stir thoroughly.

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6.  Adjust heat to a simmer and go away.

7.  Return to kitchen every twenty minutes or so to stir, so that meat doesn’t stick to the bottom of pan.  Add more water and/or wine as needed.

8.  After an hour, it should be thick and savory.  Stir in more chopped parsley.

9.  Turn off heat and leave in pan for at least two more hours.

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10.  Reheat (with addition of water or wine if necessary) before serving on spaghetti, linguine or fettucine. A generous sprinkling of grated or shaved parmigiano cheese on top is a good idea, unless you’re dairy intolerant.

Note: Some people have also used this sauce for lasagna.  That’s more work though.  And more fattening.

Second Note:  When after thirty-nine years I made it again yesterday so as to have some photos to show you, I used gluten-free pasta. That’s not part of the recipe (and wasn’t even around when Gina was wearing her suit), but does help assuage subsequent remorse.

Third Note:  In EAT!, I estimated this much sauce would serve two people “opulently,” three “adequately.”  Those two or three people would have had to eat like pigs.  This much sauce is more than sufficient to serve two people generously for two days, with enough left over for them to have a modest portion one more time on a third day. Alternatively, you could go on stretching it ad infinitum, as long as there’s wine left in the bottle.

Fourth Note:  If you double the recipe (using a bigger pot) because you’re going to serve it to guests, call it Sauce Bolognese, or Beef Ragout.  It’s the same thing, but sounds fancier.

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ENJOY!

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MEET MISS PRISS

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Miss Priss lives with me, in my metaphorical basement.  She’s exactly my age, and sort of looks like me. But instead of greeting the world with a friendly smile that might distract the eyes of others from the physical imperfections of age, she pulls down the corners of her mouth, thereby deepening the parenthetical lines around it and turning her face into a flesh-colored prune.

Fortunately, you almost never get to see Miss Priss. She keeps a very low profile.  But she is all ears.  She hears everything anyone ever says to me.  And although she contains herself in public, she suffers deeply from the increasingly severe linguistic assaults on her sensibilities we two encounter as we advance towards our one hundred years together.

It’s true that during the course of her education, Miss Priss was required to study etymology and the development of Modern English.  At that time, she even acquired some minimal knowledge of Anglo-Saxon. [She still knows, for instance, that “Hee, hee” was spelled “Hig, hig” in the eighth century.]  She could once also haltingly read Chaucer.  She is therefore well aware language evolves, despite the efforts of lexicologists to stop it dead in its tracks. Thus she further knows, and theoretically accepts, that if it didn’t evolve we would still be speaking Beowulf’s mother tongue.

But what kind of evolution?  The English Miss Priss and I learned in the middle of the twentieth century was a perfectly serviceable and universally acceptable instrument of communication as far as we’re both concerned.  [I hesitate to call it the King’s English because we were, and remain, American.  But some differences of spelling and usage aside, it came pretty close.]  What Miss Priss can’t understand is why the language she knows and loves so well can’t meander along until she’s gone before transforming itself into something else? Why does it have to evolve in such appalling ways in her lifetime?

[You see how I am cleverly putting these questions in Miss Priss’s mouth?  Not all the readers of this blog are quite as antiquated as Miss Priss, and I certainly would not wish to offend or alienate a single one of them.  She, on the other hand, does not “blog.”  Indeed, she finds the very word offensive.  “What’s wrong with ‘write an online column’?” she asks.]

Miss Priss does not entirely object to the entry into her beloved language of new words or expressions that fill some hitherto unmet need.  I have actually heard her answer a question about what she thought of a movie with the monosyllabic “Meh.”  This word is clearly an improvement on the prior alternative, “It was so-so.”  After all, the French can say, “Comme ci, comme ca.”  The Greeks can say, “Etsy ketsy.”  High time we had something comparable. Especially when it’s essentially the same unspellable grunt many of us were already emitting when asked our opinion of something bland and unmemorable, with just an “m” appended up front.

Miss Priss has also been known to say about one of her little excitements that it “blows her mind.” What’s more, I have heard her characterize someone for whom she has nothing but scorn as a “shithead.”  Actually, the first time she heard the word “shithead,” she had to ask if it meant the same thing as “asshole,” a word relatively new to her that she had already embraced. But on being assured that it did, she took to it with alacrity as being a more accurate and pictorial description of that part of the other person’s anatomy she held in such contempt.

About alterations of commonly used expressions that destroy their meaning, Miss Priss is less welcoming.  For instance, on those very occasional evenings when we sit down together to watch television commentators chew up the news, she can demand angrily of the screen, “What the hell does ‘I could care less’ mean?’  You mean you couldn’t care less, you shithead!”  Although I deplore her use of a street epithet in the home, Miss Priss is perfectly right, of course.  From the context of his previous remarks, it is clear the commentator in question was now trying to tell us he cares so little about whatever it is, that it is not possible to care less than he does because he is already at the very bottom of any ability to care. In other words, he absolutely could not, even if he tried very hard, care less than he already does.  Whereas what he has told us is that he does care some, and could care less (if he put his mind to it).

When I admonish Miss Priss for not picking her battles, she retorts that I should mind my own business.  That she will fight on till she dies. Then she tells me that as she has no “blog” of her own, if I still want to be her friend I should put in mine a list of the linguistic horrors and abominations that really make her squirm and curl up inside.  Then other people besides me will know what they are. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of them will agree with her.  Perhaps they’ll even add a few horrors and abominations of their own.  Wasn’t that how “Occupy Wall Street” began?

I know it’s wrong to give Miss Priss a platform for her nutsiness when she adamantly refuses to sit down at a computer herself, much less sign up for a WordPress account. But that “if I still want to be her friend” business got to me.  How can I kick her out of my (metaphorical) basement at this point in our joint life?

SEVEN THINGS MISS PRISS HATES: 

I.  The use of “so” as an adjective or an adverb, usually meaning “very” or “very much,” in conjunction with an entirely unexpected word or locution.  As in, “That is so now. That is so Gwendolyn.  That is so what we don’t  want. That is so too much!”  [You can say that one again, mutters Miss Priss.]

II. The “adjective-ing” of other parts of speech.  Usually preceded by the aforementioned “so.”  As in, “That is so New York.  That is so now. That is so you.”  [I myself used this youth-speak as a kind of joke to end a post recently; someone who I know for a fact is old enough to collect Social Security took the bait and replied, in correlative language, that the Beatles were not  “yesterday” but “NOW.”  Which only goes to show “yesterday” and “now” are both firmly ensconced in their new usage and Miss Priss is wasting her time if she hopes my blogging can help dislodge them.]

III.  The liberal sprinkling of “like” in the interstices of every sentence.  As in, “He was, like, talking to me, like, very fast, and I was, like, not hearing him because I was, like, nervous about my history exam?”  Persons who speak this way often end every sentence with a question mark even when it’s not a question. Don’t tell Miss Priss they’re just young and will outgrow it.  That’s the baby fat excuse.  The young who spoke this way a while ago have now grown up, taking their speech habits into adulthood and graduate school. Miss Priss and I hear them on the train platform at Princeton every time we go to New York. Miss Priss shudders. I try not to listen. What can you do?  That last is a real question.

IV.  The use of “go” and “goes” as a synonym for any other verb, in either present or past tense, indicating speech.  As in, “I go, ‘Are you asking me out, or what?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want me to?’ Then my friend goes, ‘Are you two ever getting it on, or what?” So then we both go, “Butt out, will you?'”  Yes, Miss Priss knows this is out-of-the-mouth-of-babes “speech,” undoubtedly reflecting faulty education in the school and in the home.  Except you’d be surprised where else it crops up. As noted above, the speech-disadvantaged grow up, taking their disadvantages proudly into the adult world.

V.  The use of “no problem” as a synonym for “You’re welcome.”  As in (a): You give the waiter money to pay for your meal.  He brings back the change.  You say, “Thank you.” He assures you, “No problem.”  Well of course it was no problem.  It was his job.  It would have been a big problem if he hadn’t brought back the change.  Or (b): You ask the guy blocking your driveway with his delivery van to please move it. You even say “Thank you” as he stubs out his cigarette on your lawn to climb into the driver’s seat.  You hear, “No problem.”  It better not be a problem, buddy, because the motor vehicle regulations say no trucks can park across the ends of driveways. And what ever did happen to, “You’re welcome?”

VI.  Routine use of meaningless memorized phrases in commercial contexts.  Miss Priss especially loves it when we check out of the supermarket just before it closes, tired and cross because we’ve had a long busy day and couldn’t get there until late — only to hear the clerk wave us out the door into the black night with “Have A Good Day!”  Miss Priss once broke her vow of silence in such situations to inquire acidly (through me), “When?”  But the clerk didn’t get it.  She had already turned to the next tired and cross shopper with her second piece of programmed speech, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” What would she have done if the customer had said no? Abandoned her register to search the aisles?

VII.  The use of the word “share” as a synonym for “tell.”  When Miss Priss and I were young, the word “share” had two meanings.  The first meaning was when you gave a piece of something you had, like cake or ownership of a house, to someone else.  You shared your cake, or house ownership, with that other person. As a result, you had less of it, but the other person also had some of it.  The second meaning involved a secret, or something very confidential.  If you confided your secret, or confidential information, to another person, you had shared it with him.  But only the two of you knew it, and both understood that it remained secret, or confidential. Now, however, everyone shares all of everything with everyone.  NOBODY HAS LESS. AND NOTHING IS SECRET.  (Unless you take the precaution of marking it “private.”) WordPress urges us to “share” every blog post we like.  What WordPress means is for us to tell everyone how good it is, if that’s what we think, by sending it to them.  Was anything wrong with just “telling?”  Miss P. and I were getting along fine with it before “share” came along with its bullhorn.

Miss Priss wants me to continue with her stations of the cross by listing some cliches worn so thin by overuse that whatever their merit in the first place they have now become a yawn.  “24/7” (meaning “all the time”) and “At the end of the day” (meaning “as a result” or “finally”) come immediately to mind, but believe me, she can think of many more to “share” if I let her.

However, I am sure you must have had quite enough of Miss Priss by now. So I’m sending her back to her basement.  But not before you promise her you will try very hard never again to use an expression carried over from texting, like a flea in your luggage, when writing anything she may see.  No more LOLs, ROFLs, OMGs if you can possibly help it.  Otherwise she might die of a broken heart.  And I would miss her.

Every one who’s getting old needs a Miss Priss of their own, and she is mine. I try to run a blog she would approve of.  So please do promise.  Cross your heart and hope to you-know-what.  If you’re as old as we are, you’ll know what that means.

NEARING THE END ALONE

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Having recently expressed my affection for Louis Begley’s books online, I looked up again a clipping of an Opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times Sunday Review two years ago. I had saved it initially because I thought it beautifully and truthfully written. Coming across it again last fall, I transferred it to a folder of ideas for this blog.

However, I haven’t used it until now because it is extremely sad.  But it is about the “dealing with the rest of it” which is the second half of the subtitle to this blog. So perhaps, in the interests of balance, it’s time.  I’ve shortened what follows a bit, but not by much.

Age and Its Awful Discontents
by Louis Begley
Published March 17, 2012

My mother died in 2004, two days short of her 94th birthday, and 40 years and two months to the day after the death of my father. He died at 65; for the preceding four or five years he had been in poor health.

My mother and I lived through the German occupation in Poland; my physician father, having been evacuated with the staff of the local hospital by the retreating Soviet army, spent the remaining war years in Samarkand. Left to fend for ourselves, my mother and I became unimaginably close; our survival depended on that symbiotic relationship. All three of us — I had no brothers or sisters — arrived in the United States in March 1947, and once here I began to keep her at arm’s length. Especially during her long widowhood, I feared that unimpeded she would invade my life, the life she had saved.  I remained a dutiful son, watching over her needs, but was at first unwilling and later unable to be tender.

My abhorrence of the ravages and suffering inflicted on the body by age and illness, which predates my mother’s decline in her last years, is no doubt linked to there being no examples of a happy old age in my family.  The grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who might have furnished them all met violent deaths in World War II.

Unsurprisingly, dread of the games time plays with us has been a drumbeat in my novels.  Thus, arms akimbo, majestic and naked, standing before a glass, Charlie Swan the gay demiurge of “As Max Saw It” [one of Begley’s books], illustrates for the younger narrator on his body the physiology of aging: misrule of hair, puckered brown bags under the eyes, warts like weeds on his chest, belly, back and legs, dry skin that peels leaving a fine white snow of dandruff.  Listening to him, the younger man is reminded of his own father in a hospital, permanently catheterized, other tubes conducting liquids to his body hooked up to machines that surround his bed like unknown relatives.  He prefers his mother’s “triumphant” exit. A headlong fall down the cellar stairs kills her instantly.

…. And yet my body…. continues to be a good sport.  Provided my marvelous doctor pumps steroids into my hip or spine when needed, it runs along on the leash like a nondescript mutt and wags its tail.  My heart still stirs when I see a pretty girl in the street or in a subway car, but not much else happens.  Except that, since by preference I stand leaning against the closed doors, she may offer me her seat. When last heard from, Schmidtie [the protagonist of a series of other Begley novels] figured he had another 10 years to live.  I have a similar estimate of my longevity.  Such actions as buying a new suit have become dilemmas. The clothes I have may be fatigued and frayed, but won’t they see me through the remaining seasons?  Can the expense of money and waste of time required to make the purchase be justified?

My mother did not remarry after my father died.  She lived very comfortably, but alone, in an apartment 15 blocks away from my wife’s and mine.  If we were in the city. we went to see her often, then daily as her condition deteriorated in the last two years of her life.  Our children and grandchildren tried to see her often, too — and those visits brought her great joy — but they live far away and the happiness was fleeting.  During her last decade, she was very lonely. Most of the friends she had had in Poland had been killed.  Those who had escaped and settled in New York one by one became homebound or bedridden, lost their minds or died. Or she found they bored her. Hearing poorly, tormented by arthritis in hip and knee joints, too proud to accept a wheelchair, she stopped going to museums, concerts and even the movies. She had loved sitting on a Central Park bench and putting her face in the sun. That humble pleasure was also abandoned; she couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.

Having rehearsed the bitter gifts reserved for age, T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” that “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” The closer that place — the human condition — is to home, the harder it is to take in. I could speak movingly of Schmidt’s loneliness after the loss of his daughter, calling his existence an arid plane of granite on which she alone had flowered.  But it has taken me until now, at age 78, to feel in full measure the bitterness and anguish of my mother’s solitude — and that of other old people who end their lives without a companion.

Two years older than Begley, I find this very moving. But having read it again, I must turn my head away. Thoughts like his take me down to that Little Gidding place, where I’m not yet ready to go.

NOW IS ALL THERE IS

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Let’s look at another way of approaching “Now is now.” It’s my first principle for getting better at getting old, or getting better at getting older than you are today.  [To see them all, revisit  My Twelve Principles for Getting Better at Getting Older, posted on January 1 of this year.]

In reframing this concept less philosophically, I’ve somewhat paraphrased the Beatles, or at least their rhythm, in hopes that swiping the beat of their song about a four-letter word starting with “L” may help you remember what’s important here. Just hear them in your head when you say “now is all there is” aloud.  Listen to the slowly fading sound of their blended voices singing together, and then dying away at the end: Now is all there is, now is all there is, nowisallthereis….

Now is all there is is worth remembering — whether or not you do  think love is all you need  — because now is all there is.  All you and I ever have is now.  By the time tomorrow gets here, it’s now.  Now also becomes yesterday before you can say “Jack Robinson” if you’re not keeping a close eye on it.

Minimizing the amount of time I spend not keeping a close eye on now has always been a big problem for me. I don’t mean just that I fail to admire the sunset when it appears, or that I don’t pause long enough to enjoy the sight of little birds coming to the feeders filled with black-oil sunflower seed that hang off our kitchen porch.  I mean I have a really hard time staying firmly in my own life — right now, this very day, this very minute.  I am almost always off in a daydream, a reminiscence, a strategy, someone else’s story, fictional or not.  Sometimes, I’m even away from now when driving, which is a very big no-no.  I also occasionally waste now by wondering how it will be when I’m dead and there’s no more now for me (even though I know perfectly well that when I’m dead there won’t be anything at all for me, much less a now) — because being truly dead is something I cannot conceive of!  How can I possibly not be? How can there be a time when I won’t know how it will be to not be?

When you don’t stay in the now, you can get really far out of it.

And don’t tell me about meditation.  I have tried it in groups, and at Kripalu with a friend, and on my own with Bill and a timer to tell us when it’s time to stop.  The meditating mind — at least mine, the only mind of which I can knowledgeably speak — is, as they say, an unruly horse.  I don’t do well with a verbal mantra, but closing my eyes and following my breath as it moves in and out of the nostrils feels good and is calming, so I do that.  Until I discover I’m not doing that anymore but thinking about something else entirely.  Which is probably after about two minutes, but I can’t tell for sure because I’m not supposed to open my eyes to look at the timer.  Then I try to rein in my unruly horse and start again.

I was never on a real horse but once in my life. [You see how my mind is wandering away from meditation towards mares and stallions here?]  It was a small horse, a very brief experience, and on all counts — except falling off, which I did not do because the trail guide was holding me — a failure.  Maybe that partially explains my poor results with meditation. But I don’t think so.  It’s just me.  Also my choice of partner.  Bill is usually willing to meditate, but also usually falls asleep before the timer rings.

Now perhaps you understand why I say “now is now” is not a resolution, even though it’s a principle.  For me to resolve compliance would be to fail.  On the other hand, to keep it in mind (as best I can, haha) does move me along in the right direction.

But now I have to go make oatmeal.  It’s almost noon and we haven’t had breakfast yet.  I used up breakfast time writing this for tomorrow (which is now today) and now it’s time for (yesterday’s) lunch.  Oatmeal for lunch?  Why not?

I hope all this about now has been helpful.  If not, don’t sweat it.  Now it’s history. Go appreciate now somewhere else.  And try to get that Beatles beat out of your mind.  It’s so yesterday.

A FIRST AT EIGHTY-TWO!

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THIS IS JUST THE HEADS UP.

 It’s not going to happen until April.

But it IS going to happen!

After 65 years of talking about it

(“I’m going to be a writer when I grow up!”);

After 20 years of doing something about it

(actually writing);

After 8 years of

receiving form rejection slips;

receiving form rejection slips with “Sorry” handwritten on them;

receiving nicer form rejection slips with “We liked this quite a bit” handwritten on them;

receiving still nicer form rejection slips with “Almost, Nina!  Keep trying!” handwritten on them;

receiving the occasional form rejection letter expressing pleasure at reading and chagrin at being unable to publish for lack of (a) space or (b) resources;

And after three years of having just about given up trying…

I AM FINALLY GOING TO APPEAR IN PRINT!  

ON PAPER!

AND BE PAID (a little) FOR IT!

Yes!  “Falling Off the Roof” — a twenty-three page memoir about the summer I turned thirteen — will appear in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review.  The page proofs arrived today, so I know it’s finally true.

Apart from the age at which it is happening to me, there are several interesting aspects to this extremely belated triumph.  I wrote a long-form version of the piece nineteen years ago, in 1995. It was then called “Atlantic City 1944.” Retired from the law, I cut it way down to what I hoped was publishable length and began sending it out as fiction eight years ago, in 2006.  But it wasn’t until five years later in 2011, when I cut it down even further, gave it a more interesting title, and changed the narrator’s name from Anna to Nina, thereby transforming her first-person story into memoir for a whole new set of editors to consider — that I finally passed Go.

Even then, it was a pretty slow Go.  Two years for the magazine to make up its mind;  we didn’t sign a contract until March 2013.  And one more year after that to move through Iowa’s pipeline to the printed page.  It’s a wonder I’m still alive to see the day!

Some people might look for lessons here.  Such as:

Never give up.  

Editors come, editors go.

Some like what others don’t.

Memoir is still hot.

Titles matter.

If it seems broke, fix it.

But I think the main lesson is just what it is in life generally:

You never can tell.

Single issues of The Iowa Review are $9.95 plus $2 shipping if you buy from the website.  In addition, the Spring 2014 issue will be available on Kindle in April. You may also be able to find TIR for free at large public libraries and at university libraries, if you have access to one.  I’d love to retype all of “Falling Off the Roof” for you right here and save you the hassle, but that would breach the contract, which guarantees TIR first publication rights.  Unfortunately, blogging is considered “publication.”

You’ll probably hear more about this from me as April approaches.  Right now, please forgive the blog seeming a bit bleary during the next few days.  I shall be page-proofing with eagle eyes and a ruler beneath each line of text so as not to miss a single misplaced jot or tittle, and may therefore miss a whole lot of them online.

 

CLOTHES I WISH WOULD SHUT UP!

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“If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?”  Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)

I hate it when people wear clothing that talks to you.  Little children may get away with it because they have no say in the matter. Still, do I really have to learn the tiny tot whining for ChocoPops in her mother’s supermarket shopping cart is “Daddy’s Princess?” Just because Mommy — or whoever thought that toddler-size pink t-shirt with the sparkly crown on it was so darling — wants us to know Daddy adores his noisy three-year-old so much? The kid herself couldn’t care less what her t-shirt’s saying. What she’s thinking about is the chocolate cereal.

[Mandatory disclosure:  When I first became a grandmother, I once purchased from a local coffee shop a very tiny orange t-shirt sized for a six-month-old that proclaimed, “Sleep Is for the Weak!” When his parents opened the package, they did laugh.  However, I don’t know if they ever put it on the baby. In any event, it was soon outgrown.]

But what about the well developed adult woman in a t-shirt that proclaims across her developed parts: “Don’t even think of it!”  What was she thinking of?  Or the ones who want everyone standing behind them to know they get their car serviced at Gus’s Garage or buy their books at BookSmart or shop at Shop-Rite?  Why have they turned themselves into unpaid walking billboards for the commercial enterprises of others?  Do they really need a free t-shirt so badly?

Then there are the fans wearing an oversized replica of a favorite sports star’s shirt and number.  They’re usually male, but not always. Who are they kidding?  Am I really going to think they’re whoever it is, just because of the shirt? Or is the shirt an expression of solidarity with the star?  Does Vinnie LeCavalier need to know they’re rooting for him — if they were ever so lucky as to pass him in the street while wearing his name and number 4? Does anyone else need that important information? (Not me, that’s for sure.)  Perhaps it’s comforting to push into the stadium, beer can in hand, labeled as a member of the right flock of sheep: one of the LeCavalier or Cabral or Pineda fans, or the fans of the next great guy to save a game for the team.

There are very occasional and judicious exceptions to my ranting. During a trip to Greece shortly after I met Bill, I spotted a grey t-shirt hanging from a pushcart near a tourist spot in Athens with some unreadable Greek on its front and an English translation on its back.  The English side declared,  “All I know is that I know nothing. Socrates.”  At that point in our relationship, I hadn’t yet ascertained Bill’s feelings about clothing that spoke, but wanted to bring him back a present and rather thought he might like this one.  He did like it, although he mainly wore it around the house.  As he sits in chairs a lot, or else lies down, and I still don’t know how to read Greek, that seemed a happy compromise.

However, my usually negative personal feelings about ready-to-wear with a message don’t matter.   Other people’s clothing can talk till doomsday, at least in America — because the First Amendment says it can.  Every kind of speech is protected. Even if deemed hateful. Or tasteless. Or distracting. Or isn’t spoken, but worn.  I cannot impulsively tear from your body your offensive white short shorts with “No!” and “No!” imprinted on each cheek.  Never mind the assault-and-battery part of it. Your two “No!”s have constitutional protection.

Of course we tend to forget what we’re saying when we don’t ourselves see what we say.  Packing for the trip to Greece from which I brought back the Socrates t-shirt, I realized I needed something to protect my face from the sun. Having no bendable summer hats of my own, I looked for what my sons might have left behind when they grew up and moved away.  And found — Red Sox caps and Red Sox caps and Red Sox caps! With perhaps just one thing in their favor: They were monosyllabic. All they said was “B.”  (An unmistakeable capital “B,” bright red and edged in white.) I had no time for scruples, chose one and zipped up the suitcase.

Cut to the Acropolis in summer —  crowded with bodies nearly immobilized in the overpowering heat, and with snatches of all the world’s languages in one’s ears. Suddenly I heard — slicing through the confusion with welcome clarity:  “Hey! Boston!  How ya doin’?”  He was tall and sweating and grinning and young, and I was very glad to see him.  We gave each other a high five, and parted forever.  It was great. Thank you, son’s cap that exclaimed (in red) from the top of my head:  “B!”

But suppose clothing speaks a foreign language?  How do I feel about that?  Assuming the clothing looks good to start with, the statement imprinted on it becomes a kind of design.  Except to people who can understand what it says. Or who ask what it means.  But you’d be surprised at how many people can’t, and don’t.

You know those “additional features” that are frequently appended to DVDs of classic movies, where surviving cast members recollect what it was like to be in the movie?  A couple of summers ago, Bill and I watched the Criterion Collection DVD of “La Ronde,” made in black and white just before World War II.  A French movie.  In which everyone spoke French.  (Criterion provides the subtitles.)  One of the survivors, a very young man in the movie, was rather long in the tooth by the time of the additional feature, which had been shot in color. He sat in his garden wearing a faded yellow t-shirt that said, “Homme Inoubliable.”  (Unforgettable Man.)  He had a twinkle in his eye, and spoke entertainingly about making movie love to Danielle Darrieux, and I wanted his t-shirt.  Yes, I did.  Not exactly his, but something like it.  Maybe black (black is always good), with long sleeves.  And with two classy words in white italics across the front that almost no one would be able to read.  I immediately ordered a long-sleeved black t-shirt online from Lands End.  Bill did the rest.

If you don’t read French, you’ll just have to figure it out.  And remember, Bill ordered the lettering.  So it’s his statement, not mine.

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In English, I remain the modest and unassuming person you’ve come to know. And sometimes like.

SELF IMAGE REVISITED

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Until about fifteen years ago, I had a core self-image at odds with contemporaneous photographs of me. It’s true I tried to be photographed only when I was looking as good as I thought I could look.  The better explanation, however, is that my sense of self really was out of whack with what other people saw — perhaps because it had developed so young that it shaped much of what I thought and did when I grew up, which in turn only reinforced that initial perception of my central identity.

I certainly remember clearly the day I became aware of how I looked. It’s among my first recollections — right after sitting comfortably on a big rock in the sun, helping my mother feed ducks on a pond, commanding a ball that had rolled across the room, “Ball, come here!” — an important lesson in discovering limits to my powers — and toiling slowly up a steep hill behind my nursery school teacher.  Unlike the ball that refused to be summoned, my memory of that day still comes to me whenever I call it up.

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I have just turned five.  My mother has bought me a red plaid skirt with pleats to wear for the first day of kindergarten.  A white cotton puffed-sleeve blouse goes with it, and a red wool cardigan sweater.  I have never had a three-piece outfit before.  She says I look very nice in it.

Dressed in my new blouse and skirt, I wait in her bedroom near the full-length mirror on her closet door while she gets her sewing box from another room. The puffed sleeves of the blouse, edged with piping, are too tight. She is going to let out and hem the seams underneath, so the piping shouldn’t dig into my arms.

To my surprise, I see another girl has entered my mother’s bedroom. She is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt like mine.  She has a round face and double chin, and a belly that sticks out so the pleats of her skirt don’t hang straight. Although the puffed sleeves of her blouse dig into her arms uncomfortably, the way mine do, she is beaming at me, as if she wants us to be friends. Who is she, anyway? What is she doing in my mother’s room? How can she look so happy when she’s such a fatty?  

Then I understand.  My sense of self starts here: with the recognition that the foolishly smiling little butterball in the mirror is me.

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 Awareness that I was what was then known as “chubby” didn’t bother me too much as a child.  Shopping for clothes could be an ordeal, as my mother stubbornly insisted on looking in the regular Girls’ Department even when the salesladies suggested that “Chubbette” sizes would be a better fit.  But that only happened once or twice a year. Also, I didn’t like the summer I spent at sleep-away camp, because I was always chosen last for team sports since I was not good at anything but swimming.  It was only the one summer, though; I refused to go back ever again.  And it did hurt when a snotty boy I barely knew asked in seventh grade assembly whether I would burst like a balloon if he stuck a pin in me.

But in high school, by which time it had become clear the pediatrician — my mother’s revered Dr. Elitzak — was wrong in saying it was baby fat and would go away all by itself, she began to help me (a charter member of the local Clean Plate Club) by curtailing some of what, obedient to his recommendations, she had been setting before me at meals.  No more quart of whole milk a day.  No more nutritious milk puddings for dessert.  No more two slices of bread in my lunch bag; instead of sandwiches and cookies, I carried strips of cold meat and raw veggies and fruit. A thin slice of cake only on Sundays. Slowly, I dropped from an embarrassing size 16, to a 14, to a 12.  Which was pretty good for someone who was by then 5’7″.

[Note to the young, or relatively young: Those were the days when “Miss” dress sizes ran from 12 to 20 or from 10 to 18.  No such thing as size 4 or 2 or 0 or 00!  It doesn’t mean the clothes were larger. Only that the numbers have shrunk, to make fashionistas feel thinner.]

Size 12 or no, I still thought of myself as a person who might at the moment look thin but really was fat, since her apparent thinness was not natural but entirely dependent on will power which might give way at any moment.  From the time I went to college a sylph, until my late sixties, when I was finally able to come to terms with how I really looked and pretty much stopped obsessing about it — I waged a fierce and unending battle with weight.  Most of that time, especially when younger, it was with the same ten or fifteen pounds, which I gained and lost over and over again. (Always with at least two sizes of clothing in my closet, for the next swing of the yo-yo.) I used sometimes to joke that I had lost thousands of pounds in my life. It wasn’t entirely a joke.  Only an exaggeration.

My ten or fifteen (or later twenty) pounds, when they were with me, never stopped some men from finding me attractive, or kept me from getting jobs, or interfered with my health. But I always wanted them not to be there. I was always happier when they were gone. I had a central belief that informed every part of me and distracted me from concentrating on other things:  Thin is good, not so thin is not good. 

This is no tale of anorexia.  Coupled with my overwhelming desire for slenderness has always been a great love of eating just about anything you can name, except okra, and a total inability to throw up at will.  [I know because I tried once or twice after I had read about it. No dice.]  But what a waste of energy and purpose!  I mean, it’s not as if I had unsuccessfully devoted my life to social change and the greater good, or science, or the arts, or even something as crass as making money!

There were also several extended occasions in my fifties and early sixties, as real life became extremely difficult, when the urge to eat — more or less kept down so long — rebelled.  It scored triumph after triumph, and I ballooned beyond “overweight.”  [If I showed you a picture, you wouldn’t believe it.]  But I never ever could persuade myself, defiantly, that Big Was Beautiful.  So each time, I managed — with great difficulty — to deflate.

There are many other undesirable results of a life driven by the scale and by thoughts of what may be eaten, what was eaten, how to atone for what was eaten, what-the-hell-stuff-yourself-with-as-many-calorically-bad-but delicious-things-as-you-can-because-today-is-shot-anyway-and-you’ll-begin-again-tomorrow.  But we all have our “what if”s.” Which we are entitled to keep to ourselves.

Although I do sometimes wonder whether the chubby little girl I was might have grown up to wage more meaningful battles if there hadn’t been a mirror on my mother’s closet door.