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Metropolitan Life

Walking in NY, there’s a pilgrimage spot, a place I need to be. Long gone to me, decades since I popped in after a lit-agent lunch. When I surprised someone in medias res, in the middle of work, in crew-neck sweater fresh from the drafting table. Uninvited, I showed up. I was tacky and unkind.

This was a place I visited, never lived in, yet maintained as partial home. I had keys attached to a whalebone teething ring. I would rush past the catcalls from the ground-floor Latin luncheonette, trot up the same narrow staircase Stanford White climbed. A place of fun and sadness. For White, for me, for the creative man who lived there 20 years, for a string of sauciers-cum-celebrity chefs. Stratocasters on the floor, model planes dangling, an X-Acto knife poised above Charlie Brown’s pate. In the shadow of Madison Square Park, the Met Life Tower, home of licensed Peanuts characters. He freelanced for Metropolitan Life.

For years I never saw, never spoke, had nothing to do with him. I did remember, always, lots of that.

Clearly he was happy, in all the ways that count. Extrapolating isn’t hard; I’m the Peggy Fleming of that.

His happiness, their happiness, made me happy.

I walk down the block. The building is gone. Burnt, then collapsed, scraped, this 100-year-old-plus former stomping ground of Stanford White, a man and his roommates and then family, and, relatively briefly, in Reagan days, me.

Not my ruin. Yet I always stop.

Luncheonette gone, street spiffy and clean, expensive and quiet, no loud Salsa Boricua, no factories, catcalls, or grime. No crew-neck sweaters pasting up the latest Snoopy brochure beneath Evelyn Nesbit’s skylight. Everything’s changed. Mario Batali slings truffles on the corner.

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Lou

I’m sitting in a parking lot and should be entering a restaurant. Instead I can’t stop writing in my head. About Lou Reed, whose music I adored for so much of my life, for bad times and good, who died today and whose death was expected. I was dreading his death for certain selfish, self-involved reasons. Lou being alive meant certain moments were still extant, insulated and isolated and intact. Certain people evoke Lou for me. They always did, forever will. Everyone supposedly has a “type” of desirable look in a romantic prospect. For me it was the swagger and angularity and dark bubbling coral reef of hair and aviators and razor smarts of Lou Reed. Always did it for me. The importance transcends appearance and in fact I’m minimizing the reality that Lou Reed’s death made me cry today. I don’t cry often. There are people in my life who are gone or on the brink of permanent bye-bye. Who for certain reasons of ill health and sad choices are not really here any more. I miss them now. I miss the Lou that was. There are dead people who can perhaps return. I feel hope for the life and health of certain friends. Then I think of Lou’s “Romeo Had Juliette” from the brilliant and I think underrated political album New York, and I focus on the hope stored near my collarbone. Lou wrote: “And something flickered for a minute / And then it vanished and was gone.” Hope goes, memory stays. I can see the smudges on aviator lenses, hear leaves crunching in Oberlin, Ohio, feel the sweaty wax of my friend’s pumpkin candle, smell leather and mildew and love.

Satellite of Love

I’m sitting in a parking lot and should be entering a restaurant. Instead I can’t stop writing in my head. About Lou Reed, whose music I adored for so much of my life, for bad times and good, who died today and whose death was expected. I was dreading his death for certain selfish, self-involved reasons. Lou being alive meant certain moments were still extant, insulated and isolated and intact. Certain people evoke Lou for me. They always did, forever will. Everyone supposedly has a “type” of desirable look in a romantic prospect. For me it was the swagger and angularity and dark bubbling coral reef of hair and aviators and razor smarts of Lou Reed. Always did it for me. The importance transcends appearance and in fact I’m minimizing the reality that Lou Reed’s death made me cry today. I don’t cry often. There are people in my life who are gone or on the brink of permanent bye-bye. Who for certain reasons of ill health and sad choices are not really here any more. I miss them now. I miss the Lou that was. There are dead people who can perhaps return. I feel hope for the life and health of certain friends. Then I think of Lou’s “Romeo Had Juliette” from the brilliant and I think underrated political album New York, and I focus on the hope stored near my collarbone. Lou wrote: “And something flickered for a minute / And then it vanished and was gone.” Hope goes, memory stays. I can see the smudges on aviator lenses, hear leaves crunching in Oberlin, Ohio, feel the sweaty wax of my friend’s pumpkin candle, smell leather and mildew and love.

Yenta Power

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the sky photography of experimental geographer and scholar of classified satellites, Trevor Paglen. Paglen documents stealth military installations, a dark world of covert domes and fortified fences he shoots from great distances, often with cameras meant for astronomy. He does gorgeous work and is clearly smart as hell.

If Don DeLillo and Bruce Nauman decided to hook up and have, somehow, a biological child, well, that spawn would be Paglen.

The deliberate, slow passage of a satellite is one of my favorite things to see here in So Cal, out in the desert, where the Milky Way doesn’t hide and the zodiacal light — a cone in the sky — shows itself if you know where to look.

According to San Diego astronomer Dennis Mammana, who showed me the zodiacal cone on the night of my 45th birthday, on a dry lake bed…

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Louris Canyon

SONY DSCFor a period of about six months, from mid-summer to Christmas, I spent time in LA. Quite a lot of it, more than my usual quickie trek to see a show and then head home. It was lovely, much of it, in some massively appealing and magnetic ways. And then it wasn’t. Which is all well and fine and good.

This post concerns nothing personal. Regarding the pepper-and-salt mix of great and feh we face head-on when knowing someone, beloved or not, I’m saying nothing here. We have all seen fuschia fade to rose.

While in L.A. I saw a ton of music. A profound gift I won’t soon forget. Plus I explored a city I knew mainly from novels: Bruce Wagner, Robert Stone’s Children of Light, Nathanael West of course. I am glad that I was there. The music factor was unique, and that is what I want to write about now.

I’m not a music writer. Neither a journalist nor a critic be; that’s me. My Angeleno was just that: a seasoned pro whose Maria McKee liner notes I admired ten years ago, a country specialist, whose torrential output of concert and album reviews amazed me with its ease and speed. Oh, what fun it was. Unimaginable events. Graham Parker and the Rumour? There they were. And so was I: stage side at the Roxy, pogoing and sweaty, 30-year-old album lyrics pouring from my mouth so fluent and easy, like my Angeleno’s prolific copy streaming toward a deadline.

Traversing L.A. involves Bargello-like maneuvers. I have no sense of direction and could never handle the mathematical, patterned execution of freeway and surface street practiced so adroitly there. (Then again, I never thought I’d drive on a freeway, either, and look at me now.) No matter the stress and density of traffic, the time constraints and need to arrive on time, or very-late-night tiredness, or desire to eat my takeout falafel from the place near the Cinefamily, I always loved one route: Laurel Canyon.

This usually packed and undulant thoroughfare through California rock ‘n roll history made me smile. How could it be, that a musical pantheon’s headquarters comprised such a schlep? The small complex of commercial buildings, the hippie-haven Country Store and haute organic Italian eatery, the weathered homes near street level reminded me of the similarly ramshackle Knott’s Berry Farm. Except in Laurel Canyon, Neil Young acts the Snoopy-style mascot, Jim Morrison wields WD40 as ride engineer, and so many center-parted ladies of the canyon sell tickets.

So that is what I thought, in traffic, in Laurel Canyon. And I loved being there. And when I’m there next, which will be at some point, I will remember all those times en route to and from music. A road which, being Laurel Canyon, meant driving through music as well.

Now I’m in my living room, in a falafel mood, listening to an album recorded in Laurel Canyon. Vagabonds (Rykodisc, 2008) is a very California solo album by my favorite Midwest singer-songwriter, Gary Louris, of my favorite Midwest band, the Jayhawks, whose third and fourth albums can get me through virtually anything. Gary Louris, the Shaun Cassidy of my alt-country dreams.

Vagabonds pays homage in a way I rather like, with nubbins of Tim Hardin and Supertramp scattered in the satiny pedal steel. Gary’s voice is beautiful. That Gary’s voice is beautiful is a fact as incontrovertible as the existence of pores on skin. Jenny Lewis does choir duty, unfurling harmonic lessons learned two years prior in her own solo-debut gem, Rabbit Fur Coat. Chris Robinson produces, we have Susannah Hoffs and Farmer Dave and wonderful musicianship suffusing words and sound that are pure Gary Louris. The whole thing balances, so gracefully, a sense of soaring grandness with warm-mug-in-your-hand, simple comfort. Like wearing slippers at the Cloisters. Like Laurel Canyon itself.

California Seventies sound makes me think of Seventies California, and that makes me think of Joan Didion.

If Joan Didion bought a silk macrame vest for her Play It as It Lays book tour in ’70, and wore that vest to a Laurel Canyon dinner party, and then stored it in tissue, to be revived and refreshed years later, and worn in new light, its hippie-haberdasher’s knots intact, it would look much like Vagabonds. An expert yet natural structure of acoustic and electric, earthiness and grace, it’s a living thing, new and old and versatile as ever. In its own place and time, it is absolutely perfect.

Excerpt: AH HERE WE GO — Not-So-Sweet Jane

The hate of Jane. Somehow she hated me, learned to rue me, despise me, hone her hate like a Nantucket crone her scrimshaw.

​And why? That was my question then and it stands today. Why. What did I ever do to you, Jane, my queen from 1983 who loved me, was nice, then mean, then really skinny, sickly thin, on a diet of hate. Who left me pound by pound, in handfuls of suddenly loose stonewashed denim, baggy turtlenecks. One day you didn’t come back and I don’t know what I ever did to you. Except love you and worship every wiry brunette corkscrew on your nasty, lovely head. And listen to you, the grousing and commentary. And have some suggestions for you, the gifts of my hard-earned wisdom. I loved you so much.

I wanted you to have it. To have me, the best of me. I had things to teach. I knew things, experienced my own unique and nasty early trauma. You could never imagine such treatment and I had no shame in telling you. A padlock on a fridge, can you imagine? You did try, Jane, I know you tried. You called it Dickensian, my childhood and youth before I emancipated and made my way, a busking urchin with a Gibson, a GED, and three Izod shirts. This was before I got my trust. I did everything myself, I was a capital S Survivor and I put food on my own little table. Bagels, jerky, Dinty Moore. Soap from public bathrooms as shampoo, going to bed hungry.

Jane said it made her cry when she thought about it but she loved how it formed me. I heard this for a year, her glowing empathy, Jane’s patient listening and spurring me to talk, to confess, to disclose all the bad shit. And then something happened. It was nothing I did. I don’t think I did a thing, I mean what could I do? I loved her and told her things, what she wanted to hear and probably things she didn’t. I was direct and honest about certain realities, things big and little that I saw and read about in the world. I wasn’t in college like Jane. I was and am an autodidact. And proud. Nobody paid my way. I’m not including the trust.

What I blame is a class she took at that fucking Barnard. It was George Steiner the philosopher, who Jane read with great gusto. He said some events transcend language. You can’t talk, you can’t bear audible witness, when things get truly bad. Holocaust bad. And I happened to disagree with the guy. I don’t like to make one bad event more specific or special than any other.

That I didn’t make the Holocaust the ultimate pinnacle in the pantheon of evil in the history of the world made Jane crazy. Hang up on me, stomp, slam doors, pound, rage and scream. She said I offended her. I was indecent. A rotten Jew. Reductionist. When I gave her examples from my readings in Greek philosophy and Zen, particularly Zen, she called me a crackpot, a simpleton. I called her a snob and not intellectual. She said I was jealous, she was in college full time. No Dinty Moore for her. No Dancing Wu Li Masters from the public library. She owned her books. She started hating me.

I could cope with some of that. She was resistant to my thought. She was younger, stubborn, insecure. I was willing to be patient. This was part of her growing, her rejection of me. At this point at least. It was part of her becoming a woman. I was ready and willing to do all the nurturing possible.

Then she turned full throttle on my music. I’m an autodidact and a philosopher, yes. But in a way that’s all cerebral gravy. My guitar stands at the top of my own Tree of Life. It’s like a kabbalistic diagram of a primordial Adam and the limbs are books and essays and maps and experiments. The spine and head: pure guitar. The guitar runs the show. It’s the brain. It was that way then, and it’s that way now.

Don’t fuck with my guitar. Don’t mess up my music. Don’t tell me playing is a waste of time. Don’t make me feel like a no-talent shit. No matter how much I love you.

It took years for me to learn what was clear to the other people in my life, not that there were so many but there were enough: that Jane had no clue. I believed that she had knowledge of me, the sum of me, of all of me. That Jane understood every part of me. I was her boyfriend Stevie, I was her lover, the one who knew her, who would protect her, teach her, encourage her, dote on her with gifts of Steiff bears and Beluga. My queen loved caviar. Black dots, squiggles, inky brine. I even bought her the proper spoon.

And it was all for shit. Because she didn’t accept me. Instead of honoring the me who honored her, the me who wanted to marry her, take care of her and see her pacing in my loft, in what would have been our loft, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen with a Dictaphone, Jane dumped my ass. She went away. Scalded me with her dislike. She disappeared. Parts of her went first, the fleshy areas I may have poked too much in jest, called baby fat, pinched. The sum of Jane subtracted. Minimized. Reduced to a painful, uncomfortable void. A lot of collarbone jutting in the winter night. Weird hair growing on her shoulder blades.

Then for years, no Jane. Nada, nothing. She was dead to me, she didn’t exist, I dreamed about her and asked myself why. Asked the current people in my life, why my Queen Jane hated me so. Violent. Vengeful. Enough to make her vanish.

And then it’s decades later, the loft is gone, so are my bunions she was really mean about, and I’m in SoCal, licking my wounds from the failed sound studio deep in the desert. I pick up the paper and I read about a plane crash. I was on the john with all the time in the world. It was a long article and the crash was pretty atypical. It wasn’t an automatic crash like these things usually are. They didn’t fall out of the sky right away. It went on and on, over an hour of a really fucked-up situation. I hate flying and I felt sick, thinking about what it was like for those poor people. I kept on reading. They had a list of names and I saw Jane’s.

Excerpt: AH HERE WE GO — Parachute

They went aloft before I knew it.

What raving moron takes two babies parasailing.

In a harness, on a cable. A cable 600 feet long.

Under a parachute. No rainbow nylon disk geared for tots at Gymboree. I am talking real parachute. A jump-out-of-an-airplane-like-an-idiot real parachute.

Pulled by a boat. A fast motorboat piloted by mariners of dubious licensure and skill. I am no bigot and I realize that our own Coast Guard is not fail safe. To wit, the decapitated boy in San Diego Bay on that bloody Parade of Christmas Lights. All those maritime skills did that kid no good. Done in by a Coast Guard Cutter, literal in his case.

An officer at the wheel, taffeta fruit salad on his breast, sea water in his socks. Some comfort to that family. Negligence is negligence and it happens on our shores, in our waters. In our air, let’s not forget. Fat chance. For that family’s attorney, a new car, Stanford tuition for an alive not-so-little one. For that family, no more boating, I daresay. Goodbye, Christmas lights.

And this is the U.S.A.

Parasailing in Mexico. I had no clue they were doing it. Weren’t they too young? That was my thought.

But no. The harness held three. Minty and Max flanked their father. The harness thick and fibrous like a bleached ace bandage. A highlight of their Mexican vacation. It was spontaneous, Lars told me when I called. Three photos sent to my phone.

The portrait pre deployment. There they were, harnessed, helmetless, barefoot, giggling, sunburned, perched on the end of a boat. Tendrils of wake behind them in the turquoise water. Lars looked proud: pater on holiday, the hearty and expansive Poobah of family fun. The children looked hyper, bright eyed, nearly pixelated. A flapping flag like on the boat in “Powderfinger.”

My kids’ noses the red of candy apples. Some adult could do better on the sunscreen, I immediately thought.

Second pic. Their feet are leaving the boat. Suspended in air, toes down like Baryshnikov in triplicate. Cable unfurling.

Lars had the ugliest gnarled feet on the planet. The phalanges of Tom Joad. Only muriatic acid could break down his stubborn ram’s horn metatarsals. Those feet could last for decades in their concrete solidity. You’d think.

Max and Minty’s? Stubby and sweet. Still practically rectangular in the way of small child feet. Pillowy, no chiropody needed.

Caught in the air.

The third. The cable is unrolled, the parachute distended and doing its business. Under the parachute they were safe. Let us call it Mrs. Parachute. Holding the air, holding the kids. Who knew the parachute could be a carriage, a home? I see her sometimes. I go to the aquarium and there she is, Mrs. Parachute, bobbing balletic in the jellyfish tank. Something shaky and ghostly and uterine about it all. The cable and the tentacles, Fallopian and necessary.

Their bodies are tiny and high up. When I heard 600 feet, the blood drained promptly from my brain to my heart. Six hundred feet? In the fucking air?

It’s the length of the cable, Rosalie, goddamnit it, Lars said.

600 feet?

We weren’t up that high.

Oh yeah? Well, uh, how high were you?

Rosalie, I don’t know exactly how high we were.

You took the kids up in this thing, and you don’t know how high you went?

No, Rosalie. I didn’t know how high we were.

But you admit that you were high.

We were high, I don’t know exactly.

I realized this was sounding like some stoner anthem.

What about the 600 feet?

That was the rope, Rosalie. The cable.

I’m not talking cable, Lars. I’m talking actual height.

What do you want me to do, get a prospectus?

A prospectus, Lars? A prospectus?

I don’t know what you expect, Rosalie.

I expect you to know how high something is when you take our children on it!

I guess you could say we were as high as a 15-story building.

A 15-story building?

Yes, Rosalie. Fifteen stories.

Fifteen stories?

That’s my estimate, yeah, fifteen…

You were up that high? Fifteen stories?

Max, want to say hello to your mom?

Parasail Photos 1 2 and 3. I kept them in my phone, of course. I kept all photos. I kept everything. A few orange-crowned Q-tips, earwax darkening. Hardened Band-aid under their dresser, a dot of blood on the pad like a Japanese flag, brown though, not red. It had been red once. Oxygenated. Their hairbrushes went to the coroner. I did find other hair. Despite my exemplary housekeeping, and the ministrations of Rosa, who has worked for me since her own son was two, six years before Minty’s arrival, and my love for clean, smooth surfaces free of schmutz, an underworld of child dirt remained. And has stayed, thanks to my vigilance. I planned to do their laundry the day before they came home.

It smells, it’s moldy and cheese and rank and I will not change a thing about it. It stays and it will stay and it will smell and that will be it. I do stick my hands inside their soft-sided nylon hamper and toss the clumps of clothes in swirls like distributing tomatoes in a salad. Shake some undies, push some jeans. When I was very little, younger than Max or Minty, I kept a glass of milk on my rattan nightstand for a week and it hardened into firm pudding with an ivory rind. I broke it open, the white mass, and the hole released the sharpest smell of dirty human ever. No elegance of Roquefort, no clinical Penicillin. This was odor contained in the private runnels and whorls of the body’s most private and unwashed. Alive, now dead aroma. I ran away from it.

It is their laundry now. Not borne in the fibers of whatever. I hold the smell. Whenever possible, spin it with my hands and cover my nose with a sock. After, I don’t wash my hands. I sniff my fingers for hours. I’m a smug teenager fresh from the back seat, circling Target, inhaling reminders.

Copyright Anne Isaaks, 2012. All rights reserved.

Excerpt: AH HERE WE GO — This Is Your Life Now, Rosalie Des Pres

I didn’t go on the trip.

It wasn’t my week.

It wasn’t my time.

Bad news comes in sixes. I could easily expound upon this massively unhappy reality, the giving tree of crappy luck which shed a ton of toxic leaves in my front yard.

Lousy events. Skin cancer, Crohn’s, a lawsuit or two.

A divorce about as acidic and excoriating as anyone else’s. Yale rejected me and I chose no safety school. My mother left me for an ashram in Coal Pit, Missouri.

This, in no order of chronological import.

​Not the nicest things. But manageable. Some testing of my tolerance and gumption, sure, but nothing so jagged or lethal.

​The what-doesn’t-kill-us bullshit.

​The makes-us-stronger claptrap.

​My husband, or I should say my former husband, Lars Drukker, was not a conventional mensch. Eye contact with other eyes was not his métier. Lars preferred lenses and viewfinders and big sexy Hasselblad cameras and generally chose objects over humans. Lars taught darkroom technique at two community colleges and curated for our dopey town’s shockingly world-class photography museum.

They held a Lars retrospective a year after the crash. Beautiful silver gelatin prints of chicken skin, large scale, the best things Lars ever did. Another series, less successful, of nipped cuticles and callus filings. He went trolling for skin at Vietnamese nail parlors. Carried a small dustpan and brush, baggies for his harvests. Lars never procured enough dead epidermis.

The work of Lars: everything beautifully lit, glowing, luxurious. And this obsession of his, nubbins of flesh, frequently waterlogged and juicy with ridges and pores, or dry as ash, this boundless topography of skin — a mountain range here, a slot canyon there, dunes of dead cells — made for a posthumous show of profound bad taste. In my opinion, and for obvious reasons. But no one asked me. One ex-wife does not next-of-kin make.

He did take wonderful portraits of Araminta, the child otherwise known as Minty, and of Max, whose given name, never used, was Maxine. Those, I gave permission for. What was I going to say, No? They’re mine and you’re not taking them? They took up a different wall, cattycorner from the skin. In a group with shots of their stepmother and their half sister, a baby, who was found intact.

​Lars dumped me three years ago for Helen Smith. Helen Smith, Dentist Chick, that was my name for her and to this day, when I think of her, which is less and less often but still regular as forks in the silverware drawer, in the candle I light for her every anniversary with all the others, 78 candles blazing on my dining room table, she is still Helen Smith, Dentist Chick.

They met at the annual F-Stop Fundraiser. I’d been there, mopping up spilled Negroni, and when I knelt to dry the floor I smelled the Febreeze on my unwashed Spanx. Two little kids, a job, a house, a husband — I didn’t have time for my personal laundry.

Helen herself had been dumped previously. Despite this common ground of marital loss and humiliation, she and I never bonded. The second Mrs. Drukker.

Lars always called me the Reluctant Mrs. Drukker. I deferred our wedding for years. I don’t recall his proposal, actually. I just remember saying Not Yet. It was good for a while. Then it wasn’t. I knew he wasn’t happy with me, repelled and ensconced in what my therapist called Ick Factor, just as I did everything possible to avoid intimate contact with him. Anything to keep real conversation out of the room. As for body to body, eye to eye, palm to palm in the marital bed at 2AM, such touch was nonexistent.

​I got my kindness elsewhere.

And of course, my kids. They kept me very, very busy. I playgrouped, crafted, volunteered, baked. Wholesome, organic, devoid of bad was every crumb of goodness. I was farm friendly before it was popular. Whipped up toddler-friendly Shepherd’s Pies in the muffin pan, bowlfuls of fresh Oobleck weekly for the eager plump hands of Max and Minty. I even made my own calendula soap. Tincture of goldenseal. A diaper rash unguent I’d beat to a froth at night in my kitchen alone, Lars asleep or clicking through jpgs of coeds in leotards. I didn’t really care what he did. That’s what I said. I kept things going. I had it no other way.

Got Mail?

Got a jolt in my inbox two days ago. Quite the galvanizing visual. Wholly unexpected.

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My mailbox. 1288. Oberlin College Mail Room. Wilder Hall.

The same box. Lucite panel smudged per usual, the combination dial fanned out like angel wings or a sun-and-moon carving on a very old gravestone. The knob ribbed around the sides, a cold metal Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Something steampunk about the apparatus. At least I think it’s steampunk. I’m seeing steampunk everywhere since Comic-Con last week.

Since I am an eidetic person, prone to precise encapsulations and reliving of senses and places and dialogue and names and advertisements and pages from decades ago, this image, literal as it as, and remembered acutely, rocked me. What I have in my head is still on the ground, in use, receiving mail. No more cuticle of Scotch tape from a rugby party invitation, but damn, I know just where it stubbornly stayed.

Back then I got a lot of mail. I had epistolary relatives and a boyfriend who sent me cards and letters like some people chew Tums. I looked forward to my mail room visit, which happened daily after lunch. Most days I had mail. Envelopes in profile, visible behind the cloudy window.

I could get misty and in memoriam mode right now, but I won’t. This has been a year of thinking too much about death and shortness of life and time sprinting like a shoeless, manic Kenyan. It goes without saying that the majority of my correspondents have crossed, to employ a New York pastry trope, the Rainbow Cookie Bridge.

I have some letters sent to the box. Envelopes and all. I kept obsessive accordion files back in my salad days. Did you know that phrase is from Antony and Cleopatra?

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“…My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.”

I think my judgment was more puce than green — green, to me, is vivifying and lovely, despite the mucous connotations — a faint bloodshot hue. All those late nights writing papers. And yak yak yakking away, into the early morning, cassette tapes flipping, processing and registering what we thought was angst, and trouble.

Daily going to the mail room, with my micro passel of friends, a smallish group, each one right here in my 2012 life. I carry my mailbox in my hand, and every beloved person is a few taps away.

Bedside Reading: Roots, Bechdel’s Graphic Memoirs, and Shoulder Dystocia

Lately I’ve been crazy busy helping the most industrious of my entrepreneurial friends run his business. So I’ve been tapping on the now month-old iPhone day and night, scheduling and estimating and quoting and choreographing and soothing clientele from Humboldt to Hemet, Cupertino to Santee. I’ve been yenta-ing it up, though not on the blog.

On my downtime I find myself doing some things. Everything fortifies the writing on some level, and I view it all as a nutritious slurry. And unlike liquified kale, none of it leaves behind a green film. So:

I read the new Alison Bechdel memoir. I’m a fan of Bechdel, I interviewed her at Comic-Con after Fun Home came out, I followed her strip for years. I was gleeful at the prospect of her latest, a seeming bookend to her witty, twisted brilliant elegy to her father. Fun Home deserved every speck of hype it received. I feel for Alison, because the new book — Are You My Mother? — is, well, how to say what the New York Times labored, hesitatingly, to utter in its red-faced and squeamish review? It doesn’t work. Is it solipsistic and pedantic and narcissistic and self indulgent and navel gazing? It verges, sometimes more than a little. I reread it promptly not for the joy and delectation, but to confirm my hunch.

What Bechdel’s newest does best is muse on the birth, the homely ontology, of writing a book. Not just the mother memoir but Fun Home too. For a work focused on Bechdel’s mother, it skitters constantly off the mother track. Frequent passages from Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf feel tacked on, like Post-its stuck to the outline of a story which just ain’t working. A narrative which, to employ some obstetric lingo, is failing to progress.

If much of Are You My Mother? alludes to the process of creating narrative, the chief maternal attribute I sense is anxiety at a birth going badly. I think of that dreaded obstetrical complication, shoulder dystocia. Here, the baby’s shoulder lodges during birth and requires exceedingly difficult manual extrication. The head is out but the rest is trapped. Over the ages shoulder dystocia led to dismemberment of the baby in dire attempts to save the mother, severing of pelvic structures to free the infant, and, in more recent generations, to broken collarbones, emergency C-sections, birth injury induced by hypoxia and trauma, maternal and fetal death. In shoulder dystocia there is panic and struggle and often a bad outcome.

For all my reservations and dismay, please don’t think I’m consigning Are You My Mother? to a neonatal intensive care unit and pulling the plug. I love how Bechdel works with her family history. Generations of Bechdels lived in the same Pennsylvania town and there are wonderful and beautifully researched details of relatives and places in both books. In Fun Home the Bechdel family funeral home looms large (and fascinating). In the second book she tells her mother that a key reason to share her father’s story (and shame the family in the process) is to give him a “proper funeral” by stating the truth about his closeted and often enraged life. Death and mortuary science are lead characters here. Genealogy too. (Interestingly Bechdel’s sister-in-law, who seems none too pleased about such public, published family revelations, is an avid geneaologist.)

Alongside the Bechdel, my bedside reading includes a sheath of genealogical materials from a distant cousin. I picked it up in Great Neck last month and it has taught me some things. My great-grandma Mary’s great-grandfather was named Moses, and he was born not in Tokaj but Tallye. Mary’s father Morris, who built the house at 304 Berriman in East New York in 1901, had twin aunts, Annie and Ida, who lived near Stuyvesant Town and were roseate and “uncouth” in their al fresco bridge chairs as per their in-law, my Aunt Selma, who liked to call herself an “outlaw.” Born in Tokaj on September 11,1876, the twins appear in a carefully calligraphed birth registry stamped “Dawid Schuck Rabbiner.” Theirs was the second Jewish birth in Tokaj that month, flanked by Deborah Trapper on September 7 and Hani Klein on September 12.

Also in the packet: The circumcision record of Samuel Straussler, son of Moses. July 7, 1847 was the day of Samuel’s bris, and he went on to father the twins, Morris-who-built-Berriman, and two other girls, Lea and Rosy. Lea married Gus, Rosy married Sollie. I don’t know if Lea and Rosy emigrated like their siblings. I do know that Morris’ wife, my great-grandma Mary’s mother Fannie, died at 304 Berriman of “acute dilatation of heart due to prolonged infection, sepsis started from grippe infection, hemorrhagic [unintelligible] with pyremia due to grippe infection.” This, from her death certificate signed Jacob Ruchman, MD, on March 4, 1921.

Google and my insomnia being what they are, a search of “Jacob Ruchman” yields several papers published by Dr. Ruchman in the Thirties, in what appears to be prominent ENT journals. He discovered a spore which led to nasal problems. I imagine his office at 430 Hopkinson Avenue in Brooklyn to be gaslit, loud with rustling papers and pungent with camphor and Benzoin.

So Fannie died on March 4, the day I was born 45 years later. I have yet to light Yahrzeit candles, thank goodness, so I don’t know how my great-grandmother felt that day, if she mentioned it to relatives in the waiting room or simply lighted it upon returning home that night.

Fannie got to miss the death of Harry, her fifth child, who died at fifteen in an undertow, August 15, 1925. I have a photo of Harry strumming a tennis racquet like a guitar, canvas sneakers on his big feet, punch-flattened nose and shrewd-looking eyes. He stands beside the friend, now nameless, who drowned with him. I know from Aunt Selma that her husband, Bernie, the youngest and seventh child, accompanied Morris to the morgue to identify the body. I don’t recall any relatives directly discussing Harry, save for general discouragement from beachgoing.

Harry’s stands as the only premature death listed in the family papers. I take that back. Moses had a wife, Leni, who died at 36, followed six days later by their son Nissan, aged one month and 15 days. This was April, 1884, Tokaj. Of 22 deaths listed from January to September, 11 were under age ten, and of those, most were babies under two weeks old.

When you spend time with decades-old cemetery records, you see baby deaths. Old Montefiore, the Jewish cemetery where Harry and Morris and Fannie and my great-grandmother and others rest, boasts an online grave locator database. No matter how you’ve studied flu, consumption, unpasteurized milk, and the crap shoot of midwifery, the density of babies and children at Montefiore shocks the iPhone-wielding insomnia-fueled Googler.

Of the hundreds of baby interments at Old Montefiore, who knows how many shoulder dystocia caused. I think of sadness and resignation and terror and panic. To compare this often-tragic condition to two examples of present-day graphic memoir seems, on one level, foolhardy and wrong. In another light, we see the hardship and the danger of birth — of different beings, yes, human and art. Both are animated nonetheless.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Plane Crash

If you weren’t an English major, this link will take you to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It’s a poem about visual perspective.

There are times when you take pains to observe the life in your periphery, when things move and when they stay still. Fixity and motion.

So yeah. February 8, 2006.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Plane Crash

I

On Fuerte Drive along the spine of Mount Helix

Late afternoon, post parent-teacher conference

Headed toward freeway, Melissa Etheridge greatest hits

II

Driving alone, kids at their dad’s

What was I doing that night

At home or out

III

The State of California gave me a driver’s license

Which is at times a miracle

IV

I have a long-standing practice of looking at airplanes

Parked or aloft

Especially in flight

V

You might say plane crashes run in my family

Not a happy fact, but true

Three NTSB accident reports, and a surefire excuse not to date pilots

VI

Fuerte Drive curves and you need to pay attention

Ridges and rises in the gradient

Above banks of bougainvillea, big patches of blue sky

VII

Below Mount Helix and east and past the 67

One of our regional airfields, Gillespie

In the shadow of In-and-Out Burger

VIII

I know there’s a blind spot at takeoff from Gillespie

A mandatory turn climbing out of there

Every plane does it

IX

I claim this fact because I retain too much info

About aviation and possibilities of instant death

X

Driving on Fuerte I looked at blue sky

No one on the road

Two small planes

XI

Distant but sharp as two sequins on white linen

One 12 o’clock, the other 3 o’clock

12 o’clock’s nose glinting, 3 o’clock in profile

Different axes on a graph, a pre-algebra moment

Would they cross? An optical illusion for sure

Driving, I stared at the sky

XII

Like toys going putt putt, no one flew fast

Their speeds laconic, gum-chewing and regular, seemingly the same

XIII

Three o’clock hit the side of 12 o’clock and it was no illusion, 

Arc of red and orange, smoke curving like white feathers

I swear that the Melissa Etheridge “Angels Will Fall” song was playing

It was a moment of There You Are, Now You’re Not


Two eyewitnesses — commercial pilot gardening, and yours truly.

http://www.planecrashmap.com/plane/ca/N759KE