Got Mail?

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


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?


“…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


On Fuerte Drive along the spine of Mount Helix

Late afternoon, post parent-teacher conference

Headed toward freeway, Melissa Etheridge greatest hits


Driving alone, kids at their dad’s

What was I doing that night

At home or out


The State of California gave me a driver’s license

Which is at times a miracle


I have a long-standing practice of looking at airplanes

Parked or aloft

Especially in flight


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


Fuerte Drive curves and you need to pay attention

Ridges and rises in the gradient

Above banks of bougainvillea, big patches of blue sky


Below Mount Helix and east and past the 67

One of our regional airfields, Gillespie

In the shadow of In-and-Out Burger


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

A mandatory turn climbing out of there

Every plane does it


I claim this fact because I retain too much info

About aviation and possibilities of instant death


Driving on Fuerte I looked at blue sky

No one on the road

Two small planes


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


Like toys going putt putt, no one flew fast

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


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.

Marshal and Tanya South: A Not-So Love Story (Part Two)

If I wanted, if I had the time, I could get off this chair, put on my trail shoes, check the water supply in the back of my mid-high clearance SUV, and head up the 67 to the desert.

I’d need a willing companion, too, but that’s another story. The desert is dangerous and I never go alone. For now, let’s say there’s a sentient decoy with aviator sunglasses in the passenger seat, wrangling the iPod and smiling with a mouthful of healthy teeth. He would never, ever “rock out” to Sheryl Crow. He gets my passion for the detritus of indigenous peoples. He, too, is turned on by  stagecoach ruts in desert varnish, pegmatites and xenoliths, empty vast places lined with purple badlands.

Lest you think I crave a Tea Partier towing a trailer stuffed with gas-guzzling, geoglyph-erasing dune buggies and dirt bikes, I will just say: No.

Welcome to Anza-Borrego. If you’re approaching via the 8, you’ll see a plaque near the Border Patrol traffic stop: This is the Desert. There’s nothing out here. Nothing. 

Not entirely true.

This is the largest state park in the country. You need a Desert Boyfriend to do it justice. And the right Desert Boyfriend at that.

Marshal was Tanya’s Desert Boyfriend.

There’s something so romantic about traversing California Highway S-2, otherwise known as the Great Overland Stage Route, former track of Butterfield stagecoaches. It is very you-and-me-against-the-world. It is bonding. Marshal and Tanya knew this fact.

Despite all the eventual crap between them, their desert trips were real.

Together, in 1925, they’d taken road trips to the desert, to camp along the then-unpaved S-2. He was still married to Margaret when he and Tanya “wed” in 1923. They eventually married legally. For all his nonconformity, even he sought that piece of paper.

Say “Marshal South” to people who name-drop Edward Abbey and Everett Ruess, and what will you hear?

Desert Prophet. Proto-hippie. Nudist. Nonconformist.

For Tanya, I suspect Marshal mandated nonconformity.

He was one of those guys who knew everything.

Tried to change Tanya’s mind about many, many things, I bet.

I didn’t know the man. He died in 1948, divorced from Tanya, Tanya who wouldn’t speak publicly of him for 50 more years of her long-lived life. But if I were to tease one thread of his identity from the many-stranded skein of Marshal South, I would add another adjective starting with “N.”


Marshal South at his desert homestead

“Over My Shoulder”

The Jayhawks, from Tomorrow the Green Grass. Eighteen years ago, 1994, San Diego, cassette in my ’88 Volvo 240DL. I drove badly, harmonizing all the while to “Over My Shoulder” (below).

I was almost pushing 30. Eager to push my past away from me, over an edge, down some figurative rock and ocotillo-strewn slope in order to forget it.

The Jayhawks, live in LA, 2012, a few days after I saw them at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. Such a good show. After a week of smarting from an old friend’s too-soon, awful death in a hospice cum hotel, Gary Louris (the guy with the red Rickenbacker) was a fine and rousing sight.

I can do the SoCal freeway contra dance. But I can’t sing to save my life. Doesn’t stop me, though. In 1994, and today, and in the years between, I always tried to harmonize properly, with the cassette, with the CD, with the iPod:

I’ve been looking over my shoulder
Would you love me when you’re older

And I really have to say: You don’t, in one way. Otherwise you do. And it is mutual, my rollicking and ebullient old friend.

Marshal and Tanya South: A Not-So Love Story (Part One)

This is a true story.

Two people met in Oceanside, California. It was roughly 1920. Different backgrounds but a similar dewy-eyed desire for growth of a deep and personal nature.

She was from Russia, a Jewish girl, Tanya Lerner. Her father’d been a surgeon, amputating legs on steppe battlefields. As a child she’d seen pogroms and the typical array of Cossack nightmare prompting certain generations to Get the Hell Out. They landed in di Goldene Medine in 1906, when Tanya (bat Nathan ve Celia) was eight years old. She left New York in 1920, bound for Oceanside’s Rosicrucian Fellowship. Perhaps her father’s death freed her to study what she wanted — the occult, astrology, and (a likely shanda for the family back home) Rosicrucianism.

Tanya South, 1930

In Oceanside she met Marshal, a carpenter at the Rosicrucian Fellowship. At that time, in the parlance of today, Marshal was one big Red Flag. He was still married, to Margaret, and father of Marshal Jr. Margaret had dumped him for reasons of money — she wanted it, he’d grown up with it and didn’t care for it. Marshal Sr. campaigned for reunion. Margaret said Forget It. He kept trying. She didn’t care. It was in this bereaved marinade that Tanya met her future husband.

As women sometimes learn, as Tanya did, Marshal wasn’t Marshal. Marshal was actually Roy. He was Australian, not British. Born Roy Bennett Richards, son of an affluent rancher, student at a chi-chi private school for boys. His father abused his mother, and to the States his mother brought her boys, in 1908, to Oceanside.

Today Oceanside is a Marine town. Coastal, yes, but despite the best efforts of developers and restauranteurs, lacking Del Mar’s luster. The Oceanside of Roy Bennett Richards probably glimmered with dust along with Pacific greens and blues. A nascent poet, young Roy likely noticed the dull gold sand change color at dusk. An early environmentalist, the new county coast road of 1910 must have seemed quite the incursion.

Marshal South, 1930

Roy wrote, got quite prolific. Changed his name to Marshal South, first as nom de plume and then a full persona.

He was Marshal South when mourning Margaret, when this Jewish girl in So Cal, Tanya, met him.

Marshal seemed to burst through his grief. No gloomy carpenter, Marshal stood ready to live as he wanted. Which, for Marshal, meant living on top of a big desolate hill in the Anza-Borrego desert.

His love for Tanya animated him, or perhaps her attention and devotion to him — for when push came to shove, Marshal had charisma — gave Marshal the gumption to plan his dream homestead. They’d live like Indians in the desert. Marshal would be Desert Prophet. Though Arizona Highways magazine gave her no such label, Tanya served as Desert Baleboosteh.*

It was very much a “wither thou goest” scenario.

*Yiddish for housewife

Rothko Parfait

To paraphrase Olivia Newton-John: Let’s get visual.

Rothko chunk, magenta love

One of my favorite hobbies is what I call in situ art photography.

I visit art museums and take pics of bits of art. Flash off, of course.

I use my moribund BlackBerry Torch and always have fun.

Of my favorite painters, Mark Rothko promptly comes in #1.

If I ever could properly practice meditation in which the brain clears of thoughts, and I mean the plural, since there’s never just one thought in there for me, I’d need a Rothko as a prop: the much-ballyhooed focal point.

Sitting and staring at a Rothko whole, I go somewhere else in my head. It’s a good place. Better brain waves? Improved ions? Grooving on color waves and blends? A spike of oxytocin in the blood?

Rothko profile, back to front

You tell me.

Sunshine Rothko

I sit and stare. And then I get up, Ye Olde BlackBerrye in hand, and go at it.

The slices I find are NOT arbitrary. They are carefully considered.

I don’t do this just with Rothko. But with Rothko comes strata. Within the slurry, layers.

Think of bicolor tourmaline, colors stacked yet flowing.

Vascular Rothko, like a bruise

Another analogy, perhaps better: the parfait served to children at the Village Bath Club in Manhasset, New York, in the 1970s. Tulip glass, colorful syrups (strawberry? mint? an orange cousin to Baby Tylenol?) in bands. From syrup to (probably Sealtest brand) vanilla ice cream to syrup, a blurring edge. All the way up the glass.