Monthly Archives: July 2009

How I Spent My Saturday Night

If you skipped dinner, you could use your meal card later that night and buy chocolate chip cookies. The big kind. You could get six.

A few times each semester, my pal Barb and I chose this nutritional option. We always felt skinny the next day, oddly.

“I can’t believe we did that,” she’d say from her dormitory phone.

“But I feel like a twig, do you?” I’d reply, twiggy already.

“I do!” Barb had legs like bamboo skewers.

We’d crack up, the way you do in college. We have been friends for the 26 years since graduating from Brown, sending birthday cards that tout our youth, catching up through the phone wires and in person, even, despite the miles. We did the news together on campus radio, sitting side by side at a desk. Rip and read, and now the weather. Once, something was funny and I couldn’t contain myself. Laughing came easily to us, though it was not desirable on air. I slid my half of the copy in front of Barb before she caught the wave, and escaped to the fire escape. It is cold in Providence in February, three flights up a steel ladder. 

Early in our professional careers, we found ourselves at tiny television stations in Mississippi and Vermont, reporting the goings-on from shrimp boats and cow fields. Barb had to be her own photographer, too, setting up the camera, hitting the button and walking into the frame to speak. She slipped on the Burlington ice and wound up in a cast and crutches. Still, she had to haul the tri-pod and walk into the shot.

Barb never picked a boy to marry. I picked one, who turned out not to last. The other night, Saturday night, I put on my pajamas at 6:36 in Dallas, Texas. It was early, I knew, but it was the legitimate end of the day. The girls were with their father. I stay home when they go. 

“If you’re home, call me,” read the email. “I’m not doing anything.” How could she not be doing anything? She is on 69th Street. If I did not have to live in Texas and were home in New York, I’d be doing a lot. Such a lot.

Anyway, we hit all the subjects. The guy, also from college, who she likes, loves, who just can’t muster an every day thing, though he likes, loves, her, too. Her Dad, who is 84 and ill, and mad about it. Her Mom, who does not tell Barb everything, Barb thinks, or know everything, because maybe she doesn’t want to.

“I’m afraid about the end,” she says.

“The end is bad,” I tell her. “Do you want to hear my end?”

One day, the oxygen tank sits in the corner, just in case. Then, maybe, it comes out at night.  A short time after, it is pulled to the top of the stairs. At some point, and without acknowledgment, a longer tube gets attached to the nozzle, one that stretches to all corners of the house. Ultimately, the blood is dark when sugar levels are tested in the blue bathroom. A request is made to go to the city, the hospital. Morphine swirls to the ceiling above the bed, taking with it a life.

Barb wanted to hear. “Your dad was too young,” she says.

Then, she switched the topic. We talked about her dining chairs. She found them online, but was told by a midwestern salesperson that someone was testing them out. If the person rejected the chairs, they would be Barb’s. Turns out, crazily, that the tester was also a former classmate of ours. She and Barb were acquaintances, nothing deep. But after two and a half decades, when you both want the same mid-century modern seating in your grown-up apartments, you call.

“I left her a message thanking her for sending them back, but I never heard from her.”

We weren’t big fans of the coincidental chair shopper, thinking she was sort of  snooty, at 18. So, Barb thought the lack of response made sense. Then, I told her that I heard she had breast cancer. Maybe the message was left at a bad time. Maybe she didn’t have whatever it would take to make the call back. Maybe she couldn’t tell the story again. Or, perhaps she counted time, and there were other people to phone instead.           

I wonder what our classmate chose instead, for her dining table, if she chose, even, or if she used old chairs, or brought in desk chairs from her kids’ rooms or folding chairs from the back closet. Who were her guests, then, anyway. They would sit on the floor, to be sure.

I would think that Barb’s table has a different feel to it now, after our telephone call. It is almost too prosaic. Walk in my shoes. Sit in my seat. They are swank and sophisticated, no doubt, and entirely perfect for the gathering of friends or for just the eye. Clean lines. Simple. Now imbued with misfortune, question, and hope for the girl who passed us on the campus Green, well-appointed and maybe just shy.

“We are all the same in the end,” says Barb. Trite, but true, really. She used to think her ‘boyfriend’ was untouchable back then, before she knew him. And illness, the instant equalizer.

We said good night. It was a rich way to spend it. I walked into the kitchen and opened the pantry cabinet, finding the box of chocolate chip cookies. I took out two. They were the small kind, but they tasted extraordinary.




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Hang On a Sec, I Have to Crash

Today, hundreds of pages of research on the dangers of cell phone use by drivers will be released. It seems that the studies, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, were completed in 2002-2003 but never made public.

Reports say the information, which shows enormous spikes in fatalities and accidents caused by people who talk on the phone when they drive, would have “angered Congress,” according to a piece in today’s New York Times. Not to mention the cell phone industry people. Chatting drivers are four times as likely to crash as responsible ones, whether they have two hands on the wheel or not, according to the study. They react as if they had a blood alcohol content of .08. In 2002, 955 people died and 240,000 accidents occurred because someone couldn’t wait until they got home, or pull over to the side of the road, to make a very important phone call.

Seven years ago, it was estimated that six percent of all drivers are occupied on the phone at a given time. I bet that figure is much higher today.

Where we live, you will be ticketed by a police officer if you use your phone in a designated area surrounding a school. That is something, but not nearly enough. When the law was first enacted, a car was stopped on every block.


That is all I have to say.

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Booking It

Page one hundred. Rounding the curve. I am writing a book, and it feels a little like a race. A 400. Once around the track. It is the hardest race to run, because it is a sprint. You can slow down slightly in the third quarter, just to knock it out in the fourth. If you don’t throw up at the end, you win. 

I have given myself until the end of August to finish, for various reasons. I think I am in good shape. The story is in my head, and sketched on paper, and it is coming out in unexpected and interesting ways, which is what is supposed to happen when stories are in your head and you give them a place, and time, to emerge. So, I am happy.

My hope is, someone will love it when it is done and offer to sell it to someone else who will love it, too, and buy it. Then, I will be a guest on Oprah. And sit on the right where she always sits because that is my better side. Sorry, Oprah. Meantime, I write three pages a day, sometimes more. Read it out loud to myself. And keep going. 


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A Very UnPOPular Opinion

I am hoping that we can be done with the Michael Jackson story now. I have not appreciated the relentless news coverage of his death. Clearly, he was a gifted performer. He was one of many gifted performers who straddled racial lines, one of many who could transcend age, who could sing and dance wonderfully. For that, he deserves acclaim. He is in that crowd. Sam Cooke. Little Richard. Diana Ross.

But, if what initial reports are saying turn out to be true, Michael Jackson may emerge as an abuser of drugs. I am sorry. Singing and dancing doesn’t trump drug abuse, especially when you have children. 

There, I said it. It is an unpopular position, I bet. I loved the Jackson Five. I grew up with ABC. Had the album in my college dorm. 

One of his brothers said today that Michael Jackson was under terrible stress, unable to walk across the street without being mobbed. I think that everybody has pressures. I think that people who can’t walk across the street because they have no legs probably feel worse. It doesn’t sit well with me, the adoration for the man. I think that you can adore the music. I don’t like that he has been cast as an “icon,” because that implies that we all think that he is. I don’t think that he is. I think that he was a talented guy who sang and danced incredibly well. And did drugs. And despite warnings, forgot, or didn’t care, that he probably shouldn’t have.


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What a Party

Turns out, Fern has a thing for bracelets. She was already wearing a few on one wrist. The one my daughter made was a welcome addition. She loved it. Put it right on. She asked my older daughter if she were an artist, since the card was so beautiful. She made the letters extra large, congratulating her on reaching 100.

The place was packed, apparently. All of the residents were there, in the dining room, in their wheelchairs or standing with walkers. Some went over to Fern to wish her a happy birthday. One started to, then forgot what she was going to say. Fern’s son (the girls thought he was about 75) sang for an entire hour, with a pianist. My daughter said that Fern sat and watched him, her hands clasped under her chin, smiling. Her grandkids (my age) were there, too, with their own children. 

They had cake and ice cream, sugar-free. My kids set up the room, brought the guests downstairs, served, made sure everyone had spoons, and then moved around the furniture when the party was over. The grandkids thanked them for coming to celebrate Fern’s special birthday, and for helping in so many ways. 

They said they had a fun time. They felt good that they made the presents. Important work, and I think they realize.

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Big Day

My daughters have been volunteering at a retirement home for about six months. They go on weekends, holidays and now, with free summer days, on afternoons when it is too hot to be outside. In Texas, you stay indoors between noon and four, if you can.

They love old people. They think they are cute. Charming, and funny. They point them out when they see them, particularly the couples. I’m not sure when the fascination began, but as soon as they were old enough, I called around to various homes and found one near our house. The girls have helped with manicures and parties. They have delivered mail, wheeled wheelchairs. They have hung calendars up in rooms…too high, too low, perfect. Served juice. Handed out menus… a highlight.

Yesterday, they got the July calendar, listing all of the events planned for the month. There were word games and wine and cheese, memory exercises, outings to the movie theatre. Today, there is a birthday. Fern Ives is turning 100. They will not miss today. How often do you get to attend such a celebration.

“She doesn’t look 100,” they said.  “There are younger people there who look much older.” We figured out that if you are still around at 100, you are probably doing pretty well. Hence, the youthful glow.

The other night, my younger daughter strung a bracelet for Fern. She used beads with letters printed on them and spelled out her name. Put it in a box and wrapped it, with green paper and a pink bow. My other child has chosen to make a card. I am curious to see what she writes. Later, they will arrive early. Big day.

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