Monthly Archives: June 2010

Relationship School

We watch The Bachelorette on Monday evenings. There, I said it. This is the first season that we’ve tuned in. At first, I thought it would provide silly summer entertainment for us gals. During the school year, everything is pretty serious. Clearly, there is no television on Monday nights. So, we heard about the roses and the cute boys and the dates in foreign lands and decided, Count Us In. 

I must say, watching the show with a twelve and fourteen year old has been a surprisingly valuable experience. A tutorial, really, in basic social interactions that girls will someday need. Boys 101. We have learned, for instance, how to trust your instinct, how to sense deception, whether to give someone a second chance, how to recognize narcissism, and yes, which haircuts look best on which face shapes, which is important to know, too. We’ve also learned about which traits are essential in a mate, and which ones are necessary for each one of us.

It helps that the people on the show, for the most part, do not seem insane, like they do on other such programs. The Bachelorette appears smart, hard-working, appreciative and kind. The six contenders who remain seem like terrific guys, clever, fun, funny. We don’t like that one of them says “like” a lot, but we think he does it when he is nervous. We also wonder how six men can fall in love with one woman, and how one woman can date six men at once. We are learning about the television business, too.

Meantime, we understand that next week, people cry about something. Kissing, laughing, crying…The Bachelorette covers it all. 


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Let’s Spill Some Oil on Tony Hayward’s Yacht

My first big reporting job was on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in the mid-eighties. I worked for a local television station in Biloxi, covering the towns that stretched along the state’s 26 miles of beach. There were no casinos, then, or the businesses that pop up with them. No tourists, except for people from not too far away, who came to swim in the summertime. The road along the beach was dotted with antebellum homes and curly iron gates, and lovely restaurants that served etouffe and oysters. Not a paper napkin in sight. Town leaders gathered for beignets in the morning, or shrimp at lunch, making deals, slapping backs. It was a very pretty place, and an intriguing place, for a northerner dropped into it, like okra into oil.

I spent a lot of time at the beach talking to the fishermen. Biloxi was the Shrimp Capital of the country, after all. These were a sturdy lot, bold, outspoken, and really, the fiber of the community. Their granddaddies fished, and great-granddaddies. They had boats and nets and pails that looked as old. Skin that had seen a storm or two, not to mention sun. So much sun.

I remember walking along the dock in Gulfport one particular day, my reporter heels clicking on the wood. A man called to me from down on his boat, crisp white, with a red bottom.

“You want a story, young lady?” he called. “Come look at this.”

I still hear his voice, fast-moving, Cajun, mad. I understood every other word. He climbed up on the dock, keeping one foot on the edge of his boat. “Look at that,” he pointed where the water met wood. “Look at that line.”

A storm drain in the harbor was dripping oil. A storm drain is not big, about four inches in diameter, at most. You can’t see a drip when it comes out from the hole in the cement wall. But you can see it on the boats, dark sticky tracks that ring the hulls. The shrimper yelled into our camera. His wife yelled into our camera. It was going to cost them nearly a hundred dollars to clean and repaint. It was going to cost them time. The city hadn’t responded. The county hadn’t responded. We were their last hope.

When I watch the spewing rig on television, I see the storm drain in the Gulfport harbor. I see my shrimper and his wife, in her calico print top and kerchief. I see how threatened they felt, from just a thread of oil at their waterline. I dug up my old videotapes and found the story.

“We make our living off the water,” the fisherman said, floating up and down with the current. “Can you know what I mean? Can you?”

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Eyes on the Road

He let me drive the car when I was nine. Well, I wasn’t alone behind the steering wheel when I was nine, but I certainly had my grip on it, in the ten-and-two position, turning left, then right, hand over hand, thump thump. Dad worked the pedals. It must have been a challenge with a miniature and enthusiastic body smashed up against your side, but he was highly coordinated and a picture of calm. We’d round the swerve onto Taymil Road on the way home from my piano lesson and if I were lucky, he’d lift his right arm off the wheel and give me the nod.

Each Monday at 4:25, my mother dropped me off in front of Mrs. Rubenstein’s house, a weighty 1920s stucco with a front path that shot to the door like a diving board. I ran inside, the vinyl music portfolio slapping against my leg. Sometimes, another student would be finishing. Sometimes, there was no one before me. Always, Sarah Rubenstein was waiting in a knee-length knit skirt and rubber-soled shoes. I was never early, even when I was early. Mrs. Rubenstein was a despot, an oppressor with barber-cut hair, gray with yellow edges. She yelled out commands and scrawled emphatic reminders in between the staffs, over the notes, off the margins, even, onto the actual wood of the piano’s stand. She broke nine pencil points a lesson. She ate dried ginger out of a paper bag. She said it helped her heartburn. Once, Mr.s Rubenstein became so vigorous in her translation of a particular musical phrase that sprays of the root flew from her mouth onto the keys in front of me. Tiny droplets of crystallized ginger rained down onto the baby grand. How was I to touch it, then? How was I not to touch it? Mrs. Rubenstein presented moral dilemmas for me, at nine, and onward, during the six hundred years that I studied piano in her living room. My mother told me that she was a tremendous teacher, that a girl in her second grade class performed like Shostakovich and that is why we went to Mrs. Rubenstein, even though she scared me a little and screamed up the dark staircase to Leo, her husband, who emerged only once in the six hundred years I went to the stucco house on Monday afternoons.

My dad’s Buick had a bench seat. When you are learning how to drive a car, even if you are still in elementary school, an uninterrupted sitting surface is conducive to mastering skills. If he could get out of the hospital in time, he would pick me up. It wasn’t too often, but for a surgeon, it was a lot. After my lesson, I found him in the next room, a den with beige carpeting and prints of seventeenth century quarter notes, angled where they should have been rounded, mean notes. I knew that my father wouldn’t permit me to drive the Buick Electra on North Avenue, the four-lane street that traversed the heart of New Rochelle, or Quaker Ridge Road, the less commercial but fast-flowing thoroughfare that dissected it. My opportunity came once we made the left into the residential neighborhood adjacent to ours, lush and hilly and lined with storybook tudors.  I do not think that I asked to steer, that I uttered words in the form of a question. But as we approached Taymil Road, I harnessed the anticipation and hope within me and flung it in my father’s direction, across the immense girth of the 1970s sedan, past the AM-FM push-button radio and through the leathered ether of the chassis’s interior into his brain, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, decision-making about children’s extracurricular activities, particularly driving.

You will. You can. Yes, come drive, I’d repeat in my head and paint on my face. Look, Dad. This is the face of a driving girl. A really fabulous driving girl who should be driving now, right this minute, before we pass Taymil Road and get too far, before we’re practically home in our own boring driveway, creaking on the emergency brake, halted, nipped, held back from a moment of glory and thrill.

When the arm rose, I slid across the seat and pushed myself up to the edge. Dad dropped his hands to the bottom, keeping contact with his thumb and forefingers. The dashboard could have been on the Apollo. I did not know how you could look at the road and the numbers and lights and measurers all at the same time. If you gave the equipment the attention it appeared to deserve, you would certainly crash into an oncoming bus, or at least scrape off the side of the door on the median. How did grown-up people control so many variables simultaneously, I wondered.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Dad told me.

That’s how.

“Only on the road.”

I focused on Taymil Road, intently, like an Air Force pilot. Like a really happy Air Force pilot. My hands clung in the requisite formation. I was a good driver, for the most part. I made smooth turns, I kept the straight-aways steady. I crept up on the yellow line a bit, but attributed that to height, or the lack of it. Anyway, the route home from the point of takeover involved three right turns, one left curve, a left into the driveway and up the hill into the garage. Years earlier, my brother sent me down the incline in a red metal fire engine. “Pick up your feet,” he yelled, as the truck gathered speed on the descent, crossed the street and careened into the far curb. We did not consider the possibility of traffic on Rollling Way. Maybe, we didn’t think I’d really make it to the other side, physics being what it is when you are six. Fortunately, we escaped any sort of vehicular accident, though I remember banging my kneecap on the fake glove compartment that did not open. I do not remember driving the fire engine again after my brother propelled me into the road.

Dad held the wheel more securely on the way up. I angled subtly, then straightened out, positioning the Electra’s enormous hood under the shelf that held the beach chairs. Finally, I removed the key, stretched out the emergency brake and went inside to do my homework. The entire trip took only three minutes. Sometimes, I lobbied for an extra whirl around our block, which doubled the duration and added two legitimate intersections, four stop signs and one pedestrian walkway.

My mother did not like that I drove. She did not permit such activity in the Chevy Monza. In retrospect, it would have made better sense to have learned steering techniques in her car, given its tiny construction. It might have been a more suitable first car, size-wise. I didn’t always tell her that I drove home from Mrs. Rubenstein’s house. I don’t think my father did, either. 

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Just a Little Mom Thought

So, Mom and I talk every morning on the phone. She is in New York. I am in Texas. We have the same kinds of conversations that we’d have if we were next door neighbors. Yesterday, we were talking about kids, and how you can expose them, and show them, and lead them, and set they up for all great things, but that you cannot do the great things for them. You can, and should, let them know the great things are possible, achievable, with hard work, and sometimes, if you are lucky, with less hard work. But in the end, you you cannot play the trumpet, dance the dance, take the test. 

Some parents, I think, let themselves off the hook, knowing that they can’t take the test. “Well, little Jimmy will just have to figure it out for himself.” That is ridiculous, when little Jimmy is, well, little. And kids are little longer than they are not, or longer than you think. Some adults are still little. I say, tell him what he is capable of and what is expected. Give him the ball, the book, the paintbrush and no room to back down. Kids don’t know about humps, and even less about getting over them. It is our job to make them reach the hump. Once on the other side, they will be happy we did.

This is all rather general, I know. I have a story, but my daughter wouldn’t want me to tell it. I will say, though, that she is now on the far side of the hump. I have gotten “Thank yous.” She has gotten more. 



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The Price of Gold

There was a time when I wore gold jewelry. Then, it became too traditional for me, so I wore it less. Finally, occasions at which I might have worn gold jewelry, even if it were not too traditional, vaporized from my life. The timing of these two trends was fortuitous. It would be bad to have a stash of fancy necklaces and bracelets but have nowhere to go to wear them. I forgot about my jewelry. You can wear beads and glass and pearls anywhere, even if you have nowhere to go. I wear beads when I have nowhere to go.

Today, I took my collection of gold jewelry to a store and sold it. It included my old wedding band and other gifts from my then-husband. When we lived in Chicago, our neighbor, Joe, was a jeweler. Most of what I found in my closet last night came from Joe’s business. I’m thinking that he brought it home in his pocket and my then-husband went next door to buy it. It was all very lovely, if you like gold jewelry. Once, Joe pulled out sapphires and rubies from his pants pocket, like jelly beans.

Anyway, while I was waiting for the appraiser to evaluate what I had brought to the store this morning, I listened to a conversation that a woman was having with one of the clerks at the other end of the counter. She had a necklace with a difficult clasp. She could not put it on without looking, and wanted to know how it could be changed.

“It is just me at home,” she said. 

The clerk suggested something that might be easier. She called over the jeweler who would make it for her. He told the woman, Barbara, that he would have to readjust the ends of the necklace and fabricate an entirely new clasp. It would cost $95.

Barbara thought for a few minutes. She was in her sixties, I think, and had a grey hairdo and pink lips.

“Not now,” she said, threading the necklace back into its sack. “It’s not that I have anywhere to wear it.”

For now, I have my children at home. If I can’t close a necklace clasp, I can ask one of them to do it for me. If I need a scratch in the middle of my back, they certainly can reach. If there is a bug in my hair, they will tell me. People who live completely alone can walk around with gnats in their hair and not know it. What else couldn’t Barbara do, I wondered, thinking, really, about what I should start practicing. I have figured out the buttons up the spine, the zippers, the attic. I need to work on the sunscreen and the twice yearly bed flipping. It is a challenge to avoid crashing into the ceiling fan. Once, before I was married, I removed a wall-to-wall carpet from underneath a twin bed, desk and chest of drawers, myself, and hauled it down a three-story walk-up to the curb. I can flip a bed.

Before Barbara left, another woman approached the counter, in between us. She was buying cuff links, an anniversary present. 

“How long have you been married?” the salesperson asked.

“Forty-two years,” she said, not smiling.

The saleswoman was impressed. The woman said nothing else, returned her credit card to her wallet, and left. Barbara gazed from the end of the glass. I took my money and deposited it in the bank.


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Sign of the Times

There is not much to look at, driving south out of Dallas. Some cornfields, cows, horses. Shacks where you can buy fireworks. Churches in shingle houses. After a while, you close your eyes and take a nap, if you are not driving. My daughter and I were heading for camp, south of Austin, north of San Antonio. I would drop her off and then return, four hours each way. After a while, she closed her eyes and took a nap.

I focused my gaze straight ahead. Just south of Waco, I caught a glimpse of George Bush on a billboard. He was in a suit, in a running position. He looked as if he was getting ready to do the high jump. Across the top of the sign, there was a question…”Miss Me Yet?” It was an odd question, I thought, for a President of the United States to ask drivers driving on a highway. It was a question an ex-boyfriend would ask the ex-girlfriend who dumped him, just to annoy her. And she wouldn’t answer. She’d roll her eyes and walk away, or hang up the phone. George Bush was smirking on the billboard.

Underneath the question, there was another question. “Have you had enough of all the hope and change?”

What an idiot. I realize it’s not George Bush who actually asked the question, just a paper version of him, but really, it is the same. He would say that. That is why the people who created the billboard put his running body on it. Anyway, I was annoyed with the sign, with the people who put it there, and all over again, with the fact of this man’s presidency. Not to mention, the buffoons who still claim he is smarter than Barack Obama. I still see “Thank you, George and Laura” placards on Dallas lawns. It is enough already.

My daughter woke up after we passed the sign. We stopped for ice cream and kept going, passing more cows. and baby cows, and places to buy tractors. Finally, we arrived at camp and found the cabin and set up her bed. Looked like it would be a fun week. Hugs and kisses, be safe, wear sunscreen, drink water. I got back into the car and headed north, looking for the rear view of President George Bush but alas, seeing nothing. Vroom vroom.

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