Sunday, January 31, 2010

Recipe for a Heart Attack

Of course Mitch Omer is a recovering drug addict, alcoholic, manic-depressive, med-popping kind of guy, but I believed he wouldn’t lie to me.

I was so wrong.

First, some backstory: Maybe it’s just that my eyes are beginning to get weaker with age, but I’ve grown weary of reading between the lines when faced with a cookbook by a restaurant chef. The subtext is often just too much for me. A one-page recipe, with lots of white space, would actually be dense with six-point type if you could read all the things actually required in making this dish such as: “Buy a Cryovac vacuum-packing machine,” “Employ several hard-working Ecuadorans to prep the mise en place and mop the floors,” and “Learn how to operate a propane torch without injury to self, pets or domicile.”

The one constant subtext for all those these cookbooks should always be: “Use every single pot, pan and dish in your kitchen. Rinse. Repeat.”

So I approached Mitch Omer’s tome with healthy skepticism, but also cupfuls of hope, because I’d been to Hell’s Kitchen and I wanted to learn some secrets. What was up with that peanut butter? Were those figs in the ketchup?

I read and I learned.

The peanut butter’s secret is oven-roasted peanuts, lots of sweetener and a food processor. The ketchup’s secret is pears.

Now that I’d peeked behind the curtain and seen the great Oz for myself, I thought I could go on and find out even more.

That’s when I landed on the homemade marshmallow recipe.

It came with a long preamble from the recovering addict himself, telling me that store-bought varieties were rubbish, and that only this recipe would provide me with true ’mallow satisfaction.

I’m not proud of it, but I believed him.

Let me point out that I gave birth, 12 years ago, to a white-atarian, who prefers a diet that would blend in perfectly on the Polar Ice Cap: bagels, bananas, marshmallows. And since Mitch was touting his variety so highly, I decided to be a Good Mommy and make them.

The process started off just fine, with corn syrup and a candy thermometer and a lot of temp checks at the stovetop; nothing I couldn’t handle.

Then I read the instruction to stuff the hot goo into a pastry bag and squeeze long parallel lines on a cornstarch covered cookie sheet.

No problem, Mitch, I’m with you. I’m sure you love those long white lines, hon.

And this is where the bad part happened.

You know how a marshmallow gets at the campfire when it melts? It’s the stickiest surface on the planet, and about one full cup of this goo was now in my pastry bag. It was hot, it was thick, and it was Not Coming Out.

Man Strength, I thought. Mitch looks to be a beefy boy, and I just don’t have the upper body chops to pull this off.

I found my husband and told him I had a “little job” in the kitchen that needed his assistance.

He pushed. He squeezed. He exerted force at the fulcrum, or whatever they say in physics class.

His face was starting to turn red, but finally a tiny trickle of marshmallow lava emerged.

“Great!” I chirped, consulting the recipe. “Just, uh … sixteen more lines to go…”

He looked at me, sweat pouring from his face. “I quit. I think I’m having a heart attack.”

Plan B. I scooped the hot goo out and left it in pile on the cookie sheet.

Then I went to the computer and started doing research.

Every other recipe I could find for marshmallows called for taking the hot goo from the pan and flipping it into a cake pan to cool, then cutting it up later. Makes sense with sticky hot lava, yes?

But why didn’t it make sense for my buddy Mitch?

The subtext?

I imagined those mighty Ecuadorans, pushing manfully on the pastry bag. Fueled by youth, ambition, and a strong need to keep working and sending money to the folks back home, I’m sure that they managed to squirt that goo out of the bag every night, pleasing Mr. Mitch and staying employed.

My husband lacked all those qualities, I decided, glancing over at him as he mopped his face with a towel and laid his head on the kitchen table.


He just didn’t know how to work the recipe right.

If only he were Ecuadorian.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When I Miss My Mother

I can remember watching her nap, laid out on top of the bedspread, with one corner pulled up from the bottom and covering her knees. I can remember poking her, prodding her, and trying to wake her up. And, thirty five years later, I can remember calling her to apologize for that behavior. Home with a three-year-old on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a scrawny, hungry and ready-to-go-back-to-the-womb-please newborn, I suddenly understood the incredible sadness of missed sleep. I understood how tired she had been, and how thoughtless I was to wake her. “That’s okay, honey,” she chuckled. “I’ve made up for all that sleep by now. I forgive you.”

She was married to a man who believed he was born to deserve the best of everything, and he lavished himself with quantities of fine food, snappy, plus-size clothes and home décor that showed off what he considered to be his impeccable taste. If a desire flitted through his brain, he sought, in an instant, to chew it or buy it or show it off. All those treats for him meant not a lot for anyone else at 108 Constance Court, so things like classes at the Art Museum, or braces, or, eventually, college tuition, always seemed out of reach.

So she learned how to drive, at age 40, and went to work at the fancy hotel in the city as a Hat Check Girl, which required a dress, a girdle, high heels, and the ability to keep track of fur stoles, heavy overcoats and the foibles of visiting celebrities. She got enough tips, well-hidden from his appetites, to get children started in college. And if she dragged home at four a.m., carrying armloads of birds of paradise from a wedding reception and plagued with sore feet, well, she could take a nap tomorrow. If I didn’t disturb her.

My children are older now, and my deep unquenchable thirst for sleep, the kind that would lead me to rest my head on the check-signing area while my groceries were being rung up, seems to have happened a long time ago. Now, I wait. Outside school, outside the basketball game, after play practice. My days are planned around other people’s schedules, and I suddenly remember my first job, at our local library. I would get off work at 9 p.m., and there she would be, in her silver Ford, waiting. It never once occurred to me that she had been at a good place in her book, or on the phone with a friend, or wanting to slip into a hot tub. I needed her and she was there, and the thought that she might ever have needs of her own was not one that I cared to spend any time on.

It’s been 11 years since we stepped outside on a bright October afternoon. We were giving a party on Sunday, and she was going to help me buy champagne. Such a happy errand. “I don’t feel right,” she said, the last thing she ever said to me, and then she fell down. And the last thing I ever said to her, right before the chaplain came to deliver last rites and say a Hail Mary, was, “It’s okay to go. I’ll be fine here without you, don’t worry.”

I was lying, of course, and she probably knew that, but she went when it was her time to go. It took me the better part of a year to stop reaching for the phone in the evenings, ready for my nightly call of news and chatter, delivered to the one person in the world who thought that everything I said or did was just the greatest idea, ever.

I miss her when I take a nap. I miss her when I wait in the car. If there were one wish I could be granted, it would not be to see her, for that would be so much. It would be a wish for just one quick phone call, one more chance to check in with her and tell her that I’m doing fine, even if she knows I’m not.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eleventh Plague of Egypt Soup

In case you weren't paying attention in Hebrew School, the ten plagues of Egypt were: water turned to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock disease, unhealable boils, hail mixed with fire, locusts, darkness and death of the first-born of all Egyptian families.

This past autumn, my house was visited by a brand new plague – apples. The Haralson trees that were planted as spindly sticks to welcome daughter number one’s arrival from China have grown into rowdy, out-of-control teen trees. This fall, they bore fruit. And bore. And bore.

Of course I made applesauce, but then the freezer filled up, so I made apple butter (more compact). Then I made crisps. Then froze apple slices. Then I began to plead with everyone I knew to “Come visit the Apple Farm!” A couple friends with small children were able to con the tykes into believing they’d gone on a bucolic field trip, all within a fifteen-minute-drive from home. Whee, honey, see how much mommy loves you to take you to this wonderfully pastoral setting? (I love lying to children; it’s so satisfying.)

As the months have worn on, I’ve gifted the apple butter to every poor slob unlucky enough to be educating my children, taken the crisps to countless pot lucks, and found that my daily allotment of old-lady-flax, stirred into applesauce, makes it taste just like…mmm….applesauce with flax.

Inventory levels are still dangerously high, so I’ve been forced to get creative. I found a recipe for Apple Cheddar soup in a library cookbook and began adapting. The first version was too bland for my critics, numerous and specific as they are, but this version seemed more to their liking. I’m taking six quarts to a Soup Swap on Thursday night, and I hope that the title, while admittedly truthful, isn’t offputting. Wish me luck.

11th Plague of Egypt Soup

¼ pound bacon, sliced in cubes

3 onions, chopped

5 cloves of garlic, chopped

4 peeled and slices apples (or more! be generous!)

2 T flour

1 t salt

A few grinds of fresh pepper

3 – 5 cups chicken broth (depends on how runny or thick you like your soup)

3 cups sharp cheddar, shredded

3 T cornstarch

3 T lemon juice

4 carrots, diced and steamed

Optional:  freshly popped popcorn to use as croutons

Cook bacon in soup pot until crispy. Remove bacon and reserve, keep fat in pot. Add onions and garlic, sauté. Add apples. Sprinkle with flour, salt and pepper, simmer until very tender. Puree soup, return to pot, add broth to achieve your desired consistency. Sprinkle cheese with cornstarch and lemon juice and stir into soup until cheese melts. Return bacon and steamed carrots to pot. Serve with freshly popped popcorn as croutons if desired.

Other things I’ve added (on the “if it’s in the refrigerator, it’s a soup ingredient” theory): canned sweet potatoes, roasted red peppers, and half a carton of that goopy red sweet and sour sauce from the Chinese takeout). All vanished into the soup and came out great, right into the promised land.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why Motherhood is Like a Hostage Crisis

When the United States invaded Panama in December 1989,
Noriega’s hideout was bombarded by hard rock music and “The Howard Stern Show” for several days by relentless and humorless U.S. troops. The dictator, unable to endure the persistence of soldiers equipped with boom boxes, surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990.

For me, this episode from recent U.S. history is an essential lesson for any parent. Let me explain. There are some women who think that their children are perfect gifts from God, full of potential that only requires guidance, love and plenty of whole grains.

Whereas I think that most children are more like Latin American strongmen than anyone cares to admit in front of the other mommies.

Is parenthood a chance to lovingly nurture and develop nascent little adults-to-be? Maybe, sometimes. But then reality sets in and it’s time to get out the Metallica and prepare for a Contest of Wills.

My own parenting experience has been about 10% nurturing and 90% will-contesting. I don’t always win. But every now and again, I have a small victory, and I credit it all to the siege mentality which is my chief parenting principle. When it comes to mothering, I’m a Stay the Course kind of gal.

No need to bog down the blog with a sad litany of my defeats. Instead, like any Pentagon-savvy soldier, I’ll point right to a couple recent victories.

Victory #1: The Cello. My daughter has been playing cello since first grade, and has been a member of the local Youth Symphony since fourth grade. Conservatively, that’s about 3,000 daily reminders to “practice your cello,” 300 lessons with her long-suffering teacher, 25 concerts at Orchestra Hall and community venues and six nerve-wracking spring auditions. Let me state clearly that not once, during the course of any of these listed events, has my daughter expressed one scrap of joy about them. Insteadm she exhibits the mein and vocal range commensurate with any painful or aggravating chore, or, possibly, upcoming dental work. If her music career were a movie, it would not be “Amadeus,” it would be “Kicking and Screaming.” So imagine how hard it was for me to remain upright and coherent when the little darling, now in her first year of high school, recently volunteered this gem, to wit: “I am so glad that I know how to play cello, and I’m so glad I’m in Youth Symphony.” Noticing the eyeballs bulging from my sockets in a good approximation of Wiley Coyote’s, she added, “Yeah, I guess I don’t really like all the work it’s taken to get there, but now I’m glad when I tell someone that I play, and when I know I’m pretty good.”

Victory #2: Laundry. When daughter #1 was in first grade, she complained one morning that I had not washed her favorite top and that, consequently, her day was ruined. For my part, I experienced the strangest sort of fast forward when I heard that comment fall from her little lips. “Okay, she’s seven now. Let’s say she goes to college at age 17. Do I really want ten more years of this?” Turns out I didn’t, and that, right then, I introduced my first grader to the joys of Doing Your Own Laundry. I got a little stepstool for her to climb, I showed her how to measure Tide, and I bought her a laundry basket of her very own. Turns out, she took to the new chore just fine, since she suspected I hadn’t been doing a very good job, anyway (a recurring theme in our mother-daughter relationship). I brushed my hands together briskly and backed out of the laundry room. My job was done, and I was a Good Mother.

Cue the sinister music and …

Enter daughter #2, who, when she reached first grade, was informed by her older sister that now she, too, would get to do her own laundry.

That didn’t go over well. While the first kid is always ready to be about 10 years older than she currently is, this child has no desire to grow up, certainly not if it involves chores. Asking her, “Don’t you want to be a big girl?” has always been a waste of time. No, in fact, she does NOT want to be a big girl, and if you’ve got a crib and high chair she can still squeeze into as a sixth grader, that would make her mighty happy.

Each Saturday, she and I would enter the laundry room for our Contest of Wills. At my urging, she’d begin stuffing her laundry in the machine. About three pairs of tiny pants into the proceedings, she would inevitably scream in pain and fall to the floor. Another laundry-related injury, I would sigh, as I made myself comfortable on an upturned basket and waited her out. When she stopped screaming, we started again. Sometimes I would try to explain to her that, since she did enjoy wearing clothes vs. walking around naked in January, laundry was just a natural result, something she’d be doing the rest of her life. Usually this remark would cause her to fall on the floor again, covered with lint and crying harder than ever.

Want to take a guess how long this went on? A few weeks? A few months?

Try a year. 52 weeks of hysteria, followed by another 25 or so of whimpers, and finally tapering off into a series of resigned sighs and thumps.

So, on a recent Saturday morning, when I found her eating cereal in the kitchen, you can imagine I suspected a waxy buildup in my ears when I heard this: “Hi Mom. I started my laundry early so I can get it done before tap dance class, but if you need the washer, it should be done pretty soon.”
Again with the Wiley Coyote eyes from me. Then: “Do you remember when you used to cry when you did laundry?” I asked, and was met with a look I call “The Full Junior High.”

“Why would anyone cry about laundry? Geez, Mom!”

Geez indeed, my dear.

Why I Won These Battles
I’ve recounted two victories in the unending skirmish against local insurgents that is, for me, the daily stuff of motherhood. If I had a pull-down map with X’s and O’s on it, I’d pull it out at this point, so just imagine one, please, as I ask, rhetorically, Why Did I Win? To cite what I imagine was the spirit of those guys pushing the “play” button on the Metallica tape outside Noriega’s lair, I was persistent against my enemy, and I never let it be known that defeat was an option for me.

Remember, in my parenting book, it’s not about winning hearts and minds. In my kind of war, you only win when they declare unconditional surrender. And then go finish their laundry and practice cello.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's Okay to Hate the Teacher -- Eight Lessons for a New Yogi

Given the fact that I was smacked on the face during utkatasana, rolled on during reclined twists, and farted in the general direction of during a long series of squats during yoga class today, I can tell it’s New Year’s Resolution Time at my local gym. Before I became TPFSY (Too Poor for Studio Yoga), January would pass by with no visible changes in attendance at the nice-smelling, feng-shui’d practice spaces I used to frequent. Since everyone there was Totally Committed and Had a Beautiful Practice, they showed up year-round and on-time (early, even!). They didn’t let the Jenny Craig commercials that started running on December 26 shame then into Moya’s 8:05 Fitness Yoga class at the Southdale YMCA. (Held in what used to be the spin space, it still smells of burned-out gearshifts and man sweat, which makes me want to weep at the thought of Jeffrey, Tarana Studio, and those eucalyptus-scented incense sticks he used to wave around).

I’ve been practicing yoga regularly (I hate to say “seriously” because it sounds so pole-up-the-ass-y) for about eight years. I can honestly say that I was the most pathetic yogi on the planet for a good three of those years, and maybe more. I grunted. I sweated. I fell over during every class, in poses like, oh, say, triangle (not a real balance-buster for the normal person). I’m not that much better now, but I’m less visibly pathetic. Still, just because I’m not falling over doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. So during today’s full-to-the-resolution-brim class, in between the smacks and the farts, I decided to create a Quick Guide for the New Yogi, with some tips I wish someone had shared with me back in my early days.

Lesson One. Show up on time. And if you simply must be tardy, and you are currently tipping the scales at a nifty two hundred pounds, don’t tromp past all the other mats in your big dirty outside shoes, and rearrange your rustly coat, while the rest of us are accessing our inner whatevers in child’s pose. Lady with the bad haircut and the kittycat t-shirt, size XXL, feel my wrath. Wait until an appropriate time, open the door quietly, and unroll your mat in the closest space possible. You're already late; don't be loud, too.

Lesson Two. Close your mouth and breathe through your nose. The teacher isn’t kidding. Breathing really does help. But if you keep imitating a Japanese koi during class, you’ll never have a chance to find that out for yourself.

Lesson Three. Take your socks off. If your feet, or any of your other parts, are that grotty, go outside to the weight room, which, to my delicate sensibility, resembles the yard of a penitentiary and will be much more to your liking. Otherwise, you are going to slip around so much that there is sure to be a cross-mat violation with your neighbor. The way things are currently going in my life, odds are that the neighbor will be me.

Lesson Four. Stop looking around. It will just depress you and it will make me very nervous. I once had a teacher say that if you walked out of class and could describe the person who had been on the mat next you, you weren’t doing yoga at all. In short: Stay On Your Mat.

Lesosn Five. Brush up on “left” and “right.” Here’s a little exercise: Hold your hands out, fingers straight ahead and thumbs touching. See the letter “L” made by that one special hand and thumb? That’s your Left Hand, and it’s attached to your Left Side! If this little exercise does not do the trick, use a Sharpie to write the 411 on your knuckles, like a prison tattoo. Your fellow classmates, who do not really want eye contact with you when you’re on the wrong foot every single time we do Warrior II, will thank you.

Lesson Six. It’s okay to hate the teacher. I think back on the best yoga teachers I’ve ever had, and I hated them so bitterly and miserably, and with such specific plans for their demise, that it’s a wonder some of them didn’t just immolate about half an hour into the proceedings. (That’s the point at which, even now, despair usually overtakes me and I realize I will be stuck in this room For. Ever.) I think it’s better to allow yourself to really fixate on how much your hate that teacher’s well-toned behinder. Go ahead and despise deeply -- it may allow you to stop thinking about the pain in your knees for a few seconds longer. And now, a personal note: Andrea, I owe you a special apology here. Yes, now I do understand that you were in fact aware that we were all holding side angle for HOURS while you were helping that grandma understand that a bent knee and a straight leg were Two Different Things. You were a wonderful teacher and you did not deserve the evilness I sent your way.

Lesson Seven. Find the top of your mat.  Stand on your mat.  Walk forward.  When you feet touch the floor, back up.  You are now at the top of your mat.  Stay there until further notice.  Also?  When all the mats in the room are not perfectly parallel, the Buddha weeps (another shout out to Andrea, who taught me this important tidbit).

Lesson Eight. It’s going to hurt. For the first two years of my practice, I never climbed up my front steps after yoga class in anything but a whimpering crouch. My butt hurt all the time. If you’re doing it right, yours will hurt, too.

So why bother? Bother because it IS hard. Bother because progress IS slow. Every class, you’ll move forward the thickness of a piece of paper. One hour of your time invested, and all you’ll have to show for it is one flimsy sheet of paper. And if you think that’s not worth it, look at a phone book some time.

Someday, you’ll be a great yogi. Or, maybe not. But every single class that you attend, you’ll leave in better shape than when you went in. And, I hope, you won’t remember anything about me, that lady on the mat next to you.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Reality Part II: How I've Corrupted My Daughter, or Why Seth Rudetsky is a God Among Men

I know that I encourage Mary Katherine, the one born under a veil of tulle and sequins, to believe in the truth of her own world. Usually it works, but sometimes she bumps up against those with harder edges and clearer pictures, usually in the form of her soon-to-be-a-captain-of-industry older sister. One example occurred this Christmas, when I gave Mary Katherine a true believer’s gift. I created a three-ring binder with quotes from all her favorite movies and books, including reproductions of the covers. I also included an invitation, menu and seating chart for The Dinner Party, which is an affair she and I have been planning for a couple years now.

The party is intended to be a gathering of everyone, living and dead, fictional and true, whom Mary likes. She decided long ago that the affair will be held at the Plaza Hotel, and that the guest of honor will be Grandmere, the Dowager Princess of Genovia, from the Princess Diary books. (NOT the movie! This is the real deal, the eyebrow-penciling-in, sidecar-drinking, cigarette-smoking meanie, not Julie Andrews). Mary and I discuss seating charts and guest lists whenever we’ve got a few idle moments to spare. An example of a recent debate was whether or not we should put Daniel Pinkwater, her favorite author, at the same table as Grandmere and Winston Churchill. “I’ll bet he smokes,” Mary Katherine said confidently. “And even if he usually doesn’t, he’ll probably have a cigar with Mr. Churchill just to be sociable.” (Mary Katherine, by the way, is seated at every table. Since the laws of logic were being severely mangled for the idea of the party in the first place, I decided to snap them cleanly and let her sit at ten tables simultaneously.)

Mary Katherine loved her present, and before Christmas break was over, had begun to assiduously make changes and additions to the first draft seating chart. One evening, she asked her older sister if she wanted to sit next to Sue Sylvester from Glee, or if she’d prefer the company of Mob hit-man Chili Palmer. This is the sister who was not Snow White even though wearing a Snow White costume; does she have to spell E-M-M-A out for you or what? (See January 6 post for humiliating details: So it’s not surprising that, upon hearing this seating chart question, Emma first looked at Mary Katherine for a long, silent moment. Then her eyes slid over to me as she perfectly executed a weary and resigned head shake. If I interpreted the cranial movement correctly, it signaled, “I blame you for messing up this kid so completely, and I am going to have to get some kickass scores on my SATs, because I’m the only one in this godforsaken bunch who has any hope of significant lifetime earning potential.”

Thanks, honey, I love you, too.

I don’t think I ruined Mary Katherine. I just encouraged her a little, that’s all. The two of us acknowledge that not everyone is a believer, and we try to keep our little world to ourselves most of the time. Then sometimes we come across a fellow traveler, and it feels blissful.

Seth Rudetsky is our current best friend. (Yes, he’s invited to the party. He’s seated between Kurt Hummel (Glee) and Infinite Darlene (the drag queen from Boy Meets Boy) at the Gay Town table. Seth can be found at, and also on You Tube via his many “deconstructions” of show tunes. Seth believes. He really, really believes. Sometimes, this makes it uncomfortable to watch him. I feel like a cat peering into a bathtub, repelled and attracted at the same time. Seth is in as deep as I am, and that’s maybe just a little too deep. Watch him lip sync along with Angela Lansbury on “It’s Today,” a song that he declares has “the most delicious joy coming out and covering my body; I’m literally covered with joy sweat.” Seth positions himself inches from his Web cam, and, as the music plays, he is rolling his eyes, snapping his fingers, leaning in and leering until it seems as if he will reach out and throttle you if you don’t appreciate this stuff along with him.

Of course, we appreciate, so he never throttles.

To believe can be a little bit scary, as exemplified by Seth. It can also be a sad proposition. A few years ago, in flusher times that allowed for actually leaving my house and attending theatrical performances, I went with a couple friends to see The Drowsy Chaperone in New York. One friend is a believer, one is not. (A sidebar: We once were at the intermission of the Gay Men’s Chorus of New York when the non-believer, upon hearing some reference to “Liza’s mother Judy Garland,” mused, “Gee, I never knew that was her mother.” The believer shrieked, “How could you not know that? How could you not know that?” until several well-groomed heads swiveled around on their muscular necks, hoping for a cat fight. But I digress.)

The premise of The Drowsy Chaperone is a view inside the mind of the ultimate believer, Man in Chair, who guides the audience through a performance of his favorite musical. His lonely existence is enlivened for 90 minutes by the cheesy cast and their dumb songs. At the finale, as the principals fly away with an aviatrix (don’t ask), and he is left alone on the dark stage.

Everyone loved it! What a fun show! Teeth were bared, hurrahs went up. And center right in row R, I was curled into the fetal position, sobbing. It was the single saddest thing I’d ever seen in a theatre, and that includes long and regrettable evenings of O’Neill. Forget dark family secrets and addictions. This was about something that really mattered. That show was all he had. Now it was over. He was a believer and he was all alone.

No one saw that. They saw Sutton Foster and lots of chorus girls. Plus, they'd paid $125 a seat, so they were going to smile, dammit. They filed past Row R with those smiles plastered on their dumb mugs, moving a little faster to get past the Crazy Crying Lady. My believing friend patted my hand. She understood, but she clearly was holding onto her dignity. My non-believing friend, the one who once had to threaten to take the car and leave me without a ride home when I had a nervous collapse during Now Voyager at an art house cinema twenty-five years ago, just sighed and waited. She had no idea what the problem was, but she figured it would pass.

Why did I cry? Believers always cry. We cry when what we want seems so close but remains forever out of reach. And also, that’s right, we cry when we’re happy, when we’re “literally covered with joy sweat,” to quote Seth. For me, make-believe provides them both -- the yearning and the fleeting-but-wonderful moments of joy, accompanied by lots of Joy Sweat.

So I keep on believing, and encouraging Mary Katherine to believe, and who knows, maybe someday, we’ll toast each other with perfect Manhattans at Novello’s Nightclub, right before the Haynes Sisters come on for their one-song act.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reality Part I: It's in the Eye of the Beholder, Honey

Some people are amused by make-believe. They have fun at the theatre and think that movies are swell. Sometimes they keep a ticket stub or a Playbill and, when they come across it later, they think, “Gee, that was fun time.”

Then there are believers. They are not amused by make-believe, anymore than the daily raising of the sun amuses the rest of the world, because they understand that make-believe is the only true reality. It is, simply, all they have to go on.

Here is a quick quiz to help sort out for yourself your own status:

At the beginning of the 1954 classic, White Christmas, the Haynes sisters perform “Sisters” at Novello’s Nightclub. When you see the opening shot, (featuring what can only be the producer’s girlfriend’s crossed legs and her maximum enjoyment of a highball via a long straw), then let your eyes move from cigarette girl to ashtrays to wine buckets, and when you realize that the Haynes Sisters only have to perform one song, do think:

1) That’s nice. I wonder if Danny Kaye will ever tell Vera Ellen about his special friend, Larry O?

2) I Want to Live There. Forever. Starting Now.

Normal people answer 1.

Believers answer 2, and with a straight face. (Of course you want to live there, doll! Can we share a table and a pitcher of perfect Manhattans? And could I bum a Chesterfield off you?) Believers know that it IS possible to live at Novello's Nightclub, to cavort with Mame on Beekman Place and still to have time for matriculation at William McKinley High School with the entire cast of Glee. For the believer, everyday life is a cruel hoax, and what happens in our little show-world is the unvarnished truth.

If you’re normal, this is a hard concept to understand. I have one normal child, and she struggles. When she was two, she would dress up in a little princess costume and I would say, “Oh! You’re Snow White!” She would shoot me a withering glance (frightened eye-widening and backing away would be added later) and declare flatly and slowly, “I’m Emma. I’m not Snow White.” In her little toddler heart, she knew that I didn’t quite understand the difference. Mommy, you scare me.

She had reason to suspect her father, too. I’m not saying the only reason I married him is that I found out that, as a child, he, like me, used to go to bed listening to the original cast album from the Music Man. Thinking of the two of us, always preferring Side One because, even though Side Two started with Marian the Librarian, it also included Shipoopi, helped me to see us as a couple that might make a successful go of life together.

Life together led to other things together, I blush to admit, and when I was THIRTY NINE years old, I turned up pregnant and, oh, let’s just say, not too excited at the whole business. That was when “I want to live there” became less a dreamy “if only it snowed pink polka dots” and more a “if I could slip into that DVD and never come back, don’t think I wouldn’t do it without a backward glance, bub.” I fixated especially on supper clubs like Rick's Cafe Americain and the aforementioned Novello’s Nightclub. The shipboard bars in Now Voyager and An Affair to Remember were also objects of reverie. As I got fatter and sicker and ended up on what felt like terminal bedrest, I dreamed of champagne cocktails – say, do you have pink champagne? – and unfiltered cigarettes by the packful.

I took White Christmas into the labor room with me. Watching Danny Kaye get hit by that wall in Italy one more time was almost as effective a pain reliever as the epidural was.

I gave birth, but I never let go of my new determination to live elsewhere, given a chance. The conviction that I could peel myself into my favorite spots remained. Reading the Eyre Affair, where the lovely Japanese lady ends up living in Jane Eyre, gave new fuel to my fire, though why anyone would want to live in the same house as Mr. Rochester was beyond me.

The other result of the pregnancy was that the believer gene seems to have gathered up some terrific new levels of near-mutated strength. The result is Mary Katherine, who was clearly born under a veil of tulle and sequins. Mary Katherine never questions reality because she knows very clearly what reality is. It’s her friends Maurice and Arthur in The Imposters, and her idol, Miss Margo Channing, and her galpal Little Miss Woods Comma Elle, and her boyfriend Chili Palmer and everyone who lives at Wit’s End in Surviving the Applewhites. Mary Katherine wants to be a producer, with a hit show on Broadway. God, she hopes she gets it, she hopes she gets it. She’s the greatest star, she is by far, but no one knows it. Hey, Mr. Arnstein, here she is.

Not a lot of room in that brainpan of hers for math or geography, but God, she’s so happy I sometimes wonder if she’s slipping anything mood-enhancing into her morning cocoa. So I stand by my original logic and encourage her whenever I can to keep those sequins close and that calculator as far away as possible.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Guardian Angel Job Interviews

The year that has just, mercifully, ended, was not a good one for me by any measure. In my record of 51 years, it hovers at the bottom, hanging out with the other delinquent years that included miserable family situations, unemployment, health issues and general crappiness. With a cigarette dangling from its sneering mouth and the collar of its tattered jacket turned up, 2009 kept daring me to knock the chip off its shoulder and I, perennial weakling, could not. As the time crept by, it kept opening up new little boxes of annoyances and miseries, and all I could do was wait for last night, the 31st, when I knew we could say goodbye.

In a firm attempt not to wallow, I first tried to isolate the worst parts of the year and find some good in them.

Okay, not much there.

On to “lessons learned,” a perennial end-of-bad-year favorite. On that front, I am able to dig up something, so I share it here.

The lesson starts in the spa-not-a-spa, as a friend of mine calls the creepily calming atmosphere of a big-time breast center. I’ve been called back, then back again, for “follow ups,” and I’m discovering new layers to this place, all of them increasingly depressing. The cheery checkup room with the free coffee and the 70s hits piped in overhead has been replaced with another “lounge,” further back, where no one is lounging and everyone is grim-faced. These chicks all seem to be in one piece, at least so far, so I imagine Lounge Three and Lounge Four and Lounge Ninth Circle of Hell stretched down the reassuringly mauve-colored halls, the inhabitants increasingly mutilated and frightened.

I leave, I am imaged, I am called back, I am spoken to in quiet tones. Next Steps are recommended. I return to the lounge, and to my dressing cubicle, and I am overcome with loneliness and despair. What lies ahead in the weeks to come is not going to be good, and I cast about in my spirit for some help. Unfailingly, my mother, dead 11 years and eternally helpful, arrives. I sense her presence, her comfort, her compassion. A sob escapes my lips, as I sit there on the bench, and I sense immediately the stiffening of spines in the next room, the pause in the flicker of magazine pages. I can’t do this to these women. I can’t be the She Who Cries in Dressing Room. I pull myself together and exit quickly, sensing pairs of eyes on my back as I leave, knowing they are hoping it was my unlucky day today, and not theirs.

One week later, I am back, moved to the area just behind spa-not-a-spa, which can best be called – oh that’s right, it’s called Surgery. I am alone. This morning, I dressed in the required loose-fitting button-down shirt, got my kids off to school and drove myself here. I am alone when the nurse barks out directions, I am alone as they position me as uncomfortably as possible on the table, I am alone when the needles start. And then I’m not alone. Mom is back. She offers comfort and love and sympathy, and I begin to cry, which annoys everyone present, I’m assuming because it makes me jiggle and makes their jobs harder and holds up the next appointment. My Irish roots don’t need a big push into the self-pity vat. I start snuffling, and I realize from the reactions of the workers that I Need to Stop This.

So, somehow, I ask Mom to leave. And I ask, consciously ask, for some help to get me through this.

What happens next is surprising to me by any standards, since I am the sort of person whose imagery in guided meditations tends to lead toward “I’m lying on a mat in a cold room” and never seems to make the leap to that warm sandy beach with the toe-tickling tide. I’m not good at summoning up anything other than what is happening right now or, possibly, what even worse thing could be happening in the future.

But, in spite of my usual lack of imagery-calling-up-titude, Jeffrey arrives.

I have to state here that Jeffrey is a real person. He runs a real yoga studio that I used to frequent back when I wasn’t TPFSY (Too Poor for Studio Yoga). I have always admired him, respected him and felt totally inferior to him. His ability to sense when I am about to topple over in pain, and to arrive at my side to bend me into a posture of – deargodhowcanhedothis – even more pain, is astonishing. The little mmmmms he delivers with his excellent-but-feared adjustments simply add to his mystique.

And now he’s in the needle biopsy room. He’s shooed Mom to the corner, where she’s dabbing at her eyes with a hankie, and he takes over. “You need to be still or this will take forever,” I hear him command, and I love the way he lisps over the ssstill. He keeps talking, happy he got a smile out of me. He reminds me of what I can do, what I have done, to find order in the face of chaos. “This is just like the 107th Sun Salutation of a Mala,” he says, firmly, “and you will pull it together now.” I sense that he’s folding his arms, waiting for me to snap out of it.

I do. I stop crying and I start leaning – into the pain, the loneliness, the fear. The situation is not going away or getting any better, but I’m moving with it, not against it, and as awful as these feelings are, at least I’ve stopped snuffling about them.

The doctors finish and the nurse helps me up, stuffing ice bags into my bra and barking at me about rest and aspirin. Jeffrey vanishes, padding away on his bare feet to go Tough-Love some other yogi who’s in divorce court, or having a root canal, or considering suicide on this ugly November afternoon, I suppose.

Not much has changed. I still don’t have anyone to meet me in the waiting room, or to ask me how it went, or to drive me home. I still have to go to the grocery store on the way home, and I will have to carry all the bags in by myself. No one will ask me what I want for lunch, and then prepare it for me. No one will ask, because no one wants to know, how my day was. That’s the part that stays the same, every hard day of this year that is harder than frozen tears.

But I made it through something scary today, all alone. And now all I have to do is get through the rest of this year, and make it safely into the next one. No one wants to fix me a sandwich, but someone, strangely, doesn’t seem to mind coming to my rescue when the situation calls for some Big Girl Behavior.

Thanks, Jeffrey. Sorry, Mom.