Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Comfort Food, Hardcover Version: Guilty Literary Pleasures

One of my favorite parts of starlet interviews is the inevitable “guilty pleasures” question, where the blazing new talent confesses to a weakness for lettuce dipped in mustard, or gluten-free pretzels crumbled into her daily cup of Pinkberry.

Along with the million other reasons I’m not a starlet, this is certainly one. Cheez-Its and black coffee, my favorite bad-for-me-treat, just doesn’t pass muster for a worthy response to a serious question like that. And besides, I never feel guilty about those few times I year I manage to get my mitts on this perfect combo, only happy.

While I’m not much for food-related guilt, I can totally identify with the same concept when applied to reading. For one thing, there’s the gluttony problem. I come by it honestly – I inherited it from my mother, who used to stay up all night to finish the latest bestseller when she finally got it on request from the library. She would greet me shamefaced in the morning, confessing that she’d stayed up all night and read the whole thing. Her regret was always great. “I just gobbled it up like a big hog,” she would wail, “and now I have nothing to read!”

She passed the addiction down to me, and poor Mary Katherine struggles mightily against it, but more successfully. I am often impressed to hear her say of a book she loves, “It’s really good, so I’m pacing myself – no more than 25 pages a night.” Oh Mary, how I wish I had your grit.

In addition to the gluttony, there’s also my problem with repetition. It started with that Golden Book version of Little Women, which I reread at least once a year, letting myself sob good and hard when (spoiler alert) Beth died.

According to Google's advanced algorithms, there are currently nearly 130 million books in the world (129,864,880, to be exact), and there are more than 300,000 new titles published in the United States every year. With numbers that staggering, it could seem just plain wasteful to go back and read something that’s already been read. I suppose it is, but only if reading is considered to be nothing more than information taken in, the way the abstemious equate food with calories needed to sustain life. I might be a book glutton, but I’m also a book gourmet, and I think there’s always room for a little savoring, especially when I am most in need of the literary equivalent of comfort food.

This past fall, I found myself confronting the sudden death of a friend, and my commitment to give back-to-back eulogies at memorials that were being held for him in two different cities on two consecutive weekends. One of the very first things I did when I realized what I was about to embark upon was to visit the library website and call up some of my favorites from Angela Thirkell’s WWII-era Barsetshire series. I traveled to those funerals with a couple of the rattiest, most recovered hardbacks on the planet, ones that still had the circulation cards tucked into little pockets in the back. But I also traveled with Mrs. Brandon, Lord Pomfret, David Leslie and Hampton and Bent, the alcoholic lesbian couple who are possibly my two favorite characters in all of literature. These ladies rename their dogs every couple of weeks, always for a valiant general from the latest brave little country that the Nazis have invaded. They struggle with Finnish, but prevail. And they love their gin, but good. 

I found, as I settled into bed post-eulogy (twice), that  I wasn't so much experiencing reading, as in spending some time with kind, comforting friends. When I think about my best friends, I already pretty much know what they are going to say and do before they do it, so the residents of Barsetshire are not all that different.

I still felt sad when I finished my funeral duties, so I called out the big showbiz guns and reread Moss Hart’s 1959 autobiography, Act One. Yes, I had read it twice before. I knew that he’d eventually rise from poverty, meet George S. Kaufman, and write the smash hit Once in a Lifetime. But it was fun, for a while, to pretend that it all might turn out differently. 

Come to think of it, I might get out my copy of Little Women tomorrow.  Maybe, just maybe, this will be the time that (spoiler alert) Beth lives.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

All Out of Love

"I can make my hair poofier than yours." 
"Oh yeah?  Well, I can unbutton my shirt lower."
"Really? Then I'm going to shrink my pants even smaller." 
"Perfect.  Now all we need to do is steal the 'Chicago' logo and 
MacGyver it for our album cover."
"Is MacGyver the 80s?"
"1985 to 1992, my man.  Rock On."

In 1980, Air Supply released "All Out of Love." It reached number two on the Hot 100 (whatever that is), and placed 92nd in VH1's list of the 100 Greatest Love Songs in 2003.

In 2011, the song was used as part of a Chinese experiment to drive foreign visitors slowly, and steadily, insane.  Here’s the backstory: last year, four of us traveled to Beijing to spend Christmas with Emma, who was studying abroad there. We secured rooms (sounds so Jane Austen-ish that I just had to say it) at the Marriott City Wall, where I would remain for the next 17 days.

While 17 days is a long time to spend with anyone, even the people you love most, it’s a really, really long time to spend with Russell Hitchcock, Air Supply's lead “vocalist.” (I cannot make those quotation marks ironic enough, so use your imagination.) This breathy Australian’s greatest vocal triumph was chart-leader on the 10-song loop that was played, loudly, through the speakers at the little club area reserved for us at the Marriott.

I had mixed views about the club. On the plus side, it wasn’t my hotel room, which I was already sick of. And since I woke each day at 5 a.m., did yoga in the hotel gym, and then found myself with five hours on my hands until the teens woke up, I really appreciated a spot to have a cup of coffee and make my way through the no-compromises journalism represented by The South China Daily, or, if I was lucky, an old USA Today that someone had tossed away.

Newspaper, coffee, quiet … no, hold that last part. No quiet. Russell started up at 7 a.m. each day, and kept up a steady pace til lights out at 11 p.m. It started to have an effect on me, and I eventually found myself talking in the rhythm of the song: “They’re all out of breakfast, they can’t even serve you, I think I was right, you’re sleeping for too long, now we’re out of time, let’s get to Pearl Market, we can’t be too late, or you won’t get that knockoff.”

And just when I thought I could not stand it for one more minute, my captors changed it up a bit, just to mess with my big white head.  On Christmas Eve, when I entered the club, Russell was gone. Instead, I heard my man, Frank Sinatra, offering his trenchant observation that oh by gosh by golly, it was time for mistletoe and holly.  What a refreshing change! It IS time for mistletoe, Frank! We all smiled.

That was Day One of the By Gosh By Golly Torture Period. The song did not stop after Christmas, or even after New Year's. Eleven days after I first heard it, when I finally stumbled into the cab that would take me to the airport, I wondered if an MRI of my brain could detect the songs that had been imprinted on my grey matter by the ruthless brainwashers at the Marriott City Wall. Oh by gosh, by golly, they were a heartless bunch.

My experience in China has made me hate Muzak even more than I did before I went there. Sometimes, it even has an impact on my work.  I often have occasion to do freelance assignments for a lovely local company, and their on-site employee amenities include a cafeteria. I’m sure they are certain that the soft rock pouring from the speakers is the perfect added touch, like extra bottles of Sriracha sauce on the tables. Especially after last Christmas, I’d prefer to pour the sauce directly into my ears than to hear that music.  I didn’t listen to 80s music in the 80s, so being subjected to it now is big-hair-and-shoulder-pads horrible.

I recently ran into a colleague one morning, as we were gathering warm drinks and sustenance for our 9 a.m. meeting. As I chatted with her, I tried to swat away the wailing I was hearing in the background, which, for some reason, was making me especially twitchy that day.

Our meeting included planning for an upcoming event focused on an African charity. Someone suggested themed music, and another person revealed that she knew how to access the sound system and change the tunes. “Is there a way to turn it off?” I begged. “Can you show me the switch?” 

My friend piped up. “I like that music down there,” she said with a big smile. And then she began to sing the tune that had been playing while we’d been waiting in line … “I’m all out love …”

Russell Hitchcock, stop following me.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cool Cloths

From broken legs to broken hearts, my mother believed there were few human ailments that could not be cured by a cool cloth laid across the forehead. She was, in her own modest way, a master of this motherly art form, making the cloth neither too cold nor too warm, wringing it out to a perfect degree, and folding it in exact thirds. Laid across a fevered brow with a delicate touch, that cloth brought instant comfort of the kind that only a mother can provide.

My days of being tended to are long gone now. I’m the Cool Cloth Applicator in Chief for my own children, and I hope to live up to the high standards set by Katherine Clifford Kendrick.  This time of year, I stay pretty busy. If I can ever find a copy of my kids’ union contracts, I’m sure I will discover a subclause that stipulates that one of them must always be ill, between the months of October and June, on an alternating schedule, major holidays always included (see Appendix A, paragraph iii). I’ve spent the past several weeks getting one young woman back on the road to recovery, only to have the other one succumb just hours later. (Hugo the exchange student, may God protect his upper sinus cavity, has been blessedly well, but the girls have been, well, a bit bronchial.)

Here are some things that I do on an average workday: conduct interviews, write, talk with colleagues, develop plans, do invoicing, and dial in on conference calls. Here are some other things I also do:  walk the dog, eat lunch, look out the window at the runners trudging up the Parkway hill, and think two consecutive thoughts in a row. It is, no surprise, the latter category that tends to get shoved aside when one of the Precious Blossoms is ailing. Instead, I juggle conference calls with cups of tea, deadlines with Tylenol dispensing … and many, many cool cloths.

They each have their own personal sickness style. Mary Katherine always adds a heap of self-flagellation to her symptoms, creating her own little version of Adelaide’s Lament:  “I don’t know why I let this happen. I have too much homework for this to happen. I have to get better Right Now.” Poor Mary Katherine. Her birth mother must have been some sort of guilt-ridden Irish Catholic, because that kid’s DNA seems to have be soaked in Jameson Irish Whiskey and set on fire.

Emma, on the other hand, always finds opportunity for delight during the process of falling, succumbing and recovering from a major illness. She savors the ample time for self-examination, accompanied by minute-by-minute symptom reports, live from the Emma Newsroom: “My left ear hurts a little more than my right, no wait, I think it’s my throat that hurts a little bit more, but more in the front, not in the back ... ooh!  Now my head hurts!”

I can remember the first time I realized that this kid must have an ancenstral link to a major Chinese dynasty. She was about five years old, bedridden and lying against several recently fluffed pillows. I was scurrying around her bedroom, clearing away the tray of lunch, which had included homemade broth that she’d insisted I feed to her, spoonful by spoonful. 

I looked up from my labors and saw a look cross her face that could only be described as Utter Joy. “You like being waited on, don’t you?” I asked, just realizing it myself. She nodded happily, leaned back against the pillows, and began her Symptom Report. This kid would have liked to have her feet bound, I found myself thinking, as long as there was a nice retinue around to carry her around the Forbidden City.

Back around that time, I gave Emma a little bell my mother had let me use when I was sick, and told her to ring it whenever she needed me and felt too weak to call out. The bell got quite a workout one sad, sick weekend, and then Leah arrived for nanny duty on Monday morning. We stood over Emma’s bed, Symptom Report droning in the background, while I explained the details of her condition. “Show her the bell,” Emma croaked. I did. I will never forget what Leah said next:  “No.” Calmly, clearly and professionally, she explained that no bell would be used to summon her. Ever. Emma shrugged, realizing that she was no match for a well-developed psyche and a healthy display of self-esteem, and continued to use the bell to summon me, as soon as Leah had left for the day.

As old as my children are, I am starting to see the end of my engagement in the Cool Cloth business. It can’t last forever, I tell myself. And not that any parent ever gives in expectation of receiving the same sort of affection back, but I do have a pretty good idea that neither of these tootsies will ever be wringing out the cloth to lay across my ancient forehead as I gasp my last lungful on earth.

I got my confirmation of that suspicion this spring. Fifty percent of the family was in China, visiting Emma’s birth city. Of the contingent remaining at home, one was staying busy with the last days of eighth grade and nightly rehearsals for a play in which she’d been cast, happy as a clam with the lovely spring that was unfolding before her sparkling eyes.

The other 25 percent of the family was lying in bed, moaning, and wishing for a swift death. Mary Katherine popped her head into my bedroom every now and then, seeming a little puzzled: “Mom?  Not working?  Hmmm … oops, there’s my ride to rehearsal.” One night, I felt so bad that I began debating with myself about the wisdom of calling an ambulance. It is some measure of how much motherhood has taken over my last bits of personhood that I decided against this plan, thinking that it would upset Mary Katherine if she came home from her rehearsal and saw the flashing lights in the driveway, or discovered that I was no longer at home. I imagined the story being replayed at bitter holiday retellings: “The time Mom called an ambulance for herself and I was so upset.” I decided to roll over and just die in my sleep.

Sadly, I woke up the next morning, feeling just as bad. The phone rang at noon and I found it in among the covers. It was Julie Brown-Price. I already knew that she was my friend. I was about to discover that she was even more so. “I’m sitting here at Q. Cumbers. You’re never late. Are you okay?” she asked. I groaned. We’d had lunch plans. I told her what was happening. She asked me two questions: 1) When was the last time you ate? (24 hours ago, as best I could make out, but I’d been drinking tap water from the little cup in the bathroom, I assured her) and 2) Is your back door unlocked? I said that it was and fell back on the hot, mushy pillows. Oh, for some fluffing.

Forty-five minutes later, there she was, steaming into my kitchen like the deli angel, arms laden with hot chicken soup from Whole Foods, flowers and Throat-Coat tea. She talked to me. She felt my forehead. When I took that first spoonful of chicken soup, I knew I would live, for whatever that was worth, and that I had her to thank for it.

Sometimes the cool cloth does arrive, just not from the place you expect it to. I hope that every person who reads these words has a friend as true and good as my friend Julie, who understands when it's time to stop standing around and get over to someone's back door. And if any of you mothers out there have a bell that you let your kids use when they’re sick, go throw it in the trash right now, I mean it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Juiciest Marker in the Room

They say that we spend one-third of our lives sleeping, but I’m a Mom, so I’m probably more in the twenty percent range. When one of my daughters was sick recently (and it was the seventeen-year-old, so don’t kid yourself that this mothering thing is a short-term gig), my rate moved down to ten percent at best, given the number of late-night trips downstairs for tea and cool forehead cloths.

If my sleeping percentage is below average, though, the amount of hours I’ve whiled away in conference rooms is way above the norm. Somewhere out there are landscapers and mailmen and astronauts, people whose careers give them precious little time to count the holes in the drywall ceiling while we’re waiting for everyone to dial in on the Polycom. I, sadly, am not one of those free-range sorts.

I’ve spent a pallor-creating allotment of my days in tiny agency conference rooms with old DDB ads pinned to the wall (soon to go out of business), tech-bubble startup conference rooms with 12-foot-long tables made of rainforest teak (soon to go out of business), and lots and lots of meeting spaces in between – usually sad and frumpy locations, with fraying carpet squares, drawersful of take-out ketchup packets, geriatric potted palms, and not one working pen on the premises.

Every business meeting, no matter what its ostensible purpose, usually has a stock cast of characters right out of an Agatha Christie novel: the person who doesn’t want to be there, the person who doesn’t know why she’s there, the person who keeps thinking, (eventually, aloud) that there is no damn way we are going to get all of this done by Thursday. 

And, if the meeting is high-level enough, there is always, always a Juicy Marker Man.

I recently had the honour of my presence requested in the premises of a customer’s conference room, so I pulled out the navy blue suit and headed across town for a presentation planning meeting. The room was filling up as I took my seat, and then Juicy Marker Man strode in, late, running a hand through his well-cut hair.

My heart, it sank.

If I have spent twenty percent of my life sleeping, I’ve spent another good twenty percent looking at the backside of some generic business-tron as he seizes a blank flip chart page and writes, and writes, and dear Jesus is he still writing

There is always one guy who wants nothing more than to commandeer room’s only juicy marker and conduct a lesson for the assemblage on How Simple This All Really Is, just look at this scribble I’m doing now and see for yourself, kids. The poor schlubs on the other end of the telephone conference line can only guess at what’s going on by the squeak of dry erase on whiteboard. And there the rest of us are, looking at a bunch of squares and arrows, with the occasional oval thrown in for comic relief. The most maddening part of the exercise is when, still enjoying the thrill of attention, the guy begins to draw over and over the squares he’s already created, like a game of Pictionary gone horribly awry.

Forget your smartphones and your iPads. Here, twelve years into the start of a new century, there is still a race of men whose hearts beat a little faster when they walk into a room a spy a fresh box of Mr. Sketch. 

And yes, in case you were wondering, it is always Juicy Marker Man.  I have never yet met a woman who cares about having other people watch as she creates geometrically precise recreations of Program Structure and The Difference Between a Feature and a Benefit. If you men ever wonder what we do when we’re in meetings that happen to be exclusively female, I’ll let you in on a secret: We get stuff done, collectively, and without anyone needing to make a lot of mess on the walls.

Last week, watching this guy create a hundred lable-less shapes that were supposed to lead us all to Kaizen-like levels of clarity, I looked around at all the women in the room.  Here we were, getting high on the fumes as another guy 'splained it all to us. I had a sudden sympathy for my Paleolithic fore-women, stuck in some dumpy cave in El Castillo, Spain, about 40,000 years ago. And then I realized -- those cave paintings weren’t for religious or ceremonial purposes. It was just the guy who’d found the juiciest bit of ochre in the room, filling up the walls with his great wisdom, while all the cavewomen just wondered when his brush would dry out and they could get back to work.