Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Letter to My Mom on the Occasion of Her Birthday

 My mom would have been 89 on April 16. I had a few things I wanted to share with her.

 Dear Mom,

I miss writing to you. I'm so glad that I saved all the letters you sent when I was in college and during my semester in Greece, those years when I was a bit of a jerk. I recently came across one that included your response when I told you we had a maid. In retrospect, I think they just didn't want college kids trashing their nice Athens apartments, but it did seem over the top at the time. "If you were a patriotic American, " you wrote, "you would clean your own tub and mess to show how disciplined and clean we are--thoughtful, etc. And all it takes is a clean tub!"

Hmm…I honestly can't remember if I cleaned the tub or not. But it couldn't have been that dirty because we had to do our laundry in the tub, so it was like I was multitasking. And you'll be happy to know I spent a good hour cleaning my bathroom in honor of your birthday on Thursday--Brillo, two kinds of cleansers, grout brush, on my hands and knees for some major scrubbing action. I'm definitely disciplined but clean is a bit harder--I found some cat hair in the refrigerator the other day.

Remember when you wore that bright orange vinyl raincoat to pick me up after school, and I would get so mad at you because I thought it was so hideous and tragically out-of-style that I was embarrassed to be seen with you?! I am really sorry about that. As it turns out, I just got the most amazing orange spring coat. I originally ordered it in brown, but I knew that was the wrong decision the minute I clicked the "place order" button. I tried to convince myself that brown goes better with everything, and since I wear a lot of black, an orange coat would be too much like Halloween, but I finally switched the order at the last minute.

We looked for a photograph of you wearing the orange coat but we couldn't find one--we did, however, find this photo of me on the orange couch that Sears sent by mistake.

I never knew that the Sears customer service guy who placed the order pleaded with you and Dad not to tell his manager that he ordered orange instead of beige, since he'd screwed up a lot and was worried he'd be fired.

Barbara has been urging me to take something of yours, so on Saturday I guiltily snagged what I consider to be the best thing of all--one of your heart-shaped cake pans.

I can't even imagine how many layer cakes and brownies you made in this pan, how many birthdays, bake sales, just because-es! There were still some crumbs stuck to it, and Merry and I liked holding it knowing that you had too, so many times. I remember standing at my sink about 5 years ago smelling delicious brownies baking in the oven out of nowhere (believe me, no one on my floor makes brownies), not a chocolate chip in sight, and then finding out you were home in East Hampton making some for me. And they say brownies don't travel well.


P.S. I also took 2 mason jars you probably used for either pickles or strawberry jam, because I want to make pickled cabbage. Fermented vegetables are the new thing, so you and your sauerkraut have been ahead of the curve for awhile.

Here's one I think you'll like. I heartily endorse this sentiment:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Analyze This: The Candy Man

I find myself deeply pondering songs that most people would say aren’t very good.  I can’t help it—the glimmer of potential, the integrity of earnest intent, the challenge of finding those sweet, sincere redeeming qualities poking through…does it for me every time.  And since we can’t all be like Lester Bangs, I’m going to do my best to champion those bountiful one-note wonders here--starting off with an oooey, gooey gummy worm of a tune from everybody’s favorite, Mr. Show Business.

You may not want me as a guest on your team in Family Feud. I remember once someone asked me to name a famous Jewish entertainer, and I immediately blurted out, “Sammy Davis, Jr.!” That may not get me a kiss from Richard Dawson, but I stand by my choice: Everybody loves Sammy. My friends and I did as a kid, even though I really didn’t know much about him, other than he was this positively super-fantabulous outtathisworld charismatic being I’d seen on the Dinah Shore Show, and that Samantha the German short-haired pointer who lived up the street was named after him. (P.S. She lived with Lady the poodle and a big sweet orange kitty, Archie, named in tribute to Nate Archibald.)

And of course, to me he was, well, the Candy Man.

And for a sensitive, chubby girl who woke up at 6 am to sneak frozen mini peanut butter cups out of the refrigerator, being the Candy Man was no small thing. Heck, I definitely would have eaten the dishes.  That’s the song I wanted to hear on a hot July day, riding shotgun in my sister’s red Cutlass Supreme, the backs of my thighs sticking to the white vinyl bucket seats, with Sammy calling and the Mike Curb Congregation responding, their milquetoasty back-up vocals as benign and comforting as banana pudding to my seven-year-old self.

Err, wait, that sentence was half-baked--better make that as comforting as a groovy lemon pie…

And you know what? It’s as simple as that. Looking back, people say the Candy Man must have been a drug dealer (put this song up against “I’m Waiting for the Man” and you too will be jonesing for peanut butter cups at 6 am) but really, truly, it’s just about a guy sans guile who’ll give you “sweet chocolate, gum drops, chocolate malted candy…anything you want.” A song like this could never happen now, never—only doofy Barney gets close, and he’s kind of a jerk and is upside-down proportionately uncool as Sammy is swellegant.

Any chick with cool hair and a kitty on her shoulder is welcome at ssspunerisms.
This is May Britt, who was married to Sammy from 1960-1968.

It wasn’t just sugar-addicted 7-year-olds who liked the song—The Candy Man went all the way to number one for Sammy, even though he supposedly hated it. Legend has it that he rushed through it in two takes, commenting, "This record is going straight into the toilet. Not just around the rim but into the bowl.” That’s another thing I like—he’s such a professional that you’d never know he thought the song was a bunch of crap—I believed him and his character, and that I too might one day eat a dinner plate and it’d taste like Sunkist fruit gems and Tootsie rolls.

And we all know he would have no problem taking tomorrow and dipping it in a dream.

P.S. 7-year-olds and German short-haired pointers know a good person when they see one. As I was writing this blog I asked a dancer friend of mine if he’d ever worked with Sammy. He hadn’t, but his friends had, in the Broadway production of Golden Boy in 1964-66. It seems that one night after a performance, he took the cast to Howard Johnson on 46th and 8th Avenue. This was a time when people behaved much worse than they do now toward others who don’t look like them, and the waitress was really rude to Sammy. He didn’t say anything, but when it was time to go, he told her, “This is for you”—and handed her 5 $100 bills. How’s that for a tip on how to free your mind, lady?!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Egrets, I've Had a Few...

Q: What’s more irritating than serial commas? (C’mon, people! That “Let’s eat Grandma” example won’t work with me--you know deep down they’re like putting mascara on fake eyelashes…)

A: Dumb signs with words that most people don't use or understand, like the one above, which was plastered in the elevator in my building a couple weeks ago. Egress?! It’s not good writing if no one gets it, no matter how many SAT words you use.

I actually had to look it up, a leaky, squeaky sounding word that’s both a noun and verb meaning, respectively, "a way to get out of a place" and "to go or come out." With all those options, it's still a clunker in any sentence it shows up in. Easy egress in an emergency... The only egress was a dark, narrow stairway...

In any case, the sign irritated me so much that I went ahead and “corrected” the typo, replacing the first "s" with a "t," as you can see in the photo above. I’d much rather live in a world that’s open for egrets.

And I’d definitely hold the elevator for them, too.

I digress, but this egret doth profess to prefer ingress.

One bird you don't want hanging out in your lobby:

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cat, Sitting

 As a beginning meditator (yup, it’s been about 5 years since I’ve been consistent with my practice and I’m still just getting my feet wet), I benefit from guidance and instruction from others. Along the way, I’ve learned you can really cheat your way through it if you do it with people who are better at it than you. It’s super powerful meditating with a group, and that includes groups whose members have four legs and a tail. Cats definitely have it together when it comes to meditating, and can help you to: 

(1) Sit the Heck Still 
When you still the body, the mind follows. Tell that to my legs, which for about 2 weeks this winter would start itching fiercely every time I’d sit down to meditate. I tell myself to relax and breathe into it, but the more I attempt to do that, the more intense and burning the itch becomes, and I start thinking of “Disco Inferno” and blow the whole thing. 

If I were a zen monk in training, I’d have the Ino whacking me with a stick every time I moved or otherwise fell out of concentration—this according to my writing teacher/friend who is a zen monk, though I don’t think he actually used the word “whack.” If this is not an option for you, a regular old kitteh can do the trick. To train yourself to remain still, lie down and wait for your cat to crawl on top of you and park himself. If he is like Lorenzo, he will give you a harsh correction every time you try to move. 

This happened the other night as I was simply trying to fall asleep, and not even practicing meditation. Lorenzo had other ideas. He was perched on my back, and when I lifted my head and tried to turn it to the opposite side, I’d feel a paw on the back of my skull, pushing it back into place. I was restless so kept fidgeting, but Every. Single. Time., there was the paw, claws extending and flexing exponentially with each digression. Finally I just gave up and focused on the fact that I didn’t have to do anything except lie there. The moment that happened, he got up and began shoving his cold nose into my face and licking me, which of course necessitated the practice of #2....  

(2) Accept and Allow 
If I’m making meditation sound all rule-y and rigid, it’s because that’s where I am in the practice right now--if this is a journey, I’m still at the 7-Eleven paying for my Slurpee and filling the tank. I do know that the rules help to cultivate the focus you need for when the discipline dissolves and it becomes something else entirely…  kind of like painting a still life before you can Pollock…

Beginners like me can be easily sidetracked by outside noises and inner sensations: the aim is to practice accepting and allowing these things. Like, if I sneeze or the phone rings, I may go all Type A and wonder how many seconds that cost me, rather than just let the moment be … That’s where Derrick comes in. 

Every once in a blue moon, my big, sweet flamepoint will park himself next to me when I’m sitting. He’s a big talker with a big vocab for a cat, but during meditation he mostly employs the short, staccato quack. On one recent morning he wanders in and looks up at me, quacks as soon as I make eye contact, and commences purring. I was pretty quiet-minded that day, so when he starts quacking again, I think—not only am I going to accept and allow this furry big mouth at my side, I am going to follow his lead. 

So we take turns sneaking looks at each other, him quacking and purring and blinking and vibrating to the point I think he’s going to levitate. I am smiling so wide that I think it’s shining my skull.  And I think, hey…I’m getting an advanced lesson from him on the higher purpose of meditation, which is to…

(3) Love More 
One of my favorite yoga teachers, Erich Schiffmann, gives homework in his workshops—which always includes practice love more. He suggests starting with something/someone who is easy to love, and that way it’ll get easier when you practice on things/people who aren’t so easy to love. 

So, yeah, there’s Derrick, radiating this incredible joy and love and, HELLO, YUP, I GET IT! I can love him more, no problem. 

I am still smiling as he shoves his butt in my face, the tip of his tail candy-caning in full expression of feline happiness and confidence, walks a few feet and plops down on the rug directly in front of me. When I look at him he spreads the toes on his front paw. It is the luxurious, slow unfolding of a lotus flower, each paw pad a pink petal. And yes, he and I just pass the love back and forth like we’re in some dorky new-age dance-off… 

We both face the light, me wondering out of nowhere, “What is the sound of a candle flame?,” and Derrick just being, eyes closed.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dance Little Sister

Most little girls want to be ballerinas, or at least wear a tutu and a tiara to school for a week. Not me. Every Saturday afternoon I was a whirling, polyester-panted dervish in the church of Helen and the Neils (Reddy, Sedaka and Diamond, respectively.),

OK, OK, I can't take credit for the musical selection. I was too young to have my own stereo and/or record collection, so I''d climb the pea soup green-carpeted stairs up to my sister's room and use hers, careful not to plunk the needle down too hard or drag it across the vinyl.

I'd then dance full out until I couldn't dance anymore. With my spinning and zooming and shouting (when I knew the words), a good 45 minutes was like a 5-mile tempo run. I was free and in the flow, yet within a clear structure: Each song was a number in my own variety show, a hindsightedly whacked-out mishmash inspired by things I'd seen on "The Partridge Family," "Donny and Marie" and, I'd be lying if I left this one out, the repellant-but-mandated "Lawrence Welk Show." And who can forget one of the greatest dance performances of all time (and the worst exits of all time, sigh), Snoopy in "A Charlie Brown Christmas?"

I had a few show stoppers of my own--"Love Child," featuring a tragic heroine whose provenance I didn't quite grok but imagined hanging tattered rags on a clothesline ("Tenement slum!"); "Bad Blood," about a terrible, malevolent being represented, for me, by a Bic pen and its inky see-thru vein of black sludge, and the finale, "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," equal parts desolate and doofus, musically mirroring my confusion about life because, yeah, I was one of those nervous nail biters even then. I'm joking now because…Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods?!--but this was serious play for me. I had to dance.

The perfect ending to this story is that every week I get to be the assistant in 2 children's jazz classes.  Until I hit grade school and heard about other girls taking dance classes, I didn't even know that there were such things. I thought dancing was something everyone knew how to do and did as regularly as I (and, well, the Lawrence Welk dancers) did. I am so happy that girls have so many options these days--ballet, tap, flamenco, swing, hula, African dance and, of course, jazz.

During the second-third of our class, they line up and, one by one, do various exercises across the floor. It's pretty standard, but for 9-year-olds taking dance for the first time, doing something all alone while everyone else watches is a big deal. And it's always amazing what happens when we ask them to do the most simple exercise of all--walking while rolling their shoulders to the beat. Some scramble to keep up with it, some get it right away but hold back, some hear its echo like a faraway pulse. And every once in awhile (3 times in the past 8 or so years I've been assisting), there'll be that girl who…I don't know…makes the music sound better.  It's not just sinking into the beat, it's almost like thinking in to the beat. That is, if the heart and head had feet…It's not about being the best dancer, either--not even all professionals can do it--but something beyond technique and grace and memorization and working hard. It's not that they're on the beat, it's that they're in it.

But you know what? Ultimately it doesn't matter if they, or you, have it or you don't. Maybe we can all find it sometime or another but, like movement, it flows and goes, leaves and comes back, fits and starts. All I know is there's something super fun and super special about leading a tiny but fierce tribe of 9-year-olds in a combination to "Men In Black." It reminds me of me. And yes, it's almost as ironic as an 11-year-old Most Holy Trinity school girl rocking out to "I Wanna Be Sedated" (I finally saved my allowance and started my own little record library)... but the difference is, I've got some company now.

I wrote this thinking of my mom. I hope she's gotten to dance again. : )

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How Sweet Hearts Can Be

I would have posted this sooner, but I couldn't come up with a good-enough title. I figured the only way I'd think of one was when I wasn't thinking, and there it was, whispered in my ear in the middle of a dream at 3 AM in the morning last week.

Those same bright stars in heaven above
Know now how sweet
sweethearts can be

Of course. One of my favorite lyrics ever, the ouch of the three "ows" softened by a double dose of turbinado… So simple, it takes lesser poets 5 more lines to say not even quite that. I fell right back into the most satisfied sleep, so, so thankful for those kinds of gifts from the universe…

That's probably one reason why I run, because running has lots of gifts to give. And running doesn't mind if you're me or Meb--you plan well, you put in the time and give up that last tiny bit of control your ego thought you had, and it'll take you where you need to be…wherever that is. It brought Meb to the Boston Marathon finish line before everyone else, and it brings me, even though I'm at the complete other end of the natural talent spectrum, to this…

Two weekends ago I was in Central Park, trying to find the calm in the dappled shade of the bridle path, the nothing-but-flatness of the reservoir loop…anything but the outer loop, which I had been on quite a bit in recent weeks. It's hilly, which I don't mind, but nasty hot in the bright sun, which i do. So I avoided the outer loop like the plague, until, of course, I stopped paying attention to how crappy I felt for a second and found my feet leading me there….

Who drew all those chalk hearts in the pedestrian symbols painted on the road that show which way we're supposed to be going? It doesn't really matter, and it doesn't even matter why they wrote "88" in each of the hearts on said pedestrian symbols from West 90th all the way to… wherever they ran out of chalk on the east side.

It matters to me because my mom was born in 1926, and because the last birthday she celebrated was her 88th on April 16. And just in case I didn't quite get the message that those who have left their bodies are always in our hearts, this one kept coming up in my iPod shuffle…

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stealing Home

This past winter, Derrick was attacked by a bulldog. It’s not quite accurate to say “attacked,” since I don’t think the bulldog wanted to harm him—it was more like the psycho canine version of Capture the Flag, with the flag being furry and flamepoint. In any case, the timing was terrible—Derrick and I were out in the hallway for his morning walk, and he displayed his nosey-neighbor habit of dashing into any apartment with an open door just as the guy with the youngish, etiquette-challenged bulldog was leaving. They rolled, they tumbled; the owner stumbled as he tried to grab Santino. I pretty much screamed the entire time but somehow managed to open the door so Derrick could get back to our apartment. Which he did…followed by the dog.

When Lorenzo saw them run past, he leaped on top of the air conditioner and went textbook Halloween Cat. Within what was probably just a few seconds, Santino’s owner finally grabbed him and they got outta there. Derrick was left with bloody back paw pads, at least 6 fewer claws and an hour-long case of Big Tail. Lorenzo hid on top of the kitchen cabinets and stayed there for half the day, big round frying-pan eyes like he didn’t know who he was, or we were. We were all in a daze.

D. was way too stressed for a vet visit until the next week, but I did call the animal communicator. Derrick, typically a cat of few words, said even less than usual--he was still trying to process what was going on.  Lorenzo shared what they were both feeling:

“Attacked in our own home! We never thought that could happen.”

That just about killed me. Both of my guys were dumped on the streets by their original owners, and I promised myself, and them, that they’d always be safe and protected. But that day, I screwed up royally. The encounter with Santino was like a feline September 11th.

For the next few weeks, the whole house felt…piloerect. And I began to think a lot about that tired, mired myth of home, sweet home. About things that have happened to past and present friends, people I’ve worked with, strangers whose faces give away their stories… a lot of bad shit happens in places that people call home. From whoppers like physical/mental abuse and addiction to different-sized things like lies and love that gets withheld and not allowing someone to be who they are…  And oh, the stories of children abused in their homes that hurt us all so deeply, instantaneously. Nixzmary Brown, the little 7-year-old from Brooklyn who was tortured, molested and killed by her stepfather… Myls Dobson, 4, found murdered earlier this year, emaciated and covered in bruises and burn marks, while in the care of a babysitter… What did home mean to them?

One night after the bulldog incident I awoke thinking of Lotus, Gaza and Memphis—3 uromastyx lizards I took care of years ago during my work with a herpetological society. They were seized at U.S. Customs, stolen from their home somewhere in the Middle East and shoved in a box with dozens of other lizards, shipped to America to be sold in the exotic pet trade. We were asked to take care of them while a court case was pending; they were weak, stressed and sick, so it was more like hospice care. We tried to be hopeful anyway. 

Apparently they were of a species that was least attractive to pet owners, but I marveled at their soft pebble-gray skin, dinosaur heads, spiky Sex Pistol tails, kind eyes… they spent a lot of time being very, very still, like old, otherworldly Romanesque cathedrals. Despite my best efforts, you can fill in what happened—first little Memphis, then Lotus passed away. Gaza was so, so thin but still hanging on, eating her alfalfa that I sprinkled with Bach remedies (I tried everything)… I asked the animal communicator to check in with her. She’d never spoken with a displaced uromastyx before, but Gaza told her she just wanted to go home. And she just couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to.

My heart fell. I knew she could never go back, and I knew deep down that a 75-gallon tank with full-spectrum lighting and a bunch of heat lamps in a New York City apartment was so, so wrong.  There was no home for her now, anywhere.  When she passed, I imagined her dreaming herself back to soft, silken sand near the hottest rocks she could find. A blinding sun shining down lizard love and life.

And so, for Derrick and Lorenzo and Gaza and Nixzmary and Myls and anyone else for whom home hasn’t always been home—I propose a change in definition. Maybe home is not a place, but a series of actions… Moves and moments we can take, no matter where we are, that show and let us know we are safe and supported and surrounded by everything we need.

For Derrick, that means Tiggering through the apartment and spinning out as he takes the corners… that slight uplift of his tail when you say his name… the way his paw pads open and spread like pink petals when I pet him… For Gaza, home is this little shimmy in the sand she’d do while sunbathing, belly-down…

For Lorenzo, aside from this…

…home is a very slight rearing up, a la My Little Pony, at the moment he knows a treat is forthcoming.

For me, home is doing most things for a longer period of time than most people do them for. Home is barefoot, home is blinking through raindrops while soaking wet, home is sitting on the floor, home is Bing perched on my knee or sighing into my side, home is leaping through hallways if there’s enough space…

And when you’re not limited by walls or a map, home may be something you never thought to look for… melting wax, chasing snowflakes, shaking a tambourine…

What’s your dance, homie?