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Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Luxury of a Bad Vacation


The Luxury of a Bad Vacation


I know there is such a thing as a bad vacation – the truly terrible kind that leave people fundamentally changed.  But as I sit in the little place we rent year after year at The Nice Part of the Jersey Shore (thanks, Snooki), I know I’ve never had one of those. 


The day we left Cleveland, Lylah took ill with abdominal unhappiness. Nothing dramatic, just discomfort that slows the constitution and makes food unappealing. Two days later, the gathering storm hit my shores with considerable force. I wanted my mommy. 


Like clockwork, 48 hours later, I could practically see Al Roker standing in the family room as Katy succumbed to hurricane-level misery. At the urgent care, halfway through our beach vacation, one of the very nice nurses kept saying to her, “You poor thing, you’re dry as a bone,” as she tapped around for a vein.  A couple bags of saline and a slew of drugs later, we stumbled back home and called it a day. 


The fact that Carlo seems to have been immune to this plague is only the start of what fills me with joy on this, the second last day of our odyssey. Here are a couple of others.


Every day this week, I’ve woken up with the Atlantic Ocean a block away. Most days I’ve been able to go there early and watch the shore birds fish in the tide pools as the sun wipes the horizon clean of mist. Everyone who wants to should be able to do it.


This is a place my parents introduced us to when we were still kids. They’ve both been gone a long time now, but coming here brings them a little closer again. Very little changes in the town. Mom and Dad would be glad of that. They would still like it here. 


The other day on the beach, a little girl and her mother came up behind me while I was sketching. The child was perhaps 5. I asked if she likes to draw. She nodded and looked at my pages. She has many sketchbooks herself, her mom told me. Then they showed me the tiny hermit crab they found in its tiny shell in the sand.


Yesterday on my beach walk, two women strolled toward me with a beautiful black Newfoundland. They let me say hello, and I caught a glimpse of our dear departed Pearl in the dog’s slow tail wag. Pearl is the great dog heartbreak of my life. I look for her in magical ways, and sometimes she shows up.


I could go on, but this is the internet age, and already some of your are all, like, “too long didn’t read.”  But let me just add one thing. The four of us together – talking, laughing, suffering -- is a gift never to be taken for granted.  So break out the Coppertone and the Lysol. I’m squeezing the last juicy hours out of this best bad vacation. Cowabunga, and thank you.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Count these days slowly

I grew up in pre-Amy Mihaljevic Bay Village, so the grownups let us wander hither and yon for hours under the delusion that we were safe. We mostly were. In summer we’d lose ourselves in the woods near the lake. We waded in streams and imagined adventures.

Something happened to time in the woods. I want to resist the cliché about it standing still, but some sort of warp was going on. Being surrounded by all that nature – trees way older than ourselves, smells you couldn’t find indoors — provided a connection to the infinite. We'd be explorers from the 19th century for a while, and credibly so.

Then we’d hop our bikes and go home for dinner, and clocks resumed their ticking.

Today I hiked around the woods and meadows at Holden Arboretum. The farther I got from other people (this took awhile), the more I found of the person I was in the woods back in Bay.
The weeds lick my shins. The sun and breeze take turns brushing my cheeks. A fly settles on my sketchbook. It could be 2015. It could be 1971.

Bliss.
Bliss.
Bliss.

But the wandering grownup knows to treasure these forays into nature on a perfect summer afternoon. Supplies are limited. This is part of what it means to grow up. I don’t take anything lovely for granted anymore.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's wonderfulness

The great Flannery O'Connor grew up in Georgia, where her childhood passions included raising feathered creatures of all kinds. My brother Eric just sent me a collection of her works, and though I'd previously read a number of her short stories, today I read an essay -- "King of the Birds -- first published the year I was born. It's about peacocks. Gorgeous. Funny. (The birds and the writing.)

“Although I had a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silk bantams, two Polish Crested ones, and several chickens of a cross between these last and the Rhode Island Red, I felt a lack."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jazz guitar gentleman

People who know jazz know guitar legend Pat Martino. I didn't hear of him till last week, when I was asked to share info about his weekend gig at Nighttown. Something struck me just in reading about him, however: I wanted to hear him play.

We lucked into front-and-center seats at his Saturday show, and I really did have the sense of being in the presence of someone extraordinary. It wasn't just the stylin' outfit (crisp jeans, necktie, hip shoes). It was watching the dazzling combination of intense concentration and muscle memory at work as he played. People who are passionately driven in the arts -- not to fame, but to mastering their medium -- exude special charisma.

Plus, he was with an ace drummer and B3 player, and they were doing very tuneful, sophisticated stuff.

All of this would be interesting enough on its own, but then you learn about Pat's 1980 brain surgery, from which he awoke with his memory shot through with holes. You can read about it here.






Monday, April 06, 2015

Bird in Captivity


The bathroom scale I grew up with was covered in gold carpet. Your tootsies stayed warm while your blood ran cold. The numerals were marked off every five pounds with little slash marks in between. If you stepped on the scale three times, you could get three different readings. And there were many times, in my fat-obsessed teenage years, that I stepped on the scale three times in succession. 


Had you asked me at 18 whether I’d still be a daily scale-checker at fiftysomething, I would’ve said, “God, I hope not.” But here I am – stepping on dutifully each morning, virtually every day.  This modern scale isn’t so modern as to report on my body mass index, thank heaven, though such models are available. No, it just reports on my character in half-pound increments. 
 But hey – if you step on it three times in succession, you’re likely to get the same three results. That’s progress, right?

I mentioned this daily scale-check to one of my daughters today, and she was stunned. I’ve been known to pack the scale in my suitcase when we go on vacation, but I suspect she thought I was just trying to keep myself honest during one of my flirtations with Weight Watchers.  If only.

Deep into this this lifelong dance with food and fat, I still pay homage to the numbers as a hedge against morbid obesity – or so goes the theory. I’m afraid to look away for too long; I might lose touch with the reality and float out to sea on a raft of bagels and peanut butter.
But it doesn’t really work anymore. Instead, I check in daily and readjust my idea of “normal” as the numbers climb.
This is something they don’t tell you about aging – that the coping mechanisms of youth can weaken along with muscle tone. The dumb workarounds, the crazy habits you depended on for years to keep you passing for sane (or thin), can go the way of the sagging jawline. I am forced to admit, though not for the first time, that “healthy” is less about keeping dates with the scale and more about keeping reasonable promises to myself.

Carry on.






Monday, March 30, 2015

What's left of Easter

The Easters of my Catholic childhood were, as I remember them, optimistic Sundays of budding crocuses and crowded church pews. We woke to birdsong and splendid baskets my mother had fluffed with plastic grass, then were whisked off to Mass to be reminded that Jesus rose from the dead.

Heady notion for a kid just wanting to get back to her malted milk balls. I was never sure how Jesus’s death and rising canceled out our more demonic behavior, but I figured the grownups had worked it all out.

A few decades of living can shoot holes in that sort of trust. To quote Sting, you could say I’ve lost my faith in religion. It had been slipping precipitously for years, and then along came The Revelations (this is how I think of the journalism around the Catholic child-abuse coverup) to  pound the last nails in the coffin.

My trust in the Church has been replaced by certainty in a couple of less mystical truths.

1. The grownups rarely have it all worked out. 
2. Any institution that instructs you to obey its rules without question has something to hide.

All of this has been brewing in my head for the last few days. Easter approaches, and along with it comes wistfulness about the loss of church. Sure, I still have spirit. But how lovely it would be if my mother’s house of worship had been worthy of her trust– a faith she raised her kids to live by, too.  How reassuring it would be to feel that centuries of wisdom and prayer and love had built an unassailable structure where we could find it all: succor and solace, guidance and deliverance.

There is no there there, as far as I can see, though if you find it for yourself I am genuinely heartened. I find the there in here, instead – a small place in my heart that grows with prayer and meditation and shrinks in their absence. No longer dazzled by the altar and the pillars, I remain reverent about Jesus and the purpose of his life.

Love, he told us. Put others first.
Then he did it himself just to show us it could be done.

He would not approve of my road rage, but he might give me a few points for all the times he sees me making effort not to be a complete self-centered jerk.

He would appreciate my kindness toward animals, though he would almost certainly wish that I could extend that a little further onto my fellow humans.

He probably frowns when I natter on Facebook about the weathergirl’s bad fashion. He probably thinks I have enough flaws of my own, and that on the very day I get my own self together in one spiritual basket, then I can start judging how other people live. And dress.

If all of this seems a little flimsy, a little too loosey-goosey, let me assure you that I’m more certain and passionate in this humbler faith than I ever was about all those golden arches. There aren’t many rules, but they’re firm:

My religion tells me to love and be kind. Love everyone, including myself. And be kind to all, not just the dog. This is the spiritual work of a lifetime. This seems to me to be made plain in the life of Jesus, and in the Easter story.  It’s the part of the church I couldn’t leave.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Meg Ryan Probably Hates Hobbies, Too

This drawing is a retread, but speaks to several of my non-hobbies.


DURING AN INTERVIEW for “Inside the Actors Studio,” host James Lipton asked actress Meg Ryan to name a word she detested. Ryan thought for a few seconds, then unfurled “en-joy” with mocking deliberation. Lipton seemed surprised. As I remember it, Ryan explained that “enjoy” was almost always used in instances when the speaker sounded devoid of actual joy.

We really enjoyed our dinner. 
Yawn.
As words go, enjoy is solid beige. It now lives in the dingy old sack where I keep words I regard as fundamentally unworthy of the human experience. The sack is small, and notably separate from the suitcase where I store passionately loathed language trends, i.e. "amazing.But I want to pull another one out of the bag and turn it over for just a moment, so here we go:

Hobby. Do you have one? I don’t.

People must admit to having hobbies all the time. It keeps showing up on questionnaires. 

Whenever asked, the only reasonable answer that occurs to me is, “Yes, I collect coins,” which is problematic, since I don’t collect coins. Yet it’s one of the few activities I can think of that sound dull enough to warrant hobby status.

Yet if I did collect coins, it would no longer be a hobby, because, holy hourglass, Batman, this life is whizzing by, so I'm not going to waste it on anything I regard with the limp, semi-intentionality of a hobby. No, if I decided to delve into numismatics, it would mean I had begun to regard coins with an awe previously reserved for moments of spiritual bliss and/or closeups of Adam Levine's tattoos.

Let me be completely obnoxious: Everything I do outside my job is way more critical to my humanity than the word “hobby” can convey. That includes napping.

I love to read and draw, for pay and otherwise. I’m a half-moon short of a lunatic for animals, and have been known to spend mornings cleaning shit off birdcages just to snag face time with a rescued vulture.  I do none of this with the thumb-twiddling listlessness conveyed by that Poindexter of the h-word.

An allergy to hobby might well be a sign of taking oneself too seriously. But derision is definitely built into its DNA. You can read about it here on the online etymology site, but perhaps it will suffice to say that “hobby” grew out of “hobbyhorse,” which, as we know, is a horse that doesn’t go anywhere.

My horses travel.  They take me to true joy. They also occasionally stop to drink at the stream of sorrow, frustration and self-doubt, before heading on down the road to redemption. And of course, they provide critical moments of deliverance from the jar of peanut butter in the kitchen cupboard.  This is all fulfilling and important, I think.

So, please, have your hobbies if you like. I don’t want to deny anyone pleasure, even if it’s just the pleasure of being able to claim that they have a hobby.

But I wish James Lipton would call me. I like to have a word with him.