Aliina Hopkins, West Hartford, Conn.
George Forgie, Austin, Texas
Lu Zhu, San Francisco, Calif.
Aliina Hopkins, West Hartford, Conn.
George Forgie, Austin, Texas
Lu Zhu, San Francisco, Calif.
People who can’t be saved even with Spell Check . . .
Enjoy! It’s really fun to read!
. . . And then there’s Debra Messing screaming at Susan Sarandon:
And oh yeah: why do people think “quash” and “squash” are the same verb???
Want to drive me totally nuts? It’s easy! Run your fingernails down a blackboard–or commit any of the following grammar sins. You might not hear me say anything, but I’ll bet you hear my teeth grinding!
Got any more crazy usages that drive you nuts? Add your comments and I’ll riff on those too!
My grandmother, Elsie Klotz(!) Gilruth, was born on August 12, 1883. In 1923, apparently (see envelope, below), Carl Sandburg wrote her a poem and sent it to her home, presumably so she would get it before her husband saw it. Why he wrote this poem—and even more puzzling, why his sister, Mary Sandburg Johnson, would also write a poem to Mother El—remains a mystery. I do know his career at the Chicago Daily News1, working for my grandfather, James C. Gilruth, was very short-lived: James fired him around this time for being a lousy journalist (his version; Carl’s was different, I’m sure). Below are the poems, along with Elsie’s photo (taken around 1902, when she was married), and transcriptions of the poems. Enjoy!
(On the left):
“Coda brillante” May Carl forgive me!
The knees / of this proud woman / tremble with terror, / for the stars have spoken to her / of things terrestrial.
May they speak / in accents soft and tender, / to the bones / in the back / of you, proud woman!
That ye / may never know / the deep thoughts they intimate / to stiff elbows / and creaking joints / of certain other proud women — Mary B. Sandburg
(On the right, p. 1 of Carl’s poem):
The knees / of this proud woman / are bone.
The elbows / of this proud woman / are bone.
The summer-white stars / and the winter-white stars / never stop circling / around this proud woman.
The bones / of this proud woman / answer the vibrations / of the stars.
(P. 2 of Carl’s poem):
In summer / the stars speak deep thoughts / In the winter / the stars repeat summer speeches.
The knees / of this proud woman / know these thoughts / and know these speeches / of the summer and winter stars.
— Carl Sandburg
March 14, 1923
IF you think I have misread these poems–or IF you can make any sense of them!–PLEASE let me know, either by email or in the Comments below.
Also: why did his sister get involved?? Mysteries!
1. Interesting factoid: Victor F. Lawson, the boss of my grandfather (“Daddy Jim”) at the Chicago Daily News, was the man for whom the word “curmudgeon” was coined.
(@ 24th St. & 6th Ave.)
. . . and NJ will never be the same again! A delicious brunch and a short walk in 95-degree weather: but at least we were out of the city. Basking Ridge was like a ghost town (everyone was at the shore?) Here we are, in all our glory:
Again, Madison Square Park at its finest. I’m sitting at a small cafe table doing pretty much nothing. It doesn’t get better than this!
|“To make a prairie it takes
a clover and one bee,
one clover and a bee,
The revery alone will do
if bees are few.”
— Emily Dickenson
It was a small, last-minute dinner at El Kallejon (209 East 117, if you want to sample some really, really tasty Mexican seafood/vegan/whatever!)
I was walking down 22nd St., through a few blocks of gorgeous brownstones, when I passed The Colonial Inn and saw a young Hispanic man coming down the stairs to the street. The building has a gorgeous facade and was the original HQ of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis anti-AIDS campaign.
I asked him if it was as nice inside as out, and he gave me a tour. Five (!) long, steep flights of stairs later, we came out on the roof garden:
Then I realized he’d said, “Clothing optional,” and he was immediately naked (after all, it’s a gay B&B). “Does this bother you?” he asked. Having lived through the ’60s, I said “No.”
We talked for about 20 minutes—as if nudity in the middle of NYC was not odd—and then I reminded him that I was on a quest to find an open café (not easy on the 4th) with a nice view, Champagne and fruit. So I took my leave of him, probably just in time before he suggested something kinkier!
On 9th Ave. and 21st St. I found one of my favorite cafés was open, and I dined on a fruit crêpe and Champagne, as planned.
Happy 4th (belated) to you and yours, naked or otherwise!
I paint/draw best and most passionately when confronted by a still life, landscape, or a posing model. I write best about a place when I am in situ, noticing details I couldn’t call up from my imagination.
Art is a dialogue for me, the joy of getting past the facade and reaching an emotionally honest place.
[It’s the kind of photography my father preferred to do, as well.]
Perhaps it is the only kind of connection an isolated child could make?
Bean was doing a promotion that involved setting up little “rooms” outdoors, where people could work. Mad Square was gorgeous today!
Inward, inward. The older I get, the more I turn inward.
Sitting in Zagara’s outdoor cafe on Sunday, traffic is light on 7th Avenue and sighing by on gibbering rubber. Buses cough and wheeze and rumble away like blue elephants. Some say “The Museum of Sex.” Helicopters thump overhead; then the Ferry bus roars them away.
White bread with a soft center soaks up rich yellow olive oil in a saucer. A cold white wine adds an acid touch and slows the city to a crawl.
The tip of the Empire State Building is a needle stuck into the blue arm of the sky. A light scent of tar enhances the cold Chardonnay.
People with plastic bags of lettuce and chips walk by. Stomachs pompously precede T-shirts and unabashed shorts on obese and thin humans alike. Why so many plastic bags?
A black family in striped shirts of many colors disgorges from the restaurant in order of birth. Selfies are taken as people rotate from front to back. They laugh. I drink and then look up: they are magically gone as if I invented them.
A recorded voice in the subway oozes its incoherent admonishments up through the grate by the curb. Tiny dogs–some in purple or pink clothing–trot beside their owners like animated dolls on blurred legs.
Whatever happened to fashion in the Fashion Capital? White gloves and hats are gone. So many T-shirts, baggy shorts, ugly white legs. So many dead-eyed people. Tall, thin, short, fat; gray slicked-back hair; bald; stringy blonde; black straight hair; frizzy dreadlocks. The same deadness in all their eyes, although phones are oddly absent. Glaring. Staring.
They march and march, these T-shirted ants, most heading south, a few heading north. They erupt from the 23rd Street subways and trickle in a small stream toward the Village. Someone yells and a few turn toward the sound, but no one’s there. A man walks past repeatedly shouting, “No! No!” He looks young and normal, but something’s shorted out in his brain.
Two black men, and a black woman in a white dress, arrive. They peer through the door and I say, “The food’s fantastic here! Trust me!” They do. They settle at a table opposite me, although the men crave the cold air conditioning inside. The woman prevails, urged on by me. Her white wine arrives; she salutes me with it.
Double decker tour buses roll past. They stare at us as if we were in the aquarium–not them. As if we were a separate species.
In this Sicilian restaurant there is an Irish busboy. I know when he’s serving the other table, as I smell his cologne. It’s too sweet. Maybe he’s not Irish.
It’s late afternoon on Fathers’ Day in New York City.
As Tracy Sugarman so memorably recalls D-Day–before and after–(in his book My War), he was on boats and on the shore at Utah Beach from June 6 to October 22, as a naval officer, when his brother Marv suddenly turned up. Tracy had no idea his brother had enlisted, much less that he had come to France–and had washed up on Utah Beach, too!
On October 22, 1944, they were reunited and spent the day in Cherbourg.
The next day they departed for Barfleur, which is (sort of) in my old neighborhood (like Honfleur and Harfleur, it’s in the Basse-Normandie, on the south side of the Seine across from Le Havre and the Haute-Normandie).
As Tracy had access to a jeep, they rode to dinner at the Hotel Moderne in Barfleur, driving “. . . carefully through the still-rubbled streets of the town, then on to the coastal highway that ran up the peninsula to Barfleur and Cherbourg. We found the modest and miniature hotel easily and paused at the entrance. GRAND PRIX 1931, GRAND PRIX 1935, GRAND PRIX 1937. As we entered the tiny dining room, the elderly owner greeted us with “Bienvenue!” and led us to a table. I thanked him, and told him that we were about to celebrate a very special occasion.
‘I have been on Utah Beach since D-Day,’ I said. ‘And yesterday my brother arrived with his army outfit–on my beach!’
The old man’s eyes opened wide. ‘Mon Dieu! Brothers? How marvelous! This is a very special occasion indeed!’
He paused a moment, and then asked us to follow him. He led us through the fragrant kitchen, pausing only to introduce us to the chef. ‘Tonight we are serving both the American navy and the American army, Jacques. En garde!’
We followed the elderly gentleman out into the small vegetable garden, where he picked up a shovel that leaned against the potting shed. Walking carefully between the rows of beans and carrots, he paused at a flat rock and nudged it aside with his toe. He began to dig, his face concentrated on his labors. He stopped suddenly, and reached into the dark soil. Smiling broadly, he handed each of us a bottle of Muscadet, the moist dirt still clinging to the dark green glass.
‘For five years–five very long years,’ he said, ‘these wines have hidden from the Boches. Tonight they will celebrate this memorable American reunion!’
‘Memorable’ doesn’t even begin to cover that remarkable evening with my brother and our new French friend.”
My War–A Love Story in Letters and Drawings, Tracy Sugarman, Random House, Inc., 2000, pp. 128-133.
Whatever happened to the poor little pronoun, “me”? It seems everyone is ashamed of it and is trying to get away from it as quickly as possible. But “me” is just an object: picture something falling on it (i.e., acting on it) and that’s “me.”
I hear people saying all the time, “It was supposed to be just between you and I.” But “between” is a preposition and takes an object. So the correct form is “it’s between you and me.”
I also often hear people saying “Her and I went . . .” What is your friend the object of? What is acting on her? Nothing. In fact, she is doing the action: she is going somewhere. So “She is going . . .” or “She and I went . . .”
We don’t seem to abuse the pronouns “we” and “us” that way. Are we ashamed of ourselves only? Feeling braver when we act in the plural? I never hear anyone say, “It happened to we.” So why does it have to be “It happened to [her and] I?”
Shame on I! Shame on we!
— The Grammar Grandma
The first shy violets: overwhelmed by riotous Japanese cherries, double daffodils, military-erect tulips, crabapple blossoms, hyacinths, and more. Their little purple and white stars huddle against tree roots, bravely poking their heads out into the sun. The trees above them sport shiny new leaves; soon they will shade the violets, and summer will come.
|And this is what happens when you take a walk in the park (Mad Sq) during Fashion Week.|
(Bill Bryson, 1987, The Lost Continent, p. 24/Ch. 14)
“On Fifth Avenue I went into the Trump Tower, a new skyscraper. A guy named Donald Trump, a developer, is slowly taking over New York, building skyscrapers all over town with his name on them, so I went in and had a look around. The building had the most tasteless lobby I had ever seen—all brass and chrome and blotchy red and white marble that looked like the sort of thing that if you saw it on the sidewalk you would walk around it. Here it was everywhere—on the floors, up the walls, on the ceiling. It was like being inside somebody’s stomach after he’d eaten pizza.”
And there you have it.
Wednesday the 16th I was (finally! After 3 weeks of illness!) feeling almost human, so I went to an interview. The next day I started (at a ridiculously low salary) as a receptionist, working from 1-5 pm daily. I share this responsibility with a great guy named Mike, who is really nice to work with.
On my way home from work that Friday, I was invited to go fly a kite: literally! Kites have gotten lighter and more aerodynamic, so even at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Broadway it was a piece of cake, as it were. The array of kites was absolutely brilliant; but the real odd part was that one of the men watching us was a kite designer from Holland! He and the kite owner got into a very intense discussion about design and I went home. But what fun!
|The fountain in Madison Square Park was backlit and beautiful, so I photographed that, too.|
|Then yesterday was the eclipse, so I went to the corner of 27th Street and 5th Avenue and this is how it looked (not as spectacular as Oregon or South Carolina, but 71% ain’t bad!)|
|On my way past Mad Square, I noticed that the pedestrian mall had been taken over by a giant banana (I mean, why not???) No explanation. So here it is. Life in the slow lane:|
I’m posting the images day by day, beginning with this post, Wednesday, July 19. Door County is so deeply embedded in my psyche that my roots there enabled me to travel all over the world, knowing I’d always have a place to come home to.
My parents bought land with 3 friends (amounting to 40 acres) in 1940, planning to go off the grid and live on a self-sustaining art commune. We ended up with the land and build our own little house on the prairie there, complete with kerosene stove and lights, wash water collected off the roof into tanks, and drinking water and ice that we carried. I learned to ride a horse at four, got on the barter system with the stables by the age of six, and was able to go about independently without my mom driving me.
My parents built a lovely permanent home there in 1968 and retired to it in 1973. By the mid-’80s their health problems dictated that they move into a retirement community and we had to sell the land.
This trip I stayed with Sharen and Jack Young, who live on the bluff just across the Juddville Road from our land. I met Sharen when I was 13 and she was 16, and we loved to freefall out of the hayloft in her parents’ barn, sitting on a knotted rope that swung way out and up through the barn door. It was like flying!
These are the pictures of my arrival in this magical place that I’ve loved (and sometimes fought) all my life.
PS: I forgot to mention that on Tuesday, July 25, I was coming back from Ellison Bay and I took Townline/Sumach Road on the way. Glancing to my right I saw a farm, and between the trees: camels! What was that about?!?!?
|Wednesday, July 19
Thursday, July 20
Friday, July 21
Saturday, July 22
Sunday, July 23
Monday, July 24
Tuesday, July 25
Wednesday, July 26
On this date in 1975 I was (rather foolishly) married. It was a great party! A week ago I took new photos of the church (lots of changes). The lovely Baileys Harbor Yacht Club—where we had the reception—has since burned down and not been rebuilt. Ray Kroc (of McDonald’s) crashed the reception in his flipflops (NOT a pretty sight!) but was struck down by his own food (a heart attack) shortly thereafter. Maybe there is a goddess after all . . .
(In case you’ve never been to my house, here’s the roommate ad I just posted on CraigsList. Come visit!)
115 West 23rd Street at 6th Avenue (google map)
* Must see to believe! [1 month’s deposit + 1 month’s rent required]
For a year I had 2 cats living here. So today I get a catalog aimed at—what else?—dogs. Apparently I now qualify as either 1) a dog owner; or 2) a dog.
When I called my friend Dave and suggested he check it out, he pointed out that his dog Ben already gets the catalog (or is it a dogalog?) under his very own name.
So does that mean that the company sees me as a dog? Or worse, a bitch?
Let me know if you need any accessories the next time you go to the dog run—without your canine (who will be at home ordering cool stuff online at http://www.inthecompanyofdogs.com).
I’ve been coughing like mad for the past 10 days: maybe one of my neighbors thought I was barking and reported me?
ANYhoo, life-in-the-slow-lane dept. . . .
Have a great weekend!
Learn to be silent.
Let your quiet mind listen and absorb.
— Pythagoras (580 BC-500 BC)
* * *
All man’s miseries derive from
Not being able
To sit quietly in a room
— Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
My polling place is at the international school at 111 East 22nd Street. We show our passports, pick up 2 pieces of paper, preprinted with LePen and Macron’s names, and get in line for the booths. The booths are covered with heavy tricolor fabric, reminiscent of beach changing booths in France. We put our selected piece of paper into a little brown envelope (which doesn’t seal) and get in line again. The voting boxes are large plexiglas cubes, with a guardian holding a colored file folder over the slot until we have shown our passports again and initialed a book that we have voted. Then we drop the envelope into the box. VERY high tech!
One can only hope that Marine LePen—who is even worse than Trump with her racism—does NOT win!
I’ll find out after the Kentucky Derby is run. (I mean, what’s important?!?)
Both of these men were often violently angry with the child who most resembled them. This sad tradition probably went back a couple hundred years (or more) to Scotland. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were often at loggerheads; my grandfather had no use for my mother, either. Both “Daddy Jim” and Mom were victims of parental wrath that often made no sense and that they passed on. It was one of the reasons I didn’t want to have children myself.
However, it’s all in the past! Hooray!
Mom was a great storyteller and probably would have made a very good children’s book writer, too. For example, (our) favorite sweater was a deep rose/salmon pink cardigan. One day (when I was about three) she lost a button off of this and she told me the story of Pop the Button (over and over, at my request).
It seems Pop was quite adventurous as a young button. One night he jumped off the sweater, but soon he was lonely and missed his friends. Our cat Dopey (named for our favorite Snow White dwarf) found Pop and batted him around the living room till poor Pop was exhausted.
The next morning Mom found Pop and sewed him back on the sweater with all his friends. He was so happy to be back home again!
She also used storytelling to help me overcome my early childhood fear of thunder and lightning. She told me that the Great God Zeus had lost his son, a little thunderbolt (which I understood as “thunderboat”), and was looking for him. He shined his flashlight down onto earth and was calling out “Julius!” in each thunderclap. If I looked up into the clouds, I might see Zeus’ flashlight; and if I listened carefully, I would hear him calling Julius the “thunderboat” (I pictured a toy sailboat).
Her family had a passion for reading that both she and my half-brother (Fred Sealy) passed on to me. From a very early age I was enthralled by Alice Through the Looking Glass (for which I learned to play chess); Kipling’s Just So stories; the Babar books; the Winnie the Pooh series; the Oz books; and much more. They both read well and enjoyed hearing their favorite stories over and over, as I did. Later on, Mom shared Little Women with me, as well as books the Wilmette (and Ephraim) librarians recommended, included Newbery Medal winners.
In the summers in our little cabin in Wisconsin, we would read aloud to each other by kerosene lantern light, or separately enjoy our books in companionable silence. Mom and Dad would read to each other bits that caught their fancy from The New Yorker, too, and I would listen from the next room to this grown-up humor and try to understand it.
Saturday Beth Reed and I went to El Kallejon, a FABULOUS (and very affordable!) Mexican restaurant on East 117th Street in Spanish Harlem. It was the best food I’ve had in years, with maybe the exception of Mama Rosa’s (a very expensive restaurant I went to with Linda) in Gramercy, back in September.
We had tiny turberón (baby shark) tostadas and pork tenderloin tacos: the best food ever!! Plus 2 margaritas each; plus complimentary sangría; plus complimentary tiny-tiny fresh crab tostadas for “dessert.” It was absolutely delicious!! I want to come back here and have my birthday in their outdoor garden.
Then we went to see In the Heights (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first rap musical, set in Washington Heights) at the Harlem Repertory Theater. We had terrific seats (at $7 each!) The stage was open and the actors/dancers moved among the audience as well. Great fun!
My photos didn’t turn out so well at the end: guess I couldn’t stop dancing! Enjoy anyhoo!
(Note: for more on Beth Reed, see my posting, The Power of One. She’s amazing!
Friday was THE perfect day. It was 82º with virtually no humidity. I went to The General Theological Seminary on 21st Street—which has all the architectural charm of a 19th century insane asylum—and rang the bell at their gate. The Seminary was founded in 1817, with Clement Clarke Moore (of The Night Before Christmas fame) donating the land (he was the owner of Chelsea, a farm whose boundaries are now marked by 14th St., 23rd St., 6th Ave. and the Hudson River. I live at the NE boundary of Chelsea). The Close was originally an apple orchard, although no traces of that remain. Its trees are old, large and welcoming, and it is beautifully maintained.
When I was rung in, I went to the office and registered. They had free coffee and pastries, so I took my lunch into the Close, the large park hidden from all streets that is enclosed by the Seminary dormitories, classrooms and chapel.
The day included a free copy of The Canterbury Tales (for about an hour, until someone reclaimed it); a free (private!) lute concert in the chapel; and countless fragrances (including two kinds of lilacs), heralding spring.
It is “my” secret garden: a very well-kept secret in the heart of New York. The following 30 images take you through my day:
You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, but wringing water from the desert sky is now possible, thanks to a new spongelike device that uses sunlight to suck water vapor from air, even in low humidity. The device can produce nearly 3 liters of water per day for every kilogram of spongelike absorber it contains, and researchers say future versions will be even better. That means homes in the driest parts of the world could soon have a solar-powered appliance capable of delivering all the water they need, offering relief to billions of people.
* * *
* * *
There are an estimated 13 trillion liters of water floating in the atmosphere at any one time, equivalent to 10% of all of the freshwater in our planet’s lakes and rivers. Over the years, researchers have developed ways to grab a few trickles, such as using fine nets to wick water from fog banks, or power-hungry dehumidifiers to condense it out of the air. But both approaches require either very humid air or far too much electricity to be broadly useful.
To find an all-purpose solution, researchers led by Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, turned to a family of crystalline powders called metal organic frameworks, or MOFs. Yaghi developed the first MOFs—porous crystals that form continuous 3D networks—more than 20 years ago. The networks assemble in a Tinkertoy-like fashion from metal atoms that act as the hubs and sticklike organic compounds that link the hubs together. By choosing different metals and organics, chemists can dial in the properties of each MOF, controlling what gases bind to them, and how strongly they hold on.
Over the past 2 decades chemists have synthesized more than 20,000 MOFs, each with unique molecule-grabbing properties. For example, Yaghi and others recently designed MOFs that absorb—and later release—methane, making them a type of high-capacity gas tank for natural gas–powered vehicles.
In 2014, Yaghi and his colleagues synthesized a MOF that excelled at absorbing water, even under low-humidity conditions. That led him to reach out to Evelyn Wang, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, with whom he had previously worked on a project to use MOFs in automobile air conditioning. After synthesizing the new zirconium-based MOF, dubbed MOF-801, Yaghi met Wang at MIT and said, “Evelyn we have to come up with a water-harvesting device.” She agreed to give it a shot.
* * *
* * *
The system Wang and her students designed consists of a kilogram of dust-sized MOF crystals pressed into a thin sheet of porous copper metal. That sheet is placed between a solar absorber and a condenser plate and positioned inside a chamber. At night the chamber is opened, allowing ambient air to diffuse through the porous MOF and water molecules to stick to its interior surfaces, gathering in groups of eight to form tiny cubic droplets. In the morning, the chamber is closed, and sunlight entering through a window on top of the device then heats up the MOF, which liberates the water droplets and drives them—as vapor—toward the cooler condenser. The temperature difference, as well as the high humidity inside the chamber, causes the vapor to condense as liquid water, which drips into a collector. The setup works so well that it pulls 2.8 liters of water out of the air per day for every kilogram of MOF it contained, the Berkeley and MIT team reports today in Science.
“It has been a longstanding dream” to harvest water from desert air, says Mercouri Kanatzidis, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who wasn’t involved with the work. “This demonstration … is a significant proof of concept.” It’s also one that Yaghi says has plenty of room for improvement. For starters, zirconium costs $150 a kilogram, making water-harvesting devices too expensive to be broadly useful. However, Yaghi says his group has already had early success in designing water-grabbing MOFs that replace zirconium with aluminum, a metal that is 100 times cheaper. That could make future water harvesters cheap enough not only to slake the thirst of people in arid regions, but perhaps even supply water to farmers in the desert.
*Update, 14 March, 12:28 p.m.: This item has been updated to reflect the fact that the device pulls nearly 3 liters of water out of the air for every kilogram of the water-absorbing material that is used.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of my mother is her anger. The second thing is her wonderful sense of humor. The first quality caught me by surprise at a very early age and led to years of angry dreams wherein I sometimes actually killed her (or at least tried to). At times she would fly into uncontrollable rages over nothing, terrifying me as a toddler—an only child who depended on her. (My mom had two “only” children, fifteen years apart. I scarcely ever knew my half brother.) At other times her patience with me was boundless. I never knew what to expect and early on I tried to control her moods by being “perfect.” I made a chart on a shirt cardboard and gave myself a gold star on the days when I didn’t make any mistakes, while a black star was for days that were full of errors. In the end, I found that most of my days were half black and half gold. My father tried to talk to me about “shades of gray” in life, but I don’t think I, at the age of five or six, understood what he meant.
Sometimes she would be so out of control that her face would contort and her hands would be curled up claw-like, shaking with rage and the desire to do me bodily harm. She would scream things at me such as, “I’ll strip you to the buff! I’ll skin you alive! I’ll beat you black and blue!” (Later in life I learned that she had had an Irish nanny who had inadvertently taught my mom how to swear very colorfully and probably had used these terrifying phrases on her when she had misbehaved.)
However, watching this metamorphosis from “Mom” to “monster” had a profoundly disturbing effect on me. As I had no verbal ability to combat these rages (especially in my first five years of life), I would become violent, deliberately breaking things to express my outrage. This was not a good solution, either, and persisted into my twenties: far too long, but apparently my tantrums were somehow rewarded by ending the argument.
She knew when she had become dangerous to both herself and me, and would abruptly slam out the front door, leaving me terrified and alone. At those times I would try to find a safe hiding place, convinced that monsters watched me from all of the windows. She would reappear about a half hour later (forever, in child-time), and say, “All right. We’re going to be nice now.”
“We”? She had walked off her rage and was left feeling peaceful, while I was still furious and baffled. Half the time I didn’t even know why I had been punished. And I was supposed to be “nice”? What did that even mean?
Sometimes she tried to justify herself by telling me what her older sister Margaret had done to her (the woman sounded evil!) But that confused me even more: I wasn’t Margaret and I hadn’t done these things to her—I hadn’t even been there. Mom always had to be right; and when she felt she wasn’t, she resorted to long excuses about how it wasn’t her fault because she had been abused by her parents and sister as a young girl. From this I learned three things that were to create great difficulties in my life: the first was that it was all-important to be RIGHT. The second was that it was OK to do the wrong thing as long as you had a good excuse for it. And the third was that the world MUST be the way I wanted it to be and under my control, or all hell would break loose—I might even die. Needless to say, these rules have not served me well. Finally (especially as a child), I longed for the approval of others, as that was the only thing I thought would keep me “safe.”
As I grew older I became increasingly frustrated by her manipulativeness. If I ever tried to address the problem she was having with me she would counter with a sarcastic, “Oh yes. I’m a bad mother.” Whatever my needs were, it was always about her, not me. She would control when the episode began and when it ended. I never had a say.
This often led to some crazy confusion in my mind. For example, when I was three, I remember trying to appease her when she was angry about having to prepare dinner and felt she wasn’t going to be able to do it on time. I desperately wanted to help her (and to avoid an explosion), so I went into the pantry and put the round heat diffuser onto the floor (she sometimes put this banjo-shaped, perforated metal object under pots on the stove when they were cooking too fast). I then decided to “cook dinner” for her so she wouldn’t have to do it.
I have to add here that at three (and even later in life) I often confused fact with fantasy. Thus, “cooking dinner” involved taking all the spice jars from the rack and mixing them up on the heat diffuser on the floor, creating an unholy mess. Needless to say, this did nothing to pacify my mother, even though I was really sure she must have seen that I was trying to help her (understandably she saw nothing of the kind). I assume I remember this incident for its result, which was the howling rage it must have brought on, although I really don’t remember the aftermath of my well-intentioned “cooking” efforts; just my pride in being able to “help out.”
As a teenager I saw other mothers handle “disastrous” mistakes their children made and saw the patience with which they handled these incidents. It wasn’t until then that I realized that there could have been other responses to my childhood errors, responses that could have even been transformed into learning episodes.
My father’s mother was devoted to me but did not like my mother (the feeling was mutual). However, my mom always invited her to spend the weekend with us, so I could play with her. Grandma Hoffmann was so much fun! I still wear her diamond ring that she promised me, and think of her often every day.
When she stayed with us she would sleep in the other bed on the sleeping porch Dad had enclosed and made into a charming bedroom for me. Grandma sewed lovely yellow floral curtains for the windows that made up three sides of this porch, and it was a pleasure to wake up to the eastern sun blasting through those windows.
One time (I was seven?) I remember dreaming that my mother was slowly metamorphosing from “Mom” to “monster” and I woke up screaming, “I’ll kill you, you bitch!” Grandma Hoffmann was shocked to the core by the violence in my voice, and even more shocked when I told her what my dream was about.
It wasn’t until I was over thirty that I gained a small amount of insight into what was behind Mom’s rages. As I’ve said, I often confused fact and fantasy as a child; but the notion that the world must be as we will it to be is a grown-up version of that same condition. At that time I was working as an executive secretary at Northwestern University and my then-husband was completing his PhD program. We wanted to spend a few days at Christmas with my parents at their beautiful retirement home in Door County, WI, and had arisen at 5:00 a.m. to pack the car before going to work. We didn’t manage to leave before 6:00 p.m. and immediately hit rush hour traffic. When we came to Milwaukee, we stopped for a nice dinner and to relax a bit before the grueling part of the drive began. From there on it was largely two-lane unlighted highways and a continuous battle to stay awake. We arrived exhausted at my parents’ house around 1:00 a.m. (me asleep; poor Gérard driving).
My parents had had a nap and were waiting up for us. When Mom saw how groggy I was and that all we wanted to do was fall into bed, she was furious. “I pictured this lovely Christmas!” she yelled, “And you had to spoil it!” The next morning she got her revenge by dragging us out of bed at 7:00 a.m. because there was “lots to do.” “Lots” entailed a 20-minute vacuuming of the house; everything else was done. She immediately became remorseful and told us we could “have the rest of the day off,” but we were too tired to do anything. Our own very short vacation was spoiled.
What I realized from this episode, however, was that she had “envisioned” a Dickensian Christmas that never would have happened to anyone anywhere, and it was up to us to guess what the script in her head called for and to correctly play our parts. Of course we couldn’t, and that took an incredible load off of me. If I was failing to read her mind, that was OK: it was her problem, not mine.
In fairness to Mom, her frustration stemmed from the fact that she had made the choices almost any single mom in the Depression would have had to make: marry and become a servant to your husband and family, or starve. She had my brother to consider when she married my dad in 1938 (Fred was eight then), and they deeply loved my father; it could have been worse for them. However, she was an athletic, sociable person who was not cut out for cooking and living isolated in a suburban house day after day. Any attempts she made to express and develop her personal talents was quashed by my father who wanted to be the only creative person in the family (I was not similarly discouraged, however, and I think she resented this too).
Mom was not allowed to work, although she had great executive capabilities, as this would have “reflected badly” on the man of the house. It was the 1950s and women were supposed to rejoice in child rearing and domesticity and men were supposed to be the breadwinners. Once I asked my mom if she regretted not working; her answer astounded me. She said she would rather not try to achieve something than to try and fail. This was contrary to everything I was being taught in school, and even at home. I vowed then and there never to be afraid of failure, although it took me a long time to arrive at that condition. So she was a good teacher, even if it was in spite of herself.
She also knew how to ignore adolescent teasing, while I gave up my power to my tormentors, fearing their displeasure. I know she would never have done that. However, my dad and I tended to wear our feelings on our sleeves and he had also had a terrible adolescence because of it. Dad really understood my agony over ostracism and gossip, which ended when I entered high school, where there were so many kids that I could disappear into the mass if I wanted to. Nevertheless, it was Mom who ferociously defended me: woe be to anyone who threatened her child! She tried to teach me how to feign carelessness, and though I envied her ability to do this, it was a long time before I learned how.
She was a clever politician, too. When I was “in love” with a delinquent boy in high school, she made no effort to tell me to abandon the relationship. Instead, she cleverly arranged to have my friends over to our house, where we had fun and were secretly monitored by my (invisible) parents. When Mike ended up in Cook County Jail one summer, Mom arranged for me to spend three months in Germany and Europe. By the time I returned home (and found out that Mike had gotten someone else pregnant), I didn’t care any more. I was off to college in California, 2,000 miles from home, where I wouldn’t suffer from maternal clashes and could begin to live independently. She wanted to get back to her own life—and to see me independent as well. No fool, Mom!
Our best times together were when she got out her childhood diaries and we laughed at the things she wrote. She knew how to be a child and how to share that with me; it was being an adult that she hadn’t mastered.
She also knew that Dad could be a bit aloof, so she made me an early dinner and then had me come down later and have coffee with them while they ate. These were some of the most fun times I ever had with anyone! We could tease each other; argue over words (Dad’s first language was German, so he was always learning English); share our dreams; and (in the event of an approaching storm) grab a bottle of wine and go out onto the front porch to cheer for the thunder and lightning before the storm broke. She could be soooo funny! And she could laugh at herself as well. After dinner, Dad and I would do the dishes and discuss philosophy, books, art, or whatever we wanted. This was her way of seeing that he and I knew each other, and I’m very grateful for that time together.
Did I ever love her as a mother? I think she was more of a sort-of-bipolar sister to me. If I needed advice I went to my dad. Mom and I were like oil and water. In college, I would receive short letters from her, along with lots of clippings from the Wilmette Life concerning people I didn’t know but apparently went to high school with. Boring!
Dad, on the other hand, got a new “semi-electric” typewriter and would send me letters that began more or less sensibly—and then he would hold down a key and roll the paper for the pleasure of seeing the shapes it would make—and then go off on another tangent. When he got a new lathe, he turned teensy cups for me (as practice for him), and would stuff them with wadded up checks or small poems. One time he had shoulder pains and found out he had bursitis, so he wrote about our family, “We are three little poops reaching for the stars and getting bursitis in the attempt.”
My mother’s friendships with other women, her garden club (which I understand now: I love plants!), her women’s club meetings: none of these resonated with me. If anything, I was convinced (from the age of four or five) that I never wanted to have children (and I didn’t); and that men made better friends than women. That is finally starting to change, as I meet incredible women (and as the men in my generation die off). But she never understood me. Everything I did “embarrassed” her, as I was always very unconventional. What other people thought mattered to her almost more than anything; from college on I couldn’t have cared less.
When she was 96 and I was visiting her for the last time, she was blind, deaf and couldn’t walk. She was so sunk in herself that even after I fed her and kept her company for a week, she turned to me one night at dinner and said (with real contempt in her voice): “When did you get here?!?” These were her last words to me.
I really admired her for the anguish and humiliation of her teenage years (she became pregnant her senior year of high school; married a ne’er-do-well; and—worst scandal of all—went through a divorce at 19 or 20); her physical courage and athleticism; and her ability to negotiate (or, at worst, manipulate) people. She had many wonderful friends, but never got past her anger or her need to aim it at me. I don’t know if I loved her as much as respected her for her struggles. But, for better or worse, she was a huge part of making me what I am today.
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
— Robert Fulghum
(And NO: I’ve lost weight! This outfit makes me look fat!!)
It was 85º F today—a summery Easter!
Hope yours was a good one, too!
And this thought for the day from the Dalai Lama:
When I was 3 (in 1948!) the pediatrician told my mom that I was too shy (at least that’s her story). So she enrolled me in Mrs. Maston’s Nursery School (in the woman’s own living room a couple blocks from our house. That wouldn’t happen today!) It was lots of fun and I met several kids with whom I would even graduate from high school.
For Easter she gave each of us one of these paper “windows.” And here it is: almost 3/4 of a century later! (Again, with religion being the sticky issue it is, this would not happen today.)
I still love it!
Happy (politically incorrect?) Easter!
(And now the dust really begins to show!)
Cheers from Chelsea!
This gallery contains 27 photos.
(Sorry about the format: WP is acting up today!)
Admittedly, the pepper lights and tree lights photograph white instead of their colors, but the spirit is there (as is the eggnog and the Jack Daniels!)
Cheers to all!
The 2 most dangerous (and fascinating) questions you can ask are “Why?” and “What happened next?” Although every two-year-old asks these, I’ve learned just how dangerous (and enlightening) these questions an be, as I’ve traveled across the planet in my 71 years of living.
In the course of asking people for their stories I’ve gained listening skills that have taught me what people in different cultures (and my own) believe about themselves and the world around them. These deep-rooted beliefs are the key to their perception of their own history which, in turn, is the key to the political situation they find themselves in. Wars could be avoided if we could listen to the archetypal stories that “alien” cultures hold to be true.
But the most dangerous (and useful) word you can have in your vocabulary is “Why?” Why do we believe this and not that? Why do we do things this way and not that way, which is easier/better/more efficient? This question is what sparks revolutions—in the classroom and in the street—and it has brought down governments time and time again.
The greatest minds of the twentieth century (many of whom I was privileged to meet) all accomplished what they did by asking these questions. These people included a Nobel Prize-winner at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ; Dr. Henry Louis Gates of Harvard (our discussions were conducted on a shoeshine stand at Grand Central Station in 1997); Richard Feynman of Cal Tech (who wanted to be an artist); the only Native American in our national park system, a Crow Indian encountered at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in 1976; Saul Landau, a sort of reverse Jesus, who was first “crucified” (in Buchenwald) and then came back to teach the gospel of profound joy; Ivan Illich, father of the “deschooling” philosophy; Michael Greenebaum, my World History teacher at New Trier Township High School (also my Great Books teacher); Bonnie Myotai Treace, my sometime (and continuing?) sensei at Fire Lotus Zendo; Bob Gilruth, the creator of NASA and our lunar program (a cousin); and others who responded to my letters after I had read their books. In Mexico there were virtually no barriers: one could read something and then walk into the author’s office and sit down, a privilege we have long ago lost in our once-great country.
I will continue with this post later—but it is now 4:20 a.m. and I just woke up thinking about all these fabulous people and what would be lost if I didn’t bear witness to them and what they shared with me when I asked these questions of them (and they asked them of me).
More (and better) writing to come . . . stay tuned!