Thursday, October 30, 2014

Season of Mists

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Today I am packing up the summer box. It is a clear, plastic box that neatly slides into the top of our wardrobe. The wardrobe is as clean and tidy as the day my husband assembled it. We moved here only two years ago, in spring.  If spring is the season of not yet opened buds and just greening trees, autumn is its own new beginning: school and cooler winds bring people back from their sea-side jaunts to the city, to local pubs and restaurants, to their boxes filled with corduroys and sweatshirts and tweeds. 

 I am a Los Angeles transplant. To me, New York City will always be the cinematic Woody Allen universe of bright yellows and reds in fall and rainy days in front of old movie houses on side streets downtown. It will always be my freshman year at Columbia, and the first time I had to wear a cable knit sweater. It is football season and short days and candles and homesickness and the avenues of New York City lighting up one by one as the trees and lamp posts are trimmed with bright white bulbs. It is midterms and trains to friends' houses upstate and admiring rich kids' sleek leather boots and hearing a capella holiday concerts in the lobby of Furnald Hall.

But this autumn does not beckon in the way that it always has before. For many people, autumn’s chill and fading light, is a metaphor for death. Poets call upon the season to symbolize nameless specters lurking in their minds; it is a descending darkness that represents our fears, both named and impossible to name. 

 My mother is sick. I cannot live in denial anymore. 

She has been sick for a while now, if dementia constitutes an illness. She suffered a stroke at only 68 years of age: a bleed caused by a drug that ought never to have been prescribed.  It happened in November of 2009. Fall is my mother's favorite season too; that fall she lay in the I.C.U. while I ate turkey slabs with boxed gravy in the hospital cafeteria. 

My husband was with his family on Thanksgiving Day of 2009, but I could not leave my mother. She was awake, she was afraid; she was comforted by familiar poetry even though she couldn't remember my name. She knew, at times, that I was her daughter, the baby sister, and she knew the older one too, sitting next to me while we both held her hand.

I told my mother that when she got better I was going to take her to see the origami holiday tree at the Museum of Natural History, and the skating rink at Rockefeller Center where she had performed for thousands in her youth. I told her that autumn was waiting for her: the cold dark nights that she loved so much, the crunchy leaves that had never to her symbolized finality and death but instead thrill and possibility. My mother was the Morticia Addams of weather. If it was raining or sleeting or bitingly cold and dark, she grew electric with excitement.

It is now 2014, and my mother does not know that it is fall. She is in the hospital again, as she has been many times in the last year. She has recently begun to suffer from acute panic attacks. I begged the doctor to make her comfortable. I begged the doctor for a prescription for Xanax.  Today, at long last, it was granted. 

My daughter turns three years old this November. After two and a half years of harmony, I've had to face what every parent must face at various times throughout parenthood: disequilibrium, the experts call it. Children, they say, go through periods of equilibrium with their caretakers followed by periods of disequilibrium. I have witnessed, for the first time in my child’s career as a person much foot-stamping, whining and a characteristic certainly not exclusive to small children: an inability to appreciate her good fortune in life while stubbornly focusing on something she feels denied.

I love her so much. She has certain expressions and a movie-star glow that recall my mother's baby photos. I put my child down on the street and she dashes into the crowd with a speed I thought only possible in cartoons. My mother has told me she was the same way, and that my grandmother was forever pulling out her hair trying to keep track of her as a toddler.

That's why they gave my mother figure skates at the age of four. She did a lot with them, dazzling hundreds of onlookers at Rockefeller Plaza with her double jumps and cantilevers and sit spins. She introduced the song “Sleigh Ride” at a Christmas show one year and skated on live television when she was a teenager. She went on to dance on Broadway and act on television. She was all possibility and prodigy and talent; her bulb burned brighter than most. And then she was my mother. Her influence remains in the poems I read to my child, the clothing I am drawn to, the music I listen to and in my love affair with the performing arts. She haunts the periphery of my days with my own young daughter.

My mother senses that she is not who she once was and she asks me to help her find that person. I struggle to give her hope where there really isn't much to be had. Dementia loots the brain but leaves the soul behind to mourn its losses. Some nights while I am putting our child to sleep, my husband goes to her apartment to hold her hand, to give her something to calm her down, to chat with her until she falls asleep.

She won't ever put out my clothes for school again. She doesn't remember what I looked like when I wore them. She doesn't remember her granddaughter's name, but she hears her voice chirping in the background and clucks with delight at its charm. She tells me how much she wants to see her; I remind my mother that she saw her yesterday. And around we go. 

It's always winter for my mother now. There will be no more springs and no more falls, even if she lives through ten more.  I hold my daughter close and read her dozens of books long past bedtime. I don't care if she goes to bed late because she is making paper chains with her father. I don't mind if she wants to wear her nightgown and rain boots to the local bookstore. We only have so many seasons in life, and right now, life is good and warm and cozy with my young family.

I wish I could bring my mother into our world. I wish she could remember the days we spend together at the park. I wish she could remember the days of my youth. But she doesn't. I mustn't stubbornly focus on what I cannot have. Isn't that what I’m trying to teach my toddler?

I must not relinquish autumn to the dark winds that swirl this year. This was my mother’s favorite season. It's time to turn up the living room lights as high as they will go and dance to Benny Goodman with my husband and my daughter. My mother would appreciate that.

When my mother is no longer, whenever that may be, it will be more important than ever to claim autumn as a time of celebration. I will say this to my daughter: 

This was one of your grandmother's greatest joys, this season. There is promise in the air. We see store windows festooned with colorful leaves and black cats, lined notebook paper and pencil sharpeners at the drugstore, magazine covers depicting holiday parties, twinkling lights. We hear festive music pouring out of every radio, read picture books by the fire, jump in the swirling leaf storms, smell chestnuts on the street corner and make merry in the darkness of early evening.  This was your grandmother's.

She gave it to me.

And I give it to you.
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Urban Anthropology

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“I have a respect for manners as such, they are a way of dealing with people you don’t agree with or like.” – Margaret Mead
Before I was a mother who daily pounded the concrete playground jungles of New York City, I was a nanny. The playground is an excellent place for urban anthropology. After a certain number of years logged people-watching, I fancy myself the Margaret Mead of playgrounds.
For tourists with children, I've compiled a handy pocket guide to the types you will encounter most frequently on the NYC playground because it is important to know whom to ask for a spare diaper or Kleenex with which to wipe something biologically produced off your tot’s red nose or bottom.
1. The East Side Mother. They’re spreading out. You can now find them wandering west of the mid-line of Central Park, a whole cab-ride distance from their penthouses on Fifth or Madison Avenue. Some even live on Central Park West or in Soho, but they are still East Side mothers. There are a few ways to spot one. First, this woman is amazingly dirt-repellent. Her suede Prada boots or Burberry flats have a Teflon quality. Her hair, similarly, is immune to the winds of January or the humidity of July. Her makeup is impeccable, and her black Chanel sunglasses  convey her existential boredom. Her child wears a quilted jacket to match hers, and if it is a girl, she will have a grosgrain ribbon in her silky blond hair. Grab a snapshot of this urban legend (but not myth) while you can, because within half an hour she will look up from her phone, wave distractedly at her child, who will be swinging with the aid of her nanny, and briskly vanish. She is going somewhere very important. She must attend private sessions with her trainer, lunches with fellow Episcopal School PTA members and appointments with a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s. She is also forever in charge of school fundraisers and charity events. Do not attempt conversation with her; she will cut you like a serrated knife. She won’t have a diaper in her Hermes tote, anyway. Feel free to ask her nanny for supplies if you are desperate.
2. The Hipster Father. Just as many birds have distinctive tail colors that make them easy to spot, the Hipster Father is instantly recognizable from his bright orange sneakers. I don’t know who started this orange thing, but it isn't going anywhere among fathers who play in Brooklyn-based bands and have penchants for vegan cuisine and home-brewed beer. The hipster father loves to give you a Kleenex. He wants to demonstrate that he is every bit as much a caregiver as a mother, and you know what? He is. I have no beef (so to speak) with the Hipster Father, except that this species tends to call male offspring “buddy.” This semantic tic reveals the Hipster Father’s refusal to acknowledge a difference between childhood and adulthood. Still, the Hipster Father will help you with the iron latch gate, he will ask you if it is okay to catch your falling daughter (because many parents think letting girls fall face-down on asphalt gives them a leg up in life and the Hipster Father wants to establish his feminist credentials) and he will offer your child Cheerios or whatever other form of snack he has in his grungy jeans. He is usually a very nice guy. Please note: he will not, under any circumstances, talk to you. It’s tricky for any father on the playground. How can he be nice without seeming like a single, or worse, married dad who might be hitting up the playground for dates? This problem is compounded by being a hipster: he usually looks like a college kid and, therefore, like someone perpetually seeking some action. Be kind to the Hipster Dad; he is shy and doing his best. Offer him a Kleenex if you can.
3. The Artist Part-Time Nanny. You can tell she is not a mother because she is too young to be one in Manhattan. Manhattan dwellers don’t start reproducing until their mid- to late-30s, and the Artist Part-Time Nanny is most definitely in her mid 20s. She is pretty, she uses a canvas backpack, she is on high alert when her charge is climbing any structure: one fall and it could be curtains for her. She rarely uses her cell phone except to talk to her boss. She is well spoken (having just graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts), and her eyes will widen with surprise when a mother chats with her as though she were a person. Her hair is very long or daringly short, she looks like the tomboy sister who blossoms into a  swan and steals the heart of the nerdy star of a mumblecore movie. She has her makeup bag and her script for her audition tucked at the bottom of her backpack, so if you unexpectedly need some blush or sheet music or a leotard while on the playground, she is your woman
4. The West Side Mother. She’s a tricky one. She might be in jeans and stylish boots, but she is usually in her Old Navy leggings and Easy Spirit sneakers. The West Side Mother is nicer than the East Side Mother, but she is usually involved in a conversation with other mothers she made previous arrangements to meet. Her son is named “Hudson” instead of the East Side Mother’s “Spencer” or “Brantley.” She might work part-time, or try to, and she might have a nanny and be heavily pregnant with a sibling for Hudson. She might be just as sparkling with diamonds as her East Side counterpart, but she usually attempts to be down to earth. She and her spouse are discussing leaving the city even as they renovate the kitchen in their co-op. If you need a diaper or directions to a bathroom, she is happy to help you. The Upper West Side Mother is neither friend nor foe. She will not be quick to exchange numbers for a play date, but if you find one who is happy, she might chat with you for a bit.
5. Grandparents. Oh boy. They came in for a few days to help out. They live about an hour or two away from NYC. They are obsessive about every step their grand-offspring make. If your child so much as steps in their grandson’s direction, they will mumble something about what is wrong with parenting today. No child need trespass another before a vague, often accented speech can be heard at the back of their throats. You will hear these phrases coming from Grandparents: “There is no such thing as the terrible twos, only terrible parenting.” “I didn't even know he knew what a menorah was, and suddenly, this little genius is reciting the Hebrew blessing,” and “How about some ice cream? Come on, aren't we tired of the sandbox?” Beware of engaging in conversations with Grandparents. You might take to them because their perfume reminds you of your own grandmother, but resist the urge. They are crazy, and they are not your family. They also have a tendency to make statements to which there are no appropriate responses, and you might get confused and lose track of your own child while trying to converse with a Grandparent. Before you know it, your daughter is dangling head first from a towering structure and Grandpa has wandered off for ice cream anyway.
6. The Full-Time Nanny. I've arrived at the third rail of Manhattan parenting topics. Here we have the most common type you’ll see on a NYC playground, but the least recognized or discussed. The Full-Time Nanny is easy to spot because she is the only grownup on the playground, grownups included.  She does not generally have patience for mothers. You might be typing creepy things into the website “I Saw Your Nanny.” (Some Manhattan mothers devote hours to stalking this site, expecting to find out that her nanny is the great-granddaughter of Jack the Ripper or worse, that she is giving her child non-organic bananas.) She may soften if you badger her with chit-chat. She is more confident in her choices than the Artist Part-Time Nanny: when she says it is time to leave the playground, her charge knows she means it. She is tired, commutes a long distance and works long hours so she will talk on her cell phone as much as she wants. She does not use baby talk; she has real conversations with children. They run into her welcoming arms when they need her because she does not hover. If you need a Kleenex, wipe, snack or diaper, she is your go-to source. She has every supply imaginable packed perfectly into the stroller, and she can find anything she needs in 2.5 seconds. She also knows the way to every playground and museum in the city.  She even knows what time story hour is at the nearest library branch. Go ahead, try to stump her.
And there you have it: the six types you see most frequently on a New York City playground. There are others, of course. You’ll see the chic Parisian Au Pair, the Parent-On-Her-Day-Off, the Wall Street Dad still dressed for work but pushing a swing on a Friday afternoon.  You will also see The Swedish Nanny. She’s the one who parks her bundled-up charge in a stroller by icy lakes in the dead of winter because that’s how they roll in Sweden; they think children sleep better frozen.
In fact, you’ll see it all here: a carnival of oddballs. The one thing you won’t spot is someone normal. Don’t let that trouble you. Most of us are happy to give you a diaper wipe or an apple slice. The other day I opened up a bag of peanuts and 20 toddlers clustered like pigeons at my ankles. Nothing breaks the ice like your toddler storming a stranger and demanding food. Every parent can relate to that.
New Yorkers are not exactly warm, but if you prod and push, they will give in and offer up some conversationat least about the weather. Welcome to the Big Apple, and happy playground people-watching!
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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Do You Mind Paying Your Nanny a Living Wage?

I guess it had to happen eventually.

I was a nanny for ten years. I have been a mother for nearly three. Inevitably, my loyalty would have to cross the divide, falling decisively on one side or the other.

A friend told me today what she pays her nanny, who has a degree in child development and years of experience.  Her nanny is a grown woman and lives in NYC, where it costs about ten dollars for a bottle of coke and the selling of a kidney to buy a monthly Metrocard. I expressed surprise before I had the chance to stifle my reaction. Or perhaps I didn't try hard enough because I was annoyed, which was decidedly immature and impolite on my part.

But I have been down this road before. Every time mothers start to complain about the cost of childcare in the city I have to make a decision: to get into it or to ignore it. Sometimes I want to shout:

"You know I am right here, people? You know that my side job for ten years was caring for the young of others? You know that you are all crazy and ungrateful and selfish, right?" But I don't. They cannot comprehend. It isn't worth the argument.

My husband and I can't afford much childcare; my toddler is approaching three and we have only just now enlisted the services of a sitter for 4 hours a week. Still, I pay the going rate, despite my babysitter quoting me a lower figure.

Because I know. I know what sitters and nannies do and I know how hard they work. I also know that people think that if one wears dress shoes to work, one has a "real" job, and if one wears sweatpants (in order to chase after a toddler all day) one has a "pretend" job. Parents seem to develop instant amnesia the second they hand a child over to a sitter, forgetting how incredibly hard their task is in raising kids.

Let's take a look at what a nanny does every day:

1. She arrives at a stranger's house with a smile on her face and a stability that cannot waiver from one hour to the next: her job is to be emotionally available, loving, a guiding influence and a boundary-setter.

2. She must be BORED for many hours of the day. Childcare is tremendously rewarding but it can also be the loneliest of tasks in our segregated modern world. She must summon emotional courage and stamina in order to endure the sheer number of hours of playing with a child that she faces every day.

3. A nanny gets sunburned every summer. She schleps tired children over her arm, she pushes strollers over long hills and city sidewalks, she stands for hours awaiting a child at the top of a burning hot slide. However slathered in sunblock she is, a nanny gets burned every summer. As a bonus, there is never anywhere to pee on those playgrounds.

4. A nanny soothes. A nanny chats. A nanny wipes soiled bottoms. A nanny dries tears and sings lullabies. A nanny rocks a child to sleep. A nanny reads with her best character voices out loud from the same books over and over. A nanny bathes and applies baby lotion and puts on diapers and sits with a child who can't sleep, stroking a sweaty head. A nanny cuts the crusts off of bread. A nanny cleans the kitchen if she gets an hour during nap time. A nanny parents.

5. A nanny forges a bond with a stranger in order to give that little stranger the comfort and love that their parents are unable to provide while they earn a living (or in some cases go to the gym or to the movies or go on a date or clean the house.)

It is in many ways analogous to prostitution: nannies offer up their bodies and souls to make an hourly rate; they pretend to love sometimes unlovable children because that's their job. More often than not, they pretend hard enough that they end up loving them for real.

A nanny is someone who knows intuitively and through experience how to take charge, how to love, how to nurture and how to hold a tiny sticky hand even when she is desperate for five minutes alone, just five minutes to urinate or have a snack.

So anyway, my friend got mad. Real mad. She sensed my surprise and all of her insecurities came tumbling out in a volcanic heap of mother exhaustion. She threw every bit of pent-up disapproval she had for my mothering at me. She "disagreed" with my choice to let our child co-sleep, she "disagreed" with not having a completely routinized day, she "disagreed" with me that I didn't like the idea of cry-it-out, she would never let a child stay up late, etc...

It was pretty awful. It turns out that like every other issue to do with parenting, how much you pay your nanny is a hot button item.

I don't regret the loss of the friendship. Sometimes things just don't work out. I also couldn't care less what she thinks of my mothering. What I do care about is that mothers aren't the only ones who are tired, defensive, much maligned and unappreciated. Those people you see caring for kids who aren't their mothers and fathers? Those are nannies and daycare workers and babysitters. And they have to pay for the Metrocards that bring them to work every day to care for other people's young.

If you live in an expensive city, you should be paying your nanny a wage appropriate for the cost of living in that city, and appropriate for the exhausting physical and emotional effort of her job. You should be making sure your nanny has food and drink, you should be asking your nanny how her day was and not just if the kids are all right. She is a person who lives in your home for much of the day, and therefore she is family. And if you don't respect her needs, she will find a family who does.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Neighbors Are Moving Again

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I don't know what it is about this city. People eventually move. To bigger apartments, other boroughs, other states.

It usually goes like this:

1. Courtship.

Perfect time to live in New York City. It contains so much neon and glamour and so many bars and tapas restaurants: all sorts of places to take photos of your fabulous new love life and trendy neighborhood-hopping and Autumnal walks hand-in-hand taken by a good friend from the back, all to be posted to Facebook immediately.

2. Engagement.

The love affair with NYC continues. The getting-to-know-you phase winds down: conversations over  bean salad at Turkuaz  shift from weekend trips and tentative confessions about family members to locations and photographers. Some couples put the ring on Facebook, others are more discreet, because a lot of people think it is a patriarchal symbol and if it's a diamond it is most likely mined by a slave laborer. I've yet to see a photo with a caption that reads Here's our ethically-mined diamond and you know what, screw it, I decided I wanted one even though I majored in Women's Studies at Wellesley. 

Maybe someone brings up having kids and the eventuality of needing more space. The discussion is short, because neither person is ready to give up living in NYC. What if you want a Coke at 2:30 in the morning? Let's enjoy this fall walk by Bethesda Terrace -- Oh! This would be a nice spot for a wedding day shot!

3. Wedding Day.

Some people can swing a NYC city wedding, but usually those people have wealthy parents. Others opt for tiny destination weddings and spend big on photographers so they can bring the wedding experience back to their friends online after the fact. That's almost like being featured in a magazine, which is way better than spending time with people you love. Some couples can do both. I don't know what else goes on at the weddings, so I'll move on. But after the wedding, bank accounts are smaller or completely wiped out. NYC is gorgeous and the land of a thousand wonders, but who can really manage a normal life here? First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a hall with no room for a carriage. 

4. Moving Day.

You've found the place. Pottery Barn ensembles, telescopes, normal size couches and Thanksgiving celebrations will all fit into this house! The kitchen has a real counter and there are spider burners on the stove. Thank god we can leave the clutter and confusion and the pigeons behind, the couple thinks. The money, the stress, the sacrifice, the predictable frustration on your daily commute: why is that man's leg touching mine when the subway seat next to his is empty for god's sake? That's all behind us now. We'll have peace and stars in the night sky and wallpaper where we'll mark our children's growth. Permanence. For all the glitter of the Chrysler Building, Manhattan can't provide that.

Your neighbors in the building, the parents of a toddler, see that the lobby door is portentously propped open on a late August day. The stairs are creaking under the weight of furniture accumulated at flea markets. You pass the toddler's mother in the hallway, who is locked out of her own apartment because she forgot her keys and her husband is at a distant playground with the kid, and you nod but you say nothing. Nothing. Finally the mother speaks up. Damn it. Damn it.

-Hey are you moving


Where to? 


Oh, wow. Good luck. 

The mother then goes back to her cell phone and pretends to be deeply uninterested and not at all depressed by this sudden transition in the human makeup of her New York City dwelling. 

Transition. Change. Exits.No warning. All that stuff hurts. 

The mother then imagines a leafy lane and white shutters and a creek and woods and knows that these people are moving on to the next stage, the one at which people feel they should leave Manhattan. Someone is going to get pregnant (the woman, probably) and then they'll need space. Or grass. Or something.


It was only two years ago that we, the couple with the five month old baby asleep in the carrier, rented an apartment in the building.  Ken bought his place upstairs at the same time. He had garden supplies and he was planting tomatoes on the roof. We have nice neighbors, I thought happily.

 Ken had another girlfriend back then. Mara was hip and young with bright red hair. She was moody as hell but a lot of fun. Except then she ran off to build orphanages in Nepal. Ken who planted tomatoes on the roof was single again.

 Karen moved in two months later.

So I adjusted. Sure, I was wounded that the redhead picked saving orphans in Nepal over marrying, settling down and staying with us, er Ken, in NYC. But maybe the new girlfriend was something special. She opens big with cookies and cooing over the kid. She leaves a note on the door from her two tiny dogs, wishing my daughter a happy birthday. We have a couple of nice chats: how do you balance finding nature for your child and living in the city? The public school system? Hmm. 

And suddenly they are engaged. Of course. But who knew a real estate broker had been called? Who knew they were abandoning ship according to the checklist of how people always leave this city?  Neighbors in NYC pack up their emotions with their boxes it seems, even before the boxes have been packed.

It's a near certainty that Mara was the one who got away. Ken doesn't smile at Karen the way he did when he looked at Mara. But hey, life moves on, fancy photos of a destination wedding must be taken eventually, those sperm aren't getting any younger.  Ken did what he had to do. He found someone who wanted the same things. So what if she wasn't the love of his life? He'll have a baby and a leafy glade in Connecticut and their friends will post lots of cinematic "candid" shots of their new life in Connecticut.

What is it about this city? Why does everyone leave? I know why, but it hurts every time. It hurts to watch each stage play out and to be asked what your plans are and to tell people you have no plans other than to keep renting and having one kid and going on about your NYC life. Sometimes you can't take the sidewalks another second -- cigarette smoke and the bumping into people staring at smart phones and the hauling of groceries and the absurd rent check. Other times you know you are the luckiest person in the world to have your tiny cell  in the world's most compact city. So what if the baby doesn't have a proper closet? There are bookshops and libraries to walk to. There's Central Park in fall. There's Prometheus at Rockefeller Center. There's the iconography and the illusions we who live in our tiny corner of Manhattan hold dear.

Maybe Woody Allen was right about the country.

You've got crickets. It's quiet. There's no place to walk after dinner. There's the screens with the dead moths behind them. You've got the Manson Family possibly.

On the other hand, I am not sure New York City is all it once was or is cracked up to be. As we now know, Woody Allen certainly isn't. Now he's a crumbled ash heap of a New York City icon if there ever was one. Perhaps the once iconic symbol of New York is a mirror of his own former love: the city itself.

Anyway, the neighbors are moving again. I won't tell my daughter. Maybe she'll notice at some point that the dogs who needed medication for anxiety no longer bark as they run past our door for their daily walks. Maybe she won't. Maybe by now she's used to the neighbors moving.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Don't Call My Daughter A Princess. Just Don't.

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Today my daughter and I entered a dreary little shop that sells everything from cereal to high price hairdryers. The upstairs is devoted to toys. TOYS! They are of the dusty, oh-god-did-a-child-slave-laborer-make this sort, but lately my child has fixated on this upstairs plaza as a dream world that possesses the one thing she wants more than anything else in life: a hula hoop.

Where do you want to go? I asked her. I want to hula hoop! I sighed. I could think of no less enticing a location than the dusty corner shop. But it was not a large request.

My daughter’s hair has grown a lot since last fall, when she asked me to stop cutting it. It flops in her face like Cousin It’s if it isn’t brushed back. We buy barrettes to keep it out of her eyes.

My daughter has a small box labeled Bows in her closet. She loves them sometimes and is utterly indifferent to them at others. The same could be said of every other toy or object or person in her life; she is a two year old. This morning, she was indifferent, and as she finished her cereal I took a comb and swept her locks out of her eyes, using those convenient sliding bows to free her vision.

She had a blue bow on one side and a yellow on the other. We walked into the shop and the manager, who knows her fairly well said hello. Hello! I responded. I’m very nice. Ask anyone. I dislike people who aren’t instantly warm. I don’t understand them. I love a good hello.

Then he smiled at my two year old approvingly.

She has bows in her hair today, he said. They look nice. She’s a little princess.

Oh my GOD, there is that FUCKING word again.

This isn’t about Disney. (That’s another bone to pick.) It isn't about gender neutrality and letting my daughter have soccer balls but not baby dolls (she has both.) This isn't about frills, even, or the word “girly.”

Here’s the trouble: we don’t know precisely what it is about. I do know that I feel MURDEROUS when people call my child “princess.” It may have something to do with its happening 800 times a day. It may have something to do with there being no label that I've ever heard attached to boys. (Not that any child deserves to have an adult label them in any manner.) It may be that I am sick of people speaking mindlessly. What is a princess, anyway?

Let’s investigate:

According to Merriam Webster, a princess is the eldest daughter of a British sovereign —a title granted for life and used only after it has been specifically conferred by the sovereign.

The word’s use dates back to 1649.

It would be nice to be British royalty. This morning the coffee maker was cranky, two of our stove burners were broken and we had to leave a message for the super so my husband can make his morning tea while I make the morning oatmeal simultaneously. This morning I realized the paint on the radiator pole in my daughter’s bedroom was badly chipped and cracking and needed to be sanded before the heat comes on this fall.

I’d LOVE to ring a bell or do whatever it is that British royalty do to solve these problems. They don’t even know they have these problems, of course, as they are fixed without their knowledge. I’d love to receive messages on silver trays in bed and have the sheets washed before they get dirty and whatever else happens in the life of a royal.

HOWEVER, my daughter is not a British royal. Why, then are people calling her one?

Shoot, this is about Disney.  Some asshole at the Disney Corporation decided a few years ago to capitalize on children’s natural desires to dress up in their parents’ clothing and so he commodified it. He sent out the Disney troops to make piles and miles of land-fill crap consisting of costumes.

Why on earth would you go to the trouble of crafting a costume from a necklace found here, a hat found there, if you could just go to the bloody story and plunk down $24.99 for a piece of cheap fabric trimmed with chiffon and tulle and a cheap golden crown and wand, entombed in more land-fill filling, off-gas producing vinyl? It defies common sense to make a child work so hard at pulling an outfit together when he or she can just buy it, for god’s sake.

Trillions of dollars later, we have plates. We have cups. We have Little Golden Books. We have the aforementioned costumes and their junky paraphernalia. And beyond the damage to the planet, we have conformity, in greater numbers than ever before. (Don’t fact-check me on this, I am an angry parent and it feels right. It is intuitively right.)

If you are a princess, in Disney speak, you are Arial, or Aurora, or Snow White or Cinderella or that annoying girl from Tangled. If you are a princess in mindless stranger speak, I don’t know what the hell you are.

That is my biggest problem with the label. You are some strange, undefined thing that apparently every other girl is too, if you are to believe the words of strangers who think they have a right to call you anything at all, which they do not. I repeat: they do not.

I whirled on the manager.

Do me a favor. Do the world a favor. Stop calling girls “princesses.” You don’t know the damage you may be doing. More importantly, I don’t know the damage you may be doing. I don’t even know what you mean, and my daughter doesn’t know what you mean except that somehow you approve of her more today because she is wearing bows that culturally signify her as a girl, and that makes the world a more controlled, defined place for you. Guess what? The world is not a neat and tidy place. It is not a place where all girls are one way. I am so sorry to make you anxious. But leave my daughter out of this society’s pathological need to label girls anything, anything at all. Leave my fucking daughter alone.

Anyone who knows me personally knows this is not only exactly what I said, but it is the abridged version. I had more. I told him he was free to ask her name, to tell her that he hoped she had a nice day, or that we enjoy the toys upstairs. What he was not free to do was call my daughter a fucking princess.

I am not waging war against all gender stereotypes. It’s too much to take on. I have no idea if the genders are different, and if so, to what extent it is biological. I just bought a book called Why Gender Matters, actually. I certainly want to know if there is science to help me understand and guide my daughter with any problems that may arise from her brain chemistry.

The human heart and mind is awash in riddles. Each person has a lifetime of dealing with her own riddles and the riddles of those she encounters intimately and casually. It is, to be trite, the human condition to be uncertain of another person’s identity, which encompasses everything from taste in music and movies to talents and dreams and whims, to kindnesses and cruelties.

We cannot appease our society’s anxiety over complexity by allowing people to continually address our daughters as “princesses.” We cannot allow our daughters to be confused by a meaningless, vague, thorny and insidious label. We must yell at shopkeepers who are brainwashed by a society that is pathologically terrified of letting girls out of the box.

When my daughter gets older, she will make lots of decisions that will reflect the light of the prism we call identity. She may be a makeup-wearer. She may be a soccer player or an introverted writer bent over notebooks in a research library. She may be a dancer or a doctor or a restaurant critic. She may be a street clown. She will work all sorts of odd jobs and stumble and fall and wonder who she is, the way the rest of us do. I don’t intend to allow her private ruminations to be short-circuited by meaningless, soul-gutting labels.

If she does, however, become the eldest daughter of a British sovereign, I expect her to get that heating pipe in our second bedroom fixed. And I’d love my tea on a tray by 7 am
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Friday, July 18, 2014

Tricky Business: A Mother's Touch

The other day I was nursing my child to sleep. It was an early summer day -- the humidity had settled into our apartment and the air was still and we were damp with sweat and we smelled of the metal playground.  Even the curtains looked drowsy after hours of beating back the sun. We melted into each other's arms to seek the refuge of air-conditioning and an hour's rest.

I noticed my daughter's curls had gotten tangled and one stray lock was hanging in her eyes.  I went to sweep it off her face so that she might be more comfortable. She flinched a bit and  a chill ran down my spine despite the sticky heat.

I know that flinch. I've flinched in just that way.  Don't touch me without asking. Don't correct anything about me. Don't make assumptions about how I want my hair or what is bothering me. Don't meddle. Don't keep an attentive eye trained on me. Don't cross a boundary that exists here, suddenly, in this moment.  

My daughter was happily curled into my arm while we rocked and sang to sleep. She visits me all over the house "to have a little chat" and tells me that she misses me even when we are together. The bathroom door, as any parent knows, is no barrier to a child's visitations. She even likes to read to me while I take my bath. Perhaps this is precisely why a mother's touch can be an annoyance. How do I break free of this desperate need for my mother? the child wonders.

When I was a child actor, my mother made sure my feet were firmly planted in the ground. I learned early the difference between  flying by the seat of my pants and being a hard-working, trained professional.  A child actor's performances  depend solely on talent and luck. My mother had little patience for vanity or unearned confidence.

Inevitably, I was conflicted about my mother's presence on set. By state law I had to have a guardian, and it was always my mother who was available to fulfill this requirement.  I always felt her eyes looking out for me and looking at me. She was not a stage mother. And yet. She worried when the camera wasn't set up on my better angles. She worried that a producer of a miniseries clearly preferred another child actor on set. She worried when I looked pale and sallow next to a cherubic classmate at my sixth grade holiday choral concert. I'll never forget the car ride home that Christmas season evening. Mom said she felt guilty that her child didn't shine the way the other girl did. She fretted over how to fix it. For my sake, I truly have no doubt. Yet it was not good for me.  A mother's touch extends not just from her fingers but from her eyes and her words and, at times, from her own insecurities. A mother's touch can damage as much as it can heal, even if the touch is always protective in its aims.

I confess I'm glad when my daughter picks out a dress or pants that match her socks. I confess that I prefer her blue shoes to her pink ones and I confess I take too many photos because she is my jewel and seems (to me) to shine from every angle. I confess I'm glad when she makes aesthetically pleasing sartorial choices because they make for better photos and show off her inner winsome charm. Most of us have some measure of stage-parent tendency. The trick is to shut it off.

 I take a deep breath when she doesn't choose the shoes I wish she would wear. I take a deep breath when she wants a ponytail though I want her beautiful curls to fly free as she runs down the street. I exhale and wet the hairbrush in the sink so I can brush those silky curls into the smooth bun she wants: the bun that hides her lovely hair. I take a deep breath and I don't let myself hide her favorite dress, a bright bubble gum pink one, which is not a good color on any living creature or inanimate object, because I know she loves it. I have taught myself to love the dress because she does.

We all want to be touched. We all want to be left alone. We all want boundaries and we all want limitless love. I think we can achieve this, even with our children. Let them attach and detach at will. Let go. Let go. Let go. At birth, if you are lucky, your mother and then both parents and then a whole extended family are not only your universe, but your very identity. Gradually, you sprout an identity of your own and differentiate. If you are very lucky, so unshakable will that initial attachment be that you will take it for granted. You will not hesitate to build the highest walls when you want to, and you will not hesitate to tear them down when it suits you. It seems to me there is no greater gift I can give my child than the assumption that our fort can weather the storms of differentiation.  I want my child to take me for granted. For now and for a good long while.

I am not allowed to touch my daughter when she doesn't want to be touched. For my own sake, I never want to feel the flinch. The first one on that hot summer afternoon was a warning tremor.

Go to Neverland without me, darling daughter, whenever you are ready. The home fires will be burning when you return.

Related Stories:
Don't Tell Mama
Finding the Holiday Tree
Mom, How is This Dress?

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Buzz the Nine-Nine-Nine Bookshop

"This is my favorite book in all the world, although I have never read it." So begins the introduction to William Goldman's The Princess Bride. It might be my favorite book too, because I have read it so many times. The tale grows in the telling for me. I read it to myself the first time. I read it to my stepmother over the course of one day the second time. I read it to my mother in our apartment on Wilshire Boulevard, our tiny Maltese nestled between us, for the third time. I read it to my husband, many years later, a fourth time.

The tale of The Princess Bride grows each time I "tell" it by reading it aloud. I look through its familiar window and see the old bookshops and steak houses and bars and ethos of New York City in the 1970s. I see the young boy in the 1940s with pneumonia trying to get the game to come in on his radio. I see the bench in Central Park in the dead of winter where a writer sat and puzzled over his childhood memories and I see the Southern California pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, past which I drove each day in my youth.

Each recitation was to someone new and in a different era of my life. As Uta Hagen said, we always have a reason for telling a story. We are not living in a memory, we are reproducing a tale for an express purpose.The same can be said of the books we read to our loved ones -- we want something from the listener (identification? camaraderie? wordless understanding?) and we want to convey something about the book we've chosen that we cannot find our own words for. Fortunately, that "something" is in the book's words themselves.

This week's New Yorker article about the three sisters who run the Argosy Bookshop on 59th Street is rich in detail.

But it missed one.

"Helen?" I said then. "Listen, do me something. Buzz the nine-nine-nine bookshop and have them send over "The Princess Bride."
"Lemme get a pencil," and she's gone a while. "Okay, shoot. The what bride?"
"Princess. By S. Morgenstern. It's a kid's classic. Tell him I'll quiz him on it when I'm back next week and that he doesn't have to like it or anything, but if he doesn't, I'll kill myself."
So begins the meta journey in which an adult William Goldman hunts down a beloved classic from his youth, read to him by his father when he was feverish with pneumonia. It's called The Princess Bride,  by S. Morgenstern.

Published in 1973, The Princess Bride may not have pre-dated the concept of meta (though it may have) but it certainly pre-dated the truncated term "meta" and its current ubiquity.

The nine-nine-nine doesn't have the book, in the original "Florinese" or in the English translation. Goldman stews poolside at his hotel, and tries again. He hears his father whispering in his ear, telling him the tale of true love and high adventure. He is distracted by a starlet desperate to take advantage of him, as he is of her, but he is distracted more by his sudden and overwhelming need to share this book with his son, who is about to turn ten. He calls his wife back. He asks her to try Doubleday. She calls him back to deliver the news: "The Morgenstern's out of print."

He calls her back.

"Call Argosy on Fifty-ninth Street. They specialize in out-of-print stuff."

No soap.

He gets a list from his own publishing house of every bookstore in the Fourth Avenue area and tries one after another. He finds himself frantically dialing New York on the eve of a blizzard.

No soap.

And then the final call.
"You don't get much call for Morgenstern nowadays. 
(After 17 interminable minutes of hunting and crashing in the back room, in which Goldman describes much Yiddish cursing and many complaints of physical ailments, the old bookseller returns to the phone.)
"Well, I got the Florinese like I thought."
So close. "But not the English," I said.
And suddenly he's yelling at me: "What, are you crazy? I break my back and he says I haven't got it, yes, I got it right here and it's gonna cost a pretty penny." 
Goldman's lawyer picks up the books as the blizzard starts -- he has to take the Florinese if he wants the English -- and delivers them to his New York apartment in time for his son's tenth birthday. He wants so much to find a listener in his ten year old son. He also knows, as do we, that such a desire is futile in the case of this particular son.

I read this book to my mother on my third reading. I was sixteen. I'd been twelve when I'd first read the book, in the last week of summer before seventh grade. A lot happens in four years and when you return to a book, it seems to have grown older and wiser. You don't realize that it may be you who is just a little bit more so.

We were living on the 11th floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. My stepfather had departed, at last, for good. We were two now. Well, three, actually, counting our loyal Maltese, Chloe. We were free. We were free to read a book all day on my mother's king-sized bed in the Wilshire Estina. The shadow had vanished and oxygen rushed in to fill the the newly sunny space. We greedily inhaled and luxuriously exhaled.

The sick little boy with the raging fever listens to his immigrant father sound out the words of The Princess Bride. The grown man can't get him out of his head as he sits by the pool with the Hollywood starlet.

"Hunters," my father was saying now. "Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies." He was camped in my cranium, hunched over, bald and squinting, trying to read, trying to please, trying to keep his son alive and the wolves away. 
Not a dry eye on the bed. Even Chloe wept, but that's probably because Maltese dogs tend to have leaky tear ducts. My mother and I cried because we identified, not just with the text, but through the text with each other. Happy tears. Nostalgic tears. Poignant tears. Big fat longing for everything and understanding each other tears.

A few years later, I found myself in a quandary as a sophomore at Columbia, three thousand miles from my mother and Chloe. The quandary occurred suddenly and I felt that quite possibly, my life was over. I wandered downtown. I recall it as an Autumn day, but my memory is always that it's Autumn when the magic comes.

I was headed toward Bloomingdales, I think. I thought the perfume counter might be of some cheer.  Then a sign on 59th Street caught my eye. Argosy. Argosy Book Store. Oh my god. It had stepped out of The Princess Bride and it was towering over me on the sidewalk. Argosy.

I went in. I don't remember the staff as being especially pleasant or unpleasant. They left me to my own devices. I spotted a book called  Book of Common Sense Etiquette, by Eleanor Roosevelt. I fondled the cloth cover and laughed at the more antiquated suggestions for housewives. But it was the last sentence of the introduction that sold me the book:

If you ever find yourself in a situation in which following a formal rule would be manifestly unkind, forget it, and be kind instead. -Eleanor Roosevelt, New York, 1962
And here's the ending of the introduction to The Princess Bride:

S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all. -William Goldman,
New York City, 1972
I bought the book for 25 dollars, which might as well have been a thousand for a college kid. I decided it was going to be my guide in this time of trouble. I could rise to the occasion if I had this book. I would develop character and triumph over adversity.  If Argosy was a real place, then the rest of William Goldman's story probably checked out too.

P.S. On the first night of December many years ago, I went to the movies with a young man, beginning my own tale of true love and high adventure. It was warm for December, and after leaving The Paris Theatre after a criminally long and boring film, I asked him to walk me home. I took him past Argosy on the way. I told him about that college experience and the Book of Common Sense Etiquette. I don't know if he thought I was stuffy or old-fashioned or just strange, but if so, he got over it and we married four years later. Or maybe he never got over it. In fact, I hope he didn't, and never will. It was the greatest date of my life. William Goldman concludes in the end of the introduction that he doesn't think there is such a thing as true love or high adventure --fans of the film might find some delicious if dark surprises in the novel-- but having stumbled on Argosy after dreaming about it and then stumbling on a first date I couldn't have hoped for in my wildest dreams, I respectfully disagree. On that lonely day when I bumped into Argosy, I had been wrong that my life was over. In fact, it had yet to begin.
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Of Mighty Hearts and Leaden Wings: A Review of "Maleficent"


There's a moment three quarters into A Mighty Heart in which Angelina Jolie's character receives confirmation of the death of her husband. It is, in a performance that overall dazzles in its realism, a stand-out moment. It is literally breath-taking. We feel the air sucked from our lungs as we watch Jolie struggle for air and fight against the truth she cannot come to grips with. Both  Jolie and Michael Winterbottom, who directed the film, deserve our gratitude for this exquisite and exquisitely horrible moment.

Much has been made of the "rape" allegory of Maleficent.  Critics have argued over whether the scream the fairy utters when she discovers her wings have been cut off is out of place in the film. Angelina Jolie herself, an actress whose work I often admire greatly, discussed the scream in the issue of Elle whose cover she graced. She spoke of how hard it was to find that place in her gut where inhibition gave way to primal holler. I was stunned. Has she forgotten A Mighty Heart? That scream still echoes in my ears. Has she forgotten the primal scream of loneliness she conjured from the depths of her soul at the end of Girl, Interrupted? The stunning realism of that wail made me forgive her character all her cruelty, such was the pain that drove it.

There has been much fine calibration combined with moments of release in Jolie's previous work. I had not yet seen Maleficent, so I wondered what this other scream might be like. I relished the prospect of seeing a fine actress exploring a new place in cinema: fantasy combined with realism. A fine actress can offer realism in a world of fantasy. Such was my hope, at any rate.

So. I wasn't sure "the scream" was "the scream" when it happened. It was only at the end of the film that I concluded it must be "the scream," as there were no other screams after that. The scream is a whimper, of sorts, a cursory nod to her physical pain and terror when the sleeping Maleficent awakens to discover her body dismembered by her lover. I don't object to a whimper. People are entitled to react to trauma in any number of ways. I don't object to any portrayal of humanity as long as it is...human.

When I was a child, my mother called Disney "fake childhood." Having seen Maleficent, I submit that Disney has branched out and now offers "fake adulthood" as well. I don't think I have ever been less persuaded by a "world" than that which the fairies occupy in the film, except perhaps by the dime-store human kingdom across the way. The man who steals Maleficent's wings becomes king of this creaky cliche-ridden kingdom as a reward for his savagery. Despite this, there is no dramatic force to propel this character to do it. A crown seems a rather dull reward by dramatic standards. It also seems a dramatic problem easily solved.

Couldn't the film have granted his character some back story, say a moment of bullying he has suffered that makes him turn to savagery and a lust for dominating a kingdom?  We are asked to believe that this villain is complex, or at least in possession of a brain. You'd never know it to watch the actor's work on screen. I don't disdain the work of other actors lightly. Too often we are the victims of dreadful, expository dialogue and cheap direction. It is not the actor I am disdaining at all, but his misfortune at having crossed paths with that rapist of actors' souls and dignity, The Disney Corporation.

I think of another director, Peter Jackson, so good at fantasy world-building and character development both, and so caring of actors. Their performances, in his hands, contain as much integrity as his visual conception of Middle Earth. There is CGI, to be sure, but those actors also trudged through a lot of very real snow in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They also rehearsed.  If Jackson's effort was majestic, noble and utterly human, Robert Stromberg's Maleficent's is pedestrian, uninspired, lacking in regard for human dignity (by never showing one moment of truthful behavior on screen) and, (perhaps its greatest sin) cutesy. I confess that when we are first introduced to the young Maleficent, I  wanted to blow a strong wind to remove the cutesy dust from those magnificent wings. There are two young kids at the start of the film, and both are directed to be unbearably coy. Stromberg is desperate to show us how gentle Maleficent was before her trauma. Oh my goodness, we get it. Children are innocent. Why is "innocent" so frequently mistaken for "cute?" Fake childhood, indeed.

Peter Jackson was accused of "going soft" after he had a child, and turning the violence of The Lovely Bones into a fairy dust mess because he couldn't face the horror of the story. I wonder, perhaps unfairly, if Jolie, who apparently had a lot of creative say in Maleficent, has similarly "gone soft," and was not able to conjure the sufficient dryness of delivery to make you believe that she truly hates children. (She utters this very line, and to her own adorably impish child, who plays Aurora as a tot.) I admit that as a mother I found this moment charming regardless of the flubbed delivery, because the little one was so clearly enamored of her mother and unconcerned with her altered appearance as a wicked fairy. But this was a moment I enjoyed for the surrounding context, not a moment conjured by the film itself.

Dialogue. What is it good for? A lot. In cinema,  it is often at its best when it is unspoken. The best moment of the film is when it turns out that it is not a prince's but Maleficent's kiss that is the one of true love and thus frees Aurora from her coma. You see the moment coming a mile away, and all the better for it. I relished watching the young prince fail to stir the sleeping beauty and waited eagerly for a hopeless Maleficent to do the honors, unaware of the power of her own kiss. And it's lovely. And then Stromberg trashes the moment by having Maleficent's trusty sidekick whisper, "True love's kiss,"  in wonderment. In case, Disney felt, we weren't in awe of the moment, we had damned better be schooled in its magic.

 I had no quarrel with the theoretical "humanizing" of Maleficent. I know many critics found it distasteful and wanted her to remain evil in the tradition of Iago: evil for its own sake. I myself don't find that interesting. The desire, particularly of female film-goers, to keep her as evil as she was in Disney's original Sleeping Beauty may be a well-earned revenge fantasy for women. (I loved the movie Teeth.) But I think the story they chose to tell was a worthy one. It's the story's execution-- achieved with the bluntest of hammering instead of with the delicacy of a fine sculptor--that I take issue with.

I didn't need to see Maleficent turn into a dragon, although I respect that many people feel robbed of this potentially glorious moment and were infuriated that it was turned over to a proxy, and a male one at that. Perhaps that the C.G.I. was painfully clunky might lessen their despair ? It wasn't much of a dragon.

As a dancer who has suffered much soft tissue damage and had it laboriously repaired, who has felt the aching pain of the road back to using that ruptured tissue, I felt cheated when Maleficent regains her wings, courtesy of Aurora, and immediately fuses with her torn-off body parts. I felt robbed of that beat of reconnecting to your wings. When my labrum finally healed, I could soar again. But there is a horrible pain and ache in the repair process and I would have liked a moment in which Maleficent feels the pain of reuniting with that old damaged tissue and further, is called upon to use it immediately. I'll never forget being asked to walk (with crutches) less than 12 hours after a surgeon trimmed and removed  hundreds of tiny tendon fibers from my angry, red-as-raw-steak inflamed tendons. But Maleficent rejoins with her wings and poof! She's flying as if she'd never suffered an ounce of pain --which betrays the one bit of dramatic tension on which the film is so flimsily based.

 Poor Elle Fanning. She is confined to laughing "merrily" as she falls in piles of autumn leaves more artificial-looking than those that adorn  Back-to-School displays in store windows come September. She smiles emptily and throws mud in order to achieve a badge of honor as a  creature of the Earth, so winning in her "tomboyishness" that even cranky old Maleficent can't help but fall hard for her. Watching this display reminded me of the word "feisty" and how often it is attributed to young girls, denigrating them rather than recognizing their strength. I didn't care for the gender politics in the piece. I was fine with Maleficent's journey, but not Aurora's barely sketched character.

Lastly, don't replace Tchaikovsky unless you have something more daring, dramatic and spellbinding to replace his music with. I promise, you don't. The original score of Sleeping Beauty , which I believe used  several melodies from Tchaikovsy's score for the ballet version of Cinderella, is gorgeous and haunting, bestowing both gravitas and terror.

I could go on, but I will try not to follow Disney's lesson. I'll let some things go unsaid so that implications may hover, like wings, in the air.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Idea For a Short Story

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I sat on the venipuncturist’s table in the hematologist’s office. I am an actress, which made it impossible for me to tell whether I was nervous about having my blood drawn or acting as though I were, because there is no difference. I have that disorder – 15% of the population has it – the one where you faint at the sight of blood. I had told the hematologist that immediately, as an ice breaker. I am funny and not as nervous as I seem.

I have anemia. The doctor had photos of his children and his wife covering his wall like an art gallery and he told me I should not feel pressured to rush through my history, as he had all the time in the world. He chatted about children’s shows, freely admitting he was trying to calm me down and I told him I knew that and it wasn't working because although I also have a child, hence the topic of children’s shows, I dislike most children’s shows. He tried to one-up. (Parents love to one-up each other by competing over how much they disdain children's entertainment.) 

"No Yo Gabba Gabba in our house," he said. “Does your daughter like Lori Berkner?” I  said, “I don't.” “Really?” he asked. “I found her one of the tolerable ones." I told him about an Australian rock group for kids that featured a baritone opera singer, a ballet dancer and a jazz pianist. The Wiggles, version 2.0. The ball kept passing over the net and no one was trying to make the other person lose contact with it. We weren't competing anymore, we were just talking shop. Parent shop.

When he took me to the lab, his two beautiful assistants prepared the vials. I entertained myself with the idea of a hematologist's decorating his office with depictions of Count Dracula. Or maybe just the Transylvanian countryside and a bit of the Count's castle at the edge. (The vampire himself, that would be putting it over the top.) Would patients find it funny? I would.

The doctor’s last name could be of any origin. It probably wasn't Romanian but wouldn't it be great if it were? I had told him that I had fainted on the subway reading Dracula. I was reading the scene in which Dracula punctures his own chest vein when visiting Mina. True, it was a hot and humid summer’s day and the downtown 1 was a study in faulty air conditioning and herds of restless sweating bodies swaying as the train snaked along its curvy path. I hadn't eaten much breakfast,either. Still,  it was the blood in the story. I heard music in my ears swell and developed tunnel vision and nausea and the last thing I remembered before my blood pressure dropped enough to throw me to the floor of the car was wishing that the subway could just get to 18th Street before I vomited. We were at 28th Street and then I heard the conductor announcing a delay at 23rd and I thought, “Crap, I was so close to getting there without being sick.” And then I realized I was on the floor of the subway. And then I was being ushered off  by some EMTs and I realized that I was the sick passenger. There are signs all over the subway: “In the event of a sick passenger, the train will be halted. If you are the sick passenger, you will not be ignored.” I was the reason I had not made it to 18th Street.

 I told this story to the doctor who had all the time in the world, but a condensed version. No one has that much time. I had also also fainted once when my father had handed me the bloody eyeglasses of a woman he'd helped up after she'd tumbled on the sidewalk. I saw a single drop of blood on the glasses and I fell backward into my sister’s arms. I have that thing --what is it called--that thing where you faint at the sight or mention of blood.*

The doctor didn't want to take any chances. He had apple juice on stand-by and he asked the venipuncturist to lay me down on the table. I persuaded them it wouldn't be necessary. I have a technique: I look away and pretend a bee is stinging me.The needle isn't upsetting, it is only the blood. Bees don’t draw blood. Not that you can see, anyway.

I stared at the wall and giggled, imagining Playbills of old productions of Dracula lining the wall of a hematologist’s lab. Wouldn't patients love that? Would they? I would. The needle went in. Damn, that hurts. They took the blood vials away. I never saw where they went. Down the corridor somewhere. Initial results were printed and more results were promised by the week’s end.

I wonder what they do with all the blood after they test it.

The doctor had shown me his screensaver: his two teen-aged boys, one of whom was blond and had, in the doctor's words, “the icy smile of a psychopath.”  He was holding his brother in a hammerlock. The other boy was a red head. Grinning, cheeky, ginger and spice. He was colorful next to his white blond brother. 

“Does everyone say they look like William and Harry?” I asked the doctor. “Yes,” he said. “And they are. The older one is very serious and the younger is much more lighthearted.” I decided not to mention that Harry was rumored to be the son of Diana’s riding instructor as he was his spit and image of the equestrian with whom Diana had acknowledged an affair at just the right time to conceive the spare heir. William looks just like Charles, of course, so thank goodness it came out in that order. But I didn't say that to the doctor. Obviously. 

“The older one is more like me,” the doctor said. I was surprised. He was a jovial guy. He liked putting his patients at ease. He was a family guy. He loved people. He had cushions on a couch in his office and all the time in the world.  I looked over at the screensaver and the pale blond with the icy eyes and the gingery goofball of a brother in the elder's violent clutch. I would have guessed the younger brother to be more like his father. Maybe his Dad had another side. Or maybe the older son did. 

Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, if the doctor were a vampire and he’d converted only the first of his sons as yet?

What do they do with all that blood once they test it for Ferritin and Hemaglobin?

Why did a Manhattan doctor have all the time in the world? Who on Earth has all the time in the world, much less a Manhattan doctor?

What a great idea for a short story, I thought. I have to write it down.

It wouldn't be the story of a bad vampire, for goodness' sake. This man was an angel who was about to infuse me with iron. He could be a Joshua York* kind of vampire. 

The co-pay was thirty five dollars. And five vials of blood. 

*The name of the disorder is "vasovagal response." 

*Joshua York is a vampire in George R.R. Martin's "Fevre Dream."
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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

For The Rest of Your Life

My mother patted my hand as we sat in the Park Avenue neurologist's office. I was grateful that such a doctor accepted a senior's less than top-notch health insurance.  My mother and I had found a moment of tranquility in the turbulent storm of dementia: a prettily lit office that looked like a professor's study and lacked any hint of dreary medical paraphernalia.

"Thank you for doing this for me," she said. She was referring to her general sense of being cared for by her child. She didn't know what type of office we were in or why we were there, but over the last two years we've developed a routine of paperwork and offices and hand-patting and and she remembers that I spend a fair amount of time escorting her to doctors and having conversations with them for her.

I checked all the boxes: angina, no, high blood pressure, yes, allergies, no, muscle pain, yes,  tingling of the right toe when the radio goes on and it's the wrong station, yes. We still had lots of time on our hands. We chatted idly. My mother asked about her beautiful granddaughter and then asked what her name was again. An elderly woman with a walker stared at us for the duration of our near hour wait. I didn't know what she was thinking, but I knew she was alone and my mother was accompanied. I strongly suspected it was the companionship that made her stare in fascination.

"A son is a son 'til he gets himself a wife, but a daughter's a daughter for the rest of your life," my mother said, out of nowhere. At first I did what you do when you have a bone to pick with your dementia-addled mother: I smiled and nodded. And then I did what I inevitably do: I let my blood get up and opened my mouth.

"Mom, you don't have a son, how do you know?"
"How do I know what?"
"That a son wouldn't take you to a doctor?"
"Oh, well, it's an expression. But you know, daughters are different. You don't need to have a son to know that. They're made of different stuff."

It's one of those things that sounds like a compliment but is actually a burden. I don't mind the burden part of having a sick parent (well, not most days) but I do mind that girls are expected, assumed and conditioned to bear the brunt of it.

We are made of different stuff, my mother said. She was absolutely right. Girls are "made" differently from how boys are "made." Every time I take my little girl out, I am confronted with how our society makes claims on her body and molds her expectations. Strangers pat her head, stroke her arm. She is never asked for permission. There is no boundary for little girls.* I've started to look carefully at how strangers interact with boys of the same age as my child. I've never once seen someone stroke a boy's arm. A boy seems to be born with boundaries drawn around him in our culture. Meanwhile, people bestow on girls their acceptance, approval and implicit praise with a casual gesture. But the gesture is anything but casual. It's downright violent.  We are taught to accept compliments graciously. But why should a child be asked to perceive a violation of her body as a compliment? Little girls have this demanded of them every single day. And that's how we get to be "made of different stuff."

We are the ones who call home regularly, right? We check in. We make sure everything is all right. We communicate more. Funny how we are also burdened by the notion that we are absolutely impossible when we turn thirteen.

'It's a girl?" People used to ask me when I was pregnant. "Enjoy her until she's a teenager and then good luck! I was glad I had boys when we hit those years!"

A daughter's a daughter for the rest of your life. Except when she's a teenager and then she makes you rue the day you conceived her. She's either the Devil incarnate or a cozy shelter.  She's both. And fully expected to be.

"Few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." Gloria Steinem once said.

A son is a son 'til he gets himself a wife but a daughter's a daughter for the rest of your life. 

A son is in it for the nurturing. And when he grows up, his wife replaces his parents because now he gets his pampering from her, is that it? Isn't a daughter supposed to be in it for the nurturing too? Are girls being trained to give and not receive? What exactly are we teaching our girls?

Nurturing and empathy self perpetuate. I wonder what boys are not getting because of these peculiar beliefs, spoken in sing-song fashion like folk tunes: Daughters are givers and communicators. Sons will find replacements. Daughters are gardeners and are loyal to their plots of land. Sons are flowers who need a fresh rainstorm.

No one profits from this belief system. My own mother is a feminist. She was an athletic debater, a great supporter of my academic and artistic endeavors, a nurturer of my cultural awareness. But she also taught me that much of my power might come from my looks or sex appeal. This is what her mother taught her. I could derive power from these things. When she spoke of being vulnerable because someone found you attractive, it was never a man who was a threat, but a woman who might be envious. She carried my grandmother's pathological fear of other women because we can't help but cling to what our parents give us: be it advice or beliefs.

We know now that the greatest threat to women's physical and emotional safety is, in fact, men. When when when is it time to address institutional, cultural, deep-rooted pathological ways of raising boys and girls? How about now?

I don't have a son. But I have been nanny to a few in my time and they are all  every bit as sweet and cuddly and in need of empathy as girls are. I heard a father call out to his daughter in Central Park the other day: "That's not how I taught you to throw!" I can only presume she was "throwing like a girl." I can only presume that he thought he was raising her like a son and therefore undoing the sexism in our culture, or at least protecting her from it.

My grandfather had a daughter, my mother. When she was three, she announced that she wanted to walk around the block by herself. He agreed and then hid behind every tree and bush all the way around. He wanted her to feel invincible. By example, he also taught her empathy. In 1943 a gay man asked him on a dinner date. He accepted the invitation, so he could explain that he was flattered but was not romantically interested in men. My mother knew the story from a young age.

"We've begun to raise daughters more like sons...but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." 

My grandfather raised his daughter as a person.

I don't have a son, but I do have a husband. I have not a shadow of a doubt that were his parents to need him to escort them to doctors, to clean their apartments, to check in on them and call every night because dementia made them lonely, he would do it. Thanks, mother-in-law and father-in-law. I guess you, too, had the courage to raise him as a person.

My grandfather and my mother in 1942.
* I don't let strangers touch my daughter. Sometimes it happens in a flash, especially living in a crowded city. If that flash occurs before I can stop it, I never fail to admonish that person for his or her grotesque faux-pas and I often point out that undoubtedly he or she would not take kindly to someone touching him or her without warning, or at all, for that matter. I want my daughter to witness this exchange. I am polite but firm. Sometimes the admonishment is met with disdain born of embarrassment, other times it is met with a look of dawning realization. I love those moments. Another dent in the armor of the patriarchy that holds social progress hostage. Another moment when my child sees that a woman can stand up for herself and her mother is not afraid. We live by example.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Alert Artist: Gelsey Kirkland's "The Shape of Love"


As I never made any separation between steps and story, I was amazed by those who were able to put them into different compartments, as if mind and body could somehow work apart from each other. Unless I had a reason to move, I was totally paralyzed." -Gelsey Kirkland, The Shape of Love

An alert mind is an actor's prerequisite. It must be exercised as continuously and with the same discipline as the body. Another major flaw of the untrained actor is to attempt to separate thoughts from actions. -Uta Hagen, A Challenge for the Actor
A Challenge for the Actor has long been my desert island book. But I just came across Gelsey Kirkland's "sequel" to her  penetrating and brutal first book, Dancing on My Grave. It's called The Shape of Love, and it records her "come-back" after drug addiction and eating disorders that dragged her from being a prima ballerina with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre to the brink of death. I haven't read it in many years, but I remember underlining furiously as her quest for the truth always struck a deep chord in me as a performer.

In this "sequel" Kirkland tells the story of her return to the stage, this time with The Royal Ballet, with whom she felt the sort of camaraderie she could never find in New York. The Royal Ballet is evidently steeped in theatrical tradition, whereas, as English dancers apparently put it, "In America, they dance from the waist down."

As I read Ms. Kirkland's book, I wondered if she had ever read Uta Hagen's books on acting, or if Ms. Hagen had ever read of Kirkland's search as a ballet dancer for meaning for her movements on stage. The two are such kindred spirits that it's hard to imagine they don't know of each other much less that they are the best of friends. (Although, alas, Uta Hagen is no longer with us.)

The Shape of Love, like A Challenge for the Actor, is for performers who are determined to knock down any impediment to the truth.  Why does a person do something when she does it? How is the way in which she does it completely determined by her circumstance (her previous location, with whom she was keeping company, what letter she just read, the weather, her need to get somewhere else, etc...) Previous moments shape all our destinations, like the thousands of points in a Seurat canvas, our movements are links in a chain but appear fluid because of the lightning speed of the brain and heart. When we stand back, we see one picture or story, but an actor must break apart each moment and see how it connects to the last and the next. The audience can watch a fluid story, but it is also watching beats, those precious moments in which a turn in the road is made. We make thousands of such turns every day. Just watch yourself make a cup of coffee. Where is the sugar bowl? Should I use the little spoon that's dirty on the counter or get a fresh one? Is that the phone ringing? It might be that date I had from last week finally calling! It might be the doctor with test results. Should I take it? Ignore it? What happened to that spoon? You see? Thousands of turning points.

Gelsey Kirkland arrived, miraculously, at this understanding of acting without having any formal training, other than mime work, which she did on the side in her years at ABT. In The Shape of Love she dives into the specifics with a tenacity and earnestness matched only by Uta Hagen's. A ballet, particularly a classical one, is a story with dialogue and destination just as is a stage play. But the dialogue is told in the hands, in the arms, in the particular placement of the feet and back that serve to embody the character's point of view, desires and relationships to her partners.

An actor will (and should) contemplate, consider, agonize if necessary, over why she is doing anything on stage. Art is not life, it is distilled life, so that it takes on a reality not more heightened, as is so frequently thought, but more clear. Extraneous movements happen from distraction throughout all of our days. An artist must pare those away and keep only what is essential to the story and the character. Then the moving painting, the fluid line, the story, the humanity rise to the surface and the mundane vanishes.

"I imagine that once you start thinking as an actress, it must be pretty difficult to accept working any other way." So says a young dancer Kirkland is coaching for the role of Giselle.

I began my years of performing as a ballet dancer. My first role, however, was mostly mime. I lucked into a group of visionary choreographers who sought to bring Antoine de St. Exupery's "The Little Prince" to life in ballet form. At ten years old, I was being asked to take one moment to think about a drawing given to me (the prince) by the aviator and the next moment to reject it. In that first moment I needed to see the painting, in the second moment I needed a reason for rejecting it, so that the act of rejecting it made sense in my body. A ballet is made up of thousands of moments. And nearly all of them, at least according to Gelsey Kirkland, and I am inclined to agree, must be thought through in this way.

And so when I began my life as an actor, at 12, I always felt that ballet was what gave me the key to acting. It was fascinating to read that Kirkland had this experience in reverse. You cannot get into an arabesque pique without rolling through the extending foot and passing through a paradoxically infinite number of points in space. So it felt with scene work in acting. Each moment depended on the last until a chain was formed, and rehearsals allowed for both the strengthening of the chain and its flexibility. (This may be one point where ballet and acting diverge dramatically: in acting, when we rehearse, we do so precisely to create the ability to be spontaneous, as paradoxical as that seems. In ballet, these finely tuned rehearsed moments might be more set in stone, as the body must move itself physically through space in the same pattern for every performance. Spontaneity in performance seems to run counter to the needs of ballet.)

Ballet of course has its technical feats. I don't know that the powerful fouettes of final acts are primarily motivated by story, but having been boosted by one's own conception of her place in the story, her reasons for every small gesture and delicate placement of her leg, a ballerina has given herself the wings to fly through the superhuman technical feats now required of dancers.

There is an infinite amount to say about both these fine artists and their books. If you are hungry for meaning in art, if you are fascinated by the techniques, if you simply love ballet or acting, find these books and read them.

As Giselle.

Life at a barre.

A complicated Juliet.

Once a dancer...

Related: Tutu Much, Tutu Soon

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