Monday, December 21, 2009

Wrapping My Brain around Christmas

A few days ago, I took a quiz on Twenty multiple-choice questions to answer, and the site tells you what religion aligns most closely with your beliefs. My result: 100% Reform Judaism, which is exactly what I am.

So why do I have a nine-foot Christmas tree in my living room? Why have I spent the last few days looking for non-existent parking spaces in shopping malls? Why is Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” blasting away on the CD player?

Partly because my father, a self-identified “cultural Jew,” didn’t believe in organized religion for himself or his children. No Hebrew lessons or religious education for me.

Partly because twenty-nine years ago I married a Presbyterian-born atheist, with whom I cobbled together a unique holiday experience for our two children: a Christmas tree and a menorah, a reading of the Chanukah story on the first night, no outside lights, no Santa. (The proscription of Santa was particularly effective, causing my then-six-year-old daughter to ask me tearfully one March, “Am I allowed to believe in leprechauns?”)

The atheist and I are no longer married, and our children are adults. Sometimes I feel bad that I didn’t insist on educating them in some sort of religious tradition. My son is glad I didn’t; my daughter, who is still pissed off about the leprechauns, is fashioning her own system of beliefs.

Sometimes I feel very conflicted about the way in which I have made room in my life for Christmas. I love the tree and the presents, the shopping and baking, and especially the music. But inside, I always feel a little like an outsider, a pretender. (And I always feel guilty in temples because I don’t understand the language or know the rituals. There’s this gnawing sense of anxiety and shame. It’s like those dreams where you’re in high school and you realize you haven’t studied for finals.  You keep thinking, Why don't I KNOW this?)

Several years ago, Robert and I went to a Christmas Eve service at the Berkeley Unitarian Church. The minister gave a sermon about the birth of Jesus: how it was really a story about being frightened and alone, and how miracles can happen when everything seems hopeless. It was a wonderful, inclusive take on Christmas. It spoke to something deep inside me: the need to believe that we are not alone in our suffering.

The menorah still sits on my mantel, surrounded by garlands and stars. I rarely light it anymore, but it is my way of reminding myself of who I am.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Little Miss Perfect

Yesterday, while working out, I found myself watching a TV show called “Little Miss Perfect.” It is a reality show, each episode of which features a look at the lives of two contestants in a little-girl beauty pageant. It was riveting in an I-can’t-believe-I-live-on-the-same-planet-with-these-people kind of way.

The pageant is held in different cities throughout the south and seems to attract participants whose families live in little southern towns. It is overseen (and hosted) by a man named Michael Galanes who judges the competition and sings a dreadful song to the five finalists while gazing deeply into their eyes. (“Little Miss Perfect Pageant, where all your dreams come true/ the Little Miss Perfect Pageant, where the special one is you! / The secret of tomorrow is to live your dream today,/ your memories and your friendships will always feel this way!/ There are perfect colored rainbows on the other side,/ hop on your magic carpet and take a wild ride!/ If you think it, want it, dream it, today’s the start,/ just feel it in your heart.”) Michael and his fellow judges are shown discussing each contestant’s relative merits in three categories (“Beauty,”
“Interview,” and something called “Wow Wear,” which, as far as I can tell, is when the little girl gets dressed up in a costume and exhibits talent, usually dancing, but sometimes, if the kid is under six, waving and winking.) Michael’s critiques can be ruthless, but he has evidently found his milieu. (His bio begins, “Once upon a time, there was a little boy born and raised in the mountains of Vermont, but he knew his calling was the sparkly stage, somewhere, somehow….”)

The girls themselves look normal enough in their everyday lives. Most of them talk about how much they like getting dressed up, wearing makeup, winning big trophies, and being the center of attention. They complain about practicing and cry when they are being readied for competition. Their incarnations as beauty contestants are startling: big, teased hair, heavy makeup, sprayed-on tans, body-hugging costumes. You just can’t look away.

The real stars of the series, though, are the mothers. They are almost always fat. Some of them are ex-child-beauty-queens themselves. They oversee their daughters’ careers with military precision, arranging for coaches, driving to dance lessons, assessing smiles and twirls and coquettish over-the-shoulder glances with dispassionate calm (“Amber just isn’t graceful at all!”) They are supremely unembarrassed about what they are doing. They talk about the (not inconsiderable) amounts of money they spend on this lifestyle as though it is proof of what good mothers they are.

It is easy to be snide here, to laugh at people who look as though they live in houses with broken-down cars on the lawn, to take perverse pleasure in seeing seven-year-olds coiffed like country-music stars break down in tears when someone else wins the trophy. But I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that these families aren’t really so different from families I have known. In my neck of the woods, people don’t enter their daughters in beauty pageants. They drive them to theater auditions and soccer meets and chess club championships. They are still defining themselves by their children’s accomplishments. It really isn’t all that different.

Another thought: Ultimately, this show is about what lots of people in this country still value in women. It’s massively discouraging to think that when all is said and done, the “perfect” girl is the one with the best makeup, the most complicated hairstyle, the cutest hip swivel. Really? Is that really what we’re still about?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More about friendship

Had lunch with my friend Jim last week.

He was my high school English teacher. He is thirty years older than I. His birthday is either today or tomorrow. (I always forget.)

He was my teacher for three years in high school. We did not start off well. He likes to remind me that he thought I was pretty horrible until our class read “The Importance of Being Earnest” and I took the part of Lady Bracknell. (“Prism!”)

Somehow, we became fast friends. He took me to Wilkes Bashford, where I drank Campari while he tried on suits. (Yes, I was still in high school. It was the seventies. Things were different.) I cut P.E. so that I could hang out in the English office with him during his free period. Sometimes he would write the gym teacher (another of his close friends) a note: “Dear Miss Bertolosso, Please excuse Gina from P.E. today. She has a paper to finish.” (After giving me a withering stare, Miss Bertolosso would silently turn away. I think she was secretly glad I would not be in her class, in which, to put it mildly, I did not excel.) We would sit at his desk and gossip.

Lest there be any wondering: This was a platonic friendship pure and simple. Always. Neither of us had the slightest interest in the other sexually.

I went across the country to college, but Jim and I remained close. During the summers when I was home, I worked in a store he owned and “housesat” at his apartment when he went out of town. (He recently reminded me that I watered a plastic houseplant for three weeks without realizing what I was doing.) We wrote letters, talked on the phone. He came to my father’s funeral, after which we went outside and smoked cigarettes with my much-older and –adored cousin, also Jim. Inside, I was dying, but the Jims made me feel as though I would survive, that the world would still be there when I could manage to enjoy it again.

He traveled across the country to attend my wedding. He arranged for my husband and me to rent an apartment next door to his when I returned to Berkeley for graduate school. As his neighbor, I went to countless dinner parties at his house, where we snuck away to the kitchen and gossiped about the other guests. We forged a new tradition: I hung out with him on Thanksgiving morning while he cooked. We would drink Negronis and laugh ourselves sick.

He loved my children. He loves most children, but he especially loved mine. When my daughter was born, he made me seven gourmet meals, to be unfrozen on successive days. I cried when we ate the last one.

Now he lives in Connecticut, but he visits California once or twice a year. We always manage to get together for lunch or dinner at least once. We don’t drink the way we used to (and God knows we no longer smoke), but we still gossip. There is always a sense of the utter magic of it: how the two of us came together when it seemed as though we shouldn’t.

“This friendship—we’ve been good friends a long time,” he said in the car as I dropped him off last week. It was uncharacteristically sentimental of him to say so.

It is a wonderful mystery, as maybe all friendships are.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Yesterday I received the advance reading copies of my new book, THE HARD KIND OF PROMISE. I am so happy with the book’s cover and, as always, am looking forward to the reviews.

The book is about best friends and what can happen to them in middle school. But as we adults know, lots of things can happen to best friends no matter what their ages.

I lost a lot of friends within the five years following my divorce. I’m thinking of four women in particular, all people I thought I’d have as friends for the rest of my life. I still miss all of them a lot.

When this kind of thing happens, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what went wrong. (Well, you do if you’re me.) One woman was, I think, mentally ill. Two of the women were Professional Moms who let mom-ing get in the way of friendship. The fourth, a dear friend since high school, well, I just don’t know. She’s the one I miss the most.

Was it my fault? If it had only happened once, I’d have said probably not, but four times? I’ve got to think I had something to do with it. Do I not know how to be a friend? (That’s what the nut job would say.) Was I in a weird place post-divorce, shedding people in a misguided effort to be rid of memories, my old self? Maybe. Did I just get lazy? Well, that sounds like me.

Whatever it was, it continues to eat at me. I wish I could just say, “I’m sorry,” and fix things. But I know that isn’t how friendships work, not always, anyway. Even the strong ones can be brittle, fragile, jagged-edged. Sometimes things are unfixable.

I am grateful beyond words for Tracy and Jim and Ursula and Kathi and Sue and Josine and Karra and Paula (who is proof that sometimes you can just call out of the blue and say, What happened? and everything is miraculously okay again) and The Women Of The List (who deserve and will get a post all to themselves in the near future). I hope we will be friends for the rest of my life. I hope I will be a good friend to all of them and to anyone else who comes along, should I be so lucky.

And I am once again amazed by the ways in which writing for children isn’t really writing for children at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I saw Las Vegas for the first time last week, when Robert and I braved the nine-hour drive to celebrate his birthday.

I am not a Las Vegas person. I’ve always known this, but it was reassuring to have it confirmed.

We stayed at the Bellagio, which bills itself as refined, elegant, sophisticated, and lushly European. Well, I guess, except for the hordes of middle-Americans in baggy jeans and sports-team t-shirts, college boys in sideways baseball caps holding fruity mixed drinks at nine in the morning, college girls teetering on slave-girl-sandals-with-five-inch-stiletto-heels, fat people on electric scooters, old ladies alone at the slots machines, hookers, and large groups of people speaking unrecognized foreign languages. I would have loved to study all of them in more detail--like most writers, I relish any chance to look at people--but the casino was cloudy with cigarette smoke and I simply could not endure it.

We had a remarkable birthday dinner at Picasso.  I am not a foodie; I consider gourmet food to be anything that I didn’t cook. But our dinner was breathtaking. A cream of butternut squash soup with floating islands of marshmallows and a puree of morel mushrooms. Kobe beef “spheres” (which is apparently what the refined call meatballs) on a bed of lentils. Delectable snapper, the preparation of which I don’t remember, thanks to the efforts of our sommelier, who brought a different wine to accompany each course. Dessert was something with chocolate and butter pecan ice cream. I think I ate a quail egg somewhere along the way.

The next day, we walked down the Strip, dodging smokers and drunken college kids and the guys silently flicking ads for escort services at us. We walked through the Paris casino (poking our heads into the oh-so-elegant soap shop just to see the big sign for the new toilet-bowl cleaner, Poo-pourri) and Bally’s (which looked seedy, but not as seedy as Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon, which seems to be the lone holdout from a bygone era). Sushi for dinner. I was ready to leave.

It’s a big playground, just like Branson (which we visited last year), except that Las Vegas is for the grownups who want debauchery and sin and the opportunity to browse in a Hermes store as if they were really going to buy something. (I don’t know any adults personally who would like Branson, but there seem to be loads of them, all aching to get a ringside seat for Andy Williams, most of them from Kansas.)

I guess it’s nice that there are two different kinds of playgrounds. It made me think that there should be different kinds of playgrounds for children. One kind with swings and slides and parallel bars, for the kids who want to be where the action is, the girls who make everything a competition, the boys with a constitutional need to run and yell. And another kind, with sandboxes and water tables and pails and shovels, for the kids like my son, who always wanted to think seriously about what he was digging, who watched the other children with happy interest but was content to play alone, who sighed in resignation when his castles were trampled and announced quietly that he was ready to go home.

We're all entitled to the right kind of playground.  I'm still looking for mine, which should include a window seat, a stack of books, and plenty of scones.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seen This Week

Seen this week:

--At the Santa Cruz Department of Public Health, where I waited to get my H1N1 shot: a little boy, maybe four, wearing a cowboy hat, one cowboy boot and one blue Croc, a dirty t-shirt and too-short sweat pants, one elasticized leg hole at his calf, the other almost at his knee. His face was smeared with peanut butter and jelly. Our eyes locked and we completely got each other. Without saying a word, we shared our misery;

--At my front door on Halloween: a teenage boy dressed as a giant rabbit. He and his friends (dressed non-memorably) said “Thank you” and “Have a nice night”;

--On the drive over the Santa Cruz mountains, on the back roads: a tiny tree with yellow leaves, glowing in a shaft of sunlight despite the surrounding redwoods;

--On TV: John Abbott in 1948’s “The Woman in White” as a hypochondriacal English gentleman who says things like, "Dear boy, please!  My nerves!" Also, Sydney Greenstreet and Gig Young, who, according to Robert, was definitely wearing a wig;

--On my nightstand: Elizabeth Berg’s “We Are All Welcome Here,” “The Short Stories of Mary Gordon,” Mameve Medwed’s “Of Men and Their Mothers,” three back issues of The New Yorker, an albuterol inhaler, a candle, my cell phone charger, and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper;

--From my front steps, where I sit after my morning jog: a thriving rosemary plant (given to us as a housewarming present by Dix and Kathi), several hydrangea bushes—pink-leaved and nearly flowerless—the giant statue of an anchor (courtesy of the previous owner), our Brown Jordan wrought iron table and chairs, ca 1957 (courtesy of my mother), the white wooden bench beneath the yellowing wisteria vine, and a squirrel who had just descended from one of the Monterey pines and was eyeing me with what I chose to believe was derision but was probably just squirrel-ish-ness; and

--From the kitchen island, where I currently sit: a variety of maple cupboards, black granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, a glass bowl of Fuji apples, a tall, beveled vase sprouting twigs and sprays of dried silver-dollar stalks, and a half-empty can of diet Canada Dry ginger ale.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of Neti pots and disappearing husbands

Having cheerfully informed me that I am “a human Petri dish,” my pulmonologist recently recommended that I use a Neti pot at least five times a day. Rinsing out my sinuses has now become a second career. I write a paragraph or two, then heat water in the microwave and retire to the bathroom. Write and rinse; repeat.

This is the kind of thing that makes me cranky.

The onset of middle age has coincided with a distinct increase in the number of hours I spend attempting to maintain or improve my health. When I add up the hours spent jogging, weight training, bicycling, visiting doctors, rinsing out my sinuses, and performing Buteyko breathing exercises (designed to decrease the frequency of asthma attacks), I arrive at an alarming figure. (And no, I can’t fudge the numbers by claiming that the bicycling is really just for fun. It is fun, sort of, in the sense that it’s better than running lukewarm water into my nose, but in my world fun involves either lying down or chocolate and as such, cycling doesn’t qualify.)

It takes me aback, all this attention to self. In the old days (like, when I was thirty), I took my effortless good health for granted. I did nothing to nurture or replenish it; I simply assumed it would always be there. I pretended it was a patient, virtuous, long-suffering husband who wanted only to please me, who seemed to ask for nothing in return (in this way distinguishing itself from my actual husband at the time). I callously took what I wanted; I gave nothing back.

Now, in my fifties, I see that this pretend husband was actually a calculating, passive-aggressive jerkwad. While feigning agreeableness, he was really storing up grievances and plotting revenge. Now he’s left me (probably for someone half my age), and I am stuck with my Neti pot and my inhalers and my regret.

It has taken me a long time to learn that you can’t take anything for granted.

Off to the microwave. I hate this. But when I’m finished, I’m going to have an Almond Joy and maybe a nap. As my mother says, So it shouldn’t be a total loss.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Perils and Perks of Aging

Middle age is fraught with unpleasantness. Your body begins to turn on you in vicious and previously unimagined ways. Your adult children make known their grievances. If you are a woman, you become invisible to males under the age of forty. Despite being the high point of Sunday nights, “Mad Men” makes you wonder for the first time in years what your parents’ sex lives were really like.

This is not to say that being middle-aged is without benefits. There are a lot of things I like about being fifty-two. There’s the fact that I no longer bleed on a monthly basis. That’s something. And I like not having to pretend to enjoy rock concerts anymore. Plus, there is the fact that I know all kinds of things of which younger people are ignorant: which actors played the brothers on “Here Come the Brides,” for instance, and what it was like to ride a bike without a helmet, and how it felt to be able to wander your neighborhood entirely beyond the reach of the parental units, who were unabashedly thrilled to be rid of you.

But it is safe to say that, in general, being “of a certain age” sucks ass. I’ve asked my friends, and most of them say that they hate the changes in their physical appearance, the increasing number of doctors’ appointments penciled in on their calendars, the realization that they can no longer run as far or as fast as they used to, the sense of being “peripheralized” by the media (and teenage girls), the notion that the world is really intended for younger people, the fading of memories, the way newsprint seems to get smaller and blurrier, the ever-increasing number of pills on the nightstand. There’s no denying it. No one would choose to age if the other available option was Stay Young Forever.

So I’ve decided to remind myself, on a regular and public basis, of some of the nice things that have happened to me since I’ve turned fifty. To wit:

--My daughter was graduated from high school;
--My son was graduated from college and had relatively little trouble finding a job with a salary that allows him to pay his own bills;
--I saw Paris for the first time with someone I love;
--I sold my house for more than it was objectively worth, in time to avoid the recent economic collapse;
--I moved in with my boyfriend (which brings to mind yet another indignity associated with aging: the absence of a reasonable word with which to refer to one’s significant other when one is over the age of thirty and unmarried);
--I now live in a beautiful part of the world that features fog, crashing surf, pelicans, sea lions, a non-working lighthouse, and KPIG reception;
--My colonoscopy was clean;
--My kids usually pick up their phones when I call;
--I have a new book coming out early next year;
--I read Amy Bloom’s AWAY;
--I am currently planning my mother’s ninetieth birthday celebration;
--I am still able to wear the same size jeans that I’ve worn for ten years.

That’s twelve things to be happy about, my ever-threatening physical decline notwithstanding. That’s not bad.

I will try to remember all this tomorrow as I stand in line at the pharmacy, waiting to refill three prescriptions and buy new reading glasses to replace the ones I’ve unaccountably misplaced.

Leaping Into Nothingness

A few weeks ago, my twenty-year-old daughter texted me from New Zealand to tell me that she had just bungee-jumped off a platform over the city of Queensland. My reactions ran the gamut from pride to anger (what if something had gone horribly wrong?), from fear (what in God’s name is she going to do next?) to disbelief (how did I give birth to someone who could possibly want to do this?). It took me a long time to settle down.

The disbelief is what has stayed with me in the days that have followed. I have known since shortly after she was born that my daughter and I are not terribly alike. She is shorter than I, brown-haired, blue-eyed, a person who loves to be surrounded by friends. (I have dark hair, brown eyes, and prefer the company of a chosen few.) She loves activity, noise, loud music, raucous laughter, bright lights. (I am quiet and sedentary and just generally more bat-like.) She can sing. (I can’t.) In short, I can’t really say that I’m shocked that she would be drawn to bungee-jumping, an activity pretty low on my list of What I Must Do Before I’m Eighty. (The only thing lower is intentionally setting myself on fire.) I have had a long time to grow accustomed to our differences.

Today, as I was jogging through my still-new-to-me neighborhood, I thought again, How did I give birth to someone who would want to bungee-jump? How do I—a person given to catastrophizing and imagining the worst, a careful person made happy by certainty—have a daughter who would willingly take a gleeful, running leap into nothingness?

It was a beautiful fall morning in my neighborhood, which sits on a cliff above Monterey Bay. Yesterday’s clouds had all but dissipated, leaving behind a pale sky and the smell of wet eucalyptus leaves. I could hear jays cawing from the Monterey pines and the rush and crash of waves in the distance. When I finally reached the shore, I sat for a minute and watched a trio of brown pelicans skim the water’s surface, then rise in formation, looking like a phalanx of unmanned drones.

Climbing the steep, rocky path up from the beach, I thought how happy living here has made me, how much I prefer my life here to my old life in the suburbs, where I never paid attention to the color of leaves, where I had a yard instead of a garden, where a sudden rainstorm would remind me only of the traffic jams sure to ensue on the flooded streets.

I live about a hundred miles away from my old house, but my move entailed so much more than packing and sorting and throwing away and then driving south for an hour and a half. It has meant leaving the house where I raised my children: the house where they built pillow forts in the family room and learned to read and hid my birthday presents and called for me in the middle of the night. My son worked on his Lego models at the kitchen table. My bungee-jumping daughter ate seven red Jello Easter eggs one year and threw up what I thought was blood all over the kitchen floor. Moving has meant giving up access to the rooms where these things happened. It has meant having to rely on my own memories, without the prompts of place.

Moving is one of life’s monumental stressors. Those of us who move have to find new places to shop, to exercise, to eat, to play. We have to make new friends. We have to get used to the way the new streetlights are timed. We have to find new favorite bookstores. (Mine is Capitola Books, located conveniently across the parking lot from a See’s Candy store.)

Moving has also meant giving up my life as a single parent to set up housekeeping with Robert. It has meant forging new traditions, like buying flowers and vegetables at the local farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, and heading out to an orchard for apples afterwards. It has meant finding a place for his late father’s armoire (the guest bedroom). It has been a joyous process of accommodation and coming together and learning to make meatloaf just the way he likes it. But back when we had just begun the moving-in-together conversation, I had concerns. What about my freedom, my independence? What about all those things I liked doing alone? (Tellingly, I can no longer remember what those things were, but at the time, they loomed large.)

Remembering all this as I jogged home this morning, I was struck with the realization that moving is its own kind of gleeful leap into nothingness, a bungee jump without a cord. Perhaps my daughter and I have more in common than I’d thought. Perhaps, I decided as I turned into my driveway, I am braver than I had previously believed. It was a nice thought to have as I stood, panting, watching two gray doves peck the damp dirt beneath the now-flowerless hydrangea, each careful not to lose sight of the other, seemingly aware that the world can be a dangerous place.

I caught my breath; I imagined telling my daughter that we are more similar than not; I could hear in my head her uproarious laugh. Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But I’m vowing that I will stop thinking of myself as timid and fearful, that I will give myself credit for occasional courage, however tentative, however mundane.