Saturday, November 30, 2013

Shame on Me

I woke up this morning feeling bad about something.  At first I couldn’t tell what it was.  But I couldn’t shake that potent cocktail of embarrassment and shame I seemed to have drunk in my dreams.

What could I have done? I thought as I drove the familiar tangle of freeways to visit my mother and take her for a drive. 

I took me a while to figure it out.   And really, it’s not so bad.  Except it is.

I am ashamed of the blog entry I posted yesterday.  The one about what I did on Thanksgiving.  The one in which I whine and feel sorry for myself.

I am one of the luckiest people I know.  And a day doesn’t pass when I don’t remember to feel grateful for all that I have.  So much; so many things.
I’m not speaking materially.
I am the recipient of miracles.

Which makes me yet more ashamed.
My Thanksgiving was a day for which to be especially grateful: for Robert, for food, for my children who are out in the world, productive and happy and more adventurous than I have ever been.  For my friends.  For good work to do.

For health.  Oh, my God, for health.

Shame on me for not remembering that when I blogged yesterday.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Eating Out on Thanksgiving

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Mine was okay.  My adult kids had other obligations (son and his girlfriend were at her mother’s house in L.A.; daughter and her best friend were camping in Utah), and the friends we usually share the holiday with couldn’t make the drive, so Robert and I were on our own.  We had a small, traditional feast with my kids on Sunday and weren’t up to cooking another one for just the two of us.  So we went out to dinner instead.

I was a little apprehensive about doing this.  I imagined that the restaurant—a well-known seafood house offering a traditional Thanksgiving meal in addition to the regular fare—would be nearly empty, the waiters either overzealously solicitous (because they felt sorry for the patrons who had nowhere else to go) or grudging and resentful (because they had to work).

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The restaurant was full of happy, garrulous people being served delicious food by a warm and appreciative wait staff.  Robert ordered fish, not minding in the least that he was missing out on the day’s culinary rituals.  I (who could eat poultry every day of the year) had turkey.

Here are some of the things I thought about at dinner:

            A lot of the patrons seemed to be people about my age escorting aging mothers;

            Many people did not dress up; a few did.  (The ones who didn’t got on my nerves.  Dressing up is part of how one acknowledges that one is not in one’s own house.  I wore a form-fitting Nicole Miller dress, so that I would be reminded to stop eating when I was full.  It worked.);

            There were several children on the premises.  All behaved beautifully;

            I sat near an older woman who wore heavy makeup and penciled-in eyebrows;

            Also, two gentlemen in navy blue blazers and bow ties;

            The elderly mothers who accompanied their families seemed extremely happy to be included in the festivities.  As far as I could tell, they did not send anything back to the kitchen or tell the waiter there was a draft;

            I thought about my mother but didn’t regret my decision not to spend the day with her;

            Sparkling wine gives me a headache;

            It is remarkably easy to give up eating a favorite food—stuffing, in my case—when you are gluten-intolerant and know that eating it will make you wheeze;

            Waiters who do not tease you about eating everything on your plate are better than waiters who do;

            Tea lights strategically placed make people look better, even when they have over-plucked their eyebrows;

            Professional chefs will occasionally put too much cinnamon in the yams;

            On the other hand, the sweet potato bisque was scrumptious;

            If I had had nothing else to eat except the cranberry-Mandarin orange relish, I would have been very, very content;

             On the drive home, I saw strip malls with full parking lots.  What is wrong with people?

All in all, I had a nice evening, because Robert and I love to eat out and the food was great.  But that’s not really what Thanksgiving is all about, at least not to me.  I missed my kids.  I missed being teased about the Cranberry Waldorf Salad Mold.  I missed 40s big-band music on the CD player and drinking in the kitchen and the frantic rush to make gravy.  And everybody lying like overstuffed whales in front of the fire after dinner.

It was, however, marvelous not to have to clean up.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Parents Who Brag

I have conflicted feelings about parents who brag about their kids.

On the one hand, there’s a kind of bragging I hate.  Like, when it’s happening, you’re looking at the parent who’s doing it and thinking, Do you not hear yourself?

On the other hand, my mother didn’t brag about me At All.  Even I, at the age of eight, knew she was different from the other moms.  When I asked her why, she said, I hate bragging.  I believed her (as I do to this day), but I admit to feeling a little crushed when she said it.  At the time, it felt as though my mother couldn’t think of anything nice to say about me.

Because here’s the thing.  It’s a good thing for parents to be proud of their kids.  Right?  So when does bragging cross the line?

I know three mothers whose bragging sets my teeth on edge.  Here’s why:

--There's a sort of urgency to their bragging, as though they are transmitting Information You Really Must Hear.  As though your own ordinary, skipping-impaired little girl will benefit hugely from the knowledge that their three-year-old daughter's gymnastics coach thinks she may have a shot at the 2024 Olympics.

--They brag about their kids as though no one else has ever had children who were as smart and accomplished.  It’s not enough for them to say how well their children did on their SATs; they tell you their scores AND make you read their essays.  And throw in their IQ scores for good measure (but casually, as though they think everyone's kids get this score and it's no big deal, or with feigned embarrassment, as if they told you by mistake).

--They are brazen in their willingness to take other people’s children down a peg.  Here’s a good rule to live by: if you want to brag about your children, you are, in effect, signing a contract that requires you to smile politely when other people brag about theirs.  Tit for tat, bitches.

--Even when they tell you about problems their kids are having, they find ways to let you know that doctors/teachers/rehab counselors/Relevant Professionals with Scholarly Credentials went out of their way to tell them that they are excellent parents, that they have done everything right, that none of whatever it is that is going on is their fault.  It’s quite astounding, really.

Here are a couple of additional notes about bragging:

--My mother—the one who hated bragging?—used to carry pictures of my children in her purse.  She would whip them out anywhere—at the grocery store, in the Emergency Room—and use them as an excuse to go on and on.  (This, it was pointed out to me later, was an indication that she was in the early stages of dementia.)  Once, before leaving on a cruise, she was showing me a couple of outdated photos of the kids that she was going to spring on unsuspecting fellow passengers.  “Why don’t you go to one of those meetings?  You know, the ones where grandparents show each other pictures of their grandkids?” I asked her.  Without a trace of irony, she said, “Why would I do that?  I don’t want to look at other people’s pictures.  I want them to look at mine!”

--When my ex-husband was ten, his beloved grandfather died.  As I remember the story, B was sitting next to his  hospital bed when a nurse entered the room.  “Have you met my grandson?” his grandfather said, and then went on at some length about what a great kid B was.  Much later, B realized that this was his grandfather’s way of telling him how much he loved him.  (It’s a family that doesn’t talk easily about feelings.)

I’ve come to realize that there’s bragging and then there’s bragging.  Sometimes it’s just a way of telling your friends how much you adore your children.  And that can’t be a bad thing.

Just don’t start telling me about how your damn cat can pee in the toilet.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Birds and Trees

Last week, we drove to the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge in the town of Willows.  We do this almost every year, with friends.  Always, we drive through the sanctuary to see the huge numbers of birds that nest and feed while migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

This year, the weather was unseasonably warm.  The sun bathed the wetlands in yellow light.  We saw hawks, Northern harriers, coots, mallards, Canadian geese, and pheasants.  The reeds and grasses along the roadside had been trimmed back, so we had excellent views of the waterways.

Note: I know nothing about birds.  Robert and Roy and Josine opine heatedly about the differences between buffleheads and grebes.  I can tell that the ones with green heads are ducks, and that’s about it.  Still, I love the Refuge.  I love that people have made a place for birds to congregate and rest.  My favorite thing is the way that vast hordes of birds, compelled by something invisible and therefore mystical, will suddenly surge out of the water, swarming into the sky, calling and honking madly.  The racket is unlike anything I have ever heard before: raucous and insistent and both ugly and beautiful at once. 

The next morning, I woke early and went for a four-mile walk in the area surrounding our hotel.  The neighborhood is quiet and flat, the homes well-kept.  It was breezy, a surprise since the day before had been still.  The trees shivered in the wind, their leaves rattling against each other, an ever-present static.  Whenever a gust blew in, I found my eyes drawn to them, as though their noisy shimmying was a show they were putting on just for me.

There are birds where I live, and trees.  But sometimes you see them better when you’re away from home.  That’s where you realize that the clamorous caws and hoots, the rustling overhead that is like an urgent whisper, are really Nature’s way of calling out, of telling you to pay attention.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stupid Questions

“Beware,” I told my daughter, “of the question-and-answer session.”

We were sitting in the audience, waiting for the Billy Collins reading to start.  And I knew from experience that a lot of people in the packed auditorium had questions.  Burning Questions.
Also, I knew that not all of these questions would be Smart Questions.  In fact, not all of the Questions would be questions at all.  Some of them would be Ways to Show the Writer that the Question-Asker Is Really Smart.

(Okay, so as an adult, I know I’m supposed to say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  But at a writer’s talk, that’s not really true.)

During his marvelous reading, Mr. Collins addressed some of my concerns.  “I think the worst question I’m ever asked is, ‘What is your favorite letter?’” he said.  The crowd groaned collectively.

When he finished reading and took several courtly bows, my daughter whispered, “Oh, my God.  I’m so nervous about the questions.”

“Calm down,” I said.  “It’s not as though he doesn’t know they’re coming.”  But I knew what she meant.  Sometimes you cringe, just knowing that other people are going to make fools of themselves.

Some of the first questions were okay.  I think “Which of your own poems is your favorite?” was in there, as well as “Who were your literary influences?”  (Coleridge).  All seemed to be well until a woman on whom Mr. Collins called cleared her throat.  I knew we were doomed.

“Sometimes,” she began, “I tell people you are my imaginary boyfriend.”

The audience laughed.  Collins looked embarrassed.  My daughter was looking into her lap.  “Oh, my God,” she whispered.  “Oh, my God.”

The woman went on to say that she had told her son she was going to a poetry reading and he had said, “Oh, well, then it won’t take very long.  You’ll be back in half an hour.”

More laughter.  More all-body wincing in the seat next to mine.

The woman went on again.  She was trying to say that what she loved about Collins’ poetry was the way it was conversational, accessible.  What she actually said was, “Other poetry seems, like, really deep and complicated.  Yours is just, like, on the surface.  Why is that?”

I’ll bet Billy Collins loves having to explain that he does, in fact, have a Ph.D in English over and over and over again.  And that “accessible” doesn’t mean “on the surface.”

Clearly, though, he’s an old hand at keeping the question session to a minimum.  Which was a relief to everyone.

I should have tried to ask my question—“Can you speak to the difference between free verse and prose?”—but I was too shy.

Ultimately, even after what Collins said during his talk, someone raised his hand and asked, “What is your favorite letter?”

“Oh, ‘L,’ I guess,” he answered, sounding weary.

I think he said ‘L.”  I was too busy squinching my eyes closed and whispering “Oh, my God, oh, my God” to be entirely sure.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writers Talking

Tonight my daughter and I are going to see Billy Collins speak.  I am very excited.

The first writer I ever heard speak in person was John Updike.  He was marvelous.  He said that when he came to California in the summer, he was always struck by how brown the hills are, so unlike New England’s verdant lushness.  But, he said, Californians needed to relish their state’s own particular beauty and not wish for it to be anything other than what it was.
I think about that every year.  Truly.

In the early 80s, I saw John Irving speak at the College of Marin.  He read from an as-yet-unpublished novel that would become The Cider House Rules.  He seemed a little taken aback by the rousing welcome he was given by the crowd, which included many women, one of whom raised her hand and asked, “Do you drive a Volvo?”  At this, he recoiled visibly.  I was embarrassed for the woman, who thought she was being funny.

Lorrie Moore was shy and self-protective.  I heard her speak just as Birds of America was published.  She said only one of the stories was based on actual events in her life, but she wouldn’t tell us which story it was.  At the time, I was pretty sure I knew: I had read “People Like That Are the Only People Here” in The New Yorker and thought that no one—not even Lorrie Moore—could imagine something so harrowing out of thin air.

I’ve seen Annie Lamott speak several times.  She is known as the sort of writer women flock to hear.  She’s the best friend we all wish we had.  (Actually, my best friend is the best best friend there is.  We went to see Annie Lamott together once or twice.  Afterwards, we always said we wished we could invite her out for hot chocolate.  The way everyone else in the audience wanted to.)

Patricia Polacco writes children’s picture books.  She speaks at over 300 schools a year, a feat I find almost unimaginable.  I was mesmerized by her.  She has a rare gift: the ability to speak to children and adults at once.  She personifies the distinction between a writer who gives talks and a true storyteller.
The funniest writer I’ve ever heard speak is Elinor Lipman.  She makes her own writing sound screamingly funny when she reads it.  For years after I heard her the first time, I imagined her reading whatever I was writing.  If it sounded funny, I left it alone; if it didn’t, I revised.

David Sedaris is a marvel in the meet-and-greet department.  My daughter and I saw him at a small indie bookstore that was jammed to the rafters with fans.  After his wonderful reading, he stayed to sign books, and I think he engaged personally with every single person in the room.  He had a sweet conversation with my daughter about Australia (where she was headed in a couple of weeks), and then asked me my name. When I told him, he went on for a bit about how he likes to sign books with some reference to the person's name, but mine reminded him too much of "vagina."  We had a good laugh.  He ended up drawing me an owl that is thinking "I love black people!"  

There have been other writers over the years—too many to mention—but these are the ones who stand out.  Always, I remind myself how difficult it is for someone to stand in front of an audience and read what she has created, what she has thought important.  It is first and foremost an act of bravery.  I know from experience.

If Billy Collins reads “The Lanyard,” I will bawl like a baby.


Addendum: He did read "The Lanyard."  I didn't cry (but only because my daughter would have been annoyed).