Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Alchemist

Soon after Baldwin's class, I graduated and won (there was competition) an internship to write for the Pioneer Valley Advocate, a weekly newspaper that served the Amherst-Northampton area in western Massachusetts.

Side Note #1
My father was not particularly impressed by this internship.  I don't know why.  He was very anxious about my future. He'd call me up at 8 in the morning to berate me for still being in bed, failing to take into account that I worked nights at the Iron Horse, in Northampton, and did not get to bed before one in the morning.  

The Iron Horse, like my internship, had really been a fantastic experience (that did not particularly impress my father).  In 1987, it was a cozy concert venue, iconic in Northampton, that attracted a great list of performers: Cocoa Taylor, George Winston, Harry Chapin Carpenter, Cecil Taylor, comic Steven Wright...the list is long indeed.

Which leads me to...

Side Note #2

The greatest shared-art performance experience of my life   

Forget Billy Bragg and the other thing I was going to write about.  This is going to be about the Odetta concert.  

Summer, 1987. Odetta did two concerts, and I had tickets for the second.  

I worked at the Iron Horse in the kitchen, as a prep-cook, but I took that night off to be in the audience with my friends for this concert.

I was familiar with Odetta's deep and soulful voice because my father loved her and played her records.  On the rare occasion, in the car, when her voice came over the radio, he would turn it way up  and assume an uncharacteristically blissful expression.  

My father was a person who struggled with a deep and frequently relentless unhappiness.  

Odetta's voice was deep and wide, like a boiling river of sadness, yet undeniably gorgeous.  

Misery brings shame and isolation; but in music, it is nothing more than a cello, or the key of A minor, or Odetta's voice.  

In 1987, the Iron Horse still seated about 85 people, a very intimate space.  Waiting in line for the second concert, the audience from the first concert filed out.  Many of them were shaking their heads. It was not a very good concert, they said.  She didn't seem to be particularly into it, they said.  

My friends and I looked at each other with our characteristic scoffing disgust.  

Had they not heard that Odetta's mother had just died that very day?  

We sat in a booth to the right of the stage.  I sat back on the pew-like bench, bracing myself for grief.

It was a remarkably diverse audience, especially by Northampton standards.  Now that I think about it, there may well have been friends and family of Odetta's there who had traveled in from out of town.  Thre were many African-Americans in the audience. They were not students or graduates or hipsters; they were grown- up men and women.  

They also seemed to braced for grief.  

We all started out a little glassy eyed.

Odetta, very poised, brought the words out slowly.  

The first song I am going to sing for you, in honor of my mother, is "Winnie the Pooh."  

Everyone in the house was crying, daubing cheeks with napkins that smelled like lasagna and jambalaya. 

She embraced our compassion, our tears, our embrace of her. 

I could have stayed there forever.  For all the crying, it was a joyful place.  I had never experienced a pain so exultant in dignity; a pain that bound so many strangers together in sympathy for our shared and frail human condition.

The earlier audience complained that the first concert went short.  

The second concert went long. 

It was an eternal evening, never to be forgotten, never to be repeated.  Lugubrious tides of grief washed across the audience, and back to Odetta.  

And it was okay.  It was more than okay, because Odetta was an artist; and as an artist, she took all of that sadness and transformed it, that night, into something sublime.   

The link below is Odetta singing, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child".

Friday, December 25, 2015

Celebrating James Baldwin

White literary critics described the youthful James Baldwin as an angry young man. But while Baldwin eloquently wrote about anger, anger never clouded the lucidity of his narrative--or the gentleman that was James Baldwin himself.

The brilliance and sensitivity of Baldwin's oratory was recognized in his church community at an early age.  By the time he was fifteen years old, he had begun to fill his father's shoes as a preacher in the pulpit.

But I met James Baldwin at the other end of his life--when he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and I was a student.

James Baldwin taught a class in the African-American Studies department. I don't remember the title of the class, but I remember the thesis: that the history of black people in the United States is American history.  Without understanding African-American history, we cannot really know American history. The black American story reveals an essential truth about this country that, while not flattering, cannot be subtracted or diminished from history without history itself becoming a lie.

Baldwin was a physically diminutive man.  He wore long and wide scarves that he wrapped around his neck several times.  By this time, he had a home in France.  (Had I not known that, I would have inferred a French connection nonetheless.)

He had a gravelly smoker's voice and may have mumbled, or the acoustics in the lecture hall may have been really terrible, or maybe he didn't speak closely into the microphone, or maybe the microphone distorted his voice.  I don't know the very reason, but I had to concentrate intensely to hear and understand what he was saying.

And then there was the fact that he was so incredibly brilliant that I had to think and listen and think and process and think and think to keep up, keep up, keep up...It was kind of exhausting.  Some students who loved him fell asleep in the front row.  Two rows back, I did my best to follow along, but I probably zoned out briefly a hundred times.

His novel, Another Country, was why I loved him.  It was filled with a truth that I had never known before, not really. Jack London's brutally unflinching observations on nature spring to mind as a possible comparison to Baldwin's insight about people and society.  I also think of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as well as, among artists, Van Gogh and Rodin.

In college, Another Country felt like the first book of its kind that I'd read--not because it was about black people per se, but because of how honestly Baldwin depicted the crushing influence of society's hostility or its utter indifference toward his characters. Compelling, yet excruciating; I had never experienced anything that revealed the poisonous nature of contemporary society from such a place of empathy before I read that book.

On the last day of class, a reception was organized in his honor.  Perhaps it was supposed to be a surprise, or maybe lines of communication had broken down somewhere...

We waited for Professor Baldwin for fifteen minutes.  It was not unusual for him to be ten minutes late.

Half an hour went by.  People started to worry.  A search party was assembled and dispatched.

They found Baldwin in the lecture hall, delivering his lecture for the day to a few students who, like Baldwin himself, hadn't heard about the reception.

So, picture it:  There's the great James Baldwin at the lecture, that famously "angry young man," delivering a lecture to a class diminished in size from 250 to not more than twenty-five students.

He probably wasn't feeling that good to begin with.  Maybe he was tired and achy. But he wasn't lecturing vitriolic about the 200-plus kids who hadn't bothered to show up for his last class that day. He wasn't wagging his finger and saying how terribly irresponsible and thoughtless they all were.

No, he was just teaching.

When Baldwin arrived at the reception, the first thing he did was apologize to everyone in the room for being an hour late.

I was amazed by his generosity and modesty.  James Baldwin had every right to be irritable--even outraged. Communication clearly had broken down somewhere.  His time had been wasted.  Even the lecture he had been faithfully delivering was interrupted and terminated for this event.

And he looked tired.  But he also looked pleased. And he was not irritable at all.

That's when we fell upon him like a pack of sycophants.

There was one student among us whom I detested.  He was such a pompous ass.  His name was not, but was equivalent to, Geoffrey Chaucer, and he acted as if he was Geoffrey Chaucer.

Baldwin had recently published a collection of essays under the title, The Price of the Ticket.  

Spoiler alert: What is the price of the ticket for black people to be citizens in this country?  The price of that ticket is too high.

Cut now to Geoffrey Chaucer attacking James Baldwin with a pen: Would you sign my book? And in it, would you please say...

OMFG, Geoffrey Chaucer was dictating to James Baldwin!!!  I heard it from just a few feet away.  I had positioned myself very carefully so that I wouldn't be mistakenly associated with Chaucer, who was now dictating to the great man: When the price of the ticket is not enough.

Not enough?!  Are you kidding me, Geoffrey Chaucer?  OMG. WTF? (I was a very angry young woman at that moment. I could have throttled Chaucer within an inch of his life, if he weren't so damn big.)

Baldwin glanced up in search of a face--any face that would look back at him with appropriate incredulity.

It was my face that Baldwin saw--a handy mirror of horrified incredulity and scoffing disgust!  (Mine was the horrified incredulity and scoffing disgust; Baldwin's was bemused incredulity.)

I could tell that Baldwin was sick.  He didn't look well. He had never been a handsome man, but he looked especially drawn and frail in 1987.  I often managed to be close by when he was entering the building.  (We were both typically a little late.)  In addition to his friends and admirers, there always seemed to be a question hanging around Baldwin: Did he have the energy to teach today?

I wanted to tell him that I loved him. I didn't think I would have the opportunity again to tell him. I wasn't the only one who wanted to express love to him. Other students approached, sat down across from him, talked a bit about this or that, and concluded by saying how much he meant to them.

I was shy, so I waited until every single person had left the room except for Baldwin. I had already talked with him briefly about Another Country.  I told him how painfully honest I had found it, and how incredibly difficult I imagined it must have been for him to write it. He admitted that it was; he had written it during a time when he found himself at the very edge from which many people (writers and non-writers alike) don't return.  But Baldwin did return. He returned with that book.

I was surprised how quickly the library in the African-American Studies Department, where the reception had been held, now emptied. Many had spoken with Baldwin, but few had talked for long. Everyone had taken turns, politely. Despite how unassuming Baldwin was, both physically, and in his gentle qualities, still I think we were all (except for Geoffrey Chaucer) properly humbled. We understood the value of Baldwin's time and his words; and perhaps, too, there is something about genius, however sweet, however gentle, that is a little bit overwhelming for the rest of us.

But I wanted to tell him that I loved him, and there he was now sitting in a chair by the window with an empty chair across from him. He was waiting for his ride.

I went over to him and smiled. We were acquainted now, thanks to Chaucer's gaff and our conversation about Another Country.  I think he realized I meant no harm.

I just want to tell you I love you.  

I think he reached out his hand. I think I kissed him on the cheek. I know for sure I promptly burst into gulping tears and beat a hasty retreat into the Women's Room, where I continued to cry very loudly for quite a long time.

But I do remember distinctly that as I hastened out of the library, I heard Baldwin behind me say, You're going to be okay, Baby.

It was cancer of the stomach. That was late spring. He died that summer.

What did he mean, I was going to be okay?

For years, I thought he meant me.

But now, I realize that he meant that we would be okay without him, because he was leaving behind a body of work--a legacy--that was everything he had to say and everything he had to give and most of what we needed to light the way.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Are You Susan B. Anthony or the Other One?

I have no memory of my mother vacuuming.

I remember her folding laundry, and the smell and sound of clothes churning and roasting in the coin-operated machines at the laundromat.

I remember when she cooked, because it didn't happen very often.  She made a pork-chop thing with lemons three or four times; eggplant parmesan a few times; and, for two or three Thanksgivings meals, lasagna.

I bring this up not to suggest anything about my childhood one way or the other.  I was thinking about from the point of view of being a grown-up...Specifically, of being a wife and a mother who vacuums frequently and cooks constantly, with regular mid-week breaks at Burger King or Qdoba.

My son will have loads of memories of his mother in the kitchen.   He will be doing his homework, and I will be cooking; or he will be practicing piano, and I will cooking; or he will be playing on his X-box, and I will be cooking.

So, there's a variance, a discrepancy, a deviation, a divergence...between my adult life and my mother's.   I'm trying to figure out why.

My mom is a feminist, but so am I.  I used to think that she and her cohort were the first feminists ever, before I realized Simone de Beauvoir's THE SECOND SEX had been published 10 years before Betty Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.

Somehow, I thought that as a feminist, my mom's generation would win all these rights and privileges for women and that I would be the beneficiary.

But, I still wasn't paid nearly as well as my male counterparts at work.

I still experienced sexual harassment as a teenager and young woman.

And somewhere along the way, how the hell this happened I don't now, I became the primary housekeeper and cook in my family.

My mom still doesn't vacuum or cook.  They pay a lady to do clean.  (Note: A woman is still cleaning the house, but at least she's getting paid for it.)

My mom doesn't cook or clean and she rarely shops for clothes.

What does she do with all of that time?

She reads.  She reads the New York Times, the local paper, the New Yorker, and a variety of books, including very good books, pretty good books, and murder mysteries.  Now and then she'll reads something enormously taxing, like Proust or Bleak House, just to prove she can.

My mother lives with women.  I live with men.

My mom has no pets.  I have at least ten.

I wasn't supposed to be Betty Crocker.   I prefer Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony said she never wanted to get married or have a family and become a complete drudge.  She  didn't.  She ran around the country free and unfettered, demanding that women get the vote.

Elizabeth Cadish Stanton stayed home and cooked and cleaned; when she got a moment, she sat down at the kitchen table and hammered out a pamphlet or a speech.

We're like them, my mom and me; Mom visits her friends all over the country, and finishes the New York Times; I stay home, and cook and clean, and in my spare time, I write.

What if, instead of being the beneficiary of the feminist movement,  I had been among the first American feminists..?  What if I had stopped wearing make-up and shaving my legs?  What if I had read more dangerous books...(Okay, to be honest, I've read quite a few dangerous books...more than my share.)  But what if I had marched in the streets for equal rights and equal pay?  What if, instead of a book club, I belonged to a women's group intent on mutual empowerment and consciousness raising?  

Would that make me more free?


Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Christmas Letter to Save the World

Dear Friends and Family:

Even when the world seems to be spiraling out of control--like now--we are called upon to carry on with our daily chores and duties.  In my family, we celebrate Christmas and New Years, so we (I) am shopping for presents and reaching out to loved ones in the spirit of good cheer.

As citizens of a great country, we should be able to do many things simultaneously.  Save the planet from overheating.  Save ourselves from terrorist plots.  Stop shooting each other.  Buy more Christmas presents.  Write and mail out holiday cards.

This post attempts to do all of these things at once. So, in no particular order...


Of course, all lives matter.  But to reject the term BLACK LIVES MATTER is a way of continuing to deny the scourge of racism and the truth of what we are seeing.  Over and over, what we now see, (thank you, Steve Jobs), insists that we recognize racism as a problem in this country that demands a remedy.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi answers the same question with regard to feminism.  Why should I say I am a feminist, rather than a humanist?

"...To choose to use the vague expression'human rights,'" Adichi says, in an interview with NPR, "is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender...The not about being human, but specifically about being a female human."


2015 marked our second summer and third winter on the farm.  We now have three horses, three dogs, and an appalling number of cats (more than 3 and fewer than 30).

Frankly, asking how many cats a person has is kind of a rude question.

Until June, we had an exchange student with us for the academic year.  He was from France, and he was with us in January during the attacks on Paris.  He was not in Paris, thankfully, for the November attacks on Paris.


First of all, let me come right out and tell you that my father, a Jewish-identified atheist, married a doctor from Kashmir in the 1980s, when he converted to Islam as a conciliatory gesture toward her family.  So, technically, my father was a Moslem, although he was never observant and inevitably lapsed into his default position of being a Jewish-identified atheist.

I remember asking my father if I was Jewish.  I never went to temple, unless it was for a funeral or a wedding.  I didn't have a bat mitzvah.  In fact, my father attended a Presbyterian church when he was a child, and kept, on his bureau, in a manly jewelry case, a small tarnished medallion in recognition of his perfect attendance at the Presbyterian Sunday school.

What did my father say?  He said, "You're Jewish enough for the SS."

The SS, of course, was the Nazi Schutzstaffel, the"protective squadron" in charge of rounding up  Jews, homosexuals, and other misfits to be sent to the concentration camps.

Moreover, in the interest of full disclosure, there is the matter of my family name, Barmack.

In the series WEST WING, (Season 4, Episode 23, I'm pretty sure), President Bartlett rattles off a list of names of suspected terrorists.  Among them, loud and clear: "Barmack."  (In the script, it is spelled Barmak.)

Family lore has it that the name Barmack comes from the once-great-and-powerful Barmakid family of Persia.  It links us to the treacherous character of Jafar, in Disney's Aladdin, and specifically to the Jafar al-Barmaki of Persian history, the inspiration for a few characters in several stories in The Arabian Nights.

Or, perhaps, the name Barmack simply connects us to the rabbi in the Ukrainian village from which we came (to New York City).   We were a Jewish family (picture Fiddler on the Roof) who booked passage to New York at the turn of the previous century--fleeing, most likely, the Russian pogroms.

To some extent, because of my name and associations, I have a personal stake in how my country decides to treat Moslems.

Jews had a personal stake in how this country decided to treat Jewish refugees attempting to escape from Nazi Germany.  In 1938, the U.S. had strict immigration quotas and visa requirements that supposedly prevented it from choosing to save the 900 or so Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on a ship, the S.S. St. Louis.  They were all sent back to Nazi Germany and exterminated.

Which is more or less what will happen to the Syrian refugees who have to go back to Syria.

You can see the bind I'm in.  On the one hand, I am by name and affiliation a possible person of interest, should everyone in the U.S. with Islamic affiliations be required to register, or be questioned by a fortified FBI with broad discretionary privileges and little or no accountability.  .

I think it would be really nice if everyone had to be a little bit worried about what would happen to them if they could be broadly construed as having Moslem affiliations...

Because it's one thing to point a finger at a group of people with whom one has no affiliation.  It is very different if you know that your destiny may be attached to theirs in some way...

We ought to be able to empathize with one another as human beings, regardless of our differences, but  it's difficult when those differences seem profound.  And it's even harder when we are viewing them through a filter of fear.

But do try, if you can, to imagine that your late father was a Jewish-identified atheist Moslem.

Or, if that proves impossible, try to imagine that you have a surname that is to this day linked to the living memory of a notorious family in Baghdad.


I was shocked that one of the St. Bernardino terrorists was in touch with ISIS on Facebook.  I don't think ISIS should be entitled to a Facebook page.  Liberty-shmiberty.

I think social media privacy needs to be compromised in the same way that all of our privacy is compromised at the airport when we go through security.  There are people somewhere off-site scanning  pictures of us... naked...all of us bowing to authority, trying to make a flight...

I don't care if some faceless third party looks over everything I put on social media.  They should--but not just my stuff--everyone's stuff.  And they should be sensitive to the possibility of false identities and coded messages.  I know this isn't very libertarian, but we have to make compromises somewhere, and we already have a precedent at airport security, have we not?  Naked is naked.

They shouldn't comment, though, the way FB and Google does...Like, with the advertisements that  suggest that maybe you need ointment for the bags under your eyes, or yoga pants.  I hate their tacit commentary.  I wouldn't want FB surveillance making comments like that.  They should be like the people looking at the naked people--without prejudice or interest, unless we're concealing a weapon.


Shall, not should, please.

"We shall save the planet."  That means we must do it.

"We should save the planet."  That means we'll take the suggestion under advisement.

Saving the planet should be compulsory.  It shall be compulsory.


We went to Hawaii in 2015 during the kids' spring break.  Had a marvelous time.  Loved seeing  old friends.  Hope to go again before another 15 years elapse.


We wish you a healthy and joyful 2016.



Saturday, October 31, 2015

Facebook: Observations & Surmisals

This is what I've learned from Facebook so far:  

  • No one ever falls off the edge of the earth.  
  • Caveat to the first observation: If you've been divorced, all of those people may have fallen off the edge of the earth.  Everyone else shows up on FB.
  • Elephants can paint.
  • Lions can love people.
  • Baby bats are super cute.  OMG, they're so cute.
  • Cats and horses can be close friends.
  • A baby elephant will cry for five hours if rejected by its mother.
  • A grown-up elephant orphan will bring its baby home to meet the humans who raised her.
  • Crows can count.  Crows can organize.  Crows are more thoughtful about sending thank-you notes than I am.
  • A whale that is rescued by humans will dance for them afterwards in gratitude.
  • Humans are  killed defending the rights of endangered animals.
  • Animals are more amazing than I ever imagined.
  • With a really big lens, it becomes obvious that bumblebees are as cute as baby bats.
  • With a really big lens, dragonflies appear to be heartbreakingly exquisite creatures.
  • With an iPhone, you can take good pictures of everything except yourself.  
  • Caveat: That appears to have been fixed with the iPhone 6.
  • More people remember me than I ever would have thought credible, and it makes my life seem (to me) much, much more meaningful.
  • The people I know whose childhoods were way more damaging and painful than mine can remember the good times from those days way better than I can.  And I think that they are heroic for that and should be an inspiration to the rest of us who tend to take everything for granted. 
  • The past  is not dead.  It will, eventually, make family of people who once hardly knew each other.  The fact that we were the same age in the same moment of history means that we know each other very well indeed.
  • Some people--most of them youthful--really don't give a rat's ass what they say on Facebook. To this I have two responses:  1. There but for the grace of God go I; and 2.  I still want a tattoo and don't have one.
  • Embers and flames can burn way longer than you'd think.
  • That early inkling that you would like someone if you had the chance to get to know them better?  It was true. 
  • Some things mean so much to us, are so essential to our core values and beliefs, that I can hardly bear to learn that someone I care about thinks very differently.  And then I have to decide what's more important.
  • Sometimes, I say things that I shouldn't.
  • Sometimes I don't say things that I should.
  • You have to decide how much you care about what people think. 
  • You have to decide what you're going to let people see.
  • You have to decide who you are.
  • When you see and hear things that you wish weren't happening in the world anywhere, ever,  you have to decide whether to continue to see it or not.  
  • You have to decide whether you should make other people see it or not.  
  • You have to decide how to respond to what you are seeing. 
  • The world is in worse shape than I thought.
  • The world is more amazing than I thought.
  • The system is more corrupt and racist than I thought.
  • The human spirit is stronger than I would have thought.
  • My life is a tapestry.  I see myself as a member of society in a way that does not feel abstract.   
  • I can see who is liking who or what on FB.  I can see when you were there last, and if you're there now.  I don't think I should know this about you.  I don't think you should know this about me, either.      
  • I am alarmed by some of the advertising selections that seem to suggest that Big Brother has been reading my personal correspondence. 
  • I have heard that privacy is dead.  I am still trying to decide whether I think that price is too high or not.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Everything's Jake

In case anyone's wondering, I am still working on the (cough) book.

Almost a year ago, I finished a first draft.

"First draft" is no more accurate than "second draft."  I've probably revised and rewritten most of the chapters thirty-two times.  But let's say that by the end of this year that I hope to have manuscript that I would actually send to a literary agent or publisher.  Let's just say that, for now.

Since this project is taking twice as long as I anticipated, we're beginning to feel a little pinched.   You see, I used to make money, but now I only work on what some people would refer to as my own personal fulfillment.  ( o :

I hope to God that this pet project turns out to be more than that.  Because if it doesn't, if I have been working toward nothing more than personal fulfillment, then I am going to find myself filled with a great ironically gaping emptiness, in the end.

So, recently, to address the pinch, I took a cold hard look at our monthly expenses and made some startling discoveries.

The cable TV that we never watch cost $50 a month.  (We watch Netflix on X-Box.  We're not purists.)   The DVR that we never use cost $15 a month.

I won't bore you with the complete inventory of  mindless squandering.  Cut to the insurance.  We paid about $500 every month on insurance.  That had to be excessive.

So we scheduled a meeting with our insurance guy.  We'll call him Lou, not his real name.

We've been with Lou since 2006.  He used to remind me of Donald Trump (sharp suit, yellow hair) but now he's older, has silver hair, and is cute and comfy in the crinkly-twinkly old William Shatner mode.

Lou remembers everything we've ever told him about ourselves, and he weaves it all into an endless stream of catastrophe anecdotes, such as...

A sparrow picks up a burning cigarette to feather its nest and burns down our barn.

A friend rides my horse on the road.  A passing car honks their horn in greeting.  The horse rears up and our friend falls off and is hit by another car.

I pull my horses in a trailer when the trailer detaches from my truck on County Road A.  It drifts toward an oncoming Smart Car filled with clowns, all of them grown men supporting families.  They were on their way to the circus.

The first horse kicks open the back door of the trailer.  He stumbles, his hoof hits the road going 45 mph--but then he does a duck and roll kind of thing and miraculously lands on his feet in the emergency lane.

The second horse is now at the back door and looks out.  The first horse is running at top speed alongside the trailer, shouting, Jump, Belle!  You can do it!  Tuck and roll! 

But Belle is frozen to the spot, staring helplessly at the lines in the road and the clowns in the Smart Car who are all tooting madly on kazoos.

There is a third horse on the trailer.  He is between the front wall and an interior gate, locked into place like bologna in bread.  He can't do anything, he's totally wedged in there.

The first horse, his name is Fire, gallops up to my window.

"What is it, boy?" I ask.  "Why aren't you in the trailer?"

And then it occurs to me: Fire is not in the trailer, the trailer is not attached to the truck, Belle did not tuck and roll, and she is standing helplessly frozen at the back door with eyes big as saucers.

I hear the loud discordant whizzing of kazoos.

But I digress.

Lou is talking about an intoxicated person (whom he shall refer to as a drunk) who has tripped and injured himself on the sidewalk in front of his office.  Is that Lou's fault?

On my way to this meeting, I took a picture of a turkey walking on the sidewalk in the direction of Lou's office.

I mention the turkey to Lou.

Lou says, "He's a jake--probably 14 years old.  He starts his day outside this building.  By late afternoon, he's a quarter mile down the road.  He's been hanging around here for about four years."

Lou pauses before he says what he's going to say next, because he's about to go way off script.

"And no one's whacked him yet," Lou says.

A moment later, we cancel the life insurance.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Excavation Site 64--Northern France, 1918

What the heck?  This granola bar is frickin' messed up!

Heavily armed men run through alleys, duck into war-torn basement labyrinths.  Blood spatters.

And no training, okay? That's stupid.  Training is a really retarded idea when it comes to this math. I'm just sayin'.  Except when it comes to No Man's Land.  That's an exception, shall we say?

Holy crap, I just got socked by these frickin' zombies.  Holy crap!

Yeah, we're doin' that again.

The screen goes black.   Scores appear.  Excavation Site 64.  Northern France, 1918.

A small voice speaks inaudibly.

And you can't say that M-14 is a bad gun, because it's actually a good gun.  It's just a fun weapon, that's my opinion.  My excuse is that it's fun to use.

Granola bar wrappers accumulate on a coffee table.  

Hail and bullets rain on Northern France, 1918.  There appear to be clouds of blood.  

Don't start it yet, oh my God!  Aye!  Ferociousness!

Guys, when you use the ballista, always try to get head shots.

Why'd you take my zombie blood?  What the hell?  Dude!  Dude!  Why'd you take my zombie blood?

Hail no longer--a dry snow falls in fluffy flakes.  Below ground, scrambling and violence in a gray basement environment.  Blue and green phosphorescent accent colors.  Relentless zombies.  

Metal vacuum tubes evoke some sort of primitive subterranean banking system.

Dude!  The pans are gonna' come soon, and then what are we gonna' have?  Freakin' nuthin'.  Open the freakin' door!  Dude, you have so much stuff!

What the freak?  What the freak?  What the freak?

I know, I thought you were gonna' open the wrong door.  That was the door I was going through.

This time, dude, open the door earlier.

The screen goes black.  Scores appear.  The party leader is ready.  Excavation Site 64.  Game starting in 3 seconds.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fifty is the New F Word

I thought I should probably write a post about turning 50 before I actually show up (uninvited) for a red-carpet event outfitted in black netting and a thong.  I'm not Jennifer Lopez turning 40, so that would probably be an incredibly desperate and depraved act on my part--not to mention, so pitiful and sad.

So, I won't do that, at least not until I hit menopause and lose my mind.  I'll write this post instead. Because, you see, if I haven't mentioned it already, I'm staring down the proverbial barrel of a 45, which happens, in this case, to be 50.  October 15.  Not yet.  Not yet....

Oh, and I know the Baby-Boomers are all like, Fifty!  Fifty is nothing!  Fifty is so young!

Baby Boomers, that gigantic, navel-gazing bulge of a generation, have had that birthday already, and generated hundreds of best-sellers, movies, and cowboy songs all reflecting on the enormity of that particular personal journey.  They've processed it to death, and now they're looking at 70 and thinking, Gee, fifty was so young...!

But I haven't turned 50 yet.  And just because my cohort, though small, has exhausted everyone's sense of irony, that doesn't mean that our experience of turning 50 is of no interest to anyone.  Obviously, it's of interest to us.

When you think about it, there have only been a few generations to have survived to 50 in sufficient numbers to warrant mass reflection. The business of getting old can't be getting old yet--it's still rather young, historically speaking.

But let's be honest.  Let's  take a candid look at ourselves.  You know what we're doing, cohorts of mine.  We who are turning 50--or have just turned 50--are becoming genuflectingly retrospective. We dig up old pictures of ourselves and of our parents, and of our parents' parents--photos of every one we ever knew (especially, if they got old and died), in the glorious bloom of youth.

Why are we suddenly interested in the bygone youth of our parents and grandparents?   Because we ourselves are becoming them.  All of a sudden, we realize, like, five minutes ago, that they were young once, too.  Nooo!  Yess!!!

Go!  Find those pictures.  They're somewhere in the closet or the basement, or under a bed in a big tupperware box.  Look at those people!  They were gorgeous!  Youth itself is gorgeous.  Even the truly sub-par youth had a vibrant glow about him/her that we can only now achieve at great expense: Tough Mudder, Iron Man, surgery, cosmetology... And even so, we're never going to be as bright and shiny as we once were....

I'll confess to an act of desperation.  I took a picture of my arm--yes, my arm!  I posted it on Facebook.  You may have seen it there and pitied me.  The  caption only made it worse: This is not your granny's arm!  HA HA HA

So sad.

But dammit, my arms have never looked better in my life! And I look at my arms, and I think, FIFTY!  FIFTY?  FIFTY!!!!!!

Fifty is the new F-word.

It doesn't sink in, no matter how many times I say it.  Am I deluded?  Look at the arm! Not photo-shopped!  It's a damn fine arm.  Not the same color it used to be.  Kinda splotchy with sunspots and yes, the hands.   The hands are the circles in the trunk of the tree that let you know EXACTLY how old the tree is.  (Some older hands are the soul of discretion, but not mine.)

In the last few years, I have gotten stronger and healthier; however, at the same time, I have lost three teeth.  And I hardly had any cavities!  I have broken two fingers on two occasions since 2011--prior to which I had never broken a bone.   I have kept my weight down, but I've been diagnosed with the same auto-immune connective-tissue disorder as Venus Williams.  (It has not improved my tennis.)  I've got a little mitral valve thing going on.  It's leaky.  I have a little heartbreak.  But of course I would!, having lived this long.

They say about women that if we survive our fifties, we're likely to live to a ripe old age.  The fifties, in other words, are the gauntlet years.  It makes me a little nervous that all these pesky medical conditions that no one's too terribly concerned about are cropping up just now, at the end of my forties, as I'm getting prepared to run that freakin' gauntlet.

My great-aunt used to say that when she got together with her friends they would have an organ recital.  How's your heart?  How's that kidney infection?  Are you still on the list for a new liver?  

I'm having those conversations now.  We're having those conversations.  It has started.

Ooh!, and as soon as I turn 50, I get to schedule a colonoscopy!  YAAAY!  That sounds even better than having my breasts crushed between cold glass plates.

I'm  seriously not sure I'm willing to go through with the colonoscopy.  I got deep psychological reservations.  And anyway, in ten years, it'll be margarine. They'll say that colonoscopies stimulate polyp growth.

Just go about your life and try not to think about your ass too much.  Eat the fake calamari.  That's the best thing you can do for your colon.  

But that's the least of my worries.  Menopause lurks like the Milwaukee lion (there's currently a lion lurking in Milwaukee, in case you haven't heard).  I know I announced on FB that it already happened, but I was wrong--I just forgot to write down a date.  It happens.  Not the part about announcing menopause on Facebook, but the part about forgetting to write down a date.  That happens.

We know it's going to make me nuts.  It may be happening already.  I may be nuts,  That's how it works, right?  You keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.  Wait, that's not it.  You insist you're sane when clearly you are not. Bingo!

Are you sane?

There is a bright side to this whole living forever thing and not being young anymore.

First of all, I am still pretty healthy and strong, so I have some of the benefits of youth while enjoying the breadth and scope of perspective that comes with the passage of time OR genius.

If you're Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Mozart, Joan of Arc, or Virginia Wolf, you can get a lot done in a short life.

But I, personally, could not have seen the arc of history bending in one direction or another without having lived this long.

That's why novelists are generally older.  Time does tell a story.  We may not like the story, but it unfolds nonetheless.  In the fullness of time, we begin to see our own story with clarity.  We sense the shape and weight of it, and maybe even glimpse its probable end.

I like my story okay, so far.  It's still a work in progress.  I expect there will be more surprises and high points yet to come.

I have one or two things to do before I rest.

But so far, when I look back I am grateful for every chapter, and all of the attendant characters. Some of them were hugely influential, and some probably gave me this leaky heart.  It was frequently very interesting, and I don't feel unduly burdened by any of it.  If it was humiliating then, it's funny now.

Everything that happens to a writer enriches the work somehow, no matter how painful or miserable it may have been.

Now that I'm old, I have seen history repeat itself.  I have seen hard-won lessons lost from one generation to the next.  Even in my own life, I have forgotten the lessons of my mistakes and made the same mistakes all over again.

It's the patterns of history that reveal the person, the story...the country...the human condition...the fate of all humanity...You see it in the patterns, over time, if you're paying attention.

So, for all my apprehension about turning 50, this is truly the most interesting time of my life so far, and the best time, I think, for a writer to bloom.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Crap Jobs, Getting Fired, and One Very Evil Corporation

A young person I know started his first job this week working at a factory making French passports.  I asked him to make me one.  He said it wasn't that kind of factory.   

Do you remember your first job?  

I was 15 when my dad said I would not be returning to Camp Lord of the Flies for my annual  sequestration.  It was actually a reputable summer camp, (though I'm pretty sure the director was a pedophile).  But as a plump, bespectacled, only-child, I was the obvious candidate for ridicule and torment.  

It was 1980.  Sports bras had not yet been invented.  Men had yet to realize that women didn't like being whistled and leered at, or having their bodies loudly pronounced or pounced upon in public. No one even associated Catholic priests with... Well, let's not get dark.  

It was a time of innocence, if that's the correct word, and I'm pretty sure it is not.  Looking back, we were all pretty much idiots

By the time I was 15, I had no longer been William Goldberg's Piggy for what seemed like, oh, half an hour.  

Now, I had a figure that stuck out in all directions, and my long red hair was a beacon.  There was no camouflage for me.  

I'm not saying I was popular, or that I looked the way I was supposed to in that day.  (That said, Molly Ringwald had nothing on me, except she was thin and easier to dress.)   

I thought my face was too oily, my hair was too frizzy, and OF COURSE, I was definitely too fat.

I couldn't fit my chest into prom gowns.   Cars passing almost always honked and occasionally veered dangerously off course through a curve.  

I couldn't walk or ride a bike without grown-up men whistling and screaming at me.  

First job: Dunkin' Donuts.  Picture a pink dress with a white apron tied in the back.  It should have been an easy job, serving donuts and coffee to strange men.  

All I remember is, I was so nervous I couldn't count change at all.  I was fired at the end of two weeks.  Oh, joyous relief!

A friend hooked me up with a job as a cashier at a CVS drug store.  I could wear a regular shirt and pants, but I was still too nervous to deal with the general public and operate a cash register. I was constantly calling the manager to void my transactions. I wasn't supposed to use the word screwed, as in, I screwed up again.   Instead, I was supposed to say I've made a mistake.  But I couldn't even remember that.  I was fired at the end of two weeks.   That one didn't feel so good. 

I worked at Eaton's the Druggist, object of the famous prank call:

Hello?  Are you Eaton's the Druggist?

Everyone I knew growing up in my town has made that call.  You know who you are.

At Eatons, all I had to do was face the aisles.   That means, make sure the product is facing the customer, all lined up nice and tidy.  I could do this.  No amount of anxiety could prevent me from carrying out this task.  

Except the one time, when I had stayed up all night and taken some sort of over-the-counter stimulant to stay alert at the store.  

I was given a sheet of neon-orange stickers, and I was told to doing something with them. But what?  I couldn't remember.  And the neon orange was so damn orange.  Just as I was realizing, all was not right with my head, my English teacher, Mrs. Weiner, walked through the door.  She had super-short platinum-blonde hair.   She was at least as orange as John Boehner.  About fifty years old.  (Really? OMG.)  I was full-on hallucinating from the pills I had taken.  They were non-prescription, over-the-counter--bear that in mind.  Don't judge me, I just wanted to be bright on the job.   

Yeah, I was fired.

I had a summer job on the eighth hole of an 18-hole golf course in Beverly, Mass.  My mother landed it for me through a friend.  You hate to put a friend in that position, though.  No one wants to fire a friend's kid.  I read Call It Sleep and ate tuna fish sandwiches.  The cook mashed up the tuna with her bare hands.  I also ate Reeses peanut-butter cups and chocolate bars.  No one seemed to mind.

The lady golfers stopped at the eighth hole for ice water, with a twist.  They always wanted a twist.  A twist of lemon or a twist of lime.  One would ask for a twist, and the others all followed suit.  Just to be obnoxious, I stocked the fridge with ice water that already had twists of lemon or lime--I even had a few with lemon and lime and no ice, because there were those kinds of ladies, too.  

It gave me a perverse pleasure to greet their originality with Henry Ford efficiency.  I'd have rolled that ice water out on a conveyor belt if I'd had a conveyor belt on the Eighth Hole.  That was the summer of my contempt for the rich.  

I was also very disappointed in Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA.   

When I wasn't at the Eighth Hole, I worked poolside at the grill and snack bar.  My customers were nearly naked, I couldn't be nervous.  I did a good job.  I also drank a lot of milk shakes, but I had to ride my bike seven miles each way the country club, rain or shine.  

I was not fired!

In college...
I washed dishes in one of the residential dining commons.  Not fired. 
I flipped burgers and collected trays at the student union.  Not fired.

I cold-called alumnae of  U. Mass. to ask them to donate money to the alma mater.  They had a "very persuasive script"... I could hear an audible click when my boss got on the line to listen and evaluate and find me lacking...   I lasted two weeks.  So fired.

After I moved off campus, I worked part-time at a Cumberland Farms convenience store (think KwikTrip), where I successfully operated a cash register for the first time.  

However, four or five weeks into it, a man in a dark suit came into the store.   I'd never seen him before.  He worked for Cumberland Farms, showed me his card, and directed me to follow him to the back of the store, where we sat on crates while he explained that there was a video surveillance camera in the back of the store.  It had been recording my every move since I started working there.  

Have you ever taken money from the cash register?
Have you ever failed to put a customer's money into the cash register?
Have you ever permitted anyone--a friend or a family member, for example--to come into the store and take anything without paying?
Ms. Barmack, I remind you that we have had a surveillance camera trained on you this entire time.  
Yes, you mentioned that. 
I'll ask you again.  Have you ever taken anything from the store without paying for it?
Have you ever consumed anything--a can of Coke, or a candy bar--without paying for it?  
Well?  Have you?

That's when I burst into tears and confessed, I had been eating the occasional FROZFRUIT bar in the store on my shift.  (They were nutritious and refreshing, particularly the strawberry.  The mango was also very tasty.)

How many FROZFRUIT bars do you think you consumed?
I don't know.  A few, I guess.  
A few per day or a few per week?
Per day, I'd say maybe two.
Would you say, four?  Do you think you might have consumed four FROZBARS in a single day?

He pulled out a large calculator and worked up the sum.  When he finished, he explained, I had eaten at least two hundred dollars worth of FROZFRUIT bars in just a few weeks.  

I thought that seemed excessive, but who was I to argue with the unequivocal evidence of a video surveillance camera?

Fortunately, I had lawyers in the family and my case was quickly settled out of court.  I paid Cumberland Farms $42 for the fraudulently consumed quiescently frozen confection.

I was 19 at the time.  Flash forward four years.  I am 23.  I am lolling sleepless in a bed in a military hotel in Tokyo, watching 60 Minutes report on a Cumberland Farms scam.  

Cumberland Farms had been offsetting the cost of all of their shop-lifting losses by scamming their own employees.  

Here's how it worked.  After a few weeks of employment, an intimidating off-site manager would take the hapless employee to the back of the store,  make them sit down on a crate, and explain about the surveillance camera....  


Not all of the scammed Cumberland Farms employees were college kids with access to free legal representation. 

They used the same line of questioning every time.  Virtually every employee admitted to taking something--a pack of matches, a Diet Coke...It all added up to some fantastic sum, whatever they thought they could reasonably extort.

They made so much money from this scam, it exceeded their wildest expectations.  It was more than than the total annual cost of all Cumberland Farms shoplifting losses combined.  They were profiting from it. 

Sadly, the lawyer who represented the victims in the class action suit against Cumberland Farms refused to settle out of court.  He wanted his day in court.  He wanted to bring down the man.  Like the real-life lawyer in A Civil Action, it undermined his clients' interests and ruined his life.  

Clearly, he had not experienced being fired often enough.  If he had, he certainly would have been better able to brush off the sting and dust of disappointment, and get on with the business of life.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Zombie Trailer Death Trap

Everyone I know who has been around horses for enough years has a story about horses falling through the back door or floor of a trailer on the highway.   There are several other variations on that theme.   I will not be posting You Tube videos to illustrate.

With that in mind, let me make the following confession:  I made a really horrible mistake.

I bought this trailer.

This is the self-congratulatory photo I posted on Facebook after I doctored it up on Instagram.  I literally gave it "highlights" to make it appear more youthful and less rusty than it really was.  (Yes, it works for trailers, too.)

I'm going to come right out and tell you what I paid for it, even though it gives me a really sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  $3,400.

Okay, now that's a good price for a used three-horse trailer, isn't it?   Why, yes, it is a good price, and that's why I bought it.

We asked the seller how old the trailer was, and he said, "It's an older trailer."

I was not put off by this.  I am, relative to some, older, myself.

To paraphrase Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire, All of the deep, important qualities just get better with age.

So why shouldn't the trailer, assuming it has been maintained properly,  be in fine shape?   The owner assured me that it was, indeed, and that he had in fact maintained it in top working order.  They said, and I quote, "It is 100% safe."

Here's another quote from Blanche Dubois.

I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that's sinful, then let me be damned for it!

And that's why she is a tragic figure. 

In this story, Blanche Dubois is played by both the buyer and the seller of said trailer. 

The sellers were genuine horse people.  They weren't rich.  They lived up north, cheek by jowl with Minnesota.  Their daughter was an aspiring rodeo queen.   They were selling the trailer because they had acquired a fourth horse and they needed a bigger trailer.   

To me, it seemed (spoiler alert: here's the magical thinking part) providential.  

I had three horses.  I needed a trailer.  They sellers  lived all the way up near Minnesota, but they were coming all the way down to a town 15 minutes away from from where I lived to pick up their new trailer. It seemed like destiny.

 THEY ASSURED ME THAT THE TRAILER WAS SAFE.  They said, THE FLOOR WAS TOTALLY SOLID.... (The condition of the  floor is of critical importance to the safety of horses.)  

Moreover, the seller LOVED this trailer.  We texted via FB about how excited we both were about our respective new trailers.  She had taken her horses and daughter in this trailer to barrel races and rodeos all over Wisconsin and the Midwest.   She asked me to send her pictures of my horses in her beloved old trailer.  We friended each other on Facebook.  She was genuinely, GENUINELY, struggling to part with this CAN.   

So, that was her magical thinking.  And magical it was, because, frankly, it was only by PURE MAGIC and divine intervention that her horses did not fall through the floor on a highway.  

When I took the trailer to my mechanic, I was told it needed at least twelve-hundred dollars worth of work on the breaks and electrical.   They told me to make absolutely sure that the trailer was structurally sound before putting that much (more) money into it.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Why didn't I make sure that it was structurally sound before buying it? Well, remember what the owners told me about it being 100% safe.  Recall their genuine pride in the work they'd done on it and their sincere affection for this trailer.  

My husband tore into the wooden floor planks with a chainsaw.

This is a picture of what we found under the planks:

What you are looking at are the metal supports for the wood plank floor.  The horses stand on the wood planks.   

As mentioned, prospective buyers aren't encouraged to tear up the wood planks in order to check out the metal supports.   One could (and SHOULD) take a flashlight and physically go under the trailer to get a clear sense of the condition of the framework.... But.... I doubt many actually people do that.  We didn't, and we should have.  

This metal support is not attached to the other side of the trailer.  It is just floating in space.

The photo below shows the deteriorated condition of the bottom edge of the trailer to which the metal supports are supposed to be attached.

This is another metal support that looks like someone took a big bite out of it.

The wood planks were in perfectly good condition, but obviously the framework that was keeping them off of the road was completely inadequate.

I sent these photos to the seller, and she was properly horrified.  But she soon got over it, and didn't had nothing further to say after that first There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I gasp.  I did not get my money back.

But let's hope that, at a minimum, (looking for the silver lining here), by sharing this tale of woe I might prevent a single horse from having its legs dragged along a highway at 65 mph.

Trailers range in price from virtually nothing to many obscene thousands of dollars.  I love the fact that horses are not a strictly upper-class thing in the Midwest. Regular folks like can have horses, and enjoy lives that revolve around horses.

My worst offense was that I could have paid a little more ($1500 more, to be precise) and bought a new trailer that would have been structurally sound and safe.  But instead, motivated by a corrupt combination of desire and cheapness, (not to say thrift, which implies some innovation and a successful outcome), I allowed myself to be carried away by wishful thinking--with potentially disastrous results.

Let me just say, to my credit, that I never once put a horse in that trailer. No horse will ever step foot in it. I had it taken away for scrap metal (and got $200 for it).

The scary thing is that at any given time you can find half a dozen trailers for sale just like the one I bought--on Craigslist, on Ebay, on Facebook, in the Want Ads....I found mine on the "Facebook Wisconsin Horse Trailers Only" page.

These death-traps are sold everywhere. They're as ubiquitous as the stories of horses falling through trailer floors on the highway. Everyone who's been around horses long enough has heard at least one of those grisly stories.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bite Me, I'm Herd-Bound

I have three horses here at my mini-farm.  Together, they are a herd.

Horses are herd animals, like antelope and bison.  Before these three knew each other, they belonged in other herds.   Before they came here, they had all lost their herds.

You can't say to a horse, Listen, I'm taking you away from your herd, BUT, and here's the thing, you're going to be fine.  You're going to have a new herd with new horses on a nice farm where you will be well cared for.  Don't worry!

You could say that to a horse, but it wouldn't make much of an impression.  It wouldn't make the horse feel better.  It wouldn't make him feel less stressed out in the trailer as he was driven away from his herd and brought to a strange new place that didn't smell particularly like horses.

Fire and Belle came first. Belle already knew and trusted me, but Fire didn't know me from Adam. He raced around our pasture with his tail flying like a visiting-team pendant.  Where are my boys? he might have been saying.

He had come from a herd with two young colts.  For over a year, he had watched over them and taught them how to be horses.

Tanner, our palomino, came about a month later.  From the farm up the street, his mates had been sold off one by one.  He was the last to go.   We could hear him calling from his pasture on the hilltop.


Belle and Fire would call back, Helloooo!

Are you a horse???

We are horses!  Are you a horse???

I am a horse!   Where are you, horses???

We're over here!!!  Where are you, horse???

I'm over here!!!

Good to know!!!

A little while later, Tanner would start up again.  Hellloooo???

A horse who has lost all his mates and is by himself, (except for a barn cat and a dog, who, under the circumstances, can provide a modicum of succor), is generally distressed.  So, I bought Tanner, and I added him to my herd.  (I should also add, he was a lovely yellow thing, shining like a penny in the sun.)

Tanner was approximately ten years old, a rescue horse without a paper trail.  A dent on his nose where a halter had grown tight gives some indication of his early travails.  I lurched back onto my ass on the (thankfully) rubber mat when, from his stall, he lurched out and bit me in the neck.  Just a superficial scratch over the jugular.  Could have been  worse.

Fire, the elder statesman, was not thrilled about the young interloper. Tanner was small, but unscrupulous and vicious.  Fire was appalled to find himself striped with bald hide where he'd been strafed by Tanner's teeth.

Understandably, Fire's ulcer began to act up.  Ulcers are common to Arabians, and Fire, a Polish Arabian with a sensitive outlook, was no exception.   I found him late one summer evening lying on his side, clearly in distress.  He couldn't get up.

This was my first experience with the dreaded colic.  I finally coaxed him to his feet, but he appeared completely miserable.   You're supposed to get them walking, so that things inside them get moving in the right direction. He would take a few steps and then stop to rest, obviously in pain.

Pretty quickly, the veterinarian arrived, and diagnosed gastric colic.  She gave Fire an injection against the pain and inflammation aggravating a roiling and convoluted alimentary canal. Forty-five minutes later, Fire was perfectly comfortable in his stall, on his feet.

Crisis averted.

All three horses seemed strung out, that summer.  It compromised their immune systems.  Their parasite counts went way up.  All of their eyes blew up with allergies--Tanner's face was suppurating plasma. Belle broke into hives the size of wine bottle corks.  Fire threatened to colic every time Belle went into heat.  Drama city!

If you've ever brought home a dog from a shelter, you've experienced separation anxiety.  After one-and-a-half-years in shelters, my dog Gretchen was so glad to be adopted, she couldn't hold her bowels in the car beyond a quarter mile from our house. She figured we were taking her back to the shelter.  I figured this had probably happened to her a few times.  Eventually, we could drive a mile down the road to my son's preschool; then, a mile and a half to the dog park...I'm not saying there weren't accidents.  (There were.) But, six years later, she's right as rain.

All three horses had separation anxiety--and it centered on Belle.  She was the focal point of the herd. The geldings were never far from her.  If I had Belle on a lead, Fire and Tanner would happily follow behind, without any lead attached to them at all.  If they doddled, Belle would call to them, and they would pick up the pace.  If I put Belle in the barn, the geldings would come along of their own accord and settle into their own stalls, which were beside and directly across from Belle.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor up the street asked me to bring my horses to her pasture to chew down her grass, which was copious.  It was a fool's errand, since three horses could hardly be expected to make a dent in so much acreage, though they could founder in the attempt.   (Too much sweet spring grass is bad for horses' feet--go figure.)

But, I wanted to be a good neighbor, so I brought Belle over to their farm first, and then I walked back to my farm and tacked up Fire, who was already rather anxious.

Fire could hear Belle up the hill, so he was happy to go in that direction.  We had a short but fun ride across the lawn and up the hill.  By the time I had Tanner in hand, Belle was already calling to him. We're over here!  Hurry up!  The grass is delicious!  So much grass!

All good. Until... I had to bring them back home.

Running short of time, I worried first about Belle.  She eats with too much gusto, and this pasture was like unlimited Ben & Jerry's with hot fudge and whipped cream.  She had been eating for three hours. I needed to bring her back first.

By the time I returned, ten minutes later, Fire was completely soaked in the cold sweat of panic, and Tanner was racing at top speed up and down the fence line.  All three horses were screaming.

I brought Fire down next, so he wouldn't stroke out.  At home at last, he trotted with Arabian pageantry in triumph through the pasture.

From the hill, I could hear Tanner trilling.


Tanner!!!  Where are you???


Tanner!!!  Get down here right now!!   

I had to pick up our exchange student from school.  I was already late.  Tanner would have to stay where he was for another fifteen minutes.

I felt horrible leaving him there.  Few horse people cogitate from as much acute  empathy as I, which acute empathy I'm told only makes horses crazier.   I reminded myself of this pragmatism over and over as I drove at top speed into town. I used telepathy to assure Tanner that I would come back and had not truly abandoned him.

I am not returning you to your previously solitary life as a horse with only painful memories of a lost herd and the sound of Belle's voice resonating in your ears from an intolerable distance.   

We drove directly to the neighbor's farm.  Tanner was snorting and screaming, all flared nostrils and hot sweat.  I could feel my enormous stress evaporate as I secured him in the halter and led him through the open gate and down the hill.

God forbid, we should anthropomorphise about these dumb creatures.  Let the facts as I've presented them speak for themselves.  Infer what you will.  I, for one, have redoubled my efforts to consider the horses' perspective from a place of empathy.

Our exchange student, by the way, is leaving soon for Brittany, France.  He entered our lives as a stranger, but, sometime over the past ten months, he became a member of the herd.

Of course, we'll miss him, but we'll be busy.  We'll paint the barn.  I will make great strides with Tanner's training as a trail horse. My son has a heavy schedule of enriching summer programs ahead of him.  And Baptiste will return to his real family, in France.  They certainly miss and love him.  Next fall, he will start his first year at university.  He'll be very busy, too.

When someone separates from the herd, humans don't run back and forth along the fence line screaming our heads off. We have the great advantage of keeping ourselves busy.  And of course we are able to communicate complex information with each other that should be enormously comforting, like, Everything's going to be okay.

How much easier it would be if I could explain to Fire and Tanner, Listen, dudes, I'm just taking Belle out for a trail ride.  She'll be back in three hours. 

That would spare them a lot of grief.

But then again, if I said to Belle,  Hey, don't worry!  Tanner is only going to Europe.  He'll return, someday, for a brief visit, probably.  Anyway, you're both very busy with all that hay you have to chew.  

I don't know how that would go over, but I think she might bite me. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

How to Love Bob Dylan

Some of my good friends have confessed (they didn't see it as a confession, but I took it that way) that they don't like Bob Dylan.  Actually, what they said was that that didn't understand why anyone likes Bob Dylan.  So, my challenge is to explain how to fall in love with Bob Dylan--his lyrics, his voice, the whole enchilada.

You're probably asking yourself, Why should I even try to like Bob Dylan?  

Consider this:  

In 1963, the great Johnny Cash bought Dylan's second album, The Free Wheelin' Bob Dylan, and "listened to it constantly,"  That same year, Cash wrote Dylan a fan letter.  Dylan was 22 years old.  When they met in 1964, Johnny Cash gave Bob Dylan, (now 23), his guitar as a gesture of his respect and admiration. [Credit:, the Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash Sessions.] 

Nice, huh?  No?  Okay.  Stay with me.  Listen to this recording of "Lay, Lady, Lay."  (I tried to find Cash and Dylan doing the duet of this song, but no luck.)  This is an early recording of it by Dylan, when he was still using his early melody-focused singing voice.  

Not too bad, huh?  Later, of course, Dylan transitioned into his better-known voicing, which, I would argue, focused more on phrasing.  Here are some prime examples of brilliant phrasing.  

Did you know that Dylan wrote "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow"?  In 1963.  He was 22 years old. He also wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" that year.  At 27, in 1968, he wrote "I Shall Be Released."

Dylan wrote a lot of great songs, no argument there.  But how do you really get into Dylan, on a personal level?   First, you'll need to get yourself some angst, lots of angst.  That's the heavy cream that provides the rich saucy basis for this recipe.  If you're an adolescent, perfect.  If not, try to think of something exquisitely painful that happened to you, and focus on that.  Here's a list of suggestions:

1)  Unrequited love

2)  Rejection

4)  Disappointment in your fellow man

5)  Loss of love

6)  General sense of hopelessness

It's two in the morning.  (Pretend.)  You're all alone, wearing headphones.  No one understands why you're obsessing about this stupid sh__.   You can't remember when it started, and you're afraid of the emptiness that would follow should you empty your head of it.  So, while it's there, clogging your arteries, why not enjoy the feast?  How bittersweet it is...

take, for example, this one song

From "Idiot Wind":

I noticed at the ceremony, 
your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
Don't look into mine.

Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom.

People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that

Now, if you're in this mood (keep the mood, it's important), do you really want a Neil Diamond kind of melodious voice crooning these lyrics?  You want it to sound pretty?   Hell, no!  You want a cry from the soul, not too pretty, smoky-scratchy, drawing out the hard meaning, salty and bleeding.  You really do want the voice Bob Dylan.

Give a listen.

The genius of Bob Dylan--the genius of genius--is that it speaks directly to the human condition--our condition--which is, in this case, was a voluntary state of possession bound by misery.  But connected to the universe through the grace of Bob.  

The quickest way to love Dylan is to give in to the beauty of that particular, terrible mood.  

Well, that's how I came to love Dylan.  There may be other ways, but I doubt that they burrow into the marrow of the bones quite as effectively.  

Dylan is a part of me.  I recommend that you make him a part of you.  I didn't say it would be easy--but truly worth it.

Dylan's lyrics are a painful indulgence--a moment to dwell on bittersweet memories.  To be in the presence of the ones you've lost.  A time to wonder the what-if's.   It is a reckoning with the limits of your time and choices, your life petering out, your choices describing borderlines everywhere around you.  Let your thoughts drift to the past, linger on regrets, quaff the bitter drink.  Swim in the wanting nature of your mind within the confines of your prison.  

And then, shake it off.  Shake it off.  Just for now.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

From Lebanon to France via Wisconsin

We were jubilant here, yesterday morning, when we discovered, rather late in the game, that school was canceled as a result of deadly cold.  Having already seen to the needs of my horses, dogs, and cats, I grabbed my tablet and iPhone and sat on the couch for two hours,with a dog on each side of me, my son quietly playing X Box, and cats everywhere.

Warm and cozy, I practically forgot what I'd heard on the radio earlier over coffee--that terrorists had shot and killed twelve political satirists--artists and journalists--at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, (sort of like The Onion, but more irreverent and provocative), in Paris, France.   

When I first heard it, I thought, Oh, crap.  More of the same old deeply troubling, hateful, tragic misery that we're getting used to hearing about on a regular basis.    

And then I thought of Baptiste, our French exchange student, and I realized that this was going to mean something more to him, more than just another horrific headline.  For Baptiste, it was personal, much like the bombing of the Boston Marathon, at the finish line, was personal for me.  Because I grew up in that area.  And because I used to work on Boylston Street in Boston.

When I worked on Boylston Street, no one got work done on the day of the Marathon.  We all stood around the windows or on terraces, watching the runners.  We had a view of the finish line.  First, there were the wheel chair racers.  They were the fastest.  I always cried for the wheel chair racers. Then, there was the first man.  Not a particularly weepy moment for me.  He was followed by groups of Kenyans. ( The winning man was, I believe, also a Kenyan on more than one occasion.)  They were very tall, very dark, very slender.   How did they not starve while running?   Where did they get the energy?

My favorite part of the marathon, as a spectator, was the last couple of hours.  That's where we saw the real drama--people being sick on the street, staggering toward the finish line, falling, being lifted up...A son or daughter emerging from the crowd to run the last 25-yards with Mom or Dad.  I've seen runners stop within sight of the finish line to aid a stranger who couldn't get to the end without someone sharing their last reserves of strength, an arm around a neck to help carry the weight.  
And there was something else that made the Boston Marathon bombing personal.  I had friends in the crowd.  I had friends in the crowd who were traumatized by the bombing, who knew the victims, who may have even been standing near where it happened.

Moreover, Phil and I used to live in Watertown, where the two terrorists, (also brothers, like two of the terrorists in Paris), fled. The entire town of Watertown was on lock-down, (like the village north of Paris where the two terrorists fled).  Police swarmed the streets.  I could imagine this, because I had lived there.

But there's another perspective to all of this for me, which is that in my extended family I include several people whom I love very much and who are Moslem.  They are not extremists.  They are spiritual.  They are brilliant.   My father married a Moslem woman, and had the deepest respect and affection for her until the end of his days.  Her children were in my father's will.  Should I have expired in an untimely fashion, they would have been his beneficiaries--in a will written many years after their divorce.  

From the age of eleven, I grew up among a Moslem family.  I spent five weeks in Kashmir, India, when I was fifteen.  There, I was surrounded by a tightly-knit extended family that could think of few things more tragic than to be, as I was, an only child of divorced parents.  I was temporarily adopted by this family.  I spent every moment of every day with them, even if I was reading a book.  I learned how to say salaam alaikum in greeting to the people that I met, as a show of respect.

In the family with whom I lived in Kashmir, the women did not cover their faces or their hair.  We picnicked at the foothills of the Himalaya by a cold rushing river, stepping nimbly from rock to rock, laughing, soaking the hem of our fabulously comfortable salwar kameez or churidaar.  On that day, I wore a flowing skirt, made in India, and a sleeveless white blouse.  There is a photograph of me from that day, I'll try to find it and attach it here.  I am only 15, but I look somehow much more wise and  serene than my age.  There was something about this devoted family, the gorgeous day, the phenomenally beautiful mountains and the river that transformed me from an angst-ridden, love-crazed adolescent into a happy, self-possessed young woman.  

The things that seemed to matter so much before I left for Kashmir that summer didn't matter at all when I returned.  I returned better, with a greater sense of who I was and of the strength that I had. That feeling didn't last past the fall.  I could speculate as to why a 15-year-old young woman's self-esteem might be eroded in my native culture...But that seems rather obvious.... 

And so, I found myself imagining, in the wake of the Boston Marathon, what if my Moslem family lived in Watertown, and what if one or both of the terrorists, by some fantastic coincidence, appeared at their door...?   At one point, I wanted to write a play about this: The dialogue that might have occurred between my Moslem family and the young terrorist--about what it means to be Moslem; about what it means to be human.  It would be a heartbreaking play, of course.  My former step-mother, so wise, so loving--as a doctor, she could use the placebo effect to heal the way Yoda employed The Force to raise airships out of swamps.  She is a light.  And if I could have written that play well, (I did not write it at all), it would have been sublime.  (I guess I felt unworthy.)

But that is the conversation that does need to occur, it seems to me. 

Flash forward to yesterday, Wisconsin.  By the time Baptiste emerged from his room where he had been tracking the news in Paris, I had been sitting on the couch taking pictures of cats for two hours. Seeing the look on his face, I felt ashamed that my attention had drifted so quickly and so far from the tragedy unfolding in his country.  

While I was still noodling around on Facebook yesterday morning, Baptiste received communication from Lebanon.  Baptiste was in touch with a young man from Lebanon who himself had been an exchange student here in Wisconsin last year.  Baptiste and this young man have never met in person, but they have corresponded a bit via whatever app young hip guys are using these days to communicate.  

So this message comes to Baptiste from this fellow in Lebanon, offering sincere condolences about the tragedy in Paris.  The Lebanese fellow, (I hesitate to call them kids or boys, since they're 18 and clearly functioning at a higher moral level than I), comes from a Moslem family, but he is not religious.  He no longer considers himself a Moslem.  (I suspect that his parents are completely freaking out about that.)  But he cannot get the word "Moslem" expunged from his identification papers, and therefore he cannot travel outside of the Middle East.  Like it or not, he's a Moslem on paper.

In effect, here is a once-was-Moslem young man who is so appalled by the acts of Moslem extremists that he wants nothing to do with his native religion--much in the same way that many atheists in the U.S. reject religion altogether, believing that religion creates more problems than it solves.  

On my father's side, there were Jews who became disaffected (with God, with religion...) in the wake of the Holocaust; and by the broad discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes in the U.S, and abroad.  

So here is this kid, stuck in Lebanon being a Moslem on paper.  But he's not feeling it.  He would like to get out of Lebanon.  He would like to distance himself from the extremism, maybe even strive to make the world a better place.  But he can't.  No one will let him.  He's stuck.

We don't hear those stories very often--about the disaffected Moslems who can't get far enough away from Moslem extremism.  For whom the religion that is so deeply woven into the fabric of their lives and family feels tattered, yet heavy and malodorous as a wet horse blanket.  For them, as for so many Western agnostics and atheists, the price of religion is too high.   

All we hear about are the kids who are running off to Syria to become militants.  So I wanted to share this story with you, because it reflects a more enlightened, humanist, passionate, all youthful concern for all people.   There are plenty of Moslem people who share our dismay at the horrifying chasm opening up between peoples.  

I was  humbled, having posted so many cat pictures on FB that morning, by the young man from Lebanon expressing his deep regret and concern to the French student in Wisconsin.   And one of the first concerns that Baptiste expressed about what was happening in Paris was that there would certainly be widespread violence against random, innocent, reasonable Moslems people.  Already this morning, as reported to me by Baptiste, following events closely, three mosques have been attacked in France.

In the midst of a tremendous rift opening up, threatening to swallow so many people, here are two young enlightened souls expressing concern for one another across the breach. 

Bravo.  There may be hope for us yet.