Sep 30 2009

Apparently not finished with the cougar business.

a502bdfcce273b1a3bbe571add4ad2aeIt’s not every day I wake up feeling ready to take on Judith Warner. She writes a blog called Domestic Disturbances for the NY Times, for God sake. She’s in my blog roll. She’s a serious writer, a good writer. Not a frivolous, fake writer like me. Not a writer who shrieks about beautiful British baby boy bands, makes up words and overuses ellipses . . . What if she googles her name and finds this post? I’m scared. Girls like her were the reason I never participated in Model United Nations in high school: dour, pearl laden, hyper brainy sourpusses, with convictions. I had no convictions. I had other fine attributes, like pep, for instance. Perseverance. But convictions? Not so much. The thing about people with convictions that frightens me is that the convictions often seem to muscle out the humor. And without the humor, well, I’m afraid everything is very serious and sure, and when everything is very serious and sure, then you scare me.

Last week Ms. Warner wrote a post which was a full on attack of Courtney Cox’s new show, Cougartown, which premiered on ABC last Wednesday. Given my recent ruminations on the cougar thing, I was curious about how the topic would be treated by network TV and, sort of assuming I’d hate it, I DVRed the show. Truth be told, I’ve got nothing but love for Courtney Cox, notwithstanding the fact that she married a bit of a buffoon – incidentally seven years her junior, I’m told . . . by Ms. Warner. On Thursday night when Doctor Dash was on call, I put the kids to bed and settled in to watch the show with a glass of wine in my hand and a blanket over my legs. Delicious. On Friday morning I read Ms. Warner’s post over a cup of coffee and while beautifully written, per usual, her angry barrage of words put me in the position of feeling like I had to defend myself and worse yet, defend Cougartown!

Starting with the latter, the show is not, as Judith posits, “intended to say anything real about the state of American middle-age womanhood.” (Parenthetically, why jump to the term “middle age” so easily, Judith? Fight back! Fight sister! It’s a new day!) It’s just a show and although it had moments that made me howl with laughter, not even a very good one. It’s network TV for one thing. Fluff. The writing is mediocre – stick it on Showtime or HBO and it could be genius. Why expect anything of substance? Why read anything into it? It is simple entertainment. Don’t give it more credit than is due. I think she was so busy huffing in outrage that she actually missed the message that actually was there: that in our youth obsessed society, a woman who finds herself on her own in her forties might actually and rightfully feel vulnerable, constrained by social mores, unable to do what she really wants to do.

The show, and the cougar phenomenon in general, is not so much about “a woman who uses her younger mate to puff up her vanity and enhance her sense of power and control”, but about commerce and demographics. Women aren’t willing to be set out to pasture at the age of 40. They’re staying in the game, whether they’re single or married or in between, and as such want to be represented in the media, catered to commercially, and all around embraced by society for the fine fine women they are, in all aspects. Cox looks terrific and classy in the show. She’s acutely aware of the fact that she doesn’t want to turn into one of the women she makes fun of – the caricature of a cougar. She is lovely and goofy. I guess the only thing I have to say to Judith Warner (and I sure hope I’m not actually saying this to Judith Warner), is: lighten up, girl. Have a little fun. 

It’s the following passage that got me feeling all sheepish and queasy about my recent blog post, however: “Most women in their 40s, however conflicted, however sometimes confused, aren’t actually spiraling into self-doubting despair, but are actually working their way toward some greater degree of self-acceptance. Many experience — along with the shift in body mass that pulls things down and pushes them sideways — a kind of psychic shift that frees up some of the energy that once went into external appearances. Many come into their own, creatively, professionally. And in motherhood, in friendships, in romantic relationships.” I must have skipped my psychic shift because I just don’t think it’s completely necessary to let everything get pulled down and sideways just so I can worry about more important matters. It seems as if she’s saying that caring about how you look is mutually exclusive with greater, more worthy, intellectual pursuits. I don’t know, Judith. If you had spent your college years wrapped in ten pounds of beer fat and flannel, looking like Eddie Vedder in drag, maybe you wouldn’t judge a girl for feeling better about how she looks now than she did then. Maybe Courtney Cox looking as good as she does, doesn’t mean she is “spiraling into self-doubting despair”, grasping at her fading youth, clinging to an impossible girlish ghost. Maybe she’s healthy. Maybe she exercises. Maybe she’s a great cook and eats her veggies. Maybe she really likes clothes and baubles and beautiful things. Maybe she has a modicum of pride. Maybe she does it for herself, not for any man. Maybe, just maybe, she can have her cake, and eat it too.

Sep 29 2009

Some salty local hip hop and a spot of rock from across the pond.

Ant and SeanWe’ve been on a bit of a music tear lately, although all these late night trips to First Ave make us seem a lot cooler than we are. Doctor Dash and I have devised a bit of a system for the old/infirm/lazy. We call First Ave during the day to find out what time the main act is coming on (tip: they know exactly what time by around 4 o’clock) and swoop in about ten minutes prior to grab drinks and shimmy as close to the stage as possible, avoiding wild looking boys with flailing arms whenever possible. I like to dance as much as the next person, but I know how to do so without cracking any noses, which I’m not sure can be said for everyone.

A couple weeks ago we went to see Atmosphere and although Doctor Dash had predicted a testosterone filled environment (a warning to me upon seeing me emerge resplendent in lipstick and bling), I was a bit taken aback by the energy in that place before they came on. For the first time, as a bevy of young bucks bounced in place and loosened their taught neck muscles like boxers spoiling for a fight, I thought to myself, Jesus, this might get rough. Maybe I really am too old for this business. It didn’t help that the start time was super late, giving everyone plenty of time to get drunk and rowdy – pumped, if you will. Not a huge fan of pumped.

Nevertheless, if you don’t know Atmosphere and like hip hop, they are totally worth checking out. They are  local (went to Washburn High School) and they can and do turn it out for their fans. Big time. They put on an amazing show and as Slug tore through song after song, rapping a white hot streak (his lung capacity is truly astonishing), I started to understand the crowd. They knew all the words, shouting them out with fists in the air, veins bulging at their necks. They were there to pay homage to one bad ass Minnesota boy with some serious street cred. Slug’s partner in crime, Ant, spun beats of gold from his tables clad in a silky white shirt, slicked back hair, fu manchu stache and impenetrable expression, looking a bit like Steven Segal. I will say that the free flowing marijuana eventually took the edge off the jumpy crowd, as did Slug’s near constant banter and appreciation. Maybe it makes me a high maintenance audience member, but I love to be loved up. I think we have a really smart, rich, complex music scene here in Minneapolis and it’s nice to get some props. You could tell he was fired up to be there, playing in his hometown in one of the best places to hear music on earth. Slug raps about everything from hockey hair to a girl who is like a drug to Lyndale Avenue to killing his boss. It is quite raw and quite beautiful. The next day I felt drained, sort of battered and buffeted by the whole experience. It has taken all these many days to digest that concert and I think it was one of those shows where the performers put out so much emotion and energy, that you can’t help but do the same – absorbing and then sending back the love, the angst, and the anger. They were gooooood, so good that next time I go, I just might find myself feeling, um, pumped.

arctic monkeysTwo nights ago, one of my Babe-O-Matics, Shady, flew in from Chicago to join us for Arctic Monkeys. A departure from our recent hip hoppyness, Arctic Monkeys was Dash’s idea, but I LOVED it. In contrast to Atmosphere, who are around our age, Arctic Monkeys are YOUNG. They look so young, in fact, with their floppy ringlets of hair, that it’s almost impossible to believe that they’re as talented as they are, that they rock the way they do. The three front men look like they could be in a hair styling textbook illustrating the different ways hair can part. But no matter – they’re completely adorable. The lead singer, Alex Turner, is an unbelievable vocalist. His voice is so facile, so slippery – he runs it with no effort, no straining, no sweat. Unbelievable. And he’s super sexy, like a young Mick Jagger but not as peacocky. As it turns out, however, I do have an age threshold for unseemly chops licking and I located it on Saturday night. Just a wittle baby. And the drummer, Matt Helders, well, what can I say? Dash, Shady and I were all in love with the drummer. He and his lovable little fro just powered every song like a mad charging bull, pulling the rest of the band behind him. Screaming. Breakneck. Breathless. Uh mazing. Thoroughly satisfying, totally impressive, those boys have got some serious rock chops.

And now, at the risk of neglecting our children and our friends, I think we’re going to take a little break from our nocturnal musical adventures. Although I am loving Solid Gold, and I hear they’re coming soon . . .

Sep 25 2009

The Babe-O-Matics

ry=400My college girls and I used to call ourselves the Babe-O-Matics, and lest you think we took ourselves seriously, please know that it was all in jest. Mostly. Back in the day, I had inherited a tape player called the Invert-O-Matic (my dad has always been a gadget guy and this was pure seventies cutting edge stuff) which, no joke, would eject the tape, flip it over, suck it back in and play the other side. Someone covered the “Invert” with “Babe” and that’s all she wrote. I don’t remember exactly when we became the Babe-O-Matics – it feels like we just always were. And as it turns out, I think we always will be. We may no longer be running around Southbend, Indiana dressed like grungy man-girls in big Levis, flannel shirts, Birkenstocks and boots, but Babe-os we remain.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days – it doesn’t seem to be writing itself, as usually happens when the emotions are bigger than the words. Earlier this summer, I had intended to write about the bookend stop in Chicago on our way back from Michigan and I never did. The words sort of eluded me to describe how much fun we had overnight at Sunny’s* house in Wilamette with her hubby, Tax Man Italiano, and their four kids. Our other roommate, Shady** came in from the city for the night and we slipped right back into our old mischief, feasting, drinking, and gabbing to excess – only now we were surrounded by a gaggle of kids and a couple of indulgent husbands who seem to understand implicitly that if there was ever a night to step up and get the kids to bed and let us talk, it was then. Late night, sitting on Sunny’s porch, drinking those last beers we would regret in the morning, it struck me that after college, I was far too cavalier about the Babe-os spreading out around the country. Nothing seemed permanent back then. Nothing seemed of consequence.  We all had things we needed to do, and I figured they would always be as close to me as they were on that sad day we all drove away from our little blue house on St. Peter’s Street for the last time – weeping, desolate, inconsolable in the knowledge that we would never have that kind of fun again. 

Looking at my girls over the flickering candles on that porch, my heart caught in my throat. We could be doing all of this together. Instead, we live parallel lives in different cities, only catching up for a few golden hours every year. Shady goes to a lot of the same concerts we go to when they hit Chicago – she was at Beck and at De La Soul. What a partner in crime she would be if we lived in the same place! And Sunny’s kids and my kids paired off and scampered away like they see each other every day. Sunny and I could be sitting at the pool together, at the beach together, cobbling dinners together out of cheese and crackers and wine. I married someone who knew me way back when – back when I was young and fun and didn’t have a care in the world. I know how much humor and patience and leeway and pleasure you draw out of that pot of memories, that book of characters and references. It’s huge. Embarrassingly, I think I might have blubbered something about missing out on my Ya Ya sisterhood, but Sunny and Shady understood. When six girls spend a whole Halloween night tied together disguised as a drain hair shark, on mushrooms, well, it adds a whole other dimension to your relationship. 

We could be doing all of this together.

But we’re not. And as bittersweet as seeing each other may be, it’s also completely restorative, satisfying and necessary. To laugh like that, to be understood and accepted like that, fills us up and lets us glide on through until the next time. We all have other wonderful friends where we live, sisters, the ladies you count on. But what we Babe-os had remains utterly apart – maybe because we’ve always lived apart – it’s locked away in time, but breathtakingly accessible. All we have to do to tap into that, is put ourselves into the same room. So we do.

On Saturday three of us flew to Saint Louis to surprise Dolly*** for her 40th birthday party. She had no idea we were coming. Her lovely sisters and hubby, Soul Daddy, masterfully kept it under wraps. Tartare had flown from Seattle to meet up with Shady and Sunny in Chicago and they flew in together. When I looked up from my phone to see the three of them striding toward me in the St. Louis airport, looking all foxy and smiley, my heart did a little jump. All together! For a party! For Dolly! It was just too good. 

The surprise was perfect. We didn’t jump out of a cake. We simply walked down the street and as we approached we could hear Dolly’s daughter, Mimi, yelling Moooom, come outside! So of course, there was shrieking. Of course there were hugs and laughter. Dolly was grinning ear to ear, as was the adorable Soul Daddy. Operation Babe-O-Matic was a success.

The Babe-os were in da haaayouse and Dolly’s relaxing afternoon had just morphed into something else entirely. We chatted, drank in their three adorable kids, oohed and aahed around the house, soaking up the wall colors, the pictures, the stuff of our dear friend’s day-to-day life. We felt lucky to be sitting in her kitchen, even for a couple hours, to have our hands on the counter top where her kids color, where they spill cereal, where Dolly rolls out pies, where Soul Daddy chops and puts out cheese and olives. We Babe-os take nothing for granted, least of all time in each other’s homes. It’s just too rare. And even back in college, back when all we really cared about was the next great party, we were all about nesting, making our dorm rooms and then the house on St. Peter’s Street sweet little homes to relish, share, and make memories in. Some things never change.

A lot of things never change.

After a little adventure to Dolly’s favorite nail salon for manis and pedis, a quick beer, and that festive, oh so fun, getting ready time when we chatted and cackled and checked out eachothers’ lotions and potions, outfits and jewelry, we were off like the wind to Dolly’s bash. We knew it was going to be great because it was at the house Dolly grew up in, now owned by her sister, the lovely Maisie and her family. We had already celebrated Dolly and Soul Daddy’s wedding at that house, not to mention various stops to and fro Mardi Gras throughout the years. This family knows how to fling open their doors, hug you close and throw down for a really good time. There were pretty lights strung up in the yard, cocktail tables with candles, delicious food and bevvies, jello shots in every flavor, and tons of party people who all love Dolly.

We knew it was going to be fun. What we didn’t know, is that we were going to spend the next nine hours in a magical musical pleasure fest! Soul Daddy’s old band set up in the garage due to some threatening sprinkles, which, luckily, never ended up getting much footing and began a night of amazing music. Lordy, did we dance! Soul Daddy sang and we all swooned. Dolly sang and we swooned some more. Our girl! As the night tore on in a mad blur fueled by beer and restorative stops to the food table, all of Dolly’s sibs took a turn, and then her uncle and then her cousins and before we knew it, the night had devolved into a beautiful crazy hootenanny. It was great. And if you went inside, you had their exquisitely woven playlist to contend with. I have fuzzy memories of lurching around, dancing to So Lonely, screaming the words while gnawing on a chicken wing. It was a buh uh uh uh laaasst!!!

Just like the old days, the Babe-os would fan out at a party, flitting around, talking to everyone, only to find each other again in a riotous explosion of cheers and hugs and laughter, feeling like you were home again after a crazy odyssey. This would happen, and did happen on Saturday, multiple times a night, all night long. We may have lived together, but we were always happiest to see each other. 

A lot of things never change.

Tartare, Sunny, Shady and Dolly, you are my heart. Happy birthday Dolly. I love you rockin’ Babe-o-matics.

*Because of love of, disposition, outlook, and Coppertone always at the ready.

**Because why mess with a good nickname?

***Because she has a love for Dolly Parton, not because she looks like Dolly Parton.

Sep 17 2009

Peevish Cougar?

cougOK, deep breath. I can’t believe I’m even going to utter the C word on this blog. No, the other C word, you dirty dogs. Cougar. There. I said it, and just because I said it and just because I’m writing about it, doesn’t mean I am one, or close to being one, or preoccupied about being one. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself, depending on your definition, which is, my friends, the crux of the problem. The term “cougar” is bandied about with such frequency these days that it’s hard to avoid it – especially if you just so happen to be a woman approaching the age when such a term might apply.

Listen, I’ve had my ear to the ground and my whiskers in the air on this one. I have been paying close attention and the only thing I’ve concluded is that everyone seems to have a different definition of a cougar. Which makes it very difficult to know if one needs to be offended or flattered should one ever happen to be called or deemed a cougar.

A quick wikipedia check yields this definition: a woman over forty who sexually pursues younger men, typically more than eight years her junior. Pretty clear, no?

About a year and a half ago I emailed my brother, El Maestro de Bife, who has an exhaustive and deep knowledge of all things slightly inappropriate. I knew he was my go-to guy and asked him to distinguish between a MILF and a Cougar. MILF, of course you know, is the crass acronym for “Mother I’d Like to Fuck” – which is just a puerile male way of saying Hot Mama. While I don’t love MILF, I’ll grant you MILF. There are many many hot mamas out there and it is most definitely a distinguishable, identifiable subset of the population and therefor worthy of a name and this is the one that has seemed to have stuck. So fine, I get it.

But what about these cougars I was hearing about? El Maestro responded that while a MILF still has her cubs around her, a Cougar hunts for her fresh meat alone. Interesting! Hunts. Alone. Fresh meat. OK, so as long as I have my chitlins in my wake and as long as I’m not on the prowl, then I can’t be a cougar. In fact, barring a piano falling on top of Doctor Dash, I will most likely never be a cougar. This is part of the popular lexicon that I can daintily sidestep, demurely holding my skirt to my side so as not to be sullied.

Then Barbie turned 50 and she looks fantastic for her age. Her breasts are still half way between her shoulder and her elbow as they should be, if not a titch higher, her feet still tiny, her hair radiant, her skin as creamy as a Coppertone Vanilla milkshake. But someone comes up with Cougar Barbie, imagining Barbie’s natural trajectory (never one for subtlety, it actually would be hard to imagine Barbie growing old gracefully à la Isabella Rosselini or Lauren Bacall). If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Hilarious, no? Heh, heh, ho, ho, ho! Hilarious! The paunch, the leopard print, the Journey – oh Cougar Barbie, you are too much! Still, this does nothing to disavow me of my notion that cougars are not something I need worry my pretty little head about.

And then. And then. Because you knew there had to be a then, in June we went out to the Jersey shore to hang out with our friends Chief Big Voice and Saucy-licious Duddy. Saucy and I were grooving to a really great live band at the Princeton, minding our own business, when I was approached by a young fellow whose opener was an enthusiastic, surfer intoned “Heeeyyyyyyy, a couple a cooouuuugaaaarrrrs!” My head swiveled around, my eyes turned bright yellow, I punched him in the trachea and snarled: “Are you fucking kidding me?” Actually, I only did that last part, but it was accompanied by my most withering Catholic high school girl staredown. I was pissed. COUGAR? Me? Us? We were just having a good time, digging the music, drinking many drinks, laughing our asses off. OK, so maybe we looked super hot, but it’s not like we could help it and we certainly weren’t on the prowl or giving the impression of being on the prowl – we were simply a couple of moms, out on the town, wrapped up in our own hilarious shenanigans. Nothing more. Nothing less. Simple as pie. Rowdy but uninterested. Needing to look no further than the band, our glasses and the people we came with for all the fun we needed. And then. And then, on our way out of the bar someone called Saucy’s sister, Little J, a cougar and she’s even younger than us! 

Screeech. Hold on one sharp shootin’ high fallutin’ minute here folks. Something was afoot. My feathers were ruffled, but not ruffled enough to have missed the look of complete and utter shock on the young lad’s face when I shut him down like a noxious Jack in the Box. It was but a second, because I immediately gave him the scapula of ice, but there’s no denying it – he was surprised, perhaps even dismayed, at my reaction. Could it be? Could he possibly have meant it as . . . a compliment? 

Nooo! we railed, Saucy-licious, Little J and I – No way! We’re not out trying to snag young dudes! We’re not even old enough to be cougars, anyway! Unacceptable! Unfathomable! Unprofessional! Unpalatable! Unfreakingbelievable! Now we were all pissed! And yet. And yet. Because like a then, there’s usually a yet, I think these guys meant no ill. Quite the opposite, I think they were trying, in that broad blunt simian way of youth in bars, to be nice. Well, maybe not nice, exactly. (I may not be a cougar, but I wasn’t born yesterday.) Simply put, these guys seemed to be operating with a different definition of cougar than we were. Maybe.

You need to write about this on your blog! insisted Saucy-licious, Clear this shit up! But all I could do was shudder. No, I couldn’t possibly. To even contemplate the word, to type the word, would feel like an admission, a toe dipped into fountain of age. Peevish and Cougar simply could not be seen together. It was not right. Not yet. Not for a long time. Not for a very very long time. Shudder. Shudder.

And then. And then, because there are always more thens, my friend the Magnificent Bastard sends out a tweet a couple weeks ago asking for top 5 hollywood cougars because he needs them for “work.” His were Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone, Catherine Zeta Jones, Cate Blanchett and Sophia Loren whom he deems “extreme coug.” Then another twitter friend, KC, replies almost immediately, so it obviously didn’t take a lot of thought: Maria Bello, Sharon Stone, Marissa Tomei, Liz Hurley, Vivica Fox and more! OK, fellas, let’s just hold on one more sweet salty snitch snatch second, because these chicks are some seriously hot stuff and not at all the compadres of Cougar Barbie; in fact, I think I may need the definition re-explained to me because if that NJ guy meant anything even approaching this, then perhaps a punch in the trachea was a tad harsh. (Before you start to feel too sorry for him, just know that he was undeterred by my smack down and followed up with an equally compelling: are you Brazilian? for which he received another punch in the trachea.) So I tweet/asked and they both answered that it pretty much just boils down to hot over 40. Cubs and hunting have nothing to do with it. 

Hmmm. Well then. Much ado about nothing. Maybe. Wait, you know what? No. Even assuming you remove the desperado aspect from the term, I’m not sold. Far from it, I’m still troubled and I’ll tell you why. I think forty is a bit young for Cougarville. Forty is the new thirty. Forty year olds have babies and toddlers. Forty year olds are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Forty year olds like to play. Forty sounds old because we all remember our parents turning forty, but it feels young. Hell, we all feel downright adolescent half the time. (For the record, I’m not there yet, but fast approaching.) In this day and age, forty just doesn’t feel old enough to be a delineating factor, a parenthetical tacked onto the sentence: she looks good

Women my age deserve to be unencumbered by parentheticals for a few more years. It’s only fair. Most of us just got done wiping butts, for crying out loud! So let’s all be peaches and pals and agree to leave the fine foxy forty somethings out of this discussion and move the Cougar line to um, say, fifty. And we’ll talk again in another ten years.


Sep 15 2009

Philip Roth knows things.

We’re reading I Married a Communist by Philip Roth for book club this month, and while I shouldn’t be surprised that I had one of those reading moments when you stop, exhale, raise your eyebrows, go back and read the passage again, I was sort of surprised that it happened on the first page.

We read American Pastoral last year and it was a giant octopus of a book. Sometimes it thrashed in countless directions, in anger and fear. Sometimes it swam along as graceful and smooth as can be. And it went deep. (Hmm, this metaphor has legs! Ho!) It was gorgeous and challenging and we wrestled with it – on our own, reading it – at book club, dissecting it and putting it back together, or trying to anyway. That book club meeting was about a week after my knee surgery. I was on crutches, my injuries still felt fresh, personal. My mom was in town to help out, so I brought her with me so she could have a glass of wine, meet my book club ladies, and understand why it is such a source of joy in my life. I read American Pastoral under duress. I was frantically preparing to be on crutches for six weeks, gingerly probing worse case scenarios like a tongue returning to a sore tooth. Desperate to lose myself, it was rich and thick, the perfect book to take up the whole of my mind. I was a ball of angst, agitation and worry and American Pastoral is nothing if not a monument to angst, agitation and worry. Maybe that’s why it resonated so much with me.

Or maybe, it was just that good.

We’ve been back to school for a couple of weeks. Saint James seems muted about it. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not sure what he needs. What exactly does he expect to be doing with his time right now? He can’t very well hunt for creatures in the bushes and play soccer all day long. Maybe it’s too much to expect him to be excited about school – being a fourth grader is essentially his job. How many people do we know who are excited by their jobs? And yet, I wish he was. I wish he was fired up, tingling, hungry. 

So the passage that stopped me cold? It’s Roth simply introducing a character – that of Murray Ringold, a teacher. And in his muscular prose, Roth brings him to life and makes me want him for my son. To light that fire.

“His passion was to explain, to clarify, to make us understand, with the result that every last subject we talked about he broke down into its principal elements no less meticulously than he diagrammed sentences on the blackboard. His special talent was for dramatizing inquiry, for casting a strong narrative spell even when he was being strictly analytic and scrutinizing aloud, in his clear cut way, what we read and wrote.

Along with the brawn and the conspicuous braininess, Mr. Ringold brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectablized kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development. There was more importance than perhaps even he imagined in his winning predilection for heaving a blackboard eraser in your direction when the answer you gave didn’t hit the mark. Or maybe there wasn’t. Maybe Mr. Ringold knew very well that what boys like me needed to learn was not only how to express themselves with precision and acquire a more discerning response to words, but how to be rambunctious without being stupid, how not to be too well concealed or too well behaved, how to begin to release the masculine intensities from the institutional rectitude that intimidated bright kids the most.”

Holy smokes, Philip Roth. Is it mere coincidence that twice now, your words feed me precisely what I’m craving?

Or are you just that good?

Sep 10 2009

Shower Power

0511-0901-0516-4420_Man_Singing_in_the_Shower_clipart_imageWe recently discovered that the shower head in our bathroom has two settings: a cleansing, reasonable and perfectly lovely setting and then a wretched, awkward, freaky, horrible setting. One is a proper shower, the other is more a violent sputter – like when you laugh with beer in your mouth and it comes out your nose. Dash likes the latter. And apparently he is not ashamed. He is also impervious to any and all mockery and bullying I can throw his way on the matter.

Every single time I step into the shower, I am taken by surprise by the erratic sputters of water, prodding me like a gangly adolescent boy giant trying to give a back rub to a girl giant at a campfire at the top of the beanstalk. Every time, surprise turns to annoyance. Every time, annoyance turns to incredulousness and I think to myself: OhmyGod, like, for real Doctor Dash? Again? Seriously? I cannot believe this matters enough to go to the trouble to change the setting every single blasted time you get in the shower! UG! Seriously! 

And every time, I change it back.

Sep 8 2009

Lovely Lake Vermillion In Snapshots

dandlouWe went up north for Labor Day weekend. Hastily assembled, last minute planning yielded three days, more relaxing and action packed than I would have thought possible. Sometimes, last minute is the best way. We pulled the kids out of school on Friday and set off due north with a minivan chocked to the gills with food, fishing poles, water colors, and anything else I could think of to keep our short attention spans from unravelling into pervasive, crotchety boredom.

I needn’t have worried.

The lake. It was beautiful. Deep. Almost primordial. Its dark, velvety waters were cold enough to make swimming something for which you had to summon up courage. It was cold enough to feel curative. And it was vast, with undulating shorelines, eddies and bays, silent islands, promontories and fingers of land, beckoning or accusatory, depending on how you looked at them. There seemed to be a secret code of earth and water we had to approach with caution and respect. Dash and I had to navigate, eyes skimming the horizon and darting back to the map, to reconcile the two dimensional with the three, to keep our bearings, to find our way home. It was challenging, but it got easier. We learned something new. We grinned madly, feeling slightly less the rubes on a pontoon. We squinted into the sun, proud, almost seaworthy. 

SANTIFISHFish. There are fish in Lake Vermillion. All hungry for worms and willing to be caught by Saint James and Supergirl (Dash too, but with less success – I think the jerky line of a child-held rod must make those worms dance extra seductively). They fished off the docks, they fished off the boat. It was the go-to activity for three whole days. It was what filled up the hours in the sun. And Devil Baby watched and cheered, played with the worms, touched the slippery bodies of the fish, and essentially hung around doing nothing in a way I’ve never seen her do before. It was gratifying to watch them do something contemplative, something that requires patience, quiet, sustained attention with eyes trained on the water.LOUFISHWORM

Kitchen. More time and less stuff, I found myself enjoying the simpler, pared down ritual of preparing meals. I found it meditative: the opening and shutting of drawers, looking for a potato peeler, a whisk, a bottle opener; stopping to take a sip of wine and gaze out the enormous kitchen windows at the lake; washing dishes by hand, keeping my workspace neat. Without the rush, meal preparation is a completely different animal and in the silence of the cabin, broken only by the occasional triumphant whoop from the nearby dock, I remembered everything I love about cooking.

Reading. I was forced to unplug. No wireless, no phone. No twitter, no blog. Just my books. I have been feeling scattered lately. Unmoored. I have been finding it hard to focus, to lose myself in a book. Perhaps it’s because there has been so much end of the summer action to attend to. Perhaps, I too am losing the power of sustained attention, giving way to the rat-like compulsion to check my email, tweet and surf every few minutes. In the quiet of the north woods, I became that mother – the reading mother. On the chaise, with her nose in a book, occasionally peering over the pages with narrowed eyes and an amused smile, luxuriating in the act of reading deeply while her family plays almost, almost, out of earshot. They fished, I read. My heart slowed down. Everyone was engaged, so I could disengage and dive into my books: Snow by Orhan Pamuk, challenging reading, testing my patience, but a book whose layers slowly unfold drawing you further and deeper. It’ll be worth it, I think. Time will tell. And Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser, a tightly wrought collection of short stories, the few I have read so far are intriguing, smart, mildly menacing – he is a beautiful writer.

THREEONDOCKFish. Each catch was followed by a few seconds of tense hook extraction. Saint James and Supergirl would bow their heads in concentration, working against the ticking seconds and the struggling fish to get the hook out as gently and quickly as possible. They’d toss it back in the water, peer into the depths and inevitably yell “Yep, he made it!” with joy and relief. For them a fair fishing bargain involves no more than a few seconds of discomfort on the part of the fish. They are tender and respectful toward nature. I am not sure whether this is something you can teach, or whether this is something that just naturally occurs in a child. fishback 

Kitchen. I brought everything, even my sharp knife and cilantro. But even when you bring everything, there are things you wish you had brought. As I made salads and salsas, mixing and matching my ingredients like edible Garanimals, I thought of Jumpa Lahiri’s piece in the NY Times earlier this summer. I thought of all the things I would remember next time (honey, white pepper, soy sauce, hot sauce, gin, the pickled eggplant I just made) and all the things I was so glad to have brought (my knife, sea salt, avocado, cilantro, olives, strawberries, fancy cheeses, sauvignon blanc, baby spinach, garlic, tomatoes, baguettes, Hope Creamery butter, two kinds of vinegar and olive oil).

Fire. Doctor Dash made two fires a night. One with charcoal for grilling steaks and salmon. One with wood for roasting s’mores. The fire drew the children out of the brush, away from the beach. Like young natives, they watched the flames, flicking and dancing against the darkening sky. Or maybe they were just hungry.

DASHFISHFish. One morning I glanced up from my book and saw a stout fireplug of a man talking to Doctor Dash on the dock where he and the kids were fishing. Our cabin neighbor had ostensibly come out to introduce himself to Dash, but in fact needed to flip Dash’s rod right side up before showing him a picture of the 53 inch Muskie he had caught the day before. We chuckled about this the rest of the day, picturing the poor guy grimacing over his coffee mug as he looked out the window watching Dash cast with an upside down rod. He probably muttered through his pain and agitation for a good fifteen minutes before getting so exasperated he burst through his back door to save Dash from himself. Hilarious.  

mpaintWatercolors. I’m so glad I brought them. Devil Baby painted and painted. Busy, quiet, happy. Just how I like her.

Feathers. The bald eagles. They were incredible. We had no idea they all hung out in the north woods. We saw more eagles than seagulls, yet they never lost the power to startle us, to elicit a gasp, a pause in the action to watch their muscular flight, their graceful hunting, their branch shaking landing in the tops of trees. There was an island where a bunch of them seemed to perch and to hover right below them in a quiet kayak was pure magic. And then there were the loons. My kids said the cries of the loons reminded them of our neighbor, Evan’s, cry. Somewhere between a giggle and a sob, suspended between joy and loss, the loons stopped us in our tracks over and over again.

Haunting and beautiful. Just like that lake.

Sep 1 2009

Into Temptation

20090825__090828m-temp_KristenPaint me impressed. Our friend Pat Coyle (Irish Laddie for purposes of this blog) wrote and directed (and acted in – that’s him above) a beautiful film called Into Temptation whose run at the Lagoon has gotten extended for a week, which makes this post of imminent import. I would like you to go. Go to support a local film maker, who had to move mountains to get this baby, his baby, made and seen. Go to see a movie that will remind you how much you used to love movies before life got so busy, when you had the time to go to every indie and foreign film playing at the corner movie house, when every once in a great while you were left stunned, unable to get out of your seat until the last credit rolled off the screen into crackling silence. Go to see our fair city preen and strut her stuff up on the big screen, as plain by day and gaudy by night as the hookers in the movie. Go to see a movie that sounds pitch perfect. Not one false note. Just go. You’ve got one week. Show times here.

I’ll leave the synopsis to the professionals here and here, but I just want to say that this movie is a really good reminder that film, despite being such a grand, sweeping, larger than life medium, can also be heartbreakingly perfect for presenting a very simple and soulful story like this one. In this age of Hollywood blockbusters, Megaplexes and supersized Cokes, you forget that sometimes, sitting in a lumpy theater seat in the dark and letting your pulse slow down for a couple hours, can be one of the most transformative and lovely experiences around. This movie, Pat’s movie, forces you to pay attention with all your senses, because there is nothing too obvious, too loud, too Hollywoodish about it. You listen and watch the way you’d listen and watch in a dark wood – for the tiny, the telling, the salient and true.

I think it takes a really deft hand to control a movie, to allow the truth of the relationships to emerge through restrained dialogue, almost imperceptible glances, the slant in a person’s shoulders. The acting is outstanding, the music perfection, and the story, well, the story is as deeply affecting as they come. The movie manages to be funny, smart, thrilling and crushingly sad. It reveals itself in small moments of tension, quirkiness, humanity, doubt and despair while the macro questions about God, loneliness, and existential angst loom like a shadowy figure just around the corner. It is a treat and a treasure. It is a challenge. It is art.

Hat’s off, Irish Laddie.

Sep 1 2009

First Day of School

first dayGrades first and fourth. The faces say it all.

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