Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Shock of Realizing How Old You REALLY Are

Last week Michele Obama, our country’s First Lady, turned 48. I’m 47. I’m ½ a year younger than she is and she’s married to who could be argued is the most powerful man in the world. First Ladies used to look like Betty Ford and Barbara Bush. When did they get so young, or more accurately, when did I get so old?

I am a senior staff member at a well-respected human service agency in Boston. I am about 75% accountable for all fundraising efforts that keep the agency afloat and thriving. At a recent board meeting I looked around and realized that I am older than an at least half of the members. I’m not in my 20s and early 30s anymore, where I would be forgiven or get a pass on unmet goals or vague timelines because I had a boss who was ultimately responsible. I have to be overly articulate and strong in my presentations and smile through any questioning and skepticism lobbed my way. I’m not fresh-faced and wrinkle-free. I wear double layers of concealer and dread that my hands are starting to show their age. I have recoiled from recent pictures of me, especially my profile where my chin-neck combination is starting to look like a goiter.

This certainly isn’t a unique situation, but I remember just entering the working world at 21 when even 25-year olds seemed so much older than I was. They got excluded when my peers and I would go out after work for drinks because we needed to be able to vent about our “superiors,” our bosses who were only a handful of years older than we were. Slowly, as I moved into my 30s, I started to go out with my peers who WERE the bosses needing to vent about our supervisees. Where I work now there is a lovely, exuberant group of young women who giggle and love each other and dress in their funky clothes. I can’t help but look at them and feel incredibly jealous.

This year I have my 30th high school reunion. I can barely even say that number out loud. My ob-gyn now has mapped me on the trajectory towards menopause and I’m getting to be much closer to a 10 on the scale than a 5. I just got my first pair of bifocals. I’m using moisturizer for “mature skin.” I have random gray eyebrows. I’ve had a cortisone shot in my hip and my shoulder, both for conditions that come with aging. The much younger men who used to look at me when I passed them on the street now look at me wondering why I’m looking at them.

My age is so anomalous to how I feel. I have the spirit of someone 15 years younger than I am but I have to be realistic about where that contradiction fits into my life. I feel like it’s too late to reinvent my “look” or to catch up on who all the “celebrities” are in slick and meaningless magazines. I used to be THE go-to person who knew EVERYTHING about pop-culture, who was married to who, what movies they had uncredited appearances in, what they won an Oscar for, but now I have to ask my 10-year-old daughter who a lot of these people are. I used to insist on seeing the newest indie film on opening night. Now I’m lucky if I remember to put them on my Netflix queue let alone hearing of them at all. I am fully aware of how vapid this sounds but those things are pieces of me that are gone forever that were once part of my identity. I’m not quite sure what I am the go-to person for anymore, if anything.

I’m the almost 50-yr old “baby of the family,” my father’s youngest child and my siblings’ “little sister.” I’m sure this makes them aware of their own aging but they don’t do much complaining about it. I have this great dread of my own mortality and an overwhelming fear of dying. When I hear on the news of the death of someone at 86 (seems to be sort of a magic number) I calculate how many more years that means I have and that number is obviously shrinking every year.

All of this isn’t to say that I don’t have a fantastic and full life, because I do. My second marriage, only one year old, feels like someone has lifted a pawn on a board game and sent me back to “Go” (in a good way). My growing daughter is remarkable (but again, a reminder of how we are aging together) and my friends are more important to me than they will ever know. I laugh constantly, challenge my brain daily and I don’t have any addictions or compulsions that might effect me physically.

This all sounds so horribly depressing and I hope some of you aren’t stepping away thinking, “Thanks for that hideous wake-up call.” This is my missive, my fear, my wistfulness at a life that is behind me. I love that my nephew calls me his “cool aunt” and that teenagers seem to adore me, and those are the reminders that my younger self is always with me and always will be as I take on larger and larger adult responsibilities. She’ll help get me through. She’s really cool.

“Please Sir, I Want Some More?” or “How I Became An Anglophile”

Sweet, sweet Oliver played by Mark Lester with such deep vulnerability at 8-yrs old. That sweet, sweet face, the teeny little nose, the brown eyes, and of course that pre-pubescent and lilting girly voice.

“Where is love?” you wondered so sadly while being held captive by the horrible Mr. Bumble? It was right here in America, Long Island to be exact, embodied by, well, me. If I couldn’t be there to comfort you, I’m glad that the very buxom Nancy was there to hug you to her very impressive and heaving breasts, and to keep you away from that scary pedophile yet somewhat well- meaning Fagin, not to mention that horrible brute Bill Sikes.

Sweet, dear Mark Lester who ended up sleeping with my best friend many years later and more recently claimed to be the father of Michael Jackson’s daughter, you’ve become quite a trainwreck.

How can a person NOT fall in love with England after seeing and hearing the milkmaids of London in “Oliver” singing while twirling around a mews, and butchers who dance with their slaughtered animals? Did all English people, both posh and working class take part in grandiose dance numbers on their way to work where everyone sang in perfect harmony? If so, and I had no reason to believe otherwise, my life suddenly sucked in comparison.

Many years later I kind of fell in love with Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited,” who had such a DESPARATE crush on Sebastian. I am so sorry you had to live a life of closeted compromise. You deserved so much more. But really, when you think about it, why would you fall in love with a man who carried a teddy bear?

As my great luck would have it, I soon had endless opportunities to meet REAL English people, like 3-dimensional English people who didn’t randomly break into song (much to my disappointment). At summer camp there was a program that “imported” them as counselors who generally were either ignored by the kids or mistreated by senior staff. For me, however, this was my chance to attract my fantasy man, someone who would adore me and take me to their country estate (more likely their sheep farm by the looks of them, except for one with the very fancy name of Alistair Perkins who I used to watch longingly as he sat under a tree writing in his journal.) It was an Englishman from Derby who was the first man to write a poem for me. He even had a pet name for me—“fruitbat—“ also, according to Wikipedia, known as “Megabats” because they are “larger than other bats and have a great sense of smell.” He never kissed me despite luring me to a spot on the last night of camp with tears in his eyes. Must have been my “unusually large wingspan.”

My second job out of college I worked for an Oxford-based publishing company with an American office in Cambridge, MA. This was an anglophile’s pot at the end of the rainbow. On the days when the editors would come over from Oxford and stay for a week or so, or when I got to attend a conference in some random city in the U.S. with one of them I felt privileged. Yes, they were just people with FANTASTIC accents and funny names like “Pippa,” but they were smart and funny in a way that most Americans didn’t seem to be. It was a treat for them too, most of them in their mid-20s at the time, coming to the U.S. on the company’s dime having me help to get them acclimated to the nuances of New England, American t.v., and helping them to get over their incredulousness of why people would eat something like maple syrup first thing in the morning (I now counter that question with “Why would ANYONE, at ANY time of the day, spread yeast extract on toast?” If you ever want me to leave a room, just chase me with a spoonful of marmite.)

Eventually, it was my turn to go on my maiden voyage to the U.K., to visit the Oxford offices for a week. I think the expectation was that we would actually WORK while we were there, but I don’t remember one second of actual work. I remember visiting with people in their offices and their homes, obsessively shopping for bath and body products at Boots, and bringing home muesli from Neal’s Yard Whole Food.

Back in the States I was introduced by some English friends who were postgrads at Harvard to a friend of theirs who was visiting from England. He was brilliant and funny and I felt that he was very charmed by me. When he left we wrote weekly letters to each other, and I would wait, breathlessly for the mail on Tuesday which is the day of the week most of his letters seemed to arrive. I read every single word deliberately, spending endless amounts of time to see if he was interested in me in the way I was in him. Really, to this day, I have no idea if he was. (In the end I actually quit a contract job and lived in my friends’ empty Oxford house for three weeks to assess the situation in person. I ended up getting stuck in the Tube on the way to see him, waited for hours for him to kiss me, and when he didn’t, I made my way to Marble Arch at sunrise and fell into a sobbing heap on a bench.)

I have extraordinarily BRILLIANT friends in Oxford, economists, neurologists, concert pianists and editors at prestigious publishing houses. Sometimes I look back on my time there and wonder if I was sort of the American court jester, the one who brought some rough-edged wackiness into their artsy and magnificent homes. I want my own conservatory with plants and a long wooden table to eat my breakfast and read the papers and to host lovely and lively dinner parties. I want whimsical artwork and the perfect blue paint color in the “Blue Bathroom.” I want to like French press coffee. I want a reason to use the electric kettle I bought the weekend I got back from my last trip across the Pond, even though I only drink tea about 4 times a year.

As an homage to my authentic love for the United Kingdom, I have a Union Jack tattooed on my right shoulder blade. It was, at the time, the only tattoo that I would consider (what I didn’t consider was how red and blue clash with a lot of clothes.) I have since been swept away by a gorgeous Puerto Rican man who knows that I dream of a Bloomsbury-type thatched cottage and am ready to somehow make the owners of a SPECTACULAR Tudor-style home in my middle-class town “go missing.” He’s been sucked in by “Downton Abbey” in all its glory and lets me ramble on about twisting cobblestone streets and follies. I really can’t wait for the chance to take him over there to meet my friends and have them give him the kind of driving tours they gave me. I want him to experience a proper quiz night in an actual pub. I want him to see slaughtered chickens hanging in windows that are right next to stalls full of stunning flowers.

Skirting the Holocaust

I follow a brilliant blog written by a man named Robert Bruce who is reading (shockingly quickly, I might add) what Time magazine chose as the top 100 English-Speaking Novels Since 1923 (The blog can be found at There was a rather heated discussion about Lolita and its subject matter and he asked his readers where they draw the line in what they will read. Do we as readers have limits? Was it okay for people to like a book about a pedophile despite how brilliant the writing is? (Lolita happens to be one of my favorite books for the brilliant writing and the sinister voice of Humbert Humbert. Hearing Jeremy Irons read it on an audio book clinched it for me.)

For me my answer was immediate. When I was in high school and college I chose to read and see anything having to do with the Holocaust. Being the daughter of a survivor it seemed the logical thing to do. I took a Holocaust course in college and adored my professor who really was moved by my direct connection to it. I can’t even write about the things I see and hear in my head about the truly unspeakable things that happened to children. It’s too much to bear, even more so since I’ve had a child.

The very last book I picked-up on the subject was at least ten years ago, The Painted Bird by the late Jerzy Kosinski. It wasn’t even a Holocaust passage that made me have to stop, but I slammed the book shut and that was that. Like my mother, also a Holocaust survivor, he went on to commit suicide by suffocating himself by putting a plastic bag over his head. My mother died differently, but they clearly were scarred so deeply that that was the only end that made sense.

Yesterday my 10 ½year old daughter came across a book that my friend had given me, a book full of photographs and excerpts of Anne Frank’s diary. I’m still not sure how much sinks in when I try to explain what happened to the smiling Anne and her family. She wanted to read the book together and look at the pictures that were like any other family photos—happy times in lovely places, all smiles and occasional goofiness. I managed to get through about six pages before I turned away not wanting her to see the tears that were about to make their way out of my eyes. You see, I have this thing about people not being aware, as the reader is, that they are going to die a horrible death.I just couldn’t do it.

I reminded her that my mother was also what is called “a hidden child.” She got a bit confused and thought that my mother was hidden with Anne Frank. I said that no, they were in different countries and that my mother was hidden in a basement, Anne Frank in an attic (not that it made any difference). I didn’t tell her about the random raids the Nazis would make and how every time there was a scare my grandmother, mother and uncle would have to pile on top of each other in a narrow false front. My uncle told me many years ago that he still has nightmares about the fleur-de-lis pattern of the rug that he was forced to stare at, on his stomach with my mother and grandmother laying on top of him.

Whenever my daughter and I look at old pictures and we find one of my mother (of which there are many) she’ll kiss me and say “I’m sorry.” To this day she still hasn’t asked me how my mother died and I am dreading that conversation, that explanation that will inevitably make her even more anxious than she tends to be already. At her age I knew about my mother’s brothers and sisters being taken away to the camps, never to be seen again. I knew that that was the root cause of my mother’s intense depression and the one suicide attempt I had already lived through.

I want my daughter to know her history and I don’t want to just throw a book at her on the subject without any context. Right now it’s easy to say that Hitler was a bad man and that he made his followers believe that the Jews didn’t deserve the things that everyone else did, like slaves and then later, black people in the South. Places like the Holocaust Museum would crystallize things for her but I don’t know if I have what it takes to ever go back there. She’ll eventually read books like the brilliant Night by Elie Wiesel and certainly will read The Diary of Anne Frank as part of standard school reading lists and I want to be there for her to discuss them as needed. I know I will have to steel myself but I’m sure that there will be things that she too will have trouble processing, the sheer cruelty of a group of people who killed off 6 million individuals who should have gone on to have many years of smiling and goofy photographs.

Snap Judgments in the Big House

My bi-weekly 45-minutes leading my prison writing workshop are the best 90 minutes of the month. When my 10-yr old knows that I’m going she always says “Tell the ladies I say hi!” The second I walk out the door at the end of the class, I call my husband breathless and eager to talk.

I’ve been using an exercise lately to get them acclimated to the tone of my class. Mine isn’t like others they take, those being life-skills, issues of addiction, or a whole host of things they’ve probably listened to many times before. When they file into the room and I hand them a prison-issued bendy pen and paper, some roll their eyes and grunt when they learn that they’re going to have to write. I advocate for the excellence of my class cheerleading by saying, “Come on, this is going to be great. Really! I get the BEST reviews on the evaluations you all have to fill out. I swear!” This warms them up a bit except for the inevitable woman who is completely checked-out.

“I want you to tell me what people assume about you when they see you for the first time. Give me one adjective.”

This group was not as quick to participate as most. After I tried to urge them on, they pointed out that they hadn’t had time to have coffee before they came down. I recently changed my workshop time from 2:00pm to 9am so this suddenly made a LOT of sense.

“I’m too honest,” one woman said to get things rolling.

“I’m a bitch,” another.

“I’m evil,” another.

“Wow, that’s a really strong label,” I said.

“I like it that way,” she said. I asked why.

“I don’t give a fuck about what people think.” It was only 15 minutes later that I discovered, through another exercise, that this woman has a Master’s degree from an Ivy League University, has had her own business for 10-yrs, and has traveled the world.

If you have read my previous posts about my time in prison, especially “Release” you know that I then ask the women what people would be surprised to learn about them—one thing that is the antithesis of how they described how they think the world sees them. The “too-honest” woman who volunteered the first time revealed that she loves the ballet. Another adores opera. One loves to ride dirt bikes because it makes her feel powerful and sexy.

For the past two classes I found it only fair that I share something that I think THEY’D be surprised to learn about ME. In the context of the setting it seems much more compelling than the fact that I went to sleep away camp at 3.

“My best friend is a crystal meth addict,” I say, waiting for gasps and gaping mouths.

Aside from the one who asked if he could get her some, none of them were surprised. Their reaction was pretty much the same: “So, meth addicts are everywhere.” One even spouted (a rather hyperbolic) statistic that “85% of MIT students are meth addicts” and the others nodded and attributed it to their smarts and access to labs. Yet another completely different perspective on life that I’ve gotten from these wise and hardened souls.

At the end of the class I asked them (as I’ve done before with the groups that I’ve lead before) what adjective they would use to describe ME. Today, the only one worth mentioning, because it’s the best to date:

“Fashionable”…(short pause)…”A little bit.”

Crawling Back In Time

I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. My siblings are significantly older than I (8yrs, 9yrs and 16yrs respectively) and I was often left to entertain myself within an eerily empty and quiet house. It was this freedom (and boredom), that lead me to explore the nooks, crannies and forbidden places and spaces in the house I lived until I was 13.

Every once in a while I would nose around my parent’s night table drawers, my mother’s a jumble of stuff that for some reason included one of those rubber things that blows wax out of your ears. I would sit on the bed and while using her phone just squeeze the big bulb at the end like an old-fangled stress ball pointing the stream of air on my cheek. There was also a circle of pills of different colors and corresponding numbers that when you twisted the plastic package you could pop the pills out of flimsy foil. I did that when I would use the phone too, having no idea what in the world they were (I now know they were her birth control pills. Oops.)

My father’s top dresser drawer was very neat, some old coins, a tie-clip or two and some money-clipped cash. He didn’t like me being in there so I generally kept out when he was home. Like my daughter does now, I would often watch tv from their bed with my mother, all snuggled up with her while she played with my hair. She liked having me there.

I explored in closets (my mother’s wigs in Lucite boxes, her pocketbooks with chicklets and tic-tacs collected on the bottom), random drawers and cabinets in the dining and living rooms (where I would often found boxes of chocolate intentionally hidden from me because of my adolescent weight problem), and leafed through books that were out in the open like “The Joy of Sex,” “Helter Skelter” and “The Exorcist” (There was a book called “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” that I forever tried to figure out what the hell that meant. I just Googled it— “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” provides a laugh-out-loud humorous look at college life.” I’m sorry I never bothered to read it.)

It was our finished basement that held the most intrigue. The only time anyone REALLY used it was when my father would pen his monthly column for some estate planning journal where under no circumstances could he be disturbed. His desk had little cubby holes and on it a black, metal rotary phone that made such a distinct sound when it was dialed that I have never forgotten it. We were only allowed to make long distance calls from that phone, the line being only one number different from our regular more public number.

There was an off white vinyl white couch that I don’t think anyone ever used and a photographic black and white portrait of each of my parents. What I wouldn’t give to know what happened to those.

Our laundry room served double-duty as my brother’s darkroom, the slats on the door covered with a blackout covering. It was pretty cool in there and I knew better than to ever open the door when my brother was printing his photos. Negatives hung on lines and there was always the smell of photo chemicals seeping out through whatever space hadn’t been fully covered. I had little patience in there, waiting for the timer to say that you could move the picture from one tray to another with tongs.

There was a black metal rickety bookcase that had the full set of Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drews and years of National Geographic. I was most fascinated by an old junior high school health textbook that had colorful illustrations of kids touching toilet tanks and not washing their hands, and my favorite, a little boy sneezing on a girl, with a big X through the spray coming out of his mouth and nose. For whatever reason, I looked at this every time I went down there.

The epicenter of discovery, the Pandora’s Box, the keeper of history and simpler lives lived was the crawlspace, concealed behind hanging clothes in a long, wide closet. I’d crawl under some sort of low-hanging metal awning to the first spot where I could almost stand fully upright. Once there among the piles of boxes and low, open shelves, I would pick the most compelling spot, pick something that would hold my weight, sit down, and begin to explore. I remember my oldest brother’s Lionel trains that weighed a TON and felt resentful that this was never set-up while I was growing up. There was an old microscope with a box of glass slides and other accessories that someone must have used at some point. There were hat boxes and old files. There was a department store shopping bag with love letters from my father to my mother and those are what I remember most.

There were early Valentine’s Day cards from him to her, praising her beauty and the way she made him feel. They were written in his swoopy handwriting that takes a long time to get used to, the sentiments all so genuine. It made me happy that my mother, despite her very tragic life, was loved in this way.

The crawlspace was a peaceful, dusty world unto itself. It was jarring crawling back out of there and climbing the basement stairs back to reality. Life was so innocent down there, a place in time that didn’t include me but gave me a glimpse into a world that did in fact exist in my family, my history, my life

The Man At the Top of the Stairs

I’d stand, leaning on the hot metal counter, filling in little bubbles with a blunt golf pencil ordering the greasiest most fattening food to my heart’s content from the poolside snack bar. The college student working the grill never judged me while passing me my cheeseburger, fries and Hoodsie cup. No money ever exchanged hands and the total charge would eventually end up on my parent’s account. I was living the life of a member of Shelter Rock Tennis Club on Long Island.

It struck me only a few years ago the irony that the Club shared a gravelly unpaved parking lot with our temple. We certainly weren’t regular temple goers but there were a handful of times, after Sunday school (which was really nothing more than a group of restless teens wasting time in the basement of the temple) that I would trudge up the pebbled hill to meet my mother after her first tennis game of the day.

The Club was little more than just a constant reminder of how unfit I was, a super-sized version of most of my same-aged peers who hung out by the pool. There was a pair of identical twins who would move so fast in their bikinis that I got tired just following them with my eyes. There was another girl, built like a giraffe, who walked around scowling at the world (In a bit of astonishing irony, her father and my mother would ultimately die together in a double-suicide.) There were pruney and tanned older women and women in Pucci cover-ups. There was smoking and card playing and impressive dives from the high diving board.

I do remember rather fondly one of my very first crushes, a boy named David Kelman, surprisingly very blonde for a Jewish kid. One day we went off to trudge around the woods and swung at a cocoon on the verge of bursting, whacking at it with a long tree branch. I really had no idea that we undoubtedly interrupted some really critical life cycle, BUT for some reason, this made David want to hold my hand. Now, every time I see a cocoon, I think of the happy transformed lives about to enter into their new world.

I remember the “pop” sound of tennis balls in a state-of-the-art tennis bubble, the sucking of the heavy metal door in the steam room, and occasionally watching men play squash through a window in a separate building. I also remember walking into the men’s locker room at about 5 or 6 and my father SCREAMING at me while standing in his white briefs. I never did that again.

Between tennis games, men and women would eat lunch in the dining room. Most of the women would order the “diet plate,” a hamburger patty, side of cottage cheese and one half of a cling peach. My mother didn’t have to worry about what she ate, and actually, most of these women didn’t either. Even though I rather enjoyed scraping out grapefruit sections with a serrated spoon, when my mother and her friends weren’t around I certainly wouldn’t be eating a grapefruit for lunch. Again, when I’d eat with my friends, I’d sign a receipt and never think twice about the cost.

At the edge of the dining room, separating it from the lobby was a very large wooden, polished spiral staircase. On the day that I learned that the head chef lived up there I was completely fascinated and even slightly jealous. Every time I was there, I would tip my head to see if he was up there, willing this phantom man to appear. Would he look like the chef from Sesame Street who fell down the stairs with a stack of pies? Would he be old and black like our “chef” from camp who made the best fried chicken that to this day, is the best I’ve ever tasted? One lucky day, he DID appear, in his chef whites, his name embroidered on his chest pocket. I think he waved and then ducked back behind his secret door. (I think the waving and ducking part might be a false part of the memory.)

I tried to find the current yearly dues for the Club online, but to no avail. I know this was a privilege of upper-middle class life but one that really sort of bored me. However, I certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to fill in little circles on an old fashioned looking computer card, have someone hand me a burger and fries, never to see the check.