Turning Five

I'm not sure how old I was in this photo--but it can't be a lot more than five!

I’m not sure how old I was in this photo–but it can’t be a lot more than five!

Tears flooded my pillow on the eve of my fifth birthday.

Lying in my bed on Lawn Ridge Road in Orange, New Jersey, I couldn’t stop thinking about the milestone to come. First I would be five, I reasoned. And then I would be twenty. And then I would be old. My life was almost over.

In vain my mother reassured me that five year olds all over the world appeared happy with their lot—and that I had quite a few years to go before my life ended. I refused to believe her. It was hours before I fell asleep, exhausted with worry.

I repeated the pattern when I turned ten. My mother, who had spent many years as an elementary school teacher, tried to convince me that ten was one of the best ages a person could turn.

In retrospect, I realize that she was right. Ten is a golden year, when children are secure and knowledgeable and coordinated, and their hormones haven’t kicked in to confuse things. At nine years and 364 days, however, I was convinced that the next day I would have one foot in the grave. Maybe even a foot and a half.

Over the years, I learned to handle my fear of aging. Having noticed that the numbers divisible by five seemed the most daunting, I decided at the age of 20 never to reach one of those numbers again. When the calendar wanted me to turn 25, I turned 24 for the second time. The next year I went straight to 26. I stayed there for a while; 26 seemed like a good age.

Eventually, I stopped changing ages altogether. I still celebrated my birthday—who doesn’t love a birthday party?—but I eventually established a practice of turning 39 year after year after year. If it was good enough for Jack Benny, it was good enough for me.

I could probably find a therapist to explain and treat my fear of aging. I’m no dummy, however, and I’m pretty sure I understand the cause of this phobia. I was very smart at a very early age. As a consequence, for the first 20 years or so of my life I was generally the youngest person in my social set to enter a grade in school or play a role in a play or read a “grownup” book or learn a mathematical skill.

I defined myself by my youth. Any threat to that youth—and the calendar is the ultimate threat to youth—seemed to threaten my essence.

I spent most of my life worrying about aging. When at the age of 27 I saw the first gray hairs glinting on my head in the rearview mirror of my car I almost ran the car off the road in panic.

I called my mother to tell her about this incident. At the time she was in her 60s and still had NO gray hair. (I inherited my father’s hair; he looked like a brillo pad for much of his life.) “Is the car all right?” she asked.

I was indignant. “Your daughter’s hair is turning gray, and all you care about is a mechanical device?” I huffed into the phone.

I soon found that l’Oreal could help me with the gray hair—but not with the aging.

I often identified with a line near the end of Richard II in which the doomed king muses, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

A couple of years ago, my fear of aging began to abate.

A recent photo. DEFINITELY old(er)--but happy.

A recent photo. DEFINITELY old(er)–but happy.

I had just finished Pulling Taffy, my memoir about caring for my mother in her last years when she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke at women’s clubs, church groups, and senior centers about the strategies I had developed over time for caring for her and the lessons we had learned together.

One evening during the question-and-answer session that followed one of my talks a woman thanked me for the knowledge I was sharing, noting that she would put it to good use.

It suddenly hit me that the most valuable part of my talks—and indeed the most valuable part of me—was the experience and knowledge I had developed over the years.

I would no longer be the youngest in most of the circles I would frequent. But I could try to be one of the wisest, I realized.

Now I believe that I haven’t wasted time. I have invested it. My wrinkles aren’t signs of decay. They are signs of life.

I have to admit that I’m still officially 39. And I’m not allowing my hair to go gray. One has one’s standards to uphold.

I no longer get upset if someone accidentally looks at my driver’s license and discovers my birth year, however. I have too many things to do, too many new things to learn, and too many lessons to share.

When I REALLY become old (in 30 years or so), I’ll be awesome.

Meanwhile, I have come to appreciate age everywhere, particularly in fiction, where older characters often have some much more … well … character than youthful heroes and heroines.

Don’t most people, secretly, prefer Endora to Samantha in Bewitched? I certainly do. She’s much more colorful, much more dramatic, much more fun. And she’s not afraid of her own powers….

endoraweb

I Love Living in a Small Town!

Looking for a Good Meeting in Hawley, Massachusetts

Life  in Hawley, Massachusetts, pickles me Tink.

I recently became chair of our local volunteer arts council. This group, the Charlemont-Hawley Cultural Council, distributes funds once a year allocated to the towns of Charlemont and Hawley by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The grants go to projects involving the arts and the humanities, often with an educational component.

I had been a semi-active member of the council for the past few years. It often met when I was out of town, but I managed to participate by reading grant proposals and relaying my recommendations to the rest of the group.

This summer our council got an email from the state informing us that if no one volunteered to serve as chair (Mary Campbell of Charlemont, who epitomizes community spirit, had held the post as many years as she was legally able to) the council would receive no funds from the state for 2013. There was email silence for a while, and then I broke down and said I’d take on the job.

The council supports events that are important to our community, including Mohawk Trail Concerts, our local chamber-music series; many special programs in the local schools; and the Charlemont Forum, a summer lecture series on ethics and politics. It has even supported me in the past, giving me money to help publish my cookbook and write my food blog. It seemed heartless (not to mention ungrateful) not to step in.

From left to right: Joanne MacLean, Julia White, Ellen Miller, Andrea Santos, Pam Shrimpton, and Lida Forbes at last night’s meeting

The council met yesterday evening at the Hawley Town Office to discuss who would get funds in 2013. The council received more applications than it has in any other year so the process of making decisions was fascinating if occasionally frustrating. We had applications from schools, theater groups, the senior center, both towns’ historical societies, and individual artists, scholars, and musicians.

Our group, composed of four members from Charlemont and three from Hawley, worked swiftly and cheerfully together to find just the right combination of recipients to receive this year’s allocation. Pam Shrimpton of Hawley noted with delight how much fun it was to go to a meeting in which she actually got to make decisions instead of listen to endless (sometimes pointless!) discussion. We all felt lucky to be able to help worthy groups and individuals.

We nibbled on a little freshly baked pumpkin bread. And we were entertained by our almost-audience for the meeting. In keeping with the state’s open-meeting law, we had posted the time and date of our proposed meeting at both town halls, noting that the public was invited to attend.

In the end, the only members of the public who seemed interested in joining us were the farm animals across the road from the Hawley Town Office. The calves mooed at us as they surveyed the flowers outside the door.

And we had to shoo several chickens away from the doorway.

Why did the chicken cross the road? Obviously, to go to a Cultural-Council meeting!

I have a feeling the Cultural Council in Boston doesn’t have nearly this much fun….

Autumn in New York

I know, I know, it’s not QUITE autumn. But I found myself humming the song “Autumn in New York” last weekend—even singing it at one point, to the huge embarrassment of my young nephew Michael!—as my family and I spent a couple of whirlwind days in the Big Apple. The whirlwind applied to the emotions involved as well as the pace of the days.

The main purpose of our sojourn in the city was to attend an auction at Sotheby’s. In April my brother David contacted the auction house about selling several items from our parents’ collection of Indian art. We were/are in need of money, and we were also a bit nervous about having a lot of art in our homes without being able to afford to insure it adequately.

Since our initial contact, we have spent a lot of time talking on the phone with the wonderful staff at Sotheby’s, saying goodbye to paintings (I will particularly miss the toy that used to hang on my wall here in Massachusetts), and working on the catalogue essay about our parents.

This toy (pictured on my wall) has now gone to a new home.

I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be at the auction, watching paintings I had lived with all my life go out into the wider world, but David and his wife Leigh convinced me that it would be an interesting experience. So on Saturday I boarded the Megabus in Hadley, Massachusetts, and sailed down the highway toward the metropolis.

The bus ride was delightful, particularly the spectacular drive down Fifth Avenue when we finally reached the city. From my perch in the front of the bus’s upper story I could see women promenading in colorful African-inspired costumes in Harlem, crowds clustered in front of the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums, the lush greenery of Central Park, and the lively windows of elegant department stores and boutiques.

The View from the Bus

We all stayed in a tiny suite in a hotel near Times Square; the windows seemed almost brighter at night than by day thanks to the area’s signature neon. I do love New York. It’s like a giant nightlight. On Saturday evening we ate fabulous Brazilian food.

Before dinner, however, we stopped in at the reception for Asia Week at Sotheby’s. There we saw our art in a new context. We also had the opportunity to look at exquisite Chinese scrolls, fans, and furniture that were to be offered at auction later in the week.

On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’re trying very hard to convince Michael that New York is a place to absorb culture, not just shop at Nintendo World and FAO Schwartz. Being a 12-year-old boy, he was particularly taken with the displays of weapons and armor, although we did manage to sneak in a little art along the way.

Michael and David survey armor.

Sunday afternoon we saw the comedy Peter and the Starcatcher. I hadn’t seen a show in New York in years so I had convinced the family to book discount tickets in advance. When I discovered that David, Leigh, and Michael had dinner plans with friends for Sunday evening, I quickly ran to another theater and bought myself an orchestra seat (full price—ouch!) for the evening performance of An Enemy of the People. A girl can always use a little Ibsen in her life.

The auction itself, which took place on Monday afternoon, was fascinating. Most of the art was displayed via video, but a few key pieces (including a couple of ours) were brought to the auction room. Just before the auction a man in a cherry picker zoomed about the room to point spotlights at the works.

Bidders were “present” in three ways: in the room, on the other end of several phones monitored by Sotheby’s employees, and on the internet. The auctioneer, Henry, could see the web bids on a special screen in the back of the room; he was very suave and smart keeping all the different types of bids straight.

The screen at the front of the room showed a picture of the piece or pieces up for bid at the moment, along with the amount of the current bid in a variety of currencies. I was a little weepy as we said goodbye to the lovely lady pictured below, but watching the bidding distracted me from my tears.

Some of our pieces did very well, exceeding the amounts our team—Priyanka, Laurie, Jackie, and Henry—had predicted. Some attracted a little less attention (and money!) than they and we had hoped.

Apparently, the rupee isn’t doing well vis-à-vis the dollar at the moment. So Sotheby’s had trouble finding bidders for the centerpiece of the collection, a large canvas by the late M.F. Husain.

We talked to Priyanka about it just before the auction and decided that we didn’t want to lower its minimum price too much. We are fond of the painting, which my father acquired in the early 1970s because the artist wanted it to go to a good home and didn’t want to sell it to anyone else.

In the end it will come home to us, as will a couple of other pieces that didn’t meet their minimum bids. We’re actually thrilled about this. We could have used a little more money. Who couldn’t? I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll pay all my bills going forward. But we also love the art, both for itself and as a link to our late parents.

This large piece will return to David and Leigh’s house.

Happily, that link actually grew stronger through the process of consigning the rest of the art for sale. Leigh and David threw themselves into the task of doing research on the art and our parents’ reasons for collecting, and I wrote the essay about Jan and Abe that opens the catalogue. The photo below, which we found while going through boxes of old papers, illustrated the essay. We think it was taken around 1960.

Jackie, who did the rest of the writing for the catalogue, told us that she, Laurie, and Priyanka fell in love with the photo when I sent it in. (They all watch Mad Men and love the 1960s.) She ran into Priyanka’s office with the image and said, “Meet the Weisblats!”

Left to right: Laurie, Priyanka, and Jackie in front of one of our (former) paintings by Ram Kumar

As I wrote the essay and my siblings and I edited it together, we gleaned new information about our parents. I now actually know what my father did for a living … more or less. (When asked in my youth, I always responded that his profession consisted of talking on the telephone.)

We have a renewed appreciation for their energy, their openness to new experiences, and the ways in which they reached out to people all over the world.

And of course we appreciate their taste in amassing such a lovely collection of art … and in producing such a wonderful family. They were with us in spirit at Sotheby’s, and much of their art will continue to adorn our walls for years to come.

Good Food and Warm Hearts

As my brother pointed out on Saturday, our mother loved a good party. So did our father. Here they are celebrating in Delhi in 1971.

Last Saturday about 60 people gathered to remember my mother at the Play House here at Singing Brook Farm in Hawley, Massachusetts.

Up until the last minute we weren’t entirely sure how many people were coming. I did ask people to let me know … but I wasn’t worried when I didn’t hear from a lot of them. I knew there would be plenty of food–there always is at pot lucks–and plenty of good company. Of course, I was right. (I usually am.)

In the end we were missing a few people we expected (a couple of them called a day or two later and asked me to remind them when the party was!) but gained a few we hadn’t expected but were thrilled to see.

The day was pleasant enough to enable some guests to sit outside to eat lunch. We all came inside when it was time to remember Jan/Taffy officially.

Many of the speakers and guests were relatives. My mother’s siblings Lura and Bruce were in attendance, full of memories and good cheer. Aunt Lura was particularly thrilled that all six of her children had come, along with several grandchildren and even a couple of great-grandchildren.

Bruce and Lura (Courtesy of Cousin Toby David)

We also had honorary relatives—several of my childhood cohorts from Singing Brook Farm; my sort-of cousin Eric, nephew of one of my mother’s closest and most colorful college friends (We’ll always have Paris, Eric!); dear Anna, whose father went to graduate school with mine and whose children were like grandchildren to my mother; and Amy and Lyzz, childhood friends whose mother was my mother’s business partner and who looked pretty much the same as they did when they were kids. Lots of neighbors showed up—and my mother’s  beloved caregiver, Pam, brought not only herself but enough tea sandwiches to feed the whole crowd.

People spoke of my mother’s literal and figurative equilibrium, her … forthrightness (a much more diplomatic word than rudeness, don’t you think?), her brains, her humor, and her giant smile. My sister-in-law Leigh noted that Taffy viewed her as adding to the family rather than taking my brother away, a good attitude in a mother-in-law!

I didn’t speak officially, but Alice Parker Pyle and I led the group in a couple of Taffy-appropriate songs … and I concluded the festivities by reciting one of her favorite poems, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” She always performed this verse with great gusto and drama; I like to think I replicated a little of her style.

Here my cousin Pat imitates my mother’s style of oratory.

As I looked around at the group in the Play House my heart warmed. There I was, surrounded by people I loved … my own playmates and my mother’s playmates, plus people of a variety of ages down to the very young Michael, Elijah, Audrey, and Malia. It felt as though we were all joyfully eating, drinking, and talking inside a kaleidoscope of the past, present, and future.

At the center of that kaleidoscope was our mother, who as my brother pointed out early on always enjoyed a good party.

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,
          The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

If you’d like to hear my recitation, click on the play button below. I apologize if the poem is a little hard to hear; I’m still working on recording technique!

Visit my food blog for a recipe from the day’s feast. And if you have any memories of my mother to share, please leave them in a comment!

School’s Out!

From the family albums:
Jan and Abe bring my older brother David home from the hospital.

I went to my last writing workshop last week. As I wrote a few weeks back, this writing group was sponsored by the local hospice organization and was designed to help the bereaved deal with their grief. I decided to attend because I had always wanted to see what a writing group would be like.

In general the experience was fascinating. I enjoyed listening to the other participants’ essays about their lost loved ones and their loss. In the end, however, I am glad the thing is over. As the weeks went by, I continued to feel out of synch with my fellow grievers, who seemed, in their writing, to be stuck in the past.

When I write about the past–and those of you who read my blogs regularly will know that I certainly do–I do so to analyze things that happened, people whom I knew, in the hope that those things and people can inform me in my path forward through life.

I write to construct my life, not to deconstruct it. And I felt that the group was mainly deconstructing, that it was pulling me into the past when I wanted to move into the future.

I knew that my fellow writers found the workshop more useful than I did so I didn’t mention my feelings to them. Everyone grieves differently, and I’m sure that the workshop helped the others a lot.

And I couldn’t ever forget that I was in a fortunate position relative to my fellow writers. They came to the workshop in order to write, to give voice to their feelings. I write and give voice to my feelings every day.

Nevertheless, I did write a few rather sweet essays. I’m sharing a brief one below as a farewell to the group. It’s apropos since right now my brother, my sister-in-law, and I are going through my parents’ old albums and diaries. The writing cue was a poem called “What the Living Do.”

What the Living Do (Tinky’s version)

The living hurry. We get annoyed. The dead don’t seem to be in much of a hurry—and if they’re annoyed they certainly haven’t told ME about it.

The dead don’t make lists.

And I don’t think they worry about the weather, although we were careful to send my parents’ bodies off in warm, cozy clothes just in case.

Their only work now is to rest … and to inspire us with biographies and memories.

We, the living,

… feed the pets and cook supper,
… do housework (not a lot of it in my case, but more than the dead in any case),
… take casseroles to the sick and the newly bereaved,
… try to make a living,
… exercise when we can,
… talk on the phone and read the paper and watch TV and send emails.

We also feed the only hunger left in the dead: to have their lives, now seen in full narrative arc, remembered and examined.

We laugh or at least smile at the jokes we thought we had heard too many times when they still lived.

We turn the decaying pages of old albums and review—relive—moments of their lives: the first words they uttered, their fresh faces at graduations, the huge grins that greeted babies and grandchildren.

All the moments of their lives merge in memory … so that we, and they, can finally say that we love each other as whole people.

I Must Be in the Right Business

On Friday I delivered a lunch lecture to students at Greenfield (Massachusetts) High School.

The lunch lecture program is a sort of continuing-education feature for the students, although continuing education is clearly the wrong term since these kids haven’t concluded their original educations!

Basically, its aim is to expose them to different fields of study, different people, and different careers as an adjunct to their regular curriculum.

I was asked to talk about my work as a food journalist and blogger, to analyze why I love to write about food.

As you can imagine, this was pretty easy. I explained that I got into food writing the way I get into pretty much everything … by accident.

I went on to tell the students about the ways in which food writing makes my life more integrated, connects me to other people, and enables me to write about any topic I choose since just about everything can be related to food one way or another.

I provided a few examples of this wide-ranging focus, explaining that in the past I had linked recipes to such topics as vintage television programs, women’s history, literature, baseball, and astronomy.

I emphasized the ways in which my writing uses just about every subject I have ever studied. I knew this emphasis would go over well. I remember wondering when I was in school whether anything I was learning would ever prove useful in that far-away land called real life.

(Actually, I haven’t ever found much use for biology in my writing, but I don’t rule out being able to work it into an article or blog post one of these days!)

After this brief survey of my work, I asked the students to identify their favorite dishes for me … and to tell me if they could who had first made the dishes and why these particular foods were meaningful to them.

After the first couple of hands went up and were answered, the room exploded with young people eager to share their love of food and family. Among other dishes we discussed Pork-Fried Rice, Dad’s Enchiladas, Teriyaki Pork Chops, Ice Cream with Lavender Sauce, and several different versions of Macaroni and Cheese.

One student who had studied culinary science (I wish they had had that at MY high school) told me about his own creation for a final exam. He had prepared a breakfast pizza with eggs, cheese, sausage, and a multitude of additional ingredients. I’m sure he got an “A.”

We ended our session with enthusiasm—and hunger. The students themselves illustrated my point that food and cooking are meaningful both as pillars of everyday living and as keys to relationships and memory.

So I’m clearly in the right field. Now all I have to do is make A LOT more money cultivating that field…….

Speaking of school-age children, I’ll close here with an essay I wrote in my writing group last week that touches on my much younger self. We were asked to write briefly about a tree. This is what I came up with.

The Apple Tree

I’m not very old—probably about five, old enough to go to school each day but not old enough to have much homework.

Afternoons after school stretch their arms out to me, full of promise.

My first choice in the afternoon would almost always be to go inside and watch an old movie on TV, preferably one in which Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy harmonize as they sing of their love for one another:

“When I’m calling you oo-oo-oo oo-oo-oo………”

Most days, however, indoor, sedentary pleasures are forbidden by my mother. She wants an active, social child as well as a chanteuse.

Today her prohibition of indoor pastimes is fine with me. I have an outdoor mission.

My slightly older neighbor, Jamie Patrick Scios, has broken his leg climbing on the family television set—how and why no one knows. I am enamored of his crutches.

I have one ambition right now: to climb an apple tree in the backyard, hurl myself out of it, break my leg, and obtain my own set of crutches.

I put my Keds-clad feet in successive elbows of the gnarly old tree until I feel very high indeed—maybe as high as eight feet (which is a big deal for little me). I spread my arms apart like wings, launch my body into the air, and head for the ground.

But … I am small and limber, so after a lovely little whirl I arrive intact on the soft grass.

I try again to no avail. Grr.

I have a feeling my mother must have told the tree to take care of me.

Several weeks later Jamie lends me his crutches. They are a lot more work than I expected.

Thank you, Apple Tree, for not taking me too seriously.

Not the Original Apple Tree

A Letter from My Father

I couldn't find any photographs of my father in 1941, but the ones in this post come pretty close: my mother took them in 1942, when the two were first dating.

Some days I just love the internet. Thanks to that magical web—and to the research and kindness of a woman named Joan Weissman—I recently caught a glimpse of my father in his youth.

Joan is a textile artist who lives in New Mexico. Last week she emailed me out of the blue to ask whether my father had lived on West 108th Street in New York in the early 1940s. She had discovered a letter from an Abe Weisblat living there addressed to her mother and had found my contact information on the internet.

My brother did a little quick research and established that the Abe Weisblat in question was indeed our father. Joan supplied more information.

Her mother, Mata Rubin, was born in Poland but lived in Romania until she was 16. At that point Mata and her family moved to various locations before settling in New York, where she went to high school in the early 1940s.

Joanie (you can tell we’re already friends since I’m calling her Joanie!) told us that her mother hadn’t talked much about her past and had died of cancer in 1970, when her children were teenagers. Their father had kept souvenirs of Mata’s past in a box but had found looking at it painful. Now, after his death, Joan and her two siblings are going through the box and digging up details of their mother’s youth.

“Obviously, there was a lot of trauma,” Joanie wrote, “but from the letters I’m now discovering, she also had wonderful friends during the war years, and many meaningful relationships we knew nothing about.”

Apparently, my father was one of those friends. The letter from Abe to Mata was postmarked in 1941, when Mata was just 18 and Abe was 21. Joan mailed us a copy.

I had a feeling the letter was going to be pretty special when I read Joanie’s original note about it. She wrote that “the most surprising thing [was] that his heartfelt letter from 1941 seems to predict exactly the kind of person he would become, and the work he did. So, when I read his bio, I was sure it was the same Abe Weisblat.”

Here is a segment of the letter. In it my father is describing a trip he has taken to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states (with a brief stopover in Canada). I have corrected Abe’s spelling and punctuation just a little, something he frequently asked my mother or me to do. (He was a wonderful talker but not a polished writer.)

This country, especially in Vermont and New Hampshire, seems to be just as it might have been a hundred years ago. All you see for miles is mountains, green fields, more mountains, more green fields. Imagine going to a place where, when you want to wash in the morning, you have to go down to the lake with some soap—or in the better places, you have a bowl and a pitcher of cold water to wash yourself—a place where there are more cows than people (that’s true in the state of Vermont), where the kids go to the movies in their bare feet—and places where they don’t think at all about the war! They argue they have more important things to think of—their cows and their crops.

I could go on and on, but the point is that here are people that I have been looking for, people not interested in just going further economically, or becoming powerful. They’re poor, but they have enough to eat from their crops, and so they are satisfied with life. They don’t have to worry about hating people. Above all they are real people—people that could not be false. Maybe it’s because they live so near to the soil, and so haven’t been too much affected by our industrial life.

Ye Gads! I’d better stop this raving, before you think I have become completely mad. The point I wish to make is that in your letter you’re afraid that you won’t meet the real people, because they don’t exist. But believe me, Mata, they do. And when you meet them you will realize how wonderful they are, and how we who think we are the smart ones are but empty shells.

In some ways Mata’s letter was written by the man I knew in later years. It foreshadows my father’s career in agricultural economics, a field that wasn’t at all “natural” for a Jewish boy from New York City but that fascinated him all his life. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm and heart he always showed to his family, colleagues, and friends.

And yet … this document is also the letter of a stranger to me, an idealistic youth (with perhaps a slight bent toward socialism?) who displays a touching naivety.

The combination of old and Abe young Abe moved me. We seldom get to see the trajectory of our parents’ lives with clarity. I only knew Abe in his maturity; my parents waited a long time to have children!

It shocked me a little but pleased me greatly to get a glimpse of young Abe … looking out into the landscape of the country and his life with happy expectancy.

I am grateful to Mata for keeping the letter and to Joanie for getting in touch with me. Most of all, I’m grateful to my father for being such a rich role model. I plan to keep on cultivating the traits he exhibited in his letter to Mata—curiosity, optimism, warm heartedness, and enthusiasm.

My father certainly never smoked a pipe when I knew him--so either he smoked the things only briefly or this is a pose. (I lean toward the latter!)

Straightening Myself Out

Busy kittens can make their companions tired.

I don’t know how many of you out there cry on a regular basis. I’m not a frequent crier—and I think by and large I’m doing pretty well adjusting to being an orphan. Nevertheless, every once in a while I involuntarily turn on the waterworks. They came roaring out at about midnight a couple of nights ago.

A contributing cause for my tear fest was my adorable but sometimes maddening three-and-a-half-month-old kitten, Rhubarb. Like many babies of different species, she can’t manage to sleep through the night.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time we go to bed or how much I play with her in the evening before retiring. After three or four hours of shuteye (occasionally five if I’m really lucky!) she transforms herself from sleepy kitten to attack cat, pouncing on Truffle the Dog and me as we attempt to finish our night’s sleep.

If I lock her out of the room, wails of anguish fill the apartment. If I allow her to stay in the room, the mayhem continues until I’m ready to get up in the morning. At that point Ruby quietly curls up for a nap.

I know she will grow up soon. Meanwhile I’m perennially a bit groggy.

The other night I as was getting ready to go to bed I decide to search for the charger for one of my (too) many electronic devices. I ended up in the kitchen—not the neatest room in the house. As I lifted clean laundry to search underneath I managed to hit one of the wine glasses hanging on the rack above the kitchen counter. The small goblet fell to the ground and shattered into myriad pieces.

The broken glass wasn’t one of my late mother’s best—I’d guess that it dated from the 20th century, not the 19th—but it was graceful and attractive, with a curved cranberry cup and a clear stem. Its set was one of the few for which my mother owned twelve matching glasses. My brother and I now have eleven left.

The remaining glasses still hang in the kitchen. (They aren't this messy looking in real life; it's hard to take photos of glass!)

As I swept up the shards—or most of them; I found another just this morning—I berated myself.

I was a terrible daughter, I thought. I couldn’t take care of my mother’s things. I couldn’t even manage to put away my clean laundry—something that would have appalled her. I started crying, and for a little while, despite the dog and cat’s best efforts, I was inconsolable.

I put on my nightgown and washed my face as I cried. As I dripped down onto the bed with the animals around me, I recalled my mother’s attitude toward tears.

An eminently practical woman, she had absolutely no use for weeping. I decided that if she were looking down at me from heaven, she would more upset by the tears than by the broken glass. I have broken things all my life, and thanks to that practical streak she was pretty much resigned to the breakage.

I looked at the walls around me and noted that the pictures were all crooked. Worse than tears in my mother’s opinion were crooked pictures. She spent a lot of time adjusting them on the walls.

I got up off the bed and gently straightened the paintings. The worst offender, a portrait of me when I was 13 by M.F. Husain, looked a lot better when it wasn’t crooked.

Somehow the act of putting it into alignment it made me feel a little straighter myself. The tears subsided, and I went to sleep … at least until Miss R. decided it was time to start playing.

Lessons learned:

1. Action is better than moping.

2. Be useful rather than tearful. (This is really the same as lesson one–blame my kitten-induced fatigue!–but it sounds more positive.)

3. Put away the laundry as soon as you fold it. (This one is taking me a while to learn. A new pile has formed in the kitchen.)

4. DO NOT start search for things when you are tired. (This one I have taken to heart.)

I look--and feel--better when I'm in alignment.

Time and Talent

Here I rehearse for my upcoming Virginia concert with pianist Patty Pulju.

As readers know, I’m spending this year evaluating my career prospects and figuring out how I can (whether I can?) make a happy and lucrative living in the years to come.

Part of this process involves figuring out what I do well. Being me and therefore a bit too introspective for my own good, I’m not just wondering what I do well. I’m also wondering what it means to do something well.

How much of what we are and do is nature? How much is nurture? How much is the perspiration so beloved of Thomas Alva Edison?

My two greatest strengths—the ones that have brought me the most satisfaction in the past—are my writing and my singing.

To an extent I was born with both of these—or at least trained to them. My mother was an excellent writer; my father, an excellent talker. They brought me up in a household that abounded with grammar, editing skills, and imagination (not to mention humor).

My family sang all the time—in the house, in the car, at bedtime. My grandmother considered becoming an opera singer. She serenaded us with a sweet, strong soprano voice she passed along to several of her children and grandchildren.

I recall family song nights around the piano in her house … and in the Play House at my summer home of Singing Brook Farm. There music flowed all around, like the brook that gave the farm its name or the rolling hills that sheltered us like a cradle.

Of course, I pride myself on working at both crafts. I’m a rapid and intuitive writer, but I do spend time planning what I write—and editing it into better form. Likewise, I work at my singing: I rehearse often, recording songs about which I am unsure so I can hear the points at which my voice flags or goes off key.

I also spend time researching the original context in which my songs were written and performed. I don’t want to imitate the original singers, but I do want to understand why they did what they did—and why the composers made the choices they did—as I work on my own interpretations.

Nevertheless, I know that I wouldn’t be doing this work, improving my prose and my voice, if I didn’t have a basic skill set to work with.

So … do I have any right to be proud of what I do? My talent is just … a talent, an innate ability that I may help along but can’t really take credit for. In a sense every day I just borrow my mother’s writing voice and my grandmother’s singing voice.

I find some solace in the OTHER definition of talent—not “natural ability” but (here I quote Merriam-Webster) “any of several ancient units of weight” or “a unit of value equal to the value of a talent of gold or silver.” In other words, talent is not just something we inherit. It’s something we spend.

It’s up to me to use my talent well, to spend my artistic resources wisely and productively. This is a true challenge for me. One of my other natural talents is for spining wheels. I’m apt to waste both money and time.

I hope at the end of this year I will be able to say that I am proud of the ways in which I used my talent.

Readers, what are you proud of? How do you feel about your own talents?

Truth and Fact

Fact: I am not the Easter bunny. Truth: I might be.

I’m mulling over two clusters of information that have passed through my eyes and ears this week. One is a radio program; the other is a college sociology paper.

Both touch on a dilemma that has confronted humans, particularly writers, for centuries but seems to have intensified in the last century: the way in which truth and fact can sometimes diverge.

I was first presented with this dilemma formally when I was in journalism school. One of the most important goals of student journalists is the pursuit of objectivity. They are taught to gather the facts of a story and to relate them as accurately as possible. (The “gross factual error” is the bane of every journalism class and every newsroom.) Above all, they are taught that the journalist’s personal opinions and biases have no place in a news story.

Of course, even my journalism professors had lived in the human world long enough to admit that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity.

Relativity theory had proved that different people (or at any rate different worlds) can experience time and space, previously seen as absolute, in radically different ways. Quantum theory had proved that at the most basic level our universe is a matter of probability rather than fact—and that the act of observation can change, even define, the object being observed.

Nevertheless, we journalism students were taught to pursue objectivity as a goal and a standard, to get as close to it as we could.

Last week this priority was reiterated for journalists and consumers of journalism when the public-radio program This American Life spent an hour retracting one of its most popular episodes, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”

In January monologist Mike Daisey had appeared on the program with an excerpt from his popular one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In this story Daisey talked about his experiences interviewing to Apple-computer workers in China. He discussed maimed workers, child laborers, and unsafe conditions.

In the retraction This American Life staff members revealed that further fact checking had exposed much of the information Daisey had shared as either second hand or untrue. Daisey was interviewed on the air and came across as half apologetic and half defensive.

Speaking of his stage production about Apple, Daisey told host Ira Glass, “I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.”

I believe that Daisey was wrong here. Theatrical truth is different from factual truth only when the theater piece involved is qualified in some way—that is, when it is presented as fiction, or when it is “inspired by a true story” but doesn’t purport to tell that true story.

In his stage performance and in his This American Life appearance he stated that he witnessed Apple’s appalling factory conditions himself. He didn’t witness them–not all of them. He shouldn’t have said that he did.

And yet …. I know what he meant about truth.

To further muddy the waters for me, a couple of days ago a childhood friend who now teaches sociology at the University of Georgia sent me a paper one of her students had written about food blogs and bloggers. My food blog was one of the student’s references.

The student wrote about the “social construction of memory” involved in food blogging and quoted another reference in describing the virtual world of food blogging as a “me-centered network.”

According to this paper, when I write my food blog (and, by extension, this blog) I am constructing and re-constructing my past and present, placing my own ego front and center.

This doesn’t sound entirely flattering. To some extent it is an accurate characterization of what I do when I write, however, although I should add that for me this style of writing long predated my blogs. It has characterized much of my feature journalism and definitely characterizes my Pudding Hollow Cookbook.

It is also to some extent an accurate characterization of what most of us do when we tell stories about our lives.

My doctoral dissertation focused on three celebrity couples from the 1950s, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson.

One of my main discoveries about the couples was that in the final analysis their lives didn’t exist as some kind of objective truth outside their television programs and their interviews to the press. Their lives shaped and reacted to those programs and those interviews.

On a personal level we’re all familiar with the ways in which stories we tell about ourselves and our families change and develop. Over time they become less and less about a moment in the past and more and more about family legend.

I spent last year writing a blog about my mother’s final illness. I tried hard not to lie about the way either of us reacted to things. Nevertheless, I also tried to stress our moments of strength and happiness.

Somehow or other by stressing those moments I made them longer and more frequent. Little by little, in life as in the blog, they managed to completely outshine the moments in which we were weak and unhappy.

In the end saying that my mother and I were strong and happy became the absolute truth.

Unlike Mike Daisey, I won’t tell readers I did something or heard something when I didn’t. Nevertheless, like him and like my old friend’s student I do believe that when I write I am to some extent constructing myself, my world, and the truth.

All I can do is promise to keep the facts as straight as I can—and never to lose my awareness of the oddly elastic cord that binds them to the truth.

P.S. As au audio illustration for this post, my friend Paul suggested I include this clip of the wonderful Jerry Orbach singing “Promises, Promises”……….