Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Exit Stage Right - January 2012

As heard on Radio Gorgeous January 31, 2012

This past weekend, the Southbank Centre held their Festival for the Living which was of course all about Death. And they must be onto something because Death was SOLD OUT. The point of the festival is that we all die and while we don’t have to love it, we may as well explore it.
Independent publisher Saraband was there promoting the book “Where There’s a Will” by Michael Kerrigan which brings to light that more than half of adults living in the UK don’t have a will. 2/3 of people with young families don’t have a will. 60% of people in their 40’s don’t have a will! What are you waiting for, people? I know it’s less urgent than updating your Facebook status and less sexy than planning a holiday but the fact remains, you will die and you are not jinxing yourself by being prepared. You are being courteous.
Not having a will doesn’t inconvenience you when you’re dead, it’s everyone else that suffers. And the consequences for the living can be dire. More than one wife has had to sue her children in order to stay in the family home because hubby didn’t leave a will. And if you’re not married to your partner you are entitled to exactly nothing. Who looks after your kids if you both die? Do you really want your mother-in-law bringing them up?
Even if you don’t have children and are not married or partnered, who knows all your passwords and where they’re kept? My sixth grade teacher died over two years ago and his Facebook page is still up, status: Stoked!
A will is also an opportunity to limit the strife inherent in family gatherings, in this instance: your funeral or other remembrance. My grandfather had a longstanding feud with his second wife’s sister initially arising over the television volume. This culminated in the surprise announcement at his wife’s funeral service that despite them all living in the same building shivah would be observed in two separate apartments. Graveside, Belle nearly broke a hip trying to be the first to throw dirt on her sister’s coffin. “She’s sending her spies up here” my grandfather said when anyone came upstairs to offer condolences, “she’s worse than a dog.”
I can speak from the authority as the executrix of choice in my family. I have one reminder and one request: there is no privacy in death so please go through your underwear drawer now and keep it tidy, keep it fresh and keep it clean.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Riots Schmiots (August 2011)

I don’t claim I was in London during the riots but that is also a boast that neither Boris Johnson nor David Cameron can make. Being resident on the beach in North Carolina while London burned - according to the headlines - doesn’t preclude me from having an opinion in the same way it didn’t deter them. And just as their alleged previous criminal enterprises didn’t disqualify them from being judgmental, why should I let mine stop me.
I shoplifted candy as a kid and a pair of indecently tight Lee jeans as a teenager and in high school I was involved in “borrowing” a car to go to a party. I recently learned that my biological father was incarcerated at the time of my birth for fraud, which was one of the reasons I was given up for adoption, so it was not me, it was my genes! Why take sole responsibility when I can share the blame?
“Why do people steal, Mommy?” Mister Baby asked me after someone stole my wallet in Sainsburys (what comes around goes around, my own karmic slap). “It’s like when you had to have that stick the other day even though it was Henry’s in the first place. You want what you want when you want it and you don’t care about anyone else.”
When you steal you think you deserve the object more than whoever has it, and when the victim is more remote, like Sainsburys or “the tax payer” it’s a lot easier. They’re so big they don’t need it; they probably won’t even notice.
However, like my “forgetting “to pay for wine at Sainsburys it wasn’t technically illegal as long as I paid for it once caught. When Boris and his Bullingdon buddies wrecked a restaurant after dinner, it wasn’t apparently illegal because their fathers paid for the damage. It is not apparently illegal to wiretap a murdered girl’s mobile phone if you are willing to pay off her family and give a million to charity. It is not apparently illegal to give newspapers access to police information if you are willing to fall on your sword. It’s doesn’t even seem it’s illegal to bankrupt a 300 year-old institution and dump the debt on the public; in fact you are rewarded with bonuses and massive pensions. The rioters’ crime, it would appear, is that they don’t have enough money to pay for what they stole which, in David Cameron’s own words, is a “deep moral failure.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

Glamp Town Girls (August 2011)

Looking at me now no one would mistake me for the outdoorsy, gung-ho camping type. Peel off the Alice Temperley dress and Michael Kors clogs, however, and you might just find a long buried Girl Scout (that’s Girl Guide to you) complete with mess kit. You might also find, should you dig deep enough, that every single vacation until the age of twenty took place in a tent. In my cups I might even admit that I was a Girl Scout camp counselor – and loved it. But that was long ago, and as my friend remarked when I contemplated camping (after being coerced by The Pater): “For me, three star is camping.”
Growing up, camping was not my favorite, but, as family activities went, it wasn’t the worst. It beat being locked in the basement in lieu of hiring a babysitter, for example. For summer vacation we either camped at the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia or in some avocado groves while visiting my grandparents in North Miami Beach. Highlights include tailgate picnics on St. Augustine beach in Florida, despite Mom serving us spoiled chocolate milk - chocolate because it better disguised the rancid curds. Another highlight was the breathtaking beauty of a scenic overlook of the vast Smoky Mountains, all the more appreciated having survived a bear the night before.
My mother didn’t want to stop at that mountain campground but the car radiator was overheating. Nevertheless, we had the air conditioner blasting and the windows rolled up tight. “Bears can pull down windows with their claws if you leave the tiniest crack,” my father warned. It was late afternoon when we arrived and the campground was nearly full. “An uncouth bunch,” my mother sniffed, noting the predominance of motorcycles and mullets among the campground’s occupants. My brother and sister went exploring and reported that a group of campers were following a bear around the campground, poking its back with sticks. My father took the precaution of tying up the extra food in a tree but he thought the cooler was sturdy enough to stay put on the picnic table.
As the youngest I had the dubious honor of sleeping on the floor of my parent’s tent beneath their cots while my brother and sister got the back of the station wagon. As the baby, I was also first in bed. What woke me was the top being ripped off the cooler quickly followed by gulps of chocolate milk glugging down the bear’s throat. I unzipped a corner of the tent window to witness massive claws scooping up peanut butter, Hershey’s chocolate and marshmallows for s’mores before lumbering into the night. Only then did I notice the four faces of my family gaping behind the car’s tightly rolled up windows.
At the scenic overlook the next morning, we were giddy with relief and I felt grateful to that bear for wrecking the cooler: no more sour milk!. I was also a touch resentful at having been left with a mere piece of moldy canvas between me and those claws. I announced to my brother and sister “After Mom and Dad got back to the tent, Mom was so scared that she pooped in one of Dad’s hankies and threw it out the tent door.” Slap went my mother’s hand across my mouth.
So comparatively speaking, The Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons was a civilized affair. The weather cooperated and after a couple of mugs of wine I forgot the four, arm-lengthening trips from car to campsite. I recommend a few choice essentials to ease any potential discomforts:
Hot water bottle (fuzzy cover inclusive)
Aeropress coffee maker
Tempur pillow
Blow up mattress
Ear plugs (worn religiously since Mister Baby was born)
Festival dress (black and white polka dot maxi as high res garment for Mister Baby to spot)
Vintage fur capelet
Welly socks
Box of wine (the equivalent of three bottles!)
Merchant Gourmet ready-to-eat Mixed Grains and Black Beluga Lentils
I do think it is high time to cut off the festival bracelet. At age 44 it’s probably not necessary to wear it until it drops off. After all I can get another one next summer.

A Door Opens (May 2011)

“Do you have a picture of your other mother?” Mister Baby asks over fish and chips in Wimbledon. We are celebrating having successfully folded The Pater’s lanky frame into a Nissan Figaro, the adorable, affordable and most importantly automatic car we have settled on just as soon as one of us procrastinating late bloomers gets a driver’s license. Don’t hold your breath.
“You mean my birth mother?” Mister Baby nods. For a second, I think he might mean my father’s new girlfriend. He did once sweetly pronounce “you have a new mommy now,” after a weekend spent with them. “No, I do not!” I spat back and then tried laughing to temper the vehemence of my reaction. I believe I succeeded in looking crazy.
“No,” I answered, “I don’t know her. Do you think I should look for her?” He nods again.
I gulp back the tears that suddenly choke me. “That really makes me miss Grandma.”
Mister Baby knows I was adopted, as were my brother and sister. “Why couldn’t your mother take care of you?” Separation and abandonment come immediately to his mind. I too felt abandoned when I first found out, but not by the mother who birthed me. I no longer, as I had naturally assumed, belonged to my parents, the fact of my adoption put me at a remove from them. This feeling of being deceived by the people I loved most was exacerbated by the fact that at age six it was my sister who told me. “We’re adopted and if you don’t believe me, ask K. He’s six years older than you and he would remember when you were brought home.” I waited eight years to confirm this with my brother. Yet another four years went by before I plucked up the courage to ask my mother directly; her curt response was: “I know you know you were adopted through channels in the family.” It made us sound like the Corleones and our inter-family communication could be just as cryptic and treacherous. What I didn’t grasp until years later was that my mother was referring to the fact that my sister had bragged that she had spilled the beans right after telling me, when I was six. When I asked her why she didn’t say anything until I brought it up twelve years later, my mother said, and I quote: “The cat was out of the bag. I figured if you had any problems with it, you would come and talk to me.” This might go some way to explain why I foist as much information – wanted or not – on Mister Baby.
Throughout my twenties, I followed up these early individual queries with persistent questioning to the point of haranguing. I eventually wore my parents down to a point of comparatively open discussion. It was in this spirit of openness that I related a comment I had made to a friend. “I’ve never met anyone that looks like me, “ I said, “except Judy Davis, and if Judy Davis was my mother, I would drop my mother like a hot potato!” They were as tickled by this idea as I was and many conversations about me as a teenager and my adoption ensued as I wrote a play about a teenage girl who is reunited with her mother, Judy Davis, on Oprah.
I have always been reluctant to look for my birth mother in part because my curiosity has seemed superficial. Does she have the same curly hair or cartilage drip on the end of her nose? Does breast cancer run in the family? I didn’t want to know her; I only wanted to know about her. And while I presumed that it was a traumatic event in her life that she might not want to revisit, I’ve also been afraid of what I might find: I see polyester, slipcovers, blue eye shadow and an ashtray on a chain around her neck. Finally, and most importantly, I didn’t believe that I would ‘find myself’ through contacting this other woman and that for better or worse, I had a mother who I wasn’t prepared to replace. That said, however, I did harbor the thought that I merely wasn’t ready. When my brother first attempted to find his birth mother, the adoption agency’s social worker said: “You’re only looking because you have other problems in your life that you want to ignore.” As I have always been blessed with problems I would rather ignore, this also worked as a deterrent for me as well.
I thought I might look once my adoptive mother died, but since that has come to pass it has only occurred to me once. But now, a year and a half later Mister Baby asks me if I have a picture and my years of ambivalence evaporate. I want a mom again.
“Guess what I just found out?” I ask Mister Baby who is home from school, wheezing and coughing on the sofa.
“There’s a book in the New York Public Library that has the name I was given when I was born. Should we look it up this summer? ”
Mister Baby nods.

The F Word (April 2010)

Upon stubbing one’s toe it is natural, and purportedly even helpful, to exclaim loudly, if not curse outright. When a small child is present, however, it is best to modify one’s language. So it was one Saturday morning that I stubbed my toe on the door jamb. I was aware of Mister Baby in the bedroom I had just exited; he was the very reason I was awake and in search of coffee. In a superb display of self-control, I hissed “For fuck’s sake!” in what I deemed a whisper.
Five minutes later, Mister Baby comes waltzing into the kitchen singsonging “for fuck’s sake, for fuck’s sake, for fuck’s sake.” The Pater followed. “We’re ignoring that, “I said neutrally to his upraised eyebrows. This recommended tactic of glossing over unattractive behavior seemed to work and we heard no more of the F word.
It is also natural to raise one’s voice when your child’s life is imperiled. I was vindicated in my pleasure at Mister Baby’s only crawling until 16 months because as soon as he walked, he ran, usually away from me. Several days after the ugly toe incident Mister Baby had escaped from the buggy and was running wildly ahead of me. I wasn’t too worried as we only had one more street to cross before home. He actually stopped at the zebra crossing and waited for me and I took the opportunity to grab his hand as we started across. We were crossing the far side when we both spotted the Mini bearing down on us. Not only was it not stopping, it was unmistakably speeding up. “Jesus Christ!” I bellowed. “For fuck’s sake!” shouted Mister Baby and continued to yell it all the way down the street. My slight embarrassment was tempered by pride in his appropriate usage.
Since then, there have been further slips of the F word from my lips. One notable incident was a very hung-over and sleep deprived morning at the airport when the Pater had thrown my bag at my feet spilling the passports onto the floor. Once I gathered them, I instructed Mister Baby: “Go tell your father to fuck himself.” This is the one instance I can recall that my instructions were followed without hesitation or argument.
There was also the matter of the of the cloth shopping bag that a friend sent from New York that read: I need some fucking groceries. “Wow, what great sounding out! Groceries is a big word,” I said as I shoved it in the back of the drawer behind the shoe polish.
The Pater recently decided that the time to put aside childish theater had come and got tickets for Jack Rosenthal’s Smash with Tom Conti and Richard Schiff. Despite Mister Baby’s refusal to go to the bathroom before the start, he behaved beautifully during the first act. He was entranced by the idea that the food on the buffet was real and that real steam was rising from the cups of coffee – the magic of live theater. There was enough rude language and slapstick to keep him entertained. A few audience members complimented us on his good behavior and we were feeling more than a little smug. Act two continued the theme of slapstick and shouting until the very crescendo was reached and the actress projected: “Why don’t we get in a circle, take our clothes off and FUCK!” CLOSE CURTAIN.

Festivus for the Rest of Us (November 2010)

Until you entrust your children to other people, you alone decide what information to give to them. Once they stray further abroad you remain the primary example setter, but the information highway gets hijacked by teachers and equally ignorant classmates. I understand why people homeschool when they want to, in the words of George Bush Jr. “control the message.” One sticky point in the general maelstrom is religion; it crops up early and sticks around.
I am culturally Jewish, so although we didn’t belong to a synagogue nor was I bas mitzvahed, I learned Yiddish and being Jewish is part of my personal identity. However, for the Pater, religion doesn’t feature. When we first met, he told me: “I think we’re Presbyterian.” What do you mean you don’t know? Your parents met in church! Which one? If I’m going to marry a goy, I’d like to know what kind.
My grandmother advocated marrying within your religion purely for the ease of decision making; “one less argument,” was her theory. We have never argued about religion (it was the Pater’s idea that we get married under the huppah but I think stamping on the glass was the big draw) but decisions have to be made regarding holidays. And because of our different nationalities further decisions have to be made about whose family we visit and when. This is why I created Hanukmas , a fast and dirty version of Hanukah which only lasts 4 days : two candles, two prayers and two presents a night and leaving us free to travel during the festive season (frequently in different directions). On Christmas morning, Mister Baby wakes to one gift from Santa at the foot of his bed. This already sets up a dichotomy because the Hanukah presents are from us, but the Christmas present is from Santa and Santa only, which I found out when we were visiting my father in North Carolina. Post present opening, Mister Baby was fairly obnoxious all morning so I tapped into the time honored tradition of emotional blackmail. “I don’t think I got a thank you for that present,” I prompted.
“It wasn’t from you, it was from Santa”
“Well, I told Santa where to find you, ingrate!”
Another sticky religious point, which we have been forced to face is the afterlife. We have discussed the current whereabouts of his two grandparents and grand uncle who have died but not those of our upstairs neighbor because Mister Baby has never said her name aloud since the morning following her suicide. I have been steadfast in my denial of all knowledge of their current locations. However, due to the mandatory religious education in the UK, Mister Baby has a GPS lock on them.
“Where’s your mommy now?” asks Mister Baby, possibly rhetorically. “I don’t know, baby.” “I do, she’s in heaven. She is.” This last is said with the same singsong and much nodding of the head that he employs when trying to convince me he’s washed his hands and face when there is abundant evidence to the contrary.
On Remembrance Day, I was roped into bringing the 40 children of all creeds and colours from the two Year 1 classes to the memorial which is a quarter mile from the school. This journey takes 45 minutes and 10 adults to negotiate. Once there, the children were posed a few questions. “Where are the soldiers now?” asks the religious education /art teacher. “In heaven, “ is the fervent reply. For some reason this question is asked not once but twice.
Religious education is both valuable and interesting but I thought it was the job of schools to teach facts and the distinction between fact and opinion. Can you tell me definitively that the soldiers are in heaven? Since it’s supposed to be religious education and not indoctrination, I fail to see what’s wrong with saying that some people believe that we go to heaven when we die and some don’t, which is what I say every time the subject comes up. London is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world and this school is a microcosmic reflection of that. I have to wonder what the other parents there make of the information being spoon-fed to our children. On this occasion, I don’t ask but instead roll my eyes at my friend whose husband is also a secular Jew to which she says: “M would be livid.”
I understand Mister Baby’s need for black and white information so having recently discovered David Eagleman’s new religion, Possibilianism, I’m signing up. It allows me to change my answers from the wishy-washy ‘I don’t know’ to the more positive ‘It’s possible! ‘ And really, anything is possible.

The Magic Begins the Moment You Tell Them (October 2010)

“I will never, ever, ever take you to Disney World or Land. Ever!” I tell Mister Baby. Three weeks later I am forced to eat my words, having capitulated in the face of free tickets to DisneyLand Paris acquired by a friend. Mister Baby is thrilled; I focus on the Paris aspect.
It doesn’t help that I envision Disneyland as Dante’s version of medieval hell, and that I have cast my friend in the role of Virgil as guide to my Dante. “At least we’ll be together,” chirps Virgil. Somehow, I‘m not convinced. I don’t imagine the greedy denizens of the Hell’s fourth circle ceasing their cries of: “Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?” to gloat to their co-sufferers: “At least we’re not in Circle Five, those angry sinners have sunk ‘into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.’” And even if they did, would that really make them feel better? I doubt it.
We are accompanied on our tour of the underworld by Mister Baby, Virgil’s daughter and her school chum. The elated innocents are blissfully unaware that we are passing through the gates of Hell (the ones that say: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”). The queues, if not the promised magic, begin the moment you arrive; the line for ticket collection, the line into the castle, the line to see the princesses (complete with medieval pointy hats!) a snaking procession of the souls of the uncommitted. We, like them, are pursued and endlessly stung by the wasps and hornets of “when is it our turn?” and the “I want a toy” suck of maggots on our blood and tears.
Like many a sinner before me, there is some of the sinning I enjoy. We wander like the guiltless damned through Limbo until the gusts of Lust sway our reason. There’s no turning back and we slip in the vile slush of Gluttony. Mister Baby craves popcorn, which is a mere 15 minutes of wasps’ stings until we are next in line when he announces: “I don’t want popcorn anymore.” We retreat from the line and rejoin our party only to find that Francesca has decided she does want popcorn. More wasps and hornets. Then, as the other two miscreants want ‘barbe à papa’(cotton candy or candy floss to me and you) we throw ourselves onto that queue. The very nice Australians pass on the secrets of obtaining Grandpa’s beard: you must first purchase a ticket from the kiosk next door. I understand why when I see the poor gluttonous malefactor who is serving the giant balls of spun sugar. She is arm deep in the stuff, her face and protective goggles are covered in a hoar frost of sugar, a veritable witch at work at her cauldron. Cupfuls of the powdery poison are cast into the centrifuge and scraped from the sides until a glistening pink sputnik is conjured. The witch is far too sticky to also be a moneychanger. We are only a soul sucking half hour from the front of the line, plenty of time for the little gremlins to gobble popcorn and pester us for crude offerings from the kiosk. The Australians depart with their pound of sugar in the form of four shimmering globes. I move forward, tickets in hand, but the French man who was behind is now, curiously, in front of us brandishing his tickets. I muster my pride and scorn and spew forth: “It must be the magic of Disney: one minute you’re behind me, the next you’re in front of me!” And perhaps this is the magic at work at last because he and his wife stomp off. I feel immediately if only briefly repentant but Virgil assuages me: “French people cut in all the time.”
The Parade of Dreams (The eighth circle of fraud)is the crescendo of the day’s Disney fervor. An unctuous voice peals incessantly, exhorting us panderers and seducers in numerous languages to line up, line up. The grotesque and distorted caricatures lurch past- our journey through hell made flesh. Cruella Deville drives up in a gleaming Studebaker (Why do I hoard?), she leans out, devil red talons flashing and beadily eyes Virgil’s sinfully snowy faux fur and shrieks: “Dahling, I love your coat!”
The lurid Disney shop - the treacherous ninth circle - is our final penance. We emerge dispirited, laden with our traitorous sins and trudge to the train back to Paris.