FOOD DREAMS

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In my dreams I can flip pancakes onto a platter with one hand while zip cracking eggs onto a sizzling griddle with the other. Toast pops into midair and is covered with jam before it hits the plate. Piles of burgers are stacked up high and sigh into their buns. I spin, pivot, staccato two-step and then arc a perfect stream of hot coffee into half a dozen waiting cups. There isn’t even a spot on my clean white apron.

I sometimes think I would cook like this if I could. But I can’t.

So instead I slow down. I pour a glass of wine, I turn up Radio Dismuke. I chop and I knead and I stir to a far more sedate beat.  Here it is.

*A handful of Raisinettes melting in one hand and a fistful of Tam Tam Crackers crumbling in the other. The dancing lady and the dancing man statues are poised on the buffet. The big cousins are jumping on the furniture, hiding under the table, they are everywhere all at once but they are still watching out for me. My first treats in the dining room at my grandmother’s house on Northlawn.

*Platters of brisket and corned beef and pastrami, trays of roast chicken, and sliced turkey and beef tongue. Mustard and coleslaw and pickles and rye. One tiny, lukewarm bowl of Birdseye mixed vegetables. My grandfather holds court from his armchair and knocks back a tumbler of buttermilk as he nibbles the core of the iceberg lettuce that was saved just for him. While he’s occupied, my grandmother silently beckons my sisters and me to the kitchen. She gives us Faygo Red Pop to drink right from the bottle. A disliked, discarded creamsicle melting on a plate is instantly replaced by an icy fresh Eskimo Pie. A tin of Mandelbrot is pressed into our hands. A tunnel of elm trees shades the way home. Sunday dinner at Grandma and Poppa’s on Lauder.

*It was the most amazing thing in the world. Drop in a nickel and a small brown container of chocolate milk tumbled into the slot. It worked every time. Except for that one time it didn’t. Somebody turned the dial and a container of white milk came out instead. I couldn’t figure out who would ever want to drink white milk when you could get chocolate. It was the worst. I drank it anyway. I had to. Everyone drank his or her milk because that was the rule at Francis Scott Key Elementary School.

*Three crisp one-dollar bills. Every Saturday afternoon. Tracy and me. Grilled cheese for her and tuna for me sitting at the Kresge’s Lunch counter. We drank Vernors served in paper cones that were nestled in silver holders. You could blow the paper off the straw if no one was looking. Then a walk all by ourselves around Birmingham. We each had 50 cents left to spend. So many choices but we still always chose the same.  A tiny bag of pistachios for her. A tiny bag of jellybeans for me. Every single Saturday.

*The lines snaked in and around the Continental Market. In the doors and out again. Such a miniscule little shop. It was right next to the place where they sold clogs. And near the other place they sold scented candles. Olga’s Souvlakis. Hot sliced lamb with yogurt, onion and tomato wrapped in warm, flat bread. It wasn’t spaghetti and it wasn’t chop suey. But it was a miracle secured with a toothpick and placed in a red and white container.

*We were all three belted into the backseat. Which was worse: being stuck in the middle or being stuck in a window seat and having the middle sister fall asleep on you, turning you into the human armrest? But a drive west to Chicago for the weekend meant a box of Frango mints from Marshall Field. A drive north to Toronto it meant a bag of Coffee Crisp candy bars. No complaining.

*We never knew when it might happen. We never knew exactly where we were going. Just “get in the car” please. So we did. The windows would be open; the summer air was warm and sweet. A lucky sister might get the coveted seat between Mom and Dad in the front. We would drive and drive, anywhere and everywhere as the summer sun set into twilight. It didn’t matter where we went because at the end there was always ice cream. Small was three scoops. Medium was six. You can guess the size of the large. I am not making this up. Dad would eat his and then have to lick down my little sister’s cone of something weird like Blue Moon or Bubblegum or Superman. He always made a face as he licked the cone flat for her. But he always did it, every time.

*The plastic bowl was as almost as big at the table. You could guess the seasons just by looking in the bowl. My mother filled it over and over. Masses of cherries and strawberries, mounds of peaches and apples and pears. On summer weekends, when my dad was out grilling hot dogs “that snapped when you bit them,” my mom was inside quietly filling and refilling the big bowl with delicious salads that both crunched and dripped. Smart people at some of each.

*We snuck it in. We had to. Everybody else in our cabin bought normal things like chips and gum and candy bars on that overnight. Not us. We pooled our money and bought a whole salami. Best idea ever and it was yours, Ruth. You kept it hidden under your t-shirts in your corner top bunk. You were in charge of after hours slicing, reverentially doling it out after lights out. I couldn’t really be trusted not to eat the whole thing in one sitting. I still don’t know where you stashed the knife.

*I was so afraid. I moved through the cafeteria line alone. What was everyone else eating? I didn’t care what I ate; I just wanted to eat the right thing.   Macaroni and cheese. I hated it. I chose it. The tables in the Kingswood dining hall were round. I was told this was to “invite conviviality”. They actually used the word conviviality. But it was only convivial if there was someone to talk to. I sat down with my plate of macaroni and cheese and looked up. There was.

*Really there was only one way to do it. It didn’t matter the flavor. Look whoever it was right in the eye, grab your knife. Flip the plastic container over and stab the bottom and twist. Squeeze the contents into the bowl. Slide the bowl nonchalantly over the glass. Rules were rules. No one could leave the dining hall with an extra yogurt. You done your job. You done good. As soon as you were done, money in your pocket, you got out of there. As fast as you could made your way to a counter stool at Pizza Bob’s for a chiapati or to a hard backed booth at Drake’s for a grilled cinnamon roll with Russian Caravan Tea. You deserved it.

*Jamie’s brownstone apartment was down the street from Bloomingdales, five spindly flights up to the top floor. The whole building had settled so the floors were uneven, almost buckling. The kitchen was somehow crammed into a closet, shoved in so tightly that the oven door only opened halfway. It didn’t matter. We didn’t cook. Winter Saturdays we ate pizza curled up by the fireplace.   Summer Saturdays we ate pizza baking ourselves on the blacktop roof. Always always double cheese.

*Valentine’s Day. A corner table at La Tulipe. Twin Kir Royals. Twin chocolate soufflés. You didn’t propose that night. But I proposed that someday soon you might. You did.

*Mango sorbet pressed into waffles. The room was dark save for the glow of the TV screen. The channel was always turned to Food Network, the quiet rhythms of Sarah Moulton, the Two Hot Tamales, Emeril before the “Bam!” lulling us to sleep. We would lay with piles of pillows and blankets on the floor. Waffles finished, sticky hands were pressed into mine. One in each.

*Chocolate was always his favorite. Of course it was. He always chose it; he always said this was so. Until the day he said that he always loved vanilla too. I had been there all the time and I didn’t know? But I didn’t know. At the movies he bought things like Buncha Crunch or Sour Patch kids. But then one day he bought a box of Raisinettes. My own favorite, Raisinettes? I had never seen him eat them before. But he said he’d always loved them. Didn’t I know?

I did not. But now I do.

SUPERGIRL IN A SWEATSHIRT

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It was sunny and breezy; at least that’s how I want to remember it. I know I went on a walk around the block with Charlotte our Sheepdog on one leash and Tina our Chihuahua on the other. Walking them wasn’t easy. As you can imagine, those two always wanted to go in opposite directions but I could handle it.   I could have even ridden my bike with a leash in each hand and gotten them around the block at the same time if I’d wanted to. Of course I could. I was Supergirl in a powder blue Snoopy sweatshirt.   There was going to be an ice cream cake from Baskin and Robbins later. It was a great day. I was ten, at last I was ten and I was as happy and as proud as I’ve ever been. And all I’d really done is make it to the double digits.

That’s the picture in the scrapbook of my mind. I return to it over and over, absolutely refusing to let the memory pull away like a piece of taffy leaving only wispy, tenuous strands. I want this one solid.

Time passes. Full of vigor and purpose, we spend our energy and our days doing Things. Becoming Someone. Crafting our own myths. Grappling, striving, racking up accolades and degrees and connections. Going to the right events. Seeing. Being seen. Inventing and reinventing ourselves. It’s called living and sometimes it’s a whirlwind so intense and so wonderful that there are no words to express it. And sometimes it’s a hurricane so awful, so dreadful that we can’t breathe and we are choked for words and we don’t know how we can go on. But we do.

Even if some of us are lucky enough to do what we dreamed of doing when we were ten it’s likely there’ve been a few disappointments, plenty of tedium, and many compromises along the way. Every Supergirl needs to file taxes and wash her cape occasionally.

Sometimes dreams themselves are thwarted or deferred because of unexpected forks in the road or demands of those who love and need us.   At those moments a chasm opens. And in those really bad and lonely times, some of us may even do ourselves the ultimate cruelty by convincing ourselves that our greatest success has been in our repeated failure.

Well then. It really is time to be Supergirl.

When you’re young you’re sure that adults have total control over everything. Every adult knows for sure that you have control over virtually nothing. Half the time we feel as if we’re bobbing about in the ocean, frantically clutching after a buoy.  Even the most overtly successful of us sometimes feel as if we’re phonies and that we’ve failed.

But we haven’t.

If life is complex, let’s at least keep this part of things simple:

You’ve remembered which of your children likes peanut butter sandwiches and which likes tuna. They will never forget that you always remembered.

You took a minute to respond to and then forward on some unknown kid’s email to a colleague. That kid found his mentor. Finding his mentor changed course of his whole life.

You looked a clerk in the eye at the grocery store. You said thanks.

You’ve really listened to a whole phone conversation with your mother without folding laundry, playing Words with Friends, or mentally working on your repartee.

You were wrong. You said so. You apologized.

You never mentioned that your friend didn’t utter one single coherent sentence that time when she was upset.

You responded to the email.

You were careful not to give standing ovations for every show.

You let someone lie to save face.

You looked behind you and held the door open.

You didn’t give away the punch line.

Your feelings were hurt. You talked it out. You got over it. Your friendship continued.

You didn’t jump to conclusions when it would have felt so self-righteously great to do so.

You noticed the new haircut.

You knew when to ask questions. You knew when not to.

You did that little bit extra. It might have even been a loved one’s birthday. You were far away. You went out and bought a slice of their favorite cake to eat so you could celebrate together from afar. This was not your favorite cake. You ate it anyway.

Let’s face it; the above list does not constitute the makings of a traditional killer resume. But that doesn’t make each tiny scenario any less powerful.  These are just the small heroics that punctuate our days, that form the ongoing web that invisibly binds us together. These are just a few of the unsung, unselfish and very kind acts of all you quiet superheroes.

You’re out there. You’re doing good. And thank you.

FEEDING THE SOUL

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There are a lot of escapes and I am very adept at all of them. My specialty, when feelings of awkwardness threaten to turn me robotic at parties or gatherings, is to stash my wine glass in the nearest flower pot, and head for the nearest exit with the speed of a salamander that leaves it’s tail in an effort to survive. But the Houdini-que escape I’ve used most often was my arguably my best: a daily half hour round trip to the radiance and warmth of summer in the French countryside, circa the turn of the century. I used to slip away alone to spend virtually every lunch hour on an upper floor of MoMA, embraced by and immersed in Monet’s Water Lilies.

This is an age ago, before sluggish lines snaked down 53rd Street and museum entry fees cost a king’s ransom. The Water Lilies were given their own room back then at MoMA, the massive paintings taking up three walls with a couch that wrapped around the remainder of the room. Too often museums make you feel as if you’re a passenger on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Disneyland, but this installation was truly a vest pocket of calm in the land of Broadway Boogie Woogie. When I left my job in that neighborhood, it was my quiet, intensely private lunch sojourns I missed the most. The experience of simply sitting and feeling –not even actively thinking – in front of beautiful works of art is something I had lost.

So it is a very odd that the thing I loved most about the city is the thing I’ve actually denied myself for all these years. I’ve been back to the museums of course, but it’s different. I’m either tense the whole time because I’m leading a pack of children toward the exhibits and away from the gift shop or I’m fretting because the clock is ticking away on the gargantuan museum parking fees or much worse, I’m showing off, self-consciously feeling the need to pontificate on the artistic merits and deeper connections of the works I’m viewing.

Last week though, on yet another bitterly cold and snowy day, I was once again swept away, as of old.  I was on the arm of one of my sons. Somehow between his schedule and mine we found a whole unfettered, unbroken day to spend together. The Museum this time was not MoMA but the Metropolitan.

The plan was that there was no plan, no fixed schedule, no agenda.  Like a pair in a rudderless rowboat on a lazy summer afternoon, we drifted from room to room.   From ancient Babylonia to the Belle Époque. Modern Japan to the Italian Renaissance. We walked and walked and as we did, the crowds just seemed to give way. There was calm.

Lunch on trays in the cafeteria, a bottle of Chablis and two plastic wine glasses. Afterwards, my son brandished the map, as an explorer on his way to finding buried treasure, discovering whatever artistic jewels he wanted to unearth.

Hour piled upon hour, but still no tension, no rush.  At last I blurted out, almost desperately, “I really wish that I could be Claudia.” My son didn’t miss a beat, “and I wish I could be Jamie.” He had remembered. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The runaways who stayed over at the most beautiful place that they could imagine: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t be sorry.)

It had to end though. But it was a true escape, perhaps my best ever. As before, when I broke free of petty tensions and typing and office frolics by forgoing actual lunch for feeding my soul with the Water Lilies, once again I’m unbending. Unfreezing. Outside the drifts of snow are still so high. But the sun is out and it’s bright and warm. Spring is coming.

I can’t really remember what artworks I saw that day. It doesn’t matter. But know exactly how I felt. Deeply happy and utterly at peace.

“If thou of fortune be bereft, and of thine earthly store hath left, two loaves; sell one and with the dole, by hyacinths to feed the soul.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Wishing everyone a warm and reviving Spring.

FEEDING THE SOUL

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There are a lot of escapes and I am very adept at all of them. My specialty, when feelings of awkwardness threaten to turn me robotic at parties or gatherings, is to stash my wine glass in the nearest flower pot and head for the nearest exit with the speed of a lizard that leaves it’s tail in an effort to survive. But the Houdini-esque escape I’ve used most often was my arguably my best: a daily half hour round trip to the radiance and warmth of summer in the French countryside, circa the turn of the century. I used to slip away alone to spend virtually every lunch hour on an upper floor of MoMA, embraced by and immersed in Monet’s Water Lilies.

This is an age ago, before sluggish lines snaked down 53rd Street and museum entry fees cost a king’s ransom. The Water Lilies were given their own room back then at MoMA, the massive paintings taking up three walls with a couch that wrapped around the remainder of the room. Too often museums make you feel as if you’re a passenger on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Disneyland, but this installation was truly a vest pocket of calm in the land of Broadway Boogie Woogie. When I left my job in that neighborhood, it was my quiet, intensely private lunch sojourns I missed the most. The experience of simply sitting and feeling –not even actively thinking – in front of beautiful works of art is something I had lost.

So it is a very odd that the thing I loved most about the city is the thing I’ve actually denied myself for all these years. I’ve been back to the museums of course, but it’s different. I’m either tense the whole time because I’m leading a pack of children toward the exhibits and away from the gift shop or I’m fretting because the clock is ticking away on the gargantuan museum parking fees or much worse, I’m showing off, self-consciously feeling the need to pontificate on the artistic merits and deeper connections of the works I’m viewing.

Last week though, on yet another bitterly cold and snowy day, I was once again swept away, as of old.  I was on the arm of one of my sons. Somehow between his schedule and mine we found a whole unfettered, unbroken day to spend together. The Museum this time was not MoMA but the Metropolitan.

The plan was that there was no plan, no fixed schedule, no agenda.  Like a pair in a rudderless boat on a lazy summer afternoon, we drifted from room to room.   From ancient Babylonia to the Belle Époque. Modern Japan to the Italian Renaissance. We walked and walked and as we did, the crowds just seemed to give way.

Lunch on trays in the cafeteria, a bottle of Chablis and two plastic wine glasses. Afterwards, my son brandished the map, as an explorer on his way to finding buried treasure, discovering whatever artistic jewels he wanted to unearth.

Hour piled upon hour, but still no tension, no rush.  At last I blurted out, almost desperately, “I really wish that I could be Claudia.” My son didn’t miss a beat, “and I wish I could be Jamie.” He had remembered. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The runaways who stayed over at the most beautiful place that they could imagine: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t be sorry.)

It had to end though. But it was a true escape, perhaps my best ever. As before, when I broke free of petty tensions and typing and office frolics by forgoing actual lunch for feeding my soul with the Water Lilies, once again I’m unbending. Unfreezing. Outside the drifts of snow are still so high. But the sun is out and it’s bright and warm. Spring is coming.

I can’t really remember what artworks I saw that day. It doesn’t matter. But know exactly how I felt. Deeply happy and utterly at peace.

“If thou of fortune be bereft, and of thine earthly store hath left, two loaves; sell one and with the dole, by hyacinths to feed the soul.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Wishing everyone a warm and reviving Spring.

A TASTE FOR JAZZ AND LIME-VANILLA ICE

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I was one of those precocious little Suzuki violin kids. We were schooled strictly in classical music, that is, as soon as we could scrape through Mississippi River. My first violin was quarter size and our early training involved marching around the room trying to keep the violins tucked under our little chins. Tiny violins bounced everywhere. But music really exploded for me on Sunday afternoons when I got to watch Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-TV channel 50 in Detroit. Bill Kennedy was the faded, slightly pompous former B movie actor who hosted the show. He had this one great scene as a tennis pro with Bette Davis in Dark Victory, which he referred to often.   It was here that I watched my first musicals: Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon. This was the music, these were the songs that I really fell in love with, the ones that stuck in my head.

Someone noticed.

That person was my cousin Marty.

He wasn’t at all the type of person you’d expect to notice things. But he did.

Marty was my mother’s first cousin. He shared an apartment with my two great Aunts. my grandmother’s sisters, Bess and Rose. My grandmother lived alone in the apartment across the way. My sisters and I would always see the Aunts and Marty at holiday dinners or be trooped unwillingly across the parking lot to visit their little apartment. It was hot in there and there wasn’t much to do except answer questions about whatever it was we were doing. The Aunts hung on our every word and beamed at us for even the smallest accomplishments. We should have feasted on this avalanche of praise and affection but we didn’t really. We felt squirmy and uncomfortable.

At some point in the conversation, Marty, Bess’s grown up son, would be summoned from his room to say hello to us. Marty’s room was a great mystery. No one was ever allowed in there. Not even my Aunts. But the door was ajar once and I peeked inside.   What I saw was a fantastic jumble of books and records amidst the whorl of an unmade bed. It was a mess, it was utter comfort, it was a refuge and a fortress. It reminded me a lot of my bedroom at home.

Marty always entered the living room slowly and bashfully even though this was his home, he was the adult and we were just little kids.

He was a heavyset man with dark curly hair. He smiled a lot. He perspired a lot too—the apartment was kept extra warm for my Aunts—so much so that his thick black glasses slid constantly down his nose. But the look of appreciation on his face, no matter if I was talking about whatever old movie I’d just seen, what music I’d played or some song I loved, was real.

I was probably self-importantly talking about some play that I’d been in at camp when he got really excited and went to his room. He returned with Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut, which he placed gently on the turntable. Marty was the first person to play “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah “ for me. I got it. It was cool. The albums that were stacked along side were by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Not by a long shot.

At holiday dinners he usually didn’t say much. He would always wear a tie although he always looked like he’d rather take it off. If there were uncomfortable silences he would always talk and talk about how much he loved the spinach.

On the violin I learned how to play Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle and would have gone crazy with joy if I had somehow heard about jazz violinist Joe Venuti but I didn’t. I was a high octane behind the scenes high school theatre person. I did my best to keep up in chorus class. I was hurt that I wasn’t a part of the revered Madrigals singing group at Kingswood (my sister Lisa was) but I still found that I completely and totally loved harmonic singing.

I overheard that several times a year Marty would take the train to Toronto to go to Jazz clubs or Jazz festivals. I don’t know who he saw up there. Chick Corea? Charlie Mingus? I don’t remember him playing that music for us on those afternoon visits. Was he too shy? Did he feel his connection to that music too private to share? Or did he know that to truly fall in love with something you need to discover it yourself?

I had heard the stories. That he had asthma and terrible allergies. That he was babied by his mother, my Aunt Bess, who coddled and overfed him. That he wasn’t allowed out to play much as a little kid and had a way of running with his flat feet slapping the pavement and his arms flapping wildly in the air. That he hated driving and took the bus, a true anomaly in car crazy Detroit. That he was smart. Really, really smart.

Over the years he never once made one of those cringe worthy comments about “how much I’d grown.” But I knew he noticed when he said that I reminded him of Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. By then I liked songs like Sing, Sing, Sing, Java Jive, and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Progress.

After college I lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. I stretched meager paychecks by buying groceries at Balducci’s with my Dad’s American Express card. But one night I went to the renowned Blue Note all by myself, to hear “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan. In that cramped jazzy space, I sat alone at the bar drinking Bloody Marys at nighttime. It was the only drink I knew how to order. But there, on that wonderful night, I actually heard Sassy herself sing Misty.

After that night I knew why Marty went to the Jazz clubs in Toronto.

I was away from home for a long time. I grew up, I worked, I married, I had children. Back in Detroit, my Aunts died. Marty was left alone. He moved to his own apartment.   Alone a lot in New York, I listened to music. On my own I discovered Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee. The Boswell Sisters.

Then Marty died as well.

He was only 55. It was from his obituary that I learned that he was a revered and award winning Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan Dearborn, known for both his bristling intellect and unfailing kindness to his students.

It had never occurred to me to ask what kind of work he did.

Of all the stories in Ray Bradbury’s beautiful Dandelion Wine my favorite is “The Swan”. Drawn together at a soda fountain over the unusual order of “a dish of lime-vanilla ice” young Bill Forrester meets and befriends 95-year-old Helen Loomis. Despite the extreme differences in age the two form a transcendent bond. It’s clear they were meant to be together, but according to Helen, just not in this life. Maybe the next. Or perhaps the next one after that. Ray Bradbury does not leave us with a happy ending in this story but instead with a wistful, open-ended one.

Maybe this is true for lost friendships as well.

But all I know is that I desperately miss someone I never really knew at all.

THE COURAGE OF HARPER LEE

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I was jazzed and completely dazzled when I heard the news. Everyone was. After more than fifty years no less a source than the Associated Press confirmed on February 3 that Harper Lee would be publishing what they referred to as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the finest novels ever written. The only novel Harper Lee ever published. The publishing news of a lifetime.

All great authors leave us wanting more, and there is no question that Harper Lee is among the greatest for not just for creating characters of immense sympathy and depth but for crafting a story of tremendous resonance to time and place. It is a book that illuminates not just vicious injustice but has at its core a celebration of kindness and decency. It was and is and will remain a work of remarkable courage. Like only a handful of others—The Origin of the Species, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Silent Spring—it’s a book that changed the world. So many people have said as such far more elegantly than I.

I knew, everyone knew, that Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964, shortly after the initial publication of the book in 1960.  I didn’t and don’t know much about her. But here’s what’s very clear: Harper Lee said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird the way she wanted to say it.   It is equally clear that she has long valued her privacy. She chose to share To Kill a Mockingbird. To my mind when an author publishes a book, the author is reaching out to the world. The published book is almost a gift, an offering. With readers, a connection is formed, a partnership that completes and recreates the book time and time again. But to me, that’s where the partnership ends. I don’t have a right to know what an author—or any one else for that matter–eats for breakfast or what they might think about Kanye hopping up on the stage once again at the Grammy Awards.

There are precious few of us who can write a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird. But if nothing else, all of us are the authors of own lives. We cherish the ability to actively, or sometimes subconsciously, craft our own myths; to tell our own stories they way we want them told. All of us also have the right to keep some things private, to keep our own secrets for our own reasons.

This thought of privacy and personal secrets is true whether someone is as quiet as Harper Lee or as exuberantly out there as Lady Gaga.  Beware, be cautious. Most public people, who talk about themselves constantly, are fueling an image for the public. We should never make the mistake of thinking we know who they really are or what they really think. We most emphatically do not. For some people their public persona becomes an extension of their craft. That’s fine. But obviously that’s not true for everyone. I don’t think it should be.

It didn’t take long to discover the AP actually had it wrong about the new Harper Lee book. Quite wrong. The “new” book wasn’t new. It seemed that it had been thought lost, and recently been rediscovered. More troublingly, there are murmurs that Harper Lee herself is quite frail, with diminished eyesight and hearing. Her sister Alice Lee, long her attorney and protector, has recently died. It seems as well that Harper Lee’s editor at HarperCollins has never spoken to her directly but has dealt only with her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

Although the forthcoming book features the adult Scout and other characters from Mockingbird, apparently it was not conceived as sequel. According to reports on ABC News, the book was written prior to Mockingbird itself. According to a quote from Ms. Lee published in a HarperCollins press release and quoted by ABC News, the manuscript was the first book Harper Lee submitted and her original 1950s editor who suggested that she rewrite it from the perspective of Scout as a child. This purportedly new book then is an unpublished, nay rejected, manuscript that was the leaping off point for what became Mockingbird.   This is emphatically not a carefully constructed companion volume to Harper Lee’s opus.

Of course it’s possible that this lost or forgotten manuscript has just resurfaced. Of course it’s possible that the 88-year-old author might truly want it published. People can change. They can certainly change their minds. Ms. Lee’s friend and attorney Tonja Carter has worked closely with Alice Lee for a very long time and is a person that Ms. Lee trusts. I refuse to believe that she would take advantage of the elderly and frail author. But still something feels uncomfortable here.

But it’s tantalizing to think about reading a story about the adult Scout. Just as it’s tantalizing to think that somewhere J.D. Salinger has squirreled away a fifty-year saga of the Glass family. God help us if that turns up someday.

Here’s what I think. For more than 50 years Harper Lee chose to present her viewpoint, her story as To Kill a Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense to me that she would now look to publish what could be described as a previously rejected manuscript to support what has always been viewed as a fully formed statement in Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense.  Except, of course, that there is a great deal of money to be made here. According to ABC News the forthcoming book is “in the top 10 on barnesandnoble.com” and the publisher has set a “first printing of 2 million copies. “ This might be a good moment to mention that the ivory tower of book publishing also a business. And it’s a basic fact. Business need to make money.

What is the real story?   Is it possible that the media is improperly reporting that story now? I just don’t know. But I’m deeply uncomfortable. If Harper Lee is impaired in some way or has made the choice to publish this book either under duress of some kind to read this forthcoming book smacks of voyeurism to me.

I won’t do it.

What I will do is reread To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this small way I hope to honor the work and legacy of the very private and very courageous Harper Lee.

Note:

Above image from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley

A GREEDY LITTLE SOUL

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Incredibly, she never missed a single day. Every single day I was away at camp there was a letter from my Mother waiting for me at mail call. Not once in five summers did she miss, not for me nor for my two sisters. She was, in fact, so concerned about us receiving daily mail that she actually started sending the letters before we even left home. Every summer evening she and my Dad drove ten miles to Birmingham to send out the mail. The post office was open late there. This was nice, of course but not a totally selfless act. Being out meant that my Dad might as well get some ice cream.

My Dad, whose voice was always hovering in the background of my Mom’s letters, actually sent his own letter to us once. He laboriously scratched out a few sentences on a page, used his pocketknife to cut it neatly into pieces and addressed three separate envelopes set to wing their way to Camp Walden. We had to find each other and put it together like a puzzle to read it. He was pleased.

Sometimes we sent letters back. We had to. If you didn’t hand in a letter three mornings a week you weren’t allowed into breakfast. Or so rumor had it.

Receiving an actual letter from someone today is as rare as spotting a harvest moon.   But I remember the pleasure of being able to identify people just by seeing their handwriting on an envelope. It was fun to think about just why someone chose a particular stamp. And there was always the delicious dilemma about whether to rip the envelope open or extend the mystery by opening the letter later. No matter if what was written was effusive or efficient, when I really think about it they were not letters so much as little gifts, something to hold, refold, and sometimes to cherish. Rants on reams of onion skin paper to stay in touch with friends overseas. Goofy cards doctored with bad poetry to soothe everything from a bad day to a sick day. Letters that sometimes took days and days to write to make sure something was said just the way one wanted to say it.   The relief and sheer pleasure of a long awaited response.

In thinking back it was not so much what was being said in a letter that mattered but the physical letter itself that counted. A letter proved that someone had not just thought of me, but had actually taken time to say so. The letter that I could hold in my hands proved it.

So here we are all these years later, starry-eyed and jazzed in a communications Wonderland. Like everyone else I constantly draw my phone out of my pocket and with a few quick swipes, am instantly in touch with practically anyone at any time. You bet that’s thrilling too. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.  Being in a communications Wonderland is especially wonderful when those we love most are often so physically far away.

But the truth is some of us are more quietly deliberate thinkers.   That can make instant responses of text and email, even phone conversations, pressured and terribly difficult sometimes. And of course, once something is said there’s no snatching it back. There are times when forty characters can be as crystalline and precise in expression as a haiku—others when a few more syllables might be needed to avoid utter misunderstanding and misuse.

I remember the beautiful, even curves of my Mother’s handwriting. The tight spikes of my Dad’s printing. The big balloon letters of my old friend Helene. The quirky print of my friend Ruth. The controlled scrawl of my husband.

Here I am though, as always, loving the rhythm and feel of my fingers flying over a keyboard. To some of us it’s sheer music. Leroy Anderson (go listen to “The Typewriter”) thought the same thing.

I adore Blackwing pencils. I’ve experimented with fountain pens. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m left-handed, and I smear when I write. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The way I figure it, if Django Reinhart could use his mangled left hand to become a master of Jazz guitar, with a little effort I can manage the far simpler task of not dragging my hand through pencil lead or fountain pen ink. No excuses.

So here’s the plan. I’ll hang on to the cell phone, to email, to texting. But I can stretch and I can do more, I can really write with pen with pencil with paper. It doesn’t have to be often. But it can be once in a while. I can give myself the pleasure of writing. I can give someone else the gift of a letter.

I’m a greedy little soul when you get right down to it. I want to create lasting connections in any way I can. I want the people I love to know it, without any question in their minds. But here’s the thing: I’m greedy for all of us. Grab a pencil and write. And trust me about the Blackwings. Those pencils practically write for you. Just get them started. “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” Have fun. Let’s all keep an eye on our mailboxes.