HOLIDAY

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In keeping with my utterly indoorsy nature, I’ve found the best way to stay warm and content in the freezy cold during the holiday season. Beaches are lovely, but sausaged into a bathing suit I am not, ski slopes are inspiring but steep. I’ve been around a while. I know what I am doing. I am happiest and safest basking in the warm glow of the TV. It pays to be picky though. This year I went on holiday with the movie Holiday.

For any of you who aren’t familiar with this 1938 George Cukor directed gem, Holiday is one of the best pairings of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A quickie synopsis: Cary Grant (Johnny Case in the movie) plays a hardworking young man who meets and falls in love with a woman named Julia Seton, (NOT Katharine Hepburn) on his first ever vacation, is smitten, and immediately proposes. Once back in New York he’s invited to lunch and is stunned to discover that he’s about to marry into one of the wealthiest families in the city. His fiancée Julia, however, is determined to impress her austere and humorless father and propel Johnny into the stratosphere of the family business. It would appear this self-made man is about to hit the jackpot. But here’s the twist: Johnny Case, a man who has been working constantly he says “since he was ten years old” wishes to retire early and work late. He wants to enjoy life while he’s young. He’s amassed a small sum for this purpose. His fiancée is appalled. Luckily for him (and the movie) her sister Linda, played by Katharine Hepburn, is entranced.

Pleasures of watching Grant and Hepburn aside, I’ve nurtured what I thought was the central conceit of this movie–retire early and work late— for a lifetime, ever since first saw it when I was about 14. I mean really, how appealing to retire and enjoy life first and work later? Except that gung ho and hyped up even then, I didn’t do it. Immediately after college I hopped a plane to New York and shoe horned myself into a publishing career. Screeched to an about face to stay at home with my sons. Was grudgingly transformed into a PTA guru. Unexpectedly tripped into a teaching career. Cut forward many years. Here I am. Based on what I thought was the premise of this movie; I’ve been aggressively working through my youth and should be deeply unhappy. But most assuredly I am not.

Here is why. Let’s retell the story.

In college I studied what I loved best, majoring in art history, immersing myself in not just the beauty of the works, but seeing the world through the prism of artistic creation. When it was time, I took those visions, those viewpoints and made them work in the work world helping to create titles involving everything from science books to cookbooks, how-tos to children’s books. It was my choice to stop work and stay at home with my boys. I consider myself lucky to experience the joy of being invited to share rice crispie treats and juice boxes under the secluded sheets of a table fort.  I am proud of (sometimes) saying just the right words to make a roomful of tired and hungry 5th graders reach inside themselves to think things they’ve never thunk before.

So really. Have I been working the whole way through, or have I really been on holiday the whole time without even realizing it? Either way, why stop?

I get to be wrong here. In spite of my longstanding love for this movie, it’s not really about retiring early, working late at all. It’s about doing things that you love, if you are especially lucky, with the person or persons you love. Sometimes it’s about inventing and reinventing yourself if life’s path zigs where you expected it to zag. It’s about perspective.   It’s about finding a way to enjoy life.

An old friend once admonished me: “Do something kind for yourself every day.” Go on. Do it. Happy Holidays and Happy and Healthy New Year to all.

THE CLOTHES WE WEAR

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It was late at night on the subways, on a route I knew so well I could subconsciously feel the number of stops and know exactly when to stand for the exit tunnel up to home in Brooklyn. The car was practically empty. My bag was cradled in my lap. I was reading. I was always reading. Which meant that I was always looking down. The train jolted and I looked up to see a teenaged boy now sitting directly across from me in the otherwise empty car. A minute later I felt another kid sit down a seat away from me. A stop or two later the train bumped again. Two more teenagers were now standing on either side of the exit doors. There were four of them, all in hip-hop type clothes, covered in gold chains, who appeared to be surrounding me in an otherwise empty subway car very late on a Tuesday night. My stop was still far away. When the train pulled into the next station and the doors squealed open I shut my book, looked them in the eye, wished them all good evening. Then I walked calmly off the train. They were surprised, taken aback.   Politeness and decency does that to people sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.

In my earliest Girl Friday days, my voice still pitched high and twanged with the Midwest, I worked in the rabbit warren-like offices of the renowned A.A. Knopf. The Editor-in-Chief at the time was the legendary Robert Gottlieb, widely known as one of the most brilliant and most powerful people in book publishing. It was a fun place to work, for a lot of reasons. There were the free books (ostensibly to offset the awful wages) and the ongoing adventure of elevator roulette. The doors would slide open and famous people would pop out, everyone from Julia Child to Bob Dylan to then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Welcome to our world. At some point in time Bob got fed up not just with suits and ties but kind of with getting dressed in general. He made a point of wearing the same pants every day. At first it was for a month but then he kind of got into it and it went on for a lot longer. But his frumpiness was about more than him not wanting to bother any more. I remember him saying it was an experiment. What it was, really was an unspoken challenge to everyone he met. How would he be treated? Would he be regarded as eccentric? Would those who knew him treat him as respectfully? Would he be treated well by people who didn’t? Would he be scorned? Ignored? Would people go beyond caring about what he wore to truly engage him? As it was, the most powerful editor in all of book publishing was often taken for a mailroom staffer. New authors, even famous ones, beware.

That was Bob Gottlieb’s story. But we’ve all been there, as any of us who’ve scooted furtively to the market in sweats with our flyaway hair yanked back in hasty ponytails will agree.

I’ve never worked in retail (shopping really overwhelms me) but I know people who do. I’ve heard that staffers at fancy stores are told to always check a customer’s shoes and purse. If said items appear to be sufficiently expensive, they are customers worth catering to. Otherwise, ignore them and wait for those who have money to spend.

Clothes are transformative, expressions can be deceptive, and a bad day can skew the equation in a million different ways.   People are confounding and mysterious. I am so often on shaky ground. I feel for myself, for us all. We see someone and our senses are assaulted, our minds forced to instantly jumble together the facts before us and figure out how to respond.  Can we be blamed for clinging to the most obvious signals people (knowingly or otherwise) put out? I’d like to say “no.” But the answer is “yes.”

Years later I find that I’ve taken up the Bob Gottlieb mantle, although I’m not in publishing any more, nor am I powerful. I like staying under the radar. I carry a small microfiber backpack for a purse; I’ve trimmed my wardrobe so I can dress quietly and with great comfort. This is my choice, at least my choice for the time being. (Although I adore seeing beautiful clothes on other people. So if you’re so inclined, please keep dressing well).

Hillel said “in a place where there is no hero, be a hero”. There are so many thorny, complex issues in the world today regarding how people are perceived—and how others perceive them as well. My issues are small. I am never going to lead a charge nor carry the mantel. But there are tiny prickles of heroism too. Giving the benefit of the doubt. Going beyond snap judgments. Reaching out.

All these years later, and I still don’t know if those boys on the train meant to hurt me.

But at least I know I didn’t hurt them.

DREAM OF WHO YOU’LL BE

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I’ve fallen in love not once but dozens—no, a multitude–of times. And that devotion has been returned hundreds of times over; each time I’ve turned the pages. All of us bookish people are like that, I guess. Passionate. Committed. And in some cases, really besotted. I just am.

But let’s face it, there’s always that sense of, if not “wearing your heart on your sleeve” it’s “brandishing your book like a shield.” Like so many other things about us, the clothes we choose to wear, the cars we choose to drive, the movies we choose to watch send out signals to the rest of the world, help define us. So too with the books we read.

It’s not really fair is it? All of us deserve the right to read something junky or lascivious or mysterious or politically charged if we so choose. People’s relationships with books, no matter what they read, is a very private matter as far as I’m concerned. It’s why, in the era before e-readers, subway riders smuggled their reading material around in little blank book jackets. A modicum of privacy in a very public space. But sadder still is the opposite—people who read, or at least brandish—books that they think they look good reading.

Anyone who can immerse herself so completely in a book that walking into walls becomes a very real hazard can’t be overly concerned with looking good by reading the book of the moment. And I’m not. Which is why I read, why I’ve always read, among other things, children’s books.

For me reading children’s books, everything from The Wind in the Willows to The Seven Silly Eaters, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Quarrelling Book, from The Nutshell Library to The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book (the list is endless, trust me) is not about reliving my childhood. It’s about being a glutton for good writing. And good writing of any sort is not just meant to be read but reread.

The best children’s books authors, think Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Charlotte Zolotow or Kevin Henkes, write poetry on a page. There can be no wasted words in great children’s books, no pandering, no puffery. It always makes me laugh when the celebrity of the moment (or that celebrity’s publicist) decides said celebrity needs to write a children’s book thinking it’s an easy fame grab. So many have done it, from Billy Crystal to Katie Couric, from Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg. They have no idea that they are wading into what is perhaps the most difficult writing form of all. The celebrity books flash fast and fizzle. The notable exception as a writer is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose quirky, funny and deeply felt books transcend celebrity. (see: When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of Her Youth)

Moreover, great children’s books are really written for children, without a smirk, a  hidden agenda or a knowing wink aimed at an adult audience.  I’d argue strenuously that’s even the case for the immensely complex books of Lewis Carroll, including the marvelous Alice in Wonderland. After all, Lewis Carroll himself said (in response to a letter written in 1880 about The Hunting of the Snark and reprinted in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark) “I have a letter from you . . . asking me why don’t I explain the Snark?, a question I should have answered long ago. Let me answer it now—‘because I can’t. Are you able to explain things which you yourself don’t understand?”

And so I read and I reread, swirling deeper and deeper into some of my favorites each time. I remember who I was when I first read those words. I think I about who I am now. Beyond that I don’t analyze. I do something much more difficult. I feel.

Find your own favorites. Read them again. Remember who you were. Think about who you are. Dream of who you’ll be. There still is no better way to do it.

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A (very) short list of a few of my favorites:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll