CHARLOTTES EVERYWHERE

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Naturally the thing I love most about the iPhone is the most antiquated thing of all.

It’s the compass, that directional miracle. Turn it on wherever you are, spin and see exactly where you’re headed. Or headed away from. It’s a nonjudgmental GPS without a bossy, irritating voice. I used to play with compasses as a little kid but unlike Einstein, whose scientific genius was sparked as a four year old by the gift of a compass, I just marvel at them. But I haven’t turned mine on in a while.

I’m preoccupied. Piles of laundry, stacks of work, gluts of emails. The pleasure of seeing how high piles can be stacked is sometimes far more interesting than getting to the bottom of them. In sync with the frustration of world economists, roiled by the possible “Grexit” I was feeling completely Sisyphean. It was like being snarled in a web.

How odd that the woman who manages to spend the summer sweating indoors instead of being warmed by the sun should think so much about the natural world rather than be out in it. But sometimes nature is both generous and bold. Sometimes it comes right to one’s front door.

Literally in my case.

I may not have mentioned that there’s convocation of wasps who’ve found a lovely home burrowing into the wooden Babe Ruth sculpture on my porch. Okay, fine, the idea of the Babe being buzzed is amusing but do stop, save it for another time. That’s not the direction I’m going in today.

They fly in and out, no fancy compass needed. I could have them flushed out but really why? They’re industrious and self-sufficient which is kind of a pleasure to be near. And besides, they’re just visiting. I’m told that after this season they’ll abandon this spot and find another place entirely. So I just watch them. As long as I don’t thoughtlessly block the opening to their home with grocery bags they just watch me as well.

This week those good people at The American Museum of Natural History were sharp enough to note and highlight birthday of E.B. White, author of many wonderful things both for adults and children, but who is particularly celebrated for Charlotte’s Web. I don’t know if all creatures would go to the lengths of unexpected friendship and lasting kindness that Charlotte did for her friend Wilber, but in a summery, dreamy state I’d like to think so.

But then there’s that pull. My compass points me back inside to the piles of clothes, the stacks of work, and the unopened correspondence. Grudgingly I turn with the dial.

And like my summer tenants, the inspiringly industrious wasp colony who’ve chosen to be proudly housed in a monument to one of baseball’s great icons, I start buzzing.

It’s not so bad. In cleaning I discover books and toys and gewgaws that make pleasant memories come rushing back. Ignoring the paperwork relaxes me enough that work ideas trickle and then finally flow. At last I dig through the correspondence.

Clicking clicking clicking, blearily numbed by ad after ad for CVS for Sears for Amazon for L.L. Bean, there was for me, a short and sweet note.

It was sent only to say hello. It was sent only to say that someone remembered something good that happened that I’d long forgotten. It was sent only to say thank you for something where no thanks was due. It was sent so I might hear what I needed to hear when I least expected to hear it.

Maybe this was what my compass was pointing me to all along.

It’s interesting fact. In so many places, in so many ways, we’re urged to be kind. This is a good thing. I think most of us take that encouragement to heart, to make it part of who we are and what we do.

But then too, it’s just as important to know, to feel and to really believe, that kindness will happen to each us when we need it most. Try not to be impatient.

There are Charlottes everywhere it seems.

Happy birthday, E.B. White.

***

“All that I ever hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” E.B. White

Short aside for baseball fans: although of course, the Babe wore Yankee pinstripes for his glory years, he finished his career with the Boston Braves, hence the different uniform.

THE JOY OF LIBRARY ROULETTE

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I’ve fallen into a black hole not once, but many times. Those who care for me are happy I always return.   I emerge dazed and transformed, my whole self exploded and reconstructed and somehow shifted. I like to think I return indefinably better.

It happened again the other day. I was playing library roulette — arguably the best game ever. There are two ways to play: the original, comfortably wandering through the library shelves peering at spines in a completely unplanned and random way. If you play, make sure to look low at the bottom shelves and scurry up the ladders to the top when no one is looking until some odd and wonderful and unexpected little book almost literally jumps out at you. Or there’s the more modern version: finding a hint in something you’re reading and tracking it down via cyberspace. If you’ve played, and I’m betting almost all of you have, you know that both versions can swirl you instantly into the most delicious black hole. This time I was playing the cyber version of the game. My reward was a tiny, and virtually forgotten little volume called The Spring of Joy by an author I’d never heard of named Mary Webb.

The book has been out of print for a long time. But The Spring of Joy, all hundred odd pages of it, was a cherished bestseller in its day, and upon her death in 1927 Mary Webb was lauded by no less than the Prime Minister of Britain as a “neglected genius“. An exquisitely evocative meditation on the beauty and rhythms of nature and the healing powers of observation, The Spring of Joy is truly one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read.

But wait. A book such as this out of print? A once lionized author marginalized and virtually forgotten? Both facts should be deeply sobering, terribly sad. Except that I think that’s not quite so. Nor is it the whole story.

There are as many reasons for creating art as there are artists: A deep-seated need for observation and expression. A hope to touch other lives. Self-validation by way of fame. A quest for immortality. A wish to become rich (this is not to be sneered at. Writers do need to eat).  Sometimes a mix of all of these things and more. The most public forms of expression are done for the most personal of reasons.

But while writers can control what they write, the cannot, no matter how hard they try, control the response to their work. Anything can happen. Anything usually does.

And so…

*You might be the most widely read, most celebrated author of your time—then forgotten, even vilified, thereafter.

*You might labor in near total obscurity in your lifetime and be posthumously crowned as the “voice of a generation” sometime in the future.

*You might be discovered, quite unexpectedly, on a library shelf or in a wildly spiraling Internet search.

*You might labor for decades to reach a tiny but dedicated readership.

*You might have no readers at all, save for yourself.

It doesn’t matter.

Writing, and the thought and feeling that motivate writing, are always worthwhile. You might reach millions or you might change the world for a single person, even if that person is you.

Whatever it is, write. Be brave. Be honest. Be true to yourself.  And always play library roulette. I guarantee you will uncover shining jewels and buried treasures. Mary Webb’s The Spring of Joy such a book for me. You knew that. If you’re quite lucky, the treasure someone will uncover someday will be one of your own creations. You might change the world or the world for just one person.  Keep going. You’ll make a difference for sure.

PS, if you’re interested in reading The Spring of Joy  it’s available on line as many out-of-print titles are via the Digital Library at The University of Pennsylvania. Click below or simply Google it.    http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/webb/spring/spring.html

A TINY DOT OF HONEY

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This past April Fools’ Day Google infused the mundane with sheer joy by turning Google Maps into a gigantic game of Pac- Man. This was especially fun for someone like me who once upon a time spent way too many rolls of quarters racking up points in the arcades of yore. Think of it! You could play anywhere in the world but I loved playing Pac-Man by eating up Manhattan dot by dot: up Fifth Avenue, across 59th skimming the Park, zoom around Columbus Circle and finally cut down Broadway, avoiding the ghosts with a few celebratory stops for bunches of cherries.

It was hugely fun. Besides. I was still good.

But I was thinking about it. With all the masses of people who jam Times Square and Central Park, Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, South Street Seaport and SoHo, each of us is really on our own self-appointed little Pac-Man journey from the coffee place to the office to drinks to home to bed. We travel alone but together make up the vast, milling and slightly terrifying hive.  Each of us looks out and there is always that throng, pulsing and faceless and sometimes judgmental of anyone or anything that seems a bit out of the norm.  Most of us just put our heads down nervously and continue gobbling the dots lest we be singled out next. Will we be judged? Will anyone out there be kind to us if we need it? Will we always be alone?

In some ways, that fear of being judged or abused because one is a little different has always been the case. I’ve been reading A Traveller in Little Things by W.H. Hudson published in 1923. The book, —all Hudson’s observational writing, in fact—is soft and lyrical, his insights sharp. Hudson, who traveled the English countryside, was a keen observer of everything from birds to human nature, one of the lucky ones possessed of the ability to see and appreciate what often eludes most of us. He was an unusual man, one who chose a very different path.

One evening Hudson found himself in the presence of a wealthy and powerful businessman. This self-centered and condescending boor spent the evening pompously holding court, belittling Hudson’s opinions, completely incurious about his accomplishments. Finally, without provocation, the businessman cut Hudson to the quick by referring to him as a mere “Traveller in Little Things”, in other words, a man not worth much consideration at all. Hudson didn’t respond then although he felt the rebuff intensely. Instead he harnessed the slight as the title for his newest book and wrote the story in the first chapter. Not a vicious revenge, for someone who was attacked for merely being different perhaps, but a sweet one.

As usual, I bounce from one thing to another. Stay with me though. Let’s bring the story home.

We spotted a bee in the house the other day. Most people are alarmed when they see bees but not us. We’ve learned to react but not overreact. We are proud of this. So I was able to scoop the little thing up in a tissue and bring it outside. Really you can’t go through life always being afraid of stingers.

We laid the tiny creature down gently on the porch. She still had golden beads of pollen attached to her flank and legs. The bee trembled slightly but then didn’t move at all. I thought she was gone. My son, who knows about these kinds of things, asked if we had any honey inside. Of course we did.

He spread a tiny dot of honey near the bee then told us to watch closely and wait. At first nothing happened. And then it did. The bee’s tiny proboscis, what looked like its tongue, flitted in and out of the honey, giving it strength. Minutes passed. Then bee quivered for a moment, took a few wobbly steps forward, and spun up in the air, flying directly to the Dogwood tree. “Back to business for her now, “ said my son. “Directly back to work gathering pollen. She’ll head back to her hive after this.”

All it took was a little patience, a little sweetness to save her.

That’s really all it takes to help any of us industrious little Pac-Men and Women, isn’t it?

THE MANY MADELEINES OF BROOKLYN

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The astounding thing, now that I think about it, is that I actually found myself someplace cool. At least I’m pretty sure it was cool. On a sunny Spring afternoon on Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I descended into one of the Smorgasburgs, about a hundred popup booths selling incredibly wild and creative foods: booze and bakery mashups, beet ketchups, macarons, salt water taffy, schnitzel and chilis. “Ice cream” that’s made without either ice or cream and called “a potion”. Wings and doughnuts. Duck burgers, chickpea burgers, ramen burgers. Fries, fries, fries. And that’s just for appetizers. There wasn’t even a trace of my old Brooklyn, a sleepy and at the same time slightly dangerous place filled with Ioaves of Cammareri’s Italian bread and plastic takeout containers of chicken and broccoli from Me and My Egg Roll.

It was so crowded you could have picked both feet off the ground and still be swept along. Even the air had an especially delicious taste when you breathed in. Thousands of bow-tied and elegantly scarved people, some pushing strollers but all expertly coiffed, knew all the right lines to stand in. The drone of a thousand conversations provided a buzzy background to an exultant melody of sips and chews. All in all, there was the throbbing and happy sound of everyone eating everything. The best and most amazing food ever. Everyone there was sure of it.

Eating is, and always has been, one of the things I do best. But wrapped securely in my trench coat and looking a little like an old movie spy, I felt small and nervous and scared. This was new Brooklyn and although this was a place where I’d felt deeply comfortable and at home, I’d been gone for a long time. I flitted from booth to booth feeling standoffish and uncomfortable. Worst of all, I didn’t feel hungry.

“Tell me what you eat,” said Brillat-Savarin, “and I’ll tell you what you are.” If that quote reflected everyone at Smorgasburg all I could think of were unholy messes of food and thought: towering Dagwood sandwiches and this weird “all you can eat” cafeteria at Cedar Point where you were given a tiny plate the size of a saucer and allowed to go through the line only once. Desserts were conveniently the first offering and then squished in at the bottom beneath layers of lasagna and cole slaw and meatballs and fruited jello. Truly an archeological dig of a dinner.

But really, the reflection isn’t fair.

No one writes like Proust but Proust but of course we all have our own personal madeleines. For some of us it’s a hot sesame seed bagel or a Toasted Almond Good Humor, for others it’s a squashed Milky Way or a bakery sprinkle cookie. Sometimes it’s a crisp Macintosh apple or a mystery drowning in brown sauce, a white carton of Egg Foo Yung.

Suddenly it made sense.  A ramen burger would be someday be someone else’s madeleine just as surely as Cammareri Bakery Italian loaves are one of mine. More importantly, I know I can try a ramen burger anytime should I ever be in the mood. It’s never too late to make new madeleine memories.

Although it’s the previous quote from Brillat-Savarin that’s better known, what follows is the one I love best:

“However, I have lived long enough to know that each generation says the same thing and is inevitably laughed at by the men who live in the next one.”

The Smorgasburg people, the new Brooklynites, weren’t actually laughing at me or at anyone else. They were eating. And while the foods and tastes were different from my time to theirs, the savoring and the excitement are just the same. So is the appreciation for what’s different and delightful and truly memorable. We are more alike than it seems.

Brillat-Savarin was not actually talking about food in the last quote. But then, of course, neither am I.

A Tiny Mystery

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By nature I’m a rusher though I wish this wasn’t so.   But lately I’ve found myself slowing down just a bit, maybe just enough. And that’s when I saw it. A tiny little door placed right in façade of a building. If I’d been rushing I would have missed it completely. But I didn’t.

Why was it there? Who crafted it so perfectly? Were there more, are there more? Who else knows the secret?  What deeper meaning was there that somehow I couldn’t fathom at all? “Oh,” said one of my sons matter-of- factly, “that’s a Fairy Door.”

It was in the middle of a hard jumble of a week. Tight schedules and packing bags, unexpected sickness and brave struggles towards renewed vigor, bittersweet endings and thrilling glimmers of new beginnings, hundreds and hundreds of miles logged on Route 80 dodging truck traffic. Burger King, Burger Fi, Blimpy Burger.

I caught up to everyone else and we continued on. Endless mugs of coffee and platters of Hippie Hash. (If you’ve never tried this you should. Look it up.)

On the way back I found the tiny door again.   I loved how perfectly it was made. I loved that it was there. I was about to do what I always do—do the research, search for answers, learn the history: the whys the wherefores the hows. I always want to put everything together safely in a box, seal it up and feel that I am done.  But I couldn’t do it. Not this time. Instead I found myself reaching into my pocket.

There is always something there. Acorn tops, lucky coins, fortune cookie fortunes, little drawings, bottle caps and the occasional pink ring of power. It’s more likely that I’d leave my wallet at home than any of these admittedly odd talismans. Each holds a special meaning and memory. I fingered a small plastic beehive and a lucky dime I’d found on the sidewalk and placed them at the foot of the tiny door. One last look and I walked away.

There’s a key scene in the movie Harold and Maude. Sitting before a lake late in the evening Harold gives his beloved Maude something very unexpected and very precious. Giving her this small token was intensely hard for him to do. Maude is deeply moved and says she loves it…then she flings the gift into the center of the lake. Harold is appalled until Maude turns to him sweetly and says, “and now I’ll always know exactly where it is.”

Maybe sometimes we need a little mystery instead of answers.  Maybe sometimes it’s just enough to wonder, to dream, to hope. But it’s good  to know that hiding around any corner there might be something precious, or something thought lost is really quite safe in the middle of the lake.

MARTHA, CONNIE AND VET; BESS, ANN AND ROSE

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It was the craziest thing. I found them on YouTube. Of all places.

Listening to the Mills Brothers on YouTube that day was for me, truly little blip of joy. The music was delightful, but what I clicked next was really divine.

The Boswell Sisters singing Crazy People. I had never heard of the singers or the song. But I haven’t been the same since that moment. Here they are (left to right) Connie, Vet and Martha, The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans:

http://youtu.be/ynwtYRDP124

That was two and half minutes of sheer joy that was both buoyant and almost symphonic in it’s precision and complexity.

How do you define something extraordinary? Should you even try? When something is right and good and true, the real thing, be it a painting, a novel or the love of your life you just know. You just feel it.

Lover of harmonic singing…or not. Lover of jazz innovation…or not. Lover of musical stylings of the 20s and 30s…or not. There are simply some artists—Judy Garland, Eric Clapton, Django Reinhart, you’ve got your own favorites I’m certain- who demand your attention, whose immense talent and sheer artistry can’t be denied. They just ARE. The Boswell Sisters.

A quick round up: The Boswells were musical innovators, arrangers extraordinaire, and the finest close harmony singers of all time. The three Boswells-Martha, Connie and Vet, created an almost otherworldly sound I’d waited a lifetime to hear. I’d love for you to think I am the only one with such exquisite taste but far from it. The Boswells were the most popular singers in the country and attained worldwide fame for five frenetic years until 1936 when all three sisters married and the group abruptly disbanded. They were feted and beloved by everyone from Prince Albert of England (later George VI who insisted on slipping into every single one of their 1933 performances at London’s famed Palladium) to a young vaudevillian named Bob Hope who said to have intoned, “they were the best act I ever followed”. Ella Fitzgerald said the only singer who ever influenced her was Connie Boswell. The Andrew Sisters, who ascended only after the Boswells stopped performing, began as unabashed Boswell imitators, so much so the Minnesota natives originally sang with a southern drawl, according to Maxene Andrews.

And that was it.

They were there, top act in the country and just as suddenly not. All three sisters married, Martha and Vet immediately retired. Connie went on to a respectable solo career.   Save for a single unplanned on stage reunion about 20 years later, they never performed together again. At least in public. There’s a mystery here, of course, a real one worth savoring, but I’ll save that for later.

But for all that, it was an actually a throw away line that knocked me to my knees.

“You know,” my mother said, “I listen to the Boswells and I can just see your grandmother dancing to the radio. “ My lithe and beautiful Little Gram, the dancer in the middle between her different, but equally talented sisters Bess and Rose. My own family’s mercurial and linked threesome.

That was it then.

It was said once of the Boswells “They together clicked like a Geiger counter in a mine.” Such was the power of the unspoken rhythms and pulse of the three sisters. My grandmother and my great aunts didn’t sing but their lives together were complex and woven together as the Boswells.

They all lived all together in one house: my aunts. my great grandmother, and two sons upstairs, My grandmother and grandfather and three children below. My Aunt Bess was a seamstress of such self-taught skill that it was said that she could glimpse the latest styles through shop windows, then return home and recreate each intricate style stitch by stitch. Her marriage to a handsome but itinerate man was somehow broken—he was absent always, it was never spoken of. She remained behind, raising two sons, cooking and cleaning and helping to care for them and for her aged mother. Brilliant and bookish Rose gave up dreams of school and marriage to work in an office to help support them. My tiny and quietly vivacious grandmother married her childhood sweetheart—they had three children. My dashing grandfather dreamed of starting anew and apart, bringing my grandmother and their children everywhere from gritty Pittsburgh to sunny California in attempts at a new beginnings. But try as he might to escape they were always pulled back to the crowded house in Detroit. The sisters needed to be together. The sisters needed to be apart.

In thinking back, I don’t know who was happy and who was not. I don’t know what was fair and what was not. I don’t know, if things had been different, what might have been.

But at the core, my grandmother and my great Aunts were three sisters who cared for each other truly and deeply. They too were a trio.

And so to the mystery. What happened to the Boswells after they all married in a flurry ending effectively bringing to an end the Boswell Sisters in 1936?

Here’s the short answer,

Cynthia C. Lucas, as passionate and knowledgeable about the Boswells and their music as anyone in the world, once, told me to listen to Connie Boswell singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me. “  http://youtu.be/9fLuoUBdKnw

And there it was. Connie Boswell, now a soloist, a woman who lived to perform, begins this slow, reflective and almost mournfully lovely rendition by humming the opening bars of “Shout, Sister, Shout” the Boswell theme song for their radio show.   The shout in this case is a whisper, but there it was, a message of heartfelt longing to her sisters.

***

But sometimes the end is the beginning. The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, has anchored her latest album, “IT’S THE GIRLS!” with a spot on cover of the 1931 Boswell hit of the same name A super cool rock guy Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen begins his new book “EMINENT HIPSTERS” with an in depth chapter on one of his earliest musical loves and influences: The Boswell Sisters. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have the world jamming to jazz standards of the 20s and 30s, including the Boswells, through their performances on HBOs Boardwalk Empire and packs ‘em into NYCs Iguana twice weekly. Will Friedwald, one of the most highly regarded and knowledgeable Jazz writers in the country writes in The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 2014) of the Boswells: “They did for group harmony what Bing Crosby did for popular singing and Louis Armstrong did for Jazz improvisation.”  Dan Garrison of Joshua Tree Productions, and one of the finest writer/historians around, readies a PBS documentary on the Boswells, CLOSE HARMONY.

And last by no means least, Vet’s own granddaughter the amazing Kyla Titus, pens the just published THE BOSWELL LEGACY the definitive biography of the sisters revealing the roots of early jazz lore while exploring hidden history of her illustrious family. The true exploration of the mystery is here. A compelling, tour de force, the book swirls the reader into the inner world of the sisters and resonates. The book simply rocks. And rolls. And we all know what it means when finally; at last, bow ties are cool.

All this and long overdue applause to the chorus who’ve been studying and championing the Boswells for eons: James Von Schilling, professor and author of an early essay on the Boswells Hearing the Boswell Sisters (Popular Music and Society), the lovely and talented Jan Shapiro, chair of the voice department at Berklee College of Music, early champion of the Boswell sound revival, the brilliant Cynthia C. Lucas, the brains and heart behind http://www.Bozzies.com a immense source of information on the Sisters, Jazz historian and researcher David McCain, close friend of Vet Boswell’s and one of the sweetest men on the planet.

We can’t relive the lives of the Boswells nor can we relive the lives of my grandmother and great aunts. But we can look back lovingly, with a bit of an ache, and try to understand. And always, to listen.

This is dedicated with love then, to Martha, Connie and Vet, To Bess, Ann and Rose. With a hug of course, to my own two sisters, my own trio, Lisa and Shari.

Yowza.

For more information on the Boswells, or to purchase copies of Kyla Titus’ excellent THE BOSWELL LEGACY, please go to www.theboswellsisters.com

Or

Check for further information at www.bozzies.com

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.

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.

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.

***

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

THE COLOR OF YOUR EYES

Some of the best things in my life almost never happened.

So there I was, nervous as all get out but attempting nonchalance by leaning against the cinderblock walls. I was waiting for my youngest son as he finished his first day of preschool.

The cool moms, to a woman clad in variations of the right workout gear, were all animatedly chatting. I longed to be animatedly chatting too but rarely managed it. I was usually uncomfortable because I could never figure out the right thing to wear at the right time or say the right thing at the right moment. To be fair, the women seemed nice. They probably were. But at that moment those women felt as distant and as unapproachable to me as the perfectly coiffed celebrities in People Magazine. This is a magazine, by the way, I profess to hate but will always read if a copy is in front of me.

As I was counting the minutes until my escape, I spotted a woman I’d seen earlier in the morning. We’d been at the elementary school helping set up the book fair, but we were rushed, we were working and we hadn’t actually met. I was sure she wouldn’t recognize me. If she did I was sure she didn’t want to bother talking to me. And so, not to humiliate myself, I pretended I hadn’t seen her. Like a little kid, I was actually staring at my shoes.

But then there were four shoes in my lowered field of vision, not just two. It was that woman of course. She said she saw me this morning at school and she also had a son in the other preschool class. She was going to take her son back to work at the elementary book fair in the afternoon. She asked if my son and were I going back there too.

We were. I said I’d meet her there. But the little boys hadn’t had lunch. So I didn’t head straight to the school. I went home. I packed two lunches: one for my son and one for hers and headed back over to the school to meet her. She reached out—I reached back.

This is the story of how I almost missed meeting the person who became one of my closest friends. And because I was so desperately shy, my son almost missed meeting the little boy who became, and still is, his best friend.

***

I was hot, grubby, and seriously underdressed when I got the call at work.   There was a dinner party at some elegant spot on the Upper East Side. The person on the other end of the line was actually begging me to come to this dinner. I was clearly a last minute fill in—she denied it. She applied some serious pressure—naturally I caved. There was no time to go home to change.

I arrived at the restaurant early, but couldn’t make myself walk through the door. I circled the block once. Then twice. Then again and again and again. Panic was rising with every circuit. I was going to bail out on this thing. I could feel it.  A million excuses crowded my brain I but couldn’t figure out which one sounded most plausible. At last, my immense sense of guilt about sneaking away overcame my immense sense of panic.   I pushed myself through the front door and was directed to a long table. There was one chair left and I slid into it. I found myself seated across from a tall, thin man with distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and a very kind face.  He was nice. In fact, he was much more than that. Had I used but one of my many excuses and headed back to Brooklyn I would have missed meeting the man who would eventually become my beloved husband, my soul-mate, the excellent and deeply caring father to our three sons and numerous cats.

***

Some of us are born knowing how to make small talk seem effortless, know when it’s proper to kiss on one cheek or two, know how to look people in the eye and really listen to what they’re saying.

Some of us are not.

I was lucky twice and who knows how many times more. But how many connections had I missed by not reaching out? What had I missed? Who had I missed? And then I realized an extraordinary thing.

I never knew the color of anyone’s eyes. I couldn’t know—how could I if I wasn’t really looking at them, focusing on them?

So I forced myself to look up and really look at people, not just at who they appeared to be but who they really might be. You can tell by the eyes.

A long time ago a woman reached out across a hallway to me and became my friend. A man with a kind face reached out to me across a table and became my husband.

It’s my turn to reach out first and wait for the reach back. When I really look in people’s eyes what I most often see is kindness.