Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Isn't It Romantic?

Picture this—A beautiful spring day in 1969. A handsome college sophomore (E.) and his new girlfriend (me) sit on a lush green lawn on the campus of UMass Amherst, listening to a blues musician who calls himself Taj Mahal. The girl wears a pretty white Mexican dress with colorful embroidery on its yoke. Her hair is long and loose. E. wears jeans and cowboy boots. His dark hair and a Western-style mustache add to his cowboy appeal.

Taj Mahal's music is an engaging amalgam of blues and Caribbean rhythms, derivative but entirely original. Among the songs he plays that day is a number called Corinna. The girl (me) instantly loves it. A few years later, when she moves in with E., she's thrilled to find that he owns the record album, Natch'l Blues, on which "Corinna" is featured. They listen to it incessantly. Still later, after they've married, they jokingly agree that if they ever have a baby girl, they'll name her Corinna.

Now picture this—Forty-three years have passed since that concert at UMass. The couple is about to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. They have two sons, so no Corinna in the family, but the wife (me) feels transported back to her youth every time she hears the song. She wonders whether Taj Mahal might still be performing. To her delight, she discovers that he will headline at the Newport Blues & BBQ Festival later that summer. She surprises E. on their anniversary with plans to spend a weekend in Newport, culminating in Taj Mahal's performance at the Blues Festival.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Thinking of Neil Armstrong

During the summer of 1969, after my sophomore year of college, I was living at home on Long Island and working in the billing department of a commodities firm. I watched the moon landing with my parents. A few weeks later, on August 13th, I was heading out to lunch, completely unaware that the astronauts were being celebrated with a ticker tape parade on Wall Street, right around the corner from my office.

As I walked out of my building, I encountered a crush of people and could see ticker tape flying. I followed the throng and got a distant glimpse of the trio of astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins. It was a thrilling moment, marked by the odd realization that I was almost the only woman in sight. Wall Street was then so dominated by men that even the secretarial pool couldn't make a dent in the impression that the street was men-only.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Walking on Water

I'm not a natural athlete. As a kid I tried hard, which spared me from being the last girl picked for the softball or basketball teams, but I was never a standout player. While I had good endurance on the track, I was a klutz when it came to gymnastics—even cartwheels were pretty much beyond me. So, no one was more surprised than me when, the first time I tried waterskiing, I immediately succeeded in standing up on the skis. I was a natural.

Girls bunks, Camp Tamarac.
I learned to waterski on Yokum Pond in Becket, Massachusetts, site of Camp Tamarac, my beloved sleep-away camp. I spent eight weeks there each summer for four years, starting at age ten. What Tamarac lacked in luxury, it made up for in camp spirit and an amazing array of activities, among them scuba diving and waterskiing.

You might well wonder what kind of scuba diving experience could be had in a pond in the Berkshires. Surprisingly, Yokum Pond reached 50 feet at its greatest depth. Still, its murky waters didn't allow for the type of diving one might expect to find in the Caribbean. In fact, you could barely see two feet in front of you. Nevertheless, during my last summer at Tamarac, the camp began offering its campers scuba classes and certification.

I enthusiastically signed up for the scuba program. All progressed well until one sunny day in August. I had come to the surface after a short dive and was using a snorkel while I swam back to the dock. The snorkel was necessary because the tank on my back was heavy and unwieldy, so I couldn't get my head above water to take breaths. As I paddled toward the dock with my flippered feet, feeling pleased with my diving progress, I allowed my head to sink a little too low. Instead of air, I suddenly found myself swallowing a sample of silty pond water.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Standing Up for . . . Standing Up

Okay, I admit it. I'm sitting down while I write this blog. But for the prior 25 minutes, I was standing up as I listened to a "Fresh Air" interview with Gretchen Reynolds, who writes the "Phys Ed" column for the New York Times. Reynolds says our health will greatly benefit from standing often during the day, for about two minutes after sitting for twenty minutes. Sounds easy, right? So, I'm about to reform my life. No more couch potato for me. No more sitting in a trance in front of my computer for hours on end. I'm joining the ranks of the standers.

According to Reynolds, punctuating periods of sitting with brief standing stints helps break up fat in our bloodstream, keeps our muscles from going slack, and can alleviate back pain. She stops just short of promising immortality. But seriously, she makes it sound like a very good idea, and doable, too. All the better, she says, if you walk around your office or down the hall during your two-minute stand-in, but if that's not possible, just stand.

                                                        * * *

I'm back, after a two-minute standing appointment. Now, what was I saying? Hmm. Apparently, one of the problems with interrupting my writing to spend a couple of minutes on my feet is that I'm likely to lose my train of thought. In order to avoid that, maybe I should consider standing all the time, like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who works at a standing desk. Whatever you may feel about his policy positions, Rumsfeld does appear fit. And far more illustrious men than Rumsfeld have used standing desks, including Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and Charles Dickens.

I want to stand and be counted as one of the standers. In fact, I won't stand for sitting anymore. With my penchant for worry, maybe I could add pacing to my standing activities. Back and forth, back and forth. Until I can't stand it anymore. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

An Obama Proposal

I had a dream the other night that President Obama asked me to marry him. He actually got down on one knee in the middle of a big event and proposed. I disregarded the fact that we were both already married and said yes, believing in my dream state that even the things I don't like about Barack Obama would instantly be transformed by my acceptance into love.

Would that real life were so easy. When it comes to political issues, I wish I could be in perfect accord with all my friends, but that congenial state eludes me. Life would be pretty dull if we all agreed about everything, I suppose, yet I still yearn for harmony. Inevitably, though, no matter how hard I try, I just can't stop being me.

For example, if a friend invites me to see a film with her, I love the idea of sharing the experience and discussing it afterward. In my fantasy, we always feel the same way about the movie. In reality, of course, sometimes I don't like it even though she does. I want to like it. I want to share her taste in every detail. But sometimes I simply don't.

Worse still, trying so hard to achieve harmony can induce its opposite. The pressure of being agreeable builds up and suddenly an unbidden explosion occurs—I hate Woody Allen, I might declare, when really I'm just not a big fan of his recent films. For the record, I didn't love Midnight in Paris, but I didn't hate it, either. There, I've said it. Those of you who loved it, don't hate me, please.

If I, like Obama, were a President running for re-election, I'd be tempted to say what I thought people wanted to hear. But ultimately the truth would out. I would proclaim my true beliefs and then worry that I'd alienated the voters. Fortunately, I'm not running. And I'm definitely not a First Lady, except in my dreams.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Whale of a Great Rescue

A breaching humpback whale

My sister, Nina, knows how much I love animals. She's quite an animal lover herself, having given a home to assorted pets over the years, including lovebirds and a chinchilla. This morning she sent me a link to a YouTube video called Saving Valentina. You've got to watch this video. Just click on the title and, if you can, expand the video to full screen on your computer.

When members of the Great Whale Conservancy came across a young humpback whale entangled in a fishing net, thankfully they had a video camera on board their small craft and the desire to document their rescue attempt. The resulting video captures one of those rare encounters between man and the giant mammal which truly suggests that understanding can transcend species boundaries even in the absence of a common language.

It's always tempting to anthropomorphize, but when you watch the video, you may find yourself agreeing with me that the distressed whale seems to understand quickly that the people are trying to help her. And by the time you reach the thrilling end of the video, you may share my impression that the whale is showing her joy at being rescued and thanking her rescuers for saving her life.

My speculations even extend a bit further. I wonder whether that young whale later told other whales about her rescue. We know humpbacks are highly intelligent. A few months ago, I came across a video of their amazing synchronized hunting technique (click on the link to see it).

Humpback whales may not have vocal chords, but they do produce varied and complex "songs" which act as a kind of language. Scientists have studied humpback whale songs and concluded that they use hierarchical structure in their language, the only other creatures known to do that besides humans. Male humpback whales produce songs that last anywhere from six to thirty minutes. A lot could be said in that amount of time! A link to what humpback whale song sounds like is here.

While females are capable of making sounds, only the males produce highly structured songs filled with distinctive melodies and themes. So, if Valentina really is a female, as her name implies, she may not have said much of anything when she encountered other whales. Still, it's tempting to imagine that she told them people can sometimes be trusted.

Whales, as well as their dolphin cousins, are known to approach boats and swim alongside them. They must have figured out that not all human beings are hunting them. At least, I like to think so. I feel enriched by  viewing a video like the one about Valentina. So, Nina, please keep them coming. And all other uplifting animal stories and videos are welcome!

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Taking Up a Collection

It's not what you may think. I'm not asking for money or for old clothes, but I could use a few good ideas. I've noticed that many people seem to enjoy collecting things, so I'd like to take up collecting, too.

My mother-in-law, Reggie, was an enthusiastic collector of frogs. I'm not sure how her fixation started, but she coveted frogs of all shapes, sizes, and materials. It made gift-giving easy, since she always welcomed another frog. It amazed me how many collectible frogs exist in the world. Once I became attuned, I saw them everywhere. There isn't an antique, gift, or garden shop without at least a frog or two.

Perhaps inspired by his mother, E. briefly collected elephants. Delighted, Reggie gave him a small bejeweled Indian elephant for his birthday and he acquired a few more on his own. But soon his attention drifted back to his larger passion, cars. Unless you're Jay Leno, though, there are only so many of those you can collect.

For some, collecting is a serious and fulfilling pursuit. One of my friends collects maps of the Arctic, another is an insatiable gatherer of shells, while several are devoted book collectors. My cousin's husband loves coins and can be found at many numismatic shows, happily perusing his favorite coin categories and trying to fill in gaps in his collection.

Another friend became such an avid collector of rabbits that he decided to open an antique shop to sell his overflow. Before long, though, he closed the shop. For him, the joy was in the collecting, not the selling.

The possibilities for collecting are endless—dishware and pottery, porcelain figurines, Star Wars paraphernalia, baseball cards, snuff boxes. One friend, a frequent flier, has acquired a rather large collection of airsickness bags.

So far, all these wonderful examples have failed to awaken a collecting passion in me. I've been wracking my brain for something fun and engaging. I like animals, but I prefer the live variety. Amassing a large number of rubber duckies wouldn't take the place of a breathing, quacking duck for me. My grandfather was a stamp dealer, but the idea of a stamp collection leaves me cold. Besides, at the rate the postal service is going, snail mail and stamps will soon become obsolete and there will be nothing new to collect.

I'm not much of a shopper, so I doubt I'd enjoy poking around stores for interesting objects. And I'm not fond of yard sales and the like, where some collectors find hidden treasures. Even used bookstores don't hold much allure for me. All those moldy books just make me sneeze.

My decorating style is minimalist, so I wouldn't really want a lot of tchotchkes taking up shelf space, which could be a problem if I decided to collect, say, Limoges boxes. My mother collected glass animals—she had cats, swans, dolphins, and other glass and crystal creatures. They looked pretty in her mirrored cabinet, but they wouldn't work in my spare living room.

Clearly, I need help. All thoughts are welcome. In fact, I'd love to collect all your collecting suggestions, maybe even compile them into a book. Now that's an idea!

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Click on them to enlarge them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

My Klutzy Life

Maybe it's because I don't wear shoes in the house. Maybe it's because I don't watch where I'm going. Maybe it's because my bed frame was constructed by a sadist. Maybe I'm just accident prone. Whatever the reason, I keep crashing into my bed.

It can happen during broad daylight or darkest night. I can be fully awake or half asleep. I can be actively engaged with the bed while making it or merely passing by. Luckily, the bed frame doesn't come up to the level of my head or I'd be a goner by now.

One of my worst mishaps occurred a few weeks ago. I was turning the corner at the foot of the bed on my way to tucking in the blanket, when I stubbed my bare toe against the frame so hard that I thought I'd broken it. I writhed in agony for several minutes, then moaned and groaned for a while longer. My toe swelled slightly and turned a little blue, so I iced it and hoped for the best. I attempted to gain E.'s sympathy, but he was curiously unmoved.

After a couple of days, I made a full recovery. Nothing had been seriously wounded, except my self-image. Where was the agile woman I'd always longed to be? Why could I not glide gracefully around the bed instead of barreling clumsily into it?

After that incident, I became more careful. I gave a wide berth to the bed whenever I walked past it. Eventually, I believed that my efforts were paying off. I felt more sure-footed. I even fancied that I was on my way to becoming less of a klutz. It was as if my toes had developed a sixth sense about the location of the bed frame and could do a dainty side step to avoid it every time.

So, the other night when I got out of bed to get a drink of water, I felt prepared. Although it was dark, my mind automatically registered the location of the bed frame and my toes effortlessly moved in a way designed to avoid it. But my legs, alas, did not follow. The next thing I knew, I'd kneecapped myself on the bed frame. I cried out in pain, then moaned and groaned (and cursed) for a while, waking E. up in the process, but again earning little sympathy.

How is it possible, you might ask, to be far enough away from the bed frame with one's toes, yet whack into it with one's knees? An excellent question. I'm still working on the answer. For now, I've just accepted that it's all part of my klutzy life.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Where Have You Gone, Bobby Weinstein?

Camp Tamarac's Yokum Pond
I met Bobby during the summer of 1959 at Camp Tamarac in Becket, Massachusetts. I was ten years old. He was twelve. He came from Riverdale, in the Bronx, a glamorous world of apartment buildings, impossibly far from the Long Island split level where I lived with my family.

Bobby had dark hair, which he wore in a pompadour, Elvis-style. I stole glances at him when we gathered at the flagpole for Taps each evening. Camp Tamarac was a coed camp, but the girls and boys lived and played at opposite ends of its grounds on the shore of Yokum Pond. The girls didn't see the boys during the day, but the entire camp came together in the morning and evening, when we raised and lowered the flag. We shared the same dining hall, too, though the girls sat on one side, the boys on the other. We girls spent meals singing songs at the top of our lungs, trying to attract the boys' attention.

The sexes also came together in the social hall, a big all-purpose building that served as the dividing line between the boys and girls camps. Used for rainy-day activities and religious services, it was also the setting for camp "socials," as well as for performances, which ranged from musicals to talent shows to competitive "sings."

I learned many skills at Camp Tamarac, among them swimming, tennis, basketball, and riflery (to my own surprise, I was a crack shot). Camp Tamarac also taught me about boys. It was at Tamarac that I awakened to the idea of a boyfriend. Though only ten years old and not yet ruled by surging hormones, I suddenly found boys mysterious and alluring. Added to this was the thrill of the forbidden, since our counselors endeavored assiduously to keep us apart, except at socials. During those awkward, well-chaperoned events, I prayed that Bobby Weinstein would ask me to dance.

Not that I had much to recommend me. My wavy brown hair was cut short and stuck out at odd angles. My teeth hadn't yet been straightened. And my skinny legs had earned me the nickname "chicken legs." During one of our all-too-frequent bull sessions, the girls in my bunk pronounced that while I was not yet pretty, I had potential. I took this snarky compliment as the highest praise, so desperate was I to be that pretty girl with whom Bobby Weinstein would want to dance. But, at social after social, nothing happened. As the eight weeks of camp season ebbed away, my hope faded that Bobby would ever notice me.

It was announced that there would be a talent show the last Saturday evening of camp, followed by the final camp social. When the lights went down onstage, out stepped Bobby Weinstein to perform "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb." The original had been sung by Connie Stevens and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, of 77 Sunset Strip fame. No real singing was required, since "Kookie" was more of an early rap number, complete with hip lyrics of the day. You can see and hear "Kookie" in its full glory by clicking the following link: Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.

I can't recall whether there was a girl onstage with Bobby or if he merely lip-synched the recorded words to an invisible Connie Stevens. What I do remember is that the song fit Bobby to a tee, as it involved a really cool guy constantly combing his hair. Bobby looked right at home running a comb through his gorgeous brown pompadour.

His performance was a hit. The audience swooned over Bobby, or maybe only I swooned. In any event, the applause was deafening. But all that was nothing compared to what happened next, at the final camp social. Bobby asked me to dance. To a slow dance! I tried not to step on his feet as we swayed back and forth. When the music ended, Bobby kept his arms around me and looked at me. "I like you, too," he said. And then he kissed me.

My first kiss. And, other than a glimpse of him at the final flag raising, the last time I ever saw Bobby Weinstein.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Forty Years Ago

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the day I moved in with E. My mother worried that our relationship wouldn't last a month. She feared that E. would break up with me and I'd be devastated. Our friend, Hoyt, didn't give us six months. I wasn't worried. I just wanted to be with E. and wasn't thinking more than a day ahead.

I arrived in Northampton, Massachusetts from New York City on a Peter Pan bus. E. picked me up and we headed over to the apartment of our college friends, Tad and Abby. Abby had prepared a Chinese dinner. I was impressed by their domesticity. While living in New York, I had almost never cooked. I either dined at my favorite Greek taverna in the Village or ate a bowl of granola for supper.

The farmhouse as it looks today.
After dinner, E. and I headed home to Hadley, where E. shared a farmhouse on West Street with several friends. Behind the house stretched asparagus fields farmed by our landlord, Mr. Kozera, who lived next door. In a fit of feminism, I had insisted on having my own room, for which I paid rent. Not that I ever slept there, but it did give me a place to keep my clothes.

Mostly, I remember the music. E. had an amazing collection of LPs and in fact at the time ran a used-record business. I would listen to Taj Mahal singing Corinna for hours on end, punctuated by Paul Siebel crooning Jasper and the Miners. (Click on the links to hear the songs.) Years later, we decided that if we ever had a baby girl, we would name her Corinna.

I felt I should get a job, though I had no particular desire to work. When I learned that an old-fashioned ice cream parlor was opening up nearby, I thought that might be the perfect spot for me. After all, I loved ice cream. During my interview with the manager, I enthusiastically told him about my fondness for ice cream. Immediately, I realized my mistake. I could see from his expression that he envisioned me eating all the profits.

Instead, I got a position as a stringer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, reporting on meetings of various local government entities. The most memorable was a raucous Northampton Zoning Board hearing that featured a supposedly-liberal Smith College faculty member protesting the use of a home in his neighborhood as a halfway house, my first encounter with the NIMBY phenomenon.

Not having a car, I had boldly stated my determination to hitchhike to my assignments. That lasted about a week. After a creepy-looking guy tried to get me to climb into his pickup truck, I asked E. if he would give me a lift to future assignments. I wasn't ready to drive his Saab Sonett sports car myself (and he wasn't quite ready to let me).

Within a month, E. had asked me to marry him. We picked a date in June. And we decided not to tell anyone about our upcoming nuptials. But that's another story, already recounted in Anatomy of a Wedding, Part One and Anatomy of a Wedding, Part Two. (Click on the links to read the story.)

Since our marriage was to be a secret, we realized that we would have no one at the ceremony to take our photograph. One of our housemates was an aspiring photographer, so a day or two before the wedding, we asked him to take a picture of us. The result was the portrait below, kind of an updated American Gothic. I like to think that it captures our state of mind as well as the zeitgeist of the era—a little spaced out, with a dash of counterculture, and a strong belief that love can save the world.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Photograph by Steve Horn

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Road Taken

On a frigid winter day in 1972, I went for a ride with a friend. It changed my life. He had suggested that we drive from New York City upstate to Bear Mountain. But a fork in the road took us in a different direction, one that has made all the difference to me.

I hadn't quite turned 23 and was living in New York City. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with three friends in the Vermeer, a nice building at the corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue. I could walk out my door and down the stairs to the IRT subway, which would take me uptown to my job in the Personnel Department at Columbia's Teachers College.

The job wasn't what I'd had in mind when I graduated from Smith College the year before. Actually, I hadn't had much in mind. I loved college and longed to stay there. In fact, I interviewed for a position helping to run the Five-College Consortium, a group which included Smith as well as Amherst, where I'd spent my junior year. I was offered the job, then panicked because all my friends were leaving the area, several of them heading to New York. I followed them there, signed up as a part-time graduate student in the English department at Teachers College and got a mind-numbing day job there that, at $100 per week, barely covered my rent, food, and classes. My first day on the job, a campus police officer ran up to my desk and grabbed the phone. "We got a guy outside with a sawed-off shotgun," he said. Welcome to Manhattan in the 1970s.

The best part of my job was the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter with a self-correcting feature that eliminated the need for Wite-Out. I used it to type office correspondence but, in every spare moment I could find, I also typed poems. The words poured out of me, full of loneliness and angst. I wondered in verse who I was and what exactly I was doing on West 120th Street.

In early January, my friend, Steven, suggested we take that drive to Bear Mountain. I accepted enthusiastically, delighted at the chance to escape the city for a day. Steven was younger than me, a junior in college, home on Long Island for his winter break. I knew he liked me. I liked him, too, but not in that way. Still, it was fun to put the anguished poems in a drawer and pull out my flirty alter-ego.

So, there we were, heading north on the New York Thruway, listening to Don McLean singing "Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie," when I spotted a road sign—left for Bear Mountain, right for Amherst, Massachusetts. Seized by a sudden fit of nostalgia for Amherst College, I said to Steven, "Let's go to Amherst instead. I'll show you the campus. It's really beautiful." Steven obligingly careened across several lanes of traffic and took the right fork.

As easy as three lanes, the course of my life changed. When we arrived in Amherst, I took Steven to see Memorial Hill, with its splendid view of the Holyoke Range. I showed him around the rest of the campus, which was almost deserted during winter break. Its classic brick architecture glowed with an austere beauty in the weak winter sunlight. After we walked around for a while, I suggested we head to the snack bar. I had whiled away many an afternoon there when I was a student.

The snack bar was open but empty. We checked the menu, then decided we weren't hungry after all. As we started to leave, I heard someone call my name. The next thing I knew, E. was hugging me and I was hugging him right back. He and his friend, Brian, had been sitting at a table in the far corner of the snack bar and I hadn't noticed them. E., sitting with his back to me, hadn't seen me either, but Brian had. "Isn't that a girl you used to date?"  he asked.

We had dated during our sophomore year and it hadn't ended well. E., who had barely spoken to me for two years, jumped up and called my name. In that moment, I saw my future and embraced it. Less than six months later we were married.

Monday, February 27, 2012

C Is for Cockamamie, and for

I could never be an actress. That crying thing completely eludes me. No shedding tears for me, crocodile or otherwise. I rarely even cry when I'm genuinely sad. I experience this as a failure on my part. I've been to funerals and worried that others would think me cold and unfeeling.

My son loves my cranberry sauce. Luckily, he likes the simple version that's printed on the back of the Ocean Spray Cranberry bags. Nice and easy, a Thanksgiving staple. I'm not a bad cook, but it takes effort for me. I have friends who find cooking relaxing. For me it's stressful, trying to coordinate everything, trying to please everyone, trying to put on the perfect cooking performance. Exhausting.

I've been watching the Showtime series, The Tudors. During the first season, the "sweating sickness" engulfs England. Not the plague, but rather a contagious virus of unknown origin that fells young and old alike and wipes out a huge portion of the population. This really happened. Kind of like the Spanish flu, in our own era. Or what could happen if bird flu ever reached pandemic proportions.

Hmm, I can't seem to shed the contagion theme.

Don't get me started. I love the taste of chicken but can no longer bear to eat it, having learned about the horrors of factory farms. I used to think I could eat chickens that had a real life before their death, so-called pastured chickens. But now I'm not so sure. I'd rather watch chickens strut their stuff. Unless they became bird flu carriers, that is (see above).

I'm very fond of cocktails, not so much of cocktail parties. All that flitting around, making bright conversation about nothing to somebody I may never see again. I used to think I was good at it, until I noticed the toll it took—the fake smile, the feigned interest, the wanting to be the most beautiful girl in the room. Now I'd rather find one person I know and spend a while talking to him or her. Preferably with a martini in hand.

The way I sometimes feel at cocktail parties (see above). And also why I never go on cruises (what if I want to get off the boat?) and how I feel in a crowded elevator (praying it won't get stuck). As a child, I used to think jail wouldn't be so bad if they would let me read books and live in a private cell. Mind you, it would be a nice cell, no insects, and ice cream would be served for dessert.

I miss the days when my kids were captive in my car and I could get them to talk to me. When I picked up their friends, I loved listening to them talking together. If I kept quiet and just drove, sometimes they'd forget I was there and I'd hear what was really on their minds.

What's with that place? People seem to love it. Otherwise sane friends of mine act passionate about a store. They extol the turkey rolls, the wine, the toilet paper. I went once to see what it was all about. The staff was friendly but I was overwhelmed by all the stuff and the sheer size of the place. I like to buy my tuna one can at a time, and only pole-caught.

I've always thought I would like living there. Such a calm society compared to violent and volatile America. Canadians act nice to one another, I imagine, and are a neat and tidy people. I once knew a woman who came from Ottawa and she lovingly described skating on the Rideau Canal in winter, how she reveled in the frigid beauty of the city.

Photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Noise, in Five Parts

1. The barking dogs
2. Hispanic reality show
3. Shrieks from the beach
4. Music to my ears
5. The women on the terrace

1. The barking dogs
I hear them through my eleventh-story window during the late afternoon, barking at one another in the tiny dog park overlooking Biscayne Bay. I love the sound of their high-pitched yapping.

Small dogs of various breeds play together in the park, among them Coco Chanel, a chubby pug; Henry, a be-ribboned bichon; and Bailey, a sweet-tempered rescue mutt. I long to be there myself with my apricot toy poodle, Cosmo, affectionately known as Cosmo the Wonder Dog, Cosmolian, Cosmonello, and simply The Cos. But sadly, Cosmo is no longer with me, having been put to sleep in the summer of 2010 after a long and barky life.

Most of the dog owners who frequent the park remember Cosmo and gallantly invite me to join them within their noisy sanctum, where they quaff wine and throw squeaky balls for their dogs to fetch. While on my daily walk, I often stop outside the enclosure to chat with the owners and admire their pets, but I can't bring myself to enter without a dog of my own. Still, the sound of their barking is music to my ears.

2. Hispanic reality show
The other day, I noticed a blinding white light coming from one of the mansions across the water. I hoped it wasn't a new security feature. Then I noticed a number of tiny ant-like creatures moving across the patio. I fetched my binoculars and identified a film crew setting up around the pool.

The filming has mostly occurred at night, with atmospheric purple lights coloring the patio. A party scene, I surmised, maybe for an episode of Dexter. The idea that my favorite cable show, which is set in Miami, might be on location in my own backyard, thrilled me. Or perhaps they were filming scenes for CSI Miami or some other big-budget TV drama.

During my walk yesterday, I spied one of the members of the dog-owner brigade, wine glass in hand. He seems to know everything that's going on, so I hoped he might have an idea what the filming was about. Sure enough, he did. "They're filming a reality show," he said, "for Hispanic TV."

I felt disappointed—since I don't watch Spanish-language television, I would likely never see the results of the filming. But I was also intrigued. Would the film crew move in for a year-long reality extravaganza, something along the lines of Las Amas de Casa Reales de Miami? Or would the activity across the water be short-lived?

Yesterday evening, I saw more people on the mansion's patio than during any past night of filming. Soon, the crowd began cheering, their noise rising to a crescendo for a minute or so, then falling off. Rising, then falling again and again. Funny for a while, then mildly irritating. Hopefully, last night was the show's finale and the cheering its noisy climax.

3. Shrieks from the beach
Have I mentioned that I'm sensitive to noise? If it's my noise, generated by me or by my radio or TV, that's fine. But the noise of others feels like an invasion. I realize how lucky I am, living on a beautiful island that's mostly peaceful and quiet. When noise does disrupt the serenity, I would like to be oblivious, to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, yet that goal eludes me.

I have noise machines and white noise apps on my iPad and iPhone. I have earplugs. But I resent having to resort to white noise, which has its own jarring effects, and the earplugs hurt my ears. Besides, nothing really works, partly because I can usually still hear the noise, but also because it's not merely the noise that bothers me, but the unpredictability of it. I find the barking dogs in my condo's dog park cute, but I know that the barking only occurs for a little while at the same time each day. If suddenly dogs were barking at 2 a.m., I wouldn't find it so endearing.

On a recent Saturday evening, I heard shrieks from the little beach next to the dog park. I walked onto my terrace to get a better look. A group of women had gathered on the beach. One would speak and the others would shriek and burst into peals of laughter. It seemed a happy occasion, maybe a bridal shower or a birthday celebration. Why should I be upset? I reminded myself that the women weren't playing rap music or dancing to a loud salsa beat. I couldn't bring myself to complain to security about a bunch of women laughing and enjoying themselves. Still, they were shrieking. And they continued shrieking. I wondered if they would ever stop. They finally did, around midnight.

4. Music to my ears
I may be sensitive to the noise of others, but I love to play my own music LOUD. Years ago, in his most inspired gift, E. gave me the complete Motown CD collection. Washing dishes was never more fun than while dancing to Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, and the Temptations, played at full volume.

Later, when my son, Alex, was a teenager, he would burn mix CDs for me as gifts. I always favored bands that used a heavy bass beat. I loved the Dandy Warhols. I would crank the music up so loud that even my kids would ask me to turn it down.

Now that I spend half the year in an apartment, I don't blast my music while I'm there. I don't want to bother my neighbors, nor do I want to give them any reason to turn their music up. Adele's hits wouldn't sound nearly as good coming through my walls from someone else's apartment as they do when I'm playing them myself.

5. The women on the terrace
As I work at my desk, I become aware of a slight disturbance, a whispery sensation. I stop typing and listen. Voices, women's voices, coming from nearby. I open the sliding glass door next to my desk, which leads to my apartment terrace. Yes, I can hear two women talking on the terrace above me. Brijean, with her lilting Irish accent, is one of them. The other woman must be a visiting friend or relative. It's late, after 11 p.m. With my door closed, I can barely hear them, but I know they're there.

I tell myself that they don't mean to disturb me. I know Brijean and like her. I turn on the noise machine that sits on the corner of my desk. Now I can't hear them at all. But I keep trying, straining to detect a laugh or a raised voice through the white noise. I turn the machine off for a second just to check whether they're still out there. Yes.

It's not the admittedly-soft sound of their voices that bothers me. It's the fact that I have no control over them. I can't make them stop the way I can turn off my loud music when I've had enough. In any case, I wouldn't want to try. I hate confrontation. I just want my own soundproof space, one that keeps unwanted noise out and my own chosen sounds in. Maybe a padded cell?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Take a Walk With Me

The air feels balmy, without much humidity but just a hint of softness. Puffy clouds scud across a mostly blue sky. I hardly notice them, though, since my eyes are riveted on the waters of Biscayne Bay.

I live on a small island on the bay. Every afternoon, I take a walk around the perimeter, starting on the marina side, which overlooks the mainland. A gentle breeze ripples the American flag that flies overhead. Water laps softly against the sides of sailboats, motor boats, yachts. But I barely notice. I'm looking for signs of sea life.

The afternoon sun shines directly on the clear, shallow water, giving me a view of everything within it. I continue walking, but slowly, scanning for movement. I see a southern stingray and wonder if it notices me. Then I come upon a school of silvery fish swimming in manic circles. Further along, a solitary barracuda hovers. Once I saw a nurse shark swimming in these waters, but not today.

As I reach the end of the marina where the land curves around and the open bay appears, the wind picks up and I take a deep breath of salty air. I feel as if I'm breathing in health. A brown pelican circles over the water, then does its bizarre plunge-dive, landing bill first, wings open. It looks like a crash landing to me, but when the bird comes up, I can see that it's got a fish in the pouch below its bill.

I pick up my pace and shift my gaze across the water. The skyline of downtown Miami comes into focus, all shining glass, and still further away, I spy the high rises at the tip of South Beach.

Now I'm on the open-water side of the island. In the distance, Key Biscayne shimmers in a blue haze. On either side of the path, coconut palms hold court, their fronds chattering softly. There's a pretty wooden bench on the grass next to the sea wall. Most days, I like to sit there for a while and contemplate the scene.

Today, though, I decide to maximize my aerobic benefit and keep going. I soon circle around to the domestic side of the island, where there's a fenced-in dog run for the small dogs permitted here. It's a charming little spot, with a couple of hillocks and small trees, plus a table and chairs for the human visitors. At this time of day, I usually see several dogs and their owners in the space—the dogs cavorting with one another, their owners mellowing out over glasses of Chardonnay. I stop briefly to say hello, then continue on to the island's tiny beach, where I often find the three Muscovy ducks currently in residence on the island.

This is invariably the highlight of my walk. I chat with the ducks and offer them water by turning on the nearby water fountain, which has a hose attached for their benefit. I'm trying to train the ducks to come when I say "water." So far, my success has been variable. They come when they're thirsty, but waggle their tails and ignore me when they're not.

Usually, I circle the island twice each afternoon. That may seem repetitive, yet it's not. The sun, the sky, the sea, the fish, the fowl, and even the dogs create an ever-changing tableau. Writing about it doesn't do it justice. I wish you were here, so you could see for yourself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Story and Backstory

Here is a young man, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old. He appears happy, in fact bursting with joy, his smile from ear to ear. He adopts a relaxed pose, bare-chested, his arm flung over the back of his chair, his hair slicked back, as if just combed after a swim.

The photo is ageless yet dated. Its sepia tint hints at a time long past, but given the young man's contemporary hairstyle and the lack of any other visual clues, it could have been taken yesterday. From the blurred background, the setting appears rural. The season is surely summer. Everything about the photograph suggests that the young man leads a carefree, even indolent life. His shoulders don't look as if they've carried heavy loads. With his broad smile and straight white teeth, it's easy to imagine a life unmarred by tragedy.

The man in the photo is my father. The time is around 1939 or 1940 and the place is Merryall Farm in New Milford, Connecticut. The scene is indeed one of prosperity. The gentleman's farm was owned by my father's Aunt Fannie and her son, Paul. My father spent many happy weekends at the farm and loved to swim in the little pond located on the property. But his smile belies the burden he carried—at the time the photograph was taken, his family was trapped in Nazi Germany.

My father arrived in New York City in 1936, at the age of 16. My grandmother, fearing the worst, had been desperate to send him to safety. His Aunt Fannie had sponsored him, so he was able to flee his home in Karlsruhe and travel to the U.S.  His sister, Margot, only twelve years old at the time, had to stay behind with my grandparents. Only in 1939 did they at last manage to secure transport to England for her, on the last Kindertransport to leave Germany.

At the time this photo was taken, my aunt may still have been in Germany and my grandparents almost certainly were, though perhaps they had already been interned in Gurs, a French concentration camp. In 1941, miraculously, they were able to obtain passports and leave the camp. After an arduous journey, they joined my father in New York only two months before Pearl Harbor. My aunt arrived from England at about the same time.

My father enlisted in the Army. He served in Army intelligence and received a field commission from General Eisenhower, earning him the rank of Second Lieutenant.

The photograph captures my father's optimism and his resilience. It even offers a clue about his orderly nature in his neatly combed hair. But there's mystery in his disarming smile. The very openness of it is at odds with the reserved father I knew. And certainly his smile is at odds with the dark clouds hovering over him and the whole world at the time the picture was taken.