Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I once heard it said that people seldom recognize the last time certain things happen in life.

When I was a little girl, for instance, my father used to put me on his back and "hop" me up the stairs to bed each night. I have no idea when the last time was that happened. There was no grand finale, no recognizing that the tradition had run its just somehow faded away. Getting "hopped" to bed simply went the way of watching Sesame Street and reading Nancy Drew, and other things I don't do anymore.

As children, we seldom recognize the significance of this parade of endings, change and growth—for that is the real process these passings represent –but as I get older, my senses have sharpened, and I’m keenly aware of the fragility of the things we cherish in life. This is particularly true as I watch as my own children slowly shed the vestiges of their respective childhoods.

My son has this amazing giggle. When something really cracks him up, he succumbs to peals of high pitched giggles that take the wind right out of him. I had no idea, a week or so ago, that it would be the last time I’d hear him laugh in quite the same way.

For all the friends and relatives who may be reading, let me assure you that the little chap is fine—thoroughly happy and more normal than even I was able to recognize, as the following vignette will illustrate:

“What’s wrong with your voice?” I asked, Monday afternoon when he got into the car after school.

“My voice?” he answered, in strained and fractured tones.

“Yes, your voice. When did you get laryngitis?”

“What’s that?” he squeaked and rumbled.

“It’s when you lose your voice,” I explained, patiently. “Can’t you hear yourself?”

He seemed mystified. I dismissed the incident, chalking his altered tones up to damp conditions on a church campout last weekend.

Later that evening, he greeted the girls who come to our home for a couple hours each week to discuss their concerns about life, study the Bible, and eat brownies….roughly in that order. My son typically emerges when rattling in the kitchen cabinets alerts him that he’d better get his share of chocolate before the girls descend upon the pan.

“Little Brandon’s a man!” they all shrieked, seconds into conversation with him.

“What!?” I screamed, in horror.

The girls first regarded me with the same mystified stance my son had demonstrated earlier, before patiently explaining the facts of life. Evidently, twelve year old boys commonly develop cases of “laryngitis,” persisting for weeks or months, after which their voices adopt the deep inflections of manliness.

My son knew what was happening all along. He just didn’t want to be the one to break the news.

Of course, it shouldn’t have been news. I knew all this, intellectually. I just somehow forgot that my son was so close to losing his little boy giggle, that each time he laughed I needed to pay attention, and listen with the reverence with which one regards the fleeting and temporal.

This was the first October that we didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time constructing elaborate Halloween costumes. Halloween has always involved costumes that invariably required tools, trips to Home Depot, yards of fabric and the occasional altering of laundry baskets or other household wares. The kids would begin planning the next year’s costume around 9 PM October 31st, right after we revived them from their sugar comas. I used to impose an October 15 deadline for reporting final changes in costume choices, to allow time to sew, alter or construct the components necessary to transform them into miniature literary figures, superheros or machinery, such as the year my daughter became a life-sized, candy-dispensing vending machine and was subsequently mugged and toppled by a rabid gang of preschoolers.

Tonight was eerily normal. Not that the children were disinterested in Halloween —we hosted a costume party last Friday, and bought a lot of candy and watched a scary film—-but it was different. Ghosts of Halloween past haunted my thoughts.

Of course, life changes aren’t limited to the growth of children. Embedded in each moment are wonderful, amazing things we all take for granted. I try to recognize them as I go through my day: the smell of wood each morning as I walk into the sunroom my husband built for me, the way the sun intensifies the colors in my stained glass windows at certain times of the day, the sound of my Labradors barking too loudly and frequently in protection of me when I’m home alone.

My son still giggles. It just sounds a little different, and from now on, it always will. Our family still gathered around the TV with a big bowl of candy and watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. These moments, too, are special, and likewise, destined to become spectres of memory, in time joining the ranks of all that used to be and isn't anymore.

Recognize your moments as they parade past. Salute them. Acknowledge their significance, for each one represents a page of a story that with a plot that moves all to quickly…and that story is your own.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Engine is Running, but No One’s at the Wheel

“I don’t have my keys!” I said in alarm to my friend Kathy as we started out of the fabric store last week.I don’t often have my keys, making me the only one that’s ever alarmed by the fact.

I gave my pockets the usual pat down and whirled around in alert surveillance as though the keys might miraculously materialize mid-aisle.

“Did you set them down somewhere?” Kathy asked.

“No, I never had them,” I said, slowly realizing that I must have left them in the car. I was already reaching for my cell phone so I could alert Onstar of our plight. Inherent in this course of action is the assumption that if, indeed, I’d been so remiss to have left my keys in the car then, of course, I’d locked them in.

Instinctively, I reached for the handle, and the door popped open. “Look at this,” I scolded myself, “I left the keys in an unlocked car!”

Kathy jumped in the passenger’s seat while I scoped around for the keys.

“It’s running,” Kathy observed.


“The car is already running.”

I’d like to say that it wasn’t so, that’d she’d merely misinterpreted the situation; but as a journalist, I’m committed to factual representation of events. In the spirit of full disclosure, it is my duty to report that all of the evidence indicates that I simply existed my running car and proceeded to shop for upwards of twenty minutes. I should also probably mention that said events played out in a tired shopping center in the middle of the Homeless District.

There’s really nothing one can say in this type of situation, so I just made a beeline for the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru, which I later discovered was an ideal response. Turns out, all the latest research indicates that coffee in excess of three cups per day wards off dementia. Not having read that report at the time of these events, I can only assume that my most basic biological urges kicked in to compensate for my failing faculties.

Apparently the coffee didn’t have time to kick in before we were finished at the next store. Upon finding the ideal fabric, I had it measured and cut and, feeling done, headed for the exit.

“Aren’t you going to pay for that?” Kathy asked as I started out the door.

Sadly, the afternoon mirrored the rest of my life--a well oiled machine generating due dates, projects, family needs, and social commitments with the precision of a surgeon and the speed of Marion Jones on steroids. Trouble is, in the midst of all this accuracy and regularity, I’m browsing the metaphoric aisles of life, whistling and loitering while the engine of reality hums along with no one at the wheel.

Anyone up for a coffee break?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Sound of Music

I thought I had the upper hand in the ongoing combat in which I’m engaged with my ever present Spanish adversary, Don Quixote.

I was feeling pretty smug, due to a secret weapon I deployed several weeks back that has resulted in my not actually reading any of the text in say, 300 pages, yet still yielding a high rate of return on measures of evaluation.

Now, lest you jump to the conclusion that I’ve stooped to the shallow depths of Cliff’s Notes and their ilk or even some graver slight of hand, let me assure you that I have absorbed the text on a word-for-word basis. Let me further offer that my arsenal bears the stamp of approval of my sister, the essence of purism.

I gained command in the battle over this dry tome when my resourceful husband gave me a 36-CD audio accounting of the exploits of my armored foe. With the power of multi-tasking working for me during otherwise wasted commutes, I quickly overtook the forces—over 900 pages strong—that promised to seize control over my waking hours.

In my initial reveling over the success of my racket, I forgot that battles are costly to both sides. No one really wins.

The toll extracted from my person began in such an innocent, yea even uplifting, manner that I didn’t recognize what was happening. I found it a mere curiosity when in the middle of random Thursdays and Fridays I had the choruses from whatever praise and worship song we sang in church the previous Sunday running a continuous loop through my head.

When one particularly virulent chorus persisted well into its second week, I identified the problem and attributed it to its proper source—the Quixote CDs, which replaced the wide range of music I formerly enjoyed on my daily commutes.

Resilient, I laughed the problem off. I embraced the chorus, singing it aloud to dull the effect of its merciless grip. Not to be beaten, Quixote redoubled his efforts and struck back, this time taking advantage of an otherwise harmless gaming episode with my husband.

Following an evening of virtual boxing combat with our wii, I awoke the following morning to a disturbing loop of the tinny, computer generated notes from the wii background soundtrack. It goes roughly like this: Da da da-da-da…dat,dat. Over and over and over.

And over and over and over.


Bordering on a level of insanity that rivaled that of my knightly nemesis, I chose to rebel today. Tossing aside the disk of droll Quixote verbiage, I listened to music....selections of jazz, nearly forgotten favorites, random clips from the radio.

The fact that I actually wept with joy and relief I find at once embarrassing and necessary to report. The horns! The piano! The percussion!

With The Big Project looming, the war wages on. But I’m already planning to have the last laugh. Turns out, Man of La Mancha is in town, and I think I’ll drag my husband to see it. I figure if I can still celebrate the story, then I will have truly won.

As long as it’s not a musical.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"The Family" Tree

Last week, I received a newspaper assignment that sent me digging into my mafia heritage.

Which wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, but was still pretty interesting nonetheless.

My editor wanted an up-close-and-personal look into the activities of the Genealogical Society Library. This worried my daughter, since I announced that she’d be accompanying me on the investigation, and she didn’t think genealogical research held much in the way of promise either for her morning or my story.

I took this as a good sign, as most of my best stories begin this way. There’s some kind of ironic inverse relationship between the perceived potential of a lead and the story that results. I’ve come to take it as a challenge—the less I have to work with, the better. Often in these situations, the expectations are low, which gives me the freedom to find my own angle and surprise everyone—especially myself—with what my editor calls a “good read.”

I decided that the most interesting way for me to approach the story would be to test the capabilities of the library’s computer data bases by doing a little background check on the Italian side of my family.

Now, I knew there were some, shall we say, associations between my great grandfather and some gentlemen I’d heard referenced as “Italian businessmen.” There was also the specter of “Uncle Icy” that has long loomed in the backdrop of family lore. The stories most commonly connect him with some sort of hijinks involving large amounts of cash stashed behind a loose brick in the fireplace.

But I must say even I must that even I was surprised by the ease at which a clear, crisp portrait of Mafioso developed like an old school Polaroid right before my very eyes.

According to 1930 census records, “The Family” apparently resided in several improbably assessed pieces of real estate in New Jersey, the highest price tag undoubtedly belonging to a property that's always been referenced as “the castle.”

During a time in which the rest of the Patterson county, NJ residents were paying rents of, say, $25 to $35 per month, my clan owned real estate valued well into the 5-digit bracket.

There were the familiar names of my grandfather and his siblings listed on the 1930 report, but beneath their names appeared a mysterious other head-of-household with whom I share a name….not my generically American married name, but my real, thoroughly Italian family name.

By all accounts, the man listed as the head of this other household was my pseudo-apocryphal Uncle Icy. The Genealogical Research staff may or may not have located a photograph of Icy. If the photo was, indeed, Uncle Icy, then it my duty to report that Icy was, well, hot.

All of which I find rather alarming, because the actual identity of Uncle Icy has always been shrouded in an air of mystery, not unlike the fabled “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame,-- although I doubt my peers will recall that historical entity, as the Watergate scandal is just one of the dozens of news stories I was prematurely exposed to in my preschool years.
At this point let me pause to insert a photo of my daughter with a member of the Genealogical Staff:

Note the bored look of disinterest.

“How do you always know I’m going to like your stories?” my daughter lamented in mock chagrin upon leaving the library.

We came home from the visit armed with reams of documents and more stories than we could pack into an entire Genealogical magazine, let only one paltry newspaper article. My husband logged on the home version of the library database we’d used. After a lost night of sleep and a grilled dinner compromised by neglect while he followed a hot lead on a great grandmother, he’s managed to compile an impressive amount of data for our collective family forest.

Meanwhile, with the genelogy feature safely put to bed, I've moved on to a feature story on a 70-year old lady who has been golfing the same course for 55 years. The uneasy panic at the idea of crafting a “good read” based on that scant data really has my juices flowing. I can’t wait to read it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Winter Girl

“What’s with the shrine?” my daughter asked as she came down into our sunroom and observed the gathered assemblage of Yankee paraphernalia one will witness throughout this post’s illustrations.

She awaited a response with the same sort of vague wariness with which I’ve been regarded since what we’ll simply refer to as The Events in the Bronx last evening.

See, my relationship with the New York Yankees goes back to the baseball-card collecting, back-yard-pick-up-game days of my youth. These were the days when the Bronx was Burning and the Son of Sam commanded headlines. I remember it clearly, despite my tender, single-digit years, what with the constant news of murder and mayhem. I recall one afternoon in particular when my father went into the city to catch a game with a group of Sunday School students. I was certain that I wasn’t invited because of the strong likelihood that the party would meet their demise at the hands of the serial killer.

Nevertheless, I do have memories from other trips to Yankee stadium, during safer times, documented in blurry images from my 110 film camera. There’s Bucky Dent running past the dugout, Billy Martin in the middle of one of his famed temper tantrums, and some sort of a post-game scuffle outside the stadium.

According to the team checklist of the back of my 1979 NY Yankee team baseball card, I have—or at one time had—cards of the same year for Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella and the rest of the roster, save five. I’ll have to take a look for those cards.

I also have an entry in an embattled journal for August 2, 1979 which reads, simply, “Thurmon Monson dided today.” I remember that day.

Considering the thematic matter of yesterday’s post, I should point out that it would be a mistake to read too much into the title of today’s missive. My team’s unraveling has not sent me plummeting into a premature “winter.” I have no plans on emulating Hunter S. Thompson, the deeply troubled journalist who offed himself after the 2005 Super Bowl, unable to face the bleak specter of another icy off season.

Today’s title is actually a reference to Fever Pitch, a movie I shouldn’t like, on principal, due to its pro-Red Soxs-theme, but I do, because it’s great baseball. In the movie, Drew Barrymore’s character refers to Jimmy Fallon’s character as alternately “Summer Guy” or “Winter Guy” depending on whether or not it’s baseball season. She fell in love with the versatile and attentive Winter Guy, but was less impressed with the ultra-focused Summer Guy, whose attention was riveted to the historical events that went down during the 2004 post-season. You can hardly blame him—as I mentioned, it was great baseball.

Which brings me to the current state of things in New York, what with manager Joe Torre’s job on the skids for his failure to pilot the team into the second round of the play offs. Sure, it’s a let down—but really, when the options for evaluating the season are pass/fail with the World Series earning a pass and all else is failure, that’s a fail-proof recipe for disappointment. Sure, it’s been six years since a World Series appearance, and seven since a win, but what about the Indians, who haven’t made it since 1948? The sold out crowds, the dramatic come-from behind games, the season’s second half comeback—it was great baseball.

Problem is, I’m a lot more like George Steinbrenner than I’d like to admit. I set my standards so impossibly high, the only direction I can go is down. It doesn’t matter what area—grades, home life, writing—I’ll accept nothing short of superlatives. It’s perfect or it’s failure.

When I was a psychology student, I participated in an in-class exercise involving some type of evaluation of how real life compared to our standards. Mine didn’t. Essentially, I gave myself an “F”. Part of the assignment was figuring out how to fix the gap between where we were and where we wanted to be. I calculated, I mused, I grasped at straws—nothing seemed to fit. Frustrated, I told the professor that the only thing I could do was lower my standards. This was offered as an admission of failure, not as a viable option. The professor wrote in big, red pen, something to the effect that I’d better lower my standards or understand I’d die striving.

For a long, long time I didn’t understand what I heard as a lot of mixed messages. On one hand, we’re supposed to “give our all” on the other hand we’re supposed to know when something is ‘good enough.” How can anything be good enough if you know better is possible?

I’m getting it now, in little bits. You do the best you can with what you have in front of you, and you move on to the next thing. If all you ever do is one thing, ever, I guess you can take the time to make it perfect. But if you want to do many things in life, at some point you have to say, “this is as good as I can do with the time and resources I have now.” And you move on to tackle the next thing.

Of course, my fall break didn’t turn out exactly as I wanted. I had two months worth of activities and projects I wanted to cram into four days. But you know what, I did the important stuff. And now that baseball season is over, Winter Girl is going to have one less thing vying for her attention. School starts back again tomorrow. There are papers to write, and much more Don Quixote to read. Plus, there are all those unfinished projects. Winter Girl is on it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Full Bloom in October

“Don’t forget those drum lessons.”

I said this in parting to the woman sitting next to me at the Wynton Marsalis concert I attended with my son a couple weeks back. I’ve discovered that a college ID is a gateway to free and cut-rate culture, particularly when your university has just erected a multi-zillion dollar arts center striving to put itself on the “national and international arts map.” But I digress. During intermission, I learned that the woman sitting next to me had always wanted to be a drummer—sadly, social conventions of her time were not on her side. Her high school band director turned her away, explaining that “girls can’t be drummers.”

Aghast, I suggested that it wasn’t too late, that it didn’t matter that high school was decades past, that she, in fact, was facing senior citizenship; her dream could—and should—still be realized.

I hope that lady went home and made some calls. I hope she’s poking around an instrument rental shop even as I type these words, selecting the perfect drum kit to sit in the middle of the garage her grand kids cleared out last weekend. I hope it goes down like that, because way too often, it simply doesn’t.

Way too often people hit the brakes on their development as soon as some randomly selected birthday or milestone rolls in and suddenly the shadows seem to lengthen and the crisp snap in the air is mistaken for a deep freeze that ushers in a state of stagnancy marked by could-haves and should-haves and what-ifs.

I know people that don’t like October—the month when our physical world takes on long shadows and a cold snap. These colorblind folks see autumn in shades of grim-reaper-grey, missing the red-hot message embedded in the warm tones of the earth to live with vibrancy and urgency.

My New York Yankees understand the need to live urgently in October, and, facing elimination, they finally woke up and played like it last night. I know baseball is just a game, and it’s just another October, that the Yankee organization, win or lose, will have other chances, other years. But not with these Yankees. Not with this group of players, most of whom are my age, many of whom may not be back for another season. This is the team I’ve cheered, the team whose ups and downs have so eerily mirrored my own over the past few seasons, the team who has so much going for them, but just can’t quite pull it together.

Facing elimination once again tonight, I hope they can pull off a historic October rally—a tale that will live long and large in Yankee lore. I hope these guys, in the Octobers of their own lives, can bask in World Series glory this once before they hand the team over to the younger, leaner boys of summer already nipping at their heels, ready for their own time in the sun.

I love October. I number myself among those who look forward to autumn, who embrace it. When you love autumn, it’s not because you don’t know that winter’s coming—you do. You feel it intensely, but you also recognize that some of the best days of the year are sandwiched between the calendar page with the pumpkins and the one with the crystalline void of the next season. You love it because you understand that a well spent autumn of harvesting and planting can make for a better winter and a better legacy.

The picture at the beginning of this post was taken in my back yard last week. In August, a couple of weeks after returning from the x-country trip, I began to lament that there would be no sunflowers this year. The back of the seed package suggests April planting. I’ve already learned that leads to a late-June bloom. As I’m usually away that week, I typically start my seeds in May or early June and get July or August flowers. So I already knew there was some wiggle room in the suggested planting schedule. I just didn't know how much.

This flower exists simply because I said to myself in mid-August--a full third of a year past the perscribed sowing season--what have I got to lose? and started some seeds. These flowers grew sturdy and strong and beautiful, simply because I gave them a chance. From now on, I plan to stagger my seedlings so I can have sunflowers blooming for several months each year.

So here’s to fall gardens and drum lessons at any season in life.

Here’s to Joe Torre and the boys from the Bronx.

Go Yankees.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Fall Break

Readers, I am basking in the delight of four and a half days with nothing more on my agenda than focusing on all the important things that have fallen through the cracks over six weeks of school. I'm going to shovel out my desk area, finish some art projects, and add some posts to my neglected blog. There's a backlog of topics I'm planning to write about here over the next few days. Expect pictures, pontifications and some thoughts that will hopefully make you smile and think. Although my fall posting schedule has become a shadow of the summer schedule to which you may have become accustomed, don't give up on me. I have no plans to let this forum become part of the flotsam and jetsam of my current post-school existence. We'll talk more soon.


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