Category Archives: Blog

Now About That Book You Wrote About Me and My Mom Friends. . . . .

Wednesday–

I know we haven’t spoken in quite a while, ever since you fled the Upper East Side for the Upper West Side, or, as you oh so delicately put it, the land of post-menopausal gray hair and the last ten pounds, but I thought, nonetheless, that you might want to know what effect your new book, Coming of Age in Sant Ambroeus, is having on us, your former friends, the glam SAHMs (Stay At Home Mothers) you’ve left behind. Well just yesterday, after drop-off, while getting into my Escalade en route to Physique 57, I heard this terrible thunderous clap and turned around to see all my fellow glam SAHMers scattering quickly in all directions. It was a bit like watching fugitives flee — sure, beautiful, skinny, toned, blonde, rich fugitivies — but fugitives nonetheless. You see, we tribe members of the glam SAHMs are all now running scared, but not of you — for god’s sake, please don’t flatter yourself! — we are afraid of them, the fat, flabby, unchic masses, the dreaded, dreggsy 99% of which you, erstwhile crow’s-footed Midwestern brunette née Wendy were once a part. Yes, thanks to you Wendy – the new you, the blonde, botoxed Wednesday you – every woman in America will now be doing what we glam SAHMers do, or at least they will now be dying trying. You see, whether you know it or not, Wednesday, the way of life, our way of life, which you oh so methodically and scrupulously scientifically describe in your book, will not be viewed by your new cohort of Upper West Side shlubs and — let’s face it — flyover readers as some kind of cautionary tale. God no! This is America and as Henry Ford once so brilliantly put it, the nature of capitalism is to turn luxury into necessity. What does this mean? Well, do you remember what happened with Coach bags in the ‘90s? Personal Trainers in the ‘00s? Need I say more? One minute you have us exclusively buying these things, procuring these services, and then all of a sudden you have. . . . .them! For example. Mark and I are supposed to take the kids to Disney next fall over Columbus Day weekend so of course I call up the disabled guide agency, you know, the one that all of us use, the one that lets you cut the lines for the rides, the one you were so grateful to me for passing on its number that you sent me a double orchid? Yes, that one. Well guess what? No can do. They’re booked solid through 2016. Then yesterday, while having Prosecco and crackers for breakfast with Hillary Duffkind, she tells me that her cousin in Peoria – Peoria! Illinois! – is getting a wife bonus. Now Wednesday, it’s one thing to tell the world about the disabled guide agency – I mean, it is at Disney, after all – but the wife bonus? Did you really have to go and destroy that too? That was our very own special thing here East of Fifth and West of Lexington, North of Sixty Second and south of Ninety third. And for some of us, well, that was all we had to look forward to after bragging about how we give away our Wharton and Harvard Law School-honed legal and financial skills for free to any frivolous charity that will have us. So there. Are you happy, Wednesday? Are you feeling like an alpha cat now? But lest you think you’ve come out unscathed in all of this just know that an alternate title for your book might well be The Death Knell of The Birkin. Yes, Wednesday, thanks to you, and the entire chapter you devoted to its significance, I’m afraid that’s a totem whose time has come as well. Pity you have so many of them.

Formerly Yours,
Thursday

Phoenix Rising

This morning I was particularly eager to get to work. But when I opened the door to my office I could’t help but notice how much it looks like a desert, a mostly empty, barren place filled with dust bunnies and gray light. Just last week my office was a film set, filled with a director, a cameraman and an assistant, big lights set up on stands, wires everywhere. I was being filmed for a documentary about Steve Madden, the shoe designer who went to jail for insider trading some years back, and whose company’s stock has been rising — up literally one thousand percent over the past decade – since he was sprung. Add to that trajectory Madden’s recent portrayal (albeit in a somewhat bit part) in Martin Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street and voilà! you’ve got the makings of a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes true greedy American capitalist story. Or Shoes, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll as the director described it. I wrote about Madden for New York magazine back in 2001, after he was indicted and before he made his plea deal, and that’s why they came to see me, asking about things that happened and people I met in what feels like a lifetime ago, my pre-children life, my practically all about me life. Sure I prepped for the interview and gave the best, most honest and entertaining answers that I could. And though when the crew arrived I felt a little resentful – I had given up all the work time I had for the day to work on someone else’s creative project – I nonetheless had the most fun I’ve had in a very long time and was sad to see them go.

Already Dreaming of Next Year

Vacation is ending tomorrow and we are all five filled with remorse. “I’m never going to get to go to Paradise again!” cries my four-year-old at bedtime, and though he is referring to a wonderful bakery and ice cream shop he’s only recently discovered, he might as well have been being metaphoric and giving voice to that anxiety on all our behalfs, because for us Aspen, Colorado is indeed just that: a kind of paradise. It’s our third trip here as a family and much as we all like to see the world and get outside the U.S. and the somewhat narrow world we inhabit, there is undeniably something special, and especially relaxing, about coming back to this place we know and each time getting to know it just a little better. Whereas last year my kids were all just learning to ski, my two older ones are now real intermediates, Buttermilk habitués who are excited to return to that mountain, but also eager to move on to the challenges of Highlands and Ajax. Just this afternoon my four-year-old went on his first chairlift up to his first summit and skied the whole way down, only falling twice. “Try and remember to bring back his ski school card next year,” his instructor advised at pickup, “because when you show up with a five year old and say he can ski down the mountain, the instructors aren’t really going to believe you.” Eager for him not to regress and proud of his accomplishment, my husband dutifully packs our son’s ski school card away with his own helmet so it wont get lost in the shuffle. Implicit in this transaction, as in all our talk about what we’ve done, and haven’t done, and want to do, is this notion that we will indeed be back. And that no matter what happens, how much we may change, how much the kids will change, we can take comfort in knowing that come next spring Paradise awaits.

 

 

Adventures in Panel Land

The invitation to speak at my alma mater’s upcoming literary festival came inexplicably.  In fact, it didn’t seem to make any sense at all. While once upon a time I had been a successful journalist, writing investigative stories and features for national magazines, I hadn’t published a thing in ten years.  And while I had spent the past decade working hard as ever, raising three children and completing a draft of my first novel, I didn’t (yet) have anything to show for my efforts, not from a “Lean In” perspective anyway.  Did they want me for my money?

“Are you joking?” said my husband.  “Just make sure you’re on a good panel.”

A good panel.

Details were hard to come by.  The whole thing was kind of in flux.  It was the festival’s inaugural year.  The organizers were hoping to get a professor from the Creative Writing department to join me.  If they could.  The name of a well-known literary critic whose work I deeply admired was mentioned, and try as I might to suppress them, fairy-tale scenarios began running through my mind.  The critic and I would become close friends, realize we shared identical literary taste.  He would help me find a publisher for my novel. He would give me a rave review!

And then a few weeks later, in a passel of e-mails, the critic’s name was rescinded just as casually as it had been floated, replaced instead with that of a writer.  This wasn’t a step down, to be sure.  If anything, it was a step up.  The writer was famous! But trouble was I knew her, and so knew — or thought I knew – much more than enough.

During my senior year in college, the writer had arrived on campus to great fanfare, and that spring, buoyant with the confidence of having been accepted to every Creative Writing class I’d ever applied for, I applied to take hers.  But while all my other professors had ever asked for was a writing sample, she asked for a description of a tree, a request I found absurd and so took to be metaphoric, writing instead about a man whose son had died in a car crash and who was commemorating his son’s life by planting an entire forest of trees, a unique and ingenious interpretation, I was sure.  But as my letter of rejection, complete with a handscrawled note about my inability to follow directions, made clear, the writer had simply meant what she’d said and said what she’d meant.  So what if I had grown up in Queens and couldn’t tell a sycamore from an oak?  Sure I might find her as maddeningly exacting as The Mad Hatter, but was it her fault I’d proven myself to be as foolish an ingénue as Alice?

Later that spring, the writer and I crossed paths once more, when me and another student, a friend who was well-connected in the film world, were seated alongside her at a year-end student-faculty dinner.  The writer and my friend got along famously, all but ignoring me, until dessert when my friend, either out of pity or kindness, attempted to open the conversation out to include me, telling the writer I had just completed a creative thesis about family secrets.

“Family secrets? What’s your family secret?” she said, turning her big eyes on me like klieg lights from under her cloche hat.  I hemmed.  I hawed.  It wasn’t something I had told hardly anyone.  Even my friend sitting beside me didn’t know.  But the writer, not unlike the investigative reporter I would one day become, was relentless, repeating the question every which way she could, staring me down, not letting me go, until at last, feeling I had no choice, I made the great reveal.

“That’s it?” she said.  “That’s your family secret?”

I turned beet red, muttered some random half-hearted excuse and fled.  It was one thing to know I was Alice.  Quite another to be told it to my face.

“Don’t let her be mean to you,” cautioned my husband, as I sat hunched over my computer the night before I left for the festival, frantically typing up a novel-length document filled with blow by blow instructions as to where my children needed to be when, with whom and why, while I was gone.  I vowed to do my stalwart best, promising that if the writer were mean I would casually mention how if I were to die tomorrow, I’d at least die happy having prioritized my family over my career.  So what if it wasn’t true?  It was good justification for the path I’d followed, and more importantly, was meant to rankle, as I knew that the writer had become divorced in recent years and that her latest novel, which was about the dissolution of a marriage, had been roundly panned as bad thinly veiled fiction.

And then, on a cold, windy day, the panel began lukewarmly enough, the questions tepid, the writer still in a cloche hat all these years later, politely deferring to me from underneath it even though I, at one and the same time, was, of course, deferring to her.  And then finally, from out of a sea of pie-in-the-sky, How-do-you recommend-I-land-my-first-Pulitzer-before-I’m-thirty sort of anal, Ivy League questions, a young woman asked us a doozy. “When you’re writing, how do you decide what to leave out, what should be left out?”  The writer looked at me.  I looked at her.  And then she looked back at me again.  It was an excellent question, one I had struggled with time and again as a reporter, and I answered it truthfully, revealing an anecdote about Jon Corzine being sloppily drunk one night while he was still CEO of Goldman Sachs, an anecdote I had chosen to exclude from the profile I had written about him back in 2000, in advance of his run for U.S. Senate from New Jersey.  At the time, I hadn’t wanted to bias my readers against him, I explained, I hadn’t wanted to destroy his shot and besides, I’d had no idea if bad behavior was typical for him. (Though, of course, the scandals that later followed him, not least of which was his implosion of a large commodities firm, might imply poor judgment was.)

“You did the moral thing,” said the writer.  “You did exactly what you should have done.  But in fiction you have no such obligation.  In fiction the only obligation’s to the truth.”

And all of a sudden we were like real co-panelists, people put together for a reason, chiming in, enriching each other’s comments.

“There was just a piece about this in the paper over the weekend,” I ventured, “an essay about what happens when novelists write about real people, particularly their families and–”

“That was about me!” interjected the writer.  “That windbag didn’t use my name but she was criticizing me!  That bit about the adolescent children?  First off,” she scoffed, “my children are in their twenties now and. . . . ” And there she went, proceeding to talk about the very thing I had originally thought I might want to push her to talk about, only I’d had no idea that a few lines of the essay I had referenced had been about her, and now I liked her, and felt a world of sympathy.

“When my children were small oh the things I did for them!” she said. “I would light a fire, so they would have a fire to eat breakfast in front of.  I would warm their clothes.”

“You warmed their clothes?”  I thought I was a good mother, though not being a morning person, I barely even gave my children their breakfast.

“And I remember how it pained me not to watch them but I had to write,” she said.  “I needed to write.  And so I would sit in a little room off the kitchen when they were small and watch the woman who watched them.  And then when I was older I would get them off to the school bus.  I would sit in my little room for hours and nothing would happen.  And then a half hour before I had to go and meet their bus, suddenly everything would come.  And I would be late.  Always late.  And for this I’ve never been forgiven.  To this day!”

I knew just what she meant.  The most productive time of day was always right before it was time to get my kids, no matter what time was the pickup, the best thoughts always coming when there was too little time, or even no time at all.

“Men write about their divorces and their romantic lives and it’s wonderful fiction,” she said.  “Philip Roth, John Updike.  A woman does it and it’s the most awful thing in the world.”

After that the conversation continued in a freer, more productive vein.  One student ventured that her mother had left her for long stretches to go off and mountaineer some of the highest peaks in the world. Students asked about how we supported ourselves, how we had gotten our first assigments, and finally, how we shared our work with others before publication.  Once again I turned to the writer, and once again she turned to me.  I did the best that I could, giving an honest, if somewhat equivocating, response, saying that while I had to be true to myself I did think that when multiple readers had the same comments about what was working, or not working, in a piece, they were usually right.

And then She Who no Longer Seemed the Mad Hatter weighed in, saying that she revised for no one and that her work had to be honest to her and her alone.  She didn’t edit herself in writing, nor did she, as it was now abundantly clear, edit herself in speech.  It was a brave, high standard, one which could surely piss off many as once upon a time it had deeply pissed off me.

But not today, dear reader.  I had gotten to be her student at last. This here’s my truth and it’s unvarnished.

It’s Later Than You Think

 

After years of writing only for my own consumption it’s fun, thrilling even, to once again be back in the game, writing for actual readers. I will do journalism and finish my novel during the day, I tell myself, and write these short true dispatches from life, whenever I’ve got one that feels urgent enough and therefore worth telling, at night, after the kids are in bed. A perfect system, and like nearly all perfect systems it works, but briefly. Lately life has been intervening, taking over in terrible ways. There is too much irony around me, too much sadness and this sadness begs for silence. Sure there are still funny things, things which I might call tragic in an entirely different frame of mind. The parent whose self-esteem rises and falls, like a volatile stock, lock-step along with their child’s chess rating. The ways in which I myself am not immune from such nonsense, having become, at least in part, the sort of parent I never thought I would be, or wanted to be, the personal assistant sort of parent, the I’ll get you whatever kind of extra help you “need” kind of parent. But now the sadness and cruelty of what’s happening in my midst are bringing out my own, long since suppressed, hypochondriachal tendencies, and so instead of using my nights to tap out words of substance, I am merely typing my various alleged symptoms into Google and clicking through on a million different links to find out whether I’ll live or die. Perhaps scariest of all, even my husband, who normally has got great equanimity, is not immune this time. Just the other night when I offered him a glass of wine from a bottle that had been sitting in the fridge for a few days he told me to dump it out and open a new one. “Go ahead,” he said,“It’s later than you think.”

The Waiting Room

Back when my mother had cancer I would go with her to Sloane Kettering’s midtown outpatient facility for her chemo. A handsome blonde doorman in a blue gold-buttoned coat who looked like he belonged at Bergdorf’s would always greet us as we entered. “So nice to see you!” and, “Welcome back!”

But upstairs, inside the gynecological department, there were no luxury goods worth dying for, and my mother and I would simply take our seats in the large but crowded waiting room, listening to piped in QXR and amusing ourselves with trips to the mini fridge for complimentary child-sized cans of ginger ale and unlimited graham crackers while we waited for her name to be called.

“Goldberg, Lois. Lois. . . . . Gold-berg. . . . .”

“Feldstein, Dorothy. Dor-o-thy . . . .Feldstein. . . .”

Despite the fact that my mother and I were both chatty, inveterately curious people, we rarely engaged with the women around us because we didn’t want to hear their stories. My mother’s was sad enough, and the only thing worse than hearing someone else’s cancer story would have been my mother being forced to share hers, a story which we knew, nine times out of ten, would be far worse than the one she had traded for. She was going to die and soon. It didn’t make for casual conversation, not even here.

“Bucholtz. Ca-rol Bucholtz. . . . . ”

“Weissman. Frie-da Weissman. . . . .”

Waiting for my mother to be called into the “infusion suite,” I often felt like I was sitting in the office of a synagogue which had invited any Jewish woman in the New York metropolitan area sixty years of age or older to come in for a free adult Bat Mitzvah class. Or perhaps I just wished it to be the case. But try as I might I could never quite get the reality out of my head. The waiting room we were in was the absolutely worst kind of waiting room and no amount of free ginger ale or graham crackers could cover it up. We were in death’s waiting room and the guard outside, always happy to lend a hand finding taxis, might as well have just stripped down to a loincloth and admitted who he really was: Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

Occasionally, my mother and I would overhear whispers among the nurses of a patient who hadn’t “been seen in a while.” Death was everywhere and so the word was never used.

And then they finally called for her.

“Berkman. Judith. . . . . ”

It has been nine years since my mother died and every six months I visit an imaging facility on the Upper East Side which thankfully has no doorman. The waiting room has no free food, only a water fountain, and nearly as many male patients as female. CNN blares from a TV and the patients, a large percentage of whom are disease free but merely checking up on something due to a symptom or injury, or, as in my case, the vague genetic threat of family history, are secure enough in the belief that they’re going to be around for a while for today’s news to hold no interest. Instead everyone stares into their i-phones and when called upon, books next appointments for many months into the future. Still, despite all this healthful arrogance, death still looms around the edges. It’s not uncommon to see at least one wheelchair and a couple of canes, or a home health aide who has come to assist. It is not so much death’s waiting room as the room before the room. Death’s anteroom, death’s foyer.

Each time I come for my breast and pelvic ultrasounds I seem to get a different sonographer. They are always women, but some are younger than me and some older, some friendly and some not, some deeply concerned about my comfort while others masochistically seem to relish their role, brusquely smearing gels and wielding their sonographer’s wand as though I were some kind of sunken vessel and they were digging inside me for treasure. Of course I prefer the gentle ones but there’s really only one thing that matters to me, and that is that I get the kind of sonographer who is willing to break the rules and give me an off-the-cuff interpretation of my results rather than make me wait days to receive the complete report which needs to be approved by a doctor.

Luckily at my appointment last week, I had just this kind of sonographer.

“You’re all good,” she said, as I lay there in a gel smeared gown, a small platform uncomfortably wedged under my lower back.

“For now.”

Yes, she was one of the brusque ones and yet all the same, I put my hands in prayer position, and bowed to her as she left.

When I finally got back outside, the sunny day had turned cloudy and cold, the skies dark, rain clearly on the horizon. Nonetheless I felt so happy to be alive I decided to forego the bus and take a long walk home through the park. They hadn’t called for me.

Not yet.