Tag Archives: General

The Visit


She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.

“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.

“Your whole life, huh?”

He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.

“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.

Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”

Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.

“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.

Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little.  How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them.  Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”

“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”

And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”

Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”

“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”

She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.

They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.

When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.

When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.

When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.

By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.

At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.

Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.

“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”

It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.

“Translation, please?” he says.

“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”

There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.

She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.

They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.

Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.

“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.

This post has no point except to say that time is circular, despite the illusion of it being linear

One year ago today, I learned how to make soap. In fact, I uncovered the buried understanding that adding any number of additives will not, after all, interfere with saponification and that soap is actually a paradox. It takes oil to remove oil. I even made my own recipe:

24 ½ ounces of Olive oil
12 ounces Palm oil
4 ½ ounces of Cocoa butter
6 ounces Canola oil
1 ounce Palm Kernel oil
6 ¾ ounces Lye
17 ¼ ounces distilled water

I never actually made the soap. I got distracted. I listened over and over and over again to DeBussy’s Claire de Lune while emotionally reuniting with the girl I was in Paris, in 1989. I sang Martha Wainwright’s “Wish I Were” lying on the floor of my bedroom, until my voice shattered into broken glass and I kept quiet for a very long time. I read Hills Like White Elephants and prepared my soul for its delivery, though I didn’t know it at the time.

A year is long. But we are only reminded of its length at the end, when we have the sensation that we are back “there” again. Remembering the past. And all that we no longer are.

Swine Flu Blues

To vaccinate or not; that is the question, and one mother’s quest for the right answer.

There’s a medical form resting on the kitchen table that my son brought home from school yesterday. It’s asking me—his mother—to make the decision to have him vaccinated for H1N1. The form has been there for 24 hours, and if not for the word “URGENT” stamped across the front, it would take on the usual lifecycle of most forms that come into my house: backpack to kitchen table to trashcan; or, if it’s a particularly pressing concern, like the ten page form needing my signature and a note from the doctor, costing ten dollars, and a photocopy of shot records and checkups and probably even blood samples, okaying the fact that my kid had all his shots and won’t be infecting anyone with polio or rubella or any number of odd, extinct diseases, the form would be filled out within a couple weeks’ time and ultimately sent back to school.

I hate forms for two reasons: they’re printed on paper and thus, waste our natural resources, and they’re seldom of any relevance to someone who prides herself on dodging the frenzy of herd mentality that forms tend to confirm. Case in point: the issue regarding your child’s appearance in photographs taken by the school. I suppose with so many men, women and children in the witness protection program the idea of a teacher taking a photo of classmates and posting it on the school’s billboard had become a matter of contention. One person complained about it, didn’t want their child photographed and then another and then another. For weeks everyone was clamoring about schools violating and exploiting their children with one click of a camera. Shortly after, a mandatory form was sent home, requesting the signature of a parent or guardian, to authorize or deny the act of photographing each child.

It’s like that with the weather around here too. One severe weather alert from Action News on a Monday produces a slew of forms regarding school closing numbers, a list of what to include in a disaster preparedness kit and even a barrage of websites, links and contact numbers in case of emergency. The next thing you know there are mile long lines at the grocery store and bottled water is completely out of stock three towns away. And for what; usually two inches of snow that turns to slush by the end of the school day.

But this form in particular is causing me emotional, mental, moral and ethical strife. I simply cannot decide whether to get the vaccination for my kid or not. As a mother I am torn between doing the right thing for my child while avoiding doing something just because everyone else is doing it. In my mind, it should be this easy: if my kid has a one in a million chance of dying from the flu, as well as a one in a million chance of contracting some bizarre neurological disease from the shot, then either route I take seems statistically safe. I shouldn’t be worried. Right? But I am– so much so that I can’t stop weighing the facts, possibly because so many exist.

In typical culturally-savvy, liberal, progressive parent fashion, I did everything I possibly could to weigh the pros and cons. I posted a poll on Facebook. I watched the youtube video of a beautiful cheerleader who got a neurological disorder triggered by a flu vaccination. I listened to an NPR radio interview with some guy from the CDC. I read a “Short History of Vaccine Panic,” along with Amy Wallace’s, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” followed shortly by Dr. Kim’s Holistic Heath Blog. By accident, I even read some article online debunking vibrational strings and the theory that we are all made out of light until I realized that had little, if anything to do with swine flu. I asked friends, neighbors and family. I even asked my son’s pediatrician. And after all this, I can’t help but wonder how any of us are capable of making a personal, private, parental decision in the face of all this hysteria and abundance of information.

How, in fact, does anyone make a decision about their child’s health, and possibly life, with so many influences circling around? It makes me wonder how much of a threat something is, compared to the media’s propagation of it. And the bitter truth is, when people stop making individual decision and instead, base their actions on the common good of the herd, the best choice isn’t always made. Who remembers the old VHS versus Betamax war? VHS won dominance over Betamax despite being technically inferior. Why? Really good marketing and probably the fact that consumers were impressed with the recording time of VHS. In other words, consumers lost out on a better, cheaper costing product, for the sake of one flimsy feature. Even the sub-prime mortgage crisis and housing bubble is a reflection of herd mentality. Swine flu is no exception.

Frustratingly, when I polled my friends—and most are no dummies—there was a huge gaping divide. Some believed that it’s best to vaccinate and protect. Others believed the side effects of vaccination weren’t worth the risk. As for me—the form was still on the table this morning, heading to the trashcan, until my neighbor called asking me if my kid needed a ride to school. Yes, yes, yes, I said. He always needs a ride to school, or back from school, or to be picked up from soccer, or dropped off at fencing. For whatever reason, he needs to be stuffed into someone’s minivan, along with a gazillion other kids, for the sake of being taken somewhere. Going back to grad school and teaching has left me hugely dependent on “the village” to help me in times of need.

So, among small talk and neighborhood gossip, I asked her if she was getting her kids vaccinated. Heck, why not. I had asked everybody else by this point and nothing had influenced me either way. Seriously, what difference would her answer make? But the moment she uttered a resounding yes, two things occurred. First, I immediately thought, that’s just typical. And second, I thought, I must get my son vaccinated.

I hung up the phone. In a matter of minutes I speedily filled out the form: Name of child, Birth date, Address, Is the child presently sick? Does he or she have any chronic diseases? Has the child ever had a reaction to a seasonal flu vaccine? Has the child ever had a reaction to eggs?

I signed and dated it and stuck it in his backpack; I kissed him goodbye; and I waved, from my doorstep, to the pack of children crammed into the minivan that, along with my son, were being carted off to school.

Herd mentality or not, I am a member of a community. I depend on “the village” and the village depends on me. And sensationalism aside, (and the one in a million chance of getting some bizarre neurological disease from a flu shot), decisions based solely on me and my child cannot be made. We are not islands. We are not loners. We are part of something bigger than us and thus, have a responsibility to stay safe and healthy not just for our sake, but everyone’s.

Am I happy that I am following the herd? Not really. I have always prided myself on being an individual. Do I think the swine flu is so out of control that it could kill us? Nope. Do I think that mass-hysteria is influencing our better judgment? Yes, I do. Do I think that seasonal and swine flu vaccinations are the answer for everyone? No. That’s not what this story is about. It’s not about any of those “facts.” It’s not even about uncovering obscure information or taking polls of the general public or basing my decision on what a pediatrician suggests (because they’re all on the fence too). And it’s certainly not about being swayed by a form sent home in my son’s backpack. But it is about the bigger picture—my bigger picture, and the fact that all I really have to do to make the right decision is believe in it.

Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic garden

Last night D and I watched “In a Dream” the documentary of Isaiah Zagar, his life and work as a mosaic artist and his relationship with his wife Julia. It was a beautifully filmed documentary by their son Jeremiah Zagar, which portrayed the forty-year love story of his parents, as well as his father’s obsession with mosaic art.

I loved the documentary and so when we went into Philly today to visit D’s friend R, we decided to go to the mosaic garden, just to get an in-person look at Zagar’s work. Before heading over there though, we had lunch first at Beau Monde, one of my favorite places to eat in South Philly. As we’re finishing up, the hostess seats two people by the window and as usual, I’m staring. The longer I stare, the more it becomes clear to me that it’s Jeremiah Zagar and his mother Julia. We were pretty shocked at the coincidence.

Normally I don’t do this, but I went over to their table and mentioned that we had just seen their documentary last night and that it was brilliant. I wasn’t sure how they’d react, but they were both very gracious and even made a bit of small talk. How nice. And right as I was about to leave, the son says to me, “and here’s the star now,” or something to that effect. I turned around and in walked his father,  looking somewhat out of it, but nonetheless pleasant. At any rate, it was hugely exciting to have see this documentary, then the actual work and mosaics on the wall, and finally the whole family. The art, the film and the family all came together very serendipitously, and what’s best was that D was there to experience it all with me.

Here are some of our photos from today. And I strongly recommend seeing the film (now on HBO).

Sign of god

Jesus Burger

When I opened my quarter-pounder with cheese meal (no onions) there on the sesame seed bun was a crucifix! I kid you not.  Unfortunately the only thing left of it to sell on ebay is this photo as the stigmata was eaten right along with the medium sized fries it came with. Still, I love the way God makes himself known even in the most ubiquitous and culturally impoverished metaphors of  capitalist society: fast food.

A dollar a donut

pink_sprinkled_donut

Yesterday, my kids asked me if they could get a donut at Dunkin Donuts. I hesitated. The first thing I think of when I think of donut is fat kid eating cheap food. But I said OK as they never eat those things, and they wanted to use their own money. “How much is a donut?” they asked. I hadn’t been to DD in years, so I said, “I don’t know, maybe forty-five cents. Seventy-five at the most.” I remember paying a quarter for a donut. A dozen was three dollars, plus tax.

I used to eat donuts almost every day. Seriously. Almost EVERY DAY. Sometimes two or three. And not those little donuts that come 40 in a box. I loved the big, round, Homer Simpson donuts with lots of frosting on top. I preferred Shop Rite donuts. I would buy one for Dani, one for Julien and two for myself as I could never choose between vanilla frosted or chocolate glazed. Mostly, I’d cut them both in half and eat half of one and half of the other. But other times, I just ate them both and had my regrets. How I managed to process that amount of sugar I’ll never know.

I pull through the drive thru at Dunkin and order two strawberry frosted with sprinkles. I have change in my hand. The Indian woman behind the speaker says, “One dollar, ninety-one cents.” I’m shocked. Almost two dollars? I pull around and ask how much one donut cost. “One dollar and six cents,” she says. “You are getting a discount since you bought two.” Wow. I just saved myself twenty-one cents.

This is one of those moments where  you remember when cigarettes only cost two dollars a pack. When a phone call was ten cents. When a stamp was even less. Heck, I remember buying two hotdogs for a buck down on the Wildwood boardwalk. A donut is now a dollar. A fried piece of dough with a hole in it, no bigger than your hand is now a dollar.

When I tossed the bag back to the boys and effectively yelled at them not to get sprinkles on the carpet, they ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the treat. They smacked their lips together and devoured the pink, sprinkly cloud within seconds, thus leading me to believe it was mostly air and very little dough. They thought a dollar was reasonable. I just drove off in disgust; in search of a tall, Starbuck’s coffee that now costs me four dollars and some change.

mental stimulation

inbox

I had teacher training yesterday. Coming up from the shore, in the middle of my vacation, took a bit of time for my brain to start working again. I haven’t thought about anything other than sex, food and shelter for an entire two months. Maybe longer.  More like years. To top it off, I feel like I have a mild onset of Alzheimer’s. I was talking to J and J the other night over a glass of wine and I had no vocabulary. I lose or forget the simplest of words. It’s like, “what’s that word? Oh…it’s on the tip of my tongue…ummm….oh, yes! DREAM. That’s the word I was looking for. Dream.”

So very sad.

This is my fear when it comes to teaching. That I’ll get up there and have nothing to say. Completely blank. I have become more and more dependent on writing as my brain cannot really handle the capacity for lecturing, talking or discussing. It’s been virtually wiped out. Could be stress, too much coffee, not enough stimulation. Most likely it comes from stagnation. I never challenge myself on topics other than boys, sex, food and kids. Oh! How I’ve drowned myself in a small, spiraling pool of mundane facts. Reptilian brain taking over. Well, thank god for grad school. Hopefully that’ll give me a cold hard slap across all that unused gray matter.