Friday, November 29, 2013

A Late Thanksgiving Post

I've been thinking about my grandparents a lot, and on Facebook when that "x things people don't know about you" thing went around, I told things about my grandparents instead. Now I'm taking the show to the blog, because I was just reading Simcha Fisher's Thanksgiving post and it reminded me of my grandfather's pumpkin pie story.

One evening, my grandparents were at another couple's house playing cards. Incidentally, this seems like a type of socializing that is worth reviving--two couples play cards and afterward have dessert: no company dinner to worry about (don't get me wrong, I love making company dinner, but not everyone does); no money to spend on movie tickets or bar tabs.

Anyway, as they played some impulse prompted my grandfather to hold forth at some length about how much he hated pumpkin pie. He loved pie in general. The moment he got off the proverbial boat, he went into a diner and ordered a slice of apple pie and a glass of milk. Pumpkin pie, though, I guess they don't have in Ireland. He felt about it the way I feel about spaghetti squash or mizuna: just didn't understand why anyone had ever decided it was food. He went on, as I say, at some length about the disgusting soapy taste, mushy texture and general horribleness of pumpkin pie, and didn't notice the growing quietness and discomfort of his hosts. For when the card game was over and refreshments were served, that evening's dessert was--you guessed it--pumpkin pie!

But that's not the end of the story. Quite a bit later, my grandparents were at a card-playing evening at a different couple's house, and it occurred to my grandfather to tell the funny story of his pumpkin pie faux pas. In the telling, for dramatic effect, he probably managed to describe his repulsion even more elaborately. That evening's planned treat was also, of course, pumpkin pie.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Both me and the poem. It's the first one I've written in seven years, and the first one that came to me unbidden in something like 20. I'm only posting it because CoolDad asked. And because, well, later on I may wish I had.


A drift of fallen leaves, tire-stirred, wings toward the windshield.
I feel the swift conviction that really, there is no glass:
This time, protection will not protect.
I duck, just slightly.

Of course the brown flock flutters crisply around the car
And I’m left somewhat sorry after all,
Wishing I could have tried to catch one in my hand.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

My Playlist for the Union Beach 5K

My history with running started late--around age 35--and it's been rocky. After my father's triple bypass in 2007 I got serious about running and losing weight. By the spring of 2008 my race pace was down to 9:27 and I could run 10K without minding very much. In November of 2008 I had T and I've never really gotten back to that good place. It's a chicken-and-egg thing, running--you get a little out of shape and you get scared and you're scared so you don't run the way you should and you get a little more out of shape and...soon you're in a spot where you hang up your shoes.

Then a few things happened. Sandy beat up Union Beach, badly. Union Beach isn't my town, but it's a town I care about quite a bit. I have friends who grew up there and they love their small town the way I love mine. When the Union Beach 5K was announced I took it as an opportunity to hold my feet to the fire and get running again. I bought new shoes. I ran to albums--Tapestry, Cold Roses, The King Is Dead, Heart Food--that draw me in and help me forget about my lungs and my legs.

Oh, and I have a tangible prize waiting. If I make my goal, I get a ridiculously expensive celery-thyme-scented candle I smelled at the Visiting Nurses' Association designer show house.

Here's my playlist:

June Hymn, The Decemberists--As I mentioned above, I like to run to this whole album, and June Hymn is one of the jewels in the crown. Perfect for a June 22 race. "You were waking/Day was breaking/A panoply of song."

Bend & Break, Keane--This one's kind of a dark horse. If I just put in all my surefire cuts, my brain gets bored and I'm back where I started. This song came out around the time I first started blogging and got my first actual iPod after a period with the now-defunct Dell DJ. Plus, the album it comes from is called "Hopes and Fears."

Rise, Public Image Ltd.--This, on the other hand, is one of my surefire cuts. It's about being on the road, it has an insistent beat that's not too fast, and I've loved the album since high school--although they made a huge mistake when it became available digitally and they kept calling it Compact Disc instead of Download. Also, it's 6 minutes long so once it's over you've burned a big chunk of time.

Karn Evil 9 1st Impression, Part 2, ELP--In April of my 16th year, I went on my first real date. When you strip it all down I have had four serious boyfriend types in my life, and three of them were Prog Rock fans. (Three were Eagle Scouts, not the same three; I married one of the two who was both.) After our Chinese dinner we got back into his vintage long white car (I wish I knew the make, model and year) with under-dash graphic equalizer and he said, "Have you ever been to Union Beach?" He had a theory that since we went to school with so many Union Beachers, we should see it. I hadn't, so we took a drive through. I wish I could remember what was on the stereo at the time, but this song is part of another memory of him, so I'm using it.

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Bruce Springsteen--The first time I ran the Spring Lake 5, I rounded a corner past a house with stereo speakers set up on their front lawn. As I approached, "Rosalita" was playing, and my heart swelled with love and enthusiasm. They abruptly switched tracks to "Eye of the Tiger," and I almost committed mayhem. Tell your father this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance! Because the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance! Talk about a winner's song. Eye of the Tiger, pfft. This is funny, though.

Carry On, Fun.--Something current. All these songs by Fun. kill me with emotion. Do they have any non-inspiring ones?

Lean On Me, Club Nouveau--Another memory. In the spring of my 17th year, my friends and I had one day left to read a rather daunting portion of _Huckleberry Finn_. So, in the admirably insane way of all teenagers, we decided that we would all go to the beach with blankets and read it communally. I vaguely remember cracking the spine. I took a whole roll of attempted arty pictures with Kodak Black and White Color film, but I knew nothing about framing an image. Then I think we got ice cream? This song came on the radio in the girl-crammed station wagon headed home. We were all very happy and giggly.

Bury My Heart On The Jersey Shore, Shannon McNally--"Bury my heart on the Jersey Shore/Bury my heart/Bury my heart no matter where I run/Bury my heart."

Monday, June 03, 2013

Vocation and Divinity: A Dialogue

Not-so-little R. has a friend (M.) who is a very gifted pianist, and hopes to enter a conservatory after high school; but he is concerned that he has not been able to practice as much as he would like. As NSLR was telling me this, I thought of a conversation--many conversations, really--that I have had with my mother and others about work, art and single-mindedness. Specifically, we were recently talking about the fact that a person who is able to practice the piano four or five hours a day must actually like practicing the piano four or five hours a day.

MomVee: It seems really unfair that there is no such thing as professional reader, because that is really the only thing I have ever wanted to do for four or five hours straight every day of my life.
NSLR: Not even writing?
MV: Maybe. I mean, I guess if you were a literary agent, or an editor at a publishing house...but still. What I'm really looking for is a job where you read a novel, and at the end of the day someone asks you about it, and sometimes you talk, but other times you say you really don't feel like talking about it, and then they give you $800.
NSLR: A reviewer?
MV: Yes, but you have to be a journalist or an academic first, really. You know, one time when Grandpop was working at Big Corporation, they had a team-building exercise, and they went around the room and each man [they were all men] was supposed to say what his dream job was. Every single man there said he would like to work at Home Depot, except Grandpop. He said he'd either like to be God or a book reviewer for the New York Times.* Which Nana and I thought was so weird, because who wants to be God? That would be terrible.
NSLR: I was very surprised when M. told me he didn't want to be God. I thought everybody did.
MV: Two kinds of people in the world, I guess!
NSLR: Yes. In fact, I thought it was the defining characteristic of humanity. I spent about 20 minutes trying to convince M. he was wrong about how he felt.
MV: Attempting to exercise a Godlike power.
NSLR: Yes.
MV: Two kinds of people in the world: people who want to be God and people who don't realize they want to be God. Of course, that meeting was a spooky kind of déjà vu for Grandpop, because of the engineering thing.
NSLR: What's that?
MV: Oh, have you never heard that story? When Grandpop first went to Supersecret College, he was in the Engineering School, and they had a pre-orientation orientation just for engineers. You spent a week trying out all the different kinds--he did a little surveying, which he liked. Anyway, on the first day they went around the room and each man was supposed to say why he wanted to be an engineer. Grandpop said [this was less than two years after Sputnik] "Well, I like math, and my guidance counselor said I should be an engineer." And every single other person said something like, "Ever since I was a tiny tot, I have enjoyed taking apart radios and alarm clocks and putting them back together better than they were before!" And Grandpop thought, "Oh no." Turns out...
NSLR: He liked pure mathematics.
MV: Yes.

An interesting note: M. likes pure math, too. If the piano thing doesn't work out, his backup plan is to be a math teacher. So he's way ahead of many of us on several counts. I'm a little envious of M. and his self-knowledge, frankly.

*This is one of two stories that make me wincingly realize how much my father must have hated his job.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Poetry Podcast Revival

So, Hostr has eaten all of my old poetry podcasts: or, as they put it, "The owner may have removed it or it may never have existed in the first place." Classy, Hostr. Way to take responsibility.

Most of them are still on my hard drive, so they're now on Dropbox for your delectation. A few are lost entirely, and I may try to recreate them at some point. Below each title/link below is the text that accompanied the original post. Inconsistency abounds.

Bright Blue Weather For a Snowy Day Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Cullen Bryant, Helen Hunt Jackson, Thomas Hood.

For May, Mary and love...and chalices, picnics, and cold water.
The May Magnificat, Gerard Manley Hopkins
Under The Waterfall, Thomas Hardy
Sunlight, Seamus Heaney

In Praise of Limestone
It is my fourteenth anniversary today. This poem is, as Johnny Rotten says, not a love song; but I already read "our poem" to my love on Valentine's Day (apparently if you enlarge the picture you can see granola on the tablecloth). This one is such a good poem, with so many brilliant lines, that it is a fitting tribute to such a good husband, with so many brilliant lines. Besides, although it's been absolute ages since he went fly-fishing, I know he still loves a limestone landscape.
In Praise of Limestone at Wikipedia
W.H. Auden at Wikipedia

Shorter Modern Poems II, The More Canonical Ones

"The Puritan's Ballad," Elinor Wylie
"Crossing The Bar," Alfred Lord Tennyson
"Requiem," Robert Louis Stevenson

Poets: Rilke, Akhmatova, Lowell

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thank A Writer Post: Rita Rudner

This is the fourth of five posts in a series of thank-you notes to writers. The project was started by Maggie Mason of Go Mighty and Nathan Bransford.

Dear Rita Rudner,

Thank you for writing the movie "Peter's Friends" with your husband, Martin Bergman (I know that you know who your husband is but my readers may not).

Because of your movie--which is one of my favorite movies of all time--I have held an annual house party (with formal dinner, parlor games, singing, sleepover and brunch) for a few of my college friends every January for the past 14 years. This year one of my friends told me that it is the steadfast holiday tradition she always longed for but her family never had.

I had three of my friends perform "The Way You Look Tonight" at my wedding, and tried to get the arrangement as close to the one in "Peter's Friends" as possible.

I have a daughter named Maggie.

When my father saw the movie--one of two times I saw it in the theater--afterward he said, hoarsely, "Vera [the housekeeper, for those readers who have--inexplicably--not seen the movie] was so much like my mother." He was referring, of course, to my grandmother. Vera.

I know that that wasn't within your control, Ms. Rudner: the way Phyllida Law comes across onscreen.  And you didn't purposely use my grandmother's name. I'll leave it in, though, because I have what I would describe as a mystical connection with this movie. I hope that doesn't scare you; it's meant to be a compliment. 

When I was a young newlywed we entertained a number of friends in our new apartment; I rented "Peter's Friends" at Blockbuster and forced them all to watch it and see how good it was. I really am beginning to sound like a lunatic but it wasn't like that. They enjoyed the movie very much (it was my third viewing). My husband and I were very young and not very good about returning videos, so ultimately we came to own it--for something like $89.95, remember when movies cost $89.95? That was fine with me. I have the DVD now, of course, and also the soundtrack CD.

I'm sure there are many other ways in which "Peter's Friends" affected me, but the most important is this: I loved it. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it really did become a part of me, and I think it helped me to anticipate the joy of holding onto college friendships. When I first saw it, I was ten years younger than the friends in the film, and now I am ten years older. Gulp.

P.S. There is also a line from one of your books that I quote all the time (forgive me for paraphrasing but I can't find it online): "My husband thinks we should spend our money on things we want, not things that other people have ruined." My husband feels the same way!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Memory, Letters, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Last week I went to a reading and book-signing for Public Apology: In Which a Man Grapples with a Lifetime of Regret, One Incident at a Time, by Dave Bry, based on his popular series of columns at The Awl.

I'm getting less cautious about concealing my identity here. It doesn't seem to matter much anymore. None of the big-time mommy bloggers has been assassinated yet. Of course, their characters have been. *rimshot* But I'm still not going to put it all out there. Let those who wish to stalk me or steal my identity do a little digging before they complete the picture.

I went to preschool with Dave Bry. He was born in December of the same year as me, so we were in the same preschool class but then were in different classes thereafter because of the vagaries of school district cutoffs. We played together a lot, I remember. He was a really nice, really smart little boy with a huge nimbus of red curly hair.

The school was held in the first floor of a big white mansion on a large lot--the owner had converted the first floor to make a school and lived on the upper floors, I believe. I remember once there were pink and white tissue-paper petals all over the front lawn with its sweeping drive, and a bunch of us were picking them up and putting them in our pockets. They were from Mrs. Nye's daughter's wedding the previous weekend. When we played outside, one of the things we played in was an actual motor boat in the back yard. The glass was broken in several of the dials on the dashboard, but we liked to just sit and steer and pretend. Inside the house, there was a woodworking table with clamps and real little saws, and some boards with nails in them across which one could stretch colored rubber bands to make designs.

The best thing was a huge wooden pyramid. You could go into the carpeted interior and press buttons on a panel, and big numbers on the exterior of the pyramid would light up. That was sort of odd, because it required one person to stay outside and confirm that yes, "7" is lighting up when you press 7. I remember playing elevator inside with Dave Bry. Maybe once, maybe dozens of times, who knows? I remember that Dave--David, as he was known then--used to chew on his 70s brown striped turtlenecks, and his chin was always red and chapped as a result.

I remember all those very specific and in some cases vivid things from when I was three, and four; and I remember being in fifth grade, the second year of the Gifted and Talented program in our town, and that Dave Bry was one of the new fourth graders in the program and I hadn't seen him since preschool since we lived on different sides of town...and that although we continued in the same schools for the next eight years, I have no further memories of him. And I don't think he has any of me, because he couldn't come up with something personal to write in my book. Which I DO NOT MIND, by the way--no need to apologize, Dave. I mention it because at the reading, during the Q&A, people kept commenting on his amazing memory, and it is impressive.

When asked how he could remember the things he writes about in his apologies in such detail, Dave had an excellent answer. First of all, he pointed out, we don't really know how accurate those details are. Memory, however vivid, can play you false. He wrote a great piece for The Daily Beast on just this subject. But the real answer, and the one that especially interests me, is this: Dave said (and I can't quote exactly because I didn't take notes or tape it, but I'm going to put my paraphrased approximation in quotes because it gets awkward otherwise) "Well, these are all stories that I've been telling people, and telling myself, for a long time. I guess not everyone does this, but I kind of imagine my life as if it's a movie, and I remember events like this, as if they were scenes in a movie." In one of the book passages he read aloud he made reference to conceiving of his life as a novel.

I have always done that, too, and my friends--especially my friends from high school--always want to know how I can remember so many details from 25 years ago and more. I think that's why. Not only have I always viewed my life as a narrative--most often a movie--but it has a soundtrack, or at least a desired soundtrack. I remember thinking that if one particular guy ever deigned to kiss me "Maybe I'm Amazed" should be playing as we faded into the clinch. On good days I often felt as if I were in a montage set to The Pretenders' "Don't Get Me Wrong." In some ways I think it's been harmful, expecting my life to conform to an artistic form; but I'm quite sure that it helps ensure a rich memory.

I was about to theorize about the odd vampire-in-the-mirror absence that Dave Bry and I have from each other's self-cinematized lives,* but then I remembered the other impetus for this post: Jim at CoolDad Music wrote about a mutual friend of ours finding a box of old letters. Letters are (were?) not only stories we tell others, but stories we tell ourselves, in that we are usually alone as we write them. Those of us who enjoy narrating our existence work those stories into a memorable groove, like an oft-sung song or a familiar route to work or school. Jim, though only portions of our circles intersected in high school, is a definite presence in the movie of my life. I don't know if he has a movie of his life, but he is another one with a lot of memories, so I hope he can produce a movie to uphold my theory.

I wonder--and I am well aware I am not the first, the thousandth, or even the millionth person to wonder this, and wonder it aloud--how memory will change as we narrate ourselves from moment to moment and in 140-character increments. There was a moment in the mid-90s when I welcomed email because it seemed to be saving the letter-writing art from the threat of the telephone. Now, though, there is not only less and less emailing, but less and less phone conversation, and more and more checking in via text, Twitter, or spirit realm. Whither the movies of our lives?

*part of it, of course, is the school-year difference.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thank A Writer Post: Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler

This is the third of five posts in a series of thank-you notes to writers. The project was started by Maggie Mason of Go Mighty and Nathan Bransford.

Dear Lemony Snicket,

Thank you for helping my daughter to love reading.

Or should I thank you? Loving to read is a blessing and a curse, to me. People who don't read seem to be much more productive. If I didn't read, though, I suspect I'd have much less to think about. As Aloïse Buckely Heath opined, we readers like to think we have more inner resources, but we're probably compensating for having fewer of them.

But I digress. It was the sixth book in The Series of Unfortunate Events, The Ersatz Elevator, that did the trick. "Did the trick" here means, "let my daughter in for a lifetime of reading and re-reading, making allusions no one else gets, and becoming emotionally entangled with imaginary people." She must have read five Lemony Snicket books before she got to that point, in addition to a number of painfully-completed Bob books, Magic Tree House books, and the like. She really didn't see the point, though, until she lived the events at 667 Dark Avenue along with Violet, Klaus and Sunny, including but not limited to:

  • Esmé Squalor's obsessive need to be fashionable, not unlike some people one meets in real life.
  • Jerome Squalor's cowardly failure to save the Baudelaires, Jerome who up until that point had been so "nice."
  • Esmé's throwing the orphans down an elevator shaft, and the two completely black pages that follow.

And then she never looked back.

P.S. We have a cat named Klaus.
P.P.S. I loved Why We Broke Up, too.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Caitlin Rose Played the Mercury Lounge on April 1st

I've known Jim at CoolDad Music for a long time--over 35 years--and I'm pleased to say that within the context of this, one of my oldest friendships, we keep doing new things. Today he gave me my first opportunity to write a concert review. So head on over, check it out, and while you're there, take a look around. Maybe even "Like" the Facebook page.

Thank A Writer Post: Michael Chabon

 This is the second of five posts in a series of thank-you notes to writers. The project was started by Maggie Mason of Go Mighty and Nathan Bransford.

Dear Mr. Chabon,

I don't really know how to thank you. A tired phrase like "hours of enjoyment" seems a poor return for the brilliant sentences you've given me, such as "Nat, an atheist, prayed for it to stop."

There's the rub. After the hours of enjoyment--and those are very many and very enjoyable--the most important thing I get out of reading your work is an inspiration to try to come even slightly close to being the writer that you are. It makes, well, _writing_ a thank-you note difficult. And thank-you notes are kind of one of my things.

I have a confession to make: I didn't like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when it came out. Or I refused to. My father brought it home from the library when I was a senior in high school, because he thought I should be up on the current crop of literary wunderkinder. I dutifully read it and then reported that, while better than Emperor of the Air (with which I always associate it), it was no great shakes. Then I proceeded to think about it, and especially about Phlox, on at least a weekly basis for the next 12 years.

Then The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay came out, and no one would shut up about it, and I read it, and I never wanted it to end and I want to read it over and over for the rest of my life. Since then I've never looked back. You kind of ruined my life again with Summerland, which is the American-folklore-based YA fantasy book I would have written if I knew more about baseball and were a genius. I wish more people had read it, and that I could make it a movie.

Pretty soon this note is just going to become a list of books, because they're all good.

Thank you for writing books that make realism seem magical, and for using your literary magic to show how love connects us. But most of all, thank you for forcing me to like your work, despite my envious self.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thank A Writer Post: Joan Didion

 This is the first of five posts in a series of thank-you notes to writers. The project was started by Maggie Mason of Go Mighty and Nathan Bransford.

Dear Ms. Didion,

Between my 38th birthday and my 39th a lot of bad things happened to me. About six months after that my mother gave me a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking. It was in a stack of books she picked up somewhere--the thrift shop or a library sale; of no particular significance. I devoured it and then became consumed with it.

"Hey, I just read The Year of Magical Thinking," I said to a small gathering of friends, and they all turned to me nodding, in much the way that you would nod to someone who had just said "Hey, I just started using deodorant!"

It contains some of the best descriptions I have ever read about, yes, the way one feels when life becomes a waking nightmare--but also, the way other people treat you under those circumstances. Especially in the hospital. I have no doubt that while I was screaming and dying inside I was considered a pretty cool customer.

So then I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem and recognized the reflections on the Santa Ana winds, which my father brings up often, being like so many men a bit of a weather fanatic. I picked up "What a thing to wear to Ralphs," a phrase that flits through my mind daily during the summer in my shore town.

I want to thank you for so vividly bringing to life both the ordinary--the daily viewing of a TV show shared with your husband--and the extraordinary, the way that one's husband can suddenly cease to be.

I carry your words in my heart.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Day One

If you want to feel a little like a crazy person, try circling a parking lot while reciting the Jesus prayer (a la The Way of a Pilgrim/Franny and Zooey) until your Runkeeper app ticks up to 30 minutes and 150 calories.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


My friend Mama, who doesn't blog any more, is making the theme of 2013 "Letting Go of What I Don't Need."

Umami Girl is going to "meet tension with softness." A worthy goal. She says she sucks at it, but I'm willing to bet I suck even more. So before I try that, I'm going to focus on my personal cheesy slogan for 2013,

More Go and More God

The idea is to push me back into two things I fear I've been neglecting lately. I am going to get out there and hike, bike, and run; and while I'm moving, I'm going to pray. Experience indicates that the rest--having energy, being happy, writing more, listening, loving, fighting fear, embracing, taking on projects--will follow.