Growing up

Blur the Line

The Meeting Places – Blur the Line

We are not Black Friday shoppers. For one thing, we’re not morning people. Being in line at 6am to go shopping sounds like a nightmare to me. It’s also pretty rare that I’m in the market for anything that might be on one of those big sales. Plus the crowds, the short tempers, really, there’s just no appeal.

I know the day after Thanksgiving has long been the unofficial start of the Christmas season, or at least the shopping season, but I don’t like the way it’s been creeping in sooner every year. I noticed several stores that made a point of opening at 6pm on Thanksgiving day. How shitty would that be for the people working there? I guess they would at least get paid double time but I would sure feel cheated if it were me.

When I was growing up we would all go to my grandparents’ in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. My mom’s from a big family too and there would be lots of uncles and aunts and cousins. I remember years when we had the grown-ups table, the kids table, and the spill-over table when there wasn’t enough room at either to fit everyone. The day after was always time to hang with the family members you didn’t see often and play with the weird old toys at grandma’s house.

Perhaps if we’d stayed home for Thanksgiving, and the day after was just us in our own house, shopping would have become something that made sense when you had a day off anyway. But that was never our custom and I like having a little buffer between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I like taking the time to just enjoy it before rushing onto the next holiday.


R.E.M. – Cuyahoga

I didn’t post yesterday. I had been thinking of a post in my head during the day but by the time I got home from work, we’d put the kids to bed, I talked with my mother about Thanksgiving travel plans, and I finally could get a chance to write, I felt I had nothing to say. I was disgusted by the grand jury decision in Missouri yet anything I thought of to write felt like too little too late. I stayed up late reading articles and watching Twitter and kept coming up short when I tried to find the right words.

The post I had been mulling over during the day yesterday came to me courtesy of driving my daughter to school again. It was raining heavily and I decided I could just as easily drop her off and spare her the wait for the school bus in the rain. She started telling me about a project they are doing in school. They have been divvied up into groups and each group has to start its own country. It’s an interdisciplinary project so all of her classes were taking part. In math they discussed different monetary and economic systems, in science they had debates about the impacts of genetic modification and from there, whether or not the countries they were building should allow it. In social studies they discussed different forms of government, laws, and rights.

I started singing this song then said they should use it for their country. No, she said, they had to write their own anthem, both the music and the lyrics, for the music part of the project. I wondered to myself if the social studies teacher, who organized this whole assignment, is an R.E.M. fan. In any case, I feel like congratulating him. We don’t really get to start a new country up but getting the kids to put their heads together and think about it, and understand how many different elements there are, what the ramifications of different decisions will be, I hope it will be a lesson they can take with them.

It could be a lesson for us as well. It’s clear that our system is not just flawed but skewed heavily in favor of those in power remaining in power. By any means necessary, it sometimes seems. Is this a government of the people, for the people, by the people? A police force so heavily armed it looks like it belongs on a battlefield instead of a city street?

When I was a kid we had School House Rock on Saturday mornings in between cartoons. I grew up absorbing those little history and civics lessons to catchy tunes and believing that’s how our country really worked. I can recite (or sing) the preamble to the Constitution because of it. Sing along. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…” Where is the justice? How can the police insure domestic tranquility when they are dressed for war?

So I go back to we the people, in order to form a more perfect union. I know it sounds sappy and simplistic but if we are ever going to achieve justice, it is going to be a lot of hard work. A lot of putting our heads together and thinking about the end results. There are no quick fixes. We need to work on the more perfect. A union that incorporates the view points of those who were left out of it when our father’s father’s father tried would be a good start. This can’t just be something we tell our kids to do for a school project. It has to be what engaged citizens just do because this land is the land of ours.

Holidays in the Sun

Sex Pistols – Holidays in the Sun

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember being absolutely glued to the tv during the weeks and days leading up to that moment. It was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime and there it was unfolding in front of our eyes.

I was a history major and geography minor in college. Only a year or two before the Wall was cracked open, I’d taken a class called Divided Germany Since 1945 and there were no signs of anything changing. I’d taken German language classes up through Advanced Conversation and Composition. This was a subject I knew a lot about and it was personal.

My grandfather’s family had emigrated from a small town in central Germany back in the late 1800s. There were enough German immigrants in Brooklyn that they still spoke German at home and their name didn’t become anglicized. Once my grandfather’s oldest sister started school, that all changed and by the time my grandfather was born in the early 1900s, the only thing that remained of their German heritage was the name.

Fast forward 70 years, one of my uncles received a letter out of the blue from someone in East Germany. My uncle had written an article in a scientific journal and it had been read by a science teacher living in Karl-Marx-Stadt with the same last name. It’s a very rare name even in Germany. The science teacher figured they must be related and he sent a letter saying his family had come from the same dinky hamlet in what had become East Germany after World War II. Letters were exchanged and indeed, they were cousins separated by a few generations.

My grandfather was involved in international sports and even though most westerners weren’t allowed behind the Iron Curtain, exceptions were made now and then for people working on behalf of institutions like his. On a trip to West Germany, he and my grandmother were granted permission to travel to East Germany to meet this long lost cousin in the dinky little town near the East/West border. They rode around in a Trabi and showed my grandparents the sights and the places where the family had come from.

When my grandparents returned from their trip, my grandmother asked me to be a pen-pal with the cousin’s oldest daughter who was learning English in school. We corresponded for several years. Her life was very different from mine and her opportunities were very limited. I always assumed I would never meet her. I found several of her letters in the boxes that were in my mother’s attic, with their DDR stamps and return address of Karl-Marx-Stadt.

As I sat in front of the tv watching the Wall being chipped at and climbed upon and eventually toppled, I thought of her and wondered what she might be feeling and might she be there? What was going to happen? Even though it was clear people were going to be allowed to travel, it didn’t seem like the DDR would be gone in less than a year. The pace at which things crumbled is staggering when you think about it, even in hindsight.

In February of 1994, I went to Europe for the first time. I flew into Berlin and stayed with a friend who had been an intern at the museum I worked at in DC. We went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum and I insisted on going to the eastern part of Berlin, to see what was left of the Wall, to see what it looked like for myself. Even 4 1/4 years after the Wall came down, the eastern half of the city still looked depressed and bore the scars of isolation. We went to an art performance/party in a building that looked like it had been bombed in 1945 and no one had ever cleaned it up.

After a week in Berlin I took the train down to Chemnitz, the name the town of Karl-Marx-Stadt had reclaimed after the DDR fell apart and stayed with “the East German cousins” for a few days. My pen-pal cousin had moved to Stuttgart but she came home to be able to meet me. My German was pretty rusty but their English was better and we talked and looked at old pictures. She had been very active in the demonstrations that occurred throughout East Germany, not just in Berlin. One of her younger sisters escaped to one of the embassies that were taking people in, as those who’d made it onto embassy property were going to be allowed to travel to the west. We went to Dresden and they showed me the places where they’d gathered to protest the government. The whole trip boggled my mind; here I was in East Germany, meeting the cousins I’d always assumed I’d only know through letters.

There’s a lot of stuff out there today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. This one had some pretty interesting map graphs and two videos showing places today where the wall had been. My husband and I were talking about the 25th anniversary and remembering it all. My daughter heard us and was asking questions. It was unbelievable to her that the Wall had ever existed and everything we told her sounded like a movie plot to her and not like it really could have happened. I’ll never forget it.

Losing My Edge

LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge

Friday was my birthday. It was a beautiful day outside and I didn’t have to think about dinner which is a present in and of itself. I don’t like making a big deal of my birthday anyway, especially when it’s not a milestone number.

Befitting a low-key birthday, we watched the last two episodes of the series we’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. That might not have been the best idea. It had an open ending and I found myself awake at some dark hour wondering what would have happened next? It took me at least an hour to fall asleep again. My husband said he’d had weird dreams all night that were influenced by the show.

The combination of marking another year and finishing a tv show, yes, even something as trivial as a tv show, left me feeling pensive. What’s next? What do I do now? It isn’t that I need a new show to watch (though, suggestions are welcome*) but rather, that unanswered question at the end of the series got me thinking about the static nature of my life here at 47.

My kids are now 9 and 13 and I have more wiggle room at home because they’re more independent. But this treading water I’ve been doing, the steady job, the sensible shoes, the shows I didn’t see because it was an hour away on a school night, has meant I’ve drifted a little with the current. I haven’t looked up to see where I should be going. I have a long way to go still and I probably ought to start thinking about how to get to someplace that isn’t here. Where and what that is and how I can get there are questions I don’t have the answers for but the world is not waiting for me to figure it out. “The kids are coming up from behind.”

I’m losing my edge
But I was there

* We don’t have regular tv service, just a Roku box with Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc. I hardly ever watch tv since we stopped getting cable but now and then, having something to watch that isn’t a full-length movie really hits the spot.


Big Star – Thirteen

Tomorrow my daughter turns thirteen. Thirteen! An actual teenager. My mother has long maintained that thirteen is the pits of life. She raised six of us so I think she speaks from a position of authority.

I know what it is. You’re no longer a child, not even a kid, but you’re still too young to do things the older teenagers do. There’s a whole world out there that’s just starting to be revealed to you, and it’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. You want in, but it’s a little scary.

I can’t say that I enjoyed thirteen much myself. I remember on my thirteenth birthday, my older sister and her best friend decided something ought to be done to welcome me to teenager-hood so they took me out to the street corner and pelted me with water balloons. That sort of sums up thirteen to me. Sure, I was hanging with the older teenagers, but I was most definitely not one of them. More like the butt of their jokes.

I wish I could spare my daughter the pain, the fear, the uncertainty, the second-guessing, but that would come at the expense of her experiencing the joy, the exhilaration, the burgeoning confidence of figuring out who you are and what your place is in this new world.

In my book, there is no better manifestation of this than Big Star’s Thirteen. It’s all there: the hope, the beginning of independence, a crush, a little bravado, a sweetness, a smile, and for me, always, a few tears.

Who knows what this year will bring. I have a feeling that at least I will be listening to this song on a pretty regular rotation, maybe I’ll even be able to turn her on to it too.

Ages of You

R.E.M. – Ages of You

Today I found out about the Amtrak Residencies for writers. I can’t tell you how perfect that is. I might cry. Right now I am listening to the train tape I made in college (the digital edition on my iPod) and I can see the backyards of America in my head, obscured now and then by the blur of greenery; interrupted by the occasional overpass. I always thought that would make an excellent anthropology thesis, America’s Backyards as Seen from the Train. That’s where the truth hangs out. The discarded bicycles, rusted red wagons, trampolines, and clotheslines.

Close by the cities, the scenery is much more industrial. Warehouses. Graffiti covered brick buildings and cement walls. Trenton Makes The World Takes. The cities give way to the suburbs, where the backyards and cemeteries make up the scenery. Depending on what train you’re taking, you might get far enough away from the built up areas to see more traditionally scenic views. I always try to sit on the right side of the train in a window seat. If you always sit on the right, you’ll see what’s on the left on your way back.

I love everything about train travel. I love the big, beautiful, historic stations. I love the smells of the engine, some kind of weird mix of diesel and electric, hot and metallic. I love the rhythm of the train swaying gently as it clatters along the tracks. I love the tracks! I have two rusted and discarded old railroad spikes saved in a bin. I have several Amtrak train ticket stubs saved alongside concert tickets. I love leaning my head against the window and trying to find a spot to put your feet that gives you just the right amount of ‘please don’t talk to me’ body language or trying to sit in such a way as to invite a little conversation. I love watching my fellow passengers, listening to them chat with their seatmate or talk with their children about what’s passing by the window. I like to sneak a peak at the book they’re reading. Watching as people meet them when they get off the train, and others saying goodbye as someone gets on.

I have taken the train as far north as Montreal, as far south as Georgia. The Adirondack. Southern Crescent. Overnight trains. Commuter trains. Sightseeing trains. Subways. I’ve been to Zoo Station. Paddington Station. Two of my proudest foreign language moments were giving directions to Salzburg’s train station in German and confirming in Czech that someone was waiting for the correct subway train in Prague. The only Czech words I can still remember are the words for beer and ‘next stop’ which is what they would announce as the subway pulled into every station.

It is hands down my favorite mode of travel. It’s not the fastest, there are usually delays on the line somewhere, but when I take the train, at least half the reason is just being on the train. It’s not the most convenient, being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. A few years ago, Amtrak started running a train up to Maine, the Downeaster. I am dying to take that train. In order to get the train from my house to my mother’s house up in Maine would involve me getting on a train when it’s still dark in the morning and switching stations in Boston. It would take more time than driving but I’m actually contemplating buying a used car up near my mother just so I have an excuse to make that trip.

There is just something about the train that brings up all kinds of emotions for me. It’s like I feel a tiny shred of what everyone else in my car is feeling. Some people are excited, some are sad, some are hopeful, some are worried, some are exhausted, some can’t sit still. I know all those feelings and have, at different times in my life, been one of those people sitting there. So now I look around and see me on my first solo train trip, me going to visit a sister or a friend, me with my best friend on an adventure, me trying to hold it together when things aren’t working out, me on my way to a job interview, me seeing new places and remembering all my old favorite haunts. I don’t get that from any other form of travel.

This is the fourth song on the train tape. My vinyl copy of this song has a longer finger-snapping intro. I really wanted to use this version but I couldn’t get it to only play the first part.

A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’

De La Soul – A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’

I am halfway through my downloads from De La Soul, who are giving away all their albums for free today. Happy Valentine’s Day!

I used to be a roller skating fiend when I was in junior high. My best friend lived up the street and we would get home from school and lace up our skates and hit the street. We took a boom box outside and made up skating routines to our favorite songs (I can still remember parts of the one that we did to Blondie’s The Tide is High). It was because of us that the local Gristede’s instituted a No Roller Skating policy inside the store.

My skates were the sneaker style, bright yellow with rainbow stripes on the side like a pair of fake Adidas with bright yellow wheels and a matching yellow stopper. I loved those skates. They were sitting in my mother’s basement until just a few years ago when I allowed her to give them to Goodwill.

There’s a roller rink still very much alive not far from me. Our schools have skating parties to raise money for the PTO and it’s a popular birthday party spot. My daughter was first invited to a roller rink party four years ago but she didn’t know how to skate. Luckily we had a lot of lead time so I took her to the rink every weekend before the party to teach her how to skate. Once she mastered it, she loved it. We had her birthday party there later that year and bought her a pair of roller skates for her birthday that year.

It’s such a time warp in there. They bust out the old disco tunes towards the end of the skate session so you could almost think you’re back in the day with the Village People and Michael Jackson playing on the sound system. Next time maybe I’ll put in a request for this song.

The Main Event

#WhereILivedWednesday: 440 9th Ave.

This post is part of #WhereILivedWednesday, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants, and as such is a slight departure from my usual video first format. The song is below and you’d better press play, it’s so worth it.

In the summer of 1979, my parents sent my older sister and me to stay with my Aunt Linda for a few weeks. They had arranged for us to go to a day camp at a private girls’ school in her town, where I could do gymnastics and my sister, tennis, in addition to your usual camp activities like batik, pottery, swimming, and the like. I wasn’t quite 12 years old yet so I didn’t realize that they were actually trying to get us out of the way while their marriage was falling apart.

We loved Aunt Linda. She was my father’s only sibling and we didn’t see her that often since she lived three hours upstate from our house. My dad was pretty stressed out and yelled a lot but my aunt Linda never yelled, she mostly laughed. She was so much fun and staying with her was going to rule. We had our own room in the old tower part of the house that even had its own sink.

Of course, all the bedrooms had their own sink since it was a convent. I don’t know about you but every convent I’ve been in has sinks in the bedrooms, and as I had another aunt who used to be a nun, plus my Aunt Linda, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in convents. The convent was an old house on a dead-end one-way street (I swear I’m not making that up) that had had renovations (for all the sinks!) and additions built onto it over the years. We had to go up these almost circular stairs, past a larger than life-sized Infant Jesus of Prague statue to get to our room but it was cool because it was kind of our own little hangout.

The Sisters also ran a day camp for younger kids, right there on the grounds of the convent. When we got home from our day camp, we were allowed to hang out with the campers who hadn’t been picked up yet, swim in the pool, play ball or jump rope on the black top. The other nuns were just as good at arts and crafts as my Aunt Linda so we got to make whatever things they had done that day, or learn fun camp songs (they weren’t even religious!). There was also another building with a teen rec room that had a juke box and a foosball table and even a soda machine! This was living!

The secret to all of the fun wasn’t just the amenities, however. These women were a riot. If no one had told you that they were all nuns, you would never have guessed it. Well, except for Sister Josephine who was kind of old and crotchety and still wore a habit (the only one who did), even indoors when she would shush us all because she couldn’t hear the Merv Griffin show despite the tv volume being turned all the way up. My sister and I didn’t have to go into their prayer session in the evening after dinner, we were free to hit the rec room or watch something besides Merv on tv. It was a pretty sweet set up.

They had a PA system at the camp so they could announce when it was time for the groups to switch to a new activity or come into the main camp building for lunch. One time at the end of the day, when we were already back from our camp, my Aunt Linda was getting ready to make an announcement only she didn’t realize the PA was already on. It must have been a long day and they were a little punchy. The big movie that had just been released that summer was The Main Event, starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and the theme song was getting a lot of airplay on the radio. My Aunt Linda grabbed the mike and did her best Barbra Streisand imitation of that song, getting all the way through the slow-burn intro before someone had managed to clue her in that she was belting out a mildly racy disco hit to the whole camp.
Press play, you won’t regret it.

That was one of the last times we stayed up at the camp/convent with my Aunt Linda. My dad moved out at the end of the summer and Aunt Linda and some of the other nuns moved to the midwest about a year later. But my sister and I have our memories of that great summer of ’79 at 440 9th Ave.

Easy Easy

King Krule – Easy Easy

I read the article about King Krule in the most recent New Yorker and thought, huh, maybe I’d better give that another listen. I remember looking him up a couple weeks ago. I don’t know what song it might have been but it didn’t leave a lasting impression.

Now I am looking at this kid and thinking, whoa. First of all, he just turned 19. I am old enough to be his mother, and not just his unwed, teen-aged mother either. The article said he wrote this song when he was 13. Thirteen! My claim to fame at age 13? Winning the shop award in eighth grade. Sure, knowing how to swap out a faucet and install new light switches has come in handy over the years but kind of pales in comparison to this song.

There were quite a few more that I really liked, some under his former name Zoo Kid, like Out Getting Ribs. It’s a bit weird for me to have a musician be this young and be something I would like and my 12-year-old daughter would not like at all.

This Summer

Superchunk – This Summer

Today was the last day of school for my daughter. Pretty late this year because of all the days school was cancelled due to the blizzard and hurricane Sandy. It’s the power outages that do us in.

Summer is, hands down, my favorite season. The only thing I don’t like about it is the increase in the size and number of insects. Every other thing I adore. Hazy, hot, and humid? Love it. Thunderstorms? Sure! The smells, sounds, tastes, and sights of summer are what I live for all winter long.

Think about all the summer fruits and vegetables. There’s just no comparison. I like root vegetables probably more than the next person (as a vegetarian, they’re kind of staples for much of the year) but I’d trade them all for a ripe garden tomato. I’m not much of a gardener myself, I don’t have the time, space, or inclination really, but I usually manage to have a couple of large containers with tomato plants and I hit up the farmer’s markets pretty regularly. Farm fresh corn on the cob, does it get any better?

When I was a kid we used to go up to Maine from suburban New York City for the entire month of July. We went to a little beach town where there were only a handful of year-round residents but dozens of returning summer families. Some owned houses and stayed the whole summer, others, like us, came for two weeks or longer and stayed in the same rental houses year after year. We had electricity but no tv (or any kind of electronic distractions), just lots of other kids, books, games, cards, the beaches, rocky coastline, boats, swimming holes, blueberry patches: heaven. It was truly idyllic. My mother would let us roam free, more or less, and we ran all over the place in our bare feet. I know that all of my siblings feel the same way I do and wish we could give our kids the same lazy, free, unplugged and fueled by your imagination kind of summers we had there. I’m sure we complained about being bored now and then but our memories are overwhelmingly positive.

I’m taking some time off from work and going to try to recreate some of that summer magic for my kids on a greatly reduced scale. We only have a week and a half before the summer camps kick in and there’s not much chance I”ll get them to give up their DS and iPod, but if the weather cooperates we’ll hit the beach, look for seaglass, skip rocks, ride bikes, and bask in the warm summer sun right up until their bedtime.