Flipping on Anna Karenina

In the summer when I was sixteen, I read great gobs of Anna Karenina with my feet over my head. I had been somberly informed that you retain information better if there is more blood in your brain. This seemed reasonable, so I lay in bed with my feet up against the wall. If the novel hadn’t been so fine, I might have been derailed by the fatigue of holding a big book up in the air for hours, but I actually don’t remember being troubled by this fact of reading gravity.

I can attest that in this singular case, the feet-in-the-air tactic worked. Despite the multiple names of myriad actors, the plot unfolded thrillingly and I remember, even now, how my bedroom room became Russian salons, private rooms in Moscow restaurants, birthing rooms, dachas, coaches, and the terrible final moment. With my brain full of blood, the scenes fixed themselves in memory cells.

Being 16, I was fervently convinced that the “point” of the novel was romantic love, that Anna was to be pitied, of course, but maybe, if Karenin had been more reasonable, not controlled by spiritualists, Anna and Vronsky would have been so happy, heroic in their sacrifice of respectability for passion. What a thrilling life they could have lived, not like the staid domestic peace of Levin and Kitty. And thus began my time of complex, exhausting, not-ending-happily relationships.

Some years later, I re-read Anna Karenina, sitting the regular way, and oh, the penny dropped. Or maybe it was just that I was older. Ah, Anna and Vronsky weren’t the point at all. My bad. It’s Levin and Kitty and the purposeful life (granted, an absurd reduction of magnificent novel). I’m happy to say this literary revelation joined changes in my own life and the love-as-pain model fell away.

But back to the feet-in-the-air reading tactic. It does work for retention. Now, with the coming of tablets, the weight of a book is no impediment. It could be, though, that all that blood created a more hot-headed reading. Or maybe it was just the fact of being sixteen.

 

 

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Posted in Just life, Writing

Perils of Childhood Reading

If you read a lot in private as a kid and listen to Big Issues on TV, life can get confusing, sometimes scary. Here are some examples.

An Id in Your Pocket? Slipped into the young people’s shelves of our public library was a Freudian biography of Louis Braille with mystifying references to an “id” that went everywhere with young Louis. Nobody seemed to comment on it or speak to it. Was it small, pocket-sized? Invisible? It constantly kept him from doing the right thing and he couldn’t seem to shake it. So it was clearly bad. Was it something only blind Frenchmen had or did everyone have one. If so, I might have one, or would have one. How would I know? Would it trip me up? You can see the problem.

Where’s the Ladder? Nancy Drew had two friends: Bess and George. George, confusingly, was female. In introducing them or, more generally, introducing two people, “Carolyn Keene” invariably noted that “the latter was . . . .” I read this as “the ladder.” Where did the ladder come from? Was it animated? Would it figure in the crime? Really strange.

Too many palaces I consistently read “place” as “palace.” This created problems in comprehension: where were the palaces in the Wild West, in Appalachia or colonial America?  And why, when the “palace/place” was further described, did it invariably seem so decidedly un-palatial, inhabited by non-royalty? Why couldn’t I see these many palaces?

When to argue, when to urge? I guess this is a case of mild dyslexia but the confusion either made conflict in a scene with none or had characters appearing wimpy in not standing their ground.

Coming soon to you. . . euthanasia My parents were fond of watching PBS talk shows on Big Issues. Once I walked in on a panel discussion of one such and was hastily told the topic wasn’t appropriate for children and I should “go read or something.” Of course I was curious and did go, but only as far as the hall. There I hid and listened.

Clearly this was a Big Issue. The panelists were very somber. The consequences of poor choices were irreversible and the risk of mistake high. Death was clearly involved. Finally I caught the name of the Big Issue: euthanasia. Except that I understood “Youth in Asia.” Now there were lots of youths in Asia. Too many, apparently, and this was a terrible problem. Apparently the solution was to kill them off. “Youth in Asia,” then, was code for “kill the kids.” The process should be painless and “experts” involved, but the goal was clearly death.

One of the panelists proposed implementing “Youth in Asia” here America. My stomach dropped. There were definitely lots of “youth in America.” I was part of the Baby Boom. We were too many and had to be culled.

At that point, one of my parents got up and I ran to my room, where I passed, as you can imagine, a sleepless night.

The next day, convinced I should know the worst and plan—move to Europe, perhaps—I eased up to my mother in the kitchen and asked what she thought of “Youth in Asia.”

“In the some circumstances, it’s the best thing,” she said.

“So . . . will it be happening in America?”

“Well, some people want that.”

Long pause before I ventured: “Do you?”

“Like I said, sometimes it’s the best thing.” The penny must have dropped and she turned to look at me. “Were you listening to the program last night?”

“Yes.”

“We told you. Some topics aren’t for children. Why don’t you go outside? It’s a beautiful day.”

I should go outside one last time before being . . . gotten rid of? I must have dawdled at the door, looking stricken. Maybe I cried, begged, or threatened to run away. In any case the confusion was resolved, along with a reminder that none of this would have happened if I had only followed instructions to “go read or something.” Except that, as noted above, reading creates its own confusions for the young mind.

I’m thinking I’m not the only one to be tripped up by too much secret reading.

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Posted in WWWS

Things I wanted as a kid

To find whole new chapters in favorite books, as if the pages stuck together on earlier readings were now magically revealed.

A secret passage from the outside of the house straight into my room, so if I was on the outs with my parents, I could sneak in or out and nobody would know.

To be cute and adorable and adored like my little brother and sister, forgiven for transgressions, with no homework, regrets, embarrassments or worries about school or what people thought about me, and no proof that my options were constantly narrowing. Mozart was writing music at five. At nine, I hadn’t written a single sonata. Many saints had performed their first miracles. Child prodigies were already prodigious by nine. I was just a kid.

To walk across a backyard without tripping. Being very pigeon-toed, I couldn’t do this. Likewise, to have regular shoes, not the corrective, high tops that mean kids called “kindergarten shoes.” My parents tried to reassure me by saying that people who did amazing things (singers, dancers, magicians and so forth) did all this because they wore special shoes. Not convincing.

To have a nose like my friend Judy Crum, neat writing like Sharon, shiny hair like Cheryl, or the incredible confidence of Laura who lived next door (who later became known as a bad girl, very “fast” so maybe not Laura), or even just widely known as nice, like Janey.

 To have certain foods on my plate vanish without my having to eat them, especially without having to stay at the table until my plate was clean, pondering the starving orphans who would be grateful for Velveeta cheese sandwiches on Wonder bread, bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder bread, beef stew on glass plates making puddles of broth that I found loathsome, knockwurst (boiled) with that horrible smell, leftovers of leftover baked ham, bitter white insides of iceberg lettuce, asparagus from a can, slimy spinach from a can, kidney beans from a can, cold oatmeal, or Chef Boy-ar-dee.

On the up side of my mother’s cooking, to find a magic slice of pound cake that, when you took a bite out, would magically re-grow that bite so the slice would last forever. Likewise my grandmother’s German Chocolate Cake.

To be featured in A Child’s Book of Heroes and Heroines without being dead or having to do anything painful or scary.

 To be the first Protestant saint. Or any kind of saint. I was starting from way behind on this. Saint Elizabeth’s first word was “Jesus.” Mine was “Daddy.” I had never performed a miracle. I reasoned that the first step might be to be noted for sleeping all night with my hands crossed on my chest. I tried to tuck my sheets in tightly to restrict movement, but morning after morning found that I had moved in the night. This was distressing.

To have a stuffed mommy dog like my friend had with seven little puppies that you could zip into a pouch in her back. Once, in living room gymnastics, my father launched me across the room into a walnut desk, knocking me out cold. When I came to, my father, white-faced, offered to buy “anything you want.” Wow. I asked for one of those dogs. The poor man scoured the local toy stores, finding only a mommy dog with two puppies. Under the circumstances, I had to be grateful.

To have an organized mind. I had read about someone with such a thing who did his organizational work at the end of each day. In those pre-computer times, I pictured a large room of filing cabinets with a little white-haired man in a smock scurrying through the aisles, moving files. Charged with ambition, I lay in bed the first night, my imagined little man on his mark. But how to organize these files? By topic, like family members, school, math facts, books I liked, holidays, seasons, thoughts? Chronologically? By feelings: good, bad, scary? By place: home, outside, school, neighborhood, far away places? My poor little man was constantly scurrying, arms full of files, putting a folder here, then moving it there. Just watching him was exhausting and the mental activity frustrating. Within a week, the project lapsed and I was left with a jumble of memories . . . . Like this one.

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When my father needed a vice

Recently I blogged about the time my father as a boy threw an gold ring into a pile of green beans, where it was lost forever. I realize there is a sequel, also involving gold.

Fast forward 60+ years. My mother has just died of lung cancer and I’m helping my father clean out the sick room. It should be mentioned that despite a promising start, the last decades of their marriage were trying for him. Still, he was a devoted nurse in the months of her rapid decline. It’s also significant that he was a research scientist, given to unsentimental rationalism (like tossing an outgrown ring into green beans).

Back to the sick room. My mother’s gold watch sat on the night table. “What about this?” I asked.

“It isn’t running,” he observed. Before I could suggest a new battery, winding, or giving it to somebody, he added: “No point keeping a watch that doesn’t run.” I can still hear the ping in the bottom of the trash can.

“I guess not,” is all I could add.

That afternoon, we visited friends who were miffed that they’d called during the day and couldn’t leave a message. (My mother hated answering machines.) “That’s a problem,” my father said, pulling a notepad from his shirt pocket and jotting down: “Get answering machine.”

“And new clothes,” I added, since his wardrobe was decades old, chosen by my mother for thrift and easy-care. “Get new clothes,” he added to the list. “Will you help me tomorrow?” Yes I would.

He wasn’t finished with the to-do list. “I need a vice,” he announced.

“A vise?” I wondered why, since he’d long ago given away his wood working tools.

“No,” he said, reading my mind. “A vice. I think my vice will be a Jack Daniels every day at five o’clock. Let’s get some on the way home.” I should note that in the decades of my mother’s alcoholism, he hadn’t kept liquor in the house.

“OK,” I said. “Anything else? Scotch, mixers?”

“No, I’ll take it straight, on the rocks.” He checked his list: “Answering machine, new clothes, a vice. That’s enough for one day.”

 

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Gold in the green beans. Why?

My father grew up in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression, in a house so close to the next one that once, when a spark ignited the shingles, a neighbor simply jumped from his roof to my father’s and stamped out the spark.

Despite the general hard times, my grandfather had a modest, steady income, and my grandmother’s somber economies provided for the family’s needs with some carefully considered extras: one very good suit for my grandfather, books for the two boys, and a few nicely made dresses for my grandmother.

When my father was small, a relative gave him a gold ring. With most of my grandparents’ attention fixed on the flashier, more sociable older brother, it took awhile to realize that the gold ring was getting tighter on a growing boy’s finger until it couldn’t come off with any household treatment—pulling, twisting, soap or soaking the boy’s hand in ice water.

After some discussion of the probable cost, my grandmother took my father to the neighborhood jeweler and had the ring cut off. For some reason, my father was allowed to put the now C-shaped ring in his pocket for the walk home.

My grandmother must have been closest to the street, firmly holding my father’s hand. I picture him with his free hand fingering the ring in his pocket, the smooth sides, the rough cut. My grandmother isn’t paying attention, perhaps thinking how the gold could be melted down, or rejoined for an eventual grandchild. A flash catches her eye. My father is tossing the gold into a mound of green beans. She screams. The green grocer rushes out. She’s a regular customer, and he’s as outraged as she is at the wanton waste. The two of them, with my father forcefully recruited, tediously go through the entire mound of green beans, with rising intensity demanding of the unrepentant boy: “Why did you do that?”

My father can only say that he figured the ring wasn’t good anymore. “But why throw it in the green beans?” He doesn’t know. They look everywhere: under the tables, all over the sidewalk, even in the squash. No ring. My grandmother is furious, more so because of the boy’s placid refusal to provide an answer to the logical question: “But why throw it in the green beans?”

In fiction, I’m sure, there would be a motive, but years later, my father couldn’t say. Sometimes real people just can’t tell you why.

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Posted in Food, Writing

Call me names!

When I was about two, my mother said I invented a game called “Names.” The rules were simple: she regaled me with terms of endearment while I basked in the glow of Honey, Sugar, Sugar Pie, Sweetheart, Sweet Pea, Sugar Plum, Pumpkin, Pumpkin Pie, Honey Pie, Honey Bun, Baby Cake, and so forth. When she ran out of names, I announced Part 2: “More Names!” Names had a “No Multi Tasking” rule. No cooking, ironing, cleaning up, or other useful tasks. We had to play this game on the couch, with full attention to Me.

In time our relationship grew more nuanced (for sure), but I’m happy it started so well. Fast forward to meeting my husband, who is Italian. He was mildly surprised at the American habit of identifying love interests with food, especially vegetables. So “Pumpkin” must have sounded as off as “Oh Zucchini, it’s so good to see you.” Or, “Of course, Onion/Okra/Parsnip, whatever you say.” Apparently in his culture, food is food and people are people, and you don’t (baring cannibalistic predilections) think tenderly of eating people.

We lived in Italy during the Clinton Administration and the newspapers, quoting Bill speaking to Hillary, took care to translate “Honey” as “Miele,” with the subtext of : “We know it’s weird, but that’s what this American really said.” As if he might have called her Corn Syrup or Molasses. No big point here, except that if you tilt your head a little to see your world through another cultural perspective, it is a bit odd.

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Is it better than your mother’s?

When I was a child, grammar descended on me in Barbetta, a grand (to me) Italian restaurant in NYC. I must have been about eight. I was the only child in the room, which gave the event both solemnity and anxiety. I was instructed to be on my best behavior. In fact, this periodic theater-and-nice-dinner-in-New York was part of my Cultural Education which my parents took quite seriously.

I’d ordered spaghetti, which seemed a safe choice. The mound of pasta that arrived was approximately the size of my head. I had the idea of a restaurant jail if I didn’t finish (after all, at home I sometimes had to sit for hours alone in the kitchen until I finished). So I dug in dutifully, which was noticed, alas.

A waitress came around, cooed a bit, as grown ups do and began the interrogation. How old was I? Eight. What grade? Fourth. “Do you like the spaghetti?” Well duh, lady, I’m eating it. By now the whole vast room was listening. And I’m thinking I have to get back to eating because of the restaurant jail thing.

But the waitress wouldn’t let go. “Is this spaghetti better than your mother’s?” My mother was sitting right there. I still remember heat waves of anxiety. Mom jail or restaurant jail? Clearly, the waitress was delighted to have set up such an exquisite entrapment. The whole room was enjoying a kid’s distress, not a fork moved. Remember how horrible that was, having grownups’ eyes on you? I didn’t have the social skill for: “They’re both good.” And “Not your business” wasn’t an option because of the “be on your best behavior thing.”

And again: “Is it better than your mother’s?” My parents could have helped, but they were enjoying the show. Clearly, this was an either/or. I remember sheer panic, my mind blank. No help from any quarter, the breathless room.

Finally what seemed a solution came to me: “No, it’s worse.” I expected relief. Not what happened. The room erupted in laughter. Even the waitress. Waves and waves of laughter. It took awhile for even my father to stop laughing enough to explain that I’d managed to land myself simultaneously in two jails. That is, my mother’s was bad enough but this was worse. The laughter died down, then rippled up, and I could hear in various quarters, whispered “no, it’s worse” and chuckles again. And still the head-sized mound of spaghetti, now labeled “worse.” One brief respite: my father said I didn’t have to finish.

This weekend I was in NYC with my husband and we passed Barbetta, now the oldest restaurant in the city still owned by the founding family. We went in. Still grand, still no kids, but waiters, at least, and smaller, more elegant portions. We spoke to a couple of the staff, both very kind. I’d like to go back. In fact, the spaghetti was better than my mother’s.

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When We Were Strangers, in Italian translation, presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

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