my life right now...

pushpin2THE AGE-OLD FEMALE DILEMMA OF WHAT TO WEAR

Mercedes had a problem.

“It’s driving me mad,” said Mercedes. “Absolutely round the bend and up an embankment. I lie awake at three in the morning, wracking my brain, trying to find a solution, but I get nowhere. It’s like trying to dig gold out of a marshmallow.”

I picked up my cup. “Are we talking about the recent report about the devastating effects of climate change or the worsening world situation?”

“Neither.” Mercedes’ sigh sounded like a deflating bagpipe. 

“We are talking about Hattie Sugartree’s costume party.”

I half-smiled the way you do if you aren’t sure whether that’s fair-trade cocoa powder on your cappuccino – or if someone’s joking or not. “That’s keeping you awake in the middle of the night? Hattie Sugartree’s party?”

The bagpipe gave another forlorn wheeze. “I just don’t know what to wear.” She tapped her spoon against the rim of the saucer. “I can’t come up with a single idea. Not one. It’s hurting my head.”

“But if it’ a costume party you can wear just about anything. You could put a kerchief or a tiara on your head and go as the Queen.”

Mercedes shook her head. “No I couldn’t. This is a themed costume party. We’re meant to go as an iconic character from a film.”

“So what’s so hard about that?” Icons moved before my eyes like chocolates on an assembly line. Cowboys. Intergalactic warriors. Detectives. Robots. Spies. Masked and unmasked avengers. Superheroes. 

“How about the Man with No Name in those Spaghetti Westerns? Or Mr Spock? Or Indiana Jones? Or Sherlock Holmes? Or R2D2? Or the Hobbit?”

The Mercedes head kept shaking. No, no, no, no, no. She started tapping her spoon again. “Don’t you think those costumes are all a little complicated? I don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on this. It’s a party not a wedding.”

“Then what about James Bond? All you’d need is a suit and a Martini glass. Or Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide? All that needs is a dressing gown.”

Mercedes was starting to glower. “I don’t own one.”

I snapped my fingers with excitement. “I have it! You could take off your shoes, paint you feet red and go as John McClane from Die Hard!”

Mercedes eyed me over her coffee cup.  “I think that maybe you’re overlooking something here.”

“What’s that?” I thought I’d been doing pretty well.

“All the characters you’ve mentioned are men. Or something like men. Aside from the fact that the blokes are going to go as those characters – there are already three Indiana Joneses that I know of, as well as a Spiderman, a Darth Vader and a Joker - I am a fourth-wave feminist, you know. I’d rather like to go as a female icon.”

“So what’s the problem? There must be lots of them.”

Mercedes pushed her cup away. “Not as many as you’d think. The ones that more or less keep their clothes on are always sidekicks, even if they’re clever and can fight, like Princess Leia or Marion Ravenwood. And then you have the ones who are strong and really good at killing who don’t wear that much. And no matter what, the women are all meant to be as violent as a guy but beautiful and sexy, too. Which means that the girls who are beautiful and sexy will all go as Lara Croft or a Bond girl or someone like that.”

Ah,” said I. “I see your problem.” Mercedes wasn’t really built for bikinis and assault rifles.  “So what you’d like is a tough, smart, dignified woman character who is a household name all over the world. A character who inspires, who is heroic and fearless, and who doesn’t act like a man and dress like a lap dancer.”

“Exactly!” said Mercedes.

A thoughtful look came over my face. “Wair a minute!” At last I’d found the perfect cinematic role model. “I knew there had to be one-!”

“No there isn’t,” said Mercedes. “Jeanette Snowshoe’s going as Mary Poppins.”

I reached for the last bit of brownie. “In that case, I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

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pushpin2WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT BOOKS

Quite a few of the things I’ve written over the years have been inspired by anger if not actual hyperventilating rage. This month’s blog is one of them. It was inspired by the Rt Hon Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, who recently put in force a new rule that forbids friends and family sending parcels to prisoners in England and Wales. Included in the items no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners are books. I wasn’t the only one to respond to this with anger. Before you could say Hucckleberry Finn there was an almighty outcry – and crying out especially loudly were the nation’s writers. As you would expect.

For who knows better than writers that books are one of the first things to go when a government or other authority feels threatened or wants to exert and increase its power. They burn them. They ban them. They confiscate and forbid them. They throw you in jail for reading anything they don’t like (for whatever reason they may not like it). It has always been that the men who control things (I say ‘men’ because despite the occasional woman in power, it’s usually men) have always been afraid of books. And rightly so. Books offer knowledge. Books let you into other experiences. Books are humanising. They challenge ideas and myths; they challenge the official version of the world; they break down walls of ignorance and fear; they heal. Books are freedom. And, unlike watching a film or TV programme, books are a partnership between what’s written and the person reading it. They make you think; they make you feel; they make you imagine. That’s what makes them such a big deal.

That’s why there have been so many loud-mouthed, grumpy writers trying to make the Secretary of State for Justice back down. Which, so far, he refuses to do. But, thinking about it, it seems to me that the interesting thing in this mishap masquerading as government policy is that although Mr Grayling has created as much anger as he would have if he’d torched every book in the prison systems libraries, his motivation doesn’t seem to have been repression (though clearly there are issues of control). Mr Grayling has landed himself on the side of the Hitlers of our planet, but by accident, like a drunk who staggers onto the stage of a West End play in the mistaken belief that he’s entering the upstairs bar. For all I know, Mr Grayling may have had no idea how important books are if you are in the business of offering people options, rehabilitation and hope (which, technically, is part of the brief of the penal system), but unlike most who use books to withhold information, Mr Grayling didn’t do so because he was afraid of what prisoners might learn from books. Apparently, he thinks they would have a good time reading a book. His rule was made as punishment, as part of the system’s Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme. If you want to read HARRY POTTER you’ll have to earn the money to buy your own copy. Which means that, in an incredibly convoluted way, Mr Grayling does understand the importance and significance of books. Not that that makes me or anyone else any less angry - or mean that his rule makes any more sense.

Because books are a very big deal.

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pushpin2AHEAD OF HIS TIME

My sister took a break from swimming with dolphins and hugging orangutans on the tropical island where she lives to visit me in the damp and grey of London. On Sunday morning, wrapped in jumpers and thick socks so as not to waste energy by actually turning on the heat, we huddled together on the sofa reading the papers.

“Wow,” said my sister. “Did you see this article on saving money and beating the recession?”

I tore my eyes from the piece I was reading that explained how forty-thousand-pound lunches, three-thousand-pound handbags and eight-hundred-pound shoes were now so yesterday now that we were in the Age of Austerity (even though the people who ate those lunches and put their old tissues in those handbags aren’t the ones having to be austere. “Let me guess,” I said. “It reminds you of Dad.”

 “He was practically a prophet. He was totally ahead of his times.” My sister shook her head in wonderment and awe. “If I didn’t know it was impossible, I would’ve thought he wrote it.” The article was full of practical advice on using leftovers, making packed lunches, making gloves out of old socks, recycling greeting cards, mending things rather than throwing them out, making do with last year’s coats and your old kettle. “I mean, really. Look here! They even tell you how to darn socks!”

My father darned socks. He knit my sister and me scarves that we jammed into our schoolbags as soon as we were out of his sight. He turned off lights almost as soon as they were turned on, often leaving his nearest and dearest sitting in the dark. He saved string, brown paper, wrapping paper, jars, bottles and boxes, because you never knew when they’d come in handy. He patched sheets. He only bought new shoes when the old ones started leaking. He did hose repairs and his own mechanics. He built a barbecue (legendary) and a “Florida room” (slightly impractical for New York State). He was always asking us if we thought he was made of money.

“Remember the time he decided to turn the back yard into a farm?” I asked.

My sister rolled her eyes. “Who could forget?”

 

It all started innocently enough.

My mother came in singing a song from the radio, her arms filled with groceries. She stopped rather sharply when she reached the dining room. “What are you planning to do with that?” asked my mother. She was gazing at the packets scattered across the table as if they were grenades.

“What do you think I’m going to do with them?” My father, who was sitting a few feet away in His Chair (the one he only got to sit in when my mother was either out or otherwise engaged), laid down the book he was reading on root vegetables and looked over at her. “They’re seeds. I’m going to plant them.”

From the look on my mother’s face you’d have thought he’d said he planned to run around our neighborhood in the dark of the suburban night, throwing the grenades into people’s swimming pools.

“Plant them?” My mother’s laugh was as sharp and high as the sound made by a musical saw. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

My father explained that by planting the seeds we could grow our own vegetables – be self-sufficient and feed ourselves. “Like people used to do,” said my father. “We can get back to nature. Isn’t that one of the advantages of not living in the City?”

My mother, a city girl by both birth and temperament, felt that nature had been adequately represented by Central Park, and would have preferred to get back to Midtown. “I thought we moved out here for the schools and the clean air.”

“And to have a little land to call our own,” said my father.

“That doesn’t mean you have to grow tomatoes on it,” argued my mother. “Why do you think they invented the supermarket? Everybody else around here just grows grass.”

In this discussion you can see one of the basic differences between my parents. My mother enthusiastically embraced progress and technology – whether it was an electric kettle or a box of instant mashed potatoes. She loved the modern way of using something once and throwing it away. My father, on the other hand, was wary of too much progress and technology. He hated waste (waste not, want not) and extravagance (a penny saved is a penny earned.) What was wrong with the way his parents had done things? Or his parents’ parents? Or the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia for that matter? How much effort did it take to mash a potato, for heaven’s sake? And as for putting a motor on a can opener? Putting a motor on a can opener simply meant there was something else that could go wrong.

My mother’s eyes narrowed with wifely suspicion, “This isn’t about getting back to nature, is it?” she demanded. “This is about saving money.”

And here we have another basic difference between my parents. My mother (who, perhaps, was also slightly ahead of her times) believed that money was to be spent, often on things you didn’t actually need and/or couldn’t afford, while my father had a tendency (as my mother poetically put it) to hang onto every dollar so tightly that the eagle screamed.
“What’s wrong with being frugal?” asked my father


“You’re not frugal,” said my mother. “You’re cheap.”

 

As soon as the ground was soft enough, my father spent his days off digging up the lawn and turning the soil. He bought compost and manure from a local farm (a real farm, not one in someone’s back yard). He borrowed books from the library with titles like GROW IT YOURSELF and SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN THE SUBURBS. All Spring he raked and hoed and planted. He put stakes in the ground to mark the rows of cucumbers and pumpkins, corn and tomatoes, beans and peas, and ran strings from one end to the other, tying rags along them to frighten the birds. In all of this he had the help of his own clutch of farm laborers – me and my sister.

We dutifully opened the packets and gently covered the seeds with earth and ripped the rags into strips and ran back and forth turning the sprinkler on and off. We were given the important job of weeding, and officially deputized to do the watering when my father was at work. My mother, of course, refused to take part. She sat in the sun porch, reading magazines and singing “Old MacDonald had a farm…” under her breath.

My father was unfazed. “You’ll be singing a different tune when harvest time rolls around.”

My mother turned a page. “Don’t count your turnips before they’re grown,” she advised.

Either my mother also had prophetic talents that the rest of us never suspected, or one of her friends had warned her about what would happen when the vegetables started to grow. My father and his laborers, however, were unaware that, unseen by us, a clever and deadly enemy was patiently waiting for the first green shoots to poke through the ground.

“I can’t believe it!” wailed my father, standing by the stake marked Lettuce. “The slugs have eaten every last one.”

The day before the baby lettuces were grown enough that even my sister and I could tell what they were. Today they were ravaged stumps.

“Didn’t I say I heard something in the garden last night?” asked my mother. “It was probably them chomping away in the dark.”

My father tried pellets. My father dug trenches. My father scattered sand and broken eggshells and ashes over the soil to make it hard for the slugs to move. He put plastic bottles around the seedlings like fortress walls. He made traps filled with beer and milk. But still they came.

“You’re becoming obsessive,” said my mother.
My father looked up from his latest acquisition from the library: KNOW YOUR SLUGS. “I’m not obsessed. I’m just not going to be beaten by a creature that doesn’t even have feet.”

And then, one moonless, rainy night we were roused from our beds by a heavy knocking on the front door. My sister and I shot out of our rooms the way you do when you’re a kid and you know that something unusual, exciting, and possibly horrific is about to take place.

My mother had also shot out of her room, pulling her robe around her and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Go back to bed!” she ordered.

We followed her down the stairs.

“Maybe some mad killer’s escaped from prison and the police have come to warn us,” whispered my sister.

“You are so melodramatic,” I hissed back. “It’s probably just Mrs Houlahan again.” Mrs Houlahan lived next door. The year before, when raccoons got into her attic, she’d arrived on our doorstep at three in the morning, convinced she was being burgled.

My mother, whose hearing improved in direct proportion to how much you didn’t want to be overheard, said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Your father’s locked himself out of the house. Now go back to bed!” She opened the door.

It was the police – Officer Kellogg and Officer Schultz. Needless to say, with Officers Kellogg and Schultz was my father.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mam,” said Officer Schultz, “but we found this gentleman prowling around your backyard. He claims he lives here.”

My mother stared at my father in. My father was wearing his rain jacket, his fishing hat and his old galoshes. He was carrying a flashlight in one hand and a bucket of slugs in the other, You could see her thinking What’ll happen if I say “no”? Every light in the house blazing. Bags of new socks. Lunches at the diner.

“For Pete’s sake,” pleaded my father, “tell them who I am.”

“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” said my mother.

My sister burst into tears.

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pushpin2MY SECRET ADMIRER

As an example of one of those rare, natural phenomena – like a blue moon or a shower of miniature orange frogs – I found myself in conversation with Sonya Upjohn at the school bus stop one snowy winter morn. When I say that I was in conversation with Sonya Upjohn what I mean is that Sonya was talking and, because of the weather, I happened to be huddled more or less under the shelter with her and her friends - which made me (at least technically) part of the group. Although Sonya and her pals normally paid as much attention to me as the rest of the world pays to small, random particles of dust, and I have no memory of ever being spoken to by Sonya (unless you counted laughter), I nodded along with the others, smiling like a cheap doll. 

Sonya Upjohn only lived around the corner from me, but she might as well have lived on another planet. Sonya was one of the most popular girls in my high school. I was not. I was one of those girls for whom February is all about groundhogs. Sonya was one of those girls for whom February is all about hearts and valentines.

Which is what the talk was all about as the snowflakes fell romantically around Sonya’s pretty head, making her look like an angel on a Christmas card (and my nose turned red and I lost all feeling in my toes). Not only had Sonya been asked by three different boys to go to the Valentine’s dance, but with days still to go till the Big Fourteen, the Upjohn mantel was already sagging under the weight of all the heart-shaped cards she’d received.

“I mean, my God, can you imagine being one of those poor losers who never gets a Valentine’s Day card or gets asked to the dance?” Sonya’s voice was high with horror, her lips drawn together as if she was about to blow bubbles.

From the sounds made by Sonya’s friends it seemed likely that there was only one poor girl on the bus stop that morning who could easily imagine going through life always restless and unhappy because, no matter how much else she achieved in her life (not even if she discovered a cure for cancer or brought about Permanent World Peace and ended poverty), no one ever sent her a Valentine or asked her to the Valentine’s dance.

“I mean,” Sonya shrieked on, “it must make you want to move to Bulgaria and grow potatoes.”

I was still smiling like a painted piece of plastic, pretending I was part of the group – the invisible part. But then they all suddenly looked over at me and it was obvious from the embarrassed, pitying expressions on their faces that they’d forgotten I was there. If they’d ever known.

Sonya started talking about what she was going to wear to the Valentine’s dance and, as if she and her friends were worked by remote control, they all turned their backs on me at the same time.

On that frosty morning, Bulgaria didn’t seem nearly far enough away.

 

The Valentine’s conversation haunted me all day long like a particularly irritating ghost. It sat with me in homeroom, moaning softly. It nearly got me concussed playing volleyball in gym. It distracted me so much in history that when Mr Streb asked what Manifest Destiny was I blurted out, “Being an Old Maid!”

As soon as I got home that afternoon I threw myself down on the sofa and burst into tears.

My mother (happy in the knowledge that she would get a card, a box of chocolates and a present for Valentine’s Day because she had already frog-marched my father into town to buy them) cha-chaed into the living room carrying a basket of laundry. She stopped short when she saw my limp form sprawled over the couch.

“Now what’s wrong?” asked my mother.

I didn’t usually confide in my mother, but I was in a weakened state from hours spent picturing my empty life with nothing to comfort me but a couple of cats and the Nobel Prize so I told her.

My mother said I was being ridiculous (which is what I knew she’d say, and was one of the reasons why I never liked to tell her anything).

“Good Lord!” said my mother. “You’re fourteen. You have your whole life ahead of you! You haven’t even started to bloom yet.”

“Maybe I’m never going to bloom!” I wailed. My grandmother had a wisteria that she planted twenty years before and it hadn’t seen a flower yet.

“Never’s a long time,” said my mother. “You’ll see. There’s someone for everyone. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

 

Although this was another occurrence as rare as chickens with teeth, it turned out that on this occasion my mother was right. Two days later I got home from school to find an envelope addressed to me on my desk. There was no return address and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. It bore a cancelled stamp. I opened it warily. My mail was usually restricted to reminders from the library about overdue books.

It was a Valentine. It was simple but tasteful. Nothing gushy or over the top. Just a plain red heart with an arrow through it on the front, and inside the message Be My Valentine – signed, Your Secret Admirer.

“What was that letter you got today?” asked my mother over supper.

“Nothing,” I said, my eyes on my plate. “Just a reminder from the library.

The smart thing to do would have been to stick the card in my dresser and forget about it. But I didn’t do that. The image of Sonya and her friends suddenly realizing that I – a poor loser who’d be better off farming in Eastern Europe than going to high school on Long Island – was standing with them kept flashing in my mind. I wanted them to know that (unlike my mother) they’d been wrong about me. I had a Valentine. I had a secret admirer. I wasn’t going to have to dedicate my life to root vegetables after all.

But of course making them aware of all that wasn’t as easy as it might sound. I couldn’t just arrive at the bus stop, waving my card, “Yoohoo, Sonya, look what I got!” They’d think I’d sent it to myself.

As I saw it, the only way I could wipe those pitying looks off their faces was to go to the Valentine’s dance. With a boy. A boy who liked me but was too shy to show it. A boy who wouldn’t collapse into hysterical laughter if I asked him out.

It didn’t take long to narrow down the list of Possible Secret Admirers to one. Halliday Flock. Halliday was my lab partner in biology. He was smart, odd, about as cool as surgical stockings and so shy that whenever he had to speak in class he turned the same shade of red as canned tomato soup. He was also the only boy who spoke to me on a regular basis (mainly stuff like “Not like that”, “What are you doing?” and “Here, give it to me”, but we did once have a pretty interesting conversation about the Iroquois Confederacy). He not only spoke to me, he had been known to laugh at my jokes, which was more than most people did.

I’ve always felt a lot of sympathy for boys because, Leap Year, Sadie Hawkins Day and feminism notwithstanding, the burden of asking someone out is usually theirs. I’d rather carry a backpack full of bricks around for a month. I figured there was only way to do this humiliating task that made you as vulnerable as a baby bunny at a convention of hawks, and that was to do it. So, as we left class together the next day, I dropped my books on his feet and when he bent down to help me pick them up I said, “Halliday, do you want to go to the Valentine’s Day dance with me? Just answer yes or no.”

Halliday turned the color of several cans of tomato soup and said, “Yes.”

I suppose it would be nice if I could say that Halliday and I went to the dance, had a fantastic time, made Sonya and her friends eat their perfect little hearts out and fell madly in love. But, sadly, none of that would be true.

For openers, neither of us knew how to dance.  If either (or, better still, both of us) had known how to dance, we would then have had to face the fact that I had a good four inches in height on Halliday, making slow dances difficult if not impossible. We stood together at the Wallflower side of the room, having to shout at each other to have any kind of conversation over the music and laughter of the others. I’m pretty sure that Sonya never saw us (and that, if she did, she had no idea who we were since I was wearing a dress for the first and last time in my high school career and Halliday was wearing a suit jacket that seemed to belong to someone else and had done something faintly horrifying to his hair).

And then we had a fight because we were both so bored and uncomfortable and would much rather have anywhere else shelling peas.

Halliday wanted to know why I’d had the stupid idea to come to the dance in the first place.

I screamed back that I wouldn’t have had it if he hadn’t sent me that card.

Halliday said, “What card?”

The moral of this story is: never trust my mother.

The good news is that once we realized there was no reason for us to be there, Halliday and I went to the diner on Main Street, had hamburgers and fries, and talked about the Mohawks for the rest of the night.

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pushpin2WHAT I DID TO WELCOME IN THE NEW YEAR

“You did what?” Shawni held out her hands, just in case I hadn’t noticed them. “This is what I did to welcome in the New Year.” The nails were decorated with winter trees and snowmen with a dusting of glitter that, if you were far enough away, really did look like snow shining in the moonlight. She sighed. “But if all we’re going to have is rain and flooding I may have to think again.” She frowned, thinking. “What about rowboats? You’re always seeing people sitting in rowboats in their living rooms on the news when the weather’s like this.”

Even a saint would have sighed. “Really Shawni, you’re like Nero fiddling while Rome burns down to the ground.”

Shawni picked up her diet soda. “Who?”

Even a picture of a saint would have sighed. “Never mind. It was a long time ago. And, anyway, the answer to your question, if you can still remember it, is ‘Yes, I really did go to the Science Museum over Christmas’.”

“Why?” She flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes. You might assume her hair would be streaked with black and white chalk to continue the bleak-midwinter theme begun by her nails, but in fact it was streaked with pink and turquoise blue. “I mean, isn’t it, like, really boring?”

I said that it wasn’t boring at all. “In fact, it was not only It was incredibly interesting. And thought provoking. Which isn’t something you can say about most things these days.”

“Really?” She waggled a snowman at me. “The Science Museum?”

“Yes, the Science Museum.”

And I didn’t mean just the talk on how bridges are built and why they don’t fall down. Or the experiments with liquids, levers, creating energy and making hydrogen explosions. It was just as much the displays of things like the first light bulbs, telephones, typewriters, guns and vegetables in tins. And the What? Why? How? questions on the signs on the walls. All of it made you think. What does keep a plane in the air? Why is the sky blue? How can a 3D printer possibly work?

“If it weren't for the invention of simple tools and mechanical machines, none of what we take for granted now – from the Smartphone to the microwave, from the jet plane to space exploration – would ever have happened.

Shawni shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose…”

“Don’t you ever wonder why things are the way they are?“ I asked.

“No.” Shawni bit down on a Christmas-tree pretzel. “I’m not really interested in science. Science is for geeks.”

“But science is everywhere – and for everyone. Not only has it done a pretty good job of destroying the world that Nature made, it explains how everything works – the things Nature created and the things science created. Science has made it possible for you to be at your laptop and see your aunt’s house in Sydney. Or sit on the bus and talk to your boyfriend who’s up a mountain in the Catskills. Or bake a potato in the microwave in six minutes. You push a button and the lights go on. You push another button and you have heat. You push another button and you have the Philharmonic Orchestra in your living room “

“Not in my living room,” said Shawni. “You know I prefer pop.”

“Shawni,” I was starting to sound a little desperate, even to myself. “That’s not the point. The point is that you eat science, you wear science, you put science on your nails and on your face and in your hair. Aren’t you at all curious about the world you live in?”

Shawni reached for another pretzel into her mouth. “Of course I am. I wonder about stuff all the time.”

What a relief.

“Like what?”

She popped open another soda. “Like if Kim and Kayne are going to name their next baby South.”

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pushpin2PLEONEXIA

I learned a new word this year. I happened upon it by chance, the way you do, but I was so taken with it that I wrote it down and pinned it over my desk. This is the word: pleonexia. Pleonexia is from the Greek and means abnormal (possibly even uncontrollable) greed. The adjective is pleonectic

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, recently praised greed as a quality people should seek and encourage, but here is another issue on which Mr Johnson and I differ. Pleonexia is my Word of the Year because, to me (but not to Mr Johnson), it says everything about our world and us that needs to be said – and not in a good way.

Despite the fact that we are always told that “you can’t take it with you”, many people act as if they can – either that or they’re never planning to leave. Every minute of every day we are surrounded by displays of pleonexia (in fact, one could argue that we are a display of pleonexia).

One such display is the life styles of the rich and famous. The rich and famous, having so much money, feel they have to spend it in an obvious way. They buy islands, drink bottles of wine that cost more than most people make in a month, throw million-dollar parties, dash off for the weekend in private jets, and live in mansions with more bathrooms than McDonalds has burgers.

Another such display is the life style of the neither rich nor famous, who are so inundated with advertisements and images of wealth that they think that’s all that matters. They are deep in debt, more aware of what the Kardashians are doing than they are of what’s in the food they eat, and trampling each other (sometimes to death) to get a bargain on Black Friday.

My final example is the behavior of our governments, bankers and global corporations. Bleating about freedom, how much they care, and how everything they do is for the good of all, they wage wars,, blow the tops from mountains, decimate ancient forests, poison the Earth’s land, water and air, and casually kill off whole species without a second thought – and all for money and power.

That’s pleonexia.

And now it’s almost Christmas. The buying frenzy of the year. Though it’s meant to be the celebration of the birth of the man who for many people symbolizes hope and goodness; who taught love, forgiveness and brotherhood. Who hung out with the poor and the marginalized. The man who threw the moneychangers out of the temple. The man who is the antithesis of pleonexia. 

What, I wonder would Jesus Christ be doing if he were alive right now? I doubt very much that he’d be working for a company like Shell, Monsanto, or Goldman Sachs. Or that he’d be a politician. I picture him sitting on a hillside, not with his eyes on his Smartphone but on the sunset, telling everyone who passes how much easier it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Season’s Greetings!

Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

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pushpin2 LEWIS ALLAN REED
02 MARCH 1942- 27 OCTOBER 2013

Lewis Allan Reed, otherwise known as Lou Reed, was one of the most influential musicians, singer-songwriters and (I think it also has to be said) personalities of our times. Guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter of the extraordinarily influential cult band Velvet Underground, he then went on to have a solo career that spanned decades and made him a musician respected and admired by millions. Lou Reed had a reputation as one of the hard men of rock – urban, cynical, ironic, sharp and hip – who wrote about the darker side of city life, but he also wrote songs of immaculate tenderness and beauty (and three of the most covered rock songs in history). It’s said that he was the inspiration of punk, and also said that he was difficult to deal with (he brought at least one admiring interviewer close to tears), but it’s pretty much universally agreed that he was unique – an irreplaceable voice and talent. Lou always believed he had something to say, and he said it whether anyone wanted to hear it or not. His songs are real, his songs are honest, and I do believe that so long as we have music he will be missed and they will never be forgotten.

Lou Reed: He set the twilight reeling.

 

Lou Reed

 

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pushpin2 A HALLOWEEN TALE

All hallows night,
When witches roam,
And restless ghosts
Search for a home.

Tis wise to stay safe in your bed,
The covers drawn above your head.
For you never know just what they’ll do –
And how it may come out for you...

It was Halloween. A night for shape shifters and unquiet spirits; a night when witches ride the wind and bats weave through the trees like fleeing dreams. On this night you can talk through time – consult the cards or the runes or the ouija - can speak with the dead as easily as you pick up a phone and call your best friend.

Though not in my neighborhood. We were all about split-levels and ranch houses and rustic fences. We might decorate with cardboard skeletons and carved pumpkins, but we didn’t really do parallel worlds or chatting with the dead. Halloween for us was little kids in dime-store costumes, teenage boys having a license to harass everyone and bags of cheap candy.

“Let’s go over the rules, one more time,” said my mother.

Outside leaves blew across the yard like sparks and at our front door, pawing the ground and shouting words of encouragement like “Let’s go!” and “What’s taking so long?” were a vampire, two pirates, a pumpkin, a horse, a princess, a fire engine and a giant squid.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Mom.” I flapped my silky black cape (once my mother’s dancing skirt) restlessly. This year I was Morgana la Fay. “We’ve gone trick-or-treating before. We know what to do.”

My sister made a sound like a small pig grunting under a stack of hay – umpfumpfumpfimpf – which I translated as “Give us a break”. This year my sister was a robot. My father had made her costume – an even more elaborate cardboard and papier mâche construction than the dragon of the year before – but his design had some shortcomings (as his designs often did). In this case, the difficulty of hearing what my sister said was one of them.

But my mother had lived with us and our father long enough to know that nobody ever listened to her; and that if they did listen to her they forgot what she said the minute she walked away. She held her arms akimbo, an orange bag emblazoned with a black skull and crossbones dangling from each wrist. “You don’t leave this house until I’m satisfied.”

Since we would have been there till Christmas if my sister went through the drill, I obediently listed my mother’s rules:

1. Stay with your group.

2. Only go to houses that look trick-or-treat friendly (nothing that looks dark or inhospitable; nothing with eggs smashed against the windows or broken pumpkins strewn across the porch; nothing with No Trespassing or Beware of Dog signs).

3. Don’t accept anything that isn’t in a sealed wrapper, including fruit (even in the days before the internet stories of razorblades in apples and rat poison in cupcakes made the rounds of suburban mothers with efficiency and startling speed).

4. Don’t eat anything until you’ve brought it home and your mother has had a chance to inspect it.

5. Even if you think you may die, NEVER use a stranger’s bathroom.

6. If you lose your sister there’s no point in coming home.

“All right.” My mother handed me both bags (another shortcoming of my father’s robot was that my sister couldn’t actually bend her arms). “Have fun you two. Be back by seven or I’m calling the cops.”

 It was dark by the time we’d done all our street and the next one and started on Lakeside Crescent. Also by then a few more shortcomings of my sister’s costume had made themselves known. It was hard for her to walk. This was partly because she was wearing the cardboard and papier mâche equivalent of a trashcan and had to take small steps, and partly because she was wearing the cardboard and papier mâche equivalent of a trashcan and couldn’t see where she was going. She lagged behind. She was constantly stopping to adjust something. She had to be carried up anything over two or three steps. The enchantress doing the carrying got really tired of it really fast. The others – unfettered by my mother’s rules - stopped waiting for us.

The leaves continued to scuttle past us; the night grew cold. Jack-o-lanterns grinned and grimaced from windows and porches. And all around us costumed figures trotted up and down the road, shouting and laughing – and moving unencumbered. Two houses away a vampire, two pirates, a pumpkin, a horse, a princess, a fire engine and a giant squid shrieked with glee as they hurried down a driveway, checking their loot.

“Hurry up,” I urged the robot waddling towards me. “They’re leaving us.”

“Umphumphumphumphumphumphumphu-mphumph,” said my sister. I’m going as fast as I can.

By the time we reached the halfway point, I could just see a pumpkin turning the corner to Polo Drive. Several yards behind me, the silver robot was leaning against a tree.

“Now what?”  I shouted.

My sister was leaning against a tree. “Umphumphumph.” Her legs hurt. “Umphumphumphumoh.” She needed a bathroom.

“Not now,” wailed Morgana. “You have to hold it. We don’t know anybody around here.” She consulted her watch. “And we’re never going to get to half the places if we don’t hurry. There isn’t much time left.” I pointed to the end of the crescent. “You just get to the corner. I’ll collect your treats and meet you there.”

Up and down the front paths and driveways and from one side of the street to the other I went, my skirts swishing, my bangles clanking, my cape flying out behind me. “Trick-or-treat,” I’d say. “Morgana la Fay,” I’d say, and then explain who she was. I’d hold out both bags. “One’s for my sister. That’s her down there.” I’d point to the road. The woman holding the bowl of candy would lean into the night, but she didn’t always see the silvery trashcan shuffling through the shadows. And nor did I. “She’s there,” I’d say. “I promise. She’s having trouble walking.”

I made better progress by myself, but not that much better. When I finally met my sister at the corner there wasn’t a pirate, a horse or a giant squid in sight. In fact, there was no one in sight.

I grabbed my sister’s arm. “You’re just going to have to get those little legs moving,” I said. “Or we’re going to have to start for home now.”

“Umphumphumph,” said my sister.

All of a sudden she wasn’t just walking, she was gliding along as if she were on wheels. Whizzwhizzwhizz. We hit house after house, as if we were knocking down dominos. I didn’t seem to be moving myself, I was just holding on. Polo Drive fell behind us. Our group was conferring at the start of Meister, deciding which houses to miss – who always gave candy corn versus who gave Snickers. We flashed past them, missing nothing. At every door my sister did the talking. “Umphumphumph.” But where before our benefactors would just smile in that vague way people do what they don’t understand what’s being said, now they beamed with delight. “Why of course I have a treat for you.” They’d give her double. “What an amazing costume,” they’d say. “Did you make it yourself?” “Umphumphumph-umphumph.” “Well what a nice daddy you have. Isn’t he talented?”

It was the Halloween I’d always dreamt of. We got to every house in the neighborhood; every last one. I’d never seen our bags so full. And we weren't late. Not even by a couple of minutes.  It was five to seven as we flew up our drive. I was so happy that I didn’t notice that a few candies had fallen out of one of the bags or that my sister had stopped to pick them up.

I ran up to the front door and yanked it open! “We’re back!” I shouted.

My mother and my sister were sitting on the couch, drinking cider and watching TV.

I just stood there, looking at them for a minute, trying to figure out what was wrong.

“What happened to rule number six?” asked my mother. “How could you let your sister come home by herself?”

“But I didn’t,” I protested. “She’s been with me the whole time.”

My mother made one of her oh-really? faces. “No she hasn’t. She needed the john. She dumped the costume and came home. She’s been sitting her for the last half hour.”

“But-” I looked behind me.

There was no one there.

Happy Halloween

 

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pushpin2 NEWS OF THE WORLD

I was sitting in the Hackett’s kitchen, drinking tea and eating tortilla chips with Ethel Hackett (we do live in a global village, after all), when her daughter Lorin came into the room. Not that I realised it was Lorin. I thought Ethel had taken a lodger or had a niece visiting. I’ve lived next to the Hacketts for ten years and known Lorin since she was three, but it was as if I’d never seen her before. This was not, however, because she’d shaved her head, dyed her hair purple, put studs in her face or covered entire body in tattoos of wombats. It was because the most I usually see of Lorin is the top of her head bent over her Ipad, Ipod or Iphone. I probably hadn’t seen her full face for at least two years.

It wasn’t until she said my name that I realized who she was. I dropped the chip I was about to eat. “Oh my God, Lorin, I didn’t recognise you!” I cried. “You look really different without wires coming out of your ears. How are you?”

In response to a question most people consider no more than politeness, Lorin burst into tears.

Her mother shoved the chair beside her out for her, and Lorin obediently slumped into it. Ethel got up to make more tea.

Naturally, I was solicitous and concerned. “What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

Lorin snuffled and sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. When she had composed herself enough to be able to talk, Lorin said that what was the matter was the world. “The world sucks,” judged Lorin.

“Ah.” I sighed. “The world…”

The world, as we know, is not in a very good state at the moment. There isn’t a corner of it that isn’t in some sort of crisis. War. Rebellions. Terrorism. Oppression. Governments pitted against their own citizens. Corruption in politics, in businesses, in banks. Violence against women. Violence against children. Violence against the Earth itself. People being arrested, tortured, and bombed by drones. Basic rights taken away. Privacy eroded. Toxic chemicals in everything. The developed nations plagued by obesity and addiction to prescription drugs; the undeveloped world plagued by poverty and hopelessness. Sweatshops collapsing. Sweatshops not collapsing. Economic disintegration. Environmental degradation. Climate change. The forests levelled. The land gutted and battered. Burning water. Islands of plastic in the oceans. Species dying faster than you can empty a bag of tortilla chips. Etcetera…

Lorin’s voice broke, more tears threatening to flow. “It’s just so hard to take. I don’t know how much I can stand.”

“I blame the pleonexia,” I agreed. “It’s killing the planet and everything on it.”

Lorin reached for a chip. “What? I don’t know what you’re on about.”

“Pleonexia,” I repeated. “Excessive greed. It’s the defining concept of our times. Everything’s about profit. Everything’s for sale.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” said Lorin. “I meant what happened to Justin Bieber.”

The name was familiar. I was fairly certain Justin Bieber wasn’t trying to bring peace to the Middle East, but I wasn’t quite sure who he is. “Who?”

Lorin groaned. “Justin Bieber. The mega pop star? I can’t believe you never heard of him.”

I snapped my fingers. “I have heard of him. I know who you mean. The kid who said that if Anne Frank hadn’t died in a concentration camp she would have been a fan of his. What do you call them? A Beeber?”

“A Belieber.” Lorin groaned again. “So  you didn’t hear what happened to him?”

I shook my head. “I reckon I’ve been sort of gripped by what’s happening in Syria.”

Lorin gave me an indignant look. “Well, he was attacked, that’s what happened. In a night club where he was just trying to hang out like a regular person.”

It seemed to me that he’d succeeded then, since regular people are constantly being attacked.

“That’s not funny,” Lorin informed me.

I looked contrite. “Was he hurt?”

“No. I don’t think the other bloke actually landed a punch.”

I decided not to make any jokes about publicity stunts.

“And then they threw him out,” went on Lorin.

“They threw out Justin Bieber?”

She rolled her eyes. “No of course not. They threw out the attacker.”

“So everything’s all right. Justice rules.”

“Not really. I mean, it did happen, you know.” The indignation was now in her voice. “What kind of world do we live in? We’re supposed to be civilised. How can something like that happen?”

I shrugged. “It’s a mystery. These are very troubled times.”

Lorin took another chip and frowned at it thoughtfully. “So, Dyan,” said Lorin. “Who’s Anne Frank?”

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pushpin2 THE REALLY COLD WAR - PART 2

It was a Saturday afternoon in early Spring. We had made it through a difficult winter – severe snow storms, power cuts, my mother becoming obsessed with making her own pasta (imagine boiled bread), the paterfamilias taking a life-unenhancing dislike to consumerism and my sister being especially unreasonable – and here we were, waiting for the first buds to open and the sweaters, scarves and parkas to be packed away. 

The telephone rang in the living room.

My father was in Milwaukee, doing whatever it was he did. My mother was on a ladder in the kitchen, repainting the ceiling after the Great Pressure Cooker Explosion. The GPCE had taken place on Thursday, not long after my father left on his business trip. The idea was to remove all traces of Hungarian goulash before he got back. My sister was in the living room, recuperating from a cold and watching a movie. I was also in the living room, half watching the movie while I dried my hair, enhanced my complexion under a cleansing mask and did my nails. I had a Big Date. 

“Somebody want to get that?” called my mother.

Bringbringbringbringbringbring…

Just then the egg timer beside me went off.

“Would somebody get the phone?” she repeated, slightly louder this time.

“I can’t!” I shouted back. My twenty minutes were up. “I have to get this stuff off my face...”

Bringbringbringbringbringbring…

“Somebody better answer that!” roared my mother, that edge in her voice that reminded you that women can also be warriors. “If I have to climb down from this ladder to answer that phone you’re both going to wish you’d been born to someone else!”

“Oh I guess that means me!” bellowed my sister, her voice slightly shrill with martyrdom and indignation. My sister, a slender, sprite-like creature, got up and marched the few feet from the sofa to the phone as if she had cement boots on her feet, making the floor tremble and the pictures rattle on the walls. “I have to do everything around here!”

“If it’s for me, say I’m busy and I’ll call them back,” my mother ordered.

“Yeahyeahyeah…”

Bringbringbringbr—

“Hello?” The shrillness and the bellowing had vanished, replaced by a sweet, delicate lilt, so that whoever was on the other end could be forgiven for thinking he or she had misdialed and been connected to heaven. “Oh, hi…No, I’m sorry, but she’s really busy right now…”

I headed for the bathroom.

My big date was with Richard Schaeffer. He sat in front of me in English. We were reading Hamlet that semester. Richard Schaeffer was more a Raymond Chandler than a Shakespeare kind of guy. It was my job to kick the back of his chair if he started to doze. So it was possible that he’d asked me out not because he liked me but because he was grateful. But I didn’t care. If you didn’t count Lisa Mackle’s cousin from New Hampshire – which I didn’t – this was my first real date. We were going to a movie. After the movie we were going to the diner for burgers and fries (“So, you know, don’t eat a big supper or you won’t want anything later”), and then his father would pick us up and drive me home (since the night she mistook the Ingrahams driveway for a road my mother avoided driving in the dark as much as possible). I had no problem talking to Richard in school, but I was worried that I might not know what to say to him when we were by ourselves. I didn’t want to talk too much, but I didn’t want to talk too little either. When I’d gone out with Lisa Mackle’s cousin (for pizza with Lisa and her boyfriend Luke), the conversation between us had pretty much stopped after “Hi, nice to meet you.” My main memory of the evening was of smiles as rigid as stone and chewing. He told me seven times that the pizza was really good, and I agreed nine.

It took me a while to get all the goop off my face, take a shower, do my hair, do my make-up and get dressed. When I finally emerged from the bathroom, instead of telling me how great I looked, my mother said, “Thank God for that. I’d thought you’d drowned.” My sister didn’t say anything.

It had been over a month since I pushed my sister into the artificial pond at the mall, but she still wasn’t speaking to me. Stubbornness is a trait on both sides of my family. I’d pretty much gotten used to it. If I did need to say something to her I’d go through one of my parents or whoever else was around (“Could you ask my sister if she’s seen my bead loom?” “Would you please tell my sister that I wasn’t the one who finished the banana cake?”), but most of the time we both acted as if the other one didn’t exist. It was like being an only child in the sense that I didn’t have anyone to argue with all the time.

I was meeting Richard in front of the theater, and because of this I’d told my mother I was meeting him at six, which was actually fifteen minutes earlier than we’d arranged. I didn’t want him to see her in her overalls with Mediterranean Gold paint in her hair.

So at six o’clock sharp my mother left me off in front of the old movie house in town.  I watched her do one of her legendary U-turns in the middle of Main Street, and waved her goodbye. It started to rain. I moved into the foyer. Couples started arriving for the six-thirty show. The six-thirty show started. The ticket booth closed. The rain got heavier. I continued to wait.

You have to remember that this story takes place a long long time ago, in the primitive days when a phone was either in your home or in a booth. They didn’t go with you wherever you went, ready to be used whether you were on a bus or at the dentist’s. Which meant that you couldn’t just text your date and say WHR R U? That if a truck full of sheep had turned over on Clay Drive and blocked traffic for the next two hours he wasn’t going to be able to call you to tell you to go in without him, he’d meet you at the diner. So I continued to wait.

At seven-fifteen, though it hadn’t occurred to me yet that he had rung while I was drying my hair to say that he’d sprained his ankle jumping out of a tree and couldn’t make our date, I finally figured out that Richard wasn’t coming. It was three miles from our house to town. They were long, dark miles even when it wasn’t raining in a vengeful kind of way. There was a phone booth down by the bank so I turned up the collar on my non-waterproof jacket and made a dash for it. I had just enough change to call home to beg my mother to come and get me.

My sister answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said. “Can you get Mom?”

My sister hung up.

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pushpin2 THE REALLY COLD WAR - PART 1

My sister stopped speaking to me after the incident at the James Fennimore Cooper Mall. (That would be the incident where, berserk with rage, I pushed her into the artificial pond.) Even though I was the one who got dragged off by the security guard and banned from the mall for the next hundred years, I’d been made to apologize to my sister as if I were the one in the wrong. “I’m sorry I shoved you into the water,” I’d said, sounding about as sincere as a politician caught padding his expense account. “I was in a blind rage. You know, because you stole my new skirt and were wearing it like it was yours and getting it all dirty and sweaty.” My sister refused to accept my apology. “You weren't blind,” said my sister. “You knew it was me you were pushing into the pond. I could have drowned.” I said that was doubtful. The pond was only knee deep, and, anyway, unlike some of us my sister could swim. “The next time I talk to you will be to say good-bye at your funeral,” said my sister. I pretended to cry. Boohoo.

Obviously, it wasn’t the first time my sister had stopped speaking to me in the years we’d known each other. The silent treatment was something that, like dusk and dawn, happened with a certain amount of regularity and inevitability. But my sister liked to talk. Even as a small child, she fell asleep in the middle of one sentence and woke in the middle of another. My father, himself a man of few words, used six of them to sum of my sister: “She always has something to say.” This meant that the periods of silence between us never lasted that long. Half a day. A day. Two days the time I kidnapped her cat. Four the time she found her toothbrush in the toilet. But this time my sister was Really Serious.

The first I began to suspect how really serious my sister was about her vow of silence was that same night at supper when I asked her to pass me the salt. She kept talking to my mother about how she might as well move to Siberia and raise reindeer for company if she couldn’t have her own phone. [NB: this was years before everybody not only had their own phone, but carried it around with them twenty-four-seven.]

“Excuse me,” I said. “Could you pass me the salt?”

“Everybody I know has their own phone,” said my sister. “It’s like having your own hairbrush.”

Since I could tell that she wasn’t talking to me (she certainly wasn’t looking at me), I repeated my request. And then I repeated it again. And again. And once more, just for good measure.

My father finally heard me. “For Pete’s sake,” he muttered. “I’m trying to eat my meal in peace. Will you let your sister have the salt? She sounds like a broken record.”

My sister looked over at him with the same sweet smile she’d given him the time he fell off my uncle’s boat. “Oh, I’m sorry, Dad. Did you want the salt?” She handed it to him, and then went back to her conversation with my mother.

My father passed me the salt.

Disbelief moved in next to indignation as I stared at the side of my sister’s head as she continued to entertain my mother with the gruesome details of the destruction and devastation not having her own phone would cause her social life. She would be ostracized. Mocked. Never have another date as long as she lived.

“Wait a minute!” I snapped. “Does this mean that you’re seriously not speaking to me? Is that what this means?”

“Even Amie Schneider has her own phone, and she doesn’t have any friends,” said my sister.

“Hey!” I leaned over and gave her a shove. “Are you not listening to me, too? Is that what’s going on?”

“Mom,” said my sister, “could you tell your other daughter not to touch me? Because I really don’t want her germs on me.”

“Tell her yourself,” said my mother.

“I don’t believe this!” I stood up, taller than usual. “You’re not speaking to me!”

“Dad,” said my sister. “Could you tell your other daughter that I’m not speaking to her, and that I’m never speaking to her again as long as I live. And I don’t want to hear her voice, either. That even if we were alone in the house and it was on fire I wouldn’t tell her and that if she told me I’d rather burn to death than let her know I heard her?”

My father cut a porcupine meatball in half. [NB: porcupine meatballs were a specialty of my mother’s. They contained no porcupine. Just rice and minced beef. She was an imaginative cook.]

“No,” said my father. “I won’t do that. You tell her.”

“You’re not speaking to me?” The parakeet started screeching and pacing back and forth on his swing, making the bell ring. “You can’t be serious! After what you did? You're not speaking to me?

My sister stood up, too, facing but not looking at me. “Tell her that’s right! I’m not speaking to her.” These instructions were either meant for the parakeet, who seemed to be having a nervous breakdown, or for the dog, who could be seen curled up on my father’s chair in the living room, snoring gently. They certainly weren't meant for our parents, who had picked up their plates and moved into the kitchen. “Tell her that this time she’s gone way too far!”

“I’ve gone too far!’ My voice crackled with indignation. “What are you talking about ‘I’ve gone too far’? I’m the innocent victim here!”

“Remind her that she tried to drown me. If there hadn’t been people around to help me out I would be another tragic statistic. A headline on a supermarket tabloid: Girl goes to watery grave while shoppers look on in horror. Hand of Death belonged to her only sibling.” 

“You were never in any danger! You were in the mall! There were like hundreds of people there. And it was an artificial pond. Not the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Remind her that people have drowned in puddles!” screamed my sister.

“But you’re the one who thieved my skirt!” I roared. “Remember that? Remember the part where you thieved my skirt?”

“I didn’t steal her stupid skirt,” bellowed my sister. “I borrowed it.”

“Don’t worry about not speaking to me,” I informed her. “Because I wouldn’t speak to you if you were the last person on the Earth. I’d rather wear a girdle! I’d rather spent the rest of my life walking on my hands!”

That was the kind of taunt that should have provoked a response like, “I wish you’d get boils all over your body” from my sister. But not this time. She clamped her mouth shut and said nothing, picking up her plate and following my parents into the kitchen. The Really Cold War had officially begun.

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pushpin2 A KIND OF LONG STORY
(otherwise known as: Why I Attacked My Sister in the James Fennimore Cooper Mall)

“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” asked my mother. Her arms were folded across her chest (possibly to stop her from pulling out her hair) and her expression suggested that she was being diplomatic, but only with a lot of effort.

I raised the drill, ready to finish putting the screws in place. “No, I don’t think I’m being melodramatic. I think I’m being practical.”

She raised her voice to be heard over the drill. “Putting a padlock on your door.” It wasn’t a question but it sounded like it was.

“That’s right. If I can’t leave my room for ten seconds without having it burgled, then I’m making sure no one can get in. That’s called being practical.” I stepped back to survey my handiwork. There were a few more holes than there needed to be, but it wasn’t too bad. It would do the job. I smiled. “It’s either this or hire a security guard with a dog.”

My mother gave one of her you-don’t-have-to-be-crazy-to-live-here-but-it-helps sighs. “I don’t know what people are going to think when they come to the house and see you’ve got a your room locked up like it’s Fort Knox.”

“They’ll think I live with a thief, that’s what they’ll think,” I snapped back.

Right on cue, my sister’s door opened and her head appeared. “Just make sure you tell them how you tried to kill me!” yelled my sister. “Most people are more sympathetic to thieves than murderers!”

 

It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon. The James Fennimore Cooper Mall was filled with people of all ages, sizes, shapes, colors and religious beliefs happily buying things they didn’t need and in many cases would never use. There was laughter and smiling. There was music. The artificial waterfall splashed into the artificial pond. The colorful plastic bags bobbed along like party balloons. Bored looking men stood outside of stores, bags of shopping clumped around them like presents around a Christmas tree, glancing at their watches every few seconds. Small children dripped ice cream and soda. Huddles of boys sat together on benches or strolled the walkways with their hands in their pockets, telling each other bad jokes. Small herds of girls, the special endorphins only generated by shopping making them shine, moved from store to store like grazing cattle moving across a field. Except for a few bickering couples and crying kids, all was peaceful and content in the James Fennimore Cooper Mall.

But suddenly this scene of tranquility and ordinary bliss was shattered by a heart-piercing scream.  People looked up, frozen in the moment like startled gazelles.  Only the three teenage girls over by the pond, engrossed in deciding where to go for lunch, didn’t hear the scream.

Which, as it turned out, was unfortunate.

Another scream, closer and even more piercing than the first, echoed through the west side of the first floor.  Even the girls debating the merits of pizza over pastrami heard that. The very pretty one with the pin-straight hair and eyes the same shade of cornflower blue as the skirt she was wearing looked up just in time to see someone in a perfectly aged but tragically stained denim jacket charging towards her, hair flying and face contorted in rage. “Stop!” shrieked the girl. “What do-”

But her words were lost in a mighty splash as she toppled backwards into the pond.

I hadn’t planned to go to the mall that weekend.

Kammy’s parents were away and I was staying with her to keep her company and to stay up half the night watching old movies and eating junk food. Mrs Cole had taped notes to what she considered Danger Points around the house. [DO NOT USE DISHWASHER on the dishwasher. REFILL ICE CUBE TRAYS on the ice cube trays. DO NOT FLUSH GALLONS OF POP CORN DOWN The TOILET on the toilet. Etcetera…] Besides the notes, she left pages of typewritten general instructions on what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and whom we should call when, despite all her advice, we messed up.

“Is she unbelievable or what?” thundered Kammy. “You’d think they were going away for a month and she was expecting war to break out. We aren’t children, for God’s sake. I think we can make it through the weekend without any of this stuff happening.”

And Kammy, of course, was right. We didn’t lock ourselves in the attic, we didn’t set fire to the dryer and we didn’t blow all the fuses. In fact, none of the possible disasters envisioned by Mrs Cole occurred.

We turned the kettle into charcoal.

We put it on to make coffee and forgot about it. It had a whistle, but we didn’t hear the whistle because we were playing The Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the right volume (loud enough to wake the dead). The Coles had a smoke alarm, but it had been inactivated weeks before when Mr Cole made blackened fish (and slightly blackened ceiling). 

Kammy and I stared at the charred remains of the kettle, the handle flopped over to one side like a fence that’s been hit by a heavy wind.

“Oh, Gawd…” groaned Kammy. “She’s going to murder me.” She used the fire tongs to lift the kettle into the sink. Just in case it suddenly exploded and pieces of hot metal flew around the kitchen like leaves in a storm. “You’d think she’d’ve had the sense to put a note on the freakin’ kettle, wouldn’t you? She’s put notes on everything else.”

“I guess she figured we knew this one.” This had happened before. Which is how we knew about putting the kettle in the sink and how much like leaves in a wind exploding metal can be.

“Well, she was wrong, wasn’t she?” said Kammy.

I tried to look on the bright side. “At least we didn’t spill Dragon’s Blood nail polish all over her denim jacket.”

 

My sister was always borrowing my things. That is, she called it borrowing. I called it taking without permission, which, according to Webster, is stealing. Shoes, socks, dresses, jeans, skirts and blouses, music, books, jewelry - everything that belonged to me was fair game. It was as if my room was the jungle and she was the illegal logger or the poacher after bush meat.

And as if it wasn’t enough just to help herself to MY PERSONAL POSSESSIONS, she would shorten my skirts and stretch out my tops. She’d lose my earrings and loan my albums to people who also never gave them back. She put holes in my socks.

She dumped half a bottle of Dragon’s Blood nail polish all over my denim jacket. My beautiful, washed-out jacket with the fraying cuffs. It had taken me ages to get that jacket to that state of perfection. And it had taken her approximately thirty seconds to destroy it.

My sister, of course, was sorry. She just wanted to wear it bowling because it was so cool. She was going to put it back in my closet before I even noticed it was gone. The nail polish was an accident. It wasn’t like she did it on purpose.

“Stay away from my things!” I screamed. “I mean it. If you so much as lay one finger on anything of mine unless it’s to get it out of the way of a herd of stampeding wildebeest I’m going to make you wish you were born to slaves in ancient Rome!”

My sister promised. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

But not for long, it seemed.

Because as Kammy and I rode down the escalator with the new kettle from Happy Home Housewares, what did I see but my sister standing there with her friends, wearing MY NEW SKIRT. What a fool I’d been! Naïve! Trusting! I’d actually believed that I could go away for an entire weekend and my sister wouldn’t jump at the chance of plundering my room.

I, like you, had heard the expression “I was beside myself with rage”, but it wasn’t until that moment on the escalator that I realized what it meant. I really was beside myself. There I was, a regular teenager in a ruined jacket only a few steps away from the main plaza – and beside me, huge and demented, was the Terminator, programmed to destroy the girl with the pin-straight hair in the blue skirt without question or thought.

It was the Terminator who screamed.

It was the Terminator who leapt the last few steps and sprinted towards the pond.

It was the Terminator who shoved my sister into the water.

But I was the one who had to be picked up by my father from the security office of the James Fennimore Cooper Mall.

“What on earth got into you?” asked my father as we got in the car.

I shrugged. “It’s kind of a long story.”

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pushpin2KEVIN

Kevin was a quiet sort of chap who disliked loud noises (or even not that loud noises) and sudden movements (or even not that sudden). He was so quiet that sometimes he seemed to be invisible. There were frequent visitors and workmen who never saw him because as soon as the bell rang Kevin was under the bed – or under the bathtub or squashed up into an impossibly small, dark space behind the sofa. (If he’d been a person and not a cat he would have been a magician to rival Harry Houdini.) 

Kevin always looked worried. He would sit at the top of the stairs, or in the hall, or beside your chair, and no matter how sunny the day or happy the mood you would gaze at Kevin and think: He knows something I don’t know… And you’d peer out the window in case an alien spaceship had landed in the garden and creatures that looked like armed, upright reptiles were marching towards the door You’d pick up your umbrella and an anorak as you headed to the shops even if everyone else was in shirtsleeves and shorts. You’d wonder what the chances were of an earthquake in London.

But for all his nervousness and angst, Kevin was one of the best cats ever. Affectionate and companionable. Always willing to share your goat’s cheese or your crisps or drink out of your water glass. Always happy to sit on your lap for hours whilst you worked on the computer or watched a film. Really good at head butts and gentle wakings at dawn.

We all miss him.

Kevin

Kevin D
27 June 1999 – 27 April 2013

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pushpin2HUMOURLESS FEMINISTS AND THE AGE OF SORRY

I haven’t been keeping an exact count, but I have noticed that in the last year or so the number of public apologies has taken a sharp upward turn. It seems like every week there is at least one politician/pop star/banker/celebrity/spiritual leader/fashion icon/media mogul saying that *he’s sorry for cheating/lying/defrauding the public/racial abuse/ breaking his holy vows/brawling/trashing the show that has made him a fortune/bringing the world to a financial crisis of epic proportions/various criminal acts including hacking the phones of murder victims.

As abject apologies go, there are one or two very interesting things about this new form of saying sorry.

Firstly, the apologiser always seems more surprised than anyone else at what he’s done. They stand there in their suits, all spruced up and respectable, looking constipated if not actually anguished, metaphorically slapping their foreheads and wondering how something like this could have happened. To them, of all people As if they had nothing to do with it. They were just sitting there, minding their own business, when suddenly they found themselves on vacation with a woman who wasn’t their wife, or claiming dog food on their expenses, or bringing down the Greek government.

Secondly, the apologiser is rarely saying he’s sorry for what he did. Instead, he apologises not for what he did but for being caught doing it.

We are now talking about the founder of the Solid Gold Bomb company. As a glowing example of what I mean. In case you’ve forgotten, Solid Gold Bomb is the company that made a range of T-shirts, sold by Amazon, that featured the phrase ‘Keep Calm and…’ The original phrase, of course, is Keep Calm and Carry On, which comes from a British government propaganda poster of the Second World War, intended to boost morale and keep people from panicking at the threat of invasion. But here in the twenty-first century, when, apparently, people will buy anything, it’s been adapted to cover a range of activities that have nothing to do with foreign occupation. Keep Calm and Carry on Diving… Singing… Fishing… Sailing… Kickboxing… Drumming… Caving… Walking Your Dog… Keep Calm and Love Justin Bieber.

And, most innovatively, Keep Calm and Hit Her.**

Given the shocking and appalling global statistics of violence against women and girls, this was, perhaps, not the best advice (or even necessary). Feminists, for reasons I don’t understand, are often portrayed as humourless (though what the joke of these T-shirts could possibly be also escapes me) and easily offended. But it wasn’t only feminists who reacted with fury and indignation. An almighty fuss was made.

Enough of a fuss to finally bring to the attention of both the Solid Gold Bomb company and Amazon that they were selling something so inflammatory. My were they surprised! Good grief, how did that happen? The explanation, according to Solid Gold Bomb’s founder, is that its clever and interesting slogans come from an automated process. A process that, obviously, no one ever checks. They just print out T-shirts willy-nilly without ever seeing what they are. Amazon, too, doesn’t check what it’s selling.

Both were, of course, really sorry. But it’s the Solid Gold Bomb statement that best encapsulates the Age of Sorry Apology. Here’s what the founder said: ‘I apologise for the offensive response this has created across the world.’

How brilliant is that? He’s not sorry for the offensive T-shirts; and he’s not sorry for suggesting that it’s okay to beat up women (which also implies, of course, that attitudes to women haven’t changed as much as we think). He’s sorry for the offensive response to the T-shirts! Which is the one thing that had nothing to do with him

Even Rupert Murdoch couldn’t top that.

 

* To be fair here, sometimes the apologiser is a woman, but usually the ‘he’s' do seem to be in the forefront of this movement.

** There was a second T-shirt that is so gobsmackingly offensive that I can’t even bring myself to repeat it. Both T-shirts were pretty swiftly removed from sale. Once the manufacturer and seller were made aware of them.

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pushpin2SAINT CHLOE - PART 3

No one in my family had ever lived with a saint before - or given any thought to what it might be like. Ours was a typical suburban neighbourhood. We had mechanics, builders, plumbers and factory workers. We had office workers, teachers and housewives. We had people who worked in banks and stores and restaurants, one pizza parlour owner, a couple of truckers and a dentist – but there wasn’t a saint among us.

If we had given any thought to what it might be like to live with a saint we would have based our expectations on what we’d been told in church, Sunday school and Hollywood movies. Which means that we would have thought it would pretty much be an all-around good thing. Peaceful. Pleasant. Every moment filled with sweetness and light. You know that scene in the Disney animation of Snow White where Snow is skipping along and singing sweetly, accompanied by adorable birds and cute little woodland animals? We would have imagined that living with a saint was something like that (but without the cartoon creatures and soundtrack). There wouldn’t be any of the complications you get with regular people, who have tempers and bad moods and are liable to stop speaking to you because of a heated Scrabble game or to turn the sprinkler on you if you take a shortcut over their lawn.

But then my cousin Chloe came to stay with us for the summer. Since she was our cousin (and we were the ones on vacation), my sister and I had the job of keeping Chloe busy and entertained, but this turned out to be a lot harder than you’d think. Where we lived, the kids spent a lot of the summer on the beach. Chloe, however, wouldn’t go to the beach because saints don’t wear bathing suits. Picnics, movies, bowling, tennis and bike and boat rides were also out because Chloe felt that if these things weren't actually the work of the devil they were still a distraction from what she was supposed to be doing (so probably Satan was in favour of them). And that summer she’d decided that what she was supposed to be doing was saving souls. Since we were the only people she knew or spent any time with, Chloe decided to save my sister and me. 

“If she doesn’t lay off us, I’m going to help her get to heaven a lot sooner than she planned,” whispered my sister.

Chloe wasn’t really a saint, of course. She was a wannabe saint. But she was definitely trying hard.

“You can’t kill her,” I whispered back. “Mom would notice.”

My sister and I were whispering because we were in the basement. Normally, the only time we went down to the basement (which was basically a concrete bunker with an oil tank, our father’s workbench, things no one wanted but hadn’t thrown out, a washing machine and dryer and a large population of spiders in it) was when our mother  involved us in the laundry, but since Chloe’s arrival it was one of the few places in the house where we could have any privacy for more than a minute and a half. Chloe moved swiftly and silently, and, because saving souls requires constant vigilance, rarely let us out of her sight.

 “We have to do something.” My sister’s eyes almost seemed to glow in the darkness of the cellar. Possibly diabolically. “I can’t take much more of this.”

“And I can? I’m the one who’s sleeping on the floor because Chloe has to be closer to heaven.”

“Yeah, but she didn’t take down all the hems on your skirts, did she?”

The only reason my skirts had been spared divine interference was because I didn’t wear them so short their original purpose was largely irrelevant.

“She burned my books on the barbecue.”

My father had finished incinerating the chicken and we were all on the patio, eating our supper and claiming to love the taste of charred flesh, when my mother noticed the soaring flames where there should have been dying embers. Judy Blume, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Joseph Heller, J. D. Salinger and James Baldwin, all up in smoke. Reasons varied.

“She gave away most of my shoes!”

“I told you to put them in the attic.”

The great shoe giveaway was done on the basis of need. As in, Chloe said my sister didn’t need ten pairs of shoes when there were people in the world who didn’t even have one. Leaving my sister with one pair of dress shoes, one pair of sneakers, her everyday pumps and the elephant slippers.

But I could still beat that. “She put all the money I was saving in the collection plate.”

According to Chloe, whose logic was not of this kingdom, taking my savings without asking and donating it to the church wasn’t stealing. It would only be stealing if she’d taken the money for herself and not for God. There was also the fact that I’d been saving up for some new albums – albums that were just a few more signposts on the road to Hell. Chloe wasn’t just in the business of saving my soul, she was saving me from myself.

“I told you to bury it,” said my sister.

I sighed. “It really is too bad we can’t just bury her.”

My sister said she had a better idea.

“We’re going to give all her things away to the church thrift store?”

My sister smiled. This was definitely a the-devil-has-a-really-good- plan smile. “Even better. We’re going to make her an angel.”

Be an Angel was a summer program run by our local church for its teenagers, but instead of taking them to the pool or camping or anything like that it sent them around to members of the parish who needed help. The angels did things like mowed lawns, cleaned out attics, and washed windows. If they’d been being paid for their labour it would have been called doing odd jobs, instead it was more like being a volunteer serf.  Chloe, for all her good deeds - donating my money, giving my sister’s things away, coercing Aunt Sophie into feeding the homeless – was never seen to do anything that actually inconvenienced her.

I gazed at my sister with new respect. Respect tinged with fear. “Can we do that?”

“Just watch me,” said my sister.


My sister and I were always up before Chloe. This was partly because the righteous tend to sleep well, but it was also because it gave us a couple of happy hours without her.  

But on this particular Monday morning, it was still so early that we were all in bed when my mother started banging on the door. “Chloe!” she called. “Chloe! Father Burns is here for you!”

My sister rolled over. I opened one eye. Chloe sat up so fast she banged her head against the picture of Jesus on the wall behind her.

“Father Burns?” Father Burns was the rector of our church and, if his sermons were anything to go by, a priest with such a close relationship with Jesus that he could tell you what He was thinking about absolutely anything. Chloe loved him. “Tell him I’ll be right there.” She must have thought he’d dropped by because he’d had a divine message that she really was going to be a saint.

Neither my sister nor I moved while Chloe jumped down from the top bunk and quickly pulled on her clothes, humming “Jacob’s Ladder” under her breath. But as soon as the bedroom door shut behind her we were on our feet and in the landing, crouched behind the railing with a view of the front door.

Father Burns was a large man who filled the doorway like a screen. “There she is!” he cried as Chloe hurried down the stairs. Father Burns always spoke very loudly, presumably because he spent a lot of time talking to Heaven. “Our newest angel!”

Chloe stopped like the fridge in a power cut. She wasn’t stupid; she instantly knew what was going on. You could hear her smile at Father Burns.

“I’m so glad you decided to join the Be an Angel program,” boomed Father Burns. “We’re very short-handed this summer.” Father Burns shook his head. Sadly. “I’m afraid that many young people would rather go swimming than help their neighbours. But I should have known I could count on you.”

Chloe started moving again. Slowly, as if she’d forgotten how to do stairs. We couldn’t see her face, of course, but we could picture it.

At that moment my mother came charging out from the kitchen with a paper bag in her hand. “I made you a lunch,” she said to Chloe. “But you should have told me you were doing this. I would’ve made sure you were up in time to have some breakfast.“

Father Burns reached out and took hold of Chloe’s shoulder. “Don’t worry yourself,” he said to my mother. “We have a box of crackers in the bus. Come on, Chloe. We have a big day ahead of us.” 

Chloe turned to look over her shoulder as he lead her out.

My sister and I waved through the balusters.

Chloe made a gesture I didn’t think she knew.

“She’s going to hell for that,” said my sister.

 

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pushpin2SAINT CHLOE - PART 2

The story so far: My cousin Chloe, traumatized by the death of Flicker, her gold fish, and the realization that she, too, would some day be found metaphorically floating at the top of her aquarium, decided to cheat death by becoming a saint. Which, as far as I know, would make her the first saint ever to come from Queens. In case you’re worried that this means Chloe was going to be thrown to the lions or burned at the stake, it doesn’t. Chloe was going to become a saint through holiness and good deeds, not martyrdom. Selfless suffering wasn’t really in her nature. Not (we soon learned) unless it was somebody else’s.

In the six months following Chloe’s decision to have her own feast day and statues made of her, the weekly telephone reports on her progress glowed like an aura. Aunt Sophie couldn’t get over the change in her youngest child. She had been transformed from a normal little girl who cried, had tantrums and once came uncomfortably close to throwing the tortoise off the roof, to the daughter of every mother’s dreams. Always pleasant, always obedient; sweetness and light given human form. Or so Aunt Sophie said. “I don’t know about being a saint,” said Aunt Sophie, “but she sure is an angel.”

In June my mother invited Chloe to leave the hot, humid city behind and come out to Long Island to stay with us for a few weeks. This was a generous offer, made because Aunt Sophie mentioned that poor Chloe was going to alone all summer while her sister was in the Adirondacks breathing air and staring up at stars not light pollution. It wasn’t until Sophie arrived that my mother realized Aunt Sophie had set her up.

Which meant that my sister and I had been set up, too. As we all stood on the porch that summer morning after Aunt Sophie left and Chloe asked after the homeless of eastern Long Island, my sister and I exchanged a look. It was in our room that Chloe would be living while she was with us. It was in our company that Chloe would spend her time. She had acquired an other-worldly smile that your average adult would consider angelic – but my sister and I knew better.  We were going to have a really long summer.

A really long summer that started as soon as Chloe entered our room.

Obviously, we knew she’d be bringing clothes with her, and we’d obediently made room in the closet and the dresser so she wouldn’t have to “live out of a suitcase like a travelling salesman” (my mother’s words). But we hadn’t expected her to be bringing anything else. Well, maybe her diary and the piece of blanket she’d slept with since she was a baby, but nothing major.

“What are you doing?” asked my sister as Chloe started to remove my sister’s things from the top of her dresser by flinging them onto the nearest bed.

“You’ll have to do something with all this,” said Chloe. She was still smiling like a cherub watching a kitten play, but her voice was the voice of Joseph Stalin giving an order. “I need room for my things.”

“Your things?”  My sister wasn’t a Russian peasant, used to subservience and fear. “This happens to be my room. What about my things?”

“I told you.” Chloe’s voice was soft as rabbit fur and as sweet as gumdrops. She reached for the statue of Frida Kahlo my sister made in art class. “I need room for my things.”

My sister snatched Frida out of Chloe’s hands before she could be tossed on top of her jewellery box. “And I need room for my-” The end of my sister’s sentence never made it out of her mouth. She was staring at the display Chloe was arranging on top of her dresser. “What the heck is all that?” gasped my sister.

What “it” was were several plastic glow-in-the-dark holy figures, a very large crucifix, and a Nativity scene snow globe.

“You can’t talk like that,” Chloe informed her. “God will strike you down.”

“It’s a small room,” muttered my sister.” Maybe he’ll miss me.”

Fortunately, Chloe didn’t hear her. She’d taken a picture of Jesus from her bag and was taping it to the wall behind the top bunk bed.

Through all of this I’d been too astonished to actually speak, but now the ability to form words returned. “Excuse me, Chloe,” I said. “But what are you doing?”

“I always sleep with Our Saviour close by,” she informed me.

“But that’s not your bed. That’s my bed. You have the cot.”

“Oh, I can’t sleep on that,” said Chloe. “I need to be closer to heaven.”

 

That night, while Chloe was talking to God (probably about us) and my sister and I were watching TV, my mother finally got Aunt Sophie on the telephone.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that she’s been bringing homeless people to dinner for the last six months,” said my mother.

Aunt Sophie said she didn’t see any reason to mention it. “It’s not like the suburbs are filled with people pushing shopping carts through the streets.”

This, of course, was before the economic troubles of the present day, so Aunt Sophie did have a point.

“Besides, she’s not going to do anything like that at your house, is she? She’s a guest. I’m sure even St Francis didn’t turn up for a visit with a flock of birds.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said my mother. “She asked where the homeless people are.”

“And you told her there aren’t any, so that’s the end of it.” Aunt Sophie was the family optimist.

“What about Grace?” demanded my mother. “You kept pretty quiet about that, too.”

Aunt Sophie rose to her own defence. “I told you she says Grace. I know I told you that.”

“You didn’t say it takes her fifteen minutes.”

“It doesn’t always,” said Aunt Sophie.

This statement, of course, could be interpreted in two ways. That it sometimes took Chloe much less time to thank the Lord for the night’s stuffed peppers or meatloaf. Or that it sometimes (possibly often) took her much longer. Aunt Sophie had once broken the news that she’d lost my mother’s red leather jacket by saying she “couldn’t remember” where it was. Which is why mother opted for the second interpretation.

“Oh my God!” gasped my mother. “Are you saying it can take her longer? How much longer?”

“Maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes.” Uncle Sylvie could be heard shouting in the background. “Okay, now and then she can go to thirty or forty.” Uncle Sylvie shouted again. “That was Easter,” Aunt Sophie yelled back to him. “Easter doesn’t count.”

“At least there aren’t any major religious holy days in the summer.” Possibly inspired by her niece, my mother was already counting her blessings.

“So leaving aside that she gets a little carried away with her good deeds and her praying, there are a lot worse things she could be into.”

Which was not a statement with which anyone could argue. The papers and magazines were filled with stories of teenagers lost to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – to name but three.

“And isn’t she being helpful?” Aunt Sophie continued.

My mother admitted that, in terms of being helpful, Chloe was the daughter she’d never had. She set and cleared the table without being asked. She washed and dried the dishes. She had already ascertained the location of the vacuum cleaner.

“Let me ask you a question,” said my mother. “When she brought these homeless people to dinner, did you feed them?”

“Usually I gave them take-outs,” said Aunt Sophie. “Unless it was snowing. I couldn’t bear the thought of Christ eating spaghetti and meatballs in the snow.”

 

To be continued…


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pushpin2SAINT CHLOE - PART 1

In December all anyone thinks about are presents, trees, sleigh bells and jolly old elves. What we want to do is shop, have a good time, and eat too many cookies. Then along comes January, and the background music changes from “White Christmas” to something played on an organ that sounds suspiciously like a dirge. The New Year has arrived, and with it the time for resolutions. This year is going to be different to last year. Better. We’re going to stop doing the things we shouldn‘t do and start doing the things we should do. Out with the snack foods and in with the celery sticks. Out with doing your homework at the last minute and in with learning to play the cello. We’ve all been there, done that – and probably done it again.

But my cousin Chloe was different. Chloe didn’t decide to stop borrowing her sister’s things without asking or to do better at school. She didn’t want to lose five pounds or take up archery. This story is about the year Chloe resolved to become a saint.

Chloe’s quest for sainthood came as a surprise to the entire family. As far as we knew, although we had never produced any major criminals or murderers, the closest we came to claiming even a minor religious figure was a great great aunt who cooked for the priests. And Chloe herself wasn’t exactly born with a golden halo floating over her head. She’d always been a pretty regular kind of kid. She was both bossy and lazy. She had tantrums (one famous one saw her and her mother escorted from the mall). She threw things. She bit my sister. She drew smiley faces in magic marker on my best white shirt. If Chloe got into trouble, she blamed someone else. If she was told not to do something, she usually did it. If she was told to do something she didn’t want to do, she didn’t do it. (As an example of this I give you cleaning her room.  There was an entire year when no one but Chloe went into her room because there was nowhere to walk because every inch of the floor was covered in toys, clothes, and whatever anyone else in the house was missing.) Yes, she went to church every Sunday and said her prayers every night, but in the same way that she went to school and brushed her teeth before she went to bed: it was what you did or your parents would yell at you.

Chloe said that God told her she should become a saint.

“You mean He talked to you?” Aunt Sophie was incredulous. Being Chloe’s mother, she talked to her all the time, but Chloe hardly ever listened. She certainly didn’t jump out of her chair, ready to obey her.

“He gave me a sign,” said Chloe.

“You mean like a rainbow?” asked Aunt Sophie.

Chloe shook her head in her new, very patient, saintly way. “Not exactly.”

The sign was the death of Flicker, Chloe’s goldfish. She was burying Flicker in the pot of bamboo in front of their apartment building when she realized that, impossible as it seemed, someday someone would be burying her - though probably not in a pot of bamboo in a Good & Plenty box with an old serving spoon.

It was in that moment that Chloe understood that she didn’t want to die. She wanted to become a saint, have statues made of her and a day named after her, and go to Heaven where she would live forever.

“You don’t have to be a saint to go to Heaven,” Aunt Sophie argued. “Everybody and their dog goes to Heaven. You just have to be truly sorry for your sins.”

“Maybe.” Chloe wasn’t convinced. Why would there be a Hell if everybody could go to Heaven just by saying sorry? It didn’t make any sense. “But I want to be sure. I want a guaranteed place.” And the statues. She liked the idea of the statues.

Arguing being something my family has always been good at, Aunt Sophie continued to state her case. “But you’re only eleven years old, Chloe. You have plenty of time to become a saint.”

“Not necessarily. I could be run over by a car tomorrow,” said Chloe. She fixed her mother with a saintly but stubborn look. “I’ll need you to buy me a Bible.”

“A Bible? You don’t have to read the Bible. That’s what priests are for.”

“Please, mother,” said Chloe.

It was the please that did it. It wasn’t a word she heard that often from the lips of her youngest child. It convinced Aunt Sophie that Chloe walking the path to sainthood could bring nothing but good.

Which is another example of how wrong one can be.

My mother received weekly bulletins on Chloe’s progress towards sainthood, which she, of course, shared with us over supper. Chloe did her chores without complaint. She said Grace at every meal (after-school snacks included). She helped their elderly neighbors with odd jobs and errands. She no longer fought with her sister. She’d stopped trying to vacuum the dog. Every day she did a good deed. She was obedient, pleasant, meek and mild.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” My mother’s smile was hopeful. Neither of her daughters did any of those things, and although we were sometimes obedient and often pleasant we were only meek and mild when we were sound asleep.

“It can’t last,” said I.

“What kind of good deeds?” asked my sister.

“What’s for dessert?” asked my father.

“Apple crisp,” said my mother.

As it turned out, my mother answered the wrong question.

 

Towards the end of June, in one of their telephone conversations Aunt Sophie mentioned that Chloe’s sister, Margo, had been invited to spend the summer in the Adirondacks. “Poor Chloe,” sighed Aunt Sophie, “stuck in the city with me and her father with nothing to do while Margo runs around in the fresh air and sleeps under the stars, not under the air conditioner.”

“It does seem a shame,” said my mother.

“Sylvie and I were hoping to get at least a week off to take her upstate, but we’re not going to be able to get away. Work is crazy right now.”

And that’s when my mother made her big mistake.

“She could come here for a few weeks,” said my mother. “It’s not the Adirondacks, but we do have fresh air… and the beach… and the girls could keep her company…”

Normally when an offer like that is made the receiver of the offer will hesitate. Protest. Say oh no, that’s too much to ask. Say, oh, but I couldn’t impose like that. Ask several times if the person making the offer is really sure. Are you sure? Are you really sure? Aunt Sophie did none of those things. Aunt Sophie said, “That’s great. I’ll drive her out in the morning. Shall we say the day after school ends?”

 It was as my mother, my sister, I and the would-be-saint stood on the front porch waving good-bye to Aunt Sophie as she backed out of the driveway to return to the city that it became obvious that when my mother said, “Apple crisp”, she answered the wrong question.

“So where are all the homeless people?” asked Chloe as her mother’s car disappeared around the bend.

We all looked at her.

“Homeless people?” repeated my mother.

Chloe nodded, wearing the smile of an angel who has just stopped someone from jumping off a bridge. “Uhhuh. Every day I invite a homeless person to supper. Like Jesus said.”

My mother’s smile was of someone who’s just fallen off a bridge. “Jesus said that?”

Again Chloe nodded. “Uhhuh. He said that what you do for the poorest person you do for him. And what you don’t do for the poorest person you don’t do for him.”

“I see,” said my mother.

But she didn’t. Not yet.

 

To be continued…


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pushpin2THE C WORD

There was a piece in the paper the other day about (of all things) Christmas! Apparently a lot of people are complaining that they can’t even use the ‘C’ word any more. It’s all festive this and season’s that. Happy holidays and Winter celebration… No Christmas cards. No Christmas lights. No Merry Christmas. It’s hard to imagine how schools manage to put on their nativity plays without mentioning the Christ child, but perhaps they just call him The Baby and skip over the details.

It got me thinking about this time of year.  Diwali happens a little earlier, of course, but basically this is the season of festivals of light at the darkest time of year. Pagan winter solstice celebrations. Hanukkah. Christmas. But something odd has happened to Christmas. It’s as if there are actually two Christmases on the December calendar.

The first is, of course, the celebration of the birth of the man who symbolizes hope and who taught love, forgiveness and brotherhood. Who hung out with the poor and the marginalized. The man who threw the moneychangers out of the temple. The man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The man who is the Light. That’s Christmas number one. 

Then there’s Christmas number two. That’s the one that seems to gear up the day after Thanksgiving (though it starts warming its engines sometime in September) when crazed shoppers trample each other to be the first into a cheap department store to buy yet another thing they don’t need and probably can’t really afford. In the case of the YouTube clip I just watched, this another thing was a mobile phone. It was like a football scrum, people shoving and pushing and wrestling each other to get one of the phones. And you had to ask yourself (or I did) why? You can’t eat a mobile phone so it wasn’t that they were starving and fighting for survival. It’s unlikely that even one of these desperate shoppers didn’t already have a mobile phone. So perhaps it was to be a gift for someone. For someone who, unless they’d just emerged from a cave in the Himalayas after twenty years of solitude and meditation, already had a phone. (A phone that, in six months, will be as obsolete as those antique phones where you actually had to dial the number. This is the spendspendspend, buybuybuy, IwantIwant Christmas. The how big is your tree and how many cards did you get this year? Christmas. The one that seems to have very little to do with babies in mangers or messages of hope.

Personally, I’m not in favour of using the ‘C’ word in the context of Christmas number two. But I’ve come up with the solution. All we have to do is change the name of Christmas number two to a more appropriate label. Then people who are celebrating the birth of Jesus can wish each other a merry Christmas. And people who just want to shop can wish each other something else. The phrase ‘Consumer Bloodbath’ does come to mind, but I feel that it’s been used before, I’m open to suggestions.

In the meantime:

Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

Happy Solstice

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pushpin2REASONS TO BE GRATEFUL

November. November always makes me think of raking leaves. Of football. Of the official start of the Christmas shopping season. And, of course, of Thanksgiving. Most of the Thanksgivings of my childhood have melded into one enormous gluttonous feast. Most, but not all. One stands apart from the rest like a turkey in a flock of sparrows.

 

It was all my Aunt Hilda’s idea. Every year it was Uncle Ely’s job to lead the whole family in the Thanksgiving Grace. Because we were an extended family, the grownups ate at the enormous dining table (with four extensions) and the children ate at the several card tables put together and covered with paper cloths decorated with turkeys and pilgrims that ra on from the main table into the living room. At the head of the tables, Uncle Ely would close his eyes, bow his head and say, “Thank you, Lord, for getting us through another year.” It was short, but it did the job. Or so we all thought, until Aunt Hilda read something in a magazine at the hairdresser’s that changed her mind.

Thank you for getting us through another year? Really, Ely? What kind of thanks is that?” she demanded. “You might as well say thanks for not dropping a meteorite on the house.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with saying thanks for getting us through another year,” Uncle Ely protested. “It says it all. We made it, and we’re grateful. What more does God want? He just needs to know that we’re paying attention. He doesn’t need a three-page list – thank you for keeping the roof on the house during the hurricane… thank you for keeping the boiler going...”

But it wasn’t, of course, a question of what God wanted. It was a question of what Aunt Hilda wanted. The article she read was interviews with people explaining exactly (and in detail) what they were thankful for. Aunt Hilda found it very moving and touching.

“Touching smouching,” said Uncle Ely. “It was probably the fumes from the dye.”

But Aunt Hilda had been married to him for thirty years. She wasn’t about to let his cynicism deflect her. “It wasn’t anything to do with the dye,” said Aunt Hildy. “It was thought-provoking and inspirational.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could skip this year,” said Uncle Ely. “Go visit my old army buddy in Montana?”

“Not if you want to live to see Christmas,” said Aunt Hilda.

 

My aunt’s idea was simple enough. Instead of Uncle Ely mumbling Grace as fast as he could so he could carve the turkey and actually eat, we would go around both tables and each person – from the oldest to the youngest - would say what he or she was thankful for. This would be a bonding ritual that would give new meaning to the holiday. She imagined it would become a family tradition, carried on for generations to come.

Hilda’s sister, Lucille started us off. Aunt Lucille was thankful for this wonderful meal and that she didn’t have to cook it, she just had to bring the creamed onions and her famous pickled watermelon rind.

Across from her, Aunt Hilda, hissed, “Lucy this is supposed to be serious.”

Lucille hissed back that she was serious.

Uncle Adam was thankful for his new Chevrolet.

“That’s it?” snapped Aunt Hilda. “You’re thankful for a car? What about your wonderful wife and your lovely children?”

“For Pete’s sake, Hil,” Uncle Adam snapped back. “I commute forty miles a day each way, of course I’m grateful for my car. All my wonderful wife and lovely children do is give me a hard time.”

Grandma Silvia was thankful for her heatlh.

This was more like it. Aunt Hilda beamed.

“Even though,” Grandma Silvia went on, “there’s not that much left of it. Not with my eyes going, and my rheumatism, and those palpitations.”

“Ma!” Aunt Hilda couldn’t decide whether she was begging or ordering. “You sound like you’re complaining, not thanking.”

Which, considering the many tragedies that had befallen Grandma Silvia in her life, wouldn’t have been unreasonable.

“I’m not complaining.” Grandma Silvia turned her eyes to the chandelier over the dining room table. “You know that, right?” Apparently God was somewhere above the chandelier, listening. “I’m only saying. It could be worse.”

“And usually is,” muttered Grandpa Felix. Grandpa Felix had seen things in the war.

Aunt Hilda herself decided to step up to the podium right then and get the proceedings back on track.

“Well I’m thankful for my family – every one of you – and that none of us got that flu last winter, and that I live in this great, Christian democracy, and that when that old oak tree came down in the storm in the Spring it missed the house.”

But the proceedings refused to stay on track. I think it had something to do with hunger. Thanksgiving, after all, is mainly about food, and by then everyone was pretty tetchy as the prospect of actually eating any time soon grew more and more unlikely. A small rebellion started. Instead of giving Aunt Hilda what she wanted – gratitude for health, or family, or Old Glory waving from every porch and gas station – her relatives started giving her what she didn’t want.

Aunt Adelaide was thankful she won the bowling championship.

Uncle Will was thankful for his new boat.

Then we had one fur coat, a trip to Hawaii, a podiatrist, a riding lawnmower, Miss Clairol, elasticized waists, that the Democrats lost the election, and the new football season.

You could see the relief flood Aunt Hilda’s face when we finally reached the first cousin. Though it didn’t last for long.

Leroy, one of the eldest, stood up. He didn’t look like he was thinking of bowing his head any time soon. “Maybe what we should discuss is what this day really symbolizes.” Leroy had also been in a war, though not the same one as Grandpa Felix, and not the same one as several of our uncles. “Which is the beginning of the genocide of Native Americans. Let’s talk about that.”

“You know, I think the food’s getting cold,” murmured Aunt Hilda. “Maybe we should-”

“Not before I tell you what I’m thankful for,” said Carlotta. Carlotta was the family feminist, and already on her feet. “I’m thankful that I was been born at a time when women at least have the vote and aren’t considered their husband’s property.”

“I’m sure you are, dear.” Aunt Hilda’s smile looked as if it were painted on. “Felix, why don’t you start carving the bird?” Her voice had the desperate tone of someone trying to coax twenty cats onto a barge. “Who’d like a drumstick?”

“This country was built on mass murder and slavery.” Leroy had yet to sit backdown. “We should be thankful we got away with it.”

“How about a wing?” chirped Aunt Hilda.

Dishes started being passed.

Carlotta’s voice got louder. “Though we still have a long way to go,” she went on. “We’re still trivialized and underpaid. We’re still treated as sexual objects.”

Her brother Lukas, who was only related to Carlotta by an accident of birth, laughed. “You aren’t in any danger there! Not with that nose.”

Carlotta picked up a radish from the relish tray and lobbed it at him.

He hit her in the forehead with a Brussels sprout.

A roll, thrown by some unknown hand, sailed towards the kitchen door.

People started snapping at one another.

A carrot stick landed in the cranberry sauce.

Grandma Silvia slapped Grandpa Feliix over the head with her napkin.

Meanwhile, far down at the end of the progression of tables – so far down that she was nearly on the front porch – Alabama Marie, one of the youngest members of the family, started shrieking hysterically, somehow thinking that we were about to eat her pet parrot George.

The entire meal – the entire joyous occasion – was about to descend into chaos when a sound like an air raid siren ripped through the dining room. Even Alabama Marie stopped crying.

“Okay everybody!” shouted my mother. “Let’s all get a grip on ourselves and calm down, bow our heads and thank the Good Lord that we made it through another year.”

We also thanked the Good Lord that my mother grew up in New York City and could whistle loudly enough to stop a speeding cab in rush hour in the rain.

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pushpin2THE WITCH OF RAINY HOLLOW

It was well known, especially if you were a school kid in my neighbourhood, that Mrs Manfeld was a witch. This was a fact, not an opinion. Mrs Manfeld was old and lived alone with her cat. Mrs Manfeld had a garden where she grew, among the flowers and vegetables, medicinal plants and herbs. Mrs Manfeld dressed oddly and there was a broom on her porch. Mrs Manfeld was not sweet and doddery as an older woman should be but grumpy and often strident. It didn’t matter that Mrs Manfeld’s cat, Jane, was not a black cat but a tortoiseshell. Or that Mrs Manfeld made natural remedies, not magic potions – remedies that were so successful that the local doctors often consulted her. Or that although she dressed oddly she didn’t go in for black cloaks or pointed black hats but Chinese jackets and Fedoras; the broom was for sweeping away leaves and random dirt (everyone else on the block had one, too – except for us because the English sheepdog around the corner stole ours). Or that she would have been less grumpy and strident if the neighbourhood youth didn’t pursue her with the determination of the Court of Oyer and Terminer pursuing witches in Salem.

The local youth did the usual local youth sorts of things to torment Mrs Manfeld for being a witch. They blew up her mailbox with firecrackers every Fourth of July. They terrified younger children with stories of seeing her fly over the rooftops and boil frogs. They threw eggs at her windows and shouted names at her. They called her in the middle of the night asking to speak to Satan (or, even more ingeniously, asking to order a large pepperoni pizza). They hid her garbage can. They blacked out her windows with shaving cream. They threw her lawn chairs in the lake. They let the air out of her tyres. But the act that put the geezer on the breezer (as my father said) was the summer before this story takes place when they stole Mrs Manfeld’s cat.
 
The culprits were Barry Miller and his pals. Although this was the incident that shook all of Mrs Manfeld’s nerves into sawdust, Jane was returned before Mrs Manfeld actually realised she was missing (Jane had a life of her own) because Barry Miller’s mother heard her howling in his bedroom closet. When asked why he had catnapped Jane, Barry - who grew up to be a successful politician – didn’t say because it was summer and he was bored and Mrs Manfeld was vulnerable and didn’t have a son or a husband who might catch him in the act and make him sorry (as a boy who going to grow up to be a plumber or a fireman might), but blamed Mrs Manfeld. It was Mrs Manfeld, Barry claimed, who had caused the storms that had meant he and his friends couldn’t go camping in the Catskills. He didn’t want her to think he was afraid of her, or that she could push him around. He was just giving back as good as he got. When pressed to explain how he knew that Mrs Manfeld was responsible for the bad weather he said because he had seen her walking in the rain without an umbrella. (My mother rolled her eyes at this, but as my father pointed, people have been hanged on less.)

Naturally, the worst time of the year for Mrs Manfeld (and Jane, who was no fan or exploding mailboxes or phone calls in the middle of the night) was Halloween when even people who weren't witches had eggs thrown at their homes. And so it was that on the Halloween following Jane’s abduction, Mrs Manfeld announced that she was going to visit her sister in Connecticut for a week or two.

She came over one Saturday afternoon to ask me, the person who mowed her lawn and fed Jane when she went away for a day or two, to keep an eye on her house in her absence in case the local youth tried to burn it down. My parents, who couldn’t say that there was never a cross word between them, exchanged one of their we-have-our-differences-but-really-we-are-twin-souls looks.

“I don’t think you should go,” said my mother.

My father shook his head. “Nor do I.”

Mrs Manfeld looked worried. “You think they really will burn down my house if I’m not there?”

“No,” said my mother. “We think you’re going about this the wrong way.”

“The wrong way?” echoed Mrs Manfeld.

“You can’t give in to this idiocy,” said my father. “This isn’t the time for surrender. You have to fight back.”

“You think I should blow up the Millers’ mailbox?” From her tone it was clear that Mrs Manfred had never considered a life of vandalism before. “Skulk around town letting the air out of all the boys’ bike tyres?”

“Of course not,” said my mother. “You want to scare the stuffing out of them, not stoop to their level,”

I didn’t always admire my parents. My mother wore very uncool clothes and had the habit of bursting into the songs from popular musicals without prior warning, and my father made fun of my favourite bands and knew more bad jokes than Heinz has beans. But at that moment I admired them a lot. “Oh, I see where you’re going with this.” One of the many things that have always puzzled me about witch trials is why, if you really believed someone was in league with the devil and had special powers, you’d think they’d just hang around waiting for you to drown them or burn them at the stake. Why wouldn’t they turn you into an ant and step on you – or just disappear? “If the youth of Rainy Hollow want a witch, you think we should give them one!”

“I’m glad that you said ‘we’,” said Mrs Manfeld.

 

The Rainy Hollow Witch Project (as I’ve taken to thinking of it) was the sort of project that brought my family together the way the Memorial Day picnic and Thanksgiving never quite managed. We planned for days, showing an inventiveness and a creativity that outshone even my mother’s honey-glazed turkey and the dragon kite my father made that lifted my sister six feet off the ground and got stuck in the oak tree so that she was left just hanging there till my mother came out with the stepladder and got her down.

That Halloween Mrs Manfeld’s house looked as it always looked. Plastic skeletons hung from the eaves of the porch. A giant Jack-o-lantern sat on the stoop. On the porch itself was a scarecrow sitting in an old rocker. But as soon as it was late enough that the last of the little kids with their parents had gone home to pour their treats into a bowl, a subtle change took place in Mrs Manfeld’s decorations. A witch with a cauldron (my mother’s stockpot) appeared next to the scarecrow and a large bucket half-filled with candy materialized on the scarecrow’s lap. Inside the house, I was in charge of the lights, the skeletons and the bats. My sister was the DJ. All was tense as we waited for the local youth to make their All Hallows’ Eve visit.

There were six of them: two in Frankenstein masks; two Donald Ducks; one Mickey Mouse; and one Sylvester the cat. As they started up the front path every light went out inside and the Sounds from a Haunted House record my mother found in a garage sale rolled towards them from the speaker tucked into a corner of the porch. I had to admit it was pretty impressive. I’d expected something corny, the sound effects from a rinky-dink carnival haunted house, but instead it was a gentle melding of creaks and sighs and odd, unidentifiable sounds that created a feeling not of menace but of a door opening into another, uncharted world. And it wasn’t even scratched.

All six froze, listening. Mickey shuffled uneasily. One of the ducks took a step backwards. Then five of them turned to Sylvester. Sylvester took a deep breath, and, with the curt nod of a Mafia boss signing someone’s death warrant, continued on.

As they reached the Jack-o-lantern one of the Frankensteins hauled off and kicked it, a manoeuvre that on other Halloweens had sent it flying to shatter against the wall of the house. But not this time. This time the pumpkin didn’t fly (because my father had more or less cemented it to the step). It cracked, but it didn’t budge. Leaving Frankenstein standing on one foot, the other foot wedged in the squash. One of the Donald Ducks yanked him free.

Now they were frightened. Which made them angry. Shouting and shrieking, they charged up the stairs of the porch. I know you’re probably wondering where the bats I mentioned before come into our tale, and this is where. As the local youth charged up the stairs, the skeletons started to swing madly back and forth and dozens of rubbery bats fell down on them (caused by an invention of my mother’s, based on the simple pulley system of the wash line). The Frankenstein who kicked the pumpkin and the Donald Duck who rescued him did a quick two-set back down the stairs, but the others were really mad now. And not about to show any fear in front of their friends.

“Gimme that bucket!” roared Sylvester, and his hand reached out towards the scarecrow.

It’s fairly certain that when he asked to be given the bucket he wasn’t actually asking the scarecrow. The scarecrow was just some old men’s clothes stuffed with newspaper and straw from the stables on the other side of town. He didn’t expect it to respond.

But he was wrong, of course.

“No!” shouted the scarecrow, and he suddenly stood up, swinging the bucket out of Sylvester’s reach. “You’re getting the trick, not the treat this year, my boy!”

As if that wasn’t enough of a surprise, at the same time that the scarecrow was walking and talking, the witch lifted her ladle from the cauldron. “How now my pretties, why not have some of this nice soup?” And she started cackling in that way that witches do.

You don’t usually see Frankenstein move that fast. Or Donald Duck, Mickey or Sylvester either for that matter. They tore across the lawn, dropping eggs and cans of shaving cream in their wake.
 
Later that night, as my sister and I lay in our beds laughing over the sight of the local youth hightailing it down Rainy Hollow Drive, my sister said, “You don’t really think there’s such a thing as a witch, do you?”

“Of course not.” I looked over at her. “Why?”

My sister propped herself up on one elbow. “Well… I didn’t want to say anything because, you know, I didn’t want to scare anybody or anything, but you know that record Mom got in the garage sale?”

I propped myself up on one elbow. “Yeah.”

“Well, when I took it out of the sleeve it wasn’t Sounds from a Haunted House after all.”

“It wasn’t?” It definitely sounded like it was.

“That’s the thing,” said my sister. “It was a Perry Como Christmas album. So, you know, I didn’t put it on. I mean, Perry Como?”

“Then where did all those weird sounds come from?”

“I don’t know.” My sister shrugged. “Nobody was in the room with me but Jane. They just kind of started up by themselves.”

I said that there had to be a logical explanation.

My sister agreed. “Yeah, sure. There has to be.”

The two of us thought about this for a few minutes but neither of us had any suggestions for what that logical explanation might be.

Finally I said, “I don’t think you need to mention this to Mom and Dad or Mrs Manfeld.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” said my sister.


Happy Halloween!

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pushpin2THE VACATION - PART 2:
THE WRONG CAMPSITE

My father was not a cruel or malicious man. At worst, he became overexcited by his own ideas (the Christmas he insisted we only eat raw food, for example) and had an eccentric sense of humour (the death threats he sent my mother from the squirrels, to mention only one instance). Although his closest living relatives weren't exactly gibbering with excitement at the prospect of spending their summer vacation in a large can on wheels, his intention was never to punish us or make us any more complaining than we already were. He thought it would be fun. And interesting. And something we would remember for the rest of our lives.  But he was planning to go on living with us, not disappear to Argentina, so he chose the campsite well. It wasn’t just any old campgrounds with a shower block and fireplaces and a few vending machines. It was a proper resort. It was the Disneyland of campgrounds. There was an enormous hotel, with two restaurants, two bars and a coffee shop. There was an area for tents. There was another area where there were stationary tens on raised wooden platforms. There was another area for trailers and the occasional Volkswagen van. There were two swimming pools, tennis courts, shuffleboard, croquet, archery, a lake and a nightly disco. This way, we could spend our days being footloose and fancy-free and kings of the road, but in the evening we’d return to civilization and not have to suffer until we went to bed in our mobile cell. The campsite he chose was called Wilderness Lodge. They were expecting us between noon and two p.m. Long after dark, irritable, tired, hungry, and as dispirited as a family of pioneers whose wagon has just sunk into the Colorado River (and just as damp from the rain that leaked and seeped into the van), we pulled into Camp Wilderness. Not the same place at all.

It’s a testament to the condition we were in that, without a whimper of complaint, my sister and I crawled into the shelves that were our holiday bedrooms and were asleep before my mother found the dog’s leash so she take him for a walk.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the confusion in campgrounds was temporary. In the morning, rested and renewed, we would wake into a day so filled with sunshine you’d think God had turned on all the lights. While we had a hearty breakfast cooked over our Coleman stove, my parents would study the maps and in no time at all we’d be sitting by one of the pools at Wilderness Lodge, laughing about our first day on the road. But that didn’t happen.

To begin with, someone (everyone tried to blame the dog, but he  remained silent and aloof) farted in the night. A lot. If someone farts a lot in Madison Square Garden, you’re not necessarily going to notice. If someone farts a lot in the confines of a campervan the only way you wouldn’t know is if you weren't there. Even the dog noticed. “My God,” groaned my mother as she slowly sat up and banged her head on the ceiling. “If I had the energy, I think I’d be sick.”

None of us had any energy. Night had followed day, as it does, and it kept on raining. Rain falling on a campervan sounds a lot like about a hundred mice in tap shoes dancing across the roof. Which would be bad enough if you weren't trying to sleep on a shelf. Both my sister and I woke with aching backs.

Another thing you may not know about vintage Volkswagen Campervans is that, although you don’t actually have to crank them up to get the engine going, aside from that they don’t have power anything.
That includes steering. When he woke up, my father had a frozen shoulder from wrestling with the van the day before.

“Are you sure?” Like many of us, my mother clung to hope even though she knew there was no point. “Maybe you just slept on it wrong.”

“I can barely lift my hand.” My father winced, as if just moving his mouth caused him untold agony. “I can’t possibly drive like this. We’ll have to stay here till it’s better.”

“Here?” By now we had looked outside to see the wilderness around us. Whoever had named the camp had an exact and literal mind.

My father looked at my mother. “Unless you want to drive.”

My sister and I exchanged looks of panic and clutched each other’s hand. My mother never really mastered the stick shift.  The only thing I can compare driving with my mother in a non-automatic car to would be riding a supernatural bucking bronco that was shuddering and jolting while chewing on steel girders. It was an experience you didn’t want to have more than once.

“I’m going to check out the facilities,” said my mother. “Something tells me they’re not going to be anything like the Hilton.”

 

I’m sure that Davy Crockett would have appreciated the sign on the door of each of the shower blocks at Camp Wilderness warning campers that there were mountain lions in the area.

“Do you think this is real?” My sister frowned at the sign. “We’re not really in the mountains.”

“Of course it’s real.” You could tell from my mother’s voice that she’d probably rather be anywhere than here – even in traction. “I’m no zoologist, but I’m pretty sure mountain lions can walk downhill.”

Mr Crockett might have thought that the “facilities” of Camp wilderness, though not up to the standards of Hilton Hotels, were luxurious, but he did spend a lot of time in the woods by himself.

“Whatever you do, don’t go barefoot in here,” cautioned my mother as she pushed open the creaky wooden door and stepped inside. “It’s practically shouting ‘foot fungus!’”

The room was windowless and concrete, the light bulbs were the lowest wattage possible that would allow you to see anything, and there wasn’t any toilet paper.

“I suppose that pioneers used leaves.” My mother was examining the sinks. She looked grim. “And washed in streams.”

 My sister was examining the mirrors over the sinks. “They aren’t even glass.” She was squinting at what could have been a reflection of Porky Pig on a foggy night. “It’s just shiny plastic.”

“They don’t want to give us anything we could use as weapons,” said my mother.

“But how am I supposed to put my make-up on?”

I patted her shoulder. “Who do you thinks going to see you? The lions?”

“You have to admit one thing,” said my mother. “This is a vacation we’ll never forget.”

Not long ago, my sister and I were reminiscing about Camp Wilderness and the van. I said, “You have to admit, we never forgot it.”

“That could have something to do with the mountain lion,” said my sister.

We thought the mountain lion was after us, but it turned out to be a friendly Labrador.

“I know!” My sister laughed. “It was because of the tornado.”

That really was a tornado, though, fortunately, a small one. We thought it was a train. We were sitting under the awning playing Scrabble when we heard a train coming. We were still giving each other that a-train?- in-the-middle-of-the-woods? look when the awning was ripped into the air.

“Of course,” I mused, “there was also the Wolffs. They did a lot to make it pretty memorable.”

The Wolffs are not to be confused with the lion. The Wolffs were camped nearer the river in tents. They had two sons, Seth and David, who, as it turned out, were the same age as my sister and I. The Wolff parents were clearly from pioneer stock, and the boys were natural wilderness men. They loved trekking through forests and staggering up cliffs. They cooked not on a Coleman but over an open fire. They had bedrolls, not sleeping bags. Seth and David even made a raft to ride down the river. If we’d gone to the right campsite, we would never have met them. 

“Yeah,” said my sister. “The Wolffs.”

We both smiled.

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pushpin2THE VACATION - PART 1:
WHO NEEDS CABINS, MOTELS, OR EVEN TENTS?

That was the question my father posed to his cherished family one night at dinner. We’d been discussing our summer family holiday – an event my sister and I approached every year with a mixture of anticipation and fear, much as you might feel about Christmas if you knew you’d be celebrating it in a war zone. My sister and I were pushing to go to a city this year, We’d accept San Francisco, but really we wanted to stay in New York. Since we’d seen it in a movie, we dreamed of staying at the Plaza Hotel. My mother thought it was time for a change from our usual vacation of driving for days to get somewhere, then turning around and driving back, either staying in the first motel we saw with a Vacancy sign or camping in the tents my father bought one year on sale. Her sisters were taking cabins on a lake in Maine, and she wanted to do that.

“Who needs cabins, motels, or hotels?” asked my father.

My mother chewed thoughtfully on a piece of blueberry pie. “Is that a trick question?” she wanted to know. “Or are am I supposed to say, not us, that’s for sure, Captain?”

“It was actually rhetorical.” My father pushed his plate away. He smiled as if he were about to reveal his secret identity as a super hero. “It was an introduction to my big surprise.”

Looks were exchanged among the cherished family members. My father’s big surprises were always surprises, and sometimes quite large, but that didn’t mean they brought joy and delight. The luxury cottage by the beach (wrong cottage). The island camping (the boat decided to go back to the mainland in the night). The luxury weekend in Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada).

My mother’s fork tapped slowly against her plate. “You’ve already done something about our vacation, haven’t you?” Unspoken were the words:  I’ve been looking forward to this since the last blizzard. I beg you, tell me you haven’t ruined it already.

“That’s right, I have done something! And if I d say so myself, this year I’ve really outdone myself.” My father was smiling so much now that you’d think his cherished family members were all clapping and whooping and shredding their napkins to make confetti. Not staring at him as if he had revealed himself to be not Super Suburbanman, but the Monster Who Ate the Mall. “Now guess what it is.”

“Not a tugboat.” I couldn’t quite place the tune my mother was tapping out with her fork, but it wasn’t a happy one. “I’m not spending my vacation on a smelly tugboat.”

“No boats,” beamed my father. “Not after last time.”

“Does that include ships?” ventured my sister. I knew what she was hoping. Of the two of us, she was always the more optimistic.

My father, however, was shaking his head. “We’re not taking a Caribbean cruise, if that’s what you’re after.”

But my sister was not just optimistic, she didn’t give up easily. “Am I at least warm?”

”Nope.” My father’s smile was a bomb about to go off. “No boats, no ships. Not even a bathtub.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that. “What about a shower? There is a shower, right?”

“Not exactly.”

“Oh you didn’t.” My mother had stopped tapping her fork and was holding it aloft, as if she might shoot it at my father like a spear. “You couldn’t have.”

“I did!” My father pulled a set of keys from his pocket and waved them in the air. “Ladies, I have bought us a Volkswagen Campervan! This is the vacation we’ve always dreamed of.”

It wasn’t. It was the vacation my father had always dreamed of.

“We’ll be footloose and fancy-free!” crowed my father. “Going anywhere we want, staying as long as we like. And the best part is we can do it year after year. Think of it! No tents to pitch. No cheap motels where you don’t want to touch the sheets. We’ll be kings of the road.”

“We’ll be like sheep in a truck being hauled to market,” muttered my mother.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my father chided. “This is a great adventure.  We’ll be like pioneers. Think the Little House on the Prairie, but on wheels.”

My sister and I tried to argue that we were too old for a family holiday – especially one where we had to sleep on shelves or in virtual hammocks - but to no avail. My father said there was no way he was leaving us home by ourselves. He’d come back and find the house burned to the ground. Or worse. My mother said there was no way we weren’t going if she had to go. “If I'm suffering, you’re suffering with me,” said my mother. “That’s how this mother-daughter thing works.”

The morning of our departure dawned. Okay, not exactly dawned, since there was no sun, but it did arrive. My father had us up at five, loading the van in the rain.

“It won’t last,” he said as we ran from the porch to the van in our anoraks, handing him boxes and bags. “It’s just a shower.”

When everything was inside or on top under a tarpaulin, my father shouted out, “Okay, gang, we’re almost ready to go.” It was still raining with a certain amount of determination.

“What about that?” I pointed to the front, left-hand tire. “Is it supposed to be flat?”

My father refused to be discouraged. “You guys make sure the house is locked up and everything’s turned off,” he ordered. “I’ll have this changed in no time.”

My sister, my mother and I roamed through the house, making sure every window was shut tight and locked, every faucet shut, and every light switched off. We lingered over our comfortable beds. We had tears in our eyes as we unplugged the TV. While we were doing that, the jack broke.

My father was still undaunted. His was the spirit that won the West. “I’ll just run into town in the car and get a new one. Be back in a jiff.”

My mother went in to make herself another coffee; my sister and I went back to bed. Ours was the spirit that staggered off the boat and stayed in Manhattan.

It was still raining when we finally pulled out of the driveway. My father was singing a Country and Western song we didn’t know he knew about being on the road again. The rest of us stared straight ahead, wondering just how long this road was going to be.

We were off the road again in twenty minutes. We forgot the dog.

Six hours later, it was still raining.

We were moving very slowly, going up what might have been a mountain in the Andes judging by how slowly we were going. Volkswagen Campervans, in case you’ve never ridden in one, are not known for their speed. Especially not uphill.

“This is so humiliating,” my sister moaned. “The Little House on the Prairie wasn’t holding up traffic.” She kept looking out the back window, hoping the line of cars that followed us like a chain had suddenly disappeared. But they hadn’t, of course, all that ever happened was another car joined at the end. Even through the downpour you could tell that the driver of every one of those cars would have been happy to push us over the Andes. “We might as well be in a Conestoga wagon.”

I added my two cents. “Pulled by a lame mule.”

My mother was up front in the passenger seat beside my father, navigating. The map was on her lap and she alternated peering at it, and peering through the deluge as if she could actually see anything ahead of us. “Maybe we should pull over for a little while,” she suggested. “Until the rain clears.”

“What are w,e greenhorns?” My father leaned over the steering wheel, presumably because he was trying to see something ahead of us, too. “We’re not giving up now.”

A spike of lightening cut through the watery gloom. A branch flew across the road in a sudden gust of wind.

“Other cars are pulling over,” my sister reported. “Maybe Mom’s right. Maybe we should pull over, too.”

“If they all jumped over a cliff would you jump over it too?”

I hugged the dog. “They’re probably pulling over because they’re afraid we’re going to lead them over a cliff.”

My father ignored me. “How far’s that campsite, honey?

My mother bent her head over the map. “Fifteen miles.”

“Pshaw!” My father took his hands from the wheel, which made the rest of us scream. “Fifteen miles is nothing,” he said, as if we hadn’t made a sound. “We’ll be there in no time.”

We were there in two hours. I probably don’t have to mention this, but it was still raining.

It was the wrong campsite.

To be continued…

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pushpin2ORBIT

Orbit Sheldon Donnelly Bayley.
Brooklyn 1996 – London June 2012.

Small feet, big heart – and forever loved.

Orbit

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pushpin2AHEAD OF HIS TIME

It all started innocently enough.

My mother came in singing a song from the radio, her arms filled with groceries. She stopped rather sharply when she reached the dining room. “What are you planning to do with that?” asked my mother. She was gazing at the packets scattered across the table as if they were grenades.

“What do you think I’m going to do with them?” My father, who was sitting a few feet away in His Chair (the one he only got to sit in when my mother was either out or otherwise engaged), laid down the book he was reading on root vegetables and looked over at her. “They’re seeds. I’m going to plant them.”

From the look on my mother’s face you’d have thought he’d said he planned to run around our neighborhood in the dark of the suburban night, throwing the grenades into people’s swimming pools.

“Plant them?” My mother’s laugh was as sharp and high as the sound made by a musical saw. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

My father explained that by planting the seeds we could grow our own vegetables – be self-sufficient and feed ourselves. “Like people used to do,” said my father. “We can get back to nature. Isn’t that one of the advantages of not living in the City?”

My mother, a city girl by both birth and temperament, felt that nature had been adequately represented by Central Park, and would have preferred to get back to Midtown. “I thought we moved out here for the schools and the clean air.”

“And to have a little land to call our own,” said my father.

“That doesn’t mean you have to grow tomatoes on it,” argued my mother. “Why do you think they invented the supermarket? Everybody else around here just grows grass.”

In this discussion you can see one of the basic differences between my parents. My mother enthusiastically embraced progress and technology – whether it was an electric kettle or a box of instant mashed potatoes. She loved the modern way of using something once and throwing it away. My father, on the other hand was wary of too much progress and technology. He hated waste (waste not, want not) and extravagance (a penny saved is a penny earned.) What was wrong with the way his parents had done things? Or his parents’ parents? Or the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia for that matter? How much effort did it take to mash a potato, for heaven’s sake? And as for putting a motor on a can opener? Putting a motor on a can opener simply meant there was something else that could go wrong.

My mother’s eyes narrowed with wifely suspicion, “This isn’t about getting back to nature, is it?” she demanded. “This is about saving money.”

And here we have another basic difference between my parents. My mother (who, perhaps, was also slightly ahead of her times) believed that money was to be spent, often on things you didn’t actually need and/or couldn’t afford, while my father had a tendency (as my mother poetically put it) to hang onto every dollar so tightly that the eagle screamed.

“What’s wrong with being frugal?” asked my father.

“You’re not frugal,” said my mother. “You’re cheap.”

 

As soon as the ground was soft enough, my father spent his days off digging up the lawn and turning the soil. He bought compost and manure from a local farm (a real farm, not one in someone’s back yard). He borrowed books from the library with titles like Grow It Yourself and Self-Sufficiency In The Suburbs. All Spring he raked and hoed and planted. He put stakes in the ground to mark the rows of cucumbers and pumpkins, corn and tomatoes, beans and peas, and ran strings from one end to the other, tying rags along them to frighten the birds. In all of this he had the help of his own clutch of farm laborers – me and my sister. We dutifully opened the packets and gently covered the seeds with earth and ripped the rags into strips and ran back and forth turning the sprinkler on and off. We were given the important job of weeding, and officially deputized to do the watering when my father was at work. My mother, of course, refused to take part. She sat in the sun porch, reading magazines and singing “Old MacDonald had a farm…” under her breath.

My father was unfazed. “You’ll be singing a different tune when harvest time rolls around.”

My mother turned a page. “Don’t count your turnips before they’re grown,” she advised.

Either my mother had prophetic talents the rest of us never suspected, or one of her friends had warned her about what would happen when the vegetables started to grow. My father and his laborers, however, were unaware that, unseen by us, a clever and deadly enemy was patiently waiting for the first green shoots to poke through the ground.

“I can’t believe it!” wailed my father, standing by the stake marked Lettuce. “The slugs have eaten every last one.”

The day before the baby lettuces were grown enough that even my sister and I could tell what they were. Today they were ravaged stumps.

“Didn’t I say I heard something in the garden last night?” asked my mother. “It was probably them chomping away in the dark.”

 My father tried pellets. My father dug trenches. My father scattered sand and broken eggshells and ashes over the soil to make it hard for the slugs to move. He put plastic bottles around the seedlings like fortress walls. He made traps filled with beer and milk. But still they came.

“You’re becoming obsessive,” said my mother.

My father looked up from his latest acquisition from the library: Know Your Slugs. “I’m not obsessed. I’m just not going to be beaten by a creature that doesn’t even have feet.”

And then, one moonless, rainy night we were roused from our beds by a heavy knocking on the front door. My sister and I shot out of our rooms the way you do when you’re a kid and you know that something unusual, exciting, and possibly horrific is about to take place.

My mother had also shot out of her room, pulling her robe around her and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Go back to bed!” she ordered.

We followed her down the stairs.

“Maybe some mad killer’s escaped from prison and the police have come to warn us,” whispered my sister.

“You are so melodramatic,” I hissed back. “It’s probably just Mrs Houlahan again.” Mrs Houlahan lived next door. The year before, when raccoons got into her attic, she’d arrived on our doorstep at three in the morning, convinced she was being burgled.

My mother, whose hearing improved in direct proportion to how much you didn’t want to b e overheard said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Your father’s locked himself out of the house. Now go back to bed!” She opened the door.

It was the police – Officer Kellogg and Officer Schultz. Needless to say, with Officers Kellogg and Schultz was my father.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mam,” said Officer Schultz, “but we found this gentleman prowling around your backyard. He claims he lives here.”

My mother stared at my father. My father was wearing his rain jacket, his fishing hat and his old galoshes. He was carrying a flashlight in one hand and a bucket of slugs in the other, You could see her thinking What’ll happen if I say “no”? Every light in the house blazing. Bags of new socks. Lunches at the diner.

“For Pete’s sake,” pleaded my father, “tell them who I am.”

“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” said my mother.

My sister burst into tears.

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pushpin2TALES FROM MY EARLY YEARS

REVENGE

My best striped top (red and blue with a devilish thread of yellow round the collar and cuffs) was missing. I’d taken it out of the clean laundry, folded it meticulously and put it away in the middle drawer of my dresser, right at the top. I knew that this was what I’d done because: A. I had total recall of the event; and B. I’d planned to wear it to the movies on Saturday. But when I went to the middle drawer of my dresser it wasn’t there. I rummaged through the drawer but it hadn’t wiggled its way down to the bottom. I pulled every single thing out, but it hadn’t hidden itself in a sleeve or a turtleneck. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I hadn’t put it in the middle drawer but the first or the third. I rummaged, I pulled out, I searched with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes examining a drop of cigar ash, but my very best striped shirt wasn’t in the dresser. It hadn’t fallen down the back, either.

“Mom!” I hollered. “Mom! Where’s my red and blue top?”

My mother sighed as if she was three thousand years old and for all of those three thousand years (on the average of approximately sixteen times a day) someone had been asking her where her red and blue top was. “I thought you put it away.”

“I did.” Like a fly on the salad, an injured note settled into my voice. “But it isn’t there, is it? It’s disappeared.” I gritted my teeth. This kind of thing wouldn’t happen if I were an only child.

My mother, who was making a bouquet of roses out of pink and yellow Styrofoam egg boxes at the time, didn’t look up from the demands of her task as she said, “Are you sure you looked thoroughly?”

“Yes, I looked thoroughly. I took everything out of my dresser. It isn’t there.”

This statement made her glance my way, one penciled eyebrow rising accusingly.

“I am going to put it all back,” I snapped. 

My mother glued another petal in place. “Make sure you do.”

“You’re missing the point!” I wailed. “It didn’t just walk out of my room by itself! It’s not a shape-shifter! Your daughter took it!”

She ran a green pipe cleaner through the center of her rose. “You’re my daughter.”

It always amazed me that though she had no sense of humor my mother never tired of cracking jokes.

“The other one.”

My sister had history. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d “borrowed” something of mine without going through the formality of asking me first. My brown corduroy skirt. My snowflake socks. My Eric von Schmidt album. To name but three things she’d felt entitled to help herself to simply because we shared a gene pool and had rooms next to each other.

“I thought she promised not to do that any more,” said my mother.

And the President promised not to raise taxes.

“Oh, Mommmm….” I groaned. How naïve could one woman be?

“Well, did you ask her if she took it?” My mother picked up a tiny, sparkly yellow bead with a pair of tweezers. “Why don’t you ask her if she took it before you start jumping to conclusions.”
 
“Fine!” I huffed. “I’ll do that.”

My sister said she hadn’t touched my stupid top. “I’d rather have lice that wear that,” said my sister. “It’s like so uncool.”

I knew she was lying.

“Well if you didn’t take it, who did?” My mother couldn’t fit into my clothes and as far as any of us knew my father didn’t cross dress. “You may not have noticed this, but we don’t have any other sister.”

My sister smiled the smile that punched every button I had at exactly the same moment with the force of the explosion needed to launch a missile. “Maybe the ghost took it,” said my sister.

“Don’t think you’re getting away with this!” I hissed.

The door slammed behind me.

 

THE GHOST

Only my mother had seen the ghost.

She was a young woman wearing a long, summery print dress with an apron over it and a bonnet, and as pale as moonlight on water. My mother called her “Nellie” for no reason other than she’d always liked that name. My mother had seen Nellie twice. Once on a hot and humid August day my mother had woken up in the hammock in the backyard and seen Nellie walking through the kitchen wall. And the second time, the following winter, walking through the snow on the road in front of our house (and through several telephone poles and stranded automobiles as well). Nellie didn’t belong to our house – before we’d had it built there was nothing on our property but trees – but, according to my mother, from the Colonial cemetery in the nearby woods. My mother (whose own mother had told fortunes and read tea leaves and raised her with a deep belief in The Other World) said it stood to reason. “She’s either lost or just taking a walk,” said my mother.

My sister, being younger and more impressionable, was afraid of the ghost, and had gone through a phase of thinking that every clanking pipe or branch scraping against the house was Nellie. I, on the other hand (who, with my father, represented the logical, rational side of the family) was skeptical about the ghost (if not actually scathing, cynical, sarcastic and doubled over with infantile laughter). Indeed, until my sister leered at me like that and said Maybe the ghost took it, I’d forgotten about Nellie completely. My sister, obviously, hadn’t. Now that she was old enough to wear make-up and steal my clothes she was also acting as if she was too old to believe in ghosts. But I thought I knew better. She still always slept with a night-light on. Even if she couldn’t help me get back my very favorite top in the entire universe, I figured that Nellie could help me settle the score.

As soon as my sister left the house, I tiptoed into her room like a cartoon fox heading for the chicken coop. Although I knew beyond even the slightest shadow of a doubt that my sister had taken my striped shirt I searched her room before I set my plan in action. My sister, though mystical, believed in neatness and order and a certain amount of perfection. Her closet and drawers were all color coordinated (blues together, whites together, etc), which made my job easier than it would have been if I’d been searching my room. But – if further proof was necessary (which it wasn’t) - there was no sign of the top. Secure in the knowledge that I’d more than bent over backwards to be fair, I removed the laces from my sister’s turquoise high-tops, and buried them in the garbage.

The haunting had begun.

It took her a day to notice.

“Are you sure you didn’t take them out yourself?” My mother often managed to sound as if there was little on the planet that could ever truly surprise her. “Maybe one of them got some dirt or a drop of juice on it and you couldn’t use it any more?” Or maybe it was just the oddities of her own children that couldn’t surprise her.

“I think I’d remember if they were ruined,” sneered my sister. She turned to me.

I, of course, denied all knowledge. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I sounded bored. “Why would I take your shoe laces?” I sniggered. “I mean, that is like sooo pathetic.”

Later that night, while she was watching TV, I mixed up her socks. One cat sock paired with a dog sock, the other paired with a giraffe sock. One polka dot sock paired with a striped sock, the other polka dot sock paired with a heart sock.

She marched into the kitchen the next morning with an armful of mismatched socks. 

“Why aren’t you dressed?” asked my mother.

“Because I can’t go to school!” My sister dumped the socks on the table. “Look what she did!” she shrieked. “Now I don’t have any socks to wear today. It’ll take me hours to sort them out.”

“What is wrong with you?” asked my mother.

I sniggered into my cereal bowl. And then I realized that she wasn’t speaking to my sister.

“Me?” I was shocked. Insulted. Hurt. “I didn’t do it. Why would I do a dumb thing like that?”

“I don’t know,” said my mother. “I wish I did, but I don’t.”

“Well I’m sorry, to disappoint you” I said, “but I have better things to do with my time than mix up her socks.” I gave my sister a smile as sweet as a gallon of corn syrup. “Maybe the ghost did it,” I purred.

“Ghost?” My mother looked at the pile of socks with new interest. “You think Nellie did that?”

“Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?” I said. “She’s been in that graveyard a long time. She must be humongously bored.”

My sister was throwing a pair of socks (one yellow, one orange if I remember correctly) in the air as if it was a ball.

The next day I hid one of my sister’s shoes. But instead of raging she dragged my mother into her room to examine the gap in her shoe rack. “Look what Nellie did this time,” she announced.

I shook up my sister’s jewelry box so that everything was tangled together. But instead of ranting she presented the box to my mother as if was some kind of trophy.

I de-alphabetized my sister’s music collection. “Now see what she’s done,” she said to my mother. “She’s getting out of control.”

My mother came back from the library with two books: The Dictionary of Ghosts and Ghosts of Long Island: Case Studies

The next morning when I went to get dressed I found that every skirt, dress and blouse I owned had been taken from its hanger and dumped on the floor of the closet.

My mother reached for her book of case studies.  “That’s very interesting,” she murmured. “There’s a similar incident in here.”

My sister found sand in the pocket of her jacket. My math book went missing. My sister discovered stones in the bottom of her book bag. I opened the sandwich I’d made for my lunch the night before to find that the peanut butter had turned into liverwurst. My sister’s hairbrush had been smeared with Vaseline. Every button on my blouse fell off while I was changing for gym.

“Almost the same thing happened to that family in Wampaugh,” said my mother the Saturday morning all the toilet paper disappeared. 

My father, who because he’d only just returned from a business trip the night before hadn’t yet been briefed on the ghost, said, “What family in Wampaugh?”

“The one that had the ghost of an 19th-century sea captain living in their attic,” said my mother.

My father put down his coffee cup. “What does that have to do with out running out of toilet paper?”

My mother explained that we hadn’t run out of toilet paper, Nellie had hidden it all.

“Whose Nellie?” asked my father.

My mother made her you-never-listen-to-a-word-I-say face. “Our ghost,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about Nellie.”

Rather than admit that he had, my father said, “So where does the sea captain come into it?”
“He flooded the house,” my mother explained. “You know, because they weren't paying enough attention to him.”

My father’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. He’d been away from us for nearly two weeks. It was clear he could have used a debriefing. “So you think whatever her name is took our toilet paper because she’s not getting enough attention?”

“She could get violent,” said my mother. “We may have to call the priest to have her exorcised.”

My mother left right after breakfast to have her hair done. As soon as her car pulled out of the driveway my father cornered my sister and me. “I can’t turn my back on you for two minutes, can I?”

This was, of course, a rhetorical question but that didn’t stop us from answering it.

“I didn’t do anything,” said my sister.

I said, “Neither did I.”

My father dropped a sign like a very large and overpacked suitcase. “I don’t know what’s been going on here while I was away,” he informed us. “But it stops now, is that clear? I’m not having some priest chanting and swinging incense through the house. Do you know how much that would cost?”

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pushpin2SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER - PIECE OF ADVICE NUMBER 3

Recently I had the privilege of attending the first annual Dudley Teen Book Award
Presentation. It was organised by the librarians of Dudley and the books on the long list and the shortlist, and the eventual winner, were chosen by students at local secondary schools – quite a few of whom attended the ceremony.

As often happens when writers are lured away from their desks to talk to actual readers, one of the questions asked of me and of Paul Dowswell, the other speaker, was what advice we’d give to someone who wants to write. Both Paul and I gave the same two pieces of  advice (which is, as far as I can tell, the same two pieces of advice everyone gives and everyone has received): read everything you can get your hands on from cereal boxes to War And Peace  and write.

This, as it happens, is good advice. You read everything because it’s the only way you can learn for yourself how books work. What makes you laugh; what makes you angry; what makes you cry; what makes a character memorable; what makes a sentence stop you in your tracks; what puts you to sleep within seven minutes. You write because that’s the only way to teach yourself how to write the books you want to write: your books, in your voice, with your ideas and vision.

It wasn’t until much later that, for the first time, it occurred to me that there’s a third piece of advice hovering in the sidelines. Maybe I never thought of before because it seems fairly obvious, or because I assumed that it’s something one does automatically. But, just in case it isn’t obvious or automatic, here it is: PAY ATTENTION. Pay attention to everything. When you’re shopping, when you’re on the bus or the train, when you’re just sitting on a bench in the park, when you’re waiting for the bus. Pay attention to the way people talk, the way they dress, the gestures they make, they way they sit. Do the same with their dogs, cats, fish, hamsters and cows. Notice people’s homes, cars, and garden sheds – what’s in them and what makes one different to another. Listen. Not to be nosey but so when you come to create a character you can describe that person by what she’s wearing, or what he’s doing with his hands, or what she’s doodling on that scrap of paper.  When you have to go to some event that you think is about as much fun as hanging by your ankles over a snake pit, or you’re stuck on the queue in Argos on Christmas Eve, don’t think that it’s a waste of your time. Because it isn’t. Everything is important. Even if you think all you want to write are thrillers set in war zones or science fiction novels set in distant galaxies, they’re going to have characters and those characters, whether you call them Klingons or James Bond, are going to be people who experience a lot of different things. It’s not just the devil that’s in the detail.

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pushpin2YESTERDAY'S NEWS

 “I just can’t believe you never heard of her,” said Willa, though there was more indignation in her voice than disbelief. “I mean, lordy, lordy, everybody’s heard of her.”

I sipped my tea. “I haven’t.”

“But she’s a household name,” argued Willa. “Better than that. She’s a name in every tent in the Sahara, a name in every mud hut in South America.”

“Only if they watch the same television programmes you watch.”

Willa took another slug of Coke. “Which they do! You’re also the only person who doesn’t have either cable or satellite TV.”

I made a And? face. “I know this is going to surprise you, but I don’t actually feel deprived.”

“Well you should.” Willa bit into something that wasn’t quite a crisp and wasn’t quite not a crisp. It had a name that wasn’t quite a description (like potato) but more like a brand. “You’re totally out of touch with our culture and society.”

“That’s not true. I go online every day. I get all the news about who’s dating whom and who’s broken up with which husband and who’s back in shape since she had her baby and who’s really proud of her bump and what colour the Duchess of Cambridge is fond of and how her dog’s her best friend.”

“What about last week? When I asked you where the Mark & Spencer was? And you told me Highgate Cemetery.”

“That was a joke,” I explained. Again. “I meant the philosophers Karl Marx and  Herbert Spencer.” Who both happen to be buried in Highgate Cemetery. Hahaha.

“You see how out of touch you are? Nobody knows who those blokes are.”

“Oh, come on, Willa. Maybe you’re not sure who Groucho Marx is but you must’ve heard of Karl.”

She studied me over her soda can. “Were they brothers?”

“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t think they were ever introduced. I -”

“But don’t you see it doesn’t matter? Nobody cares who they were. They’re not even yesterday. They’re thousands of yesterdays.” Willa’s voice was shrill with sincerity.

“That’s all old stuff. All you know is old stuff.”

“It used to be that everybody knew old stuff,” I countered. “Our cultural references used to go back farther than last month.” At least for a few decades, sometimes hundreds of years.

“When was that? When we communicated with drum beats and smoke signals and bird calls?”

“Possibly a little after that. But well before the internet and the mobile phone.”

Willa sighed. “I really worry about you, you know. You have about as much relationship with reality as I do with Alizetta Lowstrom.”

“Who?”

“You see?!” Hands flew up and crumbs flew down. “That’s exactly what I mean. Alizetta Lowstrom just happens to be the Next Big Thing! Her debut album has been so eagerly awaited you’d think she was the reincarnation of Michael Jackson.”

“I thought her name was Chesleigh.” I read about her on Yahoo. “Her debut album was so eagerly awaited you’d think she was the reincarnation of Elvis.”

Willa stopped chewing. “Elvis? Elvis Costello’s dead? When did that happen? I just saw him on the telly.”

“No, the other one.”

“What other one?”

I poured myself more tea. “Oh, never mind.”

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pushpin2THE FAMILY DIET

My friend Elvira recommended a book. “It’s like the best book I ever read,“ she gushed. “No really. This one really is. You have got to read it.”

If Elvira and I were in a book club together (which we aren’t), we would be the two people who never agree on anything except, just maybe, the refreshments. If she thinks a book is ‘brilliant, awesome and riveting’ there’s a very good chance I won’t get past page 2. Likewise, if I think a novel is really well-written and profound she’ll find it dense and unreadable.

This is not a bad thing, of course. That’s the great thing about fiction, each book is a personal adventure. No two people read exactly the same book – it may have the same cover, title, author and words, but the novel I read and the novel another person reads will never be identical.

Nonetheless, our perpetual difference of opinion is why – though I knew lots of other people who agreed with Elvira about this particular book, and although she banged on and on about it until I almost felt as if I had read it – I was reluctant to actually buy it. She couldn’t lend me her copy (she read it on her Kindle) and I couldn’t find one in the second-hand bookshop down the road. So I decided to get it from my local library; if they didn’t already have a copy they would order it for me. That’s what libraries are for. At least that’s what they used to be for.

Much to my surprise, my local library was closed. Much to my shock, it wasn’t closed for just the afternoon, or because it was being refurbished or they were taking stock. It was closed for ever.

So I went to the next nearest library to borrow the best book Elvira had ever read. That library was closed, too. And also for ever. As was the next nearest library. As it turned out, half the libraries in my borough had  been shut down, the books and equipment disappeared, the property sold to developers. The library, like the silverback gorilla, has become an endangered species.

“Well that’s progress, isn’t it?” said Elvira.

Is it?

There was a time when the only libraries were in monasteries or palaces or stately homes. So that knowledge – the knowledge that is power, joy and inspiration; the knowledge that makes you think, and imagine, and create; the knowledge that frees you from the limits of your everyday life – was restricted to the people who controlled things. Ordinary people – the hoi polloi as they are so charmingly called – couldn’t get at that knowledge. The majority of people had no access to a world beyond their own lives; to any ideas that their rulers didn’t want them to have. You had to believe what you were told because you had no way of searching for the truth yourself.

And then things started to change. First we had the printing press. Suddenly the Bible was available to ‘everyone’. Then pamphlets and tracts appeared, disseminating new ideas and alternative opinions. Along came mass production and mass consumption, and with it movements for mass education. Reading and writing became something not just for the few but for the many. And part of that education came from public libraries. You didn’t have to have the money to study officially or to buy books to be able to read them; to learn what you wanted. The library was the working person’s university. It was the key to the universe.

“You’re exaggerating, as usual,” said Elvira. “And anyway, soon there’ll be virtual libraries.”

“You can’t browse through a virtual library,” I argued. “You can’t read the covers. You can’t dip in and dip out of different books. You can’t sit down and get a few chapters into your head before you decide to borrow something.”

“You can download stuff onto your Kindle.”

“What if you don’t have a Kindle?”

Elvira shrugged. “Well you’ll have to get one, won’t you?”

I’d rather have a library.

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pushpin2THE FAMILY DIET

As the old year hobbled to a close, my mother, my sister and I would all sit thoughtfully in the glow of the Christmas tree, wearing as many of our presents as could fit on one body at the same time and finishing off the cookies, while we chose our New Year’s resolutions from the hundreds, nay thousands, on offer. Would I stop teasing my sister? Stop arguing with my mother? Cut my hair? Would my sister finally trade in the twenty hard plastic and brightly coloured dinosaurs she slept with for something more orthodox like a teddy bear? Would she overcome her hysterical fear of shampoo? Would this be the year she tried spinach? And what about Mom? Would she learn to play the piano? Plug in the sewing machine? Figure out how to parallel park? My father never took part in this ritual. He sat in His Chair, smoking a small cigar and reading a book or the paper, acting as if he was unaware of what the rest of his family was doing, If pressed (or goaded) by my mother, my father always said that he’d already made one New Year’s resolution, (never to make another New Year’s resolution), and that, so far, he’d kept it. Which was definitely more than anybody else he knew or was related to had ever done.

The years came and the years went. My hair grew longer. Even if you said it in Polish or Mandarin just the mention of the word ‘shampoo’ still set my sister off like a car alarm. My mother continued to drive around town looking for a space that didn’t involve parallel parking, sometimes coming home after two or three hours without ever getting out of the car. Indeed, few of our resolutions ever made it past noon on New Year’s Day. Until the year my mother announced that her resolution was to go on a diet, that was.

My mother had always been one of those skinny, flat-chested girls who wouldn’t put on weight if you locked her in a candy factory for a month. While her friends were all worrying about whether or not they could dare wear stripes and politely refusing second helpings of lettuce, my mother decked herself out like a zebra and ate like an Olympic swimmer. Which meant that she was one of the three or four women in the entire country who had made it into her forties without ever going on a diet. Not once. Not even for thirty-eight minutes. And she probably never would have gone on one if it wasn’t for Millie Firnberger.

At the Christmas lunch of my mother’s church group, Millie Firnberger asked her how far along she was. For a second or two my mother wondered what Millie was talking about. How far along what? A friend of mine once said that he never knew he had a big nose until his first day of teaching. He’d turned his back on the class to write his name on the board, and when he turned back they all had their arms held out in front of their faces like elephant trunks. And so it was that my mother never knew she had developed a ‘stomach’ until Millie Firnberger smiled over the chicken a la king and asked her when the baby was due.

My father’s reaction to the diet resolution was to nod vaguely from behind his paper, puff on his cigar, and say, ‘That’s nice dear.’ Which was what he always said.  

My mother put her hands on her hips, her elbows jutting out like arrowheads. ‘You don’t think I’ll stick to it,’ she snapped. ‘You think it’ll be like when I said I was going to bake my own bread.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ said my father.

The bread-making resolution had produced one loaf, so hard it broke the knife she tried to slice it with.

My mother’s elbows continued to jut. ‘But you were thinking it. I know you. You don’t think I have any willpower.’

My father sighed. Like my sister and I, he had a healthy respect for the power of my mother’s will. Like hurricanes and tornados, it was nothing less than a force of nature.

‘I think you can do anything you set your mind to,’ said my father. Which was what my mother always said, whether she meant it or not.

‘What is this?’ my father was gazing at his plate as once the natives of the East Coast must have gazed out at the enormous wooden ships looming towards them and thought: Are those floating islands? Is this okay in a general, that’s how things go kind of way, or are we really in trouble?

‘Supper,’ said my mother. ‘What does it look like?’

My sister and I were also gazing at our plates with bewilderment – and a growing sense of horror.

It looked like three ounces of boiled chicken, one cup of steamed spinach, half a cup of plain rice, and a tomato, cucumber and lettuce salad (sans dressing) to me.

‘It looks like your diet,’ said my sister.

My mother, who was as known for her mood swings and reality-defying logic as she was for the number of parking meters she’d banged into while trying to parallel park, smiled sweetly over a forkful of lettuce. ‘Well you didn’t expect me to sit here eating cottage cheese while the rest of you stuff your faces with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, did you?’

Apparently, we did.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of diets in the world. I knew that. Excerpts were always appearing in my mother’s magazines. The grapefruit and the Atkins… The GI and the Hollywood… The Scarsdale, the nut, the all the grape leaves you can eat in one sitting… And now there was this.

Good grief, I thought. My mother’s invented the family diet.
 
Later, conferring in whispers in the basement where my father disappeared for hours at a time to ‘do things’ (which meant get a little peace) we all agreed that we’d been naïve.

 My mother did all the cooking. My mother did all the shopping. My mother planned all the meals. It should have been obvious right from the start: if my mother was going on a diet, then we were all going on a diet.

‘Maybe we’re getting ourselves all worked up over nothing,’ suggested my father, who’d never wanted more than a quiet life. ‘Remember the piano? She never got past Chopsticks. She won’t last more than a day without potatoes.’

I wasn’t so sure. I was a fan of Sherlock Holmes and, although weak with hunger, I’d been doing some snooping around. ‘She’s bought a calorie counter,’ I said.

‘So?’ shrugged my sister. ‘Lots of people have calorie counters.’

‘And a book.’

‘And lots of people have books.’ My sister was born with a positive and optimistic nature.

I gloomily shook my head. ‘This is a diet book.’

‘Maybe we can bury it,’ said my sister. Positive and optimistic, but practical as well.

Dad patted our shoulders fondly. ‘I’m telling you, you’re overreacting. She bought the sewing machine, too, but she’s never used that. We’ll be eating goulash by the end of the week.’

My father was wrong. Probably because she felt he’d challenged her. My mother had set her mind to going on a diet the way governments traditionally set their minds on world domination. She was taking n prisoners. Showing no mercy. Throwing out the rules about not gunning down women and children. There was no more sugar in the house. No chocolate milk powder. No cookies. No bread that wasn’t whole wheat and sliced so thinly you could read through it. We all watched in horror the night my mother poured the last bottle of soda down the sink. ‘None of you need this junk,’ she proclaimed. ‘You’re much better off with water and lemon.’ By the end of the week we were eating Ryvita with one teaspoon of sugarless jam and calling it dessert.

‘I never thought I’d say this,’ said my sister, ‘but I actually look forward to going to school.’

At school there was lunch. There was the deli to stop at on the way home to buy a bologna sandwich, a quarter pound of potato salad, a giant dill pickle  and a bag of chips. We’d huddle under the awning at the front of the store, oblivious to the gales and snows of January, stuffing it into our faces before it froze and we’d lost all feeling in our toes. We’d sneak boxes of cookies home in our school bags and eat them under the blankets at night.

‘It’s not enough,’ I said. ‘We’re growing girls. We need meatballs and spaghetti. We need hamburgers and French fries. We need banana cake.’

‘Why don’t you two come to the lumberyard with me?’ By the end of the week my father was taking a new interest in doing the odd jobs in the house that had been undone for years, walking around with a pencil tucked behind his ear and a notebook tucked into his shirt pocket . ‘You can give me a hand.’

On the way home from the lumberyard we stopped at McDonald’s.

‘I don’t get it.’ My father squeezed ketchup over his fries with a philosophical if puzzled shake of his head. ‘It’s been a whole week. How come she hasn’t caved in yet?’

 Far from caving in, my mother seemed to be blooming. She tucked into her morning slice of dry toast and half a grapefruit without sugar with the enthusiasm of a child given a hot fudge sundae. Every night she set the day’s boiled, steamed or poached offering on the table as though it was a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. She said she thought the diet was doing us all a world of good.

‘And she’s not even in a bad mood,’ offered my sister. ‘That’s not normal.’ It didn’t take much to put my mother in a bad mood; starvation should have been a no-brainer.

I chewed thoughtfully on my cheeseburger. ‘You don’t think she’s scamming us, do you?’

My sister wiped ketchup from her mouth. ‘You mean like the way we’re scamming her?’ 

My father bit into a fry. ‘That’s where the two of you get your deviousness from,’ said my father.

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pushpin2JOLLY HOLLY

The four of us were exhausted and tetchy from fighting our way down Oxford Street with armloads of shopping. There’s something about people constantly walking into you, suddenly stopping in front of you to check their phones, or whacking you with giant rolls of wrapping paper that drains the joy out of your heart like pulling the plug drains the water from the bath.

“I told you we should go to a mall,” grumbled Marigold, hugging her shopping close for warmth as well as protection. “At least they have benches. And heat.”

Saskia jumped nimbly out of the way of a triple baby buggy being wheeled by a woman on a mobile phone who apparently had the deed to the pavement between Marble Arch and Regent’s Street in her handbag. “Yeah, but there’s less room to manoeuvre in the mall,” she muttered. “What about the time I ended up in that pond?”

I said, “You know, I think we should take a tea break.”

Daisy, buffeted by a pack of women with blood in their eyes, ricocheted off a post box and retrieved her hat from the road. “Tea’s not going to be strong enough,” said Daisy.

We wound up in one of those coffee bars that sprung up in (and cover) London like a rash. There were coloured lights, a small tree decorated with silver snowflakes and jolly wishes for a happy holiday in the windows. Shining red and green tinsel garlands hung from the ceiling. Bing Crosby crooned gently in the background. The staff all wore either antlers or Santa Claus hats.

“This is my last year doing this.” Marigold leaned back in her chair, holding on to her cup as a woman adrift in the stormy Atlantic would cling to a life preserver. “It gets more and more like a kamikaze mission every year.” She fished a piece of tinsel from her cocoa. “I’m really worried that one year I’ll never make it back home. They’ll find me trampled in the lingerie department, the last pair of striped leggings clutched in my cold, dead hand.”

“I’m with you.” Saskia shook her head and a cloud of artificial snow floated into our drinks. (In case you’re wondering why there was artificial snow in Saskia’s hair, searching for a present for her godchild she’d tripped over a small boy in the toy store and fell into the Winter Wonderland display.) “Not only is it more and more like Mission Impossible, it’s also Mission Futile and Pointless. I don’t know anybody who actually needs anything, and if there’s something they really want they already have it. Except for the babies. The babies grow out of things before they wear them even once. But that’s it. All I’ve bought are Gifts of Desperation.” She put a plastic carrier bag decorated with angels on the table and reached inside. “Just look at this stuff.” The stuff in question was a scarf in this winter’s colours for her aunt; a pair of camouflage socks for her uncle, and a Homer Simpson can opener for her brother. “Like the forty scarves she already owns aren’t enough for one woman. Like my sixty-year-old uncle’s going to be sent to Afghanistan next week. Like my brother ever buys anything without a ring pull.”

Daisy, whose nature is in keeping with the seasonal spirit of peace and joy, said, “I think those are good presents, Sas. They’re practical. And they’ll probably get used. You know, not like the egg slicer Huey gave me last year. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings so I told him was just what I always wanted, but I’ve been I never had any trouble slicing eggs with a knife. And I did with the slicer. It kind of mauled the eggs.”

We all laughed.

“That’s not nearly as bad as the crocheted toilet roll cover my grandmother made me that time,” said Marigold. “Remember that? It looked like a candle. It even had a flame.”

I remembered. “We must’ve spent an hour trying to figure out what it was for.”

“And we could never really be sure,” added Marigold. “It could’ve been to cover a roll of kitchen towel. Or if you had a bunch of tinned peas you didn’t have room for in the cupboard.”

“Don’t let’s leave out the clothes pegs,” begged Saskia. The clothes pegs were wooden ones, painted gold and decorated with artificial flowers. Roses I believe. Though they could have been pansies. My godmother gave them to me. But, unlike Marigold’s toilet roll cover, which had at least been made for her by her grandmother with her own hands and a heart full of hope, my godmother had bought the clothes pegs somewhere. Not with hope, but because it was Christmas Eve and she was running out of time. “Did you ever do anything with them?”

“I didn’t have to. The dog ate them.” I pointed to Saskia. “But what about you? What was the worst Christmas present you ever got?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Saskia. “The elf slippers. They even had bells on the toes. I looked like Little Sandy Sleighfoot.”

“At least you didn’t have to wear them in public.” Pain filled Marigold’s eyes as she relived the year her parents bought her a pink duffel coat when everyone else was wearing puffy parkas or baseball jackets. “I’d’ve run away from home if I’d had a decent coat to wear.”

The afternoon snuggled up around us as we recounted our treasured memories of Christmases Past. Not just the gifts you can never forget. The magic moments: when the cat landed on the turkey; when the tree fell over; when your brother unexpectedly turned up with six friends who had nowhere else to go. By the time we’d finished our drinks and stopped laughing, we were all in such a good mood that we were singing “Silver Bells” as we left the coffee bar, heading for the next block of shops, the joy settled back in our hearts.

Night was falling. A pale disc hung over the park.

“Look,” said Daisy. “The moon’s smiling. Like it’s wishing us a Merry Christmas.”

And maybe it was.

Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

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pushpin2LIVING THE DREAM

Winter's coming - if not already here. Time to store the harvest, can the last of the fruit and vegetables, and batten down the hatches. In America, of course, November is the month when Thanksgiving is celebrated. When folk travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles, and eat enormous quantities of food to thank the Earth for her bounty ? and the next day start shopping for Christmas.

Which is one of the things that made me think about 'Living the Dream'. It's what most people want; a phrase you hear all the time. Living the Dream - 'I'll win the biggest lottery in the world, and I'll be living the dream.' 'I'll become a celebrity because I can hop on one foot and whistle the title song from the musical Oklahoma! at the same time, and I'll be living the dream.' 'I'll inherit billions from a great aunt in Geneva who ran away with a mysterious stranger forty years ago and whom I've never heard of, and I'll be living the dream.' 'My guardian angel will appear at the foot of my bed one night and grant me whatever I want, and I'll be living the dream.'

I don't know about you, but I've never really been completely sure what this 'dream' is meant to be. Clearly, it involves a lot of money. Probably a lot of bathrooms, cars and electronic gadgets as well. Really big televisions. Holidays in five-star hotels with infinity pools and mind-boggling room service. Limitless amounts of clothes, jewellery, shoes and watches. For people who already have more money than most sovereign nations, living the dream will probably include six houses (with tons of bathrooms), a yacht the size of a large town and at least one private jet. (For people living on sidewalks, in cardboard boxes, or in their cars, living the dream is likely to be a little more modest.)

But if you think about it, none of that is really living any kind of dream. It's all just about being lucky in one way or another and having a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff that will stay behind when it's your turn to leave the planet. It seems to me that the real dream is Life itself. That's what we should be living. Every day, and every minute of every day. Laughing and singing and loving. Watching the sun rise and set. Counting the stars. Walking through the falling leaves or falling snow or falling rain. Telling stories. Hugging baby orang-utans. Filling our lives with colour and joy. Knowing that Life itself is a gift for which we should be endlessly grateful.

Which is why I'd like to dedicate this month to the memory of Mei Yee (aka Pamela) Leung, who knew this and was...

Mei Yee

Mahjong by Mei Yee Leung

...a fantastic artist... a fantastic spirit... a fantastic friend...

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pushpin2ANOTHER HALLOWEEN TALE

All hallows night,
When witches roam,
And restless ghosts
Search for a home.

Tis wise to stay safe in your bed,
The covers drawn above your head.
For you never know just what they’ll do –
And how it may come out for you...

My mother got the ouija board in a yard sale. Twenty-five cents, never used and still in the box. If there was one trait that my mother, my sister and I all shared it was the never-pass-up-a-bargain trait. We’d buy anything so long as it was on sale – biplanes, baby elephants, pre-Colombian fertility gods, doughnut-hole cutters. Even ouija boards. “Those things are just a lot of hokum, just as useful for connecting you to the spirit world as a piece of old rope,” said my father when he saw the board. “That’s twenty-five cents thrown away.” It was not a trait he shared.

Grandma Madge (my mother’s mother) read tealeaves and had a crystal ball and, in general, was a woman of many legends, myths and superstitions. She agreed with Hamlet that there was more in Heaven and Earth than met the eye. My father’s family didn’t go in for that kind of thing. If you couldn’t see it, then that was probably because it wasn’t there.

“That’s not the future,” my father would say, staring into the cup in which Grandma Madge had just seen a tall, dark stranger and a long journey amid palm trees and happy singing. “That’s just used tea.”

But although my sister and I were, of course, fascinated by fortune telling and communication between realities and longed to have a paranormal experience, my father’s cynicism had its effect on us. Rather than risk his ridicule and have him walking around for days saying, “Didn’t I tell you?” and “What did I say?” because all his negative energy sent every spirit on Long Island flying off to Connecticut to see what was happening there, my sister and I decided to wait for Halloween to try out the board. Halloween, the night of shape shifters and unquiet souls; the night when witches ride the wind and ghosts pass among the living like dreams. On this night you can talk through time and speak with the dead as easily as you pick up a phone and call your best friend. All you need is a deck of tarot cards, a bag of runes or – if the spirits have finally provided one for you – a ouija board. We were ready.

We decided to have a sleepover, and we chose our guests carefully. I invited my friend Kammy, who had once seen a ghost sitting on her front porch when she got home from school. (Kammy thought it was someone interested in renting the upstairs apartment. She did wonder why the woman was dressed for a funeral in the 19th century, but there was a lot of amateur theater in our town so she put it down to that. She asked the woman what she was waiting for. The woman said, “Ebenezer,” and promptly disappeared.) My sister invited Luane Clearwater, who claimed to be related to Pocahontas, on the grounds that the natives of the Americas traditionally had a good working relationship with the spirit world.

The only place we could have our “séance” was in the kitchen, because that was the only place with a table we could all sit around. Major white appliances and cabinets filled with canned vegetables and boxes of cereal aren’t really what you think of when you think of calling other realms, but my sister and I did our best. We lighted the room with candles and covered the window with her signs of the Zodiac bedspread so we couldn’t see the swing set out the back.

My father poked his head in as we were setting up. “If you happen to run into him,” said my father. “You wanna ask Oswald if there really was another gunman?”

None of us had ever tried a ouija board before. But we figured we knew what to do. Put your fingertips on the planchette; ask a question; shut up and concentrate; wait for an answer.

Kammy thought we should start with a simple test question.

We closed our eyes. “Is it Halloween?” we asked.

Nothing happened for a minute or two, and then the planchette started very slowly to move.

We all opened our eyes.

‘Luane, stop pushing!” ordered my sister.

“I’m not,” said Luane.

“Yes you are,” said my sister.

She was.

We started over.

We spent at least forty-five minutes on the simple test question, but always one of us, perhaps subconsciously impatient to get on to something more interesting, would start shoving the planchette towards YES.

“Why don’t we just skip the easy question and try one that has to be spelled out,” I suggested.

“And one none of us knows the answer to,” amended Kammy.

We asked the ouija to name the ghosts in our neighborhood.

But, again, the only time the planchette moved was when one of us made it move. L. A. Z. C.

“It looks like the name of a drug company,” said Luane.

Q. B. S. X.

“Maybe it doesn’t speak English,” said Kammy.

My mother came in and made some tea. “No luck yet?” said my mother.

My father came in and made himself a sandwich. “Maybe all the spirits are busy tonight,” said my father. “Getting candy.” Then he laughed like that was the best joke he’d ever made.

My sister decided that the problem was the doorbell. It kept ringing because of the trick-or-treaters. My sister said, “How can we call up an ancient spirit with all these little kids constantly interrupting?”

We took a break for snacks and replaced several of the candles that had burned out.  We waited till the trick or treating was over and my parents went to bed. And then we tried again.

When Luane fell asleep sitting up, we agreed that it was probably time to give up and go to bed.

“Dad was right,” grumbled my sister. “It’s all a load of hokum.”

“Maybe we should lie,” I said. “So he doesn’t gloat.”

When I woke up it was still dark and the others were sound asleep. But I was wide awake. I don’t know if I really thought the ouija would answer us, but I was disappointed that it hadn’t. And I really didn’t want my father to be right. I decided to try by myself.

I opened the kitchen door. There was a woman sitting at the table, staring down at the planchette. She was dressed all in black. Even her bonnet was black. The planchette was skittering over the board like a mouse being chased by a cat.

I spoke without thinking. I said, “What are you doing?”

She looked up. “I’m waiting for Ebenezer,” she said.

And then she disappeared.

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!!!

Happy Hallowe'en

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pushpin2THE FRENCH DON'T HAVE A WORD FOR IT

‘I have the best news! You’re not going to believe it!’ Tobia leaned forward, earnestly, her eyes bright with excitement.

‘Don’t tell me! You’ve found a way to end global poverty? You’ve succeeded where Bono and Sir Bob failed?’

‘No, not that.’ She shook her head, disappointed in my lack of vision. She picked up her cup. ‘What I’ve done is, I’ve finally decided what I’m going to do with my life.’

This was good news not only to Tobia, but to all her friends and family who had been wondering for some time whether or not she was ever going to do anything.

‘That’s great,’ I enthused. ‘What’s it going to be? Doctor, lawyer, marine biologist, physicist, head of the IMF?’

She shook her head again and took a sip of tea. ‘No, none of those. Those things aren’t me.’

I resisted the urge to groan out loud. ‘You haven’t gone back to the idea of being a celebrity, have you?’ Although, almost magically, ‘celebrity’ has become a job description in recent years, most of Tobia’s family and friends had spent a lot of time making her aware of the downside of celebrity. The massive amounts of plastic surgery. The twelve hours in the gym every day to stay in shape. The photographers living in the trees and dustbins outside your house. The global criticism and condemnation if you wear the wrong shoes, put on a pound, or forget to shave your legs.

‘Oh, no, no, no,’ Tobia assured me. ‘I know what a competitive field it is. I understand that even though you don’t need any qualifications or skills like you would to be a plumber or something it isn’t really easy to become a celebrity.

No, this is much much better than that.’

No plastic surgery. No paparazzi. And, presumably, no skills or qualifications. It sounded ideal

‘Keep me in suspense no longer,’ I begged. ‘What is it?’

‘I’m going to become one of those - one of those -’ Tobia frowned, searching for the word that was skittling round her brain like a panicking bird. ‘You know. That thing the French don’t have a word for.’

I said I was under the impression that the French had a word for most things.

‘Not this.’ Tobia was still frowning. ‘President Bush said, the French don’t have a word for it.’

‘You mean entrepreneur?’ I suggested. 

‘That’s it!’ She snapped her fingers. ‘Entrepreneur! I’m going to be an entrepreneur.’

Because I am sometimes accused of being fussy and petty I didn’t point out that entrepreneur is, in fact, a French word. It wouldn’t be the first time either President Bush or Tobia was wrong. I said, ‘Wow. Well that’s really something.’ I poured more tea. ‘So what’s it going to be? Boutique? CafÄ? Bookshop?’

Tobia’s expression became thoughtful, almost musing. ‘Actually, I was thinking of launching my own perfume.’

‘You what?’ I’d picked up the milk but put it back down ‘Perfume? Your own perfume? Is this before or after you launch your own satellite?’

‘You’re being sarcastic, right?’ Her expression was less thoughtful than suspicious. ‘Are you saying you don’t think it’s a good idea?’

I said that, yes, that was what I was saying. Because, unless she’d been holding back some information on her general education, I wasn’t aware that she knew how to make perfume. Assuming, that was, that you could make it in the kitchen or the bathroom.

Tobia’s laughter spluttered like a damp match. ‘I’m not going to make the perfume. I mean, do you think Mariah Carey makes her own perfume? Or Hilary Duff? Or Justin Bieber. Get real, they probably don’t even make their own beds. I’m just putting my name to it. Like they do.’

I took a slug of black tea. ‘What are you going to call it? Tobia Blackthorn’s Impossible Dream?’

Undaunted, she said, ‘Well maybe not perfume, then. I could do a clothes line like Gwen Stefani and Beyonce. Or cosmetics like Katie Price. Or even jewelry or shoes.’

‘Tobia,’ I said. Calmly. Patiently. ‘Tobia, you don’t have a name. That is, you have a name, but it isn’t a name anyone but your friends, your family and your doctor recognizes. Those people can only get away with launching their own labels because they’re celebrities.’

Tobia leaned back, her smile serene or, possibly, slightly demented. ‘But don’t you see, that’s the beauty of it. Only celebrities can put their names on something. So I put my name on something and, bingo!, I’m a celebrity! And I don’t even have to go on some reality TV show to do it.’

‘You know what?’ I finished off my tea. ‘I think you’re right. I don’t think the French do have a word for it.’

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pushpin2KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

My parents both came from immigrant, working-class families, and couldn’t have been more down-to-earth if they’d lived underground.  Upward mobility was a phrase they associated with elevators. My mother always said that she had no fancy airs and graces, that she was working-class and proud of it, and that pretty much summed up both of my parents. In a country where Keeping up with the Jonses was almost a national past-time, my mother couldn’t give an old sock what the Jonses were doing.

Suzette Renzulli’s mother wasn’t like my mother. Mrs Renzulli had airs and graces that stretched from her house on Chestnut Grove to the moon. She named her children Suzette and Gerald, not Susan and Gerry as any other mother in our community would have. She drove a late-model foreign car, not a used domestic like the other mothers. She didn’t subscribe to Good Housekeeping, she subscribed to Vogue. Mrs Renzulli, my mother said, was in competition with the world. Or certainly with our slightly drab and unexciting just-outside-the-suburbs part of it. Mrs Renzulli had to have the newest, most expensive, most modern, latest and trendiest everything. Car. Furniture. Appliances. Clothes. She was determined to be both different and better than everybody else. If a neighbour put a birdbath on her lawn, Mrs Renzulli put a fountain on hers. If a neighbour threw a barbecue Mrs Renzulli threw a wine and cheese party. In out neighbourhood, it was the Jonses who had to keep up with Mrs Renzulli.

And then, that fateful summer, the Melroses, who lived across from the Renzullis, went to Mexico. Or, to be slightly more precise, the Melroses went to visit Mr Melrose’s sister in San Diego and took a day trip to Tiajuana. Mrs Renzulli immediately announced that her family was going to Paris that year. (‘Not even Canadal!’ cried my mother. ‘France!) Mrs Renzulli’s conversation became full of French words – oui and non, s’il vous plait and excusez moi. If she saw you walking down the road she called, ‘Bonjour!’ If she backed into your car in the supermarket parking lot, she cried, ‘Mon Dieu!

It was a hot summer, and so my parents and my sister were driving around the cool and leafy Adirondacks. (When it came to her vacation my mother thought that since she had to cook approximately 362 days of the year, at least seven of those days should be on a sterno stove by the side of the road, and so our holidays were always spent driving along the coast waiting to break down.) I’d chosen to stay home that year, reading every Sherlock Holmes story and looking after the dog, the parakeet and the fluctuating population of guppies. Mrs Renzulli hired me to water their gardens while they were away.

Every afternoon Booey and I would walk the several unpaved blocks to the Renzullis’. Booey would rest in the shade of the oak tree in the back yard while I hooked up the hose and watered Mrs Renzulli’s flowers (lilies, of course – there were no marigolds or pansies in Mrs Renzulli’s borders) and Mr Renzulli’s vegetable patch, even larger than my dad’s. While I was there I’d also walk round the house, just to check that everything was secure. I should say here that this wasn’t because we lived in a high-crime area, but in a high-raccoon one. My mother believed they could pick locks.

The first few days were uneventful. But the day after my obsession with A Study In Scarlet had almost made me forget to water at all, I noticed that there were vegetables missing from Mr Renzulli’s patch. I dropped the hose. Quite a few vegetables missing. Tomatoes. Corn. Cucumbers. Zuccini. Beans. Lettuce. Carrots. A couple of onions. Some of these missing vegetables could, of course, be explained away by rabbits (or even raccoons). But even I, whose idea of helping her father with his vegetable garden was to eat whatever he grew, knew that rabbits rarely pull up whole heads of lettuce. Or carefully pluck carrots, squash or ears of corn. They don’t know the right way to pick tomatoes. I was deep into the intense and foggy world of Sherlock Holmes by then. Wooden wheels echoed over cobbled streets. The sad strains of a violin drifted through the more ordinary sounds of TVs, radios and dishes being laid. I looked around for clues. Tiny clues. Small signs. Things that would be missed or thought of as insignificant by a less analytical mind like Watson’s or Booey’s. I scanned the neat rows of vegetables, my eyes narrowed, by brain whirring. And there it was! Holmes would have been proud; I found a clue. Footprints in the soil that yesterday’s unusually late watering had softened. I reasoned that the most resourceful, lock-picking raccoon doesn’t wear shoes.

Having clocked the footprints in the vegetable patch, I then stood back to assess the situation. The way Mr Holmes would. Who were my most likely suspects? On the right of the Renzullis’ was Mrs Karlsen. Mrs Karlsen was in her eighties and was never seen out after dusk, which made her unlikely for midnight garden raids – even if anyone had ever noticed her wearing men’s shoes. On the other side were the Ramses. Mr Ramse was the Methodist minister. Mrs Ramse was a guidance counsellor at the high school. The image of Mr Ramse in his dog collar and Mrs Ramse in her suit and pearls sneaking into the Renzullis’ backyard in moonlight to steal cucumbers was a hard one even for someone with my imagination to conjure up. Behind the Renzulis were the Morgans, who had a six-foot fence, a swimming pool and one of the most expensive houses in the area. I couldn’t see them coming all the way around the block in the dead of night to steal corn.

I dragged my faithful sidekick Booey from under the oak, and together we carefully examined the crime scene for further clues. A tissue carelessly dropped from a pocket. A butterfly of ash drifted from a nervous cigarette. The hole of a high heel in the lawn that would tell me Mrs Ramse wasn’t what she seemed. We didn’t find any of those things. But there was dirt on the back stoop that possibly hadn’t been there the day before. And one of the basement windows was opened a crack. I might have missed dirt on the stoop, but there was no way I’d missed an open window. Quiet as air, I kneeled down. Our basement was a cellar, concrete and damp where my father had his workbench and my mother’s washing machine gently rusted. But if our basement hadn’t begun, the Renzullis’, of course, was finished. It had floors and ceilings and panelled walls. It had rooms with doors. It had a pool table and a bar. There was nothing to be seen through the crack: the room was dark, the door closed. But I thought I could hear distant voices; I would’ve sworn that I smelled, very faintly, something that made me think of pizza.

Things might have turned out differently if my parents had been home. My father, irritated by all the ouis and nons, the s’il vous plaits and excusez mois of the last few weeks, said Mrs Renzulli was like a gold ring you could bite in half. My mother said that if Mrs Renzulli insisted on naming one of her children Suzette she should have called the other one Crepe; at least than it would’ve been funny. My parents, therefore, would have been suspicious. They would have wondered just what was going on and called through the window. I called the police.

In neighbourhoods like ours, good news travel fast but bad news really travels fast. As soon as the police pulled up people started appearing like stars on a winter night. One on that porch. One on this lawn. A cluster at the side of the road. A gaggle of boys surrounding the patrol car. A group of girls at the bottom of the driveway. The Renzullis were just sitting down to supper when Officers Murphy and Spazoto entered the basement. They were dressed not for Paris but for the beach. They were having spaghetti.

You can’t arrest people for not having enough money to go to France and eat olives and snails on their vacation; for not even having enough money to go to the Jersey shore and eat hot dogs and saltwater taffy. Especially not when they’re hiding in their own basement. But things were never the same for the Renzullis. They weren't shunned, but they were definitely smirked at. Kids starting calling Suzette ‘Sue” and Gerard ‘Gerry’.  Which was probably a relief to them. The foreign car was sold and the wine and cheese parties replaced with barbecues. Which was probably a relief to Mr Renzulli. But well into the autumn, whenever Mrs Renzulli appeared someone would mutter ‘Mon Dieu’. And my mother had the satisfaction of comparing notes with Mrs Renzulli on cooking on a sterno stove.

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pushpin2BRIAN HAW : 7 JANUARY 1949 - 18 JUNE 2011

For those of you who never heard of him, Brian Haw, who died last month, was a British peace campaigner and activist. He set up a one-man peace camp in London’s Parliament Square, across from the Houses of Parliament and that other great tourist attraction, Big Ben, in June of 2001. To start with his protest concerned the economic sanctions against and bombing of Iraq by the UK and the US, but after September 11 and President Bush’s declaration of the War on Terror (and then Afghanistan and Iraq) he widened its focus. He may not have been a formal part of the anti-war movement in the UK, but he was certainly an inspiration to it. He lived in his camp for nearly ten years, a visible thorn in the side of the government, annoying it to the point where Parliament changed the law to try and get him out. It didn’t work. He was constantly harassed, complained about, criticized and arrested. That didn’t work either. In 2003 millions of people around the world marched to protest the beginning of the Iraq War, but after those marches they all went home and had dinner and watched TV. Brian Haw stayed at Parliament Square. In the winter and in the summer, in the sunshine and the rain, he was there with his pictures of dead children and his placards and his buttons and his tent. And with his enormous courage, dignity and anger. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think Brian Haw was right to believe that war is wrong and that mass murder is not a flawless foreign policy. What matters is that he had, as my mother would have said, the courage of his convictions. Or, as my father would have said, he put his money where his mouth was. Unlike many of the people he irritated the most, he didn’t say one thing and do something else, or back down at the first sign of trouble.   

I doubt that Brian Haw will rest in peace. I think his ghost will be haunting Parliament Square for many years to come. I certainly hope so.

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pushpin2 THE HORROR! THE HORROR!

Mallory answered the phone on the tenth ring. That alone should have told me that something was wrong. Mallory is someone who would answer her phone immediately if it rang while she was being introduced to the Queen. She said, “Hello?” Quietly. Almost warily. As if her thoughts had been somewhere else.

“Mallory?” I said. “Mallory, it’s me. Are you ready? I’m all set to leave the house.”

Mallory and I had been planning a walk along the river since the grey, bleak days of winter when we huddled together by the fire, our fingers wrapped around a hot cup of tea and the wind whistling through the chimney. It’ll be Spring, soon, we told each other. And then we can take a nice walk along the river. Spring robed in all of Nature’s glory, fresh and bright. The timeless banks of the Thames green and leafy and dappled with sunshine as we strolled along as countless people before us had strolled. Past quaint villages. Past woods and fields filled with wildflowers and butterflies. Past islands and gliding swans. Past ancient cottages, grand estates and historic pubs. A timeless walk where instead of the bleat of sirens we heard the call of birds; where instead of stalled traffic we saw rabbits leaping through the tall grass and baby birds learning to fly; where instead of the indifference of the city we were greeted with friendly waves from fellow walkers, boat and barge. I thought of it as The Glad to Be Alive Walk – basking in the joys of Spring.

Mallory choked back a sob. “I can’t come.”

“Can’t come? But why not?”

“I just can’t. I—I—I’m too upset.”

Too upset for the Glad to Be Alive Walk?

“But what happened?” Had the boiler broken again? The cat gone missing? The computer crashed? She wasn’t ill, was she? “Are you all right, Mal?”

 “Oh it’s not me. I mean not specifically. I’m ok. It’s-” Another sobbed cracked her voice.

“Who?” I pressed. “Your mum? Your dad? One of your nieces? Oh, no - not Uncle Joe.”

“No, it’s nobody like that.” She snuffled back a few dozen tears. “It’s—It’s-”

“Who?” I screamed. Begged. “It’s who?”

Mallory blew her nose. She took a deep breath. “It’s just that it’s such a dreadful world, isn’t it? There’s so much misery. I mean the Bible’s right. It’s a vale of tears. It’s wall-to-wall suffering. And it’s hideously unfair. It’s a miracle anybody has a moment of happiness with all the horrible things that happen to people who so don’t deserve it.”

What were we talking about here? The millions of starving, abused, disease-ridden children in the world, thousands of them dying every day? All the people killed by drone bombers? The indigenous people fighting the giant oil companies to save their forests and keep their homes and ways of life? The people blasted, shot, humiliated and made homeless in wars and peace-keeping missions they didn’t cause? The constantly growing number of victims of flood, drought, tornado, earthquake, famine and nuclear meltdown? All the hardworking people who lost their homes and jobs and dreams in the duplicitous dealings of the banks and brokers? It’s a pretty long list.
 
“No, none of them.” This time Mallory’s voice didn’t so much crack as splinter. ”We’re talking about Cheryl Cole.”

Did I still have water in my ears from my shower?

“Who?”

 “Cheryl Cole, Dyan. You must know who Cheryl Cole is. She was on the UK X Factor.”

“Is she the one who wears way too much make-up?”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

“Is she the one who once won the ‘Best Looking Girl of Newcastle’ contest?”

Mallory blew her nose again, honking in a way that would have impressed even the gliding swans we were clearly destined not to see. “It wouldn’t surprise me. She’s not just a talent judge. She’s a fashion icon, you know. She was only on the cover of Vogue. And she’s the new face of L’Oreal.”

I had no idea who the old face was.

“Singer?” I was getting an image. Hair. Lips the color of ketchup. Eyelashes like awnings. “She was in some girl band, right? But she’s not Victoria Beckham.”

“Of course she’s not Victoria Beckham!” Mallory adroitly managed to combine deep sorrow and grief with indignation and outrage. She should be on the X Factor herself. “She’s Cheryl Cole. Victoria Beckham’s never suffered the way Cheryl’s suffered.”

Like the jingles for products you would never buy that you find yourself humming as you sit on the bus, bits of information I never asked for started jogging around my brain.

“You mean because she had malaria? Mallory, do you know how many people die of malaria in-”

“It’s not just that.”

“The divorce?” I was pretty sure there’d been a divorce. From a football player. “Did I miss something? You’re not trying to tell me she’s the first football wife to ever get a divorce?”

“You’re being deliberately ridiculous,” accused Mallory. “You must know what happened. It’s been all over the news.”

It had been all over the news.

“She puffed her hair up and went off to conquer America.”

“No!” Mallory’s was an anguished cry. “She got fired!”

Which didn’t strike me as being a first, either.

“From the US X Factor,” explained Mallory.

As if that made all the difference between Cheryl Cole losing her job and the thousands of people who aren’t the new face of L’Oreal losing their jobs because of the economy.

“But they’re just ordinary people, not role models for young girls,” argued Mallory. “Cheryl Cole is. She’s an inspiration. She shows them that they can do something with their lives. That they can be somebody.”

“You mean divorced?”

“Dyan…” Mallory’s voice sounded like a tapping heel.

“Okay, I know what you mean. You mean Simon Cowell’s protogee. But what about that incident? Was that part of being a role model?”

Mallory sighed. “What incident?”

“The to-do Cheryl had with the bathroom attendant in that nightclub that time.” 

There was another calling-the-flock honk. “You’re the only one who remembers that,” said Mallory. 

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pushpin2 EVERY GIRL WANTS TO BE A PRINCESS

“What do you mean you don’t want to go?” Margo gave me the same look my mother used to give me when I refused to eat something she believed was really good for me. “It’s an historic occasion. It’s a communal ritual with mythic overtones. It’s the best show in town. And, besides, it’ll be fun.”

“It wont’ be fun.” I said this with some conviction. “It’ll be worse than Christmas shopping on Oxford Street. Worse than rush-hour traffic in L.A. Worse than New Year’s Eve at Time’s Square.”

But, like my mother, Margo wasn’t to be discouraged by reason. “No, it won’t.

You’re wrong,” she insisted. “I’m telling you, it’ll be fun.”

I set my jaw in a way my mother would instantly have recognized as the there-is-no-way-okra-is-going-past-my-lips signal. “Define fun.”

“The cheering crowds,” said Margo. “The feeling of camaraderie. The pageantry and pomp. Everybody excited and cheering. The entire planet joined in a glorious celebration of love.”

“You won’t see anything,” I argued. “Unless you consider seeing a bunch of people in Will and Kate masks who have come all the way from Düsseldorf and Manchester for the weekend waving flags seeing something. You’ll be packed in with a bunch of strangers and all you’ll see are the backs of other strangers heads.”

“But you’ll be there. It’ll be something to tell your granddaughters. You were there when a commoner married a prince! It’s like a fairytale come true.”

“I’d rather tell them about Thomas Rainsborough and the Levellers.”

“Oh...” Margo’s sigh contained several universes dark with disappointment. “You can’t be serious. Every girl wants to be a princess.”

“Oh please.” My sigh contained several universes stormy with contempt. “Where’d you get that from? Some Disney movie?”

But Margo was adamant. That’s why you see so many girls in pink. And fairy wings. And sparkly tiaras. Small girls are tucked up in their Little Mermaid sheets and matching duvet covers at night (or Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty), to dream about some day marrying a handsome prince. Older girls, having moved on to pop-star sheets and duvet covers, read The Princess Diaries and continue to dream.

I asked if no one’s noticed that there aren’t that many princes to go around.

“The operative word here is ‘dream’,” said Margo. “It’s important to have dreams.”

“It would be more useful for everyone if they dreamed about discovering a way to reverse climate change or bring about world peace. This monarchy lark is all just an extravaganza to distract people from reality.”

Although she’s actually a biochemist, Margo can produce the scowl of a thwarted dictator when she wants. And the scathing tone of voice. “In case you haven’t noticed, the royals are real. They have castles and horses and all those hats.”

“But 99.99999% of us have a lot less chance of joining them than of winning a jackpot lottery.”

“But people do win jackpot lotteries,” Margo countered. “You see them in the papers all the time, pouring champagne over their heads and buying expensive cars. And anyway, I’m not asking you to wish on a star here, I’m just asking you to go see the procession. To be part of history.”

I pointed out that I’m already part of history. We all are.

“I don’t know why you always have to be so negative,” grumbled Margo. “Why can’t you see the joy and happiness a wedding like this brings all of us?”

“You’re right,” I finally conceded. “This wedding has brought me some happiness and joy.”

“Because they’re so obviously in love?” guessed Margo.

“No, it’s not that.”

“Because it’s such a magnificent spectacle and people all over the world will be watching it?”

“No, it’s not that, either.”

“Okay, I give up.” Margo made an empty-handed gesture. “What is it?”

“Tony Blair wasn’t invited. It must be driving him nuts.”

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pushpin2THE POINT OF CATS

Leona and I were having tea in my kitchen. On the table was the pile of papers that mostly live there, two cups, two saucers, two spoons, the teapot, a pitcher of milk, a sugar bowl, a plate of chocolate-chocolate-chip biscuit, Leona’s Burberry and one elegant but largish black and white cat. The cat was on the Burberry.

Leona looked in her cup, and gracefully removed a black hair with one long, bright purple nail. Though in a pointed way.

“Excuse me, Miss B,” I said to the cat, “you’re not supposed to be on the table.”

Miss B gently waved her tail over my tea.

“You know, I’ve never understood the point of cats,” said Leona to me.

“The point?”

Leona nodded. “Yes, the point. What do they do exactly?” She reached for a biscuit, blowing off a few white hairs. “What do they contribute to the world?”

Miss B had been purring (a sound rather like that made by the motor of a small and ancient refrigerator), but now she stopped. She narrowed her eyes.

I gave up looking in my food and drink for cats hairs years ago so I was staring at Leona as I took a sip of tea. “Well,” I said, “they’re very curious, of course. They’re always investigating things.”

Which is why Miss B frequently has cobwebs hanging from an ear.

 “They’re not exactly furry Sherlock Holmeses.” Leona brushed at the sleeve of her linen shirt. “What do they do? That’s my question. You know, to justify their existence. To pay their way. You know, like dogs offer companionship.”

“Cats are companionable.”

“No they aren’t,” said Leona. “Unless there’s food involved they’re either asleep or sitting with their back to you.”

“That’s not true.” I pointed to Miss B. “See? They like to be in the centre of things.” Put down a box or an empty paper bag and the cat’s in it. Open a newspaper or set your jacket (or your Burberry) on the table and the cat’s on it.

“Dog’s guard the house.” Leona was being pretty dogged herself.

“Miss B guards the house. You should see her come running when she hears the gate open.”

“Because she thinks she’s going to be fed.” Leona looked at Miss B, who seemed to be nodding off.  “And what if it was a burglar? A dog would attack. Would she attack?”

Possibly not. The time someone threw a rock through the window it took four hours to find Miss B, made magically purse-size, at the back of the cutlery drawer. On the other hand, the time Leona heard a strange sound in the house she rang me from the cupboard under the stairs, begging me to come over and see what it was since she couldn’t ring the police because of last time.

“Would you?”

Leona ignored my question. “What about loyalty? Dogs are fantastically loyal. They’re man’s best friends. They’ll always stick by you through thick and thin. Cats only think of themselves.”

I bit into a biscuit.  “I’m not saying that’s true, but if it is true, cats aren’t the only ones.” People steal, lie cheat and betray each other all the time. And they let each other down. “Remember when you dumped Arnie Folkstone because he got hay fever?”

”Oh, you’re not harking back to that, are you?” Leona sighed. “You should’ve heard him. He never stopped sneezing. I could barely hear myself think round him. It made me nuts.”

I poured more tea. “A dog would’ve stayed with him.”

As would a tree, a ferret, or a sunflower.

“And they hunt,” said Leona. “Dogs. They can get you food.” She eyes Miss B, whose head was now resting on the plate of biscuits. “Cats don’t do that.”

“Cats hunt. They’re very good hunters.”

“Having a mangled mouse dumped on your face at five in the morning is not the same as a dog swimming into the lake to retrieve a pheasant for your dinner.” She moved the plate and Miss B’s head dropped to the table. “And if you accidentally shoot yourself whilst hunting, a dog will go for help.”

“Like Alastair did when you fell down the stairs on the bridge that time?”

She fished another hair from her tea. “He doesn’t like hospitals.”

He left her and took a cab home.

“The thing is, Leona, that if you’re talking about the point of things, there isn’t much point to anything, is there?”

Consider the lilies of the field… they toil not, neither do they spin…” murmured Leona. Which seemed a surprising quote for someone who has more labels than Heinz. “At least lilies engage in photosynthesis and produce oxygen. All cats so is eat and sleep.”

“Actually, I wasn’t thinking of lilies.” I rubbed Miss B’s ear and she immediately started purring even though she did give the appearance of being asleep. “I was thinking more of people.”

“People?” repeated Leona.

“I mean we are doing our best to destroy the planet and everything on it one way or another, but aside from our notable contributions to global destruction what is it we do to justify our existence? ” Miss B crossed her paws, pretty much defining the word “adorable”. “You’re not all that loyal and you don’t hunt.”

“I shop. Shopping counts as hunting.”

“But what else?”

“What else do I do?” Leona spluttered with amused disbelief. “You know what I do. I’m a banker.”

“Okay so you eat and sleep and bank.”

“I make money.”

“And spend it on thousand-pound bags.”

“Well that’s more than cats do,” said Leona. 

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pushpin2MARCH

‘Man, did you hear about Charlie Sheen?” asked Dan.

I said, ‘Who?’

‘You know, the highest paid actor on American TV, Charlie Sheen.’

I frowned, thinking. ‘Is he in Mad Men?’

‘No not Mad Men. He’s in Two and a Half Men.’

I said I guessed that if he was the highest paid actor on American TV, he didn’t play the half.

Dan said that opinions on that differed.

Margot said, ‘She’s pulling your leg, Dan. She’s not unconscious or orbiting the Earth. Of course she knows who Charlie Sheen is.’

I nodded. ‘Martin’s son.’

‘Hahaha,’ said Dan.

The simple truth, of course, is that unless you’re unconscious, in a space ship or live in a cave in the Himalayas where you meditate for ten hours a day and never see another soul, after his most recent meltdown, you know who Charlie Sheen is. My cat knows who he is. ‘Burping birds, not him again,’ says my cat.

‘I’m just sick of hearing about him,’ I explained. ‘Have all the wars, famines, injustices and disasters on the planet been miraculously sorted so this guy is all was have to talk about? You can’t open a paper or turn on the radio or even go online without seeing or hearing something about Charlie Sheen.’

‘So besides the fact that the world does have other problems, is the reason you’re sick of hearing about him because he makes more money for one episode of his sitcom than most of us make in a lifetime?’ asked Margot. ‘Is that what it is?’

That, too.  But mainly because, as far as spectator sports go, I’ve found the whole media frenzy over Mr Sheen’s very serious problems a lot like bear baiting, and just as pleasant and enjoyable to watch. (Discounting the fact that the bears didn’t get paid fortunes they then squandered rather spectacularly.)

‘I wasn’t gloating,’ defended Dan. ‘I feel sorry for the bloke. He’s obviously in big trouble. I hope he can sort himself out. You know, like Lindsay Lohan.’

Lindsay Lohan sorted herself out? When did that happen?

‘After she got out of custody last year,’ explained Margot.

So what’d she do? Give up all her worldly goods and go to work in an orphanage in Africa for the rest of her life?

Dan shook his head. ‘No. She visited some teenagers in a homeless shelter in L.A.’

‘She signed autographs and gave out some purses,’ added Margot.

‘Wait a minute, wait a minute.’ For the first time in days I was actually able to forget entirely about Charlie Sheen. ‘How is her visiting this shelter supposed to help these kids?’

Margot laughed. ‘Um duh. It’s not to help them, is it? It’s to help her. She said it made her feel blessed.’

And so she should.

‘Are you saying that’s her sorting herself out? Spending half an hour at a homeless shelter, realizing that there are people who can’t afford to go to expensive rehab or get a good lawyer when they’re in trouble?’

Dan shrugged. ‘Well, it’s a start.’

‘Gee,” I said. ‘Maybe if she works really hard in five or six years she’ll be asked to interview Putin.’

Dan looked at Margot. ‘Now what’s she talking about?”

Margot rolled her eyes. ‘Naomi Campbell.’

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pushpin2OFFSIDE

So far, this year has already shown itself to be filled with all sorts of challenges and surprises, and I was with some friends the other day, talking about what had been happening in the world. Biblical floods. People’s revolutions. Economic collapse. The offside rule.

‘Admit it,’ said Barry. ‘You have no idea what the offside rule is.’

‘It doesn’t matter whether I know what the offside rule is or not. I don’t play football,’ I explained. ‘What matters, Barry, is that the sports commentators were saying that the female linesman didn’t know what the offside rule is. Because, even though she is a linesman, she’s a woman. And, obviously, only a man could understand anything as complex and cosmically significant as a rule some men made up for some game they also made up.’

‘They were just joshing,’ said Leo. ‘You know what blokes are like.’

‘Um…” Annie gazed at him over her mug. Meditatively. ‘That’s how we know that they weren't joshing.’

In case you are not a European football fan, let me explain very briefly what happened. Two British commentators, covering a live match, passed some comments to each other about the woman linesman’s ability to understand the offside rule - or inability – when they thought they weren't On Air (which, unfortunately for them, they were). It’s true that the offside rule isn’t as simple and straightforward as, say, the Thou Shall Not Kill rule, but apparently this inability to understand it is genetic and affects every woman ever born, even if she’s trained for years to become a linesman and knows as much about football as David Beckham. That’s of no importance. She might as well be an orang-utan for all she’ll ever understand the offside rule. Needless to say, there was a pretty swift and vocal response to this exchange, and not just from women. Men who see nothing wrong with women doctors, lawyers, artists, fighter pilots, or even linesmen, rose up in outrage. [I’m not going to bother explaining the offside rule here. If you’re a football aficionado/a you’ll already know it. And if you’re not a football aficionado/a, you don’t need to know it. It’s not like it’s going to save you if you get lost in the jungle, or help you work out the distance between Bent Tree, Oregon and the nearest star. You can lead a completely full and exciting life without it.]

Teddy smiled. ‘You women always overreact,’ said Teddy. ‘You can’t take a joke.’

None of the women returned his smile.

Tululah bit unto a biscuit without spilling a crumb. Snap. ‘That’s because the sense of humour gene is on the same chromosome as the driving, map reading and corporate executive gene,’ said Tululah.

The men exchanged nervous looks.

‘You’re kidding, yeah?’ asked Barry.

‘I’m being sarcastic, if that’s what you mean.’

‘Why don’t we all lighten up a little here?’ asked Leo. ‘After all, I think we can all agree that there are differences between men and women.’

‘You mean like facial hair and giving birth?’ I asked. ‘Or like never being able to find your keys, multi-task or ask for directions?’

Later, while I was putting up a shelf for him and he was ironing a pair of jeans, Teddy asked if I did know what the offside rule is.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘It’s a lot easier to understand than the pluperfect subjunctive.’

‘Do you think you could explain it to me?’ asked Teddy.

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pushpin2HAPPY NEW YEAR

Oh by gosh by golly, take down the tinsel and the holly – a new year has begun.

I’m writing this on the very first day of 2011, after a 2010 that a lot of people would agree could have been better and a New Year’s Eve whose quiet was only disturbed by the fireworks that seemed to go off right in front of the house, which had the cat running for cover (she really, really doesn’t like sudden loud noises close to her home).

This is the official day for contemplation and reflection (and, for some of us, watching old films or TV series with a bag of crisps and the cat, finally out from under the sofa, curled up beside us). The day when most of us will resolve to do better in the new year than we did in the old one. This year we’re not going to waste our lives impersonating a couch cushion; this year we’re going to be vibrant, energetic and inquisitive. There shall be no more idle hours spent watching people we’ve never heard of (or have heard of vaguely) making fools of themselves on national television; it’s the great novels of world literature and educational documentaries this twelve months. Classical music instead of pop. Serious news programmes instead of chat shows. That bag of wool and knitting needles that’s been at the back of the closet for the last three years is brought out once more into the weary light of day. The calligraphy sets/brass rubbing kit/weaving loom we got last Christmas is dragged from the cupboard and set firmly on our desks. We pump up the tyres on our bikes and oil our skateboards. With heroic effort and determination, we finally manage to thread the sewing machine and find a recipe for making bread that seems fairly easy. And it doesn’t stop there. Thousands – millions – of people will give up smoking again, drowning that last pack in the toilet even as they open the first pack of chewing gum that will replace those cigarettes (at least for a while). Thousands – millions – of people will go on a diet, scuttling through the dark to dump a bag of snack foods in somebody else’s garbage (good bye double-fudge brownies and mesquite potato crisps and hello carrot sticks and bean sprouts). Classes in T’ai Chi. Karate, yoga, Pilates, Japanese, glass blowing, jewellery making, welding, and ceroc will be booked on the second day of January. On that very same day, armies of earnest looking joggers in new trainers and immaculate running gear will hook themselves up to their Ipod and hurl themselves into the grey, cold morning, grim with virtue.

Why do we do these things? Because we know that things arenot as good as they might be. Because we want our lives to be better. But even if Uncle George learns to jive dance, and Aunt Wilhelmina loses thirty pounds, and I finally read WAR AND PEACE, our beleaguered old world isn’t going to be much improved by our efforts. The rivers will still be polluted. The land will still be polluted. The air will still be polluted. More species will go extinct each day, more old-growth forests disappear, more mountains be blown up, more children die of poverty and war. And the time bomb that is the destruction and degradation we have wreaked on this beautiful planet will continue to tick. Tickticktickticktick.

So this year, rather than taking up climbing for a couple of months or eating steamed vegetables for a week or two, I think we should make a collective resolution. That each one of us will do one small thing this year to help the earth fight back – plant some trees, stop eating so much meat, stop buying so many things that we don’t actually need, sometimes walk instead of taking the car. Small things, every now and then. Treading a little more lightly on the Earth. Thinking a little bit more about how the things we do affect the rest of the world. Tickticktickticktick.

And then you can take that flamenco class.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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pushpin2HAPPY...

There was a piece in the paper the other day about (of all things) Christmas! Apparently a lot of people are complaining that they can’t even use the ‘C’ word any more. It’s all festive this and season’s that. Happy holidays and Winter celebration… No Christmas cards. No Christmas lights. No Merry Christmas. It’s hard to imagine how schools manage to put on their nativity plays without mentioning the Christ child, but perhaps they just call him The Baby and skip over the details.

It got me thinking about this time of year.  Diwali happens a little earlier, of course, but basically this is the season of festivals of light at the darkest time of year. Pagan winter solstice celebrations. Hanukkah. Christmas. But something odd has happened to Christmas. It’s as if there are actually two Christmases on the December calendar.

The first is, of course, the celebration of the birth of the man who symbolizes hope and who taught love, forgiveness and brotherhood. The man who threw the moneychangers out of the temple. The man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The man who is the Light. That’s Christmas number one. 

Then there’s Christmas number two. That’s the one that seems to gear up the day after Thanksgiving (though it starts warming its engines sometime in September) when crazed shoppers trample each other to be the first into a cheap department store to buy yet another big screen TV. The spendspendspend, buybuybuy, IwantIwant Christmas. The how big is your tree and how many cards did you get this year? Christmas. The one that seems to have very little to do with babies in mangers or messages of hope.

Personally, I’m not in favour of using the ‘C’ word in the context of Christmas number two. But I’ve come up with the solution. All we have to do is change the name of Christmas number two to a more appropriate label. Then people who are celebrating the birth of Jesus can wish each other a merry Christmas. And people who just want to shop can wish each other something else. I’m open to suggestions.

In the meantime:

Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

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pushpin2REMEMBER THE WAMPANOAGS

My Aunt Lillian was the family radical. My other aunts and uncles all voted Republican and went to mass every Sunday and considered garlic in food A Step Too Far; the women were all fulltime housewives and the men all worked in suits. Aunt Lillian not only always worked and cooked with garlic with gay abandon, but in her youth she’d been briefly married to an artist (that nobody liked on principle) and lived in Greenwich Village (which they also didn’t like on principle). She was the first person in the history of the family to get a divorce. And then, instead of having learned the error of her ways and marrying someone proper and moving to the suburbs, she went traveling (or “gallivanting” in the words of her sisters). When she came back, she was married to Aaron the Anarchist poet and declared herself a Buddhist. They lived on the Lower East Side, and they didn’t drive a car like everyone else in the family, they rode a motorcycle (“And it doesn’t even have a sidecar,” complained her sisters.) They listened to jazz. They marched on Washington. They had friends who (according to her sisters) looked like “Communists, atheists, or beatniks”.  But even worse than all that, Aunt Lillian was outspoken in her views and opinions, of which there were many. As my father put it, “Lillian always had ideas.” As her sisters put it, “Lillian never knows when to keep her big mouth shut.” 

Because she always had ideas and never knew when to keep them to herself, Aunt Lillian hadn’t been included in a family gathering since the Big Fight in Baldwin. By then Lillian and Aaron had two children and lived in Queens, but even if they’d had thirty children and lived in the Vatican it wouldn’t have been enough to make them fit in with the rest of the family. Family legend doesn’t recall exactly what the Big Fight in Baldwin was about, but it was more likely to be about politics or religion (Aunt Lillian’s two favorite topics; guaranteed to get a rise from her siblings) than the onion dip. There was a lot of shouting and name-calling; a deck of cards was thrown on the floor a chair fell to the floor; and a glass of gingerale was flung across the table at Uncle Seb. Aunt Helga ran upstairs, crying. When Helga was safely locked in the bathroom, the cousins all went back to the head of the stairs and peered over the banister again, Lillian and Aaron were putting on their hats and coats even as Aunt Loretta was opening the front door. Their faces all looked frozen; not cold, just solid as stone. “Thank you for such a delightful evening with such enlightened people,” snarled Aunt Lillian. And Aunt Loretta said, “You’re very welcome. Let’s not do it again.”

But this wasn’t the first argument my aunts and uncles had had in all the years they’d known each other (or the first time Lillian threw something at her brother, Seb).  Eventually, tempers cooled and Christmas and birthday cards were exchanged, and the sisters continued to talk on the phone to one another every week. But, although it was never said in so many words, it was understood that the only thing Aunt Lillian and her brothers and sisters agreed on was that they didn’t want to be in a confined space together for the foreseeable future (“confined space” being defined as anything smaller than Texas).

And then one of the older cousins got married and everyone was invited. The wedding went off with no major scenes, and the next Thanksgiving Lillian and Aaron invited us all to their house for the feast. “It’s been so long,” said Aunt Lillian. “We’d like to hold it here. Do something special.”
Presumably everyone else assumed that by “special” she meant adding orange rind to the cranberries.

All was well for the first fifteen or so minutes. Drinks were served; bowls of nuts were passed around. We cousins were all in the TV alcove off the living room, watching the parade on TV. And then Aunt Loretta suddenly raised her head and sniffed. “I don’t smell the turkey,” said Aunt Loretta.

Aunt Lillian set a dish of popcorn on the coffee table. “That’s because there isn’t any turkey.”

The adults broke off their conversations and looked over. Heads with a vested interest in drumsticks and stuffing turned away from the sight of Mighty Mouse being buffeted by the New York wind. The uncles all laughed as if this was the funniest joke they’d heard in a long time, hohoho, but Aunt Helga said, “What do you mean there isn’t any turkey?”

Aunt Lillian smiled. “I mean that there isn’t any turkey.”

“But there has to be a turkey,” said Aunt Dorrie.

Aunt Lillian was still smiling, but it was the smile of a woman who’s about to ask you a trick question. “And why is that?”

“Because it’s Thanksgiving,” said Aunt Sophie.

My cousin Lila turned off the TV and we all shuffled closer to the living room.

“So? Who says we have to have turkey just because it’s Thanksgiving?”

“It’s a tradition,” said Aunt Loretta. “An American tradition.”

“Because a handful of Englishmen ate turkey a few hundred years ago?”

“I’m going out to the porch for a cigar,” said Uncle Aaron. He looked at his brother-in-laws. “Anyone coming?”

“Yes, because a handful of Englishmen ate turkey a few hundred years ago,” said Aunt Florence.

“And what about all the other millions of people who came here?” demanded Aunt Lillian as the men all shambled out the door. “What about the immigrants from Europe and Russia and Asia. What about the slaves? What about their traditions? Why don’t we have borscht and paella and chow mein and peanut stew to celebrate our nation? Why don’t we remember all those people and all they did for this country?”

Not in a frozen way, but coldly, Aunt Sophie said, “Lillian, maybe you’re forgetting, but the Pilgrims were here first.”

You could see Aunt Lillian get taller. “Oh no they weren't.” She sounded pretty firm on this question. “I believe if you check your history books, Sophia, you’ll find that there were people here a long time before the Pilgrims showed up to boss everybody around and take their land.”

“I should have known!” croaked Aunt Loretta. Her glass hit the coffee table like the crack of a rifle. “You can’t miss an opportunity to make one of your points, can you? You have to turn everything into one of your crusades.”

Aunt Lillian ignored her. “For instance, the Wampanoags. Why don’t we remember them? If it hadn’t been for the Wampanoags your precious Pilgrims would have perished in the first snows.”

“But they didn’t perish, did they?” piped up Aunt Florence. “They survived and built this great country.”

“On the blood and tears of everybody else!” roared Aunt Lillian.

My own mother, who had been unnaturally quiet through all of this, suddenly spoke up. “So,” said my mother almost sweetly. “If we’re not having turkey, what are we having?”

“Venison. I believe that’s what the Wampanoags brought to the feast.”

“Venison?” Aunt Dorrie was frowning; this wasn’t a word that got a lot of usage in our circle. “You mean deer?”

My sister burst into tears. “Oh, no,” she sobbed. “We’re eating Bambi!”
 
Personally, I’m convinced that if my sister hadn’t got all upset about tucking into Bambi, the meal would have been a success. Or less of a failure.  After all, we ate Tom Turkey and Porky Pig and Karen Chicken and Bessy the Cow all the time, and nobody ever made a fuss. But none of the children would touch the venison, and Aunt Loretta obviously saw this as a cause to champion, so she wouldn’t touch it either. The other aunts went along with her. The men ate small portions, sheepishly.

“Well,” said my mother as we drove home later that night. “That’s certainly a meal I’ll remember for a long time.”

“What I don’t get,” said my father, “is why she just didn’t make fish. Surely the Wampanoags fished.”

“Maybe you can suggest that for next year,” said my mother.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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pushpin2A HALLOWEEN TALE

All hallows night,
When witches roam,
And restless ghosts
Search for a home.

Tis wise to stay safe in your bed,
The covers drawn above your head.
For you never know just what they’ll do –
And how it may come out for you...

It was Halloween. A night for shape shifters and unquiet spirits; a night when witches ride the wind and bats weave through the trees like fleeing dreams. On this night you can talk through time – consult the cards or the runes or the ouija - can speak with the dead as easily as you pick up a phone and call your best friend.

Though not in my neighborhood. We were all about split-levels and ranch houses and rustic fences. We might decorate with cardboard skeletons and carved pumpkins, but we didn’t really do parallel worlds or chatting with the dead. Halloween for us was little kids in dime-store costumes, teenage boys having a license to harass everyone and bags of cheap candy.

“Let’s go over the rules, one more time,” said my mother.

Outside leaves blew across the yard like sparks and at our front door, pawing the ground and shouting words of encouragement like “Let’s go!” and “What’s taking so long?” were a vampire, two pirates, a pumpkin, a horse, a princess, a fire engine and a giant squid.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Mom.” I flapped my silky black cape (once my mother’s dancing skirt) restlessly. This year I was Morgana la Fay. “We’ve gone trick-or-treating before. We know what to do.”

My sister made a sound like a small pig grunting under a stack of hay – umpfumpfumpfimpf – which I translated as “Give us a. break”. This year my sister was a robot. My father had made her costume – an even more elaborate cardboard and papier mâche construction than the dragon of the year before – but his design had some shortcomings (as his designs often did). In this case, the difficulty of hearing what my sister said was one of them.

But my mother had lived with us and our father long enough to know that nobody ever listened to her; and that if they did listen to her they forgot what she said the minute she walked away. She held her arms akimbo, an orange bag emblazoned with a black skull and crossbones dangling from each wrist. “You don’t leave this house until I’m satisfied.”

Since we would have been there till Christmas if my sister went through the drill, I obediently listed my mother’s rules:

1. Stay with your group.

2. Only go to houses that look trick-or-treat friendly (nothing that looks dark or inhospitable; nothing with eggs smashed against the windows or broken pumpkins strewn across the porch; nothing with No Trespassing or Beware of Dog signs).

3. Don’t accept anything that isn’t in a sealed wrapper, including fruit (even in the days before the internet stories of razorblades in apples and rat poison in cupcakes made the rounds of suburban mothers with efficiency and startling speed).

4. Don’t eat anything until you’ve brought it home and your mother has had a chance to inspect it.

5. Even if you think you may die, NEVER use a stranger’s bathroom.

6. If you lose your sister there’s no point in coming home.

“All right.” My mother handed me both bags (another shortcoming of my father’s robot was that my sister couldn’t actually bend her arms). “Have fun you two. Be back by seven or I’m calling the cops.”

It was dark by the time we’d done all our street and the next one and started on Lakeside Crescent. Also by then a few more shortcomings of my sister’s costume had made themselves known. It was hard for her to walk. This was partly because she was wearing the cardboard and papier mâche equivalent of a trashcan and had to take small steps, and partly because she was wearing the cardboard and papier mâche equivalent of a trashcan and couldn’t see where she was going. She lagged behind. She was constantly stopping to adjust something. She had to be carried up anything over two or three steps. The enchantress doing the carrying got really tired of it really fast. The others – unfettered by my mother’s rules - stopped waiting for us.

The leaves continued to scuttle past us; the night grew cold. Jack-o-lanterns grinned and grimaced from windows and porches. And all around us costumed figures trotted up and down the road, shouting and laughing – and moving unencumbered. Two houses away a vampire, two pirates, a pumpkin, a horse, a princess, a fire engine and a giant squid shrieked with glee as they hurried down a driveway, checking their loot.

“Hurry up,” I urged the robot waddling towards me. “They’re leaving us.”

“Umphumphumphumphumphumphumphumphumph,” said my sister. I’m going as fast as I can.

By the time we reached the halfway point, I could just see a pumpkin turning the corner to Polo Drive. Several yards behind me, the silver robot was leaning against a tree.

“Now what?”  I shouted.

My sister was leaning against a tree. “Umphumphumph.” Her legs hurt. “Umphumphumphumoh.” She needed a bathroom.

“Not now,” wailed Morgana. “You have to hold it. We don’t know anybody around here.” She consulted her watch. “And we’re never going to get to half the places if we don’t hurry. There isn’t much time left.” I pointed to the end of the crescent. “You just get to the corner. I’ll collect your treats and meet you there.”

Up and down the front paths and driveways and from one side of the street to the other I went, my skirts swishing, my bangles clanking, my cape flying out behind me. “Trick-or-treat,” I’d say. “Morgana la Fay,” I’d say, and then explain who she was. I’d hold out both bags. “One’s for my sister. That’s her down there.” I’d point to the road. The woman holding the bowl of candy would lean into the night, but she didn’t always see the silvery trashcan shuffling through the shadows. And nor did I. “She’s there,” I’d say. “I promise. She’s having trouble walking.”

I made better progress by myself, but not that much better. When I finally met my sister at the corner there wasn’t a pirate, a horse or a giant squid in sight. In fact, there was no one in sight.

I grabbed my sister’s arm. “You’re just going to have to get those little legs moving,” I said. “Or we’re going to have to start for home now.”

“Umphumphumph,” said my sister.

All of a sudden she wasn’t just walking, she was gliding along as if she were on wheels. Whizzwhizzwhizz. We hit house after house, as if we were knocking down dominos. I didn’t seem to be moving myself, I was just holding on. Polo Drive fell behind us. Our group was conferring at the start of Meister, deciding which houses to miss – who always gave candy corn versus who gave Snickers. We flashed past them, missing nothing. At every door my sister did the talking. “Umphumphumph.” But where before our benefactors would just smile in that vague way people do what they don’t understand what’s being said, now they beamed with delight. “Why of course I have a treat for you.” They’d give her double. “What an amazing costume,” they’d say. “Did you make it yourself?” “Umphumphumph-umphumph.” “Well what a nice daddy you have. Isn’t he talented?”

It was the Halloween I’d always dreamt of. We got to every house in the neighborhood; every last one. I’d never seen our bags so full. And we weren't late. Not even by a couple of minutes.  It was five to seven as we flew up our drive. I was so happy that I didn’t notice that a few candies had fallen out of one of the bags or that my sister had stopped to pick them up.

I ran up to the front door and yanked it open! “We’re back!” I shouted.

My mother and my sister were sitting on the couch, drinking cider and watching TV.

I just stood there, looking at them for a minute, trying to figure out what was wrong.

“What happened to rule number six?” asked my mother. “How could you let your sister come home by herself?”

“But I didn’t,” I protested. “She’s been with me the whole time.”

My mother made one of her oh-really? faces. “No she hasn’t. She needed the john. She dumped the costume and came home. She’s been sitting her for the last half hour.”

“But-” I looked behind me.

There was no one there.

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pushpin2THE REALLY COLD WAR - PART 2

It was a Saturday afternoon in early Spring. We had made it through a difficult winter – severe snow storms, power cuts, my mother becoming obsessed with making her own pasta (imagine boiled bread), the paterfamilias taking a life-unenhancing dislike to consumerism and my sister being especially unreasonable – and here we were, waiting for the first buds to open and the sweaters, scarves and parkas to be packed away. 

The telephone rang in the living room.

My father was in Milwaukee, doing whatever it was he did. My mother was on a ladder in the kitchen, repainting the ceiling after the Great Pressure Cooker Explosion. The GPCE had taken place on Thursday, not long after my father left on his business trip. The idea was to remove all traces of Hungarian goulash before he got back. My sister was in the living room, recuperating from a cold and watching a movie. I was also in the living room, half watching the movie while I dried my hair, enhanced my complexion under a cleansing mask and did my nails. I had a Big Date. 

“Somebody want to get that?” called my mother.

Bringbringbringbringbringbring…

Just then the egg timer beside me went off.

“Would somebody get the phone?” she repeated, slightly louder this time.

 “I can’t!” I shouted back. My twenty minutes were up. “I have to get this stuff off my face...”

Bringbringbringbringbringbring…

“Somebody better answer that!” roared my mother, that edge in her voice that reminded you that women can also be warriors. “If I have to climb down from this ladder to answer that phone you’re both going to wish you’d been born to someone else!”

“Oh I guess that means me!” bellowed my sister, her voice slightly shrill with martyrdom and indignation. My sister, a slender, sprite-like creature, got up and marched the few feet from the sofa to the phone as if she had cement boots on her feet, making the floor tremble and the pictures rattle on the walls. “I have to do everything around here!”

“If it’s for me, say I’m busy and I’ll call them back,” my mother ordered.

“Yeahyeahyeah…”

Bringbringbringbr—

“Hello?” The shrillness and the bellowing had vanished, replaced by a sweet, delicate lilt, so that whoever was on the other end could be forgiven for thinking he or she had misdialed and been connected to heaven. “Oh, hi…

No, I’m sorry, but she’s really busy right now…”

I headed for the bathroom.

My big date was with Richard Schaeffer. He sat in front of me in English. We were reading Hamlet that semester. Richard Schaeffer was more a Raymond Chandler than a Shakespeare kind of guy. It was my job to kick the back of his chair if he started to doze. So it was possible that he’d asked me out not because he liked me but because he was grateful. But I didn’t care. If you didn’t count Lisa Mackle’s cousin from New Hampshire – which I didn’t – this was my first real date. We were going to a movie. After the movie we were going to the diner for burgers and fries (“So, you know, don’t eat a big supper or you won’t want anything later”), and then his father would pick us up and drive me home (since the night she mistook the Ingrahams driveway for a road my mother avoided driving in the dark as much as possible). I had no problem talking to Richard in school, but I was worried that I might not know what to say to him when we were by ourselves. I didn’t want to talk too much, but I didn’t want to talk too little either. When I’d gone out with Lisa Mackle’s cousin (for pizza with Lisa and her boyfriend Luke), the conversation between us had pretty much stopped after “Hi, nice to meet you.” My main memory of the evening was of smiles as rigid as stone and chewing. He told me seven times that the pizza was really good, and I agreed nine.

It took me a while to get all the goop off my face, take a shower, do my hair, do my make-up and get dressed. When I finally emerged from the bathroom, instead of telling me how great I looked, my mother said, “Thank God for that. I’d thought you’d drowned.” My sister didn’t say anything.

It had been over a month since I pushed my sister into the artificial pond at the mall, but she still wasn’t speaking to me. Stubbornness is a trait on both sides of my family. I’d pretty much gotten used to it. If I did need to say something to her I’d go through one of my parents or whoever else was around (“Could you ask my sister if she’s seen my bead loom?” “Would you please tell my sister that I wasn’t the one who finished the banana cake?”), but most of the time we both acted as if the other one didn’t exist. It was like being an only child in the sense that I didn’t have anyone to argue with all the time.

I was meeting Richard in front of the theater, and because of this I’d told my mother I was meeting him at six, which was actually fifteen minutes earlier than we’d arranged. I didn’t want him to see her in her overalls with Mediterranean Gold paint in her hair.

So at six o’clock sharp my mother left me off in front of the old movie house in town.  I watched her do one of her legendary U-turns in the middle of Main Street, and waved her goodbye. It started to rain. I moved into the foyer. Couples started arriving for the six-thirty show. The six-thirty show started. The ticket booth closed. The rain got heavier. I continued to wait.

You have to remember that this story takes place a long long time ago, in the primitive days when a phone was either in your home or in a booth. They didn’t go with you wherever you went, ready to be used whether you were on a bus or at the dentist’s. Which meant that you couldn’t just text your date and say WHR R U? That if a truck full of sheep had turned over on Clay Drive and blocked traffic for the next two hours he wasn’t going to be able to call you to tell you to go in without him, he’d meet you at the diner. So I continued to wait.

At seven-fifteen, though it hadn’t occurred to me yet that he had rung while I was drying my hair to say that he’d sprained his ankle jumping out of a tree and couldn’t make our date, I finally figured out that Richard wasn’t coming. It was three miles from our house to town. They were long, dark miles even when it wasn’t raining in a vengeful kind of way. There was a phone booth down by the bank so I turned up the collar on my non-waterproof jacket and made a dash for it. I had just enough change to call home to beg my mother to come and get me.

My sister answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said. “Can you get Mom?”

My sister hung up.

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pushpin2THE REALLY COLD WAR - PART 1

My sister stopped speaking to me after the incident at the James Fennimore Cooper Mall. (That would be the incident where, berserk with rage, I pushed her into the artificial pond.) Even though I was the one who got dragged off by the security guard and banned from the mall for the next hundred years, I’d been made to apologize to my sister as if I were the one in the wrong. “I’m sorry I shoved you into the water,” I’d said, sounding about as sincere as I felt. “I was in a blind rage. You know, because you stole my new skirt and were wearing it like it was yours and getting it all dirty and sweaty.” My sister refused to accept my apology. “You weren't blind,” said my sister. “You knew it was me your were pushing into the pond.”

Obviously, it wasn’t the first time my sister had stopped speaking to me in all the years of our close but complicated relationship. The silent treatment was something that, like dusk and dawn, happened with a certain amount of regularity and inevitability. But my sister liked to talk. Even as a small child, she fell asleep in the middle of one sentence and woke in the middle of another. My father, himself a man of few words, used six of them to sum of my sister: “She always has something to say.” This meant that the periods of silence between us never lasted that long. Half a day. A day. Two days the time I kidnapped her cat. But this time my sister was Really Serious.

The first I knew that she wasn’t speaking to me was that same night at supper when I asked her to pass me the salt. She kept talking to my mother about how she might as will move to Siberia if she couldn’t have her own phone. [NB: this was years before everybody not only had their own phone, but carried it around with them twenty-four hours a day.]

“Excuse me,” I said. “Could you pass me the salt?”

“Everybody I know has their own phone,” said my sister. “It’s like having your own toothbrush.”

Since I could tell that she wasn’t talking to me, I repeated my request. And again. And again. And once more.

My father finally heard me. “For Pete’s sake,” he muttered. “I’m trying to eat my meal in peace. Will you let your sister have the salt? She sounds like a broken record.”

My sister looked over at him with the same sweet smile she’d given him the time he fell off my uncle’s boat. “Oh, I’m sorry, Dad. Did you want the salt?” She handed it to him, and then went back to her conversation with my mother.

My father passed me the salt.

Disbelief moved in next to indignation as I stared at the side of my sister’s head as she continued to entertain my mother with the gruesome details of the destruction and devastation not having her own phone would bring into her life.

“Wait a minute!” I snapped. “Does this mean that you’re not speaking to me? Is that what this means?”

“Even Amie Schneider has her own phone, and she doesn’t have any friends,” said my sister.

“Hey!” I leaned over and gave her a shove. “Are you not speaking to me? Is that what’s going on?”

“Mom,” said my sister, “could you tell your other daughter not to touch me? Because I really don’t want her germs on me.”

“Tell her yourself,” said my mother.

“I don’t believe this!” I stood up, taller than usual. “You’re not speaking to me!”

“Dad,” said my sister. “Could you tell your other daughter that I’m not speaking to her, and that I’m never speaking to her again as long as I live. That even if we were alone in the house and it was on fire I wouldn’t tell her?”

My father cut a porcupine meatball in half. “No,” said my father. “I won’t do that. You tell her.”

“You’re not speaking to me?” The parakeet started screeching and pacing back and forth on his swing, making the bell ring. “You can’t be serious! After what you did? You're not speaking to me?”

My sister stood up, too, facing but not looking at me. “Tell her that’s right! I’m not speaking to her.” These instructions were either meant for the parakeet, who seemed to be having a nervous breakdown, or for the dog, who could be seen curled up on my father’s chair in the living room, snoring gently. They certainly weren't meant for our parents, who had picked up their plates and moved into the kitchen. “Tell her that this time she’s gone way too far!”

“I’ve gone too far!’ My voice crackled with indignation. “What are you talking about ‘I’ve gone too far’? I’m the innocent victim here!”

“Remind her that she tried to drown me. If there hadn’t been people around to help me out I would be another tragic statistic. A headline on a supermarket tabloid: Girl goes to watery grave while shoppers look on in horror. Hand of Death belonged to her only sibling.” 

“You were never in any danger! You were in the mall! There were like hundreds of people there. And it was an artificial pond. Not the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Remind her that people have drowned in puddles!” screamed my sister.

“But you’re the one who thieved my skirt!” I roared. “Remember that? Remember the part where you thieved my skirt?”

“I didn’t steal her stupid skirt,” bellowed my sister. “I borrowed it.”

“Don’t worry about not speaking to me,” I informed her. “Because I wouldn’t speak to you if you were the last person on earth. I’d rather wear a girdle! I’d rather spent the rest of my life walking on my hands!”

That was the kind of taunt that should have provoked a response like, “I wish you’d go to Australia and spend the rest of your life walking on your head” from my sister. But not this time. She clamped her mouth shut and said nothing, picking up her plate and following my parents into the kitchen. The Really Cold War had officially begun.

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pushpin2A LONG STORY
(AKA WHY I ATTACKED MY SISTER IN THE JAMES FENNIMORE COOPER MALL)

“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” asked my mother. Her arms were folded across her chest and her expression suggested that she was being diplomatic, but only with a lot of effort.

I raised the drill, ready to finish putting the screws in place. “No, I don’t think I’m being melodramatic. I think I’m being practical.”

She raised her voice to be heard over the drill. “Putting a padlock on your door.” It wasn’t a question but it sounded like it was.

“That’s right. If I can’t leave my room for ten seconds without having it burgled, then I’m being practical.” I stepped back to survey my handiwork. There were a few more holes than there needed to be, but it wasn’t too bad. It would do the job. I smiled. “It’s either this or hire a security guard.”

My mother gave me one of her you-don’t-have-to-be-crazy-to-live-here-but-it-helps sighs. “I don’t know what people are going to think when they come to the house and see you’ve got a your room locked up like it’s Fort Knox.”

“They’ll think I live with a thief, that’s what they’ll think,” I snapped back.

Right on cue, my sister’s door opened and her head appeared. “Just make sure you tell them how you tried to kill me!” yelled my sister.


It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon. The James Fennimore Cooper Mall was filled with people of all ages, sizes, shapes, colors and religious beliefs happily buying things they didn’t need and in many cases would never use. There was laughter and smiling. There was music. The artificial waterfall splashed into the artificial pond. The colorful plastic bags bobbed along like party balloons. Bored looking men stood outside of stores, bags of shopping clumped around them like presents around a Christmas tree, glancing at their watches every few seconds. Small children dripped ice cream and soda. Huddles of boys sat together on benches or strolled the walkways with their hands in their pockets, telling each other bad jokes. Small herds of girls, the special endorphins only generated by shopping making them shine, moved from store to store like grazing cattle moving across a field. Except for a few bickering couples and crying children, all was peaceful and content in the James Fennimore Cooper Mall.

But suddenly this scene of tranquility and domestic bliss was shattered by a heart-piercing scream.  People looked up, frozen in the moment like startled gazelles.  Only the three teenage girls over by the pond, engrossed in deciding where to go for lunch, didn’t hear the scream.

Which, as it turned out, was unfortunate.

Another scream, closer and even more piercing than the first, echoed through the west side of the first floor.  Even the girls debating the merits of pizza over pastrami heard that. The very pretty one with the pin-straight hair and eyes the same shade of cornflower blue as the skirt she was wearing looked up just in time to see someone in a perfectly aged but tragically stained denim jacket charging towards her, hair flying and face contorted in rage. “Stop!” shrieked the girl. “Wha-”

But her words were lost in a mighty splash as she toppled backwards into the pond.

 

I hadn’t planned to go to the mall that weekend.

Kammy’s parents were away and I was staying with her to keep her company and to stay up half the night watching old movies and eating junk food. Mrs Cole had taped notes to what she considered Danger Points around the house. [DO NOT USE DISHWASHER on the dishwasher. REFILL ICE CUBE TRAYS on the ice cube trays. DO NOT FLUSH GALLONS OF POP CORN DOWN The TOILET on the toilet. Etcetera…] Besides the notes, she left pages of typewritten general instructions on what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and whom we should call when, despite all her advice, we messed up.

“Is she unbelievable or what?” thundered Kammy. “You’d think they were going away for a month and she was expecting war to break out. We aren’t children, for God’s sake. I think we can make it through the weekend without any of this stuff happening.”

And Kammy, of course, was right. We didn’t lock ourselves in the attic, we didn’t set fire to the dryer and we didn’t blow all the fuses. In fact, none of the possible disasters envisioned by Mrs Cole occurred.

We turned the kettle into charcoal.

We put it on to make coffee and forgot about it. It had a whistle, but we didn’t hear the whistle because we were playing The Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the right volume (loud enough to wake the dead). The Coles had a smoke alarm, but it had been inactivated weeks before when Mr Cole made blackened fish. 

Kammy and I stared at the charred remains of the kettle, the handle flopped over to one side like a fence that’s been hit by a heavy wind.

“Oh, Gawd…” groaned Kammy. “She’s going to murder me.” She used the fire tongs to lift the kettle into the sink. Just in case it suddenly exploded and pieces of hot metal flew around the kitchen like leaves in a storm. “You’d think she’d’ve had the sense to put a note on the freakin’ kettle, wouldn’t you? She’s put notes on everything else.”

“I guess she figured we knew this one.” This had happened before. Which is how we knew about putting the kettle in the sink and how much like leaves in a wind exploding metal can be.

“Well, she was wrong, wasn’t she?” said Kammy.

I tried to look on the bright side. “At least we didn’t spill Dragon’s Blood nail polish all over her denim jacket.”

 

My sister was always borrowing my things. That is, she called it borrowing. I called it taking without permission, which, according to Webster, is stealing. Shoes, socks, dresses, jeans, skirts and blouses, music, books, jewelry - everything that belonged to me was fair game. It was as if my room was the jungle and she was the illegal logger or the poacher after bush meat.

And as if it wasn’t enough just to help herself to MY PERSONAL POSSESSIONS, she would shorten my skirts and stretch out my tops. She’d lose my earrings and loan my albums to people who also never gave them back. She put holes in my socks.

She dumped half a bottle of Dragon’s Blood nail polish all over my denim jacket. My beautiful, washed-out jacket with the fraying cuffs. It had taken me ages to get that jacket to that state of perfection. And it had taken her approximately thirty seconds to destroy it.

My sister, of course, was sorry. She just wanted to wear it bowling because it was so cool. She was going to put it back in my closet before I even noticed it was gone. The nail polish was an accident. It wasn’t like she did it on purpose.

“Stay away from my things!” I’d screamed. “I mean it. If you so much as lay one finger on anything of mine unless it’s to get it out of the way of a herd of stampeding wildebeest I’m going to make you wish you were born to slaves in ancient Rome!”

My sister promised. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

But not for long, it seemed.

Because as Kammy and I rode down the escalator with the new kettle from Happy Home Housewares, what did I see but my sister standing there with her friends, wearing MY NEW SKIRT. What a fool I’d been! Naïve! Trusting! I’d actually believed that I could go away for an entire weekend and my sister wouldn’t jump at the chance of plundering my room.

I, like you, had heard the expression “I was beside myself with rage”, but it wasn’t until that moment on the escalator that I realized what it meant. I really was beside myself. There I was, a regular teenager in a ruined jacket only a few steps away from the main plaza – and beside me, huge and demented, was the Terminator, programmed to destroy the girl with the pin-straight hair in the blue skirt without question or thought.

It was the Terminator who screamed.

It was the Terminator who leapt the last few steps and sprinted towards the pond.

It was the Terminator who shoved my sister into the water.

But I was the one who had to be picked up by my father from the security office of the James Fennimore Cooper Mall.

“What on earth got into you?” asked my father as we got in the car.

I shrugged. “It’s a long story.”

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pushpin2 MY FATHER’S MIDLIFE CRISIS CONTINUED
- MY MOTHER, MY SISTER AND I RECREATE THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY (MINUS THE RUNAWAY SLAVES) 

You may remember that my mother, my sister and I had declared war on the oppressive, irrational and authoritarian regime of my father because he had decreed that, following what he’d taken to calling The Consumer Bloodbath that Is Christmas, we weren't to buy a single new item of clothing (or accessories) until Easter. [Negotiators had established that should every pair of socks we owned go up in flames, or thieves break in and steal our shoes, we were permitted replacements, but this was comfort as warm as the freezer.]

Our house was like Colonial America during the Revolution. We were alight with the spirit of justice and rebellion. Even when my father was home, we would meet in dark corners, whispering our grievances and plots. My father would look up from his book on Tibetan mysticism. “What are you three up to?” he’d ask. And we’d all smile that enigmatic Barbie smile that could mean something or nothing and say, “Nothing.” My father would come into the living room, looking for his razor, and blink in the sudden silence. “What are you three cooking up?” he’d want to know. And my mother, used to thinking on her feet, would murmur something about “somebody’s birthday’s coming”, and we’d all disappear into our rooms like Algonquin warriors vanishing into the forest before he’d realize that if someone’s birthday was coming it wasn’t his.

Give me Liberty, or give me death…! No taxation without representation…! Better to die on your feet than live on your knees…!  These were the words that inspired us during the dark days of that winter.

After my father outflanked us by having had the foresight to hide a copy of his terrible inventory (listing every item of clothing, belt, bracelet, necklace, pin, hat, scarf and what he referred to as “hair doodads” we possessed) my mother called an emergency meeting one night while my father was at band practice. [Note: We called it a band because we liked to humor him, but it was really just him and Ernie Rossman, their guitars and Ernie’s dog, Seagull, who spent most of his time sleeping in Ernie’s guitar case but would occasionally come in on a chorus that required howling.]

“Okay, girls,” said my mother. “I think you both agree with me that this intolerable situation has gone on long enough.”

We agreed. It was a week and a half. One precious Saturday at the mall had already been lost to the depthless ocean of time. Another was coming up. Not only that, but my mother’s quilting circle was having its yearly Down Home Dinner on Saturday, my sister had been invited to Danielle Sargassi’s birthday party that same night (the middle school equivalent of being invited to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar party), and the following Monday I was appearing in a special assembly sponsored by the history department: The Bread and Cheese Hollow First Annual Constitution Bee. These events required new clothes. My mother could not be expected to eat pot roast with her fellow quilters in a dress they’d seen before. My sister could not be expected to attend the birthday party of the year in something she’d already worn. And I couldn’t possibly stand up in front of the whole school to answer questions about the Constitution of our great nation in just anything I happened to find in my closet. (My father, of course, begged to differ, and refused to give us a special dispensation on the grounds that his mother, Grandma Becky, had in her entire life only had One Good Dress that she wore to every wedding, funeral and church service she ever attended. “If Grandma Becky could do it,” said my father, “so can you.”)

“But we’ll never be able to go shopping on Saturday,” argued my sister. “We’re practically under house arrest.”

If we said that we needed to go somewhere on the weekend – the library, for example, or that great hardware store across from the new shopping center – my father would not only drive us there, but accompany us inside. It was like having a bodyguard, but one who only let you go where he wanted.

My mother was ahead of her. “I’ll pick you up on Friday right after school. Better yet I’ll give you each a note that you have to leave early for a dental appointment.”

“But what about the inventory?” asked I. “If we buy anything he’ll see that it’s not on his little list.” It was like the Mikado, but without the songs.

“Only if he finds what we bought,” countered my mother.

“But you saw him,” protested my sister. “He knows all our hiding pla-”

“Correction.” My mother was shaking her hear and drumming a cheerful tune on the table top with her fingers. “He knows our old hiding places.” My mother had been thinking, and all I can say is that the world lost a major military strategist when she decided to turn her talents to making porcupine meatballs and hassocks out of coffee cans. “You’ve heard of the Underground Railroad, haven’t you?”

I had, but I couldn’t see how it helped us. I gazed back at her appraisingly, wondering if the strain was beginning to get to her. “You mean the London subway system?”

“Not that Underground Railroad,” said my mother.

My sister tilted her head to one side. “You mean when runaway slaves were smuggled into the free states and Canada through a network of safe houses?”

“Bingo!” cried my mother.

We would hide our new things at other people’s houses. I would store mine with my best friend Kammy. My sister would keep hers with the twins, with whom she spent so much time we called them the triplets. My mother, who prided herself on getting more Christmas cards than the Pope, would leave things all over town.

“You know,” I said, “sometimes I really think you’re touched with genius.”

“So do I,” said my mother.

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pushpin2MY FATHER'S MIDLIFE CRISIS CONTINUED - MY MOTHER LEADS THE RESISTANCE

For some reason, even though it can’t really be considered a political issue, politicians make a really big deal about ‘the family” – especially around election time. It’s all ‘the family this’ and ‘the family that’. They want to pay people to get married. They want to pay people to stay married. They want to punish people who aren’t married. They often blame single mothers for everything that is wrong with society (though I have yet to meet the single mother who led the nation to war, wrecked the economy or invented the nuclear bomb).

But still, you can see their point. Families are, on the whole, a really good idea. Strength in numbers. Everyone pulling together. Someone to cook the supper, someone to do the dishes and someone to pay the bills. Someone to laugh at your jokes. Someone to make jokes you can laugh at. Someone to give you a ride to the mall. Shared values. Shared goals. Shared problems. And let’s not forget that wise old saying: A midlife crisis shared is a midlife crisis quadrupled.

Within weeks, if not days, my father’s midlife crisis had grown from a minor scuffle about dancing snowmen into a full-scale war. My father controlled the money (which, as every head of state on the planet will tell you confers an incredible amount of power), but my sister had her seasonal lawn work money (shoveling snow in the winter, mowing lawns in the summer), my mother had her seasonal baking business (pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, fruitcake at Christmas, hot-cross buns during Lent, bunny cakes at Easter) and I had my non-seasonal babysitting money so we could exist for a while without funds from the Family Bank. Besides which, my mother, my sister and I were a formidable guerrilla army. When my father developed an allergy to leather, we waged and won the No Shoes in the House War. When my father turned against the gentle cow and anything truly delicious that she produced, we waged and won The Toffee Swirl War. Ditto the You Call that Music?, That Skirt Isn’t Short, It’s Invisible and The Hair Cut wars. We were trained, we were fit, and we were fighting on our own turf. George Washington would have commissioned us all.

My mother, being the more devious of the three of us and the one with greater access to the enemy, was in charge of sabotage.

‘I don’t see how you can do it,’ said my sister. ‘He’s locked the inventory in his toolbox.’

This would be the inventory of every item of clothing (plus accessories) owned by my father’s beloved wife and daughters.

‘And the toolbox is where?’ inquired my mother.

Recognizing the Socratic method of teaching, my sister’s brow puckered thoughtfully. ‘In the basement, of course.’

‘And what happens in the basement?’ persisted my mother.

My sister’s brow was still puckering. ‘Dad hides out from us down here.’

‘The laundry,’ said I.

My mother’s smile was gentle but firm.  ‘And what else?’

My sister and I looked around. There wasn’t that much going on in the cellar. My father’s workshop. The chair where he sat when he was pretending to be building something but was really reading a book. The shelves where he stored his canned vegetables that year. The washing machine, the dryer, the double sink where the dog reluctantly took his baths. The boiler. The large damp patch on the floor.

“Floods!’ shrieked my sister. ‘Floods happen!’

I pointed out that hurricane season had passed.

‘Oh, tuttuttut.’ My mother’s head slowly shook back and forth. ‘Storms aren’t the only thing that have made the basement flood.’

My sister and I gazed back at her with a certain amount of awe. We knew she was devious. We knew her talents were wasted on domestic chores, she should have been running the FBI. But his – this was staggering.

‘You’re going to break the washing machine?’ we gasped.

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said my mother. ‘And have to do the laundry in town till he fixes it?’ It had taken a month the last time the washing machine collapsed under the strain. She picked up the toolbox and  put it in the sink. ‘We’ll just tell him it flooded.’ 

On Saturday morning my father went down to get his inventory to make sure that we hadn’t added anything to our wardrobes while he was out earning out living. He came back faster than a boomerang.

‘What happened?’ He was waving the sodden inventory, its pages blurred and more or less welded together. ‘My toolbox looks like it was on the Titanic!’

If the caption was ‘Shocked sympathy’, my mother’s face was the illustration.

‘Oh dear,’ said my mother. ‘Did I forget to mention that the washing machine flooded again?’

But, as my father himself often said, you don’t live in Seattle without owning an umbrella – and he’d lived with the Seattle that was my mother for quite a few years.

He smiled. ‘Thank God I have a copy of this in the trunk of the car.’

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pushpin2MY FATHER'S MIDLIFE CRISIS CONTINUED - MONTH TWO

You may recall that my father had a Moment of Truth in the mall one Christmas (later described by my mother as “That time your father saw the Virgin Mary picketing the five and ten”), which lead him to think deeply about the meaning of that holy day. The result of all this thinking was that things like singing chipmunks, dancing snowmen and serial spending were banished from our celebrations. But those of us who hoped that a few homemade presents and a modest Christmas dinner would mark the end of my father’s Crusade against Constant Consumption were sadly mistaken. Not satisfied with taking Santa Claus and a supporting cast of cartoon characters out of Christmas (and putting Christ back in), in the New Year he declared a Ban on Clothes Shopping until Easter. Nowadays a lot of people are reforming their shopping habits - buying things secondhand; joining groups that exchanged unwanted goods; scrounging through garbage cans for food; going for months without spending any money except on the barest necessities - but back then the idea of not ceaselessly buying new things whether you needed them or not was virtually unheard of, and when it was heard of it was considered insane if not incontestable proof of a Communist Conspiracy. 

Needless to say, my mother, my sister and I didn’t see my father for what he was - the Advance Scout for the Anti-consumerism Army that would come decades later - but as a reactionary killjoy; a man who only got new clothes when we gave him socks for his birthday or someone accidentally burned one of his three dress shirts and who, therefore had no understanding of how the real world worked.

Not that we were overly worried. Not at first. My father might be the Head of the Household, but in many ways this was an honorary title that had very little to do with how the house and family was really run. He had his rules – If you take one of my tools, put it back where you found it; Don’t ever use my razor to shave your legs; Don’t borrow anything of mine without asking; No eating in bed unless you’re paralyzed from the waist down; Don’t buy anything from catalogues, newspapers, or magazines - and we would listen patiently as he set them down, nodding seriously as though we had every intention of obeying. But we didn’t. We knew how to work around them. Don’t tell your fatherDad’ll never notice… and He doesn’t need to know… were our watchwords. We sent away for everything the catalogues, newspapers and magazines had to offer, we mislaid his tools, we used his razor, we borrowed the few things he had that a wife or teenage daughter might feel an overwhelming need for (and on one unfortunate occasion put the image of a hot iron on the back of his favorite shirt) and covered our sheets with ketchup stains and crumbs - safe in the knowledge that he was too tired by the time he got home from work to count his screwdrivers, spot the new cat and dog egg cups, or wonder at how quickly his razor blades went dull. “There’s nothing to worry about,” we assured each other after the Mall Moratorium announcement. “He can’t tell a tank top from a T-shirt. How’s he going to know if we buy something new?”

But on the day after my father’s chilling declaration he answered that question himself.

“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” My mother stood in the doorway with her arms folded in front of her protectively, eyeing my father with the same suspicion she had shown the summer before when she went out to get the mail and found Mr Capriniano next door (wearing a shower cap decorated with ducks and a plastic raincoat) painting his house Pepto Bismol pink.

Confronted by my mother, Mr Capriniano had explained that he was camouflaging his split level so the aliens wouldn’t find it when they landed at the full moon.

Confronted by my mother, my father, a pencil stuck behind one ear and a clipboard in his hand, stopped in the act of opening their closet door and said simply, “I’m making an inventory.”

“An inventory,” repeated my mother. “An inventory of what?”

“An inventory of every item of feminine apparel in this house,” replied my father. He waved the clipboard at her, revealing that many of the pages it held were covered with the details of the contents of my and my sister’s dressers and closets. He’d been saving the best for last. “And that includes shoes, slippers, socks, tights, scarves, hats and belts.”

“I knew it!” cried my mother. “You’re just like Mr Capriniano! You’ve completely lost your mind.”

“I’m nothing like Mr Capriniano.” My father wrote the word “dresses” on a clean sheet of paper and underlined it. “I’m not doing this because I invested my life savings in a company that manufactures electric rocking chairs and I’m having a nervous breakdown. I’m doing it because I know how you three operate.”

My mother, my sister and I all exchanged a look. It was a look the late President Richard Nixon would have recognized instantly. Shifty. Wary. Ready to lie. Exactly how much did he know?

“And you’re going to what?” My mother smiled in a way President Nixon would also have recognized: the bluff. “Count every article of clothing we own every night before you go to bed?” She laughed her I-don’t-think-so laugh.

“Once a week should suffice,” said my father.

“You can’t be serious!” If my sister was accomplished at something besides optimism, it was indignation. “We’re not criminals.”

“That’s right!” I chimed in. “The way you’re treating us, we might as well live in a totalitarian regime where all the phones are bugged and the secret police is always breaking down the door to search the house!”

“And that’s another thing,” said my father. “Don’t think you’re going to buy things without me finding out. I know all about your hiding places.”

Now the look the female members of the family exchanged said: attic… toy chest… bottom of the hamper…

“Well, girls…” My mother was smiling again, but now more like Crazy Horse getting ready to meet Custer and his men at Little Big Horn. “I guess you’re father’s got us over an empty barrel. It looks like we now live in a no-shopping zone till Easter.”

“I told you I was serious about this,” said my father.

My mother, my sister and I all nodded. “We know… We know…”

The war had now officially begun.

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pushpin2HOWARD ZINN

 This month I’m not going to talk about my life. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to offer my own small tribute to the teacher, humanist, writer, activist and pioneering historian Howard Zinn, who died suddenly on the 27th of January. He was a man of enormous intelligence, courage, integrity and passion. A truly good man who stood up relentlessly for what he believed; who always spoke the truth as he saw it; who had an unshakeable belief that people can make the world the way they want it to be. In a long life of extraordinary productivity, he never slowed down; never stopped lecturing and writing; never gave up. 

People who knew Howard Zinn also speak of his humour and compassion, his generosity of spirit and his patience. I only knew him through his work, but his death has saddened me greatly – I feel as though I’ve lost a close friend. I know the world has lost a man it can ill afford to lose.

[As a bit of an aside, Howard Zinn is best known for the groundbreaking A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. More recently, however, he published the two-volume A YOUNG PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES – a book that might just make you change your mind about how you feel about history.]

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pushpin2MY FATHER'S MIDLIFE CRISIS - MONTH ONE

My father said, “No.”

My sister and I gazed back at him with hopeful, this-has-to-be-a-joke smiles.

“No?” My sister’s laugh was also hopeful. “What do you mean ‘no’?”

“I mean no way, Jose. I mean not in this lifetime. I mean nein, nyet, N-O, NO.”

Even at the tender age of fifteen I’d mastered stating the blindingly obvious. “Are you saying you won’t give us any money to go shopping?”

My father nodded. Slowly. Thoughtfully. As if seriously considering every nuance of my question. “Yes, I think that just about sums it up. There will be no finance for fripperies. No cash for cologne or cosmetics.”

My sister, inheritor of every Optimistic gene our ancestors had to pass on, said, “Do you mean just today, or do you mean like tomorrow, too?” She was still smiling.

The head of the house puffed on his cigar. “I mean your chances of getting money out of me for shopping until the Easter Bunny comes hopping down the Bunny Trail are considerably less than the chances of survival of a butterscotch sundae in hell.”

Through my sister’s veins coursed the DNA of women and men who thought that the ice would melt by Spring; that everyone in their village had no more than a bad cold; that what turned out to be the 100 Years’ War would be over in a week. She didn’t give up easily.

“But it’s January,” said my sister. “The sales are on. You always give us money for the sales.”

Rings of smoke floated between my father and us. But today those rings didn’t look like doughnuts or halos; today they were obviously zeros. “Not this year, I don’t.”

My sister and I exchanged baffled looks. What had we done? Nothing. Nothing that he’d caught as at. He hadn’t lost his job, so we weren't suddenly really poor. The roof hadn’t been blown off the house in the night requiring masses of money to repair it. My mother hadn’t emptied his bank account and run off to Mexico. What could possibly have caused him to make such a cruel and unfair decision?

My mother, passing through the living room with a bucket of papier mâche for her winter crafts project (a bust of Eleanor Roosevelt), came to a stop. “He’s having a midlife crisis,” she informed us.

“If I was having a midlife crisis, I’d buy a sports car and a toupee,” said my father.

 My sister and I weren't the only ones who would have preferred the sports car. “So what is it then?” inquired my mother, her voice edged with sarcasm. “Is this because you saw The Virgin Mary in the mall last month?”

“I didn’t see the Virgin Mary,” corrected my father. “I simply had a realization that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, not about seeing how much money you can spend before the 25th of December.”

“But now it’s after the 25th of December,” argued my sister. “Why won’t you let us go shopping now?”

He tapped his cigar against the ashtray, dislodging a gray slug of ash. “Because you don’t need anything.”

This was a statement so totally ridiculous and absurd that for at least thirty seconds both my sister and I were stunned into a highly unusual state of speechlessness. Don’t need anything? We? We went shopping every weekend. We always needed something.

My father disagreed.

He flung wide the doors of our closets. “Look at that!” He pointed to the crowd of blouses, skirts and dresses. “What do you call that?”

“Clothes,” muttered my sister.

“A lot of clothes,” said my father. “What you have in there could last you the rest of your life, never mind a couple of months.”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. “You mean so long as we don’t grow or wash it too much.”

My father ignored me.

“You have enough things in there to clothe an entire village in the Third World.”

“Not unless everybody in the village is the same size as me,” snarked my sister.

This time he ignored her.

“And this?” he demanded, pulling open dresser drawers. “What do you call this?”

“Jeans?” I ventured. “Sweaters?”

“You can wear how many pairs of jeans at a time?” asked my father. “How many sweaters?” He pointed to the row of shoes on their racks. “And you have how many feet, ladies? Six? Ten? Are you really centipedes and not human girls?”

With almost divine patience, my sister and I explained that a person couldn’t be expected to wear the same thing every day, or even once a week. 

“It’s okay for you,” said my sister. “You just go to work. But we go to school. People notice what we wear.”

My sister and I didn’t always agree - full-scale wars had been waged over the right way to tie a shoelace or butter a potato - but this time we were as one.

“She’s right. And we can’t just wear anything.” I pulled a handful of hangers from my closet. I yanked a wad of tops from my dresser. “Everybody’s seen me in this stuff like a zillion times, Dad. I have to have new things to break up the monotony.”

“No you don’t,” said my father. “I’m declaring a moratorium on buying.”

My sister and I exchanged worried looks. Moratorium sounded suspiciously like mortuary. Was my father killing shopping?

“You’re taking a break from this endless consumption.” Whether we wanted to or not, apparently. “There will be no new articles of clothing in this house until Easter.”

My sister wasn’t just the girl who looked at the glass and, unconcerned with what was in it, declared it Half Full! She was the girl who was usually shrewd enough to figure out how to get someone to fill it up all the way. “You mean unless we pay for them out of our own money.”

 My father’s head shook slowly back and forth, in the way of someone about to give you really bad news. “No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t care if some guy comes to the door and gives you a cashiers’ check for a million bucks. You’re not buying any new clothes until the Spring. And that’s final.”

“But what about this?” My sister shook several pairs of socks in the air. “I have to have new ones. They all have holes.”

“Then darn them.”

“Darn them?” It was I who laughed, my sister was too surprised. My father, like many parents, was frequently unreasonable – but now he seemed to have taken leave of his senses. “People don’t darn socks any more, Dad. That’s like so Nineteenth Century.”

“No,” said my father. “Washing your clothes by hand is so Nineteenth Century. And if you don’t want to be transported back there you will not only start darning your socks, you’ll start patching your jeans and mending your sweaters and learning how to take down a hem or two.”

My mother, who often couldn’t hear you when you asked for pizza or a lift into town but who actually had the hearing of a bat, materialized in the doorway of her workroom.

“And who’s going to be darning your socks?” she asked my father.

This time it was my mother that my father ignored.

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pushpin2A CHRISTMAS STORY

In case you don’t live in London, you might like to know that (surpassing even the year the Bird’s-Eye logo hung over our major shopping street to represent this joyous religious season) the lights of Oxford Street this year are an advertisement for Disney’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL.This had been kept something of a secret from me, so I came to an abrupt halt as I turned out of a side street and was confronted by the illuminated image of Jim Carey as Scrooge. And not for the first time, I wished my father was with me.

Of my parents, my father was the least dedicated Christian. My mother was a Protestant and went to church every Sunday, to Bible Class on Thursday evenings and to the Women’s Circle on Mondays. She participated in all church events and outings, kept her well-thumbed weekly religious magazine on her bedside table in case she needed help or comfort in the night, knew exactly how tall Jesus was (six feet), was forever reminding us what the Bible had to say about our behavior (more than you’d think), and called her minister Reverend Bob. In contrast, my father, a Catholic, went to church every Sunday, but did so largely because it was a sin not to and, having experienced war, he didn’t particularly want to go to hell. And although often commented on the irony of people who had been praying five minutes ago trying to beat each other out of the parking lot with a noticeable lack of goodwill, he had very little to say about Jesus or the Bible. The priests in our church didn’t have first names, and the only time my father was known to actually talk to one was at his yearly confession (because if you didn’t receive Communion on Easter, that was a sin). So it was a surprise to all of us when it was not my mother but my father who turned his back on the commercial bloodbath that is Christmas and, like Jesus casting the money-changers from the temple, decided to cast the money-grubbers out of our yuletide celebration.

We were in the mall. Carols played over the sounds of screeching children and bickering couples. Santa’s elves (tall Santa’s elves in mini skirts and leotards) passed through the throng handing out Have Your Picture Taken with Santa forms.

My mother had the list of presents we had to buy for aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, Santa’s pals, and anyone who might conceivably either buy one of us a gift or expect one. It was a long list, and getting through it redefined the meaning of tedious. Could we buy all six girl cousins the same thing, or was that too impersonal? If we couldn’t (which was my mother’s eventual decision), then what on earth were we going to get each of them for exactly the same price? Didn’t we give Aunt Lottie bubble bath last year? Didn’t we give Aunt Cerise eau de toilette? Who was it didn’t have pierced ears? Was it okay to get the uncles socks again? Did the fact that Mrs Hollander, next door, had given us a jar of homemade jam last year mean that we should give her something this year? Would a dozen home-baked cookies be enough? And could we just wrap them in Santa paper or should we buy a festive tin to put them in, to balance out the mason jar she’d given us? Since Aunt Macy’s presents to me and my sister the year before were clothes pins with artificial flowers glued on them (the exact purpose of which was never discovered) did we have to buy her something from a real store or could we get away with a crocheted toilet roll cover from my mother’s church’s fair? You can see why it took so long.

My father had plunked himself down on a bench by a mini-waterfall, shopping bags at his feet like wretched masses huddled round the skirt of the Statue of Liberty, while my mother, my sister and I went into Sweet Dreams to pick out a pair of pajamas for cousin Lulu (who didn’t read, didn’t listen to music, had no hobbies and wasn’t interested in anything, thus limiting the gift-giver’s options).
When we re-emerged thirty or forty minutes later my father was gazing about him like someone who’s sight had suddenly been miraculously restored.

“Look at this!” He swept his arms open to include the stores, the burdened shoppers, the tinseled palm trees, the dancing snowmen lights and even the plastic reindeer suspended over the waterfall. “Just look!”

My mother’s eyes were on the Italian deli. “What am I looking at? The olives? Because I don’t really think anyone we know likes olives that much. I mean, a few of those black ones from the can in the relish tray are all right, but-”

“No, no! Not the olives. I mean everything. Just look at it. Santa Claus… Rudolph… snowmen… polar bears. For  the love of God – could someone tell me what polar bears have to do with Christmas?”

“Because they live at the North Pole?” guessed my sister.

“Did the Baby Jesus live at the North Pole?” bellowed my father. Heads turned. “Did he put chilli pepper lights around his crib? Did he keep reindeer in that manger?”

My mother perused her list. “Are you staying here?” she asked him, ticking off Lulu. “Because I have to go to Sternman’s to see if they have that footbath for your sister Millie.”

“Oh no you don’t.” My father had had it with all the cheap decorations and useless presents. He was done with the gluttony and greed. We were going to take back every present we’d already bought, estimate how much more we would have spent, and give all that money to Christian Aid. We would give presents, but we had to make them ourselves. We would have a Christmas dinner, but it would be a much simpler, pared down affair (the money we would have spent  on the rib roast, the olives, the pickled watermelon rind, the salted nuts, the eggnog, the chocolates and the  three desserts also went to Christian Aid). My father rose to his feet. “We, as a family, are putting Christ back in Christmas!” he declared.

In front of the five and ten, one of Santa’s elves applauded.

“Thank God we have an artificial tree,” said my mother, “or I suppose we wouldn’t be allowed that either.”

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pushpin2THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

My sixth grade teacher was Mr Sutcliffe. We were the first class he’d ever taught, which meant that, unlike the other male teachers at Bread and Cheese Hollow Elementary school, he was young enough to remember his own childhood and had a full head of hair. It also meant that he hadn’t had his idealism, passion and enthusiasm sucked from his soul by hundreds of eleven-year-olds whose favorite period of the day was lunch. In fact, I believe it’s fair to say that Mr Sutcliffe pretty much glowed with enthusiasm, idealism and passion. Mr Sutcliffe had a mission. He didn’t care if we became doctors and lawyers or secretaries and plumbers; he cared that we thought and didn’t just let life happen to us.  He encouraged us to be questioning and creative. He wanted us to love learning as much as he did. “Education isn’t about memorizing dates and facts,” he’d say. “A computer can store dates and facts. Educations about opening your mind and heart. It’s about thinking. Think! Think! Think!” At which point Ted Grosky or George Hubbard would shout out, “I think I want to go home!” Undaunted, Mr Sutcliffe would join in the laughter. “And I think you should think again,” he’d say. “Or I’ll think about keeping you after school.”

Despite his idealism, passion, enthusiasm and demands for conscious and creative thought, we all liked Mr Sutcliffe. He wasn’t fusty or dull, or drone on worthily for what seemed like whole lifetimes the way some teachers did. Oh contraire! Mr Sutcliffe was funny, interesting and kept us awake even through the most tedious hours of the syllabus. His enthusiasm was contagious. The boys thought Mr Sutcliffe was especially cool because he was a war hero and rode a vintage Harley, which sat in the parking lot among the compact cars of the rest of the staff like a lion in the middle of a purr of tabby cats. The girls thought he was especially cool because he was extremely cute, played the guitar and Emily Gonzales had seen him in the supermarket wearing a necklace (“Not a St Christopher’s medal,” she assured us, “a real necklace with beads.”), which was a historic first for our town, and possibly a historic last as well.

Every year, besides collecting canned goods to distribute to the deserving poor, our school put on a special Thanksgiving pageant to celebrate the founding of the New World. The band played, the chorus sang, the dancers danced, the children with special skills (being able to twist yourself into the shape of a pretzel or play Roll out the Barrel on the accordion) performed and, to tie it all together thematically, there was always a skit commemorating The First Thanksgiving. As it happened, that autumn our class was doing a project on Colonial America. Perhaps unaware that Mr Sutcliffe believed that history was “always told by the winners” and had decided to change that, Mr Lupino, the Principal, gave us the task of putting on the Thanksgiving skit. 

Few people in America may know about the massacre of the Pequot in 1637 (though Class 6A did), but there probably isn’t anyone over two who doesn’t know the story of The First Thanksgiving in 1621. It’s pretty straightforward. The Pilgrims came to America to escape religious bigotry and repression. The Wampanoags, who’d been living in the area for quite some time and were unaware that it was really New England and the property of the English Crown, helped them settle in and showed them what to plant and hunt and stuff like that so they didn’t starve to death. To thank God (and, possibly, the Indians), the colonists made a feast to celebrate their first harvest. This event not only showed their gratitude but created an enduring symbol of the cooperation between the English and the Native Americans. What could be easier to depict in the few minutes allotted to us? It was a no-brainer. Unless, of course, you were being taught by the enemy of no brains.  “Don’t parrot history,” Mr Sutcliffe instructed. “Interpret it.”

The auditorium was decorated with cardboard turkeys and cardboard pilgrim hats taped to the walls. Out front the audience gathered. Since this was a daytime production, there weren't any fathers in the crowd, but there were plenty of mothers. My own mother, resplendent in her royal blue coat with the fur collar, sat dead center, her program on her lap and an expectant smile on her lips. Back stage, the cast of The First Thanksgiving gathered. Our study of Colonial America had approached the subject not from the perspective of the Colonists (the winners) but the Native Americans (the undeniable losers). We were ready to interpret.

Our first break with the traditional version of the Pilgrim’s story happened when the colonists finally landed after their arduous journey.

“Hark!” cried Pilgrim One, spying the Wampanoags watching not quite cautiously enough from the trees. “Have we made a mistake? Did we take a wrong turn? This land is already occupied.”

“Not by white people!” said Pilgrim Two. “So it doesn’t count. This is our land now.”

As one of the Wampanoags I didn’t have any lines, so I was free to see the smiles fade from the face of just about every mother in the room.

“But maybe they can give us some seeds for the crops that grow here and show us where the best hunting and fishing is,” said Pilgrim Three. “We could really use the help.”

“And maybe they could lend us some food if we run out of supplies before our first harvest,” said Pilgrim Four. “We probably won’t make it without them.”

Cut to the following autumn.

The Pilgrims were gathered around a table, in the center of which was a basket of corn and squash. The Pilgrims had empty plates in front of them and were holding their knives and forks at the ready.

Pilgrim One looked stage left. “I wonder where our guests for The First Thanksgiving are. It’s getting late. ”

“I’m getting really hungry,” said Pilgrim two. “They should have been here hours ago.”

“You don’t think the few who survived the measles, smallpox and mumps epidemics we gave them have died, too, do you?” wondered Pilgrim Three.

“Well that would be something else to be thankful for, wouldn’t it?” said Pilgrim Four. “At least we won’t have to shoot them later when we want more of their land.”

From the wings where the Wampanoags waited, I saw Mr Lupino marching towards the door to one side of the stage.

Cut to the surviving Wampanoags in their lodge.

“I feel a little bad about not going to dinner with the Pilgrims,” said Wampanoag One. “I mean, we did promise.”

“Are you kidding?” Wampanoag Two laughed hollowly. “They take our land, give us diseases, make us worship their God, murder, kidnap and enslave us - and you want to have dinner with them?”

“It’s not really that,” protested Wampanoag One. “I just think that they owe us something. Some recognition of all we’ve done for them.”

I turned to the audience. That was my cue.

But as I opened my mouth, the curtain suddenly started to close in front of us. Mr Lupino, looking a lot redder in the face than any of the Wampanoags, was in the wings, tugging on the cords.

Unprepared to miss out on delivering what I considered the best line in the skit, which I’d written myself, I bolted through the narrowing opening in the curtains to stand alone at the front of the stage.

“Don’t worry!” I said, my voice loud and clear. “They’ll give us something. A few hundreds years from now they’ll start naming cars and RVs after us.”

There was a silence that could have drowned out the sound of a million bison stampeding over the plains. 

I looked out into the audience, searching for the face of my mother, beaming back at me with maternal joy and pride.

She was hiding behind her program.

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pushpin2THE GHOST - PART 2

It took my sister a day to notice that her laces were missing.

“Are you sure you didn’t take them out yourself?” My mother often managed to sound as if there was little on the planet that could ever truly surprise her. “Maybe one of them got some dirt or a drop of juice on it and you couldn’t use it any more?” Or maybe it was just the oddities of her own children that couldn’t surprise her. She knew us well.

“I think I’d remember if they were ruined,” sneered my sister. “I think I would have got some new ones right away.” She turned to me. “There’s only one person in this house who would stoop low enough to steal my shoe laces.”

I widened my eyes in innocent surprise. “Are you talking to me?”

“Well, I’m not talking to the dog,” snapped my sister

I, of course, (as she had) denied all knowledge.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I sounded bored. “Why would I take your shoe laces?” I sniggered. “I mean, that is like sooo pathetic.”

My sister twisted her face into what any half-decent painter would recognize as the picture of contempt. “That’s exactly how come I know you did it,”

Later that night, while my sister was sprawled on the sofa, doing her homework and watching TV, I de-arranged her socks. One cat sock paired with a dog sock; the other paired with a giraffe sock. One polka dot sock paired with a striped sock; the other polka dot sock paired with a heart sock. One green with a blue; one blue with a black. And so forth.

She marched into kitchen the next morning with a shopping bag in her arms. 

“Why aren’t you dressed?” asked my mother.

“Because I can’t go to school!” My sister dumped the contents of the bag (every sock she owned) onto the table. “Look what she did! She’s mixed them all up! Now I don’t have any socks to wear today. It’ll take me hours to sort them out.”

“What in heaven’s name is wrong with you?” asked my mother.

Head bent over the history homework I was conscientiously double-checking, I chortled into my cereal bowl. And then I realized that she wasn’t speaking to my sister.

“Me?” I was shocked. Insulted. Hurt. “Why are you blaming me? I didn’t do it. Why would I do a dumb thing like that?”

“I don’t know,” said my mother. “I wish I did, but I don’t. Instead of doing a doctorate in abnormal psychology I married your father.”

“Well I’m sorry, to disappoint you” I said with as much haughtiness as someone eating branflakes can be expected to muster, “but I have a lot better things to do with my time than mix up her socks.” I gave my sister a smile as sweet as a gallon of corn syrup. “Maybe the ghost did it,” I purred.

“Ghost?” My mother looked at the pile of socks with new interest. “You think Nellie did that?”

“Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?” I said. “She’s been in that graveyard a long time. It would give her something to do. She must be humongously bored.”

My sister, throwing a pair of socks (one yellow, one orange if I remember correctly) in the air as if it was a ball, started whistling Dixie.

The next day I hid one of my sister’s shoes in my father’s toolbox, where she would never think to look for it and he wouldn’t find it till next autumn when he traditionally spent a couple of days  “getting the house ready for winter”.

But instead of yelling and screaming and throwing things at me, my sister calmly invited my mother into her room to examine the gap in her shoe rack. “Look what Nellie did this time,” she announced.

“But why would she only take one shoe?” mused my mother. “It looked to me like she had both her feet.”

I shook up my sister’s jewelry box so that everything was tangled together. But instead of ranting and raving, she presented the box to my mother as if was some kind of trophy.

I de-alphabetized my sister’s tapes. “I guess she was trying to figure out what they were,” she said to my mother. “She’s just curious, that’s all.”

My mother came back from the library with two books: The DICTIONARY OF GHOSTS  and GHOSTS OF LONG ISLAND: CASE STUDIES

The next morning when I went to get dressed I found that every skirt, dress and blouse I had, had been taken from its hanger and dumped on the floor of the closet.

My mother reached for her book of case studies.  “That’s very interesting,” she murmured. “There’s a similar incident in here.”

“It’s not the ghost,” I protested. How could it be? There was no ghost. 

“Of course it’s the ghost.” My mother flicked through pages. “She’s obviously transferred her focus from your sister to you. You’re probably closer to her in age.”

“It’s not the ghost, it’s her!” I howled, pointing an accusing finger at my sister, who at that moment was immersed in feeding toast to the dog. “It’s her cheap form of revenge.”

My sister glanced over, smiling like an angel who’s just done a good deed. “Revenge for what?”

The next day I found wet sand in the pocket of my jacket.

“That could mean that Nellie drowned…” murmured my mother. “We are near the beach.”

My math book disappeared.

“Are you going to do something?“ I demanded. “I can’t do my homework without my book. I’ll get a detention. Is that what you want?”

“I’ll write you a note and explain about Nellie,” offered my mother.

That was all I needed, a note from my mother to Mr Hirsch explaining that I couldn’t do my homework because the ghost hid my textbook. I might as well give up any dreams of happiness right then.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “I’ll go over to Kathy’s and do my homework there.”

 I discovered stones in the bottom of my book bag. I opened the sandwich I’d made for my lunch the night before to find that the peanut butter had turned into liverwurst. My hairbrush had been smeared with Vaseline. Every button on my blouse fell off while I was changing for gym. I thought I might lose my mind.

Those were the buttons that broke the camel’s back. That night I went to my sister and admitted defeat.

“You win,” I said. “I can’t go on like this. What will it take to make you stop?”

“A written apology and ten bucks,” said my sister.

“Only if you give me my striped shirt back.”

“Deal,” said my sister.

On Saturday morning all the toilet paper disappeared.

“You know, almost the same thing happened to that family in Wampaugh,” said my mother.

My father, who, because he’d only just returned from his business trip the night before, hadn’t yet been told about the haunting of our humble home, said, “What family in Wampaugh?”

“The one that had the ghost of an 19th-century sea captain living in their attic,” said my mother.

My father put down his coffee cup. “What does that have to do with out running out of toilet paper?”

My mother explained that we hadn’t run out of toilet paper, Nellie had hidden it all.

“Whose Nellie?” asked my father.

My mother made her you-never-listen-to-a-word-I-say face. “Our ghost,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about Nellie.”

Rather than admit that he had, my father said, “So where does the sea captain come into it?”
“He flooded the house,” my mother explained. “You know, because they weren't paying enough attention to him.”

My father’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. He’d been away from us for nearly two weeks. It was clear he could have used a debriefing. “So you think whatever her name is took our toilet paper because she’s not getting enough attention?”

“She could get violent,” said my mother. “The sea captain did. We may have to call the priest to have her exorcised.”
 
My mother left right after breakfast to have her hair done. As soon as her car pulled out of the driveway my father turned on my sister and me. “I can’t turn my back on you two for a minute, can I?”

This was, of course, a rhetorical question but we both answered it anyway.

I clamped my hand to my heart. “I swear I didn’t do it!” 

“Me neither,” said my sister. “Reallyreallyreallyreally.”

“Then who did?” my father, not unreasonably, wanted to know.

“The ghost!” we answered as one.

My father sighed. “The only consolation I have in my life is that neither of you was twins,” said my father.

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pushpin2THE GHOST - PART 1

My best striped top (red and blue with a devilish thread of yellow round the collar and cuffs) was missing. I’d taken it out of the clean laundry, folded it meticulously and put it away in the middle drawer of my dresser, right at the top. I knew that this was what I’d done because: A. It was obviously what I should have done; B. I remembered doing it; and C. I’d planned to wear it to the movies on Saturday afternoon. But when I went to the middle drawer of my dresser on Saturday morning the top wasn’t there. I rummaged through the drawer but it hadn’t wiggled its way down to the bottom. I pulled every single thing out, but it hadn’t hidden itself in a sleeve or a turtleneck or a pocket. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I hadn’t put it in the middle drawer but the first or the third. It was possible. I was a teenager; I had a lot on my mind. I rummaged, I pulled out, I sifted through. I searched with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes examining a drop of cigar ash, but my very best striped shirt wasn’t in the dresser. It hadn’t fallen down the back, either.

“Mom!” I hollered. “Mom! What happened to my red and blue top?”

My mother sighed as if she was three thousand years old and for all of those three thousand years (on the average of approximately sixteen times a day) someone had been asking her where her red and blue top was. “I thought you put it away.”

“I did.” Like a fly on the salad, an injured note settled into my voice. “But it isn’t there, is it? It’s disappeared.” I was righteous and indignant. This kind of thing wouldn’t happen if I were an only child.

My mother was at the kitchen table, making a bouquet of roses out of pink and yellow Styrofoam egg boxes. Normally my mother’s arts and crafts projects (which were wide-ranging and often frightening) were done in the basement where my father had built her a customized workroom to reduce the possibility of our finding foreign objects like sequins or broken glass in our food. But my father was away, and his absence had the same effect on our household that the sheriff taking a vacation would have had on Dodge. A certain lawlessness prevailed.

She didn’t look up as she said, “Are you sure you looked thoroughly?”

“Yes, I looked thoroughly. I took every single thing out of my dresser. It isn’t there.”

This statement finally made her glance my way, one penciled eyebrow rising accusingly. Her lips were pursed.

“I am going to put it all back,” I snapped. 

My mother picked up another petal. “Make sure you do.”

“You’re missing the point!” I wailed. I would have defied anyone to spend two minutes in my family and not realize how unfair the world really is. “It didn’t just walk out of my room by itself! It’s not a shape-shifter! Your daughter took it!”

She calmly glued the petal into place. “You’re my daughter.”

It always amazed me that though she had no sense of humor my mother still tried to make jokes.

“The other one.”

My sister had history. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d “borrowed” something of mine without going through the formality of asking me first. My brown corduroy skirt. My snowflake socks. My Eric von Schmidt album. To name but three things she’d felt entitled to help herself to simply because we shared a gene pool and had rooms next to each other.

“I thought she promised not to do that any more,” said my mother.

And the President promised not to raise taxes.

“Oh, Mommmm….” I groaned. How naïve could one woman be?

“Well, did you ask her if she took it?” My mother picked up a tiny, sparkly yellow bead with a pair of tweezers. “Why don’t you ask her if she took it before you start jumping to conclusions.”
 
“Fine!” I huffed. “I’ll do that, shall I?”

My sister said she hadn’t touched my stupid top. “I’d rather have lice that wear that,” said my sister. “It’s like so uncool.”

Of course, she was lying. Only my mother would have expected her to tell the truth.

“Well if you didn’t take it, who did?” My mother couldn’t fit into my clothes and as far as any of us knew my father didn’t cross dress. “You may not have noticed this, but we don’t have any other sisters.”

My sister smiled the smile that punched every button I had at exactly the same moment with the force of the explosion needed to launch a missile. Boomboomboom.

“Maybe the ghost took it,” said my sister.

“Don’t think you’re getting away with this!” I hissed.

The door slammed behind me. But not so loudly that I didn’t hear my sister laugh.


Only my mother had ever seen the ghost.

According to my mother, she was a young woman wearing a long, summery print dress with an apron over it and a bonnet. She may have been wearing gloves. Her skin was as pale as moonlight on water and she smiled like the Virgin Mary. My mother called her “Nellie” for no reason other than she’d always liked that name. My mother had seen Nellie twice. Once on a hot and humid August day my mother had woken up in the hammock in the backyard and seen Nellie walking through the kitchen wall. And the second time, the following winter, walking through the snow on the road in front of our house (and through several telephone poles and stranded automobiles as well). Nellie didn’t belong to our house – before we’d had it built there was nothing on our property but trees – but, according to my mother, came from the Colonial cemetery in the nearby woods. My mother (whose own mother had told fortunes and read tea leaves and raised her with a deep belief in The Other World) said it stood to reason.

“She’s either lost or just taking a walk,” said my mother.

My sister, being younger and more impressionable, had been scared of the ghost, and had gone through a phase of thinking that every clanking pipe or branch scraping against the house was Nellie, trying to find her way back to the cemetary. I, on the other hand (who, with my father, represented the logical, rational side of the family) had always been skeptical about the ghost (if not actually scathing, cynical, sarcastic and doubled over with infantile laughter). Indeed, until my sister leered at me like that and said Maybe the ghost took it, I’d forgotten about Nellie completely. My sister, obviously, hadn’t. Now that she was old enough to wear make-up and steal my clothes she was also acting as if she was too old to believe in ghosts. But I knew better. She still always slept with a night-light on and jumped at unexpected noises. I figured that even if Nellie couldn’t help me get back my very favorite top in the entire universe, she could help me settle the score.

As soon as my sister left the house, I tiptoed into her room like a cartoon fox heading for the chicken coop. Although I knew beyond even the slightest shadow of a doubt that my sister had taken my striped shirt I searched her room before I set my plan in action. My sister believed in neatness and order and a certain amount of perfection. Her closet and drawers were all color coordinated (blues together, whites together, etc), which made my job easier than it would have been if I’d been searching my room. But – if further proof was necessary (which it wasn’t) - there was no sign of the top. Secure in the knowledge that I’d more than bent over backwards to be fair, I removed the laces from my sister’s turquoise high-tops, and buried them in the garbage.

The haunting had begun.

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pushpin2THE FAMILY VACATION - PART 3

There was a flying water bug in the showers. More specifically, the flying water bug was in the shower occupied by my sister. Her screams, which could not only curdle blood but had undoubtedly curdled every container of milk within a ten-mile radius of the campsite, brought two rangers, a vacationing policeman, and a very large man with a knife thundering into the ladies’ washroom, thinking (not unreasonably) that someone was being murdered. Because of the delay the ensuing chaos, hysteria and pandemonium caused, we were late setting off for our evening meal.

By the time it was becoming obvious that we were not going to arrive at our destination within the next twenty minutes, dark had fallen over what was left of the ancient woodland. Night birds called, crickets chirped, and bats swooped over the fields like phantoms. Like nicks in the forest, the lights of distant cabins shone – assuring us that, contrary to how things seemed, we weren't the last people left alive on the planet. Inside the car, where polite conversation had long since ceased, my mother peered through the windshield like a cavalry scout looking for Sioux war parties, the dog snored, my sister rhythmically kicked the seat in front of her, my father rhythmically told her to cut it out, and I wondered, as I sometimes did, if there was any chance that my Aunt Georgia, who taught Art and lived in Greenwich Village, would be willing to adopt me.

Suddenly my mother straightened up. “What’s that? What’s that?” shrieked my mother, jabbing the air in front of my father and narrowly missing his nose. “Look! Up there! It’s a gas station!”

My father didn’t glance over at her, or slow down. “We don’t need gas.”

“Pull in there,” ordered my mother. “Pull in there and ask for directions.”

“We don’t need directions,” said my father. “We aren’t lost.”

Among the many things my father was known for (the honeymoon salad joke, his gag of pretending someone was choking him from behind the door, the horse shadow puppet he could make with his hands) was a pathological refusal to ever ask for directions. Even if we’d been driving for several hours, had been over the Brooklyn Bridge five times, a hurricane had started up and one of his children was crying and the other was throwing up out the window, my father would not ask the way. It was his version of the Code of the Samurai.

On this occasion, after the unprecedented success of our canoe ride (no major arguments, no tears and less than twenty mentions of Disney World) and my mother’s miraculous cure (she couldn’t have gotten back to the rental dock faster if she’d had an outboard), we were on our way to the slap-up “real” meal (nothing from a can) at the “real” restaurant (no burgers, no pizza) recommended by the owner of Charley’s Bait and Tackle. We’d been on our way there for over an hour, but, despite the fact that it was only “a few miles straight up the road after the boulder that looks a lot like a raccoon”, we hadn’t found it yet. 

“Do you know where we are?” demanded my mother. “Because if you don’t know where we are, then we’re lost.

Recognizing from her tone of voice that if my mother had been the commander of combat troops she wouldn’t be taking any prisoners, my father eased his foot off the gas. But not happily. “This is ridiculous,” he grumbled. “I bet you it’s just around that bend up there.”

“Five bucks,” said my mother.

Because of the time in Philadelphia when my father went into the news store and pretended to ask for directions when all he did was buy two packs of gum and a Hershey bar, my mother insisted on going with him. Seeing this as an opportunity to at least get a soda, I insisted on going in, too. The dog needed the rest room, so he came along. And my sister, still traumatized by her water bug experience, wasn’t going to sit alone in the car even for a few minutes, so we all trooped into the station with my father.

 While my mother stood beside him with her arms folded in front of her and a scowl on her face, my father put four cans of soda on the counter and said, conversationally to the man at the till, “You wouldn’t know where the restaurant is around here?”

The man behind the counter rang up the sodas. “Which one?”

“Well, that’s the thing…” My father chuckled. “I can’t remember the name. But I think it looks like a log cabin.”

The man chuckled. “Everything up here looks like a log cabin.”

My mother sighed.

“Guy at the lake said it’s on the same road as the boulder that looks like a raccoon.”

“Racoon?” The man frowned. “You sure he didn’t say coyote?”

“Racoon,” repeated my father. “I’m sure he said raccoon.”

The man was shaking his head. “Racoon, huh?”

Aware that, beside him, my mother was starting to paw the ground, my father searched his mind for some other relevant information. “Oh, I know!” He snapped his fingers. “He said there’s a stuffed bear outside the entrance.”

“Oh, stuffed bear! Why didn’t you say?” The man handed my father his change. “That’ll be Links. Best darn steak house in the state. Big as a platter. Melts in your mouth like butter on a griddle. Then there’s the onion rings and the scalloped potatoes… I’m telling you, you haven’t tasted onion rings or scalloped potatoes till you’ve had the ones at Links. And if you don’t like steak, there’s the chops - chops to die for – or the chicken….” He shook his head. “Well, the chicken’s just out of this world.”

“Considering how long it’s taking us to find this place, it probably is,” muttered my mother.

The man beamed on my sister and me. “And wait’ll you see the desserts… People come from miles just for the homemade ice cream and blueberry pie.”

“Well, I can believe that,” said my mother.

“It isn’t far, is it?” My father’s voice was bright with hope. He pointed out the window. “I bet my wife it’s just around that bend.”

“Well kind of…”

You went around the bend, then turned right on Luke Skyler Road. About three miles later, when you came to all the mailboxes, you did another right onto Sagwa. When Sagwa forked you stayed on the left. About half a mile past the second white house on the right you made a right. You’d cross a stream and pass a church. The third left after the church was Shortcut. The restaurant was four miles down on the right.

My father’s head bobbed up and down, either with understanding or with the effort of trying to shake the directions into it.
 
“Thanks!” said my father. He turned to go, and we turned with him. “Right… right… left… right… left… right…” he mumbled as we all shuffled towards the door.

“I’m getting blue berry pie,” said my sister.

“You owe me five bucks,” said my mother. 

“The chicken sounds good,” said I. “And those potatoes…”

“Steak. I’m having the biggest steak they have.” The car keys jingled in my father’s hand as he held the door open for us to file through.

“Course, it’s closed on Mondays,” called the man at the counter.

Desperate as a man who knows the crowd around is looking for a rope and about to get ugly, my father turned around. “Well what about one of the other restaurants?” He was close to begging. “One of them must be open.”

“Nah…” The man shook his head. Sadly. “There aren’t any other restaurants round here.”

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pushpin2THE FAMILY VACATION - PART 2

My mother (claiming that she couldn’t take a turn with the paddle because she once strained her back rowing at summer camp when she was twelve) sat at the back of the canoe, the dog on her lap, her delicate skin protected by a large straw bonnet tied with a strip of bright pink organza.

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee….” she intoned. “By the shining Big-Sea-Water…

Normally, on family trips, my mother sang. She usually tried to match the song to the locale. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or the song about the church in the wild wood should we pass a party of knights or a religious building. “Old MacDonald” if we passed a farm. “We’ll Meet Again” when a cemetery hove into view. Today, however, as our canoes huffed and puffed their ways over the serene and woods-encircled lake, she was reciting Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” (the two verses that she remembered from school). Fortunately, my mother didn’t know any songs about Native Americans, and even if I could have paddled and sung at the same time there was no way I was going to fill in that gap in her knowledge by sharing the song about Running Bear and Lovely Little White Dove with her.

“Hiawatha” was bad enough.

“What’d I tell you?” shouted my father. “Didn’t I say this was going to be a vacation we you never forgot?” He and my sister were in the lead canoe. He was doing the paddling and she (having already dropped an oar into the water once) was sitting behind him, slapping the surface of the lake with her hand in a way that suggested she might be wondering how much force it would take to capsize the boat. “Look at that view. Isn’t it spectacular?” Water splashed over my father and his passenger as his blade pointed at the view. The jade-green, glasslike lake below us. The enormous, silent sky above us. The huddle of old-growth forest that encircled us. “This is what this country used to look like before we invented strip malls,” my father informed us. “Wild. Raw. Throbbing with life. Just as Nature made it.” He pulled up his oars, letting the bright red canoe (number 18) drift while he took in the untamed beauty all around us in our rented canoes with our life jackets on. “It’s like going back in time.”

“I’d rather go to Disney World,” grumbled my sister. My sister hadn’t been in favor of this vacation to begin with (well, no one was except my father), but since discovering that campsites didn’t have private bathrooms or TV, I’d rather go to Disney World had become my sister’s theme tune. “They have Frontier Land, you know.”

“Be that as it may,” my father placidly replied. “But it’s all pretend, honey. This is much better. This is the real thing.”

“I bet the real tribe that used to live here would be a little surprised to find all those white people swimming in their lake.” I was in one of my rebellious phases, which three twenty-four-hour days with my family was doing nothing to diminish. “Not to mention the speedboats and the café and the bar on the other end.”

My father looked back at me. “Cynicism is not attractive in one so young.”

“Stop giving your dad a hard time,” ordered my mother.

Which, if you asked me, was pretty rich since she’d done nothing but give my father a hard time since we left home – starting from when she threw the map out the car window. She not only refused to paddle, she also refused to help set up the tent, to blow up her air mattress or to cook on the ground, and usually stayed at camp, reading a book, while my father took my sister and me on walks to disprove her predictions that we would break out in poison ivy or contract lyme disease. But being ferried over what amounted to one gigantic scenic overlook obviously agreed with her.

This was a part of getting out in Nature she could go with. “This place is inspiring. Truly inspiring.” She peered over the tops of her sunglasses to be even more truly inspired.

“God’s country. That’s what they called it. God’s country.”

“No it wasn’t. They called it Algonquin country.” I told you I was in one of my rebellious stages.

My mother, however, wasn’t about to be baited. One of the reasons she was in a good mood was because tonight my father had agreed that we could eat in a restaurant instead of having yet another meal of canned beans and canned spaghetti (which, with canned soup, canned ravioli and boiled water, were just about all you could expect to make on our stove). Even Wilderness Dad had his limits of just how far back in time he was willing to go. “It’s so quiet and peaceful,” she went on. “It really makes you think.”

“All it makes me think is that I’d rather be at Disney World,” said my sister.

“It’d be cool if we could see an eagle or an elk or something like that.” I sighed. “But I suppose we exterminated all of them, too.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said my father. “The Ranger told me there’s plenty of wildlife left in these woods. Deer… raccoon… coyote… even bear.”

“Not down here with all these tourists around.” Rebels aren’t easily persuaded. “Somebody’d shoot them.”

“Let’s pull in over there and have our lunch,” said my father.
We pulled in “over there” and dragged the canoes up on the shore (my sister grumbling about not having to do this at Disney World and my mother and the dog, both exempt from this labor - she because of her old camp injury and he because of his paws – looking on.)

Interestingly, although a woman who considered crossing the supermarket parking lot a hike, it was my mother who suggested we go further inland to find a “sylvan glade” where we could have our picnic. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou…” Still obviously inspired, my mother was on a poetic roll that day, even if she’d changed continents. She beamed at my father. “Wouldn’t that be romantic?”

My father (though more a piece of cake and can of beer kind of guy) said, “We’re not going too far in. We have to keep an eye on the boats.”

Without going too far, we actually found the perfect spot, secluded but unspoiled by the litter that dotted the shores of the lake. It was a small clearing in a natural circle of trees. There were logs to sit on and a leafy roof over us through which the sun streamed down in halo-like light. Around us branches creaked and birds sang and tiny forest creatures rustled in the undergrowth – just as they had for thousands of years. As we ate our bologna sandwiches and sipped our iced tea, I think I can say that each of us was touched and moved by the timeless grandeur of our surroundings.

“It’s so serene,” murmured my mother. “Like heaven on Earth.”

Even my sister went through the whole meal without any mention of Disney World.

And then, folding up his sandwich bag and gazing over my mother’s head, my father said, “I don’t want anyone to panic. The best thing is to stay calm. But if I’m not mistaken, there’s a black bear watching us from right behind your mom.”

My sister and I both screamed, “Where? Where?” and launched ourselves at my father. My mother scooped up the dog and ran.

My sister opened her eyes first. “I don’t see any bear,” said my sister.

I opened my eyes. Still holding tightly to my father’s arm I peered through the trees behind the spot where my mother so recently had been. “I don’t either.”

“Don’t you?” My father shook his head, gathering up the fallen picnic fare. “I guess maybe I was mistaken after all.”
By the time we got back to the boats, my mother was yards out on the water in the blue canoe, paddling with a speed and grace that would have made Hiawatha proud.
“You see?” My father winked. “I knew that shoulder must have healed by now.”

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pushpin2THE FAMILY VACATION - PART 1

In the last several decades, the Family Vacation has become a fixture in our culture – as if, not satisfied with arguing for fifty weeks in the relative privacy of our own homes we want to give the rest of the world a chance to see us at our worst. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that a group of people who can’t go Christmas shopping together without shouting, tears and festive violence (i.e., my father throwing the Singing Santa onto Route 110) would want to go away together to someplace where they can’t lock themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to come out, but Life, as they say, is strange.

“But a family vacation’s supposed to be vacation the whole family enjoys,” wailed my sister. “Like going to Disneyworld or someplace like that.”

My father, who was wiping several years’ worth of dust and small insects off the portable gas stove he’d bought for power cuts in hurricane season, didn’t look up. “Exactly. The whole family. Which, I believe includes me.”

My father had put his foot down, and crushed firmly under its heel was Cinderella’s tiara. He was tired of spending his precious vacation driving from one child-friendly venue to another. Up and down the East Coast we went, my parents in the front seat (bickering) and my sister and I in the back (bickering), every night the four of us crammed into one cheap motel room with our electric coffee pot, a hot plate and an ice chest (so that the only meal we had to eat out was lunch) and arguing about what to watch on the TV that was bolted to the wall. We’d been to Storybook Land and The Mountain Game Farm. We’d been to Pioneer Land and Cowboy World. We’d been to Water World, King Arthur’s Realm and Fairy Town. He was drawing the line at Disneyworld. This year, said my father, he wanted to really relax and enjoy himself. He didn’t think that was too much to ask.

My sister, as you will have guessed already, disagreed.
“But everybody goes to Disneyworld,” she moaned. “All my friends have pictures of themselves with Goofy and T-shirts and really cool key chains and stuff. And they all say how great it is… They think we’re weird because we haven’t gone. They think there’s something wrong with you.”

My father, however, was impervious to the ridicule of eight-year-olds.

“A real vacation isn’t about T-shirts and key chains,” said my father. “It’s about experiencing all life has to offer. It’s about challenging yourself and pushing your limits.” This was why we were going camping. According to my father, life’s offerings included tents, sleeping bags and getting pretty intimate with nature. It would make us more rounded people, like Boy Scouts. “Wouldn’t you rather have your picture taken walking an old Indian trail than standing next to some college student dressed as a cartoon character?” he asked.

My sister said, “No.”

“My friends all stay in hotels,” said my mother. Wistfully. So long as we went somewhere, she didn’t care where we went but she would have liked to stay in a real hotel. The idea of room service appealed to her.

“Where’s your pioneer spirit?” demanded my father. “It wasn’t staying in hotels that made this country great.”

“It wasn’t sleeping on the ground either,” snapped my mother.

You may have noticed that my whining voice hasn’t yet been heard in this discussion. That’s because I was at the age when I would rather have gone to prison than go on another family vacation, and that went for one that included Mickey Mouse. If my sister’s ideal holiday consisted of spinning around in a giant teacup, and my mother’s of calling for a turkey sandwich and a bottle of beer to be brought to her room, then my ideal holiday would have been if they’d all gone to Timbuktu or even the Jersey Shore and left me home by myself.

Which is why I now said, “I don’t see why I have to go at all. I could stay home and look after the dog.”My mother made her mouth into a flat line. “Over my dead body.” In her opinion, I was of an age when the only way she would leave me at home by myself was with a police escort.

“The dog’s coming, and you’re coming, too,” said my father. Finished with the stove, he reached for the Coleman lantern (also bought for hurricane season). “You’ll see, we’re going to have a lot of fun.” He beamed on his own flesh and blood and their mother. “This is going to be a vacation you’ll never forget.”

It was already dark by the time we pulled into the Red Tree Falls Campgrounds. Or, to be slightly more accurate, it was already dark by the time we found the Red Tree Falls Campgrounds. Day one and counting.

Things hadn’t begun very well. Loading the car had taken roughly three hours more than my father had allowed for. Every time he’d tied what he thought was the last bundle on the roof or managed to close the trunk despite the laws of logic and physics, one of us would hurl herself from the house with something else that had to come no matter what. When we finally did manage to get out of the driveway, we were back in twenty minutes when my mother realized we’d left the dog behind. (My sister and I, hoping to break our father’s will, had agreed to wait at least two hours before sounding the alarm.) Then we got a flat. By the time that was fixed my mother needed a restroom and my sister and I needed food. Then my mother, who was navigating, sent us thirty miles in the wrong direction. Then she and my father had a fight about whose fault it was that we’d gone the wrong way and my mother (firmly establishing the new family tradition started by my father the Christmas before) threw the map out the window and told him to do his own navigating if he thought he was so smart. Then the dog threw up. And then (perhaps as we should have known) the Red Tree Falls National Campgrounds turned out to be a closely kept government secret, hidden away over wooden bridges and down nameless dirt tracks that were all as similar as crocodiles from any main roads or obvious landmarks - and even from the knowledge of locals (“Can’t say that I do…”), as though it’s whereabouts had to be kept from enemy agents. God forbid the Red Tree Falls Campgrounds should fall into the hands of the Soviets.
We arrived at campsite 48 (“You’re in luck!” the ranger congratulated us. “We have one tent spot left”) about five minutes before the rain.

“You can’t be serious,” said my mother as we staggered out of the cramped car and the first drops fell on us from a tar-black sky. “We can’t put the tents up in the dark and the rain.”

“Of course we can,” said my father. “The ground’s not mud yet, is it? I’ll leave the car lights on and we’ll be home and dry in no time.”

It may surprise you to learn that none of us had ever erected a tent before. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that it hadn’t occurred to my father that he might want to do a dry run (literally) in the warmth and comfort of his own house – rather than wait till nine o’clock at night in a storm to discover that he had no idea which pole went where. I have since seen tents that pretty much put themselves up, but ours weren’t like that. Ours needed human intervention. My mother (and the dog) refused to get out of the car, which left my father to grapple manfully with their tent on his own, which used quite a few words we’d never heard him use before. My sister and I would have happily stayed in the car, too, but we’d been packed in the back with the dog and the supplies for nearly ten hours by then, making stumbling around in a downpour blindly banging pegs into the ground seem almost pleasant.

Just to prove that miracles do happen, by ten thirty both tents, though listing noticeably, were up. Outside the rain poured down in what can only be described as a Biblical way, but we were snug and dry, happily eating peanut butter and crackers together in my parents tent by the light of the Colemans.

And then a new sound joined the thudding of the rain, and the dog jumped on my lap, getting peanut butter all over his ears.

“What was that?” whispered my sister. “Was that a wolf?”

“Of course not,’ said my father, with all assurance of a man whose experience of wild animals pretty much started and stopped with the rabbits who annually ate his vegetable patch. “There aren’t any wolves around here. It’s just the wind.”

Another new sound ripped through the night.
This time my sister nearly jumped in my lap. “Then what was that?”

My mother spread peanut butter on a cracker in a philosophical way. “I think you’ll find that was your tent being blown across the campgrounds.” The lantern light made the smile she gave my father slightly sinister. “This certainly is going to be a vacation we never forget.

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pushpin2THE DARK SIDE OF HOME EC

Mrs Pataki, my next-door neighbour, is something of a celebrity on our block, famous as the mother of Snookums (a grumpy tabby cat the size of a canister vacuum cleaner) and as owner of the most impressive collection of Volkswagen Beetle memorabilia this side of the Rhine. Mrs Pataki used to be content with these two areas of glamour and expertise, answering questions about the time Snookums wedged himself in the front gate and whether or not the VW on her ring actually moves with constant grace and good humour. But, as we know from all the actors, rock gods, models and reality TV stars who have gone on to create perfumes, write books, design clothes and end global poverty, celebrity is not always enough. It may be great topping the charts or possessing one of the few miniature VW Beetles that doubles as a bar in the Western World, but the human soul needs more. Mrs Pataki has worked out how to overcome the economic crisis.

“It’s simple, really,” Mrs Pataki confided. “What we need to do is bring back Home Ec.”

An image immediately formed in my mind. An image nightmarish enough to make strong women weep. This image was worse even than the image that forms when I’m reminded of the Summer The Family Went Camping or the Day Mrs McClusky Can-Canned Down the Beach with a Transistor Pressed to One Ear. In this most horrific of images, I saw sewing machines and cutting boards and dress forms. I saw model kitchens, complete with stoves, sinks and Formica tables where six girls who were no longer speaking to each other were forced to eat together. This was the home economics room of my junior high school. I hated Home Ec. I hated Home Ec even more than a hated Gym, and I hated Gym as only someone who was always assigned to a team and never actually picked for one could. [I have to point out here that my hatred of this class had nothing to do with my feelings for either sewing or cookery. I like them both. But I wanted to make intricate patchwork quilts, not A-line skirts; to make tacos and Paht Thai, not pancakes and macaroni and cheese.] I’d just as soon bring back Feudalism as Home Ec.

“Why on earth would you want to do that?” l squeaked.

“Because we live in a throw-away, ready-meals society, that’s why,” replied Mrs Pataki. “Home Ec taught useful skills. Skills we all need. Skills that could save one a lot of money and help the environment.”

“But not everyone’s good at Home Ec,” I argued. “Some people find it as big a challenge as climbing Mt Everest.” Wearing stilettos and a tutu.

“Are we talking about you?” asked Mrs Pataki.

Yes, we were. I actually failed Home Ec.

Mrs Pataki, apparently under the illusion that I was joking, laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody fails Home Ec. It’s impossible. It’s like failing lunch.”

Or so they’d like you to think.

In the Home Ec class that I saw so clearly in my mind, I was there, in Group Four, with Kitty Keller, Ginny Lidel, Barbara Shopenhauer, Glenda Cross and Edie Meckler. We were all wearing simple aprons that we’ve made ourselves with a yard-and-a-half of cotton (and bias tape for the neck loop and ties). Kitty, Ginny and Edie’s aprons were in solid colours with contrasting trim, Barbara’s was blue with white stripes and white trim and Glenda’s was a delicate floral print framed in black. They were all so perfectly done that they didn’t look homemade, they looked like they’d bought them in the kitchen department of Macy's. Mine looked like it was made in a home without electricity, at night, probably by a goat. Possibly because, as was frequently pointed out to me (and not only by my parents), I was a peculiar child, the material I chose for my apron was decorated with lizards. That would be my first mistake. My mother had shown a little concern about my choice of fabric (“Do people really want to look at reptiles while they’re cooking?” she’d mused), but I was not to be dissuaded. I loved lizards, but although I’d had a lot of things decorated with dogs, kittens and flowers over the years I’d never had any item of clothing that featured a chameleon, a gecko or an iguana. This was my big chance. Sewing was going to unleash my creativity after all - and free me from the restraints and limits of the Girls’ Department. Personally, I hold the general reaction to my lizard material (a combination of hilarity and hostility that eventually lead me to wearing it inside out) at least partially responsible for the fact that the finished product was both too wide and too long, the simple apron shape mutating into something that bunched at the top and swirled out at the bottom like a crumpled candy bar wrapper. Because of the difficulties threading a bobbin gave me, I’d wound up holding the ties on with safety pins. Mrs Lewis, whose job it was to impart to us the useful skill of sewing (and who never hid the fact that I didn’t meet her standards of what it means to be a girl), claimed that in twenty years of teaching she had never seen anything like my apron. “If we’d depended on you to make the first wheel we’d all still be walking everywhere,” declared Mrs Lewis. Though that, of course, was before she saw my skirt.  

“Skirt?” echoed Mrs Pataki? “What was wrong with your skirt?”

Just about everything.

“And that’s why you failed Home Ec?”

It contributed. Because I also couldn’t master zippers or buttonholes it, too, was held together with pins, but the main reason I failed Home Ec was the Candle Salad.

“Candle Salad?” Mrs Pataki was curious despite herself. “What’s that when it’s at home?”

Sadly, I hadn’t done any better in the cooking part of our class than I had in the sewing part. My baked eggs looked like infectious phlegm. My macaroni and cheese set off the smoke alarms. My spaghetti and meat sauce turned a peculiar shade of grey not in keeping with Sunny Italy. Our final exam for the semester was for each group to plan and make a complete meal. Without much consultation, my co-chefs decided that I should make the salad. “You can’t possibly mess up the salad,” said Edie. “That’s right,” agreed Glenda. “What can go wrong with a handful of lettuce?” But the human capacity for error is, of course, limitless. Once again I saw this as my big chance. I could redeem all my mistakes (Ginny Lidel throwing up all over herself, the damage done by the fire extinguisher, the damage done to Italian cooking) simply by producing something truly special. Not just some lettuce and tomato with grated carrot sprinkled over it. Something that Caesar himself would have envied.

Mrs Pataki eyed me warily. “And that was the Candle Salad?”

Indeed, it was.

I got the recipe in one of the cookbooks for kids that my mother, who didn’t like cooking herself, bought to encourage my sister and me to take over the job – and lighted on it because, although unusual by the standards of Long Island, it was largely composed of very usual things that came well within the class budget.

“You mean it was made of candles?” ventured Mrs Pataki.

No, bananas – amongst other things. On a bed of lettuce you placed a mound of cottage cheese and into that you set a ring of tinned pineapple (this formed the candle holder). Into the ring of pineapple you stuck half a banana (the candle). On top of the banana you put a spoonful of mayonnaise or something like mayonnaise (that was the dripping wax). On top of that you put half a maraschino cherry, to represent the flame. And there you had it: the Candle Salad. I made six and lined them up on the counter, stepping back to view them with a certain amount of pride.

Mrs Pataki shook her head. “And for that you failed? Didn’t it taste any good?”

I have no idea what it tasted like (although I assume it largely tasted like cottage cheese, pineapple and banana, which aren’t tricky tastes like natto miso or snails). No one ever got to eat any of it. As soon as my co-chefs turned from their own tasks to see the row of salads (one or two with a cherry flame starting to slip from its moorings) they started laughing. I’d never understood the phrase “die laughing” before, but from the way they were bent double, clasping their sides, and gasping, it seemed possible that they might. Needless to say, this hysteria caught the attention of the other groups. They, too, started shrieking and honking as thought they’d just discovered laughter.

Besides the laughter, I was aware of movement and chatter around me, but the events of the next, say, ninety seconds is a blur. I just stood there, transfixed in much the way I froze when, on the one occasion that I ever wore my Home Ec skirt, the pin opened as I was modelling it for the class and it fell to the ground. And then I heard Mrs Lewis (who had been bent over examining something in an oven) say, “What in heaven’s name is going on?” What was going on was a food fight (brought on, it was later decided, by delirium). As Mrs Lewis’ head rose from the oven, someone got her square in the face with a banana.

“But it wasn’t you who threw the banana.” Mrs Pataki, as well as being a celebrity, is innately fair. “I don’t see why you failed.”

“Mrs Lewis didn’t care who threw the banana. She held me responsible. She was convinced I’d done it on purpose.” Like my mother, Mrs Lewis seemed to think I had a peculiar sense of humour.

“But you didn’t do it on purpose,” said Mrs Pataki. “Did you?”

Not all of my memories of Home Ec are like revisiting Elm Street. There is also the one of Mrs Lewis standing in the middle of Group Two’s Kitchen with a cherry stuck to her nose.

“No, of course I didn’t,” I said.

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pushpin2THE BIG BUNNY BLUES

I believe it was the great novelist Leo Tolstoy who claimed that all happy families are the same, whereas unhappy families are each unhappy in its own way. I can’t help feeling, though, that Count Tolstoy was simplifying things for the sake of a really good line. It seems to me that all families – happy, unhappy or in between – are tiny worlds onto themselves – different and distinct. Worlds with individual cultures and customs. When you’re little, you think that everything that happens in your family is normal. Everybody eats macaroni and cheese on Friday night. Everybody’s grandmother has an altar in her bedroom. Everyone’s father bursts into songs from musicals without warning. That all mothers have pet snakes. That in every family there is an Uncle George who hasn’t spoken a single word for the last twenty years or an Aunt Cotilda who wears a helmet made of aluminum foil to bed. It isn’t until you get older and spend more time out of the house than in it that you begin to realize just how unique and special your family really is. My sister was five.

It happened on Easter. Our family ritual was that as soon as we got home from church on Easter Sunday, my father would hand my sister and me each a basket containing a handful of cellophane “grass” and a piece of paper and a pencil, and set us on the trail of The Big Bunny. The idea was that The Big Bunny, a rabbit with a mischievous sense of humor, had hidden our Easter stuff hither and thither - and we had to find it, filling our baskets piece by piece. Our candy could be anywhere. Upstairs or downstairs. Inside or out. It might even be in the mailbox or the trunk of the car. The pen and paper was so my father could keep track of how many hiding places we’d discovered. If we missed any, we’d be sent back on the hunt. There was no such thing as a Free Lunch in our house.

“None of my friends have to go through this,” grumbled my sister. “Why can’t we just get a basket filled with stuff like everybody else?”

“Because this is more fun. Besides, it’s the way we do it. It’s a tradition.” My father sounded so totally reasonable you’d have thought he was actually making sense.

But my sister, though young, caught the flaw in his logic.

“Whose tradition?” she demanded. “Nobody else has this stupid tradition.”

“Of course they do,” said my father. “All over the world they have Easter egg hunts.”

You’ll notice that I wasn’t taking part in this conversation. I was there, of course. Like my sister, I was all dressed up in my new Easter outfit – the patent leather shoes, the pastel party dress, the seasonal bonnet – but I was a little older. I no longer had the heart for this argument, since we’d had it so many times before. I’d already figured out that other parents were not like ours.

Egg hunts, Dad.” My sister’s hat was white with tiny rose buds along the crown and a pink bow that tied under her chin, which made her look deceptively sweet. “They just have to find a couple of hard-boiled eggs. All they have to do to get the candy is get out of bed.”

“They don’t know what they’re missing,” said my father. He handed us our baskets, glancing at his watch. “You’d better start hopping, you two.  The Big Bunny’s outdone himself this year. It could take you a while.”

We both groaned.

Don’t worry,” said my mother. “Dinner’s not for a few hours yet.”

 

There were always a few easy finds. The small foil-covered eggs over the doorsills. The plastic egg filled with jellybeans in the soap dish. The hardboiled egg in the magazine rack and behind the drapes. The chocolate rabbits in the laundry hamper. We swooped on these with cries of girlish glee, and after an hour in which we completely forgot what an ordeal he was putting us through, reported back to my father, The Big Bunny’s personal representative on Bluff Road.

He was reclining in His Chair, reading the paper and eating a chocolate chicken. “You haven’t even started yet.” He laughed in the warm, affectionate way people who are sitting in comfortable chairs stuffing their faces with chocolate chickens do. “You’ve got at least another dozen to go.”’

A dozen!” wailed my sister.

“You can’t be serious,” cried I.

“Chop, chop,” said my father. “See you two later.”

We trekked through the yard, rooting through the mint patch and the barbecue and peering through the lilacs. We combed every inch of the lawn. We left no stone or garden ornament unturned. We uprooted every pot plant, rummaging through the dirt for something wrapped in Saran. My mother waved to us from the kitchen window. I shoved my sister up the oak tree at the back of the yard; my mother came out with the stepstool to get her back down.

I know that somewhere in that afternoon we had baked ham and candied sweet potatoes and a cake cut to look like a rabbit, but I have no actual memory of the meal. My sister and I bolted down our dinners in an unhealthy way, now in the grip of an obsession.

As soon as we were allowed from the table, we resumed our search with the single-mindedness of an adventurer looking for a lost city.

We dug through the linen cupboard and prowled through the living room like spies. I came out of the chimney covered with soot. My sister caused a major avalanche in the hall closet. We tore our own rooms apart. We left not a drawer unmolested or a wastebasket standing. We emptied closets and shelves. We discovered things we never knew we had and things that had been missing for years. Leaving quite a lot of devastation in our wake (“Carpet bombed” was how my mother unsmilingly described it later), we returned to my father with the latest statistics.

“You’re still short.” My father rubbed his hands together. Gleefully. “Don’t forget – whatever you don’t find belongs to me.”

We combed the garage like a CSI team.

My sister took the car. She was thorough and methodical. She checked the glove compartment and the floor. She pulled out the movable seat, rummaged through the trunk, dove into the spare tire – got stuck in the storage space behind the back seat.

I took the garage itself. I looked in every jar of nails, washers and screws on my father’s workbench. I bravely peered in all the dark and dusty corners. I got out the ladder and climbed up to the high shelves. We found the necklace I’d accused my sister of stealing from me, a dollar in change, my mother’s ancient ice skates, a foot stool made out of coffee cans, what was left of the badminton set after the dog got caught in the net the summer before, and two chocolate lambs.

We returned to the living room, convinced that we must have found everything by now.

My father said no. There were still two things missing.

But we’ve looked everywhere in the house and in the yard,” moaned my sister.

“You haven’t looked in the basement yet,” said my father, licking chocolate from his fingers.

My mother went into the basement to do the laundry, and my father went down there to yell at the boiler and fiddle with fuses, but my sister and I never went there if we could help it. Chill and damp, the basement was the kind of dark, uncivilized and treacherous place where ghosts, monsters and criminals on the run were likely to be hiding. At the very least, it was a place mice and spiders would be happy to call home.

My father shrugged. “It’s your call, girls. But I thought you were particularly fond of white chocolate.”

Clutching our baskets and each other, my sister and I tiptoed down the dusty, creaking steps to the concrete chamber of horrors under the house.

“It’s too big,” said my sister as we hovered at the bottom of the stairs, our eyes scanning the landscape of furniture, boxes, cobwebs, crates and luggage. “There’s too much stuff.”

was too much stuff. The shattered remains of past lives – ours, our parents, their parents and people they probably had never known - all coexisted in out-of-sight, out-of-mind exile in the cellar.

“He’s old and lazy. He wouldn’t hide them anywhere really hard to get to,” I reasoned.

“They’ll either be kind of in view or somewhere obvious. He’s not a masochist, he just likes to tease us.”
My sister looked around the room. “I don’t see anything.”

“What about the washing machine?” I gave her a nudge. “Go look in the washing machine.”

She nudged me back. “You come with me.” The washing machine was at the far wall,  in the wilderness behind the stairs.

It was a long walk across the concrete floor. Step by tiny step. Even though we barely breathed, we could feel the dust of decades shifting in the air. Every little noise – even ones we knew came from over our heads, like our mother dancing around the living room while she watched the holiday musical - made us dig our nails into each other and jump.

The washing machine, raised from the ground on a wooden platform, was a top-loader. We put down our baskets and I lifted my sister up so that she could reach the lid and tilted her forward. She leaned in. “I think there’s something down there, but it’s too dark to see. Her voice was muffled. “Isn’t there another light?”

There was a light over our heads.

“Try and brace yourself,” I ordered. “I have to let go with one hand.” I reached up to pull the cord that would turn it on.

Something ran across my feet. It was bigger than a spider but smaller than a horse. I thought I saw something glowing. I felt sharp nails. It may have growled.

I screamed and something else – something dank and slimy - threw itself against me, touching my face. I screamed again and ran, knocking over our baskets as I fled. I pounded up the stairs and, gibbering and hyperventilating, hurled myself through the door and into the kitchen where my mother was fixing herself a sandwich. “Ghosts and rats!” I gasped. “Ghosts and rats touched me!”

My mother put down the mustard knife. She only wanted to know one thing “Where’s your sister?”

My sister was still head first in the washing machine. Though by then, of course, she was crying fairly hysterically. 

Later, when she was kissing us good night, my mother said, “You know, you really have to hand it to your father. Not many people can combine Easter and Halloween like that.”

As the door shut behind her my sister whispered, “So they’re both crazy, right?

“I’m not sure it’s just them,” I whispered back.

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pushpin2AHEAD OF HIS TIME

My sister took a break from swimming with dolphins and hugging orangutans on the tropical island where she lives to visit me in the damp and grey of London. On Sunday morning, wrapped in jumpers and thick socks so as not to waste energy by actually turning on the heat, we huddled together on the sofa reading the papers.

“Wow,” said my sister. “Did you see this article on saving money and beating the recession?”

I tore my eyes from the piece I was reading that explained how forty-thousand-pound lunches, three-thousand-pound handbags and eight-hundred-pound shoes were now so yesterday. “Let me guess,” I said. “It reminds you of Dad.”

“He was practically a prophet. He was totally ahead of his times.” My sister shook her head in wonderment and awe. “If I didn’t know it was impossible, I would’ve thought he wrote it.” The article was full of practical advice on using leftovers, making packed lunches, making gloves out of old socks, recycling greeting cards, mending things rather than throwing them out, making do with last year’s coats and your old kettle. “I mean, really. Look here! They even tell you how to darn socks!”

My father darned socks. He knit my sister and me scarves that we jammed into our schoolbags as soon as we were out of his sight. He turned off lights almost as soon as they were turned on, often leaving his nearest and dearest sitting in the dark. He saved string, brown paper, wrapping paper, jars, bottles and boxes, because you never knew when they’d come in handy. He patched sheets. He only bought new shoes when the old ones started leaking. He did hose repairs and his own mechanics. He built a barbecue (legendary) and a “Florida room” (slightly impractical for New York State). He was always asking us if we thought he was made of money.

“Remember the time he decided to turn the back yard into a farm?” I asked.

My sister rolled her eyes. “Who could forget?”

 

It all started innocently enough.

My mother came in singing a song from the radio, her arms filled with groceries.

She stopped rather sharply when she reached the dining room. “What are you planning to do with that?” asked my mother. She was gazing at the packets scattered across the table as if they were grenades.

“What do you think I’m going to do with them?” My father, who was sitting a few feet away in His Chair (the one he only got to sit in when my mother was either out or otherwise engaged), laid down the book he was reading on root vegetables and looked over at her. “They’re seeds. I’m going to plant them.”

From the look on my mother’s face you’d have thought he’d said he planned to run around our neighborhood in the dark of the suburban night, throwing the grenades into people’s swimming pools.

“Plant them?” My mother’s laugh was as sharp and high as the sound made by a musical saw. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

My father explained that by planting the seeds we could grow our own vegetables – be self-sufficient and feed ourselves. “Like people used to do,” said my father. “We can get back to nature. Isn’t that one of the advantages of not living in the City?”

My mother, a city girl by both birth and temperament, felt that nature had been adequately represented by Central Park, and would have preferred to get back to Midtown. “I thought we moved out here for the schools and the clean air.”

“And to have a little land to call our own,” said my father.

“That doesn’t mean you have to grow tomatoes on it,” argued my mother. “Why do you think they invented the supermarket? Everybody else around here just grows grass.”

In this discussion you can see one of the basic differences between my parents. My mother enthusiastically embraced progress and technology – whether it was an electric kettle or a box of instant mashed potatoes. She loved the modern way of using something once and throwing it away. My father, on the other hand was wary of too much progress and technology. He hated waste (waste not, want not) and extravagance (a penny saved is a penny earns.) What was wrong with the way his parents had done things? Or his parents’ parents? Or the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia for that matter? How much effort did it take to mash a potato, for heaven’s sake? And as for putting a motor on a can opener? Putting a motor on a can opener simply meant there was something else that could go wrong.

My mother’s eyes narrowed with wifely suspicion, “This isn’t about getting back to nature, is it?” she demanded. “This is about saving money.”

And here we have another basic difference between my parents. My mother (who, perhaps, was also slightly ahead of her times) believed that money was to be spent, often on things you didn’t actually need and/or couldn’t afford, while my father had a tendency (as my mother poetically put it) to hang onto every dollar so tightly that the eagle screamed.

“What’s wrong with being frugal?” asked my father.

“You’re not frugal,” said my mother. “You’re cheap.”

 

As soon as the ground was soft enough, my father spent his days off digging up the lawn and turning the soil. He bought compost and manure from a local farm (a real farm, not one in someone’s back yard). He borrowed books from the library with titles like GROW IT YOURSELF and SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN THE SUBURBS. All Spring he raked and hoed and planted. He put stakes in the ground to mark the rows of cucumbers and pumpkins, corn and tomatoes, beans and peas, and ran strings from one end to the other, tying rags along them to frighten the birds.

In all of this he had the help of his own clutch of farm laborers – me and my sister. We dutifully opened the packets and gently covered the seeds with earth and ripped the rags into strips and ran back and forth turning the sprinkler on and off. We were given the important job of weeding, and officially deputized to do the watering when my father was at work. My mother, of course, refused to take part. She sat in the sun porch, reading magazines and singing “Old MacDonald had a farm…” under her breath.

My father was unfazed. “You’ll be singing a different tune when harvest time rolls around.”

My mother turned a page. “Don’t count your turnips before they’re grown,” she advised.

Either my mother had prophetic talents the rest of us never suspected, or one of her friends had warned her about what would happen when the vegetables started to grow. My father and his laborers, however, were unaware that, unseen by us, a clever and deadly enemy was patiently waiting for the first green shoots to poke through the ground.

“I can’t believe it!” wailed my father, standing by the stake marked Lettuce. “The slugs have eaten every last one.”

The day before the baby lettuces were grown enough that even my sister and I could tell what they were. Today they were ravaged stumps.

“Didn’t I say I heard something in the garden last night?” asked my mother. “It was probably them chomping away in the dark.”

My father tried pellets. My father dug trenches. My father scattered sand and broken eggshells and ashes over the soil to make it hard for the slugs to move. He put plastic bottles around the seedlings like fortress walls. He made traps filled with beer and milk. But still they came.

“You’re becoming obsessive,” said my mother.

My father looked up from his latest acquisition from the library: KNOW YOUR SLUGS. “I’m not obsessed. I’m just not going to be beaten by a creature that doesn’t even have feet.”

And then, one moonless, rainy night we were roused from our beds by a heavy knocking on the front door. My sister and I shot out of our rooms the way you do when you’re a kid and you know that something unusual, exciting, and possibly horrific is about to take place.

My mother had also shot out of her room, pulling her robe around her and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Go back to bed!” she ordered.

We followed her down the stairs.

“Maybe some mad killer’s escaped from prison and the police have come to warn us,” whispered my sister.

“You are so melodramatic,” I hissed back. “It’s probably just Mrs Houlahan again.” Mrs Houlahan lived next door. The year before, when raccoons got into her attic, she’d arrived on our doorstep at three in the morning, convinced she was being burgled.

My mother, whose hearing improved in direct proportion to how much you didn’t want to be overheard said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Your father’s locked himself out of the house. Now go back to bed!” She opened the door.

It was the police – Officer Kellogg and Officer Schultz. Needless to say, with Officers Kellogg and Schultz was my father.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mam,” said Officer Schultz, “but we found this gentleman prowling around your backyard. He claims he lives here.”

My mother stared at my father in. My father was wearing his rain jacket, his fishing hat and his old galoshes. He was carrying a flashlight in one hand and a bucket of slugs in the other, You could see her thinking What’ll happen if I say “no”? Every light in the house blazing. Bags of new socks. Lunches at the diner.

“For Pete’s sake,” pleaded my father, “tell them who I am.”

“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” said my mother.

My sister burst into tears.

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pushpin2MY SECRET ADMIRER

As an example of one of those rare, natural phenomena – like a blue moon or a shower of miniature orange frogs – I found myself in conversation with Sonya Upjohn at the school bus stop one snowy winter morn. When I say that I was in conversation with Sonya Upjohn what I mean is that Sonya was talking and, because of the weather, I happened to be huddled more or less under the shelter with her and her friends - which made me (at least technically) part of the group. Although Sonya and her pals normally paid as much attention to me as the rest of the world pays to small, random particles of dust, and I have no memory of ever being spoken to by Sonya (unless you counted laughter), I nodded along with the others, smiling like a cheap doll. 

Sonya Upjohn only lived around the corner from me, but she might as well have lived on another planet. Sonya was one of the most popular girls in my high school. I was not. I was one of those girls for whom February is all about groundhogs. Sonya was one of those girls for whom February is all about hearts and valentines.

Which is what the talk was all about as the snowflakes fell romantically around Sonya’s pretty head, making her look like an angel on a Christmas card (and my nose turned red and I lost all feeling in my toes). Not only had Sonya been asked by three different boys to go to the Valentine’s dance, but with days still to go till the Big Fourteen, the Upjohn mantel was already sagging under the weight of all the heart-shaped cards she’d received.

“I mean, my God, can you imagine being one of those poor losers who never gets a Valentine’s Day card or gets asked to the dance?” Sonya’s voice was high with horror, her lips drawn together as if she was about to blow bubbles.

From the sounds made by Sonya’s friends it seemed likely that there was only one poor girl on the bus stop that morning who could easily imagine going through life always restless and unhappy because, no matter how much else she achieved in her life (not even if she discovered a cure for cancer or brought about Permanent World Peace and ended poverty), no one ever sent her a Valentine or asked her to the Valentine’s dance.

“I mean,” Sonya shrieked on, “it must make you want to move to Bulgaria and grow potatoes.”

I was still smiling like a painted piece of plastic, pretending I was part of the group – the invisible part. But then they all suddenly looked over at me and it was obvious from the embarrassed, pitying expressions on their faces that they’d forgotten I was there. If they’d ever known.

Sonya started talking about what she was going to wear to the Valentine’s dance and, as if she and her friends were worked by remote control, they all turned their backs on me at the same time.

On that frosty morning, Bulgaria didn’t seem nearly far enough away.

 

The Valentine’s conversation haunted me all day long like a particularly irritating ghost. It sat with me in homeroom, moaning softly. It nearly got me concussed playing volleyball in gym. It distracted me so much in history that when Mr Streb asked what Manifest Destiny was I blurted out, “Being an Old Maid!”

As soon as I got home that afternoon I threw myself down on the sofa and burst into tears.

My mother (happy in the knowledge that she would get a card, a box of chocolates and a present for Valentine’s Day because she had already frog-marched my father into town to buy them) cha-chaed into the living room carrying a basket of laundry. She stopped short when she saw my limp form sprawled over the couch.

“Now what’s wrong?” asked my mother.

I didn’t usually confide in my mother, but I was in a weakened state from hours spent picturing my empty life with nothing to comfort me but a couple of cats and the Nobel Prize so I told her.

My mother said I was being ridiculous (which is what I knew she’d say, and was one of the reasons why I never liked to tell her anything).

“Good Lord!” said my mother. “You’re fourteen. You have your whole life ahead of you! You haven’t even started to bloom yet.”

“Maybe I’m never going to bloom!” I wailed. My grandmother had a wisteria that she planted twenty years before and it hadn’t seen a flower yet.

“Never’s a long time,” said my mother. “You’ll see. There’s someone for everyone. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

 

Although this was another occurrence as rare as chickens with teeth, it turned out that on this occasion my mother was right. Two days later I got home from school to find an envelope addressed to me on my desk. There was no return address and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. It bore a cancelled stamp. I opened it warily. My mail was usually restricted to reminders from the library about overdue books.

It was a Valentine. It was simple but tasteful. Nothing gushy or over the top. Just a plain red heart with an arrow through it on the front, and inside the message Be My Valentine – signed, Your Secret Admirer.

“What was that letter you got today?” asked my mother over supper.

“Nothing,” I said, my eyes on my plate. “Just a reminder from the library.

The smart thing to do would have been to stick the card in my dresser and forget about it. But I didn’t do that. The image of Sonya and her friends suddenly realizing that I – a poor loser who’d be better off farming in Eastern Europe than going to high school on Long Island – was standing with them kept flashing in my mind. I wanted them to know that (unlike my mother) they’d been wrong about me. I had a Valentine. I had a secret admirer. I wasn’t going to have to dedicate my life to root vegetables after all.

But of course making them aware of all that wasn’t as easy as it might sound. I couldn’t just arrive at the bus stop, waving my card, “Yoohoo, Sonya, look what I got!” They’d think I’d sent it to myself.

As I saw it, the only way I could wipe those pitying looks off their faces was to go to the Valentine’s dance. With a boy. A boy who liked me but was too shy to show it. A boy who wouldn’t collapse into hysterical laughter if I asked him out.

It didn’t take long to narrow down the list of Possible Secret Admirers to one. Halliday Flock. Halliday was my lab partner in biology. He was smart, odd, about as cool as surgical stockings and so shy that whenever he had to speak in class he turned the same shade of red as canned tomato soup. He was also the only boy who spoke to me on a regular basis (mainly stuff like “Not like that”, “What are you doing?” and “Here, give it to me”, but we did once have a pretty interesting conversation about the Iroquois Confederacy). He not only spoke to me, he had been known to laugh at my jokes, which was more than most people did.

I’ve always felt a lot of sympathy for boys because, Leap Year, Sadie Hawkins Day and feminism notwithstanding, the burden of asking someone out is usually theirs. I’d rather carry a backpack full of bricks around for a month. I figured there was only way to do this humiliating task that made you as vulnerable as a baby bunny at a convention of hawks, and that was to do it. So, as we left class together the next day, I dropped my books on his feet and when he bent down to help me pick them up I said, “Halliday, do you want to go to the Valentine’s Day dance with me? Just answer yes or no.”

Halliday turned the color of several cans of tomato soup and said, “Yes.”

I suppose it would be nice if I could say that Halliday and I went to the dance, had a fantastic time, made Sonya and her friends eat their perfect little hearts out and fell madly in love. But, sadly, none of that would be true.

For openers, neither of us knew how to dance.  If either (or, better still, both of us) had known how to dance, we would then have had to face the fact that I had a good four inches in height on Halliday, making slow dances difficult if not impossible. We stood together at the Wallflower side of the room, having to shout at each other to have any kind of conversation over the music and laughter of the others. I’m pretty sure that Sonya never saw us (and that, if she did, she had no idea who we were since I was wearing a dress for the first and last time in my high school career and Halliday was wearing a suit jacket that seemed to belong to someone else and had done something faintly horrifying to his hair).

And then we had a fight because we were both so bored and uncomfortable and would much rather have anywhere else shelling peas.

Halliday wanted to know why I’d had the stupid idea to come to the dance in the first place.

I screamed back that I wouldn’t have had it if he hadn’t sent me that card.

Halliday said, “What card?”

The moral of this story is: never trust my mother.

The good news is that once we realized there was no reason for us to be there, Halliday and I went to the diner on Main Street, had hamburgers and fries, and talked about the Mohawks for the rest of the night.

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pushpin2THE FAMILY DIET

As the old year hobbled to a close, my mother, my sister and I would all sit thoughtfully in the glow of the Christmas tree, wearing as many of our presents as could fit on one body at the same time and finishing off the cookies, while we chose our New Year’s resolutions from the hundreds, nay thousands, on offer. Would I stop teasing my sister? Stop arguing with my mother? Cut my hair? Would my sister finally trade in the twenty hard plastic and brightly coloured dinosaurs she slept with for something more orthodox like a teddy bear? Would she overcome her hysterical fear of shampoo? Would this be the year she tried spinach? And what about Mom? Would she learn to play the piano? Plug in the sewing machine? Figure out how to parallel park? My father never took part in this ritual. He sat in His Chair, smoking a small cigar and reading a book or the paper, acting as if he was unaware of what the rest of his family was doing, If pressed (or goaded) by my mother, my father always said that he’d already made one New Year’s resolution, (never to make another New Year’s resolution), and that, so far, he’d kept it. Which was definitely more than anybody else he knew or was related to had ever done.

The years came and the years went. My hair grew longer. Even if you said it in Polish or Mandarin just the mention of the word ‘shampoo’ still set my sister off like a car alarm. My mother continued to drive around town looking for a space that didn’t involve parallel parking, sometimes coming home after two or three hours without ever getting out of the car. Indeed, few of our resolutions ever made it past noon on New Year’s Day. Until the year my mother announced that her resolution was to go on a diet, that was.

My mother had always been one of those skinny, flat-chested girls who wouldn’t put on weight if you locked her in a candy factory for a month. While her friends were all worrying about whether or not they could dare wear stripes and politely refusing second helpings of lettuce, my mother decked herself out like a zebra and ate like an Olympic swimmer. Which meant that she was one of the three or four women in the entire country who had made it into her forties without ever going on a diet. Not once. Not even for thirty-eight minutes. And she probably never would have gone on one if it wasn’t for Millie Firnberger.

At the Christmas lunch of my mother’s church group, Millie Firnberger asked her how far along she was. For a second or two my mother wondered what Millie was talking about. How far along what? A friend of mine once said that he never knew he had a big nose until his first day of teaching. He’d turned his back on the class to write his name on the board, and when he turned back they all had their arms held out in front of their faces like elephant trunks. And so it was that my mother never knew she had developed a ‘stomach’ until Millie Firnberger smiled over the chicken a la king and asked her when the baby was due.

My father’s reaction to the diet resolution was to nod vaguely from behind his paper, puff on his cigar, and say, ‘That’s nice dear.’ Which was what he always said.  

My mother put her hands on her hips, her elbows jutting out like arrowheads. ‘You don’t think I’ll stick to it,’ she snapped. ‘You think it’ll be like when I said I was going to bake my own bread.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ said my father.

The bread-making resolution had produced one loaf, so hard it broke the knife she tried to slice it with.

My mother’s elbows continued to jut. ‘But you were thinking it. I know you. You don’t think I have any willpower.’

My father sighed. Like my sister and I, he had a healthy respect for the power of my mother’s will. Like hurricanes and tornados, it was nothing less than a force of nature.

‘I think you can do anything you set your mind to,’ said my father. Which was what my mother always said, whether she meant it or not.

‘What is this?’ my father was gazing at his plate as once the natives of the East Coast must have gazed out at the enormous wooden ships looming towards them and thought: Are those floating islands? Is this okay in a general, that’s how things go kind of way, or are we really in trouble?

‘Supper,’ said my mother. ‘What does it look like?’

My sister and I were also gazing at our plates with bewilderment – and a growing sense of horror.

It looked like three ounces of boiled chicken, one cup of steamed spinach, half a cup of plain rice, and a tomato, cucumber and lettuce salad (sans dressing) to me.
‘It looks like your diet,’ said my sister.

My mother, who was as known for her mood swings and reality-defying logic as she was for the number of parking meters she’d banged into while trying to parallel park, smiled sweetly over a forkful of lettuce. ‘Well you didn’t expect me to sit here eating cottage cheese while the rest of you stuff your faces with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, did you?’

Apparently, we did.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of diets in the world. I knew that. Excerpts were always appearing in my mother’s magazines. The grapefruit and the Atkins… The GI and the Hollywood… The Scarsdale, the nut, the all the grape leaves you can eat in one sitting… And now there was this.

Good grief, I thought. My mother’s invented the family diet.
     
Later, conferring in whispers in the basement where my father disappeared for hours at a time to ‘do things’ (which meant get a little peace) we all agreed that we’d been naïve.

My mother did all the cooking. My mother did all the shopping. My mother planned all the meals. It should have been obvious right from the start: if my mother was going on a diet, then we were all going on a diet.

‘Maybe we’re getting ourselves all worked up over nothing,’ suggested my father, who’d never wanted more than a quiet life. ‘Remember the piano? She never got past Chopsticks. She won’t last more than a day without potatoes.’

I wasn’t so sure. I was a fan of Sherlock Holmes and, although weak with hunger, I’d been doing some snooping around. ‘She’s bought a calorie counter,’ I said.

‘So?’ shrugged my sister. ‘Lots of people have calorie counters.’

‘And a book.’

‘And lots of people have books.’ My sister was born with apositive and optimistic nature.

I gloomily shook my head. ‘This is a diet book.’

‘Maybe we can bury it,’ said my sister. Positive and optimistic, but practical as well.

Dad patted our shoulders fondly. ‘I’m telling you, you’re overreacting. She bought the sewing machine, too, but she’s never used that. We’ll be eating goulash by the end of the week.’

My father was wrong. Probably because she felt he’d challenged her. My mother had set her mind to going on a diet the way governments traditionally set their minds on world domination. She was taking no prisoners. Showing no mercy. Throwing out the rules about not gunning down women and children. There was no more sugar in the house. No chocolate milk powder. No cookies. No bread that wasn’t whole wheat and sliced so thinly you could read through it. We all watched in horror the night my mother poured the last bottle of soda down the sink. ‘None of you need this junk,’ she proclaimed. ‘You’re much better off with water and lemon.’ By the end of the week we were eating Ryvita with one teaspoon of sugarless jam and calling it dessert.

‘I never thought I’d say this,’ said my sister, ‘but I actually look forward to going to school.’

At school there was lunch. There was the deli to stop at on the way home to buy a bologna sandwich, a quarter pound of potato salad, a giant dill pickle  and a bag of chips. We’d huddle under the awning at the front of the store, oblivious to the gales and snows of January, stuffing it into our faces before it froze and we’d lost all feeling in our toes. We’d sneak boxes of cookies home in our school bags and eat them under the blankets at night.

‘It’s not enough,’ I said. ‘We’re growing girls. We need meatballs and spaghetti. We need hamburgers and French fries. We need banana cake.’

‘Why don’t you two come to the lumberyard with me?’ By the end of the week my father was taking a new interest in doing the odd jobs in the house that had been undone for years, walking around with a pencil tucked behind his ear and a notebook tucked into his shirt pocket . ‘You can give me a hand.’

On the way home from the lumberyard we stopped at McDonald’s.

‘I don’t get it.’ My father squeezed ketchup over his fries with a philosophical if puzzled shake of his head. ‘It’s been a whole week. How come she hasn’t caved in yet?’

Far from caving in, my mother seemed to be blooming. She tucked into her morning slice of dry toast and half a grapefruit without sugar with the enthusiasm of a child given a hot fudge sundae. Every night she set the day’s boiled, steamed or poached offering on the table as though it was a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. She said she thought the diet was doing us all a world of good.

'‘And she’s not even in a bad mood,’ offered my sister. ‘That’s not normal.’ It didn’t take much to put my mother in a bad mood; starvation should have been a no-brainer.

I chewed thoughtfully on my cheeseburger. ‘You don’t think she’s scamming us, do you?’

My sister wiped ketchup from her mouth. ‘You mean like the way we’re scamming her?’

My father bit into a fry. ‘That’s where the two of you get your deviousness from,’ said my father.

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pushpin2THE DOVE OF PEAS AND OTHER HOLIDAY MEMORIES

When I was a kid, Christmas was my very favourite time of year. Magic. I loved the feeling of anticipation. I loved the decorations. I loved baking the cookies. I even loved shopping (this was in a gentler time, of course, long before anyone was killed by stampeding bargain hunters). I couldn't wait to get the box of old glass Christmas balls out of the attic. I spent hours setting up my train set and my cardboard village under the tree.

The first order of business was putting the lights up along the front of the house. Most of our neighbours put up enough lights to be seen from outer space, but ours was a simple, single string of red and green bulbs. My dad was the light putter-upper. My job was to hold the ladder. My mother's was to poke her head out the door every few minutes to shout, 'Be careful up there! Remember what happened to Jerry Kunzer. It was a miracle he wasn't killed.' Ten years before, Jerry Kunzer, who lived behind us, decided to take the decorated tree from its traditional place in one corner of the living room and put it on the roof in a moment of madness caused by drinking way too much of the Christmas sherry. Who knows why his addled mnd thought that was the thing to do. He was alone at the time (you have to assume that had Evelyn Kunzer been home she would have pointed out what a stupid idea it was and locked him in a closet till he sobered up) so there's no record of the thought process that lead a forty-year-old insurance salesman and a six-foot pine from inside the Kunzer's ranch house to its roof. Not that they were up there for long. In fact, and this is a detail my mother always ignored when she shouted her warnings to my father, they never got up there at all. When Evelyn Kunzer returned home she found Jerry, more or less in the tree, passed out at the foot of the ladder and a trail of tinsel and broken balls leading back to the house. The miracle wasn't that he hadn't killed himself (since he was on the ground when he fell), but that he had enough sense to put his jacket on so he didn't freeze to death.

After the lights were up, my dad would paint a snowman on the living room window with, strange though this may sound, some kind of opaque window cleaner. My job in this project was to paint in his carrot nose and coal lump eyes, his scarf and hat and the candy cane he carried in his snowman hand. The scene would be completed with bits of holly and falling snow. My mother's contribution was to provide the music. "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas," she'd declare as my father mixed the colours. "Frosty the Snowman..." she'd sing as the picture began to take shape. "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer..." she'd croon as she hung the wreath on the front door for the first time (it never stayed in place for more than an hour and by Christmas Eve was usually leaning against the milk box).

I don't ever remember having a family conversation that started with me saying: 'Mom? What does a snowman have to do with Christmas?' or 'Dad? Why don't you paint the Wise Men in the window? Do you think a snowman is more representative of the spirit of the season than kings bringing gifts to the Saviour of Mankind?' - and ended with my mother saying, 'You know, you're not funny' and my father admitting that he was a lot better at drawing blank, round shapes with cartoon features than chaps with beards.
But it never occurred to me to ask those questions. Not until years later, when I found myself on Oxford Street one Yuletide. I looked up at the lights strung across the road to mark the festive season. Oh, I thought, it's the Dove of Peace. But then I looked again. It wasn't the Dove of Peace at all. It was the Birds Eye logo. No, really. Birds Eye, I suppose, was sponsoring the lights that year and they'd put up their logo. The Dove of Peas. What, I wondered, does the Birds Eye logo have to do with the Baby Jesus? About as much as Frosty the Snowman, I answered myself.

After the house was all decked out for the holidays, we'd get started on the cookies. My father was the baker in the family (my mother being the woman for whom slice and bake cookie dough was invented). Every year we (and, across Long Island, all my aunts) made a giant batch of my grandmother's recipe for Christmas butter cookies. My dad did the mixing, rolling and most of the cutting, and I put on the sprinkles. If it had been left to my dad, all of our cookies would have been circles or stars. He liked them not only because they were straightforward and fuss-free, but also because they were compact and allowed you to get more cookies on each tray than the larger, more intricate shapes of the Santa, the angel, the teddy bear and the gingerbread man. My mother and I thought the circles and stars were boring. We'd had the same argument about what shapes to cut out every year for as long as I could remember.

"The others taste better," my mother would say.

"That's ridiculous," my father would snap back. "How can they taste better? They taste exactly the same. It's the same dough."

"Well, I don't care about that," my mother would counter. "They still taste different to me."

Which was when I would say, "No, Mom's right. Especially the Santa. The Santa tastes better than all the others."

My father was a patient man, but one year even his patience expired and he decided to settle the argument once and for all.

"Really?" he said. "We'll see about that."

My father marched off to his bedroom and came back with one of the dozens of unused handkerchiefs he'd gotten as Christmas presents over the years.

"We're going to do the blindfolded taste test," he announced.

The deal was that if my mother and I could tell the difference between a round cookie and Santa with his pack on his back when we couldn't see them, then forevermore my father would make equal trays of every shape. HOWEVER, if we couldn't tell the difference, Santa and the others would be put at the back of the kitchen drawer and never see another Christmas this side of Armageddon.

Because my father knew my mother and I could be devious, even though he was breaking off small pieces from each cookie we weren't allowed to touch them with our hands. I went first.

"You're sure you can't see?"

I could tell from his voice that he was checking under the bottom of the blindfold for gaps. I said I couldn't see a thing, which, amazingly enough, was true.

"Okay, here's piece one... and here's piece two."

I said piece one was a circle or a star.

"That's just luck," said my father. "You'll have to get at leastfour out of five."

I got five out of five. So did my mom.

My poor father couldn't believe it. "But it's impossible," he kept saying. "It doesn't make any sense."

He spent most of the night standing in the kitchen, nibbling on first a star or circle cookie and then a Santa or a snowman, trying to taste the subtle difference, while my mother and I watched Miracle on 34th Street on TV.

"Do you think we should tell him the truth?" I whispered.
I did say we were devious.

"Not yet." My mother took another Santa from the plate on the coffee table. "It's Christmas. Let him have his fun."

Merry Christmas! Seasons' Greetings! Happy Solstice! 

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pushpin2AT THE TIME OF THE YEAR WHEN A BEAR GOES TO SLEEP, PEOPLE GET DEPRESSED

When the sun shines and the days are long and hot, people bounce down the street wearing bright colours and happy smiles. They hum along to their iPods. They laugh gaily as they talk on their mobes. They swing their arms and bob their heads. They stop to pet a dog or call a cat or smell a rose. It's as if the whole world is in a really upbeat commercial - for soda or possibly crisps.

But the English summer has a very short life span. Soon the skies turn grey and the days are short and damp. People hunker down in their dark coats or huddle under their black umbrellas, scurrying along with their shoulders hunched and their eyes on the ground.

'It's the most depressing time of year,' said my friend, Q. 'All I want to do is crawl under the duvet and listen to sad songs. I almost feel as bad as I felt when Simon Mudbuilder broke my heart.'

I said I didn't think it was that bad. 'You don't burst into tears every time you see some bloke in a green hoody. And you can talk about more than the way Simon Mudbuilder mashed his bake potato and covered it in ketchup.'

'Okay, so, realistically, I probably don't feel that bad,' Q conceded. "That was a definite 30 on a misery scale of 1-10, and this is only an11. But it's still as much fun as walking through a bog in high heels and a bandage dress in a monsoon.'

I said I didn't think the autumn was either physically challenging or necessarily going to cripple you for life.
'Perhaps not,' said Q, 'but it is pretty gloomy and doomy. You can't deny that.'

I thought I could. I love this time of year. The trees all red and gold and glowing. The leaf storms. The bonfires. The squirrels scampering hither and thither, burying nuts. The crisp tang in the air. The pumpkin pies.

'But the fun's all over!' wailed Q. 'No more lying on the beach for hours. The only tan you can get in November comes from a tube. And no more wearing shorts and skimpy dresses. No more barbecues and late nights in the garden. Now the garden looks like a graveyard, it's dark at four o'clock and soon I'll be wearing big coats and all-weather boots - things with as much sex appeal as a washing machine.'

'You're being negative,' I chided. 'You have to look at all the positive things the autumn has to offer.'

'Oh, right,' grumbled Q. 'Swimming costumes at half price and squash.'

I said that though this was not the season for lying by the pool or charring hamburgers under an umbrella, the autumn is the time to learn a rewarding craft. Weaving. Crocheting. Quilting. Knitting. Knitwear is very popular as the nights close in and the frost falls over the Ford Fiestas.

'Um duh,' grumped Q. 'I'm not my grandmother. If I want a scarf or a pair of mittens, I'll buy it.'

'All right,' I said, 'so knitting's out as a substitute for lying on hot sand and self-basting. But you could curl up by the fire with a cup of cocoa and a good book.'

Q said she'd rather curl up in front of the telly with a bottle of soda and a bag of crisps.

'That's what happens at this time of year,' complained Q. 'Besides dressing like a major appliance, I actually start to look like one since I put on weight because there's nothing to do but eat. I might as well just lock myself in the kitchen until Spring.'

I suggested that we take the dog for a walk in the park. I reckoned the fresh air and exercise would cheer her up. 
Q's dog is named Caribou. He's part Jack Russell and part some other sort of small, lunatic, frenetic terrier. He looks more like a stuffed toy than a very large deer.

Caribou does not share Q's dislike of autumn. He loves thundering through the piles of leaves. He loves leaping several feet into the air to catch leaves as they fall. He can't think of anything more enjoyable than chasing squirrels.
He chased a squirrel straight up a very tall tree. The squirrel leapt gracefully to the next tree, of course, but Caribou stayed where he was.

In case this is a question you've ever puzzled over, although the occasional insane terrier may make it up a tree through sheer frenzy, dogs are not really equipped for getting back down.

Q and I stood underneath, gazing through the leafy curtains of red and gold. We knew Caribou was up there because we could hear him barking, but all we could see of him was the end of his tail.

'So now what do we do?' Q wanted to know. 'Knit him a slide?'

When eventually Caribou had been rescued by a philosophical park keeper ('This happens all the time,' he informed us. 'It's tricky if it's a Labrador.'), Q and I resumed our walk.

'Look at that!' I gestured to the line of trees, curling beside the pathway like a Christmas ribbon. 'You have to admit it's beautiful. I feel as if we're strolling through an Impressionist painting.'

Q kicked at the ground, causing a golden cloud to scatter in front of us. 'I don't,' said Q. 'I feel like I'm walking through dead leaves.'

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pushpin2GHOSTS, WITCHES AND THE WHOLE HOUSE SMELLING LIKE ROASTING PUMPKIN

I love Halloween. Of all the festivals of the year, Halloween is my favourite. This isn't because I'm into horror, or in league with the devil or anything like that. I've never liked scary movies. In fact, I've only watched one horror film in my life. When I was twelve my Aunt L took my cousin and me to a matinee one summer afternoon. Since my Aunt L didn't believe popcorn or candy were suitable snacks for children we brought with us a bag of fruit. My Aunt was a very conventional, conservative and religious woman who made footstools out of old coffee cans in her spare time, so it may seem strange that the movie she took us to was a blood-curdling, spine-tingling, skin-crawling film so horrifying that when the lights came up I was sitting there, pale and breathing heavily, rigid with terror, with a peach squashed to pulp in my hand. I can still feel the juice dripping through my fingers. The memory of that afternoon never left me. Not only did I not eat peaches for the next twenty years, I swore I would never again watch anything that scared me so much I had nightmares for months and screamed whenever I passed a fruit stall. And I don't believe in the devil so it would be difficult to align myself with him.

Since I don't believe in the devil, I don't believe in 'witches" in black hats making spells to turn the milk sour. I know that Mrs Palin, who may very well be the next Vice President of the United States, does, apparently, believe in witches (and that they are out to get her), but I'm afraid this is another thing we'll have to agree to differ on. The concept of the witch trial has always struck me as a little illogical. The witch trial is one of those diabolically clever, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't sort of set ups in which, if I'm correctly understanding how many of them worked, put a person in the position of proving a negative that, according to the tests that were concocted to do this, could only be proved by dying (for example, they dunked you in the ocean and you drowned, so you weren't a witch). You would think, as well, that if someone were working with Satan she would not only do something a little more spectacular than making a couple of young girls hysterical (for another example), but that she'd be able to defend herself a little better as well. Surely, if you have supernatural powers and the backing of the Devil, you're not actually going to sit in your kitchen waiting for the lynch mob to come banging on the door - you're going to turn yourself into a moth and scarper (or turn the mob into ants and step on them). When I think of something like the Salem Witch Trials (for yet another example), it strikes me as pretty ironic that at a time when the Europeans were unashamedly conducting their horrific genocidal assault on the native peoples of the Americas they thought that they themselves were under siege by malefic, supernatural forces. That when they looked for "evil" they looked elsewhere. So, so much for witches.

On the other hand, I have a lot of time for ghosts. What I like about Halloween (besides the costumes and the jack-o-lanterns scenting the house with the aroma of roasting pumpkin, the trick-or-treating and decorating the front window with bats and cobwebs and black cats) is the possibility that our world has more levels than most of us ever see. I find the idea that the memories of the past are as much a part of the present as the computer oddly comforting.

I know a lot of people who have had encounters with ghosts. A strange man who appears on the path to the house or at the end of the drive and then disappears.  A girl in a blue dress at the top of the stairs. Footsteps on the garden path but no one there.  Objects disappearing from where you know you put them, only to return weeks or even months later in exactly that spot. A friend of mine once woke up to find an old man (obviously, not someone she knew) standing at the foot of her bed. The old man was in his pyjamas (and I seem to think he was wearing a nightcap, but I have the feeling that I may be embellishing here). From the expression on his face it was clear that he was just as surprised to see her (presumably in his bedroom) as she was to see him. My friend might have thought that she was still asleep or seeing things, but for two things. The first was that, judging by where the old man stood against the bed, he was obviously standing on a floor that no longer existed. The second was that her cat was sitting beside her, all fluffed up and her eyes wide, staring at the old man and making that sound cats make when things aren't quite right. 

Sadly, I myself have yet to see a ghost. Unless that woman who suddenly appeared on that dark, country road in Cornwall that time - who turned and stared at us as we drove past; and who was gone when I looked back half a second later - was a ghost. Though, of course, she could have been a witch.

PS. Just in case you're thinking that my dear and much loved Aunt L was in reality an evil-hearted sadist who got a kick out of torturing small children, not long ago I happened to be flicking through the channels as one does and there was the movie I'd seen with my cousin and my aunt so many years ago! I recognised it immediately. And you know what? It wasn't a horror film. It was, as far as I could tell in the one and a half seconds I stood there watching it, a low-budget remake of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN !!!

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pushpin2HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

The cats are spending their summer holiday with us. Although they do spend a lot of time lolling about, sleeping and eating (as you do when you're on holiday), Kevin and Rocky don't really recognise weekends as being on a different schedule from the rest of the week. Because of that, I was woken with a head butt, feet positioning themselves on my rib cage and a gentle paw on the mouth at the usual hour (not long enough after dawn to make you feel you've missed much of the morning). I kept my eyes half-closed as we went downstairs, holding on to the banister so that when I did trip over one of them I wouldn't actually break my neck. (The theory is that if you don't fully open your eyes you can go back to bed.) Kevin has to have his tablet before he eats. First you have to catch him, which is tricky since he has that same sixth sense about his medication that he has about going to the vet and can disappear while you're still thinking about how to proceed. Then you have to wrestle his mouth open. Then you have to jam the teeny tiny pill down his throat, all the while telling him what a good boy he is while he claws your thighs. By the time I'd done all that and scooped the kibble into their bowls while they wailed pitifully and circled round me, getting under my feet and causing me to knock over the bin, I was pretty wide awake.

Resigned to staying up, I decided to go round the corner for the paper. I opened the front door. The day before had been unusually sunny and warm, but today the air was dense and grey and a thick but oddly soundless rain was falling. I went back in for the umbrella.

Obviously, the blokes who run the shop don't own a cat because they weren't open yet.

Several people were huddled under the overhang with the patience for which the British used to be known throughout the world.

'Welcome back to Old Blighty,' said the plump woman with the natural tan. She'd just come back from the beaches of Cyprus. 

The weather-bronzed chap in the bright shirt shuffled his feet. 'You can't beat the English summer,' he muttered. He'd just come back from the melting-sun plains of Africa.

'I wish we was still in LA,' said one of the two teenage girls (both of them also naturally tanned, their hair bleached out by sun and sea and wearing, rather optimistically I felt, shorts and sleeveless vests).

The other girl said she did, too.

In the fearsomely polite way for which the British also used to be known throughout the world (I being the only one with no tan either natural or unnatural and armed for the weather), they asked if I'd gone anywhere nice on my holiday.

I said yes.

'And where was that?' asked the woman who was probably still shaking the sand out of her shoes.

I said, 'Norfolk.'

'You mean like in Virginia?' asked the girl in the I Love L.A. t-shirt.

I smiled gamely. 'No,' I said. 'I mean like in England.'

The all exchanged one of those amused, that's-not-the-way-we-do-it smiles.

'What's there to do in Norfolk?' asked ILL's friend.

'I'll wager it wasn't a very long holiday,' said the chap who had watched the sun set on the Kalahari.

Everyone laughed.

'Longer than you'd think,' I said.

 

To begin with, when you have a car like mine, going round the block can take an hour. Going to Norfolk takes considerably more.

There were three of us going. That meant three sleeping bags, three mattresses, three rucksacks, three pairs of Wellies, two tents, the stove, the barbecue, a week's supply of food. All in a car that was meant to carry two very slender people (the British used to be famous for that, too) with the dog and a picnic hamper on the back seat. (The good news was that the wind-up torch has never worked and the other torch, the hum-dinger one I bought in case we broke down at night on the motorway, always goes off like a smoke alarm no matter which button you push, so they were both left at home.)

We put things in and took things out and rejigged everything for an hour or two but it began to look as though the only way we could get everything in was to leave one of us home. In the end we decided to put C in the back seat first, and then build up our cargo around her.

'You all right back there?' I called as the engine started.

'Except that I can't move and my knee's touching my chin, I'm fine,' said C.

'Don't worry,' said E. 'Even though, it's not going to take us more than three or four hours. And we'll have a pub lunch when we get there.'

C said she couldn't wait.

 

The car broke down the first time right after we stopped for tea. After the tea we decided that since it was getting late we'd all be dead from starvation if we didn't find a fine old country pub for lunch right then, so we headed off down a fine old country lane.

Almost magically, we broke down right at the entrance to a petrol station.

'See if they'll let you use their phone to ring the AA,' said E.

I said but I thought you brought your mobile (as we all know, I do not do mobile phones). He said he had, but he didn't have much credit on it and we should save it for an emergency.

The kid in the station wouldn't let me use their phone. The kid in the Little Chef next door would, but his boss wouldn't. The kid in the motel behind the Little Chef dialled the number for me.

It took an hour or so, but eventually the AA man got us going.

Everyone felt not just cheerful but relieved. The disaster that we'd all been dreading (funnily enough, this had happened before on long journeys) had come and gone. We were on our way. We'd be there in no time.

Within twenty minutes (having failed to fine anywhere still serving lunch) the emergency prophesised by E happened.

We broke down on the A11. Unlike the entrance to the petrol station, the A11 has no safe place to park your car while you wait for the AA. Assuming, of course, that the AA is coming.

The C and E sat way up on the bank, away from the frantic rush of lorries the length of a city block hurtling by, while I sat in the car (so I could hear more than traffic) and listened to the automated voice say 'Your call is important to us... You are in the high priority queue... Thank you for waiting....' Every time a bus or truck went by my little car shook and rattled. This is it, I thought, they're going to knock us over. 'Your call is important to us... You are in the high priority queue... Thank you for waiting....' The voice kept repeating, and all the while I stared out at the darkening sky. I was just wondering if the storm would actually be as bad as it looked it would be when a living person suddenly spoke. 'How can I help you today?' I squealed with joy. I told him how he could help me. We'd already broken down once... this was my number... this was our details... I was just at the part where I told him where we were, my mouth open to say mile marker number______, when the phone gave a delicate little beep and went dead.

'I told you it didn't have much credit,' said E.

Heads down as the rain started to fall, C and I began the long march back to the petrol station. At least my head was down. C said, 'A Triumph Spitfire just want by waving at us.'

We stopped and looked back. The Spitfire had pulled up behind our car. A couple were climbing out. Maybe they had a phone we could borrow. By the time we reached the Spitfire its driver was standing with E, the two of them looking down at the engine the way men do.

'Don't worry,' said his wife. 'If anyone can fix your car by the side of the road, it's D. That's what he does. Fixes Triumphs.'

Of course he does, I thought, I should have guessed that.

 

'So how long did it take you to get to Norfolk?' asked the woman who had spent her holiday sipping cool drinks and reading novels she didn't feel bad about spilling sunblock on.

'Eight hours.' I didn't mention that this was us going flat out, since we were afraid to stop again if we had a choice. By the time we reached the campgrounds the engine was overheating.

'Camping's nice, though,' said the bloke who'd camped not on a site with RVs and families playing badminton but where the lions and antelope roam. 'Relaxing.'

Did they think we were mad? We could've camped in the backyard for all that. I said that we weren't there just for the camping.

'Course not,' said I Love L.A. 'You were there for all the other stuff to do. Like..." She frowned, trying to think of what else there might be to do north of London.

'Beaches!' filled in her friend. 'Don't they have beaches up there? You know, if it wasn't raining you could go to the beach, right?'

'And museums,' said the woman. 'They must have museums.'

I said I reckoned they do.

'And a boardwalk,' chimed in the first girl. 'They must have rides and an arcade. That sort of thing.'

'Historic sites,' said the man in the shirt. 'Weren't the Romans up there?' 

As far as I can tell, the Romans were everywhere.

'Actually,' I said. 'We went to learn how to build a cob house.'

I Love L.A. was eyeing some boys across the road, her friend was buffing her extraordinarily long silver nails on her shorts, the woman was looking at her watch and even the man in the shirt was glancing up the road, but this statement caught their attention.

'A what?'

'You mean like out of sweet corn?'

'Can you do that?'

'Why would you want to?'

I explained that the cob house is another old British tradition. Low-impact, made of natural materials and as friendly to the earth as a tree or a bumblebee. 'They use passive solar energy so they need little extra heat in the winter and they're naturally cool in the summer,' I further explained.

Everyone nodded, though it could have been because they were dozing off.

But the age-old sense of politeness ruled. 'I'm sorry,' said the woman, 'but I'm not quite getting this. Are you saying they're made out of corn cobs?'

'No.' I laughed, just in case this was an example of the legendary British sense of humour. 'They're made out of cob. It's a mixture of clay, sand and straw.' Even to me I sounded like a manual.

The girl whose nails looked like spikes frowned. 'Isn't thatmud?'

'More or less...'

'And how long's that meant to last in this weather?' wondered the chap who had slept in the bush. 'I should think you'd be better off living in a tent.'

'There are cob houses in this country at least six hundred years old,' said I.

"And that's what you did on your holiday?' A smile lit up the first girl's face like the California sun as she saw the bloke from the shop hurrying towards us. 'You built a mud house?'

'Part of one.''

It doesn't sound very exciting,' judged her friend. 'You know, it's not fun like going to Disneyland.'

Oddly enough (and not including the half-naked man who had to be hosed off in the garden because he fell in the bog) it was very exciting and a lot more fun than having your picture taken with Mickey Mouse.

I said you'd be surprised.

This is a cob house. This one looks like somewhere a hobbit would live, but many of them just look like your regular old country cottage made for people generally shorter than we are. This cob house is a one-room studio. It was designed and made by our teacher Kate Edwards of Edwards Eco Buildings. It's even more amazing on the inside.

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pushpin2 ONE SWELL CAT

The first time I saw Harley, she was stretched along the top of a sofa, looking disapproving. Her brothers and sisters (of which, in my memory, there seem to be about a hundred) were launching themselves off the furniture, scrabbling up the curtains and swinging themselves around chair legs the way kittens do, but Harley sat among them like a meditating Zen master in the middle of a riot. She was a cat of enormous dignity, even when a less serious sister was trying to grab her tail. Paws crossed, eyes half-closed, ears pricked, Harley lay there with an air not of tolerance but of graceful endurance. I am above this... she seemed to be saying. And this, too, shall pass... She opened her golden eyes and looked at me. I looked at her. Harley never implored, but Sally, her owner, did. "Please take one of the kittens," Sally begged as the other hundred kittens hurled themselves around us. "Please... please... please..."
I said that I didn't want a kitten. Absolutely I did not want a kitten. I needed a kitten like I needed a pink tutu - possibly less.

I pointed to Harley. "But if I was going to take a kitten," I said, "then that's the one I'd take."

Harley flicked her tail and threw her sister to the floor.

The next time I saw Harley I was on a train going into the city from Long Island. Seconds before the train pulled out of the station, Sally had come racing along the platform, a wicker basket only large enough to hold a  picnic for one clutched against her. I was hanging out of a window. She thrust the basket into my hands as the whistle blew, waving good-bye. I sat down, the basket on my lap. There was no sound coming from inside. She must be asleep, I thought, and opened my book. Every five or ten minutes I'd lean my head to the box, but there was still no sound inside. No purring, no snoring, and no complaining. I had once tried to take a cat on a train journey in a box and that cat had not only made an unholy din that did nothing to make us friends among the other passengers, she'd eventually clawed her way out of the box and spent most of the trip on my lap. I began to fear that Harley was dead. I've killed her, I thought. What was I thinking of? She's suffocated in that tiny basket. When I got home, instead of shouting, "Look what I have! I have a surprise!" and pulling out a beautiful kitten with the coloring of a Halloween candy, I was going to pull out a limp length of fur like an old draught excluder. Look what I brought you - a dead cat! Very cautiously, I opened the basket and lifted the lid. Harley opened her eyes. "So you're all right, then?" I said. She twitched one ear. And went straight back to sleep.

I watched Harley walk through the door of our apartment as if it was the door she'd been waiting to walk through all her short life. It occurred to me then that I hadn't chosen her at all - she'd chosen me.

Harley settled right in, but the rest of us took longer. She was often grumpy, largely disapproving and had no tolerance for fools. In Harley's world there were two ways of doing things: her way and the way she didn't want them done. She sat where she wanted, even if someone else was already there. She peed down the plughole in the bathtub. She let you sleep with her. She didn't like loud noise or childish behaviour. When we played ball, she did the counting (one... two... three... THROW!) When we watched TV she demanded her share of salsa and chips. If Harley wanted something, she told you. If your sneezing annoyed her, she complained. If your hand was in the way so she couldn't stretch out on the keyboard of the computer the way she liked, she moved your hand. If you left a tomato or a blueberry muffin unguarded, she ate it. If you ventured out of your room at night when, as far as she was concerned, you weren't supposed to be up at all, she lay in wait to grab a passing foot or stalked you down the hall. And, after that first idyllic train ride, although it was possible to get her in her cat carrier, she howled the whole time like several very unhappy banshees, so that people would be peering into the case, trying to see what unearthly beast you had in there.

Harley pretty much came and went as she pleased - out the back door and over the fence into the gardens and up the fire escapes of Brooklyn to see her friends and have adventures. In one building we lived in, she would go to the top floor apartment every day, to eat tuna fish sandwiches and watch soap operas with the woman who lived there. In another she scaled the heights to pick fights with other cats. And often she couldn't get back down and someone would have to go knocking on doors and climbing through windows to retrieve her.

Harley died this July. Someone, trying to cheer us up, said that eighteen years was a long time for a cat. But, sadly, it's not a long time for a friend.

Harley Street Davidson
1990-2008
One Swell Cat

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pushpin2 Saturday 5th July 2008

I have resisted getting a mobile phone for so long that it has almost become the most interesting thing about me.

'What's your mobe number?' someone will ask, pen poised.

And I will smile the smile of the person who has never had a cavity or lost a set of keys and say, 'Oh, I don't have one.'

Incredulous, my questioner will laugh nervously. 'Really? You don't have a mobe? What happened to it?'

Meaning, I assume, did I lose it? Is it on a train somewhere, travelling without me, occasionally playing the theme tune from The Rockford Files to no one? Did I misplace it? Will it be fifty years before someone discovers it under the basement stairs, listening to the last message it received (Hi, it's me... I'm on the bus...) and wondering what it really means? Or maybe it was stolen. (One of my friends had her phone stolen so many times that she always carried two with her, so she could have one nicked and then continue her conversation after the thief had galloped down the road.) Or maybe it fell out of a pocket while I was leaning over the canal to see if that flash of silver was an old can or a fish.

'Nothing happened to it,' I'll assure them. 'I've never had one."

Incredulity turns to astonishment bordering on outright disbelief. 'But that's impossible! How do you manage without a mobile phone?" They're so useful. They're so important. They're so necessary. "For heaven's sake! Even shepherds in the mountains of Spain have mobile phones!"

I can see that mobile phones are useful. And I can see that, especially if you're on a mountain in Spain with only sheep for company, they could be pretty important in an emergency. But I'm not so sure about necessary.

Most people can barely walk two feet without pulling out his or her phone. A bus ride even of only a few minutes is impossible without a conversation (that, yes, really does include the information that the caller is on a bus). No one seems able to nip into a shop for a container of milk without ringing someone to alert her to that fact. I'm in Tesco's... No, the other one... I should be home in ten minutes... A person will be riding her bicycle down a busy road, carrier bags hanging from the handlebars, and instead of giving a great deal of thought to getting through the traffic without ending up under a van, she is chatting away to her best friend about what J said when she told him she didn't want to see him any more. A person will be in the bank, engaged in a transaction that in Olden Times would have involved an exchange of hellos and information (I'd like to withdraw some money... You have to sign this slip... that sort of thing), but now instead of talking to the teller the customer is talking to someone named Sharon and telling her off for borrowing the boots with the rhinestones without asking.

'All right,' you say. 'But the other day I was meeting someone at the train station and if we hadn't had our phones we would never have found each other because even though I told her to meet me outside track 23 she got hungry and was waiting in McDonald's.'

But if she hadn't had a phone with her, she would have stayed where she was meant to be, not wandered off for a packet of chips. Indeed, people not only managed to have fairly full and interesting lives before the advent of the mobile phone, they also managed to meet in front of the cinema at five o'clock as they agreed without having to ring each other as soon as they got out of the tube to say, 'Where are you?' (to which the answer is usually a wave and the words, 'Over here!)

But then I started to rethink my position on mobile phones because of The Incident.

F and I couldn't decide where to have dinner, so we said we'd meet outside the train station at seven. That way we could go down the road to the Mexican place, or across the park to the Ethiopian restaurant. F, who lived near the station, said, 'Don't worry if you're late. I know what the trains are like.'

I sailed out of the station at five to seven. It was winter. It was dark. It was raining with a great deal of enthusiasm. I planted myself just inside the entrance, so only my feet and the front of me would get wet. I spent half an hour listening with no real curiosity to the phone conversations of those around me (I'm at the station... I had pasta for lunch... But I only need to borrow ten quid...). And then (because I also don't own a watch) I went inside to check the time. I went over in my mind my conversation with F that morning. Seven... train station... entrance... Don't worry if you're late... I slouched through the rain for a bit, the way you do, in case when she said 'in front of the entrance' she'd actually meant 'over by the newsagent's' or 'halfway down the road by the auto shop'. At eight, since I was already pretty wet, I did another tour of the area, looking up and down the road as though I expected to see F running over the roofs of cars under an umbrella. At eight thirty, about to go back into the station and get the first train home, I decided instead to walk down to the Mexican restaurant. I peered through the window, like an orphan in a storm. There was F. She was eating chips and salsa.

Even I could see that if I'd had a mobile phone (and if F had had one, which she didn't) I would have been able to ring her at seven-ten and find out that she'd gone straight to the restaurant we hadn't said we'd go to.

That was when I started to give some serious though to getting a mobile phone.

Another friend, C, had recently bought a super-duper model that was a radio, mp3 player, camera and phone all in one. It could play music, take pictures and film clips, and send pictures and messages fast as you could hit the buttons. State of the Art. Guaranteed to be nicked within a day and a half (or to fall in the canal).

'C,' I said as part of my research into buying a mobe. "How's your new phone?'

She said it was brilliant. It could do everything - take pictures, play music, show film clips... The only thing it couldn't do was make phone calls and send text messages.
As I already can't make phone calls or send text messages, I decided against the phone.

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pushpin2 Sunday 1st June 2008

Because I've become a bit weary of reading about Amy Winehouse, I haven't been paying much attention to the news lately, but there was an item this week that did catch my attention. Apparently, a plane spotted a group of indigenous people in the Brazilian jungle who had never been made any contact with the modern world before. I first saw this item online, with a tiny picture of men shooting spears into the sky. To be honest, I don't know if this story was true or not. Rumour has it that there was a big piece in The Sun about it, but The Sun isn't a paper I would read if I was in a train crossing Siberia in a snowstorm, totally by myself, and there was nothing else to read, so I didn't see it. The paper I will read didn't have anything about it.

Nonetheless, this story made me think. If it's true, and these people had never seen a plane before - if they had no idea that there was more to the world than the life they'd been living in the jungle for thousands of years - what must they have thought? When the first European ships hove into view off the coasts of the Americas, quite a few people thought their ships must be floating islands. Which makes sense. Not many islands do float, of course, but it's not impossible. And they knew what an island is. So would these surprised hunters in the Brazilian jungle think the plane was some sort of very large bird? With people in it?  Or would they have heard stories? Maybe they'd even seen a plane or two before, just never been seen by the plane. At least they had the good sense to shoot at it - and then to scarper - obviously knowing instinctively that whatever it was it wasn't good news (something that didn't occur to most of the indigenous of the Americas until it was way too late).

So here we have a people who have lived a 'primitive' but sustainable lifestyle probably for tens of thousands of years. They can take care of themselves. They feed and clothe themselves, they shelter themselves, they have their own medicines and ways of dealing with accident and illness. If they need something they make it. They've been doing extremely well, really, and require absolutely nothing from anybody else. And these people have now been 'spotted' by the 'civilised world' - a world in which most of us can't put up a shelf. We are almost totally dependent. Everything we have - our food, our clothes, our entertainment, our homes, our transport - we get from someone else.

I am the first to admit that though I'm really good at turning on lights (and turning them off - I do my bit), I have no idea how they work or why. If the planet had depended on me to give it lights and televisions and Iphones, we'd all still be sitting in a cave somewhere singing about the day's hunt while I tried to work out how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But I am not alone. The majority of us don't have a clue how anything works. If the power goes, we flap around looking for batteries for the torch and waiting for someone else to put the power back on. If water starts streaming down the light cord in the kitchen, we run screaming from the house and call a plumber. A challenge for most of us is what to do for an evening if the TV breaks.

I was once woken up very early on a Saturday morning by my sister-in-law, who must have been twenty at the time, because her mother had gone to work and although she'd figured out how to put two slices of bread in the toaster she didn't know how to boil an egg. How many people are there in our world who can't boil an egg? Or cook a chicken? If you can cook the chicken, would you know how to catch a chicken, kill, pluck and gut it if it was the only thing you had to eat? Or would you just sit there watching in run around all fluffed up and clucking, hoping it'll die of old age before you starve to death? Let's say that the chicken did have a timely heart attack. How would you start the fire if you didn't have any matches?

Those chaps in the jungle - though probably impressed that we can fly and talk to people who aren't there - would be astounded to discover how useless we are personally. So here's my thought question for the month. If these people aren't left alone by us (as one certainly hopes they will be), what will they make of fellow humans whose greatest contribution to their own survival is shopping? What on earth will they make of Amy Winehouse?

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pushpin2 Sunday 4th May 2008

I just got back from a trip to New York. Where I stayed there is a very large colony of wild parrots. I know, you don't think of parrots when you think of New York. (Not out of a cage.) You think of pigeons. Or possibly sparrows. But these parrots are all over! Legend has it that a doctor and his wife let a pair loose (or possibly several pairs) and now there are hundreds of them. They're good sized parrots and of a greenish hue. If you close your eyes when they fly overhead you'd swear you were in the jungle (even though you're standing on a city street by the bagel shop). It's pretty cool, really. No one seems to know how they survive the New York winter (which does usually include snow and freezing temperatures, not conditions one associates with parrots) but they do. I think I can honestly say that you haven't really lived till you've seen twenty or so parrots hanging off the bird feeders of a house in Brooklyn. The world is really very interesting.

Usually when I go to look forward to going to my favourite Chinese restaurant. But my favourite Chinese restaurant has mysteriously closed. Disappointed, I spent a lot of time walking around the Lower East Side of Manhattan (mostly in the rain). I found a very excellent bookstore. Besides a great selection of books, it featured two dogs who were either playing a game of tug-of-war between the shelves or sitting on either side of anyone trying to eat something from the café (looking both expectant and hungry). I don't know if it's something about that section of Manhattan, but the nearby vegan shoe store features a lot of cats, not all of them what you'd call friendly.

Since I got back from New York, Rocky  (otherwise known as Demon Kitty because although he looks very sweet he is really very evil) and Kevin (otherwise known as He Who Worries All the Time because that's what he does) have been staying with me - cats like to take a holiday, too.

Because they are only visiting, they're not allowed out. Kevin, who looks like he's always been disappointed and expects nothing more, doesn't mind that much, but Rocky does. Rocky is a trained killer. He doesn't want to be indoors, knocking a soft ball down the hallway. He wants to be outside, tasting blood.

Back at home, Rocky is the scourge of the frogs, birds, mice and even mutant rats of his neighbourhood. Rocky's mother often wakes up to the sound of panicking frogs trying to escape from her flat. She has more than once trod on dead rodents. There have been mornings when her living room looked like an abattoir. Sometimes she's afraid to leave her room. Where people like you and I hear the noises of the city - traffic, police sirens, people shouting because Arsenal just lost again - Rocky hears The Call of the Wild.

Rocky spends a lot of time sitting by the kitchen window, watching the birds and the mice. He calls it Cat TV. After the time I woke up to the sound of running water, I always tie up the tap so he can't accidentally turn it on in a moment of excitement when he thinks that if he scratches at the glass enough he'll be able to escape.

Sometimes Rocky likes to sit on top of the fridge for a better view of the garden. But sometimes he falls off. (So the other things I've learned is to take all magnets off the side of the fridge before he arrives and never to leave anything that might break in the sink.) Rocky is one of those cats who is lucky to have nine lives, because he's always falling off things like table tops and chairs (and refrigerators). And sometimes you'll see a bag moving frantically across the kitchen floor and have to help him out.

Kevin likes to sleep under the bathtub or on the keyboard of my computer in the day, and Rocky likes to sleep on the bed, but at night they both like to be awake. They chase each other through the house. When they get tired of that they try to wake me up. Rocky does this by digging his claws in my head. Or sitting on it. The other night I woke up pretty sharply when Kevin bit my finger.

 Rocky also likes to do yoga. He's very good at lying flat on your back in deep relaxation. I have recently reinstated his yoga room privileges (taken away after the time he bit my toe and drew blood) because it's impossible to get into the oneness that is yoga when someone's wailing loudly and waving a foot through the crack in the door.

While Rocky watches Cat TV, Kevin watches Meerkat Manor. He loves it. No matter what he's doing, or where in the house he's doing it, he comes running as soon as the  theme song comes on, and sits in front of the set, mesmerised, until it's over. I can't decide whether he has a thing for reality TV or if he thinks the telly is another window.

 

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(Note to You: Those trying to find HERE'S WHAT I THINK
The Teenage Girl's Guide to Life, Love and Walking in Six-inch Platforms
by Aunt-Know-It-All (aka Janet Bandry) it is here.

 
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