Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Charlotte's World Wide Web

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.”

In the past week three people who I haven’t seen in over 25 years have contacted me.  One was through my shameless promotion on Facebook of an upcoming informal college reunion. The others were surprisingly high school friends. 

One high school friend texted me out of the blue while I was in my car on Sunday afternoon. I was riding to my daughter’s competition.  In broken English she texted on how she

just got back from NJ…Just after that JAMA article about women’s atypical cardiac symptoms..We  decided to proceed with Cath….I was advocating for the procedure because to  (sic) exclude cardiac disease…

I texted back at a stoplight hoping there were no police nearby.

You? Your Mom?

We are both of a certain age. Statistically, it could have been either. She is a physician on the staff of Harvard Med School as if that shielded her from real fear of her own illness or that of parents.

Very literate people who text or email you with poor grammar or with misspellings have a lot more to say than their message. There’s a lot of fear in bad English.

I called her as soon as I could.

The other contact was another high school friend who I had gotten to know more the summer after high school.  My family had moved that summer to a more shore location where her family had a second home. We had a great summer together.  I remember her boyfriend at the time had a Pontiac GTO convertible.  There is nothing like speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike with the top down in the back of a convertible when you are 17.  College came and we went our separate ways. I had tenuously kept touch with her through Christmas cards but that too had fallen by the wayside.

She emailed me through Linked–in.  She was previously a grammar school social sciences teacher but now her profile said she started her own public relations firm. A career change….good for her. You go girl. I can’t wait to hear the story.

The third has been my friend since the first week of college.  Orientation week at my college was a bit wild at times (wilder than I had previously imagined in an academic institution that boasted more Nobel Laureates than varsity team players). We had both found ourselves as refugees in the Resident Master's apartment one night.  We talked for a long time. It was a long discussion of hopes and fears, which lead to a great friendship. I don’t know why it has taken so long to reconnect.

He apparently traded in his Izod polos and violin for a Harley-Davidson and now rides a horse named Squire. Way to go. The West looks great on you.

Long ago, "Charlotte’s Web" was one of favorite children’s books.  I remember reading it in third grade.  Like most good children’s books it has messages for audiences of all ages.

Charlotte, the spider, wrote messages for Wilbur, the pig, eventually saving his life.  Beautiful messages of love and friendship all spun in the only medium she had, her web.

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider's web?"
"Oh, no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle."
"What's miraculous about a spider's web?" said Mrs. Arable. "I don't see why you say a web is a miracle-it's just a web."
"Ever try to spin one?" asked Dr. Dorian.”

 We all have a quite different web now.  And it is a miracle. Without the social networks that have been spun in this World Wide Web, these wonderful old friends probably would never have contacted me. We spin texts, emails, Linked-in messages, Facebook postings, not to mention blogs. I have obviously gotten caught up in it. It has supplanted long letters of days gone by.  It has largely replaced long telephone conversations. Like Charlotte, these words should be carefully woven, revealing just enough and just in time. If woven tightly enough, some of us will not slip through.

Sometimes true friendship can be the most exquisite webbing of the strongest material of nature.

Charlotte’s medium is today's message.

And it is "Terrific."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

All the Pretty Horses

Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have,
All the pretty little horses.
Blacks and bays, dapples and greys,
Go to sleepy you little baby.

I am at a horse show.  My eldest rides and she made it to "Zones” a higher level of competition.  I sit in the bleachers with the other Gen X parents, cold but blissfully ignorant of the nuances of the competition.

It is so windy, that it is spooking the horses.  A parent's worst nightmare: a child on a ton and a half of previously wild animal. Bad thoughts swirl in your head like dust in the fields. Good thoughts too.

I used to sing that lullaby to her when she was an infant.  It was in the back bedroom of our townhouse in Chicago in a traditional rocker I bought from a used furniture store.  Some nights it would take hours to get her to go to sleep.  Other nights I drifted off only to startle and find a wide awake infant who, I thank God,   didn’t drop off my lap.  Still some other nights, she would be freshly bathed, have her tummy full and close her eyes instantly at the first verse.

I’d like to think it was the song that inspired her love of horses.  I don’t really know.  She tells me it was her love of animals and the sensation you get when jumping:  “It’s like you’re flying Mommy, “ she told me one day. One can’t argue with that kind of happiness. I can’t argue with the focus and discipline that riding has given her either. 

The wind has died down enough to catch all thoughts and my nerves. The barn is now quiet. 

I can hear the announcer again.

I can’t rock her any more, but I think she still dreams of pretty little horses.

But in my dreams she is still safe in my arms, in that used rocking chair.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Blue Night

Her house has the same acrid cigarette smell and yellowish walls.  A sixty-pack year history of smoking will do that. The family photos are the same: my children, my sister’s children and the one from 1918 of my grandparents’ wedding.  

Our similarities out way our differences.

I spent a weekend night with my 92-year-old year old aunt.

We had some financial matters to attend to.  Most are left over from my father’s small estate.  Checks needed to be signed.  Forms needed to be mailed.  Newly arrived earning statements for filing taxes needed keeping. Things that took several months to get settled. Kitchen tables are good for these sort of things.  

I skirted the real issues. 

They were staring at back at me: the aged eyes, the now barrel chest, a wider based gait,  and a much-needed cane.

I just finished Joan Didion’s book “Blue Nights.”  I had started it months ago but left it at my Dad’s house interrupting my flow of reading. I had forgotten where I had left off.  Didion is such a deliberate writer that for me she’s a slow read. So I started it again.  Her sentence structure is masterful and demands rereading many of her words to understand her repetitive, circular thinking. But she makes her point like an arrow piercing a spiraling target:

This book is called "Blue Nights" because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Joan Didion contemplates her own aging and now her need for her daughter who unfortunately died several years earlier.  I couldn’t help but think of my Aunt, a surrogate mother to me and me a surrogate daughter now for her. 

We talked for longer than usual this weekend.  In going over some financial things, she unexpectedly asked the cost of my father’s recent stay at the assisted living facility and who “signed the papers” for hospice care.  I answered that I did after much thought and advice of the staff.  I had no choice.

“You did a good thing, “ she said, “He was well taken care of.” 

"I know, " I responded.

We didn’t need any words after that.  She turned away to get something from the refrigerator. I concentrated on opening some more envelopes. But I could tell what she was thinking. She could tell what I was thinking too.

No words were needed for me to say:  I will do the same for you.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Solvitur Ambulando

A lonesome train on a lonesome track --
Seven coaches painted black --
A slow train, a quiet train
Carrying Lincoln home again; 

    -The Lonesome Train by Millard Lampell

I have lost weight recently.  I attribute it not to any radical change in diet but in my walking a nearby nature trail.  Steeped in history, it was the railway that Lincoln’s funeral train rode on when transporting his body to Springfield Illinois.  It is now a trail where I have seen countless blue herons and even bald eagles.  It runs along a quiet stream and a small falls.  It is as delightful in Spring as in the dead of winter.

I often picture it with a slow-moving locomotive chugging up the small inclines, with smoke billowing over the trees. The tracks are gone. There are occasional markers left from that era though.  Local preservationists have rallied to keep the small gingerbread stations along the way and have rehabbed them into much needed restrooms.  The mile markers are still there. I measure my distance with those Victorian signs better than any pedometer.  I have yet to hike or bike the distance to the other historic landmark, the Mason-Dixon line, but that will come with the better weather.

It twists and turns along the countryside. It is  delightful, quiet, and allows for the few chances to walk and think. I take the dogs sometimes. And I walk and walk.  I don’t do much walking in my usual routine.  The suburbs guard against that.  But this is a time I carve out for myself.  I cherish it.

Many others escape to that trail too.  There are scores of women in groups that dress alike, sound alike and I suppose need each other for support.  There are men in every grade of running attire from cut-offs to expensive Under-Armour garb. Most people are pleasant, nodding as they pass or saying a cheerful “Good day.’ And why are the friendliest dogs always the ones with muddy paws?

I recall the  Latin proverb:

Solvitur ambulando

Translated it means “It is solved by walking.” There are many interpretations to those simple words.   I have taken the translation both figuratively and literally with recent life events. So on any given day when people can’t find me either by sight, cell phone or creepy iPhone GPS, you’ll know where to find me.  I am on this road with you, Mr. Lincoln. I am just trying to find my version of home.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Shore meets the City

The “Jersey Shore” has made it to my TV screen exactly one time. 

That was enough.

I knew the types already from growing up in the Garden State and going to the real Jersey Shore of my youth. Some women do deserve the term “broads” I am afraid and I am not talking about their cultural breadths either.  The “guido” types are not necessarily any more charming.  The combination of alcohol and casual sex I never considered a great attraction live so why should I watch it on TV?

I can still smell the boardwalk of Seaside Heights.  It was always a mixture of oil, sausage and peppers, and beer.  There are some great places there but overall the place has its elements of sleaze. As a kid my Dad use to take us to the small amusement park on the boardwalk.  It was always a carnival atmosphere there even in the day time with many games of chance and  barkers. 

My daughter apparently is  a more frequent viewer of the “Jersey Shore”.  On one of my last trips to my Dad’s she requested we take a drive “down the shore” to see the actual house.   I tried to warn her of the olfactory memory which characterized the place, but she was determined.  So we rode the 10 miles or so and located the address of the oiled clapboard house right on the beach.

Like the true billboard it was, the house looked fine.  Turn around  to the west  and you see a dilapidated hotel with street people urinating on the side of the building. “Mom, let’s get out of here!”  she remarked as she saw a person approach our car on one side and the police in pursuit on the other.  Nothing is really what it seems on TV. We took a ride and a chance.  We didn't come back winners that day.

Snooki and Company will be filming new episodes of a TV spin-off of the “Jersey Shore” soon in my hometown city of Jersey City.  Will they be filming that once wonderful city the same way as a giant billboard to the Hudson Riverfront? Or the very unfortunate urban blight just off camera?

Or will they catch the true culture of the place, like the characters that Helene Stapinski wrote so wonderfully about in her book “The Five Finger Discount?”  The underground numbers racket?  The live chicken stores that my grandmother used to take me to? The Mount Carmel Festival which was delightful on a warm June night and outclassed any of the Seaside Height amusements? The neighborhood women who gossiped while hanging clothes on the clotheslines?  Difeo’s Bakery with the best Italian ices (including chocolate) in the world? Tippy’s Charcoal Haven that had the best hamburgers? Stanley’s Meat  Market on Central Avenue which sold ( and still sells)  the best smoked garlic kielbasa and Polish kishka (blood sausage) which I used to buy for my father with the promise that he could only cook it after I crossed the NJ state line?  The Harsimus Cemetery which served the city’s elite in the 1800’s and which continued to serve as a TV burial place for “The Soprano’s?” The best unpolished historical diamond called the Main Library on Varick Street that houses a hidden treasure trove of NJ and Jersey City history? The Observatory house across from the Medical Center which is one of the last remaining houses of the Underground Railroad? How about the Medical Center itself, a proud beacon of the best Art Deco architecture the world has ever seen? The waterfront which withstood the Black Tom explosion which rocked the nation into WWI? Or the waterfront now which boasts some of the world's financial powerhouses? How about the Powerhouse itself, a testament to how a formerly industrial  city can recycle its landmark gems into centers for the arts?  Or the many hard working successive immigrants who came to that city and who still come today looking for opportunity in America? 

I suspect the former. There's no chance of Jwoww or Snooki will be living in that wondrous old but worn Victorian with hidden rooms built by the whiskey bootlegger who lived there during prohibition, coal storage bins converted to a “science lab” by my sister, stables converted to garages, mezuzahs on bedroom doorways from the Jewish family that lived there before us, real Native American arrowheads which we occasionally dug up in the yard and walk-in wall safes (also a vestige of the Prohibition) of my imaginative youth.

I suspect Snooki and J-Woww are not great students of history or culture despite their “broad” nature.  Just please don’t embarrass the place too much, ladies. The endless parade of indicted politicians do that enough. Many people still call it home.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Big Games of Life

I am not a big sports fan.  I cringe at people who have to watch every baseball, football or soccer game.  I don’t understand yelling at the TV set or jumping up and down at a particular play or win.  In a cynical and sarcastic way I tell people “I would only be excited if I had money riding on it.”  But it’s true.

It’s a rarity but I watched two sporting events in one day yesterday:  My daughter’s equestrian competition and the Superbowl.  In an odd moment of transference, I got excited in ways I never imagined.  Yikes, am I changing in ways never imagined?

My daughter’s equestrian show was a “Zone” qualifier.  In her division, twenty of the top school riders  competed.  The top 5 go onto ‘zones’,  a larger competition.  I could tell she was nervous.  She barely made eye contact with me all day.  Any of my encouraging words were met with eye rolling.  It was clearly a ‘talk to the hand” kind of moment.  She had travelled to the competition with her team in an overloaded jitney bus and it was obvious from her body language that she didn’t want Mom to be there.  But I knew if I didn’t go she would be so angry. A parent's paradox: when to be involved or when to stay away.  So I went by myself driving the two hours to the wilds of Virginia. I cavorted with the other parents, kept my distance on the sidelines and crossed my fingers.

She placed in the top five. She squeaked in at fifth place but I didn’t care.  Neither did she.

I cried. I am one big bucket of tears lately.  I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of equestrian events.  I can’t tell a lead change from a canter.  But I can tell when my first born is happy.  She was ecstatic.  She was beaming.  I was so proud. 

I watched the Superbowl too last night.  My Dad’s favorite team, the NY Giants had finally made it. I felt a tinge of sorrow that ironically my Dad didn’t make it to see this moment.  He would have been glued to the TV with a whole afternoon of unhealthy snacks while watching the event at 100 decibels.  For several years in the 1990’s, when he was still able to walk a fair distance, he held season tickets to the Meadowlands Stadium.  He would go with a few friends and the preparation seemed to take weeks.  There were the logistics of who was picking up whom, the tailgating, the food, taking a portable radio with an earplug to listen to the game calls and later a portable TV, etc. Although he rarely drank alcohol, he always took a hip flask with him.  I wonder what exactly was in that flask.  I don’t know.  In fact I found it in his house not too long ago and there was no lingering smell of old whiskey or scotch.  Knowing him it was probably chocolate milk or Coca-Cola. It doesn’t matter now.  He was always happy and regaled in stories for weeks afterwards. He always loved the NY Giants and the NY Yankees.  Even though we were from a neighboring state, the NY/NJ metro area banded together for most big sports events.  The Giants' move to NJ cemented that allegiance.  

Although most sports franchises really have nothing to do with the particular geography of the area they represent, it is the feeling that you are part of something bigger.  You cheer with your neighbors or geographically close friends. I am a child of the NJ-NYC metro area. The game brought me back to a place that's familiar-home.

I was glad the Giants won. Somewhere my Dad is beaming. I am so happy my daughter won too. Beautiful job, sweetheart.

I had more than money riding on both games.  I had pride.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Consciousness Collection-Available as a Double Album

There is nothing like a Wang Chung song heard in the carpool line to make one think about Emile Durkheim’s theory of Collective Conscious.

Or maybe it’s just me.

 I listened to an NPR segment the other day about Gen X. NPR is my lifeline to anything that resembles the auditory education of college lectures lately.  Sad but true.  “Gen X” is the demographic born in the early 1960’s up to 1975. Some demarcate it as 1964-1975.  Although I was born in 1962, the description seems to fit.  I am highly educated, children-oriented, and socially-minded.  If I could only move back to a city.

They talked of how the Gen Xer’s were different from the previous generation of “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964). The segment had its usual background of music.

Music is something that separates generations yet can unite us so strongly as well.

 I certainly could identify with the song they played with the segment: Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight." I remember that strobe-light video vividly on “Friday Night Videos” or MTV. It was a favorite song at college parties.

 But what was I subsequently listening to on my iPod connection in the car?  Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Cathedral.” 

“And my head didn’t know just who I was
                        And I went spinning back in time.”

Wang Chung and Crosby, Stills and Nash.  Now there are two groups from successive generations that would get my head spinning back in time at a stoplight. But both brought me back to a place where I probably last heard both songs.  College.  The occasional party.  Dorm Life. Rushing for the Shoreland bus.  Chemistry 105, 106, 107.  Self, Culture and Society...

Music is really a tool for the collective conscious.                                                      

The French Sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) wrote how an autonomous individual comes to identify with a larger group or structure. He coined the phrase "the collective conscious" to describe the beliefs or sentiments that connect you to that group.

Think memes.

I recently watched Bill Maher’s  “Religulous” several Saturdays ago with my teenage daughters.  I run a pretty liberal household.  Liberal thinking anyway.  One of the funniest segments was when Maher spoke with a Muslim Imam about religion and the Imam’s cell phone went off.  It played “Kashmir” from Led Zeppelin.  I yelled out in a fit of laughter “Oh my God, Kashmir!” to my daughters as they did a collective eye roll at both the obscure name and the religious reference. They are accustomed to my spontaneous outbursts of absolutely useless trivia.  Sure enough Maher also remarked “Kashmir!”  Mom’s good memory and near constant music playing in the car have repercussions.  But it linked me to a certain generation (Maher’s too) of children of the late 1970’s/Early 1980’s that would find humor in that observation.

These odd musical flashbacks connect certain individuals together, whether it is people on the cusp of Gen X or a “baby boomer.” Are we all just big Venn diagrams with overlapping edges of connections that provide us with a laugh, a good cry or maybe just an “aha” moment? I think so. It’s the ultimate feeling that you belong to something.  Durkheim knew this but applied it to religious groups.  Facebook knows this now and applies it to “likes” or “groups”.  Durkheim and Zuckerburg are geniuses in human behavior. I think there’s a Sociology thesis in that idea somehow.

I hated “Sosh” in college even though I had one of the best professors who specialized in game theory and wrote books about the Olympics.  The theories seemed dry, without context and I dreaded the near- weekly paper assignments.  Little did I know that the theories studied would come rushing back to me in an early morning car line with just the slightest of provocation. Music was the meme.  Maybe I had learned something after all.

But I still don’t know what a Wang Chung is.