Sunday, April 3, 2016

You can do anything for 24 hours

You are reminded of what a language wing nut you are when the guy seated opposite you—in a diner booth, on a first date—uses the phrase "cause célèbre." He uses it properly and with correct pronunciation and whoops, there you go: you get all blushy outside and fluttery inside. You like flowers and thoughtful gestures and surprise gifts as much as the next person, but what really gets you starry-eyed and goofy is language: well-considered, beautifully constructed, designed to illuminate and devastate.

Words are probably unreasonably important to you. You are in love with them, in fact, and with etymology and the power of language and its handmaidens: the period, the comma, that pogo stick exclamation point. 

You grew up amongst voracious readers. For your family, Christmas was always a major festival of book-giving. Photos from the holidays of your childhood depict you and your sister and brother  slumped about the living room in different chairs, each planted face-first in a volume by Saki or Roald Dahl or Madeleine L'Engle.

You are the kind of person who dies just a little bit every time you read "impactful," especially in a news report by trained language people who should know better. You cringe and think they ought to stick with "effective" or "forceful" or any of a variety of other hard-working words that stand ready to do the job more gracefully than the imposter "impactful," with its cobbled-together parvenu awkwardness. 

You give an interior mental cheer when in conversation, someone correctly uses "among" rather than "between," or "fewer" instead of "less." You try to avoid driving down that street where two mailboxes in a row display family names with apostrophes: the Percy’s, the DiNardo’s. 

Cause célèbre: apparently, it doesn't take much to thrill you.

This guy thrills you, though, and not only because he has strong, competent-looking hands and the good taste to share a birthday with Wendell Berry. You find yourself experiencing a zing because he has just confidently detonated a French phrase that doesn't see a lot of action here in rural eastern Ohio. It's a phrase that's hard to say right without giving off an oily shimmer of Pepé Le Pew. But he does it, without cockiness: with ease. You have your suspicions that this may be a fellow language-worshipper.

Turns out, he is. He's a German-born journalist who owns too many books—which is to say, he has as many books as you do—and most of them are on unwieldy subjects (philosophy, history, religion). He is a little covetous of the 13-volume hardbound 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary you inherited from your grandparents. He is sincerely interested when you show him in the OED that “brang” is actually a word (meaning: whale carcass. Thank you, OED).

His idea of a great gift is a biography of Thomas Hardy, your favorite novelist, and in reading it you learn that Thomas Hardy's pallbearers included Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw. This makes you love Hardy even more, which deepens your crush on this man. You find yourself willing, in turn, to make room for his abiding crush on Flannery O’Connor.

Yes, you are impressed. Impressed enough to marry him, as it turns out, and not walk off into the sunset—you're both a little too chipped around the edges for that—but to make a strong start at a marriage you both fully expect to last you the rest of your word-picky, book-filled, language-brimming lives.

Now here you are—or here we are, Steve and I—and yep, I'm switching from third-person to first-person here because it's our story, and that's allowed. (You can do that with language: turn the camera around, swing across eras, create an entirely new world.)

Steve and I adore each other. We get along with a sweet, forgetful ease. He's the best kisser on the face of the planet, and he makes me breakfast nearly every morning. When he comes home, he looks at me, tilts his head and says, “There she is.” When I’m wrapped in his arms, a lighted billboard in my head blinks: SAFE. WARM. HAPPY. 

At home, we leave each other notes in a shared journal, and on Facebook, we choose favorite lyrics to leave on each other’s walls. We read for hours—with each other, and to each other. We have a practice of giving each other a "BWK”­—a Big Word Kiss—any time either of us uses a particularly fine word in daily conversation. We're as in love with language as we are with each other.

So for two people who know how to think and speak in whole paragraphs, why was communication occasionally so knotty? Why did we have these tiffs that seemed so similar in character, yet were sparked by all sorts of different catalysts? When we had what my grandfather would have termed "a set-to," it was generally brief, but it was vivid and uncomfortable—a rear-end journey down a corrugated slide of misunderstanding and indignant feeling.

I'm articulate and direct in a way that can come across as overly my-way-or-the-highway. Steve's articulate too, but more reticent, with an internal compass whose default setting is I-don't-want-to-cause-a-fuss. 

“You’re just as opinionated as I am,” I said to him one day, “you’re just sneakier about it.” 

It boiled down to this: Steve would feel dictated to by my directness and my expectation that for the most part, all right-thinking people would agree with me. I would feel sideswiped by his passive-aggressive behavior when he said everything was fine, no, he wasn't mad, why did I ask, it's fine. When clearly, it wasn't fine. 

In what was otherwise a peaceful, lovely satin ribbon of a marriage, spats relating to our communication differences reared their wart-studded heads every month or two. We were unsettled by these bumps, and both feeling at a loss for how to address them. How could this be so difficult? But it was: the two talented communicators were having trouble untying basic communication knots. We felt like gourmet cooks who kept burning the toast.

After one off-kilter evening, Steve turned to me in bed and said, "I have an idea. For the next 24 hours, we each have to say exactly what's on our minds—nicely, considerately. All honesty, no blowback.” 

He kept looking at me. I was thinking. “Just for a day! We could do anything for a day," he said.

Well, I already say what's on my mind. This was a suit that already fit me, though it could certainly use a little "nicely" tailoring in the waist. And maybe a smidgen of "considerately" shaping in the shoulders. So I said, "Sure."

The next morning at breakfast, we were discussing a beautiful local building. It's a ceramics museum and former post office in the Beaux Arts style, and a gem of our local downtown. I said, "You know, so-and-so told me that way back when, architectural fashions would start on the two coasts and then not work their way in to the central states until about 20 years later."

Steve took a sip of coffee and said, "I do know that, because you've already told me. Several times." I burst out laughing. He started to laugh, too. He said, "Oh, this is nice."

We've been watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" recently, and Bruce Boxleitner appeared briefly in an episode as a good-looking guy who asks out Murray's daughter. He looked so familiar to us both, but we were thrown by the 1970's male version of Farrah Fawcett hair. 

Once we figured it out, Steve was content to continue watching—but I was constitutionally unable to let it pass without sharing the fact that Boxleitner was, for many years, married to Melissa Gilbert, who began starring on "Little House on the Prairie" just a year after Boxleitner's "Mary Tyler Moore Show" appearance. This cute TV actor had been married to Laura Ingalls Wilder!

I feel compelled to do this because roughly 75% of my brain is given over to useless TV and movie trivia. I live for those moments—those rare, rare moments—when I drop something like the Boxleitner tidbit into conversation and someone raises their eyebrows and says, "Really? Huh!" 

Steve did not raise his eyebrows and share his joy at being privy to these details. He also didn’t set his shoulders into “harrumph” posture, and he didn’t shift away from me on the couch. Instead he said—nicely, considerately—"I just want to watch the show. I don't like losing the thread of it." 

I was surprised. "Oh!" I said. 

"It's fun background info, but I just wish you'd tell me that stuff after," he explained. 

"Done," I said. And we smiled at each other.

Later that week, I asked Steve to mail some packages for me—I make chocolates and sell them online, and had orders that needed to go out. He said, "What if I don't feel like it?" To which I responded, "Come ONNNNNN." Steve dragged his feet with another comment and I started to gear up into what my father calls “Ike mode.” 

But I stopped. I told him—I hope nicely, I think considerately—"I make the chocolates. It brings in income for us both. I'm asking you to please do your part and mail the packages." He said, "I know, and I will." And he did. Done.

That night, Steve told me he actually felt relieved. I told him I felt the same. Where he used to roll his eyes on the inside but on the outside be ever-patient and cheerful, now he could just let me know he was irked and be done with it. And because I wasn't used to him serving up the occasional side dish of mild sarcasm or stubbornness, I was tickled by it. He didn't overdo it, but he did it some, and just that little bit added piquancy to our conversations—not to mention the fact that it relieved me of feeling that I needed to decode his body language. 

In turn, I made a more consistent, conscientious effort to tone down what could charitably be called my call-to-arms side, which surfaces when I’m tense or feeling pressured. 

Things felt better. Things were better.

Our 24-hour trial period has stretched into a few months, and the difference it's made has been remarkable. Steve and I are communicating in a way that requires more flexibility and deliberation from us both. We're finding that—like choosing the right person to love—being brave enough and thoughtful enough to choose the right words improves everything. We’re learning that language and love have formidable tensile strength, and can hold almost anything you heap onto them if you do it with care. 

Even language wing nuts develop a shorthand. We don’t always need a BW. So every now and again, I'll say, "We're still doing it, right?" and Steve'll agree. Or he'll look at me and say, "Another day?" and I'll nod. 

We're still doing it—for another day.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day

In college, I dated a dramatic boy from Kentucky who was 6’6” and made a great Dracula for a Halloween party our freshman year. He was a terrible, shallow, self-involved, angsty person like every other college freshman on the face of the planet. But he was a wonderful kisser and he had a gorgeous name which, since he was in the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University, where we met, clearly pre-destined him for a large life, including a large pile of future Oscars.

Later I dated another drama major with another ready-for-stage-and-screen real name, which, I’m sorry to tell you, was enough to make me want to go out with him though he was much shorter than me and looked like what John Denver might look like if he taught at a rural community Bible college. His first and middle names were Clayton Moore – supposedly named after his uncle, the actor who’d played the Lone Ranger on television – and his last name was regal and, frankly, perfect with the first two names.

So clearly, a larger-than-life personality and a fabulous name were at the top of my list in those days. A girl has to have priorities.

In fact, I blush to say that the second boy’s name alone – which was as splendid as he was boorish – was, by itself, enough to keep me going long after I should have ended it. It kept me going even after we were sitting in his car under a streetlamp talking late one evening and he suddenly clapped a hand on my breast and was silent for two or three long minutes until he finally asked suavely, “How does that feel?” I answered pretty suavely back, “Fine!” because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, never mind that it felt like someone had taped a ham sandwich to the top of my shirt.

He eventually removed his hand and drove me back to my dorm. A week or two later, at a party where he largely ignored me, I sneaked away his glass of white wine, refilled it with vegetable oil, and stationed myself across the room to watch his face as he took a big, disgusting swig. It’s still the nastiest trick I ever pulled on anyone and because he was such a jackass, I’m still proud of it.

Towards the end of college, I was engaged to a boy who adored me and whom I adored back, but when I asked him one sunny spring afternoon if he thought marriage would be fun, he said, “I picture it pretty much as paying bills and mowing the lawn.” Plus, he wanted to go to Epcot for our honeymoon. If I planned to do something for the rest of my life, it had to be fun and it had not to include Epcot. That’s how shallow I was, but by then, I was starting to recognize it, and I broke the engagement.

Then I got married and then I got divorced, after 17 years and two gorgeous, brilliant, hilarious children. I told my children on a regular basis that the only thing that mattered was finding someone who a) made them laugh and b) made them think. Everything else was gravy. I don’t know why I was dispensing advice to them that I hadn’t taken myself.

By then, I felt relieved to be unattached by marriage to anyone, and I felt no urge towards it, or even towards the suggestion of it. But I wanted companionship and I missed laughing with someone. Also, I thought a lot about how I missed being kissed really, really well. So eventually I went off to date again.

Dating unsuitable men in your 40s is largely the same as dating unsuitable boys in your teens and twenties. The dim-wittedness and selfishness and idiocy and angst were still, to my shock, as ever-present in men as they had been in the peach-cheeked boys of my youth. But I was now outfitted by life with a fancy new set of priorities and some wisdom it had just about killed me to earn, and I felt equal to the job.

For half a year, I dated a lovely local man I’d been in kindergarten with, but mostly I dated men I’d met online.  This was a necessity because I lived an hour from any major city, in the middle of the woods at the end of a half-mile long driveway. I was not going to meet men here.

I decided to give every date half an hour, no matter how awful it was. As Saki wrote, “I've been carefully brought up, and I don't like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate,” and though that’s sometimes what I felt like I was doing on these dates, I played anyway because really, all I hoped for was to find someone I could stand to hang out with. Someone who would make me laugh and make me think. It seemed a doable pair of must-haves.

But the idiots were like apples in an October orchard: everywhere. You couldn’t miss them. The trouble was, I had long been out of the idiot-recognizing game and though I felt thoroughly equipped to tackle this portion of my life, I stumbled and fell over and over again. There was the talkative contractor who – though attractively grey-haired in his online photo – showed up looking as though he’d combed jet fuel through his hair. It was Elvis hair. It was Elvis-with-a-Sharpie hair. His hair was so disconcerting that I could think of nothing else during our brief encounter, at least not until he laid out his philosophy on romantic partnership, which was, and I quote, “I need to be the chief and everyone else just needs to be a regular Indian.” I struggled with this for only half a minute before remembering that – carefully brought-up or not – I was allowed to just get up and leave. And I did.

I got up and left and left and left. I left, left and right. There was the Tim Robbins-lookalike who lied about his age and who, after just a few weeks, turned so proprietary and gave off such a weird, zig-zaggy vibe that I actually had to involve the police in ridding myself of him. There was the funny-yet-melancholy veteran who lived in a 19th-century cabin with a footprint the size of an actual footprint. He was perfectly lovely until date number four, when he was telling me about his service in Iraq and referred to the Iraqi people by a name so obscene that I actually stepped back in shock.

There was the loud, handsome man who badmouthed everyone in his family to me and who had the air of a boy unjustly denied a fifth-grade citizenship award. There was the short, bespectacled guy who suggested that for our first date, we meet at a bar that had a dozen pool tables. When we met there, my date pulled out the lockable case in which he kept his own custom-made mahogany cue and I knew I was doomed.

There was the appealingly gangly man who told me his high school basketball team was called the Antlers and when I laughed and said I’d never heard of a team named after only a body part instead of the entire animal, he glared at me. I was glad to know I didn’t have to grow old with him even for the next 15 minutes.

It took me months to figure out that I needed a break. I had to step away to give my faith time to be restored. I’d entered dating in my 40s with the idea that there were lovely, intelligent, competent grown-up men out there. Or man. (I only needed one.) It was nearly the end of December and I figured I’d stick it out til the end of the year.

Just a day or two before my self-imposed exile was to begin, I was scrolling through profiles when I came across one with a photo of a tall, serious-looking man in glasses, seated on a log next to a teenager. Most men didn’t bother putting a caption with their photos, but this man did: “My son and me by the banks of Little Beaver Creek.”

I live 90 feet from the banks of Little Beaver Creek. I was intrigued. I sent him a brief message, asking how he happened to come by the banks of the creek, and he messaged me back within a couple of hours about a Boy Scout camping weekend.

Steve and I messaged and moved to e-mail and moved to phone calls and texts. A journalist! What a find! A man who knew how to use the Queen’s English! Our e-mails got longer and longer. My hopes got higher and higher.

This went on for two weeks until we had our first date. We met in between our two towns, at a diner, and we ate and talked for hours. He brought me a small green leather journal and I brought him a CD. It didn’t seem weird to either of us to exchange gifts on our first date. As we sat in the diner, he used “cause célèbre” in a sentence correctly, including the pronunciation, and I put my head down for a second and stared hard at the table because I knew I was done for.

Steve and I grew up about 40 minutes from each other and never met until we were both in our 40s and had been wrecked and then mended by life. He listens to me and laughs at my jokes and he tells me to settle down when I am getting ridiculous. He thinks deeply about matters of philosophy and religion and writing and I am wildly attracted to his very interesting brain. It doesn’t hurt, I don’t mind saying, that his philosophical mind is housed in a tall, handsome man with blue-green eyes and all his hair. He was born in Germany and part of me likes being able to say that I married a European.

He makes me want to be the best version of myself he believes in, though I know myself to be horrible and shallow and mean-spirited on a regular basis.

We were older when we met, and we knew that the heart everyone refers to on Valentine’s Day is at best unattractive – not the bi-fold pink confection you doodle on a notebook in sixth grade, but the thing that looks like a spare part from a plumbing project, with bulges and tubes and nodules.

The heart isn’t called a muscle for nothing. It goes and goes and goes, your whole life long, and if you’re lucky, it carries you through things worse than you ever could have imagined and reliably brings you to today. If good fortune casts her beautiful sunshiny smile on you, you get deposited by life’s tides on the doorstep of someone who understands the nerve it took you to stand up and knock.

And look, the door opens. And look, he recognizes you. And he smiles at you and you can tell he’s going to say you’re beautiful and you can tell you’re going to laugh with joy when he does. And he does, and you do.

And there’s your Valentine.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The view from this Christmas Eve

Christmas is about to tiptoe into my house, and yours, and just like in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it will not be about ribbons and boxes and tringlers and fuzzles or even dafflers and wuzzles. Instead, my goal for the last couple of years has been all about a good Christmas mood.

I am not one of these wing nuts who has an inflatable Santa on the roof and an individual  Christmas tree in each bedroom (apologies and lots of impolite staring on my part if you yourself are one of said wing nuts), but I do like a nicely-decorated house, especially during the holidays, and always worked hard to make it happen. 

Then I got smart(ish) and realized that working hard was not what I wanted to do for the holidays to be a time of wonder and peace and magic. Letting a whole bunch of stuff fall by the wayside made a lot more sense for me, and especially for those who love me ever so much, but maybe love me a tiny bit less during those holiday times when my voice gets a little shrill because I am asking for a little help, please, I can't do it all by myself! 

That's when I remember, oh, yeah, I could, instead of irking those I love and live with, just do less. That's a gift everyone can enjoy and it costs nothing and promotes worldwide peace and understanding, or at least an air of calm around the house.

So some things stayed: the hanging of some garlands I bought a million years ago at the Christmas Shop in Manteo, North Carolina. The decorating of our tree, topped with Steve's childhood star, and the creation of our Christmas card. Pancakes and bacon for dinner on Christmas Eve, and beef tenderloin, limas, Leona's onions made by my mom and an indecent amount of mashed potatoes for dinner on Christmas Day. Baking Christmas cookies from scratch, but only a couple dozen, and only for us. And that's about it. 

We don't go caroling (though we listen to a lot of Christmas music starting mere moments after the last of the Thanksgiving turkey has been scarfed down). We don't cut down our own tree in the snowy woods (and in fact got a fake tree last January when they were all 50% off). We don't string popcorn and cranberries to loop over the Christmas tree branches, and we don't outline our roof with multicolored lights. 

We have an almost non-stop fire going in the fireplace, and we hang out in the living room with our portly cat, Ivy, and we read and we talk and we play games. We are together. And that takes nothing more than grabbing the people I love most in this world and bringing them to the fireplace and offering them tea and cookies or a good seat at the Scrabble board. What I get in return, for virtually no effort at all, is a happy now--and a happy memory. 

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and may all good things be yours in 2015.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dear Nick

Every story has a before-the-beginning and an after-the-end; we all decide where we want to begin. But the middle is the best part--the most protected and cushioned part--and the part where Nick came into our lives a little more than three years ago. 

The things that strike me most now about Nick, as when I first met him, are the many highly individual details that made him so very intensely himself, and so different from other teenagers I knew. He inhabited his own skin and his very rich life in a calmly, resolutely non-conformist way that underscored he was much further down the road of life and maturity than most of his compatriots.

Nicholas Brastins Barnes was very specific in his interests, his humor, his manner of speaking, his preferences and his dress. I never saw him dither. He looked as though he'd mostly just stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue, but then he'd upend things with a fashion twist--a loopy, lengthy blue-and-white striped scarf which he described as "knitted by authentic Latvian grandmothers" (his own) and on his feet, candy-apple red high-top Converse sneakers. 

He had crazy hair--longish hair, most of the time--but he pulled it off because he counterbalanced the mop with his austere Clark Kent eyeglasses. His body was long and lean, but graceful--he was not the kind of gangly tall where he tripped over his own feet. His face, too, was long and lean. He was immensely attractive in a slightly off-kilter way--as though a cosmic artist had taken plain old everyday handsomeness and by skewing things just fractionally, created a face that was striking in its unusual beauty instead of just forgettably good-looking.

Nick of the Latvian grandmothers and the well-traveled youth and the trilingual skills (English, German and Latvian) and the double-major in Germanic studies and history was always reaching out beyond himself. He had already studied in Germany and Austria, and was preparing this summer to head to Leipzig and Berlin to conduct research in libraries there--using papers which were unavailable in the United States and nowhere to be found on the internet. That was like Nick, too--to bypass the easy and the typical and to stretch his hands out instead for the very, very specific, difficult-to-find thing which fired up his restless imagination. 

A lot of his intellectual fearlessness came from having had a youth free of typical school constraints. After an abysmal beginning in public school, Nick was home-schooled through eighth-grade, mostly by his dad Jay, and it's pretty easy to trace the expansion of his powerful creativity and scholarly inventiveness to those years. As it was for his sister Clara, the world was Nick's classroom and that classroom expanded exponentially as he grew up and embraced more and more complex ideas.

In high school at Shady Side Academy, Nick lettered in cross country. He drew witty self-portraits of himself: cooking, reading Aldous Huxley, running cross country with humorously bad posture, flapping hair, and a grunting hrrrnnnng accompanying each physical effort made by his knobby-kneed and bulb-elbowed cartoon self. He launched a cricket club (such a European venture!), but withdrew from hockey because the physical clashing offended his pacifist sensibilities. He was president of the German club, but delighted in making fun of real politicians. In the summer of 2013, one of the places he traveled to was Paris, which he pronounced "a cesspool" (he declared it crowded, very dirty and obscenely expensive). At one point in his teens, he grew weary of his own handwriting and trained himself to make it completely different--distinctively tall and angular, punctuated with the occasional helium-filled curve. 

Nick was on the Speech and Debate team at SSA, and I remain convinced that he felt most daily conversation was ongoing rehearsal for this. On several occasions when my kids and I picked up Nick at the Pittsburgh Airport to come visit us, after a sincere and interested, "How're you doing?" to me as the token adult, he would engaged my two kids in a reasoned, thoughtful, passionate dissection of some issue--the airline industry, the fraught relationship between Freud and Jung, the influence of money and lobbyists on our political system, the lack of proper clean water availability in under-developed countries, organic produce, you name it--all with an informed fluency that took my breath away. 

Nick applied to a single college--the University of Chicago--and of course he was accepted. This was more about self-knowledge and confidence in his considerable abilities than arrogance or ill-founded pride. Nick was not just any old smart kid, or any run-of-the-mill brilliant student--I read Nick's grant proposal for this coming summer and on the very first page were three words I'd never seen before. These were words in English, which happens to be my native language.

My son Henry shared with Nick this love of taking any big, big issue and breaking it down into component parts, practically all the way to the atomic level--which is probably the primary reason they were best friends. They took a ferocious, shared joy in parsing the universe together. I can't think of two friends who were more compatible intellectually and emotionally. When Nick went on a week-long vacation with us in 2012, he and Henry spent so much time lobbing back and forth Big Ideas that we started calling them the Freuds--Nick was Sigmund and Henry was Todd. Sigmund and Todd Freud were also known as Nick Lennon and Henry McCartney.

The boys were very much two peas in a pod. When they took their ongoing conversation to the beach one fairly windless day and tried to fly a kite, they didn't have much luck. They managed to get the kite into the air, but flying it consisted mostly of racing madly up and down the beach with the kite tattering along behind like a slightly buoyant dog on a leash. When I put photos of our vacation on Facebook, Henry and Nick had the following exchange about the kite-flying photos:

NICK: This is nice but remember WE FAILED
HENRY: Pish tush, it was in the air long enough to get pics--so as far as history is concerned, we won
NICK: History knows you used the phrase "pish tush" though

Nick was a master of the drily funny comment or text. A Facebook photo someone had taken of him in Slovakia was lit just so and featured him in a fashionable peacoat and scarf, standing in what looked to be a public square with beautiful architecture behind him. He was gazing directly into the camera as he pushed his hair back from his eyes. It reminded me so much of something out of GQ that I commented on it, and Nick commented right back:
ME: J. Crew model photographed during a rare fashioned-induced psychotic break
NICK: It’s like a cigarette break, but with derangement

(Though Nick rarely smoked, the "cigarette break" comment reminded me that he referred to cigarettes as "fine tobacco doobies"--one of countless singular Nick expressions we all began using ourselves.)

Once when Nick, Lillian, Henry and a bunch of friends were out getting ice cream in Pittsburgh, they caught a glimpse of a particularly handsome man walking down the sidewalk. Someone said, "Wow, what a sex god," to which Nick gave the considered response, "Sex god, I dunno--maybe a sex emperor."

Henry and Nick were chatting on Facebook once while Nick was studying for a college exam. They had the following exchange:

NICK: So I'm studying for this test and there’s this dude in my peer group who has coffee, and he’s like “Oh I won’t give it to you” and I’m like “What is property?”
HENRY: Property is the one thing you can't take from the people.
NICK: Like what is “your will” even
           Did somebody say totalitarianism?
HENRY: who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men
               That was Stalin who said that
NICK: Hahaha whoa—think you mean “Obama” there champ

Later, when Nick was studying in Vienna:

HENRY: What's the political scene like there?
NICK: There is this great play called "Heldenplatz"--we read the whole thing aloud in class, about how all Viennese are xenophobes, national socialists, &c. &c. [so Nick-like to use this form instead of "etc."], you name it

           Fairly accurate I'd say
           No, kidding, it's actually very Obama-supporting and lefty
           But sometimes you see a guy and you just think.................Nazi

Planning a visit in Pittsburgh:

HENRY: if I can spend the night at your place I'm totally down. I bet it would look beautiful in the snow
NICK: ha! If we had any snow...that is to say: we have rain. So I'm house-sitting for my grandma right now, not strictly speaking allowed to have guests but you could camp out on a very furtive level.......

Planning for a gang to come from Pittsburgh to our house in Ohio:

HENRY: Hey, do you have a ride yet? Rowdy, Tory and Faigen are all invited but I'm not sure who can actually make it out here
NICK: Rowdy's out but Tory's in. The third, more mercurial, will respond in his own good time

Once, frustrated in being unable to reach Henry for a couple of days, I texted Nick to ask him to get Henry to call home. Nick texted the following to Henry:

Hi, your mother asked me to ask you to call her if at all possible b/c she is concerned. Make of this what you will.

Nick had the most wonderfully formal way of expressing himself. When I had to pick him up at the airport once, I pulled off to the side of the road when I was about a mile away and texted, "Be there in just a minute" to which he responded, "I await." He once said to another guest at our home, "My, your glasses are fetching!" When Nick knocked over a kitchen stool in the middle of the night and woke me up, I went down to the kitchen to see if anyone was hurt, chewed him out but good, and went back to bed. Henry told me later that Nick rejoined Henry and the other guests on the porch and made the pronouncement, "Gentlemen, we find ourselves in the doghouse."

Last November, when Lillian was having a rough time, Nick wrote her a letter for her birthday. "Given the sheer improbability of existence itself, and the mere accident of the human being, sixteen completed years of life are no small feat and I think you deserve the fullest commendation for discharging all the somatic and humane duties of the person with much evident success." He went on, "The seventeenth year of life is really quite a nice one--I will admit it was always one of my personal favorites--so I hope you appreciate it. I always think of seventeen as one of the last great 'uncomplicated' years and I hope you enjoy it as such." 

One of our favorite card games is Spite & Malice. Nick and I played dozens of games on our porch the last several summers, and after one endless losing streak, he began referring to it as Agony & Defeat. Once when I'd had a particularly good run of cards, he threw his hand down and said, "Of all the damned cheek!" upon which oath we renamed the game again: The Cheek & The Sauciness.

As dry and smart a sense of humor as Nick had, it could be hard to make him laugh. I remember only two times that I accomplished it. One was when we were on vacation and walking together through a parking lot. I overhead a conversation between a man and his wife and started laughing. When I told Nick what I'd heard, he let out a big bark of a laugh and immediately put the haiku of a conversation on Twitter:

WOMAN: You need to have something to eat.
MAN: I just don't want the drama.

The other time I made Nick laugh was when I told him about a long-ago exchange of e-mails between two friends of mine who were planning an overseas trip. One of them detailed a possible itinerary and concluded his e-mail with, "Let me have your thoughts." The other wrote back only one line: "Why not just ask for everything?" The philosophical underpinnings of that amused Nick greatly, to the point that he told me he hoped someday someone would e-mail him "Let me have your thoughts" solely so he could respond with "Why not just ask for everything?"

Henry and Nick lived together in the summer of 2012: first in a house they rented from someone other than the owner, and then once that blew up in their faces, with Nick's mom Laura. On one of the two occasions when I visited them briefly at the rental house, I noticed (with zero shock) that it looked exactly like a home inhabited by teenage boys: messy, unlovely and unclean, with clothing, shoes and other detritus strewn about the place. They had mentioned their mutual love of chess, and showed me the chess set they kept on the dining room table. One of the queens had been lost and in her place, there was a very large dead beetle. 

That summer, I took Henry and Nick dozens of homemade cookies for a party they were hosting. Henry told me later that they'd hidden half of what I'd made so they could keep it for themselves instead of sharing it at the party. Nick was kind enough to appreciate my cooking and he especially loved a family favorite--Syrian nutmeg cake--as much as we all did. Henry told me he was getting ready to cut some for breakfast at our house one morning and said to Nick, "How big a slice do you want?" Nick said, "Figure out how big a slice would make your mom mad, then back it off just a little."

All of this is to say that it's wrong on every level and unfair and bitter, bitter, bitter that Nick died in February at the age of 20. When his mother sent me a private message on Facebook with the horrifying news, I remember seeing the notification and before opening the message, having an almost visceral sense of wanting to get up and walk away from the computer. I knew in my gut it was not going to be good. When I read that she was on her way to Chicago and was heartbreakingly "wild with grief" to let me know Nick had died, the world suddenly rearranged itself and clicked into some new form that felt Cubist, dark and fraudulent.

The boy who stayed up all night once at the beach with my daughter Lillian and her friend Caroline just so they could watch the sunrise could not be dead. The boy who'd hosted Henry in Chicago and then paid Henry's way back to Ohio after Henry misplaced his bus ticket could not be silenced and still. The boy who'd borrowed Persuasion from me could not be gone; he'd only borrowed it from me on New Year's Eve and couldn't possibly have had time to finish it. It came back to me when Nick's mother asked Lillian and Henry to take whatever of Nick's books they wanted. Lillian came home with Persuasion--not knowing it was my copy--and several dozen pages in, I found a boarding pass with Nick's name on it. So he'd started it, as he had started many adventures.

First there was Death, almost immediately followed by his brother Grief, and it makes me angry beyond reason that these sunless twins can walk through any wall and into any room and alter everything simply by showing up.

But that's an end, and I'm still hooked on the middle.

This Laurence Sterne quote from A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy describes Nick so well: "What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on."

Some broken things cannot be fixed, and some questions will never be answered. I wonder sometimes if Nick, with his bustling, spiky intellect, could have answered some of the questions I have had since he died. My own belief is that an energy like his--or any of ours--remains invulnerable and flamelike even after death. It's a different middle now, and Nick's story has a different and earlier end than it should have. Maybe when my own end arrives, I will have the opportunity to ask him some things. And of course, I look forward to trying to make him laugh a third time.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Our Matt

Matt died a couple of days ago and broke all our hearts.

Matt and my dear high school pal Gary had been partners for fifteen years, and they were both family to me. It's gratifying to realize that all my memories of Matt are funny. I remember best his laugh: the guy had an enormous, bellowing laugh that filled the room and was often coupled with him doubling over or literally slapping his own knee. What a demonstrable love of life!

When Gary and Matt first started dating, Gary called me for input on a gift idea. He doubted himself a little bit and I talked him out of it--though I wouldn't have, had I known Matt at the time. Gary said he'd seen a welcome mat that was very plain but had printed on it, in big block letters, MAT. Now I wish Gary had bought it--Matt would have hooted at that.

I visited Matt and Gary often at their home in New Jersey, and they came here to Ohio nearly as frequently. Every year on the first Saturday in May, they hosted a Kentucky Derby party, which I attended twice. When I met friends of theirs, Gary liked to introduce me as his high school prom date (June 1981, Shady Side Academy). At one of the Derby Day parties, he pulled out this durable introduction while Matt was standing next to him. Matt looked at me and said drily, "And I'm just his lovaaaah," in an exaggeratedly louche accent.

Though reared in the Catholic church, Matt was lapsed. Upon being asked to be a godfather by one of his sisters, Matt duly met with the priest who would be christening the baby. The priest asked Matt for the name of his church and the let's-get-this-wrapped-up part of Matt overruled the steeped-in-Catholicism part. Matt cheerfully told a brief fable about being a member of, let's say, St. Ignatius Catholic church, a place he'd passed from time to time in Oradell, New Jersey. "In Oradell?" the priest said. 

"Yes, Oradell, St. Ignatius, that's my church," Matt said. 

The priest leaned forward and said, "St. Ignatius was closed last year, son. Don't you ever lie to a priest!" It says good things about both the priest and Matt that he was godfather anyway. And how bad a lie could it be if both a funny story and a loving godfather emerged from it?

In the fall of 2001, Ex and I had sixteen friends come spend the weekend. We stayed up far too late one evening, sitting on the porch with drinks and telling funny stories til the wee hours. That night, Matt regaled us with a story from his high school years in Oradell. He and some friends were upset over an ugly new housing development--scads and scads of boxy condos were going up in town. 

The boys decided to go deface a couple of these offensive condos with spray paint late one evening. When they got there, they realized they hadn't planned what sort of indignant message they wanted to impart. Because their big beef with the development was its environmental impact, one of the boys said, "Hey! Let's put something like, The Nature Phantom was here." They all agreed this was an excellent plan and the boy proceeded to misspell, in large spray-paint letters, "the Mature Phantom" instead.

The story stopped us in our tracks. My pal Dan was red-faced with laughter, and wheezing so hard we thought he was going to drop out of his chair. Matt started right in on another story, but Dan held up his hand and cried, "No! You're done! You're done! I can't even breathe! You're not allowed to tell any other stories!"

Ex and I divorced five years ago and just a few weeks afterward, Gary and Matt invited me to join them for a weekend at Duncan House, one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright homes you can rent. It was Valentine's Day weekend, and Gary told me later it had been Matt's idea to include me in what should have been a romantic getaway just for the two of them. I was so grateful to have something to do, and dear friends to spend time with escaping all the reminders of what was going on in my life. That weekend, they also treated me to the best meal I've ever had in my life, at the wee French restaurant Chez Gerard. Matt's kindness and inclusiveness that weekend helped get my newly-unmoored self steered gently back in the direction of thinking life would probably be OK again.

A few months after that, a dear friend of almost 24 years told me matter-of-factly on the phone that he didn't want to be my friend any more because he had made the decision to be Ex's friend instead. I was shattered by this, and called Gary and Matt in tears. Matt, outraged, said, "You have been such a good friend to him! This is ridiculous! I hope you're going to tell Ex that he shouldn't be friends with him either!" 

I said, "Matt, I would no more presume to tell Ex who he can or can't be friends with than fly to the moon."

Matt hissed, "Damn it, you're such a good person!"

When Matt and Gary were coming to join my kids and me in Nags Head, North Carolina a few summers ago, Matt texted me from the Norfolk airport that they were on their way. I texted back that I would have drinks waiting. Here's how it went:

MATT: Be there in two hours
ME: Will have Rose Kennedys waiting for you 
MATT: What's that?
ME: Only mixed drink I really like. Massachusetts bars do it in her honor. Lemonade, vodka, a splash of cranberry juice to tint it "rose," and a lime wedge. It's yummy. The kids even like it but no vodka
MATT: So a Virgin Rose Kennedy
ME: A Rose Fitzgerald
MATT: !!!
ME: Couldn't resist
MATT: Wonder if any actual Kennedys have ever had it
ME: Eunice has, but she doesn't like vodka
MATT: How would you even know that
ME: She prefers sloe gin

Matt appreciated a good bad joke as much as I did, and I knew a Special Olympics crack would make him laugh.

Matt decided at one point that I was an honorary New Yorker (they lived just 15 or 20 minutes from Manhattan). We were discussing a Broadway play on the phone once and I knew more about it than he did, which prompted him to pronounce, "You don't actually live in Ohio, I don't think. You pretend you live in Ohio, but I think you really live here."

When it came up in conversation that my son had never been to New York City, Gary and Matt hosted Slim for several days last summer. He had an amazing time and came home raving about how they were the best and most generous hosts ever (something I was already well-aware of).

Last May, I married the most wonderful guy in the world, and we were so excited that Gary and Matt were here to celebrate with us. In fact, other than our four kids, Matt and Gary were the only guests who stayed here at our house. After the reception, when we were all hanging out at my family's cabin, the two of them disappeared for 45 minutes and returned with five or six half-gallons of ice cream for maybe 15 people. 

It was Matt's idea, of course. It's a party! Let's get too much ice cream! Let's hang out on the porch and laugh and tell stories and enjoy everything here in this circle of friendship and love! 

He wouldn't have put it that way--that would have been too sappy for his sensibilities. But I know that's how he felt, because that's how he behaved, and that was his view of the world: celebrate. 

Is there a better approach? Matt would say, "Nope." And I'd agree.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

And so to bed

Lately I've been thinking about bedrooms, and all the different ones I've had over the years. My first bedroom wasn't even a room, but a drawer, on Fernwood Drive in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was born. My parents already had Sissy and limited space and I fit into a drawer, so that's where I slept for some time. I have no memory of it, but I imagine it was cozy and serene. There's something about burrowing into a tiny space that still appeals to me.

My bedroom in my childhood home was first on the second floor, with large windows overlooking our back yard, very pale pink walls, and my own bathroom. Sometime in late grade school, I moved upstairs to the third floor, with my bedroom next to Sissy's. I had twin beds that had been in the house when my great-grandfather lived there (he built the house in 1909), and today those twin beds are Slim's. My desk and bureau and bedside tables were clearly all purchased together as a suite (or "suit," as people around here pronounce it), and the fact that they all related to each other appealed to my sense of order.

From the quarter-round bedroom window, I could look out onto neighborhood boys playing basketball in our driveway. I could see all the way up to the Koos house and about halfway down our driveway, and often watched my father drive up at the end of the workday. 

I was a neatnik, then as now, and I remember cleaning up and organizing my room on a regular basis, then making my poor parents climb the stairs to look around and to tell me that yes, to answer my question, come to think of it, my room did look just like a hotel room (my idea of the highest level of neatness and order).

Sissy and I did a lot of back-and-forth between our rooms and now that I look back on it, it was almost like having an apartment together. Her room had an antique full bed that fit perfectly into a little alcove and though we rarely slept in the same room at this point, we did share that bed on many a Christmas Eve. We would look out the window and whisper and laugh and listen quietly to the long, low, faraway whistle of a train passing through  East Liverpool's East End. We gazed at the stars and waited for morning and the joyous dive into our Christmas stockings. 

Sissy's bedroom had an old-fashioned vanity with an eyelet skirt and kidney-shaped glass-covered top. Under this was a piece of fabric, cut to fit, made from an old piece of damask, the color of which had mellowed from purple into a sort of dusky violet. Her tall bureau had on top, among other things, a Marta doll from "The Sound of Music" (only admired, never played with) and a peacock feather tucked into a tall bud vase. Her Barbies had their own house in an under-the-eaves low closet with several shelves. 

My own dollhouse had been made by Da Webster, our great-grandfather. He had designed and built it in 1940 for my mother, when she was five. The ingenious folding roof made it an unusual dollhouseyou reached down into it from above, rather than into a cutaway side  and I stocked it with a mix of older pieces which had been my mother's and newer bits of furniture I'd made or bought. I especially loved the bedrooms with their neat windows and simple rectangular lay-outs. 

My parents' bedroom was furnished with the bed which now graces our bedroom—a gorgeous antique four-poster—and my brother Sugar Boy and I occupied ourselves for hours burning off childhood energy by starting at the far end of their long narrow bathroom, running towards the bed, diving into a flip onto the mattress, and landing just barely safely on the other side mere inches from our father's recliner. 

We perched on the end of this bed to watch the moon landing in 1969, and our father took photos of us that day, Sissy and me looking at the TV in a trance while clad in our leopard-print pajamas (!). I was lying on this bed on January 1st, 1973 when I heard on KDKA of Roberto Clemente's death in an airplane accident.

When I went to a five-day boarding school in Pittsburgh for high school, I lived in a dorm room with my roommate, Cynthia. We became close friends and delighted in making our wee room welcoming. My bedspread wasn't a bedspread at all, but an old colorful afghan knit by a distant cousin, Sarah Thompson—black with kite-shaped splashes of bold color all over. 

I took the same afghan with me to college, where I was assigned last-minute to room with Marie, a girl from Silver Spring, Maryland whose chosen roommate had made a last-minute decision not to return to college. Marie and I became fast friends and were eventually in each other's weddings, and we're still very close today. Our second year as roommates, we hit on the idea of turning our two small adjoining rooms into something like an apartment, with one room serving as the boudoir and the front room being our study area/living room. It felt very adult, and served us well when one of us needed to stay up late to study or have some private time with a beau.

Marie was very short and I am very tall, and so I had the top bunk in our bedroom. One evening, I had gone to bed early and conked right out, but Marie and her beau John stayed up. John eventually needed to sneak into the bedroom to get through to the bathroom, and as he did so, he discovered me talking in my sleep. I actually woke myself up with this episode, saying, "Someone kiss me, I don't care who—just anybody!" No idea what I was dreaming about, but I was loud enough that I woke myself up only to see John's Cheshire cat grin at the end of the bunk bed. I blushed to the tips of my toes and said, "NOT YOU, JOHN."

Our bedrooms now hold furniture from my childhoodmy parents' bed in our room, my grandparents' sleigh bed in Sparky's room, my childhood beds in Slim's. Our bureau was the bureau in my parents' bedroom when I was a child, and it's where my mother stationed her Chanel No. 5 and My Sin and dabbed them behind her ears on Saturday nights before going out with my father. 

Sparky's bedroom has a lamp Da Webster made for my mother—Heidi in a sprigged dress, standing on a field of green grass—and after my mother grew up, it sat in my bedroom and now Sparky's. I love the continuity, and the idea that there are generations of memories in each of our bedrooms, and that my kids have made their own memories in their rooms, too.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Wedding stories

Hey! I got married in May . . . six weeks ago now, and feels simultaneously like years ago and moments ago. Like every couple, we had a few bumps on the road to our wedding day, and I shall share some of them here for your amusement.

People can twist anything to become a good-luck totem at a wedding ("No, it's lucky if it rains on your wedding day!" or "Rejoice! You found a spider in your bridal gown!"). Our first particular pre-wedding good-luck charm turned out to be multiple opportunities to live like the Ingalls family on the prairie, minus the sod roof, scarlet fever and grasshopper plague.

I catered our wedding, with the help of Sissy and a couple of dear friends, and wasn't it lucky that in the three weeks I had allotted myself beforehand, the power company decided to do some helicopter pruning! This is a real thing. They have this ginormous saw that hangs, sword-of-Damocles fashion, from a moving helicopter, and they swing it around and lop off branches that are too close to power lines. 

In March or April, we were alerted to this project via a yellow paper notice looped around our kitchen doorknob. The middle paragraph said, WE WILL BE CUTTING IN YOUR AREA ON [big space for the date here]. But instead of filling in some comfortingly specific date, they had written in, um, just the year. As in: 2013. That's it! We called and asked for some more details and were told that they would be doing this project in the couple of weeks leading up to our wedding and reception which, did I mention, I was catering.

In those weeks, our house was loudly buzzed by the saw-dangling helicopter more times than I care to count. The power company's accuracy left much to be desired, because they apparently allowed some of the branches to fall on the power lines anyway, which equals black-outs! Four of them in three weeks, to be precise. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in our house, but hey! It's good luck!

Two days before the wedding, when I was making three cheesecakes and had this wacky  expectation that maybe I could depend on my ovens being operational for several hours, I called Brandon, the power company guy who was in charge of our area. Poor Brandon, who sounded like a chastised sixth-grader on the phone, listened to me wail and plead for assurance that there would be no more power outages either that day, or on our wedding day, and he promised me--promised me--that there wouldn't be. And aside from a 10-minute outage soon after I removed the cheesecakes from the ovens, he held to that promise. 

Another excellent sign of good luck is when the wrong name gets used during the vows, as happened with Steve's middle name. No problem! It's good luck! And although we didn't run out of champagne, we didn't chill enough of it early enough so that though more was on ice (plenty more), word had made its way through our guests that there was no more bubbly to be imbibed. So if you were there and felt short-changed, well, mosey on over and we'll serve you some of what we had left. Just give us an hour of lead time so we can properly chill it. (And did you know warm champagne is indicative of a long and happy marriage? So they say.) 

What truly was indisputable good luck was our finding each other in this wide, wide world. It was good luck that we ended up with four very cool kids between us. It was good luck that we shared the combination of humility and hope necessary to enter into marriage together. 

Good luck was having friends celebrate us and family members support us. It was being smiled upon by the Weather Gods with a perfect day weather-wise: 78 degrees and sunny all the live-long day. It was laughing and dancing on the lawn at our reception, enjoying pizza later that night with our very besties, and the fact that many people traveled many miles  to join us. All of that felt overwhelmingly lucky on our beautiful Saturday in May, and it still does.