Friday, December 2, 2011

I enjoy being a girl...NOT. (rant alert)

You know, in all fairness, being female isn't too bad.  I mean, people don't always expect you to be the strongest or fastest, and sometimes they might think you're dumb because you're of the fair persuasion.  Of course, we wily women can sometimes use those assumptions to our advantage.

I'm just one sentence in, and already, I digress.  Sorry.

I'm just gonna say it: It's fun being a girl.  No kidding.  I mean, yeah, when I was a kid, it's true that I wanted my male cousin's toys, but maybe that was because we were so close in age, it was like being twins.  I'm sure we played together on many occasions due to that fact.  But overall, especially now, girls have the best and brightest toys: Barbie! Build-A-Bear Workshop! all that Disney Princess shit! 
Other things in a girl's life can be pretty sweet too.  We get to dress up almost as much as we want.  In fact, our moms generally encourage it.  They want us to be pretty, femmy, frilly.  Nobody pressures us to do anything but draw, color, paint, chase butterflies, and act goofy.  It's a pretty good existence for those first ten years or so.

And then comes...womanhood.  (And as Greta Garbo once said in Ninotchka, "Don't make an issue of my womanhood."  I frankly don't know how you can't, but whatever.)

It starts off innocuously enough.  Incredible as it may seem, after all I'd been taught in health class in grade school, I was looking forward to "becoming a woman," as they liked to term it when I was a kid.  Oh my God, the innocence of those days!  And to think I was jealous of my younger sister, who started her period at nine (mine didn't come till I was eleven and a half).  Yeah, I got over that real quick, after a couple of monthly cycles introduced me to the concept of cramps.  I didn't remember any of the literature explaining about them.  Lovely.

Thereafter--sparing you, my gentle readers, from the gross details--I spent at least one day every month writhing in pain in bed; on the couch; on a cot in the school nurse's office.  I'm sure I was as surly as the next female teenager, but I'm equally sure that much of it had to do with monthly symptoms such as mood swings and pain, pain, pain.  This pattern continued, without a break, ruining countless school days, holidays, parties, ad nauseam.

Many years later, in my 20s, I lived in a house with three other ladies.  One of them was about thirty, and she complained of her PMS by telling us, "I think my body is just saying, 'Oh my God, have a baby already!' "  I'm inclined to agree with her on that.  I was in such intense pain one month, that, as I told my OB/GYN, it felt like someone broke my spine and put it back together in the wrong order.  He just shook his head at me, not knowing what to say.  I don't blame him.

Men, as sympathetic as they may be (my own wonderful husband included), just don't get it.  Bless them, they can't.  It's beyond them to imagine being in pain on a regular basis, on a schedule in most cases, unless it involves strenuous physical activity.  But we women struggle on every month, trying our best to ignore or overcome the pain.  By the time I was in college, I'd been all the way up the pain med ladder, starting with Midol (aspirin--killed my stomach), to Tylenol (kinder to my poor stomach, but ineffective), and on to prescription Anaprox (now an OTC medication known as Aleve).  Where the hell was the ibuprofen when I was sixteen and missing a day of school almost every month?

I did speak to my mom's OB/GYN, who of course suggested birth-control pills.  The idea was that regulating my period might bring relief from the pain.  (Yet another way in which male doctors are sympathetic, but still clueless.)  I balked at the time--I couldn't see the point, since I barely had boyfriends then, let alone sex--and I'm still convinced that I must be the only woman my age who's never gone on the Pill.  I must admit, there were probably a few months back then when even pregnancy seemed like a better alternative than what one of my aunts used to call "crampoons"--the kind of cramps that seem larger than your own body.

Fast-forward to me now: married twenty-plus years, with two daughters (one gets the crampoons; the other, not so much).  Having had my kids so late, I'm now approaching menopause while they're still relatively young.  It's not pretty for anybody at my house for many days in the month.  Lately, my PMS has expanded itself to almost two weeks.  Two weeks of bloat, stomach upset, mood swings, oops-did-I-just-say-that? moments; two weeks of insomnia, weird dreams, fatigue, hot flashes and lack of focus.  Awesome. 
I have Ambien to help me sleep, but I can only take it so often.  I have Prozac to help improve my mood, but since anti-depressants could kill my liver, I try to use them only as a last resort.

It's not hard to be at the end of my rope when I'm on edge almost constantly.  I sure won't miss my period when it's gone (she claims before her boobs fall), nor will I miss the goddamn PMS.  But this transitional time makes me feel like my hormones are killing me--or will eventually kill someone in my house, anyway.  And yet I love being a woman, being a mom, being a wife.  I like my job; and I don't strictly mind the laundry, driving kids around, cooking, shopping, and all the million-and-one other things I do for everyone else on a daily basis.  I'd just like to be able to do them without feeling like my hair is standing on end all the time.  And I know everyone around me would appreciate it too.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Yeah, I know, the title doesn't even make any sense.  But bear with me.

I was just reading the post of a fellow blogger.  She's the wife of a co-worker of mine, and she and her husband just brought home their 3-yr-old adopted son from the Ukraine.  Overall, it was an 11-month process, filled with mountains of paperwork and the terrible wait and uncertainty that must accompany any adoption.  In the end, they only wound up having to make two trips in order to "bust him out of the orphanage" as she puts it; he's healthy and they adore him.  And yet with all those blessings, she was having trouble putting into words a piece for her local paper about being thankful.

Gratitude, I've found, isn't an instinctive reaction to something given, or even earned: how many of you constantly have to remind your kids to say thanks after they receive something, anything, from a friend, grandparent, etc?  It can also be hard to say thank you and mean it. Just as most of us murmur "fine" when people ask how we are, regardless of how we're really doing at that point in time, we tend to say "thanks" almost as a reflex (after we finally learn to say it in the first place). 

The Thanksgiving holiday in America has become an excuse for gluttony, a day to celebrate football (Packers fans, you know who you are), the final deep breath before plunging into that ocean known as the Christmas (shopping) season.  It can be stressful, fun, crazy, or all (or none) of the above.  I love it, yes, mostly because we have a great dinner that can only be matched at Christmas (my husband's aunt makes a pumpkin pie that puts all other pies to shame), but also because it's one of the few times a year that everyone gets together. 
As our lives have gotten busier and more involved with other pursuits, even my husband's close-knit-but-not-in-your-face relatives don't get the chance to see each other as much as we might like.  We all bring something to save work for the person hosting the dinner, who gets the dubious honor of making the turkey(s), which is really the biggest job, but at least the host doesn't get stuck with making everything else too. 

One memorable year at my brother-in-law's house, he'd made two turkeys and had brined one.  It was so delicious that John didn't get any of it.  And I still recall that in my own family, Thanksgiving was pretty much the ONLY time of the year when we'd have mashed potatoes, my mother having deemed them "too much work" to eat on a regular basis.  (Nowadays, I cheat and don't peel them, so that never gets in my way.)  A few times we had those nasty fake mashed potatoes from a box, which are maybe the foulest thing you can put on any table.  In fact, when I was in college, I warned my mother that I'd sooner stay there for the holiday than endure that crap.

However, apart from all the goodies, and without getting too sentimental, I would like to offer a list of the things I am currently thankful for:

1. I'm thankful that I have a job.  It may not always be the ideal situation--my company decided that this Black Friday, all of us must assemble and work, so there went everyone's four-day weekend--but I have a great boss, fun co-workers, decent pay and good benefits.  Things could be worse.

2. I'm thankful to have a house.  Sure, it's a mess, but people live there.  Our rooms are too small, and it always looks like it's in a state of renovation/repair (okay, I made up that last bit about repair).  We have too much shit.  But at least it's a place for our shit, and it belongs to us (and the bank).  My kids have a place to come home to, and so do their friends; and that's worth so much more than what we paid for it.

3. I'm glad to have a wonderful partner.  Without bragging, please let me state that my husband is a great guy.  Yes, he drives me nuts with things that he does sometimes, but I'm sure I return the favor many times over.  I deal with his love of the Packers, and he deals with my love of fan fiction.  (Well, maybe not so much deal as not quite know for sure what I'm reading.)  In that spirit, we try our best to tolerate each others' quirks and not fight about them; if we do, we try to forgive and move on. 
Nobody's perfect, but his mom sure did a good job with him.

4. I'm thankful for both my families.  My own family, nutty as they can be, are a loud, affectionate bunch.  Till about a year ago, we were privileged to have my Nana at the helm.  We're very lucky to have known her for so many years.  My husband's family are equally nutty--and I say this with love in my heart.  Each of them is different from the others in their choice of spouse and raising of kids, but nobody, including my in-laws, judges anyone else.  Plus most of them, including my brother-in-law, are excellent cooks. 
And my kids blame me for making them insane...if only they knew.

5. I'm grateful for music.  What would my life be without music?  You may as well damn me to a lifetime without love of any kind.  The silence might be nice for awhile, but I think that it would wind up killing me ever so slowly.  How would I ever get along without that songs that have come to mean so much to me?  What would I do without the wonderful feeling that wells up in my chest whenever a current (or old) favorite starts up on my music player/radio/phone?  I don't even want to think about it.

6. Last but not least, I'm grateful for my friends.  The combination of busy lives and being so far from where I was raised means that I don't always get to see the other people I love: my friends, the family I've chosen to surround myself with.  I recall that back in sophomore year of college, I was so very grateful to my friends for helping me through a tough year that I bought them gifts, and pretty much shut my actual family out of the gift-giving.  (As you might guess, they were none too pleased.) 
Nowadays, many of my friendships were either born or nurtured on the internet.  Some of those friends have become close; I see them even less often than I do my own families, but their place in my heart is still secure.  It amazes me when I can tell someone I've never met that I love them, and mean it completely.  The level of support I've received has been amazing in many cases.  It's also good to know that I can keep in touch with those I've known for many years on the internet too...when we both have time.

So, thanks to all, including but not limited to: Shari, Deb, SanDee, Dannika and Colleen.  You make the adventure even more interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ten Perfect Albums, Part One

Yeah, yeah, I stole the concept from the "Ten Things, Motherfucker" blog.  Sue me.  It's brilliant.

But in all seriousness, it got me thinking.  I was driving round with my 17-yr-old a few days ago, telling her in my oh-so-authoritative way that some song or other was "perfect"--that nothing could ever be done to a particular record to improve it or re-make it. I'm sure she was rolling her eyes at me, thinking I had no fucking idea what I was talking about...but I do, kids, I do!

Think about it: could you really and truly improve "In Between Days" by the Cure?  How about "Hang On, Sloopy" by the McCoys?  "Do You Know What I Mean" by Lee Michaels?  Or many records by the Ramones?  I mean, you could re-record them, but you could never truly surpass the original versions.  You get the drift. 

So how about all that 12" vinyl I cherish so much?  Sure, there's perfection at every turn.  I bet about 10% of my current collection would qualify as such.  I have compiled this list on the basis of quality of songs and production, overall unity of sound and/or concept, as well as sequencing.  So let's examine the evidence, no particular order:

1. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (1967): When Rolling Stone, that former bastion of coolness (they lost me at the Justin Bieber cover), took a huge poll and listed the 100 best albums between 1967 and 1987, this one was at the top.  Why?  Oh, let me count the reasons, dear readers. 

Number one, it's recognized as the first "concept" album, meaning of course that it had a sort of story to tell.  Those that followed in its wake were similar masterpieces like The Who's Tommy and the Moody Blues's Days of Future Past (more on this one later).  Now, in this case, it's not truly a linear story with a beginning, middle and end (MCR pals, see The Black Parade for comparison), but the songs hang together loosely.  The beginning and end of the album are bracketed by the Sgt Pepper theme; but really the "concept" part of it is the unifying sound of the songs, and how they all seem to be part of the whole.

Number two, the songs are fucking brilliant.  Here are the Beatles at the peak of their creativity, and that's putting it mildly.  The songs are among their best, with everyone getting a vocal turn, and even prominently feature the wonderful, long-suffering Ringo Starr.  I bet most people alive today can sing at least one of the songs from Sgt Pepper, even those who weren't even a twinkle in their parents' eyes when the album came out, proving their pervasiveness in modern culture.  As amazing as all the songs are,  the album ends with perhaps the Beatles' greatest achievment, "A Day in the Life." 

And lastly, the production is flawless.  Helmed by the amazing George Martin, aided and abetted by strings, brass and (probably) a boatload of psychedlics, the band went wild with experimentation: adding sounds that nobody'd ever heard before; slowing their vocals or layering them; and showing just about every musical influence all four of them had had up until that point.   I of course own the American version in stereo instead of mono, but still the whole thing makes me sit up and listen.  Anyone who might think Sir George isn't the greatest producer ever is off his fucking rocker.  He took four greasy rocker boys and helped make them into the icons they are today.

Nobody but nobody would have dared before the Fab Four did, and aren't we glad they made the effort?
See also: Rubber Soul, Revolver.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

My Chemical Romance--in gratitude

In light of all that's happened today, July 23, 2011:

This has been a terrible day for the people of Norway, with a mass killing in a place not especially known for violence.  It's also been a sad day for the music industry and those who loved Amy Winehouse, personally and professionally, as she was found dead in her London home at age 27.

But it's also a day when people who love My Chemical Romance celebrate the release of their first album (or it is their first show? I can never remember).

I have to admit, I probably don't fit the profile of a "typical" My Chemical Romance fan.  For one thing, I'm quite a lot older (fifty) than most other fans of theirs that I know--my 17-yr-old daughter, my 16-yr-old niece, and some of their friends.  You get my drift.  But I am first and foremost a music fan, and while I certainly don't love all forms of music, rock-n-roll has been a fortifying presence in my life since I was eleven.  It's amazing to me that I was about sixteen myself the year that the two oldest members of MCR were born, and in college when the two youngest came into the world.

But as I'm finding more and more in my life, age isn't always the most important consideration.

My older daughter turned twelve in 2006.  It was, to put it mildly, a difficult year for all in our house.  She was going through the usual changes: starting middle school, finding new friends, altering her hair, her clothes, and just generally remaking the girl that my husband and I had raised. 
I didn't understand much of what she was going through at that time.  Sometimes she would be angry or impatient with me, for no good reason I could fathom; sometimes she wouldn't talk to me, no matter how much I asked her to.  For someone who wanted my children to rely on me, and feel they could tell me anything, that was almost the hardest part of it all.

Relief for her came in the form of a copied CD of an album called You Brought Me Your Bullets, I Brought You My Love, by a group whose name I'd only heard a few times: My Chemical Romance.  I'd hear bits of the CD played in her room at all hours.  When she would show me pictures of the band at that time, I had no idea how old they were.  (At my advanced age, they might as well have been teenagers themselves.)  Since she seemed so into them, I got her a copy of the Life on the Murder Scene DVD, which then seemed to be on the TV screen almost anytime she was nearby.

I didn't totally understand it at first, her love of these young men whose music seemed so sad, so desperate.  When I'd hear random bits of that first CD, none of it made sense.  It just sounded like raw emotion over a background of shredding guitars, songs that had little structure, but which seemed to mean so much to her.  Somewhere in there I'd catch snippets of the interviews on the DVD, and maybe a minute or two of the songs from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, but I never gave much thought to any of what I'd seen or heard. 

My husband and I didn't know what was going on, and I know we over-reacted in several ways.  I was afraid I was turning into the kind of parent for whom music would form walls instead of bridges.

Finally, late one night, my daughter and I were both watching the DVD when Gerard Way and Brian Schecter were reflecting on the role of the 9/11 attacks in the formation of the band.  Suddenly, inexplicably, I understood.  I said to my daughter, "I get why you like them now."  She beamed, which was a welcome sight to me after all we'd been through.

In September of that same year, I listened with a mixture of pride and excitement as we heard "Welcome to the Black Parade" for the first time.  Not long afterwards, I purchased the tickets for our first MCR show, in March 2007.  That event was something else again.  My daughter and I, famous for annoying each other in various ways, spent several days alone together, and didn't have a single argument.  We listened to Shiny Toy Guns and Regina Spektor while driving to and around the Chicago area; for months afterward, their songs evoked a powerful response in me, of an amazing trip to see an amazing band.

And it was a terrific show.  I'd grown up in the 70s in the New York City area, but because I was so young, I never really saw many of the great shows that took place at Madison Square Garden.  I missed Yes and Pink Floyd and Springsteen; Kiss, Alice Cooper and Paul McCartney and Wings.  The only real theatrical production I ever saw in a rock-n-roll arena was Elton John, and even he had toned things down by 1976.  But MCR delivered a classic rock show, starting with Gerard Way being wheeled out on a gurney to sing "The End", and playing the whole of The Black Parade, front to back, the way it was intended to be.  I have to admit, I didn't brave the pit during the album set, but I left the safe seat I'd requested at the Rosemont Arena and stayed out on the floor for the Revenge songs.  For months, I kept a bag of black and silver confetti that I'd collected off the venue floor, and proudly wore my tour shirt.

Just over a year later, we drove to Chicago again to see another show, and to meet up with a few online friends.  We all had a blast, with the exception of my younger daughter, who isn't crazy about loud noise.  She also used to get tired and bored after a certain time, so let's just say I don't remember too much about the last couple of songs that night.  But we were thrilled to meet our friends in person and to see the band we all loved so much.  I particularly remember one of the first songs that night was "Kill All Your Friends," where I stood beside my very good friend and sang along to "You'll never take me alive/you'll never take me alive/Do what you need to survive/And I'm still here."

Fast-foward four years to today.  We got to see MCR earlier this year, almost three years to the day after our last show in 2008.  We'll be traveling to Milwaukee to see them once more next month, and soon we'll be meeting up in Chicago again, just for fun, with our beloved friend from the 2008 show and her younger daughter. 
Due to my fangirl-ish love of MCR, I know others my age may think I'm crazy, but I know my 40-something pal in New York doesn't think so; nor does the stranger I recently stood near at the Aragon Ballroom.  Whoever she is, she knows, as I do, that the love of MCR has nothing to do with what they look like (though it never hurts to be easy on the eyes); it has to do with how their music makes us feel.  

I know that MCR has always felt that "this band can save lives."  After hearing stories from many younger fans, I believe it's true.  I can tell you my own story, too: that they provided an important bridge between myself and my older daughter, one that endures till this day.  Their music was once a way for some young men to try and make some sense of, and even defy, a tragic event that touched so many lives.  It's become something that helped others make sense of their own lives, and carry on when they thought they had no reserves of hope or energy.

Those young men are nearly ten years older now, and their lives, like those of their earliest fans, are totally different now.  But they, like all of us, need something to hold on to.  Their music has evolved too, into something that they perhaps couldn't have imagined in the face of a terrible tragedy: an anchor for not only themselves, but for all of us who love what they bring into our lives. And in the face of today's awful events, we can certainly use it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mini-blog #1: New Music

Recently I made my first purchase from Wicked Cool Records, which is a smallish NYC label owned and run by none other than "Little Steven" Van Zandt, the lead guitar player for the E Street Band.  (The oldsters among us may remember Steve B.D.--Before Do-Rag--back in the 1970s, when he wore a straw pimp hat and was called "Miami Steve" for reasons unknown.  Those were the days.)

Anyway, my point here is that I got two exclusive 45s, from Wisconsin-via-Brooklyn rock quartet Locksley and from Danish garage band The Breakers, both with--wait for it!--non-album B-sides, the singular joy of my early record-collecting days.  Thanks to the satellite station Underground Garage, I've heard these and many more, and now they're mine...all mine!  *rubs hands together gleefully*

The other objective of this blog is to let you know that the service was crazy fast.  I emailed them to let them know that their delivery was faster than Jimmy John's, and I'm not kidding.  I ordered my goodies online on June 30, and they were waiting in my office mail yesterday, July 5.  Wow! 

And as if all that weren't enough, they sent me a Wicked Cool sampler of bands I've already been infected by...uh, I mean, amazed by, through listening to the station and the recorded radio show!  Thirteen artists, fourteen songs, all at no extra charge.  It was almost worth the $7.90 shipping (only $2.90 of which was the actual postage), but hey, people did their job and did it fast. 

The only quicker way to get these would have been to steal them.  Just kidding.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nana (started October 2010)

Note: my wonderful Nana, Florence, passed away October 2010, at the age of 98.  She was too amazing, as you'll see.  I wanted to write something and read it at her funeral, but my sister convinced me that it'd be too long and nobody would want to sit through it.  

I'm not sure I could've gotten through it myself.  But here it is, in the extended version.

A few years ago I wrote a story in which the beloved Nana of a main character died.  My character was a journalist, and so her Nana wisely chose her to deliver the eulogy.  What I wrote was simple and, I thought, moving.  In fact, a writer friend of mine asked for permission to use parts of it when she killed off her main character in an epic story she was doing.  Of course, it's a different business when it's your loved one who's passing or passed away.

These last few months, my Nana’s been on my mind almost constantly.  I’ve been trying to think of a single word that would characterize her.  And I finally came up with one.  I know maybe the great-grandchildren won’t agree with me on this one, but the word is ENERGY.

How else can you describe a woman who gave so much to her family for so very long?  She got married in her mid-20s and was a mom within two years.  Then her two oldest daughters got married in their mid-20s, and became moms within a year.  So, by the time she was fifty, she was a grandma four times over, that fourth time on her own 50th birthday.  By contrast, I’m forty-nine now, and my girls are just 16 and 10.  Imagine how much energy you’d have if you were a grandparent at just fifty, knowing that your kids had grown up, married, and settled down; and you could enjoy that next generation…then send them home when they got to be too much for you.  I can't do that.

When the four of us, my sister and I, and my cousins Scott and Cheryl, were born, it was the 1960’s.  The 60's were maybe the last decade when women either wanted to, or were expected to, or could afford to, stay home with their kids.  My dad worked, and so my own mom was what used to be called a housewife, and my sister and I did our best to drive her nuts.  I’m sure we succeeded on more than one occasion.  But I’m sure mom also knew that help wasn’t too far away; once we moved from my folks’ original apartment in north Jersey, we got a house within walking distance from where Nana and Pappa lived.  Even when we moved to Howell Court, we were still just a five-minute drive away.

My Aunt Mar and Uncle Dave, on the other hand, both had jobs that meant they were out of their home all day.  In those pre-daycare days, what would you do?  I mean, nobody would turn their kids over to strangers to be fed, burped and cleaned, right?  Even leaving out the potential cost, who could do such a thing?  It was almost unheard of.  Our family had a secret weapon: Nana.  She practically raised Scott and Cheryl, and later, our younger cousin, Nick.  I recall spending many a preschool weekday at her house myself. 

I have to tell you, I was jealous of Cheryl and Scott, because even though we saw Nana often, they got to be with her ALL THE TIME when they were little, and beyond—even when they started school, they often spent afternoons there too. (No after-school programs that I knew of, back then.)  They were SO lucky!  But I knew by then that I was fortunate too.  Not only did I have a full set of grandparents in those early years, but mine lived just down the road, not in another state, or even another city.  Why would your grandparents live somewhere else where you couldn’t see them all the time?  What was that about?

When I was little, Nana constantly amazed me.  Unlike my own mom’s, and, I admit, my own, her handbag was a marvel of organization.  She always knew where everything was, and if a child needed a tissue or a stick of gum while in church, or anywhere else, she could find it immediately, with no digging.   Nana was a buffer between siblings while in quieter places, making sure we failed yet again to fight and/or kill each other. 
She was a wonderful caregiver, and an excellent cook.  She may not have taught me to cook, but I still use some of her recipes, which she was kind enough to give me some years ago, after I got married. 

I always tell my kids about her potato and tomato salad, the taste which I’ve never been able to duplicate.  I console myself with the thought that it must be the lack of Jersey tomatoes where I live that causes this issue.  She used to fry us hamburgers in her little skillet, and serve them to us on Wonder Bread with the crusts cut off—a messy dish, sure, on that very soft bread, but one we loved.  Her white metal pantry cabinets always held candy for us kids, usually Baby Ruths or whatever our Pappa liked.  For him, when he was home for lunch or dinner, she used to make a dish that still grosses me out—a mixture of meat, eggs and escarole she called giumbaut (not sure about the spelling).  And, of course, all the other wonderful Italian dishes in her repertoire. 

Family holiday dinners at her little house were absolutely crazy.  The adults ate in the living room.  I always seem to remember that we’d bring in the picnic table from outside for that purpose.  Us kids, just the four oldest cousins at the time, got to eat at the little kitchen table, closest to where the food was prepared.  It was loud to all of us, but for Nana, who was raised with I-still-can’t-remember-how-many siblings, it probably seemed a lot quieter.   She’d grown up surrounded by family; we were lucky enough to carry on that tradition for her and with her.  I remember her telling me that in the early 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, that all of her siblings of working age had jobs, so money was never a difficulty at that time.  She told me she wasn’t even AWARE of the Depression till she got married and it was just the two of them, with one income.

Nana had originally planned to be trained as a dietician, but those plans were abandoned in favor of her husband and kids.  I loved hearing her stories about her family, especially her oldest brother Jim, who at a certain point was estranged from the family and was never really seen by them after that.  I wish I could remember if she told me why that happened.  She told me about her mom and dad and how they met; the mysterious origins of her father and how the woman who raised him wasn’t a blood relation, but who had given him her last name, De Marco. 

She told us about the scandal in her family when her oldest sister, Mary, and another sister, Anna, both married men literally old enough to be their father; and how, in the 1940s, an oppressively Catholic time, one of her sisters wasn’t even allowed to have a non-Catholic in her bridal party.  Many of these things were shocking to me at the time she told me, but what I didn’t understand at first was that she was from a different time, and even a much different world, where things that seem small now could tear a family apart.  I know she never wanted that for us.

She met our Pappa, Nick, when she was 19, married him 5 years later, and lost him 35 years after that, when the four oldest cousins were in grade school, and when his namesake, Nicky, was a toddler. We were heartbroken, all of us, but none of us the way Nana surely was.  I didn't go to the funeral, since I was just 11, but I'll never forget my big, strong Uncle Dave coming back to the house in tears afterwards.   That, more than anything, was a sign of how final that event was.  I didn't even see my Nana cry until several days later.

I've forgotten to mention her sense of humor, which could be a little bawdy at times.  She referred to her lady parts as her "cookie," and once actually I saw her hold a platter near her lower abdomen, stating she was "putting her cookie on a plate."  (Yeah, and I'm really not kidding.  I almost wish I was.)  Anytime we received a money gift in her presence, she'd claim that the recipient owed her those funds.  And let's not forget what she tried to pull over on her married granddaughters: patting her lap and beckoning our husbands to her, insisting she loved them more than their wives did.  Sometimes they took the bait and pretended to be tempted.  She was hilarious; we all loved it. 

Nana was amazing in a different way, too.  She was what I liked to call the psychic in our family (I maintain that each Italian family has just one at a time).  She told me about the various superstitions she'd grown up with as the child of two immigrants, and the ways they might affect your life.  Also, she was able to predict the gender of all six grandchildren, and about half her great-granchildren as well.  The exception was my cousin Scott, who'd moved out-of-state, and whose wife was unavailable for Nana's personal service.

Her method was simple: when I was pregnant with my first child, I stood near her, and she put one hand on my belly, and the other on my butt.  In short order, she proclaimed I was having a girl.  My doctor was amazed by this non-invasive procedure when I told him about it, and said he "could sure use someone like that here."  After my daughter was born, Nana looked at the way her hair grew on top of her head, and told me the next time, I would again have a girl.  My sister, on the other hand, has two sons; she consulted Nana when they were considering baby #3.  Nana told her she could hope for a girl, but she would undoubtedly have another boy.  So this is why I have two nephews on that side instead of three. 

Even though she never really asked us for anything in celebration of her birthdays, or Christmas, we tried over the years to get her great gifts, ones that we hoped would be able to convey how much we loved and appreciated her.  At first, the grandchildren gave her little knickknacks, like tiny ceramic figurines that bore legends like "I Love You This Much".  I do seem to recall one memorable Christmas when my aunt, uncle and cousins bought her a padded toliet seat.  As silly as that sounds, she loved it.  It was crazy.  We'd send her flowers, but she told us she didn't like them because "flowers die."  One of my cousins then had the bright idea of replacing flowers with balloons; that too was a big hit.  Most recently, I'd send her a mini Christmas tree, with its own set of ornaments and lights, to commemorate all the Christmases I'd spent at her house, in her fortunate company.

She really didn't like the idea of us having parties for her; yet, under the guise of a graduation party for me, we managed to fool her into attending her own 70th birthday party at my folks' house.  In fact, her younger sister Margie even stayed at her house, cooking for days the food meant to be served at "my" party.  Many years later, after I was married and living a thousand miles away, the rest of the family lured her to another celebration: her 90th.  She may not have been thrilled about the whole idea at first, but she was by all accounts delighted with that surprise.  I was sorry my husband, kids and I had to miss it.  Lucky for me, both those occasions were documented and turned into photo albums, which were always kept out for anyone to peruse and smile over.

Her house wasn't the largest or the fanciest.  Good Lord, she had furniture that was probably thirty years old when she passed away; the paintings on the walls never changed: and the carpet, if I recall correctly, was still orange.  She refused to have anyone come in to replace it and make it less ugly.  But the smallish entertainment center held many pictures of us, so many that new ones had to be placed in the front of each frame, covering up the older photos.  There was even one of all the grandchildren with our respective spouses or fiances, taken a month or two before my wedding specially for Nana.  And I haven't even mentioned the photo collages in the hall, all of which assured Nana of familiar, beloved faces within her sight almost all the time.

This last bears out the one really true thing I wrote in my fictional eulogy: that all Nana ever wanted was to be surrounded by those she loved.  On Christmas Eve, just before the traditional fish dinner, we'd all get up and walk around, hugging and kissing and wishing each other a Merry Christmas.  All except Nana, that is; as the matriarch of our little clan, she simply sat in the dining room in sort of a place of honor.  She accepted our wishes and returned them to us, along with the kisses and love we always knew we could count on from her.  We may have tried to protect her feelings over the years, glossing over or omitting things that we felt could hurt her, but she was always most concerned about how we felt.  She accepted all from those she loved, without judging harshly, always loving us back.

We were fortunate to have known her, to have had her love for so many years.  And so we gather one last time around her, so that she might feel our love again, and remember it always, as will we.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What I Want for my Birthday

Unbelievable as it may seem, I find myself looking down the barrel of my 50th birthday in the middle of June.  I'm still not sure how that happened, but in the normal order of the universe, who does not die grows older. (Put that in your fortune cookie and eat it.)

Over the years--many, many years--I've wanted a lot of goodies for my birthday. I don't know exactly when the want came up, but of course, it may have been amplified by the ads I was subjected to during the cartoon shows I watched every Saturday morning.  Mainly, though, those ads were for toys and breakfast cereal (too little too late, I'd already eaten by the time I settled in for a long morning with the electronic babysitter).

When I was maybe 5-10 years old, I wanted a swing set in my yard.  In fact, we briefly rented a house that had one, but I really don't recall spending much time on it.  I knew then that there are parks all over the place, but the nearest swings were located behind my grammar school.  And who wants to spend any more time in the schoolyard than absolutely necessary?  Another plus would have been that everyone would've wanted to come over to our house all the time.  Of course, my folks took care of that possibility when they installed a pool in the back yard.

Also around that time, closer to ten than to five, I wanted, and got, a Malibu Barbie doll.  Rapture!  She was awesome, with summer-blond hair, almost-normal boobs, and a permanent tan (from all that surfing, no doubt). I used to wash and comb her fake hair all the time; it never occurred to me that since she wasn't actually alive, the only way her hair could have gotten dirty would be if I made it that way.  It's amazing how you sometimes pick toys that are the opposite of what you are: womanly vs. girlish; tan vs. pale; blonde vs. brunette (God, how I wanted to be a blonde!); athletic vs chubby.

At the opposite end of the fun scale, I wanted both a chemistry set and a rock tumbler when I was maybe eight.  I can see now why I never got either one: the chemistry set was probably viewed as an invitation to blow things up, and it's likely that the rock tumbler made too much noise.  It's the same rationale you'd use when you'd refuse to get your kid a drum kit, no matter how talented he/she is: the goddamn noise!

As the years passed, many times my fondest wish was for some LP or other.  My mom, who abhorred rock music as a whole, and from whom I had to hide any new purchases if they were musical in theme, would gladly purchase me whatever I long as it was a gift.  Apparently, it was a waste of money if I spent it, but not if she did.  Hmmmm...I never did quite understand that logic.

When I was turning 19 and in college, all I wanted that year was an SLR camera.  They have these now in a digital version, of course; but mine was an old-school manual SLR that needed a separate flash, telephoto lenses, and all those goodies.  I remember the day I looked at with my folks in our local department store, longing for it, but they wouldn't break down and buy the damn thing, no matter how I pleaded. 
The entire day of my birthday, I sulked, convinced they'd blown it and had forgotten what I wanted.  But at dinner, there it was.  I took hundreds of pictures with it over the next few years and took it everywhere, even to Italy when I did a summer there.  Some years ago, the light meter got dislodged, and I had to stop using it.  Sadly, I've never had it repaired, and it's somewhere in my house now, gathering dust in its case.  But the beautiful pictures I made live on, proving to my kids (and myself) that I once had a life.

Fast-forward to now: I'm a working wife and mom of two.  Sometimes I get flowers, sometimes not; sometimes I get jewelry, mostly not.  Many years we'll go out to dinner.  With my husband's work schedule, a dinner out with him is a rare treat indeed.  More so if it's just the two of us.

So...what do I want now?  At this point in my life, the wants aren't always so easily or cheaply satisfied.   For example, since I have a 60-mile daily commute round-trip, I need a newer, more fuel-efficient vehicle.  I'd love a new front-loading washer-dryer pair; our old appliances are getting tired after nearly twenty years, and the washer usually requires two spin cycles before the clothes are properly wrung out.  It's mostly just annoying.  And of course, I'd prefer a bigger house (and the money to pay someone to clean it), because our rooms just don't have the storage that they should. 

But, since you can't have everything (nor should you, I have discovered), I'll be happy to take what I have, try hard to work for what I need, and hold out with my old car for as long as possible.  Unless, of course, someone feels that they need to get me one.  That, or the washer-dryer pair.  Maybe you can get a deal.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Places that are Gone #2: Pecht's Bakery

When I was a kid, there was only one place where I wanted my birthday cake to be from: Pecht's, located in Brick Plaza in Bricktown.  We used to stop there on Sundays after church, which was quite the feat; there's still only a single-lane road that leads in and out of the main shopping area in Brick, and on weekends it's usually backed up quite a bit.

But oh, was it worth the wait!  The cupcakes were amazing: moist, sweet, perfect.  And the frosting?  With that stuff on top, it almost didn't matter what was underneath it.  Mr Pecht had it all together, I'd say.  The frosting was so divine that I used to eat the bottom of the cupcake first; ever try that?  There's probably a law that says only kids can eat that way, but if I could have one of those cupcakes now, I'd probably attempt it anyway.  I pretty much only ate the vaniila cupcakes/frosting; the strawberry wasn't quite as good, and I wasn't a big chocolate cake fan back then. 

Many years later, I actually worked at Pecht's after finishing college (I Got a BS in Foreign Language For This? my souvenir t-shirt would have read).  I first worked with a young married woman whom I'll identify as Suzanne.  She was not only a born-again Christian, but she and her husband also sold Amway (a catalog-and home-sale company that makes household products).  I kinda knew I was in trouble when her eyes glazed over the same way whenever she spoke about either Jesus OR Amway.  Hmmm.... Suzanne taught me how to clean up the bakery every night (we had the night shift together, since I came in about 1-2 pm every day), how to make the shelves clean and gather up the crumbs, which were incorporated into the bakery's crumb cakes every day.

Mr Pecht, a crusty old German man (FYI, not trying to be offensive; my father-in-law qualifies as same), had lost his wife within a year or so before I started working there, which apparently didn't improve his mood.  I never really saw him smile much, though I did get him to do it at least once.  I'm still not sure what would have made him happy.  His sons worked with him, and they were less dour; but we didn't spend much time with any of them, as we were ringing up customers and cleaning. 

As my time at the bakery went on, Suzanne left, and I met a lovely lady named Joan, who was about my mom's age.  She introduced me to her daughter, whose name I can't recall, and we spent quite a lot of time talking and chumming around.  I mostly remember that my friend Joan wore Opium perfume, which is why I later got a bottle for myself; and that she gave me a lot of shit on the occasional day I'd come in to work hungover, which was okay with me.  She was hilarious.  There were a few others who worked with me in that time I was at Pecht's, but eventually I left there and started working at Spencer Gifts, which was a lot less sleazy in the mid-80s than it is now.

I've been living in the midwest for more than 20 years now, and I'm not sure how long Pecht's has been gone.  Looking back, and knowing what I know now about baking, I think that wonderful frosting I loved so much was made with vegetable shortening.  But we'll never really know: my first co-worker, Suzanne, told me that she'd learned from our boss that he'd refused to leave his recipes to his sons, thus ensuring that when he was gone, so too would the bakery be.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wild (for the extra sisters I didn't have till I was an adult)

In a different lifetime
I would’ve been your best friend
Running through summer fields
Ponytailed and mosquitobitten
Shrieking, avoiding the bees
Rolling on grass
Gathering all the flowers we could hold
Under tents of bedsheets
Sharing secrets of the day, the minute, my life, your life
Watching your blonde hair and my dark
Flow wild as we run.

In less than half a decade
I would’ve been your best friend
But we would’ve lied and told everyone we were sisters
And that your blue eyes and my brown
Were perfectly normal in our family
Giggling, crazy, wild nights in Asbury and beyond
Sneaking what we could
Blue eyeshadow worn with our Levi’s
(not that you needed it)
Getting in trouble, oh yeah
Never telling anyone
Secrets of my life, your life, the minute, the day
Anything at all
Wild as we run.

And when I see you now
Whenever that is
We get to pick up where we might’ve left off
When time and school and families
Pull us apart, unwilling, never really letting go
Each one always keeping one end of the thread
Be it shoelaces, phone cords, guitar strings
Never really letting go
Always wanting more but never getting
Time slips on
But the echo of your laugh, your voice
The memory of your face, your eyes
Keeps me holding on
Sustains me when I can’t
Just can’t, and nobody else knows or understands.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My life in music, part three

Starting in grade school, my sister and I had two friends that we spent almost all of our free time with, up until they moved to Florida when we were all in high school.  They were a set of identical twin sisters, in whose basement we spent countless hours talking, playing pool and listening to records.  I remember in particular two of those LPs: the huge double album that was the American Graffiti soundtrack, and Tea for the Tillerman, by Cat Stevens. The former featured between-song rants by none other than Wolfman Jack, a shadowy figure to me at that time.  I had no idea that was his actual schtick.  (And I still get chills when I hear "Runaway" by the great Del Shannon.)  The latter had, among other delights, a great track called "But I Might Die Tonight!"   Both those records take me back to a time when my experience with music was much more limited, and therefore more precious.

In high school, I kept up my obsession with Elton John by enshrining every mention of his name that I could find in one of several scrapbooks (I seem to recall having three or four of them by the time I went to college).  Nineteen seventy-five was insane; I still consider it "Elton John year" and  possibly the height of his career (an Oscar for "The Lion King" notwithstanding).  The man was everywhere, on every TV show you could think of, every awards show, and playing in what seemed like every venue. 

I didn't get to see him till the following year, and what a first concert: my dad took me to Madison Square Garden to witness the Louder than Concorde, but Not Quite as Pretty tour.  (For the uninitiated and the just plain too young to know, the Concorde was the plane that made the first commercial supersonic, transatlantic flight.  This trimmed the normal 7-8 hour New-York-to-London route down to three hours.)  Somewhere I might still have the tour program; does anyone sell those anymore?  All I ever see at shows now are shirts, bags, posters, etc, most of them overpriced to boot.

In those years I had two main outlets that serviced my intense musical needs: on Friday nights, it was the Midnight Special; on Saturday nights, Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was the attraction.  For someone who attended few concerts, those shows were a Godsend. 

They couldn't have been more different.  Midnight Special was hosted by the amazing Wolfman Jack, and featured live performances by musicians and stand-up comics.  It was fun, especially when you mixed the Wolfman in with all those crazily-attired Seventies musicians.  He was so excited that he made you excited about what you were going to see.  The audience got to sit on pillows in front of the stage, like they were in the world's biggest rec room.  I'm not even going to try and name all those who were on the Midnight Special, but one performance stands out: the very first music video I'd ever seen, by a little English four-piece called Queen.  "Bohemian Rhapsody" was its name, and I can't speak for anyone else watching, but my mind was properly blown.  I just saw an ad on TV for a DVD set of Midnight Special, so now I know what I want for my next birthday.

Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was a little more mannered.  The show began with Kirschner himself, comically stiff and apparently not accustomed to speaking in front of a camera, introducing the acts for the evening.  Naturally, I had no idea of Kirschner's contribution to the music world and how far back it went until many years later.  Then the viewers would be ushered into an actual concert, in an arena, with that night's musicians, to be mesmerized by a performance they would never see anywhere else.  In fact, I'm not sure that series was ever brought to VHS or DVD.  I remember in particular a great show that featured Loudon Wainwright III, Tom Chapin, and the late Harry Chapin, whose music was so much more than pop radio ever gave him credit for.  Years later I found out that Harry Chapin had been instrumental in lighting the fire for the anti-hunger benefit that became Live Aid, a project that, sadly, only came to fruition after his death. 

Wolfman Jack became an inspiration for me while I was in high school.  He did a late-night show for a year or two on WNBC; that fact, and the transfer of Cousin Brucie (Morrow) to NBC, pretty much cemented my loyalty to that station.  Plus, WABC was almost always in the midst of a huge contest, a plea for ratings if ever there was one.  Damn, just give me someone great to listen to, a live voice, someone whose enthusiasm will cause mine to ignite as well.  I don't care about contests!  Give me the crazy guy who howls like a wolf and keeps me listening until my head droops and my eyes can't stay open.  I still recall the night my sister and I spent at a new friend's house.  Even though I'd seen him on countless Midnight Specials, I heard the Wolfman, really heard him, for what felt like the first time, and all I could think was: who is this guy?  Where did they find him?  And where do I sign up for a job like that?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My life in music, part two

As I got older and supposedly more sophisticated, I was pretty much glued to the radio.  Due to my limited music-buying budget, I used to lie in wait on Saturdays with my portable tape recorder (a birthday gift from my folks).  Whenever a favorite song would come on, I'd pounce, hitting "record" and "play" as quickly as possible.  No high-tech recording in my world; I certainly had no intention of doing anything illegal with those songs.  I don't remember if I ever listened to those tapes. I think the point of them was simply having the songs in my possession, so to speak.  In fact, I may still have a box of them.  I'm sure they're as full of static and the sounds of me telling my sister to shut up as they are of the music I was so obsessed with.

This was also the era of the K-Tel collections, which were mostly sold on TV.  As I discovered when I bought one, they were indeed crammed with current hits (much like the Now That's What I Call Music series).  Of course, there were 20 songs squeezed onto a 12-inch vinyl LP...which meant that all the songs lasted about 2-1/2 minutes, whether their running time was actually that long or not.  The thing I remember most about that collection was Rod Stewart's version of the Sam Cooke song "Twistin' the Night Away."  I'd never heard the original at that point, so I had no way to compare, but I liked it then and still do.

I became a devoted fan of the American Top 40 program, hosted by Casey Kasem, which aired on Sunday mornings (usually winding up about the time we got back from church).  What fascinated me in particular was hearing songs that were never played on radio where I lived.  Since the Top 40 was meant to represent airplay on a national level, it was yet another way I was able to discover new music. It was weird to find that a song I'd never heard on local radio was in the Top Ten nationally.  And it was exciting, every week, to witness the rise and fall of various songs, some I loved, and some I probably haven't heard or thought of since.

When I was in middle school, I had a peculiar habit: I kept a notebook in my locker with song lists.  If you're on twitter, you know how occasionally people will post their song of the day?  I've always found that amusing, like it's a new thing.  Well, that's what my notebook was, a listing of my songs of the day.  I figured, my head was already filled with music; why not allow myself to concentrate on one particular song all day long, which would be the background in moments not occupied with other thoughts (like those pesky school assignments)?  It's almost like I was trying to create a soundtrack for myself in those pre-portable-music days, kinda like when people say they'd want a certain track as their "theme song."  (We obviously have a pretty inflated view of ourselves nowadays.)  

I had no such opinion of myself; I simply lived in my own head quite a lot, so, just like my room, I wanted it to be filled with my favorite things.  Had they existed, I definitely would've been one of those kids who'd be attached to an mp3 player, wearing my earbuds during passing time and in study hall.  As it was for me, my greatest pleasure was listening quietly with those great big headphones (known as "cans" in recording studios) if I was down in the living room, or lounging in front of the record player if I was in my own room.  I recall having my friend Susan over one weekend.  She was a pretty quiet girl, not unlike myself, and I smile even now to think of the two of us, reading and listening to music, not really talking at all, or feeling the need to do so.

Speaking of reading, one of my obsessions with music meant that I had to know all the words.  It drove me insane when I wanted to sing along and didn't know what to say.  This is the kind of evil that spreads those infamous "misheard lyrics" far and wide, causing unintentional hysteria amongst the masses. Of course, part of the power of music that you like, and that your parents don't like, is that they can't understand the words either.  You have the power if you know the words, both for singing along and for the joy of getting it.  And as we all know, getting it is everything.  And so Hit Parader magazine became my new best friend.  Not only did it feature lyrics for all the great songs I'd hear on the radio, but it had amazing articles by Lisa Robinson, Legs McNeil, and even Wayne County.  (If these names don't mean much to you, you're too young to be reading this and should move on to something else.) 

Talk about living vicariously: Lisa Robinson was a denizen of the NYC downtown scene, hanging out at places like the fabled Max's Kansas City, and later, CBGB's; Legs McNeil was a gonzo reviewer cut from the same cloth as the late Lester Bangs; and Wayne County was...Wayne, and was later Jayne.  She was originally he, and from the South, where they apparently didn't cotton to boys who dressed like girls.  This was mind-blowing stuff, but it also opened my eyes to a world I could only hope to join.  Lisa...I wanted to be her: the first Aerosmith interview I ever read was by her.  The article started out, "Aerosmith is a punk rock band."  This before punk was an actual form of music.  Legs: I wanted to meet him (and Lester Bangs, for that matter) and listen to him talk music.  And Wayne/Jayne...I would like to have seen her perform.  The love of all those people and what they stood for came to fruition when (years later) I happened upon an LP called New York New Wave, which featured the song "Max's Kansas City", performed by Wayne County and (his) Backstreet Boys.  Wild shit, and an entree into the music I'd missed by being so young then.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Places That Are Gone #1: Peterson's Sunset Cabin

Of all the things I try to share with my kids when we visit New Jersey, there's one that I really wish I could, but I just can't.

When I was in grade school, my dad worked, and my mom stayed at home with me and my sister.  She was there when we went to school; she was there when we came home.  We ate out, sure, or got pizza from the local pizza parlor (FYI, Little Caesar's and Domino's do not qualify as pizza parlors), but mostly we ate home-cooked food.  My mom was a terrific cook in those days.  My folks are retired now, and her cooking skills, while still good, don't get the exercise they once did.  But my point is that eating out was a lot rarer in those days than it is for me and my family.  Meals out were special, for actual special occasions, like birthdays.

On the first day of school, every year without fail, my parents would take us out to eat.  And pretty much every year, we'd go to Peterson's, located by the railroad tracks in Lakewood, New Jersey.  As the name implies, it looked like a cabin on the outside, albeit a rather large one with reddish-colored logs.  We'd pass through the front doors and have to walk past the big long bar, lit up only behind the bottles, to reach the dining room.  This was a large open room, at the far end of which stood the charcoal grill, where most of the food was prepared.  I used to sometimes walk over to that grill, never getting too close due to the heat, and watch the cooks as they worked.

Peterson's specialty was grilled and barbequed meats, prepared over that fire I was so fascinated with.  They had steaks, chops and chicken.  When I'd order the chicken, it always made my sister groan: in the era when restaurants like that made everything to order, chicken took extra time.  I didn't mind, and neither did my parents; they always indulged us at Peterson's.  If I recall correctly, the menu didn't have warnings about the perils of eating undercooked meat (unthinkable!), but advised the diner that if he/she wanted to order the filet mignon well-done, then "have it the way you like it, and all others be damned."  Pretty radical stuff for a steakhouse menu, no?

The salad was kind of interesting, and something I don't think I've seen since: the wait staff would bring out a big bowl with quartered wedges of iceberg lettuce.  You'd place one in your wooden salad bowl and dress it with your choice of, I think, Italian, blue cheese or French dressing.  God, but I loved blue cheese dressing back then.  I don't even remember tomatoes, olives or even carrots in that salad--just the lettuce wedges.  You had to cut them with your steak knife in order to eat them, but oh well.

The baked potatoes were something else again.  They would arrive with a little wooden spear in them, a sign of sorts, that informed you the potato had been "rubbed, scrubbed and tubbed" so that you could feel free to eat the skin if you liked.  My childhood eating habits welcomed this innovation.  I would butter the potato and eat a layer; then butter it again and eat another layer, until finally I'd consumed the entire thing.  (No wonder I myself was pretty "tubby" back then.)  I might add that those were big Idaho potatoes, the likes of which I no longer consume at dinnertime, since they're so enormous and I'd actually like to be able to eat the rest of my dinner too.

Aside from me ordering the charcoal-broiled chicken, I think my sister would usually have a burger, well-done, thanks, and my folks would've enjoyed steaks.  I don't recall having appetizers, or my parents even offering them.  With the dinners we used to eat at Peterson's, I doubt whether we would've had room for anything extra.

Peterson's went out of business some years ago, and I recently found some pictures of the condemned building on the internet.  As I understand, it was torn down within the last few years, and so it now lives on only in the fond memories of those who dined there.  Too bad.  Oh well, my older kid's a vegetarian now anyway.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My life in music, part one

I'm from Jersey.  I grew up in a nice suburban house with a nutty Italian nuclear family.  I was never big into music till I was about 11.  In 1972, I lost my beloved grandfather, and I guess part of me was looking for some comfort. I was a huge nerd, and not in a good way. I was fat, with crooked teeth, and glasses; so, just your normal suburban kid who didn't get out much.

Thinking back to before that time, though, I'm sure I was aware of the Beatles, whose music took over so much of the 1960s.  I'm also pretty sure I was aware of the (Young) Rascals as a kid, who were a New York group that pretty much (for me, anyway) started the whole concept of "blue-eyed soul."  (Not sure there were many actual blue eyes in a group led by a pair of Italian brothers, but what do I know?)  My two favorite songs of theirs (if you don't count "Good Lovin' ") would have to be "How Can I Be Sure?" and "Groovin' ".

I definitely remember "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond; I used to stand in the hump in the middle of the back seat of my mom's car and dance to it, in fact.  This activity was, of course, only performed when the car was parked, and stopped the day I hit my head on the inside car roof.  And I know I was a huge Monkees fan (still am--don't judge me), because I watched their show religiously on Saturday mornings.  I don't think I even knew it was on at night (same with the Batman TV show).

But back to my main topic.

I think it may have been on a vacation (in Florida?) sometime during 1973 when I started hearing a record by Elton John: "Daniel."  It was amazing; I'd never heard anything like it. (My first two musical obsessions were Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, in that order, so you can see I'd lived a pretty sheltered life till then.)  But there was something about that record that attracted me, and so in short order, I bought Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player: my first LP.  I don't know where I got it from, but I strongly suspect it came from the Two Guys department store in Bricktown.

I also remember my first 45: "Superfly", by Curtis Mayfield.  What this little white girl was doing with the theme song from one of the biggest blaxploitation flicks of all time, I'll never know.  At the time, I simply liked it, and it seemed natural to buy it if I liked it and had the cash.  The why of the situation never entered my mind.  My love of those two records (very much worn, but still in my collection) grew and blossomed, and I became a stark raving music fan who apparently spoke a different language than everyone else around me.

Back in those days, it seemed like every store had a record department: the Two Guys; the home improvement store where I bought "Superfly"; Bambergers (later Macy's) department store at the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown; even the locally-owned drugstore.  I remember seeing the first Led Zep LP for sale there.  I know now that's what it was, due to the iconic cover featuring the Hindenburg explosion.

I had a strict rule for playing my LPs: front to back, both sides, no exceptions.  One of my cousins would simply stand or sit at his record player and play songs randomly by picking up the needle and moving it wherever he wanted it next (a lot of work, for those of you who've never known the joy of a vinyl album).  Or he'd just play one or two songs and move on to something else.  It drove me crazy.  This behavior was neither allowed nor tolerated on my own turntable.  My feeling was (and still mostly is) that an LP has a story to tell, even if it's not what came to be called a concept album.  It's still sequenced (or should be) in a particular order, and breaking up that sequence was a definite no.  Playing an LP out of order would've been like reading a novel backwards: it would cause the continuity to be disturbed, and the sense of it all to be lost.

This was a time when radio stations actually broke new music by playing it, a radical idea in these troubled times.  In fact, unless you had some really cool friends or older siblings, or lived in or near a big market (like NYC), radio was pretty much the only game in town when it came to finding new music. You heard it, you liked it, you bought it.  Simple.  We listened to AM radio, WABC and WNBC, with Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison, Ron Lundy, even Don Imus.  (The delights of flagship album rock station WNEW were a few years away on my personal horizon, but I'd get there eventually.)

I had my own way of discovering new sounds: I'd play the B-sides of my 45s.  As pathetic as that might have been, due to my limited record budget, I found some really cool stuff.  Elton John, in particular, seemed to specialize in featuring non-album B-sides, meaning that when I flipped one of his 45s over, I was getting a treat that less adventurous souls would never enjoy.  It was amazing to find that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were actually a double A-side single, and not just pressed that way to make money for the record company.

And though we loved WABC and WNBC, truly, the playlists were pretty limited.  From 7th grade onwards, I attended a school in the district where my dad taught, which was 30 miles from home.  So this required a daily commute, during which we'd usually listen to WABC.  I recall my dad remarking that they played the same songs every day.  I'm sure they did, but I didn't care.  Just hearing those songs, being allowed to hear them on our journeys, was enough.  This was no small feat when our carpool partner normally had his radio tuned to a news station every day (pretty sure that it was 1010-WINS, a far cry from its halcyon rock'n'roll days with Alan Freed) I know the first time I heard it, I kept waiting for the news to be over so the songs would start up again--but they never did.  I was out of my element for sure.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What I Want for Mother's Day (sarcasm alert)

I've been a Mom now for 17+ years.

I can't say it's the toughest job you'll ever love, because let's face it, being a parent can suck.  You have to clean up shit and various other bodily fluids and emissions; change sheets when the kids wet them; deal with various friends/pets/enemies of your kids', etc, ad nauseam (literally).  Not to mention the financial burden while your kids are unemployable (and often thereafter).

Yeah, it doesn't seem like there's much to recommend parenthood at any age.  I always tell people who are in thrall of their sweet little newborns and infants that God makes them cute and helpless when they arrive, so that you fall hopelessly in love with them and don't lock them outdoors when they most deserve that treatment.  And let's not even get into the general behavior that makes you want to leave them out in the cold. Kids can be ungrateful little monsters to you, the person who brought them into the world, and who pays for everything, while giving up their lunch money, time and love to almost everyone else (see aforementioned friends/pets/enemies).

But I'm getting off topic here.  Once a year, for my efforts, including but not limited to car rides, cooking, rides for the friends (doesn't anyone else with kids have a car?), trips to the mall, clothing, laundry services, lunches and dinners for all citizens of the house at any time; once a year, I am permitted the small honor of being a Mom on Mother's Day. 

As if.  Yeah, I try to time it so that I don't have to do laundry on that day. (My husband, bless him, is pretty good at all that shit; in fact, he's often cleaner than I am when it comes to chores.)  Sometimes I get to go out for breakfast or brunch; often we'll have dinner with my in-laws, and my father-in-law (an amazing cook) will make dinner.  When I lived in Jersey and my Nana was still alive, my mom and her sisters would have us all go out that day to celebrate the matriarch of our little clan.  That was pretty cool.  My kids and husband will make me breakfast now and again, and bring it to me in bed.  Sadly, there's not room for the food and everyone else on our bed, so that's kind of a clumsy affair.  We normally just use the kitchen table nowadays.

Once in awhile I'll get to go shopping, alone, which I confess is my greatest joy at an age when my kids seem to think the umbilical cord is still attached.  Their father, a part-time military guy, has sometimes been away for long stretches, and they tend to forget about Dad as a viable alternative to Mom.  I mean, is it wrong to want some time for yourself, a room of one's own, to quote Virginia Woolfe?  I try not to barge in on my kids (unless I believe they're doing something they shouldn't be), so why do they do that to me constantly?  Is it just for the fun of it?  My younger child seems to find particular joy in sneaking up on me silently (carpet) and scaring me out of what's left of my wits.

So, back to the main question: what do I want for Mother's Day?  Well, a card would be nice, for a start, especially one I didn't have to take the kids to buy for me.  That's my husband's job.  The list of things I don't need would be: perfume (I have about a dozen kinds and frequently don't wear it at all); scarves (ditto); clothing or shoes (too hard to find the right item); jewelry (especially that Pandora shit; WTF?); and most practical items (i.e., mixers, blenders, knives) unless specifically requested.  Before you go thinking that I'm a gold-digger, please note that I've been very happy on Christmases past to get things like a roasting pan or a new crockpot, because I asked for them.

I don't necessarily need big-ticket items, like a fur coat; but a new car would sure be nice for my daily commute.  A trip is also out of the question, unless a special event happens to occur on that date.  Tickets to see a favorite band or other show would be terrific, but I can normally buy those myself.  No, I guess the thing I'd like most is time: time to go shopping alone, time to work on my writing, time where nobody's going to ask me to do anything for them. 

I'm not trying to be selfish.  Well, hell: yeah, I am.  But I'm trying to make it into the best kind of selfish.  The kind that allows me the peace of mind I get when my needs have also been met, and not just the needs of everything and everyone around me. 
When you have kids, all other needs are eclipsed.  You fuss over them, worry about them, feed them, change them, find them a good sitter, work to support them; their needs are more important than yours will be for many years.  This is necessary. 
But not forever.  They're supposed to leave the proverbial nest at some point (mine are still too young), and be able to deal with life themselves.  And you're supposed to have properly prepared them, and be able to let go.  Or maybe they can just find the scotch tape themselves.

When my older daughter was about four, I drove to Illinois and took a train into Chicago to see a performer I very much admire.  My husband was in charge of taking care of her for a day or two.  I still remember the train ride into the city, as well as the rest of the trip, as being one of the most exhilirating events of my life.  That was the first time since our daughter was born that I'd actually done something for me, and not just for her.  I didn't feel bad, though, because I knew she'd be taken care of. 

I did think about her much of that night and the next day, of course.  And while I enjoyed walking around the little neighborhood where my hotel was, having breakfast alone and wandering into a couple of shops (she scored a new book that morning, too), I felt peaceful in a way I hadn't in a very long time.  It was like being freed from everything, but still anchored to my little family.  When I picked her up from our sitter on my way home, I felt like a different person.  And I want to feel like that person again, as often as possible.

And if you're still stuck on buying me a gift, I'll be happy to accept a new night light for the bathroom.  I'm easy.