Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fork, Knife, and Spoon

Can we just admit we all have our quirks?  I have many.  One is silverware.  I cannot stand big heavy silverware.  My friend Carol loves weighty silverware but for me it ruins the eating experience.  Most people who know me well, indulge me  if I eat at their house, they know I want the smallest fork, spoon, and knife they've got.

In my family we ate with this lightweight very simple silverware that I loved.  When I was getting married and wanted to buy a set of my own, I only found out that it came from the university my Uncle Charley went to  but we had an entire set that must have been pilfered over years!  I find it hard to believe.

When my husband proposed to me (on my birthday) I knew as soon as we told anyone, we’d be bombarded with questions I couldn't answer and I wanted to avoid that.  Before we told a soul, we spent three weeks deciding the big stuff: got the rings, picked the date, the china, and the silverware.  The silverware was tough.  

I’d grown up with the Wallace Silver standard: Grand Baroque  possibly the most ornate pattern you could have.

My mother had Wallace’s Rose Point and I always sensed that it was a let down to her not to have Grand Baroque.  When it came time for my silver, I jumped ship and chose Towle’s Chippendale for its utter simplicity, elegance, clean lines, and light weight.  Simply magnificent.  The women in my family were shocked.

We moved into a one-bedroom apartment that was actually pretty great for Manhattan. Except for the pink and gray 50s bathroom (and the screaming schizophrenic who lived across the alley behind us nightly hollering his warnings that the Queen was coming with her royal Gilette razors to kill us all) the only real drawback was the kitchen.  I remember Susan's six-year-old daughter Sara saying, "I LOVE your kitchen!"  When I asked her why she explained it was the only frig where she could reach everything in the freezer.  True, the kitchen had a tiny frig, but there was a four-burner stove, large sink, and even a narrow high window that looked out onto the air-shaft.  There wasn't an inch of counterspace. Honestly.  The stove, sink, and frig were jammed up against each other with not an ounce of counter, not a single drawer.  Opposite, we squeezed in an assemble-it-yourself, six-foot-high yellow plastic étagère to pile up the pots, the canned goods and the cereal.  We took off the upper cabinet metal doors to decrease the claustrophobia. And my sister’s friend Kiwi sent us a caddy of hanging silverware that could sit on the window's nine-inch ledge.  It was very space-saving, clever, and clunky.  I referred to it as "Swedish Surgical” because it seemed very modern and solidly utilitarian. It worked for that kitchen but I did not enjoy eating with it.

Years and years later when I knew we needed a new set of everyday, it took me months to find something with the right shape, style, and heft.  Oona flatware by Crate & Barrel. 

Still there was always a silverware issue when eating out. After years of complaining about restaurant silverware, a year ago that great husband I married gave me one of the absolute best Christmas presents I have ever gotten.  Wrapped and tied in a gray flannel pouch was the sweetest  child-sized fork, knife, and spoon! They were the perfect design, feel, and that carrying pouch!  My husband had trekked to Replacements and asked for “little silverware” to match a spoon I had.  They gave him a choice between two “youth set” patterns   AND  he chose the RIGHT one. (Mine is Frostfire; the other was a colonial pattern which would've made me grimace.)  

I love, love, LOVE it! I carry that silverware in my purse and take it out (to the astonishment of my companions and the wait staff) and I just adore it.  Gotta guard it like a hawk so that it doesn’t get scooped up at the end of the meal.  That present has made me so happy. (BIG points for the husband.)

This Christmas to my surprise and delight, silverware was a big theme.  Before the holiday, Lynn sent me a fork and spoon of her son’s but I called to thank her laughing “Lynnie these are baby utensils!  I use child-sized ones  these are TOO tiny!”

My daughter gave me two darling little spoons that are perfect to eat ice cream and puddings with.  I keep one in my office drawer for yogurt.  

Next I opened an amazing set from Nancy that she found in the Museum of Modern Art gift shop…a three-piece set that not only fits together but has a smart red plastic cap that clamps over the tops making it great to pack up and transport home once your silverware is dirty!

Then Carol gave me designer Erik Bagger’s “Harmony  children’s culinary set, designed with the usual sense of form, function, and aesthetics.”  Quite the design statement from the Danes!

And finally, in a master stroke of combining my love of silverware, art, and skyscrapers, my friend Thelma gave me a very special plate from uncommon goods which, besides being beautiful, also supports New York-based food rescue organization City Harvest.  Silverware as skyscrapers.

So I am rich with small silverware  no more needed!
All of a sudden the odd thing is, I never seem to have a set with me when I need one.

[Thank you to all the manufacturers and Replacements for providing the photographs on their websites.]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Story of Star

I am not a dog-person. I grew up in a household where I was taught:  Animals are dirty. Animals carry disease.  Never touch them. This came directly from my immigrant grandparents to my mother who passed it on to me in no uncertain terms.  My kids might plead for a dog but my ears were closed.

It was December. The kids had been out playing in the neighborhood when my son came home with a desperate look in his face and a dog on a worn leash. “Mom! Mom!  Please, please, please Mom, let us keep him!  We found him running on Washington Ave and Cameron is moving Monday and her mom says they can’t. Please let us keep him until we find the owner! Please, please, PLEASE!” It was Friday early evening. 

The dog was an autumn amber with a long curly tail, pointy upright ears, and a purple tongue. The "he" turned out to be a "she."  She didn’t make sound.  I called Cameron’s mom.

“Look this dog has all its shots and a tag; she’s probably just gotten loose. You can place a lost dog ad in the paper for free for a week. And you can probably track down the vet on Monday. We just can’t keep her — the movers are coming Monday and things are upside-down here.”

“Thanks Kathy, I understand…I’m just not a dog-person.”

So I agreed to keep the dog but only on the front stoop (you can’t call it a porch, it’s just a landing to get in to the front door) and decided I’d call the paper in the morning. The kids were ecstatic. They begged to let the dog in but I was adamant and their Dad warned them, “Don’t push your luck.”

A week later, the dog was still on the porch. The ad had been run, we’d tracked down the vet who reluctantly provided a name of the owner; we called everyone with that name but no one claimed the dog. Though her tag said “Butter” my son insisted we call her “Star.”  (My husband reminds me he named her for the star that guided the Magi because it was just before Christmas.)   No one answered the ad.

Now what.

At this point it was getting later in December and colder. My husband and the kids were getting attached.  This dog never went to the bathroom on the stoop, never did anything but sit passively and never, ever made a sound. No barking.  No growling. No whining.  Nothing.  Not a sound. It confounded me.

We put her food and water in disposable foil pie pans. It began snowing. Still she didn’t make a sound. She lived on that porch for weeks.

When the snow was inches deep, finally I gave in. “OKAY. She can stay in the garage.  ONLY in the garage. You can make a place for her down there and that’s where she can sleep. She CANNOT come upstairs or inside the house ANYWHERE.  The garage and that’s it.”  All three of them were happy that Star could come in from the cold — it was a huge step for me.

And that is how things went on, with Star being obedient and good. Not making trouble. She stayed in the garage when we were gone and outside when we were home.  My son and daughter huddled down there with her on the garage floor where we’d assembled some old blankets and bedspreads for her.  It amazed me that she never barked, never made a ruckus; just stayed there wagging her curled-up tail and her fluffy amber coat. We found out she was a chow and German shepherd mix…scary right? But she didn’t display any of the stereotypical behavior I was fearful of seeing.

Time went by. We were in a routine.  My husband got up early to walk her and feed her.  She never messed in the garage (or on the porch for that matter). Then one morning he woke me at 7am with a worried look on his face and a level of tension in his voice.

“You have to come down and see this,” he urged.

I am not a morning person, but he looked so upset I dragged myself into a robe and slippers and followed him down the stairs into the basement and to the garage.
There on the floor in the corner was Star surrounded by furry balls of wriggling energy.

“At first I thought she was being eaten by rats” he deadpanned.

Star was licking these four little beings who were nursing off her furiously.  Oh my God.

It was Valentine’s Day. There were five of them and four of us. Now we were outnumbered.

The sight of Star with those puppies kicked us into high gear. We called animal control, a vet, friends who were dog-people.  From the information we got, it was clear she was taking care of her pups and we would need to let her keep them for 6-8 weeks until they were weaned. Oh my God. The kids were ecstatic.

Two months went by. The kids were living in the garage. But in spite of their pleas, it was time to find the puppies homes.

The first people who came told us they were four females.
The next people told us they were four males.
The ones after said, “You know they had different fathers.”


Apparently, dogs can be impregnated by more than one dog at the same time. “Can’t you see that two of the puppies are much larger, black and brown markings, and much larger teeth?  Can’t you see the pairs look completely different?”
It was true.  Two looked one way and two looked much smaller, all black and, well, very different.

“Listen,” I said, “you see these two kids?  They’re twins and THEY look completely different and I ASSURE you THEY had the SAME father.”

One puppy went to a little girl whose mom had gotten divorced and they’d been living with the grandma who wouldn’t allow dogs in the house. The mom was moving into an apartment of their own and getting her little girl a puppy.

Next, a puppy went to a little boy whose own dog had been run over by a car in front of their house and had been devastated by the experience.

As the puppies left, my kids were devastated.  “Look how happy we’re making that little boy and girl by giving them these puppies…” But they didn’t care.  They begged to be allowed to keep the last two or even ONE of the puppies, but I was firm.

Two guys who were living on a large place in the country wanted the pair of black and browns. Secretly I was glad those two were staying together.

After the puppies were gone my kids were glum. The house was filled with doom and gloom. So I let them bring Star upstairs into the house and that’s where she stayed.  Star had given birth to four pups all alone, by herself on that garage floor, without anyone around.  I couldn’t have done that.  I had a newfound respect for her.  The kids were joyful and jumping.

About a year later we managed a “reunion” with Star and one of her puppies, “Princess.” This puppy was much taller than Star and very much the German shepherd.  Scared me.

Star had her issues with some people…she wasn’t predictable.  She could be perfectly wonderful and other times she would attack.  Once we took her to the beach on a fall day and she took off after a jogger running by and nipped his ankles! We were horrified but he waved us off and kept going.  One of my friends was trying to be nice and say hello and Star leapt up and actually grabbed her t-shirt in her teeth and ripped it…AAAHHH! And sad to say, she bit my sister for no good reason. My sister wasn’t really a dog person either and she was trying to be nice to Star and Star clamped down on her forearm and broke the skin necessitating a visit to the ER just to make sure. It was awful.

When my mother came to live with us for the last two years of her life I couldn’t imagine what we were going to do but amazingly Star would sit at her feet and my mom seemed to like having her there! 

As Star got on in years, she slowed down, developed some health issues and soon was on more meds than we were. Her arthritis got so bad that my husband had to carry her (45 lbs) in and out of the house to spare her the steps which she seemed unable to navigate. She had some good days but they were few and far between. When she began peeing in her bed we realized this was not how Star had been living for 16 years.  It took us two weeks of talking to dog-people before we felt it was best for her to “put her down.”

I never knew how much I would miss Star!  

When I come home, I expect she’ll be at the back door waiting to see me.  
When we clean up after dinner I can’t save the scraps for Star.  
And when I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I still walk slowly, feeling my way with my feet in the dark, to make sure I don’t step on her. Months and months later I’m still trying to avoid tripping over her — but she’s not there.   

Though no pedigree, our Star was a pure-bred magician cause she made a dog-person outta me.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What I Don't Want To Hear

Last night we saw the film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and it led me to share the story below which I wrote long ago and is related to 9-11 in a peripheral way, but also to say that in the film, a secondary character (William Black, played by Jeffrey Wright) shares with nine-yr-old Oskar (the protagonist, beautifully and skillfully played by Thomas Horn) that he was never close to his father and still how hurt he was that his father, at the end of his life, never reached out to him   to say he was sorry, to say he loved him. Even though it was only a movie, someone penned those lines for that actor.  It pains me that so many people share that sadness with me.
My mom had always been the one who recognized that an education was the way out of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Sweating in a drycleaners (in the hundred-pound pressure of steam needed to press clothes), she wanted better for me.  Going to college in Boston had already been a traumatic event for my parents. They had never let me go to sleep-away camp and barely to slumber parties. It was not in their nature to have their children out of reach.  Along came an extraordinary opportunity to visit Lebanon for ten days — plane fare, hotel, most meals, all for just $300. It was beyond the scope of what my mother or I could imagine. A chance to go to the Middle East — despite their reservations and objections  I WAS GOING...

In 1971, I was an almost-18-yr-old- freshman at Northeastern University, first in my family to leave home and attend college. Months later, I had an extraordinary invitation to visit Lebanon for ten days and be part of an Armenian-American delegation traveling to Beirut to celebrate the opening of a youth center built with American dollars. In the 45-member US group, I was the only one who didn’t speak Armenian, so I felt fortunate to be included. I couldn’t believe how exciting it would be to travel halfway around the world. 

Just a week before leaving that April, a bomb exploded on the borders of Lebanon and began the civil war that continues today. That explosion shattered my parents’ consent. My mother called me in Boston. “You’re not going,” she said shakily, “it’s not safe.” But I persisted; I would never get this chance again. It was an opportunity-of-a-lifetime. It was highly educational. Eventually, she gave up arguing.

So anxious were their good-byes that I was one of the last to get on board and as a result got bumped up to first-class for the first leg of the trip to Paris. What luck! First-class was luxurious. The “stewardesses” served champagne and shrimp — it seemed a privileged fantasy. But 22-hours later, when we landed in Beirut, the picture changed drastically. Military men with stern faces lined every corridor, shoulder-to-shoulder, shouldering large rifles. We were on one side of a thick glass wall and those meeting the arrivals were on the other. Everything was being searched. I had never seen anything like it.

“Hey!” someone in our group called out, “people are looking for you.”

“That’s impossible, I don’t know anyone here.”

“Well, they’re holding up your picture.”

As I was guided down the length of the wall, there, pressed to the glass, I saw a picture of me taken at a wedding in Boston, less than three months before. There I was in my sleeveless, black-velvet, A-line dress with the fuchsia satin bow and three over-sized fuchsia satin-covered buttons. Bewildered I looked at the men and women, unknown to me, holding my photo. Somehow, I was known to them

After customs, I came face-to-face with this smiling, gesturing mother, father, two sisters, and a best friend — the family of two brothers who had emigrated to the US and were in the Armenian dance troop I belonged to. I knew the brothers, grown men 28 and 32 years old  but still, none of it made any sense to me. Finally someone who spoke Armenian got the full story. The brothers had written home (picture included) to tell the family that one or the other was planning to marry me.  They hadn't decided between them which  but as far as “the family” were concerned, I was the prospective daughter-in-law come to visit.

Though I objected that much as I liked both of them, I wasn’t marrying either of these men, over the course of the ten-day trip, my protestations were persistently brushed away. Each day, assorted members of this loving family escorted me everywhere — to and from the scheduled activities of the group, then shepherded me from house to house, cousin to cousin, one “showing” to the next. Though I kept trying to tell them otherwise, this was a culture where the men led and women followed without question I was showered with affection and presents for me and my family — handmade tablecloths, homemade liquor, suede shoes, and jewelry. I was drawn deeper and deeper into their fold.

Never speak until first spoken to.

Never refuse a drink (even if it’s 11 am or the third house you’ve visited that day).

Always kiss your hosts good-bye on both cheeks. I had more to learn.

Driving from Baalbek back to Beirut, I was sitting sandwiched between the two sisters when our car was pulled over by men in uniforms with guns and grenades. The trunk was opened; the car was searched, papers and passports had to be produced. 

“Wait a minute,” I protested, “you can’t do this. We haven’t done anything. Why are you searching the car?”

Both women elbowed me as the guards became very angry. The men in front turned ashen. They began to speak pleadingly in Arabic and gestured quickly with their hands; the only word I recognized was “American.” After what seemed to be an eternity, angrily the guns indicated we could leave. 

“What just happened?” I cried, but no one answered. 

The hour-long drive back was silent, except for my crying. When we arrived at my hotel, Dicran escorted me inside and gently explained. “You are American; you are used to speaking out. Your passport may protect you here, but it couldn’t help us. Here, we could be taken and never heard from — never, never, never do that again.”

Now, with the Twin Towers missing from Manhattan’s skyline, I go back to that moment forty years ago. Confronted with the possibility of routine searches and possibly the presence of the military in our everyday lives, I wonder: Is this the price that we must pay? And for some reason, in my head, I hear the names of seven people.  Seven people aboard American Airlines Flight 11 and United 175 — people I will never know but can’t forget: Alfred Marchand, Sonia Puopolo, Wolfgang Menzel, Betty Ong, Albert Dominguez, Garnet “Ace” Bailey, and Jesus Sanchez—and I worry, Yes.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

In the Absence of Trees

It must have started when I was living on 24th and Third in Manhattan in my studio — an 800-sq-ft room on the eighth floor with three side-by-side windows that looked out onto the brick wall of a neighboring building.  My sister had come into the city to visit and we were headed around the corner to thrift shop at some of our favorite places.  First up, the 23rd Street indoor flea market between Third and Lexington — a dark and cavernous space with lots of individual vendors with tables or booths, selling absolutely whatever.  My sister and I would skip over the sports and collectibles (“Precious Moments”), give a passing glance to kid stuff (I wasn’t yet married or a mother), and focus only on the art glass, pottery, jewelry, and art  the serious stuff for us. 

You never know what you’ll find but on this Saturday I found a 24” x 15” vertical engraving of a grove of trees edging a wide and winding forested lane.  Dark, sophisticated, green-on-green, and so compelling you felt you were there, in among those trees.  The unframed etching was marked $ 2.  It was signed and dated “Henri Meunier 1917” and then under that re-signed with “1977.”   I dug into my purse, glad to pay that paltry sum for something so exquisite, but my sister interjected, “There’s a huge water stain on the top corner,” and before I could find my cash, the price dropped to one dollar. Ten days later, after spending another $ 77 for framing, I had my first trees. 
Henri Meunier...if you look closely you can see a bit of the water stain in the upper left corner.

Then came a small square watercolor by Marie Stobbe in a grayish-olive mat and a wooden gray-washed frame  two spindly trees framing the scene, left and right; straight ahead in the middle, a bluish cloudy sky, as if you were looking through to the edge of a lake; simple and lovely.  Decades later, when I finally decided to have it rematted to try to brighten it up, upon opening the frame my framer Holly and I uncovered a hidden inch of the scene beneath the mat with yet another tree!  We both agreed to reveal the “lost” tree and after a ping-pong conversation with no consensus, I stubbornly decided on a mat in much the same drab color as I found it.

The third to join the group was a red Chinese silk, embroidered with a single silver intricate tree branch studded with a few two-tone green leaves and some small amber blossoms.  I framed the silk in a black wooden frame to set-off the richness of the red.

Next in my collection, came a large panoramic lithograph, dated 1890.  A sepia-toned scene of trees along a dirt road leading to a farmhouse, signed E.C. Rost.  I think I bought it in Ohio but if I did, I’m not sure how I ever got it back to New York.  When  I had it re-matted and reframed, I kept the glass with tiny bubble imperfections throughout because it was original. Six dollars, twelve dollars, each never very expensive, often spending tens times the purchase price on the framing, but all these trees coming to live with me in my tiny studio apartment.

My first gallery purchase was a splurge.  My friend’s husband, had taken me to the Associated American Artists gallery, on the upper floors of a building on West 57th Street — very posh, very wonderful, and to me, very pricey.  I headed for the low-end bins of $35 prints and found a lithograph of a winter night in New England. “Fair and Colder” by Ellison Hoover (1888-1955).   An enormous, snow-laden pine, massive in its weight and presence (so large three-fourths of the tree is not in frame) dwarfs a man and woman, arm-in-arm, trudging through the snow alongside tire tracks.  The town and a church steeple are far in the distance. I didn’t buy it because I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money.  But after three years of fixating on it, missing it, wondering about it,  I took myself back to that gallery and happily found it was still there but had to shell out $105 to bring it home. Now framed in a high-gloss, cranberry-red wooden frame, over and over I stare at “Fair and Colder” trying to get inside the lives of the couple in that scene. Where were they going? Were they headed to a dance?  Were they married?  Were they lost?

After that, I don’t remember the order of acquisitions in my tree menagerie. In a socialist bookstore in Baltimore with my then-boyfriend, now husband, we found a  black enamel-painted rectangle of wood from Russia.  Carved out of the black, in flowing lines revealing the image in the light clean wood below, was the moon shining through a forest of trees  and in the foreground, a bear and her cubs in the clearing.  We paid the $17.50 purchase price,  named her “Mama Bearski,” and cradled her home.

From the basement of a Ukrainian church, from the back of a junk shop, from the shelves of the Salvation Army, many more paintings, etchings, lithographs have entered my home and thirty years later, forty-five images of trees adorn our living room walls.  What importance did these “trees” hold for me?  Why was I so drawn to their images? I stare and stare and stare at them and am always adding, shifting, regrouping, and re-admiring the beauty they bring.  I was obsessed with my trees and I couldn’t think why. 

One day, in therapy, when asked what I did for “play,” a long ago memory of happiness surfaced for me: maybe third or fourth grade, Marilyn and I riding on bikes to the reservoir, lying under the pine trees, staring up through the branches, watching the needles sway in the wind for hours.  We would talk, talk, talk — about our problems, our families, our dreams.  It was one of the few places in my childhood that always felt free.  Free from worry, free from fear, free from the war zone that was home.  Here I was all these years later, buying up all these trees, bringing them in and giving them places of prominence in my life, so I could have that place of being free again.

A silkscreened page ($2) from a calendar by Ann (?) Goselin. Don't they remind you of the trees in the Wizard of Oz?
Tiny oil painting by Norman Kaplonov,
found at a Ukrainian church sale, 50 cents;
framing about $65

Maybe the best for last: the most magnificent birches painted by my friend since 8th grade, Susan, a wonderful artist and an even better friend. 

This Journey-1-19-12

First, let me say that this blog has made me so happy...! I began on December 5 and today I hit 1600 “pageviews”— now that’s not individual people, but still, it sounds like a lot to me.  It means that in total my posts have been read 1600 times so I have to say once again, it makes me incredibly happy.

Next, let me say that while I do know who is reading in Canada, Hong Kong, and Chile, I have no clue who is my audience in Russia, Latvia, Brazil, China, Germany, Portugal, Finland and the United Kingdom OR how they found my blog. So whoever you are out there connecting with Tales From Denise James, each and every one of you, THANK YOU. 

Which brings me to saying that part of what's so gratifying is hearing from you and learning what resonates... it's been interesting (and sad) to hear of the number of people who had difficult relationships with their dads. Or had a different problem (alcoholic, absent, abusive) parent...

In response to Madly Magenta, a friend wrote that hot Chinese mustard was put on her thumb to stop her from sucking and perhaps that’s why she now she thinks of Chinese as comfort food! Or another who sucked until 4-5th grade (only at night) and stroked her nose instead of her eyelashes... and my cousin who said, “After I read your blog …….I started sucking my thumb.”

So finally, I know many of you have had issues posting comments...sigh...I DO too when I’m trying to edit posts. I’ve typed below what I think works.  I do hope you will try to comment online (even as Anonymous) because it’s great when others can hear what you have to say as well. It just makes you feel as if you’re connected to this larger universe of shared experiences.  And on some level (well, at least for me), this is about having a voice and being heard...I DO appreciate you all, known and unknown.

How To Comment
If you click on Comments, there should be a box to start typing...type your comment, then select and copy it in case something goes wrong! next you have a choice for Comment as: in the drop down, if you choose Name/URL, you can type your name or initials or whatever.  Then you have to choose Preview or Publish..if you preview you can proof, then when you hit Publish you need to scroll down to see the verification screen which has those wavy letters you type in..then you submit and it should appear.  MANY people are having issues but if you don't get the verification screen then something's not right...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

This Budd’s For You

The return address on the envelope was unfamiliar to me…I didn't know "R Reilly," but as I read the card inside, it told me that Judy Budd had died.  Judy Budd, Principal of P.S. 145 on West 106th Street, Manhattan, NY. Age? Way too young.

I first met Ms. Budd as I stood inside the Felt Forum in New York City along with 2300 other newly licensed teachers or TPDs. A temporary per diem (TPD) license was given to people like me who wanted to teach but hadn't majored in education. If you could pass the rigorous oral and written exams, a TPD enabled one to begin teaching for a year and then get formally licensed. Without a set job, TPDs had to go on the dreaded substitute list. Subs would be called around 5:30 am and had to go to any one of the five boroughs, no matter how far or how tough. The job fair was a way to avoid all that. Twenty-three hundred or not, I was determined to land a job.

Though I hadn’t come up through the regular ranks, I’d spent the past seven years in educational publishing, working with a host of former teachers, developing materials for the K-8 classroom. In my job, I’d met with, observed, and presented to hundreds of teachers. I felt qualified to teach, but after I went through a few sixty-second interviews, it became clear that only those with education degrees were being seriously considered. I could understand the requirement, but I thought it small-minded.

Disappointed, but undeterred, I kept at it until the day was drawing to a close. I realized this principal was my last chance…and still there were eleven people ahead of me. Patiently, I listened as this imposing blond woman nodded her head and said at the close of each brief interview, “Thank you very much. We’ll keep your resume on file and should a position open up, we’ll know how to contact you.” However nice, it was the kiss of death. Finally — my turn. I sat down and began my pitch. I told her I’d be perfect with second or third graders as a first-timer. Just as I sensed the interview was over I quickly blurted out, “Do you believe in numerology?” She smiled and shook her head no. “In numerology, in the ancient Qaballah at the top of the pyramid of life, everyone has a key number. Mine is a master number, an 11. An eleven stands for A Teacher of Teachers. All my life, every job I’ve ever had, people have told me, 'You should be a teacher.’ I know I can do it.” Judy Budd smiled and said her standard, “Thank you very much. We’ll keep your resume on file and should a position open up, we’ll know how to contact you.” But I noticed she put a big asterisk next to my name in her book.

Weeks went by and no job bites; I was getting nervous. Labor Day was closing in and without a job; my name would go on the sub list. Yes, you could refuse to accept if you were fearful about the neighborhood, school, or age group, but your name would drop to the bottom of the list and after three refusals, your name would be dropped completely. If you were dropped from the list, you wouldn’t be called to sub, and without any subbing experience you would lose your TPD, so it didn’t pay to say no.

I decided to make a last ditch effort to visit Judy Budd at her school. I thought perhaps I could talk my way in. I took the three subways necessary to find my way to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I transited the broken beer bottles, spent condoms, and empty wrappers that littered the macadam courtyard. I walked into the sweltering office where two small fans didn’t seem to be doing much good. I asked to see Ms. Budd. “Do you have an appointment?” the secretary asked. “No, but I think she’ll see me,” I said boldly.

I was ushered into Ms. Budd’s office, cluttered with huge piles of papers, folders, records. She smiled and indicated I could sit down. I began to speak in a rush.

“I don’t suppose you’ll remember me, but I met you at the job fair and I just came by to drop off my resume and remind you that I really, really want a job and was hoping you could find some spot for me...”

“I remember you,” she said with a smile on her face. “I have a position.”

I was stunned.

“It’s a bridged class,” she continued, “fifth and sixth graders, and the teacher who was going to take the class just decided today he’d rather stay part-time with us instead of going full time. He’s a math tutor and works twenty hours a week. This class, really the toughest kids on everyone’s list, was going to be Ms. Offen’s. She’s a pro, but computers are her thing and now that we’re finally getting the computer lab that was requested last year, that’s going to be her spot. He agreed to go fulltime but has had second thoughts. I've got to fill this teaching position by 3:30 today or the central office is going to fill it for me.”

I looked at the clock; it was 1:35 pm. I didn’t know what to say. “I was kind of hoping for younger kids, you know second, third graders — even fourth would be okay, but I don’t know if I can handle that age group.”

“I’d make sure you had help. I’d schedule the class for at least one period out of the room daily — that would lighten your load.”

“My math isn’t the greatest. I don’t know if I could handle the math at that level.”

“I’ve got a math lab they can go to twice a week and Mr. Reed will be available to help the weakest students with pull-outs, too.”

“I’d need to talk to my husband…I’d like his advice before I make a decision,” I said hesitantly.

“That’s fine, I can give you till 3:00, but this is my first school as principal and I’d rather fill the spot myself, than take a chance on what the central office will send me.”

“But you’d be taking a chance on me,” I added.

“I know,” she said, again smiling, “but something tells me you can do it, and you’d be MY chance and not theirs.”

My husband was home when I got there. I laid it all out for him. “It’s certainly better than subbing. I’d be teaching, which is what I wanted. And if I can’t do it, I can always just leave, though that would be awful. I don’t want to sub. This is the chance I was looking for — no matter how scared I am, I think I've got to try.”

Our school, but I wish I had a photo of Ms. Budd instead

When the Superintendent of the district came to visit our school, everyone was on high alert. We didn't know which classrooms he’d be observing but we were told to go about our day, as usual. That day my class was working on the newsletter we’d begun publishing. When Ms. Budd and Superintendent Alvarez walked in, the class was busy at work, clustered in controlled chaos.

Diving in four days later, that job turned out to be the most rewarding work experience I’ve ever had. Judy Budd became my mentor and my supporter. She guided me to teaching in a way that gave my students the best of what a raw recruit had to offer. Though I struggled, made mistakes, and often felt I was way in over my head, I taught my 31 hellions, found my way, and made a difference for some of my brood. When I took the job that day, I was pregnant with twins and didn’t know it. Though I ended up having one complication after another, needing one accommodation after another, Judy was always there for me.

“Class? This is Superintendent Alvarez. Say ‘Good morning’ to the Superintendent and Ms. Budd.” They sang out "GOOD MORNING" as we’d rehearsed and I asked beamingly, "While Superintendent Alvarez is visiting, does anyone have any questions for him?”

“Where you Super?” one of the kids asked. A smile broke out on Judy’s face, as I hastily intervened.

“Class, Mr. Alvarez isn’t a super of a building, he’s the Superintendent of our school district.” This explanation was met with blank stares and silence. I could tell they were thinking of the janitorial staff at our school. Desperate I said, “Kids, do you know how I’m your boss, and Ms. Budd is my boss?” Their heads nodded in understanding. “Well, Mr. Alvarez is Ms. Budd’s boss.”

“Ooohhhh…” they exhaled. “You must be pretty tough,” announced Rudy.

Even though I left school in March to go on bed rest, not two years later Judy came to my rescue again. My husband was out of work, we had two small babies and no insurance. There must've been a panic in my voice (in the phone call meant to keep in touch with my former colleagues), because suddenly Judy said, “Come work for me one day a week in an F-Stop position. You’ll get full coverage for all four of you.”

“F-stop position? — What’s that? One day a week? Full medical coverage for one day? You've got to be kidding. How is that possible?”

“It’s possible — com’on, I’ll call the central office and put in the paperwork. I’ll give you your prep first period, that way if the trains are running late, you won’t have a problem.”

Though the pay wasn’t spectacular, the health insurance was. And for another year, Judy Budd saved my butt while one day a week I taught centers to kindergarteners, imaginative writing to second graders, and had third and fourth graders working on pollution raps.

Though years had gone by with only the sporadic Christmas card passing between us, news of Judy’s death (in response to my late Christmas letter sent in February) hit me hard. She'd made an important difference in my life. Though she had no evidence, she believed in me. She'd given me a chance, and in that first-time teaching job, I never felt more valued in my life.

Judy? Wherever you are, this Budd’s for you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Totes Explorer

Let me tell you about the best ever travel bag: the Totes Explorer.  It’s made of durable polyester, lightweight and soft-sided, and by my measure, is 14” x  24” x 10” with two large outside pockets (with two-way zippers) for your toiletries bag, books or Kindle (or dirty underwear when you’re headed home) and one very large U-shaped zipper that opens the entire top side of the bag fully for packing. It has four ways to carry it! The usual shoulder strap, a horizontal handle to carry it like a briefcase, an additional handle at top to hang it vertically from a door hook (or to hold in front of you when you’re navigating those narrow airplane aisles), and best of all, straps to wear it as a backpack. (Plus, there’s also a waist strap to secure it, which I never use.) Best of all, you can fill it and still cram it into just about any overhead bin  even on CRJs and Embraers  (those small regional jets where tall people have to stoop or hit their heads on the ceiling). The Totes Explorer fits anywhere.

Doesn't it sound terrific?  Aren't you thinking, "Hey, that sounds like a bag I could use..." ? Well, don’t try to find it. Incredibly, this terrific bag’s been out of production for many years.  We own the last four on the planet. 

Why is it that virtually every time I find a product I really love, they stop making it?

First it was Sea Source by Helene Curtis. (Is that still a company?) This lush aqua shampoo was so great you didn’t need conditioner. It made your hair feel unbelievably rich and luxurious  just like the hair on TV commercials!  My daughter and I both loved it. She still has two partial bottles in her room. But seeing as they stopped making it in 2003, I suspect they're in some stage of emulsification-disintegration.

Next, it was Lawry’s Chinese Chicken Salad dressing.  You know how great that Chinese Chicken Salad is in restaurants?  With the greens and the Mandarin oranges, the shredded carrots and cabbage and the water chestnuts with the slivered almonds on top?  Well, Lawry’s (of seasoned salt fame) used to make this delicious dressing that was as good as what you’d get in a restaurant. Not anymore.

Then it was the bra by Vanity Fair. Fit me perfectly, no padding in the cups, straps weren’t too wide, never slid off my stoop-shoulders, came in black, white and flesh. Gone. Since that particular style went off the market I have yet to find another that really fits. [To be truthful, my mother was a lingerie salesperson at the end of her working career and she deserves the credit for finding it; she always fit me, figured out what was best, and then, when it went on sale, bought a supply (with her discount) and mailed them to me. This was our practice for decades.  After she died, I didn’t buy bras for years. When I finally had to, I cried, cried, cried in the dressing room.  Since 2005 none of the bras I've bought have fit right. Not a one]

When I was graduating from high school and headed to college (first in the family) my aunt gave me this over-sized, purple quilted unstructured zipper-all-the-way-around bag.  It was huge and because it had no structure at all, it could be shoved or stuffed anywhere.  I used that bag for decades before my daughter took it over when SHE went to college. After overseas travel, the handle ripped and though we had it restitched twice, clearly it was on its last legs. My daughter was upset (I’m not the only one who has this luggage fixation) so I searched and searched the internet looking for that same bag or something very similar.  But even the best bag I could find, wasn’t enough the same.

When I found out the Totes Explorers were discontinued, I frantically pleaded with a phone rep who tracked down the last remaining bags (he found them in a Totes Outlet). I got them for the whole family. Lately I have been thinking I should take the kids’ bags away because they don’t treat them as reverently as I do. 

And unlike taxes and difficult holidays with your family, once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Madly Magenta

One of the challenges I have confronted many a new year.
Here I am in my fifties, still plagued by the same bad habits of my teens. My habits are not particularly harmful to anyone else; certainly not in a direct way, but I know they are destructive to me.

Despite many attempts, I have not been able fully break the habit of biting my nails.

Over the years, I've put a lot of effort into conquering this vice.  I've succeeded in curbing it, but usually not for long. When I worked in Manhattan, and had the discretionary income to spend on manicures, my nails often looked great. After my nails were filed and polished by a professional, I no longer sought to chew them away. It was as if they had a protective coating that spared them from attack.

During those times, my nails would be beautifully dressed in "Misty Plum," or "Cherries in the Snow," or once-in-awhile, "Madly Magenta." 
These are not the colors of my 20s...these are today.
I would find myself leaving my hands perched atop a stack of manuscripts or posed on a desktop in someone's office, as if a camera would soon zoom in over my shoulder to catch their beauty.

It was a great fantasy. But then one moment when least expected, a critical nail would break. The rest of that day the ragged edge would call to me. Even if I resisted the temptation to bite, using an Emery board proved no better. My skill at filing was so inept, that soon the nail would be lopsided and reduced to nothing. It would look awkward among the beauty of the others and one by one, I would be forced to decimate the other nine. This would begin another cycle of biting that would take extreme efforts to overcome, more than a few months down the road.

There was a precedence for all this nail-biting. Somewhere around the time when I finally gave up sucking my thumb when I was ten, eleven, or twelve. Giving up the thumb proved a feat of true grit for me. I so enjoyed my thumb! Whenever I needed it, it was always there. It comforted me so. I had a way of sucking my thumb that allowed me to crook my index finger and use it to stroke the lashes of my left eye in a continual upward motion. Whenever I was alone as a child, this was how you'd find me. Thumb-in-mouth. Maintaining this soothing habit proved increasingly difficult as the years went by.

Everyone tried everything to get me to stop. The usual deterrents of soap under the nail or some iodine-like polish called "Thumb-suck" or something equally awful, didn't deter me. I washed off the soap and grew accustomed to the taste of the iodine. My parents kept saying how awful it was to see such a "big girl with a thumb in her mouth," because "big girls don't do that." They wanted me to stop, but I don't remember them harping on me about it. I do remember that job was taken on by my Uncle Johnny.

For whatever reason, my Uncle Johnny (whom I loved dearly) tried to scare, shame, or terrify me out of sucking my thumb. At first, he started a long campaign about my teeth:

I would have buckteeth pushing out the front of my lips.
I would stunt the growth of my bottom teeth and they would never come in all the way.
I would have to have braces and wires attached to my teeth and I would be in pain  
          the whole time they were getting straightened out.

"You don't wanna have buck teeth, do you?" he'd question me, but my teeth seemed fine, so I just didn't see it happening.

When the appeals to my vanity about how my teeth would turn out didn't succeed, he went on a barrage of name-calling. "Baby — that's what you are, sucking your thumb like that," he'd taunt. "I'll just have to call you ‘baby’ from now on." Though it hurt my feelings, the name-calling didn't stop me. I felt that really bothered him. I didn't suck my thumb at school, maybe because I feared that the kids would call me a 'baby.' But with family, I endured the ridicule because my sucking meant too much to me to give up.

The next line of attack was the worst as far as I was concerned and struck me with fear. My thumb, from all this sucking, was going to blow up and explode one night. At first, I couldn't think of how skin could explode, so I wasn't too worried. But then President Kennedy was assassinated and it seemed like 'explosion' of the skin was possible. I tried to avoid thinking about what he had said, but at night when the dark began to envelop my room, I tried to hide my thumb by curling it under my pillow. I worried if my thumb would be there in the morning. 

When I still didn't quit, the taunts escalated. "You'd better watch out," he'd caution, "somebody's gonna come in when you're asleep and cut off that thumb and you won't have it anymore!" Now this I took seriously. It wasn't that I imagined some stranger breaking in to do this terrible deed, it was that I could imagine Uncle Johnny doing it. And my fears of that happening were reinforced when assorted adults tried to intervene by saying, "Oh, Johnny, cut that out!" "Stop scaring her...that's enough!" It was precisely their speaking up that led me to believe that he was capable of such an act. I did the only thing I could to protect my thumb; I slept with it sucked tightly in my mouth, the one place it might be safe from harm. On the nights our family would sleep over at Uncle Johnny's house, this threat became very real to me. It was one thing to protect my thumb in my own room. It was quite another when I was asleep on the couch downstairs in Uncle Johnny's den.

I don't want you to think that this was all I remember of my Uncle John.

Despite the reign-of-terror regarding my thumbsucking, he was always good to me and my brother and sister. He'd pull pennies from behind our heads, blow smoke out of his ears, and sneak us tastes of the shish-kebab, hot off the grill. He always encouraged my schoolwork and praised my poetry. When I finally married at 33, he was no longer alive to see it. At our reception, I made a speech about how much I missed his being there and how much he loved us as kids. I don't think I mentioned anything about the thumb. Everyone reassured me back then that he only said those things because he loved me. I knew he loved me, but I grew up wishing he hadn't loved me quite so much.

When our twins were born, I tried not to project about the sucking issue. 

They were completely opposite in most everything. My son sucked his thumb briefly but soon found that almost anything else was more interesting in his mouth...pebbles, grass, lint, paper, screws, plastic playing pieces...these all gave me quite a scare. Sucking a thumb was much safer because it was attached. No matter what I said, he continued to put things in his mouth and I continued to worry. Even though he NEVER swallowed anything he shouldn't have, still it was a concern. One summer (when he was six or seven or eight) the driver of his camp van called me over at the pick-up to let me know that on the drive home she noticed something in his mouth. When she asked him to take it out, she watched in the rear-view mirror while he produced a marble that he'd been rolling around inside his mouth. And then another and another!  I thanked her for alerting me and congratulated her on spotting it, but laughingly assured her that this was something he'd always done, and so far, so good.

My daughter went through a brief period of sucking a pacifier. Most of my relatives urged, "Don't get them started with that pacifier-stuff," but I felt (from experience) that if they wanted to suck or needed to, I wasn't going to deprive them of it.

Though it was offered to both, only my daughter latched on to a 'passy' and then not for very long. When she gave it up, I was secretly relieved that I wouldn't have to worry about the likelihood of her having buckteeth.

Over the years, I've had some success with a nail-polish product that has that red GhostBusters stop signal superimposed over the words, 'Don't Bite It.' This stuff is so bad that it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth for hours. Perfect for me. It was my only hope of succeeding. At one point, I went into a panic because I couldn't find this product in North Carolina. I alerted my sister and girlfriends all over. Finally, my friend Lynnie in northern California, found the vile stuff. She sent two bottles and I as long as I kept using it, I would be able to grow some nails, get some polish on them, and look like a grown-up. When I fell off the wagon, I'd start the process all over again.

As had been done by other friends in other years past, for my birthday, my good friend, Michelle, gave me a certificate for a manicure and a pedicure. It took me two months to stop biting my nails and to redeem that certificate. For a few blissful weeks, I enjoyed the adult beauty of my nails ("Hibiscus Rose Creme") and left them lingeringly on display, every opportunity I could. But a stressful week stressed my nails...a chip here, a split there, soon signaled the end.

As I slide my thumbs over the ragged edges of these bitten nails, I'm once-again disheartened: about this nasty old habit that keeps haunting me and about my inability to control this vice. My only consolation is the knowledge that vanity has taken hold in at least one generation. As my daughter proudly boasts that her nails are longer than mine, I sigh with relief that for a moment, the insecurities of the mother are not yet visited on the child.