Thursday, May 31, 2012

About Finch

It was 1971 and I was more than halfway through what started out to be a glorious first year at Northeastern University in Boston.  I’d gone there because it was a co-op (work/study) school  you went to school for five years (“middlers” were between sophomores and juniors) and graduated with two full years of work experience on your resume.  Along with getting an education, I’d be able to work and earn my tuition.  It seemed a great way to get an education. 

Being the first  in my family to attend college, I didn't feel I had anyone I could go to for help.   I soon idolized my RA (a junior!) who took me under her wing and provided me with her affection and guidance.   One day, all of that changed and I transitioned from our dorm counselor’s pet to her pariah.  Soon my happy life turned into a tumultuous mess I 
couldn't navigate. For months I was miserably unhappy and looking to transfer.

One of my mother’s
dry-cleaning customers mentioned this girl’s school in Manhattan: Finch College.

“Dotty, you should send your daughter to Finch.  Tropicana orange juice’s daughter went 
there. The daughter of IBM’s chairman went there. Tricia NIXON went there.”
I wasn’t crazy about the all-girls thing but there was appeal to being smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.

When I went for my interview, I found it even more appealing.  I met with the Registrar and Director of Financial Aid who was standing in for the Director of Admissions.  She was amazing in every way  smart, funny, thoughtful, practical, just someone I really wanted to be around and learn from; someone I immediately looked up to and felt, this is where I should be.

Early one Sunday morning, my parents brought me to this 77th between Park and Madison to start my new life.  It was the start of my sophomore year.   I headed down to the cafeteria. I had worked in the cafeteria at Northeastern and had to eat dinner at 4:30 before the mess hall opened and the masses arrived.  The joke in our cafeteria was that the meat was the same every day, it just changed color  from brown to tan to gray.

When I entered there was no cafeteria; but there was a carpeted dining room with real artwork, crystal chandeliers, Spode china on the tables, and a chef in a white apron and a big white hat (yes, a chef’s hat!) asking, 

    “Miss, would you like Eggs Benedict or Eggs Florentine this morning?”

     And that is how I ended up at Finch College, where I didn't belong.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Falling Short - Part Two

Home in our apartment, flat out in bed with belly protruding, I could tell exactly when it was 3:20 because the phone would ring and it would be one or more of the girls from class calling to tell me what a mess the day had been.

“The teacher was fighting with the boys!”

"Jabbar fell asleep in class!"

“No one did their homework!”

“Karim was climbing on the cabinets!”

“She let us have SODA!”

Things were falling apart. My replacement was a brand-new first-time teacher who had just graduated in December.  She was young and green and they were eating her alive.  Even my colleagues (when I pressed) reluctantly told me the kids were "swinging from the rafters." 

The calls went on day after day. Shamefully, I began to avoid answering the phone after three o’clock. I didn’t want to hear. I didn’t want to know what was happening.

What was happening?  Why were they acting up?  Why weren't they behaving as they had learned to behave?  What had changed?

Just one thing.  Only one thing had changed.

I was gone.  And with me went all that I'd worked so hard to instill. All they'd worked so hard to achieve, all that struggling, all that striving.  Turns out they didn't do any of it for themselves, they did it to please me.  I failed to teach them that they should make the most of their skills and talents because of what it would mean to them — I didn't know enough to teach them that.  Everything they did, they did out of a desire to please their teacher. And once the teacher was gone, so was the behavior.  All I had accomplished was to make them loyal to me.   

All they had gained under my tutelage soon fell by the wayside.  

It would take me decades to figure out how NOT to make that mistake again.
Read the conclusion to this tale in The Turnaround

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Falling Short - Part One

It wasn’t until I was forced to leave teaching and go on bed rest that I found out how I had failed my students.  Though I'd tried to impart to my class all I had learned from my teachers there was a fatal flaw…and it wouldn't become known to me until it was too late to remedy.
It was inevitable.  In two weeks I would have to stop teaching and go on bed rest.  Though my principal Miss Budd had made every accommodation she could to make it possible to stay, my doctor said if I continued working I'd be endangering my twin pregnancy.  

Twins often came early, premature and with complications.  To minimize the risk to their physical well-being you had to make it to at least 32 weeks to avoid respiratory distress syndrome (lungs not fully formed to support healthy breathing). Thirty-six weeks was even better.  At 36 weeks they’d still be premature but more fully developed.  If I was going to make it to either of those milestones I had to stop working and go on fairly complete bed rest.  I’d contracted shingles, had gestational diabetes, and my doctor cautioned I couldn’t put it off any longer.  I had to quit.

Though I hated to admit it, truthfully, continuing to work had been tough. In spite of my colleagues pitching in and helping out, even with the kids being so good, working was taking its toll.  I’d thought I was doing such a great thing by eating fresh fruit and drinking juices five or six times a day  until my fasting test showed I had gestational diabetes.  I needed to cut down on the sugars and monitor my blood five times a day, twice during school hours.

I couldn’t leave the room and hike down the stairs to a faculty bathroom every time so, I decided to make it part of the day’s lessons. The kids could track the level of my blood sugar and plot it on a graph posted on a bulletin board in the room.  They could compare and contrast how I was doing within a day, day-to-day, or week to-week.  They liked recording the number, plotting the point, drawing the lines, making predictions.

In those days the high-tech glucometer was a hand-held gun that allowed you to stick a disposable needle  a lancet  in the machine, shoot yourself in a fingertip, press to get a drop of blood, then stick a litmus-like tab of paper in the blood, slide the paper tab into the meter and wait for the reading to register and appear digitally.  Then you had to write down the number, carefully place the lancet and the tab in a safety bag for disposable.  Twice a day the kids would gather around my desk while I went through this ritual.  The boys couldn't wait to hear that trigger pop and see the blood slowly emerge   the girls held back and cried.  They were convinced that it was hurting me.  I tried reassuring them, laughing even, but after awhile my fingertip pads were marked and sore and I couldn't laugh it off.

The day had been particularly long. I'd been standing on my feet too much (carrying the weight of twins) and cramming it in so the kids would have as much as possible in their heads before the dreaded “test.”  There was no telling who would come in and replace me. It certainly wouldn't be an established teacher — they’d all be in jobs already.  I was stressed and worried and felt guilty and adding to my anxiety that moment, I was teaching my absolute least favorite subject in the world…math.

I sent the next group of three to the board to work out some multiplication problems.  Class clown James was trying my patience by sauntering up to the board and doing what my mother would call “lolly-gagging.” The other two students quickly did their calculations; we checked the math, they sat down.  James was standing there with his trademark grin on his face and fooling around with the chalk.

“James," I said impatiently, "just work on the first set of numbers.  Just look at the first numbers to multiply.  What’s 3 times 4?”

He jerked around grinning, giving me what he thought was an endearing look.  

“I don’t know…” he drawled and everyone burst into laughter.  Grinning and laughing, James was enjoying the comedic moment.  

I wasn't laughing  I was livid.  If I'd told him once, I'd told him a hundred times. He had to memorize those times tables.  

I had spent months trying to get James to work to his potential.  Praised, cajoled, reasoned, given him a hug, a kick in the pants, anything I thought might work.  Despite his poor grades, to me he was a smart kid.  There were glimpses of his intelligence but the only role models he saw around him in his neighborhood were non-productive adults.  The three "D"s were part-and-parcel of the adults he knew outside of school  drinking, dealing, and drugs.


Everyone turned to me, still laughing, but curious about the tone in my voice, not one they'd heard.

“Class.  Are you laughing WITH James or AT James?” and James turned to the class  still enjoying being at center of it all and still laughing when they called out loud and clear “AT HIM !!”   

The smile disappeared from his face.  He got angry, turned to me with fury in his eyes and said, “I didn't know that because I thought you asked me, What’s 4 times 3 !!”

And at that I put my hands on the board and moved my head forward and back as if I were bashing my forehead into the blackboard over and over in sheer frustration. The class thought it was hysterical.

I turned to him.  “James.  If you don’t know that 3 times 4 is the SAME as 4 times 3 — then I give up. I GIVE UP.  You say you want to be a pilot?  What do you think that control panel in the cockpit is made of?  Dials with NUMBERS.  NUMBERS THAT REQUIRE MATH.  Did you think the plane was gonna FLY ITSELF?  SIT DOWN.  I’m through. I wash my hands. No more talks, no more trying to get you to learn, no more sessions after school — I'm DONE.”

The class had gone quiet. James had taken his seat.  He had a steely look on his face.  His eyes were filled with bitterness.  It was a terrible way to treat a student. It was awful.  I was awful.

After that, James stopped talking to me.  He was in class but he wasn't present.  He didn’t act up but he didn’t look at me and he didn’t speak to me.  I tried pleading. I don't remember but I hope I said I was sorry. I do remember saying to him, “James. You can’t keep this up. I’m leaving in a few days.  Please.  Is that the way you want to say goodbye?”

But for those two weeks he just avoided talking.  Maybe on my last day he might have mumbled "goodbye."  I don't remember.  I only remember I left feeling I’d fail him.  

Soon it would get worse.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What Do I Think About Mad Men?

Just a note: I wrote this piece before the dark side of things was emerging with the episodes beginning on the evening of May 20...and since!

This season's been an interesting turn for Mad Men fans — though it was a tortuous wait.  It’s such a tremendously good show.  But it’s going in so many directions I haven’t been able to figure out how I feel about it because I'm still getting used to where the characters are going or that we don’t see all the characters all the time.

There are lots of disconcerting things going on.

Surprisingly, Betty is battling with her weight.  She (and we) have been introduced to Weight Watchers and the leader has put the concept of emotional eating on the table.  Today — with Weight Watchers now a national institution — weight loss is a flat-out societal issue but the difference is that in the 60s the solution was to tell women to focus on their family as a way of fulfilling one’s needs. We now know that doesn't quite work.

Michael Ginsberg, a talented copywriter, has been brought on board bringing into their WASP-ish world a Jewish presence that also brings to the fore unspoken prejudices and spoken ones — voiced by Roger in a comic and cutting in-house diatribe when plotting to entice Manischewitz to come on over to Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce.

Megan has decided to leave Don’s world — not because she can’t cut it (again, surprisingly, she’s actually good at what he does) but because she decides to follow her passion.  But unlike her fellow actors, Megan's in a position of privilege which is NOT the norm for all those struggling in the profession.  While her situation is far from normal, it is plausible as there are always those very few who either come from families in the business (Drew Barrymore) and/or families of wealth (Sigourney Weaver).  These individuals work hard at honing their craft but unlike most, Megan has Don's resources behind her and that uncomfortably sets her apart.

And there are things going on that show our cast of characters growing up in many ways...

Like an animal marking its territory, Roger taints ex-wife Jane’s new apartment with a sexual reminder of him, but afterwards when he sees her pain, he seems to recognize his hurtfulness.

When Henry admits that perhaps he's misjudged his professional possibilities, Betty tells him that whatever he's worried about, they'll face it and figure it out together.  Telling him she'll be his partner, is showing him (and us) that she's being real in this relationship.

And when Megan and Don have a fight, they both end up saying they’re sorry.

Still it's not all grown-up.  

Betty tells Sally a piece of Don’s secret past hoping it will shock Megan and disrupt the marriage; Don purposely leaves Ginsberg’s idea for a pitch in the cab because he doesn't want his own idea trumped by this young upstart or judged by the client as less creative. Both Betty and Don are insecure about their younger rivals and are striking out in devious ways attempting to hurt their competition. 

Pretty childish to me.  

Who knows what's next?

I think I'll keep watching.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Twenty-six and Counting - In the Beginning

I was headed to St. Louis on a press check (when a book goes to press, someone has to approve every “signature” or set of pages, five 64 page-signatures in my case).  It was my first press check and I was flying halfway across the country to be picked up by someone I didn't know and stay in a motel steps away from the plant because every four hours I was going to be called to “okay” another signature.  

An RR Donnelly printing press

The plane was full of males in their pin-striped suits. It was 1980.  This was the time of life when women were more and more in the workplace but still trying to think like men, act like men, even dress like men — but with a feminine twist.   I was wearing a pale lavender herring bone suit with a blouse that had a built-in collar that tied in a soft bow, and an A-line skirt, carrying my big bulky briefcase with way too much paper.  I was trying to avoid eye contact, hoping no one would sit next to me, when surprisingly, another female sat down. The gate agent (God bless her) had seated us together.   We were the only two women on that whole 727!  Even more surprising — this woman was tall, blond, thin, and confident — the exact opposite of me in every way.

Turns out that self-possessed woman was headed the same place I was, for the same reason, being picked up by the exact same person, and she knew that I was going to be on that plane.   Quickly, she dove right in and put me at ease by talking shop.   Not only were we both in publishing and knew lots of the same people, we even lived within four blocks of each other!  By the time the plane landed, we were already friends.  We would spend the next two days eating every meal together and shuttling between the motel and the plant.  But before we embarked on that initial adventure, just before the plane landed, she asked:

                  “Are you seeing anybody?”
                  “Not seriously.”
                  “I have a brother I want you to meet.”

And meet him I did.  Shortly after we returned back to Manhattan, she and her husband threw a cocktail party at their apartment.  I walked over and when I rang the bell, the guy who answered the door said, “Hi, I’m Christopher, com’on in.”  Her brother seemed nice enough. But after the first hour of chatting some I thought, “He’s nice, but he’s not for me.”

I was in her small galley kitchen chatting when her brother came in and I turned and said, “Your brother told me…” and she turned around abruptly and said, “That’s not Chris.  That’s my husband Barry!”  Barry looked sheepish, I looked stunned, and she looked mad.  Real mad. Mad enough to take a frying pan (or was it only a dishtowel?) and swat him while chastising, “I can’t believe you did that!  WHY did you DO that?” But he was laughing and I was laughing and then the REAL Christopher came over to see what was going on.

It would be six years of on-and-off dating before we got married and my adventure would begin.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Authentic Happiness

I should have remembered to say HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY to all you moms out there and to those of you who "mother" others in your lives...hope someone is celebrating you today!
My son worries about my physical health. “Mom.  You’ve got to be more physical. Figure out a way to get some regular exercise.”

My daughter worries that I’m not more joyful.  “Mom.  You worry too much.  You’ve got to smile more. Remember what Julia said!”

Julia was the girlfriend of my sister’s ex and she’d read our palms one Thanksgiving.  After studying my “lines” she looked at me carefully choosing her words. “You need to have more happiness in your life or your worrying is going to make you — ill. You need to smile more.”

This caution stuck with my daughter.  Truthfully, it stuck with me.

I tried smiling more on and off for a week or so, but it was hard smiling for no reason.  So when the community ed center brochure came and I saw the four-session class “Authentic Happiness” I thought — “Okay, this is for me.” And I signed up.

Certainly I had skepticism. I  believe in alternatives, but basically I’d lived most of my life in a negative mental/emotional state.  From second grade on I had a sense — not a very clear sense — but a sense of foreboding.  That things weren't gonna turn out alright.  

All the grown-ups I knew, the ones I knew at home or at school, were always saying, “Don’t worry.  Everything’s going to be all right.”  But it didn’t seem that way to me.  In fact, it seemed the opposite.  That things could change and explode in a minute. 

The class was on a weeknight and would involve a bit of a drive to the next town, but I was looking forward to it.  The first night, I went in, sat down at the first table for two I saw, and looked out the classroom door.  Walking past was a woman who looked like someone I’d like to get to know — she walked in a different door, came forward in the room and (luckily) sat down next to me.  A good beginning.

Then the teacher began.  He looked like an energetic 80-year-old Methodist minister-type.  Within five minutes of his opening conversation to us about what we'd be doing in the class, I found myself smiling.  For no reason.  He wasn't saying anything funny and he wasn't doing anything funny.  Whatever it was, it just made me smile and it was only 7:05.

The class was interesting and somewhat interactive. He showed a lot of short videos all meant to make you happy or help you understand happiness in a new way.

I found it very different from anything I'd experienced and wonderful.  I was happy to be there.  I was learning about happiness and I was feeling it more.  All in one two-hour class.  Seemed like a pretty good deal to me.   I was looking forward to the next three.

Our regular bedspread

the new one AND its reverse side!

And this initial try at authentic happiness?  It must be working because the other day I went shopping and (uncharacteristically) bought new sheets and cases AND a new quilt-stitched summer bedspread/blanket (even though I didn't NEED them) and promptly introduced to our bedroom something far out of my usual zone.  

   Looks like happiness to me...

(But I could not get this photo rotated upright, the way the pattern really is.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Father Ryan

Home was awful. My mother was always working.  This was in sharp contrast to everyone else I knew. In fact I didn't know a single other kid whose mother worked outside the home.  All the moms I saw from 8th grade on were alien beings who played tennis, lunched at "the club," shopped and then dressed for dinner.  

My mom left early in the morning for the drycleaners that was 45 minutes away (unless there was traffic or trouble) and came home always after seven.  My sister, the oldest  and 7½ years my senior who used to be in charge, had discovered boys and got married right out of high school to escape.  My brother was usually in one jam or another, one juvenile detention center or another (usually out of state) and that left me with an embittered father who was the life of the party at “functions” but a pent-up steam cooker ready to explode with little notice. I stayed out of his way. I stayed at school. I loved school. Everyone there seemed relatively sane and sometimes even gentle and caring.  Like Father Ryan.
He was really just Mr. Ryan, not a priest.

A sweet, soft-spoken older man who taught English, Mr. Ryan  was a ruddy complected Irishman who had trained in the seminary to become a priest (or so the story was told) and instead got married and ended up teaching high school English.  He spent his days trying to drum into us an appreciation of the Greeks and Shakespeare and the canon of literature instead of biblical verses.  Both seemed quite far removed from my angst-ridden life.  Mr. Ryan wanted your respect but he was respectful to you as well.

I was a talker.  School was my everything and there weren’t enough hours in the day to get in all the conversation and attention and gossip that would soon be gone when I took the bus back to the silence and tension of my home.  I relished what was going on in everyone’s life and wanted to connect with my classmates, learn more about what seemed to be their easy-going lives, and if lucky, be invited for dinner to see what it was like living in a “normal” family.

One day in English, when it had been the umpteenth time that Mr. Ryan asked me to stop whispering in class and pay attention, he got so ruffled that he said something about me being “Io’s gadfly” and threw the blackboard eraser he was holding in my direction. 

I was as startled as everyone else in class because it was so completely out of character for him to do something like that, so unexpected, shocking even. In a split-second, I felt completely and utterly terrible. 

Slowly, his ruddy cheeks reddened even more and his voice dropped even lower than its usual hush. 

“I apologize for my outburst.” he said with great humility.  “That was inappropriate and I can’t think why I did that.” He sat down on the edge of a desk.

And then the words that struck the hardest, “Please forgive me.” 

Mr. Ryan was a wonderful teacher who cared about me, listened to me, welcomed my contributions to class. This was the teacher who came up to me after class one day when I was wearing my new deep purple sweater dress and with a smile told me (in that hushed voice) that my long dark wavy hair and royal purple dress reminded him of Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor!) in Ivanhoe.  He was a sweet, kind human being.  Without meaning to, I had been disrespectful, had disappointed him, but it soon became evident that the deeper disappointment was the disappointment he felt in himself. 

I felt myself sink into the chair for having caused this awful feeling in him and me.  It was as if I had taken a club and dealt him a blow to the head.

“It was my fault!” I said quickly, trying to lessen his embarrassment.  “Honestly, you warned me over and over.  I shouldn’t have been talking!”

But he had his head down and it seemed there was no consoling him. Mr. Ryan was someone who greatly prided himself on self-control — this lapse seemed more than he could bear.  I sensed he was headed to confession and I put him in this state of sin. 

I felt terrible. I wished I were Catholic so I could say some catechism or novella or novena, or whatever it was that Catholics said. Something that would exonerate both of us. 

The bell rang.  No one moved.  He said without looking up. “Class dismissed.”

This was an odd sort of reversal that made me quite uncomfortable. Usually, it was me being disappointed in the adults around me. I had done something that caused this beloved teacher to be disappointed in himself. I thought I would cry. I just didn’t know how to handle this situation. 

I went up to his desk.
“Please don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Ryan, it was totally my fault. I am so sorry. You need to forgive ME — not the other way around.”

“There is nothing to forgive my child.  Now go to your class.”

As I exited the room I wasn’t sure if this would change our relationship, change the way he interacted with me, but in an awful sort of way I felt something new — for one of the first times in my life, in an incident with an adult, I wasn't the victim.  

And that may have been the greatest lesson Father Ryan ever taught me.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What’s Bothering Feist?

I love Feist and have since I first heard her/them on a television show BEFORE the explosion of that Apple iPod ad …

”Hey MOM!” my daughter hollered, “here’s that singer you pointed out the other night!” when first viewing that ad on TV.  And then Feist's upbeat song  “1234” was everywhere for a long time.  When I got her CD, song after song, it was heaven to my ears.  Now years later, I was getting a chance to see her live.

Truth-be-told, we’re at an age when we don’t often go out to a concert in a neighboring city at 8pm on a “school night,” but I came to her concert exuberant and my husband was looking forward to seeing her, too.

The audience there was completely enthralled with Feist.  They knew the songs, the lyrics, and we loved hearing her sing.  We were sitting next to a pair of 23-yr olds who were Feist fans.  I kept being surprised that the hall wasn't sold out — there were tiers of empty seats.

On stage Feist admitted she had drifted through the auditorium while the warm-up band (Timber Timber) was playing, listening to their music, and scoping the joint.  The empty seats seemed to bother her.  Though not packed, the folks there were the devoted.  

Best photo I could manage
From the get-go, Feist let us know she really wasn’t happy being there.  Initially, there were sweet parts between audience and performer [“We love you Lesley!!!” Feist’s real name — though I only think of her as Feist] shouted from the rafters and she smilingly turned around and said in reply, “That was nice,”  but as the night went on, she made it known that she was in some angst.

During her talk with the audience while the band was tuning up, she told us repeatedly that she wasn't feeling connected — saying things like, “You’re out there and I’m up here. I wish I could be with you. Shakespeare called it, 'the fourth wall' and that’s what he meant. There's this wall between us.”

So we called out, clapped, shouted, hooted, and howled to establish a connection and to let her know how much we loved what she was doing.

Everyone yelled out words of encouragement and pleasure at hearing her sing.  But oddly, the large screen image on stage, projected behind the band, never showed her face — not once. Her guitar, her hands playing, a back-view of her on stage, but not her face. It seemed she wanted to stay distant — she didn't want to be seen.

Her music was terrific; some of the songs were arranged with a completely different beat, and she did engage us by asking us to sing with her or for her once in awhile.  I just couldn't understand why she wasn't happier at the adulation she was getting.  

Nor could I understand why Whitney Houston, who had every success, couldn't have a life of happiness and joy.  Perhaps I really don’t understand what it’s like to be a creative performer, an artist that lives that life.  Feist may have tried to explain when she said to the auditorium,

“You don't understand.  It’s like I’m scuba diving 30,000 feet under the water and you’re screaming at me from the surface. I can’t hear you.”

After she was done she quickly exited the stage and when she returned for an encore set, again you could tell it was reluctantly. She did a number with Mountain Man and then called the band back on stage and did "Sealion" but at the close, as she wound up the night, her conversation was even a little mean. 

“Do you realize I just wasted two f*k*g hours here?”

At that, the crowd did gasp some. My husband worried about the guy who was in the next section with his 11 or 12 year-old daughter.  I worried about Feist.

It was hard for me to write this — I so admire her talent! Besides her incredible voice and phrasing, she writes these amazing lyrics.  Some of the lines are devastating to me. On her album The Reminder she has a song called "Intuition" and deep into the song she sings:

“And it’s impossible to tell
How important someone was
And what you might have missed out on
And how you might have changed it all..."

And then over and over, she intones,

“Did I? Did I?’ 
“Did I, did I?”  

and when you first hear this you think, “Did I what?" but we don't find out yet. She repeats this verse ten times and you’re thinking, "When is she going to say what she’s gonna say?” but she still doesn't.  Then she's singing back-and-forth with her singers who join inechoing her like a childlike-Greek chorus —  “Did I? Did I?”  and finally, finally — after 22 "Did I?s"  — she wistfully sings, 

“Miss out…” a line of both exposure and closure.  

When I listen to "Intuition," it makes me cry it’s so beautiful; it seems magnificently simple and pure.  The Greek chorus gives it that touch of tragedy and that "Did I?" repetition reflects the way in which, we all mentally torture and doubt ourselves again and again on some past decision. Everyone knows what that feels like.  Feist is just able to brilliantly capture it in words. 

Her music is that way, song after song.  In another favorite from Metals (her latest album and the bulk of the concert), she touches me with “The Circle Married the Line” which may be her description of the sun meeting the horizon or rising above it, but for us, seems to capture our relationship. (I think he’s the circle and I’m the line — he thinks the reverse.)

In spite of it all, I loved hearing her and her three female stage companions  (with beautifully harmonic voices who for some unknown reason call themselves “ Mountain Man”) but try as I might to give her leeway (it must be tiring doing the same thing over and over, frustrating to have to live one's life on tour) and make every excuse possible (maybe she was upset that the performance wasn’t sold out or maybe she was ill and feeling sick), some of that exchange was downright rude and very disappointing. 

It certainly was not what I expected of this woman I had come to admire and revere through her music, and certainly not what those of us who were there to hear her deserved.  What were that father and daughter thinking when they left?  I left thinking how empty she must feel and how sad she must be to have behaved in such a manner.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Smokin' My Way Through the USA

I'm sorry to say I truly don't remember the first state-shaped ashtray that started my collection — what it was, where it came from, how much I paid for it. I only know that I was living in my studio apartment in Manhattan and had the idea that if I found all fifty states I could attach them to the wall like a huge sculptural map of the United States and wouldn't that look great?

Growing up, smoking was all around me, chain smokers were everywhere amongst the men and the women.  Hand-rolled cigarettes for my grandfather, cigars for his son and my cousin Bobby (even a pipe at times), Marlboros, Camels, Phillip Morris for my dad and Uncle John.  My mother didn't smoke but many of my aunts and certainly her women friends did with their dark sunglasses and that cigarette perched in their hands, in their mouths — they looked so cool, so sophisticato.

All those people with their cigarettes and all those souvenir ashtrays to buy and save while you were smoking your way through the USA. So many of those painted metal state-shaped ashtrays that everyone had — the older ones with the filigreed edges, the newer ones just stamped out and mass-produced.

Vermont dwarfing Alaska
My neighbor, once gave me a well-intentioned but surprising gift, a one-year subscription to The Ashtray  Journal - A Newsletter for Ashtray Collectors.  Filled with more types of collections than even I imagined — gasoline-related, casinos and gambling, and of course cigarette-themed ashtrays.  The state-shaped folks were on the pages but fewer and far between.

The idea of the map made of ashtrays quickly faded when my Vermont (sixth smallest state in area) dwarfed my other ashtrays in size.

Clearly there are series of these ashtrays..those touristy metal ones you've all seen (not very geographically accurate), and a ceramic series by "Annie Laurie."  Was this one person making them state-by-state and I just happened to find her Alaska and Maryland? Or were the Annie Lauries manufactured and sold in stores? And then there are the  ones that are unique to the state: Maine (The Lions Club), Ohio (radio station) and Arkansas (the Razorbacks are the football team for those like me who don't have a clue). 
Horizontal & vertical versions of Georgia
It's harder to find these ashtrays now.  You'd think that all these years later, decades in fact, that I'd have this collection complete, but I don't. In fact I have fewer than half!  This may be testament to the enormous shift in our culture away from tobacco and that is not a bad thing. [The Millennials are changing hearts and minds via the web:] Still I scour thrift stores, flea markets, antique shops, sometimes friends send them to me.  This can result in doubles (multiples of Florida, Nebraska, California) and in well-meaning state-shaped baskets (Louisiana anyone?), state-related items (a metal tray shared by New Hampshire and Vermont), and even cities and countries (Buffalo, Puerto Rico and CANADA?).

I'm sad to say I don't have my home state of New Jersey so com'on all you readers out there — be on the hunt!

State-Shaped Ashtrays I NEED [Update: I have crossed out those I have received since this post...thanks to the generosity of Stephanie and Julie!! Thanks you two! And thanks Liz! And also Nancy! And Jason!] 


PS Though I loved this title, truly I smoked for less than five years total.