Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to Knit a Pair of Socks

Assume you know everything you need to know. Don’t bother getting a pattern. Don’t think about the correlation between needle size and yarn ply.  Don’t ask anyone for advice. Especially don’t ask your mother, who is an expert knitter.

Go to a discount store and buy a skein of the cheapest yarn you can find. Don’t even know if you’ve chosen wool or some sort of acrylic. Don’t think about the meaning of the word “blend.” 

Assume one skein will yield one pair of socks. Choose the color lime green. Base your choice on the fact that you don’t especially like the color lime green. Consider the reality that all your favorite socks, in your most beloved colors, mysteriously vanish in the laundry. Resolve that these lime green socks will be with you for the rest of your life.

Cast on. 

Immediately realize you don’t know what those two words mean. You understand them individually: cast — the people in a play; on — on the bus, on time, on your mark. You could go on. 

Sit and ponder what you need to do in order to “cast on” in a manner appropriate for knitting. Remember all the times you’ve heard people use that phrase. Think of your mother. Stop thinking of your mother. Think, instead, about your friend Julie Pinkus. 

Picture her in the dorm room you shared 43 years ago. See her surrounded by balls of yarn. See her hands manipulating knitting needles. Hear the click click click of the needles. Force your mind to see exactly what it was she was doing with her hands and the yarn and the needles. 

Realize you cannot force your mind to do anything. 

Feel despair. Really feel it. Wallow in despair and discouragement, and also in disgust. Wallow a little bit more. Just a little bit. Remind yourself not to overdo it; you don’t want to step on the down escalator and wake up in the pit of depression. Not because of knitting. Not because of the lime green wool (or non-wool, as the case may be) that is sitting in your lap. Not because of the two knitting needles that, with a bit of creativity, you could easily put to some good use. 
Think about the many things you could do with these needles. While you are thinking, transform the skein of yarn into a ball and throw it on the floor. Call to your cat. Observe her delight as she pounces on the yarn and rolls it from one end of the room to the next.
Take the knitting needles and plunge them into the soil of that huge plant you don’t remember the name of — that plant in your living room that’s been listing to the left for six months. Prop the leaning stems against the knitting needles. 
Go to the kitchen and get a piece of string from the junk drawer. Tie the plant stems and the knitting needles together. Realize this would have been a good use for some of the lime green yarn, but tell yourself it’s too late now, the yarn is covered with cat spit and you’d rather not handle it too closely. 
Think about what a good day it’s been. Your cat is happy, your plant is happy, your mother is happy — because she doesn't know what you've been up to. (If she did know, she'd wonder where she went wrong with you.) 

This story is dedicated to my friend Susan Koon, sock knitter extraordinaire. Today is her birthday.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Haiku Magic Gardens

There's a really nice children's store near my house and they sell all the things I want to play with: miniature xylophones and kaleidoscopes and sparkly wands and kazoos. I go there sometimes and just stand in front of the good stuff and drool a little bit. I try to be discreet so I won't damage the merchandise.

Sometime I even buy things.

I bought a sketch pad and a box of colored pencils the other day. Then I set about drawing gardens. 

There are very few things that I can draw. Certainly nothing that looks like anything. But for some reason I thought I had a chance with gardens.

My first drawing went like this: going from left to right there was a long narrow patch of dark green, followed by equally long and narrow patches of red, light green, orange, yellow, dark purple, light purple, red again, more yellow and light blue. 

In between the colored patches I wrote the words broccoli, tomatoes, peas, pumpkins, corn, eggplants, irises, cherries, bananas, clouds. I titled it Magic Garden #1.

I know as little about gardens as I do about drawing, but I felt justified including what I did because of the title. It seems to me that the word magic provides quite a bit of leeway.
After that I made a second drawing, with shapeless splotches of purple, green, orange, yellow, more green, blue, red, green again, and another shade of red. It was all willy-nilly, like a very messy garden might be. 

I dutifully identified each smudge of color: plums, string beans, chick peas, yellow squash, green squash, hydrangeas, apples, avocados and cranberries. This one was titled Magic Garden #2.

If not for the written explanations no one would know what I was getting at. 

I don’t mind giving people a clue. 

All this business with the colors and the words took a lot of time, and each sheet of paper was gigantic. So much white space to fill. Which means I lost patience after the second garden.

So I pulled a page out of the sketch pad and cut it into lots of tiny squares. 

This is what I drew on those scraps of paper, in circles and oblongs and squiggles of color: peaches, petunias, raisins, raspberries, nectarines, asparagus, peonies, blueberries, parsnips, lemon drops, kisses, roses, watermelons and watermelon seeds, okra, chard, gourds, anemones, onions, pickles, sunflowers, brussels sprouts, red peppers, yellow peppers, green peppers, kiwis, kale, violets, scallions, tangerines, cabbages, beets, strawberries, cumin, leeks, star fruit, lotuses, rutabagas, garlic, raindrops, parsley, figs, butterflies, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, almonds, daisies, basil, tiramisu, pansies and carrots. 

Because they were so small, I called each miniature drawing a Haiku Magic Garden. 


midnight in the garden —
lost dreams and daisies
meet to gossip

I wrote this piece a number of years ago. I no longer draw gardens. But I still think daisies are the biggest gossips.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Stay Open at the Top

A while ago I attended my first art class since junior high school days. I was nervous, since my early experiences with paints had been far from successful. But I went in spite of my fears because the teacher, Jackie, was a friend of mine. I thought she would be kind. She was.

There were three other students in the class. We all sat around the dining room table in Jackie's apartment and she gave a short introductory talk.

"Look with new eyes,” she urged. "Colors don’t have to make sense." "Don't be afraid to be tacky." "When you think you’re finished, it’s just the beginning." 

This all made good sense to me. But best of all was when she encouraged us to “stay open at the top.” 

Then we set to work. Scattered across the table were tubes of acrylic paints — bold reds and pretty pinks; lime green and forest green; a yellow so lemony it made my teeth hurt; orange and eggplant; sixteen shades of blue. 

There were old coffee cans filled with paint brushes in every size, and other cans filled with water for cleaning the brushes. We had white plastic dishes for mixing paints and little scraps of washcloth at hand for drying our just-cleaned brushes. So much wonderful stuff. 

I freaked out. 

Art paraphernalia makes me nervous since I am, basically, still at the finger painting stage. I tried to keep my state of mind to myself. I just gurgled quietly into my sleeve. Anyone might think I was coughing. 

Jackie demonstrated some effective brush-dipping-into-paint techniques, as well as some brush-going-on-canvas strokes. Maybe it seemed as though I was soaking it all in. I wasn't.
And then it was time for us to begin. I squirted some red paint onto my white plastic dish. A few inches to the right I squirted green. Further along the rim: yellow and purple and blue. I couldn’t yet handle the subtlety of blending.  
I painted a bright red spiral in the middle of my canvas. It looked like a squiggly piece of pasta. It was at this point that I ran out of ideas.

I looked around to see what my cohorts were up to. Sheer magnificence. Their canvases were filled with swirls of color that actually went well together. 

I hated them. 

I moved to another section of my canvas and painted yellow circles. Not perfectly round circles, but definitely circles. I painted lots and lots of circles. The full moon, over and over and over.
The woman sitting to my left looked at my canvas. “What beautiful suns,” she said. And I said “thank you.” I felt like the little prince in the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, when he draws an elephant being digested by a boa constrictor and the well-meaning relatives mistake it for a drawing of a hat.
But I didn’t correct my sister-painter because she had used the word beautiful. She didn't say “you stink at this,” and for that I was grateful, even though my moons would now be suns forever more.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Plucky Blind Girl

That summer, when everyone in Camp Freedom thought I was blind, I felt truly accepted for who I really was. Even though people thought I was someone entirely different.

They thought I was a plucky blind girl in dark glasses with a great sense of humor and a total lack of self-pity.

They were in awe of my ability to find my way around the cabin, and to and from the outhouse. No one cared that I couldn’t play tennis, or volleyball, or dodge ball.

My bunk-mates took turns walking with me to the dining hall. Sure, I had a tendency to trip over rocks and fallen tree limbs, but my friends put their arms around my waist and gently guided me past the tricky spots in the path. 

And when we finally arrived at the dining hall they marveled at my ability to serve myself, to handle a knife and fork, to almost always find my water glass without knocking it over.

On Hootenanny Nights, when we all learned to square dance, everyone was amazed that a blind girl could dosey doe and allemende right and left, and only occasionally end up in the wrong square.
I had two boyfriends that summer, Max and Smokey. If any other girl in camp went with two boys at the same time she’d have been called “fast,” or even worse. But that didn’t happen to me. People were just happy to see me happy.
“She’s blind, for God’s sake,” you could almost hear them thinking, “she deserves a little joy in her life.”
Max was the best guitar player in camp and the first time he gave me a lesson I was terrified. We had to share a single guitar and that meant sitting very close. I sucked on a wintermint life saver the entire time, while Max positioned my fingers to make the C, G, D and F chords.
It was very exciting. 
I could tell he felt good about himself. Didn’t it show what a great guy he was, having a blind girlfriend in the first place, and never getting fresh with her? 
Smokey was another story. He thought I was the benevolent one. He considered himself the camp’s real charity case. His parents were Israeli Arabs and he wondered if I knew. He wasn’t going to tell me, didn’t want to take a chance, but his friends assured him that I did know, and it didn’t matter to me. I was like Natalie Wood befriending Sal Mineo, or that blind girl with Sidney Poitier in the movie “A Patch of Blue.”
I’d only recently learned the word insecure. I knew that I was, but I couldn’t imagine that Smokey was. He was so cool, tattooing his own arm with a straight pin, scratching his camp name — Smokey — into his flesh, a little deeper each day. I’d run my fingers over the rough spot on his left forearm, feeling the letters; slightly repulsed, but also impressed. He thought it was some kind of Braille thing, like I was reading him. 
One morning we slipped away and spent an hour together in the laundry shack, sitting side by side on top of the two washing machines, feeling the pulse and energy of the spin cycles under our butts. We held hands. He kissed my fingers. He said he had never felt as close to anyone as he did to me. “And it’s not just because you’re blind,“ he said. And I wanted to believe him. 
That was the summer when, as a result of a slight mishap on the bus ride going up to camp, I broke my eyeglasses and, without saying a word to anyone, slipped my prescription sunglasses onto my face. With that single act I unintentionally took on a new and wondrous persona. 

I could have corrected people as soon as I realized what they thought.

But I didn't. I was having the best summer ever, as the blind girl.


I wrote this piece of autobiographical fiction, about the summer I was 15, a couple years ago. I wanted to share it today, as the summer of 2011 quickly comes to an end. By the way, THIS summer has been the best summer, ever. Truly.

Friday, August 26, 2011

It Can Happen This Way

I was hypnotized at a party when I was 15. 

It was an accident. 

A girl I vaguely knew from my biology class was being hypnotized in the hallway, just outside the bathroom. 

As I passed by, my back pressed flat against the wall so I wouldn’t interrupt the hypnotist (a boy I never saw before or after), my eyes got in the way. 

That's when it happened.

I didn’t do anything strange. Didn’t bark, or yodel, or pull my hair out.

But nothing in my life has ever been the same since. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Chopped Liver

One summer my sister went away to a camp in the Berkshires and when she came home she was a vegetarian. 

The family didn’t take kindly to this. It was seen neither as a health decision nor a moral choice. Laura was labeled a juvenile delinquent.

My mother, in addition to thinking such rebellion was unseemly, was afraid the absence of meat in Laura’s diet would make her sick. Our family doctor, when consulted, claimed it was all a communist plot. “I don’t know what they think they’re doing up there in that pinko camp,” he said, “ but I’ve a good mind to report them to the government.” 

Aunt Fishy thought that all Laura needed was a good psychologist. Uncle Sammy said what she needed was a good slap.
But my grandmother got to work thinking of dishes Laura could not only eat, but enjoy. She invented what I think must have been the first vegetarian chopped liver. This was before tofu became popular and vegetarian chefs started claiming they could make a meatless meatloaf, or a chickenless chicken that, if your eyes were closed while you ate it, would absolutely, positively, fool you. This was before the days of vegetarian Thanksgivings, with a large slab of Tofurky sitting not-so-proudly in the center of the table. This was before you could find sliced seitan, passing itself off as roast beef or corned beef or ham, in your local supermarket deli department. 
Grandma never heard of tofu or seitan, but she knew from green beans. She took the beans and cooked them, and then she mashed them up. She chopped walnuts and added them to the mixture. Then a sprinkling of lemon and oil, a dash of this or that spice, maybe even a secret ingredient or two that she never divulged. 

The result was a vegetarian chopped liver that Laura declared “Delishioso!” 
I’m not certain, but I think that was the precise moment when she began putting the letter “o” on the end of her words. 

Neato. Excellento. Fabuloso. Keeno. Terrifico. Marveloso. Schoolo. Readingo. Whyo. Televisiono. Coolo. Stinko.

Soon the whole family was doing it. Even grandma.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Creamsicle Pop

Sometimes the sky is just the sky, but sometimes it’s a Creamsicle Pop from the Good Humor Man on a Wednesday afternoon in August, with Jimky and Rosa and Larry Leggs lined up behind me waiting their turn while I, not in any kind of a hurry, pull the wrapper from the sweaty slick of ice and lick it once, twice, again, my tongue itchy and tingly while their tongues hang out with longing.


This August memory comes from Vyse Avenue in the Bronx, early 1960s. I wrote this sentence a couple years ago in a writing circle at Emma's Writing Center when the "spark" was to start with the word "Sometimes." As soon as I wrote that word on the paper, this memory sprang to mind. (Full disclosure: I led the workshop, and came up with the spark.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cherry-Burst Candy Lipstick

There's a goldfish in the bed. And a blue velvet pouch with a broken zipper, some marbles, a penny, a fake ruby ring, a couple loose bobby pins, wads of used tissues, an overdue library book, a #2 pencil, half of a pink eraser, a candy lipstick, a spiral notebook, crumbs of buttered toast, a spoon, a cough, a sneeze, a hiccup, and one sick little girl known as Needle.

The goldfish, Maxie, isn’t supposed to be in the bed, she’s supposed to be in her bowl, keeping company with her ceramic castle and her mermaid and her colored rocks — green, yellow, orange, turquoise. 

The bed business was a big mistake. What you might call a fatal error. Somebody got careless. Let’s be honest, and also specific: it was Needle. 

We could blame it on the fever. But it wasn’t necessarily the fever’s fault alone. There is the fact, not to be ignored, that Needle is absent-minded, self-absorbed, selfish, unaware, forgetful, indifferent, uncaring, neglectful, irritating, bossy, noisy and whiny. Even without the fever. 

We might feel sympathy for Needle, but we don’t have to like her. In fact, we don’t like her. We hold her responsible for Maxie’s death, even if she considers herself blameless. 

Well, of course she would. 

Now what is to be done with the ceramic castle? What is to be done with the mermaid, poor thing?

The library book stinks. It smells of fish. Don’t hold that against Maxie. It was Needle, flinging things around the bed, willy nilly, who created that most unholy of combinations: goldfish flattened within the pages of Little Women.

Needle is hungry. Famished. Starving. It’s been fifteen minutes since her mother brought in the lime jello. Fifteen minutes since her mother said "I—am—not—your—servant." Fifteen minutes since her mother said, “I’ll be back in one hour with your sandwich, not a second sooner, do not call me again, Nadine Weinstock, I mean it.” Forty-five minutes to go. 
Needle doesn’t think she can make it. She reaches for her cherry-burst candy lipstick. She smears it all over her mouth. It cheers her up. She licks her lips. And licks them some more. More. She sticks out her tongue and licks the lipstick that peeks up out of the gold cardboard tube. It is delicious. Like a cherry coke. Better, even, than a cherry coke. 

Another lick, and then a nibble and then a bite. And another. More. Again. It's heavenly.

And then she throws up. 
We could say that wasn’t her fault, either. She was sick. Hungry. Tired. Bored. Lonely. We can always find some excuse if we want to. But do we want to? Do we?

Her mother comes in even though the hour is not yet up. "Oh Nadine, Nadine, Nadine," she says. 

She goes to get a cold washcloth and then she changes the sheets. That’s when dead Maxie is discovered. What a hullabaloo. Maxie down the toilet. Flush. Flush again, just to be safe.
Needle weeps. But not for Maxie. She weeps for herself and the cherry-burst candy lipstick, which she knows she'll never be allowed to have again. Probably not until she's old and in high school, whenever that will be. 

Who knows about the future, anyway? Just ask Maxie. Maxie expected to live at least until tomorrow and look how wrong she was.

Monday, August 22, 2011

If You Can't Change a Lightbulb

We always lived in apartments when I was growing up, but my father had dreams.

“One day, kids, we’ll move to the suburbs. We’ll have a little garden. Maybe even some chickens.”

When my mother heard this she made that special sound of hers. I can’t spell it. There aren’t the right letters in our alphabet to spell it. If I had to try, it would start with a ha sound. But it wasn’t ha. It was more disappointed than ha. It was ha with a sigh thrown in. And some exasperation, too. 

My father didn’t like that sound.

“What?” he asked, ”what makes you say it won’t happen?” “I didn’t say anything.” “You said plenty.” 

Dad was right, that ha of hers did say plenty. It said we were never going to live in the suburbs. We’d never put our hands in the dirt of a garden. There would be no tomatoes or peas or lettuce to pick for dinner. There would definitely not be chickens to do whatever a person did with chickens.

And here’s why:

My father couldn’t change a light bulb.

If you can’t change a light bulb, you can’t live in a house in the suburbs with a garden and chickens.

If you can’t change a light bulb it means you have to live your whole life in an apartment building where there is a super and a super’s assistant — men you call up when the light bulb blows and they arrive within the hour, with a ladder and a flashlight and a new bulb. They carry toolboxes and they not only know the name of each tool but they know how to use them. They have wrenches and screwdrivers and they carry nails in their pockets and hammers hang from special loops on their belts.

My father didn’t know from hammers. He was entirely dependent on the super and his assistant. And not only for the light bulb situation but also for leaky faucets and running toilets and — God forbid — what if water comes in through the window when it rains? What if the thermostat breaks? What if a ceiling tile falls down? What if the refrigerator gets too cold, or too hot, or stops working completely?

Unexpected disasters lurk around every corner. Not everyone can handle them on their own. That is why my family was doomed to a life of apartment dwelling. 

That’s what my mother meant by that ha of hers, that was so much more than a ha. Dad couldn’t change a light bulb.There would be no fresh-from-the-earth food for us; no eggs from a chicken; no milk from a cow.

Wait a minute, wait minute, who said anything about a cow? 

Well, a girl can have dreams, can’t she?

I learned that from my father.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chicken Feathers

That summer we were going to share a cabin with the Rubins at Bobkin’s Bungalow Colony in the Catskills. For months Mom and her best friend, Gloria Rubin, had been planning all the details, staying up late in one kitchen or the other with their laughter and schemes.

By the end of June we crammed into Gloria's green Dodge Dart, Mom sitting up front in the passenger seat and my sister Laura and I scrunched into the back with Cookie Rubin, the snottiest girl you’d ever hope not to meet. 

It was a rocky trip, because neither Mom nor Gloria really knew how to drive, and by the time we arrived in the mountains they were no longer friends. Before we could even unpack, we were thrown out.

"The bathroom's too small for all your toothbrushes," Gloria said, and since she’d been the one to pay the deposit, we had to go.

Mom dragged Laura and me to a shed called the Main Office. Buddy Bobkin, who ran the place, shook his head and said “Sorry, young ladies, we are all booked up,” and Mom said “Kids, prepare yourselves to schvitz to death in the city this summer,” and Laura began to cry. 

So then Buddy said “Well, maybe I have something, but you won’t like it,” and Mom said “We’ll take it,” and it turned out to be a chicken coop. 

“Converted chicken coop,” Buddy Bobkin said. I wondered what religion had to do with it. 

We moved right in. Laura and I put our clothes in wooden crates because there weren’t any dressers.

Mom unpacked the pots and pans and put them on the shelves where chickens used to sit and lay their eggs. 

Over the next few days everyone from the bungalow colony (except Gloria, who we now called Mrs. Rubin, and her awful daughter, Cookie) came to see us and they said “You’ve done wonders with this place, Eve,” and Mom said “Stay for breakfast, I’m making omelets,” but no one ever did. 

I think they were afraid they’d find chicken feathers in their eggs, and they would have, too. 

There were chicken feathers everywhere. They’d fall onto our eyelids when we slept, and they found their way into our bathing suits, where we hung them out to dry on nails. 

We didn’t mind. We were the only family in the history of Bobkin’s Bungalow Colony to spend the entire summer in a chicken coop. And that made us special. 

On the weekends, when Dad came up to visit, he’d go “cluck, cluck, cluck” until Mom said “Stop it Morty, it’s converted.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

Blossom & Spitt

I think flowers appreciate hearing our voices, even if it's only a quick "hello, hello" in passing. But it's best to be specific and personal, to call each flower by name. 

That's where I run into trouble. I can never remember the names of flowers. 

So I make something up. 

"Good morning, Prudence,"  "Howdy, Clarabella," "You're looking especially beautiful today, Ethel." 

I whisper greetings to the flowers because I believe it makes them happy. 

And also, I think they get a kick out of nicknames.

Did you ever have a nickname? (Maybe you still do.)

I remember camp names from childhood: Banjo, Froggie, Spike, Strings, Flash, Bongo. 

They were wonderful counselors, each one.

And there was a time in the 1980s when it seemed every woman I knew was using an earth name: Cricket, Cloudy, Spirit, Dust, RiverChild, Forrest.

These are the names I've had in my life, so far:
Irenechickle (family only)
Princess Potch in Toochis (translation: Little Girl Who Gets Smacked on the Backside When She Misbehaves)
I (for people who were too lazy to use 2 syllables)
Firelight (see above; this was in the '80s)
And now, Zee, which is my favorite, and I'm sticking with it. 

I once wrote a story about 2 girls named Blossom and Spitt who were best friends. Blossom was more of a toughie and Spitt had a large space between her front teeth. She was especially proud of that extra "t" at the end of her name. I don't remember anything else and I can't find the story anywhere. I may just start a new one with those characters because I like the names so much.

When my grandmother was the age that I am now, she couldn't always "find" my name. She'd go through a litany of possibilities: her 3 sisters, my mother, my younger sister. Until, finally, she'd come upon Irene. Or, more often, Irenechickle, which sounded delicious when she said it.

We always laughed when this happened. Grandma wasn't worried about losing her mind. It helps so much when you don't worry about losing your mind.

More than once I've called my sweetheart by our cat's name. 

What do you call yourself when you look at your own reflection in the mirror?

I try to remember to call myself "Darling."

It makes it easier to start a conversation that way.