Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Curly Fingers

My sister and I share the piano bench but only one of us is playing. 

I've been taking lessons for three months. Laura started a month ago. But already she is trilling up and down the keys, practicing the scales with joy. Her middle name is Joy. Can that be why she is so enthusiastic all the time?

I am bitter and resentful and just plain moodymad about the whole piano business. Nobody asked me. If they'd asked me I would have said NO.

Not maybe, or I don't know, or let me think about it. I would have said no and meant no and stuck with no.

I have zero interest in the piano. Zero. Which is a very low number. It is the lowest. 

This is my question: why can't they just leave me alone and let me read? I have my own library card, it shouldn't be going to waste.

They were so pushy about this. Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa, and of course Miss Dickinson, my piano teacher. She is a very pushy person even though she is young and pretty and wears soft clothes and smells good (peppermint). But still, she is pushy. She tells me I should practice for half an hour every day, every single day, including Saturday and Sunday. 

I am grumbly about Miss Dickinson. I heard my mother tell my grandma that I am "an ungrateful child." It's true. I am. 

Laura loves the piano. She loves everything about it — the piano itself with the black and white keys, and the piano bench (it opens up but there is nothing good inside, only music books). She loves Miss Dickinson, she loves scales, she loves practicing and sometimes she practices two times on the same day. She is such a loony. I don't blame her though, she is only six years old and she doesn't know any better.

Tonight is the first night of Hanukah. Grandma and Grandpa came over and so did Uncle Marv and Aunt Lillian.  And of course my cousins, Jackie and Ali. We had pot roast and corn and beets and baked potatoes for dinner. The beets were disgusting, slimy and cold, right out of the jar. But there was pineapple cheesecake (my favorite) for dessert.

Now Laura and I are sitting on the piano bench, our backs to "the company." Mom calls them that, but if they are family they can't be company. Everyone is waiting for us to begin playing. This is Miss Dickinson's bad idea. She told my mother it would be fun for us to perform, but she is wrong. This is not fun. It is agony.

Laura begins, a little song from the piano book called "Duets for Tiny Hands." It's a dumb title and it's a dumb song. But Laura plays it, bouncing on the piano bench with happiness, her fingers curled gently over the keys in "proper position," as Miss Dickinson calls it.

I sit, stiff as a dead bird. I saw a dead bird once, in the street. It was very stiff. I am even stiffer. My hands are on the keys but I am not playing. 

If you think about it, they can tell you to do something but they can't actually make you do it. They can't stand over you and push your fingers down on the keys. Well, they could, probably, but then you wouldn't have curly fingers in proper position because no matter how much they might want you to do everything they tell you, they can't curl your fingers and make you play the piano for company.

I am too angry about the whole Hanukah Recital thing to enjoy my victory, but I know I'll feel better later after everyone has gone home and Mom and Dad and Laura are asleep. Then I will relive this moment over and over again inside my own private mind. And it will feel better than it does right now.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bad Advice

Last year I had the great pleasure of taking an art class at my friend Stiller Zusman's studio, Abovoagogo. The class was for young artists, ages 5 - 7 I think. I was in awe of them and also a bit intimidated by their free ways! When I came home I wrote this little piece with colored pens, a different color for each bit of bad advice. In the process I embraced my younger self. The list makes me laugh! I hope it makes you laugh too.

color outside the lines

interrupt people when they are talking

eat with your hands, especially gooey food, then lick your fingers


eat ice cream for breakfast

never wash behind your ears (or any other place where you don't feel like washing)

be a slob, the slobbier the better

think bad thoughts

don't floss

drink milk right out of the container, orange juice too


if you bump into someone don't apologize

let the door slam

don't do your homework but say you didn't have any

when your knee socks slip down to your ankles just leave them there

pretend to have a stomach ache so you can stay home from school on a day when you really really really do not want to go

don't comb your hair for a week

lie some more

spit the brussels sprouts into your napkin and then very secretly throw the napkin in the garbage

pretend you loved the taste of those brussels sprouts so people will think you are sophisticated and also mature

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Did I Dream This?

did I dream this
my hair hanging heavily
in a long braid down my back

a steep climb up a mountain 
that rises into purple clouds

you right behind me
clasping my braid as if it were
a rope

and then those elephants
trunk to tail
5 or 6 or maybe more

did I dream this?

a damp grey fog
descending from the sky
the scent of burned toast
and marshmallows

the elephant closest to me
looks over and winks

a hawk 
swoops low
releasing bits of paper from its beak

one scrap lands
on my upturned palm

in clear bold writing
the most beautiful haiku
I ever read

did I dream this?

how I promised myself 
I would remember those words

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Grandfather Laughs

One day more than a hundred years ago, in a forest in another country, a rich man — a landowner on horseback — came upon my grandfather and asked that trembling 17-year-old boy "What do you want to do with your life?" 

My grandfather replied "I want to go to America."

Then the rich man took a small leather pouch out of his pocket and gave my grandfather some coins. Apparently they were enough to get him to America.

That's how the story goes. Can it possibly be true? It seems improbable, but it was told to all the grandchildren exactly that way, many many times. 

Before or after the Hanukkah latkes were eaten; at the seder table once the hidden matzoh, the Afikoman, was discovered; on the Fourth of July; on Grandpa's birthday — no occasion was complete without the telling of this story.

And each time, we children dutifully shouted out "Thank you, crazy rich Russian man."

Then my grandfather would laugh.

He'd laugh so hard he would begin to cough and sometimes my grandmother had to stand behind his chair and pat him on the back and say "Joe, Joe, calm yourself."

These were the only times I remember hearing my grandfather laugh.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Learn from Your Mother

1. Decide what you want to remember and remember those things.

2. Decide what you want to forget and forget those things.

3. Put "lessons" into categories:

 - kitchen stuff
 - clothes (including accessories)
 - philosophy/character/ethics
 - make-up
 - literature, music, general culture
 - household (misc.)
 - handicrafts

4. Try to the best of your ability to recollect exact conversations on various topics, though the concept of "verbatim" can be loosely interpreted. 

5. Consider tone, inflection, hand gestures, facial expressions. Whenever possible, recall what you and your mother were wearing at the time when instructions, advice, admonitions, and/or sage teachings were offered.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

I Remember: a collection from my early life

I remember skating around the corner and not knowing how to get back home again.

I remember picking all the black licorice-flavored jelly beans out of the bowl and throwing them in the garbage.

I remember cheating at Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey at my cousin's birthday party and getting caught (I was peeping out from under the blindfold).

I remember all the rules my dad had about the phonograph and how to handle LP records.

I remember eating dinner at a friend's house and her mother served Spaghetti-Os, right out of the can, and I asked if I could eat dinner at her house every night.

I remember discovering that shoes made for boys were more comfortable than shoes made for girls.

I remember having my fortune told by an older girl in a gypsy costume at a school carnival.

I remember how self-righteous I was, going "trick or treating" for UNICEF and refusing all offers of candy.

I remember my disappointment when I was told that children couldn't even walk into the adult section of the public library, let alone borrow any of those tantalizing books.

I remember watching the performer Tiny Tim on television, playing his ukulele, and being embarrassed for him.

I remember always going into the museum gift shop before looking at the exhibits.

I remember my sister and I spent hours at a time studying the photographs in The Family of Man book.

I remember getting into trouble at a dance at the Y, for dancing too close with a boy.

I remember when being cool meant your mother let you wear nylon stockings to school.

I remember forgetting my lines in a school play, and just staring out at the audience in horror.

I remember the first time I heard about picnics and couldn't understand why anyone would want to eat on the ground with the ants.

I remember my mother saying we could never live in a private house, we'd always have to rent an apartment, because my father was afraid to step on a ladder to change a lightbulb.

I remember going to see the movie A Patch of Blue with my sister and cousins and afterwards we were all sobbing and couldn't get out of our seats.

I remember reading Little House on the Prairie during a long train ride from New York City to Florida.

I remember when my sister and I rode the subway and communicated with each other, over the din, in our own private sign language.

I remember learning how to type on a typewriter that didn't have any letters on the keys.

I remember deciding that 6 was my lucky number, just before I bet a nickel on a spin-the-wheel game at a street fair, even though 6 had never been lucky for me before.

I remember when our new neighbors, former circus performers, strung a tightrope in the courtyard of our apartment building, and for months we would all hang out our windows to watch them walk back and forth.

I remember when my seventh grade homeroom teacher got angry at us and said we were acting like little Lee Harvey Oswalds.

I remember reaching into the little coin-return box in every phone booth I passed, just in case I'd find some change.

I remember my first modern dance class, running across the room like popcorn popping, and later slithering like melted molasses.

I remember dancing the part of a carrot in a recital, wearing a slinky sateen costume in the brightest shade of orange, sewn by my mother.

I remember thinking a small dust storm in the playground was a tornado.

I remember putting on my Dale Evans cowgirl skirt, with fringes, the second I got home from school.

I remember my first crush on a girl and I knew I had to keep it a secret.

I remember eating all the cherries out of the canned fruit salad.

I remember wondering why the police didn't arrest everyone who went into the store with the neon sign boldly spelling out "drugs."

I remember blowing soap bubbles, pretending they were smoke rings from a cigarette.

I remember when everyone I knew wore peace beads, and we thought we were doing something real to end the Viet Nam war.

I remember all those times I read a novel from beginning to end in one day.

I remember searching all over the city for a pair of red suede boots to wear on Balkan folk dancing nights in the church basement near Carnegie Hall.

I remember when a friend offered me a cup of Constant Comment tea, with brown sugar, both of which I considered the height of sophistication.

I remember buying wide stripes of embroidered ribbon in the Ukrainian shops in Greenwich Village, to sew onto the hems of my bell-bottom jeans.

I remember when I wore bandaids on my fingers, elbows and knees, for no reason, just because I liked the way they looked.

I remember how much I hated bringing my lunch to school in a brown paper bag, wishing I could have a Dr. Kildare lunch box.

I remember being afraid of Jack O' Lanterns.

I remember the satisfying sound of vacuuming up a penny.

I remember my sister and I, at a Chinese restaurant, scooping the vegetables out of our egg rolls, then eating the crispy part, slathered in duck sauce.

I remember being very worried after a mean girl told me to go to hell.

I remember the awfulness of wearing hand-me-downs from someone who had such a different sense of style than I did.

I remember drawing an ankh (Egyptian symbol of life) in blue ink on my new leather pocketbook, and how much it upset my Jewish family, who thought I had drawn a cross.

I remember practicing how to roll my Rs the summer before 7th grade, in preparation for starting French class.

I remember how pleased I was when someone called me the teacher's pet, before I knew it was meant as an insult.

I remember the indignity of being seated at the children's table at family parties, after I was already a teenager.

I remember being so pleased with myself when I learned the Lindy Hop and, better yet, the Double Lindy.

I remember the summer I read nothing but Russian novels and said things like "woe upon woe" much too often.

I remember hearing Bob Dylan's voice for the first time and it seemed unbelievable to me that people would pay money to buy  his records.

I remember my first kitchen disaster: burned toast.

I remember a man named Paul who wore a gold pinky ring and came to our house to give us all haircuts in the kitchen, even my mom and dad.

I remember my 10th grade English teacher telling us that she'd been taken to see the lynching of a black man when she was a little white girl growing up in Alabama.

I remember being the only one among my friends who didn't like Ingmar Bergman movies.

I remember reading a story by P. G. Wodehouse on the subway, about a woman named Gwladys, and I couldn't stop laughing because of the way her name was spelled.

I remember reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and adopting Gertrude Stein as my literary hero.

I remember wanting to wear pleated skirts but my mother was a fan of A-line and circle skirts so that's what I had to wear.

I remember when it was important to know which side of your blouse your circle pin went on; wearing it on one side meant you were a virgin but wearing it on the other side was just unthinkable.

I remember my disappointment when I discovered that Bela Bartok was not a female composer after all.

I remember how much I loved these books: Black Like Me, A Light in the Forest, Catcher in the Rye, Exodus, Crime and Punishment, The Red Pony.

I remember thinking that the word "graffiti" was a curse.

I remember being afraid to stay home alone after reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

I remember thinking my kindergarten teacher must be joking when she said no two snowflakes were alike.

I remember dreading the arrival of my piano teacher, every Tuesday afternoon for two years, because she always knew that I hadn't practiced, and she looked so sad.

I remember imitating my grandmother by holding a sugar cube between my teeth while slurping from a glass of hot water.

I remember being so mad at my mother for forcing me to invite all the kids in my class to my birthday parties, including the boys.

I remember the first time someone called me a hippie I thought they were commenting on my big hips.

I remember standing very still as my mother pinned the little gold pin to my Brownie uniform for the first time.

I remember, at a friend's birthday party, finding the most small words in the larger word, Constantinople, and winning the prize, which was a measly Tootsie Roll pop.

I remember walking into the wrong apartment by mistake and thinking my family had moved out, and another family moved in, during the hour I had been playing around the corner.

I remember feeling sorry for my first grade teacher because she only had two dresses, a navy one and a brown one.

I remember when our teacher read us Heidi during the rest period after lunch, and when she got to the end I cried so hard she made me go see the school nurse. 

I remember dressing my Patty Play Pal doll in my old clothes, and thinking they looked better on her than they did on me, because Patty had long straight black hair and I had a bad Toni home perm.

I remember selecting a beautiful Mother's Day card for my mom, at the neighborhood candy store, but it cost 36 cents and I only had a quarter, so I didn't buy her any card at all.

I remember my grandmother teaching me how to sit like a lady, with my legs neatly crossed at the ankles.

I remember everyone being surprised when it turned out I was great at geometry.

I remember dancing and singing with gusto, up until the age of 11, when self-consciousness and self-criticism crept in.

I remember when our postal "zip" code changed from 63 to 10463.

I remember wearing a corsage for my birthday, every year in elementary school; sometimes it was made from flowers and sometimes from candy or bubble gum.

I remember wishing I'd been named April so no one would ever forget my birthday month.