" /> full circle: December 2005 Archives

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December 22, 2005


I need to take a blog break. It's not ideally timed, I'll have to drop out of Holidailies, but so it goes. Nothing awful has happened, nobody's gotten angry at my portrayal of him or her, nobody has linked to me in a mean-spirited fashion. It's just that the rest of my life has intruded, or rather, that the blog is intruding into the rest of my life too much these days. My novel rewrite has gradually been taking over my brain, I have a bundle of freelance work on the horizon, my family is here for the holiday, my spouse is working long hours, and I have a new local community to explore. So this blog is going on hiatus.

I may come back and post from time to time. I may not. I will certainly continue to post pictures on my Flickr page and I hope to explore that arena more thoroughly in a month or two. It uses a different part of my brain, visual rather than verbal. And I will continue to update Hidden Laughter from time to time, because I know the value that site gives to people in earlier stages of the same journey, and because that's a story unto itself.

I've been debating this decision for a few weeks. I do love the community, I love my readers, I love the forum for my thoughts and the responses I get from you. But other factors currently outweigh those, and it's time to stop, at least for a while.

If you want to be alerted if and when I come back in a more complete way, leave a comment or email me at tamar at berkeleyplace dot com.

December 19, 2005


It's always a question. When do you tell? Because after a point, if you're very lucky and things get enough better, you don't have to say anything. But if you don't, if you keep mum, are you implicitly lying? Not about him, exactly, not about who he is now, because he now stands on his own two feet, a child with quirks and hesitations, but whole and relatively normal. You don't have to tell because of him, not anymore. But if it's part of your shared past, if it's the main reason you never had a second child – the first was too exhausting, with all the therapies and worries – if it's the reason, too, that you haven't embarked on a money-making career until recently, if it's the reason for so many of your choices, including the school he's in right now, because you learned it's the best for support. If all these things are true, then isn't the gap in information, the lack of revelation, a form of cover up about your life and who you are as a family and even as a person? And especially if the work you're doing now is partly a result of the struggles you've undergone with this child and his diagnosis, how can you say "I'm doing this, um, health-related, child-related writing work," and expect anyone to take that at face value and not want to know more? And if you tell more, if you're more specific about the work, then aren't you revealing a certain, shall we say, expertise in the field? A personal relationship with the subject?

And if you remain silent and someone finds out down the line, doesn’t it seem like you have something to hide? Like you consider it a dirty secret? Because you don’t. It's a source of great pride. And you want to say the truth: My son was autistic, he couldn't communicate the simplest desires, he was terrified of other children, terrified of swings and slides, terrified of the world. And now he's so very much better, so very much happier and more complete and more integrated as a person and in the world. And damn, but he did that and we did that together, and he's an extraordinary child.

So I told. Saturday night at the party, I told one person, then two. And the second was our landlord, though that's a funny word for him, because he's a nice guy and someone I like as a person, apart from the whole monetary relationship. And with my blessing, he told his wife. Who called me yesterday to ask for advice about another child she knows. And now I'm so very glad I told. Because I do have this particular expertise, this particular arena I know very well, and it feels false to hide it from people I'm getting to know. Feels like I'm hiding myself when I want to connect instead. And in truth, I can say, "Look at him, isn't he great?" And maybe in that way change a perception, if they have such, of a diagnosis so heavy and harsh, so irreparable and heartbreaking. But most of all, I can show my own self in this, I can be myself. And if they're scared and disturbed by this (and none of them have been), then they weren't going to be real friends anyway, were they?

December 18, 2005

John Spencer

John Spencer died Friday. He's best known for his role as Chief of Staff on West Wing, but I remember him from LA Law. He first appeared the season I worked on the show as assistant editor. When you work on a film or TV show in post-production, you have an invisible, one-way relationship with the actors. You get to know the pores on their faces, their mannerisms, their quirks of breath and intonation. You are the man (or woman) behind the curtain.

And so I remember John Spencer as this shock to the system, this rough-edged working class joe on a soundstage filled with polished TV vets. I remember my irritation that he was supposedly the ex-husband to another new face, Cecil Hoffmann, playing Zoe Clemmons, because the two seemed to be from different worlds. I remember slowly coming to respect and then love watching his expressive face, his droll delivery, what seemed like a near-constant amusement with life.

I feel like I knew him even though I was only in the same room with him once or twice, even though we never officially met (at least, not that I remember). I hate that he died so suddenly and so young. A vibrant man.

December 17, 2005


We went to a holiday party tonight, thrown by neighbors up the street and over a block. Parents we met at the bus stop. And we talked and met people and clicked with some potential new friends, people I'd be delighted to consider part of my social circle, good people, smart people, people who talk about real, chewy matters and have a sense of humor and perspective. And I'm not talking about just one person, one couple, but a number of them. A small number, but it was a smallish party and we didn't talk to everyone. People were introducing us to other people as "They just moved to town," and other people were asking us about ourselves, and it was so easy to talk, so natural. And nobody was schmoozing anyone else, nobody was trying to make the right connections to get ahead in their careers because this is no longer Los Angeles. And we had fun, and the food was superb and all homemade.

Afterwards, as we were walking home, back down the dark street along the row of stately Colonial homes, with the moon so bright filtered through mature shade trees, this picture-perfect town we live in, I felt for the first time like this could be home. Truly, deeply home. A community where I fit. A place we can stay.

I wasn't sure for a while. Montclair has a reputation as an artsy community, filled with musicians and writers and filmmakers. And there are indeed a lot of journalists and filmmakers here, mixed in with the bankers and lawyers and business folk. But I couldn't find any of the scruffy artists I remember growing up in the city. Everyone looks so clean cut, so nicely dressed. There's money in this town, and money changes everything.

But tonight I realized. Maybe I won't find one aspect of my tribe here, but I will definitely find another. The intense, direct, interesting New Yorker. They're here. And, oh, how I missed them.

December 16, 2005

first impressions

Working on my rewrite, I've become aware of certain things. The way we see people, for instance. How we define character. I recently read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, a fascinating look at the way we as people size up situations in the literal blink of an eye. We know things even before we go through the logical sequence of steps to arrive at a conclusion. Often our immediate response ends up being more correct than the carefully analyzed answer. Intuition, in part. Also a deep-rooted need to respond right away, to know if we should flee or engage, leads us to analyze without knowing we do so. Thin slicing, Gladwell calls it. You extrapolate from a small amount of data, a part of your brain working overtime.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, it turns out readers do the same. The way you set up a character is what sticks in their minds no matter what you say later on down the road. It's therefore crucial to think about what exactly you're planting in their minds. You can play with this, of course. You can send them off in one direction and give that presupposition a twist later on, a nice shock in a twisty turny plot. But my novel isn't one of those. I need to set up certain possibilities, and therefore I need to give the right flavor early on. I realized that I'd done one character a disservice at the get-go. I was going for the contrast of a seedy environment and a dignified person, but people saw the seedy background and superimposed that over the man. Understandable, completely. But fascinating too.

Another character I set up as mysterious. I wanted him to be a little impenetrable, so readers would feel the same frustration and maybe longing as the one in the story who wants to know him better. But there's a fine balance to this. If I make someone too opaque, you as reader feel a distance, you feel a disconnect. And that, again, can't be made better down the road. Not without a hint or two up front. If he opens the door in his mind, if you feel a connection, you can relate and allow yourself to become more emotionally invested. But how much, how far can/should that go without upsetting the sense of mystery, of layers not yet explored?

Writing is not just art, not just craft. It's also psychology.

December 15, 2005

baby, it's cold outside

When I came downstairs yesterday morning, I looked at the thermometer outside our window. 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Um, cold. Yeah. When I walked Damian to the bus stop, it had gotten warmer. 17 degrees. Positively balmy. Today the thermometer is flirting with 20, never quite committing. This is the coldest weather I've experienced in 17 years. We didn't tend to leave California much during the winter. I wonder why?

When we told people we were leaving Los Angeles, moving back to the Northeast, they either said (with a wistful sigh) "I wish I was moving too" or they looked at me with incredulity: "You're going back to weather??? Leaving the sun???"

The sun still shines when it's twelve degrees outside. It just doesn't warm you up as much. I've been dreading this weather since we got here. Maybe dread is a strong word. Worried, concerned, wondering how it would feel and if I'd wish for the Golden State and regret moving. Bracing myself for the onslaught of awfulness that memory and hearsay created, the harsh wind that rips through you and makes you want to cry, only the tears just turn to icicles on your cheeks and make you cry harder, which of course just add to the icicle profusion and pretty soon you find yourself a walking, creaking human-shaped tear-flavored popsicle and you have to wait till spring thaw to get anything done like, I don’t know, shopping and cooking and work deadlines. Definitely you miss all your deadlines when you're a solid block of ice.

So, you know, not a good thing.

That was my fear. The reality? Well, yes. It's cold. And if it stays like this until February, I may indeed weep quietly into my scarf, carefully wiping off the tears before they freeze. But so far? Not so bad.

I can't figure it out. Did 20 degrees get warmer while I wasn't looking? Did someone switch out all the mercury in the thermometers around here the way dress sizes have silently eased up the ladder, so you can gain 15 lbs and yet fit into a new size 8? Is this the new 20 degrees? The hip 20 degrees? Or is it that I'd so magnified the chill in my mind this fall, buying the warmest jacket I could find, thinsulate and down, and armed myself with scarf and earmuffs and hat and gloves (and Damian, too, yes, he's covered head to toe or as nearly as I can manage without suffocating him) that I've effectively made us into walking Michelin Tire Folk, ready for the Arctic and no mere 17 degree weather will conquer our layers because we are too strong and too insulated for that. Take that, you winter, you, you can't cow me! I'm powerful in my puffiness, ready for bear. Or at least squirrel. A cute, small kind of winter weather, with a fluffy tail.

When you're bundled up and the wind is light and the sun is out, the chill burnishes your cheeks and chases you playfully down the hill but does no more than that. And you come inside, into the warmth, shedding layers as you go, and then you look outside and oh, it's so beautiful.

The first winter I spent in Los Angeles, I felt like I was cheating. Walking outside in a light jacket in January, they're gonna catch me, bust me, send me back, right? Then I started to miss it. The cold wakes you up, you know? Reminds you that you live in this body, that you feel from head to toe, that you exist. And then you get to look forward to spring, to the flowers and the buds on the trees and the warmth on your face. And then, too, you remember. You're alive. In this body. Of this earth.

It's all good.

(So far. Ask me again in February.)

December 14, 2005

nineteen years

Nineteen years ago today I put on a red-and-black skirt, picked out a pair of shiny, pretty earrings, brushed my hair, and walked out of my Brooklyn apartment to head into Manhattan to see a movie with a man I knew and liked. Yes, liked that way. He was cute and shy and he sometimes pulled on his ear when he talked, and he was thoughtful and perceptive and passionate about movies.

We met in front of the theater. It wasn't snowing. It had been the day before, when we stood outside after lunch just north of Times Square, stood outside while snowflakes melted on our hair, stood outside instead of saying goodbye and heading into our respective buildings and back to our respective jobs. But nineteen years ago tonight it wasn’t snowing. And nineteen years ago tonight we watched "Mosquito Coast" and ate dinner in a tiny Italian restaurant next door and talked, at first awkwardly and then more easily, and then we walked to his car – he'd driven in from the suburbs – and then sat in the car on a dead-end street overlooking the East River and the romantically industrialized Queens shoreline. And we kissed for the first time, and he drove me back to my little Park Slope apartment and he stayed. It was, after all, cold outside.

That was nineteen years ago today. And we're still together.

Someone asked me recently what Dan is like. I couldn't answer. Nineteen years ago I could have described him. He was defined in my mind, limned in relatively simple terms. But as time goes by, it's become impossible. Because he is not who he was then. I, too, am not who I was. We've grown with and because of each other. And although I know exactly who he is, I can't describe him to you. Oh, I can say he's tall, he has dark brown hair and light brown eyes and a long, lovely face, he likes techno-toys and is very attuned to music and defies masculine stereotypes: he cooks and cleans and doesn't watch sports on TV. I can say these things. Surface things. But I can't express who he is. Except that he's my spouse. The man I've chosen and who has chosen me.

That first New Year's Eve, when Dan made a toast to us raising a toast together the next New Year's, that felt daring. A whole year?

When four years passed and we were still together, that felt like a milestone. We'd outlasted my previous long-term relationship.

When thirteen years went by, that felt like a big one. We'd outlasted my parents' marriage.

Now I feel like we've stepped into another dimension. The dimension where people live who expect to stay together. Who have made a life.

We've moved across country together, not once, but twice. We got married, to my great surprise (I was not a fan of marriage, but so far so good). We're raising a child, a bright willful boy who is both of us and neither of us, who is himself in all his glory and frustration. We have worked hard together to help that child overcome his neurological deficits. We have taken turns supporting each other financially. We have bought a house, fixed it up together, true sweat equity, and then sold it. I expect we'll buy another one somewhere along the way, sooner rather than later. Another ring on the tree trunk. Another year gone by. Together.

I don’t know the secret to relationship longevity. I don't know how you know when you've found the right person, the person who eases your restlessness, the person you can trust with your heart. I only know that when you do, something inside you calms and says "yes."

And still, after nineteen years, says "yes."

December 13, 2005


The first time I saw him this fall, my stomach fluttered and turned over. My head hurt, a throbbing behind my eyes. I wanted to turn around, turn away and go somewhere else, not there, not after all.

As I rode the commuter train into Manhattan, I tried to picture his face. Tried to picture what we could possibly say to each other. What he would look like. What it would feel like.

As I walked into the great gray stone building, as I gave my name to the humorless woman behind the desk, I smelled the sharp scent of disinfectant covering human pain and wondered again if I could turn around and go home.

It's not that I haven't seen him recently. Though in a way, yes, it's that. I saw him once. In late June. I was with Dan and Damian, my backup, my moral support. Divide the weight, make it easier. That was at a different rehab center, a different configuration. And that too was difficult.

Before that, it had been three years. A disaster of a lunch, a conflagration of a phone call, a bitter but ultimately healing time of estrangement. Healing for me, that is. Necessary, maybe. If you love someone and he's hurt you again and yet again until your love is mingled with hate in equal measure, until all your internal ghosts revolve around that pain, sometimes the best thing you can do is shut the door. Walk away. Leave him be.

And yet. I wasn't, was I? Because here I was. Walking down the hall, passing a sign that read "Subacute Care." Knowing what I'd see. Not knowing how to feel.

I got the first call in late May. His wife. Apparently he'd fallen, broken bones, which were soon compounded by complications of a life lived with too little care to the body, with unwise medical decisions, with a cerebral disregard for mortality. Not my story to tell, not now.

So I called him. Fingers sticky on the phone, pulse leaping in my throat. But it was fine. He sounded like himself, his voice blurred but deep and, more importantly, friendly. The father I might have wanted, the father I thought I had at one point in my twenties, when his hot-and-cold parenting turned warm for a span of years. And so we went to visit him when we came east in June. Sitting in his wheelchair by the window. So frail, so skinny. So rapidly, transformingly old. But he was going home in a few weeks, back to his apartment, back to his wife and his life. He would walk down the apartment building hall to build his strength, he would go into work after a few weeks. He would keep going, the Energizer bunny of doctors, a wind-up rag doll with an indomitable will. Would we see him after we moved? Would it be okay? How soon would it explode into harsh anger and coldness? And did that matter anymore?

In September, I got an email from his best friend. His only friend now, he's alienated everyone else. We were in Cleveland, the last stop of our long drive east. I sat at my aunt's computer and read the words on the unfamiliar PC screen. "Your father fell. He fractured the second vertebra in his spine. He's in the hospital. He asked me to tell you."

The first time I visited after we moved here, I didn't know why I was there. Visiting this man. In his bed in the rehab center. It was hot. Indian summer, and the heat clung to the walls of this ammonia-scented building. I saw a woman wheeled by in a stretcher. I saw two men in wheelchairs sitting in the foyer, shouting hellos to everyone who went by. I saw my father.

Do you know what they do when you break your neck? They put you in a halo. It's solid black metal, cushioned around the neck with a sheepskin collar. It extends around the head. Two arms reach inside the structure to secure it to your forehead. Two metal prongs extend out from within this metal prison, this immobile spiderweb.

My father seemed dwarfed by the contraption. His arms so skinny, the hospital gown slipping off his bony shoulders. He had to fish for the Dixie cup on his bedside tray, he couldn’t turn his head to look. Infantilized. So I leaned in to kiss the tiny swath of ashen cheek I could reach and then sat, positioning my chair carefully within his narrow field of vision. And talked, mining my life for interestingness. Damian's in school, yes, it's a good one. He got 100% on his first math test, yes, he's bright. Dan's making good contacts, yes, he should find work soon. We like our little carriage house, yes, and we had no trouble selling our LA house. Montclair's a sweet town, yes. I'm starting to build my own freelance career, yes, finally it's time.

Eventually I ran out of things to say but kept trying anyway. Saying the same things again, sometimes, because it doesn't matter, really. Doesn’t matter what you say. Only that you're there. At the end, I clasped his hand, his long fingers, bony joints, warm dry palm. And I left the room, left the building, walked down the street to the subway. Walked away.

I can move. I can walk, I can eat whatever I want (within reason). I can shovel snow. I can work in my body, move freely. I have friends, more than one. I have family, many people I love and who love me in return. My life seems rich in luxury.

I've been back, every week or two I go back if I can. It's not always easy, Dan's working around the clock right now and Damian, after a couple of visits, expressed his discomfort with the environment. And I don't blame him. A seven year old shouldn't be subjected too many times to that dead, cold, sad place.

As for me? Well, I've come to realize it doesn't matter what I think about this man. Or rather, what I thought about him. It goes beyond that. A friend said to me, "You don't have to go, you know. You don't have to do this, given everything he's put you through." And she's right. I know she is. But I have to. Not because he's my father. Or rather, yes, because of that. Because he's my kin, because underneath it all I do care, because we have this long, complicated relationship. But also because none of that matters, because he's very alone right now, vulnerable right now. Because I have to. Because if I walked away, I would be a different person. Someone I don't like.

Sometimes it's not about how you feel. Not about what's right for you. Just about what's right.

December 11, 2005

bus stop

This past Monday I brought Damian to the bus stop for the first time. Before this, we'd been driving him to and from school every day. It's about 2 ½ miles, takes about 10 minutes. Not a big deal. We did it because he was beginning in a new school, a new town, a new life. We did it for our own peace of mind as well as his. But with the snow coming, I was more concerned with the logistics of getting my car down the very steep driveway after a storm than I was in how Damian might feel on the bus for that short ride to and from. Besides, it's been nearly three months. Time enough.

So Monday morning, a day after the first snowfall of winter, Damian and I walked down the hill hand in gloved hand, stepping carefully past icy stretches and breathing out in steamy gusts. There were of course no signs saying "Bus stops here! No, not there, here!" so we kind of scouted around the various options (note: four corners, four options) until someone showed up with kid in tow to point us to the right spot. I soon discovered that the cars parked by the curb were in fact not parked but simply waiting, as parents began unfolding children from their carseats and joining us at the corner.

Damian asked me once again to repeat the catechism I'd rehearsed with him the night before and the day before that. "What will happen when the bus comes?"

"You'll get on, I'll say hello to the aide sitting at the front, tell her about you, ask her to keep an eye out for you. There may be one or two kids from your class either already on the bus or getting on at another stop. The last stop will be school. You'll get out and you and all the other kids on the bus will walk into school together. And you know how to find your classroom from the front entrance, don't you?"


"And that's it."

"That's everything?"

"Yes, that's everything."

"What if I'm scared?"

"Remember how you felt the first day when you had to walk into school by yourself without me coming in? How you got lost and the woman at the door helped point you the right direction? The people at this school are very nice. You'll be perfectly safe. You won't get lost. Someone will help you."


By the time we ran through the drill, a small crowd had gathered, four or five adults with young ones. And they all wanted to know who we were. Me, that is. And Damian of course too.

"Are you new to the neighborhood? Where do you live, what house? When did you move in? What grade is he in? Who's his teacher?"

It was, in a word, strange. I've dropped Damian off and picked him up from several schools now, in Los Angeles and here. And people do smile, they do eventually chat with you, you do eventually get to know each other, sometimes rather well. But this was different. A tight group, a newcomer to assimilate. A shared identity. Parents Who Wait at the Bus. Neighbors. It's very suburban, I guess. Thursday I commented to one woman that it was so different from the way people act when they're waiting for kids at school. There they talk to people they already know, but the newcomers? Not so much. She said, "Well, we know we'll be seeing each other for the next several years at pickup time." And at the grocery store. And shoveling snow and raking leaves, yes. It's just being good neighbors, really.

She also said, "They're not all people I'd necessarily choose to be friends with, but they're nice." And that was funny because, you know, she looked like them to me. They all look the same. Very clean cut. Cheerful. They all go to yoga and the gym, they all have nice houses. They're very, shall I say, non-scruffy. Non-bohemian. I find myself wondering. How do I look to them? Do I look as much of an outsider as I feel? Or do they accept me as part of the clan?

They're certainly friendly enough.

Damian, by the way, did fine on the bus. Fine enough to take it every morning from now on, and many afternoons too. So I guess I'll get to know these folk rather well over the course of the time we live in this house. Maybe I'll become friends with one or two. Find out what's behind the façade, what's inside their houses, maybe even learn their dirty laundry. Maybe, after a while, I'll stop feeling like such an outsider, bourgeois bohemian that I am. Maybe there's a role for me in this bus stop friendship dance.

If You Learned About History

I picked up If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon at Vroman's in Pasadena early this summer as part of my campaign to make our cross-country trip more interesting for Damian. It's part of a series of history books by Scholastic, written in the question-and-answer format, detailing daily life in different places and times with an understandable emphasis on how children lived.

The covered wagon book was fascinating for both of us, I think. I had no idea that the travelers mostly walked alongside the incredibly slow wagon train, no idea that they made butter by placing pails of milk high up on the arching wood that formed the bow of the wagon. The bumpy motion of the wagon over the prairie would churn the butter for them. I never thought about what might happen when a wagon lost a wheel, couldn't get down a gorge, crossed a deep river. The book recreated the adventure of it. And it did what I wanted: Damian was enamored enough that we went out of our way to visit Fort Laramie and even visited the bit of Oregon Trail our path crossed in Wyoming. Damian walked in the ruts the multitude of heavy wagons had bitten into the rock more than a century ago and we all had a bite-sized taste of history.

I picked up If You Lived With the Sioux Indians at the Fort Laramie gift shop. We were traveling into Sioux land as we headed north toward their sacred, beloved Black Hills and I thought it would give Damian a flavor of the way the land had been, how people had lived there. We didn't get to read it until we got to New Jersey, but Damian and I both enjoyed reading about the Sioux. I learned little new – this is a part of history and culture that has always fascinated me – but it was Damian's first real exposure to American Indian / Native American civilization, and he loved the idea of the animal spirits and of the communal living.

Toward the end of the book, things got dark. The Sioux were crowded onto reservations, slaughtered by the thousands, died of imported disease. At first, I was taken aback that it was all there, laid out in the same question-and-answer format as the rest of the (far more innocuous) material. But really, would I want the authors to edit out the hard truth? That would be a lie, with disturbing connotations. So no, it's better that they tell the truth, that children learn how Indians were treated, the travesty that was part of this country's birth pain. So I read it to Damian, who sat very quietly and listened.

Since we've arrived back on the east coast, I've found myself intrigued about the history of this area. I want to take some walking tours of the city, maybe in the spring. I want to learn about the transformation of the Lower East Side, the political history of Greenwich Village, the origin of Brownstone Brooklyn. I want to find out about the buildings I walk among. New Jersey too, but that comes later; after I learn about the state in the present tense, I'll want to know its past. So I picked up If You Lived 100 Years Ago to read to Damian because it was specifically about life in New York. We just finished reading it.

I don't know what I expected. This book was brutally honest. People traveled by horse-drawn carriages. The book described that. How were horses treated? Very badly indeed. The book described that. With each subject, the author, Ann McGovern, described how the rich lived (in ostentatious luxury) and then how the poor lived. She pulled no punches in describing the squalor of tenement living and the long, punishing hours children worked. Damian didn't ask too many questions about the rougher material. He just listened.

At first, as with the previous book, I squirmed as I read. Should I put the book down, should I cover his ears, is he ready for these images, this sadness? But it's part of history, and it's important to understand these things. Deep divisions remain between rich and poor, and the middle class is getting so squeezed, more people may be dropping below the poverty line every year. This is not just history, this is life. I don't sugarcoat death when I talk to Damian. He knows what happened to our cat Dante this summer, for instance. I try to explain homelessness when Damian asks about someone bundled up and trying to sleep in an alcove on the subway stairs. Why would I want a book to avoid the tough issues? Is there some specific time in a child's life when it's appropriate to explain, all in a rush, about every harsh aspect of life? Or is it better, as these books do, to weave it into the ordinary and the exotic, just an other facet to discuss?

We do tend to shelter our children. We don't want to talk about the depth of horror of a disaster like the tsunami in Asia or the details of devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I may talk in passing about the war in Iraq because Damian heard us talking, but I don't tell him about Abu Ghraib or the pictures of rows of coffins, soldiers coming home. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because children are more prone to nightmares. Maybe because they have less of a context to place the facts into. Maybe because they're simply not ready and we recognize that on some deep level. But at the same time, they do need to know some of it. To start understanding that there are aspects of life that just aren't fair, aren't nice, aren't sweetness and light. It's a gradual process, I think, teaching a child about the darker side of human nature. Of Mother Nature too, for that matter.

The more I think about it, the more glad I am that these books do cover the tough stuff. It's just – well, I'm not used to it. Not in a children's book. And some of these are harder. If You Lived in the Time of Slavery, for instance. I'm not ready for that one, I think. Not quite yet.

December 09, 2005

snow day

Turns out the experience of snow is radically different when you don't live in the city. We rarely had snow days when I was a kid. The snow melted or simply disappeared under the force of so many boots. The subways always ran. You could go Riverside Park, bring your sled, toboggan down the schist hills outside the playground. When you live in the city, you can walk to snow. It doesn't live with you.

When it snows in the city, your body doesn't feel the ache deep inside muscles you never knew you had, because when you live in the city, you don't have to brush six inches of that pretty white fluff off your car in the morning and try to scrape compacted snow off your impassable steep driveway in the waning light of late afternoon because the snowplow did such a lousy job clearing it while you were away. When it snows in the city, you don't get snowed into your in-laws' house, who are very nice about it all, but who nevertheless have to wrangle up enough to feed an extra three people for lunch, and of course there's no running out to the store because you are, remember, snowed in.

When it snows in the city, you never get stuck backing out of your in-law's driveway after your father-in-law has blown all the snow out of said driveway and the plow has swept the street clear but in so doing, the plow created a foot-high wall of snow right at the end of that lovely, formerly clear driveway. And when it snows in the city, you don't have to hear your car strain and huff and catch its breath to try again only to fail once again to climb the driveway up to your little house perched way high on the hill.

But when it snows in the city, you also don't get to wade through pristine snow in your boots, feeling them sink into the drifts, feeling like an explorer in exotic terrain, familiar land made new by the thick coat of white, white everywhere, and when the sun comes out after the flakes stop falling, but oh, they were thick and luxurious, those flakes, dissolving on the tongue with a sharp tingle, when that sun comes out, the shadows of the trees on the snow turn blue and the snow on branches becomes backlit and the world is white and quiet and oh so very beautiful.

12-09-003 snow falling on pine

12-09-015 Ugg footprint in snow

12-09-016 our car

12-09-070 snow blower

12-09-079 joy

I will post more of today's snow pictures, the artsier ones if you will, on my brand new Flickr page. (Check there often if you like my images; I'm testing it out now and will probably begin using it as a very-nearly-daily photoblog.)

December 08, 2005

rush rush rush

Going into the city today. Catch the 8:15? No, I'm exhausted, need to sleep. Make it later, make it much later. Have to be in Brooklyn by noon. Wonder if the woman I'm meeting remembers I'm meeting her. Wonder if I should call. Wonder what I'll do if she forgot. Wander around the Heights in 25 degree weather? Winter, god, yes, winter. It does get cold, doesn’t it? Need hat. Miss earmuffs. Rabbit fur earmuffs, bought on the NY street 20 years ago, snapped in half the first time I tried wearing them this winter, currently in use as a cat toy.

Focus. Must get ready to go. Must go. Call Dad. Dad in rehab. Dad is busy this afternoon. How can you be busy in rehab? (Answer: work by phone.) Call Dad's assistant. Rush rush rush.

Meeting Chris on the uptown side of the subway station, north end. I forgot what it's like in the city: meet at the Washington Square Arch, meet at Coliseum Books, meet at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, meet in the subway station. Among the hordes rushing toward you, one is the person you want to see, expect to see, filtering out the crowds. But the crowds are so interesting, their faces expressive even when they don't know it.

Meeting Dan downtown, Dan driving into the city, work that out, confer by cell phone, "I’m at 23rd Street, where are you?"

Meet up, meet down, meet all around.

Pack. Gotta pack. Staying overnight with Dan's folks. Damian's PJs, Damian's cuddle frog, toothbrushes, what else? Can't forget gummy vitamins.

Must go. Running late. Must catch the train. Train into the city. Commuter train. Commuter Tamar. Rush rush rush, then settle in with a book and my iPod, the train rushing for me down the track toward Broad Street, Newark, Secaucus Junction, then into the tunnel and emerging into the bigness of my city.

Must go.

Catch you later. See you at Columbus Circle, the big globe, know where that is? See you later, see you soon, catch you on the other end.

December 07, 2005

catching up to where I stand

I'm participating in Holidailies again this year. The concept is that you post an entry every day from December 7th through January 6th, giving web surfers plenty to read while everyone else is off doing holiday things instead of diligently updating their sites.

If you're just joining me, I've changed blogs and towns since last December. Postscript changed to Full Circle when this Angelino became a Jerseyite. When people ask me why – and they do, all the time – my shorthand answer is, "Because we missed it." Another, easy to digest answer: "To be near friends and family." The longer version is in my blog writing, here (when we made the decision) and here (a recent look back). And my travelogue of our two week drive from California to New Jersey begins here.

So now you're all caught up. I'm not sure I am.

Sometimes I stop in the midst of my daily routine and think, "How did this happen?" Sometimes I kiss Damian goodbye at school or at the bus stop and walk back up the street and look around at all the pretty Colonial and Victorian houses, at the tree's bare branches reaching to the winter sky as my boots crunch on acorns underfoot and now on snow, crusted like crispy white toast, and I think, "But this isn't my life. Is it?"

We've been here nearly three months. Long enough to settle into a routine of sorts. Dan's working now, and this week that means he's never here. So I have time to be here on my own. To listen to the wind chimes outside, to look out of the second story window next to my small blonde pine desk, the one I've had since grade school, and appreciate the pattern of blue shadows the tree trunks create on still-pristine snow. To pick Damian up, to cook dinner, to sit with him while he does homework. To shop and write and talk and think. In a way, it's not that different from my old life. I shop at Whole Foods, only the store here is far smaller. I sit at my desk and work on my novel, only now I'm wearing extra layers as I do so. In a way, life is the same wherever you go. Because it's your life, your routines, your choices.

But it's also vastly different. I love going into the city. My city. Every single time, I get a catch in my throat that says I'm home. And I love that my college roommate is just three miles up the road, that she can call me on a Saturday night and we can have brunch the next day, spending hours talking with friends while the kids play. I love that I can call Dan's folks and ask them if Damian can stay there while we go into the city for a midweek screening of a film directed by another friend. I love that I can get in touch with an old friend I haven't seen in 20 years and then actually see him a few days later. Because I'm here. So near my roots, my past, my identity.

No question, this works better for me than LA ever did. But that sugar-coats the jolt, the dissonance, the subliminal bewilderment I sometimes feel. I run out of shampoo, where do I get more? Not Santa Monica Boulevard, not anymore. We want to buy an Indonesian papier-mâché flying creature, where do we go? Not the store I remember from the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Not from here. My old life, my old haunts, they're so close in my memory. Sometimes it feels like I could just get in the car and pull out of our snowy driveway and head into town. Into Los Angeles, that is.

Instead I find myself in Montclair, a town with plentiful charm, to be sure, but a confusing one to a city kid. I look for likeminded folk, and I suspect they're here – at least, everyone keeps saying they are, that this is a town full of creative types – but they're not scruffy artists or intellectuals. They have neatly cut hair and they run off to yoga after they drop the kids off at the bus. It's not the bohemian city life I remember from childhood. Nor is it the dyed-blonde ultra-thin constant one-upsmanship style I remember from LA. It's somewhere in between, and that feels strange.

I'm still feeling my way here. It's good, I think it could be great, but it still feels like a foreign land, this land, New Jersey.

December 03, 2005

fifteen things about books

I rarely do memes. In fact, probably never. But Toni tagged me for this book meme, which involves writing fifteen things about books. Talk about books? How can I resist?

So here goes.

1) I wasn't one of those precocious learn-to-read-at-age-three kids. In fact, my mom loves to tell the story of how, the summer before I started first grade, I was pouting because she was settled on the couch reading a book rather than playing with me as was her civic duty. I declared then an earnest six year old's vow that "When I learn to read, I'll only read when I have to, like signs and stuff, and never any other time!" Well, um. That winter I learned to read. And never stopped.

2) I feel somehow incomplete when I’m not in the middle of a book. There's a part of my brain always wanting to be enmeshed in story and character, anticipating what's going to happen next and mulling over what's come thus far. When I was a young teenager, I used to walk down the Manhattan sidewalks reading books. People would marvel at my ability to dodge poles and fire hydrants and stray dogs as I went. I had good peripheral vision, what can I say? I also used to bring a book to the movies because, after all, you sit there for several minutes before the lights go down and the film starts. Why not read? In fifth grade, I used to slip a book into my desk and read while the teacher wasn't looking.

3) A shameful confession: if a book is getting slow or going in an irritating or frustrating direction, I'll flip ahead to the end. Sometimes when I do that, I'm satisfied that I won't be disappointed and I go back to where I left off. Sometimes, though, I read enough to feel like I got the book. I read the first half, the last chapter, and I can guess the in-between parts. And then I put the book down. Have I read it? Yes and no. Do I feel guilty? Not really. An author has to work hard these days to earn my undivided attention.

4) I am seldom blown away by a book these days, but I loved Aimee Bender's An Invisible Sign of My Own, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Julia Glass' Three Junes, to name a few recent books. I also really liked The Time Traveler's Wife, but it hasn't aged as well in my memory.

5) There was a time, somewhere around junior high school, when I read a number of Shakespeare's plays. Comedies, mostly. Sitting on my bed after school, turning the onionskin-thin pages of my mom's Shakespeare anthology. The language was tough, but the cadences enchanted and I became deeply involved in the stories, seeing them play out in my mind's eye.

6) The single biggest influence on my writing was the French author Colette. I became enchanted with her books, god, maybe in college? Maybe earlier. I loved her voluptuous imagery, her command of the specific detail that illuminates the scene, her thoughtful yet emotional characterizations, and the immersion in that time and place. Her time and place. Her mind. I fell in love with her along with her words. I try for such specificity, such emotional acuity, such sensual language in my own work.

7) Lest you think from the previous paragraphs that I'm a literary snob who only reads classics and high lit'rature, I also love genre fiction. SF/F, mystery, and even, yes, romance. No westerns, though. It does get harder to read genre fiction after returning to fiction writing myself. I'm just too damned aware of the prose and shape of the work. Some writers still delight me – Lois McMaster Bujold in SF, Diana Wynne Jones in (young adult) fantasy, Judith Ivory and Jennifer Crusie in romance, and recently I've enjoyed Harlan Coben in mysteries (albeit with some quibbles), but it's getting harder for me to dive into competently written journeyman novels the way I used to. This makes me sad. What do I do to satisfy my escapist fiction jones?

8) I don't get chick lit. Sorry.

9) From age five to twelve, I spent the summers with my mother and brother in the southern Berkshires. We would make a weekly trek into Great Barrington, and one crucial stop was the library in a converted brick church. I still remember the bell chiming the hour, the damp, musty but somehow comforting smell of the basement where they kept their children's books, and the piles of hardback copies of Lad, a Dog, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Five Children and It, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond that I'd carry as cherished prizes as we walked back to the car along the sun-dappled sidewalk.

10) I still love the smell of library books. Not too good at the returning-them-on-time part, though.

11) When Damian was three months old, I began reading to him. I'd put him on the bed, pick up The Penguin Book of Nonsense Verse and read him Jabberwocky. I figured the most important part was simply the cadence of my voice. And I was amusing myself during those sometimes-endless days alone with an infant. Funny thing, he loves making up nonsense words these days. Did Jabberwocky implant permanently in his tiny baby brain?

12) I used to do what Toni described, read under the covers with a flashlight. I don't know who I thought I was fooling. My mom knew, of course. I still stay up way too late reading if I'm hooked on a novel. Nowadays the price I pay is worse than falling asleep at my desk in math class, though.

13) I remember when I was a kid, looking through my father's old Golden Age science fiction novels. Reading them, which was sometimes difficult, since the pages were yellowed and brittle. Thinking how very old they must be to be that fragile. Now the paperbacks I bought as a teen are yellowed and brittle. Please tell me paper is aging faster these days.

14) My mother has classier taste in fiction than I do, or rather, more unerringly classy taste. I love sharing novels with her, and I now have a long list of books to read from her descriptions of them.

15) I never understood why my father would come home with stacks of books from the bookstore when he already had stacks of books to read on his nightstand. Now I do. It's like buying yourself another chance at a quiet kind of joy.

That was fun.

I tag Tiny Coconut, my mom, and Eliza.