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November 2010

Love My Library

Images What would I do without my local library?  When I moved here more than 22 years ago, one of the first things I did was procure my library card. Over the years, I've been a frequent patron, whether it was Mommy and Me Reading Circle, regular book loans, checking out many an audio book tape to listen to during long car trips, and of course research for my own book.

Last night I picked up two more books -  Cradles of Eminence, a 1962 book which claims to be "A provocative and eye-opening study of the childhoods of over 400 famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women," and Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Yes, I am still writing about famous mama's boys, now known as Chapter Seven. 

My local library is part of a bigger system throughout Westchester County, so these books came from elsewhere as part of an inter-library loan program. I simply reserved them online, and there they were, waiting for me. I know it sounds like no big deal, but the way I see it, having all this at my fingertips and for free is a small miracle.



What's Left

Images-2 The little Tupperware bowl sitting in my refrigerator and containing the last of the homemade turkey soup seems somehow symbolic to me this morning. Over the Thanksgiving break, this house was bustling. My Daughter and The Boy were home, the Weatherman had a week off from work, and the house was also filled with the kids' friends coming and going.

On Thanksgiving day, of course, I prepared the usual meal, and that 15 and a half pound turkey looked like it would last forever. It was, if I may say so, a gorgeous bird, cooked to perfection, tender and tasty. But how much turkey can one family and various friends stopping by for leftovers eat? Well, roughly 15 and a half pounds, and in various forms - the original, then hot turkey sandwiches on biscuits with gravy, then cold turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce, then turkey enchiladas, and finally turkey soup.

All of this abundance seemed to parallel the fullness of the house, the joy of having the kids home, the fun of seeing their friends -so grown up, and beginning to make their way in the world - all the laughter and even the mess.

This morning the house is quiet - everyone has gone back to work or school. I'll have the remains of the turkey soup for lunch and look forward to Christmas when I get everyone back again.


Tale of Two Thanksgivings

Images This morning's agenda is to bake two pies, one apple and one pumpkin, and to prepare the creamed spinach. If I have time this afternoon, I'll move into the sweet potato casserole. I will bring my ipod dock down to the kitchen, throw my apron over my jeans, and generally enjoy cooking for my family. (Can't say the same about washing all the accompanying prep dishes.)

But I can't help but be flooded today with images from last night's Food Pantry distribution. I was working the evening shift, and it felt at times like a freight train was coming through. We served client after client without pause - elderly people with walkers, pregnant ladies, moms with toddlers, single guys looking rough-hewn. Occasionally one of the volunteers would look up and ask, "Can you see the end of the line yet?" We ran out of sugar. We ran out of flour. We ran out of oil. (We rarely have these items; they were a special holiday donation.) We ran out of shelf-stable milk. We had to institute a system where those who got meat last week didn't get it this week - not enough to go around. 

The contrast between our house of plenty and the Pantry's rapidly depleting food stocks last night is vivid. 

Just a note to anyone who feels like donating to their local food pantry. DO NOT clean out your shelves and give your old cans or the odd box of pasta. Food pantries do best with donations of money. We buy in bulk at a Food Bank, which in turn buys in bulk from the government. For every $1 donated, we can purchase $4 worth of groceries. 

Now, as the old Sam Cook song goes, it's time to "Get into that kitchen and rattle them pots and pans!"


Strange Bedfellow References

Images-1 I just glanced at the books that are crowding my desk these days. It struck me what a funny assortment it is. What do they have in common? They are reference materials for the book on mothers and sons. Beyond that though, what would General 51iFcKI1IgL._SL500_AA300_ Douglas MacArthur have made of Kanye West? Or Harry Truman, who once wrote to his mother that she wasn't going to much like the speech he would deliver to the NAACP, make of Barrack Obama's memoirs?

51kQb99yrOL._SL160_AA160_ The following pile of is stacked up: "Raising Kanye: Life Lessons From The Mother Of A Hip-Hop Superstar" by Donda  West, "Dreams of My Father," by Barrack Obama, "My Life," by Bill Clinton, "First Mothers," by Bonnie Angelo, "Truman," by 51MD27pfg8L._SL500_AA300_ David McCullough, "Reminiscences," by General Douglas MacArthur, "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons For a Kinder Society," by Frans de Waal, and "Mothers [and] Sons In Their Own Words," a book of photography by Mariana Cook. 

As you can see, I'm steeped in my topic, but I better soon get inspiration from that last author's name. Cook I must. Today I'm going to get a jump on the cranberry sauce.


Chapter Six Chronicles

Images Yesterday, Chapter Six started pushing 60 pages. And then it came to me: Chapter Six is actually both Chapter Six and Chapter Seven. The reason it has been taking so long is that I am trying to fit  way too much into one chapter. 

And frankly, right now -though it is full of good information and interesting anecdotes - it is kind of a mess. Well, not a mess, but all over the place. Tentatively titled "Let's Hear It From The Boys," this chapter includes the Images thoughts of teenagers, young men and older men about their relationships with their mothers. It covers a range of topics within this umbrella - how they feel about their closeness or lack there of, about breaking away, about how their mother may have influenced their choice of a girlfriend, wife or partner, etc., etc.

But there's also a specific section on football playing sons, followed by wider thoughts on how athletes, both professional and not, relate to their mothers. 

Next, we are onto Great Mama's Boys in history, and while I was primarily focused on presidents and generals, there are plenty of other men I could feature from the arts (Frank Lloyd Wright) or business (Andrew Carnegie). This was what I was researching and writing yesterday.

Anyway, Chapter Six, while actually pretty fun to write, is just rambling along, and it is time to reel it in. If the  "Great Mama's Boys" part is actually Chapter Seven, that's good news. Since  I originally envisioned this as an eight chapter book, that means that I am actually getting there! 


Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Images-1
What a great book! And man, am I in awe of the author, Rebecca Skloot, who did amazing reporting for this work of non-fiction. Henrietta Lacks was a poor woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of 31. She left five children behind. But this book is far more than the story of her life - it's a book about scientific ethics, cancer, poverty, the legacy of poverty, racism and far more. Mrs. Lacks' immortality came from her cells. The cancerous cells, taken from her without her knowledge, were the first to be grown in culture.  Those cells, known as HeLa, were reproduced over and over again and allowed research that led to medical advances on a variety of fronts, including the polio vaccine, chemotherapy and in vitro fertilization.

But Mrs. Lacks died in poverty and her children seemed to fair even worse. Her daughter Deborah at one points asks why, if her mother's cells were so valuable, could the family not afford doctors? Skloot reports this story down to the most minute detail, following the trails of the "immortal" cells as well as the lives of the Lacks family. It is a fascinating tale - moving in it's humanity and illuminating to the non-scientist. The Book Group unanimously loved it.  


Never Say Never

Images As the oven repair man left my house yesterday afternoon, he said, "Bye, and sorry it took so long." Long? Oh gee, not so long. The oven has only been broken SINCE JULY 4! 

Don't get me wrong - I have been cooking. The oven wasn't completely broken. But let me start at the beginning, and I promise to give you an abridged version of the oven saga.

Timeline:

July 4. I'm pulling a pan out of the oven, and the entire control panel on top comes with it, and it is left dangling by a wire, which is sparking. I shut off the power and call a repair guy.

July 6- Repair guy comes. Says I need a new control panel. Orders part. Charges me $150 for service call.

A few weeks later: Repair guy comes to install control panel. $350 part. But repair guy then realizes that something else is also broken. Promises to get additional part. Meanwhile installs new control panel. This partially fixes the oven. It can cook but it is quirky. For instance, it no longer likes the number 2, so I can't heat the oven to 325 degrees, or any other temperature that has a 2 in it. Also, the clock and the timer don't work. The whole panel is sluggish - sometimes it will respond, but other times it just doesn't want to turn on.

Late August -October. Repair man is on the lam. Won't return calls. (Why don't I call someone else? Because I'm already out $500 to this guy, and don't want to start paying someone else for another service call.) Finally after increasingly less patient, though not yet threatening calls, repair guy calls me back saying that the part he needs is obsolete. Can't get it. 

October - I call the manufacturer and speak to customer service. They need a part number. The oven guy can't find it. I spend a great deal of time online at sites like "obsoleteparts.com" looking for the oven cable I need.

November. Despair. Thanksgiving approaches. Resigned to possible purchase of new oven. 

Monday November 15: Out of the blue phone call from oven repair guy. He took out someone's oven last week and salvaged the parts. He thinks he has what he needs to fix my oven.

Wednesday, November 16. He shows up. He works for 45 minutes. He curses. He talks to himself. He chuckles. Finally I hear a triumphant laugh. He has gerry-rigged something but the oven is working. Just in time for Thanksgiving. It only took a little more than 4 months. And no, he didn't have the audacity to try to charge me again. Never say never. 

 


Cross-Over Mama

Images-1 This week I am working on my section about "Great Mama's Boys in History." Let me clarify that I don't mean all these men were great, simply that they were prominent historical figures who were intensely close to their Mamas. Yesterday, when reading the autobiography of General Douglas MacArthur, I came across this poem she gave him while he was a student at the Military Academy.

“Do you know that your soul is of my soul such a part

That you seem to be fiber and core of my heart?

None other can pain me as you, son, can do;

None other can please me or praise me as you.

Remember the world will be quick with its blame

If shadow or shame ever darken your name.

Like mother, like, son, is saying so true,

The world will judge largely of mother by you.

Be this then your task, if task it shall be

To force this proud world to do homage to me.

Be sure it will say, when its verdict you’ve won

She reaps as she sowed: ‘This man is her son!’”

Of course, back in those days, many women lived vicariously through the accomplishments of their husbands and sons. But these words transcend even that phenomenon to a level of profound over-identification and just plain creepiness.

After a long and distinguished military career, MacArthur was fired by another Mama's Boy, Harry Truman. But we'll get to Harry on another day.


Saying Goodbye To The Beast


Volvo It wasn't exactly a member of the family, but "The Beast," as our car is known, sure has been with us for a while. It is a 1998 Volvo, with roughly 133,000 miles on it. It was my first high-end car, and I felt pretty fancy driving around in it. Over time though it became the workhorse of our family vehicles.

My Daughter learned to drive on it, once managing to scrape all three panels against a stone wall on the driveway; another time backing into the basketball hoop. I also remember her hopping into the car on a frigid winter night, scraping the ice off the back windshield, and driving down to Annapolis to visit a long-ago boyfriend. 

The Boy also learned to drive on this car, which despite the few scratchs, was actually built like a tank. If your kids have to drive something, this seemed like the vehicle. It was heavy and clunky and over the years, not exactly responsive- you really had to drive that car. The Beast acquired its name when The Boy brought it up to college. 

It was a good car. I can't ever remember it breaking down, though it did have an engine light that went off with abandon, and over the years there were a few system failures -  among the things that no longer work are the air conditioning and the radio. Some things you let go, some things you fix. But when The Beast started leaking gas out of the floor boards, we knew it was time to let it out to pasture. There's a point of diminishing returns on maintaining a car, and we had hit it.

Today The Beast will be towed away. I'm such a sentimental fool I took pictures of it. If you saw close-ups, you'd see elements of  history of the car's life - high school parking passes from 2002, college parking passes,  high school soccer bumper stickers, New York Ranger decals, Obama campaign stickers.

OK - enough. Let's just say I have a little trouble letting go... 

 


Need is Relative

Images This morning I was skimming The New York Times Neediest Case Fund article. Since 1912, the paper has run articles about city residents in dire straights, which are designed to move people to donate to a charitable fund.

Way back in the day, when I was a youngin' and copy girl at the NYT, I was assigned to write Neediest Case Fund stories. As I recall, you didn't get a byline back then, but you did get to publish in the paper, between refilling the editor's inboxes with copy paper (getting a sense of how long ago this was, yet?) and fetching tickets for the arts editors. 

Anyway, I was assigned one of these meant-to-be heart rending pieces and I have a vague memory that my lead was actually something as terrible as "Mary H. won't have a turkey this Thanksgiving, but thanks to the Neediest Case Fund..."

What I remember with great clarity, however, is the photographer who was assigned to cover the story with me. He was Dith Pran. Dith Pran was not only a photojournalist, but also a survivor of the murderous regime of Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia. He barely escaped the genocide and his life was depicted in the movie "The Killing Fields." He was a small, slender man, delightful to work with, but he was thoroughly unimpressed with the Times "neediest case" that day. The woman had an apartment, running hot and cold water, a television set and relatively good health. After what this photographer had seen, she had it pretty good.

My point is not to minimize that woman's plight - I'm sure it was rough - but simply to say that need is relative. And to remember Dith Pran, who witnessed and recorded unspeakable images. He died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer. I think of him every time I read another "neediest case."


Flipping The Channel

Ist2_457588_old_television I barely watch TV and I certainly wasn't going to make an exception for the George Bush/Matt Lauer interview. Starting at about Bush' second term, I could no longer look at his face, let alone listen to his voice, without having a visceral reaction. In fact, when I went to illustrate this blog, I couldn't even stand to have an image of his face on my chronicles and went with this bland TV set instead.

Anyway, I was amused to see that most of the television viewing public didn't want to hear from him either, because according to the ratings, the interview was only 4th it in its time slot; following "Dancing With the Stars," "House," and "Chuck." I'm not sure what this says about the American people, but it's nice to know that even though I've never seen any of these other programs either, I am still part of the mainstream in not tuning into the interview. I did read about it of course; it was kind of like not being able to look away from the scene of a car accident.

George, by the way, was clearly not a Mama's Boy, unlike many other American presidents like FDR, Truman and Johnson. Which reminds me, forget what I said about Chapter Six being finished this week. Not going to happen.

 


Elusive Search To End Today...I Hope

000391_l I have been trying to track down an article for months. It was written by the historian David McCullough in 1983 and it is about American presidents whom he considered Mama's Boys. How hard could that be to find? Very. I came across a reference to this article in a book published 20 years ago, but alas, the author did not put the citation in her index.

Obviously I have Googled many versions of "David McCullough" "presidents" and "Mama's Boys," not to mention "Mamma's Boys"  (note spelling difference) and gotten absolutely nowhere. I even went to McCullough's publisher's publicist, who was kind enough to get in contact with his agent, who said the author no longer had a copy of that piece, but remembered it and had a vague recollection that it appeared in the down-defunct Omni Magazine.

Sigh. But then there was a break-through. FINALLY I found the article cited in another book, which said it appeared in Psychology Today  27 years ago. Back online to the magazines archives, which only go back to the 1990s. The entire library system in Westchester County? Nope, they don't have it. Oh never mind, you get the idea. Today I am going to the NYC Public Library which has the magazine archives on Microfilm. 

After all this, who knows how relevant the article will be to the book? In the end, the research will probably contribute a sentence or two to Chapter Six. But I offer this long-winded tale to explain why it actually takes so long to write a book. 


Please Don't Call This Mother/Son Bonding

Img-article---schwartz-fetus_125120421631 Horrified. That was my reaction when I learned that Barbara Bush showed her then-teenage son George a jar containing a fetus that she miscarried. It's so sick and inappropriate that it's hard to know where to start. And now I read that the former president says in his autobiography that he considered this a bonding experience which brought him closer to his mom.

Folks, this is NOT the way normal mothers and sons bond. The crazy lack of boundaries, the remarkable insensitivity of the mother, the trauma for a teenage boy, let alone the whole question of why in the hell she would keep her fetus in a jar...My God. I know how much it hurts to lose a baby - I had three miscarriages myself - but in my wildest dreams, I never would have inflicted that kind of ghoulish shock on my other children. This may actually be the first time in my life I have felt sorry for George W. Bush. 


The Get Away

American-airlines-boeing-767-300er-transportation-aircraft-29013 That tropical photo last week referred to a 3-day vacation that The Weatherman and I "won" at a charity auction. It was one of those silent auctions and we scribbled down an offer to get the bidding going. It turned out ours was the winning bid.

It's amazing how much you can get out of a long weekend when you are away from home. Like most people, our weekends are taken up with household chores and general catch-up from the previous week. Instead, we were  plunked down into the middle of a resort, with nothing to do but play. We swam, snorkeled (despite the effects of Hurricane Tomas whipping up the water into mighty swells), slept, and ate pounds of fresh mahi mahi.  

Yesterday afternoon was a blur of airplane travel and connections, complete with at least one obnoxiously drunk passenger, a vicious battle for overhead baggage space and considerable turbulence. All worth it, especially as I look out and see the grey sky and the last leaves blowing off the trees. It was like getting an inoculation right before winter sets in. 

Goal of the week - finish Chapter Six.


Post-Election Blues

Voting Booth No, I'm not talking about the results, though they certainly do not make me happy. I'm talking about the voting experience. Yesterday was the first time I used an optical scanner to vote. As an educated person who has voted for decades, I have to say I was flummoxed.

I went to the gym of my kids' old elementary school as usual. Headed over to the "District 12" table as I do every year. Then things changed. I was handed an enormous paper ballot, along with a big piece of laminated cardboard which I was told was my "privacy shield."

They told me to mark the circles next to the candidates I chose. I asked if I could borrow a pen. They were horrified and explained I could only use the official pens at the "voting stations" - which looked kind of like those stand up tables you have to use when all the seats are gone at Starbucks. "OK, so I just check the circle with the pen?" No, no, they explained - you fill in the circle, but don't go outside the lines. Honest to God, it was like being in 3rd grade.

I never did figure out the "privacy shield" as you couldn't possibly fill out the ballot if you used it. Unless you were somehow supposed to reach over it. Once I filled out my form, the person next to the scanner asked if I'd like her to feed it into the machine, shredding was little sense of remaining privacy I had about casting my vote.

It made me long for the little booths with the levers and the curtains.


Election Day - I've Never Been So Popular

0511-0708-3014-4155_Debating_Politicians_clipart_image Yesterday I came home from running a brief  errand. I was alarmed to see see 6 messages on my answering machine. Immediately I thought, "Something is wrong with one of the kids! It's the school nurse calling!" Never mind that the "school nurse" concept is a little dated. My kids are young adults,  and if something were wrong they'd call me on my cell phone.

No, it turned out that my calls were from Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg, Ed Koch, Rob Astorino (our county executive) and Susie Oppenheimer (state government). Later I found out my friend Kristina got a call from Obama, and I was duly jealous. Given that this was less than an hour's worth of political robo-calls, you get the idea of what the full day is like for all of us. Enough already. 

 


Leftover Candy and Missing the Kids

F61521 "The Kids" are actually in their 20s, but they do still celebrate Halloween. One of them dressed up this year as "Babe Lincoln." As far as I could make out, this involved wearing a stove top hat, a beard and skimpy clothes, and likely involved Evil-Alien-Child-Costume-300x300 explanations all night long. The other was an alien. You may think you know which was which, but you would probably be wrong. 

Meanwhile, I never, ever learn my Halloween candy lesson. That is, I always buy far too much of my favorite candy (Reeses's Peanut Butter Cups, sorry P) and then feign surprise when we have hardly any trick or treaters. You know what that means. 

The book is due three months from today. Maybe the candy will power me through Chapter Six.