The Three of Us Called Spooks

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        A friend sent me a link to Mona Simpson’s eulogy for her brother Steve Jobs and the speech was beautiful. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/opinion/mona-simpsons-eulogy-for-steve-jobs.html?src=me&ref=general

I couldn’t tear myself away the morning I was reading it and the delay caused me to be late leaving for work.  The piece prompted me to think about my relationship with my own brother, my only sibling and how it has grown and changed over the years since we were children.

            My earliest memory is of us fighting over a new game called Atari Pong.  Though the game was meant for two people to play and there were only two of us, somehow we managed to fight over it until my father threatened to take the damn thing away.  The dinner table was another battleground.  I was a fervent reader and I used to bring a book to the dinner table, prop it up against my plate and read through the dinner hour, avoiding the uncomfortable silence that tended to permeate the meal.  Daniel would exclaim into apparently dead air, “She can’t do that.  Make her stop.” My father would ignore him for he was busy downing his scotch and my mother just didn’t want to disturb the fucked-up peace.

            The four of us existed on our own planes until I went away to SUNY Buffalo in 1978 – as far away as I could get from home and still attend a state school. Can a four legged chair stand on three legs?  Daniel, who is eighteen months younger than me, followed me a year later.  It remains unclear to me why, when we never got along at home, he chose to follow me to the tundra.

            It was in Buffalo hunkered down for a shared three long winters that he and I found we could exist apart from our parents’ dysfunction.  While we were both busy experimenting with illicit substances (me marijuana, him marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD), we found time to spend with each other and for the first time we didn’t fight.  We talked about our experiences growing up in that household, our different perceptions of our parents and how we viewed each other. “You were the favorite,” he insisted.

            “Maybe,” I acquiesced. “But you got more attention.”

            After graduating from college Daniel and I proceeded with the business of growing up.  We got jobs in different fields (he in finance, me in advertising) and we developed our own circle of friends, but we continued to check-in with each other often and he, my mother and I would occasionally have dinner and remind each other that we were a family.  My father had withdrawn into a depression and by an unspoken agreement that families seem to have, he was no longer to be included.

            Our comfortable threesome was shattered in 1988 when I was diagnosed with anorexia and depression at the age of twenty seven.  When I was thirty I attempted suicide and was sent for long-term treatment at a private psychiatric hospital in a suburb north ofNew York City. I was to cycle in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the next fifteen years, but Daniel never gave up on me.  He may have become frustrated and angry at times; “Why isn’t she getting better? Why can’t she get her shit together?” but he never showed this side of himself to me and he never abandoned me.

            My mother passed away in 2002, before she could witness my last breakdown which took place from 2006—2008. I can’t be sure but I would bet the farm on it, that he made a deathbed promise to my mother to look out for me, to keep an eye on me and he has kept that promise.

            When my mother first died, I looked to my brother to help me make almost all my decisions. I felt adrift, lost, almost orphaned although technically I still had a father. Daniel walked a fine line between parent and brother; it must have been difficult for him for he had recently married and was just starting a family of his own.   He never lost patience with me, he always made time for me.  We grew closer, but the relationship continued to lack a symbiotic feeling that would have been better for both of us.

            When I took a job in Queens in 2008, near where we had grown up and where my father still lived, my brother who had kept in closer contact with my father, would call me periodically,. “Dad needs some groceries.  Could you pick some things up for him after work?”  It got to be more than an occasional errand as my father became increasingly incapacitated.  He refused our offer to hire assistance for him, and I grew resentful.

            In the summer of 2011 Daniel called me at work. He had been trying to get in touch with my father for three days without success.  I went over after work and found him lying on the floor.  After I called 911 (over his protests) and he was admitted to the hospital, I was the one who took charge and coordinated his care with the doctors, nurses and social workers.  I was the one who called nursing homes and tried to get him admitted for my brother and I believed he was no longer capable of going home.

          Regardless of my father’s outcome, this incident with our father was a turning point in the relationship I had with my brother.  This crisis had transformed the relationship from one of parent-child to one of equals.  He no longer saw me as someone who was ill and needed support and taking care of, but someone who could effectively manage a situation without falling apart.

        Daniel and I have the same nickname for each other.  We call each other “Spooks.”  I don’t know where it came from or when it started, but it is meant affectionately. When I hear it come out of his mouth I know he means as a term of endearment and I mean it in the same way.

        I am sure my mother is happily gazing down at us, chuckling at this nickname we have chosen for each other that has come out of nowhere. She wanted nothing more for my brother and me to have an airtight bond after her death.  Without having to say the words out loud, the three of us know, if my mother was alive, she’d be a “Spooks” too.

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Literary Fines

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     This fall it seems that several of my literary endeavors have ended in padding the pockets ofNew York City’s Department of Parking Violations and wherever the money eventually ends up from there.  All I know is that NYC has my money; a considerable sum – for me anyway.

     In September I took a ride down to the other side of the world -Brooklyn.  This is my second time there in as many years and there is only one thing that is enticing enough to lure me there and that is…The Brooklyn Book Festival.  So many presses, so many books, and I had all the time in the world, and all the sunshine (last year it rained) to wander among the booths and talk to the publishers and the editors about their books and their philosophies on the writing life. I was truly in a writer’s paradise.

            Hanging Loose Press is a local press, based in Brooklyn and when I told Dawn, one of the associate editors that I was writing a coming-of-age memoir with a twist she encouraged me to send her two or three pieces. I told her the twist was that it had a sexual aspect to it.

            “Good,” she said, “We like edgy writing. Usually we find writers we like when they submit to our magazine.  If we like what we see, we ask to see more with the intent of publishing a book.”

            I was thrilled – could this be the break I was waiting for?  To further improve my chances, I bought their magazine, “Hanging Loose 98.”  The editor tried to talk me into buying several of their memoirs but I decided to purchase a book of poetry.  I’m not typically into poetry but when I browsed through Joan Larkin’s “My Body,” the dark, prose-like writing appealed to me.

            I got a free mini-journal from Granta – with the purchase of one of their back issues.  Their issues are themed – I chose the one on sex.  I figured I’m writing about it so it would behoove me to read about it.  What I learned about Granta is that they have no word limit on their prose, which is a benefit for me for I tend to be verbose.  However, the pieces have to be sent by snail mail to their London office, where it is read first, then sent to the New York office. It’s a good thing that postage is tax deductible.

            The day was a resounding success – until I was walking back to my car and saw the meter maid man writing me a ticket.  Tell me; in your city do they put little red cardboard insets inside the meter that say “NO STANDING?” They don’t in Westchester. All the expletives in the world don’t describe the intensity of my fury.  And hell, on Sundays, I don’t even look at the meter because all I know is I don’t have to feed it. I left the borough of Brooklyn bereft and a $115 poorer. However, I must say that if I do get a book deal out of this, it will have been worth it.

            Last week I went to my memoir class at the Westside YWCA on 63rd St off Central Park West.  Cruising CPW I spotted a car pulling out of a spot right on 63rd St.  Perfect. I couldn’t get much closer.  It was 5:30 PM and I went to my usual café, Breadsoul to buy an early dinner.  I had planned to take it up to classroom with me and do some work on my manuscript until class started at 6:45.

            When class ended at 9:00 PM, I offered to give a ride home to three of my friends who live on the Upper West Side.  I take the West Side Highway and enter on 96th Street, dropping my friends off on 91st and Amsterdam Ave.  When I walked out of class last Wednesday night, my car was gone. I stood dumfounded, almost in the middle of CPW, cars racing past me.

            “Are you sure that’s where you parked it? Let’s walk up one block,” Anne suggested. It wasn’t there.

            I knew right away that it hadn’t been stolen; who would want a Toyota Corolla when there were BMW’s and Mercedes to be had?  It had to have been towed. I looked up the block and confirmed my hunch – very far away from where I had parked – I saw a bus stop sign. What the hell did I do?  Why hadn’t I been more careful?  I had gotten caught up in the excitement of grabbing a prized parking spot in the jungle known as the streets of  Manhattan.

        I called 311 but it was an automated system; after 10 years I still only knew the first three letters of my license plate. Goddammit, why couldn’t I get a live person?  Madeline suggested I go back into the Y, where a kind manager took pity on me and gave me the number of the local precinct. Speaking to the officer, he asked me if the car was “relocated,” possibly for a special event.  I politely said, “No, I was parked in a bus stop.  I’m pretty sure it was towed.”

            Taking a cab ($10) down to the impound lot at 12th Ave and 38th St., I didn’t want to get out when the cabbie pulled up to the lot.  It was deserted at 10 PM, but when I walked into the office, where men and women stood behind Plexiglas windows, there was quite an assortment of sullen-faced impoundees slouched in hard plastic chairs.  One man was dressed in a shiny green soccer uniform.

            “This is the most expensive soccer game I’ve ever played,” I heard him say to any one who was listening.

            “Can I speak to you in private?” I heard one man at a window ask the woman who worked there.  I wondered what secret he was hiding.

            I paid the $185 charge with my American Express card. Thank God they accepted credit cards – I remember hearing horror stories from friends whose cars got towed that they only took cash.  On the outside I stayed calm, sliding my card through the slot in the window.  But inside I was seething. $185!  I got my receipt and showed it to an officer.  I made sure to be polite; “Good evening, Thank you very much – I didn’t want to be on this officer’s bad side. 

            A bored looking van driver drove me to my car in the impound lot; there are that many cars stored there.  There was a ticket still on my car.  At the final checkpoint the officer plucked the ticket from my car and presented it to me. 

            “Here’s your ticket.”

            “I already paid that, right?”

            “No.”

            “I have to pay that in addition to the $185?”

            “Yes. The $185 is only for the towing.”

            I didn’t look at the ticket until I got home close to midnight. I was afraid I might drive off the road. When I arrived home I saw the city’s favorite number; $115.

            I total up what I have already paid plus what I will have to pay the city. Between the book festival and my class it comes to $415.  Trying not to think about what else that money could have gone towards – now I can only dream – developing my website, a writing conference, paying my editor to edit my book – so many other more productive uses than just giving it away to the city. Paying those tickets on the NYC.gov/finance website over the Internet – and they have the audacity to add a $2.00 service fee (per ticket) – makes me want to throw up.

           Literary endeavors.  Literary fines. As Jane Austen said in Emma, “It is very difficult for the prosperous to be humble.” Far from prosperous I am very much the humble soul right now.

My Fierce Companion

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     Migraines have been a companion of mine for the last fifteen of my fifty years.  Sometimes I can feel the tenderness creeping up on me, starting on one side of my head, an aching, throbbing pain that will become worse in a matter of minutes.  I imagine an archer loading his bow and arrow, aiming, pulling back, letting go.  Sensitive to light, to sound, I just want to shut the lights, crawl between my cool sheets, pulling the covers up over my head and lay motionless for hours.

     Often the pain hits me like a bullet out of the fiery sky: no warning.  It strikes me down and I find myself incapacitated.  I have never gotten auras; sometimes I have wished for them because they sound romantic.  Swirling colors of blue, red, and yellow mixed together warning one of an upcoming migraine – that’s what I imagine an aura to be.

      The fierce pain is almost indescribable; shooting, bombarding, a knife twisting, turning, inserting itself into the temple on one side of my face.  I close my eyes to shut out the light but that only makes me concentrate more on the pain.  The normal sounds of the day; horns honking, dogs barking, reverberate around me and inside my brain louder than they should be.

      I don’t want to move but I must for I am at work.  I turn off all the lights in my office and close the blinds.  Putting my head down on my desk, I try again to close my eyes.  There is a playground across the street from my office; it is a nice day outside and I hear the delighted shrieks from the children as they run, playing.  The noise is painful.

     My neurologist, a kind Hungarian man who hugs me when I see him, prescribed Imitrex injection for me about ten years ago when nothing else was working.  It has been a miracle drug.  When I give myself an injection, it hurts, but only for several seconds and the sting is worth it.  I know that 95% of the time I am going to get relief from the excruiating pain of the migraine which is just beginning.  I feel the medication rush through my system – a hot flush races through my bloodstream – it is uncomfortable but a sign that the medication is working.  My friends say to me, “I could never give myself a shot,” and I look at them knowingly – that’s what I thought at first.

     On the rare occasion that the shot fails to relieve the pain, I am permitted to give myself a second injection after an hour.  As I give myself the second dose, I hope, I pray, I wait for the hot flush through my system because if that second shot doesn’t work, I know I am in trouble.  The directions that come with this medication clearly state that only two injections are allowed within a twenty-four hour period.

     This unfavorable outcome happens more than I want.  I dread, abhor the times when the second shot fails for I am caught in a whirlwhind of grey fog, swirling pain inside my head; already severe, and intensifying by the minute. A spike is drilling behind one eyeball, there is excruciating pressure, I am feeling each penetration.

     It was still early one Friday morning when the second shot was unsuccessful.  From my office I called my neurologist to ask him if I can give myself a third shot.  I felt only desperation.  He told me “I can’t officially give you permission to give yourself a third shot, but in Europe, the maximum daily dose is 18 mg. (each shot is 6 mg.).  Call me Monday morning, let me know how you did.”

    Because I was in so much pain and I still had to get through the work day, I debated for only a moment.  Still I was scared – I didn’t know what might happen.  I pictured myself falling to the floor writhing and foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling back in my head.  Thankfully, about half an hour after the third shot, with that now familiar rush, the migraine abated, with no immediate ill effects.  I was thankful and relieved.

      At the end of the day though, I was exhausted and concerned about making the hour-long drive home from the office to my apartment.  I imagined myself falling asleep at the wheel, having an accident.  Parking myself in the main office for about an hour, I poured cup after cup of coffee down my throat.

     The strong, dark drink saved me and I arrived home without incident.  The next day, Saturday, I felt as if I was coming back from the dead.   Unable to function, I lay in bed the whole day, worn out.  My fat cat Zoe occasionally wandered over and sniffed my face, then apparently unconcerned, decided to leave me to my zombie-like state.

     It’s weird – I know what my triggers are – stress, changes in barometic pressure, not eating frequently enough, and my period (the few thies that it shows up these days).  But sometimes the migraines just strike out of nowhere and I’m left wondering, waiting and thinking; why, where and when?

Why did this come now, where did it come from, and when will the next one come?  And the answer to all three questions remains as always; I don’t know. And I realize I will never know.

The Claws of Menopause

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      I am deep in the claws of menopause.  I have frequent hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, vaginal dryness, and weight gain around my middle.   I am certain that this bumpy ride through midlife is due to at least two reasons.

     I always had easy periods.   Growing up I rarely had cramps; I had light periods that barely lasted three, maybe four days.  I saw my friends doubled over in pain, running to the bathroom every hour to change their tampons, spending an inordinate amount of money on Midol and Tampax.  I am getting my comeuppance for sailing through life having had trouble-free menstruation.

     I developed late; I didn’t get my period until I was about thirteen and my mother slapped me across the face.  I looked up at her astonished.  “You’re a woman now,” she said as she explained that the slap is an old Jewish tradition.  My breasts seemed to make up for lost time shooting out from my chest overnight from mere buds to a DD cup.  All of the women on my mother’s side of the family have enormous breasts – we fondly refer to them as the “Bernstein (my mother’s maiden name) boobs.”  If you can believe it, even at a DD, I was among the smallest and at 5’6″ I was also the tallest.  My poor cousin Elaine is a mere 5’1″ and an F cup (yes, they make F cups).

      When I was 25 my mother asked me if I would like to have breast reduction surgery and without hesitation I agreed.  The surgeon reduced my ponderous DD’s to perky C’s and I healed with no complications.  In 1986, insurance still paid for the surgery.  After I was declared well by my doctor, my mother and I went to Bloomingdale’s and bought hundred’s of dollars worth of pretty, lacy, feminine bras to celebrate – the kind that I could never wear before.

      Another reason I’m certain I’m having a challenging menopause is because as my mother fanned herself during her hot flashes, sweat dripping down her face, her glasses sliding down the bridge of her nose, I shamelessly laughed at her and mocked her.  Yes, I am being punished for making fun of my dear sweet mother.

     I sit in my office with a patient (I am a psychotherapist) and I feel the hot flash begin.  I remove the outer layer of clothing – a light sweater perhaps – I always dress in layers these days, and the sweat begins to drip down the back of my neck, and down my forehead.  I get up to to turn on the air conditioning while still maintaining the appearance of listening to my patient.

     “Yes, you say your husband works too much.  Have you tried telling him how you feel?”

      How could my patients not notice that their therapist is sweating bullets and is turning beet red?

      The worst is the weight gain.  I’m not exactly sure now much I have gained because when I started gaining last April, I was underweight, just having begun to recover from a relapse of anorexia.  I don’t have a scale at home; numbers are a trigger for me.  I see a nutritionist every two weeks and she weighs me with my back to the numbers on the scale.  I do know that my pants are tight around my waist, something that I am having a great deal of trouble tolerating.  I like my clothes fairly loose with some give room.  I like to be able to breathe.

     “They’re only clothes,” says my nutritionist Miranda.  “Do you know how awful you looked last spring?  You looked ten years older, you were so depressed, and you cried every time you saw me.”

     “No I don’t remember,” I answer stubbornly.  “And besides, I like the clothes I have now.”

     Surviving menopause continues to be a challenge; the search for answers on how to deal with the quandries that this particular time of life presents persists.  I have no doubt that I’ll survive this predicament just as millions of other women have.  I think I’ll tie a ribbon around the half-filled box of Playtex tampons I haven’t used and give it to my sister-in-law.  She’s a mere babe at thirty-seven and pity her – she still has plenty of periods to go.

In My Mother’s Memory; Eleven Little Gems

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My father’s parents lived in Romania and came to the United States before the war.  With them they brought many, many paintings, most of which were by an artist named Cottavoz.  Cottavoz painted out of Paris and my grandparents were loyal patrons of his.  When my brother and I were cleaning out my father’s apartment recently (he didn’t die; he just moved), we found photographs of my grandparents carousing with Cottavoz at a Paris nightclub.  The name of the nightclub was emobossed in a gold script on the cover of the folder into which the picture was inserted and on the back was a brief note by the artist.  It was in French, but my college French is long gone.

I grew up with many of the paintings in my childhood home and once both my grandparents had passed away the paintings hung from almost the floor to the ceiling, covering almost every square foot of wall space.  It was like living in a well-stocked art gallery; I didn’t think much of it because I was used to it, but when my friends came over they were in awe.

My parents divorced when both my brother and I were away at college and I imagine splitting up the paintings, deciding who got which one, proceeded as carefully as any custody battle. Originally the paintings belonged to my father’s parents, but my mother had a lot of equity in that marriage; twenty-five years worth of putting up with an alcoholic, depressed, non-working husband.  She deserved half of those paintings.

As I moved out into my own series of apartments, one or two paintings trickled down to me as housewarming gifts, presents for special occasions, but mostly I made do with cheap prints from so-called art stores framed in cheap ready made frames. I needed to have something hanging on the walls to recreate the warm feeling that the gallery-like atmosphere of my childhood home had provided for me.

After my mother died of pancreatic cancer nine years ago, after the coffin was lowered into the hard ground, after shiva was sat, after we had both returned to work, my brother and I met on a weekend afternoon to pick out the paintings we wanted for ourselves.  My mother had a big house for one person – four bedrooms, a formal living room, a family room – partly because she worked out of her home, and partly because once she had gotten married we had always lived in an apartment and she just wanted room to spread out.

My brother and I took turns; he picked one, then I, until all the paintings had been selected.  There was no arguing, no nastiness, no pettiness, just two siblings who were still in shock.  Once in a while I picked one that he really wanted and he asked me if he could have it so I acquiesed. The most important thing to me was not to argue with my brother in order to honor my mother’s memory.

Those paintings have hung on the walls in my bedroom and living room in the same place for over nine years.  My little gems.  A portrait of Cottavoz’s wife with a vase of flowers next to her in hues of reds and pinks.  A standing nude in shades of blues fading to a muted turqoise. A large unsmiling portrait of the artist’s father hanging over my nightstand. A still life of green apples and pears in a wooden bowl.  Numerous landscapes; some with brightly swirling colors reminscents of a sunny day, and others where the colors are darker – perhaps the clouds were prominent in the sky.

When I came home from a stressful day at work, I put my feet up on the coffee table and those paintings were there to greet me; they were my companions, they comforted me.  I have counted on them day after day, year after year.  Inherent in them are memories of my mother for they hung on her walls before they hung on mine.  Her kind and generous nature, her humanity, her laughter and her tendency towards workaholism and perfectionism which I inherited.  The fact that she chain smoked Larks which came in a red package and she was never without a cigarette dangling from her mouth.  She was my best friend.

We had a health crisis with my father this past summer and he moved from the apartment I grew up in – a large three bedroom, two bathroom – to a studio near my brother in the suburbs.  He didn’t want to take any of his paintings to hang on the walls of his new apartment and my brother and I didn’t question him.  We went to clean out the apartment.  Not only were there the paintings that we had grown up with hanging on the wall, there were paintings stacked behind the armoire in the bedroom, behind the drapes in the living room  We opened the closet expecting to find my father’s old suits, instead we found stacks of paintings.

My brother called me one night to ask me how many Cottavoz’s I had hanging on the walls of my small one-bedroom apartment.  Phone in hand I went around counting.  “Fourteen.” He had contacted an art dealer who knew of Cottavoz and felt there was a market for him.  A lucrative market.  I started to cry.  “We need the money.” he said.  He has a family to raise and I have regular medical expenses.

I am staring at blank spaces on my walls.  I am bereft. I kept three of the paintings.  A reclining nude done in pastels.  A tiny portrait of Cottavoz’s son with golden hair, and the one of his mother with dangling earrings.  I sit on my couch writing on my laptop and she looks down upon me. My mother looks down upon me.  Does she see the blank spaces on the walls?