Friday, July 15, 2016

His Mark

Without saying a word, Queequeg, in his wild sort of way, jumped upon the bulwarks, from thence into the bows of one of the whale-boats hanging to the side; and then bracing his left knee, and poising his harpoon, cried out in some such way as this:—

“Cap’ain, you see him small drop tar on water dere?  You see him?  well, spose him one whale eye, well, den!” and taking sharp aim at it, he darted the iron right over old Bildad’s broad brim, clean across the ship’s decks, and struck the glistening tar spot out of sight.

“Now,” said Queequeg, quietly hauling in the line, “sposee him whale-e eye; why, dad whale dead.”

“Quick, Bildad,” said Peleg, his partner, who, aghast at the close vicinity of the flying harpoon, had retreated towards the cabin gangway.  “Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship’s papers.  We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats.”

I used to dream that one day I would be marked out and plucked from obscurity and, if I am going to be completely honest, I dream of it still.  When I was young the dream involved my singing voice.  I hoped that it was beautiful.  I had read in a child’s biography of Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind being discovered by an impresario wandering by her open window and I thought it might happen the same way for me.  And so it came to be that one evening at Tanglewood I lay with my family on a blanket, singing along to whatever the orchestra was playing—I can’t imagine what classical piece I knew that well—when we were approached by a man and a woman who had been seated with some friends nearby. 

“Your daughter has a beautiful singing voice,” they said, and I believed them, although some part of me must have had my suspicions about what they meant since I remembered the scene well enough years later to figure out that they were have a gentle laugh with my parents at my expense.

I sang in the car and imagined a man on top of the car, waiting to catch a few notes.

I had a very small singing part in the high school musical, and a smaller dancing part.

I auditioned for but was not asked to join the chorus at a college known as the “singing college.”

Still, I loved to sing.  When the children were newborns I found that talking to them was unbearable, and that taking care of them in silence seemed sullen or even hostile.  Imagine wordlessly stuffing someone into a pair of pajamas.  The only thing to do was to sing, and I sang a lot of impromptu songs about what I was doing, including making the bed and hoping I wouldn’t find shit in their diapers.  I also sang along with the radio, and, especially at bedtime, I sang actual songs.  If you’ve read the book Mating you probably remember the protagonist walking through the desert to her true love, singing to keep herself sane.  She discovers within herself a catalog of songs that she knows all of the words to, and while her repertoire was more wide-ranging than mine was, because she was fictional, it was pleasurable for me to wander my desert and figure out that in fact I had a solid catalog of patriotic tunes that my children found soothing.  I also sang “Sweet Baby James,” which is really, really long, every night for about seven years.  During that period, I found I was able to cut my brain off entirely from what I was doing, and kind of ramble around it with a flashlight in my hand while my chest vibrated and pushed sound up through my throat and out of my mouth.

I watched an interview with Hugh Jackman, who did such a nice job in Oklahoma!, and he told me that the trick to singing well is to mean every single word you’re saying, and then I tried to do that, when I wasn’t trying to cleave my consciousness from whatever I was saying or doing at the moment.

And then one day the children were grown, or more grown, and they loved my voice. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Ramadan

Despairing of him, therefore, I determined to go to bed and to sleep; and no doubt, before a great while, he would follow me.  But previous to turning in, I took my heavy bearskin jacket, and threw it over him, as it promised to be a very cold night; and he had nothing but his ordinary round jacket on.  For some time, do all I would, I could not get into the faintest doze.  I had blown out the candle; and the mere thought of Queequeg—not four feet off—sitting there in that uneasy position, stark alone in the cold and dark; this made me really wretched.

My Uncle John had been handsome and charismatic in his youth, but when I knew him he had a mustache and a belly that looked like a beach ball stuffed under his shirt.  When my mother told me he had died by driving off a road into a tree, I had to suppress the urge to smile at the news.  I wasn’t happy he was dead.  I was the victim of some faulty wiring.

John has been a kind of secret in my life, in the way that slavery is a secret, by which I mean of course he wasn’t a secret at all.  He was right there—I just didn’t ever inquire too deeply into who he was, and what his life meant.  Almost nothing I write after this will make sense if I don’t first write that John had bipolar disorder.  He had gone to one year of college—my college—before dropping out.  He lived in places you couldn’t really live in—an unheated summer cottage, a motel, both in rural New Hampshire.  There was a girlfriend we saw sometimes but I only met his daughter, who was then nineteen or twenty, six years after he died, at my grandfather’s funeral.  She died before I saw her again.

Mom kept many of the details of John’s life from us, I think because she didn’t want us to be scared by her brother, whom she loved.  I knew that she went to see him in hospitals, that he didn’t like his medication, and that he smelled, generally, of beer and cigarettes.  When we went to New Hampshire in our early years as a family, in the mid- to late ’70s, John stayed at the old house with us, and organized games for us and our friends.  We could choose between being Rockwell’s Angels and Rockwell’s Rangers—Rockwell was his middle name.

Only once, when I was in high school, did I talk to him in a manic phase.  He called the house for my mother and when she wasn’t there he talked to me for twenty minutes about Vietnam, where he hadn’t served and where, in any case, the war had been over for some time.  He was full of conspiracy theories that might also have been racial theories.  He didn’t stop talking, and he didn’t make sense.

After John died, I wrote a long essay about him and about my family’s visits to New Hampshire, which was, for me, a strange and unresolved place, physically beautiful but psychologically dense.  I remember describing how, in the kitchen in the house my mother’s family owned, the old refrigerator and the old stove stood next to each other, and it was tempting to brace yourself against the stove to open the heavy refrigerator door.  But there was something really wrong with the wiring in that kitchen, and if you touched both appliances at the same time you would receive a serious shock.   One day I watched the woman I called Grandma forget this and fly backwards across the room. 

It must have been the summer when I wrote about this, and I was home from college.  I printed it out and kept it in my bedroom, where my mother found it and read it while secretly going through my papers.  In the middle of an unusually terrible fight, my father betrayed my mother’s confidence about this to me while my mother begged him not to.  Then I buried the essay, buried Uncle John, buried my questions about New Hampshire and my mother’s side of the family. 

In 2004 I named my younger son after John.  Apart from this I forgot, more or less, to think about my uncle until a few weeks ago when, alone at home, I watched a Robert Mapplethorpe documentary on HBO.  Mapplethorpe’s duck’s ass hairstyle reminded me of pictures of my uncle as a young man.  As Mapplethorpe grew sicker he grew thinner, and John got fatter as he aged.  But there was still something about Mapplethorpe, physically, that made me think of my uncle.

The details in the documentary also brought me back in time.  They played a snippet of an AM radio broadcast from that period and I remembered driving with my family into Manhattan, trying to hear the traffic report before we had to commit to a route.  At one point, while watching the documentary, I noticed the edge of one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs that had been cut and then mounted on a board.  I realized that Mapplethorpe died in 1989 (John died in 1990), a few months before I graduated high school, and that, while the subject matter, among other things, of our photographs had been different, the technology we’d used had been largely the same.  Kodak film, gelatin silver paper, developer, fixer, wash, water.

In the documentary they claimed that Mapplethorpe was part of an artistic revolution that was establishing photography as a mainstream art form, and this reminded me of a class trip I had gone on as part of a summer photography course, into Manhattan to see a Cindy Sherman show.  Not her film stills, but a series that followed: images of plastic butts and boobs in saturated colors that made me feel physically ill.  Still, for my final project that summer I had borrowed a tripod and taken a series of photographs of myself trying to express different emotions.  I wanted to get closer to what Sherman was doing, in whatever weak way I could.

I had never liked Mapplethorpe’s photographs, particularly.  As a young person I had mostly seen his flower photos.  I had hated how highly stylized they were, their sense of airlessness, their lack of immediacy, and their rather overt symbolism.  I had seen some of his photographs of men and I hadn’t liked them either, although even then I had suspected that part of my reaction to those was juvenile revulsion, and that I might understand them better when I was older. 

Watching the HBO film several weeks ago I saw both that I would never like Mapplethorpe’s visual language and that I had been mistaken in feeling that the photographs were inauthentic, airless, and unreal.  I saw how hard he had been trying, through sex, through the manipulation of images, to get at something that may or may not have eluded him.  I saw that even my high school self, at work in the darkroom, exposing paper, cutting it and measuring to mount it, then gluing it to its board—that even I, in a van of high school students, driving into Soho, then back in my room, pressing the shutter release—had been close, in some way, to the non-magical, physical process of photography, just as it was exploding, even though I had had no idea that this was the case at the time. 

And this, too, was something that made me think about my Uncle John—about what kind of adult he had been, and how, juvenile and well-meaning, I had never known him, although I had been close to him during important periods in his life and mine. 

I shut off the television and turned over and over in bed, unable to sleep.  I will find out more about him, I thought.  I will conduct interviews.  I will go to Great Neck and Roslyn, New York, and Gilmanton, New Hampshire, I will look for birth and death certificates and find the state hospitals where he was committed.  I will do this properly, and in the end I will write him up and he won’t be a secret anymore.  But the more I developed this idea, the more I saw the amount of work it would involve grow and spread, overwhelming me.  To understand John I would have to understand my grandfather, a distant, principled figure unlike anyone I knew.  I would have to understand my real grandmother, who died when my mother was seventeen.  I would have to understand the world of the town in New Hampshire where my mother’s family had summered since the early part of the 20th century, and which had, even when I was a very young girl and despite my mother’s family’s ties to it, seemed on some level absolutely alien to me. 

Then I remembered that when Uncle John died my mother went to his motel room with only one other person, went through all of his belongings, and cleaned it out.


Friday, April 1, 2016

The Ship

She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory.  She was a thing of trophies.  A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.  All round, her unpannelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.  Those thews ran not through base blocks of landwood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory.  Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.  The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw.  A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!  All noble things are touched with that.

Lately I have been depressed and it has been hard to see the point in writing.  I go through the motions of my day, all the while looking for a sign that will send me in the right direction.  Yesterday after I dropped John at school I took the dog to the park, as usual.  As we came around the corner by the tennis courts I saw a woman whose dog had a heavy head and dark, sagging teats.  This dog was interested in my dog, and the interest was mutual.  So the woman and I chit-chatted as the dogs sniffed each other’s butts.

While we spoke I tried to determine whether this woman was a rich eccentric or someone only marginally attached to society.  She had a bright pink sore patch on her face, which is often a sign of mental distress or difficult physical circumstances—but it was also maybe just a pimple that she hadn’t yet covered with makeup.  (I myself had a pimple on my face.)  She wore a puffer coat that went down to her knees, around the waist of which she had tied a dog’s leash like a belt, but I didn’t think she thought the leash was really a belt, I just thought she thought this was an efficient way to carry a leash.  Her shoes were covered with sparkles, like a child’s shoes, but they were in good shape, and in fact looked a little too nice for the dog park.

She told me that her dog, Dolly, was a rescue dog, which is what everyone says unless they’re walking a Portuguese Water Dog or one of the doodle breeds.  I don’t say it, because I can say that my dog is a failed assistance dog, which is also a socially acceptable origin story for having a dog.  But Dolly was not a regular rescue dog.  The woman told me that Dolly had been rescued from a South Korean dog meat market.  “They like to eat dogs there,” she said, as an explanatory aside.  While we spoke some more I imagined the rescue operation at the South Korean market, from the dogs’ point of view.  I imagined the dogs as the compromised heroes in an action movie, moving ever closer to the villain’s chopping block.  Finally, at the last moment, the Navy SEALs arrive, taking out the dog butcher with sniper’s bullets before moving in and hustling the dogs onto a chopper bound for an air field and from there to the safety of the United States of America.  Mission accomplished.

While I was imagining this and still making chitchat, Dolly was busy pooping.  The woman didn’t have the same reaction I do to my dog pooping in a park, which is that I wait in a crouch for her to finish and then spring into immediate, almost manic action.  We were still talking, and she in a sort of desultory way pulled a yellow plastic bag out of her puffer coat pocket.  She then used it to pick up the massive dump, incidentally also picking up some sticks and leaves that it had been lying on.  Then, and I really wish I could remember what we were talking about as this happened, she stood in front of me, talking and talking, and carefully picking the sticks and leaves out of the poop in the bag in her hands, and throwing them on the ground.  Then she tied the bag up and we went our separate ways.

Friday, February 19, 2016


And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs.  Upon making known our desires for supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said—“Clam or Cod?”

205 Thompson Shore Road, Manhasset, New York, 11030.  When as a child I was given an address book I wrote that down as neatly as possible.  I had a desire, never fulfilled, to take something beautiful like a new address book and make it more beautiful with lovely, grown-up handwriting, but what happened instead was that I wouldn’t judge the length of the lines correctly and have to cram letters in at the end or would make an error and have to x it out.  Nana’s was the first address I would add, because she was the person I loved most in the world outside of my immediate family, and because I wrote to her and she wrote back.  It’s probably more accurate to say that in the reverse order.  Her letters began My Dearest Darling, and, believing them abundant, I have lost or thrown out all except the one I found seven months ago in my basement while I was employing a professional organizer.  She darted in and out of the storage room, printing labels and moving boxes, while I stood underneath the lightbulb listening to the blood run through my ears.

The house is gone.  The plot it was built on was large enough to hold two houses, according to the zoning laws, and so now, after a touch of skulduggery on the part of the person who purchased it from Nana’s estate—she died in her bed there—it does.  Neither my father nor my aunt could drive on the street after this happened, and I couldn’t either, although I have looked at it on Google Maps.  Nonetheless the house is entirely recoverable for me, with the exception of the basement, the steep stairs to which I almost never descended, though they departed from a door in the kitchen, where, things being what they were, we spent most of our time.  It’s tempting just to list the things I used to eat at Nana’s house, the things she bought, rather than made: Mallomars, frozen Sara Lee poundcake, sweet Nabisco zwieback teething biscuits, pretzel rods, canned pears and peaches in their syrup, chocolate kisses.  She kept a bowl of realistic fake fruit on the table and I remember sitting next to the bowl, looking from the three prongs on my fork to the three holes in the electrical outlet on the wall, and back again, and then raising the fork up to put it where it so obviously belonged—and everyone screaming.

When my parents wanted to be rid of us for a night, which they now assure me they never did, we stayed at Nana’s, and she made us dinner.  Every dinner began with a half grapefruit that Nana cut roughly around the outside of the sections, leaving wide swaths of pith attached to the delicious fruit segments.  Because I was spoiled by a mother who liberated each individual piece of grapefruit from that spongy white stuff (although still not as carefully as I would have liked) I found this to be an ordeal.  I wouldn’t eat the pith, but it was impossible to get the fruit free of it without it putting my fingers in my mouth.  I would have passed the grapefruit half up altogether except Nana would have remarked on this, and in fact she still remarked on me not eating enough of it, even when I had really tried very hard.  I wonder how Amanda handled it—she was younger than I was, and a pickier eater, but is today a person who peels a grapefruit and, leaving a thick coat of pith all over it, consumes the whole white globe.

After that Nana would serve us either: chicken fricassee; “baby” lamb chops she cooked in the toaster oven; or what we knew as Nana’s Spaghetti.  Sides were either a salad of iceberg lettuce dressed with Wishbone Italian dressing or green beans that had turned soft and gray from being boiled.  The chicken fricassee had loose, pimply skin, scant meat, and made you run almost immediately to the toilet.  The lamb chops were eaten down to the nub, although I still don’t know why she cooked them in the toaster.  Nana’s Spaghetti was coated with margarine, Velveeta, and some kind of canned sweet tomato sauce that was just this side of ketchup, all melted and mixed together until it formed a granular paste.

There had to be other main courses, but I don’t remember them.  I remember that for lunch she would make us a toaster oven pizza with a slice of ham crisped on top.  For holidays she cooked chicken soup with matzoh balls and refused to sit down, even though my mother, whose own mother died young, would call her Ma and insist on it.  Nana called the matzoh balls kneidlach, and they were very light, like little clouds.  Later I described them as being excellent to her daughter, whose recipe I use (or used to use) to make my own holiday soup, and she said, “Mine are better.”  My mother also thought that Nana’s cooking left something to be desired.  At home Mom cooked our vegetables so they retained their shape and color.  Mom didn’t think much of iceberg lettuce, she bought us fresh fruit, instead of canned, and she replaced margarine in Nana’s spaghetti with butter and the Velveeta with cheddar.  And when I was older, I should say, I hated staying at Nana’s house.  It was too quiet, there was nothing to do, and I missed my parents.  So I can’t tell you if Nana’s food was delicious or not.  I can’t say, either, that I chose to love Nana’s food just because I loved Nana.  But it’s true that I do still love almost all the things I loved when Nana cooked them for me.