Thursday, November 26, 2009

She Arises From the Muck, to Say Happy Thanksgiving!

My cousin Karen calls me up to BEG me to write a letter. I tell her, "I'll do it today!" Then I don't. My brother Tim thought I was mad at him and had cut him off my letters list. I don't know why it has been so hard for me to do what comes so naturally to me -- to let everybody know what nutty things we are up to. I thought perhaps it was because, for so long, the target audience for my letters was Mom, and she's not here any more. I have even written letters and then deleted them. So this must mean I am psychotic. Oh well. I am trying hard to be less psychotic.

This is Thanksgiving morning. I was going to do the big dinner here but was waiting for it to get cold enough that I can store a turkey on the back porch (my fridge is too little or crammed with too much other stuff) and it is freaking BALMY outside. Then our guests dropped out, one by one, and I didn't want to think of Robert and me chewing away on the same old turkey carcass for three weeks, so we happily accepted an invitation from our friends and former neighbors, the Carrolls. I am bringing pies, that are right now making my house smell wonderful.

Well, what have we been up to? I have now been unemployed for NINE MONTHS. Every day I look for work and there are so few things that are really appropriate, I get very down about it. But that goes away in a flash when I have even the slightest whiff of a job possibity. I get cheery! I start making plans! Then, like smoke, the job dissolves away and I'm all bummed out again. I think I only have a week of benefits left, and perhaps that is why I am suddenly suffering all sorts of dermatological maladies.

The first to visit me were tiny, water-filled itchy blisters between my fingers. I did research on the 'net and found this is caused either from handling live tarantulas (which I don't recall doing lately) or from stress. Then came the attack of shingles -- ARGH!-- but not as bad as the first attack I had, in February. And then, about a week ago, I had a little bout of fever and chills.  I felt fine the the next day, but now I have an explosion of cold sores on my lower lip that makes me look like the loser in a prize fight. Looking like a leper doesn't help in the job search, either.

I have had all kinds of well-thought-out plans for finding new work. Certainly, in an economy as awful as this one, you would think my debt-counseling skills, honed from years of bneing a legal aid consumer law attorney, would be in demand! But there is an adage about law -- you are only going to be as rich as your clients are. Nobody who needs my skills can afford to pay for them! I have taken all sorts of special trainings and I'm signed up to be a volunteer lawyer for several organizations, but so far, no calls, even to do it for free! The legal aid community is a kind of closed-off group, I'm afraid, and I'm not inside the circle. Pooh.

So many times in my life when I've been the closest to the end of my rope, that's when something wonderful happens. I would not want to make any assumptions that this will happen again, but I remain hopeful. I decided I should pile myself up with so many volunteer responsibilities that the Gods of Contrariness will just HAVE to bring me employment, just to mess with me. To this end I have become a certified reading tutor and English as a Second Language instructor for an organization called Literacy Connections. I'm also doing stuff for the kitty shelter (though I am no longer on its board of directors) and I drive people without cars to medical appointments.  I'm working with two writing critique groups, editing manuscripts for other members.

Speaking of writing, though I have been a dismal letter writer, I have been very busy on a couple of books. The first one is a collection of short, mostly humorous stories about cars and things that happen in cars. The economy has also hit publishers, and so I have not even contemplated trying to find one. I only wanted to send it off to my family and friends, but I was encouraged by some other writers to use a print-on-demand publisher. I found out that I can have a bound book, with a nice cover and everything, for less money than it would cost me to run the thing off on a photocopier and staple it together! So the galleys of "Never Look a Gift Hearse in the Grille" should be arriving very soon. I need to have some friends help me check it for boo-boos and then it will be available to everybody at and other sites. I also want to run the stories past some of the people who appear in the book. I like to say, speak now or forever hold your lawsuits.

What else? I have been keeping myself occupied with creative projects. One of the most fun was making Robert's anniversary gift. He has always wanted a BEAR COSTUME. (Why? To wear when he goes to the bagel store to buy bagels, of course!) I have priced these and to get one that looks anywhere near real, it costs about a thousand dollars. So I got busy with some papier mache and fake bear fur, and the end result is pretty cute! No! I mean, pretty scary!  I also made a cat costume, for the shelter, with the help of a little girl named Tessie.   We had a Hallowe'en party, and here are our costumes:

Robert, the Bear

Here I am as an Arab, but I think mostly,
I look like my brother, Chris.

Well, it is almost time to pack up the pies and take off for our Thanksgiving afternoon of too much food. I am thankful, as always, for my husband and my family and all my friends. I hope you had a great holiday, and even better ones coming up!



I promise to write again real soon!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

First, a famous rock star destroys my TV, then a dog pees on my rug.

This is what a stone chamber looks like on the outside.

Me, at the dolmen stone.

An apology, because I can't get the stupid spacing right and I can't insert the pictures where I want them! Gnash-gnash! (that is the sound of my teeth...)


I attended a writer's group someone was trying to organize in Beacon. When I got home Robert asked me if I had met any interesting people there. I told him there was one--someone who had just moved to the area from England, and he had given me a postcard with his website on it. I didn't know much about him but I described him and Robert said, "You mean John Mendelsohn, the writer?"

Apparently, Robert was well-acquainted with the work John has done for Rolling Stone and Creem magazines. John had also been a member of a rock band called Christopher Milk, in the days when most of us had more and darker hair. I wrote to John and told him we'd like to get together with him sometime. For a variety of reasons, that didn't happen until just recently. But John finally came to visit and we spent a really good afternoon talking, and we introduced him to our favorite Indian restaurant. We found out we have many interests in common with John and his wife, and we are looking forward to meeting Claire, who was still stuck in London, trying to get their house sold.

Robert's Christmas gift to himself was a monstrous HD television set. As is his nature, he spent months planning the installation and re-design of our upstairs TV room. Robert built new video cases and planned to move our huge and bulky Sony from that room into his basement music room. The day before the new set was to be delivered, Danny, our neighbor's weightlifter son who usually helps us with efforts like this, was not available. Also, I had sprained my knee and was hobbling about on crutches. Reluctantly, Robert decided to take advantage of our FLEDGLING friendship with John, and ask him to help move the TV. John agreed.

The plan was to bring the TV down the front stairs then outside and around the house to the back basement door. Robert had the mover's dolly all ready. John showed up and I went to my basement art studio to be available to open the door when they were ready to move the TV in.

I guess I expected this to take about twenty minutes or so. Twenty minutes passed. I kept myself busy. Another twenty minutes passed. Then another. I had run out of busy work. I hauled myself up the basement stairs to find out what was going on. As I started to climb up the front staircase I noticed the carpet was sprinkled with what appeared to be black rice. At the top of the stairs Robert looked stricken. He and John both began babbling, "Extremely brittle!" and "Never expected!" and "Imploded!" Those tiny bits of black plastic were all that was left of my fabulously expensive TV.

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the image of a television set, which, upon being lifted up and placed on a padded dolly, suddenly collapses into to a pile of plastic pellets. It has something to do with the immense weight of the inner TV tube (almost 150 lbs.!) and the requirement that it always be kept in a strictly upright position. Oh well.

I always had a love-hate relationship with that TV, anyway. It was purchased as a peace-offering to me from a tenant who never paid his rent because he spent all his money gambling. Then he won the lottery and bought me a $1,300 TV that I didn't want, then he got mad at me because I didn't want to do MY part, which was to purchase cable programming that I couldn't afford. And then, he never paid rent again after that! So I didn't care much that the television set died, and the fact that its death was as dramatic as its "birth" is only funny to me. Also, I do not believe that TWO people living in ONE house have any business owning FIVE televisions.

But Robert insists I'm wrong, and he is shopping for a new set for the music room. It's his way of supporting the economy.
Anyway, the new TV is fabulous, the video shelving looks gorgeous, and the gigantic TV tube sits in the driveway along with a lot of cut brush, waiting for bulk trash pick-up day. John sprained his back helping us, but we think he still likes us, anyway.

Norma, KISSING MY HUSBAND inside the stone chamber.
Lucy, Culprit of Cuteness

I met Norma Levinson when I was 14. I had won a scholarship to attend summer art classes at the University of Kansas. My mother told me later I was so awful that year (PUBERTY, MOM! IT WASN'T MY FAULT!) that she jumped at the chance to have me out of the house for awhile. Anyway, I met Norma there, and we had a blast. I think that is where I found my true identity.

I'm not a just a weirdo! I'm a hippie! Yay!

Anyway, after Kansas I was invited to spend a week with Norma and her five sisters in Toledo, where her family operated a Jewish restaurant. Over the past forty years we have had lots of other adventures together, and I was very touched that Norma traveled all the way from Virginia Beach, VA, to attend my wedding. Robert and I have visited her there, but Norma hadn't been able to take us upon our invitation until a week ago or so.

She didn't come alone. She brought her new baby, Lucy. We were a little concerned at first how our cats would respond to having a dog in the house, even one smaller than they are, and little yipping dogs send Robert right up the curtains. But the cats just sulked and glowered, and Lucy turns out to be a very quiet little puppy. She was so cute that we didn't care that she had puppy pee mats laid out all over the house and never managed to hit ONE of them.

The weather wasn't the best. It was chilly and rainy so we took little car trips. We took Norma to see the Vanderbuilt mansion, and the gorgeous Hudson River views that have inspired so many painters. We also took her to see two of our favorite mysteries--the dolmen stone and a stone chamber. The dolmen stone weighs 90 thousand pounds and is perched up on five little "finger" stones. No one knows if it happened naturally (sometimes this can occur when a glacier recedes, but there wasn't glacier in the area) and some speculate it was erected by early explorers who were Irish monks. In any event, it is quite a cool thing to see and a nice drive through "rich people" territory, with lots of horse farms.

After seeing the dolmen we wanted to show Norma a stone chamber. These are prehistoric structures found in a concentrated area in Connecticut and eastern New York. There are hundreds of them. No one knows how old they are, who built them, or how the massive solid stone ceilings were put in place. Once again, Irish monks are blamed because Native Americans didn't build stone structures. Any suggestion that the chambers might have been built by European settlers as root cellars is pooh-poohed by those greater thinkers who insist that space aliens with technology capable of transporting themselves across the universe figured the very best way to impress future generations of us cavemen would be to pile rocks in interesting configurations.

I also don't understand how a mere boatload of Irish monks could have built all of these things in the few years they were supposed to have been here. But this has not stopped people from claiming the chambers are holy druid sites, and one frequently finds mysterious offerings of flowers and other New Age offerings inside the stone rooms.

I thought I remembered where a chamber was, but I didn't. We spent several hours buzzing around curvy country roads and exploring little hamlets and villages (we even found ourselves in a place called "Monkeytown") and I finally gave up. We drove home, and suddenly, there it was! Miles away from where I thought it was. So Norma got to be amazed.

We had a great time with Norma, and even though Lucy peed on the rugs, we were sorry to see her go. I mean, that's why carpet shampoo was invented.

When you come here to visit us, we will take you to Monkeytown, and to see the big rock and to look at stone chamber ceilings. And you can even kiss my husband.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Other Shoe Has Dropped, and the Dangers of Whipped Cream


LOOK at these! They've got CUPCAKES
on them, for heaven's sake!

And I had finally scored an office with a window. . . .

For some time now, it has been hard for me to sit down and write. I am distracted. I didn't know if this is a symptom of lingering stress from the previous year, or insecurity about the future. I never wrote my usual Christmas letter in 2007, and planned to write double one for 2007-2008, but even that has hit a snag.
While 2008 actually ended on a high point, with a great job for me, I still felt very insecure. The current financial situation has had an effect on everybody, including insurance companies that insure hospitals and landlords. They are fighting paying anything, and it has been very hard for my boss because settlements have been held up. He has been paying our salaries out of his personal savings and investments, and those have also taken a huge hit. I was afraid he wouldn't be able to continue to pay me. That has come to pass. I am laid off. I am bummed. My last day was in February, Friday the 13th.

I am eligible for unemployment and that will make it a little easier. Also, I have some legal connections in the area where I had none originally and some different experience to put on my resume, but no law firms are hiring and people are being laid off right and left. I keep thinking how this reminds me of what it is like to suffer through a blizzard. The blizzard hits, and afterward you are stuck in your house, you have tons of snow to shovel, it's hard to get to the store and when you struggle through hell to get there, you can't assume there will be any milk. It is frustrating and maybe even scary, but nobody lashes out, because they know that everybody around is suffering the same frustrations, or worse.
Anyway, now that the dread other shoe has dropped--I have actually been doing a lot of writing! Mostly short stories. After Mom published her book of dog stories she wanted to write another one, featuring funny stories about Hogg kids' cars. I had made an audio tape for her that I found when I went through the contents of her office. I have been writing one or two a week, and the stories are getting good reviews at my writing group. Of course, the bad economy makes it harder to get things published, too! Oh well. It feels good to write again. I'll try to get the 2007-2008 Christmas letter written eventually, but as it costs several hundred dollars to print it out and mail it, you may not get it until I get a new job--hopefully, before Christmas 2009!

Anyway, I will try to to be a better writer here on the blog...
and I'll try to write more shorter pieces, like this one.


I decided, since money will be tight while I'm unemployed I should use up some of the groceries in my pantry. Often I buy foodstuffs on sale, pack them away in the pantry and forget about them until well after the expiration dates. I rarely use cake mixes but I found I had several, so I made a cake out of a spice cake mix and a can of pumpkin and took it to my office. It was a big hit. Then I wondered if I could make a Caribbean cake out of a white cake mix and tropical fruit cocktail. I tried it but wasn't very good--the flavors weren't strong enough. I considered making the cake into a trifle by layering it with whipped cream and more canned fruit, but I didn't have any whipping cream.
I remembered that for the kitty auction in November I had put together a "baker's basket," filled with things like cookie cutters, a spatula, colored sprinkles and little tubes of icing. I thought it would be a good gift idea for a little kid, or for a parent or grandparent to bake holiday stuff with a favorite child. I collected stuff for the basket but I still needed a few more things to make it complete. I found the cutest thing at the dollar store-- little aerosol cans of flavored whipped topping that came with candy sprinkles in a shaker lid. The flavors were awful, like "bubblegum" and "cotton candy," but I thought it was just the thing for a kid to get excited about. The can featured an iced cupcake on the front, so I got some brightly colored muffin paper cups to go with the several cans I bought. In the end, we didn't use the baking basket idea, so I put the stuff away in my pantry for next year.
I remembered that one of the cans was banana-flavored. I thought that might taste OK in a tropical dessert. I cut a little piece of cake and squirted the stuff on it. It was lovely--fluffy and bright yellow. I took a bite and was immediately overpowered by the strongest banana flavor you could imagine. The aftertaste was even worse! I looked at the label on the can and was surprised to see the words NOT A FOOD on it. Also, the words "so delicious-- it's kissably sinful!"
I am so glad I did not actually sell aerosol foam sex lubricant to children!


She is walking toward me on the sidewalk. Her round face is a bit puffy and her eyes droop at the outside corners, but I know her face. She sees me, says, "Hi!"

I assume a pleasant smile while I frantically search for her name in the library of my mind. She was in my Algebra class. She lives down the street from Mom now. "Hi!" I say.

She gives me a hug, steps back. "Chris told me about your mother. I’m so sorry."

Chris is my younger brother. "Thanks," I say.

"How long are you in town?" she asks.

"Until Saturday. I’m trying to empty the house." My brain churns. Sheila? No. Lois! Lois Bannerman.

"That’s the toughest job in the world," Lois says.

I nod.

"I’m really going to miss your mom. I loved visiting her."

"Why don’t you drop by later?" I say. "There’s so much stuff I have to get rid of–you might find some things you can use. Mom would like that."

"Really?" says Lois. We say good bye and go off in our different directions.

Lois is right. Emptying your childhood home is the toughest job in the world.

"I want people to have the things that are important to them," Mom had said. I have spent months now trying to keep my promise to her. I have dug through closets and chests and suitcases and folders and file drawers and envelopes, sorting thousands of newspaper clippings and letters, photographs and souvenirs. I have prepared and mailed off boxes of trinkets and memories to relatives and friends. My two younger brothers have hauled away carloads of stuff.

I don’t know what to do with Andy’s things. I collected them in a cardboard box-–his Boy Scout sash, his science fair ribbons, his well-loved books, including this one. He loved "The Rescuers," a story about brave mice. My younger brothers took their boxes away but Andy’s two daughters only want to take a few photographs. I understand. They knew the Andy who was their father. They never met the sweet and serious ten-year-old who first read this book to me.

I hold his high-school graduation picture in my hands. The frame is nice and might sell at a yard sale. I suppose I should discard the photo. Mom had so many copies made of this, as well as of his Navy portrait and the one of him with his bagpipes and kilt. Everybody in the family already has this photograph. But I can’t bear to throw his image away. This is my big brother Andy, my childhood protector and great friend, who died twelve years ago. I swaddle the portrait in bubble wrap and put it on the floor.

I have completely forgotten about Lois, but here she is walking up to the porch. I provide her a cardboard box and invite her to poke through the cabinets and bookcases. Now she is sitting on the floor in front of the big china hutch, wrapping wine glasses in newspaper.

"Your mom is the one who taught me how to cook!" she says.


"My mother died when I was ten."

I don’t remember knowing that, but now I have a recollection of Lois' earnest face beaming from beneath her Scout beret at troupe meetings at our house. I’m embarrassed to realize how very nearly invisible she was to me then–so mouse-like and quiet. But Lois Bannerman is not quiet now. She is animated, smiling, telling me stories about my family.

"I loved to watch Andy practice his bagpipes in your back yard," she says, then she whispers, "I was crazy about him!"

"Really?" Lois could only have been a freshman the year Andy was a senior.

She drops her hands into her lap and looks up at the ceiling. "Do you remember the dances at Lake Ocquiac?"

I shake my head. All the Boy and Girl Scout camping trips are a blur to me.

"Girls got to ask the boys. I was so shy, but I promised myself I would ask Andy Hogg to dance with me if it killed me! But other girls kept getting to him first. Finally, it was the last dance, on the last night. I ran to up him and opened my mouth. I was standing right in front of him and he was looking at me and then Marilyn Dedyne -- do you remember her? -- she literally pushed me over, grabbed him, and off they went!"

"Oh, no!"

"I felt like such a failure! I was devastated!" Lois says these words, but she is smiling now, almost grinning. "The coolest thing happened!" She closes her eyes. "The music ended, the lights came back on and everybody started groaning. Marilyn walked away. Andy looked at me, and just then – like magic! like an answered prayer! -- the scoutmaster said, ‘Oh, all right! Just one more!’"

"They played another song?"

A tear traces its way down Lois Bannerman’s cheek. "Cherish," she says. "That song by the Association. A slow dance. My whole life, whenever – "

She doesn’t finish. She doesn’t have to. I realize she isn’t even here. At this moment Lois Bannerman is at Scout camp in Northern Michigan. She is twelve years old. She is slow-dancing under the stars with Andy Hogg.

Her eyes are still closed. She doesn’t see me place the bubble wrapped package in her box of wine glasses, trinkets and memories.