The Long and Winding Road

The winding Hawk's Nest Road overlooking a river and a railroad, offered the sort of scenic drive my Dad loved best.
The winding Hawk’s Nest Road overlooking the Delaware River and the Erie railroad offered the sort of scenic drive my Dad loved best.

For a mere century automobile road trips have been a signature element of the American experience.

Of course, humans have been on the road for a lot longer than that. Since the days of ancient Rome restless souls have followed the urge to go see what’s over the next hill, around the next bend, across the wide river.

But in this country, when we say road trip, we mean a couple of people or more, piled into a car (any car will do), driving for hours, maybe days, even weeks, having adventures, some planned, some not.

Not everyone enjoys such things, especially considering the way the modern highway system has been designed to increase speed limits at the expense of scenery. There was a time when the journey could be at least as enjoyable as the destination.

I was five-years-old on my first road trip. My dad, newly graduated from law school, had a job offer in San Francisco. So he packed up everything we owned in our new 1954 Ford station wagon and headed west with three kids and our mom, who was pregnant with number four. We stayed at National Parks all across the country—Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Dakotas. We traveled the Oregon Coast and camped in the Redwood Forest. I’ll admit, I don’t remember a lot about it. At that age you don’t have enough perspective to understand what you’re seeing.

Fortunately, my dad took a lot of slides, and in later years he took pains to remind us of what a big and beautiful country we lived in.

My brothers Jeff and Bill and I take the measure of Long's Peak in the Rocky Mountains in 1954.
My brothers and I admired Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains in 1954.

All his life my dad loved to get in the car and drive places. When, in his late 80’s a few years before he died, his vision and reflexes deteriorated to the point that he had to give up his driver’s license, I think it took a lot of the fire out of him. He longed to go on one more road trip.

But at the same time, as he grew older he lamented how the forces of increasing population and construction had altered the landscape. In Fairfax County, Virginia, where we ended up after the job my dad had driven across country to take didn’t work out (we turned around and drove back east), there were still cows and horse farms around Tysons Corner. There was no beltway. The day it opened people drove on it just to experience the wonder of it. It was supposed to free us all from traffic congestion.

Well, journeys sometimes take you places you never expected to go. And sometimes they lead you right back where you started. But nothing ever stays the same, so in a way, the journey never ends.

Some people waste their whole lives looking backward, wishing they could return to the way things were. Others miss out on the here and now because they’re in such a hurry to get to what’s next.

I’m grateful that my dad taught me to get out of the car and look around, to take the measure of each place and time and be thankful for what is, even while we work toward what could be. It’s not all good, but it’s not all bad. And sometimes, if you get off the interstate and wind into the heart of the country, you can see.

It’s a miraculous place. Take a deep breath. And keep going.

A Stranger Here Myself

It was actually William Blake who said this, but it's the perspective that counts at the Top of the Town.

When we first moved to Seattle seven years ago, we were full of enthusiasm and ignorance.

We knew nothing about the neighborhoods, the hip restaurants, the must-see sights, but we had umbrellas and good hiking boots. We spent a lot of our free time simply walking around the city.

The experience changed us. Up until then my husband and I had never taken many walks except when we were on vacation, even though we had lived for many years in the countryside of Virginia, a place where scenic walks and pleasant vistas abound. But back then we were usually either too busy or too tired to walk around just for the sake of walking around. Our activities were agenda-driven.

In Seattle, when we began to walk for the pleasure of it (and the peripheral health benefits) we came to see the world differently.

There’s no better way to really get to know a place than on foot. In Seattle we discovered all kinds of hidden treasure beyond the obvious parks and art and fascinating architecture. We explored the hidden stairways of Fremont, the pocket gardens of Ballard, the old growth forest in Seward Park, the pea patch gardens all over the city.

When we returned to the East Coast we chose to continue living in an urban environment, in part because, even though I still love the rural scene, at this point in my life I want to be in walking distance of more than the nearest meadow.

So here we are, returned to a city that was so familiar to us once upon a time. In the thirty years we were elsewhere a lot has changed, but the essential nature of the D.C. area remains the same. It’s still a city dominated by the presence of the federal government and the international diplomats who live here. Real life is a little unreal here. But on the ground, walking around the neighborhoods, it doesn’t feel any different from other major cities.

The biggest difference between Seattle and D.C. from a pedestrian vantage point is the tree canopy. The Pacific Northwest is famous for its mighty evergreens. And they are amazing. But much of Seattle was cleared of trees in its early pioneer days, which weren’t that long ago. By comparison, the District of Columbia has been planting street trees for several centuries, and some of these babies are enormous. That’s one reason last year’s powerful derecho (a storm with sustained hurricane force winds) was so devastating. When a small tree topples, maybe it wrecks a car or two. When a giant falls, it takes down power poles, destroys buildings.

D.C. is a city of tree tunnels.

Anyway, once the wreckage was cleared up you wouldn’t have known anything had happened, because there are still soooo many trees in this city.

But there are a few places which rise above the canopy. The National Cathedral sits on one of the best known high spots in the city. Another, less well known, high point is near  Tenley Circle, an area once known as “The Top of the Town.” It’s changed a bit since we lived nearby many years ago. They’ve put in tennis courts where the outdoor stage used to be. The high school has taken over a lot of the open fields. And a covered reservoir sits high above the city, offering a panoramic view to the west.

It’s a popular spot for dog walkers, kids skipping out for a break after class, and people like me. I like the wide open sky. It reminds me of the country, but with a city feel—that sense of a lot of people sharing a particular space and time, working, playing, growing, and getting along as best they can together. It’s not always perfect, and it’s not always pretty, but it’s always alive, and ready for what’s next.

From here to infinity. And beyond. It starts with a walk around the block.

Back Tracking

Dad took this photo of a steam engine approaching in 1955.

Since I moved back to the D.C. area last year I’ve been listening to a lot of bluegrass music on the radio. There was a time when I would change the station at the first clang of a banjo. But you know how it is. Time changes everything, and as my need for high energy rock and roll has waned, my appreciation for mandolins, fiddles and even banjos has grown.

Music enthusiasts often joke about the differences between various genres of popular music, noting how country songs tend to be about trucks, drinking and broken hearts, whereas bluegrass music often focuses on trains, home, and the difficulties of finding and keeping true love. I don’t have much to add to the musical conversation when the subject is trucks, or drinking, or matters of the heart. But when it comes to trains, I can blow my own horn.

Trains ran through my childhood. I didn’t care about them particularly at the time. It didn’t matter. My father’s love of trains began when he was a boy and lasted until his dying breath.

I didn’t get it when I was growing up. I mean, when I was a little kid I thought it was kind of cool the way my dad built model trains, and the way he would always take us to see trains, and stop the car on road trips to watch them go by, take pictures, and count the cars, listen to the horns. Some of my earliest memories of my dad are of him, head down, concentrating on some engine he was building at his small desk in my parents’ bedroom. With five kids in a tiny three bedroom house—no basement, family room or rec room—my dad had to put his dreams of a train layout on hold in the early days of his career.

But once we moved to a bigger house with a basement, he poured a lot of his time and money into building an impressive collection of replica HO gauge trains. By the time he had seven children he had more trains than he knew what to do with, and not much energy or time to spend with them, but he continued to hope that one of us kids would catch the fever and take over the layout.

That never happened. One by one each of us would try to take an interest in Dad’s hobby. But trains simply didn’t mean anything to us. They were Dad’s thing.

He would try to make us catch his enthusiasm. He had recordings of trains that he would play on the stereo, so loud that it sounded like the train was pulling into the living room. And he would be grinning like a little kid, sure that if we could only see what he saw in his head, hear what he heard in his memories, we would want to share it.

We all tried. But there was no way we could experience the romantic era of war-time train travel that meant so much to our dad.

But here’s the thing: all of these bluegrass laments about lost love and homesick sorrow go on and on about the lonesome whistle’s blow and the general sadness of trains leaving, etc.

My dad was never happier than when he was on a train. He lit up whenever he heard one in the distance. He looked forward to seeing them, riding on them, learning about them.

I’m glad my father got so much joy from his fascination with trains. I’m grateful that he shared his enthusiasm with me and my brothers. I’ve always loved the sound of trains in the distance, perhaps as a result of my father, or perhaps just because, let’s face it, the sound of a train passing in the distance is a kind of poetry. If you listen the right way.

Since he died last fall I hear music every time a train sounds in the night.

And sometimes, it’s a bluegrass song.

So long as there's a train somewhere...

I Can See Clearly Now

Here's lookin' at you, kids.

I got my first pair of glasses at the age of eight, the price of being a precocious bookworm. The frames were made of red plastic with a brick design. I thought they were really cool.

At the time I was blithely innocent of the social repercussions that came with wearing spectacles. I’d never heard the then-popular maxim “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” and even if I had, I doubt that I’d have understood the term “passes.”

By the time I was sophisticated enough to understand the complex cultural and social stigmas surrounding the wearing of glasses I was mature enough to realize that boys had problems of their own, and my glasses had nothing to do it.

Still, like many a socially awkward child, I took comfort from stories of the ugly duckling genre. Once you start to recognize the signals, you see Cinderella everywhere. And being someone with an overactive imagination, it was a short hop to the candy shop to convince myself that one day I too would fling off my glasses and dazzle the multitude. Or as least Dennis Crawford in the sixth grade.

I don’t know what became of Dennis, but for me life changed focus once I learned to wear contact lenses. This was back in the pioneering days of contacts, in the early ’60s, when many people were skeptical about the concept of putting a small piece of plastic on your eyeball. There weren’t any soft contacts. It was hardball or nothing.

Determined as I was to lose my duck feathers, I endured the discomfort and terror of the process. And lo, on the first day of high school I was able to walk into a classroom incognito. Suddenly I understood why Superman could fly. All he had to do was take off the damned glasses.

And for a while, I flew. Serenely soaring above the crowds I enjoyed a brief period of self-confidence that taught me a lot about the power of illusions and personal myth-making. Football players asked me out on dates. Guys who had looked right through me the year before started staring at me. It was a strangely empowering sensation.

But, like so many strangely empowering sensations, it wore off, and I found myself preferring the company of my old friends: my books.

These days, in the peculiar way of all fashion, glasses, once the trademark signifiers of the uncool, have become a trendy fashion accessory. Kids wear them unabashedly, movie stars sport them to underscore their intellectual appeal, people who don’t even need glasses wear them to add panache.

If only I had those red brick specs now.

The Harp Unstrung

A Couple of Harpers in 1955

My father died last week.

He had been in poor health for years, suffering with various aches and ailments, undergoing treatments, countless examinations. He was pretty fed up with it all by the time he reached his 89th birthday, when we all came to wish him well, to encourage him to hang on for his 90th.

He didn’t argue with us, but you could see his heart wasn’t in it. All his old friends had already passed on. His failing body denied him the ability to work on his model trains, much less enjoy driving his car or sailing a boat. A lifetime of reading fine print had ruined his eyes. He still loved us, but he just wanted to stop. Yet his body kept going, the old heart pumping, the lungs pulling in air. His bones were still strong, even as his flesh melted away when he refused to eat anymore.

My father was a strong-willed man all his life. His opinions were firm, his beliefs not easily swayed. He worked hard for everything he had. His long career in law began in the early 1950s when he attended law school at the University of Virginia on the G.I. Bill. Like many of his generation, he already had three small children by that time. By the time he retired he had become a judge, and had seven children, a different wife, a handful of grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

You’d think he would have been a happy man.

But my dad was never able to stop being a father. And being a father for him meant trying to make his children do what he thought would be best for them. I understand this is a common trait among caring parents.

After my dad took my mother to court to have me declared legally emancipated when I was 18, we didn’t speak to each other until the day I called to invite him to my wedding, a little more than a year later. He replied, “Are you asking me or telling me?” At first I didn’t understand the question, but then he made it clear that he expected to be consulted about the man I chose to marry, even though he’d legally washed his hands of me.

Suffice it to say, our relationship was never easy from the time I left home. For years, in the beginning, before I had children of my own, I used to have conversations with him in my head, trying to explain why I felt entitled to lead my own life, make my own choices. I would write letters and never send them. I thought things would never change.

Then my father began a new family and had a new daughter. He delighted in her perfection, her obedience. Her devotion to him was unwavering and he rewarded her with his unlimited support. Hearing about her successes, I was glad he had the pliant squeaky-clean daughter he’d wanted. When she married a very successful man, whose job took him all over the world, my dad was at first happy.

But slowly, slowly, the old man recoiled from the praise heaped on his new son-in-law. Perhaps he felt the sting of being replaced as the alpha male in his daughter’s life. For whatever reason, he began to call me. At first I was taken aback by this. It had been so long since he’d expressed an interest in my life. But when he heard that I was taking college courses again, trying to finish my degree – 30 years in the making – he was enthusiastic and, yes, I could hear it in his voice, even proud of me again.

Slowly, as I learned the humility that only having children of your own can teach you, the conversations with my father became less difficult and more rewarding. We found common ground based on our experiences as adults. We seldom touched on the trials of the past, the divorce, politics, the reckless ’60s, the flaming ’70s. We talked instead of life itself, of how it warps and wounds, how it teaches and heals, how the long road may be rocky, but the views sometimes make it worth all the struggle.

I am grateful that my dad and I recovered the love we started with. He was a wonderful father when I was a young child. In one of the last conversations I had with him, when he was so weak he seldom left his bed, he talked to me of his childhood in Brooklyn, of his first model train setup, of his early boyhood friends, of his beloved Culver Lake in the mountains of Northern New Jersey. He said, “My childhood there was a wonderful childhood.”

That’s what he gave me. Maybe that’s all any parent can hope to give a child. All too soon they grow up and get swept away by the countless unpredictable forces at work in world. If I could talk to my dad today, he would understand exactly what I’m talking about. I’ll be missing him the rest of my life.

He’s moved beyond reach, but I still have things I want to say to him.

The Beat Goes On

Moonrise Over M Street

When I was a child growing up on the rim of the Beltway, D.C. was as exotic as Paris to me.

Okay, maybe not Paris. Let’s say London.

In any event, it was the place to both lose and find yourself. No one knew you there – you could be anybody. In the early ’60s freak flags weren’t common in D.C., but it was still a good time to rebel, explore, go a little crazy.

And in all of D.C., no neighborhood offered a more magnetic opportunity for the budding eccentric than Georgetown. It had a funky offbeat atmosphere in which the very well-to-do and the ne’er-do-wells shared the same bumpy brick sidewalks. It seemed magical to me as a teenager. I thought it would always be.

In the forty years since, as the current of my life has taken me further from that time and place, the memory of it remained unchanged. Now, having returned to my hot steamy hometown, I find it altered in many ways, some great, some not so much.

This is only natural, of course. Cities rise and fall, humans come and go. But the changes in Georgetown – at least along the main commercial arteries – seem more insidious – sort of like the malling of New York City, where the once affordable districts of warehouses and artists’ lofts, seedy bars and pawn shops, the gritty soul of the city, seem to have been dispossessed, replaced by trendy eateries, high-end shops, expensive hotels. The poets, musicians and artists appear to have relocated to Brooklyn. Wouldn’t Walt Whitman be pleased?

A similar shift seems underway in Georgetown. The M Street I remember from my wild youth was filled with bars where live bands played late into the night. The Shadows, which later moved down the street, is where I heard the Mugwumps, a short-lived band whose members included Cass Elliott, before she became a Mamma, and Zal Yanovsky– before he became a Lovin’ Spoonful.

There was the Crazy Horse, the Shamrock, and, a couple of blocks below M, the old Bayou, where primal rock bands like The Telstars tore it up.

The classiest of all the old Georgetown clubs, The Cellar Door, where I once had the great good fortune to hear Miles Davis when Keith Jarrett was in his group, is boarded up. Judging by the sign in its window it ended its days as a Philadelphia Cheesecake Factory.

And no list of D.C. rock venues would be complete without The Emergency, at the far end of M Street, the little all ages club that could and did change the world, at least for me.

D.C. is a city dense with history. You can’t throw a brick without hitting some spot where somebody famous once did something. And Georgetown has its share of that revered legacy.

But the Georgetown I remember, that scruffy eccentric neighborhood with deep roots, has been subjected to a corporate takeover, upscaled into near Disney-esque quaintness. The live music venues have been replaced by cupcake franchises. Lines form outside Georgetown Cupcakes and Sprinkles.

I love a good cupcake, but it’s no substitute for rock ‘n roll.

Ah well. I hear the kids these days do their reinventing and rebelling over in Adams Morgan. Times change. The moveable feast relocates. The repast goes on.

It’s Not You; It’s Me

We'll always have Seattle.

Dear Seattle,

We have to talk.

No, no, don’t look at me like that. It’s nothing you did, or didn’t do. You’re perfect, just the way you are.
But…still, even you must agree that things have been a little strained of late. A bit chilly. Somewhat damp and dreary. Hell, who are we kidding? That’s just you being you!

It was draining (drizzle+rain) the day we moved into our rental house here. The workmen were still trying to finish cosmetic touch-ups to the small old bungalow with its cracked foundation and wall-to-wall cobwebs. But it had charm, of a sort, and we were new here. What did we know?

Well, six years later the house we’re leaving is sunny, bright and beautiful. The garden I’ve been working on in the backyard is blooming its heads off, and the weather…okay, it is raining today, but recently we’ve had several sunny days with the temps almost in the 60s. We’ve learned to take what we can get.

But…home, they say, is where the heart is. Yet the longer I live the more I find the heart is like a fractal coastline, fringed with inlets and coves of past pleasures and pains. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing; other times it takes all my concentration to avoid crashing into the rocks. My heart is overfull. The weight of the past clings like barnacles to the hull of my none too swift boat. And the only way I can figure to get myself going again is to start jettisoning some of the drek in the hold. Time to let go, let the sail out and head for the horizon.

The fact that this horizon is the very one I fled so willingly six years ago doesn’t signify. Time changes perspective. We don’t get to remake our choices. There is no rewind in this life. There is only forward, faster than it seems possible.

And so I’ve chosen to return to the scene of my youthful folly, to renew old friendships and reunite with family.

But…I will miss you, Seattle. I’ll miss your snow-capped craggy peaks, your glittering waterways, your quirky people. I’ll miss Fremont, and Ravenna, and being able to take great coffee for granted. I’ll miss the salmon and the blueberries and Grateful Bread. I’ll miss Robinswood and Amy Yee and all the wonderful tennis players I’ve met at those friendly public clubs. I’ll miss Pike Place Market, Third Place Books, totem poles, the gardens and the amazing trees. I’ll miss Green Lake, that oasis of serenity and goodwill, where dogs rule and everything’s cool.

And I’ll miss the Mariners, even though with the exception of Ichiro  and Felix the lineup has completely altered since I first started cheering for them. This year the new faces on the team are young and eager, hitting hard, fielding crisply, renewing hopes.

Back on the East Coast I’ll be rooting for the Nationals, another team which has languished at the bottom of the pack for some time. But now they’ve got Bryce Harper, a 19-year-old phenom whose starpower might just be the real thing.

But of course it’s not about baseball. It’s about time. Time I was going.

So this is it for me, Seattle. I’ll never forget you.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

I Become English

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, “Not From Around Here.”

For a shy child, one problem with reading books to escape the difficulties of live human interaction is that if you’re always reading, you’ll never make eye contact with another human. Tunneling into books to escape being alone becomes a kind of self-defeating tactic. You read because you’re alone, and you’re alone because you read.

After sizing up the available companions in my school and new neighborhood, I swiftly came to the conclusion that the only people I could trust not to ridicule or attack me were my family. I read constantly. And when I got my first library card I was elated to have access to a quiet place where I could get as many books as I wanted for free.

All of this reading took its toll on my eyes, I guess, because by the time I was eight I had to get glasses, another nail in the coffin of my socialization. This was long before glasses became the trendy fashion accessory worn by hollow-cheeked models in ads from Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. This was back when young women were trained to accept the axiom “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” as if that were a bad thing. Since I had no interest in any of the boys my age, I didn’t care. My first pair of glasses was made of red plastic with a brick pattern. I thought they were cool. Which just shows how truly far out of touch with reality I was as an eight-year-old.

However, I went even further after I discovered the literary love of my life on the shelves of the public library. I don’t remember which book it was. At that point in his long career he’d already written probably sixty. But I do know that the first time I encountered the sentences, the vocabulary, the tone, and the timing of P.G. Wodehouse I wanted to live in his world. Of course, it was an imaginary world, an England which had ceased to exist even before the Second World War. But I didn’t know that, nor, I suspect, would I have cared. In Wodehouse’s carefree world no one dies, no one really suffers, and it only rains if it helps the plot along. And the plots are a confection of confusion, quirky characters and adroit literary style that simply made all my childhood angst vanish like an 18th century silver cow creamer. You had to be there.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before I began to act out my allegiance to this rarified literary world. I began to use phrases like “right ho” and “surely not” and to call people in my family “Old Bean.” I affected an English accent and imagined that it convinced strangers that I truly was not from around there.

My mother must have seen all of this as a cry for help. She kept pushing me to go and make friends with this or that neighborhood child. On the occasions when she would force me out the door and I had to try to play whatever mindless game was the order of the moment – kick the can or hide and seek – I would sneak back at the earliest opportunity and sequester myself in my room with a good book.

I had accepted the idea that I would never have friends, when suddenly, later that same year, I had two. The first was a boy five years older than I and confined to a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy. Tex had two younger brothers, who became friends with two of my brothers, and I was introduced to Tex, who pretty much lived in one room in his house. He was smart and lonely, and when he asked if I wanted to play a card game we began a friendship that lasted for the next two years until he died on Christmas Day. Tex taught me to play chess, and we worked our way through the entire book of Hoyle, as well as playing all varieties of board games. I had never considered the possibility of him dying, and neither his family nor mine ever took me aside and mentioned that it might happen. When it did I was stunned, and completely non-plussed by the “celebration” of his life which took place afterward. All my plans to grow up and find a cure for muscular dystrophy so Tex and I could live happily ever after were shattered.

But my grief was alleviated by the newfound wonder of the girl next door. I never would have met her if my mother hadn’t pushed me outside and told me to go over and knock on the door. It took me hours to work up the courage. This girl was pretty, blonde, blue-eyed and well dressed. I wore hand-me-downs from my older brother, or clothes my mother picked out for me. My hair was not something I understood how to “do” and I had no concept of chitchat.

Yet, in spite of all this, miraculously, Cyndie seemed to want to be friends. Only in retrospect can I see how as an only child of a mother who moved around a lot and was working on her second, or maybe it was third, husband, Cyndie may have had to learn how to make friends fast out of necessity. At any rate, I was elated that she accepted me, Old Beans and all.

Little did I know that my friendship with the sweet, wholesome-looking girl next door would crack open the door to a life of bohemian pretensions and kickstart the motorcycle of rebellion that roared into full-throated life in the mid-sixties.

We called him Uncle Rick. After all, he wasn’t Cyndie’s father. He wasn’t the type. In spite of being married to Cyndie’s mother, he still had the fresh scent of a boyfriend hardly broken in. He was dapper but casual, sort of like Cary Grant on a tropical vacation. He drank, smoked, and told risqué jokes that made my mother laugh. My father took an instant dislike to him. Naturally, I worshipped him. Cyndie and I sang songs for him, planned parties for our parents in an unsuccessful attempt to bring them together, and generally hung out together, even though she was a year ahead of me in school. The year we were together in a mixed class, with fifth and sixth graders studying in the same room, was the highlight of my elementary career. At the end of the year we performed in the school talent show doing an apache dance to the theme from “Peter Gunn.” I played the part of the man, with my longish hair under a hat. At the end of the dance, which was choreographed in classic fifties TV-style by Cyndie’s mom, I took off my hat and let my hair down. The audience ate it up. It was my first, and only, stage success until years later in high school when I made a brief splash in the Junior Jollies as Cher, singing “I Got You Babe” with Mike Willis, who later went on to become a respected professional actor, as Sonny.

But getting back to Uncle Rick. I should have seen the end coming. But of course, in my childish way, I imagined we would live next door to each other forever. Instead, six months after Tex died, Cyndie went off on a trip around the world with her mother and Uncle Rick. She sent me postcards, a present from the Philippines, and eventually a letter from Hawaii explaining how her mother was divorcing Rick, who was on his way to Tahiti alone. Tahiti. Cyndie stayed on in Hawaii for a few years, while I moved on to junior high where I resumed my natural position in the social pecking order, among the solitary geeks for whom the mere prospect of a  school dance was a form of cruel and unusual  punishment. This was long before geeks acquired the kind of regional chic that provides some social cover in urban areas at least. Back then, there was no technological glamour to protect the socially awkward.

And then, just when it seemed it couldn’t get worse, we moved to a new neighborhood several miles down the highway. The house was bigger. I had my own room for the first time in my life, at age thirteen. For a few months this seemed like it might be the start of something good. But that was before any of us knew that the contagion of recklessness that Uncle Rick had broadcast like a kind of seductive pollen had taken root in my mother, who had made a whole lot of friends in our old neighborhood, including a wild bunch who liked to drink hard and party long. My father hated them all. I think he may have hoped that by moving us a few miles away he could stop their influence over my mother. Of course, at the time, none of us had any idea just how far gone my mother was, and how much farther she would go.

Yankee Go Home

(The following is an excerpt from my work in progress “Not From Around Here.”)

People who speak wistfully about the innocent pleasures of childhood give me a pain. Were these people never children? Did they never have to go out onto a public school playground during that hellish free-for-all called recess?

I have to assume that the law of averages applies to childhood experiences. Thus I can accept that for a certain percentage of the population the years between five and twelve offered carefree delights that vanished once the teen age began. But I never felt at ease in the company of other children. They’re so irrational. So unpredictable. So moody.

I certainly was anyway. I entered first grade in Falls Church, Virginia, shortly after we had moved from Pennsylvania, where we had been living for one year while my father tried to pass the bar there. When he failed, we returned to Virginia, where he went  to law school at UVA on the GI Bill. In Falls Church we lived in one of those “Wonder Years” kind of neighborhoods. Small one-story houses with three tiny bedrooms on small lots. Everyone had kids. The fathers went to work. The mothers stayed home and did laundry, cooked and, in some cases, counted the hours until cocktail time. The televisions were housed in cabinets and the screen was small and circular, and there wasn’t much on aside from the Walt Disney show and Ed Sullivan. At five o’clock every day all the kids whose families had TVs ran home to watch the Mickey Mouse Club. I envied Annette Funicello with her beautiful wavy hair and perfect smile.

By the time we moved there I had gained a couple more brothers, so we all shared rooms. But when my older brother and I started school, he quickly distanced himself from me; he could sense my nerd cooties emanating like some radioactive force field. I walked to school alone, whistling show tunes. In those days there were no ‘gifted and talented’ programs. If you were a kid who demonstrated skills beyond those of the rest of the class, they might suggest to your parents that you skip a grade. But the schools worried that children who moved away from their peers would fail to adjust socially. So they left me in first grade, where I had to steel myself to listen to dozens of my classmates stumbling courageously through sentences like: “See Jane run. Look at Dick. Jane knows Dick.” Yeah. If I hadn’t been a snide little bitch-in-training before public school first grade, I sure as hell soared to the head of that class.

As any geek who has survived public school can tell you, kids are savages, and the process of blunting their claws and muting their shrieks is not for the faint of heart. The teachers loved me, of course, at first. But that only made things worse for me with the squirming masses who saw in my innocent brown eyes and baby soft blonde hair a perfect target for ridicule. And, admittedly, I was, and for most of my life have been, gullible as hell. My brothers never tired of teasing me to the point of tears and beyond. Until the year when, in a flash of focused rage, I lashed out at one of my younger brothers and broke his arm with a single blow. I felt terrible about it immediately afterward, but the event did realign the course of our later friendship, as if I’d passed some unspoken test and proven myself not guilty of total wimpdom.

However, that watershed event hadn’t taken place yet when I first had to endure the rigors of recess in Virginia. At first, slinking out into the brisk sunshine of September on the bare asphalt playground, I looked around for some group of likely shields, a knot of girls perhaps, or, failing that, some chubby boy with glasses. The old safety in numbers concept is embedded deep in the human psyche; sheep gravitate to other sheep.

Unfortunately, the same group-think applies to the wolves. As I stood there trying to work up the nerve to approach a cluster of girls in poodle skirts and crinoline, a loud boy with the musculature of a future footballer and a glint in his eye that would make him a standout in any police line-up ran into me, and as I was regaining my balance he looked down at me as if just noticing I was there and said, “Are you a Rebel or a Yank?”

I stared at him. I had no idea what he was talking about. During my kindergarten year in Pennsylvania we had covered letters, numbers, primary colors and learned to sing “My Country T’is of Thee” but no mention of Rebels or Yanks had been made.

“What?” I responded.

The boy narrowed his eyes and looked me up and down, from saddle shoes to plaid skirt and white cotton shirt with suspenders. “Yer not from around here, are ya?” he said accusingly.

I told him we’d just moved to Virginia.

“Where you from?” he demanded.

“Erie,” I said, my lips barely moving.

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“Pennsylvania,” I said.

“Hah!” he barked. “I knew it. Yer a Yankee. A damn Yankee.” He reached out and shoved me, not hard, but enough to let me know that whatever a Yankee was, he wanted nothing to do with it. He ran back to his fellow hooligans, and I could see them hooting and pointing at me, as I stood alone, feeling, I imagine, as a gazelle on the African plains must feel when it notices the rest of the herd edging away and the jackals circling.

I waited until I got home that day to ask my father about the difference between Yankees and Rebels, and my father, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, told me that the Rebels wanted to keep slaves and the Yankees fought to free them. Simple as that. No gray areas, no muddling the debate with sophistry about state’s rights or Southern hospitality. Good old right and wrong, my Dad’s strong suit. He never wavered when it came to the fundamental divide. All his life he struggled with doubts about religion and politics and women, but he never doubted his instinctive grasp of justice. Whether or not he was actually right is, as they say, another story.

But as a child, up until the Nixon-Kennedy debates, I accepted my Dad’s views pretty much without a qualm. I loved my Dad. He was a good man. Ergo, what he said was true.

Armed with this conviction I returned to school and hoped that the issue would not come up again, but if it did, I was prepared to have a dialogue with my inquisitors and set them straight as to the error of their ways. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. What a ninny. Yet, you see, this is what I mean by the earlier assertion that I was never a whiz kid. People then, and now, assume that if you can read early, and you continue to read often, that you must, perforce, be acquiring some sort of smarts in the process. And, to a certain extent, this can be true, if you embark on a course of directed reading with someone knowledgeable, say, a college professor, or perhaps a talk show host – just kidding – guiding your analysis of the texts. However, mere reading alone is not a guaranteed path to wisdom, particularly if all you read is fiction.

Even as a child my passion for imaginary stories far surpassed any interest I had in history, math, geography, etc. However, that first year in public school in Virginia forced me to embrace a previously unknown field of writing. I became a philosopher. It may have been dormant in my crabby baby years, but it really got traction on the playgrounds of Westlawn Elementary, where for several years I endured hours of bullying torment and scathing social ostracism because I wouldn’t back down from my pride in being a Yankee.

This only got worse by the time I reached fourth grade and the school curriculum began to include months of indoctrination into the Southern view of what they like to call The War Between the States, which had, according to our textbooks, nothing to do with slavery, but revolved solely around issues of states’ right to do as they pleased without interference from some know-it-all federal government who only wanted to fund their own fancy lifestyle with taxes squeezed from honest Southern farmers.

In the first years of my schooling in Virginia, this view remained almost unchanged from textbook to textbook until in the early 1960s when the Civil Rights movement finally began to make some progress. When I started as a freshman in high school in Fairfax there were no black students in a school with three thousand students.  The next year we had half a dozen. They were from around there, but I suspect in that school they felt farther from home than I did.

Erie Kid

(The following is an excerpt from my work in progress, “Not From Around Here.”)

My first word was no.

I don’t recall the circumstances. Presumably I was wobbling uneasily in someone’s lap and some well-intentioned relative asked me the sort of stupid question that is always posed to the mute and helpless. I’ve seen  photographs of a scowling, not particularly adorable infant, and I’ve been told that this was me at the start. In many ways, it’s me now, apart from the infant classification. At this point in the arc of my existence I have passed the apex. While I am not yet hurtling toward the bumpy landing, my view from this moment suspended between the immutable past and the rapidly diminishing future has freed me in a way I never anticipated. I no longer feel the need to placate.

Clint Eastwood once famously said, in one of his laconic roles, “It’s a wise man that knows his limitations.” Though I do not qualify in terms of gender or intelligence, I have finally learned to embrace that line. Others may find ingenious solutions to humankind’s problems. I don’t expect to. I continue to support their efforts in my small way, but I’ve come to accept that the whiz kid dreams of my youth were doomed from the start. In order to be a whiz kid, one must first be a whiz. And, presumably, a kid. As a child, I was neither.

Although I eventually learned how to smile on command, as all good children must, I never lost my inner scowl. My older brother, in contrast, didn’t know the meaning of the word. The sunny first child, born long before my parents’ marriage had lost the blinding luster of romance and entered into the drab plateau of bitterness, brooding and discontent, my brother never once doubted that he was worthy of all the love and attention that was showered upon him. I think I was introduced into the scenario as a kind of bonus playmate for him. What a disappointment I must have been. My brother wanted worship. Yet you can see even in the tiny snapshots of our first encounters the measuring look in my infant eyes.  Long before I had the vocabulary to express my impression of this noisy group of cooing, grinning people constantly jostling me and urging me to smile, I can imagine my little brain muttering irritably, “Why should I?”

Of course, a few months later I was sitting up by myself, chewing on non-food items and generally finding some amusement in the family who seemed so intent on pleasing me. I had learned to smile by then, but I still didn’t understand why they all seemed so keen on seeing me do it. Nevertheless, I had become philosophic. I cost me nothing. It meant something to them. I had nothing better to do. I smiled for the camera. But inside, the little scowl was on standby.

It became easier for me as I fell in love with first my mother, then my father, and eventually even my goofy brother. My mother, whose pale blue eyes sparkled like the light on a clear mountain lake, had a dimple which accentuated her easy smile, and she had a voice like birdsong, lilting, melodic and enchanting. All of this would have been even more wonderful if I had not early on perceived that I had arrived on the scene too late, or possibly in the wrong gender, to win her unconditional affection. I think that possibly because I was a girl it made it almost impossible for her to sort out her feelings for me, because her feelings for her own mother and her only sister were such a complex amalgam of resentment, envy and confusion. Nevertheless, I think she did care for me, as much as she could. But it wasn’t like the delirious love that she felt for my older brother. I guess I can’t blame her. He was more lovable from the get-go.

I , on the other hand, was irritatingly intellectual even as a toddler. I taught myself to read before I was six and by the time I got to first grade in public school in Falls Church, Virginia, I was considered something of a freak by the school administrators after I was taken to the principal’s office to demonstrate my prowess and did so by reading the first few pages of “Black Beauty” flawlessly. They didn’t know what to do with me. They seemed to think my uncanny ability to translate symbols on a page into spoken words indicated some unusual intelligence. They didn’t seem to realize that I was not a whiz kid. I was just a kid who loved to read more than almost anything else. But I’m getting ahead if myself.

The point is, I was born with a certain, shall we say, analytical bent, which set me apart from my fellow toddlers. I tried to fit in. I tried to play games, to care about dolls, to giggle. I don’t think I fooled anyone, least of all my cousins who lived in Erie, PA, where I was born. We lived in Erie, too, for the first few years of my existence, but I remember so little of those days that whatever heritage I can claim of Erie comes from the many summer vacations and winter holidays spent there, when, for me, my grandmother’s musty, old house represented a Shangri-La of possibilities. I adored my grandparents, and their house, which was full of secret stairways, creaky sounds, wonderful porches. The room I stayed in had been the nursery, and still had the fading pale blue wallpaper with pink giraffes and elephants, and a window overlooking the giant catalpa tree in the back yard. The room also had a desk and typewriter, on which I composed my earliest journalistic works.

As an adult I have rarely encountered people who know anything about Erie. Once a chatty checkout clerk at some hardware store raised his eyebrows when I told him I’d been born there. “Dreary Erie,” he said, admitting that he had grown up there and couldn’t wait to escape. I wondered if the excitement of being a checkout clerk had satisfied his thirst for adventure.

Perhaps because I was most often only a visitor to Erie, my attitude was different. At night I would lie in bed and listen to the trains, their distant horns calling to each other like land whales, yearning for something always out of reach.  I had complete freedom at my grandmother’s. In those days no one worried about child abductions, or gangs or much of anything. The War was over, the Depression was history and everyone was glad to be alive, or so it seemed to me as an eight-year-old kid roller-skating alone on the brick sidewalks around my grandmother’s block. Sometimes friendly neighbors would talk to me as I rolled by. They’d ask who I was, and I was always surprised that they took an interest. And when I told them that I was Lyman Shreve’s grandchild they would smile and wish me well. I didn’t realize at the time that this type of encounter was the tip of the iceberg in my life.

Had I been someone familiar, someone who looked like she belonged there, like as not the neighbors wouldn’t have spoken, or if they had, it would have been to say something different. But they could tell I was not one of them. Only many years later did I begin to wonder why it was that no matter where I went, or how long I stayed anywhere, that sense of not belonging anyplace remained constant. Sooner or later, the question would be asked, always in that same slightly condescending tone: “You’re not from around here, are you?”