Wednesday, November 28, 2012

LIMITS by Polly Howells

My father is a beacon to me.  I want to be like him. His life, before I was born, feels mysterious and magical. He was a ballet dancer in New York.  He had another wife before my mother, a wife who is glamorous in my imagination. A wife who was a great deal older than he, whom no one ever talks about.  

He encourages me to dance. I start taking ballet when I am eleven. They mention how my posture changes, my walking improves, after this. After I start taking ballet classes.

Father is the treasurer of the Ballet School. The head of the school -- my teacher, Esther Brooks -- and he are very good friends. I think he is in love with her. I look at her tight little breasts and the way she ties her black cardigan sweater across them to accentuate them and her waist, over her leotard. I never see her husband. I know she has one, but he is never around. Mother doesn’t’ have breasts like this – hers are long and floppy. Father picks me up from ballet school. I am such a dutiful daughter. I am so devoted to the idea of ballet that I come to watch a class when I have a cold and can’t actually take class.

But there are limits.  When I am fifteen I hear about a dance camp in Colorado. I suggest to him that I want to go. He discourages me. He says there will be all sorts of people there. Homosexuals, for instance. He doesn’t think I should go. Needless to say, I don’t. 

There are always limits. He encourages me to dance. I learn square dancing long before I begin to learn ballet. But he watches me one night, square dancing in the school gym. Afterwards he admonishes me:  “Don’t ever let the boys know you know more than they do!”  I gasp inwardly. But I learn my lesson. 

I learn my lesson so well. I go to the same college he went to, Harvard. I go there because he did. Because he loved it there. I don’t love it there. When he went there, after his stifling boarding school life at St. Paul’s, Harvard was the definition of freedom. He could go into Boston on the subway as late as he wanted. He simply loved it.

My mother says I can do what I want. “You’re free, white, and 21,” said with a wink but meant as a truth.

At Harvard I can’t do what I want. Girls must be girls. I can’t ride the subway late at night. Too dangerous. I can’t stay out past eleven without writing where I am going in the dormitory sign-out book. The dorm parents – whom I never see – are responsible for us. It is the beginning of the so-called sexual revolution, and there are regulations in the dorm as to how far the door must be open if we are entertaining a male caller in our room.

It all becomes about sex. I lose my virginity at the end of my freshman year.  Begin my first real sexual relationship the next fall. Fighting the limits my father has set for me, the limits on my desire.  But doing it clandestinely. Signing out to false places so that I can sleep with my boyfriends. 

And as for classes, I don’t speak. It’s almost as though I have been thrown back a generation or two – to the Victorian era -- just by being at Harvard. Girls should be seen and not heard. I become mute.  Don’t ever let the boys know you know more than they do. The letter of the law. I don’t let on.  I keep my smarts to myself, only letting the teachers know, through the tortured but brilliant papers I write. Love letters to the teachers. I still have these essays, mute testaments to the miserable years I spent at that college – the college that really should be nameless from here on in -- filled with my querulous passion. 

I study Russian at that college. I write a senior thesis on three little-known Soviet children’s authors.  No one can read these writers but me -- none of my friends.  The perfection my father has ordained for me has by this time become a solitary cell. But I don’t blame him. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Celebration of Yoga by Lynne Reitman

She was larger than life and was being honored by her many disciples – neighborhood yogis she had trained to be kripalu yoga teachers. One of the most devoted trainees had thought that she should be honored for her years of teaching and several yogis had been organizing the event for months. I was one of her trainees but not a devotee.

I remember filling out the application to enter the teacher training program and there was a question that asked about “teachers that had been special to you”. I couldn’t think of any. I had always been wary of teachers – afraid of their need to be admired as the driving force in the relationship. Somehow my needs were often lost. Of course, I had many teachers that I admired and who admired me for admiring them. But I was applying to become a yoga teacher and wanted the focus to be on me. I was actually on a quest for myself.

Over the hours of training our master yoga teacher and her teaching partner taught our class of 15 – 14 women and one man – and I was moved, touched, and repulsed by the experience. Both teachers, one blonde, the other brunette, both in their 50s with huge manes of curly hair, very stylish yoga clothes, wearing trinkets and making gestures that drew attention to themselves while they were teaching us to look inward through the practice of yoga.
So when I heard about the celebration I stayed clear of the preparations knowing that I would feel diminished by the abilities of the others to beautifully decorate a room, cook healthy and nutritious meals, and bring thought and meaning to a special event such as this. For months the discussions went on about the best way to…... so many talented yogis with large egos, celebrating the Yogi with the very largest ego, to honor her teaching of losing ego.

I had decided that my contribution to the celebration would be a cake bought in a local overpriced bakery that made only gluten free products. I thought this would resonate with the feeling tone of the event. We were told to include a sign indicating ingredients in all the food we brought due to all the special food needs of the yogis. No sugar, no nuts, no wheat, no caffeine, no carbohydrates, no fat and, of course, delicious.

On the day of the party I woke up feeling exhausted. I worked in the morning and took a walk in the afternoon then realized I felt too ill to attend this event. I had thought that I wanted to go because, aside from all my disdain, I was grateful for the teachings I received through my yoga training – even learning to be grateful was part of my experience with yoga.

I bought the cake that met some of the “no this, no that” requirements and took it to the place where the festivities were to occur. I figured there would be lots of yogis setting up and decorating and I would just drop off my cake and go home. I was eager to get into bed and watch “Law and Order” which is what I do when I don’t feel well.
I entered the church where many local celebrations occur and I felt sad that I wouldn’t be there that night but knew that I felt too horrible to deal with the crowds, the lights, the energy. It did look beautiful. Only one devotee was there studying the room with great seriousness. She came up to me and took my cake which seemed so crass in this otherwise splendid environment. In a hushed tone. sounding so very earnest and sincere, she told me what each decoration meant. She said that if I felt better later on I should come at 8 pm when the most significant devotions were to be spoken.

I left knowing I wouldn’t be back that evening but feeling bad for myself that I would miss this event with my teacher and friends and that I knew I really didn’t care but I was afraid that it was the first step toward a life of total isolation – which is both my fear and longing. Was I really not feeling well?

I went home and joyfully got into bed. It felt so good. I was so happy I had what felt like forever to just lie in bed. Nobody was home and I could indulge in the lowest form of relaxation – TV.

Usually in the course of any week I see my yoga friends in 2 yoga classes -one being followed by coffee. We also meditate and discuss the dharma one evening a month. I don’t often go to the class our celebrated teacher gives because she talks throughout the class and I can’t find room for myself with all that chatter. But the week after the party I avoided all things yoga not want to hear how wonderful the celebration was nor endure looks of judgment about my not having been there. I felt genuinely sad about not attending and was suspicious of my illness and whether I had really wanted to go – ambivalence being the core of all emotional life for me.

It was easy to miss these events – I continued to feel ill and barely managed to work all week – while being pulled out of bed to handle a few work related emergencies. I saw the pictures of the celebration on facebook, posted under the title, “Love Fest”. There were forty pictures of beautifully adorned yogis wearing soft colors and flowing attire while giving heartfelt thanks to their truly exquisite Yoga Teacher who wore black stockings and a mini skirt – hmmm.

She sent out an e-mail saying how much love she felt and then added how she missed the people who weren’t there and hoped to see them soon. It was a generic e-mail to the 100 or so yogis in the community but somehow I thought she was talking to me. Chastising me through cyber space for not being appreciative enough – how embarrassing. I thought of telling her I was sick but then I decided – no – she was right – I’m not appreciative enough. I’m somewhat appreciative but ambivalent.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

SUGAR GLUE by Susan Micari

That Christmas I was 13, I decided to make a gingerbread house for the family while they were out shopping.  I began in the morning, as soon as they had left.  I had already searched recipes, and found a gingerbread recipe that would make a dough strong enough to build the house but not tough, so that my creation would be crisp and light, buttery and fragrant with spice.  It would be rich with butter, molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and cloves. There would be cutout windows, with melted lemon candies for stained glass, baked right in.  There would be shutters, and doors, a chimney, and a fence.  It would be decorated with meringue icing, egg whites with cream of tartar, sugar, and lemon oil.  I knew how terrific my mother’s soft, steaming deep-dish gingerbread with lemon sauce was, and how much I craved that desert of winter Sundays.  
Sugar Glue

My house would look as good as it tasted.  There would be candies all over it, and none of the candies I hated.   Silver candy beads, candy buttons in pastel colors that came on long strips of paper, tiny candy canes, and ribbon candy in cinnamon and clove for the fence.  I would use red and green m&ms, and so every bite might have peppermint, or chocolate, or lemon, embedded in soft pillows of snow made of my meringue over buttery, crunchy spice cookie.  I knew I could make this.  I had seen the non-pareil at The Lady Cake Bake Shop on Route 25A, right down the street from Manero’s Steak House.  It was spectacular, and they had decorated theirs with cookies.  Cookie on cookie?  Too thick, too similar.  Nahh, I could do better.

I cut a pattern for the house out of waxed paper; the house was to be huge, 14 inches by 10, if I could do it.  To make sure the house was cut correctly I taped my pattern together, to see if my angles, my sizing was correct.  The chimney pieces were more forgiving, if they weren’t perfect, I could cut the gingerbread when it was still warm, or use more of the pure melted sugar that would be my caramel glue to piece the house together, and then I’d cover it with meringue and powdered sugar, to give the effect of two snow falls, or of snow that has warmed and then frozen again.  A double glaze I wondered if anyone would notice.  I would.

I mixed the dough by hand, but it was hard, as the recipe called for enough flour to make study figures, but not so much that you had inedible cookie.  So I used the mixer to soften butter, added molasses, sugar, honey, and egg yolk, and beat them until they were smooth and shiny, like brown taffy.  Elastic and fragrant, the sugar granules must dissolve so that they don’t leave a distinct crystalline bite to the dough.  No!  Then the flour, and the spices, and my secret: salt and pepper.  Every good baker knows that sweetness must be tempered with salt, and I knew that black pepper was good with sweet spice.  Very good.  My secret.

I kneaded the dough and rolled it out, piece by piece.  There weren’t to be huge wasted bits after I placed my pattern.  You can’t roll cookie dough out twice—the result is tough and floury.  But if I needed more dough than I had measured, the little left over scraps would be fine for shutters, reindeer, and other little bits nobody would eat.  

I placed the pattern out on the dough and with a very sharp knife dipped in water, cut the pieces as I needed them, laying them out on aluminum cookie sheets without edges, so that getting the baked cookie off of them would be a matter of sliding them off sheet at the right moment.   If taken off too soon they would bend on the cooling rack and be spoiled, and if too late, they might continue to dry out in the pan and carbonize.  

The pattern was so big that I had to bake two pieces at a time, carefully switching the sheets half way through the baking from top to bottom shelf so that neither would brown too much and both would bake evenly.  Then, I let them cool enough so that using a very large, flat spatula and icing blade, I could slide them to cooling racks so that they would finish their cooling without warping.  I laid each piece out on the dining room table, on six cooling racks, and when they were dry enough, placed them on parchment paper, to rest before the construction. 

I was all dressed up in my orange striped tee shirt dress, with my special apron over it.  A friend of my grandmother’s who understood real aprons had made it for me.  It protected the chest, and had many gathers to accent the waist, collected under a white chiffon waistband that was wide and ended in long sashes that looked like chiffon horse tails, and that swished attractively at the tush below the big bow.  The fabric was black, with red roses on it, and there were two big pockets, big enough for measuring spoons, or a recipe card, but which I used to hold the dishtowel I draped over my tummy and tucked into each pocket to protect the apron.  The pockets were crosshatched with pink silk embroidery thread, and my name was picked out in stitching over the breast.  My hair was done up, and I had slept in rollers so that it too would be smooth and sassy, curly but loose.  I glanced in the mirror over the bar and liked what I saw.  

It was afternoon when the baking was done, the smells of spice and butter everywhere. I would display the house on the bar that separated the living room from the dining room.  It was backed with a large mirror and would reflect the back of the house, which would be as decorated at the front.  There would be something beautiful to see at every angle.  I cleaned off the bar and put my parents cocktail shaker set in the cabinet beneath, next to their one bottle each of vodka and vermouth, and their silver-rimmed martini glasses.  

It was time to make the sugar glue, and quickly, so I could finish my house before the family returned.  Though some people mixed sugar and water in a heavy cast iron pan and boiled it to the hard crack stage, I used sugar and flame alone.  This was the only dangerous part of the job, for after your flame curled the edges of the sugar into pale lemon puddles that quickly turned to dark caramel, you had to move quickly, stirring the caramel and cutting the flame before it all turned dark brown, or your liquid pool of caramel would turn to hard glass in the pan and you would have to start over, scraping and melting the sugar glass under hot water for long minutes I didn’t have now.   If my attention strayed, and some of the liquid sugar dropped on my wrist, it would be an instant second-degree burn.  I tested the stage by pulling my wooden spoon through the melted sugar before it turned too brown.  A set of tiny spider silk threads rose from the molten lake and hardened instantly.  This was the moment.

Now quickly dipping the side of the gingerbread I wanted to attach, I assembled the walls and roof quickly, without hesitation and I lived inside my creation as it grew.  

The afternoon grew dim and I had to decorate before the family came home.  I poured my candies into little bowls, and mixed my egg whites and cream of tartar, sugar and lemon oil in to a large bowl of fluffy snow.  The powdered sugar was nearby to cover any mistakes and to double-glaze my work with a second snowfall.  I covered my roof with m&ms, the gables with tiny candy canes, the silver beads I saved for the windows and door.  I permitted no gumdrops here, no gelatinous fruity globules that might look good but taste false and ruin the taste of my cookies.  No.  Every bite would be varied and delicious, all texture and flavors complementary and intentional.

I arranged my house and set it carefully on the bar.  I was exhausted.  Just at that moment I heard the family station wagon pull into the drive.  Quickly now, I ran to the living room and pretended to sleep on the couch so I might hear every word my family said about it.  The car stopped, and the doors chunked open. My brothers’ feet hit the asphalt, and I heard the hatch open in the back, the sound of metal singing over metal as my father’s wheelchair was pulled out, and the snap as it opened and locked into place.  The door opened and I heard shuffling feet, stomping, packages dropping.  Then silence.  The smell hung in the air; they couldn’t miss it, could they?

My mother spoke, “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” and then she snapped, “Don’t touch it!”  I heard her go to the bedroom and a few moments later the sound of the Polaroid snapped, too.  Nobody had come into the living room to find me, so I yawned loudly.  My mother peeked in, eyebrows raised in semicircles as I pretended to open my eyes from a deep sleep.  She led me to the bar and posed me in front of my beautiful house.  I have a picture memory of this, me fiddling with some detail of the ginger bread self-consciously.  Mom said quietly, “This is beautiful.  You are a great cook.”  And she looked at me softly, her eyes changing from emerald to some deeper green than seawater, a look like the kiss I craved and so seldom received.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

THE SCRAMBLER by Carol Welch

It is, or as least was, a ride at the fair. Like a giant steel spider with bent legs extending from a central pole with a short metal bench seat at the end of each leg, the contraption whirled round and round. I have no idea why I liked "The Scrambler."

I liked "The Zipper" too. Cages, in which we sat in an almost standing position, were attached somehow to the part of the ride that took us up and around like a ferris wheel. As two of us stood-sat in the cage our hands held to some bars in front of us and we would rock the cage so that we were spinning upside down while the ferris wheel-like contraption took us around and around.

In September, 1974, I went to the Catawba County Fair with Ron and Beth and Mike. Ron and I were not dating at the time; we were pot-smoking buddies.

Ron was overweight and his nickname was Fatman. But he didn't mind; he seemed to like the nickname. He had straight jet black hair that almost reached his shoulders. His eyes were brown and he had high cheek bones, like an American Indian.

Ron was from the rougher side of town, Longview. His grandparents had raised he and his brother after their parents were killed in an auto accident. Ron called his Grandma "Mom" and his grandpa "Pop." "Mom" dipped snuff and always had her spitoon handy. Ron's family raised rabbits and we'd often have a meal with rabbit meat.

I was from the side of town that had more money, Hillcrest area, near The Pines. I was petite and athletic. I could turn the eyes of most guys. My legs were one of my sexiest qualities...and my belly button, so I was told.

In September, 1974, I was 15 years old; Ron was at least 16.

As Mike and Beth and Ron and I walked the hard-packed dirt fairway filled with people between the various rides and side shows and food tents, I thought, "I could make myself fall in love with Ron. I bet he hasn't had many girlfriends." And that night, I decided that I would drop hints. I'm not sure what and how I dropped hints, but Ron got the message.

We became an item, Fatman and Carol. With Fatman, I fully entered the realm of psychedelic drugs.

In September, 1974, we were at the Catawba County Fairgrounds. The lights and smells and sounds were real.

In October, 1974, I lay in Catawba Memorial Hospital. The Intensive Care Unit was real. The three pods of jimson seeds I had ingested were real.

The aquarium and the royal king and the rape and the stadium and the witch doctors and the flesh-eating roaches - they weren't real, except in my psyche.

Today is Halloween, 2012. Those images from that October, 1974, four-day dance with the devil's weed are still vivid. I can almost smell them.