Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stocking Up on Leonard Cohen

Lately, you can't throw an Old Testament or a pair of silk panties without hitting a Leonard Cohen song
. Earlier this week, it was "Bird on the Wire" at the end of "Sons of Anarchy." Last week, it was five different songs on a two-part "Criminal Minds." In the endlessly charming "Pirate Radio," it's a generous helping of "So Long, Marianne." On "American Idol," it's not if but when someone will sing "Hallelujah." I've heard his songs on "Without a Trace," "House," and "Lie to Me," and his songs are just as likely to be performed on shows I don't watch. From "Shrek" to "Secretary" to "Natural Born Killers," you can find his distinctive brand of sex and spirituality, of nakedness in all its forms, of repetition, juxtaposition, and parallel construction that are by turns too much and not enough. So, in case your collection has some holes in it, here's a list of albums, in the order you should buy them.

The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002)

This is desert-island music: 31 songs spanning 34 years. The hopeless is balanced
or at least amelioratedby the hopeful, so wrist-slashing can be deferred. Allow these exquisite songs (performed in chronological order) to help you get your bearings. The first time through, the album should be listened to in its entirety, with earphones, while sprawled on the bed, alone. This technique should also be employed by first-time listeners of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Janis Ian's "Between the Lines."

When I'm listening to "The Essential LC" in the car, I only skip one song ("First We Take Manhattan"), and I don't always skip it. Another song ("Ain't No Cure for Love") is in sore need of a ruthless edit and a new arrangement. I'd suggest that to Leonard, if he and I were sitting together at a sidewalk cafe in Krakow, or Toronto. I'd drink tea. He'd drink room-temperature milk. I'd wear a black skirt, tall boots, and a cashmere scarf I purchased at a second-hand store. He'd talk about a woman, and how they once spent a weekend at a nearby hostel. Her thighs were flawless, and she had a birthmark near the small of her back. The birthmark was the color of nearly ripe plums, and the shape of Krakow, or Toronto.

Also, feel free to spend a couple of hours locked in the bathroom with the album cover.

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)

Now, it's time to trace the roots. I bought this record album for two dollars in the early 1970s when it was remaindered in a drugstore bin. I was in high school, and this music was somewhat of a departure from "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sweet Baby James."

"Some girls wander by mistake, into the mess that scalpels make," Leonard sings. There are songs about strangers, and teachers, and masters. Masters! Imagine! I sneaked out of school during mandatory pep rallies, rushed home, and lay face-down on the shag carpet to listen to this album on the console stereo. "Are your lessons done? Are your lessons done? Are your lessons..."

So, I don't recommend it lightly. I haven't been able to face it in decades. The sepia photo on the album cover looks like a passport photo. It was taken "by machine." "Of course it was," I imagine my younger sister saying, as she slips her hand between her legs.

This album contains five songs we haven't yet heard, and all are good. Four of the five will not show up on subsequent albums, and "One of Us Cannot be Wrong" will be addressed soon. Of course, you could listen to this album before "The Essential LC." I'm simply trying to protect you from spending too much time in the fetal position.

Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 (2001)

This album features live versions of three great songs that
inexplicablydo not appear on "The Essential LC." They are "The Window," "The Smokey Life," and "The Gypsy's Wife." There are live versions of songs we've already heard, and we're introduced to several more good songs.

I've noticed that the live version of a song perfected in the disciplined confines of a studio is not always a treat (a lesson that was driven home at a very disappointing Don McLean concert). But Leonard is an exception: The live versions are sometimes better than the studio versions. The arrangements are interesting; the pace is unhurried. I don't know how he elicits the necessary discipline from the musicians and singers. Maybe he threatens to stop sleeping with them.

The album cover features another black-and-white photo of Leonard. On the album mentioned above, he looks a little wounded. On this album, he looks like he'll be the one doing the wounding, thank you very much.

Recent Songs (1979)

What a pleasure to listen to this album! We know one song from "The Essential LC" and three from "Field Commander Cohen." Five more good songs are included here, and nowhere else. All are beautiful, all are brilliant, but my favorite is "Ballad of the Absent Mare." This song, perhaps more than any other, reminds us that Leonard is a poet, unsurpassed in this century or the last. The themes pile up, one on top of the other, each more intimate and enduring than the one before, until I can hardly draw breath.

It seems to me that Leonard's abiding popularity stems from his willingness to look at a situation long past the point when others look away. He keeps watching, he keeps writing, while others avert their eyes in an attempt to avoid pain and shame. Usually, his gaze is turned inward, and he shares what he sees, without making it pretty, without making it easy. He offers no excuses. "Here's to the few who forgive what you do, and the fewer who don't even care," he writes (but not on this album).

I frequently skip "The Lost Canadian," which he sings in French. One might suppose that would be enough of a draw, but it is not.

Cohen Live (1994)

Let's enjoy one more live album. It includes an orchestral version of "One of Us Cannot be Wrong" that should not be missed. The barely-in-check emotions, the wretched humility, the truly impressive rhyme scheme...this song is perfect. The 1967 version no doubt tore you apart, and now you can suffer along with this larger version. The album includes many songs we've already heard (including additional verses of "Hallelujah"), and we're introduced to a couple more good songs.

Songs from a Room (1969)

Now that we're feeling more emotionally robust, we can revisit the 1960s, and another heartbreaking album. Don't be fooled by the cheery melody of "Tonight will be Fine." It's tragic. Not in a French-resistance-fighter way like "The Partisan," but in a more typical way, as a lover anticipates things ending poorly. Again.

More than half of the remaining songs on this album are excellent. There's some fairly grim subject matter (suicide, abortion, ritualized abuse), but I always smile as I sing along with "Lady Midnight."

Songs of Love and Hate (1970)

This is your only chance to hear "Love Calls You by Your Name," which is lovely. The songs on this album (those that we haven't already heard) are mostly good. And it's the only cover photo in which Leonard is smiling.

The Future (1992)

My younger sister gave me this album several years ago, and it served to reignite my love affair with Leonard. I listened to it dozens of times before calling her and declaring it the perfect album. It has social commentary, old-time religion, and senior citizens getting some action. In my opinion, it also offers the sexiest song ever written, "Light as the Breeze" (which manages to be even sexier when performed by Billy Joel). Most of the songs, though, are on "The Essential LC." Those that did not make the cut are not up to Leonard's usual standards. So, the only reason to buy this album is to hear "Light as the Breeze." Do it. Also, buy "Tower of Song," for Billy Joel's cover, along with several other topnotch covers.

Dear Heather (2004)

This is Leonard's last studio album. (He has released three live albums since, but I don't have them.) It would be a mistake to let this album serve as an introduction to Leonard, because it is not representative of his body of work. In fact, the song "Dear Heather" is baffling. I don't know if Leonard is outsmarting us, testing us, or messing with us; I do know that I always skip this song. However, there are other songs that make this much-maligned album worth owning. I love "The Letters" and "The Faith," among others. There's a heartfelt song about the attacks of 9/11, and there's a song about a woman and her small child "...caught in the grip of an undertow." So...enjoy!

This album reminds us that Leonard adores women, and that they adore him in return. I think he adores women. He seems to. I saw him on film once, alluding to the possibility that it's all just a con (but maybe that was the con). We're all con men to some degree, willing to manipulate others to get what we want. Leonard admits it, though, which makes women trust him. Which sounds a bit like the premise of a "Criminal Minds" episode...

Ten New Songs (with Sharon Robinson) (2001)

We've heard the best songs from this album (pay attention to "Alexandra Leaving"). The other songs are romantic, and seem to encourage slow dancing. I'm glad these kids collaborated.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

We've heard several of these songs, and the rest are good, with an occasional glimpse of greatness. He's so young here. He seems...undefended. Here, and elsewhere, he invites us to watch him suffer (he demands that we watch). I bought this record album when I was seventeen, listened to it once, and decided I hated it. I didn't throw it away, because I liked the name of the album, and the scandalous cover art. But I refused to listen to it a second time, until I was in my forties.

(I've been listening to this album more since I wrote about it, and I've fallen quite in love with it. I can't get enough of the nearly overwrought "Leaving Green Sleeves." Whenever I listen to it in the car, I think "That's a little weird," and then I hit Repeat and listen to it until the car pulls into the driveway. He's so naked in the song.)

The Best of (1975)

This is an excellent compilation, but you have all of these songs if you've been following the recommended order (up to and including "Songs of Love and Hate").

I'm Your Man (1988)

This is also a very good album, and another decidedly sexy song. Almost all of these songs, though, are on "The Essential LC," and the remaining two are forgettable.

Various Positions (1984)

We've heard the best songs from this album. There are a few we haven't heard, and they're fine, but not...essential.

Live Songs (1973)

We've heard the good songs from this album. Enjoy the album cover, though, and the somewhat menacing photo. In earlier and later photos, he appears earnest. Here, he looks a bit ruthless, like the "thin gypsy thief" he mentions in an earlier album.

More Best Of (1997)

Again, we've heard the good songs from this album.

Death of a Ladies' Man (1977)

This unfortunate album was produced by Phil Spector, who is currently serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life (for unrelated crimes). The only good song is "Memories," and it's much better on "Field Commander Cohen" than it is here.


Buying and listening in this order will ensure that you don't miss any really great songs, or any exceptional arrangements. Of course, there's nothing wrong with buying all the albums (minus the then-unnecessary Greatest Hits albums) and listening in chronological order. That sounds like a fun (if long) day.

And there's nothing wrong with taking a more haphazard approach to loving Leonard. I'd like to study him in college, the way one might study Jane Austen or Marcel Proust, graduating with no discernible skills. But I realize that others are content to hear "Suzanne" on the radio occasionally, or "Anthem."

There's a film in which we watch a young Leonard order room service in French, wearing somewhat-ratty skivvies and T-shirt. When the grilled cheese sandwich and glass of milk arrive, he eats standing up. One can imagine (well, I can imagine) that he's thinking about what to do next, that he's weighing his options, both sacred and profane. And as quickly as those lines are fixed, they are blurred. And those blurred lines fuel a career that spans 43 years and counting.

So, go buy some music. Preferably before we're subjected to "Famous Blue Raincoat" as performed by the cast of "Glee."

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Bootstrap Myth

Everybody knows that the fight was fixed,

the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
Everybody knows.

L. Cohen

In the United States, there exists a deeply held belief that the poor can rise to the ranks of the middle-class or upper-class through hard work and perseverance. Examples abound. Most of us know of someone who started off poor and ended up rich. The tendency is to celebrate these outliers and to ignore the masses that stay poor. Here, we examine the masses that stay poor, and the circumstances that conspire to keep them poor.

“Being poor matters a lot,” states Corcoran (1995:261), who studied four ways in which poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. First, low-income parents…have low incomes. They raise their children in disadvantaged neighborhoods with lower quality schools, fewer good role models, fewer job networks, and less social control. These children are likely to have poorer health, delays in physical development, more stress, a less stimulating environment, and lower cognitive skills. They are likely to acquire less schooling, make less money, work fewer hours, and cycle in and out of poverty as adults.

Second, low-income parents have other disadvantages. They have less schooling themselves. A poor family is more likely to be headed by a woman, which leads to less access to community resources and higher rates of high school dropout, teen pregnancy, and joblessness (even when income is held constant). In addition (and the subject of much debate), low IQs may contribute to parental poverty, and those IQs may be passed genetically.

Third, low-income parents are often mired in a stigma-free welfare system that leads to self-defeating attitudes and poor work ethics, which are passed on to children. Girls are more likely to drop out of high school, have children out of wedlock, and go on welfare. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school, father children out of wedlock, avoid work, and break the law. The negative effect of welfare use is much stronger if the welfare is received during the child’s adolescence as opposed to the child’s early years, and if the welfare use is long term.

Fourth, well-paying manufacturing jobs have been shifting from urban areas (where the poor live) to suburban areas. This causes an outmigration of the middle class (and a reduction in the tax base and in public services), while leaving the poor highly concentrated, socially isolated, and unemployed. Many of these parents are unable to teach their children strategies for job networking, risk taking, and confidence building; however, they may teach their children ways of dressing, talking, dealing with authority figures, and relating to small groups that will hinder their ability to land a job.

Barton (2003:1-37) focuses on conditions that lead to differences in achievement between students from poor and non-poor families. “This is a search for the roots—those aspects of the life and school experience found to be correlated with school achievement,” he writes (Barton 2003:1). At home, children from poor families are more likely to have been of low birth weight, to have been exposed to lead paint or pipes, to be hungry, to live in single-parent households, and to change schools during the academic year. They are less likely to be read to by parents, and they watch more television.

At school, students from poor families have higher class size and less-experienced and less-proficient teachers, with higher rates of teacher absenteeism and turnover. There are fewer computers and less internet access in classrooms, and fewer students pursue a rigorous curriculum. These schools are more likely to have street gangs present.

Inner-city joblessness is the target of Wilson’s research (2000:300-310). He lists three reasons for the scarcity of jobs for the inner-city poor: the computer revolution, the internationalization of jobs, and the suburbanization of jobs. He examines the impact on children of parental joblessness versus parental poverty. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty,” he writes (Wilson 2000:301). Work in a formal economy provides a framework for daily activities, with expectations and goals; it requires regularity and consistency; it demands discipline. A child growing up in a home with employed adults will tend to develop good habits, such as "a recognition of the hierarchy found in most work situations, a sense of personal efficacy attained through the routine management of financial affairs, and endorsement of a system of personal and material rewards associated with dependability and responsibility” (Wilson 2000:301).

Wilson also asserts that the social conditions of the inner-city poor make them less desirable as employees. In the greater Chicago area, an overwhelming majority of employers—both white and black—expressed negative views about inner-city poor, including a lack of reading and language skills and poor grooming.

Wilson’s work is bolstered by that of Small and Newman (2001:23-45), which examines how cultural and behavioral patterns perpetuate the conditions of the poor. “Long-term unemployment generates a low self-efficacy among urban dwellers, making it difficult for them to take advantage of economic opportunities if and when these arise,” they write (Small and Newman 2001:38). People find it difficult to start working, even when jobs become available. Neighborhood poverty can cause residents to develop a culture that is directly opposed to the norms and values of the middle class, and consequently reject employment.

They are also likely to reject marriage. Once the poor are isolated in neighborhoods—without role models, job networks, or social networks of employed people—adolescents have a difficult time envisioning success for themselves. Small and Newman offer three possible cultural explanations for the high incident of teenage births among the urban poor: a shared code whereby promiscuity (versus virginity) improves a girl’s social status; a girl’s desire to have a satisfying relationship with a child (as opposed to the unsatisfying relationships she has with parents, teachers, and boyfriends); and a link between loneliness and poverty.

Ore (2003:182-204) also links culture to intergenerational poverty. She defines “cultural capital” as the “social assets that include beliefs, values, attitudes, and competencies in language and culture…the ideas and knowledge people draw upon as they participate in social life, including ‘proper’ attitudes toward education; socially approved dress and manners; and knowledge about books, music, and other forms of high and popular culture” (Ore 2003:193). The rich usually decide what counts as cultural capital, discounting the values of the poor. And the educational system perpetuates class stratification by unevenly applying the lessons of cultural capital: Schools in poor neighborhoods focus on rote memorization, while schools in affluent neighborhoods focus on creative and critical thinking and the application of abstract principles to problem solving.

Schwarz and Volgy (1992:159-173) take a very practical view as they examine two working families living at 150 percent of the poverty line. “Life is grim,” the authors conclude (1992:169). They describe the economy budget that must be embraced by families at this income. At a very modest level, they can pay for food, an apartment, utilities, an older car, clothing, personal/incidental expenses (tampons, light bulbs), and some medical care. They cannot afford movies, museums, concerts, ball games, or any establishment that charges admission; preschool, summer camp, lessons or any activity that charges a fee; books, magazines, music recordings, or toys (except for a $50 per year allotment for each family member for birthday and holiday presents); or pets, children’s allowances, cable TV, fast-food or restaurant meals, vacations, haircuts, alcohol, cigarettes, charitable donations, life insurance, college funds, pension plans, or emergencies.

To some degree, this paints a happy picture of a frugal family, eating wholesome made-from-scratch meals at home, spending time at libraries and parks, and avoiding many types of over-indulgence. But (in addition to living without a financial safety net), this level of near-poverty offers a paucity of opportunities to learn financial responsibility (no allowance), devotion and selflessness (no pets), and public manners (no restaurants). Apartment living doesn’t allow for frugal choices such as growing fruits and vegetables in the backyard, hanging laundry to dry, or keeping cars, bikes, and tools safe and out of the elements in a locked garage. One cannot depend on stable and well-known neighbors with whom to swap services such as babysitting or sewing. And a world can grow small without travel, and with limited cultural and educational opportunities.

In her lyrical and timeless analogy, Frye (1983:4) writes: “Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires.” When the cage is observed so closely, it’s unclear why a bird—eager to escape—wouldn’t just fly around the wire. It’s necessary to step back and look at the entire cage. “It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which could be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the walls of a dungeon” (Frye 1983:5).

And so it is with long-term poverty. Any of the obstacles, taken individually, might be overcome. A person might be able to clear the hurdle of a mediocre school or a less-than-stimulating home environment, and find success. But when taken in totality—when faced with hunger, stress, lower cognitive skills, fractured families, social isolation, neighborhood crime, teen pregnancy, an oppositional culture, poor work habits, joblessness, and a marked lack of community support and role models—it comes as no surprise that people are unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They flounder, and the rest of us watch, unwilling or unable to help.

References Cited

Barton, Paul. 2003. Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress. Educational Testing Service 1-37.

Corcoran, Mary. 1995. Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology 21:237-267.

Frye, Marilyn. 1983. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.

Ore, Tracy E., ed. 2003. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schwarz, John E. and Thomas J. Volgy. 1992. Economic Self-Sufficiency in Present-Day America. In Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States. Thomas M. Shapiro, ed. Pp. 159-173. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Pub.

Small, Mario Luis and Katherine Newman. 2001. Urban Poverty After The Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood, and Culture. Annual Review of Sociology 27:23-45.

Wilson, William J. 2000. Jobless Ghettos. In The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Tracy E. Ore, ed. Pp. 300-310. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Girls' Guide to Being Jack Bauer

Recently, I started carrying a 4-gig USB drive in my purse. For what reason, I know not. It isn’t for work or school, but perhaps for something larger. Perhaps it will come in handy should I be called upon to save the world.

But other than my ability to quickly download data from a terrorist’s hard drive, I’m woefully unprepared. And if my experience organizing potlucks and bake sales and office Christmas parties is any indication, saving the world will best be accomplished as a team. So, my fellow women (or at least the half dozen who choose to skim this blog entry): Let’s acknowledge that it was fun shopping for shoes we didn’t need, it was fun spending Christmas Day in our PJs watching Keira Knightley movies, and it was fun amassing throw pillows in shades of avocado and dark avocado. But it’s time now to leave all that behind, and embrace the Jack Bauer in each of us. Consider this a primer.

Jack is prepared for anything. He speaks four languages. He pilots planes and helicopters. He’s well versed in military strategy, current events, history, psychology, culture, politics, and protocol. He can hotwire a car, treat a sucking chest wound, and decrypt your encrypted files. To get up to speed, you’ll need a carefully selected reading list, a dozen college classes, and a few hundred hours of professional instruction. More importantly, though, Jack adapts quickly to changing situations. And so do you! As a woman—and perhaps as a wife and mother—adaptation is your strength. Remember when your mom left her entire estate to The Mormons, because a couple of bored missionaries offered to mow her front lawn one autumn afternoon? Remember when your first husband announced he was gay, then straight, then gay again? Remember when your eldest daughter dropped out of medical school to pursue her dream of playing the didgeridoo professionally? You adapted!

Next, Jack is physically robust, with muscles aplenty and a low body-fat percentage. As women, we probably can’t match that. As middle-aged women, we’d look silly trying. However, we each have a personal best, and there’s no good reason not to achieve it, and soon. When Katrina hit, perhaps you felt inclined to join other civilians rescuing abandoned pets; when the earthquake ravaged Haiti, perhaps you imagined yourself donning a Kevlar vest, strapping on an AK-47, and protecting much-needed food supplies from looters. So did I! But those dreams were soon quashed by the realization that my overweight, hypertensive self would merely get in the way. Also, I have only the vaguest idea what an AK-47 is. So, there’s much work to be done on this front. There’s a slightly smaller gap between fantasy and reality as we examine his third essential attribute…

Jack is emotionally robust. He doesn’t whine, burst into tears, or crawl into bed when things fail to go his way. He might want to, but—always the soldier, always the stoic—he refrains. He doesn’t have a never-quite-satisfied need for praise or reassurance. He doesn’t need others to agree with him or validate him. He’s the opposite of needy; he’s self-contained and interior. Next time you find yourself complaining about the raise that should have been yours, the son or daughter who didn’t call on your half-birthday, or the diminishing space between your bust line and your waistline, ask yourself WWJBD, and then spend an afternoon at the shooting range. Speaking of the shooting range…

Jack is dangerous. Like James Bond without the lame jokes, or Jason Bourne without the pesky memory loss, Jack is formidable. Granted, he has trained as a Special Forces soldier, and has worked for the CIA, FBI, and Counter-Terrorist Unit. I have not. It’s never too late, though…not for any of us. Self-defense is offered as a community ed class, and shooting ranges often advertise Women’s Night. The very earnest can seek out professional instruction in hand-to-hand combat and evasive driving techniques. Consider it an exciting alternative to spa day. And don’t worry for an instant about losing The Cute, and being mistaken for Rosa Klebb in “From Russia With Love.” Because…

Jack always looks terrific. Sure…he’s dressed for a particular brand of sexless action, in sturdy shoes, boot-cut jeans, a leather belt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and a canvas jacket. But he’s handsome, comfy, and protected from the elements. He has plenty of pockets. Most importantly, he’s not hampered by his fashion choices: His clothes increase—rather than decrease— his ability to respond effectively in an emergency. Add a little color/pattern/texture/shine to his outfit, and you, too, can be ready for anything. And unless you’re about to go through airport security, consider the ultimate accessory: a knife strapped to your calf. And jettison that most nonsensical accessory: the clutch. Instead, opt for something that leaves both hands free (see below).

Jack wears a canvas cross-body, chockfull of world-saving gizmos. It contains a laptop, a USB drive, an extra cell-phone battery, a monocular, a knife, a gun, and extra ammunition. In all likelihood, it also contains sunglasses, leather gloves, phone chargers, cable ties, waterproof matches, first-aid basics, a flashlight, several hundred dollars, and a couple of energy bars. Just imagine how powerful you’ll feel—how powerful you’ll be!--when equipped thus. You’ll never miss your Great Lash mascara or your Arby’s coupons.

Next, Jack keeps his word. Like other characters of the same ilk (Robert Crais’s Joe Pike, Robert Parker’s Spenser and Hawk), Jack does what he says he’ll do. He doesn’t agree to anything frivolously or casually, whether he’s talking to a girlfriend, a terrorist, or a Commander-in-Chief. He values the truth; he has no time for bullshit. How refreshing! How freeing! Let us commit to be trustworthy, to be true. Let us allow no exceptions.

And finally, Jack doesn’t engage in small talk or gossip. He’s comfortable with silence, with an unexpressed thought. It bothers him not at all that friends or strangers might perceive him as cold, unfriendly, or too intense. He’s not exactly humorless, but he doesn’t attempt to amuse by quoting lines from sitcoms, SNL sketches, or standup comedy routines. He avoids distractions; he doesn’t embrace them (despite ever-increasing encouragement to do so, especially among middle-class and affluent Americans). We can make these fairly easy changes, and we can make them today. We can take a break from the chatty, outgoing, beguiling, pleasing self we perfected in high school, and find a quiet place—a slightly menacing place—inside.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I didn’t choose a female role model. I mean, Peta Wilson portrayed TV’s deadly Nikita, and it seems that Angelina scores a new ass-kicking role every year. However, both women routinely squeeze into size-zero black leather pants. That seems more difficult, really, than learning to disarm a nuclear device.

And perhaps you think I’m attempting to diminish the importance of traditional feminine strengths such as nurturing, peacemaking, multi-tasking, and ovulating. I am not. Women—now more than ever—are an efficient lot. We can embrace both ways of being.

There’s much to be done, so let us begin. And since luck favors those with mental agility and sufficient bone density, let’s make significant progress before menopause looms large. Master one area and then move quickly to the next. And it won’t hurt to occasionally yell “Drop your weapon!”—to the postal carrier, the receptionist at work, the cat. Embrace the spirit of being Jack Bauer, and the rest will follow.

Monday, March 15, 2010

P.S. Please Write

Most people are thrilled to receive an unexpected letter in the mail…not a bill, not an ad, not a notice that the cost of your strep test was applied to your deductible, but a real letter: a friendly, chatty missive from someone you care about, from someone who clearly cares about you. It can be typed or handwritten, organized or rambling, intimate or not-so-much, but it should have meat and meaning, and it should cause the reader to settle in for a moment to enjoy. Some tips:

Embark with enthusiasm. “Hey you!” or “My dearest—and my loveliest—aunt” or “How do I love thee? And, more importantly, when and where do I get to love thee next?” Let the reader feel adored from the onset, and assured that he or she has your full attention. Stifle any tendencies on your part toward aloofness or sarcasm. Remember: A good letter always flows from an open heart.

Capture the moment. “I’m at the computer, listening to a pre-disco BeeGees CD. Henry’s in the garage changing the oil in the Corolla, and the twins are napping.” Or, “I’ve been in bed all day with Salinger’s short stories, and now I’m depressed, and all. I’m wearing those PJs you sent for Christmas. God, I miss you.” Then, capture a slightly broader moment: the movie you watched last night, a failed attempt to make ice cream at home, your child’s latest unreasonable fear. Depending on the recipient, mention your mammogram or the NCAA standings.

Write the way you talk. If, in conversation with a friend or family member, you’re stilted and humorless, write that kind of letter (but not to me, okay?). If, in conversation, you’re candid and gregarious and you seldom finish a sentence, write that kind of letter: “The other day, I was at the grocery store buying tampons and a case of Mexican-style stewed tomatoes because they were on sale and you’re never gonna guess who I saw. Becky Callahan, you know, the student-council secretary when we were juniors? And she had four kids with her, and the youngest was sucking on a Lion King toy…Simba, I think. I said hi, but she obviously didn’t recognize me. Well, maybe she did, and just pretended not to…” Like that.

Don’t be afraid to bond. “This is what I like about you.” “This is what I’ve learned from you.” “This is what I remember most fondly about our time together.” And don’t spare the details; when you think you’ve provided enough detail, go ahead and provide a bit more. Take a moment to say thank you for a long-ago gift or compliment or piece of advice. Allow yourself to tumble into love with this person (even if it’s your mother-in-law, and even if the feeling is fleeting).

Ask questions (but only if you really care about the answers). What have you been reading? What have you been watching? Which celebrity would you choose to be the father of your child? If you were to move to another country, which would it be? What’s your take on the health-care debate? Have you come across a really good recipe for low-fat cheesecake? Think: What is the most intriguing thing about this person? Follow that lead.

Divulge something. Describe the romantic details of your first date at age 15, the time you dropped a full tray in the college cafeteria, the time you ate a dozen glazed donuts for lunch, the time you checked out the men’s room when you were working alone on a Sunday afternoon. And feel free to ramble for a moment. Describe your dream last night, your take on the Kennedy assassination, your recent (brief) foray into vegetarianism. Reveal yourself in all your goofy, messy, joyful glory.

Share a quotation. It broadens the scope of communication by inviting a third person to the table. I like Thoreau, but I usually opt for Leonard Cohen (especially if the letter has become too cheerful). Or quote someone from your household: “Tom says ‘Hi, Mom!’ He says thanks for the $33 you sent for his 34th birthday. He bought a package of socks, a bottle of pinot noir, and two apple fritters.”

Imagine your letter being read aloud. (I imagine my letters being read by Mr. Darcy to Miss Bennet.) A good letter will be tucked into a pocket to be reread in a more private setting, like a bathtub, or a parked car, or a grassy meadow at dawn. Take the time to make the second reading worthwhile: “I’ll never forget that night you made me a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Remember? It was August, and it was raining, and we’d been to the nursing home to visit my grandma, who was dying…” It isn’t necessary to hold back. Really…it isn’t. “Remember that first time I said I love you, and you said thank you, and I stood and pulled the sheets off the bed to wash them, and you said don’t be like this, and I said don’t tell me how to be goddamnit…”

Assume the letter will be saved. Maybe it seems unlikely today, but a good letter can survive decades; it can survive marriage, divorce, an out-of-state move, the occasional house fire. So take a minute to review the big picture. Mention a war in which the country is engaged. Mention the latest political scandal. Mention the price of a new pickup truck, a one-bedroom apartment, a gallon of milk.

And save a copy for yourself. This is a journal entry of the best kind, especially if you were forthright and revealing (and of course you were). Years from now, when you’re home alone, you can eagerly retrace the to-and-from steps of a relationship, whether it was with your mom who died unexpectedly, a lover who dumped you unceremoniously, or your best friend from college who was at your side on both occasions.

Before sending, and if you feel so inclined, add something extra to the envelope. Enclose a snapshot, a recipe, a $2 bill, a coupon or free sample, some postcard stamps, some stickers, a paint or wallpaper swatch, an editorial from the Sunday paper, a magazine article, a snip of something from your herb garden. Stuff that letter. Nothing says “I love you” like extra postage.

“They don’t need to be immortal, just sincere,” says Garrison Keillor, about letters. So write! Today, spend 44 cents and half an hour delighting someone and, perhaps, learning a little about yourself. Start with “Hi there” and don’t stop until you find yourself describing the weather.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Remembering Grandpa Chief

I assume my grandfather was sober when he was ten years old, and he and his brother left desperate circumstances in Denmark to find work as cabin boys aboard a square-rigger. But he was drunk several years later, when his brother drowned as they were swimming back to the anchored ship after a night of drinking and whoring onshore. He was drunk in the 1920s when his ship pulled into the Port of Los Angeles, and he swam ashore and stayed ashore, then and always an illegal alien. He was drunk when he found work in San Pedro as a longshoreman, a job that was a surprisingly good fit for many years. And he was drunk on payday, when he visited a neighborhood whorehouse and admired the madam’s young daughter, Inez. Eventually, he married Inez, and she gave birth to their three children. Then, she did the unthinkable: She turned her back, forever abandoning the confused and ill-equipped little family.

My grandfather was drunk during my father’s childhood, which was defined by neglect, fear, and loneliness. But my grandfather wasn’t a mean drunk, and my father was uncommonly resilient. My father made it to San Pedro High School, where he hit the jackpot when he met my mother: a dark-haired girl with a flashing smile and deep reservoirs of love, which she shared eagerly, spontaneously, and sometimes imprudently with this tall, handsome, and damaged man. They married young and had three children in four years (and
much lateranother baby girl).

A couple of Sundays a month, we visited my grandfather, whom we were instructed to call Grandpa Chief. My first memories of doing so are in the early 1960s, when I was five or six. We piled in the car and took a 20-minute drive to San Pedro where Grandpa Chief lived with his grown daughter, Lillian, and her family. Lillian was bossy, shrill, and overweight, garnering my mom’s poorly hidden disdain.

I remember the house as windowless, and at the top of a steep and unfriendly driveway. We entered from a side door, and were immediately assailed by the odors of cigarette smoke and bottled beer. In the background, I discerned the odors of onions and garlic, of spices my mom didn’t own, of cheese that was not mild cheddar. There was occasional cursing, and the sound of a blaring TV in the middle of the day.

Week after week, I stood there in a Sunday dress…always an exact duplicate of my sister’s Sunday dress, and always sewn lovingly by our mom. I observed the differences between this house and the house of my other grandparents, who were Mormons, and had recently moved from California to rural Utah. Their house smelled of chocolate cake and lemonade and lilacs and hymnals. Sunlight streamed in, highlighting shelves jammed with books and family photos. My grandparents would beam at me, admiring how nice I was, how clean, how adept at memorization. I’d perch on the edge of a chair, smiling shyly, trying—because of a speech impediment—to avoid words that started with J or Ch. Someone would tousle my dutch-boy haircut; someone else would play “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” on the piano.

Back in San Pedro, I watched as my dad played cribbage with Grandpa Chief at the kitchen table, which was a vinyl-covered booth tucked into a corner. My dad seemed happy and relaxed. Maybe even more relaxed than usual, I observed, in that quiet and deadly accurate way in which children have always observed adults.

I don’t recall that Grandpa Chief fussed over me, or asked me about school, or noticed that I’d grown. He sometimes glanced my way as I slumped against the table, as I enjoyed the rhythm of the cards and the pegs, the murmur of male voices: “…fifteen-two, fifteen-four....” I never admitted this to my mom, but I even enjoyed the smell of Grandpa Chief’s beer and the smell of the burning match as he lit another cigarette. I sidled closer for the smell of the man himself…the smell of wool and fish and age. I don’t remember that he smiled at me, but he occasionally nodded in my direction, or narrowed his eyes in a way that might have indicated interest or concern.

Grandpa Chief was probably genetically destined to be a tall man (my dad is 6’4”), but a lack of food during childhood, a congenital hip deformity, or both resulted in an adult height of around five feet. Despite that, he was a force to be reckoned with on the waterfront. And despite that, he possessed a certain elfishness that endeared him to an easily intimidated granddaughter.

The highlight of the twice-monthly visits was a gift from Grandpa Chief, a gift rather specific to his lifestyle and his means. He handed us a carton that had once held ten packs of cigarettes, but now held dozens of empty boxes of matches. They fit into the carton perfectly, and were of many colors and designs, so the effect was one of books lined neatly on shelves. (Later, at home, the tiny boxes—with their slide-out inner boxes—would continue to bring enjoyment. Once, I glued four of them in a stack to make a bedside table for a Barbie doll.) Each week, we gasped at the wonder of this gift. Then—to my mom’s chagrin—my brother, sister, and I sprawled on the floor with our cigarette carton, opening each matchbox looking for the money that Grandpa Chief had hidden there. As I recall, he hid fifty cents for each of us, and we squealed as we found it. He didn’t watch us, but he was well aware of our noisy pleasure, and it—of course—fueled his quiet pleasure.

At that point, he reached into the pocket of his khaki work pants and gave us additional coins to spend at the liquor store nearby. We descended the steep driveway (my siblings more easily than my chubby self) and cheerfully walked two blocks to the Busy Bee. The store was dimly lit, and a ceiling fan at the entrance slowly stirred the air. I stood on my tiptoes and looked down into an ice cream freezer. I slid the freezer door open, extracting an orange-and-white creamcicle, otherwise known as a Fifty-Fifty (which I pronounced Wifty-Wifty, so apparently I couldn’t say my F’s, either). We skipped back to the house, giddy from sunshine and sugar and independence.

A few times, Grandpa Chief accompanied us to the Busy Bee (maybe because he’d run out of beer or cigarettes, but most likely because he adored us). When I imagine the three children and the old man on their errand, it’s from a remove, as if I’m observing the action from a neighbor’s roof. And the foursome is not in a group, but in a jaunty line, like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road.

Usually, though, we walked and shopped without adult supervision. Upon returning to the house, we found our dad and our grandpa still happily engaged in their card game, while our mom waited for the visit to end, or conversed briefly and uneasily with Aunt Lillian. There were offers of dinner (cioppino, tripe, oxtail soup), but they were usually declined. We said our good-byes and our thank-you’s, we grabbed our carton of matchboxes, and we left. I could tell—I swear, I could tell!—that Grandpa Chief wanted us to stay longer.

It wasn’t much later that he died. I was nine or ten, and didn’t attend the funeral. Weeks later, my family returned to San Pedro in the station wagon, with a flower arrangement for his grave. We drove through the large cemetery again and again, unable to locate the grave. “You know,” my dad said (his eyes straight ahead, his tone measured), “I think he’d be happy if we kept the flowers, and put them on the table at home. I think that would please him.” He tried to sound cheerful, like a responsible husband and father, but he was a broken-hearted son, and we all knew it. We watched from the backseat as the rows of graves passed by, and then we drove home.