Thursday, December 28, 2006
I’m pleased to announce the publication of Full Circle: Selected Poems, 1980-2005. The book is available in PDF format from Fair Isle Press, an online publisher of electronic books. Full Circle, like all Fair Isle books, can be downloaded for FREE.
You can access the book by clicking the following link: Full Circle . Then click the Free download option on the lefthand side.
The poems in Full Circle feature a variety of subjects, moods, and styles. Below, I offer a sampling of poems from among those selected for the book. I hope they inspire you to download the complete collection.
I Wasn’t There
For Eric Clapton, on the death of his five-year-old son
Over and over in my mind’s eye
I see him leaning out the window
smiling, captivated by something
on the street far below, perhaps,
or reaching to touch an imaginary
butterfly, extending his small
eager body past its point of balance
on the sill’s meager fulcrum,
seesawing away from the heavy brick
and mortar of the world, falling
light as a butterfly, landing—
he must have landed—in heaven.
The new basketball pole gleams white
next to the blacktop driveway
and the graphite adjustable backboard
vibrates with every shot.
Three suntanned boys in tank tops and shorts,
one of them my son,
ask me to lower the hoop to seven feet
so they can slam dunk.
I watch them watching each other
to see who can jump highest
and I can see that girls
will be watching them soon
then talking about them,
which one is cutest,
girls putting all that energy into talk
while boys shoot baskets,
alive in their bodies,
speaking the pungent language
of sweat and contact,
each guarding the other,
as the ball drops through the net
with a perfect swish.
September 13, 1993
I haven’t planted a tree in Israeli soil.
I haven’t floated on the salt waters of the Dead Sea
or pressed my lips against the Wailing Wall,
but today, when Rabin said,
“It’s not so easy”
to make peace with Arafat
his words resonated inside me, plumbing
that deep well from which Rachel drew water—
a reservoir of hope,
an unending source of tears,
the marriage of Jacob and Rachel barren
until finally Rachel gave birth to Joseph
who made his own peace with Eygpt
and forgave his brothers
though they sold him into slavery.
I wish we had Joseph with us now
to interpret this latest dream
Rising suns flutter in the stands
as she slowly skates onto ice,
face of a Kabuki dancer,
modest, but without kimono.
She slowly skates onto ice,
eyes downcast, her muscular legs
immodest, without kimono.
She has come to skate for honor.
Eyes downcast, with muscular legs
she balances on two sharp blades.
She has come to skate for honor,
devoted as a samurai.
She balances on two sharp blades,
gliding gracefully to music,
devoted as a samurai
warrior facing certain death.
Gliding gracefully to music,
she attempts the triple axel
like a warrior facing death,
needing perfect concentration.
She attempts the triple axel,
leaps, knowing she cannot succeed
without perfect concentration,
and falls, shame etched on her features—
face of a Kabuki dancer
as all the rising suns flutter.
What Tim Wakefield Knows
The perfect knuckleball has no spin. It sails in
from the mound like a solitary ship on a still sea
and, like the mirage of a ship, it hovers before
the thirsty batter, who swings his bat to no avail,
the ball only real when it lands in the catcher’s mitt
with a soft thump. Hitters looking for the fastball
swing way out in front. They can’t uncoil their muscles
in slow motion as the ball floats into the strike zone.
The knuckleball hitter must learn the art of meditation.
For Alanna Jones
Waiting for his call,
she transfers CDs to an iPod,
patiently feeds the disc drive
with every CD he owns,
imports his favorite songs
into the small, sleek device
for export to Ramadi, Iraq.
The iPod will lie inside
his pocket, touching him,
maybe stopping a bullet,
crooning words of Top Forty
devotion while she soldiers
through her days at the health club,
trains middle-aged women
fighting nothing more lethal
than gravity and brittle bones
to lift weights, use the shoulder press.
After he calls her, he shoulders
his rifle, bearing the weight—
kevlar vest, helmet,
combat boots, her love.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Reckoning my life in terms of the insects I have known may seem strange, but does it make any more sense to explain myself by the colleges I attended, the graduate school, the law school? By whether I wear Manolo Blahniks or Easy Spirits? By how many marriages, how many children, the number of cars in my garage?
Right now, due to a close encounter with some drain flies, I have bugs on the brain. So herewith, a brief exploration of my world according to the insects that have creeped, crawled and flown into my life. Maybe it will evoke memories of your own bug stories.
It was a warm summer day in Wantagh, New York. The year was 1957 and I was eight years old, playing in the back yard with my younger sisters, all three of us running in and out of the wading pool, splashing, abandoning ourselves to the warm air and cold water. Life was joyful as I raced one more time through the cool, green, clover-laden grass. Then one innocent misstep, a piercing pain—my first bee sting. Not only my big toe, but my spontaneity suffered injury. Never again would I step so lightly through blades of grass.
I was a hypersensitive child, bothered by loud noises and strong smells, and keenly affected by slights, real or imagined. But I was also anxious to prove myself brave and resilient, so at age ten I persuaded my parents to send me to Camp Tamarac, an overnight camp in the Berkshires. After a few weeks of bunk living, my group embarked on a “camping” trip, which consisted of hiking past the mess hall, beyond the boys bunks, and over a hummock to our campground. There, we watched our counselors pitch tents, then played tag while waiting for them to cook our dinner over an open fire.
Enter the no-see-ums. The DDT that had been sprayed liberally over the entire camp during our first week had apparently not penetrated beyond the hummock. Swarms of gnats swirled around our heads. I felt a slight prick in one eyelid, then the other. Moments later, I couldn't see at all. My lids had reacted so strongly to the bites that they were swollen completely shut. I briefly enjoyed the notoriety my overly-sensitive skin had brought me, until discomfort and anxiety set in (would I ever see again?). And the longer-term lesson was not so pleasant, either—a measly little gnat had the power to ruin my day. This experience reinforced my already risk-averse nature. Even a pleasant walk in the woods of Massachusetts held unexpected dangers, I now realized. As I got older, I worried about all of them.
Still, during my pre-teen years I led a pretty bug-free existence. Sure, I enjoyed chasing the lightening bugs that were plentiful on Long Island during summer evenings. I had fun collecting the Japanese beetles that threatened to decimate the rose bushes in my neighborhood. And I thrilled to the ladybugs that occasionally landed on my shoulder. I even witnessed neighborhood boys torturing exquisite praying mantises and felt the helplessness of my gender—I never dared to protest, lest the boys torture me instead. But inside my house, I rarely saw spiders, mosquitos, flies, or even ants. It was only after I found my way to the tropics that I began to understand what I was up against when it came to insects.
In 1963, when I was fourteen, my parents arranged for me to spend the summer with a family in El Salvador that my father knew through his job as a coffee buyer. The Bonillas, part of the small, wealthy elite of that country, lived in a lovely house in Los Planes, a suburb of San Salvador. The climate was delightful—temperatures in the seventies during the day, with rain falling predictably in the late afternoon. The Bonillas' home was beautiful and unusual, based on my limited experience. The house was perched on a hillside, open to the tropical breezes, with no glass in the windows, much less screens. So insects were free to enter and leave at will.
Antonio and his wife, Yolanda, were wonderful hosts, a loving and happy couple who made me feel quickly at home among their children, their live-in gardener, their cook, and several servants. Their daughters, Norma and Evelyn, took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. Fortunately, they spoke English, since my Spanish was still rudimentary.
First among my lessons was how to handle beetles. The beetles I encountered in El Salvador were nothing like the plentiful but small Japanese beetles or the even smaller lady bugs (also a species of beetle) with which I was familiar. These Salvadoran versions were giants—colorful, gorgeous, and fearsome. They probably would have been best left alone to proceed in their stately fashion across the tiled floors back to nature through the open windows. But there was always the risk that one would suddenly take flight, putting us right in the path of their hard exoskeletons. Not a fate to be desired, according to both sisters. I heartily agreed.
So, I watched attentively as Evelyn demonstrated the technique for killing a scarab beetle. Stepping on it wouldn't work, she said—its hard outer shell would compress and the insect would probably survive. Instead, shock treatment was called for. Evelyn carefully lifted the poor creature up with her thumb and index finger, its little legs flailing wildly, then threw it hard against the tile floor. I saw her do this again and again over the course of my stay and never saw a beetle walk away. I was loathe to try the technique myself, however. I wish I could say my reluctance came from sympathy for the plight of a living being that meant us no harm. But, in reality, I was too grossed out to even touch one of the beetles, let alone hurl it through the air.
Salvadoran beetles, huge though they were, were nothing compared to the spiders and insects that came out at night. The Bonillas' living room had a soffit around its perimeter from within which lights were directed at the ceiling. Given the open-air environment, that was a good plan. The bugs were attracted to the brightly-lit ceiling, where they congregated in alarming numbers, rather than to the seating area where we often sat. I've never seen such a collection of enormous long-legged spiders, moths, and creepy-crawly things. The Bonillas, adults and children alike, appeared totally oblivious, so I feigned nonchalance. I have no idea if there were poisonous spiders or lethal centipedes among the vast array, but thankfully, I lived to tell the tale.
I've always been fascinated by insects. I like seeing pictures of bugs and watching exotic species on nature programs. But polite distance is one thing, up close and personal is quite another. While I hoped that my experience in El Salvador would toughen me up for insect encounters to come, that didn't exactly come to pass. Rather, for me insects came to represent the ultimate example of otherness--mysterious, repulsive, gorgeous, and downright scary.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
This was my first inkling that an old black velvet pantsuit might not be quite the thing for a twenty-first-century inaugural. Still, I'd never liked formal gatherings and had always refused to spend a fortune on a dress that I'd probably only wear once or twice. I wasn't about to start now, just to impress a bunch of Republican fashionistas.
But this party promised to be different than others I'd attended—Eric and I would be noticed. Eric was Romney's newly-appointed Secretary of Administration and Finance, a high-ranking Cabinet post. So this wouldn't be one of those gatherings where we could go off and hide in the corner. We would have to mingle.
Eric arrived home late in the afternoon with a surprise announcement—he'd decided to wear his tux after all. It turned out "everyone" was going in black tie, even the most outdoorsy member of the new administration, an environmentalist known for wearing blue jeans and biking twenty miles to work each day. Though normally not susceptible to peer pressure, Eric was persuaded that he'd stand out more if he were the only cabinet official without a tux than if he went along with the crowd. Despite my determination not to be self-conscious about my outdated outfit, I felt a rush of anxiety.
In a last-ditch effort to glamorize, I nearly asphyxiated myself with hairspray and painted on a coat of nail polish. Then off we went to Boston's World Trade Center, where we'd been invited to a pre-ball gala for family and friends of the new Governor, a VIP event that included an open bar and an elegant sit-down dinner. The women looked resplendent in long shimmering gowns. I hastily removed my velvet jacket—the velvet tank top underneath looked a bit more dressy—and fortified myself with a glass of white wine.
We had just started dinner when Eric was tapped on the shoulder by Rob, a member of Mitt's security crew.
"In a few minutes, the Governor would like you both to come downstairs with him to greet people. I'll come get you when it's time," he said.
Downstairs. That was where the main party was just getting underway. Sixty-five hundred supporters gathering to eat, drink, revel, and listen to the Boston Pops Orchestra. I allowed myself a small shiver of excitement. We were being singled out to accompany the Governor. I took a bite of filet mignon and waited for the call.
A few minutes later, Rob approached our table, gesturing urgently. "We need you now, Mr. Secretary," he said. I would be tagging along as Mr. Secretary's spouse. That was fine with me. Though fascinated by celebrities, I was far too shy to seek the limelight myself.
We followed Rob to the exit, where Mitt and his wife, Ann, waited with a few other Cabinet Secretaries, as well as Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and her husband, Sean. Rob and several other security types hovered next to Mitt and Ann, who wore a dazzling black beaded gown. At the signal, we followed them through a labyrinth of back hallways.
"It feels like we're rock stars," Eric whispered to me. Dowdy rock stars, I thought.
We all crammed into a large service elevator. Rob explained that we'd be taking part in several "pop outs" behind Mitt and Ann. I didn't have a clue what a "pop out" was—a dramatic entrance accomplished by jumping through flaming hoops? Nothing quite so exotic, it turned out. "Pop outs" referred to the several adjacent party venues on the main floor. Mitt and Ann would "pop out" and greet the guests in each locale and our job was to follow behind the couple and add our welcome to theirs.
Emerging from the elevator, we were led through a large coat-check area into a cavernous space filled with partygoers. Within seconds, Mitt and Ann were surrounded by bright lights and cameras. Not surprisingly, no one was interested in Eric, let alone me. Even though articles had been written about Eric’s appointment, it dawned on us that no one was likely to actually recognize him. We hovered at the edge of the press frenzy encircling the Governor, feeling a bit silly and very anonymous. On the other hand, the new Secretary of Transportation, also a member of the "pop out" entourage, was in his element greeting partygoers. He'd run for State Treasurer, albeit unsuccessfully, so people recognized him and wanted to say hello.
Eric was trying to work up the courage to shake an old lady's hand, when we realized that Mitt and Ann were moving at breakneck speed through the crowd and on to the next "pop out." We caught up with them just as they disappeared through a curtain, emerging on the other side to greet more glittery guests in yet another vast and drafty hall, a space far too chilly for all the décolletage in evidence. I was actually glad I had my velvet jacket with me. Eric and I paused so I could put it on, then we looked around and realized our entourage had vanished without a trace. Giving up, we slowly made our way through a claustrophobic crush of people back upstairs to what was left of our dinner. The entree had long since been cleared and almost everyone had proceeded to the main party. We sat down at our empty table to enjoy coffee and dessert before rejoining the crowd downstairs.
"Fame isn't all it's cracked up to be," Eric remarked.
Maybe not, but if I ever get another chance at my fifteen minutes, I vow to dress for the occasion.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
For Contracts, we had a newcomer—Antonin Scalia. Professor Scalia had arrived at Chicago fresh from the U.S. Department of Justice, where he had been Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.
As a first-year law student, I was intimidated by almost everything about law school, particularly the Socratic method, but Scalia brought a sense of lightness and humor to the classroom—at first. In those early days, as my classmates and I struggled to master legal concepts and terminology, Scalia seemed intent on making Contracts fun, or at least comprehensible. He was an energetic teacher and anxious to succeed, just as we were, so we viewed him sympathetically.
He particularly won our hearts with his hypotheticals, the imagined situations he used to illuminate legal concepts or test our nascent legal reasoning skills. Hypotheticals are a mainstay of legal teaching, and during the first month or so of class, Scalia employed a series of hypotheticals concerning apples, Albemarle Pippin apples, to be exact. He wove hypothetical tales of agreements to buy and sell Pippins and used Pippins to illustrate fundamental ideas like “consideration” and “bargain.”
His choice of the humble apple for his hypotheticals seemed a brilliant stroke. What better way to introduce students to legal complexities than through easily understood examples involving apples? As it happens, Albemarle Pippins are no ordinary apples. Brought to Virginia by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, they became favorites of Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps in choosing the Albemarle Pippin as his hypothetical apple, Scalia even then pictured himself among the shapers of American history.
We students, on the other hand, were hoping merely to make the grade. At the University of Chicago, as at other law schools, no exams were given until the end of the first term. Until then, no one really knew where they stood or even whether they would survive the first year. That made for a lot of tension, which students traditionally relieved by devising clever pranks to amuse their classmates. For a few of my fellow students, Scalia, along with his Albemarle Pippins, made an irresistible target.
As I sat in Contracts class one morning, hoping I wouldn't be called on to analyze the assigned case, there was a pounding on the door. One of the students sitting nearby jumped up and opened it. A tall young woman, whom I recognized as a second-year student, entered the room. Her blond hair was done in braids and she wore farmer's overalls and a red-checked shirt. To complete the outfit, she sported a hayseed between her teeth.
“Antonin Scalia?” she asked in a convincing down-home drawl. “We got yer shipment for ya. C’mon boys, bring’em in.” Scalia looked understandably confused.
In came apples, bushels of them, pushed, pulled, and carried by several upperclassmen also dressed as farmers. “These here are yer Albemarle Pippins,” one of them intoned, as the class exploded with laughter. Scalia smiled bemusedly. For a few minutes we enjoyed the pleasant delirium of group participation in a shared joke.
Then Scalia stopped to smiling. He didn’t merely stop—his entire demeanor changed. Perhaps he suddenly felt we were laughing at him, not with him. That perception couldn’t have been further from the truth, but it might explain the transformation that took place. One moment, Scalia was the jovial teacher, sure of his abilities and secure in the admiration of his students. In an instant, his entire affect changed. “That’s enough,” he said angrily, dismissing the farmer actors. Our laughter died down in a hurry as we returned to the case at hand.
Ironically, my classmates chose Scalia as the object of their prank (and persuaded several second-year students to take part) precisely because we all liked him so much. In the days and weeks that followed, however, Scalia never recovered his prior avuncular manner, preferring instead to grill students harshly about legal issues. No more cheerful repartee in class, and definitely no more hypotheticals involving Albemarle Pippins.
The following year, a friend of mine took an upper level course with Professor Scalia. She reported that he’d regained his equilibrium and once again displayed a spirited and brilliant teaching style. The succeeding years seem to have reinforced his renewed sense of confidence. Nowadays, whatever one may think of Justice Scalia’s legal philosophy, he certainly comes across as self-assured. But, reflecting on the thin-skinned response he had in the case of the Albemarle Pippins, I can’t help but wonder how that aspect of his personality influences the decisions he makes today.
Monday, July 24, 2006
My trip involved eight to ten miles of walking per day in the company of a small group of fellow Americans and two Dutch guides. We sauntered down city streets and hiked over sand dunes and through pristine Dutch farmland. The main object of my trip, as with all my travels, was to get a sense of the place, to see what the people care about, and how they live. Here are a few of my impressions.
Based on my experience, the Netherlands has the perfect climate--75 degrees and sunny every day (okay, our second day was a bit overcast). One of our guides, Arjen, stressed that this was not typical weather, but my memories of Holland will be of a warm and sunny locale. Apparently, things have gotten still warmer since I returned home, making July the Netherlands' hottest month in 300 years! The temperature has climbed as high as 37 degrees Celsius (around 98 degrees Fahrenheit). Normally, I'm told, the average temperature in July is 17.4 degrees Celsius (around 63 degrees Fahrenheit). Global warming strikes again.
Heat or no heat, it's windy in Holland. Now I see why all those windmills were so effective at grinding grain and reclaiming land. Arjen referred to the almost-constant stiff breeze as the "Dutch wind." Happily, the smell of sea air is often carried by that wind, which makes the air quality quite delightful.
The biggest surprise about the Netherlands? Bicycles--they're everywhere! Who knew? Perhaps I should have, Holland being so flat and gas prices so high. But I hadn't anticipated the Dutch reliance on bikes as a primary mode of transportation or the beautiful and efficient way bike lanes are incorporated into the traffic scheme of cities. Riders and bike racks are ubiquitous. For an American, it takes some getting used to.
My first encounter with a bike occured shortly after we arrived in Amsterdam, at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. My husband, Eric, and I had left Boston at 7 p.m. the night before (there's a six hour time difference). We checked into our hotel and fortified ourselves with breakfast, in the process learning that "over easy" is a concept foreign to the Dutch, or perhaps merely lost in translation. After breakfast, we decided to take an exploratory walk before we collapsed of exhaustion. We left the hotel and I stepped onto the sidewalk, or so I thought. In fact, I had inadvertently entered a bike lane. I heard a softly ringing bell then a skidding of wheels as a bike ridden by a tall middle-aged man came to a stop inches from my derriere.
Only belatedly did I notice that the sidewalks, bike lanes, and roadways, while all made of brick, were carefully delineated by slightly different colors of brick, one red, one yellowish, another soft orange. It turns out that the bell I heard faintly ringing before my near-demise is the main mode of warning employed by Dutch cyclists. Very civilized and understated. (Car traffic is understated as well--I barely heard the sound of a horn during my entire visit.)
And the sheer number of bicycles! Thousands of serviceable bikes, not fancy racing bikes. People don't ride bent forward, as racers do. Instead, they sit impressively erect on their seats and zoom along. They may not be racing, but they really move. Another surprise--no one wears a helmet, not even small children. Arjen contended that few accidents occur. Indeed, the closest collision I witnessed was my own.
Dutch people, I discovered, are tall, very tall. Even the women towered over me and I'm almost 5'5", average height for an American female. In fact, many of the women seemed as tall as their male counterparts. It turns out that recent studies rank the Dutch as the tallest people on the planet. It must be all that bike riding, and a diet rich in dairy probably doesn't hurt.
I know there are poor people in the Netherlands, but I really didn't see them, despite walking all over Amsterdam, Utrecht, Haarlem, and the Dutch countryside. I also didn't see many Muslims during my trip (so far as I could tell, judging by women wearing head scarves), although Holland has a large Muslim population. Despite all the ground we covered while walking, I suspect our guides circumvented the poorest areas. Still, the Netherlands ranks as one of the wealthiest countries in the world. From what I saw, it's a healthy prosperity--most people seem to dress sensibly, have lovely but small apartments and houses, and plenty to eat. No Manolo Blahniks in sight. Not a lot of ostentation. I felt perfectly appropriate in my REI pants and L.L. Bean shirt.
I also felt right at home with the neatness and order evident wherever I travelled in the Netherlands, being something of a neatnik myself. The fact that many Dutch residences don't have curtains on the windows supposedly originated in a desire to show the world that their homes were tidy. Today, it also seems to reflect the quality of openness I experienced throughout Holland.
In accord with a penchant for order, the Netherlands is a country replete with rules. Arjen explained that the Dutch have a rule for everything. But he also described an outlook that saves people from coming off as prissy or sanctimonious--the Dutch are very tolerant of people who break the rules. It's an odd paradox, perhaps one that accounts for Holland's unusual status as both a financial center and a haven for drugs and prostitution.
The rule that most fascinated me was the one regarding squatters. In the Netherlands, if a building is unoccupied for a year, squatters have the right to move in. As I understand it, the building is still owned by the legal owner, who is also still liable for payment of taxes and even utilities. But the building may be occupied and renovated by the squatters. The object of the law is to make sure all available housing is used. Arjen pointed out several buildings currently occupied by squatters. Recently, there's been legislation proposed by conservatives to make it more difficult to squat, but it's met stiff opposition.
Which brings me to the most delightful part of our trip--lunch at the home of our two guides, Arjen and Karin. The two are just friends (Arjen is married), but both reside on a former country estate in Utrecht, once occupied by squatters after standing vacant for the required period, but since converted to sixteen separate apartments--with a catch. Each apartment contains living space but all bathrooms and kitchens are shared, commune-style. The setup resembles a very sedate commune. Arjen characterized two of his fellow residents as hippies from the sixties, whom he said were slobs and never cleaned at all. But having gotten a peek into Arjen's neat living room and having seen the lovely grounds of the estate, I take his word that those two are the exception.
Our lunch was courtesy of another couple who live on the estate with their young daughter. The two started a catering business and were permitted to build a professional kitchen in the estate's former stable. They are proponents of the "slow food" movement, which advocates the use of locally-grown ingredients cooked from scratch. We were treated to a fabulous vegetarian repast, complete with edible flowers. After lunch we took a walk through the beautiful parkland (now public) that surrounds the estate. Arjen, Karin, and the estate's other residents have managed to achieve an enviably gracious lifestyle on modest means.
A couple of final notes: Indonesian food--delicious! And a welcome contrast to the much blander, dairy-rich Dutch diet. Windmills--what an amazing example of Dutch ingenuity. We had the opportunity to climb to the top of a working windmill and see and feel the power of the wind in action. Lastly, Americans--they like us! We felt no hostility during our stay and no one seemed to resent the fact that we could only speak English.
As you can see, I don't have a single negative thing to say about the Netherlands. And I'm not even part-Dutch! If you go, one word of advice. If at all possible, find someone Dutch to show you around. It makes all the difference.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
My aversion began when I was six years old and my parents brought home a dachshund puppy. Our new dog arrived on Christmas morning, so we named him Blitzen, after one of Santa’s flying reindeer. Given his low-lying physique, though, our Blitzen could barely waddle, let alone leap into the air and take flight. Someone else might have found him cute, but I was horrified. This frankfurter on legs was not my idea of a dog.
To make matters worse, my parents didn’t have a clue about canine behavior. My mother took everything Blitzen did personally. If he soiled the carpet, he was getting back at her for not feeding him on time. If he barked incessantly, it was to annoy her. Nor did my parents grasp even the rudiments of dog training. If they had, things might have been different. As it was, during his sojourn in our house, Blitzen ruled.
This became frighteningly clear to me the first time I walked him. I was under strict instructions not to let him pick up anything from the street. Blitzen immediately latched onto the round paper cover of a Good Humor Dixie cup. I grabbed the cover’s edge and tried to pull it from his mouth, but the dog had a death grip on the flimsy piece of cardboard. He growled savagely and looked into my eyes with unalloyed hatred until I relinquished his prize.
Blitzen must have terrorized my parents during walks as well, because they began letting him out on his own. One day, he simply failed to return. My father searched for him and, finding no flattened remains, assured us that Blitzen would come back soon. To everyone’s secret relief, he never did.
A year later, we were driving past a nearby playground when I spotted a boy walking a portly dachshund—Blitzen. My parents were only too happy to let Blitzen remain with his new family. I couldn’t have agreed more. Of course, the primary beneficiary of this decision was Blitzen himself. An intelligent creature, he’d taken matters into his own paws and found a home with people who loved him and actually knew how to handle him.
My aversion to dogs was seriously reinforced some years later, when I was in college during the sixties. It was the Age of Aquarius and students allowed their pets the same total freedom they demanded for themselves. Roving packs of canines ran unfettered on the campus. Though the animals never showed the slightest interest in me, they presented an alarming picture, rising over the crest of the hill like a pack of wolves on the prowl, and heading straight for the main quadrangle where I often walked.
The dogs were even more poorly groomed than their long-haired owners. Worst among them was a once-elegant Afghan, whose hopelessly matted fur gave him a wild, maniacal appearance. I was terrified of the Afghan and his roving pack, but given the hang-loose demands of the era, I couldn’t let on. Still, I never crossed the quad without a heavy book bag for protection.
Naturally, I had no interest in getting a dog of my own. The first time I even considered the idea was years later, when my husband and I began to think about having a child. I wondered, was I ready for the responsibility? Perhaps I should practice on a dog. One trip to the pet store was all it took to convince me otherwise. No sooner did I pick up a long-haired dachshund puppy than I began wheezing and sneezing uncontrollably. Not only was I afraid of dogs—evidently, I was allergic to them, too. That’s it, I decided. A dog might be someone else’s best friend, but never mine.
Time and the birth of two children did little to change my mind. When my older son was an infant, I lived in fear of the Doberman down the street. A six-foot fence designed to restrain him didn’t do much to reassure me—every time I pushed my son’s stroller by it, I noticed with alarm that the dog’s frantic attempts to clear the hurdle were improving daily.
Just as success seemed imminent, the Doberman left town. For a while, I only had to contend with Ginger, the overweight beagle who lived next door and liked to relieve herself in our yard. As the years passed, though, more dogs moved into the neighborhood—first a border collie, then a Cairn terrier and a Pekinese. Eventually, almost every family had a dog. My two sons, now teenagers, begged for a puppy, but I resisted. Then friends who lived across the street got a miniature schnauzer. I was surprised. Hadn’t their younger daughter just left for college? Why get a dog now, with no children at home clamoring for one? Apparently, that was exactly the point. Faced with an empty nest, my friends filled the void with their puppy, Maxwell.
They doted on Maxwell, talked baby-talk to him, tied a bandanna around his neck. They took him everywhere. No food was too good for him. Clearly, they’d lost their senses. Or had they? Even I could see that an adorable little puppy might comfort me when my kids went off to college. And weren’t dogs known for their unswerving loyalty, their uncritical devotion? Compared to my kids, who were embarrassed by my every move, an animal that offered unconditional love had its appeal.
But how would my sons react if, after all their pleading, I finally got a dog only when they’d gone? They’d never forgive me. I realized the time to get a dog was now.
It had to be a hypoallergenic variety, of course—if there was such a thing. And it had to be small—I needed the advantage of size. After investigating numerous breeds, I opted for a toy poodle. Under fifteen inches tall, it wouldn’t be able to jump higher than my knees. And with hair instead of fur, it was less likely to provoke allergy attacks. Plus, poodles were regarded as smart and easy to train. As for my kids, they were willing to accept any breed, so long as it had four paws and a tail.
When we brought Cosmo home at eight weeks, he looked more like a furry mouse than a dog. I had prepared for his arrival by reading every book I could find about dog training, yet the first time he made a puddle on the kitchen floor, I panicked. What had possessed me to get a dog? I had visions of Blitzen, urinating regularly behind my mother’s favorite sofa, expressly to torture her. Cosmo must have sensed my misgivings, since he promptly got the message—within a week, he housebroke himself.
I had to admit he was cute, with his wagging little pom-pom of a tail. But when I tried to brush that tail, he growled at me. Again, I saw the specter of Blitzen, terrorizing the family. In desperation, I hired a trainer, who began initiating me into the mysteries of pack animals. Apparently, the solution was for me to become a dog! And not just any dog—the leader of Cosmo’s pack.
Somehow, I rose to the challenge. I learned to dominate Cosmo, mastering various commands—sit, stay, come. If he started chewing on my sock, I could tell him to drop it, and most of the time he actually did. During walks, Cosmo learned to heel—he quickly realized that if he didn’t obey, I could simply pick him up, all seven pounds of him, and carry him home.
The reward for my effort? I’ve become the object of Cosmo’s adoration. Even my husband and sons have to play second fiddle. Cosmo follows me everywhere, sleeps in my room, eats when I eat. It may be absurd, but I’m deeply flattered by his attention. We spend countless hours together—long walks, play sessions, cozy evenings on the couch. And I certainly spend more time and money on his grooming than I do on my own.
To think that an animal so small could overcome a lifetime of aversion. In fact, some might say that Cosmo’s got me pretty well trained. He’s certainly found his way into my heart. And no one is more surprised by my transformation to dog-lover than me.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
When we had packed and Marya still hadn’t returned, I persuaded Eric to make a quick stop at the greasy spoon where she worked as a waitress when not pursuing her true calling as a sculptor.
“We’ll tell her about the free weekend at the Northfield Inn, “I said to Eric, “but we’ll say we had to pretend to be married to qualify.” Never mind that we were married.
We found Marya at the restaurant, but she wasn’t wearing the wedding band after all and, although she believed our story and would have been glad to lend it to me, we didn’t have time to return to the house and retrieve it from her room. So we drove on to the inn, an old New England resort built in the grand manner. We deposited our bags in what seemed to us an incredibly luxurious room, furnished in colonial style and painted an historical shade of green. The two double beds would have to wait until later.
By the time we arrived on the verandah, the cocktail party was in full swing. We'd been too nervous to eat much during the day, but it was still warm and muggy and we were very thirsty. Eric, who ordinarily didn’t drink, headed over to the bar and ordered us both screwdrivers. When he returned, I was being introduced to our sponsors, a middle-aged couple from Greenfield, Tom and Joan. They were specially assigned to us to make us feel comfortable. Just what we needed on our wedding night—ersatz parents. I took a sip of my drink, and Eric swallowed his in one gulp. Tom was in the fuel oil business, we learned, and he and Joan had three children.
"And what about you?" they asked. "What brings you to Massachusetts?"
"We were just married," I couldn’t resist answering, "and this is our honeymoon trip." Eric rolled his eyes at me and excused himself to go get another drink. I asked Joan and Tom about Greenfield, and they told me we'd get to see a lot more of it during the weekend. There would be a tour starting right after breakfast the next morning.
"When was your wedding?" Joan asked. A natural question. I panicked. How could I tell these people we'd gotten married three hours ago? No wedding gown, no wedding reception, no family in sight. These were nice conventional people, who represented pretty much everything Eric and I had rejected by deciding to get married secretly. I'd have to invent.
"The wedding was last week, on Sunday."
"Oh, what date was that?" Joan was nothing if not persistent. Frantically, I tried to count backwards to last Sunday.
Eric returned. "What date was our wedding last Sunday, honey?" I asked him. What woman doesn't know the date of her own wedding? I was sure by now that Joan thought we were lying about being married at all, and I couldn't blame her, especially since I had no wedding band. Eric gulped his second drink down and was about to give some sort of answer, when we were saved by an announcement that dinner was served.
We entered a wide corridor and began walking toward the dining room at the other end of the sprawling inn. I was endeavoring to explain to Joan why I'd forgotten my wedding date, some fantastic story about the wedding having been postponed and how I always got the dates mixed up, when I realized that Eric wasn't beside me. I glanced back and to my horror saw him staggering blindly toward the wall. I rushed over just as he fell in a dead faint, and caught him before he cracked his head on the marble floor. He lay there, looking an historical shade of green and sweating profusely. I was wondering what to do for him, when a woman rushed over crying, "I'm a nurse!" She took his wrist in her hand. "No pulse," she said.
No pulse? My God, had my husband died on our wedding day? But no, surely he was breathing. And he was still sweating, buckets. Slowly, he regained consciousness, and appeared to recognize me. After a short consultation, during which most of the captured tourists and their sponsors gathered round, it was determined that a few of the men would help bring Eric to our room, where I would stay with him.
There we spent what was to be our idyllic wedding night, Eric lying spread-eagle on one of the double beds, overcome with nausea, only getting up sporadically to rush into the bathroom. Someone thoughtfully had dinner sent up for me. I ate while Eric tried to sleep it off. Whatever it was. The screwdrivers? The heat? The wedding itself? At one point I tried to lie down next to him along the edge of the bed, but my merest touch brought on more waves of nausea. So I spent the night in the other bed, consoling myself with the thought that I had probably saved Eric's life by catching him before his head hit the marble.
By the next morning, Eric felt better, though still a bit queasy. He didn't think he was ready for breakfast. But I convinced him. The people of Greenfield, I pointed out, had made us their guests. How would it look if we didn't appear at breakfast, if we skipped the tour of Greenfield's landmarks?
We arrived in the dining room to find other tourists greeting each other and sharing tables. As a concession to Eric, who was certainly not feeling sociable, we sat at an empty table in the corner. Before long, though, we were joined by a somber-looking family of four. We soon learned they were somber with good reason. They had just endured disastrous flooding in their hometown, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Their house had been virtually destroyed, they told us, but they had nevertheless persevered with their vacation plans. Not knowing what state their community would be in when they returned, they were living in the moment and claimed to be enjoying Greenfield’s hospitality. However, the entire family spoke in such affectless tones of voice that I could only conclude they were suffering from some kind of shell shock.
We were rescued from this gloomy conversation by the appearance of our sponsors, Tom and Joan.
"It's good to see you all recovered," Tom said, clapping Eric on the back. I watched anxiously, hoping Eric wouldn't barf up the meager breakfast he'd managed to get down.
"Eat up," Tom said. "It's almost time to head for the bus."
We had quite a day in store, with stops planned at the Greenfield War Memorial and the new Western Massachusetts Electric hydroelectric power plant. Tom and Joan didn't ask us any more questions about our wedding. I guess they'd decided to leave that subject alone.
When we arrived at the War Memorial in the center of town, everyone piled out of the bus. Eric noticed a photographer hovering nearby.
"You planning to take a picture of us?" Eric asked, stating the obvious.
"Sure am. You'll probably make the front page of the Greenfield Recorder."
"I guess we're pretty big news around here," I murmured to Eric, momentarily relishing the idea of being on the front page.
Eric pulled me aside and reminded me that our marriage was supposed to be a secret. How secret would it remain if we were identified in print as a married couple? Against my will, I felt a thrill. Soon we would be out of the closet. But I could see Eric wasn't ready for that, so I reassured him that no one we knew ever read the Greenfield Recorder. And the story wasn't likely to be syndicated, big deal though it might be in Greenfield. Our secret was safe. We joined the group posing in front of the War Memorial and smiled for the camera.
The rest of the day was interesting, but no honeymoon, in the ordinary sense of that word. It was more like fieldwork, with Eric and me as anthropologists exploring the heartland. Although virtually all the tourists and their hosts were white middle-class Americans, like us, we felt different and, from our counter-cultural perspective, superior. We thought we knew what was important—love, not propriety; justice, not power; inner peace, not material wealth; youth, not old age. The people we met were pleasant enough, but so conventional and dull, we thought. We somehow avoided noticing that we too had opted for the conventional in getting married, however unconventionally.
And, though we felt alienated, we hid it well. By lunchtime, Eric was talking business with Tom, even though Eric's business was two bins of used records for sale in a friend's music shop. And I discussed the vicissitudes of raising children with Joan, even though I couldn't yet imagine having children. I could barely imagine anything beyond getting through this experience.
The crowning event of our stay came that evening—a barbecue at the local Lion's Club. Eric and I, wanting to avoid a repeat of the prior night, decided beforehand that we wouldn't drink, which put us further beyond the fringe. Liquor flowed freely and the more sober we remained, the more smashed everyone else became. During dessert, the speeches began, first by members of the Chamber of Commerce, extolling all that Greenfield had to offer, and then by us, the captured tourists. There was no escaping. One by one, the guests stepped up to the microphone, full of gratitude and praise for our hosts. When our turn came, the crowd was hushed, expectant. By then, we'd become known affectionately as the "newlyweds," and Eric had gained special notoriety due to his fainting episode.
"Greenfield is totally unique,” Eric said. The crowd burst into drunken applause. “There's no place like it in the world." More raucous applause.
It was my turn now. "This has been an amazing weekend,” I said, wanting to tell the truth without offending anybody. "One I'll never forget," I added, as everyone cheered wildly.
We didn’t remain at the farmhouse long after our return from the Northfield Inn. Although outwardly nothing was different, we felt as if everything had changed. However uncelebrated our wedding had been, we’d taken an enormous psychological step, into the realm of commitment. It was time to move on.
Eric had saved some money playing in a rock band during his college years, and we both wanted to travel, so we decided we would spend a year in Europe. We had no idea what we’d do there. Perhaps Eric would join a band. I would soak up the local cultures. Most important, we’d be far from both family and friends and could avoid the question of whether and when to divulge our secret.
But first we had to deal with Eric’s beloved Saab Sonett, a sports car which had been handmade in Sweden and purchased with part of Eric’s hard-earned band money. Eric wouldn’t hear of putting it in storage. He preferred to drive the car to California, where he could leave it with his parents while we traveled. This scheme would have the added benefit of enabling me to meet my new in-laws, so in early July we headed west.
Once in California, we moved temporarily into Eric’s old bedroom—his parents seemed to have no qualms about our sleeping together despite our apparently unmarried state. They were delighted to have Eric back home and, as I gradually realized, they were determined to keep him there. If that meant allowing me into their son’s bed, they were willing.
Eric and I quickly fell into a pleasant routine—days spent by the pool or exploring the Stanford campus on bicycles; in the evening, leisurely dinners with Reggie, Joe, and sometimes Mark. Over white wine, crab legs, and artichokes, Reggie initiated intense conversations about Eric’s career options. This parental “guidance” seemed a small price to pay for such opulent hospitality, and we politely refrained from discussing our European plans. After a few weeks, Europe began to feel very remote, and our plans began to seem a bit self-indulgent. After all, our savings didn’t amount to much, only a few thousand dollars. Besides, we were finding the California lifestyle very agreeable.
We began to think about moving into our own place and soon figured out how to do that without dipping into our savings—we answered an ad seeking a married couple to manage a garden apartment complex in East Palo Alto. In return for performing managerial duties, we could live rent-free. To the man who hired us, we were a conventional married pair, but Eric and I agreed that we would still keep our marriage secret from family and friends, who assumed we’d lied to get the job.
Since we’d been hired as a married couple, though, we introduced ourselves as married to the tenants in our building. We were leading a double life, but at first we felt we could handle it. Then a young couple moved in. We hit it off with them immediately and they soon became friends as well as tenants. Having introduced ourselves to them as husband and wife, we now found ourselves with new friends who thought of us as married, while our old friends, as well as our families, viewed us as unmarried. The line between our true (married) and false (unmarried) selves was becoming increasingly blurred.
We began to fantasize about revealing our secret. We imagined how surprised people would be, especially our parents. Finally, in late October, we gave in to the urge. We told Eric’s parents in person, then immediately called my parents. They were all, as expected, shocked but not, alas, uniformly pleased.
My mother, who had been the most opposed to our living together out of wedlock, was the most upset at having been excluded from the wedding. Joe was perplexed, and wondered why we hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him. On the other hand, my father was happy that the wedding had already occurred—perhaps relieved at having dodged a financial bullet. Reggie showed delight over the union by running up to her bedroom and emerging with a gold and amethyst ring, which she insisted on giving to me as a wedding gift.
In the end, Reggie’s exuberance prevailed, and what resulted was something approaching a conventional wedding without the ceremony. Reggie and Joe invited friends and both our families to an afternoon reception in December. Eric and I registered for gifts at a local Scandinavian housewares store where, ever the non-conformists, we selected stainless steel flatware instead of the then-customary silver. We took a similar stand against tradition with our wedding announcements, which we designed in the unusual format of a newspaper article. Entitled “Secret Nuptials Revealed,” it detailed the story of our wedding and unexpected honeymoon.
The party was a great success. A lot of champagne was consumed, but no one fainted. Eric and I found that we actually liked being the center of attention. We even enjoyed showing off our new wedding bands. After all, we never had been as unconventional as we liked to think. Moreover, by following our own weird path to the altar, we’d managed to conform quite well to the prevailing ethos of the seventies—do your own thing.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
"Wait until we get through the Valley," he promised me. "It's never hot like this in Palo Alto. Wait until we cross the Bay."
So I waited and sweated, mostly from the heat, but also from nerves. I was about to meet my in-laws. They knew I was coming, but they didn't know they were my in-laws. Eric and I had gotten married without telling them, or anyone else. It hadn't been an impulsive decision. We'd planned ahead, taking the blood tests required in Massachusetts and obtaining our license at the Hadley Town Hall. We'd set our wedding date by opening up a calendar to the month of June (it was April at the time), closing our eyes and pointing to a date—June 28th, as it turned out.
Not that we thought either of our families would oppose the marriage. We were both recent college graduates of the same religion—how could they object? We just thought marriage should be a private affair, untainted by a wedding party. Since our married life would involve only the two of us, we reasoned, so should our wedding. Eric said his parents would totally understand, once we told them, which we didn’t plan to do for a while. I wasn’t so sure about my parents, but I figured I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
We pulled into my in-laws’ driveway, the scent of eucalyptus washing over us, the air like a sauna under a blue-white sky. Eric opened a redwood gate stained pale gray, revealing a patio bordered by curved oriental screens and a hedge of star jasmine. He led me through sliding glass doors into the kitchen, where my mother-in-law, Reggie, sat drinking ice water with my brother-in-law, Mark.
Reggie looked surprisingly young, not much older than me, although she was in her mid-forties. She was full of enthusiasm, despite the heat.
"Oh, hi, come on in, isn't this heat incredible. Would you like some ice water?" They had an automatic ice maker, the first I'd ever seen. Its apparently limitless supply of ice seemed a portent of things to come in California.
After we'd each downed several glasses, Reggie suggested we go for a swim. Mark said he’d join us.
"I'll have to dig my suit out of the car," I said.
"Oh, don't worry about that," Reggie said. "Just jump right in. You don't need suits." So this was my mother-in-law. To my relief, she chose to remain in the house while Eric, Mark, and I took a dip in the buff.
I didn't meet my father-in-law, Joe, until that evening. He was arriving from out of town and Eric and I drove to the airport to pick him up. He was delighted to see Eric and pleasant to me, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in getting to know me. To him, I was just the latest in a string of Eric’s girlfriends, and he probably figured that, like the others, I wouldn’t last.
Our decision to get married made Eric and me an anomaly among our friends. The only married couple we knew had recently split up. Other couples had been living together for years without feeling the need to tie the knot. After all, this was the seventies and the idea of marriage seemed hopelessly outdated. Nevertheless, when Eric proposed I was thrilled, even though I was sure our friends would disapprove. Keeping the wedding secret solved that problem—they wouldn’t know.
Our wedding day dawned hot, sticky, and overcast at the farmhouse we shared with several of our friends in Hadley. I had no premonition about the strange turn events would take that day, only a bride’s nervous excitement as I dressed for the ceremony. I wore a floor-length flower-print granny dress with an empire waist. Eric put on blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a long-sleeved gold shirt with French cuffs, his dressiest clothes.
Our plan was to drive to nearby Historic Deerfield and find a justice of the peace, but Deerfield turned out to be more a museum than a functioning town. We couldn't find anyone to marry us. By mid-morning, we realized we'd have to devise an alternate strategy. We located a phone book and looked under the heading “Justice of the Peace” for Greenfield, a neighboring town. We found a listing for a Mr. Cunningham and called him. He agreed to perform the ceremony at four that afternoon.
It was before noon and already we were sweltering. My dress, which was made out of a cotton hopsack material, felt itchy. I suddenly wished I had a special dress for the occasion. And a wedding ring. Since our marriage was to be a secret, I couldn't wear a wedding ring, but at that moment I wanted one. And a honeymoon. We certainly weren't going to get one of those.
"My dress is all sweaty," I said. "Let's drive to Northampton. Maybe I can find something new to wear for the ceremony."
"Fine," said Eric. "It'll give us something to do." When we got to Northampton, I searched through racks in Peck & Peck and other stores on Green Street, right next to Smith College, not knowing what I was looking for, not finding anything remotely appealing. I gave up and we went back to the farmhouse, where I changed into a brown-and-white cotton print dress, one that I'd bought several years earlier when I had a summer job as a billing clerk on Wall Street.
We drove to Greenfield and arrived at a white colonial shortly before the appointed time. Mr. Cunningham, a cheerful elderly man with thin white hair, invited us into his living room. I don’t remember much about the short ceremony, only that he married us according to the authority vested in him by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After the ceremony, he filled out the marriage certificate in a wavering hand, then said he had some important advice for us. We waited expectantly, hoping for something momentous.
"Don't drink and drive," he said, possibly because we looked so spaced out.
Outside, it had started to drizzle. That meant good luck, I remembered, or at least maybe some relief from the heat. We stood under a big maple tree and took each other's photograph, first mine, then Eric's. Before heading back to Hadley, we decided to return to Historic Deerfield for a celebratory dinner. We were pretty sure they had a functioning restaurant in Deerfield.
But we never made it to the restaurant. As we drove along Deerfield's main street, we were flagged down by a middle-aged man in red slacks and a short-sleeved plaid shirt.
"Are you folks from Massachusetts?"
"Yes," said Eric.
"Gee, that's too bad." The man looked very disappointed. "If you'd been from out of state, we would have invited you to be our guests at the Northfield Inn."
"Actually, I'm from California. We're just staying in Massachusetts for a while." Eric showed the man his driver's license, which really was from California.
The man looked extremely pleased. "That's wonderful. Then you're eligible. I represent the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce. Every year we ‘capture’ a group of tourists and give them a free weekend seeing the local sites. It's almost dinnertime and I was afraid I wasn't going to meet my quota. You are married, aren't you?"
We nodded, dazedly.
He peered into our tiny sports car. "Do you folks have any luggage?"
"Yes, we do," Eric said, thinking quickly. "But we don't have it with us. We left it at our friends' house, where we've been staying."
"Just south of here, in Hadley."
"You should have plenty of time to get your bags and make it back for cocktails at the Northfield Inn."
Our free honeymoon was about to begin.
Friday, June 09, 2006
Richard Nixon had dispatched his valet and chauffeur, Manolo Sanchez, to transport Julie back to Manhattan. Julie suggested that Manolo drop me off at Penn Station. From there, I could easily catch a train to Long Island. So, off we went, cruising down Interstate 91, chatting about school and holiday plans. All the while, I kept noticing the people in other cars staring at us as we sped by. Just riding in such a fancy vehicle with the daughter of a famous person induced in me a heady, albeit unmerited, sense of self-importance.
In my recollection, Manolo was a bit of a crazy man, or at least a crazy driver. On that trip, he zoomed along at breakneck speed and made it to Manhattan in record time. But, the next time I hitched a ride home with Julie, Manolo managed to get totally lost in the wilds of Westchester. He kept insisting that he knew where he was going as he careened from one exit to the next. I began to fear we’d wind up in Pennsylvania, with Manolo protesting all the while that everything was fine. Despite his faulty sense of direction, Manolo remained with Richard Nixon throughout his Presidency, serving as his valet.
During that second ride, before Julie and I had to focus on getting Manolo back on track to Manhattan, we talked about her father, who was busy campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination amid rising anti-war sentiment. Julie said he had received a number of unsolicited letters from soldiers at the front, voicing their support for him and their confidence that if Nixon were elected, he would find a way to end the war honorably.
I was quite moved by this conversation. Not because I thought Nixon would really end the war if he were elected, nor even because I was touched by the soldiers’ naïve faith in his ability to bring about peace with honor. What moved me was Julie’s passionate belief in her father’s goodness. I thought her confidence in him was misplaced, but it was impressive all the same.
Back at Smith, Julie survived geology and Professor Burger urged me to select it as my major. At the time, I foolishly thought pursuing subjects that came easily was tantamount to cheating and instead gravitated toward the ones that came hardest. I never took another geology class and wound up majoring in English.
At the end of first semester, Gloria and I switched roommates. We separated amicably and, as a parting gift, I gave her my llama rug, which she’d made good use of during our sojourn together. My new roommate was tidy and quiet, but moody. In retrospect, I missed Gloria’s weirdness, accompanied as it was by her invariable good humor. At the end of freshman year, I learned that she’d managed to flunk out of Smith, no mean accomplishment, as the college bent over backwards to help its students succeed. My next (and last) sighting of Gloria occurred in the mid-seventies, when I was married and living in Palo Alto, California. I ran into her on the steps of the local Post Office. She told me she’d just arrived from Hawaii, where she’d been living. She had a job selling Shaklee Vitamins—a healthy progression, it seemed, from the drugs she’d been into back at Smith.
My freshman year marked the last time I shared a dorm with Julie. The following fall, she took first semester off to campaign for her father, then married David Eisenhower in December, 1968, shortly after Nixon’s election. When Julie returned to Smith, she and David moved into an apartment across the street from Baldwin House, so I still saw her from time to time. She occasionally came over to Baldwin House for dinner, which created quite a stir, given that she was accompanied by Secret Service agents, who sat discreetly at other tables. I remember one dinner in particular, when a handsome young agent sat at my table. I found him articulate and pleasant, except for a few odd moments when I asked seemingly innocent questions, only to watch his demeanor stiffen as he replied, “Sorry, that’s classified,” in a clipped voice.
A few years later, as Watergate unfolded, I sometimes told friends the story of meeting Richard Nixon and his odd remark about the plumbing in Baldwin House. They often urged me to do an exposé of Julie and her father, but I could never bring myself to write such a piece. I simply liked Julie too much and didn’t want to take advantage of her friendship. A lot of time has passed, and I offer these chronicles as part of my personal history. I hope if Julie ever comes across them, she’ll read them in that spirit.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Having no expectations that I’d enjoy the class, I fell in love with geology. Professor Burger, wiry and energetic, with an engaging smile, exuded zeal for his subject, which included the very terrain around us. He waxed positively poetic as he described the Connecticut River oxbow in Northampton (made famous by Thomas Cole’s painting, The Oxbow, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Over thousands of years, he explained, sedimentary deposits on one bank and simultaneous erosion of the other had shifted the river to form a graceful arc. His account of these processes only deepened my appreciation for the oxbow's natural beauty.
And who wouldn’t be dazzled to learn about violent volcanoes, powerful earthquakes, and glaciers that marched inexorably across continents? Julie, for one. While I lapped up every lecture and adored the labs where we committed the names of rocks to memory (mica, chlorite,quartz, feldspar . . . a near-infinite list), Julie struggled to understand metamorphism and other basic mechanisms that shaped the earth. She was a history buff but her enthusiasm apparently didn’t extend to the history of the planet itself. She preferred to focus on the Founding Fathers.
Back at Baldwin House, Julie often sought me out in the foyer as we waited for Mrs. Nicely to lead the way into the dining room for dinner. Ever solicitous, Julie took her responsibilities as “big sister” seriously and wanted to make sure I was adjusting well to college life. And when Mrs. Nixon came to visit one fall weekend, she surprised me by going out of her way to find me and say hello.
Julie’s discomfort with geology soon showed up in her quiz results. While I was getting A’s, Julie was barely passing. She asked if I would tutor her, to which I gladly agreed, delighted to find a means to repay her continuing kindness toward me. As fall gave way to more wintry New England weather, we began our tutoring sessions and continued our walks to class. One morning, the temperature dipped below zero. Clad in my mother’s old racoon coat, I joined Julie for the hike to Burton Hall, a trek made memorable by Julie’s moist eyelashes, which froze solid in the frigid air—a vivid, if momentary, demonstration of the power of ice to transform the landscape.
After Christmas vacation, as exams approached, I climbed the stairs one evening on my way to Julie’s room. We’d arranged to meet and go over the class materials. Julie was sitting on the carpeted hall floor outside her room, talking on the hall phone (no one had their own phones in those days, let alone cell phones). The phone’s cord barely reached around the corner from its connection point in the little hall kitchenette.
Julie sounded upset. I lingered awkwardly for a moment and was about to return to my room when Julie asked me to wait just a minute. She managed to drag the phone inside her room and closed the door. Even through the door, though, she sounded more and more distressed as the conversation continued. Then I heard her say “Hold on,” and the door opened.
“Are you going to Winter Weekend with Peter?” she asked. I said I was.
“Are you planning to stay overnight?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Looking like she was about to burst into tears, Julie again asked me to wait, retreated into her room, and closed the door. When she re-emerged, she told a tale with a political twist all its own.
Some background: During my freshman year, women at Smith still required parental permission to stay out overnight. However, parents could sign a blanket release allowing their daughters to take overnights at their own discretion. My parents had signed such a release but Julie’s hadn't. Also, women still weren’t permitted to stay overnight in the Amherst dorms. For special weekends, they normally rented rooms from local residents. Quaint as it may sound today, I had made arrangements to rent a room for Saturday night of the upcoming Winter Weekend, whose festivities would extend far beyond the normal Smith weekend curfew of 1 am.
All these restrictions would go out the window by the following year as the cultural revolution took hold, but in the meantime, Julie had a dilemma. David wanted her to take an overnight on Saturday so they could party late into the night along with everyone else. The small supply of available rooms in town having already been rented, he proposed putting her up at the Amherst Motel, on Route 9, a short distance from the college.
When I arrived at her room, Julie was on the phone with her mother, entreating her to give permission for the overnight. While not unsympathetic, Mrs. Nixon saw a major potential problem. Her husband's campaign for the 1968 Presidential nomination had gone into high gear. The last thing he wanted was a story in the newspapers about his daughter spending the night in a seedy motel with the former President’s grandson. No matter that the motel wasn’t particularly seedy and that David would gladly have said goodnight at the door. Even the possibility of scandal was too much to risk. Despite Julie’s avowal that “even Barbara is allowed to stay overnight,” Mrs. Nixon regretfully decided that Julie could not.
Clearly, fame had its price. Never had obscurity seemed so appealing to me as when I happily packed my bag for my overnight at Amherst a few weeks later. But as much as Julie may have disliked having to sublimate her wishes to her father’s ambition, she also supported that ambition and believed in him passionately.
More about that in my next installment: Catching Rides with Manolo as Nixon Rides to the Presidency
Thursday, May 18, 2006
The facebook contained shot after shot of modest-looking young women sporting Peter Pan collars fastened with circle pins. My photo, on the other hand, featured me in a sleeveless tee with a suggestively low v-neck. My long hair appeared tousled and my expression was more come-hither than demure. I’d submitted it in all innocence. I hated most pictures of myself and this was one of the few in which I thought I looked decent.
Apparently as a result of this photo, I began receiving phone calls from total strangers asking me out. But I wasn’t even tempted. I already had a boyfriend—an Amherst sophomore named Peter, who had gone to Southside Senior High School with me back in Rockville Centre. We’d even been in the same Spanish class. I’d always regarded Peter as cute but way too immature, despite the fact that he was a year older than me. Then, in December, 1966, I saw him in a whole new light.
Southside had a tradition of inviting recent grads back to meet with seniors and share their college experiences. I’d just been accepted at Smith, early decision. Knowing that Peter attended Amherst, only a few miles down the road from Smith, I was mildly curious to hear his impressions of college. But when he showed up, looking dashing in a brown suede jacket and exuding a newfound confidence, I felt intrigued. With his wavy black hair and crooked smile, he really was handsome, I decided. He’d even grown a bit taller. But that oh-so-cool jacket clinched it. I was smitten.
A few days later, he asked me out and by the time his winter break ended and he returned to Amherst, we were a couple. When I arrived at Smith the next fall, his presence nearby represented a small island of security in my sea of anxieties. I wasn’t about to jeopardize that for a few facebook dates.
The year before, Julie had her own facebook problems. Apparently, on viewing her photo, some men at Amherst and other schools thought it would be a lark to go out with the former Vice President’s daughter. As a result, she got countless calls from guys who probably had no real interest in getting to know her. She could never be sure, but her natural self-protectiveness led her to assume the worst.
Imagine what a relief it was to hook up with Amherst student David Eisenhower. David was equal in celebrity and understood exactly what Julie was going through. Their romance took off. And here’s where the squash connection comes in. David and Peter were both on the Amherst squash team. Hence, Julie and I knew what it was to hover inside the chilly corridors overlooking the squash courts while our boyfriends wacked a hard little ball inside a claustrophobic cubicle.
This connection led to at least one double date and gave Julie and me a common bond. Few of the freshmen and sophomore women in Baldwin House had steady boyfriends and even fewer were dating guys from Amherst. In fact, some felt condescending toward the little college down the road. I remember one senior remarking haughtily that she only dated Yale men. This struck me as odd, since it was a much more arduous trip to New Haven than to nearby Amherst.
I wanted to be with Peter as much as possible. He felt the same way, except for a few things that took priority--squash and tennis matches, squash and tennis practices, hanging around with his Deke fraternity brothers, even schoolwork. Given that I would drop anything to spend time with him, whereas he made time for me only when it was convenient, I was usually the one traveling the nine miles between our two schools.
Before one of my visits to Amherst, Julie asked me a favor. David had a history paper due that day, but was away from campus and had given the paper to Julie for delivery. Could I drop it off at his professor’s office? Of course, I said yes. During the ride over I struggled with the temptation to read what he’d written and, without too much hesitation, gave in. While I can’t remember the exact subject of the paper (something to do with American history), I do remember my reaction to reading it. It was an okay effort, not terribly well-written. I believed I could have written something at least as good, maybe better.
But this was David Eisenhower, grandson of the President! Since famosity had me in its grip even then, I was awed by David’s lineage. Wasn’t he guaranteed by birthright to be a superior student? The realization that he was merely competent bowled me over. For the first time since I arrived at Smith, I felt that I might actually belong there.
Next installment: Rocks for Jockettes and Winter Weekend with Jocks
Thursday, May 04, 2006
By the time I left for Smith in late September, 1967, I was a nervous wreck. I anticipated entering a rarified world of cultured young women, many of them debutantes, who would be far better prepared for the rigors of college life than I, and probably far better dressed.
To make matters worse, the morning of my departure from Rockville Centre my father threw his back out heaving one of my over-laden suitcases into the car trunk, adding a dollop of guilt to my anxiety—knowing he had a bad back, I should never have let him lift that bag! He was forced to remain at home while my mother and I drove the three hours to Northampton, Massachusetts.
Baldwin House was an ivy-covered, four-story brick building dating from the turn of the twentieth century. It housed 77 students, freshmen through seniors. On arrival, I found myself relegated to the smallest double in the place. I was told by a helpful upperclasswoman that my room had been a maid's room in the days when students brought their maids along with them to school.
Great. I'd been assigned to the maid's quarters. As compensation, however, my roommate, Gloria, and I had a private adjoining bathroom almost as big as our room itself. The other students on our floor shared a communal bathroom at the end of the hall, no doubt one of the leaking facilities alluded to by Dick Nixon.
Gloria was not at all what I'd expected in a Smith roommate. From Castle Rock, Colorado, she was the first high school graduate ever to come east to attend college. I was hardly reassured when, out of earshot of my mother, she informed me that she'd hidden the LSD carefully, so it wouldn't be found and get us into trouble. LSD? I'd yet to try marijuana.
She also informed me that she liked to do barbell exercises on the floor, in the nude, (while slathered with body lotion, I later discovered). She instantly adored my prized possession, a small llama throw rug my father had bought during a business trip to Peru. She pronounced it the perfect spot for her naked barbell exercises.
As we unpacked, Gloria proudly displayed her latest fashion acquisition, a paper dress. (The concept of disposable clothing was short-lived, even for Gloria. Hers wound up on the wall of an Amherst freshman, Rob Cohen, for whom, I assume, she'd taken it off. Famosity requires me to divulge that Rob went on to become a filmmaker, directing such blockbusters as The Fast and the Furious.) Gloria also raved about the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading technique she'd mastered (and which she later convinced me to try, much to the detriment of my comprehension of Plato's Republic).
Despite her oddities, Gloria seemed genial and at least I didn't find her intimidating. My other classmates, however, were a different matter. Though I later learned that my entering class was an anomaly at Smith—the first class in which a majority of students (67%) had graduated from public high schools—at Baldwin House many of the freshman and still more of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors were products of elite private schools.
My anxiety about how I'd measure up induced an acute attack of self-consciousness. In particular, I became excruciatingly aware of the way I spoke—I'd always prided myself on not having a New York accent, but suddenly my vowels were nowhere near proper enough. And the teenage slouch that had always been good enough for Southside Senior High School seemed totally declasse among my fellow Smithees, who, in my idealized view, all stood ramrod straight.
No description of my arrival at Smith College would be complete without mention of Baldwin's housemother, Mrs. Nicely, whose name apparently predestined her for her role as enforcer of genteel comportment. With her white hair and pleasingly plump figure, she was the very picture of a mother in my eyes. I immediately decided that the rebelliousness which had characterized my teenage years and made my actual mother's life miserable could never be allowed to surface with Mrs. Nicely. A mere whiff of her disapproval, I imagined, would send me into paroxysms of shame.
Mrs. Nicely lived in an apartment on the first floor of Baldwin House and presided over dinner every evening and tea on Friday afternoon. In those waning days of parietals, men weren't allowed upstairs and Baldwin House residents were still required to sign out for the evening with Mrs. Nicely and return by 1 a.m. (11 p.m. on weeknights). Such decorum now sounds quaint, even ridiculous. But at the time, I aspired only to master the intricacies of what was known at Smith as "gracious living," which included wearing a skirt to dinner and properly folding one's cloth napkin after meals and returning it to its allotted cubby.
Among my freshman classmates were some who seemed to embody the cultured upbringing I lacked—Kathy, daughter of a Ford executive and graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, whose family lived in the exclusive enclave of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan; Pril, who traced her lineage back to the American Revolution and had attended the Emma Willard School; and Liz, fresh from the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. They were all lovely young women who became my friends, but initially I was convinced that their impeccable credentials made them superior to me.
In truth, several of the sixteen freshmen in Baldwin House were much like me—nice girls from good suburban high schools. We arrived with our Weejuns, our Villager outfits, and our liberal views. And there were also a number of scholarship students who'd had far fewer advantages than me growing up. I eventually realized that we were a diverse group and that I could succeed just by being myself. But during those first anxious days at Smith, I strained to achieve perfect etiquette.
We freshmen had moved in early, along with a few upperclasswomen who helped with orientation, so I didn't see Julie right away. By the time she arrived, I greeted her as a welcome familiar face. We were delighted to discover that we were both taking Geology 101 to fulfill the science requirement. And we found that we had another thing in common—boyfriends at Amherst College. More on that in my next installment.
Next Installment: The Squash Connection (really!)
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
After Richard Nixon departed for the Harvard Club, Julie suggested that Tricia, she, and I repair to her bedroom, where we could chat until dinner was ready. She led the way to a large room containing two twin beds covered with frilly, feminine spreads. I sat on one bed and Julie and Tricia took the other.
Tricia, a giggly blond, seemed less earnest than her younger sister, who wanted to know all about me--whether I had siblings, how I'd gotten interested in Smith, what I planned to study. Julie's rapt attention to my answers made me feel as if I were a fascinating and important person. Although I attempted to make polite inquiries about her, somehow the conversation was all about me. It was my first experience of Julie's remarkable ability to deflect the focus from herself onto the person with whom she was speaking. Perhaps because she'd been raised in the public eye and subject to media scrutiny her entire life, she'd become adept at directing attention outward, away from herself, a protective mechanism that preserved her privacy.
We had only been in the bedroom a short while when, to my surprise, Pat Nixon joined us. She took a seat next to me on the bed and seemed as interested as Julie and Tricia in hearing about my mundane high school life. And she loved my outfit! She especially admired the black Danskin top and wanted to know where I'd purchased it. She suggested to her daughters that they go shopping with her in search of similar tops.
It seemed to me at the time, and still does, that Mrs. Nixon loved being a mother, loved hanging out with her daughters and their friends, and wanted nothing more than a low-profile life as a wife and homemaker. In the kindly light of Julie's bedroom, Mrs. Nixon's face softened and her smile seemed more natural than the pained expression I came to associate with her television appearances. I don't know whether she'd been invited to the Harvard Club shindig along with her husband that evening, but clearly home is where her heart was.
When dinner was ready, we sat down to eat in the formal dining room, complete with silver candelabra in the middle of the table. The meal was served by Fina Sanchez, the Nixon's Cuban cook. Her husband, Manolo, served as driver and all-around valet to the Vice President (more about Manolo in a future installment). Mrs. Nixon was a delightful hostess, engaging me, along with Julie and Tricia, in conversation about what I might expect at Smith College. Our discussion, thankfully, was more about academics and social life than plumbing.
All would have been completely lovely were it not for the fact that the candelabra, with its glowing candles, was directly between Mrs. Nixon and me. Still on my best behavior, I endeavored to look at Mrs. Nixon while talking to her. My eyes became bleary and I craned my neck in an attempt to see over the candles, leaning first to the right, then to the left, all the while endeavoring to sound intelligent. Mrs. Nixon appeared not to notice anything amiss. I felt too unsure of myself to request that the candelabra be moved.
Having gotten a quick glimpse of the Nixons' lives, I was tempted to draw all kinds of broad conclusions. I gave into that temptation, bigtime. In the foyer, earlier, I decided Dick Nixon was a man who focused on the inner workings of things at the expense of the big picture. Later, in Julie's bedroom, I saw Mrs. Nixon as the very paradigm of a devoted wife and mother. Now in the dining room, it occurred to me that Mrs. Nixon and her daughters might be as insecure as I about matters of etiquette. It takes a certain amount of confidence to know when to break the rules and move the candelabra.
Overall, my impression of both Julie and her mother was of two genuinely caring individuals. Regarding Tricia, I couldn't tell what kind of person hid behind the giggles, which may have been her defense against invasions of her privacy. As for Richard Nixon, although I believed I'd learned something about his world view, I still felt clueless about the man's own inner workings.
Next installment: The Squash Connection