Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ode to Miami

Ah, Miami in summer. Warm, tropical breezes, mosquitoes buzzing, frigate birds wafting gracefully on air currents, swarms of gnats, mojitos under the stars. Did I mention mosquitoes?

Miami in summer is paradise, almost. The hot, humid air is cleansed daily by rains that arrive in the late afternoon. The showers cool things off and make for delightful evenings. And lots of mosquitoes. Plus quite a few gnats. Did I mention ants?

For a northerner like me, there's something wonderfully predictable about Miami's summer weather pattern, so unlike Boston's ever-changing climate. After the cooling rains, as the sun sets, there couldn't be a more perfect place than Miami for eating dinner al fresco. But remember to wear long pants, long sleeves, and socks. Probably a good idea to bring along bug spray, too.

Even in the heat, South Beach beckons. So what if the sun on the sand glares so brightly I feel like I'm going snow blind? No bugs on the beach. BIG advantage. And the water is nice and warm. Especially if you like hot baths. Seriously, it's gorgeous. And that lightheaded feeling just before heat exhaustion sets in is kind of special. I haven't felt so spacey since the Woodstock era.

One evening, my husband, Eric, and I decide to try a hot (no pun intended) new restaurant in Miami's Design District. Our son, Aaron, a University of Miami grad, is visiting and we want to show him how hip we've become since we began spending time in Miami. We arrive at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink just as the rain is letting up, a few minutes early for our reservation. All the tables inside are occupied. But outside the air smells fresh and the wood tables under black umbrellas look inviting, so we decide to go for it.

My black mesh chair is comfortable and only a little wet. It's still drizzling lightly but the umbrella protects us, for the most part. Aaron fits right into the scene, with his tee shirt, shorts, and flip flops. I feel edgy in my fitted black tee with the word "courage" lettered in gold across the front. I have on capris and a cute pair of sandals. Eric is sensibly dressed in long pants and socks.

Maybe it's the cosmo that dulls my senses, maybe the fabulous salmon dish, or perhaps just the heady feeling of being in trendy Miami. I don't really notice anything until, just as we're finishing our main course, Aaron complains he's being bitten. Really? In the middle of the Design District? I realize I'm itching a bit around the ankles myself. Eric claims to be fine. Nevertheless, we decide to skip dessert and ask for our check. Aaron insists we stop at Walgreen's for some Benadryl. Still, I refuse to be concerned. Even when I see the massive swelling on my wrist and the nest of bites under my arm. Not to mention the numerous welts around my ankles. After all, that West Nile Virus thing is way overblown, isn't it?

Ah, Miami in summer. The perfect place to be. Especially if you love mosquitoes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Riding the LIRR

During a recent trip to Manhattan, I took a taxi from my hotel in the trendy Meatpacking District to Penn Station. I was planning to ride the Long Island Railroad to my old hometown, Rockville Centre. It was pouring and I appreciated the luxury of hopping a cab right outside my hotel door.

Thirty-five years ago, the last time I traveled on the Long Island Railroad, I couldn't afford a taxi. I was working as a file clerk at Columbia University and earning the grand sum of five thousand dollars a year. Back then, I lived not far from my hotel's locale, on 7th Avenue and 14th Street, and Columbia was a straight shot uptown on the IRT subway, just outside my apartment door. But on weekends, I frequently took the LIRR out to Rockville Centre to get away from the city and visit my parents and sister, who still lived there. I had no idea at the time that in less than a year they'd be moving to Illinois and I'd be married and living in California.

The cabby let me off at the 8th Avenue entrance to Penn Station. I felt sure that as soon as I walked inside, I'd easily find my way onto the train and back into my past. My high school friend, Anthea, was visiting her family in Rockville Centre and we'd agreed to meet there. She said she'd pick me up at the Rockville Centre depot and we'd take a trip down memory lane, driving by my old house on Dorchester Road, past South Side High School, the Fantasy Theatre, and all our other haunts.

When I entered Penn Station, I was bombarded by signs for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, various subway lines, Hudson Books, sushi, deli, even Starbucks. Nothing looked familiar, but what I did recognize was the sharp, bitter smell of the underground tunnels, that universe of train and subway tracks snaking under Manhattan. To me, it was a sweet scent, reminding me of childhood, of holding tight to my father's hand when he took me with him to spend a day in his office downtown, or later, when I was in high school, riding the train and subway to Greenwich Village on weekends in search of Fred Braun shoes and coffee at the Cafe Wha.

Eventually, I found signs for the LIRR and presently arrived at the ticket/information area. Automatic kiosks had replaced ticket sellers in glass-enclosed booths and the space seemed smaller, but the dirty white tiled walls were the same and the benches in the waiting room looked as if they hadn't been replaced since the days I last sat on them. I bought a round trip ticket and headed down to Track 19. I wasn't alone. Although it was noon on a workday, people hurried alongside me, intent on reaching a particular car. In New York, even non-rush hour was crowded.

The old, dark railroad cars, with stuck windows and no air conditioning, had been replaced by silver models. The air was cool as I stepped inside and the leatherette seats were pale gray and blue, instead of the ancient cracked black leather. As I child, I loved the old convertible bench seats, whose direction could be reversed with a huge heave of their brass handles. Commuters would move the seats so one bench faced another, perfect for a daily bridge game or arguing about baseball. Now most of the seats faced in one direction or the other. But in each car, there were a couple of seats facing one another, a nice vestige of the old cars. Since I was traveling alone, I chose what I thought was a regular forward-facing seat, only to find myself facing backward when the train started. I hadn't remembered which way led out of the station toward Long Island.

Memories flooded back, though, when the train started up and the conductor entered the car, shouting "Tickets!". Much as I recalled, he wore a uniform of dark blue pants and light blue shirt, complete with a hard round hat, and he carried a hole puncher, just like in the old days. After he punched my ticket, he inserted it in a little slot on the back of the seat in front of me. Again, a carryover from the old-fashioned cars. But most evocative of all was the conductor's intonation of the train stops—This is the Babylon line, stopping at Woodside, Jamaica, Lynbrook, Rockville Centre . . . Massapequa, Massapequa Park—in a sing-song cadence that's part of my hardwiring. By the time the train reached Rockville Centre, I had fully arrived, almost as if I'd never left. And of course, as I stepped off the train, the rain stopped.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Miss Cobb's Bookstore

In the fall of 1976, I had just quit an editing job and was busy applying to law school. I needed some kind of work to tide me over until the following fall. I'd always thought it would be fun to work at a bookstore and I knew the perfect place—the Shirley Cobb Bookstore in Palo Alto, California, where I was already a regular customer. Shirley Cobb still owned the store. She was none other than the daughter of Ty Cobb, the legendary baseball player.

Her bookstore was located on University Avenue, Palo Alto's main street. In those pre-Silicone Valley days, Palo Alto was a funky college town. Just down the road from Stanford, it boasted a holistic health center, a health food restaurant, and several movie theaters, including The Festival Cinema, which showed vintage films, and the Varsity Cinema, where Bunuel and Kirosawa were among the featured directors. Shirley Cobb’s was right next door to the Varsity. On the bookstore’s other side, Swenson's Ice Cream parlor had recently opened, featuring enormous helpings—ice cream cones were measured by the pound there rather than the scoop.

Across the street was Celia's, my favorite Mexican restaurant, and Swain's Music, where my husband, who grew up nearby, had purchased his first sheet music. There was also a sewing store in the neighborhood, something of an anachronism even back then. It carried Elna sewing machines from Sweden, along with American Singers. I know that because I had actually purchased an Elna there myself, with the old-fashioned idea that all wives should (and could) learn how to sew.

Shirley Cobb’s was something of an anachronism itself—it sold only hardcover books. They were arranged along the walls of a tall, narrow room, about thirty feet wide and two stories high, as well as on freestanding shelves running down the center of the store. It didn't seem like a great place to be in the event of an earthquake, given the possibility of all those books crashing down in that small space. I credited myself with living dangerously just by being there.

The room was quite deep, about fifty feet. Suspended over its back half was a mezzanine where one of the employees did the bookkeeping at an ornate dark-stained oak table. Behind the main room was a smaller one. There, employees wrapped books, both as gifts and for shipping. Also in the back room, at a small table, book reps met with the manager, Bern Ann.

In addition to selling only hardbacks, Shirley Cobb’s had another peculiarity—it employed only women. Shirley Cobb herself was by then elderly and only rarely came to the store, but she had created the women-only policy. Moreover, she required that her employees wear skirts, an almost unheard of rule anywhere, let alone in laid-back California after the cultural revolution. Miss Cobb also mandated that employees greet each customer and offer assistance, a highly unusual practice for a bookstore, where people are generally left to browse on their own.

Having been apprised of these rules when hired by Bern Ann, I arrived for my first day of work wearing my only skirt. I was introduced to Janice, who was about my age and very pretty, with curly blond hair. Rhoda, short, brunette, and closer to my mother's age, told me about the biggest job perk—we were allowed to borrow books and read them at home. Despite the skirt requirement, this seemed like a job I could enjoy.

I immediately liked Janice and felt comfortable asking her help, which I often needed. I'd been an English major in college and thought I knew something about books, but found myself feeling clueless when customers asked me to recommend a mystery, or a biography, or perhaps a dessert cookbook. I turned to Janice for suggestions and also for help with more mundane tasks, like ringing up sales or taking orders.

While many customers came to Shirley Cobb's because they counted on a knowledgeable staff, some didn't appreciate our offers of help. After I'd worked at the store for a while, I could usually tell who wanted help and who didn't and vary my greeting accordingly, telling people who looked wary of me to “let me know if you need any help.”

Wrapping books provided a welcome break from all that helpfulness. There were almost always books to be wrapped and shipped, since Shirley Cobb’s received orders from all over the world and had regular customers from as far away as Australia. Book wrapping provided unexpected satisfaction for a perfectionist like me. With their solid rectangular shapes, books were easy to wrap perfectly in our signature green and white striped paper. Wrapping books was the kind of mindless work that freed my mind for daydreaming, conversation, or eavesdropping. Sometimes I'd listen in on a session between Bern Ann and a book representative. The rep (they were always men) would pitch book after book, and Bern Ann, invariably polite but no pushover, chose with a clear sense of her customers' tastes.

I was in the back room wrapping books the first time Miss Cobb came to the store. Dressed in a skirt and sensible shoes, she'd driven down with a female companion from her home in Portola Valley. She had a flinty manner, a deep voice, short pale hair, and a weathered, freckled face. She barely glanced in my direction, instead peppering Bern Ann with sharp questions about book orders and sales. She had a powerful presence, even in old age. Perhaps the mystique of being Ty Cobb's daughter contributed to that aura.

Though Miss Cobb was no longer actively involved in running the business, she'd found a marvelous successor in Bern Ann. Plain in appearance, with a long narrow face and prominent nose, Bern Ann favored straight cotton skirts and never wore makeup. Though often brusque, I soon realized her demeanor hid a kind heart. She was single and, as far as I could tell, the bookstore was her life. While she never expected such devotion from her employees, her dedication did affect the rest of us.

After I'd worked at the store for several weeks, I answered the phone one Friday afternoon. It was the New York Times calling. It was then I learned that Shirley Cobb's was one of a handful of bookstores across the country whose weekly book sales were used to compile the Times Bestseller List. Eventually, I participated in tabulating our list of the top fiction and non-fiction bestsellers (all hardcover, of course) and sometimes I handled the weekly call from the Times. Our contribution to the list made us all feel at the center of the book world far from our California outpost.

During my off hours, I hunkered down with such volumes as The Thorn Birds, The Coming Ice Age, and The Vegetarian Epicure, as well as more literary fare. Our customers ran the gamut from Stanford professors to suburban housewives to aging hippies. We had one regular visitor who frightened me at first, a vacant-looking man in a moth-eaten crewneck sweater. He browsed incessantly but never purchased anything. I was afraid to ask if he needed help, lest he fixate on me in some threatening way. But I noticed that Bern Ann always greeted him with a smile and left him alone. I followed her example, and once I got over my anxiety, realized that Shirley Cobb's provided a safe haven for him, a place where he could hang out undisturbed for a little while each day.

Anne was a part-time employee. Tall and athletic, with short blond hair, she breezed in three times a week like the scent of eucalyptus. She had three teenage sons and a wood-paneled station wagon and was accomplished in the domestic arts—gardening, cooking, sewing. I eventually sold her my Elna sewing machine, having melted my first sewing attempt, a polyester dress, with my iron. Anne was good at taking charge and had become Bern Ann's second-in-command, giving Bern Ann the chance for an occasional day off.

During my first few months at Shirley Cobb’s, I kept my law school plans secret, but this became increasing uncomfortable as my attachment to the people at the store grew. Finally, I confided to Janice, who suggested that I wait until I had definite news before telling Bern Ann.

By mid-spring, I had decided on the University of Chicago, which meant moving as well as leaving Shirley Cobb's. I was in for quite a surprise when I finally got up the courage to tell Bern Ann—she revealed that she herself had gone to law school back in the Fifties. She'd never told anyone at the bookstore, not even those who’d worked there for years.

It turned out that Bern Ann had been one of only two women in her class at Stanford Law School. After one year, she had quit. It had been too difficult, she said—not the academics, but the treatment from male students and professors. I no longer faced the same obstacles. Fully thirty percent of the students in my law school class would be women. Still, I regarded Bern Ann as a tough, confident woman, the type who would thrive in challenging circumstances. If she couldn’t hack it, what was in store for me?

As it turned out, much the same fate—sheer stubborness made me persevere through graduation and admission to the bar, but I never practiced law. Unlike Bern Ann, I wasn’t worn down by male chauvinism; I’d simply chosen the wrong profession. I sometimes wished I’d saved myself a lot of trouble and stayed right where I was, in the hospitable world of the bookstore. Sadly, that wouldn't have been possible for long. A few years after I departed for Chicago, Miss Cobb died. Not long after that, the Shirley Cobb Bookstore closed. But while it survived, it was a haven for book lovers and an oasis of civility. Perhaps that was Miss Cobb's antidote to her father's brilliant but brutal career.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Dream Engine Remembered

One evening during the spring of 1969, my boyfriend, Eric, picked me up at Smith College and we drove over to Amherst. He wanted me to see a student production, a musical that had been written and scored by his friend, Jim Steinman, who also had the starring role. I vaguely knew Steinman, as everyone called him. I'd seen him at fraternity parties, sitting in a corner plunking the keys on an old upright piano. With long black hair and a closed-lip smile, he acted awkward and shy around me and other women. His friends seemed to expect great things of him.

The musical, Eric told me, was called The Dream Engine. The sold-out performance had already started, but he thought we might manage to get standing room in the back of the theater and at least see the second act. I would find the show pretty shocking, he warned me, along the lines of Hair. Think full-frontal nudity. I felt a shiver of excitement. I would be part of a genuine happening.

No one paid any attention to us as we entered the theater. We stood just behind the back row of the orchestra. The music was hard rock, melodic and catchy. And the actors on stage were naked. I had no idea what the plot might be, I only knew that suddenly the entire cast was coming off the stage, down the aisles, dancing between the seats, even on seat-backs, giving everyone an eyeful, gyrating to this amazing, pounding music. I was dazzled, convinced that I was in the presence of a creative genius.

Theatrical impresario Joseph Papp thought so, too. He optioned The Dream Engine, intending to put it on at New York's Public Theater. The following fall, Steinman asked Eric to play keyboards in the stage band. By then, Eric and I had broken up, at least for the time being. Eric, who was then a junior at Amherst, took the spring semester off and moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where he shared a house with other band members. Rehearsals began. Steinman proved difficult for Papp to work with, though, and after numerous arguments over creative control, the project was shelved.

But the music for The Dream Engine didn't disappear forever. By the time it re-emerged, in 1977, Eric and I had gotten back together, married, and moved to California, then relocated to Chicago for graduate school. Eric, in his first year of an MBA program at the University of Chicago, thought he might want to work in the record industry, although he found himself increasingly drawn to the new field of strategy consulting. I was almost through my first year of law school at the U. of C. and didn't know what the hell I was doing there. I'd applied to law school in a fit of feminist defiance—if Eric was going to business school, then I'd damn well attend law school! For me, as it turned out, trying to master contracts and civil procedure was like trying to fit a round peg into a very square hole.

As final exams approached, I was a nervous wreck, vacillating between periods of feverish study and complete collapse, during which I'd lie on the living room couch in a state of total exhaustion. Right at this juncture, a college friend told us that Steinman had come out with an album, Bat Out of Hell, featuring Meatloaf, an enormous and enormously talented recording artist. We immediately went and bought it.

Virtually every cut on the album, we soon realized, was inspired by The Dream Engine music. I couldn't get enough of it. From then on, I spent my sessions on the couch listening endlessly to "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad," "Heaven Can Wait," and all the other overwrought songs. I loved them. Steinman, like me, had grown up on Long Island, and the steamy lyrics about beaches and cars reminded me of my own Saturday nights as a teenager when I'd been "All Revved Up With No Place to Go." The music evoked nostalgia for my college years as well, when I'd felt strong, beautiful, and on my way to doing great things. Though still collapsed on the couch, I now luxuriated in my depression.

Somehow, the music helped me plow through exams. I even worked at a downtown law firm that summer, the round peg of my being only slightly whittled down and re-shaped by the experience. Though I finished law school, I eventually abandoned law for more fulfilling, if not greater, things. But even now, thirty years later, when I listen to Bat Out of Hell, I'm back there on the couch, the musty smell of law books mixing with the soft air of a melancholy Chicago spring.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

My Vicarious Trip to Poland

When my 21-year-old son, Alex, told me he hoped to spend his spring break in Poland, I immediately felt squeamish. I knew full well why such a trip interested him. He was in the midst of writing his senior thesis play about the Lodz Ghetto and wanted to see it firsthand. But for me, the idea of such a journey conjured up frightening images—bleak Soviet-style architecture under gray skies, a plodding, unfriendly populace who resented American wealth and power, rabid anti-Semites just waiting to pounce on a nice Jewish boy like Alex.

"Why not Cancun?" I said, in a feeble attempt to make light of my concerns. Alex didn't bother to answer, instead offering the merest smile.

"I'm free that week," I ventured, taking another tack. "I could go with you."

Alex acknowledged that gambit with a baleful look before he replied, "I really want to do this trip on my own, Mom."

Though fearful, I admired Alex for his willingness to venture on his own to a such a foreign place. We agreed the trip would make a nice graduation gift, so I offered to let my travel agent handle the arrangements. To my relief, Alex acquiesced and the planning began. Nancy, though a first-class travel agent, didn't really know anything about Poland, let alone Lodz. She'd sent "a few people" to Warsaw, but no one further afield. She said she'd make some calls and get back to me.

While I waited to hear from her, I tried to reassure myself that the trip really was a good idea. After all, I told myself, this was 2007, not 1939. Poland was now part of the European Union. How backward could it be? It was a democracy now, I recalled, and one of the only countries that had actually supported the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. In retrospect, a big mistake, but given that Poland had even sent some troops to Iraq, how anti-American could the Polish people be?

I was in the midst of this pep talk to myself when Nancy called back. She'd arranged hotels in Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow, which she promised were well-located (code for safe), decent, and surprisingly inexpensive. So at least Poland would be a bargain. She also had set up tours for Alex in Warsaw and Lodz, plus a driver to take him from Krakow to Auschwitz, which he was determined to visit.

So there it was, we had a plan. Nancy emailed Alex and me the tentative itinerary. As soon as we okayed the schedule, which included train transfers from Warsaw to Lodz and then from Lodz to Krakow via Warsaw, Nancy would use my credit card to reserve everything.

Only the train connections gave me pause. The itinerary called for Alex to take a train from Lodz which would arrive in Warsaw in the late afternoon. He would have only thirty-five minutes from his scheduled arrival in Warsaw to make the connection to another train leaving Warsaw for Krakow. This seemed like precious little time between trains in a country I still pictured as hopelessly retrograde. If the Italians couldn't get their trains to run on time (a fact which I knew from unfortunate personal experience), how could I possibly expect Polish trains to function at all?

I allowed my imagination to run riot. If Alex missed the train to Krakow, he would be forced to take a later train, which would get him to the Krakow railroad station in the middle of the night, rather than the civilized eight pm arrival anticipated by the itinerary. And everyone knows that railroad stations are dangerous places. If my daytime visions of Poland were bad, my late-night fantasies were a thousand times worse. And what if there were no later train? Then Alex would have to wait until morning, meaning he would miss his already-arranged trip to Auschwitz. Needless to say, I immediately emailed Nancy and expressed my doubts about the close timing of the train connections.

Her reply was to the point: "The trains are very efficient there and these times between trains are standard—off one train and onto another!" I had no idea how Nancy had educated herself so quickly about the nature of Polish trains, and the notion of efficient service certainly didn't comport with my idea of Poland as a third-world country, but with her reassurance, I signed off on the itinerary. Little did I know that, although Alex's trip was still a couple of months away, my own vicarious journey was about to begin.


Alex had told me that Lodz is pronounced Woodj in Polish, something he'd learned in the course of doing research about the Lodz Ghetto. That unlikely pronunciation was pretty much all I knew about Lodz, or about the rest of Poland, for that matter. So when I mentioned Alex's trip to my sister, Janet, I was amazed to learn that she'd actually been in Poland during a mostly-Scandinavian cruise that included a stop in the port city of Gdansk.

"What was it like?" I asked, picturing, of course, a gray tableau of abandoned shipyards and cinder block buildings.

"It was pretty," Janet said. Pretty? "The city was basically destroyed during the war," she went on, "and afterwards was rebuilt in the old style. It was quite charming."

Charming? I knew Gdansk was the birthplace of Poland's Solidarity movement but I'd never imagined charming.

Soon after, I was talking to my friend, Barbara, whose daughter Eve has known Alex most of her life. When I told Barbara Alex was going to Poland, she said she herself had been to Krakow many years ago. She described it as a beautiful city, whose old town had been preserved. Even more surprising, she said Eve had a college friend, Marcel, whose family was Polish and who had spent summers between semesters working in Warsaw.

"Marcel told Eve that Warsaw is his his favorite city in the world," Barbara said. Really? In my mind's eye, Poland began to look a bit different, lighter, spots of color brightening the drab mental picture with which I'd begun. Barbara said maybe Eve could ask Marcel to give Alex some tips. I was delighted by the idea of a contact who had spent time in Poland, who liked Poland, who could tell Alex where to go and what to avoid.

I felt glad to have found two people I knew who had links to Poland, however tenuous. Their favorable descriptions made me wonder whether time, democracy, and capitalism had transformed the country into a more tolerant land. After all, Pope John Paul II, himself Polish, had denounced anti-Semitism and had even recognized the State of Israel. Since he was adored by his fellow Poles, his example must have had a profound impact in his native land. At least I hoped so.

As I struggled to come to terms with my nervousness about Alex's impending journey, one thing was clear. My fears were more about me than about Alex. He'd already spent a semester in London and during that time he'd traveled all over Western Europe, staying in hostels and other somewhat seedy locales. I knew he was smart and resourceful. But he'd always traveled with at least one friend. This time, he would be in Eastern Europe and he'd be alone. What if I didn't hear from him? How would I know whether or not he was okay?

Ironically, I myself had traveled alone in Europe when I was Alex's age. During the summer after my junior year of college, I flew to England with only a rucksack and explored the U.K. and the Continent on my own. Though I met up with friends at various stops along the way, I had no set itinerary and often wound up in out-of-the-way places all by myself. There were no cell phones back then and it was far too expensive to call long-distance on a land line. I think I sent my parents a few postcards.

During my travels that summer, I met some terrific people and did some pretty dumb things, like hitching a ride and then staying overnight with total strangers in Leeds, camping near Lake Como in Italy with two guys I'd just met, and visiting the Parisian garret of a Scottish playright who chain smoked Gauloises, coughed consumptively, and said he wanted to show me his manuscript. He did in fact show me his manuscript and I lived to tell the tale. But taking such risks myself was one thing. Regarding Alex, motherhood had turned me into an entirely different kind of animal—a fiercely protective one.

I knew Alex would understandably bristle if I pressured him to call me every day or, worse, to get the kind of cell phone that would enable me to call him. I suspected that this trip represented a rite of passage for him—a journey of self-discovery as well as an exploration of the destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. I hoped his trip would be a rite of passage for me as well. I needed to let go and let my son live his own life.

Meanwhile, Polish connections kept popping up. Over dinner with my friends, Gail and Jeremy, Jeremy mentioned that his brother, Adam, an alternative energy investor, lived in a suburb of Warsaw. According to Jeremy, Adam and his wife and son loved living there and, better yet, they loved visitors! A flurry of emails followed and soon Alex had been invited to spend an afternoon in Konstancin, which he later discovered is known as the Beverly Hills of Warsaw.

I was pleased about this development. The visit would offer Alex a close-up glimpse of life in Poland, ex-patriot style. Alex was as excited as I about this opportunity. He agreed with me that the more people he could meet in Poland, the more he'd learn about the place. Although he chafed at my over-protectiveness, he clearly appreciated my efforts on his behalf.

Belatedly, I remembered that another friend, Jeanie, had actually visited Poland two summers earlier on a quest to see property owned by her family before the war. So the next time I saw her, I excitedly broached the subject of Alex's trip.

"You might be interested to know that Alex is going to Poland," I said.

"Really? To Warsaw?"

When I began to explain about Lodz, she stopped me, exclaiming "Lodz! That's where my family's property is." She even pronounced Lodz in the correct Polish manner.

Jeanie was even more thrilled than I about this link and was anxious for Alex to meet some of the Polish people she knew in Lodz and Warsaw. Again, a flurry of emails ensued, and tentative plans were made. In the process, I saw Jeanie's photographs of both Lodz and Warsaw. People in the photos looked normal, the sky was blue, and there were modern cars on the street. I began to feel less nervous and more enthusiastic about Alex's upcoming voyage, and hopeful he'd have the chance experience Poland from a Polish perspective.

Around this time, Alex told me he had heard from Eve's college buddy, Marcel.

"Great!" I said, "Did he give you some suggestions for things to do in Warsaw, and maybe some restaurants?"

"Nope, just a list of bars and clubs to check out."

Strike one for connections. I paused, my head filled once again with visions of Alex alone, this time staggering out of some club in an alley at three am.

"Do you plan to . . .?"

Alex didn't even let me finish the question. "No, Mom," he said, in a long-suffering tone, "I'm not planning to spend my time in bars and clubs."

* * *

Alex's fourth day in Poland found my husband, Eric, and me, along with our friends, Susan and David, on Florida's Tamiami Trail. After driving about an hour South of Miami, we turned onto the Loop Road, an unpaved twenty-mile circuit carved through the Everglades, about as far from Poland as I could imagine being. We drove slowly, stopping often to get out of the car and take a closer look. In natural canals next to the dirt road, alligators rested on fallen logs, others lolled languidly in the surprisingly-clear water, cormorants fished, and anhingas dried their wings.

Eric raised his camera to take a picture of a huge alligator, at least twelve feet long, resting on the opposite bank. As he did so, the reptile slithered off the bank into the water with a speed that astonished and terrified us. No fences protected us here, no theme park simulated the real environment. We were up close and personal, separated only by ten feet of water.

We hightailed it back to the car, laughing, panting, exhilarated. Further along, we came to the Sweetwater bird overlook, an amazing natural habitat filled with blue and white herons, anhingas, ibises, cormorants, even a rare wood stork. I glanced at my watch. Alex would be arriving in Lodz just about now. He had promised to call when he got to his hotel. I checked my cell phone. No signal. I was as unreachable to Alex as he was to me.

A while later, we exited the Loop Road and merged back onto the Tamiami Trail, continuing south toward Everglades City, where we planned to have lunch at the venerable Rod and Gun Club. I checked my cell again, hoping for a message. Still no signal. I endeavored to stay in the here and now of the sun-drenched river of grass stretching endlessly on either side of the highway, but part of me waited in the lobby of a run-down hotel on the main street of a once-thriving Polish textile-manufacturing city, watching for a slim, curly-haired American youth to walk through the door.

I gave up on the signal and put my cell back in my purse, resigned. A moment later, I heard its muffled ring.


"Hi, Mom." As if he were in the next room. "I'm at the hotel. Everything is great. I'm meeting Jeanie's friend Agata in the lobby in about an hour."

We talked a little more. What we said didn't matter. Across the great divide of two continents, Alex had reached me. The connection had been made.

Alex has written a fascinating e-book about his experiences in Poland. If you're interested, you can access it here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Shaggy Dog Story

Cosmo needs a grooming. Cosmo, as some of you may know, is my seven-pound apricot toy poodle, apricot being an accepted American Kennel Club color, as opposed to peach, plum, or papaya. Cosmo comes from a long line of champion poodles. Never mind that his father is also his grandfather (what's a little inbreeding among family?). Or that his mother weighed eleven pounds while his father/grandfather only tipped the scales at five. I try not to picture that union. But I love the result to pieces.

Cosmo will never be a father or a grandfather, having been neutered at nine months. While this may have stopped his reproductive abilities in their tracks, it did nothing to stop his copious, curly, fruit-colored locks from growing at an alarming rate. Cosmo is like me in that he has hair, lots of it, as opposed to fur. So, like me, he needs frequent grooming appointments. Cosmo's haircuts cost more than I would dream of spending on my own, especially now that I've found the Vidal Sassoon of dog groomers. Every few weeks, I bring Cosmo to The Dog from Ipanema, where Jarbas, the gushing Brazilian owner, takes my "baby" from my arms and, cooing all the way, delivers him to Annette for the full spa treatment.

This is not a mere bath, not a mere haircut. For starters, the bather puts special little goggles over Cosmo's big brown doggie eyes. One of the caveats about bathing dogs is never, ever to get soapy water in their eyes. This is one of the reasons why I never, ever give Cosmo a bath, not counting the time when one of my kids accidentally spilled a full pitcher of pineapple juice on top of him. He nearly drowned in the sticky liquid and a bath was the only solution. But normally, I entrust bathing to Jarbas' crew, which does an admirable job. Recently, my poor little pooch had a double ear infection, so Jarbas made sure cotton balls were carefully placed in his ears before bathing was begun.

The signature of a great groomer is the cut and the comb-out. Annette gives Cosmo a regal, yet adorable cut and her comb-out is a work of art, producing a result more impressive than an eight-hundred-dollar Japanese hair straightening job, not that I've had one (but I'm thinking about it). Cosmo's coiled curls become silky, lustrous, and straight. And his nails—well, I could opt for polish, but I draw the line at pet pedicures. After all, Cosmo is a male. Ditto for ribbons around his neck or fancy rhinestone collars. Not for my manly little canine. Still, when Annette is through with him, he looks like a million bucks, as well he should, considering I'm paying almost that much.

Cosmo, ever the aristocrat, appears unfazed by all the groomer's ministrations. When I pick him up, he makes a beeline for the door, anxious, as always to get back to the important things in life—sniffing, peeing, pooping, and above all, eating.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My Life in Bugs, Part Two: Older, But Not Much Wiser

One sunny spring morning in Los Gatos, California, I was sitting in the tiny kitchen of my garden apartment, enjoying a bowl of granola and a cup of coffee. The year was 1975. I was reading the New Yorker magazine while I ate, but something made me lift my head—perhaps an intimation of darkness on the white wall next to the window. There it was, black as soot, black as night, black as a black hole—a black widow spider. Even from a distance I knew immediately it was a black widow. It remained motionless on the white background. I stepped gingerly toward it. Although I was afraid it would leap from the wall and bite me, I had to investigate. As I inched closer, I could see the telltale red hourglass on its abdomen.

I felt a frisson of delight. I was face to face with the spider of legend, a spider that seemed too mythic to die, at least by my hand. Yet, I knew we couldn't coexist. It had to go. So I did the logical thing—I called my husband, Eric, and entreated him to kill it. Eric reluctantly grabbed a newspaper, but that seemed too flimsy a weapon for the task. I handed him the New Yorker. While perhaps no more hefty than the newspaper, at least it had the force of intellect behind it. Eric approached the spider, still motionless on the white wall. As it perceived the shadow of the rolled magazine, it began a rapid crawl upward. Eric took aim and brought the magazine hard against the wall. To our surprise, the fearsome black widow expired as readily as a common house spider.

The black widow wasn't our only uninvited guest during the year we lived in Los Gatos. A few months after that episode, Eric and I returned from a week's vacation. The apartment was stuffy, having been closed up during our trip. I hurried to open the sliding glass door which led from the living room to a tiny patio. As I opened the slider I was met with a sight that could have inspired the insect scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom--earwigs, thousands of them, filling the entire track of the door. A few intrepid ones had managed to get off the track onto the orange shag carpet and were advancing into the apartment. Once again, I did the logical thing—I screamed. Eric came running. During the next hour, he engaged in a truly heroic removal effort. With no more than a broom, he swept the earwigs away, back to their natural habitat. A few survived the onslaught intact, but many were severely injured, and most died. Not having the saintliness of an Albert Schweitzer, I felt no remorse at their demise. And I still can't open a sliding glass door without a shiver of anxiety.

Apparently, I hadn't learned much from my childhood experiences with bugs. I still dreaded most varieties and behaved like a distinctly unliberated woman when I came across them. For better or worse, though, Eric wasn't always around to rescue me. During the late seventies, he was often away on business and my only companions in our Boston waterfront apartment were the cockroaches that freaked me out when I turned on the bathroom light. After we moved to the suburbs in the early eighties, Eric still traveled frequently, so I had to learn the ways of carpenter ants, ground bees, and gypsy moths.

Considering that we lived in a manicured enclave not far from the city, we were visited by a surprising number of bizarre and alarming insects. One year, our screened-in porch was invaded by small, winged creatures. I feared the worst—a termite swarm. I was reassured by my exterminator, Danny, that they were not termites but citronella ants, winged ants which emit a citronella odor when threatened.

Ironically, for someone as averse to bugs as me, I'm even more averse to the use of pesticides. Fortunately, Danny, whose kids went to school with mine, didn't push pesticides on me. Rather, he was a genuine bug enthusiast. Once, when a cicada found its way into my living room, where it died on the windowsill, Danny excitedly asked if he could have it to show his son. He promised me that the citronella ants were harmless and would soon disappear from the porch on their own. When they did, I called a contractor and had the foundation rebuilt in the hope of preventing a return visit.

Once my children were old enough to notice my reaction to bugs, I felt it imperative to display courage and calm in the face of even the scariest invader. Some of my worst moments came when bees got into the house. Nothing seemed more threatening than a frenzied bee in an enclosed space. Many was the time I simply closed off the room with the bee in it until Eric arrived home and worked his magic with a folded newspaper. Usually by then the bee was so exhausted it died easily.

But one summer afternoon, I saw the light. A friend was sitting in the kitchen with me when a buzzing sound alerted us that a bee had somehow gotten in. Heading toward the light, it had found its way to a closed window where it buzzed angrily. I suggested we leave the kitchen immediately. My friend pooh-poohed that idea and instead picked up a glass and a thin piece of cardboard. She put the glass over the bee as it came to rest on the window, trapping it, then slipped the cardboard between the window and the top of the glass. Holding the cardboard over the glass, she carried the imprisoned bee outside, where she set it free. It was a moment of revelation and exhilaration for me. I didn't have to kill the bee! I didn't have to wait for Eric to kill the bee! Better for me and certainly better for the bee! Since learning this amazing technique, I've saved numerous bees, an occasional wasp, and not a few flies.

My biggest challenge bug-wise came when a cicada killer wasp decided to build its burrow beneath our brick patio. The cicada killer is an admirable creature, industrious and protective of its nest. It's also gigantic—nearly two inches long. I first encountered one on a lovely mid-summer day when I stepped onto my patio and it dive bombed me from seemingly out of nowhere. I retreated into the house from where I watched it enter a small opening in the stone dust between two bricks on the patio. In short order, little piles of dust formed around the hole. The cicada killer was building its nest by dislodging soil with its mouth and kicking the loose particles back much as a dog would dig a hole.

From that moment on, I only ventured onto the patio in a state of extreme vigilance. Even then, it was hard to predict when the enormous wasp would emerge, zooming straight toward me. I didn't know then that males, though particularly aggressive, have no stinger. Females will sting but only when provoked. Normally, their stingers are used to kill cicadas, which they then bring back to their nests. Even had I known these fascinating facts, my conclusion would have been the same—the cicada killer had to be evicted. We couldn't share the same patio. I was about to call Danny, thinking this problem might actually require a dose of chemicals, when I happened to mention the situation to my children's babysitter, a feisty older woman who knew many old-fashioned remedies.

"You don't need pesticides," she said. "Just wait until the wasp goes into its nest and pour boiling water on it." Eureka! I'd found a solution to the problem, albeit a cruel one. That very day, I boiled a kettleful of water and waited. When the wasp entered the opening to its nest, I went outside with my kettle and poured the entire contents down the opening. I never saw the cicada killer again. I did feel a twinge of guilt, but mostly I exulted in my newfound resourcefulness. For the next decade, every summer brought another cicada killer to our backyard. Sadly for the unsuspecting creature, I made quick work of it each time.

I could go on and on—the mysterious blistering bites that turned out to be from fleas infesting our East Palo Alto apartment; the palmetto bug that terrorized the kids and me in an Orlando hotel; the humongous, though harmless, millipedes that hung out in our basement and occasionally showed up in our bedroom. You get the picture. Bugs are everywhere. They continue to fascinate, repulse, and sometimes scare me. But I've adopted a laissez-faire approach. Live and let live, unless they invade my personal space. Then I do the logical thing—I call Eric.