Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who's Steve Kindel?

I'll admit it: one reason I remember Elsie so fondly and so often—just one reason—is that she gave me a cake recipe that I make about once a month. I'm a terrible cook, but this cake comes out perfectly every time. In fact, when I tell people I'm a terrible cook, if they've had this cake, they think I'm guilty of false modesty. Elsie was nothing if not generous, so I know she wouldn't mind if I spread the sweetness. Here it is, in her own words:

Elsie's Apple Cake, by way of Steve Kindel

1 cup of oil
1 1/2 cups of sugar—I mix brown and white sugar
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups of peeled, sliced apples—I use Rome, Delicious or McIntosh
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins

Beat the oil and sugar together; add eggs, beat until creamy.
Add the vanilla.

Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon and baking soda.
Stir thse dry ingredients into the batter

Add the raisins, nuts and apples.

The batter will be quite stiff.

Spoon batter into a buttered, floured angel's food or bundt pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for an hour or so.

Farewell, Elsie B

The other day I found out I'd lost an old friend. Elsie B. Washington died at the age of 66 of cancer and multiple sclerosis. I hadn't seen her since she moved to Oakland nearly 20 years ago, though I often tried to track her down when I was in the Bay Area visiting the 'rents. None of our mutual friends seemed to know what had happened to her. Turns out she'd been living in Yonkers, just a few miles from my apartment in New York, for a while before she died. Wish I'd known.

Years ago, Elsie and I and a couple of male colleagues used to have lunch once a month at a Japanese place across the street from work and pool our money to buy lottery tickets. It was Elsie's idea and an example of her foremost characteristic—optimism. And sometimes—rarely—we won, usually about $10 a person. The financial stakes and winnings were negligible. The fact that Elsie had selected us to share her luck was the real piece of good fortune for me.

A white woman with a child and a couple of married white men, all of us from expensive private colleges—we might seem to have had little in common with a single black woman from the Bronx. And we didn't. Elsie was by far the most accomplished of us. She was a gifted writer who wrote a couple of nonfiction books, one on sickle-cell anemia, another on relationships between black men and black women. Perhaps most famously, she held the distinction of writing the first black bodice ripper—Entwined Destinies—under the pseudonym Rosalind Welles. She's probably the only one of us who will merit an obit in the Times (

Growing up in white secular suburban California, I hadn't had a lot of friends like Elsie before. I was quietly (I hope) fascinated by her blackness and her urban, Baptist upbringing.

When I look back, though, it wasn't her accomplishments or her race that made me treasure my friendship with Elsie. It was the example she set of not getting bogged down. I know she faced difficulties in her life, but she just didn't dwell on them. Grueling work assignments, crappy cubicle with migraine-inducing fluorescent lighting, cranky editors, the daily humiliations of being a grunt in a status-conscious company—she seemed to know where these annoyances belonged in the hierarchy of importance: beneath her notice. She had perspective. I think of her as having her eyes on the horizon, not in the sense of ambition but in the sense of taking the long view.

Alas, the long view, in Elsie's case, wasn't long enough. Sixty-six years old. 

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Really silly post

I'm sure I'm not the only person who mulls over bizarre trivial questions. At the risk of mortification, I'll share some of mine:

In our house the litter box is right next to the toilet. As my cats and I companionably hunker down together, I am aware that people sometimes train their cats to use the toilet. It makes me wonder whether I could use the litter box. Jonny Cat Maximum is pretty good stuff, though the whole pellets-between-the-toes thing might get old fast. I'm a good squatter. Yogis say squatting is much more effective for elimination ...

Where does a penis go when a man crosses his legs? Does it go under or between his legs? And if so, doesn't it hurt? I've had penis pity since I was a child. It seems dangerous to have this soft protrusion that could get slammed in doors. If I were a man I'd wear a jockstrap full time.

Very young women apparently are capable of falling in love with very old men. (I'm trying not to be cynical here.) Is it possible for a very young man to fall genuinely in love with a very old woman? Or, say, a youngish man with an oldish woman? I've seen Harold and Maude, but does it ever happen in real life? I personally don't have anyone in mind—really.

Is there some particular feature that causes women but not men to be perceived as unattractive as they age? I've heard it said that women become more like men as they get older, so maybe it's the disjunction between our gender and our appearance that is off-putting. Maybe older women should start cross-dressing to preserve their appeal?

There, I feel better now. But you probably feel worse!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Trivializing cancer

Something has been bothering me for a few weeks now. It was reported to me that a certain science editor in declining to run a particular cancer-breakthrough story explained that cancer is no longer interesting because it has been turned from a terminal disease into a chronic one. I don't know if the person who told me this was an accurate reporter, but the notion that cancer is a chronic disease and that that means it's no biggy bugs me. First of all, it's the lucky ones who get the chronic forms of the disease. Second, the chronic form predictably leads to an early death, which means it's still a terminal disease. Third, living with a chronic disease means a life of chemotherapy, radiation, scans and scares. You try living like that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Puja on my deck

Having a spacious deck in cramped New York is a wonderful thing. Of course, as with any other blessing, there are mitigations: used condoms, bloody syringes, pigeon poop, cigarette butts—the flotsam and jetsam of urban life—that descend from on high. This morning I awoke to find the planks littered with a new debris: lovely, pearl-white rose petals.

The thing is, we don't own any rose bushes.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Adventure in dreamland

In real life, I haven't owned a car for 35 years (my last car was a Dodge Dart with a vanity plate that read OBJET—get it?). But last night I was driving my SUV with a carload of my daughter C's friends, when a wild snapping rodent began racing frantically around the vehicle. Somehow I caught it. I identified it as a badger, though it was more like a ferret in its proportions and had ratty, fox-red fur and a long, flat, needle-toothed snout. It kept getting away, and I had to keep catching it amid the shrieking of the girls and the snapping of its sharp yellow teeth. (I seemed to be both driver and passenger, so miraculously navigation was not at issue.) My arms were scratched and bleeding, and thoughts of rabies flickered through my mind, but I was too busy trying to capture the little biter to dwell on the danger to me. Finally, we got it home to our apartment, and someone managed to stuff it into a large pickup-sticks tube and put the cap on it. Meanwhile I poked through cupboards to find some nonprescription catfood it might like (my cats eat a special prescription food that smells nasty). I never managed to feed it, but did give it some water with a syringe. Eventually we all piled back into the SUV, taking the crazed little beast with us, and let it go in a vacant lot that we realized with a twinge was about to be razed for construction.

Now normally I wouldn't try to remember a dream. After all, I have many every night. But this was a particularly vivid one. And I've been watching Season 1 of In Treatment. And then, there are these odd little bite marks on my shins this morning ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Living in a world of pain

I'm living in a world of pain. It's not my pain. It's everyone else's. My friend B returned yesterday from the funeral of a cousin who died in his 40s of cancer and heads off tomorrow to escort her sister home from the hospital where she's undergone electroshock therapy for depression. My friend R is standing vigil over her 96-year-old mother, who has such severe osteoporosis that she broke her leg turning over in her sleep. Her leg has been set, but now a mass has been discovered in her innards. Meanwhile, R and her husband are separating after 25 years of marriage, the loft they've shared must be vacated, and she must find a new, cheap apartment for herself and at least one of her two dogs. Then there's my friend T, who is requesting a retirement package from work so that she can devote more time to providing hospice for her aged father. And let's not forget my other friend B, who at age 65 lost her job—at the company she helped found!—and hasn't been able to find another one.

I wish I knew how to comfort these dear friends, all of whom took care of me during my cancer ordeal. I know I'm supposed to listen, to bear witness. I don't really know how to do that. I mean, I do listen, and I do observe, but how to I make that into a comforting experience for my friends? And isn't there something else I can do?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Denial and dementia

Do these people not have a brain in their heads? First the old woman breaks her knee and drags herself on her butt between bed and bathroom, refusing to see a doctor for three weeks because "it doesn't hurt." As a result of the delay in seeking help, the patella heals in two pieces, and even though the two pieces have now been wired together, the thing will never work exactly as it used to. Then the old man bangs his shin against a cupboard and gets a big ugly hematoma. Go to the doctor, I plead. "It doesn't hurt," he says. Six weeks later, he's got a crater the size of a dessert plate that's not healing. He has to get it debrided every day and may have to undergo skin grafts. What is the matter with these people!

The old woman—O.K., my mother—cheerfully reminds me that she's been insouciant all her life about physical ailments, and just as cavalier about her kids' health as with her own. "Remember when you got those terrible chicken pox?" she says. "And they turned into big black spots that never went away?" Yep, I remember. Hurt like hell when she finally took me to the doctor and he burnt them off.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Affairs of the office

Used to be that the company I work for was a den of iniquity. People drank, smoked and had sex on their office couches with people who were not their spouses. A lot of folks were pretty much staggering after about 5 p.m., ashtrays overflowed and the hallways reeked of cigarette smoke, and you had to knock really loud before entering an office to avoid the risk of seeing a couple en flagrante. Mostly the flagrante stuff happened between male bosses and female underlings. It was sexist and broke up a lot of marriages—and resulted in more than a few new ones.

It's much tamer these days, maybe because cubicles predominate and all actual offices have glass walls. There may be some drinking, but no one passes out at his desk anymore, and if someone wants a cigarette he has to leave the building to smoke. Frankly, it pisses me off. The smokers get to take time off from work several times a day and breathe some fresh air (well, it's all relative, since we're in New York after all) along with their nicotine, while I'm chained to my desk all day—but I digress. And there's a lot less tittering because there's apparently less to titter about.

But a few years ago, the tittering arose anew. Two people who shall be nameless were rumored to be having an affair. Both were married to other people and had children. The evidence, which was widely circulated and heehawed over: they were frequently seen leaving or entering the building together at odd hours, sometimes looking flushed and rumpled. They were together way more than their work duties required, and sometimes they seemed to be positively drooling over each other in public. Eventually both left the company for reasons unrelated to their alleged affair.

Now rumors have arisen about another "work couple." But the evidence in this case, again widely broadcast among the staff, consists mainly of the observation that they are never, ever seen together, proving they have something to hide and are as guilty as sin. This evidence is considered solid proof by those who offer it and many who receive it.

So I'm just wondering, if you wanted to keep your affair private, should you be discreet or hang it out for all to see?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What to watch, what to read?

I've been having a little entertainment crisis in recent years. Don't know if it's the cancer thing, though that certainly has exacerbated it, but I can't seem to watch movies or read books that have frightening or painful imagery. They make me unbearably anxious. In our culture, that can really restrict your options. No action films, no war movies, no melodramas of any kind. To accommodate my limitations, I've been watching a lot of crap, like He's Just Not That Into You and I Love You Man, and reading a lot of magazines, all of which is enjoyable but not particularly nourishing. Yoga texts—anatomy and philosophy—appeal to me more in the abstract than in practice. I can snack on them for a few minutes at a time but can't settle in with them for a lengthy feast. And most novels are love stories, which, though compelling, are not relevant to my life as a 59-year-old with a partner of 37 years. Surely there is a genre suited to ladies of a certain age and disposition. I've probably just overlooked it ...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My own private archaeology dig

After weeks of sifting through the midden of my youth, I'm ready to begin shredding the humiliating journals I kept in my 20s and my early attempts at fiction. It seems contradictory to blog about destroying those proto-blogs, but there it is. One day I may return this blog to the atman of the ether. But for now, I want to distill some of the material from those sad years:

*I have always thought of my writing talents as second-rate and viewed my student papers and early fiction and journalistic efforts with painful embarrassment, and that embarrassment formed my self-image and limited my horizons. However, it turns out that my papers and articles were largely excellent, and my instructors' and editors' comments were strongly encouraging (the fiction is still, well, embarrassing). Examining this evidence, I am struck that it was not for lack of talent or support that I failed to thrive. It was something else that held me back. It was fear of taking a chance and of risking looking foolish.

*Back in December 1975, as Other and I packed for our move to New York, he said to me, "Let's be sure to remember to get out of the city before we're too old to move. New York is a terrible place to be old in." I'm not sure he was right, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't feel that way now, but if it's true that New York is a terrible place to be old in, we'd better start making an exit plan, and it will have to be a very good one to entice me away from my friends and my beautiful deck and the convenience of being able to get anywhere by foot or by train and the availability of a dozen cuisines within a block or two and a health club across the street and ...

*In 1980 I went to Egypt and formed a close bond with a fellahin named Ali, who was one of the workmen I oversaw in a project to clear the tomb of Rameses XI in the Valley of the Kings. His patience, willingness to submit to hard work and acceptance of his austere life seemed magical to me. It occurs to me now that he was my guru.

*The head of the expedition, an Englishman named JR, explained to me, “There’s a pattern in Egypt whereby the young men with talent or special intelligence become restless in their early 20s. They don’t want to leave their villages, but they have no vent for their frustrated energy and ambition. They turn wild. They begin to carry knives and drink and get into fights. Then the older men talk them into getting married. Soon their wives get pregnant, and the young men have family responsibilities and forget their frustrating ambitions. They bend their backs to the care of the next generation.” At the time, I was fascinated by this piece of anthropological analysis. It seemed exotic, specific to Egypt. Now I look back and realize that this is the story of my own life. I was restless and resentful in my 20s, unable to act on my ambitions. I picked fights with Other and blamed him for my unhappiness. Then I got pregnant with my son J, and for the next 28 years all that blocked energy was channeled into him and later my daughter C and the necessity of earning a living to support them. I have led the life of an Egyptian here in America!

*And finally, no need to go into detail or give examples here, but the wince-worthy evidence in the box suggests that I would do best to refrain from writing about sex or bathroom functions. Nuff said.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


So here's one thing I don't understand. How is it that while calcium has been building up in corners of my body where it doesn't belong—breasts, sinuses, bunions—it has been draining away from my bones, leaving them osteoporotic. Maybe that's a clue: I'm growing an exoskeleton!

Letter from yoga camp

Seders are delightful. The communal ritual of reading the Haggadah with its prolongation and repetition of key elements, its enumerations, its foreign-language sing-song sing-alongs, its quaint childlike story with spelled-out morals—it's all great. So I was expecting to unequivocally embrace the four hours of daily satsang at the Sivananda Yoga Ranch in the Catskills. But it was like back-to-back seders twice a day, day after day, beginning with two hours at 6 in the morning and concluding with two hours ending at 9:30 in the evening, plus much chanting and meditating in between and at the two two-hour yoga classes (8 a.m. and 4 p.m.). Too much sitting, too much piety, too many instructions, and something in me just cannot chant "Hare Krishna"—just can't do it.

I went for four days of yoga camp because I felt embarrassed by my superficial grasp of yoga's roots, and Sivananda is considered, along with Integral Yoga, to be the truest practice of yoga in the U.S., the classical form with the deepest roots. I was almost able to make the leap and expose my uvula and chant if not Hare Krishna then Hare Rama or Govinda or whatever, but then I saw hung on the back of the altar along with photographs of Sivananda and Vishnu Devananda a portrait of Jesus Christ—sporting a tilak, the red dot of the Hindus. That shut me right up. And, too, the word "God" was uttered.

For me, this kind of ecumenicalism is not a good thing. In seeking out Sivananda, I was looking for something I could not find in my own culture—godless faith—so seeing the deity and saints of my culture sweetly folded into Sivananda's pantheon was alienating rather than ingratiating.

On the bright side, the asana classes were good and the food was lovely. I came home oozing curry from my pores and with laundry that stank like Calcutta. And driving back with my old friend A brought back memories of many other journeys we have shared in search of sacred bliss.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Abutilon sounds like a song

Every spring for the past five years or so, Other and I have taken the train from Grand Central to Chappaqua to meet up with our friend C, who picks us up at the train station and ferries us to the nurseries in her area, where we buy new plants for our deck. We take her and her husband out for brunch, and she drives us back into the city. It has become a rite of spring for us.

But there is something a little wistful about the exercise. Container gardening has a high failure rate. Not enough soil to insulate the roots in winter, not enough space to "let the fields rest" from time to time, not enough expertise or dedication to adjust the PH or find the perfect fertilizer. We are constantly trying to replicate our glorious successes: those magnificent moonflowers that bloomed in slow motion all one summer, then failed to germinate the following year and cast up morning glories after that; the sweet-pepper bushes that filled the air with a nutmeggy syruppy scent but failed to really rebound after we gave them an ill-advised pruning one year; the abutilon with the adorable yellow bells and red clappers that we neglected to bring in one fall; the honey suckle we grew from a two-inch-long cutting that thrived fragrantly for 15 years, then mysteriously died; the sweet-smelling purple petunias sturdy enough to resist the dread white fly; the elephant ears that made my kids look like pygmies.

At each nursery we look for the ones that got away. Today we gave up on the purple petunias finally but bought yet another honey suckle in hopes of a survivor and replaced the leggy purple butterfly bush with a red one. We found an abutilon with peach-colored bells and marigolds the color of California poppies. And we stunk up the car with a lavendar plant that made my nose run and my eyes water.

The forecast is for rain for the next five days. Next weekend the stinkwood will be in bloom, fouling our deck with its eau de catbox. Then the odors of the plants we brought home from the nursery will prevail. It is springtime in Manhattan.