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Category Archives: memoir

Legacy II: Elvis, LBJ, and My Father

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Elvis Presley

Cover of Elvis Presley

The night Elvis was introduced to America via The Ed Sullivan Show, my mother, a Frank Sinatra worshipper, was amused: sitting on the red loveseat in the living room, knitting as usual, her mouth twitched at the corners as she tried to hold back a smile of…in hindsight I’d say it was ridicule. My older sister alternately screamed and swooned, down on the floor where she always sat in a weird double-jointed position I couldn’t get myself into no matter how hard I tried. Ten years old, I watched Elvis gyrate on the tube, confused by my mixed-up responses, at least partially hormonal. And my father? He was the only one in the family who knew exactly what he thought of this person.

Arggh!” he half growled, half shouted, waving a muscular arm at the television in disgust and dismissal. “Write this jerk’s name down on a piece of paper, and ten years from now take a look at it. You won’t even remember who he is!”

Toby Sheiner (Dad)

Toby Sheiner (Dad)

 

This, of course, became one of my family’s most famous stories, a favorite of my sister’s and mine. My poor father’s been dead and buried since January 1980, and we still tell the tale, to which most people respond with, “Wow, he sure picked the wrong guy to say that about!” After all, he could’ve said it about a million other singers who offended him: say, Carl Perkins. Carl Perkins, you know…Aarggh, forget it!

I was reminded of my father’s hapless prediction this morning during a news story about Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy; it brought to mind another prediction of my father’s—except this one was right. LBJ went

Photo: slpssm.blogspot.com

Photo: slpssm.blogspot.com

down in history as a presidential failure for continuing, even escalating, the war in Vietnam. Not to mention his path to the presidency; anyone alive at the time still recalls the image of Johnson with his hand raised to take the presidential oath on Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy in a pink blood-stained suit at his side. I was old enough to remember, yet young enough to equate this image with one of a murderer: for a long time I believed Johnson was central in a conspiracy of assassination. (While I still believe JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy, I’ve ruled out Johnson as the hit-man-in-chief.) In any case, what was overshadowed by Johnson’s unfortunate path to power and missteps with the war was his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all the other socially progressive legislation of his administration: Medicare, The War on Poverty, food stamps…the social safety net that lies torn and tattered even as I write about it. My father talked about all this on the day that LBJ declared he would not make a run for another term. Then and there my father predicted that “Someday they’ll realize Johnson was one of our greatest presidents.”

Does my father’s clarity regarding LBJ cancel out his inaccurate assessment of Elvis, or even tip the scales a little in his favor? I hate to say it, but I think not. He was so monumentally wrong to think Elvis was a passing trend that his intellectual legacy suffered greatly, no matter how smart he might’ve been with regard to presidential politics. Still…I’ll raise a glass and toast dear old dad later on today, and while I’m at it give Lyndon Johnson his due—belated, but long deserved. Will I include Elvis in my toast? Always.

 

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Big Blue Eyes

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Garry Moore, quintessential 50s TV emcee. Photo: Wikipedia

Garry Moore, quintessential 50s TV emcee. Photo: Wikipedia

Some time around 1950, my mother sent away for free tickets to some corny daytime television show. I don’t recall what it was, only that it wasn’t a soap opera or game show. The emcee, to whom I was rude, blunt, and contemptuous, might have been Garry Moore. The sponsor I vividly remember: Chef Boy-ar-Dee. At

Chef Boyardeethe end of the program each mother-child pair marched across the stage, shook the emcee’s hand, and received a can of ravioli. This ceremony was televised, was part of the programming.

When it was our turn, the emcee smiled at me and cooed, “Where’d you get those big blue eyes?” Four years old, I thought he was an idiot. “I was born with them!” I said, silently conveying the tag, “Stupid!” He was taken aback, but luckily we had to keep moving so the next kid could get a can of ravioli.

My little playmate Barry was home in his Bronx apartment watching TV and sucking his thumb. When I came on camera he shrieked, “That’s my Marcy!” Or so his mother told me. I guess he didn’t notice my bitchiness—or maybe he was used to it. Or maybe it made perfect sense to Barry that I called a grownup on his bullshit: of course I was born with my blue eyes—where else would I have gotten them? For years I’d tell this story for laughs, proud of my youthful honesty. Now, having reached an age where I know who I am and how I got here, I see that my behavior came from a personality in development, one that I cultivated and honed and carried with me into the future. It was not a personality likely to generate success in most areas of life.

The evidence was on my quarterly report card: in first grade, when they only gave out “S” for Satisfactory or “U” for Un, straight S’s ran down and across for every subject but one: “Works well with Others.” Unsatisfactory! Marcy does not work well with others! These days a parent who saw a report card like that would rush their kid to the nearest shrink. My parents ignored it.

Cartoon: Dane Anthony

Cartoon: Dane Anthony

 

This wasn’t really unusual; in fact, it would’ve been considered odd if they had consulted a shrink. That’s the way my generation’s parents were: they pushed us out the door in the morning and expected us back by supper. We were to do our homework without their help, do well in school, wash our face and comb our hair. They were nothing like today’s “helicopter” parents.

The other day I heard someone roughly my age on a podcast, talking about the parenting style of the generation who raised us, who raised me. It might’ve been Marc Maron, who I listen to a lot, but he’s younger. Whoever it was, he joked that our parents won World War II, saving us from living in a Hitleresque world

Photo: "Life Under Nazism" at from Center for Holocaust & Gender Studies/http://www.chgs.umn.edu/histories/documentary/nazilife/index.html

Photo: “Life Under Nazism” from Center for Holocaust& Gender Studies/http://www.chgs.umn.edu/histories/documentary/nazilife/index.html

under Nazism; now what more could we possibly want from them? The guy he was talking to said he didn’t think our generation could’ve done it, that we could not have won the war. He had a point.

Still. I’m not the only one who was raised by a system of benign neglect (or worse). I’m not the only one struggling not to be bitter, who genuinely wants to stop blaming my parents for my problems. I’m not the only baby boomer who would like to be able to forgive them.

Dead or alive, they deserve no less.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail/Book Review

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl in the Wild

Cheryl in the Wild

Cheryl Strayed. She strayed from her home, from the pain of her mother’s death, and from her stepfather’s remarriage. She strayed from the husband she claimed to love, and from the senseless way she had been living. Almost without thought, Cheryl strayed onto the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and with no previous hiking experience she hoofed it from California to Oregon.

I suppose I should apologize for such inexcusable literary opportunism, abusing, or exploiting, a hokey last name like that. Had Strayed been the author’s true birth name, I wouldn’t have done so, but since it’s a name she actually chose—and it’s one of the things about this woman I couldn’t help but look down on—I just couldn’t resist. Because she’s so open and honest in her writing there’s a lot more to poke fun at—but as it turns out, there’s just as much to admire, even love.

As of today, January 30th, Amazon lists 1382 reviews of Wild on their site, most awarding the book four out of five stars, none less than three. It helps that Wild is an Oprah selection, but even if it wasn’t this book would still generate a great deal of interest. When was the last time you read an outdoor adventure story written by a woman? And because it’s by a woman, there are many more levels to the story than rugged adventure. The author’s life events, her feelings and insights, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams are woven almost seamlessly into heart-stopping encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, and the quirky people she meets on the trail. It adds up to a fascinating, gripping memoir.

One Amazon writer did a fantastic job on her review, and I highly recommend reading it. I’m not sure I agree with all of her analysis, though; she says that Strayed “speaks for so many women who have suffered similar insults and assaults and have never had such an articulate writer to tell their story.” I didn’t see the book this way, not as a universal female story at all. Though more than just adventure, at its heart the book still is a tale of adventure. For someone like me who’s averse to physical exertion, this kind of book offers transcendence. Never in my wildest dreams would I attempt or even want to attempt a rigorous journey like hiking the PCT–but because I’m averse to living it, I love reading it. I particularly love that another woman did it.

Cheryl Strayed dared step into the unknown, handling every challenge that arose so well she survived more or less intact. She even waited another 15 years to tell her story, proving she didn’t do it just so she could write the book. (So many people do things like that nowadays.) I probably have no right to feel proud of Cheryl, but in some crazy sisterly way I do. This woman did something extraordinary, and she deserves all the accolades she’s getting  for it.

Ravi Shankar Dies at 92

December 12, 2012 (12/12/12) 

Shankar

1. 1969. I’m in the playroom—which is actually a second living room!—in my house in Rocky Point, Long Island, under the headphones, listening to Ravi Shankar playing sitar. I am stoned on Maryjane. The kids are asleep down the hall, each in their own pristine, beautifully decorated, bedrooms. I breathe in time to the strumming of the sitar, and at some point I see myself, with utter clarity,  on the ceiling, sitting cross-legged in the right-hand corner near the window, in front of the bookcases. I am looking down at myself on the couch. I am so amused by this vision, I wouldn’t mind if it went on forever and ever.

I cannot remember if I got scared and pulled myself down from the ceiling, I only recall coming out of it within a few seconds/minutes/hours? Whether scared or not, the visual memory has stayed with me all these years, especially when people talk about out-of-body experiences and the like. This was my first out-of-body experience, inspired by the music of Ravi Shankar.

images-6

2. 1972—I take my kids to the Kingston Drive-In to see The Concert for Bangla Desh. It’s very long, three hours I think, and filled with images of starving children. Many questions are asked by  the kids, aged five and seven, such as “If the people have no money, why don’t they just go to the bank?”  The music is wonderful, with George Harrison headlining. He jams with Ravi Shankar, who also plays with his regular musicians (photo above), and does a solo or two. As he’s strumming on the sitar—you could’ve heard a pin drop, in the drive-in no less!—I hear heavy sobbing in the back seat. I turn around. Daryl can barely speak, he’s crying so hard. “This music is so sad!” he says. Soon he is able to articulate what’s sad, beginning with the starving people and the pained look on Ravi Shankar’s face, and spreading outward to emotions about his father, who I recently divorced. I don’t recall the specifics, unfortunately, but I’ll bet Daryl still remembers this.

George Harrison & Ravi Shankar

George Harrison & Ravi Shankar

 Playing with George on the Night Shift?

Ravi Shankar, what a pure and wonderful gift you shared with us. I hope to see you on the other side.

On Friendship: Sex and the City (Film)

 This was written a few years ago and posted on my memoir blog, which I took down about a year ago. I thought I’d moved it onto this blog, but apparently I didn’t. I’m putting it up now, and if it seems out of date, that’s why.

I just saw SEX AND THE CITY, and it was the best two-and-a-half hours I’ve spent since I rented the TV show’s DVDs. Fashion, beauty, love, sex, laughter, The Big Apple…plus, it’s a very secure feeling to know, when everything falls apart, it’ll all be made right at the end. The movie was panned, mercilessly and unfairly, in the NY Times. Hey, nobody’s saying this is high art. For what SATC  is, it was well done. A lot of scenes had me tearing up, especially at the tender way Carrie’s friends take care of her, and I realized that a big appeal of the show lies in its romantic view of friendship. In an age when we’re not supposed to romanticize romance, the romantic impulse in SATC is superimposed onto friendship instead. Maybe that’s what I always liked about the series.

Friendship is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot this century, almost as much as I think about aging. In the last century I had dozens of friendships, ranging in longevity from three to forty-five years. I’m talking close friends, not mere acquaintances, mostly women, some in California, some in New York. Today I have almost none. I lost a few people to the Grim Reaper, but the others either drifted away, intentionally dumped me, or I dumped them. Some of the dumpings were as dramatic and painful as the deaths. I’ve spent much of this century trying to figure out what happened.

Before I could figure out the breakups I had to look clearly at the relationships as they were. One reason I’m so moved by the friendships in SATC is that I’ve never in my life had friends who treated me the way these women treat one another. Charlotte sat on the bed and spoon-fed Carrie during her meltdown. Miranda the attorney saved her apartment, and Samantha arranged to move all her belongings back into it—all accomplished while sitting on a veranda in Mexico, where they’d gone to nurse Carrie back into a reasonable semblance of human. Who has friends like these, much less three of them? I wish!

I used to say that the women in SATC were like no women I’ve ever known, that the show was a gay man’s fairy tale…but I suspended disbelief because I love fairy tales. What I was talking about then was the clothing, the clubbing, the fabulous life they led, the money. Let’s be real: no New York columnist at Carrie Bradshaw’s level, writing three times a week, makes enough bucks to pay New York City rent, much less buy Manolo Blahnik shoes with regularity. Now I realize it’s the actual friendship, the heart of SATC, that’s the real fairy tale. Contemporary women are beyond the myth of Happily Ever After with the Prince—but we still believe it can happen with girlfriends.

I used to consciously and seriously believe in friendship. It was one of my core values. Back in the 70s, when I got into consciousness-raising and the women’s movement, one of the first illusions that got tossed, along with the bras and leg-shaving gear, was romantic love. We actually held seminars and workshops on the subject. You’d be ridiculed if you believed that coupledom, as we sneeringly called it, could save you. It wasn’t just theoretical, either—I’d been married, I’d done the whole husband-kids-picket fence routine, and found it wanting.

We believed in forms of group living as a Solution, an antidote to the nuclear family, a phrase as loathsome to us as coupledom. Maybe a variation of the Israeli kibbutz would save us, maybe Chinese Socialism. We read up on these things, studied them. The hippie commune is now an old joke, but many of them were serious efforts to forge a better way of life, to raise happier kids. I lived in two or three group situations, all disastrous in one way or another. Still, though I came to the conclusion that communal living was my own worst nightmare, I didn’t stop believing in friendship as the key to a good life. I put a lot of time and energy into my friendships, as much as I put into my kids and each of my serially monogamous relationships—maybe even more, to my everlasting regret. As an investment in the future…better stick to blood, it really is thicker than water—though I haven’t had much luck in that department either.

You’d think by now I’d be done idealizing freindship, but, while I may be disillusioned, I’m not completely cynical. If I were, I wouldn’t  be so enamored of Carrie Bradshaw and Company. Somewhere deep inside, I still believe that do-or-die freindships exist. I imagine that a lot of other people, or at least women, have them; in fact I know that some women do. I’m always reading stories by older women who say it’s their friends who pull them through. Just this year I read a memoir by Isabel Allende and another by Lilian Rubin, both praising their glorious friendships. I know a San Francisco woman whose birthday parties I used to go to—the last one I attended was her 70th—where dozens of devoted women come to honor her with gifts of poetry and love. These aren’t casual acquaintances, either, but intimate friends, nurtured during four decades of living, working, and political activism in SF.

I don’t want dozens of close friends. One or two would suffice. At a relatively late age, in my forties, I began a new friendship that turned out to be far healthier and more positive than previous relationships. Andrea’s primary life work was collecting people, and when we met, through a mutual friend’s death, she signed on for life. (People in New York tend to be that way—whomever you stumble into can end up a lifetime connection from which you can’t opt out without major drama. Californians, I’ve found, are more transient, drifting in and out of each other’s lives with little fanfare). During the eighteen years I knew Andrea, I learned what had been missing in previous friendships. I also faced up to my own failings as a friend, and learned how to do better. When she told me she had lung cancer, I confess that my first selfish reaction was self-pity: I’d finally found a real friend, so of course she was going to die. And she did.

Until 2003 my longest lasting friendship was one that began in high school. We gave lip service to the depth of our love and loyalty, but the truth is, our friendship came nowhere near SATC quality. In addition, vast gulfs of differences existed between us: she was the stable housewife and mother, and, like so many Americans, assumed hers was the normal life, mine aberrent. Once, after our kids were grown, she said it was a miracle that mine turned out so well despite my lifestyle. I wanted to say, maybe it’s because of our lifestyle, but my inability to defend myself was by then ingrained in our relationship.

Despite our differences, we had an intense emotional bond, a gut-level connection that was, at certain times and under certain circumstances, deeply satisfying. Our conversations could be profound, often spiritual. The odd thing was, while in some ways I was invisible to her, on another level she knew me better than anyone else. I loved her, and I love her still—but sometimes love is not enough.

The friendship ended during a health crisis that put me into the hospital seven times in one year. For the next two years I was sick, poor, and profoundly dissatisfied with my life, and she got tired, she said, of my “negativity.” At this time other friendships also fell by the wayside. Not only didn’t people help me when I was sick, they couldn’t even tolerate me. Yes, I was whiny; yes, I cried and complained a lot—but I don’t care how negative or insufferable I might have been at that time…what the fuck are friends for?

One friend in New York who I held onto happened to call a few minutes after I arrived home after four days in hospital. I was all alone, frightened about taking care of myself, and was trying to figure out the medication instructions the nurse had given me. Unable to make head or tail of them, feeling utterly lost, I answered the phone crying. From 3000 miles away, Joani called the hospital and got the information, then called me back to deliver it. At that time I had friends in San Francisco who told me, “Gee, I wish I could help you, but I’m all the way on the other side of the bridge.” So, yes, Joani is a keeper.

Unlike four or five other alleged friends.

For almost 30 years I’d been helping S. with her health crises—taking her to doctors, writing bureaucratic letters for her, giving her a television when hers broke, always making her musical compilations. I never expected much from her because of her own health problems, but she did manage to go out to a play or movie from time to time…so why couldn’t she visit me just once? Another friend stuck it out for a few months, even drove me home from the hospital once, but then she decided we were “going in different directions.” She was trying to be spiritual and kind, she explained, while I was becoming bitter and negative. After fifteen years of friendship, she walked out the door because I wasn’t being spiritual enough for her.

I’m aware that in reciting this litany of complaints against others, I’m opening myself to judgment and disbelief: when we hear stories like these, we automatically wonder what we’re not hearing—the other side. We read between the lines, imagining the awful deeds this person must have done to deserve so much bad treatment. It’s true my ex-friends have their own points of view, and for sure I’m no angel. But from my point of view, this is what happened. At the age of 63 I’ve become someone I never in a million years thought I would be: a lonely, isolated senior with few resources and no support system.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it—the notion of fair weather friends,  the old saw that in times of need you find out who your real friends are. The only thing is, I should have found it out long ago. I’d led a life full of crises as the single mother of a son who had seizures and surgical procedures. I felt quite alone with all that—and it wasn’t just a feeling. I see now that I just couldn’t bear to face the truth: I’d already given up on romantic love and the nuclear family; if I gave up on friendship, what would be left?

My mother used to tell me, “You can never count on anyone but yourself.” I scoffed at her cynicism. My generation was different. We’d care for one another. All you need is love and so forth. But as it turns out, to employ another cliché, Mother was right. My life has shown me that all I can count on is myself. I loved watching Sex and the City because it offered a momentary escape from that harsh reality, a few minutes or hours to pretend that life can be the way I used to think it should be.

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