August 11, 2014
I looked like an aquatic flasher.
Clifford’s Cove is at the bottom of a tall wooded hill. To get there you walk down Claire’s driveway at an acute angle, cross the road and find the gap in the wild grape bushes. Duck under, follow the shaded path and – last leg – try not to take a header off the rocks that lead to the beach. It’s a short trek from porch to cove, but there’s lots of opportunity for slippage.
The tide was out. I left my coat on the flat boulder where Claire and her cousins used to have tea parties and picked my way through kelp and shingle to the shoreline. The water was icy, what a New Englander might describe as brisk. When it was deep enough,I launched into a surface dive.
As my feet left the seabed (swimmer’s lift off) I thought about the surprise of buoyancy and the first time I experienced it, that sensation of being suspended in an unsubstantial medium. I was six, messing around in the bay in Bridgehampton with my father. He was keeping a light grip on me as I hopped through the water, one foot pushing against the sandy bottom — pretend swimming. Then everything changed. Both my legs rose up behind me and I was afloat. At some point my father had let go. I was swimming, for real. It seemed both a miracle and my natural state.
I tend to swim most days in the river or, if I’m lucky, at the seaside in places like Maine or North Norfolk. If I go three, four days without swimming I get fidgety, peevish. I’ve spent some time thinking about this, my relationship with water and swimming, trying to assess whether it’s a question of passion, an activity I happen to love.
I finally decided emotion doesn’t come into it; it’s more basic than that.
Swimming is simply a fact of my life. It’s one of those constants, like reading or my daughter.
It would definitely go to the top of the list of things my father taught me.
I’ve been composing this list all summer, adding bits to it, editing it down. I call it, secretly, ‘Lessons Learned from my Father’.
It’s kind of soppy, this list business. I know that. And it’s hard to ignore the slightly creepy, Little Dorrit overtones– the writer as daddy’s girl – but in all fairness the occasion of my father’s 90th birthday just a few weeks ago has made me want to focus on this stuff.
I gave a toast at his birthday party. A number of us gave toasts. Mine was about the life he created for his family, his realization of the American dream. I tried to keep it short because the truth is, these big raucous parties, no one wants to listen to someone rambling on in a self-referential fashion; they just want to keep drinking and gossiping and complaining about the food while eating a lot of it.
As a result, my list has yet to see light.
Here it is: 10 Lessons I learned from my father
1. How to swim.
2. How to fire a gun: a .38, a .22, a .45 Smith & Wesson and a muzzleloading rifle.
3. How to make mini-balls for a muzzleloading rifle. (You melt a bar of lead in an iron kettle then pour the liquid mixture into a mold. When the mixture sets and cools you trim the edges of the mini-balls until they’re uniformly smooth and round.)
4. How to paint a swimming pool. (Our record was 45 minutes.)
5. How to respect the people who work for you.
6. How to sand and varnish a deck.
7. How to ‘antique’ a piece of furniture. (Whack it several times with a heavy chain.)
8. How to tell a joke.
9. How to face an audience so you can do things like tell jokes or give toasts without your knees clacking together.
10. How to love a child.
Some of these lessons have been less useful than others. For example, I’ve yet to find a situation that calls upon my mini-ball trimming skills. Most of my furniture already looks as if it’s been whacked with a heavy chain, and not in a good way. Finally, it has been conveyed to me, rather emphatically, that I do not know how to tell a joke, and should stop attempting to do so. But the first and last items on the list, numbers 1 and 10 – they’re with me every day.
July 24, 2014
… was a black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps, a chiffon shrug, my mother’s gold bling and a sixties updo.
The party was in a function room at the Sheraton in Weehawken, New Jersey, where the Hudson River laps gently against the edge of the parking lot. The birthday boy himself drove us there from the Hoboken apartment. It was a six minute trip in his Toyota people mover but all told it had taken a lot longer than that for me. There was a transatlantic flight. There was the task of packing for a multi-faceted trip, one that encompassed festivity, work and the pea soup heat of a New York summer. The pug and all her meds had to be temporarily disposed of, there was that to do, and all those zero hour chores — bills, calls, lists –to check off before double locking the front door of the Cambridge house and climbing into a waiting cab.
You’d think I’d have the whole business down to a science by now.
The problem, of course, the self-imposed stress factor, is in the packing. My friend Claire — another American based in Britain – says I pack like a Victorian spinster on the brink of a perilous sea voyage.
She may be right. It’s not as if I seal the lid of my perfume bottles with wax or sew my money into the stays of a corset, but I do approach each trip as if it’s my last, a journey into the unknown and exotic.
And we’re talking flying over to New Jersey.
Even so, and even now, 20 years after moving to Britain, two decades of going back and forth, each trip seems terribly important, the distance vast, the differences even vaster. The process of readying myself for these visits is an acknowledgement of how important they are, these occasions that bring me back to what was once my home. And, the last ten years or so, the particulars behind these jaunts, the defining elements, have been momentous, tied in with all the big stuff: illness, death, marriage. (I can’t remember a time I came over just to bop around.) Given that, the weight and attention I accord to packing, the time spent pondering what to wear when, makes a certain amount of sense: I’m suiting up for ritual and ceremony, a process that demands more than just tossing a cardie and a pair of jeans into a carry-on bag.
This trip the occasion was joyful. My father’s 90th. There were close to 120 of us in the Sheraton function room and the dance floor was packed. The D.J., a sedate middle-aged man, played dreamy standards from the 30’s and 40’s, jazzing it up every now and then with a little something from The Platters. There were toasts and a master of ceremonies. The mood was mellow and affectionate, the average age 70. I drank far too much vodka and discovered my friend Tom was a wonderful dancer. It was the nicest party I’d attended in years and the black cocktail dress and chiffon shrug were absolutely right. I had packed well.
July 14, 2014
I actually put some thought into this get up, hoping the right ensemble would turn things around.
Because these job interviews have not been going well.
I walk into the interview. We shake hands. They ask their questions, I give my answers. I ask my questions and then … nothing. Dead air.
I’m a little hazy on what goes wrong, why it always turns so flat and sour. Is it me (the interviewee), them (the interviewers) or the situation itself?
Here’s the situation: for the first time in years I’m looking for a staff job. The time is right — our daughter’s now at university. While she was growing up I worked freelance. I did corporate writing, magazine articles, the occasional newspaper feature. People hired me to name things – products and companies. I moved on to fundraising projects, still freelance. It was all about the holy grail of balance. Raise the child, run the household, earn some money and maintain the semblance of a professional profile. There were dry spells of no employment and there were periods of far too much of it. I remember one vacation in New York where I worked round the clock for two weeks with my daughter parked in front of my parents’ TV. But then, nothing’s perfect, right? What mattered, I stayed in the game. And I did my weekly stint in the kid’s classroom, joined the PTA, helped run a local youth club. To my way of thinking being a mother actually augmented my skill base. After all, who’s more efficient, more proficient than the person who’s been keeping all those balls in the air, all those years, right?
It seems no one’s buying it, not in my case. Or to put it in another context: no one’s booking that second date. (I mention this because I’m convinced interviews are a lot like dating. In fact, I’m convinced everything is like dating.)
Admittedly, there are all sorts of valid reasons I’m not getting these jobs, not even making it through to the second round of interviews: The wrong qualifications. Not enough experience. Sometimes the chemistry’s wrong, which is fair enough. What’s not fair is being told I have too much experience. That’s the work world equivalent of the perennial break-up line, It’s not you, it’s me (#everythingislikedating).
If my interviews were a graphic novel, the thought bubbles over the heads of the interview panel — it’s always a panel — would read, “Oh God, another one of those opt-out-revolution mothers.” “She can’t do the job.” “ She’ll never fit in.” My thought bubble would say, “Of course I can do your fakakta job. What I can’t do is the interview. I’ve lost the interview knack. “
I used to sneer at the random Hollywood star who refused to audition after making it big, who found the idea insulting. Self important, delusional: that was my assessment. I get it now, though. The star is good – great – at his job, which is acting. Everything he has, his energy, his time and talent, went into achieving that and along the way and of necessity, he lost his auditioning skills, discarded them the way a snake sheds a redundant skin. Then some director calls and demands he go back to square one. The actor stands there, looks at the phone in his hand and thinks, Do I really have to do this, this stage of my life, go out and audition like a novice?
There are courses out there targeted to women like me, mothers returning to the full-time work force. Lots of articles as well, tons of them on-line and in magazines and all of them can be boiled down to one collective title: Re-Entry Strategies for Moms. They always feature a section on the interviewing process, with its comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts. Every time I flick through one of those lists, what to say, what to wear, the art of eye contact, I can’t help but think, Do I really have to do this, be interviewed like a newbie, this stage of my life?
April 14, 2014
… was a coffee colored dress from ASOS online, an LK Bennett cardie in royal blue (how apt) and, in an unconscious nod to my roots, a crumbly leather jacket from Manhattan’s lower East Side, once the schmatta center of the universe.
You could think of it as something old, something new, something net-bought, something blue, because I was feeling pretty solemn and ceremonial about this interview. It was the last stage of my UK citizenship process, a final test before they’d give me a passport.
I became a British citizen — a Britizen — a few years ago. It was a real business getting that done and I stalled on applying for a UK passport because that was going to be another to-do. I’d have to hand over my American passport. I’d get it back, but it was a creepy idea, the symbol of my American citizenship disappearing for an unknown period of time, keeping me caged in Britain while it was gone. I finally got round to it last month, mailed everything off: the forms, my U.S. passport, the little photograph — the one that makes me look like someone who used to be presentable before she discovered crystal meth. Two weeks later, I got a phone call asking me to report for an interview at HM Passport Office.
They wanted to conduct an identity check.
The man on the other end of the line said, “Do you understand what this is about?”
“Um, you want to make sure I am who I say I am, that I’m me?” That’s what I said, but I was thinking: You’re doing this now? Isn’t it a bit late in the day? I mean, you already let me into the club, made me a citizen. I have the certificate to prove it, the one with the big royal seal at the top of the page.
We agreed on a day and time for the interview.
The passport office is in Peterborough, about an hour train ride from Cambridge. It’s a cross-country route through the fens, which, this time of year, are in riotous bloom. Green marshes, fields of loamy earth, acres of eye-blinding rapeseed and those low, twisted trees you see in Constable paintings. Halfway there, Ely Cathedral rises majestically over a housing development and everywhere you look there are waterways – the insane and brilliant system of canals and locks that keeps East Anglia from being swallowed up by the sea.
I looked out at all this water and greenery and thought, I’m a citizen, this belongs to me as much as anyone, and it occurred to me I was probably the only person on the train thinking about that, the idea of pride of place. But that’s what it’s like when you’re an immigrant; you jump through so many hoops in order to belong that you don’t let yourself take it for granted. You’re always a little grateful, like someone who’s lucked into a great second marriage. (Not, of course, that there was or is anything wrong with my first marriage, to America; we’re still together, thank you very much.)
The man in the passport office seated me in a little booth, a countertop between us and said, what I’d already been asked over the phone, “Do you know why you’re here?” I gave him the same answer and then he got into it, a series of questions that seemed plucked out of the sky, that leapt from topic to topic: Where were your grandparents born? Where in Eastern Europe? Give me the names of the shops on either side of the post office where you mailed the passport application. Your father, what’s his life like? I kept saying, “Really? You want to know that?” and then I reminded myself, you’re not on a date with the guy, this is not the time to act mysterious, pick and choose what you want to say. Just tell him everything he needs to know.
So I did.
It got oddly emotional, because all mixed up with the bits and details dredged up from whatever wrinkle of my brain – he even asked me to describe the route I take when I bike into the center of Cambridge, every lane and alley I pass — I had to talk about why I’d come to Britain, what I’d left behind and how you go about creating an existence, constructing a world, in a new land. It turned into a conversation about the stuff of life, defining and marking it, which is actually the true meaning of ceremony.
After 20 minutes of this he shook my hand. Apparently I’d passed; her majesty had decided I was, in fact, me.
I got out of there and headed for the train station.
Peterborough is not attractive. There’s an important Gothic cathedral in the center of town, but the rest of the place has been stripped down and rebuilt according to the punishing standards of ‘70’s moderne, all flat glass storefronts and plastic signage. It’s also been pedestrianized in such a way that the main street is one long wind tunnel; the dress I was wearing turned out to be a terrible mistake, flapping wildly in the breeze and threatening to expose my undies to the general public. I had to clutch it as I ran to catch the 2:18 to Cambridge, not wanting to spend another hour in Peterborough. I managed to make it, and as I flung myself down I saw someone had left a Sainsbury bag on the empty seat across the aisle. It was full and bulging, the proverbial suspicious-looking unattended package. For the good of my country, a citizen acting in the interests of national security, I alerted the conductor. She thanked me, saying what a relief, she was really hungry. The bag contained her lunch, and she’d forgotten where she put it.
My UK passport arrived two days later, unceremoniously dropped through the letter box, the pages blank, the retina detection symbol on the front cover affirming that from now on I would enter the gates of Britain in the literal blink of an eye.
February 2, 2014
… was an LBD from the Gap and a pair of pumps. The latter’s distinct in my mind because of the clickety-clack noise the heels made as Dame Norma and I sprinted down the hall.
We were trying to get back to our seats before the opera restarted.
This wasn’t part of what you’d call a prearranged date, two gal-pals out on the town. I did not call the wife of our former prime minister and say, “I’m off to the opera. Wanna come with?”
That would have been crazy.
First of all, I was there because my friend Sarah had an extra ticket. Second, Dame Norma Major and I travel in different circles, even if she and (Sir) John reside in Huntingdon, practically next door to where I live in Cambridge. Finally, I wouldn’t have rung her no matter how pally we were because the opera in question was called Norma and I would have had to say something like, “Well Norma, do you want to go see Norma,” and I know I wouldn’t have made it through that conversation without a certain amount of immature snickering. But then she probably gets that a lot, goofy operatic jokes, because as it happens the circle she travels in is the high-end music circle.
Apparently, she’s considered very knowledgeable on the subject. She produced a biography of the soprano Joan Sutherland, rated four-and-a-half stars out of five on Amazon and for all I know she’s also written about the opera we were seeing that night. If she has, I hope she called it Norma Does Norma, because I think that would be a fabulous title.
I try not to overuse the word fabulous, but it’s almost mandatory when you’re in opera country. For example, the opera Norma is fabulously camp. It’s the story of a tormented Druid priestess (Tormented. Druid. Priestess. Hello! Three words into the description and we’re already reaching for the smelling salts). There are lashings of love, jealousy, rage and anguished motherhood. Maria Callas performed the role 89 times, which is pretty much the sine qua non of fabulousness, not to mention a very camp fact to have at your fingertips.
Camp and fabulous are not adjectives you’d normally associate with Norma Major who, while her husband was prime minister, more or less hid herself away in their Huntingdon house. When she did appear for the odd state occasion she always looked uncomfortable, standing a little behind her husband, her shoulders hunched over in a suit one size too big for her –the hallmarks of an individual who does not want to be noticed. The media were endlessly unkind about her, calling her dull and unforthcoming, and making little digs about her taste in clothes and hair-do’s. After it came out her husband had had a torrid affair with a particularly noisy and self-regarding female MP, people said things like, “Well of course, what would you expect,” as if, had Mrs M shown more oomph, her husband would not have felt compelled to stray. (Not that John Major was perceived as much of a dynamo; the affair, as detailed by the female MP – and I mean detailed, down to the color of his underpants – staggered everyone. John Major, Tory stud?)
So there I was at Norma, second to last on line for the ladies’ room, the minutes ticking away, the second act of the opera about to start and the line was not moving. The woman behind me, commiserating, the two of us in the same boat, said, “Unbelievable isn’t it?” and as I turned around to agree, I realized it was Norma Major, Dame Norma Major, as she’d become. Her features were delicate, her hair gamine. She was wearing something chic and feminine. In the flesh and under compromised conditions (glary white tiles, severe bathroom lighting) she was, to my surprise, wonderfully pretty.
Inevitably, by the time we both emerged, the final bell had finished ringing. Which is why we ended up hoofing it, side by side, down the corridor. When we reached the auditorium door, we nodded in mutual approval – Job done –adjusted our clothing, and took our seats.
The only reason I mention this fey little vignette, is because I’ve been thinking about first ladies. Is Michele Obama still furious over that funeral selfie? Will she dump the president when he stops being president? And if Hilary Clinton becomes the next president does she plan to implement a secret service detail whose only task is to peel Bill off White House interns? Of course, foremost in my thoughts, the first lady du jour, is Valerie Trierweiler of France, recently turfed out of the Palace Elysee for a younger model. (Who, by the way, looks so much like Trierweiler she could be her baby sister.) One of the many aftermath articles about the affair, this one titled, “Jilted First Lady Seeks Solace in the Slums of Mumbai,” shows Trierweiler cuddling various orphans. The funny thing is, the woman known throughout France as the Rottweiler looks good. As first lady or, rather, first partner, she always photographed tense and driven, her eyes narrowed and her mouth open as if in mid-snarl. Some of that could be attributed to the sheer hell of living with Francois Hollande, who was probably a really terrible boyfriend, always sneaking around and doing tacky things like bringing his secret squeeze to public events and seating her in the row behind Trierweiler.
But now, papped on the world stage as the classic wronged woman, Mme T looks softer, the eyes wide and attentive, the worry lines smoothed out. Once characterised as pushy and vicious, she has morphed, seemingly overnight, into a sympathetic creature, accessible and simpatico. I call this phenomenon the humiliation factor.
The humiliation factor is not about being a victim, or the shame of being brought down a peg or two. True, it involves hitting rock bottom, being left wounded and winded, but the real point, what it’s actually about, is the resulting alteration.
The thing you dreaded most has happened: you have been dumped. At first, you lay there where you fell. You assess the damage. Eventually — because there’s no other option — you wrap yourself in the tattered remnants of your dignity (often far more flattering to the wearer than the garments of triumph and victory), and you pull yourself up. Maybe you throw back your shoulders and apply liberal coats of lipstick (a la Liberty Ross); to each her own survival technique. What happened to you is something you thought you couldn’t bear …and guess what, you’re bearing it. Even more, and here’s the interesting part of the humiliation factor, you’ve acquired valuable information, some life facts to digest — the kind of self-knowledge that, however bruising in the first instance, ultimately adds lustre and depth. It’s akin to the sheen on a pair of no longer new but highly polished leather boots. You’ve become a person who knows a lot, who’s seen a lot and who has learned how to wear it. Like Dame Norma Major looking fabulous and not at all defeated in the ladies room of the West Road Concert Hall, you have become a woman of experience.
November 27, 2013
… was a red dress.
I was aiming for festive.
A week before the wedding my cousin emailed me. She was still in Arkansas, I was still in England, both of us about to fly to New Jersey for the ceremony. Her email said, “What are you going to wear,” followed by an orgy of exclamation points. It was the kind of punctuation normally reserved for the tweets of 14-year-old girls but for once it was totally appropriate to a communication between two grown women. We were, after all, discussing something remarkable, the marriage of a man and woman well into their ninth decades — my father’s about to tip into his tenth.
It’s wonderful to think at that stage of life intense happiness is still an option.
Of course, wonderful often goes hand in hand with a margin of weirdness, an element that did in fact creep into the proceedings like an uninvited guest. My father used to be married to my mother, who died two years ago. His new wife lost her spouse as well. The children of these two previous unions –delighted and relieved as we were — couldn’t help but see the shadows. We didn’t want to, but there they were, parental spectres, appearing at intervals over the shoulders of the happy couple. Along with the red dress, I was wearing some of my mother’s jewellery: two of her necklaces, her bracelet and a cameo ring I kept twisting around on my finger until I realized what I was doing, why I was doing it, and made myself stop.
My new stepsister and I were the official witnesses. (I now have a stepsister and two stepbrothers. They’re very nice.) Our job as witnesses was to sign the marriage license. I think it was the marriage license I signed. It could just as well have been a fishing permit, I was feeling that spacey by the time a secretary handed it to me in the marble gloom of Hoboken City Hall. That’s where the ceremony took place, in the courtroom of Hoboken City Hall, a Victorian wedding cake of a building located, ironically enough, right across the street from Carlo’s Bakery, home of Cake Boss, the reality TV show with a cult following here in Britain.
The mayor of Hoboken officiated, a woman named Dawn Zimmer. It took me a while to work out who she was. We were standing around the lobby in our wedding clothes for what seemed like a very long time, waiting for a trial to wind down so we could take over the courtroom. I was talking to someone’s p.a., a bare faced girl with long bangs and a gauzy Indian-print top. The girl p.a. kept apologizing for the delay and it was only when she told me not to worry about the time, she’d cancelled all her other appointments, I realized I was making chitchat with Mayor Dawn herself.
She’s something of a heroine in Hoboken’s Hudson County, a district of New Jersey notorious for vote rigging, dirty deals and shady politicians. Four years ago she was narrowly defeated in the Hoboken mayoral election. Six weeks after her victorious opponent took office he was hauled away by the FBI on charges of international money laundering and corruption. The FBI called it Operation Big Rig, and it was pretty exciting stuff, even by Hudson County standards. A special election was called, which Dawn Zimmer won (not a foregone conclusion in New Jersey; a few years ago the mayor of Lodi was re-elected from his jail cell), making her available to stand in front of all of us in a courtroom bright with fluorescent tubing to unite my father and stepmother in wedlock. (I now have a stepmother. Exclamation point.)
Halfway through the ceremony, the mayor started crying. She had stood up to the bad boys, turned down the bribes that subsequently tripped up her disgraced opponent, but the marriage of two octogenarians had gotten to her. It was getting to me as well, for all the obvious bittersweet reasons, but there was, for me, an added component. The day before I’d gone to a memorial service for someone who had died way before her time, someone I loved very much. That was the real purpose of my trip to America. This wedding was a bonus, a balm, which my father and his lovely bride-to-be had kindly organized around my visit.
I talked to my daughter before I flew over. The person who’d died had mattered to her, had been a major part of her life. My daughter is not sentimental. I like that about her, the fact she’s never in danger of violating what I call the Two Jews Rule. The essence of the Two Jews Rule is you cannot have two Jews crying at the same time because once they – okay, we – start, there’ll never be an end to it. I told my daughter what I’d be doing in New York, the memorial service for the person we both loved and had now lost, the wedding the next day in Hoboken. There was a long silence on the other end of the phone and then she said, “Well, you can’t wear the same outfit for both occasions.” She sounded angry.
June 4, 2013
… was red. Red trousers, Capri style. I was wearing other items as well, including a black linen coat that suggested the kind of outerwear you’d see on a Yeshiva boy, which was kind of ironic given the setting, but the key item was the pair of red trousers.
I ended up at Auschwitz – and isn’t that a phrase to give one pause – because I sing with a choir in Cambridge. Every other year our choir goes to a different European city and performs a series of concerts. Two years ago it was Seville, where it rained every day and my espadrilles disintegrated. Before that, it was Bruges, which was very pleasant although strangely reminiscent of Disneyland. This time, we were in Krakow, with six recitals in three days, including the mini-concert in Auschwitz, where we stood on a grassy knoll between the public toilets and Crematorium One and sang a Hebrew song.
That’s a lot of information to take in.
I think I’ll go back to the beginning.
When the Krakow trip was first mooted, I decided not to participate in the Auschwitz bit of the tour. It was enough of a challenge for me to go to Poland in the first place. It’s a country my family put a lot of effort into trying to leave, and by 1939, the ones who hadn’t left seemed to disappear – the telegrams and anxious letters they’d been sending to New York just stopped coming. It turned out they’d all been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. That’s where they died, at places like Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek, gassed or shot or starved to death. The only one who didn’t disappear, who survived Auschwitz in fact, was cousin Regina, who had the luck/misfortune of being young, blonde and pretty.
Family lore has it Mengele himself picked her out of the line up during the selection process and kept her on to ‘help out’ in the unspeakable hospital he ran in the Auschwitz barracks. I’m hazy on the details, but somehow Regina managed to stay alive until the camp was liberated. She emigrated to America and there she was at all the weddings and bar mitzvahs of my childhood, still pretty, with a charming accent and a chiffon scarf nicely draped over the numbers tattooed in blue on her arm. I’m not claiming a distinction here. Barring certain specifics, this is a common story, a shared history among most Jews and the only point I’m making is that with one thing and another, I figured I could give Auschwitz a miss.
In the weeks leading up to the Krakow trip we rehearsed the program we’d be presenting –Stanford, Thomas Ford, some very catchy Handel and Enosh, the Hebrew song the choir planned for Auschwitz. When we practice, we move from piece to piece, no particular order and with Enosh all mixed in with the rest of the repertoire I ended up singing along. What was I going to do – stand there with my mouth clamped shut?
The word Enosh means a man or humanity in general – Hebrew has some give when it comes to translation — and the song is about goodness and mercy and the frailty of life. As we became more confident with the pronunciation, the strength of the melody began to emerge.
It’s plaintive, not surprisingly, but it’s also very powerful and one night, at a point in the song when the altos get to soar – I’m an alto — elated by that pure sound and a little high from all the oxygen you take in when you sing, I experienced an epiphany:
I realized I had to go to Auschwitz after all, because singing at that death camp was the best fuck you I could imagine. I’d stand there and warble about loving kindness and man’s days are as grass, and what I’d really be saying was, Hey! Nazi thugs! I’m here. You didn’t get all of us.
That’s also when I decided to wear the red trousers. I saw it as a small act of provocation, a red capote to taunt the bull.
I guess I was feeling a little thug-like myself.
We flew to Krakow on the first Bank Holiday in May and the next morning we piled onto a bus and took the highway due west to Auschwitz.
There wasn’t much to see along the way: blank countryside with scattered Soviet-era housing and the occasional farm. Some trees. As we neared Auschwitz, the landscape became more industrial — coal mines, factories, a confluence of railway lines. This reminded me that Auschwitz had functioned as more than just a death camp; it was a work camp as well — high profit, low overhead. Very low overhead. Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free – that’s the insidious motto that greets you when you arrive.
What also greets you are fast food stands and the meaty smell of grilled sausage. This afforded a communal sense of relief, as in, Look at all those people buying kielbasa and Coke Zero! Why, this isn’t so bad, it’s Auschwitz as excursion.
But of course, it was bad.
There were a lot of layers to Auschwitz. The chemist Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived his year there, called it a complete totalitarian state, no brakes, no accountability. It was the most exacting of bureaucracies: think OCD coupled with sadism.
As a complex, it contained three core sites: Auschwitz I, the main camp, administration and prisoners’ barracks; Auschwitz-Birkenau II, extermination; and Auschwitz III, the work camp – slave labor.
Each camp had its layers of authority, starting with the commandant and his senior personnel –SS and Gestapo, the SS in their sharp Hugo Boss uniforms – continuing on down to the guard battalions, the filing clerks and the guys in the motor pool.
The prison population had its own hierarchy. Inmate trustees –non-Jews – acted as overseers, maintaining watch and control over the other prisoners, typically with great brutality. Below that was a sub-division of trustees called Sonderkommando, a forced-labor unit of male prisoners, almost all Jews, all of them strong and able-bodied. Strength was a job requirement because, as one of the few survivors of the unit put it, “We did the dirty work of the Holocaust.” The role of a Sonderkommando was to escort new arrivals to the gas chambers, cut the hair off the dead and yank out any gold teeth and then haul the bodies to the crematoriums for burning. The members of this division lived in relative comfort or at least marginally less squalor, with more food and better housing, access to contraband liquor and medicine. But there was a time limit to these amenities: after a few months of service the existing Sonderkommando division was routinely eliminated, every member killed. It was considered they knew too much to live.
After Auschwitz was liberated a notebook was found under a pile of human ash in one of the crematoriums. It was a step by step account of the camp and the life of a Sonderkommando. The author was a Polish Jew named Zalman Gradowski, and he was a singularly brave man. Not only had he risked severe punishment by writing the account, but he also organized the only prisoner uprising at Auschwitz. It took place in October 1944 and when it was over 70 SS guards were dead. So were 200 Sonderkommando, including Gradowski, but it’s not hard to imagine that by this point his death was of small consequence to him; his notebook makes it clear his time as a human ended when he became a Sonderkommando. To do this job, to be a member of this division, he wrote, “One must be transformed into a robot, become unseeing, unfeeling and uncomprehending.”
To a small degree that may be what some people do when they visit Auschwitz, even now in its stripped down, repentant state; they assume a suspended, robotic frame of mind. It’s what I did, put myself on autopilot and kept away from certain exhibits. The hair room, with its mounds of brittle, faded matter, barely identifiable as anything human — I didn’t go in there, and I gave the hospital barracks a wide berth as well.
So why visit Auschwitz if your objective is to emerge untouched and unscathed, if you don’t want to be chilled to the bone, mourning the likes of Zalman Gradowski and cousin Regina and all the other relatives whose names I don’t even know? I did ask myself that. I came up with a few answers, a few tags: respect, reclamation — the two R’s of Auschwitz. That was part of it, along with a sense of defiance, two fingers up to those Nazis. Mainly though, I came because the idea of being there scared me, and it seemed important to face that down.
I thought I had succeeded. I had kept myself intact, wilfully unmoved and un-scared, but I had forgotten something: I had forgotten we were going to sing.
When you sing, you need to put your whole self into it. You have to open up, give in to the process of creating this sound, conveying the passion of sound. You have to see, feel and understand. In other words, you have to do the exact opposite of everything Zalman Gradowski forced himself to do.
We stood on a small rise next to Crematorium One –the same crematorium where the ‘44 revolt began — and we took out our music. I couldn’t see the notes or the words. My throat had closed up. I was not thinking about thugs, Nazi or otherwise. The slope threw us off-balance and tilting precariously, we sang Enosh to all the innocents who had come to Auschwitz, then and now.
May 10, 2013
… were khakis from J. Crew, loafers and a grey sweater — a muted, non-assertive look. I wanted the examiner to trust me, to assess me as reliable and calm, maybe even a little dull, because my goal was to be granted free rein on the road with a 220 hp weapon of destruction at my disposal. I’d been driving for years, but that was on my American license and the English insurance company was starting to get huffy about my lack of proper credentials. As a result, decades after my first test in a New Jersey parking lot, I found myself taking a second exam under the flat wide skies of East Anglia. East Anglia! The Texas of the British Isles!
There was an enforced intimacy to the situation. I was alone in a car with the examiner, a paunchy male smelling of man sweat and breath mints. Our knees kept meeting across the phallic gear stick. It was like a very bad date, the kind you want to be over as soon as possible.
As it turned out, it was over quickly and the only reason I mention it now, eight years later, is because of a remark the examiner made at the end. We’d been out on the road for less than five minutes when he suddenly flicked his pen against his clipboard and said, We’re done. You passed.
Given I’d just reversed up over the curb, making the most tremendous grinding noise with the undercarriage, this surprised me. Really? I said.
Yes, really, he said. I’m not worried about you. You’re not what my job is about. My job’s about keeping as many 19 year-old boys off the road as I can.
Teenage boys are crazy, he said. They should all be locked up until they’re 26.
Those words came back to me, clear as a banner, a few days after the bombs went off in Boston and details began to emerge about the two boys, the Chechnya immigrants who seem to have been responsible for it. It happens I’ve been writing about immigrants and alienation and it struck me those confused and disengaged young men – the angry older brother, the biddable younger one –brought a significant and not often discussed element to the mix, namely, the raging hormones of the young male.
A boy is a mini-explosives’ factory. By the time he’s 16, he’s manufacturing androgens –most notably testosterone– by the truck load, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, producing all the raw materials required to shape aggression, strength and sex drive. It’s one of the miracles of chemistry, but the end product is a stroppy creature with shocking physical power, a rampant libido – and no control mechanism. A male’s frontal lobe – the bit of the brain tied in with regulating impulsive behaviour – doesn’t develop before he’s in his mid- to late twenties. Until then, he’s all revved up … with nowhere to go with all that fuel. He’s the Incredible Hulk, expanding at a great rate, wanting to do something major and incapable of containing his rage.
Explosives’ factories have vents and outlets built into their design. Boys don’t.
Teenage girls are different. They don’t tend to act out. They act in. They stop eating. They start cutting. They shave their heads and pierce their bodies. In a sense, teenage girls are all about control — the result of the hormones they produce and the rate at which their brains develop.
But a young male – particularly a young male at a loss — is a self-generated bomb, and when I think of those two Chechnyan brothers and their pressure cookers from Target, I can’t help but remember an hysterical son in Newtown, Connecticut shooting first graders with his mother’s Bushmaster rifle, and a pair of Goth outcasts with pump-action shotguns in a Colorado high school. I can picture them all together in a Law & Order-style line up and the question I end up asking myself is: Are they terrorists or hormonal boys with a grudge?
April 24, 2013
…was a black tee and a red skirt from Loehmanns. High heels. Pearls. My mother-in-law was giving a lunch. This was at the top bit of Scotland, so far north that time of year, June, the sun’s up at 3 and hangs around til midnight. It’s the same latitude as Oslo and Gothenberg, places where summer is the crazy season – heavy drinking, hard partying, everyone a little wild after a winter of darkness. But not up in Scotland, not at my mother-in-law’s house. This was a decorous, formal affair, two damask-covered tables in the conservatory and a lot of silver flashing in the sun.
We would be starting with sherry, moving on to wine with the salmon and finishing with a sticky.
I say ‘we’ because at some point I understood I was meant to be acting as adjunct hostess. This information dawned on me gradually, by osmosis, which is the only way I ever pick up on anything in Britain; it’s not an explaining kind of nation, no one ever tells you anything outright. The fourth time the housekeeper asked me when she should start serving, the light bulb finally switched on above my head and I thought, I’m supposed to be doing something. Exactly what, I wasn’t sure because things were running smoothly without any effort on my part. People were sipping sherry and the housekeeper and her daughters had the food under control. I realized her questions about timing had been more in the way of a mild prod, as well as a means of getting me into the kitchen for a lowdown on the more colorful guests. (For example, one of the men, a gouty old boy, was a notorious letch, given to chasing his housekeeper around the dining room table.)
My mother-in-law had drawn up a placement, which was hanging on the kitchen wall. I was seated at the head of one table; she reigned over the other.
We took our places and ate our lunch.
The pudding plates were being cleared away when my father-in-law brought in two dusty looking bottles of port. This was a catalyst for a certain amount of genteel commotion; the men pushed their chairs back from the tables, unbuttoning their jackets and the women sat up a little straighter in their chairs, lifting their heads with bird-like pertness. Across the room, my mother-in-law nodded at me. I responded with a smile of collusion: Yes, my smile said, it’s been a successful lunch. Surprisingly, she did not smile back. Instead, she nodded again, more emphatically this time and made an impatient gesture with her hand – a sharp wave in the direction of the door.
I gave her my What? face and then the light bulb went on again over my head: she was telling me to lead the women – the ladies – out to the drawing room. It was time for us to withdraw, to let the men commune and drink their port. This was what my role as adjunct hostess came down to, this moment as lunch wrangler.
It made me oddly agitated.
One part of me was saying, yelling almost inside my head: I grew up in New Jersey! I was born in Hicksville, Long Island, for heavens’ sake! Women don’t slink out to the drawing room in New Jersey. Men don’t swig port in Hicksville. And what is a drawing room, anyway?
But another part of me was going, O, get over yourself. Stop being such a reverse snob. There were books in New Jersey. You’ve read your Jane Austen and your George Eliot. You’ve seen this on TV. And I’ll bet somewhere in New Jersey, maybe even in Hicksville, Long Island off Route 25A, ladies withdraw while men puff cigars and lie about golf.
These thoughts swirling around my head, I stood to attention in my red skirt from Loehmanns’ basement. My hands gripping the chair rail, I said in my throatiest voice to the room at large: Ladies. Shall we?