Saturday, April 20, 2024

Two Microstories and Four Long, Terrible First Sentences of Novels

Here's a collection of short pieces--two microstories and four entries in the Katonah Village Library's Bulwer-Lytton writing contest, in dubious honor of the 19th century English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with "It was a dark and stormy night." I did my best to equal his awfulness, but I didn't rise to the level of the winning entry at the library. But practice makes perfect. 

Let’s open with two 100-word stories I recently wrote:

Embracing the Man-Bra

After years of hitching up droopy pants, I finally took action beyond tightening my belt: I bought suspenders after seeing them on “Queer Eye.” I chose a snappy black set at Tractor Supply Company. Immediately I noticed a difference as my britches reach my bellybutton and shirts stay tucked in. Eureka! I describe suspenders as the “man bra,” uplifting what an aging body can’t hold up. I’m looking and feeling like a new hombre. Next up: thinner suspenders for the Wall Street vibe and others to wear under summer shirts. Finally I’m enjoying the support I need. Thanks, Man-Bra! 

Demon Rum at Princeton

Given my teetotaler background, my first encounter with booze at Princeton had to be memorable. Guys in my dorm organized a Friday party with trashcan punch, as in screwdrivers. I liked it and kept pounding them down. Soon, my roommates and I were drunkenly dancing in a circle. Next memory: leaning over my bed barfing my guts out. Saturday morning: headaches, nausea. I wobbled to Commons for a restorative brunch. Recovered, I pulled my first all-nighter writing a psychology paper. That weekend introduced me Oscar Wilde’s axiom: “All things in moderation, including moderation.” Alas, I took his advice too well at certain turning points in my life, typically involving demon rum.


And now, my entries in the Katonah Library’s Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest. These are terrible very long opening sentences of novels:

The Long, Long Wait on the Train Platform

Sheila shivered under her tastefully knit woolen muffler as she waited at the Katonah Metro-North station, the winter dawn’s icy wind pummeling her like a dinner-deprived Labradoodle, while she peered up the track willing the train’s arrival (“breathe,” she whispered, “Namaste”), since her large macchiato from Dunkin’ Donut had raced through her digestive system like a downtown express and she feverishly imagined the train’s clean, hopefully unoccupied restroom, because she really, really needed to pish.

 Another Day at the Ox Office

Jennifer’s request for “exotic, intense yarn” as a birthday propelled husband Noah on a wild goose chase (not that geese produce yarn) across a secretive network of farms dedicated to exclusive curated yarn offerings, where sophisticated knitting connoisseurs jostled to personally gather raw materials from pampered mammals, genetically bred for peak pelt performance, and that resulted in Noah, sprawled legs akimbo on a musty scratchy woolen blanket, gingerly plucking thick, yard-long hairs from the swollen scrotum of a baffled but visibly delighted musk ox who moo’ed with masculine modalities; for Mr. Musk, it was just another day at the ox office.

 Stugots at the Seder

THAT Passover seder began when the college kids demanded the right to cross out references to Israel in the siddurs and use the term “enslaved future colonizers,” which enraged family patriarch Zaydie, who clutched the siddurs to his bony chest and called the collegians “ungrateful shmucks” in his Chernobyl-via-Miami accent, so in a compromise the collegians snapped their fingers when they disagreed with a passage and that kept the peace until somebody demanded “free range anti-Zionist vegan matzoh” and Zaydie shouted, “You, stugots, go sit in the formal dining room we never use!” (when excited, Zaydie lapsed into Neapolitan dialect he learned when stationed in Italy in the 1950s) so the families could finish the ritual with the search for the hidden matzoh piece called the afikoman, beloved by toddlers but disrupted this time when teens chased the little kids around filming them for social media and one knocked over a bowl of boiling matzoh-ball soup that slightly scalded matriarch Bubbie through her Lululemon cargo joggers, but the doctors at the table applied ice packs so this year’s seder ended with no shrieking trip to the ER, Baruch Ha-Shem.

 Manly Memories at the Dinky

Memories of Princeton University tumbled in Dudley’s memory while he rode the “Dinky” shuttle from Princeton Junction to campus, where he had studied classics, invaluable for his position as senior vice president of Poppy’s investment house, and he mused on manly nude oiled initiates playing “Trees andTrolls” in his highly selective eating club on “The Street,” and his junior semester abroad, spent pursuing lissome European coeds unencumbered by the rigid Protestant neuroses of “imports” who flocked to Old Nassau on weekends, but, alas, now he desperately fished for his Reunions hotel reservation misplaced in his paisley orange and black jacket and matching trousers.


Saturday, March 16, 2024

Who Was Kate? Who Was Mary Kathryn?

The letter from 1968

I found the note in a stack of family letters. Dated July 15, 1968, the handwritten letter came from my father Mark’s wife Kate, whom he married after he and my mother Shirley divorced in 1961. In elegant writing on stationery with an embossed “W,” Kate wrote to my mother, brother and me:

I hope you are all well and having a good summer. Mark and I are very very proud of your excellent grades Van and Cooper. Shirley we comment over how in each set of pictures they change. Van is certainly growing up fast and Cooper also. We would love to see them. Mark is very busy and both of us delighted to be in NY. With kindest regards and love to Van and Cooper, Kate.

Dad finally visited us for a weekend in Mission, Texas in 1970, our first time to see him in eight years, and he told us about Kate. Cooper and I first met Kate when we visited them in New York for a week in 1972. 

Kate, summer 1975, New York

Now, gazing at this brief letter from 56 years ago, I asked myself: Who was Kate?

I remember Kate from visits in the 1970s and early 1980s. She was slender, elegant, a great cook and always polite with what I describe as a Irish-tinged New York accent. She always existed in the shadow of my father. He combined public charm with private bullying when my brother and I bridled at his unhinged criticism of our Texas upbringing (especially our mother) and balked at his grandiose plans to mold us into refined East Coast preppies.

Dad shared details of Kate’s wide-ranging life: from a family of pioneers of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, former nun, proprietress of a ballet school in McAllen, Texas. With all the tension with my father, I couldn’t see Kate as an individual—that motivated this essay, to attempt to imagine her apart from Mark Wallach. She had no formal role in my life, not as my stepmother, aunt or anything other than the woman married to my father. She must have walked an emotional knife's edge between empathy for two small-town teens and her relationship with her devoted husband. What was her life outside of her marriage?

The one time she commented on my father’s bizarre plans for me came in 1975. Dad had arranged for me to lose my virginity to the “physical therapist” of a friend of his. While sorely tempted for my very own “Maggie May” moment, I refused to grant him any say in this part of my life.

Kate offered she had met the woman and thought she was “very nice.” That did not change my mind.

The McAllen dance school,
photo courtesy of Mariessa Anton

Married in McAllen, my father and Kate moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1962, then Manhattan in 1967. In 1977 they left their apartment at 220 E. 63rd Street in Manhattan for an apartment at 101 Gedney Street in Nyack, New York. They attended my Princeton graduation in 1980, meeting my brother and me in one part of the campus while my mother and other relatives, who drove up from Texas, waited elsewhere. My mother was adamant that she did not want to see them. I last saw Kate in 1986 when I met her and my father for dinner in Astoria, Queens, where I then lived. Photos from that meeting show Kate suffering from Alzheimer’s. She died in 1988. They had been married for 26 years. My father remarried in 1995 and lived in the Gedney Street apartment until his death in 2018. 

Finding the 1968 note, which my late mother saved in papers that I eventually inherited, stirred my interest in Kate. Internet searches went nowhere when I looked for “Mary Katherine Dougherty.” I knew she had operated a ballet studio in McAllen until she and my father left in 1962. Finding nothing about her, I posted a request on a Facebook page on McAllen history for any information people could share. I had no idea what to expect.

To my surprise, I immediately had many gracious responses from women who had been Kate’s dance students from the 1940s to the 1960s at her McAllen studio at 409 N. 12th Street. No wonder the digital trail went nowhere—I had been misspelling her middle name. They all loved her as a teacher, role model and friend. To them, she was always Mary Kathryn.

The Brownsville girl who became Mary Kathryn Dolina

Equipped with the accurate name, I found many more details. Kate’s picture came into sharper focus, thanks to digitized newspaper stories from 1909 to the 1960s. I found many through the invaluable Portal to Texas History, a project of the University of North Texas. Some findings:

  • The marriage license for her parents, William J. Dougherty and Lillian Dougherty (yes, that was her mother's maiden name) was reported in the Brownsville (TX) Herald on July 19, 1909.
  • showed she was born in 1912 and died in 1988. Her father, William John Dougherty, was born in New York City on December 13, 1878 and died in Brownsville on January 26, 1942. Her mother Lillian Sheridan Dougherty was born in 1882 in Brownsville and died in 1952. Kate was their only child.
  • eBay has signed ballet publicity photos of her from the early 1930s, taken by New York society photographer Achille Volpe.

The research explored topics that place her in the context of the Rio Grande Valley’s history. The August 4, 1909 wedding article in the Herald had the headline, “Prominent Couple Married.” It gave invaluable details that connected Kate to the turbulent real estate market in the Rio Grande Valley. The story said,

The union of this couple is of general interest in this section. The bride is the daughter of one of the oldest families in Brownsville, her father, the late James Dougherty, having been for years the editor and publisher of the former Brownsville Cosmopolitan, which was afterwards bought by the Herald. For several years Miss Dougherty has taught school at Hidalgo, and it was there that she became acquainted with the man whom she is destined to wed. She is the sister-in-law of John Closner, of Chapin, one of the most prominent men of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Dr. Dougherty is the son of Wm. A. C. Dougherty of New York. He attended Manhattan College, Columbia School of Mines, and New York University, taking his medical degree from the former institution. After his graduation, he became instructor in nervous and mental diseases at the New York post graduate college, going from there to the Bicetro in Paris, where he took two years of special work in nervous diseases under Prof. Pierre Marie, the pupil and successor of Charcot. Returning to this country, he began practice in New York, becoming connected with various institutions, among them the Hospital for Incurables [now St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx] and St. Vincent’s, being chief of clinic for nervous and mental diseases at the latter . . . In the latter part of 1906 he came to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to look after some land interests owned by him here, and has remained here since, devoting himself to the development of his land near Hidalgo. During spare moment in Hidalgo Dr. Dougherty has read law, as a result of which he was admitted to the bar at Galveston last October.

That union produced Mary Kathryn Dougherty. The Brownsville Herald of October 14, 1934 published a profile with the title, “Member of Russian Ballet is Former Brownsville Girl.” The article provides an invaluable timeline on her life, worth quoting at length:

Brownsville Herald
Oct. 14, 1934
Mary Kathryn, who is the daughter of Dr. Wm. J. Dougherty, noted neurologist, and Mrs. Dougherty of 132 Locust Hill Lane in Yonkers, N.Y., was born in Brownsville and lived here until she was two years old. She visited here frequently during her childhood and her mother is now renewing old friendships while visiting in the home of her sister, Mrs. John Closner.

Although under 20 [actually, she was 22 based on a 1912 birth], Miss Dougherty has had a remarkable career as an amateur, dancing at many charity and society events. She made her first marked success at 14, when she danced during a notable affair at Madison Square Garden.

Since the start of her professional career she was a member of the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe and rejected an offer to tour with the company this summer in Spain. Recently she appeared for two weeks with the Fokine Ballet at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York City.

Miss Dougherty was given the name Dolina with her admission and will be known professionally as Mary Kathryn Dolina. Only five new members were admitted after rigid tests and Miss Dougherty was the only American accepted. Her unfamiliarity with the Russian language, Miss Dougherty finds, has been offset to marked degree by her splendid command of French. She also has a fair knowledge of Spanish as result of childhood associations.

On June 16, 1935, the Herald reported that Kate was performing in a satirical review in titled “Parade.” Produced by The Theater Guild, it opened in Boston and then moved to New York’s Guild Theatre. The Playbill brochure for Parade lists “Katherine Dougherty” as one of the “Chorus Girls” and “Parade Girls.”

The next story I found in the Herald, Dec. 27, 1942, was her wedding. Her father had died earlier in the year. The article describes her as the “daughter of Mrs. William J. Dougherty, and the late Dr. Dougherty.” She married Albert William Reed, son of Mr. and Mrs. Albert William Reed.” I couldn't find more information about the groom nor any reference to Kate as "Mrs. Reed."

The Mary Kathryn Dougherty Studio of the Dance

What happened with the marriage? When was she a nun? Nothing turned up. The Mercedes (TX) Enterprise of April 26, 1951 ran a story with the headline “Edinburg Orchestra to Present Dances, Violist Tonight.” The text says, “Miss Mary Kathryn Dougherty of McAllen will present a number of her pupils in a program of dancing, and Michael Wilkomirski of Edinburg will present a violin program. Miss Dougherty, formerly of New York, was a member of the Ballet Rouse de Monte Carlo there, and is recognized as a performer and teacher."

The last article I found is from May 10, 1962 in the Mercedes Enterprise, headlined “Benefit Dance Friday Night to Aid Crippled.” It read in part:

The Mary Kathryn Dougherty Studio of the Dance will present an evening entertainment at the McAllen Civic Center Auditorium . . . for the benefit of the Hidalgo County Society for Crippled Children and Adults, Inc. Miss Dougherty for the past seventeen years has maintained her studio in McAllen.

Besides the Ballet Rouse experience, the article said she had been a "Guest Artist" at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center in New York. I especially noticed the fact that she had operated her McAllen studio for 17 yearsthat means it opened in 1945. 

From Facebook comments of students from 60 or more years ago, I learned Kate brought a classical rigor and wonderful teaching ability to her dance instruction. She inspired devotion from her students. More than articles, their vivid memories brought the woman they knew as Mary Kathryn to vivid life. Students were heartbroken when Kate closed the studio and moved away in 1962, never, as far as I know, returning to McAllen, where she had such deep roots. One student shared a May 18, 1959 program guide from a performance with me, where Kate outlined her approach:

In presenting myself to instruct my students, it is my aim to stress the educational value of the dance as a means of artistic expression, poise and self-discipline, attributes so essential if we are to have a well balanced personality. Mere gyrations, that unfortunately are frequently referred to as “dancing”, make impossible the attainment of this desirable goal.

Wyleen Wilson King Aalberg recalled: 

I was a student of Mary Katherine and loved her!

As a young girl, I never knew what happened to her. I remember being so excited about dancing starting back up after the summer, and then it didn’t. I was crushed.

The studio was in her home. I remember the wooden dance floor, mirrors on three of the four walls, the pianist, handmade recital costumes that were so beautiful, and recitals at the Woman’s Club and later at the Civic Center.

I remember Mary Katherine tracing our feet on a piece of paper to order our dance shoes.

I remember getting my first toe shoes and Mary Katherine teaching us how to tie the pink ribbons on them.

I remember thinking how Mary Katherine reminded me of the ballerina in my jewelry box, she seemed so delicate and graceful.

One memory especially surprised me, to put it mildly. Harriet Kirsh Pozen wrote,

Mary Katherine was my ballet teacher, and Mark [my father] was my Jewish religious school teacher at Temple Emanuel in McAllen. I still have a book about hieroglyphics that he gave me because I was so engaged with him as my teacher, I still have the book.

She nurtured my love of dance and in many ways feel like I am still a ballerina because of your mother. My posture and the way I carry myself, the way I hold my fingers even in yoga is the way she taught me. It’s beautifully engrained in me.

My mother also loved her and we would visit her from time to time. Mom would say even if you don’t learn to dance you will learn to be a “lady” from her.

I loved our performances and especially the stunning costumes.

This Hebrew School reference was news to me, because I never knew my father taught at McAllen's Temple Emanuel, where my parents were married in 1955. He always treated Judaism as a club to pummel my brother and me with about our shortcomings. Had he stayed connected to us and shared Jewish learning in a positive way while we were growing up, as something meaningful to him, our relationship with him might have been better. 

Reflecting on Kate’s life journey, from Brownsville to Yonkers to New York to European ballet to McAllen and back to New York, I learned about her life force and devotion to dance as a calling. With her education and expressiveness, she could have written a compelling memoir covering everything from Texas land holdings to world-famous ballet companies to serving as a beloved role model for young dancers. Had I known her under other less strained circumstances, we would have had a lot to discuss. She had the kind of intriguing life I wrote about as a journalist.

Still, the research brought more questions to mind:

  • What happened with the Dougherty family's extensive land holdings in the Valley?
  • What led Kate to leave her dance and ballet career in New York, which seemed to be thriving, for Brownsville?
  • How long was she married to Albert William Reed, and how did the marriage end?
  • When was Kate a nun?
  • Why did Kate close her dance studio in McAllen in 1962 and move with my father to Michigan? She was 50 at the time and, based on comments from students, very popular. She could have taught for years more. 
  • Why didn't Kate and my father ever return to the Valley after leaving? Kate had family and social connections there, and my father had two very young sons. My father came back for one weekend in September 1970. What did Kate think about her husband visiting his sons one weekend in 10 years? Were they indifferent to us, or did some other factors come into play? I can't believe that my parents' frosty relationship alone explained for the permanent absence.

Perhaps writing about her life will lead to some answers. The woman I knew as Kate, always enmeshed in volatile family dynamics, now stands on her own as Mary Kathryn. 

But I'll never know either one of them.

The ballerina, New York, early 1930s,
photo courtesy of Mariessa Anton

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Grand Funk Brothers Get Closer to Home

I have broad musical tastes: Latin, 50s jazz, Israeli, The Great American Songbook, classical, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. But what concert caused me to drop everything, book vacation time and fly to Jacksonville, Florida in a state of frenzied anticipation? In three words: Grand Funk Railroad.

My brother Cooper, who lives in Florida and shares my fascination with Grand Funk, pitched me on the opportunity to hear the pride of Flint, Michigan. Of course I said yes, yes YES. How could I pass on this bucket-list thrill? In our early teens in Mission, Texas, we heard the power trio’s epochal third album, Closer to Home, and that was it. We were hooked for life on Grand Funk’s pounding, not-very-subtle sound and compelling lyrics. Well, they're compelling when you’re 14 years old, but they do sink in. Live Album, Survival, E Pluribus Funk and We’re an American Band were all on heavy rotation on our turntable at home.

The only downside for a fan: Grand Funk never worked as a teen romance mood enhancer, if you get my drift; nobody slow-danced to Grand Funk at Friday Night Lights post-game dances at the Mission Civic Center. The chicks I liked were more into the Carpenters, Carol King, the Jackson 5 and the Partridge Family (and one really liked the Edgar Winter Group). So I cooled it on Grand Funk to show enthusiasm for Top 40 favorites. That didn’t add any more teen zip to my social life, but at least I learned a lot about the Carpenters.

Besides listening to the group, I kept up with all the Grand Funk gossip. Mostly that involved their disastrous legal battles with evil genius manager Terry Knight, who fancied himself as Grand Funk's equivalent of Elvis's Col. Tom Parker. I remember one headline in Creem or, who knows, maybe Tiger Beat: "The fight to control Grand Funk!"

While Cooper heard Grand Funk in concert before, I never had. The group broke up in 1976 and spun through several reincarnations. Lead singer Mark Farner was in and out of the band as he pursued a solo career, and drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher at one point fired Farner. I read about the band but never expected to hear them.

But then Cooper’s call came, and I answered, “Yeah baby!”

Cooper greeted me with Grand Funk t-shirts we’d wear to the concert on a Saturday night. My black shirt accessorized well with black jeans and black hiking shoes, and my well-worn Tractor Supply Company camo hat. We were ready for a road trip!

The Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts in Orange Park was packed, 1,700 seats almost all filled. We fell into the lower end of the age distribution. I doubt 10 people there were under 40. I called the scene “rock and roll and walkers.” And that’s OK, this was a bonding experience for Baby Boomers who craved the visceral thrill of hearing Grand Funk live. And it’s a fact: Grand Funk is Homer Simpson’s favorite band.

Before the show we posed in front of the stage, with its banner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of  "We're An American Band." I recorded an open mic in the lobby to capture my enthusiasm for the moment. We were pleased that drummer Brewer and bassist Schacher were still touring, then disappointed to learn Schacher had been sidelined due to illness. Still, Brewer kept this from being a tribute band. 

The Grand Funk Brothers take the stage!

They mostly played songs I recognized. Cooper remembered the lyrics better than I did, singing along to “Paranoid.” We thrust our fists skyward and joined the serenade. The crowd roared when Brewer, now the Grand Old Man of Grand Funk, waved an American flag and wore an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat. The big finale was, of course, “Closer to Home,” then “American Band.”

Don Brewer goes All-American
Back home in Katonah, I told friends about my experience. Several guys responded with wild enthusiasm; Closer to Home was the first album friend ever bought.

For one night, I was back in 1972, 15 again. Unsure of myself, hormonally addled, I responded to songs like “Heartbreaker” and “I Can Feel Him in the Morning,” with a children's spoken intro with the haunting line "if you're good, you'll live forever, and if you're bad, you'll die when you die." For a teen dealing with a serious crisis of faith, that song meant something.

Hearing Grand Funk struck me with the notion of getting “closer to home.” I remembered my family, my friends, the turmoil of being young in a small town. Maybe we cannot, ultimately, go home again, but with Grand Funk’s musical support I can get closer to home.

Afterward, I wrote haiku poems about the Florida experience. Here’s one of them:

Closer to Home means

What? I never really know but

I keep wondering

The current incarnation of The American Band. 

Saturday, January 20, 2024

In the Time of the (Basement) Flood

Sometimes, timing can shift the shock of life challenges. What can feel like devastation can become an opportunity.

Last week, our area endured pounding rain. I anxiously checked our basement in Katonah for dampness. Wednesday looked normal. Thursday morning I was lugging down the traditional load of laundry when I saw rippling waves shining at the bottom of the stairs. I yelped and stumbled back upstairs. My partner Naomi and I raced down to gauge the extent of flooding. Estimate: 3-4 inches across the whole basement. My look at the storage room where I keep writing examples, research materials, records and books both relieved and shocked me. Many materials were in sturdy plastic bins, records were on a tablebut a cardboard box with tax returns and legal papers was a solid soggy mass. Plastic bags with hundreds of pages of printouts, including unpublished novels, were soaked. And my only electronic copies for the novels were waterlogged 3.5 inch memory disks that went out of style in Y2K.

Naomi immediately called John Hobby Jr. Plumbing & Heating, who are old hands at pulling our plumbing nuts out of the fire. I feared they were swamped with calls from flooded homeowners and it could be days before they could come over. But no! Our timing was fantastic. Within 60 minutes a Hobby squad arrived in their distinctive red van. They pumped out the water and replaced the sump pump, which had given up the ghost in the wake of too much rain. Meanwhile, Naomi contacted First Response, to get the drying process started (that’s First Response as in the remediation company for home cleanups, not pregnancy tests). Again, I thought the process would take days. Instead, Vinnie the project manager arrived as the plumbers were leaving.

Vinnie assessed the situation with a practiced eye. The next morning, his crew arrived with industrial-strength dehumidifiers and fans that we moved around the basement from Friday through Tuesday. While I tossed some stuff, I decided to try to dry out tax papers and research materials. Every couple of hours I probed the depths of my wet papers. I saw progress, as I rotated files in front of the roaring equipment. Gradually, materials dried, even if they are permanently crinkled.

But wait, there’s more! A big part of cleanups involve brawn. As fate would have it, Thursday afternoon we had a visit from Naomi’s nephew Ian, who was visiting the area. Ian, you should know, is a 30-something commercial fishing boat and tugboat captain from Alaska (and the brother of remarkable Alaska back-country athlete Ben Americus, who makes terrifying videos of his adventures). Ian arrived to see us at just the time when we could use a strong, rugged Alaskan to move heavy cartons, flatten boxes and make the clean-up process vastly easier. Otherwise, Naomi and I would have struggled to move, flatten and throw out things, given our status as two increasingly creaky baby boomers.

When we told Ian the sump pump broke, he felt our pain. “On a fishing boat we always have multiple sump pumps,” he said. That sounds prudent for a vessel sailing the roiling icy waters off the Bering Strait. 

By Monday my materials were dry enough to leave the basement. First Response picked up their gear on Tuesday. We switched immediately to washing laundry, including every towel we own.

I know the recovery could have been much slower and messier, had the timing not gone our way. If plumbers and remediators weren’t available, if the rain kept coming, if Ian was out wrestling with giant tunas in Alaska. And the opportunity from the flood: the clean-up turbocharged our decluttering efforts. The basement never looked and smelled better!

This afternoon I looked over my mostly dry papers, 20 to 30 years old. I’m trying to smooth them out. This time around I’ll be smart and store them in plastic bins, away from any watery threat. As an obsessive self-chronicler, I’m not going to let something like a basement flood keep me from my materials. There’s still literary gold in those stained, slightly soggy pages. From the grit of the flood comes the essay. 

Monday, January 01, 2024

Haikus of Thanks

I've become the unofficial bard of thank-you haikus, sent to friends and family after we get together. I try to do three at a time. Here are recent ones to wrap up 2023.

The Country Series

The country kibbutz

floats by the Delaware

Rachel and Alain's retreat


Rachel and Sonia

Lives depend on their work

Fighting the good fight


The sprawling kibbutz

Easy to wander its halls

The cats—never lost!


Brooklyn’s empty nesters

wonder how to fill the quiet

Well, why not more cats?


Alain's new ragtop:

Matthew's birthday Mercedes;

Drive it in good health!

NYC 8-8-2023

Van Gogh’s “Cypresses”

Breeze along the centuries

His gift to forever


Senior pass on buses

Such a deal! Hitting the road

Saves bucks for ice cream

 2023 Rosh Hashanah and Christmas thank-yous

Cye, Mel, matzoh balls

Old family recipe

for a sweet new year


Founders of TBT

Cye and Mel are the Old Guard

That earns free parking


Mel at Samson AFB

Cold war front line of defense

but why no airstrip?


And here's one taken directly from the siddur today:

You open the Book of

Remembrance, which reads itself--

Every man signs his name

7 Fishes Dinner for Christmas Eve 

A Davino delight

Seven fishes for dishes

By the merry tree


Suz, Virg, Neil, KR

A merry Christmas cohort

Repeat the next day!


Aoife is a bit shy

Likes to look but stays away

As guests keep coaxing

In the Catskills 

Kevin and James

Hosts deluxe and truly friends

Stone Ridge swim team champs


Global travelers

Stocking up Christmas baubles

Stories for a tree


Cleo likes her quiet

Nibbles on her kitty food

While humans chow down

Saturday, November 18, 2023

When Mona from Mississippi Met Peludo

My hormones went crazy at a young age. In the sixth grade I started shaving. A year later, I played shirts and skins basketball in PE with a line of hair rolling down my chest.

Over the next decade matted curls sprouted everywhere—back, front, shoulders, arms. Blessed with a positive body image, I always enjoyed my look. The black froth washing over my collars marks my visual brand. Shirtless at beaches, I think, “Gaze upon my swarthy Eastern European-sourced Jewish physique! This is one Yid who’ll never get a back waxing.”

Validation felt good. A woman I met in Brazil during my JDate days nicknamed me “Peludo,” Portuguese for hairy or shaggy. I have the beach pictures of us as evidence.\

For real peludo acknowledgement, consider New Orleans, 1987, at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. The sun, music and crawfish made me groggy by mid-afternoon, so I stretched out on the ground, shirt off, hat covering my eyes.

I had dozed off when I felt a finger jabbing my chest. “What the heck?” I thought as I blinked to attention to find two young women kneeling next to me, entranced.

“Why you are just the hairiest thing I’ve ever seen,” declared one of them, a woman who gave her name as Mona, from Mississippi. She’d come to New Orleans with another woman, a male friend and the thickest Southern accent I’d ever heard to eat, listen and see the sights.

Mona kept running her fingers down my chest in amazement; her frisky explorations tickled me, in more ways than one.

I told her, “I bet you moan,” but she was too sloshed to get my drift. I snapped a picture of her demonstrating a drunken Cajun-Caribbean limbo dance move. Their male buddy took a photo showing  me flanked by Mona and her laughing friend, as Mona’s hand stroked my peludo glory.

The peludo lifestyle isn’t all fun and games. Shower drains clog without daily attention, bedsheets need regular laundering. And consider the healthcare complexities. When I got a flu shot recently, the nurse exclaimed, “I’m glad I don’t have to give you an EKG!” Ah, yes, the EKG experience, the closest I’ve ever come to BDSM play, except there’s no “safe word” to make them stop. Nurses dry-shave my chest and sides so the attachments will stick. That’s the easy part. The nurses always apologize when they yank the EKG attachments off. I tell them I’m used to the sharp but short ripping pain as clumps of hair lift off me.

Knee surgery required my right leg to be shaved to resemble a raw Thanksgiving turkey drumstick. I hadn’t seen that much of my leg since I was in junior high. The shorn look didn’t concern me—the fuzz always grows back thicker than ever (I learned that when, on a whim, I asked a girlfriend shave her initials into my back, an escapade in body modification that garnered peculiar glances at the gym for a few weeks).

As an adult I developed what I call “hobbit ears.” My partner Naomi, as part pf my weekly home hair trim, always plucks my ears and eyebrows. She’s very thorough in hunting down every stray hair, so much so I often yelp, “Owww, this must be what childbirth feels like!” I imagine she takes a discreet enjoyment from the vigorous tweezering, giving me a little taste of the female maintenance experience. She also sternly warns me to never, ever, wear a tank top in public, whenever I muse on that fashion choice on hot days.

“No, Van, just—no,” she entreats me. She has more common sense than I do on style matters.

I accede but still, if I ever do this piece as an open mic, I may go all-in and let my furry freak flag fly in a tank top for visual impact. My inner peludo needs to express itself. And if I can't do that, then I'll an OnlyFans page and monetize this look. 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The First Haikus

 In July I entered a haiku contest organized by Katonah Poetry. I'd never written haikus and had barely read them. This sounded like a good use of my creative energies, so I entered with enthusiasm. To move the odds in my favor, I submitted 15 haikus for $30, or 5 for $10.

That didn't help, I didn't place. The winners were shorter than the classical 5-7-5 syllabic format, which I followed religiously, and more illusive in their images. Reflecting my mindset, my haikus were concrete and sometimes autobiographical. I strayed from observation on nature. Still, I enjoyed the creative effort and have kept writing them as the unofficial bard of weddings, baby namings and visits to friends' home. People like these snapshots of a moment. I envision them being printed and slipped into photo albums from these life events.

Here's my first batch, in the order I wrote them, with links to explanations and inspirations, plus photos. More will follow as they drift down from the ether into my imagination:

Hurricane hits coast

Brings floods and then mosquitos

Nature says “howdy!”


Conjunto, palm trees

Rio Grande churns like drunk snake—

A border boyhood.


Hilda, junior high crush,

Our eyes lock in math class and

My heart skips, yes it . . .


Old Texas graveyard

Mom’s grave under mesquite trees

Kaddish floats on air


Bunnies in the yard

They may be last spring’s bunnies

But—probably not


Vacation breakfast

She sketches the old diner

While I watch her thrive.


Smoky air drifts down

From Canada, throats taste grit

But the cats? Don’t care.


Stop and go traffic

Meets indecisive rain storms

Wipers can’t keep the beat


Bedroom AC’s hum

Creates cool Edenic night

Then dawn—sweat outcasts


Pandemic hikes keep

Me sane; miles in parks and streets

Then meniscus tears


Kids chase around park

Moms unpack picnic lunch while

Dads hunt for wi-fi


Love's hard eyes accuse

From faded color prints yet

Not all’s in black and white 


“I think I’m pregnant.”

Yes, but not for long. She is

Not sure who’s the dad.


On beach’s stone edge

A 9/11 plaque stands

Seagulls wheel and cry


A man’s right to choose

What? Car job beer team band love

What are you thinking?


San Diego 2023

Bride and groom’s first dance

Spin and dip until they laugh

Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.


Japanese garden

Bonai koi water Buddha

My haiku flows there.


Baby at the beach

Pink hat bobs against blue

She waves at the waves

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Final Vinyl: The Five Stages of Downsizing

You’ve probably heard of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. That’s a time-tested and valid model. I’m adapting it to my current approach to downsizing. Looking ahead to the inevitable move from a house to something smaller in a couple of years, I’m confronting my accumulation. While downsizing isn't as profound as death, it does come with emotional tumult and challenges, so I'm serious about making the comparison.

Moves over the past 20 years winnowed a lot of furniture and electronics, but the core clutter remains very stable. That’s vinyl records, books (including “I Learn to Write” from 1964), shoeboxes of chronologically arranged photos, historical newspapers, binders of clips from my journalism days, Princeton reunions costumes and bags, hundreds of letters sorted by year, and folders of research materials for my saucy memoir and other book projects.

Let’s start with the “denial” stage, I always assert I don’t require THAT much space for my stuff. My statement always gets a big laugh from my partner and open mic videographer Naomi. But being at the point where I have to move boxes to reach other boxes suggests I need to face reality.

I’ve passed through denial. What’s next is not anger but resignation of necessity. Something’s got to give, or, more properly, to go. I’m starting with the records. My thinking: I can hear everything online. Plus, records are a royal pain in the tuchus to move.

Last week a representative from Hudson Valley Vinyl in Beacon, N.Y., came to scope my collection and make an offer on the albums he wanted. Before vinylmeister Chris arrived, I spent 30 minutes clearing space in the basement storage room to reach the records. Shades of “Hoarders!” Then I flipped through hundreds of albums to decide which to keep, which to jettison.

Ready to inspection.

The stacks reflected my evolving tastes. Obsessive compulsive that I am, I wrote the dates I bought albums on their covers. I can track the shift from rock and pop through BB King, Hall and Oates, Dinah Washington, Chet Baker, Cajun group BeauSoleil with fiddler Michael Doucet, Miles Davis and finally Brazilian, my obsession of the last 20 years. 

The “keep” stack represents the “bargaining” stage of the cycle. I’ll sell THOSE but not THESE. That elite list includes Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, a gift from my mother on my 16th birthday, a Coleman Hawkins album recorded the actual day I was born, the soundtrack to the movie Chinatown, which I got at the Virgin Megastore in London in September 1984 and lugged all the way back to Brooklyn. My Woodstock soundtrack, stuffed with clippings about artists who performed there. Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones, with the groovy 3D cover, is staying. I’m keeping the first three ZZ Top albums, the soundtrack of my high school years with songs like "(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree.”

As Chris methodically checked the hundreds of albums I would sell, I moved to the curiosity stage. What would he take. He found 60 LPs to buy, but he had to leave many others behind because they were scratched. I didn’t get all sentimental and misty over what he wanted, preferring to let them quietly slip to give joy to new listeners. The top album on the stack was a Billie Holliday collection from 1933-1935.

Going to their forever home.

Now what? Hundreds of records remain. Westchester has other record stores and I hope some would want classic jazz. Grand Funk Railroad and Iron Butterfly, probably not. And that moves me to the final phase: enthusiasm shading toward Kübler-Ross’ acceptance stage.

Downsizing, I’ve found, takes on a momentum. The first steps are hard, but after Chris left, I felt good about the progress, and the cash doesn’t hurt, either. Indeed, I’m ready to wheel and deal some more.

At this stage, I’m looking forward to a little less to pack whenever the inevitable next move comes along. I’m now starting the downsizing cycle on books. Naomi and I will took boxes of books to the  Goodwill store in Baldwin Place, N.Y.; I happily unloaded the car but I almost snatched back a huge collection of New York Times front pages. I finally I let it slip away. 

I’m now writing to see if friends are interested in books from my Judaica collection. Then I have my books on the Soviet Union that I scoured from New York used bookstores in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I knew what I was looking for. Some books cross the Soviet and Jewish genres, like a volume of poetry by the Yiddish writer Peretz Markish. At a library tag sale I found his poetry collection Foterlekhe Erd (Paternal Land), printed in Kiev, Ukraine in 1938, during the Great Purge. Markish was executed along with a dozen other Yiddish poets and public figures on August 12, 1952 in a Soviet attack on Jewish culture. 

That chilling book is history in my hands. I’ve got to keep it. But will I? I’m starting over at the denial stage so anything can happen. Make me an offer. 

Keepers, for now.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

My (Short) Time in the Big House

 I’ll start with a confession. I spent time at Sing Sing Prison and Rikers Island in the 1980s.

You may be thinking, “Wow, this bald Jewish guy in his 60s who works for an accounting firm must have been a real bad-ass back in the day. Either that or he was a criminal defense attorney.”

I’m afraid to say I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a jail-qualifying bad-ass. Maybe a dumb-ass at critical junctures of life. I’ve never been an attorney. No, back in the 80s I was a trade magazine reporter.

Writing for trade magazines lacks the name recognition and glamor of writing for a big-city newspaper or The New Yorker. I toiled for niche publications like Drycleaners News, The Business of Fur,  Leather Today, Banks in Insurance Report, and Magazine Age. Still, this line of work gave me entrée to Sing Sing and Rikers.

In 1984 I was writing for Quick Frozen Foods. My assignment: write about frozen food at the Big House, Sing Sing Correctional Facility. That sounded fun. The headline was “Frozen Fare Gives Prison Chefs Something to ‘Sing-Sing’ About.” That punderful headline practically wrote itself.

Staff at Sing Sing gave me very clear instructions on how to get there from the Ossining train station a half-mile away. I arrived, signed in, was frisked, then went with my notepad and camera to get that story. The highly cooperative foodservice team gave me a lot of great detail on their operations. Nutrition director John Caserta took pride in his operation to feed 2,230 men with a professional staff of 11 and 130 inmate workers, along with 14 security officers. Consistency is the key, as one official with Bureau of Prisons said of the realities of prison life: “In a pure socialistic society, everybody has what everyone one else has. With any differences a black market grows.” So prisoners at the Allenwood “country club prison and the lifers at Leavenworth in Kansas” get the same grub.

Sgt. Leander McCall Jr., head of foodservice security made a big impression. I described him as “an imposing man with a handshake like a vise, he brooks no foolishness.” Caserta described him as “the motivator.” My impression: dedicated people kept the place working. I also learned the first rule of prison foodservice. And that is (drum roll please):

“Don’t run out of food.” Hungry customers are unhappy customers, especially in a penitentiary.

Four years after Sing Sing, I had my adventure at Rikers. By then I was the East Coast Editor of Video Store magazine, covering what was then the thriving video retailing industry before Blockbuster obliterated the industry and then Netflix crushed Blockbuster and most of the remaining video stores.

While Sing Sing was enjoyable, Rikers was epic. I joined the press group invited to Rikers when rap group Public Enemy performed at Rikers, an event every bit as historic as Johnny Cash’s concert at Folsom Prison. The performance was being filmed as part of a music video. Public Enemy was the first group to every play at Rikers, and they came loaded with songs that instantly connected with the audience: Don’t Believe the Hype, Bring the Noise and the classic Fight the Power.

I can’t find any articles I wrote about Rikers, but I did make a laconic note in my journal on August 14, 1988. The was after I returned, exhausted, from the big video industry convention in Las Vegas. I wrote, “Friday wasn’t much of a day off. I went to Rikers for the Public Enemy gig. That turned into an all-day romp in the heat of a prison and I didn’t return here until 5:15.”

The best summary of the event is the 2013 article “Public Enemy at Rikers: An Oral History.”

Lindsey Williams came up with the idea for the show. The then 22-year-old Def Jam executive was putting together a marketing plan for the group’s sophomore album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. PE was on Run-DMC’s Tougher Than Leather tour, and Williams, who was traveling with the group, proposed that they visit and perform at prisons in selected cities. . .

Planning the show took just over a week; the paperwork was expedited by a tangential relationship between members of PE’s camp and the Rikers staff. Turkkan arranged for two buses to transport 150 members of the press from midtown Manhattan to Rikers . . .

The press arrived at Rikers before noon. They were patted down, taken on a brief tour, and then ushered into a small room. Security was minimal, with the only restriction being that press refrain from asking the prisoners what they were in for.

Two hundred and fifty prisoners, most of them black and Latino, entered the bare-bones auditorium. Even by August-in-NYC standards it was brutally hot and the prisoners’ jumpsuits were drenched in sweat. In keeping with protocol there were two guards per inmate with an additional 25 to 30 guards outside the auditorium, and additional officers from other houses on alert. The press stood behind barricades and formed a horseshoe on the perimeter of the crowded room a few feet away from the inmates who were seated in plastic chairs.

Yes, I remember the heat, the earsplitting noise, the tough-as-nails Rikers guards and the holding pen for us reporters, who stuck out like pale sore thumbs in our natty sports jackets and penny loafers.

I now work in communications for a professional services firm. While that’s highly satisfying and has lasted as long as all my magazine gigs taken together, I still look back fondly to the unpredictable zest of writing for the trades. I never knew what I'd find on my plate. And that's something to sing about.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The French Connection

France forms the bookends of my parents’ five-year marriage, almost all of it spent in that country. Letters they wrote give me details about their move to France in 1955, after they were married in Texas, and their bitter transatlantic split in 1959-1960. In between those dates my brother Cooper and I were born there. After their divorce, France summarized the rancor separating these two wildly mismatched people. As I get older, I look back on their push-and-pull and wonder what might have happened had my French connection remained in place.

In the beginning, newlyweds Shirley and Mark enjoyed their new life. Married that March in McAllen, Texas, my mother had flown to France to connect with my father, who had moved to France to pursue a career in the auto industry while working a day job as a mechanic on a U.S. Air Force base in Chateauroux. A typed single-spaced letter my mother wrote to Dearest Ones (presumably her parents and sister in Tyler, Texas) on August 3, 1955 brims with details about the TWA flight from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in New York, to Gander, Newfoundland, to Paris. After reuniting, they were Americans in Paris. My mother wrote, “Wednesday we walked to the section where the fine shops are. All the shops are beautiful—didn’t buy anything except a thing for my hair.”

Stylish at the auto show.

Saturday they took the train to Chateauroux, a trip of a bit more than two hours. She related: “Mark thought he could rent a car, but couldn’t—we did rent a two wheel, two seater Vespa scooter. You should have seen us—especially me in a tight skirt. No one pays any attention to you.”

Signs of dissatisfaction appear immediately. “Monday I was awful lonesome, but kept busy, mostly washing. Visited the little house for a while with the Sgt.’s wife and at 6:00 Mark came in and I opened cans and we ate. . . Yesterday I washed some more and then walked to Niberne, a town about 1 ¾ miles from here and bought bread. I wanted two loaves but I must have said twa instead of du and ended up with three of them. Had a cup of French coffee and walked home.” Later in the day they looked at apartments in Chateauroux. She wrote, “Mark likes it here in the country, but it is too lonely since cleaning is nothing and then all I have to do is read or sit. So into town we go. Too, I want a bathroom of my own.”

Her first impressions of the locals were very positive. “The French seem to be nice people and the country is all like a picture. The flowers are so beautiful I can’t describe them, and Daddy, you would love the gardens, they are about the size of our backyard and have two rows of all kinds of vegetables.”

“Mark looks wonderful—it is so nice to be with him again—haven’t been mad a time, yet.” That is offhand comment, in retrospect, was ominous.

My father typed a paragraph at the end of the letter. “Dear folks, now you know about Paris. Actually we only hit the high spots—and we ate at some really crazy restaurants, Russian food on flaming swords—snails, all kinds of things. Shirl is happy about the week in Paris and as soon as we really get settled we will write more often. Love, Mark.”

I have little other documentation of the four years my parents spent in France. My brother and I were both born there at the base’s hospital. Photo albums show happy scenes, my parents in stylish outfits at car shows. I’m decked out in cute toddler clothes and a beret, and clutch baguettes bigger than me.

Fed up with financial and personality clashes, my mother returned to Tyler with my brother and me in 1959. Dad stayed in France. She exchanged rancorous letters with him via airmail. She saw him as financially feckless, he sneered that she needed to go to charm school. In 1960 she moved to her hometown of Mission, Texas and there we remained.

She emphatically stated her feelings in her will from January 27, 1960, signed when she was 39 years old. The will said:

I realize I have made no provision in this will for my husband, MARK K. WALLACH. We are not now living together as husband and wife and the greatest portion of my estate consists of property which I have inherited from my father and mother, JARED J. LISSNER and EVA M. LISSNER, and of property I owned prior to my marriage. In view of these facts it is my intention that my said husband should receive no share of my estate, since it is my wish and judgment that my estate should pass to and vest in my children.

The Hidalgo County Recordings column in the McAllen Monitor of May 7, 1961, listed her divorce suit filed in the 92nd District Court in Edinburg. I know because she saved the clipping—given to her in a card that said “The News is Out” with a note on the inside: “Shirley, Here Tiz. I’ll get the stamp on next trip, D.” She kept the card and clipping in her wedding album. Was she being ironic, sentimental or simply a thorough chronicler of her life, as evidenced that she often typed letters on carbon paper to keep her own copy? In the early 1980s I did exactly that when I wrote letters to her.

I remember nothing of France, although I must have known as much French as a two-year old could learn. We traded the South of France for the South of Texas, two geographies that defined my parents’ wildly divergent personalities.

Our home had some evidence of France. The kitchen featured a framed drawing of dogs peeing against a wall, a famous piece popular with tourists by Boris O’Klein called “Naughty Dogs."  We had the photo albums. My mother was good friends with a saleswoman named Paulette with a charming French accent at her favorite clothing store, the Valley Mercantile in McAllen. My brother and I learned whatever French songs American kids knew at the time, like “Frère Jacques.” Classmates in my elementary school thought I had trouble pronouncing the letter "r."

France insinuated itself into my parents’ acidic views of each other. My mother saw it as the symbol of what she loathed about my father: his Eurocentric snobbery, his disdain for her and her Texas viewpoint, his self-absorption. My father lamented that my brother and I didn’t speak French, dressed like ranch hands rather than boulevardiers, didn’t travel around Europe, didn’t appreciate opera, ballet and art. and didn't have love affairs with beautiful older women like all the sophisticated French (men) do. No middle ground existed in their positions.

Needless to say, France, the land of my birth, never ranked high on my list of adolescent interests. To do so felt like a betrayal of our mother. I look Spanish in high school, not French. If I had dual citizenship, it never meant anything. Any vestigial knowledge of the language stayed buried in me. I took Spanish rather than French in high school and college, then Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Portuguese as an adult with a language-learning obsession.

Still, France mattered as the empty place in my earliest memory where my parents were a couple and Cooper and I absorbed the local culture.

I visited France in September 1984 during a month in Europe. My mother had died of cancer that January, I was a freelance writer between relationships and so I locked the door on my Brooklyn studio apartment and jetted off on Virgin Atlantic for the extended travel I never had after college. After London, I moved on to Paris and bought train tickets for the two-hour trip to Chateauroux.

Returning to Paris.

I remember feeling anxious on the train. What was I doing? I didn’t speak the language and knew nothing about my destination other than its name. I wrote about the experience in the December 1984 edition of a short-lived publication called New Men’s News. Titled “In Search of Memories,” it records a forlorn pilgrimage to see where my mother had lived and loved, and where I began living:

I had to see Chateauroux.

I did that during a month-long vacation. Once there, I walked down one road, then back, confused. Now what? The staff at the local tourist office couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak French. I indicated with a State Department birth registration form that I wanted to find the Air Force base. They shook their heads.

“Le hospital c’est kaput?” I asked, mangling three languages in one sentence.

“Oui, c’est kaput,” a woman said. She did sketch a route to the old “base Americaine” on a map. With this help I strolled through the noontime streets. I clutched every detail, and thought, “So this is it.” Little cars were parked on the sidewalks, and most stores had closed. Parents and children walked hand in hand, and my throat tightened. There, 25 years earlier, went I.

I walked out of town to a highway. Far away was a toy-like air traffic control tower and the former air base. I thought, “This is far enough.” I took a picture and turned around.

Nothing dramatic happened. Nobody rushed out and gasped, “Monsieur Wallach, oui?” I bought croissants, and got caught in a rain shower. The ordinary events matched the way my mother lived—steady and dependable.

Returning to Paris, I felt relieved and somehow empty . . . A part of me will always be vacant, but the search cleared away the gnawing I felt inside. There’s no place left to go, except headlong into my own history.

That line—“There, 25 years earlier, went I”—reaches out, 40 years later, to describe the French connection I explore. In the past decade, I became a big fan of French music of the eras of Django Reinhardt, Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker and France Gall. And I put a lot of time into French new wave and other genres. I’ve seen many of the classics: Breathless, Jules and Jim, Elevator to the Gallows (with that incredible soundtrack improvised by Miles Davis), Bob le Flambeur, Rififi, Cléo from 5 to 7, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Alphaville, Shoot the Piano Player. The damning Holocaust film La Rafle, about the roundup of Paris Jews in 1942 by French cops, haunts me. 

While French movies from any era are enjoyable, those of the 1950s and 1960s especially resonate. I find myself peering around corners, watching those parents with children, noticing the cars and fashions, mentally strolling the rain-glistened boulevards and casting my mind back to the what-ifs of life.

  • What if my parents remained married and we settled into a stable expatriate life?
  • What if my parents divorced but my mother remained in France and my brother and I had a bi-cultural upbringing?
  • What we my parents divorced and we returned to Texas but our father took us to France for visits to introduce us to what he liked about France and Europe? 

The last is the most plausible scenario, but it requires a radically retooled father with the financial resources to afford a European family vacation, not to mention an ability to accept and bond with boys from Texas. Both points, I know from experience, were in the realm of fantasy.

I can't change the past but I can change the present, and I did. Since that trip to Chateauroux, self-acceptance and curiosity replaced that vacant feeling. That didn't happen tout de suite, but in my own sweet time. And I'm sure I'll be back to France. A visit, some maturation and that stack of airmail letters colored in some of the blank spaces of my life’s cartography.

What more can I say? C’est la vie.

Two Microstories and Four Long, Terrible First Sentences of Novels

Here's a collection of short pieces--two microstories and four entries in the Katonah Village Library's Bulwer-Lytton writing contes...