Madeleine Robins

January 25, 2017

Life Lived Out Loud. Very Loud.

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 11:10 PM
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gossip2Two years ago, at 19, my daughter deleted her social media accounts. This is a kid who had lived on Facebook and Snapchat and all the rest, and then… poof, not just inactive, but Gone. She says she wants to stop worrying about the personna she was crafting for the world. But I suspect, as well, that she’s discovering the benefit of undersharing.

Two illustrative anecdotes and a spot of musing:

About fifteen years ago I was writing in a coffee shop. A couple sat down behind me. When you write in a public place you get used to tuning out the sounds of the people around you, but some times the pitch of a voice will grab and hold your attention. I didn’t mean to listen, but I got sucked in by the tone, then the words. They were getting divorced. They had chosen the cafe as a neutral place, and they were there to divvy up their property. They were trying their best to keep their voices low and their manner civil. If others in the cafe were listening, they gave no sign of it; neither did I. We all, speakers and auditors, pretended they were alone. After about an hour and a half the couple finished their negotiations, said awkward goodbyes, and left.

I don’t remember a thing they said, but I remember the event as clear as day.

Fifteen years later: I was at my haircutters this fall to get the blue streak in my hair refreshed. There was a delay–something had gone wrong with the prior client’s hair color, the stylist had had to re-do it, and now–the stylist’s helper looked a little nonplussed. Because of the delay, the client, who had to catch a flight, was doing her performance review via Skype. In the salon. “Come in and we’ll get started, but it’s a little… weird.”

It was: at the point where I took my seat, the other client, her hair in foils, was sitting in the chair next to mine (the salon is tiny). She looked about 24, had her laptop open, and was video-chatting with complete unselfconsciousness about her progress at her company, mentioning the projects she’d been involved in, getting in a dig at a co-worker. She finished up with a sort of up-voiced interrogatory: she’d been at the company for over six months, wasn’t it time to take the next step?

The woman she was addressing very kindly but firmly pointed out that six months is not a very long time; that a promotion was not guaranteed after six months, that while some of the progress she spoke of had been noted by her colleagues and supervisor, she had some other areas that needed work, that…. well, the promotion wasn’t coming just yet. It was hard for her to hear. It was awkward for us to hear.

The change that came over the young woman was subtle; she had had no problem carrying on what, at work, would have been a confidential conversation held behind closed door, in front of three strangers, until it went in a direction she had not anticipated. The meeting ended and she closed her laptop; the foils were removed and her hair dried and styled, and she left to catch a flight. Apparently she never came back to the salon.

Life is lived very publicly these days. For writers, who are told that Establishing a Media Presence is a requirement, it can be just another writing exercise. But when even middle schoolers worry about crafting an online persona*, the world has moved well past my mother’s adjuration not to tell Other People the family’s concerns. We’re all awfully comfortable with taking up, not just our own space, but the space of the people around me. I tend to lower my voice if I’m talking on a cell phone in public–both for the sake of my own privacy and so as not to thrust my business on the people sitting nearby. Not so the woman two seats away from me on BART who was chatting animatedly with someone about her visit to the gynecologist.

“A life lived out loud”, as a phrase, suggests courage, not being squashed by societal expectations–being who you are unapologetically. I’m totally on board with that: I’m old enough to remember a culture of conformity which extended well past the era of the hippie and letting it all hang out. What I’m talking about is different: it’s acting as if the world around you is either an audience or a set. With the couple in the cafe they were painfully aware that they were in public, and tried their best to keep from making the other denizens part of it. With the young woman at my haircutter’s, she was okay with all of us being her audience–until the discussion went in a direction she wasn’t expecting. And the woman on BART? I think, to her, that the world around her was one big sound stage.

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/05/well/family/the-unspoken-rules-kids-create-for-instagram.html?_r=0

December 21, 2016

The Milestone I Didn’t See Coming

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 11:53 PM
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I have two daughters, and one is an actress Because of this, she and her sweetie have worked at the Great Dickens Fair in San Francisco for… five? No, six years. First as scum (the local color who give the joint color); then last year Julie got taken off to be one of the singing barmaids at Mad Sal’s gin palace. And a couple of years in, Julie’s Beau Joe, whose character is the Reverend Mr. John Thomas Palmer, defrocked vicar, started doing a Sunday morning service for the cast which was successful enough that it became part of the publicly scheduled shows.

These days Cockney Church is a well-attended event with players and patrons mingling to hear Rev. Palmer’s patented Lord’s Prayer (“‘Ullo, Dad, up there in good ol’ ‘Eaven! Your naim is great and ‘oly, and and we respec’ you, Guv…”) and his meticulously researched, hilarious sermons. And the last Sunday of the five weeks is the blowout Church, with carols sung by doxies, a Christmas Can-Can, and a Nativity scene that features… well, it’s pretty amazing. The Rev. is aided and abetted by his helpmeet, the ditzy Fanny Palmer, his common-law wife (played by Julie, of course), who manages to get herself cast as the “Wirgin Mary.”

nativity

Note above: the Infant Jesus swaddled in a blue shawl, the Wirgin right behind him, and a couple of questionable Can-Can girl sheep (plus some Magi drawn from the brothel clientele…)

So, on the final Sunday, dressed in my Victorian outfit and prepared to demonstrate bookbinding techniques (something I did for five weeks in support of my day job), I got my sewing frame set up and ready–then took myself off to Church. There was merriment and singing, and, of course, the Nativity. There had already been one homily, but following the Nativity it appeared there was going to be another, delivered by Mad Sal herself. Backstory: a month ago, when Julie’s appendix ruptured, Joe was the Man On Hand who represented her (and us) at the hospital and took the full brunt of the anxiety. The following weekend, at Dickens without Julie, he delivered a homily about Joseph and Juliana as a way of praising the doctors who had taken care of Julie, and as a way of putting in a plug for the Affordable Care Act. So this past Sunday Joe returned to the story of Joseph and Juliana–and Julie, not having a clue what was in store, played along (Mad Sal: “And Juliahner woz wery ill…” Julie: **cough cough**). What was in store:

I, in my Annie-the-Bookbinder outfit, was sitting in the back of the auditorium having a full-body flush of incredulity, like “Is this really happening?” I was so startled that, a few minutes later when my younger daughter stood right in front of me after giving her sister a big hug, I was so focused on the newly affianced Julie that I did not recognize Becca.

What made it the more magical was how many people at the Dickens Fair know and love both Joe and Julie, and were cheering and weeping at the little drama playing out in front of them. They were surrounded by their friends, their peers, their family.

When you have a kid you’re handed a bunch of milestones: first step, first word, first “NO!”, first day of school. You see those coming: many of them are on a timeline. But once the child becomes an adult–maybe at the point when she graduates from high school or college–you sort of stop seeing them coming. Until one happens right in front of you, ushering a vista of potential milestones. It’s breathtaking for a lot of reasons.

October 1, 2016

Tilt!

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 8:43 AM
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fw_fainting-victorian-lady1Since my teens (possibly even before that, but the facts get lost in the gauze of time) I have occasionally fallen over. Often publicly. The first time I remember was in gym class, where I turned to a classmate, said, “I feel like I’m gonna–” and did, coming to a minute later to see the faces of all three of the school’s gym teachers very close to mine, and to hear the “what happened?” of 40 15-year-old girls echoing like the cries of maddened seagulls in my ears. Since then, my public swoons have been the stuff of anecdote, like the time I fell at the top of the up escalator at a department store, and awoke to find that I was being prodded with a cane by an elderly woman who thought I was staging a protest (it was the ’70s).

I never really worried about it too much. When I was young, it seemed to be mostly associated with heroically bad cramps (or the occasional stomach bug), which was embarrassing but seemed on the outer edge of what was considered normal for us frail female sorts. I figured: if I felt rotten, best thing to do was to get down low on the ground until I passed out or the feeling went away. And I will say, your fellow citizens are generally very kindly to women who swoon. I have been in the back offices or living-rooms of strangers who decided I could not be left to lie strewn about the hallway or pavement. High embarrassment, lots of thank yous, and I’d go on with my life.

Until finally it was pointed out to me that I should really get this looked into. Here’s what happened.

One morning, when my younger daughter was still in diapers, I was getting her changed and dressed, when I had a stab of sciatica followed almost immediately by lightheadedness. I called my husband in to take over, and went off to the bathroom (the only place where Mama could get a moment to herself) to sit down for a moment until it passed. Somewhere in the sixty seconds after I sat down on the side of the tub I realized that I was really, really dizzy. I remember thinking “I’d better get down on the floor” just before the ringing gray tide swelled up around me (really, that’s the best description I can give). When I awoke I thought, for a moment, that I was in bed. I’d been having a vivid dream. Then I realized that I was on the bathroom floor. Lying in front of the door (which had stopped Danny from being able to come in and see if I required assistance). I picked myself up and realized 1) that I was bloodied (I’d bitten my lip spectacularly) and 2) broken (one of my front teeth had broken off at the gum line).

First things first: I called my dentist and got an appointment for an emergency root canal late that afternoon. Then I called my doctor, a calm sort, and explained what had happened. “Go down to the ER; my partner’s on duty. You need to have your lip sewn up.” So I followed instructions, not reckoning on the fact that few things get ER docs more excited than LOC (loss of consciousness). I kept protesting that I just needed a stitch or two, while they spoke of CAT scans and MRIs… until I said, “Well, my daughter has a diagnosis of vaso-vagal syncope….” At which point they did the ER doc equivalent of pouting, as if I had misrepresented my swoon as something interesting, sewed up my lip, and suggested that I might wanna get this checked out at some point.

Vaso-vagal syncope, as it was explained to me, is a relatively benign tendency to faint. It is often found in robustly healthy people whose systems are so finely tuned that said system mis-reads a cue, thinks that there’s a medical emergency, and cuts down blood flow to everything except the core systems–of which, it appears, the brain is not one. It is the world’s fastest episode of shock. Then, after a minute Silly Body says “Oops! My bad,” blood flow is restored, and the faint passes off, leaving the patient to deal with the embarrassment of swooning.

My doctor and I agreed that finding out what was happening was probably a good thing (and why hadn’t I ever mentioned this before? Because it mostly had seemed tangled up with gynecological issues, and…). So I was sent for a tilt table test. In a tilt table test you are strapped, Bride-of-Frankenstein-style, to a table which is then raised so that you are almost standing–thus the “tilt table” appellation. I imagine there are different protocols, but for me, they put into IVs each arm. For the first phase of the test, they piped something something into my left arm that slowed my heart rate to a crawl. Whatever it was (I remember it as adenine, but it was a long time ago and I can no longer state what it was with authority) it metabolized very quickly–after about two minutes the effects were gone. But that was a horrible two minutes. I didn’t faint, but I felt… rotten. No pain, no queasiness, just awful in a way that defies description. And then it was gone.

For the second part of the test they ran a second chemical into my right arm, something that sped my heart rate waaaaay up. And that part of the test was supposed to last for about 25 minutes. “What happens if I don’t faint?” “Then you’ve passed the test, and whatever it is that’s making you faint is sinister and must be further investigated.” “Oh.” Sinister? And here I’d been ignoring it for 30 years? Fortunately, 22 minutes into the test I said “I feel like I might–” and did. At which point they lowered the table and told me I’d flunked the test and indeed, I have vaso-vagal syncope.

And there was much rejoicing. At least by me, who now had a name for what it was, and the assurance of the neurology department at NYU that I didn’t have anything really really scary to deal with.

And the recommendation on how to deal with it? If I were fainting several times a day, they could medicate me. But given that it’s only once, maybe twice a year, they didn’t want to do that. “So what do I do?” I asked.

“If you feel faint, get down on the ground.” Hell, I coulda told me that.

__________

*I suspect the 10 degrees of tilt, or whatever it is, is so that if you faint you don’t overbalance the table and fall forward.

September 1, 2016

Let me call you… Mister

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:04 PM
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EtiquetteA friend mentioned the other day that she’d run into a novel set in the mid-19th century in which everyone addressed each other by their first names. All the time. Under every circumstance. It was driving her nuts; her interior historian kept being thrown out of the story. Wouldn’t there have been more formality?  And if the author was fudging this aspect of etiquette, what else was she fudging? Or getting wrong? Or figuring just didn’t matter?

It would drive me nuts too. I’m a very forgiving audience, except when I’m not–I can gloss right over what I believe to be an error in world building, if the story and characters are sufficiently engaging that I just don’t care. But make an error before you’ve got my heart and you’ve lost me.

So: how did people talk to each other in the Olden Days? How did they talk about each other? When did the new informality, if I may call it so, become a Thing? As so often happens when such questions are raised, I turned to Emily Post.

(more…)

August 5, 2016

Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 7:55 AM
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victorian_teacher_postcard-r54cfbbfd3f9b4af68a22d15a9b640f1a_vgbaq_8byvr_512So my daughter is home for the summer, bringing joy and great conversations and taking over my kitchen. I really enjoy both my daughters, but Younger Girl is such an emphatic presence in the house that you really know she’s here. And we talk. Oh my God do we talk.  And there are some tics in her language that drive me a little crazy.

Such as? “I’m really excited for this vegan dinner.”

The way I understand my language, the sentence above suggests that my kid is excited on behalf of the vegan dinner, which is not what she means (I asked). Once I started hearing her use this particular construction, I realized that it was everywhere.  What happened to about? For the life of me, I can’t see a reason for the shift in prepositions. And that’s what annoys me every time I hear it.

I’ve become, in my own way, a language crank. My daughter calls me on it.

She says at college she’s the one who corrects her friends. She sends me every single paper she writes for me to vet for style and grammar. She also says (and I agree) that English is a living construct, and changes constantly. I’m generally on board with neologisms, and I try not to be too twitchy about the erratic use of spoken grammar (I live on the internet; I have stopped worrying about there/their and your/you’re). But language is also the tool of my trade, and some of the things the kid thinks she’s saying are, well, not.

When the subject comes up my daughter suggests that I’m the problem, that I’m being prescriptive and exclusionary. It’s almost a social justice issue to her. But in my head, I’m like a carpenter that doesn’t like to see the side of a hammer used to sink a nail–what’s wrong with using the tool the way the tool is supposed to be used?

It occurs to me that “that doesn’t mean what you think it does” is the root of my problems with some language shifts. At some point many words do shift (when was the last time you saw “nice” used in its original sense of “choosy”?). But until they have shifted, a speaker risks losing meaning by using those words in their newer sense. Lost meaning = risk of not being completely understood. And that’s it for me: the idea of not making myself understood gives me the screaming collywobbles. But as with so much else about life, Your Mileage May Vary.

I forget sometimes that I’m part of a continuum. I wake up each morning at the very end of evolution, and language (maybe even humans) have reached a point of perfection where there’s no need for further change. So a change that makes no sense to me (like “for” for “about”) feels like a step backward. But in thirty years it’s likely that “about” will feel as awkward to casual English speakers as “for” does to me. So I’m trying to curb my prescriptivist ways. Or at least restrain my flinching.

June 7, 2016

A Cautionary Tale or Two

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:05 PM
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stroller
When my older daughter was about three, we went to the park on a hot Spring afternoon. Usually I did not have her in a stroller, but because we were going to a particular park that was about a quarter-hour walk, and because I knew she would be totally exhausted on the trip back, I opted to put her in the little umbrella stroller (lightweight, easily folded, not one of those SUV-type strollers with trays and cupholders… in terms of parenting paraphernalia I was a minimalist). So I strapped her in, hung the bag of playground toys and juice boxes off a handle, and away we went.

We reached 103rd and Riverside, and I started to cross the Avenue. Julie had, unbeknownst to me, learned a new skill: she could unbuckle the safety strap.  And she did. About 2/3rds of the way across the street she stuck her foot down to scuff her toe on the asphalt, which created just enough of a bump that she fell out of the stroller. We got her back in in about three seconds and proceeded to the corner, where I had every intention of 1) buckling her in and 2) giving her a quick scolding. We both knew she hated the harness; this was a demonstration of why it was useful.

Except that when we got to the other side of the street an elderly man was waiting to scold me. He was tall, rather patrician looking, in a suit and tie on a Saturday. And wherever he was going, it was apparently more important that he miss the light in order to give me a dressing down. What kind of parent doesn’t understand the basics of safety? Did I know what that kind of neglect could cost me? Cost my child? It seemed like this went on for five minutes–I generally find it easier not to engage someone like this–but it was probably 30 seconds before Julie unbuckled her harness, got out of the stroller, and said “You leave my mama alone. She’s a very good mama! She buckled me in and I UNDID IT MYSELF!”

At which point the gentleman, missing the point of Julie’s riposte, asked me if I was going to let my daughter address a stranger–an adult–that way. And I took strength from my child’s example and told him that she was repaying his treatment of me in kind. And the kid hopped back into the stroller and I buckled her back in and when we got to the park I got us both ice cream, and so there.

PS163Then there’s the time when I picked up daughter #2 at kindergarten. Her classroom was at the rear of the building in a trailer (much nicer than it sounds) behind a fence about 200 feet from the sidewalk. All the families were picking up their kindergarteners, so as usual it was a bit of a scrum. Becca’s teacher wanted a word, so I checked–she was hanging upside down on a fence with a friend–and stayed to chat for two minutes, watching the fence off and on to keep tabs on her. Finished the chat, turned back, and Becca was no longer on the fence. A matter of maybe five seconds.

There’s a full-body panic flush that you get (at least I got) when you can’t find your five year old daughter in a crowd. What had happened? She had, with the egocentrism of a five-year-old, assumed that I would follow her out to the street and we would go home, and had got off the fence and marched out to 97th Street before she realized that I was not with her. I had, with the egocentrism of an older person, thought she was where I’d seen her five seconds before. Fortunately, a moment later a parent showed up, a very unhappy Becca in tow: we hugged, we cried, we each explained what had had happened, and each promised to do better in the future. She’s now 20–it must have worked.

We are–especially in this day of insta-news and the 24-hour news cycle and Our Friend Social Media–awfully quick to judge. Especially parents. Why is that kid crying so much? How could you not remember to buckle your child into her stroller? Why doesn’t that child have mittens? Why isn’t she wearing a hat? How could you be so thoughtless? Don’t you know what could happen?

Of course you do. Parenting–especially parenting more than one child–is a calculated balancing act. If I hold this one’s hand on the way home from the grocer then I can’t hold the groceries and the other child’s hand at the same time, so I gamble that I’ve trained the kid well enough that she won’t launch off across the street into traffic. If I stop to tie your shoe, your brother won’t climb on that fence and impale himself. If I look away for a second, my toddler won’t climb over barriers and fences in order to get up close and personal with a gorilla.

Frankly, if I’m going to blame anything in the tragic events of the Cincinnati Zoo, it’s the Disneyfication of nature that leads people to adopt a wandering bison calf, or attempt to pet the meerkats at the Zoo. (This is apparently the same mindset that leads people to step off high places at Disneyland because they believe that somehow gravity works differently there. Go figure.)

I am not going to blame the zoo for taking action. Enough has been written about why the gorilla at the Zoo was shot–they know their business far better than I do, and a happy ending and the toddler and the gorilla singing Kumbaya was vanishingly unlikely. I’m terribly sad about the gorilla’s death, but I see this as a perfect storm of bad news for all of them.

And the people screaming about the parents–particularly the mother, because it’s always the mother who should be aware–just… don’t. All it takes is a second (see above). And even the second after that, when every molecule in your body is on fire with terror for your child, you don’t know what to do. Try to squeeze through a space you’re going to be trapped in to go after your child? Scream loudly enough to rile up the animals? A toddler is a peculiarly mono-focused person: yelling “Tommy, you come back here right now!” is not necessarily going to stop even the most well-behaved child when he’s on a curiosity quest.

Parenting is hard, and scary, and exhausting enough. Most parents are doing the best they can, and most parents, I truly believe, do a pretty good job. We’re all making it up as we go along, trying to not do the things our parents do wrong, trying to keep our tempers and our sanities while making the world as rich and exciting for our kids as we can. And sometimes things happen, not because we’re bad people, badly intentioned, or even stupid, but because the world is damned random. You do all the things you can. Sometimes life gets away from you. God willing it’s not a tragedy.

 

April 16, 2016

I Remember It as Clear as Day

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:04 AM
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blocksLast time I was here, I talked about my earliest memory. I have long considered (because I’m a writer and my brain works that way) that it has some metaphorical connection to the person I became. And because it’s my life and my metaphor, I can say that. Years from now, when my life is being taught as a cautionary tale on millennial writers (as if), an educator can tell their version of what my life was, and why my mother going out to get lemons and leaving her 2 year old at home had nothing to do with anything.

What was lovely about that post was that people started posting their earliest memories, here and elsewhere. I really enjoyed reading them. But they also got me thinking about a memory I have that is utterly false, and yet still compels me.

From three-and-a-half until 13, I went to a school in Greenwich Village: The Little Red School House. It was very small, very lefty, academically very good, and formative for me in ways both excellent and not so excellent. I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers.  I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.

Anyway: the memory.  Until we were in second grade our “gym” period was held on the roof, which had some playground equipment, balls, etc., but also these big wooden blocks. The blocks were made of plywood, painted a deep forest green, and as best I can estimate from half a century on, most of them were 18-24″ long by 12″ by 6″. Big enough so that a little kid could carry one of them at a time. They were used on the roof only, for building the sorts of things one builds with blocks. And though it wasn’t allowed, the structures were frequently built by the kids to be stood on. I swear, it’s an amazement to me that we all survived to adulthood.

My memory is that on a rainy day, somehow the blocks had been brought down to my classroom (the 4s, or nursery school) and some of the boys were building a big wall out of them, six blocks or so wide and five or six blocks tall. That one of my chief tormentors, a kid named Mark, climbed to the top of the wall and stood there threatening to jump on me, and that suddenly the wall fell. My last memory is of those forest green blocks coming at me. The rest is silence.

And this never happened. I checked with my mother. I checked with my nursery school teacher (the perfectly wonderful Gertrude Asher of blessed memory). Neither one remembered such a thing; each was ready to say categorically that it never happened, because an incident that resulted in one kid being knocked out cold would have been reported, to say the least. Also: those blocks were never brought downstairs, regardless of weather. Also… see incident reports and repercussions to the aggressor party, etc.

And yet it’s one of the clearest memories I have of early childhood. There seems to be nothing else in my history which I might have conflated with school life to create the memory. I made it up out of whole cloth, or it’s a dream that lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t let go. Did I feel small and at the mercy of larger kids? You bet. And I have the m/e/m/o/r/y dream to prove it.

As a writer, this becomes part of a larger conversation for me about truth, and the difficulty of sorting out the objectively true from the subjectively true from, and how a false memory can color all the true memories that surround it. And in practical terms, how can you nest believed truth, perceived truth, and (for the purpose of fiction) actual truth in a way that works for–and perhaps even surprises–the reader. I have more than once used a dream as a way of illuminating a character’s state of mind or beliefs*; talking about this now, I’m suddenly intrigued by the notion of writing a character whose behavior is shaped by a false memory. A false memory that is so seamlessly integrated into the long line of memories that shape belief and behavior as to be unquestionable.

For the purpose of the story, the character would then have to discover that the memory is false, not in terms of perspective (“No, I was sitting there too, and Grandma didn’t eat the last cookie herself. I could see her give it to the dog.”) but in terms of possibility (“Grandma was already dead by that time.”). When a foundational memory gets removed from your structure, do you just go on with the life you’ve based on that memory? Do you actively reject that life? Does it continue to represent itself as a memory?

As the ever appropriate Mr. Shakespeare put it, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.”

* It is not either cheating. Or a cliche. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to tell the story. So there.

April 7, 2016

My Mother Went Out for Lemons

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 7:45 AM

maryjanesWhat is your earliest memory?

Mine is from when I was somewhere between two and three years old. I’ve heard that it’s unusual to remember anything that early. So I’m unusual: when my mother was still alive I asked her if the following thing ever happened and (subject to the Rashomon effect of her recollection being different from mine) I can say that it did.

As a small child my family lived in the top two floors (or more properly, the top floor and an attic) of a brownstone on 11th Street in New York City. Four years after this story we moved to another brownstone, also on 11th Street, where we lived in the bottom two floors.  But that’s neither here nor there in terms of this memory.

My brother would have been about six months old–I know this because it was spring (and both my brother and I were December babies, but it wasn’t swelteringly hot the way that summer in New York City so often is). I would have been about two and a half. And my mother was making dinner and realized that she needed a lemon. Rather than waking the baby and packing us both into the stroller and going down to the corner to fetch a lemon, Mom made a different call: she sat me down on the couch, told me not to move, and went out to buy a lemon. (more…)

March 19, 2016

Gallantry

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street. 

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.

October 28, 2015

We Must All Hang Together…

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM
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hands… or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.*

Being human is not for the faint of heart. Being a kid, being a teen, being an adult, a parent, the child of parents with health or memory issues. There is no age of being human that doesn’t come with challenges. Family helps. But family has changed over the centuries, and our idea of what family owes us (and what we owe our families) has changed too.

Time was, if you had children, they were raised to be part of a support system–doing increasingly complex chores, learning the family business or taking over tasks on the farm. My father and his siblings helped out with his father’s store in Brooklyn; 30 years later my grandmother was living with my aunt and uncle and their family; ten years later I (dimly) recall visiting her at a nursing home (she had Alzheimers). She was cared for within the family as long as possible.  In the same way, my mother’s mother wound up moving into an in-law apartment in my aunt’s home; eventually they knocked out the wall between her apartment and theirs, and she stayed at home through the rest of her life.  (more…)

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