Madeleine Robins

July 25, 2018

Creak, Memory

Filed under: Being a Woman,Life — madeleinerobins @ 9:23 AM

Anna Hoffman Robins, 1918

My father made it to almost-98, sharp as a tack the whole time (as near as I can tell, all his very long-lived siblings did except for the youngest one, who had some sort of dementia in the last few years of her life). My mother died relatively young, but was reasonably sharp. However, my father’s mother (seen left) also had dementia for as long as I knew her (I was 14 when she died, and felt deeply swindled by fate, listening to all the stories about a Grannie Annie I never got to know).

In the last couple of years I have been spending more time with my beloved Aunt, my mother’s sister. She is 92, and lost her husband of 46 years after a long, excruciating illness. Throughout her life my aunt was always the one who kept everything and everyone organized. She had a demanding job which she loved and did brilliantly, but more than that, she was a natural stage manager, keeping track of where everything was and making everyone play well together. But in the last five years, between focusing first on my uncle, and then on her grief, plus some of the ordinary ills the 92-year-old flesh is heir to, her ability to multitask and to remember things has taken a real hit. And therefore, so has her idea of who she is. She’s a proud woman, and to have to ask for assistance in keeping her affairs in order just annoys the hell out of her.

I’m also a stage manager by nature. I discovered this, fortunately, when I was doing theatre in college. I wanted to act, but my real talent was in keeping track of every one, making lists, and keeping the trains running on time, all while keeping half-a-dozen plates spinning in the air. And I suspect my Grannie Annie, who had to raise eight kids (all the while improving her English–she moved to the U.S. when she was eighteen) and a household, making clothes, helping out when needed with the store her husband ran in their later years, was too. You don’t do that well unless you have a certain amount of organizational genius. So I come by it honestly. My anxiety, of course, is: will I come by dementia honestly? Is it sitting there waiting in my genes?

Cancer used to be the defining health terror for many of the adults I knew (adults meaning, here, people older than I was). These days, as I move inexorably and mostly amusingly toward senior-hood, the terror is Alzheimers or some other form of dementia. Every time I walk into a room to do something and *plink* can’t remember what I meant to do, the episode gets added to the collection in my anxiety box. Words–particularly nouns–which should leap to the tip of my tongue play hide and seek when I want them. (This is particularly annoying because part of my day job is as a docent at a museum, and when people are following you around expecting to learn things, it’s useful to be able to summon up the names of the things.)

I do not, seriously, at this time, think I am starting a long, slow slide into dementia. But I do think I need to find new ways of doing my thinking, and particularly, I need to reduce my multi-tasking. I need to remove distraction. I know that goes against the current trend that valorizes juggling (look! she can parent, work a 40 hour work, decorate cakes, and invent cold fusion in her spare time!) as heroic. I was always proud of my ability to keep balls dancing in the air. But I don’t think it serves me well now. So if I can find a way to think clearly about one thing at a time, and make the six other things that would like to be considered first wait their time, I think that my memory will last for another 30-35 years. I certainly hope so.

 

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July 3, 2018

I Was Raised in a Barn: Cars

Filed under: Family,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:22 AM

I was thirteen when we moved from New York City to Sheffield, Massachusetts. There were many striking differences, but one of the big ones? Transportation. Unbeknownst to my mother, I had been secretly taking the subway to school in the mornings (this meant an additional 15 minutes of sleep, for the bargain price of ten cents a day…yeah, it was a while ago). In the mornings I would run to the IRT station and jam myself and my armload of textbooks in among a zillion of my fellow citizens (this was also before backpacks became something for persons other than mountaineers). I loved the subway.

And then we moved full time to the barn my parents had been converting into a home for the last dozen years, where I had to walk a mile to get to the school bus pick-up point, and it was five miles to either of the libraries I had cards for. And I was thirteen and wouldn’t have a driver’s license for another three years. That was a long three years. I could ride my bicycle, and did, of course, but this being the Berkshire mountains in southeast Massachusetts, three months a year or so, bicycling was inadvisable-bordering-on-suicidal: snow and ice made it dangerous, and cold made cold.

In Massachusetts, getting your Learner’s Permit, and then your driver’s license, was a rite of passage. Forget Bar Mitzvah: walking out of the DMV with your pink slip (temporary license) was the “today I am a woman!” moment. So there was driver’s ed, and the eye test (which is how I found out just how nearsighted I was: two out of 18 figures wrong, and my next stop was the eye doctor), and the driving test, and at last the pink temporary license and then the permanent license. Rumors flew among my peers that if you were pulled over for any reason while you were still holding the pink slip the cops would simply tear it up.

Once there were three drivers in the house, my mother retired from the field, which meant that most of the week, when my father was out of town working, I was the chauffeur. And in short order, my father decided we needed a second car. A specific second car: a third-hand Triumph rag-top that, in a pinch, was considered a four-seater (the back seat was a bench, but large enough that one could sit on it. If one didn’t mind resting one’s chin on one’s knees). Theoretically he and I shared the car. Let’s be real. I loved that car with a deep, abiding, love. It wasn’t just freedom: it was fun freedom. I was able to stay late at school for rehearsals and school paper deadlines. My dog and I could tool around the countryside with the top down (Fio with his ears waving, me with my hair rigorously tied down, lest it become hopelessly knotted). When my boyfriend had his license suspended for six months, I became the provider of rides: this was a little dicey, as he had a big car and kept offering rides as if that was what I was driving. On one notable evening I recall we had nine people stacked like cordwood in the car, with just enough room for me to shift.

There are various responsibilities that come with having a car. My drivers’ ed teacher, Mr. Menin, insisted that every girl in the class be able to diagram an engine, check the oil, and change a tire. None of us would ever be scammed by some guy at the garage telling us that our Fromiztistat had to be replaced. He also imparted some other bits of arcane information that came in handy. Notably: if your fan belt breaks, he said, a girl could use a nylon or the leg of a pair of pantyhose to make a field repair.

So one afternoon I was driving along Route 7 when I noticed that the engine was running very very hot. I pulled over, and sure enough: no fan belt. It hadn’t just broken, it had dropped off somewhere. So I acted on Mr. Menin’s advice, cut off a leg from my pantyhose, tied it on, and drove off to our usual garage in town. Where, as it transpired, a guy I knew from school was working. The conversation that followed was something like this;

Me: Hi, my fan belt is broken.

Him: It can’t be.

Me: Yeah, it really is.

Him: No, cause if it were, you couldn’t have driv (sic) in.

Me: Well, yeah, but I made a temporary fix.

At which point he opened the hood, saw what could broadly be considered a woman’s undergarment tied in place of the fan belt, and turned a deep, cherry red. And changed the fan belt.

Having a car meant I could hang out with friends, do school activities, go to concerts–all the things I could not do on my own in the days before I got my license. My mother was not always sanguine about this: the trade-off for me being driver and errand-girl was me being out of the house more. A town like ours had rituals around teens in cars. Like going to Friendly’s for ice cream (if you’re not a New Englander: Friendly’s is a chain of sandwich shops with good ice cream). The town where I went to school did not have a Friendly’s, but the town next up Route 7, which was home to our “rival” high school, did. And I’ll tell you: taking a tiny little Triumph with a Mt. Everett Regional parking permit into Monument Mountain territory had its hazards. This is a kind of tribalism I don’t get, but recognized that it existed and tried not to get snarled up in it.

But one night my friends and I went to get ice cream and I–rather than wait at the very crowded window–sat in the car. Which was spotted by a phalanx of large football-player-looking guys wearing Monument Mountain sweaters, who decided to go make a point about the interloper in their territory (me and my tiny car). Four of them picked up the car–with me in it–and carried it across the parking lot to an empty space and put it down there. And walked away.

My tiny car recovered faster from this than I did. The next time I went to Friendly’s I considered putting masking tapes over my parking permit beforehand. In the end I decided to let it be–and in the end so did the guys from Monument Mountain.

June 20, 2018

The Habit of No

Filed under: Life,Working — madeleinerobins @ 7:57 AM
Tags: , ,

IWouldPrefer I had a co-worker some time ago, relatively young and new to the workforce, who, over the time we worked in the same company, got the No habit bad.

There are lots of reasons to say No, in pretty much every possible situation in life. Would you like a sip of cyanide? “No, thank you.” Wanna hook up? “Eew, no, sorry.” Would you be willing to do this illegal thing as part of your job? “No, I would not.” Do you want lima beans? “God, no.” Can you take my shift while I go to my aunt’s funeral? “No, I’ve got my daughter’s graduation that day.” And so on. As the #metoo movement has been forcibly making clear, the right to refuse must be taken seriously. But like many rights, you maintain No’s power and authority by using it when it’s needful.

In improv, almost the first thing you learn is that No shuts a scene down. If your partner says “Would you like some roasted giraffe kidney,” perhaps you could come back asking if it was locally sourced. That gives you and your partner somewhere to go. In the same way, working in a public-facing businesses you learn, not that the customer is always right (because really not) so much as that you want to find a way to say Yes. “Do you have this in size 10?” “No” stops the interaction dead in its tracks, but “I don’t think so, but we do have this in a 10, would you like to try it?” gives both client and salesperson somewhere to go.

To return to my long-ago co-worker: we were working in a business in which layoffs were pretty clearly in the offing (the guy playing the Darth Vader death march on the PA system is a dead giveaway). Because I liked my job and, more than that, really did not want to have to go job hunting, I put a good deal of effort into saying Yes. If something needed doing–even if it was not in my job description–I’d help out. My co-worker started out doing that, but the longer they were in the job the more likely they were to pull the “Not My Job” card, building a little fortress of I’m-Sorry-No around their desk. Were they busy? Sure, but so was everyone else. After a while, the No generalized to a kind of “standing on principle” reflex that left co-workers extending themselves even further because LACW (long-ago co-worker) dug in their heels and said No.

You see where this is going, yes? Bartleby the Scrivener famously says “I would prefer not to,” which in his case starts with doing the work he was assigned, and eventually leads to him “preferring not to” eat, and dying of starvation. When the layoffs came, LACW was in the first wave.*

Tiny children learning to talk go through a NO! phase when they get giddy with the power of refusing, of controlling what happens to them. It’s often referred to as the oppositional phase, but really, I think it’s just a period of finding your own boundaries and testing to see if they will be observed. Drawing your boundaries and making sure they are observed is very important. But one of the things you learn, working with other people, is that everyone has boundaries they want to have observed, but sometimes a job that has to get done may lie outside those boundaries. At which point consider Yes as a strategy.

May 22, 2018

A Civil Society

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

raygunI think I was 14 when I read Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon. One of the world-building details was that in this society many people went armed (almost all of them men, but that’s another essay) and ready to duel at a moment’s notice.* Those who didn’t wore a “peace brassard,” a signifier that they were not armed; they suffered a lack of status thereby. The argument was that an armed society is a civil society, because if everyone has a gun, everyone is going to be civil to each other, right? My recollection is that this leads to a good deal of affronted bristling and dueling in the same tone as the duels of the 17th and 18th century (“My seconds will call upon you, sirrah!.”)

I have recently heard this “armed society is civil society” argument applied to current American society, and in the words of a 1920s New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and to hell with it.”

This is the portion of the post where I say that I’m not anti-gun, that I grew up with rifles, and while I never wanted to go hunting, I was happy to eat the venison my father brought home on the one occasion he hit a deer. All this is true. We had three or four rifles (from the rickety old .22 to a couple of shotguns) and my brother and I were taught to use them–and to respect the rules for their use. The rifles were part of a larger “know how to do things” belief both my parents had–it’s why I know how to lay an oak floor, and how to spackle and prep a sheetrock wall for painting (not well, mind you–I didn’t have that much patience). I can even recognize the allure of shooting some massively powerful gun just… to see what it does. To own that power for a minute. I also understand the attraction of random destruction, dropping a watermelon from a third floor window or blowing up a junker car with a tank shell. I’m as weird as the next guy.

So: an armed society is a civil society. The idea seems to me to break down almost at once: I feel like many of the people who go armed do so as a statement, and the statement that I would take away is “Go ahead, offend me, insult me, cross me. I’ll blow your head off.” Which is not a basis for civil conversation. Then there’s the notion that a person who does not go armed is an inferior: he doesn’t have the balls (or what have you) to risk being shot at.

The nested assumptions in the above attitudes are 1) carrying a gun is going to make other people treat you with respect; 2) when push comes to shove, your aim will be better than the other guy’s; 3) you will have no compunction in killing another person over a a slight; and 4) that it is more cowardly not to shoot than to shoot.

In my personal universe every single one of these assumptions is deeply flawed. 1) Two bozos with an attitude and a gun are unlikely to treat each other with respect, armed or no. 2) Can you be certain, going into a fight with a stranger, that he isn’t an Olympic pistol champion? 3) Faced with another human in your gun sight, do you really want to carry the burden of that human’s eradication for the rest of your life over a slight? And 4) you think it doesn’t take courage not to fight? Giving up the right to swagger with a weapon on your hip when those around you are swaggering and calling you a coward takes some courage.

I was mugged once, and, as it happened, I had a knife on my person, which I decided not to introduce into the tussle as much because I didn’t want to hurt someone as because I didn’t want this stronger person to take the knife away and use it against me.

Your opinion on all this may vary. That’s cool. Let’s just not duel about it; I don’t see the point. And if we must duel, let’s use words, or baguettes, or at the wildest extreme, rapiers. Fighting with a sword gets you tired and makes you consider what you’re doing in a way that pulling a trigger simply doesn’t.

 

* A lot of Heinlein’s work reads as satire, and Horizon can certainly fall into that category. And yet, as with Stranger in a Strange Land or I Will Fear No Evil, there are people out there who consider them a blueprint for living.

April 16, 2018

Notice, Class, How Angela Circles…

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:21 AM

MrTrenchI was once chased around my parents’ kitchen by a friend of my father’s. But I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to leaf through a 25-year collection of New Yorker cartoons. Even at the time (the mid 1960s) many of them referred to a world that was vanishing or had vanished: references that must have been side-splitting at the time they were published, but were totally opaque to ten-year-old me. I still remember some of the cartoonists fondly–Chas. Addams, of course, but also James Thurber, Helen Hokinson of the deep-bosomed, slightly clueless club women, and Syd Hoff. But there was a class of cartoons–by guys like Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow, Jr.– that might loosely be termed a critique of modern relations between the sexes. And while they weren’t opaque, even to me as a kid they were troubling.

A staple of these cartoons was the young, buxom woman being variously leered at, groped at, chased, etc., by an older, usually wealthier man. In some of these the woman is clearly playing along in hopes of–what, a diamond bracelet? A fur coat? As Cole Porter had it in Kiss Me Kate, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat: if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, Okay!” But in others, the woman looks uncomfortable and apprehensive. In the cartoon to the right, the head of a monorail company has a one track mind, all tracking on cleavage. His secretary does not look amused.

As for the men in these cartoons, a few of them look hapless, as if they’ve stumbled into a situation where a woman is forcing them to ogle etc. “Honest, officer, I was just sitting here at my desk in my loud checked suit when my secretary perched on my desk to take dictation. What could I possibly do?” Others appeared to at least pretend to be looking at something other than the cleavage–pearls, in the image below–but that was the joke, right? Because everyone, even a ten-year-old girl, knew that he was really ogling the woman’s breasts. But mostly these men look like they’re predators.

As a eight-, nine-, or ten-year old, what was I to make of all this? The takeaway appeared to be that all (powerful, elderly, white) men were letches. That working for such men inevitably meant some sort of harassment. That the wives of these men (who were all portly and dripping in the signifiers of their husbands’ success–furs and diamonds etc.) could do nothing but occasionally fume and nag. That the women being ogled etc. deserved it because they had breasts, because they wore provocative outfits and should have known what would happen, because they had jobs that took them out of their homes and into contact with the aforementioned predators. Some of the cartoons also suggested that there were young women who made the attraction of older, wealthier men into their jobs. All those portly, powerful, older white men were their marks (in which case it must be reasonable that the men would treat the women as prey, because the women were treating them as prey and…).

So there I am in my parents’ kitchen. I was 16 and home from school with a really horrendous cold of the streaming variety–my recollection is that I was a walking river of snot in a plush bathrobe. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a barn, and the living room windows overlooked a valley and a river and fields… very picturesque. One of my dad’s friends was painting a landscape of that view. I heard the downstairs door open, went out to the landing, saw it was–let’s call him Fritz–said hi, excused myself on accounta sick, and went back to bed. An hour or so later I went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea and, being a well-raised child, I asked Fritz if he wanted a cup. He said sure, and I put the kettle on.

I’m not clear exactly how the subject of wouldn’t I like to have an affair came up–I was standing there in my blue plush bathrobe with a handful of tissues, blotting my nose and waiting for the kettle to boil.  I answered in the negative (this was all rendered more surreal by the fact that I had a crush on Fritz’s son) and may have made some comment about Fritz being my parents’ friend, and it would be weird, shading toward wrong. I was still trying to be polite, and perhaps he took that as an invitation to explain why it would be fine, don’t worry about it. Note: our stove was on an island in the middle of the kitchen floor. Gradually, Fritz moved around the island toward me, and I moved around and away. I felt rotten, and this was the last straw, but I did not want to be rude to my father’s friend. And all the time the image in my head was the one to the left: “Notice, class…”

The kettle boiled. I poured the water, told him where to find milk and sugar, should he want them, and decamped to my room. I think I may have locked the door, but in the event, Fritz didn’t push the issue, and while I saw him a number of times after that, his invitation was never mentioned between the two of us.

When older people excuse men for predatory workplace behavior (or predatory behavior generally) by saying “they came up in a different time,” well, yes, they may have done. But even in that “different time,” the cartoonists who were depicting these “funny” chases got the look of dismay on the faces of the women, the look of “I need this job but…” The look of being trapped. Even when I was eight- or nine- or ten-years-old I couldn’t see how that was funny.

December 31, 2017

Choosing to be Merry, _ammit

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 12:46 PM
Tags: ,

brokentreeThe _ key on my laptop is not working.

This has been a trying year. A year ago in November there was the election, about which, perhaps, the less spoken, the better.  48 hours after the election my lovely Uncle Carmine passed away; about a week later, my Father-in-law followe_. Also, my older girl’s appendix helpfully rupture_, with all the merriment that create_. She’s fine. Now.

There’s been all the interesting public trauma of life in the new regime. Then, two weeks ago, my Mother-in-Law passed away (I should a__ that I _islike “passed away” an_ would prefer to use _ie_, but my _ key, as I note above, is not working.

So it’s been a year full of occurrence, an_ anxiety, an_ loss, an_ … well, it’s just been busy. In the mi_st of all this I have been keeping the _oors open at the museum, trying to get some work _one on the book, an_ being as supportive as possible to those closest to all these losses (which would be my husband_ an his family, an_ my aunt). For this reason the holiday season feels like it’s more than usually scattered this year: presents, foo_ (oy, foo_: between us we have one vegan, two who are gluten-sensitive, three who are allergic to nuts–which are a staple of vegan cookery–an one who loathes chocolate. The whole thing makes me want to lie _own… or make chocolate croissants as a reaction formation). I should be _ecorating the Christmas tree. I should be making holi_ay cookies. I should be watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

I have come to the conclusion that this year is simply going to have to be an outlier as far as the tra_itional observances are concerne_. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a time of goo_ cheer. I spent this weekend with my aunt in LA. She is closing in on 92, an_ in the wake of her husban_’s _eath all the physical ailments an_ problems she _in’t have time to _eal with before have come rattling _own upon her. An_ yet, most of what we _o when I’m _own here is laugh. Tell stories. After years I think I finally have straight which set of silver originally belonged to whom (an_ why my gran_mother only owne_ a gran_ total of one piece of her china pattern). I tease her. She teases me. She is annoyed but funny about the in_ignities of aging. She’s sharp (an_ snarky) about the current political situation. She loves chocolate. It is a treat to be with her.

Tomorrow I go back to San Francisco, where the _og an the family await. The Christmas tree will be _ecorate_. I may even make cookies (vegan, gluten-free, chocolate an_ nut free). There will be sa_ patches, an_ squabbles. But one thing I am pretty certain about: there will be laughter, an_ a goo_ _eal of it.

An_ then I’ll get my _ key fixe_. Happy holidays, an_ joyous feast of the sun’s return. _on’t forget to laugh.

March 1, 2017

Grace in the Face Of

Filed under: Life,Movies — madeleinerobins @ 6:46 PM
Tags: ,

envelopeA few years ago I got to be a presenter at the Nebulas. Ask any writer of SF and they will tell you that it is generally better to be a nominee or–please God–a winner. But being a presenter is pretty cool too. I got dressed up and went to the banquet and, when my name was called, went up to the podium, and was given a by-God-actual envelope. And was filled with a rush of adrenaline when I tore the thing open and announced the name of that year’s Andre Norton award. And the winner came forward ands got her award and made a speech, and I felt weirdly chuffed at having been a part of her triumph (if only a small part).

Fast forward, as they say, to Sunday night.

I tend to watch the Oscars™ primarily because I love the In Memoriam section. Call me weird (it’s been done before) but I get weepy. The last 12 months or so have been really hard on creatives of all sorts. So I watched the Oscars, and it was more or less business as usual, with more awards going to La La Land than I thought was strictly necessary, but not as many as I’d feared. And then we got to the end. To be honest, when La La Land was announced as Best Picture my husband started fast-forwarding… and then it became obvious that something had happened, because there were more people on stage than there should have been, and he re-wound, and we saw the whole breathtaking mess.

In case you were hiding under a rock and missed the sensation: La La Land was announced as the winner–and then the mistake was caught and it was announced that it was Moonlight that had taken the big prize. Heads at Pricewaterhouse Cooper, and at the next AMPAS Governors’ meeting, are likely to do some rolling, but given the way the process has worked for the past many decades, it’s hard to believe it hadn’t happened before. There are two identical envelopes for each award, held by PWC operatives stage left and right, and somehow the Best Actress envelope got handed to the presenter for Best Actress… and then to the presenters for Best Picture.

What impressed me, even with the chaos and the people with headsets milling about in the background, was the grace with which the people from La La Land and Moonlight handled the situation. When it became clear that a mistake had been made, Justin Horowitz (the producer for La La Land) announced “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture.” Then he added that it was not a joke, and gestured to the Moonlight company to come up. “I’m going to be very proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight,” he finished.

And the Moonlight folks trooped up to the stage, looking a little shell-shocked and not at all sure what protocol was. No one snatched the statues away from the people who held them, there was no hint of sore-winnership. When Barry Jenkins, the producer of Moonlight, got to the mic he was graceful too.  “I have to say, and it is true, it’s not fake: We’ve been on the road with these guys for so long. And that was so gracious and so generous of them,” he said. “My love to La La Land.”

Okay, I have never won a major award, let alone one with millions and millions and millions of people around the world watching. And if you know you’re under that sort of scrutiny, I don’t doubt you might toughen up and try to behave yourself becomingly. But the shock–of losing a trophy you thought was yours, of suddenly gaining an award you thought was lost–could make anyone pardonably lead footed. I felt bad for Warren Beatty, who was clearly flustered (and perhaps feared that people would think the Old Guy had lost it).

Watching the ceremony play out and wind up, I was unexpectedly moved by a moment when it seemed like all the platitudes about awards were true: these were two groups of smart, creative people who saw each other, not as adversaries or competitors, but as colleagues.

January 25, 2017

Life Lived Out Loud. Very Loud.

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 11:10 PM
Tags: ,

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.

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