Madeleine Robins

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.

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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 13, 2017

Reading (In)Discriminately

Filed under: Memory,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:21 AM
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Nine CoachesOkay: raise your hands. When you were younger (say, teen- to young-adulthood) how many of you read pretty much everything? Finished even the rotten books because they were… well, they were books, and they were there?

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one. For me it was SF and fantasy, and historical, and historical romance, and gothics (aka “romantic suspense”–the books with young women in diaphanous gowns framed against brooding manses), and all the Great Books I could get, regardless of whether I fully understood them. Occasionally a best seller, because it was there, and I got twitchy when there was no printed matter to hand. What were your poisons?

Of that cohort, how many of you read that way now? I sure can’t. I might be working on a couple of different books at a time (right now its Seanan Maguire’s Every Heart a Doorway and a book on women’s history called Who Cooked the Last Supper) but I don’t read as fast, or with the kind of intensity, that I did when I was a kid. And my reading seems to fall into three categories: new fiction (SF, mystery, occasional mainstream); research non-fiction (mostly history but sometimes medical history or single-topic writing–on the human heart, or sewage management through the ages), and re-reading. There are some things I re-read annually, for comfort and amusement: Jane Eyre, most of Jane Austen, the Peter Wimsey books; there are other books I re-read regularly: I cycle through Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and through the works of Dick Francis, and through some of the SF and fantasy I keep around. I’m not sure what touches off a sudden need to re-read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Proof, but I suspect it may be that they do something in the writing or structure that I unconsciously feel I need to look at. Or maybe they’re just what comes to hand. I’ve taken to replacing old, tattered copies of the frequently re-read with e-books, just so I don’t keep buying the same book over and over.

But what of the books I tore through–and frequently re-read–when I was a teen? I recently learned that Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, which I read to tatters when I was in high school, were available and on sale as e-books. And in about a two week period I re-read eight of them, and I am here to tell you: Stewart was a fine writer. A little more given to botanical and landscape details than I remember, but really good. What took me aback is that there are phrases, whole scenes, that I remember with absolute clarity. But also: there are no dumb shoehorning of characters into doing things that make no sense. Also, the characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s) are well read and know things–I have always wanted to be well-read and to know things, so its nice to hang out with fictional characters who are and do. So I went looking for another writer I tore through at that time; like Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge holds up remarkably well. Her voice has certain tics, but overall she writes well-researched, sensible, effective historical romance. This somehow makes me feel better about my scorched earth reading habits.

Encouraged to find that some of my teen pleasures held up, I found another ebook I sort of remembered, The Trembling Hills, by Phyllis A. Whitney. It’s set in San Francisco leading up to and after the 1906 earthquake, which is pretty much all I could recall of the book. Since I now live in San Francisco I thought, well, why not. Okay, it’s not a terrible book (Whitney, in her day, was very successful, often on the NY Times bestseller list, published multiple-tens of books, none of this being a guarantor of quality). The setting is well done and well researched, which is nice now that I actually know what she’s describing. The characters are not as paper-thin as they originally seem to be: I spent the first third off the book wanting to smack the protagonist… and then she started to grow up a little, and gain a little complexity. When I finished the book I was not unsatisfied, but I doubt I’d ever want to re-read it.

There is a whole bookshelf of dusty, crumbling paperbacks in my basement that I should probably reevaluate based on this new information. Even at 15 I knew I never wanted to re-read Barbara Cartland, but there’s a vast territory between Cartland and Georgette Heyer; perhaps it’s time I did a little discriminate pruning.

July 11, 2016

Parallax Views

Filed under: Family,Memory,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:54 AM

speedometerThere’s a lovely moment in The Avengers (the movie, not the TV series of blessed memory) where Black Widow and Hawkeye are on Park Avenue just below Grand Central Station, fighting off hordes of scary aliens on flying Jet-Skis. They’re just about overwhelmed, but fighting gamely on, and Widow says, “This is just like Budapest all over again.” Hawkeyes quirks an eyebrow: “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

That’s families right there.

My brother and I had different families. We grew up in the same household, had the same parents, shared many of the same incidents, and yet our memories, and the emphases of those memories, are very different. I was the older, the girl, shy and anxious, early on coopted to be my mother’s support and caretaker. My brother, the younger, the boy, the artist. My father, if you had asked him, was equally delighted to have a daughter as a son–but he wanted to teach my brother all the boy things (many of which I really wanted to learn myself). Without thinking about it, my parents fell into many of the ways of thinking about gender that their generation (and my own) accepted. We were, without malice, treated differently, occupied different ecological niches. Different families.

This meant that each of us missed things the other thought were pivotal.  He has whole bundles of memories that I only very slightly remember (there’s almost a joke-book’s worth of my father’s jokes that I cannot recall at all). On the other hand, he did not realize that my mother was drinking until I left for college, because that hadn’t been what he saw from his vantage point. We would have grown up to be very different humans anyway, but the divergent narrative threads is something that surprised me deeply when I first noticed it as an adult.

For a long time I thought my family was weird this way, that other families had a single track of programming. But the older I get, the more see this is the case with everyone’s families. A friend of mine, eldest of three kids, had a very different childhood, and a way different relationship with her parents, than the two younger. Even the perspective of adulthood hasn’t kept them from some very Rashomon-like conversations.

Parallax is the difference, or apparent displacement, of something, depending upon the viewer’s position relative to the seen thing. Per Wikipedia, “A simple everyday example of parallax can be seen in the dashboard of motor vehicles that use a needle-style speedometer gauge. When viewed from directly in front, the speed may show exactly 60; but when viewed from the passenger seat the needle may appear to show a slightly different speed, due to the angle of viewing.” Rashomon, cited above, is a good example of parallax memories: a Kurosawa film in which four different people tell their version of the same incident. Each one is telling their truth, as they know and believe it.

My brother and I have reached a point where we accept that the other had a different experience of our lives growing up. Still, it’s disquieting to find that something that loomed really large in his past was barely a speed bump in mine.

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