Sponge Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants


My sister the sponge. Your sister the sponge, too. Modern genetic analysis has concluded that the extant evolutionary sister to all animals is the sponge. The former contender for the title of sister to us all is the comb jelly. Comb jellies look like jellyfish, and are far more sophisticated than sponges. Sponges sit on an ocean or freshwater body floor and filter-feed. Comb jellies propel themselves through water, have a rudimentary nervous system and gut, and create patterns of light—they’re pretty. Comb jellies are active predators. Evolutionary scientists argue that going from the comb jelly to the sponge is going backward in terms of features, and therefore backward in evolution (a rudimentary explanation if ever there was one, and all mine).

Sponge Sisterhood

What is an evolutionary sister to all animals? She is the first one to branch out from THE common ancestor to us all. The common tree started with the common ancestor, and branched from there, throwing out the sponges as the maiden sisters to us all.

Sponges don’t travel and they don’t wear pants, square or otherwise

Why sister and not brother? Sister-brother would be more correct. Most sponges are male and female, and have the ability to play either role in their sexual reproduction. Sponges also are able to reproduce asexually by breaking off a piece of themselves. The bud falls and clings to a solid and grows into another sponge. Although sponges don’t travel, there’s a lot going on —some are even carnivorous, capable of eating the hapless small crustaceans that blunder inside.

My sister, the sponge

A sponge is an amazing animal in a stolid sort of way, but she is not the sister I’d hoped for as a child. I didn’t prefer a sister over a brother when I was a child, but I wanted someone to help me with my parents, to help me with the world. Would she have? Probably, but it’s a moot point. The older I get, the more I think that children without siblings miss insight into others. It has taken me a long time to understand that I don’t know how someone else feels or thinks about a situation, and that I should not assume that they feel as I do. Of course, I do make assumptions, still.

The simple “walk a mile in my shoes” type of thing is so important in life. It’s not to say that all people with siblings understand others, can walk in their shoes—Donald Trump comes to mind—nor is it correct to think that all only children can’t understand others. It is true that it might have helped me as a child and as a young person to know another child so well that I could understand the inner workings of a human a bit better. Other children were basically strangers to me, no matter how many hours I spent in their houses, embedded in their families temporarily.

My sister sits a lot

If the sponge branched out from the bottom of our ancestral tree, she just sat there, at the bottom. She sat while fish walked out of water, dinosaurs came and went—except the feathered ones—and we humans lost our fur, except in the odd, silly tufts retained. Six hundred million years later, she’s sitting there still.

The oceans are changing in composition, rapidly now—will she survive the acidification of the waters by increased carbon dioxide worldwide? Boring sponges (as in drilling, not yawning) take advantage of the disastrous effects of acid on corals. These sponges break down the calcium carbonate from diseased corals and recycle it. Sponges are tough cookies. Their relative simplicity may help their survival, but vast climate change will wreak vast change in animal populations.

Now that I know that the sponge is my evolutionary sister, she seems much closer to home. I’ll worry about her.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/30/evolution-row-ends-as-scientists-declare-sponges-to-be-sister-of-all-animals

http://www.gettyimages.com/photos/comb-jelly?excludenudity=true&sort=mostpopular&mediatype=photography&phrase=comb%20jelly

My Hospital Roommate

My hospital roommate and I shared a room roughly the size of a laundry hamper, one with the same rumpled aspect. Separated by a thin curtain, we learned of one another’s conditions and bodily functions, although not as willing participants. My hospital roommate was an eighty-six year old woman named Valerie. Physically, much was crashing and burning for Valerie. She had a wracking, volcanic cough, day and night. She was immobile. I suspect that she had been in that state for a while, before arriving at the ER by ambulance. She’d been living alone in her home, relying on the Visiting Nurses and some local charities for much-needed assistance. Judging from my experience with my own mother—who was physically fit, but mentally not while living alone—Valerie’s middle-aged children must have been driven mad by the situation.

Clarity

My hospital roommate was in pain and tormented by her ailments. The hospital staff recognized her discomfort and strove to help her, but she refused most suggestions. Valerie was only a little confused about things, but one thing was crystal clear: she wanted to die. Stuck in the back of our laundry hamper, I could not help eavesdropping as she told the compassionate doctor that she did not want to live as she was. Loud and clear. Valerie did not want the suggested heart valve replacement or anything else extraordinary. She did want to be comfortable. She wanted to go home. She wanted to die.

Sleep

Valerie achieved some comfort only when asleep, a blessed event for both of us. If she woke at three in the morning, the lights and the TV would go on—she didn’t know what time it was. I tried to cope using earplugs and an eye mask, but if it wasn’t Valerie waking me, it was the staff. The staff station outside our door was noisy, bordering on the raucous. I’ve never experienced co-workers who enjoyed each other so much, especially over the second shift. Invariably, when Valerie and I both fell asleep, we were woken by vital sign checks.

Hospice

My hospital roommate’s family called a meeting with the compassionate doctor and a hospice nurse. Rolling my IV pole out of the hamper, I walked the boring corridors. Up and down I walked, in a fetching costume of two johnnies, a down vest and hospital socks, trying not to stare at my fellow patients. Eventually, the family meeting ended. Immediately, Valerie was given morphine and some relief. She didn’t stop coughing altogether, but she slept more peacefully.

Going Home

Feeling better and desperate to escape the hamper, I campaigned to go home, too. On my way out the door, I talked to Valerie. She did not recognize me in my street clothes, and thought I was a staff member. My hospital roommate recognized my name, though. I said, “I’m going home.” She said, “I’m going home.” I wished her great comfort and offered congratulations on her return to her own home. We both knew what it meant for her. While something wavered in her eyes, she was stoic and brave about that meaning. On my way out, I heard a nurse say to Valerie, “You have a nice roommate.” Feeling like a wretch for the times I’d wished absolutely anything would stop her coughing, I broke for the fresh air.

Post laundry hamper

Hospital roommates no longer, I still think of Valerie. I hope that she is comfortable at home. I know she’ll receive good care from the hospice people, but I find myself worrying about her. I also find myself treasuring my own vitality. I can only hope that I have the clarity and bravery my hospital roommate had, when my turn comes.

Mother and baby homes in mid-20th century Ireland

The New York Times ran a special report last Sunday titled The Lost Children of Tuam by Dan Barry. At once shocking and moving, this excellent piece focuses on one of the mother and baby homes in mid-20th century Ireland. Three conspirators—the Irish government, the Catholic Church, and Irish families—created the mother and baby homes.

A Nation’s Secrets

St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam (pronounced Chewm), Galway operated from the mid-1920’s to the early 1960’s in the charge of the Bon Secours nuns. The building opened in 1846 as a workhouse during the Great Hunger. It became a repository for women disgraced in the eyes of society by pregnancy out of wedlock and their children. It ended as a disgrace, an insult to the humanity abandoned by the Irish government, the Irish Catholic Church and the Irish families who abandoned their daughters and grandchildren to such a place.

“To bury our humanity itself”

In an odd and vicious twist on a view of sin, the home forced the mothers  to leave without their children after one year. The children were baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. If they survived infancy, they survived on a poor diet, with no affection and little education. Many did not survive. The discovery of the system of Victorian empty septic chambers running under the home in 2015 provided the evidence. The chambers contained hundreds if not thousands of tiny human remains, wrapped and stacked upon one another. The role of the nuns and other involved adults is under investigation now.

The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, addressed the Irish legislature, saying, “We dug deep and we dug deeper still. To bury our compassion, to bury our mercy, to bury our humanity itself.”

Why?

Dan Barry’s The Lost Children of Tuam (nytimes.com/tuam) is a tough read, but it is a very worthwhile one, for all of the questions it asks, and the ones it answers. Neither the people interviewed nor the author have the answer to why these women and children were treated so badly by their families, their government, and their church. All genocides in all countries beg the same question; essential to ask, difficult to answer.

Family Secrets

The horrors at St. Mary’s and in the other mother and baby homes were well known by many in the towns, cities and farms of Ireland, but secret to others. In shame, the victims who survived tended to keep their secrets. Secrets are powerful and often destructive, but all families have them.

After reading about St. Mary’s, I thought about my own Irish family, and what I know about them, which I think is a lot—but do I? I know of only one rather benign secret, but I know of no such mother and baby home secrets in my family.

I was told many stories about my maternal great-grandmother, Mary Jane Wright. A mother of five and a young widow, she had nobody to turn to, her father having turned his back on her due to her choice of husband (while the father did buy a house for her, he never helped her again, and indeed, left nothing in his will to her). Mary Jane Wright was unusually capable, and not a young girl on her own, one ostracized by society. She also was a homeowner—a powerful position for a woman of her time.

After the loss of her husband, she took in used clothing and after cleaning and mending it, sold it. So successful was she that she bought houses and became something of a minor real estate mogul. She used her success to support her two sons in their business enterprises, and her two daughters, who neither married nor worked.

Aside from the above, I know nothing about Mary’s extended family and their descendants, the ones who stayed in Ireland. Might they have fallen on hard times, hard enough to end up in a mother and baby home?

The pot of gold

There exists a susceptibility—especially in Irish Americans— to apply the intelligence, and kindness of many Irish to all. The same application of traits, good or bad, exists for all groups, including all Americans. In the case of the Irish, it’s the rainbow effect. I fall under its thrall myself, even though I have supported the Irish Donkey Sanctuary for years and know that thousands of abused donkeys are rescued each year. Thousands of cases of abuse of the innocent. Once rescued though, the donkeys receive good care forever by their kind and able providers.

It’s a pity—a sin—that the mothers and babies found no such sanctuary at the mother and baby homes.
http://www.thedonkeysanctuary.ie/

Sunday Lunch—Poised for a U.S. Revival?

Sunday Lunch

The Sunday Lunch Tradition Is Strong in the UK and Ireland

Sunday lunch remains a tradition around the UK and in Ireland. In homes, restaurants and pubs, it means one thing: roasted meat and roasted potatoes. Vegetarians replace the roasted meat with vegetables baked or roasted, but they hold to the essential tradition. A pub lunch on Sunday means a roast beef or pork dinner with all the fixings. We enjoyed such a meal outside of Oxford, England, sitting riverside on a glorious day to enjoy it.

My grandparents arrived here from Northern Ireland with Sunday lunch well engrained. My mother did not keep the tradition, finding a heavy and lengthy meal after a morning in church deadening when a girl. However her mother loved the freedom it gave her on Sunday afternoons. She could sit down and relax for the rest of the day after the meal. Sandwiches of the roasted meat were served in the evening, but that was that. My grandmother never changed the schedule, and I enjoyed her Sunday lunches as a child visiting my grandparents and uncles.

The Yorky Pud Wrap

The York Roast Co. (http://www.yorkroastco.com) in York, England began making a sort of roll-up of a Sunday lunch. It’s a Yorkshire pudding wrap with roasted meat and veg, smothered in gravy. A “Yorky Pud Wrap.” They can’t keep up with the demand of the lines—queues— of customers. University students can tell their mothers they’ve had Sunday lunch when queried. Everyone can satisfy their Sunday lunch craving without actually cooking anything, or footing the expense of a pub or restaurant. Jumping the English generation gaps, the Sunday lunch tradition remains strong.

How many have held onto the tradition here in the U.S.? The tradition will be revived in our home in order to see friends over a nice meal when we’re not exhausted from a busy day, which even Sunday can be.

Now that October is quickly melting into November thanks to a rainy spell, it seems just right, especially since our friends won’t have to drive home along wet (and soon, icy) and pitch dark country roads after the meal. It just may be the best way to gather before the work and school week schedules resume.

Sunday Lunch Redux

We’ll revive the old tradition this Sunday, the last one in October, with two dear friends as the first guests. It’s apple pie season, and that very American dessert will cap the roasted meat, veg and potato main course. We’ll have to save some room, but if it’s a nice day, we can take a walk with the dog—after all, the afternoon will be before us.

http://www.foodnetwork.co.uk/recipe/nigella-lawson-sunday-lunch-keyword.html

Oscar Wilde and The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Dubliner Oscar Wilde was born October 16th in 1854 to Anglo-Irish parents. A successful surgeon and philanthropist, his father treated the poor for eye and ear afflictions at the back of their house near Trinity College, Dublin. He later created a hospital to treat the poor, for which he was knighted. Wilde’s mother was a poet and a life-long Irish Nationalist.

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

From these two serious-sounding people sprang Oscar Wilde. A brilliant student and a genius known in his time for his flamboyancy and conversational wit. He turned to writing society comedies (thankfully) only after failing to find success with his attempts at exposing Victorian decadence, such as in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“I can resist everything except temptation”

A prolific writer of poetry and drama, Wilde is best remembered for his epigrams and plays. A married man with children, Wilde became Lord Alfred Douglas’s inseparable lover for four years. Homosexuality for men was illegal in Great Britain in the 1890’s (and remained so until 1967 in England, 1982 in Northern Ireland). In Wilde’s circle, as in all other levels and sections of society, gay men were forced to take their chances. Lord Douglas wrote a poem, “Two Loves,” in which he coined the euphemism for homosexuality, “The love that dare not speak its name.”

The reckless Lord Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford, introduced Wilde to the Victorian underground of gay prostitution, a milieu which Wilde seemed unable to quit, not in spite of the danger, but perhaps because of it.

Enter Lord Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and creator of the modern rules of boxing. The Marquess understood the nature of his son’s relationship and confronted Wilde several times. Wilde pulled himself back from the brink of disaster by mollifying the father, until the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde’s club: “For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite [sic].” Accused as he was of the crime of sodomy in public, Wilde ignored his friends’ advice and allowed Douglas to encourage him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel.

Wilde was at the height of his success with The Importance of Being Earnest running on the London stage. Weeks later, he was in jail.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The case made public the sexual nature of Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, proving Queensberry’s accusation. Wilde spent two years in jail at hard labor for “gross indecency with men.” The jail term ruined his health, his career, his finances and his marriage to Constance Lloyd, who fled England with their two children in the brutal face of the scandal.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Upon his release from prison, Wilde moved to France, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1791, the French having a better grasp of human nature than the British. There he lived on a pittance provided by Constance and the friends who still cared about him, including Robert Ross, Wilde’s first lover. Living in dingy hotel rooms (“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.”), he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on the execution of a fellow prisoner. The work was first signed with the address of his cell, C33.

Writing a 50,000 word letter to Douglas from jail, Wilde forgave him, took responsibility for his own fall and explored the Christian theme of redemption. Ross expurgated and published the letter as De Profundis, which subsequently was published in its entirety by one of Wilde’s sons. Douglas denied ever reading it during a libel trial he pursued against a later publisher.

At the forty-six, Oscar Wilde died of meningitis and is buried (with Robert Ross’ ashes, placed there on the fiftieth anniversary of Wilde’s death) in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His epitaph is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

This year, Wilde and approximately 50,000 fellow outcasts (among them, Alan Turing) were pardoned by the British government for the “offense” for which they’d been punished so harshly.

A partial list of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams:

“No man is rich enough to buy back his past.”
“I delight in men over seventy, they always offer one the devotion of a lifetime.”
“Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualification.”
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“I can resist everything except temptation.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
“True friends stab you in the front.”

Netflix www.netflix.com offers DVDs of several of the film versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, a wonderful drawing room comedy involving switched identities and a handbag left in a train station; and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, not a light-hearted romp involving a painting. Local bookstores and libraries should be able to order print versions of all of Oscar Wilde’s work.

Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography Oscar Wilde won the National Book Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The movie version, Wilde, made from Ellmann’s biography, stars Stephen Fry and is available on Netflix.

Seasonal Anxiety

With apologies to those enduring the aftermath of hurricanes and wildfires, this time of year makes me nervous. My low level but constant anxiety springs to new heights in the fall, not because of the seasonal darkness creeping in, but because of the number of things to be done before a northeastern winter—the battening down of the hatches.

Take today’s newspaper for instance. Three helpful columnists listed all of the things to be done this month (half over), during November and in December, in the yard, in the home and precautions to save our lives in a fire as woodstoves, fireplaces and furnaces come alive. Each list is long, and when we’re not up on the roof inspecting the dormers, the eaves, the dreaded fascia boards and soffits, we’re instructed to get down among the weeds, and vanquish them from next spring’s garden. Adventurous souls who own ponds with fish and aquatic plants are urged to capture and carry all to an indoor tank. Evergreens are to be watered (mine are on their own), invasive vines cut and dipped in Roundup, door seals checked by placing and pulling a dollar bill out from the seal (thereby ripping up even more money).

After testing the fire and carbon monoxide alarms and setting the ceiling fans to run clockwise, I’m sure we’ll have time to baste the turkey while our partners drain the irrigation lines. Lines drained and fans running like clockwork, we can take a moment to enjoy the Thanksgiving feast before moving on to digging the new garden beds for the spring. Returning to work on Thanksgiving weekend Monday will seem like a vacation.

Speaking of which, how do people with jobs do all this stuff? How do people who do anything time-consuming, such as, um, writing, caring for children or aged relatives, how do they do any of this stuff? Don’t ask me. I’ve tried to stick to a daily schedule that includes everything that I want to do each day, but as we hurtle toward winter, the list seems to increase, right along with my seasonal anxiety, and I never manage to do it all.

The dog is walked twice a day no matter what, but there are two humans participating in that effort. We cook, we eat, we clean and sleep badly, and we’ve even managed to call the chimney sweep (that’s on the list for November so we’re ahead of schedule!), bring in the houseplants ahead of a frost and stow the kayaks in the shed. Less than half the bulbs have been planted (my hand is up as a glutton for punishment) but I have not sniffed the electrical panel for the aroma of burning insulation nor looked for rust or water to determine whether an electrician should be called (on the December list)—nor will I.

The three lists go on and on as my seasonal anxiety goes up and up until staggering into mid-December, we’ll take a break to prepare for the holidays, making our own lists of cards, food and presents to ready. Happy holidays!

Exhausted and thankful that we do not have root crops like parsnips to mulch, we—like the bears—will hunker down for a long and relaxing winter, when the lists shorten or disappear, and there is absolutely nothing to do outside, except to take nice walks with Yaktrax on our boots and bring more wood in from the shed. My anxiety will return to its normal low level and I swear I will never complain about February again.

Red Sox Karma

Waiting for the Red Sox afternoon game last Saturday, I added to my karma bank account (a line stolen from Absolutely Fabulous creators Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). Our town has a Buddhist temple drawing visitors from around the world. Looking for the mythical address listed for the temple on the Internet, they arrive on our doorstep, frustrated in a sort of zen way, unable to navigate without cell service or GPS.

To explain the route from our house to the temple takes a while, and last Saturday’s lost souls were actually in a caravan of cars, so I hopped in my car and led them to the temple. They followed me up and up the winding road into the hills, as different from the Himalayas in height and color as possible. Once there, I saw travelers in beautiful silk costumes climbing down from buses, choosing to walk the last yards to the temple, set high into the hillside. My caravan and I bade one another farewell, and I drove off feeling a kindly nod from the universe. While we’ve asked every lost soul to inform the temple administration about the wrong address, it’s never corrected, and I don’t expect it ever will be.

Baseball is a game of karma. I hadn’t thought it was of the “what goes around comes around” sort, but the force of the universe and all of its mysteries. I have been a Boston Red Sox fan for a long time—I know. Further evidence of my bona fides lies in my pedigree: I was born into a Brooklyn Dodgers family.

Take this year. Last night the Red Sox entered the game in the AL first place with ninety-one wins, at four-games over the Yankees with six left to play, and a secured berth postseason. The original ace hired, David Price, played out of the bullpen last night. His replacement, ace pitcher Chris Sale, allowed four homers. Today the Red Sox are only three games ahead of the Yanks. This week the second best pitcher Drew Pomeranz lasted two innings, and last year’s AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello allowed a grand slam in the first inning (Porcello is fighting for third place on the postseason roster. He has a tough game ahead of him tonight). Of the starter defensive and offensive players, the majority are hurt, even the kid, rookie phenom Andy Benintendi.

This is the same Red Sox team that won extra-inning after extra-inning games this month, often in the wee hours, always when exhausted. In a sport where each team plays a relentless schedule of one hundred sixty-two games in six months, the Red Sox seemed to rise above the toll of injuries and exhaustion, until this week.

Is it their karma? Impossible to know, since karma takes into account past existences as well as the current ones. Not the same force that won the World Series for the Red Sox in 2004, the first time in eighty-six years, vanquishing the “Curse of the Bambino.” Perhaps the Red Sox karma is now of the “what goes around comes around” variety, and we’re seeing the payback now, as we did last year in their utter collapse in the first round of the playoffs.

By the way, as of last night, the Yankees clinched home field advantage, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in Major League Baseball. I’m at the ready to ferry lost worshippers up to the temple. Om.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8858545-baseball-karma-the-constitution-blues?from_search=true

‘Out, damned spot! out, I say!’

I clean the house a fair bit. The country is very dirty, which you might not expect if you don’t live in it. I’ll admit to cleaning a fair bit, but it’s nothing obsessive. If I were obsessive, the house would be a lot cleaner. My partner in grime (laundry is her vocation) refers to me as Lady Macbeth, but I doubt that Lady Mac ever cleaned anything, except one spot of blood—and boy, did she make a fuss!

While vacuuming, I ponder the past and think of the future; I think about what I’m writing while wrestling with the hose, the machine, the attachments. We had my Irish grandmother’s Electrolux for decades—long enough to replace the motor two or three times. The entire machine was metal. Except for the motor, nothing wore out, nothing rusted or broke, but its weight signed its death warrant. We traded it in for a series of plastic jobs that broke instantly. We’ve returned to Electrolux, which is plastic now, but a good machine.

Not good enough, though. With the technological advances we’ve seen, nothing really helps with cleaning (please don’t write to me about Roomba). Most of it is hard on the back and knees. Canister vacuums fall down the stairs half way up, and it seems a bit odd to buy the backpack vacuums available for one set of stairs (plus we don’t have much storage space).

Still, when I’ve cleaned I feel like I’ve done my bit to beat back the ever-increasing entropy in the universe. Vanquishing some small portion of the chaos that is a mélange of gnats, grass, pebbles, spider webs, leaves, dog hair, mud, dust, and other country detritus (this in a house where we take our shoes off at the door!).

However fleeting, order brings peace.

My Irish grandmother was a serious cleaner, one of a higher order. In addition to wielding her Electrolux, she scrubbed with stiff brushes in pools of Clorox. Her strength was formidable and she could scrub the life out of a floor, a pot, a shirt or a toddler in the sink. When not cleaning, redecorating or cooking for her husband and three children, she also held a paying job as a housekeeper, working for the married hosts of a popular radio and TV talk show (Tex and Jinx—you can Google them). If she was lucky to make the express train at 59th in Brooklyn, the trip into Manhattan and their apartment took at least an hour. I assume that she cleaned for the couple and their two children, but like many women of her generation and class, she could do just about anything in what were known as the domestic arts (knit, crochet, sew, upholster). I don’t imagine anyone hired her as a cook, but she was an honest cook of plain food and an excellent baker.

While I do not have my grandmother’s strength, and I don’t use bleach, I can ferret out dusty baseboards at fifty feet, specks of spaghetti sauce on the stove, when the wainscoting is in need of attention.

As for blood, we’ve yet to commit a murder on the premises, but with the blood spattering common to murder mysteries, I doubt if one spot will send us over the edge.

I am not the housekeeper my grandmother was, but I think I would have been an excellent housekeeper in a large house of old—think Helen Mirren in Gosford Park, or Phyllis Logan in Downton Abbey—but with better sherry, a better outfit and more of a private life, or a private life (don’t write to me about Carson, please). A leader of women and men, all scouring the wainscoting, scrubbing the pots, cleaning everything, down to the last damned spot.

September


With the flip of a switch, it’s no longer summer in our hills. School is open, the leaves are turning color, the apples are red, it’s cool and wet even on sunny mornings, and spiders are carrying their nurseries on their backs.

September bookends the steepest decline in hours of daylight. October, November and December have slower, steady declines, ending with the winter solstice, when the daylight hours begin their creep back. There’s no denying the encroaching darkness this month. The morning twilight and daybreak are later every day. The evening versions are earlier. The darkness is stealing into every corner, creating shadows where baking sun lay just a few weeks ago.

Bang on time, the irritants that cause me allergic consternation in the fall are in full bloom, and according to my records, this is the week our hummingbirds fly off to their far-flung winter vacation. The Monarch butterflies are still here, but they too will migrate before the end of the month. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings are flying through, but the Phoebes are gone. We’ll see stragglers from all bird species over the next few weeks, but then it will be time to wait for the bears to go to bed before pulling out the bird feeders for the winter residents.

Many don’t like the dark of September through December, bemoaning the going to work and returning home in the dark syndrome. Golfers, certainly, but after work shoppers too, so I’ve read. Not me—I love…half of it. Rising in the dark was never a pleasure when I had to do it, but now I can stay under the covers until twilight, at least. I love the early dark evenings, and did even when I held a nine to five. The autumn dark sends a lot of people over the edge into serious depression, and while I’m usually with the crowd on that edge, a dark late afternoon feels cozy to me, like something wrapping its arms around you.

There’s much to do before the early comforting dark arrives, though. Not a drop of what faces people in Texas, the Caribbean and Florida this month, of course, but a fair amount of work, some of it hard on the back. While the wood has been delivered and the chimney sweep is scheduled, all of the pots of herbs and hayracks of flowers, umbrellas and chairs and tables will have to be emptied, closed and stowed in the shed for the winter. Annuals, bulb foliage and vegetables must be cut down and cleared away, weeds pulled. It seems like we had little time to enjoy it, thanks to our wet and chilly spring and summer, and now we’re bracing for the hours of labor ahead to undo what we struggled to create. The flip is switched, whatever the calendar tells us. It’s no longer summer.

Find Your New York City

While staying at the New York Hilton Midtown to attend the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference this week, I watched the vacationing children pose with an interactive screen in the lobby. Their parents photographed them in front of several iconic New York scenes, as indeed they could at the actual site, should the family travel to view them in person (although I understood the value of the distraction in air conditioning). The interactive screen beckoned with “Find Your New York City,” and I wondered how I could do exactly that in the limited time I had outside of conference sessions and the agent pitch slam.

My New York City is broken into several chunks of time, all somewhere, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but gone, according to me.

Born in Brooklyn, I spent my formative years there (show me the girl at seven and I’ll give you the woman). We moved a short distance out of the city (my father, a Philadelphian, was disturbed by my childish Brooklyn accent), but it remained our city, and then in dribs and drabs, we all moved back.

I lived in Manhattan for a peripatetic period when I was a twenty-something woman. In six years I lived in three apartments in West Greenwich Village, one in Yorkville, one in what was the Hungarian neighborhood of the East 70s, one in the East Village on Avenue A (but only very briefly: the cockroaches threw me out on my ear), and last, on West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus, bordering the Columbus end of the block. I left that apartment for Boston, and never returned to live in New York.

Walking in the mornings for exercise this week, or out in search of lunch, I found something of what was my New York City: Sabrett hot dog men, dashing and annoyed New Yorkers, exhausted and fleeced tourists, Carnegie Hall and Central Park, the sound of the streets, the brutality of the smells, good and bad, and the light, filtered through the haze of the traffic and the heat. I photographed the Art Students League for my wife, who had been a student there as a teenager. In the hotel staff and on the streets, I found people from all over the world, working and living in the city, making it their city. I found a phone box, albeit more like a carrel, with a man standing in it and screaming at no one; that seemed like a real throw back.

I didn’t find my former profound understanding of the transit system, although I could navigate the streets easily, and I found that I had no tolerance for the recklessness of cab drivers and jaywalkers. I found Trump Tower, an inevitable affair, standing on the former spot of the opulent building graced with Art Deco statues that had held the department store Bonwit Teller, lost thanks to the builder of the tower in 1980. Few of the regal stores on Fifth Avenue were still there. Naturally, I found the prices exorbitant and the bagels large and puffy, but I’d known about all of that for some time.

As I walked across Central Park I found a clean, well-cared for and well-used park, unlike the dirty, shabby and dangerous stretch it had been. I walked to my last apartment on West 69th St., one of a handsome threesome of brownstones with beautifully arched entrances. Unfortunately, the new owners had gutted what had been a real library from my old apartment, complete with built-in floor to ceiling shelves and rolling ladders, in order to add retail space (unoccupied as of this week).

I connected with my cousin, a young woman who came to New York to find her future. All other family members live elsewhere or can be found only by Einstein’s theory. The same can be said for friends, but that didn’t stop me from scanning the faces of the throngs, just in case.

Finding the city that was my place of birth and breeding, I failed to find the city that was my stomping ground: I couldn’t find my New York City.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/realestate/fifth-avenue-bonwit-teller-opulence-lost.html?mcubz=3

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