Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Melodic Spring Day

Her name is Melody. I asked if I might be permitted to take a picture of her and her dog Baby. She said yes. Unaccountably, she called me a genius (she didn't see the pictures I took, nor did she ask to see them) and told me I ought to make a profession of photographing people with their pets. She said I just had a way about me. It was a beautiful spring-like afternoon, but it was she who made my day. Strange and wonderful how complete strangers can touch and inspire us.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Caption This Photo

I walked out of my apartment a few days ago and saw something--a parked car directly in front of my building--that made me immediately run back upstairs to grab my camera. If this photo doesn't beg for a caption, then I don't know what does. Note the baby seat in the back.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Man I called Papa

There is a single photograph of my grandfather that depicts the man I want to remember. It is of him, a handsome young man, dapper in black and white, as he escorts my grandmother out of the church where they had just sealed their union, said their “I do’s.” She, a movie-star vision of loveliness looks straight out at the crowd that awaits her, smiling, bright eyes focused on the life that lies ahead. He looks only at her. He beams with pride, with the young and uncomplicated love for a woman he believes will make him the man he is meant to be. Little did he know that the man he was meant to be would become a father six times over and a grandfather almost twice that.

Before the kids, though, before the messiness and ambiguities that come with time, here is a young man full of hope and deeply in love. At that very specific moment--when the flash bulb popped—beautiful new bride on his arm, his life is just beginning and he is the star of the show, the prince who got the girl, the very face of youthful invincibility. I watched his face change over recent years, ultimately becoming a haunting and cruel parody of old age. But it is the face and spirit of this young man that I shall keep with me.

In many ways, I think he chased that singular glory in the years to come—to varying degrees of success. Competing with a houseful of 6 rambunctious children was not an easy feat. Still, he always managed to find an audience, whether in choir where he sang to his God, in musical theater where he embodied the true essence of a performer, or in his very own living room where he held court with animated, if sometimes exaggerated, accounts of seminal times in his life.

He was funny and brazen; he wore silly hats and plaid pants at Christmas. He played bag pipes on the roof—or at least that’s how my youthful imagination processed the occasion. He may never have played on the roof, but he was a master of the bagpipes, all the same.

Sometimes his logic was askew, but it always made an impact. When I was a little girl, he warned me not to put pennies in my mouth because old men stuck them up their butts. You never caught me sucking on coins after that.

He taught me how to play chess one unbearably hot summer in St. Louis, and he was patient and gracious even when I beat him. He took me on auditions when I was a young aspiring actress myself. Once when he took me to my agent’s office in Hollywood, she instantly saw him for the performer he was and signed him on the spot. I think I might have felt a little overshadowed as she fawned over him and expounded on his perfect "look" and undeniable star quality. Perhaps a slightly wounded ego, but still I was proud; he was my papa and he captured attention where ever he went.

He was a gifted writer, and a passionate lover of words. He laughed loudly and often—frequently at his own jokes.

He could strike an imposing figure. He once confronted a new boyfriend of mine with a shotgun, which he theatrically cocked while asking the poor devil, “Now what do YOU have to say for yourself?”

He went to junior high school with Marilyn Monroe--then just a quiet, homely Norma Jean--and he held on to his class picture, neatly rolled up and tied with a ribbon, even when Hollywood memorabilia hounds called and offered him tens of thousands of dollars for it. Marilyn even made mention of him in an autobiography as she recollected her younger years, before the fame, before it all had become too much. A ratty paperback version of this book is in the back closet at the Ball house, the page of note tagged with a crisp earmark. She remembered "Don Ball" for being the one in class who kept everyone laughing.

He was a keen historian and a meticulous keeper of family lore. He most certainly knew more about Baba’s family background than even she did. Baba would turn to him, forgetful of the finer points of a story, prompting him for details about, say, her own grandmother Nana’s trek through Mexico. He was never stumped and always confidently filled in the blanks. I loved these stories, still love them, and he always knew the answers to my insistent questions. He always knew because he had listened and processed and absorbed. He was a great listener, even while he was a big talker.

His ability to retain information was downright freakish. This, particularly evident in his skill at the television game show Jeopardy. At least once during every game, somebody would inevitably say, "Now how the hell do you know that?." In fact, down to his very last night in the Ball house, the night before the day--Thanksgiving--when he made his last emergency visit to the hospital, he got the final Jeopardy question right. The answer had something to do with Greek mythology and the question was “What is thunder?” Papa nailed it, in his raspy age-ed voice. I happened to be there that night--just me, Baba, and Papa, on the green couch in the TV room--in what had become a ritual with the three of us, whenever I was home. I will be forever grateful that I was there to witness that quiet moment of victory, as Baba marveled “Good, Don!.” The next morning he would sit down to breakfast and his arm would bleed from his dialysis shunt and he would be taken away, unconcious, to the emergency room. He regained his conciousness, but never fully recovered enough to return to the house he had helped design and erect, and in which he had built a family of six with his beloved wife.

At Jeopardy Baba was good too....but no one could match the triva retention of Papa. Toward the end, Baba and I took to conspiring to play a little trick on Papa. Living in New York, I saw Jeopardy three hours before it played in Malibu. So I would watch and take note of the answers. Then, I would call Baba on the sly to feed her the correct answer to that night's final Jeopardy question, particularly when it had something to do with contemporary pop culture, or Woody Allen, or the Foo Fighters. Baba would then sit smirking through that evening's west coast broadcast, quietly listening as Papa proudly spewed forth one correct answer after another until the stumper happened. At which point she would off-handedly say, while petting her dog Lucy, "Oh, I know that. Isn't that Dave Grohl?" Eventually he caught on, but Baba and I enjoyed our little subterfuge while it lasted.

There was a spirit about him, no doubt about that. That spirit kept him with us far longer than his body probably would have liked.

It’s this spirit that persisted in spite of setbacks and crippling tragedies, which I will remember—that animated talker, whose stories captured my young imagination. The husband who never let go of that powerful love for his wife, a love that was so evident from the very beginning in that old black and white photograph. The man I will carry with me is my grandfather, my Papa, the man larger than life who wore plaid pants and silly hats at Christmas and played bagpipes on the roof.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


A close friend’s father is dying.

Of course, we’re all technically dying from the moment that we’re born, but he is facing the true end of his life, the kind of dying where death is imminent and there is no time left to do things over, or make amends, or see new horizons. The kind of death you can see coming and are positively helpless to stop, not matter how much more time you may want or need. There is no rewriting of history here, no new chance to take risks, or make the kinds of mistakes that one can chalk up as learning experiences. All the mistakes, all the tiny moments of triumph and recognition and love and loss and discovery that make up a life are sealed. A lifetime unalterably complete. And here, now, the indignity of waiting and watching the sorrow of loved ones as they wait with you. It is, I imagine, a time of private reckoning and reflection and, finally, the simple acceptance of what and who you have been in the lifetime you have been granted.

I spoke to this friend on the phone last night. She and her family have been convened in a hospital in Boston, where her father was forced to make a decision about a potentially risky surgery that would prolong the inevitable—although only briefly. Without the surgery, he would have been gone within a day or two. She said they all wanted him to know that they would understand if he didn’t want to go through with the surgery; that he didn’t have to go through yet another procedure and the discomfort of recovery for their sakes. She said, “We wanted him to know that if he needed to go--if he was ready to go—he could go.” These words consumed me after we hung up, as I pondered the ultimate cruelty of mortality. Are any of us really ever ready to go?

I don't know to what degree those of us who are not immediately grappling with our own deaths can truly appreciate the profundity and finality of it all, but watching someone we know and love go through it certainly drives home the point on some level. I suppose all these circumstances can give us is the proverbial PAUSE and then we have no choice but to throw ourselves back into the manic journey toward our own ends, our own finite succession of Sundays.

Sundays are always sodden with melancholy for me and I have learned this summer--being out of work--that it's not just because they are followed by Mondays and a return to work or school. I believe Sundays have something in their chronological DNA that evokes those darkest questions about existence and ends and lives perhaps not lived as grandly as they should be.

My friend’s father decided to go through with the surgery and he emerged in good form—but minus half of one arm, which was amputated. He was not qutie ready, not yet. Fortunately, his remaing days will not be spent wrestling with regrets, or saying all the things he should have said. This man, has the supremely good luck--or maybe it's not really luck at all, but his own design--to have said all those things already, to have loved fully, to have lived a life he is proud of and to be surrounded by people who not only love him dearly, but KNOW him deeply. This, I suppose, is the best possible way to leave this world and embark on whatever it is, or is not, that lies in store for us in the hereafter.

For now, I have that PAUSE, which gives us briefly the ability to examine our lives with something like a bird's-eye clarity. I hope to hold onto it for a just a little bit longer and to turn some corner or tie up some loose end or make some kind of amends that will, someday, make my own passing a little more bearable.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

well, i think he's rather clever

i just took the "how stupid is your dog" test online and the results weren't quite what i had hoped for: Oscar was labeled: "Basically Stupid Dog."

for all you dog owners out there who want to subject yourself to certain disappointment, here's the link to the test.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

onward to montauk

As a girl from the coast (west, that is) and an avid lover of the beach, living in New York City poses a bit of a summertime transportation problem. The beaches out here, all up and down the eastern coast, are actually far superior in many ways to those that I grew up on in Malibu. The thing is they’re just so damn hard to get to. I, like many (or even most?) New Yorkers, do not own a car. I grew up in Los Angeles—where car culture reigns supreme; where road rage, televised police car chases, bumper-to-god-damned-fucking-bumper traffic (hence, oft-times the road rage) and all manner of other vehicular misadventures are par for the course. As a resident of New York City where public transportation is the most efficient way to get around, I have reveled for 13 beautiful years being auto-free. But this makes it difficult when I want to get the hell out of dodge and quickly find myself on some pristine stretch of shoreline, where I will almost certainly spend more time in the water than on the actual shore. To get to the beach here, without a car, involves at the very least a train or a bus, and then sometimes a taxi from the train or bus statoin to the ferry terminal and then the ferry itself. Or, for those who have money to spare, a private plane or helicopter will do the trick. It’s an ordeal and reservations need to be made. Plans need to be in order. Alarm clocks need to be set for ridiculously early times on a Saturday morning.

This all brings me to yesterday. My dear friend Sheila does happen to own a car (although she lives in New Jersey, not Manhattan). So, when she suggested via email: "hey, wanna go to the Jersey shore this weekend and go swimming…I’ll pick you up at the Hoboken path station and we’ll just pop on down and have a day?"…I (ocean deprived for months) jumped at the offer. Online research (at this point, on Sheila’s part) ensued: which beach? followed by Mapquesting directions; followed by a calculation of travel time, and finally leading to a determination of departure time.

She finally suggested Avalon—a place she’d been before and very much enjoyed—but she very nicely gave me an out, warning me (via email) that it would be about a 2 ½ hour drive, and that she’d understand if that was too much time in the car, but she was going anyway because she needed a swim. I don’t mind a 2 ½ hour drive, especially with someone like Sheila, with whom I can talk at length about almost any topic on the planet. Plus we hadn’t seen each other in awhile and there was shit to be caught up on.

No, the driving time was a cinch. The problem was: Oscar. If she picked me up at her recommended hour of 11am and we spent 2 plus hours in the car and another 3 (ideally 4) hours at the beach and then the trip home….well, a dog can only hold it for so long. I don’t have a dog walker, but I know many in the neighborhood in passing…many by name, none by phone number. So I loitered at the dog run (literally, Oscar is done playing and is sitting on the laps of various indulging strangers, panting) hoping to run into one of them. When, by Friday, this hadn’t worked I launched into research of my own, thinking surely there must be a goddamned beach closer than Avalon. Google searches galore brought me to Montauk, which just seemed like a swell idea. I’d always wanted to go, and when I suggested it to Sheila, she said she had always wanted to go too.

So yesterday’s debacle was really all my fault. Sheila rolled up a bit late, due to traffic, and picked me up in the west village at 11:30. The highways were easy enough; we breezed right on through, talking all the way and listening to Sheila’s special road trip Ipod mix. Then—and this is where things started heading south, although we were heading north (or was it west?)--we hit the one-lane-in-either-direction road that runs the length of the Hamptons and, finally, into Montauk. West Hampton, Bridge Hampton, Amagansett, East Hampton, Water Mill (where we saw Japanese tourists posing for pictures in front of what I’m pretty sure was a wind mill)…all just lovely, verdant places with lots of happy rich-looking people whom we had ample time to ogle, seeing as we were crawling along at about 1 mile per hour. We talked of the variety of trees and how the Starbucks out here just don’t look like the Starbucks in the city and how quaint and cute the little villages were. We saw a wedding about to happen…a little white Presbyterian church decked in flowers, people standing about in front in fancy clothes.

Eventually, roughly 3 ½ hours into the trip, frustration kicked in…Sheila needed to pee and I had Oscar’s bladder on my mind…doing the math in my head, I was thinking: OK, maybe we’ll get to a beach in the next ten minutes—at this point any fucking beach with an actual ocean will do—take a quick dunk and get back in the car for another four hours home….if that’s the case, how much damage would that do to Oscar’s urinary system and, more importantly, to his trust in me. It wasn’t looking good.

We stopped at a gas station so Sheila could relive herself, while I assaulted two bemused gas station attendants with questions about the nearest beach, parking, the parking rules, and was there any way, any way whatsoever please, to get around those rules. In retrospect, I’m sure I’m just one in a million stupid foreigners in those parts to stop in and try to get some golden advice about how to circumvent the stringent parking situation enforced on outsiders. Basically, there are maybe two or three public beaches where you can pay for parking. Otherwise, you need to have a “resident permit” for the other beaches, which I’m sure are preferably less crowded. Of course, always being the girl who was more curious about what was going on in the V.I.P. lounge than I was in dancing with the masses, I wanted to find a way to get around this whole parking thing. I asked them, “Aren’t there residential streets we can park on and then just walk to the beach?” They said, “Um, I don’t think so.” I asked them in a different way, “There must be some place near the beach where we can park and walk?” They said, “Still, no.” I think I tried several other lines of questioning, but ultimately there was no golden advice and, if there was, these guys were not going to give it to me.

Sheila kept saying, “They don’t want us here. They just don’t want us here,” referring not to the gas station dudes but to the Hampton folk in general. As charming as it may be, this is not a place that’s set up to welcome outsiders.

So we ended up, finally at around 3:30pm, at a public beach. It was crowded, but it was glorious. The sea never looked so good. We were forced to swim between two strategically-placed green flags, but the water was perfect. I guess in a way, the exhaustion of the journey made the pay-off all that much better. We swam, we talked, we sat in the sun for a couple hours. Then it was time to go.
I drove homeward. We passed that wedding-about-to-happen after it had happened; the front walk of the church scattered with white rose petals; the sidewalk in front populated by a few straggling well-dressed guests immersed in some talk of something that must have seemed important. The bride and groom were, presumably, on their way to some tony country club for their first dance and embarking on their 50/50 chance of making their vows stick. Whoever they are, I’m rooting for them.

We met virtually no traffic on the way back. The trip took about 2 ½ hours. I arrived home at 9pm. Oscar was happy to see me.