YOU BELONG WITH US



Judith and despair were becoming one. She felt that, as she entered the restaurant and friends stood to greet her. In their eyes she saw sorrow; in the warm grasp of their hands, two holding her one, she felt their desire to reassure her, their need to convey: “We are with you. We are here for you.”

Greg held out a chair for her and she sat, acutely aware that the neat, universally proscribed table for four had been gerrymandered to create a table for five, an anomaly, an odd mole on a face with otherwise perfect features.

Ed leaned over and pointed to the appetizers on the menu that had been thrust into her hands. “We’ve ordered shrimp cocktails, but feel free to get anything you like.”

“We”
“Feel free”
“Get anything you like”
Judith’s eyes misted over and instead of burgundy block letters on the menu, she saw the new vocabulary that would define her. She would never be “We” again. She would be expected to “feel free,” to “get anything” she liked, without consultation, negotiation, without concern for the other’s allergies, his likes and dislikes.

She would have to learn what she liked, what she alone could tolerate. She forced her eyes to focus on the menu. She couldn’t bring herself to order the shrimp cocktail. Lars had developed a nasty rash after they shared shrimp at the Washington marina. That was fifty years ago and she’d never had shrimp since. “Can you do a Caesar salad for one,” she asked the waiter.

“No problem, Madam,” he replied.

“We’ve ordered a couple of bottles of Medoc,” said Ed. “We know you favor red.”

No, she wanted to say. She’d been drinking red with fish for what seemed like a lifetime, but it was Lars, her meat eater, who always ordered red for both of them.

Judith smiled at her companions. So kind, solicitous. They meant well. “You belong with us,” they seemed to say. But she didn’t, she knew. She belonged only to herself now, with herself.

“If you don’t mind,” she said softly, not wanting to offend, “I’d like a glass of Chablis. I’m having the halibut.”

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What Our Feet Tell Us



She was given so many chances, but in the end Hortense failed macroeconomics.

In a way she was glad.

In high school, she had loved literature and science. She had played clarinet in band, her shoulders swaying, right foot tapping, feeling joy and release as the lilting notes filled the auditorium. In art class, collage had been her specialty. Juxtaposing found objects, pebbles, shells, with fragments of photos, ribbon, she would lose herself in the process of telling a story that she alone, perhaps, would understand, though often her teacher or a classmate would say: That reminds me so much of a summer I spent in Maine, or, Why does that make me think of the day my grandmother died?

Mathematics had never been her strong suit, but there was something about economics that intrigued her. Her father, when he was alive, often quoted as he read the newspaper, filling her ears with the ups and downs of the Dow, acronyms like GDP and IPO, how the yen was doing against the dollar. It was a world she glimpsed, but into which she never set foot.

It was a road she felt compelled to take.

So when it was time to declare her major, she abandoned the insouciance of freshman year and elected the challenge of economics.

Over the next two years the mysteries of the Dow were explained. She could toss off “Keynesian” and “Greenspan said” with aplomb. Now it was she quoting stock market vicissitudes, as she perused the Financial Times, marveling at the growing power of the euro.

Then she took macroeconomics. The early weeks went well. Geopolitics had always fascinated her. But as the semester rolled on, the arcane theory stayed just beyond her reach. As the professor flashed slide upon slide onto the blank white screen that nearly filled the wall at the head of the lecture hall, her toes would tap with impatience. She wanted to be somewhere else.

Ultimately she had to accept the reality: macroeconomics forever would be a world she could glimpse, but into which she could never set foot.

Adventures



Curled up on my bed in winter, my patio in summer, I found pleasure in books: Nancy Drew and Deanna Durbin, witty teens who dashed about in little roadsters, adored by their handsome beaux.

I imagined being beautiful and witty, blond curls rustling in the wind, as Ned or Buck or Jack or Tom reached for my alabaster hand while driving his little roadster.

But Nancy and Deanna did not have freckles. They weren’t chubby. They would never curl up with a book when the sun was shining, when mysteries needed to be solved, when Buck or Ned or Tom or Jack was out front honking the horn of his heavenly roadster, until Mother said to Father, “You must put a stop to that infernal racket, Dear,” and Father marched out to the curb and invited the young man in for a steaming cup of cocoa and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

My mother never baked; I tried it, but failed. My mother never sewed, either, and in seventh grade Home Economics, when I had to make my own apron, to use in cooking class, she cheerfully bought one at a store to replace the misshapen wreck I had created.

But my mother was beautiful, as beautiful as Nancy and Deanna, and athletic, too. She played tennis and biked and her Betty Grable legs attracted the eye of every Tom, Buck, Ned and Jack at a nearby swimming pool, where she dove like a swan and swam like a butterfly.

My mother never had adventures like the girls in my books, but I did, much later, and wish she could have had them, too.

 

Some of my adventures as an aviation wonk

On the wing of a KC-135.

At an air show in London.

Learning how to fly.

Ballooning in Caen.

Our Gang



My father’s childhood friends were called Obbie, Bummy, Mooney and the like. Who knows why, since their given names probably were Isaac, Benjamin and Morris.

Somewhere there is a photo of them sitting on a brownstone stoop, a rag tag army of little toughs, bruised of cheek and chipped of tooth, spoiling for a skirmish, jeering at the photographer who snapped fast because this gang wouldn’t sit straight for long.

My father, Pinny, and his little brother, Natey, tramped through the Great Depression with Obbie, Bummie and Moonie and who knows all, then most of them headed for Omaha Beach and Pearl Harbor, ready for bear.

They came home punch drunk, shell shocked, pulled themselves together and hunted and gathered the prettiest, smartest girls left in the old neighborhood. To make a buck, they sold hot dogs at Phillies games, peddled dolls and mistletoe at Christmas, and dealt cards in the back rooms of luncheonettes before trundling home to fourth-floor walk-ups where their riveting Rosies waited with a chicken in the pot and honey in the hay.

They named their children in memory of their mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles—Sarah, Dora, Max and the like—with an American twist, and saw that Susan, Donna, Mike and the like were educated.

In time, they opened shops to house their wares and dealt cards in the knotty-pine basements of their miniscule brick row houses on the barren plains of the city’s outskirts.

When their shops became elaborate emporia, their handsomely coifed wives hauled them to the suburbs that would have them, and Pinny, Natey, Obbie, Bummy and Moony dealt cards in the oak paneled game rooms of their Pennsylvania stone palaces and in summer gathered on the dulcet shores of the Atlantic where long ago they’d slinked among the boardwalk snoots, sliding out of the grasp of a towering Irish cop.

And their grandchildren were called Jonas, John, Vanessa, Sean and Jacqueline, with suffixes of Esq., MD, DDS, MBA and Ph.D., respectively, and sometimes Jr.

Gratitude




roland flint

It is Thanksgiving and I am thinking about gratitude and Roland Flint.

Roland taught English and poetry at Georgetown University and presided over a workshop that nurtured generations of finely tuned undergraduates. He also wrote poems and when he read his work, ancient Healy Hall rocked. In a reversal of fortune, this great red bear fed a ravenous audience metered tales of what he knew, what he’d yet to learn, his journey toward gratitude and acceptance.

Roland was never morose, not that we saw, but we knew he had his sorrows (his six-year-old son had been hit by a car, near Healy, killed). He chose to live as a smiling troubadour, a raconteur of the greatest order. With relish, he quoted the great bards of our day, many of whom he knew, and sang of the joys in his life: his living children, Rosalind, friends, his young poets.

His young poets often were morose and wrote about loss and dread in journal entries, which he assigned and carefully read, and in our poems. In our journals he helped us find the questions we should be asking in our trek toward adulthood. As for our poems, he looked enchanted when we read aloud, then encouraged us to go deeper, listen harder, find a better way to “say it.”1

“Keep writing,” was his parting maxim when we moved on, as if each of us had the magic.

Few of us became “professional” poets, instead chose careers as editors, lawyers, diplomats, doctors, journalists. And as misfortune dappled our journey, surely the wisdom of gratitude—for children, grandchildren, a fine book, “a singing in the mysteries connecting us”2—helped light our way. 

1 From “Say It,” Say It (Dryad Press, 1979), by Roland Flint.

2 From “What I Have Tried to Say to You,  Easy (LSU Press, 1999), by Roland Flint.

Roland Flint taught at Georgetown University for 30 years, published nine books of poems, and served as Poet Laureate of Maryland (1995-2000). He died at the age of 66 in 2001.

Stairs



As a child I thought our blonde staircase grand, that it went on forever. From the floor where I tottered, looking up, it seemed I’d never be able to navigate my way to the top, that I’d never be able to reach the sturdy oak banister, to grip it as I’d take each step, one at a time.

Eventually, I did, of course. I bounded up those steps, two at a time, to reach the seclusion of my room, my solitary space, my sanctuary. “The princess is in her dungeon,” my father would proclaim to anyone asking the whereabouts of his teenage daughter.

Eventually, I walked slowly down those steps, with trepidation, the train of my wedding gown lofted behind me by my two little sisters, out of harm’s way. Away from my room, my solitude, into a world shared with husband, children.

Eventually, I returned to those stairs to help my mother descend from her room, one step at a time, to the floor below, where she tottered, through the living room, the foyer, to the front door. Outside, we guided her down the short flight of concrete steps, over the path lined with American Beauty roses, her favorite, and carefully settled her in my father’s car.

Eventually, we arrived at the rest home, as hospice was called in those days. We walked my mother up a ramp that led to wide glass doors. The small lobby smelled like disinfectant. My mother looked at me and touched my hair, my cheek. For the first time that day, she seemed to know me; for the last time.

Women of Georgetown College: The First Quarter Century



Healy Hall

  1995When I graduated from Georgetown in 1977, I expected to be a writer. I was a writer and had been for some time. I’d been in Roland Flint’s band of merry poets who read for an appreciative audience every Friday afternoon at Healy Hall. I had published stories and poems, had begun a novel thought fine enough by my professors to submit to Johns Hopkins’ graduate writing program, and had written a play under the direction of Donn Murphy who compared it favorably to a work by a new playwright named Beth Henley.

Graduation day with my sons.

I chose the very practical University of Maryland for graduate school, hoping to get an MFA in creative writing, but after one semester of listening to sour professors advise us to find jobs and make our way in the world with a modicum of physical comfort rather than as starving artists, I left. My 15-year marriage had dissolved and I had two sons and a mortgage and bills to pay.

I went to work. I edited trade publications, first medicine then aviation, and climbed rapidly from editorial assistant to managing editor to editor-in-chief to, currently (and probably finally—I am 51), editorial director. My forewords, editorials, memos, proposals, etc., are written with skill, sometimes flair, a throwback to the days when I was a writer.

My sons are grown men now (31 and 27), both musicians and composers. They have chosen to be the starving artist I never had the courage to be—the part of me that was and is still devoted to creation is in them and I respect and admire that.

Twenty-five years ago, when Georgetown opened its doors to women, I was a young suburban mother and housewife without aspirations, uneducated, writing alone in my bedroom. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, et al, rescued me, helped me believe that I could become educated, that I could be and have more than I had been taught to expect. I chose Georgetown to put those theories to the test, and Georgetown took me in, at the ripe old age of 32, made me feel wise and smart and talented, gave me the confidence to break down doors of discrimination lo these 17 years since I graduated, often as the first or only woman in professional situations. I am forever grateful. I live well—a good life in the sense taught by my beloved philosophy professor, Wilfred Desan—and I am proud of my accomplishments.

This essay appeared in
Women of Georgetown College: The First Quarter Century
Georgetown University, 1995

 

The Principal



1974 — The principal looked through the window to the parking lot filled with cars, his fingers drumming impatiently on the desk. At any moment she would appear. That woman. Ever since their first meeting he had been disturbed by her, by the way she walked into a room and took over. And not in the usual feminine way, either. She was like a witch, carrying with her an aura of power. Although her blonde hair was soft and beautiful, her body round and voluptuous, her mind was cold and calculating. She seemed shrewd, and he was fervently afraid of her.

Whenever she was near he found himself weakening. He couldn’t move his gaze from her face and her hair. Supposedly, he was the one who was hard and cold, but in her presence he became confused; he the victim, she the oppressor. When she left him, it took a long time for his power to return.

Now he watched for her. He liked to watch as she walked from her car to the building. She probably knew that she was being watched, probably expected it. His eyes stared through the clear panes of glass and his heart beat rapidly. There was no joy in this.

Finally, her car appeared in the lot. He had not seen it enter and now suddenly it was there. She was here. She wouldn’t disappoint him. She never had. He could depend on her to arrive punctually, to walk in and take command. Right out of his hands. It was his office, his staff, and she took over; and he felt helpless to stop her.

He wondered if anyone noticed his weakness, if they were laughing at him; but no, he didn’t think so. She had a way of manipulating all of them, throwing around insults and sarcasms, then softening them with smiles. No one knew whether to be insulted or charmed. Everyone was confused and weakened. Each probably felt like her personal victim, just as he did. If that was the case, there was nothing to worry about. She hadn’t singled him out for the game.

Now he felt depressed.

She had walked into the building and was waiting in the outer office for him. Sighing heavily, he got up from his desk and walked out to meet her. How breathtaking she looked, laughingly relating a story to the secretaries. They were smiling happily in response. Look what she does to people, he thought. Makes them laugh, weakens them. Then she strikes. Her story ended abruptly when she saw him and she thrust out her hand. Another of her infuriating habits! She liked to shake hands like a man. It was his tendency to lead a woman, to touch her shoulder or her back, to walk behind her, but she didn’t allow it. She always maneuvered herself around him so he couldn’t provide protective gestures. Often she touched him in ways that suggested his vulnerability, her strength.

When they were seated in his office, he behind his desk, she crossed her legs demurely. “I must be frank with you,” she began. “Our discussions do not seem to be leading anywhere. I have gone over the curriculum changes with your faculty and they are agreeable. The school board has recommended the changes and you claim to be amenable to them, so what is the problem? Why are you fooling around with this instead of taking action?”

He didn’t know. Indecision had never been a problem before. He had always known what he wanted to do and how to do it. “It’s not a question of ‘fooling around.’ These things take time. I can’t make a decision like this without giving it proper consideration. There’s too much to lose if we act quickly and without thought.”

“Thought,” she wailed. “We’ve thought about it for almost a year. The program is in operation in every middle school but this one. You are the only hold-out. Now look, your personal views represent only one segment of this community. This school should represent the whole. If you don’t begin to organize the new structure immediately, there’s going to be trouble.”

She was threatening him. He felt his blood pressure zoom. Look how calmly she sat there, swinging her leg, her shoe dangling dangerously from her toes. She wanted him to give in. After all these years of successful resistance, she wanted him to give up. Uh, uh. Unconsciously, he shook his head. “And what, um, what is this trouble you suggest, Mrs. Hayes?”

“Ms.” A smirk briefly appeared on her face. “I suggest that if you don’t hop to it, we will begin with petitions to enlist community support. From there, it will be legal action, which the board does not relish, as you know, and ultimately, you will be out of a job.”

These last words were spoken with an unbearable softness. He stared at her in astonishment. Had he heard her correctly? She could not have uttered such menacing words in that sweet tone. Her appearance belied the possibility. Softness, so much softness. His body ached all over. He had an impulse to cry.

And all the while, as he suffered, she sat there composed, her shoe dangling. He collected himself. “Mrs. Hayes,”  he said evenly “I think I’ll take my chances. I’ve come this far with what I believe to be right and I have no intention of changing at this late date.”

She rose from her seat and held out her hand across the desk. “If that is your final word,” she said calmly, “then I’ll say goodbye. I have no intention of wasting any more of my time.”

He was stunned. It was happening so quickly. He held her hand fleetingly, in a daze. She was leaving. He had waited for her all his life and now she was leaving. Silently he begged her to stay; please stay, please stay; he thought his head would burst from the pain . . . .

But aloud he said nothing and she left.

Through the window he watched her walk through the parking lot to her car, then he locked the door and rested his head on his desk. How could this happen to him now? Why, why had she come along precisely at the moment of peace and order? It had taken so long to arrive at this state of mind. All of the struggles were behind him. He had planned to relax. He had so looked forward to these years.

A bell lunged through his reverie, causing his head to jerk up violently. The day was over. There were no conferences scheduled for that afternoon, nothing that needed his attention. He could go home. Outside his window, the world languished in a lovely balance between winter and spring, between afternoon and evening. The Bradford Pear was about to burst into bloom; the jonquils were already flowering. And momentarily, the students would be crashing through the double doors, on to the lawn, through the parking lot. Life would explode.

Touched by a sense of urgency, he lifted the receiver and phoned his wife.

“Hello,” answered a voice, almost a song.

“Hi, dear. I think I’ll be coming home early today. Would you like me to pickup anything on the way?”

She giggled slightly. “Of course not. What makes you ask that all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know. I just thought . . . you might need something. Will you be there? Are you going out anywhere this afternoon?”

“No, dear. I’m here. I’m preparing dinner. What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know. Something. I don’t know what,” he answered sadly.

She laughed again. “Spring fever. C’mon home.”

“Okay. I’ll be there soon.”

He hung up the phone and stared out the window, pensively, unable to move, to get started. Something—despair, disappointment, he couldn’t identify the feeling—was overtaking him. It was the woman. Mrs. Hayes. Ms. Hayes. He wanted her so badly. He could no longer delude himself about it. He did not want to resist her any longer. He stared at the phone as if, mind to mind, he could force it to ring, to burst forth in her soft, sweet voice. How many times had he thought about calling her? Sat here just like this drumming his fingers on the desk, staring at the phone? Once, in a moment of resolute power, he had pushed the buttons that would unlock the distance between them, heard the soft bells announce each cipher, and then, her voice, as soft as the bells, as commanding as bells. He had quickly pressed the cut-off button without speaking, had held the receiver close to his ear, pressed hard against his ear, hearing her hello ring over and over and over again in his imagination, refusing to allow it to diminish until, suddenly, the spell had dispersed. He was left sitting there holding the receiver like a fool.

On another day, when curiosity about her had overtaken him, he had left school at lunchtime and driven to her street. It was a cold day and old snow was piled along the curbs. As luck would have it—what rotten luck!—she was outdoors, the only person around anywhere. She was walking a dog, a large brown ugly dog, as decrepit as the muddied leftover snow. He had furtively lifted his collar and turned down the brim of his hat, had driven by quickly so as not to be recognized. But she had never looked up. She had never suspected his agony and embarrassment.

Now he had to decide what to do, whether or not to confront her. Surely she was having similar thoughts about him. Else, why would she harass him so? Why did she continually break into his life and upset things? She deliberately tried to titillate him with her short skirts and her soft voice. She was probably waiting for him to make the first move.

But, his wife? He had never betrayed her. They had been married happily for so many years. Their children, grown now and far away, were still close to them in spirit. Could he find the means in the face of this terrible temptation to remain faithful? He didn’t know. Again, he was close to tears. His shoulders began to move convulsively. There didn’t seem to be an answer to his dilemma.

He buried his face in his hands. Why now? Why now? He ground his forehead into his palms as if he could grind down the substance of his thoughts. Day after day he was plagued with questions and problems in his work, his home, always, all throughout the long arduous climb from teacher to principal. But there had never been any real difficulty in deciding what to do. It had always been easy to find correct solutions for there were so few correct answers. And thank God he had always known them all. Thank God.

He rubbed his eyes and looked out the window. With relief he looked around the room. Suddenly, surprisingly, the confusion that had muddied his mind, rendered him useless, was gone. Everything was orderly, his desk, the black vinyl visitors’ chairs that lined the wall opposite him. Everything was in its proper place. No ornament, no device could distract him from his purpose. All balance had been restored.

Astounding! he thought. Astounding. Smiling to himself, his power surging through him once more, elevating his shoulders, his jaw, giving to his step a youthful, prideful air, he took his keys from his pocket and left the school.

“The Principal” appeared in Gargoyle, 1976

 

Presidents



Dreamy Andy

I’m looking at $1 and $20 bills and note that Andrew Jackson has the face of a poet.

George Washington does not.

Andy looks dreamy, his thick wavy hair a magnet for the girls.

George has thick, wavy hair, too, and I know he was able and could not tell a lie, but his thin lips suggest rigor, a stern manner. They are not kissable, like Andy’s.

What do we really know about our politicians? Not that George was a politician. He was thrust into office, catapulted onto the eternal “father of our country” throne. But, had he been a politician, he probably would not be revered today, globally, 230-some years after the fact.

Politicians’ natural charm is submerged in persona. Every once in a while, Obama breaks into a huge grin and we see the little boy without his handlers, without the crushing weight of his office, without the learned “slick Willie” façade.

But, wait a minute—hasn’t that huge, charming grin become one more manifestation of “slick Willie”?

And, speaking of slick Willie, how come I continue to like the “aw shucks” kid, even though he perpetually betrayed Hillary and us, tarnished the Oval Office with that sordid intern affair? How come he can slide from offense to offense, like an oiled snake, sullying everything he touches, then shed his skin and emerge new, ready for a fresh foray into fetid freakdom?

Presidents. In our magnificent democracy, you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em. Which is why the news shows are spending so much time covering the Republican debates. (And of course, the spectacles of “Oops!” “Uzbeki, beki, beki, bekistan” and revelations by middle-aged White House intern wannabes are more profitable and entertaining than triplicate spinoffs of CSI.)

Ah for the days of George, when there was no choice—not the George who was born with the silver foot in his mouth, but old George Washington, our unsmiling universal dad.  Come to think of it, these are those days.  We are stuck with the kid with the neon grin, cause they ain’t nobody who can run against him and win.

 

20 Years of the Information Superhighway and Me



Twenty years ago, in 1991, Senator Al Gore sponsored a bill to fund an “information superhighway” that would “tie together millions of computers, providing capabilities that we cannot even imagine.” I was reminded of that fact today, when I ‘googled’ the term ‘1991’ on my laptop, clicked on the ‘wikipedia.com’ entry, and immediately viewed a year’s worth of significant events: Cold War ended, Soviet Union collapsed into 15 sovereign republics, Oakland Hills fire killed 25 people, Dow closed above 3,000 for first time, Nadine Gordimer won Nobel Prize for Literature, UN-sponsored coalition swiftly dislodged Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait . . . .

Websites like Wikipedia, which also notes that the number 1991 is a palindrome, provide broad, instantaneous knowledge, a luxury that did not exist in 1991, unless you had access to a savant. In those days, we drove to the library and scoured myriad reference books or consulted World Book, which took up several shelves in our homes. We mourned the trees felled to support our quest and suffered painful paper cuts.

E-mail preceded the information superhighway at the publishing house where I worked in 1991. Word processors and typewriters used by clerical assistants were replaced by ungainly desk top machines wired to an intranet system. When executives realized they could wield this technology like an Uzi to issue orders and assignments, they overcame a fear of typing and they, too, became ‘connected.’

No one I knew anticipated the devastation that the information superhighway  > World Wide Web > Internet would bring to our industry. One minute we were attending seminars on how to “milk the potential” of the new phenomenon, and a nanosecond later, as free global news proliferated 24/7, our loyal followers had canceled their subscriptions. Our advertising lifeline began to dry up. Printing plants were shuttered, bullpens downsized, foreign bureaus decimated.

Technology became king and publishers scrambled to meet the boundless news and entertainment needs of ‘users’ (formerly known as readers), throwing together ‘portals’ of varying coherence. Laid-off journalists, editors and graphic designers were recruited to feed these hungry beasts from the comfort of their home offices, and ‘telecommuter’ entered the lexicon.

Yahoo shed its former meanings and joined a gaggle of new nonsense words in everyday conversation, Google became a verb, and pejoratives like ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ were coined to describe people who avidly navigate the electronic world with pleasure and without ambivalence. That’s not me. I love my computer when it works, I hate it when it doesn’t. But I can’t imagine life without the information superhighway.

(Oops! I just lost my Internet connection. H-E-E-L-P!)

Copyright © 2012 by Donna Brookman Kaulkin. All rights reserved. Web site built by Cantus Firmus Web Solutions