Among the many things we did together

On the death of my dear friend Carol Parsons . . . 9/7/13carol parsons

We worked all day at jobs we loved, then rushed home to grab a bite, change into jeans and get to the movie theater on time. For we were part of a group of Washingtonians who previewed films scheduled to open that weekend. Waiting in line, we’d hash over the day’s challenges, chat with others and speculate about the indie or soon-to-be blockbuster we were about to view.

Carol generously invited me to countless gala openings at the Hirshhorn Museum, where she worked.  I met Chuck Close!  I enjoyed private viewings of works by Ed Ruscha, Clyfford Still, Brice Marden, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, George Segal — the list goes on and on.

On one Saturday each month we lunched. We called our group “Ladies Who Lunch”—a little homage to Sondheim and Stritch—and took turns choosing a restaurant. I have a photo of Carol, Ros Kaiser, Diane Munro and Julia Su happily smiling for my camera. Ros passed away in April; she was one of Carol’s oldest and dearest friends.

In late 2002, I moved to California because I was about to have a grandchild there. Until then, Carol kindly shared her grandchildren with me. We called purple ‘pupple,’ because that is how little Sophie said her favorite color. We wiggled our hips and sang Madonna songs like Madeline. After my grandson was born, Carol and I talked on the phone almost weekly about his progress, about Luke and Will and the girls, and 10 years passed and they were all so grown up, but we still giggled over ‘pupple.’

Several times a day I smile to see a colorful mug on my kitchen shelf, hand-painted with images of adorable girls. Carol saw me admiring it at an exhibit of work by one of her many creative friends and surprised me with it that Christmas. After I left Washington, it became an important memento of our long friendship. With Carol gone, it will mean more to me than words can say.


Little White Lies

Why are little white lies white?
Why aren’t they green or yellow?
What color are big lies?
I can’t imagine a black lie.
How would you see it, judge its contours, its depth?

Are we to surmise that a black lie is evil?
An opaque hunk of obsidian obstructing your view, in your face, blocking your progress?
While a white lie prances along a rainbow, following the arc to infinity?

Is a white lie lyrical?
Does it hum a tune, have meter and rhyme?
Are characters in a white lie chaste, their motives pure?
Do they love their parents, feed the homeless, help old people cross the street?

Black lies probably are not gregarious.
They doubtless do not mix well at parties, network, participate in football pools.
Curmudgeons they!
You would not take them home to meet your mother or invite them to your beach house or ski chalet.

White lies, on the other hand, wear well, wear clothes well and sport the best haircuts, layered and sleek with just a few strands popping up in a pert cowlick.

White lies are transparent.
You can step right through them, as if they were not there.
They are never obstinate, opinionated or obvious.
You barely notice them.

At table, black lies hog the watermelon, spitting seeds out of the side of their mouth in a well-practiced maneuver that dirties your rug.
White lies prefer dainty tidbits, tartlets of crème fraîche and caviar (the real thing), thin strips of marinated carrots, Chantilly for dessert.
White lies are fastidious. At meal’s end they lift their napkin from their lap and tap the corners of their mouth, as if a trace of food lingered.

Black lies are bullies.
They push white lies against the wall and punch and threaten, torment them.
Their sharp elbows and loud guffaws startle white lies.
In the face of black lies, white lies become ever more reticent, shy.
They are quick to seek cover, change their tune, lose conviction.

Brick upon brick of black lies reach skyscraper proportions.
White lies may aspire to create tall edifices but succumb to gravity.
Their tiny legs cannot climb so many steps, their wee breath gives in.
They cannot stomach whooshing elevators that reach the clouds before you can say Jack Robinson.
Leaving black lies to rule heaven and earth.

Homage to Bradford Pears

I am a blazing Bradford Pear on the apron of Route 24, escorted by a clone, we two alone resplendent among a cascade of evergreens and dull deciduous species that transit the seasons in silence like supernumeraries upon a crowded stage.

I am more at home in Philadelphia or Washington than here in always splendid California, where my own magnificence might be overlooked amid your mountain and ocean vistas. But I adapt. My crimson leaves dapple in your long warm days, glisten under the spectacular canopy of stars that is your night sky.

As we tire of our brilliance, grow weary with exhibitionism, my clone and I will take a final bow, shed our gold lamé, red taffeta, orange brocade, and sleep, burrow like bears in Winter.

The geese fly in like Chicagoans to Boca Raton, as we go out, our candle snuffed. The squirrels have stashed their acorns, the bees have made their honey. We make our brief offering—beauty that delights the eye, warms the soul as  darkness descends—then rest, regroup, until our next act—March, when we will adorn your freeways again, our alabaster blossoms a chaste harbinger of Spring.


Who Will Speak for Pet Rats?


Squeak and Brownie

I speak for pet rats in their immaculate white cage, nudging each other with long snouts their owners find precious. I speak for them because they cannot speak for themselves. They cannot say their better natures are not what they exhibit here, lightly pummeling one another for a turn at the water spout, gaily rolling about, each trying to commandeer the short shaft of sunlight available to them.

I speak for pet rats who if they could would say they were never meant to live in a land of Legos and nerf guns of all calibers, of electronic airplanes and robots and a wall of books explaining a world they never asked to be part of.

They yearn for the thrill of the hunt, for ragged orange peels scattered among yesterday’s coffee grinds. Instead, their food is brought to them on Fiesta Ware, chips of apples, broccoli, cheese—a lot of cheese, suddenly, in this formerly lactose-free household.

If they could, they would tell their owners the alley is their game, where danger is not in the form of an old, blind cat who no longer can leap and scavenge downy tidbits, smiling in victory over his ruined prey, silver tufts hanging from his golden paw.

I speak for pet rats who if they could would say they are losing their skills: how to spread plague, how to dodge sots hurling empty bottles of Thunderbird at them, how to burrow in ivy till night falls then burst forth to forage in your compost bin.

What can they become in this unnatural habitat? As you caress them, tweak their so-called noseys, consider all this.



I wasn’t crazy about Matilda, but I adored meetings in her office. Her desk was always almost bare, her In-Box nearly empty. The framed posters hanging on her wall were never askew. Like her person, the room was pristine. When I sat in one of the royal blue, lightly padded chairs that surrounded her small teak conference table, I felt serene.

Maybe it was the tea. Matilda was the only person in our unit, maybe in our entire multinational corporation, our entire Sixth Avenue skyscraper, to keep a silver tea tray on her credenza. The tray held a porcelain pot and sugar bowl bedecked with blue and yellow posies. Tins of tea leaves, a strainer and a dish of thin lemon slices completed the tableau. If there were visitors from our London or Delhi office, a tiny pitcher of milk appeared.

She didn’t offer tea to everyone; you knew where you stood with Matilda by whether or not that offer came your way. And, it might come on one day and not another. She was given to ‘moods.’ On a good day, Matilda poured a fragrant cup of lemon balm into your delicate cup, or perhaps hibiscus or rosehips, and it was all you could do to stay awake for the meeting at hand.

She, herself, never drank the tea, not that we ever witnessed, which caused talk of a possible ploy meant to keep her teammates less able to outperform her. Alas, the members of our team actually were opponents, one-upping one another at every turn, fighting for supremacy in the eyes of our higher-ups, who also preferred to meet in Matilda’s office, to sip her tea, to inhale the subtle fragrance of the lotion she applied to her hands several times a day, an exotic floral and spice blend that permeated the room and pleasured the senses of all but the most allergic of us.

I last saw Matilda on the day before our budget forecasts were due. I didn’t actually see her, because she told her assistant to cancel any scheduled meetings and kept her door closed. This was disconcerting. I needed a cup of tea and a whiff of her fragrance to calm my nerves; budgeting was my short suit.

I rang for the express elevator to the lobby, where a vast Starbucks franchise operated, and took my tea there. As an afterthought, I plucked a paper-wrapped scone from a tray on the counter and carried it up to Matilda’s office, knocking timidly on her door. No answer. I rapped lightly again.

“Yes.” I heard.

“Just me, Matilda. I have something for you.”

“Slide it under the door.”

“That’s not possible.” The scone had a redolence of its own, and I decided to abandon my good intentions and eat it myself. “Never mind,” I called. “I’ll come back later.” As I walked away, I sensed that Matilda cracked open the door to see what I was carrying, having second thoughts, I surmised, in case my delivery was budget-related and vital to her task-at-hand.

The scone was delicious—raspberry—the tea had settled me, and I dug into my work, blocking out the world until, at around noon, the hall outside my office took on an air of Pamplona in July. “What’s happening?” I called, as the herd rushed by. Someone shouted back, “Matilda!” I waited a moment, then sauntered after them with utmost nonchalance.

The door to Matilda’s empty office was open. It was not like her to leave without locking her door. Had something terrible happened? I didn’t even know if she had children. Was she married? Perhaps a parent had died. I vowed to introduce some details about my personal life in our next conversation, with the hope that she would do the same.

I elbowed my way through the crowd and saw that Matilda’s desk was bare, save the In-Box and telephone. Her empty chair was turned toward the wide window with its unobstructed view of the Empire State Building, which had always enchanted me. The credenza was bare, the tea tray gone. Matilda’s scent was gone, too, obliterated by the bodies that filled the room: creatives from my department, assistants, bookkeepers, tech men. They had always longed to be inside and now, finally, they were. “It’s past noon,” I said, in as stern a voice as I could muster. “Shouldn’t you be having lunch?” They filed out reluctantly and I followed, closing the door behind me.

My voice mail alert was flashing when I returned to my office and there were several frantic messages from my boss’s secretary. “Hey, Arlene. What’s up?”

“You’re wanted on 27 immediately.”

I had a lunch date for one o’clock, and quickly cancelled, then headed down to the 27th floor, where the honchos resided. An ashen Arlene showed me into the office of George Duncan, the executive vice president of our division. “Hey, George. What’s up?” I asked, curious about the odd goings-on.

George indicated a chair and I sat. He opened a file that lay on his desk and pointed to the letterhead of his boss, the CEO of U.S. operations whom I had met once in Matilda’s office.

“I had hoped Matilda would do this, but she’s goddamned disappeared,” said George. He read: “After an intensive review of the last six quarters, the decision has been made to shutter the lowest-performing divisions worldwide.”

“Los Angeles, for sure,” I interrupted.

“For sure,” said George, then continued. “Leases and contracts will not be renewed. Urgent projects in motion will be assumed by other units. Please inform your staffs of this decision and the need to vacate your premises, effective immediately.” He closed the folder and stared at the building beyond his window. “And New York, too.”

I followed his gaze. It had always seemed odd to me that George’s spacious corner office was on the 27th floor, while Matilda had that sublime unobstructed view of the most important city in the world, the vista I coveted. Now, looking out at window upon window upon window of workers at their tasks, I doubted I would ever have an office with a view of the Empire State Building or a corner office. I certainly would never again sit in the fragrant comfort of Matilda’s office drinking tea with the higher ups. “And you?” I asked, when I found my voice.

George looked embarrassed and didn’t answer. He thrust another file toward me. My name was neatly typed on the tab. It was my severance packet. It would include a boilerplate reference, myriad legal disclaimers and the ream of paper that constituted our ethics policy. How often had I passed just such a file to employees who had failed to do the job or indulged in activities outside accepted corporate practice?

“You, George?” I asked again. “What’s your fate in all this?”

“I’m going to head the new Singapore office.”

“You’re just up and moving your whole family to Singapore?”

“No. I left my wife months ago. Matilda is coming to Singapore with me.” In my dazed mind, I heard my long-gone mother singing an ancient lament, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” George saw my bewilderment. “You must . . . . you must have known about us,” he stuttered. “And here I was, thinking everyone must know.”

I rose and George reached out to shake my hand, but I declined the gesture. I pivoted blindly toward the door, my file in hand, but a hearty sneeze stopped me, then another. I blew my nose with a wad of tissue proffered by George and was overtaken by a familiar fragrance. Matilda’s—her exotic blend that pleasured the senses of all but the most allergic of 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.”

“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.”

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.


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.


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.

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