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New York Minute


This morning I was sitting on a crowded IRT train, headed for work. At 86th street I looked up and noticed a beautiful young woman standing not too far away. Dark looks, thick eyebrows. Her face was as inviting as a cherry tomato and I imagined that it might look more like a beefsteak tomato when she got older. How much work does she put into trimming her eyebrows, I wondered.

At the next stop a blonde haired Latina woman got on the train with her son, kid must be about 9 or 10 years old. They stood next to the girl with the face like a cherry tomato.

I remembered back to a book I read last year by a therapist who is also a Buddhist. The therapist told a story about a patient who objectified women like I was doing now. The patient tried to move past his lust and imagine what women’s lives were beyond his sexual fantasies. I am often conscious of trying to do this while I look on with admiration at a woman’s looks.

After a few stops a seat opened and the boy sat down. He wasn’t directly in front of his mother, who was still standing, but a seat away, still within reach. I got a better look at her now. She wasn’t nearly as pretty as the other woman but her figure was something else–full bossom, round hips and a zaftig bottom. I thought about my mother, who was a single parent raising 3 kids when I was that boy’s age. Mom was also full figured and beautiful though with a more European sense of style.

Then, I saw the boy reach over for her hands, trying to get her attention. I looked up and saw a tear rolling down the side of her face. The boy held her hand and said something but I couldn’t hear him because I had my headphones on. She looked away from him and up to the ceiling. I turned and looked at my shoes, not wanting to stare. For a moment, I thought about my mom and then myself as a kid.  I looked at the boy once more as I got up to leave the train at my stop. I wasn’t thinking about his mother’s tits and ass anymore.

Made in the Shades

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I visited my mom recently and she showed me photographs from her trip to Africa in 1966. It was on this trip that she met my dad. She didn’t only have pictures, she still had the sunglasses she rocked that summer. They were in a plastic case stored in a box along with letters and photos.

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Pretty cool, right?

Sock it to Me?

There is an uneven but engaging essay about Joan Didion by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. I read some of Didion’s early non fiction when I was in college and remember not liking it at all. But I revisited her famous collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem a few years ago and was duly impressed.

I never thought that being a man had anything to do with why I don’t connect with Didion’s writing, and while the following passage from Flanagan’s article is a generalization, it got me thinking:

…to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.

I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. “I’m not good with clothes,” he admitted, “so I don’t remember what it was.”

Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures. Thompson’s work was illustrated by Ralph Steadman’s grotesque ink blots, and early Didion by the ravishing photographs of the mysterious girl-woman: sitting barelegged on a stone balustrade; posing behind the wheel of her yellow Corvette; wearing an elegant silk gown and staring off into space, all alone in a chic living room.

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. “I’ve been reading you since I was an adolescent,” a distinctly non-adolescent female voice said on a call-in show a decade ago, and Didion nodded, comprehending. All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence.

I watched my mother dress stylishly throughout my childhood. She didn’t spend a lot of money on clothes though her tastes reflected the fashion of the moment–fringes jackets in the ’70s, shoulder pads in the ’80s. I remember what her clothing looked like, I can recall her flair for knowing how to look casual but elegant (in that oh so European way), but I have no idea what brands she bought. I never looked at the labels. I never cared about that stuff. I don’t know if she did either but she certainly would have known the difference between a famous designer and a cheap knockoff.

My Mother, somewhere in Africa, Fall 1966

Check out the entire profile. It’s worth your time, whether you care for Didion or not. And dig this reaction post at Forbes by Brett Singer. Also, here is a fine critique of Flanagan’s essay by Martha Nichols at Salon (with a good comment thread to boot).

Million Dollar Movie

My brother, sister and I had bedtime when we were kids, through middle-school if I remember correctly. It got pushed later and later as we got older of course, but my mom was not into letting us stay up late during a school night to watch TV. So we’d start watching a movie and then have to go to bed halfway through. Mom would tuck us in, kiss us goodnight, and then go back to the living room of our small two-bedroom apartment and watch the rest of it.

She filled us in the next morning over breakfast, the story slowly coming back to her as she sipped her coffee, spread a triangle of Laughing Cow on a burnt piece of toast, her face still creased from the sheets, her voice still thick with sleep. Mom came to this country in 1967 from Belgium but never completely lost her French accent. When excited, her voice would get dramatically high, but not in the morning. It wasn’t sing-songy but full of melody, inflection and animation (nothing frustrated her more than watching a woman getting chased by the bad guys in a movie…”Kick him in the balls, kick him in the balls!” she’d say. “I don’t understand why they don’t just kick them in the balls.”)

In re-telling the movie, Ma never cut to the chase. She traced her way back into the story and then proceeded to give us a blow-by-blow account in painstaking detail. Sometimes she’d pause, not remembering the sequence of events, and spend five minutes sorting out what happened. Aloud. I would hang on her words, annoyed by her deliberate pace, not for one minute comprehending the way the female mind worked. I just wanted the payoff. What happened? The important stuff, not details of the scenery and costumes.

One movie that she told us about one morning was Cactus Flower, a movie I’ve never watched, but for a minute or two here or there, since. I like it better in my memory, listening to Mom, who loved Goldie Hawn and Walter Matthau, telling us what went down.

There was something about Goldie Hawn that she could relate to–they both had the ability to be light and fun, and were not afraid to laugh at themselves. They were both adorable when they were young but their looks changed as they got older and their voices got huskier. They were tested by life and proved not to be pushovers. Still, there was something, if not innocent, then refreshing and bubbly about both of them that links them together in my memory. I image that the Goldie Hawn of Cactus Flower brought my mother back to a time that I was too young to remember, when mom was young and new to this country. Before she had kids and her marriage got dark and ugly.

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