Monthly Archives: August 2015

first day of school

Schoolgirl rhythms never quite leave you.
Summer holds its breath and then
the bad dreams come back:

a prison of lockers, tests
not studied for, classes
not attended, degrees
not earned.

You can still wear new shoes,
see old faces, hope
this year will be different.

Teachers are like farmers,
beholden to the calendar,
shaking their rakes at ideas
that settle, errantly, like crows,
trying to remember all their names.



Filed under poem


“You’re not excited to see where you were born?  I’m more excited than you are!” my husband told me as we packed for a weekend trip to upstate New York last weekend.

“I have no opinion about that,” I said, like Fat Charlie the Archangel from a Paul Simon song my dad loved.

The house where I was born is still the same, only smaller.  Low.  Flat.  White siding.  Rust-red shutters.  Everything gets smaller, the older we get.  If “home” can be defined by longing, then there was no longing–and no home– here.  That house, with the long hallways made for “piggy ball” and chasing little brothers, with the strange Victorian newsprint wallpaper in the bathroom, with the basement that smelled like basements everywhere. The basement slightly terrified me because you could see through the stairs and there was a paper Halloween witch on one of the closet doors, but once I got downstairs, I would feel reassured by the sounds of my dad’s typewriter. Whether they changed the interior or not, this house itself does not feel like home.  At one time, it was all I knew.  At one time, it was “ours.”  Now, it doesn’t even feel like the memory of  home.


house where i was born (so to speak)

the house where i was born (so to speak)

We left upstate New York for Virginia when I was eight.  In comparison, moving to Wisconsin at thirteen was a much harder adjustment.  I have happy memories of New York, but they are childhood’s memories: watching and later acting out The Wizard of Oz with friends, learning to swim in the town pool, sharpening sticks in the backyard, which was really one big backyard that stretched the whole block and felt wild and vast.

The town also looks the same.  In the forgiving light of the evening, with softly intense sunlight sneaking down at angles after a sudden downpour, the town looks quaint and adorable.  In the right light, even the outskirts, the dead-fish factories, the dilapidated barns, the pick-up truck cab that’s now a planter in someone’s front yard, all look rather charming.  The woods, the corn, the rolling hills have a Thoreau appeal.  In a romantic mood, you can still imagine forests and Iroquois hunters dominating the Mohawk Valley, much like Cooper and Irving did (with all their “noble savage” nostalgia).  But romance only goes so far.  I know how much the children-of-the-corn fields viscerally perturbed my father, how the black country roads at night starred in my mother’s anxiety dreams, how many times I said “I’m bored” during the long summers.  I liked it there as a kid, not because of some Norman Rockwell ideal of leaving your backdoor open, kids running loose and catching lightning bugs, and neighbors looking out for each other, but because my parents and their friends consciously created entertainment and community and culture for us.  In the summers, the parents took turns teaching us to swim or sew or play baseball, according to their talents.  My dad drove us to parks and old forts and the movies, making our Subaru gallop up and down winding country roads–blasting Bruce Springsteen on the radio of course– in lieu of a roller coaster.

It would seem my inherent distrust of winter— born of my respect for its inevitability– applies to memory as well.  I’m not a very stalwart nomad. I never learned to shed an old land like an old season.  There can be no homelessness without nostalgia.  But as a homeless nostalgic, I try to make sure I’m at least being nostalgic about the right home.  And home, I’ve come to find, is so much more time than it is place.

I envy people like my husband, for whom, “home” is a specific pale blue-and-yellow house with a metal door and white lace curtains that billow in the breeze in the city up a hot, slanting hill.  He grew up there; his people are still there; this was the home he left when he moved to France to seek his fortune.  He is greeted like a prodigal celebrity when he returns to his neighborhood, shaking hands with every neighbor on the block.  I almost can’t understand what he means when he talks about missing home or being homesick.  It’s so unified. So succinct.  To miss your mother is the same as missing your old bed, as missing the laundry flapping on the terrace while you kick a soccer ball with your sister, as missing childhood. Or if not the same, at least they’re very close.

What I miss about upstate New York were the Friday night dinners with other families in our “Play Group,” and the creative thrill of building a stick fort or inventing a new game with other kids.  I miss the immersiveness of playing dress-up as a child. I miss my love-hate relationship with the texture of our old saggy couch that gave me carpet burns.  I miss how my dad used to refer to himself as a poet back then, even if it sometimes sat strangely on his tongue.

I’m not sure what my husband learned about me from seeing the house I was born in. On our last trip to Algeria, I think he started to understand the phrase “you can’t go home again,” because he recognizes how much living in America has changed him.  But that cement house–that street–that city will always be his one-and-only boyhood home. My mom, who came with us, didn’t seem to be nostalgic about the old house or that time “in the slightest.”  We had a great weekend. We saw old friends, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I marveled at how much smaller our friend’s house appeared to me, after 25 years, my mom replied: “It’s always been a small house.”

Other houses I’ve lived in– and some that I have only visited– have felt more like home, and the impossibility of returning to other places, other times twists the knife of homesickness much more than this little white ranch house in upstate New York.  Now this house is just a security question: “What’s the address of your childhood home?”  As if such a thing could ever be so clear-cut!  When I answer it, I always have to remember which “home” I designated, and I always curse the inventors of such questions, who obviously grew up as privileged, sheltered people who never got to move and never felt like nomads.



Filed under essay, travel

an honest man and an honest writer

After my father died, I set myself the goal of reading all the books he’s sent me before this year ends. I started with this biography of E.B. White. I wanted so much to share my thoughts on the book with my father, so I did what I would have done if he were still alive: I wrote him a letter, which I am excited to share with you now.


Dear Dad,

I just finished The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims, which you sent me for my birthday or maybe Christmas (or perhaps no reason at all) last year or the year before that. I have the letter you sent with it in my filebox, I’m sure.  I began to read the book once, making it past the forward and into the first chapter, but I couldn’t overcome my love-hate relationship to nonfiction.  It wasn’t until we moved to Mount Vernon and I could imagine walking down to Summit Avenue past the corner where E.B. White’s boyhood home stood or perhaps still stands, that I felt compelled as if by some giant magnet to finish reading it.  I marked the cross-streets where the house once stood and, as soon as the weather warmed up, I looked for it. There weren’t really any remnants of the barn–just a garage that’s seen better days, but here is a photo of E.B. White’s childhood home as it is today:

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Sims’ style is breezy and rich like good travel writing—he clearly has tried to inhabit White and bring him back to life.  He is an unabashed fan and doesn’t hide behind the mask of professional distance, doesn’t force himself to be critical just for the sake of seeming “fair and balanced” or “provocative.” I imagine Elwyn Brooks White growing up in a Vincent Minelli version of Mount Vernon full of sledding hills in winter and lush lawns and carriages in summer.  There used to be a vaudeville theater on Gramatan Avenue!  Was it next to Maggie Spilane’s? Or on what’s now the “dodgy” end, past the roundabout with the fountain where rundown barbershop polls are frozen next to delis selling lotto tickets and greasy kabobs?  You’d think I would have seen a decayed facade… I did see Lincoln Elementary School, probably on the same grounds where Elwyn went to school in the 1910s—one hundred years ago!—but now as a sterilized 1970s brown brick building.

Equally engaging was Sims’ account of young Elwyn—redubbed Andy by his Cornell frat buddies after a beloved college founder, Andy White (no relation)— entering the literary world.  Andy’s first publications were poems and essays of a nature-writing variety sent to the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. In my History of Reading and Readers class at library school, one of my classmates researched the publication history of Saint Nicholas, the first American magazine for and by children. I felt a twinge of proud librarian expertise at the recognition of the name. (I did learn something at my fancy school.) Sims documents with a historian’s precision but a fan’s devotion the literary culture of New York in the 1920s, detailing the newspapers, satirical rags, and high literary magazines that populated the newsstands in Grand Central station during that golden age of American print. He imagines–apocryphally, but who cares?–Andy picking up the first issue of The New Yorker at the news kiosk next to Grand Central’s globe clock with early morning light streaming in from the high, rounded cathedral windows. Having seen the streaks of light across the marble floors, I could fill in rest: the wooden benches (all removed now to discourage the homeless) that once filled the hall, the train schedules (that still exist) flipping over with mechanical clacking like clockwork dominoes, the newsboys in caps and knickers, the ladies in cloche hats carrying portmanteaux or parasols.  And Andy, who was too skinny to be drafted in World War I, delighting in this cheeky new upstart magazine, The New Yorker, and deciding—to hell with his advertising job!—he would submit something.

Publishing seemed so open back then. Although there were more daily publications, there seemed to be freer reign. Perhaps fewer writers were available than today, since comparatively fewer people were highly educated or went to college?  Perhaps Sims was exercising a bit of biographical determinism by making Andy’s rise to a writing career seem simpler than it was. Or perhaps the 1920s and 1930s really were a scrappier time when an adolescent America was hungry for taste-makers and experimentation, and where print reigned supreme in the media kingdom, despite the oncoming storm of Talking Pictures? I was left feeling both invigorated, as a writer, by E.B. White’s origin story and a little despairing: “if only publishing were still that simple…”

The descriptions of New York bustle, which Sims recreates from historical research and copious close readings of Andy White’s regular “Comments” columns from years of New Yorkers, drew me further into his story.  Again, I saw yesterday’s New York waving behind today’s.  Yet Andy White himself regularly sought refuge from the city, eventually moving to a farm in Maine, near where he’d vacationed as a boy.  This farm and his childhood barn and love for animals of all kinds, particularly birds, cows, and dogs, spawned Charlotte’s Web.  That’s the contention of Michael Sims who quite convincingly uncovers references to animals—especially spiders—in Andy’s early writings dating to childhood and his New Yorker days.  It’s the animal-lover side of E.B. White that I identify with least.  As much as I can appreciate natural beauty when confronted with it and enjoy anthropomorphism in literature, I don’t feel the same connection with animals that lead E.B. White to spend a year researching the life and death of barn spiders.  Nor can I easily put aside my disgust and enmity for the mouse that seems to be living in our stove when I read about young Elwyn taming a mouse who used to visit his childhood bedroom in Mount Vernon, eventually inspiring Stuart Little. The brilliance of Charlotte’s Web and White’s writing is that he made Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton and farm life real for children all over the world.  Reading Charlotte’s Web at age 6 or 7, I did learn–at least morally– to respect and empathize with spiders and pigs.  Recently, my librarian friend Angie’s 9-year-old son explained to me that he has decided to be a vegetarian because of Wilbur.

As I wrote two years ago upon seeing the real toys that inspired Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library, the literature of childhood resonates with people in a visceral way that is hard to describe and analyze.  That makes Sims’ biography all the more impressive to me.  He captures the frenzy, excitement, and setbacks of the writing and editing process, and he includes reproductions of White’s manuscripts. As the chapters get closer to the publication and success of Charlotte’s Web, the reader experiences emotional reactions of recognition—“Aha, finally, this is the part I know!”—and revelation—“I didn’t know that! So that’s how it happened.”  When influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore panned Charlotte’s Web as she had panned Stuart Little, I felt professional shame on behalf of all librarians!

I finished the E.B. White biography alongside a visit to the Morgan Library’s exhibit of manuscripts and draft drawings from The Little Prince, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1942 as an expat in New York. I was struck by how similar both men were in their writing processes and beliefs about how to write for children, yet how different their personalities seemed to be.  Saint-Exupéry was a daredevil who felt restless in Manhattan and wrote the French military for special permission to reenlist as a pilot in North Africa.  Just as his novel was taking off, he disappeared during a solo recon mission over the Sahara dessert in 1944 at age 44. By contrast, E.B. White suffered from hay fever and sinus problems throughout his life and went through periods of chronic and possibly psychosomatic illnesses, yet he lived into his 80s and died at home in Maine in 1986.  Saint-Exupéry never fully mastered English but was part of the French expat community in New York, which eventually lead him to meet the wives of two American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, who ended up publishing Le Petit Prince, first in French then a few months later in English, here in New York.  It wasn’t until 1945 that the novel was reprinted and more widely distributed by a French publisher, Gallimard, in France. By then, Saint-Exupéry was already missing over the Sahara, leaving only his ID bracelet and some plane parts behind. This broken bracelet sat in a display box at the Morgan Library, making me wonder if Antoine had in fact evaporated like his Little Prince and traveled back to his home planet.

The two authors never met, although they could have, in theory. Surely E.B. White was summering in Maine in 1942-43 while Saint-Exupéry was busy sketching elephants inside boa constrictors in a rented house on Long Island.  Michael Sims’ biography mentions that E.B. White’s wife, Katherine Angell White, a long time fiction editor for The New Yorker, where they met, reviewed The Little Prince for the magazine. In her brief review of the novel, Katherine quoted their young son, Joe White, as saying somewhat critically that: “The author seems to be writing about grownup things in a childish way.”  In contrast, E.B. White seems to write about childhood in a grownup way. He peppers Charlotte’s Web with sly vocabulary lessons; Charlotte is always defining words for Wilbur including: aeronaut, humble, salutations, and her last name, taken from the genus and species of her type of barn spider: Charlotte Aranea Cavatica.

Yet, to me, there seem to be more stylistic similarities than differences between Charlotte’s Web and Le Petit Prince.  Neither book shies away from death or making larger points about life and morality; both are deeper than most children’s books appear. Both books were whittled down expertly, mostly by the author-as-editor, to their essence.  According to the Morgan Library exhibit, Sainte-Expuéry’s first manuscripts were nearly double the word count of his final draft.  White struck out entire passages and scenes, reworking Charlotte’s Web for a couple years before sharing it with his editor.

Perhaps the difference lies in the space between the sentences.  The simplicity of language in Le Petit Prince undercuts deep and obscure meanings. It’s airy and metaphorical, a fable fallen from the stars. In contrast, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of concision and clarity, a fable grounded in the earth. E.B. White uses language that’s been refined and revised down to its core to present an unmistakable truth.  The difference could be explained in part by the inherent Frenchness of Le Petit Prince—its roots in LaFontaine fables and the darker fairytales of Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson whose Little Mermaid was one inspiration for the Little Prince. This contrasts with the inherent Americanness of the farm setting and folksy human characters in Charlotte’s Web.  The illustrations, essential to both books, also carry different weight: Saint-Exupéry’s colorful petit bonhomme, playful proportions, and winking stars are ethereal and whimsical, while Garth Williams’ black-and-white ink drawings are grounded, accessible, and realistic.  (According to Sims, Williams agonized over how to make Charlotte a charming but still scientifically accurate spider.)

The main difference, finally, is that in Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry orbits around a mysterious core, searching for those essential things that are invisible to the eye.  In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White serves up the essential on a silver platter. Saint-Exupéry says: “You can see the truth if you look closely enough.”  E.B. White says: “Look, the truth was here all along.”


Your Daughter

P.S. According to Sims, , E.B. White borrowed the final line of Charlotte’s Web from his wife Katherine: “It’s not often someone comes along that’s a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  Katherine publicly defended her husband’s essay-writing against a scathing New York Times critic, writing in her reply: “They [the critic’s words] are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both.”  How small his change of “honest man” to “true friend,” yet how it makes all the difference!


Filed under essay, library

couple at panera

a very young woman at Panera
is pushing back the cuticles
of a man with tattoo-sleeves

she is scraping his nails with hers
with a mason’s intensity
with a surgeon’s finesse

he has to be in love
why else would he submit
to such a public grooming?

she has to be in love
why else would his cuticles
bother her so much?

Leave a comment

Filed under poem

Jon Stewart, Meet Me At Camera Three

Like many fans and critics, I’ve been preemptively nostalgic about the impending end of Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show. When Jon announced his retirement, I was astonished and moved. From my adolescence until now, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was a constant, a salvo, an adult version of a bed-time story. Particularly in the Bush years, but equally today, it has been an oasis of sanity in an ever-darkening geopolitical climate and an ever-sensationalized media landscape.

For someone who came of voting age just eleven months after 9/11 and who came into the workforce during the Great Recession, it has been reassuring to hear a voice of truth and humor cutting through the bullshit and the darkness and telling me: “You’re not alone. There is still sanity somewhere. As long as we all know this is fucked up, and we acknowledge it, all is not lost.”  I’ve lived in red states, blue states, purple states, and blaze orange cheesehead states. I’ve lived in a socialist country, a former Capital of the Confederacy, the Big Apple, and the People’s Republic of Madison. Jon Stewart kept me centered through it all and reminded me that I was not alone as a Jew, a progressive, a skeptic, an educator, a nerd, a lover of nuance, and an aficionado of dick jokes.

I started watching The Daily Show with my dad in 1998, when we got cable and Comedy Central for the first time. My father, the funniest and smartest man I’ve ever known personally, was channel surfing for some late-night stand-up and instead found a young comedian in a big suit with a Carlinesque wit. The Daily Show became an instant household habit, overtaking The Tonight Show, the nightly news, and even SNL’s Weekend Update in our esteem. The madcap antics of the Stephens (Carell and Colbert) and the other correspondents during the hanging chads of Indecision 2000 had us hooked. I remember thinking John McCain was cool because he was willing to joke around with Jon and Stephen Colbert at the New Hampshire primary (McCain, what happened?!). My dad was a Catholic atheist, and my mom a Jewish agnostic, so my family especially enjoyed Colbert’s “This Week in God” segments and Lewis Black’s rants about the “War on Christmas.” I identified with little things like when Jon asked Israel or Iran tomeet me at camera three” for a personal appeal/take-down or remarked during an interview: “I’m Jewish, and my wife’s Catholic. We’re raising our children to be sad.”

In college, especially during the War in Iraq and Indecision 2004, my classmates and I crowded around the TV in the dorm lounge to watch Jon every night. We would usually talk politics and joke around afterwards, ignoring Crank Yankers or whatever bullshit Colin Quinn show filled the 11:30 slot in the years before The Colbert Report. During Spring Break in 2004, my roommate and I introduced her parents to The Daily Show, and both her liberal mom and conservative dad became regular viewers of what they called “the Funny News.”

When I moved to France after college in 2006, discovering Daily Show episodes at Comedy Central online felt like a small miracle (streaming was still pretty new then). Jon Stewart was my cure for homesickness, where I turned to find out what was really going on back home. It was worth all the buffering and watching the same Chevy commercial ad nauseum to hear Jon joke about the man who apologized to Dick Cheney for being shot in the face by Dick Cheney, or try fruitlessly to convince Bill O’Reilly that a stuffed teddy bear he’d offered him was definitely without a doubt NOT a panda bear, or hone his spot-on George W. Bush chortle.

Several of my French colleagues eagerly professed to me their love of Jon Stewart, as if confirming their proud membership in a secret, international club. For them, if I was a Jon-Stewart-style-American, then I must be OK. I must be a rational, thoughtful, balanced, healthily skeptical, 21st century American– not like the gun-toting consumer of Freedom Fries, the Mormon sister-wives, the Amish school-shooter, or the cowboy president featured so heavily in French news media at the time. These were the darkest days of the War in Iraq, when I preferred to hear George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on the French news because at least their overconfident, misleading, folksy, swaggering speeches about “smoking out evil-doers” sounded more sophisticated dubbed in French.

My personal life was unsettled as well. I’d just started my first job out of college, teaching middle school English with no training whatsoever. I was living on my own in a foreign country, renting a tiny apartment from an eccentric, racist landlady. She certainly was shocked when I began dating an Algerian Muslim grad student!  We were falling in love, but I agonized over our long-term prospects and compatibility. Was I concerned because he was Muslim and I was Jewish? Because his family lived in Algeria and mine in Wisconsin? Because my French wasn’t yet good enough to win arguments against him? Nope. I wasn’t worried about any of that. The existential fear that tormented my young heart was: “What if he can’t understand Jon Stewart? Our relationship is doomed!!!”

American satire was so important in my family, to my sense of self and of humor, that The Daily Show became a litmus test for my friends and lovers. Liking Jon Stewart was a sign that someone shared my American values: absolute free speech, informed skepticism, talking truth to power, standing up for the rights of women, minorities, LGBT folks, and the “little guy”–yet not above making Arby’s diarrhea jokes, covering “cooter racing,” or shooting a segment from the point of view of Ed Helms’ balls. I couldn’t imagine spending my life with someone who couldn’t watch Jon Stewart and laugh with me every night before bed.

Cultural differences aside, we got married in 2010 and moved to New York. And there came a day in 2011 when my husband laughed out loud at The Daily Show without me having to translate a joke into French or explain some cultural eccentricity first. I believe it was Jon’s impression of Senator Mitch McConnell as the Looney Toons Turtle. Pretty soon, my husband was eagerly awaiting Jon’s coverage of the Arab Spring, the 2011 Wisconsin State Capital protests, Hurricane Sandy, and Aasif Mandvi’s hilarious reports on race and religion in America. When Jon Stewart took time off to make Rosewater and appeared on Bassem Youssef’s Egyptian Daily Show, Al-Bernameg, it was my husband’s turn to translate for me.

This past February, my husband was studying for his U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization exam. Quizzing him from the study guide, I asked: “Who is the speaker of the House of Representatives?” He replied without missing a beat: “Orange Face! John Boehner! And the majority leader of the Senate is McConnell, the Turtle-Man.” There really is no better American civics education, nor a better test of American cultural fluency, than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I no longer worry about our compatibility as a couple, culturally or comedically.

So in lieu of sweeping commentary about the end of an era or this wider cultural moment, let me just end with a personal thank you from an anonymous fan.

Jon Stewart, please meet me at camera three:

Thank you, Jon, for being part of my political and comic education dating back to the first presidential campaign I closely followed, Indecision 2000, for making my father laugh so hard every night he spit out his toothpaste, and for showing my Algerian husband the true meaning of free speech in a free society. Even when our leaders abused power or failed to live up to our ideals, you were there to pull back the veil on the hypocrisy, the propaganda, and the chronic tools of oppression used by regimes the world over.  Just by bearing witness and poking fun, you remind me and my husband that America’s strength lies in the voices of its people and in the ability of sane, rational people to see each other’s humanity. Other jesters may come and go, but none will hold court like you, Jon Stewart.


Filed under essay, travel