Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The autumn of 1980 was a seminal one for me. I was 17 and in my first semester of my freshman year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I reveled in my independence, in making new friends, and in having fun. I did not apply my usual scholastic discipline and enthusiasm that semester, but I had such a great time! That autumn, as we established ourselves as "sophisticated" college students, we began to trade in the familiar soundtrack of our high school years, that late 70's hard rock and heavy metal, for punk, post-punk and new wave. We danced around to The Romantics "What I Like About You" or Squeeze's "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell). Some Irish guy named Bob Geldof and his band The Boomtown Rats played "Mocon," the dining hall, one Saturday night. We thought, no, we knew, we were so cool and so cutting edge. Since I already loved music, I didn't have to feign interest or excitement about all the new groups to which I was being exposed. Yet, my favorite group was The Beatles, which wasn't as trendy in 1980 as it had been in 1970. My love for The Beatles had been with me as long as I could remember.

In June 1967 my friend Kari got a new LP and it was called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." We all gathered at her home to listen to this spectacular treasure. Kari announced that the name of the band was not Sgt. Pepper. The band was called The Beatles. Only Kari was allowed to handle the vinyl and put the record on the turn table. She did allow us to pass around and look at the album cover. Bearing in mind that I was 4-years-old and had just completed Kindergarten, I did not get any of the sly and ironic cultural references. However, I thought it was real art, and I stared at it intently. My gaze kept coming back to the man wearing the yellow uniform. Like me, he wore eyeglasses, and I thought he seemed very kind. That summer we spent many hours at Kari's listening to the LP repeatedly, and learning the words to the songs with the same devotion we would show to learning our catechism the following fall. I found the music to be so beautiful and, given the primal nature of childhood, I had different visceral reactions to each of the tracks. "With a Little Help From My Friends" made me want to sing along and out loud with the record and my friends. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" confused me and, frankly, irritated me. Then "Getting Better" actually did make me feel better. "She's Leaving Home" made me feel sad. The last track, "A Day In The Life" brought up feelings of sorrow, excitement, anger and fear. I enjoyed the cacophonous crash at the end, the last chords on the piano.

Five years later, at age 9, I began learning to play the guitar. I also had a lovely singing voice, and I began to accrue spiral notebooks which I filled with the lyrics and chords to my favorite songs. At least half of my repertoire was Beatles songs. When I joined a youth orchestra at age 14, and our conductor had us performing arrangements of Beatles songs, I came to know that their songs were every bit as musically complex and important as pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. My ear became refined enough to the point where I could tell which songs were more Lennon, and which were more McCartney. I adore them both. However, I couldn't resist the way John Lennon was such a smartass and a charmer. John also lived in New York City, just 17 miles from my Long Island suburban town but it might as well have been light years away. New York City was then—and, to me, still is—the center of the universe.

My father was transferred by his company to Houston, Texas, and I spent my senior year of high school attending Humble High School in the morning, and my afternoons moping in my bedroom. I was experiencing full-blown teen angst that I was missing the way my senior year was supposed to be if we had been back on Long Island. My only relief was discovering that the local PBS station ran episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on Sunday nights, my collection of Beatles albums, and my "early decision" acceptance to Wesleyan University for the Fall of 1980.

It was a Monday night in early December, and a bunch of us had brought in blankets and our books into Margie and Alison's room to study for finals which would be the following week. Their room was on the third, the top floor of our freshman house, a place we had dubbed "The Rude House" early on. Then there was a knock on the door, and Hans, who lived all the way down on the first floor, was standing at the door, asking if I was there. Hans and I had experienced our differences over the past 4 months, but we both loved The Beatles. He came over to me and said, "I just heard on the radio that John Lennon was shot." I jumped up, and I was enraged. "How could you play such a mean joke, Hans?" My friends were shocked at how upset I was. They all began to wonder whether or not this was a joke. We put on the radio, and I heard the news myself. John Lennon had been shot in front of The Dakota, the building where he lived with his wife Yoko and young son Sean. Before long, the radio announcer said that it was official. John Lennon, age 40, was dead. I apologized to Hans. I went to my room, and called my boyfriend Steve. We both were sobbing. I asked him to walk across campus and meet me at The CFA (The Center For The Arts complex). I brought candles and a book of matches. We sat out there all night holding one another, crying, and singing every Beatles song we knew. I said goodbye to my childhood that night.

I'll be 48 next week; 8 years older than John ever got to be. For the past 20 years I have lived on the Upper Westside. Most days I walk through Central Park, and I always exit by Strawberry Fields, the 2.5 acre memorial which Yoko Ono set up so that John's fans would have a place to gather and celebrate her husband's life. No matter how bad the weather, fans come to pay their respect, and some bring their guitars and sing "Imagine" or "All You Need Is Love." I still love The Beatles, and my love and appreciation for John Lennon, the peace activist, the man, grows every year.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Brother

Today is my brother's 40th birthday. He has grown from my baby brother to my little brother to my younger brother to my brother. He came into our family through adoption.

When I was 8-years-old in early November 1971, my mother took me aside in the living room of our white brick house in Bayside, Queens. She just had put my 4-year-old sister to bed. Mommy's eyes were filled with tears, and she had this weird, goofy look on her face.

"I have some wonderful news! You're going to have a baby brother!"

My sister came to our family at nearly 7-months-old. I adored her, and was thrilled to have a sibling. She was shy at first and had a fear of tall men. I was very protective of her. When she became a toddler, the fun really began. She was mischievous and would stand at the front screen door waiting for our friend and neighbor Dick to arrive home from work. She would yell out, "Hi Bill!" She knew full well that this was Dick, and not our other friend, and Dick's brother-in-law, Bill. When she saw Bill, who lived up one block, she would greet him with, "Hi Dick!" My sister is, was and always will be an artist. When she had her first set of Crayolas, she decided to turn the hallway wall outside the bathroom into her own mural. Her drawings were so pretty, I thought, but Mommy would be very annoyed, and spend a great deal of time scrubbing them off the wall with toothpaste and a brush. . I was the first, and had to share my space, although never my family's love, with her.

By the age of 4, she was my constant shadow. I loved to read, but she would interrupt and want me to play Barbies. I thank her for my power of concentration, and can read anywhere, no matter what is going on around me. We shared the pink bedroom on the first floor. In September 1971 my mother realized I needed my own room, and moved me to the finished upstairs room. I was in heaven! I had a view of our parish church across the street, and there was so much light. The privacy was intoxicating. However, my sister would still find her way upstairs to hound me and charm me into playing another game of Candyland.

"Not another one!" was my response to my mother's announcement. The responsibilities of being "a big sister" were weighing on me.

On November 10, 1971 my entire family was dressed up, and we drove to The Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn. While my parents went in to a big formal office, I sat on the bench outside with my sister, gripping her hand, out of fear and excitement, and to ensure that she did not wander off anywhere. We knew this was an important and solemn occasion by Mommy and Daddy's demeanor and mood. My parents came out of the office, and each wore an incredible smile. A few minutes later a lady came to us in the anteroom. She was holding a beautiful blond-haired blue eyed baby boy. She placed him in my mother's arms, and she exuded joy. My father stood next to her, patting the baby gently, and spoke to him in a soothing, gentle voice. He was exultant too, but humbled by this baby. The lady mentioned that the baby had turned one that day (something which the officials in the office already told my parents, and they also told my parents a few bits and pieces of background information about the baby boy, but not much.)

Mommy and Daddy turned to my sister and me, and said, "Meet your new brother!" Wow. This really was happening. We went out to our family car, a Barracuda, and (this being pre-car seat days) my mother held the baby in her arms while my father drove to the local PX at Fort Hamilton. The baby needed a high chair. The three of us—no, the four of us—waited in the car for what seemed forever until Daddy came back, looking like the mighty hunter who had bagged big game.

When we arrived home, friends and neighbors began to come over to meet the new addition. The baby was shy, and clung to my mother. Then, when she put him on the living room carpet, he did the strangest thing. He began to crawl around and around in circles so fast that he looked like he was spinning! We all laughed, and the baby gave us this huge smile. When guests had left, Mommy took out a cake, lit one candle and we four sang "Happy Birthday" to my brother. He was giggling as he sat in the high chair, grabbing pieces of cake. He grabbed small pieces of cake so tightly with his hands that chocolate cake squished through his knuckles. He was happy. He was home. He was my brother. I loved him, and I always will.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Kathleen King McNicholl (born August 13, 1906 in Navan, Co. Meath, Ireland) was my Grandma, my mother's mother. I am a second-generation American because of her, and I am able to apply for an Irish passport as her granddaughter.

Her parents were John "Jack" King, an Irish football star in the late 19th century, and Agnes King. County Meath is called "The County of Kings," but she never mentioned the coincidence of her maiden name. She had one brother, John, and four sisters: Mary, Lizzie, Bridgie, Agnes, and Nellie (Ellen, but called "Ellie" in Ireland. Kathleen went to school until she was 12, and then had to work as a domestic servant away from her home in Johnstown (a village within Navan). On Sundays she walked 5 miles home to spend a few hours with her mother ("Granny" as we call her), and then walked back the 5 miles.

Kathleen did not speak often about history, but she did tell me about the May day in 1927 when she was 20. A group of people had gathered because Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic, and did not have to stop in Ireland. They all cheered as they saw The Spirit of St. Louis continue its flight, over to England and then landing in Paris finally.

The same year Kathleen went to work in London in the home of an aristocratic family. She worked in the kitchen, and served table She carefully laid out all the fine silver, and stood silently watching the family dine, keeping careful note about which piece of cutlery was used for what food, and how it was held by those long, fine fingers. Kathleen's oldest sister Mary had immigrated to America, to New York City, and she told Kathleen and her youngest sister Nellie that there were better opportunities to be had there. In October 1929 Kathleen (age 23) and Nellie (age 21) took an ocean liner across the Atlantic. The only story she ever shared was that while she and Nellie were dining one evening, there were two women who thought very highly of themselves sitting at the next table. When the waiter came to take these ladies dessert order, they proclaimed loudly, "We shall have the sweetbreads." The waiter asked them, "Are you sure about that, ladies?" Having grown up on a farm, Kathleen and Nellie knew that sweetbreads are the thymus (throat, gullet, or neck sweetbread) and the pancreas (heart, stomach, or belly sweetbread) of a calf or a lamb. However, since the "ladies" had been so highfalutin, Kathleen and Nellie did not offer any advice. The sisters suppressed their laughter when the ladies nearly retched when their dessert was presented.

Kathleen and Nellie arrived at Ellis Island just a week or so before The Stock market crashed. However, they had a home with Mary in Sunnyside, Queens. Kathleen easily got a job as a vegetable cook at Schraft's on West 38th Street. Schraft's was a restaurant chain where ladies who shopped then lunched. When Mary met an Irish farmer who asked her to marry him and return home to Mullingar, West Meath in 1930, Kathleen and Nellie still had one another. They also had suitors whom they had met at a dance held at their local parish. Nellie met Frank Corrigan, a long shoreman who hailed from County Fermanagh. Kathleen met an American, George McNicholl. George was one of the youngest of nine children born to Patrick and Theresa McNicholl, who had emigrated from Graystone, Co. Derry in the late 19th century. George, his sister Anne, and seven brothers all had grown up in the area of Manhattan known as Hell's Kitchen. He once told me that he and his brothers were the only ones in the neighborhood who didn't die or go to Sing Sing. George was a gentle soul, an autodidact who worked for Con Edison. He had purchased a home for his parents in Jackson Heights for five hundred dollars a few years before The Great Depression hit. George was captivated by the beautiful Kathleen, her good heart, and her strength of spirit. They wed on November 20, 1931.

Their first child Agnes was born--and died--on January 1, 1933. George could see how heartbroken his lovely wife was, and so he sent her home to her mother for the summer of 1933. When she returned, they conceived another daughter, Patricia, who was born in May 1934. Two years later they had their first and only son Freddy, and had purchased a home in Bayside Hills. Patricia and Freddy were joined in 1938 by a daughter, named Kathleen after her mother. Their last child Elizabeth was born on August 3, 1940.

The war years were tough in terms of rationing, but Kathleen was a great home economist, and a fantastic cook. While George often had to work the night shift at the Hell's Gate substation, she kept their children safe and well-fed. She attended Mass daily at St. Robert Bellarmine, just two blocks from their house. However, the walk became more difficult, and Kathleen was having trouble getting up and down the stairs to the second floor and the basement. A visit to a doctor in the early 1940's brought bad news: Kathleen had multiple sclerosis. While her ability to walk continued to decrease, her ingenuity for housework increased. Necessity being the mother of invention was not new to her.

George realized his wife needed another trip "home." In June 1950, when daughter Kathleen was still 11, and Elizabeth almost 10, he sent his wife and youngest children on another ocean voyage to Ireland (the children's fare was free since they were both under the age of 12). Kathleen had not seen her mother and the rest of her family in 19 years. She thoroughly enjoyed the summer, and her daughters stayed on Mary's farm in Mullingar while she was at home in Navan with her mother Agnes. This was the last time Kathleen ever saw her mother alive. I was almost three-years-old and sitting in Grandma's kitchen when she and my mother explained that Granny had died in 1965. I didn't understand what that meant, but I went and sat on Grandma’s lap, and hugged her, and soothed her.

We lived only a few blocks from my Grandma and Grandpa's home, and I was the second grandchild, but my cousin had moved to Hawaii with my Aunt Patricia and Uncle Jerry. We had Sunday dinner at their home, and my mother often brought me over to see Grandma, who rarely was able to leave the house. Grandma jiggled me on her knees, and taught me nursery rhymes:

Higglety, pigglety, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen.
Sometimes nine, and sometimes ten.
Higglety, pigglety, my black hen.

We watched Merv Griffin's television show "Jeopardy," hosted by Art Fleming, and Grandma was delighted that I was enraptured by the knowledge. I learned how to cook by sitting on a small stool next to her gas stove and oven. I learned how lovely laundry which has been hung in the fresh air smells by taking the clothes and linens in off the pulley line stretched across to the back of the yard to the back stoop. I would hand her the wooden clothes pins as she hung up the laundry, and I would accept them back and store them in the black metal milk box, no longer in use by the mid-1960's. I paid special attention to Grandma's proverbs, and, most especially, "Easy for you, difficult for me." She taught me resilience, fun, fortitude, and compassion.

My father and mother moved us to Manhasset in August 1972, but we still saw Grandma and Grandpa all the time for holidays and Sunday dinners. My mother Kathleen's heart broke in July 1979 when my father was transferred to Houston, Texas, and she had to leave her own mother. They spoke on the phone, but Grandpa's emphysema was getting worse. I went off to college in August 1980. Grandpa passed on February 28, 1981. My mother flew up from Texas, and spent the week after the funeral with her. I went to visit Grandma during spring break. She still kept a perfect house, and even roused me at 5:30 am to make sure that I had time to hang some clean curtains in the living room. "Can't I sleep a little longer, Grandma? The sun isn't even up!" "You get out of that bed now, and I'll go put on the kettle." She was a very strong, determined woman, and, while very loving, she didn't take any guff. Those curtains were hung by 5:50 am.

In 1986 I went on a four-month tour of Western Europe, and made sure to get her a calendar from Vatican City. I was kind of shocked at how little this meant to her. In October 1987 I went 'home" to Ireland for the first time. I made sure to bring back a copy of The Meath Chronicle for Grandma, and she treated it as if it were The Rosetta Stones. I fell in love with Ireland, and my cousins, and have visited there 17 times. In 1988 I bought a place for Grandma on The American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island.

A few months later Grandma had to move into Ozanam, a Catholic nursing home in Bayside. She could no longer live independently because she couldn't make the stairs, and she was legally blind. I visited her as often as I could, but we ended up writing to one another. These letters brought us both joy, as she had been writing for years to her family in Ireland. I got to know my grandmother as a woman. When I was misdiagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 1994, Grandma's letters were full of empathy. She told me she too had suffered from depression, and sometimes still did. Ozanam could be very depressing, but my grandmother always dwelled on the fact that she had her mental faculties, the use of her hands, some sight and her hearing. (Okay, so she watched golf with the volume on full blast, and we had to repeat ourselves loudly, but she could still hear us.) Those hands were very large, and bore the scars of cooking and housekeeping accidents. They were incredibly strong too. She loved to hold my hand or my mother's when we visited, and we would leave with bruises. I began to call it "Grandma's death grip."

My father died in February 1991. Then in April 1991, nearly a year after having a massive stroke, and a lifetime of cardiac problems, Aunt Elizabeth died. One of the most heartbreaking images I carry in my head and heart is of Grandma patting Elizabeth's coffin at her Funeral Mass, as if she were comforting her little girl.

Grandma died nine years ago today at the age of 95 after spending 13 years at Ozanam. She left behind three children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. A year or two before she died, Grandma told my mother that "nobody wants to die." She was 92 then. She had tremendous faith and was very devout. I remember the priest saying, "She is in a place with no pain, and no judgment." One of the songs at Mass was "Be Not Afraid." Grandma rarely was, and when I hear the birdsong in the morning--which she taught me meant that there would not be rain that day--I say, "Hello Grandma. I love you."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Weathering The Storm

At 5:20 am this morning I began my morning routine.  I went to the kitchen, put the kettle on to boil, put a bag of Irish Breakfast tea in a large mug, poured myself a small glass of orange juice, then dried and put away the dishes from the dish draining rack.  As the tea steeped, I opened my prescription med bottles, and took my antidepressant and 1 milligram of Klonopin.  Then I walked over to the living room window with the tea, opened the window, and lit up my first cigarette of the day.  And I prayed.  My first prayer always is the same:  “Please God, let the fear and anxiety subside quickly.”
I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It has been 17 years since I first began exhibiting symptoms.  In the autumn of 1993 I found myself unable to sleep because my dream life was filled with horrible imagery and narratives in which I constantly had to fight for my life.  I was anxious during my work day, but hid it rather well…or so I thought.  My mood was often sad, and I was prone to bursts of anger.  I thought this was connected to my high-stress job as an entertainment executive and a life which had little in it besides work. 
My job involved a lot of schmoozing—taking publishing executives and agents out to breakfast, lunch , cocktails in order to convince them that my clients should see the earliest draft of the next “hot” book, or a book which would be “just perfect” to adapt into a movie-of –the-week or a miniseries.  I had done the same socializing since November 1990 when I worked for a producer at Warner Bros., and I was good at it.  However, I then had to go home and read those manuscripts, get up early, go to the office, write up coverage (a synopsis of the book plus my opinion as to whether the book was suited for adaptation for the screen), hit the phone to see what the other members of the tribe of New York book scouts were drumming up, and try to get that next manuscript.  

In October 1993 I began drinking by myself after work, just a few glasses of wine to help me relax and unwind.  Since there is a history of alcoholism in my family, but mostly because the drinking made me feel worse, not better, I decided to see my internist Dr. C.  He listened with great concern, and said I needed to calm down and get rid of the stress in my life.  Dr. C wrote a prescription for Librium. 
Librium (Chloridazepoxide), according to Wikipedia, was” the first benzodiazepine to be synthesized in the mid 1950's. It was discovered by accident when in 1957 tests revealed that the compound had hypnotic, anxiolytic and muscle relaxant effects Chlordiazepoxide enabled the treatment of emotional disturbances without a loss of mental acuity or alertness. Chlordiazepoxide is indicated for the short term (2–4 weeks) treatment of anxiety which is severe and disabling or subjecting the person to unacceptable distress. It is also indicated as a treatment for the management of acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome.”

In 1979 before I took the SAT’s my trusted pediatrician Dr. Nicosia prescribed Valium so that I could relax and sleep before the big test.  (I only took one pill, and didn’t like how it made me feel.)  I trusted Dr. C, and knew he was prescribing Librium because that was what would help me get through this rough patch.  Then the rough patch transformed into very jagged territory which I could no longer navigate.  My therapist Jack was very concerned and, shortly before Christmas 1993, he asked me if he could place a call to a colleague, a psychophramacologist.  “What kind of doctor is that?” I asked Jack.  “He’s a psychiatrist who specializes in prescribing medications.”  I wasn’t improving, and my sadness permeated my waking and sleeping life.  So I made an appointment with this new type of doctor.  Dr. E interviewed me, listened to my answers and diagnosed me with clinical depression.  He prescribed Prozac—which was “the” antidepressant of choice in 1993—and Klonopin.  Within two weeks I recovered my good spirits, and even enjoyed a ten-day vacation in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in January 1994.  When I returned to Dr. E for a follow-up visit on February 14, 1994, I was eager to tell him how much better I felt.  Instead he gave me and my mother the very best of Valentine’s Day presents.  Dr. E told us that he had been wrong about his diagnosis.  My intelligence, my success, my high functioning level, my outgoing personality and my creativity clearly pointed to the fact that I had bipolar II disorder.  This, he explained, was a form of what formerly was labeled “manic-depression.”  He said, “While you do not exhibit full-blown mania, which is symptom of bipolar disorder, you do, in fact, have hypomania.”  Having pronounced my sentence, Dr. E took up his prescription pad  and began to write the pages which determined my daily existence for the next 14 years. 

Now it is 6:42 am and my heart has stopped pounding in my chest, and I don’t feel as shaky as I did an hour ago.  I can go through my day with my usual cheer, good humor, energy and optimism.  And hope.  While I still fight battles of great proportion in my dreams, I have mastered and reclaimed the territory of my life.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Can Go Home Again, Part I

I was my parent’s first and much-wanted child. They married in June 1960, and my mother thought something was wrong with her when she hadn’t conceived by the following year. I recently did the calculations, and realize that I was conceived on St. Patrick’s Day 1962, so it was the luck of the Irish! However, my mother wasn’t all that fortunate after all because she was ten days past her due date.

On Saturday night December 15th my father Danny, a CPA, was obligated to host a dinner for accountants at The Elks’ Lodge in Elmhurst, Queens. My mother was at home in their white brick house in Bayside Hills with her younger sister. Elizabeth, then 22, single and still living with my grandparents George and Kathleen (who were two streets down and two avenues over us) went home around 10:00 pm. My mother’s water broke around midnight, the first hour of Sunday, December 16th. Since my mother couldn’t reach my father at The Elks Lodge, she phoned her sister. Elizabeth rushed back over to make the drive St. Alban’s Naval Hospital. Since my mother was not having any contractions and I was in a frank breech position nearly every doctor on the maternity ward examined her, and they debated about how to proceed with this difficult delivery. My father finally had been contacted, and he rushed to the hospital. Elizabeth said he broke down in the waiting room and cried over the possibility of losing both his wife and child. Mommy suffered for over 24 hours before I was delivered by C-section at 12:32 a.m. on Monday, December 17th..

After her delivery ordeal and surgery, my mother was supposed to stay in the hospital for ten days. However, she was determined to make sure I would be home before Christmas. There was a blizzard that December 24th and so my father parked our ‘56 Chevy in the next-door neighbors' driveway to gain easy access to the side entrance of our house. Helen and Margarite were sisters, two maiden ladies born in the late 19th century.  Once inside, with my mother settled in bed, Daddy held me up to our kitchen window so the ladies could catch a glimpse of me from their own kitchen.  Mommy had been very thin to begin with and looked emaciated after her difficult delivery and surgery. Helen cooked up and then brought over a vat of rice pudding with the intention of fattening up my mother.  Mommy didn’t have the heart to tell Helen that she hated rice pudding. It didn’t matter as Daddy ate the entire pot himself. 

The weather improved over the next three weeks, and I was baptized at our parish church St. Robert Bellarmine where my parents were married, and my mother also had been baptized. My christening was on January 6, 1963, “Little Christmas,” the Feast of the Epiphany. My parents chose Aunt Elizabeth as my godmother and Uncle Jimmy, Daddy’s only and younger brother, as my godfather. I officially became part of the community, free of the guilt and punishment of original sin, and not a moment too soon.

My childhood in Bayside was exceedingly happy. Mommy enjoyed being a mother more than anything she ever could have imagined. She was fully engaged in raising her child, and documented every first with photos and entries in my baby book. During my first two years, Mommy bought me a new toy on the 17th of the month. I inherited her passion for reading, which I learned to do by 2-½. I was the apple of Daddy’s eye, and I relished his teasing me with nicknames like “Sarah Bernhardt“ and “Miss Know-it-All.” Like many father’s of Baby Boomer daughters, Daddy’s choice of lullaby to me was “Daddy’s Little Girl.” I came to love being awake at night because Daddy had insomnia, and I would get up to be with him, watching old movies on The Late Late Show.

When Grandpa retired from Con-Ed, he used to drop by our house every day using the ruse that he merely wanted to drop off The Daily News. My earliest memory is being ten-months-old and out for a walk in my baby carriage with Grandpa pushing me along. I still can see his blue eyes, which actually did twinkle, and the Fedora which he wore any time he left the house. This wasn’t merely for fashion’s sake but because he lost all of his hair after a bout of pleurisy as a young man. We frequently went to their home to see Grandma since, due to having multiple sclerosis, she mostly was housebound. Grandma had emigrated to New York from County Meath, Ireland in October 1929. She and Grandpa married in 1931, and they had five children, four girls and a boy (although their first child Agnes lived but one day, January 1, 1933). Grandma was an incredible cook and homemaker, and I spent many happy hours with her. I perched on a small stool next to the stove and watched her make meals. She had one drawer in the kitchen filled with jam jar lids and the white cardboard paper separating the teabags in the Tetley box. These were my treasures! We would go out to the back stoop, and I would hand Grandma the clothespins as she hung up the laundry to dry on the line. My Aunt Elizabeth didn’t marry until July 1965, and we mutually adored one another. She always got a kick out of my precociousness. There were so many things I loved about her--the easy way she laughed, her ladylike manners, the way her purse was organized and contained just the right stuff, like tissues, gum, and a comb. My fixation on the purse began quite early as I preferred to sleep in my crib with Mommy’s old black leather handbag instead of dolls or stuffed animals.

My parents’ closest friends were the Caulfields and the McKennas. Bill and Eileen Caulfield moved to 215th Street in November 1964 with their daughters Kari (one month older than me) and newborn Frani.  Soonafter Bill and Eileen were in a terrible car wreck, and so Nana, Eileen’s mother, came down from the Bronx to take care of the babies and their injured parents. Eileen’s sister Frances also came down to help. She liked the neighborhood so much that she and her husband Dick, their children Dick, Susan and Kett (who is 7 weeks older than me) moved in to the house diagonally across the street from ours. We were like one big extended Irish-Catholic clan. For seven years we were entwined intricately in one another’s lives. There were legendary all-night summer parties held in each of our different backyards. While I preferred to listen to the grown-ups tell stories and sing songs like "The Irish Soldier Boy," Kari and Kett liked mischief.  They would get their hands on cherry bombs any chance they could. Sometimes they dug holes in the front lawn and then chased me around, hoping I would trip. I did, and broke my coccyx (tailbone) at least three times. They always were sorry--they truly couldn’t help themselves--and we three were great pals. We attended one another’s First Communion parties, and the christenings of our younger siblings. All of us went on several family vacations in The Catskills, “The Irish Alps” as we called it. I felt loved, safe, and connected to my family, my parish, my neighbors and my friends.

The Sixties came to an end, and my father was hired away from the IRS by Exxon in 1971 after he frightened their Tax Department with his brilliance during an audit. By August 1972 he and my mother had saved enough money to purchase a home in Munsey Park, an incorporated village in Manhasset on the North Shore of Long Island. According to Wikipedia, Manhasset is a
hamlet (a census-designated place) and neighborhood in Nassau County, New York, on the North Shore of Long Island. As of the United States 2000 Census, the population was 8,362. Manhasset is a Native American term that translates to "the island neighborhood." In 2005, a Wall Street Journal article ranked Manhasset as the best town for raising a family in the New York metropolitan area. While we only moved 4.6 miles east of Bayside, Manhasset was a completely different hometown. {End Part I}

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Apartment Is A Home, But It Is Not A House

Recent news revealed that the average American yearly income is $49,500.00.  In order to be "middle class" in Manhattan, one has to earn twice that.  At least.  For a single person.  I am no longer middle class, I am comfortable.  I have few complaints, no debt, and a roof over my head.  I am a single woman with two small dogs.  I live in a rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.  According to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board:  New York City has a system of rent regulation known as "rent stabilization." The system was enacted in 1969 when rents were rising sharply in many post-war buildings. The system has been extended and amended frequently, and now about 1 million apartments in the City are covered by rent stabilization. Rent stabilized tenants are protected from sharp increases in rent and have the right to renew their leases. The Rent Guidelines Board sets the allowable percentage increase for renewal leases each year. This has been my home since January 1991, nearly 20 years. While I realize how very fortunate I am to have this apartment, still I do pine for a few amenities which "normal" American households --or wealthy New Yorkers--have. 

First, there are desk attendants in the lobby.  They do not open the door for me, but I have security, and packages can be delivered to them while I'm out.  Visitors are announced.  There are elevators, so I do not have to climb floors of stairs, the old "walk-up."  When you enter my apartment, there is a "galley" kitchen, in which I often feel like a galley slave.  There are plenty of cabinets, but only one drawer in which I keep my flatware.  There is only one countertop, and half of that is occupied by my microwave oven.  I purchased a wood-block-topped cart in order to have one more drawer, and room to prepare meals.  The stove is vintage.  There is a four-burner electric range but only the front right burner is large enough on which to cook.  The oven is a fairly good size, meaning I can roast a chicken but not a turkey.  "Self-cleaning oven" means I, myself, clean the oven.  The kitchen sink is deep enough, but the water pressure isn't very strong.  I know this because I wash all the dishes.  How I long a kitchen faucet hose!  There is no dishwasher; where would there be room for one?  When I prepare, cook and clean up after a meal, I am doing as much work as my grandmothers did in their homes fifty years ago.  Oh, "poor you!"  No, not poor me.  I simply find it amusing, as I rub cream on my dishpan hands, that my housework is so "retro."

The building has a laundry room in the basement.  You need to purchase a laundry card, and I like clean clothes and linens, so I spend a lot of money on laundry.  I'm grateful I don't have to haul a cart of dirty clothes to a laundry mat and sit and wait while the clothes are in the washers, and then the dryers.  I can set a timer and run back up to my apartment while the machines do their work.  Other tenants usually aren't thoughtful about removing laundry from machines in a timely manner.  Or they arrive ten seconds before I do, and pull my clean laundry out and place it on the dusty, too short folding table.  Most don't empty the lint from the catchers.  It's an inconvenience not a hardship.  I do dream of the day when I have my own laundry room with a washer and dryer which are large enough that I can fit enough clothes in to be economical with water.  I would have to have a long folding table because I "hand iron," pressing the clothes into shape with my nimble .  You see--and my Irish grandmothers are rolling over in their graves at this admission--I don't iron.

The bathroom is fine but small and basic.  It features a bathtub/shower enclosed by frosted glass doors.  The tub is so deep that it is hard for me to take a bath for fear of  doing serious injury to myself while climbing out.  Thank goodness the shower pressure is powerful.  The bathroom sink basin is not deep, and water ends up everywhere whenever I wash my face.  I believe the medicine cabinet was found at a flea market featuring home fixtures from the 1964 World's Fair.

Both the living room and the bedroom are large and roomy, with high ceilings.  This is excellent because the living room must double as a dining room, and my home office takes up about a third of the bedroom.  The apartment has fine wood floors which are the worse for wear after two decades, but they are wood floors.  

Every morning I wake up and go sit on the "veranda" (my radiator cover) by one of the two large windows in the living room.  The apartment faces the street, and faces north, so the morning sunlight streams in and lights up the place.  I sip my tea, look down on my street, and count my blessings.  I do live in a lovely neighborhood and in Manhattan.  I have a home; it's just not a house.  Central Park is my garden. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The More Things Change, The More They Don't For Women

When I began my last semester at Wesleyan University in January 1984, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated.  My friends had created these "resumes," and many classmates had spent summers working at unpaid internships.  I had worked during my college summers at paid jobs so that I could continue my student standard of living, i.e. eat and, of course, buy beer.  In despair, I phoned my loving, supportive mother, and wailed about these resumes and internships.  "How am I supposed to write a RESUME!?"  I expected her usual kind maternal advice.  She shocked me, and pre-dated Madison Avenue, by saying quite firmly, "JUST DO IT!"  So I began to create a resume, and, having been to shortsighted to gain an entree in the editorial internship at Wesleyan University Press, I took another tact.  I went to the Editor of this distinguished small publishing house, and begged for some other type of internship.  I believe my plea was, "I'll do ANYTHING!  Please!"  She granted me an independent study assisting the Sales and Marketing Director with the semester goal of putting together a cooperative university press catalog.  My immediate supervisor Steve was a recent Wesleyan grad, Class of 1982, and he was a great guy.  We were to reach out to other university presses and combine all of our efforts and reading lists to create a catalog.  When I say "our efforts," I mean my supervisor and me.

Let me explain that in the 1980's, Wesleyan was all about embracing diversity, and the campus was extremely conscious, aware and politically correct about gender roles and sexual-orientation.  The Feminist House printed flyers inviting folks to vegetarian potlucks for "womyn."  My boss Steve treated me with respect, and expected me to perform well because I was a Wesleyan student, regardless of my gender.  He did not put extra pressure on me nor did he take advantage of me because he was a man and I was a woman.  We were teammates in the race to get other university presses to advertise in our cooperative compendium.  My initial cold calls to the other university presses now make me blush as I can still hear my fearful, quavering voice.  However, I learned from experience, and became quite good at phoning strangers, being direct yet charming, and cajoling them into joining our cooperative university press catalog.  My attention to detail in English and American literature served me well as I assisted Steve in making sure we had all the necessary ads from the other presses.  My once anal-retentive trait of making sure assignments were handed in early, not just on time, helped me to get our materials together so we could have our catalog published.  Occasionally I checked in with a friend who was taking the editorial internship.  We would compare our internship experiences, and she was admittedly envious at all the skills I was learning doing sales and marketing.

I worked extremely hard at my internship, and, when we had reached our goal and the semester was wrapping up, Steve rewarded me by taking me to the legendary Middletown hamburger joint O'Rourke's.  He was flabbergasted that I had nearly graduated without sampling their cheeseburger, a crime against student hedonism in his book.  Steve was more shocked that I took the option of doing my independent study as a "Pass/Fail" grade.  "If you had taken this as a graded course, you would have received an A+!"  I wasn't bothered because I had learned so much about the beginnings of being a businesswoman.  I felt cocky, and confident.  I was a third-wave feminist.  I was 21-years-old, and didn't realize the historical significance that women had only been admitted to Wesleyan's all-male elite class in 1970, just ten years before I arrived on the campus.  I had no idea what the "real" world was like, but I soon found out.

Thanks to a close friend who actually helped me create my resume, and then secretly submitted it to the university career resource center, I landed an interview with two New York trade book publishers during my spring break.  One week after graduation, I was being interviewed by the Director of Subsidiary Rights at St. Martin's Press, and she hired me.  (I believe one reason she hired me was I spilled my coffee, took out a tissue, cleaned up the mess, all while I continued to answer her questions.  Never underestimate the power of poise!)  I was so excited about landing a job in book publishing that I didn't quite grasp that I only would be earning $10,400.00 a year (well, to be fair, the salary would be bumped up to $11,400.00 after 6 months, and $12, 400.00 if I lasted a year).  You see, the publisher, a wonderful man, had been in publishing since the early 60's.  He thought that young women who came to work at St. Martin's actually were socialites from the Upper Eastside who wore white gloves and were driven to the Flatiron Building by chauffeurs.  [For a cultural reference, see fellow Wesleyan alum Matt Weiner's Mad Men, only 20-odd years later.]  Most older male colleagues were gentlemen, and some even mentored me, but many dismissed  me as "that young girl who works for Sally."  I was shocked when some men felt threatened by my confidence and competence.  These men spoke  nasty, oh-so-politically incorrect words to me with the intention of cutting me down to size, and keeping my place.  As a woman.

I continued to work hard, behaved like the lady my parents raised, and faced sexual discrimiation well into the mid-1990's, when I left the corporate world.  As my career progressed, I made sure that I was paid very well by my employers based on my performance, not based on what a man would earn.  I actually ended up making more than my male peers doing the same job--but doing it better, not because I am a woman, but because I am me.  Sadly, now I speak to young women friends who are at the beginning of their careers, and am heartsick for them when I learn that they too are subjected to managers, men and women, who want to make sure these "girls" know their place.  I recently met a 20-something woman working in book publishing and was horrified to learn that her base salary when she began working in 2005 was $18,500.00.  While that may be an increase of 56.5% from my base salary, I do not think that $18,500.00 can take any young person very far!  While the laws against sexual harassment are on the books, and the nightmare for every HR department should a woman come to them and seek legal action, there are very few options for women to take when the insidious sly sexit comment or unnecessary disciplinary action or "honest" review occur.  The world has not banished gender discrimination.  We women have not come as far as we should for today's  fourth-wave feminists.  Yet, now is not the time to give up.  I want the fifth-wave feminists to have a better, fairer world, and I want us older third-wave feminists to lead the fight for the right to it.

 Fair Pay Isn't Always Equal Pay

Thursday, August 26, 2010

21st Century Psychiatry

An article titled "Culture and Diagnosis:  A Set of Iron Laws?" was published in NAMI August 2010 ENewsletter "The Advocate", and it is most thought-provoking, and should raise a lot of awareness about how psychiatrists should and must diagnosis people with mental illness.  Written by Kim Puchir, Communications Coordinator at NAMI, [National Alliance on Mental Illness], this article stresses the importance of how psychiatry must change with the times.  She points out the way psychiatrists and others who treat people with mental illness often misunderstand or misconstrue cultural signals from those patients who were not born in the United States.  This leads to misdiagnosis and extends the suffering of those who already experience anguish and disenfranchisement.

Perhaps the most startling information revealed by Puchir are the "World Health Organization findings that people who are diagnosed with a mental illness in a developing nation like India tend to do better than those in some Western nations like the U.S..."   What!?

As Operation Iraqi Freedom has concluded (except for the 50,000 peace-keeping troops), our military personnel are not coming home, but being sent on to Afghanistan.  Veterans are returning with PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), but there aren't enough resources to effectively counsel and treat these brave men and women.  The citizens of the Gulf now come upon the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the recent BP oil spill, and find very little in the way of mental health care.  Most U.S. citizens are on stress-overload with the economy, loss of employment.  The politically and socially charged issues of the day, i.e.  as our borders, rights of undocumented citizens, and the environment, have been polarizing and exhausting for the average American .  There are people all over this country who have depression and anxiety, as well as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and an array of other illnesses. "They" are us, and everyone knows and loves a person who lives with mental illness.

Twenty years after The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, "mental illness" still is pushed into the closet in terms of our health care priorities.  Some people prefer the term "brain disease," but I wish we could take out the prefix "mental."   Now, more than ever, people in this country need to be helped by psychiatrists who have a modern, knowledgeable approach and understanding of the needs of their patients.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Front Window

It was the little piggy on the right foot which sent me wee-wee-wee all the way home. My podiatrist had to correct a hammertoe. Now I know why they call it that.  The corn which resulted felt like the Hammer of Thor pounding the nerves of the toe so badly I actually wanted to shriek. The pain had become so intense that wearing anything but sneakers or flip-flops had become impossible. As I'm a gal who likes her limousine shoes, the surgery had to happen. The operation was on August 12th. 

Nearly two weeks later--with the exception of a trip to the podiatrist to see how I was healing--I have been stuck inside my apartment. The pile of magazines which had been accumulating since January has been read. (Note to self: When lumbering about one's apartment with an enormous surgical shoe which has been given the nickname "Sasquatch," do not read fashion magazines. Forget the runway. It would be great to take the garbage to the shoot down the hallway.) The books through which I had been meaning to plow have been plowed, and sown quite a few seeds in my mind. I have made ample use of my Netflix queue.  I hadn't realized how many French thrillers I wanted to see.  Jean Reno is so droll. So suave.  So French.  So irritating after I have viewed three of his films consecutively.

Finally, there is Facebook.  In anticipation of our high school class's 30th reunion in late September, I have been reaching out to classmates. Yesterday was the nadir of this pursuit since I spent 9 hours downloading YouTube clips of 70's classic rock videos, and posting scarcely witty quips about each and every one. Although some folks enjoyed the blasts from the past, others pointed out that maybe I have a bit too much time on my hands. Even I had to admit that this clip posting had become a sick compulsion. What to do, what to do...

Living in New York City, and blessed with a fantastic view facing my block, I have turned to "street theater."  I see myself as James Stewart (playing Jeff, the photographer with the broken leg) in Hitchcock's 1954 classic "Rear Window."  Except, unlike Jimmy, I don't have a fetching companion (Grace Kelly as Lisa) fawning over me, nor do I have a nurse (Thelma Ritter as Stella) with whom I can crack wise.  So I search the many apartments in my purvey for action and entertainment, straining my eyes since I do not own binoculars.  (Nor would I as that reminds me too much of the god-awful film "Sliver.")  

Sigh.  This is the real world, and there is no interesting villain like Thorvald (played by Raymond Burr) on whom I can set my sighs, about whom I could weave fantastic tales.  Being perched on my radiator by the window sill, I realize that I have become the creepy neighbor.  "Why is that woman always sitting there and looking, LOOKING out the window?  Doesn't she have a life?"  Luckily, "she" remembered that she did.  Writing this is far healthier and, I hope, won't arouse an iota of suspicion from the neighbors.  Who happen to be watching me now as I type this.  No, really, that guy over on the third floor of the townhouse...Oh my God, what is he doing!?