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Category Archives: Relationships

What Comes After Valentine’s Day

Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, c. 1650, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Are you ready to make plans for New York now?” Bruce laughs a little hopelessly as he asks.

I feel the panic rise in my throat like a hairball, even though we are lying in bed. He thinks that a trip is in order for me to meet with my new editor at Oxford and with my agent, who has been unwilling to give me the time of day. He thinks my new relationship with Oxford will make her take notice. And last year we missed making our usual annual pilgrimage to see our dear friends there because I’d had a brain hemorrhage.

Bruce loves the city, loves clearing away all travel challenges with his efficient handling, loves touring galleries, sitting in cafes, and walking the bustling streets, hour upon hour. He loves the atmosphere of culture and excitement that we just don’t have in the city where we live, which is a suburb through and through. He loves to fall into step with our friend Craig, their long legs matching in pace and rhythm as they talk about Kant or Hegel while John and I try to keep up behind them. He loves revisiting his favorite painting in the Met, Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, and holding my hand while we stand in front of the soulful eyes of a man long since dead whose pain and dignity we can still feel. He and I both love that a slave could hold himself so proudly, undaunted by the injustices of his world.

Last time we flew to New York, however, my feet swelled so badly I had to get a new pair of shoes. Now I have been diagnosed with arthritis in my right foot. Now I have mysterious and as yet undiagnosed damage in the left basal ganglia of my brain. Six months of doctor’s appointments and tests later, and I still feel uncertain in the world. I want to stay close to home.

So I cry and tell Bruce that I can’t do it. Not yet, while I don’t know what the future holds. I tell him angrily because I am afraid. I tell him that I know he wants to travel—he wants to take me to Berlin this summer and to Kenya someday soon—and that he may have gotten a bad deal when he married me just two and a half years ago. It has not been a very romantic time since we got married, especially the past year and a half since the brain hemorrhage—and now all this.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I may just have to travel by myself.”

I know this is his attempt at letting me off the hook, but it makes me cry harder. It makes me angrier.

“Oh, great,” I say. “It’s not like I don’t want to go. Don’t you understand? I can’t physically do it. I can’t pound the concrete with you and Craig. I can’t stand for hours on the hard museum floor. I will be in agony if I try to do that. But being left behind doesn’t sound like that nice of an alternative.”

We lie silent for a few minutes as disability wafts over us in the air from the slowly turning ceiling fan.

It is a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but the day after I have a lumbar puncture scheduled for an analysis of my cerebrospinal fluid. We have no plans to celebrate the love holiday. We both know that it is a marketing ploy, and we agree with efforts to knock back the Romantic-Industrial Complex. We have also each spent enough Valentines Days alone over the years to have experienced the whole thing as yet another competitive way for some people to feel superior to others—“I’m loved and you’re not. So I’m a better person. Hah.” We are aware of all of that, but we also are just tired and distracted by my health and other depredations of things we hold dear (like our lives’ work in higher education). These things put a damper on the mood.

Bruce is no Newt, but I am also well aware that the divorce rate is higher among couples where one member becomes chronically ill or disabled, and I am well aware that men leave disabled women more often than the other way around. I have also been rejected many times in my life, and I wonder whether Bruce wouldn’t be happier with a spryer partner.

“You may not like this idea,” he says, and I steel myself. “But what about seeing the museum in a wheelchair?”

It is not what I feared, but exactly what I’d been thinking about myself—ways to make things at least somewhat possible. Accommodations, I’d told myself, that’s the key.

“I like it just fine,” I say, and I hear Bruce sigh a little with relief. “I mean, it’s not thrilling, but I have no problem with having a chair to sit in while I look at paintings.”

“We can just take cabs everywhere,” he adds.

“I like it,” I say. “You know, that seems a lot better to me than your leaving me, either on all your travels or completely.”

“That never occurred to me,” he says. Even though this is only one of the reasons I love him, it is a big deal. Maybe one day it will never occur to me either.

Curry and Kindness

A 1683 map of Sri Lanka from Geographicus Rare Antique Maps

Yesterday I picked up some friends at the airport after their holiday travels. In all the pre-holiday hub-bub we had not communicated all that well so I was early, and the plane was late, so I went round and round the airport drive too many times in the crisp Florida sun. At first I was listening to disheartening stories on the radio, but then NPR’s Talk of the Nation featured an interview with S. H. “Skiz” Fernando, author of the recently released Rice and Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking, and I perked up.

The guy sounded awkward and smooth at the same time, which always fascinates me. And then the show featured a call-in session. At first this annoyed me—each and every one of the callers just wanted to talk about herself. One, who admitted to living in some isolated place like Wyoming, even wanted to talk about the difficulty of obtaining kefir lime leaves, which Mr. Fernando had immediately said are not part of Sri Lankan cuisine. Another said she met Mr. Fernando when he performed in Paris a decade ago—and the radio host interjected to explain that he is also a hip-hop artist. Clearly, Mr. Fernando did not remember the caller at all, though he treated each caller gently.

But then the radio show host read a few emails, including one from a guy, now living in Florida, who wrote that he had fond memories of the Sri Lanka Curry House in Minneapolis from when he’d lived there a couple of decades earlier. He noted that it has since closed, and that it didn’t include “mild” on the menu.

I laughed at the collision of time and place and suddenly found myself more sympathetic to all those who called to display their memories. I too live in Florida now but lived once in the Twin Cities. The Sri Lanka Curry House was a long way from my home in St. Paul and required a car to reach, so I only ate there once. But I remember it, though it was important only because I discovered something bad about myself. I had gone there with a large group of women, some of whom were my friends. I’m not sure of the occasion, but it might have been after a lecture given by Germaine Greer. We had been provided tickets by a friend whose mother had been one of the organizers. So, if my memory is correct, we were a bunch of feminists. Several of our crew were also lesbians.

It’s hard now to even remember how big a deal that was in 1979 or -80. I had some mixed feelings at the time, not so much about how any individual expressed her sexuality, but how the politics played out. Frequently, one of my lesbian housemates had told me that sooner or later I would see the light. Surely, she said, I would evolve. I could accept that she was a lesbian, but she could only accept that I wasn’t as a temporary setback.

The peer pressure was enormous, and with my many man troubles, I sometimes wished that I could at least claim bisexual status. But I have never been one to cave in to peer pressure. Instead, I get stubborn and resentful. Until that dinner at the Sri Lanka Curry House, I hadn’t really felt that consciously.

One of the women at the restaurant that night was named Marcie. I didn’t know her well, as she had repeatedly snubbed me at various house parties due to my retro-hetero status. As the waitresses put together several tables for our group, Marcie strutted up and down, sorting out where to sit. She noted repeatedly how much she loved hot food and how much she looked forward to this. The rest of us shuffled out of her way. Finally, she chose the middle seat on the table’s opposite side from me. I sat near a corner.

From what I recall, the Sri Lanka Curry House did have a “medium” designation on the menu, and they recommended it to all non-Sri Lankans. Most of us acceded to the waitress’ recommendation and ordered our curries as mild as possible. Not Marcie. She insisted that she was a pro with curries and that she loved her food hot. The waitress tried to talk her out of it, but she shook her head for emphasis. “Very hot,” she said.

Soon enough, the food came, steaming cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, cloves, cumin, and fennel. I was not knowledgeable enough to smell the hot flavors of the chilis and mustard, and I wondered that the strongest tasting things often don’t have the most identifiable aromas. We oohed and aahed around the table, eager but tentative, taking mostly small bites and passing each other the condiments of coconut flakes and tomato relish.

Marcie lifted her heaped fork to her mouth and dug in. After a moment, her face blanched and sweat popped profusely out of her forehead. I had never seen anything like it. She grabbed for her water glass. “No!” someone yelped, too late. Marcie gulped water and then grabbed her neck as if to strangle herself. “Water is supposed to make it worse,” the helper said.

“It’s fine,” she said, gasping just a little. “Amazingly hot. But I’m okay.” She dragged her fork across the dish and lifted it again, more slowly this time.

Everyone looked at her, then we went back to taking our own small bites of our own super-hot “medium” dishes. I didn’t figure that Marcie would eat all of her dinner, but I found myself not minding. I found myself feeling a little mean.

After a bit of dawdling with her food, Marcie ventured a second bite. As soon as she took it, the sweat began running down her cheeks. She blinked twice, slowly, and pushed the plate away from her. Suddenly, she was face down on the placemat, groaning slightly. “Here,” her neighbor gestured to the waitress. “Bring a lassi. Mango lassi, please, quickly.”

Soon enough, the wise waitress appeared with the sweet, milky drink, and Marcie’s neighbor at the table clapped her on the back and coaxed her to sit up. “Here,” she said, “this will cool you off.” Marcie shook her head no and gasped out that her throat felt burned.

“You’ll feel better,” her helper said. “Really. It will soothe your throat.”

So Marcie alternated between rolling her head side to side on the placemat and sipping the lassi. Eventually she sat up and wiped her face with the cloth napkin, though the sweat continued to pour. Everyone cooed around her, asking if she would be okay, patting her on the back, and reassuring her that the food was “insanely hot” and that she couldn’t have known. Most everyone ordered lassis to keep her company.

I recall growing quieter and quieter as the evening went on. I didn’t order a lassi because I knew it would be too sweet for my diabetes, and no one talked about how great the food was except for the lassis. (The food was great.) One thought kept echoing in my mind: Machismo is dumb whether exhibited by a man or a woman. I had also discovered my own inescapable judgmental nature, and I knew this wasn’t a nice thing about me.

This is something I have struggled with ever since. Judgment is something we all need, but need to temper with kindness. I never would have set Marcie up for such a painful episode, but the fact that I really didn’t feel all that bad for her demonstrated to me my propensity to blame people for their own ills. It might have been easy for me to do that in such a clear-cut case, but most cases of blame are not so clear.

I have always had a hard time making excuses for people of the “you couldn’t have known” variety. And this has made me very hard on myself as well.

Lately, I have been thinking further about the way that language can be shaped to an interpretation. Some of this has come out of my reactions to all the “lucky” and “blessed” labels bestowed on me in recent weeks. But it goes beyond that to thinking about how our interpretations in the world of politics can be so different when reality is presumably the same (or at least close) for all of us. And to thinking about so many self-help endeavors that claim that if you view things positively, you will do better. I want to make more distinctions in all of this about what we can affect this way and what we are lying to ourselves about with euphemisms. I want to be able to tell the difference.

In teaching introductory creative writing, I often do a lesson about denotation and connotation. What, I ask my students, is the difference between red, maroon, scarlet, vermillion, cherry, rust, and cerise, not just in shades of hue, but in implication? What is the difference between wine and claret? Within individual word choices, of course, lies the way to truthfulness and accuracy in our writing. But they can also lead to manipulation.

These days I have been noticing these differences in day-to-day description even more. I am thinking about what the difference is between the opposites that we use for the same situations and things. The weather reports long ago changed from “partly cloudy” to “partly sunny” to try to keep people happier with the newscast. Someone said to me the other day that she wasn’t sure if her holiday had been relaxing or frantic. “I could describe it either way,” she said, “and both would be true.”

There have long been issues like this that are hard to split. In another memory from my college days, I actually remember having a conversation about whether or not all “nice” guys were also necessarily “boring.” Having since been trapped on many a date with a boring man, I can say that I no longer think the two words synonymous. In fact, now I think that the kind of man typically described as “exciting” might be boring in his likely narcissism and avoidance of depth. I wouldn’t use the word “exciting” to describe such a person at all. I would describe my husband both as exciting and as one of the nicest guys on earth.

What, I might ask, is the difference between mild, medium, hot, and very hot?

I am setting as one of my New Year’s resolutions to think about how to make these relationships between words and the world meaningful, and also to at least consider a kind interpretation when I can. Marcie, after all, could never have known how hot “very hot” was, even though I still feel a touch of satisfaction that she found out. Wink.

May we all have spicy kindness in the new year.

People Connections: Facebook Reprise

Bruce and I recently watched The Social Network. We’d put it off for quite a while because we’d heard that it was full of jerks, and indeed it was. The filmmakers were fascinatingly successful at rendering Mark Zuckerberg sympathetic by making it seem as though the other jerks were worse than he was. Poor little lonely rich guy.

Several things struck me about the movie. One was how much college has changed. My brother graduated from Harvard in 1980, where Facebook got its start 20+ years later, and I attended another “elite” college, though not in the Ivy League. As I watched The Social Network, I couldn’t help thinking about the way money has come to be the vastly dominant value in our culture. I don’t mean to trot out that “when I was your age, we had to walk to school two miles through the snow.” But I have virtually no recollections of talking about plans to get rich when I was in college, and I don’t think my brother had many either. Yes, both of us knew obnoxious rich kids, the silver spoon jock types. It might be an odd thing to celebrate those fellows’ 1970s and 80s obsession with drugs and sex, rather than intellectual learning, but—hey—at least it wasn’t an obsession with reaffirming their privilege and expanding even further their financial advantages in the world. I’m sure financial plotting was there; it just wasn’t so bald in my youth.

It was no doubt more prominent at Harvard than at Carleton—I remember the much stiffer and status-conscious atmosphere from when I visited my brother there, and I remember being amazed that Harvard allowed those dinner clubs to exist in our day and age. In fact, one of the reasons why I had chosen Carleton was that it had absolutely no fraternities or sororities. I believed that such things were a throw-back—like debutante balls and country clubs. How could universities open their doors to women and people of color and different backgrounds, thus asserting that the right to higher education was not a birthright, and then turn around and allow these clubs to perpetuate the discriminatory privileges that their admissions policies no longer supported?

Of course, instead of dying out, secret societies, country clubs, and fraternities and sororities have made a huge comeback. On our recent visit to Knoxville, Bruce and I asked my dad about an enormous new construction project near the UT campus, and he informed us that the university is now pouring money into a project to build sorority houses. “To fix the gender inequity,” he said, and sighed. I find the idea of sorority houses addressing an inequity hilarious. One kind lessened for more of another kind. That they’re now building sorority houses instead of demolishing fraternity houses shocks me.

As we watched The Social Network, I thought a lot about the exclusive origins of Facebook. I recall that when I was first encouraged by friends to sign up for a social networking account, I was told that the Facebook membership was better educated than that of MySpace. I didn’t realize for a long time that Facebook had originated at Harvard, that it had been built on the concept of exclusivity. First it opened to other Ivy League schools, then expanded to university students with “edu” email suffixes, then (I suppose when some of them started graduating) to people at certain companies, and then, finally, to all over the age of 13.

In some ways then, Facebook has been democratized. Yet I wonder if it doesn’t remain tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction and created by a fellow who imbued it with a barely-beyond-high-school sense of social values. I think a lot of us—even those of us who use it enthusiastically—have deep ambivalence about it because of some of these remnants.

On the one hand, I really enjoy Facebook. It’s rather miraculous to be in touch with people I would likely never have heard of again had Facebook not come on the scene. I no longer live in either of my hometowns, and I have never received an invitation to a high school reunion, nor have I ever attended a college one. When you have had the rather peripatetic life that I’ve had, it’s also a miracle to see so many different parts of your life gathered in one spot. Weird sometimes, but cool, too.

There’s my brother, of course, whom I’ve known since birth, but close on his heels is Sharon, whose parents played bridge with my parents when I was a toddler; Lisa, who I met in elementary school and who introduced me over the years to both s’mores and Spin the Bottle at her parties; William, who played basketball with my brother but who was closer to me in age and stayed my good friend and correspondent all through college. There are high school friends mixed in with college friends mixed in with grad school friends mixed in with colleagues and recent friends mixed in with former students. When on Facebook I often miss my friends who don’t use it at all or much. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that there are some continuities in my fragmented life, even if it is just that a lot of my friends like cats and dogs.

Facebook was also great immediately after my brain hemorrhage last year—it made things easier for everyone, including me. Hospitals have changed—I can remember when they took everything away from you as soon as you were admitted. Now they leave you with your iPhone in peace. I had music, I had Scrabble, I had email, I had the ability to make calls, but I also had the ability to not have to make calls. I just posted on Facebook, and the messages of concern and affection came rushing in like rain on the windowsill—it was outside, but I knew it was there, warm and life-affirming.

Obviously, these purposes now go beyond the college-student hook-up site that Mark Zuckerberg originally envisioned. Facebook, as we all know, has helped to create entire political movements and to help locate lost teenagers. Wikipedia even reports that in February 2011, a newborn in Egypt was named “Facebook” to honor the role that it played in that country’s revolution.

On the other hand, Facebook in my health crisis situation was a little deceptive because serious illness is a demand, both physical and emotional. Some people in your life are going to meet that kind of demand and others won’t, and there are even some people you shouldn’t ask. Facebook lumps everyone together, though now in response to Google+’s circles it allows for different “lists.” Still, the effect of Facebook is a kind of superficiality—a kind of one-night-stand of support rather than something more sustaining. Three people—one colleague, one former mentor, and one dear friend—rather brutally abandoned me in the immediate aftermath of my brain hemorrhage, and Facebook has made this doubly weird.

It’s not that these betrayals wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the brain hemorrhage—at least one of them definitely would have, as the ground for it was laid by my colleague long before her final coup. My brain hemorrhage was in that case used as a convenient excuse for side-lining me, and this extended to the betrayal by my former mentor as well. In both of these cases, I was discredited partly because I was ill and therefore “weak.” This is a common and well-documented reaction to serious illness, outlined long ago by Irving Goffman in his work on stigma. The friend who abandoned me is another matter, and one that I’m at a loss to explain. Explanations and excuses are seldom forthcoming in such situations, and certainly friendships sometimes end without major illness as a factor. But I will say that such abandonments in times of illness seem cruel, far more so than when you’re well.

And it’s not as though these betrayals wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. It’s just that Facebook takes you back to the kind of public rejection that we’re all likely to have had in junior high and high school. One of the people who betrayed me in 2011 also “unfriended” me on Facebook in a good indication of her own guilt and self-loathing, just like the junior high girl who steals someone else’s boy and calls her former friend names.

The other two are still my “friends” on Facebook. One of them is probably completely unaware that I feel betrayed by her; I grant her the benefit of the doubt because I know she was misled by others. We are still polite to one another, but I feel a bit like a teenage girl who thought she was the favorite of the football team captain only to find he’s dropped her for a cheerleader. The one who was my friend simply sits there, just as her image does in my wedding photos, a cypher, like the former close pal whispering with her new buddies at the school lockers.

I feel no particular antipathy toward any of these people, though it is odd to see them on Facebook (and I do see even the one who “unfriended” me because we have numerous “friends” in common). I suppose that’s an indication that my emotional life has matured since high school even if the structure of Facebook shapes us in that h.s. mode. This has all pointed out to me concretely how Facebook is not so much about friendship as it is about something else, the wider social network indeed—or the appearance of community, but not community itself.

We all know this, of course—it’s particularly obvious among writers and academics where so many of us use it as a tool of self-promotion. I do this myself, to the extent I link my blog to it and post publications sometimes. There are those who use this aspect lightly, though, and those who use it heavily. There are those who do so unrelentingly, and there are those whose Facebook pages are strangely unreal, surreal even. Watching The Social Network, I thought it no wonder that Facebook is so commonly used this way, considering its founders and their original intentions of getting ahead.

Being “friends” is, after all, not the same as being friends. I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg has known this from the very beginning since his main motivation for his creation seems to have been revenge and social climbing. In other words, this may be a “duh” moment. But I still think about it a lot, in love as I am with both the simulacrum and the real world and still trying to parse out what differences Facebook makes, positive and negative.

Thank You, I’m Alive!

Today is the one-year anniversary of my brain hemorrhage. It was not my day to die last November 14. Like Old Lodge Skins, I ended up getting up and going home. Unlike Old Lodge Skins, however, I had not set out that day to die, and, in fact, one of the things I realized after my unexpected brain hemorrhage was that I did not consider it a good day to die.

It may seem obvious that we don’t usually consider any given day a good day to die. But, as I was trundled on the gurney out to the helicopter for the flight from Altamonte to Florida Hospital South, I thought about that line from Little Big Man. It is a line that indicates a life that could be let go, even immediately, with satisfaction in having lived well. As great as much of my life was and is, I didn’t feel that way about it. I’ve spent the last year contemplating how my life (external and internal) might change so that if I do drop dead the next time, I will be sorry to go but not regretful.

One of the things that I know I would want to do is to thank the people who have helped me so much in the past year. In spite of the fact that I escaped relatively unscathed, their support has been crucial as I’ve sorted out the meaning of this event in my life and struggled to get my full strength and vitality back.

First comes Bruce, who was with me the whole way. The pain of this hemorrhage was so bad that I did reach a certain readiness for death—not out of acceptance but out of desperation. At the moment when I thought, “I can’t stand this another second,” the fear in Bruce’s eyes let me know how much he loved me. I’m glad his fear didn’t last more than a few hours, but I’m also glad it let me know that I had good reasons to withstand the pain.

I also want to thank my beautiful family of origin. We have many flaws, but they all pitched in when needed and made a huge difference in the crisis. My mother was here from Virginia in less than 24 hours, and stayed the entire ten days I was in the hospital, helping a shell-shocked Bruce and laying in the meals that we would eat for weeks after, as well as sitting with me in neuro intensive care. My father and brother put their heads together when they heard that Bruce might cancel his trip to Africa (the culmination of a year’s worth of work), and they volunteered to come and stay with me for alternating weeks after I got out of the hospital so he could go and complete this major project. My dad’s wife, Jane, was considerate enough to send along with my dad a new pair of comfy pajamas for me to wear during my weeks on the sofa.

I want to thank my friend and colleague Terry, who stepped right in and took over my most onerous class and who arranged for others to fill in for my other classes. I appreciate all who helped with my abandoned teaching duties and grading for the end of term, but especially Terry, who made all the arrangements, ran materials back and forth, and added a boatload of work to her already heavy responsibilities. Terry and her husband, Don, came to the hospital and told the nurses they were relatives so they could check on me. I thank them for their genuine involvement and caring.

I thank all those who sent well wishes and little gifts in the days I was in the hospital, the students who sent me a box of chocolate, and all those who called to get the story. I thank my many friends and other relatives from all over the country and beyond who have checked in from time to time and asked after me.

Most especially I thank my dear friends Susan, Gigi, Holly, Ivonne, and Anna (and Terry), who have been in touch even more frequently than usual to talk over the shifting meanings of our lives. They say that in a crisis you find out who your friends really are, and you do. These are people who understand the reasonable and the unreasonable in both me and the universe. These are people who overcome the fear in themselves evoked by all serious illness in others and who don’t discredit you for it. As Adrienne Rich notes, “we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” but the generosity of these friends has been plenty for me. They have all been through “things” themselves, and they have been great companions on my journey back.

I am blessed by the presence of all these people in my life, my life that goes joyfully on. I may not think that even today is a good day to die, but I would die with much less regret today than a year ago.

All Along the Watchtower

I’ve been keeping this blog for about six months now—at least two posts a week for six weeks. On Thursday I hope to reflect more generally on this journey, but today I want to mention the heat that’s involved in any kind of public discourse, no matter how modest.

Why is it worth trying to tell the truth as I see it? It certainly doesn’t make me universally popular. Fortunately, I get more in the way of agreement and support privately from those who say they don’t want to venture more publically (though they often do just that in a necessary context). I’ve been having all kinds of discussions off the blog with people about my willingness to deal with the more public criticism and about my willingness to speak my mind.

And let me note that I’m not perfect, and my blog is a personal rather than a journalistic one. I don’t say unfounded things with no reason, but what I write about is always open to interpretation. I don’t claim to be an economic expert or a psychology expert or a music expert or an expert on the formation of new departments at my university. I have a moderate level of knowledge about any subject I approach, though I remain open and correctable. It’s my hope that there is some shred left of a desire for discussion where people say, “Here are my reasons,” in response to my saying, “Here are my reasons.” That’s what I believe we are called upon to do as supposedly thinking people, especially those pursuing an academic life. Instead, I often find myself in a position where I have outraged someone by speaking (or writing) at all.

I have been fulfilling this position for much of my life. I don’t know how or why it became so important for me to speak my mind and to report what it is I see before me. I do know that it was a role I played in my own family of origin, and I remember reading a book about family dynamics years ago in which I recognized that I was the one who always said the things no one else would say even though they were all thinking the same thing. I was the one who expressed much of the dismay or frustration that everyone else felt.

Even this weekend, I had an exchange with my mother (sorry, Mom!) about an email she’d sent about trying to plan for the holidays. There are certain extended family members who resist communication and who make it all very complicated for my mother and her husband. In their branch of the family, the holidays have long been a power struggle. I told my mother that this year Bruce and I are going to plan for ourselves and extend a few invitations, but that I am not going to undergo eight weeks of hostile negotiations. Period. Eventually, my mother said that she was so sorry she had sent the email and upset me. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was the one who was most upset by this situation, not me. I was expressing her distress. I was naming the problem with the extended family, even though my mother knew full-well what it was.

I don’t know why I am this way. Maybe it has to do with the sub-conscious training in my family to fulfill a certain need others had. Maybe I was just struck in elementary school by The Emperor’s New Clothes, a brilliant children’s book if ever there was one. Maybe it has to do with developing an early chronic illness that the doctors always accused me of lying about (“I know you ate candy.” “I know you didn’t have a low blood sugar.” “I know you skipped your injection.”). Maybe it had to do with my unusual proximity to death and a desire not to waste my time with bullsh*t.

My friend H reminded me this weekend that Virginia Woolf always considered herself an outsider and that she evoked devotion in some and hatred in others. I’m not a “great thinker,” but I do hold up for myself a few fellow truth-tellers that I admire and who have always inspired me: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Adrienne Rich, Claribel Alegría, Tillie Olsen, Susan Brownmiller. These are people who understand the dangers of silence, and I am in good company if I poke some people in the eye.

Today, I present to you Bob Dylan’s song as sung by Jimi Hendrix, and this lovely interpretation of its meaning, the importance of truth to artists, and the importance of outsiders to society. “Let us not talk falsely now, / The hour is getting late.”

Trying to Be Accurate

I’m coming to you from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writing Conference, and I’m posting something that I think is a little bit of a corrective. A little bit back, I posted about sweets and my grandmothers. Perhaps that post was a little bit–ahem–saccharine. One of the themes that has emerged so far this week has been about the accuracy of one’s writing as an antidote to sentimentality and melodrama. So in that spirit, I’m posting a somewhat different view of my Grandmother Roney here.


My grandmother starts pulling the peanuts out of her pocket and munching them before we even order our food at one of the most expensive restaurants in Boston. My brother, just graduated from college, looks around the room as though to see whether any of his fancy classmates might also be here.

“Mother, what are you doing?” my father asks her. It comes out like a hiss, like air escaping a blown tire.

“Nothing,” she says, and folds her hands in her lap. She looks down at them there in her crotch, utterly still.

My father shakes his head and goes back to the menu. My mother pats my grandmother’s hand. For once, I side with my dad. Grandmother kept me up all night snoring in the hotel room. Next she will be explaining to the waiter all the foods that would make her break out in hives. She will even bat her eyelashes at him, as though she could make up for my grandfather’s leaving her with my six-year-old father all those years ago. She will be sneaking those peanuts from her polyester pant suit pocket all through the meal, as though we can’t see her.


Two years later, Grandmother and I stand in line to the India pavilion, panting under the excoriating sun of July. Five-foot-one to my nearly five-eight (I never called it five-seven-and-a-half), she’s struggled to keep up with me as I escort her around the World’s Fair. She’s been talking about other World’s Fairs she attended in years past. Seattle. Montreal. Whatever.

“It sure is hot,” my grandmother says to the couple standing in front of us.

“You can say that again,” the man says. He says it doesn’t get this humid in Dubuque.

“I could sure use another of those lemonades,” she says, still looking at the man.

The line isn’t moving, so I run to get another lemonade for her. When I get back, they might be done small-talking. But, no.

“You should meet my grandson,” she is saying. “He’s such a good-looking young fella, and he went to Harvard.”

The man has started to mop his forehead with a handkerchief and look away, but she goes on about my brother’s bright future—never mentioning that I have even more recently graduated from a fine school myself. I hold her lemonade.


At last, twenty-seven years later, I will forgive all the men—every last one of them—for being so perfect in her long-dead eyes, and get married. I will tell all my single women friends that I will love them as much as always. I will raise a toast to my grandmother, the woman I couldn’t see and who couldn’t see me.

Sugar Love and Sugar-Free Love

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Apple Stack Cake from

When I was eleven, going on twelve, I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. In the hospital for a week, I cried a number of times over this diagnosis—usually when my family members had gone home and I was alone in the sterile room. I didn’t cry over what probably should have given me pause—that diabetes is a life-threatening illness with frequent gruesome complications like blindness, gangrene and subsequent amputation, heart disease, and kidney failure. All of that had not sunk in yet.

I cried for two reasons—I was going to have to take shots every day, and the doctors and nurses had told me that I’d never be able to eat sweets again. That this last was not really true never occurred to me. The medical staff said it, so I believed it.

If you’re not part of the Southern culture, it may be hard to understand how embedded sweets are in expressions of love in that culture, particularly familial love. Both of my grandmothers, and later my step-grandmother, as well, were famous cooks. Sweets were an ineluctable part of every holiday celebration. Giving up sweets in this culture was as hard as an alcoholic giving up booze.

Ironically, I had only just reached an age where two of the main products of my grandmothers’ cooking appealed to me. As a younger child, I’d been averse to the tickly, chewy texture of coconut and so I had not loved the high white coconut cake with divinity icing made by my Grandmother Meek every year or the more unusual jam spice cake with nut-, raisin-, and coconut-studded yellow frosting (known as amalgamation cake) that Grandmother Roney made.

These two cakes were as finicky as I was, and every year there was breath-holding over whether or not they would turn out “just right.” The divinity icing had to be made under just the right climactic conditions, and my grandmother beat it by hand with a wire whip on an oval, white platter for what seemed like hours on end. She would not use an electric mixer because it wouldn’t give her just the right feel for the texture. The cake layers themselves would grow dry if not moistened with just the right amount of coconut juice. The amalgamation cake was every bit as complicated. The thick, jam-imbued layers would fall if any sudden vibration hit the oven at the wrong time, and the icing had to be boiled to just the right consistency. No one but my Grandmother Roney knew all of the secret ingredients. Only years and many failed attempts on my father’s part later, did she confess to him that he should include some oil of cinnamon and oil of clove in the batter.

I myself preferred what seemed like the simpler offerings: dried apple stack cake and prune cake with caramel icing. (Later retitled “caramel plum cake,” the latter became much more popular.) These were also family recipes, but my mother had taken on the baking of them. The prune cake batter made a simple Bundt-style cake, and usually the hand-made caramel icing was the only difficulty. I would watch my mother melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet, add the corn syrup and buttermilk, and stir the foam constantly until it browned. It was hard to get the texture just right, so that it would pour, but not pour right off the sides of the cake. I will still swear that that homemade caramel icing is one of the best things in the world, hands down.

Dried apple stack cake was an East Tennessee tradition, from my Grandmother Meek’s background. But she and my grandfather had established their adult lives in West Tennessee, where dried apples of the right variety were hard to get. So my mother would go to the downtown Knoxville farmer’s market in the fall to get the right kind of apples. These had to be dried outside—by the sun—not in some dehydrator. This was the only thing that would give them the deep maroon color and deep flavor best for the cake. Usually they were sold by little, old country ladies as wizened as the apples themselves, ladies who said, “You’uns’ll like them apples,” and who would count out change with their gnarled brown fingers. On our way home from the farmer’s market, my mother always had that air of deep satisfaction, as though she had everything she needed. My mother had also perfected the recipe by making the tea cake layers thinner and thinner, until instead of five or six layers her cake had twelve. It had become a torte. It would melt in your mouth.

Because the stack cake was already made from a naturally sweet fruit that I was “allowed” to have in modest quantities, and because the tea cakes weren’t very sweet to begin with, it was the easiest one to be adapted for my new diabetic needs. My mother took to cutting back the sugar in the tea cakes even further and stirring artificial sweetener instead of sugar into the apples as they simmered in the big pot on the stove. The result was almost as good as the real thing, and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream made it a real treat.

And this is what can bring tears to my eyes now—thinking about how all of these women, inculcated and habituated as they were in sugar-as-love, took to adapting things for me and making me special treats for the holidays that I was “allowed” to have.

My Grandmother Roney, a complete sugar addict herself, felt most sorry for me. On top of my mother altering the stack cake recipe, Grandmother Roney adapted cookie recipes and made me Chex mix every year (back before it was available in bags at the grocery store). She took to making spiced pecans, too. My Grandmother Meek took to brewing a pitcher of her famous iced tea “unsweet.” Even my step-grandmother, Billie, took to making me sugar-free boiled custard every holiday we visited . It was made with gelatin and rather lumpy, but its artificially sweet creamy flavor made me feel included when everyone was sipping cups of the real thing.

This, too, was also a Southern characteristic: determination to adapt to circumstances. My grandmothers had it in spades, and my mother and step-grandmother still do. And they gave some of that to me, too, along with all their sugar love and their all-important sugar-free love.

The photo of the apple stack cake is compliments of, a food blog that’s also listed in my links. And I’ve also linked to some authentic recipes that approximate the ones I’m talking about. But I’m not giving out the secret family ones! That would be heresy.