Archive | Age Matters

On Living Softly, and Not Carrying a Big Stick

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Thug

Growing up, “soft” was an insult. The ultimate one, actually. In my family it was an umbrella term that meant out-of-shape, clueless, indolent, addled, unvigilant, prissy, overly sensitive, entitled. You were soft if you didn’t take it in the chin. Soft if you asked for a ride when you could walk. Soft if you whined “I can’t.” Soft if you couldn’t run a mile or sported a gut. Soft if you cried when you dropped your ice cream. Definitely soft if you were a tattletale.

Every usage of the word was anathema to us, and by “us,” I am referring to my dad and therefore my little sister, my mother, my myself—my father’s subjects, in other words, to whom principles came down by edict.

Soft hands meant you lacked a work ethic, the might or tenacity to do physical labor. A soft voice meant you were namby-pamby, couldn’t assert yourself. Being soft-hearted meant you were a sucker. There was a long list of what was soft, and at the top of it were the rich people in my Greater Boston town, which literally had a “wrong side of the tracks” since the Mass Pike divided the more working-class sections from the wealthier people on the Hill. The rich girls wore rugbys and braids, had sleepover parties with cutesie PJs, whispered about their crushes. The girls in my neighborhood wore tight designer jeans and feathered hair, hung out at the corner store, had boyfriends with whom they did more than hold hands long before they hit puberty.

Though gentle, Charlie Bucket was not soft, which is why he inherited the Chocolate Factory. Harriet the Spy was not soft; all you had to do was look at her work uniform and you knew she was tough as nails. In those slippers and knitted sweaters, Mister Rogers and his braying singsong was ridiculously soft. And the Beatles, oy the Beatles. With their thin voices, those fa-la-la proclamations of love—forget it. So soft. As a matter of fact, all white music was soft, except punk rock and, of course, the Stones. With their big bass lines and bigger tongues, the Rolling Stones were hard in every sense of the word. Before I even understood what sex entailed, I groked that the Beatles were the equivalent of making love and the Stones were all about fucking. Which, by definition, was not soft. Continue Reading →

My Muppet Critics

Some mornings, I go down to the coffeehouse and drink an Americano with two guys who’ve lived in my Italian-American neighborhood for 70 years. For roughly 60 of those years they’ve been best friends in the vein of Frick and Frack, Tom and Jerry, Felix and Oscar. I call them the Muppet critics because they really are just like the old grumps on The Muppet Show. Whenever I hang out with these guys, they argue about everything from the true point of the Civil War to the relative merits of Godfather Part III to which of them is aging worse. Outspoken as I normally am, with them I mostly clutch my coffee and my sides since I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid everything is going to split. They’re good eggs—gruffly kind, street-smart, devoted to the neighborhood and their wives. They were protective and practical when I was going through my miserably drawn-out breakup. (“Eh, you want us to beat him up, Lise?”) They religiously watch the NY1 show on which I appear. (“Your red lipstick needs to make a comeback, doll.”) They problem-solve my issues from weird car noises to money woes to difficult colleagues. They tell amazing stories about back in the day. They pour over the newspapers and debate the major controversies of the day. Then they razz each other some more.

This morning one of them told a joke he’d heard from “a real Jewish guy.” (Our neighborhood borders on the Chasidic section of Williamsburg.) The joke went like this: Abraham and Yosef were imprisoned in the same cell for 25 years. When they were finally released, they walked out of the building, single file. Abraham walked ahead. Yosef trailed behind him, shouting, “Abraham, I forgot to tell ya….”

The gold standard, these two.

The Church of Signs and Sirens: Ladybug

En route to the coffee shop at 7 am today I was feeling fine. Unfettered by the longing I always carry and rarely articulate. It was cool and grey, my favorite sort of summer morning this year. I was wearing a dress with pockets so deep they could store everything necessary for my jaunt—keys, wallet, lipstick—which left me free to swing both arms and legs as I strode. I’d slept the night before in braids, and my hair, only recently grown out enough to be considered really long, swung too, and in the rippling mermaid waves I’d always hoped they would. All in all, it was as if a crease had been folded in the time-space continuum and my hopeful 7-year-old self had temporarily been granted control of my grown-up body. Once again I was the girl who’d never had her heart broken, not even by her daddy. The girl who remembered all her magic. It felt great, though I hoped she liked coffee as much as I do.
I wasn’t wearing my glasses since at 7 I didn’t need them and in general I always find it relaxing to be liberated from too many details. But my nearsightedness worked against me when a man began sprinting down the other side of the street. He was copper-colored with close-cropped hair and, as he ran closer, I could see how elegantly the muscles in his limbs and shoulders tapered though I still couldn’t see his face. I saw that he was wielding a slightly forlorn bouquet of flowers, the sort you buy at the deli in a last-minute rush of love or forgive-me-baby. I saw too his bald spot, large enough that most men would have shaved their whole head in order to make that baldness seem deliberate rather than a vulnerability. It was the last detail that got me. I had always found that bald spot painfully endearing in my last big love, a man I’d once been sure was no less than my destiny, my heart, my reward for all that had come before. All that jazz. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy