the mystery of the knees

Whenever I meet my maker, I’ll have two pressing questions at the ready.

1) Why are tooth size and palate size determined by two separate genes? Who approached you with THAT brilliant idea? Orthodontists?

2) Knees. Seriously?

I don’t actually expect answers. I’m not that much of an irreverent twit, or that bad of a Catholic, to think the Great Master Programmer in the Sky owes me an explanation. Also, evolution being what it is, the knees seem kind of necessary, at least at 6:55 in the morning, when I can’t very well locomote by dragging my hairy knuckles around the floor, because then I wouldn’t have one hand free for coffee.

But dag nab it, my left knee has been acting up lately. What a pain in the ass! Though technically it’s a pain in the genu, and no, I did not know that word until the Oracle of Google revealed it to me just now. Thanks to soccer and my damned bloody stupid (DBS) propensity for ignoring injuries, I have no one to blame for that knee but my own self. There are potholes in my cartilage that could snap the back axle on a Buick.

In any case, both the left knee and its less-crabby but still aggravating counterpart on the right like to remind me that I’m older than I was 30 years ago. No shit! I really am! The knees make me feel older than everything else about my body that telegraphs age, even the sagging bits and silver hair, because neither the the sags nor the melanin-deprived filaments sprouting from my head cause any actual physical pain. They don’t hurt when I stand after sitting, or when I sit after standing, or when I kneel, squat, plop down on the floor cross-legged, attempt a cossack dance or walk on pavement for eight hours a day six days straight, as I did a couple weeks ago in Edinburgh. Running is altogether out of the question, although I have been known to try it in short bursts of extreme DBS-ity and never fail to regret it. The most I do on a semi-regular basis is kick and juggle the soccer ball around with my kids, and even that puts that pissy little joint of mine in a problematic mood. It swells with anger afterward.

To combat it — when I remember — I swallow glucosamine tablets the size of my head, which might or might not work, but I’m leaning toward “might,” because even if they don’t work I want to believe they do work and thus coax from them a nice, agreeable placebo effect of almost-working. They certainly don’t hurt. As for the saggy and silvery bits, I ignore them.

Otherwise, I do love getting older. I love the way it gives me license to act like an eccentric old battle-ax and mouth off with random profanity at random moments while honking my nose into a crumpled tissue and reminiscing about the good old days of dial telephones (I HAD A PARTY LINE AS A KID, I SWEAR IT’S TRUE) and black-and-white TVs that got just one lone channel with crappy reception. I would much rather be this age than, say, 13, when the apex of my life was “Star Trek,” which aired every afternoon in reruns on the one lone channel with the crappy reception.

The sole thing I’d like to change, and probably will some day, is my left knee. I wouldn’t mind changing the right one, either. If I could go back in time, sneak up behind my younger self while she’s sitting cross-legged and drooling before a crappy monochromatic uni-channeled Captain Kirk, knock her unconscious, harvest a few cells from her knees, clone them, grow them in a petri dish, fortify them with multivitamins and motor oil, improve them with kick-ass bionic upgrades and then insert them into my legs, giving me not just painless knees but Super Mutant Turbo-Charged Nitro-Joints that bend painlessly and hit 90 on the NYS Thruway in 2.8 seconds, I would. But I can’t. Surgery isn’t quite there yet, though I’ve heard some Scandinavian doctors are getting pretty close. Maybe they can explain the mystery of the knees to me, if I ask nicely. But they still won’t know a thing about the teeth.

why we moon

When my sister Lucy and I were little, around 6 and 3 or thereabouts, we used to moon people. I have no idea where the inspiration for this came from, but we got it from somewhere (this was, after all, the late 1960s), and we exercised this vaguely inspired right to moon on our front lawn in New Preston, Conn., for all the world to see. Or maybe not all the world; maybe just passing cars.

At the time I never wondered what the drivers and passengers of these vehicles might have thought, tooling around Lake Waramaug on their leisurely summer drives, approaching this fairly standard-looking white colonial with its fairly standard-looking lawn. Or it might have been standard-looking, had my parents mowed the bottom half of it — they kept the grass high to prevent their darling children from rolling their tricycles into the road, so it looked perpetually unshaved, like Yasser Arafat, Josh Groban or a goat — and had these same parents prevented these same darling children from bending over and dropping trou for unsuspecting tourists.

But they didn’t know, and they didn’t prevent us, and so we had our fun. It consisted of this:

Lucy: Let’s go outside!
Me: Okay!

Lucy: Let’s wait for cars!
Me: Okay!

(A car rounds the bend)
Lucy: Let’s drop our pants and shake our butts!
Me: Okay!

(Dropping our pants and shaking our butts)
Lucy: Ha ha ha ha ha!
Me: Ha ha ha ha ha!

Sometimes, for even more fun, we would perform this dropping of the pants and shaking of the butts while chanting DAY, D-D-DAY, D-D-DAY, and don’t ask why because I don’t remember.

At this point, cough cough, I would like to assure people that I have not mooned anyone since, neither in Connecticut nor Albany nor anywhere else I’ve lived, on any other lawn, be it standard- or non-standard-looking, mowed or unmowed. I do wonder, however, whether my urge to write memoirs and blog about personal matters — such as, for instance, my childhood de-pantsing habits — themselves classify as a sort of mooning, a way of saying, LOOKIE HERE, PEOPLE! I HAVE ALL SORTS OF HIGHLY PERSONAL BID-NESS TO SHOW YOU!! I DARE YOU TO LOOK!

So, really, I can roll my eyes all I want at instances of dumbass celebrity mooning (Justin Bieber instagrammed his lustrous pop-god tushy just a few days ago), but I’m not sure that what I’m doing is all that different. To moon is to show your hidden self to the world — to seek attention, tempt rejection, find acceptance, and maybe engage in a little defensive mockery, just in case. Because you never know, until you stick it out and shake it, how your rear will be received.

Day, D-D-Day, D-D-Day.

my missive from graham greene

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Shatner never wrote back. The poop.

In the summer of ’89, I was living in Somerville, Mass., that unfairly maligned suburb of Boston. For three years, my sister Lucy and I shared the bottom third of a triple-decker house with a third roommate, and if I were numerologically inclined, I might extrapolate some woozy mystical import from all those threes. Hmm. Weird. But I’m not big on numbers. Words are my bag, and have been since I decided at a stupidly young age that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I had no idea what this meant. I knew that my dad, Louis, was a writer, because I’d seen his name on the spine of quite a few books lining our shelves, and because he periodically retreated behind closed doors and made violent pounding noises interrupted by dings. He brutalized typewriters. I do more or less the same with computer keyboards, or so I’m told by colleagues too often forced to pick the shrapnel from their sad and bloodied faces.

In fifth grade, I think it was, I volunteered to help write the script for some school play or other, and I remember nothing about the process other than it yielded utter crap. A year or two later, a venturesome English teacher broke her class into small groups for a similar exercise in playwriting, and once again, I found myself writing utter crap. But at least I remember it; memorable crap always preferable to the bland, nameless and neglected sort that squats in the cobwebs of some dingy corner of the brain.

No, this second attempt at writerly writing was well worth remembering: It was a soap opera. The story began with my character spouting some drippy dialogue before heading offstage to get hit by a car, only to return in a wheelchair — that is, a molded plastic school chair pushed by a classmate. I even bent my legs underneath me to simulate amputation. I’m not shitting you. It was that bad.

From this propitious beginning, my writing career progressed to the woolly English essays and groovy abstract poetry I wrote in my teens. Around then I decided on journalism, and thank God I did, or I might still be writing blank-verse meditations on life and swirling blobs of color. In college I discovered William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, whose dark/light depictions of God, Catholicism and our combative human nature spoke to my own noirish inclinations and budding spiritual life.

In my mid-20s I was living with Lucy — watching her light spirit fight against the dark of suicidality — and gobbling up the last of Greene’s gripping, unsentimental novels, with their screwed-up protagonists and grayscale overlaps of good and evil. I’d read somewhere that he lived in Antibes, and that he responded to every letter he received. These two pieces of information emboldened me to fire one off. Into one page I crammed my appreciation for all that he gave me, all that I learned, all that I hoped for with my own young ambitions.

I addressed it “Graham Greene, Antibes, France,” and it got there. He wrote back. Finding that envelop in the mailbox outside my apartment remains one of the great postal triumphs of my life, ranking between my acceptance to Hamilton College (which had both a great English department AND a freshly minted women’s varsity soccer team, thank you, Title IX) and that autographed glossy from Gene Kelly (the hottest man ever to dance in high waters). He responded to my fan letter, too. William Shatner didn’t. But I don’t hold that against him. Much.

I cherish my missive from Graham Greene. Whether it pushed and punted me down the road to being a better writer, I don’t know. But over the years I’ve turned to it at moments high and low, focusing intensely on that one line: “I wish you every success with your writing.” Every success. Not just worldly. Not just money in the bank and eyeballs on the page. He also meant creative success, the quiet victory of simply putting a decent sentence together — and then two decent sentences, and then a few decent paragraphs, and then an article, a play, a book.

Because it isn’t so simple; it isn’t so small. The threat of utter crap looms always and everywhere, held at bay by the thrashing of keyboards. And somehow, I still want to be a writer when I grow up.

‘good afternoon, wicked thighs’

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Tracking back my blessings on Friday got me thinking about Wykeham Rise, the wee girls’ arts school in Washington, Conn., where my mom taught music and I learned to make pinch pots while singing “Caro mio ben” (although not simultaneously) when I wasn’t combing my hair at oblique angles and squinting through my bangs. Now closed, Wykeham had about 85 kids, tops. Most everyone was an artist or musician or actor of some sort, and those who weren’t might as well have been, because we were all so gloriously and floridly eccentric.

I loved that place. No one cared that I was a nerdy introvert with clanging dental hardware; I was a Wykeham Chickham as much as anyone, and before long, nurtured and valued at a school where my voice seemed to matter, where people seemed to care, I became less introverted. Though no less nerdy. And still prone to squinting. And, for the record, a space. 

The teachers at Wykeham were as eccentric as the kids.  One of them, a Mr. David I Forgot His Last Name, sketched the portrait above.  I was being spacey at the time. He felt Continue reading