Saturday, May 29, 2010


My bedside table reveals a lot about who I am, I think--especially the books--it's crammed with books: the ones I'm in the middle of, the ones I fully intend to read but possibly won't, a few favorites for bedtime comfort. There are occasionally other things on that little table (my glasses, earrings, a cup of coffee, a glass of icewater), but mostly it's books.

Here's the current lineup:

You can see that it runs the gamut from "Twilight" to Snoopy. Hey, I'm not embarrassed! Or maybe a little bit. About the Twilight, not Snoopy...

Closeup #1: we won't even discuss the Stephenie Meyer. Or will we? My dear friend (you shall remain nameless) kindly sent me all four of these. In the final analysis, these are extremely peculiar and disturbing books. I keep them on the bedside because I'm as yet unwilling to pass them along to the next curious reader, and I like the glossy black covers and the heft and bulk of them. Oh Edward. Find someone your own age, won't you?

Also here is "History of Sexuality," which I've yet to get through. Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" is one of my favorite books, and if you're not familiar with it, don't be disappointed but it's not a sexy s&m manual, but rather a thoughtful historical/sociological treatise on schools, prisons, and sanitoriums, and the ways in which they are, disturbingly, similar.

"The Pity of it All," a beautifully written history of German Jews, on loan from my extremely well-read sister in an attempt to better me. Sissy, I promise I'm reading it...but slowly.

My favorite in this pile: Le Fanu's ghost stories, recommended by Megan, scrumptiously well-written and atmospheric. On a rainy night, it's pure magic.

Closeup #2: my red-leather-bound journal (no review necessary, anyone who reads the blog can guess at its maundering contents); "A Reliable Wife" (just finished its gothic overwroughtness), "The Difference Engine" (finished a year ago, but I treasure its little presence); the collected Robert Burns that I retrieved after hearing the beautiful rendition of "Ae fond kiss" over at Mapstew's (go have a listen; it is to weep); "So Innocent...," a self-published true crime masterwork found in a roadside Stuckey's on the Grand Tour road trip last summer. The Mencken belongs to Sarge, but there was no room on his bedside table.

Closeup #3: "World War Z" (you'll like it if you like zombies, which odds are you do); de Sade (I read every word of this, and can attest to the fact that he was mad sick; a hero of free speech; disgusting; re-readable); "Wisconsin Death Trip," my sine qua non, cause of more than a few nightmares when indulged in before sleep, as it is quite hard to digest and often results in psychic dyspepsia.

Tucked in there, hard to see, is my score to The Goldberg Variations, a gift from my mom. I must here stop to give some advice: if you read music, and you are obsessed with a complex piece of classical music, do yourself a favor and purchase or download the score so that you can follow along. It is great fun, highly illuminating, very satisfying. I'm serious!

Lastly, but hardly leastly, is my large Peanuts anthology, abandoned there by Hedgehog. But who among us can deny the lure and appeal of that strange little gang? So I keep it, for its gift of cheer amid the Gothic, the dead, the zombies, the sadism, and all that biting.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Puppy Wrinkles

I can't get enough of Remus' flappy wrinkly dewlap and flews. I am thinking of buying those soft soft delectable wrinkles some flowers, and taking them out for a nice Italian meal, that's how much I love them.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Letter Home

In August 1945, my dear aunt Abby Rachel was five years old, living in Brooklyn on Clinton Street with my infant mother and her parents, Eva and Max. In France, Uncle Harold waited for those official orders that would bring him home again. I believe that the waiting was, for him, not without its ambivalence, for the War had been something of an adventure for that Brooklyn boy, showing him the wider world, a new language, another culture.

But wait he did, for what other choice was there, really? The war had ended, the terrible monster vanquished, and his family wanted him home, so homeward he would eventually travel, not war-weary like many, but rather enlivened, and alive in all the true meaning of that word.

With nothing much to do in the army camp (save, apparently, nap, chat, and eat ice cream), he wrote a letter, now a family treasure, to his niece Abby:

(Abby Rachel Pollack, 1940-2001; Harold Pollack, 1916-2004. May their memory forever be a blessing...)

...and please do take a look at the other wonderful entries for Sepia Saturday...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cousin Sam, Head Cashier

Sam Kisberg, the stuff of small family legend, was a cousin of my great-grandmother Katie Littwin (nee Kisberg).

In his middle age, he lived with Great-grandma Katie in her big boarding house on Ocean Parkway. My mom describes his room as so tiny, overlooking the railroad tracks, furnished with nothing but a bed, a dresser, and a little bookshelf. It smelled of soap; she says he was the cleanest person she ever met. Sometimes she would peek in his drawers just to marvel at how perfectly folded and glowing white his undershirts were.

Sam was the the head cashier at the famous NYC institution, Keen's Steakhouse:

Every Thursday, he came for dinner at my Grandma Eva's, bringing treats from the Steakhouse as a hospitality offering. The Steakhouse staff was allowed to leave work each evening with the best leftovers from that night's dinner seating. Sam would arrive at grandma's house with single portions of cherry cheesecake and brownies. Mom tells me the cake slices would often have a single bite off their pointy ends. Grandpa Max found this shocking, disgusting, and would rail against Sam for his gauche beggarly habits. But Grandma Eva would always whisk the cheesecake into the kitchen and cut off the offending bitten end, whispering to mom "shhh...don't tell daddy..."

Sam brought the dessert on Keen's china, blue and white sturdy Willow-ware plates. The family took to calling this china "Samware," and as a child I would often venture into the little attic room that housed the dishes no longer in frequent rotation, and stare at the hundreds of little Samware dessert plates, neatly stacked in the glassed cupboards...for nothing was ever thrown away in Grandma's house...

He brought, too, from time to time, the white ceramic smoking pipes for which Keen's was famous. Symbols of manly opulence just out of reach, for Sam himself, that soapy-clean Russian immigrant in the tiny room overlooking the train tracks, was a servant, an onlooker, possibly envious, possibly wistful. I'm certain he would have liked to join the ruddy crowds of men in their loud, laughing, drunken steak dinners.

Instead, he made his quiet livelihood behind the cash register, consoling himself with the ill-gotten souvenirs of half-eaten cake and plates and pipes...

The famous Keen's pipes

Servers and staff at Keen's Steakhouse

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Falling Man

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Lately my mind is sunless and dim; my memories, like muted outlines of people lost wandering in a dense fog, appearing every now and again to remind me of some small or great event, are now more indistinct than ever. That is, I can barely remember what we ate for dinner last night...yet every so often a memory walks toward me, at random, gaining a bright lucidity as it draws near.

This morning such an image emerged from the hazy landscape, in complete detail, come to visit my shroudy mind.

In January 1988, just a few months before my grandma Eva's death, my grandparents attended a performance of Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. They had for many decades owned a near-priceless opera subscription, some of the very best seats in the house, mid-row just a few in from the stage for the very best sights and sound.

It was to be a regular Saturday afternoon, spent in music (and perhaps catching a cat nap when the recitative between arias dragged on a bit too long) and a light lunch in the city, at an understated restaurant where an old couple could pass an hour or two over lemon sole and dissection of the merits and flaws of the opera production...

The quiet enjoyment was broken apart in a sudden moment. I heard the disturbing news that evening, when my grandma, still in shock, called me at college to recount the tale: how she and Grandpa Max remained in their seats for the intermission, rattling their programs and chatting, taking a breather, forgoing the crowds searching out sustenance at the little bar...Grandpa said "Eva!", his lone cry lost in the collective gasp and cry of the audience remaining. Grandma looked sharply, grabbed Grandpa's hand and together they watched, as if in slow motion though it must have taken place in seconds: a man, falling straight from the very uppermost balcony, through endless air, the ruffling breeze from his descent and from the waving hands of the people unable to halt the terrible fall.

"It was so graceful," she told me.

I was not to know it yet then, but the falling man was a portent--his swift descent a suicide, a hard choice made in the final moments of despair--an awful sign (if I had known to look) of my grandma's death that warm May day a few months after, but hers an unwilling death, for she had more operas and luncheons to enjoy if she had only been able.

Though when I think of him, and her, now, the symmetry of their deaths, I'm comforted by an idea that takes shape: while he left his darkened world by fall, she left hers in flight.

To read in more detail of this strange and sad tale, visit the New York Times account.

Lines from "Musee des Beaux Arts" by Auden.