Nostalgia — or, maybe not.

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The former Fairfield Towers. We lived in the right corner apartment, second from the top.

This morning, I drove Jim to a site in East New York (that’s in Brooklyn, for those who don’t know), and found myself passing, for the first time in many years, through the area where I spent my adolescence. My family moved to that neighborhood when I was in sixth grade, and then moved from an apartment to a real, true house when I was in college. On the way back, I made a last-minute decision to drive past my old building, just to see it and see how I felt about it.

I was surprised at how little it affected me. I do have many memories associated with it:  The new smells of the building (it had just been built), and of the padding in the elevators. Doing picture puzzles while my pet parakeet picked up puzzle pieces and dropped them back into the box. Begging my mother to let me go to an outdoor concert in Woodstock, NY (she didn’t). Watching Star Trek with my father. Getting my first makeup kit from my Aunt Edna. Fetching the mail, and opening an envelope telling me that a poem I wrote was accepted for an anthology.

And yet, when I drove past the front of the building, parked, got out and looked at it, I didn’t feel much attachment to it at all.

Chana in later years
My grandmother, my uncle Rube, and an adolescent Barbara hang out on the terrace at Fairfield Towers. 

I drove around the corner, parked again, and got out again. Our apartment was located at the back of the building, on the corner of the seventh floor, overlooking the parking lot and, in the distance, Jamaica Bay. (Several years later, a new and large housing project was built on the landfill between us and the Bay, waking me every morning as girders were pounded in place and as the buildings rose to block our view of the Bay.) I could see our apartment and the houses across the street where several of my friends once lived. There was a sign with the name of the project on it: It was now called MeadowWood at Gateway rather than Fairfield Towers, and the apartments were now being sold as condominiums rather than rented out. But it was the place I remembered.

I still didn’t feel very nostalgic.

I’m curious why. I feel much more connected to Bayview Houses in Canarsie, where I spent my childhood, even though that was also a housing project. I even feel more connected to the house my parents moved to in Long Island, even though I only lived there one year (and never felt comfortable with the culture of Long Island) — perhaps because it was a lovely little house, and perhaps because my parents, for whom the house was the culmination of a dream, loved it so much. The apartment in Fairfield Towers was just the place I spent while I passed through an uncomfortable adolescence (what adolescence isn’t?) into adulthood.

And yet. And yet. As I think about my life in that apartment, and some of the events of my life there, I do feel a sense of sadness about some of the things I thought I’d do in my life and didn’t, and some of the opportunities missed, and the people whom I loved and who are no longer with us.

It’s a conundrum.

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Some quick notes

Hi, folks —

lear_woman_writing
Illustration: Edward Lear

Sorry that it took me so long to cap the end of my last blog post — I’m sure you were all on pins and needles waiting to find out what happened. (Well, probably not, but still…)

Anyway, the Resist Fascism Kickstarter did make its goal, with enough over to buy another story, which I’m very pleased about. According to Bart & Kay, they are now working to get the anthology out before the mid-terms, which will be great.

The publication of my mosaic novel/collection The History of Soul 2065 is proceeding. I’ve seen first drafts of the cover illustration, which is being done by the very talented Paula Arwen. Stay tuned for more on that.

I’ve got two of my older stories now available to read at the anthology site Curious Fictions, and plan to put up more over the next few weeks, in case you’re looking for something to read.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be at the Capclave SF con in Rockville, MD in a couple of weeks, September 17-30th. I’ll post my schedule in a few days; meanwhile, I look forward to seeing my friends in the Washington D.C. area.

That’s all for now!

Fixing the faucet and other thoughts

I have three faucet controls above my bathtub. One is for hot, one is for cold, and one is to turn the shower on and off. The fixtures are made of metal holders in which faux-marble handles are inserted. Like everything else in the house, it was designed to look good while being extremely cheap.

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Several years ago, the faux-marble handle in the center control, which turns the shower on and off, fell — slipped out of its fixture and landed on the floor of the tub. I tried to tape it back and glue it back, but was defeated by the smoothness of the handle and the dampness of the bathroom.

So for years now, I’ve stored the handle on the side of the bathtub. Every morning, when I wanted to shower, I’d slip it into its fixture, turn it, put it back on the side of the tub, and then do the same when I was done. It became part of my morning ritual.

Then, about two weeks ago, the hot water faux-metal handle slipped out of its fixture.

That was something that was harder to get used to. Not only did I have to place and replace the handle that would turn the shower on and off, but also the one that would adjust the hot water. It was both inconvenient and irritating.

Motivated by my inability to change the hot water when needed (and nervous about getting burned), I actually, finally, came up with a solution — using this fabulous stuff that I had once seen an article about called Sugru Mouldable Glue. (I’ve included the link just in case somebody out there could also use it.)  It comes in little packets. You open the packet, take off as much of the clay-like substance as you like, mold it, stick it to whatever you want, give it 24 hours, and it semi-hardens to a rubbery substance. I put the faux-marble handles into the fixtures, stuck the Sugru on either side of the fixture as barriers, and waited.

And it worked! The handles are now staying where they belong, inside the fixtures.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

What it’s about is the fact that I’m still reaching for the central faux-marble handle after every shower — even though I’m reasonably awake and intellectually aware that I used the handle to start the shower. I finish washing, and go to the side of the tub, reach around, and for a split second I wonder what happened to the damned handle — and then think: Oh, yeah — it’s fixed. All I have to do is actually put my hand on it and turn it.

So now I’m wondering: Will I ever forgive the center handle for being fixed after not being fixed for such a long time?

The problem is that it feels so good — so righteous — to blame the fixture for my having to get up, shower, make coffee, and prepare for work in the morning. I’d rather lie in bed until 11 a.m. or so and read, but instead I have to get moving.

I don’t really want to be in a bad mood because I have to work, or because I’m behind on various personal tasks. That means I’m a lazy person, right? But when I had to go fishing for the separate handle every morning, I could pull myself up and say, “Obviously, it’s the handle’s fault that I’m feeling like this” — a very satisfactory strategy.

Not realistic, you say? Well, perhaps not. But sometimes, when we’re angry at a bad situation in our lives or in our world (and lord knows there are enough of those situations these days), it helps to focus that anger on something easy and within reach. Something you can blame. Like a broken shower handle.

But now it’s fixed. Of course, I can, for now, be angry because I find myself searching for it unnecessarily each morning. After that? I guess I’ll have to find something else.

Revisiting one’s past in fiction

A little while ago, I was looking at a story that was published recently in Mystic Delirium called “The Ladder-Back Chair.” It describes the experiences of a woman who tries to come to terms with her husband’s death by imagining the presence of a chair she associates with their life together. And then I checked my list of published fiction, and realized that a great deal of my fiction written over the past 15 or so years — more than I thought — has been heavily influenced by a single event in my life: The death of my father in the spring of 2001.

First, a short and very incomplete bio of Bernard Krasnoff — Bernie to his friends. He was born in 1923 to immigrant parents, and grew up in Brooklyn. His college education was interrupted by World War II; he served in the Army in Europe and helped to liberate at least one of the lesser known concentration camps (and kept in touch with two young women who, much later in life, met with him and my mother when they visited the U.S. from Israel). After the war, he studied history at Brooklyn College, where he met and eventually married my mother.

Bernie & Einstein, 1976
Bernie & Einstein (my cat) in 1976.

His life was, by all external measures, not extraordinary. He started as a salesman in the “rag trade,” dealing in wholesale women’s clothing. One of my early memories is of visiting his workplace, playing hide and seek among racks and racks of clothes and watching as tailors with pins in their mouths cut out garments amid the smells of machine oil, dust and glue.

Later, after a brief period of unemployment, he managed a mail-order concern for a high-end men’s clothing company. After he retired, he tried out a variety of trades just for the fun of it: He freelanced as a business consultant; worked as a salesman in the men’s department of a clothing store; and became a “meter maid” for the local traffic department (he most enjoyed giving out parking tickets to Cadillacs and other high-priced cars). And perhaps more that I don’t immediately remember.

Other random things I remember: He played the guitar (until my toddler brother sat on it); listened to Woody Guthrie, Alan Sherman, and Beverly Sills; edited a newsletter for the housing project we lived in; supported the Civil Rights movement, opposed the Vietnam War, and was active in local politics; and followed baseball (the Mets), along with other sports (he even watched golf, which for me was about as exciting as watching paint dry). When my family moved from an apartment to a small house in Long Island, he took a huge amount of pleasure in maintaining the house and the garden, and raised an American flag on a flagpole whenever the weather allowed. He supported, defended and loved his family.

I still miss him terribly.

The first story I published after 2001 was called “Lost Connections” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 2002) and was a time-travel story in which a woman visits both sets of grandparents in a useless effort to warn the children who would become her parents against their own futures. The next, “In the Loop” (Descant, 2003), was about a man who becomes lost in the nightmarish unreality of dealing with his father’s illness and death.

Interestingly, the one that I wrote just after my father’s death, “Cancer God” (Space and Time, 2009), wasn’t sold until eight years later. It’s about a smart-ass, aging salesman who is in the hospital and tries to fast-talk his way out of dying. “Waiting for Jakie” (Apex, 2009), was written later but sold the same year and is about the inner life of a Holocaust survivor obsessed with a young soldier she met briefly after liberation.

There are others that I never finished, or never sold (including a very angry revenge story about one of his doctors that I will probably never publish). But now, after “The Ladder-Back Chair,” and as fond as I am of the stories I’ve written over the last 15 years, perhaps I should experiment a bit — try to see if I still have the imagination and skill to work in a wider arena.

I’ll let you know if I succeed. Or, perhaps, you’ll let me know.

Nightmares of Nuclear War

When I was about 12 years old, I was awakened early one morning by the sound of an explosion right outside our building. I ran to the window (we lived on the seventh floor) and, still not completely awake, saw a pillar of thick smoke rising and gathering. For one moment, I was so terrified, I couldn’t breathe.

It turned out to be the smoke from a car explosion — in an act of revenge for some slight or other, somebody had apparently thrown a molotov cocktail at an empty car parked outside. But when I found out what had caused the explosion, I wasn’t all that impressed. Because it wasn’t the idea that people were throwing around home-made bombs in my neighborhood that had frightened me so badly.

It was that, for that one second, I thought I was looking at an atomic blast.

I was born early enough so that I have vague memories of watching President Kennedy talking on TV during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening, but I did understand that my parents were also watching, and that they were very, very frightened. I also understood that there could be a war, and that the nuclear explosions that I’d seen movies of could blast us out of existence at any moment.

I had nightmares for weeks after that — not helped by the atomic war drills that we had at school. (Which, even at an early age, I knew were ridiculous — was sitting in a hallway with our arms over our heads really going to protect us from a nuclear blast?)

In fact, I spent my childhood and adolescence living with the terror of an early death from a nuclear war as a constant background hiss in my consciousness. It was like the static from a badly-tuned radio station — you tried to ignore it, you even forgot about it occasionally, but it was always there. It only began to slowly ebb in my college years — while there were still fights to be fought, I began to finally feel that I, and my younger brother, and the even younger children around me, might survive into adulthood, along with the rest of the world. And in the years following, I was grateful that, although there were other problems to be faced, and other horrors around the world, at the very least annihilation by nuclear holocaust was not an imminent threat. That people younger than me didn’t need to know what that felt like.

And now, the nightmare is back.

Our president is tweeting about pressing the nuclear button as though he and Kim Jong Un are a pair of teenagers playing the dozens on a street corner; as though the threat of unleashing a force that could murder millions — hell, billions — of people has no real significance.

trump nuclear

There is nothing I can say to something like this. I doubt if there’s anything anyone could say to impress upon Mr. Trump how unbelievably frightening it is when somebody at his level of government and with his level of power exhibits this level of childish bluster. He is threatening our lives, and the lives of our children, and the lives of adults and children around the world, just so he can play “mine is bigger than yours.”

I have never been religious. I am pretty much an agnostic. But if there is a god, or gods, or any kinds of deities out there, then this is my sincere and fervent prayer: Please let us survive this man. Whatever humanity’s sins, we don’t deserve him.

Today’s rant: Women are are not naturally lipsticked

Let’s start with one premise: Most women (hell, most men) do not have naturally red lips. Or perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Or darkly-lined eyes. Or blue-gray shaded eyelids.

There is a very funny scene in the premiere episode of upcoming Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which I’m very much looking forward to, btw). Our heroine goes to bed, waits until her recently-wed husband is asleep, and then tiptoes to the bathroom. She puts her hair in curlers, removes her makeup, douses her face in cold cream and then goes back to bed. She wakes about half an hour before the alarm, removes the cold cream, brushes out her hair, applies her makeup (lipstick and all), and then goes back to bed and pretends to be asleep until the alarm goes off, and her husband “wakes” his fabulous-looking wife.

For me, it was a wonderful setup of a popular movie trope: That beautiful women always look perfectly cosmeticized. Women in most films — especially before the last decade or so — always have artfully placed hair, red lips and carefully detailed eyes. It doesn’t matter if they’ve just gotten out of bed or just finished cooking a five-course dinner. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been dumped in the river or a pool, spent hours trudging through a jungle, carried around by a monster, saved from a fire, pulled onto a horse,  — except for an artfully placed smudge, their makeup is always perfect.

Bing in an early film–eyeliner, lipstick & all.

(And yes, I’m aware that everybody actually wears makeup in movies. But except for silents and early talkies — have you seen how much lipstick Bing Crosby wears in some of his earliest films? — men’s faces are carefully made up so they don’t look like they’re wearing cosmetics. But women always do — at least, to those of us who know what women look like without makeup.)

I have to admit, as somebody who has never been at all good at (or all that interested in) makeup, I harbor a bit of secret resentment about that. When I was young and inexperienced at looking for love, I was told by several young men that they preferred their women to be “natural.” I took them at their word — until I noticed that, for the most part, the women they asked out were the ones who knew how to use cosmetics to enhance their faces without looking made up. Not having that skill, I was never able to come up to their expectations of what natural should look like in a woman. Natural wasn’t what real women looked like without makeup. Natural was what the women on movies and TV looked like.

More recently, though, many women’s faces on screen have become a little more realistic. When they’re supposed to be just out of bed, or just spent two days running from evil would-be world dominators, their lips and eyes often look plainer and more natural; their hair becomes tousled and even, god help us, truly messy. I love that. I’d love more of it.

Which finally has me coming to what inspired this rant. One of the latest Netflix series to attract attention is a Western called Godless, which is about a town that is inhabited mostly by women who were widowed by the violent deaths of their husbands.

I’ve only been able to watch half of the first episode so far. It’s obviously well written and well acted. So far, it seems to be more about the male protagonists than the women, so my expectations were a little disappointed, but okay — it still could be a fine series.

However (and yes, this is petty, but screw it, I deserve to be occasionally petty if I want to) the cosmetics on the woman who plays Alice Fletcher, what looks to be the lead female role, annoyed the hell out of me.

Most of the other women up until then — the ones without too many lines — appeared to be sturdy, attractive-without-being-fashion-models characters. But Alice is different. She lives with her Paiute mother-in-law and her young son on a remote ranch where the nearest neighbor is probably several miles away. She has had a tough life. She knows how to use a gun to protect herself. She cares for a corral full of horses. The family works hard to provide for themselves.

Yes, absolutely, she was born with her lips that color.

And this down-home, hard-working, 19th-century Western woman is walking around her ranch wearing red lipstick and blue-gray eye shadow, perfectly manicured eyebrows and carefully applied eyeliner. In contrast to her mother-in-law (who is older and not a love-interest and therefore doesn’t count), she obviously spends considerable time each morning — perhaps before she feeds the horses and chops the wood and cooks the breakfast — touching up her face in case any interesting strangers show up at the old homestead.

Which, I’m sorry to say, hit one of my “oh, please!” buttons and kept pushing me out of the otherwise interesting plotline. So I’ll just let my totally personal rant ends with this: Can we please, please, please make sure our tough, hard-working heroines look like normally attractive women rather than fashion models? Can we try to remember that it takes time and effort to look preternaturally gorgeous rather than try to make us believe that some women have naturally bright red lips and blue-gray eyelids?

Thank you.

Thoughts on a film: Hotel Berlin

hotelberlinJust watched an interesting film called Hotel Berlin, which came out in 1945, just about the time the war was ending. It is interesting for a variety of reasons.

It is from a novel by Vicki Baum, a Jewish Austrian writer who came to the U.S. in 1932 when her novel Grand Hotel was being made into a Hollywood film, and then who (quite naturally, under the circumstances) chose to stay. The novel from which Hotel Berlin was taken was actually written as a follow-up to Grand Hotel, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature.

The two films do have several things in common. They all take place in the lobby and rooms of a large, high-class hotel in Berlin, and they all concern the intertwining lives of a variety of people staying in or working in the hotel. And all the stories, in the end, follow a theme: In the earlier Grand Hotel, which was written in 1929, it is how the lack of and pursuit of money affects people’s lives. In Hotel Berlin, it is about how people cope with the waning of the Nazi regime.

In TCM’s commentary on the film, it is noted that this is one of the few films made during the war where both the good and the bad people are all German — and where both the good and bad are painted in complex shades of gray. A German general who had been a loyal member of the Reich until he lost all faith in his leader, and who took part in a failed coup, tries to escape his fate when he is discovered. A leading actress, who was quite happy to enjoy fame and fortune during the regime, switches sides back and forth in an effort to survive. A woman who became a hotel prostitute when her Jewish fiance was killed gives up her security when his mother comes to her for help. An escaping member of the underground depends on the actress for help — and then finds out that she may have betrayed him. And none of these people are portrayed as either completely sympathetic or totally inhuman. For the era, that’s unusual.

On retrospect, this becomes an even more interesting film, both because of some of the things we now know, and because of current events. For example, a Jewish woman walks into the hotel (after removing her star), is recognized and is told to go back to her section; when the film was made, the extent of the death camps were not yet generally known (or it is possible that the Hollywood producers, many of whom were European immigrants, were still hoping that some of their relatives were alive somewhere).

At the end of the film, two Nazi officials in plain clothes stroll out of hotel on their way to the airport; they are going to fly to South America, where they want to plan the re-emergence of the Nazi party there and in North America.

The film ends with a quote from a speech Roosevelt made in October 1944 that “it will be necessary for [the German people] to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding Nations.” And I can’t help but fear that, considering recent events, this statement may, now or in the future, apply to the United States people as well.