Sunday, July 31, 2011

This Old Face

Several years ago, I looked in the mirror and a strange face looked back.  Sallow and as dry as crepe paper, with wrinkles around the eyes and creases around the mouth. Odd little bumps dotting a bony ridge of nose.

A 50-something face.

How could I make that face go away? My skincare routine consisted of deodorant soap followed by a slathering of whatever lotion was on sale at the grocery store. Clearly this wasn’t adequate.

The next day I surveyed the racks at the newsstand and bought a magazine whose cover girl looked more like a covered woman.  I began to leaf through the pages…and there was the answer: Two Steps To Youthful Skin. After 2 days, skin will glow with improved luminosity. After 2 weeks, fine lines will disappear. After 2 months, overall complexion will be radiant.

I tore the page out of the magazine and went in search of this solution.

Clutching the glossy ad, I ventured into the local department store’s cosmetics department. Chrome and glass gleamed. Glittering green packages seemed to tumble off the counters. Everywhere I turned, 400 choices of lip color, 300 choices of eye color, and 200 complementing shades of blush greeted me.

Where was the product in my ad? I walked around and around, squinting, peering. It wasn’t there. But I had come this far. I wasn't going to leave without a way to get rid of that face in the mirror.

Then the title of a brochure beckoned. Newsome skin is young skin. This line of products had a two-step process, too! Only, the first step had three phases. And the second step had a choice of creams, depending on whether you wanted to reverse the aging process or just slow it down.

Which did I want? How far gone was I? I needed professional help. And lo, “Cheryl” appeared before me, in her smart black smock. “What are you looking for?” she asked as she grasped my face and held it to the light for a clinical examination. “Umm…Not too bad.”

"Cheryl" proceeded to pull out pots and tubes and jars and jellies. Moving them around faster than a con man with a shell game, she grouped first two, then three, then one, then four. If this, then that. With that, none of this. This one once a day, but the other twice a week.

Math was not my best subject. “But what about this system?” I pleaded, pointing to the brochure.

“Oh, I wouldn’t waste my money on that.” She returned to her configurations.

I backed away quietly and headed for the exit, with a lingering glance at the counters on either side. I stopped to read one more display, to find that it didn’t address aging skin at all. Only bleeding lipstick. My disappointment must have been palpable, for I heard a gentle voice say, “May I help you?”

Across the aisle, against a backdrop of brown and orange — “The Colours of the Harvest” — was a pleasant young lady (“Karen”), wearing a cream-colored (or is that “creme-coloured”?) blouse with a Peter Pan collar.

“I’m searching for a system to make my old face go away.”

“Ah, we have the very thing.”

She produced a tidy little bag trimmed in green. “In here is our daily three-part system to Purify, Activate and Restore.  I can let you have this collection for $22.50 with a purchase of $30.00 or more of other merchandise.”

I quickly bought mascara, lipgloss and some hand cream. I was anxious to get my system home, to put it to work in restoring my youth.

It worked even faster than “Karen” could have imagined. For as soon as I squirted the first drop of Moisture Intensifier into my hand and smelled that sweet chemical smell, I was twelve years old again.

That was the year I was interested in make-up. From the pages of Teen Magazine  I had ordered the COMPLETE COSMETIC KIT. Cleansing Crystals. Milky Moisturizer. Firm Foundation. Lilac Lashes. Silky Shadow. Ruby Rouge. Luscious Lipstick. All for $6.99.  The package arrived in the Saturday mail and I immediately applied it all. When I went downstairs for dinner, my mother took one look at me and said, “No daughter of mine is living in this house looking like that. Now go wash your face before you come to the table.”

As I massaged these new lotions into my cheeks, I half-expected to hear my mother’s voice: “Kathy, what are you doing in that bathroom?”

Five days passed in using my new system, and all was quiet. My husband and children didn’t complain about any funny smells. And I believed I could already see a difference in my skin’s texture, elasticity, and color — I mean, colour.

So if you happen to be in the Philadelphia area and you spy a slightly graying woman surrounded by a luminous halo, that’s just me, radiating with the freshness of youth.

This old face...


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Great Expectations

       I have always believed in being prepared. And over the years, I've found the best way to be prepared is to buy a book.
       Books tell you what to expect. What to expect when you plan a wedding. What to expect when you join a corporation. What to expect when you buy a house.
       What to expect when you become pregnant.
       From the first positive blood test, I methodically worked through chapters and checklists. I was prepared for an April 6, 1986, due date.
       My water broke on February 14, a decidedly unexpected diversion in the middle of a business meeting. Jay arrived 10 hours later and seven weeks early. The books had not prepared me for a number of things.

Special Delivery
By the Book: Check out the parking regulations for the maternity wing a month before your due date and be sure to keep your car in good working order with plenty of gas in the tank. Several weeks before expected delivery, pack your “hospital bag,” remembering to include your breathing instruction sheet, hard candies for you, and a snack for your coach
       When my water broke I was on the 37th floor of the Mellon Bank building in downtown Philadelphia. My husband, Jon, was on the 33rd floor of the same building. Our car, however, was 20 miles away, parked in the lot of a commuter train station. We rendezvoused in the express elevator and flagged down a taxi.
        As I maneuvered over the cracked vinyl seat, Jon gave directions to the doctor’s office and explained why there was some urgency. Chomping down on his cigar and stomping down on his accelerator, the cabbie sent us careering around City Hall Square so fast that the centrifugal force threw me against the door. We made record time.
       My doctor confirmed that I was in early labor and called the hospital to alert them that we were on the way. Our taxi was long gone. We walked the three blocks.
       Once in the labor room, we longed for our props. The only bags that had made the trip were our briefcases. Three files of financial reports and a supply of business cards didn't help much when the contractions were two minutes apart, my mouth felt like an ashtray, and my lower back seemed to have a bowling bowl sitting on my spine.
Blissful Bonding
By the Book: Immediately after delivery, the nurse will place your baby on your chest. Notice the deep blue of the infant’s eyes and the strength of the tiny grasp around your own fingers. Later, when you are back in your room, the nurses will wheel in your newborn. In those moments of peace, examine the minute yet perfectly proportioned fingers and toes.
       Jay’s early arrival ruled out any lingering in the delivery room. Faster than a quarterback could call the signals, Jay was hiked to the nurses, who bound him tightly in a yellow blanket, pulled a blue stocking cap down to his eyebrows, and waved him under my nose before passing him to the NICU staff. He was gone before I could see the color of his hair, let alone the color of his eyes.
       Several hours after delivery I found myself gingerly positioned on a doughnut cushion while Jon wheeled me to see our son.
Jay, at 3 days old
       There through the glass was Jay. Not snugly swaddled, but splayed on a platform with needles dangling from his tiny foot, wires snaking around his tiny chest, and tubes running into his tiny nostrils. Granted, his fingers and toes did look in proportion.

       At Home
By the Book: To avoid overstimulating the baby and exhausting yourself, limit the number of visitors during the baby’s first weeks. Eliminate trips back and forth to the nursery by setting up a pretty bassinet in the corner of the living room.
       Even if we had had visitors, they wouldn’t have found us at home. We spent the first month of Jay’s life wearing out the road to the hospital. We jockeyed for parking spots with the rest of the 7 AM shift. We learned the three different ways to get to the Pediatric Nursery while avoiding the Visitors’ Elevator. We became connoisseurs of the cheese fries in the hospital’s cafeteria.
       Receiving guests in the comfort of our living room? Jay received us, but only after we had donned geometric-print hospital gowns and scrubbed up with soap that smelled like Lysol. We did have company in the Nursery: a couple named Tony and Maria murmuring over their daughter Angela. We barely exchanged nods with them.
       Around the Nursery, machines graphing pulse rates whirred and apnea monitors went off with high-pitched beeps. In the hallway, the intercom system crackled, “Dr. Tomlinson. Dr. Tomlinson. Please report to OR.” At night, Jay slept with a flickering TV screen for a nightlight and, for a lullaby, the all-news radio station.
Determined to have Jay distinguish us from the high decibels and distraction of the hospital, we read to him every evening from one of Jon’s childhood favorites, Ozma of Oz. I would rock Jay next to his monitor while Jon would read until his throat became dry.
Jay, at 23 years old
       One evening the Nursery grew unusually quiet. The monitors seemed inattentive, and the new shift of nurses had not yet turned on the television. Even Tony and Maria had paused in their conversations with Angela. The only sound in the room was Jon’s voice: “Just then, Ozma reentered the room, leading Dorothy by the hand and followed closely by Princess Langwidere.” A bit self-conscious, Jon shut the book.
       “Hey, you can’t stop now!” Tony turned in his chair to face us. “What happens next?”
       The four of us pulled our chairs into a circle. As our tiny infants slept in peaceful defiance of lunar charts and Estimated Dates of Confinement, we listened to Jon continue with the next chapter, “Ozma to the Rescue.”
       I guess a book came in handy after all.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Horse Is a Horse, Of Course

           “My kingdom for a horse!” cried Richard III.
            Well, I had no kingdom, but I frequently cried for a horse. Cried. Coaxed. Cajoled. I begged Santa for a sorrel pony. I begged my parents for a palomino. Every Christmas. Every birthday. Every year. “Please, puh-leese, could we get a horse?” Answer: “No, the backyard is not zoned for livestock.”
            Then I got married…and got my own backyard. From the bedroom window I had an unobstructed view of a barn and, just beyond, the fences of three unused pastures. I could get a horse.
Ollie, in his prime
            Two months later, I led my new horse, Ollie, out of a rented trailer and introduced him to his new quarters. Ollie, in turn, introduced me to some key facts about horses, things you don’t learn until you actually own one.

Horses aren’t cats. Cats eat tuna (which at that time cost 25¢ a can and still can be prepared in 60 seconds). Cats don’t mind if you go away for five days, as long as you leave behind a big bowl of Gourmet Kitty Crunch. Cats have litter boxes, measuring 14 inches by 24 inches, which you need to clean once a week.
Horses have stalls, measuring 10 feet by 15 feet, which you need to muck out once a day. When Ollie first arrived, I thought it an adventure to rise at 5:00 a.m., pull on old jeans, slip into my L. L. Bean duck shoes, and head off to the barn. I would watch my breath vaporize in the crisp predawn air and relish the pungent smell of hay, oats, and manure as I pitched the old straw into a wheelbarrow. Then I began to notice that not all dawns are crisp. Some are soggy. I started to skip the mucking out a day here, two days there…five days. Finally, I sensed Ollie’s longing for the fresh air of the open pasture. We stopped using a stall.

Horses aren’t avid readers. During my formative years, my shelves bulged with books about horses. Black Beauty. My Friend, Flicka. Misty of Chincoteague. The Black Stallion series. All dwelled on the tender relationship between horse and owner. The horse would greet the owner with an eager whinny and a warm nuzzle against the nape of the neck. The resulting bond transcended time and place. Even after returning to the Arabian desert, separated from his master for several years and by more than 6,000 miles, the Black Stallion responded immediately to Alec Ramsey’s whistle.
Unfortunately, Ollie wasn’t familiar with this literature. He didn’t know that he was to return my care for him with an affection that should know no bounds. In fact, he didn’t seem to take much interest at all in me or my whistling. Each time I appeared with mash bucket or curry brush in hand, those liquid brown eyes would take on a quizzical look: “What, she’s here again?”

Horses aren’t adept at personal grooming. A bird can clean its entire body with its beak. Even a five-year-old boy can brush his own hair. Horses have tails…and that’s it. Occasionally they swish these tails against their withers in a half-hearted attempt at dusting, but the rest is up to you. Bathing. Brushing. Combing. Scraping crud out of hooves. Mixing and spraying thick white fly-repellent spray in the summer. Forcing down a dose of cod-liver oil to keep the coat shiny in winter.
And yet, these activities were only glimpses of a greater truth.

Horses aren’t Boy Scouts; they are never prepared. It takes four seconds (at most) to snap leash to collar when you take a dog for an afternoon’s walk. It takes 40 minutes to saddle and bridle a horse for a 20-minute trot. Guiding the slithery bit into the horse’s foamy mouth, fingers frantically trying to remain three-dimensional, can take 15 minutes alone. Add to that lugging the saddle from the rack, heaving it over an equine back eight inches above your head, and tugging with all your upper body strength to tighten the girth properly. You’re exhausted before you’ve even put a foot in a stirrup.
At one point, I thought I would take a shortcut and ride bareback. Within three minutes I had slid off his other side onto the gravel and was lying on my back. Ollie slowly turned his head to look at me, clearly thinking: “What are you doing down there, you fool?”
Leading me to grasp the final fact.

Horses aren’t compassionate.

I, however, am compassionate. After 18 months of life with Ollie, I read about a local riding school’s therapeutic work with physically disabled children. Compassion welling up inside me, I called the director and offered to donate Ollie to this worthy cause. The director was thrilled and made arrangements to pick up Ollie the following week. As the school’s trailer drove out the lane, I waved good-bye, cheerful in the knowledge that I had done a good deed.
Now, if only Richard the III had been around…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Legacy: A Princeton Story

(Previously published, in a slightly different form, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Dec 25, 1996.)
 My six-year-old daughter has put her head on my lap, her pillow made from two programs for Princeton University’s Charter Day Convocation in celebration of its 250th anniversary. The warm October sun and the rise and fall of voices from the podium 100 yards away in front of Nassau Hall have put her to sleep. My ten-year-old son amuses himself by crushing leaves.
Jay and Annie are not impressed with thoughts of Princeton in the next millennium. They are tolerating the constriction of the Convocation because they’ve been promised great treats: free Cokes, a Sheryl Crow concert, fireworks. That’s the Princeton they know. The fun Princeton. The place where they come to scream during football games, to play frisbee in Little Courtyard during Reunions, to visit the dinosaur in Guyot after hamburgers and french fries at PJ’s Pancake House.  They’re not interested in big numbers like 250 or even that 90 years ago my grandfather, Class of 1910, first arrived at Princeton as a student or that 80 years ago my father, Class of 1939, was born or even that 30 years after my graduation my son might just be arriving. They don’t care that they are part of a continuum, not only the public continuum, but a family continuum as well.
But I care. I listen to the speakers recalling memories, colonial and current, and I ache for the memories that I don’t have of Princeton. For, though my grandfather and father were there before me, they were both gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 1970. My grandfather had died when I was seven years old. I hadn’t anticipated sharing Princeton with him. I had anticipated sharing Princeton with my father.
 I remember seeing on my father’s desk the envelope, stamped and ready for the mail, in which he had declared his support for coeducation. I remember sorting through the application forms with him. I remember his delight when I had been accepted. Materials started arriving at our house—the course catalog, the Daily Princetonian, the calendar with football games, Parents’ Weekend, Alumni Day. So many chances to be at Princeton together. Further down the years, we would have Reunions together, 1939 and 1974.        
Princeton Commencement, 1967
Two weeks after my high school graduation my father died of a heart attack.
In fact, my father and I were together on Princeton’s campus only twice. The first time was for my older brother’s graduation in 1967. A family photograph shows us all lined up at the bottom of Blair Arch steps. Standing wedged between my mother and my younger sister, I am wearing a boxy beige suit my mother thought appropriate for a short, skinny 14-year-old girl to wear to a college graduation. My bangs are in my eyes and, though I am smiling, I look a bit impatient. At the other end of the group next to my brother, who is wearing his cap and gown, stands my father, beaming.
The second time that my father and I were on campus was two years later—when he brought me for my interview. That too was an afternoon in October. The day was raw. A cold drizzle had been falling and I felt damp and disoriented. My father wouldn’t come into the Admission Office, but waited outside for me. He said it was important that I do this on my own. I sat trying not to gnaw at my thumbnail until a young man collected me and took me back to a cell furnished with a desk and two chairs. He looked down at my folder, looked up at me, and said with a barely concealed sneer, “So...I see you’re a legacy.” I felt on the defensive. Afterwards I told my father that the interview hadn’t gone well and I wondered, “What’s so bad about being a legacy?”
My dad put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s good to be a legacy. The interviewer probably just had a rotten day and he said the wrong thing.”
           We ruled out an Orange Key tour. The drizzle had turned to rain and we had a long drive. Anyway, we would have plenty of time for him to show me around the campus if I got accepted.
We didn’t have plenty of time. And so my lasting memory of my father at Princeton is like an old photograph. In that late afternoon permeated by shades of gray—the lowering clouds, the stone buildings, the gravel edging the walks around Cannon Green—in front of Clio in his gray overcoat stands my father under an orange-and-black umbrella. He smiles when he sees me come out of West College.
More than 25 years later I brush a yellow leaf from my daughter’s face as the gold autumn light brings out the amber of Nassau Hall on a day celebrating a five times golden anniversary, and I realize that my father had shared Princeton with me. His classmate Fred Fox kept an eye on me for my four years as a student, inviting me for home-cooked meals at his house in Princeton. His roommate Walter Lord had just recently written to me, enclosing a photograph of my father with his 150-football team. And during the P-Rade my heart pounds and my throat catches as the Class of 1939 goes by: these men knew my father and something of my father’s Princeton life still lives with them.
           The interviewer 27 years ago did say the wrong thing, but not quite in the way my father meant. I am not the legacy. Princeton is the legacy my father left to me.
I hear Reginald Gibbons '69 read the last lines of his poem commissioned for the 250th Anniversary...”my father’s hand,/ which had come from some remote labor to clasp my hand as I said good-bye.” I never got to clasp my father’s hand to say good-bye, but I remember my father’s hand on my shoulder on that other October afternoon.
Yes, it’s good to be a legacy.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Harry Goes to Hollywood

(First published, in a slightly different form, in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine Jan 16, 1994.)
            It was a bit disconcerting to have my high school boyfriend smiling down from the cover of People magazine as “The Sexiest Man Alive” while I was maneuvering a shopping cart in the checkout line, rummaging for my wallet and grappling with my toddler over the candy display.
            My old boyfriend is Harry Hamlin. Although I hadn’t spoken with Harry in more than 20 years, I’d certainly heard about the milestones of his life. Tabloid headlines shouted them at me. “Italian Goddess Has Love-Child with Toga-Clad Co-Star!” “Kusak Quits, Leaves L.A. Law in the Lurch!” “Harried Harry: Nicolette Bolts for Bolton!”
            I have to say, I didn’t think Harry was happy.
            But then again, how could he be? After dating 17-year-old Kathy of Hollidaysburg, PA, president of the Baldwin School Chorus, wouldn’t everything else fall short?
            A chorus concert brought us together. It was the spring of 1970. I was a senior at the Baldwin School (for girls) in Bryn Mawr; Harry was a senior at the Hill School (for boys) in Pottstown.
            Between renditions of “Sentimental Journey” and selections from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, I had a solo. Alone on the Assembly Room stage, I sang a plaintive piece by Donovan, wearing my chorus-issued straight black skirt and white blouse, with my Martin acoustic guitar slung across my 5-foot-1 frame and my brown hair hanging down my back.
            Finding me irresistible, Harry asked me to dance after the concert. From that point on we were together. Well, as together as two kids can be when they attend boarding schools 25 miles apart. We did have the combined rehearsals for the annual spring Humanities Concert, when the Baldwin School Chorus and the Hill School Glee Club performed a choral masterwork.
            The campuses of our schools didn’t always confine us. Spring-term weekends were free for seniors—to go home. Harry’s family lived in Pasadena, almost 3,000 miles from the Hill School. Hollidaysburg was only a three-hour drive. Harry came to Hollidaysburg.
            Upon first arriving, he presented my mother with a hostess gift: several jars of homemade jams bound up in blue-and-white gingham bows. Satisfied that Harry was a young man of good manners, my mother proceeded to fill him with food. “More leg of lamb, Harry? Kathy, pass Harry the mint sauce. We have plenty of mashed potatoes in the kitchen.”
            My father, on the other hand, was interested in the intellectual:
            My dad: “Tell me, is Dr. Groten still conjugating verbs in sixth-form Latin?”
            Harry: “Yes, sir.”
            My dad: “Ah, good. Kathy’s brothers had him. A fine teacher, a fine teacher. And Mr. Brown—have you enjoyed his chemistry classes?”
            Harry: “I’m sorry, Dr. Taylor. I don’t take chemistry.”
            My dad: “Too bad. A fine teacher, a fine teacher. I understand you’ll be attending Berkeley. Isn’t that the school with all the hippies?”
            Harry: “There are some hippies, sir, but I believe they’re a minority.”
            My dad: “I hope Kathy’s going to show you the Horseshoe Curve. A true feat of engineering.”
            After spending weekends with my parents, Harry would surely find any future in-laws disappointing.
            If not disappointing, Hollywood would be disturbing after Hollidaysburg. Think of the smog and congestion alone. The 6,000 people who made up the greater Hollidaysburg area didn’t create much of either. Oh, on some days a sour smell that made your eyes water would drift over from the paper mill in Tyrone. And when I was young, traffic leaving Hollidaysburg on Route 36 sometimes got backed up at the train tracks at Bakers Farm Stand. By the time Harry visited, though, the paper mill had been closed down, and Mr. Beegle’s construction company had built the Route 36 Bypass right over the train tracks.
            Air travel would have been more pleasant than at L.A. International as well—as long as you didn’t mind that the airport was in the middle of a cornfield and that there was just one gate, one flight a day, to one place: Pittsburgh. The person who took your ticket at the counter would later greet you at the steps of the plane. Sometimes the pilot helped load the luggage. A group effort.
            Of course, some things weren’t considered appropriate for groups. Necking, for example. I’d read that Harry had been spotted “necking” in the light booth at an Elton John concert. At least in Hollidaysburg, Harry had some privacy. The light was the flickering late movie, broadcast from WJAC-TV, Channel 6 in Johnstown, and the sole witness was my cat, Sparky, who never reported anything to the papers.
            Then there were Harry’s audiences. I suspected that they didn’t appreciate him as they should.
            My introduction to Harry’s dramatic talents came during graduation weekend at the Hill School. On Saturday evening, June 6, 1970, the Dramatics Club presented The Fantasticks. Memorial Hall with its dark-paneled walls was packed with parents and guests, faculty and underclassmen, all eager to watch the final production of the Class of 1970.
            The lights dimmed and we became silent. The spotlight came up—and there was Harry, the Indian. Around him, sparse furnishings made up the set: a few slat-backed chairs, a clothesline, a large trunk. On this nearly barren stage, Harry and his classmates conjured up a magical performance about The Boy and The Girl and their ripped and rewoven romance.
            At the final curtain, the audience rose to its feet in wild applause. I can remember smiling and clapping so hard that my jaw and my hands ached.   
After our graduations, I went back home to Hollidaysburg and planned for college on the East Coast. Harry went back home to Pasadena and planned for college on the West Coast, Our letters and phone calls across country dwindled over the summer—and then we lost touch. Harry went on to star in plays, films, telemovies and an acclaimed series. I, on the other hand, went on to teach Hamlet to seniors at the Baldwin School (for girls).
            Poor Harry.