Good Book/Bad Book

My husband is exquisitely silent this Sunday afternoon. No ranting about the pres; no musings about the state of the world, and he’s not wondering what’s for lunch, dinner, or trying to engage me in audience attendance.

Ever since a friend came over with a stack of trashy novels and we selected a few, and he’s “in” one, he’s turning those pages, fast fast, he’s next to my son, and his dead mother, the fastest reader I’ve ever known.  In a few hours he will have gobbled this one up.

I’m not going to mention which trashy novel he’s reading. It’s not on the bestseller list (the one I selected is) and it’s not even by someone I’ve ever heard of, not that it means anything that I haven’t heard of the writer. It’s a big book, it’s got a nice cover and it weighs several pounds.

Looking at him sitting on the leather chair he made himself, glasses off, totally intent, I wonder what constitutes a trashy novel?

First and foremost: None of the characters are very clear, you have to keep going back to figure out who is who. My husband and my friend say they don’t care who is who.

The writing may be okay, but never beautiful or makes your heart beat, or causes you to reach for a pen to underline. And you don’t think. You don’t draw pararells, you learn absolutely nothing and when you’re done you’re actually relieved. “That’s why they are so great!” says my friend and my husband.

If you’ve stayed up late with it, the next morning, like being on a bender, you can’t remember anything about the book at all. Not even the name of the freaking main character.

Like trashy food, a quick hook up, a B minus movie, it doesn’t tax you.

I asked my husband, “So is it good?”

“No,” says he, eyes still on the book. “It’s a complete piece of shit!”

“So what keeps you turning the pages?”

“Quiet. I’m reading my trashy book.”

I knew a Jesuit from Shreveport who used to read trashy novels and tear off the pages one by one and toss them in the trash.  He was a Shakespearean scholar, he liked good books, but he also liked trashy books.

I don’t know if I do or I don’t. I very seldom read what I consider to be trash.  It makes me feel kind of awful; it makes me feel like I’m doing something dirty, like getting off when I shouldn’t be getting off. And besides, what’s the point?  I suppose the point is, better trashy novels than trashy TV or surfing the net? But maybe not.

My husband would say, my wife would have gotten along well with Cotton Mather. (Is Dan Pense the 21st century non-literary equivalent of Cotton Mather?) If so, I’m going to try and lighten up.

The assumption when you take up a book is whilst inside its pages you are in another world.  The world of a trashy book is no world at all: it’s a bogus plot driven realm where a lot seems to be happening and actually nothing really takes place.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

There’s a difference, a big one, between “escape” books and trashy books. Agatha Christie who wrote eighty or so escape mysteries always takes you somewhere, her characters speak like real people in her milieu spoke and you can read them again, having completely forgotten who did it, and enjoy the book anew.  I don’t think anyone re-reads a trashy book. Why would you?

My husband finished his last night. This morning he has bags under his bloodshot eyes.

“Was that book any good?” I asked him again. “Did you at least enjoy it?”

“Of course not!”

“Then why did you read it?”

“I don’t know.”

“I wish I could write one of those books,” I sighed.

“I’d like to as well.”

“You never told me you wanted to write.”

“I don’t.”

“It’s not easy to write any book. Trashy or not.”

“I know.”

“But if you had a choice, would you write a good book, or a trashy book?”

“Trashy!” said he and he smiled.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Goodbye Chain Store

My son used to have this amazing recording of a traveling preacher with a strong gospel voice recorded during the Great Depression. The preacher was railing against the danger of the chain store.  How on earth did he know? I only heard the recording once, driving around the south side of Chicago near the university campus. But the voice of the preacher will be inside my brain forever. His voice was far away. There was no real sound technology in those days. “No more chain stow,” he railed.

My son’s car radio and all his tunes were stolen some time later and he never could find that recording again.   Now as we face the end of the chain store, and I mean specifically the closing of Barnes and Noble, the big store that was the gateway to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I find myself wanting to stand on a street corner and rail for the return of the chain store. Our Third Street Promenade branch was never a really good book store, not like the big B & N in New York in the eighties on the Upper West Side. Or even the West Side Pavilion branch that closed five or so years ago and was replaced with a furniture store. But was it was indeed a bookstore with real books, floors of them.  

Barnes and Noble I miss you, I’d cry.

Barnes and Noble, who will replace you?  Barnes and Noble, you might have killed off the mom and pop, but what will we do without you?

I used to complain about the Barnes and Noble employees, you’d go in there and ask for Imre Kertesz, or even Kafka and the male or female behind the desk would invariably say, “who?”  And then ask you to spell out the name so he or she could enter it painstakingly in the computer and tell you, “no.” Even the year Kertesz won the Nobel this happened to me at B&N.

At the rival Borders, however, (remember Borders?  First they were big book, then they became big candle, big coffee mug?)  Their store became a Ross Dress for Less in Westwood. In Santa Monica it is now Forever 21.   Borders always had Irme Kertesz –because somewhere, somebody in management loved books and was in the biz of books.  Unlike Amazon, who put the books biz out of biz first—and then everybody else after that. Amazon, you don’t know jack about books.  You killed off the bookstore and yet you didn’t even have an idea about what you were doing. Or did you? You know a lot about marketing, a lot about toilsome things like stars.

Farenheit 451 used to be the scariest book I could think of.  It was right up there with The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining and The Turn of the Screw.  Amazon is far scarier than a book burning.  We don’t even have to light the match for an auto de fe. We have done this to ourselves, and we do it to ourselves every time we hit the place your order button to save a few dollars and a trip to the store. Now, even the big chain book stores are over.  Which means, I’m sorry to say, books as we knew them and loved them could be over too. I hope not.

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Missing Home

I’ve had a curious relationship with my dead mother-in-law’s house for the past ten years. And now suddenly, it’s over and done with.  I would describe the relationship as close, protective, love/hate, proud, loyal, agonizing, infuriating.  Indeed it’s as close as any relationship I’ve had to any house, since I’ve never had a house of my very own and have always longed for one.  My ten year thing with my mother-in-law’s old house encompasses all the range of feelings people have about the places where things have happened to them and to people they love, though I have never lived in the house, except for a short period of time a couple of summers ago. I wrote almost a whole novel during that time, within its walls, and though the novel has yet to be published, I hope one day it will be.  It was an odd couple of months for me. I hardly cooked a meal, I blamed it on the fact that there was only a couple of knives and forks, two bowls and maybe three glasses, none of them proper, all from the Ladies Village Improvement Society bargain box.  There was just the one sofa to sit on, as I had long ago emptied the place out for selling.  Back in the big bedroom, my father-in-law designed and everybody called “the motel” there was one uncomfortable bed and a broken down vintage, modernist chest of drawers so splintered, every time I reached in, I invariably had to retrieve the tweezers and alcohol.  Yet it was one of the happiest summers of my life. In the early mornings I took Henry to the beach and we ran until even Henry tired out.  Then we came back and I stuck post-its all over the walls of the hallway between the motel and the living room, and I figured out my book.  I did online yoga, made new friends, and once in a while got invited to places I’d never been before in all the years I’d been coming to Springs, the not so fancy area of East Hampton.

Always, until the other day, when the new guy, a tasteful Mr. H, did his walkthrough and signed on the dotted line, I’ve halfway hoped, from time to time, I would one day live there with Henry and it would be my house.  My husband, my son, and all my friends would come for dinner and then everybody would go home and there would just be Henry and me.

Every time in the past ten years, when there wasn’t a tenant living there, and my husband and I had words, I would imagine packing a bag, a couple cans of dog food and a few shaky toys, and I’d mentally move to the little house in the woods.  Often, I’d furnish the place in my mind’s eye.  It was a cool little house and it was fun to imagine what I’d do.  It was far better and I think healthier, psychologically I’m guessing, than re-decorating the studio apartment in New York, where I lived when I was younger than my son, something I was in the habit of doing for years.  Why didn’t I have those floors re-done?  Why didn’t I use the little alcove more efficiently?

Houses get inside your skin and bones. And the little house on Fireplace Road got inside mine.  No one else cared about it. My son said he never liked the place. My husband who had once been a little boy there in the summers turned his nose up also. Though I suspect with him it’s his usual inability to voice his feelings about the past.

 My niece and nephew have fond memories of the place where they came and visited their grandparents every summer.  Their grandma was a burn-the-bra bohemian and their grandfather a famous architect who died much longer ago than she did.  Famous painters came to dinner: big deals from the New York School. Friends flew in from Paris, from Athens, from London, Ireland, in the summer in its heyday, the artistic and the louche lounged on its deck in uncomfortable summer chairs.  That’s one of the things I really liked about the place: it was louche, while at the same time being ascetic and uncomfortable.  Had the orange curtains made out of sheets, that covered every window been white I would have liked that too. I just happen to hate the color orange.

When I gutted the place all the boho trappings went with it.  I can’t say I recreated a joint with even a single luxury feature, but it was a different place I rented out. The bathrooms were better, the old fridge got axed and the stove replaced with a Bosch.

All that’s left of the old days other than the gorgeous light, is the grape arbor that grows outside the main room, and the sad old table and chairs underneath it, Mr. H will do what he wants with the remnants.

I remember Ms. U our first tenant, whose bf was a well known sculptor who knew my in-laws. She left skid marks on the lawn and slid the slider in my face when I went to ask for the rent. Mademoiselle Nut Job came next:  a painter who found out, on his last drunken night, Jackson Pollock flipped his car in front and killed himself. Yes, that Jackson Pollock. She had white-on-white monogrammed linens and never did the dishes, then fled, bleating about mice.

Two boys and a girl came next. They left a lot of beer cans.  Finally, a young widow whose kid left glue-on stars on one of the bedroom’s ceiling.

I almost rented it the last time to some crazy chick at a bargain rate because she claimed to want to live there forever. That’s the thing, I was always worried when it wasn’t rented, yet secretly wanted to live there myself. In the last instance, I flew out from the coast to move her in and she went screaming into the woods never to be seen again.

What will I do with myself in my spare time now that the little house in the woods is gone?

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

The other night, after the tasteful Mr. H walked through, there were lights in the windows.  Now the place is dark and I wonder if I’ve dreamed the whole thing up. In the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, I fell to decorating the place again.

Where will I go when I fight with my husband? Where will Henry and I live?

I asked my husband this last night. He was reading the newspaper and didn’t look up.

“I guess,” said he, “you’re going to have to live with me.”


Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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The Coyote Next Door

The word on the street is the coyote that has been stalking our neighborhood since the end of the summer is living in the abandoned house across the way. The neighborhood eyesore, the one with the huge yard filled with falling down fences, trailers and such. I can see it from my second story living room window. To be honest, I’m not opposed to the place. It’s the single hold out against the hand of the developer. When we moved here about ten years ago, it was a quiet Japanese neighborhood where you could walk to eat sushi or noodles on Sawtelle, a four block area with no chain stores, not a single one.  You can still walk to eat sushi or noodles, but many of the old places are gone and now there are outposts of upscale chain restaurants and two burger joints. Young tattooed hipsters from all over town now fill the sidewalks. I have nothing catty to say about hipsters, or restaurants. But, I’m growing  weary, weary of three story condos with football fields of plate glass. I miss the old ladies who graduated from Manzanar High School, who have died and whose children have sold the land for development.  In their place are the arrivistes who drive Porsches and live in condos that take up every square foot of land. Parking is becoming a problem. Lot more rich white folks than there used to be.

Amidst all of this growing boom, now the urban coyote. Is it a he or a she? My neighbor and friend Kady swears it’s a she. And I’ll go with that.

She was spotted darting out from the rotted gates by one denizen. And loping across the dried up yard by someone else.  Henry, my husband and I have seen her twice. Both times after ten at night. She’s big, she’s brown, she’s not in the least afraid of the sight of us. She slinks down the middle of the street like she owns the place. Little Osaka is guarding its cats, its dogs and its occasional rabbit. There are signs on street corners. Everybody is a little scared.  We can all feel it. The wrongness of this wild creature who has now come down to dwell among us in safe, anodyne suburbia.  California has endured the drought, the fires, the floods, the mud… no doubt once upon a time there were more coyotes here than people. Maybe she knows once again it is the time for her and her kind to take over.

Apocalypse now or in a few minutes?  Like it or not, coyotes are the new normal in the flats of West LA. Just like they are the new normal in the flats of Glendale, Sherman Oaks, and Santa Monica. A few coyotes have been spotted near the mall in Century City.  Once upon a time, coyotes did not come down from the mountains. The drought, and maybe other factors we don’t understand have caused them to lose their natural shyness.

Animal welfare activists argue that is now up to humans to adapt and find a more peaceful way to co-exist with the coyote population. The number of coyote attacks on humans has jumped, growing from 2 in 2011 to 26 in 2015.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

Maybe the West Coast should talk to the East Coast where Animal Rights advocates have created the present deer population, and its attendant joys including no leaves on any bush unless it’s surrounded by a prison yard of deer fencing.  Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, never leaving the house without dousing the skin with carcinogenic sprays from May to November.  This is the legacy of the lovers of Bambi and Tawny, our fictional deer friends.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love animals. I haven’t eaten meat in decades.

But I’d be way pissed, if Henry cut loose and landed in the jaws  of my new neighbor, the urban coyote. Though maybe she would have a thing or two to learn from my little ferocious terrier. The other night Henry was pulling on his leash dying to get at her. She just stood there, taunting him, “I might not get as much to eat, but look at me, I’m not wearing a leash!”

As I write this, in response to my searches of a few minutes ago, a window has popped up informing me of a sale on ammo!

Cabela’s end of year ammo sale. 50% off.

Load up!


Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Once Upon A Christmas In Shreveport

It was my friend Chuck S’s idea: to sneak out of the house after dinner when our parents were sitting around the table smoking and drinking and be a human nativity scene. It was Christmas time. Mangers were everywhere. This manger was in front of the suburban branch of S Brothers just around the corner from where the S’s themselves lived on Azalea Lane. His father’s store was the preeminent department store in Shreveport, and was the very first to establish a suburban branch. Was this idea of his, as Roth so aptly put it, something to do with putting “the id back in yid?” Because it was a very daring transgressive idea, we all knew it was not the thing to do to mess with the Christians’ iconography. We were Jews and while Jews were technically white, we could go to the schools, we knew we weren’t really white like our neighbors and friends who attended the Baptist church, the Methodist Church the Episcopal Church, and in short we knew to behave ourselves.

Chuck who always carried around a whoopee cushion, had a wicked sense of humor.
And was a perpetual prankster. He was the one who left messages at his cousin’s house in the name of Herman S, whom everyone knew, was the illegitimate black son of his uncle and who got a discount at the department store, and who Chuck swore, turned up monthly for his remittance check. Chuck knew the dirt on everyone, or maybe he just invented it.

This is what I believe happened that night in ancient times. The four of us, plus Lou, the Chihuahua, ran over to the manger in front of the store. We took the costumes off the dummies and donned them over our own clothes. In between the fake sheep, the stuffed cow, we arranged our tableaux. I, by virtue of my name was the Virgin Mary. Chuck was Joseph; he wore the striped robe and had the staff. My brother and Chuck’s sister put on the wise men’s clothes. Chuck took the doll representing the baby Jesus out of the crèche and put the Chihuahua in there. A loud speaker was blasting Christmas Carrols. But we couldn’t hear them; we were doubled up with laughter, practically throwing up in merriment. We were thrilled with our transgression. And we were waiting for people to drive by so we could fake them out.

In those days, Chanukah had yet to emerge as a rival merchandising opportunity. And more to the point, there weren’t that many Jews in Shreveport. I haven’t been to Shreveport at Christmas time in decades, I don’t know to this day whether there the menorah is given any attention as it is in the big cities. Now you can’t go anywhere in LA or New York and I’m guessing Chicago, Boston, or any major city without the Christmas tree and the giant menorah vying for attention. Though in some parts of LA merchants still get it wrong. Last Passover for instance, when I was at the Whole Foods, I spied a pack of instant latke mix, alongside a display prominently featuring organic matzo and non-GMO gefilte fish. At the time, I was faintly pissed and thought; can’t you get your fucking Jewish holidays straight? No self -respecting Jewish merchant would put an Easter basket out at Christmas time. Believe me, we Jews know a thing or two about gentile holidays.

Back in the manger, several cars passed, our tableaux stood very still, and then when danger was over, we doubled over practically puking with laughter.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

Then Chuck’s father suddenly appeared. And we were scared out of our minds. He was tall, athletic and meaner than a rattlesnake beneath his usual cheerful grin. He wasn’t grinning now. He grabbed his children by the arms. “Get back home!” he shouted. Lou was barking furiously. Chuck’s sister was wailing. We were throwing off our costumes, and doing what we could to restore the dummies to the manger. For one wild moment, Lou had the baby Jesus in his little jaw and was shaking it.

Chuck, who I used to hang out with a bit in my very early New York days, was the second person I knew who died of AIDS. The first person also came from Shreveport.

I haven’t spoken to my own brother in a very long time. From time to time I hear of Chuck’s sister. I hope she is happy and healthy somewhere. Lord knows I hope my brother is happy and healthy somewhere.

Chuck parents, if they are alive, are really old now. And Lou their dog is long gone.

Yesterday I emailed a friend of mine who still lives in Shreveport to ask whether there are any Jewish decorations up right now. I called it a candelabra, in the interest of clarity. Just for the record, my own family didn’t have a menorah. We had a Christmas tree.

I still haven’t heard back from him.


Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Mr. Iyengar’s Fire Drill

Royce auditorium at UCLA was packed to overflowing. It was the night the most famous yogi in the world, teacher of the violinist Jasha Heifetz, author of Light on Yoga, and the most influential book ever written on yoga, came to Los Angeles. The year was 2005. People weren’t afraid of crowds then. Oklahoma had happened. 9-11 had happened.  But homegrown acts of violence were few and far between. There were no armed guards, no metal detectors, and no hint of fear in anyone’s face.

I was sitting way in back and way up high with my friend Sarah and her friend Michael.  All the famous yogis in town were there. There are a lot of famous yogis in Los Angeles. All the less famous yogis were there too. Even more of them.  On stage were the movie star yogis, one or two dressed ceremonially bowing hands together in Namaste. A lot of speakers came on and said laudatory things. We had been there about half an hour when a voice came over the loud speaker. We were told to evacuate the auditorium. And we hadn’t even gotten to see the great man himself.

I have thought about the fire drill often, and especially these days, when people are so jumpy. When the world is so scary. A very dear friend of mine was caught last spring in a stampede in Penn Station when somebody thought a gun had gone off. She abandoned her suitcase and ran. It still freaks her out when she thinks of it.

That night, nobody ran.  Nobody looked worried, nobody seemed to be in a rush, there was no pushing, no panic, the Royce Auditorium at UCLA which was packed to capacity, all filed out peacefully and we stood in little clusters in front of the building, schmoosing, waving to people we knew.

Then just as unceremoniously, everybody started filing in Royce Hall again. We found our place high high up in the highest balcony, and the auditorium was quiet again.

At last the great man himself appeared.

All eyebrows and fluid motion, in a soft colorful loose fitting outfit of bloomers and scarves in orange and white silk.  BKS, moved with the grace and ease of a happy child. In fact, that’s what he seemed like, a happy grey haired child with floppy cartoonish eyebrows set loose upon us.  He smiled. He touched his palms together; he bowed to us and said some words about his new book Light on Life He was old and these were his final words on the ancient practice he had made so famous. And of course so lucrative for so many people. Then he bowed again and thanked us. Everyone in the audience gave him a thundering, cheering standing ovation.

Honestly it was pagan worship but I have nothing against paganism and neither did anyone else in the audience.  Certainly not Mr. Iyengar who was perfectly comfortable being worshiped.

With its huge population of entertainers and want-to-be entertainers LA has always been a magnet for the cult, be it scientology, yoga, or nutrition. Where after all did the first yogi in the US find his home when he arrived at the turn of the twentieth century?  High above the Pacific Coast Highway, of course. And his fellowship is still operating. I haven’t been to its wonderful garden since the big drought of the past years or perhaps more importantly the advent of Henry in my life. Unlike India, the homeland of Paramahansa Yogananda and Mr. Iyengar, dogs are not allowed to roam free in the garden.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

Twelve years have passed since Mr. Iyengar came to town and Royce Hall evacuated peacefully and then filed back in to the see the great proponent of modern yoga who died a few years later. When he passed on, all the yoga studios put out shrines with candles and flowers.

There are shrines all over the country now, in Texas, in Nevada, in Colorado for various acts of violence. Ones that keep coming, gaining force…

Mr. Iyengar’s shrines, as well as his memory, are a beacon of hope for us all in these times when none of us are easy, when we’ve all forgotten what it’s like to feel really safe.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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There Will Be Blood

For the past month or so I’ve been taking this class called “Mindfulness Boot Camp” which is an insane amount of fun. Eight or ten grownups are in a gym size room working their way through various resistance and weight training exercises. Yesterday we climbed up the wall on ropes, did the spider crawl the width of a gym sized room, jumped rope, did weighted hula hoop, and lots of squats and things with resistance bands for legs and arms. In both classes there were some very fit men in their forties, some surprisingly fit overweight girls in their twenties, a couple of old bags in decent shape like I am, and of course the instructor who is ripped within an inch of his life. He participates along with us, all the while shouting out encouraging bits like, “Finish strong!”

I have left the class each week, tired and sweaty and realizing how much I need to play hard, something that was drilled into me not to do as a young woman growing up in the south—I can only pray the south of today is significantly different—but you never know. Look how long it took them to take down a few moldering statues of slave loving generals.

My particular athletic career (track and field and especially swimming at which I excelled) was cut short by the arrival of my period somewhere around the age of twelve.

Even though I had an older sister and a mother, several aunts, a grandmother and at least three close girlfriends, I remember knowing so little about the whole thing, that I announced to my mother, “I think administration is here!”

I remember I made this announcement in the doorway of her bedroom with the en suite bathroom. I remember too the shocked look on her face when she shouted, “NO! You’re making this up!”

I also remember when I insisted on showing her the evidence; she went from angry and accusatory to sad and resigned. I was sent to her en suite loo, told to sit and sometime later a nasty looking rig, like a garter belt with an armrest appeared. And that—in spite of my city record in the butterfly and the individual medley—was the end of my athletic career, as I knew it.

Big deal…

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

What is a much bigger deal is the amount of money made by multi-nationals on products for the female nether region—the one Harvey Weinstein went after and after and after. The same region 45 bragged he got to grab—because he’s a celebrity.

That region, the female down there, in the religion of my forefathers and mothers, is meant to be unclean. Orthodox Jews still require a mikva to make it kosher for the gents to go down there at all after the filthy event that happens every month. I’m about to go look up and see if it’s the same for Muslim women.

First there are the philosophical underpinnings. Then there’s the billions and billions of dollars spent on products to staunch the flow in as unnatural and uncomfortable way as possible. And make the multinationals even richer!

(How many women do you suppose run multinational companies?)

My friend Delphine Hirsh, a great writer and interesting, funny human being, just started an org called to spread the word about better, healthier and cheaper reusable options. For example, the simple little menstrual cup (lifetime cost: $120 versus over $4K for pads and tampons!) is not just the answer to so many girls’ prayers but also keeps thousands and thousands of used tampons and pads out of landfills and sewage. These products are kind to your body, light on your wallet, easy on the environment and perhaps help do away with the undue brouhaha associated with down there.

Could it be possible?

Here’s the link to staunch the flow:

I just looked up what Muslim women do (and often Muslim and Jewish rules are the same) and yes, the Muslim women are forbidden to have sex when they have their periods. And in fact, are not even supposed to fast or pray.

That, of course, could be a big relief come Ramadan.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Early Into Vice

A thousand years ago, when I was fifteen, I had a secret vice which was to “borrow” my mothers Pontiac Bonneville and drive out to the small landing strip that called itself the Greater Shreveport Airport. I’d park the car, go inside to the newsstand and there, I would purchase a Baby Ruth and a copy of the National Enquirer, sit down in the airport’s waiting room, eat my candy bar and read the sleazy newspaper that wasn’t allowed in my house. A nurse who had once been in residence when my mother was ill had stacks of them. This publication was as off limits to me as Playboy magazine, which I also tried secretly to look at. And once was discovered and taken home and spanked by my mother who was picking up her Dexedrine and sleeping pills at the pharmacist, whilst I was perusing the dirty magazines waiting for her.

Trashy magazines, trashy newspapers, “dirty” novels like Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Couples were all banned in my childhood home—I remember because I tried to get to them all at various stages of my growing up. Imagine a curious pubescent today skulking toward Updike or Nabokov? The parent of such a child would post of his or her little genius on Facebook and Instagram.

But back then, sex was dirty. And trashy magazines were contraband.

Baby Abducted By Aliens
Dog Lives To Be 200
Grandmother Strangles Bank Robber

I loved all these headlines as I loved the crunch of the Baby Ruth. I think it’s interesting that the candy I always chose was not my favorite which was Almond Joy. My mother’s name was Ruth. I think the reading of the trashy newspaper and the eating of the Baby Ruth was a “fuck you” to my mother who was as ridiculously strict with me as a teenager as she was negligent of my younger self, who was bullied, abused, and generally made use of by everyone in my family. Manifestly I was furious at her. And in rebellion from her values.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

Maybe because I’m reading newspapers online these days, I’m reminded of my ancient love of pulp. I can see already getting news this way is dangerous. And how bombarded I am by this constant trashy shit. I think as the lines between journalism and trash are blurred, obscured and ultimately done away with, I am not just getting stupider as a reader, I am similarly losing my intellectual and instinctual understanding of what is trash and what is journalism.

Isn’t that how 45 won? He and his people conned the American public who were apparently more gullible than my fifteen-year-old self . Facebook of course is beyond Big Brother. Facebook is perhaps the Antichrist.

My new secret vice, one I discovered of course on Facebook is online quizzes. I find myself stopping work, ostensibly just to check my email and ending up, spending half an hour on a quiz. Why? Because I nearly always get a hundred percent. Yes, hooked I am on those stupider than stupid multiple-choice questions: Who wrote Moby Dick, George Orwell, John O’Hara, James Patterson or Herman Melville? And being told I’m a genius when I get it right. What is the future perfect of go? Who painted this masterpiece? Rembrandt, Matisse, Renoir or Picasso? And when I correctly answer these anodyne questions the average nincompoop with a modest BA like I’ve got finds trouble free, I’m rewarded with: your IQ is at least a million; you are a grammarian with a PhD., an art historian, etc.

The tests are no more an indication of what’s upstairs in my little head, (or yours either) than the sidebar on Facebook is a true picture of what’s going on in the real world, if there is such a thing as reality any more.

The National Enquirer has won.




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Dark Winds of Sisterhood

I started this when the first reports came in about Harvey. It’s now a couple of weeks later, and Florida is under water. Harvey isn’t tearing through Houston anymore, and both my son and I have made inquiries and learned my big sister and her house are safe and dry. I’m not thinking about her non-stop as I was for days.  One of her friends responded to an email I wrote, “I hope you connect, she hasn’t been herself for a while.”

Herself? I almost wrote back, “Did she go off on you too?”  But I didn’t.

My big sister lives very close to Rice University and the splendid Rothko Chapel. When the first reports came out, I thought, if they say the Rothko Chapel is underwater, then she’s underwater too.  

Once in a while, I go on FB and look at the two pictures of her. We didn’t look so much alike when we were younger, but like long married people, we’ve grown more alike as time goes on. Ironic, because as adults we’ve spent almost no time together. Either a continent separated us, we were at war, which was most of the time, or at peace, which is how it’s been for the past few decades or so when we’ve had absolutely nothing to do with one another:  not a phone call on either one of our birthdays, our parents yahzeit, an email, a snail mail, a Jewish New Year card, a valentine, though I’ve wondered as no doubt she has too, what the other one will do when one of us passes. Do I go to the funeral? Do I send flowers, a plate of food? These are the questions that beset the siblings who are as good as dead to one another, though the sibling rivalry lives on. Will the antipathy endure long after our spirits have left our bodies?

The last time I visited my sister, when we walked from her house to the chapel less than a mile away. I got up my courage and asked her, “Tell me about our father. What do you remember?”

She replied in a lifeless monotone. “You had a wonderful childhood. You were the happiest little girl and everyone loved you.”

The rest of the visit she was about as warm as a day in the North Pole. That was okay. Icy and cold was far preferable than even the smallest dose of her temper. I returned home grateful the visit ended without blatant acrimony. My sister also possessed and probably still does, a great sense of humor. There are times when I’d give anything to have a laugh with her about stuff only she and I would get.

Shortly after that visit, she came to LA with her latest boyfriend whose family lived here. A friend and I threw them all a dinner party. And something must have happened at that party to trigger something in her again, or maybe she was still pissed about my mentioning our childhood. She left town and didn’t call me again, though she wrote my friend an elaborate thank you and sent her a present. I didn’t call her either. I was afraid to. I saw the look on her face at the door when they were saying goodbye.  That face was one I have feared since I have a memory.

Flash forward several years later:  my son and I are in New York over Christmas break. He’s in college now. We are in our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side at Harry’s, the best shoe store in the world!  I heard him say softly, our pet name for my sister. No shit!  And I turned around and there she was with the boyfriend!

She was very polite. And I’m happy to say she looked really good. Prosperous. Healthy. Maybe she even gave my son a hug. She did mention something about them getting together. They had, after all, once upon a time been close. He got dropped too after the last putsch.

The boyfriend muttered some conciliatory words. I stood frozen to my spot in front of a rack of Mephisto’s. And such was her ancient power over me, I fully expected my son to walk off with them and to leave me standing alone among the suede boots, the high heels and the sensible flats.

But he didn’t. We were both a little shaken. But we carried on. We bought him a pair of leather top siders. Big Sister and the boyfriend exited the store. My son and I went to Zabar’s and bought goodies. And that was it.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

I am very grateful that like the Rothko Chapel my sister in Houston is safe and dry.

I wish her well, I sincerely do, though I am all but sure those feelings are not reciprocated. She once told me unashamedly in front of my husband and her then husband, “The day you were born was the worst day of my life! I hope you die.”

For my own part, I was born, that was the big one, and after that, I wanted to know what happened. It ruined her obviously. Maybe she hates me because the unspeakable thing didn’t ruin me.  

I think this is where men come out better than women. Maybe men carry baggage differently. When men go to war they come out brothers. They join arms; they march down the street carrying the flag. They rejoice in their memories. The Things They Carried and all that.

The childhood we shared was a war zone replete with causalities and trauma.  My sister and I though, all we ever wanted to do was forget.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Real World/Made Up World

I write this from my desk at the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South.  My room is ugly as all dorm rooms are; the bed is uncomfortable, the springs have a way of jabbing my back like a sharp elbow late at night when I’m trying to calm down and settle in from the day’s stimulations. Truly, despite the heat that weighs down like a heavy blanket and the torpor that comes from 95 % percent humidity, it’s one of the liveliest places I’ve ever been. I’m blissfully happy to have this ugly room with no roommate and my own bathroom because my suite mate never showed up!  I keep waiting for her to descend—like the sword of Damocles she’s hovering over my life here:  she could happen at any moment!

In the meantime, the fourth floor of St. Luke’s on my side is the cool side. On the other side, the men and women are sending away to Amazon for fans. Myself, I’m sleeping under a blanket with several sets of sheets on top; they’ve run out of extra blankets.

It’s Sunday, the quiet day, though there was a lecture in the morning by the great Tim O’Brien and one last night by him too.  Everyday some great poet writer or playwright gets up on stage and it’s so inspiring. Everyone here is a writer, everyone here profoundly cares about the written word, the spoken word, and the imagined word, the process of writing, the approach to writing. Every single minute it’s writing this, writing that. I realized today though, I haven’t done any sort of writing since I arrived here.  At writers conferences one doesn’t shut oneself up in one’s room to write.  

Jericho Brown

I’ve been hanging out a lot with the poets, one of the young really impressive ones is a dude named Jericho Brown from my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. Like me, he knows you can’t go home again. (Jericho pictured above.)

Talking to strangers is the name of the game. I flunked geometry, and don’t read maps very well, but I’m an expert at talking to strangers.  A lot of writers are like that. Which is how I happened to leave campus today for the first time since I arrived here last Tuesday.  Someone at my table was going to go to the local flea market and wanted some company.

“I’d love to go,” I said.

This is rural Tennessee.  The minute you drive out of the immaculate campus with the stone buildings and the perfectly manicured lawns and the famous writers and the students of the famous writers, you are in a different world. The county that includes the University of the South where the writer’s conference is located happens to be the poorest one in Tennessee.

We parked the car and headed toward the flea market, a hot and dusty looking compound of booths packed with real junk and covered with corrugated metal roofs. This was nothing like the flea markets I once in a while attend in LA and New York. Here there were grimy Barbies for 10 cents. Romance novels with broken spines, and yes confederate flags waving proudly.  Here the people were poor, and probably every last one of the stall-keepers were supporters of Trump.  These people, so many of them morbidly obese and unhealthy looking, were the people who were really going to suffer most under the present administration. The very ones who had voted  45 into office.

I happened on a homemade knife stand. I sifted through and looked for something my husband—who loves knives—would find acceptable.  The proprietor of the stand, like me, was a writer. He handed me a pamphlet he had penned The Claims of Jesus of Nazareth. And when I looked at it, he began to tell me about how Jesus wanted to save me.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

I was transported back to my childhood, when my best friend Peggy Mayfield was assigned to save my soul in vacation bible school. She’d been told in Sunday school because I’m Jewish I was going to hell. Probably the writer of the pamphlet would think I was going to hell too.

Hell couldn’t be much hotter than that miserable flea market somewhere in the sticks outside Sewanee, Tennessee.

I left the stand, and found my friend from the conference bargaining for a pair of cowboy boots, totally elated. She was crowing about them all the way home. I was sort of depressed actually. Encounters in the real world often have that effect on me.  Presently as we drove through the stone portals of the University of the South, my spirit lifted. Yes, I’ll take Sewanee and the imaginary world over the real world any day.

And be eternally grateful that I can.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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