A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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Nine People You’ll Meet at the Beach

00720555.JPGWe’ve just returned from a week at the beach where we frolicked in the surf and boogied on our boards. We fought over umbrella shaded real estate, picked seaweed from between our toes, and, after a miserable Danish start to the summer, simply gloried in the feel of sun on our skin. My youngest son spouted another constellation of freckles, my oldest found a friend to dig holes with, and I, having now entered the phase of parenthood where the beach once again means a book and not frantically scanning the shoreline to make sure my babies haven’t been swept to sea, was free to people watch.

I’ve been to beaches all over the world, from Bondi to Hampton, Venice to Ayia Napa. Rocky, sandy, calm, dune filled and palm lined. Pacific, Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean. No matter where you are though, you’re bound to see the same sort of folks. Here are nine you’re likely to run into no matter which beach you decide to plonk your bikini-ed bottom on.

Hawaiian Tropic Leather. I mean Heather. Hawaiian Tropic Heather blithely ignores every piece of advice the AMA, WHO, and global cancer prevention associations put out and boldly dares skin cancer to come and get her. A true retro throwback, HT Heather guffaws in the face melanoma statistics. She slicks her skin with coconut scented oil and bastes like a Thanksgiving turkey. Heather’s chair is a sundial, moving with the rays. You’ll likely only see Hawaiian Heather between the hours of 10 and 2–when the sun is at its peak.

Bikini Brittany and the Beach Blanket Buddies.  Eighteen and under, Brittany and her buddies have the bodies to back that thing up. They flaunt their young bods posing for countless duck face selfies with various friend combinations. Note: It’s not uncommon for Bikini Brit to make sure there is at least one One-Piece Willa, a “friend” who always looks just a little bit uncomfortable among all that flesh.

SPF Susie. SPF Sue can be found hovering and humming around her kids, constantly reapplying sunscreen. Strictly adhering to the manufacturer’s directions, she is ever ready with sprays, lotions, or sticks. She’s got a holster of factors ready to apply at any given towel dry moment. Sometimes you see her shake her head sadly as she passes Hawaiian Tropic Heather on her way back to her spf-proof blanket.

Oh, Felix…what big muscles you have
Oh, Felix…what big muscles you have

Flexing Felix. Felix makes sure his pecs are flexed and his abs twelve-packed at all times. Felix never misses an opportunity to count the ripples in his biceps or the veins in his quads. His beach bag is full of balls, frisbees, paddles, rackets, and anything else which he can use to showcase his physique.

Glenna Goth. Dragged to the beach against her will, Glenna is loath to expose even an inch of skin and give up her pristine translucent paleness. Glenna can often be found crouching beneath a towel, under an umbrella, a hefty book in her hands. Sometimes she’s with a friend–Scrawny Steve or Awkward Al–who is invariably wearing black jeans despite the rising temperatures.

Determined Debbie and Dale. Despite weekend crowds making the beach resemble a page out of Where’s Waldo, Debbie and Dale are determined to walk hand in hand along the shoreline and announce their couple status. Reenacting a personal Nicholas Sparks fantasy, they dodge sand castles, rising tides, sand flinging toddlers, errant sprays of sunscreen and rogue umbrellas swept up by the wind. All in order to synch their footprints and twine their hands and hearts.

Everything and the Kitchen Sink Smiths. The Smiths appear to have transferred most of the contents of their house onto the beach. Tents, marquees, crock pots, coolers, air mattresses, pack-n-plays and a small picnic table. A blender. Three course hot meals, mixed drinks, a portable shower. Forgot a corkscrew? Need something reheated? Go and see the Smiths.

Pale Peter. Peter is the pale skinned young man you see pinking up like a nice piece of steak. While Glenna does everything she can to stay out of the sun, Pale Peter tries desperately to lightly toast his marshmallow white belly. Everything about Pale Peter screams “Ouch.” Everything about Pale Peter makes you want to send SPF Sue to his towel to help him avoid the sunburn you can see developing like a Polaroid before your eyes.

beachWaist High Waders. Waist high waders are the people who only go into the water to pee. They almost never get anything above their belly buttons wet, though they will sometimes splash their shoulders a little to distract everyone on shore. Alas, everyone knows exactly what the Waist High Waders are doing because we’ve all done the same.

When I was young, caught somewhere between a Glenna and a One-piece Willa, longing to be a Brit and looking for a Felix to call my own, I was too caught up in my own insecurities to notice everyone else. I just wanted a Dale to my Debbie. I would have settled for a Peter. Nowadays though, spritzing my kids every now and again with factor 50, I can hang out and watch the world go by. Or just hang out in the waist high water, wise enough to know exactly what’s going on.

 

 

 

 

How to Train for Summer Vacation

newcross1953
Pace yourself…you’ve got a ways to go

Summer vacation means something totally different when you’re a parent. For starters, it’s not a vacation.

Sure, kids need a respite from school and structure and cafeteria food. But summer break is anything but a break for parents. Despite my petitions, protestations and burying my head in the sand in a yoga worthy contortion of denial, every year it comes around anyway. My social media sites are ablaze with ideas, suggestions, complaints and one week in, pleas for help.

I get it, trust me. Whether your summer break is six weeks, eight, ten or twelve (thank you, school gods for seeing fit not to give my kids a 12 week summer break), those days upon endless days of unstructured time add up.

So listen up: Summer vacation is a marathon, not a sprint.

Like with any test of endurance levels, you would be stupid to go into it cold. You’ve got to get yourself in peak physical and mental condition. Summer vacation is something you’ve got to train for. 

Pace yourself. Don’t put all your rainy day ideas in one Pinterest basket. Don’t use up all your museum passes in one week. Don’t wear yourself out in the first ten days of a ten week stretch. Your heart, despite what Celine Dion says, won’t go on.

Listen to your body. If you attempt to scooter or Rollerblade or skateboard with your kids, don’t be surprised if you pull a muscle you haven’t used since you gave birth or tried to windmill in that break dancing class in 1987. Taking the kids to the park is enough. You don’t need to grind the railings with them too.

Woman lifting weights, 29 February 1956.

Stay hydrated. Before noon, water and coffee and/or tea are all good options. Wine and/or beer are advisable for their lubricating effects during those summer “don’t you have a bedtime???” evenings.

Stick to a training schedule. Kids need unstructured time spent lolling about looking at the clouds. For my kids, that unstructured lolling lasts for five minutes before the bickering starts. Most kids need a schedule. They need a plan. It doesn’t have to be as tight or rigid as the one that gets you out of the door on school mornings, but a loose framework helps manage expectations for everyone.

Take a few trial runs. Build up to the 20 hour car ride by doing a few shorter trips. Those smaller trips add to your endurance levels so that when you’re huffing and puffing looking for the charger on for your phone to keep the GPS running before you get lost in the mountains, you’ll be prepared.

Get a training partner/s. If it were up to my kids, they’d be more than happy to spend the 56 days of summer vacation training barbarian hordes and watching YouTube videos by some man named Captain Sparklez. And frankly, it would be easy to let them, especially when the weather’s crappy (thanks for nothing, Danish summer). Make plans with someone else and you’re more likely to get out of the house and keep your sanity.

Watch out for carb-loading. You don’t need to front load ice-cream or chips just because it’s summer. Your kids can eat tubs of ice cream a day. They can eat the contents of Willie Wonka’s factory and burn it off in an afternoon. Can you?

Aim for the finish line, not a new world record. The only one who is going to care if you do eight weeks of tech-free time filled with museums and other educational outings is you. The key to summer is crossing the finish line. It doesn’t matter what time you do it in.

Prep your mental game. Kids will beat you down if you let them. They will exploit your weakness, unmask your doubts, they will wear you down to the point of fatigue. That’s usually when you look at the calendar and realize you’re only 3 weeks in and still have 5 to go. Steal your mind. You can do this.

Bye kids! See you at the end of the school day!
Bye kids! See you at the end of the school day!

Schedule recovery time. Entire day at the beach? Recover with an afternoon of Netflix. Eight hours at an amusement park chasing kids and convincing them the games are rigged and the fries are soggy? Recover with pizza or McDonald’s for dinner. A pizzeria that serves wine is even better.

Plan a celebration. Sibling squabbles, bored whining, sunburns, scraped knees, ice cream bellyaches. Eventually school will be back in session. When the going gets tough, go to your school’s back on happy place.

There you have it. Follow my summer training schedule and before you know it, you’ll be moaning about having to stock the classroom full of tissues and washable markers, the cost of new sneakers and wondering where the time goes.

Good luck!

 

 

And Then This Happened…..

June 1930-Day trippers give the bumps to the birthday girl at Brighton seaside resort in East Sussex-Fox Photos-Getty ImagesIt has been a pretty incredible summer for me for a lot of reasons, the latest being that on Wednesday, Paste Magazine announced me as the winner of their That Summer writing contest. The contest was held in conjunction with Biographile’s That Summer series which featured short, non-fiction stories by authors such as Margaret Atwood, Jo-Jo Moyes, Sophie Kinsella, Bret Anthony Johnston and more. To have my name appear on the same page as some of these authors and to be included in the series is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

The series was based on memories of a summer that changed you or touched you in some way. I actually wrote two pieces, one about the summer of my first kiss and the one that I ultimately decided to enter, a story about the summer my father passed away. In the way that fate often works, tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s passing nine years ago. The night I write about in the story would be tonight. It seems incredibly fitting to share it with you all today.

Yesterday the story appeared simultaneously on Paste and Biographile. I would be honored to have you read it.

Additionally, Nick DeLorenzo was awarded an honorable mention for his story, The Leap. When I read it last night, I understood why it captured the attention of the editors. Please head on over to Nick’s blog and have a read.

In true Wine and Cheese (Doodles) fashion, expect a blog post later about how difficult it is finding the balance between pride and arrogance.

In the meantime, I truly hope you’ll take a few moments to read both pieces.

Once again, thank you for all your support and words of encouragement.

Dina

 

Link to the announcement:

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/07/announcing-the-winner-of-pastes-that-summer-writin.html

Story on Paste:

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/07/writing-contest-winner-an-otherwise-ordinary-day.html

Whole series on Biographile:

http://www.biographile.com/while-the-sun-sets-on-that-summer-the-stories-remain/34955/

Nick Delorenzo’s Story, The Leap: