We Had So Much

I got a letter today from an old friend. Recently, I sent her the letters she wrote me when we were in college. Back then we kept up a constant stream, and aside from the fluctuations of individual happiness, we were on the same page. Full of dreams and wanting to get away from our too cozy, too blah suburban lives. Interested in finding men to marry, and thinking hard about what qualities in the males we knew were good ones. Trying to imagine forging careers and wondering how and where, thinking about little apartments in Manhattan, and so on.

My friend is now compiling the story of her life, with the help of a hired writer, which is why she asked for her letters. Naturally I reread them before I sent them, and I found them very artistic. Leaves pasted falling down the page. Envelopes typed on the diagonal. Fun stuff similar to what some of the guys I knew in comics fandom did with their letters to me. We all were experimenting with form and function back then, but she was the most creative person I knew.

I also was very moved by these old letters so full of youth and hope, so full of dreams. I expected my friend, with whom I have maintained a very distant once-a-year correspondence for the last 30 years or so, to be similarly moved by seeing and reading those artifacts of our youth. When I first knew her, she was very articulate, intellectual. In the intervening years, we both have had full lives, including personal tragedies. And we have shared at least some of them with each other.  But the letter I received today from her was completely mundane; it talked about surface news like the next grandchild and the most recent trip. She said nothing about what really mattered to her. What does she feel about having her life story written? How much of the truth is she planning to tell and why? Who does she want to read her tale? She tells me nothing about this, as if she no longer has the intellectual ability to consider or articulate such concerns. Or she simply does not want to tell me about them.

We had so much, 44 years ago. But life took us down different, difficult paths. And now we only have the empty container of a friendship, because she won’t open up. Am I wrong to expect her to? This is not my only 44-year-old friendship. With the others, we can sit down for five minutes and we’re on the same page intellectually, even though we live our daily lives very differently and see each other once in a blue moon.

And so much of life is how others view us. While there are many people who can justifiably look back at their lives and say they have accomplished much, there are many others with ambition or potential that still is not fulfilled. The achievements along the way are not enough, so we strive on. But to others looking at us, our lives seem glamorous, successful, worthy of corrosive envy, even. How much fame is enough to feel famous, as opposed to being admired by friends for being famous? When does the hollow feeling go away, and why doesn’t an old good friend know about that hollow feeling?

I feel flattened by this letter. My old friend lives 400 miles from me, but writes in the letter that she was recently only 100 miles away or less. But she does not suggest that she even considered coming to see me. Does she not have the intelligence to see how this information has the power to hurt me? She used to. I could blame this all on her boyfriend, who may not be interested in taking a detour on a long drive, but that would be too easy. And that leaves the letter itself, written by her, saying nothing about the past, nothing about the present, and nothing about a future in which we have anything of value to say to each other.

Mom’s Okay

My post about my mother’s books made some of you worry that she had died. But no, she’s going strong at 95. Aside from advanced dementia, she is very healthy. Maybe she’ll live to be 100.

So why dispose of her books and other items? This happens under various circumstances in most families, but in many cases, it happens in a big rush. A friend had only a week to dispose of the entire contents of her mother’s house–and put the house on the market, too. Another friend had just two days to gather up family possessions after closing on selling the house–and found herself locked out and having to beg the new owner for what belonged to her father. And many times, an elderly parent has to be put in assisted living or a nursing home or hospice, and the caretaker child is so busy arranging the situation and visiting the parent and talking to doctors that the home and its contents just sit. Until a frenzy of cleaning out occurs. During which, the actual items are not given much thought.

We all have heard about the hard feelings generated when a parent dies and the siblings have to divide up the possessions. Sometimes these quarrels last a lifetime. The soup bowl, or a certain book, or a chair. Whatever. How to avoid these scenes of passionate emotion? Divide things up when siblings are not actively grieving and feeling guilty and angry. Think about the items and discuss them among the siblings and descendants. Find them good homes. That’s what we have been doing.

The truth is that when a relative has dementia, the family endures what is called “the long goodbye.” The person suffering this brain disease doesn’t turn overnight into an unresponsive vegetable. There is a descent of intellect that can be slow or fast. And there remain flashes of intelligence and humor despite a permanently clouded mind. Those who have constant contact with the blighted parent often adopt a brisk, practical attitude about it; we have tasks to perform because there is still the husk of a beloved person to take care of. But there are moments when we stop and remember how Mom used to be. And then it hurts. There is no way around it.

As we dismantle the collection of books and other objects she cared about, there are sad moments. Acknowledging them is grieving in advance, if you will. We are paying it forward in our own curious way. We hope, perhaps not in vain, that when she finally does go to the heavenly reward in which she believes, that we will feel we have done right by her in all things. Call it a futile hope, if you will, but at least we are not outright sobbing (or in cold denial but crying on the inside) as we sort through the things that no longer have meaning to her.

And as a humorous note, after a lifetime of acquiring, and despite her constant efforts to reduce clutter, Mom has many, many possessions. She was the one who had the bookcases custom made to use every available inch. She was the one who built the bookcase in the kitchen in our previous home.  Removing a third of the books in this house still leaves every bookshelf stuffed. No wonder we’re starting this monumental sorting task early.

Make Mine Marvel

I dug into my box of old Marvel Comics memories the other day. I am still reeling from the negative vibes of that encounter with my past. Sarcastic memos flung far and wide, sturm und drang from every direction. Bad stuff happening to many people. Bad stuff perpetrated by many people.

From this stretch of years, I wonder whose fault it was. Was it the times? Was it ambitious personalities pushing and shoving at competitors? Was sexism or ageism involved?

How about yes to all three?

How much responsibility does each of us bear for being what our culture made us at a point in time?  And what our human natures made us? In a world in which use of the term “Ms.” was mostly sarcastic, how could any of us smoothly negotiate the changing relationships between the sexes? Decades later, when I was in a different office situation and had to consult an elderly executive, I was stunned to find him fully cooperative. Why? Because I cut my teeth on dealing with those men and they were all hostile to some degree. Patronizing and friendly; nasty and uncooperative; take your pick. And what method did I use to cope with them? Flirting, acting like their favorite grandchild, or overt contempt, whatever worked. Those aren’t exactly the tools of the modern working woman.

I don’t want to suggest that my time at Marvel Comics was a constant battle of the sexes, because that was not the whole story, only part of it. What about the reality that a bunch of comic book fans, most of us very young, were invading the business and driving out some of the older folks? If the adults were patronizing to us, or hostile, we were the same right back at them, with the addition of the smug arrogance of youth. And we didn’t even deign to wear office attire. Ripped blue jeans and tee shirts were a common sight at Marvel then. Only the old guys wore suits. And the middle-aged ladies wore dresses. We thought we knew a lot more than they did. But did we?

And what about the rough elbows people used to attain their ambitions? With so many young men, burning with a passion to succeed in an industry about which they deeply cared, it’s not surprising that there was plenty of aggression around.  Many of them had only so-so education and training, so they viewed this as their one shot at  the brass ring. And for many, it was.

The crazy thing is, the uneasy mix of gender tensions, generational tensions, and flat out competitiveness made working at Marvel a heady experience. It was exciting, like being in the movies. It felt glamorous, which is a ridiculous thing to say, but we were comic book fans who were striving for the keys to the shop. We believed we were making a difference in the business and bringing more respect for the artists, and we tried to produce wonderful comics. That we fell short of the mark, that we were all too human in our behavior, and that we each had our personal issues to clog the situation, may be to our discredit.

But boring was not the word to describe working at Marvel Comics. Not for one minute.

Okay, Sorry Jimmy

Turns out there were lots of hilarious Jimmy Olsen stories. Mostly drawn by the wonderful Curt Swan, they often featured glamorous women who wanted a romance with Jimmy. These beauties, usually from outer space, would always be disappointments. Jimmy’s new love would be a plasma person, or 20 feet tall, or married to four husbands already. Funny stuff. I think I’m going to keep the stories that represent my favorite years of reading comics. Sadly, by the time the hundredth issue rolled around, although Swan was still doing the covers, inferior artists were drawing the stories. And the tone had become more serious and violent. But these older ones are charming. And there’s the occasional story drawn by Jim Mooney or Kurt Schaffenberger to glam it up, not to mention Bizarro Jimmy stories drawn by John Forte and likely written by E. Nelson Bridwell.

Okay, okay, I admit it. I still love my Superman comics. The Jimmy Olsen stories feature all the regular characters: Clark, Lois, Lucy, Lana, Perry, Professor Potter, and even Supergirl. Definitely keepers.

Jimmy Olsen, Boy Pest

I’m planning to go through all my Jimmy Olsen comics tonight, to decide once and for all if I am keeping any of them. Otherwise, these tales of an immature lad, which probably equate to Naruto in the mangas–always screwing up, always needing a rescue–may go the way of other collected things. I never really liked Jimmy Olsen comics, anyway. That’s why I never had a letter published in their lettercols: I only had negative things to say. I guess this comes from being a responsible, middle-child type, but I couldn’t relate well to Jimmy. Although I tried, and I have found his television and movie incarnations endearing. Still, the comics are about to undergo triage.

It’s a sad truth I recently learned: Do not keep your collectibles so long that the cohort of people interested in them dies off completely. Not if you hope to reap any resale value. Or merely aspire to getting them to someone who cares. As a baby boomer, I am in a huge cohort, 76 million or so. But comic books have been mostly of interest to boys and men in the last 50 years. And men are fragile; they die off in their sixties or soon thereafter, leaving us women to be widows for decade upon decade. If I want my Jimmy Olsen comics to go to a good home, I’d better move them on soon, or there will be nobody left alive to care.

The Calm Before the Storm

I went to an IRS office today. Voluntarily. It was dead silent. One agent was assisting the public. As I waited my turn, a couple of people showed up to make a line of three of us. Fifteen minutes later, we all went away satisfied.

It’s not going to be like that a few weeks hence, so if you have any tax business to conduct, now would be good time.

I know. You’d rather forget all about it.

Fame, Apparently Not Fleeting

Here’s a funny thing. A while back, Google decided that I was being talked about on the Internet sufficiently to receive utterly nonsensical Google Alerts. Most of these alerts are of incoherent listings with my first name and something completely random. But every once in a while, they are links to message boards in which comic book fans aimlessly wonder whatever happened to various well-known letterhacks. My old friend Guy H. Lillian III gets mentioned a lot. I get mentioned a lot. But because when each of us worked for the big comic book companies, we mostly did it behind the scenes, these posters don’t know the ending to our stories. Guy worked for DC Comics for a while. I hope he does not mind me telling the world. I worked for Marvel Comics for years, and for DC Comics, and I wrote and sold a batch of uncredited romance stories for DC Comics even before going on staff at either big name comic book company. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve both had long and interesting careers–and we ain’t dead yet.

I get the feeling that I should have an online bio attached to my website.* So here’s a promise: Eventually, I will. In the meantime, all you fans out there should rest happy in the knowledge that most of us who cared enough to send repeated letters to the comics did in fact make connections with the business as adults.

(*Sorry, Websters, I think the one-word spelling and no cap makes more sense than the officially correct “Web site”).

The New Met Carmen–Vive la difference

I am floored by the difference between a well-conceived and brilliantly acted production of Carmen and one that isn’t. I thought that Bizet’s music and the tragic Carmen story had transcended La Scala’s miserable production that debuted last month. I didn’t like the production, but I enjoyed parts of it even though other parts turned me off. But having seen the Met ‘s impressive production today, I realize that I was just making excuses for parts that never quite fit together.

I’m not talking about the singing. I’m talking about opera singers who can act, and who are directed to act in a believable manner, and who have the chemistry to pull off this classic story. Roberto Alagna may be a soprano’s nightmare–he’s very touchy, and he seems to kiss for real instead of faking, which must be difficult for a soprano who needs to catch her breath so she can keep singing. But he’s also believable as Don Jose in a way that more restrained singers are not. Delectable Jonas Kaufmann did his best for La Scala, but he also did all the work in that relationship; his Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili, was not credible as a seductress. Elina Garanca was today. She brought a convincing sexual confidence to her every motion that totally trumphs Rachvelishvili’s effort. I was impressed.

Ironically, Kaufmann is slated to replace Alagna in the Met production, and some lucky operagoers will be able to compare Kaufmann’s turn in New York with what he did in Milan. Then perhaps we’ll discover if it is the acting, the chemistry, or the particular production that is the key element. Or if they can’t be separated.

Regardless, the Met’s production is a Carmen to remember.

Tax Turmoil? Take Ten

All across the country, this is the month people train and test or retrain and retest to become certified as volunteer income tax preparers. We work very hard. We don’t get paid, and we don’t accept tips. We do accept thanks.

You will make our lives easier and get your taxes done more smoothly if you  take ten minutes to collect every relevant document before you head for a tax preparation site. Bring all your W-2, 1099s, 1098-Ts, interest and dividend statements, and the rest. Bring the receipts from home improvements that could give you an energy credit. Bring the sale contract for a new car you bought after February 16, 2009 so you can claim a deduction for the sales tax. Bring a record of your real estate taxes paid, and receipts from charitable donations. Bring your checkbook and the registers covering 2009, since they often contain records of deductible expenses and you’ll need your bank information, including routing number, for a direct deposit refund. Bring last year’s tax return because often some figures are needed from it.

Most of all, bring a good attitude. We are not the IRS. We’re working long hours in public libraries, hospitals, senior centers, fire stations, and other venues all across the country–to help you, our fellow taxpayers.  Let’s make it a good tax season. And remember, if you don’t like taxes (and who does?), in this free country you can lobby with state and Federal representatives to get changes made.

Old Books and Old Memories

It’s an upsetting experience to sort through and plan to dispose of a relative’s lifelong collection of books. Maybe it’s not upsetting at the moment of pulling the books off the shelves. I certainly kept my cool last night when I was going through my mother’s extremely extensive collection of modern Russian history books. I also remained calm when dumping a batch of religion books into boxes to take to my house and sort through. But today, as I did the sorting, there was an emotional tug. Not only were the topics a view into my mother’s very thoughtful spiritual life, but several of the books were signed on the endpapers. A bible of my grandfather’s. A gospel parallels textbook from my grandmother’s happy days at Vassar. A book my aunt gave the governess who came when my mother was little and stayed the rest of her life. A book the governess gave my mother, affectionately inscribed, containing the writings of St. Augustine.

A pile of mundane novels, decorating and gardening books, or outdated recipe books would be easy to toss. (And, no, I don’t mean literally. All books are sent to good homes.) But the collection of a keenly intelligent, highly educated woman who spent a lot of time thinking about very serious issues deserves care.

The books still have to be moved on. No one in the family wants to keep them all, just as we can’t keep every book with my father’s signature in it. As much as we want to hold onto our memories of people we love, and we want to honor the memories of people we never even knew, we can’t be the museum of other people’s lives. Not even the lives of our closest relatives.  It’s fine to keep some tokens to remember them by. But not everything.

Still, it’s not easy.