Category Archives: Transitions

The Last of the Famous International Playboys

Two unlikely things have happened in the last two weeks, both of which make me think of my father, and just in time for his 93rd birthday, which would be tomorrow, on the 18th. First of all, I bought my first pair of boxing gloves. If you’d have suggested just a month ago that I’d be wearing boxing gloves, let alone owning a pair, I’d have laughed at you. But Seth and I keep active and our trainer of many years up and left a few months ago on a whim, moving on to New York or L.A. or lord knows where. We were left floundering about for a few weeks, making some half hearted attempts at going to a regular gym mixed with periods of sitting home eating popcorn and binge watching Project Runway. But we have of late gotten involved in another training situation and it’s good, it’s varied… and we’ve been finding ourselves in group fitness classes with names like Fight Camp and Kickboxing Camp and well, one thing has lead to another and now we both own boxing gloves. I think of my dad every time I wrap my hands and struggle to get the gloves on. I’m not sure if he’d be impressed or if he’d be laughing at me. His son is about the unlikeliest boxer you’ll ever meet, and he knew that and eventually (I think) came to be at peace with the fact that, despite his best efforts, I could never quite connect bat to ball or figure out left hook from right or understand how to get that blasted oil filter wrench going in the right direction. (I would more often than not be under the car tightening the filter even more while he was explaining to me––well… yelling, swearing––from above how to loosen it.)

But anyway, here I am these days: in boxing gloves, hitting punching bags hanging from chains, bags that are probably heavier than I am. I couldn’t wait for the hour of my first Fight Camp to end because no one had shown me how to wrap my hands properly and so I did it my way––the way a bookbinder would wrap a leather bound book he’s just covered––and wrapped them so tight, I soon couldn’t feel my fingers. I kept hitting things even though I really wanted to just stop and cry, it was so painful. But I mustered on (another trait I inherited from my dad) and did a lot of swearing under my breath instead, and every now and then stepped outside for a breath of air and to shake out my gloved hands. The second time, our trainer showed me how to wrap my hands properly. That made a big difference, and I was beginning to think I was getting a grip on this boxing thing.

The third time, Seth and I were late for Fight Camp, so we ended up being the only two people to show up for Kickboxing Camp, which was scheduled after. It was a Friday night––last Friday night––at 7 PM. I had a feeling that if it wasn’t for us, the trainer might probably be off on a Friday night date, but instead José, who looks like he is no stranger to the ring, was stuck with two goofs in boxing gloves. What ensued was, I could only surmise, punishment. We stretched, we ran two laps carrying dumbbells, and when we got back, José set us on our path for the night: 10 jabs to the big bag, 10 hooks left and right, 10 knees, 10 kicks, then down for 10 push-ups, then 30 seconds of intense cardio. No rest. And then up the ladder: 20 jabs, 20 hooks, 20 knees, 20 kicks, 20 push-ups. Then 30. Then 40. And finally, 50. If you’ve ever done 50 push-ups in boxing gloves, let’s talk. José pushed us and pushed us. Come 8:00, when our session was done, José was gone, nowhere to be seen, and Seth and I emerged near broken, but triumphant.

Which brings me to the second of the two unlikely things that have happened that make me think of my father. My triumph from Kickboxing Camp carried through that night and the next day until about 1:30. I couldn’t decide if my biceps were sore or if it was my triceps, but it was Saturday––Cleaning Day––and I was cleaning house and I was pushing through the soreness just fine. I cleaned the bathrooms, I got out the vacuum, but then I thought I’d change the cat’s litter before doing the floors. I emptied the old litter, cleaned the box, replaced it with fresh litter––such a satisfying thing. When I went to set the litter box in its place, I could feel a little twinge in my lower back, just the slightest thing, but you know, I do have that Dad trait of mustering on, and so I did muster on, and it was right there, in that process of mustering, that the twinge escalated into something more like twisting dagger. I found myself on the floor and spent a good part of the day there. Seth gave me my lunch there on the floor (I was still hungry, after all) and I had a devil of a time getting up off the floor but eventually I did. Since then, ice packs, massage, and acupuncture, all have been helping. On Sunday we went to the family’s for Mother’s Day dinner and when I walked in using a broomstick to help me walk, Mom said, “Here, use this.” It was my dad’s cane. He never used it, because he was amazingly stubborn about things like that, but my cousins in Chicago sent it to him, with the best intentions, when he began having trouble walking. It’s pretty fancy: sturdy black wood with a crystal knob. It’s made in Italy. When I use it, I feel like Fred Astaire, like I should have a top hat. It’s not quite my style, but it’s so much better than the broomstick I was using, and it, too, like the boxing gloves, reminds me of Dad. Which is perhaps just right as we approach his birthday. It’s the third one we are marking since he’s been gone. But in the past couple of weeks, I have all these reminders of Dad, and they make me happy, in spite of the pain. I wouldn’t trade them if I could.

 

For those of you wonder if physical fitness is bad for us, well, you may be right: the week before buying my boxing gloves Seth and I were in a regular, non-punching bootcamp class. One of the stations involved slamming a medicine ball to the ground. I picked up the wrong kind of ball. Medicine balls land with a thud on the ground, but mine did not. It bounced. It was a 20 pound ball, and I slammed it good and hard to the ground, from up over my head, and was completely dismayed when it bounced up and hit me square in the jaw. I did, in fact, see stars. I was impressed with myself for not passing out. I thought of my dad then, too, and could picture him shaking his head and laughing at me. After Friday night’s Kickboxing Camp, before José ran off, I told him that story. He laughed. “Oh, I’m definitely checking the security cameras for that,” he said.

 

Hearts, & Your February Book of Days

The 8th of February and here, finally, comes your Convivio Book of Days calendar for the month! It is, as usual, a PDF document, printable on standard US Letter size paper. Half the red letter days of the month have already passed, I’m afraid, and what’s next is Valentine’s Day… and just so you know, we have so many delightfully odd Valentine gift ideas for you in our Convivio Book of Days Catalog. If you see something you like, order today or this weekend and you’ll have it in time for the big day. We ship via US Priority Mail, which takes two days to most destinations in the States. Spend $50 and we’ll even pay your shipping on domestic orders.

All that being said, you have my apologies for the belatedness. It’s been busy as all get out, mostly with things at work––markets, workshops, gallery concerts––and admittedly all things of my own doing. As a result, not only is the month’s calendar late, but I’ve also missed writing to you about St. Blaise’s Day, when throats are blessed, and St. Agatha’s Day, when we eat cream filled pastries that make us blush a bit, for they are meant to evoke a certain aspect of the female anatomy and it is hard to see them and to eat them, remembering that it was the chaste nuns of Sicily who first began making these delicacies centuries ago. And I missed writing to you about the Year of the Pig, this new year in the Chinese Lunar New Year cycle, although last night we celebrated––my mom and sister and Seth and me––at the beckoning of Joy, of Joy Noodles in West Palm Beach. We had her New Year dumplings and I had a pork soup that was Joy’s grandmother’s recipe, and we finished our meal with custard buns made of rice flour that looked like round little pigs. All this and yet February is not one of my favorite months. I have a lot to learn, I think, if I am to come to love it again. I keep busy busy busy and yet in the back of my mind I remember things like the 7th was the night two years ago that Seth and I sat in a box at the Kravis Center with friends listening to Rachmaninoff and Berlioz, even though my thoughts were elsewhere, with my dad in his hospital room. It was the night I first thought that maybe he would not make it through this ordeal. And today, the 8th, I will have to keep thoughts at bay that remind me that this is the night two years ago that I last spoke to him; the night we all kissed him goodnight and told him we loved him, and who knew then that that would be our last time to say these things?

I look back and I’m glad we did say them. We are not, by and large, a family that does. We are mostly loud (not me, so much… but these are my people) and a bit rough around the edges and not terribly emotional, at least not in obvious ways. We express our emotions through the kitchen and the table and we yell across the house at each other, just in conversation, and we often sound mad even when we are not. I would most likely never tell my family that I am thinking the things I think––keeping track in my mind of where I was on this date or another in Dad’s journey––but they’ll read it here, of course, and they, I imagine, will understand. I don’t need to tell them these things face to face. They know I ponder things a lot and turn thoughts over in my head and that I don’t talk much. Still, they love me as I am. They understand me, and I understand them. We are a terribly loyal bunch. We all miss Dad a lot. And we all continue doing what we do as best we can. This is what this time of year brings for me, and for them, too, I know, and perhaps for some of you, as well, for your own reasons––for the people that you miss, too. Which is all amazingly ok. We always have been and always will be well.

The cut and sewn paper hearts illustrating this month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar are by Merike Van Zanten.

 

I Know I Don’t Possess You (Holiday Blues)

For all we talk here about celebrating the ceremony of a day, I know that for a lot of you, for one reason or another, this time of year is not easy. The holidays are hectic, overstimulating, excessively commercialized, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to make them perfect. Not only that, this time of year can more easily dredge up feelings of loneliness and reminders of loss. I’ve been there; I understand. I was there for a bit just last week. It was a week of worry: my mom had been dealing with an infection (she’s better now), the cat seemed not quite right, either; she wasn’t eating as heartily and wasn’t following her usual routines (she’s better and more her usual self now, too), work was not someplace I cared to be, and on top of all this, it was coming on to Thanksgiving and I was feeling like there wasn’t the time to do all I wanted to do to prepare. And then, at the back of my mind and in the core of my heart, was the reminder that Dad wouldn’t be at the table. Our second Thanksgiving since his passing was not feeling much easier than our first.

But Thanksgiving dinner was nice. Just the four of us: my mom, my sister, and Seth and me. At the table, I remembered Dad (I always do; I sit in his seat now at the head of the table––even though we were just four people that’s where my plate was set) and I remembered Grandpa, whose birthday was very often on Thanksgiving.

After dinner, after pie and coffee and after cleaning up the kitchen, we four settled into the living room. Mom wanted to watch a Doris Day movie but she was soon nodding off in her chair, sleeping off her meal, so she was overruled. My sister wanted to watch a new DVD she had just bought: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. I know, I know: Mamma Mia!, the 2008 film version of the Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus musical featuring the music of ABBA, is not the most intellectually stimulating film. If you’ve not yet seen the sequel, well, I have news for you: it’s just as dreadful as the original. But that’s part of what we love about these films. They are pure joy and fun and no one enters into a film like this expecting a life-altering experience.

This is probably a good place to tell you that I was not very popular in high school. ABBA’s popularity back then was a bit like soccer’s: hugely popular throughout the world, but here in the States, not so much. And me, I was quite possibly the only Florida member of the ABBA International Fan Club. I had all their records, I knew all their songs, even the obscure ones. I wore ABBA t-shirts and the ABBA International Fan Club Magazine arrived in my mailbox from Europe four times a year. When I was old enough to drive, while other students at my school were blasting Pink Floyd and Blue Öyster Cult out of their car windows, I was the one playing songs like “Waterloo” and “The Name of the Game.” I was never beaten up at school, but I walked a fine line. Most of the kids at Deerfield Beach High School took the high road and just chose to ignore me.

These days, I feel slightly vindicated. There’s not been a lot of Blue Öyster Cult action in these post-high-school days but thanks to the Mamma Mia movies, almost everyone now recognizes “Dancing Queen” as soon as they hear that first roll of the piano keys, and they even know the words. And when a band like Arcade Fire, critical darlings of the independent music scene, release an album like their most recent one, “Everything Now“–– one that is infused with ABBA-inspired harmonies and keyboards––well… I can feel a bit smug about that for all the unpopularity I endured in high school.

Anyway, back to Thanksgiving and back to the movie. And spoiler alert––in case you’ve not yet seen it: Being the kind of movie it is, dripping with joy and happiness, I was surprised that Meryl Streep’s character, Donna, was killed off somewhere between the original and the sequel. And––again, being the kind of movie that it is––I expected all through the film that she would come back, that her death was all a funny misunderstanding and she would show up at her hotel on Kalokairi again and all would be well. But she doesn’t; not quite. At any rate, here we all were on Thanksgiving night, my mom, my sister, and Seth, and then me, off to the side, in Dad’s chair, watching this movie, filled with all this music that I knew by heart and that I could remember my dad sometimes singing along to (he liked to do the oom-pah-pahs in “Super Trouper”)… well, it all came welling up eventually. The worry over Mom and the cat, the feelings of loss, all those emotions. By the baptism scene in the church, with the song “My Love, My Life,”––one of the few songs for which Andersson and Ulvaeus wrote new lyrics for the movie––well… I was a blubbering mess, though I did my best to contain it. I was not sobbing but I was pushing it close, and anyone could steel a glance away from the movie and at my chair to see that it was rocking back and forth, something I didn’t even realize I was doing with my foot until I stopped it, the rocking apparently my last ditch attempt at keeping it together.

And then I got mad at the movie. You do not watch a movie like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to wreck yourself and get all emotional. I got mad at the song and I got mad at Benny and Björn for killing off Donna (though I’ve since learnt it was Meryl Streep’s idea, and I can’t stay mad at Meryl). And I got mad at myself for letting another movie make me cry.

But sometimes, this is what the holidays do to us, no matter how strong we feel going in. They push us to the edge of the cliff and dangle us there. It may take a silly film or a visit to a dark church or a perhaps a quiet fireside moment, a walk in the brisk air. But you know what? No one expects you to be happy all the time, least of all me. I’ve said it before: an underlying tenet of this Book of Days is that there is always a seat at the table for Death. Loss is a natural part of our lives and it is part of what makes celebrating the ceremony of a day so special. If we had all the time in the world, would we feel the need to celebrate? And in marking our days in our revolutions around the sun, we create lives worth living, traditions worth teaching those who follow us. Some of the recipes we’ll be baking this Christmas go back to time immemorial. Grandma taught them to Mom, and now she teaches us each year, helping us improve our technique. Grandma learned the recipes from her mother, who probably learnt them from her mother, and so on. Some are distinct to their region of Italy, Apulia. And when we make and eat these things today, we remember all these people, this long line of ancestors.

That’s a big reason why it feels so strange when those who come before us up and leave. But also why we should continue what was given to us. We keep them present through simple acts. And when you get right down to it, those are the most loving acts, the ones that keep the channels open across space and time. It’s the same reason why, for many of us at least, it’s good to keep the tissues nearby at movies.

 

Chalk a lot of the emotional 1-2 punch to the power of music, too… perhaps appropriate enough since Thanksgiving this year fell on St. Cecilia’s Day, Cecilia being a patron saint of musicians. I remember in 1982, not long after Grandpa had died, driving Mom to our store and on the car’s cassette player, since it was my car, was ABBA. It was a song called “One of Us,” full of mandolins, just like the songs that Grandpa played. “Oh, Johnny,” said my mom a few minutes in, “this song is making me cry.”

Image: Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Universal Pictures, 2018.