Monday, February 11, 2008

Homage to Phyllis Whitney

At Bellport High School out on Long Island, my brother graduated as his class valedictorian, my sister somewhere at the top of her class. And then there was me. I held the solid middle ground of my graduating class.

But I was the only one who met Phyllis Whitney, an author whose books I'd read since the second grade. Her grandkids attended high school, one a year ahead of me, the other a year behind. Phyllis Whitney spoke at one of our library classes at Bellport High when I was a junior. I remember her warmth and the sparkle in her eyes when she spoke about writing.

She sponsored a writing contest and I, bored out of my mind from mindless high school chatter, decided to enter. Phyllis Whitney started the story and we were asked to complete it. I'll have to dig it out of my archives and include it at a later point. I still have the issue of the publication that the story appeared in.

I remember doodling in my notebook and daydreaming in Social Studies class until I heard my name on the loudspeaker. I wasn't sure why my name was mentioned until a classmate advised me. That was the first and only time my name was projected around the school. I had won the contest, an award and reward for high school years that passed without distinction.

Many years later, I found out from a group of children's book writers that Phyllis Whitney was living in Virginia. I would come across the contest publication from time to time when I was cleaning and thanks were long overdue. I wrote to thank her for this hefty start to my writing career. And Phyllis Whitney replied with a note when she was just 100 years old.

"What a lovely letter! You bring back years that passed so long ago. I'm happy to know that I inspired you to become a writer.

I will send a copy of your letter to Sara Courant who sponsored those affairs. I know she will be pleased.

Today, I no longer write fiction, but I have been working on my autobiography.

All best,

Phyllis A. Whitney"

Phyllis Whitney passed away on February 8, 2008 at the age of 104.

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Retail Therapy

I am one of those people to whom many stories are told. From dusty tales of Mexican laundry folders who drink too much on Saturday nights to one very nervous cop aiming his gun at me as I exited my apartment to dispose of recyclables, to my traveling companions on overstuffed M100 buses, to underappreciated and aggravated secretaries, public school teachers with unruly students, to Wall Street workers coming off an exhilarating trade, the shopping bag of disclosure is open and ready for unpacking.

It happens most often while I shop. From tomatoes to turtlenecks, the hordes corner me like some sort of exalted celebrity as I’m preoccupied with finding the right size, shape, or shoe: dapper shoe salesmen complain about women who send them scurrying to the storeroom as they spend their weekends being waited on hand and well, feet; chubby cashiers at Target, Saks, and Duane Reade point out their swollen ankles; and the chic who shop at the Gap and Henri Bendel invite me into the operating room as they describe gallbladder and appendix removals. I’ve listened to tales of cheating boyfriends, sloppy husbands, and dirty landlords from the minions who purchase and pander at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s; epics reveal painful shoes, poor diet, bad bosses, bad days – my bunions and I could be standing on line to pay in the world’s most remote shop or tugging on a too small skirt in a dressing room separated from the sales floor by a curtain. I keep thinking that if I set up a series of couches near cash registers I can get the chats and complaints over all at once.

Move over, Dr. Phil. I’m hanging out my shingle for retail therapy.

The lineage of women among the sales racks can be traced back, I’m convinced, to the early days of hunters and gathers. On the back walls of some muddy cave, maybe in northern Spain and in France, or perhaps in uptown Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park, charcoal paintings of cavewomen wielding clubs beating their way to sales racks are just waiting to be unearthed. During their hunting and gathering days, the female half of the species stayed behind. tending to huts, caves, and children, ripping roots and plants from the soil, while the male half of the species men hunted big game with bows, arrows, and spears. The women waved goodbye while their mates went after dinner, and this communal commiserating, companionship, and co-parenting kept the community alive. And thus began the origins of the group shop. I know there’s a shopping bag from the Ice Age hidden deep in the core of our planet just waiting to be carbon dated.

To be continued...

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