Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

How much bigger is an empty nest?

July 21, 2012

All year I’ve been moaning in this blog about Daughter’s impending departure for college. Loss, separation, passage of time, reminder of mortality, and so on. But in fact, I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about all the things I’m going to do once she’s gone.

Measuring a bird’s nest in the tundra / Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

I’m going to cook kid-unfriendly vegetables like kale and cauliflower and cabbage. I’m going to sign up for a boot-camp program at my gym from 6 to 7:15 on weekday mornings. I’ll go to movies. To synagogue. To First Friday art walks in Oakland. Sam and I will bike from winery to winery in Sonoma. I’ll go on countless Audubon field trips….

Above all, I’ll return to revising my novel. I’ll work like a maniac, like life is one non-stop writers’ colony, and resolve all the plot and character problems, and bang that sucker out. I thought about it a lot this spring when I found myself the underachiever of my writing group, feeling guilty for not producing new drafts or rewrites: Just wait until September, then I will be amazingly productive….

It occurred to me the other day that September — the empty nest — has become an Emerald City. It’s shimmering in the distance at the end of the road. Magical things will happen. The Scarecrow will get his brains, the Tin Man his heart, the Lion his courage. Ilana will get the time and focus to finish her novel.

So then I started to wonder, Just how much more time will I actually have? 

It’s not like Daughter is still four years old and needs me to play with her and bathe her and read stories at bedtime. In fact, most of the time  she’s out with friends or in her room with the door closed. She makes her own lunches and does her own laundry. I don’t even need to drive her around anymore, since she got her license last month. Some days we hardly say twenty sentences to each other.

How exactly is she keeping me from working on my novel?

The critic in me says that she isn’t keeping me from the novel; I’m keeping myself. Revising is hard, I feel stuck on certain things, and she’s simply providing a good excuse not to deal with those challenges. I already have a relatively ideal situation for writing — a half-time job, and a beach house “retreat” that we share with friends and thus have access to every third week. Why aren’t I writing my little fingers off right now?

But in fact, I do believe that having a child at home tends to consume one’s attention, even if that child is an independent teenager.

Having a child — particularly for women, I think, but maybe for some men too — colonizes part of your brain like some alien Star Trek spore. A whole section of your brain is roped off with “seat taken” signs. When your child is nearby — even shut in her room texting friends — millions of your neurons are firing away non-stop on autopilot, vigilant for sounds of distress, sounds of happiness, sounds of misbehavior. When all this is going on, it is hard to summon up the level of concentration needed to work on a novel.

What will change when Daughter is gone:

  • I’ll feel free to spend four-day weekends at the beach house. With Daughter here, I don’t like to be away overnight. But once she’s gone, I can join Sam there on weekends and then remain there writing by myself on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  • I’ll have uninterrupted early mornings. I can wake up at 6 a.m. and get right to work.  No half-listening for sounds of showering, dressing etc. No need to remind anyone that they need to be out the door in ten minutes. No driving anyone to BART. By 9 a.m., I can have three hours of work under my belt.
  • I can work evenings without a chunk of my brain hovering down the hall to see if homework is really being done, chores have been completed etc. (This is after Sam and I eat our kale-cabbage casserole,  of course.)

So yes, I think I will have more time for writing when she is gone. Or at least more focused time for writing.

But still, I wonder if I am heaping too many expectations onto September. If I’m slipping into a bit of magical thinking. The Emerald City shimmered from a distance but the Wizard turned out to be an ordinary man with no special powers.

How many ambitions can one empty nest hold?

La Miserable, c’est moi

July 20, 2012

I’m walking around with quiet sadness as background music, with Daughter going off to college in less than one month. Then every so often — rarely, but still sometimes — something happens that makes me want to hurl her out the door with her suitcase flying behind her.

On Thursday night, we took Daughter and Boyfriend out to see the 25th anniversary touring production of Les Miserables. I love that show! It is one of my two far-and-away favorite musicals of all time, alongside The Threepenny Opera. (Clearly I like musicals about social misery.)

Sam and I saw it on Broadway back in the 1980s, and for two decades I have continued singing the tunes.

Red — the blood of angry men —
Black — the dark of ages past —
Red — a world about to dawn —
Black — the night that ends at last —

So when I heard last winter that Les Miz was coming to San Francisco, I rushed out — well, rushed to my computer, to be accurate — and bought tickets.

For months I looked forward to this. I bought the soundtrack for my iPod. I borrowed the Victor Hugo novel from the library and read all 1,400 pages of it, adding forays into Wikipedia to try and puzzle out 19th century French politics. I imagined sitting with Daughter and Boyfriend at dinner before the show, summarizing the plot and the context for them so they would get the most out of it.

(By now, you know what’s coming, don’t you?)

Flash forward to night of show. Lovely dinner at a Brazilian restaurant near the theatre eating feijoada and balls of fried something-or-other. I offer to summarize the plot, only to hear, No! Don’t give it away! Earlier I had offered to share the soundtrack with her, only to hear, No! I don’t want to listen to it in advance!

Then we watch the show. It’s a middling production. Kind of rushed, and not as grand as I remembered. But then, things generally aren’t as grand as you remember them 20 years later. The music is still fabulous. At intermission, I turn to her and ask the fateful question, “What do you think?”

Shrug. “I wish there was dialogue and it wasn’t all music. And it’s not really my kind of music.”

I turn to Boyfriend. Another shrug and a nod of agreement. “Not my kind of music.”


Why does this always seem to happen? Les Miz. The Threepenny Opera. Bruce Springsteen. Erich Fromm. The movie Reds. The movie Nashville. Casablanca. Or dinners that I look up in cookbooks, then carefully dice and blend and bake.

It feels like I offer a small, carefully wrapped gift box to my child — a little gold box with a satin ribbon holding a part of my heart. And then she dismisses it with a toss of her head, or rolled eyes. Doesn’t want to bother with it. Or goes along but doesn’t get it. Doesn’t really care.

And why does this push my buttons? There are many times that Sam hates a movie or book that I love, and it doesn’t frustrate me this way. But there’s a different emotional weight when it’s your child. You yearn to give them beauty, delight, joy. Isn’t it your job to show them the beauty in the world?  And you try so hard! You plan! You care! You anticipate!

And then it doesn’t work out.

Okay, I know this is totally normal. Daughter will discover her own sources of beauty, delight and joy. Probably discovering them on her own — rather than being led to them by a parent — is part of the delight and joy. And she’s not ungrateful. She even thanked us for buying the tickets and dinner last night.

In fact, when I consider things rationally, there are lots of times when she has appreciated some beloved cultural icon of mine — Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, Lord of the Rings, the BBC Pride and Prejudice, Esther Averill’s The Cat Club. Even Springsteen, a little.

Still, who wants to be rational? On Thursday night, boy, was I ready to throw her out of the house.


June 10, 2012

Last Thursday, my daughter passed her driving test. On Friday, she graduated from high school.

Now we enter two months of limbo — done with high school, not yet starting college. None of her friends have very organized plans for the summer. A lot of them are “looking for a job” — which, in this economy, and with them just starting to look in mid-June, means they will be babysitting. It’s as if both kids and parents used all of their mental energy and organizational capacity making it through the college application process and senior year and finals and graduation and now… oops, here’s the summer.

The New York Times had a front-page story on Sunday morning about students at high-achieving high schools using prescription stimulants like Ritalin to improve their SAT and exam performance. Really interesting (and disturbing) story, estimating that as many as 30 percent of kids at some schools are abusing prescription drugs intended for children with conditions like ADHD. Not to get high, but to get the test scores necessary to please parents and teachers and get into prestigious colleges. And these are the “good” kids — the star students, the student council presidents etc.

The Times story focused on private schools in New York and public schools in affluent East Coast suburbs, but suggested this is a national trend. I asked B. if she had heard of such abuse of “study drugs” out here in Oakland and San Francisco. She said no, and sounded genuinely surprised. Maybe her school — which has a less academically pressured culture than some other private schools — is uniquely immune? Or maybe this hasn’t hit the Bay Area yet? “Things are more mellow here in the Bay Area,” B. suggested.

“One more bullet we dodged,” I thought. Along with anorexia, drug abuse, cutting, promiscuity, binge drinking, clinical depression, running away from home… the litany of hazards afflicting teens from otherwise safe and privileged communities in our weird, affluent country.

Because that’s one significance of graduation. Yes, graduation is a recognition of academic achievement, and of life transition — no longer a child, now (more or less) an adult.

But it’s also recognition that we did it — shepherded our small charges past the various shoals of childhood and adolescence.

They didn’t electrocute themselves by sticking their fat toddler fingers into wall sockets. They didn’t wander off into traffic. They didn’t eat poisonous berries or small plastic Legos. They didn’t get kidnapped by strangers, abused by priests, date-raped on Quaaludes by entire high school football teams. They didn’t catch meningitis or Lyme disease. They didn’t get shot by gangs. They didn’t get shot by police who assumed because of the color of their skin that they were in a gang.

They didn’t steer the car off the Bay Bridge while learning to drive. (Yet!)

They dressed ad nauseum in pink Disney princess gowns and clutched Barbie lunch boxes, but didn’t grow up to be Snooki or Kim Kardashian.


Happy graduation!

Leaving nests, literally and figuratively

May 27, 2012

A Peregrine Falcon pair have been nesting and raising their young on the 33rd floor of the PG&E building in downtown San Francisco.   I’ve written in my other blog for Golden Gate Audubon about the nest cam that let viewers watch the chicks on the Web, and the “fledge watch” volunteers who are monitoring and helping the young falcons as they master their flying.

Here I wanted to write about their first flight.

Think about it. Their nest is 33 floors up, over concrete streets and sidewalks. For the first month or so of their lives, the falcon chicks hang out on the building ledge while the parents fly to and fro bringing them food. They walk back and forth a bit, stretch their wings, flap a bit.

Then one day they push off the ledge. Just like that, an unforgiving 33 floors up.

PG&E building, where falcons nest on the 33rd floor / Photo by Sara Skikne/KQED

We talk about our kids “leaving the nest” all the time in a figurative sense, but I’d never really thought about what this means literally for birds like those falcons.

Human development seems so incremental and safe in comparison. Our infants start to move by crawling, pushing one arm up at a time. If it doesn’t work, so what? They collapse five inches onto the floor.

When it’s time to stand, they pull themselves up on a coffee table or chair. They have something to hold on to. And if it doesn’t work, they  plop right down on their fleshy bottoms.

Even other birds have an easier first flight than those falcon fledgelings. Sam and I went to view Great Egret nests today at Audubon Canyon Ranch near our Stinson Beach house. There is a colony of dozens of egret nests high in a single tree, a kind of apartment complex of egrets. But the nests are resting above a thick canopy of branches and other trees, so if a fledge (first flight) goes wrong, the young bird only falls as far as the next set of branches. Not so for the falcons.

The human activity that feels most comparable, at least right now, is teaching my daughter to drive. She’s had her learner’s permit for about three months and has had two professional driving lessons plus a lot of time in the car with me or Sam. She is a very cautious and thoughtful driver. She doesn’t speed or take risks. And I know that almost every adult behind a wheel today was once a beginning driver, and they all learned and turned out fine. (Well, most of them!)

But every time I drive with her I am terrified. Any single mis-step could bring disaster. Is she too close to the wall as we drive through a long tunnel? Is she going to pay attention and turn the wheel as we approach a curve on the freeway? 

There is this potential for disaster with any driver — cab drivers, bus drivers, friends of mine, even Sam. Once you get going fast enough, any mistake becomes the equivalent of a 33-floor drop. But I take safe outcomes for granted with most adult drivers and don’t picture imminent death in each freeway curve. With my daughter, though, I get terrified. I try not to show it. But I feel it.

But even learning to drive is less all-or-nothing than a falcon fledge from a 33-floor skyscraper.

Does the young bird realize what it is undertaking and what is at stake when it spreads its wings and pushes off from the ledge?

Do its parents?

Mother and son Peregrine Falcons in downtown San Francisco, May 2012 / Photo by Glenn Nevill
You can find more of Glenn’s falcon photos at .

Do-it-yourself empty nest blog post

April 15, 2012

This week it became apparent that the end had arrived for my 17-year-old Camry station wagon, the mommy car I bought when my daughter was 18 months old. 

The blog post seemed ready to write itself: Another sign of transition to en empty nest. Feelings of sadness, astonishment, mortality. Et cetera.

But I feel like I’ve written this same post about a dozen times so far this year. First rule of blogging: Don’t be tedious or whiny. 

So I figured: If people know what I’m going to say already, why not let them say it for me? Here goes — fill in the blanks to create your own empty nest blog post —  

Yet Another Empty Nest Blog Post

As a young adult, I fantasized about little flashy sports cars like the _________. As a good environmentalist, I drove little high-mileage cars like the __________. 

But when I became a parent, I needed a vehicle that was more ________. I envisioned ferrying bevies of children on field trips to _________  or camping trips to _________. With only one child, a minivan seemed like overkill. So we bought a white Camry station wagon, the kind with a back area that could be turned into two rear-facing seats to carry a total of seven passengers. 

The Mommymobile, almost old enough to vote / Photo by Ilana DeBare

It was huge. It was bulky. We nicknamed it the Great White ___________. The first few weeks when I looked at it in our driveway, I couldn’t believe who I had become. I was suddenly a suburban ___________. I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a Parent. And that felt so wrong! I was supposed to be someone who HAD Parents, not someone who WAS a parent.  That big white stationwagon was a symbol of all the _______  I felt about the transition to parenthood. 

Well, I got used to it and the station wagon did a sterling job for 17 years and 140,000 miles. Field trips, ski trips, camping trips. Trips to the Oakland Zoo, Fairyland, the Monterey Aquarium, Marine World. (That’s before Marine World got all __________.) 

Then last week the computer that runs the _________ gave out. I was told it would cost $3000 to replace it. That crosses the border into “time-to-buy-a-new-car” land. 

And since B. is going off to college in four months, the next car won’t be a station wagon. It will be smaller. Probably a _______ or maybe a _________, since I remain the good environmentalist.

I can’t help thinking that this is the first in a series of downsizings over the next couple of decades –- smaller car, smaller grocery bills, eventually a smaller house and someday leaving houses entirely for a _________. 

The parenting period of my life is ending.

Even scarier, the expansion period of my life is ending. 

I don’t want to be morbid, and I know there are lots of upsides to this transition, but I still feel __________.

The failed fable of the overpriced greens

February 20, 2012

As part of a rushed round of pre-weekend shopping, I bought a small container of sauteed greens at the Pasta Shop, our local gourmet deli. When I got home, I looked at the label on the container and my jaw dropped:

Photo by Ilana DeBare

That’s right, click to zoom in on the photo if your middle-aged eyes can’t handle the small print.

Twenty-one dollars for a pint of greens! Based on a rate of $38.95 per pound!

Even Dean & DeLuca in New York wouldn’t charge that much.

Needless to say, it was a mistake. I took the container back to the store the next day and the clerk acknowledged adding a digit. The price was supposed to be $8.95 a pound, not $38.95. They refunded my money and all was well in the world.

Later in the day, I felt compelled to turn this story into a fable with a moral for my daughter. “You should always double check the receipt when you buy something,” I said.  I handed the plastic lid to her. “I didn’t do that, and look what happened.”

I knew full well what I was doing even as I started  through this futile exercise. With barely six months until she goes off to college, I feel compelled to cram every last little bit of life-lesson into our remaining time. Read your receipts! Floss your teeth! Don’t neglect your female friends just because you have a boyfriend! Don’t put wool sweaters in the dryer!  

Six months from now, she will be out on her own in the world, with nothing to shield her from imminent disaster except a few inebriated dorm advisors and this stockpile of motherly aphorisms.

And of course she won’t hear or remember a word of it.

It’s not just about being a teenager. It’s about the nature of our memories. Ninety-nine percent of the things we see or hear in a given day are forgotten almost immediately. The things we remember are those with some emotion attached to them — surprise, fear, excitement, joy.

I may — may — remember this encounter with the overpriced greens a year from now because I was so stunned. It was a visceral response, a combination of shock at the price and then embarrassment that I hadn’t noticed the overcharge while checking out. For my daughter, though, it’s just a story. She didn’t have that direct emotional connection. I reflexively tried to make it a little more vivid by thrusting the plastic lid at her, like some elementary school teacher trying to make the Miwok Indians seem real by passing around a grinding stone. Fat chance.

There was an old Gary Larson cartoon that I loved. It had two frames. The first was labeled, “What we say to dogs,” and it showed a man scolding his dog:”Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! I’ve told you to stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!”

Then the second frame was labelled “What they hear,” and the dialogue balloon coming out of the man’s mouth went: “blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah.”

Or here’s his cat version of it:

Cartoon by Gary Larson

Sometimes that’s how I feel talking to my daughter. She’ll absorb about as much of what I’m saying as our cat will.

I don’t hold it against her. I know it’s not personal, it’s just human.

But still, that six-month college departure date is hanging out there. I keep talking.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion

January 15, 2012

I have spent about fifteen hours over the past three days obsessively creating digital photo albums on Snapfish. One was of our recent vacation in Puerto Rico; the other included all of our family photographs from 2011.

I’d finished the first draft of my Technion manuscript. I didn’t have to start my new job at Golden Gate Audubon until next Tuesday. In the interim, I could have worked on my poor long-neglected novel. I could have immersed myself in checking out Bay Area bird-related Web sites and blogs, or reviewed the past two years of Audubon’s newsletter, or collected resources on nonprofit marketing, or… you get the idea.*

Instead, I uploaded and and edited and arranged  a gazillion photos.

And before that, I gathered up all of our home videos from B’s childhood and took them to the camera store to be transferred onto DVDs. That costs a ton of money. I’d been putting it off for about four years. But I did it this week.

It doesn’t take Dr. Freud to diagnose that there’s something psychological going on here.

On one level, this is just trying to tie up loose household ends as I move from one phase of life into another — from working at home with total freedom and flexibility, to working in an office with a whole additional set of external demands on my time. It’s a new calendar year, a good time to organize mementos from the past year, and who knows when I’ll have this kind of available time again? It makes perfect sense.

But I think there’s also a deeper level. Maybe I’m quietly gearing myself up for B. going off to college in the fall. I’m starting to tie up the loose ends of her childhood. There were twenty-one VHS tapes that needed to be transferred before they someday decay and before our decrepit VCR gives up the ghost. There are about six years of family photographs sitting in my computer, waiting to be put into albums.

B. will always be our child. She’ll come home on vacations, we’ll fight over chores just like we do now, we’ll help her with her problems, maybe even more than we do now. But as of this coming summer, her childhood is officially over. The years of outings to the Oakland Zoo and Children’s Fairyland, the birthday parties at gymnastic studios, the horrific Disney princess dresses and early-morning soccer games and lousy attempts to braid her hair. All gone, tied up like a package that has just gone into the mailbox with a metal, unarguable clang.

So some part of me wants to tie all these photos and videos up too. To have her childhood neatly organized and packaged, lined up in a row on a shelf. So I can look at that shelf and feel, “We did it. We did this project of raising an entire child.”

Some of this may be a little obsessive and Type-A personality. I just spent 20 years in a career where every project I undertook left a written record, a page of newsprint with my name and work on full display. I keep a lot of those clips jammed in a file drawer. Are these photo albums an effort to turn B.’s childhood into similar proof of my productivity?

But some of it is perhaps a normal reaction. She’s going away; our time with her will become a wisp of smoke, a tuft of cat fur floating in the living room sun. And these albums and DVDs are something tangible that can remain.

Perhaps when the albums are done and arranged, I will be able to read  them in order like a graphic novel and perceive the patterns and plot turns that were completely invisible to me as we were living through them. Perhaps the albums will help me make sense of it all.

When B.’s soccer team was little, we bought them cheap plastic trophies at the end of the season — whether or not they’d won any tournaments — so they would have a tangible reward for trying hard and being good sports.

These photo books and videos are my cheap plastic trophy.

I’m not sure how to tease out all these intermingled causes, but I do know my syndrome — SOSC.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion.


*Author’s disclaimer: In all honesty, I did engage in some productive activities like looking at bird-related blogs this week. But I also did a ton of photo album stuff. :-) 

Happy holidays, and a surprising kind of supermarket music

December 26, 2011

A belated merry Christmas to my Christian and Christmas-celebrating friends! Happy end of Chanukah to my Jewish friends!

We just returned from a week-long family vacation in Puerto Rico, where we rented a big house with my brother, sister and their families. This was a rare and wonderful way to bring everyone from two coasts together and build connections and memories among the young cousins. We swam in the ocean, hiked in the rain forest, bought Puerto Rican fried snacks and cooked our own fried latkes, and took an amazing nighttime kayak trip into a bioluminescent lagoon, where the plankton emit light when disturbed, creating comet-like trails as you move your hand in the dark water.

The trip began in the best of ways — with an email saying that Daughter had been accepted early-decision by N.Y.U.’s film school! This was wonderful news, since she really, really wanted to go there. It’s the perfect program for her, in a city where we have lots of family, and to top things off, it eliminates four months of worry and the need to slog through another three or four applications.

As a little holiday gift, I’d like to share this link to a video from our first day in Puerto Rico.

We had stopped to buy lunch and groceries in Ralph’s Food Warehouse, a U.S.-style supermarket in the town of Humacao. We were surprised to find a live band of drums, horns and a Christmas-clad stilt walker dancing through the aisles. They were sponsored by a local candy company and performing either bomba or plena, two Puerto Rican musical styles based in African drumming. Perhaps someone with more expertise can fill in the details….

A far cry from the Muzak version of Silent Night!

Happy holiday season, and may you and your loved ones have a 2012 filled with health, happiness, and unexpected music.

El Yunque rain forest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Pelican at Punta Santiago / Photo by Ilana DeBare

With the bomba/plena band / Property of Ilana DeBare

Eighteen, chai, life

December 13, 2011

My daughter turned 18 this past weekend. Eighteen!

I remember so clearly being home with a new baby, sleepless and overwhelmed and terrified of losing my independent adult life. Every half-hour seemed to drag on for a year. (Especially at 3:30 a.m.) The nurse/diaper/cry/nurse routine felt like it would go on forever. I couldn’t imagine her sleeping through the night, let alone going to school.

The juncture she has reached now — turning 18, a legal adult, applying to colleges — would have seemed as impossibly distant as Star Trek’s 23rd century. But of course here it is, and like going through a Trekkie wormhole, it feels as if practically no time has passed.

Ice cream cake with Rollos and Kit Kits, by my sister-in-law Esther / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I could write about how proud Sam and I are of the person that B. has become. But I won’t.

Instead I want to play with numbers, which is a polite way of saying I want to write about me.

She is 18. I am about to turn 54.

Eighteen is one-third of 54. I look at her and see my life divided into neat thirds: From birth to 18, I was growing up. From 18 to 36, I was an independent adult. From 36 to 54, I was a parent. Yes, I continued to work as a journalist, but my main creative energy went into being a parent and into projects that spun off from parenting (helping start the Julia Morgan School for Girls, writing a book about girls’ schools, etc.).

Now my next 18 years will take me from 54 to 72. What will that entail? A return to being the independent adult, a chance to invent a new career, more time for fiction writing?

Eighteen also connects to the word “chai” in Jewish tradition. The Kabbalist mystics assigned numerical values to each Hebrew letter, and the chet-yud of “chai” add up to 18. I learned this around the time of B.’s bat mitzvah, when she started receiving checks from relatives in weird random amounts — a check for $36? or $72? It was mystifying until someone explained the tradition of giving sums that are multiples of “chai.”

And then 54 — thrice eighteen — is the age at which my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later. Almost two decades after that, I learned that I had inherited the BRCA2 gene that creates a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I undertook preventive surgeries so my actual risk of breast/ovarian cancer is now very low — lower than that of the general non-BRCA population. But still, the age 54 carries undefined emotional weight for me. I’m not sure how I will react to it. Part of me irrationally assumes I will follow in her path, and that age 54 signals doom. Another part is prepared to celebrate every day after 54 that I’m cancer-free — Hooray! I made it another day longer than expected!

What does this all add up to, all these 18s and multiples of 18?  B. took the graphing calculator to school for her math final today, but that’s not why I’m stymied.  Perhaps this is just continued perplexity at the strangeness of a system where children’s birthdays inspire joy and wonder, but our own aging feels scary and bittersweet, if not downright sad.

At some point in those years between 18 and 54, birthdays shifted from being a moment when doors perpetually opened more — and more! and more! —  to a moment when they wobble on their hinges and maybe start inching towards closure.


A J.D. Salinger scavenger hunt

December 8, 2011

My daughter likes J.D. Salinger. She’s read all his books, wrote her college application essay about one of his short stories, and made a movie based on another of his stories for her filmmaking class. A while ago she told me that, for an 18th birthday present, she would like “all of Salinger’s uncollected stories.”

It turns out that Salinger wrote 22 short stories — mostly in the 1940s — that appeared in magazines but were never anthologized. They are listed and summarized on Dead Caulfields, a terrific web site devoted to Salinger’s work.

So off I set on a Salinger/scavenger hunt.

I started with the U.C. Berkeley library catalogue and with WorldCat, the online catalogue that tells you (not entirely accurately) which libraries own a given book or periodical. I’d assumed that the immense Berkeley library system would have everything I needed, but it quickly became clear that this would not be a one-stop shop. Instead:

Stop # 1 – Online archives. The New Yorker makes its archives — every page of every issue, back to 1925 — available to subscribers for free. That was a quick and painless way to print out two Salinger stories, one of those moments where I want to blow big sloppy kisses to the Internet.

But surprisingly, there were no similar online archives for Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan or Mademoiselle, where he had also published. And other magazines like Collier’s, Story, and the Saturday Evening Post went extinct long before anyone had even heard of the Internet.

Stop # 2 — Oakland Public Library. Good news: The modest, cash-strapped Oakland library had back issues of the Saturday Evening Post and Story. Bad news: Some less principled Salinger aficionado had gotten there before me and sliced out the pages containing his stories from some of the volumes. I guess that’s the downside of being a writer with a cult following.

Stop # 3 – U.C. Berkeley’s Doe library. I spent a lot of time in this library when I wrote Where Girls Come First, and I love it. I love the way the floors of stacks are built below ground like some post-apocalyptic civilization. I love the tall movable bookcases that slide along a track as effortlessly as if someone had suspended the principle of friction. I love the way you go looking for one book, and then find a half dozen related volumes alongside it that you didn’t even know about.

Here’s what was new at UC since I did my girls’ school research: Scanning. There are no longer any photocopy machines in the stacks. Instead, there are scanners. You place the book on the machine, it scans the page into digital form, and then either saves it to a memory stuck or spits out copies to a printing center next door in Moffett Library.

But UC didn’t have every magazine I needed. And some of those that it did have were barely legible. So on to….

Stop # 4 — New York Public Library. Although I grew up in Manhattan, I had never set foot in the main branch of the New York Public Library. But I was spending a few days in New York on my way back from Israel, which created an opportunity to continue the Salinger/scavenger hunt.

What a building! The great marble staircases and hallways, the main reading room with its rococo ceiling of carved cherubs and painted clouds, the long, pillared oak counter that could easily have been from a Victorian bank… it all conveys a sense of books as sacred, precious, worthy of being housed in a palace.

Some of the magazines were available on microfiche, and I fumbled around with the spools and the light and the focus dial, thinking how clumsy and outmoded microfiche technology feels now that we have things like scanners and online archives.

Others of the magazines I needed were available in bound volumes. I had to get a NYPL library card to page them from the stacks. I felt like a temporary member of the New York literati!

Photo by Ilana DeBare

But even the vaunted NYPL didn’t have everything. I was still missing about four stories. (Might you say that I was short four short stories? Or I was four short stories short?)

Stop # 4 — Return to the Web. Back home, I went online again and found bootleg copies of the text of the missing stories on various individuals’ web sites. (I suppose I could have downloaded bootleg versions of all the stories and skipped the library rigmarole, but there’s something nice about seeing the stories in their original setting, surrounded by period ads for a $2.50 Manhattan restaurant dinner or “Pant-Ease Diapers that are Knitted to Fit Your Baby.”)

I bought a three-ring binder, and clear plastic sheet protectors with holes to fit in the binder. Organized all the stories chronologically and slipped them into the plastic jackets. Printed up a cover. And voila! An eighteenth birthday present.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

I hope she appreciates it.

All told, I probably put more than 20 hours into this.

If I were billing at $100 an hour, this would be a $2,000 birthday present.