Monthly Archives: November 2014

Dear David Sedaris

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Dear Mr. Sedaris,

You have the dubious honor of being the recipient of the 4th fan letter I’ve ever written in my life.

The first letter was sent when I was 10, to Phil Collins of the band ‘Genesis’.  It was 1985 and his third solo album, ‘No Jacket Required’ had been released.  I had received the LP for my birthday, and although I can’t recall exactly how I felt about the actual music, I became enamored of the picture on the front of the album – an orange-tinted glowing image of Mr. Collins’ head.  It floated in the black of the album cover like an orb of light.  Perhaps it recalled the comfort of a nightlight I had as a small child, or perhaps the sorrowful look in his round, baby-face features appealed to my sense of Dickensian anguish.  Regardless, I was convinced we were meant to be together – with the confidence in romance that only lives in the naïve heart of a bookish and nerdy prepubescent Jewish girl growing up in Westchester, NY.

I composed a letter that detailed my vision for our future together. “I hope one day we can go roller skating together,” I wrote. I even typed it out to be sure he could read every word clearly. This was likely my mistake, for as I neglected to mention my age during the course of the letter, I can only imagine the assumption that it was from an adult. “If you are sad, you can talk to me about it,” is an invitation that sounds worryingly sinister unless being delivered by the soft innocent voice of a 10 year old. Even then, it’s borderline.

Not surprisingly, I never received an answer. A restraining order would have been more likely. Years later, I felt compelled to try again, this time lowering my expectations.  Besides, they eventually stopped selling real roller skates.

Letter #2 was an amalgamation of poor timing and an inability to edit my own work in a judicious manner. In 1992, during an espresso-fueled adolescence and while reading a number of Isaac Asimov books, I became convinced that I may be a brain-washed experimental time-traveling space cadet, and in retrospect I realize that my self-diagnosis was at least partially correct. I began to write what became a series of half-completed letters of explanation on the validity of my dilemma to Mr. Asimov, stressing particulars about what the Year 2000 would hold, (coffee mugs would get bigger, jacket lapels smaller)and seeking his advice. Unfortunately, I wavered over certain details and whether to sign the letter with my own name or under the pseudonym ‘I, Superfan’, consequently missing the opportunity for the letter to be delivered to Mr. Asimov while he was still alive. My postmark was only a week off, but it was a decisive week.

I won’t get into the details of my third letter other than to note I learned the hard way that Liza Minnelli does not appreciate fan letters accompanied by a shipment of fresh pineapples carved into the likeness of her mother Judy Garland’s face.

Given my previous fan letter mishaps, I should have learned a hard lesson about the impossibility of a co-mingling between celebrity and obscurity. And, yet here I am again, attempting to connect with an artist whose work I greatly admire. Your latest book is your wittiest, most touching and unyieldingly personal yet, but I have been a fan since ‘The SantaLand Diaries.’

In fact, despite the likely remarkable number of differences in our backgrounds and personalities, you might be surprised to know we come from similar humble beginnings – I also was a Santa Elf. Although I was not 33, I was 15 (perhaps a more conventionally acceptable age for an elf).  It was my very first job: taking Polaroid pictures of young children in the middle of the mall as they sat on the lap of Jolly St. Nick, amid animatronic deer and squirrels. I soon learned that the jolliness of one of the Santas was directly related to how many swigs he had taken of the small metal flask he kept in his jacket, but his warm slushiness was preferable to his co-patriot, who growled when we let the children sit on his lap too long.  Later, he accidentally revealed a swastika tattoo on the top of his bald head when removing his Santa hat for the day, thus demonstrating the true equal opportunity employment position taken by the Jefferson Valley Mall.

You have gone on to become a highly-respected and iconic voice of your generation and I have relocated six times within the state of Delaware in the past 10 years; both journeys of some consequence.

If you have made it to the end of this letter, I will have finally achieved a level of success in my fan letter writing, not to mention won a bet against my husband. Please feel free to let me know – a dinner at TGI Friday’s is riding on it.

Sincerely,

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Sarah Autumn

sarah

In the autumnal aftermath of the dissolution of my first marriage, I took a job and a leap of faith across two states to begin a new life. Amidst my feelings of disappointment and failure were the seeds of possibility and anticipation as I resolutely vowed to rediscover myself. I had called upon several old colleagues to dig up whatever remnants of a professional past I might have had prior to my wedding and hoped at least one job opportunity would reveal itself. Several long distance interviews later, I secured a position in Connecticut, something I was sure would stick for a while.  I had one small problem, in the form of my toddler son, who obviously required daily care. I worried about the expense of daycare and in a moment of desperation, I asked my younger sister Sarah to come live with me and watch Max throughout the fall and into the winter. I would pay her wages and provide her with room and board.

Although I tried to persuade myself that asking for Sarah’s help in this time of personal crisis was something anyone with family would do, I was not without reservations about it. Of my three younger sisters, Sarah was closest in age to me, but furthest apart in temperament and personality. A freelance journalist working on her master’s degree and still living at home with my mother and her husband, she was the eternal student, full of plans and prospects that rarely panned out. Incredibly intelligent, but sometimes lacking common sense; she had the characteristics of someone who might have been diagnosed with a form of Asberger’s.  With the ability and ambition to have a conversation with anyone but in a way that may have alienated some, she had a somewhat tentative and halting way of speaking sometimes, as if gathering her thoughts before each statement. Sarah always seemed to be moving in slow motion, and my impatience and irritation with her dreaminess had created a void between us in recent years. I felt older and wiser than her in almost every way possible, and yet here I was, faced with the collapse of my own conclusions on how life should be lived, practically begging for her help. The irony was not lost on me, but with a genuine concern for my wellbeing and without as much as a finger wag, Sarah agreed to stay and care for her nephew.

I had rented a fairly large, cheap but somewhat decrepit apartment which would provide plenty of room for the three of us. Determined to cling to an altruistic motivation rather than a selfish one, I had convinced myself that I was also offering Sarah an opportunity to grow as a person. Living at home at the age of 29 was not healthy, I reasoned, and the somewhat claustrophobic house of my mother, her husband and their eight dogs certainly couldn’t allow Sarah the freedom to become a full-fledged adult. Living with me was one step closer to living by herself – a goal I felt was in her best interest and within her capacity once given the chance to get closer to it.

Sarah took her care-taking responsibilities to heart and provided my son with a loving and compassionate environment while I was at work. One and a half year old Max, having recently eased out of a phase during which he refused to leave my side, adapted remarkably well to my sister’s custody. The two took walks through the neighborhood while the weather remained warm enough and did crafts of various sorts that were hung carefully on the refrigerator door for my inspection when I returned home. Throughout a bout of even pickier eating than usual that so worried a local doctor’s assistant that she labeled Max ‘failing to thrive’, Sarah kept religiously meticulous notes on his diet and diapers for two weeks to provide evidence that genetics rather than malnutrition was the culprit for his tiny size.

As we settled into our routines, and I began to revel in my new-found independence, I found a confidante in Sarah, and began to remember what a selfless, loving person she was. Work gossip, family griping, even potential romantic interests – Sarah provided an open ear and a supportive sounding board for me. Not like some roommate, but like my sister, who always knew what I needed to hear, always took my side, and seemed more worried about my wellbeing than her own. A sister who seemed to thrive on my conversation. But, it was always about me.  Whenever the exchange turned to her and my lofty thoughts for how she could and should improve her life, she carefully and graciously brought it back around to my issues, which I was usually happy to talk more about.

Eventually, I began to take advantage of Sarah’s generosity. Drunk on freedom (and Chardonnay), I went out at night on occasion returning home too tipsy to have driven and suffered Sarah’s anxious concern over my state. I dismissed her distress with the assurance of a teenager and briefly felt like I was the younger sister with Sarah scolding me like a mother hen while I laughed off her fears.

Regularly, our own mother would call to speak to Sarah after enduring an argument with her husband. The increasing frequency of their disagreements seemed directly related to Sarah’s absence in their home and she worried about the state of their marriage. “You are not their referee,” I reminded her, even as I grew gradually more dependent on Sarah’s role in my own household, but I could see Sarah’s concern.  As winter approached, Sarah began to talk about her plans for going back to my mother’s house and once again I begged her to stay. In many ways, I had become as dependent on her and her support as I now realized my mother was. Sarah with her generous heart and anxious head, worrying about you so that you didn’t have to. Or perhaps so she didn’t worry about herself.

I thought if I could create a better motivation for her to stay, she would. I found her a freelance writing job locally, but she found reasons to decline it. She talked vaguely about professional commitments she had back in Pennsylvania, and eventually I stopped arguing. They were my arguments; for what I wanted for her, and I certainly couldn’t force her to listen.  I found daycare for Max and she left after Christmas. Without the intimacy of our living arrangement, our interactions returned to what they had been – those of two sisters living very different lives, their connection increasingly growing more distant and faint.

When Sarah died suddenly in 2009, a storm of emotions and regrets consumed me that I still battle to this day.  I judged myself as harshly as I had ever judged my sister. The one sweet note in the symphony of inner discord that I have suffered through has been the memory of that one autumn that I had a chance to spend with Sarah.

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Good Hair.

Max: What’s going on with your hair?

Me: You don’t like it?

Max: Well, not really.

Me: What are you, a hairstylist now?

Max: I know good hair. I mean, look at mine.

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Hernia! Hernia! Hernia!

hospital gown

A hernia is one of those conditions that I probably misunderstood as a child. I had older male relatives that had suffered through one or two, and remember the recovery involving a sustained period of avoiding heavy lifting. I probably thought it had to do with your back. “Darling, don’t lift that suitcase – your hernia!” I had heard multiple women yell at their husbands. Perhaps I had confused it with sciatica – a common mistake I’m sure since they both end in ‘a’ and sound like Greek Mythology heroes. (Wasn’t Hernia the name of Zeus’ wife?)

The truth is actually more….gross. A hernia occurs when an organ or fatty tissue squeezes through a hole in your muscle wall in various places throughout your body. For a while, it might poke through on occasion without doing much harm (“Pardon me, is that a hernia in your abdomen, or are you just happy to see me?”), but if the organ or tissue pokes through far enough to get stuck in your muscle wall, it can become strangulated and lose blood flow and start to die, causing extreme pain and an emergency situation to be repaired.

I have recently become more of an expert on hernias since the diagnosis of my own several weeks ago; a diagnosis which dovetailed my 40th birthday, and which provided me a hearty handshake and introduction to middle age.  “Welcome,” said my hernia, “to the phase of your life where you eat high fiber muffins, drink decaf green tea, and start collecting a laundry list of embarrassing minor medical diagnoses. Enjoy your stay.”

The type of hernia that I had was an inguinal or groin, which most commonly affects men. This made me briefly question my femininity, especially upon relating the news to my ex-husband who charmingly questioned whether I had in fact grown a pair of testicles since we had divorced – a notion that no doubt would be relieving and satisfying to him.

Whether I was genetically prone to hernias or whether I had torn a muscle during pregnancy was a question I chose to answer by allowing the blame to fall squarely on the shoulders of my two children who had certainly ruined my body in other ways, as well.

When discussing treatment options with my surgeon, he informed me that I could repair the hernia with surgery right away or ‘wait for a while’ but the idea of greeting my naked self each morning with an odd lump under my skin that I now knew was a piece of my intestines poking out of my groin convinced me to schedule the operation.  Because….yuck.

The surgery was scheduled for late in the afternoon, but I was advised to arrive two hours early in order to sit in the waiting room for an extended period of time while I turned the pages of a tattered People magazine from several months ago and observed an assortment of my co-patriot patients in various stages of anxiety and apprehension, straining to hear the news on the wall-mounted flat screen TV’s that were ‘turned down in consideration of others’.

My husband and two boys accompanied me to the hospital where I was given a unique patient number that could be tracked on a monitor on the wall of the waiting room. Depending on the color of the bar that was labeled with my number, my family could follow my progress. A yellow bar meant ‘Just Arrived’. A green bar meant ‘In Procedure’ and a blue bar indicated I was ‘In Recovery’.  I was comforted by the fact that there was no black bar, which likely could have meant ‘On the Way to the Morgue.’

Once the waiting in the waiting room was done, I was led back to the ‘pre-op’ or staging area, where I was permitted to wait some more, this time dressed in a flimsy hospital gown that opened in the back. The fact that my intended surgery site was on the front didn’t seem to bother anyone.

I was invited to lay in a bed with wheels behind a half closed curtain as an assembly line of doctors and nurses marched in and out, each quizzing me on my name and birth date to the point where I began making mistakes in my anxiousness. I was told my surgery would begin in an hour. The fact that there was nothing to do but lay there and imagine multiple scenarios of surgical mistakes or accidents gave me plenty of time to dwell on every smell, every noise and every person who walked through. The laughing nurses down the hall. The computers set up at each bay with the words ‘Authorized Use Only’ in an ominous and continuous scroll on the screens. I looked across the hall to the curtained room there and the woman lying in a very similar state to my own. ‘What are YOU in for?’ I wanted to call, but that seemed inappropriate. I thought about asking for a magazine, as I noticed a rack of more old People’s on the wall, but then I started thinking about how many other patients with unknown diseases may have touched them and changed my mind.

Eventually I was asked to denote the side of my body that had the hernia with a purple marker.  This decidedly low tech approach to ensure my doctor didn’t open me up on the wrong side did nothing to ease my mind. As I watched the ink spread out on my skin, I began to panic it would disappear by the time I was wheeled into the operating room, where I would be sedated and unable to confirm which side to repair. Perhaps the doctors would open me up on the wrong side, realize their mistake, hastily change course and hope I didn’t notice post-op. I had just gotten to the lawsuit settlement numbers in my malpractice fantasy when the anesthesia must have kicked in, because I remember nothing until I woke up in recovery, with both my hernia and my faith in modern medicine repaired.

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A LONG Time Ago…

Reuben: Mom, I have some homework for you!

Me: What is it?

Reuben: You have to write about when you were a kid – you know before there were forks and spoons.

Me: If there were no forks and spoons when I was a kid, what do you think I ate with?

Reuben: Sticks?

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Dear Woody Allen

woody-allen

Letter to Woody Allen, (director) from Frances Spector, (housewife).

Dear Woody Allen,

First, let me apologize for the lateness of this letter. You would have had it in your hands weeks ago were it not for my ongoing wavering about how best to address you in the salutation. Naturally, I started with ‘Dear Mr. Allen’, but that sounded too formal and vague – as if I were writing a letter to my lawyer or the manager of the supermarket down the road from where I live. I actually wrote the latter gentleman a note last week after I discovered four bruised plums in the grocery bag I brought home from his store. The plums were on special which is why I bought them, but obviously were either handled too roughly by the clerks who packed them for me, (I’ve seen them juggling grapefruit in the past) or they were too old and should have been thrown in the trash. Either way, I was out four plums and felt compelled to bring it to the manager’s attention. His name is Mr. Herndon, not Mr. Allen, however.  In my letter, I demanded restitution and proposed nectarines. I am awaiting his reply. My husband laughed and suggested I would get more satisfaction from a face to face discussion, but I want a paper trail in case it gets nasty. My friend Bernadette almost got into a fist fight with the woman who owns the nail salon over an infected toenail cuticle – now she’s forced to do her own pedicures.  And, believe me, she needs a professional.

My second thought was to address this letter as ‘Dear Woody’, but that felt somewhat too intimate, as well as ambiguously pornographic.  Besides, I can’t think of Woody as a first name anymore without calling to mind the cowboy from the ‘Toy Story’ cartoons, which is irritating. How does one acquire a name like Woody? Was it a childhood nickname? I believe I read on Wikipedia that your real first name was Allen, so I’m curious about where the Woody came from. The only childhood nickname I have was one my father gave me – ‘Snooch’, although I can’t recall the etymology of the moniker. I’ve probably blocked it out – it was rather embarrassing to hear the word ‘SNOOCH’ being yelled through the supermarket or drugstore when I was a child and have to answer to it. I certainly wouldn’t incorporate into my professional name if I needed to create one. ‘Snooch’ Spector sounds like a character on a children’s show wearing a trench coat and searching for clues to solve an alphabet mystery.

I settled on ‘Dear Woody Allen’, because I’m used to seeing your name printed as such and ‘Dear Mr. Woody Allen’ was getting a bit long. Truly, the exercise of settling on a salutation took much longer than expected. However, as you were not expecting this letter at a certain time, my apology is probably a moot point, so let me launch into the purpose of my note.

I am writing to you with an idea for a new movie. It’s only really a germ of an idea, but I feel in your capable, creatively genius hands, it could grow into an Cannes Film Festival Special Selection, or whatever that other one is that Robert Redford puts together where everyone is wearing Uggs and pom pom hats.

The movie is about a woman who worries she is turning into her mother – a common enough fear amongst women of a certain age. But the twist is that she actually TURNS INTO HER MOTHER – literally transforms into a duplicate of the same person. I’m imagining a ‘Freaky Friday’ meets ‘Zelig’ type of picture. I’m not quite sure what happens after the transformation – but I suppose there could be a number of scenes in which the two women show up at the same restaurant or store, but are never in the same frame with one another – causing confusion and hilarious consequences.  I’m sure you could come up with a few more plot twists using this device. As for the ending – I’d like your thoughts on whether the story is a metaphor for coming to terms with getting older and accepting one’s ongoing struggle to maintain an identity outside of pre-determined genetic or environmental influences – or if the whole thing turns out to be a dream sequence.

Like any good story, this one is in part, autobiographical. I am reaching an age when one begins to take on characteristics of one’s parents, despite one’s initial best intentions. I am beginning to see many aspects of my mother’s behaviors in my own. For instance, never a meticulous person, I have become even less concerned about straightening up around the house. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, when I first mentioned my movie idea to my husband (don’t worry, he’s the only one I’ve told), he suggested the woman turn into something more useful, like a vacuum cleaner.

Despite my husband’s sarcasm, I am confident this film could find an audience among a certain group of devoted movie-goers – most likely females in the 35-55 age bracket who obsess about whether or not to cut bangs in their hair to hide the fine lines on their foreheads. I’d be happy to sign on as an on-set creative consultant as well, to help answer questions about the lead character, such as how many PTA meetings she attends each school year versus how many she claims to attend and whether she’s ever contemplated leaving her husband and children for a life on the road with a traveling theatre troupe.

Please respond at your earliest convenience with your availability for a sit-down meeting. Although I do have an email address, I’ve forgotten my password so many times, I’ve been locked out and haven’t had the desire to call customer service and waste precious moments of my life on hold listening to an acoustic version of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, so phone or snail mail works better for me.

I do hope I will hear from you soon. Sadly, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, the Cohen Brothers, and Sophia Coppola couldn’t see the incredible potential in this idea – but no one does neurotic misanthropes like you anyway.

Sincerely,

Frances Spector

PS: Although I am open to suggestions, I am thinking Winona Ryder for the lead.  She seems to be looking to make a comeback and I feel like she could use the work.

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