Happy Birthday, E.L.!

It’s the birthday of author E.L. Konigsburg, author of the 1968 award winning classics, novels that greatly influenced me as a reader, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, McBeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth.

From the Mixed Up Files did to the Metropolitan Museum of Art what Night at the Museum did for the Museum of Natural History: it became the place to be. Siblings Claudia and Jamie run away from home and camp out inside the museum. And no, the statues don’t start walking and talking, but the art becomes alive as seen through Claudia’s eyes and thus mine (we were the same age).

I lived only 50 miles from Manhattan, but no one I knew actually visited the “City” regularly, and no one I knew had actually been to the Met.  That’s right: I might as well have been living thousands of miles from New York City.

But the ex-nun who taught 4th grade at the local Catholic school turned public school by the time I was there, and who had introduced the book to us, made sure we had the chance to see the film version that was playing only (for some reason I don’t know) at Radio City Music Hall.  She planned a field trip to the Museum and to see the film.

A memorable day.

Celebrate E.L. Konigsburg’s birthday (she is still writing!) by sharing this book with a 10 year old girl or boy.  And then take them to the Met for a special Mixed Up Files tour. Make his or her day.

Precious Moments: Valentine’s Edition

  • 1968: Louis gives Annie a diamond shaped CrackerJack Box ring, which Annie keeps for years and years.
  • 1973: Louis, now older, and probably with absolutely no memory of that ring,  touches Annie’s hand while borrowing a pencil in class, giving said Annie her first physical “sensation”.
  • 1981: Annie, after a rousing debate during the famously rowdy Model Congress weekend, attracts Bronx Science boy’s attention for that night, and many others. 
  • 1988: Annie’s boyfriend is working all night, but takes a cab to Queens to leave flowers and candy for both her and her single roommate. Said roommate still slightly in love with said boyfriend. Annie, not so much.
  • 1993: Annie celebrates Valentine’s Day daily with a man named after the “holiday” on which he was born.
  • 2001: Annie and Hubby dance in the rain together and a friendship deepens.
  • 2010: Annie and Hubby go out for a pre-Valentine’s Day pasta, wine and tiramisu dinner only to barely escape being seated next to Hubby’s still bitter after 12 years ex-wife.

Brief Memories of the WTC and 9/11

From the mid 1980s through the mid 90s  I worked in and around the World Trade Center.  In 1985-86, I worked on lower Broadway for a law firm. Then in 1987  I moved a few blocks away to work on the 105th floor of building 2 of the WTC: I was an assistant law librarian at Shearson Lehman for a grand total of 6 months.  It was a boring job: in fact, I was able to read, savor and finish both of Tolstoy’s big novels while at work since my daily chores were easily accomplished before noon.  It wasn’t all updating hard copies of Congressional Reports, however. Personal computers and useful software were just coming into the workplace, and, as a “trained” researcher on the then new database LexisNexis, I sometimes was asked to train new lawyers in how to do searches. Now that was fun. At the time, using LexisNexis cost firms something like $95/hour (I’m guessing there) so they were convinced that only “trained” professionals should use the thing.  One of those lawyers I trained was a kid I lived across the street from in elementary school, Kyle. I had a clear memory of him hugging himself, creating the trompe l’oeil of a couple embracing, kissing.  And at age 22, he kindly recreated that memory for me. 

I didn’t check for his name in 2001. I assumed he had left Shearson by then.

I left that job both out of boredom and also because I hated the palpable swaying of the building, which was most pronounced when sitting on the toilet in the ladies room.  A bit disconcerting. A year later, I worked at the community college down the street from the WTC, and often taught classes in the building that they rented even closer to the towers (a building effectively destroyed on 9/11). 

I was working there during the first WTC bombing in 1993, but except for some inconvenience getting back to Brooklyn, it didn’t affect me.  A few friends of friends, though, were greatly shook up, and we spent hours in a local pub that night listening to their stories.  Some left their jobs rather than stay.  

By the mid 90s, I left New York City for good, so I wasn’t there during 9/11.

Instead, I was recently divorced, living in this lovely western state many miles away, and getting dressed for our annual faculty retreat, held on the 2nd or 3rd Tuesday of September, before classes. I had to give a presentation on assessment of all things, so I was already a bit stressed (our faculty, like most, are not exactly thrilled with an enforced culture of assessment).  Because I was up so early, I saw the 2nd plane hit one of the towers, and was promptly physically sick.

But I was untenured and duty called, so I went to the retreat where it seemed no one was particularly concerned about the events of the morning: at least until ole Annie Em got up there to give her spiel and instead, in tears, told them stories about my time in that part of the city, and all of the friends I still hadn’t heard from.   That basically put an end to the “festivities”.  Eight years later and I’m probably still known as that New Yorker who cries easily. 

I went back to New York that December to visit family and friends.  The Promenade in Brooklyn Heights still had flowers (dried, fake) clinging to the iron fencing, and photos of friends and family members who were missing or dead.  There probably was no longer a smell in the air, but my friends were so vivid in their descriptions of the acrid smell that lasted for weeks that I could smell it, too, 3 months later.

Our faculty retreat this year is next Tuesday, right on schedule, but this year it will be held in a new building on campus.  Many of the faculty have retired or left, but most are still around. Each year, despite all my best intentions to enjoy myself, I force myself to attend, smile, talk about my and ask about their  productive and restful and fun summer activities, and count the hours till I can get the hell out of there. I’m fine by the next day’s round of meetings. But it’s now an inconvenient and stressful reaction that I hope I will exorcise by writing about it here.

Autograph Book Circa 1975

autograph book 1One of my favorite novels of summers’ past (well, 2003, at least) is Audrey Niffenegger’s odd little gem, The Time Traveler’s Wifea sci-fi romance novel that really defies both genres because of the strong writing and in-depth characters. The film version is being released this weekend, an interesting antidote to the hyper realistic, anti-romantic, time travel to the 1960s, season 3 premiere of Mad Men, which is also this weekend.

I’ll be missing them both: I’m going on my own little travels for a few weeks. I’ve always found that saving summer travel until the end of the summer allows me to return to academia in a much more restful state of mind. But an entire summer spent on the home front has me a bit on edge and anxious to get out of Dodge and see the world—or British Columbia, at least. And, if you think of Victoria as a city that replicates Colonial England, then I suppose that I, too, will be time travelling.

Inktopia has been time travelling to the 1980s by cleaning her closets. And while many of us (of a certain age) wish our favorite dancing dress from the 80s was still in style (or at least, zip-upable), most of us have long since donated or trashed our old clothes. 

But I have saved the more packable mementos of my past, such as my Autograph book from 1975, signed by teachers and classmates during the month of our “graduation” from 6th grade, when I was 11 years old.  Junior high began for us in 7th grade, in the much larger building on the other side of town, and although we were the only elementary school in this small town, and thus we were all going to the same junior high, it was still a big deal (lockers, different teachers for different subjects, 9th grade boys, etc). 

The first page, written in what I remember as my very stylish handwriting, is the following “poem” (misspellings included): “Who ever steals this book of knowledge shall graduate from Sing Sing collage.”autograph book 3

Then there’s a page titled “My Favorites”: in 1975 my favorite book was Laura’s Luck by Marilyn Sachs, a book I don’t remember at all (and here I thought that my blog’s namesake, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book a DO remember well, was my favorite book at that era!). Sachs’ novel was one of a series about a poor family living in the Bronx (well, I obviously was quite fond of New York-centric fiction); in this book Laura faces a summer camping trip with great dread (I still relate to that).

My favorite song in 1975 was “Close to You” by the Carpenters (and note that in this video poor Karen does look anorexic—even though she is wearing a puffy shirt!).  My favorite “Motto” was “Keep on Truckin’” and my favorite athlete—who was more likely my brother’s favorite athlete—was Rusty Staub of the NY Mets (we were a Mets family growing up, though my nephew is decidedly a Yankees fan, much to my brother’s horror). 

Of course the most interesting parts of the Autograph book are the autographs from friends and teachers.  And they are not just signatures, but little rhyming poems. Where did we GET all the little poems, anyway? From older siblings? How did we know to do that?

Here are some gems, again with a few creative spellings included:

From Debbie (sorry, Debbie, don’t remember you at all, but she is the FIRST to sign my book):

Standing before the judge
Do I see tears
Sentenst for J.H. [junior high]
It’s only 3 years.

And, right below it from the same Debbie:

God made candy
God made cake
When he made you
He made a big mistake.

And, included on top of the page in smaller print:

Dated till France gets Hungry and Fries Turkey and Greece.

Other “dated tills” throughout the book include:

Dated till the sidewalks.
Dated till tulips kiss.
Dated till bacon strips.

How we loved such punning.

There are several “emeralds are green” poems, such as this one:

Emeralds are green
Pearls are white
Some kids are good
But you’re out of sight.

And, squeezed onto many pages is this little math equation:


Being 11, there are lots of “poems” about boys or marriage, though what’s interesting is how cynical many of them are. In fact, the last two nearly make me cringe—what sort of family life did my mostly 2nd generation Italian and Irish classmates have?:

If all the boys
lived across the sea,
what a good swimmer
Annie would be.

Sailors like ships
babies like toys
but all Annie likes
is boys boys boys

When you’re sitting with your honey
and your nose gets runny
don’t think it’s funny
cause it’s snot.

When you get married
and have a set of twins
don’t come to me for some pins.

When you get married
and live in the slums
send me a picture
of each little bum.

When you get married
and your husband wants a drink
take him to the kitchen
and say here’s the sink.

When you get married
and your husband gets tough
pull down your pants
and show him your stuff.

Others are a bit more sophisticated, like this one, oddly appropriate for me on a daily basis these days:

Can’t think
Brain numb
Won’t Come
Poor ink
Bad pen
That’s all

There are a few rare comments related to academic success in junior high, or happiness in life generally (mostly from relatives and teachers). This first one is from the one and only classmate I remember very well since we’ve recently found each other on Facebook:

May your life be like arithmetic:
Joys added
Sorrows subtracted
Cares divided
And happiness multiplied.

Several teachers also wrote in my book: my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Ryan, who encouraged my poetry writing and tutored me in math, wrote “You’ll never stop being a favorite.”  And my music teacher, Mr. Garrie, whose page I folded differently to express, I believe, my great crush on him (he loved Broadway show tunes, and had the 5th and 6th grade girls’ vocal ensemble sing a rousingly funny rendition of “All That Jazz” including doing the motions for rolling “our stockings down”!) wrote: “It has been a real pleasure knowing you these past two years. Never stop singing or playing—have a ball this summer and get ready for next year.”  

[Update: I still sing, but only when I’m alone (you’re welcome), and I’ve long since stopped playing violin and guitar (I was never very good); I no longer write poetry but I still struggle with math (thank the goddess for Quicken).]

Does anyone else remember having an autograph book? I suspect they were limited to elementary school, since by junior high we had yearbooks with photos to sign.  From my brief survey of friends on the subject, it seems that elementary school autograph books had a brief period of popularity, limited to the 70s or so, but I’d love to confirm (or refute) that. And did only girls keep them or did boys have them, too?