the past

and the band played on

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Most of my dreams are about logistics—nightmares, in most ways, but of the most banal sort. Logistical nightmares, but not what most people mean when they use that phrase. Examples: I’m trying to catch a plane. I’m late and trying to get in touch to say so but can’t. I fear my alarm won’t go off which will make me late (this one actually wakes me up, acting as an alarm clock but not at the right time). And so forth.

But last night in my dreams, a song floated into my head, one my dad sang to us at bedtime.

“Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde and the band played on…”

There was another song, “When Frances Dances with Me,” along the same lines: also Irish, also old-timey, also sentimental, also about dancing.

“He’d glide cross the floor with the girl he adored and the band played on…”

I suppose this was taught to him by his father, my grandfather, one Joseph Francis Lilly. There are so very many stories about the man—stout, of Irish descent, twice-married— that one doesn’t know what to believe. My mother has this one thing to say about her ex-father-in-law: “He was such a liar.”

“His brain was so loaded, it nearly exploded, the poor girl would shake with alarm!”

Funny: the string of comments under the YouTube clip are sentimental too. From Susan Copenhaver: “When I was a little girl—with strawberry curls—my Dad used to sing this and dance around the room with me. A rare good memory from my childhood.” From Aattura: “Ice Cream truck in the Bronx would play this with its bells—it was SO BEAUTIFUL!! You could hear it for BLOCKS!!!”

“He married the girl with the strawberry curls and the band played on.”

A final story about Grandpa Lilly. He died on the dance floor at someone’s wedding, his heart (not his brain) exploding, you could say.

Is this true, I wonder?

And if it is, did the band play on?







feminism the past

Say what’s in that drink

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Ricardo Montalban preys on Esther Williams, crooning the date-rape tune that won an Oscar for best song of the year in 1949.


At the gym this week, half-listening to a throwback workout playlist, it struck me how casually misogynist—or at the very least, patronizing—the lyrics I grew up on are. The song that stuck me was BTO’s “Taking Care of Business” which heralds the working man, while dismissing “the girls,” who were “just trying to look pretty.” Other hits, all anti-female anthems: “Some Girls” (Rolling Stones, who also gave us “Stupid Girl”), “California Girls” (Beach Boys) and “Fat Bottomed Girls” (Queen). By contrast, “American Woman” (The Who), lets the “girl” grow up only to turn her away with:

“Don’t come hangin’ around my door
I don’t wanna see your face no more
I got more important things to do
Than spend my time growin’ old with you.”

And there’s everybody’s favorite date-rape Christmas Carol, “Baby It’s Cold Out There,” just a tale of a girl trying to leave, only to get roofied by a guy who wonders, Weinstein-like, “What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?” while she wonders, woozily, “say what’s in that drink?”

It’s the Seventies in Iowa City and my sisters and friends, Mindy and Jocie, and I are putting on a variety show in the basement, which concludes with “You Are Sixteen…”—basically an Aryan youth mansplaining life to a girl just a year younger than he is. The big finish:

You need someone, older and wiser, telling you what to do-ooooo (sing it out). I am seventeen, going on eighteen, I-I-I-ll, take caaaaaare of you-oooooo!

story telling the past


My grandfather used to sweep up bougainvillea blossoms from the patio every morning. Their Ventura home had a solid wall of the fuchsia flowers and they drifted down in the night air. When I lay in my tiny off-the-garage storage/bedroom I thought I could hear them, their light scrap and skitter as the moved across the patio tiles. Coming from Iowa, I was well impressed about nearly everything in California: the palm trees, the pools, the surfers and their matted blonde hair and suntanned bodies. One morning, watching my grandfather clean up the bougainvillea blossoms, recording my thoughts in my diary, it struck me that even the stuff California swept up and threw away was beautiful. Thought of this when I rode past these flowers today. I’m still well impressed by you, California.


the past

Past trips


My mother keeps a diary of sorts, typing up a sheet most years of the events of the past 12 months. A cross between an analog blog and one of those Christmas letters people send to brag about their children and vacations and whatnot. She calls the folder Past Trips and it contains these pages, dated back to the 1970s. It’s even-handed to a fault. For example, her own divorce merited a sentence, as did a dinner at a noteworthy restaurant. Birth of a grandchild = 2 sentences, sometimes awarded with an exclamation mark (“What a surprise! A boy in the family!” announced Oliver’s birth) All of her daughters looked either “beautiful” or “great” on their wedding days, as well as “happy.” I looked great, in case you were wondering.

the past what people say

Perfectly fine

This is something my dad would say: perfectly fine, perfectly good. This would describe, variously, a bruised apple, an expired pint of milk, a dinged-up pair of skis that were bought secondhand, made by an off brand using a bad font.

Perfect and fine are good words, describing good things. But together, coming from him, they connoted the opposite. Not ideal but eat it any way. Maybe spoiled, maybe not but drink it anyway. You’re lucky to be skiing at all, so what if the skis are from Sears.

I tell my daughter a story about how I felt on the ski mountain with my family. My Dad would make ham sandwiches that we would stuff in our ski suits in the morning, along with peanuts, left in the shells. The peanuts were for staving off hunger so we wouldn’t have to buy the overpriced food at the ski lodge. We’d eat them on the lifts, dropping the shells into the woods below. At some point, we’d clomp into the lodge in our off-brand ski boots, extract our skiied-on sammies from our ski suits and eat them, while looking longingly at the girls with their ski-lodge chili, with their fashionable skiwear, with their smooth ponytails (this rankled me, in particular, because my hair was frizzy). We felt, somehow, that we didn’t really belong at the same tables as the chili buyers.

When I had kids of my own, I bought the ski-lodge chili and the ski-lodge cocoa as well, and felt vindicated and deserving of my seat at the ski-lodge table. But in my mind, “ski lodge chili” is still a catchphrase for something that’s close, but out of reach. Something I can’t have. Another word, meaning the same thing: Friendish. Something your friends have that you don’t have. Examples: the freedom to pour dubious but not bad-smelling milk down the drain; plastic baggies with the little zippers, not the foldover flaps; swimming pools; central air.

family the complaint department the past what people say

don’t mention it

Does this happen in your family? In every family?

“Jokes” evolve around the foibles or character quirks of each and every family member. Janet’s a terrible driver. Susie’s a picky eater. Patty is hyper-organized; requested filing cabinets for her 7th or 8th birthday. Diane takes awful photos, just awful, eyes closed in every one.

But then the years go by, as years tend to do, and the quirks fall away. I’m not saying that other, more serious character flaws don’t develop, but these particular issues abate or disappear except — pay attention here — in the minds of the family members.

Today: Janet’s a good driver; Susie has published a dozen cookbooks; Diane looks like this in a photo (not a model but not terrible, am I right?). Patty, whatever, she is the subject of this rant so she’s still organized but also at fault as you soon shall see.


Overdue for a Keratin treatment but my eyes are open anyway.
Overdue for a Keratin treatment but my eyes are open anyway.


This goes on Facebook, where all good family feuds take place these days, only to be tagged by Patty: That can’t be my sister, her eyes are open.

Then, this morning, Patty uploads a photo of our mother, eyes closed, with the caption: Annette Lilly, pulling a Diane diCostanzo. To which I want to reply: “really, again?” and “why post a photo of anyone with their eyes closed?” and “by the way there’s a space between the di and the Costanzo.”

I had a similar, in person, rant aimed at my sister-in-law (whom I love) and my mother (she of closed eyes; I also love her) who spent a day with me, gently ribbing me about my inability to take a good picture. At once point I rebuked: “how do you think I’m supposed to take a good photo if every time the camera’s put in my face someone reminds me what bad pictures I take?” That didn’t hit the mark so I unleashed a full-on tirade after my mother, jokingly, said in advance of taking my photo: “put your sunglasses on so no one can see that your eyes are closed.”



Spleen emptied but still I wonder: why do the people who know/love you best insist on not letting go of old, hurtful jabs like these? They’re not funny, they’re no longer true, and they make people feel bad. (But not as bad as the spleen emptied by in this letter from someone named Aunt Gladys whom I never met and that’s probably a good thing.)

life at mid-life the past therapy

That Sofa, A Girl and the Vindictive Little Story That Must Be Told


The  sofa was a blue velvet Castro Convertible. It had a camel-colored motif that was supposed to look Deco but actually resembled a paperclip. I was into Deco at the time.

My living room was as wide as the sofa. It just barely fit. Overnight guests slept on its thin and uncomfortable pullout mattress. One night a friend of a friend (of a friend, possibly, I’ve forgotten the connection) called me on the landline, which we called, simply “the phone,” stranded at an airport. Could she come to stay, just for a night? There was a static-y story about a delayed flight and then a missed flight and then the prospect of a night spent on the molded plastic chairs in the airport lounge.

I was just barely an adult, just barely affording my rent, but I felt all grownup instructing her to jump in a cab and buzz me when it pulled up to my building so I could run down to pay the fare. No problem, I said. Happy to do it for a friend of this friend (of another friend, quite possibly).

I’ll call her Kristi.

Because that’s  her name (I told you this would be a vindictive story.)

An autumn night, still warm enough to run down in flip-flops, PJ bottoms and my boyfriend’s t-shirt and as I did I liked the picture of me in my head: so comfortable in this city that I could be on the sidewalk in my PJs; so self-sustaining that the giving over of a $20 bill was no big deal (it was a little deal, however, this was the 80s and I was making $14,000 a year).

Kristi wore a denim jacket and shouldered a tatty backpack. She looked collegiate while I, as I believe I mentioned, was a grownup.

My boyfriend joined us.  In a suit, with a briefcase and a six-pack. So handsome, also a grownup.

We drank the beer. Kristi told tales of her semester in Spain. She was pretty in a not-sophisticated way with hair that curled around her face and full lips. She seemed unsure of herself (especially as compared to me). I thought she admired me or at the very least the things I had acquired: the job, the apartment, the handsome boyfriend with the briefcase. They stayed up talking after I went to bed, but not before I left a second $20 bill on the kitchen table with a little note. Safe travels, I wrote. Keep in touch! I wanted to make sure she had a way to pay the fare back to the airport.

Years later I learned that Kristi and my boyfriend had sex that night on the couch with the vaguely Deco motif. While I slept with just a couple of walls and not 10 feet between us. He, so reckless. She, so ungrateful.

Here is a picture of her I pulled from her Facebook page, for all to see. Not really outting her though, as she’s wearing a disguise, a witch/pirate/hot mess costume. Not because it’s Halloween but because she works in a bar, taking full advantage — by the looks of her — of the free-flowing beverages that must be one of the perks of this kind of career, if you can call it a career.

what you might look like if you grow up and work in a bar your whole sad little life
what you might look like if you grow up and work in a bar your whole  life

More intel purloined from her Facebook page:

A post directed to someone called Harvey: “Lubrication may have made the entry easier?”

Another, promoting a “hooter happy hour.”

Another from someone called Clay: “Kristi’s so nasty!”*

*Clay, we think alike! I’m going to friend request you.

the past therapy

Bonjour Tristesse

My therapist wants me to write about sadness. Perhaps she thinks I’ve given enough time to the following emotions: rage, frustration, vindictiveness and jealousy. These are big noisy sensations. Bullies that suck all the air out of the room and all other thoughts from my mind. They drown out poor, pathetic sadness, cowering in the corner.

I find it’s not possible to summon sadness. Anger, yes. “My old friend anger,” I called him (I think of him as a him) shows up at the slightest provocation. As an example, a velvet-upholstered sofa once came up in conversation and I was a house on fire, burning with anger about the memory it brought: a girl who stayed in my apartment for a night; a friend of a friend who had some complicated story about a missed flight, who had no place to stay; who expressed gratitude for my taking her, a stranger, in; who borrowed money from me for the taxi from the airport; who had sex with my then-boyfriend while I slept in the other room; who betrayed me.

Vindictive plots, I could fill a library with them. (Come to think of it, I’m going to write a story about the couch and that girl. I’m going to publish it in in the Modern Love column in the New York Times. I’m going to take that bitch down.)

See how activating these emotions are?

And jealousy, oi.

But sadness is tremulous. Sadness feels as if she (she is a she) is unwanted because I ignore her when she shows her pinched and greying face.

So I have to wait until I feel the press of a jumbled crowd of emotions, find sadness in the crowd and sit with her. Just sadness and me, getting to know each other.

family Holidays we hate the past

unhappy easter


Why do people always look so miserable in family Easter photos? Is it the weak April light? The church clothes? The ham?

aging the complaint department the past

Old Friend, part 2

Inconvenient that blogs are chronological, pushing prior thoughts down so that the sequel is read before the prequel. 

Never mind, no one is reading this blog.

So I had this beautiful friend named Laurie Anderson. Not the musician with the spiky hair but a lovely school teacher and neighbor, mother of two girls, and eyes the color of a wolf’s. I was better friends with her before she was diagnosed with cancer, fell out of touch (I feel remorse writing this even now), and then she died. While she was in treatment, I saw her husband on the train and my instinct was to avoid him. More remorse.

“David, hello, how is Laurie?” I said instead.

“She,” he said and then he looked at me in a way that made me feel as if I had said the wrong thing. “She’s not going to survive this cancer, you know.”

There is no right thing to say after this either.

This morning, five years after her death I get an email from Laurie Anderson, or so it seems. In fact, one of those spammy scams had grabbed her contacts and sent a mass email to them with a link to an article about Paula Deen’s remarkable weight loss.

I feel mad at Paula, irrationally, even while knowing she had nothing to do with any of this.
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Although there are things to be mad at Paula Deen about, for sure.

And she still looks fat.