Saturday, April 26, 2014


The Mellmans lived two streets over from the high school on Sycamore Lane. There were four kids: three strapping, studly boys and one rather plain looking, but awfully nice girl. The father worked for a big pharmaceutical firm, while the mother filled her days with PTA, garden club, Junior League, and tennis. They even had the requisite dog, a sleek, spirited Irish setter named Oz. The boys were heavily into sports, taking turns as captains of the soccer, basketball, and lacrosse teams. They were also irritatingly smart, always making the honor roll and winning awards. They were the sort who wore pink polo shirts with the collar turned up and trendy haircuts. The daughter made the honor roll, too, but she was more into theatre than sports. Ever since she’d found a home onstage as an extra in her Middle School production of The Boyfriend, she had always been involved in some student production or another. She wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pink polo shirt.

By all outward appearances, the Mellmans were a happy, wholesome, all-American family. Which should have been the first clue that they were not happy, for there is no such thing as a happy family, and the happier a family may look, the more screwed up they are likely to be. Why? Because they might actually buy into their little charade and honestly imagine that they are happy. But trust me, they’re not. And when one or the other of them finally realizes the awful truth, all hell breaks loose. And who do you think was the first in the Mellman family to realize her happy-go-lucky, patriotic, true-blue family had a major defect?

Guess I kind of gave it away with the “her.” Now you know it’s either got to be the mother, the daughter, or, O.K., Oz, as Oz was a female dog, albeit a spayed one, but I’m not into telling animal stories. You’re right, it was the daughter. Lauren came home from school one day, earlier than usual because play practice had been canceled, only to find her mother barfing her brains out in the downstairs bathroom. Not from flu or food poisoning or even morning sickness, which actually was no longer possible as Mom, too, had been spayed, but because she had eaten too much at her Junior League luncheon and had to go out for dinner in three hours with the Larsens and Maloveckis. Yes, Mom was bulimic.

Lauren realized all of this in the few seconds she watched her mom’s half-hidden silhouette retching in the downstairs hall bathroom before she bade a hasty retreat to the front porch. Lauren felt cheated, betrayed. She had almost started believing her mother that her own pubescent weight problem was just a phase and nothing to worry about, that she would slim down naturally as she matured and grew into her body without dieting or chemicals or extreme measures. Now she knew it was just a ruse, that her mother felt superior to her because she was the thinner, more beautiful, more popular woman of the family.

In a daze, Lauren walked back to the high school and numbly watched her brothers’ soccer practice. She wasn’t really paying much attention, but she felt some kind of comfort in knowing her brothers were on the field. The boys were a bit surprised at their sister’s presence, but took it in stride. Sissy was there to admire the young gods at play, to sigh at their fancy footwork and cheer at their skillful goal making, although admittedly it did take other teammates to point out to them that their sister was, in fact, standing on the sidelines.

Hartwick Chauncey Mellman III, or Trey as they called him, was, of course, the oldest and a senior. He was also captain of the varsity soccer team. Cooper and Dylan were twins, albeit fraternal, and sophomores. Lauren was the unexpected youngest of the family, the impetus for Mom’s neutering, and a freshman. They got along surprisingly well for siblings, but more so because they were distant and self-absorbed and didn’t have a lot of time for scuffles and bickering in their hectic college-preparatory schedules.

Lauren sat down on a leaf-strewn bench and began writing in her journal. She carried it to school in her backpack and kept it in a secret hiding place in her room when at home because she was afraid her mother or one of the boys might read it. Lauren wrote mostly about herself and things in her day that struck her as bizarre in her seemingly unbizarre world. Occasionally she would write a poem, or at least a few words of verse that really followed no pattern or meter and were derivative in a Hallmark card sort of way.

This day, as her older brothers obliviously believed she was glued to their soccer antics, she wrote about what she had seen her mother doing and how this adversely affected her own life in a very dramatic and profound way. She never considered telling her brothers, much less her father, and certainly not her mother, what she had so innocently walked in on. No, this was fodder for her journal, and Lauren had written several hastily scribbled pages before she realized soccer practice had come to an end.

* * * *

Mason Jones was at the door. He was there to study history with Lauren, he said. Madelyn Mellman found this nascent study liaison somewhat fishy but graciously let the boy in, telling him that Lauren was in the family room. Unbeknownst to Madelyn, the tutoring agreement had arisen from Lauren’s puritanical aversion to cheating. During a recent pop quiz in U.S. History, Mason, who sat next to Lauren, had whispered for her to move her arm so he could see her paper better. Lauren had ignored him, but after the test offered to study with Mason if he needed help in history. Her ingenuousness had caught Mason off guard, and he readily accepted.

While Lauren tried to methodically answer their study questions, Mason became engrossed in drawing a floor plan of the house he said they would live in when they were married. Lauren rolled her eyes and looked through her class notes for an elusive date. Mason was always distracted by some new venture or another, but she thought he was cute. Mason Jones didn’t realize it yet, but he was gay. Lauren, of course, didn’t realize it, either, but she knew they would never be married.

Madelyn poked her head in the room and asked them if they wanted a snack. Lauren grimaced as she knew her mother was checking up on them, but Mason perked up. A snack? Yes, that would be grand! Madelyn’s right eyebrow arched up at the use of the word “grand,” but she laughed and shrugged her shoulders. It never occurred to her that Mason might be gay, but only because she knew no gay people and there were no gay people who lived in their small hometown. It did cross her mind as odd that such a gorgeous boy was spending so much time with such a plain-looking girl. Madelyn hesitated a moment in the doorway. Surely, Lauren wasn’t the promiscuous sort? She eyed her daughter sucking on the eraser end of a pencil as she flipped through her history text. Maybe she ought to speak to Lauren, confidentially, about birth control and being sexually active. Afterall, Madelyn wasn’t anywhere near ready to become a grandmother!

* * * *

The twins were playing Doom 3 on the family computer. They were supposed to be doing homework but found the gore and action of their father’s favorite computer game much more alluring. The Mellman pater familias, known as Hart to his friends, conducted a secret fantasy life with his computer games. After a hard day peddling pharmaceuticals, he could retreat to his study with a scotch and become a jet fighter pilot, Indy 500 driver, or monster bounty hunter for an hour or so before dinner. It was the favorite part of his day. Madelyn rarely ventured into the computer room. She disliked computers intensely, refused to even learn how to turn one on. This was Hart’s safe haven.

Father Mellman kicked Cooper and Dylan off the computer and assumed his role as Our Hero. He’d have to make this a quick fix tonight, though, as he had to shower and change for dinner with the Whosits and the Whatsits at that new Whatchamacallit restaurant downtown. Madelyn scheduled some of the goddamnedest midweek activities! All he wanted to do was relax in the realm of virtual reality with a nice, strong drink, have a nice hearty, non-health conscious dinner, and watch some sports or one of those law and order shows on TV. But with Madelyn at the helm, such fantasy evenings were rare. There was always some dinner or boring cocktail party, a school board meeting, reception, Junior League fundraiser, symphony concert, or play. My God, it never ended! What a man these days had to put up with, Hart toasted the framed print of the Duke that hung above his computer and turned to meet his enemies with a full arsenal of virtual weaponry.

* * * *

Madelyn ordered pizza for the children. She had to order three large pizzas as the boys could practically devour a whole one each. That left poor Lauren with only a piece or two. Madelyn thought about making Lauren a nice little salad to go with her pizza pickings but then remembered she still had to do her nails.

She yelled to whoever was still in the family room to listen for the doorbell. It would be the pizza man, the money was on the hall table. She went back into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of chardonnay to take upstairs while she got ready for the evening. She was a bit frazzled because Hart had come home from work in such a foul mood. She didn’t know what he had to be so uptight about; it’s not like he was stuck at home all day, every day, cleaning up everyone’s messes and doing endless loads of laundry. He got to go to work every morning. He got to get away. She found it annoying when she tried to vent her frustrations of the day to Hart when he got home, and he wanted none of it. Why was she so bitchy all the time? he wanted to know. And what did she want him to do about it? That wasn’t the point. She didn’t want him to do anything. She just wanted him to listen to her for a few minutes. That’s all. She wasn’t asking him to solve a problem or kick somebody’s butt. She just wanted a few minutes to get the day’s vexations off her chest. And then she would feel oh, so much better. Why couldn’t he understand that? She wasn’t mad at him, she wasn’t implying it was his fault. She was just releasing all that pent-up frustration. Why couldn’t he see that? Why couldn’t he just listen?

Because now she was in a foul mood. Not only did she still have her frustrations, she was angry with Hart for storming off to the stupid computer room with his drink. Fine, go to work all day and run off to your silly computer games as soon as you get home. Don’t pay any attention to me. And, God forbid you ask me how my day was! Madelyn was slamming the drawers to her dresser with each new thought. Just ignore your wife and her problems, that’s O.K. Yeah, yeah. Just because she doesn’t commute to some downtown office and listen to bigwigs in suits all day, I guess her problems are just miniscule. She’s just a typical woman, emotional and overreacting, being a BITCH. Madelyn slammed her closet door. Fine! See if I get your clothes laid out for tonight. See if I care when you put on a striped tie with a plaid shirt and you can’t find your favorite belt. Madelyn slammed the bathroom door and turned on the shower as hot as it would get so she could fill up the bathroom with steam and escape from the real world on Sycamore Lane for a few minutes. So she could merge her hot tears and jagged, barely checked fear with the hissing hot water of the Shower Massage.

* * * *

Because Lauren had had a very traumatic afternoon discovering her mother’s secret to slender living, she was now assuaging this gnawing feeling of disgust with ample pepperoni, sausage, and double cheese. Little did nutrition-conscious Madelyn know that she had set up her vulnerable daughter for disaster. After soccer practice, the Mellman boys had been so ravenous they had gone to Burger King and indulged in some manly, super-sized combos. By the time Pizza Guy arrived, they were only up for a few slices apiece. This left Lauren with a plethora of greasy, doughy, cheesy comfort food and a Post-It note from mom that salad fixings were in the crisper.

Needless-to-say, the Post-It note made it into the trash and most of the pizza into Lauren. Oh, O.K., the stud muffins had scarfed down probably an entire pizza between them and there were a few pieces left over for Hart’s midnight snack. But still, that meant Baby Sister had made quite a dent. No wonder she now felt bloated, dull, and unmotivated for algebra homework. She sprawled across her bed listening to Green Day and clutching “Baby,” her stuffed animal puppy, to her chest. Her eyes misted over much as Madelyn’s did when she was touched by an engrossing episode of Oprah. If Lauren were to follow her mother’s sterling example, she could bid a hasty retreat to the bathroom, but Lauren’s aversion to vomiting was even stronger than her aversion to cheating. Throwing up was about the most unpleasant physical activity Lauren could imagine, even worse than gym. Merely recalling her annual bouts with stomach flu made her break out in a sweat. Maybe a diet Coke would settle her stomach. And she could write some more in her journal about the upcoming fall dance and not having a date and wanting to ask Mason but being too afraid he would say no.

* * * *

Madelyn stared at her make-upless face in the mirror. She could hear Hart’s dull snoring from the bedroom, and this somehow comforted her. At least he wouldn’t want to have sex tonight. She hated it when he drank a lot and then felt amorous. Alcohol seemed to affect the turgidity of his erections but not the furor of his lust. Sex on a night after hard drinking could be interminable, Madelyn shuddered. Just the stale smell of beer or hard liquor emanating from his pores was enough to make her nauseous. She slapped on an extra thick layer of moisturizer, the rejuvenating kind, and rubbed it in furiously. She was starting to show some wrinkles, no matter how careful she was about staying out of the sun or applying sunscreen. Madelyn had a feeling these new wrinkles had more to do with her age, though, than bombardment by UV rays, either A or B. She sighed.

God, how could this be happening? Wasn’t it bad enough that she was getting old? Why did this have to happen? It wasn’t fair! Tears started to well up in her eyes and she closed the bathroom door lest Hart be awakened by the sobbing that was sure to follow. She remembered with vivid horror the phone call she had received just moments after returning from her Junior League luncheon. She had assumed it would be Hart calling to find out what their plans were, if any, for the evening, even though she had told him in explicit detail the night before at dinner. The female voice on the other end had caught her off guard, and it took her a few seconds to place it with a face. And when she had, a feeling of raw fear had swept over her making her woozy and unsteady on her feet. It was Dr. Wilkerson, calling to talk with Madelyn about the results of her mammogram. They had detected a mass in her left breast and they would need to do a biopsy test for malignancy. Malignancy? No, that couldn’t be right. Madelyn didn’t have cancer. Cancer didn’t run in her family. Why, her mother was in her seventies and going strong! Wasn’t breast cancer genetic? Dr. Wilkerson told her not to overreact, that maybe she should drop by the office and they could discuss the matter before the biopsy. Although they needed to schedule the procedure immediately, they wouldn’t want to take any chances waiting. Breast cancer had a high rate of recovery if caught right away. But she didn’t necessarily have cancer, did she? No, but they needed to make sure. And if she did? Well, they could discuss Madelyn’s options after that. Options? What did that mean? Was it just a polite way of saying chop off her boobs? Disfigure her body? Madelyn hung up the phone in a state of ice cold shock. No, this couldn’t be happening to her! She had her yearly pelvic exams done religiously. And they always did breast exams then. She’d never had a problem. She’d only agreed to the mammogram this year because Dr. Wilkerson said it was a good idea for women over forty. Plus, she had seen that special on breast cancer awareness on Oprah, and it had seemed somehow like an omen. If she went ahead and did the mammogram, all would be fine. But it wasn’t, was it? Madelyn had felt bile and the taste of balsamic vinaigrette rising in her throat. She had rushed to the hall bathroom and vomited in the toilet. Thank God, one of the boys had left the seat up! She hardly ever threw up, and the violence of her heaving diaphragm amazed her. She ran some cold water in the sink and splashed it on her face, knowing full well it would mess up her make-up. She felt shaky, her hands trembled. She absent-mindedly flushed the toilet, put the lid down, and sat down to catch her breath. She felt detached from her body, unable to think, to concentrate. How would she ever tell Hart or the children? Maybe she wouldn’t have to tell them. Maybe the biopsy would prove the lump was just a cyst or some benign mass of cells.

Madelyn blinked and looked at her face in the master bathroom mirror more closely. But, of course, she would have to tell at least Hart. He would be upset that she hadn’t told him already. She’d have to tell him the next day, pretend Dr. Wilkerson had just called with the results of the mammogram. But the children? Maybe she could hold off telling them. And if nothing serious was wrong, maybe they would never need to know. Especially Lauren. She was so sensitive. News like this might totally shatter her. Lord only knew what she wrote in that journal of hers!

Madelyn put away all of her sundries and beauty aids and dried off the sink with her monogrammed hand towel. She turned off the bathroom light before opening the door, and silently sneaked out of the bedroom and down the back stairs to pour herself a brandy. She needed something to calm her nerves. She might need to take something to make her sleep, too. Although she didn’t want to feel groggy in the morning; she’d have to plan her strategy then and figure out how to break the news to Hart. Maybe he would agree with her not telling the children. Maybe this could be a short-lived scare shared just between Hart and herself. Maybe it would all just go away. And they could go back to their happy, everyday lives as a happy family of six, seven, counting Oz.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Plain of Auvers

Vincent Van Gogh painted “The Plain of Auvers” in 1890, the same year he shot himself in a field with a revolver he had borrowed from his landlord. Each and every time I see “The Plain of Auvers,” the three-dimensional effects of the brushstrokes transport me back to those farm fields in France. What haunts me, though, are the blank spaces of canvas that show through the paint. To me, they hold the clue to the “why” behind that sole, resonating shot, a shot that probably startled crows for miles and miles around.

The first time I saw “The Plain of Auvers” was when I went to the Carnegie Museum of Art one day during Spring Break with my mother. Henrietta. She was a free spirit, a poet and a potter who had decided an obscure artists’ colony in the Southwest called out to her soul far more than her husband, three children, and suburban Pittsburgh did. She left one afternoon to go to the A & P and just never came back. Until now. Some ten years later. She was just visiting, she said. She wanted to reconnect with her children who were now teenagers. She didn’t realize that you don’t really “re-connect” with teenagers, especially ones whom you abandoned to follow your dreams. I was the youngest and remembered her the least; she seemed more like some distant cousin or aunt I had never met. I found her interesting.

She liked to do things and go places. On this particular day, she decided to take me to the Carnegie Museum of Art out in Oakland. She couldn’t believe I’d never been there before. I told her I’d been to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History tons of times on school field trips and the two buildings were connected. That didn’t seem to impress her much.

She told me the art museum might be boring to me at first, but only because I wasn’t open-minded and didn’t look at things the right way. She said eventually something would click in my mind and I would just “get it.” I nodded my head but eyed all the dark Puritan paintings and naked, voluptuous Bible women with skepticism.

Until we hit the Impressionists. There was this fantastic Monet. It was huge. It took up practically one whole wall. It was a panorama of a lily pond. The sheer size of it impressed me. I hadn’t known you could paint on canvases that big.

And then there were all the dot pictures. That’s what I called them. Dabs of different colored paint applied to a canvas in such a way that when you stepped back you saw a beach scene or women strolling through a park with parasols. I thought it was cool. How had the artists done that? Painted tiny dots up close that created a whole scene further back?

The painter that did me in, however, was not an Impressionist, or so Henrietta told me. It was Vincent Van Gogh. “The Plain of Auvers” moved me in a way no other painting had ever moved me. It was the painting of a farm field with blue sky and cloud swirls. No big deal. No people, no windmills, no animals, no birds. Just the fields. But you could see seas of grass blowing in the breeze, golden wheat fields, flowering potato plants. You could smell the soil and feel the damp earth basking in the warmth of the Provencal sun under a sky of delicate blue and whirling clouds of white. It was a meaning-of-the-universe painting. It was the painting of a one-eared genius.

Soon after our foray to the art museum, Henrietta drove back west in her beat up Volkswagen van, leaving our lives again just as quietly and easily as she had the first time. My brother and sister and dad seemed relieved, but I was disappointed. I was fifteen and here was a woman, a grown-up woman no less, who wanted me to call her by her first name and take me around to see neat things I never even knew existed.

I was forty now and alone as I entered the Carnegie Museum of Art. I headed straight for the Van Gogh. Only the Van Gogh wasn’t where I remembered it, which unnerved me a bit. Reality was not aligning with memory. And I needed it to. The painting was on an entirely opposite wall now. Possibly in a different room even. Perhaps they had moved it around multiple times over the years.

I waited for a group of high school students in school uniforms to pass by, their middle-aged docent droning on about Vincent Van Gogh and his Expressionist style of painting: The other Van Gogh in the museum was more realistic than “The Plain of Auvers,” she said. An earlier picture, it featured a windmill, something typical from Van Gogh’s native Dutch countryside. The “Plain of Auvers,” meanwhile, revealed the true human passions in a field of flowing wheat.

Over twenty years had passed since I last looked at this painting. How many things had happened, how many places had I lived, how many people had I loved and unloved over these past two decades? Yet the painting had remained the same. I studied the agitated brushstrokes and swirling clouds which belied the overall calmness of the painting and tried to imagine the agitated state of mind of the artist as he was creating.

How many other people, I wondered, had stood where I was now and looked at this same painting? How many people with how many different life stories? How many considered it to be their favorite painting? And how many were indifferent to it, distracted by thoughts of work or family or a rumbling stomach?

Two elderly ladies in print dresses and cardigans and tennis shoes appeared in front of the painting. I frowned but decided I could wait a few more minutes to let them view the Van Gogh. They were standing next to each other, their arms touching, their heads bent inwards. They were whispering like two retired librarians. They kept looking into each other’s eyes and smiling. Then they held hands and stared at the painting in silence.

Something about the way they stood next to each other startled me. I was moved by the intimacy of their stance, the way their sweaters lined up, matching. Surely the painting alone was not eliciting such a tender moment. I wondered what their story was, and why this painting seemed to have so much meaning for them.

Suddenly the old lady on the left, the one with short, curly white hair, stepped back. She opened her black Metropolitan Museum of Art tote bag and reached inside, her eyes never leaving those of her partner’s. A few seconds later her hand emerged clutching a somewhat crinkled, faded envelope. The envelope shook in her hand. The other woman, the one with grey hair in a French twist, looked down at the envelope. I could see tears in her eyes.

The first lady took her arm and gently led her to a black cushioned bench that was in the middle of the gallery facing the Van Goghs. They sat down. The lady with the Metropolitan Museum of Art tote bag handed the worn envelope to her friend and then put her arm around her, as if to protect her.

The lady with the French twist stared into the middle of the room for a long time before she looked down at the envelope. Slowly she opened it and took out a card. She put on the reading glasses that were dangling on a glass bead chain around her neck and read the contents of the note. I could see her face wrinkle up and a look of loss pass across her eyes. Loss at what, I wondered? Her hand fell into her lap. She sat motionless for a moment. Then she turned to embrace her friend and they kissed, ever so briefly, ever so tenderly on the lips.

Finally, the woman who had taken the card from her black tote bag patted her friend on the arm. She gingerly took the card and slid it back into its envelope. She got up and slowly yet purposefully walked over to “The Plain of Auvers.” Placing one hand on the white gallery wall to steady herself, she stooped down and leaned the card up against the wall beneath the Van Gogh. She stood upright, her arm going to the small of her back, and looked at the painting for a moment. Then she turned and walked back to the bench. She reached for her friend’s hand and gently helped her to her feet. Tears were streaming down both of their cheeks. The first old lady put her arm around her partner and gently wiped away the tears with her other hand. They smiled briefly at each other and then, arm in arm, shuffled out of the room.

I stood there motionless for a few moments. Finally, I realized they were not coming back and made my way to “The Plain of Auvers.” Glancing around to see if anyone was watching, I stooped down to pick up the envelope. My fingers were shaking as I lifted the flap of the envelope. I pulled out the card. The familiar whorl of white clouds against blue sky startled me.

I opened the card to see faded purple handwriting. The date in the upper right hand corner was from forty years before. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I didn’t read the note, but on the upper side of the note, on the top inside half of the card there was a “PS” printed in larger handwriting. I felt my insides melt at the words of the postscript: “Some day we will look at ‘The Plain of Auvers’ together. I promise.”

I looked in the direction the two old ladies had exited. No one was there. They were gone. As silently as they had come.

I slid the card back into its envelope and placed it back on the floor against the wall. It reminded me of people laying mementos and notes at the bases of the graves of dead artists and writers. I stood up again and stared at the painting. The bare spots of canvas always cried out to me; how intentional had they been? I yearned to touch the three-dimensional texture of the dried paint, to run my fingers along the vari-directional lines of color that made up the different fields.

I remembered Henrietta pointing out to me the use of color and the texture of the brushstrokes that created the patchwork of fields. I was the one who noticed the blank spots on the canvas. Or at least mentioned them. I asked Henrietta if they had been intentional or if the paint had just fallen off over the years. She looked at me strangely for a moment. No, she said, the paint hadn’t fallen off. The artist had merely been revealing bits of his soul.

I remember her fingering this charm she had on a thin gold chain around her neck. It was a small electric guitar. When I asked her about it, she said it was Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. She had seen him once in concert. “In fact…,” she hesitated for a moment as she reached into her beaded fringe bag and took out her wallet. I could see her driver’s license, photos of us as babies, and a Safeway card. She took out this worn ticket stub. She said it was from the Jimi Hendrix concert. She had saved it all these years because it was on that night she had decided that in order to be true to herself, she would have to betray those she loved most. Granted, it had taken her a while to get up the nerve to actually leave, but she kept the ticket stub because it reminded her of the moment she had made up her mind. That ticket stub was the blank space on her canvas.

She told me to open my hand. As I did so, she pressed the ticket stub into my palm and closed my fingers around it slowly and kissed me lightly on the forehead. That is the last time I remember my mother kissing me.

I looked at “The Plain of Auvers” for a little while longer. Then I opened my own purse and took out my wallet. Next to the only photo I had of my mother was the faded Jimi Hendrix ticket stub. I slid it out and placed it along the wall next to the old ladies’ card. And then I turned and walked away. I felt reverence for “The Plain of Auvers,” a painting that had also seen Vincent Van Gogh during the last year of his life.

Henrietta never made it back to New Mexico in her van. In a drab little hotel room somewhere outside of Clinton, Oklahoma, right off of Route 70, she had downed an entire bottle of sleeping pills and consumed a large quantity of vodka. Ironically, it wasn’t the mixture of drugs and alcohol that killed her. It was the fact that she aspirated her own vomit and drowned, much as her idol Jimi Hendrix had done before her at age twenty-seven.

My father was stunned, speechless. He never talked about it. My older brother and sister shrugged it off; they lived in denial for years. Why should they care about a woman who had run off and left them? I was the only one who knew they were wrong.

I knew they were wrong because I had seen the blank spaces in my mother’s canvas. The same blank spaces that made a brilliant artist go out into the middle of a field on a beautiful sunny day and shoot himself.

Vincent Van Gogh took thirty-six hours to die. The doctor attending him decided not to remove the bullet, and this may have been what actually killed him. He died at age thirty-seven. He had painted for only ten years. “The Plain of Auvers” was but one of his many self-portraits.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Art of War

There is a War that rages continuously inside me.

On one side, there is my “true self,” which strives to create: poems, stories, blog posts, Facebook notes, skits, innovative PowerPoints, engaging in-class exercises, new ways to do things, and even, on occasion, puppet shows.

On the other side, there is the “good” me, who strives to be: good daughter, good student, good cadet, good Army officer, good wife, good Army wife, good… whatever it is that I am supposed to be at that point in time of my life.

I do not include good mother in that grouping. As I do not view motherhood the same way. I love being a mother. And, sure, I might at times think I am not being a good one, but I try very hard. Being a mother is by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but it is also the most rewarding. And I feel being a mother is true and right for me.

I am happiest when I am my true self.

I am saddest when my true self gets obscured by trying so hard to be so damned… good all the time.

I have spent an awful lot of my life trying to be good, trying to do what I think is the right thing to do – not right as in “right and wrong” (but I try to do that, too), rather right as in what is expected of me by others and by society and by the world I find myself living in. In almost every area of my life, I have tried so damned hard to make a square peg fit into a round hole. And it is exhausting. I can do it – I can do pretty much anything – for a while. And then, I just can’t do it anymore.

It has also taken me a very long time to realize that just because I am good at something, that does not mean I should do it. And just because I am not good at something, that does not mean I should not do it.

For example, I was a really good Army officer, and I loved my soldiers and I loved working with them and training them and leading them and mentoring them. But the Army was not right for me.

I cannot sing. But I love music. And I love to sing. I am not saying I think I should get up on a stage and sing like the poor, sad woman in Citizen Kane, but I should feel comfortable singing in the shower or belting out a tune in the course of my day.

I am not sure why I try so hard to be so “good.” It has never brought me happiness. And has only brought me sadness and pain and a profound sense of failure.
I said that I could do pretty much anything… for a while. And that has proven true. I give it the good go. I pack up my troubles in my old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. I carry on. I… “do.” And I often do it well. From an outside perspective. One way that I am able to do this for as long as I am able to do it is that I figure out ways to be creative or turn the system on its head and incorporate humor or creativity into how I do things.

At West Point, I wrote much of the Color Line Show and had a huge input in writing the 100th Night Show. I spoke fluent Martian whilst “hypnotized” by the Great Zordini.

As an Army officer on REFORGER, I formed the G2 Choir, where we wrote and sang songs (secretly and perhaps subversively) to boost the morale of the troops on an exercise that was long and cold with extended periods of enervating downtime interspersed with brief, intense periods of soldiering.

As an Army wife, I performed skits at Officer Wives’ coffees, wrote a fake column for the Wives’ newsletter, and created traditions in my wives’ group that truly honored these women for the support and hard work they provided not only to their spouses but the Army as a whole and which went largely unnoticed and taken for granted by the Army.

I will never forget the time one of my husband’s commanders in Germany found out that I had been a Marshall Scholar. He looked at me with utmost incredulity and asked, “Why the hell are you sitting home making bologna sandwiches?!?”

My first reaction was, honest to God, “But my husband doesn’t like bologna.”

In every career field, in every profession, in every job, I have no doubt there are things one must do that are boring, even tedious, or downright annoying. Still, if one has passion for what he or she is doing, and feels that he or she is making a positive difference, then those times can be endured. For the good of the cause.
But when those boring, tedious, annoying times take over, then perhaps one is being told something.

I often feel that my “true self” is not allowed to exist, to come out and play. To live in broad daylight, so to speak. On occasion it emerges. And I am secretly always writing and creating, if only in my head.

I know that when I am truly happiest it is when I am either creating something or enjoying others’ creations. Or actively engaged in talking about creating or created works or performances.

In high school, a dear friend of mine with whom I had done a lot of theatre and who was graduating and going off to college gave me a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Inside she had transcribed: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

I have not been very good at being true to my own self.

I am not sure why that is. But it is so.

And I have paid a very great price along the way continually trying to be something I am not.

To make it worse, I am very, very hard on myself. Much, much harder on myself than I would ever, ever be with anyone else. I am not sure why I do that, either. But I do it. And I don’t much like it.

At yoga, our instructor always reads something at the end of class. It is usually a quote or a passage or something to get us to think and to appreciate life and being alive and our lives. Yesterday, she read: “Compassion for yourself is the greatest gift you can give to others.” I do not think she meant: if you are more compassionate to yourself, then you will be more compassionate to others. I try to be compassionate and understanding of others. Just not of myself. I think the quote was supposed to mean that you cannot genuinely be yourself if you do not have self-compassion.

I am not a huge fan of Joel Osteen, but a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, I turned the TV on and caught Osteen, who has a very slick, sleek, calming way of speaking, question what it means if we do not have self-compassion. He said, if you do not have compassion for yourself and you always find fault with yourself, are you saying that God made a mistake in how He created you? Wow. I had never thought of it that way before.

Facebook is full of pithy sayings that people post and others “like” and then re-post, and these spread like wildfire, but to what end? A recent quote said: “Depression and anxiety and panic attacks are not signs of weakness. They are signs of having tried to remain strong for way too long.” I think the point was for people to share this and increase awareness of Mental Health Month or something.

When I read this quote, I thought it to be true for other people.

But not for myself.

It wasn’t that I try too hard, it must be that I don’t try hard enough.

If only I were stronger….

If only I tried harder….

I am not sure why I think this way about myself. But I do. And it leaves me feeling like a defective person. Which is not a very good feeling to have.

I do know that I have a lot of talents and gifts. And I have a lot of very amazing friends. And wonderful children. And an awesome partner.

But sometimes it is very hard for me to be nice to me. For me to accept my humanness. For me to allow myself to be vulnerable.

And to demand that my true self be allowed not only to exist, but to thrive.

As part of the end-of-class meditation the other day, our yoga instructor read: your true self is like the sun. It burns brightly no matter what. Even though sometimes the sky is overcast or full of dark clouds, the sun is still there, shining brightly. So, too, your true self is there, shining brightly.

That is encouraging. It makes it sound like my true self is always there, burning brightly. I just need to remove the clouds. Or, at least, when there are clouds there, realize that my true self is true. It is shining brightly no matter what.

And, now, what am I going to do about that?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Issuing the skirt... or skirting the issue

Who would have thought a simple skirt could make such a big difference?

One of my West Point classmates who is currently stationed at West Point has a new photo posted to his Facebook wall. There he is standing outside Washington Hall side by side with a proud, beaming plebe. Apparently, it was Sponsor Appreciation Night and unveiling of the class crest for the Class of 2014. The plebe was wearing a uniform combination that I do not remember: Dress Gray over White. It was a stunning uniform. My classmate informed me that this uniform is sometimes called upon for that time in between Dress Gray and White over Gray and is a bit more formal than Dress Gray in appearance. Thus, perfect for this occasion. What really impressed me, though, was that the female plebe in the photo was wearing a skirt with her Dress Gray over White.

When we were cadets, we had two skirt uniforms: Dress Mess, which included a long black skirt and looked a lot like what Julie on Love Boat might wear to dinner, and our Blazer uniform, which came with a gray skirt and was issued to us yearling year. As plebes, we were also issued gray skirts, which we could [hypothetically] wear to class or church or other events that did not involve formations or drill or parades. I say “hypothetically” because very few women I knew ever wore the skirt option. Why? Because wearing a skirt, especially as a plebe, would just make you stick out even more as a female cadet. And the last thing we wanted to do was stick out… even more.

It was hard to be a woman at West Point in the mid-80s. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard to be at West Point period, and each person’s journey is his or her own, and some are more difficult than others for a whole slew of possible reasons. But the fact of the matter is that in the mid-80s, women at West Point were still a novelty and their integration, although enforced by rules, regulations, and a law passed by Congress, was a far cry from acceptance.

Our time at West Point was nothing like that of the first class with women who braved a storm of abuse, misogyny, and harassment simply because they were women daring to cross the threshold into a previously all-male bastion of… maleness. The women in the Class of ‘80 are true heroes; their trial by fire helped pave the way for those of us who came after. Our class shared our reunion weekend this past October with the Class of ’80, and this was the first time many of us women from ‘85 could walk up to a woman from that first class and shake her hand and say thank you for all she had done.

We were the sixth class at West Point to have women. So, while we did not experience the hell of that first class, we were still somewhat “pioneers” in a wilderness where women were, if not unwelcome, definitely… suspect. We were decidedly unwelcome to some, and most of them let us know just how much so on a daily basis. We were suspect to many. Most male cadets, I think, in all fairness, really didn’t care if women were there, and some were very accepting, or at least tolerant.

“Cooperate and graduate!” was a credo our Beast Cadre yelled at us throughout the six weeks of Cadet Basic Training. Working together to get things done was encouraged, and with good reason. We were organized into squads during Beast. We drilled together, trained together, ate together, ran together, marched together, did Plebe duties together.

As female cadets, we just wanted to fit in like the rest of our classmates.

Still, it was hard to be a woman at West Point. It was one thing to be hazed as a plebe because you didn’t shine your shoes or polish your brass properly or square a corner well or cut a dessert nicely or remember your plebe knowledge verbatim, but it was quite another to be called names and harassed and messed with just because you were a woman. And when the name calling and harassment continued on into upperclass years, it could get discouraging. Many of my women classmates can recall, as firstie commanders leading their units in parades, being called names like “bitch,” “whore,” and “slut” by male alumni lined up to review the Corps as they marched by.

We found ourselves in a strange quandary. We were women. But we were not allowed to be women. We were certainly not men, but we weren’t really women, either. Our hair had to be cut short, no longer than above the bottom of our collars. We were not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry most of the time, although I think we were allowed to wear pierced earring studs with some uniforms. If we were told to wear Dress Mess or our Blazer uniforms (as upperclassmen), then we wore skirts because that was part of the uniform. Very rarely, though, did women choose to wear skirts as an option with their other uniforms, even when allowed.

It is a very strange thing indeed to be, for all intents and purposes, stripped of your gender and your femininity.

Just as male cadets were growing into men, female cadets were becoming women. Only in the past, “cadet” and “upperclassman” and “officer” were all synonyms for “men.” West Point was supposed to mold young men into soldiers, officers, gentlemen, and leaders of men. Now, there were women thrown into the hallowed mix. And often West Point just didn’t know how to handle them.

One day during Beast, I got stopped by a firstie in the sally port as I was heading back inside our barracks. He proceeded to haze me for wearing makeup. He was yelling at me, accusing me of wearing eye shadow! I was shocked. Not only was I not wearing makeup, I had not even brought any with me to West Point. And, frankly, the very last thing a new cadet would have time to do in the heat of Beast would be to apply makeup. And why on earth would we ever want to? We were running around in the sultry heat of summer drilling and training and sweating our asses off. At first the upperclassman did not believe me when I told him I was not wearing any makeup. Then, I was afraid he was going to question my honor and accuse me of lying. It just seemed so ludicrous to me. Luckily for me, I was so frazzled by his nonsensical hazing that I became flustered. Just then a female upperclassman passed by and I accidentally called the male cadet who was hazing me “Ma’am.” Well, that set him off on a whole other litany of abuse. How could I possibly call him “Ma’am”? Was I an idiot? Was I being belligerent? I had somehow assaulted his manhood and all thoughts of my makeup use were soon forgotten.

During 100th Night role reversal, plebes got to pretend to be firsties and firsties pretend to be plebes. Plebes thus got to “haze” firsties for a brief period of time and generally speaking, it was a highly amusing event, a chance to blow off steam and have some fun. There was one firstie in our company who was a real flame, and as plebes we were all looking forward to just retribution. However, he was also infamous for hating women being at West Point. Whenever a female plebe would try to haze him, he would flippantly respond, “When I was a plebe, it was 1979, and there were no women in the Class of ’79. So, you don’t exist!” I remember staring at him, feeling suddenly deflated. He was refusing to play the game with me simply because I was a female cadet. But then I thought to myself, “What an ass!” He wasn’t worth getting upset over. He wasn’t a haze because he had high standards and he was concerned about us learning how to become good cadets. He hazed us because he was an asshole. And he hazed female cadets more because he was a misogynistic asshole.

West Point was a mixed bag, though.

I can remember being stopped on the way back from class one day second semester plebe year by a firstie I did not know. “Miss, halt!”

“Yes, sir?” I turned to face him. What could I possibly have done wrong? All I was doing was pinging back from class, my books tucked neatly under one arm. I knew I had been moving out “fast enough.”

“Miss, what is that cologne you are wearing?”

Huh? I was confused. We were allowed to wear cologne. And mine was not really all that overpowering. I told him the name. And then braced for whatever verbal barrage was sure to follow.

Unbelievably, he grinned. “Ahhhh, thank you. It’s the same cologne my girlfriend wears, and I want to buy her some for her birthday. Carry on!”

Does issuing skirts make an institution more accepting of women?

No, clearly not.

Does the actual wearing of skirts indicate an institution that is more accepting of women?

That depends.

On whether the wearing of skirts is because it is a mandatory component of a uniform, like Dress Mess, or an option that some women choose to take advantage of because they feel comfortable doing so -- and want to.

If male cadets are accepting of women as fellow cadets and male NCOs and officers are accepting of women as soldiers and cadets and officers, then I think women feel more at ease expressing themselves in traditional “womanly” ways – be it wearing a skirt and hose and pumps or earrings – if that is something they want to do.

When women cadets feel comfortable wearing skirts and choose to wear them as an option, I see that as progress.

As a cow (or second classman), I spent a semester at the Air Force Academy and was stunned by how many of the female cadets there wore skirts to class. I told my Zoomie roommate, who often wore a skirt to class, that women rarely chose to wear skirts at West Point. She was surprised. Wearing a skirt if she wanted to, when allowed, seemed perfectly normal to her. She asked me why women cadets did not wear skirts at West Point. I shrugged. I’d never really thought about it before. We were afraid of sticking out as women, of being different, of being harassed. We just wanted to fit in, to belong. At Air Force, it seemed, women could be women and fit in and belong. Women seemed a lot more accepted in the Air Force than in the Army. I am not sure why that is: a different history, a different culture, a different mission, its newness as a branch of service?

I noticed in other photos from the USMA Sponsor Appreciation Night that that some female cadets had chosen to wear white skirts and some had chosen to wear white trousers with their Dress Gray over White. Just as women in business sometimes choose to wear suits with skirts and at other times suits with pants. These female plebes looked professional, military, and squared away, just as their male counterparts did. More importantly, they looked proud and happy.

And at ease with themselves.

Clearly, a woman is not going to wear a skirt into combat, so please don’t even broach such an absurd notion! A man would not wear Army Blues or Dress Gray over White into combat, either. But in a business-like or social setting, being able to wear a skirt is a nice option for a woman, just as it is in a similar civilian setting. And it is still professional and military.

One of my male classmates who is stationed at West Point recently told me that “women are becoming more and more feminine at West Point.” I think what he meant was that women feel increasingly comfortable expressing their femininity in appropriate ways at West Point. He certainly sees this shift as a good thing, healthy and positive. He then added that he had also just attended a Women’s Boxing Team exhibition, which was equally “awesome.” So the “warrior part” was great to see, too.

This idea of being both feminine and a warrior brings to mind Athena, the Greek scholar warrior, who could be beautiful, feminine, smart, and kick ass when need be.

The mission of West Point is "to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army." An officer corps that includes plenty of Athenas sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Three and a butt days....

I write fiction. And I write non-fiction.

Sometimes it is hard to separate the two.

Like when you are writing something that is based on memory.

Memories can seem so real, so strong, yet they can be… deceptive.

And often just plain wrong.

I have been hung up on the VMI cadet-hazing-me-in-the- sallyport story. And I feel the need to address this feeling.

I mean, the event really happened. I was a plebe. I was walking through a sally port. It was night, and it was dark. And I got stopped and asked what was for dinner by what I thought was an upperclassman, but who subsequently revealed himself as a VMI cadet.

What confuses me is the timing.

I have this nagging feeling that the event in question happened on Friday night, not Saturday. Which makes no sense. As I would have been supposed to know what was for dinner. And it would probably have been something like pizza and Go Army cake. Not hard to remember. And why was it so dark if it was before dinner?

Maybe it was Friday night, after dinner, and the guy was asking me what was for dinner the NEXT night.

And why was I out and about in the dark? Where was I coming from? Where was I going?

And I am actually not sure the cadet was wearing Dress Gray either. I mean, he was definitely wearing a gray cadet uniform, but it may have been his hat or the insignia on his hat that he pointed out to signify that he was not a West Point cadet.

I just don’t remember.

What I remember is being pissed that this guy was having fun hazing me, and he wasn’t even a West Point cadet. Now, personally, I have nothing against VMI or VMI cadets. I am sure I probably know a few VMI grads. And Lord knows there were plenty of West Point cadets who were assholes. Yes, it is true, a certain percentage of that “cream of the crop” they were always telling us about were just plain jerk wads. I don’t care how creamy they were!

Heading back to West Point in less than a week now, I find all sorts of memories rise to the top.

All sorts of feelings.

Mixed emotions.

I am excited to see old friends. At the same time, I am a bit leery of it all.
It is true: I didn’t want to go to my last reunion, five years ago (the first reunion I EVER attended and the first time I had been back to West Point since 1986), but my friends threatened to do a drive by kidnapping and take me to West Point in the trunk of their car. I figured a more comfortable, civilized arrival was in order.

And, even though it poured down buckets and buckets of rain the entire weekend of the reunion, I really enjoyed myself. I enjoyed seeing old friends, old classmates, and I enjoyed seeing West Point again. As hard as that is for me to say. Because, truly, I was one of those people who watched West Point in my rear view mirror as I drove off post after graduation and vowed never to return.

Most West Pointers I know have a real love/hate relationship with West Point. I myself find it very difficult to put the word “enjoy” and “West Point” in the same sentence together, especially if I am talking about my four years spent there between 1981 and 1985.

At the time, I thought I was going be at West Point… FOREVER.

I thought it was never going to end, never be over.

I made some really amazing friends, some of whom I am still very close friends with today, and I did have some fun times, but overall it was an oppressive, demanding, difficult experience. I am very proud that I graduated from West Point, and I have very strong feelings about West Point. But I also am very ambivalent. There were a lot of negatives.

I did well at West Point. In fact, I excelled at West Point, in almost every area except athletics, where I struggled to be average. There were a few athletic things I was good at: swimming, gymnastics, pitching in mass athletic softball, and the indoor obstacle course (because I could do the shelf and climb a rope with relative ease – two things most women found very difficult). I cannot explain to you why I was any good at any of these things; I just was. I was terrible at running. And I had a huge complex about running. Even though I would usually go out running almost every day on my own or with a friend. I was just not a very fast runner. But I also had a mental hang up about running. One that I would never lose until after I graduated.

When I took my first PT test at OBC, I had the best running time of my life. And that gave me confidence. As a first lieutenant I volunteered to run remedial PT for my unit at Fort Hood, Texas and was dedicated to helping soldiers improve their pushups, sit-ups, and two mile run times. My lackluster athletic prowess at West Point and shame at not being a good runner there made me want to excel and help others be physically fit out in the real Army. I guess that is a good thing.

It was hard to be a woman at West Point. We were in the sixth class at West Point to have women, so by no means did we experience what the women of the Class of 1980 -- or any of the other very early years –went through, but women were still somewhat of a novelty. And there was considerable misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and antagonism towards us simply because we were women.

It was hard to be at West Point period. The West Point experience is designed to be challenging and tough, transformative. The mission of West Point is to develop officers to lead soldiers in the Army, often in combat.

But at times, there are really juvenile, nonsensical things that go on. Meaningless hazing, silly pranks, even, at times, downright cruelty. I guess this is what happens when you let young people pretty much run their own military show. There are bound to be some immature assholes who don’t “get” what it means to be a leader of men and women. Who don’t get what it means to lead by example. Who find pleasure in being cruel and insensitive and who really believe that they are God’s gift to women and the world.

I have said this before, and I am sure I will say it many times again. One of the best pieces of advice that my father, a West Point Class of 1939 grad who did not believe women should go to West Point, ever gave me was right before I left for West Point. He took me out into our backyard and showed me how to stand at the position of attention, how to do a left face, a right face, and an about face. And then he told me, “Two things: Always keep your sense of humor and remember, there are SOBs wherever you go.”

No greater words of advice were ever spoken to me.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Countdown: Less than a week...

A week from tonight I will be at a Marriott in Park Ridge, New Jersey.

Park Ridge, New Jersey? You may be asking.

It is somewhere off the Garden State Parkway, supposedly “not that far really” from West Point.

The Park Ridge Marriott is the official reunion hotel for my West Point class, the Class of 1985, which will be celebrating our 25th reunion.

We actually changed our reunion date to later in the fall, so that we could get a hotel closer to West Point; at our twentieth reunion (which is the only one I have ever attended) we ended up down by the Tappanzee Bridge. But, apparently, other classes, with more seniority than ours, heard of our brilliant plan, so they changed THEIR reunion weekend, too. So, we still ended up relatively far from our rockbound highland home.

I know, you are thinking: Didn’t you graduate in the spring? Why is your reunion in the fall?

Well, this is West Point we are talking about, and reunions tend to revolve around football games and football weekends.

At my last reunion, five years ago, it poured down rain the entire reunion weekend. It rained so hard they canceled the parade, and the football game, although held, may as well have been a water polo match. I am pretty sure Army lost. I can’t remember who they were playing, but I think it was a team from Michigan.

This year Army is playing VMI. I remember playing VMI my plebe year, and I think we, embarrassingly, lost. That was during the “Walker up the middle, Walker up the middle, Walker up the middle, punt” period of Army football. Before we discovered the wishbone secret that Air Force had mastered and had a stunning football season my firstie year, beating the hell out of both Air Force and Navy and going to a real, live bowl game. In Michigan.

The VMI game, though, was back in plebe year, when the Army team was not doing so well. And there were all these girls running around Michie Stadium in pink and green, groupies from Sweet Briar College, an all-girls school near VMI, there to support their “men.”

I remember getting hazed in a dark sallyport on Saturday night, after the game, by a cadet who emerged from the shadows to ask me what was for dinner. I was startled because Saturday dinner was optional and upperclassmen didn’t usually attend it and hardly ever asked us what was on the menu for that meal. I struggled to remember the menu but somehow managed to get it – or a close proximity thereof – out. I was waiting to get hazed by this upperclassman, as I was not at all sure I had been entirely accurate. Plus, what kind of asshole must he be to haze a poor lowly plebe on a Saturday night, AFTER we had just lost to effing VMI?

To my surprise, the upperclassman did not haze me, nor even question me further. In fact, a smile of intense smugness crept across his face.

Okayyyy… now, this was getting weird!

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I replied.

Uh-oh. This could not possibly be good.

He laughed. “I’m not a West Point cadet,” he said, emerging fully from the shadows to reveal his fake Dress Gray uniform.

OK, now this was getting really bizarre. Was this supposed to be funny?

“I am a VMI cadet,” he said proudly.

I was pissed. It was a Saturday night, I was pinging back to my room, just minding my own business, and I get accosted by a VMI cadet who wants to haze me?????

You are not even a real cadet, I thought to myself. You are from VMI. Where you pay to get hazed. And you have nothing better to do with your time than pretend to be a West Point cadet and accost lone female plebes in a dark sally port after your goddamned football team just beat our sorry ass football team?????

And I just called you “SIR”?????????????????

The cadet laughed again. “I tricked you,” he said. “You thought I was really a West Point upperclassman.”

I looked at him for a brief moment and blinked and said, “Good evening, SIR!” and pinged on my merry way.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Twenty-five years ago today....

My blog has no pictures.

No illustrations.

No graphics.

It is called… Gray.

Not because I think life is colorless, or images are bad.

True, I am not a photographer, and I truly appreciate others who can take great photos and videos.

But I wanted my blog to be… pure.

Words only.

That may be weird. But…

I called it “Gray” for a variety of reasons.

My female West Point classmates, at our 20th class reunion, thought I should write about our experiences as women at West Point.


I wanted to write about West Point.

And my personal experiences at West Point.

‘Cuz those are the only ones I truly know.

West Point is … gray.

The buildings are gray. The uniforms are gray. In winter, when there is no snow, virtually everything is gray.

But I also wanted to write about middle age. When we are all turning… gray.

AND… I wanted to write about life.

Which is frequently gray.

Or which, more accurately, has many gray areas.

I wanted to look at that part of life which is not black or white.

So… that left a lot for me to talk about.


Or twenty-five years ago today, my class graduated from West Point.

Twenty-five years.


What has happened in those twenty-five years since graduation….???

We all have different stories.

We all have different experiences.

We all have different takes on the past 25 years.

Some people say: “Gosh! Where did the time go?”

Some people say: “Wow! 25 years!!!! Let’s be proud!”

Still others say: “Great! Look at what we have done, but look forward at what we still have to do!”

I say: “Look at it all. I mean, yes, good lord, where DID the time go? But, my Lord, look at what all we have done!!! Marriages, children, careers, accomplishments, it is mind boggling. And, most importantly, where are we going next?”

What will we be doing in the NEXT twenty-five years???

In many ways, it does seem like graduation was just yesterday.
But we have all been through a lot, done a lot, lived a lot. No matter what paths we have chosen.

And we, who are still here, can look out into the… gray!... unforeseen future and say:

“What is next? Bring it on! Here I am. Let me do my thing!”