Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rotten Banana Bread

I'm a fiction writer and a business reporter; members of my extended family have been in mental hospitals and rehab; I teach creative writing to a wide range of people. I generally have a high tolerance for deviance and bad behavior. One of my students once wrote brilliantly and disturbingly of killing a dog. But the one group I can't abide are pedophiles and yet, suddenly, I am surrounded by them.

Last week, a childcare worker at our old gym (he watched the kids while the parents worked out) was arrested for repeatedly molesting a teenage boy in his apartment. A couple of months ago, the organist at our Temple was arrested for having an affair with a 15-year old girl at the school where he teaches music. And two days ago, I received an email from a friend. She was writing about a guy I grew up with. I knew this boy from second to sixth grade; he was blandly handsome and sandy-haired. I remember he had freckles and rarely brought attention to himself. I don't remember much else about him (I am racking my brain trying to remember what reading group he was in---Joys and Journeys? Ideas and Images?) He lived near two friends of mine and I'd spent time in his backyard. Several years ago, I heard that he had become a doctor and moved back to this area with his wife and children; at one point, our children went to the same nursery school. Then I heard that one of his daughters had complained that he had been molesting her to her nursery school teacher. Soon after I heard he was getting divorced and the case was going to trial.

This was a couple of years ago, and after I heard the first shocking facts, I stopped hearing about this man and his problems, and I have to admit, I forgot about him.

I would not know this man if I fell over him; I don't know who his wife is or what his children look like. I don't know the facts of the case but of course, I am curious about them and him. I wonder if someone molested him as a child; I wonder how his daughters are ever going to lead normal lives after the trial concludes; I wonder what his side of the story is; I wonder how his ex-wife is staying sane. A group of women I know are going to the courthouse next week on the day of the trial's closing arguments and my friend emailed me and asked if I would go with them. I hemmed and hawed; I had a doctor's appointment in New York, I had to pick my son up early from school to get him to his d'var Torah session on time... Finally, I said I would go.

The same day I received the email, I read a review in the New York Times of the play, "The Gingerbread House," by Mark Schultz. I grabbed the paper when took my older son to the allergist, and started reading the review while he was waiting to get his shots. My son soon tired of texting his friend on his cell phone, and started reading the review alongside me. In the play, a couple tires of their children and decides to sell them. The review did not reveal the play's ending, except to say that the mother who sold her children ultimately regretted her decision.

When we got home, my kids took their piano lesson while I made London broil, brussel sprouts and egg noodles. I cooked quickly (and not particularly well) so that my younger son could have something besides cheesesticks to eat before my husband hussled him off to baseball practice. Then I remembered that I was supposed to go to a "literary fiesta" sponsored by the New York Writers Workshop later in the week, and I was supposed to bake for it. This literary fiesta was taking place at the JCC in Manhattan, where I teach ( The fiesta was supposed to drum up interest in our books and our classes. At first, I hadn't planned to go to the fiesta; my last class ended on April 2, and my next one starts on May 13th. Though I love to teach, I was perfectly happy not to go into the city on a week night for a few weeks, and just revel in the exausting but comforting repetition of getting my kids to baseball practice/piano lessons/Torah study/play practice/tennis clinics before sunset.

Plus, I was in the middle of rewriting my book proposal and feeling very inadequate that I didn't already have three books to my credit (as several instructors in this program do.) But a writer friend who helped get me the teaching job in the first place urged me to go and be a part of this wonderful community of writers. In my heart, I knew I should go---where I live in New Jersey is hardly neurotic-writers central and I love being with people who are just as nuts as I am and have no compunction about revealing that in print. But I had been busy rewriting my book proposal for the fifteenth time; I hadn't written any new fiction in months; I had nothing to show for my work. All the writers had been asked to bring books to read or sell and/or food to eat. I didn't have a book to sell (yet), so I offered to bake.

After my younger son went to baseball, and my older son went upstairs to do his homework, I went into a mad baking frenzy. We had eight rotten bananas, black and stiff, sitting in the freezer. I decide to make two loaves of "rotten banana bread" (way better than it sounds)and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I was in a bad, sad mood. I had sent my book proposal to my agent over the weekend and she still hadn't gotten back to me; I was surrounded by pedophiles. I wasn't sure which was worse.

And it's not as if I hadn't lusted for someone under-age myself. A few weeks ago, my husband and I met one of my old friends from Business Week and her husband for dinner. My friend grew up in the mid-West and lives in Northern California now; she had invited two other friends from childhood to join us for Korean barbecue. One of the women arrived with her husband and two young children. This woman runs a non-profit, her husband is a writer. Because this woman was Korean, she ordered all the food. It was delicious and mysterious, and I was busy chatting and gorging myself on food I hadn't seen on the menu, when half-way through dinner, a tall, strapping young man walked into the restaurant. This woman smiled and held out her arms to kiss him; he kissed her back and sat down with us. He was wearing a soccer uniform and had long hair half-way down his back; he was six feet tall; he was grinning and he was gorgeous. He immediately started talking about his band and since he had taken the subway to the restaurant himself, silly, suburban me figured he must be at least 18.

I couldn't stop staring at him; my friend and I kept nudging each other and giggling.
"How old is he?" I finally asked, figuring he was on his way to Harvard in the fall, where he would both play goalie for the soccer team and write for the Crimson.
"Thirteen," my friend said.
I almost choked on my kimchi.

The banana bread takes no time to make and I quickly started eating the banana bread batter, adding way more chocolate chips than was necessary (the recipe doesn't even call for chocolate chips in the first place, but I don't see the point of baking if you're not going to use chocolate.) As I had in high school, I stood alone at the kitchen counter, and ate batter. After a few minutes, I was high as a kite on that heady combination of raw eggs, white sugar, flour and beaten butter, and I briefly forgot the world's troubles.

Finally, I put the banana bread loaves in the oven and started baking the chocolate chip cookies. I was starting to feel sick to my stomach and didn't want to pounce on the chocolate chip batter as I had done to the banana bread batter, so I called for my older son to keep me company. He came downstairs and started breaking the eggs and eating chocolate chips. All of the sudden, he asked if children his age ever got sold. I knew he was referring to the play; I thought perhaps he was being disingenuous. But his eyes were wide and he looked genuinely frightened. Since I had just read that the father of one of the child stars of "Slumdog Millionaire" had tried to sell his daughter, I reassured my son that although parents did occasionally try to rid themselves of their children (Graham Greene tried to put his up for adoption, and let's not discuss Medea), Daddy and I would never do that.

I was surprised my son asked the question; he is almost 13 and a fairly sophisticated kid. I would have thought he could have entertained that thought and dismissed it without mentioning it. But he is still a child, and like all children, he needs reassurance and protection in this crazy and occasionally very creepy world.

Yesterday morning, I took the cookies, banana bread and a batch of brownies I had baked and frozen last week, and drove into the city. I ate lunch with another old friend from Business Week; she complained she was exhausted by overwork and had "no life." I pointed out that she now had the job of the old men who used to boss us around; she had a kick-ass career. Then I walked up the West side, tried on some sandals, wandered around Barnes & Noble "new fiction" section, and took myself out for a salad, glass of sauvignon blanc and a skim latte. I sat and read Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which I like much more than I want to admit (Am I little jealous that he graduated from the same fiction-writing program that I did, is several years younger than I am, and already has a beautiful yellow book of short stories out?).

After an hour of drinking and reading alone, I was a little wobbly, so I walked ten blocks down to the JCC. The guard checked my bags as I went through the metal detector. I took the brownies, cookies and banana bread out of my bag, and tried to arrange them as prettily as I could on paper plates. I went upstairs to the small, hot room on the seventh floor where we were meeting, left the goodies for the crowd that had gathered, and tried not to notice if anyone ate what I had brought.

The room filled up with people, who had gathered to hear the members of the New York Writers Workshop read their work. I was proud to be there, and thrilled when one of my students showed up and said she had actually been reading a couple of the books I had recommended. I spoke briefly about my class, pointed out my student and was ecstatic when she won a massage in the raffle.

On the drive home, I put on Feist and listened to, "I Feel It All" over and over again. I love Feist's defiance and her insistence on hyper-sensitivity. I put the pedal to the metal and sang along with her. I got home in thirty minutes, a record even for me. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I felt better than I had all week. (Listen to that song ten times as you drive down the New Jersey Turnpike and see if you don't feel better too.) My kids were at a hockey game with my husband, and because it was late and the house was empty, I ate a bowl of red grapes and sat down and wrote for an hour. We'd all be in better shape if we took a page from Nabokov's book and wrote about our bad impulses, instead of acting on them. Mea culpa.


  1. So great to finally meet you in person...and now to read the back-story of your excursion to the big city for our literary soiree... We really have to find time for a drink or latte some time soon. I like you too much for someone I barely even know! (That's what blog fandom can do.)

  2. Happy Mother's Day to the Flawed Mom blog writer!

    Centering ourselves on the role of being a mother when we live in a society that challenges us to be so much more than that is an ongoing struggle.

    I appreciate your journey around that struggle and the way you share that thru your blog and other writings

    I began reading Daphne Merkin's article in the NYT about depression.... great writing and thought of your work

  3. Thank you. I actually just finished reading Daphne Merkin's article right before I received your comment, which was a nice coincidence.