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My grade school tormenter reached me through Facebook. Actually, he located me on Facebook via some site called Classmates. I don’t protect-your-child-from-the-dangers-of-cyber-bullyingremember registering on Classmates but who knows? I might have hit the wrong button at some point. The bottom line is: he found me.

“Hi Nikki,” his e-mail read (he’d also asked to “friend” me). “Remember me? P—? I went to Richards School; I was two years ahead of you.”

I barely remember anyone from grade school; I have enough trouble recalling high school. Still, I thought: What would be the harm in friending him? Yet something made me hesitate. I couldn’t recognize him from his picture, obviously; nor could I place him by name. He still apparently lived in the small suburb where I grew up; he may or may not have gone to college. Nothing else gave me any indication as to how he had once fit into my life.

I e-mailed: “Hey P—another ghost from the past. How are you? What have you been up to?” I was hoping those innocuous couple of sentences would prod him into opening up; most people love to talk about themselves.

Instead, he wrote, “Congratulations on all your successes. It sounds as if you’re doing really well in life.” And then, changing the subject abruptly: “I really had a hard time tracking you down, you know, because you changed your name.” He continued. “When did you do that? I’m just curious. Why did you do that?”

Now I was puzzled. I didn’t change my name when I got married. As much as I loved my husband, the idea of becoming Nikki Potorti somehow didn’t work for me (“It sounds like the name of a small-time mobster,” I remarked to my patient fiance as we were standing in line to get our marriage license in Manhattan. Thankfully, he agreed).

What I had done is adopted the name “Nikki” (albeit with a different spelling)right after eighth grade graduation  because I liked the Haley Mills character in “The Moon-Spinners”  It became my legal name when I turned twenty-one.

No one had ever questioned me about it and honestly, I never thought about it. Who was this person from grade school who was inquiring about my name, or rather, my identity?

Instead of answering him directly, I wrote back, “What year did you graduate?” I needed more information.

“You don’t remember me, do you? Tall, thin, brown eyes?”

I didn’t remember…and then I did: P–was briefly my childhood tormenter.

The year I started fourth grade, P–walked home from school when I did and taunted me. He sang out vaguely scatological rhymes that involved my name and a body part. Sometimes he’d make comments about how I thought I was so smart; then he’d go back to making fun of my name again. This went on nearly every day for several months, and while I wasn’t really afraid for my safety, his words hurt more than any stick or brick ever could.

I was a timid nine; afraid of loud noises, dark shadows and confrontation. Yet I didn’t want to tell my parents or my big brother, even though I knew they’d rush to my defense in ways appropriate to a respected lawyer or a pugilistic teenager. There was nothing in place at my school or in my community to help victims of bullying; no support groups or services to which the picked-on could turn. I could have gone to the principal but that would have involved a call to my parents and some sort of notation in my permanent file and I didn’t want either. I briefly considered recruiting my friend’s brother, our local juvenile delinquent, who would have enjoyed administering a beating, I suspect. But I didn’t want him to get in trouble either.  I suffered in silence.

One day, P—was across the street as I walked home, teasing and taunting as usual. I’d had a bad day at school and suddenly, I’d had it. I stopped right where I was and yelled out, “You know what, P–?  You’re a stupid little ninny! That’s all you are; that’s all you’ll ever be! Leave me alone, you stupid ninny, you stupid little…twit!” I practically spat out that last word.

I’m not sure how I came up with “ninny” and “twit”; maybe I was having a Julie Andrews moment. But the words had their desired effect.

P—stopped walking and stood rooted to his spot, staring at me. I stared back at him for a minute, my heart racing wildly. Then I tossed my head in my best princess imitation and walked home. He never bothered me again.

Fifty years later, here he was, my tormentor; the mean little boy who nearly ruined my autumn that year. Here was my opportunity. I could admit I remembered him and I could make sure he understood how miserable he made my nine-year-old self. I wondered fleetingly if he even remembered; maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.

I realized I didn’t care. My nine-year-old self had taken care of my tormenter long before MySpace and Facebook and texting, true; but also before anti-bullying laws and YouTube messages of support, and awareness groups. I had confronted my bully then and I hadn’t thought about him since. No need for a rematch, a reckoning, or a reconciliation.

“Sorry,” I wrote back. “I don’t remember you.”

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 My early teen years were a struggle, to say the least. I was ungainly, unsure and decidedly uncool. Eventually, I would  attain the even teeth, the carefully ironed long hair,  even an  acceptable body shape.  But in 1964, I wanted to look like my older  brother’s cheerleader girlfriends. More seriously, I wanted to be
someone else–anyone else except me.

I was miserable at school. I couldn’t hide my smarts or keep my mouth shut; couldn’t get my footing  or find my place. Ripe for teasing, I tried to stay clear of the mean  girls and sought refuge in music and books. Then, beginning September  22nd of that year, I had a chance to latch onto a debonair chap and his sexy partner, the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLEThe show was both an homage to and send-up of the popular James Bond movies and starred Robert Vaughn and a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. They played agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE), an international organization dedicated to stopping THRUSH from exercising its evil plan to take over the world.

The casting was impeccable, the setup fantastical and the details were  inspired. Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was the classic spy in the 007 mold: suave, clever; with a fondness for the good life and a weakness  for women.  He was cool in an old-fashioned sort of way; a throwback to previous decades.

youngMc
But it was McCallum’s character, the elusive Illya Kuryakin, who caught and held my attention. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. a few months earlier and like so many girls my age, I was drawn to the safely boyish Paul McCartney. But in Illya, I found my soul-mate: a mysterious,
educated (Masters degree from the Sorbonne; PhD in quantum mechanics from University of Cambridge) Russian whose hip calm exterior hid, I was certain, a treasure trove of passion. He seemed to own a wardrobe of swoon-inducing black turtlenecks.  Best of all, he and Solo were working in a spirit of global cooperation to defeat terrorists, anarchists and the like in the middle of the Cold War.  I was hooked.

My mother, in a display of solidarity and support, took pictures of our television set when the show was on and gave me the images. I can’t tell you what that meant to me; it was like having your mother approve of your first boyfriend.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lasted four years and took me through high school. Even after I grew out of my ugly duckling phase, I remained loyal to the intrepid spies and to the attractive Illya.   Encountering McCallum in recent times on another show that has saved me–NCIS–is like  olderMcreuniting with an old love. McCallum’s Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is a little fussy, but also funny, smart and sensitive, with a soulful side
that probably owes to his Scottish origins (okay, I’m projecting). He’s not quite the sexy Kuryakin I remember–except perhaps for the twinkle in his eye. But he seems wise in ways that matter. I’m sure he’d forgive my crush on  Mark Harmon’s character. I like to think we have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. He was, after all, my first love.

sources: IMDb; Wikipedia
images: nnbd  firstachurch, photobucket

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The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates has written a book about losing her husband, following in the heart-broken footsteps of many other such memoirs, such as The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Oates’ book, A Widow’s Story, has been generally, although carefully, praised save for one review by New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who (bravely or foolishly; take your pick) questions author’s sincerity of purpose.

Maslin is careful not to criticize Oates’ grief process but rather takes aim at the lack of emotional meaning or depth in A Widow’s Story. Oates’ book is “far less fastidious… flabbier and flightier” than Didion’s work, Maslin asserts, and includes threadbare metaphysics…much minutiae…and worrisome signs of haste.” She also finds Oates’ selective retelling to be deceptive. For example, the author includes poignant and poignantly funny stories about grieving but fails to go deeply into her forty-seven year marriage. A far more grievous omission, in Maslin’s view, is the fact that Oates became engaged eleven months after her husband died and is now happily (one hopes) married. “How delicately must we tread around this situation,” Maslin asks? All of this leads Maslin to conclude that Oates may have been seeking to “willfully [tap] into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market.”

Full stop.

It’s difficult for me to distance myself from these kinds of memoirs—as a writer or as a widow. My first reaction is almost always a distressing cocktail of anger, despair, envy, and confusion.

The writer in me asks: How did there come to be a subset of memoir about spousal loss? How do we rate and rank these books? How do we rate or rank the loss? Are those with greater command of the language or the market share the ones who are most “qualified” to write about this subject? Does it depend on circumstance, or on context? Was my experience with grief and mourning worthy of a  share of that “lucrative loss-of spouse market,” even though I was told way back in 2001 that the story of a middle-aged childless widow was far less compelling than that of a young mother of three whose husband had (also) died in the 9/11 attacks?

The widow in me wonders: How long?

The Oates book and Maslin’s review have generated a fair amount of blogosphere discussion about the grieving process. Author Ruth Conigsberg insisted that “…these memoirs are…highly subjective snapshots that don’t teach us much about how we typically grieve, nor more importantly, for how long.” Conigsberg, it should be noted, has her own book concerning the myth of the stages of grief.

She notes optimistically that many older people do recover from losing a spouse to natural causes fairly quickly and even remarry, as did Oates. Her findings are not to be confused with studies that show younger people who lose their spouses in traumatic situations and remain widows or widowers are six times more likely to experience dementia.

Uh-oh.

Nine and a half years after my traumatic loss, I float in a sea of doubt. I don’t even know if I’m still grieving or if something else is at play. Was my marriage at forty an anomaly, a one-time event? The more time that passes, the more I circle back to “before”—before I met the man I would marry; the years spent in the company of inappropriate, uninterested, non-committal men while yearning for the comfort of a stable relationship. I spent, will have spent, will spend, more years alone than in a romantic partnership. The marriage, as joyful, as sustained, as relieved and as (foolish me) safe as it made me feel, was a blip on the radar screen of my life, an accident of fate. I float, I coast and I wonder how I can draw any kind of illustrative, instructive or illuminating lessons from the before, the “during”, or the after.

The writer in me thinks: Oates is a well-known, well-respected writer and professor at Princeton University. She’s out there. It might have been more, what, helpful, to let us know her process included finding happiness again so quickly. Then again, she wasn’t necessarily writing a self-help book, just an accounting.

The widow in me understands: Any memoir I write would be so unresolved as to be thoroughly unsatisfactory, even to me.

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Okay, Hillary lives on to fight another day (or at least fifty of them), Mac sews it up and who would have predicted any of it? Since there are a number of blogs dissecting the minutia of this crazy run-up to the nomination, I’d rather turn my attention today to the run of fake, or should I say “faked” memoirs.

As a writer, I’m interested in the proliferation of books that ought to be titled “My Life – Not. ” The latest dust-up is over “Love and Consequences,”a critically acclaimed memoir about a half-white, half-Native American foster child running drugs for gang-bangers in Los Angeles was apparently completely fabricated. The comfortably middle-class all-white woman who wrote the book defended her actions as a way to “give voice to people who people don’t listen to” – a sentence that doesn’t exactly suggest an inspired writing style, never mind that it’s fiction.

Some may remember the tale of James Frey, whose memoir “A Million Little Pieces” was touted by Oprah and sold as her recommendations do – very well indeed. When the truth of his million little lies surfaced, he was emphatically scolded by Oprah on national TV, which was both entertaining and uncomfortable. Last year, Laura Albert applied her talents to writing as JT LeRoy, addict and son of a prostitute; she even managed to find an actor to wrap himselves in scarves and sunglasses to show up as the nonexistent LeRoy at all the right parties. But wait, there’s more: what about the heart-rending memoir of a young girl trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto who killed a German soldier, escaped and trekked a couple thousand miles across Europe in search of her parents. Oh and did I mention the part about her being adopted by wolves who saved her from the Nazis? The book, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, a Belgian living in Massachusetts, was translated into eighteen languages and was adapted for a French film. It just happens to be complete fantasy. Misha’s name is Monique DeWael and by the way, she’s not even Jewish.

I’m not sure why these folks don’t all just write fiction, since they seem to be good at it. Apparently “real life” stories are seen by the struggling publishing industry (which is obviously saving money by laying off fact-checkers) as  more likely to sell more books. 

I’d love to have the fame and fortune that attend these authors, although obviously not the broken contracts, lawsuits and public humiliation that follow when they’re caught. My reality is pretty boring, except for one rather over-sized event that swamped my life for a time (9/11).  While my experiences are surely memoir-worthy, my “real” story is so much more interesting:

You see, I’m the one-legged illegitimate daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter named as a Communist sympathizer and his beautiful Norwegian/Spanish actress mistress who abandoned me to the streets of London in the late sixties. After falling in with a group of adorable orphans and their charismatic leader, I was taken in by pop model Twiggy, who sent me to a posh boarding school in Switzerland. I spent vacations in Los Angeles singing backup for the BeeGees before dropping out and hitchhiking to India where I worked with Mother Teresa. There I fell in love with a handsome graduate student and champion cyclist teaching American-accented English to start-up entrepreneurs who had an idea for a giant call-center in Bangladesh. The stranger was really a prince in the royal house of some obscure and unpronounceable Arab emirate whose father, a forward-thinking ruler who was actually half-Jewish, was married to a stunningly beautiful Irish-Italian graduate of the London School of Economics. We wed, hosted several peace conferences, produced several stunningly handsome sons and one daughter, a math genius who is a contender in the Miss Teen World competition. Upon the death of my beloved’s father, he took over as a wildly popular leader of his peaceful, ethnically diverse and oil-rich country. After building a sustainable housing project next to our palace,we now divide our time between our lovenest in the desert and our vacation home on an island off the coast of North Carolina, the setting for my next novel.

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