Winter without snow? +”The Swans of Fifth Avenue” by Melanie Benjamin

I grew up in Colorado, looking at calendar scenes as part of my every day life. On the plains, from the houses I grew up in, the Rocky Mountains were in the distance, snowy and beautiful. I lived in the Rocky Mountains, working at one of the big ski resorts (Beaver Creek) for few wonderful years. And when I got married, we moved to the southern suburbs of Denver, within about a 30 minute drive to the foothills that precluded the larger mountains beyond.

So. when we get a winter like this winter, I get depressed. No snow?! What the crap?!!!

We moved from Colorado to Ohio in early January of 2007. We left Colorado New Year’s Day. When we left, there was more than a foot of snow on the ground, because that December had been especially snowy. As we watched the snowcapped Rocky Mountains recede into the background, I couldn’t help but think that Colorado was giving me, it’s daughter, the best send off; one of snow and sunshine.

There have been years since we’ve been in Ohio with little snow. A couple of those were cold and or icy. One was unseasonably warm. The last couple have been really cold and very snowy (remember the Polar Vortex anyone?!).

And thus, we’ve arrived at the non-wintery winter of 2015-16. No noticable snow, very few cold days (although there have been a few, including today). Rain, yes. Gray days, yes. But very little of the white stuff.

I know there are people in the world that hate snow and cold. But to me it’s life, and it’s seasonal, and it means there will be summer soon. Growing up, my family owned a sporting goods store and ski shop. Winter success for the business relied on good snow, so we could rent and sell ski equipment, and people would buy new ski jackets, snow pants, gloves, socks, hats, turtlenecks, long underwear, glove liners, sock liners, boot warmers, neck gators, ski googles, glasses, flasks, bota bags . . .  all the stuff necessary to keep one warm and moving on the slopes. And all the other winter fun necessities–ice skates, snowshoes, sleds, and toboggans.  Without snow and cold, the winter months weren’t as successful or fun.

So snow equates to success and fun, in my mind.

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But beyond that, snow is somewhat transcendental, at least for me. The snow falling quietly in the night, muffling the house from outside noises. The purity of snow, the white blanketing of perfect (at least for awhile). Clean, quiet, soft, fluffy, cold.

A good snow is God’s way of telling you to spend time with yourself. Whether it’s by the fire with a big blanket and a good book or shushing down the slopes knee deep in soft powder (I was a Colorado skiier; I rarely ski now, unfortunately), snow means introspection. Snow swallows sounds and quiets the outside world, giving me the time to think, plan, and just ‘be.’

So a year, like this year, without real snow, makes me itchy and edgy and sad.

There’s still a chance we could get a couple of good snows (and snow days). I’ll keep my fingers and toes crossed, hoping for a snow that stops the world for awhile.

Okay, onto The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.


‘You’ll be fine,’ Truman soothed.

‘I might not be.’

‘No, you might not, but still you don’t know that. You don’t know anything right now.’

Truman Capote and Babe Paley in The Swans of New York

 

The Premise

Babe Paley, the beautiful New York socialite, wife of the founder of CBS, setter of the Manhattan scene in the fifties and early sixties, known for her taste and style. She was the queen among her closest friends–The Swans–those women married to the rich and powerful of Manhattan.

Truman Capote, writer extraordinaire, on his way up the literary ladder. With his large personality and his love of the high life, he finds connections with each of the swans, but especially Babe.

The two of them connect, finding each in each other a kindred spirit in their lonely lives. Sure of his friendship, Babe confides in Truman, telling him things about herself and her life that she’s never given voice.

But, when he starts to spin away from Babe and the other Swans, he beings drinking and drugging away his literary talent. When all original thoughts have dried up, he turns to his swans, telling their secrets and breaking their hearts — and smashing Babe Paley into pieces.

My Thoughts

About half way through this book, I turned to the Google machine and started wondering if these women were real. Of course Truman Capote was real, and I knew Bill Paley was real, so I imagined that his wife was really Babe. Was there a real friendship? Were these real women? I thought so, but my history of New York socialites wasn’t quite up to snuff.

Turns out they were all real, and Capote’s short story “La Côte Basque 1965” did set the social set a flurry, and caused his own social suicide. None of his Swans ever let him back in, and most refused to speak to him in any real way. Babe Paley, his best friend, never spoke to him again. (The best article I read was Capote’s Swan Dive in Vanity Fair December, 2012.)

In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin takes the known and fictionalizes it, doing what Capote did best in In Cold Blood. Focusing on Babe Paley’s friendship with Capote, she tells stories of their friendship, blurring the line between fact and fiction (Babe was an intensely private person). Benjamin also spends time on Slim Keith, an outspoken beauty who lived larger-than-life in her own way. Slim was friends with close with both Babe and Capote, although Benjamin makes her seem both smarter with what she shares with Capote and more accepting when he writes about it.

Other Swans are sparingly featured, as well as other well known women (I’m not sure if they were considered Swans or not) like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Lee Radziwill, and Gloria Vanderbilt. Capote did skewer them in his article as well.

I enjoyed this book, although it did get a little tedious at times. The class and outright coolness of Manhattan in the fifties and sixties is highlighted, and it shines through. The downfall of Capote falls in step with what some consider the downfall of style; the drug-addled craziness of the later sixties and the seventies.

But the heart of this book is friendship and betrayal, of women unable to open up to each other (or their spouses), but willing to share secrets with a man enthusiastic about life, beauty, and stories. It’s the story of loneliness, and the cost of selling your soul to get your heart’s desire. The cost is never worth it, by the way.

I give The Swans of Fifth Avenue 4 stars. A fun, stylish read from a different time.

 

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On being a housewife + “American Housewife” by Helen Ellis

A day in the life of this housewife:

This morning. Semi-typical morning for me. I got up at 6:00. Well, actually, I was snapped awake when the neighbor’s dog barked outside at 4:45. But I rolled out of bed at around 6:00. I made sure older daughter was awake. We’re out of coffee, so no coffee. I herded Zoey, one of our dogs, into my office–she’s having surgery today, so no food for her–and let the other dog, Gigi, eat.

Got the older daughter off to the bus, despite it being the first really cold morning (below 5) and a mini-argument about her wearing a hat (I lost, or I gave up; she’s old enough to figure it out). Got younger daughter up, got her breakfast, dodging the hungry eyes from Zoey, who didn’t get to eat. Found the library books that have been missing since before Christmas break (VICTORY!!!!). Made her lunch–gluten free, because it’s 2016 and we know that someone in our family has to have a food allergy. Got her bundled up and onto the bus.

12509665_10208252900861577_654289579799353805_nLoaded Zoey into the car while dodging Gigi’s questioning eyes asking why SHE didn’t get to go in the car as well. Drove to the vet, took Zoey in, and dealt with her wondering eyes asking why I was leaving her there. Zoey is really good at puppy eyes, making me think she should be on an ASPCA commercial.

Went to Starbucks for a few, to shake the guilt I felt for just leaving Zoey there all alone (I know, I know). Went to the bank, then the grocery store. Shopped while listening to an audiobook, cognizant of the snacks I’m purchasing — stocking up on protein snacks for our swimmer and gluten free snacks for our Celiac. Also, for the husband, aware that he can’t have certain things because he has gout. Meals have been planned beforehand (sort of), knowing that we have these perimeters.

Then home, to unload the groceries, load the dishwasher. Whip up some banana bread , throw that in the oven. Toss ingredients for chili (no beans, because ‘ew, beans,’ and ground chicken due to Ted’s gout) in the Crockpot.

And now it’s nearly noon. Time to get to work. I eat lunch while I start work, saving time. Now I’m between moments at work, dashing out this post because writing my own words keeps me sane.

This is my housewife life. I’m lucky, because I work from home; I can start the chili at 11:30 and have it done at the right time. I can put banana bread in the oven and take it out while I work. But this doesn’t make me special, just lucky.

I think many take umbrage at the word housewife. But it is what it is; it is what I am. Back in ‘olden times,’ most married women spent their days not working but managing their homes. When women began to work outside the home, the word housewife took on a negative meaning, and conjured images of June Cleaver. Things have rebounded a bit again, or women have decided that you can’t really have it all. Half my women friends (and, in my small part of the world, most are mothers, because much of my activity revolves around my kids) work outside the home, half stay home. In those numbers are a few that get to work FROM home like me.

And to me, all these women are housewives. Some have husbands who do the cooking (as I do, on some nights), some have husbands who clean. Some divide the duties, others do nearly all the home stuff. So get a cleaning lady because they’re horrible at cleaning and so are their husbands (like me). But each and every woman that I know, whether working in or out or from the home, is a housewife. Married to the their house, managing their home and their family.

Some cook all weekend, having meals ready to go for the week. Some cook meals throughout the week. Others decide that eating out or grabbing takeout works better for them.

Some women (most, not me though!) are in charge of the family budget. Most women I know manage the family calendar and figure out where everyone needs to be and making sure they get there (relatively) on time.

When I think of a housewife, I think of a mother. Many I know are married, but I know plenty of single mothers. So when I think of housewives, I think of mothers. Because life gets infinitely more confusing when you add little humans.

And I think of housewives as kind of a logistical experts: figuring out how to get meals in everyone’s mouths (hopefully more healthy than not), how to get everyone where they need to go, how to make the money last through the month while keeping a roof over heads, food on the table, and electricity flowing. How to keep the cars in good shape, how to keep the house clean, how to keep those in your house healthy, happy, and safe.

Single moms have it the hardest, because I know, as much as I complain about my husband, he is my support, and I am his. My kids get to do a little more because we’re a team and can work together. Our home runs a little smoother (not smooth, just smoother) because I have a co-manager (although sometimes he’s more of an assistant, and every once and awhile I’m the assistant).

Any way, back to my life as a housewife. At 3:00 I’ll get my younger daughter off the bus. My co-house manager will get our older daughter from her after school activity at 3:30. I’ll run younger to dance, he’ll run older to swimming. While I’m at dance, I’ll do some work in the car. He’ll come home or go to someone else’s home and do some of his work (he’s in restoration and renovation and some handyman-type stuff). I’ll go to a committee meeting (taking younger daughter), finishing work before my deadline at 6:00. Husband will go coach lacrosse at 6:00. Hopefully my meeting will be over at around 7:30, so I can get older daughter from swimming and we can meet my husband at home so we can all it eat dinner together before homework and bedtime.

And then a glass of wine and it’s off to bed.

And tommorow,  I’ll get up and do it all again.

Speaking of Housewives, her is a humorous collection by Helen Ellis:American Housewife.


 

 

I watch ten minutes of my favorite movie on TV and lip-synch Molly Ringwald: “I loathe the bus.” I know every word. Sixteen Candles is my Star Wars.

From “What I Do All Day”

I love this little collection of stories. Highlighting my life, and my dark thoughts about my life, but darker, and lighter, and funnier than my life. And by my life I mean the life of an American housewife. And bonus! A couple of the stories are about housewives who also write.

Some of the short stories are hilarious and on point as to life everyday. The first of the stories, “What I Do All Day,” is a run-down of a housewife’s typical day.  “Southern Lady Code” is a hilarious look at what certain descriptors actually mean to a Southern Lady–although I would argue that this ‘Code’ works for all ‘Ladies.’

Other funnies include “Take It From Cats” and “How To Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provide such gems as:

Listen to gangsta rap in the privacy of your own headphones. Listen to erotic audiobooks when you scrub the bathroom floor. Worry about cancer. Google menopause. Challenge insurance claims. Ask your friend who’s a shrink if you should see a shrink. Don’t look at your profile because it’s not the mirror or the lighting or the time of day, it’s you.

From “How To Be a Grown-Ass Lady”

Other stories in the collection are darkly funny. Manhattan housewives seem to be more Gothic than the most Southern Gothic of women. Fighting to the death over the style of a shared lobby space. Joining a book club with a very generous benefactor but a very demanding initiation. Taking on the arduous task of ‘firing’ troublesome doormen. Learning to give up a promising writing career to become a woman of influence in the art world.

Readers are also treated to reality shows, bra fittings, childhood pageants, and the crazy worlds of corporate sponsorship and novel writing.

I loved this collection. Quick and quirky and fun, but also dark and twisted. I give it 5 stars. Perfect for nearly any housewife with a sense of humor.