Sirenita Lake

Sirenita Lake
San Francisco, California,
November 04
I am married in a committed, open relationship that is the anchor of my life. I'm a former high school English teacher, former software technical writer, and graduate of the late, great public interest law school, New College of California School of Law. I'm now on permanent disability from conditions that have finally eased up enough for me to begin exploring the world, at least that part which I can access emotionally, with the recklessness of a teenager. An important part of my life remains my work as a counselor for tenants with legal problems. The rest of the time, I indulge in outrageous adventures in sex and love, which I occasionally write about.


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FEBRUARY 7, 2012 5:56PM

Stealing Rachmaninoff

Rate: 54 Flag

Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the people I know who have died. I’m unearthing vivid memories of the past. I remember my mother as a young woman, my aunt’s generous briskness, my father’s slightly tired affection. In those memories, I am a child, a teenager. The death of my two cats last year has altered my mood, and I’m apt to start crying at the photos on the fridge–Sirenita almost invisible against a black shirt, Milagrito lounging against my chest, held in one arm while I support myself on a crutch with the other arm. Crying about cats triggers a cascade of loss. Dead people and cats populate my mind. I feel alienated from the present and long for the past. 

After a squall of tears while folding the blanket on the day bed, the one with the picture of the black cat that I used to position over Sirenita when she was napping (she loved having a blanket on top of her), I was making my way to bed. Going to bed is always hard, because of death. When I was nine, I went to bed one night, and the next day when I got up, my father was dead. Without knowing when I knew it, I realized there was safety in never going to bed. Things would not change as long as it wasn’t the next day yet. All these years later, I’m ambivalent about going to bed. I want to rest. I want to be warm. My husband wraps his arms around me, transferring his warmth, comforting me, protecting me. I’m safest when I get in bed. But, like Sirenita, who would flee when you tried to pick her up but would relax and purr the instant you caught her, I’m afraid of going down the path to sanctuary. 

One way I deal with the ambivalence is not to notice I’m going to bed. I do that by reading while I brush my teeth, pee, or towel off from the shower. It’s a tricky time, that moment before bed. I could be drawn off the path and not find my way to bed for several more hours, perhaps because I thought I’d do a few minutes of work and got involved, or decided to check my schedule, which reminded me of something else, or sat down to read one last post that required a thoughtful response from me. Maybe I got trapped reading something interesting. I’ve learned not to do that. That night, I was reading the Science Times section of the New York Times, which I used to enjoy very much but which seems to be getting dumber. Easy-to-read articles on personal health are not science. But it was good for my purposes. Distracting but not riveting was what I was looking for. 

There were a few interesting things in this edition, like a story about a group of extinct humans, the Denisovans, of whom I had never heard but who apparently outnumbered the Neanderthals. There's a mildly interesting piece on discoveries in immunity by a Russian scientist, though it was more human interest than science. I saved the article on Edison and some old wax recordings for last, after I was done reading all the dumb stuff. It was about a trove of recordings made in the late 19th century in Europe by an assistant of Edison, who recorded the voices of Otto Bismarck and other prominent Europeans. 

As I stood in the bathroom holding the newspaper, the themes of the evening came together in a sudden, stunning memory from my teens, a memory of something I wanted so badly and couldn’t have, that the regret still lives in my gut today.

I was in high school. Adults were more repressive then, or maybe it was just my family. Nothing I did was right, but I accepted that as natural and it never occurred to me to think my family should have been more supportive. Nothing my mother told me suggested that I was much good for anything, though I had some natural qualities, which, in another person (my mom had examples) would have been quite laudable. I was smart, but. I was pretty, but. Those were complete sentences. I remember a time before adolescence when I had been “a good kid” but that was way in the past when I was 16. 

In her angrier moments, my mother would say that I was a curse, that she hated my dead father for giving me to her, that there was insanity on his side of the family and I had it, that I was a whore. When I was 13, I caught her arm in mid-air as she swung a belt at me and told her I would never let her hit me again. But the devastating commentary on my worthlessness continued. My natural optimism co-existed with the conviction that I would be dead, in jail or in a lunatic asylum by the time I was 21. 

I can think about those days without bitterness. My mother’s cruelty happened only after my father died, when she was left alone in a country she did not grow up in, with small kids to support and few practical skills other than her natural ability with language. Death made her mean, in a way she never intended, and which horrified her after I was grown. Her verbal impulsiveness, sudden fits of temper and lack of filters, I recognize in myself. 

Because I was the oldest and the toughest, but also the most impulsive and unmoored, her anger was directed at me. I couldn’t be a good kid to save my life. I read, but I never did homework. I lost things, in my mom’s mind because I didn’t care that she slaved for everything we had. I could pay attention in class, but once class was over, I forgot all about it. I needed stimulation and novelty. Risk seduced me. Today, someone would diagnose ADD. Someone eventually did. As a kid, I was on my own. I was smart enough to be admitted to Lowell, the all-city academic school where rich folks sent their kids in preference to private school, and flaky enough to get thrown out in my senior year. 

I remember a youth characterized by struggle and conflict, but also by rapprochement as my mother began to allow herself some forbidden fun, following my example and kicking over the traces just a bit. We recognized something of ourselves in the other and, when I was grown, found that we could have a damn good time together, taking in a jazz concert or laughing around the kitchen table, sharing a bottle of wine. A perennial late bloomer, I nevertheless resolved the parental conflict, internal and external, by age 25. 

But at 16, I was still a black sheep, barely tolerated at home. We were poor, and I was even more broke than I needed to be. I was supposed to have an allowance of $2 a week, but I never got it because I did not “deserve” it. I got by on a nickle a day and my bus pass. The school cafeteria sold enormous cookies for 5 cents. I favored what I called the “oatmeal and cement” recipe. It filled you up like a road crew fills a pot hole, with something so hard and indigestible that you were not interested in eating another thing. I didn't care if I ate at school anyway. Money was nice, but I wasn't desperate for it. I would like to have bought the occasional concert ticket, with all the fabulous bands of the 60s playing in town, and I might have liked to go on a fancy vacation like my affluent friends. But mostly, I shifted for myself, borrowing money for lunch and expertly stealing my school clothes from department stores. I didn’t expect to be given anything. I asked for nothing. 

One day after class (or cutting class, I don’t remember), pretending to be one of the middle-class kids who went to my school, a potential shopper, I walked to the nearby shopping center. Of course, I never shopped. If I got anything, it was stolen. But that day, I was in the mood to check out the new music store. I never stole anything from music stores. For one thing, music stores were not rich, like Macy’s. Then too, music stores were great. There was no hurry. People were expected to page through racks of standing albums, looking at each one. No one did more than offer to help you find something, then leave you alone. They didn’t keep an eye on you. They were mellow.

The store sold mostly new LPs and singles, rock, jazz and classical, but there was a small collection of used records. I had 35 cents in my pocket. My oddball upbringing manifested itself, away from my hippie friends. I ignored the acid rock. I looked at some jazz records, artists I had heard of, and imagined a cool future in which I slid one of those out of its sleeve onto the turntable, then settled back to listen with a glass of wine in my hand. I looked at some symphonies, works played by orchestras that I was familiar with. Those were records that even in our shabby, transitional immigrant household, we might own. My family loved classical music, and records were the one thing my mother bought. I drifted to the used section. Maybe there was something cheap enough for me to actually buy. A single was 50 cents, but maybe a used single? 

I flipped through the odd collection of used records, and after a moment, I saw it. The thing I wanted most powerfully in my life. Maybe it was my age, an age when wanting is at its peak. Maybe I recognized it as something belonging to another life, something that could transport me away from my own life. I didn’t believe the record I was holding in my hand. It was some kind of miracle. I picked it up and stared at it with a visceral longing that made me wonder if I should, after all, steal it? 

It was a 78, a vinyl record smaller than an LP. I have a poor visual memory, but I vaguely remember a cover with piano and pianist. I only clearly remember the desire, stronger than any desire for an object that I had ever experienced, or would experience again. It was Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, played by Rachmaninoff himself, recorded in the 1920s with an American orchestra. Not only did I love the piece, that record offered something that in my limited experience was never to be had again–a genius playing his own music, playing it as he heard it in his head.


It cost $25, a fortune for a record especially in 1968. But even I could tell that it was worth more. Perhaps the owner of the store, located in the closest thing San Francisco had to a suburban mall, then as now, did not expect to attract many buyers of rare recordings. 

It might have cost ten thousand dollars, for all the chance I had to raise that much money. I could no more imagine asking my mother for $25 to buy a record than I could ask to spend a summer in Europe like my friends did. My sense of alienation from my family, of being loved but more tolerated than wanted, would never have allowed the thought to form. Could I have gone to my aunt, the generous one, the one who had no kids and made her own money and who loved music, and asked her for the money? It wasn't even a thought. She was generous, but not extravagant. Looking back, I think my mother might have given in, though that much money was half a week’s groceries, had I worn her down with nagging and promised to do the ironing for a year. After all, she found money from somewhere when the roof leaked. But I could never have asked. I didn’t deserve it. 

Stealing it was a moment’s desperate thought, reluctantly but firmly rejected. I did not steal records. I calculated my risks, and records could only be stolen by the stupid method of grabbing and concealing. Besides, I did have my (tiny) scruples. The record itself demanded respect, as did the store owner who acquired it. So I contented myself with gazing at it. I swore to figure out a way to buy it, but I never did. 

Would it have changed my life? I would have been a person who owned something of great value, more so than something merely expensive. Would I have been a different person, at least a different teenager, if I had ever owned a single damn thing of any value–a piece of jewelry, a musical instrument, a special book–hell, even a radio? Would I have stopped stealing earlier–not, as I did, at 18, because if you got busted then, it was an adult rap–or maybe not started at all, if I had any idea what it meant to own something?

Though I never stole from people (with the exception of cars, because I thought the insurance just bought them a brand new car and I was doing them a favor), I had no respect for property. I had very little idea of what it meant to own things, to feel proprietorship. I remember the meager stuff I had as a teenager–a small, woven straw box for my needles and thread (I had to have that, because clothes were mended, not thrown away), a darning egg which was really an empty L’Eggs container, a stuffed snake that had I pleaded for, and my prize, a leopard print nightgown that my mother bought me in a surge of generosity for my 15th birthday, which I thought was the most glamorous thing in the world and which I wore until it shredded. The best things in my room at any time were library books. We kids did own a few 45s (though no albums) which we played on my dead father’s nice hi-fi, the last good thing my family bought before becoming poor. 

I was remarkably free of envy, given the economic difference between me and my friends, but I had no idea of what it meant to have your own stuff. To some extent, that could not be helped. But my mother enforced even greater poverty on me as punishment in our years-long struggle for control, and I rebelled against it. I often think of the truly poor kids in this country. Why should they bother to respect my belongings, why should they refrain from tagging my house or breaking my car windows, when they have no concept, no framework, for understanding the damage that they are doing? 

I was a hippie, which absolved me to a great extent of having possessions. The culture is different now. A lack of possessions is a shameful thing. Poor kids in my neighborhood steal or damage your stuff, not just because they want it or even to fuck with you, but because they have no experience of ownership, which is necessary to understand what loss feels like to other people. While our culture is overly materialistic, being bereft of belongings is not healthy, either. It can make you a menace.

I was fortunate. I finally settled down to school, skipping a high school diploma altogether and going to college (you can do that!), becoming a teacher, then a technical writer, then earning a law degree, where I studied criminal defense. While health did not permit me to practice law, learning it at least focussed my thoughts on the root causes of crime and the twists that the development of a social identity can take in kids. We're all safer when kids have a chance to grow morally, develop empathy, and learn how to legitimately acquire their own things.

Back then, in 1968, a recording might be a rare thing. Now, music can be reproduced so easily that just about anything is available somewhere. I finally got my record, at least part of it, for free. This is the first movement of the recording that I held in my hands, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, played by Sergei Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, recorded in 1929:



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I love that you freely stole cars but stealing records was against your scruples. Somehow I understand that completely.
Ahhhh...there you are.

As always, you take me right to the time and place. I feel like I knew you then, because you make me feel everything you describe.
I know this piece of music well. Haven't listened to it in many many years, so hearing it again has thrown me back in time myself.

I think I'll stay there awhile.
xoxoxo Rose
Sirenita, This is such a well-written thought provoking post. Sorry, you lost your Dad so young and that the night stole him away from you. For different reasons I can relate to being "afraid of the path to sanctuary." The paragraph that begins, "I was in high school" or the part about being "remarkably free of envy" or bitterness, even when maybe you had every right. Such an understanding of how things shape us -- for better or worse. Rachmaninoff; so beautiful and so dramatic. Seems the perfect way to finish this post.
it's all about what "it" represents, isn't it? the object that will free us, the sound, the person, the place, the trip, house, the drug, the faith, anything but the toil and task of living and then when we get it all and "need" nothing, the real challenge begins. "nothing is given to man."

thank for the opportunity.
SL, thanks for this engaging story and it was interesting to see that you did not steal the record. Besides being such an amazing composer and musician, Rachmaninoff is one of those small world connections for me in that my grandfather was his dentist in NYC and my wife went to boarding school with his great-granddaughter and remains a close friend of hers to this day.
I could cry for the beauty of your soul that shines through this post. Probably because I can so relate to it.
Mark, yes, isn't it perfectly consistent? ;-)

Rosi, I would have guessed you knew the piece, you Renaissance woman.

Scarlett, thank you for the beautiful comment. I wonder, can knowing why we are afraid of the path to sanctuary ever really free us to seek it?

Ben, nailed it. Everything we encounter or do, we infuse with meaning. Having too much drains life of meaning as readily as having nothing.

designanator, it is a very small world. What an fascinating connection. Your comment is like finding that record. Like, really? He walked among us??

Miguela, what an intriguing comment. I'd love to hear more.

so glad you finally found your music. this meditation on material possessions is thought-provoking...increasingly it is seen as "shameful" to be poor. but children don't always feel it at least not at first. my mom bought my brothers and I clothing twice a year, $100 in august for school, including shoes, and $50-100 (depending on her finances) for christmas. my mom, too, was so controlling, we weren't allowed to pick out our own things...she liked to be the chooser.

I, too, had to figure out other ways of identifying myself than simply by the things I owned. even now, sometimes I'm embarrassed about having an i-phone. I'm glad for its usefulness, but the status aspect embarrasses me because still see myself as the kid in frumpy clothes (except the ones I borrowed/traded....)
Excellent post.
Better than excellent music.

Rated with pleasure.
~sneaks in, rates, sneaks back out through the hole in the back fence~
Wonderful, honest post. I related mightily, as my mother treated me similarly. Felt your pain
Some of my most prized possessions have been albums, so I can relate to your desire to own the Rachmaninoff 78. Remembering how thrilled I used to be when I acquired a rare or collectible record, it's strange to think that nowadays one can find almost any music ever recorded online, and free for the downloading if you know where to look.

"The culture is different now. A lack of possessions is a shameful thing."

Shameful, yes; we're bombarded with a constant stream of brainwashing that tells us we're worthless if we don't acquire all the proper stuff. Don't need it? Of course you need it, you just don't realize it yet! Can't afford it? No problem, just go a little deeper in debt to get it! We value things more highly than we value people, and that results in those kids you mention, the ones in your neighborhood who steal or ruin stuff because they don't know what it means to own anything. It goes beyond possessions to a sense of self-worth or the lack of one; if those kids aren't valued by our society, why should they value themselves or anything else?
Ooops, I veered off on a political tangent there; my apologies. Thank you for posting, Sirenita, it's always a treat when you do.
This is a beautiful post and writing, Sirenita Lake. I'm glad you made it through those years somehow. Maybe deep down wanting good and beautiful things in life sometimes keeps us afloat until we find them, I don't know. I'm sorry to hear you lost your Dad at such a young age. I'll bet he would have loved to see how you grew, and all of your work, and just loved to talk with you, and who knows, maybe he does see. You tell some pretty freaky stories where you somehow emerged unscathed, maybe he was watching out for you after all, all these years, who really knows for sure?

I don't know what to say except I too can relate to you, and to your mother. I recognise you both in me.

I have missed you.
I love that you could see through Sirenita's fear of and need to be caught, and go catch her and love her. I love that this thing you desired so much, came back to find you.
dolores, I've met you and girl, you are not frumpy! But it's funny how those early self-images stay with us. Yet, it's a good thing to think about any possession and why we want it, to think about the difference between needing and wanting.

skypixie, so glad you came by and enjoyed the music.

Tink, so, you're a cat burglar? I can relate.

Lea, good to see you. That was the old school parenting, wasn't it? Though I sometimes think parents have gone too far in the other direction, I'm glad that more parents now try to avoid undermining their kids.

Nana, inorite? Albums were treasure, and then poof! music is bits and bytes and ubiquitous and accessible. That's good, and yet it takes away the glamour of the album. Old albums were like heirloom jewelry, they captured history.

Actually, the political issue was a large part of my point, though I didn't dwell much on it. We are increasingly losing the knowledge of how it feels to earn something, to carefully select something for its value and to take care of it over time. Instead, kids are infected with the fever of consumerism. In a sense, the affluent are just as bereft as the poor. Either way, they don't learn the proper human relationship to possessions, the earning, the choosing, the care, the valuing.

clay ball, this is lovely: "Maybe deep down wanting good and beautiful things in life sometimes keeps us afloat until we find them." You are right, of course. It's having the concept of better things that lets us make progress. I often wonder what it would have been like to have my dad around when I was a young woman. He would have been more conservative than me. He would have been more old fashioned. Then again, he, like my mom, might have become more open-minded.

You may not be that far off about my father watching over me. When he died, I think he visited me, days before his death was announced to the kids. I'll write that story some day.
this was beautiful Sirenita- now I'm scrolling back up to listen to Rachmaninoff.
Natalie, it's so good to see you. Thanks for being able to relate to my mom. She was not a monster, she was in pain, and she didn't handle it well. I have to tell it like it was, and yet I don't want her to be the villain. I'm really proud of her, a slum kid from El Salvador whose kids went to college.

Wainskote, you really understand the Sirenitas.
Hi Julie. Good to see you. Thank you and I hope you enjoy.
I was just writing a piece and for some reason took a break and found your blog waiting. It makes so much sense, especially today when I am gripped with sadness for the things done and not done. Many parts "spoke" to me, as did the music. Thank you.
Buffy, thank you. "Things done and not done" sums it up. Sometimes the past is so palpable, it seems like the present, but we still can't change it.
The past? Heck we can't even change the present!!

I loved so much about this Sirenita.
"I went to bed one night, and the next day when I got up, my father was dead. " And that stays with you even until this day. So sad.

The part about "experience of ownership" - that its necessary to understand what loss feels like to other people - just amazed me - it amazed me because I never thought of it like that and it is so, so true, What a great lesson, what an important thing to teach.
+ always good to see you here.
trilogy, always a delight to see you. Thank you for getting it.
The "things done and not done" is a paraphrase from a penitential prayer ( in which worshipers confess sinning "in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone."
That's lovely. Leave it to Buffy to zero in on the core life issues.
I liked Trilogy's comment.
Damon, yes, it's the kind of comment writers kill for.
This story, this writing... blows my mind a little bit.
What a story. You are one seriously tight writer who has only gotten better and better. (Though for some reason, I didn't like the use of the word "jones" for money; it didn't seem to fit the rest of the piece. Perhaps just me.)

I guess I should have known we had so much in common. My cat's death still crushes me - crushes me. I can barely tolerate the pain and the ways in which I may have not showed up for her, only because I was broken and did the best I could to take care of an animal....but in hindsight, it wasn't nearly what she deserved...but that I can't write about it anymore.

My mom also "slaved for everything we had" and never let me forget it. Though I DID envy my friends who had so much more than me...very much. I started shoplifting to keep up. And also for the high of it.

Anyway, great piece. Great title! Listening to music now. $25 was a lot!
Joan, thank you to much!

Beth, thank you, and you're right, "jones" doesn't fit. I'll keep that in mind if I do a revision. Damn cats! Why can't they live 80 years? I'm sorry for our moms. We had better lives, and might have even if we had chosen to be moms ourselves. They had to identify with that role in a stifling way, and they needed their kids to appreciate it. Needing people to appreciate you is the road to misery.
Beautiful and deeply insightful. Most are not able to connect the dots between their own experiences and natural human responses to the world around them and having needs met, or not.

You are a remarkable woman. You have a gift of doing it both with others and creatures like your beloved Sirenita. How fortunate for us that you're able to also put it into words so well.

I read this when I was unable to absorb it's richness. I'm glad I came back to read it again. Thank you.
This story unfolds so well...and I recognize my own path in so many sections here: angry mother after husband's death, misplaced anger. Smart yet total flake. Pretty, but. As a full sentence.
I stole a Porsche once. I put it back at the end of the evening. Couldn't believe how easy it was...
...and the classical music. the wanting...
I used to dance to classical music every evening while my father smoked his pipe and I saw myself as a tiny ballerina in the living room window reflection...
Oh, thanks for this, Sirenita : )
You are such a good writer.
L'Heure, thank you. Yes, you can either say "I got over it, why don't you?" or you can take away some understanding from those adverse early experiences. If you don't, you've wasted an opportunity to learn something.

Just Thinking, a *Porsche*? Damn, girl, take me with you next time. I did the ballet thing, too, I'm told, as a small child. My aunt took me to ballet lessons when I was four, and then we moved and the whole thing was dropped. I am a dancer manqué.
: ) Ha! I was 17....and completely out of control.
Hey, I'm 60 and still completely out of control! Who says you gotta grow up?
Beautiful piece! And the music, wow!
Happened to hear the piece played by Van Cliburn. Nothing like hearing it done by the composer.

In one way or another, on some level or another we're all thieves...Well done and exquisitly well said, as usual.

Ron, thanks, and speaking of thieves, you owe me money ;-)

Anu, Marley, glad to meet you!
Glad to see you're as fiesty as ever...Send pertinent info, and I'll gladly pay my debt...
Sirenita, I don't know how I happened to miss this when you posted it, but thanks to the wondrous platform OS provides us I stumbled upon it just now working back thru someone's comments. Reading this, and the comment thread, has left me feeling so well fed I don't have any curiosity left for anything else posted here today. At least not right now. My reading jones is sated (btw, I don't recall seeing that word in your piece, so either it didn't protrude or you changed it after acknowledging Beth's comment). I could go on and on, praising, raving, trying to explain how it affected me, parsing out all of the elements that made it move me so much, noting that while I knew before I started reading it would more riveting than merely distracting, as all of your writing that I've seen has been, but, afraid of being the one to test the limits of this comment window and hit the bandwidth wall somewhere down below, I'll follow Tink's lead finally and try to find the hole in the fence he slipped thru and slip away awed, as well.
Matt, thanks for the lovely comment. Yes, I followed Beth's advice and changed the wording a bit. I'm glad you found it satisfying. It's one of my favorite pieces, which means it required more pain and effort to commit it to the page. Eventually, I'll be able to say all the things I need to say before I die. At least, I hope so. I'm still a bit hesitant about opening that vein and bleeding on the page, but I think it's the right way to go about writing, at least for me.
Somehow I missed this when you originally posted it. This is an amazing piece of writing. Thanks for taking me along on your journey, and for introducing me to an amazing piece of music.
Reader's Picks, it's an honor, truly.

froggy, thanks for coming by this time and i'm so glad you liked the music.
Listening to Rach and remembering, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray..." Strange prayer for a child, but I remember it. R&R
This is such a compelling story. You are amazing.

I love you.
I was totally are a special treasure.
Amazing. Thank you for sharing so much of your life with us.
what poverty is, and ownership of possessions as a condition for respect of others' property - you make perfect sense, and in a way that has completely captured me. wonderful post.
Boy, is this tight. Keenly felt, here, a testament to your skill. :)
Wonderful music and memories of hippy freedom. I love that too. Thanks for making me float here.
So, I cried finally. This post will always be you for me. I am, above all, grateful that you suffer no more, though the pang of your passing is like an echo that reaches through and to those who loved you.