Monday, October 31, 2005

NANOWRIMO STARTS IN 16 MINUTES!


Dream
Originally uploaded by Pumpkin Chief.

That's right, the annual effort to write a novel, or at least get 50,000 words on your computer (or in your notebook) in a month begins tomorrow. That's 1667 words a day if you don't miss a day. And tomorrow begins in 16 minutes. So if you're a late night writer, it's time to start brewing some coffee and warming up. Your characters have something to say and they expect you to be awake and alert to say it!

If, on the other hand, you do your best work in the early hours of the day (which I do, at least, I think I do) you better get your butt to bed.

Ready or not, the great writing race starts now!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

WHATCHA LOOKIN FOR?


U1315234INP
Originally uploaded by wessobi.

There's a woman who works in the kitchen at the country club. A short heavy woman with grey hair and eyes so small they get lost in her fleshy face. She limps from a bad knee or arthritis or some other condition that no one has ever bothered to ask her about.

In fact, she was probably there for a couple months before she emerged as a personality at all. Not that we're callous, but people come and go in the back of the house. It's hard to keep track of them all or to get noticed in a kitchen that's almost overwhelmed by the collision of personalities: temperamental chefs, handsome young line cooks with tumultuous lives, and raucous taste in music who are in constant pursuit of one waitress or another, the Brazilian and Guatemalan dishwashers who charm us with their practical jokes and their warmth.

The lady cook's personality, when it first emerged from the simmering stew in the kitchen, was an irritating one.

She'd see one of us looking for something, and drop what she was doing behind the line to follow us around.

"Whatcha lookin for?" she' say.

And when we named the missing object, her response was also predictable:

"Well, I sure as hell don't know where it is." Then she'd shake her head in an annoyed fashion, as she ambulated back to her station.

Soon it became a stand up routine in a kitchen that is always searching for new comic material.

Whatcha lookin for?

Well, I sure as hell don't know where it is.

Then one day, the lady cook stopped me in the middle of the wedding. "If there are any flowers left, think you could save me one? Today's my anniversary."

I promptly alerted the bride about the cook who shared her wedding date, and at the end of the evening she presented me with her bouquet. "Give it to your cook," the bride said flushed with happiness and generosity. "Tell her I said, 'Happy anniversary.'"

The cook lady was waiting for me in the kitchen. She scooped up the flowers eagerly.

"So how many years have you been married?" I said, feeling proud of my good deed.

The cook lady shrugged. "I can't remember, but I can tell you how many years I've been divorced. Fourteen. Happiest day of my life, that was."

As she shuffled toward the door, she was sniffing the flowers. I suspected they smelled extra sweet because of the way she'd conned both the bride and me.

When my co-workers asked why I was laughing out loud in the middle of an empty kitchen, I told them that whatcha-lookin-for had taken me for a ride.

I soon learned that she not only materialized when things were missing, she also showed up to watch when the wedding cake was being cut.

"What kind is it?" she'd ask as soon as the bride lifted the knife. Then she'd linger around while it was being sliced until she got her piece.

Since I often cut the cake, we'd make small talk as she watched me. I soon learned that her only son was in Iraq, that she had a sister, but they "didn't talk much." Her life seemed to be defined by the nightly TV lineup. While I sliced the cake in even slabs, she gave me the detailed list for every day of the week.

"Wednesday night's the worst," she told me nearly every time I cut the cake. "Nothing's on on Wednesdays."

Then, last night when I was cutting a chocolate wedding cake with peanut butter fillings (one of the staff favorites) the lady cook asked if I would pack her up a piece for tomorrow.

"It's kind of a special day, tomorrow is," she said, revealing a ravaged set of teeth when she smiled. "I thought I might like to have a piece of cake."

"Oh yeah; why's that?" I went on cutting.

"Tomorrow I'm going to be fifty years old. Imagine that. A half century."

At first, I thought I might be duped like I'd been about the wedding anniversary, but when I looked at her face, I knew I wasn't. There was a genuine sense of wonder that she'd suddenly found herself on the eve of fifty years.

"So what are you going to do to celebrate?" I asked as I packed her cake.

The lady cook shrugged. "Guess I'm gonna eat this cake," she said. Then, she once again told recited the TV listings for Sunday night. When I wished her happy birthday, she smiled.

Later, I was sorry I hadn't at least given her a hug. It seemed as if a person who's planning to celebrate her fiftieth birthday with a piece of leftover cake and a screen flashing with other people's lives ought to at least get a hug. But when I returned to the station where she makes chi chi salads and sandwiches for our country club members, it was empty.

So happy fiftieth, my friend, who will never read this post. I wrote this for you, and chose Marilyn Monroe for your birthday portrait. Not because you have much in common with her. But maybe because you, who seem to be content with so little, have been asking the right question all along. Asking in a spirit of rare humility and acceptance that many of us could learn from:

Whatcha lookin for?

Friday, October 28, 2005

INTRODUCING ANGUS--OR IS IT MICKEY?

My son Gabe and his girlfriend, Nicola, have brought a new and exotic member into our family--though his name currently seems to be in a state of flux. Anyway, it's a puppy, and it's soft and huggable! And even better, I don't have to clean up after it!

puppy003

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

NO HEAT TILL NOVEMBER FIRST!

Not turning the heat on till November 1st! photo by Ted Lukac

With talk of the heating bills going up by fifty percent, and the electric bills following suit, Ted and I have turned into conservation fiends. We've been checking the pipes in the basement to see where we can insulate further, and have plans to close off unused rooms. We've also vowed not to turn on the heat before every pumpkin is smashed on the street, and the last of the Halloween candy polished off.

But with six days to go, temperatures dropping, and our bloodless Jack Russell trembling on my lap, I'm wondering if we'll make it.

Meanwhile, our daughter Nellie, waged her own sixties style protest on Saturday morning over breakfast, complete with inflammatory placard. (But before Child Protective Services pays us a visit, let me make one thing clear: It wasn't 14 degrees. Honest, it wasn't.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

ON HAPPINESS

Happiness

It's what we all say we want, though some of us close our eyes and politely pass whenever it's offered to us on a cocktail tray. Others take a more vigorous approach, stamping it beneath our feet, flinging it into the sea, making school yard faces and cursing whenever it tries to make our acquaintance.

It sounds irrational, but of course, so much of being a human being is irrational. Figuring out how to play on your own team is a lifelong task, and one that many of us never learn. Myself included. Though most of the time I consider myself pretty optimistic, there are moments in every day when I make myself miserable, or allow some circumstance or person to do it for me. Needlessly.

I think there ought to be a remedy for that because you know, we only get so many moments. Why spend any of them, even a single one, in a self-conjured pissy mood? Martin Seligman agrees. In fact, he has turned happiness into a science. Something that can be tested, measured, and yes, increased. In some cases, our happiness quotient is genetic, like the color of our eyes. Extroverts with lots of social contact have more or it. (Not good for solitary writers.) (Do blog friends count, I wonder?)

An article in the London Times, points out the following:
Statistically, marriage makes you happier.
Ditto for pets.
And music.
Children? Not so much. At least according to the scientists of happiness (though the two pictured above make me plenty happy). Anyway, I'm wondering if that is particular to our place and time. In the days when having lots of children meant free labor on the farm, or help in the family business, when parental authority was more revered, was the happiness quotient different?

Virtue also makes you happy, specifically these six which were culled from various philosophers and religions: Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence, though not necessarily in that order.

But it is the things that make us unhappy which seem more easily altered. It seems the most serious impediment to happiness is not the things we most fear--poverty, or a serious accident, or a failed relationship. It's what Seligman calls learned helplessness, though of course the link to those feared events is evident.

So if I'm reading this thing correctly, it's competence that makes us most happy. That and of course, having a couple of beers and a few laughs with your friends in the bar at the end of the day. At least, I've mastered the second part.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

BECAUSE IT'S SUNDAY: know the soul at any cost


Kyoto now
Originally uploaded by hira3.



A POEM BY KABIR

The night you passed in sleep
And the day in visiting your false friends;
Alas! Thus have you wasted
The diamond of your life on naught.
You will die one day, perhaps tomorrow;
Grass will grow on your tomb,
And your friends will forget you.
Therefore know your soul soon.
Whom will the son of a harlot call his father?
Worship God in your being
And do not waste your life.
Your body is like a jar of unbaked clay;
It may break to pieces any moment
And all will be over,
Nowhere is there delight except in God.
This world is a house made of wood,
And, lo! it is burning furiously;
He who stays in it dies.
The Yogi withdraws from it in meditation
And he is saved.
Thy birth as man is a ripe fruit
Which is seen only once;
Make the most
of the practice of devotion and compassion
And the acquisition of true Knowledge.
O Kabir, there is a way out of this illusory world:
Know the soul at any cost.

*

Friday, October 21, 2005

JOY, BLISS, and GRATITUDE


when Victoria jump up high....
Originally uploaded by elsakawai.

Okay, So RDL has passed me the JOY meme. That's the one in which you're supposed to scan your archives for happy words like joy, enchantment, ecstasy,and post what you find. And really, I think it's a great idea. For one thing, it makes you focus on what's good in your thoughts and in your life. It might even inspire a little reflective gratitude. And certainly the world needs more joy words, more happy words, more bliss words--not to mention more gratitude.

But despite my admiration for the premise, I'm still gonna have to cheat. Instead of listing various unconnected moments of blog ecstasy, I'm going to repeat my second post. Since I had no readers back then anyway, it's pretty much virgin territory. But mostly, I just need to remind myself.

5 RULES OF THE BLOG
1. There is enough ugliness and negativity in the world. This will be a blog dedicated to seeking, finding and celebrating what is good.

2. No whining. (See rule #1)

3. No depressive rants allowed. ("I'm fat" "I'm sick of my waitressing job." "No one out there in the literary world appreciates my incredible talent." "Nobody loves me." "Lots of people love me but not enough...etc.") Yeah, that's the stuff, and obviously, I'm incredibly good at producing it. But I won't. Not here. (See Rule #1)

4. Blog with joy, courage and abandon and then dammit, go out and try to live the same way. (See rule #1)

5. Okay,I lied; there really is only one rule.


Meanwhile, if anyone wants to pick up the joy meme and do it legitimately or otherwise, please do! If not, maybe you could share a particularly blissful moment you encountered recently. Once again, the sign up sheet is below.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

"NO PLACE FOR YOU, MY LOVE"

There are writers you read to be entertained, and writers you read so you can ooh and aah over the beauty of their prose, writers who make you weep for the depth of things hidden in the human heart, and ones who are loved for their ability to conjure laughter. And if you're a writer yourself, there are those you read as a craftsman, studying what they know, looking for the scaffolding that underlies the story.

Eudora Welty, the little old maid from Mississippi (who had a fairly torrid love life, at least according to her most recent biographer) is all of the above. She encoded profound truths in frequently humorous tales that stung with real life, then summed them up in lonely rueful titles like that one: no place for you, my love. I've never heard the human condition described so gently--or with such economy. Somehow, she who lived deeply on the ground she occupied, knew that home was an illusion. Our only real home is loneliness.

http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.spell.gifclip_image008_0002


In a review of EUDORA WELTY: A BIOGRAPHY by Sharon Marrs, Michael Malone writes:

Like Carson McCullers (whom she didn't like), Eudora Welty knew that the heart is a lonely hunter; like Flannery O'Connor (whom she admired), she knew that the violent bear it away. But, most of all, like William Faulkner ("besides being the greatest writer to me, an attractive, darling person"), she knew that we are kin as well as strangers, and laughable as well as heroic; she knew that comedy and tragedy, the bizarre and the terrible, cannot be separated, and that given a choice between grief and nothing, she'd take grief.

An optimist's daughter, she agreed with Ken Millar's response to the bombing of Hanoi: "I believe we'll turn back from our own violence, and see what we have done is something that we can never do again." She would know now that they were wrong. But she wouldn't stop hoping.

tomato_packers_recess_l

"Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had," she said. Her photographs from the thirties give weight to those words.

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As a craftsman who could capture more in one telling detail than a lesser writer could in pages of description, and who never lost compassion for her flawed characters, she remains not merely a writer to read, but a writer to study.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

THE GREAT WRITING RACE


The Abandoned Pair, originally uploaded by | HD |.

November is coming, and for a lot of writers, November doesn't just mean turkey dinners and raking piles of brown leaves. It means the particular madness that is known as NANOWRIMO. Though I've never yet reached the finish line, which entails producing either 50, 000 words or the first draft of a novel in a month, the effort has increased my productivity. So once again it's time to get out the bright red track shoes and start stretching. The marathon starts in less than two weeks!

One form of stretching is psyching yourself up for the race. To that end, I'm posting a piece I wrote last year:

WHY I THINK WRITING FAST IS BETTER

1. Because it really can be done. Frequently, we writers are under the impression that the gods of writing are stingy types. They only dole out x number of pages a day--hell, sometimes just a measly paragraph or two, and then they move on to the next poor sucker sitting at a computer. Ask for more and you get your hand slapped and a stern lecture about the importance of gratitude. But countless writers have talked back to their fears, their indolence, and the need for a piece of chocolate or a cup of coffee or a shot of tequila right now and proven otherwise, producing terrific work at breakneck speeds.

2. Because the unconscious mind is a sprinter, not a stroller. When you write fast, you go deeper. You tap into a power you'll never reach if you treat every word like a bronze artifact, in need of daily polishing.

3. Because even if you have to delete the whole damn thing, you'll have probably learned something in the process. Remember: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. You can practice slowly, and take a dozen years to write your first crappy drafts or you can just tap the writing gods on the shoulder, hold out your little porridge bowl like Oliver Twist, and humbly ask for more. Now please.

4. Because everything the scientists say about momentum is true.
A body at rest remains at rest, etc...It works for writers too!

5. Because Ray says so, and when it comes to writing, Ray is always right. Ray who? If you really want to know, go out and buy Zen and the Art of Writing. It may not be the most technical book on writing, but it's full of joy and energy. And when you come down to it, isn't that what great writing's all about?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

TEN ROUNDS WITH JOE LOUIS


99, originally uploaded by R.Kawazu.

"In my own case, I certainly don't walk into my room and sit down at my desk feeling like a boxer ready to go ten rounds with Joe Louis. I tiptoe in. I procrastinate. I delay. I come in sideways, kind of sliding through the door. I don't burst into the saloon with my six-shooter ready. If I did, I'd probably shoot myself in the foot."

This quote from Paul Auster, which I found on The Believer Interviews, gave me not only one of those laughs of recognition, it also provided me with some comfort. If Auster can produce all those masterful novels while experiencing all those familiar doubts and hesitations, maybe there's hope for some of us 90 pound weaklings.


As for me, I'd love to step into the ring for another round with one of my unfinished writing projects. But right now I have to don my waitress disguise and head out to do another wedding. Not that I'm complaining. There's something very salutary about physical work, I love my co-workers, and at least once during any given shift, I hear a song that absolutely demands I stop everything and dance (discreetly, of course). But the best part is that every wedding is both the culmination and the beginning of a great drama. With any luck, I might even come home with a story.

Friday, October 14, 2005

THE GIFT YEARS

So Melly has challenged me to the following meme: Go into your archives and find the fifth sentence of your twenty-third post. I've been seeing this around in various places, and found it rather intriguing. The idea of a paltry little sentence pulled from the lair of its paragraph and left to stand on its own. Not generally the best of ideas, but as I say, kind of an interesting one. So here's mine:

It's the gift years.

Doesn't make all that much sense left alone to waver in the breeze like that. It would much rather be nestled back in the piece I wrote about the work Matisse back in June. It describes the work and the days and the years that Matisse never expected to get after an illness that he thought would kill him. And how he used every one of them. To the hilt!

So if there's any point in reprinting it, it's to remind myself and anyone else who needs to hear it, that every year is a gift year. Every moment a gift moment.

The bus just missed you, a group of cells conspired against you last year, but they lost the vote. Your heart could have taken the A Train yesterday, and left you lying on the tracks, but it didn't. And look you're still here!

What are you going to do to celebrate?

P.S. If anyone would like to pick up the meme and go hunting through your archives, the sign up sheet is below.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

WHAT IT MEANS TO LOSE THE LOWER NINTH WARD


Half
Originally uploaded by s j b.
Hurricane Katrina devastated much; it tumbled houses, and then destroyed what was left of them with mold. It emptied a city and uprooted millions. But for those who have eyes to see, it also cast a light on an amazing place known as the lower ninth ward--if only in its destruction.

After the hurricane, Anne Rice wrote a moving article for the New York Times entitled "What it Means to Lose New Orleans." But as the weeks have passed, I've come to believe that losing the Lower Ninth Ward is the greater tragedy. The French Quarter may have been where tourists from all over the world encountered and enjoyed the rich culture of New Orleans, but the lower ninth ward was its heart.

An unpretentious enclave of simple homes and hardworking people, it was a place where extended families had lived for generations, where neighbors took care of each other, where they scolded each other's children because they were in some fundamental way their children, too. Where people were taught manners and Christian charity and how to throw a hell of a party. It was a place where music and food laced with garlic and cayenne and laughter were only the outward signs of the deep cultural roots that knit them together. Faith was not abstract or theoretical in the lower ninth ward. It was what got you through your day, what governed the way you treated people, and made you optimistic even the world outside the neighborhood was full of land mines like violence and drug addiction and racism. It was a place that gave rise to the kind of joy that expressed itself in the famous music of the city.

And whether you're black or whether you're white, chances are you don't live anywhere that resembles the lower ninth ward. Chances are there's no one down the street who not only knew you when you were small, but knew your mother and father, too, and who's looking out for you the way only people who have that kind of connection do.

Tonight the people of the lower ninth ward are scattered and homeless. They've lost their jobs and mostly everything they own. But many of them are trying to stay together in Houston, taking care of each other, tending each others spirits, watching one another's children, and keeping the lower ninth ward alive. And in spite of all their losses, they are sustained by something that has become increasingly rare and precious in America, something far too many of us lack: the incredible strength that comes from real community.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

BOOKS ON THE BRAIN


Time capsule nÂș1, originally uploaded by magic fly paula.



Before you open the first page of a book, or click on Amazon, or go to the library, or start harrassing a friend to borrow their copy, you are afflicted with a condition I call "books on the brain". You have book hunger, book greed, book lust. How this condition is spread is the province of marketing experts, publishers, and increasingly, writers themselves. In fact, we writers are constantly being told that if we don't get out there and hustle our wares, we're basically self-indulgent twerps who don't realize that the days of the Parisian garret are over. What's more, we deserve whatever miserable sales figures we get.

But, remorseless twerp that I am, I'd rather be writing. Or reading. Or drifting around accumulating another lethal case of books on the brain. So what if my head tilts oddly to one side from the weight. For me, the pleasure of books makes it all worthwhile

Anyway, here's a list of the books currently occupying space in my brain, demanding that I make a move. Maybe the more successful and savvy writers and marketing people can learn something by how they got there. As for me, all I know is I want these books.

1. THE SEA. I know, I know. Banville's Booker winning novel is on everyone's brain and everyone's list. That's what winning the Booker's all about. Huge sales. Thousands of avid readers, donning their reading glasses and venturing intrepidly into the little world you created. Something that's often better than money to a writer's troubled soul. But thanks to Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation and Sinead at Sigla, THE SEA's been on my mind for weeks now. Gotta find it. Gotta have it, that place of innocence and primitive pleasure that Banville found in childhood, that place of melancholy and regret layered over the scene by the adult. And if I can't have THE SEA--which is likely, since the damn thing is near impossible to find, I'll have to take the one with the word "evidence" in the title instead. See, that's how books enter the brain stealthily. One word. An image. A suggestion from a friend you trust.

And besides, anyone who says they plan to spend their Booker winnings on "Good works and hard drink" deserves to be read.

Another book on the brain is Joan Didion's THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. Ever since I read the amazing excerpt in New York Times Book Review, I've known it posseses truths I need to understand. And come to think of it, why have I never read PLAY IT AS IT LAYS? This woman's writing is incredible. The timing. The lack of sentimentality. The unflinching eye. Damn! I just might have to go back and read every word she's ever written.

And while we're on the subject of unflinching, Bret Easton Ellis has a new novel. The name, fortunately for my equilibrium, has not yet pushed its way into my brain. I had no need to take it in because I decided a long time ago that Ellis wasn't my cuppa. He was a nihilist, I thought, and me, I'm an anti-nihilist. Then I wandered over to Myfanwy Collins' blog and read her piece about rereading LESS THAN ZERO. She seemed to be saying that sometimes the best way to exalt life is by grimly portraying what happens when it is degraded.
So okay, looks like I'm gonna have to read that one too. And if I like it as much as she did, I'll probably have to find the name of the new novel and read that one, too. You see how this works? How can I ever figure out how to market anything to potential readers, when I've got this huge pile of books accumulating in my head, threatening to drive me mad?

And let's not forget poetry. There's Paul Zweig, for instance. I'm ashamed to admit that until I read some of his poems on Via Negativa, I had only the vaguest awareness of his name, and absolutely no knowledge of his work. And now? Every poem of his that I read seems better, truer, deeper than the last.

Another poet I haven't read is Carol Ann Duffy. But when I read the review of RAPTURE in THE GUARDIAN on Sunday, I knew I had to have it. It's a series of poems that explores the issue of love, one particular love, from initial euphoria, through ultimate connection, and finally to its end. Obviously, I need to know what Carol Ann Duffy knows.

And finally, there's Louise Gluck. Yes, I've read her. Even own a couple of her collections. But this morning when I visited Suzanne Frischkorn's blog, which provided a link to Gluck's stunning poem, October, my greed was once again incited. Obviously, I need more Gluck in my life.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

BLUEBERRIES IN OCTOBER


wild blueberries in hand, originally uploaded by awfulsara.

Back in August, my friend Susan Messer and I concocted a scheme to please our capricious muses. We would bake them pies! But not just any old pie; this was a very specific blueberry pie with a unique literary history and mythical powers. (To learn more, you'll have to return to the August archives and read up.) But really, homework isn't necessary.

This is the story in a nutshell: We planned months ahead, we used only the freshest and finest blueberries; we coordinated our calendars and then we made pies. The only difference was that Susan used a labor intensive pate brisee crust--and I, true to form, took the lazy way out with a frozen pie shell.

Well, now it's October, and Susan's muse has responded in a big way. First, she was notified that her story "September Song," which was chosen as a finalist for Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Competition will appear in the Spring, 2006 issue. I've read the story and it's well worth the effort to seek it out.

Then just days ago, she learned that she'd won first place in another presigious competition. Moment, founded by Elie Wiesel and currently the largest independent Jewish magazine in North America will publish her winning story in its November issue.

For Susan, this couldn't have come at a better time. While the gods of literary prizes have been shining their light on her abundant talent, her well fed muse has also been doing her part. A novel, on which her winning story is based, is humming toward completion.

Hmmm...maybe next year I better use the pate brise.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

BONDING 101

book Okay, this is something I've hardly ever told anyone. My mother toilet trained me when I was nine months old. That's right. I wasn't walking. I wasn't talking. But when my mother sat my little bum on the toilet and gently told me what to do, I did it.

I quickly learned that my title as the wunderkind of potty training was one best kept under wraps. For one thing, most people didn't believe me. Not possible, I was told. Babies don't have the muscle control, the more scientific minded added. And if the people I was talking to happened to be parents, they had a story about their three year old's struggle with the process to convincingly debunk my tale.

"Are you sure?" I asked my mother skeptically on several occasions.

She never wavered. "You were nine months old."

If, for some reason, I was believed, the result was even worse. So that was my problem. Hadn't my mother read Dr. Spock? they'd say, looking at me suspiciously, sensing that I was probably even more screwed up than they thought.

Well, uh, yeah of course, but she was more focused on the bit about what to do when your child gets into the strychnine or the symptoms of spinal meningitis. (We tend to be worriers in our family.) She must have skipped the chapter on toilet training.

I, of course, read it avidly, and what I learned was that potty training before the child was absolutely ready led to major psychological damage. A lifetime of "issues".

Being about 18 at the time, (the prime age for parental persecution) I experienced an Aha! moment right there on the spot. I thumped the book down in a kind of triumph. So it was all her fault. I knew it! I just knew it.

Now, for the most part, mothers are much more satisfying guilt absorbers than fathers. At least that was my experience. "Is that the kind of crap they're teaching you in college?" My father would say when I tried to toss a little guilt his way. Then he'd shake his head and tell me to go mow the lawn or something. Not the reaction I was looking for.

We mothers on the other hand are natural blame magnets. That's why we sit around poring over Dr. Spock and every other self-proclaimed expert like we're studying for an exam. From the start we know that if anything goes wrong, it's gonna be all our fault. And we're going to hear about it.

In the matter of my precocious toilet training, however, my mother refused to feel even a twinge of remorse. In fact, she was downright cavalier about the trauma she'd inflicted on me before I was even a year of age.

"You would cry and when I picked you up, you'd look at me in a certain way. Somehow I knew what you wanted," she said smiling in a manner I found infuriating. Was she actually proud of what she'd done?

Well, you could be assured, I wouldn't make the same mistake with my children. They could lounge around in Pampers (which my oldest two wore) or cloth diapers (which I, in my more environmentally aware years, spent hours washing and line drying for my youngest two) till they were five if they wanted to. Of course, once they the school age,we'd have to worry about new traumas. New accusations that might come later.

"Mom, you sent me to kindergarten in diapers!" I could hear it now.

Fortunately, despite my encouragement to take their time, and not to even look at that nasty old potty till it felt right, my kids were all toilet trained before they turned three--with a little help from, ahem, my mother.

"Let me take him to my house for a week," she said when my oldest son was about two and a half. When he came back, the mess and fuss and expense Pampers were history. Of course, I worried that she pushed him, but he, too seemed pretty damned proud of himself.

"Look! I've got Spiderman underroos!" were his first words on entering the house.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read the New York Times this morning, and learned that the experts had changed their mind on the whole subject. Seems that babies not only CAN be toilet trained before their first birthday, in much of the world they are. And what's more, it's now being touted as a good and healthy thing. According to this new research, early toilet training attunes the mother to her child's signals and feelings, and teaches the infant to communicate more deeply with her mother.

I put the newspaper aside feeling abashed. Should I call my mother and apologize for blaming her for my "issues"? Nah. She'd never felt guilty anyway, and once I became the recipient of the adolescent blame game myself, I pretty much gave it up. Besides, I was too busy defending myself: "Hey, I'm human. I did my best. I'm not perfect, you know!" The lines sounded hauntingly familiar.

So no, I felt no need to immediately call my mother and tell her she was right all along. Who knows? Maybe even our lifelong close bond had begun with her early intuition of my toilet needs. But no, I'm not buying that one either. Eventually, I will probably show my mother the article and give her the chance to say, "See, I told you!" She deserves at least that.

But first, I had another priority...I had to get rid of that paper before any of my kids found it, and figured out I had screwed up yet again. Damn!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

MY UNCLE COMES TO LUNCH: A Short True Story


Weathered Man, originally uploaded by rehuxley.

It's the first time I've seen my uncle since he was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's a couple of years ago. Before he arrives for lunch with several other family members, my mother warns that I will find him much changed. She warns that he may not know me.

But my uncle greets me as smoothly as ever. "So good to see you," he says, taking my hand. Once the CEO and Chairman of the board of a large company, he is well dressed and carries a small notebook and pen in his shirt pocket just like he always did. Though I suspect its pages are blank now, I'm heartened to see it there.

I wonder if the warm, courteous greeting implies recognition or if it is just a habit retained from years of business and travel.

Then he cocks his chin in the direction of the son who brought him. "How do you like my new chauffeur?"

We wait until he laughs before we react. A joke, he has told a joke just like he always did. We all laugh heartily.

We sit on the sun porch and have a glass of Chardonnay.

"I've forgotten two thirds of everything I ever knew," my uncle says matter of factly.

"Do you find you remember more from your childhood?" I ask, then wonder if I've made a gaffe. Is it okay to talk about this?

But my uncle takes a sip of his Chardonnay and reflects. "I haven't really analyzed that," he says with the same matter of factness.

Then his brother, a sweet frail man, famous for his endless and uncensored curiosity dives in. "Do you remember the street address of the house where we lived in grammar school?" he asks like a game show host.

We all gasp inwardly, but my uncle attempts an answer. "It was 101 something, wasn't it?"

"No, we didn't move to that address till high school," the brother who likes to ask questions corrects him.

My uncle concentrates on his wine while the conversation flows around him. Once known as a witty and penetrating conversationalist, he is mostly silent.

The talk turns to politics, and I ask him if he is still a Republican.

"That depends who I'm with," he says, and again we laugh.

At the lunch table, his brother and sister reminisce about their childhood. "Do you remember our trips to the ocean every August?" the brother who likes to ask questions says. Another spot quiz.

"Yes, I remember," my uncle says, but sounds unconvincing.

"What happened on the way every year?" his brother prods.

My uncle looks around the table for help.

"We got a flat tire. Six kids jammed in the car and every single year we got a flat tire," my mother provides.

"And Pa would get out of the car and swear," my uncle recalls. "Son of a bitch!" he says, triumphantly repeating that long ago curse against flat tires, horrendous illnesses, and bum luck of all kinds.

It is a good lunch, punctuated by much laughter, and by a sense of relief that my uncle is in some essential way, still unchanged, and that today, at least, he is able to enjoy his Chardonnay, his family, the sun slanting across the table.

But on the way out, the brother who likes to ask questions is unable to hide his sadness. "You don't talk much--not like you used to," he says.

And my uncle taps the notebook in his shirt pocket. "No," he says. "But I've been observing and I'm going to write it all down later."

Then he winks at me. "And when I do, you're going to be in trouble."

Friday, October 07, 2005

QARRTSILUNI


sunny day in October, originally uploaded by SophieMuc.

Qarrtsiluni is an Inuit word that means "sitting together in darkness." A word so beautiful in both sound and meaning that it makes me wonder why we don't have words like that in our language. It also inspires me to want to learn more about the people who speak and think in terms like that.

Qarrtsiluni is also a new group blog, intended to encourage a deeper dialogue, and to "foster a greater attentiveness in reading and writing". Some of the bloggers I admire most have published poems, essays, art work and fables in that space. Today I feel gratified to enter their company with a piece about my father's death that addresses this month's theme: Change and Continuity. I hope you will follow the link and read it. I also hope that while you are there you will sit together in darkness with some of the other writers and artists as they share who they are and what they know.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

HOUSECLEANING BY MOONLIGHT


Heloise's Kitchen Hints, originally uploaded by Paula Wirth.

I've been thinking a lot about M. Scott Peck lately--you know, the guy who wrote THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED. If you troll the obits, looking for stories like I do, you know he died recently from pancreatic cancer. Only in his sixties, too. I remember when I thought that sixty was practically senescent, but the older I get, the younger those people in the obits seem.

Anyway, after reading the paper, and thinking a little about the man, and how he managed to write a book about self-discipline that stayed on the best seller list for years, I took out my old copy and thumbed through it. Never did finish the thing. In fact, my bookmark is still wedged in page 34.

However, there are a couple of lines that stayed with me all the years since I jammed that book in the shelf and abandoned it.

The first was the opening line of the book: Life is difficult.

I was probably in my twenties then, and I still didn't know that. Really? I thought. But then, I quickly figured that applied to other people. Old people like M. Scott Peck and my parents and the mailman who was always frowning when he came up the walkway. People who, if they weren't careful, might find themselves in the obit page. Not a young woman whose biggest problem is trying to avoid the unwanted guy who's been calling eleven times a day.

Anyway, as time went by, and I found myself running into various obstacles, I found myself returning to that one declarative sentence that had been imprinted on my mind. Life is difficult. It explained a lot of things, and if you accepted that premise, it kept you from
making it even more so with false expectations.

The second line that stuck with me was one I've quoted to my children often, and to my lazy co-workers whenever I thought they needed it.

"Do you know what maturity is?" I'd say brightly, like the smart kid on a quiz show, just itching to tell the answer. "Maturity is the ability to delay gratification."

And when the recalcitrant five year old, or wiseass adolescent, or indifferent co-worker inevitably tilted his or her head to the side and said something profound like "whaaa?" I would explain:

"It means you do the things you gotta do before you do the things you wanna do."

Yeah, it's a great concept. It made Mr. Peck a lot of money, and for those who could actually follow it, that one piece of advice alone was well worth the price they paid for his book.

As for me, I can quote it, I certainly believe it, but I still can't quite accomplish it. Which is why I'm heading off to clean my house sometime around midnight. But first I think I'll fix myself a nice cup of hot chocolate and visit a few more of my favorite blogs.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

TOMORROW

Have spent the evening printing the final revision of my new novel.


Yes, the final. The absolute final.

Tomorrow I will pack it in a white box, my agent's address splayed in hopeful letters across its clean white surface.


Tomorrow I will stand in the post office line, holding it in my arms the way one holds a gift of glass, and then I will hand it over, and walk away.

Tomorrow the waiting will begin.

Please light candles and send blessings.

Monday, October 03, 2005

LEARNING TO LIVE

29_3

I know I said I was done with this Dylan thing, that you all are losing interest, or were never interested anyway. Maybe you're too young. Maybe you're saying Bobby who? Maybe you think the only Dylan song that was ever worth a damn was "Like a Rolling Stone. It's okay. Cause this isn't really about Bob anymore. This is about learning to live. And Bob says he learned to live by listening to Woody Guthrie.

I know. I know. There's lots of literature that will learn you to live (pardon my vernacular) but I've just spent the last couple of days immersed in Woody-speak.) There's all those holy books, and I don't think Woody ever claimed to be in their league. But that doesn't mean you can't learn something by poring over the lyrics of some of his songs over at the Woody Guthrie Website. You can learn about joy and humor and decency and about the refusal to judge others.

You can also learn that despite all the hollarin done by both sides, the issues are pretty complex. And maybe what we all need to focus on is developing a little character. And demanding our leaders do the same. At least, that's what I learned this morning when I had a cup of coffee with Woody Guthrie. Which come to think of it, is a lot of learnin to do on a ordinary Monday morning in October.

THIS IS OUR COUNTRY HERE

This is our country here as far as you can see no matter which
way you walk or
No matter what spot of it you stand on
And when you have crossed her as many times as I have you will
see as many ugly things about her as pretty things
You will hear whole gangs of travelers and settlers arguing
about her.
What she is, how she come to be, what you are supposed to do here.
and you will hear some argue at you
That she is so beautiful you are supposed to spend your life just
feeling her pretty parts,
Sucking in her sweetest breezes and tasting her fairest odors,
looking at her brightest colored scenes,
And I would say that gang has the wrong notion.
And there are some bunches that tell you she is all ugly and all
dirty, that there is nothing good about her, nothing free, nothing
clean, that she is all slums, shacks, rot, filth, stink, and bad
odors, loud words of bitter flavors,
Well, this herd is big and I heard them often and I heard them loud,
but I come to think that they too was just as wrong as the first
outfit,

Because I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly and it was because I
knew the pretty part that I wanted to change the ugly part,
Because I hated the dirty part that I knew how to feel the love
for the cleaner part,

I looked in a million of her faces and eyes, and I told myself there
was a look on that face that was good, if I could see it there,
in back of all of the shades and shadows of fear and doubt and
ignorance and tangles of debts and worries,

And I guess it is these things that make our country look all lopsided
to some of us, lopped over onto the good and easy side or over
onto the bad and the hard side,

I know that the people that run our desks and offices got so full
of the desire to grab enough money to run away and hide on, that
they let this thought run them, instead of the bigger plan,
well, this has always been a hard word to say, but
It could very truly be that our office people are doing the best they
know how to do,
But we had ought to teach ourselves better and higher than this
before we run ourselves and put ourselves into our offices.


Words by Woody Guthrie
Copyright (C) 2001 by Woody Guthrie Publications
Used with permission.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

I KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON'T KNOW


Bob Dylan in Playboy
Originally uploaded by Joey Harrison.
All right, so my life is pretty uneventful. I'm still trapped in Scorcese's "No Direction Home." I sat on my couch and tuned in as a Dylan fan, but when I stood up and switched off the (mostly) ignominious instrument known as the TV, I found myself satisfied on many levels.

See, what the documentary really presented was a stunning story of personal transformation. How a seemingly ordinary guy without much of a singing voice from an outpost where "it was too cold to be bad" became a poet and a superstar.

The changes he went through after he arrived in Greenwich Village in the early sixties were compared to bluesman Robert Johnson's famous pact with the devil at the crossroads. Where did this music come from? his old friends wondered. How had the former Robert Zimmerman, who was no better, no different than a hundred other strumming hopefuls morphed into Bob Dylan?

Amazingly enough, Scorsese and Dylan provided some pretty good answers to that question. He listened to Woody Guthrie for one thing. No listened is the wrong word. He studied, imbibed, inhaled and absorbed Guthrie. Did he steal a friend's record collection in order to do so? Well, yes. But never has a theft been more justified.

"Listening to those records, you could learn how to live," Dylan said. (Or something like that.) And he did. Because what he taught himself in those years wasn't just about the guitar. It wasn't just about songwriting. It was about living. And that of course, was what made him someone so many not only wanted, but needed to hear.

And he studied the performers he admired. Liam Clancy said he hung around so much that sometimes you wanted to swat him like a fly. (Or something like that.)

"I studied the performers I wanted to be like, and they all had one thing in common. It was something in the eyes. Something that said, 'I know something you don't know,'" Dylan said. (Or something like that.)

If you look at photographs from that era, you will see the same expression in Dylan's eyes. It grows stronger with each successive year.

One more thing that struck me, and then I'll be done with this topic, I promise. Someone mentioned that Dylan's great freedom was that he was acting all the time. Thus, he could do anything he wanted to do.

I mulled that over for a while. Acting? Did that mean he was a fake? But then I decided, no. In some senses, we're all acting. We act the part that society and our families and our genes teach us. And frequently, it constricts rather than frees. Dylan, on the other hand, not only chose his name, he chose the part he would play. And in the process freed us all a little bit.