You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. --FRANZ KAFKA
Monday, December 26, 2005
The Night-Walker Takes Back the Blog
Every other Sunday
Originally uploaded by aliasgrace.
It was last March when I first happened upon Blogger. Looked kind of fun, and easy, too. I began typing in information on my computer.
BLOG NAME? the computer asked. Hmm. I thought of one of my favorite poems by Goethe:
THE SECOND POEM THE NIGHT-WALKER WROTE
Over the hilltops,
Among all the treetops
You feel hardly
A breath moving.
The birds fall silent in the woods.
Simply wait! Soon
you too will be silent.
I'd call it THE NIGHT-WALKER! I typed the words with abandon, but then I started to get kind of creeped out. "Night walker" probably sounded romantic to Goethe, but it shared too much assonance with one of the terrors of our time--the night stalker. I imagined some lonely guy in a trench coat taking possession of my blog.
Or maybe the night-walker was a desperate woman wearing garish make-up who had stopped allowing herself to feel long ago. Nah, as much as I enjoy, well--walking at night--I didn't think I'd call myself an actual "night-walker". I pressed the delete key just in time, but I wasn't about to give up on the poem. The poem was my mantra, my daily reminder; I could never read it without feeling a little more alive. I typed in my URL address, naming my street after the poem's pointed exhortation.
Then I second guessed myself again. Simply wait? What kind of blog name blog was that? I opened a nearby book to a random page to a poem by Rumi. A line about a Marvelous Garden that yielded apples and pears out of season caught my eye. That would work. And besides, it didn't really matter what I called the blog. I was only playing around. My days were too full as it was. I certainly didn't have time to put much energy into blogging.
If only some of YOU had been around to warn me about the addictive nature of the game I'd begun. I posted something short, and felt a rush of the old pleasure I always felt when I had something published. But this time I'd done it myself! I showed my husband and my kids and a couple of my friends. Lookie! My very own blog. I posted a few times, but still had no idea what I wanted my blog to be. If anything.
And then an amazing thing happened. Someone read it, and left a comment! Someone I had never met before, someone who lived on the other side of the country, and had no reason to care what I thought, or what poems moved me, or the wild stories I brought home from my waitressing job. But she did. It was Diana from Seeking Clarity, and I still have no idea how she happened upon my blog, but by her generosity in leaving a comment (and yes it is a generosity), she pulled me out of my solitary nightwalking and into a world of community.
Once it was a real blog, I realized the Marvelous Garden was not the right name. Had never been the right name. For one thing, who was I to call the scruffy and overrun garden that is my private world "mah-velous?" I wanted to reclaim my original title, but thought it was too late. I was already linked in various places. I couldn't just change my name, could I? Then one day I went to visit the LUCID MOMENT, and found it had become THE COFFEE SUTRAS. And really, it was no problem. I could leave my link the way it was, and it would still lead to Kurt's illuminating blog. Or if I was ambitious, I could change it, but I didn't have to.
A week later I took out the poem and read it again before I made the change. Did I really want to name my blog after a poem about death? Did I want to greet the world with the unspoken message "Simply wait--you're gonna die soon"? Was that the best I could do?
I read the poem again, and decided that there was nothing morbid or threatening or ugly about the death that Goethe was describing. It was, quite simply, the ultimate reality. As real as the trees and the hilltops and the birds that rested in the stillness of their branches. You can pretend it's not there and place way too much importance on things that don't matter at all. Or you can look fearlessly into Goethe's bright and beautiful night and make the most of every breath you take.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
CHRISTMAS DAY IN HYANNIS, MASSACHUSETTS
Sometime in the middle of the day, Ted and I slipped out of the house in a mad quest for butternut squash. Not a single store was open, so we seized the opportunity for a short walk in town. While our family and guests entertained themselves at home, we took in the unseasonably warm weather and the quiet streets. It was the first time I've ever walked down Main Street without encountering a single person.
The boats were still and silent inside their winter covers; ducks cavorted in the harbor; there was nothing to be bought or sold on the streets; and even the homeless who gather in the park and in front of the post office had been invited inside. It had to be Christmas.
Meanwhile, some fantastic stories have been told in the comment section of my poll on holiday memories. So please if you've got one to share, jump in. And if not, don't miss the great reading!
Friday, December 23, 2005
HOW YOU CHOOSE BOOKS and a holiday survey!
Remember last week's survey in which I blindfolded you, led you to a bookstore, spun you around three times, and set you loose? Then, notebook in hand, I slyly followed you through the aisles.
Despite what the doomsayers and curmudgeons in the publishing world say about the public's increasing hunger for the "real story," (i.e. non-fiction) a surprising number of you headed straight for the fiction section. One of you was even kind enough to say you were looking for my (as yet) unpublished novel. (Thank you, Quillhill.)
So okay, it's probably a skewed survey. Or should I say definitely a skewed survey.(The fact that your second choice was poetry proved that the readership here is a) atypical and b) particularly wonderful.
Not that there's anything less marvelous about the other categories. Like many of you, I've left my muddy footprints in every corner of the bookstore.
The official tally went like this:
Fiction: 63 points
(The always mysterious) Other: 36
Spiritual Inspiration: 20
How to: 14
But what's proving to be the best part of the surveys is the uniqueness of the comments, and the things I've learned in the process.
This week, for instance, I learned what I'm missing in life when Sharon Hurlbut described the wonders of Powell's. And Kathryn pointed out a great resource she'd heard about on NPR, the PaperbackSwap.
And I particularly loved Peter's description of his annual pilgrimage to the book store:
But whether you rode on fat bicycle tires to a book store with beach sand on the floor, or got lost in Powell's for days, or travelled with your fingers to Amazon, I thank you for sharing your trip.
This week's survey was inspired by a question our family discussed recently on a long car trip. When you think of your best holiday memory, what is the first thing you recall?
a) a gift
b) a spiritual experience
c) a person
d) a particular moment
Though I've tried to stay out of it in the past, this time I want to play, too. My best memory was d) a moment--and one that was so seemingly ordinary that I have no idea why it stands out from all the other moments in all the other holidays of my life. It was Christmas Eve about eight years ago and our house was full of family and friends, spread across several rooms. I was wearing a long silky skirt, my legs curled under me on the couch, a glass of wine in hand. There was a fire in the fireplace and lights in every window; the Chieftains were playing on the stereo. But the real live music was the laughter and talk that flowed around the room, and looped through the house. For just a moment, I stopped and absorbed it all--the warmth, the light, the sounds--and I knew that this was it. This was happiness.
Peace and goodwill to all!
Thursday, December 22, 2005
There's nothing like good company at holiday time. The kind that doesn't drink to much and get boorish, or bore you to tears by retelling the same story you've heard a million times while you stifle a yawn and watch the clock.
For me, the company this December has been very fine indeed. First my flash fiction, It, appeared in an issue of Smokelong Quarterly, edited by the divine Myfanwy Collins. Spending time with the folks at Smokelong has been an unusually pleasant experience. From Kathy Fish who edited my piece, to Randall Brown who interviewed me, I felt the personal care that goes into making Smokelong such a unique journal. I also loved the idea of the interview. Not only did it give me a chance to talk about my forthcoming novel for the first time, but I loved reading about my co-contributors.
I was even more thrilled when I realized my work was included with that of fine writers like Katrina Denza, Bev Jackson, Rusty Barnes, and Theresa Boyar. But I didn't limit my reading to the familiar names on the cover. These pieces are short. They won't demand much of your time, and there isn't one among them that won't reward you amply for your investment.
If that weren't enough to make my holidays glitter, today my poem "The Map" was included in Qarrtsiluni's meditation on the theme of "Finding Home." Once again, I was given the opportunity to work with two outstanding editors, poet Tom Montag and Lorianne DiSabato. Tom leaped in and fiddled with my poem "like it was one of his own," which proved highly instructive to me, and Lorianne added her own thoughtful insights.
The diversity of vision and quality of expression at Qarrtsiluni continues to startle and delight. It is a pleasure to share in this growing experiment.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Originally uploaded by aliasgrace.
A couple of weeks ago, I worked a fiftieth anniversary party. The couple being feted had seven children, twenty-something grandchildren, and a growing brood of great grandchildren. Before everyone grew up and scattered, they'd lived on a picturesque island in New England. Idyllic photographs of family members clamming together or boating or smiling across various lobster laden tables were set up everywhere.
The toasts, one by each of the seven children, were full of charming anecdotes and unadulterated admiration. While the chowder grew cold in the kitchen, my friend Jaime and I passed Kleenex instead of soup.
And when they had finally exhausted their words of praise, they turned the ballroom to bedlam with a wholesome scavenger hunt, each clue being linked to a family memory. No one declined to participate. (By then, the chef was fuming that the prime rib would be ruined if these people didn't stop acting like the Waltons and EAT.)
But the family was on island time. They ate leisurely, frequently getting up to exchange laughter and stories with aunts or cousins at other tables. No one drank too much, or argued, or went off to a corner to brood silently. Even the in-laws waxed ecstatic.
When, five hours into the party, two teenaged grandsons set themselves up as D.J.s and everyone got up to dance, Jaime and I began to fear we were there for the night.
In the back, we joked that there was something wrong with these people. We both have families we adore, but in our experience, families, all families are--well, a little crazy. Ancient grievances and complex pathologies grow in the family hothouse as abundantly as love and concern.
"Got to be some serious skeletons in their closet," I said, consulting the clock in dismay.
"You know what? I don't think so," Jaime said. We were sitting on dishracks in the back and sipped yet another cup of stale coffee.
And in the end, I had to agree. This family was the real thing--the Norman Rockwell vision of family that tortures the rest of us when our less than picture perfect tribes gathers around the holiday table.
We then filled the kitchen with a few of our own funny and tragic family stories as we waited for the party to finally sputter to an end.
I was thinking about my talk with Jaime when I read Jordan Rosenfeld's blog the other day. She wrote about how she and her writing group had been discussing "family mottos". It was a post laced with pain, humor, honesty and transcendence, which just might be the four steps to surviving life in a family.
The motto of my own family instantly sprang into my head. I was an only child and my parents and I recited our motto every night, every morning, every time we left the house: "I love you best, be careful."
It was love that came with a warning. Love that was times volatile (my father) and overprotective (my mother). Love with jagged edges and unpredictable turns. Sometimes I remember being hugged so tightly I couldn't breathe.
But who can complain about being too much loved? Certainly not me. My parents were not flawless, but to me, they were better than perfect. I loved and continue to love them for their woundedness, for the quarrels that ended in renewal, and even for the ones that couldn't be repaired in this lifetime.
And of course, a second meaning to our family motto is a more universal one: love as intense as this is treacherous. Love and you will suffer loss.
Though I hoped to eliminate both the volatility and the overprotectiveness from my relationship with my own children, they have grown to accuse me of both. I never had any illusions about eliminating the eventual loss.
We never recited the daily admonition that belonged to my original family of three, but I have passed the family motto along as if it was a coat of arms.
I love you best--be careful.
Meanwhile, if anyone hasn't yet participated in my survey on your preferred reading tastes, the polls are still open. Please scroll down!
Thursday, December 15, 2005
WHY YOU BLOG, and a new question
This painting by a third grader pretty much sums up the joy of blogging. Like the child with a paintbrush, we blog primarily
because self-expression is a satisfying and necessary human activity. Or as Debra said, we blog "because it's fun."
More fun than shopping or watching TV or cleaning the house or any number of other things we might otherwise be doing.
And sometimes, dangerously more fun than communicating with the person in the room with us--or (gasp!) reading a book.
As the painting also depicts, we blog to soar over the planet and pick up a few friends along the way. For many of us, the joy of feedback and blog relationships are benefits we didn't expect, but soon learn to relish.
One amazing thing that was repeated several times in your comments was that your reasons for blogging have evolved over time. Like marriage or choosing a profession, you jump onto the blogging train by instinct, then learn your true reason for being there as you zip through the countryside.
Like the question of what makes you return to a blog, you rarely pursue this fledgling art for only one reason. The rewards, like the demands, are complex.
I scored with a rating system similar to the one I used last week, assigning a descending value to each of your choices in the order in which you named them. The results were as follows:
You blog clearly and primarily for creative expression, which got a score of 85.
Next came feedback and friendship in the blogosphere: 67
Your own unique and highly interesting reasons took third place: 26F
And running close behind it, you use your blog as a platform for a cause you care about, be it politics or poetry: 25 (I suspect that this finding applies more to readers of this blog than to the blogosphere at large.)
Few of you blog primarily to advance a career, sell a product or promote yourself in any way. However, you recognize that it could be a powerful tool at some point.
All of the comments were thoughtful and worth reading, including some that ventured into the "other" category. Kerstin says that for her blogging is cheap therapy, and provides a link to a more expansive answer. And dilys blogs as a means of more efficient communication.
As anyone who's ever visited her site or been the recipient of one of her supportive links can attest, Myfanwy blogs to support the work of others. Her generosity to fellow writers is truly inspiring. And finally, Amy King's response was only one that reflected the tangled possibilities the medium offers:
I blog, therefore I am.
No, I blog for community.
Also, I blog to hear myself (my ego-driven community) work out ideas and to take advantage of this here new-fangled technology and meet new people, read what makes them go, what makes them stop, and find out what art and words are turning them on."
Now for this week's question. You've entered the wonderful world of a bookstore. What are you looking for:
c) non-fiction that helps me understand a changing world
d) spiritual inspiration
e) practical how-to stuff
I was going to add a g) for non-readers, but all bloggers are readers, right?
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
ANOTHER KIND OF CHRISTMAS
Originally uploaded by aliasgrace.
Last year a family member decided to do Christmas in a different way. Instead of gathering with family for a lavish feast and the traditional exchange of gifts, she delivered her packages early. Then on Christmas day, she and her husband served a meal to homeless veterans in her community. She says it was the best Christmas she ever had.
She plans to do it again. But this year, she took it a step further. She announced that she would neither give nor accept gifts for Christmas. Anyone inclined to wrap a present with her name on it could deliver it to the Salvation Army for someone who truly needed it. I wish you could have seen her smile when she said it. There was no smugness there, not an ounce of self-righteousness, just that emotion that is supposed to define the season: Joy.
Not only was her family undaunted by her decision, they, too, were joyful. If she didn't have to "Do Christmas" with all that implied, then maybe they didn't either. Halleluljah!
What's more, she intended to spend the season of Advent as a time for slowing down, not gearing up in frantic and frequently purposeless activity.
She would take long walks with her spouse. She would pray and meditate. She would think about what we long for when we sing "O Come Emmanuel." She would spend time actively longing. And not for anything that is sold in the mall.
Oh, of course, the family would get together--though it didn't have to be on the 25th, since she had marked that day for service. But they could throw all the enticing flyers from the mall away. This Christmas the family had given each other the gift of freedom.
But what about the children? you may ask. And yes, children want and deserve the magic of the holidays. A glittering tree in the window, a prettily wrapped box beneath it to shake and jiggle in anticipation. They need to go to bed on the 24th looking out at the familiar stars, and wondering what may appear in the sky to change their lives before morning.
But even children are waking up nauseated with the gooey excesses of commercial Christmas. Many receive so many junky and unimaginative toys (as seen on TV!) that they tire of the task of opening them before they're finished.
So yes to magic. But no to commercial importunings.Along with that coveted doll or bike or video game, what's wrong with gifting a child with the joy of service, the chance to light a candle and ponder the meaning of life in its flickery flame?
Sure, decorate your house as creatively or as gaudily as you want. But remember, you don't have to. Max out your credit cards, and attend as many holiday bashes as you can fit into your calendar. Send greeting cards to everyone you've ever known. Get into an uproar about which stores insist their clerks say "Merry Christmas," and which don't. If you want to. But just remember, you don't have to do any of it. Any time you want, you can just stop.
The only real requirements of the season are:
1. Take some time to pay attention.
And 2. Look on everyone you meet, for a whole month if you can manage it, or even for just one day, with sincere goodwill.
Pretty simple, huh?
Responses to the latest blog survey--and a a new question tomorrow!
Last chance for anyone still hoping to be heard!
Monday, December 12, 2005
"I'LL THINK ABOUT THAT TOMORROW"
Yeah, it was a great motto for Scarlett O'Hara, who smashed hearts like pomegranates, and thought about the consequences later. Not so good when it comes to issues of health.
See I had this mole. Noticed it probably a year and a half ago. Didn't think I'd ever seen it before, and it was kind of big, too. Damn, I thought, ever ready for action, I better do something about that--tomorrow. As for today, well, there's tea to be drunk and poems to be read, and besides, the phone was ringing. There was a major scandal in the workplace that had to be discussed right now.
Then last May, a wonderful nurse practitioner named Ellen McCafferty, noticed the mole during an exam. "Have you had that all your life?" she asked.
"I don't think so," I said, trying to hide the thing under my johnny.
"Well, I think it needs to be checked out. It has irregular borders. And it's larger than the head of an eraser."
She left the room and appeared with a list of local dermatologists. "It's hard to get an appointment," she said, "but I want you seen this month, not three months from now. If no one will take you, call me, and I'll make sure you get seen."
Serious words. And I was certainly going to do something about that right away. Tomorrow.
But the thing is I had novels to write and more tea to drink, and it was the busy season at work. Life was good and happy and the last thing I really wanted to think about was some gigantic mole that just might be something serious.
A couple of weeks later, this amazing nurse practitioner actually called me. "Have you got an appointment yet?"
"Um, er, well, not yet, but as soon as we hang up...I promise."
"Well, you better, because seriously, I'm worried about that mole."
So I walked around the house in a spit of nervous anxiety. Then I decided I better wait till the following day when I had calmed down a bit.
FOUR MONTHS LATER, I caught sight of that mole, and I swear the thing was bigger than a bread box. So okay, tomorrow was here. I looked frantically for that list of dermatologists. At the bottom of a stack of other "extremely important papers," I found it.
optimistically, I dialed the first number on the list and explained my plight, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. But before I get halfway through my story, the secretary interrupted: Sorry, we're not taking new patients.
Out of the next six, the best I was offered was an appointment in six months--and this with a doctor who didn't take my insurance.
"But my doctor says this is important. She says I need to be seen now," I whine. (not mentioning that now was actually five months ago.
By then, I was panicked. Didn't anyone understand--this was urgent! I wanted to yell: I'm dying here and no one in this callous medical world gives a damn! But when I hung up the phone, I saw the truth in the mirror: This is all your fault, I said to the dope who looked back at me.
Finally, the office of doctor #8 offered me an appointment in two weeks. Of course, I immediately wondered what was wrong with them. Why weren't they overrun with patients like the rest of the derm offices? But now that I had finally swung (or rather limped) into action, I figured I better go with it. If I didn't follow through now, I might forget about it for another year or two.
On the fateful day of the appointment, I got lost a couple of times trying to find the office, and, arrived in a state of great discombobulation, hypochondria, and fear, wanting nothing but a Tangueray martini.
But to my delight, the office was as confused and behind as I am. Seems there was a new computer program and all the referrals had been lost, and everyone, patients, nurses, and secretary, was having a great technology bashing fest. I immediately felt right at home.
And the doctor, who was Argentinian had a bedside manner that would put most of his American colleagues to shame. He immediately put me at ease, telling me that he was almost sure my mole was "nothing, absolutely nothing, but that it should come off anyway--just to be sure." (a lie, as he later admitted, but one that helped me sleep nights for the next few weeks)
On the day of my surgery, he distracted me by telling me stories about his days as a doctor in Argentina, how he had delivered babies in the cornfields, and how once he'd had to go out and pronounce a man dead who had fallen under a bus. He told me how he met his wife, and about their two children. Then he smiled and patted my hand, and promised me the mole was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
And I was okay. For a hypochondriac with an out of control imagination, I really didn't think about it much. Until today. When I was due to get the stitches out and to hear the results of the biopsy.
I sat alone in the office in my little paper johnny and made promises to God just like I used to do when I was a kid. If only I would live, I would be a much better person. And I wouldn't waste a golden minute in anger or gossip, or sitting around drinking tea. I would live! Live you hear me!
The door swung open and the Argentinian doctor was smiling. "Good news," he said. "You had a melanoma, but I got all of it. You are fine." (Spoken by a true optimist.)
He then asked me if I would make him a character in one of my stories. "Nothing racy, though; my wife is very jealous." He winked, not knowing how soon he would be immortalized.
And we exchanged sincere holiday greetings. He was on the way out the door when he turned around, "Oh, one more thing? That nurse practitioner who told you to come here? Maybe you ought to send her a Christmas card or something.
I was going to address it tomorrow, but on second thought, maybe I better do it right now.
Friday, December 09, 2005
YELLOW HOUSE: A short true story
Originally uploaded by JJSchad.
The priest refused to marry them, saying that at sixteen, they were too young. He could not sacralize a marriage that would never work. The wondrous swell of her belly beneath a white dress littered with tiny blue flowers could not sway him.
But it didn't matter. Another priest was found, thin rings slipped on, the words spoken. She said she would show that first priest a thing or two about making things last. What did he know anyway?
But wait: this is not about the teenage couple who moved into her grandmother's boxy yellow house, who fell asleep every night, holding hands like children who'd fallen asleep in the woods. Hansel and Gretel, maybe.
This is about the woman next door. The good woman who invited her to coffee and listened as she told told the story about the priest who refused to marry her. The priest who had tried to curse them with his words.
This is about the good woman next door who helped out when she could. Who brought casseroles when the baby was born and offered to watch him for an hour or two so the young wife could get some rest.
She was still helping when the fifth child was born, though reluctantly. The yellow house was overcrowded by then, and the couple, though only thirty, no longer seemed very young.
It was an imposition, really, always being asked to watch a baby, and she was busy, this neighbor. Still, she never said no. And the fifth one, in particular, she grew to love.
He had a serene temperament and the clearest eyes she'd ever seen. She set the playpen in the sunny window, and he played quietly there. Whenever she looked over to check on him, he smiled.
It was snowing on the morning when the husband next door called her, disrupting her sleep.
Her first thought: didn't he know she worked nights?
Her second thought: His voice, though utterly familiar, was a voice she'd never heard before.
Something had happened, he said. Something terrible. He had to go to the hospital with the baby. Would she come over and stay with his wife?
She looked out and saw the ambulance parked outside the yellow house, and dressed quickly, not even turning on the light.
She only hesitated once. She was standing in the kitchen, looking into the broom closet where she hung her blue parka. She reached out and touched the slippery skin of the jacket, memorized its color, took in the white fur trim around the hood.
It was probably only a few seconds that she stood there, but it was long enough that she would never lose the vision. Never forget how that jacket looked, or how she felt when she thought about what would happen when she put it on.
The ambulance was pulling away as she arrived at the house, but there were no lights flashing, no siren blaring.
"The baby's dead," the mother said flatly when the good neighbor entered her house. Then, while they waited for the husband to return, she railed at God, and at the priest who had cursed them. She hated them both, she said. She would never forgive them.
The good neighbor listened. Unbelieving, she walked in and looked at the empty crib, the half drunk bottle of milk. When she leaned close to the sheets and smelled his baby scent, she could remember holding him.
He was almost two by then, but they called it a crib death. Some less charitable neighbors would question what had "really happened" in the yellow house, what they had "gotten away with."
But the good neighbor always walked away from such conversations in horror.
Within months, everything had fallen apart. The husband fell into an affair with his wife's closest friend, and left the house. The wife took a job at a local donut shop, and began bringing men home at night.
The four remaining children, played alone in the street outside the yellow house; their laughter grew increasingly feverish. They were never dressed for the weather.
Things got worse on the quiet street. Cars pulled in and out at all hours of the night. People said the woman in the yellow house was dealing drugs.
Her parents took the oldest child to live with them. The other three went with their father and his new wife. The yellow paint peeled and no one mowed the grass.
Eventually, the young mother who had stopped being young long ago, moved to Florida. No one heard from her again, not her parents, not the children. It was said she was an addict.
But this is not her story. This is the story of the good neighbor. She grew old; she forgot things. But she never forgot to mourn the baby who had sat in her house in a playpen by the window.
Over and over, she would tell the story of the morning she got the call, how she saw the yellow house through a screen of snow when she looked out.
But mostly, she would remember opening the broom closet in the kitchen and looking at the blue parka with the fur trimmed hood, knowing that once she put it on, nothing would be the same
And then putting it on. Slowly. Deliberately.
Meanwhile, I'm still seeking answers to the question of why you blog. Please scroll down!
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
RESULTS FROM LAST WEEK'S SURVEY (and a new question!)
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.
Just got home from working a Christmas party for a very educated group of people. Unfortunately, in all their years of schooling, no one ever taught them the words "please" or "thank you." All they learned was "Get me..." No eye contact. At break time, Katie, a second grade teacher by day, who waitresses at night to pay her daughter's college tuition, brought it up: "What do you think? These people think they're better than us or something?"
We all shared in a laugh. Then I asked Katie if she would PLEASE pass the cranberry juice, after which I THANKED her profusely. And we laughed again. One thing I will definitely miss when I hang up the clunky shoes for good is my coworkers. Another is the stories I hear at breaktime. Talk about material for a dozen novels!
Anyway, no well-dressed people with curious gaps in their education could bring me down tonight. See, tonight I was going home to post the results of my survey! I know, I know. Most people wouldn't find that cause for major excitement, but as you've probably surmised, I don't get out much.
The question, for those of you who weren't around last week, was this: What makes you return to a blog? One thing I really loved about the responses was that few of you limited your answers to one factor. In a sense, developing a blog relationship was like falling in love. It's complicated, and so were your answers.
So since most of you listed more than one reason you returned to a blog, I gave your first choice 3 points, your second choice 2, and your third 1.
Tallied this way, the results were overwhelming, with the writing style of the blogger being the clear winner with 57 points.
Second was the content of the blog with 32 points.
Third the relationship developed between bloggers through mutual visits and comments with 29 points.
And apparently relatively unimportant, at least to readers of this blog, was pertinent links. It garnered only six points. That surprised me somewhat since I love blogs with lots of links--especially if they connect me to things I'm unlikely to find on my own.
One thing I learned from this survey was that I needed to expand the categories to include "all of the above," which Mike chose.
I also need to include "other." Moose introduced a very good "other" when he said that "common interests" was a huge factor for him. It's certainly true. A well written blog with fresh content about say aeronautic engineering would not be of interest to me no matter how much I liked the blogger.
And Sara named that elusive factor "love" as the thing that brought her back to a blog. I'd have to agree that a site full of heart and passion for the subject matter is likely to be one I will remember--and return to.
Today's question turns things around. This time let's look at your own motivation for blogging. Many of us spend two or three hours a week or more working on our blogs, reading comments, visiting other sites. From what I hear, psychiatrists are now even treating blog addiction. So what's the pay off? Why do you do it?
a) Personal creative expression
b) Communication and friendship with others in the blogosphere
c) As a platform for something I feel strongly about, whether it be poetry, religion, politics, environmentalism
d) In order to promote my career in the arts or some other field
Sunday, December 04, 2005
WHERE DO "CHARACTERS" COME FROM?
Originally uploaded by Aeioux.
Recently someone asked me a question about my writing that sent me into a tailspin. It was a simple, straightforward question really, but it set off the kind of thought process that causes me to walk around my house for an hour talking to myself. (I'd prefer to walk on the local beach of course, but the arm flailing and muttering that accompanies intense thinking for me might scare the seagulls--not to mention the unsuspecting humans who just came out to walk their dogs, or to feel the spray of salt against their faces.)
Anyway, the straightforward question, the very good, legitimate question involved how I knew what a certain character felt, what I tapped into to understand that character's emotional reaction to a devastating event.
I tried to think up something in my own life that was close to what my character had experienced; and though I could have given some vague, glib answer, it would have been false. I personally knew nothing about what my character had undergone.
But as a writer, I knew everything about it, because see, I was there. And because I know that character as well--no, better, than I know myself. The only thing I can't explain is how I came by that knowledge.
Though I hadn't even written about the event in question--a fatal car crash--directly, I knew the exact bend in the road where it occurred. I knew the sounds that accompanied it, and the shattering silence that waited in its aftermath. An emptiness that would linger on the road, and in the house, and in the pit of my character's stomach for days and weeks and years to come.
So my dumb answer to the question of how I know what she felt is not a cogent response, but another question: Where did this character come from in the first place; and how did she get into my brain?
For some writers, the answer is clearly that they find their characters around them. They write about themselves or their mothers, their faithless lovers, or the kid who tormented them in fifth grade. Other writers claim to create "composites" from life.
But mostly, when I write fiction, I don't invite friends or family inside the story. I prefer to build a house, to pave the streets of a metaphorical city, and then see who shows up, whether they speed on the highway or travel back roads at a leisurely pace, and what they have to say. Then, for an hour or a couple of years, depending on the length of the piece I'm working on, I give them the run of the place.
I let them infect my dreams, and hound me with their obsessions. I learn how they take their coffee, what music triggers depressing memories, and whether they can dance or not. I walk around my house with my head in my hands listening to their voices, and then I go to the computer and spill everything I've seen and heard.
Not to get too metaphysical and creepy about it, but it's not all that different from a possession or a haunting. Once one of these so-called characters enters my house, the only way for me to be free of them is to tell their story. Exactly as they want me to tell it.
Friday, December 02, 2005
THE BEST PEOPLE ON EARTH: Results from a groundbreaking waitress study
Originally uploaded by danny_bra.
I'm sure every profession has its secret knowledge. Doctors, for instance, probably learn how to spot a hypochondriac within three minutes of the first whiney hello. And elementary school teachers must assimilate the mysterious art of casting a spell on 20 active little maniacs that's potent enough make them sit in their chairs for the better part of the day. (As a mother, I've always been amazed by that one.)
Well, we waitresses have our spells and secret knowledge, too. When I worked a la carte, my livelihood depended on reading my customers and finding out not only how they wanted their meat cooked, but how they liked their service. Did they want friendly and funny? Or did they prefer efficient and invisible?.
When I got tired of the psycho chefs and the customers who were born disgruntled, I moved into the more physically demanding, but less mentally stressful work of a function server. I worked conventions for five years, and weddings for another five. During the conventions, we sometomes put in eighteen hours a day--from early morning breakfast to late night cocktail party. (I know it sounds illegal, but we were told that tipped employees weren't covered by the usual laws. And damn, those conventions paid good. We didn't question.)
I loved the work, and it left me free to collect unemployment--and WRITE--in the off-season. Function servers don't have to resort to the little jokes or the "right away, sir" attitude that frequently dissolves into "What a jerk!" once they hits the kitchen. Our grats are included in the price so we're free to be as rude or apathetic as service people everywhere. But most of us remain personable and helpful anyway. Mostly, because we just want to to; we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't enjoy--well, serving.
We love it when someone tells it that it's their fiftieth anniversary or their first date, and that in some small way, we helped to make it memorable. (I'm thinking about the time I spilled a glass of Merlot on a girl's white dress, then got so flustered, I sloshed the entire contents of my cocktail tray across their table when I tried to "help". A few months later, the couple came in again, and specifically requested my table. The occasion of my waitressing nightmare had been their first date, and it had been stiff and unpromising--until a spilled glass of red wine broke the ice. I wouldn't recommend it as a way to increase tips, but in this instance, I made two new friends--and collected a nice grat.
But just because function don't work for tips, or possess encyclopoedic knowledge of wines, or the ability to rattle off a list of specials with French names without missing a beat, that doesn't mean we don't have our secret knowledge. In fact, function servers are privy to one of the most closely guarded secrets of the human race: We actually know who the best people on earth are.
Now I see you looking at me skeptically. Excuse me? What about all the psychiatrists who spend their days immersed up to their crossed eyeballs in the human condition? Then there are all those and social scientists, and philosophers who spend sixteen years in college earning doctoral degrees. I think they know a little more about human nature than a lowly old waitress. Well, sorry; you're wrong. While those guys are studying the rest of the world, we're serving them soup--and studying them. And our methods for gathering data are a helluva lot more accurate.
For one thing, we don't see people when they're telling their life story as they wish it to sound. We see how they treat people they'll most likely never see again, people in service uniforms and nametags. We know how they react when things aren't going their way, when someone else gets served coffee first, or we don't have diet Coke.
And I can tell you every group of people has a unique character. As someone who's worked conferences for all kind of professions, women's groups, addiction groups, religious denominations of all stripes, politicians and policemen, I'm here to say that the results of the study on the world's most exemplary human beings is in. The vote among my comrades in bow ties in unanimous: The best people on earth are firefighters.
Now if you're under 18, right about now you're probably saying, Duh. Any job that requires going into burning buildings to save other people's lives is bound to attract some pretty decent people. But like I say, we deal with lots of people from the so-called caring professions. We've served religious groups that tried to convert us over lunch, and then snapped at us when the soup wasn't quite hot enough at dinner. We waited on therapeutic groups who attended workshops on the importance of empathy, and then shooed us away with a dismissive wave of the hand when we asked if they'd like coffee.
The answer to the question of why firefighters as a group are just, well, nicer,than other people is one I don't know. I'll leave that one to the psychiatrists and social scientists. What I'm here to say is that if firefighting ever becomes a religion, I'm joining up immediately. Without the benefit of a weekly homily or a book of wisdom to guide them, these people treat each other like brothers and sisters. They might not be the most well paid group, but they're more charitable and just plain kind than any group I ever served, and they show more class than the those from the loftiest professions.
Their secret? They actually see the people standing in front of them. They'll call you by name, notice that you look tired, or that you've been there all day; they'll ask if you have kids at home; and if they come back the next year, they just might remember. What's more, at the end of their conference, they're the group most likely to pass the basket and take up a collection for the "hardworking waitstaff."
So what does this study mean to you and me? Maybe it means we should look at the people around us, whether it be the chamber maid or the bartender or the cab driver. They might look like nothing more than the uniform they wear or the service they're performing, but these are human beings with tired feet and weary backs and a sense of dignity just like yours. And even if you don't look at them, they're looking at you. Who knows? They might even be going home to write about it.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
EXCUSE ME, I'M TAKING A SURVEY?
more at eleven
Originally uploaded by macwagen.
Ever since I was a kid, I've loved conducting little polls. In the sixth grade, I'd take an official looking notebook to school every Friday and take my survey of the week. (Even back then, I wasn't quite normal.) But since my polls were of the one-question variety, the other kids humored me.
Sometimes I asked easy questions about favorite TV shows, the first movie that ever made you cry, or the best song you ever heard. On Monday mornings, Miss Iantoni, my indulgent sixth grade teacher, would put the results of my weekly poll on the board.
Other surveys, however, were less suitable for the blackboard. There was my make-out survey, for instance: had you or hadn't you? If yes, with how many people? If no, did you want to? Did you ever dream you were? (Even at that young age, I suspected the boys lied.) That was one of my only multiple question surveys, but since it was such an interesting topic to the pre-pubescent set, everyone participated.
Another time I asked my classmates who they liked best in the class. Amazingly enough, the most "popular" kids didn't turn out to be the most well-liked. A chubby girl with a huge nose and a killer sense of humor who never wore the right clothes won hands down. That result, which proved that popularity often had more to do with percieved power than with true affection, was a sixth grade epiphany for me. It still is.
This summer, decades from sixth grade in years, but apparently not in maturity, I took up my old hobby. This time, I took my polls on a waitress pad at the country club where I worked. I surveyed things like the dancing song most commonly played at weddings (Love Shack) the favorite flower chosen by brides as a centerpiece (blue hydrangeas) and the likelihood of the maid of honor crying if she gave a toast (90%).
But the question that proved to be the most interesting was this one: Would you rather work with a lovable fool or a competent jerk? (The lovable fools won by a two to one margin, with the answers revealing more about the respondant than the issue, i.e. lazy people were much more inclined to work with a jerk if it increased their opportunities for sloth, optimistic types believing that fools could be trained, etc.)
Well, I guess you can tell where this is leading. Now that I don't have classmates or even co-workers anymore, looks like I'm going to have to play my pollster games right here. My first weekly question concerns our common preoccupation: blogging.
What makes you most likely to return to a blog:
a) the writing style of the blogger
b) pertinent links and information
c) a "blog relationship" developed through mutual visits and comments
d) fresh and original content
Monday, November 28, 2005
TWO OF MY WRITING COMPANIONS
Several years ago, a co-worker of mine appointed herself the personal St. Francis to a horde of feral cats who lived in an alley in the town where we worked. Though she was frequently sullen and irascible with human beings, her kindness to her selected brood knew no limits.
Even if we didn't get out of work until one in the morning, or the weather dipped below zero, she faithfully collected scraps from the hotel, bags of chicken or prime rib, and headed to the grim alley way where her mangy cats lurked. It often involved costly taxi rides since she didn't own a car.
Though truthfully, I didn't like her much, I could never pass the woman by when I saw her standing alone outside the hotel, her ubiquitous smoke in one hand, a bag of garbage in the other, as she waited for her cab.
"If you call off your taxi, I'll give you a ride," I'd say reluctantly. When we got to the alley, I'd wait in the car as the cats gathered around her, caressing her with their hunger. While they ate, she would lean against a wall and watch them. All I could see was the tiny flame of her cigarette.
In the end, it was those tiny flames that got her. She was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Around the same time, the cats received a similarly bleak sentence. The local merchants had complained about their growing numbers, and had demanded the town exterminate them.
My co-worker, who could not save her own life, had found her mission. She would find homes for all her wild felines. She walked to town hall and petitioned for time. Then, begging rides to the offices of various veterinarians and animal protection groups, she hung posters and pleaded for help in her cause. She would not go away. It seemed like an impossible task to me--her frequent and increasingly begrudging chauffeur. There were more than forty cats, and they had been feral all their lives. The vets warned that they probably carried disease.
Several times she tried to cajole me into taking one of the kittens, but for once in my life, I was firm. I already had a house full of kids and three animals. Besides, my husband was adamantly against it.
Everytime I said no, she turned away from me angrily, lit a cigarette, and blew smoke and venom out my car window.
I responded in kind. I was wasting my time and gas driving her around on her crazy mission, and this was the thanks I got? And she knew I did not allow smoking in my car.
Ignoring me skillfully, she puffed her butt right down to the end, then tossed it out the window. By the time I dropped her off in her front of the dilapidated rooming house where she lived, we were both staring straight ahead in cold fury.
"You'll have to get yourself another--" I began, but never got a chance to finish before she was out of the car and walking toward her door. Watching her, I couldn't help noticing how thin and solitary she was or feeling ashamed of my anger.
In the end, after spending most of her savings to make sure that each animal got its shots and was spayed or neutered, the cats' advocate found homes for over thirty of them. Then, when she had nearly exhausted all her resources, a generous farmer from a nearby island agreed to take the last ten.
Why she went back to the alley the last time, I'm not sure. Maybe she missed the animals who had waited for her so avidly every day. It was clear that she was getting sicker, and she was alarmingly friendless and alone. In any case, she returned to find one stray who had been left behind.
The next day she called me. The landlady in the rooming house would not allow the animal inside. I had to take it; there was no one else.
"I can't have another cat," I repeated, already feeling annoyed. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"
"He's sitting under a bush outside my house when you're ready to pick him up," she said, and hung up on me.
I was incensed, and I wasn't taking that cat. How had I ever gotten involved with this woman? Why did I always get involved?
A few days later, I was heading to the grocery store with my fourteen-year-old daughter. I hadn't talked to my sick co-worker since she had hung up on me, and I was beginning to feel the familiar needles of guilt. Did she need food? Or more likely, the cigarettes that were both her killer and her last comfort?
Abruptly, I turned onto her street. My daughter remained in the car while I went upstairs. It took several minutes for the sick woman to answer the door, but finally she called out a raspy and impatient "come in then" from her bed. When I entered the room, I saw her impending death clearly for the first time. And what was worse, in her eyes was the dark acknowledgment that she saw it, too.
By the time I came down, my daughter was crouched beside the infamous bush, trying to coax the ugliest cat I'd ever seen to come out. He was emaciated, his fur was matted and dull. his feet huge; and in place of normal cat teeth, small fangs protruded.
"I'm not taking that cat?" I said weakly.
"I'm going to call him Jasper," my daughter said, glowing with new love. "He's so beautiful."
Beautiful? That thing? I thought. But later that night, my husband and I returned with a box and took the cat home.
Jasper. We've always had a cat or two around the house, but never have we had one more loving or gentle than the one we pulled out of the bush that night. And yes, he's beautiful, too.
Now he frequently keeps me company in the window when I write. I took this picture the other day as he nestled beside my Guatemalan Francis, but I didn't see the hand resting on top of his head until I put it up on my computer.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
First, let me say this. I grew up loving movies, being inspired and altered by the oversized transcendent images on the screen as much as anyone else. But I don't head off to the mall cinemas much anymore. It's expensive and when I do go, I usually leave the theatre disappointed. After reading a four star review, and eagerly taking my seat with a four buck tub of popcorn and a three dollar soda, I end up feeling like I should have waited for the video. Or not bothered at all.
Rarely do I see a movie that causes me to rave like I do over a book, to hound everyone I know about seeing it, or to reflect on it so much (and so loudly) that I drive everyone in my house crazy. But last night, Capote proved an exception. I left the theatre in stunned silence, but by the time I reached the car, I was talking wildly--and I haven't stopped since. It also drove me back to the work of an author who clearly bears rereading.
Not only is this movie powerfully acted (Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely becomes Truman Capote) and dramatically riveting, it is that rare thing: a deep and complex study of character, personal motivation, and morality. And it that weren't enough, it's also about a writer!
"It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front."
Thus, Truman Capote described his relationship with the killer who brutally murdered a Kansas farm family for forty dollars. It would surely have become a forgotten event, except in the small community that was scarred by it, and Perry Smith, another anonymous psychopath, if Capote hadn't written IN COLD BLOOD. The book lifted Perry Smith from the ignominious grave he inhabited after his execution, and made Capote a multi-millionaire, and the "most famous writer in America". The author's hunger for that adulation is the driving force behind both IN COLD BLOOD, and his own demise.
In the film, we see Capote artfully seducing everyone in his path with a combination of charisma and searing intelligence. From the intellectuals of the New York literary scene who gather around him at parties to the dogged FBI agent who wants justice for the victims to the imprisoned killer, Capote exercises his powerful charm to get what he wants. And what he wants is a story--at any cost.
From a writer's perspective, he was also a master of hype. Long before he'd written a word of IN COLD BLOOD, he was trumpeting it as "the work he was born to write." He promised that when it appeared it "would change the way books were written." And when it did come out, reviewers dutifully repeated those words, hailing it as "the first non-fiction novel."
But the film is not about Capote's clever hype. It's not even about the crime described in his exhaustive and masterful account. It's about betrayal--betrayal of a particularly literary nature. After gaining Smith's trust and mining his story, Capote not only abandoned him, he abruptly withdrew any help in fighting Smith's execution. Further stays, it seemed, could only delay publication of his book.
Could Capote have saved the killer's life with his money and his powerful friends? Perhaps, but probably not. Thus, the betrayal was one of the heart more than anything else. And it is in the writer's heart that it festers.
Capote claimed that after working on the book for four years, he merely wanted a resolution. But the film strongly infers that once he had his story, he hoped for a dramatic denouement to his journalistic "novel". A denouement that could only be provided by Perry Smith's hanging.
It wasn't until he got what he wished for that Capote realized that his bond with the dichotomously cold-blooded and sensitive killer ran far deeper than he ever knew. He would never publish another novel. And in the end, the writer's death from alcoholism and spiralling drug abuse was nearly as lonely as that of his most famous subject.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Originally uploaded by paperdollimages.
Visiting graves: I think it is a generational thing. My parents did it dutifully throughout my childhood. They bought or made seasonal baskets for Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, or various anniversaries, and made the rounds.
My mother's family rested in shady park-like grounds with respectable stones to tell the world they had a name, a season, and that they had been beloved. Interesting, isn't it? In life, we often judge a person by a complex set of standards, but the only thing that matters in death is that we were beloved.
My father's family was too poor for stone markers, but he knew exactly where to find them. He would walk purposefully to the precise barren spot where we left our whispered prayers and flowers. Recently I realized that the grassy spot he taught me to venerate was lost forever when he died. There is no longer anyone living who could find the way.
My father is buried in a military cemetery 30 to 60 minutes away depending on traffic. It is not a place I visit frequently, not the spot where I go to find the man who loved a great party or a well told story, and who wept secretly at sad movies.
But today, partly because I knew my mother wanted to go, and partly from some vestigial guilt, I visited to the grave. Instead of a seasonal basket, I brought a piece of beach glass I found this summer, and saved for the occasion, and a baby starfish. The sea glass was the color of my father's eyes.
After the long drive, we got out and walked to the marker, and once again, I felt the futility and of it--and the wonder. He was not there, after all! His name was there, the word beloved was there, but my father was not. We stood there for a few minutes contemplating the fact.
As we drove away, I looked at the others who had come to the cemetery today--groups of two and three, solitary visitors, one girl who'd brought a black lab. They were all doing the same thing we had done, stopping to look down at the earth.
Stopping to remember.
Friday, November 25, 2005
DIARY vs. BLOG
Originally uploaded by *Chris.
For many years of my life, beginning when I was about twelve, I kept a diary. Eventually, I accumulated a heavy suitcase full of secrets and discarded selves. It was an ugly hardback turquoise thing, and where it is now, I have no idea. Hopefully, it floated away on the great sea of youthful angst, where there are many such suitcases bobbing.
About ten years ago, I abruptly stopped. I didn't need to enshrine my secrets in lined notebooks anymore. Instead, I would transform them into stories. Stories that were not true. Stories that were truer than truth.
But lately, I've been kind of missing the comfort of pouring it all out--the good, the bad, and the ugly. The wonderful freedom of writing in a a locked room that no one else would ever enter--though inevitably someone always found their way in.
Now I have this blog. It, too, sometimes feels like an anonymous place, a place where strangers who have become friends sit down at the table and share a cup of tea, a cold glass of water, or even a taste of champagne, but where intimates rarely enter.
But there are no locks on the doors or windows in this room. Secrets must be kept. Feelings must be respected. Darkness must not creep in.
And yes, sometimes I miss my old diary. Or maybe it's just because I'm still immersed in John Fowles journals, and I feel the freedom and abandon the form allows him--though in the end, of course, privacy was an illusion. His journal, exposing both his sharp observation, his cruelest judgments and greatest follies, was a room which both casual observers like me, and those likely to be singed by his words might enter at will.
Guess I'll stick with the blog.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
MY NOT SO TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO WORK
Originally uploaded by wacky doodler.
So yeah, my waitress career is over and I'm a real writer. Almost. But at least for a couple more months, I've got to keep the grats flowing in order to pay the bills. This Sunday, after a delirious week of walking around my house being impressed with myself and insisting others do the same, I returned to the maelstrom. That's right: waitress world. At work, the only thing impressive about me is that I can deliver a martini straight up without spilling a single drop, and I'm known for keeping my tables clear.
My first problem with my not so triumphant return occurred when I tried to get dressed. Never had that uniform look so shabby. My black pants are pilled and frayed around the bottom, and I don't have a single tux shirt that's not stained with au jus or cocktail sauce. And those ugly ass shoes! Only after I photographed them did I realize how bad they looked. So while I might save them to hang over my head as some kind of Damacles Sword, I was definitely not putting them on my feet again.
Instead, I looked around my closet and found an old pair that looked practically new. Why had I walked around in those horrendous holey clunkers when I had another perfectly good pair of ugly black shoes sitting in the closet? I laced them up, and put on my bow tie.
The event of the day was a Greek Christening, which is really more like a wedding with music and great ethnic dancing, which always sends me running into the kitchen to practice my moves. While a couple of the servers complained about the music, I felt like it carried me through the day--even when my feet began to hurt in my cramped shoes. About an hour into the shift, I remembered why I had tossed the practically new pair into the corner of my closet. They didn't fit!
Meanwhile, some people looked at me kind of funny--me and my fancy book deal. Not my friends, of course, and not my favorite dishwashers, who don't know about book deals and couldn't care less, but some people.
My boss, for instance, the one who always winces when she looks at my hair, especially during frizzy season. "Curly hair is always such a problem, isn't it? Maybe you could cut it really short," she says, though it's obvious that, in her eyes the only solution for hair like mine is to shave it bald. But aside from such helpful suggestions, she's largely unaware that "the staff" has a life beyond the uniform.
Anyway, a couple of times I caught her looking me up and down. Fairly quickly, she seemed to decide that I was as unimpressive and frizzy headed as I'd always been.
"Do you think you could set up the place card table?" she said in place of hello.
Around the middle of the shift, however, she cracked. "So I heard you sold your book. Congratulations."
"Thank you," I said, smiling politely, despite the fact that at that point, my pinched feet were my only reality.
"So is it at Barnes and Noble?" she asked.
"Well, no. Actually, it takes some time to publish it. It won't be out for more than a year."
"Oh," she said, looking at me dubiously.
Then she went off to cut the cake. Immediately, the lady cook who loves to watch the cake being cut, was at her side. There's something about watching as the cake is sliced and distributed onto plates that brings out the lady cook's voluble side.
When I came in to get a tray of cake, she was talking about a letter she'd gotten this week from her son in Iraq. I could tell she must have read it over many times. She recited it almost verbatim.
The boss winced uncomfortably and concentrated doggedly on the cake. She seemed to be hoping that if she made no response, the cook would eventually be quiet.
No dice. When I came back for a second tray, the cook was still talking about her son. She related all his clothing sizes. Large shirt. Size 30 pants. 8 1/2 shoes. Medium boxers. Only wears white socks. Every week, she said, she takes all his clothes out of the drawers and rewashes them, then folds them and puts them back. She doesn't know why.
The boss rolled her eyes. Later, she said she didn't think she'd cut the cake again.
"Honestly, I don't know how you guys put up with it. That woman never stops talking."
"People like her have been the best part of the job for me," I said.
But the boss was already walking away. "Do you think you could get a spray bottle and wipe down that counter?"
"Yup. Right away."
Monday, November 21, 2005
CHILDREN ABANDONED FOR LOVE
Two separate pieces of art which I've ingested over the weekend have converged in my brain: Hirokazu Koreeda's 2004 film, Nobody Knows, (available on DVD) and John Fowles Journals, Volume 1. In both, there is a common and deeply disturbing theme. Told from different perspectives, both deal with a parent who chooses to abandon a child or children for love. I'm not talking about the rather common experience in which the child is left with the other parent, visitation is arranged, the child's physical and psychic welfare addressed, etc. No, both of these works deal with a more utter abandonment. Me first. You, not at all.
Oh God, I sound harsh. Judgmental. And amazingly, even the film, which is based on a true story about a case of tragic and criminal child neglect, somehow skirts judgment. The mother who leaves her twelve year old son to care for his three younger siblings, seems so childlike herself that the viewer is denied the satisfaction of pure blame.
The events would be impossible, but for these things: the children have never been enrolled in school, and have been trained to stay quiet since the landlord is only aware that there is one child in the cramped apartment. Thus, the oldest boy is the only one allowed outside.
Filmed over the course of a year, the film is mesmerizing in its dailiness, its accretion of small details. As the year progresses, we watch the children grow and the situation deteriorate incrementally as it does in life. By the end of the film, I felt I had lived the year in that claustrophobic and increasingly foul smelling, impoverished apartment with them.
Yuuya Yagira, pictured above, plays the oldest boy, Akira, in a role that earned him a well-deserved award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. Accustomed to responsibilities far beyond his years, and with an first child's sense of competence, he initially does his best to fulfill his mother's orders, to pay the bills, keep the children fed, the chores and home school lessons done. But eventually, the boy in him emerges, both triumphantly and tragically. He spends the last of the money on video games, recklessly allows the children out of the house, joins a baseball team, leaving the younger children unattended for hours.
The water and lights are turned off in the apartment; the children frequently go hungry; and eventually tragedy ensues. The ending refuses us the satisfaction of resolution. There are no words of summary scrolled across the screen to tell us what became of the family on whom this story is modelled. There is only the vision of Akira walking through the street with his younger brother, wounded and strangely resilient.
In John Fowles' journal, the story of child abandonment is told from a different perspective. This time it's the lover who has seduced the parent away from her husband and two year old child who speaks. Fowles meets Elizabeth Christy on the Greek island of Spetsai where both he and her husband are engaged as teachers at a Jesuit school. While he conveys the transcendent passion of their love well, there's no masking the writer's selfishness. He resists the affair initially, not out of concern for her husband (who is supposedly a friend) or her daughter, Anna, but because of the scandal it might cause him.
Later, when a break it made, Fowles makes it clear that he will not accept Elizabeth if it means taking her child as well. He deliberately refers to Anna, as "it," and callously describes her physical deterioration after her mother leaves. When her father is unable or unwilling to care for her, Anna is placed in a convent. Though this is not a criminal case, like the one portrayed in the Koreeda film, it is at times nearly as chilling. In the case of Akira and his siblings, at least they had the emotional comfort of one another.
And yet, this is not a short story which might leave the reader in easy judgment against these self-absorbed lovers. It is a journal that spans the course of sixteen years. Though he does not say it, by the end of the journal I have the sense that both he and Elizabeth suffered more private pain and lingering guilt for their choice than any outward punishment or judgment might have inflicted.
And that, I suppose, is the trouble with judgment. We never know the heart, the motivation or consequent suffering of those we condemn. If we did, I suspect we would lower our heads and withhold our words.
In Blog News, the English site, troubled diva, which accepts nominations for the blog post of the week, has chosen my November 7th post, The Art of Seduction, as this week's winner. Many thanks to Sarsparilla who nominated me, and also to the judges. Not only have you lured new readers to the Garden, you've led me to some great writing.
Friday, November 18, 2005
Gabe holding the original Bubba. Josh with Dakota.
In our family, as much as we'd like to simply choose a name we like or a popular name for a child, we just can't seem to do it. All of my children have been forced to be reminded of ancestry and ethnicity and the dreams of the past every time they sign their name. The only one who escaped it was Gabe, who was named after a character in a Thomas Hardy novel.
Even pets aren't allowed to keep their names to themselves. Our wonderful collie/lab, Sadie Jenkins, went on to become a character in many of my short stories. I loved that character so much that sometimes I couldn't make myself at home in a story until I invited her in. She didn't have to do much. Just take a seat, have herself a cup of tea, maybe cuss someone out, and leave. But somehow, once she made her appearance, the story just wrote itself.
Our present lab/shepherd, Jade has never had a character named after her, but I did once attempt to write a potboiler under her name. Fortunately, Jade's much thicker skinned than the average writer. When the agent rejections arrived in the mailbox with her name on them, Jade was easily comforted by a bowl of kibble and a walk on the beach. Star, our bratty Jack Russell, also had a literary background; she was named for a character in a story my daughter wrote in second grade.
But the pet we had longest was a nervous yellow tiger cat who was originally named Mercury. Very quickly, the name was shortened to Merc. And when his irascible moods began to rule the house, we decided he also needed a royal title. Thus he became not just Merc, but Bubba Merc.
Gabe and Bubba II
Anyway, I'm pleased to see that Gabe is carrying on the tradition. In a previous post I mentioned that he and his girlfriend, Nicola were in something of a tussle over what to name their puppy. Various names were weighed and discussed. But in the end, Gabe decided that this was no ordinary pup. This was a dog with a commanding aura about him. I know what you're thinking--it's a dog, not the next emperor. But seriously, look into this canine's eyes. Clearly we are in the presence of Bubba II.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
SEDUCTION, Part 2
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.
Remember Lina from the gym? The one who won herself a wide coterie of friends by starting snappy and outrageous conversations with strangers, then telling them they look like a certain movie star?
Well, the other day she came in with big news. After 26 years of happy solitude, she had a date this coming Saturday night.
I responded excitedly, eager for details, but Lena was coy.
"Really, he's not much to look at," she said. Then leaning intimately close, she added, "Please don't tell the others, but he's a frightfully boring man."
"Then why are you going?"
Lena laughed, then rechecked her lipstick by peering into a pearly compact.
"The poor man is mad about me," she said, clicking the compact shut. "I was afraid he'd be shattered if I said no. And besides, he's taking me to an elegant restaurant where I intend to order oysters and a good bottle of wine."
She sashayed off. Seventy-five, a former stroke victim, but clearly in full possession of her allure.
I could hardly wait to see her on Monday morning. She showed up wearing her usual blue bathrobe over her gym clothes, and her thick white headband.
When I asked how the date had gone, she clutched her heart. "The oysters were superb."
"And the man--your date?" I asked before she went into another rapture about the wine.
"Oh, the poor man--really has no idea of how to carry on an a conversation. And would you believe that at least three times during dinner, he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose."
A handkerchief! I remembered my mother ironing the perfect white squares for my father when I was small. It's funny how items that were once considered a wardrobe necessity suddenly become anachronisms.
"Really, that's not so bad," I said, suddenly defensive of Lina's date with his sodden handkerchief and poor conversational skills. "All the men of your generation used them, didn't they?"
But Lina was unforgiving. "That doesn't make it any less disgusting, does it? Blowing your nose and then stuffing the snot in your pocket? It's positively revolting!"
Hmmm...I'd never quite thought of it that way. I guess it is kind of...well, revolting.
"So you're not going to see him again?" I asked, feeling disappointed on behalf of her tongue-tied suitor.
But Lina just wrapped the belt tighter around her bathrobe, accentuating her former waist.
"Oh, I don't know. There's this play I've been dying to see. If he gets tickets..."
She kissed my cheek and shambled away mysteriously--but not, of course, before telling me how beautiful I looked in my Baxter's Clam Shack t-shirt and my old black yoga pants.
"Absolutely gorgeous. Just like that actress--what's her name?"
Monday, November 14, 2005
HOLY COW! WAITRESS GETS A BOOK DEAL!
I bought those shoes a couple years ago on sale for $14.99. A deal! I called a few of my waitress friends who came out and bought two or three pairs. But not me. See, I didn't plan to wear those ugly black clunkers much longer. Back at home, I was writing my little heart out (mostly in secret, lest people think I'm crazier than they already do). But also in secret, I believed something great was going to happen to me. Something miraculous. I was going to find an agent who had faith in me; and somewhere, somehow I was going to get a book deal.
This summer, when the soles sprung their first official hole and rain or every gooey gross substance on the kitchen floor oozed through and saturated my socks, I refused to buy another pair. Nor did I replace my yellowing tuxedo shirts. This, you see, was going to be my last season as a waitress. Those who had heard I found an agent, asked almost daily if I'd sold the book.
"We're revising," I said. "Maybe we'll go out with it in the fall."
People gave me the kind of looks reserved for escapees from the asylum. "Better get a new pair of shoes, hon," they said as they walked away.
Meanwhile, the holes in my shoes got bigger and the soles got thinner. But I was not buying another pair. Well, at least not till next spring. But worse than the problem with the shoes, my backaches required more ibupfrofen to quiet them, and my feet ached so much that sometimes I still felt them in the morning. Everything was telling me that the work I did was too physical for my ectomorph body, and that I'd been doing it for far too long. And yet the only Plan B I had was a miracle.
Then last Thursday around 11:30 a.m. the phone rang as I was wandering around the house with a coffee cup in my hand thinking about my work in progress. On the other end of the line, the most amazing literary agent in the known universe, Alice Tasman of JVNLA (Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency) greeted me cheerily.
"I have some very exciting news for you," she said. "Dutton has made an offer on your novel."
While she gave me the details of the offer, my eyes drifted toward my waitressing shoes which were sitting in a square of light in the middle of the floor.
"You mean I can hang up my waitress shoes?" I said.
"You can burn those babies," she replied.
What happened next and for the rest of the day can only be described as the five stages of happiness. In the countless times I imagined getting this call, this was not how I thought I would feel.
Stage 1. Weeping and shaking. Tears of joy? I'm not sure. They felt more like tears of shock or of something shattering inside me. When I called my husband to tell him the news, I was crying so hard that he was certain someone had died. "What!" he finally screamed on the other end of the line, giving me the kind of response I thought I would have.
Stage 2. Numbness. I proceeded to call everyone I know, everyone who believed in me, or didn't believe in me, and tell them, it happened. The words, the call I was waiting for since I was eight years old and first dreamed fo being a writer had been spoken. And yet, as I heard the happy responses of friends and family, I felt surreal. Who got a book deal? Me? It couldn't be true.
Stage 3. Drunkenness. Remember that good champagne I said I was drinking the other night? Well, it wasn't for nothing. It was then followed by a celebratory dinner and a bottle of pinot noir.
Stage 4. Crashing. When I came home from dinner, I went up to my room and fell into an exhausted, intoxicated sleep with my boots on, the pointed toes directed toward the ceiling like the wicked witch of the west. For a full hour, I slept the sleep of the dead.
Stage 5: Bliss. When I woke up, I found myself in the middle of the most beautiful room in the world. Who cares if the walls were still a pukey green and I had been planning to get new curtains for about three years now? It was my room. My life. And it was an amazing place. As I wandered around the house at midnight, I opened random windows and shouted out them. I did a victory lap around the lonely streets of my neighborhood. At 1:30 my cousin Ali called and the two of us laughed giddily the way we did as adolescents when a cute boy from school smiled in our direction. I noticed that all my animals, who are usually asleep at that hour, were up and trailing me around the house, wondering what was going on. The two dogs had dragged their toys out, obviously sensing the aura of celebration that I exuded. Whatever game I was playing, they wanted to play too.
I know that this kind of happiness cannot last,and probably shouldn't, because it's pretty much a full time job. "You gonna do the laundry, Mom. I need some jeans," my son asked a day or two into my bliss. To which, I answered, "Sorry, I'm too busy being happy. Maybe next week."
I also know there's lots of hard work ahead. But this has been my week for singing. For doing little dances in the middle of the grocery store. For my first sip of good champagne.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
THE QUOTABLE JOHN FOWLES
A fascinating excerpt from John Fowles journal in today's Guardian reveals a lot about the writer. At the height of his fame, he was mired in personal misery, literary envy, and pessimism. Documenting the years between the release of The Magus, through the writing and publication of The French Lieutenant's Woman, the journals expose a man who was neither happy in solitude nor in company, and who found the very success he craved a bitter reward. The writer who has so much empathy for his characters reserves little for his wife, himself or for anyone else who populates his world. And yet his rapturous descriptions of nature, and his stinging and often prophetic predictions about the future remain stunning.
One can only hope that in the intervening years between this diary from the sixties and his death last week, he achieved a greater peace.
A few Quotes:
On his wife's jealousy when he gets a large advance: "Love is a pact of inadequacies."
On an afternoon in his beloved fields: "It is a poem, a book of hours, a symposium of all the springs that ever were or ever will be."
On reviews: "In a way it seems healthier in a sick culture to be rejected than approved."
On beginning The French Lieutenant's Woman: "It was really just one visual idea: a woman standing at the end of the cobb and staring mysteriously into the sea."
On a literary cocktail party: "It was...a nest or swarm of beings, self-adulatory, warming to one another, and yet fanged in every external reality."
Friday, November 11, 2005
5 THINGS YOU CAN'T AFFORD ON A WAITRESS BUDGET
Originally uploaded by seanhfoto.
1. Expensive perfume. Sure, I might occasionally steal a furtive spritz when passing the cosmetic counter, but more often than not, it smells like bug spray or old ladies in church to me, and I end up heading to the nearest Ladies' to wash it off. Though I've often been seduced by the names of fragrances like "Happy" and "Glow", the clean smell of goats milk soap and baby lotion suits me fine.
2. Matching china. I've tried to accumulate a set; I really have. Not quality stuff, but just an every day set of twelve matching plates and bowls that won't embarrass me with their cracks and chips in front of guests. But inevitably, a couple of plates always get quickly broken and I'm forced to mix in a few mismatching pieces from the basement. At this point, I've done this so frequently that there aren't more than two or three items on the shelves with the same pattern. Oh well, now they call it shabby chic, right?
3. Travel--and this is one I can't dismiss as something I didn't want anyway. Though I don't like touristy vacations, I'm mad with lust for new places, rich cultures, the music of other languages. I want to set myself up with my notebook and beverage in a nice cafe and pretend I live there. But instead, I travel on a daily basis in the blogosphere, visiting countries and sharing a greater intimacy than I ever might have ever had walking through a foreign city in dark glasses.
4. The casual ability to dismiss or ignore any other human being for the uniform they wear or the job they do. Can't seem to miss the fatigue of the cashier at the grocery store at the end of her shift, or the brooding bored gaze of the guy pumping gas either. For far too long and in far too many ways, they have been me and they always will be.
5. Good champagne. Until yesterday, I never sipped anything from a fluted glass that cost more than ten bucks--which may explain why I never liked champagne. But last night, for the very first time ever, we splurged on good champagne. At first sip, I was a little disappointed. I thought maybe it was as delusive as those expensive perfumes that smell like Raid, or that maybe it was too late for me to develop a taste for it. But before a third of the glass was empty, I was crooning, Mmmm, this stuff is goood. Trouble is now that I've tried expensive champagne, I'm wondering what else I've missed on my waitress budget.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
JOHN JOSEPH HENEY
smells like "butch cassidy and the sundance kid"
Originally uploaded by a boot.
He was born when the world looked like this, one of many children--all boys, except one sister who died in childhood.
At a young age, he was sent to live with his grandmother.
His grandmother, whose name was Mary Ann, spoiled him, allowing him to graduate from high school when other children of immigrants were forced to take a job in the local factories at fourteen or fifteen.
He really only wanted to stay in school so he could play baseball.
His confirmation name was Aloysius--a choice urged on him by an aunt. For the rest of his life, he would consider it one of his darkest secrets.
He courted a girl named Nellie Byrnes from a neighboring town by letters. All of them were signed, "Yours Truly, John Heney," because "you never want to put anything personal in writing."
He was a fitness enthusiast, decades before such a term existed. He ran, walked, believed in daily deep breathing, and kept it up for a lifetime.
At ninety-six, he was still walking six miles a day.
He always stood up straight.
He knew a "son of a bitch" when he saw one, but never lost much time talking about them or thinking about them.
When their families no longer needed their help, John and Nellie married. They were twenty-eight.
A first child died of diptheria at age five. For the rest of his life, John would carry a faded thumbnail photograph in his wallet. "He was a fine boy, too,"
John would say tucking the picture back in its spot.
He lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, devastating personal loss, but he was grateful for everything that was good in his life: "a wife who woke up singing in the morning, the best kids on earth, a job I was happy to go to every day."
At ninety-nine, he said he would like to live the whole thing over again.
He gave each of his many grandchildren two dollars for every birthday and on Christmas.
No one was allowed to call him "Grandpa," because that was for old people.
When a granddaughter got her license, he wrote her a letter on bank stationery, cautioning her never to drive faster than 35 miles an hour. "They'll wait for you," he said.
At his funeral, his daughters said that they could still remember the feeling of being held on his lap when they were very small.
He was my grandfather and November 9th was his birthday.