Wednesday, November 30, 2005


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



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.

Stopping. >

Friday, November 25, 2005


October's wonders_Ivy
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


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



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


Lesson 4
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


waitressing shoes

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



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


good times
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


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.

Monday, November 07, 2005


Lesson 5
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.

The first time I met Lina I was simultaneously pedalling uphill on the stationary bicycle and trying to distract myself by reading a William Trevor story in the New Yorker. Since I hate the recumbent bike, only a riveting story can make me forget the sweaty annoyances of my futile journey. For that reason I don't take unknown writers along on my bike trips. I take Trevor, Munro, Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, someone who won't let me down when I've still got 5 imaginary miles to go.

Beside me, an elderly woman gave new meaning to the term "stationary", as she flipped noisily through the pages of Glamour, grunting and snorting despite her obvious lack of movement. Occasionally, she spun the pedals around for effect, so no one would think she hadn't dressed up in gym clothes and slung a towel over her shoulders in order to carry on a loud argument with the editors of Glamour.

Finally, when she could take no more of Glamour's outrages, she shook the magazine in my face. "Can you believe it? Nine out of ten stories in here are about sex. I haven't had sex in twenty-six years. Do you think I want to read this crap?"

"Maybe I can get you another magazine?" I said sheepishly.

"Like what--AARP? Is that what you're thinking? Please. I may be retired, but I'm not dead."

I glanced in the magazine rack, looking for something that wouldn't offend her. There were various fitness magazines, but judging from her lack of movement on the bike, I doubted they would be of interest. So what--Sports Illustrated? Ladies Home Journal? I suspected she'd throw them at me.

"Actually, I'll take that New Yorker, if you don't mind. I lived in the city for forty glorious years."

While I returned to my torturous ride with nothing to distract me, but the nine articles about sex in the magazine she'd given me in exchange, she flipped the pages of the New Yorker, verbally leafing through her memories of the city. At first, I was annoyed that she'd not only interrupted me; she'd somehow conned my magazine out of me. But soon I was so amused by her anecdotes that I almost forgot I was climbing the last hill on the dreaded bike.

Then, apruptly, she clambered awkwardly off the bike and returned the magazine. "I'm not really in the mood for this today," she sighed. "Maybe I'll go swimming instead." She was probably in her late seventies, but there was something about the tilt of her head, her crimson lipstick, and the thick headband she wore that reminded me of a glamour girl from an old fifties movie.

Her face erupted in a smile. "Has anyone ever told you you look like that actress who used to be married to Bruce Willis?"

"Demi Moore? Well, uh--" I looked around to see if anyone was behind me. "Not lately."

"Yes, that's the one. Can't act her way out of a paper bag, and she's quite a little slut, too--running off with that young boy--but she's still gorgeous."

I rearranged a sweaty tendril of hair. "Really, you think I--" I began.

But Lina was already calling to her friends in the gym for verifciation. "Tell me the truth. Doesn't she look exactly like Demi Moore. Though of course, she's nothing like her. This woman has class."

"Everyone looks like a movie star to you, Lina. I think you watch TV too much," one young man said, reaching for a barbell. But it was clear that he, too, was charmed by the woman in the head band.

"You're just jealous because I told your friend he looked like Johnny Depp."

She turned to me, her mascared eyes wide. "Wait till you meet his friend. Have you ever heard the word 'swoon?' Well, that's what you're going to do. Right here in this gym."

We all laughed. All Lina's movie star friends. And me, too, the new Demi Moore.

Before she left, she shook my hand. "Delighted to meet you," she said elegantly, as if she weren't wearing a bathrobe, and I wasn't shining with sweat. "Please tell me your name, but don't be offended if I forget it the next time I see you."

Which she did. But she didn't forget that I looked like that gorgeous little "slut who used to be married to Bruce Willis," or that I liked William Trevor, and wanted to be a writer myself.

How this stranger had gotten that little secret out of me, I'm not sure. Call it the art of seduction, an art that is clearly not limited to the young, or the bedroom, or to magazines in which nine out of ten articles are about sex.

Nano update: Haven't written a word in three days. Hopelessly behind, but still vowing a come from behind victory!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

BECAUSE IT'S SUNDAY: The Marvelous Garden

The Dervishes by Murat Oruc, originally uploaded by aleyna.

I've always been fascinated by Sufism for its emphasis on music, poetry and dancing (!) as a way to draw closer to the divine. In fact, it was a line from the Rumi Poem, "The Drunkards" that provided the name of my blog. Thus, I was particularly excited to find an excellent piece in today's Guardian on the Sufi poet and saint, Rumi. From it, I have drawn my Sunday inspiration:

Because God can best be reached through the gateway of the heart, Rumi believed you did not necessarily need ritual to get to him, and that the Divine is as accessible to Christians and Jews as to Muslims: "Love's creed is separate from all religions," he wrote. "The creed and denomination of lovers is God." All traditions are tolerated, because in the opinion of Rumi anyone is capable of expressing their love for God, and that transcends both religious associations and your place in the social order: "My religion," he wrote, "is to live through love."

Friday, November 04, 2005



The magnets above were favors from a recent wedding.

"There are extras; take some home," the bride said, generously handing a staff member a bag full of them.

First we politely took one of each word; and then, when there were still many left in the bag, I stuffed a handful in my pocket, overcome with greed for LIFE, LOVE, and LAUGHTER.

But as they frequently do, the glittery objects disappointed. I stuck them on my fridge and left them in my study; I gave them away to friends--and damn, I'm not a bit more alive or loving or funny than I was before I brought them home. Do you think I can get a refund?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

"One day, in a way unique to you, this will be your story."


Any frequent visitors to this site know that Joyce Carol Oates is probably my favorite author. Her most recent novel only confirms and deepens the fascination that began long ago when I first read the National Book Award winner, them. Many of the characters in Missing Mom, are so real and unique, you can practically see the pores in their skin, hear them breathing in the dark.

And as in any Oates novel, there's a lot of darkness for the characters to inhale. The "Mom" of the title is not missed because she moved away, or died peacefully in her bed. Not in Oates country. She is brutally murdered in her garage, victimized by both a meth head with empty eyes and her own trusting nature.

But the murder is only a vehicle to draw your attention to Oates' real subject: the nature of being a daughter.

The novel begins on Mother's day when the hip young protagonist endures dinner at her mother's suburban ranch house. Though Nikki Eaton is clearly "fond" of her mother, her condescension toward the middle-aged Gwen, who is compelled to invite lonely strays and backbiting aunts to every celebration, toward the claustrophobic house where she grew up, and her mother's carefully coordinated "outfits" and special recipes is obvious. Nikki is eager to get away--back to her own adventurous life as a journalist with a married lover.

The true shock that Nikki endures is not the sight of her mother's bloody body in the garage, it is the depth of their connection, the way that "Missing Mom" undermines everything she thinks she knows about herself and the world. And oddly, it is only after her mother is dead that Nikki gets beyond the mother she clung to and rebelled against and took for granted at various stages of her life, and sees her mother for who she is. A girl who overcame her own traumatic past. A young mother. A middle aged woman busily filling her calendar with good deeds and breadmaking. A woman who spoke optimistically about everything, but in actuality, saw life dead on.

It is Nikki's discovery of who her mother truly was and how they are entangled, mother and daughter, in a knot that can never totally be undone, that provides the gripping plot of this novel, more than the violence or the love affairs.

The startling truth of that quote from the beginning of the novel is what makes it one of Oates' best novels:

One day in a way unique to you, this will be your story, too.

Yes, one day, if it hasn't already happened, you will be surprised by death. Surprised by the complexity and intensity of your love. Surprised by how much you failed to see, to savor, to acknowledge when it was still in your grasp. It just seems to work that way.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Broody Hens
Originally uploaded by Alberta Fifty.

Like those very contented looking "broody hens," I find sitting on my eggs to be a highly satisfying and supremely distracting activity. Without half trying, it can consume half my day, and even more of my consciousness.

And no, I'm not pregnant. Thank God for that, at least! Don't get me wrong; pregnancy is wonderful and miraculous and all that, but blessedly, I'm done with that variety of egg sitting.

No, for me, sitting on my eggs is a writerly activity. It involves worrying about work that's already done instead of focussing on work that is supposed to be in progress. So now you get it, right? It's much more fun to fantasize about book deals or even "blog fame," whatever that might be, than it is to sit down at the computer and face the ignominious blank screen.

Whether it's the novel that my agent has recently sent to editors, or just a blog post, sitting on my eggs means constantly looking backward. As you can imagine, it's not the best way to make progress.

In the blog, it involves, checking the comments or the site meter with narcisssistic frequency, and then experiencing henlike brooding if the number remains static.

And when it comes to a manuscript that's just been put into circulation, there's no end of distracting busywork a broody hen can find to do. I can google the same editors I googled yesterday to find out what they bought, and then go to Amazon to see if the books are similar to mine. I can check the recent deals on Publisher's Marketplace to see if they've bought anything recently which may or may not mean? Well, I don't know. Yesterday, I imagined it meant one thing, but today I think it might be the exact opposite.

And of course, I can check my phone, searching for that magical 212 area code. And don't forget the hourly email check! I can reread my agent's last five emails, hunting for hidden subtext. Take that third phrase in the last email. Did that mean she's secretly negotiating a deal, but she doesn't want me to know until it's definite? On Monday, I'm wild with elation. By Tuesday,I'm castigating myself for being such a whack job. The words mean what they mean. Period.

Then, when I've exhausted that form of sitting on my eggs, there's always the occasional short story or bundle of poems I've submitted. Better go over my records (right now, of course!) and see how long they've been out. Ooh, months! Does that mean they've made the final cut, or just that they're sitting on the bottom of some anonymous pile for eternity or were accidentally returned in someone else's SASE?

Hmmm...better make some tea and ruminate on that one.

And so an industrious chicken spends her day.

The only thing, is that unlike the chicken, I've produced nothing. Not a single speckled egg.

So here's my vow: Once the work is out of my hands, it's out of my mind, too.

No more broody hens allowed in these parts.

Words written for nano: 2,431.