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:


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.

Simply wait.

Sunday, December 25, 2005



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!

摘果子, originally uploaded by Pumpkin Chief.

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

Poetry: 42

(The always mysterious) Other: 36

Non-fiction: 30

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:

I go to a bookstore once a year. I get on a fat rusty bicycle with paperboy bike tires and end up at The Island Bookstore just north of the Corolla Lighthouse near where my mother rents a beach cottage for my father and their grandchildren one week each summer.

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

e) other

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


Coming home
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.

Sorry, guys.


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

Flying, originally uploaded by Pumpkin Chief.

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:

a) fiction

b) poetry

c) non-fiction that helps me understand a changing world

d) spiritual inspiration

e) practical how-to stuff

f) other

I was going to add a g) for non-readers, but all bloggers are readers, right?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


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


Vivien Leigh

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

2005-11-28_ 001
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

e) Other

Sunday, December 04, 2005


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.