Tuesday, January 31, 2006

ON THE BENEFITS OF TOUCH and other things I learned from the newspaper

Come live with me and be my love
Originally uploaded by pfong.

There's not a lot of good news in the newspaper. Most of what fills its pages is frankly discouraging, and some terrifying enough to ruin your whole day if you imbibe it with your morning coffee.

But if you search hard, there are some cheery bits to be found in the sea of black and white darkness.

Today, for instance, I read that it has been scientifically proven that holding hands is not only good for your health; it's potent enough to actually mitigate physical pain. What's more, the closer the relationship of the hand-holders, the stronger the medicine touch provides. Hand holding by strangers helps, too, but not nearly as much as the comforting pressure of a loved one's hand. Thus, in some way, we create our own "medicine" by the way we relate to others.

The study used married couples who had identified themselves as "close and loving." But when it comes to healing, it's "close and loving" that works the miracle, not the box you check to describe your marital status.

When I was done with the story about holding hands, I turned to the obits. And no, I don't find other people's loss and misery heartening. But I do find great encouragement and strength in a life well-lived--a life like Wendy Wasserstein's, the playwright who died yesterday in Manhattan.

I never met Wasserstein, but like my friends here in the blogosphere, she had made her way into my mind and my life with her words--words that were full of laughter, and questions, and her own brand of optimism.

To anyone who might be feeling a little despondent because they have no close, loving spouse around to hold their hands and massage their neurons, Wendy Wasserstein had this to say:

"No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive, the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone."

Now substitute the words for whatever frightens you or presents an obstacle to your happiness for lonely and alone and recite those words alone in a loud voice.

There's no study to prove it yet, but I'm willing to wager your neurons will love you for it.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


she's still a kid
Originally uploaded by come-undone.

Katrina Denza has tagged me for a meme, in which I'm supposed to tell you ten things about myself. Anyone who has ever visited Katrina's blog probably knows that it is largely devoted to supporting the work of others. Her generous spirit illuminates every post she makes and comment she leaves. How can I possibly say no?

1. My favorite poet is Mary Oliver because her poems are more than beautiful words. They're beautiful words that can really teach something. For example, one line I read today:

Be ignited or be gone.

Can I tattoo that on my palm so I don't forget?

2. I wrote my first novel on paper bags when I was sixteen while working at Bradlee's, a now defunt department store. I can still remember the way the fluorescent lighting illuminated the brown paper as I wrote.

3. There are two ways of looking at existence: that it is a meaningless product of random chaos, or as Dante said, "It's love moves the sun and the other stars." I believe the latter.

4. At twenty-two, I was divorced with two children. We struggled financially, but joy permeates my memory of those years.

5. If I started a religion, one of the tenets would require believers to dance every day. Dispensations would only be given if someone had died.

6. My blogger friends know more about me than some co-workers who see me every day.

7. Two persistent habits I'm always trying to change: worrying too much and sleeping too late.
Progress is incremental.

8. If I had to live on two foods for the rest of my life, I would choose soup and bread. A nice hearty bean soup with lots of vegetables and a tomato base, and a crusty whole grain bread to be exact.

9. When I was five, I painted everything in the garage royal blue--my father's tools, an old refrigerator, spare tires--everything. At least once, I'd like to try it again, though maybe I'll choose red this time.

10. I have never lived in a house without animals in it--and books lying around everywhere like spirits unleashed. Never intend to either.

Almost forgot the fun part: Now I get to be the tagger. Not sure who does tags and who doesn't, but if any or all of the following would like to have a go at it, I'd love to hear your responses: MB, Rexroth's Daughter, Richard Lawrence Cohen, Colleen, my friend in Verona, Amishlaw and Diana...Apologies if you've already been there, done that.

Friday, January 27, 2006

white heat

So this is the kind of dork I am: I don't even know how to turn on the TV set. The last time I watched it with much regularity was back in the sixties when I was a kid and "Bewitched" was my favorite show. There were no remotes, no secret codes, no attached VCRs, DVD players, and Playstations to confuse the issue. You pressed the on button, and voila.

But even a dork has to watch TV every once in a while, which I did yesterday at 4 p.m. That's right. I tuned in to see Oprah's public excoriation of the memoirist, James Frey. It was literary news, I told my teenage son, as he set me up with the remote. But really, I was just taking my seat in the amphitheatre like everyone else. It's not a pretty thing to admit, but something about watching Oprah just makes me want to confess.

A lot has and will be said about the ethics involved: Frey's, the publishing industry, Oprah's and perhaps even the readers' own. But what really interested me was the psychology that was enacted on the show. Truthfully, I think that Frey's fans would have forgiven him anything but weakness. But I wondered how many who cheered on his badass persona through 400+ pages of macho posturing could accept the vulnerable, stammering man who sat opposite Oprah yesterday.

In many ways, I wanted to see the character "James Frey" jump up, and throw off the microphone, refusing to take any more bullshit, and stomp off the stage. That character would have continued to lie with angry flair about the incident at the dentist. (Medical records are confidential, right?) He would have pointed an irate finger at Oprah when she brought up Lily, and told her not to DARE question his veracity on this painful, personal issue.

He would have bluffed and raged like James Cagney or like the book's version of James Frey, maybe even kicking a table or two to prove his point. He wouldn't have just sat back and taken it; he would have attacked back: How honest was Oprah in inviting him on the show only to ambush him? How honest were the reality shows her network produced, or the news programs they presented every night at 6:30? If he lied, wasn't he a product of his culture, a response to what readers clearly wanted?

Would he have been right? Probably not--badasses usually aren't. But rectitude wasn't what people admired in Frey's "character"; toughness was. A lot of people would have seen through his bluster, but many more wouldn't have cared. The "essential truth" of the story would have remained intact--who readers believed Frey to be. As it was, even that crumbled.

One can only hope that at least one aspect of the memoir is true; and that Frey has reserves of strength and character to deal with the aftermath.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


walk this way, talk this way
Originally uploaded by fubuki.

For most of my life, I've been a walker. It wasn't really a choice. Unlike these crows, I couldn't fly; and I often drove unreliable vehicles that spent more time in the shop or broken down in the driveway than they did taking me where I wanted to go. There was one particular Volkswagen bug that had to be jumped every time I drove it, coming and going. It got to the point where my poor, beleaguered neighbors just saw me on the street and they ran for cover. It was usually easier to walk; and I did-- miles and miles, often dragging my two oldest kids with me. Pushing one in a stroller, the other clinging onto the side as we trucked our clothes to the laundromat may have felt tough at times, but it now provides me with some sweet memories

Then there was my job. In all my years of waitressing, I probably took enough steps to traverse a couple of continents. But the only place I ever arrived was tired out in my kitchen, sucking on a beer or a cup of hot chocolate as I counted out my tips at the end of the day. It was a good life in a lot of ways. I loved the motion of it, and the new faces that popped up every time I took a few steps in another direction. Even better, I could sneak greasy hors d'hoevres or leftover wedding cake till I dropped and never gain an ounce. Bemused, I watched diet fads come and go.

But in the past couple of months, my life has been different. I stopped being a walker and became a sitter. Instead of serving up coffee and soup to folks of all kinds, I sat at my computer and invented my own people. Like the ones I've met in restaurants, country clubs and wedding tents, some of the people in my stories are easier to get along with than others. In fact, some of them are so obnoxious, I wish I could walk away from them, slink off to the kitchen and vent with my co-workers like I used to. Did you see that character on page 6? What a jerk!

Now my only co-workers are my dogs; and they don't care a bit if I get fat, sitting around and snacking all day. In fact, they're all for it as long as I share the bounty. In two short months, I've become a world class sitter--and my "shrinking" jeans are beginning to reflect the consequences. I got all excited when I read a review of a book called The Sonoma Diet in Sunday's NY Times Book Review. So what if the reviewer pretty much trashed the book, saying its book length advice could fit onto two index cards? People are pretty thin in Sonoma, aren't they? (Not that I'd know. Like I said, most of my traveling has been on foot, and in circular patterns around various dining rooms.)

So today, with the temperature hovering preternaturally around 50 degrees and my daily writing finished, I committed a revolutionary act. I walked for no reason--not to get anywhere, or to earn a living, but just for the sake of walking. It wasn't a short walk either. I walked three miles to the local convenience store, congratulating myself on my new "exercise program" every step of the way, and three miles back, whining and wondering where I ever got this crazy idea.

I blamed my surroundings, the cars on the road, the damn hills that all were all of the up variety on the way home. Really, the area where I live is not all that conducive to walking for no reason, and would probably be even less friendly to anyone who actually needed to get somewhere. I walked a mile or two down a major road, with big SUVs and pickup trucks driving me closer to the guard rails. And you can't help noticing the way people look at you when you're walking on the road like that--as if they're probably wondering why you don't have a car. What's wrong with you. It's what Woody Guthrie (yes, I know I'm obsessed) called the "born to lose" look.

At home, the dogs were giving me their own look--one that said, I can't believe you went without us. But once I settled myself back in my study with the requisite snacks, all was forgiven.

The Sonoma Diet, huh? Maybe I'm going to have to check that out.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Originally uploaded by lapinfille.

My father wasn't much of a reader. He was passionate about the newspaper, especially the local news, but I only remember him reading one book. The book was Black Like Me, and actually, I don't remember him reading it. I remember him talking about it.

Talking was my father's art, and he did it with skill and style. At parties, my mother (the introverted one from whom I got my love of books) was often left alone while Dad worked the room. He had a natural curiosity about people. He was eager to know everyone he met, and he wanted them to know him back. As a result, parties or family gatherings usually found him in the center of a group, holding his "audience" rapt as he relayed a story, or listening with equal eagerness as future tales took shape in his mind.

A child with writing aspirations from the time she first held a pencil could--and did--learn a lot from watching and listening to him. His stories had hooks, flash characterizations, and intriguing plots. Above all, he gave his listeners a reason to pay attention. His talk was laced with humor and dramatic pauses, and a pay off that left his listeners wanting more. He could turn "my trip to the hardware store" into a story that kept you riveted.

He was quick to let you know that though a story was gleaned from chance encounters in his life as a truck driver and maintenance man, what you were about to hear was hardly ordinary. There was usually a superlative nestled in one of the opening sentences.

It was always a story about the homeliest girl I ever saw, or "the nicest guy I ever met," and of course, everything about his presentation was convincing enough that you had to know why. I can still see the raised eyebrows and wide open eyes, the teasing smile, and bright face he wore when he was talking.

I especially liked the one about the homely girl. Recalling it, makes me wonder how that word ever fell out of use, and became commonly replaced with the more strident ugly. There's something sweet about a homely girl, something that makes you want to root for her. An ugly girl, on the other hand, is just ugly.

There were plenty of dark stories in my father's life, stories about the poverty of his childhood, about the tragedies and unfulfilled hopes that afflict all families, about the war he'd fought at age nineteen. He never told those. He was from a generation that wanted to escape the darkness, not claim it as a special right to victimhood. We often joked that for a talker, his letters home from the war were terse and repetitious: Feeling fine and hope you are the same.

Only in his final years did the war stories come out; only then did we begin to understand why he had chased laughter and good times so hard, and why his stories did the same. As his memory frayed, he often told the same stories over and over. The grandchildren had a list of phrases you could never use in front of Papa, lest they trigger a repeat performance of the tales they knew by heart. But it was in the repetitions that I came to understand exactly how much of an art his storytelling really was. Almost like a rehearsed performance, he employed the same vocal inflections, the same gestures and pauses each time he retold one of his stock pieces.

I've been thinking of my father and his art form ever since the other night. My husband and I were having dinner in a funky little Italian restaurant when a woman approached the table.

"Excuse me," she said. "You're Jack's daughter, right?"

"No," I told her, certain she had confused me with someone else. "My father's name was Dick and he died five years ago."

"That's right. Dick was his name," she said, then explained she used to cut his hair.

I still wasn't convinced. As far as I knew, my father always went to a barber for his haircuts.

But the woman nodded insistently. "I really miss that guy. He made my day whenever he came into the shop."

I thanked her, and said he frequently made my day, too. But I still wasn't sure we were talking about the same person.

Not till she added, "He always told the best stories."

Oh yeah. That was the guy.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Hwy 17
Originally uploaded by tearapen.

Bob Dylan said that you could learn to live by listening to Woody Guthrie songs. Those old folk songs may not be the first place I'd go to learn what I need to know about living, but they make great background music while you're reading your books of wisdom. And long after you close those books, you may find you're still humming along to one of Woody's anthems.

Despite the efforts of people like Dylan and Nanci Griffith, I wonder how many people listen to Woody at all anymore. No matter how many do, it's not enough. He never claimed to be a saint, and his wandering ways must have brought unhappiness to many of those near and dear to him. But the man knew things that a lot of people never get in their lifetimes.
Things we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis.

From riding boxcars and living in migrant camps during the Depression, he learned something about the human spirit that he never allowed success to take away: It resides in the poor and disdained as strongly as it does anywhere else. Maybe stronger. Or as Woody said it:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.

It may seem like the simplest lesson of all, and of course, it's the basis for all the holy books, but it still looks like a rarity when it's truly lived.

Every now and then when I start feeling like a fancy pants, I go out and rent, Bound for Glory, the film version of Woody's autobiography. The other day I was feeling a little too impressed with my author self, so I decided it was time.

Artistically, it may not be the best movie ever made, but it never fails to move me. It brings home the Depression--and what it means to have no work--with heart wrenching clarity. What it means to travel to a distant place, hoping to work for below subsistence wages. What it means to live in grubby migrant camps, and still be able to sing and rejoice at the end of a day.

It's something most of us don't know much about, but Woody did, and he pretty much devoted his life to trying to make us understand how good these people are. How much like you and me.

I particularly love the end of the movie when he walks out of a glitzy hotel where his agent has got him a lucrative deal to play because he'd rather play in the camps for nothing. ..because he doesn't want to lose his connection to the people...because he knows that once you've lost that, you've lost everything.

It's the kind of common wisdom that's sadly uncommon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I wanted to use the blog photo taken last year in pre-Katrina New Orleans, but I didn't think the hair across the face look quite cut it. My second choice was my high school year book photo, sans crows feet, and with my favorite Charlie's Angel hairstyle flouncing over my shoulders. If I recall, I didn't like that one much at the time either, but it sure looks good now. Unfortunately, I didn't think that would get by either.

So I went out and got my wild hair blown into submission and had a professional picture done just like real writers do. (At least, I think that's what they do, but what do I know?) I thought maybe I'd pose like Truman Capote did for his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, prone and provocative on a classy looking couch. Rumor has it that the photograph helped to make Capote the darling of New York society, and something of an overnight sensation. But there didn't seem to be any couches in the studio, and besides, it's too late for me to become the darling of anything, much less New York society.

"A standard head and shoulders shot?" the photographer asked.

"Um, sure," I said, putting aside my fantasy of the couch pose.

So anyway, here they are. When I thought I had settled on a final choice, my daughter pointed out that the quizzical expression reminded her of the family dog when she's looking for a treat. Thanks, dear. Maybe they'll take that old high school photo after all.

p.s. Extra points for anyone who can guess the doggy shot.

a) Lukac12

b) Lukac10

c) Lukac24


Monday, January 16, 2006


TV room
Originally uploaded by reddirtrose.

An article culled from Arts and Letters Daily caught my attention today and set me spinning off into weird habit #3, otherwise known as "ranting and raving". Once I get some abstruse point on my mind, I harangue everyone around me until they finally get it through my head THEY DON'T CARE, or I just wear myself out--whichever comes first.

This particular episode of ranting was triggered by the social conservative, Theodore Dalrymple. Though I am often at odds with Dalrymple, he rattled my bones and my equally brittle assumptions with this piece. Having gone through the files of dozens of Australian murder cases, he invokes a stunningly repetitious picture:

The homes in which the murders took place - and here I am speaking of what James Thurber might have called naive, domestic little murders - have, from the photographic evidence, a terrible similarity. There is the same narrow hallway, with the same detritus strewn in it.

Into the living-room through the door on the right: the same gas fire, but above all, and always, the prominence of the video machine, which is to the British home at the lower end of the social scale what the icon was in the Russian muzhiks izba: the focus of the household's spiritual life, if spiritual is quite the word I seek. A Martian visitor might take it as an object of religious veneration or propitiation, so dominant is it in the room.

Strewn on the floor, there are always several videotapes, probably just watched: these are the homes in which the television or video is never switched off so long as there is someone awake in the house. There are also many more videos on shelves in every room throughout the house, for images of a pseudo-reality mean more to the inhabitants than most of life as they actually live it.

Some wise person said that in every heart there is an altar, and similarly in every home, there is an area that is by its central location or its surrounding radiance, and the reverence with which it's looked upon, a focal point, an altar. In ancient times, it was quite simply a fire, a contained flame where you could look for hours and see survival, warmth, beauty. If the altar is a video screen that regularly flashes scenes of violence and lust, ego and passions, untempered by wisdom, then clearly the worshippers at this particular altar are in trouble.

And if a society is composed of rows and rows of houses on rows and rows of streets all worshipping at the same empty home altar, then that is an impoverished society, indeed, no matter what the GNP might say.

When I look back on all these murders and murderers, what do I feel? And do I remember the murderers as evil men, who joyfully did what they knew to be wrong and were prepared to take the consequences, even as they tried to avoid them? Did they all have black hearts upon which murder had been inscribed since birth?

No. I am overwhelmed by a sense of the unfitness for life of all the participants in these sordid dramas: their main problem was that they had not the faintest idea how to live and yet - this is the hallmark of modernity - they were plentifully supplied with ego.

They had received no guidance from religion, naturally enough, since God is dead for them, and never has been very much alive. As for social convention, it has not so much been destroyed as turned inside out. The poor who once prided themselves on such things as respectability, cleanliness, honesty, orderliness and thrift, often in the most difficult circumstances, now pride themselves on their bohemianism. Disorder and chaos are a metonym for freedom and authenticity. But they are bohemians without being artistic, and the result is a squalor scarcely credible in times of supposed prosperity.

There's an uncomfortable tinge of snobbery here. Surely, murders are committed in orderly homes with framed Matisses on the walls, as well as in the dumps inhabited by poor slobs who think they're bohemians. (And really are drunken slobs who call themselves 'bohemians' any more worhty just because they're artists? But I am particularly disconcerted by the prominence of the VCR and TV--partially, because it enjoys a pretty central location in my own home. Right where the fire would have been in an ancient hut.

In my previous post, I spoke of the best fiction as an exercise in revealing truth through metaphor. Similarly, whatever we exalt on our own personal home altar, must be capable of rendering truth and wisdom to those who gather around to venerate it. Religions of all kinds, whether you believe they are literally true or whether you see them as beautiful myths and metaphors have provided answers to every question the human heart can pose. Listened to with an open mind and without distortions, they calm and elevate the heart, and call the worshipper not to BECOME his passions, but to shape, use and ultimately transcend them.

The exceptions and there are tragically many, are those who have not heard the message they claim to exalt. Suicide bombers creating devastation in defense of a religion of peace. Christians who relegate people who are often kinder and in all ways better disciples than they are to "a lake of fire", simply because they haven't pronounced the right words.

And yet the great religions do not fail. People fail. Meanwhile, all the noble faiths keep their bargains with those who are willing to raise up an altar in the heart: When you need guidance, you will have it, when you seek mercy, it will be yours; when you are in pain, you will find comfort, and perhaps most important of all: when you are overwhelmed by the miserable delusion of your own importance, we will remind you how small you are. And how loved.

If we as a society, really think we can live without all that, we'd better find a better home altar than the television set or the VCR with its endless images of egos gone wild to replace it. (Or maybe I'm just getting old and cantankerous. Always a possibility when I start in on a good rant and rave.)

So to summarize today's rant: You better start believing in something higher than yourself, whether it's God or Socratic principles or the sanctity of nature, and whatever it is, you better teach your children to honor it. If you don't, you just may end up raising a pack of selfish morons. Who knows? You may even become one yourself. (Is there a test for this on one of those quiz sites?) (If so, I'm heading there immediately.)

Saturday, January 14, 2006


I què és la veritat?
Originally uploaded by florriebassingbourn.

One of the most disturbing thing about the whole James Frey brouhaha this week is that the book that sold 3.5 million copies was turned down by nearly every major publisher when it was offered as fiction.

Why? Because readers like you and me wouldn't buy it if it didn't have the imprimatur of TRUTH on it. At least, that's how the editors at 17 publishing houses saw it. I'd like to say they were wrong, that A Million Little Pieces would have sold just as well as a novel, but somehow I doubt it.

For the same reason that no one would watch a show about a bunch of college kids sitting around in their underwear whining or twenty-five women competing for a limp rose on THE BACHELOR if they thought (knew?) it was scripted, no one would have been willing to hold Frey's hand through 438 pages of vomit and bathos and teary redemption if they didn't believe it really happened.

As a fiction writer, I'm rather proud that a book with no claims to factual accuracy is held to a higher standard. If it's not "true," then it damn well better be well written--and believable. Kind of ironic, isn't it?

But in another way, I think that this new hunger for an ever more elusive "truth" insults fiction. Surely, many people who are flocking to memoirs and reality TV are missing the essential secret about fiction. It's truer than the truth.

Shakespeare may never have been a king, but he taught us more about power and betrayal than any memoirist ever could have. Why? Because he knew more than the narrow facts of his life allowed. More than most kings or scheming underlings or thwarted lovers who ever lived.

And Shakespeare wasn't the only one. All of us know more than we have experienced. In part, it seems we're born that way. Not blank slates, but small souls from who-knows-where, babies too young for language find a myriad of other ways of expressing what they know and what they want. Just look in their eyes. These people know things.

Other truth we learn just because we're human; and as such, we've tapped into the rich myths and archetypes of our species, that great history of the human heart in stories.

I may not have killed anyone or abandoned my children or spent a bitterly cold night in the street, but I know something about those things anyway, simply because I'm alive and feeling and empathetic. When I write fiction, I push myself further than I've ever gone--or in many cases, hope to go--in real life. I enter strange minds and hearts and learn the lay of the land. I get lost and desperately search for an exit. Then I tell you not just where I've been and what I've seen, but what I know.

Are my stories and novels factually true? Absolutely not. But in proudly calling them fiction, I connect my own humble creations to the stories that have told us who we are for as long as we've had the power of communication.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

WEIRD HABIT # 2: I collect obituaries

Interior ruin
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.

Yep. Some people collect first edition books, others pay obscene money for celebrity memorabilia, stuff like the Kleenex from Jack Kerouac's pocket, one of Marilyn's old socks; and then there's the eternal allure of stamps and rocks. But me, my only real collection is a folder stuffed with the little life summaries we call obituaries. Strangers' obituaries.

Though I haven't yet reached the age when I turn to the obits to find out what my old friends have been up to lately, it is the first thing I read in the paper. It's not always the most pleasant way to start the day. If the notices describe a life cut short, or a death that simply shouldn't have happened, I share in the grief.

I scan quickly, and like the discriminating shell collector, rarely find anything worthy of picking up off the beach, polishing and adding to my bucket.

I skim through the standard obits that list educational background, line of work, and survivors. The standard cocktail party questions we use to validate our existence: what do you do? Any children? Not very telling at a cocktail party, and not in an obit either.

Nor do I find many death notices of the famous worth saving. When I read a biography, I'm usually only interested in the starving and striving years. After fame is achieved, the story tends to flatten into a series of went-heres, won this, was honored with thats, and met so and sos. But what does this really say about the person?

No, what I want to hear is what the life was about. What the dead one loved and hated, what music they thought of as the soundtrack of their life (as Liz said in the comment section of my last post) what made them unique and irreplaceable, the one true thing they learned in life.

One exception to my avoidance of the well-known dead is John Fahey, an iconoclastic guitarist whose life was changed when he heard Willie Johnson sing, "Praise God I'm satisfied." After a successful and even more interesting career, Fahey was beset by the three gods of bad luck later in life. Divorce, illness, and drinking caused him to lose his house, and landed him in a mission. But before his death, he rose again, leaving the world with this provocative quote: "I never considered for a minute that I had talent. What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious." An interesting--and humble--recipe for creativity if I ever heard one.

And how could I resist, clipping the obit of Fred Rosenstiel? After losing his entire family in the Holocaust, he devoted every waking moment of his life to planting flowers. It was, he said,
the only way he could alleviate "an abiding sadness in his heart."

Then there was Anton Rosenberg, "a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950s cool to such a laid back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything." There have definitely been times in my life when I felt like I was Anton Rosenberg--without the hipster cool, of course.

I've got Rose Freedman, the one survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that killed 146 of her co-workers in half an hour. For the rest of her life, Rose would crusade for worker safety, telling and retelling the story of the executives who went out through the roof, and never bothered to leave the door open for the workers. "What good is a rich man if he hasn't got a heart?" she asked again and again to people all over this country. It's a question that still echoes.

Somehow, over the years, the people in my obit collection have become friends. Whenever I think I'm becoming too uncool, I invoke Anton and he straightens me out; or if I'm whining about something that isn't going my way, I remember John Fahey, who used "Praise God, I'm satisfied" as a personal mantra throughout the years of homelessness and desperation. How can I do anything but sing?


On another note, the gracious Jordan Rosenfeld was kind enough to ask me to submit a
Wednesday Essay to her always fascinating blog, Write Livelihood. If you would like to read
"Everything I know about Getting Words on Paper," please visit.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Afternoon of Fauns
Originally uploaded by noqontrol.

Recently, Tom tagged me for a meme that asks the tagee to expose five weird habits. Only five? Choices, choices...Hmmm.

Not wanting to overwhelm you with my weirdness (I'm a writer, don't forget. I spend my entire day alone drifting through worlds of my own making) I'm going to give you one at a time.

My first wired habit: I think to music. Whether I'm rehearsing a vituperative dialogue between two characters, thinking about the tropical island south of India that is sinking beneath the sea or just wondering exactly what a friend meant when they made that remark about my hair, I first find an appropriate CD, and start pacing. Then, I can think.

A couple of things I've been pacing and pondering recently:

Gabriel's Son by Damian McNicholl which gave me something to look forward to every night during the turbulent month of December. Like the best fiction, this novel is a spirited glimpse of a world at once distant and exactly the same as my own. Specifically, it's a story of growing up gay and Catholic in Northern Ireland. But the young protagonist, Gabriel Harkin, is so likeable and so very real, his story quickly transcends any such narrow descriptions. In the end, this is the story of growing up anywhere, wanting to be accepted for who you are, and above all, wanting to accept yourself.

In an entirely different vein, I've been thinking of The Joy of Letting Women Down, NatalieD'Arbeloff 's humorous, insightful (and like everything Natalie produces) utterly original look at the perennial power struggle between the sexes. Though small in size, it served as a great coffee table book at my house over the holidays. It seemed that no one who visited could resist picking it up and reading some choice passages aloud. It even sparked a few vigorous debates--always a plus after dinner when holiday languor sets in.

Then there's the topic that everyone's thinking about: Is it okay to call a book that's partially or maybe even largely fabricated non-fiction? The moralists, the lawyers, and the publishing industry will have to answer that one. As for me, I've been thinking that in the interest of greater marketability, maybe I should bill my book as an autobiography. With a title like THE LIAR'S DIARY, I wouldn't even need a disclaimer.

And finally, I've been thinking of everyone who stopped by or emailed kind messages or simply visited held my family in your thoughts as we endured our time of worry. I may have never seen your faces or heard the timbre of your voices, but I know you just the same. Your friendship is one of the greatest gifts I've received in 2005.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


The road to my town...
Originally uploaded by !!! Monika !!!.

Tonight Ted and I will be traveling back to coal country again to see his father.

It is an eight hour drive, fraught with anxiety that has nothing to do with the barreling 18 wheelers who own the road at night or the way shadows make the familiar seem unknown.

Think of us and all who are traveling in the dark.

Think of the man we are going to see. He has returned home, and sits in his familiar chair. Drinks his coffee from a familiar cup. But like the road at night, there is much that is unfamiliar in the landscape.

Think. Pray. Bless. And thank you for being there.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Originally uploaded by joaobambu.

So all right, I was already thinking about miners, mining towns, mining families. And history. Last week, when I was in Pennsylvania, I heard the story of the Black Maria for the first time.

I heard how the mining companies used to maintain a black vehicle that served as a hearse or an ambulance as needed.

I heard how dreaded that vehicle was when it made an appearance in the towns that were built to house the miners' families.

I heard how the women in the families would go out on the ubiquitous front porches, clutching their rosary beads when one passed through the streets, praying that it would not stop in front of their house.

Sometimes the Black Maria delivered a corpse. Other times, the drivers bore a dying man up the stairs of his front porch to live out his final hours with his family.

Knowing those streets, those porches as I do, knowing the rosary beads that are still clutched in times of trouble, the image is particularly vivid to me.

Vivid, too, are the faces of the families in West Virginia who were confronted by the Black Maria yesterday. Not in the form of a hearselike car, but through the voice of a mining company executive announcing the death of twelve miners to the crowd that had gathered in a small white church.

To them, and to the nation which has lost these good men, my deepest sympathy.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


(Slovak miners and their families on the porch in the Depression)

When we planned a holiday visit to my husband's family in an old mining town in Pennsylvania, the first thing I packed was the camera. In all my visits there, I had never tried to document the combination of history and majestic, but blighted beauty the area contains. This time would be different. And it was--though not in the way I'd planned. When we arrived, we found my father-in-law seriously ill and in need of hospitalization.

Thus, instead of days filled with leisurely hikes and nights defined by rich ethnic meals, we spent our days trundling back and forth to the hospital. First the local hosptial, called simply "Miner's" where everyone seemed to know my husband's family, and then the larger more well-equipped facility an hour away in Bethlehem. Instead of my mother-in-law's celebrated pierogi, we grabbed quick bites to eat in diners or in the hospital cafeteria.

And so my record, once again, is of photographs not taken. But seen. Remembered. Stored up:

1. A sign at the base of the depleted mountain that reads "Our only goal is to mine more coal."

2. The streets of this fully occupied former mining village, empty at mid-day. Though the weather was unseasonably warm, and nearly every house decorated elaborately, there was no one walking a dog, no children playing in the streets, no women yelling to each other from the front porches ofthe tightly clustered homes.

3. An old junk yard along the highway, containing thousands of crushed vehicles (all American, it seems. Almost no one drives Japanese or German cars here.) And at the entrance, a solitary yellow wreck exalted on a pole like a totem while the mountains rise in the background.

4. The Blue Mountains in Palmerton, where a zinc plant turned the area into a superfund site and left the mountains eerily stripped of life.

5. The long abandoned zinc plant, rusted and glowing when the sun sets dramatically over the ruin.

6. The familiar "box stores" that line the highway as we approach the city, the stores, the restaurants that have turned the place into something exactly like home. Exactly like every place else. I can't help wondering if someday they will be as empty and abandoned as the zinc plant.

7. The stately mansions that line the streets that lead to the hospital in Bethlehem. Though most of them are now used as office buildings or bed and breakfasts, I wonder who ever occupied such castle-like homes. The steel magnates perhaps? Later, we drive into the heart of town where the crowded duplexes remind me of worker homes elsewhere in the coal towns.

8. The brick Main Street near with its fascinating little shops, and historic ambiance where we stopped at "Granny McCarthy's tea shop" for a cup of tea and a scone, and listen to the last remains of Christmas Carols in the streets.

9. My father-in-law, one of the strongest men I've ever known, sitting up in bed, giving orders and joking just like he always did while the doctors frown over X-rays and ultra sounds that reflect 50 years of smoking and working in the mines. "I'll be all right," he says winking away the dark prognosis. And somehow, I believe he will.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Originally uploaded by romanlily.

There's nothing like a new year, an unmarked calendar, a field of white snow untrammeled by a single boot mark. January first is official Self-Reinvention Day, and thus one of the most amazing dates on the calendar. Not only does the historical number we call the year change, but holy smokes, maybe you can, too.

No, there's nothing like it. Except maybe a new pair of unscuffed hot pink sneakers. Or sky blue sneakers that haven't taken you anywhere you didn't want to go. Red sneakers with a fireburst design that wouldn't hesitate when you need to burst ahead.

I personally love resolutions so much that I have often written pages of them with categories and subcategories in different color ink. The only thing that's deterred me this year from promising myself a new Patry who never craves jelly donuts, or thinks up creative excuses to avoid her workouts or meditation or writing desk, a new Patry whose home and life and even brain is a marvel of feng shui order, is that I suspect I made the same promises last year. And the year before that. In fact, I've been trying to become that phantom New Years Woman all my life.

Thus, this year I'm keeping it simple. As appealing as every pair of shoes on the wall might be, I'm taking the orange ones. Orange as in sunrise.

Yep, you've got it: This year I'm reversing my wild waitress schedule (going to bed late and sleeping in) and getting up by at dawn every day. Oh my God, even tomorrow.

In which case, I've got to get to bed! So don't mind me if I rush the question a bit:

Tell me about your resolutions. If you've made them in the past, have they been:

a) highly effective. (i.e. promised to work out in January, the month of surging gym memberships and was still at it in December)

b) Never made one that lasted into February, but hey I'm an optimist. I still believe this year will be different.

c) Life is about small incremental changes, and that's the kind my past resolutions have produced. Not a total transformation, but a series of baby steps.

d) All my resolutions have always failed.

e) Have never made resolutions

As far as the results of my holiday poll, I hope you don't think I'm cheating if I don't make a proper tally of the results. This poll really didn't yield numbers anyway; it yielded stories. Wonderful stories about challenging Christmases that turned magical, and startling gifts that came from unexpected sources. So please, go and read the comments.