Sunday, February 26, 2006

HER ANGER: A short true story

Originally uploaded by macwagen.

Her anger was like 30 days of bad weather, no sun in sight. Harnessed, it would have sent any number of freight trains slashing through the night. But as it was, the only thing it drove was her. And occasionally those she supervised.

She was always the first to arrive at work. A "captain", she took her job as seriously as a wartime general. If we had to come in at five for an early breakfast, she was there by four, hunched down in the depressing employee area near the dumpster, sucking on a cigarette and a tall French vanilla from Dunkin Donuts.

"Better punch in," she'd say, consulting her watch. "We've got to get that coffee break out by six."

Hesitate for a minute, pause to check your hair as you slung your jacket on a hook, or wonder if anyone had made coffee, and you'd jumpstart her dormant anger.

"Listen, you've got a good job here. You make fucking good money. You might not care if our customers get their coffee on time, but I do."

There was no way to deal with anger like this, but to follow it from a safe distance. And hope it didn't singe you too much in the process.

Her skin was as white and thin as the tissuey paper they used in old typewriters; she was missing teeth, and her upper arms flapped when she walked--or rather charged. I can see her now, head down and pushed forward, entering the dining room like a battlefield. Her musket shot words, silencing every objection a co-worker might make. Kaboom. She must have been in her late fifties, but she could stack more dinners on a tray and carry them, work longer hours without rest than anyone I've ever known.

In many ways, I admired her. Even liked her. Though she bullied and nitpicked, she was the first to tell you to go home if you had a sick child. Go ahead--get the fuck out of here! she'd say with a wave of her flappy arm. Then off she'd charge, ready to take on your work and hers. No problem.

And when a stray cat birthed kittens outside the dumpster, she railed at us about taking one home. "They're ours. It's our responsibility," she said, illogically passionate. "We're a family here, or we're nothing."

"Maybe we should call the MSPCA," a co-worker suggested sheepishly, setting off our general.

She raged into the back room and came back with a crate, which she thumped on the floor. "If you people don't care then, I'll take them," she said. "All of them."

And she did.

Illogical passion seemed to keep her motor humming, along with the anger. She cared more about the hotel where we worked than the invisible corporation that owned it ever did. A tablecloth that was slightly askew, a glass insufficiently iced, or a table set in the improper sequence--bread plate first, set precisely between each chair--could bring on a violent upbraiding about what a good job we had, how much fucking money we made.

Rumor had it that she was excessively generous with the people in her life. She was frequently carless because one of her kids had borrowed hers. She'd lost the home she worked for and lived in a rented house, full of her adult kids and their friends. Though she hollered at us for the slightest infractions, she never said much to them when they kept her up all night with their parties. Even when she had to be at work by four a.m.

But a train run on rage and cigarettes can only go so far. First her knees went, then like several of my former heavy smoking co-workers, she developed lung disease. She left work one day, and never came back. We didn't hear from her either, despite her frequent assertions that we were a family. And the place where she had slaved and raged and bullied her co-workers toward some wacky vision of perfection, ran pretty much the same as it always had.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Mondrian Attitude
Originally uploaded by Ezu.

In his obituary, Paul Avrich, who died this week in New York, is described as a "historian of anarchism."

Among his favorite anarchists were George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Eugene O'Neill. A book he hoped to write about O'Neill was never completed.

He left behind the 20,000 documents he collected on the subject of anarchism and later donated to the library of congress, several books, and this quote:

"Every good person deep down is an anarchist."

I've been mulling it over ever since I read it. (Being sick, lying on the couch all day is an otherwise dispiriting experience, but it does allow ample opportunity for mulling.) There's something about the simplicity of the quote that really strikes me--though I'm not quite sure I understand what he meant.

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Care to expound?

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Originally uploaded by ahford.

Did you ever play that game "hot potato" when you were small? Well, in the past week, my family has been in the throes of a similar sport--except this time the spud in question is a particularly nasty virus.

Yesterday, when I took my eye off the wandering spud for a minute, the thing landed in my lap. Plunk! I've been relegated to the couch ever since, alternately whining that it's absolutely freezing in here, and then fulminating because someone cranked the heat so high. Do these people have any idea how high our gas bill is?

It was you, Mom, my son happily reminds me. Oh yeah. So okay, I'm not the best patient.

In my normal life, I always think it would be fun to spend a day or two on the couch--catch up on my reading, maybe even take in a guiltless hour or two of TV. But I'm here to say, resting your bones amid a nest of blankets and pillows is highly overrated--especially when every bone is an aching one.

But what really amazes me about this experience is the thin and highly permeable wall that separates health and sickness. Yesterday morning, I was practicing Bodokon, running errands, making long lists of things to do, and then (as I do every day) accomplishing about half of them. I was in possession of the world and all its possibilities. By three in the afternoon, I was imprisoned in my body.

And so--as much as I'd like to be reading my favorite blogs, or responding to intriguing comments, finding the right niche in my house to work on my next novel, booking plane tickets to Prague or Portland, or lurching toward the adventures that take place mostly in my mind, I think I'm going to head back to the couch and see what's on TV.

Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


home-working hard
Originally uploaded by phitar.

Probably like many of you out there, I've been searching for it for years. The perfectly verdant landscape or unsullied ocean view that will make my heart swell with inspiration, the mythical country -- or maybe just a town or a mysteriously shadowed street that offers the perfect balance of quiet and stimulation. If I could only find the right place to set up my computer, or just pull out those ancient artifacts known as pen and paper, all the words that have accumulated inside me, all the visions, the emotion, the stinging insights, would come pouring forth almost effortlessly. At least, that's how the theory goes.

To that end, I once considered moving back to the mother country, where undoubtedly the writerly impulse slipped into my genes as stealthily as my melancholic temperament or my fondness for black beer. Yes, I could go back to Ireland, the country my malnourished ancestors fled, rent a little cottage in the countryside, drink Guiness and wait for the golden river of prose to start flowing.

Then there was what my husband refers to as my "Montana phase". After reading about a writer who claimed that there was something about the big sky that set his words free, I became a woman obsessed. Not only did I read my way through every Montana novel ever written, I collected an impressive collection of travel brochures as well. Eventually, however, my local travel agent realized she was dealing with a professional daydreamer, and stopped taking my calls.

And don't think the news that a new literary community, similar to the one that nurtured Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not to mention Henry Miller and Anais Nin, was forming in Prague a few years ago passed me by. I even checked some foreign language
tapes out of the library. By day, I listened to them in the background as I struggled to write in my clearly uninspiring environment; and over dinner, I tried out a few of the exotic words I'd absorbed by osmosis on my long suffering family. After three months of "study," all I had to show for it was a huge fine at the library, and the ability to say, "Sorry, I don't speak Czech" with a very impressive accent. The day the librarian informed me that I had to either pay my fine or be shut off from my book supply, was the day the Prague phase ended.

Of course, I'm more mature now.When it comes to getting words on paper, I know that the answer to my resistance lies within myself. From experience, I've learned that the best place to write, like the best place to fall in love, or to pray, or to make a friend, is right where you are. Right now.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

3 RIVERS: some thoughts I've been thinking

Silence from the Past
Originally uploaded by HaMeD!caL.

Been away for the weekend visiting the in-laws. It's quiet there. Quiet house. Quiet streets. Quiet towns.

In this quiet, I found myself thinking a lot about aging, and courage and life. And this is what I thought:

There are three rivers that flow through us in the course of our existence bringing beauty and strength and vibrant life: the first is hormones, the second is breath and the third, love. When the first wanes, the second two must increase. When the second also diminishes, the third must be highly developed enough to prevail.

If there is a test we all must pass or fail, it is this. Only this.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


The day I met Marilyn
Originally uploaded by malidinapoli.

I consider myself to be a very quiet person. Shy. Introverted. Typical writer type. That's why I was surprised when a co-worker once informed me that you could hear my voice all over the hotel where we worked. Not only was I always talking--I was loud.

Hmmm. That gave me pause, but not quite long enough to actually--err, shut-up.

I'd like to say that I talk loudly because I come from a large family, and I had to speak up in order to be heard. But as an only child, I don't think that one would work. Maybe it's the writer thing. I don't get out much, and when I do, I want to talk.

But mostly I think I speak at an inflated volume when I'm feeling vehemently about something. And it seems I'm in the vehement mood quite often.

I can't tell you how many people my father and I scared away when we debated politics. As the passion rose, so did our voices until we were both screaming and purple. But what the scattered victims of our discussions didn't understand was that the hollaring had nothing to do with anger. It was just emotion--and probably a little showmanship thrown in, too. (We're talking two Leos here, for those who subscribe to astrology.) When we'd exhausted ourselves, we'd return to Mom's pot roast like nothing had occurred.

But after XX years of speaking to be HEARD, I decided to change. And as is often the case with my resolutions, the inspiration was an obituary. Edna Lewis--cook, dress designer, writer, and worker for social justice was remembered in Tuesday's New York Times in an obit I had to clip for my collection.

I loved the story of how this young talented black woman was fired after three hours from the only job she could find when she first arrived in New York City. The job was ironing, and this was a woman clearly not born to iron.

I also loved the sound of her famous recipe for shrimp and grits.
"It's just butter and shirimp, but it requires great butter and great shrimp, and a puddle of that over stoned ground grits," said John T. Edge, the director of the something called The Southern Foodways Alliance. "This pays homage to the frugal south, but it's also worthy of damask cloth." Now that's eating--though with the price of butter and shrimp, I'm not sure how frugal it is.

But it wasn't the recipe for shrimp that changed my life. It was the description of Lewis's manner:

"She just had a very quiet way of speaking and it really engaged you," chef Alice Waters remembered. "Because she was so soft-spoken, you had to listen carefully. There was a kind of intimacy you immediately had."

Well, those words struck a couple of days ago, and I've been practicing my softer tone ever since. Not sure how long it will last because I make resolutions all the time, and usually nature and years of habit quashes them within a week. But I've already learned a few things just from my experiment:

1. You really don't have to shout to be heard. I think I was afraid that if I didn't speak UP, no one would pay attention to what I had to say. Not true! They seem to be listening even more closely.

2. Speaking softly is about much more than talking. It's about courtesy, because if you speak in a low voice, you can't barge into the middle of someone else's sentence. You've got to wait. Thus, in two days, I've found myself becoming a better listener.

3.It's really hard to be curt or blustering or abrasive when speaking quietly.

4. A simple thing like adopting a quiet tone of voice effects changes far beyond itself.
Since I've started, I've felt more composed, more moderate in all things--simply calmer.

I'm telling you: there are some amazing lives recorded on the obituary pages. Some amazing lessons.

Sunday, February 12, 2006



This morning woke to a predicted blizzard. All plans cancelled. A day deferred. So I put my hands behind my head and stayed in bed, thinking about all kinds of crazy things. Like the book tour I may or may not be going on next year. Traveling to 10 cities in 10 days or 14 cities in 14 days seemed about the remotest thing I could imagine as I lay in my bed, the snow whirling outside my window, turning the world where things like book tours happen into a white blur.

Instinctively, my eyes drifted to my closet. Now I don't know much about what people wear on book tours, but I can tell you one thing--it's nothing included in that closet: a lifetime supply of waitressing shirts, some pilly sweaters, and a few dresses which that have been taking up space for a decade or two, waiting for an event worthy of playing "dress-up". (Not many have come along.) Clearly, I need to go shopping. (And from my last post, you all know how skilled I am at that.)

Then more serious issues intruded. Nevermind what I'd wear: how I would ever get to the airport on time? I've never traveled alone, and the one time I took a trip with two of my kids, we had to run breathlessly for the plane. Then there was the issue of sleeping. How does a world class insomniac, who can get so overstimulated by a shot of brandy and a really good conversation that she doesn't sleep for two days, ever catch any Zs travelling from city to city in 14 days? I imagined how I would look by the time I reached the last city, sleepless, bleary eyed, and wearing the last of my frayed waitress shirts...

I wanted to get up at that point, since clearly nothing good was happening inside my head, but first I had to face the ultimate book tour bugaboo: what would I do if no one showed up at my readings--or if a lot of people showed up and I stepped up to speak, opened my mouth, and nothing came out but a frog-like croak. I could almost envision my slack jawed self, in her unfashionable clothes, and the hair that has never once in XX years known the meaning of a "good hair day".

At that point, I leaped out of bed, eager to shovel snow or build giant snowmen with carrot noses or tunnels to China--anything but be left alone with my own ruminations. But by then I was too exhausted from something that had nothing to do with today, and may well never happen.

"What's for breakfast?" my son asked.

"Breakfast? Are you kidding me. I'm too worn out from my book tour."

At that point, my husband gently reminded me that most writers don't even get a book tour (only something like 15%, actually) and I should be so lucky to worry about frogs popping out of my mouth on the road.

Well, that knocked me back to reality. At least for a little while. (I'm a writer, remember. I never stay in reality for too long.)

But it was still a day off from life. There was time to lay around in my pjs, drinking my coffee and reading the paper. One article I read said that there were four basic personality types: the Explorer, the Builder, the Negotiator, and the Director. Didn't really feel that any one of them described me, so I went around my house taking one of my little surveys. (My family is used to my nonsense.) No one else seemed to see themselves fitting neatly in those categories either. Aren't we all a little of each at different times?

Of course, there were lots of other things in the newspaper, too. Scary predictions about the economy, the environment, the continuing furor over the Danish cartoon. Usually, I would have gotten myself into an uproar about some of them. I might have even followed a couple of unsuspecting family members around, reading aloud from the most disturbing bits of news until I had defused my anxiety by passing it along. But it was a snow day. That meant I got to coccoon and ignore the larger world.

I took blankets and pillows onto the couch with my college age daughter who was home for the weekend, each of us in our corner like a pajama party, and took in a guilty pleasure. Single White Female, a movie I'd never seen but always been a little intrigued by, was on TV. An on-line review described it as "gruesome and pointless," but that didn't deter me. When it comes to gruesome and pointless, everyone has their weakness. Now me--I don't care much for macho Bruce Willis style stuff, and the endless creativity of serial killers and the writers who think them up would never cause me to give up a couple hours of my life--even on a snow day. But give me a good story of psychological obsession and I'm hooked--especially about two women. Somehow the cartoonish violence and pathological identification almost seemed like a metaphor for the dark side of female friendship. Gruesome and pointless it may have been (and slightly pornographic, too, especially when watching with a daughter!) but if I enjoyed every wasted minute.

Jennifer Jason Leigh was wonderful as the deranged roommate. Even her lustreless hair managed to give off fumes from the asylum. (Actually, she looked a bit like my fearful imaginings of myself on a book tour.) Wondered idly what happened to her--and to Bridget Fonda, whose angular face and body were ubiquitous for a while, and then just seemed to disappear.

Later, we had wine, and homemade chicken soup and bread. We played with the dogs, and checked out the Olympics, considered the fate of Michelle Kwan (can someone really be called a dinosaur at 24) and cheered Shaun White's amazing half-pipe performance (not to mention his hair!) Then we cleaned up while the snow eddied around the house, locking us in--and giving us permission to do whatever we wanted.

Oh yeah, a day off from life is good every now and then. But tomorrow, I look forward to getting back to work.


theater of life
Originally uploaded by New York Observer.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


My mother-in-law's birthday was coming so I went to the mall in search of a gift. Not the usual sweater set or household item, not even a book (which I always give her.) No this time, I wanted something that could make a difficult season more palatable, something that would momentarily lift her out of the house where the TV is both a constant drone and a solace, and where various medical appointments fill too many of her days; I wanted to make her smile from her toes up. Turns out they don't sell stuff like that at the mall--or at least, I couldn't find it on this particular day.

Frustrated, I turned to one of my favorite forms of solace--a latte and a stack of shiny magazines in the bookstore cafe. So admittedly, I'm in kind of a mood. I'm not a big shopper in any season; and at this time of year, there's something particularly depressing about the mall. With all the prices slashed and the stores deadly quiet, it's as if the essential emptiness of so much of what we think we want is tangible. You can almost hear it clicking on spike heels through the hollow space.

Then I opened a health magazine and the first thing I saw was an article called something like "Four things to do this month." And the four things were something (though not exactly) like this:

1. Splurge! Buy yourself a dozen roses.

2. Make a commitment to take a multi-vitamin every day this month.

3. Stop thinking about your flaws and focus on your assets.

4. Reevaluate your friendships, and terminate those that are not contributing to your

So, okay, none of this is particularly bad advice, but the trouble is it's all addressed to the ROYAL ME. And as we all know, the royal me is insatiable. Give her vitamins and roses, and next month she'll want diamonds and trips to the spa. The worst part is, the more you cater to the royal me, the more her discontent multiplies. How about, just for a change, the list went something like this:

1. Splurge! Buy a dozen roses, and keep one for yourself. Then distribute the other eleven to friends, family, or even strangers.

2. Make a commitment to give someone a verbal multi-vitamin every day, in the form of a sincere compliment, an encouraging note, a few minutes of deep listening, or even a smile.

3. Stop focusing on your flaws, and start focusing on everything that's amazing and good around you. You've only got so many thoughts to think in this lifetime. Chances are you've probably wasted enough of them up worrying that your nose is too long or that you're a total flop at cocktail conversation. Practice thought conservation!

4. Work to jettison any habit or pattern of thought that is preventing your growth. Who knows? Maybe some of the friends you thought of abandoning might even be inspired to do the same.

Now if anyone knows the perfect gift for a mother-in-law...

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Has anybody seen...

Clouded vision
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.

A couple of things missing here this morning:

1. My blogroll. Hope it's coming back. Lots of good friends and thoughts to challenge your deepest suppositions, some great photography and artwork to make you leap and swirl lingering in that line up. How will I gather you all in once you've drifted into the blogosphere?

2. The post I worked on for an hour last night about my shopping trip to the mall in search of something sublime. Looks like the words have refused to cohere together in the orderly paragraphs, the strings of thought I sat down to create. Instead they broke apart like ill-formed planets and scattered their dust everywhere.

Oh well, sometimes things are just lost. Can I put up a poster? Offer a reward?

Words at large. Some dressed up in colorful party hats. Others suspected of crimes against the language. Known to behave erratically when cornered.

*Yay! Looks like my blogroll has been mysteriously returned with all of my happy links unharmed. If only all lost articles, fugitive thoughts, scattered selves could be reclaimed so easily...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

WALKING THE WORLD: a new survey

wondering between an unknown sky
Originally uploaded by ricardo tavares.

It's funny how things work: one day you put on your old sneakers to take a walk to the store, and find out you're living in the wrong house on the wrong street in the wrong town.

Remember my infamous walk down the "big road" with the speeding SUVs driving me toward the guard rails? There were no sidewalks, no crosswalk when I traversed the four lane highway. Even the shopping center was geared toward hulking vehicles looking for a good parking place. Well, that did it.

Not that I haven't been having this thought for a while, a growing realization I live in a place that is out of synch with my philosophy of community and conservation--and just how human beings most optimally live on this earth.

Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful for my house. It's sheltered my family, given us the space to come together and to go off and dream our separate thoughts. People I love have grown up here; three beloved dogs have guarded this little patch of earth faithfully, and each summer we've eaten tomatoes and swiss chard grown from our little garden in the back.

But there's something wrong with developments like the one where I live, and this is it: the only thing here is houses. No stores to buy your daily milk, your toothpaste or broccoli. No little cafes where my neighbors could gather to get to know one another.

In a lot of ways, this is a neighborhood built for cars, not people. Or no, that's unfair--it's a neighborhood built for people who use their cars to go everywhere. Anyone who wants to walk or ride a bike and actually GO SOME PLACE while doing it, had better live elsewhere.

And since I believe in walking, or more specifically purposeful walking to get to work or run an errand, to visit your cousin, or to stop for a beer somewhere and chat, I've come to the conclusion that I'm living in the wrong place. God, why does it take me so long to figure this stuff out?

I want to live in the city where I can go to concerts and plays and ethnic restaurants. Or maybe I want to live in the country and raise chickens and grow lavendar and pumpkins. Then again, I might like a small town where I would live in a narrow house with flowers spilling from my window boxes, and anytime I wanted to, I would walk to the center of town to get my mail or visit the library. Actually, I'm XX years old, and I don't even know where the hell I want to live! I only know that I no longer want to live in a "development".

So here's my survey. Where do you think the best place to live is?

a) city

b) country

c) small town

And please, if you live somewhere you completely love, or if you just know the
perfect place for humans to thrive, don't be afraid to be specific!