9.29.2011

A Story I Wrote when I was Obsessed with Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Title of Which I Stole from one of his Most Famous Works



The Cafeteria

I read Isaac’s stories in the Forverts and thought they were good enough.  Would you believe back then he was listed in the phone book?  I called him.  And just like that, he invited me here for coffee.
At this very table he fell in love with me.  I never was a great beauty.  But Isaac was a whore.  You should have seen the way his blue eyes sparkled when I told him a story.  Back then, the cafeteria was always filled with writers and actors, all speaking Yiddish.  But when Isaac and I sat at this table together, nothing mattered to him more than my next word.  I wasn’t surprised to see the stories I told him appear in the Forverts under his name. 
It was a wonderful time. 
One night I had a dream that would change everything.  By then, things were falling apart because of Isaac.  My husband was furious, my children were constipated.  I nearly lost my job at the factory.  But I didn’t care.  Isaac was depending on me.  We sat down together with our coffee and rice pudding and I told him my dream as if it had really happened.  “I couldn’t sleep last night.  I don’t know why.  So I went out for a walk.  When I passed by the cafeteria, I saw a light was on.  I know you are not going to believe me.  But what I tell you is true.  When I looked in, I saw the most terrifying thing in the world.  Hitler was there in our cafeteria with his henchmen.  He looked up and our eyes met.”  I scared myself, I'm such an actress.  “And then I knew.  He is planning to burn our cafeteria.  Look at me shake, just thinking of it.”  I never saw Isaac more enchanted.  I knew then that he would never be able to leave me.
It wasn’t until after he moved to the Upper West Side that I read my Hitler story under his name.  By then, I rarely saw him.  Things were still in chaos at my apartment, but nothing disturbed Isaac.  If only God would have let me be born a man, I would have no need for such chozzerai.  But do I get a moment of quiet to myself to write down the thousand tales that crowd my mind?  All I’ve known is children hanging from my breast and a husband kvetching about my cooking.  Isaac had a son.  Abandoned him in Poland with the mother.  These are things a man can do, run with all kinds of women, making babies, breaking hearts, and still live in dignity and solitude.
After he won the prize, he came back.  A wall of journalists, I tell you.  And the women!  Every Jewess in town and half the goy, kissing his hands declaring what a mench he is.  You’ve never seen such people in the cafeteria, dripping with furs and jewels, wrinkling their noses at our food.  When I finally pushed my way to him, he turned cold and apologized that he didn’t remember me.  Does a man forget such nights?
Isaac doesn’t give a damn about the money.  Even now, he wears the same shmattes he was wearing 20 years ago.  For him, no matter.  He has always lived this way.  But me?  My father was one of the most successful businessmen in Poland.  We had every luxury.  But Hitler stole everything.  And then Isaac stole the rest.  He made so many promises to me, you can not imagine.  Everything was Yes Darling, Of Course Darling.  We were supposed to be married.  But then I come to learn that he promised to marry every woman in the cafeteria.
Fool that I am, I wait.  I don’t eat.  Who can eat such things?  Everything has changed.  The theatres are closed.  The writers and actors have all died or moved away.  No one speaks Yiddish anymore.  I drink coffee and the boy comes around and wipes the table with a filthy rag, trying to force me out.  I grab his wrist, and I glare at him, the way I learned from the Nazis.  But this rat knows nothing of fear.  He scowls back.  On his forearm is a tattoo of a rose.  I pull up my sleeve and show him my tattoo.  “This is my story,” I hiss.  “You would worship me for my stories.” 
Vieja loca,” the boy mutters and pulls away.
“Ask Isaac!” I cry.  Believe me, any minute now, he will walk in that door and the whole world will know the truth, that he never stopped loving me, that he owes me more than any man can ever give a woman. 

9.28.2011

Hump Day


"The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience.  Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything but their own kind.  The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations - the source of them all being love of life, which, as we know, increases and ripens with age."

Isaac Bashevis Singer in his author's note for his story story collection Old Love


9.27.2011

Real/Imagined

A friend alerted me to a writing contest, an alternative one seeking nontraditional nonfiction and blogs.  I considered entering, but then began to wonder, does this blog qualify as nonfiction?  To the best of my knowledge, everything is based on some experience I have had or real people I have met.  And though I would never call it lying, there are some facts that I've manipulated in order to enhance a story, the way we all do when describing our days to friends and family.

Examples: In a post titled "Practical Jokes" I said that all the neighbors raked their leaves and scattered them on the man's yard, though it was only one neighbor who actually did. The 24-hour Walgreens in the "24-hour Walgreens" post was not a 24-hour Walgreens but one that closes at 10p.m.  Elsewhere, I took a confrontation that happened at a different time and inserted it in a situation where it didn't actually happen, but where it could have easily happened, and where, narratively, it was much more effective.  At least one post is half imagined, though it rings more true in its imagined form, since the imagined part makes the story compelling.  At least once, I changed the date on a post to make it appear that I had not missed a day.  I used "rarely" where perhaps "sometimes" would have been closer to the truth.

How much manipulation can a real occurrence undergo until it becomes fiction?  How much can we trust our own idea of the truth?  Why are we so compelled to know whether a story is real or imagined?

I once saw an art piece erected in the desert, a dozen signs on tall poles.  The signs read Real on one side, Imagined on the other.  When the wind blew, the signs spun, the words blurring, until Real was indistinguishable from Imagined.

9.26.2011

Memory Mishaps

Before he died, I visited my husband's grandpa in Florida, where he resided, at an assisted living facility boarding a golf course.  He was a slight man who referred to his fellow residents as "inmates," and proudly showed us how he kept his girl friend's socks in the imaginary refrigerator on top of the air conditioner so they wouldn't stink up the place.  I was talking recently about him with my mother-in-law, saying how glad I am that our son got a chance to play golf with her dad before he died.  "But he died before your son was born," she said.  I didn't believe her until she pronounced the date of her dad's death. How could I have such a vivid memory of a thing that couldn't have happened? Had I imagined my husband as a boy, playing golf with his grandpa? Had I taken a conversation about how much my husband's grandpa would have loved playing golf with his great-grandchild and turned it into a memory?  Was I dreaming about having a child with my husband while we were visiting his grandpa and conjured up an image so real, I later mistook it for a memory?


I tell my husband a story I like to tell about an ex-boyfriend who was vacationing in D.C. during Reagan’s second term.  He went to Arlington Cemetery with his dad the same day it was rumored that Reagan was going to visit.  This ex-boyfriend of mine told his dad that if he saw Reagan, he was going to flip him off.  He got more and more agitated, hoping he would see the president, so he could show him what he thought of his politics.  And then, while they were walking around, a convoy of limousines rolled through the cemetary.  One slowed down right beside them and the mirrored window glided down, and there was Ronald Reagan, big old Hollywood grin, waving.  And there was my ex-boyfriend, waving back, grinning like a fool.  That’s what Reagan did to people.

I smile at my husband.  He is not smiling.  “That was me,” he says.

"Are you sure?" I ask.  His reaction informs me not to press him on the subject.

Still, I expect that one of these days someone will prove that I was right, that my husband heard me tell this story long ago and liked it so much he imaged it was him, though, of course, it's much more likely that by some gross psychological mishap that I would rather not have analyzed, it's my own memory that is to blame.  Then again, this may be a story that happened to many people during those years, and I just happen to know two of them.

9.25.2011

Dispatch from El Estor, Guatemala, #79

The yellow house on the northern shore of Lake Izabal was filled with weather-stained labels denoting nouns in Spanish and Kekchi, remnants of the Mormon missionaries - industrious, disciplined beings who built the sturdy little bridge across the creek that flowed after monsoon storms, a bridge that no one else had ever bothered to build since hopping from rock to rock had sufficed for many decades.  When we moved into this house, one of a half-dozen wooden houses remaining in town, relics from the days when the valley was filled with giant mahogany trees, I took to labeling one thing for myself.  I had asked the old man his name and thought he replied Don Miel, though later when I reported this to my husband, he doubted I'd heard correctly.  Still, we never called him anything but Mr. Honey.  


He lived in a stick shack across the dirt path with his ancient wife, a handful of little grandchildren, and an abject dog.  Mr. Honey collected wood, catching pieces that drifted out of the wetland and onto the lake's pebbly beach. Under the cashew tree, where a small family of howler monkeys spent many days, Mr. Honey labored, first sweeping the dirt, then erecting the drift wood into small tee-pees. At first, I took the old man for an artist and was thrilled by his sculptures. But soon enough my husband tempered my enthusiasm, convincing me that he wasn't making art, just drying his wood.  

Every evening before sunset, Mr. Honey entered our gate and crossed our yard to the lake.  There, alongside the boulders that once held the dock used by the ferry before the road around the lake was built, Mr. Honey carefully undressed and bathed.  Once, when he was returning from his bath, he climbed the three steps to our porch, took a seat, and spoke at length to me in Kekchi.  A sweet-smelling cloud of alcohol floated around his large face.  He talked for a long time, gesturing at me, the sky, the lake.  I recognized only the words for god, good, and thank you.  He repeated these words many times and I repeated them back to which he nodded his approval.  After a while, I had the feeling he was asking me for something and since he wasn't wearing a shirt, I assumed that's what he wanted.  I went inside and returned with a grey t-shirt that said "Dannon" boldly across the chest.  I set it in his hands, and he regarded it as if it were a steering wheel for a car he'd never own.  He sat in silence for a time, then stood, said thank you, and slowly descended the steps.  The next morning, as I was going to town, I saw him passed out, in the shade under the cashew tree wearing the Dannon t-shirt around his neck like a piece of jewelry.

Weeks later, Mr. Honey disappeared for several days.  He returned late one afternoon, lumbering towards home, dragging, by a strap wrapped around his forehead, a tree truck.  He spent the next four days alternately whacking at the wood with an ax and whittling a stick in the shade.  Eventually he turned the tree into dozens of sculptures meticulously arranged in his dirt yard.  I never saw the t-shirt again, nor did Mr. Honey ever venture onto our porch for another conversation. I never knew his real name, and he never lead me to believe it was anything but Mr. Honey.   

9.24.2011

And Remember Your BlackLight Bowling Shirt and Matching Ball

Great Great Grandmummy Genesee Fishbain says, "Don't forget to make plans to visit your sister for Thanksgiving."

9.23.2011

Journal. 9:30a.m.

In the non-fiction section, second floor, workmen change out the fluorescent lights.  They talk loudly even though we are in the library.  "Geeze.  No one wants to work for $8 these days.  No, they want $20 just for picking trash off the ground."  I don't normally spend time in this part of the library because mostly I'm confined to children's since the youngest kid isn't quite old enough to leave for more than a few minutes at a time, though I always push it, racing upstairs to peruse the 800's for as long as I dare, rushing back to children's, hoping no one noticed that it was my kid who was screaming for her mommy.

It used to be easy, to sit and free write, filling pages without pause, without concern that any of it made any sense.  Now, I stop to think about the next word and look up to see the titles in the stacks:  See Jane Lead, Primal Leadership, Game-Changer.  I think about my husband who reads such books and how it was that we exchanged sharp words this morning about the location of the checkbook.  The words were sharp because we each thought the other had spoken the first sharp word.

Where's the check book?

I don't know.

You had it last.

Etc.

I want to believe he was sharp first, though it's just as likely that I was, because I was out so late, though it's possible that he was sharp first because of the very same reason.  I didn't expect to be out so late, having gone to see The Tempest at 8.  The play was only a five minute walk away, but I snuck out before the kids were in bed in order to get a good seat.  I sat in the front row with T. who enjoys the same performances I do and who plays in the Gamelan band with me and who happens to be divorced.  I've been trying to fix him up with a friend of mine, who I invited to the play but who couldn't come.  So to some, it might appear as if T. and I are dating since we do things like go to Shakespare plays together in the evenings and sit next to each other in the front row and go to Jim's Place afterwards with five London actors.  This is not something I would normally do, go out with the actors after a show, something, I have in fact, never done before, but we ran into M. at intermission who told us that Ariel used to be cast as a man until the late 1800's when Ariel was first cast as a woman which suddenly changed the preception of Prospero from a hero to a villian. M. knows such things because she is smart and a professor and thus does things like go out with Shakespearean actors after phenomenal performances.  "Would you like to come along?" she asked.


The workmen are gone.  The sun has come out.  A train rolls by.  I'm stuck again trying to think how to describe the feeling of wanting to go out with five actors who are so brilliant, just to memorize the lines would be enough, but then to make each character (multiple ones per actor) come alive as they do, beyond comprehension.  Meanwhile, The Fear sets in.  Let's just say that to call my Shakespeare rusty would be a gross understatement.

But we do it!  T. and I join M. and one of her professor friends (who has been blogging since 2002, I find out, after bragging how I have been hard at it for a solid month), and we hang around the lobby until everyone goes home and the actors come out and we shake hands and congratulate them and everyone thanks everyone for coming and we are all instant friends.  We talk about what we always talk about with friends - beer, fried cheese curds, Chicago.  But it is Jenn who played Miranda and Ariel who I want to invite to my birthday party (not my two daughters' birthday party, but my own) since after a couple of hours, it felt like she'd been my friend for years.

I didn't want to go home, but eventually I did, T. driving me the three blocks to my door.

Seven a.m. and the electrican was knocking.  Oh yes, the landlord had warned us about the plans to change out the ancient electrical service before the assessor comes.  We get the feeling that the landlord is getting ready to sell the house out from under us.  So all through a rushed breakfast, the electrician drilled outside the kitchen window, the high squeal still buzzing in my ears when I confronted my husband about the checkbook.  So on second thought, maybe it was me, short of sleep, hard of hearing, who was the first to wield a sharp word.  But then again, once again, it's just as possible that it was him.

Regardless, I am at the library because we have no electricity today and I hardly know what to do at home when I can't check my email, even though I have lots of other things to do at home besides checking email, like baking carrot cake for my daughters' birthday party and figuring out some way to buy my new friend Jenn a Gillian Welsh CD before her performance this evening, a small thanks for bringing to life, one evening in small town Wisconsin, characters that were dreamed up more than 400 years ago on the other side of the ocean.  

9.22.2011

Happy One-Month Blogiversary!


Please, no money or diamond encrusted broaches.  Just forward the link to A Terminal Case of Whimsy to one of your far flung friends in order to color in a few more countries on my viewer's world map.

(And yes, it is one of my kid's birthdays, but this blog is not about the kids.)

9.21.2011

Signs of Winter #9

Officially, my husband isn't allowed to read the blog.  It was only a few days after my first post when my kids asked, "What's a blog?" and my loving husband answered, "A place where Mommy embarrasses herself."  I laughed because it was funny.  But it was funny only because I thought he hadn't read it yet.  "Oh, I've read it," he said. "I'm sure you'll start to get the hang of it after a while."

Still, being banned from reading the blog doesn't prevent him from having plenty of ideas of what I should blog about.  Last night, we were brushing teeth when he came up with this gem: Signs of Winter.

"Like what?"

"You know, leaves changing color, getting darker earlier, putting the summer clothes away."

"Doesn't sound very interesting," I said.  "Or funny."

"We're just warming them up," he said and listed five more signs of winter's approach, all of which you can imagine on your own without any help from me.

I politely rejected his idea.

"How about increasing frequency of unibrow sightings."

I had to admit.  He might be onto something.  But since he could think of nothing else worthy of note, I ask you, fellow Reader, what is your favorite sign of winter's approach?


9.20.2011

Just When You Think You've Made a New Friend

When we first moved to town, we were invited to dinner by friends of friends who we had met only twice, once on the street, once at the neighborhood school.  From those brief encounters and the enthusiastic recommendations by our mutual friends, we were confident that we were in for a nice evening together.  And we were right about that.  Our hosts were warm and gracious, the food delicious, the conversation lively and stimulating.  We shared several long laughs and agreed all around that it was a very good time.

Still, after returning home and putting the kids to bed, I was off kilter.  But since I was practicing the art of letting go, I pushed the nagging away.  My mind, stubborn as it is, kept springing back to the unsettling concern. My husband and I laid in bed that night reviewing the evening, laughing about some things we had laughed about over dinner and some things we hadn't.  My husband pronounced that since we had done no major damage, it was possible, with a little luck, we could develop a solid friendship with these folks.  I reluctantly agreed, repressing the desire to bring up what was bothering me, deciding it wasn't necessary and was best forgotten.  But as my husband snored, my worry festered and throbbed, irritating every other worry I have ever worried, making this new worry seem incredibly insignificant which worried me even more.

It was something I had said during dinner.  It had slipped from my mouth without thought, meant as a kind of joke, but once out, marred the air with a distasteful stench that wrinkled our hosts' faces and wilted the conversation.  Far from the first time such a thing had happened to me, I lay in bed, knowing that the fretting would only escalate as the night limped along.  I woke my husband and asked him if he remembered me saying what I had said, and he mumbled that he had and thought it was a stupid thing to say. Immediately realizing that his comment about my comment was going to keep him awake trying to talk me down, he amended his comment by saying, "But I'm sure no one else even heard you say it."

Needless to say, I did not sleep well.

The next day, blurry and weary as I was, brighter things to worry about arose, and the worries that had keep me awake now seemed silly. Obviously, my husband was right. Most likely no one even heard, given my tendency to mumble, and everyone's tendency to think more about what we are going to say than about what others are saying.

But when I went to check my email, there was a message from our hosts.  It read, "Could you please call me today.  There is something I need to talk with you about." I stared at the message, aghast. I showed my husband.  He seemed genuinely concerned. We talked about it for a good long time, my husband coaching me to come out swinging.  When I finally called, my heart was pounding so hard, my greeting quivered.  "What's up?" I asked with feigned nonchalance.  She wanted to talk to me about last night.  She hadn't slept well, she said, because she had been up thinking about something that was said at dinner, even though she didn't want it to bother her, even though she tried to let it go, the concern had kept nagging her all night long.

Then she took a deep breath and apologized for the stupid thing she had said, that she couldn't believe she had said it, that it wasn't like her to say such things, and that she really didn't mean it in the way it had sounded, and how she hoped that it wouldn't effect the future of our friendship, and that she would love nothing more than if I could forget that she had said it in the first place.

"Already long forgotten," I assured her.  Which couldn't have been closer to the truth since I didn't even remember her saying the stupid thing she claimed to have said in the first place.

9.19.2011

Awkward Moment #83

Janet had no idea she would be the only one at the potluck wearing an ascot.

9.18.2011

From the Archives: Matters of Security

The Department of Homeland Security had deemed the terrorist threat level Orange on the day that Ari Derfel, co-founder and CEO of Back to Earth Organic Catering and Outdoor Adventures*, was flying from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. He decidedly did not want to empty his canteen of water at the security check point and so was armed with papers he had printed from the Homeland Security website. Officer A told him to dump the water.  Ari said he didn’t have to since the water, which he had tainted with electrolytes, was a medical necessity. “Do you have a note from a doctor?” Officer A inquired. Ari did not and did not need one according to Homeland Security regulations. He offered to drink some of the water just to prove it was not a key ingredient in making an explosive devise. Officer A refused. Ari requested to see his supervisor. “That won’t help,” said Officer A paging Officer B, his supervisor. Repeat Scene 1 for Officer B who was no more convinced than Officer A of Ari’s medical need, but to prevent further headache, waved Ari through security without making him drink from his canteen which, being made of stainless steel and covered with anti-establishment stickers, did indeed look like a bomb.

This story Ari told at a house party thrown on the steep face of the Oakland Hills. He was wearing a red bindi and narrow side burns shaved to a point at his chin. He was still glowing from his twelve day trip to Hawaii’s big island where he had again defied order and wandered through an active lava field. When it began to rain so heavily that he couldn’t see even three feet in front of him, he sat cross legged on the lava crust to perform pranayama. He sought a spirit guide and over his left shoulder appeared the unduly adorable face of his best friend’s two year old son, Elijah. Ari asked for his help and Elijah obliged, managing to guide Uncle Ari out of the lava field without putting his foot through the fragile crust and into hot lava. This story Ari also told at the Oakland house party for a group of enraptured friends including Elijah who was up way past his bed time but was frankly more interested in capturing the attentions of Ari’s business partner’s beautiful girlfriend who Elijah was unabashedly in love with. 

Ari did not mind because there were other stories to tell, particularly about getting stopped at the security gate on the way home from Hawaii. Having decided, from his experience on the Utah trip, that the battle to keep the water in his canteen was not worth the effort, Ari had not anticipated any problems. But that was to underestimate the dangers in a pound of chocolate wrapped in cellophane and a backpack full of trash. “I’m collecting all my garbage for a year, sir,” Ari explained to the concerned Officer C, noting how disappointed he was to be bringing back so much trash since he was limiting himself to one 96 gallon bag for the year. But Officer C was more worried about the chocolate and suggested Ari check it. Ari argued that would not be possible since it was smaller than a baggage claim sticker. Ari offered to take a bite of it instead.

Officer C called his supervisor Officer D who finally agreed that Ari could take the chocolate on board only if he first put it in a plastic zip-lock bag and zipped it closed. Ari explained that he couldn’t do that because he was currently engaged in a project where he was limiting his garbage and could not afford to make unnecessary waste. Officer D, her own chocolate addiction having been triggered by the discussion of this aromatic item, remembered that she still had half a 75% coco bar with almonds in her purse and so decided she could forgo this security breach and still have enough of her lunch break to retrieve the treat. She waved Ari through security without making him eat the chocolate. Ari was thankful that she forgot all about the zip-lock bag, saving him a bit of space for some other more worthy piece of trash.**

*Ari is now co-owner of the wildly successful restaurant Gather in Berkeley, CA.
**Ari did succeed in saving all his garbage for a year.  Read about it at www.saveyourtrash.typepad.com

9.16.2011

Rejection Schlmection

The advice is to query dozens of agents.  I query one, dozens of times.  It makes sense too because he is the ex-boyfriend of a daughter of a cousin of a friend of a co-worker of a friend of my mother-in-law.  When I first sent him some work, years ago, he was just starting out at a well-know Manhattan agency.  His rejection was swift and polite.  As the years have rolled by, his rejections have maintained their gracious tone, but with longer and longer lag time.  I can only assume that's because it's getting harder and harder for him to keep rejecting me, though the truth is that he is now very successful with an author list that includes many award winners and best sellers which leaves him little time to send personal and gracious rejection letters to perky slush pile authors.

Six months ago, I sent him some illustrated essays.  I am much too experienced with these types of things to know not to let my mind race to fanciful conclusions.  Yet, I do.  I imagine phone calls and lunches and contracts and parties and always lots of laughing about how many rejections I received from him until he finally came around.


Smallest rejection letter: 3.5in. x 2.5in. (Prairie Schooner)

Most empathetic form rejection:  "We're aware that writing is hard work, and that writers merit some acknowledgment.  A form letter doesn't speak to that need.  Please know, however, that we've read your work, and appreciate your interest in the magazine."  (The Sun)

Most common line:  "Unfortunately, your work does not meet our needs at this time."

Most terse:  "Thank you for submitting your manuscript.  We regret that we are unable to make use of it at this time."  (The Paris Review)

Best rejection letter to date:  "Dear J.K.,  Thanks for submitting 'The Celebration.'  Like Dimitri's penis, your story is well-shaped, symmetrical, pleasing.  Nonetheless, it lacks an urgency in the narrative and actions.  Best to you in future submissions."  (Esquire)  


That one got shown around the neighborhood.

Some make my lips curl.  Others deliver the faint nausea of embarrassment, like after contacting an old flame who doesn't seem to remember me.  All arrive in thin, self-addressed stamped envelopes that I pull from the mailbox and wave at the nearest sentient being, "Another rejection letter!"  All go into a fat folder that sits in a file box under my desk.

And today, I receive another from my agent who doesn't yet know that he is going to be my agent.  The envelopes he sends are not thin because he always sends my work back to me even though I tell him he doesn't have to. (What could that possibly mean?!) His letter is typed and signed in blue ink, his slim signature slightly smeared.  I know better than to study his charitable remarks for some deeper meaning. But I do, with the same naive optimism that drives me to volunteer for the PTA.
It's only a matter of time.



9.15.2011

Decidedly Indecisive


Now I am reading Mary Gordon, a hardcover of three novellas my mom sent to me.  Maybe I’ve already mentioned that.  It’s difficult for me to know what I’ve mentioned and what I’ve only thought to mention.  I can spend a lot of time thinking through the details of mentioning a thing, so much time that afterward I wonder if I actually did mention it rather than just think of mentioning it. 
          Biffy doesn’t know what a novella is, thinking that’s the title of the book.  She thanks me, saying that’s good information to know, learning the definition of novella.  Biffy is like that, generous with her gratitude.  We are all trying to be more gracious these days.  To help, Biffy wears a mail-order bracelet that she is suppose to move from one wrist to the other every time she complains.  But it’s not always clear whether a comment is a complaint or just an observation. 
            Example:  The other day she told me that her husband was in a foul mood because she had left some things on the counter the night before and that things left on the counter make him very upset and that she can not understand what his deal is.  She apologized for complaining and moved the bracelet to her other wrist.  But then she wondered if that was more of an observation than a complaint.  She moved the bracelet back to the other wrist.  I pointed out that moving the bracelet implies that a complaint has been uttered and therefore moving the bracelet from one wrist to the other can not also be a retraction of a falsely identified complaint.   
            “You are such a dork” she says.
            “Is that a complaint?” I ask.
            “No, it’s an observation,” she says, but moves her bracelet to her other wrist anyway.   
            The reason Biffy had left things on the counter the night before was that she has a tremendous difficulty making decisions and this makes cooking torture.  I had never considered that, the number of decisions that go into cooking a meal.  First you have to decide what to make and whether or not to use a cookbook.  If using a cookbook, which one?  Then, there’s the shopping, a myriad of choices for every ingredient, low-fat, non-fat, mild, medium, spicy, large, small, organic, conventional, vegan, non-gulten, farm raised, wild, local, imported.  At home it only gets worse.  When to start?  What pot to use?  With which utensil to stir?  It exhausts Biffy, this constant battle of possibilities, each senerio rolling out alternative futures, to be considered in full. And inevitably, no matter what choice Biffy makes, it is never the best one.  Biffy thought if she could divide it up, pick a recipe one day, shop the next, lay out the pots and measuring utensils the night before, that maybe she could manage to cook a meal without a major emotional breakdown.  But as it turns out, avoiding her own emotional breakdowns causes her husband to have his own. 
            So Biffy decides it best not to cook. 


            But women, especially us second generation feminists who don’t cook because our gender informs us to, but who cook because it’s the healthiest choice for our children, we find it curious when a woman, especially a woman who doesn’t work but stays at home, a former kindergarten teacher no less, does not cook.  And since we are all so busy trying to improve ourselves, it is no great stretch to assume that we can improve Biffy as well.  But Biffy is easily bored.  When her visual cortex is not being stimulated, such as during conversations about cooking, she spins every comment into a shocking sexual inuendo.  Once, at a Pampered Chef party, she returned from the bathroom, quietly rejoining the group, her pants unzipped, a curly black wig billowing from her open fly.  She claims she doesn’t want to be the center of attention because it is so exhausting, but that she has no other choice, given that she is so easily bored.  But no matter how dirty it gets, at some point the conversation always comes back to cooking, and even women who have heard her say it before are startled anew.  “You don’t cook?” they ask.  “Why not?”  But it’s too much to explain (even I didn’t learn the answer until very recently, when I pressed her on it, one afternoon when were very bored), so Biffy always throws out a line about how her man does all the cookin’ in this family, which is true actually, but she says it in such a way that we all laugh and catch someone blushing, and then we laugh even harder like mean little school girls.  

9.14.2011

In My Dreams

I never chew gum any more, though I used to be a heavy user in middle school.  Now, I have a reoccurring dream that I am chewing gum and the gum breaks apart and sticks to all corners of my mouth and I try, unsuccessfully, to dig it out with my fingers.  And every time I have this dream, I think it is not a dream, and I think all those other frustrating gum chewing experiences are not dreams either, and I wonder why didn't I learn from the last time this happened and remember to never chew gum again.


I used to have terrible nightmeres as a child, many that I still remember.  Hiding under a couch and watching a strange man's shoes slowing walking towards me.  A vampire emerging from behind the attic door.  I remember the first dream I was ever aware of remembering, being in a person's car I didn't know and watching the billboards pass and being so afraid, not knowing where I was or if I would ever get home.  It wasn't until years later that I understood that it scared me so much because I was too young to understand what dreams are.


Only in my dreams I am terrified of heights.  In many dreams, there are strange staircases where I'm forced to make dangerous leaps because the steps I'm on don't connect to the steps where I have to go.  Or there are places in tall buildings with no railings where there should be railings, or narrow plank bridges that cross deep gorges, or dirt roads that descend vertical mountainsides, or swift escalators that drop out of view.  Always in these dreams, inching along on my belly, I am startled by my paralyzing fear, marveling that I actually thought I was only scared of heights in my dreams, not, as it seems to be, in real life.


I once dated a guy who told me he flies in his dreams every night.  He said it was easy.  All you have to do is tell yourself just before you fall asleep that you are going to notice when you are dreaming and then stop the action of the dream and fly.  It sounded a little far fetched.  But I tried it and even succeeded at times, though at first I would flap my arms and be frustrated with only flying up a few feet at a time.  But when I realized all I had to do was soar, I started to fly above the trees.  I forget to try to lucid dream for months at a time.  But just the other night I woke up inside a dream and thought, fly!  So I did.




I have a brother who insists he catagorically never wants to hear about anyone's dreams.  Unless, of course, he is in it.


9.13.2011

Conversation with My Mother. #487

Hello?

Hi, Mom.

I was just starting to think you were never going to call me back. 

Well.  Here I am.

You must be very busy.

Yes.

How are you liking the new dishes I brought?

Great.  Thank you.  Again.

I knew you would like them.  They are Dansk dishes.  That is a very good brand, you know.  They sell those at Macy's.  But I got them at the Half of a Half Price Store. 

Thank you.

That's 75% off.  They are very pretty, don't you think?

Yes, I do.

And just the right size.

Yes.

Not too big.

No.

But not too small either.

Yes.

I bet you will use them a lot.

I'm using them as we speak.  

You see?  And you just turned your nose up at them when I brought them over.

No, I didn't.

You did so.  Didn't you get my message?

That you ran into someone I know?

Yes.  Do you remember the Reginald girl?

No.

Yes you do.  That's Judy and Martin's daughter.  The one with the lazy eye?

I'm not sure, Mom.

Maybe she's your brother's age.  When did you graduate?

'89.

Oh yes.  Well.  I think she graduated in '87.  Anyway, she said she remembers you.

Maybe she was just being polite.

Oh no.  She said that you were both in French club together.

I was never in French club.

Yes, you were.

Maybe for a week.

It was longer than that.  I remember.  You liked it so much.

No, I didn't.

The Reginald girl. . . What's her name?

I don't know, Mom.

Well, she said that the next time you are in town, you should definitely call her.  She has two girls the same ages as yours.  I have her number here somewhere.  Let's see.  Where did I write that down?

That's okay, Mom.  Just hold onto it for me.  

Well, when I find it, I will put it right here by the phone and when you are in town you should call her.  She's a very nice girl.  

She told you something about a friend of mine?

What's that?

I don't know.  You said something like that in your message.  Something really interesting about a friend?

No. . . . Just that she wanted to get together the next time you are in town.  

Hm.

When are you coming by the way?  Our calendar is filling up.  We are very busy people you know. The grass doesn't grow under our feet like some people. You think we are just old stogy folks who don't do anything interesting, but I tell you, our calendar is full.  Just ask your father.  He's taking a nap.  Harry!  Your daughter's on the phone!

Mom.  Don't wake him up.  

He needs to get up.  He would sleep all day if I let him.  Harry!

Hello?

Hi, Dad.

Well, hello!

Taking a nap?

Just resting my eyes.  

Mom was just telling me how busy you two are.

Oh yes.  Well, let's see.  I went down to the coffee shop this morning and read the paper and saw Sydney Weinstein there, an old friend of mine, you probably don't remember.  

The guy with the sports car?

That's him.  But he can't get in and out of the sports car so good any more.  I'm too old for the little red sports car you promised to buy me when you got rich and famous.  

Well, I never got rich and famous.

That's okay.  We still love you.  Sydney thinks he might trade his in for a Ford Taurus because he likes mine so much.  

Harry, tell her about how we went dancing.  

Oh yes.  Your mother and I went dancing last weekend.  

That's nice. 

Do you remember the Shapiros?

Maybe.

Steve and Sylvia?

I think so.

Their daughter got married.

Her first marriage.  She's your age!  Oh, was her mother worried about her.  But she found a really nice man.  He's divorced.  But everyone says his first wife was a real problem.  Nicest man.  And he works for Mutual of Omaha so they have plenty of money. What a sophisticated wedding that was! Tell her, Harry.

None of that kid's stuff.  This was all class.  They had a string quartet for the wedding.  Very nice.  And a jazz combo for the reception.

And your father and I were the hit of the party. You should have seen us.

We were smooth.

And all the young kids came up to us and told us what wonderful dancers we are.  

I'm sure.  

But your father over did it, like always.  He wasn't able to sit down for two days.

Sore feet?

Hemorrhoids.

Be thankful you're young. 

Oh, now I remember!  Your friend, what's her name?

Who?

The Reginald girl.

I told you, I don't know.

Well, she remembers you.  Anyway, she told me that Nancy Singer was in the Peace Corps.  

I'm getting off the phone.  I've heard this already. 

Bye Dad.

Isn't that interesting?

What country?

Somewhere in Africa, I think.  Or maybe it was South America.  I can't remember.  But she was a teacher just like you.  Wouldn't it be fun to talk with her about that?

Maybe next time I'm in town, I'll look her up.

You should do that.  When are you coming anyway?  You haven't been here for so long.  And you know, they have this new exhibit at the zoo that the kids are going to love!

9.12.2011

All We Don't Know

I think the man in the park, wearing an official-looking reflective vest, picking up garbage, is talking on his cellphone until he gets closer and I realize he is just a good old fashioned crazy man, talking to people who aren't there.


There is a retarded man who comes to the public pool.  He swims all afternoon, sometimes bobbing underwater, but mostly just wading, stuttering out the same words over and over, holding his hands in front of his face and making silly gestures with his fingers. One day, Biffy and I see him way across the pool talking to some ladies. Eventually, he floats over to us, wiggling a finger in his ear, squeeling at a high pitch. We say hi and his hands drop and he transforms into a completely regular guy named Tim who is charming and funny and tells us about his dog and his respectable job.  It isn't too long before he asks if either of us are single.  When we say no, he asks if we know of any women right around our age who are.  "But I'm looking for a normal girl, none of these kooky types," he says.  "If you know what I mean."  We reassure him that we do.  And because we laughed when he told us about his dog, he tells us about his dog again, demonstrating how his dog runs off every time he opens the door.  But there is something about calling his dog's name over and over which sends him back to where he emerged, and his fingers flutter back to his face resuming their patterns as he squeals at them.  He floats away, and Biffy and I float back to our husbands who aren't too impressed with our discovery.  But we are, the surprise lingering for months, how startlingly wrong we can be about so many things.



My brother lives in nice old neighborhood in a large city, just down the street from a grade school. While visiting, I take my kids and my nieces to the grade school playground.  It's summer break and there are men working on the school.  We are the only ones on the playground except for a young woman who I don't notice at first, but when I do, I assume she a teacher, taking a break from preparations for the next session.  The woman eventually walks over to me and asks if I have any water and I say no, but I'm sure there must be a water fountain inside the school.  One of my nieces offers to show her where, and before I know it, both my nieces, are skipping off with this woman, each holding one of her hands.

It isn't until they are out of sight that it slowly dawns on me.  What kind of a woman is this, sitting alone at a playground, asking strangers for a drink of water?  I quickly gather our things, order my kids to follow, and hurry to catch my nieces.  Several workmen are taking a break outside the school.  I ask them if they saw a young woman with twin girls go into the building.  They shake their heads.  My imagination erupts with every horrific conclusion.  I rush towards my brother's house, trying to hold down the thought that my nieces won't be there.  I run up the steps and one of my nieces opens the screen door.  Okay, I breath.  No need to worry.  "That woman's weird," she says.  My other niece joins us. "She wants lunch."  Under my watch, my nieces have brought home a crazy woman.

My brother, older than me, a highly respected professor and classical pianist, comes into the hallway.  The woman who I thought had stolen my nieces, lingers in my brother's house, picking up objects off shelves and studying them quizzically.  My heart thumps with adrenaline.  "You have to go," I blurt.

"We're having lunch," she says, dreamily.

"No, you have to go, now."

"Come on, kids," she beckons floating out to the porch.

"No," I say.  "These aren't your kids."

"Oh?" she says, bewildered.  We watch her wander down the driveway, into the neighbor's yard, and through their bushes.  Eventually she crosses the street and heads back in the direction of the school.

"Maybe we should call the police," my brother suggests.  I agree that might be a good idea, but for some reason, we don't.

Where my fear became anger, my anger became guilt, realizing that a simple defect in my own imagination sent this woman back onto the streets instead of getting her what she really needed, a drink, a lunch, a call to someone who might be able to get her back to where she belonged.

    

9.09.2011

A Recognizable Tune

Tomorrow is the party.  I planned it one day when I was feeling pretty groovy, playing the piano, which I don't know how to play, but do.  Sometimes my playing sounds good to me and sometimes it doesn't, though I'm certain it's also true that for many, including my husband, it doesn't ever sound good at all.  I can't play any recognizable tune on the piano, though I am all too aware that recognizable tunes are just the thing that people want to hear.  My son has been taking lessons for a few years now, and with some effort, I can still figure out the songs he is learning, but this probably won't be true for much longer. I bought a book of exercises that Bartok wrote when his son was learning to play, and I like those pieces very much and sometimes have the patience to figure them out and practice them, but mostly I've lost my patience for reading music and just want to play wild and dissonant things that I would never be able to learn by reading even if they were written down, music that some people would have a hard time calling music.



But sometimes, when I'm feeling groovy, it's possible to imagine that the music I play could be enjoyable or at least interesting to a listener, especially if the listener was also feeling groovy.

I was very interested in a documentary about Philip Glass.  In it, he describes concerts they used to have in The Village where he and his band mates would improvise for hours while everyone else rolled around on the floor.

So it's not too surprising that one day, while playing piano, my mind concocted a fantasy of hosting a similar type of party at my own house, a monthly event that people would talk about and look forward to and dress up for, as if they were going to a party at Gertrude Stein's.  I would serve delicious hors d'oeuvres and fine drinks and people would bring all kinds of unusual instruments that would always sound good together.  Since I knew I would probably loose my courage to host such a party, I sent out invitations right away, mostly to people I barely know, since it's hard to find people who don't mind playing music that drives the average man from the room.  And then I lost my courage and now the party is tomorrow and I am very worried.



This is not a first.  Once I tried to start a community bike ride.  In my own little mind, before it even got started, I imagined it would grow until hundreds of people would bike the streets of our quaint town together every Sunday, wearing outrageous costumes and calling out happy things to people on the sidewalks who would wave and say encouraging things back to us.  I imagined that people would come from Wauwatosa and Sheboygan and Oconomowoc and Kenosha just to be a part of it, and that at the end of each ride would be a spontaneous party with music and dancing and lemonade made with real lemons.  I made flyers and hung them up all over town, imagining they would one day be collector's items.  A few friends came and even one family we didn't know, and it was fun, and there was a little party afterward with tightrope walking and unicycling, but on the day of the next ride, it was overcast and sprinkling and only me and my kids showed and then I lost my courage and that was the end of that.




9.08.2011

Published Work

Not long ago, I was looking back through some old published work, of which there is very little, and realized that the first thing I ever published as an adult, a little essay in an even littler publication, was possibly the best thing I've ever published, freer and more lovely than any of the tight little stones I later pushed forth.  At the time of its publication, I was living with my fiance in the fishing town of El Estor, Guatemala.  I was paid $25 for that essay, half a month's rent for the grand house we lived in, across from the town's only children's park and The Fisherman's Embassy, the town's favorite brothel.




9.07.2011

Cat

While trying to find a drawing to illustrate another posting, I came across a painting I did while living in Tucson, a million years ago, just after getting married, while my husband was in graduate school.  We lived in an attic apartment, which I remember very clearly because it was a lovely apartment, the nicest we'd ever had, very clean and new, an apartment remodeled for a sorority girl, we decided, because the trimmings were pink and shiny.  We entered the apartment from the back of the house, climbing an outside stairway that led to a deck where we had many gatherings. Inside was the kitchen with a view of the mountains on the north side of town.  There were no hallways in the apartment, so the kitchen flowed into the living room which was seperated by a frosty glass door from the one bedroom that had two large windows overlooking the street.

It was strange that we chose to live in that particular apartment, since my husband is very tall and could only walk along the center of the apartment without having to bend over, and since living in an attic in a place like Tucson is not a very sensible idea.  We ran the air conditioning year round. But because it was a dry heat, sometimes the nights cooled off enough to open the door and the windows.  Before we moved in, the landlord had installed heavy dark screens over the two windows in the front of the attic, the only windows except for the sky light in the bathroom and the window in the kitchen.  I almost cried when I saw the dark screens.  I called the landlord immediately.  He suggested it was good to have these sorts of screens in Tucson to help keep out the heat.  But the screens were so dark that I could barely see out the windows, and what good is a window if not for seeing out of?

I suppose he must have taken the screens off and not replaced them with other screens, because there was a period of time, on those winter nights that were cool enough to open the windows, when a cat would sneak into our apartment.  Back then, we slept on a futon on the floor and the cat would wake us as it scampered over us.  There must have been something about the cat coming in and out of the window at night that we both liked because we didn't try to stop it, but let it come in even if it woke us.  The cat was always gone before morning.


If it weren't for the painting, I wouldn't have remembered that for a short period of time in Tucson, a cat came into our apartment at night, even though I remember many other things about that apartment.  I do remember the smell of cigerette smoke wafting from the downstairs neighbors and the haunting calls of the trains that crossed the desert throughout each night and the way my heart would jump every time I saw the man who lived in the apartment next door because he looked so much like an old boyfriend of mine, and the strange fact, that I didn't learn until much later, that this man was an identical twin which was why, when I tried to say hi to him on campus, he ignored me, since it was his brother, who didn't know me, and not my neighbor.  I remember the mornings after the parties on the deck when the fun had gotten out of hand, and I would have to call and apologize for my husband's behavior, like when he poured the crumbs from a bag of greasy potato chips all over a woman's head, a woman who we both liked very much, or when he declared how we would of course be invited to a fellow grad student's wedding when it was already evident to all that we weren't going to be invited, maybe because of the potato chip incident or maybe because of something else altogether.

But then we had a baby, and though at first I thought everyone had been wrong and that having a baby wouldn't change our lives that much, everything did change.  People stopped coming over to have parties on the deck, not because we stopped inviting them, but because they were nervous about the baby.  And the cat no longer came into the apartment at night, most likely because the thought of a wild cat scratching out the eyes of the baby made me nervous enough to insist the landlord put up screens that would keep out cats but let in the light, though I don't remember the details, just that the cat no longer woke us in the night, though the baby often did.

None of these other things I painted a picture of and yet I remember them very clearly.  Without the painting I recently found, I never would have remembered about the cat coming into the apartment at night and the peculiar feeling it gave me, of allowing a wild piece of the world to explore my private corner.  What else do I not remember about that time, and many other times, that I would remember if I had only bothered to paint it?

9.05.2011

24-Hour Walgreens

It was New Year's Eve, I remember because it was so damn cold.  Our friends were visiting from the town where we used to live, so there was quite a bit of nostalgia going around, talking about all the good times we had in our extravagantly co-dependent, faintly incestuous relationship. Our friends had a brand new baby so the best Biffy and I could do to get away was to walk to the 24-hour Walgreens. We tired to walk fast, but we were wearing snow pants and heavy boots and coats the size of Connecticut, and the wind was blowing us hard, so we weren't getting anywhere fast, though we were expending a lot of effort, scrunching up our faces and swearing about how cold it was.

When we finally got to the Walgreens and those doors slid open, it felt like we were travelers coming off a month long trek across the Great Plains.  It was the most delicious feeling to step inside and it didn't even matter how strange the people are who gather at a 24-hour Walgreens in the middle of a Wisconsin cold snap on New Year's Eve, we were glad to see each and every one of them. We walked around the store marveling at the things a person can buy at a Walgreens these days, jumper cables, fishing lures, paint by the gallon.

Standing in line a woman asked whose bag that was, slumped by the register, a dilapidated backpack that looked just the right size for a bomb or a head.  A grim man standing a fair ways off growled nobody touch it, that it was his.  Biffy and I drifted into cosmetics for a while, waiting until he got through the line.


Back at the register with our chocolate, anti-depressants, and panty liners, the doors slid open and in stumbled a woman, eyes ringed with black, chocolate wine lipstick smeared well beyond the confines of her lips.  She was wearing an ancient fur hair.  "Cold out there," she said, her voice gruff as my dad's.

"Did you walk far?" I asked.

"I rode my bike," she croaked. She pulled up her black skirt to reveal sickly boots and pocked, jello-y flesh.  "See?  I got my pants on under these."  I saw no pants.  She ordered smokes.

"My God," said Biffy as we braced ourselves against the cold.  "Your ghost of Christmas future."

9.04.2011

Overdue Admiration

I am now reading a book I am certain I will finish, yet I don't want to ever finish it.  It's not the kind of book that you read slower and slower towards the end because you love the characters and aren't ready for them to leave your life.  No, this book I'm now carrying with me is the type of book that many people would not find appealing at all, being a detailed account of the author's attempt to recall what she remembers and what she doesn't remember about a relationship she had long ago. It is one of those books that I can only read in small bits because it is so rich.  Reading a few paragraphs or even a few sentences triggers in me the need to write, usually something somewhat similar to what this author has already written.

I admitted to a friend that I was reading this writer's books, but that it was hard for me to admit because there is a distinct possibility that in light of this knowledge, everything that I write will seem like a cheap imitation.  This friend tried to reasure me that my work is not a cheap imitation of the writer's work I admire, but that her work happens to be like my work which is why I like her work so much, just as I like Saul Steinberg's drawing because they resemble my own.  I suppose these are the same tendencies that cause us to admire shoes in the shoe store window that are nearly identical to the ones we are already wearing.

This particular book is a novel, though I was first acquainted with this author's short stories, a thick collection that my mother-in-law gave to me a couple of Christmases back.  Because I was used to reading her short stories which are often very short, sometimes even one sentence, though more often several pages long, and because I read at random, flipping the book open and reading whatever was on the page before me, I was at first disappointed that the only other book the library owned of hers was a novel.  So at first, I read the book at random, as if it were a collection of short stories, opening to any page and reading until I was inspired to write.  But at some point I wondered how it was she structured this novel that could be enjoyed, by me at least, in this random fashion.  Now, I'm reading the book in a traditional manner.  I encounter the sections I already read, but since the book itself attempts to reflect the random structure of memory, and since she often repeats certain things about her characters, it is unclear to me whether I did actually read this passage before, whether she is recalling a different passage I already read, or whether I simply imagined a similar passage based on other passages.

Even though I love this book, it is sometimes discouraging to read, since she wrote it and I didn't.  All this is somewhat embarrassing mind you, the way it's embarrassing to look back on how you behaved when you were first in love with a person who so totally consumed you, you began to talk and dress and act just like them.

That said, it is entirely possible that my admiration for this book might fade before I finish reading it.   If that happens, this book may get buried under other books and newspapers and stacks of towels, and I will forgot about it until I receive a terse note from the library reminding me it's overdue.  I will try to find it but may fail, this being weeks from now, mind you, when this writer I so admire, annoys me more than inspires me, when I have moved on to shadow a different sort of writer altogether.  


9.03.2011

Subscription

There is a magazine that I've subscribed to for many years.  When I see it in my mailbox, waiting for me when I come home, it fills me with both joy and dread.

I love this magazine because it helps me remember that there are so many other people out there, just like me, struggling to write a decent short story.  But also, I hate this magazine because it helps me remember that there are so many other people out there, just like me, struggling to write a decent short story.

I love this magazine because it lists so many opportunities, so many contests, so many programs, so many conferences, so many literary magazines, so many retreats for writers just like me.  But also, I hate this magazine because it lists so many opportunities, so many contests, so many programs, so many conferences, so many literary magazines, so many retreats for writers just like me.

I love this magazine because it is so encouraging.  And so you can imagine, I hate this magazine because it is so encouraging.

I used to read it cover to cover and carry it around with me in my purse because my love was so strong and my hate, an obscured seed of doubt.  But recently, I notice, even new issues sit on the counter untouched for days and get buried under stacks of newspapers and hats and friends' casserole dishes, because the hate has grown unruly and the love, just a faint memory far back on the tongue.

9.02.2011

Practical Jokes

A mustached man excuses himself from the Thanksgiving table and returns ten minutes later with his mustache shaved off.  The following Thanksgiving, a clean shaven man, a cousin of the mustached man who shaved off his mustache during the previous year's diner, excuses himself from the table and returns, a few minutes later, with a hardy looking mustache.


A man who lives in an old neighborhood with many big trees but no trees in his own yard, brags every year about how delighted he is that he never has to rake his grass. After years of gloating to the neighbors about this fact, one autumn day, while the man is away on vacation, all the neighbors rake the leaves from their own yards and cover the man's pristine lawn with leaves.




At a party, a man with good timing and quick reflexes, tosses fake flies in the drinks of friends while engaged in conversation with them.  One woman, upon finding a fly in her drink for the fifth time that night, organizes a battalion of friends and marches off to find the hotel manager.  She returns with the manager and points to the ceiling where she believes the flies are falling from, at which point, with all in attendance gazing up at the ceiling, the man with good timing and quick reflexes tosses another fly into her drink.


9.01.2011

Woman Without a Voice

It was my mom who said it best, greeting me at her door with wide eyes one morning during a visit to my hometown.  "Lynda Barry is a genius."  That was when I was carrying Lynda Barry books around with me, so I always had one in the car to share.  There was a time when I'd never heard of Lynda Barry. It was my mother-in-law who first advised me to check her out, so the next time she came to town, I went to the library to see her.

There, in the first row of a packed room was a woman wearing a bandana and round glasses talking to a man about how she never used to be able to visit her friends' art studios because she got too jealous.  But now that she had her own lovely studio, she could visit her friends' studios without wanting to scratch their eyes out.  This was Lynda Barry.

She asked to borrow the chair next to me and then said I looked familiar and asked if we'd met before.  I told her no, that she'd met my mother-in-law, but that my mother-in-law and I don't look anything alike.  Even though it was a mediocre joke, she laughed and I liked that.  She stood and announced that she always sings a song to start because singing is the scariest thing she can think of doing in front of a crowd, so everything after that will seem like a cinch.


Lynda Barry told us many wonderful things, like how she struggled to write a novel for nine years but then decided she had to slow down and the slowest way she could think of to write was with a brush and ink.  And how with brush and ink, she rewrote her novel in nine months and thought she had discovered this amazing new thing until she remembered that the Chinese have been writing with brush and ink for 5,000 years.  Her novel is called Cruddy.  She told us many funny things too, like how this old woman from Brooklyn harangued her about how awful Cruddy is, how she had never read anything so depressing and would she please sign her copy "For my dear friend Sylvia."

Afterwards, I had a thousand things I wanted to talk to Lynda about.  But the room was crowded and the line was long and the library was closing soon.  A young girl standing behind me asked what books I bought.  "All three," I told her and then felt bad because they were expensive books and she only had one so I explained how I used my birthday money to buy them.  She didn't seem to think this was strange, that a 40 year old was still getting birthday money.

"Why did you come to see Lynda Barry?" I asked.

"Because her life is like mine," she said.  She had straight black hair and large mischievous eyes.  From the sounds of it, Lynda didn't have an easy childhood.

"Do you like to draw?" I asked.

The girl nodded.

"Me too," I said.  I pulled a little notebook from my purse.  I opened it and there was an incomplete drawing, a nose, an eye, a mouth.  "I usually finish them," I said.

The girl knew it was a lie.  She was that kind of girl.  "Why do you carry that notebook around?" she asked.

"To write ideas, and draw pictures when I feel like it."

"Oh," said the girl.  I wanted her to be amazed, but she wasn't.

Lynda was taking her own sweet time signing books.  The girl collapsed into a chair.  It was almost 9 o'clock. I wondered if I should let the girl go first.  But I didn't because I was afraid I wouldn't get to tell Lynda the thousand things I needed to tell her before the library closed.



The bald man must have been her best friend.  They talked and laughed and talked some more. Lynda was drawing a radio and musical notes all over a program the man gave her to sign.  When Lynda handed it back to him she asked, "Where did you get those terrific glasses?"  They looked just like the ones she was wearing.

Finally it was my turn.  I talked fast, trying to get it all in.  "I was cursed at a party a few years ago by a guy I didn't even know.  He was asking me about my writing and I was stumbling around trying to say something coherent when he said, 'So you haven't found your voice yet.'"  I wanted Lynda to tell me how to find my voice.

Lynda Barry leaned in, took my hands in hers and said, "You tell him you found your voice in two words:  Fuck You."